Not Great, But Happy
How pure and sweet is the love of young hearts! How little does it contain of earth--how much of heaven! No selfish passions mar its beauty. Its tenderness, its pathos, its devotion, who does not remember, even when the sere leaves of autumn are rustling beneath his feet? How little does it regard the cold and calculating objections of worldly-mindedness. They are heard but as a passing murmur. The deep, unswerving confidence of young love, what a blessed thing it is! Heart answers to heart without an unequal throb. The world around is bright and beautiful: the atmosphere is filled with spring's most delicious perfumes.
From this dream--why should we call it a dream?--Is it not a blessed reality?--Is not young, fervent love, true love? Alas! this is an evil world, and man's heart is evil. From this dream there is too often a tearful awaking. Often, too often, hearts are suddenly torn asunder, and wounds are made that never heal, or, healing, leave hard, disfiguring scars. But this is not always so. Pure love sometimes finds its own sweet reward. I will relate one precious instance.
The Baron Holbein, after having passed ten years of active life in a large metropolitan city of Europe, retired to his estate in a beautiful and fertile valley, far away from the gay circle of fashion--far away from the sounds of political rancor with which he had been too long familiar--far away from the strife of selfish men and contending interests. He had an only child, Nina, just fifteen years of age. For her sake, as well as to indulge his love of quiet and nature, he had retired from the world. Her mother had been with the angels for some years. Without her wise counsels and watchful care, the father feared to leave his innocent-minded child exposed to the temptations that must gather around her in a large city.
For a time Nina missed her young companions, and pined to be with them. The old castle was lonely, and the villagers did not interest her. Her father urged her to go among the peasantry, and, as an inducement, placed a considerable sum of money at her command, to be used as she might see best in works of benevolence. Nina's heart was warm, and her impulses generous. The idea pleased her, and she acted upon it. She soon found employment enough both for her time and the money placed at her disposal. Among the villagers was a woman named Blanche Delebarre, a widow, whose only son had been from home since his tenth year, under the care of an uncle, who had offered to educate him, and fit him for a life of higher usefulness than that of a mere peasant. There was a gentleness about this woman, and something that marked her as superior to her class. Yet she was an humble villager, dependent upon the labor of her own hands, and claimed no higher station.
Nina became acquainted with Blanche soon after the commencement of her residence at the castle. When she communicated to her the wishes of her father, and mentioned the money that had been placed at her disposal, the woman took her hand and said, while a beautiful light beamed from her countenance--
"It is more blessed to give than to receive, my child. Happy are they who have the power to confer benefits, and who do so with willing hearts. I fear, however, that you will find your task a difficult one. Everywhere are the idle and undeserving, and these are more apt to force themselves forward as objects of benevolence than the truly needy and meritorious. As I know every one in the village, perhaps I may be able to guide you to such objects as deserve attention."
"My good mother," replied Nina, "I will confide in your judgment. I will make you my almoner."
"No, my dear young lady, it will be better for you to dispense with your own hands. I will merely aid you to make a wise dispensation."
"I am ready to begin. Show me but the way."
"Do you see that company of children on the green?" said Blanche.
"Yes. And a wild company they are."
"For hours each day they assemble as you see them, and spend their time in idle sports. Sometimes they disagree and quarrel. That is worse than idleness. Now, come here. Do you see that little cottage yonder on the hill-side, with vines clustering around the door?"
"An aged mother and her daughter reside there. The labor of the daughter's hands provides food and raiment for both. These children need instruction, and Jennet Fleury is fully qualified to impart it. Their parents cannot, or will not, pay to send them to school, and Jennet must receive some return for her labors, whatever they be."
"I see it all," cried Nina with animation. "There must be a school in the village. Jennet shall be the teacher."
"If this can be done, it will be a great blessing," said Blanche.
"It shall be done. Let us go over to that sweet little cottage at once and see Jennet."
The good Blanche Delebarre made no objection. In a little while they entered the cottage. Every thing was homely, but neat and clean. Jennet was busy at her reel when they entered. She knew the lady of Castle Holbein, and arose up quickly and in some confusion. But she soon recovered herself, and welcomed, with a low courtesy, the visitors who had come to grace her humble abode. When the object of this visit was made known, Jennet replied that the condition of the village children had often pained her, and that she had more than once prayed that some way would open by which they could receive instruction. She readily accepted the proposal of Nina to become their teacher, and wished to receive no more for the service than what she could now earn by reeling silk.
It did not take long to get the proposed school in operation. The parents were willing to send their children, the teacher was willing to receive them, and the young lady patroness was willing to meet the expenses.
Nina said nothing to her father of what she was doing. She wished to surprise him some day, after every thing was going on prosperously. But a matter of so much interest to the neighborhood could not remain a secret. The school had not been in operation two days before the baron heard all about it. But he said nothing to his daughter. He wished to leave her the pleasure which he knew she desired, that of telling him herself.
At the end of a month Nina presented her father with an account of what she had done with the money he had placed in her hands. The expenditure had been moderate enough, but the good done was far beyond the baron's anticipations. Thirty children were receiving daily instructions; nurses had been employed, and medicines bought for the sick; needy persons, who had no employment, were set to work in making up clothing for children, who, for want of such as was suitable, could not attend the school. Besides, many other things had been done. The account was looked over by the Baron Holbein, and each item noted with sincere pleasure. He warmly commended Nina for what she had done; he praised the prudence with which she had managed what she had undertaken; and begged her to persevere in the good work.
For the space of more than a year did Nina submit to her father, for approval, every month an accurate statement of what she had done, with a minute account of all the moneys expended. But after that time she failed to render this account, although she received the usual supply, and was as actively engaged as before in works of benevolence among the poor peasantry. The father often wondered at this, but did not inquire the cause. He had never asked an account: to render it had been a voluntary act, and he could not, therefore, ask why it was withheld. He noticed, however, a change in Nina. She was more thoughtful, and conversed less openly than before. If he looked at her intently, her eyes would sink to the floor, and the color deepen on her cheek. She remained longer in her own room, alone, than she had done since their removal to the castle. Every day she went out, and almost always took the direction of Blanche Delebarre's cottage, where she spent several hours.
Intelligence of his daughter's good deeds did not, so often as before, reach the old baron's ears; and yet Nina drew as much money as before, and had twice asked to have the sum doubled. The father could not understand the meaning of all this. He did not believe that any thing was wrong--he had too much confidence in Nina--but he was puzzled. We will briefly apprise the reader of the cause of this change.
One day--it was nearly a year from the time Nina had become a constant visitor at Blanche Delebarre's--the young lady sat reading a book in the matron's cottage. She was alone--Blanche having gone out to visit a sick neighbor at Nina's request. A form suddenly darkened the door, and some one entered hurriedly. Nina raised her eyes, and met the gaze of a youthful strange, who had paused and stood looking at her with surprise and admiration. With more confusion, but with not less of wonder and admiration, did Nina return the stranger's gaze.
"Is not this the cottage of Blanche Delebarre?" asked he, after a moment's pause. His voice was low and musical.
"It is," replied Nina. "She has gone to visit a sick neighbor, but will return shortly."
"Is my mother well?" asked the youth.
Nina rose to her feet. This, then, was Pierre Delebarre, of whom his mother had so often spoke. The heart of the maiden fluttered.
"The good Blanche is well," was her simple reply. "I will go and say to her that her son has come home. It will make her heart glad."
"My dear young lady, no!" said Pierre. "Do not disturb my mother in her good work. Let her come home and meet me here--the surprise will add to the pleasure. Sit down again. Pardon my rudeness--but are not you the young lady from the castle, of whom my mother so often writes to me as the good angel of the village? I am sure you must be, or you would not be alone in my mother's cottage."
Nina's blushes deepened, but she answered without disguise that she was from the castle.
A full half hour passed before Blanche returned. The young and artless couple did not talk of love with their lips during that time, but their eyes beamed with a mutual passion. When the mother entered, so much were they interested in each other, that they did not hear her approaching footstep. She surprised them leaning toward each other in earnest conversation.
The joy of the mother's heart was great on meeting her son. He was wonderfully improved since she last saw him--had grown several inches, and had about him the air of one born of gentle blood, rather than the air of a peasant. Nina staid only a very short time after Blanche returned, and then hurried away from the cottage.
The brief interview held with young Pierre sealed the maiden's fate. She knew nothing of love before the beautiful youth stood before her--her heart was as pure as an infant's--she was artlessness itself. She had heard him so often spoken of by his mother, that she had learned to think of Pierre as the kindest and best of youths. She saw him, for the first time, as one to love. His face, his tones, the air of refinement and intelligence that was about him, all conspired to win her young affections. But of the true nature of her feelings, Nina was as yet ignorant. She did not think of love. She did not, therefore, hesitate as to the propriety of continuing her visits at the cottage of Blanche Delebarre, nor did she feel any reserve in the presence of Pierre. Not until the enamored youth presumed to whisper the passion her presence had awakened in his bosom, did she fully understand the cause of the delight she always felt while by his side.
After Pierre had been home a few weeks, he ventured to explain to his mother the cause of his unexpected and unannounced return. He had disagreed with his uucle, who, in a passion, had reminded him of his dependence. This the high-spirited youth could not bear, and he left his uncle's house within twenty-four hours, with a fixed resolution never to return. He had come back to the village, resolved, he said, to lead a peasant's life of toil, rather than live with a relative who could so far forget himself as to remind him of his dependence. Poor Blanche was deeply grieved. All her fond hopes for her son were at an end. She looked at his small, delicate hands and slender pro- portions, and wept when she thought of a peasant's life of hard labor.
A very long time did not pass before Nina made a proposition to Blanche, that relieved, in some measure, the painful depression under which she labored. It was this. Pierre had, from a child, exhibited a decided talent for painting. This talent had been cultivated by the uncle, and Pierre was, already, quite a respectable artist. But he needed at least a year's study of the old masters, and more accurate instruction than he had yet received, before he would be able to adopt the painter's calling as one by which he could take an independent position in society as a man. Understanding this fully, Nina said that Pierre must go to Florence, and remain there a year, in order to perfect himself in the art, and that she would claim the privilege of bearing all the expense. For a time, the young man's proud spirit shrunk from an acceptance of this generous offer; but Nina and the mother overruled all his objections, and almost forced him to go.
It may readily be understood, now, why Nina ceased to render accurate accounts of her charitable expenditures to her father. The baron entertained not the slightest suspicion of the real state of affairs, until about a year afterward, when a fine looking youth presented himself one day, and boldly preferred a claim to his daughter's hand. The old man was astounded.
"Who, pray, are you," he said, "that presume to make such a demand?"
"I am the son of a peasant," replied Pierre, bowing, and casting his eyes to the ground, "and you may think it presumption, indeed, for me to aspire to the hand of your noble daughter. But a peasant's love is as pure as the love of a prince; and a peasant's heart may beat with as high emotions."
"Young man," returned the baron, angrily, "your assurance deserves punishment. But go--never dare cross my threshold again! You ask an impossibility. When my daughter weds, she will not think of stooping to a presumptuous peasant. Go, sir!"
Pierre retired, overwhelmed with confusion. He had been weak enough to hope that the Baron Holbein would at least consider his suit, and give him some chance of showing himself worthy of his daughter's hand. But this repulse dashed every hope the earth.
As soon as he parted with the young man, the father sent a servant for Nina. She was not in her chamber--nor in the house. It was nearly two hours before she came home. When she entered the presence of her father, he saw, by her countenance, that all was not right with her.
"Who was the youth that came here some hours ago?" he asked, abruptly.
Nina looked up with a frightened air, but did not answer.
"Did you know that he was coming?" said the father.
The maiden's eyes drooped to the ground, and her lips remained sealed.
"A base-born peasant! to dare--"
"Oh, father! he is not base! His heart is noble," replied Nina, speaking from a sudden impulse.
"He confessed himself the son of a peasant! Who is he?"
"He is the son of Blanche Delebarre," returned Nina, timidly. "He has just returned from Florence, an artist of high merit. There is nothing base about him, father!"
"The son of a peasant, and an artist, to dare approach me and claim the hand of my child! And worse, that child to so far forget her birth and position as to favor the suit! Madness! And this is your good Blanche!--your guide in all works of benevolence! She shall be punished for this base betrayal of the confidence I have reposed in her."
Nina fell upon her knees before her father, and with tears and earnest entreaties pleaded for the mother of Pierre; but the old man was wild and mad with anger. He uttered passionate maledictions on the head of Blanche and her presumptuous son, and positively forbade Nina again leaving the castle on any pretext whatever, under the penalty of never being permitted to return.
Had so broad an interdiction not been made, there would have been some glimmer of light in Nina's dark horizon; she would have hoped for some change--would have, at least, been blessed with short, even if stolen, interviews with Pierre. But not to leave the castle on any pretext--not to see Pierre again! This was robbing life of every charm. For more than a year she had loved the young man with an affection to which every day added tenderness and fervor. Could this be blotted out in an instant by a word of command? No! That love must burn on the same.
The Baron Holbein loved his daughter; she was the bright spot in life. To make her happy, he would sacrifice almost anything. A residence of many years in the world had shown him its pretensions, its heartlessness, the worth of all its titles and distinctions. He did not value them too highly. But, when a peasant approached and asked the hand of his daughter, the old man's pride, that was smouldering in the ashes, burned up with a sudden blaze. He could hardly find words to express his indignation. It took but a few days for this indignation to burn low. Not that he felt more favorable to the peasant--but, less angry with his daughter. It is not certain that time would not have done something favorable for the lovers in the baron's mind. But they could not wait for time. Nina, from the violence and decision displayed by her father, felt hopeless of any change, and sought an early opportunity to steal away from the castle and meet Pierre, notwithstanding the positive commands that had been issued on the subject. The young man, in the thoughtless enthusiasm of youth, urged their flight.
"I am master of my art," he said, with a proud air. "We can live in Florence, where I have many friends."
The youth did not find it hard to bring the confiding, artless girl into his wishes. In less than a month the baron missed his child. A letter explained all. She had been wedded to the young peasant, and they had left for Florence. The letter contained this clause, signed by both Pierre and Nina:--
"When our father will forgive us, and permit our return, we shall be truly happy--but not till then."
The indignant old man saw nothing but impertinent assurance in this. He tore up the letter, and trampled it under his feet, in a rage. He swore to renounce his child forever!
For the Baron Holbein, the next twelve months were the saddest of his life. Too deeply was the image of his child impressed upon his heart, for passion to efface it. As the first ebullitions subsided, and the atmosphere of his mind grew clear again, the sweet face of his child was before him, and her tender eyes looking into his own. As the months passed away, he grew more and more restless and unhappy. There was an aching void in bosom. Night after night he would dream of his child, and awake in the morning and sigh that the dream was not reality. But pride was strong--he would not countenance her disobedience.
More than a year had passed away, and not one word had come from his absent one, who grew dearer to his heart every day. Once or twice he had seen the name of Pierre Delebarre in the journals, as a young artist residing Florence, who was destined, to become eminent. The pleasure these announcements gave him was greater than he would confess, even to himself.
One day he was sitting in his library endeavoring to banish the images that haunted him too continually, when two of his servants entered, bearing a large square box in their arms, marked for the Baron Holbein. When the box was opened, it was found to contain a large picture, enveloped in a cloth. This was removed and placed against the wall, and the servants retired with the box. The baron, with unsteady hands, and a heart beating rapidly, commenced removing the cloth that still held the picture from view. In a few moments a family group was before him. There sat Nina, his lovely, loving and beloved child, as perfect, almost, as if the blood were glowing in her veins. Her eyes were bent fondly upon a sleeping cherub that lay in her arms. By her side sat Pierre, gazing upon her face in silent joy. For only a single instant did the old man gaze upon this scene, before the tears were gushing over his cheeks and falling to the floor like rain. This wild storm of feeling soon subsided, and, in the sweet calm that followed, the father gazed with unspeakable tenderness for a long time upon the face of his lovely child, and with a new and sweeter feeling upon the babe that lay, the impersonation of innocence, in her arms. While in this state of mind, he saw, for the first time, written on the bottom of the picture--"NOT GREAT, BUT HAPPY."
A week from the day on which the picture was received, the Baron Holbein entered Florence. On inquiring for Pierre Delebarre, he found that every one knew the young artist.
"Come," said one, "let me go with you to the exhibition, and show you his picture that has taken the prize. It is a noble production. All Florence is alive with its praise."
The baron went to the exhibition. The first picture that met his eyes on entering the door was a counterpart of the one he had received, but larger, and, in the admirable lights in which it was arranged, looked even more like life.
"Isn't it a grand production?" said the baron's conductor.
"My sweet, sweet child!" murmured the old man, in a low thrilling voice. Then turning, he said, abruptly--
"Show me where I can find this Pierre Delebarre."
"With pleasure. His house is near at hand," said his companion.
A few minutes walk brought them to the artist's dwelling.
"That is an humble roof," said the man, pointing to where Pierre lived, "but it contains a noble man." He turned away, and the baron entered alone. He did not pause to summon any one, but walked in through the open door. All was silent. Through a neat vestibule, in which were rare flowers, and pictures upon the wall, he passed into a small apartment, and through that to the door of an inner chamber It was half open. He looked in. Was it another picture? No, it was in very truth his child; and her babe lay in her arms, as he had just seen it, and Pierre sat before her looking tenderly in her face. He could restrain himself no longer. Opening the door, he stepped hurriedly forward, and, throwing his arms around the group, said in broken voice--"God bless you, my children!"
The tears that were shed; the smiles that beamed from glad faces; the tender words that were spoken, and repeated again and again; why need we tell of all these? Or why relate how happy the old man was when the dove that had flown from her nest came back with her mate by her side The dark year had passed, and there was sunshine again in his dwelling, brighter sunshine than before. Pierre never painted so good a picture again as the one that took the prize--that was his masterpiece.
The Young Baron Holbein has an immense picture gallery, and is a munificient patron of the arts. There is one composition on his walls he prizes above all the rest. The wealth of India could not purchase it. It is the same that took the prize when he was but a babe and lay in his mother's arms. The mother who held him so tenderly, and the father who gazed so lovingly upon her pure young brow have passed away, but they live before him daily, and he feels their gentle presence ever about him for good.