UNDER A CLOUD
YOU wish me to tell you the story of my little girl? Well, to begin at the beginning. In looking back through the pages of my journal I find many scattered notices of Agnes, and I always write of her, I find, as “poor Agnes.” Now, I wonder why? The child is certainly neither unhealthy nor unhappy—at least, not with any reason; but again and again I find this sort of entry:—
“Agnes displeased with her porridge; says nothing, but looks black all day.”
“Harry upset his sister’s work-basket—by accident, I truly believe; but she can’t get over it—speaks to no one, and looks as if under a cloud.”
I need not go on; the fact is, the child is sensible of many injuries heaped upon her; I think there is no ground for the feeling, for she is really very sweet when she has not, as the children say, the black dog on her back.
It is quite plain to me, and to others also, I think that we have let this sort of thing go on too long without dealing with it. We must take the matter in hand. Please God, our little Agnes must not grow up in this sullen habit, for all our sakes, but chiefly for
her own, poor child. I felt that in this matter I might be of more use than Edward, who simply does not understand a temper less sunny and open than his own. I pondered and pondered, and, at last some light broke in upon me. I thought I should get hold of one principle at a time, work that out thoroughly, and then take up the next, and so on, until all the springs of sullenness were exhausted, and all supplies from without stopped. I was beginning to suspect that the laws of habit worked here as elsewhere, and that, if I could get our dear child to pass, say, six weeks without a “fallen countenance,” she might lose this distressing failing for life.
I meant at first to take most of the trouble of this experiment upon myself; but I think men have clearer heads than we women—that is, they can see both sides of a question and are not carried away by the one side presented to them. So I said—
“Well, Edward, our little Agnes does not get over her sulky fits; in fact, they last longer, and are harder to get out of than ever!”
“Poor little girl! It is unhappy for her and for all of us. But don’t you think it is a sort of childish malaise she will soon grow out of?”
“Now, have you not said, again and again, that a childish fault, left to itself, can do no other than strengthen?”
“True; I suppose the fact is I am slow to realise the fault. But you are right. From the point of view of habit we are pledged to deal with it. Have you made any plans?
“Yes; I have been trying to work the thing out on Professor Weissall’s lines. We must watch the rise of the sullen cloud, and change her thoughts
before she has time to realise that the black fit is coming.”
“You are right; if we can keep the child for only a week without this settling of the cloud, the mere habit would be somewhat broken.”
We had not to wait for our opportunity. At breakfast next day—whether Harry’s porridge looked more inviting than her own, or whether he should not have been helped first, or whether the child has a little pain of which she was hardly aware—suddenly, her eyes fell, brows dropped, lips pouted, the whole face became slightly paler than before, the figure limp, limbs lax, hands nerveless—and our gentle child was transformed, become entirely unlovable. So far, her feelings were in the emotional stage; her injury, whatever it was, had not yet taken shape in her thoughts; she could not have told you what was the matter, because she did not know; but very soon the thinking brain would come to the aid of the quick emotions, and then she would be sulky of fixed purpose. Her father saw the symptoms rise and knew what they would lead to, and, with the promptness which has often saved us, he cried out—
“Agnes, come here, and hold up your pinafore!” and Agnes trotted up to his side, her pinafore held up very much to receive the morning dole of crumbs for the birds; presently, she came back radiant with the joy of having given the birds a good breakfast, and we had no more sulky fits that day. This went on for a fortnight or so with fair but not perfect success. Whenever her father or I was present, we caught the emotion before the child was conscious of it, and succeeded in turning her thoughts into some pleasant channel. But poor nurse has had bad hours with
Agnes; there would sit the child, pale and silent, for hours together, doing nothing because she liked to do it, but only because she must. And, once the fit had settled down, thick and steady as a London fog, neither her father nor I could help in the least. Oh, the inconceivable settled cloudiness and irresponsiveness of that child face!
Our tactics were at fault. No doubt they helped so far as they went. We managed to secure bright days that might otherwise have been cloudy when we happened to be present at the first rise of the sullen mood. But it seemed impossible to bring about so long an abstinence from sullen fits as would nullify the habit. We pictured to ourselves the dreary life that lay before our pretty little girl; the distrust of her sweetness, to which even one such sullen fit would give rise; worse, the isolation which accompanies this sort of temper, and the anguish of repentance to follow. And then, I know, madness is often bred of this strong sense of injured personality.
It is not a pleasant thing to look an evil in the face. Whether or no “a little knowledge is a dangerous,” certainly, it is a trying thing. If we could only have contented ourselves with, “Oh, she’ll grow out of it by-and-by,” we could have put up with even a daily cloud. But these forecasts of our little girl’s future made the saving of the child at any cost our most anxious care.
“I’ll tell you what, Helen; we must strike out a new line. In a general way, I do believe it’s best to deal with a child’s faults without making him aware that he has them. It fills the little beings with a ridiculous sense of importance to have anything belonging to them, even a fault. But in this case, I
think, we shall have to strike home and deal with the cause at least as much as with the effects, and that, chiefly, because we have not effects entirely under our control.”
“But, what if there is no cure? What if this odious temper were hereditary—our child’s inheritance from those who should have brought her only good?”
“The question is not ‘How has it come?’ but ‘ How are we to deal with it?’—equally, you and I. Poor things! It’s but a very half-and-half kind of matrimony if each is to pick out his or her own particular bundle of failings, and deal with it single-handed. This poor man finds the prospect too much for him! As a matter of fact, though, I believe that failings of mind, body, temper, and what not, are matters of inheritance, and that each parent’s particular business in life is to pass his family forward freed from that particular vicious tendency which has been his own bane—or hers, if you prefer it.”
“Well, do as you will; I can trust you. What it would be in these days of greater insight to be married to a man who would say, ‘There, that boy may thank his mother’ for this or the other failure! Of course, the thing is done now, but more often than not as a random guess.”
“To return to Agnes. I think we shall have to show her to herself in this matter, to rake up the ugly feeling, however involuntary, and let her see how hateful it is. Yes, I do not wonder you shrink from this. So do I. It will destroy the child’s unconsciousness.”
“Oh, Edward, how I dread to poke into the little
wounded heart, and bring up worse things to startle her!”
“I am sorry for you, but I think it must be done; and don’t you think you are the person to do it? While they have a mother I don’t think I could presume to pry too much into the secrets of the children’s hearts.”
“I’ll try; but if I get into a mess you must help me through.”
The opportunity came soon enough. It was pears this time. Harry would never have known whether he had the biggest or the least. But we had told Nurse to be especially careful in this matter. “Each of the children must have the biggest or best as often as one another, but there must be no fuss, no taking turns, about such trifles. Therefore, very rightly, you gave Harry the bigger and Agnes the smaller pear.”
Agnes’s pear was not touched; there the child sat, without word or sob, but all gathered into herself, like a sea-anemone whose tentacles have been touched. The stillness, whiteness, and brooding sullenness of the face, the limp figure and desolate attitude, would have made me take the little girl in my arms if I had not too often failed to reach her in that way. This went on all day, all of us suffering; and in the evening, when I went to hear the children’s prayers before bed, I meant to have it out.
We were both frozen up with sadness, and the weary child was ready to creep into her mother’s arms again. But I must not let her yet.
“So my poor Agnes has had a very sad day?”
“Yes, mother,” with a sob.
“And do you know we have all had a very sad day
—father, mother, your little brother, Nurse—every one of us has felt as if a black curtain has been hung up to shut out the sunshine?”
The child was sympathetic, and shivered at the sight of the black curtain and the warm sunshine shut out.
“And do you know who has put us all out in the dark and the cold? Our little girl drew the curtain, because she would not speak to any of us, or be kind to any of us, or love any of us all the day long; so we could not get into the sunshine, and have been shivering and sad in the cold.”
“Mother, mother!” with gasping sobs; “not you and father?”
“Ah! I thought my little girl would be sorry. Now let us try to find out how how it all happened. Is it possible that Agnes noticed that her brother’s pear was larger than her own?”
“Oh, mother, how could I?” The poor little face was hidden in her mother’s breast, and the outbreak of sobs that followed was very painful. I feared it might mean actual illness for the sensitive child. I think it was the right thing to do; but I had barely courage enough to leave the results in more loving hands.
“Never mind; don’t cry any more, darling, and we will ask ‘Our Father’ to forgive and forget all about it. Mother knows that her dear little Agnes will try not to love herself best any more. And then the black curtain will never fall, and we shall never again be a whole long day standing sadly out in the cold. Good-night from mother, and another good-night from father.”
The treatment seems to answer. On the slightest
return of the old sullen symptoms we show our little girl what they mean. The grief that follows is so painful that I’m afraid we could not go on with it for the sake of the child’s health; but, happily, we very rarely see a sulky face now; and when we do we turn and look upon our child, and the look melts her into gentleness and penitence.