or Annual of Literature and the Arts
compiled by William Fraser
London: William Pickering,
pp. pp. 65-75
ABOUT the centre of a deep winding and woody lane, in the secluded village of Aberleigh, stands an old farm-house, whose stables, out-buildings, and ample yard, have a peculiarly forlorn and deserted appearance; they can, in fact, scarcely be said to be occupied, the person who rents the land preferring to live at a large farm about a mile distant, leaving this lonely house to the care of a labourer and his wife, who reside in one end, and have the charge of a few colts and heifers that run in the orchard and an adjoining meadow, whilst the vacant rooms are tenanted by a widow in humble circumstances and her young family.
The house is beautifully situated; deep, as I have said, in a narrow woody lane, which winds between high banks, now feathered with hazel, now thickly studded with pollards and forest trees, until opposite Kibe's farm it widens sufficiently to admit a large clear pond, round which the hedge, closely and regularly set with a row of tall elms, sweeps in a graceful curve, forming for that bright mirror, a rich leafy [Page 66]frame. A little way farther on the lane again widens, and makes an abrupter winding, as it is crossed by a broad shallow stream, a branch of the Loddon, which comes meandering along from a chain of beautiful meadows; then turns in a narrower channel by the side of the road, and finally spreads itself into a large piece of water, almost a lakelet, amidst the rushes and the willows of Hartley Moor. A foot-bridge is flung over the stream, where it crosses the lane, which, with a giant oak growing on the bank, and throwing its broad branches far on the opposite side, forms in every season a pretty rural picture.
Kibe's farm is as picturesque as its situation; very old, very irregular, with gable ends, clustered chimneys, casement windows, a large porch, and a sort of square wing jutting out even with the porch, and covered with a luxuriant vine, which has quite the effect, especially when seen by moonlight, of an ivy-mantled tower. One side extends the ample but disused farm buildings; on the other the old orchard, whose trees are so wild, so hoary and so huge, as to convey the idea of a fruit forest. Behind the house is an ample kitchen-garden, and before a neat flower court, the exclusive demesne of Mrs. Lucas and family, to whom indeed the labourer, John Miles, and his good wife Dinah, served in some sort as domestics.
Mrs. Lucas had known far better days. Her [Page 67]husband had been an officer, and died fighting bravely in one of the last battles of the Peninsular war, leaving her with three children, one lovely boy and two delicate girls, to struggle through the world as best she might. She was an accomplished woman, and at first, settled in great town, and endeavoured to improve her small income by teaching music and languages. But she was country bred; her children too had been born in the country, amidst the sweetest recesses of the New Forest, and pining herself for liberty, and solitude, and green fields, and fresh air, she soon began to fancy that her children were visibly deteriorating in health and appearance and pining for them also; and finding that her old servant Dinah Miles was settled with her husband in this deserted farm-house, she applied to his master to rent for a few months the untenanted apartments, came to Aberleigh, and fixed there apparently for life.
We lived in different parishes, and she declined company, so that I seldom met Mrs. Lucas, and had lost sight of her for some years, retaining merely a general recollection of the mild, placid, elegant mother, surrounded by three rosy, romping bright-eyed children, when the arrival of an intimate friend at Aberleigh rectory caused me frequently to pass the lonely farm-house, and threw this interesting family again under my observation.
The first time that I saw them was on a bright [Page 68]summer evening, when the nightingale was yet in the coppice, the briar rose blossoming in the hedge, and the sweet scent of the bean fields perfuming the air. Mrs. Lucas, still lovely and elegant, though somewhat faded and careworn, was walking pensively up and down the grass path of the pretty flower court; her eldest daughter, a rosy bright brunette, with her dark hair floating in all directions, was darting about like bird; now tying up the pinks, now watering the geraniums, now collecting the fallen rose leaves into the straw bonnet which dangled from her arm; and now feeding a brood of bantams from a little barley measure, which that sagacious and active colony seemed to recognise as if by instinct, coming long before she called them at their swiftest pace, between a run and a fly, to await with their usual noisy and bustling patience the showers of grain which she flung to them across the paling. It was a beautiful picture of youth, and health, and happiness; and her clear gay voice, and brilliant smile, accorded well with a shape and motion as light as a butterfly, and as wild as the wind. A beautiful picture was that rosy lass of fifteen in her unconscious loveliness, and I might have continued gazing on her longer, had I not been attracted by an object no less charming, although in a very different way.
She sate in the old porch, wreathed with jessamine and honeysuckle, with the western sun floating around her like a glory, and displaying the singular beauty of her chesnut hair, brown with a golden light, and the exceeding delicacy of ther smooth and finely grained complexion, so pale, and yet so healthful. Her whole face and form had a bending and statue-like grace, encreased by the adjustment of her splendid hair, which was parted on her white forehead, and gathered up behind in a large knot — a natural coronet. Her eyebrows and long eyelashes were a few shades darker than her hair, and singularly rich and beautiful. She was plaiting straw rapidly and skilfully, and bent over her work with a mild and placid attention, a sedate pensiveness that did not belong to her age, and which contrasted strangely and sadly with the gaiety of her laughing and brilliant sister, who at this moment darted up to her with a handful of pinks and some groundsel. Jessy received them with a smile — such a smile! — spoke a few sweet words in a sweet sighing voice; put the flowers in her bosom, and the groundsel in the cage of a linnet that hung near her; and then resumed her seat and her work, imitating better than I have ever heard them imitated, the various notes of a [Page 70]nightingale who was singing in the opposite hedge; whilst I, ashamed of loitering longer, passed on.
The next time I saw her, my interest in this lovely creature was increased tenfold — for I then knew that Jessy was blind — a misfortune always so touching, especially in early youth, and in her case rendered peculiarly affecting by the personal character of the individual. We soon became acquainted, and even intimate under the benign auspices of the kind mistress of the rectory; and every interview served to encrease the interest excited by the whole family, and most of all by the sweet blind girl.
Never was any human being more gentle generous, and grateful, or more unfeignedly resigned to her great calamity. The pensiveness that marked her character arose as I soon perceived from a different source. Her blindness had been of recent occurrence, arising from inflammation unskilfully treated, and was pronounced incurable; but from coming on so lately, it admitted of several alleviations, of which she was accustomed to speak with a devout and tender gratitude. "She could work," she said, "as well as ever; and cut out, and write, and dress herself, and keep the keys, and run errands in the house she knew so well without making any mistake or confusion. Reading, to be sure, she had been forced to give up, and drawing: [Page 71]and some day or other she would shew me, only that it seemed so vain, some verses which her dear brother William had written upon a groupe of wild flowers, which she had begun before her misfortune. Oh, it was almost worth while to be blind to be the subject of such verse, and the object of such affection! Her dear mamma was very good to her, and so was Emma; but William — oh she wished that I knew William! No one could be so kind as he! It was impossible! He read to her; he talked to her; he walked with her; he taught her to feel confidence in walking alone; he had made for her use the wooden steps up the high bank which led into Kibe's meadow; he had put the hand-rail on the old bridge, so that now she could get across without danger, even when the brook was flooded. He had tamed her linnet; he had constructed the wooden frame, by the aid of which she could write so comfortable and evenly; could write letters to him, and say her own self all that she felt of love and gratitude. And that," she continued with a deep sigh, "was her chief comfort now; for William was gone, and they should never meet again — never alive — that she was sure of — she knew it." "But why, Jessy?" "Oh, because William was so much too good for this world: there was nobody like William! And he was gone for a soldier. Old General Lucas, her father's uncle, had sent for him abroad; [Page 72]had given him a commission in his regiment; and he would never come home — at least they should never meet again — of that she was sure — she knew it."
This persuasion was evidently the master-grief of poor Jessy's life, the cause that far more than her blindness faded her cheek, and saddened her spirit. How it had arisen no one knew; partly, perhaps, from some lurking superstition, some idle word, or idler omen which had taken root in her mind, nourished by the calamity which in other respects she bore so calmly, but which left her so often in darkness and loneliness to brood over her own gloomy forebodings; partly from her trembling sensibility, and partly from the delicacy of frame and of habit which had always characterised the object of her love — a slender youth, whose ardent spirit was but too apt to overtask his body.
However it found admittance, there the presentiment was, hanging like a dark cloud over the sunshine of Jessy's young life. Reasoning was useless. They know little of the passions who seek to argue with that most intractable of them all, the fear that is born of love; so Mrs. Lucas and Emma tried to amuse away those sad thoughts, trusting to time, to William's letters, and above all, to William's return to eradicate the evil.
The letters came punctually and gaily; letters [Page 73]that might have quieted the heart of any sister in England, except the fluttering heart of Jessy Lucas. William spoke of improved health, of increased strength, of actual promotion, and expected recal. At last he even announced his return under auspices the most gratifying to his mother, and the most beneficial to her family. The regiment was ordered home, and the old and wealthy relation, under whose protection he had already risen so rapidly, had expressed his intention to accompany him to Kibe's farm, to be introduced to his nephew's widow and daughters, especially Jessy, for whom he expressed himself greatly interested. A letter from General Lucas himself, which arrived by the same post, was still more explicit: it adduced the son's admirable character and exemplary conduct as reasons for befriending the mother, and avowed his design of providing for each of his young relatives, and of making William his heir.
For half an hour after the first hearing of these letters, Jessy was happy — till the peril of a Winter voyage (for it was deep January) crossed her imagination, and checked her joy. At length, long before they were expected, another epistle arrived, dated Portsmouth. They had sailed by the next vessel to that which conveyed their previous dispatches, and might be expected hourly at Kibe's farm. The voyage was past, safely past, and the weight seemed [Page 74]now really taken from Jessy's heart. She raised her sweet face and smiled; yet still it was a fearful and a trembling joy, and somewhat of fear was mingled even with the very intensity of her hope. It had been a time of rain and wind; and the Loddon, the beautiful Loddon, always so affluent of water, had overflowed its boundaries, and swelled the smaller streams which it fed into torrents. The brook which crossed Kibe's lane had washed away part of the foot-bridge, destroying poor William's railing, and was still foaming and dashing like a cataract. Now that was the nearest way; and if William should insist on coming that way! To be sure, the carriage road was round by Grazely Green, but to cross the brook would save half a mile; and William, dear William, would never think of danger to get to those whom he loved. These were Jessy's thoughts: the fear seemed impossible, for no postillion would think of breasting that roaring stream; but the fond sister's heart was fluttering like a new caught bird, and she feared she knew not what.
All day she paced the little court, and stopped and listened, and listened and stopped. About sunset, with the nice sense of sound which seemed to come with her fearful calamity, and that fine sense, quickened by anxiety, expectation, and love, she heard, she thought she heard, she was sure she heard the sound of a carriage rapidly advancing on the [Page 75]other side of the stream. "It is only the noise of the rushing waters," cried Emma. "I hear a carriage, the horses, the wheels!" replied Jessy; and darted off at once, with the double purpose of meeting William, and of warning the postillion of crossing the stream. Emma and her mother followed, fast! fast! But what speed could vie with Jessy's, when the object was William? They called, but she neither heard nor answered. Before they had to won to the bend in the lane she had reached the brook; and, long before either of her pursuers had gained the bridge, her foot had slipt from the wet and tottering plank, and she was borne resistlessly down the stream. Assistance was immediately procured; men, and ropes, and boats; for the sweet blind girl was beloved of all, and many a poor man perilled his life in a fruitless endeavor to save Jessy Lucas; and William, too, was there, for Jessy's quickened sense had not deceived her. William was there, struggling with all the strength of love and agony to rescue that dear and helpless creature; but every effort — although he persevered until he too was taken out senseless — every effort was vain. The fair corse was recovered, but life was extinct. Poor Jessy's prediction was verified to the letter; and the brother and his favourite sister never met again.