An Angel in the House by Harriet Prescott Spofford, 1903.
An Angel in the House
THE old man had not always walked with two canes, as he did now. He had been straight and tall as an Indian,—dark as an Indian, too,—straight as his son Martin, the children’s father. The blow from a falling tree, rheumatism, and long stooping over damp furrows had brought him to the two canes. But when he sat in his big chair you would never know he was not as he was born.
The children, however, seldom thought of him in any other than his present guise. To them he was a natural figure of the universe, always there, always the same, as much so as the sun and stars and sky, and entirely indispensable in the matter of their daily life. And although they knew, of course, that he must once have been young, and had been a Major in the militia, and must have been a lover in the days when Grandma was young too,—and sweet as a wild rose, as they had heard him say,—yet it was in the vague manner in which they might have known that the earth had once been a ball of flaming gas—rarely remembered, and much preferred in the present condition. But although he loved them, they themselves were to the old man like the birds, the bees, the pleasant accidents of the hour.
But Grandma remembered those old days, and more vividly than the things of the present; to her her husband was still and eternally young and handsome, strong and upright. While she sat in her soft darkness, she was often living again in this and that part of the drama of their life. Sometimes it was recollection of the electric thrill that shot through her like a sort of glad pang the first time he ever took her hand and made her feel all at once that he belonged to her and she to him forever. She put her fingers up before her face, as if the thought of it were something to be shielded from common sight, when she recalled the first kiss he ever laid upon her lips. And sometimes she lived over again the joyous time when he brought her to this old house, feeling, as she recalled it, almost as happy as she was then. She could never be quite so tremulously, timorously happy as when he first turned the key of the big door, locking them in from all the rest of the world.
No other summer evening could ever be so lovely as that;—they had been married in the morning. As they sat on the door-stone, the odors of the white-rose above them and of the southern wood beside them mingled a sweet and bitter in the air; the wind whispered high up through the embowering elm-trees with a rhythmical sweep, as if it were part of some great music far out side and away; the stars hung low through the branches and seemed to bring heaven down about her and her young husband. They had no words with which to speak their thoughts; they were not talking people; but the way he held her while he looked up into the dark splendor of the sky told her how sacredly he took the trust of her life and happiness, and how surely he meant to build a home that should be a thing of blessing; and the way she clung to him told of her absolute and unwondering confidence in him, and that he stood to her for the strength of the powers of nature and the beneficence of God.
They had nothing but the farm, and health and strength. They were up when the birds began to sing in the dark,—and what mornings they were! The sky a fleece of rose and gold and blue, mists sweeping away in flocks over the low meadows, and leaf and bough and sod drenched with dew. Busy on her pressing household errands, she had no time to stay and look about; she hardly knew she saw things then that now she seemed to see vividly. She remembered one morning when he came in from milking and told her to look up the hill pasture,—little Jerry, their grandson, was setting out raspberry canes there to-day; there was a broad sunbeam slanting down the soft folds of mist and turning them to a sheet of many-colored jewels, a wind following and stripping it away. “Kings don’t have finer than that in their coronation gear,” said he. “Only, their’n lasts longer,” said she, a little wistfully,—for she loved pretty things. And that day he had gone down to Port and had brought her home a small breast-pin, a topaz in a circle of pearls. Of course it was an inexpensive thing, but it meant days of labor and deprivation; and to her it meant more beauty and price than her diamond crown to a queen.
“And more love,” said he.
She had it still, wrapped away in cotton-wool. She had never quite felt like giving it to Martin’s wife,—Martin had been the only child left to them. At one time she thought she would keep it for Jerry’s wife,—although to Jerry, Martin’s son, all girls were yet as shadows. At another time she felt she ought to give it to Louisa, who was to be married some day;—but she loved Emmy best. And then she didn’t know. She had an intimate fancy that, after all, she would like to have it buried with her,—she would like to rise at the last day with the pin on; she had always asked to be laid away in a white gown; but then somebody might rob the grave for it; and perhaps it would be wrong—to hide it in a grave. And she never entirely made up her mind how to dispose of this worldly wealth.
It had more than once been in danger, however. When the first baby died,—the yellow-haired, laughing, dimpled thing, crowing with delight over the shadows of leaves in the sunbeams, over the flitting of birds, the dropping of flowers upon his outdoor cradle, too joyous a little being not to make his stillness appalling,—heart-broken as they were, they had to face the fact that, the taxes having just been paid, there was nothing with which to buy the last little shelter for the dead baby. And then she had brought her topaz pin to her husband to take into town and sell. But he had pinned it inside his shirt, as if it somewhat heartened him, and had gone out and fashioned and stained a little box himself, grimly, and with a sense of something wrong in the world. And she had made the little bed soft and sweet with life-everlasting that she picked up in the sunshine of the hill pasture. And when he gave back her pin, she had felt as if it were the dead baby’s as much as her own.
It was years and years afterwards, when, fumbling darkly among her small possessions, the topaz pin was missing. It was a long while after Martin had brought his wife and children there to live. “It’s gone!” she cried, feebly.
“It’s gone!” echoed Emmy. “I’d ben helpin’ her air the things in the hair-covered trunk, and I had the winder wide open, and—”
“It’s gone,” quivered Grandma again.
“You don’t suppose one o’ the children—” began their always apprehensive and timid mother. “No!” answered their grandfather. “No. The children’s name is West. There was never anybody of the name of West took what didn’t belong to ’em.”
“I allers thought they was like their father,” said the mother, reflectively. “So straight they bend back’ards.”
“Oh!” said Grandma, breathlessly, “they might have thought it did belong to them. In a sort of way it did belong to them, you know. I’d just as lieves they had it,” she said, trembling at the small white lie.
“Emmy, Louisa, Jerry, Tommy, you come here,” said the old Major. And he ranged them before him, as he sat bolt-upright; and then he took down the Farmer’s Almanac from its hook, slowly, as if recollecting the formula of some abracadabra. He turned the leaves and ran his fingers over the strange characters, the signs of the zodiac and of the moon’s phases. Then glancing up under his shaggy brows at the row of little eager faces, “If any one took that pin,” the old Major said, “that one has a bit of burdock bur on the tip of the nose.”
If he thought that, quick as winking, any little hand would fly to any little nose, he was mistaken. The children stood rigid as marble, but with big wondering eyes.
“I told you so,” said he, proudly. “Their name is West.”
“But my nose itched turrible,” said Jerry.
And then their father came in with a parcel in his hand. He had cut off the branch of a tree that bore a nest of tent-caterpillars, and there had fallen with it the half-built home of some birds who had carried the little bunch of cotton-wool up where they could pick it to bits at their leisure. And the grandmother felt it a miraculous restoration of a sacred thing. For the pretty bawble symbolized to her not only memory of the dead baby, but the devotion of her husband, who would have given her the wealth of the world if he could have reached it.
But she had never wished for wealth. In those early days when he had given her the pin she wanted only the health and strength she had, to make his home blessed; and love wrought in her every thought and step, and gave her face, as he felt without thinking, a glorified look.
That face of hers never seemed to him exactly to grow old, although so many years had wrought their work upon it, although Martin had come to man’s estate, and was married, and his children had been born on the place with which he struggled for a living. Once when her husband feared the work was getting to be too much for his old wife alone, he had proposed that Martin should bring his family up there and make it lighter. But she had felt as if that would be something intervening between him and herself, as if the dear seclusion of her home would go with the coming of these young things whom she loved and petted—and sent back at her pleasure.
Sometimes as the husband looked at his old wife now, the face of her girlhood seemed to swim over the faded countenance;—he could not have told you which he loved the better. He knew by the calendar that she was no longer young; but it was so seldom in his thoughts that he was unconscious of it. If the sea-shell pink had forsaken the cheek, he did not miss it; if her eyes were duller, her smile was just as sweet. He did not think of her, through her small, decent reserves, as anything old and withered; she was the object he loved, and he could not have found it possible to think of her as other than a part of himself. In his preoccupations, hunting for herbs, gathering roots and simples for his customers, catching butterflies and finding rare eggs for collectors, searching earth and air, he did not think even of that a great deal; she was to him, as to the children, a fact of the universe.
As for her, in her single-mindedness, she took his affection from the first as a finished thing, as she supposed the world to have been when it was made and pronounced good. It never occurred to question if she were old or unlovely; it did not signify if she were,—she was simply a part of him. You will see two apples on a stem where the flowers were so close together that the fruits have in this same way grown into one.
It was just before the fall of the tree that reduced her husband to his two canes that, one Sunday noon, they were coming home from meeting. “That’s a good sort of preachin’,” said he,—”that we thank the Lord for our blessin’s jest by enjoyin’ ’em.”
“I’ve had a sight of enjoyment in this life,” she sighed in pure pleasure, stooping to pick a flower—that flew away, being only a large white moth. “I wonder what the next will be.”
“Eye hath not seen nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things prepared,” said her husband.
“Oh, it can’t be better than this, so long as we’re together!” she exclaimed.
It was one night, at about this time, that, as he sat taking off his boots, she came with a candle in her hand and bent very low, looking at him closely and intently, moving the candle a trifle from side to side. He laughed, and pulled her face down and kissed it. “What’s up, little woman?” he said.
She laughed too, although with some constraint. “I wanted to take a good look and fix it on my mind, so’t I should see it if I went into the dark,” she said.
“Sort of takin’ my ambertyne,” he said, lifting her on one arm, and, with the candle in the other hand, carrying her off to bed.
There had come to this sweet face of hers, with the vanishing years, a look of pathetic patience, a certain far-away gaze in the eyes, almost like vacancy. One day, passing her finger slowly down a seam she sewed,—all her movements were very slow and gentle, like those of one groping in twilight,—she found a gap and then a long stitch. She held her work up to the light; and after a moment she grew very white. “I was afeared, I was afeared,” she whispered.
Then she went out in the yard and stood staring up straight at the sun with out a quiver of her eyelids.
“What in time you doin’ there?” her husband called from the barn door.
She turned with a wild shriek and went running and stumbling towards him, and threw her arms round his neck. “I have gone blind!” she cried. “I am old. And I have gone blind!”
“It’s nothin’ o’ the sort!” he exclaimed, holding her off. “Lemme see. Your eyes are as bright as dollars! You’ve jest tired ’em.”
“No!” she cried. “No. It’s ben comin’ this long while. I hoped it would pass. Oh, my dear, my dear old love, I never shall see your face again!”
“We’ll go right down to Port and have the doctor look at ’em,” he said. “Here, here, now, you ain’t no call to cry. That’s bad for ’em, anyway.”
“It costs money to go to the doctor,” she sobbed. “But there, you can take the pin,” she added, more brightly. “Only, I don’ ‘no’s it’s a bit of good to go. I’ve done all there is to do. I’ve washed ’em ‘ith June dew and with green tea—”
“Wife—have you prayed?” he asked. “O Lord,” he cried, with a sudden fierce intensity, holding her there where they stood by the big chopping-blook, “O Lord Almighty, the One of all power, the One of all love, give us back these eyes. Ef it takes a meracle,—Lord, work the meracle! O Lord, ain’t she worth it as much as blind Bartimeus? She ain’t never looked at anythin’ unclean. Her eyes have allers beamed love and kindness,—don’t leave them in the dark. Lord, ef it’s to be one of us, take my eyes, not her’n—”
“Oh no, no!” she cried, still in his arms. “Not his’n, not his! Oh, our Heavenly Father, come to us with Thy spirit. Help us to be willin’. Be with us in the dark,—oh, be with us in the dark!”
He harnessed the old horse, and they went down to Port that afternoon, hardly speaking on the way, but holding each other closely, and waited on the doctor, whose fame in all the region round had long bordered on the marvellous.
“I am sorry,” said the old doctor, the examination over, laying his hand on hers tenderly, as they sat before him. “I am sorry. But—it is hopeless. Nothing but a miracle—and the days of miracles are over—”
“No,” she said, quietly. “It may not be worth while for me. But the power that made this world must still be livin’ in it.”
“And can transcend law? I wish it could and would!”
“Perhaps not that way,” she answered with a lovely dignity. “But by comin’ to me—and helpin’ me to bear. By comfortin’ him.” For he had dropped his head in her lap and was crying like a child. “Dear, it is the Lord’s will,” she said, her hand resting on his head. “Martin and Annie will come up and bring the children, an’ they will be eyes to me. I would have liked to see the beautiful world again,—but in the next life there will be so much to see, p’r’aps it is best to rest a little fust. Dear, dear,” as he shook her with his sobs, “I would let you have your will. Sha’n’t the Lord have his will, too, when we love him so?”
“There is no charge,” said the doctor, when the man drew out his ancient wallet. “She has done more for me than I have been able to do for her.”
And so they went their way. And after Martin and Annie moved up with the little girls and the babies, she seemed to be living over again the days of her youth,—of her courtship, of her early marriage, of the earlier time when she had joined the church. And at first the children tiptoed about with awe and commiseration, and presently they swarmed all over her, and each child of them all rivalled the others in finding something to do for her comfort or her pleasure,—one fashioning her caps, and making her, as the girl said, as pretty as a picture, another teaching her the cabbage-netting, one bringing to her the first flowers of the year and the last, and one picking up her pins and making himself her staff,—the cherubs on a cloud round a Madonna could do no more.
“I declare,” said the little grandmother, as she sat in the porch on a spring day, the sunshine out of the blue sky falling over her, and the children going and coming as if nothing were complete without her, “I begin to feel as if I was a queen or a centurion or suthin’. These children all but draw my breath for me!”
“It’s done the children a sight o’ good, growin’ up ‘ith you and their grandpa,” said their mother, bringing to the door the rug she was braiding. “It’s made a woman of Emmy, bein’ here with you. An’ havin’ sech a comrade as his grandpa’s done more for Jerry than a term at the academy.”
“The dear little people,” said Grandma. “It’s been everythin’ to me, too, Annie. They don’t know what it is to be blind.”
“They know,” said their mother—”they know what it is to have an angel in the house!”