Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
Our Cousin the Curate
By George William Curtis (18241892)
[Prue and I. 1856.]
PRUE loves to listen when I speak of the romance of his life, and I do not wonder. For my part, I find in the best romance only the story of my love for her, and often as I read to her, whenever I come to what Titbottom calls the crying part, if I lift my eyes suddenly, I see that Prues eyes are fixed on me with a softer light by reason of their moisture.
Our cousin the curate loved, while he was yet a boy, Flora, of the sparkling eyes and the ringing voice. His devotion was absolute. Flora was flattered, because all the girls, as I said, worshipped him; but she was a gay, glancing girl, who had invaded the students heart with her audacious brilliancy, and was half surprised that she had subdued it. Our cousinfor I never think of him as my cousin, onlywasted away under the fervor of his passion. His life exhaled as incense before her. He wrote poems to her, and sang them under her window, in the summer moonlight. He brought her flowers and precious gifts. When he had nothing else to give, he gave her his love in a homage so eloquent and beautiful that the worship was like the worship of the wise men. The gay Flora was proud and superb. She was a girl, and the bravest and best boy loved her. She was young, and the wisest and truest youth loved her. They lived together, we all lived together, in the happy valley of childhood. We looked forward to manhood as island-poets look across the sea, believing that the whole world beyond is a blest Araby of spices.
The months went by, and the young love continued. Our cousin and Flora were only children still, and there was no engagement. The elders looked upon the intimacy as natural and mutually beneficial. It would help soften the boy and strengthen the girl; and they took for granted that softness and strength were precisely what were wanted. It is a great pity that men and women forget that they have been children. Parents are apt to be foreigners to their sons and daughters. Maturity is the gate of Paradise, which shuts behind us; and our memories are gradually weaned from the glories in which our nativity was cradled.
The months went by, the children grew older, and they constantly loved. Now Prue always smiles at one of my theories; she is entirely sceptical of it; but it is, nevertheless, my opinion, that men love most passionately, and women most permanently. Men love at first and most warmly; women love last and longest. This is natural enough; for nature makes women to be won, and men to win. Men are the active, positive force, and, therefore, they are more ardent and demonstrative.
My day is rather past for such speculations; but so long as Aurelia is unmarried, I am sure I shall indulge myself in them. I have never made much progress in the philosophy of love; in fact, I can only be sure of this one cardinal principle, that when you are quite sure two people cannot be in love with each other, because there is no earthly reason why they should be, then you may be very confident that you are wrong, and that they are in love, for the secret of love is past finding out. Why our cousin should have loved the gay Flora so ardently was hard to say; but that he did so, was not difficult to see.
He went away to college. He wrote the most eloquent and passionate letters; and when he returned in vacations, he had no eyes, ears, nor heart for any other being. I rarely saw him, for I was living away from our early home, and was busy in a storelearning to be book-keeperbut I heard afterward from himself the whole story.
One day when he came home for the holidays, he found a young foreigner with Floraa handsome youth, brilliant and graceful. I have asked Prue a thousand times why women adore soldiers and foreigners. She says it is because they love heroism and are romantic. A soldier is professionally a hero, says Prue, and a foreigner is associated with all unknown and beautiful regions. I hope there is no worse reason. But if it be the distance which is romantic, then, by her own rule, the mountain which looked to you so lovely when you saw it upon the horizon, when you stand upon its rocky and barren side, has transmitted its romance to its remotest neighbor. I cannot but admire the fancies of girls which make them poets. They have only to look upon a dull-eyed, ignorant, exhausted roué, with an impudent moustache, and they surrender to Italy, to the tropics, to the splendors of nobility, and a court lifeand
Our cousin came home and found Flora and the young foreigner conversing. The young foreigner had large, soft, black eyes, and the dusky skin of the tropics. His manner was languid and fascinating, courteous and reserved. It assumed a natural supremacy, and you felt as if here were a young prince travelling before he came into possession of his realm.
It is an old fable that love is blind. But I think there are no eyes so sharp as those of lovers. I am sure there is not a shade upon Prues brow that I do not instantly remark, nor an altered tone in her voice that I do not instantly observe. Do you suppose Aurelia would not note the slightest deviation of heart in her lover, if she had one? Love is the coldest of critics. To be in love is to live in a crisis, and the very imminence of uncertainty makes the lover perfectly self-possessed. His eye constantly scours the horizon. There is no footfall so light that it does not thunder in his ear. Love is tortured by the tempest the moment the cloud of a hands size rises out of the sea. It foretells its own doom; its agony is past before its sufferings are known.
Our cousin the curate no sooner saw the tropical stranger, and marked his impression upon Flora, than he felt the end. As the shaft struck his heart, his smile was sweeter, and his homage even more poetic and reverential. I doubt if Flora understood him or herself. She did not know, what he instinctively perceived, that she loved him less. But there are no degrees in love; when it is less than absolute and supreme, it is nothing. Our cousin and Flora were not formally engaged, but their betrothal was understood by all of us as a thing of course. He did not allude to the stranger; but as day followed day, he saw with every nerve all that passed. Graduallyso gradually that she scarcely noticed itour cousin left Flora more and more with the soft-eyed stranger, whom he saw she preferred. His treatment of her was so full of tact, he still walked and talked with her so familiarly, that she was not troubled by any fear that he saw what she hardly saw herself. Therefore, she was not obliged to conceal anything from him or from herself; but all the soft currents of her heart were setting toward the West Indian. Our cousins cheek grew paler, and his soul burned and wasted within him. His whole futureall his dream of lifehad been founded upon his love. It was a stately palace built upon the sand, and now the sand was sliding away. I have read somewhere, that love will sacrifice everything but itself. But our cousin sacrificed his love to the happiness of his mistress. He ceased to treat her as peculiarly his own. He made no claim in word or manner that everybody might not have made. He did not refrain from seeing her, or speaking of her as of all his other friends; and, at length, although no one could say how or when the change had been made, it was evident and understood that he was no more her lover, but that both were the best of friends.
He still wrote to her occasionally from college, and his letters were those of a friend, not of a lover. He could not reproach her. I do not believe any man is secretly surprised that a woman ceases to love him. Her love is a heavenly favor won by no desert of his. If it passes, he can no more complain than a flower when the sunshine leaves it.
Before our cousin left college, Flora was married to the tropical stranger. It was the brightest of June days, and the summer smiled upon the bride. There were roses in her hand and orange flowers in her hair, and the village church bell rang out over the peaceful fields. The warm sunshine lay upon the landscape like Gods blessing, and Prue and I, not yet married ourselves, stood at an open window in the old meeting-house, hand in hand, while the young couple spoke their vows. Prue says that brides are always beautiful, and I, who remember Prue herself upon her wedding-dayhow can I deny it? Truly, the gay Flora was lovely that summer morning, and the throng was happy in the old church. But it was very sad to me, although I only suspected then what now I know. I shed no tears at my own wedding, but I did at Floras, although I knew she was marrying a soft-eyed youth whom she dearly loved, and who, I doubt not, dearly loved her.
Among the group of her nearest friends was our cousin the curate. When the ceremony was ended, he came to shake her hand with the rest. His face was calm, and his smile sweet, and his manner unconstrained. Flora did not blushwhy should she?but shook his hand warmly, and thanked him for his good wishes. Then they all sauntered down the aisle together; there were some tears with the smiles among the other friends; our cousin handed the bride into her carriage, shook hands with the husband, closed the door, and Flora drove away.
I have never seen her since; I do not even know if she be living still. But I shall always remember her as she looked that June morning, holding roses in her hand, and wreathed with orange flowers. Dear Flora! it was no fault of hers that she loved one man more than another: she could not be blamed for not preferring our cousin to the West Indian: there is no fault in the story, it is only a tragedy.
Our cousin carried all the collegiate honorsbut without exciting jealousy or envy. He was so really the best, that his companions were anxious he should have the sign of his superiority. He studied hard, he thought much, and wrote well. There was no evidence of any blight upon his ambition or career, but after living quietly in the country for some time, he went to Europe and travelled. When he returned, he resolved to study law, but presently relinquished it. Then he collected materials for a history, but suffered them to lie unused. Somehow the mainspring was gone. He used to come and pass weeks with Prue and me. His coming made the children happy, for he sat with them, and talked and played with them all day long, as one of themselves. They had no quarrels when our cousin the curate was their playmate, and their laugh was hardly sweeter than his as it rang down from the nursery. Yet sometimes, as Prue was setting the tea-table, and I sat musing by the fire, she stopped and turned to me as we heard that sound, and her eyes filled with tears.
He was interested in all subjects that interested others. His fine perception, his clear sense, his noble imagination, illuminated every question. His friends wanted him to go into political life, to write a great book, to do something worthy of his powers. It was the very thing he longed to do himself; but he came and played with the children in the nursery, and the great deed was undone. Often, in the long winter evenings, we talked of the past, while Titbottom sat silent by, and Prue was busily knitting. He told us the incidents of his early passionbut he did not moralize about it, nor sigh, nor grow moody. He turned to Prue, sometimes, and jested gently, and often quoted from the old song of George Withers, I believe:
If she be not fair for me,
What care I how fair she be?
But there was no flippancy in the jesting; I thought the sweet humor was no gayer than a flower upon a grave.
I am sure Titbottom loved our cousin the curate, for his heart is as hospitable as the summer heaven. It was beautiful to watch his courtesy toward him, and I do not wonder that Prue considers the deputy book-keeper the model of a high-bred gentleman. When you see his poor clothes, and thin, gray hair, his loitering step, and dreamy eye, you might pass him by as an inefficient man; but when you hear his voice always speaking for the noble and generous side, or recounting, in a half-melancholy chant, the recollections of his youth; when you know that his heart beats with the simple emotion of a boys heart, and that his courtesy is as delicate as a girls modesty, you will understand why Prue declares that she has never seen but one man who reminded her of our especial favorite, Sir Philip Sidney, and that his name is Titbottom.
At length our cousin went abroad again to Europe. It was many years ago that we watched him sail away, and when Titbottom, and Prue, and I, went home to dinner, the grace that was said that day was a fervent prayer for our cousin the curate. Many an evening afterward, the children wanted him, and cried themselves to sleep calling upon his name. Many an evening still, our talk flags into silence as we sit before the fire, and Prue puts down her knitting and takes my hand, as if she knew my thoughts, although we do not name his name.
He wrote us letters as he wandered about the world. They were affectionate letters, full of observation, and thought, and description. He lingered longest in Italy, but be said his conscience accused him of yielding to the sirens; and he declared that his life was running uselessly away. At last he came to England. He was charmed with everything, and the climate was even kinder to him than that of Italy. He went to all the famous places, and saw many of the famous Englishmen, and wrote that he felt England to be his home. Burying himself in the ancient gloom of a university town, although past the prime of life, he studied like an ambitious boy. He said again that his life had been wine poured upon the ground, and he felt guilty. And so our cousin became a curate.