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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesArthur Mervyn; Or, Memoirs Of The Year 1793 - Volume 2 - Chapter 30
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Arthur Mervyn; Or, Memoirs Of The Year 1793 - Volume 2 - Chapter 30 Post by :JayBeau Category :Long Stories Author :Charles Brockden Brown Date :May 2012 Read :1948

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Arthur Mervyn; Or, Memoirs Of The Year 1793 - Volume 2 - Chapter 30

VOLUME II CHAPTER XXX

In a short time this gentle girl recovered her senses. She did not withdraw herself from my sustaining arm, but, leaning on my bosom, she resigned herself to passionate weeping. I did not endeavour to check this effusion, believing that its influence would be salutary.

I had not forgotten the thrilling sensibility and artless graces of this girl. I had not forgotten the scruples which had formerly made me check a passion whose tendency was easily discovered. These new proofs of her affection were, at once, mournful and delightful. The untimely fate of her father and my friend pressed with new force upon my heart, and my tears, in spite of my fortitude, mingled with hers.

The attention of both was presently attracted by a faint scream, which proceeded from above. Immediately tottering footsteps were heard in the passage, and a figure rushed into the room, pale, emaciated, haggard, and wild. She cast a piercing glance at me, uttered a feeble exclamation, and sunk upon the floor without signs of life.

It was not difficult to comprehend this scene. I now conjectured, what subsequent inquiry confirmed, that the old man had mistaken me for Wallace, and had carried to the elder sister the news of his return. This fatal disappointment of hopes that had nearly been extinct, and which were now so powerfully revived, could not be endured by a frame verging to dissolution.

This object recalled all the energies of Eliza, and engrossed all my solicitude. I lifted the fallen girl in my arms; and, guided by her sister, carried her to her chamber. I had now leisure to contemplate the changes which a few months had made in this lovely frame. I turned away from the spectacle with anguish, but my wandering eyes were recalled by some potent fascination, and fixed in horror upon a form which evinced the last stage of decay. Eliza knelt on one side, and, leaning her face upon the bed, endeavoured in vain to smother her sobs. I sat on the other motionless, and holding the passive and withered hand of the sufferer.

I watched with ineffable solicitude the return of life. It returned at length, but merely to betray symptoms that it would speedily depart forever. For a time my faculties were palsied, and I was made an impotent spectator of the ruin that environed me. This pusillanimity quickly gave way to resolutions and reflections better suited to the exigencies of the time.

The first impulse was to summon a physician; but it was evident that the patient had been sinking by slow degrees to this state, and that the last struggle had begun. Nothing remained but to watch her while expiring, and perform for her, when dead, the rites of interment. The survivor was capable of consolation and of succour. I went to her and drew her gently into another apartment. The old man, tremulous and wonder-struck, seemed anxious to perform some service. I directed him to kindle a fire in Eliza's chamber. Meanwhile I persuaded my gentle friend to remain in this chamber, and resign to me the performance of every office which her sister's condition required. I sat beside the bed of the dying till the mortal struggle was past.

I perceived that the house had no inhabitant besides the two females and the old man. I went in search of the latter, and found him crouched, as before, at the kitchen-fire, smoking his pipe. I placed myself on the same bench, and entered into conversation with him.

I gathered from him that he had, for many years, been Mr. Hadwin's servant. That lately he had cultivated a small farm in this neighbourhood for his own advantage. Stopping one day in October, at the tavern, he heard that his old master had lately been in the city, had caught _the fever_, and after his return had died with it. The moment he became sick, his servants fled from the house, and the neighbours refused to approach it. The task of attending his sick-bed was allotted to his daughters, and it was by their hands that his grave was dug and his body covered with earth. The same terror of infection existed after his death as before, and these hapless females were deserted by all mankind.

Old Caleb was no sooner informed of these particulars, than he hurried to the house, and had since continued in their service. His heart was kind, but it was easily seen that his skill extended only to execute the directions of another. Grief for the death of Wallace and her father preyed upon the health of the eldest daughter. The younger became her nurse, and Caleb was always at hand to execute any orders the performance of which was on a level with his understanding. Their neighbours had not withheld their good offices, but they were still terrified and estranged by the phantoms of pestilence.

During the last week Susan had been too weak to rise from her bed; yet such was the energy communicated by the tidings that Wallace was alive, and had returned, that she leaped upon her feet and rushed down-stairs. How little did that man deserve so strenuous and immortal an affection!

I would not allow myself to ponder on the sufferings of these women. I endeavoured to think only of the best expedients for putting an end to these calamities. After a moment's deliberation I determined to go to a house at some miles' distance; the dwelling of one who, though not exempt from the reigning panic, had shown more generosity towards these unhappy girls than others. During my former abode in this district, I had ascertained his character, and found him to be compassionate and liberal.

Overpowered by fatigue and watching, Eliza was no sooner relieved, by my presence, of some portion of her cares, than she sunk into profound slumber. I directed Caleb to watch the house till my return, which should be before midnight, and then set out for the dwelling of Mr. Ellis.

The weather was temperate and moist, and rendered the footing of the meadows extremely difficult. The ground, that had lately been frozen and covered with snow, was now changed into gullies and pools, and this was no time to be fastidious in the choice of paths. A brook, swelled by the recent _thaw_, was likewise to be passed. The rail which I had formerly placed over it by way of bridge had disappeared, and I was obliged to wade through it. At length I approached the house to which I was going.

At so late an hour, farmers and farmers' servants are usually abed, and their threshold is intrusted to their watch-dogs. Two belonged to Mr. Ellis, whose ferocity and vigilance were truly formidable to a stranger; but I hoped that in me they would recognise an old acquaintance, and suffer me to approach. In this I was not mistaken. Though my person could not be distinctly seen by starlight, they seemed to scent me from afar, and met me with a thousand caresses.

Approaching the house, I perceived that its tenants were retired to their repose. This I expected, and hastened to awaken Mr. Ellis, by knocking briskly at the door. Presently he looked out of a window above, and, in answer to his inquiries, in which impatience at being so unseasonably disturbed was mingled with anxiety, I told him my name, and entreated him to come down and allow me a few minutes' conversation. He speedily dressed himself, and, opening the kitchen door, we seated ourselves before the fire.

My appearance was sufficiently adapted to excite his wonder; he had heard of my elopement from the house of Mr. Hadwin, he was a stranger to the motives that prompted my departure, and to the events that had befallen me, and no interview was more distant from his expectations than the present. His curiosity was written in his features, but this was no time to gratify his curiosity. The end that I now had in view was to procure accommodation for Eliza Hadwin in this man's house. For this purpose it was my duty to describe, with simplicity and truth, the inconveniences which at present surrounded her, and to relate all that had happened since my arrival.

I perceived that my tale excited his compassion, and I continued with new zeal to paint to him the helplessness of this girl. The death of her father and sister left her the property of this farm. Her sex and age disqualified her for superintending the harvest-field and the threshing-floor; and no expedient was left but to lease the land to another, and, taking up her abode in the family of some kinsman or friend, to subsist, as she might easily do, upon the rent. Meanwhile her continuance in this house was equally useless and dangerous, and I insinuated to my companion the propriety of immediately removing her to his own.

Some hesitation and reluctance appeared in him, which I immediately ascribed to an absurd dread of infection. I endeavoured, by appealing to his reason as well as to his pity, to conquer this dread. I pointed out the true cause of the death of the elder daughter, and assured him the youngest knew no indisposition but that which arose from distress. I offered to save him from any hazard that might attend his approaching the house, by accompanying her hither myself. All that her safety required was that his doors should not be shut against her when she presented herself before them.

Still he was fearful and reluctant; and, at length, mentioned that her uncle resided not more than sixteen miles farther; that he was her natural protector, and, he dared to say, would find no difficulty in admitting her into his house. For his part, there might be reason in what I said, but he could not bring himself to think but that there was still some danger of _the fever_. It was right to assist people in distress, to-be-sure; but to risk his own life he did not think to be his duty. He was no relation of the family, and it was the duty of relations to help each other. Her uncle was the proper person to assist her, and no doubt he would be as willing as able.

The marks of dubiousness and indecision which accompanied these words encouraged me in endeavouring to subdue his scruples. The increase of his aversion to my scheme kept pace with my remonstrances, and he finally declared that he would, on no account, consent to it.

Ellis was by no means hard of heart. His determination did not prove the coldness of his charity, but merely the strength of his fears. He was himself an object more of compassion than of anger; and he acted like the man whose fear of death prompts him to push his companion from the plank which saved him from drowning, but which is unable to sustain both. Finding him invincible to my entreaties, I thought upon the expedient which he suggested of seeking the protection of her uncle. It was true that the loss of parents had rendered her uncle her legal protector. His knowledge of the world; his house and property and influence, would, perhaps, fit him for this office in a more eminent degree than I was fitted. To seek a different asylum might, indeed, be unjust to both; and, after some reflection, I not only dismissed the regret which Ellis's refusal had given me, but even thanked him for the intelligence and counsel which he had afforded me. I took leave of him, and hastened back to Hadwin's.

Eliza, by Caleb's report, was still asleep. There was no urgent necessity for awakening her; but something was forthwith to be done with regard to the unhappy girl that was dead. The proceeding incumbent on us was obvious. All that remained was to dig a grave, and to deposit the remains with as much solemnity and decency as the time would permit. There were two methods of doing this. I might wait till the next day; till a coffin could be made and conveyed hither; till the woman, whose trade it was to make and put on the habiliments assigned by custom to the dead, could be sought out and hired to attend; till kindred, friends, and neighbours could be summoned to the obsequies; till a carriage were provided to remove the body to a burying-ground, belonging to a meeting-house, and five miles distant; till those whose trade it was to dig graves had prepared one, within the sacred enclosure, for her reception; or, neglecting this toilsome, tedious, and expensive ceremonial, I might seek the grave of Hadwin, and lay the daughter by the side of her parent.

Perhaps I was strong in my preference of the latter mode. The customs of burial may, in most cases, be in themselves proper. If the customs be absurd, yet it may be generally proper to adhere to them; but doubtless there are cases in which it is our duty to omit them. I conceived the present case to be such a one.

The season was bleak and inclement. Much time, labour, and expense would be required to go through the customary rites. There was none but myself to perform these, and I had not the suitable means. The misery of Eliza would only be prolonged by adhering to these forms, and her fortune be needlessly diminished by the expenses unavoidably to be incurred.

After musing upon these ideas for some time, I rose from my seat, and desired Caleb to follow me. We proceeded to an outer shed where farmers' tools used to be kept. I supplied him and myself with a spade, and requested him to lead me to the spot where Mr. Hadwin was laid.

He betrayed some hesitation to comply, and appeared struck with some degree of alarm, as if my purpose had been to molest, instead of securing, the repose of the dead. I removed his doubts by explaining my intentions; but he was scarcely less shocked, on discovering the truth, than he had been alarmed by his first suspicions. He stammered out his objections to my scheme. There was but one mode of burial, he thought, that was decent and proper, and he could not be free to assist me in pursuing any other mode.

Perhaps Caleb's aversion to the scheme might have been easily overcome; but I reflected that a mind like his was at once flexible and obstinate. He might yield to arguments and entreaties, and act by their immediate impulse; but the impulse passed away in a moment, old and habitual convictions were resumed, and his deviation from the beaten track would be merely productive of compunction. His aid, on the present occasion, though of some use, was by no means indispensable. I forbore to solicit his concurrence, or even to vanquish the scruples he entertained against directing me to the grave of Hadwin. It was a groundless superstition that made one spot more suitable for this purpose than another. I desired Caleb, in a mild tone, to return to the kitchen, and leave me to act as I thought proper. I then proceeded to the orchard.

One corner of this field was somewhat above the level of the rest. The tallest tree of the group grew there, and there I had formerly placed a bench, and made it my retreat at periods of leisure. It had been recommended by its sequestered situation, its luxuriant verdure, and profound quiet. On one side was a potato-field, on the other a _melon-patch_; and before me, in rows, some hundreds of apple-trees. Here I was accustomed to seek the benefits of contemplation and study the manuscripts of Lodi. A few months had passed since I had last visited this spot. What revolutions had since occurred, and how gloomily contrasted was my present purpose with what had formerly led me hither!

In this spot I had hastily determined to dig the grave of Susan. The grave was dug. All that I desired was a cavity of sufficient dimensions to receive her. This being made, I returned to the house, lifted the corpse in my arms, and bore it without delay to the spot. Caleb, seated in the kitchen, and Eliza, asleep in her chamber, were wholly unapprized of my motions. The grave was covered, the spade reposited under the shed, and my seat by the kitchen-fire resumed in a time apparently too short for so solemn and momentous a transaction.

I look back upon this incident with emotions not easily described. It seems as if I acted with too much precipitation; as if insensibility, and not reason, had occasioned that clearness of conceptions, and bestowed that firmness of muscles, which I then experienced. I neither trembled nor wavered in my purpose. I bore in my arms the being whom I had known and loved, through the whistling gale and intense darkness of a winter's night; I heaped earth upon her limbs, and covered them from human observation, without fluctuations or tremors, though not without feelings that were awful and sublime.

Perhaps some part of my steadfastness was owing to my late experience, and some minds may be more easily inured to perilous emergencies than others. If reason acquires strength only by the diminution of sensibility, perhaps it is just for sensibility to be diminished.

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VOLUME II CHAPTER XXXIVThis incident necessarily produced a change in my views with regard to my friend. Her fortune consisted of a few hundreds of dollars, which, frugally administered, might procure decent accommodation in the country. When this was consumed, she must find subsistence in tending the big wheel or the milk-pail, unless fortune should enable me to place her in a more favourable situation. This state was, in some respects, but little different from that in which she had spent the former part of her life; but, in her father's house, these employments were dignified by being, in some degree,
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VOLUME II CHAPTER XXIXAt parting with you, my purpose was to reach the abode of the Hadwins as speedily as possible. I travelled therefore with diligence. Setting out so early, I expected, though on foot, to reach the end of my journey before noon. The activity of muscles is no obstacle to thought. So far from being inconsistent with intense musing, it is, in my own case, propitious to that state of mind. Probably no one had stronger motives for ardent meditation than I. My second journey to the city was prompted by reasons, and attended by incidents, that seemed to
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