Herald of Freedom and Torch Light, Sept 1862 (1-4-7A Fiction)
From Godey's Lady's Book.
The Secret of Louise Hastings.
"Something must be done; I can't bear this no longer."
I remember just the spot where, as I spoke these words, I paused between the table and the rug in my small parlor—small but pleasant and tasteful as I often congratulated myself, looking at the pretty lace curtains and the Brussels carpet, its dark moss green ground flushed and warm with tropical roses.
I, Louise Hastings, had carried for a whole week a slow, steady heartache. Sometimes this aching had suddenly sprang into a quick, fierce life, and pain which seemed as thought it would smother my breath and drive my reason into a great whirl of madness. But that was when I looked off to the future and remembered the past; and my will was stubborn and my pride was strong; and I held down memory and imagination with all the might of both, for I dreaded every recurrence of that fierce, choking pain as I would have dreaded tongues of fire leaping suddenly along my shrinking nerves. So I had borne myself before my husband and any one with whom I chanced to be thrown steadily enough, perhaps with a little added dignity; but that no one would be likely to observe who had the key for it.
I had been a wife, loving and deeply beloved for a year, and that winter was the twenty-fourth of my life. It was the thirtieth of that of Maurice Hastings, my husband, who had been for four years a physician in the old town of Wollcottville where we had resided ever sincere our marriage.
I was an only child, and my parents died before my remembrance. My aunt, who had adopted me, was a childless widow in very comfortable circumstances, and she was very fond of me, and had indulged every wish of mine, so far as her fortune permitted. At nineteen, with small knowledge of the world and smaller of my own heart, I had become the betrothed wife of Henry Somers, whose mother was an old and beloved friend of my aunt.
Harry was a spoiled child; so was I. We fancied that we adored each other. He had all those charms of conversation, those graces of person and manner which are so apt to attract the fancy of the young, inexperienced girl, he was intelligent, enthusiastic, full of warm, generous impulses; but I could not penetrate beneath these, and see that the character of Henry Somers lacked moral force and discipline. For a while we got on very smoothly together; then certain antagonisms in our characters began to develop themselves. Both were high spirited, both unconsciously selfish and exacting; so, during the second six months of our engagement, we had frequent jars, recriminations, and reconciliation. Then Harry went West to survey some lands in which his farther had been speculating.
We were to have been married on his return, and we parted with mutual protestations of eternal fidelity. But Henry Somers was impulsive and susceptible; his absence was necessarily prolonged; and an old friend of his father's with whom he passed several weeks had a young and beautiful daughter, in whose society he was constantly thrown. I was grieved to find that his letters grew less frequent, and that there was a sensible diminution in their first ardor.
My aunt was not a woman to submit quietly to this, if I had been; and she soon obtained indubitable evidence that Harry had involved himself in a flirtation which was most dishonorable with the relations that we occupied to each other. Her Indignation was keen; her fears were aroused for the happiness of the child who was dearer to her than life. She laid the facts before me and stimulated my pride into dissolving our engagement.
But the knowledge of Harry's perfidy was a terrible stroke to me, for my faith in him had been boundless, and he was the idol of my girlish dreams and fancies. But the bitter experience did me good. That great sorrow thundered in a wild storm over my soul, but it passed away, leaving it better and stronger; and as I have lived to know that the aim and end of all living is to become this, I have thanked God for the rain in the morning of my life.
A year and a half later I met my husband for the first time at a quiet little watering place situated near a cove where we had gone for the sea and bathing.
Maurice Hastings was unlike any of the men with whom I had been thrown; he was grave, thoughtful, studious; yet there was a spring of keen humor in his nature, which sparkled in his deep gray eyes and flashed in ripples of light over the fine grave face.
Each was interested in the other from the beginning. His conversation formed a vivid contrast with that of any other man's I had ever known, as we walked down on the beach in the sweet summer evenings and watched the great white temples of mist rising slowly up from the ocean, and lifting their silver colonades to the stars.— Our talk ranged every where; on nature and art philosophy, history and religion. I felt my whole nature expanding and intensifying as I listened and the graceful flatteries and insipid talk with which I had formerly been entertained now grew vapid and disagreeable. Not that Maurice Hastings was pedantic, but to me his conversation was full of stimulation and suggestion.
It did not take us long to penetrate the mutual interest which each took in the other. Maurice was the sincerest and most candid of men, and though he seldom flattered me, still the look of pleased interest and amusement which flashed down on me as we stood on the yellow sands bordered with a great silver blossoming of spray deepened into one of tenderness before that fair chapter of my life was closed. My aunt was pleased with Maurice, still she was very ambitious about my future, and the thought that I should marry a country physician with no prospect but his profession was not gratifying to her pride. But, spite of herself, Maurice daily compelled more of her respect, and my engagement with Harry Somers had shown her how much better than wealth is for woman to have a strong, true heart to depend on.
Woolcottville was not so far from New York but that Maurice could see me for a few days every month; and in a little while those days had become precious jewels strung along the thread of weeks.
My mind and heart had found before they had passed out from the gates of girlhood the companionship which they had lingered and thirsted for, and life had something better and holier than the mere living for selfish enjoyment and happiness. And in one of these visits Maurice told me those most blessed and tender words whose memory still thrills my heart, and shakes, while I write, the old, sweet tears into my eyes.
My aunt gave her consent to my choice, on the whole, with cheerfulness; and the next spring Maurice brought me home, the small graceful cottage lying like a white shell among green surges of larches and cedars, and here there went over my head in great light and love my first year of wifehood.
Sometimes there stole across my heart, when I sat by the side of my husband, a little shadow, and that was the thought that my life had one secret from him, for I had never revealed my engagement to Harry Somers. It had been my intention to do this, but my aunt had dissuaded me from it. I was young, and had great faith in her wisdom and discretion, and I did not altogether perceive that her standard was a worldly and politic one, that she had no lofty stand point, no high ideals of living, and kind, generous though she was, that her wisdom was only that of her day and generation. So when I turned suddenly to her one morning, from the piano, where I had been practising my music-lesson for the day, while she was carefully washing some old-fashioned china, which had been preserved as their looms in the family, and said to her: "Aunt Eliza, don't you think it is my duty to inform Maurice of my engagement with Harry Summers?" She answered me:—
"Don't do anything of the kind, my child; a man has no right to be inquisitive about such matters, so long as they in no wise concern himself. You would only annoy and pain Maurice by making allusion to the subject and it would be much wiser to keep still. I have known serious trouble to result from injudicious disclosure of this kind."
"But, aunty, it doesn't seem quite honorable somehow. If Maurice were in my place, I should want to know the whole truth."
"That is quite natural, Louise; but he would be wiser to lock the secret up in his own heart. You will be glad if you take my advice."
And I took it but I was not satisfied. One night, not long before our marriage, I said to Maurice we sat together on the divan in the alcove beyond the parlor: —
"I wonder what your faults are; I haven't found one yet."
The grave face bent on me its sweet and tenderest smile. They will come soon enough, my little girl. You know the true work and aim of marriage is to improve each other to grow better and more noble in all aspirations and living."
"But everybody, almost, fancies it is only to be happier in one way or another, according to their tastes and feelings."
"I know it; but we must get at a higher range of vision than that. As for my faults you’ll find them out soon and fast enough, I’ll promise you."
“Tell me one, just one of them, Maurice; please now"—drawing closer to him.
"Why do you want to know?" drawing his arm around my waist. "Because—because I do."
"Most satisfactory reason for a woman, but you shall be gratified for this time. One of my faults is, Louise, that I'm naturally jealous—that is, if there is any cause for it. I've tried to curb and control this quality, and you will never experience any trouble from it my little girl. Then, as I am exclusive in my fancies and affections, I am apt to be exacting."
My conversation with my aunt flashed at this moment across my memory, "Maurice, you must have perfect confidence in those whom you love?" "Perfect; if that is once shaken, it is generally never restored. If I am once deceived there is not in my nature to trust again. I can forgive much, but I must have faith in which there is no change, no shaking."
A confession trembled on my lips; but the words of my aunt came back to me, and my heart betrayed me traitor.
It was the first anniversary of our wedding day. Maurice and I had been out to ride, for it was the time of the year's awakening, and her pulses were full of the youth and the joy of the spring. Maurice had set me down at the gate of our home, in the late afternoon, and on further to see a gallant of his. I had gone up stairs, and only removed my bonnet, when our solitary domestic put her head in the parlor who wished to see me. "Lousie Carlton!"'
I knew him with the first glance, and it was not strange that my heart gave a quick flutter, for the last time I had looked on that face and listened to the bright tone I had been from the betrothed wife of Henry Somers. He came forward now, with all the old grace and assurance of manner, and gave me his hand. My greeting must have been awkward and constrained, for the thought of my husband made my guest an unwelcome one.
"I was within a half a dozen miles of Wolcottville, and the longing to look on your face, Louise, had grown strong that I could not go farther until I had been nearer it." And a shadow crept over the handsome face of Henry Somers; and, sitting in my own parlor and listening to his tones, my heart went back to the past for a moment, and I almost believed that I was a girl again. But only for a moment; that heart had given no disloyal throb; in its depths was not one feeling of lurking tenderness for the man before me; and I said, with a calmness and dignity that Harry Somers could not have remembered; "You forget Mr. Somers, that our relations make a little less freedom of manner more acceptable to me."
A shadow darkened his face; he looked a moment in mine. "Ah, Louise," he broke out, "have you NO warmer welcome than this for the man who has come to entreat your pardon, and who must go mourning all his days for the wrong which he has done you?”
"Mr. Somers, you the husband of another woman, I, the wife of another man, have no right to listen to words like these."
"No, Louise, I am not the husband of another woman!"
"Are you not married?"' I asked, bewildered and amazed.
"No; I was a fool and a scoundrel, Louise, and I for a while I was fascinated, bewildered by the beauty and arts of one who penetrated my weakness too well, and took advantage of it. But she never superceded you in my affections, though I was too angry and too proud, when I got your letter and your aunt's, to tell you this. I lived on after I awoke from that mad intoxication, for which I have cursed myself in bitterness of soul ever since, in the hope that all would yet be restored betwixt us, until, just as I had finished up my business, and was about starting for home, I heard—oh, Louise, have pity upon me for all that I have suffered!"
He came over to my side, and sat down by me, and grasped my hand. The handsome face was white with anguish, and, looking on it, I pitied Harry Somers for his folly and his weakness, and this feeling must have faltered through my tones.
"It is sin for me to listen to such words from you, Harry Somers. What if my husband should hear, should know"—I caught and choked back the words, remembering.
"What, Louise, have you never told him of our engagement?”
I did not answer with my lips, but the pain and anguish in my face told Harry Somers what he asked. A look of gladness, triumph, flashed over his face. I saw the hope which he had gathered from that knowledge, and it galled me as a great wrong done to my husband. But the next moment all other feelings were merged in the dread of his return. What would he think, what would he say, if he should return and find Harry there? Oh, I saw my mistake then, and all the misapprehension and misery to which it might lead, and I resolved that before I slept Maurice should know all that I had to tell him. But every moment that my guest remained was dangerous, now. I rose up.
"Harry Somers, I forgive you for all that is past, and with these words I beseech you to leave me this moment. I am the wife of a good and noble man, and I love him too well to prolong our interview now. Forget me from this hour, and may the lesson which it teaches make you a wiser and a better man. You have all that my heart can give you—its best wishes. Now, go!"
He rose up with great reluctance and great pain in his face; he grasped both of my hands, and kissed them wildly.
"Oh, Louise, of whom I was not worthy, farewell " And he was gone.
I drew a long breath of relief as the front gate opened and closed sharply. "Thank God, Maurice has not met him” I murmured, and then I sank down in the chair; and great jets of tears poured over my checks; but the bitterness in them was the thought of my husband, not of Harry Somers. I did not weep there long; it would not do for Maurice to come in and find me thus, and I started to go up stairs.
My way crossed the sitting-room. The shadows had begun to steal into the corners; but in one of them was a shadow darker than that of the early evening. It rose up and came forward,
"Oh, Maurice, is that you?"
"It is I, Louise."
He had heard all—the changed, strained voice told me that, without his uttering another word.
I grasped his arm. "Oh, Maurice, only hear me; I can satisfy you, I can explain all!”
He shook off my hand, and stood stern and still before me. His lips were white as the lips which never give forth sound or smile. "Louise Hastings, you were once the betrothed wife of that man who had just left you?”
I could not deny it and before my lips could stammer out any words my face had given answer,
"And you have never told me this; and he has dared to come into my house and pour into your ear the old story of his passion; and you have listened to it, and only sent him away because of your fear that I, your miserable dupe, your wronged and wretched husband, should know the truth,"
"Only hear mine, Maurice; only let me explain”
He shook me off again, and the anger in his eyes was terrible enough to strike me to the earth, if I had not the consciousness that I was far less guilty than he supposed. But the facts wore against me, and Maurice was a jealous man.
“Out of your own mouth do I condemn you, Louise Hastings; my confidence in you is lost forever. The wife that I believed in and loved better than my life has gone out of my heart forever. It would have been better for us both if we had died before this hour."
I shivered and staggered under the terrible words, but there was no pity in Maurice's face. Then my pride roused itself.
"I shall not stand by and hear such words from your lips, Maurice Hastings, no matter how the facts may condemn me, so long as you will not listen to the explanation which I could make. And as you send me out of your heart forever, it is best that I should go out of your home; also, tonight."
"No, unless you insist upon it; you can stay here if you like, and what I have learned this night need never again be alluded to by either of us. Only remember my confidence in you has gone, and my love with it!"
I did not stay to hear another word. I went up stairs with a deep weight and pain in my heart. I was proud as well as Maurice, and I knew that he had been unjust to me. No matter how strong the facts were against me, an explanation of them was my right and his duly. But for once anger and jealousy had hardened the noble heart of Maurice Hastings, and his reproaches had stung me into silence and endurance. We were both in the wrong, God forgive us!
Of the week which followed I must write briefly. Its long, slow days went down into dark, slow nights, and brought neither rest nor peace to my spirit. Maurice and I preserved towards each other a grave reserve, which would not have attracted the notice of a stranger, and as we had company for three or four days at this time, we were left but little alone. I managed to preside at my table and supervise the household affairs in a way which elicited no observation, and I wondered often at my own self-control and at the calmness and ostensible interest with which I often found myself discussing indifferent matters with my friends, while I carried that pain in my heart which leaped into such vivid life and anguish when I was alone.
As for Maurice, I could see that he grew paler every day and the grave, kindly mouth had a look of fixedness and pain which had never borne its witness there before.
Sometimes a thought flashed across me that I would leave my husband and go out from his home, as he said that I had done from his heart— forever; and then, looking off to my future, it rose before me so hard, and bare, and desolate that I had not the courage to set my feet on its way, and I put the thought back; I could not live without him! Sometimes, when I caught the glance of those stern, sad gray eyes on my face, a great temptation would sweep over me to rush to his side and cling there fast, and compel him to hearken while I told him all the truth respecting my engagement with Harry Somers.— But the harsh repulse, the bitter words which had once met me came back, and steeled my heart and silenced my lips. And I cried to God and there came no answer, and I did not know that the sin of my pride lay darkening betwixt my soul and Him!
I had uttered the words with which my story commences half an hour after my guests of the three or four previous days had gone. I had been pacing the floor to and fro ever since I had smiled, and waved my farewells to them. It was a beautiful day in the closing up of may, the winds came through the windows like the breath of sweet spices, the year was full of the strength and joy of her youth, and the trees stood up in their white fluting of blossoms, and the sunshine wrote on the earth the old new prophecy that the summer was at hand. But for me this beauty had now neither voice nor meaning. The darkness in my heart lay like a shadow on the fair face of the day and when the first words I have written crept out of my lips my resolution was taken. Afterward I did not hesitate long in making up my mind what course I should pursue; I would go up stairs, write my last letter to my husband, pack up my trunk, take the afternoon train for my aunt's that very afternoon, and leave forever the house whose proud and happy mistress I had been for a year.
"Oh, Maurice, Maurice, my heart will break for leaving you!" I sat in my own room, before the open window, and the song of the spring birds, that had hung their nests on the green rafters of the old pear tree, surged sweetly in and out of the room. The pen was in my hand, and the cry was wrung from a heart too weak to write the words which were to part us forever.
''Oh, Mrs. Hastings, have you heard the news?"
I was quite startled at the abrupt entrance of my nearest neighbor, the wife of a lawyer, with whom I had been on quite intimate social terms; but her white, shocked face fully apologized for her abrupt entrance.
"No; is it anything very bad, Mrs. Maltby?" as I rose up and offered my guest a seat.
"Michael, our gardener, just brought me the dreadful tidings, and as there was do one in the house I ran over here to share my horror with you! The cars ran off the track this morning, on the long bridge between Woolcottville Glencove, and a large number of passengers were killed outright or shockingly mangled!"
"My husband was on the morning train to Glencove. He left about two hours ago to visit a patient there!"
I believe I spoke these words very calmly, but I felt a cold tremor stealing over me.
Mrs. Maltby's face grew whiter as she grasped out: ''Oh, Mrs. Hastings, have I killed you too?"
"I guess you have," I said, as I passed my hand across my forehead; "but it's no matter; Maurice wouldn't care!"
She thought the sudden shock had driven me wild. She chafed my cold hands amid her great jets of tears, and begged me grow calm, and not yield until I knew the worst.
And at last a great cry rushed up from my heart as the thought flashed across me that Maurice might be lying cold and stark on that fair spring day with the life suddenly choked out of him. And we had parted in silence and bitterness, and my last memory of him was not one of blessing and caress. And then the wrong and sin of my conduct for the last week rose up and reproached me. I did not excuse Maurice; I knew before God he had somewhat to answer for his harshness when his young wife had hung upon his arm and pleaded to be heard, and he had repulsed her. But grief and despair had well nigh maddened me. I dashed Mrs. Maltby's arms furiously away, when they crept entreatingly about my neck. I stamped my feet at her when she implored me to be quiet, and at last I dashed out of the house, out of the front gate, and down the road, where her cries followed me for a while, and then grew faint, and were lost in the distance.
On, on I rushed, for a resolution possessed me to walk to the scene of the terrible disaster, five miles distant, and know for a certainty whether my husband was among the living or the dead.— But in descending a steep hill on my way, I quickly caught sight of the familiar chaise approaching me. My heart stood still; so did my feet. The inmate of the carriage must have discovered me, for he suddenly spurred his horse, and a moment later caught sight of the face of my husband!
"Why, Louise, are you gone wild?" And Maurice sprang from the carriage, his face white with wonder at the sight of me.
The great joy of my heart must have its way. I put my arms about Maurice's neck. I shouted, and laughed, and cried. "Oh, Maurice, I thought that you were lying there cold, and white and dead!" And I shook him to and fro, as I held his shoulders, in my frantic joy.
"My dear child, what has happened to you?” And I felt the great tenderness and the great fear which surged through the tones of my husband and a sudden faintness went all over me. He lifted me into the carriage as though I was a little child, and drawing one arm tightly around me, urged the horse slowly homeward. And his words and his voice were after the manner of a mother soothing her frightened child: "There don't be scared, darling. Nothing shall harm my little girl. Try and be quiet;" for he evidently thought that I was partially demented.
“How came you to be here, Maurice?" I gasped at last as long shudders went over and shook me as winds do autumn leaves. "I thought that you took the train for Glencove."
"I intended to, but when I left the house I found a hasty messenger for a man who had broken his arm about three miles off. And so I delayed my trip to Glencove for the afternoon."
"Thank God thank God, Maurice!"
"What do you mean, my dear wife?"
"There was a terrible accident—the bridge broke down—the dead and the mangled lie heaped together. Oh, Maurice, I thought that you might be among them."
He understood all now, my frantic fears, my wild flight, and, drawing me closer to him, Maurice Hastings bowed his head, and reverently repeated my prayer—"Oh, thank God, Louise, thank God!”
We stopped at a tavern on the road home, where Maurice procured some cordial which restored me. And now all the barriers of my pride were broken down. I knew that the deep well in the heart of Maurice Hastings had not grown dry in the last dreadful weeks, and that its spring had burst and overflowed his soul like the freshets of April.
"Oh, Maurice, it shall not be as it has been between us any more?" I whispered, in the old tavern parlor, where we were left with sunshine and the singing of the birds of May. "And laying my head down on his shoulder, I told Maurice the history of my engagement with Henry Somers, and all the weight and pain which the knowledge of that one secret hidden from him had caused me, until the day on which he presented himself in my parlor, and Maurice coming into the sitting room a moment later had heard nearly all that had passed betwixt Henry and me. My disclosures set the whole matter in its true light. There was no need that I should say to Maurice "You will forgive and forget it all?"
"All, Louise. It is I who have sinned more in my anger and harshness than you."
We drove home in the golden May noon, our hearts flooded with light and gratitude fairer than its sunshine. On the way we encountered Michael, Mrs. Maltby's gardener, whom she had dispatched in a fruitless search for me.
And so the only secret which I in my life had held from Maurice Hastings was revealed at last.
It has its message and its warning. "Oh breathe,” the ballad saith, "some sweetness out of each."
Herald of Freedom and Torch Light
Maryland Historical Society
Sept 10-24, 1862
Maryland Historical Society
Antietam, Battle of, Md., 1862; Maryland Campaign, 1862; Hagerstown (Md.)--Newspapers.
Washington County, MD. September 1862