The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 17/Number 99/Lucy's Letters
On a cold January night I returned home after a holiday visit to town. Snow was just beginning to fall, and a desolate sort of feeling came over me as the omnibus drove up to my residence. A bright, cheerful light shone out of the library-windows, and Ernestina, a maid who had lived with me half a score of years before her marriage, was at the gate to receive me.
"It is owing to her kind, capable hands that the house looks so comfortable," I said to myself, with a little sigh; "but what am I to do when, she returns to her own home?"
Then, with a true spinster selfishness, I wished her good husband and beautiful boy "better off" in Abraham's bosom, and wondered what could make women so foolish as to get married. The cause of all this discomfort was the consciousness of having a new serving-maid. My last experience in that necessary domestic article had not been an agreeable one. The woman, though not "as old as Sibyl," was
"as curst and shrewd
As Socrates' Xantippe, or a worse."
She was a dusky Melpomene, who openly insulted the furniture, assaulted violently the china, and waged universal war against all inanimate objects. Being a trifle deaf, she used this defect as an excuse for not hearing any request or command; when spoken to, she glared grimly, turned her back, and strode off with a tragic loup, reminding one of a Forest in petticoats. I never knew I was an amiable woman, until her advent into my peaceable establishment.
"Now I return to a new experience, may-be no better than the former," I thought.
Upon entering the house, I saw through the open kitchen-door—out of which streamed a savory smell of broiled chicken, buns, and tea—an encouraging picture for a housekeeper: there was a bright fire, and a tidy room, with a nice-looking colored girl who wore a headkerchief and a check apron over her chintz gown. She rose up from her seat, and gave me a slight curtsy, which civility I acknowledged half shyly, half coldly.
"This is Lucy," said Ernestina, "the new maid I have engaged for you, Ma'am." Then, addressing the girl, she added,—"Lucy, you may dish up supper now."
"I wonder how I shall like her," was my remark to Ernestina, as we went into the library. "Do you think she will bully me much?"
"No, indeed, Ma'am! She is gentle and civil. I think she will suit you. I have found her both capable and agreeable while we have been putting the house in order."
"Oh I can dispense with capability, —a little of it, at least,—if she will only not frighten me out of my wits with a vixen temper!"
"No fear of that, I assure you," said Ernestina, encouragingly.
Nor was there any cause for fear. During the five months the girl lived with me, I found her uniformly civil and amiable. I do not intend inflicting on my readers any more of my personal experience with Lucy; it is her own little history I wish to relate.
A few days after my return home, I noticed, that, when Lucy was left to herself, she seemed sad. I often observed her suppressing tears; and every little while she gave a heavy, long sigh, as if apprehensive of some trouble.
I am as unwilling to meddle with the affairs of inferiors as with those of equals; so I contented myself with speaking very gently, granting little unexpected indulgences, and smiling cheerfully at her. I knew she was married to a man who was many years her senior, and it was said they were much attached to each other. This husband had gone into the army, and Ernestina told me that Lucy and he were looking anxiously forward to the period of his return,—more than two years off,—when they hoped to take his bounty-money and savings, and buy therewith a little house and small "garden-patch" for a settled home.
One day I asked her if she could read or write.
"Neither," was the reply.
"How then, do you write to your husband?"
This question brought out the whole story of her anxiety. Hitherto her friends had written in her name, but her husband had received only three of the many letters she had sent him during the six months he had been gone. In his last letter he had complained bitterly of her silence.
"Oh, if he could only hear straight from me!" she exclaimed. "For he thinks, Ma'am, I don't write because I gets no money. 'T isn't the money I care for. I'd sooner never have a cent from him than have him keep a-thinkin' I don't send no letters."
When she said this, big round tears fell down like pebbles on her cheeks and hands and apron. Of course I offered to write for her, saying that I would do so once a week, if she wished. She then gave me his last letter to read, which I will copy without correction; for he wrote it himself, being "a scholar," as she said, with some little pride.
And she endowed him with another possession, or gift, which seemed to give her almost as much satisfaction as his scholarly attainments.
"He kin see sperits, Ma'am, as plain as me and you sees folks; and so kin his little boy, his fust wife's child. Once when I was a-walkin' in the road with 'em, one moonlighty night, when we was a-goin' home to Spring-Town, them two stepped quick-like away from the path.
"'Lucy,' says my husband, says he, a'most in a whisper, 'quick! step furder over on t' other side.'
"After we got along a piece, them both told me there wor a band of sperits a-comin' along; and if we gets out of the way of 'em, them don't do us no hurt, you know."
I did not like to suggest to the credulous wife that probably her sharp husband had been seeing at the tavern, before starting on the homeward walk with her,
"Black spirits and white,
Blue spirits and gray."
I fancy the cunning fellow, with a true masculine, marital love of power, had wished to inspire this young wife of his with a becoming awe and reverence for her him. But we will return to his letter.
"Januwerry the⁄18teen, 1864, Mooreses Island
"My deare wief
"i take this opertunity to informe you that i am not well at preasante. and i hope you are injoyin' goode helthe providin that they ever doe finde you and of you are enny whares that you can be found
"Enny whares in the State of N Jarsey.
"And i hev been in the servise 6 monthes. And i hev writen sume 15teen or 16teen leturs and hev not reseved but 3 leturs from you yet sences i have been in the servise
"And i wante you to write to me in answer to this letur and let me know what you meane to doe and ef you donte intend writin why jess say so.
"i suppose because you didente get no munny you wonte write but ef that has insulted you i will stope to. i hope that you may understand this.
"And i know what i say. you hev never writen to me. you havente let me known whether you got that munny I sent you by Edwurd Towns or no. you heve never sent me enny word whether you got the munny or no. it is pay day nowe but they donte wante to pay us but 7 dollurs pur munthe and thats what i didente inlist fore. and i wonte take it. i shall wait til congres ses what we are to hev. thats the reason i havente got no munny to send you.
"i donte intend to stope a writin until i give you a fare chance and then ef i donte get enny more leturs than i hev i shall stope writin before long for ef you are mad i am tired. i shall write so as to heare from my childrun i know that you think i might send you some munny but ef we donte get it we cante send it. i hope that you may doe well and that I may see you againe.
"my deare bruther Samul Stores will you please giv this to my deare wief and reade it to hur and write to me ef you please. give my luv to everry boddy. and ef you see my muther please to giv luv to hur and tell hur that i am not well at preasante. i am verry weake at preasante. and i donte kepe well long at a time. and i donte know how i shall apeare in your preasance. giv my luv to everry boddy. and tell them to pray fore mee.
"i wante to know how my childrun is. what is anny doin. aske anny ef she cante sende mee a letur and has the absentes of hur farthur hurt hur. but i shall remember hur to God. it donte rendur meeany satisfaction to see othurs get leturs and i cante gete none myself sum of our boys has gote as hye as 20ty leturs and sum more and i donte get none, remember me your
"afect tunate husband
"james harris is agoin to send a letur to the church at spring town in the care of mister saffron to be rede in the congration. no more at preasante fur i am verry weake
"your luvin husband
After I finished reading this poor fellow's letter, I felt like laughing and crying. The ignorance it displays is droll enough; but the keen yearning for home, the longing after domestic affection and remembrance, the dread of being forgotten, are all very touching.
We replied to it immediately, and after that seldom allowed a week to pass without writing. On Saturday afternoons Lucy would come into the library with a little piece of sewing in her hands, and, sitting on a stool by the dogs' baskets, repeat her proposed letter faster than I could write it.
She related all the news of the two colored villages situated on either side of this town; the meetings they were holding,—the jubilees and quarterlies,—which last seemed to come every Sunday; the payment of the church debts; the births of children; the deaths of old people; the marriages and engagements of young ones; and even the hatching of chickens and killing of pigs. The letters were a droll medley; and when I could not help smiling sometimes at the odd bits of information given, she would say, with innocent earnestness,—
"I know he'll like to hear all this, Ma'am. It'll make him and the other boys from Spring Town and Gould Town feel like bein' among us again."
She dictated very rapidly; and her expressions were right pretty, being so natural and affectionate. Once I remarked to her that she did it so nicely that it sounded sometimes as if read from a book.
"Oh, it's because I keep a-studyin' about what to say to him," she replied, "I talks it all over to myself when I'm alone. That's what makes me so forgetful, and gives me this everlastin' misery in my head. I'm forever and ever a-studyin' so much about him."
These weekly letters seemed to make Lucy feel as if she were having a stated talk with her absent husband. She gradually grew more cheerful under their influence. While at her work, she would burst out into perfect gusts of wild chanting: scraps of Methodist hymns suited her best. There was one verse she would peal out to a shrill, weird minor melody that was anything but cheerful or gay in its effect; and yet she repeated it over and over, morning, noon, and night, with unparalleled constancy:—
"I know there's room in heaven for me,
So I'm a-goin', I'm a-goin';
And don't you hope there's room for you?
Let's both be goin', let's both be goin';
I should n't wonder if room's for them,
So we'll all be goin' we'll all be goin',
Some day soon."
About two months after she came to live with me, there was a battle somewhere South, in which several colored men from our two villages were killed and wounded. By some mistake, William's name was included in the list; and the publication of it set his poor wife nearly beside herself with grief. The following day, however, some of his old companions received a letter from him, written after the date of the battle, in which he spoke of the others being killed, adding,—
"Tell Lucy, my deare wief im not dede yet. i havente seene a fite sence i hev bene in the servise but i hope i shall soon. My dere bruther Samul Stores can you finde oute why Lucy my wief donte write to me."
We immediately sent off a letter to him by mail; and I advised Lucy to inclose one with that of the friend who had just heard from him, and who intended writing the next day. She never tired of dictating to me; and after this last report from him, we prepared letters and dispatched them with redoubled energy.
One morning she came into the library, and asked me if I could spare time to write a letter.
"I'm so full, Ma'am, of all I want to say, it kind o' bewilders me at my work. I think I shall be more quieter, if I have it written off to him."
This letter was a remarkably pretty and touching one, and had in it the burden of all:—
"If I could only get a letter from you, and you could get one from me, I should not fret so much. I have not had one since January, and have only had four since you left. For three months me and my lady have written to you nigh about every week. All the other women go to the office, and take out two, three, and four letters at a time, some with money in; but if I could only get one from you, I should be happier than they are with all their money. I don't want no money. I can make enough to take care of me and 'Nervy" (their little daughter, glorying in the name of Minerva). "But, my dear husband, do, do write to me."
This letter was sent off about midday; then Lucy went singing about her work, as if she had just seen her husband. Her favorite assurance of there being room in heaven for her and all her friends rang out so shrill and clear that my little Skye terrier grew testy and nervous at the reiteration. At last, when its slumber was broken for the dozenth time, it could bear it no longer, and, leaping out to the basket, crouched on the ground, and, raising its tiny black muzzle in the air, gave one prolonged howl, as if protesting against the information.
I could not blame the dog, for the chant was not pleasant to my ears. It made me feel very melancholy; but I had not the hard heart to check the girl, she seemed to take so much comfort in the hymn. My daily papers came in; I read them; and the news of the Fort Pillow tragedy, which reached us that day, draped around with the crimson and black of a first report, deepened my sadness.
After luncheon I went out with the dogs for a walk, and spent two or three hours roaming through the woods, groping among the fallen leaves and mosses for the spicy-smelling, pinkish sprays of the trailing-arbutus, or Pilgrims' Mayflower listening to the song of the robins, and the fretful, querulous note of
Blue-coated, flying before from tree to tree,"
and lulling my heart-pain in the fine, rushing sound made by the pond-waters falling through the open gates of the dam.
I took a seat in a boat which was lying at anchor near the pebbled shore of the pond, and looked up into the branches of a glowing swamp-maple, whose starry blossoms were all aflame in the afternoon sunlight. A congress of robins had assembled on the tree, and were in high discussion,—probably on the rights of the blackbirds to the occupancy of certain upper chambers of the air; presently they spread their little wings, and as they floated off over my head, their flashing red-breasts looked like winged scarlet tulip-petals.
"God's world is very beautiful!" I murmured, "but human sorrows weigh the heart down."
I sat in the boat on the pond-strand without heeding the lapse of time, just mooning, in that vague, listless way we women have, over
"Troubles too great to be my own,"—
the sore griefs and trials of a mighty nation.
The washing of the beautiful pond-waters on the shore gradually soothed me: had they been ocean breakers, their solemn rhythm would have increased my melancholy; but these inland streams have a cheerful, every-day note. I watched the sparkling, leaping light on the surface of the pond, and the long shimmers of rosy gleams that played over the dancing waters, until my heart grew as bright as millions of water-diamonds. The joyful little ripple against the pebbled bank helped me amazingly, and so my heart slipping off insensibly form the weary, useless fretting, I found myself at sunset feeling as free from care as a child, and my homeward step was as springy as the gambols of my young dogs.
I walked out into the high-road; slightly undulating country had lost its monotonous expression under the influence of the ruddy twilight; the distant fields and woods were bathed in a soft violet atmosphere, and a fire-glow lay spread over the young wheat.
To the left, the smoke of the factory rolled against the purple and gold of the sky; the dense black brought out finely the beautiful unfolding forms of the white vapor, as the soft evening wind swept in among it; these snowy shapes, as they mounted high and floated off, looked like ascending spirits of the blest in a Judgment scene; at last they were all blended with the ashen gray of the descending night.
As I struck my front-door-bell, I heard Lucy still screaming out her assurance of a heavenly home; but the chanting had lost its irritating sound, and I listened to it, if not with pleasure, at least with patience: even the Skye, Ton-Ton was so improved in temper by the walk as to coil up its little silky gray body in the basket with perfect indifference to the domestic music. While I was dining, the watchful ears of my dogs detected the steps of strangers on the terrace-steps of the entrance, which news they announced in shrill barks.
"Some Spring-Town visitors to Lucy," I thought, as I heard the steps pass under the side window, which supposition was confirmed by the ceasing of the hopeful hymn.
There was a profound silence for a little while in the back part of the house; and the dogs resumed their slumbers, dreaming pleasantly of their nice walk and good meal. I pushed the little dinner-table away, lighted the spirit-lamp under the tea, which was on a small tray on the library-table, and leaned back in the easy-chair to read a comforting page or two in De Quincey's Cæsars. I would not disturb Lucy and her guests for a little while at least, I thought. I had just reached,—
"Peace, then, rhetoricians! false threnodists of false liberty! hollow chanters over the ashes of a hollow republic! Without Cæsar we affirm a thousand times that there would have been no perfect Rome; and but for Rome there could have been no such man as Cæsar"—
—when I heard Lucy crossing the anteroom. The library-door opened, and in the poor girl tottered, sobbing bitterly as if her heart would surely burst. She crouched down on the floor, and moaned so like a poor wounded animal, that the dogs, who are very fond of her, ran up and commenced whining and licking her. To my repeated inquiries as to the cause of her weeping, she could only sob out,—
"Oh! I can't tell, Ma'am, I can't tell you!"
At last she summoned enough courage to say,—
"He's dead now real! No mistake this time,—real, real dead! He died in the 'ospital three weeks ago,—and never, never got none of them 'ere letters!"
Yes, the poor fellow was, as his wife said, "dead real"; and I found, on inquiry, that, at the very time the false rumor of his death reached us, he was then actually dying of a fever at a hospital in Florida!
She was right, too, about the ill-luck of the letters. He had not received one of them! Not knowing of his change of place, we had addressed the letters to the regiment station, where I suppose they went, while he was far off in a distant hospital, tossing on a sick-bed; and when he died, he had added to his physical sufferings the anguish of thinking himself forgotten by the wife and friends he loved so tenderly.
This narrative is a simple report of one of the thousands of sad romances which were daily and hourly happening to American women during the late civil struggle.
"Too common! Never morning wore
To evening but some heart did break."