Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of George William Curtis > Text of Our Cousin The Curate

An essay by George William Curtis

Our Cousin The Curate

Title:     Our Cousin The Curate
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

"Why, let the stricken deer go weep,
The heart ungalled play;
For some must watch while some must sleep;
Thus runs the world away."

Prue and I have very few relations: Prue, especially, says that she never had any but her parents, and that she has none now but her children. She often wishes she had some large aunt in the country, who might come in unexpectedly with bags and bundles, and encamp in our little house for a whole winter.

"Because you are tired of me, I suppose, Mrs. Prue?" I reply with dignity, when she alludes to the imaginary large aunt.

"You could take aunt to the opera, you know, and walk with her on Sundays," says Prue, as she knits and calmly looks me in the face, without recognizing my observation.

Then I tell Prue in the plainest possible manner that, if her large aunt should come up from the country to pass the winter, I should insist upon her bringing her oldest daughter, with whom I would flirt so desperately that the street would be scandalized, and even the corner grocery should gossip over the iniquity.

"Poor Prue, how I should pity you," I say triumphantly to my wife.

"Poor oldest daughter, how I should pity her," replies Prue, placidly counting her stitches.

So the happy evening passes, as we gaily mock each other, and wonder how old the large aunt should be, and how many bundles she ought to bring with her.

"I would have her arrive by the late train at midnight," says Prue; "and when she had eaten some supper and had gone to her room, she should discover that she had left the most precious bundle of all in the cars, without whose contents she could not sleep, nor dress, and you would start to hunt for it."

And the needle clicks faster than ever.

"Yes, and when I am gone to the office in the morning, and am busy about important affairs--yes, Mrs. Prue, important affairs," I insist, as my wife half raises her head incredulously--"then our large aunt from the country would like to go shopping, and would want you for her escort. And she would cheapen tape at all the shops, and even to the great Stewart himself, she would offer a shilling less for the gloves. Then the comely clerks of the great Stewart would look at you, with their brows lifted, as if they said, Mrs. Prue, your large aunt had better stay in the country."

And the needle clicks more slowly, as if the tune were changing.

The large aunt will never come, I know; nor shall I ever flirt with the oldest daughter. I should like to believe that our little house will teem with aunts and cousins when Prue and I are gone; but how can I believe it, when there is a milliner within three doors, and a hair-dresser combs his wigs in the late dining-room of my opposite neighbor? The large aunt from the country is entirely impossible, and as Prue feels it and I feel it, the needles seem to click a dirge for that late lamented lady.

"But at least we have one relative, Prue."

The needles stop: only the clock ticks upon the mantel to remind us how ceaselessly the stream of time flows on that bears us away from our cousin the curate.

When Prue and I are most cheerful, and the world looks fair--we talk of our cousin the curate. When the world seems a little cloudy, and we remember that though we have lived and loved together, we may not die together--we talk of our cousin the curate. When we plan little plans for the boys and dream dreams for the girls--we talk of our cousin the curate. When I tell Prue of Aurelia whose character is every day lovelier--we talk of our cousin the curate. There is no subject which does not seem to lead naturally to our cousin the curate. As the soft air steals in and envelopes everything in the world, so that the trees, and the hills, and the rivers, the cities, the crops, and the sea, are made remote, and delicate, and beautiful; by its pure baptism, so over all the events of our little lives, comforting, refining, and elevating, falls like a benediction the remembrance of our cousin the curate.

He was my only early companion. He had no brother, I had none: and we became brothers to each other. He was always beautiful. His face was symmetrical and delicate; his figure was slight and graceful. He looked as the sons of kings ought to look: as I am sure Philip Sidney looked when he was a boy. His eyes were blue, and as you looked at them, they seemed to let your gaze out into a June heaven. The blood ran close to the skin, and his complexion had the rich transparency of light. There was nothing gross or heavy in his expression or texture; his soul seemed to have mastered his body. But he had strong passions, for his delicacy was positive, not negative: it was not weakness, but intensity.

There was a patch of ground about the house which we tilled as a garden. I was proud of my morning-glories, and sweet peas; my cousin cultivated roses. One day--and we could scarcely have been more than six years old--we were digging merrily and talking. Suddenly there was some kind of difference; I taunted him, and, raising his spade, he struck me upon the leg. The blow was heavy for a boy, and the blood trickled from the wound. I burst into indignant tears, and limped toward the house. My cousin turned pale and said nothing, but just as I opened the door, he darted by me, and before I could interrupt him, he had confessed his crime, and asked for punishment.

From that day he conquered himself. He devoted a kind of ascetic energy to subduing his own will, and I remember no other outbreak. But the penalty he paid for conquering his will, was a loss of the gushing expression of feeling. My cousin became perfectly gentle in his manner, but there was a want of that pungent excess, which is the finest flavor of character. His views were moderate and calm. He was swept away by no boyish extravagance, and, even while I wished he would sin only a very little, I still adored him as a saint. The truth is, as I tell Prue, I am so very bad because I have to sin for two--for myself and our cousin the curate. Often, when I returned panting and restless from some frolic, which had wasted almost all the night, I was rebuked as I entered the room in which he lay peacefully sleeping. There was something holy in the profound repose of his beauty, and, as I stood looking at him, how many a time the tears have dropped from my hot eyes upon his face, while I vowed to make myself worthy of such a companion, for I felt my heart owning its allegiance to that strong and imperial nature.

My cousin was loved by the boys, but the girls worshipped him. His mind, large in grasp, and subtle in perception, naturally commanded his companions, while the lustre of his character allured those who could not understand him. The asceticism occasionally showed itself a vein of hardness, or rather of severity in his treatment of others. He did what he thought it his duty to do, but he forgot that few could see the right so clearly as he, and very few of those few could so calmly obey the least command of conscience. I confess I was a little afraid of him, for I think I never could be severe.

In the long winter evenings I often read to Prue the story of some old father of the church, or some quaint poem of George Herbert's--and every Christmas-eve, I read to her Milton's Hymn of the Nativity. Yet, when the saint seems to us most saintly, or the poem most pathetic or sublime, we find ourselves talking of our cousin the curate. I have not seen him for many years; but, when we parted, his head had the intellectual symmetry of Milton's, without the puritanic stoop, and with the stately grace of a cavalier.

Such a boy has premature wisdom--he lives and suffers prematurely.

Prue loves to listen when I speak of the romance of his life, and I do not wonder. For my part, I find in the best romance only the story of my love for her, and often as I read to her, whenever I come to what Titbottom calls "the crying part," if I lift my eyes suddenly, I see that Prue's eyes are fixed on me with a softer light by reason of their moisture.

Our cousin the curate loved, while he was yet a boy, Flora, of the sparkling eyes and the ringing voice. His devotion was absolute. Flora was flattered, because all the girls, as I said, worshipped him; but she was a gay, glancing girl, who had invaded the student's heart with her audacious brilliancy, and was half surprised that she had subdued it. Our cousin--for I never think of him as my cousin, only--wasted away under the fervor of his passion. His life exhaled as incense before her. He wrote poems to her, and sang them under her window, in the summer moonlight. He brought her flowers and precious gifts. When he had nothing else to give, he gave her his love in a homage so eloquent and beautiful that the worship was like the worship of the wise men. The gay Flora was proud and superb. She was a girl, and the bravest and best boy loved her. She was young, and the wisest and truest youth loved her. They lived together, we all lived together, in the happy valley of childhood. We looked forward to manhood as island-poets look across the sea, believing that the whole world beyond is a blest Araby of spices.

The months went by, and the young love continued. Our cousin and Flora were only children still, and there was no engagement. The elders looked upon the intimacy as natural and mutually beneficial. It would help soften the boy and strengthen the girl; and they took for granted that softness and strength were precisely what were wanted. It is a great pity that men and women forget that they have been children. Parents are apt to be foreigners to their sons and daughters. Maturity is the gate of Paradise, which shuts behind us; and our memories are gradually weaned from the glories in which our nativity was cradled.

The months went by, the children grew older, and they constantly loved. Now Prue always smiles at one of my theories; she is entirely sceptical of it; but it is, nevertheless, my opinion, that men love most passionately, and women most permanently. Men love at first and most warmly; women love last and longest. This is natural enough; for nature makes women to be won, and men to win. Men are the active, positive force, and, therefore, they are more ardent and demonstrative.

I can never get farther than that in my philosophy, when Prue looks at me, and smiles me into scepticism of my own doctrines. But they are true, notwithstanding.

My day is rather past for such speculations; but so long as Aurelia is unmarried, I am sure I shall indulge myself in them. I have never made much progress in the philosophy of love; in fact, I can only be sure of this one cardinal principle, that when you are quite sure two people cannot be in love with each other, because there is no earthly reason why they should be, then you may be very confident that you are wrong, and that they are in love, for the secret of love is past finding out. Why our cousin should have loved the gay Flora so ardently was hard to say; but that he did so, was not difficult to see.

He went away to college. He wrote the most eloquent and passionate letters; and when he returned in vacations, he had no eyes, ears, nor heart for any other being. I rarely saw him, for I was living away from our early home, and was busy in a store--learning to be book-keeper--but I heard afterward from himself the whole story.

One day when he came home for the holidays, he found a young foreigner with Flora--a handsome youth, brilliant and graceful. I have asked Prue a thousand times why women adore soldiers and foreigners. She says it is because they love heroism and are romantic. A soldier is professionally a hero, says Prue, and a foreigner is associated with all unknown and beautiful regions. I hope there is no worse reason. But if it be the distance which is romantic, then, by her own rule, the mountain which looked to you so lovely when you saw it upon the horizon, when you stand upon its rocky and barren side, has transmitted its romance to its remotest neighbor. I cannot but admire the fancies of girls which make them poets. They have only to look upon a dull-eyed, ignorant, exhausted roue, with an impudent moustache, and they surrender to Italy to the tropics, to the splendors of nobility, and a court life--and--

"Stop," says Prue, gently; "you have no right to say 'girls' do so, because some poor victims have been deluded. Would Aurelia surrender to a blear-eyed foreigner in a moustache?"

Prue has such a reasonable way of putting these things!

Our cousin came home and found Flora and the young foreigner conversing. The young foreigner had large, soft, black eyes, and the dusky skin of the tropics. His manner was languid and fascinating, courteous and reserved. It assumed a natural supremacy, and you felt as if here were a young prince travelling before he came into possession of his realm.

It is an old fable that love is blind. But I think there are no eyes so sharp as those of lovers. I am sure there is not a shade upon Prue's brow that I do not instantly remark, nor an altered tone in her voice that I do not instantly observe. Do you suppose Aurelia would not note the slightest deviation of heart in her lover, if she had one? Love is the coldest of critics. To be in love is to live in a crisis, and the very imminence of uncertainty makes the lover perfectly self-possessed. His eye constantly scours the horizon. There is no footfall so light that it does not thunder in his ear. Love is tortured by the tempest the moment the cloud of a hand's size rises out of the sea. It foretells its own doom; its agony is past before its sufferings are known.

Our cousin the curate no sooner saw the tropical stranger, and marked his impression upon Flora, than he felt the end. As the shaft struck his heart, his smile was sweeter, and his homage even more poetic and reverential. I doubt if Flora understood him or herself. She did not know, what he instinctively perceived, that she loved him less. But there are no degrees in love; when it is less than absolute and supreme, it is nothing. Our cousin and Flora were not formally engaged, but their betrothal was understood by all of us as a thing of course. He did not allude to the stranger; but as day followed day, he saw with every nerve all that passed. Gradually--so gradually that she scarcely noticed it--our cousin left Flora more and more with the soft-eyed stranger, whom he saw she preferred. His treatment of her was so full of tact, he still walked and talked with her so familiarly, that she was not troubled by any fear that he saw what she hardly saw herself. Therefore, she was not obliged to conceal anything from him or from herself; but all the soft currents of her heart were setting toward the West Indian. Our cousin's cheek grew paler, and his soul burned and wasted within him. His whole future--all his dream of life--had been founded upon his love. It was a stately palace built upon the sand, and now the sand was sliding away. I have read somewhere, that love will sacrifice everything but itself. But our cousin sacrificed his love to the happiness of his mistress. He ceased to treat her as peculiarly his own. He made no claim in word or manner that everybody might not have made. He did not refrain from seeing her, or speaking of her as of all his other friends; and, at length, although no one could say how or when the change had been made, it was evident and understood that he was no more her lover, but that both were the best of friends.

He still wrote to her occasionally from college, and his letters were those of a friend, not of a lover. He could not reproach her. I do not believe any man is secretly surprised that a woman ceases to love him. Her love is a heavenly favor won by no desert of his. If it passes, he can no more complain than a flower when the sunshine leaves it.

Before our cousin left college, Flora was married to the tropical stranger. It was the brightest of June days, and the summer smiled upon the bride. There were roses in her hand and orange flowers in her hair, and the village church bell rang out over the peaceful fields. The warm sunshine lay upon the landscape like God's blessing, and Prue and I, not yet married ourselves, stood at an open window in the old meeting-house, hand in hand, while the young couple spoke their vows. Prue says that brides are always beautiful, and I, who remember Prue herself upon her wedding-day--how can I deny it? Truly, the gay Flora was lovely that summer morning, and the throng was happy in the old church. But it was very sad to me, although I only suspected then what now I know. I shed no tears at my own wedding, but I did at Flora's, although I knew she was marrying a soft-eyed youth whom she dearly loved, and who, I doubt not, dearly loved her.

Among the group of her nearest friends was our cousin the curate. When the ceremony was ended, he came to shake her hand with the rest. His face was calm, and his smile sweet, and his manner unconstrained. Flora did not blush--why should she?--but shook his hand warmly, and thanked him for his good wishes. Then they all sauntered down the aisle together; there were some tears with the smiles among the other friends; our cousin handed the bride into her carriage, shook hands with the husband, closed the door, and Flora drove away.

I have never seen her since; I do not even know if she be living still. But I shall always remember her as she looked that June morning, holding roses in her hand, and wreathed with orange flowers. Dear Flora! it was no fault of hers that she loved one man more than another: she could not be blamed for not preferring our cousin to the West Indian: there is no fault in the story, it is only a tragedy.

Our cousin carried all the collegiate honors--but without exciting jealousy or envy. He was so really the best, that his companions were anxious he should have the sign of his superiority. He studied hard, he thought much, and wrote well. There was no evidence of any blight upon his ambition or career, but after living quietly in the country for some time, he went to Europe and travelled. When he returned, he resolved to study law, but presently relinquished it. Then he collected materials for a history, but suffered them to lie unused. Somehow the mainspring was gone. He used to come and pass weeks with Prue and me. His coming made the children happy, for he sat with them, and talked and played with them all day long, as one of themselves. They had no quarrels when our cousin the curate was their playmate, and their laugh was hardly sweeter than his as it rang down from the nursery. Yet sometimes, as Prue was setting the tea-table, and I sat musing by the fire, she stopped and turned to me as we heard that sound, and her eyes filled with tears.

He was interested in all subjects that interested others. His fine perception, his clear sense, his noble imagination, illuminated every question. His friends wanted him to go into political life, to write a great book, to do something worthy of his powers. It was the very thing he longed to do himself; but he came and played with the children in the nursery, and the great deed was undone. Often, in the long winter evenings, we talked of the past, while Titbottom sat silent by, and Prue was busily knitting. He told us the incidents of his early passion--but he did not moralize about it, nor sigh, nor grow moody. He turned to Prue, sometimes, and jested gently, and often quoted from the old song of George Withers, I believe:

"If she be not fair for me,
What care I how fair she be?"

But there was no flippancy in the jesting; I thought the sweet humor was no gayer than a flower upon a grave.

I am sure Titbottom loved our cousin the curate, for his heart is as hospitable as the summer heaven. It was beautiful to watch his courtesy toward him, and I do not wonder that Prue considers the deputy book-keeper the model of a high-bred gentleman. When you see his poor clothes, and thin, gray hair, his loitering step, and dreamy eye, you might pass him by as an inefficient man; but when you hear his voice always speaking for the noble and generous side, or recounting, in a half-melancholy chant, the recollections of his youth; when you know that his heart beats with the simple emotion of a boy's heart, and that his courtesy is as delicate as a girl's modesty, you will understand why Prue declares that she has never seen but one man who reminded her of our especial favorite, Sir Philip Sidney, and that his name is Titbottom.

At length our cousin went abroad again to Europe. It was many years ago that we watched him sail away, and when Titbottom, and Prue, and I, went home to dinner, the grace that was said that day was a fervent prayer for our cousin the curate. Many an evening afterward, the children wanted him, and cried themselves to sleep calling upon his name. Many an evening still, our talk flags into silence as we sit before the fire, and Prue puts down her knitting and takes my hand, as if she knew my thoughts, although we do not name his name.

He wrote us letters as he wandered about the world. They were affectionate letters, full of observation, and thought, and description. He lingered longest in Italy, but he said his conscience accused him of yielding to the syrens; and he declared that his life was running uselessly away. At last he came to England. He was charmed with everything, and the climate was even kinder to him than that of Italy. He went to all the famous places, and saw many of the famous Englishmen, and wrote that he felt England to be his home. Burying himself in the ancient gloom of a university town, although past the prime of life, he studied like an ambitious boy. He said again that his life had been wine poured upon the ground, and he felt guilty. And so our cousin became a curate.

"Surely," wrote he, "you and Prue will be glad to hear it; and my friend Titbottom can no longer boast that he is more useful in the world than I. Dear old George Herbert has already said what I would say to you, and here it is.

"'I made a posy, while the day ran by;
Here will I smell my remnant out, and tie
My life within this band.
But time did beckon to the flowers, and they
My noon most cunningly did steal away,
And wither'd in my hand.

"'My hand was next to them, and then my heart;
I took, without more thinking, in good part,
Time's gentle admonition;
Which did so sweetly death's sad taste convey,
Making my mind to smell my fatal day,
Yet sugaring the suspicion.

"'Farewell, dear flowers, sweetly your time ye spent,
Fit, while ye lived, for smell or ornament,
And after death for cures;
I follow straight without complaints or grief,
Since if my scent be good, I care not if
It be as short as yours.'"

This is our only relation; and do you wonder that, whether our days are dark or bright, we naturally speak of our cousin the curate? There is no nursery longer, for the children are grown; but I have seen Prue stand, with her hand holding the door, for an hour, and looking into the room now so sadly still and tidy, with a sweet solemnity in her eyes that I will call holy. Our children have forgotten their old playmate, but I am sure if there be any children in his parish, over the sea, they love our cousin the curate, and watch eagerly for his coming. Does his step falter now, I wonder, is that long, fair hair, gray; is that laugh as musical in those distant homes as it used to be in our nursery; has England, among all her good and great men, any man so noble as our cousin the curate?

The great book is unwritten; the great deeds are undone; in no biographical dictionary will you find the name of our cousin the curate. Is his life, therefore, lost? Have his powers been wasted?

I do not dare to say it; for I see Bourne, on the pinnacle of prosperity, but still looking sadly for his castle in Spain; I see Titbottom, an old deputy book-keeper, whom nobody knows, but with his chivalric heart, loyal to whatever is generous and humane, full of sweet hope, and faith, and devotion; I see the superb Aurelia, so lovely that the Indians would call her a smile of the Great Spirit, and as beneficent as a saint of the calendar--how shall I say what is lost, or what is won? I know that in every way, and by all his creatures, God is served and his purposes accomplished. How should I explain or understand, I who am only an old book-keeper in a white cravat?

Yet in all history, in the splendid triumphs of emperors and kings, in the dreams of poets, the speculations of philosophers, the sacrifices of heroes, and the extacies of saints, I find no exclusive secret of success. Prue says she knows that nobody ever did more good than our cousin the curate, for every smile and word of his is a good deed; and I, for my part, am sure that, although many must do more good in the world, nobody enjoys it more than Prue and I.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Our Cousin The Curate