What Was the Matter?, by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps
I could not have been more than seven or eight years old, when it
happened; but it might have been yesterday. Among all other childish
memories, it stands alone. To this very day it brings with it the old,
utter sinking of the heart, and the old, dull sense of mystery.
To read what I have to say, you should have known my mother. To
understand it, you should understand her. But that is quite impossible
now, for there is a quiet spot over the hill, and past the church, and
beside the little brook where the crimsoned mosses grow thick and wet
and cool, from which I cannot call her. It is all I have left of her
now. But after all, it is not of her that you will chiefly care to hear.
My object is simply to acquaint you with a few facts, which, though
interwoven with the events of her life, are quite independent of it as
objects of interest. It is, I know, only my own heart that makes these
pages a memorial,—but, you see, I cannot help it.
Yet, I confess, no glamour of any earthly love has ever entirely dazzled
me,—not even hers. Of imperfections, of mistakes, of sins, I knew she
was guilty. I know it now; even with the sanctity of those crimsoned
mosses, and the hush of the rest beneath, so close to my heart, I cannot
forget them. Yet somehow—I do not know how—the imperfections, the
mistakes, the very sins, bring her nearer to me as the years slip by,
and make her dearer.
My mother was what we call an aristocrat. I do not like the term, as the
term is used. I am sure she does not now; but I have no other word. She
was a royal-looking woman, and she had the blood of princes in her
veins. Generations back,—how we children used to reckon the thing
over!—she was cradled in a throne. A miserable race, to be sure, they
were,—the Stuarts; and the most devout genealogist might deem it
dubious honor to own them for great-grand-fathers by innumerable degrees
removed. So she used to tell us, over and over, as a damper on our
childish vanity, looking such a very queen as she spoke, in every play
of feature, and every motion of her hand, that it was the old story of
preachers who did not practise. The very baby was proud of her. The
beauty of a face, and the elegant repose of a manner, are influences by
no means more unfelt at three years than at thirty.
As insanity will hide itself away, and lie sleeping, and die out,—while
old men are gathered to their fathers scathless, and young men follow in
their footsteps safe and free,—and start into life, and claim its own
when children's children have forgotten it; as a single trait of a
single scholar in a race of clods will bury itself in day-laborers and
criminals, unto the third and fourth generation, and spring then, like a
creation from a chaos, into statesmen and poets and sculptors;—so, I
have sometimes fancied, the better and truer nature of voluptuaries and
tyrants was sifted down through the years, and purified in our little
New England home, and the essential autocracy of monarchical blood
refined and ennobled, in my mother, into royalty.
A broad and liberal culture had moulded her; she knew its worth, in
every fibre of her heart; scholarly parents had blessed her with their
legacies of scholarly mind and name. With the soul of an artist, she
quivered under every grace and every defect; and the blessing of a
beauty as rare as rich had been given to her. With every instinct of her
nature recoiling from the very shadow of crimes the world winks at, the
family record had been stainless for a generation. God had indeed
blessed her; but the very blessing was a temptation.
I knew, before she left me, what she might have been, but for the
merciful and tender watch of Him who was despised and rejected of men. I
know, for she told me, one still night when we were alone together, how
she sometimes shuddered at herself, and what those daily and hourly
struggles between her nature and her Christianity meant.
I think we were as near to one another as mother and daughter can be,
but yet as different. Since I have been talking in such lordly style of
those miserable Jameses and Charleses, I will take the opportunity to
confess that I have inherited my father's thorough-going
democracy,—double measure, pressed down and running over. She not only
pardoned it, but I think she loved it in me, for his sake.
It was about a year and a half, I think, after he died, that she sent
for Aunt Alice to come to Creston. "Your aunt loves me," she said, when
she told us in her quiet way, "and I am so lonely now."
They had been the only children, and they loved each other,—how much, I
afterwards knew. And how much they love each other now, I like to
think,—quite freely and fully, and without shadow or doubt between
them, I dare to hope.
A picture of Aunt Alice always hung in mother's room. It was taken down
years ago. I never asked her where she put it. I remember it, though,
quite well; for mother's sake I am glad I do. For it was a pleasant face
to look upon, and a young, pure, happy face,—beautiful too, though with
none of the regal beauty crowned by my mother's massive hair, and
pencilled brows. It was a timid, girlish face, with reverent eyes, and
ripe, tremulous lips,—weak lips, as I remember them. From babyhood, I
felt a want in the face. I had, of course, no capacity to define it; it
was represented to me only by the fact that it differed from my
She was teaching school out West when mother sent for her. I saw the
letter. It was just like my mother: "Alice, I need you. You and I ought
to have but one home now. Will you come?"
I saw, too, a bit of postscript to the answer: "I'm not fit that you
should love me so, Marie."
And how mother laughed at it!
When it was all settled, and the waiting weeks became at last a single
day, I hardly knew my mother. She was so full of fitful moods, and
little fantastic jokes! such a flush on her cheeks too, as she ran to
the window every five minutes, like a child! I remember how we went all
over the house together, she and I, to see that everything looked neat,
and bright, and welcome. And how we lingered in the guest-room, to put
the little finishing touches to its stillness, and coolness, and
coseyness. The best spread was on the bed, and the white folds smoothed
as only mother's fingers could smooth them; the curtain freshly washed,
and looped with its crimson cord; the blinds drawn, cool and green; the
late afternoon sunlight slanting through, in flecks upon the floor.
There were flowers, too, upon the table. I remember they were all
white,—lilies of the valley, I think; and the vase of Parian marble,
itself a solitary lily, unfolding stainless leaves. Over the mantle she
had hung the finest picture in the house,—an "Ecce Homo," and an
exquisite engraving. It used to hang in grandmother's room in the old
house. We children wondered a little that she took it upstairs.
"I want your aunt to feel at home, and see some things," she said. "I
wish I could think of something more to make it pleasant in here."
Just as we left the room she turned and looked into it. "Pleasant, isn't
it? I am so glad, Sarah," her eyes dimming a little. "She's a very dear
sister to me."
She stepped in again to raise a stem of the lilies that had fallen from
the vase and lay like wax upon the table, then she shut the door and
That door was shut just so for years; the lonely bars of sunlight
flecked the solitude of the room, and the lilies faded on the table. We
children passed it with hushed footfall, and shrank from it at twilight,
as from a room that held the dead. But into it we never went.
Mother was tired out that afternoon; for she had been on her feet all
day, busied in her loving cares to make our simple home as pleasant and
as welcome as home could be. But yet she stopped to dress us in our
Sunday clothes,—and it was no sinecure to dress three persistently
undressable children; Winthrop was a host in himself. "Auntie must see
us look our prettiest," she said.
She was a sight for an artist when she came down. She had taken off her
widow's cap and coiled her heavy hair low in her neck, and she always
looked like a queen in that lustreless black silk. I do not know why
these little things should have made such an impression on me then.
They are priceless to me now. I remember how she looked, framed there in
the doorway, while we were watching for the coach,—the late light
ebbing in golden tides over the grass at her feet, and touching her face
now and then through the branches of trees, her head bent a little, with
eager, parted lips, and the girlish color on her cheeks, her hand
shading her eyes as they strained for a sight of the lumbering coach.
She must have been a magnificent woman when she was young,—not unlike,
I have heard it said, to that far-off ancestress whose name she bore,
and whose sorrowful story has made her sorrowful beauty immortal.
Somewhere abroad there is a reclining statue of Queen Mary, to which,
when my mother stood beside it, her resemblance was so strong that the
by-standers clustered about her, whispering curiously. "Ah, mon Dieu!"
said a little Frenchman aloud, "c'est une résurrection."
We must have tried her that afternoon, Clara and Winthrop and I; for the
spirit of her own excitement had made us completely wild. Winthrop's
scream of delight, when, stationed on the gate-post, he caught the first
sight of the old yellow coach, might have been heard a quarter of a
"Coming?" said mother, nervously, and stepped out to the gate, full in
the sunlight that crowned her like royal gold.
The coach lumbered on, and rattled up, and passed.
"Why, she hasn't come!" All the eager color died out of her face. "I am
so disappointed!"—speaking like a troubled child, and turning slowly
into the house.
Then, after a while, she drew me aside from the others,—I was the
oldest, and she was used to make a sort of confidence between us,
instinctively, as it seemed, and often quite forgetting how very few my
years were. "Sarah, I don't understand. You think she might have lost
the train? But Alice is so punctual. Alice never lost a train. And she
said she would come." And then, a while after, "I don't understand."
It was not like my mother to worry. The next day the coach lumbered up
and rattled past, and did not stop,—and the next, and the next.
"We shall have a letter," mother said, her eyes saddening every
afternoon. But we had no letter. And another day went by, and another.
"She is sick," we said; and mother wrote to her, and watched for the
lumbering coach, and grew silent day by day. But to the letter there was
Ten days passed. Mother came to me one afternoon to ask for her pen,
which I had borrowed. Something in her face troubled me vaguely.
"What are you going to do, mother?"
"Write to your aunt's boarding-place. I can't bear this any longer." She
spoke sharply. She had already grown unlike herself.
She wrote, and asked for an answer by return of mail.
It was on a Wednesday, I remember, that we looked for it. I came home
early from school. Mother was sewing at the parlor window, her eyes
wandering from her work, up the road. It was an ugly day. It had rained
drearily from eight o'clock till two, and closed in suffocating mist,
creeping and dense and chill. It gave me a childish fancy of long-closed
tombs and low-land graveyards, as I walked home in it.
I tried to keep the younger children quiet when we went in, mother was
so nervous. As the early, uncanny twilight fell, we grouped around her
timidly. A dull sense of awe and mystery clung to the night, and clung
to her watching face, and clung even then to that closed room upstairs
where the lilies were fading.
Mother sat leaning her head upon her hand, the outline of her face dim
in the dusk against the falling curtain. She was sitting so when we
heard the first rumble of the distant coach-wheels. At the sound, she
folded her hands in her lap and stirred a little, rose slowly from her
chair, and sat down again.
I crept up to her. At the near sight of her face, I was so frightened I
could have cried.
"Sarah, you may go out and get the letter. I—I can't."
I went slowly out at the door and down the walk. At the gate I looked
back. The outline of her face was there against the window-pane, white
in the gathering gloom.
It seems to me that my older and less sensitive years have never known
such a night. The world was stifling in a deluge of gray, cold mists,
unstirred by a breath of air. A robin with feathers all ruffled, and
head hidden, sat on the gate-post, and chirped a little mournful chirp,
like a creature dying in a vacuum. The very daisy that nodded and
drooped in the grass at my feet seemed to be gasping for breath. The
neighbor's house, not forty paces across the street, was invisible. I
remember the sensation it gave me, as I struggled to find its outlines,
of a world washed out, like the figures I washed out on my slate. As I
trudged, half frightened, into the road, and the fog closed about me, it
seemed to my childish superstition like a horde of long-imprisoned
ghosts let loose, and angry. The distant sound of the coach, which I
could not see, added to the fancy.
The coach turned the corner presently. On a clear day I could see the
brass buttons on the driver's coat at that distance. There was nothing
visible now of the whole dark structure but the two lamps in front, like
the eyes of some evil thing, glaring and defiant, borne with swift
motion down upon me by a power utterly unseen,—it had a curious effect.
Even at this time, I confess I do not like to see a lighted carriage
driven through a fog.
I summoned all my little courage, and piped out the driver's name,
standing there in the road.
He reined up his horses with a shout,—he had nearly driven over me.
After some searching, he discovered the small object cowering down in
the mist, handed me a letter, with a muttered oath at being intercepted
on such a night, and lumbered on and out of sight in three rods.
I went slowly into the house. Mother had lighted a lamp, and stood at
the parlor door. She did not come into the hall to meet me.
She took the letter and went to the light, holding it with the seal
unbroken. She might have stood so two minutes.
"Why don't you read, mamma?" spoke up Winthrop. I hushed him.
She opened it then, read it, laid it down upon the table, and went out
of the room without a word. I had not seen her face. We heard her go
upstairs and shut the door.
She had left the letter open there before us. After a little awed
silence, Clara broke out into sobs. I went up and read the few and
Aunt Alice had left for Creston on the appointed day.
Mother spent that night in the closed room where the lilies had drooped
and died. Clara and I heard her pacing the floor till we cried ourselves
to sleep. When we woke in the morning, she was pacing it still.
Weeks wore into months, and the months became many years. More than
that we never knew. Some inquiry revealed the fact, after a while, that
a slight accident had occurred, upon the Erie Railroad, to the train
which she should have taken. There was some disabling, but no deaths,
the conductor had supposed. The car had fallen into the water. She might
not have been missed when the half-drowned passengers were all drawn
So mother added a little crape to her widow's weeds, the key of the
closed room lay henceforth in her drawer, and all things went on as
before. To her children my mother was never gloomy,—it was not her way.
No shadow of household affliction was placed like a skeleton confronting
our uncomprehending joy. Of what those weeks and months and years were
to her—a widow, and quite uncomforted in their dark places by any human
love—she gave no sign. We thought her a shade paler, perhaps. We found
her often alone with her little Bible. Sometimes, on the Sabbath, we
missed her, and knew that she had gone into that closed room. But she
was just as tender with us in our little faults and sorrows, as merry
with us in our plays, as eager in our gayest plans, as she had always
been. As she had always been,—our mother.
And so the years slipped from her and from us. Winthrop went into
business in Boston; he never took to his books, and mother was too wise
to push him through college; but I think she was disappointed. He was
her only boy, and she would have chosen for him the profession of his
father and grandfather. Clara and I graduated in our white dresses and
blue ribbons, like other girls, and came home to mother, crochet-work,
and Tennyson. Just about here is the proper place to begin my story.
I mean that about here our old and long-tried cook, Bathsheba, who had
been an heirloom in the family, suddenly fell in love with the older
sexton, who had rung the passing-bell for every soul who died in the
village for forty years, and took it into her head to marry him, and
desert our kitchen for his little brown house under the hill.
So it came about that we hunted the township for a handmaiden; and it
also came about that our inquiring steps led us to the poor-house. A
stout, not over-brilliant-looking girl, about twelve years of age, was
to be had for her board and clothes, and such schooling as we could give
her,—in country fashion to be "bound out" till she should be eighteen.
The economy of the arrangement decided in her favor; for, in spite of
our grand descent and grander notions, we were poor enough, after father
died, and the education of three children had made no small gap in our
little principal, and she came.
Her name was a singular one,—Selphar. It always savored too nearly of
brimstone to please me. I used to call her Sel, "for short." She was a
good, sensible, uninteresting-looking girl, with broad face, large
features, and limp, tow-colored curls. They used to hang straight down
about her eyes, and were never otherwise than perfectly smooth. She
proved to be of good temper, which is worth quite as much as brains in a
servant, as honest as the daylight, dull enough at her books, but a
good, plodding worker, if you marked out every step of the way for her
beforehand. I do not think she would ever have discovered the laws of
gravitation; but she might have jumped off a precipice to prove them, if
she had been bidden.
Until she was seventeen, she was precisely like any other rather stupid
girl; never given to novel-reading or fancies; never, frightened by the
dark or ghost-stories; proving herself warmly attached to us, after a
while, and rousing in us, in return, the kindly interest naturally felt
for a faithful servant; but she was not in any respect _un_common,
—quite far from it,—except in the circumstance that she never told a
At seventeen she had a violent attack of diphtheria, and her life hung
by a thread. Mother was as tender and unwearying in her care of her as
the girl's own mother might have been.
From that time, I believe, Sel was immovable in her faith in her
mistress's divinity. Under such nursing as she had, she slowly
recovered, but her old, stolid strength never came back to her. Severe
headaches became of frequent occurrence. Her stout, muscular arms grew
weak. As weeks went on, it became evident in many ways that, though the
diphtheria itself was quite out of her system, it had left her
thoroughly diseased. Strange fits of silence came over her; her
volubility had been the greatest objection we had to her hitherto. Her
face began to wear a troubled look. She was often found in places where
she had stolen away to be alone.
One morning she slept late in her little garret-chamber, and we did not
call her. The girl had gone upstairs the night before crying with the
pain in her temples, and mother, who was always thoughtful of her
servants, said it was a pity to wake her, and, as there were only three
of us, we might get our own breakfast for once. While we were at work
together in the kitchen, Clara heard her kitten mewing out in the snow,
and went to the door to let her in. The creature, possessed by some
sudden frolic, darted away behind the well-curb. Clara was always a bit
of a romp, and, with never a thought of her daintily slippered feet, she
flung her trailing dress over one arm and was off over the three-inch
snow. The cat led her a brisk chase, and she came in flushed and
panting, and pretty, her little feet drenched, and the tip of a Maltese
tail just visible above a great bundle she had made of her apron.
"Why!" said mother, "you have lost your ear-ring."
Clara dropped the kitten with unceremonious haste on the floor, felt of
her little pink ear, shook her apron, and the corners of her mouth went
down into her dimpled chin.
"They're the ones Winthrop sent, of all things in the world!"
"You'd better put on your rubbers, and have a hunt out-doors," said
We hunted out-doors,—on the steps, on the well-boards, in the
wood-shed, in the snow; Clara looked down the well till her nose and
fingers were blue, but the ear-ring was not to be found. We hunted
in-doors, under the stove and the chairs and the table, in every
possible and impossible nook, cranny, and crevice, but gave up the
search in despair. It was a pretty trinket,—a leaf of delicately
wrought gold, with a pearl dew-drop on it,—very becoming to Clara, and
the first present Winthrop had sent her from his earnings. If she had
been a little younger she would have cried. She came very near it as it
was, I suspect, for when she went after the plates she stayed in the
cupboard long enough to set two tables.
When we were half through breakfast, Selphar came down, blushing, and
frightened half out of her wits, her apologies tumbling over each other
with such skill as to render each one unintelligible, and evidently
undecided in her own mind whether she was to be hung or burnt at the
"It's no matter at all," said mother, kindly; "I knew you felt sick last
night. I should have called you if I had needed you."
Having set the girl at her ease, as only she could do, she went on with
her breakfast, and we forgot all about her. She stayed, however, in the
room to wait on the table. It was afterwards remembered that she had not
been out of our sight since she came down the garret-stairs. Also, that
her room looked out upon the opposite side of the house from that on
which the well-curb stood.
"Why, look at Sel!" said Clara, suddenly, "she has her eyes shut."
The girl was just passing the toast. Mother spoke to her. "Selphar, what
is the matter?"
"I don't know."
"Why don't you open your eyes?"
"Hand the salt to Miss Sarah."
She took it up and brought it round the table to me, with perfect
"Sel, how you act!" said Clara, petulantly. "Of course you saw."
"Yes'm, I saw," said the girl in a puzzled way, "but my eyes are shut,
Whatever this freak meant, we thought best to take no notice of it. My
mother told her, somewhat gravely, that she might sit down until she was
wanted, and we returned to our conversation about the ear-ring.
"Why!" said Sel, with a little jump, "I see your ear-ring. Miss
Clara,—the one with a white drop on the leaf. It's out by the well."
The girl was sitting with her back to the window, her eyes, to all
appearance, tightly closed.
"It's on the right-hand side, under the snow, between the well and the
wood-pile. Why, don't you see?"
Clara began to look frightened, mother displeased.
"Selphar," she said, "this is nonsense. It is impossible for you to see
through the walls of two rooms and a wood-shed."
"May I go and get it?" said the girl, quietly.
"Sel," said Clara, "on your word and honor, are your eyes shut
"If they ain't, Miss Clara, then they never was."
Sel never told a lie. We looked at each other, and let her go. I
followed her out and kept my eyes on her closed lids. She did not once
raise them; nor did they tremble, as lids will tremble, if only
She walked without the slightest hesitation directly to the well-curb,
to the spot which she had mentioned, stooped down, and brushed away the
three-inch fall of snow. The ear-ring lay there, where it had sunk in
falling. She picked it up, carried it in, and gave it to Clara.
That Clara had the thing on when she started after her kitten, there
could be no doubt. She and I both remembered it. That Sel, asleep on
the opposite side of the house, could not have seen it drop, was also
settled. That she, with her eyes closed and her back to the window, had
seen through three walls and through three inches of snow, at a distance
of fifty feet, was an inference.
"I don't believe it!" said my mother, "it's some nonsensical mistake."
Clara looked a little pale, and I laughed.
We watched her carefully through the day. Her eyes remained tightly
closed. She understood all that was said to her, answered correctly, but
did, not seem inclined to talk. She went about her work as usual, and
performed it without a mistake. It could not be seen that she groped at
all with her hands to feel her way, as is the case with the blind. On
the contrary, she touched everything with her usual decision. It was
impossible to believe, without seeing them, that her eyes were closed.
We tied a handkerchief tightly over them; see through it or below it she
could not, if she had tried. We then sent her into the parlor, with
orders to bring from the book-case two Bibles which had been given as
prizes to Clara and me at school, when we were children. The books were
of precisely the same size, color, and texture. Our names in gilt
letters were printed upon the binding. We followed her in, and watched
her narrowly. She went directly to the book-case, laid her hands upon
the books at once, and brought them to my mother. Mother changed them
from hand to hand several times, and turned them with the gilt lettering
downwards upon her lap.
"Now, Selphar, which is Miss Sarah's?"
The girl quietly took mine up. The experiment was repeated and varied
again and again. In every case the result was the same. She made no
mistake. It was no guess-work. All this was done with the bandage
tightly drawn about her eyes. She did not see those letters with them.
That evening we were sitting quietly in the dining-room. Selphar sat a
little apart with her sewing, her eyes still closed. We kept her with
us, and kept her in sight. The parlor, which was a long room, was
between us and the front of the house. The distance was so great that we
had often thought, if prowlers were to come around at night, how
impossible it would be to hear them. The curtains and shutters were
closely drawn. Sel was sitting by the fire. Suddenly she turned pale,
dropped her sewing, and sprang from her chair.
"Robbers, robbers!" she cried. "Don't you see? they're getting in the
east parlor window! There's three of 'em, and a lantern. They've just
opened the window,—hurry, hurry!"
"I believe the girl is insane," said mother, decidedly. Nevertheless,
she put out the light, opened the parlor door noiselessly, and went in.
The east window was open. There was a quick vision of three men and a
dark lantern. Then Clara screamed, and it disappeared. We went to the
window, and saw the men running down the street. The snow the next
morning was found trodden down under the window, and their footprints
were traced out to the road.
When we went back to the other room, Selphar was standing in the middle
of it, a puzzled, frightened look on her face, her eyes wide open.
"Selphar," said my mother, a little suspiciously, "how did you know the
robbers were there?"
"Robbers!" said the girl, aghast.
She knew nothing of the robbers. She knew nothing of the ear-ring. She
remembered nothing that had happened since she went up the garret-stairs
to bed, the night before. And, as I said, the girl was as honest as the
sunlight. When we told her what had happened, she burst into terrified
For some time after this there was no return of the "tantrums," as
Selphar had called the condition, whatever it was. I began to get up
vague theories of a trance state. But mother said, "Nonsense!" and Clara
was too much frightened to reason at all about the matter.
One Sunday morning Sel complained of a headache. There was service that
evening, and we all went to church. Mother let Sel take the empty seat
in the carryall beside her.
It was very dark when we started to come home. But Creston was a safe
old Orthodox town, the roads were filled with returning church-goers
like ourselves, and mother drove like a man. A darker night I think I
have never seen. Literally, we could not see a hand before our eyes. We
met a carriage on a narrow road and the horses' heads touched, before
either driver had seen the other.
Selphar had been quite silent during the drive. I leaned forward, looked
closely into her face, and could dimly see through the darkness that her
eyes were closed.
"Why!" she said at last, "see those gloves!"
"Down in the ditch; we passed them before I spoke. I see them on a
blackberry-bush; they've got little brass buttons on the wrist."
Three rods past now, and we could not see our horse's head.
"Selphar," said my mother, quickly, "what is the matter with you?"
"If you please, ma'am, I don't know," replied the girl, hanging her
head. "May I get out and bring 'em to you?"
Prince was reined up, and Sel got out. She went so far back, that,
though we strained our eyes to do it, we could not see her. In about two
minutes she came up, a pair of gentleman's gloves in her hand. They were
rolled together, were of cloth so black that on a bright night it would
never have been seen, and had small brass buttons at the wrist.
Mother took them without a word.
The story leaked out somehow, and spread all over town. It raised a
great hue and cry. Four or five antediluvian ladies declared at once
that we were nothing more nor less than a family of "them spirituous
mediums," and seriously proposed to expel mother from the
prayer-meeting. Masculine Creston did worse. It smiled a pitying smile,
and pronounced the whole thing the fancy of "scared women-folks." I
could endure with calmness any slander upon earth but that. I bore it a
number of weeks, till at last, driven by despair, I sent for Winthrop,
and stated the case to him in a condition of suppressed fury. He very
politely bit back an incredulous smile, and said he should be very
happy to see her perform. The answer was somewhat dubious. I accepted it
in silent suspicion.
He came on a Saturday noon. That afternoon we attended en masse one of
those refined inquisitions commonly known as picnics, and Winthrop lost
his pocket-knife. Selphar, of course, kept house at home.
When we returned, Winthrop made some careless reference to his loss in
her presence, and thought no more of it. About half an hour after, we
observed that she was washing the dishes with her eyes shut. The
condition had not been upon her five minutes before she dropped the
spoon suddenly into the water, and asked permission to go out to walk.
She "saw Mr. Winthrop's knife somewhere under a stone, and wanted to get
it." It was fully two miles to the picnic grounds, and nearly dark.
Winthrop followed the girl, unknown to her, and kept her in sight. She
went rapidly, and without the slightest hesitation or search, to an
out-of-the-way gully down by the pond, where Winthrop afterwards
remembered having gone to cut some willow-twigs for the girls, parted a
thick cluster of bushes, lifted a large, loose stone under which the
knife had rolled, and picked it up. She returned it to Winthrop,
quietly, and hurried away about her work to avoid being thanked.
I observed that, after this incident, masculine Creston became more
Of several peculiarities in this development of the girl I made at the
time careful memoranda, and the exactness of these can be relied upon.
1. She herself, so far from attempting to bring on these trance states,
or taking any pride therein, was intensely troubled and mortified by
them,—would run out of the room, if she felt them coming on in the
presence of visitors.
2. They were apt to be preceded by severe headaches, but came often
without any warning.
3. She never, in any instance, recalled anything that happened during
the trance, after it was passed.
4. She was powerfully and unpleasantly affected by electricity from a
battery, or acting in milder forms. She was also unable at any time to
put her hands and arms into hot water; the effect was to paralyze them
5. Space proved to be no impediment to her vision. She has been known to
follow the acts, words, and expressions of countenance of members of the
family hundreds of miles away, with accuracy as was afterwards proved by
comparing notes as to time.
6. The girl's eyes, after her trances became habitual, assumed, and
always retained, the most singular expression I ever saw on any face.
They were oblong and narrow, and set back in her head like the eyes of a
snake. They were not—smile if you will, O practical and incredulous
reader! but they were not—eyes. The eyes of Elsie Venner are the only
eyes I can think of as at all like them. The most horrible circumstance
about them—a circumstance that always made me shudder, familiar as I
was with it—was, that, though turned fully on you, they never looked
at you. Something behind them or out of them did the seeing, not they.
7. She not only saw substance, but soul. She has repeatedly told me my
thoughts when they were upon subjects to which she could not by any
possibility have had the slightest clew.
8. We were never able to detect a shadow of deceit about her.
9. The clairvoyance never failed in any instance to be correct, so far
as we were able to trace it.
As will be readily imagined, the girl became a useful member of the
family. The lost valuables restored and the warnings against mischances
given by her quite balanced her incapacity for peculiar kinds of work.
This incapacity, however, rather increased than diminished; and,
together with her fickle health, which also grew more unsettled, caused
us a great deal of care. The Creston physician—who was a keen man in
his way, for a country doctor—pronounced the case altogether undreamt
of before in Horatio's philosophy, and kept constant notes of it. Some
of these have, I believe, found their way into the medical journals.
After a while there came, like a thief in the night, that which I
suppose was poor Selphar's one unconscious, golden mission in this
world. It came on a quiet summer night, that ended a long trance of a
week's continuance. Mother had gone out into the kitchen to give an
order for breakfast. I heard a few eager words in Selphar's voice, and
then the door shut quickly, and it was an hour before it was opened.
Then my mother came to me without a particle of color in lips or cheek,
and drew me away alone, and told the secret to me.
Selphar had seen Aunt Alice.
We sat down and looked at one another. There was a singular, pinched
look about my mother's mouth.
"She says"—and then she told me what she said. She had seen Alice
Stuart in a Western town, seven hundred miles away. Among the living,
she desired to be counted of the dead. And that was all.
My mother paced the room three times back and forth, her hands locked.
"Sarah." There was a chill in her voice—it had been such a gentle
voice!—that froze me. "Sarah, the girl is an impostor."
She paced the room once more, three times, back and forth. "At any rate,
she is a poor, self-deluded creature. How can she see, seven hundred
miles away, a dead woman who has been an angel all these years? Think!
an angel, Sarah! So much better than I, and I—I loved—"
Before or since, I never heard my mother speak like that. She broke off
sharply, and froze back into her chilling voice.
"We will say nothing about this, if you please. I do not believe a word
We said nothing about it but Selphar did. The delusion, if delusion it
were, clung to her, haunted her, pursued her, week after week. To rid
her of it, or to silence her, was impossible. She added no new facts to
her first statement, but insisted that the long-lost dead was yet alive,
with a quiet pertinacity that it was simply impossible to ridicule,
frighten, threaten, or cross-question out of her. Clara was so
thoroughly alarmed that she would not have slept alone for any
mortal—perhaps not for any immortal—considerations. Winthrop and I
talked the matter over often and gravely when we were alone and in quiet
places. Mother's lips were sealed. From the day when Sel made the first
disclosure, she was never heard once to refer to the matter. A
perceptible haughtiness crept into her manner towards the girl. She even
talked of dismissing her, but repented it, and melted into momentary
gentleness. I could have cried over her that night. I was beginning to
understand what a pitiful struggle her life had become, and how alone
she must be in it. She would not believe—she knew not what. She could
not doubt the girl. And with the conflict even her children could not
To understand the crisis into which she was brought, the reader must
bear in mind our long habit of belief, not only in Selphar's personal
honesty, but in the infallibility of her mysterious power. Indeed, it
had almost ceased to be mysterious to us, from daily familiarity. We had
come to regard it as the curious working of physical disease, had taken
its results as a matter of course, and had ceased, in common with
converted Creston, to doubt the girl's capacity for seeing anything that
she chose to, at any place.
Thus a year worried on. My mother grew sleepless and pallid. She laughed
often, in a nervous, shallow way, as unlike her as a butterfly is unlike
a sunset; and her face settled into an habitual sharpness and hardness
unutterably painful to me.
Once only I ventured to break into the silence of the haunting thought
that, she knew and we knew, was never escaped by either. "Mother, it
would do no harm for Winthrop to go out West, and—"
She interrupted me sternly: "Sarah, I had not thought you capable of
such childish superstition, I wish that girl and her nonsense had never
come into this house!"—turning sharply away, and out of the room.
But year and struggle ended. They ended at last, as I had prayed every
night and morning of it that they should end. Mother came into my room
one night, locked the door behind her, and walking over to the window,
stood with her face turned from me, and softly spoke my name.
But that was all, for a little while. Then,—"Sick and in suffering,
Sarah! The girl,—she may be right; God Almighty knows! Sick and in
suffering, you see! I am going—I think." Then her voice broke.
Creston put on its spectacles and looked wise on learning, the next day,
that Mrs. Dugald had taken the earliest morning train for the West, on
sudden and important business. It was precisely what Creston expected,
and just like the Dugalds for all the world—gone to hunt up material
for that genealogical book, or map, or tree, or something, that they
thought nobody knew they were going to publish. O yes, Creston
understood it perfectly.
Space forbids me to relate in detail the clews which Selphar had given
as to the whereabouts of the wanderer. Her trances, just at this time,
were somewhat scarce and fragmentary, and the information she had
professed to give had come in snatches and very imperfectly,—the trance
being apt to end suddenly at the moment when some important question was
pending, and then, of course, all memory of what she had said, or was
about to say, was gone. The names and appearance of persons and places
necessary to the search had, however, been given with sufficient
distinctness to serve as a guide in my mother's rather chimerical
undertaking. I suppose ninety-nine persons out of a hundred would have
thought her a candidate for the State Lunatic Asylum. Exactly what she
herself expected, hoped, or feared, I think it doubtful if she knew. I
confess to a condition of simple bewilderment, when she was fairly gone,
and Clara and I were left alone with Selphar's ghostly eyes forever on
us. One night I had to lock the poor thing into her garret-room before I
Just three weeks from the day on which mother started for the West, the
coach rattled up to the door, and two women, arm in arm, came slowly up
the walk. The one, erect, royal, with her great steadfast eyes alight;
the other, bent and worn, gray-haired and shallow and dumb, crawling
feebly through the golden afternoon sunshine, as the ghost of a glorious
life might crawl back to its grave.
Mother threw open the door, and stood there like a queen. "Children,
your aunt has come home. She is too tired to talk just now. By and by
she will be glad to see you."
We took her gently upstairs, into the room where the lilies were
mouldering to dust, and laid her down upon the bed. She closed her eyes
wearily, turned her face over to the wall, and said no word.
What was the story of those tired eyes I never asked and I never knew.
Once, as I passed the room, I saw,—and have always been glad that I
saw,—through the open door, the two women lying with their arms about
each other's neck, as they used to do when they were children together,
and above them, still and watchful, the wounded Face that had waited
there so many years for this.
She lingered weakly there, within the restful room, for seven days, and
then one morning we found her with her eyes upon the thorn-crowned Face,
her own quite still and smiling.
A little funeral train wound away one night behind the church, and left
her down among those red-cup mosses that opened in so few months again
to cradle the sister who had loved her. Her name only, by mother's
orders, marked the headstone.
* * * * *
I have given you facts. Explain them as you will. I do not attempt it,
for the simple reason that I cannot.
A word must be said as to the fate of poor Sel, which was mournful
enough. Her trances grew gradually more frequent and erratic, till she
became so thoroughly diseased in mind and body as to be entirely
unfitted for household work, and, in short, nothing but an encumbrance.
We kept her, however, for the sake of charity, and should have done so
till her poor, tormented life wore itself out; but after the advent of a
new servant, and my mother's death, she conceived the idea that she was
a burden, cried over it a few weeks, and at last, one bitter winter's
night, she disappeared. We did not give up all search for her for years,
but nothing was ever heard from her. He, I hope, who permitted life to
be such a terrible mystery to her, has cared for her somehow, and kindly