The Guardian Angel

Author: Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

Chapter XIII. Battle.

In tracing the history of a human soul through its commonplace nervous perturbations, still more through its spiritual humiliations, there is danger that we shall feel a certain contempt for the subject of such weakness. It is easy to laugh at the erring impulses of a young girl; but you who remember when_______ _________, only fifteen years old, untouched by passion, unsullied in name, was found in the shallow brook where she had sternly and surely sought her death,— (too true! too true!—ejus animae Jesu miserere!—but a generation has passed since then,)—will not smile so scornfully.

Myrtle Hazard no longer required the physician’s visits, but her mind was very far from being poised in the just balance of its faculties. She was of a good natural constitution and a fine temperament; but she had been overwrought by all that she had passed through, and, though happening to have been born in another land, she was of American descent. Now, it has long been noticed that there is something in the influences, climatic or other, here prevailing, which predisposes to morbid religious excitement. The graver reader will not object to seeing the exact statement of a competent witness belonging to a by-gone century, confirmed as it is by all that we see about us.

"There is no Experienced Minister of the Gospel who hath not in the Cases of Tempted Souls often had this Experience, that the ill Cases of their distempered Bodies are the frequent Occasion and Original of their Temptations." "The Vitiated Humours in many Persons, yield the Steams whereinto Satan does insinuate himself, till he has gained a sort of Possession in them, or at least an Opportunity to shoot into the Mind as many Fiery Darts as may cause a sad Life unto them; yea, ’t is well if Self-Murder be not the sad end into which these hurred (?) People are thus precipitated. New England, a country where Splenetic Maladies are prevailing and pernicious, perhaps above any other, hath afforded Numberless Instances, of even pious People, who have contracted these Melancholy Indispositions which have unhinged them from all Service or Comfort; yea, not a few Persons have been hurried thereby to lay Violent Hands upon themselves at the last. These are among the unsearchable Judgments of God!"

Such are the words of the Rev. Cotton Mather.

The minister had hardly recovered from his vexatious defeat in the skirmish where the Widow Hopkins was his principal opponent, when he received a note from Miss Silence Withers, which promised another and more important field of conflict. It contained a request that he would visit Myrtle Hazard, who seemed to be in a very excitable and impressible condition, and who might perhaps be easily brought under those influences which she had resisted from her early years, through inborn perversity of character.

When the Rev. Mr. Stoker received this note, he turned very pale,— which was a bad sign. Then he drew a long breath or two, and presently a flush tingled up to his cheek, where it remained a fixed burning glow. This may have been from the deep interest he felt in Myrtle’s spiritual welfare; but he had often been sent for by aged sinners in more immediate peril, apparently, without any such disturbance of the circulation.

To know whether a minister, young or still in flower; is in safe or dangerous paths, there are two psychometers, a comparison between which will give as infallible a return as the dry and wet bulbs of the ingenious "Hygrodeik." The first is the black broadcloth forming the knees of his pantaloons; the second, the patch of carpet before his mirror. If the first is unworn and the second is frayed and threadbare, pray for him. If the first is worn and shiny, while the second keeps its pattern and texture, get him to pray for you.

The Rev. Mr. Stoker should have gone down on his knees then and there, and sought fervently for the grace which he was like to need in the dangerous path just opening before him. He did not do this; but he stood up before his looking-glass and parted his hair as carefully as if he had been separating the saints of his congregation from the sinners, to send the list to the statistical columns of a religious newspaper. He selected a professional neckcloth, as spotlessly pure as if it had been washed in innocency, and adjusted it in a tie which was like the white rose of Sharon. Myrtle Hazard was, he thought, on the whole, the handsomest girl he had ever seen; Susan Posey was to her as a buttercup from the meadow is to a tigerlily. He, knew the nature of the nervous disturbances through which she had been passing, and that she must be in a singularly impressible condition. He felt sure that he could establish intimate spiritual relations with her by drawing out her repressed sympathies, by feeding the fires of her religious imagination, by exercising all those lesser arts of fascination which are so familiar to the Don Giovannis, and not always unknown to the San Giovannis.

As for the hard doctrines which he used to produce sensations with in the pulpit, it would have been a great pity to worry so lovely a girl, in such a nervous state, with them. He remembered a savory text about being made all things to all men, which would bear application particularly well to the case of this young woman. He knew how to weaken his divinity, on occasion, as well as an old housewife to weaken her tea, lest it should keep people awake.

The Rev. Mr. Stoker was a man of emotions. He loved to feel his heart beat; he loved all the forms of non-alcoholic drunkenness, which are so much better than the vinous, because they taste themselves so keenly, whereas the other (according to the statement of experts who are familiar with its curious phenomena) has a certain sense of unreality connected with it. He delighted in the reflex stimulus of the excitement he produced in others by working on their feelings. A powerful preacher is open to the same sense of enjoyment—an awful, tremulous, goose-flesh sort of state, but still enjoyment—that a great tragedian feels when he curdles the blood of his audience.

Mr. Stoker was noted for the vividness of his descriptions of the future which was in store for the great bulk of his fellow-townsmen and fellow-worlds-men. He had three sermons on this subject, known to all the country round as the sweating sermon, the fainting sermon, and the convulsion-fit sermon, from the various effects said to have been produced by them when delivered before large audiences. It might be supposed that his reputation as a terrorist would have interfered with his attempts to ingratiate himself with his young favorites. But the tragedian who is fearful as Richard or as Iago finds that no hindrance to his success in the part of Romeo. Indeed, women rather take to terrible people; prize-fighters, pirates, highwaymen, rebel generals, Grand Turks, and Bluebeards generally have a fascination for the sex; your virgin has a natural instinct to saddle your lion. The fact, therefore, that the young girl had sat under his tremendous pulpitings, through the sweating sermon, the fainting sermon, and the convulsion-fit sermon, did not secure her against the influence of his milder approaches.

Myrtle was naturally surprised at receiving a visit from him; but she was in just that unbalanced state in which almost any impression is welcome. He showed so much interest, first in her health, then in her thoughts and feelings, always following her lead in the conversation, that before he left her she felt as if she had made a great discovery; namely, that this man, so formidable behind the guns of his wooden bastion, was a most tenderhearted and sympathizing person when he came out of it unarmed. How delightful he was as he sat talking in the twilight in low and tender tones, with respectful pauses of listening, in which he looked as if he too had just made a discovery,—of an angel, to wit, to whom he could not help unbosoming his tenderest emotions, as to a being from another sphere!

It was a new experience to Myrtle. She was all ready for the spiritual manipulations of an expert. The excitability which had been showing itself in spasms and strange paroxysms had been transferred to those nervous centres, whatever they may be, cerebral or ganglionic, which are concerned in the emotional movements of the religious nature. It was taking her at an unfair disadvantage, no doubt. In the old communion, some priest might have wrought upon her while in this condition, and we might have had at this very moment among us another Saint Theresa or Jacqueline Pascal. She found but a dangerous substitute in the spiritual companionship of a saint like the Rev. Joseph Bellamy Stoker.

People think the confessional is unknown in our Protestant churches. It is a great mistake. The principal change is, that there is no screen between the penitent and the father confessor. The minister knew his rights, and very soon asserted them. He gave aunt Silence to understand that he could talk more at ease if he and his young disciple were left alone together. Cynthia Badlam did not like this arrangement. She was afraid to speak about it; but she glared at them aslant, with the look of a biting horse when his eyes follow one sideways until they are all white but one little vicious spark of pupil.

It was not very long before the Rev. Mr. Stoker had established pretty intimate relations with the household at The Poplars. He had reason to think, he assured Miss Silence, that Myrtle was in a state of mind which promised a complete transformation of her character. He used the phrases of his sect, of course, in talking with the elderly lady; but the language which he employed with the young girl was free from those mechanical expressions which would have been like to offend or disgust her.

As to his rougher formulae, he knew better than to apply them to a creature of her fine texture. If he had been disposed to do so, her simple questions and answers to his inquiries would have made it difficult. But it was in her bright and beautiful eyes, in her handsome features, and her winning voice, that he found his chief obstacle. How could he look upon her face in its loveliness, and talk to her as if she must be under the wrath and curse of God for the mere fact of her existence? It seemed more natural and it certainly was more entertaining, to question her in such a way as to find out what kind of theology had grown up in her mind as the result of her training in the complex scheme of his doctrinal school. And as he knew that the merest child, so soon as it begins to think at all, works out for itself something like a theory of human nature, he pretty soon began sounding Myrtle’s thoughts on this matter.

What was her own idea; he would be pleased to know, about her natural condition as one born of a sinful race, and her inherited liabilities on that account?

Myrtle smiled like a little heathen, as she was, according to the standard of her earlier teachings. That kind of talk used to worry her when she was a child, sometimes. Yes, she remembered its coming back to her in a dream she had, when—when—(She did not finish her sentence.) Did he think she hated every kind of goodness and loved every kind of evil? Did he think she was hateful to the Being who made her?

The minister looked straight into the bright, brave, tender eyes, and answered, "Nothing in heaven or on earth could help loving you, Myrtle!"

Pretty well for a beginning!

Myrtle saw nothing but pious fervor in this florid sentiment. But as she was honest and clear-sighted, she could not accept a statement which seemed so plainly in contradiction with his common teachings, without bringing his flattering assertion to the test of another question.

Did he suppose, she asked, that any persons could be Christians, who could not tell the day or the year of their change from children of darkness to children of light.

The shrewd clergyman, whose creed could be lax enough on occasion, had provided himself with authorities of all kinds to meet these awkward questions in casuistical divinity. He had hunted up recipes for spiritual neuralgia, spasms, indigestion, psora, hypochondriasis, just as doctors do for their bodily counterparts.

To be sure they could. Why, what did the great Richard Baxter say in his book on Infant Baptism? That at a meeting of many eminent Christians, some of them very famous ministers, when it was desired that every one should give an account of the time and manner of his conversion, there was but one of them all could do it. And as for himself, Mr. Baxter said, he could not remember the day or the year when he began to be sincere, as he called it. Why, did n’t President Wheelock say to a young man who consulted him, that some persons might be true Christians without suspecting it?

All this was so very different from the uncompromising way in which religious doctrines used to be presented to the young girl from the pulpit, that it naturally opened her heart and warmed her affections. Remember, if she needs excuse, that the defeated instincts of a strong nature were rushing in upon her, clamorous for their rights, and that she was not yet mature enough to understand and manage them. The paths of love and religion are at the fork of a road which every maiden travels. If some young hand does not open the turnpike gate of the first, she is pretty sure to try the other, which has no tollbar. It is also very commonly noticed that these two paths, after diverging awhile, run into each other. True love leads many wandering souls into the better way. Nor is it rare to see those who started in company for the gates of pearl seated together on the banks that border the avenue to that other portal, gathering the roses for which it is so famous.

It was with the most curious interest that the minister listened to the various heresies into which her reflections had led her. Somehow or other they did not sound so dangerous coming from her lips as when they were uttered by the coarser people of the less rigorous denominations, or preached in the sermons of heretical clergymen. He found it impossible to think of her in connection with those denunciations of sinners for which his discourses had been noted. Some of the sharp old church-members began to complain that his exhortations were losing their pungency. The truth was, he was preaching for Myrtle Hazard. He was getting bewitched and driven beside himself by the intoxication of his relations with her.

All this time she was utterly unconscious of any charm that she was exercising, or of being herself subject to any personal fascination. She loved to read the books of ecstatic contemplation which he furnished her. She loved to sing the languishing hymns which he selected for her. She loved to listen to his devotional rhapsodies, hardly knowing sometimes whether she were in the body, or out of the body, while he lifted her upon the wings of his passion-kindled rhetoric. The time came when she had learned to listen for his step, when her eyes glistened at meeting him, when the words he uttered were treasured as from something more than a common mortal, and the book he had touched was like a saintly relic. It never suggested itself to her for an instant that this was anything more than such a friendship as Mercy might have cultivated with Great-Heart. She gave her confidence simply because she was very young and innocent. The green tendrils of the growing vine must wind round something.

The seasons had been changing their scenery while the events we have told were occurring, and the loveliest days of autumn were now shining. To those who know the "Indian summer" of our Northern States, it is needless to describe the influence it exerts on the senses and the soul. The stillness of the landscape in that beautiful time is as if the planet were sleeping, like a top, before it begins to rock with the storms of autumn. All natures seem to find themselves more truly in its light; love grows more tender, religion more spiritual, memory sees farther back into the past, grief revisits its mossy marbles, the poet harvests the ripe thoughts which he will tie in sheaves of verses by his winter fireside.

The minister had got into the way of taking frequent walks with Myrtle, whose health had seemed to require the open air, and who was fast regaining her natural look. Under the canopy of the scarlet, orange, and crimson leaved maples, of the purple and violet clad oaks, of the birches in their robes of sunshine, and the beeches in their clinging drapery of sober brown, they walked together while he discoursed of the joys of heaven, the sweet communion of kindred souls, the ineffable bliss of a world where love would be immortal and beauty should never know decay. And while she listened, the strange light of the leaves irradiated the youthful figure of Myrtle, as when the stained window let in its colors on Madeline, the rosebloom and the amethyst and the glory.

"Yes! we shall be angels together," exclaimed the Rev. Mr. Stoker. "Our souls were made for immortal union. I know it; I feel it in every throb of my heart. Even in this world you are as an angel to me, lifting me into the heaven where I shall meet you again, or it will not be heaven. Oh, if on earth our communion could have been such as it must be hereafter! O Myrtle, Myrtle!"

He stretched out his hands as if to clasp hers between them in the rapture of his devotion. Was it the light reflected from the glossy leaves of the poison sumach which overhung the path that made his cheek look so pale? Was he going to kneel to her?

Myrtle turned her dark eyes on him with a simple wonder that saw an excess of saintly ardor in these demonstrations, and drew back from it.

"I think of heaven always as the place where I shall meet my mother," she said calmly.

These words recalled the man to himself for a moment and he was silent. Presently he seated himself on a stone. His lips were tremulous as he said, in a low tone, "Sit down by me, Myrtle."

"No," she answered, with something which chilled him in her voice, " we will not stay here any longer; it is time to go home."

"Full time!" muttered Cynthia Badlam, whose watchful eyes had been upon them, peering through a screen of yellow leaves, that turned her face pace as if with deadly passion.


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Chicago: Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., "Chapter XIII. Battle.," The Guardian Angel, ed. Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926 in The Guardian Angel (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1909), Original Sources, accessed March 29, 2023,

MLA: Holmes, Oliver Wendell, Sr. "Chapter XIII. Battle." The Guardian Angel, edited by Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926, in The Guardian Angel, Vol. 22, New York, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1909, Original Sources. 29 Mar. 2023.

Harvard: Holmes, OW, 'Chapter XIII. Battle.' in The Guardian Angel, ed. . cited in 1909, The Guardian Angel, Doubleday, Page & Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 29 March 2023, from