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Why Did The Governess Faint? - Atlantic

We were all sitting together in the evening, and my sister Fanny had been reading aloud from the newspaper. For my father's benefit, she had read all the political articles, and all about business, till he had said he had heard enough, and there was nothing in the papers, and then had left the room. So Fanny looked over the marriages and deaths, and read about the weather in New York and Chicago, and some other things that she thought would interest us while we were sewing. Suddenly I looked up, towards where Miss Agnes was sitting, far away at the other end of the room. She was leaning back in her chair, and, all in a moment, I thought she looked white, as though she had fainted. I did not say a word, but got up and went quietly towards her. I found she had fainted quite away, and her lips were pale, and her eyes shut. I opened the window by her; for the night was cool, and all the windows were closed. There came in a little breeze of fresh air, and then I ran to fetch a glass of water. When I returned, I found Miss Agnes reviving a little. The air and the water served to refresh her, and very gradually she came back to herself. As she opened her eyes, she looked at me wonderingly, then round the room,—then a shudder came over her, as if with a sudden painful memory.

"I'm better,—thank you for the water," she said; and then she rose up and went to the window, and leaned against the casement. I had a glimpse of her face; so sad a face I had never seen before.

For Miss Agnes was not often sad, though she was quiet in her ways and manners. She could be gay, when it was the time to be gay. She was our governess,—that is, she taught Mary and Sophy and me. Fanny was too old to be taught by her, and had an Italian master and a French teacher; but she practised duets for the piano with Miss Agnes, and read with her,—and she made visits with her, for Miss Agnes was a favorite everywhere. She had a kind word for everybody, and listened kindly to all that was said to her. She talked to everybody at the sewing societies, had something to say to every one, and when she came home she had always something to tell that was entertaining. I often wished I could be one-quarter as amusing, but I never could succeed in making my little experiences at all agreeable in the way Miss Agnes did. I have tried it often since, but I always fail. Only the other day, I quite prided myself that I had found out all about Mrs. Endicott's going to Europe, and came home delighted with my piece of news. She was going with her husband; two of the children she was to leave behind, and take the baby with her; they were to be gone six months; and I even knew the vessel they were going in, and the day they were to sail. My intelligence was very quickly told;—Miss Agnes and many others would have made a great deal more of it. I had no sooner come to the end than Fanny said, "Who is going to take care of the children she leaves at home?" I had never thought to ask! I was disappointed;—my news was quite imperfect; I might as well not have tried to bring any news. But it was never so with Miss Agnes. I believe it was because she was really interested in what concerned others, that they always told her willingly about themselves; and though she never was inquisitive about others' affairs, yet she knew very well all that was going on.

So she was a most valuable member of our home-circle, and was welcome also among our friends. And we thought her beautiful, too. She was very tall and slender, and her light-brown eyes were of the color of her light-brown hair. We liked to see her come into the room,—her smile and face made sunshine there; and she was more to us than a governess,—she was our dear friend.

But now she looked round at me, pale and sad. She suddenly saw that I looked astonished at her, and she said, "I am not well, Jeanie, but we will not say anything about it. I am going to my room; to-morrow I shall be better." She held her hand to her head, and I thought there must be some heavy pain there, she still looked so sad and pale. She bade us all good night and went away.

I did not tell the others what had happened,—partly because, as I have said, I was not in the way of telling things, and partly because they were all talking and had not observed what had been going on. But I found the paper Fanny had been reading, and wondered if there were anything in what she had read that could have moved Miss Agnes so much. I had not been paying much attention to the reading, but I knew upon which side of the paper to look. Fanny told me it was time for me to go to bed, however, and I left my search before I could find anything that seemed to concern Miss Agnes. I stopped at her door, and bade her good night again; and she came out to me, and kissed me, and said,—I was a good child, and I must not trouble myself about her.

The next day she seemed quiet, yet the same as ever. Though I said nothing to anybody else about her fainting, I could not help telling my friend Jessie of it;—for I always told Jessie everything. Fanny called us the two Jays, we chattered so when we were together. I knew she would not tell anybody, so I could not help sharing my wonder with her,—what could have made Miss Agnes faint so suddenly? She thought it must have been something in the newspaper,—perhaps the death of some friend, or the marriage of some other. I was willing to look again, and this time remembered three things that Fanny had just been reading when I had looked up at Miss Agnes. One was about Mr. Paul Shattuck;—in descending from a haycart, he had fallen upon a pitchfork, and had seriously wounded his thigh. Another was the marriage of Mr. Abraham Black to Miss Susan Whitcomb, and Fanny had wondered if she were related to the Whitcombs of Hadley. Then she had read a singular advertisement for a lost ring, a seal ring, with some Arabic letters engraved upon it. I was of opinion that Miss Agnes was somehow connected with this signet-ring,—that it had some influence over her fate. Jessie thought that Miss Agnes must have been formerly engaged to Mr. Abraham Black, and that when she heard of his marriage——but I interrupted her in this suggestion. In the first place, she could never have been engaged to a Mr. Abraham Black; and then, nobody who could marry Miss Agnes would think of taking up with a Susan Whitcomb. So Jessie fell back upon Paul Shattuck, and, to tell the truth, we had some warm discussions on the subject.

Time passed on, and it was June. One lovely afternoon, we had quite a frolic with the hay, the grass having been cut on the lawn in front of the house. Miss Agnes had been with us. We had made nests in the hay, and had buried each other in deep mounds of it, and had all played till we were quite tired. I went into the house in search of Miss Agnes, after she had gone in, and found her sitting at one of the side windows. I came near, then wished to draw back again, for I saw there were tears in her eyes. But when I found she had seen me, I tried to speak as if I had seen nothing.

"How high the cat has to step, to walk over the grass!" I said, as I looked out of the window.

Miss Agnes put her arms about me. "You wonder, because you see me crying," she said, and looked into my face.

"I never before saw anybody cry that was grown up," said I.

Miss Agnes smiled and said, "They tell children it is naughty to cry; but sometimes you can't help crying, can you?" And her tears came dropping down.

"Oh, Miss Agnes," I said, "I wish I could help your crying! It is too bad!—it is too bad!"

"Yes, it is very bad," she said, as she held me in her arms, "it is very bad; but you do help me. You shall be my little friend."

That was all. She did not tell me anything;—yet I felt as if she had said a great deal, and I did not speak of this to Jessie.

A few days after, as I was passing the door of the parlor, I fancied I heard a little cry, and it sounded to me as if I had heard the voice of Miss Agnes. I hurried in. A stranger had just entered the room. But before me stood Miss Agnes, pale, erect, her lips quivering. She held fast a chair, which she had drawn up in front of her, as one would place a shield between one's self and some wild animal. How slender and defenceless she looked! I followed the terrified glance of her eyes. There, in the middle of the room, stood a stranger,—not so terrible to look upon, for he was young, and it seemed to me I had never seen so handsome a man. His black hair and eyes quite pictured the hero of my romance. He was strongly built, and directly showed his strength by seizing a large marble table that stood near the centre of the room, and wheeling it between himself and Miss Agnes.

"If you are afraid of me," he said, "I will build up a barrier between us. Poor lamb, you would like to be free from the clutches of the wolf!"

"I am afraid of you," said Miss Agnes, slowly,—and the color came into her cheeks. "You know your power over me. I begged you, if you loved me, not to come to me."

"And all for that foolish ring! And the spirits of mischief betrayed its loss to you; it was none of my work that published it in the papers. Can you let a fancy, an old story in a ring, disturb your faith in me?"

"If the faith is disturbed," answered Miss Agnes, "what use in asking what has disturbed it? Ernest, as you stand there, you cannot say you love me as you once professed to love me!"

"I can say that you are my guiding star,—that, if you fail me, I fall away into ruin."

"Can my little light keep you from ruin?" said Miss Agnes, shuddering.
"Do not talk to me so! Alas, you know how weak I am!"

"I know that you are an angel, and that I am too low a wretch to dare to speak to you. I came here to tell you I was worthy of your deepest hatred. But, Agnes, when you speak to me of my power over you, it tempts me to wield it a little longer, before I fall below your contempt."

He walked up and down the room, and presently saw me standing there.

"A listener!" he exclaimed; "you are afraid to be alone with me!"

I was about to leave the room, but he called me back.

"Stay, child!" he said; "if I can speak in her presence, it makes little difference that any one else should hear me. Agnes, little Agnes, you would not like to be quite alone;—let the child stay. Yet you know already that I am faithless to you. You know what I am going to tell you. I love you, passionately, as I have always loved you. But there are other passions hold me tighter. Money, and position,—I need them,—I cannot live without them. The first I have lost already, and the claims I have to reputation will follow soon. I am mad. I am flinging away happiness for the sake of its mask. Next week I marry riches,—a fortune. With the golden lady, I go to Europe. I forsake home,—my better self. I leave you, Agnes;—and you may thank God that I do leave you; I am not worthy of you."

She lifted herself from the chair on which she was leaning, and walked towards him. She laid her hand upon his shoulder, and, white and pale, looked in his face.

"Do not go, Ernest!" she said. "You are mine. A promise cannot be broken;—you are promised to me.—Stay,—do not go away!"

"My beautiful Agnes!" he said, "do you come to lay your pure self down in the scale against my follies and all my passions? You stand before me too fair, too lovely for me. It is only in your presence that I can appear noble enough for you. Even here, by your side, I see the life I must lead with you, the struggle that you must share. In that life you would only see me fail. I am weak; I can never be strong. Let me go down the current. Your heart will not break;—I am not worth such a sacrifice."

"You are desperate," said she. "You say these cold, bitter words, and you must know that each word cuts me. Oh, Ernest, you are false, indeed, if you come to taunt me with your faithlessness!"

"I needed to see you once more," he said, imperiously,—"I needed it. But you were right, Agnes,—the ring was a true talisman. It seemed to me that its letters had changed color. I carried it to an old Eastern scholar. He declared that the letters could never have formed the word 'Faith,'—that the word was some black word that meant death. I left it with him, that he might study it. When I saw him again, he declared he had lost it, and had advertised it. You see you can trust your talisman sooner than you can trust me."

At this moment the outer door opened, and presently Fanny came in, with one of her friends. Miss Agnes looked bewildered, but her visitor recovered his composure directly.

"Miss Fanny, I believe;—I have met you before. I have just been bidding good-bye to Miss Agnes, before leaving for Europe. Can I be of service to you?"

Before we had time to think, he had said something to each one of us, and had left the house. Fanny turned to speak to Miss Agnes, but she had fallen to the ground before we could reach her.

She was ill, very ill, for a long time. She had the brain fever,—so the doctor said. They let me stay with her,—she liked to have me with her. I was glad to sit in the darkened room all the long day. I never was a "handy" child, but I learned to be useful to her. I waited on all her wants. I held her hand when she reached it out as if to meet some kindly touch.

In the quiet of her room, I had not heard the great piece of news,—of the terrible railroad accident: that Mr. Carr, the Ernest who had been to see Miss Agnes, was among those who were suddenly killed,—the very day he left our house! I had not heard it; so I was not able to warn Fanny, when she came into the sick room of Miss Agnes, the first day she was able to talk,—I could not warn Fanny that she must not speak of it. But she did. How could she be so thoughtless? Miss Agnes, it is true, looked almost well, as she was lying on her couch, a soft color in her cheeks. But then Fanny need not have told her anything so painful. Miss Agnes looked quite wild, and turned to me as if to know whether it were true. I could not say anything to her, but knelt by her,—and she seemed almost calm, as she asked to know all that was known, all the terrible particulars that Fanny knew so well.

She was worse after that. We thought she would die, one night. But she did not die. Either she was too weak or too strong to die of a broken heart. Perhaps she was not strong enough to love so earnestly such a one as Mr. Carr, or else she had such strength as could bear the trial that was given her to bear. She lived, but life seemed very feeble in her for a long time.

One day she began to talk with me.

"You would like to know, Jeanie, the story of that ring," she said.

I told her I was afraid to have her talk about it, but she went on:—

"It is an old heirloom, and all our family history is full of stories of this ring. There are so many tales connected with it, that every one of us has looked upon it with a sort of superstition, and cherished it as a talisman connected with our lives. It was always a test of constancy, and the stories of those occasions when it has detected falsehood have always been remembered. I suppose there are many when it has been quietly worn, undisturbed, that have been forgotten. It has told many a sad tale in my own family. It came back, broken, to my brother Arthur, and he died of a broken heart. My sister Eveline gave it to her young cousin, to whom she engaged herself. But afterwards, when she went to live with a gay and heartless aunt of mine, she broke her promise to him for the sake of a richer match. The day that she was married, our cousin far away saw the black letters turn red upon the signet-ring."

"Oh, Miss Agnes!" I exclaimed.

"And why should not letters change?" she asked, abruptly; and I saw her eyes look out dreamily, as if at something I did not see. "The letter clothes the spirit; and the spirit gives life to the form. A face grows lovely or unlovely with the spirit that lies behind it. I cannot say if there be a spirit in such things. Yet what we have worn we give a value to. It has an expression in our eyes. Do we give it all that expression, or has it some life of its own?"

She interrupted herself, and went on:—

"I had known that Ernest was not true to me. I had known it by the words he wrote to me. They did not have the ring of pure silver; there was a clang to them. When Fanny read aloud the loss of that ring, it spoke to a suspicion that was lying in the depth of my heart, and roused it into life. My little Jeanie, I was very sad then.

"You do not know how deeply I loved Ernest Carr. You do not know how I might have loved your brother George,—yes, the noble, upright George. He loved me, and treated me most tenderly; he found this home for me. I did not banish him from it,—he would have stayed all these years in Calcutta, if it had not been for me,—so he said. You cannot understand how it was that Ernest Carr, whom I had known before, should have impressed me more. You do not know, yet, that we cannot command our love,—that it does not always follow where our admiration leads. I loved Ernest for his very faults. The fascinations that made the world, its prizes, its money, its fame, so attractive to him, won me as I saw them in him. It is terrible to think of my last meeting with him; but his fate seems to me not so awful as the fate towards which he was hurrying,—the life which could never have satisfied him."

She left off speaking, and dreamed on, her eyes and thoughts far away.
And I, too, dreamed. I fancied my brother George coming home, and that
he would meet with that ring somehow. I knew it must come back to her.
And it did; and he came with it.