The Nemesis of Motherhood
by Harriet Prescott Spofford
"There are two moments in a diver's life:
One, when a beggar he prepares to plunge,
One, when a prince he rises with his pearl.
Festus, I plunge." -- Browning.
THE hospital of the prison was little more than a whitewashed
corridor with bald daylight coming through the high gratings. The nurse
was neither soft-footed nor soft-hearted.
But the woman occupying one of the cots there was as oblivious of
outer circumstances as if she were in the middle of a cloud. It was, in
fact, thick cloud that swathed her, body and soul, in black shadow, as
she lay there with her baby three days old. If she herself had ever
been fair to see, there was small reason to suspect the possibility
now; and the little dark atom of humanity she held would perhaps have
given any but its mother a feeling of repulsion.
She had been sentenced to a term of years at hard labor for her
crime. Although a young woman, she was an old offender. It was held
among the officials that there was nothing so bad or so vile that she
might not be a part of its wickedness. She had lived on the plane of an
animal, an exceedingly cunning and rather vicious animal. Her memories,
could she have awakened them, would have revolted any listener however
abandoned, and have hardened the heart of an angel.
Yet as she lay there and felt the little new being at her breast,
two great tears welled from under her closed eyelids and paused upon
her cheeks; a sunbeam through the grating touched them and painted in
them the reflection of all heaven. The nurse saw the sunbeam, and drew
the shade down; no one looked for any reflection of heaven in that
She was suffering little from her physical troubles, although
prostrate from weakness. She knew that everything was wrong with her;
but that did not trouble her; she had been in hell too long, she would
have said, to fear now; and, to her, death, not birth, seemed a sleep
and a forgetting. But through all her varied experience, this was her
first child; and the condition where she found herself was a new hell,
and one undreamed of before. This little creature, drawing her life
into itself, was something for which she felt a fierce protecting
instinct — an unspeakable and angry need of interposing herself
between it and the cruelty of the world. Her child — it was
foreordained by fate that it must suffer. Her daughter — there was not
power enough in the universe to hinder her from sharing her mother's
lot. The child must grow up in the alleys, in the gutters. Her first
words would be oaths; little criminals would be her companions; sin
must be her daily sight, evil must be her atmosphere; she the bantling
of a ribald moment, and by right of descent possessor of her mother's
indecency. Wrong would come to her earlier than it had come to herself
— she remembered sharply the first stirring of the vicious impulses in
herself, the first temptation; the first yielding; the bad, bitter joy;
the end in wretchedness, in despair, in ruin. He had gone free — and
where there was one of her there were ten of him — and she felt the
multitude of him lying in wait for this girl drawing now from her veins
the impulse, the yielding, the riot, the rage; and once more the fierce
instinct of protection made her clasp the child so closely that it
cried out with a feeble cry.
The nurse came and looked at her curiously and saw the tear and
went away. The child dropped off to sleep. But far from sleep was the
mother, with a fire ravaging her brain. She saw the way marked out for
this child; she saw not only that, but the bleeding feet with which she
must tread it.
But yet — it was not impossible — she could be saved from all
that. There were people who could take her out and away, who could
surround her with the things of a different life — she who was
Innocent? Was she innocent, this child born with an injured body,
with a diseased soul? No intelligence, no cunning, no benevolence,
could evade the inevitable. For what she was, that her child was. You
do not gather figs from thistles. What she had made herself, she had
made her child; what she had become, that her child became also. In
being born, the child became all that. This soft and shapeless lip was
ready for the lie; those tiny clutching fingers for the theft; those
helpless hands for the secret murder; that body would grow lithe and
supple for all sin, and would one day wither in the fire of pain. Born
vile, to wallow in slime, the child would take only what was given to
it — from the unknown, nameless father corruption; from the mother the
blackness of shameless things of midnight. All that the mother had done
she would do; all that the mother had suffered she would suffer. Had
there been any happiness in her part? Not one jot. The child would live
to curse the day she saw the light.
She rose on one arm and looked at it. She laid her thin hand on its
thin cheek. Her heart suddenly stood still with a wild, unused
sensation — could it be love for the child? She fell back on her
pillow a chill sweat of horror covering her. All this evil she had
given her child in giving it life.
There was something else she could give it.
In the morning the nurse and the doctor could not say that the
mother had not overlain the child in sleep. It did not seem best to
make any search into the affair, since for this mother's child death
was so much better than life.
Every sound in the large and lovely room was muffled by the rich
rugs, the silk-hung walls, the heavy curtains. A fire burnt low on the
hearth and sent a ruby shadow here and there, flickering over the
alabaster vase, the ivory carving, the water-color on the panel, the
blue silk coverlet and the billowy lace about the bed. The room was
full of the fragrance of a hundred roses. An attendant, velvet-shod,
carried away a small gold tray with a bowl of china as translucent as a
flower; another nurse sat by the fire and dreamed over the pillow that
lay across her knee. All seemed well with the young mother; all seemed
well with the child.
She rested deep among her pillows, in a sleepy content; but quite
determined on no more experience of this sort. Why could not the race
have been continued in some other way? It really seemed as if there
were some malevolence toward women. How much she had missed since they
forbade her to dance or to ride. The idea of her foregoing all her
pleasures for this — and life so short at the best! She would be on a
horse again the moment she was able, before the frosty weather was all
gone. She had lost the Hunt Ball, as it was. Well, here was the heir,
anyway; and he would have to do.
A gush of music came through an opening door or window, a thrill of
violins and flutes; there was a small and early german in the next
house — how vexatious to be here! And all the rehearsals for the
theatricals were over without her; and every one had declared there
could never be such a Cleopatra as she; and she had ropes and ropes of
pearls to wear, and miles of rose-colored gauzes half to hide and half
to reveal the rose-colored tights. Very likely there would have been a
fuss; but what was the use of being beautiful all to yourself? At all
events, the gauzes would do for the skirt-dances they were going to
give for the Blenheim Spaniel Hospital.
There would be some cotillions, anyway, before Lent. She hoped she
wasn't going to come out of all this with her color gone. And her
figure — it would be a pity if the gowns that had just come from Paris
shouldn't fit her now. She would have the boxes opened to-morrow and
the gowns spread out for inspection — one of them ought to be simply
exquisite — cherry-colored satin, the front embroidered with
seed-pearls, cut very low, but with a high ruff, and clouds of old
Venice point. Lester van Dycke always said when she wore that shade
that Watteau should have painted her. Poor Lester — she couldn't
understand why there should have been any feeling about that little
flirtation; he was only teaching her how to smoke a cigarette like
Carmen. And then it was diverting to see just how far you could go and
stop. And really she had been awfully hard up when he lost that money
to her at poker. Thank goodness, it was all paid back before he was
sent off on that whaling voyage to break up his drinking. How people do
slip in and out of your life. — What was that woman doing now? Oh,
indeed — they needn't bring that baby to her; she didn't want him.
The nurse, a wise woman as nurses were in the days of Pharaoh,
turned down the silken sheet and laid on the mother's arm the bundle of
soft wool and filmy lace, baring the little pink face. "I never
supposed babies looked like that. Isn't he comical? And you needn't
think I'm going to nurse him," she meant to say aloud, but really said
only to herself. "He can be brought up by hand; or you may get all the
foster-mothers you please. I won't be tied down by a chain two or three
hours long, and grow a fright into the bargain!"
"We can't let the little man starve," the nurse was saying. "At any
rate, just for the present," she urged. "Till the doctor comes again
and we can get just what is wanted."
Were all nurses like this? Wasn't she compelling? A sort of
civilized She. Well, if she must. But not to keep it up. How absurd!
How perfectly ridiculous! But they were not to think she was going on
with it and forego the races and the yachting and everything else.
"Don't you know," she said in her thoughts to the baby, "that you're
dreadfully in my way?"
The baby smiled — the vacuous little grimace of a baby — and
opened his eyes. "Dear me," she said. "How interesting! Do you imagine
he sees me? Fancy! And look at the fingers — aren't they quite
perfect? And his eyes — why, they're really — just look at the little
fine corners! Do you suppose he knows I'm his mother? Oh, I am his
mother!" And the little head had snuggled into place. She gazed at him
in a bewildered wonder: something seemed to be taking hold of her very
heart-strings. Oh, this scrap of a creature was part of her life
itself! She had made him! She had struck this spark of a soul into a
being! The idea! But why? The dear person had a soul, of course. And
she fell to wondering what kind of soul it was. What kind of a soul —
why, didn't people say the son was the avatar of the mother? A soul
like hers, to be sure. My gracious, what kind of a soul was hers?
It seemed suddenly to be growing black everywhere about her,
whether owing to the new sensations and to exhaustion, or to the too
illuminating thought. All along the dusky wall she saw written in
letters of flame, Mene, mene, tekel upharsin. She half laughed to think
it should be in plain, every-day characters instead of Persian script.
Thou art weighed in the balance — and found wanting.
What did it mean? What was weighed? What was found wanting? And
what was this blackness? Was she fainting? Or, oh, was she dying!
Heavens! Was this dying? Was she sinking, failing, letting go of
life? Don't let her die! Oh, don't let her die! She didn't want to
leave all these pleasant things. She was afraid. For, oh, she was not
fit to die! She must have made some exclamation, for the nurse was
sprinkling her face. "It is all right," the woman was saying. "She is
coming to. It's not unusual." Yes; it was no longer black about her:
she was in the middle of a great light; she seemed to be withering in
it, like a leaf in the fire. In the middle of the great light she saw
herself for what she was. In that unknown and vast beyond, her little
worthless soul would be lost. That was the kind of soul she had — a
little, worthless, paltering one.
That was the kind of soul, then, she had given to her boy. He was
to grow up in this great moving world as trifling, as light-minded, as
slight as she, she who cared only for the pleasures that waste the body
and starve the soul! His little velvet cheek lay on her breast — oh,
how dear he was; how sweet he was, the little new person! And she had
made him as useless, as light as a bubble. She recalled a deceit she
had practised just before his birth — a scandal she had stimulated;
the case that had been laid before her of bringing out a poor man's
family for just the money that would buy the emerald cross she wanted,
and she had taken refuge behind the immigration laws, and there were
the emeralds in her jewel-case; her face burnt to remember the
champagne she drank the night she first wore those emeralds — heaven
knows what silly things she said! Yes, yes; there was no help for it,
this son of hers would want ease, glitter, wine, bibelots! Pleasures
that had been follies in her would be follies in him, too, and worse
than follies. Her frivolity would be in him effeminacy, her idleness
would have made him a voluptuary. He would know nothing and care less
for the sin and sorrow on his right hand and his left; he would not
waste an hour of his laughing life on any of the grief and pain that
made discord in the music. A silken sybarite, he would yield to every
temptation; every gaiety would allure him. The thrones of the world
might rock, he would not know it if his clubs were sound. His ambitions
would be in his clothes, in his horses. He would have no strength to
fight the forces of evil — he would be a part of them. Insufficient,
of no purpose in the great scheme of the growth of the race — oh, was
she thinking of her boy, her little son, the dear new, tender life? And
then again that sinking, that slipping into outer darkness.
No, no, she must overcome it; she must not die; there was something
for her to do; she could not afford to die! She could not have him,
when his time came, go out into the dark the trumpery thing she was
herself, as he needs must if she did not live to hinder it. He would be
without strength to resist the press of evil, for she had given him no
strength; he would be without impulse to do good, for she had given him
no impulse; he would be without value in the scales of the universe,
for she had given him no value. She must live to lead him past the
temptation, for she would recognize it; to bid him to see the pitfall;
to find, herself, and show to him, the shining mark beyond; to help him
in all those straits and perils where being her son, he must otherwise
be helpless. That other woman whom the doctor was to bring, that
foster-mother, she must go away again. They should give her something
for her own baby; but she could not have this one. She might be a
better woman; he might draw force and will from her; but from his own
mother he would draw love, and the love should keep him safe.
The fire fell, and all was still in the room. The nurse drowsed in
her chair. The very roses seemed to hush themselves in dropping now and
then a petal lest they wake the mother and the child from their deep,
sweet, regenerating sleep.
There was but one room in the log-cabin of the forest clearing. The
summer moonlight poured in a flood of pale-green silver through the
open door and the windows, glorifying all the place.
The young mother, lying there with her first-born beside her, had
done what she could to make the spot homelike till something better
should replace it; and it wore a certain reminiscence of castle halls
in the tapestry of skins, in the huge antlers, in the crossed arms.
The woman, who had come from a dozen miles away to be with her now
— one to whose help she had gone herself when the forest-fever smote
the household there, was in the lean-to with the doctor. The husband
was out hunting, unaware of the imminence of the event; and the two
lads were with him. There was no one in the room but the mother and her
No one? What was this shape in the moonlight — this shining mist
— the winged shape of a great angel, gleaming obscurely in the bloom
of the broad glow? What the darker shape of another that seemed the
shadow of the first? Or were they shapes at all, or more than the
phantasmagoria of a failing brain?
She was too weak to note anything closely; but she felt in long
thrills through all her frame the soft, slow breathing of the baby at
her side, and her soul was full of a rapture of gladness. She felt,
moreover, vaguely conscious of a certain dim sense of triumph, for
although her father's holdings had gone in a distant branch to the heir
male, she knew that she, inheriting of her father, that her son,
inheriting of her, truly represented the race — not that son of many
alien mothers who now had name and place.
Left dowerless, through mishap, she had married a man of
adventurous spirit, and had come out here, a pioneer, to begin fresh
life; her son was to be one of the makers of the new world. But of none
of this she thought now or was aware, save as a dull undercurrent. She
faintly remembered thinking before he was born that this child was to
be the flower of his race; that his mother must make him so; that his
mother's father had already made him so — that father in whom there
had been no taint of dishonor, of self-seeking, of uncleanness, of
distemper of mind or body. Perhaps the nobility had lain dormant in
herself; she had feared that; she had tried to rouse it — but on the
whole had given herself small time to dwell upon it. There had been far
too much to do to think if she possessed virtues and graces. She had
had plans, in the early days, of great work among the prisons she would
visit, and the help she would give the convict people; of the way in
which she would bring pleasure to certain of the insane; and, when war
broke out, of the help she might be as an army nurse — she familiar
with sick-rooms. But she had had no chance to bring herself to proof;
for her father had needed her every hour. And when he had died, she had
married a poor man, a prince among poor men as she felt, and she had
come out with him to build a new home under new conditions. As, upon
the voyage, she had looked over at those in the steerage, her heart had
swelled with pity, and with a sense of being in reality one of them,
with no right to more ease; she had gone in among them, and an old
woman there had died in her arms, and to the child of a poor young wife
she had rendered the first offices. And as her foot touched shore her
heart had swelled again, but with a sort of ecstasy, thinking of the
great promise this land gave to the oppressed of all the earth. On the
train across the country she had found two little lads whose people had
died and who were bewildered at their homeless condition; and she and
her husband had taken them to their home in the wilderness.
Over here life had not been easy; but she had given no sign. It had
been beyond her strength; but she had never faltered. She was making
home and happiness and she had found a vivid joy in it. She had been
lonesome in the long days of necessary solitude; but no one knew it.
She had been home-sick for old sights, old faces, old luxuries; but
there was always a smile on her lip when any one looked. Sometimes her
husband took her with him on his errands to the distant town, and as
she saw the busy people going to and fro a great love swept from her to
one and all of them. And when her child was coming, she was so glad of
him that that love for others seemed only to have opened the way for an
inexhaustible fountain of love flowing to him and through him. She had
a sort of smiling memory that it took generations to make a gentleman
— it had meant generations of mothers, of course; and after all was a
gentleman in the first place other than a man of the people who loved
his people? Fate must have begun in season with her child. She searched
herself, if by mischance any hidden sin in her could come to light in
him; she had prayed almost hourly that he might have truth, courage, a
pure heart, a generous hand, a selfless spirit, and that, when the
ordeal came, if one must go, the child should stay and have his share
of the joy of the world that she had found so sweet, unwitting that her
very prayer gave him all the loftiness she craved for him.
And now the son had been born to her and slept beside her, a strong
and lusty boy, the builder, possibly, of a new race; surely, as she had
dreamed, the last richness of an old one. She lay with indistinct,
half-wandering fancies, looking into the pouring moonlight. For a
moment she was quite sure she saw them — the two great angels; and
then the eyelids dropped dreamily, and she saw no more.
"It is a child," said the shadowy angel, hovering over the bed,
"whose mother had given him the strength that becomes a man, who has a
place to take in the world, a work to do, and a will to do it. The race
needs him. He is yours."
"It is a mother," said the shining angel, "who has already given
her child the welcome that makes a joyous soul. He shall not miss her
smile. He is what she is. He will need love since he will give so much.
And she is all compact of love. She is one of the forces of Life.
Death, I cannot surrender her."
And the dark angel fled away into the moonlight, and the shining
one fanned sleeping mother and child with his wings.