Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/My angel's visit

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It seemed as if our prayers were wasted.

During the six years we had been married everything else went well with us. The business, in which my husband was a partner, had prospered so much that two years since he sold his open connection with it for a round sum. The money so obtained, added to what he had previously saved—(he was elderly when I, not an heiress, married him)—formed a very sufficient competence for people of a middling station, who meant to live quietly, and yet have it in our power to be hospitable to friends, and, at the same time, live respected by the poor people near, who might look to us for help when no one else could give it. Since he left the business, too, a certain sleeping interest he retained in it became of increased value, so that, though retired from active work, the fruits of work still ripened on the old tree. Alas, that our tree of life was the one which hung fruitless. That our paradise could attract no little angel from heaven to sport in it.

We had bought Elmbury Hall, and were now resident there. It was not much of a hall indeed, but the park was full of fine old elms, and it had a good garden.

It was a silly notion of mine, which I could not help nursing, that the habit of looking on a vacant home would, in time, make George think it vacant. Oh how I wearied heaven with promises, protesting that I would lead to virtue my son’s earliest feet. As if I would talk over the Life-Giver with fine speeches.

At last love was pitiful.

Oh morn of joy; bright after clouds—came Mary, our dawn. She came with the flowers of May—when birds are blithest. But no wild wood-note rang sweeter than Mary’s cry; no flower-bud revealed dearer charms than the infant blossom that unfolded on my breast. All inflated with the gladness—the world rose heavenward, as far as the straining cords that bound it apart would allow. What more could we wish? Our hearts’ desire had been given to us. The little childillnesses, that now and then cast shadows, were but passing clouds. The next breeze of health blew them aside, and the atmosphere was again clear.

We were playing in the garden with Mary on her birthday. She was then a year old. We had a small difference as to whether Mary’s husband was to be a great merchant or a man of high rank. Being slightly annoyed because George persisted that the station of a rich merchant’s wife was not so much amiss, I walked aside to air my heat, as I desired to show my husband how much he had offended me.

Just then a shower of feathers fell around us. Immediately a broken-winged pigeon, which a hawk or some other bird had struck, fluttered with loud screams to my feet, and nestled under my dress.

After washing it clean I laid it in the kitchen on some folded flannel. I remarked to George what a special providence it was that we had quarrelled, because else we might not have noticed this poor creature which had, no doubt, been sent for us to nurse. George, too, thought the quarrel providential, as it saved me from saying a good deal of nonsense, in addition to what I did say, or perhaps it was our dinner providentially sent to us all but cooked.

I thought this cruel, and said so. George defended his proposal, and asked if it was not better to kill a half-dead pigeon than one in full life. When I could not answer for indignation he gave me Mary’s wrapper to throw over the “other dove,” and recommended feeding it with some of the child’s food which the nurse was preparing. To my astonishment it ate well enough. Next morning we found the poor bird dead. I was shedding some natural tears over it when George observed, as a consolation, that there was another dove on which I could expand ministrations. Perhaps good fortune would favour it also with some kind of broken wing that would keep my hand in. I saw that George was still cross, after yesterday’s quarrel, so I said nothing.

I know not how it was, but dating from this incident, a vague uneasiness took possession of me. I, at first, fancied it symptomatic of some illness establishing itself in me; but, as no disease broke out, I was fain to laugh myself, as best I could, out of my alarm. Insensibly the fear that was on me connected itself with the wonder I had felt when noticing how slow Mary was to repeat words. Always the lightest movement that caught her eye drew it away, and I persuaded myself she was still too young. Day by day, however, the first faint darkness deepened, till the winter tempest came, and the terrible conviction broke on me that Mary was deaf. I saw, too, that other people had divined the secret, though no one spoke of it.

My husband was not a musician, but was fond, like nearly everybody, of hearing good music. I felt an inexpressible pang, as he expatiated, according to his habit, on how he would have Mary’s musical skill cultivated. It was some months after I made the discovery I have mentioned, before the child’s father knew the real state of matters; so that, many a time, with his words cutting me, have I listened smiling to his plans.

He spoke of this so continually that I dreaded more and more the hour when he must know the truth, and though I thought it right to tell him, I saw no chance of being able to do it otherwise than abruptly. It was not altogether in jest that he proposed a residence in Italy where the influences that foster music might affect Mary at her most impressible period of life; and where, as he averred, the capacity to train this kind of aptitude exists in its highest degree.

Mary was a year and a-half old, with her father still unaware that for her music must ever be a frozen fountain. The children of the village school had come up to the hall to sing the Christmas hymn. They were well-trained in most of their schooling, but unusually so in music, in which Miss Smithers, their teacher, was a proficient. She has since, under another name, obtained celebrity in the music world.

Before they commenced the hymn, George made them a small oration. He had not so forgotten his town-councillor habits, but that an opportunity like this, to air his rhetoric, came like a true Christmas friend.

George’s oratory was decidedly of the fervid cast. He told the school-children that music was the great gift which we held in common with higher intelligences. In fact, deadness to music was a mark upon any one which meant “let not that man be trusted.” A taste for music was the sure concomitant of virtue, there could be no doubt of it; and an ear against which sweet sounds beat in vain, was a rock that rose from a wicked heart. Let them ever remember that.

The young musicians sang with a will to show themselves virtuous, and obtain the extra cake and halfpence which form virtue’s reward. As the impressive sounds of many well-drilled young voices swelled on our ears, I saw George with moist eyes (he was partly affected by the singing, and partly by his own eloquence), turning to little Mary, who sat playing at his feet with some toys Miss Smithers had just given her. He lifted the child up, and tried to divert her towards the singing; but after looking vacantly at the group, she struggled to be set down again to her playthings. A sudden restlessness affected her father, and he continued watching her during the remainder of the hymn. When the children had gone away, he again took up Mary on his knees, and without remarking to me that he meant anything beyond play, he made sudden noises close to and sometimes back from Mary’s ear, while her eyes were turned from him. She took not the slightest notice. But as soon as he turned her towards him and smiled, an answering smile at once responded. Having thus caught her eye, he opened his lips and imitated the movements made by a person speaking. The child mimicked the action. He then went through the same movements in an exaggerated fashion, but this time did really emit the sounds which such movements properly accompany. The child mimicked the exaggerated movements, but failed to give out voice. He then put the child down with infinite tenderness; and heaving a long sigh, which might mean either that be sought relief from the fatigue of sitting still, or that he threw off so some oppression upon his spirits, he rose up to walk about the room.

Later on in the evening I noticed that he was watching an opportunity of communicating his discovery. He was very anxious to know what nonsense he had been saying to the school-children, and regretted the bad habit he had acquired of speaking without thinking. He could very easily conceive of a pleasant family group sitting around a fire that burns warm and cheery in a locked-up house, whose broken bell-wires have ceased to tell that a stranger is at the gates. He could think also of a fleet of ships sailing in company and obeying one set of signals; but so too a vessel might voyage alone and not the less safely reach her haven.

I saw he was endeavouring to break the news to me. Then I perceived how silly it was to make believe that I did not know what he was trying to tell me gently. I therefore said broadly out that I knew Mary had only four senses; and though at first it was a frightful anguish to me, and could not but be always painful, yet when I said to myself that her part in life’s battle would be proportioned to her means of fighting it, I considered that the heavy sorrow was not without alleviation.

Our plans thenceforth were formed in concert. We determined at every cost to exhaust the possibility of cure, before we considered her deafness as anything but an accident which admitted of removal; for we steadily would not regard it as one of her conditions of existence. For some years our life was little else than waiting upon doctors, for the promise is to those who persevere. Promises indeed we had, for they fell like snowflakes everywhere, but melted with the same facility. Each new aurist gave us new hope, though each in succession regretted that we had not come to him sooner. In some cases we were cruelly victimised, and the health of our darling grievously impaired. In a few instances the truth was told us as plainly as perhaps they thought we could bear it, namely, that medical science could do nothing whatever for Mary. One flagrant case in London came before the police magistrate, and at least two others might have gone; but certain difficulties in establishing legal guilt in that kind of swindling stayed our hands. To mere exposure the men were callous, if indeed they did not flourish upon it, notoriety standing them in the same stead as celebrity.

At last even hope of cure died in us. What finally dissipated our delusion was the non-success of a painful and dangerous experiment she underwent in Paris. Her ears had been bored and blistered in the course of our wanderings, and all sorts of regimen prescribed and abided by without effecting improvement. In our desperation we agreed to try this Parisian remedy, which we were assured had proved successful in every case in which it had been undergone. I was not present at the operation, and dared not ask how she bore it; but it consisted in removing with a trepan a piece of the skull bone that sound might reach the brain through the opening.

To induce Mary to let her ears be examined, her father had bought for her a costly but exquisitely beautiful vase of Parian which she fancied in London. It represented an angel standing on a half-globe, and bearing, mouth upwards, a cornucopia with flowers. She was fond of nursing it as a doll, though careful in handling it to keep it clean and uninjured. Accustomed to stipulate for some present before each manipulation, she now desired that the letters M A R Y, which she knew to be her name, might be carved on the vase, and filled in with black. By some culpable awkwardness—for awkwardness in doing delicate work is criminal—the figure was shattered in the carving, and though put together again with some skill, the fractures were not hidden. We kept it afterwards under its glass shade in Mary’s room at home, Mary herself making no attempt to uncover it.

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She recovered from this last cure with difficulty, but of course required protection against whatever would communicate even moderate concussion. She had now repose from the torture of being cured. As she recruited to such degree of strength as she was capable of reaching, we began to think of having her educated; but the dreadful results of the curative processes she had undergone begot partial disbelief, or rather a disinclination to belief, in the benefits of schooling. On this account we suffered her to remain at home till she was twelve years old. She could write from memory some verses of the Bible which Dr. Oneway, the rector, had pointed out to me as important for her to remember. Want of understanding them, the doctor said, should not deter me; for our part was to sow the seed, leaving to other influences its development. I determined, however, that she should not repeat words like a parrot. Accordingly, I began to open her mind to religious truth by explaining to her as the foundation on which belief must rest, the series of words which form the commencement of the sacred book.

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”

I explained the first word by pouring water into a bottle, and telling her that that was in. The second word, the, I judged to have no meaning worth explaining, and accordingly passed it by. The third word, beginning, puzzled me greatly. I thought of giving up the verse, and trying an easier one; but I could not, after search, find one without difficulties. It then struck me that as I got the word in out of a bottleful of water, I would husband my resources and get the word beginning out of it as well. I repeated the act of pouring water into the bottle, in order that the beginning of the operation might be seen. I was a little dubious as to the accuracy of her conception of this third word, and slightly alarmed as to whether I might not have confused her previously clear idea of in. For I began to see that words in a sentence are like joined pieces of a waterpipe; the separate pieces are plain enough, but the meaning inside of them is all run together, and forms one idea. How, for instance, would the child pick apart the separate significance of in and beginning? However, I could not afford to dwell longer on this, for if every word were to be drained of its difficulties we should never get forward. Besides, future lessons would obviate what was left defective now.

I saw no trouble in the fourth word; for I had already given her an insight into her relationship towards a Creator. This I had done by spelling slowly the hallowed name, and pointing upwards with extreme reverence, pointing also towards the church, which was visible from the windows up stairs. Created seemed to me harder of interpretation. After much thought I drew the figure of a blacksmith at work, and wrote down the word making. I then pointed to the word created, to signify that making and creating were similar acts. I had been told by a friend how an ingenious lady once explained and to a deaf child by tying a thread between a pen and an inkstand. The piece of thread was and. I therefore, on my system of extracting much meaning from few materials, tied together the bottle and water-jug which I had already used to explain in and beginning. For the word earth I touched the ground, and swept my finger backwards and forwards on it.

After going over in this careful manner the sentence whose important meaning I desired to elicit, I resolved to let it sink into her mind. For after all, it is not the quantity of instruction one gets that benefits, but that part of it which is well digested.

In the evening, when I considered the digestive process might be accomplished, I told her father what I had done. He commended my prudence in not cramming her. My difficulty as to how the child would know the difference between in and beginning he shared. He agreed in the propriety of omitting the from the explanation. He seemed to doubt whether I had really imparted an idea of the Supreme Being by pointing upwards reverentially, inasmuch as I explained heaven in much the same way. Our perplexity was that we could not ascertain what real notion she formed as to meanings of words; for she always imitated with accuracy the acts and gestures either of us made use of in conveying an explanation.

The more I thought on it the less I was satisfied. Painful as it was to part with our darling, especially in her state of weakened health, brought about too by our misjudging care, our duty demanded the sacrifice, and we dared not refuse. What we terribly feared was, mischief befalling her in the course of some school-game. That unhappy opening in the skull-bone was always our most sensitive point.

When, however, we visited the school, and found her among companions like herself, saving that their wiser parents had better guarded them from cures; found her, so to speak, in a sheltered nook where the influences of many minds acting on hers could bring into play her intelligence and develope whatever germs of good were in her, we experienced a relief we had not hoped for, and thought instinctively of the wind tempered to shorn lambs.

When she came to us at the end of the second year, and repeated the few words she had been taught to articulate—papa, mamma, I am happy—it seemed as if so great a stream of happiness could not have flowed to us through any other channel. How truly she was our angel.

She had been at school wearing on to five years when a somewhat severe illness attacked her father. Mary, informed of it by letter, begged to be allowed to nurse him. Her father afterwards said that he found her mere presence in the room, whether still or in movement, had a soothing effect upon him, more than the prescribed opium could exert. Perhaps from being habituated to read thought on the countenance before it took expression in words, she was better than another able to minister relief to hidden suffering. Perhaps it was the microscope of her very strong affection that assisted her eyesight, and rendered visible symptoms that the sufferer himself would have suppressed. Alas! when in the course of only a few weeks afterwards, she herself required done for her similar offices to those she was now performing, much as we loved her and would with thankfulness have taken her great agony on ourselves, if thereby to ease her, this same microscope revealed little to our eyes that availed her in way of relief.

Originally not of a strong constitution, and cruelly shattered by the cures she had undergone, the most we had hoped for was, by excess of care, to wrap her from rough contact with life, and enable her sweetness of disposition to mature, as it were, within a conservatory, instead of exposed to open storms.

She seemed in an excellent state of health, as good, that is, as she ever enjoyed, when she went back to school after nursing her father through his illness. She had spoken of nursing us both when we were old and tottering, and herself an erect woman; so that those justified premonitions of early death, which are sometimes known to have occurred to the mind of a child, had not affected her.

As a proof that the tone of her mind was healthy, I give here her reply to the Rev. Bernard Oldtrack, Dr. Oneway’s young curate, who was generously attempting to show her that, as faith entered by hearing, a padlock on this door caused the goods to be taken away again. She repeated the beautiful story of how divine love, walking in flesh and doing good, had bidden deaf ears be opened, and a bound tongue be unloosed. There were some additions in her version of the story that were not uninteresting, considering who she was that told it, and amongst whom it was current.

She conceived that we, her father and mother, had spent much money and taken her to many places, in the hope that some one would speak to her sealed ears the command—“Ephphatha;” but the proper way to speak this word was known to no man. At last, however, when all that had ever lived stood before Him—by whose blessed lips that word had been spoken—He would speak it again. They, whose tongues had, through life, remained unused and free from stains, like the swords in a cutler’s shop that are carefully kept in sheaths, would now begin to flourish them in hymns; while the rest of the immense crowd, having abused the power of speech when on earth, would find their tongues thereby grown rusty, and would, with difficulty, draw them out, like bloody swords glued in scabbards.

This was her illustration.

Her description of the process of cleansing the rusty tongues showed ingenuity, and ought, at least to have satisfied those expounders of the compensation-laws of nature, who insist upon it that all our sum-totals of good and ill, correspond, however widely the items in our accounts may vary. In this unexpected and bold manner, Mr. Oldtrack, seeking wool, had the scissors applied to his own back.

After remaining five weeks at home, Mary had returned to school. We were not to see her again till after Christmas, as she and her schoolmates generally would be busy rehearsing the pantomime, which their custom was to enact at this holiday-time, for the delectation of themselves and such kind-hearted school-friends as would lend their assistance in capacity of applauding spectators. We were pleasing ourselves with the dream that, as fragile barks have reached land while strong-built vessels have gone down, perhaps the great Shipowner above, working in His mysterious ways, would waft dear Mary over calm seas, and that she would thus sail onwards after we put into port.

Our dreams were scattered by a letter from the matron. It announced that Mary’s health was suddenly low, and added, that the doctor was urgent she should have the benefit of home. In the greatest alarm, and not without risk,—for by this time the smouldering disease of her brain had burst into flame, and they feared she could not bear removal,—we conveyed her to Elmbury with as much speed as was consistent with extreme care.

She never rallied. All night she lay in stupor, from which the alteration was to spasms of pain. She muttered various of the expressions she had been taught to articulate. “Going home,” she said, “going home.” In particular the word “Ephphatha,” which had manifestly taken strong hold of her imagination. Early in the morning she sat up in bed, and made signs to some imaginary companions, for she took no notice of us. When I gave her the spoonfuls of wine-and-water ordered, she turned on me her dull heavy eye on which no change passed to indicate that she recognised me.

It had been a wild night, but with daylight the storm increased. Vehement gusts tore the old trees in the park, and beat with fury against the window of her sick-room where we were watching. But this rather afforded relief than otherwise, as our thoughts were thereby diverted from a too concentrated fixedness on the desolation that was being wrought inside of the house. Poor Mary sank lower and lower. After a terrific attack of convulsions that lasted some minutes, and made us hold our breath in awe, her strength seemed all but drained away. Unable to sit still I was aimlessly moving about, as if impelled by an instinct to find, in bodily activity, some alleviating resources, when it struck me that to handle her old plaything—the vase she had once been so fond of, would recal her mind. I had heard of inanimate things being recognised when familiar faces were forgotten. But, in my agitation, I threw it down. As I stooped to pick up the fragments a sudden roaring blast shook the house, and the crash of an elm-branch driven with force against the window, the thick sash-bars of which gave way like lucifer-matches, startled us to some purpose. We were busy forcing-to the shutters, endeavouring to bar out the wind, till we could remove our beloved to another room, but the violence of the tempest was too great. It dashed aside the shutters that rang again as they slapped upon the wall, and sweeping like an eddy round the room, stripped the clothes from the sickbed with a vindictiveness of fury that seemed like hatred gratified. As we ran to cover her, another wild blast drove in, through the smashed window, a poor unhappy dove which it had caught straying, and flung it against the wall right above where the child lay, but happily with a spent impetus. Recovering itself the bird fluttered about to avoid being handled, and, by-and-by, reaching the open window—when a lull in the storm occurred—flew out again.

What little life had been in Mary was, by this time quite shaken out. We did not see the breath go from her, and were only sensible that the clay-mask was separate from the spirit which had worn it, when we remarked the growing coldness of the form we continued to watch.