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Book of Scottish Story
The Minister's Widow

The dwelling of the minister's widow stood within a few miles of the beautiful village of Castle-Holm, about a hundred low-roofed houses that had taken the name of the parish of which they were the little romantic capital. Two small regular rows of cottages faced each other, on the gentle acclivity of a hill, separated by a broomy common of rich pasturage, through which hurried a translucent loch-born rivulet, with here and there its shelves and waterfalls overhung by the alder or weeping birch. Each straw-roofed abode, snug and merry as a beehive, had behind it a few roods of garden ground; so that, in spring, the village was 'covered with a fragrant cloud of blossoms on the pear, apple, and plum trees ; and in autumn was brightened with golden fruitage. In the heart of the village stood the manse, and in it had she who was now a widow passed twenty years of privacy and peace. On the death of her husband, she had retired with her family— three boys—to the pleasant cottage which they now inhabited. It belonged to the old lady of the castle, who was patroness of the parish, and who accepted from the minister's widow of a mere trifle as a nominal rent. On approaching the village, strangers always fixed upon Sunnyside for the manse itself, for an air of serenity and retirement brooded over it, as it looked out from below its sheltering elms, and the farmyard with its corn-stack, marking the homestead of the agricultural tenant, was there wanting. A neat gravel-walk winded away, without a weed, from the white gate by the roadside, through lilacs and laburnums; and the unruffled and unbroken order of all the breathing things that grew around, told that a quiet and probably small family lived within those beautiful boundaries.

The change from the manse to Sunny-side had been with the widow a change from happiness to resignation. Her husband had died of a consumption ; and for nearly a year she had known that his death was inevitable. Both of them had lived in the spirit of that Christianity which he had preached ; and therefore the last year they passed together, in spite of the many bitter tears which she who was to be the survivor shed when none were by to see, was perhaps on the whole the best deserving of the name of happiness of the twenty that had passed over their earthly union. To the dying man Death had lost all his terrors. He sat beside his wife, with his bright hollow eyes and emaciated frame, among the balmy shades of his garden, and spoke with fervour of the many tender mercies God had vouchsafed to them here, and of the promises made to all who believed in the Gospel. They did not sit together to persuade, to convince, or to uphold each other's faith, for they believed in the things that were unseen, just as they believed in the beautiful blossomed arbour that then contained them in its shading silence. Accordingly, when the hour was at hand in which he was to render up his spirit into the hand of God, he was like a grateful and wearied man falling into a sleep. His widow closed his eyes with her own hands, nor was her soul then disquieted within her. In a few days she heard the bell tolling, and from her sheltered window looked out, and followed the funeral with streaming eyes, but an un-weeping heart. With a calm countenance and humble voice she left and bade farewell to the sweet manse, where she had so long been happy; and as her three beautiful boys, with faces dimmed by natural grief, but brightened by natural gladness, glided before her steps, she shut the gate of her new dwelling with an undisturbed soul, and moved her lips in silent thanksgiving to the God of the fatherless and the widow.

Her three boys, each one year older than the other, grew in strength and beauty, the pride and flower of the parish. In school they were quiet and composed; but in play-hours they bounded in their glee together like young deer, and led the sportful flock in all their excursions through wood or over moor. They resembled, in features and in voice, both of their gentle parents; but nature had moulded to quite another character their joyful and impetuous souls. When sitting or walking with their mother, they subdued their spirits down to suit her equable and gentle contentment, and behaved towards her with a delicacy and thoughtfulness which made her heart to sing for joy. So, too, did they sit in the kirk on Sabbath, and during all that day the fountain of their joy seemed to subside and to lie still. They knew to stand solemnly with their mother, now and then on the calm summer evenings, beside their father's grave. They remembered well his pale kind face—his feeble walk—his bending frame—his hand laid in blessing on their young heads—and the last time they ever heard him speak. The glad boys had not forgotten their father; and that they proved by their piety unto her whom most on earth had their father loved. But their veins were filled with youth, health, and the electricity of joy; and they carried without and within the house such countenances as at any time coming upon their mother's eyes on a sudden, were like a torch held up in the dim melancholy of a mist, diffusing cheerfulness and elevation.

Years passed on. Although the youngest was but a boy, the eldest stood on the verge of manhood, for he had entered his seventeenth year, and was bold, straight, and tall, with a voice deepening in its tone, a graver expression round the gladness of his eyes, and a sullen mass of coal-black hair hanging over the smooth whiteness of his open forehead. But why describe the three beautiful brothers? They knew that there was a world lying at a distance that called upon them to leave the fields, and woods, and streams, and lochs of Castle-Holm; and, born and bred in peace as they had been, their restless hearts were yet all on fire, and they burned to join a life of danger, strife, and tumult. No doubt it gave their mother a sad heart to think that all her three boys, who she knew loved her so tenderly, could leave her alone, and rush into the far-off world. But who shall curb nature? Who ought to try to curb it when its bent is strong? She reasoned a while, and tried to dissuade; but it was in vain. Then she applied to her friends; and the widow of the minister of Castle-Holm, retired as his life had been, was not without friends of rank and power. In one year her three boys had their wish;—in one year they left Sunnyside, one after the other; William to India, Edward to Spain, and Harry to a man-of-war.

Still was the widow happy. The house that so often used to be ringing with joy, was now indeed too, too silent; and that utter noiselessness sometimes made her heart sick, when sitting by herself in the solitary room. But by nature she was a gentle, meek, resigned, and happy being; and had she even been otherwise, the sorrow she had suffered, and the spirit of religion which her whole life had instilled, must have reconciled her to what was now her lot. Great cause had she to be glad. Far away as India was, and seemingly more remote in her imagination, loving letters came from her son there in almost every ship that sailed for Britain; and if at times something delayed them, she came to believe in the necessity of such delays, and, without quaking, wailed till the blessed letter did in truth appear. Of Edward, in Spain, she often heard—though for him she suffered more than for the others. Not that she loved him better, for, like three stars, each possessed alike the calm heaven of her heart; but he was with Wellington, and the regiment in which he served seemed to be conspicuous in all skirmishes, and in every battle. Henry, her youngest boy, who left her before he had finished his fourteenth year, she often heard from; his ship sometimes put into port; and once, to the terror and consternation of her loving and yearning heart, the young midshipman stood before her, with a laughing voice, on the floor of the parlour, and rushed into her arms. He had got leave of absence for a fortnight ; and proudly, although sadly too, did she look on her dear boy when he was sitting in the kirk with his uniform on, and his war-weapons by his side—a fearless and beautiful stripling, on whom many an eye was insensibly turned even during service. And, to be sure, when the congregation were dismissed, and the young sailor came smiling out into the churchyard, never was there such a shaking of hands seen before. The old men blessed the gallant boy; many of the mothers looked at him not without tears; and the young maidens, who had heard that he had been in a bloody engagement, and once nearly shipwrecked, gazed upon him with unconscious blushes, and bosoms that beat with innocent emotion. A blessed week it was indeed that he was then with his mother; and never before had Sunnyside seemed so well to deserve its name.

To love, to fear, and to obey God, was the rule of this widow's life; and the time was near at hand when she was to be called upon to practise it in every silent, secret, darkest corner and recess of her afflicted spirit. Her eldest son, William, fell in storming a fort in India, as he led the forlorn-hope. He was killed dead in a moment, and fell into the trench with all his lofty plumes. Edward was found dead at Talavera, with the colours of his regiment tied round his body. And the ship in which Henry was on board, that never would have struck her flag to any human power sailing on the sea, was driven by a storm on a reef of rocks, went to pieces during the night and of eight hundred men, not fifty were saved. Of that number Henry was not; but his body was found next day on the sand, along with those of many of the crew, and buried, as it deserved, with all honours, and in a place where few but sailors slept.

In one month—one little month— did the tidings of the three deaths reach Sunnyside. A government letter informed her of William's death in India, and added, that, on account of the distinguished character of the young soldier, a small pension would be settled on his mother. Had she been starving of want instead of blessed with competence, that word would have had then no meaning to her ear. Yet true it is, that a human—an earthly—pride cannot be utterly extinguished, even by severest anguish, in a mothers heart, yea, even although her best hopes are garnered up in heaven ; and the weeping widow could not help feeling it now, when, with the black wax below her eyes, she read how her dead buy had not fallen in the service of an ungrateful state. A few days afterwards a letter came from himself, written in the highest spirits and tenderest affection. His mother looked at every word— every letter—every dash of the pen;— and still one thought—one thought only, was in her soul;— "the living hand that traced these lines—where, what is it now?" But this was the first blow only; ere the new moon was visible, the widow knew that she was altogether childless.

It was in a winter hurricane that her youngest boy had perished; and the names of those whose health had hitherto been remembered at every festal Christmas, throughout all the parish, from the castle to the humblest hut, were now either suppressed within the heart, or pronounced with a low voice and a sigh. During three months, Sunnyside looked almost as if uninhabited. Yet the smoke from one chimney told that the childless widow was sitting alone at her fireside; and when her only servant was spoken to at church, or on the village-green, and asked how her mistress was bearing these dispensations, the answer was, that her health seemed little, if at all impaired, and that she talked of coming to divine service in a few weeks, if her strength would permit. She had been seen through the leafless hedge standing at the parlour window, and had motioned with her hand to a neighbour, who in passing, had uncovered his head. Her weekly bounty to several poor and bed-ridden persons had never suffered but one week's intermission. It was always sent to them on Saturday night; and it was on a Saturday night that all the parish had been thrown into tears, with the news that Henry's ship had been wrecked, and the brave boy drowned. On that evening she had forgotten the poor.

But now the Spring had put forth her tender buds and blossoms—had strewn the black ground under the shrubs with flowers, and was bringing up the soft, tender, and beautiful green over the awakening face of the earth. There was a revival of the spirit of life and gladness over the garden, and the one encircling field of Sunnyside; and so likewise, under the grace of God, was there a revival of the soul that had been sorrowing within its concealment. On the first sweet dewy Sabbath of May, the widow was seen closing behind her the little white gate, which for some months her hand had not touched. She gave a gracious, but mournful smile, to all her friends, as she passed on through the midst of them along with the minister who had joined her on entering the churchyard; and although it was observed that she turned pale as she sat down in her pew, with the Bibles and Psalm-books that had belonged to her sons lying before her, as they themselves had enjoined when they went away, yet her face brightened even as her heart began to burn within her at the simple music of the psalm. The prayers of the congregation had some months before been requested for her, as a person in great distress ; and, during service, the young minister, according to her desire, now said a few simple words, that intimated to the congregation that the childless widow was, through his lips returning thanks to Almighty God, for that He had not forsaken her in her trouble, but sent resignation and peace.

From that day she was seen, as before, in her house, in her garden, along the many pleasant walks all about the village; and in the summer evenings, though not so often as formerly, in the dwellings of her friends, both high and low. From her presence a more gentle manner seemed to be breathed over the rude, and a more heartfelt delicacy over the refined. Few had suffered as she had suffered; all her losses were such as could be understood, felt, and wept over by all hearts; and all boisterous-ness or levity of joy would have seemed an outrage on her, who, sad and melancholy herself, yet wished all around her happy, and often lighted up her countenance with a grateful smile at the sight of that pleasure which she could not but observe to be softened, sobered, and subdued for her sake.

Such was the account of her, her sorrow, and her resignation, which I received on the first visit I paid to a family near Castle-Holm, after the final consummation of her grief. Well-known to me had all the dear boys been; their father and mine had been labourers in the same vineyard; and as I had always been a welcome visitor, when a boy, at the manse of Castle-Holm, so had I been, when a man, at Sunnyside. Last time I had been there, it was during the holidays, and I had accompanied the three boys on their fishing excursions to the lochs in the moor; and in the evenings pursued with them their humble and useful studies. So I could not leave Castle-Holm without visiting Sunnyside, although my heart misgave me, and I wished I could have delayed it till another summer.

I sent word that I was coming to see her, and I found her sitting in that well-known little parlour where I had partaken the pleasure of so many merry evenings with those whose laughter was now extinguished. We sat for awhile together speaking of ordinary topics, and then utterly silent. But the restraint she had imposed upon herself she either thought unnecessary any longer, or felt it to be impossible; and rising up, went to a little desk, from which she brought forth three miniatures, and laid them down upon the table before us, saying, "Behold the faces of my three dead boys!"

So bright, breathing, and alive did they appear, that for a moment I felt impelled to speak to them, and to whisper their names. She beheld my emotion, and said unto me, "Oh! could you believe that they are all dead? Does not that smile on Willie's face seem as if it were immortal? do not Edward's sparkling eyes look so bright as if the mists of death could never have overshadowed them? and think— oh ! think, that ever Henry's golden hair should have been dragged in the brine, and filled full—full, I doubt not, of the soiling sand!"

I put the senseless images one by one to my lips, and kissed their foreheads— for dearly had I loved these three brothers; and then I shut them up and removed them to another part of the room, I wished to speak, but I could not; and, looking on the face of her who was before me, I knew that her grief would find utterance) and that not until she had unburdened her heart could it be restored to repose.

"They would tell you, sir, that I bear my trials well; but it is not so. Many, many unresigned and ungrateful tears has my God to forgive in me, a poor, weak, and repining worm. Almost every day, almost every night, do I weep before these silent and beautiful phantoms; and when I wipe away the breath and mist of tears from their faces, there are they, smiling continually upon me! Oh! death is a shocking thought, when it is linked in love with creatures so young as these! More insupportable is gushing tenderness, than even dry despair; and, methinks, I could bear to live without them, and never to see them more, if I could only cease to pity them! But that can never be. It is for them I weep, not for myself. If they were to be restored to life, would I not lie down with thankfulness into the grave? William and Edward were struck down, and died, as they thought. in glory and triumph. Death to them was merciful. But who can know, although they may try to dream of it in horror, what the youngest of them, my sweet Harry, suffered, through that long dark howling night of snow, when the ship was going to pieces on the rocks!"

That last dismal thought held her for a while silent; and some tears stood in drops on her eyelashes, but seemed again to be absorbed. Her heart appeared unable to cling to the horrors of the shipwreck, although it coveted them ; and her thoughts reverted to other objects. "I walk often into the rooms where they used to sleep, and look on their beds till I think I see their faces lying with shut eyes on their pillows. Early in the morning do I often think I hear them singing; I awaken from troubled unrest, as if the knock of their sportive hands were at my door summoning me to rise. All their stated hours of study and of play, when they went to school and returned from it, when they came into meals, when they said their prayers, when they went leaping at night to bed as lightsomely, after all the day's fatigue, as if they had just risen—Oh! Sir, at all these times, and many, and many a time besides these, do I think of them whom you loved."

While thus she kept indulging the passion of her grief, she observed the tears I could no longer conceal; and the sight of my sorrow seemed to give, for a time, a loftier character to hers, as if my weakness made her aware of her own, and she had become conscious of the character of her vain lamentations. "Yet, why should I so bitterly weep? Pain had not troubled them—passion had not disturbed them—vice had not polluted them. May I not say, 'My children are in heaven with their father?" —and ought I not, therefore, to dry up all these foolish tears now and for evermore?"

Composure was suddenly shed over her countenance, like gentle sunlight over a cheerless day, and she looked around the room as if searching for some pleasant objects that eluded her sight. "See," said she, "yonder are all their books, arranged just as Henry arranged them on his unexpected visit. Alas! too many of them are about the troubles and battles of the sea ! But it matters not now. You are looking at that drawing. It was done by himself —that is the ship he was so proud of, sailing in sunshine and a pleasant breeze. Another ship, indeed, was she soon after, when she lay upon the reef! But as for the books, I take them out of their places, and dust them, and return them to their places, every week. I used to read to my boys, sitting round my knees, out of many of these books, before they could read themselves; but now I never peruse them, for their cheerful stories are not for me. But there is one Book I do read, and without it 1 should long ago have been dead. The more the heart suffers, the more does it understand that Book. Never do I read a single chapter, without feeling assured of something more awful in our nature than I felt before. My own heart misgives me; my own soul betrays me; all my comforts desert me in a panic; but never yet once did I read one whole page of the New Testament that I did not know that the eye of God is on all His creatures, and on me like the rest, though my husband and all my sons are dead, and I may have many years yet to live alone on the earth."

After this we walked out into the little avenue, now dark with the deep rich shadows of summer beauty. We looked at that beauty, and spoke of the surpassing brightness of the weather during all June, and advancing July. It is not in nature always to be sad; and the remembrance of all her melancholy and even miserable confessions was now like an uncertain echo, as I beheld a placid smile on her face, a smile of such perfect resignation, that it might not falsely be called a smile of joy. We stood at the little while gate; and, with a gentle voice, that perfectly accorded with that expression, she bade God bless me; and then with composed steps, and now and then turning up, as she walked along, the massy flower-branches of the laburnum, as, bent with their load of beauty, they trailed upon the ground, she disappeared into that retirement which, notwithstanding all I had seen and heard, I could not but think deserved almost to be called happy, in a world which even the most thoughtless know is a world of sorrow.

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