WHILE such happy prospects were opening on the future life of her friend, the time of Charlotte Henley was very differently occupied in the country. There is, however, a tendency in youth to rise with events that does not readily admit of depression, and the disorder of George Morton was one of all others the most flattering when near its close. Even the more mature experience of his parents was misled by the deceptive symptoms that his complaint assumed in the commencement of summer. They who so fondly hoped the result, began to believe that youth and the bland airs of June were overcoming the inexorable enemy. That the strength of the young man lessened with every succeeding day, was an event to be expected from his low diet and protracted confinement; but his brightening eyes, and the flitting colour that would at times add to their fiery radiance, brought to the youthful Charlotte the most heartfelt, though secret, rapture. This state between reviving hope and momentary despondency had prevailed for several weeks, when the affectionate girl entered an apartment that communicated with George's own room, where she found the invalid reclining on a settee apparently deeply communing with himself. He was alone; and his appearance, as well as the heavens and the earth, united to encourage the sanguine expectation of the pure heart that throbbed so ardently when its owner witnessed any favourable change in the countenance of the young man. The windows were raised, and the balmy air of a June morning played through the apartment, lending in reality an elastic vigour to the decaying organs of the sick youth. The tinge in his cheeks was heightened by the mellow glow of the sun's rays as they shone through the medium of the rose- coloured curtains of the window, and Charlotte thought she once more beheld the returning colour of health where it had been so long absent.
"How much better you appear this morning, George," she cried, in a voice whose melody was even heightened by its gaiety. "We shall soon have you among us once more, and then, heedless one, beware how you trifle again with that best of heaven's gifts, your health. Oh, this is a blessed climate! our summer atones with its mildness for the dreariness and perils of our winter; it has even given me a colour, pale-face as I am--I can feel it burn on my cheek."
He raised his head from its musing position at the first sounds of her voice, and smiled faintly, and with an expression of anguish, as she proceeded; but when she had ended, and taken her seat near him, still keeping her eyes on his varying countenance, he took her hand into his own before he replied. A good deal surprised at his manner, and at this act, which exceeded the usual familiarity of even their affectionate intercourse, the colour, of which Miss Henley had been so playfully boasting, changed once or twice with rapid transitions.
"Seem I so well, dear Charlotte?" he at length said in a low, tremulous, and hollow voice, "seem I so well? I believe you are right, and that I shall shortly be better--much better."
"What mean you, George? feel you any worse? have I disturbed you with my presence and my thoughtless gaiety?"
The young man smiled again, but the expression of his face was no longer mingled with a look of anguish; it was a kind benevolent gleam of gratitude and affection which crossed his ghastly features, like a ray of sunshine enlivening the gloom of a day in winter.
"You disturb me, Charlotte!" he answered, his very voice trembling as if in sympathy with his frame: "I do believe but for you I should have been long since in my grave."
"No, no, George, this is too melancholy a theme for us both just now; let us talk of your returning health."
He pressed her hand to his heart before he replied-- "My health will never return; I am lost to this world; and in fact at this moment I properly belong to another in my body: would to God that I was purely so in feelings also."
"Surely, George, you are alarming yourself unnecessarily."
"I am not alarmed," he replied; "I have too long foreseen this event, to feel alarmed at my approaching dissolution--no, for that, blessed be my God and my Redeemer, I am in some degree prepared; but I feel it impossible to shake off the feelings of this life while the pulse continues to beat, and yet the emotions I now experience must be in some measure allied to heaven; they are not impure, they are not selfish; nothing can partake of either, dear Charlotte, where your image is connected with the thoughts of a future world."
"Oh, George! talk not so gloomily, so cruelly, this morning--your whole countenance contradicts your melancholy speech, and you are better--indeed you are;--you must be better."
"Yes, I am better, I am nearly well," returned the youth, pausing a moment, while a struggle of the most painful interest seemed to engross his thoughts. As it passed away, he drew his hand feebly across his clammy brow, and, smiling faintly, resumed his speech,--"on the brink of the grave, at a moment when all thoughts of me must be connected with the image of death, there can no longer be any necessity for silence. You have been kind to us, dear Miss Henley, as you are kind to all; but to me your sympathy has been trebly dear, for it has brought with it a consolation and pleasure that you but little imagine."
Miss Henley raised her tearful eyes from the floor to his wan features, that now appeared illumined with more than human fires, and her pale lips quivered, but her voice was inaudible.
"Yes, Charlotte, I may now speak without injustice, or the fear of being selfish: I have long loved you-- how tenderly, how purely, none can ever know; but could I, with a certainty of my fate before my eyes, with the knowledge that my days were numbered, and that the sun of my life could never reach its meridian, woo you to my love, to make you miserable! No, dearest! your gentle heart will mourn the brother and the friend too much for its own peace; it needed not the sting of a stronger grief."
"George, George," sobbed the convulsed girl, "think not of me; speak not of me--if it can cheer you at such a moment to know how much you are valued by me, no cold reserve shall be found on my part."
The young man started, and fastened his eyes on her face with an indefinable look of delight mingled with sorrow.
"Charlotte!" he exclaimed, "do I hear aright? am I so miserable! am I so happy! repeat those words-- quick--my eyes grow dim--my senses deceive me."
"Live, George Morton," said Charlotte firmly: "you are better--your whole face bespeaks it; and if the tender care of an affectionate wife can preserve your health, you shall long live a blessing to all who love you."
As Charlotte uttered, thus ingenuously, her pure attachment, the youth extended his hand towards her blindly. She gave him her own, which he drew to his heart, and folded to his bosom with a warm pressure for an instant, when his hold relaxed, his form dropping backward on the sofa, and in that attitude he expired without a struggle.
We shall not dwell on the melancholy scene that followed. At the funeral of George Morton Miss Henley was not to be seen, nor was it generally understood that the young people had been connected in the closest ties of feeling. She made no display of her grief in her dress, unless the slight testimonials of a few bright ribbands on the virgin white of her robe could be called such, and the rumour that was at first propagated of their being engaged to each other was discredited, because the traces of sorrow were not particularly visible in the attire of Miss Henley. When the season of gaiety returned, she appeared as usual in her place in society. Though her cheeks were seldom enriched with the faint glow that once rendered her so beautiful, and she was less dazzling in her appearance, yet, if possible, she was more lovely and attractive. In the course of the winter, several gentlemen approached her with the evident intention of offering their hands. Their advances were received with great urbanity, but in most instances with that unembarrassed manner that is fatal to hope. One of her admirers, however, persevered so far as to solicit her hand: the denial was mild, but resolute; like most young men who think their happiness dependent on a lady's smile, he wished to know if he had a successful rival. He was assured he had not. His curiosity even went so far as to inquire if Miss Henley had abjured matrimony. The answer was a simple, unaffected negative. Amazed at his own want of success, the youth then intimated his intention of making a future application for her favour.
In the mean time, Seymour Delafield, after casting one longing, lingering look at Miss Henley, became the husband of her friend, and made the fourteenth in the prolific family of the Osgoods, where his wealth was not less agreeable to the parents, than his person to the daughter.
Many years have rolled by since the occurrence of these events, and Miss Henley continues the same in every thing but appearance. The freshness of her beauty has given place to a look of intelligence. and delicacy that seems gradually fitting her for her last and most important change. The name of George Morton is never heard to pass her lips. Mrs. Delafield declares it to be a subject that she never dares to approach, nor in her repeated refusals of matrimonial offers has Charlotte ever been known to allude to the desolation of her own heart. Her father is dead; but to her mother Miss Henley has in a great measure supplied his loss. With her friends she is always cheerful, and apparently happy, though the innocent gaiety of her childhood is sensibly checked, and there are moments that betray the existence of a grief that is only the more durable, because it is less violent. In short, she lives a pattern for her sex, unfettered by any romantic and foolish pledges, discharging all the natural duties of her years and station in an exemplary manner, but unwilling to incur any new ones, because she has but one heart, and that was long since given with its purity, sincerity, and truth, to him who is dead, and can never become the property of another.
When Charlotte Henley dies, although she may not have fulfilled one of the principal objects of her being, by becoming a mother, her example will survive her; and those who study her character and integrity of feeling, will find enough to teach them what properties are the most valuable in forming that sacred character--while her own sex can learn that, though in the case of Miss Henley, Providence has denied the full exercise of her excellences, it has at the same time rendered her a striking instance of female dignity, by exhibiting to the world the difference between affection and caprice, and by shewing how much imagination is inferior to Heart.