The school to which Margaret was sent was that of the Misses Prescott, in Groton, Massachusetts. And her experience there has been described with touching truthfulness by herself, in the story of “Mariana.”*
At first her school-mates were captivated with her ways; her love of wild dances and sudden song, her freaks of passion and of wit. She was always new, always surprising, and, for a time, charming.
But after a while, they tired of her. She could never be depended on to join in their plans, yet she expected them to follow out hers with their whole strength. She was very loving, even infatuated in her own affections, and exacted from those who had professed any love for her the devotion she was willing to bestow.
Yet there was a vein of haughty caprice in her character, and a love of solitude, which made her at times wish to retire apart, and at these times she would expect to be entirely understood, and let alone, yet to be welcomed back when she returned. She did not thwart others in their humors, but she never doubted of great indulgence from them.
Some singular habits she had, which, when new, charmed, but, after acquaintance, displeased her companions. She had by nature the same habit and power of excitement that is described in the spinning dervishes of the East. Like them she would spin until all around her were giddy, while her own brain, instead of being disturbed, was excited to great action. Pausing, she would declaim verses of others, or her own, or act many parts, with strange catchwords and burdens, that seemed to act with mystical power on her own fancy, sometimes stimulating her to convulse the hearers with laughter, sometimes to melt them to tears. When her power began to languish, she would spin again till fired to re-commence her singular drama, into which she wove figures from the scenes of her earlier childhood, her companions, and the dignitaries she sometimes saw, with fantasies unknown to life, unknown to heaven or earth.
This excitement, as may be supposed, was not good for her. It usually came on in the evening, and often spoiled her sleep. She would wake in the night, and cheat her restlessness by inventions that teased, while they sometimes diverted her companions.
She was also a sleep-walker; and this one trait of her case did somewhat alarm her guardians, who, otherwise, showed the profound ignorance as to this peculiar being, usual in the overseeing of the young. They consulted a physician, who said she would outgrow it, and prescribed a milk diet.
Meantime, the fever of this ardent and too early stimulated nature was constantly increased by the restraints and narrow routine of the hoarding-school. She was always devising means to break in upon it. She had a taste—which would have seemed ludicrous to her mates, if they had not felt some awe of her, from the touch of genius and power that never left her—for costume and fancy dresses. There was always some sash twisted about her, some drapery, something odd in the arrangement of her hair and dress; so that the methodical preceptress dared not let her go out without a careful scrutiny and remodelling, whose soberizing effects generally disappeared the moment she was in the free air.
At last a vent was assured for her in private theatricals. Play followed play, and in these and the rehearsals, she found entertainment congenial with her. The principal parts, as a matter of course, fell to her lot; most of the good suggestions and arrangements came from her; and, for a time, she ruled mostly, and shone triumphant.
During these performances, the girls had heightened their bloom with artificial red; this was delightful to them, it was something so out of the way. But Mariana, after the plays were over, kept her carmine saucer on the dressing-table, and put on her blushes, regularly as the morning. When stared and jeered at, she at first said she did it because she thought it made her look pretty; but, after a while, she became petulant about it,—would make no reply to any joke, but merely kept up the habit.
This irritated the girls, as all eccentricity does the world in general, more than vice or malignity. They talked it over among themselves till they were wrought up to a desire of punishing, once for all, this sometimes amusing, but so often provoking non-conformist. And having obtained leave of the mistress, they laid, with great glee, a plan, one evening, which was to be carried into execution next day at dinner.
Among Mariana’s irregularities was a great aversion to the meal-time ceremonial,—so long, so tiresome, she found it, to be seated at a certain moment, and to wait while each one was served, at so large a table, where there was scarcely any conversation; and from day to day it became more heavy to sit there, or go there at all; often as possible she excused herself on the ever convenient plea of headache, and was hardly ever ready when the dinner-bell rang.
To-day the summons found her on the balcony, but gazing on the beautiful prospect. I have heard her say afterwards, that she had scarcely in her life been so happy,—and she was one with whom happiness was a still rapture. It was one of the most blessed summer days; the shadows of great white clouds empurpled the distant hills for a few moments, only to leave them more golden; the tall grass of the wide fields waved in the softest breeze. Pure blue were the heavens, and the same hue of pure contentment was in the heart of Mariana.
Suddenly on her bright mood jarred the dinner-bell. At first rose her usual thought, I will not, cannot go; and then the must, which daily life can always enforce, even upon the butterflies and birds, came, and she walked reluctantly to her room. She merely changed her dress, and never thought of adding the artificial rose to her cheek.
When she took her seat in the dining-hall, and was asked if she would be helped, raising her eyes, she saw the person who asked her was deeply rouged, with a bright glaring spot, perfectly round, on either cheek. She looked at the next,—same apparition! She then slowly passed her eyes down the whole line, and saw the same, with a suppressed smile distorting every countenance. Catching the design at once, she deliberately looked along her own side of the table, at every schoolmate in turn; every one had joined in the trick. The teachers strove to be grave, but she saw they enjoyed the joke. The servants could not suppress a titter.
When Warren Hastings stood at the bar of Westminster Hall,—when the Methodist preacher walked through a line of men, each of whom greeted him with a brick bat or rotten egg,—they had some preparation for the crisis, though it might be very difficult to meet it with an impassible brow. Our little girl was quite unprepared to find herself in the midst of a world which despised her, and triumphed in her disgrace.
She had ruled like a queen, in the midst of her companions; she had shed her animation through their lives, and loaded them with prodigal favors, nor once suspected that a popular favorite might not be loved. Now she felt that she had been but a dangerous play-thing in the hands of those whose hearts she never had doubted.
Yet the occasion found her equal to it, for Mariana had the kind of spirit which, in a better cause, had made the Roman matron truly say of her death-wound, “It is not painful, Pœtus.” She did not blench,—she did not change countenance. She swallowed her dinner with apparent composure. She made remarks to those near her, as if she had no eyes.
The wrath of the foe, of course, rose higher, and the moment they were freed from the restraints of the dining room, they all ran off, gayly calling, and sarcastically laughing, with backward glances, at Mariana, left alone.
Alone she went to her room, locked the door, and threw herself on the floor in strong convulsions. These had sometimes threatened her life, in earlier childhood, but of later years she had outgrown them. School-hours came, and she was not there. A little girl, sent to her door, could get no answer. The teachers became alarmed, and broke it open. Bitter was their penitence, and that of her companions, at the state in which they found her. For some hours terrible anxiety was felt, but at last nature, exhausted, relieved herself by a deep slumber.
From this Mariana arose an altered being. She made no reply to the expressions of sorrow from her companions, none to the grave and kind, but undiscerning, comments of her teacher. She did not name the source of her anguish, and its poisoned dart sank deeply in. This was the thought which stung her so:—“What, not one, not a single one, in the hour of trial, to take my part? not one who refused to take part against me?” Past words of love, and caresses, little heeded at the time, rose to her memory, and gave fuel to her distempered heart. Beyond the sense of burning resentment at universal perfidy, she could not get. And Mariana, born for love, now hated all the world.
The change, however, which these feelings made in her conduct and appearance, bore no such construction to the careless observer. Her gay freaks were quite gone, her wildness, her invention. Her dress was uniform, her manner much subdued. Her chief interest seemed to be now in her studies, and in music. Her companions she never sought; but they, partly from uneasy, remorseful feelings, partly that they really liked her much better now that she did not puzzle and oppress them, sought her continually. And here the black shadow comes upon her life, the only stain upon the history of Mariana.
They talked to her, as girls having few topics naturally do, of one another. Then the demon rose within her, and spontaneously, without design, generally without words of positive falsehood, she became a genius of discord amongst them. She fanned those flames of envy and jealousy which a wise, true word from a third person will often quench forever; and by a glance, or seemingly light reply, she planted the seeds of dissension, till there was scarcely a peaceful affection, or sincere intimacy, in the circle where she lived, and could not but rule, for she was one whose nature was to that of the others as fire to clay.
It was at this time that I came to the school, and first saw Mariana. Me she charmed at once, for I was a sentimental child, who, in my early ill health, had been indulged in reading novels, till I had no eyes for the common. It was not, however, easy to approach her. Did I offer to run and fetch her handkerchief, she was obliged to go to her room, and would rather do it herself. She did not like to have people turn over for her the leaves of the music-book as she played. Did I approach my stool to her feet, she moved away as if to give me room. The bunch of wild flowers, which I timidly laid beside her plate, was left untouched. After some weeks, my desire to attract her notice really preyed upon me; and one day, meeting her alone in the entry, I fell upon my knees, and, kissing her hand, cried, “O, Mariana, do let me love you, and try to love me a little!” But my idol snatched away her hand, and laughing wildly, ran into her room. After that day, her manner to me was not only cold, but repulsive, and I felt myself scorned.
Perhaps four months had passed thus, when, one afternoon, it became obvious that something more than common was brewing. Dismay and mystery were written in many faces of the older girls; much whispering was going on in corners.
In the evening, after prayers, the principal bade us stay; and, in a grave, sad voice, summoned forth Mariana to answer charges to be mode against her. Mariana stood up and leaned against the chimney piece. Then eight of the older girls came forward, and preferred against her charges,—alas! too well founded, of calumny and falsehood.
At first, she defended herself with self-possession and eloquence. But when she found she could no more resist the truth, she suddenly threw herself down, dashing her head with all her force against the iron hearth, on which a fire was burning, and was taken up senseless.
The affright of those present was great. Now that they had perhaps killed her, they reflected it would have been as well if they had taken warning from the former occasion, and approached very carefully a nature so capable of any extreme. After a while she revived: with a faint groan, amid the sobs of her companions. I was on my knees by the bed, and held her cold hand. One of those most aggrieved took it from me, to beg her pardon, and say, it was impossible not to love her. She made no reply.
Neither that night, nor for several days, could a word be obtained from her, nor would she touch food; but, when it was presented to her, or any one drew near from any cause, she merely turned away her head, and gave no sign. The teacher saw that some terrible nervous affection had fallen upon her—that she grew more and more feverish. She knew not what to do.
Meanwhile, a new revolution had taken place in the mind of the passionate but nobly-tempered child. All these months nothing but the sense of injury had rankled in her heart. She had gone on in one mood, doing what the demon prompted, without scruple, and without fear.
But at the moment of detection, the tide ebbed, and the bottom of her soul lay revealed to her eye. How black, how stained, and sad! Strange, strange, that she had not seen before the baseness and cruelty of falsehood, the loveliness of truth! Now, amid the wreck, uprose the moral nature, which never before had attained the ascendant. “But,” she thought, “too late sin is revealed to me in all its deformity, and sin-defiled, I will not, cannot live. The main-spring of life is broken.”
The lady who took charge of this sad child had never well understood her before, but had always looked on her with great tenderness. And now love seemed,—when all around were in the greatest distress, fearing to call in medical aid, fearing to do without it,—to teach her where the only balm was to be found that could heal the wounded spirit.
One night she came in, bringing a calming draught Mariana was sitting as usual, her hair loose, her dress the same robe they had put on her at first, her eyes fixed vacantly upon the whited wall. To the proffers and entreaties of her nurse, she made no reply.
The lady burst into tears, but Mariana did not seem even to observe it.
The lady then said, “O, my child, do not despair; do not think that one great fault can mar a whole life! Let me trust you; let me tell you the griefs of my sad life. I will .tell you, Mariana, what I never expected to impart to any one.”
And so she told her tale. It was one of pain, of shame, borne not for herself, but for one near and dear as herself. Mariana knew the dignity and reserve of this lady’s nature. She had often admired to see how the cheek, lovely, but no longer young, mantled with the deepest blush of youth, and the blue eyes were cast down at any little emotion. She had understood the proud sensibility of her character. She fixed her eyes on those now raised to hers, bright with fast-falling tears. She heard the story to the end, and then, without saying a word, stretched out her hand for the cup.
She returned to life, but it was as one who had passed through the valley of death. The heart of stone was quite broken in her,—the fiery will fallen from flame to coal. When her strength was a little restored, she had all her companions summoned, and said to them,—“I deserved to die, but a generous trust has called me back to life. I will be worthy of it, nor ever betray the trust, or resent injury more. Can you forgive the past?”
And they not only forgave, but, with love and earnest tears, clasped in their arms the returning sister. They vied with one another in offices of humble love to the humbled one; and let it be recorded, as an instance of the pure honor of which young hearts are capable, that these facts, known to some forty persons, never, so far as I know, transpired beyond those walls. It was not long after this that Mariana was summoned home. She went thither a wonderfully instructed being, though in ways those who had sent her forth to learn little dreamed of.
Never was forgotten the vow of the returning prodigal. Mariana could not resent, could not play false. The terrible crisis, which she so early passed through, probably prevented the world from hearing much of her. A wild fire was tamed in that hour of penitence at the boarding-school, such as has oftentimes wrapped court and camp in a destructive glow.
* Summer on the Lakes, p. 81.
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