By Timothy Shay Arthur, 1853
There are few positions in social life of greater trial and responsibility than that of a step-mother; and it too rarely happens that the woman who assumes this position, is fitted for the right discharge of its duties. In far too many cases, the widower is accepted as a husband because he has a home, or a position to offer — while the children are considered as a drawback in the bargain. But it sometimes happens, that a true woman, from genuine affection, unites herself with a widower, and does it with a loving regard for his children, and with the purpose in her mind of being to them, as far as in her power lies, a wise and tender mother.
Such a woman was Agnes Green. She was in her thirty-second year when Mr. Edward Arnold, a widower with four children, asked her to become his wife.
At twenty-two, Agnes had loved as only a true woman can love. But the object of that love proved himself unworthy, and she turned away from him. None knew how deep the heart-trial through which she passed — none knew how intensely she suffered. In part, her pale face and sobered brow witnessed, but only in part; for many said she was cold, and some even used the word heartless, when they spoke of her.
From early womanhood, a beautiful ideal of manly excellence had filled her mind; and with this ideal she had invested one who proved false to the high character. At once the green things of her heart withered, and for a long time its surface was a barren waste. But the woman was yet strong in her. She must love something. So she came forth from her heart-seclusion, and let her affections, like a refreshing and invigorating stream, flow along many channels. She was the faithful friend, the comforter in affliction, the wise counselor. More than once had she been approached with offers of marriage, by men who saw the excellence of her character, and felt that upon any dwelling, in which she was the presiding spirit, would rest a blessing. But none of them were able to give to the even pulses of her heart, a quicker motion.
At last she met Mr. Arnold. More than three years had passed since the mother of his children was removed by death, and, since that time, he had sought, with all a father's tenderness and devotion, to fill her place to them. How imperfectly, none knew so well as himself. As time went on, the lack of a true woman's affectionate care for his children, was more and more felt. All were girls except the youngest, their ages ranging from twelve downward, and this made their mother's loss so much the more a calamity. Moreover, his feeling of loneliness and lack of companionship, so keenly felt in the beginning, instead of diminishing, increased.
Such was his state of mind when he met Agnes Green. The attraction was mutual, though, at first, no thought of marriage came into the mind of either. A second meeting stirred the placid waters in the bosom of Agnes Green. Conscious of this, and fearful lest the emotion she strove to repress might become apparent to other eyes, she assumed a certain reserve, not seen in the beginning, which only betrayed her secret, and at once interested Mr. Arnold, who now commenced a close observation of her character. With every new aspect in which this was presented, he saw something which awakened admiration; something which drew his spirit nearer to her as one congenial. And not the less close, was her observation.
When, at length, Mr. Arnold solicited the hand of Agnes Green, she was ready to respond. Not, however, in a selfish and self-seeking spirit; not in the narrow hope of obtaining some great good for herself, was her response made — but in full view of her woman's power to bless, and with an earnest, holy purpose in her heart, to make her presence in his household indeed a blessing.
"I must know your children better than I know them now, and they must know me better than they do, before I take the place you wish me to assume," was her reply to Mr. Arnold, when he spoke of an early marriage.
And so means were taken to bring her in frequent contact with the children. The first time she met them intimately, was at the house of a friend. Mary, the oldest girl, she found to have a quick temper and was self-willed; Florence, the second, good-natured, but careless and slovenly; while Margaret, the third, was in ill health, and exceedingly peevish. The little brother, Willy, was a beautiful, affectionate child, but in consequence of injudicious management, very badly spoiled. Take them altogether, they presented rather an unpromising aspect; and it is no wonder that Agnes Green had many misgivings at heart, when the new relation contemplated, and its trials and responsibilities, were pictured to her mind.
The earnestly-asked question by Mr. Arnold, after this first interview — "What do you think of my children?" — was not an easy one to answer. A selfish, unscrupulous woman, who looked to the marriage connection as something to be particularly desired on her own account, and who cared little about duties and responsibilities, might have replied, "Oh, they are lovely children!" or, "I am delighted with them!" Not so Agnes Green. She did not reply immediately, but mused for some moments, considerably embarrassed, and in doubt what to say. Mr. Arnold was gazing intently in her face.
"They do not seem to have made a favorable impression," said he, speaking with some disappointment in his tone and manner.
A feeble flush was visible in the face of Agnes Green, and also a slight quiver of the lips as she answered:
"There is too much at stake, as well in your case as my own, to warrant even a shadow of concealment. You ask what I think of your children, and you expect me to answer truly?"
"I do," was the almost solemnly-spoken reply.
"My first hurried, yet tolerably close, observation, has shown me, in each, a groundwork of natural good."
"As their father," replied Mr. Arnold, in some earnestness of manner, "I know there is good in them — much good. But they have needed a mother's care."
"When you have said that, how much has been expressed! If the garden is not cultivated, and every weed carefully removed — how quickly is it overrun with noxious things, and how feeble becomes the growth of all good and beautiful things! It is just so with the mind and heart. Neglect it, and bad habits and evil propensities will assuredly be quickened into being, and attain vigorous life."
"My children are not perfect, I know, but — "
Mr. Arnold seemed slightly hurt. Agnes Green interrupted him, by saying, in a mild voice, as she laid her hand gently upon his arm:
"Do not give my words a meaning beyond what they are designed to convey. If I assume the place of a mother to your children, I take upon myself all the responsibilities that the word 'mother' involves. Is not this so?"
"Thus I understand it."
"My duty will be, not only to train these children for a happy and useful life here — but for a happy and useful life hereafter."
"It is no light thing, Mr. Arnold, to assume the place of a mother to children who, for three years, have not known a mother's affectionate care. I confess that my heart shrinks from the responsibility, and I ask myself over and over again, 'Have I the requisite wisdom, patience, and self-denial?'"
"I believe you have," said Mr. Arnold, who was beginning to see more deeply into the heart of Agnes. "And now," he added, "tell me what you think of my children."
"Mary has a quick temper, and is rather self-willed, if my observation is correct, but she has a warm heart. Florence is thoughtless, and untidy in her person, but possesses a happy temper. Poor Maggy's ill health has, very naturally, soured her disposition. Ah, what can you expect of a suffering child, who has no mother? Your little Willy is a lovely boy, somewhat spoiled — who can wonder at this? — but possessing just the qualities to win kindness for him, from every one."
"I am sure you will love him," said Mr. Arnold, warmly.
"I have no doubt on that subject," replied Agnes Green. "And now," she added, "after what I have said, after showing you that I am quick to see faults, once more give this matter earnest consideration. If I become your wife, and take the place of a mother to these children, I shall, at once — wisely and lovingly, I trust — begin the work of removing from their minds every noxious weed which neglect may have allowed to grow there. The task will be no light one, and, in the beginning, there may be rebellion against my authority. To be harsh or hard is not in my nature. But a sense of duty will make me firm. Once more, I say, give this matter serious consideration. It is not yet too late to pause."
Mr. Arnold bent his head in deep reflection. For many minutes he sat in silent self-communion, and sat thus so long, that the heart of Agnes Green began to beat with a restricted motion, as if there was a heavy pressure on her bosom. At last Mr. Arnold looked up, his eyes suddenly brightening, and his face flushing with animation. Grasping her hands with both of his, he said:
"I have reflected, Agnes, and I do not hesitate. Yes, I will trust these dear ones to your loving guardianship. I will place in your hands, their present and eternal welfare, confident that you will be to them a true mother."
And she was. As often as it could be done before the time appointed for the marriage, she was brought in contact with the children. Almost from the beginning, she was sorry to find in Mary, the oldest child, a reserve of manner, and an evident dislike toward her, which she in vain sought to overcome. The cause of this, she did not know. It had its origin in a remark made by the housekeeper, who, having learned from some gossiping relative of Mr. Arnold that a new wife was soon to be brought home, and, also, who this new wife was to be, made an imprudent allusion to the fact, in a moment of forgetfulness.
"Your new mother will soon put you straight, my little lady!" said she, one day, to Mary, who had tried her beyond all patience.
"My new mother! Who's she, please?" was sharply demanded.
"Miss Green," replied the unreflecting housekeeper. "Your father's going to bring her home one of these days, and make her your mother, and she'll put you all right — she'll take down your fine airs, my lady!"
"Will she?" And Mary, compressing her lips tightly, and drawing up her slender form to its full height, looked the image of defiance.
From that moment, a strong dislike toward Miss Green ruled in the mind of Mary; and she resolved, should the housekeeper's assertion prove true, not only to set the new authority at defiance, but to inspire, if possible, the other children with her own feelings.
The marriage was celebrated at the house of Mr. Arnold, in the presence of his own family and a few particular friends, Agnes arriving at the hour appointed.
After the ceremony, the children were brought forward, and presented to their new mother. The youngest, as if strongly drawn by invisible chords of affection, sprung into her lap, and clasped his little arms lovingly about her neck. He seemed very happy. The others were cold and distant, while Mary fixed her eyes upon the wife of her father, with a look so full of dislike and rebellion, that no one present was in any doubt as to how she regarded the new order of things.
Mr. Arnold was a good deal fretted by this unexpected conduct on the part of Mary; and, forgetful of the occasion and its claims, spoke to her with some sternness. He was recalled to self-possession by the smile of his wife, and her gently-uttered remark, that reached only his own ear:
"Don't seem to notice it. Let it be my task to overcome prejudices."
During the evening Mary did not soften in the least toward her step-mother. On the next morning, when all met, for the first time, at the breakfast table, the children gazed askance at the calm, dignified woman who presided at the table, and seemed ill at ease. On Mary's lip, and in her eye, was an expression so like contempt, that it was with difficulty her father could refrain from ordering her to her own room.
The meal passed in some embarrassment. At its conclusion, Mr. Arnold went into the parlor, and his wife, entering at once upon her duties, accompanied the children to the nursery, to see for herself that the two oldest were properly dressed for school. Mary, who had preceded the rest, was already in contention with the housekeeper. Just as Mrs. Arnold — so we must now call her — entered the room, Mary exclaimed, sharply:
"I don't care what you say, I'm going to wear this bonnet!"
"What's the trouble?" inquired Mrs. Arnold, calmly.
"Why, you see, ma'am," replied the housekeeper, "Mary is bent on wearing her new, pink bonnet to school, and I tell her she mustn't do it. Her old one is good enough."
"Let me see the old one," said Mrs. Arnold. She spoke in a very pleasant tone of voice.
A neat, straw bonnet, with plain, unsoiled trimming, was brought forth by the housekeeper, who remarked:
"It's good enough to wear Sundays, for that matter."
"I don't care if it is, I'm not going to wear it today. So don't bother yourself any more about it."
"Oh, yes, Mary, you will," said Mrs. Arnold, very kindly, yet firmly.
"No, I won't!" was the quick, resolute answer. And she gazed, unflinchingly, into the face of her step-mother.
"I'll call your father, my young lady! This is beyond all endurance!" said the housekeeper, starting for the door.
"Hannah!" The mild, even voice of Mrs. Arnold checked the excited housekeeper. "Don't speak of it to her father — I'm sure she doesn't mean what she says. She'll think better of it in a moment."
Mary was hardly prepared for this. Even while she stood with unchanged exterior, she felt grateful to her step-mother for intercepting the complaint about to be made to her father. She expected some remark or remonstrance from Mrs. Arnold. But in this she was mistaken. The latter, as if nothing unpleasant had occurred, turned to Florence, and after a light examination of her dress, said to the housekeeper:
"This collar is too much soiled; won't you bring me another?"
"Oh, it's clean enough," replied Florence, knitting her brows, and affecting impatience. But, even as she spoke, the quick, yet gentle hands of her step-mother had removed the collar from her neck.
"Do you think it clean enough now?" said she, as she placed the soiled collar beside a fresh one, which the housekeeper had brought.
"It is rather dirty," replied Florence, smiling.
And now Mrs. Arnold examined other articles of her dress, and had them changed, re-arranged her hair, and saw that her teeth were properly brushed. While this was progressing, Mary stood a little apart, a close observer of all that passed. One thing she did not fail to remark, and that was the gentle firmness of her step-mother, which was in strong contrast with the usual scolding, jerking, and impatience of the housekeeper, as manifested on these occasions.
By the time Florence was ready for school, Mary's state of mind had undergone considerable change, and she half regretted the exhibition of ill temper and insulting disobedience she had shown. Yet was she in no way prepared to yield. To her surprise, after Florence was all ready, her step-mother turned to her and said, in a mild, cheerful voice, as if nothing unpleasant had occurred,
"Have you a particular reason for wishing to wear your new bonnet, this morning, Mary?"
"Yes, ma'am, I have." The voice of Mary was changed considerably, and her eyes fell beneath the mild, but penetrating, gaze of her step-mother.
"May I ask you the reason?"
There was a pause of some moments; then Mary replied:
"I promised one of the girls that I'd wear it. She asked me to. She wanted to see it."
"Did you tell Hannah this?"
"No, ma'am. It wouldn't have been any use. She never listens to reason."
"But you'll find me very different, Mary," said Mrs. Arnold, tenderly. "I shall ever be ready to hear reason."
All this was so far from what Mary had anticipated, that her mind was half bewildered. Her step-mother's clear sight penetrated to her very thoughts.
Taking her hand, she drew her gently to her side. An arm was then placed lovingly around her.
"My dear child" — it would have been a hard heart, indeed, that could have resisted the influence of that voice, "let us understand each other in the beginning. You seem to look upon me as an enemy, and yet I wish to be the very best friend you have in the world. I have come here, not as an exacting and overbearing tyrant — but to seek your good and promote your happiness in every possible way. I will love you; and may I not expect love in return? Surely you will not withhold that."
As Mrs. Arnold spoke thus, she felt a slight quiver in the hand she had taken in her own. She continued:
"I cannot hope to fill the place of your dear mother, now in Heaven. Yet even as she loved you, would I love you, my child." The voice of Mrs. Arnold had become unsteady, through excess of feeling. "As she bore with your faults — I will bear with them; as she rejoiced over every good affection born in your heart, so will I rejoice."
Outraged by the conduct of Mary, the housekeeper had gone to Mr. Arnold, whom she found in the parlor, and repeated to him, with a coloring of her own, the insolent language his child had used. The father hurried upstairs in a state of angry excitement. No little surprised was he, on entering the nursery, to see Mary sobbing on the bosom of her step-mother, whose gentle hands were softly pressed upon the child's temples, and whose low, soothing voice was speaking to her words of comfort for the present, and cheerful hope for the future.
Unobserved by either, Mr. Arnold stood for a moment, and then softly retired, with a gush of thankfulness in his heart, that he had found for his children so true and good a mother.
With Mary, there was no more trouble. From that hour, she came wholly under the influence of her step-mother, learning day by day, as she knew her better, to love her with a more confiding tenderness. Wonderful was the change produced on the children of Mr. Arnold in a single year. They had, indeed, found a true mother.
It is painful to think how different would have been the result, had the step-mother not been a true woman. Wise and good she was in her sphere; loving and unselfish; and the fruit of her hand was sweet to the taste, and beautiful to look upon.
How few are like her! How few who assume the position of step-mother — a position requiring patience, long-suffering, and unflinching self-denial — are fitted for the duties they so lightly take upon themselves! Is it any wonder their own lives are made, at times, miserable — or that they mar, by passion or exacting tyranny, the fair face of humanity, in the children committed to their care? Such lose their reward.