A Rainy Evening by Caroline Lee Hentz

A pleasant little group was gathered round Uncle Ned's domestic hearth. He sat on one side of the fire-place, opposite Aunt Mary, who, with her book in her hand, watched the children seated at the table, some reading, others sewing, all occupied, but one, a child "of larger growth," a young lady, who, being a guest of the family, was suffered to indulge in the pleasure of idleness without reproof.

"Oh! I love a rainy evening," said little Ann, looking up from her book, and meeting her mother's smiling glance, "it is so nice to sit by a good fire and hear the rain pattering against the windows. Only I pity the poor people who have no house to cover them, to keep off the rain and the cold."

"And I love a rainy evening, too," cried George, a boy of about twelve. "I can study so much better. My thoughts stay at home, and don't keep rambling out after the bright moon and stars. My heart feels warmer, and I really believe I love everybody better than I do when the weather is fair."

Uncle Ned smiled, and gave the boy an approving pat on the shoulder. Every one smiled but the young lady, who with a languid, discontented air, now played with a pair of scissors, now turned over the leaves of a book, then, with an ill-suppressed yawn, leaned idly on her elbow, and looked into the fire.

"And what do you think of a rainy evening, Elizabeth?" asked Uncle Ned. "I should like to hear your opinion also."

"I think it over dull and uninteresting, indeed," answered  she. "I always feel so stupid, I can hardly keep myself awake—one cannot go abroad, or hope to see company at home; and one gets so tired of seeing the same faces all the time. I cannot imagine what George and Ann see to admire so much in a disagreeable rainy evening like this."

"Supposing I tell you a story, to enliven you?" said Uncle Ned.

"Oh! yes, father, please tell us a story," exclaimed the children, simultaneously.

Little Ann was perched upon his knee as if by magic, and even Elizabeth moved her chair, as if excited to some degree of interest. George still held his book in his hand, but his bright eyes, sparkling with unusual animation, were riveted upon his uncle's face.

"I am going to tell you a story about a rainy evening," said Uncle Ned.

"Oh! that will be so pretty!" cried Ann, clapping her hands; but Elizabeth's countenance fell below zero. It was an ominous annunciation.

"Yes," continued Uncle Ned, "a rainy evening. But though clouds darker than those which now mantle the sky were lowering abroad, and the rain fell heavier and faster, the rainbow of my life was drawn most beautifully on those dark clouds, and its fair colours still shine most lovely on the sight. It is no longer, however, the bow of promise, but the realization of my fondest dreams."

George saw his uncle cast an expressive glance towards the handsome matron in the opposite corner, whose colour perceptibly heightened, and he could not forbear exclaiming—

"Ah! Aunt Mary is blushing. I understand uncle's metaphor. She is his rainbow, and he thinks life one long rainy day."

"Not exactly so. I mean your last conclusion. But don't interrupt me, my boy, and you shall hear a lesson, which, young as you are, I trust you will never forget. When I was a young man I was thought quite handsome—"

"Pa is as pretty as he can be, now," interrupted little Ann, passing her hand fondly over his manly cheek.

Uncle Ned was not displeased with the compliment, for he pressed her closer to him, while he continued—

"Well, when I was young I was of a gay spirit, and a great favourite in society. The young ladies liked me for a partner in the dance, at the chess-board, or the evening walk, and I  had reason to think several of them would have made no objection to take me as a partner for life. Among all my young acquaintances, there was no one whose companionship was so pleasing as that of a maiden whose name was Mary. Now, there are a great many Marys in the world, so you must not take it for granted I mean your mother or aunt. At any rate, you must not look so significant till I have finished my story. Mary was a sweet and lovely girl—with a current of cheerfulness running through her disposition that made music as it flowed. It was an under current, however, always gentle, and kept within its legitimate channel; never overflowing into boisterous mirth or unmeaning levity. She was the only daughter of her mother, and she a widow. Mrs. Carlton, such was her mother's name, was in lowly circumstances, and Mary had none of the appliances of wealth and fashion to decorate her person, or gild her home. A very modest competency was all her portion, and she wished for nothing more. I have seen her, in a simple white dress, without a single ornament, unless it was a natural rose, transcend all the gaudy belles, who sought by the attractions of dress to win the admiration of the multitude. But, alas! for poor human nature. One of these dashing belles so fascinated my attention, that the gentle Mary was for a while forgotten. Theresa Vane was, indeed, a rare piece of mortal mechanism. Her figure was the perfection of beauty, and she moved as if strung upon wires, so elastic and springing were her gestures. I never saw such lustrous hair—it was perfectly black, and shone like burnished steel; and then such ringlets! How they waved and rippled down her beautiful neck! She dressed with the most exquisite taste, delicacy, and neatness, and whatever she wore assumed a peculiar grace and fitness, as if art loved to adorn what nature made so fair. But what charmed me most was, the sunshiny smile that was always waiting to light up her countenance. To be sure, she sometimes laughed a little too loud, but then her laugh was so musical, and her teeth so white, it was impossible to believe her guilty of rudeness, or want of grace. Often, when I saw her in the social circle, so brilliant and smiling, the life and charm of everything around her, I thought how happy the constant companionship of such a being would make me—what brightness she would impart to the fireside of home—what light, what joy, to the darkest scenes of existence!"

"Oh! uncle," interrupted George, laughing, "if I were  Aunt Mary, I would not let you praise any other lady so warmly. You are so taken up with her beauty, you have forgotten all about the rainy evening."

Aunt Mary smiled, but it is more than probable that George really touched one of the hidden springs of her woman's heart, for she looked down, and said nothing.

"Don't be impatient," said Uncle Ned, "and you shall not be cheated out of your story. I began it for Elizabeth's sake, rather than yours, and I see she is wide awake. She thinks I was by this time more than half in love with Theresa Vane, and she thinks more than half right. There had been a great many parties of pleasure, riding parties, sailing parties, and talking parties; and summer slipped by, almost unconsciously. At length the autumnal equinox approached, and gathering clouds, north-eastern gales, and drizzling rains, succeeded to the soft breezes, mellow skies, and glowing sunsets, peculiar to that beautiful season. For two or three days I was confined within doors by the continuous rains, and I am sorry to confess it, but the blue devils actually got complete possession of me—one strided upon my nose, another danced on the top of my head, one pinched my ear, and another turned somersets on my chin. You laugh, little Nanny; but they are terrible creatures, these blue gentlemen, and I could not endure them any longer. So the third rainy evening, I put on my overcoat, buttoned it up to my chin, and taking my umbrella in my hand, set out in the direction of Mrs. Vane's. 'Here,' thought I, as my fingers pressed the latch, 'I shall find the moonlight smile, that will illumine the darkness of my night—the dull vapours will disperse before her radiant glance, and this interminable equinoctial storm be transformed into a mere vernal shower, melting away in sunbeams in her presence.' My gentle knock not being apparently heard, I stepped into the ante-room, set down my umbrella, took off my drenched overcoat, arranged my hair in the most graceful manner, and, claiming a privilege to which, perhaps, I had no legitimate right, opened the door of the family sitting-room, and found myself in the presence of the beautiful Theresa—"

Here Uncle Ned made a provoking pause.

"Pray, go on." "How was she dressed?" "And was she glad to see you?" assailed him on every side.

"How was she dressed?" repeated he. "I am not very well skilled in the technicalities of a lady's wardrobe, but I can give you the general impression of her personal appearance.  In the first place, there was a jumping up and an off-hand sliding step towards an opposite door, as I entered; but a disobliging chair was in the way, and I was making my lowest bow, before she found an opportunity of disappearing. Confused and mortified, she scarcely returned my salutation, while Mrs. Vane offered me a chair, and expressed, in somewhat dubious terms, their gratification at such an unexpected pleasure. I have no doubt Theresa wished me at the bottom of the Frozen Ocean, if I might judge by the freezing glances she shot at me through her long lashes. She sat uneasily in her chair, trying to conceal her slipshod shoes, and furtively arranging her dress about the shoulders and waist. It was a most rebellious subject, for the body and skirt were at open warfare, refusing to have any communion with each other. Where was the graceful shape I had so much admired? In vain I sought its exquisite outlines in the folds of that loose, slovenly robe. Where were those glistening ringlets and burnished locks that had so lately rivalled the tresses of Medusa? Her hair was put in tangled bunches behind her ears, and tucked up behind in a kind of Gordian knot, which would have required the sword of an Alexander to untie. Her frock was a soiled and dingy silk, with trimmings of sallow blonde, and a faded fancy handkerchief was thrown over one shoulder.

"'You have caught me completely en déshabille,' said she, recovering partially from her embarrassment; 'but the evening was so rainy, and no one but mother and myself, I never dreamed of such an exhibition of gallantry as this.'

"She could not disguise her vexation, with all her efforts to conceal it, and Mrs. Vane evidently shared her daughter's chagrin. I was wicked enough to enjoy their confusion, and never appeared more at my ease, or played the agreeable with more signal success. I was disenchanted at once, and my mind revelled in its recovered freedom. My goddess had fallen from the pedestal on which my imagination had enthroned her, despoiled of the beautiful drapery which had imparted to her such ideal loveliness. I knew that I was a favourite in the family, for I was wealthy and independent, and perhaps of all Theresa's admirers what the world would call the best match. I maliciously asked her to play on the piano, but she made a thousand excuses, studiously keeping back the true reason, her disordered attire. I asked her to play a game of chess, but 'she had a headache; she was too stupid; she never could do anything on a rainy evening.'

"At length I took my leave, inwardly blessing the moving spirit which had led me abroad that night, that the spell which had so long enthralled my senses might be broken. Theresa called up one of her lambent smiles as I bade her adieu.

"'Never call again on a rainy evening,' said she, sportively; 'I am always so wretchedly dull. I believe I was born to live among the sunbeams, the moonlight, and the stars. Clouds will never do for me.'

"'Amen,' I silently responded, as I closed the door. While I was putting on my coat, I overheard, without the smallest intention of listening, a passionate exclamation from Theresa.

"'Good heavens, mother! was there ever anything so unlucky? I never thought of seeing my neighbour's dog to-night. If I have not been completely caught!'

"'I hope you will mind my advice next time,' replied her mother, in a grieved tone. 'I told you not to sit down in that slovenly dress. I have no doubt you have lost him for ever.'

"Here I made good my retreat, not wishing to enter the penetralia of family secrets.

"The rain still continued unabated, but my social feelings were very far from being damped. I had the curiosity to make another experiment. The evening was not very far advanced, and as I turned from Mrs. Vane's fashionable mansion, I saw a modest light glimmering in the distance, and I hailed it as the shipwrecked mariner hails the star that guides him o'er ocean's foam to the home he has left behind. Though I was gay and young, and a passionate admirer of beauty, I had very exalted ideas of domestic felicity. I knew that there was many a rainy day in life, and I thought the companion who was born alone for sunbeams and moonlight, would not aid me to dissipate their gloom. I had, moreover, a shrewd suspicion that the daughter who thought it a sufficient excuse for shameful personal neglect, that there was no one present but her mother, would, as a wife, be equally regardless of a husband's presence. While I pursued these reflections, my feet involuntarily drew nearer and more near to the light, which had been the lodestone of my opening manhood. I had continued to meet Mary in the gay circles I frequented, but I had lately become almost a stranger to her home. 'Shall I be a welcome guest?' said I to myself, as I crossed the threshold. 'Shall I find her en déshabille, likewise, and discover that feminine beauty and grace are incompatible with a rainy evening?'  I heard a sweet voice reading aloud as I opened the door, and I knew it was the voice which was once music to my ears. Mary rose at my entrance, laying her book quietly on the table, and greeted me with a modest grace and self-possession peculiar to herself. She looked surprised, a little embarrassed, but very far from being displeased. She made no allusion to my estrangement or neglect; expressed no astonishment at my untimely visit, nor once hinted that, being alone with her mother, and not anticipating visiters, she thought it unnecessary to wear the habiliments of a lady. Never, in my life, had I seen her look so lovely. Her dress was perfectly plain, but every fold was arranged by the hand of the Graces. Her dark-brown hair, which had a natural wave in it, now uncurled by the dampness, was put back in smooth ringlets from her brow, revealing a face which did not consider its beauty wasted because a mother's eye alone rested on its bloom. A beautiful cluster of autumnal roses, placed in a glass vase on the table, perfumed the apartment, and a bright blaze on the hearth diffused a spirit of cheerfulness around, while it relieved the atmosphere of its excessive moisture. Mrs. Carlton was an invalid, and suffered also from an inflammation of the eyes. Mary had been reading aloud to her from her favourite book. What do you think it was? It was a very old-fashioned one, indeed. No other than the Bible. And Mary was not ashamed to have such a fashionable young gentleman as I then was to see what her occupation had been. What a contrast to the scene I had just quitted! How I loathed myself for the infatuation which had led me to prefer the artificial graces of a belle to this pure child of nature! I drew my chair to the table, and entreated that they would not look upon me as a stranger, but as a friend, anxious to be restored to the forfeited privileges of an old acquaintance. I was understood in a moment, and, without a single reproach, was admitted again to confidence and familiarity. The hours I had wasted with Theresa seemed a kind of mesmeric slumber, a blank in my existence, or, at least, a feverish dream. 'What do you think of a rainy evening, Mary?' asked I, before I left her.

"'I love it of all things,' replied she, with animation. 'There is something so home-drawing, so heart-knitting, in its influence. The dependencies which bind us to the world seem withdrawn; and, retiring within ourselves, we learn more of the deep mysteries of our own being.'

"Mary's soul beamed from her eye as it turned, with a transient  obliquity, towards heaven. She paused, as if fearful of unsealing the fountains of her heart. I said that Mrs. Carlton was an invalid, and consequently retired early to her chamber; but I lingered till a late hour, nor did I go till I had made a full confession of my folly, repentance, and awakened love; and, as Mary did not shut the door in my face, you may imagine she was not sorely displeased."

"Ah! I know who Mary was. I knew all the time," exclaimed George, looking archly at Aunt Mary. A bright tear, which at that moment fell into her lap, showed that though a silent, she was no uninterested auditor.

"You haven't done, father?" said little Ann, in a disappointed tone; "I thought you were going to tell a story. You have been talking about yourself all the time."

"I have been something of an egotist, to be sure, my little girl, but I wanted to show my dear young friend here how much might depend upon a rainy evening. Life is not made all of sunshine. The happiest and most prosperous must have their seasons of gloom and darkness, and woe be to those from whose souls no rays of brightness emanate to gild those darkened hours. I bless the God of the rain as well as the sunshine. I can read His mercy and His love as well in the tempest, whose wings obscure the visible glories of His creation, as in the splendour of the rising sun, or the soft dews that descend after his setting radiance. I began with a metaphor. I said a rainbow was drawn on the clouds that lowered on that eventful day, and that it still continued to shine with undiminished beauty. Woman, my children, was sent by God to be the rainbow of man's darker destiny. From the glowing red, emblematic of that love which warms and gladdens his existence, to the violet melting into the blue of heaven, symbolical of the faith which links him to a purer world, her blending virtues, mingling with each other in beautiful harmony, are a token of God's mercy here, and an earnest of future blessings in those regions where no rainy evenings ever come to obscure the brightness of eternal day."