Stepping Heavenward

Author: Elizabeth Prentiss

XI.

MARCH 10.

THINGS are even worse than I expected. Ernest evidently looked at me with his father’s eyes (and this father has got the jaundice, or something), and certainly is cooler towards me than he was before he went home. Martha still declines eating more than enough to keep body and soul together, and sits at the table with the air of a martyr. Her father lives on crackers and stewed prunes, and when he has eaten them, fixes his melancholy eyes on me, watching every mouthful with an air of plaintive regret that I will consume so much unwholesome food.

Then Ernest positively spends less time with me than ever, and sits in his office reading and writing nearly every evening.

Yesterday I came home from an exhilarating walk, and a charming call at Aunty’s, and at the dinner-table gave a lively account of some of the children’s exploits. Nobody laughed, and nobody made any response, and after dinner Ernest took me aside, and said, kindly enough, but still said it,

"My little wife must be careful how she runs on in my father’s presence. He has a great deal of every thing that might be thought levity."

Then all the vials of my wrath exploded and went off.

"Yes, I see how it is," I cried, passionately. "You and your father and your sister have got a box about a foot square that you want to squeeze me into. I have seen it ever since they came. And I can tell you it will take more than three of you to do it. There was no harm in what I said-none, whatever. If you only married me for the sake of screwing me down and freezing me up, why didn’t you tell me so before it was too late?"

Ernest stood looking at me like one staring at a problem he had got to solve, and didn’t know where to begin.

"I am very sorry," he said. "I thought you would be glad to have me give you this little hint. Of course I want you to appear your very best before my father and sister."

"My very best is my real self," I cried. "To talk like a woman of forty is unnatural to a girl of my age. If your father doesn’t like me I wish he would go away, and not come here putting notions into your head, and making you as cold and hard as a stone. Mother liked to have me ’run on,’ as you call it, and I wish I had stayed with her all my life."

"Do you mean," he asked, very gravely," that you really wish that?"

"No," I said, "I don’t mean it," for his husky, troubled voice brought me to my senses. "All I mean is, that I love you so dearly, and you keep my heart feeling so hungry and restless; and then you went and brought your father and sister here and never asked me if I should like it; and you crowded mother out, and she lives all alone, and it isn’t right! I always said that whoever married me had got to marry mother, and I never dreamed that you would disappoint me so!"

"Will you stop crying, and listen to me?" he said.

But I could not stop. The floods of the great deep were broken up at last, and I had to cry. If I could have told my troubles to some one I could thus have found vent for them, but there was no one to whom I had a right to speak of my husband.

Ernest walked up and down in silence. Oh, if I could have cried on his breast, and felt that he loved and pitied me!

At last, as I grew quieter, he came and sat by me.

"This has come upon me like a thunderclap," he said. "I did not know I kept your heart hungry. I did not know you wished your mother to live with us. And I took it for granted that my wife, with her high-toned, heroic character, would sustain me in every duty, and welcome my father and sister to our home. I do not know what I can do now. Shall I send them away?"

No, no!" I cried. "Only be good to me, Ernest, only love me, only look at me with your own eyes, and not with other people’s. You knew I had faults when you married me; I never tried to conceal them."

And did you fancy I had none myself?" he asked.

"No," I replied. "I saw no faults in you. Everybody said you were such a noble, good man and you spoke so beautifully one night at an evening meeting."

"Speaking beautifully is little to the purpose less one lives beautifully," he said, sadly. "And now is it possible that you and I, a Christian man and a Christian woman, are going on and on with scenes as this? Are you to wear your very life out because I have not your frantic way of loving, and am I to be made weary of mine because I cannot satisfy you?"

"But, Ernest," I said, "you used to satisfy me. Oh, how happy I was in those first days when we were always together; and you seemed so fond me!" I was down on the floor by this time, and looking up into his pale, anxious face.

"Dear child," he said, "I do love you, and that more than you know. But you would not have me leave my work and spend my whole time telling you so?"

"You know I am not so silly," I cried.. "It is not fair, it is not right to talk as if I were. I ask for nothing unreasonable. I only want those little daily assurances of your affection which I should suppose would be spontaneous if you felt at all towards me as I do to you."

"The fact is," he returned, "I am absorbed in my work. It brings many grave cares and anxieties. I spend most of my time amid scenes of suffering and at dying beds. This makes me seem abstracted and cold, but it does not make you less dear. On the contrary, the sense it gives me of the brevity and sorrowfulness of life makes you doubly precious, since it constantly reminds me that sick beds and dying beds must sooner or later come to our home as to those of others."

I clung to him as he uttered these terrible words In an agony of terror.

"Oh, Ernest, promise me, promise me that you will not die first," I pleaded.

Foolish little thing!" he said, and was as silly, for a while, as the silliest heart could ask. Then he became serious again.

"Katy," he said, "if you can once make up your mind to the fact that I am an undemonstrative man, not all fire and fury and ecstasy as you are, yet loving you with all my heart, however it may seem, I think you will spare yourself much needless pain—and spare me, also."

"But I want, you to be demonstrative," I persisted.

"Then you must teach me. And about my father and sister, perhaps, we may find some way of relieving you by and by. Meanwhile, try to bear with the trouble they make, for my sake."

"But I don’t mind the trouble! Oh, Ernest, how you do misunderstand me! What I mind is their coming between you and me and making you love me less."

"By this time there was a call for Ernest-it is a wonder there had not been forty-and he went.

"I feel as heart-sore as ever. What has been gained by this tempest ? Nothing at all! Poor Ernest! How can I worry him so when he is already full of care?

MARCH 20.-I have had such a truly beautiful letter to-day from dear mother! She gives up the hope of coming to spend her last years with us with a sweet patience that makes me cry whenever I think of it. What is the secret of this instant and cheerful consent to whatever God wills! Oh, that I had it, too! She begs me to be considerate and kind to Ernest’s father and sister, and constantly to remind myself that my Heavenly Father has chosen to give me this care and trial on the very threshold of my married life. I am afraid I have quite lost sight of that in my indignation with Ernest for bringing them here.

APRIL 3.-Martha is closeted with Ernest in his office day and night. They never give me the least hint of what is going on in these secret meetings. Then this morning Sarah, my good, faithful cook, bounced into my room to give warning. She said she could not live where there were, two mistresses giving contrary directions.

"But, really, there is but one mistress," I urged. Then it came out that Martha went down every morning to look after the soap-fat, and to scrimp in the house-keeping, and see that there was no food wasted. I remembered then that she had inquired whether I attended to these details, evidently ranking such duties with saying one’s prayers and reading one’s Bible.

I flew to Ernest the moment he was at leisure and poured my grievances into his ear.

"Well, dear," he said, "suppose you give up the house-keeping to Martha! She will be far happier and you will be freed from much annoying, petty care."

I bit my tongue lest it should say something, and went back to Sarah.

"Suppose Miss Elliott takes charge of the housekeeping, and I have nothing to do with it, will you stay?"

"Indeed, and I won’t then. I can’t bear her, and I won’t put up with her nasty, scrimping, pinching ways!"

"Very well. Then you will have to go," I said, with great dignity, though just ready to cry. Ernest, on being applied to for wages, undertook to argue the question himself.

"My sister will take the whole charge," he began.

"And may and welcome for all me!" quoth Sarah. "I don’t like her and never shall."

"Your liking or disliking her is of no consequence whatever," said Ernest. "You may dislike her as much as you please. But you must not leave us."

"Indeed, and I’m not going to stay and be put upon by her," persisted Sarah. So she has gone. We had to get dinner ourselves; that is to say, Martha did, for she said I got in her way, and put her out with my awkwardness. I have been running hither and thither to find some angel who will consent to live in this ill-assorted household. Oh, how different everything is from what I had planned! I wanted a cheerful home, where I should be the centre of every joy; a home like Aunty’s, without a cloud. But Ernest’s father sits, the personification of silent gloom, like a nightmare on my spirits; Martha holds me in disfavor and contempt; Ernest is absorbed in his profession, and I hardly see him. If he wants advice he asks it of Martha, while I sit, humbled, degraded and ashamed, wondering why he ever married me at all. And then come interludes of wild joy when he appears just as he did in the happy days of our bridal trip, and I forget every grievance and hang on his words and looks like one intoxicated with bliss.

OCT. 2.-There has been another explosion. I held in as long as I could, and then flew into ten thousand pieces. Ernest had got into the habit of helping his father and sister at the table, and apparently forgetting me. It seems a little thing, but it chafed and fretted my already irritated soul till at last I was almost beside myself.

Yesterday they all three sat eating their breakfast and I, with empty plate, sat boiling over and, looking on, when Ernest brought things to a crisis by saying to Martha,

"If you can find time to-day I wish you would go out with me for half an hour or so. I want to consult you about-"

"Oh!" I said, rising, with my face all in a flame, do not trouble yourself to go out in order to escape me. I can leave the room and you can have your secrets to yourselves as you do your breakfast!"

I don’t know which struck me, most, Ernest’s appalled, grieved look or the glance exchanged between Martha and her father.

He did not hinder my leaving the room, and I went upstairs, as pitiable an object as could be seen. I heard him go to his office, then take his hat and set forth on his rounds. What wretched hours I passed, thus left alone! One moment I reproached myself, the next I was indignant at the long series of offences that had led to this disgraceful scene.

At last Ernest came.

He looked concerned, and a little pale.

"Oh, Ernest!" I cried, running to him, "I am so sorry I spoke to you as I did! But, indeed, I cannot stand the way things are going on; I am wearing all out. Everybody speaks of my growing thin. Feel of my hands. They burn like fire."

"I knew you would be sorry, dear," he said. "Yes, your hands are hot, poor child."

There was a long, dreadful silence. And yet I was speaking, and perhaps he was. I was begging and beseeching God not to let us drift apart, not to let us lose one jot or tittle of our love to each other, to enable me to understand my dear, dear husband and make him understand me.

Then Ernest began.

"What was it vexed you, dear? What is it you can’t stand? Tell me. I am your husband, I love you, I want to make you happy."

"Why, you are having so many secrets that you keep from me; and you treat me as if I were only a child, consulting Martha about everything. And of late you seem to have forgotten that I am at the table and never help me to anything!"

"Secrets!" he re-echoed. "What possible secrets can I have?"

"I don’t know," I said, sinking wearily back on the sofa. "Indeed, Ernest, I don’t want to be selfish or exacting, but I am very unhappy."

"Yes, I see it, poor child. And if I have neglected you at the table I do not wonder you are out of patience. I know how it has happened. While you were pouring out the coffee I busied myself in caring for my father and Martha, and so forgot you. I do not give this as an excuse, but as a reason. I have really no excuse, and am ashamed of myself."

"Don’t say that, darling," I cried, "it is I who ought to be ashamed for making such an ado about a trifle."

"It is not a trifle," he said; "and now to the other points. I dare say I have been careless about consulting Martha. But she has always been a sort of oracle in our family, and we all look up to her, and she is so much older than you. Then as to the secrets. Martha comes to my office to help me look over my books. I have been careless about my accounts, and she has kindly undertaken to attend to them for me."

"Could not I have done that?"

"No; why should your little head be troubled about money matters? But to go on. I see that it was thoughtless in me not to tell you what we were about. But I am greatly perplexed and harassed in many ways. Perhaps you would feel better to know all about it. I have only kept it from you to spare you all the anxiety I could."

"Oh, Ernest," I said, "ought not a wife to share in all her husband’s cares?"

"’No," he returned; "but I will tell you all that is annoying me now. My father was in business in our native town, and went on prosperously for many years. Then the tide turned-he met with loss after loss, till nothing remained but the old homestead, and on that there was a mortgage. We concealed the state of things from my mother; her health was delicate, and we never let her know a trouble we could spare her. Now she has gone, and we have found it necessary to sell our old home and to divide and scatter the family My father’s mental distress when he found others suffering from his own losses threw him into the state in which you see him now. I have therefore assumed his debts, and with God’s help hope in time to pay them to the uttermost farthing. It will be necessary for us to live economically until this is done. There are two pressing cases that I am trying to meet at once. This has given me a preoccupied air, I have no doubt, and made you suspect and misunderstand me. But now you know the whole, my darling."

I felt my injustice and childish folly very keenly, and told him so.

"But I think, dear Ernest," I added, "if you will not be hurt at my saying so, that you have led me to it by not letting me share at once in your cares. If you had at the outset just told me the whole story, you would have enlisted my sympathies in your father’s behalf, and in your own. I should have seen the reasonableness of your breaking up the old home and bringing him here, and it would have taken the edge of my bitter, bitter disappointment about my mother."

"I feel very sorry about that," he said. "It would be a real pleasure to have her here. But as things are now, she could not be happy with us."

"There is no room," I put in.

"I am truly sorry. And now my dear little wife must have patience with her stupid blundering old husband, and we’ll start together once more fair and square. Don’t wait, next time, till you are so full that you boil over; the moment I annoy you by my inconsiderate ways, come right and tell me."

I called myself all the horrid names I could think of.

"May I ask one thing more, now we are upon the subject?" I said at last. "Why couldn’t your sister Helen have come here instead of Martha?"

He smiled a little.

"In the first place, Helen would be perfectly if she had the care of father in his present She is too young to have such responsibility. In the second place, my brother John, with whom she has gone to live, has a wife who would be quite crushed by my father and Martha. She is one of those little tender, soft souls one could crush fingers. Now, you are not of that sort; you have force of character enough to enable you to live with them, while maintaining your own dignity and remaining yourself in spite of circum stances."

"I thought you admired Martha above all thing and wanted me to be exactly like her."

"I do admire her, but I do not want you to be like anybody but yourself."

"But you nearly killed me by suggesting that I should take heed how I talked in your father’s presence."

"Yes, dear; it was very stupid of me, but my father has a standard of excellence in his mind by which he tests every woman; this standard is my mother. She had none of your life and fun in her, and perhaps would not have appreciated your droll way of putting things any better than he and Martha do."

I could not help sighing a little when I thought what sort of people were watching my every word.

"There is nothing amiss to my mind," Ernest continued, "in your gay talk; but my father has his own views as to what constitutes a religious character and cannot understand that real earnestness and real, genuine mirthfulness are consistent with each other."

He had to go now, and we parted as if for a week’s separation, this one talk had brought us so near to each other. I understand him now as I never have done, and feel that he has given me as real a proof of his affection by unlocking the door of his heart and letting me see its cares, as I give him in my wild pranks and caresses and foolish speeches. How truly noble it is in him to take up his father’s burden in this way! I must contrive to help to lighten it.

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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 May 11, 2021, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=SZPZWJR9S8XUXSY.

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. 11 May. 2021. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=SZPZWJR9S8XUXSY.

Harvard: Prentiss, E, Stepping Heavenward, ed. . cited in 1908, 1917, Stepping Heavenward, D. Appleton and Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 11 May 2021, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=SZPZWJR9S8XUXSY.