[Moral Tales] “My Schoolmates, No. 4: The Widow” (from Youth’s Companion, June 26, 1846, pp. 29-30)
“We are expecting a new associate for you to-morrow, young ladies,” remarked her principal, as one bright summer day we assembled in the dining hall; and many a countenance with its brightened eye, and pleasant smile, testified that the announcement was received with no ordinary degree of interest. The term had half expired. Its regular routine of sleeping hours and waking hours, study hours and recitation hours, eating hours and walking hours, was as unvarying as the “course of nature,” and were all announced by the ringing of an omnipresent bell, which one of our number declared should at least be entitled to a high seat in the temple of philosophy, as it unfolded the secret of perpetual motion. The same actors, the same scenes and events, occurring in the same order, induced a monotony from which the slightest deviation was welcome. The fact, therefore, that we were to have a new companion was not passed by as an unimportant circumstance, but fully discussed in all its present bearings, and prospective relations.
The stranger arrived the next day, and was duly presented to us as Miss Clifton. Her general appearance was of such peculiar interest that one would never forget the first impressions she awakened. Her figure was slight, and her countenance and general air would give the impression that she had but attained the age of sixteen, though in reality she was three years older. Her hair was of a dark golden brown, plainly parted from her broad white forehead; her eyes were of deep blue, and her fair complexion and pale cheek, were rendered still fairer and paler, in contrast with a dress of the deepest mourning. There was about her an air of touching sadness, which, irrespective of her sable garments, would have immediately revealed her as a mourner. Her manner, though timid, was bland and courteous, her voice low and sweet, and her whole demeanor so winning, as to lead captive at once, the sympathies and love, of many a youthful, impulsive heart.
“What a sweet girl she is; I am sure I love her already,” remarked one of a group of girls, among whom the new comer was the subject of conversation.
“But how very sad;” said Ellen May, “she must have lost her mother, or perhaps both her parents.”
“Yes, she has lost both father and mother,” said Maria M. “for I heard Miss H. remark, that she spoke of herself in her letter as a lone orphan. I wonder how she can have a heart to attend school.”
“Somebody sent her, of course,” replied Effie Campbell, in a tone which assumed that it was absurd to suppose any one would come to school without being sent, and after a minute pause she added, more thoughtfully, “It almost makes my tears come to see her smile, for even then she does not seem glad herself.”
“I have brought you a little bouquet, Miss Clifton,” said Laura Richmond, entering her room one bright afternoon. “It is not brilliant, as you see, but very fragrant, and that is like yourself.”
Miss Clifton’s eye had brightened as she beheld the gift, for she dearly loved flowers, but smiling she said, “Now I shall not even thank you for these, beautiful as they are, till you remember your oft-broken promises.”
“Ah, yes, I said I would call you Constance, and so I will, and now by way of thanking me, just let me arrange some of those geranium blossoms in your hair.”
“Oh no. I used to wear flowers, but the time is all over now,” replied Constance, as the large tears slowly gathered in her eyes. “Even nature’s ornaments would be strangely out of keeping with my heart. But I am saddening you, Laura,” she continued, in a tone of apology, again smiling through her tears, and she introduced a subject of conversation which was of mutual interest.
Just then a rap was heard at the door, and Effie’s bright face appeared, in answer to the invitation of entrance. “Isn’t this your book, Miss Clifton,” said she, holding out a volume. [“]The name on the blank leaf is “Constance Emerson,” but as there is no other Constance in school but yourself, I thought it must be yours.”
“Thank you, Effie, it is mine. My middle name is Emerson.”
“Do you write your middle name in your books, and leave out the last?” was Effie’s impulsive exclamation; then deeply blushing as she perceived the impertinence of her question, she added in the same breath, “Pray excuse me, Miss Clifton,” and hastened from the room.
A few days after, a pocket handkerchief, bearing the
mark of Constance Emerson, was acknowledged by Miss Clifton, and the same name was seen inscribed upon her music book and pencil case. These circumstances were deemed rather singular by those who noticed them, but it was thought she cherished a peculiar preference for her middle name.
It was just before the close of an afternoon session of school, that a packet of letters were sent in from the Post Office. As our teacher distributed them to their several addresses, her eye fell upon one with an expression of surprise and inquiry; and after retaining it for a moment in her hand, while she was apparently seeking to solve the enigma in her mind, she read its superscription, “Mrs. Constance E. Clifton.” And as its recipient blushingly advanced to take it, the truth flashed at once upon our minds. All previous circumstances were explained, and she with whom we had sympathized as the lonely orphan, was also the desolate widow.
“I have sometimes thought I would tell you of my grief,” said Constance to Laura the same evening, as they were conversing together, “but it so overwhelms me to talk of it, I never could find courage. When I requested admission to the school, I did not speak of my peculiar affliction, because I felt it would be generally announced among a class of light-hearted girls who would have no little sympathy for me, that their knowledge of it would be mockery. So deeply have I enshrined my sorrow in the sanctity of my heart, that it seemed like sacrilege thus openly to reveal it, and I preferred, if it must be known, that it should be unfolded by circumstances.” Hence it was, that our Principal, inferring of course that the applicant was an unmarried lady, had introduced her as Miss Clifton, and she had been so regarded, till the circumstance to which we have alluded, revealed her in her true relations.
As Constance became intimately associated with Laura, she related to her the prominent parts of her previous history. Her parents had died in her infancy. After their death she was adopted by her father’s brother, a wealthy man, who, having no children, was pleased to make a daughter of his little niece. She was petted by her uncle, and cherished by his warm-hearted wife till she had attained the age of six years, when she was again afflicted by the death of her who had supplied, as far as possible, the place of the most tender mother. Mr. Emerson formed a second marriage connection, and in progress of time sons and daughters were added to his family circle. The birth of each successive child seemed to deteriorate the consequence of Constance, and lessen the attention and indulgence which had been granted her, till as the elastic feelings of childhood ripened into the sensitive spirit of woman, she keenly felt that she was regarded as a stranger and an alien.
In this state of things, she attained her eighteenth year, when a Mr. H. who had for some time been seeking to intrude upon her his attentions, formally made proposals to her uncle for her hand. He was a bachelor of more than twice her years, with whom she had not a thought or sentiment in common. But in the view of her uncle, all this was as the small dust of the balance; for the lover in question possessed the grand desideratum; he was rich. Constance was made acquainted with his offer, and indignantly rejected it. Her uncle was exasperated. He threatened her with disinheritance, and a penniless banishment from his house, should she persist in her disobedience to his wishes, and gave her six weeks to decide upon her course of action. It was at this time, that Walter Clifton entreated a legal right to protect her. He was an orphan like herself. They had mingled together from childhood, and the mutual sympathy they so fully cherished in each other, had gradually ripened into the deepest affection.
At length as the day of decision approached, and Constance plainly perceived that her unalterable determination would deprive her of a common shelter, she thankfully accepted the offer of an aunt of Mr. Clifton, to make a home at her house. After the lapse of a few months, she gave her hand in marriage to him, who had long possessed the wealth of her heart.
Walter Clifton was a young lawyer, whose dependence was in her profession. But his talents and character were of such an order as to justify his friends in the most sanguine anticipations of his future success. And as he led the meek and gentle Constance to the marriage altar, there were many who prophesied for the young couple, a life bright with the sunshine of prosperity and happiness. The change which her marriage brought to Constance was peculiarly marked. She had long been surrounded by the cold-hearted and indifferent, who had for her neither care nor smiles, nor the music of loving voices. From this situation, she was transplanted into an atomosphere of love, where the still, yet constant dews of affection, richly distilled upon her thirsty spirit and its bland, genial sunshine, ever gladdened her soul with clustering hopes and joys. “Those golden days of my wedded life,” she once was heard mournfully to say, “I might have known they were too sunny for earth.” Death stayed not for present happiness; he heeded not the bright visions of the future. In three short months after Constance stood with her husband at the bridal altar, she followed him to the tomb. Her sleepless vigils, her burning tears, and agonizing prayers for the object of her lone devotedness, were nought. He died.
In the deep desolation of her widowhood, Constance found the unspeakable blessedness of having early resigned herself to God as her father and friend, and felt more deeply than ever, the priceless value of religion. But she was soon obliged to arouse herself from the first stupefaction of her grief, to consider the question of a home and a subsistence. After the settlement of her pecuniary affairs, she found herself alone in the world, with a few hundreds, whose yearly usury was not to be thought of as a dependance.
After some months of prayerful consideration, she determined to invest her small capital in preparing herself for a music teacher. She had a decided talent for the art, which, in her earlier years, had been under the guidance of a fine master. But for a long period, her proficiency had depended entirely upon her own uninstructed practice. Although her performances were already characterized by taste and skill, she felt that much study was needed, both in the theory and practise of the science, to fit her for an instructress. And as during the later years of her residence with her uncle, her general education had been entirely the result of her own unguided efforts, she determined to enter a school, where, at the same time that music was the primary object of her attention, she could also devote herself to the acquisition of the general knowledge, and mental discipline, which she felt were so requisite to her future success in life.
More intimate acquaintance continually revealed new excellencies in the meek and lovely Constance Clifton. Her grief did not lead her to fold her hands in selfish inaction, and feel that there was nought for her to do, but to weep and pine herself into her grave. She recognized the necessity for exertion which God had laid upon her, and steadily and constantly pursued the path of duty. Most beautiful was her resignation, for although an orphan and a widow at the age of nineteen, she might be presumed to cry out, “Is there any sorrow like unto my sorrow,” yet with a quivering lip she would acknowledge that she had loved her husband more than her God, and that her heavenly Father had chastened her in mercy and love. Most touching, too, was the unobtrusiveness of her sorrow. She spoke in cheerful tones, that she might not break the harmony of merry voices, and smiled when others were gay. But her smile was not the unclouded sunshine of the soul. It was as the sunbeams, shorn of their brilliancy by the fleecy drapery of the summer cloud, most gratefully supplying what they have lost in splendor by their sweetly tempered softness. She ever seemed to shrink from the thought of casting upon others the shade of her sorrow, as a little incident will illustrate.
We had, by permission of our Prinicipal, given a simple levee, in honor of the anniversary of her birth day. “You will favor us with some music, Mrs. Clifton?” said a gentleman, inquiringly, as the evening advanced; and as several of her companions had already gathered about her with the same request, Constance would not refuse. As she seated herself at the instrument, the song of “The Messenger Bird” was requested. Instantly the slight color that had been upon her cheek departed, leaving her pale as marble, and for a moment it seemed that her colorless lips were seeking to utter an excuse. But she soon rallied her powers, played the prelude, and with her voice of bird-like melody, commenced the song. As she uttered the passage,
“We call them far through the silent night,
And they speak not from cave or hill;
We know, thou bird! that their land is bright,
But say, oh say, do they love there still?”
Her voice slightly quivered, and the full fast tears rolled over her cheeks. Never can I forget those strains. The touching pathos of the sentiment, the beauty of the air, and the exquisite skill and taste of the musician, who varied her accompaniment with touches as softly plaintive as her own falling tears, all conspired to render the song a fit converse with a messenger from the spirit land.
“It required the strongest effort I could command, to sing that piece,” said Constance to her friend Laura, who afterwards alluded to it. “It was a favorite of my husband’s, and now it is so expressive of the sentiments I often cherish regarding him, that I feared I might disappoint and sadden some one, if I refused.”
Years glided by, and the gentle Constance Clifton had gone forth into the world as a music teacher. Her excellence in her art, soon established for her a reputation, her pupils multiplied, till she was constantly obliged to refuse applications, while her services commanded a remuneration, that raised her above the pressure of pecuniary anxiety. The young, pale mourner, ever robed in widow’s weeds, excited a deep interest in the circle of society in which she necessarily mingled, and many were her warm-hearted friends. There were some, too, in whose hearts sympathy and admiration had deepened into affection, and again and again, was her hand sought in marriage. But the tale of love awoke no answering chord within her bosom. It only served to brighten with fresh vividness, and to preserve in more inviolate sanctity, the remembrances of the past. The sole response that its thrilling tones could awaken from her, was the sentiment,—
“Like lamps in eastern sepulchres
Amid my heart’s deep gloom,
Affection sheds its holiest light,
Upon my husband’s tomb.
And as these lamps, if brought once more
To upper air grow dim,
So my soul’s love is cold and dead
Unless it glows for him.”