A Matter of Conscience

Excerpt from “The Wide, Wide World” 1850

By Susan Warner

     Her other safeguard Wes the precious hour alone which she had promised John never to lose when she could help it. The only time she could have was the early morning before the rest of the family were up. To this hour, and it was often more than an hour, Ellen was faithful. Her little Bible was extremely precious now, Ellen had never gone to it with a deeper sense of need, and never did she find more comfort in being able to disburden her heart in prayer of its load of cares and wishes. Never more than now had she felt the preciousness of that friend who draws closer to his children the closer they draw to him. She had never realized more the joy of having him to go to. It wee her special delight to pray for those loved ones she could do nothing else for, it was a joy to think that he who hears prayer is equally present with all his people, and that though thousands of miles lie between the petitioner and the petitioned for, the breath of prayer may span the distance and pour blessing on the far-off heed. The burden of thoughts and affections gathered during the twenty-three hours, was laid down in the twenty-fourth, and Ellen could meet her friends at the breakfast-table with a sunshiny face. Little they thought where her heart had been, or where it had got its sunshine.

     But not withstanding this, Ellen had too much to remember and regret than to be otherwise than sober -- soberer than her friends liked. They noticed with sorrow that the sunshine wore off as the day rolled on, that though ready to smile upon occasion, her face always settled again into a gravity they thought altogether unsuitable. Mrs. Lindsay fancied she knew the cause, and resolved to break it up.

     From the first of Ellen’s coming her grandmother had taken the entire charge of her toilet. Whatever Mrs. Lindsay’s notions in general might be as to the propriety of young girls learning to take care of themselves, Ellen was much too precious a plaything to be trusted to any other hands, even her own. At eleven o’clock regularly every day she went to her grandmother’s dressing-room for a very elaborate bathing and dressing, though not a very long one, for all Mrs. Lindsay’s acts were energetic. Now, without any hint as to the reason, she was directed to come to her grandmother an hour before the breakfast time, to go through then the course of cold-water sponging and hair-gloving that Mrs. Lindsay was accustomed to administer at eleven. Ellen heard in silence and obeyed, but made up her hour by rising earlier than usual, so as to have it before going to her grandmother. It was a little difficult at first, but she soon got into the habit of it, though the mornings were dark and cold. After a while it chanced that this came to Mrs. Lindsay’s ears, and Ellen was told to come to her as soon as she was out of bed in the morning.

     “But, grandmother,” said Ellen, “I am up a great while before you, I should find you asleep, don’t I come soon enough?”

     “What do you get up so early for?”

     “You know, ma’am, I told you some time ago. I want some time to myself.”

     “It is not good for you to be up so long before breakfast, and in these cold mornings. Do not rise in the future till I send for you.”

     “But, grandmother, that is the only time for me, there isn’t an hour after breakfast that I can have regularly to myself, and I cannot be happy if I do not have some time.”

     “Let it be as I said.” said Mrs. Lindsay.

     “Couldn’t you let me come to you at eleven o’clock again, ma’am? Do grandmother!”

     Mrs. Lindsay touched her lips, a way of silencing her that Ellen particularly disliked, and which both Mr. Lindsay and his mother were accustomed to use.

     She thought a great deal on the subject, and came soberly to the conclusion that it was her duty to disobey. “I promised John,” she said to herself, “I will never break that promise! I’ll do anything rather. And besides, if I had not it is just as much my duty -- a duty that no one here has a right to command me against. I will do what I think right come what may.”

     She could not without its coming to the knowledge of her grandmother. A week, or rather two, after the former conversation, Mrs. Lindsay made inquiries of Mason, her woman, who was obliged to confess that Miss. Ellen’s light was always burning when she went in to call her.

     “Ellen,” said Mrs. Lindsay the same day, “have you obeyed me in what I told you the other morning about lying in bed till you are sent for?”

     “No, ma’am.”

     “You are frank, to venture to tell me so. Why have you disobeyed me?”

     “Because, grandmother, I thought it was right.”

     “You think it is right to disobey me, do you?”

     “Yes, ma’am, if --.”

     “If what?”

     “I mean, grandmother, there is one I must obey even before you.”

     “If what?” repeated Mrs. Lindsay.

     “Please do not ask me, grandmother, I don’t want to say that.”

     “Say it at once, Ellen.”

     “I think it is right to disobey if I am told to do what is wrong.” said Ellen in a low voice.

     “Are you to be the judge of right and wrong?”

     “No, ma’am.”

     “Who, then?”

     “The Bible.”

     “I do not know what is the reason,” said Mrs. Lindsay, “that I cannot be very angry with you. Ellen, I repeat the order I gave you the other day. Promise me to obey.”

     “I cannot, grandmother, I must have that hour, I cannot do without it.”

     “So must I be obeyed, I assure you, Ellen. You will sleep in my room henceforth.”

     Ellen heard her in despair, she did not know what to do. Appealing was not to be thought of. There was, as she said, no time she could count upon after breakfast. During the whole day and evening she was either busy with her studies or masters, or in the company of her grandmother or Mr. Lindsay, and if not there, liable to be called to them at any moment. Her grandmother’s expediency for increasing her cheerfulness had marvelous ill-success. Ellen drooped under the sense of wrong, as well as the loss of her greatest comfort. For two days she felt and looked forlorn, and smiling now seemed to be a difficult matter. Mr. Lindsay happened to be remarkably busy those two days, so that he did not notice what was going on. At the end of them, however, in the evening, he called Ellen to him, and whisperingly asked what was the matter.

     “Nothing, sir,” said Ellen, “only grandmother will not let me do something I cannot be happy without doing.”

     “Is it one of the things you want to do because it is right, whether convenient or not?” he asked smiling Ellen could not smile.

     “Oh, father,” she whispered, putting her face close to his, “If you would only get grandmother to let me do it!”

     The words were spoken with a sob, and Mr. Lindsay felt her warm tears upon his neck. He had, however, far too much respect for his mother to say anything against her proceedings while Ellen was present, he simply answered that she must do whatever her grandmother said. But when Ellen had left the room, which she did immediately, he took the matter ups Mrs. Lindsay explained and insisted that Ellen was spoiling herself for life and the world by a set of dull religious notions that were utterly unfit for a child, that she would very soon get over thinking about her habit of morning prayer, and would then do much better. Mr. Lindsay looked grave, but with Ellen’s tears yet wet upon his cheek, he would not dismiss the matter so lightly, and persisted in desiring that his mother should give up the point, which she utterly refused to do.

     Ellen meanwhile had fled to her own room. The moonlight was quietly streaming in through the casement, it looked to her like an old friend. She threw herself down on the floor, close by the glass, and after some tears which she could not help shedding, she raised her head and looked thoughtfully out. It was very seldom now that she had a chance of the kind, she was rarely alone but when she was busy.

     “I wonder if that same moon is this minute shining in at the glass door at home? -- No, to be sure it can’t this minute -- what am I thinking of? -- But it was there or will be there, let me see, east, west, it was there some time this morning, I suppose, looking right into our old sitting-room. Oh, moon, I wish I was in your place for once, to look in there too! But it is all empty now, there’s nobody there, Mr. Humphreys would be in his study, how lonely, how lonely he must be! Oh, I wish I was back there with him! -- John isn’t there though -- no matter -- he will be, and I could do so much for Mr. Humphreys in the meanwhile. He must miss me. I wonder where John is -- nobody writes to me, I should think someone might. I wonder if I am ever to see them again. Oh, he will come to see me surely before he goes home! But then he will have to go away without me again -- I am fast now -- fast enough -- but oh! Am I to be separated from them forever? Well, l shall see them in Heaven!”

     It was a “Well” of bitter acquiescence, and washed down with bitter tears.

     “Is it my bonny Miss Ellen?” said the voice of the housekeeper, coming softly in, “Is my bairn sitting a’ her lane in the dark? Why are we no wi’ the rest o’ the folk, Miss Ellen?”

     “I like to be alone, Mrs. Allen, and the moon shines in here nicely.”

     “Greeting!” exclaimed the old lady, drawing nearer, “I kenit by the sound o’ your voice, greeting eenow! Are ye no wee!, Miss Ellen? What vexes my bairn? Oh, but your father would be vexed an’ he kenned it!”

     “Never mind, Mrs. Allen,” said Ellen, “I shall get over it directly, don’t say anything about it.”

     “But I’m wae to see ye,” said the kind old woman, stooping down and stroking the head that again Ellen had bowed on her knees. “Will ye no tell me what vexes ye? Ye shuld be as blithe as a bird the lang day.”

     “I can’t, Mrs. Allen, when I am away from my friends.”

     “Frinds! And she has mair frinds than yourself, Miss Ellen, or better frinds? - father and mither and a’, where wad ye find thee that will love ye mair?”

     “Ah, but I haven’t my brother!” sobbed Ellen.

     “Your brother, Miss Ellen? An’ wha’s he?”

     “He’s everything, Mrs. Allen! he’s everything! I shall never be happy without him! -- Never! Never!”

     “Hush, dear Miss Ellen! for the love of a’ that’s gude, dinna talk that gate! And dinna greet sae! Your father wad be sair vexed to hear ye or to see ye.”

     “I cannot help it,” said Ellen, “it is true.”

     “It may be sae, but dear Miss Ellen, dinna let it come to your father’s ken, ye’re his very heart’s idol, he disna merit aught but gude frae ye.“

     “I know it, Mrs. Allen,” said Ellen, weeping, “and so I do love him -- better than anybody in the world, except two. But oh, I want my brother -- I don’t know how to be happy or good either without him. I want him all the while.”

     “Miss Ellen, I kenned and loved your dear mither weel for mony a day, will ye mind if I speak a word to her bairn?”

     “No, dear Mrs. Allen, I’ll thank you. Did you know my mother?”

     “Wha shuld if I didna? She was brought up in my arms, and a deer lassie. Ye’re no muckle like her, Miss Ellen, ye’re mair bonny than her, and no a’thegither sae frack, though she was douce and kind too.”

     “I wish--.” Ellen began, and then stopped.

     “My dear bairn, there is Ane above who disposes a’ thinqs for us, and He isna well pleased when His children fash themselves wi’ His dispensations. He has ta’en and place you here, for your ain gude I trust, -- sure it’s for the gude of us a’, -- and if ye haena a’ things ye wad wish, Miss Ellen, ye hae Him, dinna forget that, my ain bairn.”

     Ellen returned heartily and silently the embrace of the old Scotch woman, and when she left her, set herself to follow her advice. She tried to gather her scattered thoughts and smooth her ruffled feelings, in using this quiet time to the best advantage. At the end of half-an-hour she felt like another creature, and began to refresh herself with softly singing some of her old hymns.

     The argument which was carried on in the parlour sank at length in silence without coming to any conclusion.

     “Where is Miss Ellen?” Mrs. Lindsay asked of a servant that came in.

     “She is up in her room, ma’am, singing.”

     “Tell her I want her.”

     “No, stop,” said Mr. Lindsay, “I’ll go myself.”

     Her door was a little ajar, and he softly opened it without disturbing her. Ellen was still sitting on the floor before the window, looking out through it, and in a rather low tone singing the last verse of the hymn “Rock of Ages”,         “While I draw this fleeting breath, --           When my eyelids close in death, --           When I rise to worlds unknown,       And behold Thee on Thy throne, --           Rock of Ages, cleft for me,           Let me hide myself in Thee.”

     Mr. Lindsay stood still at the door Ellen paused a minute, and then sang “Jerusalem, my happy home.” Her utterance was so distinct that he heard every word. He did not move till she had finished, and then he came softly in.

     “Singing songs to the moon, Ellen?”

     Ellen started and got up from the floor.

     “No, sir, I was singing them to myself.”

     “Not entirely, for I heard the last one. Why do you make yourself sober singing such sad things?”

     “I don’t, sir, they are not sad to me, they are delightful. I love them dearly.”

     “How came you to love them? It is not natural for a child of your age, what do you love them for, my little daughter?”

     “Oh, sir, there are a great many reasons, I don’t know how many.”

     “I will have patience, Ellen, I want to hear them all.”

     “I love them because I love to think of the things the hymns are about, I love the tunes, dearly, and I like both the words and the tunes better, I believe, because I have sung them so often with friends.”

     “Humph! I guessed as much, Isn’t that the strongest reason of the three?”

     “I don’t know, sir, I don’t think it is.”

     “Is all your heart in America, Ellen, or have you any left to bestow on us?”

     “Yes, sir.”

     “Not very much?”

     “I love you, father.” said Ellen, laying her cheek gently alongside of his.

     “And your grandmother, Ellen?” said Mr. Lindsay, clasping his arms about her.

     “Yes, sir.”

     But he well understood that the “yes” was fainter.

     “And your aunt -- speak, Ellen.”

     “I don’t love her as much as I wish I did,” said Ellen, “I love her a little, I suppose. Oh, why do you ask me such a hard question, father?”

     “That is something you have nothing to do with,” said Mr. Lindsay, half laughing. “sit down here,” he added, placing her on his knee, “and sing to me again.”

     Ellen was heartened by the tone of his voice, and pleased with the request, She immediately sang with great spirit a little Methodist hymn she had learned when a mere child. The wild air and simple words singularly suit each other.

         “O Canaan--bright Canaan --           I am bound for the land of Canaan.           O-Canaan! It is my happy, happy home --           I am bound for the land of Canaan.”

     “Does that sound sad, sir?”

     “Why, yes, I think it does, rather, Ellen. Does it make you feel merry?”

     “Not merry, sir, it isn’t merry, but I like it very much.”

     “The tune or the words?”

     “Both, sir.”

     “What do you mean by the land of Canaan?”

     “Heaven, sir.”

     “And do you like to think about that? At your age?”

     “Why, certainly, sir! Why not?”

     “Why do you?”

     “Because it is a bright and happy place,” said Ellen gravely, “where there is no darkness, nor sorrow, nor death, neither pain nor crying, and my mother is there, and my dear Alice, and my Saviour is there, and I hope I shall be there, too.”

     “You are shedding tears now, Ellen.“

     “And if I am, sir, it is not because I am unhappy. It doesn’t make me unhappy to think of these things -- it makes me glad, and the-more I think of them the happier I am.”

    “You are a strange child. I am afraid your grandmother is right, and that you are hurting yourself with poring over serious matters that you are too young for.”

     “She would not think so if she knew,“ said Ellen, sighing. "I should not be happy at all without that, and you would not love me half so well, nor she either. Oh, father,” she exclaimed pressing his hand in both her own and laying her face upon it, “do not let me be hindered in that! Forbid me anything you please, but not that! The better I learn to please my best friend, the better I shall please you.”

     “Whom do you mean by ‘your best friend’?”

     “The Lord my Redeemer.”

     “Where did you get these notions?" said Mr. Lindsay after a short pause.

     “From my mother, first, sir.”

     “She had none of them when I knew her.”

     “She had afterwards, then, sir, and oh!” Ellen hesitated, “I wish everybody had them too!”

     “My little daughter,” said Mr. Lindsay, affectionately kissing the cheeks and eyes which were moist again, “I shall indulge you in this matter but you must keep your brow clear or I shall revoke my grant. And you belong to me now, and there are some things I want you to forget, and not remember, you understand? Now don’t sing songs to the moon any more tonight -- good-night, my daughter.”

     “They think religion is a strange melancholy thing,” said Ellen to herself as she went to bed, “I must not give them reason to think so -- I must let my rushlight burn bright! -- I must take care -- I never had more need!”

     And with an earnest prayer for help to do so, she laid her head on the pillow.

     Mr. Lindsay told his mother he had made up his mind to let Ellen have her way for a while, and begged that she might return to her old room and hours again. Mrs. Lindsey would not hear of it Ellen had disobeyed her orders, she said she must take the consequences.

     “She is s bold little hussy to venture it,” said Mr. Lindsay, “but I do not think there is any naughtiness in her heart.”

     “No, not a bit. I could not be angry with her. It is only these preposterous notions she has got from somebody or other.”

     Mr. Lindsay said no more. Next morning he asked Ellen privately what she did the first thing after breakfast. "Practice on the piano for an hour.” she said.

     “Couldn’t you do it at any other time?”

     “Yes, sir, I could practice in the afternoon, only grandmother likes to have me with her.”

     “Let it be done then, Ellen, in the future.”

     “And whet shell I do with the hour after breakfast, sir?”

     “Whatever you please.” said he, smiling.

     Ellen thanked him in the way she knew he best liked, and gratefully resolved he should have as little cause as possible to complain of her. Very little cause indeed did he or anyone else have. No fault could be found with her performance of duty, and her cheerfulness was constant and unvarying. She remembered her brother’s recipe against loneliness, and mode use of it, she remembered Mrs. Allen’s advice, and followed it, she grasped the promises, “He that cometh to Me shall never hunger,” and “Seek and ye shall find,” precious words that never yet disappointed any one, and though tears might often fall that nobody knew of, and she might not be so merry as her friends would have liked to see her, though her cheerfulness was touched with sobriety, they could not complain, for her brow was always unruffled, her voice clear, her smile ready.

     After a while she was restored to her own sleeping-room again and permitted to take up her former habits.


"The Scribbling Women"
Copyright ~ Estate of Andre Norton
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Donated by - Estate of Andre Norton

 Digitized and edited by Jay Watts aka: “Lots-a-watts” ~ May 2015

Duplication (in whole or parts) of this story for profit of any kind NOT permitted.