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The Angel Over the Right Shoulder by Elizabeth Wooster Stuart Phelps

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The Angel over the Right Shoulder


The Angel over the Right Shoulder

or the





The Angel over the Right Shoulder

* * * * *

"There! a woman's work is never done," said Mrs. James; "I thought, for
once, I was through; but just look at that lamp, now! it will not burn,
and I must go and spend half an hour over it."

"Don't you wish you had never been married?" said Mr. James, with a
good-natured laugh.

"Yes"--rose to her lips, but was checked by a glance at the group upon
the floor, where her husband was stretched out, and two little urchins
with sparkling eyes and glowing cheeks, were climbing and tumbling over
him, as if they found in this play the very essence of fun.

She did say, "I should like the good, without the evil, if I could have

"You have no evils to endure," replied her husband.

"That is just all you gentlemen know about it. What would you think, if
you could not get an uninterrupted half hour to yourself, from morning
till night? I believe you would give up trying to do anything."

"There is no need of that; all you want, is _system_. If you arranged
your work systematically, you would find that you could command your

"Well," was the reply, "all I wish is, that you could just follow me
around for one day, and see what I have to do. If you could reduce it
all to system, I think you would show yourself a genius."

When the lamp was trimmed, the conversation was resumed. Mr. James had
employed the "half hour," in meditating on this subject.

"Wife," said he, as she came in, "I have a plan to propose to you, and I
wish you to promise me beforehand, that you will accede to it. It is to
be an experiment, I acknowledge, but I wish it to have a fair trial. Now
to please me, will you promise?"

Mrs. James hesitated. She felt almost sure that his plan would be quite
impracticable, for what does a man know of a woman's work? yet she

"Now I wish you," said he, "to set apart two hours of every day for your
own private use. Make a point of going to your room and locking yourself
in; and also make up your mind to let the work which is not done, go
undone, if it must. Spend this time on just those things which will be
most profitable to yourself. I shall bind you to your promise for one
month--then, if it has proved a total failure, we will devise something

"When shall I begin?"


The morrow came. Mrs. James had chosen the two hours before dinner as
being, on the whole, the most convenient and the least liable to
interruption. They dined at one o'clock. She wished to finish her
morning work, get dressed for the day, and enter her room at eleven.

Hearty as were her efforts to accomplish this, the hour of eleven found
her with her work but half done; yet, true to her promise, she left all,
retired to her room and locked the door.

With some interest and hope, she immediately marked out a course of
reading and study, for these two precious hours; then, arranging her
table, her books, pen and paper, she commenced a schedule of her work
with much enthusiasm. Scarcely had she dipped her pen in ink, when she
heard the tramping of little feet along the hall, and then a pounding at
her door.

"Mamma! mamma! I cannot find my mittens, and Hannah is going to slide
without me."

"Go to Amy, my dear; mamma is busy."

"So Amy busy too; she say she can't leave baby."

The child began to cry, still standing close to the fastened door. Mrs.
James knew the easiest, and indeed the only way of settling the trouble,
was to go herself and hunt up the missing mittens. Then a parley must
be held with Frank, to induce him to wait for his sister, and the
child's tears must be dried, and little hearts must be all set right
before the children went out to play; and so favorable an opportunity
must not be suffered to slip, without impressing on young minds the
importance of having a "place for everything and everything in its
place;" this took time; and when Mrs. James returned to her study, her
watch told her that _half_ her portion had gone. Quietly resuming her
work, she was endeavoring to mend her broken train of thought, when
heavier steps were heard in the hall, and the fastened door was once
more besieged. Now, Mr. James must be admitted.

"Mary," said he, "cannot you come and sew a string on for me? I do
believe there is not a bosom in my drawer in order, and I am in a great
hurry. I ought to have been down town an hour ago."

The schedule was thrown aside, the workbasket taken, and Mrs. James
followed him. She soon sewed on the tape, but then a button needed
fastening--and at last a rip in his glove, was to be mended. As Mrs.
James stitched away on the glove, a smile lurked in the corners of her
mouth, which her husband observed.

"What are you laughing at?" asked he.

"To think how famously your plan works."

"I declare!" said he, "is this your study hour? I am sorry, but what can
a man do? He cannot go down town without a shirt bosom!"

"Certainly not," said his wife, quietly.

When her liege lord was fairly equipped and off, Mrs. James returned to
her room. A half an hour yet remained to her, and of this she
determined to make the most. But scarcely had she resumed her pen, when
there was another disturbance in the entry. Amy had returned from
walking out with the baby, and she entered the nursery with him, that
she might get him to sleep. Now it happened that the only room in the
house which Mrs. James could have to herself with a fire, was the one
adjoining the nursery. She had become so accustomed to the ordinary
noise of the children, that it did not disturb her; but the very
extraordinary noise which master Charley sometimes felt called upon to
make, when he was fairly on his back in the cradle, did disturb the
unity of her thoughts. The words which she was reading rose and fell
with the screams and lulls of the child, and she felt obliged to close
her book, until the storm was over. When quiet was restored in the
cradle, the children came in from sliding, crying with cold fingers--and
just as she was going to them, the dinner-bell rang.

"How did your new plan work this morning?" inquired Mr. James.

"Famously," was the reply, "I read about seventy pages of German, and as
many more in French."

"I am sure _I_ did not hinder you long."

"No--yours was only one of a dozen interruptions."

"O, well! you must not get discouraged. Nothing succeeds well the first
time. Persist in your arrangement, and by and by the family will learn
that if they want anything of you, they must wait until after dinner."

"But what can a man do?" replied his wife; "he cannot go down town
without a shirt-bosom."

"I was in a bad case," replied Mr. James, "it may not happen again. I am
anxious to have you try the month out faithfully, and then we will see
what has come of it."

The second day of trial was a stormy one. As the morning was dark,
Bridget over-slept, and consequently breakfast was too late by an hour.
This lost hour Mrs. James could not recover. When the clock struck
eleven, she seemed but to have commenced her morning's work, so much
remained to be done. With mind disturbed and spirits depressed, she left
her household matters "in the suds," as they were, and punctually
retired to her study. She soon found, however, that she could not fix
her attention upon any intellectual pursuit. Neglected duties haunted
her, like ghosts around the guilty conscience. Perceiving that she was
doing nothing with her books, and not wishing to lose the morning
wholly, she commenced writing a letter. Bridget interrupted her before
she had proceeded far on the first page.

"What, ma'am, shall we have for dinner? No marketing ha'n't come."

"Have some steaks, then."

"We ha'n't got none, ma'am."

"I will send out for some, directly."

Now there was no one to send but Amy, and Mrs. James knew it. With a
sigh, she put down her letter and went into the nursery.

"Amy, Mr. James has forgotten our marketing. I should like to have you
run over to the provision store, and order some beef-steaks. I will stay
with the baby."

Amy was not much pleased to be sent out on this errand. She remarked,
that "she must change her dress first."

"Be as quick as possible," said Mrs. James, "for I am particularly
engaged at this hour."

Amy neither obeyed, nor disobeyed, but managed to take her own time,
without any very deliberate intention to do so. Mrs. James, hoping to
get along with a sentence or two, took her German book into the nursery.
But this arrangement was not to master Charley's mind. A fig did he care
for German, but "the kitties," he must have, whether or no--and kitties
he would find in that particular book--so he turned its leaves over in
great haste. Half of the time on the second day of trial had gone, when
Amy returned and Mrs. James with a sigh, left her nursery. Before one
o'clock, she was twice called into the kitchen to superintend some
important dinner arrangement, and thus it turned out that she did not
finish one page of her letter.

On the third morning the sun shone, and Mrs. James rose early, made
every provision which she deemed necessary for dinner, and for the
comfort of her family; and then, elated by her success, in good spirits,
and with good courage, she entered her study precisely at eleven
o'clock, and locked her door. Her books were opened, and the challenge
given to a hard German lesson. Scarcely had she made the first onset,
when the door-bell was heard to ring, and soon Bridget coming nearer and
nearer--then tapping at the door.

"Somebodies wants to see you in the parlor, ma'am."

"Tell them I am engaged, Bridget."

"I told 'em you were to-home, ma'am, and they sent up their names, but I
ha'n't got 'em, jist."

There was no help for it--Mrs. James must go down to receive her
callers. She had to smile when she felt little like it--to be sociable
when her thoughts were busy with her task. Her friends made a long
call--they had nothing else to do with their time, and when they went,
others came. In very unsatisfactory chit-chat, her morning slipped away.

On the next day, Mr. James invited company to tea, and her morning was
devoted to preparing for it; she did not enter her study. On the day
following, a sick-head-ache confined her to her bed, and on Saturday the
care of the baby devolved upon her, as Amy had extra work to do. Thus
passed the first week.

True to her promise, Mrs. James patiently persevered for a month, in her
efforts to secure for herself this little fragment of her broken time,
but with what success, the first week's history can tell. With its
close, closed the month of December.

On the last day of the old year, she was so much occupied in her
preparations for the morrow's festival, that the last hour of the day
was approaching, before she made her good night's call in the nursery.
She first went to the crib and looked at the baby. There he lay in his
innocence and beauty, fast asleep. She softly stroked his golden
hair--she kissed gently his rosy cheek--she pressed the little dimpled
hand in hers, and then, carefully drawing the coverlet over it, tucked
it in, and stealing yet another kiss--she left him to his peaceful
dreams and sat down on her daughter's bed. She also slept sweetly, with
her dolly hugged to her bosom. At this her mother smiled, but soon grave
thoughts entered her mind, and these deepened into sad ones. She thought
of her disappointment and the failure of her plans. To her, not only the
past month but the whole past year, seemed to have been one of fruitless
effort--all broken and disjointed--even her hours of religious duty had
been encroached upon, and disturbed. She had accomplished nothing, that
she could see, but to keep her house and family in order, and even this,
to her saddened mind, seemed to have been but indifferently done. She
was conscious of yearnings for a more earnest life than this.
Unsatisfied longings for something which she had not attained, often
clouded what, otherwise, would have been a bright day to her; and yet
the causes of these feelings seemed to lie in a dim and misty region,
which her eye could not penetrate.

What then did she need? To see some _results_ from her life's work? To
know that a golden cord bound her life-threads together into _unity_ of
purpose--notwithstanding they seemed, so often, single and broken?

She was quite sure that she felt no desire to shrink from duty, however
humble, but she sighed for some comforting assurance of what _was duty_.
Her employments, conflicting as they did with her tastes, seemed to her
frivolous and useless. It seemed to her that there was some better way
of living, which she, from deficiency in energy of character, or of
principle, had failed to discover. As she leaned over her child, her
tears fell fast upon its young brow.

Most earnestly did she wish, that she could shield that child from the
disappointments and mistakes and self-reproach from which the mother was
then suffering; that the little one might take up life where she could
give it to her--all mended by her own experience. It would have been a
comfort to have felt, that in fighting the battle, she had fought for
both; yet she knew that so it could not be--that for ourselves must we
all learn what are those things which "make for our peace."

The tears were in her eyes, as she gave the good-night to her sleeping
daughter--then with soft steps she entered an adjoining room, and there
fairly kissed out the old year on another chubby cheek, which nestled
among the pillows. At length she sought her own rest.

Soon she found herself in a singular place. She was traversing a vast
plain. No trees were visible, save those which skirted the distant
horizon, and on their broad tops rested wreaths of golden clouds. Before
her was a female, who was journeying towards that region of light.
Little children were about her, now in her arms, now running by her
side, and as they travelled, she occupied herself in caring for them.
She taught them how to place their little feet--she gave them timely
warnings of the pit-falls--she gently lifted them over the
stumbling-blocks. When they were weary, she soothed them by singing of
that brighter land, which she kept ever in view, and towards which she
seemed hastening with her little flock. But what was most remarkable
was, that, all unknown to her, she was constantly watched by two angels,
who reposed on two golden clouds which floated above her. Before each
was a golden book, and a pen of gold. One angel, with mild and loving
eyes, peered constantly over her right shoulder--another kept as strict
watch over her left. Not a deed, not a word, not a look, escaped their
notice. When a good deed, word, look, went from her, the angel over the
right shoulder with a glad smile, wrote it down in his book; when an
evil, however trivial, the angel over the left shoulder recorded it in
his book--then with sorrowful eyes followed the pilgrim until he
observed penitence for the wrong, upon which he dropped a tear on the
record, and blotted it out, and both angels rejoiced.

To the looker-on, it seemed that the traveller did nothing which was
worthy of such careful record. Sometimes she did but bathe the weary
feet of her little children, but the angel over the _right
shoulder_--wrote it down. Sometimes she did but patiently wait to lure
back a little truant who had turned his face away from the distant
light, but the angel over the _right shoulder_--wrote it down. Sometimes
she did but soothe an angry feeling or raise a drooping eye-lid, or kiss
away a little grief; but the angel over the right shoulder--_wrote it

Sometimes, her eye was fixed so intently on that golden horizon, and she
became so eager to make progress thither, that the little ones, missing
her care, did languish or stray. Then it was that the angel over the
_left shoulder_, lifted his golden pen, and made the entry, and followed
her with sorrowful eyes, until he could blot it out. Sometimes she
seemed to advance rapidly, but in her haste the little ones had fallen
back, and it was the sorrowing angel who recorded her progress.
Sometimes so intent was she to gird up her loins and have her lamp
trimmed and burning, that the little children wandered away quite into
forbidden paths, and it was the angel over the _left shoulder_ who
recorded her diligence.

Now the observer as she looked, felt that this was a faithful and true
record, and was to be kept to that journey's end. The strong clasps of
gold on those golden books, also impressed her with the conviction that,
when they were closed, it would only be for a future opening.

Her sympathies were warmly enlisted for the gentle traveller, and with a
beating heart she quickened her steps that she might overtake her. She
wished to tell her of the angels keeping watch above her--to entreat her
to be faithful and patient to the end--for her life's work was all
written down--every item of it--and the _results_ would be known when
those golden books should be unclasped. She wished to beg of her to
think no duty trivial which must be done, for over her right shoulder
and over her left were recording angels, who would surely take note of

Eager to warn the traveller of what she had seen, she touched her. The
traveller turned, and she recognized or seemed to recognize _herself_.
Startled and alarmed she awoke in tears. The gray light of morning
struggled through the half-open shutter, the door was ajar and merry
faces were peeping in.

"Wish you a happy new year, mamma,"--"Wish you a _Happy new Year_"--"a
happy noo ear."

She returned the merry greeting most heartily. It seemed to her as if
she had entered upon a new existence. She had found her way through the
thicket in which she had been entangled, and a light was now about her
path. The _Angel over the Right Shoulder_ whom she had seen in her
dream, would bind up in his golden book her life's work, if it were but
well done. He required of her no great deeds, but faithfulness and
patience to the end of the race which was set before her. Now she could
see plainly enough, that though it was right and important for her to
cultivate her own mind and heart, it was equally right and equally
important, to meet and perform faithfully all those little household
cares and duties on which the comfort and virtue of her family depended;
for into these things the angels carefully looked--and these duties and
cares acquired a dignity from the strokes of that golden, pen--they
could not be neglected without danger.

Sad thoughts and sadder misgivings--undefined yearnings and ungratified
longings seemed to have taken their flight with the Old Year, and it was
with fresh resolution and cheerful hope, and a happy heart, she welcomed
the _Glad_ New Year. The _Angel over the Right Shoulder_ would go with
her, and if she were found faithful, would strengthen and comfort her to
its close.



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