Writings by Susan Dickinson

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How I Became Missionary to Elmhurst.
[Written by A PRACTICAL SOWLE for The Sunday Republican.

     I-The Foreign Field.

There is no more beautiful village than Elmhurst. Beloved of spring flowers and summer birds, seasons linger around her surrounding hills and smile across her soft meadows as they meet. The winter prolongs its white sleep as if jealous of the awakening, spring looks back till summer wins her in the warmth of her embrace; and Jack Frost is obliged to send for his roughest band of November winds to tear the last leaves from the branches and drive their playmate west winds far away.

Most of the inhabitants earn their daily bread in the university, whose radiating influence dominates the town; others from factory and farm; and there is bread enough for all, though there be none who "live in king's houses," and the only "lilies of the field" are those found sometimes in the village lockup, after a too reckless celebration of Saturday night.

I came to Elmhurst a stranger, and cast about for a definite channel of work for some of my leisure hours, believing organization simplified labor and unified effort; and desiring to earn some right to be in this wonderful world. After hearing the notices for the week read from the pulpit one Sunday morning, there seemed reason for a lively hope that "the desert" would "blossom like a rose," and the millennium be ushered in by the end of the week.

Before I had been a citizen of a month's standing my disposition was generally recognized, and I became the recipient of some 20 invitations to join charitable organizations; membership being solicited by postal cards, notes, printed blanks and personal appeal. The choice spread before me was varied as the lives of men, limited only by giving out of days of the week. The regular program was as follows, accompanied by its financial record of the preceding year: -

On Monday, under the auspices of the McCall mission, the ladies of the University sewing club met with the wife of the president, where I found them knitting fleecy red petticoats of daintiest wool, for reclaimed demoiselles in Paris. The amount contributed in money during the past year, towards evangelizing the fallen in the wickedest city of the world, $400.

On Tuesday the ladies of the Baptist denomination met in the vestry to sew for a missionary about to start for Japan, - a person in whom early piety and a consumptive tendency had developed a zeal which seemed to run races with them for his life. I speculated a good deal on his probable power over the well-mannered, languor-steeped Orientals, and his use of the 350 American dollars, earned by these noble women in the past year for the rich old yellow East.

On Wednesday the First Congregational church held "society" in the church parlors - gentlemen invited to tea - directing their efforts straight to Africa. Amount of contributions in money the past year, $700.

On Thursday the Dorcas society of the Methodist church sewed for a home for wandering children in New York city, and another, home for aged women, in the Northwest. Total contributions in money the past year to these objects and a freedman's educational movement, $275. On Friday the ladies of the Universalist society went from house to house in support of a woman doctor in India. Contributions in money the past year nearly $300.

On Saturday the ladies of Holy Saint-Anna-in-the-Extreme met at the rectory to work upon vestments, altar clothes and other bare necessities for the inculcation of the true apostolic faith, by means of a mission chapel in Virginia, recently projected by a high church priesthood. Contributions in money the past year, $550.

Besides these denominational opportunities there were Indian associations, King's Daughters, Willing Helpers, Ministering Children, Whatsoever societies, bands, circles, guilds and leagues, beside a bewildering assortment of societies represented by antagonistic combinations of letters, selected at random from a helpless and mutilated alphabet. All of which testified through the objects of their endeavor to the common enchantment of the unseen, far-away, "foreign field."

It may be an indication of sterile sympathy, but none of these far-away "objects" claimed my entire loyalty, and so I continued for some time to jump from one "cause" to another, like a wilful [sic] and unprofitable grasshopper among a hill of faithful neighbor ants. The blurred outlines of our red, black and yellow brothers; the reclaimed French and wandering white, the dwellers from pole to pole, and among the isles of the sea; massed in one mighty picture, moved me less than the touch of one hand seeking help in mine.

I did not care for sectarian missions or philanthropic dissipation - it was plainly best for others to answer the usual prayers in which I had always joined, that the gospel might "dispel the bloom of doubt" and "the earth be lifted up from the uttermost parts." I believed in every effort, made for "those who sit in darkness;" but longed to let the "sweetness and light" so bountifully thrown across my own life shine directly on those whose sun was hid. Sharing the load of those whose arms were burdened while mine were empty, fettered while I went free, groaning while I sang, cursing the up-hill road while I laughed; with eyes cast down on stones that hurt the bare feet, while I looked off over happy valleys of a sheltered past, from shining foothills to gleaming peaks towards which my hopeful feet were set.

O organization! what crime is committed in thy name! when tender human sympathy is swallowed up in impersonal agencies for an unknown "cause."

It was a dinner party among the elite of Elmhurst that my gathering perplexity found a voice at last. Some one had been dilating upon a noted workers in East London, lately become a fad in titled homes; whose recent brilliant appeal to his old college was just then meeting the usual hearty response.

"Why do you always give to the ends of the earth," I asked wonderingly, "instead of crossing the road like the good Samaritan?" There was an awkward pause, in which a man at the other end of the table laughed aloud; and my hostess explained tactfully, as if in haste to cover an obvious social error, "My dear girl,

when you have been longer with us you will discover for yourself, that there are no poor in Elmhurst." -

     II-Bat and His Brethren.

It was a dull December twilight, too cold to snow. Night was falling heavily over the colorless landscape and John Hillyer began to think of supper, as he strode home after a long tramp over the crisp frozen fields. A glimpse of distant telegraph poles monotonously outlined against the sky suggested the railroad track, as affording a direct path back to Elmhurst, and easy of access. He had just struck into it and was swinging along planning his prize debate before the college next day, when his ear caught the crying of a child which seemed to come from a desolate shanty a few yards ahead. Led by curiosity, he opened the door and found himself introduced without ceremony, to the dismal bosom of the Brannigan family circle; consisting of four small boys and a tall woman with a baby in her arms.

Suddenly the wails ceased as the astonished baby felt himself lifted high, in the vicinity of a great red flower in the stranger's button hole. A few cheery words to the woman followed, who only ejaculated "God save us!" in reply; making hurried use of her empty hands to strike a light, and set about getting supper; putting some odd bits of dishes on the table, part of a loaf, and trying to move the heartless, sullen-going stove to boil some potatoes in an iron pot.

The picture was not encouraging in the light of the one small lamp. There was an old sofa in one corner, the battered stove, one wooden chair, the stairs leading up to the loft; a bed in the lean-to opening from the main room; and the before-mentioned table, which was far from able-bodied in the usual sense of the term.

Now there are "glories terrestrial" and "glories celestial." A college man in his senior year, who can lead a cotillion acceptably and win a prize debate, may quail before a situation, including a baby and a broken cooking-stove, without disgrace. But thanks to experience in the North woods, the fire did burn at last, after a balky protest against educated interference; the baby was subdued by the general sense of betterment and won by the heartening presence of the merry stranger, Mrs. Branningan [sic] exploded her troubles, interspersed with exclamations of real Irish despair.

From it all Mr Hillyer learned, in snatches, that her husband had been a section-hand on the road, until the blessed saints flew away from him (via typhoid fever), leaving her the resigning consolations of the Catholic church, the honor of his name and five children; to follow him, or stay behind as she saw fit.

He had been a good husband and father, though. "God save him!" So despite the visible unfairness of such a division in responsibility, handsome Maggie had never left the shanty since the Sunday she buried him; under a small white cross, which took every cent left from the funeral expenses. A fact in which she gloried, to the unfortunate cost of the attending physician. She was buried with Pat, she moaned and mourned him more vehemently and every bit as sincerely as if her warm heart beat beneath double folds of best, imported, extra wide English crepe.

The railroad authorities gave her the use of the shanty forever and a day, including cracks so wide that wind and weather never could resist the temptation to call in passing. Up in the loft, where the temperature was better adapted to bears than men, lived three other "hands," employed by the road, who boarded and slept in this out-of-the-way corner from rough pity for their dead mate's family. These were the assets of the concern. Over against which stood fire, human liabilities, for shelter, food, clothing, education, manners and morals.

"Bat" - christened Bartholomew - aged ten, was the man of the family, the other four children falling down stairs in regular order, to the baby at the bottom. On account of his mother's broken English, Bat carried the needs, ages and sizes of each in his head, repeating "Patsy and Mike is seven and five and wears thirteen and tens. Johnny is four and wears sevens, and the baby is one and wears most any thing," as gravely as a paternoster.

They were all handsome, bright-eyed laddies, happy enough too, except when the big wolf hunger got his greedy claws on them. The shanty stood so near the shining rails it looked like an old freight car, permanently side-tracked. It was just on top of the steep grade, before the road sloped sharply down to the village. The engineers looked for it as a beacon light and called it "The widow," cherishing it half-consciously; fluttering a red handkerchief as they passed, or once in a long while stopping a few seconds, to let their quivering engines breathe before the plunge down grade. The children loved these shining monsters, that thundered by from some place they had never seen and fled away with a joyous shriek to some other spot, for which they cared less.

Indeed, they watched eagerly for their favorites, knowing many by number, and often exclaimed "No 39 is awful tried tonight," when the evening freight pulled and strained more than common in tugging up the hill. Strange playfellows for baby hearts, but they rocked the sleeping Brannigans, in passing, through the night, as gently as tender human hands.

In warm weather the shanty had its own social attractions, no doubt; now, alas! the cruel cold found it easy prey for its bitter work. Only the night before the men in the loft had nearly perished, while Mrs Brannigan huddled the children around her on the only bed; and Bat, with aching back and limbs benumbed by weariness and cold, sat upright for hours, holding the baby in the oven to keep him from freezing before dawn

Only quarter of a mile away from countless little ones, asleep in warm nurseries, under soft coverings, -

With angels at the foot,
With angels at the head, -
whose parents comfortably believed there were no poor in Elmhurst!

This is the story as Mr Hillyer told it to me the evening of his discovery, and together we laid our plans so speedily that the very next morning's sun, coming to business even later than usual, looked out on a gang of busy carpenters, hammering and whistling as they sheathed the old shanty shell in bright new boards.

The news of our enterprise was blown from house to house, and enthusiastically received. One generous dealer sent a stove, another part of a ton of coal; an old scrubwoman brought a coat, apologizing for its lack of style. The factory hands raised a subscription to pay the small but tormenting bills incurred during Pat's last days, to which the college boys "chipped in their change," to use their own expression. The ladies of the University forgot their cobweb knitting for Paris in long cotton flannel seams. One farmer gave a bushel of red apples, another offered milk as often as Bat would go for it. The merchants, too, caught the spirit, and threw off on all we bought, and in, on the measure.

Brotherhood lifted its head and stared so hard at the frightened wolf that he ran away and hid where his voice even was not audible. We brought flannels for each, that Bat said made him feel "like summer all the time;" warm shos [sic] and stockings for pinched little feet; yards of cotton flannel thread, and a paper of needles to make good the rusty one for some time sole agent of the family sewing, eventually lost by Patsy down the floor; supplying coats and trowsers from our friends' cast off abundance, rescued from a providentially delayed missionary box.

Martha Dickinson Bianchi Scrapbook, St. A. 126,
Martha Dickinson Bianchi Collection,
John Hay Library, Brown University Libraries

We spent in money just $10, exactly what Mr Hillyer paid for his pet pipe, by his own guilty admission. The carpenters bill was $15 and some odd cents, not half the price of my own last evening frock.

Many resolutions grew up in us during these next few hurried days; we felt ourselves pledged to the future of Bat and his brethren, already seeing in imagination the objects of our care and wisdom grown to be five intelligent voters; snatched from want and sin, a legacy from us to the glory of our land. It was toward nightfall on Christmas even that we made our last of many journeys to the Brannigans and realized our immediate work was about complete.

The children, espying us from afar as shapes unlike their other friends, the locomotives, ran headlong to their mother, screaming, "The lady and gentleman's coming, wash our faces, quick!" After which they clambered up on the old sofa, perching like young birds on a bough, in a serious expectant row, to wait for our arrival.

It was a long way from a picture of "Home, sweet home," yet as most minds conceive it, but the new stove crackled comfortably and Bat's small shoulders seemed to have grown broader by several inches; while, best of all, the terror was gone from handsome Maggie's eyes as she called on all her lazy saints for a blessing on our heads.

As we came away, the curling smoke from the chimney wreathed itself in a halo over the little shanty, from which the glittering rails ran away into the distance, a story of the future in themselves.

The engineer on the down express waived his grimy hand to us as he dashed by, and the setting sun glanced back a reluctant good-night up the valley to the silver moon rising over the amethyst hills, whose purple hollows cradled the sleeping day.

Then it was I realized that no country can ever be so cursed as to be set off from the heart-warming influence of contact with the suffering and unfortunate; grateful for the promise of the Nazarene, living through the death of many centuries, "the poor ye have always with you."

Remembering which I became permanent missionary to Elmhurst, resigning the "foreign field" to other willing hands forever.

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Transcription and commentary copyright 1998 by Martha Nell Smith,
Laura Elyn Lauth, and Lara Vetter, all rights reserved
Maintained by Rebecca Mooney  <rnmooney@umd.edu>
Last updated on January 23, 2008

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