The Distiller's Dream

Timothy Shay Arthur, 1851
 

"Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise." Proverbs 20:1

"Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaints? Who has needless bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes? Those who linger over wine, who go to sample bowls of mixed wine. Do not gaze at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly! In the end it bites like a snake and poisons like a viper!" Proverbs 23:29-32
 

From the time Mr. Andrew Grim opened a low saloon near the Washington Market, until, as a wealthy distiller, he counted himself worth a hundred thousand dollars everything had gone on smoothly. And now he might be seen among the money-lords of the day, as self-complacent as any. He had money, houses, and lands; and, in his mind, these made up life's greatest good. And had he not obtained them in honest trade? Were they not the reward of persevering industry? Mr. Grim felt proud of the fact, that he was the architect of his own fortunes. "How many had started in life side by side with him; and yet scarcely one in ten of them had risen above the common level."

Thoughts like these often occupied the mind of Mr. Grim. Such were his thoughts as he sat in his luxurious parlor, one bleak December evening, surrounded by every external comfort his heart could desire, when a child not over seven or eight years of age was brought into the room by a servant, who said, as he entered

"Here's a little girl that says she wants to see you."

Mr. Grim, turned, and looked for a moment or two at the visitor. She was the child of poor parents; that was evident from her coarse and meager garments.

"Do you wish to see me?" he inquired, in a voice that was meant to be repulsive.

"Yes, sir," timidly answered the child.

"Well, what do you want!"

"My mother wants you."

"Your mother! Who's your mother?"

"Mrs. Dyer."

The manner of Mr. Grim changed instantly; and he said

"Indeed! What does your mother want?"

"Father is sick and mother says he will die."

"What ails your father?"

"I don't know. But he's been sick ever since yesterday; and he screams out so, and frightens us all."

"Where does your mother live?"

The child gave the street and number.

Mr. Grim walked about the room uneasily for some time.

"Didn't your mother say what she wanted with me?" he asked again, pausing before the little girl, whose eyes had been following all his movements.

"No, sir. But she cried when she told me to go for you."

Mr. Grim moved about the room again for some time. Then stopping suddenly, he said

"Go home and tell your mother that I'll be there in a little while."

The child retired from the room, and Mr. Grim resumed his thoughts, his eyes upon the floor, and a shadow resting on his countenance. After the lapse of nearly half an hour, he went into the hall, and drawing on a warm overcoat, started forth in obedience to what was evidently an unwelcome summons for he muttered to himself as he descended to the pavement

"I wish people would take care of what they get, and learn to depend on themselves!"

Mr. Grim took an omnibus and rode as far as Canal Street. Down Canal Street he walked to West Broadway, and along West Broadway for a couple of blocks, when he stopped before an old brick house that looked as if it had seen service for at least a hundred years, and examined the number.

"This is the place, I suppose," said he, fretfully. And he stepped back and looked up at the house. Then he approached the door, and searched for a bell or knocker; but of neither of these appendages could the dwelling boast. First, he rapped with his knuckles, then with his cane. But no one responded to the summons. He looked up and saw lights in the window. So he knocked again, and louder. After waiting several minutes, and not being admitted, Mr. Grim tried the door and found it unfastened; but the passage into which he stepped was as dark as midnight. After knocking on the floor loudly with his cane, a door opened above, a gleam of light fell on an old stairway, and a rough voice called out,

"Who's there?"

"Does Mr. Dyer live here?"

"He does!" was roughly answered.

"Will you be kind enough to show me his room?"

"You'll find it in the third story back," said the voice, impatiently. The door was shut again, and all was as dark as before.

Mr. Grim stood irresolute for a few moments, and then commenced groping his way upstairs, slowly and cautiously. Just as he gained the landing on the second flight, a stifled scream was heard in one of the rooms on the third floor, followed by a sudden movement, as if two people were struggling in a murderous conflict. He stopped and listened, while a chill went over him. A long shuddering groan followed, and then all was still again. Mr. Grim was about to retreat, when a door opened, and the child who had called for him came out with a candle in her hand. The light fell upon his form and the child saw him.

"Oh! mother! mother!" she cried, "Mr. Grim is here!"'

Instantly the form of a woman was seen in the door. Her look was wild and distressed, and her hair, which had become loosened from the comb, lay in heavy masses upon her shoulders.

"For heaven's sake, Mary! what is the matter?" exclaimed Mr. Grim, as he approached the woman.

"The matter!" She looked sternly at the visitor. "Come and see!" And she pointed into the room.

A cry of unutterable distress broke upon the air, and the woman sprang back quickly into the room. Mr. Grim hurried after her. By the feeble light of a single poor candle, he saw a half-clothed man crouching fearfully in a corner of the room, with his hands raised in the attitude of defense.

"Keep it off! Keep it off, I say!" he cried, despairingly. "Oh! oh! oh! It's on me, Mary! Mary! God help me! help me!"

And as these broken sentences fell from his lips, he shrank closer and closer into the corner, and then fell forward, writhing upon the floor. By this time, his wife was bending down over him, and with her assuring voice she soon succeeded in quieting him.

"They've all gone now, Henry," said she, in a tone of cheerful confidence, assumed at what an effort! "I've driven them away. Come! lie down upon the bed."

"They're under the bed!" replied the sufferer, glancing fearfully around. "Yes, yes! There! I see that blackest devil with the snake in his hand. He's grinning at me from behind the bed post. Now he's going to throw his horrible snake at me! There! oh-oh-oh-oh!"

The fearful, despairing scream that issued from the poor creature's lips, as he clung to his wife, curdled the very blood in the veins of Mr. Grim, who now comprehended the meaning of the scene. Dyer and his wife were friends of other days. With the latter, he had grown up from childhood, and there were many reasons why he felt an interest in her. Her husband had learned drinking and idleness in his bar-room, many years before; and more than once during the time of his declension, had she called upon Mr. Grim, and earnestly besought him to do something to save the one she loved best on earth, from impending ruin. But, he had entered the downward way, and it seemed that nothing could stop his rapid progress. Now he met him, after the lapse of ten years, and found him mad with the drunkard's madness.

The scene was too painful for Mr. Grim. He could not bear it. So, hurriedly drawing his purse from his pocket, he threw it upon the floor, and turning from the room made his way out of the house, trembling in every nerve. When he arrived at home, the perspiration stood cold and clammy on every part of his body. His mind was greatly excited. Most vividly did he picture, in imagination, the horrible fiend, striking the poor drunken wretch with his serpent spear, or blasting him with his terrific countenance.

For an hour he walked the floor of his chamber, and then, exhausted in body and mind, threw himself on a bed, and tried to find oblivion in sleep. But, though he wooed the gentle goddess, she came not with her soothing poppies. Too vivid was the impression of what he had seen, and too painful were the accompanying reflections, to admit of sweet repose. At last, however, exhaustion came, and he fell into that half sleeping and waking state in which the imagination remains active, so painful to endure. In this state, one picture presented by imagination was most vivid of all; it was the picture of poor Dyer, shrinking from the fiend with the serpent, which serpent was now as plainly visible to him as it had been to the unhappy drunkard. Presently the fiend began to turn his eyes upon him with a malignant expression; then it glanced from him to the drunkard, and pointing at the latter, Mr. Grim heard the voice distinctly

"It is your work!"

The distiller closed his eyes to hide from view the grinning phantom. But it did not shut out the vision. The fiend was before him still; and now it swung around its head a horrid serpent with open jaws, and seemed about to dash it upon him. He cowered and groaned in fear. As he still gazed upon the dreadful form, it slowly changed into a female of stern yet beautiful aspect. In one hand she held a naked sword, and in the other a balance. Her knew her, and trembled still more intensely.

"I am JUSTICE," said the figure. "You have been weighed in the balance, and found lacking. The world is sustained by mutual benefits. No man can live wholly for himself. Each must serve the others. What one man produces, another enjoys. You have enjoyed, in abundance, the good things produced by others; but what has been your return? Let me show you the work of your hands. Look!"

Suddenly there was a murmur of voices; the sound came nearer and nearer, and a crowd of men and women came eagerly toward the prostrate distiller all eyes upon him, and all countenances expressive of anger, rebuke, or despair. One poor mother held towards him her ragged, starving child, and cried

"Your cursed trade has murdered his father! Give him back to us!"

Another marred and degraded wretch called, with clenched hand

"Where is my money, my good name, my all?" You have robbed me of everything!"

By his side was a poor drunkard, supporting the pale form of his sick wife, while their starving children stood weeping before them

"Look at us!" said he. "This is your handy-work!"

And there were dozens of others in the squalid crowd who called to him with bitter execrations, or pointed to their ruined homes and cried

"It is your work! Your work! Your rum has cursed us!"

"Yes, this is your work," said Justice, sternly. "For the good things of life you received on all hands from your fellow-men you gave them back a stream of fire to consume them. Wealth is the representative of use to society. It comes, or should come, as a reward for serving the common good. So earned, it is a blessing; and he who thus gains it has a right to its possession. But, in your eager pursuit of gain you have cursed every man who brought you a blessing; and now your ill-gotten wealth must be given up. See!"

And, as she spoke, she pointed to an immense bag of gold.

"It is all there!" continued Justice. "Your houses and lands, your stocks and your merchandise, have been converted into gold; and I now distribute it once more among the people, to be gathered by those more worthy to possess it than you!"

Then a troop of fiends came rushing down through the air, and, seizing the bag, were bearing it off in triumph, when the agonized sleeper sprang towards his gold, and in the effort threw off the terrible nightmare which was almost crushing out his life.

There was no sleep for him during the hours that intervened until the daylight broke. The images he had seen, and the words he had heard, were before him all the time crushing his heart like the pressure of heavy footsteps. As soon as the day had dawned he started forth and sought the dwelling he had so hastily left on the night before. All was silent as he ascended the stairway. The door of the room where he had been, stood partly open. He listened a moment all was silent. He moved the door, but nothing stirred within. Then he entered. His purse lay upon the floor where he had thrown it; that was the first object which met his sight. The next was the ghastly face of death! The wretched drunkard had passed to his final accounting; and his body lay upon the bed. Close beside was the form of her who had been to Mr. Grim, in early years, as a tender sister. She was in a profound sleep; and on the floor lay the child, also wrapped in deep forgetfulness of the misery with which she was surrounded.

"And this is the work which I have been doing!" sighed the distiller; whose mind could not lose the vivid impression made by his dream.

A little while he contemplated the scene around him, and then taking up his purse, he silently withdrew. But before returning home he made known to a benevolent person the fact of the unhappy death which had occurred, and, placing money in his hand, asked him to do all that humanity required, and to do it at his expense.

Few men went about their daily business with a heavier heart than Mr. Andrew Grim. He felt that he was the possessor of ill-gotten gain; and felt, besides, a sense of responsibility.

"Wealth is the representative of use to society. It comes, or should come, as a reward for serving the common good," he repeated to himself, in the words he had heard in his dream. "And how have I served the common good? What good have I performed, which corresponds to the blessings I have received and enjoy? Ah, me! I wish it were otherwise."

With such thoughts, how could the man be happy! When night came around again, he feared to trust himself in the arms of sleep; and when exhausted nature yielded, painful dreams haunted him until morning. Weeks elapsed before the vivid impression he had received wore off, and before he enjoyed anything like a quiet slumber. But, though he had a better sleep, his waking thoughts ceased to be peaceful and self-satisfying. A year went by, and then, fretted beyond endurance at his position as a manufacturer of death and destruction, both natural and spiritual, for his fellow men, he broke up his distillery, and invested his money in a business that could be followed with benefit to all.

"Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise." Proverbs 20:1

"Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaints? Who has needless bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes? Those who linger over wine, who go to sample bowls of mixed wine. Do not gaze at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly! In the end it bites like a snake and poisons like a viper!" Proverbs 23:29-32