The Fiery Trial
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1851
"Pay the amount of your bill, sir!"
The man thus unceremoniously addressed, lifted his eyes from the ledger, over which he had been bending for the last six hours, with scarcely the relaxation of a moment, and exhibited a pale, care-worn countenance — and, though still young, a head over which were thickly scattered the silver tokens of age. A sad smile played over his intelligent features, a smile meant to shake the sternness of the man who was troubling his peace, as he replied in a low, calm voice —
"Today, it will be impossible, sir."
"And how many times have you given me the same answer. I cannot waste my time by calling day after day, for so paltry a sum."
A flush passed over the fine countenance of the man thus rudely addressed. But he replied in the same low tone, which now slightly trembled:
"I would not ask you to call, sir, if I had the money. But what I have not — I cannot give."
"And please, when will you have the money?" The man paused for some time, evidently calculating the future, and after a long-drawn sigh, as if disappointed with the result, said:
"It will be two or three months, before I can pay it and even then, it will depend on a contingency."
"Two or three months? — a contingency? It must come quicker and surer than that, sir."
"That is the best I can say."
"But not the best I can do, I hope. Good-day."
After the collector had gone, the man bent his head down, until his face rested even upon the ponderous volume over which he had been poring for hours. He thought, and thought, but thought brought no relief. The most he could earn was ten dollars a week, and for his children, two sweet babes, and for the comfort of a sick wife — he had to expend the full sum of his wages. The debt for which he was now troubled, was a rent-bill of forty dollars, held against him by a man whose annual income was twenty thousand dollars.
Finally, he concluded to go and see his creditor, Mr. Montgomery, and try to prevail upon him to stop any proceedings that the collector might institute against him. In the evening, he sought the dwelling of his rich creditor, and after being ushered into his splendid parlor, waited with a troubled heart for his appearance. Mr. Montgomery entered.
"How do you do, sir?"
"How do you do?" replied the debtor, in a low, troubled voice. The manner of Mr. Montgomery changed, the moment he heard the peculiar tone of his voice, although he did not know him. There was an appealing language in its cadence that whispered a warning to his ear, and he closed his heart on the instant.
"Well, sir," were his next words, "what do you want?"
"You hold a bill against me for rent."
"Well, sir, go to my agent."
"I have seen Mr. Caldwell."
"That will do, sir. He knows all about my business, and will arrange to my entire satisfaction."
"But, sir, I cannot pay it now, and he threatens harsh measures."
"I have entire confidence in his judgment, sir, and am willing to leave all such matters to his discretion."
"I am in trouble, sir, and in poverty beside, for the demands on me are greater than I can meet."
"Your own fault, I suppose," retorted the landlord, with a sneer.
"That, any one might know, who took half a glance at you."
This remark caused the blood to mount suddenly to the face of the man.
"Let me be judged by what I am, not by what I have been," was the meek reply, after the troubled pause of a few moments. Then in a more decided tone of voice, he said:
"Will you not help me?"
"Will I? No! I never interfere with my agent. He gives me entire satisfaction, and while he does so, I shall not interfere." And Mr. Montgomery smiled with self-satisfaction at the idea of his careful and thrifty agent, and his own worldly policy.
The petitioner slowly left the house — murmuring to himself: "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." It was more than an hour before he could compose his mind sufficiently to be able to meet his wife with a countenance that was not too deeply shadowed with care.
She was ill, and besides, under the pressure of many causes, was suffering from a nervous lowness of spirits. Against this depression, her husband saw that she was striving with all the mental energy she possessed, but striving almost in vain. To know that she even had cause for the exercise of such an internal power, was, to him, painful in the extreme; and he was bitter in his self-reproaches for being the cause of suffering to one he loved with a pure and fervent love.
Turning, at last, resolutely towards his dwelling, and striving with a strong effort to keep down the troubles that were sweeping in rough waves over his spirit; it was not long before he set his foot upon his own doorstone.
To give force to this scene, and to throw around what follows its true interest, it will be necessary to go back and sketch some things in the history of the individual here introduced.
His name was Theodore Wilmer. In earlier years, he was clerk in the large mercantile house of Rensselaer, Wykoff & Co., in New York. Being a young man of intelligence, good address, and good principles — he was much esteemed, and valued by his employers, who took some pains to introduce him into society. In this way he was brought into contact with some of the first families in New York, and, in this way, he became acquainted with Constance Jackson, the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Constance was truly a lovely girl, and one for whom Theodore soon began to entertain feelings akin to love.
Mr. Jackson, (the father of Constance,) was the son of a man who had begun life in New York, at the very bottom of fortune's wheel. He was a native of Ireland, and came to this country very poor. For some years, with his pack on his back, he gained a subsistence by vending dry-goods, and unimportant trifles, through the counties and small towns in the vicinity of New York. Gradually he laid up dollar after dollar, until he was able to open a very small shop in Maiden Lane, a kind of thread-and-needle store. Careful in his purchases, and constant in his attendance on business, he soon began to find his tens counting hundreds; and but few years rolled away, before his hundreds began to grow into thousands. After a while he took a larger store, and suddenly became known and respected as "a merchant." At the end of twenty years from the time he carried his pack out of New York, he could write himself worth fifty thousand dollars. Success continued to crown his efforts in business, and when his children came on the stage of active life, they were raised to consider themselves as far superior to mere mechanics, or those who had to labor for their daily bread.
The father of Constance was the eldest son of old Mr. Jackson, and inherited from him a large share of haughty pride. His wife was out of a family with notions equally aristocratic. Constance was their only child, and they had bestowed great care in endeavoring to make her the most accomplished young lady in New York. They loved her tenderly, but pride divided with affection their interest in her. She had already declined the hands of two young men of the first families in the city, much to the displeasure of both her parents, when she met Theodore Wilmer, who resided in the family of Mr. Wykoff, a partner in the house that employed the young man in the capacity of clerk.
In this family, Constance visited regularly, and the intimacy which sprung up between the young couple, had a chance of maturing into a more permanent affection, before Mr. or Mrs. Jackson had the slightest suspicion of such an event. Indeed, the first knowledge they had of the real state of affairs was obtained through Wilmer himself, in the form of an application for the hand of their daughter. It was made to Mr. Jackson, on whom it fell with the unexpected suddenness of a flash from a clear sky in June.
"And please, sir, who are you?" was his hasty and excited answer.
"Theodore Wilmer, clerk in the house of Rensselaer, Wykoff & Co."
"Are you really in earnest, young man?" said Mr. Jackson, in a calmer voice, though his lips trembled with suppressed anger.
"Never more so in my life, sir."
"And does my daughter know of this application?"
"And is it made by her consent?"
The calm, and "of course" manner of the young man, was more than the patience of Jackson could withstand. Hardly able to contain the indignation which swelled within him, at the presumption of an unknown clerk, thus to ask the hand of his daughter, he paused but a moment, and then seizing Wilmer by the shoulder, and looking him steadily in the face, while he almost foamed with anger, replied thus to his last admission —
"If that headstrong girl has dared to place her thoughts on you, obscure underling — and dared, as you say, to consent to accept you, I will cut her off this hour from fortune and affection! I will cast her loose upon the world as unworthy. Go — go — and never presume to come again into my presence!"
Opposition, denial, he had expected — but nothing like this! He had hoped that when the parents saw a fixed resolution on the part of Constance to accept him, that gradually opposition would be worn away. Such a termination he now saw to be hopeless. The father did not seek an immediate interview with his child. Before meeting her, he had found time to reflect upon the real position of affairs. He was well enough taught in the theory, at least, of a woman's affections. He had heard of instances where opposition in a love affair, had only added fuel to the flame; and one or two such cases had fallen under the inspection of his own eye. He, therefore, decided to make no present show of opposition, and on no consideration to allow her to know of the interview which had occurred between her lover and himself. Mrs. Jackson, entering into her husband's view and feelings, took upon herself the task of watching and silently controlling all the movements of her daughter. Particular care was taken to prevent her visiting the family of Mr Wykoff.
"Where are you going, my love?" said her mother, to her the next day after that of the interview, as Constance came out of her room, dressed for a walk.
"I promised to walk with Laura Wykoff, mother, and am going to call for her."
"I was just going to send for you to dress for a walk with me; I want to make a call today on Madame Boyer. And this afternoon I am to spend with Mrs. Claxton and her five daughters, and you must go along, of course. So you will have to postpone your walk with Laura today."
If it had only been the walk with Laura Wykoff, Constance would not have hesitated a moment — but her heart almost ached with suspense to know from Theodore the result of his interview with her father. He had promised to leave a note for her with Laura, who was their mutual confidante. The mother, of course, noticed an air of regret at her disappointment, and ingeniously remarked —
"So you would rather walk with Miss Wykoff, than your own mother?"
The tears started into the eyes of Constance, and entwining her arms around the neck of her mother, she murmured,
"No, no, dear mother! How could you think so?"
Hiding her anxious desire to know the result of that interview upon which hung her fate, she passed with apparent cheerfulness through the weary day; and late at night sought her pillow from which sleep had fled. On the next morning, much to her distress of mind, she learned that a visit of a few weeks to a relation in Albany had been suddenly determined upon, and that in company with her mother she had to set off in the first boat that day. Her suspicions were at once roused as to the real cause for this hasty movement, and she determined to write to Theodore immediately on her arrival at Albany.
The beautiful scenery of the Hudson was unappreciated by one set of eyes, of the many brilliant ones that looked out from the majestic boat, that, in the language of Carlyle, "traveled on fire-wings," through the looming highlands. The watchful mother strove hard to divert the mind of her child, but in vain. Her heart was away from the present reality; and no effort of her own could bring it back. It was night when the boat arrived, and no chance offered for writing before retiring to bed. It seemed, indeed, as if the mother, suspicious that some communication would be made in this way, kept so about Constance all the next day, that she had no chance of dropping Theodore even a line to say where she was, and that she still remembered him with affection. And the next day passed in the same way; not an hour, not a moment could she get for privacy or uninterrupted self-communion.
At last, she determined to write to Laura Wykoff, to which, of course, her mother could make no objection. But she dared not mention the name of Theodore, or allude to her present restrained condition, except remotely, for fear that her mother would ask to see the letter. This letter was given to a servant to convey to the post-office, in the presence of her mother. It never reached its destination. And the mother knew well the reason why. In it, she asked an immediate answer.
Day after day passed, and no answer came. She wrote again, and with the same non-success. Finally, she gained a few minutes to pen a line or two to Theodore, which she concealed, suspecting that there was something wrong about the transmission of the letters, until a chance offered for having it certainly placed in the right channel of conveyance. This note reached Theodore, and removed a mountain from his feelings. He had learned of her hasty journey to Albany, but this was all he could ascertain, and suspecting the cause, his mind was in a state of racking and painful suspense.
Day after day passed, until a month had expired, and still there was no indication of a movement to return home. Once or twice a week, her father would come up from New York, and to the persuasions of the relatives at whose house they were visiting, half-consented that Constance and her mother should stay all summer. Finally, it was decided, that Albany should be their place of residence for some months.
Things assuming this decided appearance, Constance now set herself resolutely to work to circumvent her mother's careful surveillance. It was the first time in her life that she had seriously determined to act towards the parent she had so long and so tenderly loved, with duplicity. All at once she became more cheerful, and seemed to enter with a joyful spirit into every plan proposed for spending the time pleasantly. With a sprightly cousin, a young girl of her own age, she cultivated a close intimacy, and finding her somewhat romantic and independent, finally confided to her the secret which was wearing into her heart from concealment. Readily did Ellen Raymond enter into the scheme she at last proposed, which was to write to Theodore, and give the letter into her charge.
It was promptly conveyed to the post-office. Theodore was directed to write to Ellen, and in the envelope to enclose a letter for Constance. On the third day, the young ladies took a walk, and on their way called at the post-office. A letter was handed out to Ellen, and on breaking the seal, another appeared addressed to Constance. She did not dare to open it in the street, but retired to a confectioner's, and while Ellen was tasting an ice-cream, Constance was devouring, with eager eyes, the first love-token she had ever received from Theodore Wilmer.
This was the beginning of a correspondence which was regularly kept up through the summer, of all of which both father and mother remained profoundly ignorant. They were delighted to see their daughter so soon recover from the first deep depression of spirits which was occasioned by their sudden removal from New York, but little suspected the cause. Less and less carefully did the mother watch her daughter, and more frequently were the two young friends alone in their chambers, even for hours together. Such times were not spent idly by Constance. Thus the very means — separation — resorted to by Mr. Jackson and his wife, to wean the mind of their daughter from the "low-born" Wilmer, only proved, from not having been thoroughly carried out — that which bound them together in heart forever.
Give two lovers, pen, ink, and paper — and their love will defy time and distance. The thousand expressed fond regards, and weariness of absence, endear each to each; and imagination, from affection, invests each with new and undiscovered perfections. Three months had passed away since the hasty journey from New York, and supposing Constance to be thoroughly weaned from her foolish preference for a poor clerk, for she was now cheerful, and expressed no wish to return — the parents proposed to go back to the city. Preparation was accordingly made, and in a few days Constance found herself, with a yearning desire to get home again, gliding swiftly along the smooth surface of the Hudson.
She had not failed to inform Theodore of her return, and as the boat swept up to the wharf, her quick eye caught his eager face bending over towards her. A glance of glad, and yet painful recognition passed between them, and in the next moment he had disappeared in the living mass of human beings. For some time she was closely watched; but she carefully lulled suspicion, and at last succeeded in managing to get short and stolen interviews with Wilmer. Their first meeting was at a young friend's, to whom she had confided her secret; this was not Laura Wykoff, for her mother had managed to fall out with her family, so as to have a good plea for denying to Constance the privilege of visiting her. Regularly did the lovers meet, about once every week, at this friend's; and, encouraged by her, they finally took the hazardous and decisive step of getting married clandestinely.
Three days after this event, Wilmer entered the store of the merchants in whose service he had been for years, for the purpose of resuming his regular duties which had been briefly interrupted. He was met by the senior partner, with a manner that chilled him to the heart.
"Is Mr. Wykoff in?" he asked.
"No," was the cold reply.
"He has not left town?"
"Yes. He went to New Orleans yesterday, and will not return for two or three months."
"Did he leave a letter for me?"
Then came an embarrassing silence of some moments, which was broken by Wilmer's saying —
"I suppose that I can resume my duties, as usual?"
"We have already supplied your place," was the answer to this.
Quick as thought, the young man turned away, and left the store, his mind all in confusion. In marrying Constance in opposition to her parents' wishes — he did so with a feeling of pride in the internal power, and external facilities, which he possessed for rising rapidly in the world, and showing before long to old Mr. Jackson, that he could stand upon an equal social eminence with himself. How suddenly was this feeling of proud confidence dashed to the earth! The external facilities upon which he had based his anticipations were to be found in the friendship and ample means of the house of Rensselaer, Wykoff & Co. That friendship had been suddenly withdrawn, evidently in strong disapprobation of what he had done.
As he turned away, and walked slowly along, he knew not and scarcely cared where — a feeling of deep despondency took possession of his mind. From a proud consciousness of ability to rise rapidly in the world, and show to the friends of Constance that she had not chosen one really beneath her — he sunk into that gloomy and depressing state of mind in which we experience a painful inability to do anything, while deeply sensible that unusual efforts are required at our hands. The thought of not being able to lift his wife above the obscure condition in which he must now inevitably remain, at least for a long time — seemed as if it would drive him mad. Passing slowly along, wrapped thus in gloomy meditations, he was suddenly aroused by a hand upon his arm, and a cheerful voice, saying —
"Give me your hand, Theodore! Here's a hearty shake, and a hearty congratulation at the same time! Run off with that purse — proud old curmudgeon's daughter Ha! ha! I like you for that! You're a man of mettle. But, halloo! What's the matter? You look as grave as a barn-door, on the shady side. Not repenting, already, I hope?"
"Yes, Henry, I am repenting of that rash act from the very bottom of my heart."
"O, no! Don't talk in that way, Theodore. Constance is one of the sweetest girls in the city, and will make you a lovely wife. There are hundreds who envy you."
"They need not; for this is the most wretched hour of my life."
"Why, what in the world is the matter, Wilmer?" his friend replied to this. "You look as if you had buried, instead of married, a wife. But come, you need a glass of something to revive you. Let us step in here. I am a little dry myself."
Without hesitation or reply, Wilmer entered a tavern, with the young man, where they retired to a booth, and ordered brandy and water. After this had been taken in silence, the friend, whose name was Wilbert Arnold, said —
"The state of mind in which I find you, Theodore, surprises and pains me greatly. If it is not trespassing too far upon private matters, I would like very much to know the reason. I ask, because I feel now, and always have felt, much interest in you."
It was some time before Wilmer replied to this. At length, he said —
"The cause of my present state of mind is of such recent occurrence, and I have become so bewildered in consequence of it, that I can scarcely rally my thoughts sufficiently to reply to your kind inquiries. Suffice it to say, that, in consequence, I presume, of my having run off with Mr. Jackson's daughter — I have lost a good situation, and the best of friends. I am, therefore, thrown upon the world at this very crisis, like a sailor cast upon the ocean, with but a plank to sustain himself, and keep his head above the waves. When I married Miss Jackson, it was with the resolution to rise rapidly, and show to the world that she had not chosen thoughtlessly. Of course, I expected the aid of Rensselaer, Wykoff & Co. Their uniform kindness towards me seemed a sure guarantee for this aid. But the result has been, not only their estrangement from me, but my dismissal from their service. And now, what to do, or where to turn myself, I do not know. Really I feel desperate!"
"That is bad, truly," Arnold rejoined, musingly, after Wilmer had ceased speaking. Then ringing a little hand-bell that stood upon the table, he ordered the waiter, was obeyed the summons, to bring some more brandy. Nothing further was said until the brandy was served, of which both of the young men partook freely.
"What do you intend doing?" Arnold at length asked, looking his friend in the face.
"I wish you would answer that question for me, for it's more than I can do," was the gloomy response.
"You must endeavor to rise in the world. It will never do to bring Constance down to the comparatively poor condition in which a clerk with a small salary is compelled to live."
"That I know, too well. But how am I to prevent it? That is what drives me almost beside myself."
"You must hit upon some expedient for making money fast."
"I know of no honest expedients."
"I think that I do."
"Do you know Hardville?"
"He came as near to failure as could possibly be, last week."
"And how did he get through?"
"It is the answer to that question, which I wish you to consider. He was saved from ruin in the last extremity, and by what some would call a desperate expedient. Your case is a desperate one, and, if you would save yourself, you must resort to desperate expedients, likewise."
"Name the expedient."
"Hardville had one thousand dollars to pay, more than he could possibly raise. He tried everywhere, but to no purpose. He could neither borrow nor collect that sum. In a moment of desperation, he put one hundred dollars into his pocket, and went to a regular establishment near here, and staked that sum at gambling. In two hours he came away with twelve hundred dollars in his pocket, instead of one hundred! And thus he was saved from ruin."
When Arnold ceased speaking, Wilmer looked him in the face with a steady, stern, half-angry look, but made no reply.
"Try another glass of this brandy," the former said, pouring out a pretty liberal supply for each. Mechanically, Wilmer put the glass to his lips, and drained off the contents.
"Well, what do you think of that plan?" asked the friend, after each had sat musing for some time.
"I am not a gambler!" was the reply.
"Of course not. But your case, as I said, and as you admit, is a desperate one; and requires desperate remedies. The fact of your going to a regular establishment, and gaining there, in an honorable way, something, as a capital to begin with, does not make you a gambler. After you have got a start, you needn't go there any more. And all you need is a start. Give you that, and, my word for it, you will make your way in the world with the best of them."
"O, yes! Give me a start, as you say, and I'll go ahead as fast as anybody. Give me that start, and I'll show old Mr. Jackson in a few years that I can count dollars with him all day."
"Exactly. And that start you must have. Now, how are you going to get it, unless in the way that I suggest?"
"I am not so sure that I can get it in that way."
"I am, then. Only make the trial. You owe it to your wife to do so. For her sake, then, let me urge you to act promptly and efficiently."
Thus tempted, while his mind was greatly obscured by the strong potations he had taken, Theodore Wilmer began to waver. It did not seem half so wrong, nor half so disgraceful, to gamble for money, as it did at first. Finally, he agreed to meet his friend that evening, and get introduced to someone of the many gambling establishments that infest all large cities.
A reaction in his feelings now took place. The elation of mind caused by the brandy, made him confident of success. He saw before him a rapid elevation to wealth and standing in society, and, consequently, a rapid restoration of Constance to the circle in which she had moved.
Before marriage, he had rented a handsome house, and had it furnished in very good style, upon means which he had prudently saved from a liberal salary. Into this, he at once introduced his young wife, who had already begun to feel her heart yearning for her mother's voice, and her mother's smile. One young friend had been with her all the morning, but had left towards the middle of the day. Alone, for the first time, since her hurried marriage, her feelings became somewhat saddened in their hue. But as the hour approached for her husband to come home, those feelings gate place, in a degree, to an ardent desire for his return, the result of deep and fervent love for him. She had sat for some moments, expecting to hear him at the door, when the bell rang, and she started to her feet, and stood on the floor, ready to spring forward the moment he should enter the room. No one, however, came in, and her heart sank in her bosom with the disappointment. In a moment after, the servant handed her a note, the seal of which she broke hastily. It was from her husband, and ran thus:
"Dear Constance: An accumulation of business in my absence so presses upon me now, that I cannot possibly come so great a distance to dinner, at least for this day. It may likewise keep me away until eight or nine o'clock this evening. But keep a good heart, dear; our meeting will be pleasanter for the long absence — Adieu, Theodore."
The note dropped from her hand, and she sank into a chair, overcome with a feeling of strong disappointment. To wait until eight or nine o'clock in the evening, before she would see him, when the morning had appeared lengthened to a day! O, it seemed as if she could not endure the wearisome interval!
As for Wilmer, the truth was, he found himself so much under the influence of the liberal quantity of brandy which he had taken, that he dared not go home to Constance. He would not have appeared before her as he was, for the world. It was under the consciousness of his condition, that he wrote the note, which his young wife had received. After doing so, he went to bed at a tavern, and slept until towards evening. When he awoke, Arnold was sitting in the chamber. Some feelings of bitter regret for the pains which his absence must have caused his young wife, passed through his mind, as he aroused himself. These were soon drowned by a few glasses of wine, which his friend had already ordered to be sent up.
That friend, let it here be remarked, was not a professed gambler — nor had he any sinister designs in urging on Wilmer as he was doing. But he was a man of loose morals, and, therefore, really believed that he was doing him a service in urging him to make an effort to get upon his feet by means of the gambling-table. Knowing the young man's high-toned feelings — and how utterly he must, from his character, condemn anything like gambling, he had purposely sought to obscure his perceptions by inducing him to drink freely. In this, he had succeeded.
As soon as night had thrown her dark shadows over the city, the two young men took their steps towards one of those haunts, known, too appropriately, by the name of "Hells." At eight o'clock, Theodore went in, with two hundred dollars in his pocket — all the money he possessed — and at ten o'clock, came out penniless!
Lonely and long was the afternoon to the young bride, giving opportunity to many thoughts of a sober, and even saddening nature. Evening came at last, and then night with its deeper gloom. Eight o'clock arrived, and nine, but her husband did not return. And then the minutes slowly passed, until the clock struck ten.
"O, where can he be!" Constance ejaculated, rising to her feet, and beginning to pace the room to and fro, pausing every moment to listen to the sound of passing footsteps. Thus she continued for the space of something like half an hour, when she sank exhausted upon a chair. It was twelve o'clock when he at length came in. As he opened the door, his young wife sprang to his side, exclaiming —
"O, Theodore! Theodore! Why have you stayed away so very long?"
As she said this, he staggered against her, almost knocking her over, and then passed on to the parlors without a word in return to her earnest and affectionate greeting.
Poor Constance was stunned for the moment. But she quickly recovered, her woman's heart nerving itself involuntarily, and followed after her husband. He had thrown himself upon a sofa, and sat, half-reclining, with his head upon his bosom.
"Are you sick, dear Theodore?" his young wife asked, in a tone of deep and earnest affection, laying her hand upon him, and bending down and kissing his forehead.
"Yes, I am sick, Constance," was the half-stupid reply —
"Come, then, let me assist you up to bed. A good night's rest will do you good," she said, gently urging him to rise.
She understood his condition perfectly. She knew that it was intoxication. But while it pained her young heart deeply, it awoke in her bosom no feelings of alarm. She felt convinced that it was the result of accident, and had no expectation of ever again seeing its recurrence. She asked him if he were sick, to spare him the mortification of knowing that she perceived the true nature of his indisposition.
Thus urged, he at once arose, and supported by the weak arm of his young wife, slowly ascended the stairs, and entered his chamber. It was not many minutes before his senses were locked in profound slumber.
Not so, however, Constance. The earnestness with which she had looked for evening to come, that she might again see the face, and hear the voice of her husband, had greatly excited her mind. This excitement was increased by the sad condition in which he had so unexpectedly returned. The effect was, to keep her awake, in spite of strong efforts to sink away into sleep. Many sad and desponding thoughts forced themselves upon her, as she lay, hour after hour, in a state of half-waking consciousness. It was nearly day-dawn, when, from all this, she found relief in a deep slumber.
The next day was one of heart-aching reflections to Theodore Wilmer. In his eager, but half-insane effort to elevate himself rapidly for the sake of his young wife, he had sunk into actual poverty, and not only forfeited his own self-respect, but degraded himself, he felt, in the eyes of her whose love was dearer to him than life.
The events of two years must now be passed over, with but a brief notice. There will be enough in the after history of Wilmer and his young wife, to awaken the reader's keenest sympathies, without unveiling the particular incidents of this period.
Suffice it, then, to say — that the first night's experience at the gambling-table was not enough to satisfy Wilmer — that it was neither the right way, nor the most successful way of elevating himself in the world. So anxious did he feel on account of Constance, that be borrowed money of his false friend Arnold, on the evening of the very next day, and after drinking, freely, to nerve himself up, sought again the gambling-table. At ten o'clock, he left, the winner by fifty dollars. He left thus early on account of his wife, who would be, he knew, anxiously looking for his return. This encouraged him to go on, and he did go on.
But he could never feel optimistic of success, or be able to still the troubled whispers within, until he had drunken freely. Of course, he was every day more or less under the influence of liquor. For a year, he managed, in this way, to keep up the style of living in which he had commenced, but he could get nothing ahead. None could imagine how this was done, for the young man was exceedingly cautious. He looked to some good turn of fortune by which he should be enabled to abandon forever a course of life that he hated and despised. No such lucky turn, however, met his anxious expectations.
After the first year of this course of life, his health, which had never been very good, began rapidly to fail. His cheeks became hollow, and a racking cough began to show itself. Still he went on keeping late hours, and drinking more and more freely, while his mind was all the time upon the rack.
Towards the close of the second year, he was taken with a severe illness, the result of all this abuse of mind and body. He lingered long upon the brink of the grave; but the little energy which his system retained, rallied at last, and he began slowly to recover. During convalescence, he had full time for reflection. For full two years, he had been almost constantly so much under the influence of brandy, as really to be unable to think rationally upon any subject, and he had, in consequence, pursued a course of life, injurious, both to his own moral and physical health, and to the happiness of her for whom he would, at any moment of that time, have sacrificed everything, even life itself. In rising from that bed of sickness, it was with a solemn vow never again to enter a gaming-house, and never again to touch the bewildering poison which had been the secondary, if not, indeed, the primary cause of two years' folly — nay, madness.
And Constance, what of her, all that time? the reader asks. It would be a difficult task to give even a feeble idea of all she patiently endured, and of all she suffered. Not once in that long period did she either see, or hear from her parents. Three or four times had she written to them, but no answer was returned. At last she ventured under the yearning anxiety that she felt once more to see her mother, and to hear the voice that lingered in her memory like old familiar music to go to her, and ask her forgiveness and her love. But she was coldly and cruelly repulsed — not even being permitted to gain her mother's presence.
In regard to her husband, her love was like a deep, pure stream. Its course was never troubled by anger, or obstructed in its onward course. Though he would come home often in a state of stupor from drink — though it was rarely earlier than midnight when he returned to make glad with his presence her watching and waiting heart — she never felt a reproaching thought. And to her, his words and tones, and manner, were ever full of tenderness. Deeply did he love her — and for her sake more than for his own, was he struggling thus against a powerful current daily exhausting his strength, without moving onward.
Thus much, briefly, of those two years of toil, and struggle, and pain.
On recovering, with a shattered constitution, from the serious attack of illness that had resulted from the abuse of himself during that period, Wilmer felt compelled to give up his fondly-cherished ideas of rising with Constance to the position from which he had dragged her down, and to be content with a humbler lot. He, therefore, sought, and obtained a situation as a clerk at a salary of eight hundred dollars per annum. Already he had been compelled to move into a smaller house than the one at first taken, and in this he was now able to remain.
But seeing, with a clearer vision than before, Wilmer perceived that much of the bloom had faded from his wife's young cheek, and that her heart had not ceased to yearn for the home and loved ones of her earlier years.
Another year passed away, and during the whole of that time not one word of kindness or censure reached the ears of Constance from her parents. They seemed to have not only cast her off, abut to have forgotten the fact of her existence. To a mind like that of Theodore Wilmer's, any condition in which a beloved one was made to suffer keenly, and as he believed, alone through him, could not be endured without serious inroads upon a shattered constitution; and much to his alarm, by the end of the year he found that he was less able than usual to attend through the whole day to the fatiguing duties of the counting-room. Frequently he would return home at night with a pain in his chest, that often continued accompanied by a troublesome cough through a greater part of the night. The morning, too, often found him feverish and debilitated, and with no appetite.
The engrossing love of a mother for her first-born, relieved, during this year, in a great degree, the aching void of Constance Wilmer's bosom. The face of her sweet babe often reflected a smile of deep, heart-felt happiness, lighting up, before it faded away into the sober cast of thought, a feeble ray upon the face of her husband. The steady lapse of days, and weeks, and months, brought a steady development of the mind and body of their little one. He was the miniature image of his father, with eyes, in which Wilmer could see all the deep love which lay in the dark depths of those that had won his first affections. Happy would they have been but (who would not be happy were it not for that little word, but?) for one yearning desire in the heart of Constance for the lost love of her mother — but for the trembling fear of poverty which stared Theodore daily in the face. His salary as clerk was small, and to live in New York cost them no trifle. At last, owing to the failure of the business by which he was employed, the dreaded event came. He was out of a job, and found it impossible to obtain one. The failure had been a very bad one, and there was a strong suspicion of unfair dealing. The prejudice against the business, extended even to the clerks, and several of them, finding it very difficult to get other places that suited them, left New York for other cities. One of them, a friend to Wilmer, came to Baltimore, and got into a large house; a vacancy soon occurring, he recommended it to. He came at once, for neither to him nor his wife was there anything attractive in New York. His salary was to be five hundred dollars.
In removing to Baltimore, he took with him the greater part of the furniture that he had at first purchased, some of which was of a superior quality. There he rented a small house, and endeavored by the closest economy to make his meager salary sufficient to meet every need. But this seemed impossible.
Gradually, every year he found himself getting behind-hand, from fifty to sixty dollars. The birth of a second child added to his expenses; and, the failing health of his wife, increased then still more. Finally, he got in arrears with the agent of Mr. Montgomery, his landlord. At this time, an apparently rapid decline had become developed in the health of his wife, and on the night on which he had appealed to this person's feelings of humanity, as mentioned in the opening of the story, he found her, on his return, extremely ill. A high fever had set in, and she was suffering much from difficult respiration. The physician must, of course, be called in, even though but the day before he had put off his collector for the tenth time. Sad, from many causes, he turned again from the door of his dwelling, and sought the physician.
He rang the bell, and waited with a throbbing heart, for the appearance of the man he earnestly desired, and yet dreaded to see. When he heard his step upon the stairs, his cheek began to burn, and he even trembled as a criminal might be supposed to tremble in the presence of his judge. For a moment he thought only of his unpaid bill, in the next moment of his suffering wife. The physician entered. Theodore hesitated, and spoke in a low, timid voice, as he requested a call that night upon his wife.
"Is Mrs. Wilmer very ill?" inquired the physician, in a kind voice.
"I fear seriously so, sir."
"How long has she been sick?"
"It has been several weeks since she complained of a pain in her side; and all that time she has been troubled with a hard cough. For the last few days she has hardly been able to move about, and tonight she is in a high fever, and finds great difficulty in breathing."
"Then she must be attended to, at once. Why did you not call before, Mr. Wilmer? Such delays, you know, are very dangerous."
"I do — I do — but — " Wilmer hesitated, and looked troubled and confused.
"But what, Mr. Wilmer?" urged the physician in the kindest manner.
"I — I — I have not been able to pay your last bill, much as I have desired it. My salary is small, and I find it very difficult to get along."
"Still, my dear sir, health and life are of great value. And besides, if you had called in a physician at the earliest stage of Mrs. Wilmer's illness, you might have saved much expense, as well as spared her much suffering. But cheer up, sir; bright sunshine always follows the cloud and the storm. I shall be glad to have my bill paid when it is convenient, and not before. Don't let it cause you an uneasy moment."
The kind manner of the physician soothed his feelings, and the prompt visit, and prompt relief given softened the stern anguish of his troubled spirit. The bruised reed is never broken. When the stricken heart is tried, it is never beyond the point of endurance.
In no instance had Wilmer drawn from his employers more than his regular salary, no matter how pressing were his necessities. Beyond the contract he had entertained no desire to go, but strove, in everything, to keep down his expenses to his slender income. Now, however, in view of the threat made by the collector of rents, after having thought and thought about it until bewildered with a distressing sense of his almost hopeless condition, he came to the resolution to ask an advance of fifty dollars, to be kept back from his regular wages, at the rate of five dollars a month. For some hours he pondered this plan in his mind, and obtained much relief from the imaginary execution of it. But when the moment came to ask the favor, his heart sank within him, and his lips were sealed.
In alternate struggles like this, the morning of the first day passed, after his interview with Mr. Montgomery, and still he had not been able to offer his humble request. When he went home to dine, in consequence of the continued perturbation of his mind for hours, he was pale and nervous, with no inclination for food. To add to his distress of mind, his oldest child, now a fine boy of four summers, had been taken extremely ill since morning, and the anxiety consequent upon it, had painfully excited the feeble system of his wife. Another visit from the physician became necessary, and was promptly made.
Frequently, in consequence of pressing calls at home, he had been almost forced to remain longer away from his place of business at dinner-time, than was customary for the clerks. On this day, two hours had glided by when his hasty foot entered the store, on his return from dinner. His fears of seizing his personal property to pay his rent, were greatly heightened in consequence of the increased illness of his family, and as the only way to prevent it that had occurred to his mind, was to obtain from his employers a loan of fifty dollars as just mentioned, he had fully made up his mind to waive all feeling and at once name his request. Two hours we have said had expired since he went home to dine. On his entering the counting-room, the senior partner of the house drew out his watch, and remarked, rather angrily, that he could not permit such neglect of duty in a clerk, and that unless he kept better hours, he must look for another job!
It was some time before the confusion of his mind, consequent upon this censure and threat, subsided sufficiently to allow him to feel keenly the utter prostration of the last expectation for help, that had arisen like an angel of hope, in what seemed the darkest hour of his fate. And bitter indeed, were then his thoughts. Those who have never felt it, cannot imagine the awful distress which the mind feels, while contemplating the needs of those who are dearer than all the world, without possessing the means of relieving them.
Slowly and painfully passed the hours until nightfall, and then Wilmer again sought with hasty steps, the nest that sheltered his beloved ones. Alas! the spoiler had been there! True to his threat, the agent of Mr. Montgomery had taken quick means to get his own. All of his furniture had been seized, and not only seized, but nearly everything, except a bed and a few chairs, removed in his absence!
"O, Constance, what is the meaning of this?" was his agonized question, to his weeping wife, who met him ill as she was at the door, and hid her face in his bosom, like a dove seeking protection.
"Theodore, everything has been seized to pay for rent! But you do not owe any rent, do you? I am sure you never mentioned it."
"It is too true — too true," was his only answer. Carefully had Wilmer concealed all his troubles from his wife. He could not think of adding one pang more to the heart that had already suffered so much on his account. Wisely he did not act in this, but few can blame the weakness which shrank from giving pain to a beloved object. There are few who have not, sometime in life, found themselves in situations of trial and distress, in which nothing was left them but submission. In that very condition did this lonely family, strangers in a strange place, find themselves on this night of strong trial. They experienced a ray of comfort, and that was the apparent health reaction in the system of their sick child. With this to cheer them, they gathered their two little ones with them in their only bed, and slept soundly through the night.
Mrs. Wilmer found it somewhat difficult to prepare their food on the next morning, as even her kitchen furniture had nearly all shared the fate of the rest, and she found herself very feeble. Something like three hundred dollars worth had been taken for a debt of forty or fifty dollars. The slender breakfast over, with the reprimand of the day before painfully fresh in his mind, Wilmer hastened away to the counting-room. He had only been a few moments at the desk, when the partner who had spoken to him the day before, came up with the morning's paper in his hand, and pointing to an advertisement of a sale of furniture seized for rent due by Theodore Wilmer, asked him if he was the person named. Wilmer looked at him for some moments, vainly attempting to reply, his face exhibiting the most painful emotions — finally, he laid his head upon the desk without a word, and gave way to tears. It was a weakness, but he was not then superior to it.
"How much do you owe for rent?"
"Forty dollars! And is it for this sum alone that your furniture has been taken?"
"That is all I owe for rent."
"Then why did you not let us know your condition? You should have had more consideration for your family."
"Yesterday, sir," Wilmer replied, somewhat bitterly, "I came here from dinner, after having been unavoidably detained with a sick child, resolved to conquer my reluctance, and ask for the loan of fifty dollars, to be deducted from my salary, at the rate of five dollars a month. But your reproof for remissness deterred me. And when I returned home — the furniture had been removed. They have left us but a bed, a few chairs, and a common table. Oh, sir, it seems as if it would kill me!"
"But, my dear sir, when I complained, you owed it to yourself, and you owed it to me, to explain. How could I know your peculiar situation?"
"Have you ever felt, sir, that no one cared for you? As if even Heaven had forgotten you? If not, then you cannot understand my feelings. It may be wrong, but always meaning to act justly towards every one, I feel so humbled by accusation, that I have no heart to explain. It seems to me, that others should know that I would not wrong them."
"It certainly is wrong, Mr. Wilmer. Suppose you had simply mentioned yesterday the illness of your child; I would at once have withdrawn my censure, and probably have made some kind inquiry; you would then have been more free to offer your request, which would have been at once granted. See what it would have saved your family."
"I see it all. Feeling always obscures the judgment."
"To one in your particular situation, a right knowledge of the truth you have just uttered is all-important. No matter what may be your condition, never allow feeling to become so acute as to dim your sober thoughts, and paralyze your right actions. But here are a hundred dollars. Redeem your things, and get on your feet again. Take them as an advance on your salary for the last year; and draw six hundred instead of five, in future."
A grateful look told the joy of his heart, as he hastened away. In one hour the furniture which the day before had been forcibly taken away, was at his own door.
Relief from present embarrassment, and a fair prospect of a full support for the future, gave Wilmer a lighter heart than he had carried in his bosom for many months. The reaction made him happy for a time. But, while our hearts are distressed, we cannot be happy, except for brief periods. The disease will indicate by pain, its deep-rooted presence.
The drooping form of his wife soon called his thoughts back to misery. Health had wandered away, and the smiling truant strayed away so long, that hope of her return had almost forsaken them.
Nearly five years had passed since Constance turned away, almost broken-hearted, from the door of her father's house; and during all that long, long time, she had received no token of remembrance. She dared not allow herself to think even for a moment on the cruel fact. The sudden, involuntary remembrance of such a change from the fondest affection to the most studied disregard, would almost madden her.
As for Wilmer, the recollection of the past was as a thorn in his pillow, too often driving sleep from a wearied frame, which needed its health-restoring influence. And often, deep and bitter were his self-reproaches. But for his fatal and half-insane abandonment of himself to the vain hope of gaining a foothold by which he might rapidly elevate his condition for the sake of Constance, he was now conscious that, slowly, but surely, he would have risen, by the power of an internal energy of character. And more deeply conscious was he, that, but for the half-intoxicated condition in which he was when he consented to go to a gambling-house, he never would have abandoned himself to gambling and drinking as he did for two long years of excited hopes, and dark, gloomy despondency. Two years, which broke down his spirits, and exhausted the energies of his physical system. Two years, from whose sad effects, neither mind nor body was ever again able to recover.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
But now let us turn from the forsaken cast-offs — back to the parents who had estranged themselves from their child.
A foreign arrival had brought letters from Mr. Jackson's agent in Holland, containing information of a great fall in tobacco. Large shipments had been made by several houses, and especially by that of Mr. Jackson, in anticipation of high prices resulting from a scarcity of the article in the German markets. But the shipments had been too large, and a serious decline in price was the consequence. Any interruption of trade, by which the expectation of profits entertained for months is dashed to the ground in a moment — has, usually, the effect to make the merchant unhappy for a brief period. It takes some time for the energies of his mind, long directed in one course, to gather themselves up again, and bend to some new scheme of profit. The "tobacco speculation" of 1851, had been a favorite scheme of Mr. Jackson's, and he had entered into it more largely than any other American house. Its failure necessarily involved him in a heavy loss.
As evening came quietly down, sobering into a browner mood the feelings of Mr. Jackson, the merchant turned his steps slowly towards his home. Naturally, the smiling image of his daughter came up before his mind, and he quickened his pace instinctively. He remembered how nearly he had lost even this darling treasure, and chid himself for being troubled at the loss of a few thousand dollars, when he was so rich in the love of a lovely child. He rang the bell with a firmer hand, and stepped more lightly as he entered the hall, in anticipation of the sweet smile of his heart's darling. He felt a little disappointed at not finding her in the sitting-room, but did not ask for her, in expectation of seeing her enter each moment. So much was he engrossed with her image, that he almost forgot his business troubles. Gradually his mind, from the over-excitement of the day, became a little fretted, as he listened in vain for her light foot-fall at the door. When the bell rang for tea, he startled, and asked —
"Where is Constance?"
"In her room, I suppose," replied Mrs. Jackson, indifferently. They seated themselves at the tea-table, and waited for a few moments; but Constance did not come.
"John, run up and call Constance; perhaps she did not hear the bell."
John, the servant, returned in a moment with the intelligence that his young mistress was not there.
"Then, where is she?" asked both the parents at once.
"I don't know," replied John, mechanically.
"Where is Constance?"
"I don't know, ma'am."
"Did she go out this afternoon?"
"Yes, ma'am. She went out about two hours ago, ma'am."
"That's strange," said her mother. "She always tells me where she is going."
Both parents left the tea-table, each with a heavy presentiment of coming trouble about the heart. They went, as by one consent, to Constance's chamber. The mother proceeded to look into her drawers, and found to her grief and astonishment, that they were nearly all empty!
For some time, neither spoke a word. The truth had flashed upon the mind of each at the same moment.
"It may not yet be too late," were the first words spoken, and by the mother.
"It is too late," was the brief, but meaning response.
From that time, her name was not mentioned, and even her portrait was taken down and thrown into the sitting-room. Her few letters, after her hasty and imprudent marriage, were burned up without being opened. So much for wounded family pride! But think not that her image was really obliterated from their minds. No — no. It was there an ever constant and living presence. Though neither of the parents spoke of, or alluded to her, yet they could not drive away her spiritual presence.
Year after year glided away, though the name of Constance had never passed their lips, and they knew nothing of her destiny. Yet as year after year passed, her image, now a sad, tearful image, grew more and more distinct before their eyes. In their dreams, they often saw her in suffering and near unto death, and when they would stretch forth their hands to save her, she would be snatched out of their sight. Still they mentioned not her name; and the world thought the cold-hearted, unnatural parents had even forgotten their child.
But what had they now to live for? To such as they, no happiness resulted from doing good to others, for the love of self had extinguished all love of the neighbor. The passion for accumulating money, it is true, still remained with the merchant; but trade had become so broken up and diverted from its old channels, that he realized small profits, and frequent losses. Finally, he retired from business, and from the city.
After the marriage of Constance, Mrs. Jackson found herself of far less consideration in company. Few in high life are altogether heartless, and all are ready to censure any exhibition of family pride, which is carried so far as to alienate the parent from the child. This feeling the mother of Constance found to prevail wherever she went, and she never attributed the coolness of fashionable acquaintances, nor the gradual falling away of more intimate friends, to any other than the right cause. How could she? In her case the adage was true to the letter — "A guilty conscience needs no accusation."
Nearly ten years had passed away since the parents became worse than childless. They were living at their country residence near Harlem, enduring, but not enjoying life. They had wealth, and every comfort and luxury that wealth could bring. But the slave who toiled in the burning sun, and ate his coarse food at night in a dirty hovel, was happier than they. Even unto this time had they not spoken together of their child, since the day of her departure.
One night in August, a terrible storm swept over New York and its neighborhood. Flash after flash of keen lightning blazed across the sky, and peal after peal of awful thunder rent the air. It came up about midnight, and continued for more than an hour. Mr. and Mrs. Jackson were roused from slumber by this terrible war of the elements. Its noise had troubled their sleep before it awoke them, and their dreams were of their child. During its awful continuance, while they felt themselves more intimately in the hands of the All-Powerful, their many sins passed rapidly before them, but the stain that darkened the whole of the last ten years, the one crime of many years, which made their hearts sick within them with a strange fear — was their conduct towards their child. But neither spoke of it. Upon this subject, for several years, they had been afraid to mention to each other.
The storm passed away, but they could not sleep. Wearied nature sought, but could find no repose. Each tossed and turned and wished for the morning, and when the morning began to dawn they closed their eyes, and almost wished the darkness had continued. A troubled sleep fell upon the husband, and in it he murmured the name of his child. The quick ear of the mother caught the word, and it thrilled through every nerve. Tears stole down her cheeks, and her heart swelled near to bursting with maternal instincts. The vision of his child that passed before him had been no pleasant one, and with the murmur of her name he awoke to consciousness. Lifting himself up, he saw the tearful face of his wife. He could not mistake the cause. Why should she weep, but for her child? He looked at her for a moment, when she pronounced the name of Constance, and hid her tearful face on his bosom.
The fountain was now unsealed, and the feelings of the parents gushed out like the flow of pent-up waters. They talked of Constance, and blamed themselves, and wept for their lost one. But where was she? How could they find her?
The sun had scarcely risen, when Mr. Jackson set out to seek for his child, while his wife remained at home in a state of agonizing suspense. He knew not whether she were alive or dead; in New York or elsewhere. The second day brought Mrs. Jackson a letter, it ran as follows:
"I have searched in vain for our Constance. But how could it be otherwise? Who should know more about her than myself? I have asked some of our old acquaintances if they ever heard of her since her marriage. They shake their heads and look at me as though they thought me demented. Laura Wykoff, you know, married some years ago. I called upon her. She knew little or nothing; but said, she had heard that her husband who had become dissipated had left her and gone off to Baltimore. She thought it highly probable that she had been dead some years. She treated me coldly enough. But I feel nothing for myself. Poor, dear child! Where can your lot be cast? Perhaps, how dreadful the thought! she may have dragged her drooping, dying form past our dwelling, once her peaceful home, and looked her last look upon the door shut to her forever, while the cold winds of winter chilled her heart in its last pulsations. Oh, I fear we have murdered our poor child! Every meager-looking, shrinking female form I pass on the street, makes my heart throb. 'Perhaps that is Constance,' I will say, and hasten to read the countenance of the forlorn one. But I turn away, and sigh; 'where, where can she be?'
"Since writing this, I have seen a young man who knew her husband. He says, that after the failure of a business in which Wilmer was employed, he went to Baltimore and took Constance with him. He says, he knows this to be so, because he was well acquainted with Wilmer, and shook hands with him on the steamboat when he went away. I hinted to him what I had heard about Wilmer's leaving her. He repelled the insinuation with warmth, and said, that he, Wilmer, would have died rather than cause Constance a painful feeling — that she certainly did go with him, for when he parted with Wilmer, Constance was leaning on his arm. He says, she looked pale and troubled; and mentioned that they had with them a sweet little baby. Oh, how my heart yearns after my child!
"I have since learned the name of the firm in Baltimore in whose employment he was, shortly after he went there. Tomorrow morning I shall go to that city. You shall hear from me on my arrival."
Nearly a week passed before Mrs. Jackson received further news from her husband. I will not attempt to describe her feelings during that long time. In suffering or joy, we discover how relative and artificial, are all our ideas of time.
The next letter ran thus:
"Here I am in Baltimore, but it seems no nearer finding our child than when I was in New York. The firm in whose employment Wilmer was shortly after his arrival in Baltimore, has been dissolved some years; and I am told that neither of the partners is now in this city. I have not been able to learn the name of a single clerk who was in their store. I feel disheartened, yet more eager every day to find our lost one. Where can she be?
"A day more has passed since my arrival here, and I have a little hope. I have found one of his former fellow-clerks. He says, that he thinks Wilmer is still in town. I do not want to advertise for him, if I can help it, but shall do so before I leave the city, if other means fail. This young man tells me, that when he knew him, he had three children. He never saw our Constance. He represents Wilmer as having been in bad health, and as generally appearing dejected. He says, all his furniture was once seized and sold by the sheriff for rent, but that it was redeemed next day by his employers, who treated him very kindly on the occasion. I have heard nothing of the poor boy that has not prepossessed me in his favor. I fear he has had a hard time of it. How much happiness have we lost — how much misery have we occasioned! Surely we have lived all our lives in vain! I feel more humbled every day since I left home.
"Since yesterday I have learned that he was in the city less than a year ago — and that Constance was living. How my heart throbs! Shall I see my own dear child again? Theodore, I fear, is in very bad health, if still alive. He had to give up a good situation about a year ago, as book-keeper in a large establishment here, where he was much esteemed — on account of his health giving way so fast under the confinement. I believe he took another situation as salesman in a retail store, on a very small salary. Someone told me that Constance had been under the necessity of taking in sewing, to help to get a living — and all this time we had abundance all around us! I call myself, 'wretch,' — and so I would call any other man who would cast off his child, as I have done — a tender flower to meet the cold winds of autumn.
"I have seen my child — my poor dear Constance! But oh, how changed! While passing along the street today, almost in despair of ever finding her — a slender female, about the same height of Constance, passed me hastily. There was something peculiar, I thought, about her, and I felt as I had never yet felt, while near a stranger. I followed her, scarcely knowing the reason why. She entered a clothing-store, and I went in after her, and asked to look at some article, I scarcely knew what. Her first word startled me as would a shock of electricity. It was my own child. But I could not make myself known to her there. She laid down upon the counter three vests, and then presented a small book. in which to have the work entered. The entry was made, and the book handed back.
"'There are just three dollars due you,' said the man.
"'Three-and-a-half, I believe it is, sir.'
"'No, it's only three.'
"'Then I have calculated wrong. I thought it was three-and-a-half.'
"How mournful and disappointed was her tone!
"After standing for some time looking over her book, she said in a lighter voice, 'well, I believe I am right. See here; I have made twenty-eight vests, and at twelve-and-a-half cents each, that is three dollars and a half.'
"'Well, I believe you are right,' said the man, in a changed tone, after looking over the book again.
"'Can you pay me today? I am much in need of it.'
"'No, I can't. I have a thousand dollars to pay in bank, and I cannot spare anything before two or three days.'
"She paused a moment, and then went slowly towards the door; lingered for a short time, and then turned to the man again. I then saw for the first time, for ten long years, her face. How thin and pale it was! how troubled its expression! — But it was the face of our dear Constance. She did not look towards me; but turned again to the shop-keeper, and said,
"'Be kind enough, sir, to let me have one dollar. I need it very much!'
"'You give me more trouble about your money, than any other workman I have!' said the man roughly, as he handed her a dollar.
"She took it, unheeding the cruel remark, and before I could make up my mind how to act, glided quickly away. I followed as hastily, and continued to walk after her, until I saw her enter a large, old-fashioned brick building. About this poor dwelling, there was no air of comfort. In the door sat a little girl, and two boys, pale, but pleasant-looking children. One of them clapped his little hands as Constance passed them, and then got up and ran after her into the house. They all had her own bright eyes. I would have known them for her's anywhere.
"Does it not seem strange that I hesitated to go in at once to my child. But I am at a loss what to do. Sometimes I think that I will wait until you come on, and make her heart glad with the presence of both at once. Tomorrow I will write you again. The mail is just closing; and I must send this."
After Wilmer had received the kindly offered relief from his employers, in an increase of salary, he was less troubled about the daily needs of his family. But other sources of keen anxiety soon presented themselves. His own health began to give way so rapidly, as to awaken in his mind, fearful apprehensions of approaching inability to support his family; and Constance was not strong. Too often, the pain in his bosom and side was so severe as to make his place at the desk little less than torture. A confirmed, short, dry cough, not severe, but constant, also awakened his liveliest fears.
At the end of a year from the time when his employers began to feel a kind interest in him, he was removed from the desk, and given more active employment as salesman and out-of-door clerk. The benefit of this change was soon felt. The pain in his bosom and side gradually gave way, his appetite increased, and his cough became less and less irritating. But this improvement was only temporary. The disease had become too deeply rooted. True, he suffered much less than while confined at the desk, but the morbid indications were too constant to leave him much of the flattery of hope.
Another year gradually rolled away, and with it came more changes, and causes of concern. A little stranger had come into his family, making three the number of his babes, and adding to the list of his cares and his expenses; and it must also be said, to his pleasures. For what parent, with the heart of a parent, be his condition what it may, but rejoices in the number of the little ones whose eyes brighten at his coming? But there was a change of greater importance in his prospects. The firm in whose service he was, became distressed and had to wind up their business. All the clerks were in a short time discharged, and Wilmer among the rest. The time was one of great commercial pressure, and many long-established firms were forced to yield; others were driven to great curtailment of expenses. The consequence was that few were employing clerks, and many dispensing with their services. Under the circumstances, Wilmer found it impossible to obtain employment. Daily did he call at the various stores and counting-rooms in the hope of meeting with a situation, only to return to his dwelling more depressed and disheartened.
By great economy, in view of approaching ill health, he had managed to lay up, since the increase in his wages, nearly the amount of that increase. He had done this, by living upon the same amount that he before found to be inadequate to the support of his family. How this was done, they only can know who have resolutely, from necessity, made the same experiment, and found that the real amount necessary to live upon, is much smaller than is usually supposed. This sum, about one hundred dollars, he had when he was thrown out of employment scarcely enough to last for three months, under their present expenses. It was with painful reluctance that Wilmer trespassed upon their precious savings, but he found necessity a hard task-master.
Amid the gloom and darkness of his condition and prospects, there was one bright star shining upon him with an ever-constant light. No cloud could dim or obscure it. That light, that cheerful star, was the wife of his bosom. The tie that bound her to him was not an external one alone; she was wedded to him in spirit. Her affection for him — as sorrow, and doubt, and fearful foreboding of coming evils gathered about him — assumed more and more of the mother's careful and earnest love for the peace of her child. She met him with an ever-cheerful countenance; gently soothed his fears, and constantly referred him to the overruling care of Divine Providence. Affliction had wrought its proper work upon her affections, and as they became gradually separated from the world, they found a higher and purer source of attraction. From a thoughtless girl — she had become a reflecting woman, and with reflection had come a right understanding of her duties. An angel of comfort is such a woman to a man of keen sensibilities, who finds his struggle in the world a hard and painful one.
Two months passed away in the vain effort to obtain employment. Every avenue seemed shut against him. The power of endurance was tried to its utmost strength, when he was offered a situation in an iron-store, to handle iron, and occasionally perform the duties of a clerk. Three hundred dollars a year was the salary. He caught at it, as his last hope, with eagerness, and at once entered upon his duties. He found them more toilsome than he had expected. The business was a heavy one, and kept him at fatiguing labor nearly the whole day. Never having been used to do hard work — he found on the morning of the second day, that the muscles of his back, arms, and legs, were so strained, that he could hardly move himself. He was as sore as if he had been beaten with a heavy stick. This, however, in a great measure wore off, after he began to move about; but he found his strength giving way much sooner on this day than on the preceding one.
At night, his head ached badly, he had no appetite, and was feverish. On the next morning, however, he went resolutely to work; but he felt so unfit for it, that he finally, referring in his own mind to what he had suffered on a former occasion by not explaining his true situation — determined to mention to his new employer how he felt, and ask a little respite for a day or two, until his strength should return. He, accordingly, left the large pile of iron which he had commenced assorting, and entered the counting-room. He felt a great degree of hesitation, but strove to keep it down, while he summoned up resolution to utter distinctly and mildly his request.
The man of iron was busy over his bill-book when Wilmer sought his presence, and looked up with a stern aspect.
"I feel quite sick," began Theodore, an older man than his employer, "from working beyond my strength for the last two days, and would be very glad if you could employ me at something lighter for as long a time, until I recover myself, when I will be much stronger than when I began, and able to keep steadily on. I have never been used to hard labor, and feel it the more severely now."
Mr. Weber looked at him with a slight sneer for a moment, and then replied —
"I can't have any playing here. If my work suits you, well; if not, there are plenty whom it will suit."
Silently did Wilmer withdraw from the presence of the unfeeling man, and turned with aching limbs to his toilsome work.
At night he found himself much worse than on the preceding evening; and on the ensuing morning he was unable to go to the store. It was nearly a week before he could again find his way out, and then he was in a sadly debilitated state, from the effects of a fever brought on by over-exertion. He went to the iron-store, and formally declined his situation. No offer was made to reengage him, and as he turned away from the door of the counting-room, he heard the man remark, in a sneering under-tone to a person present, "he's a mere milk-sop!"
Generally, the unfortunate are stung to the quick, by any reflection upon them by those in a better condition; and few were more alive to ridicule than Wilmer. Both the condition and the constitutional infirmity combined, made the biting remark produce in his bosom a tempest of agitation; and for a moment he was roused from his usual calm exterior; but he recovered himself as quick as thought, and hurried away. He did not go directly home, but wandered listlessly about for several hours. When he returned at the usual dinner hour, he found his wife busily engaged in preparing dinner. Her babe was asleep in the cradle, by which sat the eldest boy, touching it with his foot, while the other little one, about four years old, was prattling away to her baby-doll.
"Why Constance, where is our servant Mary?"
"She has gone away," was the smiling reply.
"Why is that? I thought she appeared very well satisfied."
"She was very well pleased with her place, I believe; but as I have taken it into my head to do without her, and am a very willful creature, as you know — why, there was no remedy but to let her get another place. So I told her as much this morning, and she has already found a pleasant situation — not so good, however, as this, she says. Come, don't look so serious about it! Little Theodore can bring water for me, and you can cut the wood, and among us we will do very well. It is a pity if two people can't take care of themselves, and three other little bodies besides. And just see what we will save? — Four dollars a month for her wages, and her boarding into the bargain. And you know, Mary, though a kind, good sort of a body, and very industrious and obliging — ate almost as much as all the rest of us together."
"Well, Constance, put as good a face upon the matter as you can, but I feel that stern necessity has brought you to it."
"You must not talk so much about 'stern necessity,' Theodore. It is surely no great hardship for me to sweep up the house every morning, and get the little food we eat. I know that our income is cut off, for I don't suppose you are going back to that iron-store again. But there will be a way opened, for us. The kind Being who is trying us for our good, will not leave us in our last extremity. It is for us to do the best we can, with what we have. Now that our certain resources are withdrawn, it is for us to limit our expenses to the smallest possible sum. We have, it is true, lived quite frugally for the past year. But it is possible for us to live on much less than the five hundred dollars which it has cost. Our servant's wages and boarding were at least one hundred dollars; and by the present retrenchment we save that sum, and shall live just as comfortably, for now we will all help to take care of each other."
"So far so good, my comforter! But where will the four hundred dollars come from?"
"Well, let us go on. We pay one hundred and fifty dollars for this house. By going out upon the suburbs of the town, we can get a pleasant little house for five dollars a month."
"O, no, Constance, you are too fast."
"Not at all. I have seen just the little place that will suit us. The house is not old, and everything around is sweet and clean. And it's plenty big enough for us."
"Well, Constance, suppose by so doing we reduce our expenses to three hundred and ten dollars. Where is that sum to come from? I can't get any work."
"Don't despair, Theodore! We shall not be forsaken. But we must do the best we can for ourselves. I have been turning over a plan in my head, by which we can live much cheaper and a great deal happier; for the less it takes us to live — then the less care we shall have about it."
"By moving into a smaller house, we can dispense with a great many things which will then be of no use to us. These will bring us from two to three hundred dollars, at public sale. Good furniture, you know, always brings good prices."
"With this money, we can live in a smaller house, without any servant, for nearly a year; and surely you will get something to do by next spring, even if you should be idle all winter."
Wilmer kissed the cheek of his wife, now glowing with the excitement of cheerful hope, with a fervent and heartfelt affection, and murmuring in a low voice — "My comforting angel!" turned with a lighter heart than had beat in his bosom for months, to caress the little girl, who was clamoring for her usual kiss.
That afternoon was spent in discussing the proposed retrenchment, and in going to look at the little house which Mrs. Wilmer had mentioned. It was small, but neat, and had a good yard, with a pump at the door. They decided at once to take it, and obtained possession of the key.
No time was lost in offering their superfluous furniture at public sale; and to the satisfaction of both Wilmer and his wife, the auctioneer returned them, after deducting his commissions, the net sum of three hundred dollars.
In one week from the time of Mrs. Wilmer's proposition, they were snugly packed away in their new residence.
Late in the fall, Wilmer obtained a situation as collector for one of the newspaper offices, on a salary of four hundred dollars. This, under the reduced expense system, and with the surplus on hand, afforded them ample means. The exercise in the open air which it allowed him, was greatly conducive to his health, and he soon showed considerable improvement in body and mind. Things went on smoothly and satisfactorily until about Christmas, when he took a violent cold, on a wet day, which fell upon his lungs, and soon brought him to a very weak state. From this, his recovery was so slow, and his prospect of health so unpromising, that he his situation, which was retained for him as long as the office could wait, was lost.
During the whole of the remaining inclement weather of the winter season, he found it necessary to keep within doors, as he invariably took cold whenever he ventured out.
Perceiving the failure of her husband's health to be certainly and rapidly progressing, Mrs. Wilmer dwelt in her own mind with painful solicitude upon the probable means of support for them all, when his strength should so entirely give way, as to render him altogether unfitted for business. The only child of over-fond parents, rich in this world's goods — she had received a thorough, fashionable education, which fitted her for doing no one thing by which she could earn any money. Her music had been confined to a few fashionable waltzes and overtures; her French and Spanish were nearly forgotten, and her proficiency in drawing and embroidery had never been very great. In her girlish days she could dance gracefully, and talk fashionable nonsense with a bewitching air when it became necessary to amuse some sprig of fashion, or wield good plain common sense with common sense people, when occasion called for it. But as to possessing resources in herself for getting a living in the world, that was another matter altogether. But there is a creative power in necessity, which acts with wonderful skill when the hour of trial comes. That hour had come with Constance, and she steadily cast about her for the means of earning money.
Next door to where she lived, was a widow woman with three grown-up daughters, who were always busy working for the clothing-stores, or "slop-shops," as they were called. She had made their acquaintance during the winter, and found them kind and considerate of others, and ever ready with an encouraging word, or serious advice when called for. The very small compensation which they received for their work, encouraged her but little, when she thought of obtaining something to do in the same way. But the more she thought of other means, the less she found herself fitted for doing anything else, and at last determined to learn how to make common pantaloons, that she might have some resource to fly to, when all others failed. She found her kind neighbors ready to give her all the instruction she needed, and they also kindly offered to introduce her to the shops whenever she would determine to take in work. It did not take her long to learn, and soon after she had acquired the art, as her husband's health still continued to decline, she began, in odd times, to make common pantaloons and vests, for which she received the meager compensation of twelve-and-a-half cents each. It took her about one-half of her time, actively engaged, to attend to her family.
During the remaining half of each day and evening, she would make a vest or a pair of pantaloons, which at the end of the week would bring her in seventy-five cents. When she looked at this small sum, the aggregate of a week's labor, during leisure from the concerns of her family, she felt but little encouraged in prospect of having the whole of her little family dependent upon her; and for some weeks she entertained, in the silence of her own heart, a sickening consciousness of coming destitution, which she might in vain endeavor to prevent. Gradually her mind reacted from this painful state, and she gave daily diligence to her employments, entertaining a firm trust in Divine Providence.
As the spring opened, her husband's health revived a little, and he found employment at a small compensation in a retail dry-goods store. This just suited his strength and the state of his health, and he continued at it for something like three years. During this period nothing of material interest occurred, and we pass it over in silence.
The long-looked-for, long-dreaded time, when Wilmer's health would entirely give way, at length came; and although through the kindness of his employers he had been retained in the store long after he was able to do his full duty, yet at last he had to give up.
It would require a pen more skilled than mine, to portray the workings of the human heart, to sketch his real feelings — when he received his last month's wages; the last that he felt he would ever earn for his family, and turned his steps homeward. He loved the wife who had forsaken the wealth and comfort of a father's house, and had been all in all to him through sunshine and storm, with deep and tearful affection; he would have sacrificed everything for her; and yet for years had he been compelled to see her toil for a portion of the bread which nourished her and her children.
He loved his little ones, with a yearning tenderness; the more fervently and passionately, now that he could no longer minister to their needs. How could he meet them all on this evening, and see their dear faces brighten up on his entrance — when he could no longer earn food for them, or provide them with comforts? It was with a strong effort that he kept down his feelings as he entered his home, now dwelling in two rooms in the second story of an old house in Commerce Street, where they had moved, to be nearer his place of business, the long walk having been too fatiguing for him, after standing behind the counter all day.
Mrs. Wilmer's quick eye at once detected a change in the expression of her husband's countenance, but she said nothing. After tea, the children were all put to bed in the next room, and they were then alone. Wilmer sat in deep thought by the table, shading his face with his hand when his wife came in from the chamber where she had been with the children. Entwining her arm round his neck, she bent over him, and said, in a tone of tender concern —
"Why so thoughtful, Theodore?"
He did not reply for some moments, nor lift his head, and Constance was about to repeat her question in a more earnest voice, when a hot tear fell upon her hand. She had seen him often sorely tried and painfully exercised, but had never known him to shed a tear. There had always been a troubled silence in his manner when difficulties pressed upon him — but tears moistened not his eyes. Well might her heart sink down in her bosom at that strange token of intense suffering.
"Dear Theodore!" she said, in a changed tone, "tell me what it is that troubles you!"
A shuddering sob was the only reply, as he leaned his head back upon her bosom.
"Say, dearest, what has happened?"
The tears now fell from his eyes like rain, and sob after sob shook his frame convulsively.
Constance waited in silence until the agitation subsided, and then gently urged him to tell her what it was that troubled him so painfully.
"I am broken in spirits now, Constance. I am a weak child. I have received the last blow, and manhood has altogether forsaken me."
"Tell me! oh, tell me! Theodore, tell me all, all! Do not distress me by further silence, or mystery!"
A pause of some minutes followed, during which Wilmer was making strong efforts to overcome his feelings.
"Constance," he at length said, mournfully, "I have tried long, and much beyond my strength, to earn the small sum that it took to support our little ones; but nature has at last given way. Here is the last dollar I shall probably ever earn, and now I shall be a burden upon you, eating the bread of my children — while they, poor things, will hunger for the morsel that nourishes me. I do not wonder that manly feelings have passed away with my strength. Constance, what shall we do?"
An angel of comfort is woman to life's last extremity. As fragile as a reed, that bends to the passing breeze, when the sunshine of prosperity is bright above and around — she becomes the tall oak, deep-rooted and strong-branched, when the wintry storms of adversity sweep over the earth. No trial subdues her, no privation brings a murmur of discontent. She will hope to the last, and still have a smile of assurance for those who, in their despondency, have even cast away hope. Constance Wilmer was a woman, and as a woman, her worth was felt more and more, as troubles came thicker and faster.
"Dear husband!" she said, in a steady and cheerful voice, "I see no cause for such painful feelings. Pinching poverty is not upon us yet, and I am sure the time will never come when our children shall ask food at our hands in vain. Trial, which is always for our good, will never reach beyond the point of endurance."
"The burden is all upon you, dear Constance. Heaven grant that you may have strength to bear it!"
"I fear not for the strength. That will come in due time. Now we have food and clothing, and therewith let us be content. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is cast into the oven — will he not clothe us? He who feeds the young ravens when they cry, will not turn away from us. Are we not of more value than many sparrows?"
"God bless you! God bless you! Constance."
"Do not, then, dear husband! cast away your confidence. If the burden is to be all upon me, it will be lightened by your cheerful countenance and encouraging words. I shall need them both, doubtless; then do not withhold them."
Her voice lost its steadiness, trembled a moment, and then she hid her face, in silence and in tears, upon his bosom.
As Wilmer had foreseen, the strength for further labor was gone forever. He lingered about for a few weeks, and then took to his bed. And now came the time for the full trial of Mrs. Wilmer's mental and bodily strength.
Notwithstanding all her close application at the needle, the small sum that had been saved from former earnings, slowly, but steadily diminished. Daily she increased her exertions, and encroached further upon the hours of rest; but still there was a steady withdrawal of the hoarded treasure.
At first, her confidence in Divine Providence was measurably shaken; but soon the wavering needle of her faith turned steadily to its polar star. Her own health, never vigorous, began also to give way under the increased application which became necessary for the support of the beloved ones, now entirely dependent upon her labor for food and clothing. Her appetite, never very good, failed considerably, and consequently there was a withdrawal instead of an increase of strength. But none knew of her pain or weakness. Her pale face was ever a cheerful one, and her voice full of tenderness.
When the next spring opened, Wilmer was not only confined to the house, but unable to sit up, except for a few hours at a time through the day. His wife's health had suffered much, and all the hours she sat at her needle, were hours of painful endurance. Spring passed away, and summer came. But the milder airs had no kind effect upon the fast sinking frame of her husband. He was rapidly going down to the grave — his last hours embittered by the sight of his wife and children suffering before him.
During the month of August, Wilmer declined so fast, and needed such constant attention, that his wife could find but little time to devote to her needle. What she thus lost in the day-time, she had to make up, as far as possible, by encroaching upon the night hours, and often the lamp by her side would grow dim before the light of day, while she still bent in weariness and pain, over the work that was to give bread to her children.
For some months her work had been confined to one shop, the master of which was not always punctual in paying her the poor pittance she earned. Instead of handing her, whenever she called, the trifle due her — he made her procure a little book in which he would enter the work, promising to pay when it would amount to a certain sum. In anxious hope would Mrs. Wilmer wait until her earnings rose to the required amount; but not always then could she get her due; there would too frequently be a partial payment, or a request to call back in a day or two.
One day towards the first of September, she found that both food and money were out. She was just finishing a couple of vests for the clothing-shop, and there were more than three dollars due to her. While turning over in her own mind the hope that her boss would pay her the small sum due, when she carried in the work, and troubled all the while with fears, lest he should deny her, as he had often done before; her husband, whose bright eye had been upon her for some time, and whose countenance, unseen by her, had expressed an earnest, yet hesitating desire to ask for something, said —
"Constance, I don't know whether you are able to get them, but if you can, I would like, above all things, to have some grapes."
"Then you shall have some," Constance replied, earnestly and affectionately. "I am sure they will help you. Why did I not think of this for you long ago?"
Resuming her needle, she plied it with double swiftness, her heart trembling lest when she asked for her money at the shop, it should be refused her. At last the work was done and she carried it in. It was entered, and her book handed back to her. She paused a moment, then turned to go out, but she could not go home without some money. Hesitatingly she asked to have her due, but it was refused on some excuse of having a large payment to make on that very day. Again she turned to go, but again turned to ask for only a part of what was her own. One dollar was thrown at her with an unkind remark. The first she seized with avidity, the last passed her ear unheeded.
How swiftly did she hurry home with her little treasure! more precious than a hundred times the sum had ever been before. It was to meet the first expressed want of her husband, to gratify which she would herself have abstained days from food.
The grapes were soon obtained, with some bread, and a small portion of meat, for the children. They proved very grateful and refreshing to Wilmer, who, soon after he had eaten a few of them, fell into a gentle sleep.
The food which Mrs. Wilmer had bought would last them probably about two days — not longer. Two months' rent would be due in a week, amounting to eight dollars. Their landlord had threatened to take some of their things to satisfy the last months' rent, and she had little hope of his being put off longer than the expiration of the two months. There were still two-and-a-half dollars due her by the keeper of the clothing-store, which she knew it would be almost as hard to get as to earn.
Not disposed, however, to sit down and brood over her difficulties, which only made them worse — she went to work in the best spirit possible to overcome them. She obtained more work, and bent herself again over her daily employment.
She was sitting with an aching head and troubled heart at her work on the next morning, having only sought a brief repose through the night, when a sharp tap at the door roused her from her abstraction of mind.
"Does Mrs. Wilmer live here, ma'am?" asked a man.
"That is my name."
"Then I am directed to leave this basket," — and the man deposited his basket on the floor, and was gone before another word could be spoken.
Mrs. Wilmer stood for a moment in mute surprise, and then removed the covering off the basket. It contained tea, coffee, sugar, rice, meat, bread, and various other articles of food; and also, a letter directed to "Constance Wilmer." She broke the seal with an anxious and trembling heart. It contained a fifty dollar note, and these brief words: —
"Put aside your work — you are cared for — there is help coming, and now very near — be of good cheer!"
The coarse garment she still held in her hand, fell to the floor. Her fingers released themselves from it by an instinctive effort which she could not control. Her head reeled for a moment, and she sank into a chair, overcome by a tumult of contending feelings. From this, she was aroused by the voice of her husband, who anxiously inquired the contents of the letter. He read it, and saw the enclosure, and the supply of food in the basket, and then clasped his hands and looked up with mute thankfulness to Heaven. Mrs. Wilmer obeyed, with a confidence for which she could not account, the injunction of her stranger-friend, and almost hourly for the first day, referred to the characters of the letter, which seemed familiar to her eye. That she had seen the writing before, she was certain; but where, or when, she could not tell.
Relieved from daily care and toil, she had more time to give to her sick husband. She found him nearer the grave than she had supposed.
Four days more passed away, and Wilmer had come down to the very brink of the dark river of death.
It was night. The two younger children were asleep, and the oldest boy, just in his tenth year, with his mother, stood anxiously over the low bed, upon which lay, gasping for breath, the dying husband and father. The widow, who cannot forget the dear image of her departed one; the orphan, who remembers the dying agony of a fond father — can realize in a great degree the sorrows which pressed upon the hearts of these lone watchers by the bed of death.
The last hours of Wilmer's life were hours of distinct consciousness.
"Constance," he whispered, in a low difficult whisper, while his bright eyes were fixed upon her face — "Constance, what will you do when I am gone? I am but a burden on you now; but my presence I feel is something."
His stricken-hearted wife could make no answer; but the tears rolled over her face in great drops, and fell fast upon the pillow of her dying husband.
"I cannot say, 'do not weep,'" continued Wilmer. "O that I could give a word of comfort! but your bitter cup is full, running over, and I cannot dash it from your lips. Dear Constance! you have been to me a wife and a mother. Let me feel your warm cheek once more against mine, for it is cold, very cold. Hark! did you not hear voices?" And he strained his eyes towards the door, half-lifting himself up.
For a few moments he looked eagerly for someone to enter, and then fell back upon the bed with a heavy sigh, murmuring to himself, in a low disappointed tone —
"I thought they were coming."
"Who, love?" asked Mrs. Wilmer, eagerly. But her husband did not seem to hear her question; but lay gasping for breath, the muscles of his neck and face distorted and giving to his countenance the ghastly expression of death.
"Who, my love? — who were coming?" eagerly asked Mrs. Wilmer again, her own heart trembling with a recurrence of the vague hopes with which the mysterious letter and timely supply had inspired her — hopes that had never been hinted to her husband. But it seemed that he had given the incident his own interpretation.
But he heeded not her question. For some time mother and son again stood over him, in troubled silence. Perhaps half an hour had passed since he had spoken, when a slight bustle was heard on the steps below, and then feet were heard quickly ascending, and hastening along the passage towards their chamber door.
"They come! They come!" half-shrieked the dying man, springing up in the bed, and bending over towards the door, which was hastily flung open. His eyes glared upon the two people, a man and woman, both well advanced in life, as they entered. That one anxious gaze was enough. Looking up into the face of Constance, against whose bosom his head had sunk, his countenance changed into an expression of intense delight, and he whispered —
"They have come, Constance! they have come. Think of me as at rest and happy. I die in peace!"
His eye-lids closed naturally — there was no longer any convulsive play of the muscles — and as an infant sinking into slumber, so quietly did Theodore Wilmer sleep the sleep of death.
One month from that night of sorrow, the darkest one in the many gloomy seasons of Mrs. Wilmer's life, witnessed this child of many afflictions, with her three little ones, at home in one of the most pleasant houses in the vicinity of New York. There was something sad and subdued in the expression of her pale face, but it was from the recollection of the past. Her mother, who ten years before had cast her off as unworthy — now gazed upon her with a look of the intensest affection; and the father, who had sworn never to call her his child — sat holding her thin white hand in his, and listening to her first recital of all she had passed through since she left the home of her childhood, while the tears fell from his eyes in large drops, upon the hand which lay within his own.