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Wilson's Border Tales
The Young Artist

Some years ago, a large packet of letters was placed in my hands, by a young artist, who was about to visit Italy, in order that he might further himself in his profession. I was his nearest and dearest friend; the packet contained many valuable, and, to him, interesting memorials of affection, which he was not willing to destroy, yet could not conveniently carry along with him; and I received them, under the promise to peruse them only should I hear of his death. He was young and enthusiastic in his profession, and he left Scotland under the most favourable auspices—a wealthy merchant, eminent for his liberality and patronage towards art, having most generously taken the poor student under his protection. My young friend was the son of an industrious mechanic, who had given him a good education, and had, with all a parent’s fondness, encouraged him, from his boyhood, to direct his talents, which early developed themselves, to become a painter. He was indulged in his favourite pursuits to the utmost of his father’s means, and had made considerable progress as a landscape painter, before proceeding to roam beneath an Italian sky.

I have said that I was the artist’s dearest friend. There was one individual still dearer to him than me—a young lady, with whom he had been in love for about three years previous to his departure. From my own knowledge, I was aware that his passion was sincerely returned; for never was a being more devoted to another, than Mary Williamson to her ardent lover. Her parents, however, although they admired my friend’s talents, and, in common with all who knew him, respected his amiable and upright character, were understood to be averse to their daughter’s marriage with a poor man. They were themselves in highly comfortable circumstances, and it was but natural that they should wish their child to be equally so, in the important matter of settling down in life. His visits to the family, therefore, were rather tolerated than openly encouraged; still, his fascinating manners and conversation were such, and so conscious were they of the state of their child’s affections, that they, to themselves, acknowledged that poverty in him was the only barrier to what they would otherwise have looked on as a happy union. It was under this understood impression that the young artist set out upon his journey; animated with double hopes of rising to fame and eminence in his profession, that of securing an income that would enable him to support his beloved one in a station equal to that in which she had been educated.

I wish I could paint the beauties of mind and manner half so well as my friend could delineate the beauties of landscape; for then would I attempt to show a specimen of a lovely woman in Mary Williamson, which would interest every reader in her fortunes. In the ordinary affairs of life, she was an unostentatious but careful manager; and her "soft, low voice—an excellent thing in woman"—was that sort of music which it is so delightful to hear reigning over the household details of a rich, as well as a poor man’s dwelling. I cannot believe that my friend knew half her excellencies; for, in his presence, she was subdued, as it were, "to the very quality of her lord." He was a man of strong mind, great penetration, and decisive judgment. He was apt to form a decision on the instant; and Mary would sit and listen to the outpourings of his masculine character, as if it would have been like falsehood to hint a contradiction—or something like a sin to utter her poor opinion on anything that he had, as she deemed, thoroughly discussed. In a moment of confiding affection, she has acknowledged that she could speak with perfect freedom before anybody but her father and her lover. And such was the fact; for her assents were all smiles to them, while, with others, she could give her "yea" and "nay" with becoming latitude. But it was the perfect simplicity, the winning kindness of her manner—the sincere, unobtrusive charity— and the love of virtue and goodness, for their own sake, which she possessed—that acted like fascination on others, and made her be looked on almost as a little saint by her relations. I have seen her, in a group of laughing children, the happiest of the happy of the little band. I have seen her, at a lively evening party, the liveliest there. In the merry dance on the green, or in the lighted hall, her spirits were ever the most buoyant, "stealing and giving odour." But my friend saw none of this; for, although he was the one object in the world dearer to her than life, his presence would at once have converted her from mirth to seriousness—seriousness no less becoming than her mirth, and, I should think, infinitely more flattering to her lover, although, on her part, unwitting. Often has she, in her innocent love—thinking that what gave her pleasure, must have been gratifying for him to know—wrung his heart with anguish, by descriptions of some pleasant little party, where she was so happy. He was not there—he was poor!

The lovers parted, as thousands have done before, with tremblings, and tears, and lingering embraces—and faint hopes, and strong and sudden fears, and confiding acknowledgments of unalterable love. The delicate charge of transmitting letters through the post, from the one to the other, was left to me. It was a task which I would rather have avoided; but it was forced on me, and I was strong in my friend’s integrity. Several letters arrived, sent by him during his first month’s absence. They were addressed to her, for my care; and I, of course, delivered them safely. It was no secret to her parents that Mary was keeping up a correspondence with the artist; for, indeed, she was incapable of holding such a thing a secret for a single hour. Nor were they displeased at it, no visitor being so welcomc as myself; for that which gave their only daughter pleasure, could not be indifferent to them. But how can Mary’s reception of me on such occasions be described? She knew my step in the lobby, and would run to meet me the moment she heard it. Then, what a mantling of smiles was on her glowing face, and how her eyes beamed so lustrously, as she watched my slightest motion, till I pulled forth the expected letter! And how she would dart away from me, like a young fawn, to her own little room, leaving me to stumble into any other room I pleased! But seldom had I to wait long until she was again with me. What! not an apology for leaving me so abruptly? No. I knew how she loved him—and how could she think of idle ceremony at such a moment? Had I taxed her with abruptness, she might have blushed, and I should have been ashamed.

The last letter which I thus delivered reached me about three months after my friend’s departure. I had occasionally received a letter from him for myself; and I was sorry to see, from the general tone of his correspondence, that he was not only in bad health, but that he was oppressed with fears as to his future success. As, from all I could gather from Mary’s conversation, he seemed to breathe nothing of this in her letters, I did not feel myself called on to allude to his supposed situation or condition in her presence; but I called upon his father, and informed him, regularly and faithfully, of the contents of my letters. The old man’s concern for his son was not lessened by my statement of my fears; and it was with tears in his eyes, he told me, that a warm climate had already been fatal to one of his family, his oldest son, who had died in the East Indies of the fever peculiar to that country.

On visiting Mary’s abode, with the last communication, to which I have just alluded, she was alone in the house. It was on the occasion of some public rejoicing, and the rest of the family had gone forth to enjoy the sight of a military review. I presume she had been looking over some old letters from her lover; for she hurried several, on my appearance in the room, into a little cabinet that stood beside her. I never saw her look so pleased or so happy. She had dressed herself for the review; but, on some sudden recollection, she had stayed at home. She confidently told me, that she knew I would call that very day wtih a letter and that she could enjoy nothing out of doors, when a packet of good news might be lying for her at home.

"Well," said I, "I hope this does bring you good news," handing her the letter.

"I am sure it does," she replied; "and so I shall not be in such a violent hurry to read it, as to forget my good manners. Pray, be seated, and pardon my absence for a few moments. You are a very great favourite of mine, and I’ll allow you to take a peep into his sketch-book; only you must not read anything you may see there." So saying, she left me.

I will not disguise the fact—I was afraid of her return. I suspected that my friend had buoyed her up with pictures of what he deemed he could once be, rather than of what he was; and that he had studiously avoided hinting at his delicate state of health. Now, I feared the worst. I trembled lest he should have lost all hope, and, in the language which was natural to him under disappointment, expressed himself with a sincerity which might be fatal to the peace of his mistress. She had not been absent many minutes, when she returned, and, with an agitated air, handed me back the letter, requesting me to read it aloud, adding, that it contained no secrets—at least, none that I should not be acquainted with. I complied with her request, to the best of my ability; but I could scarcely get through without tears. She threw herself on a sofa, and turned her face from me while I read. It was a letter to make a stranger weep. It talked of sickness, and suffering, and broken hopes. How fondly had the young artist set out to visit the land of his dreams—to drink deep at the fountains of art! There he had confidently anticipated that his spirit would be inflamed to rivalry, by gazing at the glories of the antique world. Alas! he had wept himself almost blind, in looking at the splendid triumphs of genius that were strewed like flowers in his way—that man could never imitate. He saw, he trembled, he shrunk abashed—he could paint no more. The pencil dropped from his hand—he dared not think himself an artist; and he had come thus far, to be so taught the sense of his own insignificance? Was it the ever-sunny clime that made him sicken, and haunt the temples of fame with fever at his heart?—or was it not rather the despair of intolerable disappointment that filled his bosom, and dispelled for ever his brightest dreams? He stated that he was now lying on a sick-bed-—he hoped his death-bed—and that he would never work more. He implored his mistress to forget him—at least, to forgive him for having, in the heat of youth, engaged her affections—engaged them to worse than a beggar.

"He will die, he will die!—and must I not be near him! Oh can I not go to him? Yes, yes. He must not die; and I will cheer him. He will not die when I am beside him!"

Such were the exclamations of poor Mary, as she arose and threw on her bonnet, and was making for the door.

"Where will you go, Mary?" said I. "Do not leave the house in this state."

"Where should I go," she replied, through her tears, "but to him? He is my William; and he is ill, and I here! Oh come with me; let us go to him!"

And most cheerfully would that devoted being have set forth on a pilgrimage to the bedside of her dying lover, Her heart was bound up in him; and I can conceive of no greater state of suffering than for such a woman to survive the object of her affections. The gentleman who had supplied my friend with the means of prosecuting his studies in Italy, was applied to; and he immediately wrote off letter, full of kind assurances and encouragement, to his protege recommending him to take care of his health promising that, if he would come home, he should provide for him in some other way. He also despatched a letter to a commercial correspondent, recommending the most assiduous attention to the welfare and comfort of his young friend. In the course of a few months, I had again the pleasure of folding my old companion to my heart. He was sadly altered—in appearance a perfect wreck.

Poor Mary was little better than her lover. She had suffered much since the receipt of his last letter. Her blooming complexion was gone, and a few months of illness had given her the appearance of as many years. When she heard of his arrival, she hurried to his father’s to see him and never did that amiable girl look so like her real character, as when speaking kind words to the hopeless, under the humble roof of the old mechanic.

The artist got better; but he was an artist no more. "I shall begin the world again," he said, "and try some more humble calling. I will be assiduous and industrious; and should fortune prove propitious, I may, perhaps, win Mary to leave her father’s lofty mansion for an abode in a more humble dwelling." He did set to work in earnest. His former patron did not desert him, but put him in a situation under himself, where he speedily established himself by his attention to business, punctuality, and other good behaviour.

One day, I was so impertinent as break open the seal of the package of letters that had been left in my keeping by the quondam artist. The loose ones were all of my own writing; but there were some tied up and sealed apart. On the wrapper was written—"To be delivered to Miss Williamson only on receipt of my death." This little parcel I had the pleasure of giving to Mary on her wedding-day and, when she read the superscription, she pinched the bride groom’s ear, and said he deserved to die for fearing that he could die before marriage.

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