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An essay by T. S. Arthur

Careless Words

Title:     Careless Words
Author: T. S. Arthur [More Titles by Arthur]

FIVE years ago, this fair November day,--five years? it seems but yesterday, so fresh is that scene in my memory; and, I doubt not, were the period ten times multiplied, it would be as vivid still to us--the surviving actors in that drama! The touch of time, which blunts the piercing thorn, as well as steals from the rose its lovely tints, is powerless here, unless to give darker shades to that picture engraven on our souls; and tears--ah, they only make it more imperishable!

We do not speak of her now; her name has not passed our lips in each other's presence, since we followed her--grief-stricken mourners-to the grave, to which--alas, alas! but why should not the truth be spoken? the grave to which our careless words consigned her. But on every anniversary of that day we can never forget, uninvited by me, and without any previous arrangement between themselves, those two friends have come to my house, and together we have sat, almost silently, save when Ada's sweet voice has poured forth a low, plaintive strain to the mournful chords Mary has made the harp to breathe. Four years ago, that cousin came too; and since then, though he has been thousands of miles distant from us, when, that anniversary has returned, he has written to me: he cannot look into my face when that letter is penned; he but looks into his own heart, and he cannot withhold the words of remorse and agony.

Ada and Mary have sat with me to-day, and we knew that Rowland, in thought, was here too; ah, if we could have known another had been among us,--if we could have felt that an eye was upon us, which will never more dim with tears, a heart was near us which carelessness can never wound again;--could we have known she had been here--that pure, bright angel, with the smile of forgiveness and love on that beautiful face--the dark veil of sorrow might have been lifted from our souls! but we saw only with mortal vision; our faith was feeble, and we have only drawn that sombre mantle more and more closely about us. The forgiveness we have so many tim es prayed for, we have not yet dared to receive, though we know it is our own.

That November day was just what this has been fair, mild, and sweet; and how much did that dear one enjoy it! The earth was dry, and as we looked from the window we saw no verdure but a small line of green on the south side of the garden enclosure, and around the trunk of the old pear-tree, and here and there a little oasis from which the strong wind of the previous day, had lifted the thick covering of dry leaves, and one or two shrubs, whose foliage feared not the cold breath of winter. The gaudy hues, too, which nature had lately worn, were all faded; there was a pale, yellow-leafed vine clambering over the verdureless lilac, and far down in the garden might be seen a shrub covered with bright scarlet berries. But the warm south wind was sweet and fragrant, as if it had strayed through bowers of roses and eglantines. Deep-leaden and snow-white clouds blended together, floated lazily through the sky, and the sun coquetted all day with the earth, though his glance was not, for once, more than half averted, while his smile was bright and loving, as it bad been months before, when her face was fair and blooming.

But how sadly has this day passed, and how unlike is this calm, sweet evening to the one which closed that November day! Nature is the same. The moonbeams look as bright and silvery through the brown, naked arms of the tall oaks, and the dark evergreen forest lifts up its head to the sky, striving, but in vain, to shut out the soft light from the little stream, whose murmurings, seem more sad and complaining than at another season of the year, perhaps because it feels how soon the icy bands of winter will stay its free course, and hush its low whisperings. The soft breeze sighs as sadly through the vines which still wreath themselves around the window; though seemingly conscious they have ceased to adorn it, they are striving to loosen their hold, and bow themselves to the earth; and the chirping of a cricket in the chimney is as sad and mournful as it was then. But the low moan of the sufferer, the but half-smothered, agonized sobs of those fair girls, the deep groan which all my proud cousin's firmness could not hush, and the words of reproach, which, though I was so guilty myself, and though I saw them so repentant, I could not withhold, are all stilled now.

Ada and Mary have just left me, and I am sitting alone in my apartment. Not a sound reaches me but the whisperings of the wind, the murmuring of the stream, and the chirping of that solitary cricket. The family know my heart is heavy to-night, and the voices are hushed, and the footsteps fall lightly. Lily, dear Lily, art thou near me?

Five years and some months ago--it was in early June--there came to our home from far away in the sunny South, a fair young creature, a relative of ours, though we had never seen her before. She had been motherless rather less than a year, but her father had already found another partner, and feeling that she would not so soon see the place of the dearly-loved parent filled by a stranger, she had obtained his permission to spend a few months with those who could sympathize with her in her griefs.

Lily White! She was rightly named; I have never seen such a fair, delicate face and figure, nor watched the revealings of a nature so pure and gentle as was hers. She would have been too fair and delicate to be beautiful, but for the brilliancy of those deep blue eyes, the dark shade of that glossy hair, and the litheness of that fragile form; but when months had passed away, and, though the brow was still marble white, and the lip colourless, the cheek wore that deep rose tint, how surpassingly beautiful she was! We did not dream what had planted that rose-tint there--we thought her to be throwing off the grief which alone, we believed, had paled her cheek; and we did not observe that her form was becoming more delicate, and that her step was losing its lightness and elasticity. We loved the sweet Lily dearly at first sight, and she had been with us but a short time before we began to wonder how our home had ever seemed perfect to us previous to her coming. And our affection was returned by the dear girl. We knew how much she loved us, when, as the warm season had passed, and her father sent for her to return home, we saw the expression of deep sorrow in every feature, and the silent entreaty that we would persuade him to allow her to remain with us still.

She did not thank me when a letter reached me from her father, in reply to one which, unknown to her, I had sent him, saying, if I thought Lily's health would not be injured by a winter's residence in our cold climate, he would comply with my urgent request, and allow her to remain with us until the following spring--the dear girl could not speak. She came to me almost totteringly, and wound her arms about my neck, resting her head on mine, and tears from those sweet eyes fell fast over my face; and all the remainder of that afternoon she lay on her couch. Oh, why did I not think wherefore she was so much overcome?

Ada L----and Mary R----, two friends whom I had loved from childhood, I had selected as companions for our dear Lily on her arrival among us, and the young ladies, from their first introduction to her, had vied with me in my endeavours to dispel the gloom from that fair face, and to make her happy; and they shared, almost equally with her relatives, dear Lily's affections.

Ada--she is changed now--was a gay, brilliant, daring girl; Mary, witty and playful, though frank and warm-hearted; but it made me love them more than ever. The gaiety and audacity of the one was forgotten in the presence of the thoughtful, timid Lily: and the other checked the merry jest which trembled on her lips, and sobered that roguish eye beside the earnest, sensitive girl; so that, though we were together almost daily, dear Lily did not understand the character of the young ladies.

The warm season had passed away, and October brought an addition to our household--Cousin Rowland--as handsome, kind-hearted, and good-natured a fellow as ever lived, but a little cowardly, if the dread of the raillery of a beautiful woman may be called cowardice.

Cousin Rowland and dear Lily were mutually pleased with each other, it was very evident to me, though Ada and Mary failed to see it; for, in the presence of the young ladies, Rowland did not show her those little delicate attentions which, alone with me, who was very unobservant, he took no pains to conceal; and Lily did not hide from me her blushing face--her eyes only thanked me for the expression which met her gaze.

That November day--I dread to approach it! Lily and I were sitting beside each other, looking down the street, and watching the return of the carriage which Rowland had gone out with to bring Ada and Mary to our house; or, rather, Lily was looking for its coming--my eyes were resting on her face. It had never looked so beautiful to me before. Her brow was so purely white, her cheek was so deeply red, and that dark eye was so lustrous; but her face was very thin, and her breathing, I observed, was faint and difficult. A pang shot through my heart.

"Lily, are you well?" I exclaimed, suddenly.

She fixed her eyes on mine. I was too much excited by my sudden fear to read their expression, but when our friends came in, the dear girl seemed so cheerful and happy--I remembered, afterwards, I had never seen her so gay as on that afternoon--that my suspicions gradually left me.

The hours were passing pleasantly away, when a letter was brought in for Lily. It was from her father, and the young lady retired to peruse it. The eye of Rowland followed her as she passed out of the room, and I observed a shadow flit across his brow. I afterwards learned that at the moment a thought was passing through his mind similar to that which had so terrified me an hour before. Our visiters remarked it, too, but little suspected its cause; and Mary's eye met, with a most roguish look, Ada's rather inquiring gaze.

"When does Lily intend to return home, S----?" she inquired, as she bent, very demurely, over her embroidery. "I thought she was making preparations to go before Rowland came here!" and she raised her eyes so cunningly to my face, that I could not forbear answering,

"I hear nothing of her return, now. Perhaps she will remain with us during the winter."

"Indeed!" exclaimed Ada, and her voice expressed much surprise. "I wonder if I could make such a prolonged visit interesting to a friend!"

"Why, Lily considers herself conferring a great favour by remaining here," replied Mary.

"On whom?" asked Rowland, quickly.

"On all of use of course;" and to Mary's great delight she perceived that her meaning words had the effect she desired on the young man.

"I hope she will not neglect the duty she owes her family, for the sake of showing us this great kindness," said Rowland, with affected carelessness, though he walked across the apartment with a very impatient step.

"Lily has not again been guilty of the error she so frequently commits, has she, S----?" asked Ada, in a lower but still far too distinct tone; "that of supposing herself loved and admired where she is only pitied and endured?" and the merry creature fairly exulted in the annoyance which his deepened colour told her she was causing the young man.

A slight sound from the apartment adjoining the parlour attracted my attention. Had Lily stopped there to read her letter instead of going to her chamber? and had she, consequently, overheard our foolish remarks? The door was slightly ajar, and I pushed it open. There was a slight rustling, but I thought it only the waving of the window curtain.

A half-hour passed away, and Lily had not returned to us. I began to be alarmed, and my companions partook of my fears. Had she overheard us? and, if so, what must that sensitive heart be suffering?

I went out to call her; but half way up the flight of stairs I saw the letter from her father lying on the carpet, unopened, though it had been torn from its envelope. I know not how I found my way up stairs, but I stood by Lily's bed.

Merciful Heaven! what a sight was presented to my gaze. The white covering was stained with blood, and from those cold, pale lips the red drops were fast falling. Her eyes turned slowly till they rested on mine. What a look was that! I see it now; so full of grief; so full of reproach; and then they closed. I thought her dead, and my frantic shrieks called my companions to her bedside. They aroused her, too, from that swoon, but they did not awaken her to consciousness. She never more turned a look of recognition on us, or seemed to be aware that we were near her. Through all that night, so long and so full of agony to us, she was murmuring, incoherently, to herself,

"They did not know I was dying," she would say; "that I have been dying ever since I have been here! They have not dreamed of my sufferings through these long months; I could not tell them, for I believed they loved me, and I would not grieve them. But no one loves me--not one in the wide world cares for me! My mother, you will not have forgotten your child when you meet me in the spirit-land! Their loved tones made me deaf to the voice which was calling to me from the grave, and the sunshine of his smile broke through the dark cloud which death was drawing around me. Oh, I would have lived, but death, I thought, would lose half its bitterness, could I breathe my last in their arms! But, now, I must die alone! Oh, how shall I reach my home--how shall I ever reach my home?"

Dear Lily! The passage was short; when morning dawned, she was there.

[The end]
T. S. Arthur's Essay: Careless Words