The Book of Memory
by Timothy Shay Arthur
"There is a book of record in your mind, Edwin," said an old man to his young friend, "a book of record, in which every act of your life is noted down. Each morning a blank page is turned, on which the day's history is written in lines that cannot be effaced. This book of record is your memory; and, according to what it bears — will your future life be happy or miserable. An act done, is done forever; for the time in which it is done, in passing, passes to return no more. The history is written and sealed up. Nothing can ever blot it out. You may repent of evil, and put away the purpose of evil from your heart; but you cannot, by any repentance, bring back the time that is gone, nor alter the writing on the page of memory.
Ah! my young friend, if I could only erase some pages in the book of my memory, that almost daily open themselves before the eyes of my mind, how thankful I would be! But this I cannot do. There are acts of my life for which repentance only avails as a process of purification and preparation for a better state in the future; it in no way repairs wrong done to others. Keep the pages of your memory free from blots, Edwin. Guard the handwriting there, as you value your best and highest interests!"
Edwin Sherman listened, but only half comprehended what was said by his aged friend. An hour afterwards he was sitting by the side of a maiden, her hand in his, and her eyes looking tenderly upon his face. She was not beautiful in the sense that the world regards beauty. Yet, no one could be with her an hour without perceiving the higher and truer beauty of a pure and lovely spirit. It was this real beauty of character which had attracted Edwin Sherman; and the young girl's heart had gone forth to meet the tender of affection with an impulse of gladness.
"You love me, Edith?" said Edwin, in a low voice, as he bent nearer, and touched her pure forehead with his lips.
"As my life," replied the maiden, and her eyes were full of love as she spoke.
Again the young man kissed her.
In low voices, leaning towards each other until the breath of each was warm on the other's cheek, they sat conversing for a long time. Then they separated; and both were happy. How sweet were the maiden's dreams that night, for, in every picture that wandering imagination drew, was the image of her lover!
Daily thus they met for a long time. Then there was a change in Edwin Sherman. His visits were less frequent, and when he met the young girl, whose very life was bound up in his, his manner had in it a reserve that chilled her heart as if an icy hand had been laid upon it. She asked for no explanation of the change; but, as he grew colder, she shrunk more and more into herself, like a flower folding its withering leaves when touched by autumn's frosty fingers.
One day he called on Edith. He was not as cold as he had been, but he was, from some cause, evidently embarrassed.
"Edith," said he, taking her hand — it was weeks since he had touched her hand except in meeting and parting — "I need not say how highly I regard you. How tenderly I love you, even as I could love a pure and gentle sister. But — "
He paused, for he saw that Edith's face had become very pale; and that she rather gasped for air than breathed.
"Are you sick?" he asked, in a voice of anxiety.
Edith was recovering herself.
"No," she replied, faintly.
A deep silence, lasting for the space of nearly half a minute, followed. By this time the maiden, through a forced effort, had regained the command of her feelings. Perceiving this, Edwin resumed —
"As I said, Edith, I love you as I could love a pure and gentle sister. Will you accept this love? Will you be to me a friend — a sister?"
Again there passed upon the countenance of Edith a deadly
pallor; while her lips quivered, and her eyes had a strange
expression. This soon passed away, and again something of its former repose was in her face. At the first few words of Sherman, Edith withdrew the hand he had taken. He now sought it again, but she avoided the contact.
"You do not answer me, Edith," said the young man.
"Do you wish an answer?" This was uttered in a scarcely audible voice.
"I do, Edith," was the earnest reply. "Let there be no separation between us. You are to me what you have ever been, a dearly prized friend. I never meet you that my heart does not know an impulse for good — I never think of you but — "
"Let us be as strangers!" said Edith, rising abruptly. And turning away, she fled from the room.
Slowly did the young man leave the room in which they were sitting, and without seeing any member of the family, departed from the house. There was a record on his memory, which time would have no power to efface. It was engraved too deeply for the dust of years to obliterate. As he went, musing away, the pale face of Edith was before him; and the anguish of her voice, as she said, "Let us be as strangers!" was in his ears. He tried not to see the one, nor hear the other. But that was impossible. They had impressed themselves into the very substance of his mind.
Edwin Sherman had an engagement for that very evening. It was with one of the most brilliant, beautiful, and fascinating women he had ever met. A few months before, she had crossed his path, and from that time, he was changed towards Edith. Her name was Catharine Linmore. The earnest attentions of Sherman pleased her, and as she let the pleasure she felt be seen, she was not long in winning his heart entirely from his first love. In this, she was innocent; for she knew nothing of the former state of his affections towards Edith.
After parting with Edith, Edwin had no heart to fulfill his engagement with Miss Linmore. He could think of nothing but the maiden he had so cruelly deserted; and more than half repented of what he had done. When the hour for the appointment came, his mind struggled awhile in the effort to obtain a consent to go, and then decided against meeting, at least on that occasion — the woman whose charms had led him to do so great a wrong to a loving and confiding heart. No excuse but that of sickness could be made, under the circumstances; and, attempting to screen himself, in his own estimation, from falsehood, he assumed, in his own thoughts, a mental indisposition, while, in the note he dispatched, he gave the idea of bodily illness.
The night that followed was, perhaps, the most unhappy one the young man had ever spent. Days passed, and he heard nothing from Edith. He could not call to see her, for she had prohibited that. Henceforth they must be as strangers. The effect produced by his words, had been far more painful than was anticipated; and he felt troubled when he thought about what might be their ultimate effects.
On the fifth day, as the young man was walking with Catharine Linmore, he came suddenly face to face with Edith. There was a change in her that startled him. She looked at him, in passing, but gave no signs of recognition.
"Wasn't that Miss Walter?" inquired the companion of Edwin, in a tone of surprise.
"Yes," replied Sherman.
"What's the matter with her? Has she been sick? How dreadful she looks!"
"I never saw her look so bad," remarked the young man. As they walked along, Miss Linmore kept alluding to Edith, whose changed appearance had excited her sympathies.
"I've met her only a few times," said she, "but I have seen enough of her to give me a most exalted opinion of her character. Someone called her very plain; but I have not thought so. There is something so good about her, that you cannot be with her long without perceiving a real beauty in the play of her countenance."
"No one can know her well, without loving her for the goodness of which you have just spoken," said Edwin.
"You are friends with her?"
"Yes. She has been long to me as a sister." There was a roughness in the voice of Sherman as he said this.
"She passed without recognizing you," said Miss Linmore.
"So I observed."
"And yet I noticed that she looked you in the face, though with a cold, stony, absent look. It is strange! What can have happened to her?"
"I have observed a change in her for some time past," Sherman ventured to say; "but nothing like this. There is something wrong."
When the time to part with his companion came, Edwin Sherman felt a sense of relief. Weeks now passed without his seeing or hearing anything from Edith. During the time he met Miss Linmore frequently; and encouraged to approach, he at length ventured to speak to her of what was in his heart. The young lady heard with pleasure, and, though she did not accept the offered hand, by no means repulsed the ardent suitor. She had not thought of marriage, she said, and asked a short time for reflection.
Edwin saw enough in her manner to satisfy him that the result would be in his favor. This would have made him supremely happy, could he have blotted out all recollection of Edith and his conduct towards her. But, that was impossible. Her form and face, as he had last seen them, were almost constantly before his eyes. As he walked the streets, he feared lest he should meet her; and never felt pleasant in any company until certain that she was not there.
A few days after Mr. Sherman had made an offer of his hand to Miss Linmore, and at a time when she was about making a favorable decision, that young lady happened to hear some allusion made to Edith Walter, in a tone that attracted her attention. She immediately asked some questions in regard to her, when one of the persons conversing said —
"Why, don't you know about Edith?"
"I know that there is a great change in her. But the reason of it I have not heard."
"Indeed! I thought it was pretty well known that her affections had been trifled with."
"Who could trifle with the affections of so sweet, so good a girl," said Miss Linmore, indignantly. "The man who could turn from her, has no true appreciation of what is really excellent and exalted in woman's character. I have seen her only a few times; but, often enough to make me estimate her as one among the loveliest of our gender."
"Edwin Sherman is the man," was replied. "He won her heart — and then turned from her; leaving the waters of affection that had flowed at his touch — to lose themselves in the sands at his feet. There must be something base in the heart of a man who could trifle thus with such a woman."
It required a strong effort on the part of Miss Linmore to conceal the instant turbulence of feeling that followed so unexpected a declaration. But she had, naturally, great self-control, and this came to her aid.
"Edwin Sherman!" said she, after a brief silence, speaking in a tone of surprise.
"Yes, he is the man. Ah, me! What a ruin has been wrought! I never saw such a change in anyone as Edith exhibits. The very inspiration of her life is gone. The love she bore towards Sherman seems to have been almost the mainspring of her existence; for in touching that, the whole circle of motion has grown feeble, and will, I fear, soon cease forever."
"Dreadful! The falsehood of her lover has broken her heart."
"I fear that it is even so."
"Is she ill? I have not seen her for a long time," said Miss Linmore.
"Not ill, as one sick of a bodily disease; but drooping about as one whose spirits are broken, and who finds no sustaining arm to lean upon. When you meet her, she strives to be cheerful, and appear interested. But the effort deceives no one."
"Why did Mr. Sherman act towards her as he has done?" asked Miss Linmore.
"A handsomer face and more brilliant exterior were the attractions, I am told."
The young lady asked no more questions. Those who observed her closely, saw the warm tints that made beautiful her cheeks, grow fainter and fainter, until they had almost entirely faded. Soon after, she retired from the company.
In the ardor of his pursuit of a new object of affection — Edwin Sherman scarcely thought of the old one. The image of Edith was hidden by the interposing form of Miss Linmore. The suspense occasioned by a wish for time to consider the offer he had made, grew more and more painful the longer it was continued. On the possession of the lovely girl as his wife, depended, so he felt, his future happiness. Were she to decline his offer, he would be wretched. In this state of mind, he called one day upon Miss Linmore, hoping and fearing, yet resolved to know his fate. The moment he entered her presence, he observed a change. She did not smile; and there was something chilling in the steady glance of her large dark eyes.
"Have I offended you?" he asked, as she declined taking his offered hand.
"Yes," was the firm reply, while the young lady assumed a dignified air.
"In what?" asked Sherman.
"In proving false to her in whose ears you first breathed words of affection."
The young man startled as if stung by a serpent!
"The man," resumed Miss Linmore, "who has been false to Edith Walter, never can be true to me. I wouldn't have the affection of a man who could turn from one like her. I hold it to be as light as the thistle-down. Go! heal the heart you have almost broken, if, perchance, it be not yet too late. As for me, think of me as if we had all our lives been strangers — such, henceforth, we must ever remain!"
And saying this, Catharine Linmore turned from the rebuked and astonished young man, and left the room. He immediately retired.
Evening, with its passionless influences, was stealing softly down, and leaving on all things its hues of quiet and repose. The heart of nature was beating with calm and even pulses. Not so the heart of Edwin Sherman. It had a wilder throb; and the face of nature was not reflected in the mirror of his feelings. He was alone in his room, where he had been during the few hours that had elapsed since his interview with Miss Linmore. In those few hours, Memory had turned over many leaves of the Book of his Life. He would gladly have averted his eyes from the pages, but he could not. The record was before him, and he had read it.
And, as he read, the eyes of Edith looked into his own; at first they were loving and tender, as of old — and then they were full of tears. Her hand lay, now, confidingly in his — and now it was slowly withdrawn. She sat by his side, and leaned upon him — his lips were upon her lips, his cheek touching her cheek, their breaths were mingling. At another moment and he had turned from her coldly, and she was drooping towards the earth like a tender vine bereft of the support to which it had held by its clinging tendrils. Ah! If he could only have shut out these images! If he could have erased the record so that Memory could not read it! How eagerly would he have drunk of the waters of oblivion, could he have found the fabled stream!
More than all this. The rebuke of Miss Linmore almost maddened him. In turning from Edith, he had let his heart go out towards the other with a passionate devotion. Pride in her beauty and brilliant accomplishments had filled his regard with a selfishness that could ill bear the shock of a sudden repulse. Sleepless was the night that followed; and when the morning, long looked for, broke at last, it brought no light for his darkened spirit. Yet he had grown calmer, and a gentle feeling pervaded his bosom.
Thrown off by Miss Linmore, his thoughts now turned by a natural impulse, as the needle, long held by opposing attraction, turns to its polar point, again towards Edith Walter. As he thought of her longer and longer — tenderer emotions began to tremble in his heart. The beauty of her character was again seen; and his better nature bowed before it once more in a genuine worship.
"How have I been infatuated! What siren spell has been on me!" Such were the words which fell from his lips, marking the change in his feelings.
Days went by, and still the change went on, until the old affection had come back; the old tender, true affection. But, he had turned from its object — basely turned away. A more glaring light had dazzled his eyes so that he could see, for a time — no beauty, no attraction, in his first love. Could he turn to her again? Would she receive him? Would she let him dip healing leaves in the waters he had dashed with bitterness? His heart trembled as he asked these questions, for there was no confident answer.
At last Edwin Sherman resolved that he would see Edith once more, and seek to repair the wrong done both to her and to himself. It was three months after his rejection by Miss Linmore, when he came to this resolution. And then, some weeks elapsed before he could force himself to act upon it. In all that time he had not met the young girl, nor had he once heard of her. To the house of her aunt, where she resided, Sherman took his way one evening in early autumn, his heart disturbed by many conflicting emotions. His love for Edith had come back in full force; and his spirit was longing for the old communion.
"Can I see Miss Walter!" he asked, on arriving at her place of residence.
"Walk in," returned the servant who had answered his summons.
Sherman entered the little parlor where he had spent so many never-to-be-forgotten hours with Edith — hours unspeakably happy in passing, but, in remembrance, burdened with pain — and looking around on each familiar object with strange emotions. Soon a light step was heard descending the stairs, and moving along the passage. The door opened, and Edith — no, her aunt — entered. The young man had risen in the breathlessness of expectation.
"Mr. Sherman," said the aunt, coldly. He extended his hand; but she did not take it.
"How is Edith?" was half stammered.
"She is sinking rapidly," replied the aunt.
Edwin staggered back into a chair.
"Is she ill?" he inquired, with a quivering lip.
"Ill! She is dying!" There was something of indignation in the way this was said.
"Dying!" The young man clasped his hands together with a gesture of despair.
"How long has she been sick?" he next ventured to ask.
"For months she has been dying daily," said the aunt. There was a meaning in her tones that the young man fully comprehended. He had not dreamed of this.
"Can I see her?"
The aunt shook her head, as she answered,
"Let her spirit depart in peace."
"I will not disturb, but calm her spirit," said the young man, earnestly. "Oh, let me see her, that I may call her back to life!"
"It is too late," replied the aunt. "The oil is exhausted, and light is just departing."
Edwin started to his feet, exclaiming passionately — "Let me see her! Let me see her!"
"To see her thus, would be to blow the breath that would extinguish the flickering light," said the aunt. "Go home, young man! It is too late! Do not seek to agitate the waters long troubled by your hand, but now subsiding into calmness. Let her spirit depart in peace."
Sherman sunk again into his chair, and, hiding his face with his hands, sat for some moments in a state of a mental paralysis.
In the chamber above lay the pale, almost pulseless form of Edith. A young girl, who had been as her sister for many years, sat holding her thin white hand. The face of the invalid was turned to the wall. Her eyes were closed; and she breathed so quietly that the motions of respiration could hardly be seen. Nearly ten minutes had elapsed from the time a servant whispered to the aunt that there was someone in the parlor, when Edith turned, and said to her companion, in a low, calm voice —
"Mr. Sherman has come."
The girl startled, and a flush of surprise went over her face.
"He is in the parlor now. Won't you ask him to come up?" added the dying maiden, still speaking with the utmost composure.
Her friend stood surprised and hesitating for some moments, and then turning away, glided from the chamber. She found the aunt and Mr. Sherman in the passage below, the latter pleading with the former for the privilege of seeing Edith, which was resolutely denied.
"Edith wants to see Mr. Sherman," said the girl, as she joined them.
"Who told her that he was here?" quickly asked the aunt.
"No one. I did not know it myself."
"Her heart told her that I was here," exclaimed Mr. Sherman — and, as he spoke, he glided past the aunt, and, with hurried steps, ascended to the chamber where the dying one lay. The eyes of Edith were turned towards the door as he entered; but no sign of emotion passed over her countenance. Overcome by his feelings, at the sight of the shadowy remnant of one so loved and so wronged — the young man sunk into a chair by her side, as nerveless as a child; and, as his lips were pressed upon her lips and cheeks, her face was wet with his tears.
Coming in quickly after, the aunt took firmly hold of his arm and sought to draw him away, but, in a steady voice, the invalid said —
"No — no. I was waiting for him. I have expected him for days. I knew he would come; and he is here now."
All was silence for many minutes; and during this time, Edwin Sherman sat with his face covered, struggling to command his feelings. At a motion from the dying girl, the aunt and friend retired, and she was alone with the lover who had been false to his vows. As the door closed behind them, Edwin looked up. He had grown calm. With a voice of inexpressible tenderness, he said —
"Live for me, Edith."
"Not here," was answered. "The silver chord will soon be loosened, and the golden bowl broken."
"Oh, say not that! Let me call you back to life. Turn to me again as I have turned to you with my whole heart. The world is still beautiful; and in it we will be happy together."
"No, Edwin," replied the dying maiden. "The history of my days here is written, and the angel is about sealing the record. I am going where the heart will never feel the touch of sorrow. I wished to see you once more before I died; and you are here. I have, once more, felt your breath upon my cheek; once more held your hand in mine. For this, my heart is grateful. You had become the sun of my life, and when your face was turned away — the flower that spread itself joyfully in the light, drooped and faded. And now, the light has come back again; but it cannot warm the withered blossom into freshness and beauty."
"Oh, my Edith! Say not so! Live for me! I have no thoughts, no affection that is not for you. The drooping flower will lift itself again in the sunshine, when the clouds have passed away."
As the young man said this, Edith raised herself up suddenly, and, with a fond gesture, flung herself forward upon his bosom. For a few moments her form quivered in his arms. Then all became still, and he felt her lying heavier and heavier against him. In a little while he was conscious that he clasped to his heart only the earthly semblance of one who had passed away forever.
Replacing the light and faded form of her who, a little while before, had been in the vigor of health, upon the bed, Edwin gazed upon the sunken features for a few moments, and then, leaving a last kiss upon her cold lips, hurried away.
Another page in his Book of Life was written. There was another record there from which memory, in after life, could read. And such a record! What would he not have given to erase that page!
When the body of Edith Walter was borne to its last resting-place, Sherman was among the mourners. After looking his last look upon the coffin that contained the body, he went away, sadder in heart than he had ever been in his life. He was not only a prey to sadness, but to painful self-accusation. In his betrayal lay the cause of her death. He had broken the heart which confided in him, and only repented of his error when it was too late to repair the ruin.
As to what was thought or said of him by others, Edwin Sherman cared but little. There was enough of pain in his own self-consciousness. He withdrew himself from the social circle, and, for several years, lived a kind of hermit-life in the midst of society. But, he was far from being happy in his solitude; for Memory was with him, and almost daily, from the Book of his Life, read to him some darkly written page.
One day, it was three years from the time he parted with Edith in the chamber of death, and when he was beginning to rise in a measure above the depressing influences attendant upon that event — he received an invitation to make one of a social party on the next evening. The desire to go back again in society had been gaining strength with him for some time; and, as it had gained strength, reason had pointed out the error of his voluntary seclusion as unavailing to alter the past.
"The past is past," he said to himself, as he mused with the invitation in his hand. "I cannot recall it — I cannot change it. If repentance can in anyway atone for error, surely I have made atonement; for my repentance has been long and sincere. If Edith could see my heart, she would be satisfied. Even she could not wish for this living burial. It is better for me to mingle in society as of old."
Acting on this view, Sherman attended the social party on the next evening. He felt strangely, for his mind was invaded by old influences, and touched by old impressions. He saw, in many a light and airy form, as it glanced before him, the image of one long since passed away; and heard, in the voices that filled the rooms, many a tone that it seemed must have come from the lips of Edith. How busy was Memory again with the past. In vain he sought to shut out the images which arose in his mind. The page was open before him, and what was impressed thereon he could not but see and read.
This passed, in some degree, away as the evening progressed, and he came nearer, so to speak, to some of those who made up the happy company. Among those present was a young lady from a neighboring city, who attracted much attention both from her manners and person. She fixed the eyes of Mr. Sherman soon after he entered the room, and, half unconsciously to himself, his observation was frequently directed towards her.
"Who is that lady?" he asked of a friend, an hour after his arrival.
"Her name is Miss Welden. She is from Albany."
"She has a very interesting face," said Sherman.
"And quite as interesting a mind. Miss Welden is a charming girl."
Not long after, the two were thrown near together, when an introduction took place. The conversation of the young lady interested Sherman, and in her society he passed half an hour most pleasantly. While talking with more than usual animation, in lifting his eyes he saw that someone on the opposite side of the room was observing him attentively. For the moment this did not produce any effect. But, in looking up again, he saw the same eyes upon him, and felt their expression as unpleasant. He now, for the first time, became aware that the aunt of Edith Walter was present. She it was, who had been regarding him so attentively. From that instant, his heart sunk in his bosom. Memory's magic mirror was before him, and in it he saw pictured the whole scene of that last meeting with Edith.
A little while afterward, and Edwin Sherman was missed from the pleasant company. Where was he? Alone in the solitude of his own chamber, with his thoughts upon the past. Again he had been reading over those pages of his Book of Life in which was written the history of his intimacy with, and desertion of Edith; and the record seemed as fresh as if made but the day before. It was in vain that he sought to close or avert his eyes. There seemed a spell upon him; and he could only look and read.
"Fatal error!" he murmured to himself, as he struggled to free himself from his thraldom to the past. "Fatal error! How a single act will curse a man through life. Oh! if I could but extinguish the whole of this memory! If I could wipe out the hand-writing. Sorrow, repentance, is of no avail. The past is gone forever. Why then should I thus continue to be unhappy over what I cannot alter? It avails nothing to Edith. She is happy — far happier than if she had remained on this troublesome earth."
But, even while he uttered these words, there came into his mind such a realizing sense of what the poor girl must have suffered, when she found her love thrown back upon her, crushing her heart by its weight — that he bowed his head upon his bosom and in bitter self-upbraidings passed the hours until midnight, when sleep locked up his senses, and calmed the turbulence of his feelings.
Months elapsed before Edwin Sherman ventured again into company.
"Why will you shut yourself up after this fashion?" said an acquaintance to him one day. "It isn't just to your friends. I've heard half a dozen persons asking for you lately. This hermit life you are leading is, let me tell you, a very foolish life."
The friend who thus spoke knew nothing of the young man's heart history.
"No one really misses me," said Sherman, in reply.
"In that, you are mistaken," returned the friend. "You are missed. I have heard one young lady, at least, ask for you of late, more than a dozen times."
"Indeed! A young lady?"
"Yes; and a very beautiful young lady at that."
"In whose eyes can I have found such favor?"
"You have met Miss Clara Weldon?"
"That is all."
"Then it must be a case of love at first sight — at least on the lady's part — for Miss Weldon has asked for you, to my knowledge, not less than a dozen times."
"I am certainly flattered at the interest she takes in me."
"Well you may be. I know more than one young man who would sacrifice a good deal to find equal favor in her eyes. Now see what you have lost by this hiding of your face. And you are not the only loser."
Sherman, who was more pleased at what he heard, than he would like to have acknowledged, promised to come forth from his hiding place and meet the world in a better spirit. And he did so; being really drawn back into the social circle by the attraction of Miss Weldon. At his second meeting with this young lady, he was still more charmed with her than at first; and she was equally well pleased with him. A few more interviews, and both their hearts were deeply interested.
Now there came a new cause of disquietude to Edwin; or, it might be said, the old cause renewed. The going out of his affections towards Miss Weldon revived the whole memory of the past; and, for a time he found it almost impossible to thrust it from his mind. While sitting by her side and listening to her voice — the tones of Edith would be in his ears; and, often, when he looked into her face — he would see only the fading countenance of her who had passed away. This was the first state, and it was exceedingly painful while it lasted. But, it gradually changed into one more pleasant, yet not entirely free from the unwelcome intrusion of the past.
The oftener Sherman and Miss Weldon met, the more strongly were their hearts drawn toward each other; and, at length, the former was encouraged to make an offer of his hand. In coming to this resolutions, it was not without passing through a painful conflict. As his mind dwelt upon the subject, there was a reproduction of old states. Most vividly did he recall the time when he breathed into the ears of Edith vows to which he had proved faithless. He had, it is true, returned to his first allegiance. He had laid his heart again at her feet — but to how little purpose! While in this state of agitation, the young man resolved, more than once, to abandon his suit for the hand of Miss Weldon, and shrink back again into the seclusion from which he had come forth. But, his affection for the lovely girl was too genuine to admit of this. When he thought of giving her up, his mind was still more deeply disturbed.
"Oh, that I could forget!" he exclaimed, while this struggle was in progress. "Of what avail is this turning over of the leaves of a long passed history? I erred — sadly erred! But repentance is now too late. Why, then should my whole existence be cursed for a single error?"
But, upon this state there came a natural re-action. A peaceful calm followed the storm. Memory deposited her records in the mind's dimly lighted chambers. To the present was restored its better influences.
"I am free again," was the almost audible utterance, of the young man, so strong was his sense of relief.
An offer of marriage was then made to Miss Weldon. Her heart trembled with joy when she received it. But confiding implicitly in her uncle, who had been for the space of ten years her friend and guardian, she could not give an affirmative reply until his approval was gained. She, therefore, asked time for reflection and consultation with her uncle.
Far different from what Sherman had expected, was the reception of his offer. To him, Miss Weldon seemed instantly to grow cold and reserved. Vividly was now recalled his rejection by Miss Linmore, as well as the ground of her rejection.
"Is this to be gone over again?" he sighed to himself, when alone once more, "Is that one false step never to be forgotten nor forgiven? Am I to be followed, through life, by this shadow of evil?"
To no other cause than this, could the mind of Sherman attribute the apparent change and hesitation in Clara Weldon.
Immediately on receiving an offer of marriage, Miss Weldon returned to Albany. Before leaving, she dropped Sherman a note, to the effect, that he would hear from her in a few days. A week passed, but the promised word came not. It was now plain, that the friends of the young lady had been making inquiries about him, and were in possession of certain facts in his life, which, if known, would almost certainly blast his hopes of favor in her eyes. While in this state of uncertainty, he met the aunt of Edith, and the way she looked at him, satisfied his mind that his conjectures were true.
A little while after a friend remarked to him casually —
"I saw Colonel Richards in town today."
"Colonel Richards! Miss Weldon's uncle?"
"Yes. Have you seen him?"
"No. I have not the pleasure of an acquaintance."
"Indeed! I thought you knew him. I heard him mention your name this morning."
"What had he to say of me?"
"Let me think. Oh! He asked me if I knew you."
"I said that I did, of course and that you were a pretty clever fellow; though you had been a sad boy in your time."
The face of Sherman instantly reddened.
"Why, what's the matter? Oh I understand now! That little niece of his, is one of your flames. But come! Don't take it so to heart. Your chances are one in ten, I have no doubt. By the way, I haven't seen Clara for a week. What has become of her? Gone back to Albany, I suppose. I hope you haven't frightened her with an offer. By the way, let me whisper a word of comfort in your ear. I heard her say that she didn't believe in anything but first love; and, as you are known to have had half a dozen sweethearts, more or less, and to have broken the hearts of two or three young ladies, the probability is, that you won't be able to add her to the number of your lady loves."
All this was mere jesting; but the words, though uttered in jest, fell upon the ears of Edwin Sherman with all the force of truth.
"Guilty, on your own acknowledgment," said the friend, seeing the effect of his words. "Better always to act fairly in these matters of the heart, Sherman. If we sow the wind — we will be pretty sure to reap the whirlwind. But come; let me take you down to the Tremont, and introduce you to Colonel Richards. I know he will be glad to make your acquaintance, and will, most probably, give you an invitation to go home with him and spend a week. You can then make all fair with his pretty niece."
"I have no wish to make his acquaintance just at this time," returned Sherman; "nor do I suppose he cares about making mine, particularly after the high opinion you gave him of my character."
"Nonsense, Edwin! You don't suppose I said that to him. Can't you take a joke?"
"Oh, yes; I can take a joke."
"Take that as one, then. Colonel Richards did ask for you, however; and said that he would like to meet you. He was serious. So come along, and let me introduce you."
"No; I would prefer not meeting with him at this time."
"You are a strange individual."
The young men parted; Sherman to feel more disquieted than ever. Colonel Richards had been inquiring about him, and, in prosecuting his inquiries, would, most likely, find someone inclined to relate the story of Edith Walter. What was more natural? That story once in the ears of Clara, and he felt that she must turn from him with a feeling of repulsion.
Three or four days longer he was in suspense. He heard of Col. Richards from several quarters, and, in each case when he was mentioned, he was alluded to as making inquiries about him.
"I hear that the beautiful Miss Weldon is to be married," was said to Sherman at a time when he was almost mad with the excitement of suspense.
"Ah!" he replied, with forced calmness, "I hope she will be successful in securing a good husband."
"So do I; for she is indeed a sweet girl. I was more than half inclined to fall in love with her myself; and would have done so, if I had believed there was any chance for me."
"Who is the favored one?" asked Sherman.
"I have not been able to find out. She received three or four offers, and went back to Albany to consider them and make her election. This she has done, I hear; and already, the happy recipient of her favor is rejoicing over his good fortune. May they live a thousand years to be happy with each other!"
Here was another drop of bitterness in the cup that was at the lips of Edwin Sherman. He went to his office immediately, and, setting down, wrote thus to Clara:
"I do not wrongly interpret, I presume, a silence continued far beyond the time agreed upon when we parted. You have rejected my suit. Well, be it so; and may you be happy with him who has found favor in your eyes. I do not think he can love you more sincerely than I do, or he more devoted to your happiness than I would have been. It would have relieved the pain I cannot but feel, if you had deemed my offer worthy a frank refusal. But, to feel that one I have so truly loved does not think me even deserving of this attention, is humiliating in the extreme. But, I will not upbraid you. Farewell! May you be happy."
Sealing pp his epistle, the young man, scarcely pausing even for hurried reflection, threw it into the post office. This done, he sunk into a gloomy state of mind, in which mortification and disappointment struggled alternately for the predominance.
Only a few hours elapsed after the adoption of this hasty course, before doubts of its propriety began to steal across his mind. It was possible, it occurred to him, that he might have acted too precipitately. There might be reasons for the silence of Miss Weldon entirely separate from those he had been too ready to assume; and, if so, how strange would his letter appear. It was too late now to recall the act, for already the mail that bore his letter was half way from New York to Albany. A restless night followed to this day. Early on the next morning he received a letter. It was in these words —
"My Dear Mr. Sherman:
I have been very ill, and today am able to sit up just long enough to write a line or two. My uncle was in New York some days ago, but did not meet with you. Will you not come up and see me?
"Ever Yours, Clara Weldon."
Sherman was on board the next boat that left New York for Albany. The letter of Clara was, of course, written before the receipt of his hasty epistle. What troubled him now was the effect of this epistle on her mind. He had not only wrongly interpreted her silence, but had assumed the acceptance of another lover as confidently as if he knew to an certainty that such was the case. This was a serious matter and might result in the very thing he had been so ready to assume — the rejection of his suit.
Arriving at length, in Albany, Mr. Sherman sought out the residence of Miss Weldon.
"Is Colonel Richards at home?" he inquired.
On being answered in the affirmative, he sent up his name, with a request to see him. The colonel made his appearance in short time. He was a tall, thoughtful looking man, and bowed with a dignified air as he came into the room.
"How is Miss Weldon?" asked Sherman, with an eagerness he could not restrain.
"Not so well this morning," replied the guardian. "She had a bad night."
"No wonder," thought the young man, "after receiving that letter."
"She has been sleeping, however since daylight," added Colonel Richards, "and that is much in her favor."
"She received my letter, I presume," said Sherman, in a hesitating voice.
"A letter came for her yesterday," was replied; "but as she was more indisposed than usual, we did not give it to her."
"It is as well," said the young man, experiencing a sense of relief.
An hour afterwards he was permitted to enter the chamber, where she lay supported by pillows. One glance at her face dispelled from his mind every lingering doubt. He had suffered from imaginary fears, awakened by the whispers of a troubled conscience.
In a few days, Clara was well enough to leave her room, and was soon entirely recovered from her sudden illness. That little matter of the heart had been settled within three minutes of their meeting, and they were now as happy as lovers usually are under such favorable circumstances.
When Edwin Sherman went back to New York, it was with a sense of inner pleasure more perfect than he had experienced for years; and this would have remained, could he have shut out the past; as so much of it as came like an unwelcome intruder. But, alas! this was not to be. Even while he was bending, in spirit, over the beautiful image of his latest beloved, there would come between his eyes and that image, a pale sad face, in which reproof was stronger than affection, It was all in vain that he sought to turn from that face. For a time it would remain present, and then fade slowly away, leaving his heart oppressed.
"Is it to be ever thus!" he would exclaim, in these seasons of darkness. "Will nothing satisfy this accusing spirit? Edith! Dear Edith! Are you not among the blessed ones? Is not your heart happy beyond mortal conception? Then why come to me thus with those tearful eyes, that shadowy face, those looks of reproof? Have I not suffered enough for purification! Am I never to be forgiven?"
And then, with an effort, he would turn his eyes from the page laid open by Memory, and seek to forget what was written there. But it seemed as if everything conspired to freshen his remembrance of the past, the nearer the time approached, when by a marriage union with one truly beloved, he was to weaken the bonds it had thrown around him. The marriage of Miss Linmore took place a few weeks after his engagement with Clara, and as an intimate friend led her to the altar, he could not decline making one of the number that graced the nuptial festivities. In meeting the young bride, he endeavored to push from his mind all thoughts of their former relations. But she had not done this, and her thought determined his. Her mind recurred to the former time, the moment he came into her presence, and, of necessity his went back also. They met, therefore, with a certain reserve, which was to him most unpleasant, particularly as it stirred a hundred sleeping memories.
By a strong effort, Sherman was able to conceal from other eyes, much of what he felt. In doing this, a certain overaction was the consequence; and he was more mirthful than usual. Several times he endeavored to be lightly familiar with the bride; but, in every instance that he approached her, he perceived a kind of instinctive shrinking; and, if she was in a laughing mood, when he drew near — she became serious and reserved. All this was too plain to be mistaken; and like the repeated strokes of a hammer upon glowing iron, gradually bent his feelings from the buoyant form they had been endeavoring to assume. The effect was not wholly to be resisted. More than an hour before the happy assemblage broke up, Sherman was not to be found in the brilliantly lighted rooms. Unable longer to conceal what he felt, he had retired.
For many days after this, the young man felt sober. "Why haven't you called to see me?" asked the friend who had married Miss Linmore, a week or two after the celebration of the nuptials.
Sherman excused himself as best he could, and promised to call in a few days. Two weeks went by without the fulfillment of his promise.
"No doubt, we shall see you next week," said the friend, meeting him one day about this time; "though I am not so sure we will receive your visits then."
"A certain young lady with whom, I believe, you have some acquaintance, is to spend a short time with us."
"Who?" asked Sherman, quickly.
"A young lady from Albany."
"I was not aware that she was on terms of intimacy with your wife."
"She's an old friend of mine — and, in that sense, a friend of Kate's."
"Then they have not met."
"Oh, yes; frequently. And are warmly attached. We look for a pleasant visit. But, of course, we shall not expect to see you. That is understood."
"I rather think you will; that is, if your wife will admit me on friendly terms."
"Why do you say that?" inquired the friend, appearing a little surprised.
"I thought, on the night of your wedding, that she felt my presence as unwelcome to her."
"And is this the reason why you have not called to see us."
"I frankly own that it is."
"Edwin! I am surprised at you. It is all a piece of imagination. What could have put such a thing into your head?"
"It may have been all imagination. But I couldn't help feelings as I did. However, you may expect to see me, and that, too, before Miss Weldon's arrival."
"If you don't present yourself before, I am not so sure that we will let you come afterwards," said the friend, smiling.
On the next evening, the young man called. Mrs. Hartley, the bride of his friend, endeavored to forget the past, and to receive him with all the external signs of forgetfulness. But, in this she did not fully succeed, and, of course, the visit of Sherman was painfully embarrassing, at least, to himself. From that time until the arrival of Miss Weldon, he felt concerned and unhappy. That Mrs. Hartley would fully communicate or covertly hint to Clara, certain events of his former life, he had too much reason to fear; and, were this done — he felt that all his fond hopes would be scattered to the winds.
In due time, Miss Weldon arrived. In meeting her, Sherman was conscious of a feeling of embarrassment, never before experienced in her presence. He understood clearly why this was so. At each successive visit, his embarrassment increased; and, the more so, from the fact that he perceived a change in Clara before she had been in the city a week. As to the cause of this change, he had no doubts. It was evident that Mrs. Hartley had communicated certain matters touching his previous history.
Thus it went on day after day, for two or three weeks, by which time the lovers met under the influence of a most chilling constraint. Both were exceedingly unhappy.
One day, in calling as usual, Mr. Sherman was surprised to learn that Clara had gone back to Albany.
"She said nothing of this last night," remarked the young man to Mrs. Hartley.
"Her resolution was taken after you went away," was replied.
"And you, no doubt, advised the step," said Mr. Sherman, with ill-concealed bitterness.
"Why do you say that?" was quickly asked.
"How can I draw any other inference?" said the young man, looking at her with knit brows.
"Explain yourself, Mr. Sherman!"
"Do my words need explanation?"
"Undoubtedly! For, I cannot understand them."
"There are events in my past life — I will not say how bitterly repented — of which only you could have informed her."
"What events?" calmly asked the lady.
"Why lacerate my feelings by such a question?" said Sherman, while a shadow of pain flitted over his face, as Memory presented a record of the past.
"I ask it with no such intention. I only wish to understand you," replied Mrs. Hartley. "You have brought against me a vague accusation. I wish it distinct, that I may affirm or deny it."
"Edith Walter!" said Edwin Sherman, in a low, unsteady voice, after he had been silent for nearly a minute.
Mrs. Hartley looked earnestly into his face. Every muscle was quivering.
"What of her?" she inquired, in tones quite as low as those in which the young man had spoken.
"You know the history."
"And, regardless of my suffering and repentance — you have made known to Clara the blasting secret."
"No! By my hopes of Heaven, no!" quickly exclaimed Mrs. Hartley.
"No?" A quiver ran through the young man's frame.
"No, Mr. Sherman! That rested as silently in my own bosom as in yours."
"Who, then, informed her?"
"Has she not heard of it?"
"Why, then, did she change towards me?"
"You changed, first, towards her."
"Yes. From the day of her arrival in New York, she perceived in you a certain coldness and reserve, that increased with each repeated interview."
"It is true. I saw it myself."
Sherman clasped his hands together, and bent his eyes in doubt and wonder upon the floor.
"Did she complain of coldness and change in me?" he inquired.
"Yes, often. And returned, last night, to leave you free, never doubting that you had ceased to love her."
"Ceased to love her! While this sad work has been going on, I have loved her with the agony of one who is about losing earth's most precious thing. Oh! write to her for me, and explain all. How strange has been my infatuation. Will you write for me?"
"Say that my heart has not turned from her an instant. That her imagined coldness has made me of all men most wretched."
"I will do so. But why not write yourself?"
"It will be better to come from you. Ask her to return. I would rather meet her here than in her uncle's house. Urge her to come back."
Mrs. Hartley promised to do so, according to the wish of Mr. Sherman. Two days passed, and there was no answer. On the morning of the third day, the young man, in a state of agitation from suspense called at the house of his friend. After sending up his name, he sat anxiously awaiting the appearance of Mrs. Hartley. The door at length opened, and, to his surprise and joy, Clara entered. She came forward with a smile upon her face, extending her hand as she did so. Edwin sprang to meet her, and catching her hand, pressed it eagerly to his lips.
"Strange that we should have so erred in regard to each other," said Clara, as they sat communing tenderly. "I trust no such error will come in the future to which I look forward with so many pleasing hopes."
"Heaven forbid!" replied the young man, seriously.
"But we are in a world of error. Ah! if we could only pass through life without a mistake. If the heavy weight of repentance did not lie so often and so long upon our hearts — this would be a far pleasanter world than it is."
"Do not look so serious," remarked Clara, as she bent forward and gazed affectionately into the young man's face. "To err is human. No one here is perfect. How often, for hours, have I mourned over my errors; yet grief was of no avail, except to make my future more guarded."
"And that was much gained," said Sherman, breathing deeply with a sense of relief. "If we cannot recall and correct the past — we can at least be more guarded in the future. This is the effect of my own experience. Ah! if we properly considered the action of our present upon the future — how guarded would we be. All actions are in the present, and the moment they are done the present becomes the past, over which Memory presides. What is past is fixed. Nothing can change it. The record is in marble, to be seen in all future time."
The serious character of the interview soon changed, and the young lovers forgot everything in the joy of their reconciliation. Nothing arose to mar their fellowship until the appointed time for the nuptial ceremonies arrived, when they were united in holy wedlock. But, Edwin Sherman did not pass on to this time without another visit from the rebuking angel of the past. He was not permitted to take the hand of Clara in his, and utter the words that bound him to her forever — without a visit from the one whose heart he had broken years before. She came to him in the dark and silent midnight, as he tossed sleeplessly upon his bed, and stood and looked at him with her pale face and despairing eyes, until he was driven almost to madness. She was with him when the light of morning dawned; she moved by his side as he went forth to meet and claim his betrothed; and was near him, invisible to all eyes but his own, when he stood at the altar ready to give utterance to the solemn words that bound him to his bride. And not until these words were said — did the vision fade away.
No wonder the face of the bridegroom wore a solemn aspect as he presented himself to the minister, and breathed the vows of eternal fidelity to the living — while before him, as distinct as if in bodily form, was the presence of one long since sleeping in her grave — who had gone down to her shadowy resting place through his infidelity.
From this time, there was a thicker veil drawn over the past. The memory of that one event grew less and less distinct; though it was not obliterated, for nothing that is written in the Book of Life is ever blotted out. There were reasons, even in long years after his marriage, when the record stood suddenly before him — and he would turn from it with a feeling of pain.
Thus it is that our present blesses or curses our future. Every act of our lives affects the coming time for good or evil. We make our own destiny, and make it always in the present. The past is gone, the future is yet to come. The present only is ours, and, according to what we do in the present — will be the records of the past and its influence on the future. They are only wise, who wisely regard their actions in the present.