BY MARION HARLAND.
On a glorious July day in 1878, a company of tourists turned aside from the public road that leaves the parish church of Arreton on the left to visit a grave, on which the English sod has thickened during eighty years.
"Pardon!" said a Frenchman, who having seen others remove their hats, held his in his hand; " but have the goodness to tell me what it is we have come here to see ! "
The reply was reverently given : " The grave of a very good woman."
Legh Richmond tells us little more than this of Elizabeth Walbridge, the dairyman's daughter, whose simple headstone pilgrims regard as devout men once looked upon a shrine.
In the mountain cemetery of Dorset, Vermont, is a tomb lettered with the name of another Elizabeth, beside which the visitor to this picturesque region stands with bowed bead and heart too full for commonplace speech.
"The grave of a very good woman!" And a great--if to sway the hearts, to direct the thoughts, and shape the eternal destinies of tens of thousands go to make up human greatness ; if the act of gathering the riches of a life crowned with love and honor, and offering them in singleness of heart upon one altar be sublime.
Elizabeth Prentiss was the fifth child of Dr. Edward Payson, and was born in Portland, Maine. When the baby- daughter, longed-for by the tender mother, was two days old, he gives in a letter to his parents what sounds to us now like the key-note of the weirdly-sweet refrain running through the life of the woman who, with her father's genius, inherited a nervous organization so fine and so susceptible that the purest joy was never divorced from its complement of exquisite pain :
" Still God is kind to us. Louisa and the babe continue as well as we could desire. I can still scarcely help thinking that God is preparing me for some severe trial, but if He will grant me His presence as he does now, no trial can seem severe."
The man who trembled to look upon a draught of earthly delight, in the presentiment that dregs of peculiar bitterness must lurk in the bottom of the cup, dated a letter --written on his deathbed, " The Land of Beulah," and spoke of the dark river as " an insignificant rill." At the early age of forty-five he laid down the body racked and rent by years of inconceivable tortures, often mistaken by him for the buffetings of Satan.
We are pained, but in nowise surprised, when Elizabeth, at twenty-two, says quietly, "I never knew what it was to feel well." In her " Life and Letters "* than which no nobler memorial was ever raised by conjugal love, we read that "severe pains in the side, fainting turns, sick headaches, and other ailments troubled her from infancy. Her whole being was so impressionable that things pleasant and things painful stamped themselves upon it as with the point of a diamond. Whatever she did, whatever she felt, she felt and did as for her life."
The father, whom she passionately loved, cherishing all her life a vivid recollection of everything pertaining to his last months on earth, died when Elizabeth was nine years old, and the close wrestle with circumstances, so familiar to the readers of biographies of pastor and missionary, began for Dr. Payson's widow and children. Louisa, the eldest daughter, at eighteen, opened a girls' school in New York, the family removing to that city. During the one year they spent there Elizabeth, a slender, dark-eyed child of twelve, thoughtful and intelligent beyond her years, joined the Presbyterian church.
The school established by Louisa in 1832 in Portland was very successful. Mrs. Payson's conduct of the boarding- department and her management of her fast-growing boys and girls were alike loving and judicious. To an active mind and much strength of character she joined a warm heart and practical wisdom that enabled her to supplement Louisa's patient toil by skilful economies. The school was the main, if not the sole support of the household. She had been delicately nurtured as the petted daughter of a wealthy merchant, but the spirit that had not broken when adversity followed bereavement did not bend under the sustained pressure of homelier trials, the accommodation of enlarging wants to a narrow and non-expansive income. That her daughters became admirable housewives was almost an inevitable consequence of such tutelage. " Lizzy " was her sister's most promising pupil. Louisa Payson was a woman of extraordinary intellectual gifts and acquirements, -- proficient in modern languages, an earnest student of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, of metaphysics and theology, and a writer so graceful and pertinent that she at length exchanged teaching for remunerative authorship. She married Professor Hopkins of Williamstown, and but for the confirmed invalidism into which she soon afterward fell would have attained to a high place among American literati.
At the age of sixteen Elizabeth was the grateful occupant of a " snuggery " of her own, a certain " Blue Room," assigned her by the mother who best understood her love of quiet hours for meditation and writing. Her father's desk was hers, and on it she penned, at the suggestion of Mr. Nathaniel Willis, short stories and verses for the " Youth's Companion." Most of these were collected twenty years later, into a little volume entitled, " Only a Dandelion." Here is a hint of how life went on with her at nineteen : --
" I have been busy all day and am so tired I can scarcely hold a pen. Amidst the beating of eggs, the pounding of spices, the furious rolling of pastry of all degrees of shortness, the filling of pies with pumpkins, mince-meat, apples, and the like, the stoning of raisins and washing of currants, the beating and baking of cake, and all the other ings, -- thoughts of your ladyship have somehow squeezed themselves in. We have really bidden adieu to 'Pumpkin Place,' and established ourselves in a house formerly occupied by old Parson Smith. . . .
" In the midst of our ' moving,' after I had packed and stowed and lifted, and been elbowed by all the sharp corners in the house, and had my hands all torn and scratched, I spied the new 'Knickerbocker' 'mid a heap of rubbish, and was tempted to peep into it. Lo, and behold, the first thing that met my eye was the 'Lament of the Last Peach.' I didn't care to read more, and forthwith returned to fitting of carpets and arranging tables and chairs and bureaux -- but all the while meditating how I should be revenged upon you."
The verses in question had been given to her friend, and sent without the author's knowledge to the " Knickerbocker." With all her fondness for and facility in the use of her pen the exercise was at this date mere pastime. She threw off sketch and poem as carelessly as she wrote the letters that add vivacity and glow to her biography. Naturally shy with strangers, and reserved with mere acquaintances, she wrote better than she talked, except to intimate friends. In her home-circle her brilliant sallies and graver disquisitions met with loving appreciation, but even there Louisa's remarkable endowments would seem to have cast the talents of the younger sister into the shade. This is the only explanation of the fact that Louisa's successes in literature, and the encouragement given by the founder of " Youth's Companion " and his son, N. P. Willis, to Elizabeth's essays in the same direction, did not suggest to her or her relatives the expediency of adopting authorship as her profession and serious pursuit. The educated New England woman of her day, if obliged to maintain herself, knew of but one way in which this could be done in comfortable respectability. Miss Payson resolutely put aside manuscripts and curbed the rebellious flutterings of imagination, forbidding it to soar or sing, and " prepared herself" to become a teacher.
Before she received the call that was to withdraw her from the studious seclusion of the Blue Room and the shelter of the mother's wing, there came what she ever afterwards termed the " turning-point " in her career. In her twenty-first year occurred an epoch in the spiritual history of this girl, who " did everything as for her life," at the reading of which shallow souls are perplexed and incredulous, -- upon which those who can enter in some degree into the comprehension of the depths out of which her cry arose to a deaf God, dwell in wonder and compassion that almost break the heart they move. Her father, had he been alive and with her, would have sympathized, pang for pang, in her anguish under the crushing conviction that she had rejected the Saviour and grieved away the wooing Spirit, and incurred the just wrath of the Father, in the despair with which she contrasted her own guilt and impotency with the holiness arid power of her estranged God. Her husband's sound, sweet nature and clear insight thus explain the glooms of this mediaeval period: --
It is impossible to read the chapter in which this awful mysterious "passion" is recorded without recalling the pregnant words, " The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge."
Yet we cannot overlook the effect of this winter of the soul in strengthening and maturing the faith that lived through it the perfected fruitage of which was for the refreshment and healing of many souls.
" Do not hesitate," she writes to a favorite cousin, "to direct me over and over again to go with difficulties and temptations and sin to the Saviour. I love to be led there and left there. Sometimes when the ' exceeding sinfulness of sin ' becomes painfully apparent, there is nothing for the soul to do but to lie in the dust before God without a word of excuse ; and that feeling of abasement in His sight is worth more than all the pleasures in the world."
The simple humility of this utterance, made soon after the passing of the great horror of darkness, is like the dewy breath of a May morning following a black frost.
In 1840 the summons to active duty sounded. She became a teacher in Mr. Persico's seminary for girls in Richmond, Virginia. With her acceptance of the principal's offer began for her that stern discipline of character and disposition which is wrought by external influences. With less time for dreamy introspection, and subject to the call of prosaic duties, she was daily stronger and happier, in spite of homesickness and much that was uncongenial in the appointments and companions of her new abode. To one correspondent she confesses that she suffers " excruciating pain " from what some doctors pronounced to be angina pectoris; to another, that the warm weather made her "feel as if she were in an oven with hot melted lead poured over her brain." In close and almost inevitable connection comes the mention of her " encouragement in reading my father's memoir, in reflecting that he passed through greater spiritual conflicts than will probably ever be mine."
Nevertheless, her letters, and the journal she was prevented in later years from destroying by her husband's remonstrances, show the continued triumph of the blithe, brave, growing inner woman over disease, weariness, and loneliness.
" There is sunshine enough in my heart to make any old hole bright," she scribbles in " a dowdy chamber, which is in one view a perfect den. I am as merry as a grig from morning till night. The little witches down-stairs love me dearly, everybody is kind, and--and--and--when everybody is locked out, and I am locked into this same room, this low attic, there's not a king on earth so rich, so happy as I."
We smile, well pleased, over this sentence: "We rushed into a discussion about proprieties, and I maintained that a mind was not in a state of religious health if it could not safely indulge in thoughts as funny as funny could be."
Her year of teaching was so marked in its success that Mr. Persico sent an urgent recall to her in November, 1842. There were changes in the administration of the affairs of the seminary that made the second session far less pleasant than the first. The principal lost heart after his wife's death, could not pay his teachers, and was hopelessly indebted to others. Miss Payson stood gallantly at her post through pecuniary loss and mental discouragement until the dreary summer term closed in the " dog-days " which well nigh exhausted her feeble reserves of physical vigor.
There was more heroism in this than those about her dreamed of,--more than her best friends knew at the time. With infinite tact and delicacy her biographer has withheld from us very many passages of letters and journal that the kindliest stranger-eyes should not read, yet allows us to discern in the tone of these records tokens of a coming change. From between the leaves of her epistles to her dearest girlfriend,--the "Anna Prentiss" whose close intimacy with herself only ceased with the beautiful life of the former, -- and from the coyly-opened "Diary," steals subtle fragrance that revives our own memories of life's blossom-season. Fortitude in the endurance of crosses becomes buoyancy, the hope of better days is glad certainty. We are sure what all this portends before we read such hurried, palpitating jottings-down as these:- -
" AUGUST 23. -- Callers all day, the second of whom was Mr. P.
" SEPTEMBER 9.--Cold, blowy, and disagreeable. Went to see Carrie H. Came home and found Mr. P. here. He stayed to tea."
Then falls an eloquent silence upon the girlish prattle. We know, but not from herself, that September II was hence- forward her " white day." The one other entry in this year's diary is the solemnly significant quotation from " Corinne " :--
"Celui qu'on aime, est ie vengeur des fautes qu'on a commis sur cette terre ; la Divinite lui prete son pouvoir."
The world is better, hearts are fresher and stronger for the modest relation, which is hardly more than a beautiful suggestion--of such a love-story as began on that "white day." In brief, manly phrase, the biographer tells us : --
On April 16, 1845, Elizabeth Payson married Rev. George L. Prentiss, then the pastor of a church in New Bedford, Mass.
There is no need that this page should bear witness to the scholarship, eloquence, and piety of a divine so distinguished and beloved. But as a woman I linger pridefully upon the truth that to other qualities which challenge respect he united that rare nobility of nature that enabled him to value aright the talents of the woman he had wedded; to foster these wisely and generously, and to rejoice sincerely in her renown. The growth of their dual being into oneness and beauty was never warped or checked by jealousy of a strain we would brand as " unmanly," could we do away with the truth that that man is exceptionally magnanimous, and his self-poise phenomenally steady, who takes pleasure in bearing his wife extolled for the exercise of such powers as he believes himself to possess.
The chrism of wedded love consecrated Mrs. Prentiss to a new mission. Had she never given a printed line to the world, her labors as a pastor's wife would have entitled her to honorable mention among the representative women of our country and time. Her husband's parish was filled with " our people." Her great, warm heart, ready sympathies, her love for little children, and the nameless magnetism by which they were drawn into her arms ; her efficiency as nurse and housewife, -- above and animating all, the fervent piety that moved her to love for the household of faith and tender solicitude for the irreligious--these, with a genuine womanliness and tact that never failed her, fitted and endowed her royally for the station in which her marriage set her. With gain of years and confidence in her own talents she became a leader in church enterprises. Her Bible readings before large audiences of her own sex won plaudits from those best qualified to judge of such exercises.
"I was impressed," says an eminent clergyman, "with her ability to combine rarest beauty and highest spirituality of thought with the uttermost simplicity of language and the plainest illustrations. Her conversation was like the mystic ladder which was ' set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to Heaven.' "
Passing reluctantly over the idyllic pictures of her early home in New Bedford, we find the busy, popular wife of the pastor of the Mercer Street Presbyterian Church in New York writing to a friend on the last day of the year 1851 : " How little we know what the New Year will bring forth ! "
It brought her a weight of woe that was a strain even upon the Everlasting Arms. She had kept a mother's journal of the babyhood of her first boy, the " Robbie" of " Little Susy's Six Birthdays," the "Ernest" of "Stepping Heavenward." The last entry in this bears date of January 16, 1852.
Twenty years later she wrote: " Such a child could not go hence without rending and tearing its way out of the heart that loved it."
A second cloud swept dark and fast upon the first. " Our darling Eddy died on the 16th of January. The baby he had so often spoken of was born the 17th of April. I was too feeble to have any care of her. I had her in my arms but twice; once, the day before she died, and once while she was dying. I never saw her little feet."
A pencilled scrap of paper found among her manuscripts is entitled,--
"MY NURSERY, 1852.
" I thought that prattling boys and girls
Would fill this empty room ;
That my rich heart would gather flowers
From childhood's opening bloom.
One child and two green graves are mine,
This is God's gift to me;
A bleeding, fainting, broken heart -
This is my gift to Thee."
In 1853 she wrote "Little Susy's Six Birthdays," reading each chapter as she went on to her husband, brother, and daughter. She had published nothing in thirteen years, a period of continual accumulation. Sorrow had deepened the channels of thought; study, shrewd observation of the wider world to which she had been transferred, and association with scholars, had filled the sluice-ways ; love and loving made her life round and rich.
Those of us in whose homes this inimitable nursery-classic is an ever fresh delight do not wonder at the glad acclaim with which it was at once received. We take Susy into our embrace from the moment she " doubles up her lips and gives her mamma the funniest little bit of a kiss you can imagine," on the day she is one year old. She is a real flesh-and-blood baby -- not a " goody-goody " image of barley-sugar, or an impossible china manikin, -- a thing to be cuddled, and hugged, and petted, and as she grows in age and intelligence, is bewitching in her naughtiness, mishaps, and pranks. We grieve over the nine little white blisters on the burnt fingers, and are ready to smother her with kisses when she plays doctor to Robbie and her doll, equipped in cap and spectacles and armed with papa's gold-headed cane.
In 1854 "The Flower of the Family" was published. It had a cordial reception in America, was issued in France as " La Fleur de Famille," and in Germany as "Die Perk der Familie."
From this time her pen was seldom idle. The prosperity of her books in the thing whereto she sent them moved to , gratitude, hardly to surprise, the devout mind that dictated this confession to the friend of her girlhood : --
"I long to have it do good. I never had such desires about anything in my life, and I never sat down to write without first praying that I might not be suffered to write anything that would do harm, and that, on the contrary, I might be taught to say what would do good. And it has been a great comfort to me that every word of praise I ever have received from others concerning it has been -- ' It will do good.' This I have had from so many sources that, amid much trial and sickness ever since its publication, I have had rays of sunshine creeping in, now and then, to cheer and sustain me."
Among the trials were the long illness of her baby -- her fourth child--the deaths of valued friends, and -- harder to bear than her own intense physical sufferings -- growing solicitude on account of her husband's failing health.
In 1856 mothers and children, with almost equal degrees of enthusiasm, read " Little Susy's Six Teachers," awarding it place in their affections only second to that given to the " Six Birthdays."
In 1858 Dr. Prentiss was compelled by enfeebled health to resign the charge of his church, and he decided to take his whole family to Switzerland. They remained abroad two years. Not the least interesting division of the " Life and Letters " is Mrs. Prentiss' lively and earnest word-painting of domestic scenes and travelling experiences.
On their return Dr. Prentiss became the head and heart of a new church enterprise, having for its object the formation of an up-town parish, under the style of "The Church of the Covenant." Of the period at which this was begun he says: --
" Domestic and personal interests were entirely overshadowed by the one supreme interest of the hour--that of the imperilled national life. It was for Mrs. Prentiss a period of almost continuous ill-health. The sleeplessness from which she had already suffered so much assumed more and more a chronic character, and aggravated by other ailments, and by the frequent illness of her younger children, so undermined her strength that life became at times a heavy burden. She felt often that her days of usefulness were past."
How far she was mistaken in this impression the next ten years revealed. In 1862 Mrs. Hopkins, the sister from whom Elizabeth Prentiss had taken her intellectual coloring, whose example of Christian heroism had taught her latterly other and more precious lessons--the tale of whose years of pain is told in "wondrous pitiful "snatches, usually but a few lines in length, but all the invalid could pen--entered into rest. The last entry in her diary shows how perfectly attuned were the souls of the twain : --
" I need not be afraid to ask to be, first, holy and without blame before Him in love; second, filled with all the fulness of God; third"--
She finished the petition in the face-to-face audience of the King.
From the low-lying shadow of bodily anguish Mrs. Prentiss never fully emerged until she dropped the load of mortality. In 1864 there is pathetic but patient allusion to the "horrid calamity,"--hereditary insomnia,--that filled nights with dread and days with languor. "Still," she writes, "we are a happy family in spite of our ailments. It seems to me that the sound of my six little feet is the very pleasantest sound in the world. Often when I lie in bed racked with pain, and exhausted from want of food,--for my digestive organs seem paralyzed when I have neuralgia,--hearing these little darlings about the house compensates for everything, and I am inexpressibly happy in the mere sense of possession."
Such passages excite in us a wonder of admiration at the industry, the unflinching courage, and the love of the work she felt was laid to her hand, that added in seven years to the list of her published productions, "Little Susy's Little Servants," "Tales of Early Childhood" (a translation from the German), and "The Little Preacher," the scene of which was laid in the Black Forest. Never, in all this season of toil and pain, were domestic and church duties neglected. From her well-ordered kitchen came palatable food for her own family and delicacies for the sick. Wherever sorrow and disease went she followed, as obeying a direct call from Him who pleased not Himself. She was never too busy to console the bereaved with spoken or written words; to help her children with their lessons ; to study treatises on science, metaphysics, and theology, and to have a spare hour for lighter current literature. Maternity was with her more than instinct; it was a passion, triumphing over debility, pain, and the engrossments of literary and pastoral life. "Mamma" was always, when at home, within call, and seldom so ill that she could not be referee, counsellor, and playfellow. If the suspicion of mysticism obtrudes itself upon him who reads of religious fervors too exalted for the appreciation of the average Christian, he cannot deny that the product of conflict and ecstasy was intensely practical piety. Her achievements for the good of her kind would have been remarkable for a robust woman, to whom headache and sleeplessness were strangers. In her they were simply inexplicable, unless we refer them, as she did, to ever-renewed supplies of strength from an inexhaustible Source.
In 1867 she reorganized her household in the new parsonage in Thirty-fifth street, selected the sight of and planned the cottage home in Dorset, wrote "Little Lou's Sayings," and began " Stepping Heavenward," penning whole chapters of it with her motherless little nephew on her lap. Soon after the completion of this book, and the first summer passed in the beloved Dorset retreat, she was called to receive the last sigh of her sister-in-law, Mrs. Steams, the "Anna" who had been to her, for thirty years, tenfold dearer than the ties of blood and name, or the accident of companionship could, in and of themselves, have made her. There is nothing in English literature more touching and graphic than the letter describing this death-scene. She draws it with few and masterly lines, that give it into the keeping of our memories as if we had ourselves watched the translation and marvelled at the transfiguration that preceded the body's dissolution.
"After her eyes were fixed, hearing Mr. S--" (her husband) "groan, she stopped dying, turned, and gave a parting look," is a thrilling passage, set down with the unconsciousness of childhood, -- and true genius.
In all reverence of sympathy we are reminded, in perusing this and many other transcripts of her daily living and thinking, how " Himself took our infirmities, and bore our diseases." The earnestness with which she threw herself into the joys and griefs of those she loved was a terrible strain upon nervous forces that were tenuous and tangled when she inherited them.
Her biographer says of her " relentless activity " of hand, heart, and brain,--"Incessant work seemed to be in her case a sort of substitute for natural rest, and a solace for the want of it."
"I believe," she writes to a friend, "that God arranges our various burdens and fits them to our backs, and that He sets off a loss against a gain. I have to make it my steady object throughout each day so to spend time and strength as to obtain sleep enough to carry me through the next."
Yet this very friend said of Mrs. Prentiss that she " seemed to be always in a flood of joy." When mind and body were faint to exhaustion the unconquerable spirit made sport of her own evil plight. Letters and sketches sparkle with clear fun.
Chiding a correspondent who thought General Assembly a bagatelle to a housekeeper, she goes on in this fashion : --
"Katy " is the heroine of " Stepping Heavenward." It had appeared as a serial in "The Advance," and was issued in book-form in 1869. " Every word of that book was a prayer, and seemed to come of itself," she tells us.
It was an angel of mercy to thousands of homes; balm and benediction to hundreds of thousands of women. The story of Katy's loves and mistakes, her aspirations and her despairs, her frolics and her bereavements ; of her steady progress in the way that grew less steep as she learned to walk, and not run, toward the brightening and widening horizon,-- was read with tears and laughter, and sobbed thanksgivings for the strength infused into weary hearts by the practical spirituality of its teachings. Nearly seventy thousand copies were sold in America prior to the author's death. It was reprinted by five London booksellers and in a Tauchnitz edition at Leipsic ; a German translation -- " Himmdan " -- had an immense sale and was extolled by German critics ; and the French " Marchant vers le ciel " was scarcely less popular.
She was not elated by the renown that astonished her, but across the page lettered "1870," the loving biographer writes " Satisfied." He calls it the " bright consummate flower of her life." In the rich waves of incense that arose from the heart sun-warmed to its depths, the glad humility of her piety is wondrous in sweetness.
Just after the celebration of her " silver wedding," she writes: --
" 'I have lived, I have loved ' (quoting Thekla's 'Ich habe gelebt und geliebet' ). " People often say they have so much to live for. I can't say so, though I am not only willing but glad to live while my husband and children need me--and yet--and yet--to have this problem solved and to be forever with the Lord ! "
While no one who knew her would dream that she had described her own life in "Katy's," still less of identifying the clumsy, tactless " Ernest" with the courteous, scholarly gentleman whose watchfulness of devotion to his fragile wife was proverbial,--there were not wanting critics and commentators whose surmises elicited bursts of whimsical vexation : --
From the Dorset paradise, where she was most happily and joyfully herself, she sends a lively bit of pastoral, an al fresco charcoal sketch to her eldest daughter who was travelling in Europe:--
An able critic, in a journal ** that cannot be accused of a bias toward orthodox denominationalism, says of the "Life and Letters": "It is a genuine memoir, singularly transparent in its naturalness and simplicity, and leading us among the green pastures of a life from whose hidden springs came such spontaneous outflows as her best work, ' Stepping Heavenward.' "
It deserves all this, and how much more the space allotted to this paper will not allow me to attempt to tell. Nor can we dwell upon the peculiar phase of religious thought of which " Urbane and his Friends " is the expression.
Of her poetical writings the exquisite hymn, "More Love to Thee, O Christ," too well known to be repeated here, is also the most nearly faultless in form and melodious utterance, and would have given her a place in the heart of. Christendom had she written nothing else.
On the threshold of 1878 we linger to read that "her weekly Bible-reading, painting in oils and in water-colors, needlework and other household duties left her no idle moments."
" My fire is so full of irons," she complains in her sprightly vein, "that I do not know which one to take out."
Since " Stepping Heavenward " she had published: " Nidworth and his Three Magic Wands," "The Percys," "The Story Lizzie Told," " Six Little Princesses," " Aunt Jane's Hero," "Urbane and his Friends," "Griselda" (translated from the German), "The Home of Greylock," and "Pemuquid, a Story of Old Times in New England."
"I have just finished a short story called 'Gentleman Jim,"' she tells a correspondent under date of January 20, 1878. Then after mentioning a letter-- "the most discriminating I ever received -- about Greylock " -- she gives us the key to the singular equanimity with which she sustained the praises of her writings. " After the first rush of pleasure, the Evil One troubled me off and on for two or three hours, but at last I reminded him that I long ago chose to cast in my lot with the people of God, and so be off the line of human notice or applause."
In her answer to the appreciative reader (Mr. J. Cleaveland Cady, the popular architect) she strikes the same chord more strongly. "I am not sorry that I chose the path in life I did choose. A woman should not live for, or even desire fame. . . . If I had not steadily suppressed all such ambition I might have become a sour, disappointed woman, seeing my best work unrecognized. . . . God has only taken me at my word. I have asked Him a thousand times to make me smaller and smaller, and crowd the self out of me by taking up all the room Himself."
This sublimity of self-abnegation endues with powerful meaning what is sometimes considered a mystic phrase--"a life hid with Christ in God." Mrs. Prentiss knew, as did her husband - he feeling it far more than did she -- that while the rapid sales and translations of her books and the multitude of private testimonials to the blessing they had brought to individual hearts were evidence that she had not spent her strength in vain, still the press in general was strangely reserved as to their literary merit.
" The organs of literary intelligence and criticism scarcely noticed them at all," Dr. Prentiss says frankly.
When the bright, far-seeing eyes were sealed in the dreamless sleep denied so long to restless brain and tense nerves, critics awoke to recognition and confession of the truth that the Christian woman whose highest ambition was " to do good," had possessed genius of no mean order; that she had wrought artistically as well as prayerfully; that human skill was blent with divine power in the utterances that made our hearts burn within us as she talked with us by the way. She sketched only what she saw, but the drawing is spirited, the management of light and shade masterly. In character portraits she catches a likeness at a glance, gives it with a few rapid strokes, as graceful as bold. In her gayest mood she never degrades her art to the trickery of caricature. She sang only what she felt, -- but the heart-throbs are set to music that moves us to tears and lifts the soul to holy thought and prayer.
The last stage of the journey that had bruised sorely her delicate feet, was short, sharp, and all brightness.
On August 5, returning, happy and unwearied, from a woodland ramble with her two daughters ("we three girls," she loved to style the trio), she worked on the lawn and among her flowers so long as to be overcome by the heat. While she seemed to rally from the prostration and nausea that kept her on bed and lounge for two days, there is no doubt that the fatal " stroke " fell on that August noon.
On the 8th she insisted that she was "well, only weak," and drove in the afternoon to keep an appointment--her weekly Bible-reading. She was unusually cheerful, even for her, all day, interested in flower-painting, in watering her plants, and other light duties. "Pray-one-little-prayer -for-me!" she said, emphatically and sweetly, lifting her forefinger archly, as her husband put her into the carriage.
One who was her life-long friend gives this description of her person: " In silvering her clustering locks, time only added to her aspect a graver charm. Her eyes were black, and, at times, wonderfully bright and full of spiritual power, but they were shaded by deep, smooth lids, which gave them, when at rest, a most dove-like serenity. Her other features were equally striking, the lips and chin exquisitely moulded and marked by great strength as well as beauty. Her face in repose wore the habitual expression of deep thought and a soft earnestness, like a thin veil of sadness."
Her aspect as she took her seat before the ladies assembled in the lecture-room, on this day, was ethereal in its beauty. Her face was pale, but clear and radiant as with the outshining of an inward glory ; her voice was tender and thrilling. Her theme was " Witnessing for Christ." Had she known that the reading would be her last, she would probably have selected the same. One part of the talk was imprinted forever by what ensued upon the memories of her auditors: --
She had not strength to answer a letter that came on this or the next day from a young English mother who had read " Stepping Heavenward " fifty times, but she drove out with her husband on the 10th, talked animatedly upon many topics, and strolled through the woods she loved so well, in company with her daughter, gathering wild-flowers, and, as much from the force of habit as the wish to transplant it to her lawn, kneeling to dig up a fine root with her scissors. Dr. Prentiss had gone up the glen with a guest, and espied his wife on his return, sitting near the brook, "resting," she acknowledged--"for she was very tired." As he led her back to the carriage, she exclaimed, in admiration of a cluster of clematis in full flower, and he cut it for her. It was the last loverly office of this nature he was ever to perform for her whose lightest wish had with him the weight of law. When they reached home she was "very ill." In four days she stepped quietly across the threshold of the " other and far better room."
"It is not pain! It is a distress--an agony!" was her calm answer to the physician who questioned her as to the paroxysms of pain. With it all, she uttered neither cry nor groan. In an interval of ease, she asked her husband, who was watching beside her,--"Darling, don't you think you could ask the Lord to let me go ? " While speaking of the probability of her death as "too good to be true," she gave directions that, should her decease be accomplished at this time, she should be buried at Dorset. The mysterious radiance that had illumined her face at her last public " witnessing for Christ " did not leave it when she lay, in the early morning of August 13, with heaveless breast and closed lids that had fallen together in the gentle sleep from which she passed into the abiding rest. On the wall above her, placed by herself where her waking glance would fall on them with each returning day, were two illuminated German mottoes--
"Stille, mein Wille!" (Be still, my Will !)
Oh, grand and loving heart! Oh, meek and steadfast will!
the body that was the fair tenement of a fairer soul rests in the sweet seclusion of Maplewood Cemetery, Dorset. A delicately-sculptured passion-flower is cast at the foot of a short flight of white marble steps leading up to a crowned cross. Besides her name and age, the monument bears these lines from one of her own poems : --
" No more tedious lessons,
No more sighing and tears,
But a bound into home immortal,
And blessed, blessed, years !! "
* " Life and Letters of Elizabeth Prentiss. " By George L. Prentiss. A. D. F. Randolph, New York.
** "Springfield Republican."
From the research collection of Elisabeth Whitcomb Swinchoski
Scanned by Deidre Johnson for her 19th-century girls series webpage. Please do not reproduce on other webpages without permission.