Stepping Heavenward

Author: Elizabeth Prentiss



AUNTY has put me in the way of doing that. I could not tell her the whole story, of course, but I made her understand that Ernest needed money for a generous purpose, and that I wanted to help him in it. She said the children needed both music and drawing lessons, and that she should be delighted if I would take them in hand. Aunty does not care a fig for accomplishments, but I think I am right in accepting her offer, as the children ought to learn to sing and to play and to draw. Of course I cannot have them come here, as Ernest’s father could not bear the noise they would make; besides, I want to take him by surprise, and keep the whole thing a secret.

Nov. 14.-I have seen by the way Martha draws down the corners of her mouth of late, that I am unusually out of favor with her. This evening, Ernest, coming home quite late, found me lolling back in my chair, idling, after a hard day’s work with my little cousins, and Martha sewing nervously away at the rate of ten knots an hour, which is the first pun I ever made.

"Why will you sit up and sew at such a rate, Martha?" he asked.

She twitched at her thread, broke it, and began with a new one before she replied.

"I suppose you find it convenient to have a whole shirt to your back."

I saw then that she was making his shirts! It made me both hot and cold at once. What must Ernest think of me?

It is plain enough what he thinks of her, for he said, quite warmly, for him—

"This is really too kind."

What right has she to prowl round among Ernest’s things and pry into the state of his wardrobe? If I had not had my time so broken up with giving lessons, I should have found out that he needed new shirts and set to work on them. Though I must own I hate shirt-making. I could not help showing that I felt aggrieved. Martha defended herself by saying that she knew young people would be young people, and would gad about, shirts or no shirts. Now it is not her fault that she thinks I waste my time gadding about, but I am just as angry with her as if she did. Oh, why couldn’t I have had Helen, to be a pleasant companion and friend to me, instead of this old-well I won’t say what.

And really, with so much to make me happy, what would become of me if I had no trials?

Nov. 15.-To-day Martha has a house-cleaning mania, and has dragged me into it by representing the sin and misery of those deluded mortals who think servants know how to sweep and to scrub. In spite of my resolution not to get under her thumb, I have somehow let her rule and reign over me to such an extent that I can hardly sit up long enough to write this. Does the whole duty of woman consist in keeping her house distressingly clean and prim; in making and baking and preserving and pickling; in climbing to the top shelves of closets lest haply a little dust should lodge there, and getting down on her hands and knees to inspect the carpet? The truth is there is not one point of sympathy between Martha and myself, not one. One would think that our love to Ernest would furnish it. But her love aims at the abasement of his character and mine at its elevation. She thinks I should bow down to and worship him, jump up and offer him my chair when he comes in, feed him with every unwholesome dainty he fancies, and feel myself honored by his acceptance of these services. I think it is for him to rise and offer me a seat, because I am a woman and his wife; and that a silly subservience on my part is degrading to him and to myself. And I am afraid I make known these sentiments to her in a most unpalatable way.

Nov. 18.-Oh, I am so happy that I sing for joy! Dear Ernest has given me such a delightful surprise! He says he has persuaded James to come and spend his college days here, and finally study medicine with him. Dear, darling old James! He is to be here to-morrow. He is to have the little hall bedroom fitted up for him, and he will be here several years. Next to having mother, this is the nicest thing that could happen. We love each other so dearly, and get along so beautifully together I wonder how he’ll like Martha with her grim ways, and Ernest’s father with his melancholy ones.

Nov. 30.-James has come, and the house already seems lighter and cheerier. He is not in the least annoyed by Martha or her father, and though he is as jovial as the day is long, they actually seem to like him. True to her theory on the subject, Martha invariably rises at his entrance, and offers him her seat! He pretends not to see it, and runs to get one for her! Then she takes comfort in seeing him consume her good things, since his gobbling them down is a sort of tacit tribute to their merits.

Mrs. Embury was here to-day. She says there is not much the matter with Ernest’s father, that he has only got the hypo. I don’t know exactly what this is, but I believe it is thinking something is the matter with you when there isn’t. At any rate I put it to you, my dear old journal, whether it is pleasant to live with people who behave in this way?

In the first place all he talks about is his fancied disease. He gets book after book from the office and studies and ponders his case till he grows quite yellow. One day he says he has found out the seat of his disease to be the liver, and changes his diet to meet that view of the case. Martha has to do him up in mustard, and he takes kindly to blue pills. In a day or two he finds his liver is all right, but that his brain is all wrong. The mustard goes now to the back of his neck, and he takes solemn leave of us all, with the assurance that his last hour has come. Finding that he survives the night, however, he transfers the seat of his disease to the heart, spends hours in counting his pulse, refuses to take exercise lest he should bring on palpitations, and warns us all to prepare to follow him. Everybody who comes in has to hear the whole story, every one prescribes something, and he tries each remedy in turn. These all failing to reach his case, he is s plunged into ten-fold gloom. He complains that God has cast him off forever, and that his sins are like the sands of the sea for number. I am such a goose that I listen to all these varying moods and symptoms with the solemn conviction that he is going to die immediately; I bathe his head, and count his pulse, and fan him, and take down his dying depositions for Ernest’s solace after he has gone. And I talk theology to him by the hour, while Martha bakes and brews in the kitchen, or makes mince pies, after eating which one might give him the whole Bible at one dose, without the smallest effect.

To-day I stood by his chair, holding his head and whispering such consoling passages as I thought might comfort him, when James burst in, singing and tossing his cap in the air.

"Come here, young man, and hear my last testimony. I am about to die. The end draws near," were the sepulchral words that made him bring his song to an abrupt close.

"I shall take it very ill of you, sir," quoth James, "if you go and die before giving me that cane you promised me."

Who could die decently under such circumstances? The poor old man revived immediately, but looked a good deal injured. After James had gone out, he said:

"It is very painful to one who stands on the very verge of the eternal world to see the young so thoughtless."

"But James is not thoughtless," I said. "It is only his merry way."

"Daughter Katherine," he went on, "you are very kind to the old man, and you will have your reward. But I wish I could feel sure of your state before God. I greatly fear you deceive yourself, and that the ground of your hope is delusive."

I felt the blood rush to my face. At first I was staggered a good deal. But is a mortal man who cannot judge of his own state to decide mine? It is true he sees my faults; anybody can, who looks. But he does not see my prayers, or my tears of shame and sorrow; he does not know how many hasty words I repress; how earnestly I am aiming, all the day long, to do right in all the little details of life. He does not know that it costs my fastidious nature an appeal to God every time I kiss his poor old face, and that what would be an act of worship in him is an act of self-denial in me. How should he? The Christian life is a hidden known only by the eye that seeth in secret. And I do believe this life is mine.

Up to this time I have contrived to get along without calling Ernest’s father by any name. I mean now to make myself turn over a new leaf.

DECEMBER 7.-James is my perpetual joy and pride. We read and sing together, just as we used to do in our old school days. Martha sits by, with her work, grimly approving; for is he not a man? And, as if my cup of felicity were not full enough, I am to have my dear old pastor come here to settle over this church, and I shall once more hear his beloved voice in the pulpit. Ernest has managed the whole thing. He says the state of Dr. C.’s health makes the change quite necessary, and that he can avail himself of the best surgical advice this city affords, in case his old difficulties recur. I rejoice for myself and for this church, but mother will miss him sadly.

I am leading a very busy, happy life, only I am, perhaps, working a little too hard. What with my scholars, the extra amount of housework Martha contrives to get out of me, the practicing I must keep up if I am to teach, and the many steps I have to take, I have not only no idle moments, but none too many for recreation. Ernest is so busy himself that he fortunately does not see what a race I am running.

JANUARY 16, 1838.-The first anniversary of our wedding-day, and like all days, has had its lights and its shades. I thought I would celebrate it in such a way as to give pleasure to everybody, and spent a good deal of time in getting up a little gift for each, from Ernest and myself. And I took special pains to have a good dinner, particularly for father. Yes, I had made up my mind to call him by that sacred name for the first time to-day, cost what it may. But he shut himself up in his room directly after breakfast, and when dinner was ready refused to come down. This cast a gloom over us all Then Martha was nearly distracted because a valuable dish had been broken in the kitchen, and could not recover her equanimity at all. Worst of all Ernest, who is not in the least sentimental, never said a word about our wedding-day, and. didn’t give me a thing! I have kept hoping all day that he would make me some little present, no matter how small, but now it is too late; he has gone out to be gone all night, probably, and thus ends the day, an utter failure.

I feel a good deal disappointed. Besides, when I look back over this my first year of married life, I do not feel satisfied with myself at all. I can’t help feeling that I have been selfish and unreasonable towards Ernest in a great many ways, and as contrary towards Martha as if I enjoyed a state of warfare between us. And I have felt a good deal of secret contempt for her father, with his moods and tenses, his pill-boxes and his plasters, his feastings and his fastings. I do not understand how a Christian can make such slow progress as I do, and how old faults can hang on so.

If I had made any real progress, should I not be sensible of it?

I have been reading over the early part of this journal, and when I came to the conversation I had with Mrs. Cabot, in which I made a list of my wants, I was astonished that I could ever have had such contemptible ones. Let me think what I really and truly most want now.

First of all, then, if God should speak to me at this moment and offer to give just one thing, and that alone, I should say without hesitation,

Love to Thee, O my Master!

Next to that, if I could have one thing more, I would choose to be a thoroughly unselfish, devoted wife. Down in my secret heart I know there lurks another wish, which I am ashamed of. It is that in some way or other, some right way, I could be delivered from Martha and her father. I shall never be any better while they are here to tempt me!

FEBRUARY 1.-Ernest spoke to-day of one of his patients, a Mrs. Campbell, who is a great sufferer, but whom he describes as the happiest, most cheerful person he ever met. He rarely speaks of his patients. Indeed, he rarely speaks of anything. I felt strangely attracted by what he said of her, and asked so many questions that at last he proposed to take me to see her. I caught at the idea very eagerly, and have just come home from the visit greatly moved and touched. She is confined to her bed, and is quite helpless, and at times her sufferings are terrible. She received me with a sweet smile, however, and led me on to talk more of myself than I ought to have done. I wish Ernest had not left me alone with her, so that I should have had the restraint of his presence.

FEB. 14.-I am so fascinated with Mrs. Campbell that I cannot help going to see her again and again. She seems to me like one whose conflict and dismay are all over, and who looks on other human beings with an almost divine love and pity. To look at life as she does, to feel as she does, to have such a personal love to Christ as she has, I would willingly go through every trial and sorrow. When I told her so, she smiled, a little sadly.

"Much as you envy me," she said, "my faith is not yet so strong that I do not shudder at the thought of a young enthusiastic girl like you, going through all I have done in order to learn a few simple lessons which God was willing to teach me sooner and without the use of a rod, if I had been ready for them."

"But you are so happy now," I said.

"Yes, I am happy," she replied, "and such happiness is worth all it costs. If my flesh shudders at the remembrance of what I have endured, my faith sustains God through the whole. But tell me a little more about yourself, my dear. I should so love to give you a helping hand, if I might."

"You know," I began, "dear Mrs. Campbell, that there are some trials that cannot do us any good. They only call out all there is in us that is unlovely and severe."

"I don’t know of any such trials," she replied.

"Suppose you had to live with people who were perfectly uncongenial; who misunderstood you, and who were always getting into your way as stumbling-blocks?"

"If I were living with them and they made me unhappy, I would ask God to relieve me of this trial if He thought it best. If He did not think it best, I would then try to find out the reason. He might have two reasons. One would be the good they might do me. The other the good I might do them."

"But in the case I was supposing, neither party can be of the least use to the other."

"You forget perhaps the indirect good one may in by living with uncongenial, tempting persons. First such people do good by the very self-denial and self-control their mere presence demands. Then, their making one’s home less home-like and perfect than it would be in their absence, may help to render our real home in heaven more attractive."

"But suppose one cannot exercise self-control, and is always flying out and flaring up ?" I objected.

"I should say that a Christian who was always doing that," she replied, gravely, "was in pressing need of just the trial God sent when He shut him up to such a life of hourly temptation. We only know ourselves and what we really are, when the force of circumstances bring us out."

"It is very mortifying and painful to find how weak one is."

"That is true. But our mortifications are some of God’s best physicians, and do much toward healing our pride and self-conceit."

"Do you really think, then, that God deliberately appoints to some of His children a lot where their worst passions are excited, with a desire to bring good out of this seeming evil? Why I have always supposed the best thing that could happen to me, instance, would be to have a home exactly to my mind; a home where all were forbearing, loving and good-tempered, a sort of little heaven below."

"If you have not such a home, my dear, are you sure it is not partly your own fault?"

"Of course it is my own fault. Because I am very quick-tempered I want to live with good-tempered people."

"That is very benevolent in you," she said, archly.

I colored, but went on.

"Oh, I know I am selfish. And therefore I want live with those who are not so. I want to live with persons to whom I can look for an example, and who will constantly stimulate me to something higher."

"But if God chooses quite another lot for you, you may be sure that He sees that you need something totally different from what you want. You just now that you would gladly go through any trial in order to attain a personal love to Christ that should become the ruling principle of your life. Now as soon as God sees this desire in you, is He not kind, is He not wise, in appointing such trials as He knows will lead to this end?"

I meditated long before I answered. Was God really asking me not merely to let Martha and her father live with me on sufferance, but to rejoice that He had seen fit to let them harass and embitter my domestic life?"

"I thank you for the suggestion," I said, at last.

"1 want to say one thing more," Mrs. Campbell resumed, after another pause. "We look at our fellow-men too much from the standpoint of our own prejudices. They may be wrong, they may have their faults and foibles, they may call out all that is meanest and most hateful in us. But they are not all wrong; they have their virtues, and when they excite our bad passions by their own, they may be as ashamed and sorry as we are irritated. And I think some of the best, most contrite, most useful of men and women, whose prayers prevail with God, and bring down blessings into the homes in which they dwell often possess unlovely traits that furnish them with their best discipline. The very fact that they are ashamed of themselves drives them to God; they feel safe in His presence, and while they lie in the very dust of self-confusion at His feet they are dear to Him and have power with Him."

"That is a comforting word, and I thank you for it," I said. My heart was full, and I longed to stay and hear her talk on. But I had already exhausted her strength. On the way home I felt as I suppose people do when they have caught a basketful of fish. I always am delighted to catch a new idea; I thought I would get all the benefit out of Martha and her father, and as I went down to tea, after taking off my things, felt like a holy martyr who had as good as won a crown.

I found, however, that the butter was horrible. Martha had insisted that she alone was capable of selecting that article, and had ordered a quantity from her own village which I could not eat myself and was ashamed to have on my table. I pushed back my plate in disgust.

"I hope, Martha, that you have not ordered much of this odious stuff!" I cried.

Martha replied that it was of the very first quality, and appealed to her father and Ernest, who both agreed with her, which I thought very unkind and unjust. I rushed into a hot debate on the subject, during which Ernest maintained that ominous silence that indicates his not being pleased, and it irritated and led me on. I would far rather he should say, "Katy, you are behaving like a child and I wish you would stop talking."

"Martha," I said, "you will persist that the butter is good, because you ordered it. If you will only own that, I won’t say another word."

"I can’t say it," she returned. "Mrs. Jones’ butter is invariably good. I never heard it found fault with before. The trouble is you are so hard to please."

"No, I am not. And you can’t convince me that if the buttermilk is not perfectly worked out, the butter could be fit to eat."

This speech I felt to be a masterpiece. It was time to let her know how learned I was on the subject of butter, though I wasn’t brought up to make it or see it made.

But here Ernest put in a little oil.

"I think you are both right," he said. "Mrs. Jones makes good butter, but just this once she failed. I dare say it won’t happen again, and mean while this can be used for making seed-cakes, and we can get a new supply."

This was his masterpiece. A whole firkin of butter made up into seed-cakes!

Martha turned to encounter him on that head, and I slipped off to my room to look, with a miserable sense of disappointment, at my folly and weakness in making so much ado about nothing. I find it hard to believe that it can do me good to have people live with me who like rancid butter, and who disagree with me in everything else.

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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 22, 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. 22 Apr. 2024.

Harvard: Prentiss, E, Stepping Heavenward, ed. . cited in 1908, 1917, Stepping Heavenward, D. Appleton and Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 22 April 2024, from