A Child’s Heart
A child’s heart is a short story about falling in love for the first time. It captures the innocence of adoration and excitement felt in a young heart. Those shy excited emotions hidden in fear yet bursting with joy.
A Child’s Heart
By Mary Heaton Vorse
I stared at him with frightened, questioning eyes.
As I looked at him, a sudden rush of excitement filled my heart; he laughed and said, “I’m nothing to be afraid of – I’m only Paul Lewis.”
I was a foolish, excited little girl when I first saw him.
Then I was only a little girl. So I ran down the stairs, dashed out of the front door and down the three shallow steps that led to our brick walk. Where I almost ran into him. I stared at him with frightened, questioning eyes.
‘Oh!’ I said.
It felt like I would die from shame at my stupidity, for all power of speech was taken instantly. I had no idea why no words came, and the blood ebbed in my heart. A rush of gladness that was almost triumph swept over me as I thought: “He is coming here to live! He is going to stay here with us!” How could I know that he had unlocked my child’s heart all at once? And I, a few moments earlier, a little girl intent on playing, had become a woman at the sight of him? I only knew then that I was disturbed as I had never been. Something immeasurably sweet and terrifying had happened at the mere sight of him.
I have lived many years since then, and, believe it or not, there is no picture in all the gallery of memory that is so vivid to me as Paul coming up the walk. He was straight, clean and manly; around him was an atmosphere of joy and youth. Yes, the picture of Paul striding up our walk will always seem to me a picture of Youth the Conqueror—Youth with the magic power of the thing unbeaten and unhurt by life, youth with all its loyalties and its passionate desire to spend itself.
“Who are you?” he asked next, smiling at me.
“I’m Mildred Woods,” I told him.
“Oh, how jolly!” he said. “I ‘ve got two kid sisters at home, and I didn’t know how I would get along without them.”
“I’m not a kid,” I replied with severity. “I’m over fifteen in my second year at high school.” I drew myself up. I wished ardently that I had on my long dress and my highest heels. And a broad, grown-up young-ladyish hat instead of being bareheaded with sneakers on my feet.
“Why don’t you want to be a kid?” he asked. “It’s the bulliest thing in life, I think.” All at once, I was warmly reconciled to my little girl’s clothes. “Anyway, just to look at you, I know we will be great friends, you and I, aren’t we?” This took me off my feet. I felt myself blushing. Then suddenly, the desire of my heart found words.
“I will be your friend always,” I said.
“Shake on it!” he said and put out his brown hand, and I put my tanned little paw in his. At the touch of his hand, it was as though a new and troubling wave of life had flooded my whole being. I never sealed a more solemn pact or gave my word more utterly than I did with my faint little pressure on his kind hand.
“You ‘re a nice kid!” he broke out. “You know, this makes me feel as if I were coming home to find you here. Say, have you got a dog?”
I had a dog, a mongrel Yorkshireman, sagacious, good-mannered, and argumentative. Then I gave vent to a shrill, piercing, boylike whistle, to which Mattie ran.
“Say, this is what I call something like!” he said. “Do you know, I almost took a room over at the Hitchcock’s? Of course, it was bigger, but I liked the view here, and the house over there was formal.”
His words shook me. It seemed as if I had just escaped some frightful disaster. The breathless feeling which had overwhelmed me when I first saw him again menaced my power of speech, but I managed to reply firmly:
“They have no girls and no dogs over there. Nothing but the most grown-up kind of people.” He sat down on the front doorstep, and I sat beside him.
“I have luck,” he said. “You know, I ‘ve always had luck.” He took off his straw hat, laid it beside him, and breathed deeply in the lilac-scented air.
That night I sat for a long time on my window seat. My whole soul flooded with a light of happiness as sweet, caressing, and all-pervasive as the shimmering country before me. My heart went out in a litany of love to all live things in a child’s Magnificat. That night, as I sat there, my heart went streaming out to God, for so alike are the love of God and the love of man that who can say they are not one?
I felt that all the little voices of the night were lifting their voices to God with me. So I looked and listened until it seemed my very soul had left my body, and I was one with all things—one with the tiny chirping insects in the grass, one with the most distant star. The terrible wonder of the universe enthralled me, yet I was it, and it was me.
Then flooding, I understood man’s longing for the soul’s immortality. That had been an abstract thing before, but now I felt that this soul of mine inevitably must live forever.
When man first became aware of the feeling of love, the desire for immortality must have been born within him. Therefore, eternity is not too long when one loves God or man.
I went to bed and slept wonderfully, the marvel of the night enfolding me. I woke again and went to the window as though drawn there without conscious effort. The night was still clear and bright with moonlight, but down in the valley, a fog had arisen as flooding and luminous as a sea, the tops of hills appearing as though they were islands. At times of flood, I could glimpse a silver streak that was the river behind them. And now it was as though the river had overflowed its banks and flooded the valley as it must have done in ancient days. My mind travelled back to the vast mysteries of time into the immeasurable vastness of the future.
Again I slept sweetly and dreamlessly and opened my eyes to the sunlight with a vast, comforting sense of harmony with all things.
All through that night, I was unaware the actual thought of Paul had walked through my mind.
My inner light must have shone through me, for my mother kissed me tenderly and said, “How happy you seem, sweetheart!” As I went about my small household tasks before school, I wished to flood the house with song, and it was a physical pain to me that I had very little voice and could not sing. When I finally took my books and went to school, I entered the world like walking into some holy church.
On my way home from school, I saw him coming toward me, Paul himself, and at the sight of him swinging along with his gallant walk, his head thrown back, my knees felt weak. Then, suddenly, there was not enough air in the world to breathe. My heart gave a glad throb and then stopped beating for a second. I do not think I ever saw him after this without that troubling gladness, without a lovely surprise that was so piercing that it hurt me.
A wave of shyness engulfed me, and I would have passed him with no more than the nod of a tongue-tied little girl, but he cried to me joyfully:
“Hello! Well, we met!” And then, as always after, my shyness melted in a sudden flood of delicious understanding.
“What are these posters?” he asked, pointing to a yellow poster attached to an elm tree that announced an alumni dance of the high school at the town hall. “Do you dance?”
It was the thing I did best in the world.
“I do, indeed,” I told him.
“I’m going to take you to that dance if — you’ll go,” he said.
“Oh,” I cried, “mother doesn’t let me go to grown-up dances!”
“She ‘ll let you go to this one.” He had the easy cock-sureness of a youth well-beloved of mothers. “I ‘ll get around her — you ‘ll see.”
I was sure he would and could get around anybody, and indeed I knew by the dimpling smile about my mother’s soft mouth when she first refused him that she would not refuse.
This was the great party of my life. It had come to me unexpectedly, a sheer gift of the gods. My little heart almost burst itself open with pride when I walked onto the smooth floor of the town hall, my mother on one side of Paul and me on the other.
When we got in, they were playing the waltz “Santiago.” Paul, who, like myself, was a passionate dancer. He could hardly wait for the formality of seating my mother before he put his arm about me and swung me off into space. So it seemed to me — a room with simple rhythm and music, the joy of motion. We did not talk as we danced; we both gave ourselves up to the pleasure of it. Only now and then Paul said things that set my child’s heart beating. After that, little good-tempered appreciations of my dancing were all they were.
He sat beside me in the pause between the dances, chatting with my mother while he looked at the crowd. It was as though he embraced the entire group of young people with his friendly eyes.
Then all at once, I realized his attention was not on what he was saying. That his eyes were on a girl who had just come in and was standing near the door. He let his voice trail off and continued to stare at her, unaware of what he was doing. Then, after a moment, he turned to me and asked with an entirely different note in his voice:
“Who is that girl?”
My mother answered for me:
“That’s Rose Gibson.”
“Rose,” Paul repeated—”Rose! She looks like a rose. I’m going to meet her.”
I saw him talking to her on the opposite side of the hall. She smiled at him, and I watched them swing out in a waltz, and my eyes followed them as they danced. I knew she had attracted him as no one else had, and I watched them without a pang of jealousy. It seemed natural that he should have singled her out; she seemed so lovely. They talked and smiled into each other’s eyes as they danced. Then a great wistfulness overcame me that I was not grown-up, and I felt no envy, only wistfulness.
I do not know when it was that I realized that I loved him. I know now that I loved him from the first moment I saw him, that I have never felt that terrible sweet breathlessness at the sight of any other man since then. On the contrary, the slightest touch made my heart sing with joy and exquisite fear. What I felt was not a woman’s passion, for even knowing such affection was still years away, awaiting me. But I know that at his friendly hand-clasp, the joy of heaven descended on me, sweet and enfolding. Again I understand that the nearness of no other human being has swept me out of myself and filled my life to overflowing with love.
My memory of the next few weeks was of sheer happiness. Paul was so kind, full of friendliness and was so good. So good that my mother never put the slightest bar to our intimacy, and why should she? He was all good for me and opened so many doors. He was an honest home-loving lad, and when his work was over at five, he would come rushing in to take me to walk or to play tennis, and in the evenings, we read aloud. I remember reading “Alice” and the “Bab Ballads,” my mother and Paul, and I chuckling together like children. We read Matthew Arnold and Keats and Shelley and all sorts of poetry. We read in the unselective, omnivorous fashion of the young.
Paul would lay full length on the moss under the apple trees, and we had long, serious talks. He would explain his theories of life and his sweet boy’s philosophy, full of a passionate desire for all the gallant loyalties. Paul needed to hear his thoughts in words, making me the perfect creative listener. Then in the middle of his talk, he would break off to romp with Mattie or to play stick-knife, in which game I was adept. Paul was one of those who could never be far from boyhood. I think of him now playing with his children delightfully and in the same warmly intimate fashion.
He played the child’s heart out of my trembling little body, and it was never mine all the days of my life to give again.
I said that my memory of those weeks was of happiness; they seem now swimming in light as I look back on them. And I embraced the world in my new joy. Then, of course, I tried to please exacting and demanding teachers. But, by instinct, I felt I must give to life that love had suddenly given to me with such a radiant fullness.
There was no room in me for any little emotion; everything but happiness and goodness was crowded out. The smallest act, tiresome lessons, and the routine of housework now had meaning since trying to be worthy of life.
I had discovered the meaning of life, and that was to give myself utterly. It must have been when I put that into words that I also put into words my love for Paul. The conscious thought of him was not always in my mind, but he was always and forever there, the way the sun is on a bright day, whether you think about it or not. Then from one moment to another, it flashed into my mind:
“I love Paul!”Love, love, love is a passionate thing that makes your heart sing
That was the answer to this high happiness that had come to me. I thought, “I am in love!” At once, I blushed and trembled at the thought of it. This thing had been in my child’s heart and had no name. This desire to love and serve all the world and mainly to help him was love.
I lay awake far into the night, wondering at the marvel of it. Like, a young mother may wonder over the splendour of the birth of a child. I did not then want anything of Paul at any other time. All I wanted to do, I was then doing, was to pour out my whole nature toward him— like sunshine.
Passionately, that night I prayed to God to make him happy and to make me good. It never once occurred to me that he could love me in any other way than he did. When I went down to breakfast the following day, it was with a shrinking modesty, as though I had gone down naked, as though they might guess the secret within my heart. I felt they must have. It was with astonishment and a dumb wonder that I realized they had not. My heart was a garden enclosed, my secret safe within it. I would have died sooner than I said the word aloud to any human being, at least to him.
I do not know when Paul had singled out Rose Gibson among the other girls when it came to me. It felt that my self-knowledge gave me a form of divination. I became aware there had been born in Paul’s soul the same miracle born in mine. He would lie on his back under the trees. And talk to me about her in an indirect fashion.
But while I felt no jealousy, this knowledge was anguish for me. It was as though Paul had been translated to another planet. There was poignant suffering for me, and yet a sweetness that his soul came out shyly to mine in confidences that he scarcely knew were confidences. He talked to me almost as though he were talking to himself, so near was I to him. In some blind and wordless way, I realized how close I was. So near that I felt he would have loved me had I been three years older. I knew this so profoundly that I never put it into words. Now I was as far from him as though a whole life’s span separated us. And yet, I was near enough to him so that he could talk to me as to himself.
At first, all went well between them. Indeed, it never occurred to me that it could go any other way. At that moment, they both seemed to me so perfect. As I watched the progress of their love, the thought of self so died in me. Instead, there flowered in my soul one of those white blossoms of self-abnegation, of delight in another’s, joy even at one’s own expense. That usually finds a place only in a mother’s soul who loses her dear son with joy if only his happiness is complete enough.
I knew the affection Paul gave Rose was brother to my love for him; it had the same youth, for I do not believe his heart had been touched. He gave it to her, filled with the wine of his love to drink from as she chose.
Then one day, I saw that he was troubled, puzzled rather. He frowned as a little boy would if something he did not understand hurt him. The trouble grew in his soul, and I saw the bitterness of doubt rising about his heart. He was not angry at anything that had happened; he was just grieved. It was my fate that I must know everything that happened in his heart without knowing anything of the cause.
He never told me anything or let criticism of her pass his lips. Still, I walked along with him on his journey of disillusionment, and I began to hate Rose fiercely. She seemed to embody evil, a terrible and menacing thing. I marvelled at her when I saw her passing the house with a group of girls, laughing and talking. My mind did not comprehend how she could laugh when she hurt anything as sweet as Paul.
One night, I heard the gate click, and Paul walked up the path. He did not pause on the piazza but turned and went into the orchard; I listened to his footstep on the damp grass and waited for him to come in, my heart beating. It seemed an eternity, knowing he was down there in the darkness of the garden, suffering by himself, alone.
My child’s heart aged as I waited. I waited as those do outside a sick room where suffering is within. Then, I went down and out into the soft velvet of the night among the twinkling fireflies.
There lying underneath an apple tree: a tiny muffled sound of a child weeping led me to him. I put my hand on him and felt his shoulder quiver. It shocked me inexpressibly. His grief tore my heart to shreds. He took my hand and clung to it, and I felt the warm rain of tears upon it.
“She won’t read my letter,” he finally whispered. “She won’t listen if I could only make her read my letter! Then it would be all right. But, oh, there’s just some dreadful mistake!”
I did not know then that this has been through the ages; the tortured cry of those who love has suddenly and deeply wounded. Then at that moment, flamingly, I became a woman. I desired to comfort him in his hurt. Had I spoken somehow in the darkness, I could have wiped away the years that separated us.
I was a woman, yet I was a child, and there came a flaming certainty of what I must do to help him. I knew before me there was only one course and that my feet must tread the most thorny path. A woman can understand, and that is when she must deliver her beloved into the unworthy hands of another. So, so quietly, I said to him:
“Give me the letter. I’ll take it to Rose and make her read it.” I knew I could do it. I knew, for his sake, I could do anything.
His soul was drowning, and I had to save it for someone who seemed so evil. My soul had gone through a mortal conflict during those few moments. My desire, new knowledge, and a new feeling of age had struggled with the necessity of helping him and giving him the thing he wished for most. I knew I could have comforted him and that my comforting would have been sweet, and perhaps in the days that followed, he might have seen the woman instead of a child’s heart.
Still, I took the letter and went to her with an exaltation that can be born only of mortal pain.
She was sitting under an electric light on the piazza, looking wonderfully pretty, with a great background of black and green vines behind her. I need to remember what I said to her. Still, the faint mockery of her first greeting changed to gravity and gravity to something almost like tenderness as I talked. She took the letter and read it. She read it gravely, and her expression was both triumph and sweetness. Triumph, I suppose, in the depth of affection she had aroused, sweetness because its depth had suddenly touched something in her that had never been stirred.
“Tell him to come to me,” she said, and I fled back through the night.
He looked at me with new eyes when I brought him the tidings. And for a brief moment, our souls stood naked before each other.
“Wonderful little girl!” he said and kissed me. Then instantly sped away as though he had seen a vision of everlasting joy. I was left alone in my fiery and terrible exaltation.
I lived through more emotion those weeks and that night than I did in many years that followed. For many years all other emotions seemed pale to me and without meaning. Now I had experienced the feelings of love, that terrible and devastating God, face to face. Had been through the dolorous stations of the cross to a supreme sacrifice. And had seen the possibility of possession and had thrown it from me so that my beloved might have his heart’s desire.
From that moment, Rose and he was always together. Soon the summer was at an end, and Rose went away back to the city. Then Paul had to return home suddenly.
With his departure came the terrible knowledge that I did not know where he lived. I knew his city, how he turned up his street, and how his sisters looked; the room in which he lived would have seemed familiar. I could have called to his dog in a voice that the dog would have known. Although in the hurry of his departure, he had forgotten to give me his address. The worst was that he sent me several posts and one sweet little letter without an address. I had seen him off and stood on the platform, waving to him until the train was out of sight.
The world was full of Paul to me. Years afterwards, whenever I found myself in a crowd, my eyes searched for him.
I waited through that winter and the spring for the return of Rose. At last, in early summer, I saw her walking down the street. I joined her. We discussed this and that, but Paul’s name has yet to come up. At last, with my heart beating so painfully that I could hardly speak the words, I said:
“Is Paul coming back?”
“Paul? Oh, to be sure,” she answered. “I’d forgotten all about him! How should I know if Paul’s coming back?”
“Aren’t you going to marry him?” I gasped.
She gave a fake little laugh.
“When you are older, my dear,” she said patronizingly. “You’ll know you don’t marry every nice boy; you have a little flirtation within summer.” Her expression changed slightly as she continued, ” He came to see me two or three times, and then because I wouldn’t do every little thing he wanted, he got angry, and I sent him away for good.”
I looked at her. As she talked, I had grown, not old, but mature. Judging her as a woman half a dozen years her senior might have, she was pretty, artificial, and cheap. Maybe I saw her as Paul might have seen her at the end of his disillusion. I had lost my Paul and gone through my fiery ordeal for this just because I was a little girl. I had been so young that all older girls seemed beautiful to me. Poor Rose! Now I knew she had not depth enough to be evil.
That sense of comedy that is worse than any tragedy assailed me. A desire for laughter arose in me and choked me.
I managed to ask her where Paul lived. I faltered at first. Then made some pale excuse of his having left some of his things in our house. But, unfortunately, she no longer knew where he lived. He had moved. She left me with all the flowers of my spirit now withered.
There seemed to me only darkness ahead. My dear mother walked beside me through the loneliness and despair that followed. She was at peace, glad that I was developing typically. She rejoiced that I wasn’t one of those girls who are boy-crazy. No, I wasn’t boy-crazy, for I had walked too young through those grave and sombre portals of supreme sacrifice. And I had felt too soon the loss and loneliness of all that is best in life to be boy-crazy.
I who had loved, how could I care for lesser loves? Love came to me then, and never again did I feel life’s tremendous and overwhelming delight.
Not even when I married did love return to me in its tremendous and overwhelming fullness. I know now that I was not alone in my loneliness. I know that there walked beside me other children carrying hidden burdens—some who even had the terrible burden of shame.
When I see them walking from school, I will always wonder if they have a child’s heart at play, a child with a woman’s heart, or have the feelings of love already burdened on their fragile shoulders.
We cannot know. A child will not tell us. They have no words to express their hearts’ desires, for they are shyer than shy birds.
This story has been edited and includes some illustrations and only a few slight changes to enhance a more modern reading experience. The original short story, A Child’s Heart, by Mary Heaton Vorse, was published in October 1914.
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