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The master's house

a tale of Southern life




Page 366


The moment that Mr. Moreton left his house with the gay
party, Aunt Margaret went into her room, and throwing
herself on her knees, in an intense agony of prayer, she
called on her Heavenly Father to enlighten the heart of
her brother and his friends, and save the effusion of blood.
“But,” she concluded, “if the wrath of offended Heaven is
upon us for our many sins, prepare our hearts for the awful
responsibilities that await us.” While thus pouring
out her very soul for divine grace, Toots, who had been
much amused by the attention of the gentlemen, and the
bustle preceding her father's departure, missing Aunt Margaret,
promptly proceeded to her room, and bursting in the
door, she saw her dear relative, who was still in the attitude
of prayer, in tears.

“Why, what's matter?” asked Toots, throwing her little
arms around Aunt Margaret's neck; “what's you cry for?
won't Jemima weed the flower-beds?”

“Oh, nothing, my dear, dear child!” said Aunt Margaret


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pressing her little niece to her bosom; “nothing, my
sweet one, Jemima did weed the flower-beds.”

“I am glad of it,” said Toots, with comical pomposity;
and unconsciously imitating her father's manner—“I am
glad of it; I'd like misef to see any one that didn't mind
what Aunty says.”

The smile of affection that passed over Aunt Margaret's
face, formed curious channels for a flood of tears; and
again kissing Toots, and heaving a deep sigh, she said:

“Run down stairs, my little one, and see if dear papa
has come.”

Away went Toots, her little feet pattering like hail
upon the wax-polished floor; and rushing to the gallery,
she saw her mother walking nervously up and down its
ample length.

Now the sight of her mother thus spiritedly walking
astonished Toots, and joined with the scene just enacted
by her aunt, the child appeared to comprehend that something
unusual had occurred; and catching hold of her
mother's dress, she said:

“Muddy, Aunt Margaret's crying up stairs — who's
hurt her, muddy?”

Mrs. Moreton rolled her large and brilliant eyes down
upon Toots, as if the child had suddenly stung her in the
heart; and drawing her arms across her bosom, while two
scalding tears fell upon the floor, she said:

“Call Fanny, child, and go and see the chickens fed;
ah, that's a dear.”

Toots bounced around, and in another minute was in the
kitchen, ordering the servant to the appointed task, and


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rattling on with directions, it appeared, as if her tongue
would never be still.

Mrs. Moreton continued to pace the gallery; the time
which her husband said he would be absent had already
passed, and there was a faint sensation—an unaccountable
feeling about her heart: “Who hurt Aunt Margaret?—
what did the child mean?” these questions she repeated
to herself, as a sense of danger, like a dark cloud, commenced
settling around her.

“Oh, I am sure nothing serious has happened to
Moreton,” she soliloquized; “did not Colonel Lee tell me
that Mildmay `wouldn't fight,' and did not all my husband's
friends assure me that there was no danger? I am
sure it was only a harmless pastime,” and the poor lady's
face turned alarmingly pale.

While in this frame of mind, the carriage, containing
Mr. Moreton's body, and those accompanying it, were seen
winding their way slowly through the forest. The wife
was now all alarm. She struggled, as if smothering for
want of air. Placing her delicate hand over her eyes, she
looked at the approaching procession as if she would see
through the solid sides of the vehicles.

“My God! my God!” she exclaimed, now nearly
frantic; “I know that something must have happened.
Moreton would never come home so slowly, if he were not
wounded:” and rushing into the house, she fairly screamed,
“Aunt Margaret, do come here!”—and exhausted with
emotion, she sank almost lifeless in a chair.

The beloved form of Aunt Margaret was instantly
at the head of the stairs; she descended with more


Page 369
than usual calmness: her eyes were still red with weeping,—her
face was pale, but firm; she seemed armed with
a superhuman strength, as if prepared to do her duty,
whatever it might be.

“What is the matter, dear Clotilde?” said Aunt Margaret,
standing over the reclining form of Mrs. Moreton.

“Matter!” echoed the lady, with fierce animation;
“matter! Has not Moreton been hurt?—did you ever
know his carriage to approach the house at that snail's
pace?” and she pointed with her finger to the cortège,
that was now entirely visible through the wide-opened

“Be calm, dear sister! I hope that all is well!” and
Aunt Margaret herself became a statue of interest, as she
watched the carriages approach.

In a moment more, they drew up in front of the lawn,
and Col. Lee, with a slow and dignified tread, opened the
front gate, and came toward the house.

Mrs. Moreton stared at his approaching figure until no
longer able to contain herself; she then leaped from
Aunt Margaret, and absolutely flew across the lawn to
meet Col. Lee.

“He's only wounded?” said she, her hands raised in
an imploring attitude.

“Wounded!” echoed the colonel, for an instant overcome
by the unexpected appearance of Mrs. Moreton.

“I am sorry to say,” replied the colonel—“I am sorry
to say, madam, that Mr. Moreton is wounded and—”

But before the “accomplished second” could finish his
explanation, the wife, in a perfect frenzy, rushed past him,


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and reached the gate, just as her husband's body had been
drawn clear of the carriage, and was extended at full length
in the arms of its bearers.

Now, so intent were the parties in their occupation of
carrying the dead, that they did not perceive Mrs. Moreton's
intrusion, and she, having a full and undisturbed
glance of her husband's face, as the head rolled from side
to side in the stepping movement of being borne along,
she comprehended in an instant the full extent of her loss;
and with one piercing shriek, she threw herself upon the
lifeless body.

For a moment she gazed upon the expressionless face,
and stared wildly at those about her. “Gentlemen,” she
said, pushing her luxuriant hair from her forehead—“gentlemen,
this is not reality—this is all a horrid dream!
It cannot be!—it cannot be!” and she laid her delicate
hand upon the silent heart of the dead before her.

For an instant her mind seemed to wander, and then
the startling truth came like a mighty avalanche upon her
soul; and throwing herself back, she raised her hand to
heaven, and screamed, “God Almighty! have mercy—
have mercy!” and again prostrating herself upon the body
of Mr. Moreton, she moaned like a child, and then exclaimed,
“Have mercy, oh God! have mercy!—this cannot
—shall not be!”

Col. Lee was instantly at the lady's side, and with a
manner that would have done honor to him if he had been
offering to assist a lady to her carriage, he said:

“Mrs. Moreton, permit me to hand you into the


Page 371

“Touch me not!” said the lady, springing to her feet,
and drawing herself up, as if about to be stung by an
adder, and pointing her finger scornfully in his face; “touch
me not, I say, you slimy and vile hypocrite! How dare
you, sir,” she continued, her eyes fairly flashing lurid
fire—“how dare you, sir, offer to assist me, whom you
have this day robbed of a husband? Go, sir, from my
presence, or the servants shall chastise your impudence—
shall lash you to your grave! Go!” she hysterically
sighed, with a softened voice—“go, and at once, for murderers
are ye all! Go! ere the blight of Heaven, the sorrows
of orphan children, and the sighs of a heart-broken
wife, drive you like myself—mad—mad—mad!”

Then breaking into merry peals of laughter, she
moaned: “He's coming! I see him now, and his arms
are open to meet me! 'Twas a cruel jest, gentlemen, to
trifle thus with my fears! Oh, God! he's pale—there's
blood upon him!” and again would Mrs. Moreton have
clasped to her bosom the inanimate form before her, when
a fearful darkness overspread her face, and in another
moment she was literally carried raving into the house.

At the door stood the children, all pale and sorrow-stricken,
and curious to know what was the meaning of
the fearful scenes enacted before them; comprehending
at length something of their misfortune, they mingled their
lamentations with the sobs of the mother, that now could
be heard from an adjoining room.

Amid this distress, Aunt Margaret moved about with
all the dignity and mercy of an angel; she comforted one,
and then another,—directed the distracted servants, and


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tried to soothe the violent paroxysms of sorrow, that constantly
passed in awful throes through the heart of the
fearfully stricken Mrs. Moreton.

In the mean time, the inanimate form of the once fond
father was disposed of in the drawing-room; the shutters
were closed, and there settled upon every thing that mysterious
impress so common to the vicinage of the dead.

Col. Lee, and the gentlemen with him, now clustered
around each other in the gallery hall, haggard—absolutely
paralyzed with terror; Col. Lee alone maintained
any presence of mind, and remarked, with a forced composure,
which he did not feel:

“You see, gentlemen, this was a very unfortunate
affair—very! Mrs. Moreton will, however, recover in a
day or two. The fact is, that Mildmay deceived us by
his looks; he was evidently much misrepresented: we had
better see Mrs. Marbury (Aunt Margaret), and make arrangements
for calling in a physician, and such friends as
the family may desire.”

A servant was sent, by the gentlemen, for Aunt Margaret,
and when she made her appearance, she had just
succeeded in getting Mrs. Moreton into a troubled sleep,
and left her in the charge of a faithful domestic.

It was arranged that some of the female members of a
neighboring family, should be at once sent for; the messenger
for a physician had already been dispatched.

After a hurried conversation, carried on in suppressed
whispers, Aunt Margaret satisfied Col. Lee, that his presence
was no longer necessary, and begged him to leave,
and also with him, his friends.


Page 373

The gentlemen felt exceedingly embarrassed; to go
away without doing something to alleviate the misery before
them, seemed mortifying indeed, and yet they were
powerless to afford consolation.

While Aunt Margaret stood in the door, evidently intending
to close it at the moment the gentlemen disappeared,
there came from Mrs. Moreton's room a continued
repetition of fearful shrieks and screams, and in another
instant, the lady herself, pale as death, rushed upon the
gallery, holding at arm's length, a letter. Without seeming
to notice any one, she strode a few paces, and in a
plaintive voice, said:

“Mildmay begged for peace, God help him!—Mildmay
begged for peace,—here's his very words!” and she pressed
the letter to her eyes, as if still unconscious of the full
meaning of its contents.

The gentlemen were now completely embarrassed.
Mrs. Moreton was in a loose dress, and her luxuriant hair
streamed over her shoulders. Delicacy bade them precipitately
retreat, still they remained as if fascinated to the

Aunt Margaret, the moment she recovered her self-possession,
went to Mrs. Moreton, and placing her hand upon
that lady's shoulder, said:

“Sister, be calm! let's into the house.”

“Calm! calm!” echoed Mrs. Moreton, dwelling upon
the word, until it thrilled all who heard it, with horror.

“Do you bid me be calm?—me, Aunt Margaret, who
have been robbed of the best of husbands, and that too,
by villains, and fiends, who conspired against his life, and


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who have accomplished, by the hands of another, what they
dared not have done themselves?”

“Sister, dear sister!” said Aunt Margaret, clasping
the frantic lady round the neck.

At this moment the dark lustrous eyes of Mrs. Moreton,
always so beautiful, but now, brilliant with insanity,
rested upon Col. Lee and his followers, who were cowering
in trembling groups near her; with gigantic strength she
tore herself away from all restraint, and advancing toward
Col. Lee and his associates,—she exclaimed:

“Cowards are ye all, vile cowards! Murderers of a
man you called your friend—you have partaken of his hospitality,
and plotted his death under his own roof,—look
at your work—look at me!” and Mrs. Moreton raised herself
up like a queen of the tragic muse. “Look at those
fatherless children,—may the blood of the dead be upon
your craven souls! You told me, as you told him, that
Mildmay would not fight—you lied—upon your souls, you
knew you lied!”

“For mercy's sake, dear sister! for mercy's sake desist!”
said Aunt Margaret, throwing her arms around Mrs.
Moreton's neck, and for the first time that fearful morning,
that faithful friend burst into tears.

Again Mrs. Moreton tore herself away, and still intent
upon pouring out her feelings, where for the moment
they centred, she waved her hand at Col. Lee, and bade
him “begone,” and then continued, with even more vehemence
than ever, “leave this house; it is polluted by your
presence. Go! and may the execrations of all good and
brave men, pursue you; may the scalding tears you have


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seen shed to-day, burn your craven hearts! may all mothers
and wives spurn and despise you.” And Mrs. Moreton,
struggling for a moment as one smothering for want
of air, swooned, and fell into Aunt Margaret's arms.

Col. Lee and his friends heard all, like men entranced,
and they trembled and blanched, as if moved about by an
earthquake, but when the terms “cravens—murderers—
cowards,” were hurled in their faces, the crimson blood of
shame seemed ready to break through their cheeks and
foreheads, and their ears burned as if they were on fire.

“Go, I beseech you, gentlemen!” said Aunt Margaret,
looking toward the lawn, as she assisted in supporting
the insensible form of her widowed sister. “Go! and
may God forgive you for your participation in this day's
sad work.”

The calm voice of Aunt Margaret broke the charm, and
they moved away, like condemned culprits, from before the
desolation they themselves had made. For the moment,
the mark of Cain was on their brows, the gnawing of terrible
remorse was at their hearts, and for the moment,
they even envied the calmness and the insensibility, that
rested upon the form of the dead.

The full extent of the labors of love performed by Aunt
Margaret, that day, is recorded in heaven. Never before,
perhaps, had so kind a heart been so severely taxed;
every feeling had been wrung to its utmost sensibility, and
on the night of that awful day, when nature had stifled the
sobs of orphaned children to sleep, when Mrs. Moreton,
her face distorted by the conflicts of her mind, sunk from
physical exhaustion into temporary quiet, then, and not


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until then, did Aunt Margaret steal from the room, to look
at the cold remains of her only, her most affectionate
brother; and removing the napkin that covered that once
loved face, she gazed steadily awhile, a tear or two came
to her relief, and lifting up her eyes, she thanked Heaven,
that amidst all the suffering around her, she could see
one placid expression, even if it were caused by that sleep,
which, until the resurrection morn, knows no waking.