The Mirror of True Womanhood Chapter 6

What An Angelic Daughter And Sister Did

In the year 1860, a family, composed of father and mother, with three children, came from afar to live in a quiet suburb of one of our great Eastern cities. The father, Mr. S—, had been the heir to a considerable fortune, which he had first impaired by mismanagement, and then completely lost by involving it all in unwise ventures. He had been induced to come to the East by the offer of employment as bookkeeper or accountant in a large shipping firm. He took possession of his modest little suburban house under peculiarly distressing circumstances. His wife, a woman of uncommon beauty and goodness, was in the last stage of consumption, and the fatal termination of the malady was hastened by the fatigues of a long journey, the bitter cold of an unusually severe autumn, and the material discomforts of her new home. The cottage which the family had rented was old, damp, had been for some years untenanted, and was but scantily furnished and insufficiently warmed.

“I trust in you, Nora, “grasped the dying mother, as she held the hand of the kneeling girl in one of her own, and with the other touched the bent golden head half in blessing and half caressingly, “and I know God will help you.” The priest, who had just brought to that death-bed the Divine Pledge of the eternal possession, was standing near, deeply moved by all that he had seen of these interesting strangers. The simple, enlightened faith and exalted piety of the mother, the angelic grace of the eldest daughter, and the helpless, hopeless expression of the poor father, as he supported the younger child, fragile, fair-haired, and dazzlingly beautiful, but with consumption written on her wan cheek and wasted form, all that went to his heart and kept him there till the divine messenger, death, had performed his errand. An only son, a lad of eighteen, apprenticed to a civil engineer, was absent, and could only reach the house of mourning as they were about to set out for the church and the cemetery.

When the priest, with moist eyes, summoned courage to say to the remaining parent and his offspring, that all was over, and that one more saintly soul had gone to her rest and reward, Nora, startled by an exclamation from her father, turned round to see her sister apparently lifeless in his arms. “O my darling, my darling!” she said as she raised the rigid form and covered its face with her tears and kisses; “you must not leave me now! Oh! God will not take you from me!…”

The priest, with a few earnest words of sympathy in the father’s ear, hastened away, when the fainting girl revived, promising to return soon and obtain for these afflicted ones all the aid they needed in their bereavement.

A few weeks deepened immeasurably the gloom which had fallen on that now motherless household. Mr. S—, naturally irritable, had become intolerably peevish in consequence of his many disappointments. His temper had sorely tried his sick wife; and after her death it proved a source of continual suffering to her children. The boy, William, was seldom at home, and so escaped these domestic discomforts; but poor Nora and her little suffering Fanny were made to feel their bitterness daily and almost hourly.

For, to add to the pinching poverty they were enduring, their father lost his place of accountant. His haughty manner, which misfortune had not softened, his censorious and prying disposition, which a certain scrupulosity had only made more troublesome and intolerable to others, gave offense to every subordinate in the office. He also took it on himself to lecture his employers on certain transactions with the custom-house which excited his suspicion. Just as December was beginning to tax to the utmost Nora’s resources in Housekeeping, her father was dismissed.

This was terrible news for the poor child of fifteen, who knew not where to look for the means of keeping a roof above them in a season rendered exceptionally severe by intense cold and the great dearth of all things. She was a stranger, too, in the city and their immediate neighborhood, and to no human being, not even to her confessor, had she breathed a word of the utter destitution which had fallen on them.

With the tidings of her father’s dismissal a new enemy to her peace appeared. She had, strange as it may seem, never known by any experience of hers what drunkenness was, had never seen an intoxicated person. What was her horror and dismay to behold her dear parent in that condition! Hitherto she only had eyes for his virtues; in the light of her perfect innocence and sinlessness his imperfections had been overlooked or viewed only as the shadows inseparable from the bright sides of his character.

It was a fearful revelation to the care-burdened girl. But her womanly instinct and true nobleness of nature impelled her, even when this first manifestation of infirmity was renewed again and again, only to treat him whom she loved and reverenced so singularly, with the tenderness, the respect, the delicacy due to a sick and helpless father. She hid him away from every eye, even from those of her young sister, who was encouraged to believe that the change she could not but remark was due to grief and exhaustion. Nora spent hours of the night in prayer, when all was still in her cottage, bedewing with her tears her mother’s crucifix, and conversing with the Court of Heaven as if the veil had been withdrawn, and she were permitted to plead for her dear ones at the Mercy Seat, and face to face with the Divine Majesty.

From that Presence she always arose overflowing with comfort, with peace and light and strength; and the morning ever found her armed with increased courage for the struggle before her. It had been the invariable custom of her parents to perform together their night and morning devotions. Nora, by a happy inspiration, took her mother’s place by his side from the beginning of his bereavement, and to his unspeakable satisfaction. Even when half stupefied by drink, he would be persuaded to kneel with her and lift his soul to God: the morning never failed to find him humiliated, conscience-stricken, and self-accusing, but irritable and despondent. She never uttered one word of reproach or so much as hinted, in their conversation, at the growing habit which filled her with indefinable terror and foreboding.

One night he returned late, she knew not whence, and unable as he was to say his night-prayers, had lain down half-undressed on his bed, his angel-daughter watching wearily near the half-opened door of his chamber. On awaking, he was struck to the heart with sorrow, and when his pale and hollow-eyed child made her appearance, he cast himself on her neck in a mute agony of tears. She kissed him, soothed him, lavished on him words of love and comfort such as God puts on the lips of the pure and brave hearted. At length “Oh Nora ” he said, “this must be no more!” and kneeling by her side they both prayed in silence. God heard their united prayers. That trail was thenceforth spared to Nora.

Another blessing, a few days afterward, rewarded her filial piety. She wrote to her father’s late employers, soliciting an interview, and received a favorable answer. Recommending, as was her wont in every serious undertaking, the success of her visit to the Father of the orphan and afflicted, she presented herself at the office, surprised and charmed the chief partner with her beauty, her artless simplicity, the rare culture in one so young displayed during the interview, and especially by the eloquence with which she pleaded and won her father’s case. Mr. S— was given an occupation more suitable to his years and antecedents, and the daughter was delicately told of his former unpopularity and its causes.

These, with all a woman’s tact, Nora set about correcting; and, wonderful to relate, in good time she succeeded in effecting a great change in her father’s temper, his bearing toward his associated in business hours, and his disposition to fault-finding. The humiliation which the old gentleman felt at his late weakness made him as docile as a child to his daughter’s training. And so Nora was left free to devote herself to her sick sister, and to a long and earnest correspondence with her brother, whose duties compelled him to long absences, and whose health as well as conduct began to cause her watchful heart no little alarm.

Fanny’s constitutional debility had suffered much from the long journey the family had recently made of their new abode, as well as from her mother’s death, and the loss of many luxuries and comforts the child had till then been accustomed to. About Christmas-tide the physician pronounced her case one of chronic spine disease, but the sweet sufferer was not allowed to know of it. She seemed, however, to brighten, revive, and gain strength under the warm sunlight of her sister’s love, and the tender nursing of that gentle and cunning hand. But just then Mr. S— caught cold, and the illness soon assumed the form of violent pleurisy, leaving but little hopes of recovery, as the New Year dawned on them.

When the priest was summoned hurriedly on the evening of the great feast of Christmas, his impression on entering the cottage was, as he afterward declared, one of reverential awe; for a something heavenly seemed to pervade the atmosphere which filled it. The door was opened by Fanny, looking, in her simple dress of black, and with her dazzling complexion, like an angel just descended to tarry a brief space with the mourners. The whole house was decorated with evergreens and artificial flowers, but a refined taste had presided at the decoration, and was evident in the few simple ornaments of the mantel­piece, in the exquisite neatness of the sick-chamber, and in the preparation of the temporary alter for the sacrament. The patient was in a deep slumber when the priest entered: Nora was kneeling by his side, her hand held in her parent’s with so tight a grasp that she could not or dared not withdraw it without interrupting the repose which powerful narcotics had procured him.

As she turned her head to greet the priest, he was struck with the rapt look of gratitude for his coming and of adoration for the Gift of which he was the bearer. The poor slumberer soon awoke, and his spirit was prepared for the reception of the divine and awful graces ordained for the Christian’s death-struggle by Him who is the Author and Finisher of our faith. Nora moved about the sick-room like some one of the virgin train who evermore accompany the Lamb; and her sister knelt at the foot of the bed, silently pouring forth her tears and prayers. When Holy Viaticum had been administered and the last benediction given, the elder spoke to the priest with an air of quiet but preternatural fortitude. She knew what was coming, and trusted in the Comforter for strength to sustain her.

Both on quitting and entering the cottage the priest had remarked that there was only fire in the sick-room; his previous inquiries about the circumstances of the family had elicited from the neighbors information enough to make him feel certain that Nora had to contend with great distress. From himself he could obtain no answer to his timid and indirect questions. But it so happened that Mr. S— ‘s employer, hearing of his serious illness, called, with his eldest son, on the priest, and begged the latter to accompany them to the cottage. It was a timely visit – a glance satisfied the merchant of the urgent want of relief. The cottage was his property; he resolved at once on making it most comfortable; and besides begged Nora to draw at once her father’s full year’s salary, which was trebled without her knowledge. The most skillful medical aid was also secured, and a lively interest was created by the good priest’s frequent praise of these afflicted strangers.

William hastened to his father’s sick-bed, traveling night and day from far, where he and his patron were superintending the building of a bridge. Whether he had inherited his mother’s constitutional weakness, or his frame was not proof against the fatigue of so long a journey, and the discomforts and privations from which his very slender purse could not purchase an exemption, he reached the house of death only to be prostrated with fever. His father died a few hours after his son’s arrival, and the good priest who had been the former’s consoler in his last hours was called in to minister to the latter before his parent had been borne to the cemetery and laid beside his wife.

Nora, with a woman’s fortitude, bore up against this new trial, and God, who has stored up in woman’s heart such treasures of love and enduring devotion, enabled this tender girl, exhausted as she was by the grief and labors of all these weary months, to be for her brother all she had been for both her parents. There were no Sisters of Charity at hand; but the merchant’s wife, a Protestant lady of rare goodness, had visited Nora under her new affliction, and insisted on remaining with her for a few days. The principal Catholic ladies, also, touched by what they heard, came to sympathize and to admire; and to see the lovely orphans was to become attached to them. But Nora would devolve on no one her duties toward her sick brother, on whom both she and Fanny now centered their entire affection.

Their brother was saved. And now, why delay the read? William’s convalescence was a long and painful one. He had inherited his father’s peevishness, and had apparently lost in his somewhat wandering life as a civil engineer every trace of the early piety inculcated by his mother. People wondered that such an unamiable and God-abandoned youth could have come of the same parentage as the two angelic beings whom he called sisters.

Nora, while he was slowly recovering his strength, had been casting about for some occupation which might enable her to maintain the two now entirely thrown on her care. The merchant’s wife continued to be devoted to the orphans, and had occasionally brought her son to visit William during the latter’s convalescence. When able to bear exercise in the open air the young men drove out together, and so an intimacy gradually sprang up between the two families. It was remarked, not without wonder, that under Nora’s influence William became gradually transformed into another man. But few traces of his petulance and irritability remained. Indeed, after the first weeks of his recovery, the frequent oaths which startled the echoes of that pious abode were heard no more, and the old habit of night and morning prayer was resumed, William from his bed or his arm-chair heartily joining in his sister’s devotions. A new moral sense seemed to be growing up in him, refining not only his language but his very features, so that before spring had passed into summer the neighbors, who at first could see but a slight resemblance between the sisters and their coarse and burly brother, were struck with the remarkable likeness he bore them in features and expression. It was not all: the merchant’s son had seen too much of Nora not to have been charmed with her beauty of soul much more even than with her graces of person. His mother shared his admiration of such extraordinary worth, nor was his father indifferent to the virtues which he had himself more than once warmly eulogized. Nora, after imploring the divine guidance and consulting the priest who had been her counselor and benefactor, listened favorably to the young merchant’s suit, and accepted gratefully his mother for her own. When the days of mourning was ended, just as another spring was spreading her fairest charms over earth and sky, she became the wife of his lover, having her sweet Fanny with her as the angel of her home. They are both, at this day, the models of Christian mothers and maidens in another land, whither the young husband’s extensive business forced him to transfer his residence; they are the idols of the young and the worshiped benefactresses of the poor and suffering, blessed in hundreds of homes to which they bring light and comfort, prized in their own above all earthly treasures, and more and more reverenced daily by those who daily and hourly witness their goodness and humility.