MoboReader> Literature > The Old Stone House

   Chapter 10 THE HOME-COMING.

The Old Stone House By Constance Fenimore Woolson Characters: 20330

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


"A forlorn, gloomy day," said Bessie at the breakfast-table the next morning, "and I'm glad of it!"

"I don't know that I care," said Tom. "When a fellow has got to go to school, it don't make much difference."

"It must have rained very hard in the night," said Sibyl, looking out into the garden where the vine-leaves were strewed all over the ground.

"It rained, but there was not much wind," replied Aunt Faith; "I was awake part of the night and listened to the storm. There was not wind enough to make any sea, and Hugh is probably in B--- by this time."

"What a jolly ride he will have on the cars to-day, whirling through the country and getting nearer to New York every mile, while I am digging away at these old books," said Tom discontentedly.

"Hurry, children!" said Aunt Faith, looking at the clock; "you must not be late the very first day of school."

"Here comes Mr. Leslie!" called out Tom, slinging his books over his shoulder.

"John is very early this morning," said Sibyl, going out to meet him as he came up the walk.

"That is the way it will be all the time now, I suppose," said Bessie with some irritation; "Hugh gone, and Sibyl so absorbed that she is good for nothing as a companion. Aunt Faith, you and I are like the last roses of summer left blooming alone."

Aunt Faith smiled. She was very gentle with Bessie this morning; she remembered her promise to Hugh, and she saw also that the young girl was suffering under her share of the sorrow of parting, a sorrow always heavier for the one that stays than for the one who goes.

"I shall go upstairs and paint," said Bessie after a pause; "I succeeded at last in giving the right expression to Hugh's eyes. You may see the picture, now, Aunt Faith; it is so like him."

At this moment Mr. Leslie came into the sitting-room, but Sibyl was not with him; his face was pale, he went up to Aunt Faith and took her hand with tender solemnity.

"What is it?" she asked, sinking into a chair; her voice was quiet, she had too often endured affliction not to recognize its messenger at a glance. Mr. Leslie, in his ministration in times of trouble, had learned never to hide or alter the plain truth.

"The morning boat from B--- has just come in," he said. "The captain reports that the evening boat of the same line, the America, which left Westerton last night, collided with a schooner off Shoreton about midnight, and sank in ten minutes. The night was very dark, but many of the passengers were picked up by the 'Empire' as she came along two hours afterward, some clinging to fragments of the wreck, and some in one of the America's small boats. The other boats are missing, but there is hope that they are safe, as the storm was not severe, and the lake is now quite calm. The rescued passengers think that some may have been picked up by a propeller whose lights they saw in the distance."

"You have come to tell us that Hugh is among the rescued," said Aunt

Faith in a faint voice, hoping against hope.

"Hugh is drowned!" said Bessie with hard, cold distinctness; then she sat down by the table and buried her face in her hands.

"Hugh is not among those brought back by the 'Empire,'" said Mr. Leslie, "but I have strong hope that he is safe. Tugs have already started for the scene of the accident, the water is still at summer heat, and besides, among the many vessels and propellers constantly passing over that very spot, there is every probability that many have been picked up before this time. Hugh is very strong, and an excellent swimmer, also."

"Hugh is drowned!" said Bessie in the same hard voice; "He will never come back to us alive."

"Bessie, Bessie!" cried Sibyl, rushing into the room, "you shall not, you dare not say such cruel words!" Sibyl's face was discolored with violent weeping, and her whole frame shook with agitation; she and her cousin seemed to have changed places, for Bessie did not shed a tear.

"I say what is true," she answered; "Hugh is drowned! Hugh is dead!"

Mr. Leslie went over to her, and took her cold hand; "Bessie," he said gently, "why do you give up all hope? There are a great many chances for Hugh."

"Go away!" said Bessie in the same dull monotone; "Hugh is dead, I tell you! Go put crape on the door!"

"She is ill," said Mr. Leslie in a low tone to Aunt Faith; "you had better take her upstairs."

Aunt Faith roused herself from her own grief; "come, dear," she said, rising.

"I shall not go," said Bessie; "I shall wait here for Hugh."

At this moment Tom and Gem ran into the room.

"Oh, Aunt Faith! what is it?" began Tom. "We met some boys and they told us that the America was run into last night."

Gem looked at Bessie and Sibyl, and then without a word, she sat down in her little chair and began to cry bitterly. Aunt Faith could not answer Tom, the sound of Gem's violent weeping, and Sibyl's sobs, seemed to choke the words on her lips.

"I don't believe a word of it!" cried Tom indignantly. "Hugh can swim better than any one in Westerton, and he's as strong as a lion! I'm going right down to the dock, and you'll see him coming back with me before night."

"Hugh is dead!" said Bessie again; "Hugh is dead!"

The hours passed slowly in those long minutes of weary waiting in which young hearts grow into old age in a single day. Friends and neighbors flocked into the old stone house, and their voices were hushed as they came and went with kindly but useless sympathy. Mr. Leslie had gone to the scene of the accident on a fast tug, accompanied by some of Hugh's young companions, and as, during the day, different vessels came into port, they were boarded by anxious friends and the latest reports eagerly sought. The bank of the lake was thronged, people stood there with glasses, in spite of the steady rain, scanning the eastern horizon in the hope of discovering the smoke of approaching propellers. Others had friends on board the America besides the family at the old stone house. But Hugh was well known and well liked, and his was the only young life among those still missing from Westerton; the others were middled-aged or old, and with that universal sympathy which the death of a bright vigorous youth always awakens, the whole town mourned for Hugh, and stories of his generous, manly nature, flew from mouth to mouth, until even strangers felt that they knew him.

At five o'clock a tug returned bringing a man and wife exhausted with twelve hours in the water lashed to floating spars; but they soon revived, and the good news flew through the city, and friends told it to the family in the old stone house, clustered together around Bessie, who had not changed her attitude or tasted food since morning. "If they were saved, why not Hugh?" they said hopefully.

"Hugh is dead!" repeated Bessie; "they will bring him home, poor drowned Hugh!" Sibyl broke forth into violent weeping, and Aunt Faith shuddered at Bessie's words. "Can you not persuade Bessie to go upstairs and lie down?" said a lady friend, looking apprehensively at the young girl's fixed eyes.

Aunt Faith shook her head. "We must leave her to herself for the present," she answered sadly; "her grief is beyond expression now."

Later in the day, the tug Mr. Leslie had taken was sighted from the bank, and a crowd assembled on the dock, with the feeling that suspense would soon be over.

"They would not have come back so soon unless they had found him," said one; "they would have cruised around there for a day or two as long as there was any hope."

"But they don't hoist any signal," said another; "they must know we are waiting here."

The little tug came rapidly in, watched by hundreds of eyes, and when at last she approached the dock, the anxiety grew intense. There came no shout from those on board, the quiet was ominous, and, chilled by a sudden awe, the crowd stepped back, and awaited the result in silence. The boat was made fast, and then, after a short delay, the young men came forth bearing the shrouded form of their late companion, now still in death. Hugh was dead, then? Yes, Hugh was dead!

But he had not died in vain, and the story of his death was repeated from mouth to mouth throughout the city; women heard it and sobbed aloud, as they held their darlings closer; men heard it and spoke a few brief words of praise and regret to which their wet eyes gave emphasis.

About half-past eleven the previous night, the America had been struck amidships by an unknown schooner driving down unseen in the intense darkness of the storm. Most of the passengers had gone to their state-rooms, but Hugh was still in the cabin; rushing out on deck he saw and heard that the boat would sink, and, accompanied by the captain, ran back through the cabin, arousing the passengers and telling them of the danger. In an instant all was confusion, agony, and despair; some of the men leaped overboard, but the women with their instinctive shrinking from the dark water, could not be persuaded to leave the deck. A few passengers and part of the crew got off in one of the small boats, but the other boats were swamped by the rush into them; a cry went up that the steamer was sinking, and Hugh was seen to jump overboard with a little child in his arms, a baby whose mother had held it imploringly towards him, as he tried to persuade her to take the dangerous leap. "Take the child," she said; "I will follow you," and then as they disappeared, with a wild cry the poor woman flung herself over after them. In the mean time the captain and some of the hands and passengers had ascended to the hurricane deck, and when the America sank, the force of the waves separated the deck from the hull, and it floated off, a frail support for the little group it carried. The lake was strewn with fragments, spars and barrels, and to these many persons were clinging. Hugh had managed to secure a piece of broken mast with spars attached, and with its aid he supported the mother and child until an iron-bound cask, caught in the cordage, struck him heavily in the darkness. The mother heard him groan, and his grasp loosened, "Quick!"

he said hoarsely; "I cannot hold you. I must fasten you with these floating ropes; I am badly hurt, but I think I can hold the child."

He bound the ropes and rigging about her, and told her how she could best support herself; then he was silent, but every now and then she heard him moaning as though in pain. How long they floated in this way the mother could not tell; it seemed to her many hours,-it was, in reality, less than four. They saw the lights of the Empire in the distance, but they could not make themselves heard, although they shouted with all their strength. At the first glimmering of dawn they discovered the hurricane deck not far distant, and Hugh said, "shout with all your might. I cannot hold on much longer, my head is on fire!" So the mother exerted all her strength in a piercing scream, and to her joy, an answering cry came back through the rain. Hugh made an effort to steer the spars towards the floating deck, and those on board pushed their raft towards him as well as they could. Still it was slow work, and as the dawn grew brighter, the mother saw her preserver's haggard face, and the blood matted in his curly hair. He did not speak, as, holding the baby in one arm, with the other he tried to guide the broken mast, but his eyes were strangely glazed and the shadow of death was on his brow. They reached the deck at last, and kind hands lifted them on board; it was only a raft, but it seemed a support after the deep, dark water. The mother took her baby, and Hugh sank down at her feet. Some one had a flask of brandy, and they succeeded in pouring a little through his clenched teeth; after a moment or two he revived, sat up, looked about him, and murmured some incoherent words. Then he tried to take out his little note-book, but it was wet, and the pencil was gone; the captain gave him his own, and Hugh had scrawled a few words upon it, spoke to the mother and smiled when she held up the child. But gradually he relapsed into unconsciousness, grew more and more death-like, and, after breathing heavily for an hour, passed away without a struggle. The mother and her child were safe; all the others on the floating deck were rescued,-but Hugh, dear Hugh was dead!

Mr. Leslie had preceded the funeral cortege by a few moments; slowly he alighted from the carriage and passed up the garden-walk towards the old stone house. His heart was heavy, and words of comfort came not to his lips; in the presence of so great a sorrow he bowed his head in silence. The friends who were in the house, came out to meet him, but no one spoke; they knew by his face that the worst was true. They did not follow him into the presence of the mourners, but going down to the gate, they waited there.

Mr. Leslie entered the sitting-room. "The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away," he said solemnly. "Blessed be the name of the Lord. Hugh, our dear Hugh is dead."

Sibyl screamed and fell back fainting, the children burst into tears, and Aunt Faith knelt down by her chair and hid her face in her hands. Bessie alone was calm. "Are they bringing him home?" she asked, lifting her tearless eyes to Mr. Leslie's face.

"Yes Bessie; they will soon be here, now."

Without reply she rose, smoothed her disordered curls and arranged her dress. "Sibyl," she said, "do not cry; Hugh never could bear to hear any one cry! Aunt Faith, Hugh is coming. Let us go to meet him."

Her strange composure awed the violent grief of the others into silence, and they followed her mechanically as she led the way to the piazza; involuntarily they all took the positions of the previous evening, and, with Bessie standing alone in the centre, they waited for their dead.

The young men bore their burden up the walk slowly and solemnly, and behind followed a train of sorrowing friends, two and two, thus rendering respect to the youth who had so suddenly been taken from them in all the flush and vigor of early manhood. On came the sad procession, and when the bearers reached the piazza, the friends fell back and stood with uncovered heads, as up the steps, and under the faded triumphal arch, Hugh Warrington came home for the last time to the old stone house.

At midnight Aunt Faith went softly into the parlor; a faint light shone from the chandelier upon the still figure beneath, and Bessie with her face hidden in her hands, sat by its side. She did not move as Aunt Faith came to her; she did not answer when Aunt Faith spoke to her; she seemed almost as cold and rigid as the dead.

"Bessie dear, I have something to show you," said Aunt Faith, in a low tone; "I have a letter to you from Hugh."

Bessie started and looked up; her face was pinched and colorless, and her dark eyes wild and despairing.

"I have a letter to you, dear, from Hugh," repeated Aunt Faith; "he wrote it on board the floating deck just before he died."

"Give it to me," said Bessie hoarsely, holding out her cold hands.

"In a moment, dear. Come upstairs with me and you shall see it," answered Aunt Faith, trying to lead her away. But Bessie resisted wildly. "I will not go!" she said. "I shall stay with Hugh until the last. Give me my letter! It is mine! You have no right to keep it. Give it to me, I say!"

Alarmed at the expression of her eyes, Aunt Faith took out the captain's note-book, opened it, and handed it to her niece. The words were scrawled across the page in irregular lines; there seemed to be two paragraphs. The first was this: "Bessie, try to be good, dear; I love you." The second: "I can say the two sentences, Aunt Faith,-I am saying them now.-Hugh."

The writing was trembling and indistinct, and the last words barely legible; the signature was but a blur.

As Bessie deciphered the two messages, a sudden tremor shook her frame; then she read them over again, speaking the words aloud as if to give them reality. "Oh Hugh! Hugh!" she cried, "how can I live without you!"

With a quick movement, Aunt Faith turned up the gas and threw back the pall; then she put her arms around the desolate girl and raised her to her feet. "Look at him, Bessie!" she said earnestly; "look at dear Hugh, and think how hard it must have been for him to write those words, how hard he must have tried, how much he must have loved you!"

Hugh's face was calm, the curling, golden hair concealed the cruel wound on his temple, and there was a beautiful expression about the mouth, that strange peace which sometimes comes after death, as if sent to comfort the mourners. His right hand, bruised by the hard night's work, was covered with vine-leaves, but the left, the hand that had held the little child, was folded across his breast; he was dressed as he had been in life, and some one had placed a cross on his heart,-a little cross of ivy simply twined. "My soldier, true soldier of the cross," murmured Aunt Faith, stooping to kiss the cold brow. "In those hours it all became clear to you. 'Lord, I believe, help Thou mine unbelief;'-'Lord be merciful to me a sinner.' With these two sentences on your lips, you passed into another country. Farewell, Hugh! You will not return to us, but we shall go to you."

Bessie had not raised her head from Aunt Faith's shoulder. She had not looked upon Hugh since they brought him home, and now she stood holding the note-book in her hands, and trembling convulsively.

"Look at him, Bessie," said Aunt Faith again; "look at dear Hugh. He is speaking to you now, in that dying message."

At last Bessie raised her head and looked upon the still face long and earnestly; then, throwing herself down upon her knees, she burst into a passion of wild grief, calling upon Hugh, beseeching him to speak to her, and listening for his answer in vain. Aunt Faith did not try to check her, for these were her first tears; she knew they would relieve that tension of the head and heart, which, if long continued, must have ended in physical and mental prostration. After a few moments, Sibyl came in, and the two watched over Bessie until she sank exhausted to the floor, when they lifted her slight form and bore her upstairs.

Then, from the sitting-room, two of Hugh's friends came in, turned down the light, covered the still face, and went back to keep their watch in the desolate hours of mourning.

The sun was sinking towards the west in unclouded brightness when a throng gathered in the old stone house to pay their last tribute of respect to the dead. "Fitz Hugh Warrington, aged twenty years and ten months," said the inscription on the coffin-lid, and many tears dropped upon it, as, one by one, the friends bent over to take a farewell look at the handsome face with its clustering golden hair. Then came the voice of the aged pastor, reading the words of the Gospel of St. John,-Hugh's favorite chapter, the fourteenth. A hymn followed,-Hugh's favorite hymn, "Brightest and best of the sons of the morning," and then they all knelt in prayer, the fervent prayer mingled with tears which ascends from the house where the dearest one of all is dead.

Mr. Leslie took no part in the services; he stood with Sibyl as one of the family. Aunt Faith leaned upon the arm of Mr. Hastings, who had come from New York immediately upon hearing of the accident. Tom and Gem stood together, but Bessie was alone; she wished no support, she said; she only wanted to stay by Hugh until the last. So they let her stand by the head of the coffin alone,-alone with her dead, and with her God.

Then came another hymn, and slowly the bearers lifted all that was left of their friend, and bore it forth under the same faded flower-arch, and down the garden-walk, where the throng made way for them on either side as they passed.

The sun was setting, and, standing on the piazza, the choir sang,-

Abide with me; fast falls the even tide,

The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide;

When other helpers fail, and comforts Bee,

Help of the helpless, Oh abide with me.

I fear no foe with Thee at hand to bless,

Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness;

Where is death's sting, where, grave, thy victory?

I triumph still, if Thou abide with me."

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