Chapter XVII. {XL}

“What say you, can you love this gentleman?” Romeo and Juliet.

{William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, I.iii.79}

JANE’S strength and spirits were gradually improving. She had been persuaded to take a daily airing and had consented to see one or two of the ladies in her room. Mr. Wyllys always passed half an hour with her, every afternoon; and at length she came down stairs, and joined the family in the drawing-room, for a short time in the evening. Mr. and Mrs. Robert Hazlehurst, who came from Philadelphia to pass a day or two with her, found her much better than they had expected.

Charlie Hubbard returned to the grey cottage, with his portfolio full of sketches, intending to pass several months at home, in finishing his pictures of Lake George; the school-room having been converted into a painting-room for his use. Miss Patsey’s little flock were dispersed for a time; and Charlie was even in hopes of persuading his mother and sister to accompany him to New York, where Mary Hubbard, the youngest sister, was now engaged in giving music lessons. He felt himself quite a rich man, and drew up a plausible plan for hiring a small house in some cheap situation, where they might all live together; but Miss Patsey shook her head, she thought they could not afford it. Still, it was delightful to her, to listen to plans devised by Charlie’s warm heart; she seemed to love him more than ever, since he had even sacrificed his moustaches to his mother’s prejudice against such foreign fashions.

“Keep your money, Charles; we can make out very well in the old cottage; more comfortably than we have ever done before. You will want all you can make one of these days, when you marry,” said Miss Patsey.

To her surprise, Charlie showed some emotion at this allusion to his marrying, and remained perfectly silent for an instant, instead of giving the playful answer that his sister had expected to hear.

Mrs. Hubbard then observed, that she should not wish to move; she hoped to end her life in the old grey cottage. They had lived so long in the neighbourhood of Longbridge, that a new place would not seem like home to Patsey and herself. Charlie must come to see them as often as he could; perhaps he would be able to spend his summers there.

“Well, we shall see, mother; at any rate, Mary and I together, we shall be able to make your life easy, I trust.”

Mrs. Hubbard observed, that although they had been poor for the last seventeen years, yet they had never really seemed to feel the weight of poverty; they had met with so much kindness, from so many relations and friends.

“But kindness from our own children, mother, is the most blessed of all,” said Patsey.

Charlie did not give up his plan, however, but he forbore to press it for the present, as he was engaged to drive his sister, Mrs. Clapp, to her own house at Longbridge. Hubbard had kept aloof from his brother-in- law whenever he could, since the Stanley suit had been commenced; any allusion to this affair was painful to him; he had never respected Mr. Clapp, and now strongly suspected him of unfair dealing. He pitied his sister Kate from the bottom of his heart; but it seemed pity quite thrown away. To judge from her conversation, as Charlie was driving her home, she had implicit confidence in her husband; if she had at first doubted the identity of the sailor, she had never for a second supposed, that William himself was not firmly convinced of it. On the other hand, she began to have some misgivings as to the character and integrity of Mr. Wyllys, whom hitherto, all her life long, she had been used to consider as the model of a gentleman, and an upright man. She soon got up quite a prejudice against Mrs. Stanley; and as for Hazlehurst, he fell very low indeed in her estimation.

“You don’t know what trouble poor William has with this suit,” she said to her brother. “I am sometimes afraid it will make him sick. It does seem very strange, that Mr. Stanley’s executors should be so obstinate in refusing to acknowledge his son. At first it was natural they should hesitate; I mistrusted this sailor at first, myself; but now that William has made everything so clear, they cannot have any excuse for their conduct.”

Charlie whipped the flies from his horse, without answering this remark.

“I hope William will come home to-night. He and Mr. Stanley have gone off together, to get possession of some very important papers; they received a letter offering these papers, only the night before last, and William says they will establish Mr. Stanley’s claim, beyond the possibility of a denial. Mr. Wyllys and Mr. Hazlehurst will feel very badly, I should think, when they find that after all, they have been keeping their friend’s son from his rights.”

“They believe they are doing their duty,” said Charlie, laconically.

“It seems a strange view of duty, to act as they do.”

“Strange views of duty are very common,” said Charlie, glad to take refuge in generalities.

“Common sense and common honesty will help us all to do our duty,” observed Kate.

“No doubt; but both are more uncommon qualities than one would think, among rational beings,” said Charlie.

“Well, you know, Charles, Patsey used to tell us when we were children, that a plain, honest heart, and plain, good sense were the best things in the world.”

“That is the reason, I suppose, why we love our sister Patsey so much, because she has so much of those best things in the world,” said Charlie, warmly. “I never saw a woman like her, for downright, plain goodness. The older I grow, the better I know her; and I love you, Kate, for the same reason — you are straightforward and honest, too,” he added, smiling.

“William often laughs at me, though, and says my opinion is not good for much,” said the sister, shaking her head, but smiling prettily at the same time.

“I am sure no one can complain of your actions, Kate, whatever your opinions may be,” replied Charlie; and whatever might have been his estimate of Clapp’s views, he forbore to utter a syllable on the subject; for he respected the wife’s affection, and knew that his brother-in-law had at least one good quality — he was kind and faithful as a husband and father, according to common-place ideas of faithfulness at least; for he would any day risk their character and peace, to make a little money.

The conversation of the young people soon turned upon their trifling, foolish, unfortunate cousin, Mrs. Hilson; and this was a subject, upon which both brother and sister agreed entirely. Before long, they drove up to Mr. Clapp’s door, and were received by the lawyer himself, who had just returned with his client; this latter individual was also seen lounging in the office. Mr. Clapp professed himself entirely satisfied with the result of his journey; and declared that they were now quite ready for Mr. Hazlehurst — sure of a victory, beyond all doubt.

The time had not been lost by Harry and his friends, however; they too, thought themselves ready for the trial. As the important day was drawing near, Mr. Ellsworth was obliged to leave Wyllys-Roof; he had done all he could at Longbridge, and there were still various matters to be looked after in Philadelphia. Mrs. Creighton accompanied her brother, and they were not to return to Wyllys-Roof until after the important question was decided. Hazlehurst was then to come with them; whether defeated or triumphant could not yet be known. Harry’s friends, however, were generally sanguine; and Mrs. Creighton was full of sympathy, and in excellent spirits.

There remained another affair, which must also be finally settled in a few weeks. When Mr. Ellsworth returned to Wyllys-Roof, the appointed three months of probation would have expired, and he would either remain there as the affianced husband of Elinor, or leave Longbridge her rejected suitor.

During the past three months, Elinor had taken an important step in life; she had reached a point in experience, where she had never stood before. The whole responsibility of deciding upon a subject, highly important to herself, and to those connected with her, had been thrown entirely upon her alone. The fate of her whole life would be much involved in the present decision. During the last two or three years, or in other words, since she had first discovered that Harry loved Jane, she had intended to remain single. It seemed very improbable to her, that any one would seek to gain her affections, unless with the view of enjoying the fortune which she had now the reputation of possessing; it was only natural that she should exaggerate those personal disadvantages, which had lost the heart of him whom she had once loved so truly. She had been so much attached to Hazlehurst, that she shrunk from the idea of ever becoming the wife of another; and she considered herself as having tacitly made choice of a single life, which her mother’s letter seemed to suggest. But as she never spoke of her views, or alluded to them, her grandfather and aunt were ignorant of this intention; and she soon began to observe with regret that they wished her to marry, and were indeed anxious that she should accept Mr. Ellsworth. This was the first occasion of any importance, on which their wishes and her own had been at variance; it was a new position for Elinor to be placed in. When Mr. Ellsworth made his proposal, it was owing to the strong, but affectionate representations of Mr. Wyllys and Miss Agnes, that he was not immediately rejected. Elinor was, in fact, the last person to be convinced of his regard for her; but she had known his character and standing too well to believe him a mere fortune-hunter; and after he had once offered himself, could not doubt his sincerity. She mentioned to Miss Wyllys her previous intention of remaining single.

“Make no rash decision, my love,” was the reply at the time. “You are too reasonable, for me to believe that you will do so; look at your own position, Elinor; you will be alone in the world, more so than most women. Your grandfather is advanced in years, and my health warns me not to expect a long life. I do not wish to distress you, but to place the truth plainly before you, my Elinor. You have neither brother nor sister; Jane and Harry, your intimate companions in childhood, will be separated from you by ties and duties of their own. What will you do, my child? An affectionate disposition like yours cannot be happy alone. On the other hand, here is Mr. Ellsworth, who is certainly attached to you; a man of excellent character, with every important quality that can be desired. You say you wish to be reasonable; judge for yourself what is the wisest course under these circumstances.”

Elinor was silent for a moment; at length she spoke.

“It has always been one of your own lessons to me, dearest aunt, to profit by the past, to improve the present, and leave the future to Providence. Yet, now, you would have me think of the future only; and you urge me to marry, while you are single, and happy, yourself!”

“Yes, my child; but I have had your grandfather and you, to make me happy and useful. Most single women have near relatives, to whom they can attach themselves, whom it is a duty and a pleasure to love and serve; but that is not your case. Elinor, your grandfather is very anxious you should accept Mr. Ellsworth.”

“I know it,” said Elinor; “he has told me so himself.”

“He is anxious, dear, because from what he knows of Mr. Ellsworth and yourself, he is convinced you would eventually be happy; he fears you hesitate from some feeling of girlish romance. Still, we have neither of us any wish to urge you too far. Appeal to your own good, common sense, that is all that can be desired; do not be romantic, dear, for the first time in your life,” continued her aunt smiling. “I know the wishes of your friends will have some weight with you; do not let them control you, however. Judge for yourself, but take time to reflect; accept Mr. Ellsworth’s own proposition — wait some time before you give a final answer; that is all that your grandfather and myself can ask.”

And such had been the decision; three months being the time appointed. Since then, both Mr. Wyllys and Miss Agnes had carefully refrained from expressing any farther opinion — they never even alluded to the subject, but left Elinor to her own reflections. Such at least was their intention; but their wishes were well known to her, and very possibly, unconsciously influenced their conduct and manner, in many daily trifles, in a way very evident to Elinor. In the mean time, September had come, and the moment for final decision was at hand. Mr. Ellsworth’s conduct throughout had been very much in his favour; he had been persevering and marked in his attentions, without annoying by his pertinacity. Elinor had liked him, in the common sense of the word, from the first; and the better she knew him, the more cause she found to respect his principles, and amiable character. And yet, if left to her own unbiassed judgment, she would probably have refused him at first, with no other reluctance than that of wounding for a time the feelings of a man she sincerely esteemed.

The morning that Mrs. Creighton and Mr. Ellsworth left Wyllys-Roof, Elinor set out to take a stroll in the field, with no other companion than her friend Bruno. The dog seemed aware that his mistress was absent and thoughtful, more indifferent than usual to his caresses and gambols; and, after having made this observation, the sagacious animal seemed determined not to annoy her, but walked soberly at her side, or occasionally trotting on before, he would stop, turn towards her, and sit in the path, looking at her as she slowly approached. She had left the house, in order to avoid any intrusion on her thoughts, at a moment which was an important one to her; for she had determined, that after one more thorough examination of her own feelings, her own views, and the circumstances in which she was placed, the question should be irrevocably settled — whether she were to became the wife of Mr. Ellsworth, or to remain single. Many persons may fancy this a very insignificant matter to decide, and one that required no such serious attention. But to every individual, that is a highly important point, which must necessarily affect the whole future course of life; the choice which involves so intimate and indissoluble a relation, where every interest in life is identical with one’s own, is surely no trifling concern. It may well be doubted, indeed, if even with men it be not a matter of higher importance than is commonly believed; observation, we think, would lead to the opinion, that a wife’s character and conduct have a deeper and more general effect on the husband’s career, for good or for evil, through his opinions and actions, than the world is aware of. This choice certainly appeared a much more formidable step to Elinor, when Mr. Ellsworth was the individual to be accepted or rejected, than it had when Harry stood in the same position. In one case she had to reflect, and ponder, and weigh all the different circumstances; in the other, the natural bent of her affections had decided the question before it was asked. But Elinor had, quite lately, settled half-a-dozen similar affairs, with very little reflection indeed, and without a moment’s anxiety or regret; she had just refused, with polite indifference, several proposals, from persons whom she had every reason to believe, cared a great deal for her fortune, and very little for herself. If thought were more active than feeling, in behalf of Mr. Ellsworth, still, thought said a great deal in his favour. She had always liked and respected him; she believed him attached to her; her nearest friends were anxious she should give a favourable answer; there could not be a doubt that he possessed many excellent and desirable qualities. She would not be romantic, neither would she be unjust to Mr. Ellsworth and herself; she would not accept him, unless she could do so frankly, and without reluctance. This, then, was the question to be decided — could she love Mr. Ellsworth? The free, spontaneous love, natural to early youth, she had once given to Hazlehurst; could she now offer to Mr. Ellsworth sincere affection of another kind, less engrossing at first, less mingled with the charms of fancy, but often, perhaps on that account, more valuable, more enduring? Sincere affection of any sort, is that only which improves with age, gaining strength amid the wear and tear of life. It was to decide this question clearly, that Elinor had desired three months’ delay. These three months had nearly passed; when she again met Mr. Ellsworth, in what character should she receive him?

The precise train of thought pursued by Elinor, during this morning stroll, we shall not attempt to follow; but that she was fully aware of the importance of the decision was evident, by the unusual absence of manner, which seemed to have struck even her four-footed friend Bruno. She had, indeed, made an important discovery lately, one which was startling, and even painful to her. She found that there are moments in life, when each individual is called upon to think and to act alone. It is a truth which most of us are forced to feel, as we go through this world; though, happily, it is but seldom that such hours occur. In general, the sympathy, the counsel of friends, is of the very highest value; and yet, there are moments when neither can avail. At such times, we are forced to look higher, to acknowledge that human wisdom does not reach far enough to guide us, that our wounds need a purer balm than any offered by human sympathy. Until recently, Elinor had always been soothed and supported by the affection and guidance of her aunt, but she must now depend upon herself alone. To a young person, called upon for the first time to take an important step, with no other guide than individual judgment and conscience, the responsibility of action may well be startling; even a wise and experienced man will often pause at such moments, doubtful of the course he shall pursue. It is an easy matter to settle a question, when passion, feeling, interest, or prejudice gives the bias; but where these are all silent, and cool judgment is left alone to decide, the greatest men feel, to a painful degree, how limited are their powers; the high responsibility which is attached to free-will rises before them, and they shrink from the idea of trusting their own welfare to their own short- sighted reason alone. Most men, at such times, take refuge in a sort of fatalism; they stand inactive, until urged in this or that direction by the press of outward circumstances; or they rush blindly forward, under impatience of suspense, preferring risk to inaction.

The occasion of our young friend’s anxiety and thoughtfulness was, no doubt, a trifling one to all but herself; the cause of her hesitation, however, was honourable; the opinions, feelings, and motives under which she eventually acted, were alike natural and creditable.