Stepping Heavenward

Author: Elizabeth Prentiss

XXII.

OCTOBER.

WELL, I had my own way, and I am afraid it has been an unwise one, for though I have enjoyed the leisure afforded by everybody being out of town, and the opportunity it has given me to devote myself to the very sweetest work on earth, the care of my darling little ones, the heat and the stifling atmosphere have been trying for me and for them. My pretty Rose went last May, to bloom in a home of her own, so I thought I would not look for a nurse, but take the whole care of them myself. This would not be much of a task to a strong person, but I am not strong, and a great deal of the time just dressing them and taking them out to walk has exhausted me. Then all the mending and other sewing must be done, and with the over-exertion creeps in the fretful tone, the impatient word. Yet I never can be as impatient with little children as I should be but for the remembrance that I should count it only a joy to minister once more to my darling boy, cost what weariness it might.

But now new cares are at hand, and I have been searching for a person to whom I can safely trust my children when I am laid aside. Thus far I have had, in this capacity, three different Temptations in human form.

The first, a smart, tidy-looking woman, informed me at the outset that she was perfectly competent to take the whole charge of the children, and should prefer my attending to my own affairs while she attended to hers.

I replied that my affairs lay chiefly in caring for and being with my children; to which she returned that she feared I should not suit her, as she had her own views concerning the training of children. She added, with condescension, that at all events she should expect in any case of difference (of judgment)between us, that I, being the younger and least experienced of the two, should always yield to her. She then went on to give me her views on the subject of nursery management.

"In the first place," she said, "I never pet or fondle children. It makes them babyish and sickly."

"Oh, I see you will not suit me," I cried. "You need go no farther. I consider love the best educator for a little child."

"Indeed, I think I shall suit you perfectly," she replied, nothing daunted. "I have been in the business twenty years, and have always suited wherever I lived. You will be surprised to see how much sewing I shall accomplish, and how quiet I shall keep the children."

"But I don’t want them kept quiet," I persisted. "I want them to be as merry and cheerful as crickets, and I care a great deal more to have them amused than to have the sewing done, though that is important, I confess."

"Very well, ma’am, I will sit and rock them by the hour if you wish it."

"But I don’t wish it," I cried, exasperated at the coolness which gave her such an advantage over me. "Let us say no more about it; you do not suit me, and the sooner we part the better. I must be mistress of my own house, and I want no advice in relation to my children."

"I shall hardly leave you before you will regret parting with me," she returned, in a placid, pitying, way.

I was afraid I had not been quite dignified in my interview with this person, with whom I ought to have had no discussion, and my equanimity was not restored by her shaking hands with me a patronizing way at parting, and expressing the hope that I should one day "be a green tree in the Paradise of God." Nor was it any too great a consolation to find that she had suggested to my cook that my intellect was not quite sound.

Temptation the second confessed that she knew nothing, but was willing to be taught. Yes, she might be willing, but she could not be taught. She could not see why Herbert should not have everything he chose to cry for, nor why she should not take the children to the kitchens where her friends abode, instead of keeping them out in the air. She could not understand why she must not tell Una every half hour that she was as fair as a lily, and that the little angels in heaven cried for such hair as hers. And there was no rhyme or reason, to her mind, why she could not have her friends visit in her nursery, since, as she declared, the cook would hear all her secrets if she received them in the kitchen. Her assurance that she thought me a very nice lady, and that there never were two such children as mine, failed to move my hard heart, and I was thankful when I got her out of the house.

Temptation the third appeared, for a time, the perfection of a nurse. She kept herself and the nursery and the children in most refreshing order; she amused Una when she was more than usually unwell with a perfect fund of innocent stories; the work flew from her nimble fingers as if by magic. I boasted everywhere of my good luck, and sang her praises in Ernest’s ears till he believed in her with all his heart. But one night we were out late; we had been spending the evening at Aunty’s, and came in with Ernest’s night-key as quietly as possible, in order not to arouse the children. I stole softly to the nursery to see if all was going on well there. Bridget, it seems, had taken the opportunity to wash her clothes in the nursery, and they hung all about the room drying, a hot fire raging for the purpose. In the midst of them, with a candle and prayer-book on a chair, Bridget knelt fast asleep, the candle within an inch of her sleeve. Her assurance when I aroused her that she was not asleep, but merely rapt in devotion, did not soften my hard heart, nor was I moved by the representation that she was a saint, and always wore black on that account. I packed her off in anything but a saintly frame, and felt that a fourth Temptation would scatter what little grace I possessed to the four winds. These changes upstairs made discord; too, below. My cook was displeased at so much coming and going, and made the kitchen a sort of a purgatory which I dreaded to enter. At last, when her temper fairly ran away with her, and she became impertinent to the last degree, I said, coolly:

"If any lady should speak to me in this way I should resent it. But no lady would so far forget herself. And I overlook your rudeness on the ground that you do not know better than to use of such expressions."

This capped the climax! She declared that she had never been told before that she was no and did not know how to behave, and gave warning at once.

I wish I could help running to tell Ernest all -these annoyances. It does no good, and only worries him. But how much of a woman’s life is made up of such trials and provocations! and how easy is when on one’s knees to bear them aright, and how far easier to bear them wrong when one finds the coal going too fast, the butter out just as sitting down to breakfast, the potatoes watery and the bread sour or heavy! And then when one is well nigh desperate, does one’s husband fail to say, in bland tones:

"My dear, if you would just speak to Bridget, I am sure she would improve."

Oh, that there were indeed magic in a spoken word!

And do what I can, the money Ernest gives me will not hold out. He knows absolutely nothing about that hydra-headed monster, a household. I, have had to go back to sewing as furiously as ever. And with the sewing the old pain in the side has come back, and the sharp, quick speech that I hate, and, that Ernest hates, and that everybody hates. I groan, being burdened, and am almost weary of my life. And my prayers are all mixed up with worldly thoughts and cares. I am appalled at all the things that have got to be done before winter, and am tempted to cut short my devotions in order to have more time to accomplish what I must accomplish.

How have I got into this slough? When was it that I came down from the Mount where I had seen the Lord, and came back to make these miserable, petty things as much my business as ever? Oh, these fluctuations in my religious life amaze me! I cannot, doubt that I am really God’s child; it would be dishonor to Him to doubt it. I cannot doubt that I have held as real communion with Him as with any earthly friend-and oh, it has been far sweeter!

OCT. 20.-I made a parting visit to Mrs. Campbell to day, and, as usual, have come away strengthened and refreshed. She said all sorts of kind things to cheer and encourage me, and stimulated me to take up the burden of life cheerfully and patiently, just as it comes. She assures me that these fluctuations of feeling will by degrees give place to a calmer life, especially if I avoid, so far as I can do it, all unnecessary work, distraction and hurry. And a few quiet, resting words from her have given me courage to press on toward perfection, no matter how much imperfection I see in myself and others. And now I am waiting for my Father’s next gift, and the new cares and labors it will bring with it. I am glad it is not left for me to decide my own lot. I am afraid I should never see precisely the right moment for welcoming a new bird into my nest, dearly as I love the rustle of their wings and the sound of their voices when they do come. And surely He knows the right moments who knows all my struggles with a certain sort of poverty, poor health and domestic care. If I could feel that all the time, as I do at this moment, how happy I should always be!

JANUARY 16, 1847.-This is the tenth anniversary of our wedding day, and it has been a delightful one. If I were called upon to declare what has been the chief element of my happiness, I should say it was not Ernest’s love to me or mine to him, or that I am once more the mother of three children, or that my own dear mother still lives, though I revel in each and all of these. But underneath them all, deeper, stronger than all, lies a peace with God that I can compare to no other joy, which I guard as I would guard hid treasure, and which must abide if all things else pass away.

My baby is two months old, and her name is Ethel. The three children together form a beautiful picture which I am never tired of admiring. But they will not give me much time for writing. This little new comer takes all there, is of me. Mother brings me pleasant reports of Miss Clifford, who under her gentle, wise influence is becoming an earnest Christian, already rejoicing in the Providence that arrested her where it did, and forced her to reflection. Mother says we ought to study God’s providence more than we do since He has a meaning and a purpose in everything He does. Sometimes I can do this and find it a source of great happiness. Then worldly cares seem mere worldly cares, and I forget that His wise, kind hand is in every one of them.

FEBRUARY.-Helen has been spending the whole day with me, as she often does, helping me with her skillful needle, and with the children, in a very sweet way. I am almost ashamed to indulge in writing down how dearly she seems to love me, and how disposed she is to sit at my feet as a learner at the very moment I am longing to possess her sweet, gentle temper. But one thing puzzles me, in her, and that is the difficulty she finds in getting hold of these simple truths her father used to grope after but never found till just as he was passing out of the world. It seems as if God had compensated such turbulent, fiery natures as mine, by revealing Himself to them, for the terrible hours of shame and sorrow through which their sins and follies cause them to pass. I suffer far more than Helen does, suffer bitterly, painfully, but I enjoy tenfold more. For I know whom I have believed, and I cannot doubt that I am truly united to Him. Helen is naturally very reserved, but by degrees she has come talk with me quite frankly. To-day as we sat together in the nursery, little Raymond snatched a toy from Una, who, as usual, yielded to him without a frown. I called him to me; he came reluctantly.

"Raymond, dear," I said, "did you ever see papa snatch anything from me?"

He smiled, and shook his head.

’"Well then, until you see him do it to me, never do it to your sister. Men are gentle and polite to women, and little boys should be gentle and polite to little girls."

The children ran off to their play, and Helen said,

"Now how different that is from my mother’s management with us! She always made us girls yield to the boys. They would not have thought they could go up to bed unless one of us got a candle for them."

"That, I suppose, is the reason then that Ernest expected me to wait upon him after we were married," I replied. "I was a little stiff about yielding ’to him, for besides mother’s precepts, I was influenced by my father’s example. He was so courteous, treating her with as much respect as if she were a queen, and yet with as much love as if were always a girl. I naturally expected the like from my husband."

"You must have been disappointed then," she said.

"Yes, I was. It cost me a good many pouts and tears of which I am now ashamed. And Ernest seldom annoys me now with the little neglects that I used to make so much of."

"Sometimes I think there are no ’little’ neglects," said Helen. "It takes less than nothing to annoy us."

"And it takes more than everything to please us!" I cried. "But Ernest and I had one stronghold to which we always fled in our troublous times, and that was our love for each other. No matter how he provoked me by his little heedless ways, I had to forgive him because I loved him so. And he had to forgive me my faults for the same reason."

"I had no idea husbands and wives loved each other so," said Helen. "I thought they got over it as soon as their cares and troubles came on, and just jogged on together, somehow."

We both laughed and she went on.

"If I thought I should be as happy as you are, I should be tempted to be married myself."

"Ah, I thought your time would come!" I cried.

"Don’t ask me any questions," she said, her pretty face growing prettier with a bright; warm glow. "Give me advice instead; for instance, tell me how I can be sure that if I love a man I shall go on loving him through all the wear and tear of married life and how can I be sure he can and will go on loving me?"

"Well, then, setting aside the fact that you are both lovable and loving, I will say this: Happiness, in other words love, in married life is not a mere accident. When the union has been formed, as most Christian unions are, by God Himself, it is His intention and His will that it shall prove the unspeakable joy of both husband and wife, and become more and more so from year to year. But we are imperfect creatures, wayward and foolish as little children, horribly unreasonable, selfish and willful. We are not capable of enduring the shock of finding at every turn that our idol is made of clay, and that it is prone to tumble off its pedestal and lie in the dust, till we pick it up and set it in its place again. I was struck with Ernest’s asking in the very first prayer he offered in my presence, after our marriage, that God would help us love each other. I felt that love was the very foundation on which I was built, and that there was no danger that I should ever fall short in giving to my husband all he wanted, in full measure. But as he went on day after day repeating this prayer, and I naturally made it with him, I came to see that this most precious of earthly blessings had been and must be God’s gift, and that while we both looked at it in that light, and felt our dependence on Him for it, we might safely encounter together all the assaults made upon us by the world, the flesh, and the devil. I believe we owe it to this constant prayer that we have loved each other so uniformly and with such growing comfort in each other; so that our little discords always have ended in fresh accord, and our love has felt conscious of resting on a rock and that that rock was the will of God."

"It is plain, then," said Helen, "that you and Ernest are sure of one source of happiness as long as you live, whatever vicissitudes you may meet with. I thank you so much for what you have said. The fact is you have been brought up to carry religion into everything. But I was not. ~ My mother was as good as she was lovely, but I think she felt and taught us to feel, that we were to put it on as we did our Sunday clothes, and to wear it, as we did them, carefully and reverently, but with pretty long, grave faces. But you mix everything up so, that when I am with you I never know whether you are most like or most unlike other people. And your mother is just so."

"But you forget that it is to Ernest I owe my best ideas about married life; I don’t remember ever talking with my mother or any one else on the subject. And as to carrying religion into everything, how can one help it if one’s religion is a vital part of one’s self, not a cloak put on to go to church in and hang up out of the way against next Sunday?"

Helen laughed. She has the merriest, yet gentlest little laugh one can imagine. I long to know who it is that has been so fortunate as to touch her heart!

MARCH.-I know now, and glad I am! The sly little puss is purring at this moment in James’ arms; at least I suppose she is, as I have discreetly come up to my room and left them to themselves So it seems I have had all these worries about Lucy for naught. What made her so fond of James was simply the fact that a friend of his had looked on her with a favorable eye, regarding her as a very proper mother for four or five children who are in need of a shepherd. Yes, Lucy is going to marry a man so much older than herself, that on a pinch he might have been her father. She does it from a sense of duty, she says, and to a nature like hers duty may perhaps suffice, and no cry of the heart have to be stifled in its performance. We are all so happy in the happiness of James and Helen that we are not in the mood to criticise Lucy’s decision. I have a strange and most absurd envy when I think what a good time they are having at this moment downstairs, while I sit here alone, vainly wishing I could see more of Ernest. Just as if my happiness were not a deeper, more blessed one than theirs which must be purged of much dross before it will prove itself to be like fine gold. Yes, I suppose I am as happy in my dear, precious husband and children as a wife and mother can be in a world, which must not be a real heaven lest we should love the land we journey through so well as to want to pitch our tents in it forever, and cease to look and long for the home whither we are bound.

James will be married almost immediately, I suppose, as he sails for Syria early in April. How much a missionary and his wife must be to each other, when, severing themselves from all they ever loved before, they go forth, hand in hand, not merely to be foreigners in heathen lands, but to be henceforth strangers in their own should they ever return to it!

Helen says, playfully, that she has not a missionary spirit, and is not at all sure that she shall go with James. But I don’t think that he feels very anxious on that point!

MARCH.-It does one’s heart good to see how happy they are! And it does one’s heart good to have one’s husband set up an opposition to the goings on by behaving like a lover himself.

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Chicago: Elizabeth Prentiss, Stepping Heavenward, ed. White, John S. (John Stuart), 1847-1922 in Stepping Heavenward (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1908, 1917), Original Sources, accessed June 17, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=N7Y692ECVSHBBK7.

MLA: Prentiss, Elizabeth. Stepping Heavenward, edited by White, John S. (John Stuart), 1847-1922, in Stepping Heavenward, Vol. 22, New York, D. Appleton and Company, 1908, 1917, Original Sources. 17 Jun. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=N7Y692ECVSHBBK7.

Harvard: Prentiss, E, Stepping Heavenward, ed. . cited in 1908, 1917, Stepping Heavenward, D. Appleton and Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 17 June 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=N7Y692ECVSHBBK7.