The Mother by Dora Sigerson Shorter
When he rushed in to beat the child, I lied to him, saying the little
one had gone out with his nurse, though I felt the small hands
clutching at my feet from where I had hidden him behind my dress. I
cared little what he did to me, but when he touched my child I could
have killed him. He might have known I was hiding something from him, I
answered so gently; but he did not, and went away. I seldom speak
pleasantly to him now; why should I, when I hate him? Oh, I hate him! I
loathe his very mannerisms, his heavy step upon the stairs, the
habitual frown he has when sitting at his meals, the click-click of his
toothpick when he has finished, his personality, which seems to fill
the house the moment he comes into it. I loathe all. And yet, look
here! and here! These are letters I keep to laugh over, just these two.
This one, written upon the eve of our wedding:
My little Love,Even to-day, the last that separates us, must I
write to tell you of my love and longing for the morning that will make
you mine, as I am for ever yours.
And this! a whole month after our marriage
My darling Wife,When will this separation end? The week has seemed
an endless one to me. I long to hold you in my arms never to part
Never to part again till death comes to one of us now we have grown
weary of one another.
Never to part again. The little time granted us upon earth marked
from the altar to the grave with every year a new stone bearing the one
record, Thus far have you gone upon your way, engraved on allthe
dreary monotony of days alike. I could write almost word for word and
act for act my life from now until the end. Every day the same face
before me, the same grumble at every dish, the same hurry to catch the
train to town, the same slam of the door at parting, the rattle of the
latch-key at return, the crash of the closing door, the sullen face
againand then sleep. Thus every day for ever.
Which of us is the more weary of the other? And whose fault is it
that this is so. He says it is mine, and I retort that it is his. What
matter now whose was the failing if only the evil could be remedied? I
know he hates my face, that is growing old, my uninteresting efforts at
conversation, my want of dash. He has said so often enough, reproaching
me because I was not like Mrs. Lewis, or Mrs. Hunter, or any one but
myself. I might be upon their thousands a-year; who knows? One can only
afford to be commonplace upon a couple of hundred.
For him new faces meet him in his man's workif one can call it work
to follow out a trade one's heart lovesbut for me nothing save the
drudgery of tending on him, laying his clothes in order, marketing for
his appetite, doing the endless little domestic cares that leave no
mark upon the world's scroll of fame and get no recognition at home. I
too have had my ambitions and my dreams; but when a woman marries she
must give up self. Yet I would regret nothing if once he would take me
into his arms and say: I understand; for me you have left your dreams,
the name you thought to make in the world, preferring a dearer name in
one man's heart. The long hours that your art demanded from you, you
have spent doing the monotonous duties of my household;
but I appreciate and understand. Or if he would not speak at all,
but hold me to him, knowing my heart and comforting it without words.
But why dream of impossibilities when, after a day of labour, he tells
me I do nothing, that women but sit at home and amuse themselves while
men toil to support them? What amusement is it to me to plan meals each
day without the hope of an approving word? to turn and return old
gowns, or oversee servants? My friends I left far away when I came to
him, and with his I have little in sympathy; yet I am glad to see them
come to our house, since for a time, at least, they dispel the gloom of
our domestic life; for a time the skeleton is put into its cupboard,
our small cellar is robbed of its best wine, our wits are called upon
to produce our most brilliant conversation. We smile, we are merry;
then the guests depart, the skeleton stalks forth, the door slams. The
sullen face is here again, and the peevish voice points out this fault
and that, with never a word of praise. I retort. The voice grows in
passion. I feel a child's hand slipped into mine beneath the table in a
mute appeal for my silence, and at the touch I am speechless. And then
comes sleep. O blessed, blessed sleep! And this has been our life for
God forgive me! I have forgotten my child in this railing against
Fate. My darling, at once my dearest happiness and my keenest pain.
What ambition did I ever have for any art compared with the longing to
see the first intelligence and love wake in my baby's eyes? What name
upon the world's lips for me so sweet as Mother when first spoken by
my child. And yet my pain it is to see him grow up in fear of his
father, to watch his frightened eyes go from face to face at meals, now
pleading my silence, and again drooping before his father's gaze, or to
see him hiding in his terror of a blow as he does now.
Come forth, my darling. You are safe; your father will not return
till night. Come. I will put you to bed and lie beside you. What woman
had ever so beautiful a child as this? See the limbs, like a little
Cupid's, and the hair so curly that, when I draw it straight through my
fingers, it springs back into a hundred ringlets. Come, little feet,
till I unbutton each shoe, for your little master is my king, and I but
his willing slave. Now the dress goes off and the little white gown
goes on. Now we kneel together and pray, and then to sleep. A beautiful
fairy stands upon our pillow and waves her magic wand, so that our eyes
will not stay open. She will tell sweet dreams to my king, for I see
she whispers to him already: his eyes open once, and then shut in deep,
Who in the night has not woke with an exceedingly bitter cry for
something that they have not got? but who has cried as I have, breaking
the silence? Oh, little child of hate, sleeping beside me, why have I
borne you? Why have I cursed you with the heritage that must be yours?
Little bond of love that keeps together two hearts that else would
spring asunder, you must pay in sorrow for our sins! From hatred have
you sprung, and in the home of hatred have you been reared; harsh
tongues have clashed their discords around you, and hard glances fenced
above your head; we have fought over you as wolves quarrel over a bone.
What can save you from coming unhappiness? What disposition can you
bring into the future from this home that is killing your child soul?
What do you inherit from us to enable you to find joy? Your father's
evil passions, his love of wine, and my evil thoughts in you?
A man and his wife must be all to one another or nothingthere is no
middle course. Yet if I thought he loved me, I could bear so much from
him. If he would put his arms around me tonight, I could forget all my
hate, all the dreary years past, all the harsh words, even the cruel
grip of his hands. Oh, a woman's home is her castle if she holds her
husband's heart, and he stand by her; let the world storm her gates
with jeers and insults, she is sale and happy. But if her husband turn
against her and shut her from his heart, though all the world protect
her, she is alone indeed;
though all the world offer her shelter, she is without a home. So my
nights pass with such thoughts. Sometimes I sleep and dream, and my
dreams are terrible. I always dream that I am dead and watching my
child from another state. I see him thrust aside by his stronger
brethren, as the weak are always crushed; I see him sinking lower, his
timid soul trampled out of his body by the strong, brutal wills of the
base lot he has fallen among; so I cannot rest in heaven following his
troubled path. Sometimes it is my keenest torture to watch his degraded
life without the power to help. I see the little figure I loved to look
upon grow bowed and gaunt with years and misery. The pretty, soft hands
grow old and stretch for evil things. The pink feet I kissed so fondly
wander in the ways of sin, the frank eyes grow clouded and shifty. The
innocent soul I tried to keep pure becomes a thing forbidden in God's
sight. Later his children will grow and bear the curse that was sown
with his mother's unhappy union. Then I wake in tears.
And yet, though these things be dreams, I feel that they will come to
pass. To-day, when I coughed, blood came into my mouth, and this means
death, I know. What is there for the boy when I am gone? Perhaps some
other woman will be given my place. What love will she have for my
child? My child, who has been fed upon all the love of one woman's
heart, at least. Will she have sympathy enough to understand and train
his difficult nature? There is one way that I can save him, one way
that I can be sure of his happiness, but it is so terrible that I
cannot meet it. Oh, I am full of selfishness, for to me only can it
bring pain, and to him it means eternal joy. To him it means the
kingdom of heavento me it means hell, to be lost, tortured, damned,
forbidden to God's sight for ever and ever and ever. I have prayed for
some other solution to this question of the happiness of my child's
future, but nothing comes to me but thisI must kill him.
To-day I have made up my mind. A doctor has told me I may not live a
year: my disease has grown upon me; great pains shoot through my chest
and quantities of blood come from my lungs at times. I do not dread the
act of dying, only the parting from my child; but to-day I have made up
my mind that we must partnever to meet again, not even in eternity.
To-night I shall put it off no longer; my child shall suffer no more.
An hour ago his father came home savage with drink and found the child
had broken his favourite pipe during his absence. I would have saved
the little fellow by taking the blame; but, when he heard his father's
voice calling him downstairs, he went to his punishment like a hero.
But his father had no admiration for his truth or pluck, only harsh
words for the quaking child. I hurried downstairs when I heard my boy
scream, but when I reached the door of the room where they were it was
slammed and locked in my face. I heard the child call to me and the
sound of hard blows above his bitter crying; every lash cut into my
flesh and every blow was a knife thrust in my heart. I beat upon the
door till my hands left their bloody marks upon the panels. When the
door was opened at length, I bore the fainting child away. What was the
use of words with a man who could ill-use a thing so helpless, who
could treat a child in a way he dare not treat his dog, lest the world
should cry shame upon him? But a dog will not forget an injustice,
neither will a child; it is a wound that may heal, but always leaves a
I rock my darling upon my heart and pray; I fold his little hands and
make him repeat my words after me; then I sing him to sleep. Every
bruise upon the white body appears to me like a reproach; it was not
for this, my darling, that I brought you into the world. Yet nothing is
more sure than sorrow; why did I not think? The room is growing dark;
it seems to me as though phantoms wait in the shadows, watching my
every action. I feel the air move as though fanned by invisible wings.
Angels wait to bear my child to heaven; but for me dread ghosts are
lurking in the darkness, and I am afraid. I feel what I cannot see;
their blazing eyes burn into my soul. If I were sure that when among
the damned I should remember that my child was safe in heaven, I could
find the sacrifice of my eternal life more easy to bear; but perhaps I
may not remember. I do not think I shall, for then it would not be
hell. What if they torture me with false dreams, making me see him in
misery and misfortune? But what matter, when he shall be most blessed?
But no! it is too terrible! Can I part for ever from him? Shall I
meet no more all the friends of my childhood who have passed away? My
father and my mother? Shall I be shut out for ever from God's sight?
Shall I have no one to welcome me in that strange country, when I stand
there lone and new? Only jeering tongues and evil faces to greet me?
Will it be all darkness for me, who hate the gloom? no little child to
take my hand and lead me into safety and light? Yet I dare not
hesitate. Heaven is yours now, my child, but as the years go on you may
not be ready. Kiss me! kiss me! Good-bye, my love, my child; you shall
die within my arms and against my breast. ThusthusO GOD!
* * *
You who can pray, pray for me, who go forth into the darkness alone.