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Good Words 1860
Lady Somerville's Maidens


(Continued from page 123.)

Oh the superb pride and insolence of these fine ladies of an essentially coarse time!—the ghastly dissipation, the fantastic folly! Miss Peggy and Miss Clara were gaunt, skinny, worn women, yet they appeared in the full dress and flaunting costume which would not have become Euphame's dewy teens at that hour and in private precincts. The strange, unhome-like look of their brocades, faded and stained, the open trains setting off the tarnished borders of the petticoats—the indecorous, undignified, almost irreverent effect of the square-cut bodices, and the bony arms exposed to the elbow—the hair, artificial at their time of life, in heavy curls falling back from the haggard, lined, high-coloured faces far down the shoulders! No fashion could have been more unkindly to the autumn of life, more opposed to simplicity, self-respect, and seriousness.

"Sister, I'm tired of the game. I'll rather bet a crown that you don't hold three spades and throw down the cards."

"Pooh! Peggy, I've four. There, I've won your money without any trouble," cried Miss Clara, cackling with joy, though the crown was nothing to her.

Miss Peggy grumbled in an equal degree at losing it, and scolded furiously her sister, her maid, the weather, the hour, her megrim, and the intruder on their amusement, inducing her to resign her good hand. "But it is time I was looking after my puppets; they've slept since morning. I must have them up and dressed, the darlings."

" And I must examine Phillis's eye. It has got a clour as black as my shoe, sister."

And both ladies turned to a settee, on which was placed a large wooden tray, containing rows of Dutch dolls in various costumes and stages of the toilette ; and each selecting her favourite, began to dandle and talk to it, and condole with it on its distresses, or congratulate it on its charms, with an amazing assumption of earnestness and fondness. "Hush-a-ba, Phillis —forget your dolour; go to sleep on my breast." "My bonnie Amarantha, you're fairer than Mrs Susannah; you 're my heart's delight." And, "Look, sister, what think you of Phillis's eye, is it not a wee better?" asks the one lady, anxiously. And "I trow not, Clara, I would ca' in the boom' body of a doctor," answers the other, decidedly. And they are not clean demented, as Euphame almost concludes, only fools after their whimsical folly. If either actors had appealed to Euphame, she would have put a summary end to the play, and enraged them beyond measure by the abrupt declaration, "Madam, it is but a doll!"

Lady Somerville had some of her numerous applicants already installed into her private chamber, so that she had to come down to Euphame, and content herself with conducting her into the little recess where stood her work-table, her inlaid desk, her high-backed chair, her hand-bell, and her foreign screen. Lady Somerville was fair to Euphame Napier—she was a little woman in weeds, with a wan, somewhat harassed face. Her fardingale was modest, her powdered hair under lappets, her juste-au-corps as much a covering as the mantle of Mrs Jonet of Bristo Street, her ivory-headed stick for use, because she was stiff from feebleness and sickness rather than from age. Lady Somerville had stood alone in her family. Moreover, she had been of a meek spirit, and she had been overwhelmed by some of the deep spiritual researches of her guides; and what tortures she had undergone, and how much arrogance was left in her, that drooping figure and that downcast face were there to tell. Mrs Jonet could have walked over her, Euphame could have struck her down with a straw, and yet she was stanch as the conscientious weak ones can be—to a point that ever touches the generous and strong to the quick— she resisted the taunts of her sisters, she combated her own fears, she fought with her heaviness and weariness of heart, she took counsel with the godly of her generation, and, greatest feat of all, she attempted to sift their opinions, and cleave to those of God, and reject those of man. No wonder that she was crushed, and bruised, and beaten in the experience, so appalling to her fine, frail powers; but for good, trembling, pensive, heroic Lady Somerville there was abounding consolation—on the heavenly shore was the well of life for her infirmities, and the light neither of sun nor moon which would no longer dazzle her shrinking vision.

Lady Somerville knew Euphame personally, and viewed her with great interest and satisfaction; she spoke very graciously to her, she was not frank, she was a reserved woman, trained in a very formal school, but there was an ineffable gentleness in her few words. "Euphame Napier, they tell me you've been a guid scholar, and docile, and obedient, and I see that your task is rarely done. Now that you are in your last year, I will write and recommend you to my friend Lady Ormeslaw, who wants a maid about her person. Euphame, I'm glad to do so."

How that low "I'm glad" sunk into Euphame's heart while she thanked Lady Somerville in her composed way! She had looked forward to promotion, and longed for change, with the inevitable youthful restlessness; but she forgot the independence, the novel scene, the country life, to listen to the echo of that "I'm glad." Euphame was the least agitated of the two at the commencement of the interview, but her heart was beginning to beat, and an enthusiasm for her mild, nervous benefactress was welling up in her strong, tenacious heart.

Lady Somerville, like most shy persons, warmed and opened with intercourse, and so she added in a sort of confidence and commendation to Euphame— "My hospital in Bristo Street has been a trial; you are one of the proofs that it has not failed. Now I'm sure that the girls are thriving body and spirit, and like to carry the benefit of a pious training into the vain world."

Lady Somerville ended quickly, and she looked in an opposite direction from her sisters with their dolls; but her brows contracted involuntarily, and she stifled a sigh.

What possessed Euphame to contradict her? unless the girl was blunt in her straightforwardness, and exaggerated in her scrupulousness.

"Madam, do not think better of me than I deserve. I've sometimes rebelled in secret against the rules of the Hospital, among the girls who cried out openly, when we ought to have been bowed down with gratitude, and to have run with joyful feet to do your bidding." Euphame ended remorsefully.

"What is this, lass?" asks Lady Somerville, startled; "were they hard? did I oppress you? I hoped that you had done well."

"Oh, never mind us, madam, that is, never think it was your fault, and we will do well, we will reward you as I ken you would be rewarded; the Lord forgive us for ever failing in our duty."

"But, Euphame Napier, what is wrong? are you not safe and happy?"

"I ask your pardon, Lady Somerville, but safety and happiness are surely not for this world. For aught more, I ween, it is ill replacing the ties of nature, and driving heads from so many different herds in the same gate."

"Well-a-wot it is, bairn. What did you want? Wherein did we fail you?" cried Lady Somerville, impatiently; for though she was unassuming and un-exacting, the sharp tooth of failure and disappointment, where she was tempted to believe she deserved success, piercing her thus unexpectedly, ruffled even her humility.

"I did not mean to complain—I never dreamt of complaining. Oh, what have I done?" cried Euphame, moved to distress. "I will never forget your kindness; I would go on my knees to serve you."

"You can never serve me. Serve the Lord and the brethren, and that is far better than serving me—nay, that is serving me as I would crave to be served, if I ken myself aright. I made a sacrifice for this Hospital. I thought here, at least, would be no mistake—here was a fair project—a good deed." And Lady Somerville wrung her slight, drooping hands, and gave way to a heart-sick groan.

It might have been an act of will-worship—a mortifying of the flesh, "which profiteth little;" but no question the cost had been heavy—no question that conscientious, delicate woman had paid it with drops of her heart's blood; and the moan came from the scarred wound, burning like the French grenadier's, when he finds his hardships and his losses all in vain, and his emperor, his emperor imprisoned!

Euphame's spirit responded to the sign—deep cried unto deep. She caught hold of Lady Somerville's gown—she turned and pled as the advocate on the opposite side of the cause. "It was a good deed, madam. I could swear to it. I would not ask a better to set against a new name. Oh, dinna you ken the spirit is willing though the flesh is weak; and the spirit and flesh maun toil together, and bear with each other, till the work is accomplished, and the world is free!"

Lady Somerville looked at her steadily, and was calmed and comforted. She smiled a sweet, pleased, piteous smile. "I believe you're a guid bairn, Euphame, and an honest, and I doubt not a faithful." She opened her work-table. "I meant to give you a little token, to make you a gift to mind you of me and help you in an extremity, and I'll let it be this, Euphame, for though you've troubled me, I've faith in you." She took out of a sandal-wood bos a small sparkling diamond rose, which had formed the centre of a rose-knot, a portion of a precious flower. "The provosts' wives of Edinburgh had these jewels as well as the ladies of Mar and Crawfurd, who bore the sword and the sceptre before the crown in the Old Ridings. When I wore this, Euphame, my gudeman, though he was but a city knight of a gentle line, entertained King Charles. I do not tell it in vain glory, lass, for I warn you there was muckle sorrow as well as waste came of that dinner, and I mean to impress upon you, Euphame, that I was a happier woman when I broke off the sprays and sold them to the goldsmith for funds to support my Hospital, though dule went with every bud—dule that was my ain, with which none may meddle. Now, there is the wee central flower to you, Euphame, who are an orphan, and the ane of my maidens who has pleased me the best, and who, I dare swear, will never make an ill use of my propyne. May it bring better luck to you than to me, my dear, and may it become a blessing in your hands! "

Euphame kissed Lady Somerville's hand, and cried, which was a singular thing with the girl, but she did not decline the favour, and as she took it the mantle of the giver seemed to descend on her braver being. "I will not ware it on myself, madam. I will keep it till I can sow your seed again by the waters like a maiden of Lady Somerville's."

Lady Somerville smiled very brightly this time, while a pale, pink flush coloured her cheeks; so when she was young, she must have had the soft, transparent bodily and spiritual beauty, which men called angelic when they recognised it in Lady Glenorchy. Nevertheless, she checked Euphame — "Bide a wee, Euphame Napier, look about you; make no rash vows, for they cannot be binding on a young lass. You may form other ties; you are a stately quean, and guid go with you, bairn; but if you should live on, and God grant you the heart and the means to renew the auld charity which reared you, or else to form another, in a new shape, for weans, orphans, vagabonds, auld soldiers, or auld wives, my blessing will be upon you, Euphame, though it be but a mist from the grave."

"Na, it will be dew from heaven, my Lady Somerville," answered Euphame.

Lady Somerville escorted Euphame to the door of the chamber; as they passed the old women at play, she hastily lifted up a few printed sheets from a side-table, and presented them also to her visitor; she wanted to drown the mocking commentaries of Miss Peggy and Miss Clara.

"You are a scholar, Euphame, and these are some pretty essays on manners—ane Donald Macstaff is to get up a Scotch version in this city. They are very sensible and pleasant reading, only they do not go to the root of the matter, lass."

To the students of the Marrow Doctrine, of Guthrie and of Boston, the elegant Spectator, with all his geniality and inward piety, was apt to seem but frivolous— somewhat of "a sounding brass and tinkling cymbal." But Miss Peggy and Miss Clara would be heard— "A lesson for a dyvour's daughter to read? Better a broom to teach her to sweep the floor." "The wee diamond rose, quo' she, for a beggar's boon? My Lady Somerville is red wud. A wylie coat is ower gude for her wench;" and so with disgust at the extravagance of the world, and renewed zeal in their own suitable, reasonable pursuits—once more to their dolls.

Euphame, of all the women in the world, had pledged herself to a work on impulse. Yet the impulse was far from uncongenial to her temper and mind. It filled a vacuum in her spirit—it afforded an earthly aim which had been wanting to her since the old mother slept away in the sanctuary of the Trinity. An impulse, with another girl, might have been momentary, and an impression evanescent, but with Euphame there was from early years great fidelity of purpose and performance. She could not even imagine drawing back. Had she not Lady Somerville's sparkling rose, and was it not an earnest of her intention—arles of her service? God might call her from the world, or lay her aside from active duty, but if she retained health and strength—nay, what did she say? Even if dead and gone, or sick and helpless, still by one of His wonderful providences He would enable her to redeem her vow, as Hannah of old did not fail to bring her son Samuel, her only son, with the three bullocks, and the ephah of flour, and the bottle of wine, and leave him in God's house, and return very solitary, though Elkanah bore her company, to her own house at Ramah.

The interview with Lady Somerville, her gift, whose value was the least source of its power, though Euphame guessed that too, and the promise she had voluntarily offered her, had a great effect on Euphame Napier, who, while far more settled and resolute in principle than most girls of her age, was at a time of life when the character is still very plastic, and liable to receive strong biases to domestic or social interests, personality or humanity, vivacity or reflection. It could scarcely be that a good woman like Euphame, with the blessed seal of godliness on her soul, enthusiastic, not with a frothy enthusiasm, but with the still, sober-minded intentness of a strong, pure nature, could in her tender youth adopt a generous plan, and pursue far off in the distance a benevolent result, without advantage to her own growth in single-heartedness, peace, heavenly-mindedness. Do not say such an experience is impossible in a young woman—that depends on her constitution. From Sarah Martin, the young dressmaker, who preached to the spirits in prison, to Jeanne d'Arc, the innkeeper's daughter, who delivered her country, there have been young women willing and able to devote themselves to high causes and lofty conclusions. Remember the rich man's wife, who relinquished her diamonds and wore the red and white roses. Don't you think many a mean observer and malicious sneerer insisted it was only for a time, a freak, an attempt to gain notoriety, a bit of French renunciation of the world? Don't you believe they would say, "It would not last long, only till she had ceased to care for this species of renown, till the sensation she had created had passed away, till the excitement women love should be over—until they arrived at the last suggestion, (base from a man's lips—that seething the kid in its mother's milk,) until some lover crossed the scene, some man appeared on the stage, and played his part, and exerted his influence, and revealed the woman in ail her natural folly?" Ah ! but the rich lady wore the red and white roses without coquetry, be assured, till she was threescore and ten, and their fragrance floated reverently, lovingly, over her grave. Good soul! true heart! honour her even in fantasy.

To say that it is unbecoming and unwise this assumption of wide charity and copy of a noble standard by those who are confessedly weak, and ought to be conformably humble to timidity and submissive to slavishness, is another argument, and can only be answered by statistics. It was true that Euphame ran the risk of being spoiled as well as improved by her adherence to this order of female chivalry—it was true that she was actually injured by it, but it remained to be proved how far the benefit exceeded the injury, and whether she was not led by sure paths to counteract and control the evil tendencies of her position, and to rise a conqueror.

What holy influence descending on earth is not liable to abuse? What divine force in the hands of humanity is utterly free from error? Look at the facts of the history of St Margaret, regard what was false in her practise, and consider how poor Malcolm was sometimes worried and sometimes chilled by her saintliness. Read the history of St Catherine of Sienna, (there was a chapel to St Catherine as well as to St Roque on Euphame's Borough Moor, somewhere near the Grange, "within a mile o' Edinburgh town,") ponder over the abstraction of the young Italian girl from her coarse and vicious family, and the elevation to which she did not raise them, but from which she looked down upon their degradation. Attend to modern literature and present life; sift the loud complaints against busy or energetic charitable women. What is in fault? Is it a phase of selfishness—the worm at the core of all pleasant fruit? Is it a want of simplicity—not doing what the hand first finds to do, not accepting the nearest, and the lowliest, and the commonest obligations as altogether binding, and never set aside by the laws of the great God who founded these natural ties? Is it, after all, a want of that humility and charity greater than hope and faith?

Whatever the root of the offence, the unwelcome shoots appeared in Euphame. Always a firm, composed girl, she grew more and more undemonstrative and indifferent, as far as an honest, right-hearted, religious girl can be indifferent, to the tastes and feelings of her neighbours. She was not indifferent to their welfare—she would have read the Bible to them and discoursed and prayed with them, according to her graces and gifts, and the habits of her training, until they had bidden her cease; she would have sat up with them night after night while they tossed under a fever, and tended them with the coolest and lightest hand; she would have burned herself to the bone to extinguish a spark of fire which threatened them — not only so, but, after her own task was done, she would have stitched all day at their apparel, or baked and brewed at their batch and brewst. But do not mistake, Euphame did not really care for them—she did not listen to their conversation, she did not heed their ways, she did not please and gratify them in trifles, she lost sight of them altogether for those shadowy old women (Euphame had decided that her regiment was to be made up of old women like the one fond old woman after whom she yearned, but she was then and always, as might have been expected, silent on her views and plans)—those shadowy old women, cold and gray, for whom she was to work and save throughout her prime, and whom she was at last to have the dear joy of feeding and clothing and comforting in the name of her Lord and theirs, and in memory of Lady Somerville and her mother.

In reality, many of Euphame's companions were weaklings to herself, and she did not try to render them stronger. She had to work out and fashion into credible proportions her hospital of the future. There are everywhere peasant girls bearing baskets of eggs, and dreaming of the hatched chickens, the hens, the lamb, the calf, the future little farm or shop, in addition to the gay gown and bunch of ribbons, until, lo! the great crash in the spiritual as well as the temporal world. Didst never dream thy dream, friend, of a grand good work in expectation, and fight to accomplish it with a feverishness that became self-will, conceit, faithlessness, and impotency, and awake to find that thou hadst burnt thy fingers and committed every imaginable mischief among the "little things," the eggs which were thine own? So Euphame, with the secret of her diamond rose, which she only shewed as a hard duty to Mrs Jonet, and had it met with the withering condemnation and derision of the dogmatic, one-sided, harsh woman.

Euphame's clear atmosphere was gradually freezing. She was literally undergoing a process of ossification, and it remained to be proved whether the hardening would endure and leave her an estimable woman, but singularly crippled and paralysed, and comparatively useless, or whether the rays of God's sunbeams of providence would melt the crust and let loose the floods of tenderness sealed up in the vigorous nature, and make it warm and sweet as it was sound, and gracious as it was righteous.

VII.

The aisle to the Assembly House of that juncture was the busy street where royal commissioner, noble and gentle elders, learned and pious divines, were apt to be jostled on the first days of their meeting by interested spectators and friends, who greeted them by appointment at the well-known door of St Giles's, itself a public walk, as the London St Paul's of an earlier period, and bargains were concluded and debts paid at an illustrious counter, even the tomb of the good Regent Moray, in the old Holy Blude Aisle. The neighbouring windows were in request, though the Assembly was a place of less stirring interest now than in former years; and Mrs Jonet, who went rarely abroad on pleasure, and might be said only to attend the kirk on Sabbath-day, and on the diets of examination on Thursday mornings, to wait upon Lady Somerville and her dependents, and to make markets, came expressly to her friend Mrs Lilias Campbell's, and from the windows of her room above the hosiery shop viewed the leaders of her cause, and brought with her Euphame Napier, who, as a great girl, equivalent to a parlour border in modern acceptation, was supposed to be able to see and profit by a little real life.

Nothing cared Mrs Jonet for the Lord High Commissioner, his coach, his guards, his gentlemen, his footmen, his coachmen, the last with their powder, their cocked hats, their nosegays, nearly solitary preserved specimens of the magnificent costumes contemporary with Queen Anne. What was my lord, whether Annandale, Glasgow, or Atholl, to her but a vain representative of majesty, whom she was strongly tempted to doubt as tampering with the perfect freedom of her Kirk; though, apart from religious matters, Mrs Jonet, like most women of her rank in that day, was highly and stiffly aristocratic, and her friendships by no means disproved the fact. Mrs Lilias Campbell was a spinster of many descents, and of a distinguished coat of arms, though her tocher and its interest only furnished her aumrie with oatmeal, salt pork, and herrings, except on state occasions. It was the black coats—the black coats—the company of the preachers, the godly men who fed them with the bread of life, and preserved it pure from the tasteless leaven of prelacy and the deleterious drugs of popery, the heirs and successors of the martyrs, nay, some of them aged witnesses of "the black times," upon whom Mrs Jonet gazed with her great, stern, deep-searching eyes, and for whom Euphame watched with almost equal interest.

The Scotch Assembly meets in the sweet springtime, when the beautiful city is at the height of its beauty, when tender green buds are bursting on every hand, and tempering the romantic grandeur of its crags, and making glad the blue of the Frith slumbering at its feet Old Edinburgh was not without its visions of fresh, feathery twigs, pure lily-cups, and purple buds of coming lilac. Though public gardens were not, the old city gates opened abruptly upon country suburbs and country fields pressing to its walls; and its private gardens were so extensive and so generally appreciated that they were allowed to become in a measure the people's property, so that my Lady Murray's garden was as well-favoured an assignation as the King's Park or the Duke's Walk. Therefore there was a sunshiny brightness and softness about the crowds in the old street, and their office of considering the abjuration oath, and vindicating the right to appoint national fasts.

Among the observers studying the well-known features of the marked men of the Assembly were members of all classes, laity of every degree, some of them famous in their turn, and a due proportion of them women. Here were not the city belles. Mrs Susannah, whose paean little Katie Crichton had sounded, or "Mally Lee," equally lovely and still more favoured since,—in proud Holyrood,

"A prince came out frae 'mong them a' wi' garter at his knee,
And danced a stately minuette wi' bonnie Mally Lee."

These were the future stars of Allan Ramsay's horizon —poor, kindly, gifted Allan, with his cage for his bird (his faithful old wife) on the Castlehill, and the roses blossoming in at the window, which looked over Scotland's straths as far as the blue Grampians, where the poet's dead body lay. [Chambers's "Traditions of Edinburgh."] Allan Ramsay in his youth was already undergoing that divorce of his genius from the expression of the religion of his country so fatal to greater than Allan. And here, in presence this day, was an evil example of the letter and spirit of the deed. Sir George Mackenzie sauntered out of the Parliament Close, and chatted with one or other of his acquaintances. Granted Sir George was the founder of our greatest national library, one whom Dryden regarded as a friend, and the very first writer of classic English prose in Scotland—he is "bluidy Mackenzie" past reprieve. A free man in mind, a despot in heart, the unhesitating executor of his king's cruel measures against his fellow-subjects, whom he might have regarded as bigoted fanatics and troublesome rebels, but who were still his countrymen, asserting presumed rights, and fighting from honest consciences. Give freely to Mackenzie all intellectual height, endow his face with the elegance which, by comparison, refined the expression of his thoughts and fancies, bestow upon his figure the full dignity of cultivation and power, and—surrounding him with the boots, the thumbscrews, and the lit matches which he placed between the fingers of faithful peasants and fearless students,—leave the picture to posterity.

(To be continued.)


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