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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Widow Werther

By Maria Gowen Brooks (Maria del Occidente) (1794?–1845)

[Idomen; or, the Vale of Yumuri. 1843.]

IN the course of the theatric entertainment, I looked a moment towards the box of Lord D——e, and saw him who had appeared to me like a deity, on earth, surrounded by gay, trifling ladies, who kept him in continual conversation.

I dared not take another glance; when I returned, I was too ill to sup, and retired to my pillow, reflecting on the next day’s purpose.

Alone in the darkness of the night, and disturbed only by the sound of carriages returning at intervals from scenes of festivity, I lay endeavoring to be calm, and to silence those doubts which conscience continually presented.

Words like these came to my mind:—What tie have I to the earth, save that only of my child?—him I cannot benefit, even though I strive to remain. At best, I am weak; if I droop continually, at last, what shall I become? a burden, a burden? alas!—even now, what am I else? If I live in misery like this, reason must ultimately forsake me. How terrible for poor little Arvon, who has looked on me only as a being loving and beloved! How very far more terrible to look upon a maniac;—upon one, perhaps, even loathsome, than to see me only in memory;—(as he knew me, oh, my friend, when you first took him on your knee!) children are soon taught to bend their minds to new objects. Arvon, even now, can bear my absence; he has learned to like what is around him; and if there be kindness on earth, he will find friends better than I! No! no! he shall never see his mother an object for other feelings than those of love!

Towards morning I slept from exhaustion; at nine, I arose to breakfast with Marian, and afterwards retired to write.

My purpose had now become fixed, and despite of the night I had passed, my appearance, though pale, was calm to those around me; but if the soul which now warms me be eternal, the remembrance of that day, so calm to those around, will continue to the latest eternity.

I first wrote separate letters to Arlington and to Marian, beseeching, for the sake of compassion, and as they valued their own futurity, to conceal from my son the manner of my death. I then wrote to Pharamond, told him that I was ill, and that I felt I should never see him more. I then recommended little Arvon to his care, and besought him to petition our uncle, Llewellyn Lloyde, in favor of my orphan boy, as soon as he should return to the beautiful river, and find me no longer on earth.

To write these letters seemed a duty, but it was a terrible one. I know not what death I may die, but no greater pain, I am sure, upon earth, can be suffered. To swallow the poison, when compared with it, was as a trifle.

I next looked over a small trunk of papers. From time to time they had been saved, when my imagination was under the influence of a strong but vague hope that I should, one day or other, be loved and renowned; and live longer than my natural life, in the history of the country of my forefathers, and that where I first beheld the light. No mortal, I said, shall smile at the fancies of lonely Idomen!—and the few long preserved papers were burned at the same taper, where I had just sealed, with black, my letters of death.

(Here Madame Burleigh shuddered, and again exclaimed:—You have bid me, my friend, speak truth to you, even as to God!—I know not why, but what I felt in burning these papers, in resigning this vague hope—this indescribable illusion, caused me a pain even greater and more sickening than the certainty of leaving life, and my child. Yet love for Ethelwald was stronger even than this hope or illusion, for it forced me to resign a flattering possibility which, from childhood, had mingled with my reveries.)

At five o’clock, instead of appearing at dinner, I lay exhausted on my bed. Marian was kindness itself; she knew not what I had been doing, but imagined that I suffered because Ethelwald had not come in the morning. With her own hands, she brought me nourishment—soup, light wafers, and jelly of the beautiful apples of Montreal. In the evening she remained at home, with some intimate friends of her selection, and came frequently to my room. Perceiving that I slept not, she brought her companions to my bedside, determined that my own regrets should be lost in the charms of conversation.

Despite of my heaviness of heart I perceived her delicate attentions, and felt for her esteem and gratitude.

In the morning I breakfasted in bed. Appetite I had none, but I swallowed, to give me strength, an uncooked egg and some jelly, and promised at five, to be present in the drawing-room. My earthly affairs seemed concluded, and I strove to give to friendship the last day of my existence, in a world where it is often sought in vain.

When the day was nearly spent I arose, called forth all the strength that remained to me, bathed carefully, dressed myself in white, and succeeded in braiding with my trembling hands the hair, which your praises, oh, friend of my retreat, first taught me to value at P——d; and when Marian saw me, she placed in it a few dark leaves of a laurel, cultivated in a lower apartment of her home. I had once looked for laurels more lasting.

(“Idomen,” I returned, “let thy hopes continue! If heaven has planted laurels in thy reach, thou hast now a friend, whose humble power may, at least, help thee to gather them!” She looked at me an instant, and proceeded:)

The saloon of Marian overlooked the street; there the family party had assembled before descending to the dining-room. On entering, I found them at the windows, and went to look with the rest. Ethelwald was walking down the snow-covered pavement, together with a young man of exquisite beauty, though of a style entirely different from his own. The last was like an animated statue of brown marble; the first like a celestial visitant.

The stranger was a Thespian of uncommon personal endowments. Within the walls of Quebec, good scenic representations were seldom enjoyed, and every lover of the elegant arts caressed and entertained the present visitor.

Ethelwald looked up towards our windows with a smile, which, to see, was worth a whole year of common happiness! with a smile that should have healed and consoled, but my heart was closely grasped by the strong hard hand of despair.

At table, remarks were made on the two that had walked together; on the favorite Thespian, and on him who lately had been favored by the governor or viceroy of the province. Another guest came in at the dessert, and added that a certain lady of wealth and beauty was evidently making endeavors to gain the heart of Ethelwald. To her, and to every one beside, it was a wonder that he had lived so long in quiet, on the banks of his native river.

I spoke not a word on the subject; but I heard enough to determine me, even if I had not before been resolved.

The whole party were again going to the theatre, and Marian would not leave me at home. I know not why it was, but I felt no reluctance in going, although shrinking as before from every arm that supported me.

How potent, yet how complicated and indefinite, are the varying motives of the soul! to ourselves how unaccountable! to the world how utterly inexplicable!

The taking of means not to see another morning had all day absorbed every energy. Yet I spent at the theatre the eve of my meditated death, and even the scene represented is still impressed upon my memory.

H——n, the Thespian visitor, had chosen for his appearance the part of Kotzebue’s Rolla, and the light dress of a Peruvian chief displayed to full advantage the grace and symmetry of his figure. His hair was wild and thick, his eye dark and piercing. A white tunic fell to the knee, and was confined lightly round the waist with a cincture of gold and serpent skin. A small golden sun shone at his breast, and another on each shoulder. His fine neck was bare; and his finished limbs, except their bracelets, bore nothing but a thin silken covering, which seemed, in closeness and color, like the skin of a warrior of Potosi.

Ethelwald, I knew, was present, and admiring also the fine form of the mimic Peruvian; but I dared not look towards the place where he sat, for fear of a prying glance from the lady who would fain abridge his liberty.

We retired, when the tragedy was over, and at ten I sat at the supper table with Arlington and Marian, who said she thought me recovering, and that she hoped soon to see me restored to spirits. To spirits, I replied, I indeed hope soon to be restored. Something whispered to my heart, at that moment, “take heed lest those spirits be evil.”

At eleven I retired to my room, with the intent to do my last earthly deed.

When carefully bathed in the waters of the river I loved, when my hair was combed and parted, when I had put upon my feet, which I thought would never wander more, white slippers and hose of Cuba, I folded about me a white morning robe, just washed, by a laundress of Canada, in the waters of the Ladaüanna. May my weary soul, I said, be washed and made free from stain, even as I now endeavor to throw from this material form every particle of soil or pollution!

To finish this last toilette, now made for my mother earth, I went and looked sadly in the mirror of my chamber. The expression of my own eyes was too dreadful to be contemplated; I turned away and shuddered.

Papers and a pencil were always kept near in my hours of solitude; I wrote and sealed a brief letter to him whose visits once seemed to me like those of a messenger from heaven.

It was now past midnight; the letters I had written were placed beneath the pillow of my bed; and I held in my hand the same large phial filled with black juice of the poppy which had been procured at Trois Rivieres.

All was ready. I heard a carriage stop at the opposite hotel, and found myself involuntarily at the window.

A few dim lights were still burning, and as the door opened, I saw a figure, which I knew to be Ethelwald; and it appeared to me that he turned and looked a moment towards my room.

Three days have passed, I exclaimed, and he has not come, though so near! Yet, even if he still regards me, how can I wish to be a cloud to his brilliant days?

No! I will die, while there is still a hope that he loves me!—at this a thousand thoughts were poured like a flood into my soul. I remembered the scenes at N——t. I contrasted the sweetness of his breath—of the kiss which seemed so warm and true, with the black fetid draught, which, even as I held it in my hand, my sense shrank from inhaling. The soft mystic warmth which had seemed to encircle his beauty, came to my mind in contrast with the coldness of my own bed of death. I returned from the window, knelt down by the pillow I had smoothed, and earnestly repeated this prayer to heaven.

“Creator of suns and of systems, thou who beholdest thousands of worlds at a glance, yet regardest the sparrow and her brood, father who carest for the pains of an insect, look down upon her who implores thee!

“If the death I seek be permitted, oh, take me to some other state of being. Purify me, as thou wilt, with suffering, but make me, at last, not unworthy.

“If the deed I would do be a crime, deign to interpose thine omnipotence!

“Author of daily miracles, which seem, to the eyes of mortals, but the mere workings of nature, regard me at this crisis! Thou who canst only punish to perfect, save me from too deeply offending. If to swallow this poison be a deed beyond forgiveness, act secretly but surely upon the conduits of my blood, and withold its effect from the heart I now lay bare to thee.

“Creator, thou who knowest me better than I have wisdom to know myself, if punishment be needful, give me strength to endure it. If I die in sin, requite not that sin upon the innocent!

“Giver of life, protect thou my child upon this earth, and, when it be time, send him gently beyond the bourne of mortality.”

When these words were pronounced to the supreme director of men and more perfect angels, I swallowed the contents of the phial; rinsed carefully my mouth and hands, passed a handkerchief of white lawn over my head and beneath my chin (as if done to the newly expired), and tied it closely near the temple. I then lay gently down, held to my nostrils a handkerchief wet with water of the orange flower, and expected my last earthly sleep.

To my utter astonishment, no heaviness or stupor came over me. I lay perfectly at ease, wooing, as it were, the slumbers of death. But instead of the expected sleep, I felt a light pleasing sensation; my bed seemed as if rocked with a gentle motion; and thoughts circled through my brain in a manner vague and confused, but pleasant in their nature and impression.

I know not how long this delirium continued, or whether I slept at all; but when daylight appeared through the windows, I felt myself still alive and sick, as at my first voyage on the ocean.

The wants and necessities of these forms of matter are more imperious while on earth, than even the cravings of the soul. Till the hour for breakfast, I lay violently ill, and could think of nothing else save preserving my bed and dress unsoiled from the black profuse ejection.

At nine o’clock Marian came in. My dress, my looks, and the odor of the draught I had swallowed, told her, at once, what had been done. I asked her, as a friend, to conceal the discovery she had made. Marian consented, but first exacted from me an assurance that I had no more poison in my chamber.

From the first, she had loved to watch the course of my feelings, subjected entirely, as they were, to the power of a passion, by every one spoken of with pleasure; by every modern person deemed romantic; to every heart known a little; but felt, in its excess, by few.

The curiosity of her whose care saved my life was now more excited than before; and with feelings like those awakened by a tragedy of Schiller, she left me sleepy from exhaustion and flew to prepare restoratives.

In the course of that very morning came Ethelwald;—had I died he would have been called to look upon me!—he was told that I lay slightly indisposed; and another evening had come, ere Marian let me know of his visit. Exhausted as I was, a lively regret took possession of my soul; for, had I known he was beneath the roof, I would have seen him, even as I lay, and told to him the cause of my suffering.

But destiny had differently ordained; and Marian, perhaps, while her kindness saved me from death—(for even the effect of the poison must have killed without her care and gentleness;)—Marian, perhaps, was commissioned to separate my days from those of him I loved, even as darkness at the beginning of the world was separated from light and animation.

Carefully nursed and nourished, in three days I was able to rise; but the vivid regret I had felt, at not seeing once more, when he came, the bright being whose estrangement made life insupportable, was succeeded by a despair more dull and heavy than before.