The Prism

Mary E. Wilkins (Freeman)

From The Uncollected Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman (University Press of Mississippi: 1992)
Originally published in Century 62 (July 1901)

There had been much rain that season, and the vegetation was almost tropical. The wayside growths were jungles to birds and insects, and very near them to humans. All through the long afternoon of the hot August day, Diantha Fielding lay flat on her back under the lee of the stone wall which bordered her stepfather's, Zenas May's, south mowing-lot. It was pretty warm there, although she lay in a little strip of shade of the tangle of blackberry-vines, poison-ivy, and the gray pile of stones; but the girl loved the heat. She experienced the gentle languor which is its best effect, instead of the fierce unrest and irritation which is its worst. She left that to rattlesnakes and nervous women. As for her, in times of extreme heat, she hung over life with tremulous flutters, like a butterfly over a rose, moving only enough to preserve her poise in the scheme of things, and realizing to the full the sweetness of all about her.

She heard, as she lay there, the voice of a pine-tree not far away — a solitary pine which was full of gusty sweetness; she smelled the wild grapes, which were reluctantly ripening across the field over the wall that edged the lane; she smelled the blackberry-vines; she looked with indolent fascination at the virile sprays of poison-ivy. It was like innocence surveying sin, and wondering what it was like. Once her stepmother, Mrs. Zenas May, had been poisoned with ivy, and both eyes had been closed thereby. Diantha did not believe that the ivy would so serve her. She dared herself to touch it, then she looked away again.

She heard a far-carrying voice from the farm-house at the left calling her name. “Diantha! Diantha!” She lay so still that she scarcely breathed. The voice came again. She smiled triumphantly. She knew perfectly well what was wanted: that she should assist in preparing supper. Her stepmother's married daughter and her two children were visiting at the house. She preferred remaining where she was. Her sole fear of disturbance was from the children. They were like little ferrets. Diantha did not like them. She did not like children very well under any circumstances. To her they seemed always out of tune; the jar of heredity was in them, and she felt it, although she did not know enough to realize what she felt. She was only twelve years old, a child still, though tall for her age.

The voice came again. Diantha shifted her position a little; she stretched her slender length luxuriously; she felt for something which hung suspended around her neck under her gingham waist, but she did not then remove it. “Diantha! Diantha!” came the insistent voice.

Diantha lay as irresponsive as the blackberry-vine which trailed beside her like a snake. Then she heard the house door close with a bang; her ears were acute. She felt again of that which was suspended from her neck. A curious expression of daring, of exultation, of fear, was in her face. Presently she heard the shrill voices of children; then she lay so still that she seemed fairly to obliterate herself by silence and motionlessness.

Two little girls in pink frocks came racing past; their flying heels almost touched her, but they never saw her.

When they were well past, she drew a cautious breath, and felt again of the treasure around her neck.

After a while she heard the soft padding of many hoofs in the heavy dust of the road, a dog's shrill bark, the tinkle of a bell, the absent-minded shout of a weary man. The hired man was driving the cows home. The fragrance of milk-dripping udders, of breaths sweetened with clover and meadow-grass, came to her. Suddenly a cold nose rubbed against her face; the dog had found her out. But she was a friend of his. She patted him, then pushed him away gently, and he understood that she wished to remain concealed. He went barking back to the man. The cows broke into a clumsy gallop; the man shouted. Diantha smelled the dust of the road which flew over the field like smoke. She heard the children returning down the road behind the cows. When the cows galloped, they screamed with half-fearful delight. Then it all passed by, and she heard the loud clang of a bell from the farm-house.

Then Diantha pulled out the treasure which was suspended from her neck by an old blue ribbon, and she held it up to the low western sun, and wonderful lights of red and blue and violet and green and orange danced over the shaven stubble of the field before her delighted eyes. It was a prism which she had stolen from the best-parlor lamp — from the lamp which had been her own mother's, bought by her with her school-teaching money before her marriage, and brought by her to grace her new home.

Diantha Fielding, as far as relatives went, was in a curious position. First her mother died when she was very young, only a few months old; then her father had married again, giving her a stepmother; then her father had died two years later, and her stepmother had married again, giving her a stepfather. Since then the stepmother had died, and the stepfather had married a widow with a married daughter, whose two children had raced down the road behind the cows. Diantha often felt in a sore bewilderment of relationships. She had not even a cousin of her own; the dearest relative she had was the daughter of a widow whom a cousin of her mother's had married for a second wife. The cousin was long since dead. The wife was living, and Diantha's little step second cousin, as she reckoned it, lived in the old homestead which had belonged to Diantha's grandfather, across the way from the May farm-house. It was a gambrel-roof, half-ruinous structure, well banked in front with a monstrous growth of lilacs, and overhung by a great butternut-tree.

Diantha knew well that she was heaping up vials of cold wrath upon her head by not obeying the supper-bell, but she lay still. Then Libby came — Libby, the little cousin, stepping very cautiously and daintily; for she wore slippers of her mother's, which hung from her small heels, and she had lost them twice already.

She stopped before Diantha. Her slender arms, terminating in hands too large for them, hung straight at her sides in the folds of her faded blue-flowered muslin. Her pretty little heat-flushed face had in it no more speculation than a flower, and no more changing. She was like a flower, which would blossom the same next year, and the next year after that, and the same until it died. There was no speculation in her face as she looked at Diantha dangling the prism in the sunlight, merely unimaginative wonder and admiration.

“It's a drop off your best-parlor lamp,” said she, in her thin, sweet voice.

“Look over the field, Libby!” cried Diantha, excitedly.

Libby looked.

“Tell me what you see, quick!”

“What I see? Why, grass and things.”

“No, I don't mean them; what you see from this.”

Diantha shook the prism violently.

“I see a lot of different colors dancing,” replied Libby, “same as you always see. Addie Green had an ear-drop that was broken off their best-parlor lamp. Her mother gave it to her.”

“Don't you see anything but different lights?”

“Of course I don't. That's all there is to see.”

Diantha sighed.

“That drop ain't broken,” said the other little girl. “How did she happen to let you have it?” By “she” Libby meant Diantha's stepmother.

“I took it,” replied Diantha. She was fastening the prism around her neck again.

Libby gasped and stared at her. “Didn't you ask her?”

“If I'd asked her, she'd said no, and it was my own mother's lamp. I had a right to it.”

“What'll she do to you?”

“I don't know, if she finds out. I sha'n't tell her, if I can help it without lying.”

Diantha fastened her gingham frock securely over the prism. Then she rose, and the two little girls went home across the dry stubble of the field.

“I didn't go when she called me, and I didn't go when the supper-bell rang,” said Diantha.

Libby stared at her wonderingly. She had never felt an impulse to disobedience in her life; she could not understand this other child, who was a law unto herself. She walked very carefully in her large slippers.

“What'll she do to you?” she inquired.

Diantha tossed her head like a colt.

“She won't do anything, I guess, except make me go without my supper. If she does, I ain't afraid; but I guess she won't, and I'd a heap rather go without my supper than go to it when I don't want to.”

Libby looked at her with admiring wonder. Diantha was neatly and rigorously, rather than tastefully, dressed. Her dark blue-and-white gingham frock was starched stiffly; it hung exactly at the proper height from her slender ankles; she wore a clean white collar; and her yellow hair was braided very tightly and smoothly, and tied with a punctilious blue bow. In strange contrast with the almost martial preciseness of her attire was the expression of her little face, flushed, eager to enthusiasm, almost wild, with a light in her blue eyes which did not belong there, according to the traditions concerning little New England maidens, with a feverish rose on her cheeks, which should have been cool and pale. However, that had all come since she had dangled the prism in the rays of the setting sun.

“What did you think you saw when you shook that ear-drop off the lamp?” asked Libby; but she asked without much curiosity.

“Red and green and yellow colors, of course,” replied Diantha, shortly.

When they reached Diantha's door, Libby bade her good night, and sped across the road to her own house. She stood a little in fear of Diantha's stepmother, if Diantha did not. She knew just the sort of look which would be directed toward the other little girl, and she knew from experience that it might include her. From her Puritan ancestry she had a certain stubbornness when brought to bay, but no courage of aggression; so she ran.

Diantha marched in. She was utterly devoid of fear.

Her stepmother, Mrs. Zenas May, was washing the supper dishes at the kitchen sink. All through the house sounded a high sweet voice which was constantly off the key, singing a lullaby to the two little girls, who had to go to bed directly after they had finished their evening meal.

Mrs. Zenas May turned around and surveyed Diantha as she entered. There was nothing in the least unkind in her look; it was simply the gaze of one on a firm standpoint of existence upon another swaying on a precarious balance — the sort of look a woman seated in a car gives to one standing. It was irresponsible, while cognizant of the discomfort of the other person.

“Where were you when the supper-bell rang?” asked Mrs. Zenas May. She was rather a pretty woman, with an exquisitely cut profile. Her voice was very even, almost as devoid of inflections as a deaf-and-dumb person's. Her gingham gown was also rigorously starched. Her fair hair showed high lights of gloss from careful brushing; it was strained back from her blue-veined temples.

“Out in the field,” replied Diantha.

“Then you heard it?”

“Yes, ma'am.”

“The supper-table is cleared away,” said Mrs. May. That was all she said. She went on polishing the tumblers, which she was rinsing in ammonia water.

Diantha glanced through the open door and saw the dining-room table with its chenille after-supper cloth on. She made no reply, but went up-stairs to her own chamber. That was very comfortable — the large south one back of her step-parents'. Not a speck of dust was to be seen in it; the feather-bed was an even mound of snow. Diantha sat down by the window, and gazed out at the deepening dusk. She felt at the prism around her neck, but she did not draw it out, for it was of no use in that low light. She could not invoke the colors which it held. Her chamber door was open. Presently she heard the best-parlor door open, and heard quite distinctly her stepmother's voice. She was speaking to her stepfather.

“There's a drop broken off the parlor lamp,” said she.

There was an unintelligible masculine grunt of response.

“I wish you'd look while I hold the lamp, and see if you can find it on the floor anywhere,” said her stepmother. Her voice was still even. The loss of a prism from the best-parlor lamp was not enough to ruffle her outward composure.

“Don't you see it?” she asked, after a little.

Again came the unintelligible masculine grunt.

“It is very strange,” said Mrs. May. “Don't look any more.”

She never inquired of Diantha concerning the prism. In truth, she believed one of her grandchildren, whom she adored, to be responsible for the loss of the glittering ornament, and was mindful of the fact that Diantha's mother had originally owned that lamp. So she said nothing, but as soon as might be purchased another, and Diantha kept her treasure quite unsuspected.

She did not, however, tremble in the least while the search was going on down-stairs. She had her defense quite ready. To her sense of justice it was unquestionable. She would simply say that the lamp had belonged to her own mother, consequently to her; that she had a right to do as she chose with it. She had not the slightest fear of any reproaches which Mrs. May would bring to bear upon her. She knew she would not use bodily punishment, as she never had; but she would have stood in no fear of that.

Diantha did not go to bed for a long time. There was a full moon, and she sat by the window, leaning her two elbows on the sill, making a cup of her hands, in which she rested her peaked chin, and peered out.

It was nearly nine o'clock when some one entered the room with heavy, soft movements, like a great tame dog. It was her stepfather, and he had in his hand a large wedge of apple-pie.

“Diantha,” he said, in a loud whisper, “you gone to bed?”

“No, sir,” replied Diantha. She liked her stepfather. She was always aware of a clumsy, covert partizanship from him.

“Well,” said he, “here's a piece of pie. You hadn't ought to go to bed without any supper. You'd ought to come in when the bell rings another time, Diantha.”

“Thank you, father,” said Diantha, reaching out her hand for the pie.

Zenas May, who was large and shaggily blond, with a face like a great blank of good nature, placed a heavy hand on her little, tightly braided head, and patted it.

“Better eat your pie and go to bed,” he said. Then he shambled down-stairs very softly, lest his wife hear him.

Diantha ate her pie obediently, and went to bed, and with the first morning sunlight she removed her prism from her neck, and flashed it across the room, and saw what she saw, or what she thought she saw.

Diantha kept the prism, and nobody except Libby knew it, and she was quite safe with a secret. While she did not in the least comprehend, she was stanch. Even when she grew older and had a lover, she did not tell him; she did not even tell him when she was married to him that Diantha Fielding always carried a drop off the best-parlor lamp, which belonged to her own mother, and when she flashed it in the sunlight she thought she saw things. She kept it all to herself. Libby married before Diantha, before Diantha had a lover even. Young men, for some reason, were rather shy of Diantha, although she had a little property in her own right, inherited from her own father and mother, and was, moreover, extremely pretty. However, her prettiness was not of a type to attract the village men as quickly as Libby's more material charms. Diantha was very thin and small, and her color was as clear as porcelain, and she gave a curious impression of mystery, although there was apparently nothing whatever mysterious about her.

But her turn came. A graduate of a country college, a farmer's son, who had worked his own way through college, had now obtained the high school. He saw Diantha, and fell in love with her, although he struggled against it. He said to himself that she was too delicate, that he was a poor man, that he ought to have a more robust wife, who would stand a better chance of discharging her domestic and maternal duties without a breakdown. Reason and judgment were strongly developed in him. His passion for Diantha was entirely opposed to both, but it got the better of him. One afternoon in August when Diantha was almost twenty, he, passing by her house, saw her sitting on her front doorstep, stopped, and proposed a little stroll in the woods, and asked her to marry him.

“I never thought much about getting married,” said Diantha. Then she leaned toward him as if impelled by some newly developed instinct. She spoke so low that he could not hear her, and he asked her over.

“I never thought much about getting married,” repeated Diantha, and she leaned nearer him.

He laughed a great triumphant laugh, and caught her in his arms.

“Then it is high time you did, you darling,” he said.

Diantha was very happy.

They lingered in the woods a long time, and when they went home, the young man, whose name was Robert Black, went in with her, and told her stepmother what had happened.

“I have asked your daughter to marry me, Mrs. May,” he said, “and she has consented, and I hope you are willing.”

Mrs. May replied that she had no objections, stiffly, without a smile. She never smiled. Instead of smiling, she always looked questioningly even at their beloved grandchildren. They had lived with her since their mother's death, two pretty, boisterous girls, pupils of Robert Black, who had had their own inevitable little dreams regarding him, as they had had regarding every man who came in their way.

When their grandmother told them that Diantha was to marry the hero who had dwelt in their own innocently bold air-castles of girlish dreams, they started at first as from a shock of falling imaginations; then they began to think of their attire as bridesmaids.

Mrs. Zenas May was firmly resolved that Diantha should have as grand a wedding as if she had been her own daughter.

“Folks sha'n't say that she didn't have as good an outfit and wedding as if her own mother had been alive to see to it,” she said.

As for Diantha, she thought very little about her outfit or the wedding, but about Robert. All at once she was possessed by a strong angel of primal conditions of whose existence she had never dreamed. She poured out her very soul; she made revelations of the inmost innocences of her nature to this ambitious, faithful, unimaginative young man. She had been some two weeks betrothed, and they were walking together one afternoon, when she showed him her prism.

She no longer wore it about her neck as formerly. A dawning unbelief in it had seized her, and yet there were times when to doubt seemed to doubt the evidence of her own senses.

That afternoon, as they were walking together in the lonely country road, she stopped him in a sunny interval between the bordering woods, where the road stretched for some distance between fields foaming with wild carrot and mustard, and swarmed over with butterflies, and she took her prism out of her pocket and flashed it full before her wondering lover's eyes.

He looked astonished, even annoyed; then he laughed aloud with a sort of tender scorn.

“What a child you are, dear!” he said. “What are you doing with that thing?”

“What do you see, Robert?” the girl cried eagerly, and there was in her eyes a light not of her day and generation, maybe inherited from some far-off Celtic ancestor — a strain of imagination which had survived the glaring light of latter days of commonness.

He eyed her with amazement; then he looked at the gorgeous blots and banners of color over the fields.

“See? Why, I see the prismatic colors, of course. What else should I see?” he asked.

“Nothing else?”

“No. Why, what else should I see? I see the prismatic colors from the refraction of the sunlight.”

Diantha looked at the dancing tints, then at her lover, and spoke with a solemn candor, as if she were making confession of an alien faith. “Ever since I was a child, I have seen, or thought so —” she began.

“What, for heaven's sake?” he cried impatiently.

“You have read about — fairies and — such things?”

“Of course. What do you mean, Diantha?”

“I have seen, or thought so, beautiful little people moving and dancing in the broken lights across the fields.”

“For heaven's sake, put up that thing, and don't talk such nonsense, Diantha!” cried Robert, almost brutally. He had paled a little.

“I have, Robert.”

“Don't talk such nonsense. I thought you were a sensible girl,” said the young man.

Diantha put the prism back in her pocket.

All the rest of the way Robert was silent and gloomy. His old doubts had revived. His judgment for the time being got the upper hand of his passion. He began to wonder if he ought to marry a girl with such preposterous fancies as those. He began to wonder if she were just right in her mind.

He parted from her coolly, and came the next evening, but remained only a short time. Then he stayed away several days. He called on Sunday, then did not come again for four days. On Friday Diantha grew desperate. She went by herself out in the sunny field, walking ankle-deep in flowers and weeds, until she reached the margin of a little pond on which the children skated in winter. Then she took her prism from her pocket and flashed it in the sunlight, and for the first time she failed to see what she had either seen, or imagined, for so many years.

She saw only the beautiful prismatic colors flashing across the field in bars and blots and streamers of rose and violet, of orange and green. That was all. She stooped, and dug in the oozy soil beside the pond with her bare white hands, and made, as it were, a little grave, and buried the prism out of sight. Then she washed her hands in the pond, and waved them about until they were dry. Afterward she went swiftly across the field to the road which her lover must pass on his way from school, and, when she saw him coming, met him, blushing and trembling.

“I have put it away, Robert,” she said. “I saw nothing; it was only my imagination.”

It was a lonely road. He looked at her doubtfully, then he laughed, and put an arm around her.

“It's all right, little girl,” he replied; “but don't let such fancies dwell in your brain. This is a plain, common world, and it won't do.”

“I saw nothing; it must have been my imagination,” she repeated. Then she leaned her head against her lover's shoulder. Whether or not she had sold her birthright, she had got her full measure of the pottage of love which filled to an ecstasy of satisfaction her woman's heart.

She and Robert were married, and lived in a pretty new house, from the western windows of which she could see the pond on whose borders she had buried the prism. She was very happy. For the time being, at least, all the mysticism in her face had given place to an utter revelation of earthly bliss. People said how much Diantha had improved since her marriage, what a fine housekeeper she was, how much common sense she had, how she was such a fitting mate for her husband, whom she adored.

Sometimes Diantha, looking from a western window, used to see the pond across the field, reflecting the light of the setting sun, and looking like an eye of revelation of the earth; and she would remember that key of a lost radiance and a lost belief of her own life, which was buried beside it. Then she would go happily and prepare her husband's supper.