Elsie's Womanhood by Martha Finley
"She was the pride Of her familiar sphere, the daily joy Of all who on her gracefulness might gaze, And in the light and music of her way Have a companion's portrait," --WILLIS' POEMS.
Elsie had fallen asleep thinking of the dear mother whose wealth she inherited, and whose place she was now filling; thinking of her as supremely blest, in that glorious, happy land, where sin and sorrow are unknown. Thinking, too, of Him, through whose shed blood she had found admittance there.
The same sweet thoughts were still in the loving daughter's mind, as she woke to find the morning sun shining brightly, a fire blazing cheerily on the hearth, and Aunt Chloe coming in with a silver waiter filled with oranges prepared for eating in the manner usual in the tropics.
She had gathered them the night before, taken off the peel, leaving the thick white skin underneath except on the top of each, where she cut it away from a spot about the size of a silver quarter of a dollar. She then placed them on a waiter, with the cut part uppermost, and set them where the dew would fall on them all night. Morning found them with the skin hard and leathery, but filled with delicious juice, which could be readily withdrawn from it.
At that sight, a sudden memory seemed to flash upon Elsie, and starting up in the bed, "Mammy!" she cried, "didn't you do that very thing when I was a child?"
"What, honey? bring de oranges in de mornin'?"
"Yes, I seem to remember your coming in at that door, with just such a waiterful."
"Yes, darlin', de folks allus eats dem 'foah breakfast. Deys jes' lubly, Miss Elsie; massa say so, lubly and delicious." And she brought the waiter to her bedside, holding it out for her young mistress to help herself.
"Yes, mammy dear, they look very tempting, but I won't eat with unwashed hands and face," said Elsie gayly. "And so papa has stolen a march upon me and risen first?"
"Yes, darlin', massa out on the veranda, but he say 'Let your missus sleep long as she will.'"
"My always kind and indulgent father! Mammy, I'll take a bath; and then while you arrange my hair, I'll try the oranges. Go now and ask papa when he will have his breakfast, and tell Aunt Phillis to see that it is ready at the hour he names."
Chloe obeyed, and an hour later Elsie met her father in the breakfast-room so glad, so gay, so bright, that his heart swelled with joy and pleasure in his child, and all fears that she had overfatigued herself vanished from his mind.
She was full of plans for the comfort and profit of her people, but all to be subject to his approval "Papa dear," she said as soon as their morning greetings had been exchanged, "I think of sending for a physician to examine Suse and tell us whether there is reason for her complaints. She must not be forced to work if she is really ill."
"I think it would be well," he replied. "There is an excellent physician living about three miles from here."
Elsie was prompt in action by both nature and training, and instantly summoning a servant, despatched him at once on the proposed errand.
"And now what next?" smilingly inquired her father.
"Well, papa, after breakfast and prayers--how some of the old servants seemed to enjoy them last night--I think of going down to the quarter to see what may be needed there. Unless you have some other plan for me," she added quickly.
"Suppose we first mount our horses and ride over the estate, to learn for ourselves whether Mr. Spriggs has been as faithful as he would have us believe."
"Ah yes, papa; yours is always the better plan."
Their ride in the clear, sweet morning air was most delightful, and both felt gratified with the fine appearance of the crops and the discovery that Spriggs' boast was no idle one; everything being in the nicest order.
They took the quarter on the way to the house, and dismounting, entered one neatly whitewashed cabin after another, kindly inquiring into the condition and wants of the inmates, Elsie making notes on her tablets that nothing might be forgotten.
Everywhere the visit was received with joy and gratitude, and an almost worshipful homage paid to the sweet young mistress whom they seemed to regard as akin to the angels: probably in a great measure because of her extraordinary likeness to her mother, of whom, for so many years they had been accustomed to think and speak as one of the heavenly host.
Spriggs' victim of the previous day was in bed, complaining much of a misery in back and head and limbs.
"De doctah hab been heyah," she said, "an' leff me dese powdahs to take," drawing a tiny package from under her pillow.
Elsie spoke soothingly to her; said she should have some broth from the house, and should be excused from work till the doctor pronounced her quite fit for it again; and left her apparently quite happy.
It was the intention of our friends to spend some weeks at Viamede.
"I want you to have every possible enjoyment while here, my darling," Mr. Dinsmore said, as they sat together resting after their ride, in the wide veranda at the front of the house, looking out over the beautiful lawn, the bayou, and the lovely scenery beyond. "There are pleasant neighbors who will doubtless call when they hear of our arrival."
"I almost wish they may not hear of it then," Elsie said half laughing; "I just want to be left free from the claims of society for this short time, that I may fully enjoy being alone with my father and attending to the comfort of my people. But excuse me, dear papa, I fear I interrupted you."
"I excuse you on condition that you are not again guilty of such a breach of good manners. I was going on to say there are delightful drives and walks in the vicinity, of which I hope we will be able to make good use; also, we will have a row now and then on the bayou, and many an hour of quiet enjoyment of the contents of the library."
"Yes, papa, I hope so; I do so enjoy a nice book, especially when read with you. But I think that, for the present at least, I must spend a part of each day in attending to the preparation of winter clothing for house-servants and field hands."
"I won't have you doing the actual work, the cutting out and sewing, I mean," he answered decidedly; "the head work, calculating how much material is needed, what it will cost, etc., may be yours; but you have servants enough to do all the rest."
"But, papa, consider; over three hundred to clothe, and I want it all done while I am here to oversee."
"Have not some of the house-servants been trained as seamstresses?"
"Yes, sir, two of them, mammy tells me."
"Very well; she knows how to run a sewing-machine. Send for one when you order your material; both can be had in the nearest town. Aunt Chloe can soon teach the girls how to manage it; Uncle Joe, too; he has had no regular work assigned him yet, and the four can certainly do all without anything more than a little oversight from you; yes, without even that."
"What a capital planner you are, papa," she said brightly; "I never thought of getting a machine or setting Uncle Joe to running it; but I am sure it's just the thing to do. Mammy can cut and the girls baste, and among them the machine can easily be kept going from morning to night. I'll make out my orders and send for the things at once."
"That is right, daughter; it pleases me well to note how you put in practice the lesson of promptness I have always tried to teach you. I will help you in making your estimate of quantities needed, prices to be paid, etc., and I think we can accomplish the whole before dinner. Come to the library and let us to work."
"You dear, kind father, always trying to help me and smooth the least roughness out of my path, and make life as enjoyable to me as possible," she said, laying her hand on his arm and looking up into his face with eyes beaming with filial love, as they rose and stood together for a moment.
"A good daughter deserves a good father," he answered, smoothing with soft caressing motion the shining hair. "But have you the necessary data for our estimates?"
"The number to be clothed, papa? I know how many house-servants, how many babies and older children at the quarter, but not the number of field hands."
"That will be easily ascertained. I will send a note to Spriggs, who can tell us all about it."
Mr. Dinsmore's plans were carried out to the letter, and with entire success. This was Saturday; the orders were sent that afternoon, and on Monday morning the work began. Aunt Chloe proved fully equal to the cutting of the garments, and Uncle Joe an apt scholar under her patient, loving teaching, and a willing worker at his new employment. There was scarcely need of even oversight on the part of the young mistress. She would drop in occasionally, commend their industry, and inquire if anything were wanting; then felt free for books, rides or walks, music or conversation with her father.
But she was often down at the quarter visiting the sick, the aged and infirm, seeing that their wants were supplied, reading the Bible to them, praying with them, telling of the better land where no trouble or sorrow can come, and trying to make the way to it, through the shed blood of Christ, very plain and clear. Then she would gather the children about her and tell them of the blessed Jesus and His love for little ones.
"Does He lub niggahs, missus?" queried one grinning little wooly head.
"Yes, if they love Him: and they won't be negroes in heaven."
"White folks, missus? Oh, dat nice! Guess I go dar; ef dey let me in."
But we are anticipating somewhat, though Elsie found time for a short visit to the sick and aged on the afternoon of even that first day at Viamede. The next was the Sabbath, and as lovely a day as could be desired. The horses were ordered for an early hour, and father and daughter rode some miles together to morning service, then home again.
As the shadows began to lengthen in the afternoon, Elsie was sitting alone on the veranda, her father having left her side but a moment before, when an old negro, familiarly known as Uncle Ben, came round the corner of the house, and slowly approached her.
Very sweet and fair, very beautiful she looked to his admiring eyes. She held a Bible in her hand, and was so intent upon its perusal that she was not aware of his coming until he had drawn quite near. Ascending the steps, and standing at a respectful distance, hat in hand, he waited till she should notice and address him.
Glancing up from her book, "Ah, Uncle Ben, good evening," she said. "What can I do for you?"
"Missus," he answered, making a low salam, "all de darkies is gadered togedder under a tree 'round de house yondah, and dey 'pint me committee to come an' ax de young missus would she be so kind for to come an' read the Bible to dem, an' talk, an' pray, an' sing like she do for de sick ones down to de quarter? Dey be berry glad, missus, an' more dan obliged."
"Indeed I will, uncle," Elsie said, rising at once and going with him, Bible in hand; "I had been thinking of doing this very thing."
She found a rustic seat placed for her under a giant oak, and garlanded with fragrant flowers. Aunt Phillis, Aunt Chloe, Uncle Joe, and the rest of the house-servants, gathered in a semicircle around it, while beyond, the men, women, and children from the quarter sat or lay upon the grass, enjoying the rest from the toils of the week, the quiet, the balmy air laden with the fragrance of the magnolia and orange, and all the sweet sights and sounds of rural life in that favored region.
Every one rose at the appearance of their young mistress, and there were murmurs of delight and gratitude coming from all sides. "Now bress de Lord, she read the good book for us." "She good an' lubly as de angels." "Missus berry kind, de darkies neber forget."
Elsie acknowledged it all with a smile and a few kindly words, then commanding silence by a slight motion of the hand, addressed them in a clear, melodious voice, which, though not loud, could be distinctly heard by every one of the now almost breathless listeners.
"I shall read to you of Jesus and some of His own words," she said, "but first we will ask Him to help us to understand, to love, and to obey His teachings."
Then folding her hands and lifting her eyes to the clear blue sky above, she led them in a prayer so simple and childlike, so filial and loving in spirit and expression, that the dullest understood it, and felt that she spoke to One who was very near and dear to her.
After that she read with the same distinct utterance the third chapter of John's Gospel, and commented briefly upon it. "You all want to go to heaven?" she said, closing the book.
"Yes, Miss Elsie." "Yes missus, we all does."
"But to be able to go there you must know the way, and now I want to make sure you do know it. Can you tell me what you must do to be saved?"
There were various answers. "Be good," "Mine de rules an' do 'bout right." "Pray to de Lord," etc., etc.
Elsie shook her head gravely. "All that you must do, and more besides. What does Jesus say? 'God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.' We must believe in Jesus--believe all that the Bible tells us about Him, that He was very God and very man, that He came down from heaven, was born a little babe and laid in a manger, that He grew up to be a man, went about doing good, and at last suffered and died the cruel death of the cross; and all to save poor lost sinners.
"But even that is not enough: the devils believe so much; they know it is all true. But beside this, we must believe on Christ Jesus. He offers to be our Saviour. 'Come unto Me ... and I will give you rest.' 'Him that cometh unto Me, I will in no wise cast out,' And you must come, you must take the eternal life He offers you; you must rest on Him and Him only.
"Suppose you were out on the bayou yonder, and the boat should upset and float beyond your reach, or be swept away from you by the wind and waves, and you couldn't swim; but just as you are sinking, you find a plank floating near; you catch hold of it, you find it strong and large enough to bear your weight, and you throw yourself upon it and cling to it for life. Just so you must cast yourself on Jesus, and cling to Him with all your strength: and He will save you; for He is able and willing 'to save to the uttermost all that come unto God by Him.'
"He will wash away your sins in His own precious blood, and dress you in the beautiful robe of His perfect righteousness; that is, set His goodness to your account, so that you will be saved just as if you had been as good and holy as He was. Then you will love Him and try to do right to please Him; not to buy heaven; you cannot do that, for 'all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags,' and we cannot be saved unless we trust only in Jesus and His righteousness."
Something in the faces before her caused Elsie to turn her head. Her father stood with grave, quiet air, but a few feet from her.
"Papa," she said, in an undertone, and blushing slightly, "I did not know you were here. Will you not speak to them? you can do it so much better than I."
She sat down, and stepping to her side he made a brief and simply worded address on the necessity of repentance and faith in Jesus, "the only Saviour of sinners," His willingness to save all who come to Him, and the great danger of delay in coming. Then with a short prayer and the singing of a hymn, they were dismissed.
With murmured thanks and many a backward look of admiring love at their already almost idolized young mistress, and her father, who had won their thorough respect and affection years ago, they scattered to their homes.
"You must have a shawl and hat, for the air begins to grow cool," said Mr. Dinsmore to his daughter.
"Yes, massa, I'se brought dem," said Chloe, hurrying up almost out of breath, with the required articles in her hand.
"Thank you, mammy, you are always careful of your nursling;" Elsie said, smilingly, as the shawl was wrapped carefully about her shoulders and the hat placed upon her head.
Her father drew her hand within his arm and led her across the lawn.
"There is one spot, very dear to us both, which we have not yet visited," he said, low and feelingly, "and I have rather wondered at your delay in asking me to take you there."
She understood him. "Yes, sir," she said, "I should have done so last evening, but that you looked weary. It has hardly been out of my mind since we came, and I have only waited for a suitable time."
"None could be better than the present," he answered.
On a gently sloping hillside, and beneath the shade of a beautiful magnolia, they found what they sought: a grave, with a headstone on which was carved the inscription:
"Fell asleep in Jesus, March 15, 18--, ELSIE, WIFE OF HORACE DINSMORE, and only remaining child of WILLIAM AND ELSPETH GRAYSON, Aged 16 years, and 2 weeks. 'Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.'"
They read it standing side by side.
"How young," murmured the daughter, tears filling her eyes, "how young to be a wife, a mother, and to die and leave husband and child! Oh, papa, how I used to long for her, and dream of her--my own precious mamma!"
"When, my darling?" he asked in moved tones, drawing her tenderly to him and passing an arm about her waist.
"Before I knew you, papa, and before you began to love me so dearly and be father and mother both, to me, as you have been for so many years," The low, sweet voice was tremulous with emotion, and the soft eyes lifted to his were brimming over with tears of mingled grief and joy, gratitude and love.
"I have tried to be," he said; "but no one could supply her place. What a loving, tender mother she would have been! But let us forget our loss in the bliss of knowing that it is so well with her."
It was a family burying-ground; there were other graves; those of our Elsie's grandparents, and several of their sons and daughters who had died in infancy or early youth; and in the midst uprose a costly monument, placed there by Mr. Grayson after the death of his wife. The spot showed the same care as the rest of the estate, and was lovely with roses and other sweet flowers and shrubs.
"My mother's grave!" said Elsie, bending over it again. "Papa, let us kneel down beside it and pray that we may meet her in heaven."
He at once complied with the request, giving thanks for the quiet rest of her who slept in Jesus, and asking that, when each of them had done and suffered all God's holy will here on earth, they might be reunited to her above, and join in her glad song of praise to redeeming love.
Elsie joined fervently in the "Amen," and rising, they lingered a moment longer, then wended their way in sweet and solemn silence to the house.
They sat together in the library after tea, each occupied with a book. But Elsie seemed little interested in hers, looking off the page now and then, as if in deep and troubled thought. At length closing it, she stole round to the side of her father's easy chair, and taking possession of a footstool, laid her head on his knee.
"I have my little girl again to-night," he said, passing his hand caressingly over her hair and cheek.
"I almost wish it was, papa."
"Why? is anything troubling you, dearest?" And he pushed his book aside, ready to give his whole attention to her.
"I am anxious about my poor people, papa; they are so ignorant of the truths necessary to salvation; and what can I teach them in three or four weeks? I have almost decided that I ought--that I must stay as many months."
"And that without even consulting your father? much less considering his permission necessary to your action?" Though the words seemed to convey reproach, if not reproof, his tone was gentle and tender.
"No, no, papa! I must cease to think it my duty if you forbid it."
"As I do most positively, I cannot stay, and I should never think for a moment of leaving you here!"
"But, papa, how then am I to do my duty by these poor ignorant creatures? how can I let them perish for lack of knowledge whom Christ has put into my care?"
"Procure a chaplain, who shall hold regular services for them every Sabbath, and do pastoral work among them through the week. You will not grudge him his salary."
"Papa, what an excellent idea! Grudge him his salary? No, indeed; if I can get the right man to fill the place, he shall have a liberal one. And then he will be a check upon Mr. Spriggs, and inform me if the people are abused. But how shall I find him?"
"What do you do when in want of something you do not know exactly how to procure?"
"Pray for direction and help," she answered, low and reverently.
"We will both do that, asking that the right man may be sent us; and I will write to-morrow to some of the presidents of the theological seminaries, asking them to recommend some one suited for the place."
"Papa," she cried, lifting a very bright face to his, "what a load you have taken from my mind."