"The Clergyman's Wife"
February 1865
Peterson's Magazine

Dublin Core


"The Clergyman's Wife"
February 1865
Peterson's Magazine


“The Clergyman’s Wife"

By the Author of “The Second Life.”

Parsonage, August lst.
It rains to-night, a sharp, sleety rain, driving against the windows with a low continual moan. It puts me in mind of the Banshee old[1] Norry used to belong to our family, and who cried to warn them of death or danger. I wish it had been a “Brownie,”[2] instead, who did all the work while the mistress slept. The Scotch are cannier about even their guardian spirits than the poor Irish. What a dull, foreboding night! I looked out of the window just now, and saw the rain drenching garden, and stable, and road, and murky clouds gathering every moment to make this night heavier. Inside, the little wood-fire burns pleasantly, though it is late, one o’clock, and baby is asleep in his cradle, where I can touch him with my foot as I sew. John has been sleeping, too, for some hours. Where I sit, I can see his face, sallow and haggard, against the pillow—different from  the ruddy, cheerful face that belonged to my lover ten years ago! Years that had cut hard and sharply into it.

What a hard fight it has been for him to find bread and butter for the children and me; and how nobly he has fought it only God and I know. Day after day, month after month, in all those ten years, the same constant strain on mind and body, and never once one selfish thought—all done for “Kitty and the boys.” I sometimes think the only rest he knows is in his sermons; he seems to throw off then the hard, griping present, and feel that he is himself again—the free, bold thinker that in Boston, before we were married, stood on a platform with his own peers and was recognized by them. He gave up much to preach God’s word when he abandoned the law—place, and fame, and chances of advancement. I often doubt when I look at his dull boorish hearers in this little village, and notice how the discourse (almost incomprehensible to them) invariably assumes a logical form, whether he did not also give up his true stand-point and work. But God knows. I cannot help looking back to-night. Not at our gay, careless life before we married, but since then—here. When I remember the scraping to keep body and soul together on the pittance the church gives us—the sickness, the hoarding, cent by cent, to buy even this poor furniture we have—I do not wonder that John lies there, fagged and worn out, a wreck of his former self. And I could do so little to help! Sewing and cooking for the wee ones brings in no money. I am tougher and stronger than John to-day, though I used to be a delicate girl. I remember how he used to fret at seeing my hands chapped and hard with the washing the first year we were married; (I had a pretty hand then) but we have had too serious troubles since to think of such trifles

Well, about this visit to Boston. I can’t help talking to my journal. John and I have somehow grown silent together. At first we kept up the habit we had in our courtship of reading together, discussing the news and current literature of the day; but, after a year or two, we could not afford to take the papers, nor buy books, and soon our usual topics became—how the flour was to be got, or the children shod for winter. I am sorry. One feels hungry for something outside of this, as Herder,[3] when dying, asked for a great thought to refresh him. I feel sometimes as if my soul were so drenched with thoughts of dollars and cents that it was hardly worth saving for heaven. It is like opening a safety-valve to complain or talk to this journal. I write in it, therefore, a line or two at night when I have sewed until midnight. That is my stopping-place.

But, the visit. John was very much averse to it at first—is so still, indeed. But Charles Lowther is so old a friend that he dares to speak more plainly than any one else would; and this summer, when giving us his usual invitation, he wrote, “You have refused me these ten years, Curtis, but now I will take no more refusal. You require rest imperatively; heart and liver and brain are overworked, and to persist in your course is simply suicide. I write as a physician, now, not merely your friend. I don’t want any of the children; send them out wholesale to Deacon Simms. Let Mrs. Curtis have a breathing space—heaven knows she needs it. Next time the bairns[4] shall come. Our place abuts directly on the sea, so you shall have all the benefit of surf-bathing without undergoing the fashion or vulgarity of Cape May hotels as of old.” It was long before John would consent. He has grown morbid, sunk down in a sort of dull apathy, from which nothing rouses him. When at last it was decided we should go, he could not bear to be separated from the children. “You and the boys have to be my world, Kitty,” he said. “What do I care for this world of beau-esprits[5]that Lowther will have gathered about him? Let us rest in our humble little nest here, and ‘let the world go by.’” I was very glad that John loved his home so well; but still I thought a breath of fresh sea air would be a good thing. If the “nest” did not need carpeting and doing up so dreadfully, I would like it better.

So we are going. Tom and the twins and George are off on Sunday to Deacon Simms’ to romp in the hay-fields; and aunt Ann will keep Jem, who is two years old, and large enough to leave, though I call him “baby,” yet. We will start on Monday. I have just finished John’s three new shirts; with those and his old ones he will do very well; and he has, of course, a good suit of broadcloth—one worldly advantage in being a clergyman—at any rate. For me, I can whiten my old straw bonnet over some brimstone and trim it up and my wedding silk has been dyed black, and really looks as good as new. It amuses me to think of the preparation I would have made for such a visit ten years ago; but since John has ceased to notice how I was dressed, or looked, I never think of it, only to be clean. Our love is founded now on something deeper than mere externals. Well, to-morrow I will be busy preparing the children’s clothes, so I will go to bed.

Rock Point, August 7th.—We have been here for three days now at Mr. Lowther’s country-seat. The sea air and bathing has already made a change in John’s face, I fancy, given it a color. But he grows more depressed and home-sick every day. He came to our room just now, where I was writing. “Let us cut this visit short, Kitty,” he said. “I am like a plant torn up by the root away from our home and the children. I suppose solitude has made me morbid and over sensitive. But I am not fit for this sort of life. I want to go back.” He paced backward and forward through the room. “It galls me to the soul,” he said, at last, wiping his forehead “to contrast Lowther’s way of living and ours. For myself, I don’t heed it. I chose it for a pure motive. But when I think of the chances of which my boys are deprived, the culture, the refinement of taste and manners—the width of thought, it cuts to the quick. To think my sons must grow up boors, half their days given to scraping and saving of a dollar, while Lowther’s, because of the possession of a little more lucre, start high and fair in the race.” I did not answer John. I thought him unreasonable and morbid, and, also, to tell the truth, that a little intercourse with his fellow-man was just what he needed. For our boys, there is no need of their growing up boors, if they do not draw in culture with every breath, as the Lowther children. I did not tell John how heart-sick I was to be with them, especially poor baby; nor how oppressed I am by the different atmosphere here. We will stay the fixed time, I am resolved, if it will benefit John. I understand the different influences which the Lowthers [sic] life and ours will exert on our children. It is an education simply to be in this place. Nature and art have done everything for them. The house is distant a few miles from Nahant, on the same range of sea-rocks, commanding a view of the sea and coast for many miles, the surf dashes up on the lower ground of the park: from the upper windows of the house the ocean is seen alone, unblemished by any glimpse of land, in all it eternal variety of colors and meanings; and there is no such educator as the sea; no such help to the development of a vigorous manhood. The establishment itself is no showplace, but founded on a wide, solid affluence, large and generous in all its details; a thorough home, with well-wooded pleasure-grounds, stabling, dogs, stock, pets of every kind; in-doors, and atmosphere of comfort and beauty, pictures, books, music, guests coming and going, a well-trained band of noiseless servants; different from our little parlor with its faded carpet, and the children’s mother, maid of all work! Yet the faded carpet was worked and saved for during a whole year, and sewed in such a happy, jolly fashion! John trying to help me by threading the needles and joking all the time. Oh, well! God knows what is best for our boys.

August 8th.—Some old friends of John’s came last night whom Mr. Lowther had brought to meet him; the Quaker reformer, R——, and Dr. P——. Already John is coming back to his old self with them, forgetting his nervous wretchedness of yesterday. If this rest only does work a cure! I should not heed any discomfort if there be a chance of that. And discomfort there is none, except home-sickness; for the dear boys, and then—it is trifling to mention such a trifling thing—but Mrs. Lowther, with all her cordial kindness, seems somehow to regard me as a martyr, never forgets the girl I was before I married, and evidently looks on me as a physical and mental wreck, a sacrifice to the making of a “bad match.” It is irritating to be pitied, and especially to be pitied for being “a wreck.”

August 9th, Evening.—This has been one of the happiest days of my life. A royal day in itself, brimming over with clear, cool sunshine and harvest-scented airs. Then it does my very soul good to see John so looked up to, met with a certain deference as he is by these scholars and men of note. He is in his right place now. I sat this morning watching him on the piazza, the center of an animated group, his eyes kindled, and a smile on his face; the old, delicate, shrewd smile, I have not seen there since the first years of our marriage. The presence of these old friends, this attrition, even of a few hours, of his mind with kindred minds, has brought back the true tone to it. I would not have believed a few healthy hours could have worked so apparent a change. He is becoming, too, more en rapport with the other guests. There are many of these. The house is large, and it is the delight of the Lowthers to gather around them rare and fine minds at this season, when they can offer their friends such unusual pleasures of hospitality as the private sea-bathing and sailing.

Last night Miss C— arrived, of whose music we have heard so much. I saw her walking with John before tea this evening, and immediately after they went into the music-room, where we all silently followed at the first touch of her fingers on the piano. She has marvelous skill, and a wonderful delicacy of expression in her music, and voice, too—for she sang one or two songs only, Shubert’s ballads, and Adelaida.[6] I was glad she possessed the tact to choose just those that would chord with John’s mood. Music used to be a passion with him; and it is years since he has heard anything better than the church choir, with old Hummell, the tailor, as leader. He came and sat down in the window by me—the lamps were not lighted, and the others were scattered about the room in noiseless groups—and I could see the slow tears of intense feeling come into his eyes now and then

“It was like coming to my old home again,” he said to me, when we were alone. “But I forgot, Kitty, you are no musician.” It hurt me that he should say that. I cannot bear that we should be separated in any thought or feeling; and, besides, though I do not understand it scientifically, I always thought I comprehended the meaning of music. However, it has been a happy day. Now that John feels at home, and begins to enter into his life here with zest, I can be more contented; all I need is to get into a quiet corner, and watch him.

August 15th.—It is selfish in me to be discontented where John is so thoroughly happy; but my heart aches to see the children. And then, except the pleasure of seeing him enjoy himself, there is little I care for here. I do not relish reading as I did, when it was a habit with me; and I am always conscious, in making up their little parties for sailing or riding, Mrs. Curtis is asked only from courtesy—so I find some excuse to remain at home. I am dull; have lost the habit of expressing myself easily; and even when I am amused, show it but little. I don’t blame them if they look on the silent, middle-aged Mrs. Curtis, as a dead-weight. A man does not grow old so fast as a woman. John is, on the other hand, of all the guests, the one most eagerly surrounded and sought for. I find Mr. Lowther has told John’s story to these people, and the sacrifice he made to speak the truth—so he has become a kind of hero among them. He hardly understands it, for I never told him when I felt his life to be, how worthy reverence. I love him, and I thought he knew. Something about him, too, seems to appeal to the better part of all these men and women, and causes them to cluster about him, to try to enter into personal relations with him—and he is ready to do that. His delicate instincts; his keen sensitiveness to pleasure and pain; his personal magnetism, make it almost impossible for any one of culture and feeling to come near him, and not feel that this man is something to him, personally, which no other man ever was. It amuses me to see how even his sickly pallor, and picturesque, fastidious face, add to his attraction in the eyes of these young girls from the city.

I set myself to write all this down as a punishment for having felt selfishly lonely last night, when the boating party stayed out late coasting about in the moonlight. There was society enough in the drawing-room and library, but I felt lost without John, always—so I crept off to my own room and cried myself to sleep, thinking of our little home and the boys.

August 18th.—I begin to count the days of our stay here. I wish we were at home. It is harder to be unselfish here than in our own old ways of jogging on. Ugly fancies and doubts creep into my mind which never were there before. I wonder, sometimes, if I was the proper wife for John; if there are not needs and tastes in his nature which I do not satisfy. And it is such trifles that have made me feel thus, I am ashamed almost to recount them: such as the overheard question of an Irish chamber-maid—“Was you woman in black Mr. Curtis’s mother, or wife?” That was the first. I smiled when I heard her, but I could not help looking in the glass. I never before felt how broken I was. It shocked me to see the pinched, thin face, with the dark circles under the eyes, and the stooped shoulders, on which my dress hung flabby and ill-fitting. I seemed destined to overhear no good of myself without being a listener. This morning I was in one of the bathing-houses when Miss C—— and the old Quaker, R——, John’s friend, passed, on their way to the beach. They stopped to look at my husband, who was seining with some fishermen. “It is a ‘most delicate spirit’ which dwells in that frail body,” he said. “Yes,” she replied, “but—pardon such a feminine question—how came he to be mated with that wife of his? She appears to be dull and cloddish, utterly incapable of comprehending him.” He answered, hesitatingly, “She had great beauty, I have heard.” “It is scarcely possible to credit,” with a polite sneer, such as women give so easily: “if so, he bought it dearly. He seems to me to have been starving, for mental food as well as physical.” It was brutal; but the woman did not know she gave the stab, of course. After I came up to the house, I sat down in my chamber, sick at heart as never before. John came in to prepare for dinner, I turned my back, looking out of the window to hide my swollen eyes. Presently I rose to pin on a clean collar—the only change of dress I had to make. John came over, and looked at me from head to foot with a critical, vexed air. “Why do you that eternal black gown?” he said. “It gives you the look of a mute at a funeral, Kitty. And your hair—could you not arrange it to give you a more girlish air? Mrs. F—— has the eye of an artist; her coiffure makes a picture of her face—couldn’t you catch an idea from her?” Now it was weak to be hurt by these careless words, dropped as he pulled about the articles on the dressing-table, looking for his pencil. But it did hurt; and after he was gone, I looked at the sallow face in the mirror, and pulled the folds of the old dyed gown—my only one—with bitterer tears than ever I thought to shed. I had great beauty—if it was gone now. I thought I had earned love from him founded on something deeper. I had neglected my dress, my person; had I time to “make a picture of my face,” with the dinner to cook, the ironing to finish, and five boys to sew and patch for? and that, day after day, for months and years. Going down to dinner I looked at the other women at the table. I did not wonder my dress irritated and disgusted him. There were none of them who had not tact and means enough to suit their garments to their age and figure—the most simple often the most becoming. I saw my mistake; the same money would have bought me a pretty warm-colored robe as I used to dye this dingy bit of old finery. Well, John’s love surely does not depend on the color of a gown. It will all be right when we go home.

August 20th.—We are not going soon. Mr. Lowther told me, to-day, my husband had consented to remain another fortnight, as the sea air and water proved beneficial. I hope it may be true, but to my eyes his face has a relaxed, haggard look I never saw there. I fear the reaction when the season of indulgence is over, and we go back to the old drudgery. For me—but I will not dwell on the morbid fancies of these last two days. John is anxious to remain, and that is enough. I never have questioned his authority, and will not now, unless I think it harmful to his soul, as well as body, to stay in this house. What have I said? Not matter; let it go.

I never knew my husband so intensely alive as now; every nerve and feeling seems sentient, ready to give and receive emotion. It may be the sudden relaxing of the bow after so long and painful a strain; I don’t know. He has found a quick and chording echo, too. She came day before yesterday—this Miss M‘Donald, of whom we had heard so much, entered the drawing-room after dinner, when the brilliant gaslights and groups, scattered all about the rooms, gave a proper eclat to her appearance. I was sitting near John, who was playing chess with Col. Shaw, when I saw him suddenly pause, knight in hand, with a half exclamation, and a bright flush of pleasure on his face. I turned and felt the same glow, as if a beautiful picture had suddenly been placed before me. The arch opening into the library was concealed by heavy, dark velvet curtains; between these, and holding them apart with each hand, so as to form a drapery about her, stood the most curious-looking girl I had ever seen, leaning slightly forward, her eyes glancing around the room with a look of childish eagerness. The tableau was so singularly beautiful, that, for a moment, there was a sudden silence; then Mrs. Lowther hastened forward, and the others gathered around this apparently most welcome of all guests. I have a man’s love for woman’s beauty; and I confess that from my corner, glancing over my netting-needles, I spent the evening watching this girl, whose every pose and look made a new and piquant effect. Her fragile figure gives her the appearance of extreme youth; she has the rare combination of pale golden hair, and exceedingly dark, large eyes, brows and lashes; her skin is delicately tinted as an infant’s. Her manner that night was simple, genuine, brimming over with an innocent gayety. I turned to John at last to see if he were as interested and amused as I; but, his game finished, he was watching her furtively as he talked, with his faced heated, and eye kindled. I did not wonder, remembering what a thirsty, keen eye he has for beauty, and how he detects it, sleuth hound-like, hide in what corner it will. And it is so long since he has been gratified by either nature or art. He was presented to this Gertrude M‘Donald, and talked to her a few moments. “She has nothing in her,” he said to me, after we had gone upstairs, “a mere ignorant, artless school-girl. But her power of expression, in face and form, is something marvelous.” She wasted but little time in showing him his mistake in rating her. The next day he sought her out, simply, I knew, as I should have sought for a song or picture that once had given me pleasure. She came to the sofa where I was at work, and sat down with him; they talked of books, of politics, religion, with the same gay, fresh naivete on her part, breaking forth, now and then, into some saying, startling from its novelty and truth. I as well as John was amazed; her mind seemed capable of as many graceful and new attitudes as her body. John was delighted. “She has the brain of a poet, and the soul of a little child,” he said to Lowther, enthusiastically. A scarcely perceptible shrug of the shoulder was the only reply.

August 22nd.—I think I can understand why John follows this girl so hungrily; she is expression in body and soul, if I may so try to make my meaning clear to myself; every least thought or feeling which rises in her own brain, or which she catches from others, she dramatizes by her look or words in an infinite tact and beauty. It is a new sensation to John, he has been so long shut in on himself, compelled to live a self-regarding life, as concerns his thought, that this free demonstrative utterance of inner life of all that women usually hold secret—an utterance, too, so exquisite that his taste is pleased and stimulated by it, is just what he craves. His curiosity will soon be satisfied, I am sure. For Miss M‘Donald there is such an evident zest in their intercourse for her, that she reminds me of an actor, who, finding one high appreciative witness in the audience, “plays up” to him.

August 24th.—The movements of this girl have strange fascination for me; if no other reason than that others, noticing the attraction she has over my husband, watch me, askance, with curious, amused eyes. Surely, it has not come to that! That I am to be degraded into the position of a neglected, jealous wife. Yet I cannot help following her every step with a quick throbbing interest, and a sickening dread of I know not what. This morning, contrary to my usual custom, I accompanied the sailing party. John looked dully surprised, but indifferent, and in a few moments forgot my presence altogether. They were fishing; had one or two fishermen on board to direct the amateurs. By these men, Miss M‘Donald arranged her basket, and, dressed in her dark merino wrapper, her hair snuggly tucked away in a hat, gave herself up to the business of the day. She came to fish—and she fished, disregarding the rest of the party with an earnest zeal that was, even to me, irresistibly captivating and innocent. To-night—a change in the programme. Von der Wart, the German litterateur, whom Boston has for its pet now, came out to dine, and in the evening read for us two or three scenes from Egmont,[7] and some of Schiller’s[8] shorter poems. Afterward, Burger[9] being alluded to, Mrs. Lowther asked Miss M‘Donald to recite one of his ballads. She assented good-humoredly, and chose Lenore. I noticed that there was a general stir and hush in the rooms, as though people settled themselves as to the enjoyment of a treat. She began in a low, trembling voice, which lost its embarrassment in a moment, but remained subdued, sinking to a whisper in the most effective parts. But the power of the woman! I have seen great actors in my day, but none ever startled and magnetized me as this one, for a mistress of the art she assuredly is. When she uttered the fatal words which sent the soul who spoke them to hell, my blood chilled as though she were, in truth, the lost Lenore. But, oh! the dilated horror of her eye—the anguish in her low cry,

“Oh, mutter! mutter! hin is hin!
Verloren ist Verloren![10]

I looked at John. His lips were white and compressed, his eye followed her like a man charmed. Had the cry a meaning for him then? Had he something lost out of his life forever, which might have been, and was not? He rose and left the room. I dared not follow him. “Mr. Curtis is nervous,” Mr. Lowther said, politely, when the reading was over. “I don’t wonder Lenore depressed him; Miss M‘Donald would have made a great actress had she gone on the stage. I prefer her rendering of several parts of Macbeth and Othello to Fanny Kemble’s.”[11] My husband returned when the evening was nearly over, but sat in a retired corner and studiously avoided her. He was unusually kind in his manner to me, as though he would atone for some wrong. When we were breaking up for the night, an exquisite thrush-like voice began to warble, overhead. Buona Notte,[12] with such delicate purity that one held their breath to listen. Looking up, we saw the beautiful, childish face peeping through the heavy balustrades, aglow with mirth, nodding good-night. “How delicious Gertrude is!” said Miss C——. “One would not weary through eternity with such a woman!” My husband made no answer; as he turned away, he drew a heavy breath, gnawing his lips as though to hold himself quiet.

August 30th.—I dare not write down the agony of these days. I can do nothing. I dare not speak; remonstrance would only do evil by baring his own heart to him. I can just creep to my own room, and cry to God to have mercy on us both. John suffers as much as I. He shrinks from the girl; for days absents himself from her altogether, clinging to my side, but with a dull, lost look; then, as if abandoning himself to some delirium, pursues her, haunts her every step with such an almost savage persistency, that she seems frightened at times. He is too nervous and single-minded a man to conceal anything. The workings of his mind as palpable as day; and he seems so terrified at himself that he forgets that I, too, know and suffer. To-day I asked him to go home, “Anything is better than this,” I cried. He asked for no explanation, looked at me like a man dazed, and consented, muttering, “Perhaps if I could see the children, it would be different.” But an hour after I saw him in the conservatory, his face radiant with excitement, an eager crowd about him, laughing at his wit; and among them Miss M‘Donald. When I spoke of going home, he answered quietly, “It is impossible.” Mr. Lowther overheard us. He followed me out of the room. “It is impossible,” he said. “Be patient; you do not know all,” with an anxious look; and was thoughtful all the evening, keeping a quiet watch on John.

September 7th.—At last we have spoken. It has been my fault then! God help me! I thought I was true and faithful wife in every thought and deed. But I alone have been to blame. I see it now. I was sitting, alone, by the window, last night, looking out to the sea. It was late. I had put on a white wrapper, and loosened my hair, not meaning to go down again. I could hear Miss M‘Donald’s flute-like voice singing in the library, and knew John was there. For my own soul’s sake I was trying to keep out of this woman’s sight. I was learning to feel for her such a fierce hatred and dread, which no thought of even my meek Master could control. She was cruel, pitiless—she, with all the world to give her homage. I, with only my husband to look to for love in life or death. She had taken him from me, and lured him only to gratify the idle whim of a moment. Now that the certainty of this had come to me, I was calm. It is my nature to show no emotion when I feel most; one reason why he has fallen from me gradually in these later years.

He came in, and pausing a moment by the door, stood looking at me as I sat in the moonlight. I knew by his colorless face and burning eyes he was in a strange state of excitement; the moment had come when all would be uttered. Coming hastily toward me, he stooped down, and, passing his hand over my head, drew out the hairs, holding them up in the moonlight. “See! they glisten like a mesh of gold!” he exclaimed. “You look as you did years ago to-night, Kate!” bending my head back, and looking in my eyes. “There is the same curve of the delicate, indignant mouth, and that sad pleading in the eyes, like a frightened child’s.” “Daylight will bring back the wrinkles and the offensive haggardness,” I said, coldly drawing back. Since I had known him, years ago, he had never thus coolly criticised me. “You were beautiful, Kate,” slowly, without seeming to have heard me. “But it is not the beauty I miss, God knows,” holding his hands to his forehead. “What is it, John?” I crept up, and caught his sleeve. “Oh, my husband! my husband! I have loved you! I have tried to do what is right!” I sobbed out something of this. I dared not lean on him, scarcely could touch him, so far away from me he seemed. “I know it,” more to himself than to me. “You have done what you could. We needed money, that was the truth—and you turned drudge. It’s no time for surface-talk. I am going mad, and I must speak the truth. You have been a slave to me and our children, Kitty—but you have been no companion—I have had none. A man needs other food than bread and meat. I am weaker than other men, it may be, and have yielded sooner than I ought; but there is no power of my mind that has not lacked stimulus, no taste that has not been baffled. It seems to me that I have been dying by inches.” “And this woman, John, she helps you?” I faltered at last. His face turned paler. “Yes! She sympathizes with me—as you did once, Kitty. I feel that, innocent child though she is, I have become to her what no other man ever can be; and this feeling from her is, to me, what the Prophet’s hand laid on the dead bones was. My old self has wakened again!” There was a long silence. Then I faced him. “Why do you come to me with this? Do you think I am iron or clay? Have you forgotten that I, too, can suffer?” He looked at me; there was a dull surprise in his face. “You have hid it well, if you suffered, Kitty. I come to you because I must speak, or go mad. It has given me no happiness to know that this girl helped me. It has been like putting my hand into hell to find the leaves of the tree of life.” “Is your religion nothing? Has this been a lie you have preached?” I cried. He paced through the room with slow, even strides, turning his head, monotonously, from side to side, like a man distraught. “It is no lie. But I cannot understand why it seems only a cold form of words to me now. A man’s animal and mental nature count for something.” “Yes, you trampled them down in these last years, and they master you now,” I said. “It may be—I am weak—I’m very weak, Kate,” holding his hand to his head. I know not what power was given to me to speak to him coldly and firmly—but I did. He seemed to me like a man on the verge of a precipice, needing but a cool hand to hold him back. “You are wrong, John,” I said, looking him gravely in the face. “You think this girl loves you. You dare to compare her love for you with mine, your wife. I tell you that you are to her but one of an audience, to whom she plays a part—a sympathizing witness of her tricks and skill—no more than that.” “You do not know Gertrude.” The tone maddened me. “It may be; but I know you, my husband, and I know myself. It seems as if it were given me, in this hour, to see us both as we stand before God’s eyes. I do not ask you to remember what I have been, nor what love I bore you. Let that go. But I forewarn you, John Curtis, that when you give your love to that woman, your better self lies dead—cheated by a sham and a lie. I tell you that in those first days of our married life, when you dug the little garden, and chopped wood, whistling, on week-days, found beauty and pleasure in the sunshine or falling leaves, and preached a cheerful, courageous gospel on Sundays, you were living a higher, nobler life than now, with this mad outcry for lost opportunities and baffled tastes.” “You are bitter,” he said. “There was truth in what I said,” was my answer. “What is to be the end of this?” he asked. “God knows; for our children’s sake we cannot live apart.” He gave a sudden, half-cry. “I cannot weigh and measure probabilities. You torture me with your coldness, Catharine. Let me go. Somewhere there must be a place for me—surely, somewhere. It’s not in this world. Of all things God made, I am the most useless and helpless.” He went out as he said this. I sat quiet until it grew late, and the house was silent for the night. I went out then to look for him. Mr. Lowther met me in the lower hall. “Your husband has gone with Dr. C—— and the fishermen,” he said. John has several times gone out with the mackerel fishers, and not returned for two or three days. I was turning to go back upstairs, when Mr. Lowther called to me. “John is not well?” “No.” He paused, as if he would have said more; and then, restraining himself, bade me good-night, and entered his own room. I shall not see him for days, it may be. If I had not been “bitter,” as he said—but my brain was reeling. He “never knew I loved him!” Ten years—and all in vain!

September 8th.—Two days, and they have not yet returned. I am not uneasy; they have been gone coasting along shore as before.

Evening.—Dr. C—— has returned without John. Says that he parted from him on the beach before starting; that he seemed moody and ill; and just on the moment of embarking, withdrew his foot from the plank, and turned away down the south shore.

A Year Later.—I am calm now, and can write down the brief record of those terrible days. Whatever pain it causes me, I will write it. It may be good for me to look back to, should the sharpness of their memory ever die away. Yet it is all indistinct. I remember he was gone—the wild, frenzied search along the shore—the others following, remonstrating. It was in vain. No trace or clue to him could be found. I remember coming back; it was a day of shelving, bitter rain, and cold wind. Mr. Lowther met me. “You are imprudent,” he said; then stood, with his hat off, silent a moment. “It has come as I feared,” he said, taking my hand gently. “John has been ill for some time—more ailing than even you could perceive, or any one, but his physician. His nervous system was worn out utterly. Coming here but stimulated, did not rest it, as I hoped. He was not a sane man; remember that, Mrs. Curtis, always as your comfort for aught that passion—that he was not a sane man.” “What do you mean?” Was, Mr. Lowther——” He held my hand, stroking it as my father would do, and uttering some words of genuine sympathy; but they fell meaningless on my ear. He led me gently into the hall—I remember how they stood in groups watching me with paled faces and awe-struck eyes—and then into the long, bare dining-room, and there, stretched upon the table, I saw—what? God of mercy! spare me, if, in that moment, I cursed the day I was born—the life that had brought agony like this. They left me alone with my dead for long hours. At last, Mr. Lowther and his wife came for me. I noticed then that the clothes were dry. “Not drowned?” I asked. He shook his head, took up the ice-cold hand, ran his fingers along the arm, then looked at me, as if he had spoken, in the manner he has so often used of late, but again was silent. It did not need. I knew the word he would have said—suicide!

They let me have him to myself that night, after many doubtful looks and whispered councils. I went over it all then, from the beginning. There was no word or deed of his which did not surge up in my memory now. The lips and hands were mine to kiss, to hold—dead though they were. With morning they came to take me away. At the door, as they carried me out, they met her, laden with baskets of white flowers. After that, I remember no more for many days.

When I recovered—for my illness lasted long—I asked no questions. Long ere this his pure flesh had been laid in the earth to moulder—his memory was mine. They nursed me tenderly—the Lowthers; the other guests were gone. One bright day, when I could set up in an easy-chair, Mr. Lowther came in, and, after the usual routine of feeling my pulse, etc., sat down, and, looking me steadily in the face as he spoke, said, “You are strong enough to bear a shock, my dear madam?” I bowed my head, indifferently. If he had shown me my children dead before me, I do not think it would have brought a tear. A curious expression flickered about the corners of his mouth “A pleasant surprise, remember.” “You have brought me my boys?” “Yes. But before you see them, I wished to speak to you, on a subject that has perplexed me much. Very briefly—I mean the cause of John’s death. You can bear it?” A cold shiver ran through my veins. I tried to speak, but found I could not, sat quiet, with my hands over my eyes. “I will not pain you long,” he resumed, in a subdued voice. “It is necessary, or I would not be so apparently cruel. I know what John and you were to each other; few unions are so perfect. I know,” hesitatingly, “that at the last there was a change.” I made no reply. I sat dumb, nerveless; but every word he said struck home to the soul. “You were not aware, Mrs. Curtis, of the actual physical change wrought on John by his morbid, and, pardon me, stinted life. When I saw him last spring, looking at him as a physician, I perceived that the long nervous tension had produced insipient degrees of one of the most terrible of all maladies—I mean catalepsy.[13] I have no hesitation in saying that, if his life of privation had continued, and the painful cares from which he suffered, (the greatest of which was his grief at seeing the hardship of your life,) that death or mental derangement must have been the result. You know his sensitive, nervous organization. It was in view of all this that I almost forced you here this summer, in hopes the change might come in time to be beneficial, and also to have him under my own eyes. After his arrival, however, I found that the disease was deeper-seated than I had thought. Evidences of great cerebral excitement developed themselves daily—you know in what manner.” He waited for a reply—but I made none. I saw how cruelly blind and unjust I had been. “And you know the end.” “You wish me to understand,” I forced myself to say, at last, “that John’s death was not voluntary? that it was caused by catalepsy?” “I wish you to understand,” leaning forward and speaking gently, but with a strange meaning, “that while here this summer, he had two attacks of catalepsy. The first was concealed from you; the second occurred on the day you departed from him. The second was the cause of his apparent death.” So quietly the words were spoken, that it was some time before I observed them; then a painful, dazed doubt struck through my brain. I cried out, sharply, for I was weak, “What do you mean? What is this? For God’s sake, do not torture me thus! John is dead.” “John was dead.” He held my wrists tightly. After that I remember only a wild chaos, in which my brain reeled—outcries—attempts at explanation—to calm me—Mrs. Lowther sobbing beside me—and, at last, my husband—my cheeks in both his hands, and his former loving face smiling into mine, as I knew it in our first married years.

Days after we were sitting, all together, in the library, when the guests, who were gone, were spoken of, “Miss McDonald is in New York, giving private readings of Shakespeare, for the benefit of the Sanitary Commissions,”[14] said Mrs. Lowther, reading from a letter she had just opened. My husband glanced at my face, which grew red and pale, and smiled, “Poor, foolish Kitty!” he whispered. Afterward, when we were alone, he said, “I was conscious that night, when you thought me dead, Kate. I knew my wife then, for the first time, I think, and how she loved me. I heard Miss McDonald, too, strewing me with white roses, and posing and gesticulating over me. A living man, looking forward to being buried alive in a few hours, is apt not to bear with patience sham woe over him.

“But it did not need that, Kitty,” he said, taking me in his arms. “I was not sane when I left  you. It did not need that she should disgust me to bring me back to you, when I was clothed, and in my right mind.”

We never returned to the parsonage, however, except to remove the children and our furniture. Through Mr. Lowther’s influence, John obtained a position as editor of a leading review, which gave him a free scope for his mind, a great and appreciative audience, and an income large enough to ease us both and make us feel a sure footing in the world.

John has regained strength, and color, and a certain manly self-reliance, which had nearly slipped away from him. For me, I teach the boys, preparing them for college. I do not forget (bear in mind, all wives, for whose eyes alone this story has been written) that careless dress, and disregard of appearances, on the woman’s side, invariably produces disgust on the man’s. I do not forget the weightier matters of the law, justice, and mercy, and truth; but I never fail to have my hair curled, and fresh lace at my throat, before John comes home before dinner at five.


[1] From Irish legends, a spirit whose wails foreshadow death in a house.

[2] An elf who haunted houses and secretly did all of the housework.

[3] German philosopher and poet Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803).

[4] Children.

[5] Beautiful minds.

[6] Franz Schubert (1797-1828), Austrian composer; “Adelaide” is a song by Beethoven written as a solo.

[7] A 1788 play by German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832).

[8] Friedrich Schiller (1759-1806), German poet, philosopher, and physician.

[9] A ballad by Gottfried August Bürger (1747-1794). “Lenore” was one of his most popular and acclaimed ballads in which the title character’s dead lover takes her on a eerie night ride.

[10] “Oh, mother! mother! gone is gone / Lost is lost!”

[11] Frances “Fanny” Kemble (1809-1893), British actress and memoirist.

[12] Good night.

[13] A medical condition in which an individual’s loss of sensation and consciousness can appear to be death. See also Edgar Allan Poe’s “Premature Burial” (1844).

[14] The United States Sanitary Commission began during the Civil War to offer aid to ill and wounded soldiers.


S. M. Harris



S. M. Harris, “"The Clergyman's Wife" February 1865Peterson's Magazine,” Rebecca Harding Davis: Complete Works, accessed July 28, 2021, http://rebeccahardingdaviscompleteworks.com/items/show/97.

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