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Wilson's Border Tales
The Orphan


About forty years ago, a post-chaise was a sight more novel in the little hamlet of Thorndean, than silk gowns in country churches during the maidenhood of our great-grandmothers; and, as one drew up at the only public-house in the village, the inhabitants, old and young, startled by the unusual and merry sound of its wheels, hurried to the street. The landlady, on the first notice of its approach, had hastily bestowed upon her goodly person the additional recommendation of a clean cap and apron; and, still tying the apron strings, ran bustling to the door, smiling, colouring, and courtseying, and courtseying and colouring again, to the yet unopened chaise. Poor soul! she knew not well how to behave—it was an epoch in her annals of innkeeping. At length the coachman, opening the door, handed out a lady in widow’s weeds; a beautiful, golden-haired child, apparently not exceeding five years of age, sprang to the ground without assistance, and grasped her extended hand. "What an image o’ beauty!" exclaimed some half-dozen bystanders, as the fair child lifted her lovely face of smiles to the eyes of her mother. The lady stepped feebly towards the inn, and, though the landlady’s heart continued to practice a sort of fluttering motion, which communicated a portion of its agitation to her hands, she waited upon her unexpected and unusual guests with a kindliness and humility that fully recompensed for the expertness of a practised waiter. About half an hour after the arrival of her visitors, she was seen bustling from the door—her face, as the villagers said, bursting with importance. They were still in groups about their doors, and in the middle of the little street, discussing the mysterious arrival; and, as she hastened on her mission, she was assailed with a dozen such questions as these—"What ye wha she is?" "Is she ony great body?" "Hae ye ony guess what brought her here?" and "Is yon bonny creature her ain bairn?" But to these and sundry other interrogatories, the important hostess gave for answer—"Hoot, I hae nae time to haver the noo." She stopped at a small, but certainly the most genteel house in the village, occupied by a Mrs. Douglas, who, in the country phrase, was a very douce, decent sort of an old body, and the widow of a Cameronian minister. In the summer season, Mrs. Douglas let out her little parlour to lodgers, who visited the village to seek health, or for a few weeks’ retirement. She was compelled to do this from the narrowness of her circumstances; for, though she was a "clever-handed woman," as her neighbours said, "she had a sair fecht to keep up an appearance onyway like the thing ava." In a few minutes Mrs. Douglas, in a clean cap, a muslin kerchief round her neck, a quilted black bombazeen gown, and snow-white apron, followed the landlady up to the inn. In a short time she returned, the stranger lady leaning upon her arm, and the lovely child leaping like a young lamb before them. Days and weeks passed away, and the good people of Thorndean, notwithstanding all their surmises and inquiries, were no wiser regarding their new visitor; all they could learn was, that she was the widow of a young officer, who was one of the first that fell when Britain interfered with the French Revolution; and the mother and her child became known in the village by the designation of "Mrs. Douglas’ twa pictures!"—An appellation bestowed on them in reference to their beauty.

The beautiful destroyer, however, lay in the mother’s heart, now paling her cheeks like the early lily, and again scattering over them the rose and the rainbow. Still dreaming of recovery, about eight months after her arrival in Thorndean, death stole over her like a sweet sleep. It was only a few moments before the angel hurled the fatal shaft, that the truth fell upon her soul. She was stretching forth her hand to her work-basket, her lovely child was prattling by her knee, and Mrs. Douglas smiling like a parent upon both, striving to conceal a tear while she smiled, when the breathing of her fair guest became difficult, and the rose, which a moment before bloomed upon her countenance, vanished in a fitful streak. She flung her feeble arms around the neck of her child, who now wept upon her bosom, and exclaimed—"Oh! my Elizabeth, who will protect you now—my poor, poor orphan?" Mrs. Douglas sprang to her assistance. She said she had much to tell, and endeavoured to speak; but a gurgling sound only was heard in her throat; she panted for breath; the rosy streaks, deepening into blue, came and went upon her cheeks like the midnight dances of the northern lights her eyes flashed with a momentary brightness more than mortal, and the spirit fled. The fair orphan still clung to the neck, and kissed the yet warm lips of her dead mother.

As yet she was too young to see all the dreariness of the desolation around her; but she was indeed an orphan in the most cruel meaning of the word. Her mother had preserved a mystery over her sorrows and the circumstances of her life, which Mrs. Douglas had never endeavoured to penetrate. And now she was left to be as a mother to the helpless child, for she knew not if she had another friend; and all that she had heard of the mother’s history was recorded on the humble stone which she placed over her grave— "Here resteth the body of Isabella Morton, widow of Captain Morton; she died amongst us a stranger, but beloved." The whole property to which the fair orphan became heir by the death of her mother, did not amount to fifty pounds, and amongst the property no document was found which could throw any light upon who were her relatives, or if she had any. But the heart of Mrs. Douglas had already adopted her as a daughter; and, circumscribed as her circumstances were, she trusted that He who provided food for the very birds of heaven, would provide the orphan’s morsel.

Years rolled on, and Elizabeth Morton grew in stature and in beauty, the pride of her protector, and the joy of her age. But the infirmities of years grew upon her foster-mother, and, disabling her from following her habits of industry, stern want entered her happy cottage. Still Elizaseth appeared only as a thing of joy, contentment, and gratitude; and often did her evening song beguile her aged friend’s sigh into a smile. And to better their hard lot, she hired herself to watch a few sheep upon the neighbouring hills, to the steward of a gentleman, named Sommerville, who, about the time of her mother’s death, had purchased the estate of Thorndean. He was but little beloved, for he was a hard master, and a bad husband; and more than once he had been seen at the hour of midnight, in the silent churchyard, standing over the grave of Mrs. Morton. This gave rise, to not a few whisperings respecting the birth of poor Elizabeth. He had no children, and a nephew who resided in his house was understood to be his heir. William Sommerville was about a year older than our fair orphan; and ever as he could escape the eye of his uncle, he would fly to the village to seek out Elizabeth as a playmate. And now, while she tended the few sheep, he would steal round the hills, and placing himself by her side, teach her the lessons he had that day been taught, while his arm in innocence rested on her neck, their glowing cheeks touched each other, and her golden curls played around them. Often were their peaceful lessons broken by the harsh voice and the blows of his uncle. But still William stole to the presence of his playmate and pupil, until he had completed his fourteenth year; when he was to leave Thorndean, preparatory to entering the army. He was permitted to take a hasty farewell of the villagers, for they all loved the boy; but he went only to the cottage of Mrs. Douglas. As he entered, Elizabeth wept, and he also burst into tears. Their aged friend beheld the yearnings of a young passion that might terminate in sorrow; and taking his hand, she prayed God to prosper him, and bade him farewell. She was leading him to the door, when Elizabeth raised her tearful eyes; he beheld them, and read their meaning, and, leaping forward, threw his arms round her neck, and printed the first kiss on her forehead! "Do not forget me, Elizabeth," he cried, and hurried from the house.

Seven years from this period passed away. The loved girl was now transformed into the elegant woman, in the summer majesty of her beauty. For four years Elizabeth had kept a school in the village, to which her gentleness and winning manners drew prosperity; and her grey-haired benefactress enjoyed the reward of her benevolence. Preparations were making at Thorndean Hall for the reception of William, who was now returning as Lieutenant Sommerville. A post-chaise in the village had then become a sight less rare; but several cottagers were assembled before the inn to welcome the young laird. He arrived, and with him a gentleman between forty and fifty years of age. They had merely become acquainted as travelling companions; and the stranger being on his way northward, had accepted his invitation to rest at his uncle’s for a few days. The footpath to the Hall lay through the churchyard, about a quarter of a mile from the village. It was a secluded path, and Elizabeth was wont to retire to it between school hours, and frequently to spend a few moments in silent meditation over her mother’s grave. She was gazing upon it, when a voice arrested her attention, saying, "Elizabeth—Miss Morton!" The speaker was Lieutenant Sommerville, accompanied by his friend. To the meeting of the young lovers we shall add nothing. But the elder stranger gazed on her face and trembled, and looked on her mother’s grave and wept. "Morton!" he repeated, and read the inscription on the humble stone, and again gazed on her face, and again wept. "Lady!" he exclaimed, "pardon a miserable man—what was the name of your mother?—who the family of your father? Answer me, I implore you!" "Alas! I know neither," said the wondering and now unhappy Elizabeth. "My name is Morton," cried the stranger; "I had a wife—I had a daughter once, and my Isabella’s face was thy face!" While he yet spoke, the elder Sommerville drew near to meet his nephew. His eyes and the stranger’s met. "Sommerville!" exclaimed the stranger, starting. "The same," replied the other, his brow blackening like thunder, while a trembling passed over his body. He rudely grasped the arm of his nephew, and dragged him away. The interesting stranger accompanied Elizabeth to the house of Mrs. Douglas. Painful were his inquiries; for, while they kindled hope and assurance, they left all in cruel uncertainty. "Oh, sir!" said Mrs. Douglas, "if ye be the faither o’ my blessed bairn, I dinna wonder at auld Sommerville growing black in the face when he saw ye; for, when want came hard upon our heels, and my dear motherless and faitherless bairn was driven to herd his sheep by the brae sides—there wad the poor, dear, delicate bairn (for she was as delicate then as she’s bonny now)—been lying—the sheep a’ feeding round about her, and her readin’ at her Bible, just like a little angel, her lee lane, when the brute wad come sleekin’ down ahint her, an’ gien’ her a drive wi’ his foot, cursed her for a little lazy something I’m no gaun to name, an’ rugged her bonny yellow hair, till he had the half o’ it torn out o’ her head;—or the monster wad riven the blessed book out o’ her hand, an’ thrown it wi’ an oath as far as he could drive. But the nephew was aye a bit fine callant; only, ye ken, wi’ my bairn’s prospects, it wasna my part to encourage onything."

Eagerly did the stranger, who gave his name as Colonel Morton, hang over the fair being who had conjured up the sunshine of his youth. One by one, he was weeping and tracing every remembered feature of his wife upon her face; when doubt again entered his mind, and he exclaimed in bitterness—"Merciful Heaven! convince me! Oh, convince me that I have found my child!" The few trinkets that belonged to Mrs. Morton had been parted with in the depth of her poverty. At that moment, Lieutenant Sommerville hastily entered the cottage. He stated that his uncle had left the Hall, and delivered a letter from him to Colonel Morton. It was of few words, and as follows:--

"MORTON,—We were rivals for Isabella’s love—you were made happy, and I miserable. But I have not been unrevenged. It was I who betrayed you into the hands of the enemy. It was I who reported you dead—who caused tidings to be hastened to your widowed wife, and follow them to England. It was I who poisoned the ear of her friends, until they cast her off—I dogged her to her obscurity, that I might enjoy my triumph; but death thwarted me as you had done. Yet I will do one act of mercy—she sleeps beneath the grave where we met yesterday; and the lady before whom you wept—is your own daughter."

He cast down the letter, and exclaimed—"My child!--my long lost child!" And, in speechless joy, the father and the daughter rushed to each other’s arms. Shall we add more? The elder Sommerville left his native land, which he never again disgraced with his presence. William and Elizabeth wandered by the hill-side in bliss, catching love and recollections from the scene. In a few months her father bestowed on him her hand, and Mrs. Douglas, in joy and in pride, bestowed upon both her blessing.


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