Chapter IV. My Shadow-Wife

My Shadow Wife! Is there then substance in shadow? Yea, there may be. A shadow—a spiritual presence—may go with us where mortal footsteps cannot go; walk by our side amid the roar of the city: talk with us amid the sharp clatter of voices; come to us through closed doors, as we sit alone over our evening fire; counsel, bless, inspire us; and though the figure cannot be clasped in mortal arms—though the face be veiled—yet this wife of the future may have a power to bless, to guide, to sustain and console. Such was the dream-wife of my youth.

Whence did she come? She rose like a white, pure mist from that little grave. She formed herself like a cloud-maiden from the rain and dew of those first tears.

When we look at the apparent recklessness with which great sorrows seem to be distributed among the children of the earth, there is no way to keep our faith in a Fatherly love, except to recognize how invariably the sorrows that spring from love are a means of enlarging and dignifying a human being. Nothing great or good comes without birth-pangs, and in just the proportion that natures grow more noble, their capacities of suffering increase.

The bitter, silent, irrepressible anguish of that childish bereavement was to me the awakening of a spiritual nature. The little creature who, had she lived, might have grown up perhaps into a common-place woman, became a fixed star in the heaven-land of the ideal, always drawing me to look upward. My memories of her were a spring of refined and tender feeling, through all my early life. I could not then write; but I remember that the overflow of my heart towards her memory required expression, and I taught myself a strange kind of manuscript, by copying the letters of the alphabet. I bought six cents' worth of paper and a tallow candle at the store, which I used to light surreptitiously when I had been put to bed nights, and, sitting up in my little night-gown, I busied myself with writing my remembrances of her. I could not, for the world, have asked my mother to let me have a candle in my bed-room after eight o'clock. I would have died sooner than to explain why I wanted it. My purchase of paper and candle was my first act of independent manliness. The money, I reflected, was mine, because I earned it myself, and the paper was mine, and the candle was mine, so that I was not using my father's property in an unwarrantable manner, and thus I gave myself up to my inspirations. I wrote my remembrances of her, as she stood among the daisies and the golden lilies. I wrote down her little words of wisdom and grave advice, in the queerest manuscript that ever puzzled a wise man of the East. If one imagines that all this was spelt phonetically, and not at all in the unspeakable and astonishing way in which the English language is conventionally spelt, one may truly imagine that it was something rather peculiar in the way of literature. But the heart-comfort, the utter abandonment of soul that went into it, is something that only those can imagine who have tried the like and found the relief of it. My little heart was like the Caspian sea, or some other sea which I read about, which had found a secret channel by which its waters could pass off under ground. When I had finished, every evening, I used to extinguish my candle, and put it and my manuscript inside of the straw bed on which I slept, which had a long pocket hole in the centre, secured by buttons, for the purpose of stirring the straw. Over this I slept in conscious security, every night; sometimes with blissful dreams of going to brighter meadows, when I saw my Daisy playing with whole troops of beautiful children, fair as water lilies on the shore of a blue lake. Thus, while I seemed to be like any other boy, thinking of nothing but my sled, and my bat and ball, and my mittens, I began to have a little withdrawing room of my own; another land in which I could walk and take a kind of delight that nothing visible gave me. But one day my oldest sister, in making the bed, with domestic thoroughness, disemboweled my whole store of manuscripts and the half consumed fragment of my candle.

There is no poetry in housewifery, and my sister at once took a housewifely view of the proceeding—

"Well, now! is there any end to the conjurations of boys?" she said. "He might have set the house on fire and burned us all alive, in our beds!"

Reader, this is quite possible, as I used to perform my literary labors sitting up in bed, with the candle standing on a narrow ledge on the side of the bedstead.

Forthwith the whole of my performance was lodged in my mother's hands—I was luckily at school.

"Now, girls," said my mother, "keep quiet about this; above all, don't say a word to the boy. I will speak to him."

Accordingly, that night after I had gone up to bed, my mother came into my room and, when she had seen me in bed, she sat down by me and told me the whole discovery. I hid my head under the bed clothes, and felt a sort of burning shame and mortification that was inexpressible; but she had a good store of that mother's wit and wisdom by which I was to be comforted. At last she succeeded in drawing both the bed clothes from my face and the veil from my heart, and I told her all my little story.

"Dear boy," she said, "you must learn to write, and you need not buy candles, you shall sit by me evenings and I will teach you; it was very nice of you to practice all alone; but it will be a great deal easier to let me teach you the writing letters."

Now I had begun the usual course of writing copies in school. In those days it was deemed necessary to commence by teaching what was called coarse hand; and I had filled many dreary pages with m's and n's of a gigantic size; but it never had yet occurred to me that the writing of these copies was to bear any sort of relation to the expression of thoughts and emotions within me that were clamoring for a vent, while my rude copies of printed letters did bear to my mind this adaptation. But now my mother made me sit by her evenings, with a slate and pencil, and, under her care, I made a cross-cut into the fields of practical handwriting, and was also saved the dangers of going off into a morbid habit of feeling, which might easily have arisen from my solitary reveries.

"Dear," she said to my father, "I told you this one was to be our brightest. He will make a writer yet," and she showed him my manuscript.

"You must look after him, Mother," said my father, as he always said, when there arose any exigency about the children, that required delicate handling.

My mother was one of that class of women whose power on earth seems to be only the greater for being a spiritual and invisible one. The control of such women over men is like that of the soul over the body. The body is visible, forceful, obtrusive, self-asserting. The soul invisible, sensitive, yet with a subtle and vital power which constantly gains control and holds every inch that it gains.

My father was naturally impetuous, though magnanimous, hasty tempered and imperious, though conscientious; my mother united the most exquisite sensibility with the deepest calm—calm resulting from habitual communion with the highest and purest source of all rest—the peace that passeth all understanding. Gradually, by this spiritual force, this quietude of soul, she became his leader and guide. He held her hand and looked up to her with a trustful implicitness that increased with every year.

"Where's your mother?" was always the fond inquiry when he entered the house, after having been off on one of his long preaching tours or clerical counsels. At all hours he would burst from his study with fragments of the sermon or letter he was writing, to read to her and receive her suggestions and criticisms. With her he discussed the plans of his discourses, and at her dictation changed, improved, altered and added; and under the brooding influence of her mind, new and finer traits of tenderness and spirituality pervaded his character and his teachings. In fact, my father once said to me, "She made me by her influence."

In these days, we sometimes hear women, who have reared large families on small means, spoken of as victims who had suffered unheard of oppressions. There is a growing materialism that refuses to believe that there can be happiness without the ease and facilities and luxuries of wealth.

But my father and mother, though living on a narrow income, were never really poor. The chief evil of poverty is the crushing of ideality out of life—the taking away its poetry and substituting hard prose;—and this with them was impossible. My father loved the work he did, as the artist loves his painting and the sculptor his chisel. A man needs less money when he is doing only what he loves to do—what, in fact, he must do,—pay or no pay. St. Paul said, "A necessity is laid upon me, yea, woe is me, if I preach not the gospel." Preaching the gospel was his irrepressible instinct, a necessity of his being. My mother, from her deep spiritual nature, was one soul with my father in his life-work. With the moral organization of a prophetess, she stood nearer to heaven than he, and looking in, told him what she saw, and he, holding her hand, felt the thrill of celestial electricity. With such women, life has no prose; their eyes see all things in the light of heaven, and flowers of paradise spring up in paths that to unanointed eyes, seem only paths of toil. I never felt, from anything I saw at home, from any word or action of my mother's, that we were poor, in the sense that poverty was an evil. I was reminded, to be sure, that we were poor in a sense that required constant carefulness, watchfulness over little things, energetic habits, and vigorous industry and self-helpfulness. But we were never poor in any sense that restricted hospitality or made it a burden. In those days, a minister's house was always the home for all the ministers and their families, whenever an exigency required of them to travel, and the spare room of our house never wanted guests of longer or shorter continuance. But the atmosphere of the house was such as always made guests welcome. Three or four times a year, the annual clerical gatherings of the church filled our house to overflowing and necessitated an abundant provision and great activity of preparation on the part of the women of our family. Yet I never heard an expression of impatience or a suggestion that made me suppose they felt themselves unduly burdened. My mother's cheerful face was a welcome and a benediction at all times, and guests found it good to be with her.

In the midst of our large family, of different ages, of vigorous growth, of great individuality and forcefulness of expression, my mother's was the administrative power. My father habitually referred everything to her, and leaned on her advice with a childlike dependence. She read the character of each, she mediated between opposing natures: she translated the dialect of different sorts of spirits, to each other. In a family of young children, there is a chance for every sort and variety of natures; and for natures whose modes of feeling are as foreign to each other, as those of the French and the English. It needs a common interpreter, who understands every dialect of the soul, thus to translate differences of individuality into a common language of love.

It has often seemed to me a fair question, on a review of the way my mother ruled in our family, whether the politics of the ideal state in a millennial community, should not be one equally pervaded by mother-influences.

The woman question of our day, as I understand it is this.—Shall MOTHERHOOD ever be felt in the public administration of the affairs of state? The state is nothing more nor less than a collection of families, and what would be good or bad for the individual family, would be good or bad for the state.

Such as our family would have been, ruled only by my father, without my mother, such the political state is, and has been; there have been in it "conscript fathers," but no "conscript mothers;" yet is not a mother's influence needed in acts that relate to the interests of collected families as much as in individual ones?

The state, at this very day, needs an influence like what I remember our mother's to have been, in our great, vigorous, growing family,—an influence quiet, calm, warming, purifying, uniting—it needs a womanly economy and thrift in husbanding and applying its material resources—it needs a divining power, by which different sections and different races can be interpreted to each other, and blended together in love—it needs an educating power, by which its immature children may be trained in virtue—it needs a loving and redeeming power, by which its erring and criminal children may be borne with, purified, and led back to virtue.

Yet, while I thus muse, I remember that such women as my mother are those to whom in an especial manner all noise and publicity and unrestful conflict are peculiarly distasteful. My mother had that delicacy of fibre that made any kind of public exercise of her powers an impossibility. It is not peculiarly a feminine characteristic, but belongs equally to many men of the finest natures. It is characteristic of the poets and philosophers of life. It is ascribed by the sacred writers to Jesus of Nazareth, in whom an aversion for publicity and a longing for stillness and retirement are specially indicated by many touching incidents. Jesus preferred to form around him a family of disciples and to act on the world through them, and it is remarkable that he left no writings directly addressed to the world by himself, but only by those whom he inspired.

Women of this brooding, quiet, deeply spiritual nature, while they cannot attend caucuses, or pull political wires or mingle in the strife of political life, are yet the most needed force to be for the good of the State. I am persuaded that it is not till this class of women feel as vital and personal responsibility for the good of the State, as they have hitherto felt for that of the family, that we shall gain the final elements of a perfect society. The laws of Rome, so said the graceful myth, were dictated to Numa Pompilius, by the nymph, Egeria. No mortal eye saw her. She was not in the forum, or the senate. She did not strive, nor cry, nor lift up her voice in the street, but she made the laws by which Rome ruled the world. Let us hope in a coming day that not Egeria, but Mary, the mother of Jesus, the great archetype of the Christian motherhood, shall be felt through all the laws and institutions of society. That Mary, who kept all things and pondered them in her heart—the silent poet, the prophetess, the one confidential friend of Jesus, sweet and retired as evening dew, yet strong to go forth with Christ against the cruel and vulgar mob, and to stand unfainting by the cross where He suffered!

From the time that my mother discovered my store of manuscripts, she came into new and more intimate relation with me. She took me from the district school, and kept me constantly with herself, teaching me in the intervals of domestic avocations.

I was what is called a mother's-boy, as she taught me to render her all sorts of household services, such as are usually performed by girls. My two older sisters, about this time, left us, to establish a seminary in the neighborhood, and the sister nearest my age went to study under their care, so that my mother said, playfully, she had no resource but to make a girl of me. This association with a womanly nature, and this discipline in womanly ways, I hold to have been an invaluable part of my early training. There is no earthly reason which requires a man, in order to be manly, to be unhandy and clumsy in regard to the minutiæ of domestic life; and there are quantities of occasions occurring in the life of every man, in which he will have occasion to be grateful to his mother, if, like mine, she trains him in woman's arts and the secrets of making domestic life agreeable.

But it is not merely in this respect that I felt the value of my early companionship with my mother. The power of such women over our sex is essentially the service rendered us in forming our ideal, and it was by my mother's influence that the ideal guardian, the "shadow wife," was formed, that guided me through my youth.

She wisely laid hold of the little idyl of my childhood, as something which gave her the key to my nature, and opened before me the hope in my manhood of such a friend as my little Daisy had been to my childhood. This wife of the future she often spoke of as a motive. I was to make myself worthy of her. For her sake I was to be strong, to be efficient, to be manly and true, and above all pure in thought and imagination and in word.

The cold mountain air and simple habits of New England country life are largely a preventive of open immorality; but there is another temptation which besets the boy, against which the womanly ideal is the best shield—the temptation to vulgarity and obscenity.

It was to my mother's care and teaching I owe it, that there always seemed to be a lady at my elbow, when stories were told such as a pure woman would blush to hear. It was owing to her, that a great deal of what I supposed to be classical literature both in Greek and Latin and in English was to me and is to me to this day simply repulsive and disgusting. I remember that one time when I was in my twelfth or thirteenth year, one of Satan's agents put into my hand one of those stories that are written with an express purpose of demoralizing the young—stories that are sent creeping like vipers and rattle-snakes stealthily and secretly among inexperienced and unguarded boys hiding in secret corners, gliding under their pillows and filling their veins with the fever poison of impurity. How many boys in the most critical period of life are forever ruined, in body and soul, by the silent secret gliding among them of these nests of impure serpents, unless they have a mother, wise, watchful, and never sleeping, with whom they are in habits of unreserved intimacy and communion!

I remember that when my mother took from me this book, it was with an expression of fear and horror which made a deep impression on me. Then she sat by me that night, when the shadows were deepening, and told me how the reading of such books, or the letting of such ideas into my mind would make me unworthy of the wife she hoped some day I would win. With a voice of solemn awe she spoke of the holy mystery of marriage as something so sacred, that all my life's happiness depended on keeping it pure, and surrounding it only with the holiest thoughts.

It was more the thrill of her sympathies, the noble poetry of her nature inspiring mine, than anything she said, that acted upon me and stimulated me to keep my mind and memory pure. In the closeness of my communion with her I seemed to see through her eyes and feel through her nerves, so that at last a passage in a book or a sentiment uttered always suggested the idea of what she would think of it.

In our days we have heard much said of the importance of training women to be wives. Is there not something to be said on the importance of training men to be husbands? Is the wide latitude of thought and reading and expression which has been accorded as a matter of course to the boy and the young man, the conventionally allowed familiarity with coarseness and indelicacy, a fair preparation to enable him to be the intimate companion of a pure woman? For how many ages has it been the doctrine that man and woman were to meet in marriage, the one crystal-pure, the other foul with the permitted garbage of all sorts of uncleansed literature and license?

If the man is to be the head of the woman, even as Christ is the head of the Church, should he not be her equal, at least, in purity?

My shadow-wife grew up by my side under my mother's creative touch. It was for her I studied, for her I should toil. The thought of providing for her took the sordid element out of economy and made it unselfish. She was to be to me adviser, friend, inspirer, charmer. She was to be my companion, not alone in one faculty, but through all the range of my being—there should be nothing wherein she and I could not by appreciative sympathy commune together. As I thought of her, she seemed higher than I. I must love up and not down, I said. She must stand on a height and I must climb to her—she must be a princess worthy of many toils and many labors. Gradually she became to me a controlling power.

The thought, of what she would think, closed for me many a book that I felt she and I could not read together—her fair image barred the way to many a door and avenue, which if a young man enters, he must leave his good angel behind,—for her sake I abjured intimacies that I felt she could not approve, and it was my ambition to keep the inner temple of my heart and thoughts so pure, that it might be a worthy resting place for her at last.

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