Vol. I, No. 4
FROM THE CHEAP JEWISH LIBRARY.
Zillah, or The Old Man's Tale.
I am an old man, and time has robbed me of many blessings; but, God be thanked, I still enjoy the possession of all my faculties. My frame is bent and suffering, but my mind is strong as ever, and my memory faithful in bringing before me every circumstance connected with bygone days, and those loved ones who have been taken from me. While I sit by my solitary hearth; musing on scenes long past, what consolation it is to feel that the separation from all I have held dear cannot last much longer; for I am full of years, and the time is fast approaching when the short feverish dream of life will be exchanged for the pure unfading joys of eternity. With age I have not become selfish, and if it is not in my power to bestow happiness, it is, at least, one of my chief pleasures to witness it. In my time I have mixed equally with those whose wealth enabled them to command all of the pomp and luxuries of the world, and with those whose hardly-earned means were too limited to procure many of the necessaries of life. Still, believe me, my friends, it has not been among the former class that I have met with the most frequent instances of happiness.
We are too apt to imagine that happiness is dependent upon outward circumstances; but it is not the place in which we reside, nor our condition in life that can make us happy; a contented disposition and reliance on the Almighty are the true essentials of human happiness, whether in the cottage or the palace. These alone make us regard annoyances and disappointments with lighthearted indifference, and enable us to bear our severer trials with fortitude and hope. But as example teaches better than precept, I will relate you a story, a true story, and you shall follow out the moral for yourselves.
"Years have passed since I first saw the gentle being who is the heroine of my tale, yet I think I see her, as I beheld her then, seated on her father's knees; her arms thrown wildly round his neck, her head nestled in his bosom, beseeching, him to fetch her mother back, for it was on the day that had consigned that mother to the grave: and the sight of the child's distress was more than my poor friend could bear. With some, gentle force I succeeded in carrying her into an adjoining room, where, after I had exhausted all my ingenuity in the vain attempt to soothe her, she wept herself to sleep.
"At this time Zillah Levisson, for that was her name, was scarcely four years old; she was too young to understand her loss in its full extent; still she missed the fond caresses and tender care which a mother only can bestow. She pined and fretted, and watched anxiously from day to day for her return, till at length time softened down her grief, and the pale countenance, that had so often bent over her in love and kindness, came back upon her memory only at distant intervals, like the faint indistinct vision of a long past dream. Her face recovered its smiles, her childish sports again amused her, and she became by degrees the same merry, happy little creature she had been before.
"Mr. Levisson had been in earlier life one of my most intimate friends, but events had separated us, and I had entirely lost sight of him, until chance threw us together, about the period of his wife's death. He was a man of deep learning, and by profession a teacher of Hebrew and the law. His profits were small, but sufficed to enable him to live in tolerable comfort and respectability.
"He resided in a small house, in one of the narrowest streets in London. He kept one servant, an old faithful creature, who had served him many years, but whose increasing infirmities rendered her but of little use; and therefore, when his wife died, he arranged that his pupils should attend him at his own house; in order that he might be enabled to watch at all times over his darling Zillah. She was the only surviving child of seven, and all that was left to her widowed father to love and care for.
"For her sake he struggled with his grief, and his chief worldly aim was to lay by some provision for her future support, so that, when it pleased Providence to take him from her, she need not be obliged to depend entirely on her own exertions for a scanty and precarious existence.
"Mr. Levisson's life had been one of many trials, but he remembered that 'God chasteneth those whom he loveth,' and he felt that every sorrow had brought him nearer to the All-wise Disposer of events; and when he gazed on the round rosy cheek of his child, and listened to her gay and hearty laugh, he felt comforted, and owned with gratitude, that there is no state so utterly wretched, as to be without some point of comfort to redeem it, some counterpoise to alleviate its misery.
"Being a truly pious man, and possessing a heart almost womanly in its tenderness, he was well qualified to supply the place of her lost parent.
"As soon as she was old enough, he instructed her in all that he thought would elevate her mind, without creating vanity, or a feeling of discontent with her humble station. Above all, he loved to strengthen and confirm those natural impulses of devotion which beat in every child's breast, into those fixed principles which serve as unerring guides through the trials of adversity and temptation. The child would sit for hours on the low stool at his feet, her soft, intelligent eyes fixed on his face, her hand enclasped within his listening with mute attention, while he spoke of the beauties of God's works—his constant care over all that he hath created, his benevolence, his never-failing mercies; and her eye would kindle with enthusiasm, and she would beg him earnestly to teach her how she might please this All-powerful Being; and then he would instil into her willing mind the holy truths of our blessed faith, and show her how clear and simple is the word of God, and how very easy to obey. Nor was she led to think only on serious subjects, she learned also to become practically useful: and by the time she had attained her twelfth year, she had become a person of no small importance.
"She had the sole management of their little household, and she knew better than many an older person, how to combine a comfortable sufficiency with strict economy. No house in the street was so clean or well kept as Mr. Levisson's: Zillah was never idle, and there was quite enough for her to do, for, as I said before, old Grace's duties were almost nominal; to be sure she bustled about a good deal, but I could see that all the neatness and arrangement of that humble home might be traced to the good sense and industry of my little friend.
''She was passionately fond of flowers; her window-sill was always filled with plants that did credit to her care. I remember once, when she was plucking off the withered leaves of a rose-tree, she turned round upon us, with a glowing face and triumphant air, 'See,' said she, 'this rose‑tree is already beginning to blow, is, it not lovely? what a charming world we live in: I wonder how Grace can say that misery is the lot of every one; it is not mine, nor,' added she, embracing him, 'yours, dear father, is it?'
Mr. Levisson sighed, he parted back her dark locks, and pressed his lips to her forehead: 'Poor child,' he murmured, as she turned again to her flowers, 'poor child, she has not lived long enough to learn that one sad remembrance of the past, is sufficient to cast a dark gloom over the present and the future;' tears stood in his eyes, and I could see that he was pouring forth a silent prayer that his child might be saved from the bitter pangs which beset us on the thorny path of life. Happy childhood! with its trusting confidence, its heedlessness of all save the passing hour: how fleeting are its moments of grief, like April showers, so transient, so quickly forgotten in the sunshine which succeeds. Of all childhoods, I believe that of the humble and middle classes is the happiest. The children of the rich and high are left to the care, and too often to the neglect and cruelty of hired attendants, whilst those of the poor are kept under the loving eye of their parents; their feelings are understood; their affection returned; their attempts, at usefulness, which all children so much delight in, neither treated with contempt, nor punished as troublesome interference. Parents and their children are of mutual assistance to each other, and their life is a constant interchange of love. But, dear readers, should you ever become parents, remember that much depends upon yourselves; you must be at once the friend and instructor of your little ones; lead them, not by threats or bribery, but through their best feelings, to obey you; teach them by example the value of industry, the love of virtue, and the consolation of prayer; and thus you will raise up to yourselves so many friends, who, by their affection and integrity, will form your solace through life."
"One evening when I called on Mr. Levisson, I observed an unusual stir in the house adjoining, which for some time past had been empty. Grace told me that it was let, and that the new tenants had only taken possession that day.
"The family consisted of a widow and her two children, one a girl of fourteen, the other a boy nearly six years younger. The latter was an invalid, and from the effects of a long journey had become seriously worse since their arrival. Zillah and her father had not long returned from offering all the assistance the circumstances admitted of. Zillah could talk of nothing but her new neighbours, she was so pleased at the idea of having a companion of her own age, and amused herself in forming a thousand plans for their future occupations.
"As I was desirous to know the sort of people from whom my little favourite would most likely take her first notions of her fellow-creatures, I made her introduce me to them the very next day. Mrs. Sloman was clever and agreeable, but there was a fawning, flattering way with her, that made me doubt her sincerity; and her daughter Sarah, though a fine lively girl, was too forward and conceited to please me. Joseph, the little sufferer, interested me much; but, indeed, he was so sweet tempered under his sufferings, that he soon became endeared to us all.
"Zillah, whose warm heart was full of kind feelings, was never better pleased than when permitted to watch beside his couch; and her gentle step and soft voice were looked for with eagerness by the poor little fellow, who, perhaps, valued her attention all the more from the contrast it afforded to the thoughtless indifference of his sister.
"It so happened that after Mrs. Sloman had been settled in the neighbourhood some months, an epidemic broke out in the street, and attacked all the children; Sarah and Zillah had it slightly, but upon the feeble frame of the invalid it fell heavily, and shortened, perhaps in mercy, the last lingering hours of his fragile existence. When he died, his mother at first refused all consolation, and gave way to the most noisy and frantic grief; but, like all violent emotions, it quickly exhausted itself, and she very soon seemed to forget the poor boy altogether.
"The selfish do not mourn long for those whose absence does not materially diminish their personal comforts, and selfishness was a prevailing feature in Mrs. Sloman's character. As for Sarah, her admiration of her new black frock banished all sorrow for the cause. Zillah appeared to feel his loss the most, and remained so long pale, sad, and languid, that her father became at last seriously anxious about her. Bad health robs us of our activity, and many of the little duties which Zillah had hitherto innocently prided herself on, were now left undone. Mrs. Sloman, who was a constant visitor, never allowed any omission to pass unnoticed, and while pretending to screen Zillah, from any blame, artfully contrived to make it appear the result of neglect and carelessness; still she was always expressing anxiety about her health, and in various ways assumed so great an affection and solicitude for Zillah, that Mr. Levisson's gratitude was excited, and she imperceptibly gained considerable influence over him.
"Some time during every year, it was my custom to pass a few weeks with a relative residing in the county of D—; seeing Zillah growing thinner and paler every day, I resolved to fix on the present time for my visit, and I prevailed on Mr. Levisson to let her accompany me; our preparations were soon made, and after a pleasant journey, every mile of which seemed to add new life and vigour to my companion, we arrived at the rural picturesque house of my friend; the change of scene, and the pure fresh air soon made Zillah as strong and rosy as the robust country children to whom I had introduced her: time glided happily on, and more than two months having already passed, we began to think of returning, when I was seized with a severe fit of the gout, which threatened to lay me up for some time. Zillah wrote frequently to her father, and one of her chief pleasures was to receive his letters in reply; latterly they had been very short, but they were full of affection and fond anticipations of the cheerful, happy days which were in store for Zillah on her return home. One morning she entered my room with a disappointed countenance; she had just received her usual letter, but, instead of being from her father, it was from Sarah Sloman, and ran thus:
"'Dear Zillah,—Your father sends his best love, and, as you are now so well, he sees no reason why you should not come home, and so he wishes you to come up next Friday in the early coach, and he will be at the place where you stop, to bring you home; you will have such a surprise when you come home; but can't say more at present. Good bye, and believe me,
1.—Mother sends her love, and compliments to Mr. B.
"Zillah and I felt sorry that Mr. Levisson should have deputed Sarah to convey his wishes, and we were puzzled about the surprise alluded to. I confess I had some misgivings on the subject, though I did not name them to Zillah. As there was no chance of my being able to leave my chamber for some time, and Zillah's health no longer affording any plea for her continued absence, we were obliged to obey orders, and prepared for her returning alone. I made her promise to write constantly, and tell me all that concerned herself; and the accounts she sent me, together with what I afterwards learnt, enable me to relate the incidents that follow.