The Children of the Abbey
Yellow sheaves from rich Ceres the cottage had crown’d,
Green rushes were strew’d on the floor,
The casements sweet woodbine crept wantonly round,
And deck’d the sod seats at the door.
Hail, sweet asylum of my infancy! Content and innocence reside beneath your humble roof, and Charity unboastful of the good it renders. Hail, ye venerable trees! my happiest hours of childish gaiety were passed beneath your shelter; then careless as the birds that sung upon your boughs, I laughed the hours away, nor knew of evil.
Here surely I shall be guarded from duplicity, and, if not happy, at least in some degree tranquil. Here unmolested may I wait, till the rude storm of sorrow is overblown, and my father’s arms are again expanded to receive me.
Such were the words of Amanda, as the chaise (which she had hired at a neighbouring village on quitting the mail) turned down a little verdant lane, almost darkened by old trees, whose interwoven branches allowed her scarcely a glimpse of her nurse’s cottage, till she had reached the door.
A number of tender recollections rushing upon her mind, rendered her almost unable to alight; but her nurse and her husband, who had been impatiently watching for the arrival of their fondling, assisted her; and the former, obeying the dictates of nature and affection, 6 half stifled her with caresses; the latter respectfully kissed her hand, and dropped a tear of unutterable joy upon it. Lort, he said, he was surprised, to be sure, at the alterations a few years had made in her person. Why it seemed to him as if it was only the other day since he had carried her about in his arms, quite a little fairy. Then he begged to know how his tear old captain was, and Mr. Oscar, and whether the latter was not grown a very fine youth. Amanda, smiling through her tears, endeavoured to answer his inquiries; but she was so much affected by her feelings, as to be hardly able to speak: and when, by her desire, he went to discharge the chaise, and assist the young man (who had travelled with her from London) to bring in her luggage, her head sunk upon her nurse’s bosom, whose arms encircled her waist. “My dear faithful nurse,” she sobbed, “your poor child has returned again to seek an asylum from you.” “And she is heartily welcome,” replied the good creature, crying herself; “and I have taken care to have everything so nice and so tidy, and so comfortable, that I warrant you the greatest lady in the land need not disdain your apartments; and here are two little girls, as well as myself, that will always be ready to attend, and serve, and obey you. This is Ellen, your own foster sister; and this is Betsey, the little thing I had in the cradle when you went away; and I have besides, though I say it myself, that should not say it, two as fine lads as you could wish to see: they are now at work at a farmer’s hard by; but they will be here presently. Thank Cot we are all happy, though obliged to earn our own bread; but ’tis sweeter for that reason, since labor gives us health to enjoy it, and contentment blesses us all.” Amanda affectionately embraced the two girls, who were the pictures of health and cheerfulness, and was then conducted into a little parlour, which, with a small bed-chamber adjoining it, was appropriated to her use. The neatness of the room was truly pleasing; the floor was nicely sanded; the hearth was dressed with “flowers and fennel gay,” and the chimney-piece adorned with a range of broken tea-cups, “wisely kept for show;” a clock ticked behind the door; and an ebony cupboard displayed a profusion of the showyest ware the country could produce.
And now the nurse, on “hospitable thought intent,” hurried from Amanda to prepare for dinner. The chicken, as she said herself, was ready to pop down in a minute; Ellen tied the asparagus, and Betsey 7 laid the cloth; Edwin drew his best cider, and having brought it in himself, retired to entertain his guest in the kitchen (Amanda’s travelling companion,) before whom he had already set some of his most substantial fare.
Dinner, in the opinion of Amanda, was served in a moment; but her heart was too full to eat, though pressed to do so with the utmost tenderness; a tenderness which in truth was the means of overcoming her.
When insulted by malice, or oppressed by cruelty, the heart can assume a stern fortitude foreign to its nature; but this seeming apathy vanishes at the voice of kindness, as the rigid frost of winter melts before the gentle influence of the sun; and tears, gushing tears of gratitude and sensibility express its yielding feelings. Sacred are such tears; they flow from the sweet source of social affection; the good alone can shed them.
Her nurse’s sons soon returned from their labour, two fine nut-brown youths. They had been the companions of her infant sports, and she spoke to them with the most engaging affability.
Domestic bliss and rural felicity Amanda had always been accustomed to, till within a short period; her attachment to them was still as strong as ever; and had her father been with her, she would have been happy.
It was now about the middle of June, and the whole country was glowing with luxuriant beauty. The cottage was, in reality, a comfortable, commodious farm-house; it was situated in North Wales; and the romantic scenery surrounding it was highly pleasing to a disposition like Amanda’s, which delighted equally in the sublime and beautiful. The front of the cottage was almost covered with woodbine, intermingled with vines; and the lane already mentioned, formed a shady avenue up to the very door; one side overlooked a deep valley, winding amongst hills clad in the liveliest vesture, a clear stream running through it, turned a mill in its course, and afforded a salutary coolness to the herds which ruminated on its banks; the other side commanded a view of rich pastures, terminated by a thick grove, whose natural vistas gave a view of cultivated farms, a small, irregular village, the spire of its church, and a fine old castle, whose stately turrets rose above the trees surrounding them.8
The farm-yard at the back of the cottage was stocked with and all the implements of rural industry, the garden was divided from it by a rude paling, interwoven with honeysuckles and wild roses; the part appropriated for vegetables divided from the part sacred to Flora by rows of fruit trees; a craggy precipice hung over it, covered with purple and yellow flowers, thyme, and other odoriferous herbs, which afforded browzage to three or four goats that skipped about in playful gambols; a silver stream trickled down the precipice, and, winding round a plantation of shrubs, fell with a gentle murmur into the valley. Beneath a projecting fragment of the rock a natural recess was formed, thickly lined with moss, and planted round with a succession of beautiful flowers.
Here scatter’d wild the lily of the vale
Its balmy essence breathes; here cowslips hang
The dewy head, and purple violets lurk,
With all the lowly children of the shade.
Of those scenes Amanda had but an imperfect recollection; such a faint idea as we retain of a confused but agreeable dream, which, though we cannot explain, leaves a pleasing impression behind.
Peculiar circumstances had driven her from the shelter of a parent’s arms, to seek security in retirement at this abode of simplicity and peace. Here the perturbation of fear subsided; but the soft melancholy of her soul at times was heightened, when she reflected, that in this very place an unfortunate mother had expired, almost at the moment of giving her birth.
Amanda was now about nineteen. A description of her face and person would not do her justice, as it never could convey a full idea of the ineffable sweetness and sensibility of the former, or the striking elegance and beautiful proportion of the latter.
Sorrow had faded her vivid bloom: for the distresses of her father weighed heavy on her heart, and the blossom drooped with the tree that supported it. Her agonized parent witnessing this sudden change sent her into Wales, as much for health as for security; she was ordered goat’s whey and gentle exercise; but she firmly believed, that consolation on her father’s account could alone effect a cure.
Though the rose upon her cheek was pale, and the lustre of her eyes was fled, she was from those circumstances (if less dazzling to 9 the eye) more affecting to the heart. Cold and unfeeling indeed must that one have been, which could see her unmoved: for hers was that interesting face and figure, which had power to fix the wandering eye, and change the gaze of admiration into the throb of sensibility; nor was her mind inferior to the form that enshrined it.
She now exerted her spirits in gratitude to her humble but benevolent friends. Her arrival had occasioned a little festival at the cottage: the tea-things, which were kept more for show than use in the ebony cupboard, were now taken out, and carried by her desire to the recess in the garden; whither Mrs. Edwin followed the family with a hot cake, Amanda thought large enough to serve half the principality.
The scene was delightful and well calculated to banish all sadness but despair; Amanda was therefore cheered; for she was too much the child of piety ever to have felt its baleful influence. In the midst of her troubles she still looked up with humble confidence to that Power, who has promised never to forsake the righteous.
The harmless jest, the jocund laugh went round, and Amanda enjoyed the innocent gaiety; for a benevolent mind will ever derive pleasure from the happiness of others. The declining sun now gave softer beauties to the extensive scenery; the lowing of the cattle was faintly echoed by the neighbouring hills; the cheerful carol of the peasant floated on the evening gale, that stole perfumes from beds of flowers, and wafted them around; the busy bees had now completed the delicious labor of the day, and with incessant humming sought their various hives, while
Deep-tangled, tree irregular, and bush
Were prodigal of harmony.
To complete the concert, a blind harper, who supported himself by summer rambles through the country, strolled into the garden: and after a plentiful repast of bread and cheese, and nut-brown ale, began playing.
The venerable appearance of the musician, the simple melody of his harp, recalled to Amanda’s recollection the tales of other times, in which she had so often delighted; it sent her soul back to the ages of old, to the days of other years, when bards rehearsed the exploits of heroes, and sung the praises of the dead, “while the ghosts of 10 those they sung came in their rustling winds, and were seen to bend with joy towards the sound of their praise.” To proceed in the beautiful language of Ossian: “the sound was mournful and low, like the song of the tomb; such as Fingal heard when the crowded sighs of his bosom rose;” and, “some of my heroes are low,” said the grey-haired king of Morven: “I hear the sound of death on the harp. Ossian, touch the trembling string. Bid the sorrow rise, that their spirits may fly with joy to Morven’s woody hills.” He touched the harp before the king: the sound was mournful and low. “Bend forwards from your clouds,” he said; “ghosts of my fathers, bend. Lay by the red terror of your course. Receive the falling chief; whether he comes from a distant land, or rises from the rolling sea, let his robe of mist be near, his spear that is formed of a cloud; place a half-extinguished meteor by his side, in the form of the hero’s sword. And, oh! let his countenance be lovely, that his friends may delight in his presence. Bend from your clouds,” he said, “ghosts of my fathers, bend.”
The sweet enthusiasm which arose in Amanda’s mind from her present situation her careful nurse soon put an end to, by reminding her of the heavy dew then falling. Amanda could have staid for hours in the garden; but, resigning her inclination to her nurse’s, she immediately accompanied her into the house. She soon felt inclined to retire to rest; and after a slight supper of strawberries and cream (which was all they could prevail on her to touch) she withdrew to her chamber, attended by the nurse and her two daughters, who all thought their services requisite: and it was not without much difficulty Amanda persuaded them to the contrary.
Left to solitude, a tender awe stole upon the mind of Amanda, when she reflected, that in this very room her mother had expired. The recollection of her sufferings, the sorrows her father and self had experienced since the period of her death, the distresses they still felt and might yet go through, all raised a sudden agony in her soul, and tears burst forth; she went to the bed, and knelt beside it.—“Oh! my mother,” she cried, “if thy departed spirit is permitted to look down upon this world, hear and regard the supplications of thy child, for thy protection amidst the snares which may be spread for her. Yet,” continued she, after a pause, “that Being, who has taken thee to himself, will, if I continue innocent, extend his guardian 11 care; to Him therefore, to Him be raised the fervent prayer for rendering abortive every scheme of treachery.”
She prayed with all the fervency of devotion; her wandering thoughts were all restrained, and her passions gradually subsided into a calm.
Warmed by a pure and ardent piety, that sacred power which comes with healing on its wings to the afflicted children of humanity, she felt a placid hope spring in her heart, that whispered to it, all would yet be well.
She rose tranquil and animated. The inhabitants of the cottage had retired to repose; and she heard no sound save the ticking of the old clock from the outside room. She went to the window, and raising the white calico curtain, looked down the valley; it was illuminated by the beams of the moon, which tipt the trees with a shadowy silver, and threw a line of radiance on the clear rivulet. All was still as if creation slept upon the bosom of serenity. Here, while contemplating the scene, a sudden flutter at the window startled her; and she saw in a moment after a bird flit across, and perch on a tree whose boughs shaded the casement: a soft serenade was immediately begun by the sweet and plaintive bird of night.
Amanda at length dropped the curtain and sought repose; it soon blest her eyelids, and shed a sweet oblivion over all her cares.
Sleep on, sweet innocent—
And when a soul is found sincerely so
A thousand liv’ry’d angels lacquey it,
Driving far off all thought of harm or sin.
Notes and Corrections: Chapter I
“Ossian”, also spelled Oisín, was the brainchild of James MacPherson (1736–1796). From the poems’ first “discovery” in the 1760s, there were doubters, but the hoax wouldn’t be fully exposed until far into the 19th century.
The farm-yard at the back of the cottage was stocked with poultry,
Fitzalan, the father of Amanda, was the descendant of an ancient Irish family