THE WIDOW AND HER SON
"Care and peril, instead of joy—
Martin Farquhar Tupper
A group of villagers surrounded an open grave. A woman, holding two young children by the hand, was bowed down with grief. There seemed to be no other immediate mourners. But many an eye turned on them with sympathy, and more than one glistened with tears.
In a small, rural community, every death is felt as a solemn thing, and in some measure, a general loss. The circumstances that attended it, are inquired into, and remembered; while, in cities, the frequent hearse scarce gains a glance, or a thought, from the passing throng.
On this occasion it was distinctly known, that Mr. Jones, the carpenter
of the village, who was that day buried, had led a reproachless life, and
that his death, by sudden disease, in the prime of his days, would be an
unspeakable loss to his wife, and little ones. Pitying kindness stirred in the hearts of those honest people, and whatever service their limited means allowed, was promptly rendered. It was the earnest desire of the widow, to keep, if possible, the cottage where they had resided since their marriage; and which was the more dear, from having been built by the hands of her husband. They respected her diligence and prudence, and at their seasons of fruit-gathering and harvest she was not forgotten. But as her health, which had been worn down by watching and sorrow, returned, her energies also were quickened to labor, that she might bring up her children without the aid of charity: her efforts were prospered.
In the course of a few years, it was thought advisable for her daughter, who was ingenious with the needle, to go to a neighboring town and obtain instruction in the trade of a dressmaker. Richard, who was two years younger, remained with his mother, attending in winter the village-school, and at other periods of the year, finding occasional employment among the farmers in the vicinity. It was seen by all, how much the widow's heart was bound up in him, and how she was always devising means for his improvement and happiness.
But as Richard grew older, he liked the society of idle boys, and it was
feared did not fully appreciate, or repay her affection. He was known to
be addicted to his own way, and had been heard to express contempt
for the authority of women. There were rumors of his having frequented places where liquors were sold; yet none imagined the disobedience and disrespect which the lonely cottage sometimes witnessed, for the mother complained only to her God, in the low sigh of prayer. She was not able to break his intimacy with evil associates, and, ere he reached his eighteenth year, had too much reason to believe him a partaker in vices.
It was supposed that she was unacquainted with his conduct, because she spoke not of it to others, and continued to treat him with tenderness. But deep Love, though sometimes willing to appear blind, is quick sighted to the faults of its object. It may keep silence, but the glance of discovery, and the thrill of torture, are alike electric.
The widowed mother had hoped much from the return of her daughter, and the aid of her young, cheerful spirit, in rendering their home attractive. Her arrival, in full possession of her trade, with the approbation of her employers, gave to her lone heart a joy long untasted. Margaret was an active and loving girl, graceful in her person, and faithful to her every duty. Her industry provided new comforts for the cottage, while her innocent gayety enlivened it.
The widowed mother earnestly besought her assistance, in saving their
endangered one from the perils that surrounded him; and her sisterly love
poured itself out upon his heart, in a full, warm flood. It would seem
that he caught the enthusiasm of her example; for her returned with more diligence to his former labors, while his intervals of leisure were spent at home. When his mother saw him seated by their pleasant little heart, sometimes reading to Margaret, while she plied the needle, or occasionally winding her silks, and arranging the spools in her work-table, their young voices mingling in song, or laughter, she felt how powerful was the influence of a good sister, and lifted up her soul in praise to the Rock of their salvation. Somewhat more of filial respect and observance she might have desired, but was content that her own claims should be overlooked, might he only be rescued. Months fled, and her pallid cheek had already resumed the tinge of long-forgotten happiness.
One day, when spring made the earth beautiful, on entering suddenly Margaret's little chamber, she surprised her in a passion of tears.
"My daughter! My dear child!"
"Oh, mother! I wish you had not come just now."
"Tell me, are you sick?"
"No, not sick. Only my heart is broken."
"Can you not trust me with your trouble?"
Long and bursting sobs followed, with stifled attempts at utterance.
"Mother, we have been so happy, I cannot bear to destroy it all. Richard,—my poor brother."
"Speak! what has he done?"
Hiding her face in her mother's bosom, she said in broken tones—
"You ought to know,—I must tell you. It cannot longer be concealed that he often comes home late, and disguised with liquor. I tried to shut out the truth from myself. Then I tried to hide it from others. But it is all in vain."
"Alas! I thought he was changed, that your blessed hand had saved him. Tell me what you have discovered."
"I would fain spare you. But I have seen enough, for weeks past, to destroy my peace. Last night, you had retired before he came. He entered with a reeling step, and coarse, hateful words. I strove to get him silently to his bed, lest he might disturb you. But he withstood me. His fair blue eyes were like balls of fire; and he cursed me, till I fled from him."
The mother clasped her closer to her heart, and bathed her brow with tears.
"Look to Him, my child, who ordereth all our trials. Night after night, have I spent in sleepless prayer for the poor, sinful boy."
"Ah! then you have known it long. Mother, you have been too indulgent. You should warn and reprove him, and give him no rest, until he repent and forsake his sin."
"All that was in my power to do, has been faithfully done. I have not
spared him. But he revolted. He
despised my woman's voice, my motherly love. I forbore to distress your young heart with all that I might have revealed. I feared to damp the courage on which my hopes were built. I told you freely of his danger from evil associates, but relied on the power of your love too much, too fondly. Yet you have been an angel to him, and to me."
"Mother, I will myself rebuke him. I will speak for you, and for God."
"Margaret, may He give you wisdom. Should your brother's mind not be in a right state, your words will be hurled back upon your own head. Sometimes, I have poured out my whole soul in reproof. Then, again, I have refrained, to save him from the sin of cursing his mother. Yet speak to him, Margaret, if you will. May God give power to your words. Still, I cannot but fear lest you take a wrong time, when his feelings are inflamed with intemperance."
"Be at peace in this, dearest mother. I will not broach such a subject but at a fitting time."
The mother had little hope from the intended appeal of her daughter.
Indeed, she shrank from it, for she knew best the temper of her son. Yet
she humbled herself to go to the vender of liquor, and beseech him to withhold
it from him, in the name of the widow's God. Margaret drooped in secret,
but spoke cheering words to her brother, with an unclouded brow. One day,
he had aided her in some light operation in the garden, with
unwonted kindness. She fancied that she saw in his eye, the reviving spirit of better days. Throwing her arm around his neck, she said—
"Brother Richard, you can be so good. How I wish it were always thus."
"Always to be working under your orders, I suppose. No doubt, that would be quite pleasing. All you women like to rule, when you can."
"Not to rule, but to see those we love rule themselves."
"Is that what you tell Will Palmer, when he sits here so long, watching you like a cat, and looking as wise as an owl? If you should chance to marry him, you'd tell him another tale, and try all ways to rule him yourself. Now, Miss Mag Jones, tell the whole truth: why is that same deacon that is to be, here forever?"
"I will not hide anything from you, dear Richard, who have known my thoughts from my cradle. We shall probably be married in the autumn, and then—"
"And then, what?"
"Oh, brother! then, I hope you will do all in your power to comfort mother, when I shall not be here."
"Not be here! Do you expect to move to Oregon, or sit on top of the Andes, with this remarkable sweetheart of yours?"
"We shall leave this village. But when I have a new home and other duties,
I hope you will be daughter and son both, to our poor mother. Remember
she has worked to bring us up, how she has watched us in sickness, and, prayed for us, at all times. Her only earthly hope is in us; especially in you, her son."
"Margaret, what are you driving at?"
"Oh, Richard! forsake these evil associates, who are leading you to ruin. Break off the habit of drinking, that debases, and destroys you. For the sake of our widowed mother, for the sake of our father's unblemished memory, for the sake of the sister, who loves you as her own soul"—
"For the sake of what else? Bill Palmer, I presume. Is there never to be an end to these women's tongues? So it has been these three years; preach, preach, till I have prayed for deafness. I have had no rest, for Mrs. Jones's eternal sermons; now you must needs come to help her, with your everlasting gab."
The young girl heeded not that his eyes flashed, and that the veins of his neck were swollen and sanguine. Throwing off the timidity of her nature, she spoke slowly, and with solemn emphasis, as one inspired.
"If you have no pity on the mother who bore you, no tender memory of the father who laid his hands on your head, when they were cold in death; no regard for an honest, honorable reputation; at least, have some pity on your own undying soul, some fear the bar of judgment, of the worm that never dies, and seek mercy while there is hope, and repent, that you may be forgiven."
"I tell you what, I'll not bear this from you. I know
something to make fine words out of, too. You mother has been slandering me, prohibiting the traffic in liquor, I understand: for aught I know, you were her spokesman. Wise woman! as if there was but one place on this round world, where it is sold. Hypocrites you are, both of you! making boast of your love, and publishing evil against me. Look out how you drive a man to desperation. If you see my face no more, thank yourselves!"
And with hoarse imprecation, he threw himself over the garden fence, and disappeared. That night there was agonizing grief in the pleasant cottage, tears, and listening for the feet that came not. Then, were days of vain search, and harrowing anxiety, closed by sleepless watchings. Alas! for the poor mother's heart! What had the boy been left to do? what! Had not his sister been too severe? Would that her reproaches had been less sharp to his sore heart, or that she had taken a better time, when he might have been more patient. Thus travailed the yearning heart of the mother, with the old, blind Eden-policy, vain excuse.
Again another tide of struggling emotion. Would he but come, even as he
had so often done, with unequal steps, and muttered threatenings. Would
he only come, that the love which had nursed his
innocent infancy, might once more look upon his face. Then swept terrible
thoughts over the mother's soul, images of reckless crime, and ghastly suicide.
But she gave them not
utterance to the daughter who sat beside her, working and weeping. For she said, the burden of the child is already greater than she can bear.
Yet he, who was the cause of all this agony, hastened night and day from the quiet spot of his birth, towards the sea-coast, boiling with passion. He conceived himself to have been utterly disgraced by the prohibition of his mother to the seller of liquors, not feeling that the disgrace was in the sin that had made such a prohibition necessary. He wildly counted those who most loved him as conspirators against his peace; for vice, to its other distortions of soul, adds the insanity of making best friends of enemies.
Full of vengeful purpose, and knowing that his mother had long dreaded lest he should choose the life of a sailor, he hurried to a seaport, and shipped on a whaling voyage. As the vessel was to sail immediately, to be absent more than three years, and he entered under a feigned name, it gave him pleasure that he should thus baffle pursuit or discovery.
"Let them trace me, if they can," said he; "and when I get back, I'll sail again, without seeing them. They may preach now as long as they please, but I'll be out of their hearing."
Thus, in the madness of a sinful heart, he threw himself upon the great
deep, without a thought of kindness towards man, or a prayer to God. Yet
he was ill-prepared for the lot of hardship he had chosen,—the coarse
fare, the iron sway, the long night-watch, and the slippery shroud in the tempest. To drown misery in the daily allowance of liquor, was his principal resource, when at first the sea-sickness seized him, and afterwards, when his sea-sins sank him still lower in brutality. Vile language, bad songs, and frequent broils were the entertainments of the forecastle; while the toilsome duties of a raw sailor before the mast were imbittered by the caprices of the captain, himself a votary of intemperance. A strong shadowing forth of the intercourse of condemned spirits could scarcely be given, than the fierce crew of that rude vessel exhibited, shut out, for years, from all humanizing and holy influences. Yet strange to say, the recreant, who had abused the indulgences of home and the supplications of love, derived some benefit where it could least have been anticipated. Indolence was exchanged for regular employment, and he learned the new and hard lesson of submission to authority; and whenever a lawless spirit is enforced to industry, and the subjugation of its will, it must be in some degree a gainer. So, with the inconsistency of our fallen nature, the soul that had spurned the sunbeam, and hardened under the shower, was arrested by the thunderbolt, and taught by the lightening.
In the strong excitement and peril of conflict with the huge monarch of
the deep, he gained some elevation, by temporary forgetfulness of self; for that one image, long magnified and dilated, had closed the
mind to all
ennobling prospects, and generous resolves. The dead-lights of the soul had been so long shut in, that the first ray that streamed through them, seemed new and wonderful.
Accident and ill-fortune protracted their voyage, several months beyond its intended limits. While pursuing a homeward course, some seasons of serious reflection, when not under the sway of intemperance, came over Richard Jones. For he was not utterly hardened; and prayers continually rose up from his forsaken home, that, if yet in the land of the living, he might repent, and find hope. Conscience, at times, wrought powerfully, so that he dreaded to be alone, or turned as a refuge to the vile revelry of comrades whom he despised.
Once, as he paced the deck in his midnight watch, while the vessel went rushing onward through the deep, dark sea, solemn thoughts settled heavily around him. Here, and there, a star looked down upon him, with watchful, reproving eye. He felt alone, in the presence of some mighty, mysterious Being. Early memories returned: the lessons of Sabbath-school, the plaintive toll of the church-bell, the voice of his mother, as seated on her knee, she taught him of the dear Saviour, who took children to his breast and blessed them.
A few drops of rain, from a passing cloud, fell upon his head. In the excitement of the reverie, he gasped—
"These are her tears! Yes! Just so they fell
forehead, when she used to beseech me to forsake the foolish, and live, and go in the way of understanding."
He leaned over the vessel's side. The rain-drops ceased, and the phosphorescence of the waters was like a great lake of fire. The billows rose, tossing their white crests for a moment, and then sank into their burning flood. He watched till his brain grew giddy. Presently, a single faint moonbeam shot through the cleft of a cloud. As it glimmered over the surge, he thought a face loomed up, and gazed on him,—a fair young face, paler than marble. A hand seemed to stretch itself out, arms to bend in an embracing clasp, a floating death-shroud gleamed,—and all was lost forever.
"Oh, Margaret! oh, my sister!" he shrieked, "just so she looked when she adjured me, in the name of God, to have pity on my poor mother, and on my own soul."
As if he had witnessed her funeral obsequies, he wept in remorseful grief. His watch closed. In horror of spirit, he retired, but not to sleep. Even the hardened men who surrounded him forbore to jeer, when they heard him moan in anguish, "Oh, Margaret! oh, my sister!"
These strong and painful impressions scarcely wore away during the brief
remainder of the voyage. When he saw in dim outline, the hills of his country
gleaming amid the clouds, a new joy took possession of his soul. And when
his feet rested again on the solid earth, and
he received his wages, his first thought was to hasten and share them with those whom he had so recklessly forsaken.
"Will you come to my house, sir?" said a man upon the wharf, near him. "Good accommodations, sir, for the sailor gentleman. Everything first cut and first cost."
"Where is your house?"
"Near-by. Here, boy; take this fine young man's chest along. I'll show you the way, sir. The favorite boarding-house for all jolly, noble-spirited tars."
It was evident that he was now in the power of a land-shark. Alas! for all his hopes: the struggles of conscience, the rekindling of right affections. Temptation, and the force of habit, were too strong for him. Almost continually intoxicated, his hard earnings vanished, he knew not how, or where. It was not long ere his rapacious landlord pronounced him in debt, and produced claims which he was unable to meet. His chest with all its contents was seized, and he, miserably clad, and half bewildered, was turned into the streets by his sordid betrayer.
As the fumes of prolonged inebriety subsided, horrible images surrounded him. Smothered resolutions, and pampered vices, sprang from the seething caldron of his brain, frowning and gibbering like ghostly tormentors. Monstrous creatures grinned and beckoned, and when he would have fled, cold slimy serpents seemed to coil around and fetter his trembling limbs.
Still, with returning reason came a deeper misery. He desired to die, but death fled from him. Covering his face with his hands, as he sat on the ground, in the damp, chill air of evening, he meditated different forms of suicide. He would fain have plunged into the sea, but his tottering limbs failed him. Searching for his knife, the only moveable that remained to him, he examined its blunted edge, and loosened blade, as if doubting their efficiency. Thus engaged, by the dim light of a street-lamp, groans, as if the pangs of death had seized him, burst from his heaving breast. Half believing himself already a dweller with condemned spirits, he started at the sound of a human voice.
"Thee art in trouble, I think."
The eyes once so clear in the days of innocence, opening wide and wild, glared with amazement on the calm, compassionate brow of a middle-aged man, in the garb of a Quaker. The knife fell from his quivering hand, and sounded on the pavement. But there was no answer.
"Thee art in great trouble, friend!"
"Friend! Friend! Who calls me friend? I have no friends, but the tormentors to whom I am going."
"Hast thou a wife? or children?"
No, no; God be thanked. No wife, nor children. I tell you there are no
friends left, but the fiends who have come for me. No home, but their eternal
Shoals of them were here just now,—ready! aye, ready!" he laughed a demoniac laugh.
"Poor, poor youth! I see thou art a sailor."
"I was once. What I am now, I know not. I wish to be nothing. Leave me to myself, and those that are howling around me. Here! here! I come:" and he groped aimlessly for his lost knife.
"Alas! poor victim. How many have fallen, like thee, before the strong man armed. Sick art thou, at the very soul. I will give thee shelter for the night. Come with me, to my home."
"Home! your home?" shouted the inebriate, as if he understood him not. And while the benevolent man, taking his arm, staid his uncertain footsteps, he still repeated, but in tones more humanized and tender,— "Home! your home? What! me a sinner?" until a burst of unwonted tears relieved the fires within.
And as that blessed man led him to his own house, and laid him upon a good bed, speaking words of comfort; heard he not from above that deep, thrilling melody, "I was sick, and ye visited me, in prison, and ye came unto me. Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of these, ye have done it unto me?"
With reviving day the sinful man revived; humbled in heart, and sad.
Subdued by suffering, and softened
by a kindness, which he felt to be wholly undeserved, he poured out a fervent prayer for divine aid in the great work of reformation. He was glad to avail himself, without delay, of the proposal of his benefactor, to enter on service in a temperance ship ready to sail immediately for the East Indies.
"I am acquainted with the captain," said the good man, "and can induce him to take thee. I am also interested in the vessel, and the results of her voyage. A relative of mine, goes out as supercargo. Both of them will be thy friends, if thou art true to thyself. But intemperance bringeth sickness to the soul , as well as to the body. Wherefore, pray for healing, and strive for penitence, and angels who rejoice over the returning sinner, will give thee aid."
Self-abasement, and gratitude to his preserver, swelled like an overwhelming flood and choked his utterance.
"all men have sinned, my son, though not all in the same way. But there is mercy for everyone that sorroweth, and forsaketh the evil. God hath given me the greatest happiness to help some who have fallen an low as thee. Thank Him, therefore, and not the poor arm of flesh. May He give thee strength to stand firm on the Rock of salvation."
Broken words, mingled with tears, struggled vainly to express the emotions of the departing sailor. His benefactor once more shaking him heartily by the hand, bade him farewell.
"Peace be with thee, on the great waters. And remember to strive and pray."
A new world seemed to open upon the rescued one. Of the quietness and order that pervaded a temperance ship, he had no anticipation. There were neither quarrels or profanity, so common among the crew, nor arrogance, and capricious punishment, on the part of those in power. Cheerful obedience, and just authority prevailed, as in a well-regulated family. He was both surprised and delighted to find his welfare an object of interest with the officers of the ship, to receive kind counsel from them, and to be permitted to employ his brief intervals of leisure with the well-chosen volumes of the seaman's library.
Still it was not with him, as if he had never sinned. Not all at once could he respire freely in pure atmosphere. Physical exhaustion, from the withdrawal of stimulants to which he had long been accustomed, sometimes caused such deep despondence, that life itself seemed a burden.
Cherished vice brings also a degree of moral obliquity. Every permitted
sin lifts a barrier between the clear shining of God's countenance, and the
cold and frail human heart. Perverted trains of thought, and polluted remembrances
still lingered with him, and feelings long debased, did not readily acquire
an upward tendency. Yet the parting admonition of his benefactor to strive and pray, ever sounded in his ears, and became
the motto of his soul. By little and little, through faithful obedience, he obtained the victory. His improvement was noticed by others, before he dared to congratulate himself; for humility had strangely become a part of his character, who once defied all laws, human and divine. His countenance began to resume the ingenuous expression of early years, and the eyes, so long fiery, or downcast, looked up with the clearness of hope.
"Blessings on the temperance ship!" he often ejaculated, as he paced the deck in his nightly watch, "and eternal blessings on the holy man, who snatched me from lowest hell."
At his arrival in a foreign port, he was watchful to avoid every temptation. His friend, the supercargo, took him under his especial charge, finding him much better educated than is usual with sailors, gave him employment of a higher nature, which was both steady and lucrative. His expenses were regulated with extreme economy, that he might lay up more liberally for those dear ones at home, whose images became more and more vivid, as his heart threw off the debasing dominion of intemperance, and its host of evils.
The returning voyage was one of unmingled satisfaction. Compunction had given place to a healthful virtue, whose root was not in himself.
"Why is this?" he often soliloquized: "why should I be saved, while so
many perish? How have I deserved such mercy, who willingly made a beast
of myself, through
the fiery draught of intemperance? Oh, my mother! I know that thy prayers have followed me,—they have saved me."
With what surpassing beauty did the hills of his native land gleam upon his eye, unfolding before him, like angels' wings. He felt also that an angel's mission was his to the hearts that loved him, and which he in madness had wounded. Immediately on reaching the shore, he began his journey to them. Stopping his ears to the sounds of the city, where he had once sunk so low, he hurried by its haunts of temptation, less from fear, than from sickening disgust.
Autumn had ripened its fruits, without sacrificing the verdure of summer. It was the same season that, seven years before, he had traversed this region. But what contrasted prospects, and purposes! How truly has it been said, that no two individuals can differ more from each other, than the same individual may, at different periods of life, differ from himself.
Richard Jones scarcely paused on his way for sleep, or for refreshment.
he sought communion with none. The food of his own thoughts sufficed.
As he drew near the spot of his birth, impatience increased almost beyond
endurance. The rapid wheels seemed to make no progress, and the distance
to lengthen interminably. Quitting the public vehicle, which did not pass
that secluded part of the village where his parental cottage was situated,
he sought it in solitude. It was pleasant to him to
come thus unknown, and he meditated the rapturous surprise he was about to create.
Those rocks! that river! can they be the same? The roof! the very roof! and the maple that shaded it.—But the garden-fence, the gate, are broken and gone. Where is the honeysuckle that Margaret trained? He was about to lift the latch,—to burst in, as in days of old. But other thoughts came over him, and he knocked gently, as a stranger; again, more earnestly.
"Who is there?"
It was a broad, gruff accent. He opened the door; a large, coarse woman stood there, with sleeves rolled above her red elbows, toiling at the wash-tub.
"Does the Widow Jones live here?"
"The Widow who?" why, Lord, no. I live here myself, to be sure."
The quivering lips, and parched tongue, scarcely articulated,—
"Where is Margaret Jones?"
"How should I know? I never hearn o' such a one, not I. Tho' I've been here, and hereabouts, this two year, I reckon."
A horror of great darkness fell upon the weary traveller. He turned from
the door. Whither should he go? There was no neighboring house, and had
there been, he would fain have hidden his misery from all who had ever known
him. Instinctively he entered the burial-ground, which was near-by. There
was his father's grave with
its modest stone, where he had been so often led in childhood. By its side was another, not fresh, yet the sods were imperfectly consolidated, and had not gathered greenness. He threw himself upon it,—he grasped a few dry weeds that grew there, and waved in the rising blast.
"This is to be alone in the world! Oh God! I have deserved it; I was her murderer! but I dreamed not of such misery!"
Long he lay there, in his tempestuous grief, without being sensible of a faint hollow sound, heard at regular intervals. It was the spade of the sexton, casting up earth and stones from the depth of a grave, in which he labored. Even his deaf ear caught the voice of anguish, as he finished his work. Coming forward, he stood in wonder, as if to illustrate the description of the poet:
"Near to a grave that was newly made,
Starting at the withered effigy, which in the dim haze of twilight seemed more like a ghost than a man, he exclaimed,—
"Did you ever hear of a middle-aged woman, called the Widow Jones?"
"Hear of her! I know'd her well, and her husband too. An honest, hard-working man he was; and when he died, was well spoke of, through all this village."
"And his wife?"—
"Why everybody pitied her, inasmuch as her husband died so sudden, and left leetle, or no means behind, for her and the children."
"There were children, then?"
"Yes, two on 'em. She worked hard enough, to bring 'em up, I guess. I remember the funeral, as if 'twas only yesterday. I stood just about where you do now; and I used this spade, the very first time it was ever used, to dig that same grave."
With a convulsive effort, as when one plucks a dagger from his breast, he asked faintly,—
"When did she die?"
"Die? mercy on you! Why, I don't s'pose she's dead at all. Sure, I should have been called on to dig the grave, if she had died: that's sartain. I've had all the business of that sort, in these parts, as you may say, for this forty year, and better. There did once come a person from the North country, and try to undersell me. But he did'nt do his work thorough. His graves caved in. He couldn't get a living, and so he went off. I'll show ye one of the graves of his digging, if you'll just came along,"—
"Tell me, for God's sake! If the Widow Jones still lives?"
"Why man! what's the matter on ye? you're as white as the tomb-stones.
I tell ye, she's alive, for aught I know to the contrary. She moved away
here, a considerable time ago. It ain't so well with her, as 'twas in days past."
Grasping the sexton strongly by the arm, he demanded—
"Where is she to be found?"
"Oh, Lord! help! help! the man will murder me, I verily believe. Did ye ever hear of what was called the stone-house? just at the hither end of the nest village, after you cross a bridge, and go up a hill, and turn to the right, and see a small cluster of buildings, and a mill, and a meetin'-house? Well, she lives there in a kind of a suller-room, for I was telling you, I expect, she an't none too well off.—Goodness! the creature is gone as if he wanted to ride a streak o' lightening, and whip up. He is demented, without a doubt. What a terrible risk I've run! Deliver us from crazy men, here among the tombs. How awful my arm aches, where he clutched it."
While the garrulous sexton made his way to his own dwelling, to describe his mysterious guest, and imminent peril of life; the supposed maniac was traversing the intervening space with breathless rapidity. Lights began to glimmer from the sparsely-sprinkled dwellings. The laborers, returning from toil, took their evening repast with their families. Here and there, a blazing hearth marked the chillness of advancing autumn.
Rushing onward towards a long, low building of gray stone, which appeared
to have many tenants, he leaned a moment against its walls, to recover respiration,
bowing down, looked through an uncurtained window in its gloomy basement. By the flickering light of some brush-wood, burning in the chimney, he saw a woman placing the fragments of a loaf upon a table, besides which sat two young children. She was thin, and bent; but having her head turned from him, he was unable to see her features. Could that be her; so changed? Yet, the "come in," that responded to his rap, was in a tone that thrilled his inmost soul.
"Have you any food to bestow? I have travelled far and am hungry."
Sit down, sir, here at the table. I wish I had something better to offer you. But you are welcome to our poor fare."
And she pushed towards him the bread and the knife. He cut a slice, with a trembling hand. The youngest child, watching the movement, whispered with a reproachful look,—
"Granny! you said I should have two pieces to night, 'cause there was no dinner."
"Hush, Richard!" said the little sister, folding her arms around his neck.
The returning wanderer with difficulty maintained his disguise, as he marked the deep wrinkles on that brow which he had left so comely.
"Have you only this broken loaf, my good woman? I fear the portion I
have taken, will not leave enough for you and these little ones."
"We shall have more tomorrow, sir, if God will. It was not always thus with us. When my dear daughter and her husband were alive, there was always sufficiency for the children, and for me. But they are both dead, sir; the father, last year, and she, when that boy was born."
"Had you no other children?"
"Yes, sir. One son, a dear and most beautiful boy. Long years have passed since he went away. Whether he is in the land of the living, God only knows."
Her suppressed sob was changed to surprise and resistance, as the stranger would fain have folded her in his arms. Then, kneeling at her feet, and holding her thin hands in his, he said—
"Mother! dear mother! can you forgive me all?"
There was no reply. The sunken eyes strained wide open, and fixed. Color fled from the lips. He carried her to the poor, low bed, and threw water upon her temples. He chafed the rigid hands, and in vain sought for some restorative to administer.
"Wretch that I am! Have I indeed killed her?"
And then the shrieks of the children grew deafening—
But the trance was brief. Light came to the eye, and joy to the heart, known only to that mother who, having sown in tears, beholds suddenly the blessed unexpected harvest.
"Do I live to see thy face? Let me hear thy dear voice once more, my son."
But the son ad vanished. At his return came supplies, such as that poor, half-subterranean apartment had never before witnessed; and ere long, with those half-famished children, they partook of a repast, whose rich elements of enjoyment have seldom been surpassed on this troubled earth.
"What a good, strange man!" said the satisfied little boy.
"We must not call him the strange man anymore, but our uncle," said little Margaret; "so he told me himself."
"Why must we say so?"
"Because he was our dear mother's dear brother, just as you are mine. Did not you see that he cried, when grandmother told him she was dead?"
"Well, I shall love him for that, and for the good supper he gave us."
"Have you here my father's large Bible?" asked the son of the widow. She brought it forth from its sacred depositary, carefully wrapped in a towel. Tears of rapturous gratitude chased each other along the furrows, which bitter and burning ones had made so deep, as she heard him, with slow and solemn utterance, read that self-abasing melody of the Psalmist: "Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving-kindness; according to the multitude of thy mercies, blot out my transgressions."
This was the Psalm, that during his brokenness of spirit, on the deep waters, had been his comforter; and now he seemed to breathe into its deep eloquent words, the soul of penitence and devotion. At its close, he kneeled and poured out a fervent prayer to the God of their salvation; and the sleep which fell that night upon all the inhabitants of that lowly abode, was sweet as an angel's smile.
The daily efforts of Richard Jones, for the comfort of his mother, were beautiful. Her unspoken wishes were studied with zeal, which feels it can never either fully repay, or atone. For her sake, and for that of the little orphans intrusted to their care, he rejoiced at the gains, which, through the friendship of the supercargo, he had been enabled to acquire in a foreign clime, and which to their moderated desires were comparative wealth.
But amid the prosperity which had been granted him, he still turned with
humility to the memorials of his wasted years. In his conversations with
his mother, he frankly narrated his sins; and while he went down into the
dark depths whither intemperance had led him, she shuddered, and was silent.
yet when he spoke of the benefactor who had found him in the streets, ready
to become a self-murderer, she raised her clasped hands, and with strong
emotions besought blessings on him who had "saved a soul from death." They
felt that it is not the highest and holiest compassion to relieve the body's
ills; but to rescue and bind up the poor heart that hath
wounded itself, and which the world hath cast out, to be trodden down in its unpurged guilt.
He was not long in discovering how the heart of his mother yearned after that former home, from which poverty had driven her. On inquiry, he found that it might be obtained, having recently been tenanted to vagrant people. The time that he devoted to its thorough repair were happily spent. its broken casements were replaced, and its dingy walls whitened. The fences were restored, with the pretty gate, over whose arch he promised himself, that another season should bring the blossoming vine that his lost sister had loved.
He sought also, in various places, those articles of furniture which had been disposed of through necessity, and which he had valued in the earlier days. Soon the old clock, with a new case, merrily ticked in the corner, and the cushioned arm-chair again stood by the hearth-stone. Near it was poor Margaret's work-table, with a freshly-polished surface, on which he laid, when about to take possession, the large family bible bearing his father's name.
Bright and happy was that morning, when leaning on his arm, the children
walking hand in hand beside them, neatly appareled, the widowed mother approached
the home endeared by tender recollections, and whence, poor and desolate,
she had gone forth. As she paused a moment at the door, the overflowing,
unutterable emotion, was gratitude for the restored virtue of the being most
beloved on earth. It would seem that congenial thoughts occupied him, for drawing her arm more tenderly within his own, he said: "Lo! this thy son was dead, and is alive again, and was lost and is found."