The Village Anthem by Caroline Lee Hentz

"What is that bell ringing for?" asked Villeneuve of the waiter, who was leaving the room.

"For church," was the reply.

"For church! Oh! is it Sunday? I had forgotten it. I did not think there was a church in this little village."

"Yes, indeed," answered the boy, his village pride taking the alarm, "and a very handsome one, too. Just look out at that window, sir. Do you see that tall, white steeple, behind those big trees there? That is the church, and I know there is not a better preacher in the whole world than Parson Blandford. He was never pestered for a word yet, and his voice makes one feel so warm and tender about the heart, it does one good to hear him."

Villeneuve cast a languid glance through the window, from the sofa on which he was reclining, thinking that Parson Blandford was very probably some old hum-drum, puritanical preacher, whose nasal twang was considered melodious by the vulgar ears which were accustomed to listen to him. Dull as his present position was, he was resolved to keep it, rather than inflict upon himself such an intolerable bore. The boy, who had mounted his hobby, continued, regardless of the unpropitious countenance of his auditor.

"Then there is Miss Grace Blandford, his daughter, plays so beautifully on the organ! You never heard such music in your life. When she sits behind the red curtains, and you can't see anything but the edge of her white skirt below, I  can't help thinking there's an angel hid there; and when she comes down and takes her father's arm, to walk out of church, she looks like an angel, sure enough."

Villeneuve's countenance brightened. Allowing for all the hyperbole of ignorance, there were two positive things which were agreeable in themselves—music and a young maiden. He rose from the sofa, threw aside his dressing-gown, called for his coat and hat, and commanded the delighted boy to direct him to the church, the nearest way. His guide, proud of ushering in such a handsome and aristocratic-looking stranger, conducted him to one of the most conspicuous seats in the broad aisle, in full view of the pulpit and the orchestra, and Villeneuve's first glance was towards the red curtains, which were drawn so close, not even a glimpse of white was granted to the beholder. He smiled at his own curiosity. Very likely this angel of the village boy was a great red-faced, hard-handed country girl, who had been taught imperfectly to thrum the keys of an instrument, and consequently transformed by rustic simplicity into a being of superior order. No matter, any kind of excitement was better than the ennui from which he had been aroused. A low, sweet, trembling prelude stole on his ear. "Surely," thought he, "no vulgar fingers press those keys—that is the key-note of true harmony." He listened, the sound swelled, deepened, rolled through the arch of the building, and sank again with such a melting cadence, the tears involuntarily sprang into his eyes. Ashamed of his emotions, he leaned his head on his hand, and yielded unseen to an influence, which, coming over him so unexpectedly, had all the force of enchantment. The notes died away, then swelled again in solemn accompaniment with the opening hymn. The hymn closed with the melodious vibrations of the instrument, and for a few moments there was a most profound silence.

"The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him:" uttered a deep, solemn voice.

Villeneuve raised his head and gazed upon the speaker. He was a man rather past the meridian of life, but wearing unmarred the noblest attributes of manhood. His brow was unwrinkled, his piercing eye undimmed, and his tall figure majestic and unbowed. The sun inclined from the zenith, but the light, the warmth, the splendour remained in all their power, and the hearts of the hearers radiated that light and warmth, till an intense glow pervaded the assembly, and the  opening words of the preacher seemed realized. Villeneuve was an Infidel; he looked upon the rites of Christianity as theatrical machinery, necessary, perhaps, towards carrying on the great drama of life, and when the springs were well adjusted and oiled, and the pulleys worked without confusion, and every appearance of art was kept successfully in the background, he was willing to sit and listen as he would to a fine actor when reciting the impassioned language of the stage. "This man is a very fine actor," was his first thought, "he knows his part well. It is astonishing, however, that he is willing to remain in such a limited sphere—with such an eye and voice—such flowing language and graceful elocution, he might make his fortune in any city. It is incomprehensible that he is content to linger in obscurity." Thus Villeneuve speculated, till his whole attention became absorbed in the sermon, which as a literary production was exactly suited to his fastidiously refined taste. The language was simple, the sentiments sublime. The preacher did not bring himself down to the capacities of his auditors, he lifted them to his, he elevated them, he spiritualized them. He was deeply read in the mysteries of the human heart, and he knew that however ignorant it might be of the truths of science and the laws of metaphysics, it contained many a divine spark which only required an eliciting touch to kindle. He looked down into the eyes upturned to him in breathless interest, and he read in them the same yearnings after immortality, the same reverence for the Infinite Majesty of the Universe, which moved and solemnized his own soul. His manner was in general calm and affectionate, yet there were moments when he swept the chords of human passion with a master's hand, and the hectic flush of his cheek told of the fire burning within.

"He is a scholar, a metaphysician, a philosopher, and a gentleman," said Villeneuve to himself, at the close of his discourse. "If he is an actor, he is the best one I ever saw. He is probably an enthusiast, who, if he had lived in ancient days, would have worn the blazing crown of martyrdom. I should like to see his daughter." The low notes of the organ again rose, as if in response to his heart's desire. This time there was the accompaniment of a new female voice. The congregation rose as the words of the anthem began. It was a kind of doxology, the chorus terminating with the solemn expression—"for ever and ever." The hand of the organist no longer trembled. It swept over the keys, as if the enthusiasm  of an exalted spirit were communicated to every pulse and sinew. The undulating strains rolled and reverberated till the whole house was filled with the waves of harmony. But high, and clear, and sweet above those waves of harmony and the mingling voices of the choir, rose that single female voice, uttering the burden of the anthem, "for ever and ever." Villeneuve closed his eyes. He was oppressed by the novelty of his sensations. Where was he? In a simple village church, listening to the minstrelsy of a simple village maiden, and he had frequented the magnificent cathedral of Notre Dame, been familiar there with the splendid ritual of the national religion, and heard its sublime chantings from the finest choirs in the Universe. Why did those few monotonous words so thrill through every nerve of his being? That eternity which he believed was the dream of fanaticism, seemed for a moment an awful reality, as the last notes of the pćan echoed on his ear.

When the benediction was given, and the congregation was leaving the church, he watched impatiently for the foldings of the red curtains to part, and his heart palpitated when he saw a white-robed figure glide through the opening and immediately disappear. The next minute she was seen at the entrance of the church, evidently waiting the approach of her father, who, surrounded by his people, pressing on each other to catch a kindly greeting, always found it difficult to make his egress. As she thus stood against a column which supported the entrance, Villeneuve had a most favourable opportunity of scanning her figure, which he did with a practised and scrutinizing glance. He was accustomed to Parisian and English beauty, and comparing Grace Blandford to the high-born and high-bred beauties of the old world, she certainly lost in the comparison. She was very simply dressed, her eyes were downcast, and her features were in complete repose. Still there was a quiet grace about her that pleased him—a blending of perfect simplicity and perfect refinement that was extraordinary. Mr. Blandford paused as he came down the aisle. He had noticed the young and interesting looking stranger, who listened with such devout attention to all the exercises. He had heard, for in a country village such things are rapidly communicated, that there was a traveller at the inn, a foreigner and an invalid—two strong claims to sympathy and kindness. The pallid complexion of the young man was a sufficient indication of the latter, and the air of high breeding which distinguished him was equal to a letter of recommendation in his behalf. The minister accosted him with great benignity, and invited him to accompany him home.

"You are a stranger," said he, "and I understand an invalid. Perhaps you will find the quiet of our household more congenial this day than the bustle of a public dwelling."

Villeneuve bowed his delighted acceptance of this most unexpected invitation. He grasped the proffered hand of the minister with more warmth than he was aware of, and followed him to the door where Grace yet stood, with downcast eyes.

"My daughter," said Mr. Blandford, drawing her hand through his arm. This simple introduction well befitted the place where it was made, and was acknowledged by her with a gentle bending of the head and a lifting of the eyes, and they walked in silence from the portals of the church. What a change had the mere uplifting of those veiled lids made in her countenance! Two lines of a noble bard flashed across his memory—

"The light of love, the purity of grace,

The mind, the music breathing from her face."

Then another line instantaneously succeeded—

"And oh! that eye is in itself a soul."

There was one thing which disappointed him. He did not notice a single blush flitting over her fair cheek. He feared she was deficient in sensibility. It was so natural to blush at a stranger's greeting. He did not understand the nature of her feelings. He could not know that one so recently engaged in sublime worship of the Creator, must be lifted above fear or confusion in the presence of the creature. Villeneuve had seen much of the world, and understood the art of adaptedness, in the best sense of the word. He could conform to the circumstances in which he might be placed with grace and ease, and though he was too sincere to express sentiments he did not feel, he felt justified in concealing those he did feel, when he knew their avowal would give pain or displeasure. It was a very singular way for him to pass the Sabbath. The guest of a village pastor, breathing an atmosphere redolent of the sweets of piety, spirituality, and holy love. The language of levity and flattery, so current in society, would be considered profanation here; and a conviction deeply mortifying to his  vanity forced itself upon him, that all those accomplishments for which he had been so much admired, would gain him no favour with the minister and his daughter. He could not forbear expressing his surprise at the location Mr. Blandford had chosen.

"I would not insult you by flattery," said Villeneuve, ingenuously, "but I am astonished you do not seek a wider sphere of usefulness. It is impossible that the people here should appreciate your talents, or estimate the sacrifices you make to enlighten and exalt them."

Mr. Blandford smiled as he answered—"You think my sphere too small, while I tremble at the weight of responsibility I have assumed. If I have the talents which you kindly ascribe to me, I find here an ample field for their exercise. There are hundreds of minds around me that mingle their aspirations with mine, and even assist me in the heavenward journey. In a larger, more brilliant circle, I might perhaps gain a more sounding name and exercise a wider influence, but that influence would not be half as deep and heartfelt. I was born and bred in a city, and know the advantages such a life can offer; but I would not exchange the tranquillity of this rural residence, the serenity of my pastoral life, the paternal influence I wield over this secluded village, and the love and reverence of its upright and pure-minded inhabitants, for the splendid sinecure of the Archbishops of our motherland."

Villeneuve was astonished to see a man so nobly endowed, entirely destitute of the principle of ambition. He wanted to ask him how he had thus trampled under his feet the honours and distinctions of the world. "You consider ambition a vice, then?" said he.

"You are mistaken," replied Mr. Blandford, "if you believe me destitute of ambition. I am one of the most ambitious men in the world. But I aspire after honours that can resist the mutations of time, and partake of the imperishability of their Great Bestower."

There was a silence of some moments, during which Mr. Blandford looked upward, and the eyes of Grace followed her father's with kindling ray.

"But, your daughter," continued Villeneuve, "can she find contentment in a situation for which nature and education have so evidently unfitted her?"

"Let Grace answer for herself," said Mr. Blandford, mildly;  "I have consulted her happiness as well as my own, in the choice I have made."

Villeneuve was delighted to see a bright blush suffuse the modest cheek of Grace—but it was the blush of feeling, not of shame.

"I love the country rather than the town," said she, "for I prefer nature to art, meditation to action, and the works of God to the works of man; and in the constant companionship of my father I find more than contentment—I find happiness, joy."

Villeneuve sighed—he felt the isolation of his own destiny. The last of his family, a traveller in a strange land, in pursuit of health; which had been sacrificed in the too eager pursuit of the pleasures of this world, without one hope to link him to another. Affluent and uncontrolled, yet sated and desponding, he envied the uncorrupted taste of the minister's daughter. He would have bartered all his wealth for the enthusiasm that warmed the character of her father. That night he was awakened by a singular dream. He thought he was alone in the horror of thick darkness. It seemed that he was in the midst of infinity, and yet chained to one dark spot, an immovable speck in the boundless ocean of space. "Must I remain here for ever?" he cried in agony, such as is only known in dreams, when the spirit's nerves are all unsheathed. "For ever and ever," answered a sweet, seraphic voice, high above his head, and looking up he beheld Grace, reclining on silver-bosomed clouds, so distant she appeared like a star in the heavens, yet every lineament perfectly defined. "Am I then parted from thee for ever?" exclaimed he, endeavouring to stretch out his arms towards the luminous point. "For ever and ever," responded the same heavenly accents, mournfully echoing till they died away, and the vision fled. He was not superstitious, but he did not like the impression of his dream. He rose feverish and unrefreshed, and felt himself unable to continue his journey. Mr. Blandford came to see him. He was deeply interested in the young stranger, and experienced the pleasure which every sensitive and intellectual being feels in meeting with kindred sensibility and intellect. The intimacy, thus commenced, continued to increase, and week after week passed away, and Villeneuve still lingered near the minister and his daughter. His health was invigorated, his spirits excited by the novel yet powerful influences that surrounded him. It was impossible, in the course of this  deepening intimacy, that the real sentiments of Villeneuve should remain concealed, for hypocrisy formed no part of his character. Mr. Blandford, relying on the reverence and affection Villeneuve evidently felt for him, believed it would be an easy task to interest him in the great truths of religion. And it was an easy task to interest him, particularly when the father's arguments were backed by the daughter's persuasive eloquence; but it was a most difficult one to convince. The prejudices of education, the power of habit, the hardening influence of a worldly life, presented an apparently impenetrable shield against the arrows of divine truth.

"I respect, I revere the principles of your religion," Villeneuve was accustomed to say at the close of their long and interesting conversations. "I would willingly endure the pangs of death; yea, the agonies of martyrdom, for the possession of a faith like yours. But it is a gift denied to me. I cannot force my belief, nor give a cold assent with my lips to what my reason and my conscience belie."

Mr. Blandford ceased not his efforts, notwithstanding the unexpected resistance he encountered, but Grace gradually retired from the conflict, and Villeneuve found to his sorrow and mortification that she no longer appeared to rejoice in his society. There was a reserve in her manners which would have excited his resentment, had not the sadness of her countenance touched his heart. Sometimes when he met her eye it had an earnest, reproachful, pitying expression, that thrilled to his soul. One evening he came to the Parsonage at a later hour than usual. He was agitated and pale. "I have received letters of importance," said he; "I must leave you immediately. I did not know that all my happiness was centered in the intercourse I have been holding with your family, till this summons came." Grace, unable to conceal her emotions, rose and left the apartment. Villeneuve's eyes followed her with an expression which made her father tremble. He anticipated the scene which followed. "Mr. Blandford," continued Villeneuve, "I love your daughter. I cannot live without her—I cannot depart without an assurance of her love and your approbation."

Mr. Blandford was too much agitated to reply—the blood rushed to his temples, then retreating as suddenly, left his brow and cheek as colourless as marble. "I should have foreseen this," at length he said. "It would have spared us all much misery."

"Misery!" replied Villeneuve, in a startling tone.

"Yes," replied Mr. Blandford, "I have been greatly to blame—I have suffered my feelings to triumph over my judgment. Villeneuve, I have never met a young man who won upon my affections as you have done. The ingenuousness, ardour, and generosity of your character impelled me to love you. I still love you; but I pity you still more. I can never trust my daughter's happiness in your hands. There is a gulf between you—a wall of separation—high as the heavens and deeper than the foundations of the earth." He paused, and bowed his face upon his hands. The possibility that his daughter's happiness might be no longer in her own keeping, completely overpowered him. Villeneuve listened in astonishment and dismay. He, in all the pride of affluence and rank (for noble blood ran in lineal streams through his veins), to be rejected by an obscure village pastor, from mere religious scruples. It was incredible—one moment his eye flashed haughtily on the bending figure before him; the next it wavered, in the apprehension that Grace might yield to her father's decision, and seal their final separation. "Mr. Blandford," cried he, passionately, "I can take my rejection only from your daughter—I have never sought her love unsanctioned by your approbation—I have scorned the guise of a hypocrite, and I have a right to claim this from you. You may destroy my happiness—it is in your power—but tremble lest you sacrifice a daughter's peace."

Mr. Blandford recovered his self-command, as the passions of the young man burst their bounds. He summoned Grace into his presence. "I yield to your impetuous desire," said he, "but I would to Heaven you had spared me a scene like this. Painful as it is, I must remain to be a witness to it." He took his daughter's hand as she entered, and drew her towards him. He watched her countenance while the first vows of love to which she had ever listened were breathed into her ear with an eloquence and a fervour which seemed irresistible, and these were aided by the powerful auxiliary of a most handsome and engaging person, and he trembled as he gazed. Her cheek kindled, her eye lighted up with rapture, her heart panted with excessive emotion. She leaned on her father's arm, unable to speak, but looked up in his face with an expression that spoke volumes.

"You love him, then, Grace," said he mournfully. "Oh, my God! forgive me the folly, the blindness, the madness of which I have been guilty!"

Grace started, as if wakening from a dream. Her father's words recalled her to herself—one brief moment of ecstasy had been hers—to be followed, she knew, by hours of darkness and sorrow. The warm glow faded from her cheek, and throwing her arms round her father's neck, she wept unrestrainedly.

"She loves me," exclaimed Villeneuve; "you yourself witness her emotions—you will not separate us—you will not suffer a cruel fanaticism to destroy us both."

"Grace," said Mr. Blandford, in a firm voice, "look up. Let not the feelings of a moment, but the principles of a life decide. Will you hazard, for the enjoyment of a few fleeting years, the unutterable interests of eternity? Will you forsake the Master he abjures for the bosom of a stranger? In one word, my daughter, will you wed an Infidel?"

Grace lifted her head, and clasping her hands together, looked fervently upward.

"Thou art answered," cried Mr. Blandford, with a repelling motion towards Villeneuve. "The God she invokes will give her strength to resist temptation. Go, then, most unhappy yet beloved young man—you have chosen your destiny, and we have chosen ours. You live for time. We, for eternity. As I said before, there is a deep gulf between us. Seek not to drag her down into the abyss into which you would madly plunge. My soul hath wrestled with yours, and you have resisted, though I fought with weapons drawn from Heaven's own armory. Farewell—our prayers and our tears will follow you."

He extended his hand to grasp Villeneuve's for the last time, but Villeneuve, with every passion excited beyond the power of control, rejected the motion; and, snatching the hand of Grace, which hung powerless over her father's shoulder, drew her impetuously towards him. "She loves me," exclaimed he, "and I will never resign her; I swear it by the inexorable Power you so blindly worship. Perish the religion that would crush the dearest and holiest feelings of the human heart! Perish the faith that exults in the sacrifice of nature and of love!"

With one powerful arm Mr. Blandford separated his daughter from the embrace of her lover, and holding him back with the other, commanded him to depart. He was dreadfully agitated, the veins of his temples started out like cords, and his eyes flashed with imprisoned fires. Villeneuve writhed for a moment in his unrelaxing grasp, then, reeling backward,  sunk upon a sofa. He turned deadly pale, and held his handkerchief to his face.

"Oh! father! you have killed him!" shrieked Grace, springing to his side; "he faints! he bleeds, he dies!"

Even while Grace was speaking, the white handkerchief was crimsoned with blood, the eyes of the young man closed, and he fell back insensible.

"Just Heaven! spare me this curse!" cried Mr. Blandford. "Great God! I have killed them both!"

They did indeed look like two murdered victims, for the blood which oozed from the young man's lips not only dyed his own handkerchief and neckcloth, but reddened the white dress of Grace and stiffened on her fair locks, as her head drooped unconsciously on his breast. All was horror and confusion in the household. The physician was immediately summoned, who declared that a blood-vessel was ruptured, and that the life of the young man was in the most imminent danger. Grace was borne to her own apartment and consigned to the care of some kind neighbours, but Mr. Blandford remained the whole night by Villeneuve's side, holding his hand in his, with his eyes fixed on his pallid countenance, trembling lest every fluttering breath should be his last. About daybreak he opened his eyes, and seeing who was watching so tenderly over him, pressed his hand and attempted to speak, but the doctor commanded perfect silence, assuring him that the slightest exertion would be at the hazard of his life. For two or three days he hovered on the brink of the grave, during which time Mr. Blandford scarcely left his side, and Grace lingered near the threshold of the door, pale and sleepless, the image of despair. One night, when he seemed to be in a deep sleep, Mr. Blandford knelt by his couch, and in a low voice breathed out his soul in prayer. His vigil had been one long prayer, but he felt that he must find vent in language for the depth and strength of his emotions. He prayed in agony for the life of the young man; for his soul's life. He pleaded, he supplicated; till, language failing, sigh and tears alone bore witness to the strivings of his spirit. "Yet, not my will, oh! God!" ejaculated he again, "but thine be done."

"Amen!" uttered a faint voice. The minister started as if he had heard a voice from the dead. It was Villeneuve who spoke, and whose eyes fixed upon him had a most intense and thrilling expression. "Your prayer is heard," continued  he. "I feel that God is merciful. A ray of divine light illumines my parting hour. Let me see Grace before I die, that our souls may mingle once on earth, in earnest of their union hereafter."

The minister led his daughter to the couch of Villeneuve. He joined her hand in his. "My daughter," cried he, "rejoice. I asked for him life. God giveth unto him long life; yea, life for evermore."

Grace bowed her head on the pale hand that clasped her own, and even in that awful moment, a torrent of joy gushed into her soul. It was the foretaste of an eternal wedlock, and death seemed indeed swallowed up in victory. Mr. Blandford knelt by his kneeling daughter, and many a time during that night they thought they saw the spirit of Villeneuve about to take its upward flight; but he sunk at length into a gentle slumber, and when the doctor again saw him, he perceived a favourable change in his pulse, and told Mr. Blandford there was a faint hope of his recovery. "With perfect quiet and tender nursing," said he, looking meaningly at Grace, "he may yet possibly be saved."

The predictions of the excellent physician were indeed fulfilled, for in less than three weeks Villeneuve, though still weak and languid, was able to take his seat in the family circle. Mr. Blandford saw with joy that the faith which he had embraced in what he believed his dying hour, was not abandoned with returning health. He had always relied on the rectitude of his principles, and now, when religion strengthened and sanctified them, he felt it his duty to sanction his union with his daughter. The business which had summoned him so unexpectedly to his native country still remained unsettled, and as the physician prescribed a milder climate, he resolved to try the genial air of France. It was no light sacrifice for Mr. Blandford to give up his daughter, the sole treasury of his affections, and doom himself to a solitary home; but he did it without murmuring, since he hoped the blessing of heaven would hallow their nuptials. Villeneuve promised to return the ensuing year, and restore Grace again to her beloved parsonage.

The Sunday before their departure, Grace accompanied her father and husband to the village church. Villeneuve saw the boy who had guided him there the first time, standing at the portal. He returned his respectful salutation with a warm  grasp of the hand. "He led me to the gate of heaven," thought he; "he shall not go unrewarded."

"She will be too proud to play on the organ any more," said the boy to himself, "now that she has married a great man and a foreigner;" but Grace ascended the steps as usual, and drew the red curtains closely round her. What the feelings of the musician were, within that sacred sanctuary, as she pressed the keys, probably for the last time, could only be judged from a trembling touch; but at the close of the services, when the same sublime anthem, with the burden "for ever and ever," was sung by the choir, Villeneuve recognised the same clear, adoring accents which first fell so thrillingly on his ear. He remembered his dream. It no longer filled him with superstitious horror. It was caused by the workings of his dark and troubled mind. Now every thought flowed in a new channel; he seemed a new being to himself.

"Are we indeed united?" said he, while his soul hung on the echoes of that sweet strain, "and shall we be united for ever?"

"For ever and ever," returned the voice of the worshipper; and the whole choir, joining in, in a full burst of harmony, repeated again and again, "for ever and ever."