The Little Widow's Mite

by Grace Greenwood

On a nice little farm, on the shore of one of our beautiful Western lakes, lives a noble young German girl named Bertha Johansen, but oftener called "little woman," for her womanly qualities, and her staid, quaint ways; and for a while, among her family-friends, still oftener called "little widow," for a reason I will give by and by. Early in the war against the Rebellion, Bertha's father and three brothers enlisted in one regiment, and were very soon marched away to the front, taking with them the tender, tearful blessings of the lonely little household left behind. The good wife and mother, Ernestine Johansen, took upon her brave heart and strong hands the entire business of the little farm, having for a while only the assistance of a young adopted son, an orphan nephew, who had lived with the Johansens from his infancy. But after having seen his uncle and cousins go forth so bravely to their grand though dreadful duty, the lad Heinrich grew discontented and unhappy. He had a man's heart in his boyish breast,—a heart full of patriotic ardor and devotion; and at last his good aunt consented that he too should go to the war, in the only capacity in which he could be accepted, as a drummer boy, in a regiment just ready to march to the front.

Bertha had grieved deeply, though quietly, in the brave, uncomplaining, submissive spirit peculiar to her, at bidding adieu to her dear father,—to Gustave, and Fritz, and Carl, her brothers,—but she grieved no less at parting with Heinrich Holberg. The two children had always been to each other the best and dearest of friends. Almost from her babyhood, Heinrich had called Bertha his "little wife," and she had early learned to play the character, in the most demure and charming manner. She had for him a tender and clinging affection; she believed in him with all her heart, and he was not altogether unworthy of such love and confidence,—he was a very good boy, as boys go.

Well, Heinrich marched away with the rest of the admirable German band, proudly and gayly they said,—the pluckiest of drummer-boys. But he had seemed neither proud nor gay, a few hours before, when he had run down to the little lakeside farm, to take leave of his aunt and cousin. He had looked pale and very sad. He had said farewell in a voice choked with sobs, and when he ran down the little garden walk to the road, great tears were dropping fast on the bright buttons of his new uniform. His "little wife" went to her little chamber, knelt down beside her little bed, and said a little prayer for him,—then dashed the bitter dew from her sweet violet eyes, and went about her household duties, like the dear little woman that she was.

Alas, it was the same old sad story! The father was killed at Pittsburg Landing, and the oldest brother wounded and taken captive: he afterwards died in Libby Prison. The second brother returned home, after a year's hard marching and fighting, a pale, wan invalid, with one sleeve of his worn blue coat hanging empty. The third brother is now an officer in the triumphant Union army, and let us thank God for him, for his work is nearly done.

The sorrow of the little German household did not end with the death of the beloved father, and of brave Gustave, and the loss of the good right arm of poor Fritz. Heinrich was also taken prisoner, in a sudden night attack on his regiment in Tennessee, and carried off by one of the robber bands of the barbarous Forrest. His tender age, and gentle, prepossessing ways, won him no pity. He was shut up, with thousands of others, in one of those horrible slaughter-pens of the South, called a "stockade," where he languished for many months, bearing all his hardships with the utmost sweetness and patience, feeling that his suffering was but a drop to the great ocean of human agony and despair around him.

Heinrich had been religiously brought up, and while many brave men about him lost all faith and hope, and believed themselves forgotten by the God who made them, he believed that over their loathsome prison-yard hovered hosts of pitying angels, and that above and around the vast field of fraternal strife brooded an infinite fatherly love, and "the peace of God that passeth all understanding." He had never a doubt but that Heaven was very near to their prison-pen,—that the "many mansions" of the Father would be all open to those martyrs of freedom,—that there rest and sweet refreshment awaited them,—that there pitiless hate and cruel wounds, hunger and fierce heat and bitter cold, would torture them no more forever.

From the time of his capture, nothing more was heard of poor Heinrich in his sad home on the Lake shore, and he was at last given up as dead by all his friends, except little Bertha. She had a "feeling," she said, that he was living still, and would come back one day, if only she could keep up heart for him. He might be so weak and ill, she thought, that he would die if she once should give him up,—but not till then. O little woman, great was thy faith! Bertha knew not that she was already called by neighbors and friends "the little widow." She would have passionately rejected the title. She "could not make him dead."

She had little time for fretting about her absent friend. Her mother's brave spirit had bent under the successive burdens of sorrow, and her bodily strength for a while gave way. Carl, the invalid soldier, had much difficulty in managing the affairs of the farm, and nearly all the cares of the household came upon Bertha. O, nobly she bore herself under them. She so completely took the place of her sick mother, that all went well in that humble and peaceful home, till the bitterest trouble was past, and the good mother rallied and was able to take part of the burden of labor and care, which, however cheerfully borne, was quite too heavy for such young shoulders.

Bertha's wise little head was perplexed. There was to be a great Sanitary fair in the city near by, and she felt a passionate desire to contribute something towards the great and good work. What could she do? She was not rich enough to give money; she could not paint nor embroider; she had not the skill to manufacture elegant trifles; she was not old or pretty or fashionable enough to stand behind one of the tables. What could she do?

At last it occurred to her that she could contribute to the refreshment department a roll of butter of her own churning, from the milk of her own little snow-white cow. So, with her good mother's consent, she saved all the cream off the rich milk of her pet for a week, and dedicated the golden product to the soldiers. She had two churnings, and the result was five pounds of delicious butter. Her pleasant work was done in the open air, before the side-door of the cottage, in sight of the beautiful lake. On the day of her second churning, her thoughts were peculiarly sweet and cheerful. She sung as gayly as the robin, nestling in the vine-leaves over the cottage window. Her soul was as serene as the sky, her heart as tranquil as the lake, sleeping in the still sunshine.

As Bertha worked with all the strength of her vigorous little arms, and with a gay good-will, little jets of cream now and then spirted up around the dasher, sometimes sprinkling her round, rosy face, and once or twice reaching her smiling lips to dissolve in sweetness there; and she said to herself, "How many sweet and beautiful things have gone to make up this golden cream!—the tender bloom of the early summer clover and daisies, and dew and sunshine, and by and by, when it hardens into more golden butter, and goes to the 'Sanitary,' won't more beautiful things still be added to it?—pity, and love, and patriotism, and the blessing of God?" Then her thoughts wandered, and her face clouded, and she murmured, "O our poor sick and wounded soldiers! O the poor prisoners! O my poor, dear Heinrich!"

Just then she heard her mother call her in an eager, trembling voice. She ran into the cottage to see, seated in the neat kitchen, a young soldier, in a faded and tattered uniform,—a pale, emaciated figure, childlike in weakness, but old in suffering.

Bertha knew him rather by heart than by sight, and, falling on his neck, cried, "Dear, dear Heinrich! I have always said the Lord would bring you back, and He has, has n't he?"

"Yes, little wife, all that the Rebels have left of me."

The drummer-boy's story was sad and strange but such stories are painfully common now-a-days. He had escaped from the stockade with a party of friends; they had been chased by bloodhounds and all retaken. Heinrich escaped again, alone; he was befriended, fed, guided by loyal negroes; he made his way, on foot, through the mountains of Tennessee, and, after countless hardships and adventures, reached the glorious Northwest, and his home. He was ill with a disease brought on by starvation and exposure, and though he had no battle-wounds to show, there were, on his neck and arms, the terrible marks of the bloodhound's teeth,—surely honorable scars. On the whole, Bertha Johansen thought her cousin Heinrich a hero, and I think she was right.

But to return to the Sanitary butter,—"the little widow's mite." Bertha made it up into beautiful rolls, which she printed with a stamp representing buttercups and clover-flowers, and it looked deliciously tempting. "There is only five pounds," she said, as she walked towards the Fair Grounds, bearing her offering in a neat basket, covered with a snowy napkin. "Only five pounds; how I wish there were fifty. If our dear Lord were only here on earth, He could easily make them fifty. If He could multiply loaves of bread, I suppose He could rolls of butter. But, O dear, He is n't here!"

Dear Bertha, our Lord is always on earth, in the hearts of good men and women,—is always ready to work through them His miracles of love and mercy.

Bertha presented her humble gift most modestly to one of the lady managers, who received it very graciously. This lady was one of Bertha's neighbors, and knew of her beautiful life of duty, obedience, and cheerful self-sacrifices.

She told the simple story of the child to some friends about her, and showed the five rolls of golden butter. A group of gentlemen soon gathered near. "I will give a dollar a pound for that butter," said one. "I will give two," called out another. Then there was a laugh. Then other bids were made,—three, four, five dollars. It was getting to be a nice little frolic, and those grave business men entered into it like boys. Higher and higher they went, till at last Bertha's butter was knocked down at fifty dollars,—ten dollars a pound.

As the purchaser laid down a roll of "greenbacks" for the golden rolls of butter, a gust of wind caught the bills and blew them over the counter, where the lady secured them. "So riches fly away in your Sanitary Fairs," said the gentleman, smiling. "Yes," replied the lady, "but with healing on their wings."