THE BROTHERS;
OR, A GOOD CONSCIENCE.

FROM THE DANISH.


It was a fresh, cool summer morning; the birds appeared to have exhausted themselves with singing; but the breeze was not exhausted, for, if it seemed lulled for a moment under the clustering leaves of the trees, it was but suddenly to shake them about, and mingle its sighs with their rustling sound; there waved to and fro the heavy heads of the ears of corn in the fields, and the more lowly clover scattered its fragrance around. On the summit of yon green eminence, under the swaying branches of those oak-trees, stands a young peasant, a robust, vigorous youth. Shading his eyes with his hand, he is gazing across the fields, where the public road winds along, separated from the luxuriant corn by rows of young trees, and deep narrow ditches, whose edges are bordered by wild flowers.

Yet it was but a short time before, that war--savage and bloody war--had raged there; that the heavy trampling of the cavalry had torn up that ground, now covered with the plentiful grain; that the thunder of cannon had hushed every wild bird's song, and that those flower-bordered ditches had been the death-beds of many a sinking warrior. The traces of such scenes are soon effaced in nature; it is only in the minds of mankind that they remain, and cannot be blotted out.

Is it this remembrance which calls an expression of gloom to Johan's eyes, as he surveys the meadows, and casts a shade over his brow, as he turns his head and looks into the quiet valley beneath? In it stands a pretty cottage, newly whitewashed and repaired, with white curtains adorning its low windows, and surrounded by a neat little garden, gay with flowers of every hue. There dwell his mother and his betrothed; she who is soon to become his wife--for the wedding-day is fixed. But it is not the preparations for that event which have set the whole house astir; it is a festival of the village, a general holiday; for this day they are preparing to receive the men who had left their homes in order to defend their native land. These had been long absent, had encountered many hardships and perils, and many of them had been prisoners in the enemy's country. Most among them had one true loving heart at least awaiting his return with anxiety--therefore the whole of the little village was preparing a festal welcome for them. But why does Johan look as if he did not observe the promise of abundance around him--as if he were not himself the most fortunate among the villagers--he, who is about to celebrate a double festival? Why does he throw himself down beneath yon tree, and hide his face with his arm?

Ah! memory has recalled to him that day when he and his brother--two strong, active boys--had stopped at this very place to look at a little girl who was crying bitterly. She was very poorly clad, and the curiosity of the boys passing into sympathy, they inquired why she was in tears? It was a long time before she would impart the cause of her grief to them; but when they placed themselves by her on the grass, patted her little cheek, and spoke words of kindness to her, she confided to them that she had recently come to their village. On the other side of the hill stood the small house in which her mother had lived: but she was now dead, and strangers had brought her over to the village. The overseer of the poor had placed her in service with a peasant woman; but she felt so lonely--so forsaken! She would fain return to her cottage, which stood by itself on the heath; but she dared not leave her mistress. Johan took her hand, looked earnestly upon her, and asked what there was so uncommon about her mother's cottage?

'Ah! there is no house like it here in your village,' replied the little girl, with animation. 'You see, it stood so entirely alone, nobody ever came near it, and out before the door the purple heather grew so thickly! When I lay there in the morning, it was so warm and still, and one never heard a sound but the humming of the wild bees and the whirring of the great flies' wings. In the autumn, my mother and I used to cut off the long heather, bind it into bundles, and sell them yonder in the village. There was a well near our door, and when one looked down into it, oh! it was so dark, and deep, and cold! And when one was drawing up the bucket, it creaked and creaked, as if it were a labour to come up; and if it were let go again, one might wait and watch a long time before it got down to where the water was. In winter, my mother sat in the house spinning; then the snow almost blocked up our little windows; we dared not peep out of the door, for fear of the cold north wind getting in; and if one ventured into the outhouse to get peats for the little stove, one's teeth chattered with the cold. On the long, pitch-dark nights, when we went to bed early, to save candles, we used to lie awake, and creep close to each other, listening to every sound. Oh! how glad we were that we were too poor to fear robbers or bad men. Do you think it possible that there can be such a dear cottage as ours anywhere?'

Johan pointed down towards the valley, and said--

'Do you see our house, yonder? Is it not pretty?'

The little girl shook her head, while she replied--

'You think so, perhaps, for you are accustomed to it.'

'I should like very much to see your former home,' said the other brother, George, who had been gazing upon the child with his large expressive eyes. 'Could you find the way to it?'

'Oh! to be sure I could,' she replied. When I go with the sheep up to the top of the hills, I can see it far away towards the east.'

It was agreed that the following Sunday they should all three go to see the wonderfully beautiful cottage the girl had described; and after that excursion they became playfellows and fast friends. In process of time, when the girl grew stronger, the mother of the boys, at their earnest and repeated request, took her as an assistant in her household work, and Ellen became happier and prettier every day. Johan carved wooden shoes for her, carried water for her, and helped her at her weaving; George whitewashed her little room, and planted flowers outside her window: and neither of the brothers ever went to the market-town without bringing a little gift to her.

They were all three confirmed on the same day, though the brothers were older than Ellen; but from that day their peace was disturbed; Lars, the son of the clerk of the church, took it into his head to make up to Ellen, presented her with flowers and a silver ring, and, what was worse, at a dance in the village, shortly after, he danced with her almost the whole evening. Why was it that the gloomy looks of the dissatisfied brothers sought not each other's sympathy? Why did not they open their lips in mutual complaints--why not tell each other that they had never dreamed of any one else dancing with their sister, giving her presents, and speaking soft words to her? Was it not they who had met her first, and had visited with her the cottage on the heath? They, who had been so attached to her? But there had hitherto been two to love her--why had two suddenly become one too many? And when Ellen, her face radiant with joy, came tripping up to George, seized his hand, and said, 'Will you not dance one little dance with me, George?' why did Johan spring forward with a wrathful countenance, snatch away her hand, and exclaim--'No; I am tired of staying here, Ellen; we must go home!'

Then George threw his arm round her waist, pushed Johan away, and said, 'Go, if you like, Johan; but Ellen and I will dance.'

Suddenly the brothers turned upon each other as if they had been bitter enemies; and they would have come to blows, had Ellen not burst into tears, and, separating them, accompanied them home.

From that day forth they watched narrowly each other's word and look, and seemed to be always in a state of miserable anxiety about each other. If they were going to market, they made a point of starting at the same time; for the one dared not leave the other a moment behind, for fear he should have an opportunity of saying a kind word privately to Ellen, or of obtaining a kind look from her, in which the other could not share. If they were sitting together in their humble parlour, they kept a sharp and jealous look-out upon every motion and every glance of hers; and if she spoke a little longer, or with a little more apparent interest, to one, the room seemed to be too confined for the other, and he would rush out to breathe the free air, but yet without feeling the oppression removed from his heart. At length, even the little friendly attentions they used to pay to Ellen were given up, for jealousy taught both the brothers what poison there might lie in them for each.

Perhaps it would have been better if Ellen could have then declared which she preferred; her heart would have led her willingly to do so; but to make the other dear brother unhappy! Had they not both been so kind to the poor child whom they found under the tree? Which, could she say, had surpassed the other in affection to her? Besides, neither of them had asked her which she liked best. No--neither of them had ventured to do that: but both became more gloomy, both apparently more miserable, and the love of both became more impetuous.

They were all three sitting together one evening; for the young men's mother was now very feeble and mostly confined to bed. At length, Johan spoke of the news he had that day heard at the clergyman's house--'that war had broken out, and that the king had called upon all his faithful subjects to assist him in it. For the first time for many months the brothers looked frankly and unsuspiciously at each other, and, holding out his hand, George said--

'Brother! shall we go to the war?'

A hearty shake of the hand was Johan's reply.

'For God's sake, do not leave me, my dear brothers!' cried Ellen. 'Would it not be enough at least for one to ...' she added, almost in a whisper; but she stopped suddenly, for the countenance of both the young men had darkened in a moment. In the fierce look which they exchanged lay more than words could have expressed; and Ellen felt, as if the idea had been conveyed to her in a flash of lightning, that they must both go. She seized a hand of each, pressed them to her beating heart, and told them, in a voice broken by suppressed sobs, that they must go, that they must trust in God, and that she would pray for them both.

That night, when she had retired to her little chamber, she wept bitter tears, and prayed to the Almighty that he would watch over them both; and if one must fall, that he would preserve him whose life would be of the greatest utility. But her sighs were for George, and her secret wishes for his safety.

The brothers joined the army. The life they led there, so new to both, seemed to call forth from their inmost souls long-dormant feelings, and they once more became intimate, but of home they never dared to speak. They often wished to write to that home, but something invisible seemed always to prevent them, and neither of them would let that duty devolve upon the other. It was almost a relief to them when they had to march to the field of battle; the lives of both would be exposed there--God would choose between them. And they looked earnestly one upon the other, and wrung each other's hand. But when they met after the battle, they did not shake hands, they nodded coldly to each other; and, to a comrade from their native village, they said--'When you write home, tell them that our Lord has spared us.'

Again they went forth to meet the enemy; again they participated in that fearful lottery for life or death; and amidst the tumult of the fight, they chanced to stand side by side. At length, driven off the field, they took refuge in a small building, but it was speedily attacked by the enemy; they saw the bayonets glittering on the outside, and heard the officer in command give orders to fire at it. Immediately, Johan pressed the secret spring of a trap-door which led to the woods, and forced himself through it. George stooped over it and was about to follow his example, when an evil spirit entered into Johan's heart; he thrust his brother back, drew down the trap-door, and rushed towards the trees. Immediately he heard the sound of firing; the smoke concealed his flight, he crept into the wood, trembling in every limb, and fainted away upon the grass.

On recovering from his swoon, all was still around him; but he soon fell in with some of his comrades, and rejoined his regiment. The troops were shortly afterwards mustered, and the name of each individual was called. How intense were his feelings when his brother's was heard! None answered to it; and, conquering with a violent effort his emotion, he ventured to glance towards the place that his brother used to occupy, and where he almost dreaded to see a pale and threatening spectre. He heard his comrades talk of him, but his heart appeared to have become seared. He felt that he ought to write to Ellen, and evening after evening he sat down to the task; but he always abandoned it, for he fancied, that without any confession, she would discern that the hand which traced the letters on the paper to her had thrust his brother into the jaws of death. He gave up the idea of writing, but through another sent a message of kindness from himself, and the tidings of George's death.

When a cessation of hostilities for a time was agreed on, and Johan was to return home, he endeavoured and hoped to be able to shake off his deep gloom. He was to see Ellen again, but the thought of her no longer brought gladness to his soul. It was with slow and heavy steps that he approached the cottage in the valley; and when Ellen came out to meet him, and hid her tearful face on his breast, it did not anger him that she wept, for his own heart was so overcharged with misery, that it seemed to weigh him down to the earth. At length he felt somewhat easier; he tried to concentrate his thoughts upon Ellen, and he had everything that could remind him of his brother removed from sight. Yet, when in passing through the woods, he came near some large tree, on which his brother and himself, as children, had cut their names together, painful and dark remembrances would rush on him; and it was still worse when his mother wept, and spoke of George--of what he was as a little boy, and how good, and affectionate, and kind-hearted he had always been. When in the society of the neighbouring peasants, he was silent, and seemingly indifferent to all amusement; and when he heard them remark 'How Johan is changed since he went to the wars!' he felt himself compelled to leave them and fly to solitude. Ellen was kind and gentle to him; but when, of an evening, he loitered near the window of her little chamber, he could not help hearing how she sighed and sobbed.

One afternoon, when he came slowly home from his work in the fields, he began to commune with himself, and his soliloquy ended by his saying to himself--'I will be happy; for, as things are now, I might as well be where George is.' And, thus resolving, he went straight to the window of Ellen's room, at which she was standing, and leaning against the outside frame, he said--

'Listen to me, Ellen! We have mourned long enough for George. I have been fond of you ever since you were a child--will you be my wife now?'

Ellen looked down for a moment; then, raising her eyes to his, she said--

'Ah, Johan! I saw very well how matters stood between you and George; but I will tell you frankly, that I would have preferred to have taken poor George for my husband, and kept you as my brother. However, since it was God's will to remove him from this world, there is no one whom I would rather marry than you. Are you content with this acceptance?'

'I suppose I must be,' replied Johan; but he became very pale, and he added, in a lower and somewhat discontented tone--'There was no need for your saying all this, Ellen; you may believe my assurance, that I am as much attached to you as ever George could have been.'

'Yes, Johan, yes!' said Ellen; 'but it is needless to make comparisons now; nor ought you to be angry at what I have said. You are dearest to me after him; and, even if he stood here in your place, I should not be happy if you were dead and gone.'

'Hush, Ellen, hush!' cried Johan, as he glanced over his shoulder with uneasiness. 'Let us speak about our wedding-day; for my mother cannot live long, and we could not reside together after her death unless we were married.'

After a little more conversation, Ellen shut the window, and withdrew; and the subject was not again alluded to the whole evening. When Johan went to bed, the thought occurred to him--'It was very strange that I forgot to seal our engagement with a single kiss. Am I never more to feel that I have a right to be happy?'

He could not sleep that night--he could not help reflecting how it would have been, if it were George who was about to marry Ellen, and he who was lying in the grave. 'But George would then have caused my death, and perhaps things are better as they are.' He tried to escape from thought--he tried to sleep, and at last sleep came; but it brought no relief, for he found himself again standing in that well-remembered wood, and saw again before him that small house, with its dreadful recollections. He felt himself struggling violently to keep the trapdoor shut, till the perspiration poured down his face; and then he awoke in his agitation, and anything was better than the horror of such a vivid dream. 'Oh! why is it not all a dream?' he exclaimed, as he wrung his hands in agony of spirit.

And there he stood now upon the hill, hiding his face from the sweetness of the morning, and the cheerful rays of the sun, as if he feared to pollute the glorious gifts which God had bestowed on creation, and felt that they were not intended for his enjoyment. Suddenly, he flung himself down, and buried his face amidst the early dew that stood upon the ground, mingling with it the hot tears that chased each other swiftly down his cheeks. At that moment, a soft hand was gently laid upon his head, and a mild voice exclaimed--

'But, Johan! why are you lying here? What can be the matter with you?'

And when he raised his head, and Ellen saw his disturbed look, she sat down by him, and put her arm affectionately round him.

'Do you believe that we shall be happy, Ellen?' he asked mournfully, as he laid his head on her shoulder. 'Tell me--do you really believe that we shall be happy?'

'Why not, dear Johan?' said Ellen, in a soothing manner. 'We are both young--we have a sincere affection for each other--we will do all we can for our mutual happiness through life--and when one has a good conscience, everything goes well.'

Her last words pierced Johan to the very soul; he felt perfectly wretched--he became as pale as death--and a confession which would have crushed his hearer's heart trembled on his lips; but he forced it back to the depths of his own soul, and was silent. Ellen, too, sat silent. After a few moments she seemed to be listening to something, and suddenly she exclaimed--

'Hark! the church bells are ringing! They are coming--I must hasten to our poor mother.'

After she had left him, Johan remained for a time in speechless anguish. 'When one has a good conscience,' he repeated at length. 'Yes--it is true! But I, who have not a good conscience, how shall I become fortunate and happy? Oh! if she adored me--if she would be everything to me--of what avail would that be to me? Do I not feel that every endearment is a crime--every word of love an offence to him in his grave? Oh! if she knew all, she would spurn me from her, order me out of her presence, and heap curses on my head! But soon--soon--she will not be able to do that. We shall become man and wife--ay, man and wife before God's holy altar ... but--will that ever be? When I walk with her up the church aisle--when the bells are ringing, the church adorned with green branches and flowers, and the rich tones of the organ make the heart swell in one's breast--can I be proud or happy? Can I help looking back to see if a bloody shadow be not following me amongst my kindred and my friends, who are the bridal guests? Oh! horror, horror! And when the pastor pronounces that those whom God has joined together no man shall put asunder--oh! the blood will freeze in my veins. No--no living man--but a shadow from the tomb--a spectre--a murdered brother's revengeful ghost--will appear. Oh! George, George! arise from your grave, and let me change places with you!'

Drops of agony are falling from his brow, every joint seems rigid in his closely-clasped hands, and every limb of the unhappy sinner is trembling. But what angel from heaven is yon? He kneels by his side--he pushes back the thick hair, and wipes off the clammy dew of mortal anguish from his forehead. Johan looks up.

'Oh! is it a spectre from the grave, or is it he? George!--George! No--no--no!--he smiles--it cannot be himself!'

Johan stretched out his feverish, trembling hands, and grasped his brother's arm.

'Is it you, George? Merciful God! can it be yourself?'

'It is I--I myself!' replied George, approaching closer to his brother.

'And you are not dead?' cried Johan. 'Answer me, for God's sake! Have I not murdered you?'

'Hush!--hush!' said George; 'you pushed me back from the trap-door, indeed, but I fell down flat, and the guns did not injure me. The enemy took me prisoner, however, and I have just come from captivity. Forgive me, Johan, that I so long forgot we were brothers--so long, that you at last learned to forget it too.'

Johan stood for a few moments as if he had been turned into stone, then raised his eyes, and cast one long, earnest look towards heaven; but in that look there was a world of gratitude and delight. He then threw himself on his brother's neck and embraced him warmly.

'Go to your bride!' he cried, as he withdrew his arms, and pointed to the cottage in the vale. 'I have not killed him!' he shouted; 'I have not murdered my brother!--he lives! Oh! thou God of goodness, I thank thee that thou hast saved my brother!' And he kissed the flowers, he embraced the trees, he rolled on the grass in the wild delirium of his joy; but he became calmer by degrees, his thoughts seemed to become more collected, and he raised his tearful eyes to the blue heavens above, while his lips murmured his thanks and praise for the unexpected blessing vouchsafed to him.

Several days have passed since then; the wedding morning has come at last; the bells ring; the church is decorated with fresh flowers and green boughs, and the pealing organ is heard outside in the churchyard. See, here comes the bridal party, gaily dressed, and adorned with garlands of flowers. The bride advances between two young men, each holding one of her hands. The one brother gives her to the other. Long had they disputed in a friendly spirit which should be permitted to sacrifice himself, and to yield Ellen; but one of them had a crime to expiate; he was most anxious to make reparation for it, and he triumphed in the fraternal struggle. See how his eyes sparkle! See with what firm and elastic steps he advances! And, though deeply agitated as he holds out his right hand to place the bride by his brother's side at the altar, how earnestly he joins in prayer, and how distinctly gratitude and peace are depicted in his countenance!

It is night in the valley; the wind is hushed, and not a leaf is stirring; all is so still, that the gentle trickling of the water in the little rivulet near can be heard at an unusual distance. The quiet moonbeams shine on the windows of the cottage where George and Ellen, the newly-married couple, are; and the roses which cluster round them exhale their sweetest perfumes. But what wanderer is yon, who, with a knapsack on his back and a staff in his hand, stands beneath the oak trees on the hill? He stretches out his arms towards that lowly house in a last adieu, for his path must henceforth lead elsewhere. Why does he now kneel on the grassy height? why does he lift his hands to heaven in prayer? Can it be possible that he thanks God because his beloved is his brother's bride? Can it be possible that, with a heart unbroken by grief--that with tears, which are not of sorrow, in his eyes, he can leave all he has ever loved, to become a pilgrim in a foreign land? It is--for a conscience, released from the heavy burden of guilt, supports and blesses him, and transforms every sigh into gratitude and joy.