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"The child grew up into a beautiful girl--so beautiful and with such sweet ways, that it did one good only to look at her, but she was willful too, and loved play; wild as a kitten she was, but as harmless too.
"She would go out to work; we tried to stop it, but the child would go; Salina there, kept house for old Mrs. Farnham; they wanted help to spin up the wool and Anna went. She came back engaged to Mr. Farnham.
I forgave her, G.o.d is my judge; I did not hate the child for supplanting me in the only love I ever hoped to know. It was a hard trial, but I bore it without a single bitter thought toward either of them. It nearly killed me, but I did my duty by the child.
"He went to the city, for he had gone into business there, and was getting rich. Time went fast with him and slow with us. In the end he married that woman. Anna went wild when she knew it, and like a wounded bird fled to the first open heart for shelter. She married too, and in a single year died here in this room."
"I remember it, oh! how well I remember it," sobbed Salina, while uncle Nat covered his face with both hands and wept aloud.
"It was an awful night. Thunder shook the Old Homestead, and the winds rocked it as if death were rocking her to sleep; across them windows came the lightning, flash after flash, as if the angels of heaven were shooting fiery arrows over her as she breathed her last. Salina was there, but no doctor. He was at Mrs. Farnham's mansion up yonder, for that night her only son was born.
"He came at last, to find her dead body lying there, cold and pale in the lightning flashes that broke against the windows. He found me alone with my dead sister, numb with sorrow, dead at the heart.
"After this Salina brought Anna's baby and laid it in my lap. The doctor had ordered her home. The rich man's wife could not be neglected."
"But I wouldn't have gone, you know I wouldn't for anything he could say," cried Salina, firing up amid her tears. "If you hadn't said go, all the doctors on arth couldn't have made me stir a foot!"
"Yes, I told you to go, but it was in bitterness of heart; why should I with that living soul in my lap, and that cold body before me, keep you from the rich woman's couch? Farnham's heir must be kept warm, while ours lay wailing and shivering in my lap.
"I was left alone amid the lightning and thunder and the noise of the rain; my poor dead sister seemed to call out from the clouds, that I should help her spirit free from the raging of the tempest--I think all this worked on my brain, for I sat and looked on the babe with a stillness that seemed to last for months. I thought of her broken life--of the poverty she had felt--of that which must follow her child. I thought of that woman, so paltry, so mean, so utterly unworthy of care, pampered with wealth, comforted with love, while my sister, so much her better in everything had died of neglect, I thought of many things, not connectedly, but in a wild bitter mood that made me fierce under the wrongs that had been heaped upon us. It is impossible for me to say how the idea came first, but I resolved that her child should not be the sufferer. His father was miserably poor, but he would not, I knew, give up his child. I did not reason, but these thoughts flashed through my brain, and with them came an impulse to give her child the destiny which Anna's should escape. I tore a blanket from the bed; poor Anna did not need it then. I wrapped it about the child and went forth into the storm. The lightning blazed along my path, and the thunder boomed over me like minute guns when a funeral is in motion.
"I knew the house well, and stole in through the back door onward to the half-lighted chamber of Farnham's wife. Her son lay in a sumptuous crib under a cloud of lace. I laid Anna's babe on the floor and took this one from its silken nest. My hands were cold and trembling, but the dresses were soon changed, and in a few minutes I went out with Farnham's heir rolled up in my blanket, and Anna's child sleeping sweetly in the cradle that I had robbed."
Mrs. Farnham started up, pale and trembling.
"What, what! my child rolled up in a blanket! a mean, coa.r.s.e blanket!"
"Be still," commanded aunt Hannah; "your child has had nothing but coa.r.s.e blankets all his life; but he is all the better for that; ask him if I have not toiled that he and the good man who brought him up might never want; but I was a feeble woman and could do no more--a woman weighed down by a sense of the crime which I might repent of daily, but could not force myself to confess."
"But my child! where is my child, you horrible kidnapper?" cried Mrs.
Farnham. "I will know--but remember, if he's been brought up among common people and all that, I never will own him."
"Your son," said aunt Hannah, going gently toward Joseph Esmond, and laying her hand on his shoulder. "This is your son; he is worthy of any mother's love."
"My son, and married to that thing! I never will own him, don't ask me, I never will!" cried the excited woman, eyeing the youth, disdainfully. "He is handsome enough, but I cannot own him for my son!"
"Mother," said the youth, rising and coming forward, with both hands extended. "Mother, why will you not love me?"
She had gathered up her shawl, haughtily, and was about to leave the room; but his voice struck upon her like a spell; the folds of her shawl dropt downward, and for once, yielding to a warm, natural impulse, she burst into a pa.s.sion of tears, and received the youth in her arms.
"Oh, mother, bear with me; you would, did you know how I have pined for a mother's love."
She did not speak, but kissed his forehead two or three times, and sat down subdued, with gentler affections than she had ever shown before.
"Not only to me, mother, but to my wife. Will you not love my wife?"
Mary was drawn forward, for one arm of her husband was around her, and stood with downcast eyes and flushed cheeks, waiting for the repulse, which seemed inevitable.
Mrs. Farnham looked at him, and something of the old scorn curled her lip. Mary slowly lifted her eyes, full of meek solicitude, and even her mother-in-law's heart was touched.
"Well, well, make him a good wife, and I'll try to love you."
"I," said the youth, whom we have known as young Farnham--"I have no longer a mother."
"No," said uncle Nat, arising and opening his arms; "but you have an old uncle and aunt that will divide their last crust with you. Sister, sister, he looks like Anna, now, with the tears in his eyes."
Aunt Hannah turned; it was the first time in her life that she had ever looked her nephew full in the face, and now a consciousness of the wrong she had done made her timid; she stood before him with downcast eyes, trembling and afraid.
"My aunt, will you not look upon me?"
"I have wronged you," she said. "How will you bear hard work and want?"
"Ask Isabel if she thinks I cannot bear them with her."
Isabel stood up; her strength came back with the sudden joy that overwhelmed her, and she held forth her hand to the youth, radiant as an angel. He led her towards Mrs. Farnham.
"Mother, you will not repulse us, now, when we are alike in condition.
Give us your blessing before we go forth on our struggle with the world."
All that was good in that woman's nature broke forth with the first gush of true maternal love; for a moment she forgot herself and held out her hand.
"Oh, Fred! I hate to give you up altogether; but, then, I really am not your mother. Don't you see it in his bright hair? in those beautiful eyes?--we ought to have known he was my son by his face.
But, only think of that horrid woman's bringing him up among all those low people; but she could not make him like them. There is a medium in blood, you see. But, when, you took so naturally to our life; really, I don't see my way clear yet!"
"But won't you speak to Isabel, mother?"
"Isabel! dear me, I should not know her. How do you do, my dear?
Certainly, it's very proper and right that you should marry Fred, now!
It's quite like a romance. Isn't it? Of course, all my objections are removed."
"And my vow," whispered Isabel; "thank G.o.d, we are as free as two wild birds!"
"And as poor," answered Frederick, smiling, while a shade of sadness settled on Joseph Esmond's face.
"Not quite so bad as that," said Judge Sharp, stepping forward with a blackened and scorched paper in his hand, "Young man, on this your common birth-day, you have attained legal manhood. By Mr. Farnham's will, which has but lately come into my hands, I find myself called upon to resign my guardianship over you both; for--with the exception of his widow's dower, and ten thousand dollars left to this young lady, Isabel Chester, with direction that she should be brought up and educated in his own family--Mr. Farnham's property was divided equally between his own son and the son of Joseph and Anna Esmond. I rejoice at this, and congratulate you, young man. You have each proved worthy, and G.o.d has blessed you."
A flush of beautiful joy drove the gloom from Esmond's face. He arose and held out his hand.
"Farnham! Farnham! wish me joy. You can wish me joy, now."
Every heart rose warmly as the young men shook hands, and all eyes were so blinded with happy tears, that no one observed Mrs. Farnham as she shrunk cowering in a corner of the room. Even Judge Sharp avoided looking that way, and Salina planted herself before the pallid woman, expanding her scant skirts, till they swelled out like a half-open umbrella, in a prompt effort to screen that guilty form.
"Young men!" and as he spoke Judge Sharp a.s.sumed a look of more than ordinary dignity. "Thank G.o.d, that in this great change, he left you to the influences which have best developed the powers within you.
Now, go forth, my children, with the fair wives you have chosen, and always remember, that the trials of early life should give strength and power to manhood."