The Singer Mother by Eugene Field

Story type: Literature

Once, as Death walked the earth in search of some fair flower upon which he could breathe his icy breath, he met the graceful and pleasing spirit who is called Ambition.

“Good morrow,” quoth Death, “let us journey a time together. Both of us are hale fellows; let us henceforth be travelling companions.”

Now Ambition is one of the most easily cajoled persons in the world. The soft words of Death flattered him. So Death and Ambition set out together, hand in hand.

And having come into a great city, they were walking in a fine street when they beheld at the window of a certain house a lady who was named Griselda. She was sitting at the window, fondling in her lap her child, a beautiful little infant that held out his dimpled arms to the mother and prattled sweet little things which only a mother can understand.

“What a beautiful lady,” said Ambition, “and what a wonderful song she is singing to the child.”

“You may praise the mother as you will,” said Death, “but it is the child which engages my attention and absorbs my admiration. How I wish the child were mine!”

But Ambition continued to regard Griselda with an eye of covetousness; the song Griselda sang to her babe seemed to have exerted a wondrous spell over the spirit.

“I know a way,” suggested Death, “by which we can possess ourselves of these two–you of the mother and I of the child.”

Ambition’s eyes sparkled. He longed for the beautiful mother.

“Tell me how I may win her,” said he to Death, “and you shall have the babe.”

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So Death and Ambition walked in the street and talked of Griselda and her child.

Griselda was a famous singer. She sang in the theatre of the great city, and people came from all parts of the world to hear her songs and join in her praise. Such a voice had never before been heard, and Griselda’s fame was equalled only by the riches which her art had brought her. In the height of her career the little babe came to make her life all the sweeter, and Griselda was indeed very happy.

“Who is that at the door?” inquired Charlotte, the old nurse. “It must be somebody of consequence, for he knocks with a certain confidence only those in authority have.”

“Go to the door and see,” said Griselda.

So Charlotte went to the door, and lo, there was a messenger from the king, and the messenger was accompanied by two persons attired in royal robes.

These companions were Ambition and Death, but they were so splendidly arrayed you never would have recognized them.

“Does the Lady Griselda abide here?” asked the messenger.

“She does,” replied old Charlotte, courtesying very low, for the brilliant attire of the strangers dazzled her.

“I have a message from the king,” said the messenger.

Old Charlotte could hardly believe her ears. A message from the king! Never before had such an honor befallen one in Griselda’s station.

The message besought Griselda to appear in the theatre that night before the king, who knew of her wondrous voice, but had never heard it. And with the message came a royal gift of costly jewels, the like of which Griselda had never set eyes upon.

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“You cannot refuse,” said Ambition in a seductive voice. “Such an opportunity never before was accorded you and may never again be offered. It is the king for whom you are to sing!”

Griselda hesitated and cast a lingering look at her babe.

“Have no fear for the child,” said Death, “for I will care for him while you are gone.”

So, between the insinuating advice of Ambition and the fair promises of Death, Griselda was persuaded, and the messenger bore back to the king word that Griselda would sing for him that night.

But Ambition and Death remained as guests in Griselda’s household.

The child grew restless as the day advanced. From the very moment that Death had entered the house the little one had seemed very changed, but Griselda was so busy listening to the flattering speeches of Ambition that she did not notice the flush on her infant’s cheeks and the feverish rapidity of his breathing.

But Death sat grimly in a corner of the room and never took his eyes from the crib where the little one lay.

“You shall so please the king with your beautiful face and voice,” said Ambition, “that he will confer wealth and title upon you. You will be the most famous woman on earth; better than that, your fame shall live always in history–it shall be eternal!”

And Griselda smiled, for the picture was most pleasing.

“The child’s hands are hot,” said old Charlotte, the nurse, “and there seem to be strange tremors in his little body, and he groans as he tosses from one side of his cradle to the other.”

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Griselda was momentarily alarmed, but Ambition only laughed.

“Nonsense,” quoth Ambition, “’tis an old woman’s fancy. This envious old witch would have you disappoint the king–the king, who would load you with riches and honors!”

So the day lengthened, and Griselda listened to the grateful flatteries of Ambition. But Death sat all the time gazing steadfastly on the little one in the cradle. The candles were brought, and Griselda arrayed herself in her costliest robes.

“I must look my best,” she said, “for this is to be the greatest triumph of my life.”

“You are very beautiful; you will captivate the king,” said Ambition.

“The child is very ill,” croaked old Charlotte, the nurse; “he does not seem to be awake nor yet asleep, and there is a strange, hoarse rattling in his breathing.”

“For shame!” cried Ambition. “See how the glow of health mantles his cheeks and how the fire of health burns in his eyes.”

And Griselda believed the words of Ambition. She did not stoop to kiss her little one. She called his name and threw him a kiss, and hastened to her carriage in the street below. The child heard the mother’s voice, raised his head, and stretched forth his hands to Griselda, but she was gone and Ambition had gone with her. But Death remained with Griselda’s little one.

The theatre was more brilliant that night than ever before. It had been noised about that Griselda would sing for the king, and lords and ladies in their most imposing raiment filled the great edifice to overflowing, while in the royal box sat the king himself, with the queen and the princes and the princesses.

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“It will be a great triumph,” said Ambition to Griselda, and Griselda knew that she had never looked half so beautiful nor felt half so ready for the great task she had to perform. There was mighty cheering when she swept before the vast throng, and the king smiled and bowed when he saw that Griselda wore about her neck the costly jewels he had sent her. But if the applause was mighty when she appeared, what was it when she finished her marvellous song and bowed herself from the stage! Thrice was she compelled to repeat the song, and a score of times was she recalled to receive the homage of the delighted throng. Bouquets of beautiful flowers were heaped about her feet, and with his own hand from his box the king threw to her a jewelled necklace far costlier than his previous gift.

As Griselda hurried from her dressing-room to her carriage she marvelled that Ambition had suddenly and mysteriously quitted her presence. In his place stood the figure of a woman, all in black, and with large, sad eyes and pale face.

“Who are you?” asked Griselda.

“I am the Spirit of Eternal Sorrow,” said the woman.

And the strange, sad woman went with Griselda into the carriage and to Griselda’s home.

Old Charlotte, the nurse, met them at the door. She was very white and she trembled as if with fear.

Then Griselda seemed to awaken from a dream.

“My child?” she asked, excitedly.

“He is gone,” replied old Charlotte, the nurse.

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Griselda flew to the chamber where she had left him. There stood the little cradle where he had lain, but the cradle was empty.

“Who has taken him away?” cried Griselda, sinking upon her knees and stretching her hands in agony to heaven.

“Death took him away but an hour ago,” said old Charlotte, the nurse.

Then Griselda thought of his fevered face and his pitiful little moans and sighs; of the guileful flatteries of Ambition that had deafened her mother ears to the pleadings of her sick babe; of the brilliant theatre and the applause of royalty and of the last moments of her lonely, dying child.

And Griselda arose and tore the jewels from her breast and threw them far from her and cried: “O God, it is my punishment! I am alone.”

“Nay, not so, O mother,” said a solemn voice; “I am with thee and will abide with thee forever.”

Griselda turned and looked upon the tall, gloomy figure that approached her with these words.

It was the Spirit of Eternal Sorrow.

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