The old church clock rang solemnly out on the midnight air. Ruth started. For hours she had sat there, leaning her cheek upon her hand, and gazing through the open space between the rows of brick walls, upon the sparkling waters of the bay, glancing and quivering ’neath the moon-beams. The city’s busy hum had long since died away; myriad restless eyes had closed in peaceful slumber; Ruth could not sleep. This was the last time she would sit at that little window. The morrow would find her in a home of her own. On the morrow Ruth would be a bride.
Ruth was not sighing because she was about to leave her father’s roof, (for her childhood had been anything but happy,) but she was vainly trying to look into a future, which God has mercifully veiled from curious eyes. Had that craving heart of hers at length found its ark of refuge? Would clouds or sunshine, joy or sorrow, tears or smiles, predominate in her future? Who could tell? The silent stars returned her no answer. Would a harsh word ever fall from lips which now breathed only love? Would the step whose lightest footfall now made her heart leap, ever sound in her ear like a death-knell? As time, with its ceaseless changes, rolled on, would love flee affrighted from the bent form, and silver locks, and faltering footstep? Was there no talisman to keep him?
“Strange questions,” were they, “for a young girl!” Ah, but Ruth could remember when she was no taller than a rosebush, how cravingly her little heart cried out for love! How a careless word, powerless to wound one less sensitive, would send her, weeping, to that little room for hours; and, young as she was, life’s pains seemed already more to her than life’s pleasures. Would it always be so? Would she find more thorns than roses in her future pathway?
Then, Ruth remembered how she used to wish she were beautiful,—not that she might be admired, but that she might be loved. But Ruth was “very plain,”—so her brother Hyacinth told her, and “awkward,” too; she had heard that ever since she could remember; and the recollection of it dyed her cheek with blushes, whenever a stranger made his appearance in the home circle.
So, Ruth was fonder of being alone by herself; and then, they called her “odd,” and “queer,” and wondered if she would “ever make anything;” and Ruth used to wonder, too; and sometimes she asked herself why a sweet strain of music, or a fine passage in a poem, made her heart thrill, and her whole frame quiver with emotion?
The world smiled on her brother Hyacinth. He was handsome, and gifted. He could win fame, and what was better, love. Ruth wished he would love her a little. She often used to steal into his room and “right” his papers, when the stupid housemaid had displaced them; and often she would prepare him a tempting little lunch, and carry it to his room, on his return from his morning walk; but Hyacinth would only say, “Oh, it is you, Ruth, is it? I thought it was Bridget;” and go on reading his newspaper.
Ruth’s mother was dead. Ruth did not remember a great deal about her—only that she always looked uneasy about the time her father was expected home; and when his step was heard in the hall, she would say in a whisper, to Hyacinth and herself, “Hush! hush! your father is coming;” and then Hyacinth would immediately stop whistling, or humming, and Ruth would run up into her little room, for fear she should, in some unexpected way, get into disgrace.
Ruth, also, remembered when her father came home and found company to tea, how he frowned and complained of headache, although he always ate as heartily as any of the company; and how after tea he would stretch himself out upon the sofa and say, “I think I’ll take a nap;” and then, he would close his eyes, and if the company commenced talking, he would start up and say to Ruth, who was sitting very still in the corner, “Ruth, don’t make such a noise;” and when Ruth’s mother would whisper gently in his ear, “Wouldn’t it be better, dear, if you laid down up stairs? it is quite comfortable and quiet there,” her father would say, aloud, “Oh yes, oh yes, you want to get rid of me, do you?” And then her mother would say, turning to the company, “How very fond Mr. Ellet is of a joke!” But Ruth remembered that her mother often blushed when she said so, and that her laugh did not sound natural.
After her mother’s death, Ruth was sent to boarding-school, where she shared a room with four strange girls, who laid awake all night, telling the most extraordinary stories, and ridiculing Ruth for being such an old maid that she could not see “where the laugh came in.” Equally astonishing to the unsophisticated Ruth, was the demureness with which they would bend over their books when the pale, meek-eyed widow, employed as duenna, went the rounds after tea, to see if each inmate was preparing the next day’s lessons, and the coolness with which they would jump up, on her departure, put on their bonnets and shawls, and slip out at the side-street door to meet expectant lovers; and when the pale widow went the rounds again at nine o’clock, she would find them demurely seated, just where she left them, apparently busily conning their lessons! Ruth wondered if all girls were as mischievous, and if fathers and mothers ever stopped to think what companions their daughters would have for room-mates and bed-fellows, when they sent them away from home. As to the Principal, Madame Moreau, she contented herself with sweeping her flounces, once a day, through the recitation rooms; so it was not a difficult matter, in so large an establishment, to pass muster with the sub-teachers at recitations.
Composition day was the general bugbear. Ruth’s madcap room-mates were struck with the most unqualified amazement and admiration at the facility with which “the old maid” executed this frightful task. They soon learned to put her services in requisition; first, to help them out of this slough of despond; next, to save them the necessity of wading in at all, by writing their compositions for them.
In the all-absorbing love affairs which were constantly going on between the young ladies of Madame Moreau’s school and their respective admirers, Ruth took no interest; and on the occasion of the unexpected reception of a bouquet, from a smitten swain, accompanied by a copy of amatory verses, Ruth crimsoned to her temples and burst into tears, that any one could be found so heartless as to burlesque the “awkward” Ruth. Simple child! She was unconscious that, in the freedom of that atmosphere where a “prophet out of his own country is honored,” her lithe form had rounded into symmetry and grace, her slow step had become light and elastic, her eye bright, her smile winning, and her voice soft and melodious. Other bouquets, other notes, and glances of involuntary admiration from passers-by, at length opened her eyes to the fact, that she was “plain, awkward Ruth” no longer. Eureka! She had arrived at the first epoch in a young girl’s life,—she had found out her power! Her manners became assured and self-possessed. She, Ruth, could inspire love! Life became dear to her. There was something worth living for—something to look forward to. She had a motive—an aim; she should some day make somebody’s heart glad,—somebody’s hearth-stone bright; somebody should be proud of her; and oh, how she could love that somebody! History, astronomy, mathematics, the languages, were all pastime now. Life wore a new aspect; the skies were bluer, the earth greener, the flowers more fragrant;—her twin-soul existed somewhere.
When Ruth had been a year at school, her elegant brother Hyacinth came to see her. Ruth dashed down her books, and bounded down three stairs at a time, to meet him; for she loved him, poor child, just as well as if he were worth loving. Hyacinth drew languidly back a dozen paces, and holding up his hands, drawled out imploringly, “kiss me if you insist on it, Ruth, but for heaven’s sake, don’t tumble my dickey.” He also remarked, that her shoes were too large for her feet, and that her little French apron was “slightly askew;” and told her, whatever else she omitted, to be sure to learn “to waltz.” He was then introduced to Madame Moreau, who remarked to Madame Chicchi, her Italian teacher, what a very distingué looking person he was; after which he yawned several times, then touched his hat gracefully, praised “the very superior air of the establishment,” brushed an imperceptible atom of dust from his beaver, kissed the tips of his fingers to his demonstrative sister, and tiptoed Terpsichoreally over the academic threshold.
In addition to this, Ruth’s father wrote occasionally when a term-bill became due, or when his tradesmen’s bills came in, on the first of January; on which occasion an annual fit of poverty seized him, an almshouse loomed up in perspective, he reduced the wages of his cook two shillings, and advised Ruth either to get married or teach school.
Three years had passed under Madame Moreau’s roof; Ruth’s schoolmates wondering the while why she took so much pains to bother her head with those stupid books, when she was every day growing prettier, and all the world knew that it was quite unnecessary for a pretty woman to be clever. When Ruth once more crossed the paternal threshold, Hyacinth levelled his eye-glass at her, and exclaimed, “’Pon honor, Ruth, you’ve positively had a narrow escape from being handsome.” Whether old Mr. Ellet was satisfied with her physical and mental progress, Ruth had no means of knowing.
And now, as we have said before, it is the night before Ruth’s bridal; and there she sits, though the old church bell has long since chimed the midnight hour, gazing at the moon, as she cuts a shining path through the waters; and trembling, while she questions the dim, uncertain future. Tears, Ruth? Have phantom shapes of terror glided before those gentle prophet eyes? Has death’s dark wing even now fanned those girlish temples?
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Ruth Hall by Fanny Fern, 1854
Image by Mariia Sniegirova