The Parlour Serpent
by Caroline Lee Hentz
Mrs. Wentworth and Miss Hart entered the breakfast-room
together, the latter speaking earnestly and in a low confidential
tone to the other, whose countenance was slightly
"There is nothing that provokes me so much as to hear
such remarks," said Miss Hart, "I have no patience to listen
to them. Indeed, I think they are made as much to wound
my feelings as anything else, for they all know the great affection
I have for you."
"But you do not say what the remarks were, that gave you
so much pain," answered Mrs. Wentworth. "I would much
prefer that you would tell me plainly, than speak in such
vague hints. You will not make me angry, for I am entirely
indifferent to the opinion of the world."
Now there was not a woman in the world more sensitively
alive to censure than Mrs. Wentworth, and in proportion to
her sensitiveness, was her anxiety to know the observations of
"If you had overheard Miss Bentley and Miss Wheeler
talking of you last night as I did," continued Miss Hart, "you
would not have believed your own ears. They said they
thought it was ridiculous in you to make such a nun of yourself,
because Captain Wentworth was absent, and to dress so
plain and look so moping. One of them said, you did not dare
to visit or receive visiters while he was away, for that you were
as much afraid of him as if you were his slave, and that he had
made you promise not to stir out of the house, or to invite any
company while he was gone."
"Ridiculous!—nonsense!" exclaimed Mrs. Wentworth,
"there never was such an absurd idea. Captain Wentworth
never imposed such a restraint upon me, though I know he
would rather I would live retired, when he cannot attend me
himself in the gay world. It is not despotism, but affection,
that prompts the wish, and I am sure I feel no pleasure in
dressing, shining, and mingling in society, when he is exposed
to danger, and perhaps death, on the far deep sea."
"I know all that, my dear Mrs. Wentworth," replied Miss
Hart, insinuatingly, "and so I told them; but how little can
a heartless and censorious world judge of the feelings of the
refined and the sensitive! It seems to be a general impression
that you fear your husband more than you love him, and that
this fear keeps you in a kind of bondage to his will. If I were
you, I would invite a large party and make it as brilliant as
possible, and be myself as gay as possible, and then that will
be giving the lie at once to their innuendoes."
"It is so mortifying to have such reports in circulation," said
Mrs. Wentworth, her colour becoming more and more heightened
and her voice more tremulous. "I don't care what they
say at all, and yet I am half resolved to follow your advice, if it
were only to vex them. I will do it, and let them know that I
am not afraid to be mistress of my own house while its master
"That is exactly the right spirit," answered the delighted
Miss Hart; "I am glad you take it in that way. I was afraid
your feelings would be wounded, and that is the reason I was
so unwilling to tell you."
But though Mrs. Wentworth boasted of her spirit and her
indifference, her feelings were deeply wounded, and she sat at
the breakfast-table, cutting her toast into the most minute
pieces, without tasting any, while Miss Hart was regaling herself
with an unimpaired appetite, and luxuriating in fancy on
the delightful party, she had so skilfully brought into promised
existence, at least. She had no idea of spending the
time of her visit to Mrs. Wentworth, in dullness and seclusion,
sympathizing in the anxieties of a fond and timid wife, and
listening to a detail of domestic plans and enjoyments. She
knew the weak side of her character, and mingling the gall she
extracted from others, with the honey of her own flattery, and
building her influence on their ruined reputations, imagined it
firm and secure on such a crumbling foundation. It is unnecessary
to dwell on the genealogy of Miss Hart. She was well
known as Miss Hart, and yet it would be very difficult for anybody
to tell precisely who Miss Hart was. She was a general
visiter; one of those young ladies who are always ready to fill
up any sudden vacuum made in a family—a kind of bird of
passage, who, having no abiding place of her own, went
fluttering about, generally resting where she could find the
softest and most comfortable nest. She was what was called
excellent company, always had something new and interesting
to say about everybody; then she knew so many secrets, and
had the art of exciting a person's curiosity so keenly, and
making them dissatisfied with everybody but herself, it would
be impossible to follow all the windings, or discover all the
nooks and corners of her remarkable character. It was astonishing
to see the influence she acquired over the minds of those
with whom she associated, male as well as female. She was
a showy, well-dressing, attractive-looking girl, with a great
deal of manner, a large, piercing, dark eye, and an uncommonly
sweet and persuasive tone of voice. Mrs. Wentworth
became acquainted with her a very short time before Captain
Wentworth's departure, and esteemed it a most delightful
privilege to have such a pleasing companion to charm away
the lingering hours of his absence. Acting upon the suggestions
of her friend, and following up the determination she had
so much applauded, she opened her doors to visiters, and
appeared in society with a gay dress and smiling countenance.
"What a change there is in Mrs. Wentworth!" observed
Miss Bentley to Miss Hart, as they met one morning at the
house of a mutual friend. "I never saw any one so transformed
in my life. She looks and dresses like the most complete
flirt I ever saw; I suspect Captain Wentworth has very
good reason to watch her as he does."
Miss Hart shrugged her shoulders and smiled significantly,
but did not say anything.
"It must be a very pleasant alteration to you," continued
Miss Bentley, "the house seems to be frequented by gentlemen
from morning till night. I suppose you have the grace
to appropriate their visits to yourself."
"I have nothing to say about myself," answered Miss Hart,
"and I do not wish to speak of Mrs. Wentworth otherwise
than kindly. You know she is excessively kind to me, and
it would be ungrateful in me to condemn her conduct. To be
sure I must have my own thoughts on the subject. She is
certainly very imprudent, and too fond of admiration. But
I would not have you repeat what I have said, for the
world, for being in the family it would have such weight.
Be very careful what you say, and above all, don't mention
Miss Bentley was very careful to repeat the remarks to
every one she saw, with as many additions of her own as
she pleased, and the unutterable language of the smile and the
shrug was added too, to give force to the comments. Mrs.
Wentworth, in the mean while, unconscious of the serpent she
was nursing in her bosom, suffered herself to be borne along
on the current on which she had thoughtlessly embarked,
without the power to arrest her progress, or turn back into
the quiet channel she had quitted. The arrival of her brother,
a gay and handsome young man, gave additional animation to
her household, and company flowed in still more continuously.
Henry More, the brother of Mrs. Wentworth, was the
favourite of every circle in which he moved. With an uncommon
flow of spirits, a ready and graceful wit, a fluent and flattering
tongue, he mingled in society unaffected by its contrasts,
unwounded by its asperities, and unruffled by its contentions.
He seemed to revel in the happy consciousness of being able
to impart pleasure to all, and was equally willing to receive it.
He was delighted to find a fine-looking, amiable girl, an inmate
of his sister's dwelling, and immediately addressing her in his
accustomed strain of sportive gallantry, found that she not only
lent a willing ear, but was well skilled in the same language.
Though Miss Hart was still young, she had outlived the
romance and credulity of youth. She had a precocious
experience and wisdom in the ways of this world. She had
seen the affections of many a young man, with a disposition
open and ingenuous as Henry's, won through the medium of
their vanity, by women, too, who could not boast of attractions
equal to her own. She believed that juxtaposition could work
miracles, and as long as they were the inmates of the same
house, participating in the same pleasures, engaged in the same
pursuits, and often perusing the same book, she feared no
rival. She rejoiced, too, in the close-drawing socialities of the
winter fireside, and delighted when a friendly storm compelled
them to find all their enjoyment within their own little circle.
Mrs. Wentworth, who had once been cheerful and serene in
clouds as well as sunshine, was now subject to fits of despondency
and silence. It was only when excited by company,
that her eyes were lighted up with animation, and her lips
with smiles. She dreaded the reproaches of her husband on
his return, for acting so contrary to his wishes, and when she
heard the night-gust sweep by her windows, and thought of
him exposed to the warring elements, perhaps even then clinging
to the drifting wreck, or floating in a watery grave, and
recollected the scenes of levity and folly in which she was now
constantly acting a part, merely to avoid the censures of the
very people she detested and despised, she sighed and wept,
and wished she had followed her bosom counsellor, rather than
the suggestions of the friend in whom she still confided, and
on whose affection she relied with unwavering trust. It
was strange, she could hear Miss Hart ridicule others,
and join in the laugh; she could sit quietly and see her
breathe the subtle venom of slander over the fairest characters,
till they blackened and became polluted under her touch, and
yet she felt herself as secure as if she were placed on the
summit of Mont Blanc, in a region of inaccessible purity and
splendour. So blinding is the influence of self-love, pampered
by flattery, strengthened by indulgence, and unrestrained by
One evening, and it chanced to be the evening of the Sabbath
day, Henry sat unusually silent, and Miss Hart thought
that his eyes were fixed upon her face with a very deep and
peculiar expression—"No," he suddenly exclaimed, "I never
saw such a countenance in my life."
"What do you see so remarkable in it?" asked she, laughing,
delighted at what she supposed a spontaneous burst of
"I don't know; I can no more describe it, than one of those
soft, fleecy clouds that roll melting away from the face of the
moon. But it haunts me like a dream."
Miss Hart modestly cast down her eyes, then turned them
towards the moon, which at that moment gleamed with pallid
lustre through the window.
"Your imagination is so glowing," replied she, "that it
invests, like the moonlight, every object with its own mellow
and beautiful tints."
"Jane," continued he, without noticing the compliment to
his imagination, and turning to his sister, who was reading
intently, "Jane, you must have noticed her—you were at the
"Noticed her!" repeated Miss Hart to herself, in utter dismay;
"who can he mean?"
"Noticed who?" said Mrs. Wentworth, laying down her
book, "I have not heard a syllable you have been saying."
"Why, that young lady dressed in black, with such a sweet,
modest, celestial expression of face. She sat at the right hand
of the pulpit, with another lady in mourning, who was very
tall and pale."
"What coloured hair and eyes had she?" asked his sister.
"I could no more tell the colour of her eyes, than I could
paint yon twinkling star, or her hair either. I only know that
they shed a kind of glory over her countenance, and mantled
her brow with the softest and most exquisite shades."
"I declare, Henry," cried Mrs. Wentworth, "you are the
most extravagant being I ever knew. I don't know whether
you are in jest or earnest."
"Oh! you may be sure he is in earnest," said Miss Hart.
"I know whom he means very well. It is Miss Carroll. Lois Carroll,
the grand-daughter of old Mr. Carroll, the former minister
of —— church. The old lady with whom she sat is her aunt.
They live somewhere in the suburbs of the city—but never go
anywhere except to church. They say she is the most complete
little methodist in the world."
"What do you mean by a methodist?" asked Henry abruptly—"an
"One who never goes to the theatre, never attends the ballroom,
thinks it a sin to laugh, and goes about among poor
people to give them doctor's stuff, and read the Bible."
"Well," answered Henry, "I see nothing very appalling
in this description. If ever I marry, I have no very great
desire that my wife should frequent the theatre or the ballroom.
She might admire artificial graces at the one and
exhibit them in the other, but the loveliest traits of her sex
must fade and wither in the heated atmosphere of both. And I
am sure it is a divine office to go about ministering to the wants
of the poor and healing the sick. As to the last item, I may
not be a proper judge, but I do think a beautiful woman reading
the Bible to the afflicted and dying, must be the most
angelic object in the universe."
"Why, brother," said Mrs. Wentworth, "what a strange
compound you are! Such a rattle-brain as you, moralizing
like a second Johnson!"
"I may be a wild rattle-brain, and sport like a thousand
others in the waves of fashion, but there is something here,
Jane," answered he, laying his hand half seriously, half
sportively on his breast, "that tells me that I was created for
immortality; that, spendthrift of time, I am still bound for
eternity. I have often pictured the future, in my musing
hours, and imagined a woman's gentle hand was guiding me
in the path that leads to heaven."
Mrs. Wentworth looked at her brother in astonishment.
There was something in the solemnity of his expressions that
alarmed her, coming from one so gay and apparently thoughtless.
Miss Hart was alarmed too, but from a different cause.
She thought it time to aim her shaft, and she knew in what
course to direct it.
"This Miss Carroll," said she, "whom you admire so much,
has lately lost her lover, to whom she was devotedly attached.
He was her cousin, and they had been brought up together
from childhood, and betrothed from that period. She nursed
him during a long sickness, day and night, and many thought
she would follow him to the grave, her grief was so great."
"Her lover!" exclaimed Henry, in a mock tragedy tone.
"Then it is all over with me—I never would accept the second
place in any maiden's heart, even if I could be enshrined
there in heaven's crystal. Give me the rose before the sunbeams
have exhaled the dew of the morning, or it wears no
charms for me."
Miss Hart and Mrs. Wentworth laughed, rallied Henry upon
his heroics, and the beautiful stranger was mentioned no more.
Miss Hart congratulated herself upon the master stroke by
which she had dispelled his enchantment, if indeed it existed
at all. She had often heard Henry declare his resolution never
to marry a woman who had acknowledged a previous affection,
and she seized upon a vague report of Miss Carroll's being in
mourning for a cousin who had recently died, and to whom
she thought she might possibly be betrothed, and presented it
as a positive truth. Finding that Henry's ideas of female
perfection were very different from what she had imagined,
she was not sorry when an opportunity offered of displaying
those domestic virtues, which he so much extolled. One
night, when Mrs. Wentworth was prepared to attend a private
ball, she expressed her wish to remain at home, declaring that
she was weary of dissipation, and preferred reading and meditation.
She expected Henry would steal away from the party,
and join her in the course of the evening, but her real motive
was a violent toothache, which she concealed that she might
have the credit of a voluntary act. After Mrs. Wentworth's
departure, she bound a handkerchief round her aching jaw,
and having found relief from some powerful anodyne, she
reclined back on the sofa and fell at last into a deep sleep. The
candles burned dim from their long, unsnuffed wicks, and threw
a very dubious light through the spacious apartment. She
was awakened by a tall, dark figure, bending over her, with
outspread arms, as if about to embrace her, and starting up,
her first thought was that it was Henry, who had stolen on
her solitude, and was about to declare the love she had no
doubt he secretly cherished for her. But the figure drew back,
with a sudden recoil, when she rose, and uttered her name in
a tone of disappointment.
"Captain Wentworth," exclaimed she, "is it you?"
"I beg your pardon," said he, extending his hand cordially
towards her, "I thought for a moment it was my wife, my
Jane, Mrs. Wentworth—where is she? Is she well? Why
do I not see her here?"
"Oh! Captain Wentworth, she had no expectation of your
coming so soon. She is perfectly well. She is gone to a quadrille
party, and will probably not be at home for several hours—I
will send for her directly."
"No, Miss Hart," said he, in a cold and altered voice, "no,
I would not shorten her evening's amusement. A quadrille
party—I thought she had no taste for such pleasures."
"She seems to enjoy them very much," replied Miss Hart,
"and it is very natural she should. She is young and handsome,
and very much admired, and in your absence she found
her own home comparatively dull."
The captain rose, and walked the room with a sailor's
manly stride. His brows were knit, his lips compressed, and
his cheek flushed. She saw the iron of jealousy was entering
his soul, and she went on mercilessly deepening the wound
she had made.
"You will be delighted when you see Mrs. Wentworth—she
looks so blooming and lovely. You have reason to be
quite proud of your wife—she is the belle of every party and
ball-room. I think it is well that you have returned." This
she added, with an arch, innocent smile, though she knew every
word she uttered penetrated like a dagger, where he was most
vulnerable. "How thoughtless I am!" she exclaimed; "you
must be weary and hungry—I will order your supper."
"No, no," said he, "I have no appetite—I will not trouble
you. Don't disturb yourself on my account—I will amuse
myself with a book till she returns."
He sat down and took up a book, but his eyes were fixed
moodily on the carpet, and his hands trembled as he unconsciously
turned the leaves. Miss Hart suffered occasional
agony from her tooth, the more as she had taken off the disfiguring
bandage, but she would not retire, anticipating with
a kind of savage delight, the unpleasant scene that would ensue
on Mrs. Wentworth's return. The clock struck twelve before
the carriage stopped at the door. Mrs. Wentworth came
lightly into the room, unaccompanied by her brother, her cloak
falling from her shoulders, her head uncovered, most fashionably
and elegantly dressed. She did not see her husband
when she first entered, and throwing her cloak on a chair,
exclaimed, "Oh! Miss Hart, I'm so sorry you were not there,
we had such a delightful party—the pleasantest of the whole
season." Her eye at this moment fell upon her husband,
who had risen upon her entrance, but stood back in the shade,
without making one step to meet her. With a scream of surprise,
joy, and perhaps terror too, she rushed towards him, and
threw her arms around him. He suffered her clinging arms to
remain round his neck for a moment while he remained as passive
as the rock on the seabeat shore when the white foam
wreathes and curls over its surface, then drawing back, he looked
her steadfastly in the face, with a glance that made her own to
quail, and her lip and cheek blanch. She looked down upon
her jewelled neck and airy robes, and wished herself clothed
in sackcloth and ashes. She began to stammer forth some
excuse for her absence, something about his unexpected
return, but the sentence died on her lips. The very blood
seemed to congeal in her heart, under the influence of his
"Don't say anything, Jane," said he, sternly. "It is
better as it is—I had deluded myself with the idea, that in all
my dangers and hardships, to which I have exposed myself
chiefly for your sake, I had a fond and faithful wife, who pined
at my absence and yearned for my return. I was not aware
of the new character you had assumed. No," continued he
impetuously, entirely forgetful of the presence of Miss Hart
"I was not prepared for a welcome like this. I expected to
have met a wife—not a flirt, a belle, a vain, false-hearted,
deceitful woman." Thus saying, he suddenly left the room,
closing the door with a force that made every article of the
furniture tremble. Mrs. Wentworth, bursting into hysterical
sobs, was about to rush after him, but Miss Hart held her
back—"Don't be a fool," said she; "he'll get over it directly-you've
done nothing at which he ought to be angry; I had
no idea he was such a tyrant."
"He was always kind to me before," sobbed Mrs. Wentworth.
"He thinks my heart is weaned from him. Now, I
wish I had disregarded the sneer of the world! It can never
repay me for the loss of his love."
"My dear Mrs. Wentworth," said Miss Hart, putting her
arms soothingly round her, "I feel for you deeply, but I hope
you will not reproach yourself unnecessarily, or suffer your
husband to suppose you condemn your own conduct. If you
do, he will tyrannize over you, through life—what possible
harm could there be in your going to a private party with your
own brother, when you did not look for his return? You have
taken no more liberty than every married lady in the city would
have done, and a husband who really loved his wife, would be
pleased and gratified that she should be an object of attention
and admiration to others. Come, dry up your tears, and exert
the pride and spirit every woman of delicacy and sense should
exercise on such occasions."
Mrs. Wentworth listened, and the natural pride and waywardness
of the human heart strengthening the counsels of her
treacherous companion, her sorrow and contrition became
merged in resentment. She resolved to return coldness for
coldness and scorn for scorn, to seek no reconciliation, nor
even to grant it, until he humbly sued for her forgiveness.
The husband and wife met at the breakfast-table without
speaking. Henry was unusually taciturn, and the whole
burthen of keeping up the conversation rested on Miss Hart,
who endeavoured to entertain and enliven the whole. Captain
Wentworth, who had all the frankness and politeness of a
sailor, unbent his stern brow when he addressed her, and it
was in so kind a voice, that the tears started into his wife's
eyes at the sound. He had no words, no glance for her, from
whom he had been parted so long, and whom he had once
loved so tenderly. Henry, who had been absorbed in his own
reflections, and who had not been present at their first meeting,
now noticed the silence of his sister, and the gloom of her
husband, and looking from one to the other, first in astonishment,
and then in mirth, he exclaimed, "Well, I believe I
shall remain a bachelor, if this is a specimen of a matrimonial
meeting. Jane looks as if she were doing penance for the
sins of her whole life, and Captain Wentworth as if he were
about to give a broadside's thunder. What has happened?
Miss Hart resembles a beam of sunshine between two
Had Henry been aware of the real state of things, he would
never have indulged his mirth at the expense of his sister's
feelings. He had no suspicion that the clouds to which he
alluded, arose from estrangement from each other, and when
Mrs. Wentworth burst into tears and left the table, and Captain
Wentworth set back his chair so suddenly as to upset the
teaboard and produce a terrible crash among the china, the
smile forsook his lips, and, turning to the captain in rather an
authoritative manner, he demanded an explanation.
"Ask your sister," answered the captain, "and she may
give it—as for me, sir, my feelings are not to be made a subject
of unfeeling merriment. They have been already too
keenly tortured, and should at least be sacred from your jest.
But one thing let me tell you, sir, if you had had more
regard to your sister's reputation, than to have escorted her to
scenes of folly and corruption during her husband's absence,
you might perhaps have spared me the misery I now endure."
"Do you threaten me, Captain Wentworth?" said Henry,
advancing nearer to him with a flushed brow and raised tone.
Miss Hart here interposed, and begged and entreated, and
laid her hand on Henry's arm, and looked softly and imploringly
at Captain Wentworth, who snatched up his hat and
left the room, leaving Henry angry, distressed, and bewildered.
Miss Hart explained the whole as the most causeless and ridiculous
jealousy, which would soon pass away and was not
worth noticing, and urged him to treat the matter as unworthy
of indignation. She feared she had carried matters a little too
far; she had no wish that they should fight, and Henry, perhaps,
fall a victim to excited passions. She was anxious to
allay the storm she had raised, and she succeeded in preventing
the outbreakings of wrath, but she could not restore the
happiness she had destroyed, the domestic peace she had
disturbed, the love and confidence she had so wantonly invaded.
Nor did she desire it. Incapable herself of feeling happiness
from the evil passions that reigned in her bosom, she looked upon
the bliss of others as a personal injury to herself; and where
the flowers were fairest and the hopes the brightest, she loved
to trample and shed her blasting influence. As the serpent
goes trailing its dark length through the long grasses and sweet
blossoms that veil its path, silent and deadly, she glided amid
the sacred shades of domestic life, darting in ambush her
venomed sting, and winding her coil in the very bosoms that
warmed and caressed her. She now flitted about, describing
what she called the best and most ridiculous scene imaginable;
and the names of Captain Wentworth and his wife were bandied
from lip to lip, one speaking of him as a tyrant, a bear, a
domestic tiger—another of her as a heartless devotee of
fashion, or a contemner of the laws of God and man. Most
truly has it been said in holy writ, that the tongue of the
slanderer is set on fire of hell, nor can the waters of the multitudinous
sea quench its baleful flames. One evening Henry
was returning at a late hour from the country, and passing a
mansion in the outskirts of the city, whose shaded walls and
modest situation called up ideas of domestic comfort and retirement;
he thought it might be the residence of Miss Carroll,
for, notwithstanding Miss Hart's damper, he had not forgotten
her. He passed the house very slowly, gazing at one
illuminated window, over which a white muslin curtain softly
floated, and wishing he could catch another glimpse of a countenance
that haunted him, as he said, like a dream. All was
still, and he passed on, through a narrow alley that shortened
his way. At the end of the alley was a small, low dwelling,
where a light still glimmered, and the door being partially
open, he heard groans and wailing sounds, indicating distress
within. He approached the door, thinking he might render relief
or assistance, and stood at the threshold, gazing on the unexpected
scene presented to his view. On a low seat, not far
from the door, sat a young lady, in a loose white robe, thrown
around her in evident haste and disorder, her hair partly
knotted up behind and partly falling in golden waves on her
shoulders, holding in her lap a child of about three years old,
from whose bandaged head the blood slowly oozed and dripped
down on her snowy dress—one hand was placed tenderly under
the wounded head, the other gently wiped away the stains from
its bloody brow. A woman, whose emaciated features and
sunken eyes spoke the ravages of consumption, sat leaning
against the wall, gazing with a ghastly expression on the little
sufferer, whose pains she had no power to relieve, and a little
boy about ten years of age stood near her, weeping bitterly.
Here was a scene of poverty, and sickness, and distress that
baffled description, and in the midst appeared the outlines of
that fair figure, like a descended angel of mercy, sent down to
console the sorrows of humanity.
"This was a dreadful accident," said the young lady,
"dreadful," raising her head as she spoke, and shading back
her hair, revealing at the same time the heavenly countenance
which had once before beamed on Henry's gaze. It
was Lois Carroll, true to the character Miss Hart had sarcastically
given her, a ministering spirit of compassion and
"She will die," said the poor mother, "she'll never get over
such a blow as that. She fell with such force, and struck her
head on such a dangerous part too. Well, why should I wish
her to live, when I must leave her behind so soon?"
"The doctor said there was some hope," answered the
fair Lois, in a sweet, soothing voice, "and if it is God's will
that she should recover, you ought to bless Him for it, and
trust Him who feedeth the young ravens when they cry to
Him for food. Lie down and compose yourself to rest. I will
remain here through the night, and nurse the poor little
patient. If she is kept very quiet, I think she will be better
in the morning."
"How kind, how good you are!" said the mother, wiping
the tear from her wasted cheek, "what should I do without
you? But I never can think of your sitting up the whole
night for us."
"And why not for you?" asked Lois, earnestly. "Can I
ever repay your kindness to poor Charles, when he was sick,
and you sat up, night after night, and refused to leave him?
And now, when you are sick and helpless, would you deprive
me of the opportunity of doing for you, what you have done
for one so dear to me?"
A pang shot through Henry's heart. This poor Charles
must have been the lover for whom she mourned, and at the
mention of his name, he felt as if wakening from a dream.
The love that bound the living to the dead, was a bond his
hand would never attempt to loosen, and turning away with a
sigh, he thought it would be sacrilege to linger there longer.
Still he looked back to catch one more glimpse of a face where
all the beatitudes dwelt. He had beheld the daughters of
beauty, with all the charms of nature aided by the fascinations
of art and fashion, but never had he witnessed anything so
lovely as this young girl, in her simplicity, purity, and gentleness,
unconscious that any eye was upon her, but the poor
widow's and weeping orphan's. He had seen a fair belle in
ill-humour for an hour, because a slight accident had soiled a
new dress, or defaced a new ornament, but Lois sat in her
blood-spotted robes, regardless of the stains, intent only on the
object of her tenderness, and that a miserable child.
"Surely," thought he, as he pursued his way homeward,
"there must be a divine influence operating on the heart, when
a character like this is formed. Even were her affections free
and not wedded to the dead, I should no more dare to love
such a being, so spiritual, so holy, so little of the earth, earthy,
than one of those pure spirits that live in the realms of ether.
I! what has my life hitherto been? Nothing but a tissue
of recklessness, folly, and madness. I have been trying
to quench the heaven-born spark within me, but it still burns,
and will continue to burn, while the throne of the Everlasting
Henry felt more, reflected more that night, than he had
done for five years before. He rose in the morning with a
fixed resolve, to make that night an era in his existence.
During the day the poor widow's heart was made to "sing
for joy," for a supply was received from an unknown hand,
so bounteous and unlooked for, she welcomed it as a gift from
heaven. And so it was, for heaven inspired and also blessed
Miss Hart began to be uneasy at Henry's deportment,
and she had no reason to think she advanced in his good
graces, and she had a vague fear of that Lois Carroll, whom
she trusted she had robbed of all power to fascinate his
"By the way," said she to him, one day, as if struck by a
sudden thought, "have you seen that pretty Miss Carroll since
the evening you were speaking of her?"
"Yes," answered Henry, colouring very high, "I have met
her several times—why do you ask?"
"No matter," said she, petrified at this information; "I saw
a lady yesterday, who knows her intimately, and her conversation
reminded me of ours on the same subject."
"What does the lady say of her character?" asked Henry.
"What every one else does, who knows her—that she is the
greatest hypocrite that ever breathed. Perfectly selfish, self-righteous,
and uncharitable. She says, notwithstanding her
sweet countenance, she has a very bad temper, and that no one
is willing to live in the same house with her."
"You told me formerly," said Henry, "that she was
over charitable and kind, constantly engaged in labours of
"Oh, yes!" answered she, with perfect self-possession;
"there is no end to the parade she makes about her good works,
as she calls them, but it is for ostentation, and to obtain the
reputation of a saint, that she does them."
"But," said Henry, very warmly, "supposing she exercised
this same heavenly charity when she believed no eye beheld
her, but the poor whom she relieved, and the sick whom she
healed, and the God whom she adores; would you call that
"Oh, my dear Mr. More," cried Miss Hart, with a musical
laugh, "you do not know half the arts of the sex. There is
a young minister and young physician too, in the neighbourhood,
who know all her secret movements, and hear her praises
from morning till night—they say they are both in love with
her, but as her cousin hasn't been dead long, she thinks it
proper to be very demure—I must say frankly and honestly, I
have no faith in these female Tartuffes."
"Nor I neither," added Henry, with so peculiar a manner,
that Miss Hart started and looked inquisitively at him, with
her dark, dilated eyes. She feared she had hazarded too
much, and immediately observed,
"Perhaps, in my abhorrence of duplicity and hypocrisy, I
run into the opposite extreme, and express my sentiments too
openly. You think me severe, but I can have no possible
motive to depreciate Miss Carroll, but as she herself stretches
every one on the bed of Procrustes, I feel at liberty to speak
my opinion of her character, not mine only, but that of the
Henry made some evasive reply, and turned the conversation
to another topic, leaving Miss Hart lost in a labyrinth of
conjecture, as to the impression she had made on his mind—where
and when had he met Lois Carroll, and why was he so
reserved upon a theme, upon which he had once been so eloquent?
She sat for half an hour after Henry left her, pondering
on these things, and looking at one figure in the carpet, as
if her eyes grew upon the spot, when her thoughts were
turned into another channel by the entrance of Captain Wentworth.
She believed that she stood very high in his favour, for he
was extremely polite to her, and showed her so much deference
and attention, that she had no doubt that if Mrs. Wentworth
were out of the way, he would be at no loss whom to choose
as a successor. Her prospects with Henry grew more and
more dubious—she thought, upon the whole, the captain the
finer-looking and most agreeable man of the two. There was
no knowing but he might separate from his wife, and as they
seemed divorced in heart, she thought it would be much better
than to remain together so cold and distant to each other.
There was nothing she feared so much as a reconciliation; and as
long as she could prevent Mrs. Wentworth from manifesting any
symptoms of submission and sorrow, she was sure her husband's
pride would be unyielding. She had a scheme on hand at
present, which would promote her own gratification, and widen
the breach between them.
There was a celebrated actor in the city, whom she was
very desirous of seeing, and of whom Captain Wentworth had
a particular dislike; he disliked the theatre and everything
connected with it, and Miss Hart had vainly endeavoured to
persuade Mrs. Wentworth to go with her brother, in open
defiance of her husband. Henry manifested no disposition
himself, and never would understand the oblique hints she
gave him; she was determined to make a bold attack upon the
"Captain Wentworth," said she, carelessly looking over the
morning paper, "don't you mean to take Mrs. Wentworth to
see this superb actor? she is dying to see him, and yet does
not like to ask you."
"She's at perfect liberty to go as often as she pleases,"
replied the captain coldly—"I've no wish to control her inclinations."
"But she will not go, of course, unless you accompany her,"
replied Miss Hart, "not even with her brother."
"Did she commission you to make this request?"
"Not precisely; but knowing her wishes, I could not forbear
doing it, even at the risk of your displeasure."
"If her heart is in such scenes, there can be no possible
gratification to confine her body within the precincts of home."
The captain walked several times up and down the room,
as was his custom when agitated, then abruptly asked Miss
Hart if she wished to go herself.
She wished it, she said, merely to avoid singularity, as everybody
else went; but had it not been for Mrs. Wentworth, she
would never have mentioned it.
The captain declared that if she had the slightest desire,
it was a command to him, and the tickets were accordingly
Late in the afternoon, Captain Wentworth sat in the dining-room,
reading. As the sun drew near the horizon, and the
light grew fainter, he sat down in a recess by a window, and
the curtain falling down, completely concealed him. In this
position he remained while the twilight darkened around him,
and no longer able to read, he gave himself up to those dark
and gloomy reflections which had lately filled his mind. He
thought of the hours when, tossed upon the foaming billows, he
had turned in heart towards his home,
"And she, the dim and melancholy star,
Whose ray of beauty reached him from afar,"
rose upon the clouds of memory, with soft and gilding lustre.
Now he was safely anchored in the haven of his hopes and
wishes, but his soul was drifted by storms, wilder than any
that swept the boisterous seas. The very effort of preserving
outward calmness, only made the tempest fiercer within. This
new instance of his wife's unconquerable levity and heartlessness,
filled him with despair. He believed her too much
demoralized by vanity and love of pleasure, ever to return to
her duty and allegiance as a wife.
While indulging these bitter feelings, Miss Hart and Mrs.
Wentworth entered the dining-room, unaware of his presence.
Miss Hart, as usual, was speaking in an earnest, confidential
tone, as if she feared some one was listening to her
"I beg, I entreat," said she, "that you would rally your
spirits, and not let the world see that you are cast down by his
ill treatment. All the fashionable people will be there tonight,
and you must remember that many eyes will be upon
you; and pray don't wear that horrid unbecoming dress, it
makes a perfect fright of you, muffling you up to the chin."
"It is no matter," replied Mrs. Wentworth, despondingly,
"I don't care how I look—the only eyes I ever really wished
to charm, now turn from me in disgust; I'm weary of acting
the part of a hypocrite, of smiling and chattering, and talking
nonsense, when I feel as if my heart were breaking. Oh!
that I had not weakly yielded my better reason to that fear of
the world's censure, which has been the ruin of my happiness."
"I would never suffer my happiness to be affected one way or
the other," cried Miss Hart, "by a man who showed so little
tenderness or delicacy towards me. I wonder your affection
is not chilled, nay utterly destroyed by his harshness and
"Oh! you little know the strength or depth of a woman's
love, if you deem it so soon uprooted. My heart yearns to be
admitted once more into the foldings of his—a hundred times
have I been tempted to throw myself into his arms, implore his
forgiveness, and entreat him to commence a new life of confidence
Miss Hart began to laugh at this romantic speech, but the
laugh froze on her lips when she saw the window-curtains suddenly
part, and Captain Wentworth rushing forward, clasp his
astonished wife in his arms, exclaiming "Jane, dear Jane, that
life is begun!" He could not utter another word.
When, after a few moments of intense emotion, he raised
his head, tears which were no stain upon his manhood, were
glistening on his dark cheek. Miss Hart looked on with feelings
similar to those which we may suppose animate the spirits
of darkness, when they witness the restoration of man to the
forfeited favour of his Maker. There was wormwood and bitterness
in her heart, but her undaunted spirit still saw a way
of extrication from all her difficulties.
"Really, Captain Wentworth," exclaimed she, laughing violently,
"the next time you hide yourself behind a curtain, you
must draw your boots under; I saw the cloven foot peeping
out, and spoke of you as I did, just to see what Mrs. Wentworth
would say, and I thought very likely it would have a
happy result—I am sure this is a finer scene than any we shall
see at the theatre."
"That you have deceived me, Miss Hart," answered the
captain, "I acknowledge to my shame, but my eyes are now
opened. My situation was accidental; no, I should say providential,
for I have made discoveries, for which I can never
be sufficiently grateful. Jane, I have been harsh and unjustly
suspicious, I know, and richly deserve all I have suffered; but
from the first hour of my return, this treacherous friend of
yours, discovering the weakness of my character, has fanned
the flame of jealousy, and fed the fires that were consuming
me. I despise myself for being her dupe."
"Oh! Miss Hart," cried Mrs. Wentworth, "how could you
be so cruel? you whom I so trusted, and thought my best and
"I have said nothing but the truth to either," cried Miss
Hart boldly, seeing all subterfuge was now vain, "and
you had better profit by it. Everybody has a weak side, and
if they leave it unguarded and open to the attacks of the enemy,
they have no one to blame but themselves. I never made you
jealous, Captain Wentworth, nor your wife credulous; and, as
I leave you wiser than I found you, I think you both ought to
be very much obliged to me."
Thus saying, with an unblushing countenance, she left the
apartment, and recollecting the next morning that a certain
lady had given her a most pressing invitation to visit her, she
departed, and no one said "God bless her."
Henry, who had seen full as much as he desired of her,
hardly knew which rejoiced him more, her departure or his
sister's happiness. Indeed the last seemed the consequence
of the first, for never was there such a transformation in a
household. There was blue sky for stormy clouds—spring
gales for chill east winds—love and joy for distrust and sorrow.
Henry had seen the physician and minister whom Miss Hart
had mentioned as the lovers of Lois Carroll. The young physician
happened to be a bald, broad-faced man, with a long
nose, which turned up at the end, as if looking at his forehead,
and the young minister, a man whose hair was frosted with
the snow of sixty winters, and on whose evangelical countenance
disease had written deeper lines than those of age.
Charles, too, the lover-cousin, proved to be an only brother,
whose lingering hours of disease she had soothed with a
Christian sister's holy ministration. Henry became a frequent,
and, as he had reason to believe, a welcome visiter, at the house.
He found Lois skilled in all the graceful accomplishments of
her sex—her mind was enriched with oriental and classical
literature, her memory stored with the brightest and purest
gems of genius and taste; yet, like the wise men of the East, who
brought their gold and frankincense and myrrh to the manger
of the babe of Bethlehem, she laid these precious offerings in
lowliness of spirit, at the feet of her Redeemer. All at once,
Henry perceived a cloud come over the confidence in which he
was established there. The good aunt was cold and distant;
Lois, though still gentle and kind, was silent and reserved,
and he thought he caught her melting blue eyes fixed upon
him more than once with a sad and pitying expression.
"What has occurred?" asked he with the frankness so
peculiar to him—when for a moment he was left alone with her
"I am no longer a welcome guest."
"Forgive us," answered Lois, her face mantling with earnest
blushes, "if we feel constrained to deny ourselves the pleasure
we have derived from your society. As long as we believed
you the friend of religion, though not her acknowledged votary,
our hearts acknowledged a sympathy with yours, and indulged
a hope that you would ere long go goal for goal with us for the
same immortal prize. But an infidel, Mr. More! Oh! my
soul!" continued she, clasping her hands fervently together,
and looking upward, "come not thou into his secret!"
"An infidel!" cried Henry, "and do you believe me such,
and condemn me as such, unheard, without granting me an
opportunity of vindication?"
"We would not have admitted the belief from an authority
less respectable. The intelligence came from one who had
been an inmate of your family, and expressed for you the
warmest friendship. We were told that you ridicule our faith,
make the Bible a scorn and mockery, and expose us as individuals
to contempt and derision."
"It must have been that serpent of a Miss Hart!" exclaimed
Henry, trembling with passion; "that scorpion, that fiend in
woman's form, whose path may be traced by the slime and the
poison she leaves behind! The lips which could brand you,
Lois, as a hypocrite, would not leave my name unblackened.
My sister received her into her household, and her domestic
happiness came near being the wreck of her malignant arts—I
could give you any proof you may ask of her falsehood and
"I ask none," cried Lois, with an irradiated countenance,
"I believe your assurance, and rejoice in it. I cannot
describe the pain, the grief I felt that one so kind to others,
could be so cruel to himself."
Lois, in the godly simplicity of her heart, knew not of the
warmth with which she spoke, or of the vivid expression that
lighted up her eyes. Henry thought if ever there was a
moment when he could dare to address her as a being born to
love, and to be loved with human tenderness, it was the present.
He began with faltering lips, but in the intensity of
his feelings he soon forgot everything, but the object for which
he was pleading, with an ardour and a vehemence that made
the unsophisticated Lois tremble. She trembled and wept
Her heart melted before his impassioned declaration, but she
feared to yield immediately to its dictates.
Their course of life had hitherto been so different, their
early associations, their pursuits and habits—she dreaded lest
he should mistake the fervour of his attachment for her, for
the warmth of religious sentiment, and that the temptations
of the world would resume their influence over his heart.
"Let us still be friends," said she, smiling through her tears,
"till time has more fully unfolded our characters to each other.
We are as yet but acquaintances of a day, as it were, and if we
hope to pass an eternity together, we should pause a little
before we become fellow-travellers in our pilgrimage. The love
of a Christian," continued she, a holy enthusiasm illuminating
her face, "cannot be limited to the transient union of this
world—it soars far, far beyond it, illimitable as space, and
everlasting as the soul's existence." Henry felt, while listening
to this burst of hallowed feeling, that to possess the love
of Lois Carroll here, without a hope of reunion beyond the
grave, would be a dark and cheerless destiny, compared to the
glorious hopes that now animated his being.
It was about two years after this, Miss Hart took passage
in the stage, and started for the habitation of some obscure
relative who lived in a distant town. She had gone from
family to family, indulging her odious propensity, flattering
the present, and slandering the absent, till, her character becoming
fully known, all doors were closed against her, and she
was compelled to seek a home, among kindred she was ashamed
to acknowledge. "Whose beautiful country-seats are those?"
asked a fellow-passenger, pointing to two elegant mansions,
that stood side by side as if claiming consanguinity with each
other. "The first belongs to Captain Wentworth, and the
other to Mr. Henry More, his brother-in-law," answered Miss
Hart, putting her head from the window, as they passed—"you
must have heard of them." "No," said the stranger;
"is there anything remarkable connected with them?" "Nothing,"
replied she, with one of her significant shrugs, "only
the captain is one of your dark Spanish Knights, who lock up
their wives, and fight everybody who looks at them; and his
lady likes every other gentleman better than her husband—and
they could not agree, and the whole city were talking about
them, so he took her into the country, and makes her fast and
pray, and do penance for her sins. The other gentleman, Mr.
More, married a low, ignorant girl, who had never been accustomed
to good society; so, being ashamed to introduce her
among his friends, he immured himself in the country also.
They say he is so wretched in his choice, he has turned a fanatic,
and there is some danger of his losing his reason." At
this moment one of the horses took fright, and springing from
the road, the stage was upset, with a terrible crash. Miss
Hart, whose head was projecting from the window, was the
only one who was seriously injured. She was dreadfully bruised
and mangled, and carried insensible into Captain Wentworth's
house. The stranger, whose curiosity was excited by the
description he had just heard, and seeing the inhabitants of
both dwellings were gathering together in consequence of the
accident, assisted in carrying her, and lingered as long as he
could find a reasonable excuse for doing so. "I believe that
young woman's jaw is broken," said he, when he rejoined his
fellow-passengers; "and it is a judgment upon her—I know
there is not a word of truth in what she has been saying. If
ever domestic happiness, as well as benevolence, dwelt on
earth, I verily believe it is in those two families."
It was long before Miss Hart recovered her consciousness,
and when she did, and endeavoured to speak, she felt such an
excruciating pain in her jaw, as prevented her utterance. It
seemed a remarkable instance of the retribution of Providence,
that she should be afflicted in the very part which she had
made an instrument of so much evil to others. Her jawbone
was indeed broken, and there she lay, writhing in agony, incapable
of speech, indebted to the beings she hated because she
had injured, for the cares that prolonged her miserable existence.
She could not speak, but she could see and hear, and
her senses seemed sharpened by the bondage of her tongue.
Mrs. Wentworth, and Lois too, hovered round her, with gentle
steps and pitying looks, and the tenderest alleviations; and
for this she might have been prepared. But when, through
the shades of evening, she heard the deep voice of the once
haughty and ungovernable Captain Wentworth, breathing forth
humble and heartfelt prayers, while his wife knelt meek and
lowly by his side, when she heard the gay and gallant Henry
More, reading with reverence God's holy word, and joining
with Lois in hymns to the Redeemer's praise, she rolled her
eyes in wild amazement, and her dark spirit was troubled within
her. "There seems a reality in this," thought she. "The
worldling become the saint, and the lion transformed into the
lamb! How happy they look, while I—poor, wretched, mangled
creature that I am!" Paroxysms of agony followed these
reflections, for which there seemed no mitigation.
She lingered for a long time speechless and in great suffering,
but at length recovered with a frightful distortion in the lower
part of the face. When she first beheld herself in a mirror,
the shock was so great as to produce delirium, and when that
subsided, a gloom and despair succeeded, from which they vainly
endeavoured to rouse her by the soothings of sympathy and
the consolations of religion. She felt that, like Cain, she must
carry about an indelible brand upon her face, and cried like
him, in bitterness of spirit, "My punishment is greater than I
can bear." It was intolerable to her to look upon the fair, serene
countenances of Mrs. Wentworth and Lois, and to see too the
eyes of their husbands follow them with such love and delight,
and then to draw the contrast between them and her own disfigured
beauty and desolate lot. She expressed a wish to be
sent to her relatives, and the wish was not opposed. She
received from them a grudging welcome, for they had felt her
sting, and feared that serpent tongue of slander, whose ancestral
venom is derived from the arch reptile that lurked in the
bowers of Eden.
Woe to the slanderer!—To use the language of the wise
man, "her end is bitter as wormwood, and sharp as a two-edged
sword—Her feet go down to death, her steps take hold