Captivity, Childbirth, and the Civil War in Harriet Prescott Spofford’s ” Circumstance”. Theresa Strouth Gaul. Texas Christian University. Harriet Prescott Spofford’s. Spofford, Harriet. “Circumstance.” The Online Archive of Nineteenth-Century Women’s Writings. Ed. Glynis Carr. Online. Internet. Posted: Winter Circumstance has 10 ratings and 0 reviews. Harriet Prescott Spofford was a regular contributor of short stories to the well known journal, The.
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But finally the level rays, reddening the snow, threw their gleam upon the wall, and, hastily donning cloak and hood, she bade her friends farewell and sallied forth on her return. Home lay some three miles distant, across a copse, a meadow, and a piece of woods,–the woods being a fringe on the skirts of the great forests that stretch far away into the North.
That home was one of a dozen log-houses lying a few furlongs apart from each other, with their half-cleared demesnes separating them at the rear from a wilderness untrodden save by stealthy native or deadly panther tribes. She was in a nowise exalted frame of spirit,–on the contrary, rather depressed by the pain she had witnessed and the fatigue she had endured; but in certain temperaments such a condition throws open the harfiet pores, so to speak, and renders one receptive of every influence.
Through the little copse she walked slowly, with her cloak folded about her, lingering to imbibe the sense of shelter, the sunset filtered in purple through the mist of woven spray and twig, the companionship of growth not sufficiently dense to band against her, the sweet home-feeling of a young and tender wintry wood.
It was therefore just on the edge of the evening that she emerged from the place and began to cross the meadow-land. At one hand lay the forest to which her path wound; pfescott the other the evening star hung over a hareiet of failing orange that slowly slipped down the earth’s broad side to sadden other hemispheres with sweet regret.
Walking rapidly now, and with her eyes wide-open, she distinctly saw in the air before her what was not there a moment ago, a winding-sheet,–cold, white, and ghastly, waved by the likeness of four wan hands,–that rose with a long inflation, and fell in rigid folds, while a voice, shaping itself from the hollowness above, spectral and melancholy, sighed,– spfoford Lord have mercy on the people!
The Lord have mercy on the people! She might have been a little frightened by such an apparition, if she had led a life of less reality than frontier settlers are apt to lead; but dealing with hard fact does not engender a flimsy habit of mind, and this woman was too sincere and earnest in her character, and too happy in her situation, to be thrown by antagonism, merely, upon superstitious fancies and chimeras of the second-sight.
She did not even believe herself subject to an hallucination, but smiled simply, a little vexed that her thought could have framed such a glamour from the day’s occurrences, and not sorry to lift the bough of the warder of the citcumstance and enter and disappear in their sombre path. If she had been imaginative, she would have hesitated at her first step into a region whose dangers were not visionary; but I suppose that the thought of a little child at home would conquer that propensity in the most habituated.
So, biting a bit of spicy birch, she went along. Now and then she came to a gap where the trees had been partially felled, and here she found that the lingering twilight was explained by that peculiar and perhaps electric film which sometimes sheathes the sky in diffused light for many hours before a brilliant aurora.
Suddenly, jarriet swift shadow, harruet the fabulous flying-dragon, writhed through the air spoffogd her, and she felt herself instantly seized and borne aloft.
It was that wild beast–the circumstxnce savage and serpentine and subtle prescoott fearless of our latitudes–known by hunters as the Indian Devil, and he held her in his clutches on the broad floor of a swinging fir-bough. His long sharp claws were caught in her clothing, he worried them sagaciously a xpofford, then, finding that ineffectual to free them, he commenced licking her bare arm with his rasping tongue and pouring over her the wide streams of his hot, foetid breath.
So quick ccircumstance this flashing action been that the woman had had no time for alarm; moreover, she was not of the screaming kind: A moment afterward, the beast left the arm, once white, now crimson, and looked up alertly. She did not think at this instant to call upon God. She called upon her husband.
It seemed to her that she had but one friend in the world; that was he; and again the cry, loud, clear, prolonged, echoed through the woods. It was preacott the shriek that disturbed the creature soofford his relish; he was not born in the woods to be scared of an owl, you know; what then? It must have been the echo, most musical, most resonant, repeated and yet repeated, dying with long sighs of sweet sound, vibrated preacott rock to river and back again from harrriet to depth of cave and cliff.
Her thought flew after it; she knew, that, even if her husband heard it, he yet could not reach her in time; she saw that while the beast listened he would not gnaw,–and this she felt directly, prescotg the rough, sharp, and multiplied stings of his tongue retouched her arm. Again her lips opened by instinct, but the sound that issued thence came by reason. She had heard that music charmed wild beasts,–just this point between life spofforc death intensified every faculty,–and when she opened her lips the third time, it was not for shrieking, but for singing.
A little thread of melody stole out, a rill of tremulous motion; it was the cradle-song with which she rocked her baby;–how could she sing that? And then she remembered the baby sleeping rosily on the long settee before the fire,–the father cleaning his gun, with one foot on the green wooden rundle,–the merry light from the chimney dancing out and through the room, on the rafters of the ceiling with their tassels of onions and herbs, on the log walls painted with lichens and festooned with apples, on the king’s-arm slung across the shelf with the old pirate’s-cutlass, circumstancs the snow-pile of the bed, and on the great brass clock,–dancing, too, and lingering on sporford baby, with his fringed-gentian eyes, his chubby fists clenched on the pillow, and his fine breezy hariet fanning with the motion of his father’s foot.
All this struck her in one, and made a sob of her breath, and she ceased. Immediately the long red tongue thrust forth again. Before it touched, a song sprang to her lips, a wild sea-song, such as some sailor might be singing far out on trackless blue water that night, the shrouds whistling with frost and the sheets glued in ice,–a song with the wind in its burden and the spray in its chorus.
The monster raised his head and flared the fiery eyeballs upon her, then fretted the imprisoned claws a moment and was quiet; only the breath like the vapor from some hell-pit still swathed her. Her voice, at first faint and fearful, gradually lost its quaver, grew under her control and subject to her modulation; it rose on long swells, it fell in subtile cadences, now and then its tones pealed out like bells from distant belfries on fresh sonorous mornings. She sung the song through, and, wondering lest his name of Indian Devil were not his true name, and if he would not detect her, she repeated it.
Once or twice now, indeed, the beast stirred uneasily, turned, and made the bough sway at his movement. As she ended, he snapped his jaws together, and tore away the fettered member, curling it under him with a snarl,–when she burst into the gayest reel that ever answered a fiddle-bow. How many a time she had heard her husband play it on the homely fiddle made by himself from birch and cherry-wood!
And here she was singing it alone, in the forest, at midnight, to a wild beast! As she sent her voice trilling up and down its quick oscillations between joy and pain, the creature who grasped her uncurled his paw and scratched the bark from the bough; she must vary the spell; and her voice spun leaping along the projecting points of tune of a hornpipe.
Still singing, she felt herself twisted about with a low growl and a lifting of hadriet red lip from the glittering teeth; she broke the hornpipe’s thread, and commenced unravelling a lighter, livelier thing, an Irish jig. Up and down and round about her voice flew, the beast threw back his head so that the diabolical face fronted hers, and the torrent of his breath prepared her for his feast as the anaconda slimes his prey.
Franticly she darted from tune to tune; his restless movements followed her.
She tired herself with dancing and vivid national airs, growing feverish and singing spasmodically as she felt her horrid tomb yawning wider. Touching in this manner all the slogan and keen clan cries, the beast moved again, but only to lay the disengaged paw across her with heavy satisfaction.
She did not dare to pause; through the clear cold air, the frosty starlight, harrriet sang. If there were yet any tremor in the tone, it was not fear,–she had learned the secret of sound at last; nor could it be chill,–far too high a fever throbbed her pulses; it was nothing but the thought of the log-house and of what might be passing within it.
She fancied the baby stirring in his sleep and moving his pretty lips,–her husband rising and opening the door, looking out after her, and wondering at her absence. She fancied the light pouring through the chink and then shut in again with circumstamce the safety and comfort and joy, her husband taking down the fiddle spofflrd playing lightly with his head inclined, playing while she sang, while she sang for her life to an Indian Devil.
Then she knew he was fumbling for and finding some shining fragment and scoring it down the yellowing hair, and unconsciously her voice forsook the wild war-tunes and drifted into the half-gay, half-melancholy Rosin the Bow.
Suddenly she woke pierced with a pang, and the daggered tooth penetrating her flesh;–dreaming of safety, she had ceased singing and lost it. The beast had regained the use of all his limbs, and now, standing and raising his back, bristling and foaming, with sounds that would have been like hisses but for their deep and fearful sonority, he withdrew step by step toward the trunk of the tree, still with his flaming balls upon her.
She was all at once free, on one end of the bough, twenty feet from the ground. She did not measure the distance, but rose to drop herself down, careless of any death, so that it were not this. Instantly, as if he scanned her thoughts, the creature bounded forward with a yell and caught her again in his dreadful hold. It might be that he was not greatly famished; for, as she suddenly flung up her voice again, he settled himself composedly on the bough, still clasping her circumtance invincible pressure to his rough, ravenous breast, and listening in a fascination to the sad, strange U-la-lu that now moaned forth in loud, hollow tones above him.
He half closed his eyes, and sleepily reopened and shut them again. What rending pains were close at hand! Water, be it cold or warm, that which buoys up blue ice-fields, or which bathes tropical coasts with currents of balmy bliss, is yet a gentle conqueror, kisses as it kills, and draws you down gently through darkening fathoms to its heart.
Death at the sword is the festival of trumpet and bugle and banner, with glory ringing out around you and distant hearts thrilling through yours. No gnawing disease can bring such hideous end as this; for that is a fiend bred of your own flesh, and this–is it a fiend, this living lump of appetites? What dread comes with the thought of perishing in flames! Fire is not half ourselves; as it devours, arouses neither hatred nor disgust; is not to be known by the strength of our lower natures let loose; does not drip our blood into our faces from foaming chaps, nor mouth nor slaver above us with vitality.
Let us be ended by fire, and we are ashes, for the winds to bear, the leaves to cover; let us be ended by wild beasts, and the base, cursed thing howls with us forever through the forest.
All this she felt as she charmed him, and what force it lent to her song God knows. If her voice should fail! If the damp and cold should give her any fatal hoarseness!
If all the silent powers of the forest did not conspire to help her! The dark, hollow night rose indifferently over her; the wide, cold air breathed rudely past her, lifted her wet hair and blew it down again; the great boughs swung with a ponderous strength, now and then clashed their iron lengths together and shook off a sparkle of icy spears or some long-lain weight of snow from their heavy shadows.
The green depths were utterly cold and silent and stern. These beautiful haunts that all the summer were hers and rejoiced to share with her their bounty, these heavens that had yielded their largess, these stems that had thrust their blossoms into her hands, all these friends of three moons ago forgot her now and knew her no longer. Feeling her desolation, wild, melancholy, forsaken songs rose thereon from that frightful aerie,–weeping, wailing tunes, that sob among the people from age to age, and overflow with otherwise unexpressed sadness,–all rude, mournful ballads,–old tearful strains, that Shakespeare heard the vagrants sing, and that rise and fall like the wind and tide,–sailor-songs, to be heard only in lone mid-watches beneath the moon and stars,–ghastly rhyming romances, such as that famous one of the Lady Margaret, when.
Still the beast lay with closed eyes, yet never relaxing his grasp.
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Once a half-whine of enjoyment escaped him,–he fawned his fearful head upon her; once he scored her cheek with his tongue: How weary she was! How fuller and fuller of dismay grew the knowledge that she was only prolonging her anguish and playing with death! How appalling the thought that with her voice ceased her existence! Yet she could not sing forever; her throat was dry and hard; her very breath was a pain; her mouth was hotter than any desert-worn pilgrim’s;–if she could but drop upon her burning tongue one atom of the ice that glittered about her!
She remembered the winding-sheet, and for the first time in her life shivered with spiritual fear. She asked herself, as she sang, what sins she had committed, what life she had led, to find her punishment so soon and in these pangs,–and then she sought eagerly for some reason why her husband was not up and abroad to find her. He failed her,–her one sole hope in life; and without being circumsrance of it, her voice forsook the songs of suffering and sorrow for old Covenanting hymns,–hymns with which her mother spoffordd lulled her, which the class-leader pitched in the chimney-corners,–grand and sweet Methodist hymns, brimming with melody and with all fantastic involutions of tune to suit that ecstatic worship,–hymns full of the beauty of holiness, steadfast, relying, sanctified by the salvation they had lent to those in worse extremity than hers,–for they had found themselves in the grasp of hell, while she was but prewcott the jaws of death.
Out of this strange music, peculiar to one character of faith, and than which there is none more beautiful in its degree nor owning a more potent sway of sound, her voice spoffotd into the glorified chants of churches.
What to her was death by cold or famine or wild beasts? High and clear through the frore fair night, the level moonbeams circumstxnce in the wood, the scarce glints of stars in the shadowy roof of branches, these sacred anthems rose,– rose as a hope from despair, as some snowy spray of flower-bells from blackest mould.
Was she not in God’s hands?
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Did not the world swing at his will? If this were in his great plan of providence, was it not best, and should she not accept it? Oh, sublime faith of our fathers, where utter self-sacrifice alone was true love, the fragrance of whose unrequired subjection was pleasanter than that of golden censers swung in purple-vapored chancels! Never ceasing in the rhythm of her thoughts, articulated in music as they thronged, the memory of her first communion flashed over her.
Again she was in that distant place on that sweet spring morning. Again the congregation rustled out, and the few remained, and she trembled to find herself among them. How well she remembered the devout, quiet faces, too accustomed to the sacred feast to glow with their inner joy! Perhaps another would not have felt so much ecstasy as satisfaction on that occasion; but it is a true, if a later disciple, who has said, “The Lord bestoweth his blessings there, where he findeth the vessels empty.
And in that morning, with its buoyant sunlight, was I any dearer to the Heart of the World than now? How gently all the winter-wrapt things bent toward her then! It was no longer despondency, that singing. It was neither prayer nor petition. She had left imploring, “How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord? Lighten mine eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death!