The Pack

Annie Hamilton Donnell

From Harper's Monthly Vol. CXVI No. 696 (May, 1908)


Drawn by Elizabeth Shippen Green


“I call it living a lie.” That is what the minister's wife said, and she bit off her words the same way she bit off her thread. “A lie;” she repeated it, as if once was not enough! There wasn't time between the lies for me to protest even if I had dared to. But I am afraid of the minister's wife. Oh, I don't know why, only she is so — knowing. She knows all the things I don't know, besides the few I do. I am sure if I were the minister I should look up all my “points” and arguments, not in the encyclopedia, but in the minister's wife.

She meant Judith Pride, the woman who has “moved into” our church. “‘You ask my advice, Mrs. Pride,’” she reviewed for my benefit, “‘and I advise you to tell the child at once. Twelve years old is not a minute too soon.’”

I caught at that straw. Twelve years old — that would be a reprieve of two years for me. In two years I could go into his little room so many nights and sit on the edge of the bed, just in the old way, without any shadow between us, — put out my hand and feel for him in the dark and find his little warm body. After I tell him there will be a shadow — I feel certain there will be a shadow between us. Perhaps in the dark I shall hear the little warm body shrinking away from me. If I do —

I did not get any farther last night. — Yes, yes, of course I went into Nathan's room. I lighted the lamp and looked at him a long time. He looks so little in his sleep! Even when he is twelve I am sure he will look little, and it will be hard to tell a little boy!

But to go back to the minister's wife and her advice to Judith Pride. I was calling on the minister's wife, and she was mending her children's clothes. The way she drew her needle in and out irritated me; it said so plainly that they were her children's clothes. The minister's wife has six, — I tell you she doesn't love the whole six any better than I do Nathan!

“Twelve years is not a minute too soon,” she said. And I agreed with her because of the two years' reprieve.

“Yes, of course,” I said, “twelve years. He — she ought to know by then.” Judith Pride's is a little girl.

“By then! My dear, she ought to have known years before!” the minister's wife bit off severely. “But what was the use, then, of telling the poor woman at this late day? All I could do was, rouse her to her duty now. But I pitied her, my dear, — I pity all such mothers.”

She need not pity me! I suppose she would pity Nathan, too, — oh, she need not pity Nathan! I will not have that! Probably last night, when she tucked her children in, she thanked the Lord because they were hers — well, every night I thank the Lord for Nathan, when I tuck him in and feel round with my lips for his little freckled face. I tell you I love every browny gold freckle! They have always been mine, anyway — from the very beginning! I remember the first one, and I kissed it so often Nathan called it the kiss spot.

I have said right along that I would tell him before he grew up. I could not bear to have any one else tell him. But the minister's wife has unsettled me. It is “living a lie,” she says, not telling him now. She meant Judith Pride, but she would have meant me if she had known. I am living a lie, she would think. Well? Well? Well? What would you have? — what would she? Am I to go into Nathan's little dark room to-night and wake him up and tell him? “Don't love me any more. I'm not what you think I am, — you're not what you think you are. You're not what the minister's wife's children are to her. You'd better stop loving me.” That is what haunts me — for fear he will stop. We've lived the beautiful lie so long together! It's woven into the woof and warp of us. If we stop living it, it will be like unravelling us.

Twelve years, perhaps, but not ten! Nathan's ten is so little! I patched his little trousers to-night, and when I held them up they were so small! — I wonder if the minister's wife ever kisses her little patches? Or is it only “such mothers” that do?

If John were living, I think I should get him to do it. He would be willing — John was always willing. It is queer how I can never realize Nathan is not as much his as mine — I know he is! I know nights John goes into the little dark room with me! If my fingers were delicate enough I should put them out and feel his white soul in the room. When I light the lamp and look down at Nathan, John looks down too. Nathan's little round face on the pillow, I know, is dear to John. And so — and so perhaps I should not ask him, after all, to do it, knowing that it would hurt.

Once, when we were new to being married, we used to talk about going into a little room and looking down together. We said, just softly to each other, how beautiful it would be. It was always a little daughter John looked down on, but I looked at a little son. We used to laugh because we disagreed. And sometimes I yielded John the little daughter, and sometimes he let me have the little son — John yielded oftenest. Still, I know he likes looking down at Nathan. He likes his little straight legs, and his fine way of clutching off his little cap, and his laugh and his hair and his freckles. John likes all of Nathan, I am sure.

He would have felt the same about the telling, I know. John would have wanted to put it off, too. “Not yet,” he would have said. “Not to-day nor to-morrow — nor next day.” But he would not have wanted to live a lie. If some one had put it to him like that — some minister's wife —

I have decided to tell Nathan very soon.

He is not very well to-night. I have just been in again to feel of his cheeks, and they are hot. I know what the trouble is, and Nathan knows. I wish he would tell me, though, — perhaps next time I go in he will. It is not like Nathan not to tell things.

But it is like me. I do not tell things. I say, “To-morrow I will — or next day,” but I never do. Now, to-night, I say that I will as soon as Nathan gets well. Even the minister's wife would not have me tell a little boy that is sick.

He has told me, — I have been in again. He pulled me down to his hot little face and whispered it: “I went in wading, and you said not to. I'm sorry, mother, — the water was so cold!”

I wonder why little sinners are so dear? Does the minister's wife hug hers? And love him better than before? “Nathan,” I whispered, “always — always tell mother!” But “mothers” do not always tell Nathans. Perhaps I will tell him next time I go in. Perhaps starting up suddenly like that will be easier.

But he was asleep. His cheeks are quite crimson — I am going to send Ann for the doctor.

She has gone. I have brought my journal in here and shaded the lamp from the bed. Nathan breathes so hard! He has never been sick in his life before, since I — since he was a tiny. It frightens me.

It is two weeks since I have written a word. Nathan is getting well now, but he has been very sick. Ann says I am to go away now every night and sleep, but I haven't promised to. The minister's wife says I must, too, but Anns or ministers' wives can't make me!

It has been such an anxious time. I thought Nathan was going to John. How could I bear to lose them both? I remembered the terrible empty rooms after John died — I couldn't have borne this little empty one, too. Oh, ministers' wives may say no — all the ministers' wives in the land, — but I know better! I know I should have mourned like mothers of the little sons and daughters John and I never had! It would have broken my heart as much as their hearts. I tell you I know!

I know another thing. That I am glad I did not tell Nathan before he was sick. Every time his little hot lips have said “mother” I have been glad. He has said it so many times — so many, many. He might have said it just as much the other way, in his poor little tossings and burnings, but it would have sounded different, — I am glad he did not know.

But I shall tell him when he gets well.

To-day Nathan went to school again. It is six weeks since he was taken sick, and I have been all this time helping him get well. I could not stop to write in a journal. Getting well is a serious matter to a ten year old! But we've had a beautiful time together, even on the crossest days. As Nathan says, we've been very “int'mate together.” He liked being waited on and tended and played with, and I — I liked it. Every day I could see his little white face grow a little less white. Nathan has a beautiful little face. When he is grieved or disappointed it still keeps its baby trick of breaking up into little piteous puckers. I suppose it will do it when I tell — Oh, why must I tell until he is twelve? Two years is not much more to ask for. I am going — to wait — two years! I think I am. But I wish I knew what John would say. Not the minister's wife, but John. It isn't as if I had more than one and were young — I'm old, and I only have Nathan. Forty is old to women whose Johns are dead — and old women take things hard. I know it will break my heart if Nathan stops loving me. After we've been so “int'mate together” —

Judith Pride's little girl is dead. I walked home from the funeral with the minister's wife, and I wish I hadn't. She said things — that she wondered Judith took it so hard, it not being her own little girl, — that nobody but real mothers knew what sorrow meant, — that Judith could take another child, — that — that — that — till I wanted to start and run to get away from her. I could not bear it, but I had to. I had to walk, — oh, we crept! Poor Judith Pride! — poor Judith Pride! I knew. When I got home to Nathan I caught him in my arms and could not let him go. I could not take my face away from his face — it was warm against mine. Oh, I thanked God it was warm! And all my heart ached for poor Judith Pride with her little face that was cold.

What right have ministers' wives to talk like that? What right has any one's wife? How do they know? They hold their little new-borns tight and look over the little bald crowns at us denied women — perhaps they don't mean to, but I tell you they gloat! They kiss and kiss the little crumpled faces. I don't blame them — I would gloat and kiss. But I blame them for pretending they can measure our love for the little children we borrow — or our grief when the little children die. How do they know? Their arms have always been full. They have never envied a tenement mother her tiny, sweet, soiled baby. How do they know the joy we feel when at last we rock a little child to sleep? When we go in at night and look down at him in his little bed? When we wash him and brush him and mother him — oh, we are mothers then! We have come into our own. We wake up happy and go to sleep happy. I tell you I know! I tell you we forget we borrowed our little sons and daughters, — they are ours. Nathan is mine.

I have not told him yet. He comes home from school and calls, “Mother,” at the foot of the stairs, and I can't. Or I go to meet him and he sees me and races down the road to me. “Mother! Mother!” — can I tell him then? Can I ever tell him?

But to-day he came home in a different way. I think he had stopped at the brook to wash the blood away, but I saw what was left. His eyes were swollen, but he had not been crying. He walked along very straight and whistled a tune, but his little tremolo stops were all out; it was only a wreck of a tune. “Nathan!” I cried.

“It's all right, — I beat.”

“Nathan! Nathan!”

“He looks worse 'n I. You oughter see him!

I had him in my arms, the little fighter! I was ashamed of him — and proud. It seemed to me I had always known that some day he would come home to me, a little battered boy like this. If it had been in a good cause — I knew it had been in a good cause. I felt like the Indian mother of a brave. Yet in my arms he felt so small — the little papoose!


Drawn by Elizabeth Shippen Green


“Tell me, Nathan,” but I did not let him go. I think I was trying to look stern.

“I said he told lies 'n' he said pooh everybody did 'n' I said no sir I knew somebody that never. He said pooh I couldn't prove it 'n' I hit him 'n' he hit me — I beat.”

I think my breath stopped for a fragment of an instant. I did not need to ask him, but I asked:

“Who — who was it, Nathan, that you meant?”

“You.” The little word was whispered like a soft breath against my ear. I did not need to hear it to know. It was I, I who never! I felt suddenly sore as though the little doughty fighter had hit me. The minister's wife seemed to be sitting opposite us mending her children's clothes and biting off words with her thread: “I call it living a lie.”

I put my little brave out of my arms and went out of the room to get away from the minister's wife.

Dreams are disquieting things. Mine that I had that night disquiets me now. But it was a dear little dream. I thought I went into Nathan's room to rid myself of the lie at last — I thought it was a heavy lie that bowed me over like Christian under his pack. In the dark hall I stumbled against something soft and warm. It was Nathan in his little nightgown coming to me. “Nathan, Nathan,” I cried, glad it was dark and he could not see my pack, “I was not always yours, dear, — you were not always mine! You had another mother once, but I never had another son — I never had another son! I could not bear to tell you for fear you would stop loving — Nathan, what shall I do if you stop loving me!”

In the dream his little face shone out of the dark. It was keeping on loving! I thought I felt straight and light, for the pack was gone. But the queerest, dearest part of the dream was what Nathan said:

“I knew it all the time. Nobody told me, but I knew. When you were rocking me an' brushing me an' mothering me, — I always knew. But I hoped you wouldn't find out, — I was afraid you'd stop.”

I caught him up — in the dream — and I can feel his little warm body now. We were so happy. I thought when I went back to my room John was with me. John is always with me when I am happy.

Such a queer little, dear little dream — but it disquiets me. The pack is still on my back; it was only in a dream it fell off. I have thought so much about it that it is getting a heavy pack to carry. I suppose lonely women whose Johns are dead dwell on things more, especially things to do with a little borrowed son who is all there is to love and live for. I suppose I shall never be easy until I get rid of the pack.

I might tell him to-night. I will tell him to-night.

I have told him. I have been in, in the dark. He was not coming to me; I did not meet him in the hall. I had to go all the way. But John came back with me.

My heart beat foolishly fast. It hurt me, trip-hammering against my ribs. “Nathan,” I called, softly, at the door. I heard him nestling in his bed. Perhaps he was waiting to have me feel for him in our childish-frolic way. But I began to tell at once. It was odd how my voice sounded! He did not say a word, but lay and listened. I seemed to talk on and on endlessly, though there was so little to say.

Some women have vivid fancies. Something seemed to drop with the tiniest thud when I finished, and it was the pack, I knew! I thought he would cry out something — answer something — but I think now I am glad he didn't. I cried out: “Nathan! Nathan!” I put my face down and found his little face in the dark. It was close and warm, and I seemed to feel his arms tighten a little round my neck — arms do not tighten when little sons have “stopped.” He did not speak one word, but I am sure — I don't know how I know, but I tell you I know he will not stop loving me! I thought I should be unhappy, and here I am happy! I think I have been singing over this little patch I am setting in.

I stayed quite a while in his little room; then John and I came back. We left him asleep, and of course I can't be quite sure — I am glad I don't know he was asleep when I told him. I like it better this way.