THE SECRET OF
BY VIRGINIA F. TOWNSEND.
Godey's Lady's Book.
“SOMETHING must be done; I can bear this no longer.”
I remember just the spot where, as I spoke these words, I paused between the
table and the rug in my small parlor— small, but pleasant and tasteful, as I
had often congratulated myself, looking at the pretty lace curtains and the
Brussels carpet, its dark moss-green ground flushed and warm with tropical
I, Louise Hastings, had carried for a whole week a slow, steady heartache.
Sometimes this aching had suddenly sprang into a quick, fierce life, and pain
which seemed as though it would smother my breath and drive my reason into a
great whirl of madness. But that was when I looked off to the future, and
remembered the past; and my will was stubborn and my pride was strong; and I
held down memory and imagination with all the might of both, for I dreaded
every recurrence of that fierce, choking pain as I would have dreaded tongues
of fire leaping suddenly along my shrinking nerves. So I had borne myself
before my husband and any one with whom I chanced to be thrown steadily
enough, perhaps with a little added dignity; but that no one would be likely
to observe who had not the key to it.
I had been a wife, loving and deeply beloved, for a year, and that winter was
the twenty-fourth of my life. It was the thirtieth of that of Maurice
Hastings, my husband, who had been for four years a physician in the old town
of Woolcottville, where we had resided ever since our marriage.
I was an only child, and my parents died before my remembrance. My aunt, who
had adopted me, was a childless widow in very comfortable circumstances, and
she was very fond of me, and had indulged every wish of mine, so far as her
fortune permitted. At nineteen, with small knowledge of the world and smaller
of my own heart, I had become the betrothed wife of Henry Somers, whose mother
was an old and beloved friend of my aunt.
Harry was a spoiled child; so was I. We fancied that we adored each other. He
had all those charms of conversation, those graces of person and manner which
are so apt to attract the fancy of a young, inexperienced girl; he was
intelligent, enthusiastic, full of warm, generous impulses; but I could not
penetrate beneath these, and see that the character of Henry Somers lacked
moral force and discipline. For a while we got on very smoothly together; then
certain antagonisms in our characters began to develop themselves. Both were
high-spirited, both unconsciously selfish and exacting; so, during the second
six months of our engagement, we had frequent jars, recriminations, and
reconciliations. Then Harry went West to survey some lands in which his father
had been speculating.
We were to have been married on his return, and we parted with mutual
protestations of eternal fidelity. But Henry Somers was impulsive and
susceptible; his absence was necessarily prolonged; and an old friend of his
father's with whom be passed several weeks had a young and beautiful daughter,
in whose society he was constantly thrown. I was grieved to find that his
letters grew less frequent, and that there was a sensible diminution in their
My aunt was not a woman to submit quietly to this, if I had been; and she soon
obtained indubitable evidence that Harry had involved himself in a flirtation
which was most dishonorable, with the relations that we occupied to each
other. Her indignation was keen; her fears were aroused for the happiness of
the child who was dearer to her than life. She laid the facts before me, and
stimulated my pride into dissolving our engagement.
But the knowledge of Harry's perfidy was a terrible stroke to me, for my faith
in him had been boundless, and he was the idol of my girlish dreams and
fancies. But the bitter experience did me good,, that great sorrow thundered
in a wild storm over my soul, but it passed away, leaving it better and
stronger; and as I have lived to know that the aim and end of all living is to
become this, I have thanked God for the rain in the morning of my life.
A year and a half later I met my husband for the first time at a quiet little
watering-place situated near a cove where we had, gone for the sea air and
Maurice Hastings was unlike any of the men with whom I bad been thrown; he was
grave, thoughtful, studious; yet there was a spring of keen humor in his
nature, which sparkled in his deep gray eyes and flashed in ripples of light
over the fine, grave face.
Each was interested in the other from the beginning. His conversation formed a
vivid contrast with that of any other man's I had ever known, as we walked
down on the beach in the sweet summer evenings, and watched the great white
temples of mist rising slowly up from the ocean, and lifting their silver
colonnades to the stars. Our talk ranged everywhere; on nature and art,
philosophy, history, religion. I felt my whole nature expanding and
intensifying as I listened, and the graceful flatteries and insipid talk with
which I had formerly been entertained now grew vapid and disagreeable. Not
that Maurice Hastings was pedantic, but to me his conversation was full of
stimulation and suggestion.
It did not take us long to penetrate the mutual interest which each took in
the other. Maurice was the sincerest and most candid of men, and though he
seldom flattered me, still the look of pleased interest and amusement Which
flashed down on me as we stood on the yellow sands bordered with a great
silver blossoming of spray, deepened into one of tenderness before that fair
chapter in my life was closed. My aunt was pleased with Maurice; still she was
very ambitious for my future, and the thought that I should marry a country
physician with no prospect but his profession was not gratifying to her pride.
But, spite of herself, Maurice daily compelled more of her respect, and my
engagement with Harry Somers had shown her how much better than wealth is it
for a woman to have a strong, true heart to depend on.
Woolcottville was not so far from New York but that Maurice could see me for a
few days every month; and in a little while those days had become to me the
precious jewels strung along the thread of the weeks.
My mind and heart had found before they had passed out from the gates of
girlhood the companionship which they had lingered and thirsted for, and life
had something better and holier than the mere living for selfish enjoyment and
happiness. And in one of those visits Maurice told me those most blessed and
tender words whose memory still thrills my heart, and shakes, while I write,
the old, sweet tears into my eyes.
My aunt gave her consent to my choice, on the whole, with cheerfulness; and
the next spring Maurice brought me to his home, the small, graceful cottage
lying like a white shell among green surges of larches and cedars, and here
there went over my head in great light and love my first year of wifehood.
Sometimes there stole across my heart, when I sat by the side of my husband, a
little shadow, and that was the thought that my life had one secret from him,
for I had never revealed my engagement to Harry Somers. It had been my
intention to do this, but my aunt had dissuaded me from it. I was young, and
had great faith in her wisdom and discretion, and I did not altogether
perceive that her standard was a worldly and politic one; that she had no
lofty stand-point, no high ideals of living; and, kind and generous though she
was, that her wisdom was only that of her day and generation. So when I turned
suddenly to her, one morning, from the piano, where I had been practising my
music-lesson for the day, while she was carefully washing some old-fashioned
china, which had been preserved as heir-looms in the family, and said to her:
“Aunt Eliza, don't you think that it is my duty to inform Maurice of my
engagement with Harry Somers?” she answered me:—
“Don't do anything of the kind, my child; a man has no right to be inquisitive
about such matters, so long as they in no wise concern himself. You would only
annoy and pain Maurice by making my allusion to the subject, and it will be
much wiser to keep still. I have known serious trouble to result from
injudicious disclosures of this kind.”
“But, aunty, it doesn't seem quite honorable, somehow. If Maurice were in my
place, I should want to know the whole truth.”
“That is quite natural, Louise; but he would be wiser to lock up the secret in
his own heart. You will be glad if you take my advice.”
And I took it, but I was not satisfied. One night, not long before our
marriage, I said to Maurice, as we sat together on the divan in the alcove
beyond the parlor:—
“I wonder what your faults are; I haven't found one out yet!”
The grave face bent on me its sweet and tenderest smile. “They will come soon
enough, my little girl. You know the true work and aim of marriage is to
improve each other; to grow better, nobler in all aspirations and living.”
“But everybody, almost, fancies it is only to be happier in one way or
another, according to their tastes and feelings.”
“I know it; but we must get at a higher range of vision than that. As for my
faults, you'll find them but soon and fast enough, I'll promise you.
“Tell me one, just one of them, Maurice; please, now”— drawing closer to him.
“Why do you want to know?” drawing his arm around my waist.
“Because— because I do.”
“Most satisfactory reason for a woman, but you shall be gratified for this
time. One of my faults is, Louise, that I'm naturally jealous— that is, if
there be any cause for it. I've tried to curb and control this quality, and
you will never experience any trouble from it, my little girl. Then, as I am
exclusive in my fancies and affections, I am apt to be exacting.”
My conversation with my aunt flashed at this moment across my memory.
“Maurice, you must have perfect confidence in those whom you love!”
“Perfect; if that is once shaken, it is generally never restored. If I am once
deceived there, it is not in my nature to trust again. I can forgive much, but
I must have faith in which there is no change, no shaking.”
A confession trembled on my lips; but the words of my aunt came back to me,
and my heart played me traitor,
It was the first anniversary of our wedding-day. Maurice and I had been out to
ride, for it was the time of the year's awakening, and her pulses were full of
the youth and the joy of the spring. Maurice had set me down at the gate of
our home, in the late afternoon, and driven on farther to see a patient of
his. I had gone up stairs, and only removed my bonnet, when our solitary
domestic put her head in at my door, saying there was a gentleman in the
parlor who wished to see me.
I knew him with the first glance, and it was not strange that my heart gave a
quick flutter, for the last time that I had looked on that face and listened
to the bright tone I had been the betrothed wife of Henry Somers. He came
forward, now, with all the old grace and assurance of manner, and gave me his
band. My greeting must have been awkward and constrained, for the thought of
my husband made my guest an unwelcome one.
“I was within a half dozen miles of Woolcottville, and the longing to look on
your face, Louise, had grown so strong that I could pot go farther until I had
been nearer it.” And a shadow crept over the handsome face of Henry Somers;
and, sitting in my own parlor and listening to his tones, my heart went back
to the past for a moment, and I almost believed that I was a girl again. But
only for a moment; that heart had given no disloyal throb; in its depths was
not one feeling of lurking tenderness for the man before me; and I said, with
a calmness and dignity that Harry Somers could not have remembered: “You
forget, Mr. Somers, that our relations make a little less freedom of manner
more acceptable with me.”
A shadow darkened his face; he looked a moment in mine. “Ah, Louise,” he broke
out, “have you no warmer welcome than this for the man who has come to entreat
your pardon, and who must go mounting all his days for the wrong which he has
“Mr. Somers, you, the husband of another woman, I, the wife of another man,
have no right to listen to words like these.”
“No, Louise, I am not the husband of another woman!”
“Are you not married?” I asked, bewildered and amazed.
“No; I was a fool and a scoundrel, Louise, and for a while I was fascinated,
bewildered by the beauty and arts of one who, penetrated my weakness too well,
and took advantage of it. But she never superseded you in my elections, though
I was too angry and too proud, when I got your letter and your aunt's, to tell
you this. I lived on, after I awoke from that mad intoxication, for which I
have cursed myself in bitterness of soul ever since, in the hope that all
would yet be restored betwixt us, until, just as I had finished up my
business, and was about starting for home, I heard— oh, Louise, have pity upon
me for all that I have suffered!”
He came over to my side, and sat down by me, and grasped my hand. The handsome
face was white with anguish, and, looking on it, I pitied Harry Somers for his
folly and his weakness, and this feeling must have faltered through my tones.
“It is sin for me to listen to such words from you, Harry Somers. What if my
husband should hear, should know”— I caught and choked back the words,
“What, Louise, have you never told him of our engagement?”
I did not answer with my lips, but the pain and anguish in my face told Harry
Somers what he asked. A look of gladness, triumph flashed over his face. I saw
the hope which he had gathered from that knowledge, and it galled me as a
great wrong done to my husband. But the next moment all other feelings were
merged in the dread of his return. What would he think, what would be say, if
he should return and find Harry there? Oh, I saw my mistake then, and all the
misapprehension and misery to which it might lead, and I resolved that
before I slept Maurice should know all that I had to tell him. But every
moment that my guest remained was dangerous now. I rose up.
“Harry Somers, I forgive you for all that is past, and with these words I
beseech you to leave me this moment. I am the wife of a good and noble man,
and I love him too well to prolong our interview now. Forget me from this
hour, and may the lesson which it teaches make you a wiser and a better man.
You have all that my heart can give you— its best wishes. Now, go!”
He rose up with great reluctance and great pain in his face; he grasped both
of my hands, and kissed them wildly.
“Oh, Louise, of whom I as not worthy, farewell!” And he was gone.
I drew a long breath of relief as the front gate opened and closed sharply.
“Thank God, Maurice has not met him!” I murmured and then I sank down into a
chair, and great jets of tears poured over my cheeks but the bitterness in
them was the thought of my husband, not of Harry Somers. I did not weep there
long; it would not do for Maurice to come in and find me thus, and I started
to go up stairs.
My way crossed the sitting-room. The shadows had begun to steal into the
corners; but in one of them was a shadow darker than that of the early
evening. It rose up and came forward.
“Oh, Maurice, is that you?”
“It is I, Louise.”
He had heard all— the changed, strained voice told me that, without his
uttering another word.
I grasped his arm. “Oh, Maurice, only hear me; I can satisfy you, I can
He shook off my hand, and stood stern and still before me. His lips were white
as the lips which never give forth sound or smile. “Louise Hastings, you were
once the betrothed wife of that man who has just left you?”
I could not deny it; and before my lips could stammer out any words my face
had given answer.
“And you have never told me this; and he has dared to come into my house and
pour into your ear the old story of his passion; and you have listened to it,
and only sent him away because of your fear that I, your miserable dupe, your
wronged and wretched husband, should know the truth.”
“Only hear me, Maurice; only let me explain.”
He shook me off again, and the anger in his eyes was terrible enough to strike
me to the earth, if I had not the consciousness that I was far less guilty
than he supposed. But the facts were against me, and Maurice was a jealous
“Out of your own mouth do I condemn you, Louise Hastings; my confidence in you
is lost forever. The wife that I believed in and loved better than my life has
gone out of my heart forever. It would have been better for us both if we had
died before this hour.”
I shivered and staggered under the terrible words, but there was no pity in
Maurice's face. Then my pride roused itself.
“I shall not stand by and hear such words from your lips, Maurice Hastings, no
matter how the facts may condemn me, so long as you will not listen to the
explanation which I could make. And as you send me out of your heart forever,
it is best that I should go out of your home, also, to-night.”
“No, unless you insist upon it; you can stay here if you like, and what I have
learned this night need never again be alluded to by either of us. Only
remember my confidence in you has gone, and my love with it!”
I did not stay to hear another word. I went up stairs with a deep weight and
pain in my heart. I was proud as well as Maurice, and I knew that he had been
unjust to me. No matter how strong the facts were against me, an explanation
of them was my right and his duty. But for once anger and jealousy had
hardened the noble heart of Maurice Hastings, and his reproaches had stung me
into silence and endurance. We were both in the wrong— God forgive us!
Of the week which followed I must write briefly. Its long, slow days went down
into dark, slow nights, and brought neither rest nor peace to my spirit.
Maurice and I preserved towards each other a grave reserve, which would not
have attracted the notice of a stranger, and as we had company for three or
four days at this time, we were left but little alone. I managed to preside at
my table and supervise the household affairs in a way which elicited no
observation, and I wondered often at my own self-control and at the calmness
and ostensible interest with which I often found myself discussing indifferent
matters with my friends, while I carried that pain in my heart which leaped
into such vivid life and anguish when I was alone.
As for Maurice, I could see that be grew paler every day, and the grave,
kindly mouth had a look of fixedness and pain which had never borne its
witness there before.
Sometimes a thought flashed across me that I
would leave my husband and go out from his home, as he said that I had done
from his heart— forever; and then, looking off to my future, it rose before me
so hard, and bare, and desolate that I had not the courage to set my feet on
its way, and I put the thought back; I could not live without him!
Sometimes, when I caught the glance of those stern, sad gray eyes on my face,
a great temptation would sweep over me to rush to his side and cling there
fast, and compel him to hearken while I told him all the truth respecting my
engagement with Harry Somers. But the harsh repulse, the bitter words which
had once met me came back, and steeled my heart and silenced my lips. And I
cried to God, and there came no answer, and I did not know that the sin of my
pride lay darkening betwixt my soul and Him!
I had uttered the words with which my story commences half an hour after my
guests of the three or four previous days had gone. I had been pacing the
floor to and fro ever since I had smiled and waved my farewells to them. It
was a beautiful day in the closing up of May, the winds came through the
windows like the breath of sweet spices, the year was full of the strength and
joy of her youth, and the trees stood up in their white fluting of blossoms,
and the sunshine wrote on the earth the old, new prophecy that the summer was
at hand. But for me this beauty had now neither voice nor meaning. The
darkness in my heart lay like a shadow on the fair face of the day, and when
the first words I have written crept out of my lips, my resolution was taken.
Afterward I did not hesitate long in making up my mind what course I should
pursue; I would go up stairs, write my last letter to my husband, pack up my
trunk, take the afternoon train for my aunt's that very afternoon, and leave
forever the house whose proud and happy mistress I had been for a year.
“Oh, Maurice, Maurice, my heart will break for leaving you!” I sat in my own
room, before the open window, and the song of the spring birds, that had hung
their nests on the green rafters of the old pear tree, surged sweetly in and
out of the room. The pen was in my hand, and the cry was wrung from a heart
too weak to write the words which were, to part us forever.
“Oh, Mrs. Hastings, have you heard the news?”
I was quite startled at the abrupt entrance of my nearest neighbor, the wife
of a lawyer, with whom I had been on quite intimate social terms; but her
white, shocked face fully apologized for her abrupt entrance.
“No; is it anything very bad, Mrs. Maltby?” as I rose up and offered my guest
“Michael, our gardener, just brought me the dreadful tidings, and as there was
no one in the house I ran over here to share my horror with you! The cars ran
off the track this morning, on the long bridge between Woolcottville and
Glencove, and a large number of passengers were killed outright or shockingly
“My husband was on the morning train to Glencove. He left about two hours ago
to visit a patient there!”
I believe I spoke these words very calmly, but I felt a cold tremor stealing
Mrs. Maltby's face grew whiter as she gasped out: “Oh, Mrs. Hastings, have I
killed you too?”
“I guess you have,” I said, as I passed my hand across my forehead; “but it's
no matter; Maurice wouldn't care!”
She thought the sudden shock had driven me wild. She chafed my cold hands amid
her great jets of tears, and begged me to grow calm, and not yield until I
knew the worst.
And at last a great cry rushed up from my heart as the thought flashed across
me that Maurice might be lying cold and stark on that fair spring day with the
life suddenly choked out of him. And we had parted in silence and bitterness,
and my last memory of him was not one of blessing and caress. And then the
wrong and sin of my conduct for the last week rose up and reproached me. I did
not excuse Maurice; I knew that before God he had somewhat to answer for his
harshness when his young wife had hung upon his arm and pleaded to be heard,
and he had repulsed her. But grief and despair had well nigh maddened me. I
dashed Mrs. Maltby's arms furiously away, when they crept entreatingly about
my neck. I stamped my feet at her when she implored me to be quiet, and at
last I dashed out of the house, out of the front gate, and down the road,
where her cries followed me for a while, and then grew faint, and were lost in
On, on I rushed, for a resolution possessed me to walk to the scene of the
terrible disaster, five miles distant, and know for a certainty whether my
husband was among the living or the dead. But in descending a steep hill on my
way, I suddenly caught sight of the familiar chaise approaching me. My heart
stood still; so did my feet. The inmate of the carriage must have discovered
me, for he suddenly spurred his horse, and a moment later I caught sight of
the face of my husband!
“Why, Louise, are you gone wild?” And Maurice sprang from the carriage, his
face white with wonder at the sight of me.
The great joy of my heart must have its way. I put my arms about Maurice's
neck; I shouted, and laughed, and cried. “Oh, Maurice, I thought that you were
lying there cold, and white, and dead!” And I shook him to and fro, as I held
his shoulders, in my frantic joy.
“My dear child, what has happened to you?” And I felt the great tenderness and
the great fear which surged through the tones of my husband; and a sudden
faintness went all over me. He lifted me into the carriage as though I was a
little child, and, drawing one arm tightly around me, urged the horse slowly
homewards. And his words and his voice were after the manner of a mother
soothing her frightened child: “There! don't be scared, darling. Nothing shall
harm my little girl. Try and be quiet;” for he evidently thought that I was
“How came you to be here, Maurice?” I gasped at last, as long shudders went
over and shook me as winds do autumn leaves. “I thought that you took the
train for Glencove.”
“I intended to, but when I left the house I found a hasty messenger for a man
who had broken his arm about three miles off. And so I delayed my trip to
Glencove for the afternoon.”
“Thank God! thank God, Maurice!”
“What do you mean, my dear wife?”
“There was a terrible accident— the bridge broke down— the dead and the
mangled lie heaped together. Oh, Maurice, I thought that you might be
He understood all now, my frantic fears, my wild flight, and, drawing me
closer to him, Maurice Hastings bowed his head, and reverently repeated my
prayer— “Oh, thank God, Louise, thank God!”
We stopped at a tavern on the road home, where Maurice procured some cordial
which restored me. And now all the barriers of my pride were broken down. I
knew that the deep well in the heart of Maurice Hastings had not grown dry in
the last dreadful weeks; and that its springs had burst and overflowed his
soul like the freshets of April.
“Oh, Maurice, it shall not be as it has been between us any more?” I
whispered, in the old tavern parlor where we were left alone with the sunshine
and the singing of the birds of May.
“Never, Louise, never!” for he knew now that my heart was his.
And laying my head down on his shoulder, I told Maurice the history of my
engagement with Henry Somers, and all the weight and pain which the knowledge
of that one secret hidden from him had caused me, until the day on which he
presented himself in my parlor, and Maurice coming in to the sitting-room a
moment later had heard nearly all that passed betwixt Henry and me. My
disclosures set the whole matter in its true light. There was no need that I
should say to Maurice— “You will forgive and forget it all?”
“All, Louise. It is I who have sinned more in my anger and harshness than
We drove home in the golden May noon, our hearts flooded with light and
gratitude fairer than its sunshine. On the way we encountered Michael, Mrs.
Maltby's gardener, whom she had dispatched in a fruitless search for me.
And so the only secret which my life had held from Maurice Hastings was
revealed at last. It has its message and its warning. “Oh breathe,” the ballad
saith, “some sweetness out of each.”