The Two Invalids
By Timothy Shay Arthur, 1853
The chamber in which the sick woman lay, was furnished with everything which taste could desire, or comfort demand. Yet, from none of these elegant surroundings, came a sedative for the weary spirit, or a balm to soothe the pain from which she suffered. With heavy eyes, contracted brow, and face almost as white as the lace-fringed pillow it pressed, canopied with rich curtains, she reclined — sighing away the weary hours, or giving, voice to her discontent in fruitless complainings.
She was alone. A little while before, her attendant had left the room, taking with her a child, whose glad spirits — glad because admitted to his mother's presence — had disturbed her.
"Take him out!" she had said, fretfully.
"You must go back to the nursery, dear." The attendant spoke kindly, as she stooped to lift the child in her arms.
"No — no — no. I want to stay here. Do let me stay here, won't you?"
"Mamma is sick, and you disturb her," was answered.
"Oh no. I won't disturb her. I'll be so good."
"Why don't you take him out at once!" exclaimed the mother, in a harsh, excited voice. "It's too much that I can't have a little quiet! He's made my head ache already. What does my nurse mean, by letting him come in here?"
As the screaming child was borne from the room, the sick woman clasped her hand to her temples, murmuring —
"My poor head! It was almost quiet; but now it throbs as if every vein were ready to burst! Why don't they soothe that child?"
But the child screamed on, and his voice came ringing upon her ears. The nurse was cross, and took no pains to hush his cries; so the mother's special attendant remained, for some time, away from the sick-chamber. By slow degrees she succeeded in diverting the child's mind from his disappointment; but it was many minutes after his crying ceased, before he would consent to her leaving him.
In the mean time, the sun's bright rays had found a small opening in one of the curtains which draped the windows, and commenced pouring in a few pencils of light, which fell, in a bright spot, on a picture which hung against the wall; resting, in fact upon the fair forehead of a beautiful maiden, and giving a hue of life to the features. It was like a bit of fairy-work — a touch almost of enchantment. The eyes of the invalid were resting on this picture, as the magic change began to take place.
How the lovely vision, if it might so be called, won her from thoughts of pain! Ah, if we could say so? Raising herself, she grasped the pendent tassel of the bell-rope, and rang with a violent hand; then she sank down with a groan, exhausted by the effort, shut her eyes, and buried her face in the pillow. Leaving the only half-comforted child, her attendant hastily obeyed the summons.
"The sun is blinding me!" said the unhappy invalid, as she entered the chamber. "How could you be so careless in arranging the curtains!"
Soon, the sweet vision which had smiled all so vainly for the poor sufferer — was lost in shadows. There was a subdued light, and almost pulseless silence in the chamber.
"Do take those flowers away, their odor is dreadful to me!"
A beautiful bouquet of sweet flowers, sent by a sympathizing friend, was removed from the chamber. Half an hour afterward — the attendant thought her sleeping — she exclaimed —
"Oh, how that does worry me!"
"What worries you, ma'am?" was kindly asked.
"That doll on the mantel. It is entirely out of place here. I wish you would remove it. Oh, dear, dear! And that looking-glass — straighten it, if you please. I can't bear anything crooked. And there's Mary's hair brush on the bureau — the careless child! She never puts anything away!"
These little annoyances were removed, and the invalid was quiet again — externally quiet, but within all was fretfulness and mental pain.
"There come the children from school," she said, as the ringing of the door-bell and mirthful voices were heard below. "You must keep them away from my room. I feel unusually nervous today, and my head aches badly."
Yet, even while she spoke, two little girls came bounding into the room, crying —
"Oh, mother! Dear mother! We've got something good to tell you. Miss Martin says we've been two of the best — "
The attendant's imperative "H-u-s-h!" and the mother's hand waving toward the door, the motion enforced by a frowning brow, were successful in silencing the pleased and excited children, who, without being permitted to tell the good news they had brought from school, and which they had fondly believed would prove so pleasant to their mother's ears, were almost pushed from the chamber.
No matter of surprise is it, that a quick revulsion took place in their feelings. If the voice of wrangling reached, soon after, the mother's ears, and pained her to the very soul, it lessened not the pressure on her feelings to think that a little self-denial on her part, a little forgetfulness of her own feelings, and a thoughtfulness for them — would have prevented unhappy discord.
And so the day passed; and when evening brought her husband to her bedside, his kind inquiries were answered only by complainings — complainings that made, from mental reactions, bodily suffering the greater. For so long a time had this state of things existed, that her husband was fast losing his usual cheerfulness of temper. He was in no way indifferent to his wife's condition; few men, in fact, could have sympathized more deeply, or sought with more untiring assiduity to lighten the burden which ill-health had laid upon her. But, in her case — thought was all turned to self. It was like the blood flowing back in congestion upon the heart, instead of diffusing itself healthfully over the system.
Thus it went on — the invalid growing worse, instead of better. Not a want was expressed — which money did not supply; not a caprice or fancy or appetite — which was not met a gratification. But all availed not. Her worst disease was mental, having its origin in inordinate selfishness. It never came into her mind to deny herself for the sake of others; to stifle her complaints lest they should pain the ears of her husband, children, or friends; to bear the weight of suffering laid upon her, with at least an effort at cheerfulness. And so she became a burden to those who loved her. In her presence, the sweet voices of children were hushed, and smiles faded away. Nothing that was mirthful, or glad, or cheerful came near her — which it did not instantly change into sobriety or sadness.
Not very far away from the beautiful home of this unhappy invalid, is another sufferer from ill-health. We will look in upon her. The chamber is poorly furnished, containing scarcely an article the absence of which would not have abridged the comfort of its occupant. We enter.
What a light has come into those sunken eyes, and over that pale face! We take the thin, white hand; a touch of sadness is in our voice that will not be repressed, as we make inquiries about her health; but she answers cheerfully and hopefully.
"Do you suffer pain?"
"Yes, but mostly at night. All day long I find so much to interest me, and so many thoughts about my children fill my mind, that I hardly find time to think of my own feelings. Care is a blessing."
With what a patient, heavenly smile this is said! How much of life's true philosophy is contained in that closing sentence! Yes, care is a blessing. What countless thousands would, but for daily care — be unutterably miserable. And yet, we are ever trying to throw off care; to rise into positions where we will be free from action or duty.
The voice of a child is now heard. It is crying.
"Dear little Aggy! What can ail her?" says the mother, tenderly. And she inclines an ear, listening earnestly. The crying continues.
"Poor child! Something is wrong with her. Won't you open the door a moment?"
The door is opened, and the sick mother calls the name of "Aggy" two or three times. But her voice too feeble to reach the distant room.
We second the mother's wishes, and go for the grieving little one.
"Mother wants Aggy."
What magic words! The crying has ceased instantly, and rainbow smiles are seen through falling tears.
"Dear little dove! What has troubled it?" How tender and soothing and full of love, is the voice which utters these words! We lift Aggy upon the bed. A moment, and her fresh warm cheek is close to the pale face of her mother; while her hand is nestling in her hair.
The smile that plays so beautifully over the invalid's face, has already answered the question we were about to ask — "Will not the child disturb you?" But our face has betrayed our thoughts, and she says —
"I can't bear to have Aggy away from me. She rarely annoys me. A dear, good child — yet only a child, for whom only a mother can think wisely. She rarely leaves my room, that she doesn't get into some trouble; but my presence quickly restores the sunshine."
The bell rings. There is a murmur of voices below; and now light feet come tripping up the stairs. The door opens and two little girls enter, just from school. Does the sick mother put up her hand to enjoin silence? Does she repel them — by look or word? Oh no.
"Well, Mary — well, Anna?" she says, kindly. They bend over and kiss her gently and lovingly; then speak modestly to the visitor.
"How do you feel, mother?" asks the oldest of the two girls. "Does your head ache?"
"Not now, dear. It ached a little while ago; but it is better now."
"What made it ache, mother?"
"Something troubled Aggy, and her crying sent a pain through my temples. But it went away with the clouds which passed from her darling little face."
"Why, she's asleep, mother!" exclaimed Anna.
"So she is. Dear little lamb! Asleep with a tear on her cheek. Turn her crib around, my love, so that I can lay her in it."
"No, you mustn't lift her," says Mary. "It will make your head ache." And the elder of the children lifts her baby-sister in her arms, and carefully lays her in the crib.
"Did you say all your lessons correctly this morning?" now asks the mother.
"I didn't miss a word," answers Mary.
"Nor I," says Anna.
"I'm glad of it. It always does me good to know that you have said your lessons well. Now go and take a run in the yard for exercise."
The little girls leave the chamber, and soon their happy voices came ringing up from the yard. The sound is loud, the children in their merry mood unconscious of the noise they make.
"This is too loud. It will make your head ache," we say, making a motion to rise, as if going to check the exuberance of their spirits.
"Oh no," is answered with a smile. "The happy voices of my children never disturb me. Were it the sound of wrangling, my weak head would throb instantly with pain. But this comes to me like music. They have been confined for hours in school, and health needs a reaction. Every buoyant laugh or glad exclamation expands their lungs, quickens the blood in their veins, and gives a measure of health to mind as well as body. The knowledge of this brings to me a sense of pleasure; and it is better for me, therefore, that they should be mirthful and noisy for a time, after coming out of school, than it would be if they sat down quietly in the house, or moved about stealthily, speaking to each other in low tones lest I should be disturbed."
We could not say nay to this. It was true, because unselfish, philosophy.
"Doesn't that hammering annoy you?" we ask.
"In the new building over the way."
She listens a moment, and then answers —
"Oh no. I did not notice it until you spoke. Such things never disturb me, for the reason that my mind is usually too much occupied to think of them. Though an invalid, and so weak that my hands are almost useless, I never let my thoughts lie idle. A mother, with three children, has enough to occupy her mind usefully — and useful thoughts, you know, are antidotes to brooding melancholy, and frequently to bodily pain. If I were to give way to weaknesses — and I am not without temptations — I would soon be an unhappy, nervous, helpless creature — a burden to myself and all around me."
"You need sympathy and strength from others," we remark.
"And I receive it in full measure," is instantly replied. "Not because I demand it. It comes, the heart-offering of true affection. Poorly would I repay my husband, children, and friends, for the thousand kindnesses I receive at their hands — by making home the gloomiest place on all the earth. Would it be any the brighter for me, that I threw clouds over their spirits? Would they more truly sympathize with me, because I was forever pouring complaints into their ears? Oh no. I try to make them forget that I suffer, and, in their forgetfulness, I often find a sweet oblivion. I love them all too well to wish them a moment's sadness."
What a beautiful glow was on her pale countenance as she thus spoke!
We turn from the home of this cheerful invalid, with a lesson in our hearts not soon to be forgotten. Ill-health need not always bring gloom to our dwellings. Suffering need not always bend the thoughts painfully to self. The body may waste, the hands fall nerveless to the side — yet the heart retain its greenness, and the mind its power to bless.