period of manhood, we may look back and see our Willie’s face when but a child.”
“Every one who is able,” remarked Mr. Morton, “should have the portraits of his children taken. What better legacy could a father leave to his child, than the image of his own innocent face! Surely, it were enough to drive away thoughts of evil, and call up old and innocent affections, for any man, even the man of crime, to look for but a moment upon the image of what he was in childhood.”
“And yet there are some,” added Mrs. Morton, “who call portraits, and indeed, all paintings, mere luxuries–meaning, thereby, something that is utterly useless.”
“Yes, there are such, but even they, it seems to me, might perceive their use in preserving the innocent features of their children. The good impressions made in infancy and childhood, are rarely if ever lost; they come back upon every one at times, and are, frequently, all-powerful in the influence they exert against evil. How like a spell to call back those innocent thoughts and affections, would be the image of a man’s face in childhood! No one, it seems to me, could resist its influence.”
One, two, and three years passed away, and every one wrought some change upon “little Willie,” but each change seemed to the fond parents an improvement,–yet, did they not look back to earlier years, as they glanced at his picture, with less of tender emotion, and heart-stirring delight. But now a sad change, the saddest of all changes that occur, took place. Disease fastened upon the child, and ere the parents, and fond sisters of a younger and only brother, were fully sensible of danger, the spirit of the child had fled. We will not linger to pain the reader with any minute description of the deep and abiding grief that fell, like a shadow from an evil wing overspreading them, upon the household of Mr. Morton, but pass on to scenes more exciting, if not less moving to the heart.
For many weeks, Mrs. Morton could not trust herself to look up to the picture that still hung in its place, the picture of her lost one. But after time had, in some degree, mellowed the grief that weighed down her spirits, she found a melancholy delight in gazing intently upon the beautiful face that was still fresh and unchanged–that still looked the impersonation of innocence.
“He was too pure and too lovely for the earth,” she said, one day, to her husband, about two months after his death, leaning her head upon his shoulder–“and so the angels took him.”
“Then do not grieve for him,” Mr. Morton replied in a soothing tone. “We know that he is with the angels, and where they are, is neither evil, nor sorrow, nor pain. Much as I loved him, much as I grieved for his loss, I would not recall him if I could. But, our picture cannot die. And though it is mute and inanimate, yet it is something to awaken remembrances, that, even though sad, we delight to cherish. It is something to remind us, that we have a child in heaven.”
But the loss of their child seemed but the beginning of sorrows to Mr. Morton and his family. An unexpected series of failures in business so fatally involved him, that extrication became impossible. He was an honest man, and therefore, this sudden disastrous aspect of affairs was doubly painful, for he knew no other course but the honourable giving up of everything. On learning the whole truth in relation to his business, he came home, and after opening the sad news to his wife, he called his family around him.
“My dear children,” he said, “I have painful news to break to you; but you cannot know it too soon. Owing to a succession of heavy failures, my business has become embarrassed beyond hope. I must give up all,–even our comfortable and elegant home must be changed for one less expensive, and less comfortable. Can you, my children, bear with cheerfulness and contentment such a changed condition?”
The heart of each one had already been subdued and chastened by the affliction that removed the little playmate of all so suddenly away, and now the news of a painful and unlooked-for reverse came with a shock that, for a few moments, bewildered and alarmed.
“Are not my children willing to share the good and evil of life with their father?” Mr. Morton resumed after the gush of tears that followed the announcement of his changed fortunes had in a degree subsided.
“Yes, dear father! be they what they may,” Constance, the eldest, a young lady in her seventeenth year, said, looking up affectionately through her tears.
Mary, next in years, pressed up to her father’s side, and twining an arm around his neck, kissed his forehead tenderly. She did not speak; for her heart was too full; but it needed no words to assure him that her love was as true as the needle to the pole.
Eliza, but twelve, and like an unfolding bud half revealing the loveliness and beauty within, could not fully comprehend the whole matter. But enough she did understand, to know that her father was in trouble, and this brought her also to his side.
“Do not think of us, dear father!” Constance said, after the pause of a few oppressive moments. “Let the change be what it may, it cannot take from us our father’s love, and our father’s honourable principles. Nor can it change the true affection of his children. I feel as if I could say, With my father I could go unto prison or to death.”
The father was much moved. “That trial, my dear children, I trust you may never be called upon to meet. The whole extent of the painful one into which you are about to enter, you cannot now possibly realize, and I earnestly hope that your hearts may not fail you while passing through the deep waters. But one thought may strengthen; think that by your patience and cheerfulness, your father’s burdens will be lightened. He cannot see you pained without suffering a double pang himself.”
“Trust us, father,” was the calm, earnest, affectionate reply of Constance; and it was plain, by the deep resolution expressed in the faces of her sisters, that she spoke for them as well as herself.
And now, the shadow that was obscuring their earthly prospects, began to fall thicker upon them. At the meeting of his creditors which was called, he gave a full statement of his affairs.
“And now,” he said, “I am here to assign everything. In consequence of heavy, and you all must see, unavoidable, losses, this assignment will include all my property, and still leave a small deficiency. Beyond that, I can only hope for success in my future exertions, and pledge that success in anticipation. Can I do more?”
“We could not ask for more certainly,” was the cold response of a single individual, made in a tone of voice implying no sympathy with the debtor’s misfortunes, but rather indicating disappointment that the whole amount of his claim could not be made out of the assets.
Some degree of sympathy, some kind consideration for his painful condition Mr. Morton naturally looked for, but nearly every kind emotion for him was stifled by the sordid disappointment which each one of his former business friends felt in losing what they valued, as their feelings indicated, above everything else–their money.
“When will the assignment be made?” was the next remark.
“Appoint your trustees, and I am ready at any moment.”
Trustees were accordingly appointed, and these had a private conference with, and received their instructions from the creditors. In a week they commenced their work of appraisement. After a thorough and careful examination into accounts, deeds, mortgages, and documents of various kinds, and becoming satisfied that every thing was as Mr. Morton had stated it, it was found that the property represented by these would cover ninety cents in the dollar.
“Your furniture and plate comes next,” said one of the trustees.
Mr. Morton bowed and said, while his heart sunk in his bosom–
“To-morrow I will be ready for that.”
“But why not to-day?” inquired one of the trustees. “We are anxious to get through with this unpleasant business.”
“I said to-morrow,” Mr. Morton replied, while a red spot burned upon his cheek.
The trustees looked at each other, and hesitated.
“Surely,” said the debtor, “you cannot hesitate to let me have a single day in which to prepare my family for so painful a duty as that which is required of me.”
“We should suppose,” remarked one of the trustees, in reply, “that your family were already prepared for that.”
The debtor looked the last speaker searchingly in the face for some moments, and then said, as if satisfied with the examination–
“Then you are afraid that I will make way, in the mean time, with some of my plate!”
“I did not say so, Mr. Morton. But, you know we are under oath to protect the interest of the creditors.”
An indignant reply trembled on the lips of Morton, but he curbed his feelings with a strong effort.
“I am ready now,” he said, after a few moments of hurried self-communion. “The sooner it is over the better.”
Half an hour after he entered his house with the trustees, and sworn appraiser. He left them in the parlour below, while he held a brief but painful interview with his family.
“Do not distress yourself, dear father!” Constance said, laying her hand upon his shoulder. We expected this, and have fully nerved ourselves for the trial.”
“May he who watches over, and regards us all, bless you, my children!” the father said with emotion, and hurriedly left them.
A careful inventory of the costly furniture that adorned the parlours was first taken. The plate was then displayed, rich and beautiful, and valued; and then the trustees lifted their eyes to the wall–they were connoisseurs in the fine arts; at least one of them was, but a taste for the arts had, in his case, failed to soften his feelings. He looked at a picture much as a dealer in precious stones looks at a diamond, to determine its money-value.
“That is from Guido,” he said, looking admiringly at a sweet picture, which had always been a favourite of Mr. Morton’s, “and it is worth a hundred dollars.”
“Shall I put it down at that?” asked the appraiser, who had little experience in valuing pictures.
“Yes; put it down at one hundred. It will bring that under the hammer, any day,” replied the connoisseur. “Ah, what have we here? A copy from Murillo’s ‘Good Shepherd.’ Isn’t that a lovely picture? Worth a hundred and fifty, every cent. And here is ‘Our Saviour,’ from Da Vinci’s celebrated picture of the Last Supper; and a ‘Magdalen’ from Correggio. You are a judge of pictures, I see, Mr. Morton! But what is this?” he said, eyeing closely a large engraving, richly framed.
“A proof, as I live! from the only plate worth looking at of Raphael’s Madonna of St. Sixtus. I’ll give fifty dollars for that, myself.”
The pictures named were all entered up by the appraiser, and then the group continued their examination.
“Here is a Sully,” remarked the trustee above alluded to, pausing before Willie’s portrait.
“But that is a portrait,” Mr. Morton said, advancing, while his heart leaped with a new and sudden fear.
“If it is, Mr. Morton, it is a valuable picture, worth every cent of two hundred dollars. We cannot pass that, Sir.”
“What!” exclaimed Mr. Morton, “take my Willie’s portrait? O no, you cannot do that!”
“It is no doubt a hard case, Mr. Morton,” said one of the trustees. “But we must do our duty, however painful. That picture is a most beautiful one, and by a favourite artist, and will bring at least two hundred dollars. It is not a necessary article of household furniture, and is not covered by the law. We should be censured, and justly too, if we were to pass it.”
For a few moments, Mr. Morton’s thoughts were so bewildered and his feelings so benumbed by the sudden and unexpected shock, that he could not rally his mind enough to decide what to say or how to act. To have the unfeeling hands of creditors, under the sanction of the law, seize upon his lost Willie’s portrait, was to him so unexpected and sacrilegious a thing, that he could scarcely realize it, and he stood wrapt in painful, dreamy abstraction, until roused by the direction,
“Put it down at a hundred and fifty,” given to the appraiser, by one of the trustees.
“Are your hearts made of iron?” he asked bitterly, roused at once into a distinct consciousness of what was transpiring.
“Be composed, Mr. Morton,” was the cold, quiet reply.
“And thus might the executioner say to the victim he was torturing–_Be composed_. But surely, when I tell you that that picture is the likeness of my youngest child, now no more, you will not take it from us. To lose that, would break his mother’s heart. Take all the rest, and I will not murmur. But in the name of humanity spare me the portrait of my angel boy.”
There was a brief, cold, silent pause, and the trustees continued their investigations. Sick at heart, Mr. Morton turned from them and sought his family. The distressed, almost agonized expression of his countenance was noticed, as he came into the chamber where they had retired.
“Is it all over?” asked Mrs. Morton.
“Not yet,” was the sad answer.
The mother and daughter knew how much their father prized his choice collection of pictures, and supposed that giving an inventory of them had produced the pain that he seemed to feel. Of the truth, they had not the most distant idea. For a few minutes he sat with them, and then, recovering in some degree, his self-possession, he returned and kept with the trustees, until everything in the house that could be taken, was valued. He closed the door after them, when they left, and again returned to his family.
“Have they gone?” asked Constance, in a low, almost whispering voice.
“Yes, my child, they have gone at last.”
“And what have they left us?” inquired Mrs. Morton somewhat anxiously.
“Nothing but the barest necessaries for housekeeping.”
“They did not take our carpets and–“
“Yes, Mary,” said Mr. Morton interrupting her, “every article in the parlors has been set down as unnecessary.”
“O, father!” exclaimed the eldest daughter, “can it be possible?”
“Yes, my child, it is possible. We are left poor, indeed. But for all that I would not care, if they had only left us Willie’s portrait!”
Instantly the mother and daughters rose to their feet, with blanched cheeks, and eyes staring wildly into the father’s face.
“O no, not Willie’s portrait, surely!” the mother at length said, mournfully. “We cannot give that up. It is of no comparative value to others, and is all in all to us.”
“I plead with them to spare us that. But it was no use,” Mr. Morton replied. “The tenderest ties in nature were nothing to them in comparison with a hundred and fifty dollars.”
“But surely,” urged Constance, “the law will protect us in the possession of the picture. Who ever heard of a portrait being seized upon by a creditor?”
“It is a cruel omission; but nevertheless, Constance, there is no law to protect us in keeping it.”
“But they shall _not_ have it!” Mary said indignantly. “I will take it away this very night, where they can never find it.”
“That would be doing wrong my child,” Mr. Morton replied. “I owe these men, and this picture, they say, will bring a hundred and fifty dollars. If they claim it, then, I cannot honestly withhold it. Let us, then, my dear children, resolve to keep our consciences clear of wrong, and endeavor patiently to bear with our afflictions. They can only result in good to us so far as we humbly acquiesce in them. Nothing happens by chance. Every event affecting us, I have often told you, is ordered or permitted by Divine Providence, and is intended to make us better and wiser. This severest trial of all, if patiently borne, will, I am sure, result in good.”
But, even while he tried to encourage and bear up the drooping spirits of his family, his own heart sunk within him at the thought of losing the portrait of his child.
One week sufficed to transfer his property into the hands of the individuals appointed to receive it. He sought to make no unnecessary delay, and, therefore, it was quickly done. At the end of that time, he removed his family into a small house at the northern extremity of the city, and furnished it with the scanty furniture that, as an insolvent debtor the law allowed him to claim. Ere he left his beautiful mansion with his wife and children, they all assembled in the parlour where still hung Willie’s sweet portrait. The calm, innocent face of the child had for their eyes a melancholy beauty, such as it had never worn before; and they gazed upon it until every cheek was wet, and every heart oppressed. A sale of the furniture had been advertised for that day, and already the house had been thrown open. Several strangers had come in to make examinations before the hour of sale, and among them was a young man, who on observing the family in the parlour, instinctively withdrew; not, however before he had glanced at the picture they were all looking at so earnestly. Aware that strangers were gathering, Mr. Morton and his family soon withdrew, each taking a last, lingering, tearful glance at the dear face looking so sweet, so calm, so innocent.
Their new home presented a painful and dreary contrast to the one from which they had just parted. In the parlours, the floors of which were all uncarpeted there were a dozen chairs, and a table, and that was all! Bedding barely enough for the family, with but scanty furniture, sufficed for the chambers; and the same exacting hands had narrowed down to a stinted remnant the appendages of the kitchen.
It was an hour after the closing in of evening, and the family greatly depressed in spirits, were gathered in one of the chambers, sad, gloomy, and silent, when the servant which they had retained came in and said that Mr. Wilkinson was below and wished to see Miss Constance.
“Indeed, indeed, mother, I cannot see him!” Constance said bursting into tears. “It is cruel for him to come here so soon,” she added, after she had a little regained her self-possession.
“You can do no less than see him Constance,” her mother said. “Do not lose that consciousness of internal truth of character which alone can sustain you in your new relations. You are not changed, even if outward circumstances are no longer as they were. And if Mr. Wilkinson does not regard these do not you. Meet him my child, as you have ever met him.”
“We have only met as friends,” Constance replied, while her voice trembled in spite of her efforts to be calm.
“Then meet now as friends, and equals. Remember, that, all that is of real worth in you remains. Adversity cannot rob you of your true character.”
“Your mother has spoken well and wisely,” Mr. Morton said. “If Mr. Wilkinson, whom I know to be a man of most sterling integrity of character, still wishes your society, or ours, it must not, from any foolish pride or weakness on our part, be denied.”
“Then I will see him, and try to meet him as I should, though I feel that the task will be a hard one,” Constance replied. And her pale cheek and swimming eye, told but too well, that it would need all her efforts to maintain her self-possession.
In a few minutes she descended and met Mr. Wilkinson in the parlour.
“Pardon me,” he said advancing and taking her hand as she entered, “for so soon intruding upon you after the sad change in your condition. But I should have been untrue to the kind feelings I bear yourself and family, had I, from a principle of false delicacy, staid away. I trust I shall be none the less welcome now than before.”
“We must all esteem the kindness that prompted your visit,” Constance replied with a strong effort to subdue the troubled emotions within, and which were but too plainly indicated, by her now flushed cheek and trembling lips.
“No other feeling induced me to call, except indeed, one stronger than that possibly could be–” Mr. Wilkinson said, still holding her hand, and looking intently in her face–” the feeling of profound regard, nay, I must call it, affection, which I have long entertained for you.”
A declaration so unexpected, under the circumstances, entirely destroyed all further efforts on the part of Constance, to control her feelings. She burst into tears, but did not attempt to withdraw her hand.
“Can I hope for a return of like sentiment, Constance?” he at length said, tenderly.
A few moments’ silence ensued, when the weeping girl lifted her head, and looked him in the face with eyes, though filled with tears, full of love’s tenderest expression.
“I still confide in my father, Mr. Wilkinson,” was her answer.
“Then I would see your father to-night.”
Instantly Constance glided from the room, and in a few minutes her father came down into the parlour. A long conference ensued; and then the mother was sent for, and finally Constance again. Mr. Wilkinson made offers of marriage, which, being accepted, he urged an immediate consummation. Delay was asked, but he was so earnest, that all parties agreed that the wedding should take place in three days.
In three days the rite was said, and Wilkinson, one of the most prosperous young merchants of Philadelphia, left for New York with his happy bride. A week soon glided away, at the end of which time they returned.
“Where are we going?” Constance asked, as they entered a carriage on landing from the steamboat.
“To our own house, of course!” was her husband’s reply.
“You didn’t tell me that you had taken a house, and furnished it.”
“Didn’t I? Well, that is something of an oversight. But you hardly thought that I was so simple as to catch a bird without having a cage first provided for it.”
“You had but little time to get the cage,” thought Constance, but she did not utter the thought.
In a few minutes the carriage stopped before a noble dwelling, the first glance of which bewildered the senses of the young bride, and caused her to lean silent and trembling upon her husband’s arm, as she ascended the broad marble steps leading to the entrance. Thence she was ushered hurriedly into the parlours.
There stood her father, mother, and sisters, ready to receive her. There was every article of furniture in its place, as she had left it but a little over a week before. The pictures, so much admired by her father, still hung on the wall; and there, in the old spot, was Willie s dear portrait, as sweet, as innocent, as tranquil as ever! One glance took in all this. In the next moment she fell weeping upon her mother’s bosom.
A few words will explain all. Mr. Wilkinson, who was comparatively wealthy, was just on the eve of making proposals for the hand of Constance Morton, when the sudden reverse overtook her father, and prostrated the hopes of the whole family. But his regard was a true one, and not to be marred or effaced by external changes. When he saw the sale of the house and furniture announced, he determined to buy all in at any price. And he did so. On the day of the sale, he bid over every competitor.
On the night of his interview with Constance and her father, he proposed a partnership with the latter.
“But I have nothing, you know, Mr. Wilkinson,” he replied.
“You have established business habits, and extensive knowledge of the operations of trade, and a large business acquaintance. And besides these, habits of discrimination obtained by long experience, which I need. With your co-operation in my business, I can double my profits. Will you join me?”
“It were folly, Mr. Wilkinson, to say nay,” Mr. Morton replied. “Then I will announce the co-partnership at once,” he said.
And it was announced before the day of marriage, but Constance did not see it.
A happy elevation succeeded of course, the sudden, painful, but brief depression of their fortunes. Nor was any of that tried family less happy than before. And one was far happier. Still, neither Mr. Morton, nor the rest could ever look at Willie’s portrait without remembering how near they had once been to losing it, nor without a momentary fear, that some change in life’s coming mutations might rob them of the precious treasure, now doubly dear to them.
“WHAT has become of the Wightmans?” I asked of my old friend Payson. I had returned to my native place after an absence of several years. Payson looked grave.
“Nothing wrong with them, I hope. Wightman was a clever man, and he had a pleasant family.”
My friend shook his head ominously.
“He was doing very well when I left,” said I.
“All broken up now,” was answered. “He failed several years ago.”
“Ah! I’m sorry to hear this. What has become of him?”
“I see him now and then, but I don’t know what he is doing.”
“And his family?”
“They live somewhere in Old Town. I havn’t met any of them for a long time. Some one told me that they were very poor.”
This intelligence caused a feeling of sadness to pervade my mind. The tone and manner of Payson, as he used the words “very poor,” gave to them more than ordinary meaning. I saw, in imagination, my old friend reduced from comfort and respectability, to a condition of extreme poverty, with all its sufferings and humiliations. While my mind was occupied with these unpleasant thoughts, my friend said,
“You must dine with me to-morrow. Mrs. Payson will be glad to see you, and I want to have a long talk about old times. We dine at three.”
I promised to be with them, in agreement with the invitation; and then we parted. It was during business hours, and as my friend’s manner was somewhat occupied and hurried, I did not think it right to trespass on his time. What I had learned of the Wightmans troubled my thoughts. I could not get them out of my mind. They were estimable people. I had prized them above ordinary acquaintances; and it did seem peculiarly hard that they should have suffered misfortune. “Very poor”–I could not get the words out of my ears. The way in which they were spoken involved more than the words themselves expressed, or rather, gave a broad latitude to their meaning. “VERY poor! Ah me!” The sigh was deep and involuntary.
I inquired of several old acquaintances whom I met during the day for the Wightmans; but all the satisfaction I received was, that Wightman had failed in business several years before, and was now living somewhere in Old Town in a very poor way. “They are miserably poor,” said one. “I see Wightman occasionally,” said another–“he looks seedy enough.” “His girls take in sewing, I have heard,” said a third, who spoke with a slight air of contempt, as if there were something disgraceful attached to needle-work, when pursued as a means of livelihood. I would have called during the day, upon Wightman, but failed to ascertain his place of residence.
“Glad to see you!” Payson extended his hand with a show of cordiality, as I entered his store between two and three o’clock on the next day.
“Sit down and look over the papers for a little while,” he added. “I’ll be with you in a moment. Just finishing up my bank business.”
“Business first,” was my answer, as I took the proffered newspaper. “Stand upon no ceremony with me.”
As Payson turned partly from me, and bent his head to the desk at which he was sitting, I could not but remark the suddenness with which the smile my appearance had awakened faded from his countenance. Before him was a pile of bank bills, several checks, and quite a formidable array of bank notices. He counted the bills and checks, and after recording the amount upon a slip of paper glanced uneasily at his watch, sighed, and then looked anxiously towards the door. At this moment a clerk entered hastily, and made some communication in an undertone, which brought from my friend a disappointed and impatient expression.
“Go to Wilson,” said he hurriedly, “and tell him to send me a check for five hundred without fail. Say that I am so much short in my bank payments, and that it is now too late to get the money any where else. Don’t linger a moment; it is twenty five minutes to three now.”
The clerk departed. He was gone full ten minutes, during which period Payson remained at his desk, silent, but showing many signs of uneasiness. On returning, he brought the desired check, and was then dispatched to lift the notes for which this late provision was made.
“What a life for a man to lead,” said my friend, turning to me with a contracted brow and a sober face. “I sometimes wish myself on an island in mid ocean. You remember C—-?”
“He quit business a year ago, and bought a farm. I saw him the other day. ‘Payson,’ said he, with an air of satisfaction, ‘I haven’t seen a bank notice this twelvemonth.’ He’s a happy man! This note paying is the curse of my life. I’m forever on the street financiering–_Financiering_. How I hate the word! But come–they’ll be waiting dinner for us. Mrs. Payson is delighted at the thought of seeing you. How long is it since you were here? About ten years, if I’m not mistaken. You’ll find my daughters quite grown up. Clara is in her twentieth year. You, of course, recollect her only as a school girl. Ah me! how time does fly!”
I found my friend living in a handsome house in Franklin street. It was showily, not tastefully, furnished, and the same might be said of his wife and daughters. When I last dined with them–it was many years before–they were living in a modest, but very comfortable way, and the whole air of their dwelling was that of cheerfulness and comfort. Now, though their ample parlors were gay with rich Brussels, crimson damask, and brocatelle, there was no genuine home feeling there. Mrs. Payson, the last time I saw her, wore a mousseline de lain, of subdued colors, a neat lace collar around her neck, fastened with a small diamond pin, the marriage gift of her father. Her hair, which curled naturally, was drawn behind her ears in a few gracefully falling ringlets. She needed no other ornament. Anything beyond would have taken from her the chiefest of her attractions, her bright, animated countenance, in which her friends ever read a heart-welcome.
How changed from this was the rather stately woman, whose real pleasure at seeing an old friend was hardly warm enough to melt through the ice of an imposed formality. How changed from this the pale, cold, worn face, where selfishness and false pride had been doing a sad, sad work. Ah! the rich Honiton lace cap and costly cape; the profusion of gay ribbons, and glitter of jewelry; the ample folds of glossy satin; how poor a compensation were they for the true woman I had parted with a few years ago, and now sought beneath these showy adornments in vain!
Two grown-up daughters, dressed almost as flauntingly as their mother, were now presented. In the artificial countenance of the oldest, I failed to discover any trace of my former friend Clara.
A little while we talked formally, and with some constraint all round; then, as the dinner had been waiting us, and was now served, we proceeded to the dining-room. I did not feel honored by the really sumptuous meal the Paysons had provided for their old friend; because it was clearly to be seen that no honor was intended. The honor was all for themselves. The ladies had not adorned their persons, nor provided their dinner, to give me welcome and pleasure, but to exhibit to the eyes of their guest, their wealth, luxury, and social importance. If I had failed to perceive this, the conversation of the Paysons would have made it plain, for it was of style and elegance in house-keeping and dress–of the ornamental in all its varieties; and in no case of the truly domestic and useful. Once or twice I referred to the Wightmans; but the ladies knew nothing of them, and seemed almost to have forgotten that such persons ever lived.
It did not take long to discover that, with all the luxury by which my friends were surrounded, they were far from being happy. Mrs. Payson and her daughters, had, I could see, become envious as well as proud. They wanted a larger house, and more costly furniture in order to make as imposing an appearance as some others whom they did not consider half as good as themselves. To all they said on this subject, I noticed that Payson himself maintained, for the most part, a half-moody silence. It was, clearly enough, unpleasant to him.
“My wife and daughters think I am made of money,” said he, once, half laughing. “But if they knew how hard it was to get hold of, sometimes, they would be less free in spending. I tell them I am a poor man, comparatively speaking; but I might as well talk to the wind.”
“Just as well,” replied his wife, forcing an incredulous laugh; “why will you use such language? A poor man!”
“He that wants what he is not able to buy, is a poor man, if I understand the meaning of the term,” said Payson, with some feeling. “And he who lives beyond his income, as a good many of our acquaintances do to my certain knowledge, is poorer still.”
“Now don’t get to riding that hobby, Mr. Payson,” broke in my friend’s wife, deprecatingly–“don’t, if you please. In the first place, it’s hardly polite, and, in the second place, it is by no means agreeable. Don’t mind him”–and the lady turned to me gaily–“he gets in these moods sometimes.”
I was not surprised at this after what I had witnessed, about his house. Put the scenes and circumstances together, and how could it well be otherwise? My friend, thus re-acted upon, ventured no further remark on a subject that was so disagreeable to his family. But while they talked of style and fashion, he sat silent, and to my mind oppressed with no very pleasant thoughts. After the ladies had retired, he said, with considerable feeling–
“All this looks and sounds very well, perhaps; but there are two aspects to almost everything. My wife and daughters get one view of life, and I another. They see the romance, I the hard reality. It is impossible for me to get money as fast as they wish to spend it. It was my fault in the beginning, I suppose. Ah! how difficult it is to correct an error when once made. I tell them that I am a poor man, but they smile in my face, and ask me for a hundred dollars to shop with in the next breath. I remonstrate, but it avails not, for they don’t credit what I say. AND I AM POOR–poorer, I sometimes think, than the humblest of my clerks, who manages, out of his salary of four hundred a year, to lay up fifty dollars. He is never in want of a dollar, while I go searching about, anxious and troubled, for my thousands daily. He and his patient, cheerful, industrious little wife find peace and contentment in the single room their limited means enables them to procure, while my family turn dissatisfied from the costly adornments of our spacious home, and sigh for richer furniture, and a larger and more showy mansion. If I were a millionaire, their ambition might be satisfied. Now, their ample wishes may not be filled. I must deny them, or meet inevitable ruin. As it is, I am living far beyond a prudent limit–not half so far, however, as many around me, whose fatal example is ever tempting the weak ambition of their neighbors.”
This and much more of similar import, was said by Payson. When I returned from his elegant home, there was no envy in my heart. He was called a rich and prosperous man by all whom I heard speak of him, but in my eyes, he was very poor.
A day or two afterwards, I saw Wightman in the street. He was so changed in appearance that I should hardly have known him, had he not first spoken. He looked in my eyes, twenty years older than when we last met. His clothes were poor, though scrupulously clean; and, on observing him more closely, I perceived an air of neatness and order, that indicates nothing of that disregard about external appearance which so often accompanies poverty.
He grasped my hand cordially, and inquired, with a genuine interest, after my health and welfare. I answered briefly, and then said:
“I am sorry to hear that it is not so well with you in worldly matters as when I left the city.”
A slight shadow flitted over his countenance, but it grew quickly cheerful again.
“One of the secrets of happiness in this life,” said he, “is contentment with our lot. We rarely learn this in prosperity. It is not one of the lessons taught in that school.”
“And you have learned it?” said I.
“I have been trying to learn it,” he answered, smiling. “But I find it one of the most difficult of lessons. I do not hope to acquire it perfectly.”
A cordial invitation to visit his family and take tea with them followed, and was accepted. I must own, that I prepared to go to the Wightmans with some misgivings as to the pleasure I should receive. Almost every one of their old acquaintances, to whom I had addressed inquiries on the subject, spoke of them with commiseration, as “very poor.” If Wightman could bear the change with philosophy, I hardly expected to find the same Christian resignation in his wife, whom I remembered as a gay, lively woman, fond of social pleasures.
Such were my thoughts when I knocked at the door of a small house, that stood a little back from the street. It was quickly opened by a tall, neatly-dressed girl, whose pleasant face lighted into a smile of welcome as she pronounced my name.
“This is not Mary?” I said as I took her proffered hand.
“Yes, this is your little Mary,” she answered. “Father told me you were coming.”
Mrs. Wightman came forward as I entered the room into which the front door opened, and gave me a most cordial welcome. Least of all had time and reverses changed her. Though a little subdued, and rather paler and thinner, her face had the old heart-warmth in it–the eyes were bright from the same cheerful spirit.
“How glad I am to see you again!” said Mrs. Wightman. And she was glad. Every play of feature, every modulation of tone, showed this.
Soon her husband came in, and then she excused herself with a smile, and went out, as I very well understood, to see after tea. In a little while supper was ready, and I sat down with the family in their small breakfast room, to one of the pleasantest meals I have ever enjoyed. A second daughter, who was learning a trade, came in just as we were taking our places at the table, and was introduced. What a beautiful glow was upon her young countenance! She was the very image of health and cheerfulness.
When I met Wightman in the street, I thought his countenance wore something of a troubled aspect–this was the first impression made upon me. Now, as I looked into his face, and listened to his cheerful, animated conversation, so full of life’s true philosophy, I could not but feel an emotion of wonder. “Very poor!” How little did old friends, who covered their neglect of this family with these commiserating words, know of their real state. How little did they dream that sweet peace folded her wings in that humble dwelling nightly; and that morning brought to each a cheerful, resolute spirit, which bore them bravely through all their daily toil.
“How are you getting along now Wightman?” I asked, as, after bidding good evening to his pleasant family, I stood with him at the gate opening from the street to his modest dwelling.
“Very well,” was his cheerful reply. “It was up hill work for several years, when I only received five hundred dollars salary as clerk, and all my children were young. But now, two of them are earning something, and I receive eight hundred dollars instead of five. We have managed to save enough to buy this snug little house. The last payment was made a month since. I am beginning to feel rich.”
And he laughed a pleasant laugh.
“Very poor,” I said to myself, musingly, as I walked away from the humble abode of the Wightmans. “Very poor. The words have had a wrong application.”
On the next day I met Payson.
“I spent last evening with the Wightmans,” said I.
“Indeed! How did you find them? Very poor, of course.”
“I have not met a more cheerful family for years. No, Mr. Payson they are not ‘_very poor_,’ for they take what the great Father sends, and use it with thankfulness. _Those who ever want more than they possess are the very poor._ But such are not the Wightmans.”
Payson looked at me a moment or two curiously, and then let his eyes fall to the ground. A little while he mused. Light was breaking in upon him.
“Contented and thankful!” said he, lifting his eyes from the ground. “Ah! my friend, if I and mine were only contented and thankful!”
“You have cause to be,” I remarked. “The great Father hath covered your table with blessings.”
“And yet we are poor–VERY POOR,” said he, “for we are neither contented nor thankful. We ask for more than we possess, and, because it is not given, we are fretful and impatient. Yes, yes–we, not the Wightmans, are poor–very poor.”
And with these words on his lips, my old friend turned from me, and walked slowly away, his head bent in musing attitude to the ground. Not long afterwards, I heard that he had failed.
“Ah!” thought I, when this news reached me, “now you are poor, VERY poor, indeed!” And it was so.