The “Idle Minute” Book

Mary E. Wilkins

From The Youth's Companion Vol. 75 No. 16 (April 18, 1901)

Angeline was a young girl more than two hundred years ago, when young girls led very different lives from the girls of to-day. All about the people were food and apparel and warmth and light in the crude state, but their utilization depended upon the unceasing individual effort of women as well as of men, of children as well as of adults. This struggle with inanimate things — the rocks of the New England fields, the great trees and strong undergrowth of the virgin forests — necessitated constant industry. It was war to the knife between man and all the other kingdoms of nature, and the knife could not be for an instant laid down, or there was a vantage-point lost which could never be regained.

Thus it happened that Angeline had her “Idle Minute” Book. It was a rude affair, for paper was scanty and coarse in those days, but Angeline considered her book very dainty. It was tied with blue lutestring ribbon, and there was never a blot on the pages, which were covered with the record in the finest, most acutely cramped chirography.

Angeline used to look at it and think what a pity it was that the record was of such a disgraceful nature. Her eldest sister, Mary Ann, had first suggested keeping it to her mother. Mrs. Jehoram Littlefield was married when she was only fifteen, and was hardly sixteen years older than Mary Ann, and so made a confidante of her eldest daughter. There were three girls and three boys between Mary Ann and Angeline, who was fifteen.

“She is as old as I was when I was married,” Mrs. Littlefield said to Mary Ann. “And only to think how much work I used to turn off, and look at Angeline! I declare, sometimes it doesn't seem as if she could be my daughter. Why, my linen chest was filled to the brim with my own work by the time I was fourteen, and only look at the blankets and quilts! And I used to make all the candles and soap for the family.

“Angeline seems to me sometimes as if she was good for nothing as far as work is concerned. She does not seem to have any idea of the responsibility which her birth has brought upon her. She is nothing but a child. I have had the minister talk with her, and her father has talked, and I have talked, and you have talked, and none of it has seemed to do a mite of good. She seems to mean well enough, and she never loses her temper when she is talked to; sometimes I wish she did. I don't know but it would make her have a little more spunk.

“There, this morning she was late to breakfast again, and breakfast was late, too — four o'clock, when it is usually half past three! I gave her a good, faithful talking to, and it wasn't half an hour before I sent her up to make the beds. When she didn't come down I went up after her, and found her sitting by the window, staring out at that red maple tree in the yard, and doing nothing at all.”

Then it was that Mary Ann suggested the Idle Minute Book, and her mother grasped at the idea eagerly. She was so honestly anxious about her idle little daughter that the tears were in her eyes. “Maybe it will set her to thinking,” she said. So that very day Mary Ann made the book, and Mrs. Littlefield gave it into Angeline's keeping.

“Now, Angeline,” said she, “here is a little book which your sister Mary Ann has made for you, and you are to keep in it a record of all the idle minutes which you spend every day. We hope, dear child, that it may help you to amend your ways, and not waste so much of the precious time which God has given you.”

Mrs. Jehoram Littlefield, for all she was such a capable and industrious woman, was very gentle and soft-spoken. Her sweet voice faltered as she made that address to Angeline, and as for Angeline, she fairly burst into repentant tears.

“O mother, I will try to do better!” she said, as she took the Idle Minute Book.

“Well,” said her mother, “put the book away carefully; then go out in the yard and stir the soap-kettle. And tell Mary Ann to come in and do that spinning before dinner.”

So Angeline obediently put her book away, and went out into the yard where the great soap-kettle was hung over a fire which was lashed one way like a red flag by the wind.

“Mother says that you are to go into the house and spin, Mary Ann, and I am to stir the soap,” said Angeline.

“Well, be careful you don't let it burn,” replied Mary Ann, and yielded up her stirring-stick somewhat dubiously to Angeline. Then she went into the house to her spinning rather wearily.

Mary Ann was herself old enough to be Angeline's mother, and had a pretty, gentle, sad face. All the other sisters and brothers were married, but Mary Ann had been disappointed in a tragic way. Three years before the young man whom she was to have married had been taken prisoner by the Indians, in a raid upon the border settlement of Deerfield, where he was staying at the time with his uncle; and nothing had since been heard from him. His uncle's family had all perished, and everybody believed that the young man, whose name was Joseph Wyatt, had died in captivity.

There was no danger from Indians in the village where the Littlefields lived, but the terror of them had been, and was still, to a great extent, a cloud over all the country. Mary Ann had given up all hope of ever seeing Joseph again; and although she was little over thirty, she had put on caps and had settled down uncomplainingly to her single estate.

“I trust that her affliction is sanctified unto her,” her mother told the minister in the quaint language of the day; and truly it seemed to be, for a gentler, milder young woman never lived than Mary Ann Littlefield, and her every look bespoke her goodness.

Angeline used often to think with pity of Mary Ann's disappointment, although she hardly knew what it signified. She had never had any lover of her own. Her reputation for idleness was rather against her for one thing. Young men in those days thought twice before they married a girl who was not industrious. It would surely mean discomfort, and it might mean starvation.

But Angeline had always liked Joseph, and she was very fond of Mary Ann. She thought, as she took up the soap-stick and began to stir carefully one way, that Mary Ann was looking sadder than usual. And Angeline determined, in order to please her sister, to be so industrious that she would not have to put down a single entry in the Idle Minute Book.

But the yard was full of those wonderful rosy and golden maple-trees; and presently Angeline cast a glance up into the shifting radiance of one over her head. Then the stick moved more slowly. Then she smelled wild grapes, and the stick moved more slowly still. And the upshot of it was, the soap caught on the kettle, and Angeline had to make her first entry in her Idle Minute Book that night to the effect that she had wasted at least thirty minutes and burned the soap.

The next day it was no better. She had spent two hours of idle minutes when they were carefully computed. Angeline was very conscientious about the truth, if not about industry, and she never dreamed of not writing down the full extent of her sins of omission. The book promised to be well filled; not a day passed but she made her poor despondent little entries.

“I can't see that the book is doing her a mite of good,” Mrs. Littlefield told Mary Ann. “She writes in it faithfully every night, but she is just as idle as ever. She had the book in October, and here it is the last of December, and she has not improved at all. She spent an hour and a half staring up in the sky to see the snow fall to-day, when I had set her to piecing that blazing-star quilt.”

Angeline overheard what her mother said. She had gone to bed in her little unfinished chamber, and they were in the living-room below, but as the flooring was thin and there was no carpet, the conversation was quite audible.

“Maybe she ain't feeling well,” said her father. Angeline's father always took up her part. He had rather a dreamy and poetic temperament himself, and the times were not a comfortable fit for him. He had struggled hard with Angeline's besetting sin in his youth, and only the sore exigencies of his daily life had enabled him to conquer it.

When Angeline heard his reply, out of her bed she popped into the freezing room, and put her mouth to the floor. “No, it is not because I am sick, father,” she said, bravely; “it is because I am idle and wicked.” Then she knelt down and prayed a while before she climbed back into bed.

“She is a good child,” her father below said in a careful whisper, but Mrs. Littlefield shook her head sadly.

“It has got to be works as well as faith,” she returned. She spoke very softly, but her daughter heard her.

Angeline resolved that the next day she would not have to make a single entry in the Idle Minute Book, and she began very well. She worked untiringly all the morning — and the morning began by candle-light at half past three. By high noon she had accomplished great things. She had dipped candles, she had hetchelled, she had carded, she had spun, she had polished brasses and pewter, she had knitted, besides preparing all the vegetables for the boiled dinner.

Her mother and Mary Ann looked approvingly and kindly at her, and Angeline began to have a glow of self-confidence and gratulation. But, alas! it lasted only until after dinner.

When the dishes had been washed, Mr. Jehoram Littlefield went out to chop wood in a distant woodland, and Mrs. Littlefield and Mary Ann went over to Grandmother Littlefield's, one carrying her knitting-work, the other her tape-loom. Angeline was left to mind the house, with injunctions to spin two skeins of yarn before they returned.

She spun unremittingly for half an hour; then she began to flag. She looked over her shoulder out of the window. Finally she left the wheel, went over to the window, and gazed out; then she settled down on a stool beside it, rested her two hands on the sill, and sank into one of those half reveries which seemed to be her natural state, and which was so unlike the fierce industry of all those about her. It was a beautiful winter day; that is, a beautiful day to look at. It was bitterly cold, but there was a diamond-like sparkle of earth and air, for even the blue depth of sky seemed to glitter with points of light from the intense frost. The snow was frozen in glittering billows, and the trees were clad in brilliant mail of ice. The day before there had been a snow-storm which had changed to rain in the night; then the cold had increased, and still increased, ever since dawn, and everything was frozen.

Angeline looked out at the wonderful radiance until she could stay in the house no longer. “I can run out a minute, and have time to finish my stent when I return,” she said to herself.

She pinned her homespun blanket over her head, and ran out of the house. Then she made her way over the glittering snow-crust, running and sliding, facing the gusts of north wind with a glee which even the prickings of her conscience could not subdue. She knew that she was doing wrong, she knew that she should have to make a most disgraceful entry in her Idle Minute Book, but she could not help enjoying her communion with that wonderful winter day. As for the cold, a girl brought up in a house heated only by a hearth-fire in one room, with all the other rooms full of the blue gloom of frost, did not think much about that, as long as she had her warm homespun blanket and could keep up her swift pace.

She left the highway and struck into the bridle-path through the woods: the icy boughs hung low over her head and the icy herbage crackled under her swift feet. Angeline's cheeks glowed, her eyes shone; she knew, according to the stern belief of the times, that she was tasting the sweets of sin by neglecting her tasks, and yet she kept on, and realized that the sin was sweet.

She had not been out-of-doors for nearly a week, not since she had gone to meeting the Sunday before. Angeline never went out-of-doors in the winter, unless she was sent on an errand or was bound for meeting.

She went farther and farther into the woods. Everything was silent, except for the occasional chatter of a squirrel or the note of a partridge. Once a rabbit crossed her path. There were some wild beasts, which might be dangerous, in the woods, but Angeline did not think of that. She had small imagination for evil.

All at once, as she sped along, the silence was broken by a far-off cry, and she stopped and listened. Her first thought was that it must be a wolf or a wildcat; it sounded a little like a wildcat. Presently it came again; it was very distant and very faint, but her ears, trained to that frequent sound of her day and generation, recognized it. It was a human cry for help.

Angeline did not stop to think what a young girl all alone could do to aid a man, possibly, even probably, beset by wolves or, although that was doubtful, by Indians. She raised an answering cry in her clear young voice, and set off at the top of her speed.

From time to time she stopped and listened for the feeble cry, which sounded nearer and nearer; then she sped on again. She ran as she had never run before. She was thankful when she came to open spaces, where she could take long slides over the glassy snow. At last she saw ahead something which made her heart leap: a dark heap on the snow beside the bridle-path, huddled in the strange and unmistakable huddle of human helplessness.

Angeline went up to the man, who was lying quite still and no longer crying out for help. She bent over him and turned his face, fearfully, up toward the light. It was Joseph Wyatt. He was emaciated and haggard; his thin face was overspread with a wild stubble of beard; but she knew him.

She caught him by his shoulders and shook him with all her young strength. She knew that if he lay there motionless longer in the bitter cold his fate was sealed.

“Joseph! Joseph!” she shrieked at him. “Joseph, don't you know me?” Then she shook him again, and he opened his poor eyes and looked unseeingly at her, and that was all.

Angeline looked at him in a frenzy. She did not know what to do. She could not by herself carry him to shelter, but if she left him there he was lost. She shook him again. She rubbed his hands violently, but all with very little avail.

Finally she grew desperate. She thought quickly. She remembered that her father was at work not far from there, if she could cross the woods instead of following the path. Stripping off her homespun blanket, she bound it securely over the freezing man's head and shoulders. Then off came the thick wool skirt of her gown, and that she fastened around his feet.

Then she took hold of two ends of the blanket which she had left loose at the top of his head, and started, dragging him, picking the smoothest way that she could, bending forward almost to the ground with the strain, but never once giving up.

It was well that Angeline came of sturdy ancestors, for she needed all her strength that day. She often stopped to examine the young man and make sure that she was not injuring him by that rough progress, but the thick blanket protected him well, and sometimes she broke off branches of undergrowth which were in the way.

At last she heard the sound of her father's ax and gave one cry: “O father! father! father!”

Then she sank to the ground beside Joseph Wyatt, for her strength was gone.

She remembered only dimly afterward what her father said and did when he came running up and saw her bareheaded, in her sack and quilted petticoat. She always had a vision of him going homeward carrying on his back the poor young man who had escaped from the Canadian Indians and found his way home through incredible hardships, and of herself trailing weakly behind him.

She came to her full senses afterward, when Joseph Wyatt was tucked up in the great feather bed in the fore-room, and his father and mother and Mary Ann, who looked ten years younger since morning, were flying back and forth with bowls of hot herb tea and warming-pans, and such joy was in the house that it seemed fairly to illuminate it even after the evening shadows had fallen.

Mary Ann came and held Angeline's smooth, brown head against her slender shoulder, and wept and thanked her. “He would have died if it hadn't been for you, Angeline,” she said.

“Yes, he would, and after all he had been through to get here!” said her mother, tearfully. As for Joseph Wyatt's father and mother, they could not make enough of Angeline; but all the time, in the midst of her delight and thankfulness that she had been able to save Joseph Wyatt's life, there was a little, tiny, incessant prick of her conscience.

When the house was quiet at last, and she was about to go to bed, she went to the old desk and got her Idle Minute Book. Then she looked dubiously at her mother and Mary Ann, this little maid who had never been able to fit her feet quite comfortably into the narrow Puritan track of life.

“I suppose I must put down at least three hours of idle minutes,” she said. Then Mary Ann, although such impetuosity was not usual in the household, had her sister in her arms, kissing her wildly. “Give me the book!” she cried.

And Mary Ann, leaning over the desk, wrote with a tremulous hand in the Idle Minute Book: “On this day did Angeline Littlefield do the greatest stent of work which has ever been done in this house, and ever will be, for the body is more than raiment, and life is more than food. And this is the end of the Idle Minute Book.”