Read CHAPTER XII of The Morgesons, free online book, by Elizabeth Stoddard, on

The next evening I dressed my hair after the fashion of the Barmouth girls, with the small pride of wishing to make myself look different from the Surrey girls. I expected they would stare at me in the Bible Class. It would be my debut as a grown girl, and I must offer myself to their criticism. I went late, so that I might be observed by the assembled class. It met in the upper story of Temperance Hall a new edifice. As I climbed the steep stairs, Joe Bacon’s head came in view; he had stationed himself on a bench at the landing to watch for my arrival, of which he had been apprized by our satellite, Charles. Joe was the first boy who had ever offered his arm as my escort home from a party. After that event I had felt that there was something between us which the world did not understand. I was flattered, therefore, at the first glimpse of him on this occasion. When Dr. Snell made his opening prayer, Joe thrust a Bible before me, open at the lesson of the evening, and then, rubbing his nose with embarrassment, fixed his eyes with timid assurance on the opposite wall. Several of my Morgeson cousins were present, greeting me with sniffs. But I was disappointed in Joe Bacon; how young and shabby he looked! He wore a monkey jacket, probably a remnant of his sea-going father’s wardrobe. He had done his best, however, for his hair was greased, and combed to a marble smoothness; its sleekness vexed me, not remembering at that moment the pains I had taken to dress my own hair, for a more ignoble end.

The girls gathered round me, after the class was dismissed; and when Dr. Snell came down from his desk, he said he was glad to see me, and that I must come to his rooms to look over the new books he had received. Dr. Snell was no exception to the rule that a minister must not be a native among his own people. His long residence in Surrey had failed to make him appear like one. A bachelor, with a small private fortune, his style of living differed from the average of Congregational parsons. His library was the only lion in our neighborhood. His taste as a collector made him known abroad, and he had a reputation which was not dreamed of by his parishioners, who thought him queer and simple. He loved old fashions; wore knee-breeches, and silver buckles in his shoes; brewed metheglin in his closet, and drank it from silver-pegged flagons; and kept diet bread on a salver to offer his visitors. He lived near us on the north road, and was very much afraid of his landlady, Mrs. Grossman, who sat in terrible state in her parlor, the year through, wearing a black satin cloak and an awful structure of a cap, which had a potent nod.

I was pleased with Dr. Snell’s notice; his smile was courtly and his bow Grandisonian.

Joe Bacon was waiting at the foot of the stairs. He obtruded his arm, and hoarsely muttered, “See you home.” I took it, and we marched along silently, till we were beyond the sound of voices. He began, rather inarticulately, to say how glad he was to see me, and that he hoped he was going to have better times now; but I could make no response to his wishes; the suspicion that he had a serious liking for me was disgusting. As he talked on I grew irritable, and replied shortly. When we reached our house, I slipped my hand from his arm, and ran up the steps, turning back with my hand on the door-knob to say, “Good-night.” The lamp in the hall shone through the fanlight upon his face; it looked intelligent with pain. I skipped down the steps. “Please open the door, Joe.” He brightened, but before he could comply with my request Temperance flung it wide, for the purpose of making a survey of the clouds and guessing at to-morrow’s weather. His retreat was precipitate.

“Oh ho,” said Temperance, “a feller came home with you. We shall have somebody sitting up a-Thursday nights, I reckon, before long.”

“Nonsense with your Thursday nights.”

“Everybody is just alike. We shall have rain, see if we don’t; rain or no rain, I’ll whitewash to-morrow.”

Poor Joe! That night ended my first sentiment. He died with the measles in less than a month.

“I wish,” said Temperance, who was spelling over a newspaper, “that Dr. Snell would come in before the plum-cake is gone, that Hepsey made last. The old dear loves it; he is always hungry. I candidly believe Mis Grossman keeps him short.”

I expected that Temperance would break out then about Joe; but she never mentioned him, except to tell me that she had heard of his death. She did not whitewash the next day, for Charles came down with the measles, and was tended by her with a fretful tenderness. Veronica was seized soon after, and then Arthur, and then I had them. Veronica was the worst patient. When her room was darkened she got out of bed, tore down the quilt that was fastened to the window, and broke three panes of glass before she could be captured and taken back. The quilt was not put up again, however. She cried with anger, unless her hands were continually washed with lavender water, and made little pellets of cotton which she stuffed in her ears and nose, so that she might not hear or smell.

I went to Dr. Snell’s as soon as I was able. He was in his bedchamber, writing a sermon on fine note-paper, and had disarranged the wide ruffles of his shirt so that he looked like a mildly angry turkey. Thrusting his spectacles up into the roots of his hair, he rose, and led me into a large room adjoining his bedroom, which contained nothing but tall bookcases, threw open the doors of one, pushed up a little ladder before it, for me to mount to a row of volumes bound in calf, whose backs were labeled “British Classics.” “There,” he said, “you will find ‘The Spectator,’” and trotted back to his sermon, with his pen in his mouth. I examined the books, and selected Tom Jones and Goldsmith’s Plays to take home. From that time I grazed at pleasure in his oddly assorted library, ranging from “The Gentleman’s Magazine” to a file of the “Boston Recorder”; but never a volume of poetry anywhere. I became a devourer of books which I could not digest, and their influence located in my mind curious and inconsistent relations between facts and ideas.

My music lessons in Milford were my only task. I remained inapt, while Veronica played better and better; when I saw her fingers interpreting her feelings, touching the keys of the piano as if they were the chords of her thoughts, practice by note seemed a soulless, mechanical effort, which I would not make. One day mother and I were reading the separate volumes of charming Miss Austen’s “Mansfield Park,” when a message arrived from Aunt Mercy, with the news of Grand’ther Warren’s dangerous illness. Mother dropped her book on the floor, but I turned down the leaf where I was reading. She went to Barmouth immediately, and the next day grand’ther died. He gave all he had to Aunt Mercy, except six silver spoons, which he directed the Barmouth silversmith to make for Caroline, who was now married to her missionary. Mother came home to prepare for the funeral. When the bonnets, veils, and black gloves came home, Veronica declared she would not go. As she had been allowed to stay away from Grand’ther Warren living, why should she be forced to go to him when dead? She was so violent in her opposition that mother ordered Temperance to keep her in her room. Father tried to persuade her, but she grew white, and trembled so that he told her she should stay at home. While we were gone she sent her bonnet to the Widow Smith’s daughter, who appeared in the Poor Seats wearing it, on the very Sunday after the funeral, when we all went to church in our mourning to make the discovery, which discomposed us exceedingly.

All the church were present at grand’ther’s funeral, obsequies, as Mr. Boold called it, who exalted his character and behavior so greatly in his discourse that his nearest friends would not have recognized him, although everybody knew that he was a good man. Mr. Boold expatiated on his tenderness and delicate appreciation, and his study of the feelings and wants of others, till he was moved to tears himself by the picture he drew. I thought of the pigeons he had shot, and of the summary treatment he gave me of his coldness and silence toward Aunt Mercy, and my eyes remained dry; but mother and Aunt Mercy wept bitterly. After it was over, and they had gone back to the empty house, they removed their heavy bonnets, kissed each other, said they knew that he was in heaven, and held a comforting conversation about the future; but my mind was chained to the edge of the yawning grave into which I had seen his coffin lowered.

“Shut up the old shell, Mercy,” said father. “Come, and live with us.”

She was rejoiced at the prospect, for the life at our house was congenial, and she readily and gratefully consented. She came in a few days, with a multitude of boxes, and her plants. Mother established her in the room next the stairs good place for her, Veronica said, for she could be easily locked out of our premises. The plants were placed on a new revolving stand, which stood on the landing-place beneath the stair window. Veronica was so delighted with them that she made amicable overtures to Aunt Mercy, and never quarreled with her afterward, except when she was ill. She entreated her to leave off her bombazine dresses; the touch of them interfered with her feelings for her, she said; in fact, their contact made her crawl all over.

Aunt Mercy took upon herself many of mother’s irksome cares; such as remembering where the patches and old linen were the hammer and nails; watching the sweetmeat pots; keeping the run of the napkins and blankets; packing the winter clothing, and having an eye on mice and ants, moth and mold. Occasionally she read a novel; but was faithful to all the week-day meetings, making the acquaintance thereby of mother’s tea-drinking friends, who considered her an accomplished person, because she worked lace so beautifully, and had such a faculty for raising plants! Mother left the house in her charge, and made several journeys with father this year. This period was perhaps her happiest. The only annoyance, visible to me, that I can remember, was one between her and father on the subject of charity. He was for giving to all needy persons, while she only desired to bestow it on the deserving, but they had renounced the wish of manufacturing each other’s habits and opinions. Whether mother ever desired the expression of that exaltation of feeling which only lasts in a man while he is in love, I cannot say. It was not for me to know her heart. It is not ordained that these beautiful secrets of feeling should be revealed, where they might prove to be the sweetest knowledge we could have.

Though the days flew by, days filled with the busy nothings of prosperity, they bore no meaning. I shifted the hours, as one shifts the kaleidoscope, with an eye only to their movement. Neither the remembrance of yesterday nor the hope of to-morrow stimulated me. The mere fact of breathing had ceased to be a happiness, since the day I entered Miss Black’s school. But I was not yet thoughtful. As for my position, I was loved and I was hated, and it pleased me as much to be hated as to be loved. My acquaintances were kind enough to let me know that I was generally thought proud, exacting, ill-natured, and apt to expect the best of everything. But one thing I know of myself then that I concealed nothing; the desires and emotions which are usually kept as a private fund I displayed and exhausted. My audacity shocked those who possessed this fund. My candor was called anything but truthfulness; they named it sarcasm, cunning, coarseness, or tact, as those were constituted who came in contact with me. Insight into character, frankness, generosity, disinterestedness, were sometimes given me. Veronica alone was uncompromising; she put aside by instinct what baffled or attracted others, and, setting my real value upon me, acted accordingly. I do not accuse her of injustice, but of a fierce harshness which kept us apart for long years. As for her, she was the most reticent girl I ever knew, and but for her explosive temper, which betrayed her, she would have been a mystery. The difference in our physical constitutions would have separated us, if there had been no other cause. The weeks that she was confined to her room, preyed upon by some inscrutable disease, were weeks of darkness and solitude. Temperance and Aunt Merce took as much care of her as she would allow; but she preferred being alone most of the time. Thus she acquired the fortitude of an Indian; pain could extort no groan from her. It reacted on her temper, though, for after an attack she was exasperating. Her invention was put to the rack to tease and offend. I kept out of her way; if by chance she caught sight of me, she forced me to hear the bitter truth of myself. Sometimes she examined me to learn if I had improved by the means which father so generously provided for me. “Is he not yet tired of his task?” she asked once. And, “Do you carry everything before you, with your wide eyebrows and sharp teeth? Temperance, where’s the Buffon Dr. Snell sent me? I want to classify Cass.”

“I’ll warrant you’ll find her a sheep,” Temperance replied.

“Sheep are innocent,” said Veronica. “You may go,” nodding to me, over the book, and Temperance also made energetic signs to me to go, and not bother the poor girl.

Always regarding her from the point of view she presented, I felt little love for her; her peculiarities offended me as they did mother. We did not perceive the process, but Verry was educated by sickness; her mind fed and grew on pain, and at last mastered it. The darkness in her nature broke; by slow degrees she gained health, though never much strength. Upon each recovery a change was visible; a spiritual dawn had risen in her soul; moral activity blending with her ideality made her life beautiful, even in the humblest sense. Veronica! you were endowed with genius; but while its rays penetrated you, we did not see them. How could we profit by what you saw and heard, when we were blind and deaf? To us, the voices of the deep sang no epic of grief; the speech of the woods was not articulate; the sea-gull’s flashing flight, and the dark swallow’s circling sweep, were facts only. Sunrise and sunset were not a pæan to day and night, but five o’clock A.M. or P.M. The seasons that came and went were changes from hot to cold; to you, they were the moods of nature, which found response in those of your own life and soul; her storms and calms were pulses which bore a similitude to the emotions of your heart!

Veronica’s habits of isolation clung to her; she would never leave home. The teaching she had was obtained in Surrey. But her knowledge was greater than mine. When I went to Rosville she was reading “Paradise Lost,” and writing her opinions upon it in a large blank book. She was also devising a plan for raising trees and flowers in the garret, so that she might realize a picture of a tropical wilderness. Her tastes were so contradictory that time never hung heavy with her; though she had as little practical talent as any person I ever knew, she was a help to both sick and well. She remembered people’s ill turns, and what was done for them; and for the well she remembered dates and suggested agreeable occupations gave them happy ideas. Besides being a calendar of domestic traditions, she was weather-wise, and prognosticated gales, meteors, high tides, and rains.

Home, father said, was her sphere. All that she required, he thought he could do; but of me he was doubtful. Where did I belong? he asked.

I was still “possessed,” Aunt Merce said, and mother called me “lawless.” “What upon earth are you coming to?” asked Temperance. “You are sowing your wild oats with a vengeance.”

“Locke Morgeson’s daughter can do anything,” commented the villagers. In consequence of the unlimited power accorded me I was unpopular. “Do you think she is handsome?” inquired my friends of each other. “In what respect can she be called a beauty?” “Though she reads, she has no great wit,” said one. “She dresses oddly for effect,” another avowed, “and her manners are ridiculous.” But they borrowed my dresses for patterns, imitated my bonnets, and adopted my colors. When I learned to manage a sailboat, they had an aquatic mania. When I learned to ride a horse, the ancient and moth-eaten sidesaddles of the town were resuscitated, and old family nags were made back-sore with the wearing of them, and their youthful spirits revived by new beginners sliding about on their rounded sides. My whims were sneered at, and then followed. Of course I was driven from whim to whim, to keep them busy, and to preserve my originality, and at last I became eccentric for eccentricity’s sake. All this prepared the way for my Nemesis. But as yet my wild oats were green and flourishing in the field of youth.