From The Fair Lavinia and Others (Harper and Brothers; New York: 1907)
“Eglantina, tall and fair,
Queen of Beauty and of Grace,
All my darkened house of life
Is illumined by thy face.
“Shineth thou unto my heart
As the dew in morning field,
When beneath the eastern sun
Gems of Zion blaze revealed.
“Sweet'nest thou my every thought
Like the bud when night hath passed,
And she breaks her seal of bloom
To become a rose at last.
“Though in gloom thy lover sighs,
Eglantina, tall and fair,
Love the Blind hath touched his eyes,
And he sees thee past compare!”
These verses were cut and skilfully colored, illuminated after a simple fashion, on a window-shutter in the east parlor of the old Litchfield house, in Litchfield Village.
That was Eglantina's favorite room, and there she used to sit with Roger Proctor. Eglantina's father had married for the second time when her mother had been dead ten years, and she was eleven. The new wife had been a widow with one child, Roger Proctor, a little younger than Eglantina. Dr. Eliphalet Litchfield had been jealous of this son by a former husband, and had insisted upon the mother's practically separating from him upon her marriage with himself.
So the boy, who had been blind from scarlet-fever ever since his infancy, was put to board with a distant relative of his mother's, and was seldom seen by her.
The new wife was scarcely more than a girl, although a widow with a son of ten. She was a mild and delicate creature, whose only force of character lay in loving devotion, and that proved too strenuous for her fragile constitution. She died a year after her marriage, and her little daughter died with her.
Then Dr. Litchfield sent for the blind son of the dead woman, and lavished upon him a curious affection, which was at first not so much affection as a sentiment of duty and remorse. This man, given to fierce strains of mood, chose to fancy that his young wife's untimely death was a judgment of God for their desertion of her blind son. From the time that Roger Proctor came to live in the Litchfield house his lines were cast in pleasant places. Dr. Litchfield enjoined upon his daughter Eglantina that she was to treat the strange little boy as her own brother, and he himself showed more indulgence towards him than towards her. However, Eglantina needed no such reminding. From the minute that the blind child entered the house, the other child was his willing slave. Nothing was ever seen more appealing to old and young than that little blind boy, Roger Proctor. His hair, which hung in straight, smooth lengths, had a wonderful high light around his head which suggested an aureole. His young face between these lines of gold was an oval so pure that it had an effect of majesty and peace, even in the child. His blind eyes, large and blue, seeming to give instead of receive light, gazed with unswerving directness from under a high forehead of innocent seriousness. Although his forehead seemed almost frowning with gravity, Roger's mouth was always smiling with a wonderful smile, before which people shrank a little. “He looks like an angel,” they said. The blind boy gave, as no seeing child could have done, an impression of light and clearness. Soon his step-father adored him, and as for Eglantina, she worshipped him from the first.
No greater contrast could have been imagined than there was between the girl and the boy. They were of about the same age, but Eglantina was head and shoulders above Roger, though he was not below the usual height. But Eglantina was abnormally tall; her stature was almost a deformity, especially since she was exceedingly slender. And that was not all: crowning that slim height was a head and face unfortunate not so much from lack of beauty as from a mark on one cheek which had been there from birth. A story was told in the village of how Dr. Litchfield's wife had longed for roses in winter when there were none, and talked of the roses which climbed over the front porch in the summer-time, and declared that she could smell them when none were there; and how at last, when Eglantina was born, there on one little cheek was that hideous travesty of a red rose, which she must bear until the day of her death. The mother, who had a strong vein of romance, had called the child Eglantina, and mourned until she died, not long after, because of her disfigurement, and often kissed, with tears of self-reproach and the most passionate tenderness and pity, the mark on the little cheek, as if she would kiss it away.
Dr. Litchfield ever after hated roses; he would have none in his garden, and the eglantine over the front porch was rooted up. Eglantina herself had an antipathy to roses, and never could she have a whiff of rose scent but that she turned faint and ill. Nothing could exceed the child's sensitiveness with regard to the mark on her cheek. She never looked in her glass without seeing that, and that only. That dreadful blur of youth and beauty seemed all her face; she was blind to all else. She shrank from strangers with a shyness that was almost panic. Eyes upon her face seemed to scorch her very heart. But as she grew older, although the inward suffering was much the same, she learned to give less outward evidence of it. She no longer shrank so openly from strangers; she even endured pitying glances or repulsion with a certain gentleness, which gave evidence to enormous patience rather than bravery. When Roger had been in her father's house some years, she became conscious of a feeling which filled her with horror. She strove against it, she tried to imagine that it was not so, that she could not be such a monster, but she knew all of a sudden that she was glad that Roger was blind. Whenever she looked at him came the wild, selfish triumph and joy that he could not see her. Her consciousness of this came upon her in full force for the first time one afternoon in August, when she was eighteen and Roger a few months younger. They were crossing a field behind the house, hand in hand as usual, when Roger turned his sightless eyes towards the sorrel, and nodded and smiled as if he saw. “I have made a poem to you, Eglantina,” said he.
Eglantina colored until the rest of her face was as red as the rose-mark on her left cheek; then she turned pale, and that brought it into stronger relief. “You must not,” she said, faintly.
“Why not? There is no one in the whole world as beautiful as you are, Eglantina.”
“No, I am not,” she returned, in a pitiful, hesitating voice, as if the truth were stifling her.
“You do not know; you never saw me.”
“I have seen you with my whole soul. You are the most beautiful girl in the whole world, Eglantina.”
Eglantina shut her mouth hard. She pulled her broad-brimmed hat over her face by the green bridle-ribbon, and cast her disfigured cheek into a deep shadow.
Roger looked at her anxiously. “What is the matter, Eglantina?” he asked, softly.
“Nothing,” said she.
When they reached home, she ran up to her own chamber. She went to her little mirror over her white-draped dressing-table and gazed long in it. Then she sank down before it on the floor, in an agony of self-abasement. After a while she rose and pulled the muslin drapery over the glass, and did not look in it again. When she went down-stairs there was Roger's poem cut skilfully on the shutter in the east parlor. Roger could not use pen or pencil to much advantage, but he could cut the letters plainly, feeling them with his long, sensitive fingers. Eglantina held her cambric pocket-handkerchief over her marred cheek, and read every word, smiling tenderly. Then she put the handkerchief to her eyes and leaned against the shutter and sobbed softly. Then Roger came into the room, feeling his way towards her, and she choked her sobs back and dried her eyes. Roger wished to color the letters of his poem, and Eglantina sorted out the colors from her paint-box, and he painted them.
Then, whenever she saw that poem to Eglantina tall and fair, she tried to picture herself as Roger saw her, and not as she really was. She tried to forget the birth-mark, she tried not to think of it when she spoke to Roger, lest the consciousness of it be evident in her voice, but that she could not compass. She thought of it always, and the more she strove against it the more she was conscious of it, until she grew to feel as if the mark were on her very soul. But her patience grew and grew to keep pace with it. There was in her heart ceaseless torture and suffering, but never rebellion.
Everybody who knew Eglantina spoke well of her. They said what a pity that such a good girl should be under such an affliction, and they also said, when they saw the piteous couple together, the man who could not see and the woman who should not be seen, that there was an ideal match. Eglantina's father began also to have that fancy. He had grown old of late years, and had the troubled persistency of a child for his way when once he had begun to dwell upon it. It was not long after Roger had cut his verses to Eglantina tall and fair on the shutter that he called Eglantina back one evening after she had started up-stairs with her candle. “Eglantina, come here a moment,” he said, “I want to speak to you.”
Eglantina returned and stood before him, the candle-light illuminating her poor face, which her father had never seen without a qualm of pain and rebellion. That mark was for him like a blot on the fair face of love itself, and his will rose up against it in futile revolt. Her father looked at her, his forehead contracted, then he turned towards the shutter, and again towards her with a half-smile, while one long finger pointed to the verses. “Have you seen these, Eglantina?” he said.
“Yes, sir,” replied Eglantina, gravely. She looked full at her father with a look which was fairly eloquent. “See what I am,” it said. “What have I to do with love-verses? Why do you mock me by speaking of this?”
But her father shook his head stubbornly, as if in direct answer to such unspoken speech of hers. “If,” he said, with a sort of stern abashedness, for he had never spoken of such things to his daughter — “if your own heart leads you in that direction, Eglantina, there is no possible objection, and I should like to see you settled. I am growing old.”
Eglantina, still speechless, raised one arm, her lace sleeve falling back from her wrist, and pointed to her marred left cheek. There was in the gesture utmost resignation and pride, and her eyes reproved her father mutely.
Her father frowned and continued shaking his head in denial. “I still say that under the circumstances there can be no possible objection,” he said. “What difference can that make to a blind man who has learned to esteem you for your own true worth, and has invested you in his own mind with the graces of person to correspond with those of your character?”
Eglantina looked at him. After all, she was eager to be persuaded. “I cannot keep it secret from him,” she faltered.
“How can you do aught else? How can you describe your face to a blind man?”
Eglantina continued to regard her father with eyes of painful searching, as one who would discover hope against conviction and find refutation for her own argument.
“Roger has been told repeatedly,” said her father.
Eglantina nodded. She herself had told him and he had laughed at her.
“And the telling conveys no meaning to him,” said her father. “What does beauty or deformity of the flesh signify to a blind man?”
“I can see, and I can see that which he loves mistakenly,” replied Eglantina, in a pitiful voice.
The two stood facing each other, both the father and daughter above middle height, for Eglantina got her height from her father. The two faces were on a level.
“Do as your heart dictates, my daughter,” said her father, “and have no fear.”
The next day, in the afternoon, when seated in the arbor in the garden with her embroidery work, she saw Roger coming, walking almost as if he saw, with no outstretching of feeling hands. In fact, he knew his way well enough between the flower-beds, being guided by their various odors. Eglantina, watching him approach, swept a great bunch of brown curls completely over her disfigured cheek, and sat so when he entered.
“Pass all the other lesser flowers by until you find the rose,” he said, laughing tenderly.
“I am no rose,” said Eglantina.
“The rose does not know she is herself, else she would be no rose,” said Roger.
“I am a poor mockery of a rose, from this dreadful mark on my cheek,” said Eglantina, and she felt as if she were about to die, for it seemed to her that such brutal frankness must convince.
But Roger only laughed. “The rose has a scratch from a thorn on one of her petals,” he returned, “or a bee has sucked too greedily for honey. What of it? Is there not enough beauty left? There is no one in the whole world so beautiful as you, Eglantina. A mark on your cheek! What is a mark on your cheek but a beauty, since it is a part of you? Fret no more about it, sweetheart.”
Eglantina looked at him, at the beautiful face in a cloud of golden beard, at the sightless blue eyes, and she pulled the curls closer over her cheek and resisted no longer.
It was then the first of September, and it was decided to have the marriage the next month; there was no reason why they should wait, and Dr. Litchfield was disposed to hasten the wedding. Soon the simple preparations were nearly finished. Roger's chamber had been newly papered with a pale-green satin paper, sprinkled with bouquets of flowers. Roger's wedding suit was ready, and Eglantina's gown. The gown was a peach-blow silk, and it lay in shimmering folds on the high bed in the spare chamber, and from the tester floated the veil, and a pair of little rose-colored slippers toed out daintily beside the dimity dresser, and in a little box thereon was a brooch which Roger had given her — a knot of his fair hair set in a ring of pearls.
One evening, after a very warm day, Roger and Eglantina returned from a long walk down the country road and went into the house. They kissed each other in the front entry, then Roger went up-stairs, in the dark, and Eglantina lighted her chamber candle.
But her father called her again, and she went into the east parlor as before, with the candle throwing an upward light upon her face. This time Dr. Litchfield hesitated long before speaking, so long that she looked at him in surprise, thinking that she had perhaps not understood, and he had not called her. “Did you want to see me, father?” she asked.
“Yes, Eglantina,” he replied; but still he hesitated, and she waited in growing wonder and alarm. “Eglantina,” Dr. Litchfield said, presently.
“Dr. David Lyman is in the South Village. He has been attending the daughter of Squire Eggleston, who lost her sight from scarlet-fever,” her father said, abruptly. Eglantina turned white, and gave a quick gasp.
“He will restore her sight,” said her father, and he paused. Eglantina was silent and motionless. She stood with her mouth set hard and her eyes averted.
“It might be well to have him see Roger,” said her father. He did not look at her.
Eglantina turned and went out of the room without a word. She was awake all night, pleading pitilessly for and against herself, as if she had been a stranger. Monstrous as it might seem, there was something to be said in favor of letting the physician who might restore Roger's sight pass by, and keeping her lover blind until the day of his death. “If Roger gains his sight, he loses love,” she said; “and he is one who, if love go amiss, will come to harm in himself.” And that was quite true, for Roger Proctor was a man to be made or marred by love.
“Will he not lose more than he gains?” Eglantina asked herself, and, though her judgment told her yes, yet she dared not trust to her judgment when her inclination so swayed her. Then, moreover, to such strength her love had grown that all the old guilty secret gladness over his blindness was gone, and instead was a great tenderness and pity for her lover that he must go blind and miss so much. “He can see a plenty that is beautiful if he miss the beauty in me,” thought Eglantina; “and who am I to say that no other woman besides me can make him happy?”
But always she went back to the fear as to how he would endure the awful shock when, after his eyesight was restored, he should look for the first time on her face, and see what he had loved and kissed. She thought truly not then of her own distress and humiliation, but of him, and what he would suffer, and she could not argue that away. Then all at once her mind was at rest, for a great and unselfish, though fantastic, plan had occurred to her, and she knew what she could do to spare him.
The next morning there was an expression in her face which dominated all disfigurement and would have dominated beauty as well.
“When will he come?” she asked her father, when Roger was not within hearing.
“This afternoon, if I go for him,” replied her father, with his eyes still on her face, “but you had best not tell Roger until the doctor has pronounced on the case. You had best not hold up hope that may come to naught.”
“It will not come to naught,” she replied; and after breakfast she told Roger that a doctor was coming who would cure his eyes and he would see.
Roger received the news with a curious calmness at first, but as he reflected a great joy grew and strengthened in his face. Then he cried out, suddenly, “Then I shall see you, I shall see you!”
“Yes,” said Eglantina.
“Why do you speak so, Eglantina? Your voice sounds strange.”
There was a peculiar quality in Eglantina's voice, a peculiarity of intonation, which made it unmistakable among others, and just then it had disappeared.
“Why strange?” said she.
“It is strange now. Are you not glad that I am to see — to see you, sweetheart?”
“I am more than glad,” replied Eglantina. Then she went away hurriedly, though Roger called wonderingly and in a hurt fashion after her.
That afternoon, before the doctor came, Eglantina sent a letter to her cousin, Charlotte Wyatt, who lived in Boston, and who was to be present at the wedding, to hasten her coming. The two were great friends, though Charlotte had visited Eglantina but once, when Roger was away, and so had never seen him, but Eglantina had often visited Boston, and the two wrote frequent letters.
“Come if you can in a fortnight's time, dear Charlotte,” wrote Eglantina, “though that be a fortnight before the day set for the wedding, for I am in sore trouble and distress of mind, and only you can comfort and help me.” And she wrote not a word with regard to Roger's eyes. And she did not mention Charlotte's coming to Roger.
That afternoon Dr. David Lyman came at Dr. Litchfield's bidding, and the operation on Roger's eyes was performed with great hope of success, though the result could not be certainly known for the space of two weeks, when Dr. Lyman would return and the bandages would be removed. During those two weeks Eglantina nursed Roger tenderly, and let no trace of her own sadness appear. Indeed, she began to feel that she should have joy enough if Roger regained his sight, even if she lost him thereby, for the blind man was full of delight, and for the first time revealed how he had suffered in his mind because of his loss of sight.
Then, the day before the one appointed for the removing of the bandages, came Charlotte Wyatt, stepping out of the stage-coach at the door — a tall and stately maiden, who was held in great renown for her beauty. Charlotte Wyatt, with all her beauty, bore a certain family resemblance to her cousin. She was of the same height, she was shaped like her, she moved and spoke like her, having the same trick of intonation in her grave, sweet voice. But this resemblance only served to make Eglantina's defects a more lamentable contrast to the other's beauty. It was like a perfect and a deformed rose on the same bush. The deformed flower was the worse deformed for being a rose beside the other.
That night the two girls lay awake all night in bed and talked, and Eglantina told the other her trouble, and yet not all, for she did not discover to her the plan which she had made. Charlotte held her cousin in her arms, and wept over her, and pitied her with a pity which bore a cruel sting in it. “I do not wonder that your heart aches, sweetheart, for surely never was a man like Roger, and you might well love him better blind than any other man with his sight,” said Charlotte Wyatt, fervently. She had not spoken to Roger, but she had peeped into the room where he sat with his eyes bandaged, with Eglantina reading to him. Eglantina shrank from her suddenly when she said that. “What is the matter? What have I said to hurt you, sweet?” cried Charlotte.
“Nothing, dear,” replied Eglantina, and held the other girl close in her arms.
“I never loved any man overmuch, though so many have said that they loved me, but I can see how you love Roger,” Charlotte said, innocently.
“There is no one like him,” Eglantina agreed, and she began sobbing in a despairing fashion, and Charlotte strove to comfort her.
“He will love you just the same when he can see,” she said. “Beauty is but skin deep, sweetheart.”
“I care not, oh, I care not, so he is not hurt,” sobbed Eglantina.
“How you love him!” whispered the other girl. “If he be not true to love like yours, he is more blind when he sees than when he saw not.”
It was the next afternoon that the bandages were to be removed from Roger Proctor's eyes, and it would then be known if the operation were a success. The great doctor and Eglantina's father and the nurse were in the room with Roger. Eglantina and Charlotte waited outside. Charlotte was dressed in a lilac satin gown, falling in soft folds around her lovely height, and her fair hair was twisted into a great knot, from which fell a shower of loose curls around her rosy face; and since she had come away without a certain tucker of wrought lace which she much affected, Eglantina had dressed her in one of her own, taking a sachet of lavender, and she had fastened it with her brooch of Roger's hair set in pearls. The two moved about uneasily.
They listened to every sound from the next room, the doctor's study, where Roger and the two physicians were, and presently out came Dr. Eliphalet Litchfield, not with the gladness of his profession after a successful operation, but falteringly, with pitiful eyes upon his daughter.
“Well?” said Eglantina to him.
“He sees,” replied Dr. Litchfield, in a husky voice. He looked hesitatingly at Eglantina.
The door was opened again, and Dr. David Lyman looked out. “He is asking for your daughter,” he said to Eliphalet Litchfield.
“Eglantina! Eglantina!” called Roger's voice, high with nervousness. He was too weak to stir; the strain had been severe, and he was of a delicate physique.
“You had best come at once,” whispered the doctor. “He has been under a great stress, and it is not advisable to cross him; even his sight may depend upon it.”
Eglantina laid a hand with a weight of steel on her cousin's arm. “Go,” she said.
Charlotte stared, pale and scared.
“Go,” said Eglantina.
Dr. Litchfield made a motion forward, but Eglantina stopped him with a look. She pushed Charlotte towards the study door, and whispered sharply in her ear: “You heard what the doctor said. Don't let him know. Go.”
Charlotte went into the room half by force, half with bewildered acquiescence. Then the three outside heard a great cry of rapture from Roger, and Eglantina went away hurriedly, leaving the men looking at each other.
It was nearly time for the stage-coach. Eglantina was waiting for it at the turn of the road. No one had seen her leave the house. An hour later Dr. Litchfield found a letter pinned to his cloak, which hung in the entry. It was very brief: “Dear father, this is to inform you that I have gone to Aunt Pamela's. Do not undeceive Roger at present, and do not let Charlotte. Your respectful and obedient daughter to command, Eglantina.”
Eglantina had been with her Aunt Pamela a week, when one afternoon came Charlotte riding in the doctor's chaise, herself driving with a pretty skill, holding the reins high, slapping the white horse's back with them, and clucking to him like a bird to hasten his pace. And she, running into Miss Pamela Litchfield's house, and finding Eglantina by herself embroidering in the parlor, in the deep window-seat, caught her round the waist and talked fast, half laughing and half crying. “He will have none of me,” she said. “This morning he told me, with as near tears as a man may, that he accounted himself as worthy of great blame, but held that he might be worthy of more did he dissemble. This to me; and to my uncle, your father, he said more. This he said of me — of me, who has had some praise, whether deserved or not, for her looks — that he was disappointed in my poor face, that it was not what he had deemed it to be, that it was less fair. And then I, having heard what he said to my uncle, and being, I will admit, something taken aback by such slighting — I told him that it was all a deception, that I was my poor self instead of his beloved Eglantina, that she had been unexpectedly called away, and that we had deceived him for his health's sake; and, Lord! had you but seen how he brightened! And now you must go to him, sweetheart.”
It was evening when Eglantina and Charlotte rode into the yard of the Litchfield house, and the next morning Eglantina went into the east parlor and stood before Roger Proctor; and a sunbeam from the east window, the lettered shutter of which had been thrown open, fell upon her poor face with the monstrous travesty of a rose disfiguring her cheek; and Roger gave one great, glad cry of recognition, and she was in his arms, and he was covering her face with kisses, and looking at it with ecstasy as if it were the face of an angel. “Oh, Eglantina!” he said. “It is you, sweetheart — you and no other! No other could have such beauty as thine, the beauty I have seen with my soul, and now see with my twice-blessed eyes.”
Eglantina lived and died, and her long grave is in the graveyard of Litchfield Village, and at the head is a marble stone on which are cut the verses beginning, “Eglantina, tall and fair.”