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An essay by Elia W. Peattie


Title:     Remorse
Author: Elia W. Peattie [More Titles by Peattie]

IT is extraordinary, when you come to think of it, how very few days, out of all the thousands that have passed, lift their heads from the grey plain of the forgotten--like bowlders in a level stretch of country. It is not alone the unimportant ones that are forgotten; but, according to one's elders, many important ones have left no mark in the memory. It seems to me, as I think it over, that it was the days that affected the emotions that dwell with me, and I suppose all of us must be the same in this respect.

Among those which I am never to forget is the day when Aunt Cordelia came to visit us--my mother's aunt, she was--and when I discovered evil, and tried to understand what the use of it was.

Great-aunt Cordelia was, as I often and often had been told, not only much travelled, rich and handsome, but good also. She was, indeed, an important personage in her own city, and it seemed to be regarded as an evidence of unusual family fealty that she should go about, now and then, briefly visiting all of her kinfolk to see how they fared in the world. I ought to have looked forward to meeting her, but this, for some perverse reason, I did not do. I wished I might run away and hide somewhere till her visit was over. It annoyed me to have to clean up the play-room on her account, and to help polish the silver, and to comb out the fringe of the tea napkins. I liked to help in these tasks ordinarily, but to do it for the purpose of coming up to a visiting--and probably, a condescending--goddess, somehow made me cross.

Among other hardships, I had to take care of my little sister Julie all day. I loved Julie. She had soft golden-brown curls fuzzing around on her head, and mischievous brown eyes--warm, extra-human eyes. There was a place in the back of her neck, just below the point of her curls, which it was a privilege to kiss; and though she could not yet talk, she had a throaty, beautiful little exclamation, which cannot be spelled any more than a bird note, with which she greeted all the things she liked--a flower, or a toy, or mother. But loving Julie as she sat in mother's lap, and having to care for her all of a shining Saturday, were two quite different things. As the hours wore along I became bored with looking at the golden curls of my baby sister; I had no inclination to kiss the "honey-spot" in the back of her neck; and when she fretted from heat and teething and my perfunctory care, I grew angry.

I knew mother was busy making custards and cakes for Aunt Cordelia, and I longed to be in watching these pleasing operations. I thought--but what does it matter what I thought? I was bad! I was so bad that I was glad I was bad. Perhaps it was nerves. Maybe I really had taken care of the baby too long. But however that may be, for the first time in my life I enjoyed the consciousness of having a bad disposition--or perhaps I ought to say that I felt a fiendish satisfaction in the discovery that I had one.

Along in the middle of the afternoon three of the girls in the neighbourhood came over to play. They had their dolls, and they wanted to "keep house" in the "new part" of our home. We were living in a roomy and comfortable "addition," which had, oddly enough, been built before the building to which it was finally to serve as an annex. That is to say, it had been the addition before there was anything to add it to. By this time, however, the new house was getting a trifle old, as it waited for the completion of its rather disproportionate splendours; splendours which represented the ambitions rather than the achievements of the family. It towered, large, square, imposing, with hints of M. Mansard's grandiose architectural ideas in its style, in the very centre of a village block of land. From the first, it exercised a sort of "I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls" effect upon me, and in a vague way, at the back of my mind, floated the idea that when we passed from our modest home into this commanding edifice, well-trained servants mysteriously would appear, beautiful gowns would be found awaiting my use in the closets, and father and mother would be able to take their ease, something after the fashion of the "landed gentry" of whom I had read in Scotch and English books. The ceilings of the new house were so high, the sweep of the stairs so dramatic, the size of the drawing-rooms so copious, that perhaps I hardly was to be blamed for expecting a transformation scene.

But until this new life was realised, the clean, bare rooms made the best of all possible play-rooms, and with the light streaming in through the trees, and falling, delicately tinged with green, upon the new floors, and with the scent of the new wood all about, it was a place of indefinable enchantment. I was allowed to play there all I pleased--except when I had Julie. There were unguarded windows and yawning stair-holes, and no steps as yet leading from the ground to the great opening where the carved front door was some time to be. Instead, there were planks, inclined at a steep angle, beneath which lay the stones of which the foundation to the porch were to be made. Jagged pieces of yet unhewn sandstone they were, with cruel edges.

But to-day when the girls said, "Oh, come!" my newly discovered badness echoed their words. I wanted to go with them. So I went.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see father in the distance, but I wouldn't look at him for fear he would be magnetised into turning my way. The girls had gone up, and I followed, with Julie in my arms. Did I hear father call to me to stop? He always said I did, but I think he was mistaken. Perhaps I merely didn't wish to hear him. Anyway, I went on, balancing myself as best I could. The other girls had reached the top, and turned to look at us, and I knew they were afraid. I think they would have held out their hands to help me, but I had both arms clasped about Julie. So I staggered on, got almost to the top, then seemed submerged beneath a wave of fears--mine and those of the girls--and fell! As I went, I curled like a squirrel around Julie, and when I struck, she was still in my grasp and on top of me. But she rolled out of my relaxing clutch after that, and when father and mother came running, she was lying on the stones. They thought she had fallen that way, and as the breath had been fairly knocked out of her little body, so that she was not crying, they were more frightened than ever, and ran with her to the house, wild with apprehension.

As for me, I got up somehow and followed. I decided no bones were broken, but I was dizzy and faint, and aching from bruises. I saw my little friends running down the plank and making off along the poplar drive, white-faced and panting. I knew they thought Julie was dead and that I'd be hung. I had the same idea.

When we got to the sitting-room I had a strange feeling of never having seen it before. The tall stove, the green and oak ingrain carpet, the green rep chairs, the what-not with its shells, the steel engravings on the walls, seemed absolutely strange. I sat down and counted the diamond-shaped figures on the oilcloth in front of the stove; and after a long time I heard Julie cry, and mother say with immeasurable relief:

"Aside from a shaking up, I don't believe she's a bit the worse."

Then some one brought me a cupful of cold water and asked me if I was hurt. I shook my head and would not speak. I then heard, in simple and emphatic Anglo-Saxon the opinions of my father and mother about a girl who would put her little sister's life in danger, and would disobey her parents. And after that I was put in my mother's bedroom to pass the rest of the day, and was told I needn't expect to come to the table with the others.

I accepted my fate stoically, and being permitted to carry my own chair into the room, I put it by the western window, which looked across two miles of meadows waving in buckwheat, in clover and grass, and sat there in a curious torpor of spirit. I was glad to be alone, for I had discovered a new idea--the idea of sin. I wished to be left to myself till I could think out what it meant. I believed I could do that by night, and, after I had got to the root of the matter, I could cast the whole ugly thing out of my soul and be good all the rest of my life.

There was a large upholstered chair standing in front of me, and I put my head down on the seat of that and thought and thought. My thoughts reached so far that I grew frightened, and I was relieved when I felt the little soft grey veils drawing about me which I knew meant sleep. It seemed to me that I really ought to weep--that the circumstances were such that I should weep. But sleep was sweeter than tears, and not only the pain in my mind but the jar and bruise of my body seemed to demand that oblivion. So I gave way to the impulse, and the grey veils wrapped around and around me as a spider's web enwraps a fly. And for hours I knew nothing.

When I awoke it was the close of day. Long tender shadows lay across the fields, the sky had that wonderful clearness and kindness which is like a human eye, and the soft wind puffing in at the window was sweet with field fragrance. A glass of milk and a plate with two slices of bread lay on the window sill by me, as if some one had placed them there from the outside. I could hear birds settling down for the night, and cheeping drowsily to each other. My cat came on the scene and, seeing me, looked at me with serious, expanding eyes, twitched her whiskers cynically, and passed on. Presently I heard the voices of my family. They were re-entering the sitting-room. Supper was over--supper, with its cold meats and shining jellies, its "floating island" and its fig cake. I could hear a voice that was new to me. It was deeper than my mother's, and its accent was different. It was the sort of a voice that made you feel that its owner had talked with many different kinds of people, and had contrived to hold her own with all of them. I knew it belonged to Aunt Cordelia. And now that I was not to see her, I felt my curiosity arising in me. I wanted to look at her, and still more I wished to ask her about goodness. She was rich and good! Was one the result of the other? And which came first? I dimly perceived that if there had been more money in our house there would have been more help, and I would not have been led into temptation--baby would not have been left too long upon my hands. However, after a few moments of self-pity, I rejected this thought. I knew I really was to blame, and it occurred to me that I would add to my faults if I tried to put the blame on anybody else.

Now that the first shock was over and that my sleep had refreshed me, I began to see what terrible sorrow had been mine if the fall had really injured Julie; and a sudden thought shook me. She might, after all, have been hurt in some way that would show itself later on. I yearned to look upon her, to see if all her sweetness and softness was intact. It seemed to me that if I could not see her the rising grief in me would break, and I would sob aloud. I didn't want to do that. I had no notion to call any attention to myself whatever, but see the baby I must. So, softly, and like a thief, I opened the door communicating with the little dressing-room in which Julie's cradle stood. The curtain had been drawn and it was almost dark, but I found my way to Julie's bassinet. I could not quite see her, but the delicate odour of her breath came up to me, and I found her little hand and slipped my finger in it. It was gripped in a baby pressure, and I stood there enraptured, feeling as if a flower had caressed me. I was thrilled through and through with happiness, and with love for this little creature, whom my selfishness might have destroyed. There was nothing in what had happened during this moment or two when I stood by her side to assure me that all was well with her; but I did so believe, and I said over and over: "Thank you, God! Thank you, God!"

And now my tears began to flow. They came in a storm--a storm I could not control, and I fled back to mother's room, and stood there before the west window weeping as I never had wept before.

The quiet loveliness of the closing day had passed into the splendour of the afterglow. Mighty wings as of bright angels, pink and shining white, reached up over the sky. The vault was purple above me, and paled to lilac, then to green of unimaginable tenderness. Now I quenched my tears to look, and then I wept again, weeping no more for sorrow and loneliness and shame than for gratitude and delight in beauty. So fair a world! What had sin to do with it? I could not make it out.

The shining wings grew paler, faded, then darkened; the melancholy sound of cow-bells stole up from the common. The birds were still; a low wind rustled the trees. I sat thinking my young "night thoughts" of how marvellous it was for the sun to set, to rise, to keep its place in heaven--of how wrapped about with mysteries we were. What if the world should start to falling through space? Where would it land? Was there even a bottom to the universe? "World without end" might mean that there was neither an end to space nor yet to time. I shivered at thought of such vastness.

Suddenly light streamed about me, warm arms enfolded me.

"Mother!" I murmured, and slipped from the unknown to the dear familiarity of her shoulder.

It was, I soon perceived, a silk-clad shoulder. Mother had on her best dress; nay, she wore her coral pin and ear-rings. Her lace collar was scented with Jockey Club, and her neck, into which I was burrowing, had the indescribable something that was not quite odour, not all softness, but was compounded of these and meant mother. She said little to me as she drew me away and bathed my face, brushed and plaited my hair, and put on my clean frock. But we felt happy together. I knew she was as glad to forgive as I was to be forgiven.

In a little while she led me, blinking, into the light. A tall stranger, a lady in prune-coloured silk, sat in the high-backed chair.

"This is my eldest girl, Aunt Cordelia," said my mother. I went forward timidly, wondering if I were really going to be greeted by this person who must have heard such terrible reports of me. I found myself caught by the hands and drawn into the embrace of this new, grand acquaintance.

"Well, I've been wanting to see you," said the rich, kind voice. "They say you look as I did at your age. They say you are like me!"

Like her--who was good! But no one referred to this difference or said anything about my sins. When we were sorry, was evil, then, forgotten and sin forgiven? A weight as of iron dropped from my spirit. I sank with a sigh on the hassock at my aunt's feet. I was once more a member of society.

[The end]
Elia W. Peattie's Essay: Remorse