The Clerk's Marriage
By Timothy Shay Arthur, 1861
"You are either a brave young man — or a very foolish one!"
"Why do you say that?"
"To think of marriage."
"What has bravery or folly to do in the case?"
"The young lady is poor!"
"I do not wed for money."
"There would be some hope for you, if she were the possessor of twenty or thirty thousand dollars. But being as poor as yourself, your folly stands out in bold relief. Look before you leap, my friend — there's trouble for you on the other side."
"I am not sordid, Mr. Blair." The young man's fine face glowed, and his eyes flashed with a repressed indignation.
"Not sordid enough, Adrian, for marriage, as society is now constituted. There are two sides to this question of marriage; the sentimental side and the fact side. Now, you have looked only at the sentimental side. Suppose we consider the fact aspects. You are a clerk, receiving a salary of one thousand dollars. How much have you saved?"
"Nothing to speak of."
"Nothing! So much the worse. If it costs you a thousand dollars a year to live, from whence is to come the means of supporting a wife and family?"
"Oh, I've been careless and wasteful in expenditures as most young men are. I had only myself to provide for, and was self-indulgent. But that will cease, of course."
"Granted, for argument sake. The young lady you propose to marry is named Rosa Newell?"
"A charming young girl; well educated; finely accomplished; used to good society, as we say; and just suited for my friend Adrian, if she had money, or he had an income of three or four thousand a year. But the idea of making her a happy wife, in the city of New York, on a thousand dollars, is simply preposterous. It can't be done, sir; and the attempt will prove ruinous to the happiness of both parties to so foolish an arrangement. It is a matter of the easiest demonstration, Adrian; and I wonder so good an accountant as you are, should not, before this, have tried this question by mathematical rules. Let me do it for you. And, first, we will look at Rosa's present sphere of life. She has a home with Mr. Hartley, an uncle, and is living in rather a luxurious way. Mr. Hartley is a man who thinks a great deal of appearances, and maintains a domestic establishment that does not cost less than four thousand dollars a year. His house rent is equal to your whole salary. Now, in taking Rosa from this home — into what kind of a one can you place her?"
A sober hue of thought came over the young man's face.
"You cannot afford to rent a house at even one-half the cost of Mr. Hart's, even if you were able to buy furniture," continued Mr. Blair.
"We shall board, of course," said Adrian. "Housekeeping is not to be thought of in the beginning."
"If not in the beginning, how afterwards?"
The young man looked a trifle bewildered, but did not answer.
"What are you now paying for board!"
"Five dollars a week."
"You would require a parlor and bedroom after marriage?"
"At a cost of not less than fifteen dollars a week." Adrian sighed.
"We could hardly afford the parlor."
"Hardly," said his friend. "Well, we give up the parlor, and take a pleasant front chamber on the second floor, at twelve dollars a week. But the house is not first class, nor the location very desirable. These are not to be had in New York at twelve dollars a week. You cannot afford for Rosa the elegancies of her present home. Three dollars more a week for washing and etceteras, and your income is drawn upon at the rate of seven hundred and eighty dollars a year. Two hundred and twenty left for clothing and all other expenses! And, so far, it has taken nearly three times that sum to meet your own demands. It has a bad outlook, Adrian."
"I was wasteful and self-indulgent," replied the young man, in a voice from which the confident tone had departed. "It will scarcely cost Rosa and I for clothing, one half of what I expended."
"Say one-half, and your income will not reach the demand. What was your tailor's bill last year?"
"One hundred and sixty dollars."
"Say two hundred, including boots, hats, etcetera?"
"You could hardly get this below a hundred and fifty."
The young man's voice was growing husky.
"That will leave seventy dollars for your wife's clothing, and nothing for pleasures, recreations, little luxuries, or unanticipated but unavoidable expenses. And if it is so difficult with you two in good health — then what will be the condition of things in sickness, and with children to support and educate. Adrian, my young friend, there is debt, financial embarrassment, disappointment, and a miserable life before you. Pause and retrace your steps before it is too late. If you love Rosa, then spare her from this impending fate. Leave her in her pleasant home, or to grace that of a man better able than you are to provide her with the external blessings of life. You cannot marry on a thousand dollars a year — and it is folly to think of it."
"We could get boarding for ten dollars a week," said Adrian.
"That would scarcely help the matter at all. At best, it would only make a difference in the amount of your indebtedness at the close of each year. It is folly to think of it, my young friend. You can't afford to marry."
"It has a dark look, but there is no holding up now," replied Adrian, in a gloomy way. "We have mutually pledged each other, and the day of our marriage has been decided upon."
"I'm sorry for you," said the friend, a bachelor of forty, who, on an income of fifteen hundred dollars a year, could see no possible chance for a happy marriage in the city of New York, and preferred celibacy to the financial embarrassments which he saw hundreds of his friends encounter in their attempts to live in a style out of all proportion to their resources. "I'm sorry for you," he repeated; "but if you will bend your neck to the yoke — then you must not complain of the burden you find yourself compelled to bear."
Strange as it may appear, the young clerk, Henry Adrian, had never before looked this matter of income, expenditure, and style of living, fairly in the front. The actual aspect of the case, when clearly seen, threw his mind into a state of troubled bewilderment. He went over and over again the calculations suggested by Mr. Blair, a book-keeper in the establishment where he was employed, cutting off a little from one proposed expenditure and another, but not being able to get the cost of living down to the range of his salary, except when the life-style was so far below that in which his wife must move, that he turned half sick from its contemplation. The more steadily he looked at the truth — the more heavily came the pressure of its stony weight upon his heart. To go forward was little less than madness — yet how could he hold back now?
Rosa sat alone, reading, in one of her uncle's handsome parlors, waiting for her lover. He was later than usual; so late that her book began to lose its interest, and at last lay closed on her lap, while a shadow fell over her expectant face. A single glance at Rosa's countenance revealed the fact that she was a girl of some character. There was no soft dreaminess about her, but an erectness of position as she sat, and a firmness of tone in all her features, that indicated an active mind, and self-reliance.
An hour later than usual, Adrian came.
"Are you sick, Henry?" asked Rosa, as she took his hand, and fixed her eyes on his sober face.
"Not sick, but troubled in mind," he replied without evasion.
"Why are you troubled, Henry?" And Rosa drew an arm tenderly around her lover.
"Sit down, and I will tell you. The trouble concerns us both, Rosa."
The young girl's face grew pale. They sat down close together, holding each other's hands. But in Adrian's countenance there was a resolute expression, such as we see in the countenance of a man who has settled a question of difficult solution.
"The day fixed for our marriage is only two months away," he said. The tone in which he spoke chilled the heart of Rosa. She did not answer, but kept her gaze on his face.
"Rosa, we must reconsider this matter. We have acted without forethought."
Her face became paler, her lips fell apart, her eyes had a frightened expression.
"I love you Rosa, tenderly, truly. My heart is not turning from you. I would hasten, rather than retard, the day of our marriage. But there are considerations beyond that day, which have presented themselves, and demand sober consideration. In a word, Rosa, I cannot afford to marry. My income will not justify the step."
The frightened look went out of Rosa's eyes.
"It was wrong in me ever to have sought your love."
Her hand tightened on his, and she shrank closer to his side.
"I am a clerk, with only a thousand dollars of income, and I do not see much beyond, to hope for. Rosa, the furniture of these parlors cost twice the amount of my salary. The rent of the home in which you now live, is equal to what I receive in a year. I cannot take you from all this elegance — into a third-class boarding-house, the best my means will provide. No, no, Rosa, it would be unjust, selfish, wrong, cruel. How blind in me ever to have thought of so degrading the one I love!"
The young man was strongly agitated.
"And this is all that troubles you, Henry?"
"Is it not enough? Can I look at the two alternatives that present themselves, and not grow heart-sick? If we marry — then what is before us? Humiliation, deprivation, and all the ills which poverty brings for you, and debt, trouble, and a lifelong financial embarrassment for me. If we separate, each taking different ways in life — oh, Rosa, Rosa, I am not strong enough to choose that alternative!"
And his form trembled under the pressure of excitement.
"You love me, Henry." The voice of Rosa was calm, yet burdened with feeling.
"As my own life, darling! Have I not said so a hundred times?"
"And even as my life, do I love you, Henry."
For several moments her face lay hidden in his bosom. Then lifting it, Rosa said —
"I am glad that you have spoken on this subject, Henry. I could not approach it myself, but, now that we have it before us, let it be well considered. Your income is one thousand dollars?"
"A sum large enough to supply the real needs of two people who have independence enough not to be enslaved by a mere love of appearances."
"Why, darling, it will require more than half of my salary to pay for respectable boarding."
"Taking it for granted that, after our marriage — that I am to settle down in a boarding-house, with hands folded — an idle dependent on your labor. But I shall not so construe my relation to my husband. I will be a helpmeet for him. I mil stand by his side, sharing life's burdens."
"All this is in your heart, darling, I know," returned Adrian. "But we are hedged round by social forms which act as a hindrance. You cannot help me. Society will demand of us a certain style of living, and we must conform to it — or be pushed aside from all circles of refinement, taste and intelligence. I cannot accept this ostracism for you, Rosa. It is just not right."
"As if a false, heartless world were more to me — than a true, loving husband! Henry, the central point of social happiness is home. As the home is, so will our lives be — rather let me say, as we are, so will our homes be — centers of gloom, or brightness. What others think of us, is really of little account in making up the sum of our enjoyments as we pass through life; but what we are in ourselves, is everything. We must be the centers of our own world of happiness — or our lives will be incomplete. Can a fine establishment like my present notes, in which I live in weak dependence, fill the measure of my desire? Can it bring peace and contentment? No, no, Henry. The humblest apartments, shared with you, would be a palace to my soul instead. I am not speaking with the romantic enthusiasm of an silly girl, but soberly, truthfully, Henry. No, dearest, we will not make our lives wretched by living apart — just because we cannot make a fair appearance in other people's eyes. God has given us love for each other, and the means of happiness — if we will use them. Let us take his good gifts in thankfulness."
"Henry, you have an income of one thousand dollars. We must not expect to live as those do who have two, or three, or four thousand dollars a year. Be that folly far from us, Henry! I am equal to the self-denial which it will require, if the word 'self-denial' is to be used. Are not you also willing? Oh, Henry! is there any joy to be imagined beyond that which flows from the conjunction of two loving hearts? and shall pride and a weak spirit of social conformity — come in to rob us of our blessing?"
The young man had come to Rosa, sternly resolved to put off the day of marriage. He parted from his betrothed that night, looking forward with golden-hued hopes for its arrival. They had talked over the future, practically and sensibly. The lover's fond pride, which had looked to a fair social appearance for his young wife — gave place to a better view of things. He saw that his love had fixed itself upon a true woman, and that in the humbler sphere in which their lot was cast, all attainable happiness was in store for them, if they would but open their hearts in an orderly way for its reception. One thing said to him by Rosa in that evening's talk we repeat, for the sake of young wives, or maidens on the eve of marriage.
"Be mine, dear Henry," she said, "The task of ordering and regulating our domestic affairs in conformity with your means — I will give all thought to that. Your income is fixed, and I shall know exactly the range of expenditure we must adopt. Do not fear debt and financial embarrassment. These wretched forms shall never enter your home, while I stand sentinel at the door. If the husband gives his life to care and work — shall not the wife do the same? If he provides to the best of his ability — shall not she dispense with wise frugality his earning? She who fails to do this, is not worthy of her position."
"And so you are bent on this folly?" said the bachelor clerk, on the day preceding that on which Adrian was to be married.
"Yes, if you choose to call it folly," was the answer.
"Where are you going — to Saratoga."
"We shall go nowhere."
"What! not even have a honeymoon?"
"No. A clerk who only receives a salary of one thousand dollars, can't afford to spend a hundred in having a honeymoon."
Mr. Blair shrugged his shoulders, and arched his eyebrows, as much as to say: "If I couldn't afford a honeymoon — I'd not marry."
On the day after Adrian's wedding, he was at his usual place in the counting-room. He received from his fellow clerks a few feeble congratulations. Most of them thought him a fool to burden himself with a wife not worth a dollar.
"When I marry, I'll better my condition; not make it worse," was the unspoken thought of more than one.
"Where are you boarding?" asked Mr. Blair, indifferently, two or three weeks after Adrian's marriage.
"Nowhere," was replied. "We are taking up housekeeping."
"At housekeeping! What is your rent?"
"Two hundred dollars, and half of that, my wise, good little wife is to pay in music lessons to our landlady's daughter. We have two pleasant rooms in a third story. I furnished these with the money it would have taken for the usual honeymoon. Rosa has the use of the kitchen, and insists on doing her own cooking and housework for the present. I demurred, and do demur; but she says that 'work is worship,' if performed conscientiously and dutifully as she is performing it. And, with all this, we are very happy, Mr. Blair, as you shall witness. Tomorrow you must go home with me, take tea and spend the evening."
Mr. Blair accepted the invitation. He had met Rosa, occasionally, before her marriage, and knew her to be a bright, accomplished young woman, fitted to move in refined and intelligent circles, and he felt some curiosity to see her in her new position of mistress and maid to her own household. The Third Avenue cars bore the two men a long, long way from the city's throbbing heart, out to the more quiet exteriors where they alighted, and after a short walk, entered a modest looking house with well tended shrubbery in the little front garden. To the third story they ascended, and there the young wife met them. Not blushing nor with stammering apologies for their poor home; but with such ease and self-possession — with such a happy light in her eyes, and such loving smiles about her lips — that Mr. Blair felt himself all at once transferred to an earthly paradise. As soon as time came for observation, he took note of what was around him.
The furniture of the room into which he had been ushered, could scarcely have been plainer. In the center, stood a small breakfast table, covered with a snowy cloth, and set for three people. Four simple chairs, a work stand, a shelf for books, a mantel ornament or two of no special value, a simple carpet on the floor, and plain white curtains looped back with blue ribbons, made up the complete inventory. No, not the complete inventory; for there was a piano against the wall; the dark case and plain style of which, showed it to be no recent purchase. The instrument had been Rosa's, as the observant visitor correctly inferred.
After a pleasant talk of some minutes, Rosa left the room, and not long after returned, bearing a tray on which were tea, toast, butter, biscuit, and sweetmeats. There was a beautiful glow on her face as she entered, but nothing of shame or hurt pride. With her own fair hands she arranged the table, and then took her place at the head, to serve her husband and his friend.
The heart of Mr. Blair glowed and stirred with a new impulse as he looked into the pure, sweet, happy face of the young wife, as she poured the tea, and served the meal which she had prepared.
After supper, Rosa removed the tea things, and was absent nearly half an hour. She returned through her chamber, which adjoined their little parlor, breakfast and sitting room, all in one, with just the slightest change in her attire, and looking as fresh, happy and beautiful, as if entering a drawing room filled with company. The evening passed in reading, music, and pleasant conversation. As Mr. Blair was about retiring, Adrian said:
"Do you think, now, that we were fools to marry?"
Rosa stood with her hand drawn within one arm of her husband, and clasped; and with a face radiantly happy.
"No, not fools, but wise, as others might be, if they were only courageous enough to do as you have done. Mrs. Adrian," and he took the young wife's hand, "I honor your bravery, your independence, your true love which cannot be overshadowed by worldliness, that mildew of the heart, that blight on our social life. You are a thousand times happier in your dutiful seclusion — than any fashion-loving wife, or slave to external appearance, can ever be."
"I love my husband, and I live for him." Rosa leaned closer to the manly form by her side. "I understood, when we married, that he was a life-toiler; that our home would be established and sustained by the work of his hands; and I understood as well, that I was not his superior, but only his equal, and that if it was right and honorable for him to work — then it could be no less right and honorable for me. Was I to sit idle, and have a servant to wait on me — when his was a lot of toil? No — no — no! I had my part to perform as well as he, and I am performing it to the best of my ability."
"You are a true woman, a wise woman, a good woman," said Mr. Blair, with ardor; "and you will be as happy as you deserve to be. I thought Henry a fool to marry on a thousand dollars, and told him so. But I take back my words. If such women as you were plentiful — we could all marry, and find our salaries ample. Good-night, and may God bless you!"
And the bachelor clerk, who could not afford to marry on fifteen hundred dollars a year, went to his lonely home; and sitting down in his desolate chamber, dreamed over the sweet picture of domestic felicity he had seen — and sighed for a similar sweet hiding-place from the world, and all its false protection and heartless show.