Tempted, but Not Overcome
The Ladies’ Treasury, vol. 5, issue 4 (1861)
Introductory Note: “Tempted, but Not Overcome” is a cautionary tale about a young wife who is faced with a seemingly small yet difficult decision. It relies on the logic that wives must guard themselves from situations that might be harmful to their marriages. With its brisk pace and lively dialogue, this piece captures the reader’s attention just long enough to entertain while simultaneously teach its moral.
“Come, now, Ralph!” and the lady sprang up with a blush and a frown, and a little flutter of a smile, while the slipper which she was embroidering dropped to the floor.
“Well, Coz, you’ve no business to look so pretty that one can’t help kissing you.” And he stood there, with his handsome, saucy face, his bright, amused eyes, his jaunty air, and the half mischievous, half penitent look, which he assumed for the occasion.
She tried to look serious and dignified, as became a wife of three years’ standing. “Cousin Ralph, you forget that we are no longer children, and that it isn’t quite proper that you should be so—so rude.”
“It’s a fact, May,” gently seating her, and picking up the slipper; “but looking at you sitting there as I came past the window, with your face bent down over your work, and your curls fluttering about it, I quite forgot that you were anything but May Darling, and I Ralph Upham, your boy lover, who used to tease you from morning until night, and end by loving you better than ever. You have the sweet face that used to laugh out on me from between the lilac bushes at Uncle Harry’s; and I only thought of this when I kissed it.”
His words had touched some secret chord of memory and feeling; you would have seen that by the tremulous shadows which went over the sweet face—by the small, faint sigh that fluttered out of the lips, red as June rose-buds.
He had seated himself by her side, and had caught the tassels of her morning dress, and was swinging them while he talked.
“Those were pleasant times, Ralph; but perhaps it’s as well, now, not to talk of the past.”
“Why not, pray? There is nothing, surely, in that fair picture, in the memories of both our hearts, that we should not recall it together.”
“Oh, Ralph, you haven’t lost your old trick of talking everybody into just your way of thinking;” and this time the lady looked up and smiled in her companion’s face—but there was a little shadow of doubt and pain in the smile.
“And you haven’t lost your old face, May Darling, with its childlike, wistful look—the dear, sweet face, that was the angel of my boyhood and youth.”
He was stroking the glossy, golden hair, now, with that sort of restless grace with which Ralph Upham always did everything.
A deep flush mounted to the lady’s brow. “Oh, Ralph, you must not talk to me in that way!” and she moved uneasily.
“I beg your pardon, May; but how in the world can I help forgetting, every other minute, that you are the wife of another man? By-the-bye, I want to hear something of this husband of yours. I shall always owe him a grudge for cutting me out; but then he must be an incarnation of all excellencies to have found his way into that best room of your little heart.”
“He is a good, true, noble man; and he would sacrifice his very life to make me happy.”
She spoke the words out strong and bravely, as though they expressed a settled conviction of her heart.
“I am glad to hear it, May. Whatever scapegrace I may have been in times gone by, my heart has always cherished the warmest desires for your happiness.”1A scapegrace is a man or boy who engages in mischievous conduct. The word is often used jokingly.
He saw these words had their effect, and continued, after a little pause—“Well, tell me something further about this husband of yours. Is he handsome?”
“No; but fine looking.”
“The world calls him a most promising young lawyer. Really, May, you can have nothing more to wish for!” watching her face with his bright, keen eyes.
“No—oh, no; nothing!”
She spoke quick and emphatically, but not exactly with enthusiasm.
“Well, I’m satisfied now, May, respecting your life—fully, entirely; and I need not tell you how my heart rejoices in this.”
“You are very kind, Ralph;” and now she looked up and smiled openly and warmly in his face.
“I was at Winsted last week. The old place looks just as it used to do.”
This was opening into a great storehouse of old memories and associations. Mrs. Denison’s thoughts instantly leaped forth to grasp them, for she was an impulsive little creature; and she sat by the sitting-room window with her cousin that summer morning, and talked of her childhood, and walked amid the scenes which they two had lived together. Her cousin led her adroitly up and down the green, fragrant passages of her youth. The years of the past were his loom, and, like a skilful weaver, he shot out of it just what devices and patterns he liked. Every word that he uttered brought some new vision before his hearer—opened some window to the eastward of her life. Nothing was too small or trivial for his notice, from the robin’s nest in the great pear tree, to the swing in the garden.
And Mrs. Denison drank in every word; and her face kindled, and quick laughs rang out of her lips, almost as sweet as the birds’ songs did out of the lilac trees outside, and were caught and lost in the current of another laugh, stronger and deeper.
Oh, she was a pretty, pretty creature, sitting there with her blue eyes so full of light, her fair, round cheeks, kindled into quick flushes, and her glossy, golden curls, flickering like lights about her face.
May Darling had been the only daughter of a clergyman, who had been for more than thirty years vicar of the church in the quiet old country town of Winsted. The daisies grew over her mother’s grave before she could remember her; and about the large grave clustered a company of small ones, telling the number of brothers and sisters who were angels in heaven. May was the light of her father’s eyes. She was a generous, impulsive, fascinating little creature; and her life was much like the robins’, which made their nests every May in the branches of the pear tree that grew close to the kitchen door.
She had just touched her eighth year when Ralph Upham came to the parsonage. He was three years her senior—one of those off-hand, sparkling, fun-loving boys, that are sure to be favourites with everybody. He was the son of the pastor’s eldest sister’s first husband, and he was left quite alone in the world when his parents and his stepmother were called away from it.
So the kind-hearted clergyman received him into his own family, and he became as a son to him, and as a brother to his child.
But Ralph caused his foster-father many hours of anxiety and pain, for, despite all his bright, merry ways, one could not fail to discern the lack of truth and fixed principle which the boy so frequently indicated, and without which there is no foundation to build up a character either permanently good or beautiful; and as the boy and girl grew up to man and womanhood, the old pastor watched with vague regret their growing attachment to each other.
He resolved to send Ralph to college, but he passed all his vacations at the parsonage, and, on his entering on his junior year, May was betrothed to her cousin with her father’s consent.
She had blossomed, in that quaint old parsonage, into a rarely beautiful girl-woman, and she gave to Ralph Upham all the sweet flowing fountains of her woman’s faith and tenderness.
But a terrible blow was appointed her, for though Ralph Upham graduated at college with the highest honours, his conduct during the first year of his professional studies made the clergyman withdraw his consent to his daughter’s engagement.
May yielded to her father’s will; but her obedience cost her a long and severe illness, from which she had scarcely recovered before her father was gathered to his wife and children. Afterwards May went to reside with an aunt of her mother’s in London, and it was not strange that her loveliness won her many admirers.
Her aunt was, however, a judicious and Christian woman, and softened and nourished by the rains which had fallen into her life, the character of May Darling blossomed into new strength and beauty, and the man who at last won her affections was one to whom her father and mother in heaven would have rejoiced to commit the earthly welfare of their child.
May Darling had been for three years the happy and dearly beloved wife of George Denison, when one afternoon, on coming out of a shop, she suddenly stood face to face with Ralph Upham.
The meeting was demonstrative on his side, and embarrassed on hers, for May had not looked on that graceful figure, and those rings of bright brown hair, since she watched them go out of the old parsonage one May morning seven years ago, when she was the betrothed wife of Ralph Upham.
No wonder she was fluttered and embarrassed when she looked into that handsome face; that the old memories arose and knocked at her heart.
Mrs. Denison had known little of Ralph Upham’s career subsequent to their parting, save that he was practising law. He congratulated her on her marriage, and to her inquiry whether she should respond with like sentiments, he answered, half gaily, “Oh, no, May, I am an ordained old bachelor, you know.”
But the glance which accompanied the words could not be misinterpreted, and Mrs. Denison knew that Ralph Upham meant her to understand it was for her sake that his heart could never hold another love.
He accepted her invitation to call, and the next day—but you know this, reader.
Ralph Upham was a skilful reader of human nature, and he was a bad man. Perhaps not exactly so, as the world goes, but he was bad in comparison with a truly good and noble ideal. Vanity and selfishness were the great underlying motives of his life. He was impulsive and susceptible, capable of rising into temporary appreciation of all that was good and true in man or woman, but incapable of a noble, persistent life. The stream was corrupt at the fountain, and his was the more dangerous because of his fascinating social qualities. No man was a greater favourite with women, and no man ever studied their hearts and characters—their hidden lives of emotion and feeling—with more analytical shrewdness than he did.
He had conversational powers of no ordinary kind, and, as he was sympathetic and reflective, he had a remarkable degree of social pliancy and adaptation; he could be brilliant, tender, gentle—whatever the time and circumstances demanded—and nothing stimulated his vanity so much as the knowledge of his success in awakening an interest in the hearts of women; and, wicked and contemptible as was this object, it had become a habit and a passion with Ralph Upham.
There is no question but something of his better nature had awakened in his interview with Mrs. Denison; for all that was freshest and best in his heart had loved the beautiful girl with whom he had passed his boyhood and youth. But he was resolved to ascertain whether his old power over her was entirely gone, and he was bad and base enough to sit beneath the roof of another man’s dwelling, and leave no effort untried to awaken in the soul of his wife those feelings and associations which it could only be wrong to him for her to cherish for one moment.
“Is it possible! one o’clock! I have been here three whole hours!”
Ralph Upham glanced at the French clock on the chimney-piece, whose silvery voice had just swung through the air.
“Where have these three hours gone to?” exclaimed Mrs. Denison. “I had no idea it was eleven.”
“Neither had I. You will pardon me, May, for engrossing so much of your time. They have been pleasant and precious hours to me;” and now he took her hand with the freedom of a brother, and something of the tenderness of a lover, and clasped the soft, white fingers in his own. “But there is no use; I must come back to the hard, barren present, from the dear old lanes where I have walked to-day with you, May—where we walked together in our youth;” and then he repeated, as though half to himself, those exquisite verses in Longfellow’s “Gleam of Sunshine”—
“Here runs the highway to the town,
There the green lane descends,
Through which I walked to church with thee,
Oh, gentlest of my friends!
“The shadow of the linden trees
Lay moving on the grass,
Between them and the moving boughs,
A shadow thou didst pass.
“Thy dress was like the lilies,
And thy heart was pure as they;
One of God’s holy messengers
Did walk with me that day.”2This passage is an excerpt from “A Gleam of Sunshine,” a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that was first published in his collection The Belfry of Bruges and Other Poems in 1845.
Then there fell a little silence. Mrs. Denison’s golden lashes were dropped low over her blue eyes, and her companion fancied they were blurred with something which did not let her see clearly the half-finished embroidery in her lap.
“We dine at two. You will stay, Ralph? I want to present you to George.”
“Thank you. Nothing would afford me greater pleasure; but I have an imperative appointment at that time. I shall, however, be disengaged at four, and with your permission, will call at four, and take you to drive in the park.”
She looked up, a little doubtful and disturbed.
“Oh, come now, May, you won’t hesitate to grant so slight a privilege to one who was for so many years your brother? Say you will go; for the sake of old times.”
“I think I will go, Ralph.”
He bent down and kissed her cheek; this time she did not reprove him, but she turned away from the door and listened to his parting steps; and then she sat down, and sobs shook to and fro the delicate figure of May Denison.
“Don’t, George, you’ll tumble my hair,” and the lady drew her head back with an impatient movement, and there was a quiver of petulance in her tones.
George Denison bent forward, and gazed earnestly in his wife’s face; it looked cold and forbidding.
“What’s the matter, little lady?”
“Why—what makes you ask?”
“Because, when a man comes home to dinner, he likes to have the smile and kind word that he’s always used to.”
The words touched May Denison, for she was an impulsive little woman; part of the coldness went out of her face as she leaned forward, saying, “Well, excuse me; I was just a little absent-minded, George.”
At that moment the bell rang for dinner.
George Denison was not, socially, a brilliant or fascinating man, but to know his character long and deeply, was to respect and love the man. His affections were singularly warm, and deep, and constant, but his habits were reticent and undemonstrative, and it was with difficulty he overcame them. But he was a man honourable, generous, noble, with the springs of poetry and tenderness lying deep and serene in his soul; not flashing up readily to the surface, in all graceful acts and words, but flowing through his life—still, strong, perpetual currents. He loved his beautiful young wife, as only such a man could, the woman of his heart’s election.
“Oh, guess who’s been here to-day?” asked Mrs. Denison, suddenly, in a pause of the conversation at dinner; for the little cloud had quite passed out of her face.
“I can’t, dear. Anybody that I should be glad to see?”
“I hope so. It was Cousin Ralph Upham.”
The young lawyer put down his knife and fork in his surprise. “What! that old beau of yours?”
“How long did he stay?”
“Oh! some time. You know we had a good deal to talk about—of our old home and the days when we were children.”
“Why didn’t he remain to dinner, and give me a chance to look at him?”
“He had an engagement, or he would have done so. You’ve never met him?”
Then there fell a little silence betwixt the husband and wife, and, somehow, both felt uncomfortable, especially the gentleman, who half unconsciously linked his wife’s manner, on his return home, with this visit of her old friend, for May had acquainted him with her engagement to her cousin.
Mrs. Denison opened her lips to speak, and then closed them, while a thought darted through her mind—“What is the use of telling George? I can just take my drive with Cousin Ralph, and say nothing to him about it;” for she had an intuition that the announcement of the invitation would not be agreeable to her husband.
But she put aside the thought the next moment, for she was too honourable for the slightest concealment.
“Well, you will probably have an opportunity to meet Cousin Ralph at tea, as he invited me to drive for an hour or two with him this afternoon.”
“And you accepted the invitation?”
“Certainly. You do not object?”
There was no immediate answer, but May read her husband’s face.
“Oh, George! you are not so absurd as to mind my going out for an hour with my cousin, and the old companion of all my childhood?”
“Why don’t you add, also, your old lover?”
The blood flashed into the lady’s cheek; for the speech wounded and irritated her; and it was one that, in a better mood, her husband would not have made.
“It would not be very wise or delicate for me to say it before a jealous husband.”
The answer stung him. “You can apply what terms you like to me, Mrs. Denison; I simply wish to know if you accepted the invitation?”
“Of course I did!” She said it defiantly, tapping her little feet on the carpet. “Have you any objection to urge?”
“No; you will do as you like; I never lay my commands upon my wife. It is against my principles.”
The dinner was finished in silence; George Denison sat stern and pale, May flushed and lowering; and the husband rose from the table and went out without so much as bidding his wife good afternoon.
“It was outrageous, cruel!” exclaimed Mrs. Denison, as she walked up and down the room, slipping the rings round her small fingers, while the tears stood still on her cheeks. “To think he is angry because I am going out with Cousin Ralph! I shall just have my own way for once. Oh, dear! if things had only turned out differently!” She did not finish the sentence; she was fairly frightened at the angry, repellent feelings which gathered gloomily in her heart against her husband.
And as Mrs. Denison leaned her head on the table, a book which her arm brushed away fell heavily at her feet. She picked it up. It was a small prayer-book, with covers of crimson velvet. The leaves had dropped open, and her eyes fell upon the marriage service, and those solemn, mysterious words flashed through her soul—“And live together according to God’s holy ordinance.”
They stilled the storm of passion and pride, of gloom and bitterness, which had gathered in her soul. Mrs. Denison sat down and thought what depth and holiness of meaning dwelt in those words, and what that sacrament was which set the two apart, and shut them up from the world—husband and wife.
“And live together according to God’s holy ordinance,” not simply in word and deed, but in thought, in feeling, in spirit, forbidding all wanderings of the heart, all foolish imaginations, making each to the other tender, pitiful, forgiving, self-sacrificing—just as God, the Father, interpreted those words when, standing at His altar, she had taken on her soul the vows of her wifehood.
There was a long, sharp struggle in Mrs. Denison’s mind; but she was a Christian woman, and she knew whence strength would come for her weakness.
“Well, little lady, all ready?”
Ralph Upham asked the question in his pleasant, assured way, as he played with his whip.
There was a little pause, and a little flush crept up and settled itself in the sweet face. Then the answer came, low and steadfast, “Ralph, you will have to excuse me from driving with you to-day.”
“Why, May, is it possible you are not going?” surprise, disappointment, and chagrin combining in the tones.
“There are reasons, Ralph, and good ones, which I do not consider myself at liberty to mention, which make it best for me to ask you to excuse me.”
“Can’t do it, May,” in that graceful, positive, off-hand way that is usually so irresistible with ladies. “I’ve set my mind on it!”
It was hard to resist the look which gave the right point and emphasis to these words, but Mrs. Denison did not waver. “Ralph,” she began.
But he broke in, taking the soft fingers—“Come now, May, you won’t be so absurd or squeamish as to refuse your brother this little pleasure, for the sake of those other long-ago times that one of us, at least, can never forget?”
It was harder still to resist this last tone and look; but if she faltered a moment her voice was steady and earnest as it answered—“I have not declined your invitation, Ralph, without duly considering it, and therefore it can be of no use to urge it.”
Ralph Upham’s handsome face darkened, and his eyes flamed out suddenly. “I see the drift of all this, May. Your husband is not willing to trust his wife with me. I do hate a man who can set so low a value on himself that he’s afraid his wife may fall in love with an old friend, if they happen to be brought together for an hour.”
Ralph Upham had gone further, and revealed more of his true character in his disappointment and chagrin than he intended.
Mrs. Denison lifted her eyes, and confronted her guest with a quiet, steadfast gaze; he would not have known how much he had stirred her if it had not have been for the deep flush in her cheeks.
“Ralph, you forget that George Denison is my husband, and that you must not speak thus of him, in his own house, to his wife.”
Ralph Upham was thoroughly crest-fallen, but minds like his are seldom susceptible of real contrition, and it was with a feeling of petty anger and wounded vanity that he answered: “I beg your pardon, Mrs. Denison; I shall never offend you so again. Good afternoon;” and he turned toward the door.
And then the memory of their childhood, and her father’s love for Ralph, came over May Denison’s soul, and she sprang toward him with outstretched hand. “Ralph, do not let us part in anger. Come back and take tea with us to-night, and you and George shall be friends.”
“Thank you; I shall leave town to-night. I wish you all happiness and prosperity, May,” but, somehow, the tones belied the words, and so did the cold, polite touch of his fingers as he bade her good afternoon.
“What! I didn’t expect to find you returned so soon—and alone?”
George Denison said these words as he opened the door of the sitting-room, and found his wife seated by the window with her sewing, as sweet and perfect a little home picture as ever gladdened the heart of a husband; and, somehow, it took away half the coldness and bitterness which had been in his heart that afternoon.
“Cousin Ralph stayed only a few minutes,” answered Mrs. Denison.
There was a little pause. The young husband did not come forward and kiss his wife, as was his habit. He removed the papers from his pocket and laid them on the table.
“Did you have a pleasant drive?” He asked the question coldly.
“I have not been out, George.”
“Have not been out?”
“Didn’t your friend come for you?”
“And why did you decline going with him?”
She opened her lips to speak; but something shut the words back in her thoughts.
Her husband saw it; he came towards her and laid his hand softly on her bright hair.
“May, was it for my sake?” His voice was scarcely above a whisper, and it was not quite steady.
She bowed her head. The young husband lifted her silently in his arms, and sat down in the chair; he held her very close to him, and he whispered softly—
“My own, precious wife!”
Then her tears broke out, a quick torrent; but they were tears in which were neither sorrow nor shame—tears of peace and gladness—and they flowed amidst sweet, soothing caresses, that healed whatever of pain was left in May Denison’s heart.
And at last, when the tears were over, or only hung in still, bright drops on her lashes, she told her husband all that had been in her heart that day.
“Will you forgive me, George?”
And his eyes—those deep, beautiful, brown eyes—made full and satisfactory answer.
And sitting there they held, afterward, a long, sincere, loving talk, such as two can have who come out from doubt and darkness into perfect knowledge and peace—and love, which comprehends both the others.
And May Denison learned then, as she never had before, how her husband loved her, and what she was to him. And when, in the bright, serene years of her after wedded life, May Denison looked back upon that day, she blessed God that when she was “tempted” she was not “overcome.”
Oh, young wife, reading this story, has it for you, too, neither message nor warning?
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How To Cite (MLA Format)
“Tempted, but Not Overcome.” The Ladies’ Treasury, vol. 5, no. 4, 1861, pp. 106-10. Edited by Emma Wilcox. Victorian Short Fiction Project, 8 June 2023, https://vsfp.byu.edu/index.php/title/tempted-but-not-overcome/.
21 December 2017
7 June 2023