[from] WHETHER IT PAID
BY VIRGINIA F. TOWNSEND.
"Confound this Administration! Driving the country, neck and heels, straight into ruin!"
Having thus delivered himself, Mr. Spencer dashed down the paper and seized the poker, and commenced a vigorous onslaught on the lowest stratum of coals—this exercise proving a sort of safety valve through which his indignation could vent itself.
"Dear me, John, what is to pay now?" asked Mrs. Spencer, gathering up in her lap, in order to screen it from a shower of ash dust, a long turnpike of white ruffling, over which her needle was laboriously plodding.
"You better ask me what isn't to pay!" retorted the lady's spouse, in tones which indicated a strong tendency to use the poker on some more sentient object than the coals. "Blockheads and knaves at the head of our Government. Steered the country, with their eyes open, right into this civil war, and all they care for now is to feather their own nests and run everybody straight into bankruptcy. Here they are talking about another draft, and taxing a man now every time he turns round. We can't stand this much longer. I thought when we commenced this thing we were going to put it through in nine months; and now, after a year of fighting, the end looks farther off than at the beginning!"
Mr. Spencer had commenced his diatribes on civil and military affairs with only his wife for auditor, she being, on this ground, one of the acquiescent and monosyllabic type, her opinions and sentiments on all public matters being a faithful reflex of her husband's.
This was not precisely the case with the sons and daughters, although there was no doubt that the home-talk colored more or less the political views of most of them.
And one after another the boys and girls had dropped in, and stood now grouped around in various attitudes of indolence or interest, listening to the conversation.
"But, pa," interposed Rusha, standing on the defensive, "you remember that Washington made a greater mistake than our Government did when he wrote to his wife, at the time of his taking command of the Continental army, that the war would probably be over by the following autumn. What a point the Tories must have made of that false prophecy through all the seven years that followed; but after all we triumphed—yes, we triumphed!" repeating the last words with a little inward exultation that grew into light on her face.
Mr. Spencer cleared his throat in order to gain time. He had that reverence for Washington, and all the great actors of the Revolution, which is inborn with every American.
"That's another thing entirely," he said, seizing hold of the first point on his side that presented itself. "The questions at issue are entirely different. We haven't got any such men now as we had then."
"I should think not," added Ella, who had a constitutional dislike of radicalism, and a general impression that the "first society" did not endorse the present administration. "Look at Abraham Lincoln!"
"What's the matter with him?" asked Rusha, tartly.
Her sister was, of course, ready with the stock objection.
"Oh, he isn't a gentleman. Such an awkward, inelegant man at the head of our nation! It's really dreadful!"
"I presume that your dancing-master would do the honors of the White House with a much better grace than our President, and that is, of course, much more important than sound wisdom or integrity of character, than strength of purpose or love of justice and righteousness, in the man who stands at the nation's helm now that she is in this awful peril for life or for death!"
The voice of Rusha Spencer held now that lingering sarcasm which they all perfectly understood, and, if the truth must be told, secretly dreaded a little.
Ella was a good deal nettled. Of course her position was totally indefensible, now that moral instead of physical qualities formed the grounds of the defence, but she had one shaft left, tipped with a little venom. She sent it home now.
"Are you an abolitionist, Rusha? I should like to know. One would imagine it by the way you talk."
That name had had, during their childhood, an exceedingly bad odor in the Spencer family.
Perhaps it still retained some old power of association over Rusha's mind, for her answer hardly met it squarely; and then it was several years ago, and people have grown in the last three.
"I hardly know what you mean by abolitionist, Ella; but of one thing I am certain, that slavery, in any form, is a sin and a curse to a people, and against it, so long as I live, I will set my face, whatever you or anybody else may call me."
This was certainly throwing down the gauntlet in an atmosphere where it required some moral courage to do it; but during the latter part of Rusha's speech, Guy had entered, thus completing the family circle. The boy had happened during the last week to light on Uncle Tom's Cabin for the first time, he having hitherto religiously avoided it, hearing his father, who had never so much as read the title page, denounce the book as a "miserable incendiary work," this remark being plagiarized from an adverse newspaper criticism.
Of course with the first chapter Guy was committed to the end. And as a consequence of reading the book, he had accepted an invitation of a young friend, given half in sport, to go and hear Wendell Phillips lecture the preceding evening.
The transcendent power of the book had wrought strongly on the rough, boyish sympathies of Guy Spencer, and the eloquence of the lecturer completely brought him over. His family was quite ignorant of the sudden revolution which this political convictions had undergone, and each one was electrified to see him stand up boldly now, the ruddy, immature face glowing with the fervor of his sentiments as he delivered them—
"I say I'm an abolitionist to the core! Go in for the nigger strong. They've just as good rights as white folks; and so long as they're human beings, we've no business to buy and sell 'em; and I'm ready to fight anybody who says we have!" growing belligerent as he proceeded.
Guy's avowal was received with shouts of merriment by his brothers, and with various interjections of surprise or dismay from the rest of the family, with the exception of Rusha, who patted her youngest brother on the shoulder, and said, encouragingly—
"Bravo, Guy! That's the sort of talk I like!"
"Well, it isn't what I do, by a long shot," said her father, vastly surprised and a good deal displeased at this defection of his youngest son. "Where in the world did you get such notions as those, Guy?"
The boy had an impression that his authorities would by no means enhance the value of his convictions in his father's estimation; so he wisely kept them to himself, only saying, with an air of profound sagacity, in amusing contrast with his boyish face—
"Oh, I've thought and read a good deal lately; and these are my opinions, and I shall hold them as long as I live, without fear or favor."
"Well, all I've got to say is, you'd better wait until you're a little older and wiser than you are now, before you put forth your sentiments in such a fashion," said his father.
Guy, secretly primed with Wendell Phillips and Harriet Beecher Stowe, turned suddenly a strong fire from his battery on his father—
"Do you approve of slavery, father? Do you think it's right to sell men and women on the auction block as though they were cattle? Do you think it's right to separate husbands and wives, and tear little children away from their fathers and mothers?—to hang up women by the wrists and whip their bare backs till they're all skinned, and send blood-hounds to bring them down when they run away from their masters? Do you think it's right to do these things because one man has a white skin and the other a black one?"
John Spencer hemmed. His old, sound New England training, and at bottom the sturdy sense of right and justice, the common humanity which no political sophistries nor partisan feelings could overcome, rose up in stout condemnation of the facts that young boy of his had put so strongly.
"Of course I don't," he answered, very crossly, but still very positively. "None of my family ever heard me contend that slavery was right. I've always admitted the thing was a wrong and a shame; but as we'd got it, and the Constitution admits it, the best way was to let it all alone, and it would be its own remedy in time. You see what all this talk and agitation about the thing has brought the country to; I've said it would be so for years, and now we've got into a war with no end to it, and nobody to manage it."
"If slavery carries its own remedy in itself, why does'nt murder, or arson, or any other crime?" persisted Rusha.
"There, you see, pa, I told you so," said Ella, in a tone half deprecatory, half positive. "Your oldest daughter is an out-and-out abolitionist!"
Well, I'm sure, John, she never got it from me," added Mrs. Spencer.
"No, ma," laughed Rusha, good naturedly—"whatever my opinions are, you shan't be responsible for them."
"But, Rusha," continued Ella, standing by the mantel, and looking at her sister with some perplexity; "I do think you have a tendency toward isms. You have, somehow—I can't just explain what I mean—but just the sort of character and enthusiasm that runs into them. I shouldn't wonder the least if under a certain set of influences you should turn Woman's Rights, or take to lecturing in public, or some such dreadful thing."
"You are complimentary, Ella. But give yourself no alarm, my dear; if I felt any impulsion in the direction of public lecturing, the thought of my own lack of gifts would keep me always away from the Rostrum."
"I'm not so sure about that," added Tom. "Rusha can talk when she gets the steam on, better than a good many ministers; and then she always looks so well when she gets excited!"
"Tom, don't!" interposed Ella again, her imagination taking the alarm at even the playful suggestion of such a prospect. "If the day should ever come when my sister rises up in a public hall to speak, I shall want to hide my head the rest of my life for shame; I never could show nay face in society after such a disgrace!"
"You'd better think of something that's likely to happen," suggested Mr. Spencer, who never gave himself much concern about improbabilities of this sort.
"I see we're going to have another draft, and it's as likely to fall on Tom or Andrew as anybody."
"Oh, pa!" This little interjection fell from Mrs. Spencer; but it said what the hearts of mothers with goodly sons had been saying for more than two years over all the land. Andrew's fractured ribs were now so far restored as to make an impending draft a source of alarm in his case.
"And substitutes cost a small fortune now-a-days," said the head of the family, returning to the old ground of offence.
"But, pa, you know you'd rather pay any amount of money, than have either of your boys go to the war and get shot, or fall into the hands of those dreadful Rebels," expostulated Mrs. Spencer. "We'd better make any sacrifices rather than have that happen."
"Yes; I wonder, if worse came to worse, how many gewgaws your girls would be willing to sacrifice at the watering places, where they intend to figure this summer?" retorted Mr. Spencer, who was in the habit of visiting on domestic affairs the ill-humor engendered by a contemplation of public ones.
"I'm sure we'd all be willing to make any sacrifice, rather than see our Andrew or Tom go to the war," answered Mrs. Spencer, meekly; and Ella, who had meditated a strong attack on her father's pockets that day—the summer's wardrobe being now in an advanced state of preparation—concluded to defer her appeal to a more favorable occasion.
One thing was certain. John Spencer was an habitual grumbler, and his threats always kept far ahead of his deeds, as was a fact well known and acted on at all times in the bosom of his own family.
And the same rule would, in a measure, apply to his habit of regarding all public affairs. The man was not without a feeling of patriotism. The echo, as it rolled over the land, of the first shot on that lonely fort by the sea, had roused the heart of John Spencer with the rest of his countrymen. For the time being, a new love of country, a burning desire to avenge her wrong and retrieve her honor, superseded every other feeling in the soul of the man. He averred himself ready to take his gun and go down South, and do his part in putting down the rebellion that had taken him by such surprise; for he, like the majority of Northern men, had believed in his heart that South Carolina, and the other seceded states, could not be really "in earnest."
But John Spencer was not a man of abiding faith in things invisible. He had not those strong moral convictions which makes a man, no matter how dark and desperate a cause may be, anchor his hope on the eternal foundations of truth and justice, on which that cause rests.
And so, when defeat and disaster overtook our armies; when mistakes, that the very nature of things rendered unavoidable, were committed on every hand, then John Spencer's faith waxed faint.
Certainly those long four years tried every man's metal, and when the war, with its high prices and heavy taxes, began to touch the pockets of men like Mr. Spencer—that was their weak point—then they began to grumble at the blunders and tyrannies of the Government.
John Spencer had been brought up in
a school of the old Jackson and Jefferson type. The names still possessed a strong traditional power over his mind.
That both these men were fervent patriots, however strongly partisan, nobody could attempt to deny. But John Spencer went further than this. He had an impression, based on no intelligent insight into the course of events, and on very insufficient knowledge of the real character of the great men whose names were always on his lips, that if they had only managed affairs, things would have turned out smooth and satisfactory to all parties.
He had no wide moral outlooks, and present mistake or disaster was to him absolute proof of either incapacity or villany. And how many men were there, who felt and talked like this one through all the nation's long four years baptismal of fire and blood, and who only begin to see with clearer vision now that the cloud and fire of the battle are rolling away!
Blessed are those who, not seeing, yet have believed!