I have before me some volumes of old letters addressed to Mrs. Smith and the two girls, her favourites, which depict in a strong light their characters and the society in which they moved.
'My very dear and much esteemed Friend,' writes one correspondent, 'this day being the anniversary of our acquaintance, I feel inclined to address you; but where shall I find words to express the fealings of a graitful Heart, first to the Lord who graiciously inclined you on this day last year to notice an afflicted Strainger providentially cast in your way far from any Earthly friend? . . . Methinks I shall hear him say unto you, "Inasmuch as ye shewed kindness to my afflicted handmaiden, ye did it unto me."'
This is to Jean; but the same afflicted lady wrote indifferently to Jean, to Janet, and to Ms. Smith, whom she calls 'my Edinburgh mother.' It is plain the three were as one person, moving to acts of kindness, like the Graces, inarmed. Too much stress must not be laid on the style of this correspondence; Clarinda survived, not far away, and may have met the ladies on the Calton Hill; and many of the writers appear, underneath the conventions of the period, to be genuinely moved. But what unpleasantly strikes a reader is, that these devout unfortunates found a revenue in their devotion. It is everywhere the same tale; on the side of the soft-hearted ladies, substantial acts of help; on the side of the correspondents, affection, italics, texts, ecstasies, and imperfect spelling. When a midwife is recommended, not at all for proficiency in her important art, but because she has 'a sister whom I [the correspondent] esteem and respect, and [who] is a spiritual daughter of my Hond Father in the Gosple,' the mask seems to be torn off, and the wages of godliness appear too openly. Capacity is a secondary matter in a midwife, temper in a servant, affection in a daughter, and the repetition of a shibboleth fulfils the law. Common decency is at times forgot in the same page with the most sanctified advice and aspiration. Thus I am introduced to a correspondent who appears to have been at the time the housekeeper at Invermay, and who writes to condole with my grandmother in a season of distress. For nearly half a sheet she keeps to the point with an excellent discretion in language then suddenly breaks out:
'It was fully my intention to have left this at Martinmass, but the Lord fixes the bounds of our habitation. I have had more need of patience in my situation here than in any other, partly from the very violent, unsteady, deceitful temper of the Mistress of the Family, and also from the state of the house. It was in a train of repair when I came here two years ago, and is still in Confusion. There is above six Thousand Pounds' worth of Furniture come from London to be put up when the rooms are completely finished; and then, woe be to the Person who is Housekeeper at Invermay!'
And by the tail of the document, which is torn, I see she goes on to ask the bereaved family to seek her a new place. It is extraordinary that people should have been so deceived in so careless an impostor; that a few sprinkled 'God willings' should have blinded them to the essence of this venomous letter; and that they should have been at the pains to bind it in with others (many of them highly touching) in their memorial of harrowing days. But the good ladies were without guile and without suspicion; they were victims marked for the axe, and the religious impostors snuffed up the wind as they drew near.
I have referred above to my grandmother; it was no slip of the pen: for by an extraordinary arrangement, in which it is hard not to suspect the managing hand of a mother, Jean Smith became the wife of Robert Stevenson. Mrs. Smith had failed in her design to make her son a minister, and she saw him daily more immersed in business and worldly ambition. One thing remained that she might do: she might secure for him a godly wife, that great means of sanctification; and she had two under her hand, trained by herself, her dear friends and daughters both in law and love--Jean and Janet.