Read Chapter XIII. of Mercy Philbrick's Choice, free online book, by Helen Hunt Jackson, on

Within six hours after the receipt of this telegram, Mercy was on her way to Penfield.  Her journey would take a night and part of a day.  As the morning dawned, and she drew near the old familiar scenes, her heart was wrung with conflicting memories and hopes and fears.  The whole landscape was dreary:  the fields were dark and sodden, with narrow banks of discolored snow lying under the fences, and thin rims of ice along the edges of the streams and pools.  The sky was gray; the bare trees were gray:  all life looked gray and hopeless to Mercy.  She had had an over-mastering presentiment from the moment when she read the telegram that she should reach Penfield too late to see Parson Dorrance alive.  A strange certainty that he had died in the night settled upon her mind as soon as she waked from her troubled sleep; and when she reached Lizzy’s door, and saw standing before it the undertaker’s wagon, which she so well remembered, there was no shock of surprise to her in the sight.  At the first sound of Mercy’s voice, Lizzy came swiftly forward, and fell upon her neck in a passion of crying.

“O Mercy, Mercy, he”-

“Yes, dear, I know it,” interrupted Mercy, in a calm tone.  “I know he is dead.”

“Why, who told you, Mercy?” exclaimed Lizzy.  “He only died a few hours ago,-about daybreak,”

“Oh, I thought he died in the night!” said Mercy, in a strange tone, as if trying to recollect something accurately about which her memory was not clear.  Her look and her tone filled Lizzy with terror, and banished her grief for the time being.

“Mercy, Mercy, don’t look so!” she exclaimed.  “Speak to me!  Oh, do cry, can’t you?” And Lizzy’s tears flowed afresh.

“No, Lizzy, I don’t think I can cry,” said Mercy, in the same strange, low voice.  “I wish I could have spoken to him once, though.  Did he leave any word for me?  Perhaps there is something he wanted me to do.”

Mercy’s face was white, and her lips trembled; but her look was hardly the look of one in sorrow:  it was a rapt look, as of one walking on dizzy heights, breathless with some solemn purpose.  Lizzy was convulsed with grief, sobbing like a child, and pouring out one incoherent sentence after another.  Mercy soothed her and comforted her as a mother might have done, and finally compelled her to be more calm.  Mercy’s magnetic power over those whom she loved was almost unlimited.  She forestalled their very wills, and made them desire what she desired.

“O Mercy, don’t make me glad he is dead!  You frighten me, darling.  I don’t want to stop crying; but you have sealed up all my tears,” cried Lizzy, later in the day, when Mercy had been talking like a seer, who could look into the streets of heaven, and catch the sound of the songs of angels.

Mercy smiled sadly.  “I don’t want to prevent your crying, dear,” she said, “if it does you any good.  But I am very sure that Mr. Dorrance sees us at this moment, and longs to tell us how glad he is, and that we must be glad for him.”  And Mercy’s eyes shone as they looked steadfastly across the room, as if the empty space were, to her vision, peopled with spirits.  This mood of exalted communion did not leave her.  Her face seemed transfigured by it.  When she stood by the body of her loved teacher and friend, she clasped her hands, and, bending over the face, exclaimed,-

“Oh, how good God was!” Then, turning suddenly to Lizzy, she exclaimed,-

“Lizzy, did you know that he loved me, and asked me to be his wife?  This is why I am thanking God for taking him to heaven.”

Lizzy’s face paled.  Astonishment, incredulity, anger, grief, all blended in the sudden look she turned upon Mercy.  “I thought so!  I thought so!  But I never believed you knew it.  And you did not love him!  Mercy, I will never forgive you!”

“He forgave me,” said Mercy, gently; “and so you might.  But I shall never forgive myself!”

“Mercy Philbrick!” exclaimed Lizzy, “how could you help loving that man?” And, in her excitement, Lizzy stretched out her right hand towards the rigid, motionless figure under the white pall.  “He was the most glorious man God ever made.”

The two women stood side by side, looking into the face of the dead.  It was a strange place for these words to be spoken.  It was as solemn as eternity.

“I did not help loving him,” said Mercy, in a lower tone, her white face growing whiter as she spoke.  “But”-she paused.  No words came to her lips, for the bitter consciousness which filled her heart.

Lizzy’s voice sank to a husky whisper.

“But what?” she said.  “O Mercy, Mercy! is it Stephen White you love?” And Lizzy’s face, even in that solemn hour, took a look of scorn.  “Are you going to marry Stephen White?” she continued.

“Never, Lizzy,-never!” said Mercy, in a tone as concentrated as if a lifetime ended there; and, stooping low, she kissed the rigid hands which lay folded on the heart of the man she ought to have loved, but had not.  Then, turning away, she took Lizzy’s hands in hers, and kissing, her forehead said earnestly,-

“We will never speak again of this, Lizzy, remember.”  Lizzy was overawed by her tone, and made no reply.

Parson Dorrance’s funeral was a scene which will never be forgotten by those who saw it.  It was on one of the fiercest days which the fierce New England March can show.  A storm of rain and sleet, with occasional softened intervals of snow, raged all day.  The roads were gullies of swift-running water and icy sloughs; the cold was severe; and the cutting wind at times drove the sleet and rain in slanting scourges, before which scarce man or beast could stand.  The funeral was held in the village church, which was larger than the college chapel.  Long before the hour at which the services were to begin, every pew was filled, and the aisles were crowded with those who could not find seats.  From every parish within twenty miles the mourners had come.  There was not one there who had not heard words of help or comfort from Parson Dorrance’s lips.  The students of the college filled the body of the church; the Faculty and distinguished strangers sat in the front pews.  The pews under one of the galleries had been reserved for the negroes from “The Cedars.”  Early in the morning the poor creatures had begun to flock in.  Not a seat was empty:  old women, women with babies, old men, boys and girls, wet, dripping, ragged, friendless, more than one hundred of them,-there they were.  They had walked all that distance in that terrible storm.  Each one had brought in his hand a green bough or a bunch of rock-ferns, something of green beauty from the woods their teacher had taught them to love.  They sat huddled together, with an expression of piteous grief on every face, which was enough to touch the stoniest heart.  Now and then sobs would burst from the women, and some old figure would be seen rocking to and fro in uncontrollable sorrow.

The coffin stood on a table in front of the pulpit.  It seemed to be resting on an altar of cedar and ferns.  Mercy had brought from her old haunts in the woods masses of the glossy evergreen fern, and interwoven them with the boughs of cedar.  At the end of the services, it was announced that all who wished could pass by the coffin and take one last look at their friend.

Slowly and silently the congregation passed up the right aisle, looked on the face, and passed out at the left door.  It was a pathetic sight to see the poor, outcast band wait patiently, humbly, till every one else had gone:  then, like a flock of stricken sheep, they rushed confusedly towards the pulpit, and gathered round the coffin.  Now burst out the grief which had been pent up:  with cries and ejaculations, they went tottering and stumbling down the aisles.  One old man, with hair as white as snow,-one of the original fugitive slaves who had founded the settlement,-bent over the coffin at its head, and clung with both hands to its edge, swaying back and forth above it, crying aloud, till the sexton was obliged to loosen his grasp and lead him away by force.

The college faculty still sat in the front pews.  There were some of their number, younger men, scholars and men of the world, who had not been free from a disposition to make good-natured fun of Parson Dorrance’s philanthropies.  They shrugged their shoulders sometimes at the mention of his parish at “The Cedars;” they regarded him as old-fashioned and unpractical.  They sat conscience-stricken and abashed now; the tears of these bereaved black people smote their philosophy and their worldliness, and showed them how shallow they were.  Tears answered to tears, and the college professors and the negro slaves wept together.

“They have nobody left to love them now,” exclaimed one of the youngest and hitherto most cynical of Parson Dorrance’s colleagues, as he stood watching the grief-stricken creatures.

While the procession formed to bear the body to the grave, the blacks stood in a group on the church-steps, watching it.  After the last carriage had fallen into line, they hurried down and followed on in the storm.  In vain some kindly persons tried to dissuade them.  It was two miles to the cemetery, two miles farther away from their homes; but they repelled all suggestions of the exposure with indignant looks, and pressed on.  When the coffin was lowered into the grave, they pushed timidly forward, and began to throw in their green boughs and bunches of ferns.  Every one else stepped back respectfully as soon as their intention was discovered, and in a moment they had formed in solid ranks close about the grave, each one casting in his green palm of crown and remembrance,-a body-guard such as no emperor ever had to stand around him in his grave.

On the day after Mercy’s arrival in town, Stephen had called to see her.  She had sent down to him a note with these words:-

“I cannot see you, dear Stephen, until after all is over.  The funeral will be to-morrow.  Come the next morning, as early as you like.”

The hours had seemed bitterly long to Stephen.  He had watched Mercy at the funeral; and, when he saw her face bowed in her hands, and felt rather than saw that she was sobbing, he was stung by a new sense of loss and wrong that he had no right to be by her side and comfort her.  He forgot for the time, in the sight of her grief, all the unhappiness of their relation for the past few months.  He had unconsciously felt all along that, if he could but once look in her eyes, all would be well.  How could he help feeling so, when he recalled the expression of childlike trust and devotion which her sweet face always wore when she lifted it to his?  And now, as his eyes dwelt lingeringly and fondly on every line of her bowed form, he had but one thought, but one consciousness,-his desire to throw his arms about her, and exclaim, “O Mercy, are you not my own, my very own?”

With his heart full of this new fondness and warmth, Stephen went at an early hour to seek Mercy.  As he entered the house, he was sensibly affected by the expression still lingering of the yesterday’s grief.  The decorations of evergreens and flowers were still untouched.  Mercy and Lizzy had made the whole house gay as for a festival; but the very blossoms seemed to-day to say that it had been a festival of sorrow.  A large sheaf of callas had stood on a small table at the head of the coffin.  The table had not yet been moved from the place where it stood near the centre of the room; but it stood there now alone, with a strange expression of being left by accident.  Stephen bent over it, looking into the deep creamy cups, and thinking dreamily that Mercy’s nature was as fair, as white, as royal as these most royal of graceful flowers, when the door opened and Mercy came towards him.  He sprang to meet her with outstretched arms.  Something in her look made the outstretched arms fall nerveless; made his springing step pause suddenly; made the very words die away on his lips.  “O Mercy!” was all he could say, and he breathed it rather than said it.

Mercy smiled a very piteous smile, and said, “Yes, Stephen, I am here.”

“O Mercy, it is not you!  You are not here.  What has done this to you?  Did you so love that man?” exclaimed Stephen, a sudden pang seizing him of fiercest jealousy of the dead, whom he had never feared while he was living.

Mercy’s face contracted, as if a sharp pain had wrenched every nerve.

“No, I did not love him; that is, not as you mean.  You know how very dearly I did love him, though.”

“Dear darling, you are all worn out.  This shock has been too much for you.  You are not well,” said Stephen, tenderly, coming nearer to her and taking her hand.  “You must have rest and sleep at once.”

The hand was not Mercy’s hand any more than the voice had been Mercy’s voice.  Stephen dropped it, and, looking fixedly at Mercy’s eyes, whispered, “Mercy, you do not love me as you used to.”

Mercy’s eyes drooped; she locked her hands tightly together, and said, “I can’t, Stephen.”  No possible form of words could have been so absolute.  “I can’t!” “I do not,” would have been merciful, would have held a hope, by the side of this helpless, despairing, “I can’t.”

Stephen sank into a chair, and covered his eyes with his hands.  Mercy stood still, near the white callas; her hands clasped, and her eyes fixed on Stephen.  At last she spoke, in a voice of unutterable yearning and tenderness, “I do love you, Stephen.”

At these words, he pressed his hands tighter upon his eyes for one second, then shook them hastily free, and looking up at Mercy said gently,-

“Yes, dear, I know you do; and I know you would have loved me always, if you could.  Do not be unhappy.  I told you a long time ago that to have had you once love me was enough for a lifetime.”  And Stephen smiled,-a smile more pathetic than Mercy’s had been.  He went on, still in the same gentle voice,-a voice out of which the very life seemed to have died,-“I hoped, when we met, all would be right.  It used to be so much to you, Mercy, to look into my eyes, I thought you would trust me when you saw me.”

No reproach, no antagonism, no entreaty.  With the long-trained patience of a lifetime, Stephen accepted this great grief, and made no effort to gainsay it.  Mercy tried again and again to speak, but no words came.  At last, with a flood of tears, she exclaimed,-

“I cannot help it, Stephen,-I cannot help it.”

“No, darling, you cannot help it; and it is not your fault,” replied Stephen.  Touched to the heart by his sweetness and forbearance, Mercy went nearer him, and took his hand, and in her old way was about to lay it to her cheek.

Stephen drew it hastily away, and a shudder ran over his body.  “No, Mercy, do not try to do that.  That is not right, when you do not trust me.  You cannot help loving the touch of my hand, Mercy,”-and a certain sad pride lighted Stephen’s face at the thought of the clinging affection which even now stirred this woman’s veins for him,-“any more than you can help having ceased to trust me.  If the trust ever comes back, then”-Stephen turned his head away, and did not finish the sentence.  A great silence fell upon them both.  How inexplicable it seemed to them that there was nothing to say!  At last Stephen rose, and said gravely,-

“Good-by, Mercy.  Unless there is something I can do to help you, I would rather not see you again.”

“No,” whispered Mercy.  “That is best.”

“And if the time ever comes, darling, when you need me, ... or trust me ... again, will you write to me and say so?”

“Yes,” sobbed Mercy, and Stephen left her.  On the threshold of the door, he turned and fixed his eyes upon her with one long look of sorrow, compassion, and infinite love.  Her heart thrilled under it.  She made an eager step forward.  If he had returned, she would have thrown herself into his arms, and cried out, “O Stephen, I do love you, I do trust you.”  But Stephen made an inexorable gesture of his hand, which said more than any words, “No! no! do not deceive yourself,” and was gone.

And thus they parted for ever, this man and this woman who had been for two years all in all to each other, who had written on each other’s hearts and lives characters which eternity itself could never efface.

Hope lived long in Stephen’s heart.  He built too much on the memories of his magnetic power over Mercy, and he judged her nature too much by his own.  He would have loved and followed her to the end, in spite of her having become a very outcast of crime, if she had continued to love him; and it was simply impossible for him to conceive of her love’s being either less or different.  But, when in a volume of poems which Mercy published one year after their parting, he read the following sonnet, he knew that all was indeed over:-


  Not by the death that kills the body.  Nay,
  By that which even Christ bade us to fear
  Hath died my dead. 
                    Ah, me! if on a bier
  I could but see him lifeless stretched to-day,
  I ’d bathe his face with tears of joy, and lay
  My cheek to his in anguish which were near
  To ecstasy, if I could hold him dear
  In death as life.  Mere separations weigh
  As dust in balances of love.  The death
  That kills comes only by dishonor.  Vain
  To chide me! vain!  And weaker to implore,
  O thou once loved so well, loved now no more! 
  There is no resurrection for such slain,
  No miracle of God could give thee breath!

Mercy Philbrick lived thirty years after the events described in these pages.  It was a life rich to overflowing, yet uneventful, as the world reckons:  a life lonely, yet full of companionship; sady yet full of cheer; hard, and yet perpetually uplifted by an inward joy which made her very presence like sunshine, and made men often say of her, “Oh, she has never known sorrow.”  This was largely the result of her unquenchable gift of song, of the true poet’s temperament, to which life is for ever new, beautiful, and glad.  It was also the result of her ever-increasing spirituality of nature.  This took no shape of creed, worship, or what the world’s common consent calls religion.  Most of the words spoken by the teachers of churches repelled Mercy by their monotonous iteration of the letter which killeth.  But her realization of the solemn significance of the great fact of being alive deepened every hour; her tenderness, her sense of brotherhood to every human being, and her sense of the actual presence and near love of God.  Her old intolerance was softened, or rather it had changed from antagonisms on the surface to living principles at the core.  Truth, truth, truth, was still the war-cry of her soul; and there was an intensity in every word of her written or spoken pleadings on this subject which might well have revealed to a careful analyzer of them that they had sprung out of the depths of the profoundest experiences.  Her influence as a writer was very great.  As she grew older, she wrote less and less for the delight of the ear, more and more for the stirring of the heart.  To do a little towards making people glad, towards making them kind to one another, towards opening their eyes to the omnipresent beauty,-these were her ambitions.  “Oh, the tender, unutterable beauty of all created things!” were the opening lines of one of her sweetest songs; and it might have been said to be one of the watchwords of her life.

It took many years for her to reach this plane, to attain to the fulness of this close spiritual communion with things seen and unseen.  The double bereavement and strain of her two years of life in Penfield left her for a long time bruised and sore.  Her relation with Stephen, as she looked back upon it, hurt her in every fibre of her nature.  Sometimes she was filled with remorse for the grief she had caused him, and sometimes with poignant distress, of doubt whether she had not after all been unjust to him.  Underlying all this remorse, all this doubt was a steadily growing consciousness that her love for him was in the very outset a mistake, an abnormal emotion, born of temporary and insufficient occasion, and therefore sure to have sooner or later proved too weak for the tests of life.  On the other hand, her thoughts of Parson Dorrance grew constantly warmer, tenderer, more assured.  His character, his love for her, his beautiful life, rose steadily higher and higher, and brighter and brighter on her horizon, as the lofty snow-clad peaks of a mountain land reveal themselves in all their grandeur to our vision only when we have journeyed away from their base.  Slowly the whole allegiance of her heart transferred itself to the dead man’s memory; slowly her grief for his loss deepened, and yet with the deepened grief came a certain new and holy joy.  It surely could not be impossible for him to know in heaven that she was his on earth?  As confidently as if she had been wedded to him here, she looked forward to the reunion with him there, and found in her secret consciousness of this eternal bond a hidden rapture, such as has been the stay of many a widowed heart through long lifetimes of loneliness.  This secret bond was like an impalpable yet impenetrable veil between her soul and the souls of all men who came into relation with her.  Men loved her and sought her,-loved her warmly and sought her with long years of devotion.  The world often judged her uncharitably by reason of these friendships, which were only friendships, and yet pointed to a warmer regard than the world consents that friends may feel.  But there was never a man, of all the men who loved Mercy, who did not feel himself, spite of all her frank and loving intimacy, withheld, debarred, separated from her at a certain point, as if there stood drawn up there a cordon of viewless spirits.

The one grief above which she could not wholly rise, which at times smote her and bowed her down, was her sense of her loss in being childless.  The heart of mother was larger in her even than the heart of wife.  Her longing for children of her own was so great that it was often more than she could bear to watch little children at their play.  She stood sometimes at her window at dusk, and watched the poor laboring men and women going home, leading or carrying their children; and it seemed as if her heart would break.  Everywhere, her eye noted the swarming groups of children, poor, uncared for, so often unwelcome; and she said sadly to herself, “So many! so many! and not one for me.”  Yet she never felt any desire to adopt children.  She distrusted her own patience and justice too much; and she feared too deeply the development of hereditary traits which she could not conquer; “I might find that I had taken a liar,” she thought; “and I should hate him.”

As she reached middle age, this unsatisfied desire ceased to be so great a grief.  She became more and more like a motherly friend to the young people surrounding her.  Her house was a home to them all, and she reproduced in her own life very nearly the relation which Parson Dorrance had held to the young people of Danby.  Her friend Lizzy Hunter was now the mother of four girls, all in their first young womanhood.  They all strove eagerly for the privilege of living with “Aunt Mercy,” and went in turn to spend whole seasons with her.

On Stephen White’s thirty-sixth birthday, his mother died.  The ten years which had passed since Mercy left him had grown harder and harder, day by day; but he bore the last as silently and patiently as he bore the first, and Mrs. White’s last words to the gray-haired man who bent over her bed were,-

“You have been a good boy, Steve,-a good boy.  You’ll have some rest now.”

Since the day he bade good-by to Mercy in the room from which Parson Dorrance had just been buried, Stephen had never written to her, never heard from her, except as all the world heard from her, in her published writings.  These he read eagerly, and kept them carefully in scrap-books.  He took great delight in collecting all the copies of her verses.  Sometimes a little verse of hers would go the rounds of the newspapers for months, and each reappearance of it was a new pleasure to Stephen.  He knew most of them by heart; and he felt that he knew Mercy still, as well as he knew her when she looked up in his face.  On the night of his mother’s death he wrote to her these words:-

Mercy,-It is ten years since we parted.  I love you as I loved you then.  I shall never love any other woman.  I am free now.  My mother has died this night.  May I come and see you?  I ask nothing of you, except to be your friend.  Can I not be that?


If a ghost of one dead for ten years had entered her presence, Mercy had hardly been more startled.  Stephen had ceased to be a personality to her.  Striving very earnestly with herself to be kind, and to do for this stranger whom she knew not what would be the very best and most healing thing for his soul, Mercy wrote to him as follows:-

Dear Stephen,-Your note was a very great surprise to me.  I am most heartily thankful that you are at last free to live your life like other men.  I think that the future ought to hold some very great and good gifts in store for you, to reward you for your patience.  I have never known any human being so patient as you.

“You must forgive me for saying that I do not believe it is possible for us to be friends.  I could be yours, and would be glad to be so.  But you could not be mine while you continue so to set me apart from all other women, as you say you do, in your affection.  I am truly grieved that you do this, and I hope that in your new free life you will very soon find other relations which will make you forget your old one with me.  I did you a great harm, but we were both ignorant of our mistake.  I pray that it may yet be repaired, and that you may soon be at rest in a happy home with a wife and children.  Then I should be glad to see you:  until then, it is not best.

“Yours most honestly,


Until he read this letter, Stephen had not known that secretly in the bottom of his heart he riad all these years cherished a hope that there might yet be a future in store for him and Mercy.  Now, by the new sense of desolation which he felt, he knew that there must have been a little more life than he thought left; in him to die.

As soon as his mother was buried, he closed the house and went abroad.  There he roamed about listlessly from country to country, for many years, acquiring a certain desultory culture, and buying, so far as his income would permit, every thing he saw which he thought Mercy would like.  Then he went home, bought the old Jacobs house back again, and fitted it up in every respect as Mercy had once suggested.  This done, he sat down to wait-for he knew not what.  He had a vague feeling that he would die soon, and leave the house and his small fortune to Mercy; and she would come and spend her summers there, and so he would recall to her their old life together.  He led the life of a hermit,-rarely went out, and still more rarely saw any one at home.  He looked like a man of sixty rather than like one of fifty.  He was fast becoming an invalid, more, however, from the lack of purpose and joy than from any disease.  Life had been very hard to Stephen.

Nothing seemed more probable, contrasting his listless figure, gray hair, and jaded face with Mercy’s full, fresh countenance and bounding elasticity, than that his dream of going first, and leaving to her the gift of all he had, would be realized; but he was destined to outlive her by many a long year.

Mercy’s death was a strange one.  She had gone with two of Lizzy Hunter’s daughters to spend a few weeks in one of the small White Mountain villages, which was a favorite haunt of hers.  The day after their arrival, a two days’ excursion to some of the mountains was proposed; and Mercy, though not feeling well enough to join it herself, insisted that the girls should go.  They were reluctant to leave her; but, with her usual vehemence, she resisted all their protestations, and compelled them to join the party.  She was thus left alone in a house crowded with people, all of whom were strangers to her.  Some of them recollected afterward to have noticed her sitting on the piazza at sunset, looking at the mountains with an expression of great delight; but no one spoke with her, and no one missed her the next morning, when she did not come to breakfast.  Late in the forenoon, the landlady came running in great terror and excitement to one of the guests, exclaiming:  “That lady that came yesterday is dying.  The chambermaids could not get into her room, nor get any answer, so we broke open the door.  The doctor says she’ll never come to again!”

Helpless, the village doctor, and the servants, and the landlady, and as many of the guests as could crowd into the little room, stood around Mercy’s bed.  It seemed a sad way to die, surrounded by strangers, who did not even know her name; but Mercy was unconscious.  It made no difference to her.  Her heavy breathing told only too well the nature of the trouble.

“This cannot be the first attack she has had,” said the doctor; and it was found afterward that Mercy had told Lizzy Hunter of her having twice had threatenings of a paralytic seizure.  “If only I die at once,” she had said to Lizzy, “I would rather go that way than in most others.  I dread the dying part of death.  I don’t want to know when I am going.”

And she did not.  All day her breathing grew slower and more labored, and at night it stopped.  In a few hours, there settled upon her features an expression of such perfect peace that each one who came to look at her stole away reverent and subdued.

The two old crones who had come to “lay out” the body crept about on tiptoe, their usual garrulity quenched by the sad and beautiful spectacle.  It was a singular thing that no one knew the name of the stranger who had died thus suddenly and alone.  In the confusion of their arrival, Mercy had omitted to register their names.  In the smaller White Mountain houses, this formality is not rigidly enforced.  And so it came to pass that this woman, so well known, so widely beloved, lay a night and a day dead, within a few hours’ journey of her home as unknown as if she had been cast up from a shipwrecked vessel on a strange shore.

The two old crones sat with the body all night and all the next day.  They sewed on the quaint garments in which it is still the custom of rural New England to robe the dead.  They put a cap of stiff white muslin over Mercy’s brown hair, which even now, in her fiftieth year, showed only here and there a silver thread.  They laid fine plaits of the same stiff white muslin over her breast, and crossed her hands above them.

“She must ha’ been a handsome woman in her time, Mis’ Bunker.  I ’spect she was married, don’t you?” said Ann Sweetser, Mrs. Bunker’s spinster cousin, who always helped her on these occasions.

“Well, this ere ring looks like it,” replied Mrs. Bunker, taking up a bit of the muslin and rubbing the broad gold band on the third finger of Mercy’s left hand.  “But yer can’t allers tell by that nowadays.  There’s folks wears ’em that ain’t married.  This is a real harndsome ring, ’s heavy ’s ever I see.”

How Mercy’s heart must have been touched, and also her fine and pathetic sense of humor, if her freed spirit hovered still in that little low-roofed room!  This cast-off garment of hers, so carefully honored, so curiously considered and speculated upon by these simple-minded people!  There was something rarely dramatic in all the surroundings of these last hours.  Among the guests in the house was one, a woman, herself a poet, who toward the end of the second day came into the chamber, bringing long trailing vines of the sweet Linnea, which was then in full bloom.  Her poet’s heart was moved to the depths by the thought of this unknown, dead woman lying there, tended by strangers’ hands.  She gazed with an inexplicable feeling of affection upon Mercy’s placid brow.  She lifted the lifeless hands and laid them down again in a less constrained position.  She, too, noted the broad gold ring, and said,-

“She has been loved then.  I wonder if he is alive!” The door was closed, and no one was in the room.  With a strange impulse she could not account for to herself, she said, “I will kiss her for him,” and bent and kissed the cold forehead.  Then she laid the fragrant vines around the face and across the bosom, and went away, feeling an inexplicable sense of nearness to the woman she had kissed.  When the next morning she knew that it was Mercy Philbrick, the poet, in whose lifeless presence she had stood, she exclaimed with a burst of tears, “Oh, I might have known that there was some subtile bond which made me kiss her!  I have always loved her verses so.”

On the day after Lizzy Hunter returned from Mercy’s funeral, Stephen White called at her house and asked to speak to her.  She had almost forgotten his existence, though she knew that he was living in the Jacobs house.  Their paths never crossed, and Lizzy had long ago forgotten her passing suspicion of Mercy’s regard for him.  The haggard and bowed man who met her now was so unlike the Stephen White she recollected, that Lizzy involuntarily exclaimed.  Stephen took no notice of her exclamation.

“No, thank you, I will not sit down,” he said, as with almost solicitude in her face she offered him a chair.  “I merely wish to give you something of”-he hesitated-“Mrs. Philbrick’s.”

He drew from his breast a small package of papers, yellow, creased, old.  He unfolded one of these and handed it to Lizzy, saying,-

“This is a sonnet of hers which has never been printed.  She gave it to me when,”-he hesitated again,-“when she was living in my house.  She said at that time that she would like to have it put on her tombstone.  I did not know any other friend of hers to go to but you.  Will you see that it is done?”

Lizzy took the paper and began to read the sonnet.  Stephen stood leaning heavily on the back of a chair; his breath was short, and his face much flushed.

“Oh, pray sit down, Mr. White!  You are ill,” exclaimed Lizzy.

“No, I am not ill.  I would rather stand,” replied Stephen.  His eyes were fixed on the spot where thirty years before Mercy had stood when she said, “I can’t, Stephen.”

Lizzy read the sonnet with tears rolling down her cheeks.

“Oh, it is beautiful,-beautiful!” she exclaimed.  “Why did she never have it printed?”

Stephen colored and hesitated.  One single thrill of pride followed by a bitter wave of pain, and he replied,-

“Because I asked her not to print it.”

Lizzy’s heart was too full of tender grief now to have any room for wonder or resentment at this, or even to realize in that first moment that there was any thing strange in the reply.

“Indeed, it shall be put on the stone,” she said.  “I am so thankful you brought it.  I have been thinking that there were no words fit to put above her grave.  No one but she herself could have written any that would be,” and she was folding up the paper.

Stephen stretched out his hand.  “Pardon me,” he said, “I cannot part with that.  I have brought a copy to leave with you,” and he gave Lizzy another paper.

Mechanically she restored to him the first one, and gazed earnestly into his face.  Its worn and harrowed features, its look of graven patience, smote her like a cry.  She was about to speak to him eagerly and with sympathy, but he was gone.  His errand was finished,-the last thing he could do for Mercy.  She watched his feeble steps as he walked away, and her pity revealed to her the history of his past.

“How he loved her! how he loved her!” she said, and watched his figure lingeringly, till it was out of sight.

This is the sonnet which was cut on the stone above Mercy’s grave:-


  With sails full set, the ship her anchor weighs;
  Strange names shine out beneath her figure-head: 
  What glad farewells with eager eyes are said! 
  What cheer for him who goes, and him who stays! 
  Fair skies, rich lands, new homes, and untried days
  Some go to seek:  the rest but wait instead
  Until the next stanch ship her flag shall raise. 
  Who knows what myriad colonies there are
  Of fairest fields, and rich, undreamed-of gains,
  Thick-planted in the distant shining plains
  Which we call sky because they lie so far? 
  Oh, write of me, not,-“Died in bitter pains,”
  But, “Emigrated to another star!”