THE HISTORY OF A CHILD.*
HOW well I remember it, that single and lonely laurel tree, it was my friend, my confidant. How often have I sat rocking on the one long, pendant branch which dropped even to the grass below. I can remember the strange pleasure I took in seeing my tears fall on the bright shining leaves; often while observing them have I forgotten the grief that led to their falling. I was not a pretty child, and both shy and sensitive; I was silent, and therefore not amusing. No one loved me but an old nurse why she should have been fond of me I know not, for I gave her much trouble; night after night has she wakened with my crying but she only wakened to soothe me. She was far advanced in years, but was still strikingly handsome. Her face, with its bold Roman profile, its large black eyes, is still before me as I used to see it bending over my crib, and singing, or rather croning me to sleep with the old ballad of "Barbara Allen." Never will the most finished music, that ever brought the air and perfume of an Italian summer upon its melody never will it be sweet in my ears as that untaught and monotonous tone. My first real sorrow was her departure; life has been to me unhappy enough, but never has it known a deeper desolation than that first parting. It is as present as yesterday; she had married, and was now about to go to a home of her own. How I hated her husband; with the rest of the nursery he was a popular person, for he had been a sailor, and his memory was stored with wild histories of the Buccaneers; nor was he without his own perils: he had been shipwrecked on the coast of Cornwall, and was once prisoner of war, though rescued before the French vessel made harbour. From any one else with what rapt attention should I have listened to these narratives, but to him I always turned a reluctant ear. Whenever he came, which he often did, into the large old nursery, where the hearth would have sufficed for ten fireplaces of these degenerate days; I sued to draw my stool close to my nurse, and, leaning my head on her knee, kept fast hold of her hand she encouraged this, and used to tell me she would never go away.
The time of her departure was kept a se-
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heard that two days after she was there to meet the coach, and go to London, to go there forever. I buried my face in my pillow, that my crying might not be heard. I slept, and my dreams brought the old avenue, the coach stopping, as vividly as when I really saw them.
I awoke the next morning, pale and heavy-eyed, but I was subject to violent headachs, and all passed off as their effects. Not a word passed my lips of the previous night's discourse. For the first time I felt the bitterness of being deceived; I could have better brooked the approaching separation, had I been trusted with it. But the secrecy made me feel so unworthy and so helpless; young as I was, I should have been proud of my nurse's confidence; at length, after three miserable silent days, the last night came. My nurse gave us all some little keepsake, though without telling her immediate departure. To me she gave a book, for I was, to use her own expression, "a great scholar." That is, I had not the bodily strength for more active amusement, and was therefore very fond of reading; but to-night I had not the heart to look into the pages which at another time would have been greedily devoured. She was hurt at my seeming indifference, and took my brother on her knee, who was all rapture with his windmill; I was very wrong, I could not bear to see him caressed, and pushing him violently aside, entreated her with a passionate burst of tears, to love me, and only me.
We slept in a sort of gallery off the nursery, and the next morning I was up with the earliest daybreak. Taking the greatest care not to awaken my companions, I put on my clothes as well as I could, and stole downstairs. It was scarcely light through the closed windows, and the shadows took all fantastic semblances, and one or two of the chance rays fell upon the pictures in the hall, giving them strange and distorted likenesses. There was one stately lady in black, with a huge white ruff that encircled a face yet paler. The eyes seemed to follow me wherever I moved; cold, glassy, immovable eyes, which looked upon, as if they hated, the little trembling thing that was creeping along below. Suddenly a noise like thunder THE REST OF THIS PAGE WAS CUT OFF ON THE COPY (P. 463)
could scarcely raise my head from the place in which I had almost unconsciously buried itself, to ascertain the cause of an unusual light: the fact was a shutter had been carelessly fastened, and a gust of wind had caused the iron bar to fall. It was, however, fortunate for me, as in my well arranged plan, I had forgotten one very important point, namely, how I was to leave the house. To unfasten the hall door was utterly beyond my strength; now an obvious method of escape presented itself. I opened the window and sprang out, running thence at full speed till I gained the avenue; there I was secure. Breathless with running, agitated and afraid, it is singular how soon I grew composed, and even cheerful, in the clear bright morning; its gladness entered into my heart. For a moment I almost forgot the purpose that had brought me there at such an hour: the mists were rising form the park, rolling away like waves of some silvery sea, such as I ever after fancied the seas in fairy tales to be. The clouds were warming into deeper crimson every moment, till the smallest leaf on the chestnut trees seemed distinct on that bright red sky. How beautifully it was reflected on the lake, and yet it was almost terrible; it seemed to me filled with flame. how huge and dark too rose our two cedars; what a distance did their shadows spread before them; but I then turned to what was brightest. I was delighted to see the dewdrops on the painted speargrass, and the down-balls shining with moisture; it is a common superstition in our part of the country, that wish and blow away the gossamer round, if it goes at one breath your wish will be granted. I caught one eagerly I blew with all my strength alas, only a little of the shining down was displaced; I could scarcely see the remainder for tears; at that moment I heard the horn of the coach. I wonder now that I could distinguish at such a distance; I stopped my ears not to hear it again; and the moment after held my breath to listen. At last I caught sight of the coach in a winding of the road; how glad I felt to think that there was still the hill between us. I had never before seen it coming, though I had often watched it drive past on a summer evening: I saw it pass rapidly through the windings of the green hedges, till it began slowly to ascend the hill. Here my attention was drawn from it, by the sight of my nurse and one of her fellow-servants hurrying up the avenue; years years have passed since then, but even now the pang of that moment is cold at my heart. I was standing with my arm round the slender stem of one of the young trees. I leant my face upon it; but I saw my nurse coming along as distinctly as if I had watched her. The coach stopped at the gate, and the coachman gave a loud and hasty ring, my nurse hurried by without seeing me, another moment and I felt that she
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implored her to take me with her, I said I would work, beg for her, any thing, if she would let me go and be her own child. At first she kissed and coaxed me to loose her, but at last the coachman became impatient of waiting; in the fear of the stage going without her, harassed too by all the perplexities which I have since learnt belong to all departures; she exclaimed in the momentary peevishness of not being able to unclasp my arms,
"What a tiresome child it is, I shall have the coach go without me."
My arms relaxed their tender and passionate clasp. I stood at her side pale, for I felt the colour go from my cheek back upon my heart; my eyes drank back their tears; I felt then what I never felt before; the perfect self-control of strong excitement, and I bade her civilly good morning. I walked slowly away from the gate without looking back to see her get into the coach, but hearing the horn echo on the air, I ran to a point of rising ground, I caught the last sight of the horses, and flung myself down on the grass; the words "how tiresome the child is," ringing in my ears, as if another person at my side delighted to repeat them in every possible way.
To know yourself less beloved than you love, is a dreadful feeling alas, how often has the remembrance of that bitter hour come back again by some following hour too sadly like the one that went before. How often have I since exclaimed, "I am not beloved as I love."
The consequence of my being so long on the dewy grass, aided by the agitation that I had endured, brought on one of those violent colds to which I have always been subject. It was poor consolation, the undeniable fact that it had been brought on by my own fault. I never coughed without a sensation of shame. Of all shapes that illness can take, a cough is the worst. Pain can be endured in silence, but a cough is so noisy, it inevitably attracts attention; the echo of mine from the vaulted roof was a perpetual torment to myself, because I knew that others must hear it as well. My cough brought also what was the severest of punishments, it kept me within doors, it prevented my daily visit to the old laurel, where I used to share my luncheon with a favourite old pointer of my father's.
One day, while I was sitting by the window, forced, alas, to be shut, I heard a whining at the door. I opened it, and in bounded the dog, overwhelming me with its caresses. Its large bright brown eyes were fixed upon me with all the depth of human affection. It was a delicious sensation to think that any thing in the world had missed me. Clio was a beautiful creature, with a coat of glossy blackness only broken by a few spots of tan. I have since heard a lovely head of hair compared to the "down of darkness," and to the raven's wing, but the highest compliment
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brought into the house, and the visits of the intruder were a permitted pleasure. Another source of enjoyment too opened upon me. I began to read the book that my nurse had given me; at first the very sight of it was insupportably painful, but one long weary morning when the severity of illness had softened into that languor which needs some quiet amusement, I opened its pages. It was an epoch in my life, it is an epoch in every child's life, the first reading of Robinson Crusoe. What entire possession it took of my imagination. Henceforth one-half of my time was past on that lovely and lonely island. The only thing that I could not understand were Robinson Crusoe's lamentations over his solitude, to me the most unreasonable things in the world. How little did I share his joy when the English vessel came and bore him once more over the sea to his native England. It was a long time before I had any wish to read the rest. For weeks after reading that book, I lived as if in a dream, indeed I rarely dreamt of any thing else at night. I went to sleep with the cave, its parrots and goats, floating before my closed eyes; I wakened in some rapid flight from the savages landing in their canoes. The elms in our own hedges were not more familiar than the prickly shrubs which formed his palisade; and the grapes whose drooping branches made fertile the wild savannahs. When at length allowed to go into the open air, my enjoyment was tenfold.
We lived in a large, old, and somewhat dilapidated place, only part of the grounds were kept up in their original high order. I used to wander in the almost deserted shrubberies, where the flowers grew in all the luxuriance of neglect over the walks, and the shrubs become trees drooped to the very ground, the boughs heavy with bloom and leaves. In the very heart of one of these was a large deep pond, almost black with the depths of shadow. One bank only was sunny, it had been turf, but one flower after another had taken possession of a situation so favourable. The rododhendron spread its fragile blossom of the softest lilac, beside the golden glories of the Constantinople rose; a variety too of our English roses, had taken root and flourished there. There was the damask, with all its York and Lancaster associations, the white, cold as snow, the little red Ayshire darling, and last, but not least, for it grew with a spendthrift's prodigality, the Chinese rose, a delicate frail stranger, yet the last to shed beauty on even our dark November. Below, the pond was covered with water lilies with the large green leaves that support the loveliest of ivory boats, fit for the fairy queen and her summer court. But these were not the attractions of that solitary pond in my eyes. Its charm was a little island which seemed to float upon the dark water; one side of the pond was covered with ancient willow trees,
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formed a complete bridge to the little island at least so near that a rapid spring enabled me to gain it. There was only one tree on this miniature island a curiously shaped but huge yew tree; it quite rivalled the laurel that used to be my favourite haunt. I would remain hidden in the deep shadows of that gloomy tree, for the whole of my playtime, I was there,
"Monarch of all I survey'd
My right there was none to dispute.
How well I recollect the eagerness with which, one morning, I sprang into its shade. The day before I had been to a juvenile ball given in the neighbourhood. I was dressed with unusual care and I am convinced that dress is the universal passion and turned to leave the nursery with an unusual glow of complacency, one of the servants smoothing down a rebellious curl. As I past I heard the other say "leave well alone" and unfortunately I heard the rejoinder also "Leave ill alone, you mean; did you ever see such a little plain thing." This was but the beginning of my mortifications, that evening was but the first of many coming events that cast their shadows before. Still it was my earliest experience of the bitterness of neglect, and of the solitude of a crowd. I had for several hours the melancholy satisfaction of sitting unnoticed in a corner; at length the lady of the house, in the most cruel kindness, insisted on my dancing. How the first figure of the quadrille was accomplished I know not. I fancied every one was laughing at me; I had to advance by myself, the room swan round, my head became giddy, I left my unfortunate partner, sprang away, and took refuge in a balcony and a burst of tears. The next morning I had to endure reproof, for I had inflicted the mortification I felt, and the unanswerable question of "What use was my being taught any thing!" In sad truth, at that time, it might have seemed very little use indeed. I was a clever, very clever child, but my mind was far beyond my years, and it lacked the knowledge which alone can teach how to use its powers. Moreover I was wholly deficient in all showy talents; for music I had no ear, for drawing no eye, and dancing was positively terrible to my timid temper. My sensitiveness made any attempt at display a hopeless endeavour. An hundred times has my book been returned because I was too anxious that I might say my lesson well, the words died on my lips, I became confused, speechless, while the tears that rose too readily into my eyes appeared like sullenness. And yet at that moment my heart almost stopped beating with its eagerness to repeat, what in reality I had thoroughly mastered, and whose spirit had become a part of my mind.
Still the imagination conquers the real. My
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fancying the pointer an excellent representation of "my man Friday." There was one time in the day, however, when I could never prevail on Clio to be my companion about six she regularly disappeared, and all my coaxing to keep her at my side was in vain. One afternoon I watched and followed her. She took her way across the long shadows that were now beginning to sweep over the sunny park. She made her way to a small gate that opened on the road, and there lay down patiently awaiting the arrival of her master. I thought I would wait too, for I knew that my father was in the habit of coming in at that gate, as it saved a long round by the road. I soon heard the sound of his horse's hoofs, and felt half inclined to run away. I was so glad that I did not, for my father took me up in his arms and kissed me with the utmost pleasure, saying, "So you have been waiting for me;" and taking the horse's bridle in one hand, and me in the other, we walked across the park together. I now went to meet him every day; happy, happy hours that I past on that gate, with the pointer at my feet, looking up with its large human eyes, as if to read in mine when I first caught sight of my father. How I hated the winter with its cold cutting air, its thick fog, that put an end to this waiting; winter, that left out the happiest hour of the day. But spring came again, spring that covered one bank with the sweet languor of the pale primrose, and another with the purple arabia of the breathing violet. No flower takes upon me the effect of these. Years, long years past away since I have seen these flowers, other than in the sorted bouquet, and the cultivated garden, but those fair fresh banks rise distinct on my mind's eye. They colour the atmosphere with themselves, their breath rises on the yet perfumed air, and I think with painful pleasure over all that once surrounded them. I think of affections gone down to the grave, and of hopes and beliefs which I can trust no more.
It was in the first week of an unusually forward May, that one afternoon, for I had again began my watchings by the park gate, that my father produced four volumes and for me. How delicious was the odour of the Russian leather in which they were bound, how charming the glance at the numerous pictures which glanced through the half-opened leaves. The first reading of the Arabian Nights was like the first reading of Robinson Crusoe. For a time, their world made mine my little, lonely island, dark with the mingled shadow of the yew and the willow, was now deserted, I sought a gayer site, that harmonized better with the bright creations now around me, I found it in a small, oldfashioned flower garden, where the beds, filled with the richest colours, were confined by small edgings of box into every variety of squares, ovals, and rounds. At one end was the beehouse,
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large acacia, now in the prodigality of bloom which comes but every third year; I found a summer palace amid its luxuriant boughs. The delight of reading those enchanted pages, I must even to this day rank as the most delicious excitement of my life. I shall never have courage to read them again, it would mark too decidedly, too bitterly, the change in myself, I need not. How perfectly I recollect those charming fictions whose fascination was so irresistible! How well I remember the thrill of awe which came over me at the brazen giant sitting alone amid the pathless seas, mighty and desolate till the appointed time came for the fated arrow, at whose touch he was to sink down, an unsolved mystery, hidden by the eternal ocean!
How touching the history of Prince Agib when he arrives at the lovely island, only inhabited by the beautiful boy who dwelt there in solitude and fear till he came! How in the thoughtfulness of youth, they laughed, when sweet confidence had grown up between them, at the prediction which threatened that beloved and gentle child with death at Prince Agib's hand! Fate laughs at human evasion the fated morning comes one false step, and even in the very act of tender service, the knife enters the heart of the predestined victim. Prince Agib sees from the thick leaves of the tree where he had taken shelter, the anxious father anxious, but hopeful arrive. He comes with music and rejoicing. What does he take back with him? The dead body of his son.
Again, with what all but actual belief did I devour the history of the wondrous lamp, whose possessor had only to wish. For weeks I lived in a world of wishes, and yet it was this dreaming world first led me into contact with the actual. As usual, such knowledge began in sorrow.
One morning, before the period of leaving the schoolroom, I heard the report of a gun. In spite of the intricate path of rivers and boundaries I was then tracing, it still occurred to me to wonder what could lead to a gun's being fired at that time of year. Alas, I learnt only too soon. On going to the acacia I was surprised not to find my usual companion waiting. As to reading in any comfort till I had Clio's soft brown eyes watching me, was impossible. I sent off in search of the truant. Perhaps she had been fastened up. I found my way to the stable, and to the dead body of my favourite. She had been bitten by an adder, and they had been obliged to shoot her. It was one of those shocking spectacles which remain with you for your life. Even now my dreams are haunted with the sight. I believe at first that horror predominated over regret. I could not cry, I stood and trembling beside the mangled remains of what I had loved so dearly. I prevailed on one of the servants to bury it near my acacia tree. For days afterwards I did nothing but sob on that grave.
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foundations my fairy land. I started from even a moment's forgetfulness as a wrong to the memory of my beloved companion.
At length I began to take an interest in decorating the grave, and planted first one flower and then another. I was not very successful in my gardening attempts, till at length Lucy came to my assistance. Lucy was the grandaughter of an old blind woman who lived near; an aged retainer of some great family, whose small pension had long outlasted the original donors. I have seen many beautiful faces since, but nothing that rises to my memory to be compared with Lucy's childish but exceeding loveliness. She was delicately fair, though constant exposure to the sun had touched the little hands, and the sweet face with soft brown, through which came the most transparent colour that ever caught its red from the rose, or its changefulness from the rainbow. Her hair was of that pale yet rich gold so rarely seen: with the sunshine upon it, it was positively radiant; it shone as the wind lifted some of the long, soft curls. It was a species of beauty too frail, too delicate, and the large blue eyes had that clear, skylike azure, that violet shadow round the orbs, which mark an hereditary tendency to decline. She was in the habit of coming into our gardens to gather roses for distillation. Accustomed from her cradle to strangers and exertion, making friends by a manner whose sweetness was as natural as the smile to her face, Lucy was not the least shy: if she had been, we should never have become acquainted. But when she frankly offered her services to assist in ornamenting the little plot of ground on which my shrubs were drooping, and round which my flowers always made a point of dying; they were accepted on my part with equal surprise and gratitude. Under her more judicious management, the ground was soon covered with leaf and bloom, and every blossom that put forth was a new link in our intimacy.
"I wish I could do any thing to oblige you," was my exclamation at the sight of my first carnation.
"O," exclaimed she, the soft colour warming into her cheek with eagerness, "you are a great reader, would you sometimes come and read to my grandmother?" This I easily obtained permission to do, and that very evening I went with Lucy to Mrs. Selby's. The cottage where she lived stood alone in a little nook between our park and the churchyard; yew trees were on the one side, and our cedars on the other, but the garden itself seemed a very fairyland of sunshine; a jessamine covered the front with its long, trailing, green branches, and its white delicate blossoms. The porch was enlivened by that rare and odoriferous shrub, the yellow musk rose; it is the only one I have ever seen, but of a summer evening, it covered that little portal with gold, and filled the whole air
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fancied that the musk rose resembles them. Inside, how cool, clean and neat was the room, with its brick floor and large old fireplace, and yet there was only Lucy to do every thing; I have often thought since of the difference between the children of the rich and the children of the poor the first, kept apart, petted, indulged, and useless; the second, with every energy in full exercise from the cradle, actively employed, and earning their daily bread, almost from the hour that they begin to eat it. If there is too much of this in the lower classes, if labour be carried into cruelty, there is infinitely too little of it in the higher. The poor child, as Charles Lamb so touchingly expresses it, is not brought, but "dragged out," and if the wits are sharpened, so, too, is the soft, round cheek. The crippled limb and broken constitution attest the effects of the over-early struggle with penury; but the child of rich parents suffers, though in another way; there is the heart that is crippled, by the selfishness of indulgence and the habit of relying upon others. It takes years of harsh contact with the realities of life to undo the enervating work of a spoilt and over aided childhood. We cannot too soon learn the strong and useful lessons of exertion and self-dependance. Lucy was removed from the heaviest pressure of poverty, but how much did she do that was wonderful in a child of her age! The cottage was kept in the most perfect neatness, and her grandmother's every want watched as only love watches; she was up with the lark, the house was put in order, their own garden weeded, her nosegays collected from all parts, for Lucy was the flower market, the Madeline of our village. Then their dinner was made ready; afterwards, her light song and even lighter step were again heard in the open air, and when evening came on, you sw her in the porch as busily plaiting straw, as if the pliant fingers had only just found employment.
That was my time for visiting at the cottage, when the last red shadows turned the old Gothic lattices of the church into rubies; then, on the low bench beside Lucy, I used to sit and read aloud to her grandmother. She was a very remarkable woman, her tall, stately figure was unbent by age, and her high and strongly marked features were wonderful in expression for a face where the eyes were closed forever. She was a north country woman, and her memory was stored with all those traditions which make so large a portion of our English poetry. Lucy was her only link with the present, but for her affection to that beautiful child, she lived entirely with the past. The old castle where she had chiefly lived, whose noble family had perished from the earth, as if smitten by some strange and sudden doom, the legends connected with their house, these were her sole topics of discourse. All these legends
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us for a moment, no matter how interesting the narrative, the old woman would suspend her discourse and question me about Lucy's appearance. I did not then understand the meaning of her questions. Alas! how I look back to the hour passed every summer evening in that little shady porch, reading to that blind old woman, Lucy thanking me all the time, with her sweet blue eyes. I have rarely I fear me, been so useful since, certainly never so beloved. It was not to last long: August was now beginning, and it came in with violent thunder storms. One of Lucy's occupations was to gather wild strawberries in a wood at some distance, and nothing could exceed the natural taste with which she used to arrange the bright scarlet fruit amid the vine leaves she fetched from our garden. Returning over the common, she was caught in a tremendous shower, and wet through. The sudden chill struck to a constitution naturally delicate, and in four-and-twenty hours Lucy was no more I went to see her, unconscious of what had happened. The house was shut up. I felt for the first time in my life, that vague presentiment of evil which is its certain forerunner; I thought only of the aged woman, and entered hastily and yet stealthily in. No one was to be seen in the front room, and I found my way to the one at the back. There were no shutters to the window, and the light, streamed through the thin white curtain; it fell on the face of the dead. Beside sat the grandmother, looking the corpse which she became in the course of that night. She never spoke after she felt her child's hand grow cold and stiff in her own. There she lay, that beloved and beautiful girl, her bright hair shining around her, and her face so pale, but with such strange sweetness. I bent down to kiss her, but the touch was death. But why should I go on; I had lost my gentle companion forever.
I have told the history of my childhood, childhood which images forth our after life. Even such has been mine it has but repeated what it learnt from the first, Sorrow, Beauty, Love and Death.