Elizabeth Drew Barstow Stoddard - The Morgesons (1862)
(United States, 1823—1902)
This novel was the first of three written by this woman of genius, the wife of Richard Henry Stoddard, the poet. It was published in 1862 and was followed by two others: Two Men and Temple House. "These tales, their scenes and period, antedate the new generation which is, after all, the growth of but a few years," said the late Edmund Clarence Stedman in a preface to an edition of 1888. "Yet they are essentially modern, and in keeping with the choicest types of recent fiction." They came before their time, were given to the world during a period of civil strife, and their audience never was large. Yet, though comparatively few, Mrs. Stoddard's devoted admirers are of the cognoscenti.
MY earliest recollections involve my innate revolt against the Puritanic atmosphere of my home life. I can see mother now, as she read about the proceedings of an ecclesiastical council from the pages of the Boston Recorder, while Aunt Mercy half listened, bustled about the household affairs, and hummed "The Lord My Shepherd Is." As for myself I was perched on a ledge of a chest of drawers, reading my favorite work, The Northern Regions. Our scanty library was made up of this, with Baxter's Saints' Rest, and sundry others of a serious nature. I read them all, though I caught only a glimpse of their meaning by strenuous study. To this day Sheridan's Comedies, Sterne's Sentimental Journey, and Captain Cook's Voyages are so mixed up in my remembrance that I am still uncertain whether it was Sterne who ate baked dog with Maria, or Sheridan who wept over a dead ass in the Sandwich Islands.
We lived in Surrey, a New England village situated on an inlet of a large bay that opened into the Atlantic. My direct ancestors were undistinguished. Morgesons—born—liveddied—were all the record in their archives. My father, Locke Morgeson, married Mary Warren, from the neighboring town of Barmouth. Gran'ther" Warren was the best of the two Bar-mouth tailors, though his ideas respecting the cut of garments were of the most antiquated. He was rigidly pious and of great influence in the church. He was descended from Sir Richard Warren, a gentleman of Devon; but he was the last of his name, and his superior stock mattered nothing to the Morgesons, who had no past to speak of and realized only the present.
My mother was singularly beautiful—beautiful even to the day of her death. After she married my father Gran'ther Warren prayed a long, unintelligible prayer over them and put them into the chaise that brought them to Surrey. A year from that time I was born and was called Cassandra. Four years later came my sister Veronica. Our names were not derived from the Morgeson tombstones.
Veronica was an elfish creature. When she was nine she was diminutive and pale, and a puzzle to everyone. She had long, silky, brown hair, like mother's, which she used to tear out when she was angry. Ordinary observers did not call her pretty. She was a silent child and liked to be alone. Mischievous, too, you would say, if you also were judging from common standards. A blazing fire had always so strong a fascination for her that she burned in it whatever was in her reach. When loose articles disappeared she was supposed to be the cause, but nothing was said to her about them, for punishment made her more impish and daring in her pursuits. The Morgesons always smiled significantly when she was spoken of, and asked :
"Do you think she is like her mother?"
When I was fourteen I quarreled with the village school-mistress and was turned out of school. This was the beginning of freedom for me, for my parents were not greatly disturbed over my misdemeanor. We moved into a new house that father had built, and a room to myself was given to me. I was told to take care of it myself, but I grew tired of bed-making and dusting in a week, and gave it up. Our house was large and hand-some, and as we lived liberally we had many visitors. Unheard-of relatives sought us out, for a rich Morgeson was a new sensation in the family annals. But this period of our family life has left no impression of dramatic interest. There was no development of the sentiments, no betrayal of the fluctuations of the passions which must have existed. Hidden among the Powers That Be, which rule New England, lurks the Deity of the Illicit. This deity never obtained sovereignty in the atmosphere where the Morgesons lived. Instead of the psychological impressions which my later experience suggests to me to seek, I recall an eternal smell of cookery, a perpetual changing of beds, and the small-talk of vacant rustic minds.
About this time my brother Arthur was born. I mention him but to record the fact, for he came too late into our family life to play a part in my own and my sister's history. What concerned me more was that my life at home seemed to contribute nothing to my intellectual improvement; but after a time it was decided to place me in a young ladies' school at Barmouth. Of course I lived at Gran'ther Warren's—which was one kind of penance. The time I spent in the atmosphere of Miss Black's school was another. Some of the girls there came from families that had grown rich in slave-trade or rum-trade, or even by sinking their own ships and circumventing the insurance companies. Others belonged in the category of decayed families of decayed fortunes, or on the list of parvenus, which included myself.
The school was divided into clans, each with its spites, jealousies, and emulations; but when I entered its walls it developed a remarkable esprit du corps in uniting against me. I was, I confess, uncouth, ignorant, and tactless; in no sense was I a match for the trained intelligence and adroitness of the others. Miss Black considered me, and recommended that I study geology in order to lead my mind from nature to nature's God. The others had finished that branch, so I was directed to study and recite alone. I was also put into the class in botany, where already advance had been made as far as the family of the legumes. I went on one excursion to the fields, but as no one seemed to be aware of my presence I declined to go again.
I was painfully conscious of my clothes. They were new and stanch for wear and for the wash-tub, but they made me look like a fright beside Miss Charlotte Alden and the other girls. When my father came to visit me I persuaded him to buy me a pink French calico, which was then the reigning fashion. He added, of his goodness, an immense mosaic brooch with a ruined castle on it, and a pretty ring with a sparkling gold-stone. When the girls saw me thus decked out they crowded round me. One asked whose estate the pin represented, another wondered whether the tight ring made the blood rush into my hand. I told this latter questioner that I would hold up my hand in the air, as she did, to make it white. Elmira Sawyer asked me about my father's business. Was he a tailor? Poor Gran'ther Warren did not stand high among the mighty. Aunt Mercy had told me not to mind if the girls said unpleasant things to me. I asked whether these girls whom she called "a high set"—were any higher than we were in Surrey, and she answered : "We are all equal in the sight of God."
"You do not look as if you thought so, Aunt Mercy," I replied.
One day I remained indoors at recess, busy with my lesson. "The first period ends with the carboniferous system; the second includes the saliferous and magnesian systems; the third comprises the oolitic and chalk systems; the fourth—"
"How attentive some people are to their lessons," I heard Charlotte Alden say.
Looking up I saw her near me with Elmira Sawyer. "What is that you say?" I asked sharply.
"I am not speaking to you."
"I am angry," I said in a low tone, and rising.
"Who are you that you should be angry? We have heard about your mother, when she was in love, poor thing!"
I struck her so violent a blow in the face that she staggered backward. "You are a liar!" I said, "and you must let me alone."
Elmira Sawyer turned white and moved away. I threw my book at her; it hit her head, and her comb was broken by my geological systems. Miss Black quelled the outbreak, though not before I had retorted, upon her calling me a bad girl, by saying that she was "a bad woman—mean and cruel." I felt the justice of this charge in the subtle discriminations she had always made against me. But she asked Charlotte Alden to extend a Christian forgiveness to Miss Cassandra Morgeson; and when that girl said "Certainly!" and bowed to me gracefully, I felt a fresh sense of my demerits, and concluded that I was worsted in the fray.
When I told Aunt Mercy of the incident she turned pale and said she knew what Charlotte Alden meant, and that perhaps mother would tell me in good time.
"We had a good many troubles in our young days, Cassy."
The year dragged on both at school and at home. Gran'ther Warren was aboriginal in character—a Puritan without gentleness or tenderness. He whined over no misfortune; pined for no pleasure. He was sociable to those who visited the house, but never with those abiding in his family. He never noticed me save when I ate less than usual; then he peered into my face and said: "What ails you?" One day I spoke of the beautiful pigeons that lived on the roof of the barn.
"They eat the pig's corn, and I can't afford that; I shall have to shoot them, I guess," he said.
Though I begged him not to do it, the pigeons were shot within an hour, all save two that escaped by flight.
"Why did you ask him not to shoot the pigeons?" said Aunt Mercy. "If you had said nothing he would not have done it."
"He is a disagreeable relation," I answered, "and I am glad he is a tailor."
My year was nearly out at Miss Black's school, when an incident abruptly terminated my stay there. Charlotte Alden made a friendly overture one day by inviting me to tilt with her on a board, see-saw fashion. She was much heavier than I and bore me high in the air; then she stepped off her end of the board, which caused me to fall from the other. I struck a stone and fainted. I went back to my own home after this, and Gran'ther Warren's farewell was an injunction to my father: "Train her well, Locke; she is skittish."
When I reached home I found Verry, though only thirteen, grown to look as old as I. She had been ill much of the time, but her sickness was an education; her mind fed and grew on pain, and at last mastered it. The darkness in her nature broke; by slow degrees she gained health, though never much strength. Upon each recovery a fresh change was visible, a spiritual dawn had risen in her soul: moral activity blending with her native ideality made her life beautiful, even in the humblest sense: She was dowered with genius, but we were blind to it then, capable only of appreciating its grosser manifestations. Among these was her skill at the piano, which she played as if by inspiration.
An event in my spiritual life was my first love-affair. It was brief and unpleasant, for I was the object of attentions from a certain Joe Bacon, who brought me home one night from Dr. Snell's Bible-class. He began, rather inarticularly, to say how glad he was to see me, and that he hoped he was going to have better times now. The suspicion that he had a serious liking for me was disgusting. On reaching the house I ran swiftly up the steps, but when I turned to say good night and beheld his face, rendered suddenly intelligent with pain and emotion, I stepped down again and said: "Please open the door, Joe." But the office was performed from the inside by a member of the family. Joe fled precipitately. Our love-affair ended that night, for he died suddenly in less than a month.
Our family life was marred by the instinctive clash of varying temperaments. Veronica and I especially were spiritually strangers to each other, and my father was wise enough to see that separation was better for us both. So it was proposed that I should go to stay with our cousin Charles Morgeson at Rosville. The proposal was carried into effect and I found myself, a little later, at the scene of my first moral crisis.
Rosville was a town of importance in the county, a center for politics and the law. It had also an academy, whither I was sent for finishing studies. The town was a favorite spot for the rustication of naughty boys from Harvard or Yale.
The Morgesons were people of importance in Rosville and among the richest. Alice, my cousin's wife, was kindly disposed toward me and looked after my dress and my acquaintances. She opened her house for the young people of her set and of the academy, who also received me on friendly terms. She gave little parties and large ones which were pleasant to everybody except Cousin Charles, who detested company—as he said, "it makes me lie so."
Charles Morgeson had been poor, but at his father's death he received a comfortable legacy, with which he built a cotton-mill and made a great deal of money. He had a passion for horses, and liked especially half-tamed and vicious animals, which made Alice so timid that before my advent he had been forced to drive alone. Perhaps it was my fearlessness that first drew him to me. I drove with him once to the mills when he went to settle some differences with a clerk toward whom he had been betrayed into the use of violence. With difficulty the disagreement was patched up, I, meantime, standing by just out of earshot. The man, a Mr. Parker, happened to be one I had met several times at evening parties, and I stepped forward to speak to him when their conference was over. As a parting offering of peace I held out to the young man the crushed flowers I wore at my corsage, but before he could take them Charles struck them to the ground and crushed them with his feet. We went home, and I was too ill to rise the next morning. A doctor, summoned by Alice, tapped my shoulders and chest, and gave advice about early hours and sleep. I was ill for several days and did not see Charles. I confessed to Alice that I felt my cousin exerted a strange influence over me. She made light of my confession, and I said no more about it. When I was well enough to appear at breakfast, Alice observed to her husband:
"What do you think, Charles? Cassandra seems to be worried by a strange influence, as she calls it, that you and she have upon each other!"
Charles raised eyes to mine. A blinding, intelligent light flowed from them, which I could not defy. The blood thundered back to my heart.
Some time after this came a turning-point in my life. It was my meeting with Ben Somers of Belem, who came to join the class of rusticated Harvard men harbored by Dr. Price. He had been suspended from college because of a disgraceful fight. When Dr. Price told us of this in his presence he hastened to add that he won the fight. He was distinctly above the type of Rosville men, and seemed to feel a pride in his isolation. This gave him a glamour that was felt both by myself and my bosom friend, Helen Perkins. He sought our acquaintance and began to mingle in Rosville society. Dr. Price, who was always climbing everybody's family-trees, made out to us that there was an earlier alliance between the Somers and Morgeson families—a fact that interested Ben Somers so much that he made inquiries about our family at Surrey. I told him about Veronica, and one day he slipped away from Rosville to pay a visit to these newly discovered relatives. Veronica made a distinct impression on him, but her time was not yet.
Soon a contest began between Charles Morgeson and Ben Somers for the dominance of my soul. It was a losing battle for Ben, for I felt myself impelled by an uncontrollable fate toward my cousin Charles. There were occasional outbreaks between them, but none so terrible as one evening when at the rendezvous of a sleighing party the two men came face to face. Charles offered Ben a glass of wine, and Ben, taking it, snapped the stem of the frail glass and tipped the wine over Charles's hand.
"I know Veronica," said Ben. "Has this man seen her?" he added significantly.
I was crushed. What a barrier his expression of contempt seemed to raise between Veronica and me!
As Charles folded his stained wristband under his sleeve, carefully and slowly, his slender fingers did not tremble; but the desire that possessed him gleamed in his terrible eyes, which asked me: "Shall I kill him?"
"Somers," he said, "behave like a man, and let us alone. I love this girl."
"Cassandra," urged Ben, in a gentle voice, "come with me; come away."
"Fool!" I answered; "let me alone. Go out!"
He hesitated, and then obeyed, turning at the door and again urging me: "Come!"
" Go, go!" I repeated, stamping my foot. The door closed without a sound.
The parting of the ways had come, and I know not what would have been my doom had not fate mercifully stepped in between Charles and me. Soon after this scene we were driving with one of those vicious brutes of horses in which he delighted. The horse took a sudden fright, ran, then abruptly turned, leaped across a ditch, clambered up a stone wall with his fore-feet, and fell backward. Charles was killed by a kick from the horse; the animal itself died of its injuries, and I escaped with bruises and a broken arm.
So ended my life at Rosville. I went back to the family at Surrey, but after the first affectionate reunion I felt the dulness of life there. The past was vital; the present was dead. My mother questioned the meaning of my bitter face. But I could not reveal myself to her. I told her only to believe that which her woman's heart might guess; and she cursed herself for having given birth to daughters.
Over the slow-moving months of life at Surrey, where only the commonplace incidents of family affairs offer themselves for record, I must hasten. There were occasional visits—one from Helen Perkins, but more important were those of Ben Somers, now the declared suitor of Veronica. His wooing was concealed from his family, however, and a time came when he proposed that I should visit Belem and help break the ice, for he had determined to marry my sister, and take up his life at Surrey after he should first build a house.
To Belem accordingly I went and was introduced into the select circle of its most aristocratic families. Ben's father was the victim of gout, and also of his wife's tyranny. She, as Ben once described her, was a haughty aristocrat, fixed in the ideas embedded in the Belem institutions, which only move back-ward. She ruled the household and herself was ruled by her antecedents. She did not like me and was at times studiously uncivil; but I was there as a distant connection and so was tolerated. Ben's sisters and his brother Desmond were polite and even generous according to their lights. The family was held together by the law of the Pickersgills, Mrs. Somers's family. Neither Ben nor his brother was permitted to take any initiative, for they were denied any allotment of the family fortune until the youngest child should come of age, and a malign fate had the year previously sent a baby. This was a cloud that somewhat darkened the family life among the younger members.
But, after all, my visit was enjoyable. There were friendly visits and evening parties; one was given for me at the Somers mansion before my departure. It was then that I knew my fate. The influence of Ben's brother Desmond had been a growing power over me. He was wild, dissipated, but mag nificent. He fascinated me, and later he subdued me. That last evening we were together alone after the other guests had gone to the supper-room, I noticed a tiny ring at his watchchain—a woman's ring—and pointed to it. Lowering his gaze to the ring, he said : "I loved her shamefully, and she loved me shamefully." And he snapped it with hit thumb and finger, I grew rigid with virtue at this amazingly frank declaration.
"You need not conjure up any tragic ideas on the subject, She is no outcast. She is here to-night; if there was ruin, it was mutual."
We were interrupted by Ben, who came to take me to supper, Before I went Desmond had kissed both my hands. The next day I departed.
I went home, but it was to meet the grief of mother's parting from us. I found her alone in her chair at I entered the house. The family were scattered to their tasks. People must die, sometimes even in their chairs, alone!
Then followed the intolerable ordeal of a country funeral, But life flows in its unchangeable course, whatever the actors who come and go. Ben's marriage to Veronica was approaching. He feared for my future with Desmond.
"Desmond," he said to me, "is a violent, tyrannical; sensual man; his perceptions are his pulses. That he is handsome, clever, resolute, and sings well, I admit; but no more."
"We will not bandy his merits or his demerits between us, Let us observe him. And now, tell me—what am I?"
"You have been my delight and misery ever since I knew you. I saw you first—so impetuous, yet self-contained.! In-capable of insincerity, devoid of affectation, and courageously, naturally beautiful. Then, to my amazement, I saw that, unlike most women, you understood your instincts; that you dared to define them; that you were impious enough to follow them. You debased my ideal; you confused me, also, for I could never affirm that you were wrong—forcing me to consult abstractlons, they gave a verdict in your favor, which almost unsexed you in my estimation. I must own that the man who is willing to marry you has more courage than I have. Is it strange that when I found your opposite, Veronica, I yielded? Her delicate, pure, ignorant soul suggests to me an eternal repose,"
Now I must hasten over the events that bring my history to a close. One of these was my father's failure in business—a terrible wrench to the smooth course of our life; but disaster was retrieved by his marriage later to Alice, Charles's widow, and the use of the fortune she enjoyed. Ben and Veronica were married. Desmond went on a voyage to Spain and there achieved the miracle of reformation. But he returned to me and to bliss. After I married him I went to Belem; but Mrs. Somers never forgave me. The family regarded our union as a mésalliance. Shortly afterward we went for a two years' stay in Europe.
While I write these words I am sitting in, my old room in Surrey, for Desmond likes to be here in summer. Veronica lies on the floor watching her year-old baby. Ben has been dead six months. He died in delirium tremens. Only Desmond and I were with him in his last moments. When he sprang from his bed, staggered backward and fell dead, we clung together with faint hearts, and mutely questioned each other.
"God is the ruler," said Desmond at last; "otherwise let this mad world crush us now."
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
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