Stepping Heavenward

Author: Elizabeth Prentiss



THIS morning Ernest received an early summons to Amelia. I got out of all manner of patience with him because he would take his bath and eat his breakfast before he went, and should have driven any one else distracted by my hurry and flurry.

"She has had a hemorrhage!" I cried. "Do, Ernest, make haste."

"Of course," he returned, "that would come, sooner or later."

"You don’t mean," I said, "that she has been in danger of this all along?"

"I certainly do."

"Then it was very unkind in you not to tell me so."

"I told you at the outset that her lungs were diseased."

"No, you told me no such thing. Oh, Ernest, is she going to die?"

"I did not know you were so fond of her," he said, apologetically.

It is not that," I cried. "I am distressed at the thought of the worldly life she has been living-at my never trying to influence her for her good. If she is in danger, you will tell her so? Promise me that."

"I must see her before I make such a promise," he said, and went out.

I flew up to my room and threw myself on my knees, sorrowful, self-condemned. I had thrown away my last opportunity of speaking a word to her in season, though I had seen how much she needed one, and now she was going to die! Oh, I hope God will forgive me, and hear the prayers I have offered her!

EVENING.-Ernest says he had a most distressing scene at Amelia’s this morning. She insisted on knowing what he thought of her, and then burst out bitter complaints and lamentations, charging it to husband that she had this disease, declaring that she could not, and would not die, and insisting that he must prevent it. Her uncle urged for a consultation of physicians, to which Ernest consented, of course, though he says no mortal power can save her now. I asked him how her husband appeared, to which he made the evasive answer that he appeared just as one would expect him to do.

DECEMBER.-Amelia was so determined to see me that Ernest thought it best for me to go. I found her looking very feeble.

"Oh, Katy," she began at once," do make the doctor say that I shall get well!"

"I wish he could say so with truth," I answered. "Dear Amelia, try to think how happy God’s own children are when they are with Him."

"I can’t think," she replied. "I do not want to think. I want to forget all about it. If it were not for this terrible cough I could forget it, for I am really a great deal better than I was a month ago."’

I did not know what to say or what to do.

"May I read a hymn or a few verses from the Bible?" I asked, at last.

"Just as you like," she said, indifferently.

I read a verse now and then, but she looked tired, and I prepared to go.

"Don’t go," she cried. "I do not dare to be alone. Oh, what a terrible, terrible thing it is to die! To leave this bright, beautiful world, and be nailed in a coffin and buried up in a cold, dark grave.

"Nay," I said, "to leave this poor sick body there, and to fly to a world ten thousand times brighter, more beautiful than this."

"I had just got to feeling nearly well," she said, "and I had everything I wanted, and Charley was quite good to me, and I kept my little girls looking like fairies, just from fairy-land. Everybody said they wore the most picturesque costumes when they were dressed according to my taste. And I have got to go and leave them, and Charley will be marrying somebody else, and saying to her all the nice things he has said to me.

"I really must go now," I said. "You are wearing yourself all out."

"I declare you are crying," she exclaimed. "You do pity me after all."

"Indeed I do," I said, and came away, heartsick.

Ernest says there is nothing I can do for her now but to pray for her, since she does not really believe herself in danger, and has a vague feeling that if she can once convince him how much she wants to live, he will use some vigorous measures to restore her Martha is to watch with her to-night. Ernest will not let me.

JAN. 18, 1843.-Our wedding-day has passed unobserved. Amelia’s suffering condition absorbs us all. Martha spends much time with her, and prepares almost all the food she eats.

JAN. 20.-I have seen poor Amelia once more, and perhaps for the last time. She has failed rapidly of late, and Ernest says may drop away at almost any time.

When I went in she took me by the hand, and with great difficulty, and at intervals said something like this:

"I have made up my mind to it, and I know it must come. I want to see Dr. Cabot. Do you think he would be willing to visit me after my neglecting him so?"

"I am sure he would," I cried.

"I want to ask him if he thinks I was a Christian at that time-you know when. If I was, then I need not be so afraid to die."

"But, dear Amelia, what he thinks is very little to the purpose. The question is not whether you ever gave yourself to God, but whether you are His now. But I ought not to talk to you. Dr. Cabot will know just what to say."

"No, but I want to know what you thought about it."

I felt distressed, as I looked at her wasted dying figure, to be called on to help decide such a question. But I knew what I ought to say, and said it:

"Don’t look back to the past; it is useless. Give yourself to Christ now."

She shook her head.

"I don’t know how," she said. "Oh, Katy, pray to God to let me live long enough to get ready to die. I have led a worldly life. I shudder at the bare thought of dying; I must have time."

"Don’t wait for time," I said, with tears, "get ready now, this minute. A thousand years would not make you more fit to die."

So I came away, weary and heavyladen, and on the way home stopped to tell Dr. Cabot all about it, and by this time he is with her.

"MARCH 1.-Poor Amelia’s short race on earth is over. Dr. Cabot saw her every few days and says he hopes she did depart in Christian faith, though without Christian joy. I have not seen her since that last interview. That excited me so that Ernest would not let me go again.

Martha has been there nearly the whole time for three or four weeks, and I really think it has done her good. She seems less absorbed in mere outside things, and more lenient toward me and my failings.

I do not know what is to become of those mother little girls. I wish I could take them into my own home, but, of course, that is not even to be thought at this juncture. Ernest says their father seemed nearly distracted when Amelia died, and that his uncle is going to send him off to Europe immediately.

I have been talking with Ernest about Amelia.

"What do you think," I asked, "about her last days on earth? Was there really any preparation for death?

"These scenes are very painful," he returned. "Of course there is but one real preparation for Christian dying, and that is Christian living."

"But the sick-room often does what a prosperous life never did!"

"Not often. Sick persons delude themselves, or are deluded by their friends; they do not believe they are really about to die. Besides, they are bewildered and exhausted by disease, and what mental strength they have is occupied with studying symptoms, watching for the doctor, and the like. I do not now recall a single instance where a worldly Christian died a happy, joyful death, in all my practice."

"Well, in one sense it makes no difference whether they die happily or not. The question is do they die in the Lord?"

"It may make no vital difference to them, but we must not forget that God is honored or dishonored by the way a Christian dies, as well as by the way in which he lives. There is great significance in the description given in the Bible of the death by which John should ’Glorify God’; to my mind it that to die well is to live well."

"But how many thousands die suddenly, or of such exhausting disease that they cannot honor God by even one feeble word."

"Of course, I do not, refer to such cases. All I ask is that those whose minds are clear, who are able to attend to all other final details, should let it be seen what the gospel of Christ can do for poor sinners in the great exigency of life, giving Him the glory. I can tell you, my darling, that standing, as I so often do, by dying beds, this whole subject has become one of great magnitude to my mind And it gives me positive personal pain to see heirs of the eternal kingdom, made such by the ignominious death of their Lord, go shrinking and weeping to the full possession of their inheritance."

Ernest is right, I am sure, but how shall the world, even the Christian world, be convinced that it may have blessed fortastes of heaven while yet plodding upon earth, and faith to go thither joyfully, for the simple asking?

Poor Amelia! But she understands it all now. It is a blessed thing to have this great faith, and it is a blessed thing to have a Saviour who accepts it when it is but a mere grain of mustard-seed!

MAY 24.-I celebrated my little Una’s third birthday by presenting her with a new brother. Both the children welcomed him with delight that was itself compensation enough for all it cost me to get up such a celebration. Martha takes a most prosaic view of this proceeding, in which she detects malice prepense on my part. She says I shall now have one mouth the more to fill, and two feet the more to shoe; more disturbed nights, more laborious days, and less leisure for visiting, reading, music, and drawing.

Well! this is one side of the story, to be sure, but I look at the other. Here is a sweet, fragrant mouth to kiss; here are two more feet to make music with their pattering about my nursery. Here is a soul to train for God, and the body in which it dwells is worthy all it will cost, since it is the abode of a kingly tenant. I may see less of friends, but I have gained one dearer than them all, to whom, while I minister in Christ’s name, I make a willing sacrifice of what little leisure for my own recreation my other darlings had left me. Yes, my precious baby, you are welcome to your mother’s heart, welcome to her time, her strength, her health, her tenderest cares, to her lifelong prayers! Oh, how rich I am, how truly, how wondrously blest!

JUNE 5.-We begin to be woefully crowded. We need a larger house, or a smaller household. I am afraid I secretly, down at the bottom of my heart, wish Martha and her father could give place to my little ones. May God forgive me if this is so It is a poor time for such emotions when He has just given me another darling child, for whom I have as rich and ample a love as if I had spent no affection on the other twain. I have made myself especially kind to poor father and to Martha lest they should perceive how inconvenient it is to have them here, and be pained by it. I would not for the world despoil them of what little satisfaction they may derive from living with us. But, oh! I am so selfish, and it is so hard to practice the very law of love I preach to my children! Yet I want this law to rule and reign in my home, that it may be a little heaven below, and I will not, no, I will not, cease praying that it may be such, no matter what it costs me. Poor father! poor old man! I will try to make your home so sweet and home-like to you that when you change it for heaven it shall be but a transition from one bliss to a higher!

EVENING.-Soon after writing that I went down to see father, whom I have had to neglect of late, baby has so used up both time and strength.. I found him and Martha engaged in what seemed to be an exciting debate, as Martha had a fiery little red spot on each cheek, and was knitting furiously. I was about to retreat, when she got up in a flurried way and went off, saying, as she went:

"You tell her, father; I can’t."

I went up to him tenderly and took his hand. Ah, how gentle and loving we are when we have just been speaking to God!

"What is it, dear father?" I asked; "is anything troubling you?"

"She is going to be married," he replied.

"Oh, father!" I cried, "how n-" nice, I was going to say, but stopped just in time.

All my abominable selfishness that I thought I had left at my Master’s feet ten minutes before now came trooping back in full force.

"She’s going to be married; she’ll go away, and will take her father to live with her! I can have room for my children, and room for mother! Every element of discord will now leave my home, and Ernest will see what I really am!"

These were the thoughts that rushed through my mind, and that illuminated my face.

"Does Ernest know?" I asked.

"Yes, Ernest has known it for some weeks."

Then I felt injured and inwardly accused Ernest of unkindness in keeping so important a fact a secret. But when I went back to my children, vexation with him took flight at once. The coming of each new child strengthens and deepens my desire to be what I would have it become; makes my faults more odious in my eyes, and elevates my whole character. What a blessed discipline of joy and of pain my married life has been; how thankful I am to reap its fruits even while pricked by its thorns!

JUNE 21.-It seems that the happy man who has wooed Martha and won her is no less a personage than old Mr. Underhill. His ideal of a woman is one who has no nerves, no sentiment, no backaches, no headaches, who will see that the wheels of his household machinery are kept well oiled, so that he need never hear them creak, and who, in addition to her other accomplishments, believes in him and will be kind enough to live forever for his private accommodation. This expose of his sentiments he has made to me in a loud, cheerful, pompous way, and he has also favored me with a description of his first wife, who lacked all these qualifications, and was obliging enough to depart in peace at an early stage of their married life, meekly preferring thus to make way for a worthier successor. Mr. Underhill with all his foibles, however, is on the whole a good man. He intends to take Amelia’s little girls into his own home, and be a father, as Martha will be a mother, to them. For this reason he hurries on the marriage, after which they will all go at once to his country-seat, which is easy of access, and which he says he is sure father will enjoy. Poor old father I hope he will, but when the subject is alluded to he maintains a sombre silence, and it seems to me he never spent so many days alone in his room, brooding over his misery, as he has of late. Oh, that I could comfort him.

JULY 12.-The marriage was appointed for the first of the month, as old Mr. Underhill wanted to get out of town before the Fourth. As the time drew near, Martha began to pack father’s trunk as well as her own, and brush in and out of his room till he had no rest for the sole of his foot, and seemed as forlorn as a pelican in the wilderness.

I know no more striking picture of desolation than that presented by one of these quaint birds, standing upon a single leg, feeling as the story has it, "den Jammer und das Elend der Welt."

On the last evening in June we all sat together on the piazza, enjoying, each in our own way, a refreshing breeze that had sprung up after a sultry day Father was quieter than usual, and seemed very languid. Ernest who, out of regard to Martha’s last evening at home, had joined our little circle, ob served this, and said, cheerfully:

"You will feel better as soon as you are once more out of the city, father."

Father made no reply for some minutes, and when he did speak we were all startled to find that his voice trembled as if he were shedding tears. We could not understand what he said. I went to him and made him lean his head upon me as he often did when it ached. He took my hand in both his.

"You do love the old man a little?" he asked, in the same tremulous voice.

"Indeed, I do!" I cried, greatly touched by his helpless appeal, "I love you dearly, father. And I shall miss you sadly."

"Must I go away then?" he whispered. "Cannot I stay here till my summons hence? It will not be long, it will not be long, my child."

With the cry of a hurt animal, Martha sprang up and rushed past us into the house. Ernest followed her, and we heard them talking together a long time. At last Ernest joined us.

"Father," he said, "Martha is a good deal wounded and disappointed, at your reluctance to, go with her She threatened to break off her engagement rather than to be separated from you. I really think you would be better off with her than with us. You would enjoy country life, because it is what you have been accustomed to; you could spend hours of every day in driving about; just what your health requires."

Father did not reply. He took Ernest’s arm and tottered into the house. Then we had a most painful scene. Martha reminded him with bitter tears that her mother had committed him to her with her last breath and set before him all the advantages he would have in her house over ours. Father sat pale and inflexible; tear after tear rolling down his cheeks. Ernest looked distressed and ready to sink. As for me I cried with Martha, and with her father by turns, and clung to Ernest with a feeling that all the foundations of the earth were giving way. It came time for evening prayers, and Ernest prayed as he rarely does, for he is rarely so moved. He quieted us all by a few simple words of appeal to Him who loved us, and father then consented to spend the summer with Martha if he might call our home his home, and be with us through the winter. But this was not till long after the rest of us went to bed, and a hard battle with Ernest. He says Ernest is his favorite child, and that I am his favorite daughter, and our children inexpressibly dear to him. I am ashamed to write down what he said of me. Besides, I am sure there is a wicked, wicked triumph over Martha in my secret heart. I am too elated with his extraordinary preference for us, to sympathize with her mortification and grief as ought. Something whispered that she who has never pitied me deserves no pity now. But I do not like this mean and narrow spirit in myself; nay more, I hate and abhor it.

The marriage took place and they all went off together, father’s rigid, white face, whiter, more rigid than ever. I am to go to mother’s with the children at once. I feel that a great stone has been rolled away from before the door of my heart; the one human being who refused me a kindly smile, a sympathizing word, has gone, never to return. May God go with her and give her a happy home, and make her true and loving to those motherless little ones!

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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 April 24, 2024,

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. 24 Apr. 2024.

Harvard: Prentiss, E, Stepping Heavenward, ed. . cited in 1908, 1917, Stepping Heavenward, D. Appleton and Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 24 April 2024, from