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A short story by Harriet S. Caswell

Emma Ashton

Title:     Emma Ashton
Author: Harriet S. Caswell [More Titles by Caswell]

It was a sad day for Emma Ashton, when, with her widowed mother, she turned from her father's new-made grave, and again entered their desolate home. None but those who have experienced a like sorrow can fully understand their grief as they entered their now lonely home, where a short time since they had been so happy. But the ways of Providence are, to our feeble vision, often dark and incomprehensible, and the only way by which we can reconcile ourselves to many trials which we are called to endure is by remembering that there is a "need be" for every sorrow which falls to our lot, in the journey of life. Emma was an only child and had been the idol of her father's heart, and no marvel if the world, to her, looked dark and dreary when he was removed by death. Added to the grief occasioned by their bereavement, the mother and daughter had yet another cause for anxiety and disquietude, for the home where they had dwelt for so many years in the enjoyment of uninterrupted happiness was now no longer theirs. Since quite a young man, Mr. Ashton had held the position of overseer, in a large manufactory in the village of W. Owing to his sober and industrious habits he had saved money sufficient to enable him, at the period of his marriage, to purchase a neat and tasteful home, to which he removed with his young wife. He still continued his industry, and began in a small way to accumulate money, when, unfortunately, he was persuaded by one whom he thought a friend to sign bank-notes with him to a large amount; but, ere the notes became due, the man he had obliged left the country, and he was unable to gain any trace of him, and was soon called upon to meet the claim. Bank-notes must be paid, and to raise money to meet the claim he was forced to mortgage his house for nearly its full value. His health failed; and for two years previous to his death he was unable to attend to his business. The term of the mortgage was five years, which time expired soon after his death. During the few last weeks of his life his mind was very much disturbed regarding the destitute condition in which he must leave his beloved wife and daughter; for he was too well acquainted with the man who held the claim to expect any lenity to his family when it should become due, and he was sensible that the hour of his own death was fast approaching. His wife tried to cheer him by hopeful words, saying: "Should it please our Heavenly Father to remove you, fear not that He will fail to care for the fatherless and widow." A short time before his death a sweet peace and hopeful trust settled over his spirit, and the religion he had sought in health afforded him a firm support in the hour of death. When all was over, and the mother and daughter found themselves left alone, their fortitude well-nigh forsook them, and they felt almost like yielding to a hopeless sorrow. Emma was at this time but fifteen years of age, possessed of much personal beauty, and also a very amiable and affectionate disposition. Since the age of six years she had attended school, and made rapid progress in her various studies till the sad period of her father's death. As Mr. Ashton had foreseen, Mr. Tompkins, the man who held the mortgage, soon called upon the widow, informing her that the time had already expired, and unless she found herself able to meet the claim, her dwelling was legally his property; but, as a great favor, he granted her permission to occupy the house till she could make some arrangement concerning the future, giving her, however, distinctly to understand, that he wished to take possession as soon as she could find another home. Mrs. Ashton thanked him for the consideration he had shown her, little as it was, telling him she would as soon as possible seek another home, however humble it might be; and Mr. Tompkins departed with a polite bow and a bland smile upon his countenance, well pleased that he had got the matter settled with so little difficulty. I presume he never once paused to think of the grief-stricken widow and her fatherless daughter, whom he was about to render homeless. Money had so long been his idol that tender and benevolent emotions were well-nigh extinguished in his world-hardened heart. For a long time after Mr. Tompkins left the house Mrs. Ashton remained in deep thought. There are, dear reader, dark periods in the lives of most of us, when, turn which way we will, we find ourselves surrounded, as by a thick hedge, with difficulties and troubles from which we see no escape.

At such periods it is good for us to call to mind the fact, that the darkest cloud often has a silver lining, and that if we discharged, to the best of our ability, our duties for the time being, the cloud, sooner or later, will be reversed, and display its bright side to our troubled view. The time had now arrived, when Mrs. Ashton must come to some decision regarding the future. She had no friends to whom she could turn for aid or counsel in this season of trial. When quite young she had emigrated from England with her parents and one sister, and settled in Eastern Canada. About the time of her marriage and removal to W. her parents, with her sister, removed to one of the Western States: and it may be the knowledge that she must rely solely upon herself enabled her to meet her trials with more fortitude than might have been expected. Some fifty miles from W. was the large and thriving village of Rockford, and thither Mrs. Ashton at length decided to remove. One reason for this decision was the excellent institution for the education of young ladies, which was there located. She was very anxious that her daughter should obtain a good education, but was sorely puzzled as to raising the money needful for defraying her expenses. There were a few debts due her husband at the time of his death; these she collected with little difficulty. Their dwelling had been handsomely furnished, and she decided to sell the furniture, as she could easily, upon their arrival at Rockford, purchase what articles were necessary for furnishing their new home, which must, of necessity, be humble. One article she felt they must retain if possible, and that was the piano given her by her father at the period of her marriage. She did at first entertain the idea of parting with it, thinking how far the money it would bring would go in defraying the expenses attendant upon Emma's education, but upon second consideration, she resolved that they would not part with her father's parting-gift to her, unless compelled to do so by actual want; and so when their old home was broken up the piano was carefully packed and forwarded to Rockford. The home where they had resided so long was very dear to them, and it would have grieved them to leave it at any time; but to leave at the glad season of spring, when the trees which shaded their dwelling were beginning to put forth their leaves, and the flowers which adorned their garden were bursting into bloom, seemed to them doubly sad. But their preparations for removal were finally completed; and they left their home followed by the good wishes of many who had long known and loved them. Upon their arrival at Rockford, Mrs. Ashton hired a cheap tenement in a respectable locality, which she furnished in a plain but decent manner. When they became settled in their new home they had still in hand money sufficient to secure them from immediate want, but as Mrs. Ashton wished Emma to enter at once upon her studies, she was very anxious to devise some means of earning money to meet necessary expenses. There was one family residing in Rockford with whom Mrs. Ashton had several years before been intimately acquainted: their name was Lebaron, and they at one time resided in the same village with the Ashtons. Mr. Lebaron had opened a store upon removing to Rockford; the world had smiled upon him, and he was now considered one of the most wealthy and influential men in the village.

It has been often said that "prosperity hardens the heart of man," but if such is the case in general, Mr. Lebaron proved an exception to the general rule. He had heard with much sorrow of the death of Mr. Ashton, and also of the other misfortunes which had overtaken the family; and no sooner did he learn of the arrival of the widow and daughter in Rockford, than, accompanied by his wife, he hastened to call upon them to renew their former acquaintance, and in a delicate and considerate manner to enquire if he could assist them in any way. Mrs. Ashton thanked them for their kindness, saying that although in no immediate need of assistance, yet she would be very thankful if they would assist her in obtaining employment. "If such is the case," replied Mrs. Lebaron, "I can easily secure you employment, as I am acquainted with many ladies who give, out work, and will gladly use my influence in your favor." "You will confer a favor upon me by so doing," replied Mrs. Ashton, "for I must rely upon my labor for a support for the future." Through the influence of these kind friends Mrs. Ashton soon obtained an abundant supply of work; and, when she became somewhat acquainted with the people of Rockford, her gentle and unobtrusive manner gained her many warm friends. Agreeable to her mother's wishes, Emma soon became a pupil in the seminary for young ladies, which was at that time under the direction of Miss Hinton, a lady who possessed uncommon abilities as a teacher, and was also aided by several competent assistants. Mrs. Lebaron had two daughters attending the institution at the time, and this circumstance, in a great measure, relieved Emma from the feeling of diffidence she might have experienced in entering a large school a stranger to both teachers and pupils; but her modest and unassuming manners, added to her diligence in study soon caused her to become a general favorite with her teachers. In schools, as well as other places, we often meet with those who are inclined to be jealous of merit superior to their own, and the seminary, at Rockford was no exception in this matter. Her teachers were guilty of no unjust partiality; true, they oftener commended her than some other members of her class, but not oftener than her punctual attendance, perfect recitations and correct deportment generally, justified them in doing. But it soon became evident that, if Emma was a favourite with her teachers, she was far from being such with many members of her class. At the time she entered school Miss Hinton found, after examining her in her various studies, that her attainments were already superior to those of several young ladies who had been for some time members of the school. Among the pupils who at the time attended the institution was a Miss Carlton, from the distant city of H. She was the petted and only child of wealthy parents; and, as is often the case, her disposition, which, under proper training, might have been amiable, had been spoiled by unwise indulgence on the part of her parents. Her capacity for learning was not good; she was also sadly wanting in application, and, at the time Emma entered the school, although Miss Carlton had attended for more than a year, her progress in study was far from being satisfactory to her teachers. She was at much pains to inform her classmates of her wealth and position, seeming to entertain the idea that this would cover every defect. Owing to Emma's superior attainments, compared with her own, she soon learned to regard her with a feeling of absolute dislike, which she took little pains to conceal; and many were the petty annoyances she endured from the vain and haughty Julia Carlton. She soon learned that Emma was poor; and that her mother toiled early and late to defray the expenses of her education; and more than once she threw out hints regarding this fact, among the other pupils, even in hearing of Emma; and, as often as opportunity offered, she slighted the unoffending girl, and treated her with all the rudeness of which she was capable. "Let those who wish associate with Miss Ashton," she would often say to her companions; "but I am thankful that I have been better taught at home than to make a companion of a girl whose mother is obliged to take in sewing to pay her school bills." These and other remarks equally malicious were daily made by Miss Carlton; and I am sorry that she soon found others in the school who were weak enough to be influenced by her also to treat Emma with coldness and contempt. Emma could not long fail to notice the many slights, both direct and indirect, which she endured from many members of the school, and she taxed her memory to recall any act by which she might have given offence; but, finding herself unable to recollect any thing on her part which could have offended any member of the school, she was not a little puzzled to account for the rudeness with which she was treated. It happened one day that during recess she remained at her desk in the school-room to complete an unfinished French exercise. Several of her companions soon after entered the adjoining recitation room, and, as they were not aware of her proximity, she became an unwilling listener to a conversation which pained her deeply. As Sarah Lebaron entered the room one of the girls addressed her, saying:--"When you first introduced Miss Ashton among us, I supposed her to be at least a companionable girl, but I have lately been informed that she resides in a cheap tenement, and, further, that her mother takes in sewing, and, if such is the case, I wish to cultivate no further acquaintance with her." "But then," added another girl, "Miss Hinton thinks her almost a saint, and sets her up as a model for us all; if there's any thing I do detest, it's these model girls, and I don't believe she's half as fond of study as she pretends; and, in my opinion, its only to hear the commendations of the teachers that she applies herself with such diligence; but Miss Hinton is so taken with her meek face and lady-like manners that she places her above us all, and, I suppose, we must submit, for as the old song says:

'What can't be cured must be endured.'"

"Well, I for one shall try some method of cure, before I put up with much more of her impudence and assumption," chimed in the amiable Miss Carlton; "pay attentions now, girls," continued she, "while I take my place in the class like Emma Ashton;" and separating herself from her companions, she crossed the room to one of the class-seats, with such a ludicrous air of meekness and decorum, that the girls were almost convulsed with laughter. Starting up and tossing her book from her hand she exclaimed, "It is so disgusting to see a girl in her position put on such airs." Miss Lebaron had not before spoken, but, when at length there was silence, she addressed her companions, saying, "if no other young lady present has any further remarks to make, I will myself say a few words if you will listen to me. I must say, I am surprised at the unkindness, even rudeness, which many of you have exhibited towards Miss Ashton. If she is poor it is death, and other misfortunes which have caused her to become so; and this circumstance should excite your sympathy, but surely not your contempt and ridicule. Poor as she is, she is my friend, and I am proud to claim her as such. As to her being companionable that is a matter of taste; I shall continue to follow mine, and each young lady present is at liberty to do the same; but be assured that unless you can furnish some more satisfactory reason for your disparaging remarks than you have yet done, they will bear no weight with me." With much irony in her voice Miss Carlton replied, "Really, Miss Lebaron, I am unable to reply to your very able defence of your charming friend, and will only say that I shall avail myself of the liberty you have kindly granted us, for each to follow her own taste in the choice of associates, and avoid Miss Ashton as much as possible." "As you please," replied Miss Lebaron, "it is a matter of perfect indifference to me;" and just then the school bell put an end to further conversation. As may be easily supposed, the delicate and sensitive spirit of Emma was deeply wounded by the above conversation; and it was with much difficulty that she maintained her composure for the remaining portion of the day. For once her lessons were imperfect; and with a heavy heart she returned to her home. That evening she, for the first time, mentioned to her mother the daily annoyances she suffered from her companions at school; and concluded by relating the conversation she had that day chanced to overhear. Mrs. Ashton could not feel otherwise than grieved; but as much as possible she concealed the feeling from her daughter. "My dear Emma," she replied, "their unkind words can do you no real harm, although they may render you unhappy for the time being. But keep the even tenor of your way; and they will, probably, after a time become ashamed of their folly. Should they make any further remarks regarding my laboring to give you an education, you may tell them that I esteem it as one of my chief blessings that I have health granted me so to do."

Time passed on; and the invariable kindness with which Emma treated her classmates finally gained her several warm friends; and some of them even apologized for their past unkindness. Miss Carlton still regarded her with a feeling of enmity and dislike; but as Emma seemed not to notice the many annoyances she experienced she was at length forced to desist, although the same resentful feeling remained in her heart.

When Emma left the seminary, after attending it for four years, her departure was deeply regretted by both teachers and pupils. As she had pursued her studies in a very systematic manner, she had acquired, before leaving school, a thoroughly good education, which she intended turning to account by teaching. Miss Carlton also left school at the same time to return to her elegant home in the city of H. It was fortunate for her that she was not obliged, as was Emma, to teach as a means of support; for, notwithstanding the unwearied pains of her teachers, her education, when she left school, was very superficial. Emma soon obtained a situation as teacher in a small village some twenty miles from Rockford, where she remained for two years. During her absence, her mother, to avoid being left alone, received as boarders two or three young ladies who attended school in the village. Emma's success as a teacher become so well known that she was at length offered a high salary to accept of the position of assistant teacher in an academy in the city of H., the same city where Miss Carlton resided. As the salary offered was very liberal, she decided to accept of the position, and as the situation was likely to prove a permanent one she was very anxious that her mother should accompany her; and after some deliberation upon the subject, Mrs. Ashton consented, thinking they would both be much happier together than otherwise. Emma proved quite as successful in thus her second situation as in the first; and owing to her position as teacher she soon formed acquaintance with several families of cultivated tastes and high respectability. She often received invitations to parties; but her tastes were quiet, and she usually preferred spending her evenings with her mother in the quiet of their own home, to mingling in scenes of mirth and gaiety; and it was only upon a few occasions that she attended parties, that her friends might not think her unsocial. At one of these parties she chanced to meet her former school mate, Miss Carlton, whose only sign of recognition was a very formal bow. This gave her no uneasiness; she cherished no malice towards Miss Carlton; but her ideas and tastes so widely differed from her own that she did not covet her friendship even had she been inclined to grant it her.

Meanwhile, with the widow and her daughter, time passed happily away. Emma's salary was more than sufficient for their support and they were happy in the society of each other. There was one family, by the name of Milford, who had treated them with much kindness since their residence in the city. Mrs. Milford at first placed two little girls under Emma's instruction, and thus began an acquaintance which soon ripened into intimate friendship; for, although occupying a high position of wealth and influence, Mrs. Milford was one of the few who place "mind above matter" and respected true worth wherever she met with it. Her eldest daughter, having finished her education at a distant boarding school, returned home about the same time her two sisters were placed in charge of Emma; and the little girls were so eloquent in their praise of their teacher, that their eldest sister became interested, and decided to call upon her at her home; and the lady-like appearance of both mother and daughter, together with the appearance of good taste which their home exhibited, strongly interested her in their favor.

Some six months previous to the period of which I am writing a young physician from the Upper Province located himself in the city of H. for the practice of his profession. According to common report, he was wealthy, and the study of a profession had with him been a matter not of necessity but of choice. Owing to his pleasing manners, as well as his reputed wealth, he soon became an object of much interest to many of the match-making mammas and marriageable young ladies of the city of H. He was soon favored with numerous invitations to attend parties, where he formed acquaintance with most of the young people in the fashionable circle of the city; and he soon became a general favorite in society. Among others, he attended a large party given by the Carltons, and by this means became acquainted with the family. He had called occasionally; and during one of those calls Mrs. Carlton very feelingly lamented that her daughter was often obliged to forego the pleasure of attending concerts, lectures and other places of public amusement for want of a suitable escort; and courtesy to the family would of course allow him to do no less than offer to become her attendant upon such occasions. Mrs. Carlton, however, put a very different construction upon these slight attentions, and already looked upon him as her future son-in-law.

When Dr. Winthrop had resided for about a year in the city, the Milfords also gave a large party, and Miss Ashton was included among their guests. The party was a brilliant affair, for the Milfords were a family of wealth and high social position. The young physician was among their guests; and Miss Carlton managed some way or other to claim his attention most of the evening. There was the usual amount of small talk, common to such occasions; about the usual number of young ladies were invited to sing and play, and, as usual, they were either out of practice or were afflicted with "bad colds." But it so happened that several young ladies who at the first begged to be excused, after much persuasion allowed themselves to be conducted to the piano, and played till it was evident from the manner of many that the music had become an infliction instead of a pleasure. When after a time Miss Ashton was invited to play, she took the vacant seat at the piano without any of the usual apologies; and began playing the prelude to a much admired song of the day; and before she reached the close of the first verse there was a hush through the room, and the countenance of each evinced the pleasure with which they listened to her performance. As she rose from the instrument Dr. Winthrop addressed Miss Carlton, saying: "Can you inform me who is that young lady? I never met her before; but she has favored us with the first real music I have listened to this evening." The young physician was not wanting in politeness, and he certainly must have forgotten that Miss Carlton occupied the seat at the piano a short time before. That young lady colored with anger as she replied: "Her name is Miss Ashton, and I understand she is engaged as an assistant teacher in one of the Academies in the city." "It is singular," replied Dr. Winthrop, "that I have never before met her at any of the numerous parties I have attended during the past year." "There is nothing very singular in that," replied Miss Carlton, "for I presume she is not often invited to fashionable parties, and I suppose it is owing to Mrs. Milford's two little girls being her pupils that we find her among their guests; but as you seem so much interested, I will tell you all I know of the person in question. When I attended school at Rockford, Miss Ashton was a pupil in the same institution; but, when I learned that her mother, who is a widow, took in sewing, to pay her school bills, I did not care to cultivate her acquaintance. She left school about the same time with myself, and I heard no more of her till she obtained a situation in this city." "Pardon me," replied the young physician; "but I see nothing in what you have stated that is in the least disparaging to the young lady; and I should be much pleased to make her acquaintance." "Our ideas slightly vary in these matters," replied Miss Carlton, with a haughty toss of her head; "but I will not detain you from seeking the introduction for which you seem so anxious. I am sorry I cannot oblige you by introducing you myself; but as I did not associate with her when at school, I am still less inclined to do so at the present time; I hope, however, you may find her an agreeable acquaintance;" and with a haughty manner she swept from his side in quest of companions whose tastes were more congenial. Dr. Winthrop obtained the desired introduction; and if Miss Carlton indulged the hope that he would find Miss Ashton an agreeable acquaintance, there was soon a fair prospect that her wishes would be realized; for the marked attention which Dr. Winthrop paid the lovely and engaging Miss Ashton soon formed the chief topic of conversation among the circle of their acquaintances. For once, public rumor was correct. Dr. Winthrop was very wealthy; but when a mere youth he had a decided taste for the study of medicine; and his parents allowed him to follow the bent of his own inclinations, in fitting himself for a profession for which he entertained so strong a liking. He had an uncle residing in a distant city, who was also a physician of high reputation, and, after passing through the necessary course of study, he had practiced his profession for two years under the direction of his uncle, before removing to the city of H. Up to the time when we introduced him to the reader matrimony was a subject to which he had never given a serious thought, and until he met with Miss Ashton he had never felt any personal interest in the matter. From what I have already said the reader will not be surprised to learn that the acquaintance begun at Mrs. Milford's party terminated in a matrimonial engagement; with the free consent of all who had a right to a voice in the matter. When the matter became known it caused quite a sensation in the circles in which Dr. Winthrop had moved since his residence in the city; but, happily for him, he was possessed of too independent a spirit to suffer any annoyance from any malicious remarks which chanced to reach his ears. When Miss Carlton first learned of the engagement, she indulged in a long fit of spiteful tears, to the imminent risk of appearing with red eyes at the forthcoming evening party. In due time the marriage took place; and the young physician and his lovely bride set out on their wedding tour amid the congratulations and good wishes of many true friends. After their departure Mrs. Carlton remarked to several of her "dear friends" "that she had long since discovered that Dr. Winthrop was not possessed of refined tastes; and for her part she thought Miss Ashton much better suited to be his wife than many others which she could name." Had the doctor been present to express his sentiments regarding this matter, they would in all probability have exactly agreed with those already expressed by Mrs. Carlton. During their wedding tour, which occupied several weeks, they visited many places of note, both in Canada and the United States. Upon their return to the city Dr. Winthrop purchased an elegant house in a central location, which he furnished in a style justified by his abundant means; and with his wife and her mother removed thither.

In conclusion, we will again bestow a passing glance upon this happy family after the lapse of some twenty years. We find Dr. Winthrop now past the meridian of life surrounded by an interesting family of sons and daughters, whom he is endeavoring to train for spheres of usefulness in this life, as well as for happiness in the "life to come." His graceful and dignified wife still gladdens his heart and home. Time has dealt very gently with her; she is quite as good and almost as beautiful as when we last saw her twenty years ago. The two eldest of their family are boys, and this is their last year in College. Mrs. Winthrop has thus far attended herself to the education of her two daughters. Along with many other useful lessons, she often seeks to impress upon their minds the sin and folly of treating with contempt and scorn those who may be less favored than themselves in a worldly point of view; and to impress the lesson more strongly upon their young minds, she has more than once spoken to them of her own early history, and of the trials to which she was subject in her youthful days. But what of Mrs. Ashton? She still lives; although her once active form is beginning to bow beneath the weight of years, and her hair has grown silvery white. This year Dr. Winthrop has completed his preparations for leaving the city after more than twenty years close application to his profession. He resolved to remove with his family to some quiet country village, which would afford sufficient practice to prevent time from hanging heavily upon his hands; but he now felt quite willing to resign his fatiguing and extensive practice in the city. When he first formed the idea of seeking a country home, he enquired of his wife, if she had any choice regarding a location. "If it meets your wishes," replied she, "no other place would please me so well as the village of W, the home of my childhood and youth, and where my dear father is buried." He soon after made a journey to W, and was so much pleased with the thriving appearance of the village, and the industry and sobriety of the inhabitants, that he decided to seek there a home. Before he left his home, his wife requested him, should he decide upon removing to W, if possible to re-purchase their old home, knowing how much this would please her now aged mother. The purchase was soon completed, and ere he left the village the old house was in the hands of workmen, with his instructions as to improvements and repairs. Mrs. Ashton was very happy when she learned that they were to return to W. "I have been happy here," said she, "but I shall be still happier there." In a short time they removed from the city to take possession of the "dear old home" in W, now enlarged and adorned in various ways; but the same clear brook still flowed at the foot of the garden, and the same trees, only that they were older, and their branches had grown more wide-spreading, shaded the dwelling. As they passed beneath the shade of those well-remembered trees, Mrs. Winthrop addressed her mother, saying, "Do you remember, mamma, how sad we felt the morning we left our home so many years ago, and we little thought it would ever again be ours." Mrs. Ashton gazed fondly upon her daughter and the blooming children at her side, as she replied in the language of the Psalmist, "I have been young and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken nor his seed begging bread."

[The end]
Harriet S. Caswell's short story: Emma Ashton