An Old Man's Recollections
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1854
"I am not a very old man," said a venerable friend to me, one day, "yet my head has become whitened and my cheeks furrowed — and often, as I pause and lean upon my staff, at the corners of the streets — the present reality gives place to dreams of the past, and I see here, instead of the massive pile of brick and marble — the low frame dwelling; and there, in place of the lines of tall warehouses — humble tenements. If, in my aimless wanderings about the city, I turn my steps towards the suburbs, I find that change, too, has been there. I miss the woods and fields where once, with the mirthful companions of early years, I spent many a summer hour. Beautiful dwellings have sprung up, it seems to me as if by magic — where but yesterday I plucked fruit from overladen branches, or laid myself to rest among the tall grass or ripening grain.
"But other changes than this, have marked the passage of time. Changes that cause them to sink into obscurity in comparison. Thousands in our goodly city have passed from the cradle to the grave, during the years that have been allotted to me. And thousands have proved that all the promises of early years, were vain. All external changes would attract but little attention, did they not recall other and more important changes. Thought and feeling have put on forms, as new and strange, but not, alas! so full of happy indications.
"Prosperity has crowned the toil and enterprise of our citizens; but how few of the many who were prosperous when I was in my prime — are among the wealthy now! How few of the families that filled the circles of fashion then — have left any of their scattered members to grace the glittering circles now! The wheel of fortune has ceased not its revolutions for a moment. Hopes that once spread their mirthful leaves to the pleasant airs — have been blighted and scattered by the chilling winds of adversity.
"Pausing and leaning upon my staff, as I have said, I often muse thus, when some object recalls the memory of one and another who have finished their course and been gathered to their fathers. In every city and village, wherever there is human life, with its evil passions and good affections — there are histories to stir the heart, and unseal the fountains of tears. Truth, it is said, is strange, stranger than fiction; and never was there a truer sentiment uttered. In all the fictions that I have read, nothing has met my eye so strange and heart-stirring as the incidents in real life which have transpired in the families of some of our own citizens. Anyone of years and observation, in any city, will bear a like testimony. The circumstance of their actual occurrence, and the fact that the present reality diminishes, from many causes, our surprise at events — tend to make us think lightly of what is going on around us.
"And, besides this, we ordinarily see only the surface of society. The writer of fiction unveils the mind and heart of those he brings into action — and we see all. We perceive their thoughts and feel their emotions. But, if we could look into the bosoms of those we meet daily, and read there the hopes and fears which excite or depress, we should perceive all around us, living histories of human passion and emotion which would awaken up our most active sympathies! All this, however, is hidden from our eyes. And it is only, in most instances, when the present becomes the past — that we are permitted to lift the veil, and look at the reality beneath."
We were sitting near a window overlooking one of the principal streets of our city, and a slight noise without, at this time, attracted our attention.
"There she is again. Poor Flora! How my heart aches for you!" my companion suddenly ejaculated, in a tone of deep sympathy, after gazing into the street for a moment or two.
"Who is it?" I asked.
"Do you see that poor creature, slowly moving along just opposite?"
"Twenty years ago, there was not a gayer girl in the city; nor one more truly beloved by all."
"Yes. Nor one of fairer hopes."
"Hope has indeed sadly mocked her!" said I, giving almost involuntary utterance to the thought that instantly passed through my mind. Just then, I caught a glimpse of her face, that was partly turned towards us. Though marked by disease and sorrow, it was yet no common face. It still bore traces of womanly beauty, which no eye could mistake.
"Poor Flora! what a history of disappointed hopes and crushed affections is yours! What a lesson for the young, the thoughtless, the innocent!" the old man said, as he retired from the window.
"Who is she?" I asked, after a brief pause.
"You have seen that beautiful old mansion which stands in Walnut Street?"
"It is now used as an extensive boarding-house; but in my younger days, it was one of the most princely establishments in the city. It then stood alone, and had attached to it beautifully laid-out grounds, stocked with the rarest and richest plants, all in the highest state of cultivation. No American workman could produce furniture good enough for its aristocratic owner. Everything was bought in Paris, and upon the most extensive scale. And truly, the internal arrangement of Mr. Thompson's dwelling was magnificent, almost beyond comparison at the time."
"And was that the daughter of Mr. Thompson?" I asked, in surprise.
"Yes, that was Flora Thompson," the old man said, in a voice that had in it an expression of sad feeling, evidently conjured up by the reminiscence.
"You knew her in her better days?"
"As well as I knew my own sister. She was one of the gentlest of her gender. No one could meet her, without loving her."
"She married badly?"
"Yes. That tells the whole secret of her present wretched condition. Alas! how many a sweet girl have I seen dragged down, by a union with some worthless wretch, undeserving the name of a man! There is scarcely a wealthy family in our city, into which some such a one has not insinuated himself, destroying the peace of all, and entailing hopeless misery upon one all unfit to bear her changed lot.
The case of Flora is an extreme one. Her husband turned out to be a drunkard, and her father's family became reduced in circumstances, and finally every member of it either passed from this world, or sank into a state of indigence, little above that of her own. But the worst feature in this history of wretchedness is the fact that Flora, in sinking so low externally, lost that sweet spirit of innocence which once gave a tone of so much loveliness to her character. Her husband not only debased her condition, but corrupted her mind. Oh, what a wreck she has become!"
"How few families there are," said I, after a few moments, "as you have justly remarked, the happiness of which has not been destroyed by the marriage of a much loved and fondly cherished daughter and sister — to one all unworthy of the heart whose best affections had been poured out upon him like water."
"The misery arising from this cause," the old man said, "is incalculable. Nor does it always show itself in the extreme external changes that have marked Flora Thompson's sad history. I could take you to many houses, fine houses too, and richly arrayed within — where hearts are breaking in the iron grasp of a husband's unfeeling hand, which contracts with a slow, torturing cruelty — keeping its victim lingering day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year, looking and longing for the hour when the deep quiet of the grave shall bring peace — sweet peace."
"As I thus look back through a period of some twenty, thirty, and forty years," continued the old man, "noting the changes that have taken place, and counting over the hopes that have been like chaff to the winds — I feel sad. And yet, amid all this change and disappointment, there is much to stir the heart with feelings of pleasure. A single instance I will relate:
"A very intimate friend, a merchant, had three daughters, to whom he gave an education the best that could be obtained. When the eldest was but twenty, and the youngest fourteen, Mr. Webster failed in business. Everything passed from his hands, and he was left entirely penniless. Well advanced in years — this shock almost entirely prostrated him. He could not find courage to explain to his daughters his condition, and the change that awaited them. But they loved their father too well not to perceive that something was wrong. Suspecting the true cause, the eldest, unknown to him, waited upon one of his clerks at his residence, and received from him a full statement of her father's affairs. She begged that nothing might be concealed; and so obtained all the information that the clerk could give, from which she saw plainly that the family would be entirely broken up, and worse than all, perhaps scattered, the children from their father.
"On returning home, she took her younger sisters, and fully explained to them the gloomy prospect in view. Then she explained to them her plan, by which the force of the storm might be broken. In it they all gladly acquiesced. This plan, they proceeded, unknown to their father, to put into execution.
"It was about one week after, that the old man came home so much troubled in mind that he was compelled to leave the table, his food untasted. As he arose, his children arose also, and followed him into the parlor.
"'Dear father!' said the eldest, coming up to his side, and drawing her arm around his neck — 'do not be troubled. We know it all, and are prepared for the worst.'
"'Know what, my child?' he asked in surprise.
"'Know that our condition is changed. And know more — that we are prepared to meet that change with brave, true hearts.'
"The tears came into the daughter's eyes as she said this — not tears for her changed prospect — but tears for her father.
"'And we are all prepared to meet it,' broke in the other two, gathering around the old man.
"'God bless you, my children!' Mr. Webster murmured, with a voice choked with emotion. 'But, you don't understand how low you have fallen. I am reduced to a beggar!'
"'Not quite,' was the now smiling reply of his eldest child. 'We learned it all — and at once determined that we would do our part. For two weeks, we have been out among our friends, and freely related our plans and the reason for adopting them. The result is, we obtained forty students to a school we have determined to open, for teaching music, French, drawing, etc. You are not a beggar, dear father! And never shall be, while you have three daughters to love you!'
"The old man's feelings gave way, and he wept like a child. He could not object to the proposition of his children. The school was at once opened, and is still conducted by the two youngest. It proved a means of ample support to the family. To some men, the fact that their children had been compelled to resort to daily labor, in any calling, for a support, would have been deeply humiliating. Not so to Mr. Webster. That evidence of his daughters' love to him, compensated for all the changes which circumstances, uncontrolled by himself, had effected."