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The Widow and her Son: WASHINGTON IRVING. DURING my residence in the country, I used frequently to attend at the old village church, which stood in a country filled with ancient families, and contained within its cold and silent aisles,* the congregated dust of many noble generations. Its shadowy aisles,* its mouldering monumonts, its dark oaken pannelling, all reverend with the gloom of departed years, seemed to fit it for the haunt of solemn meditation. A Sunday, too, in the country, is so holy in its repose ; such a pensive quiet reigns over the face of nature, that every restless passion is charmed down, and we feel all the natural religion of the soul gently springing up within us :
“Sweet day, so pure, so calm, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and 'sky !-19 I do not pretend to be what is called a devout man; but there are feelings that visit me in a country church, amid the beautiful serenity of nature, which I experience no where else; and if not a more religious, I think I am a better man on Sunday, than on any other day of the seven.
But in this church I felt myself continually thrown back upon the world, by the frigidity and pomp of the poor worms around me.
The only being that seemed thoroughly to feel the humble and prostrate piety of a true Christian, was a poor decrepit old woman, bending under the weight of years and infirmities. She bore the trace of something better than abject poverty. The lingerings of decent pride were visible in her appearance. Her dress, though humble in the extreme, was scrupulously clean. Some trivial respect, too, had been awarded her, for she did not take her seat among the village poor, but sat alone on the steps of the altar. She seemed to have survived all love, all friendship, all society; and to have nothing left her but the hopes of heaven. When I saw her feebly rising and bending her aged form in prayer—habitually conning her prayer-book, which her palsied hand and failing eyes would not permit her to read, but which she evidently knew by heart-I felt persuaded that the faltering voice of that poor woman arose to Heaven far before the responses of the clerk,t the swell of the organ, or the chanting of the choir.
I am fond of loitering about country churches, and this was su deightfully situated, that it frequently attracted me. * Pron. iles. + Pron. clark.
* Pron, kwire.
It stood on a knoll, round which a stream made a beautiful bend, and then wound its way through a long reach of soft meadow scenery.
The church was surrounded by yew trees, which seemed almost coeval with itself. Its tall Gothic spire shot up lightly from among them, with rooks and crows generally wheeling about it. I was seated there one still, sunny morning, watching two laborers who were digging a grave.—They had chosen one of the most remote and neglected corners of the church-yard; where, from the number of nameless graves around, it would appear that the indigent and friendless were huddled into the earth. told that the new-made grave was for the only son of a poor widow.
While I was meditating on the distinctions of worldly rank, which extend thus down into the very dust, the toll of the bell announced the approach of the funeral. They were the ob'sequies of poverty, with which pride had nothing to do. A coffin of the plainest materials, without pall or other covering, was borne by some of the villagers. The sexton walked before with an air of cold indifference. There were no mock mourners in the trappings of affected wo; but there was one real mourner who feebly tottered after the corpse. It was the aged mother of the deceased the poor old woman whom I had seen seated on the steps of the altar. She was supported by an humble friend, who was endeavoring to comfort her. A few of the neighboring poor had joined the train, and some children of the village were running hand in hand, now shouting with unthinking mirth, and now pausing to gaze, with childish curiosity, on the grief of the mourner.
As the funeral train approached the grave, the parson issued from the church porch, arrayed in the surplice, with prayer-book in hand, and attended by the clerk.* vice, however, was a mere act of charity. The deceased had been destitute, and the survivor was pennyless. shuffled through, therefore, in form, but coldly and unfeelingly. The well-fed priest moved but a few steps from the church door; his voice could scarcely be eard at the grave; and never did I hear the funeral service, that sublime and touching ceremony, turned into such a frigid mummery of words.
I approached the grave. The coffin was placed on the ground. On it was inscribed the name and age of the deceased" George Somers, aged 26 years.” The poor
* Pron, clark.
mother had been assisted to kneel down at the head of it. Her withered hands were clasped as if in prayer, but I could perceive, by a feeble rocking of the body, and a convulsive motion of the lips, that she was gazing on the last relics of her son, with the yearnings of a mother's heart.
The service being ended, preparations were made to deposit the coffin in the earth. There was that bustling stir which breaks so harshly on the feelings of grief and affection : directions given in the cold tones of business; the striking of spades into sand and gravel ; which, at the grave of those we love, is, of all sounds, the most withering. The bustle around seemed to waken the mother from a wretched reverie. She raised her glazed eyes, and looked about with a faint wildness. As the men approached with cords to lower the coffin into the grave, she wrung her hands and broke into an agony of grief. The poor woman who attended her took her by the arm, endeavoring to raise her from the earth, and to whisper something like consolation—"Nay, now-nay, now—don't take it so sorely to heart." She could only shake her head, and wring her hands, as one not to be comforted.
As they lowered the body into the earth, the creaking of the cords seemed to agonize her ; but when, on some accidental obstruction, there was a justling of the coffin, all the tenderness of the mother burst forth ; as if any harm could come to him who was far beyond the reach of worldly suffering. I could see no more—my heart swelled into
throatmy eyes filled with tears— I felt as if I were acting a barbarous part in standing by and gazing idly on this scene of maternal anguish. I wandered to another part of the churchyard, where I remained until the funeral train had dispersed.
When I saw the mother slowly and painfully quitting the grave, leaving behind her the remains of all that was dear to her on earth, and returning to silence and destitution, my heart ached for her. What, thought I, are the distresses of the rich ! they have friends to sooth-pleasures to beguilea world to divert and dissipate their griefs. What are the sorrows of the young! Their growing minds soon close above the wound-their elastic spirits soon rise beneath the pressure-their
and ductile affections soon twine round new objects. But the sorrows of the poor, who have no outward appliances to sooth—the sorrows of the aged, with whom life at best is but a wintry day, and who can look for no after-growth of joy-the sorrows of a widow, aged, solitary, destitute, mourning over an only son, the last solace of her years; these are indeed sorrows which make us feel the im'potency of consolation.
It was some time before I left the church-yard. On my way homeward, I met with the woman who had acted as comforter: she was just returning from accompanying the mother to her lonely habitation, and I drew from her some particulars connected with the affecting scene I had witnessed.
The pārents of the deceased had resided in the village from childhood. They had inhabited one of the neatest cottages, and by various rural occupations, and the assistance of a small garden, had supported themselves creditably and comfortably, and led a happy and a blameless life. They had one son, who had grown up to be the staff and pride of their age.—“Oh, sir !" said the good woman, “ he was such a likely lad, so sweetly tempered, so kind to every one round him, so dutiful to his pārents! It did one's heart good to see him of a Sunday, drest out in his best, so tall, so straight, so cheery, supporting his old mother to church--for she was always fonder of leaning on George's arm than on her goodman's; and, poor soul, she might well be proud of him, for a finer lad there was not in the country round.”
Unfortunately, the son was tempted, during a year of scarcity and agricultural hardship, to enter into the service of one of the small craft that plied on a neighboring river. He had not been long in this employ, when he was entrapped by a press-gang and carried off to sea.
His pārents received tidings of his seizure, but beyond that they could learn nothing. It was the loss of their main prop. The father, who was already infirm, grew heartless and melancholy, and sunk into his grave. The widow, left lonely in her age and feebleness, could no longer support herself, and came upon the parish. Still there was a kind feeling toward her throughout the village, and a certain respect, as being one of the oldest inhabitants. As no one applied for the cottage in which she had passed so many happy days,
she was permitted to remain in it, where she lived solitary and almost helpless. The few wants of nature were chiefly supplied from the scanty productions of her little garden, which the neighbors would now and then cultivate for her. It was but a few days before the time at which these circumstances were told me, that she was gathering some vegetables for her repast, when she heard the cottage-door which faced the garden suddenly opened. A stranger came out, and seemed to be looking eagerly and wildly around. He was dressed in seaman's clothes, was emaciated and ghastly pale, and bore the air of one broken by sickness and hardships. He saw her, and hastened toward her, but his steps were faint and faltering; he sank on his knees before her, and sobbed like a child. The poor woman gazed upon him with a vacant and wandering eye-"Oh my dear, dear mother! don't you
son! your poor boy George !" li was, indeed, the wreck of her once noble lad; who, shattered by wounds, by sickness, and foreign imprisonment, had, at length, dragged his wasted limbs homeward, to repose among the scenes of his childhood.
I will not attempt to detail the particulars of such a meeting, where joy and sorrow were so completely blended: still he was alive! he was come home! he might yet live to comfort and cherish her old age! Nature, however, was exhausted in him; and if any thing had been wanting to finish the work of fate, the desolation of his native cottage would have been sufficient. He stretched himself on the pallet on which his widowed mother had passed many a sleepless night, and he never rose from it again.
The villagers, when they heard that George Somers had returned, crowded to see him, offering every comfort and assistance that their humble means afforded. He was too weak, however, to talk-he could only look his thanks. His mother was his constant attendant; and he seemed unwilling to be helped by any other hand.
There is something in sickness that breaks down the pride of manhood; that softens the heart, and brings it back to the feelings of infancy. Who that has languished, even in advanced life, in sickness and despondency; who that has pined on a weary bed, in the neglect and loneliness of a foreign land; but has thought on the mother " that looked on his childhood," that smoothed his pillow, and administered to his helplessness ? Oh! there is an enduring tenderness in the love of a mother to a son that transcends