The Foster Child by Eugenius

"Ten years to-day! Mercy on us, time does fly indeed! it seems but yesterday. And here she sat, her beautiful fair face all reddened by the heat, as in her childish romps she puffed with might and main the fire in this very grate. Dear heart, how sweet a child it was surely! Well, David, say what folks will, I'm convinced there was a fate about it."

Before I relate how far David coincided in this opinion of his "gude wife," I will mention to whom and to what she alluded, and how I had an opportunity of declaring a similar conviction. Seated, after a kind reception by the master and matron, in their best room in the workhouse of L——, at my request they were proceeding to gratify my curiosity, raised by a picture which hung between the windows. The subject and execution were striking: it had been hit off at one of those luckiest moments for the artist, when, unconsciously, the study presented that inspiration to the task which so rarely occurs in what is termed "a sitting for a likeness." On a three-legged stool, with one foot raised upon the fender, and an old pair of bellows resting on her lap, in the act of blowing the fire,—long clustering locks, the brightest yellow that ever rivalled sunbeams, flowing from a head turned towards her right shoulder, from which a coarse holland pinafore had slipt by the breaking of one of the fastenings,—sat a child, apparently eight or nine years of age, in whose face beamed more beauty, spirit, and intelligence than surely ever were portrayed on canvass. Well might the good dame cry, "Dear heart, how sweet a child it was!" Never before or since have I beheld its equal; and the vivid recollection of the wonder I then felt, will never cease to throw its light upon the page of memory till time turns over the new leaf of existence. What admirable grace! how exquisitely free! she seemed indeed to inhale the breath that panting look bespoke a lack of. What joyous fire in her large blue eyes! and then the parted laughing lips, and small pearl teeth! the attitude how careless, and most natural! all appeared as much to live as if all actual. But, little do I hope, gentle reader, to excite in you as lively an interest for the original, by my weak tints of simple black and white, as the glowing colours of the picture roused in me. I will not attempt it; but at once proceed with the story appertaining to the object of my inquiry, as narrated by the worthy matron of "the house."

"Do you tell the tale, Bessum," said honest David, addressing his spouse, whose name, from Elizabeth and Betsy, had undergone this farther proof of the liberties married folks take with one another. "Do you tell the tale, and, if needs be, I can help you on, where you forget any part of it."

"Ah! you're a 'cute fellow, David," said Elizabeth; "you know how to set an easy task as well as any one, 'specially when it's for yourself to go about; but, never mind, I wun't rate 'e for 't, for I know 'tis a sad subject for you to deal with."

Bessum was evidently right, for the tear that stood trembling for a moment in the corner of David's eye as she spoke, rolled unheeded down his cheek; while the handkerchief that seemed to have been taken from across his knees for the purpose of concealing the simplicity of the tribute his honest heart was paying, was employed, for at least the tenth time that day, to brush the irreverent dust from the picture of his "poor dear child."

I was affected to a degree for which I was unable to account, by the touching sigh poor David heaved as he replaced the handkerchief on his knees, and resigned himself to the pangs my curiosity was about to inflict on him. There was a tender melancholy in the kind creature's face that seemed to mark the lacerated feelings of intense affection. I could have pressed him to my breast in sympathy of his sufferings, for I was already a sharer of his grief before I knew the cause of it. It was at this moment that the dame began her story in the words of my commencement.

"Ten years to-day," said she, "since that picture was painted, sir."

"Ah, my poor dear child!" sighed David; from which ejaculation I inferred that I was about to hear a tale, of which his own daughter was the heroine: but I was soon undeceived by his wife, who thus proceeded:—

"It ben't necessary to go farther back into the dear child's life than to the day on which she was first placed with me to nurse. Who she is has nought to do with what she is, or the story of her life; certain sure it is she was the loveliest babe I ever saw, and I and David were as proud of her as if she were our own, bless her dear heart! How everybody talked about her! and how all the folks did love her too, surely! I can't tell ye, sir, how beautiful she was; and, as she grew, her beauty kept good pace with her years, I promise you. She was nine years old the day the painter came to make a likeness of her for her father. Here she sat in this very room, just as you see her in the picture, sir: she had run in from the garden where she had been at romps with poor George, and was puffing away at the fire with an old pair of bellows which she found among the lumber in the tool-house, when the gentleman, whom she did not notice at first, was arranging his matters for the painting of the picture. It was at the moment that she turned round to see who was in the room, that, as he said, he was so struck with her lovely face he could have taken her likeness if he had not seen her a moment longer; and, sure enough, he was not out much in his reckoning, for scarcely had he taken his pencil in his hand before the little mad-cap bounded out of the room, and ran off to her playmate in the garden. That is a copy of the picture, sir; and if the poor dear child were sitting here as she was on that day, she couldn't look more like herself than that painting does to me."

David was in the very act of again converting his handkerchief into a duster; but, after a momentary struggle, for once in a way he pressed a corner of it to his eyes, and kept his seat.

"Of all those, barring myself and David," continued the dame, "who loved the sweet child,—as, to be sure, everybody did more or less,—none seemed to dote on her so much as the young gentleman who was then our village doctor's assistant, and poor George."

"And, pray, who was poor George?" said I.

"Ah! sir, his is a sorry story too; but of that anon. He was a gentleman born, sir, bless his dear soul! but, before he was barely out of his teens, study and such like turned his wits, and poor George was placed in our care, an idiot. Oh! how he would watch and wait upon his "young mistress," as he used to call the dear child! and Harri—for so we nicknamed our little Harriet—seemed to look up to him for all her amusements and happiness. Good heart! to see him racing round the garden till he was fairly tired and beat for breath, trundling her in the wheelbarrow, and fancying himself her coachman; and then how he'd follow her wherever she went, as if to protect her; always at a distance when he fancied she didn't wish him with her, but never out of sight. She appeared to be his only care; his poor head seemed filled with nothing but thoughts of her. His friends used to send him trinkets, and money, and baubles, to amuse him; and his greatest pride was to take little Harri into his room, and show her his stores, hang his gilt chains and beads about her neck, seat her in his large arm-chair, and stand behind it as if he were her footman, and play all kinds of pranks to make her laugh; for he seemed pleased when she laughed at him, though he wouldn't bear a smile from anybody else at the same cause. His senses served him at times, and then he would fall into fits of the bitterest melancholy as he sat looking in our sweet child's face, as if reflecting how much he loved her, and how little his wandering mind was able to prove his affection! Ah, poor dear fellow! it's well his sufferings ended when they did, for they would have been terrible indeed if he had lived till now; but all who loved her best, fell off from her either by death or desertion when her day of trouble came."

David's resolution was plainly wavering as to the application of his handkerchief, when Bessum gave it the turn in favour of the picture on perceiving her husband's emotion, by adding,

"As for David and myself, you know, sir, we are nobody; it would be strange indeed if we could ever have turned our backs upon the dear child."

"God forbid!" said David; and little Harri's portrait received the extra polish breathed upon it by a deep sigh, previous to the ordinary one emanating solely from the handkerchief. "God forbid!" repeated David, and Bessum added a hearty amen as she resumed her story.

"As the sweet child grew up," continued she, "she was the talk of all tongues far and near; and, before she was fifteen, sir, gentlefolks came from all parts to see her. A fine time we had of it surely; first one pretence, and then another, kept us answering questions and inquiries about her all day long. As for Dame Beetle, who kept a little shop, and sold gloves, over the way, just facing this window, she made a pretty penny by the beauty of our sweet child, although the old simpleton thought it was the goodness of her gloves that brought her so many gentlemen customers. Why, I have known no fewer than five or six of the neighbouring squires,—ay, and lords too,—so difficult to fit, that they've been standing over the little counter by the hour together; but I warrant not to much purpose, as far as the real object of their visit was concerned. No sooner did horse, or gig, or carriage stop in the village, than dear Mr. George,—that is him that was with the doctor, you know, sir."

"Oh, his name was George too?"

"Yes, that it was, sir; and down here he would run as fast as legs could carry him, and his first question was always, 'David, where is little Harri? Take her into the garden.' And here he would sit till the gentlefolks opposite were gone away. If ever one creature did dote upon another, Mr. George loved that sweet child. Ah! would to Heaven he had lived to make her his wife! but it's all fate, and so I suppose it's for the best as it is; though I would have died sooner than things should have fallen out as they have, if that could have prevented it!"

"A thousand times over," responded David, with a fond glance at the picture. "I'd rather never have been born than have lived to weep over the ruin of such heavenly beauty and goodness."

A chill of horror struck upon my heart as I repeated with inquiring emphasis the word that had produced it.

"The ruin!" said I; "impossible!" and as I raised my eyes towards heaven at the thought of such a sacrifice, they caught those of the victim in the picture. I could have wept aloud, so powerful was the influence of the gaze that I encountered. There sat the loveliest creature that the world e'er saw,—an artless, careless child, health, hope, and happiness beaming in her sweet fair face; her lips, although the choicest target for his aim, the foil of Cupid's darts, so pure, so modest was the smile that parted them; her eyes, the beacon-lights of virgin chastity; her joyous look, the Lethe where pale Care could come but to be lost,—it scared off Woe! And were these made for Ruin to write shame upon! Oh, man!—monster!—ingrate fiend!—I was roused from my reverie by the perseverance of the good dame, who thus took up the thread of her discourse, that my exclamation had broken:

"Ah, poor Mr. George! if he had lived, all would have been well. I make bold to say, for certain sure, they would have been man and wife by this time; for though she used to go on finely at 'that doctor,' as the darling girl used to call him, because he was the cause of her being taken into the garden so often, without knowing why,—for all that, she loved him in her heart, poor dear! as well she might; for, as I said before, he fairly doted upon her. And yet, so delicate was his noble mind, he could never as it were talk seriously to her,—that is to say, not to make any kind of love to her, you know, sir. He had known her from a precious babe; and although his whole heart and soul, I do believe, were set upon one day making her his wife, if so be as she should not refuse him of her own free will, still he felt so almost like a father to her, though he was not more than eight or nine years older than she, that he never could bring himself to fairly pay court to her as a lover, you see."

"God bless his noble heart!" said David, as he rested his elbow on his knee, and his chin on the palm of his hand; "he always said he should be drowned: there's fate again, Bessum, sure enough."

"And did he die by drowning?" said I.

"Ay, sir," replied the dame; "and scarce was he dead, as if they only waited for that, than our sweet child's misfortunes began."

"Destiny, indeed!" thought I, as a superstitious feeling seemed to prepare me for the proofs of it.

"She was just sixteen, and that's nearly five years ago, when she lost him who would have been more than all the world to her, as a body may say, and when Lieutenant H—— brought permission from a certain quarter to court her for his wife. Heavy was my poor heart at the thought of parting with the dear child; but more so ten times over, though I couldn't tell why, at the idea of who I was going to part with her to. She, poor darling, was proud of the conceit of being married, and pleased with the gold lace and cocked-hat of the young sailor. I don't believe the thought of love for him ever once entered her head: but that was nothing, for she would have loved any one who behaved kindly to her; and then to be a wife, and her own mistress, and the mistress of a house! Alack-a-day! she little knew what she was doing when she promised her hand where her heart had not gone before, and where none was beating for her. But it was well she made no objection, for it was to be, whether or no; so she was spared at least the pain of being forced against her will. Well, sir, the wedding-day came, and never do I remember such a day as it was. In vain did the bells ring and the sun shine; folks, spite of all, and of themselves too, couldn't be merry: they smiled, and talked, and tried to appear gay; but, to my plain, honest thinking, there was not a light heart in the village. Poor George, to be sure, was dancing with delight, for he saw the preparations, and the fine clothes, and he heard the bells ringing and the neighbours talking, and he understood that all was for and about his lady, as he then called his old playmate; and the idea of so much fuss and bustle on her account made him as proud and happy as if he were to be the sharer of it. Little did he imagine that it was to end in robbing him of the only comfort of his hapless life, poor fellow; and as the bride and bridegroom came from church, where to the very altar he had followed like a guardian saint, his watchful eye faithful in its duty to the last, he picked up here and there a flower that the villagers had strewn, on which she trod, and stuck them in a row in the button-holes of his waistcoat. But when the time came that our dear sweet child was to be torn from our arms, then was a scene I never shall forget. She bade us one by one good-b'ye, as if she didn't dream of being gone from us a day. It fairly seemed as though Providence had deprived her of all thought. But when she came to take her leave of George, she appeared to shrink from bidding him farewell. She took his hand, and with a fluttering smile said, 'George, I am going for a ride,' and she was gone! For full three hours after, George was missing; and when the twilight made us stir to find where he could be, there by the garden-gate he stood, with the old wheelbarrow at his side, his handkerchief spread out upon it, as he was wont to do when he used to wheel his little playmate in it years agone,—there was he waiting till she should come 'to ride.' Poor, poor creature! he had no idea of the journey that she meant, when she told him she was going for a ride. He knew that he had been her coachman many a time and oft, and he thought of no other carriage than that which he had driven. I burst out a-crying at the very sight of him. There he stood, as confident that she was coming as if he had seen her on the threshold of the door with her gypsy hat on her head. Three hours he had waited; and when I saw him, it would have melted a heart of stone to watch his look, and think upon the misery in store for him. The sun had gone down, and there was not a sound to hear, but now and then the melancholy pipe of a robin, or the distant tinkle of a sheep-bell. Everything seemed sorrowing in silence at our loss; and he that would pine most, alone was ignorant of it. I hadn't courage to call him away and tell him his misfortune; but when David brought him in, and told him that his lady had gone for a ride with the 'new footman,' as the poor fellow called the lieutenant, the anguish in his face was more woeful than you can think of, sir. Every day at the same hour he brought the wheelbarrow to the garden-gate, and kept it there till sunset; then, till he went to bed, he'd sit arranging the withered flowers in his waistcoat. He was never obstinate in refusing to do as he was desired; but, unless he had been bidden to eat and drink, no morsel would have passed his lips: he never thought of hunger or of thirst; his little mistress, his old playmate, and, as he thought her, his only friend, alone occupied his mind, that never wandered now. It was fixed upon one object, and on that it dwelt. Ten months he pined and lingered for his loss; and then, more sensible than he had ever been before, poor George, sir, died!"

"And happy for him that he is no more," said I, anticipating the sequel of little Harri's story. "He has gone down to the cold bed, it is true; but his pillow is far smoother than the down that is pressed in vain for quiet and repose by the heartless and unfeeling."

"True, very true, sir," said David, and I was half in doubt whether the handkerchief would be put in requisition again; but it kept its place across the knees of my host, and Bessum continued. "From the day she left us, sir, we saw no more of our dear child for two years; but sad was the tale that reached us in the mean while. Think of her wrongs, sir;—the man who had taken her, to be parted but by death, left her the very next day, after he had robbed scores of honest hearts of the chance of proving the sincerity of their love by a life of cherishing and devotion."

"God forgive him!" said David, "for I never can."

"The gallows pardon him! for I never would," cried I.—"And what became of the deserted wife?"

Bessum, who had for nearly an hour stifled the feelings to which she was all that time hankering to give vent, finding this either too seasonable or powerful an occasion to resist, burst into tears; while David, as a counterpoise to the grief which he had heretofore monopolised, evinced a well-timed symptom of stoicism, by folding up his handkerchief at least three times as small as the usual dimensions which laundresses or common consent have established time out of mind as its proper limit, and then thrusting it into the salt-box pocket of his coat, as being the last place, at that particular crisis, to which, under the influence of his senses, he certainly must have intended its destination.

"I shall make short work of the rest on't, I promise ye, sir," sobbed the tender-hearted foster-mother; "it ben't much use to dwell upon the finish."

"End it at once," said I, impatient of farther melancholy detail.

"Twenty-four hours had not passed, sir, after the heartless fellow had become a husband, before he was aboard ship, and on his way to the Indies. He had completed his bargain; he had married our blessed child, and received his wages for the job. He took her to the house of one of her relations near London, and without telling her whither he was going, or when, if ever, he should return, left her as I have described. Fancy the sweet soul's sufferings, sir!—think what she felt when she found herself a widow before she was fairly a wife! Oh! my heart bleeds when I recollect her wrongs! Well, sir, she pined and fretted till those with whom she lived would fain to have got rid of her, I promise you; and it was not long before they had their wish."

"And did the poor child die of her distress?" said I. "Alas! so young!"

"Not just then, sir. You'll scarcely think that the worst of her troubles had yet to come; but so it was, poor dear! As fate would have it, she was one day met and followed home by a gentleman, who, she could not help observing, appeared so struck with her, that, though he did not offer to speak to her, he seemed determined upon finding where she lived. Every day for more than a week did he watch the house nearly all day long; and when at last she went out of doors, he made the best of the opportunity, and began in the most woeful manner to tell her how much he loved her, and what he was suffering on her account, and to beg and pray of her not to be angry with him for what he could not help. Well, sir, he spoke so mild and respectful, and seemed so truly miserable, that the wretched widow couldn't find it in her heart to speak harshly to him, and so at first she made no answer at all. He told her that he saw she had something on her mind that distressed her, and said he felt certain sure he could make her happy, and that not even her displeasure should make him cease from the attempt. And, sure enough, to her, poor thing! he seemed to be as good as his word; for, though she forbade him to approach her in any way again, still he hovered about the house as much as ever, and wrote such letters, telling of his misery and anxiety on her account, that, tired out by the ill-treatment of those to whose tender mercies she was abandoned, sinking under the pangs of her desertion, and beset by the arts and entreaties of a fine young man, who seemed to speak so fairly for her comfort and good, in an evil hour the poor distracted and deluded creature flew to his arms for that protection which in vain was pledged her by a husband. I have already told you that, in my opinion, she never had a thought of any love for the man she had married. It is not to be wondered at, then, that one, who at least professed himself to be all that a husband should be, found no great difficulty or delay in gaining her affections and confidence in return. In short, her young heart, that had never before known the feeling, was now fixed upon this man with all the fondness and devotion of a first love. It was no hard matter, therefore, for him to persuade her to whatever he liked; and the first advice he gave her for her good, was to take a house in the neighbourhood of one of the parks, which he made his home, eating, drinking, and riding about at her expense. Well, sir, for several months this was a life of uninterrupted happiness for our poor Harri. She had quiet or company as she liked, and the society of him that she loved to madness. The first sign of interruption to the joys that, alas! are always too dearly bought at the sacrifice she had made, was the news of the arrival in England of her husband, and, within two days after that, his appearance at her house. Here was a fine to do, indeed! She was alone in her drawing-room, and no one else in the house but the two maid-servants. In vain did she entreat and resist him; by main force he carried her out of the house; put her into a hackney-coach, without bonnet or shawl; and drove away with her to the house of his mother. That man was born to be her torment and ruin, sir. He had left her when he ought most to have been in her company, and he returned when his desertion had driven her in misery and despair to seek for happiness, in the expectation of which with him he had deceived her,—to disturb the comfort his heartlessness had neglected to afford her. Don't fancy that he loved her, sir. 'Twas no such thing, as I shall soon make clear to you. However, not six hours after she had been taken away, the dear child was home again, and in the arms of the man she would have risked her life for. Here was devotion, sir! She got out of a one-pair of stairs window, by letting herself down with the bed-clothes as far as they would reach, and by jumping the rest; and just as she had been taken from her home, without a bit of outdoor covering, off she set, in the cold and wet of a December night, and had to walk for full a mile and a half before she got the coach that carried her home. Did her husband love her, sir? Day after day he rode or walked past the house, and sent letters to her; but never once offered to seek out the man that kept his wife from him. Can he have loved her, sir? To leave her in the quiet possession of another, and take himself off again to the Indies! So much for the husband:—and now for the lover, as he called himself. Matters, I don't know what, took him to France, and he was to return to her who was weary of her life in his absence, within a month. He had not been gone a fortnight before she received a letter from him, written in a French prison, where he was confined for debt. That hour she started post for Dover, and in three days they were on their road home together. Little Harri had released the man she adored, and brought him away from his troubles in triumph and joy."

David's handkerchief, notwithstanding the depth into which it had been plunged, and the compactness with which it had been doubled up, was out of his pocket, unfolded, and across his knees in an instant; evincing a conviction in the mind of its proprietor that that part of Bessum's story was approaching to narration which would certainly call for its application in the united capacities to which David was in the habit of appropriating it.

The dame resumed; for I should mention that she had made a preparatory pause, in the interval of which she took occasion to fortify herself for the coming trial with a considerable pinch of Scotch snuff.

"They didn't reach home, sir," said she, "for more than a fortnight; for they stayed a day here, and a day there, to see the sights, and such like; and because she, poor dear! was in no condition for much hurry, though she had forgotten that, when she started, as she did every thing but her devoted love for him she went to rescue. But, when they did arrive, dearly did our sweet child pay for the fault a husband's cruelty had driven her to commit, and bitter was the punishment of Providence: but it was all fate, I'm sure it was; it must have been; for surely her crime did not call for such a dreadful judgment as befell her. Oh, good heart, sir! think of the poor dear after all she had undergone in a journey to a foreign land, where she had never been before, and all alone, too, sir, without a friend to help or to advise her! She had left a house fitted and furnished like a little palace, as a body may say; the homestead of her high-priced, fatal happiness. Think of her reaching what she thought a home, and finding none! She was soon to be a mother, and she had not a bed to lay her down upon! In the short time that she had been away, the servant in whose charge she left her house, by the help and advice of a villain she kept company with, had carried off every thing, under the pretence that she was moving for her mistress! Ah! you may look surprised, sir, and with reason, but 'tis just as true as you and I sit here."

"God's will be done!" sobbed David, as he buried his face in his handkerchief with both his hands. "She's out of harm's way now, Bessum. God's will be done!" and the simple-hearted man wept like a boy. The tears ran so fast down the sorrowful face of the poor dame, that the relief they afforded her enabled her to proceed to the climax of little Harri's misfortunes.

"She didn't rave and take on, sir," said Bessum. "The hand of destiny was on her, and she felt it. As calmly as though nothing had occurred, she bade the coachman drive to a certain hotel; she seemed to reckon but for a moment between what she had lost and what she had regained, and she was satisfied with the account as it stood. All in the world for which she cared was still spared to her,—she had herself preserved him, the author of her dishonour, the cause of her loss, and, the only compensation for it, the father of her child! These were all she prized; and he who was one and all, now sat beside her. With a smile of resignation, confidence, and content, she looked in his face, and said, "What's to be done?"

The eyes upon the canvass seemed to ask me for an answer: I felt that I could beg subsistence for such a woman; become a drudge, a slave, or yield my life up for her sake.

"And what was his reply?" cried I.

"Good advice—good advice, sir," sobbed Bessum. "He asked her if she did not think she had better go to her old nurse!"

Mute with amazement and disgust, I sank back in my chair.

"What!" cried I, when the power of articulation returned; "was that the good advice?"

"Ay, sir,—ay! that was all the comfort our poor dear got from her lover; she asked him for no more. She didn't upbraid him. He had dealt her death-blow, and she followed his advice; she came to her old nurse, sir,—God be praised!—and I and David closed her precious eyes for ever, after they had lingered, in their last dim sight, on the lifeless image of him, whose name, with her forgiveness, and prayer to Heaven for his happiness, were the last words upon her sweet, sweet lips!"

"And if a special hand is not upraised to strew his path of life with tenfold the sharp pangs that he employed to drive his victim to an early grave," cried I, "it can only be that it has already crushed the monster into death."

My heart was faint and sick at the recital I had heard. I returned to my inn; and all that night—for it was in vain that I attempted to sleep—I mused upon this awful dispensation of the wrath of Heaven, and the dread severity with which the wisdom of vindictive Providence had stricken the transgression of poor little Harri!