Timothy Shay Arthur, 1851
"Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord." Ephesians 6:4
"That boy needs more attention," said Mr. Green, referring to his oldest son, a lad whose wayward temper and proclivity to vice demanded a steady, consistent, wise, and ever-present exercise of parental watchfulness and authority.
"You may well say that," returned the mother of the boy; for to her, the remark had been made. "He is getting entirely beyond my control!"
"If I only had the time to look after him!" Mr. Green sighed as he uttered these words.
"I think you ought to make more time for a purpose like this," said Mrs. Green.
"More time!" Mr. Green spoke with marked impatience. "What time have I to attend to him, Margaret? Am I not entirely absorbed in business? Even now I should be at the store, and am only kept away by your late breakfast."
Just then the breakfast bell rang, and Mr. and Mrs. Green, accompanied by their children, repaired to the dining-room. John, the boy about whom the parents had been talking, was among the number.
As they took their places at the table, he exhibited certain disorderly movements, and a disposition to annoy his younger brothers and sisters. But these were checked, instantly, by his father, of whom John stood in some fear.
Before the children were more than half done, Mr. Green laid his knife and fork side by side on his plate, pushed his chair back, and was in the act of rising, when his wife said —
"Don't go yet. Just wait until John is through with his breakfast. He acts dreadfully the moment your back is turned."
Mr. Green turned a quick, lowering glance upon the boy, (whose eyes shrank beneath his angry gaze,) saying, as he did so —
"I haven't time to stay a moment longer. I ought to have been at my business an hour ago. But see here, my lad" — addressing himself to John, "there has been enough of this antics. Not a day passes that I am not worried with complaints about you. Now, mark me! I shall inquire, particularly, as to your conduct when I come home at dinnertime — and, if you have given your mother any trouble, or acted in any way improperly — will take you severely to account. It's outrageous that the whole family should be kept in constant trouble by you. Now, be on your guard!"
A moment or two, Mr. Green stood frowning upon the boy, and then retired.
Scarcely had the sound of the closing street-door, which marked the fact of Mr. Green's departure, ceased to echo through the house, before John began to act as was his custom when his father was out of the way. His mother's remonstrances were of no avail; and, when she finally compelled him to leave the table, he obeyed with a most provoking and insolent manner.
All this would have been prevented, if Mr. Green had taken from business just ten minutes, and conscientiously devoted that time to the government of his wayward boy and the protection of the family from his annoyances.
On arriving at his store, Mr. Green found two or three customers therein, and but a single clerk in attendance. He had felt some doubts as to the correctness of his conduct in leaving home so abruptly, under the circumstances; but the presence of these customers satisfied him that he had done right. Business, in his mind, was paramount to everything else; and his highest duty to his family he felt to be discharged, when he was devoting himself most assiduously to the work of procuring for them the means of external comfort, ease, and luxury. Worldly well-doing was a cardinal virtue in his eyes.
Mr. Green was the gainer, perhaps, of half a dollar, in the way of profit on sales, by being at his store ten minutes earlier than would have been the case, had he remained with his family until the completion of their morning meal. What was lost to his boy by the opportunity thus afforded for an indulgence in a perverse and disobedient temper, it is hard to say. Something was, undoubtedly, lost — something, the valuation of which, in dollars and cents, it would be difficult to make.
Mrs. Green did not complain of John's conduct, to his father, at dinner-time. She was so often forced to complain, that she avoided the task whenever she felt justified in doing so; and that was, perhaps, far too often. Mr. Green asked no questions; for he knew, by experience, to what results such questions would lead — and he was in no mood for unpleasant news. So John escaped, as he had escaped hundreds of times before, and felt encouraged to indulge his bad propensities at will — to his own injury and the annoyance of all around him.
If Mr. Green had no time in the morning or through the day to attend to his children — the evening, one might think, would afford opportunity for conference with them, a supervision of their studies, and an earnest inquiry into their conduct and moral and intellectual progress. But such was not the case. Mr. Green was too much wearied with the occupation of the day, to bear the annoyance of the children; or, his thoughts were too busy with business matters, or schemes of profit, to attend to the thousand-and-one questions they were ready to pour in upon him from all sides; or, he had a political club to attend, an engagement with some merchant for the discussion of a matter connected with trade, or felt obliged to be present at the meeting of some society of which he was a member. So, he either left home immediately after tea, or the children were sent to bed in order that he might have a quiet evening for rest, business reflection, or the enjoyment of a new book.
Mr. Green had so much to do and so much to think about, that he had no time to attend to his children; and this neglect was daily leaving upon them ineffaceable impressions, which would, inevitably, mar the beauty of their after-lives. Particularly was this the case with John. Better off in the world was Mr. Green becoming every day — better off as it regarded money; but, poorer in another sense; poorer in respect to home affections and home treasures. His children were not growing up to love him intensely, to confide in him implicitly, and to respect him as their father and friend. He had no time to attend to them, and rather pushed them from him, than drew them towards him, with the strong chords of affection. To his wife, he left their government; and she was not equal to the task.
"I don't believe," said Mrs. Green, one day, "that John is learning much at the school where he goes. I think you ought to see after him a little. He never studies a lesson at home."
"Mr. Elden has the reputation of being one of our best teachers. His school stands high," replied Mr. Green.
"That may all be," said Mrs. Green. "Still, I really think you ought to know, for yourself, how John is getting along. Of one thing I am certain, he does not improve in good manners nor good temper, in the least. And he is never in the house between school-hours, except to get his meals. I wish you would require him to be at the store during the afternoons. School is dismissed at three o'clock, and he ranges the streets with other boys, and goes where he pleases from that time until night."
"That's very bad," — Mr. Green spoke in a concerned voice, "very bad. And it must be stopped. But, as to having him at the store, that is out of the question. He would be into everything, and keep me in hot water all the while. He'd like to come well enough, I do not doubt; but I can't have him there."
"Couldn't you set him to doing something?"
"I might. But I haven't time to attend to him, Margaret. Business is business, and cannot be interrupted."
Mrs. Green sighed, and then remarked —
"I wish you would call on Mr. Elden, and have a talk with him about John."
"I will, if you think it best."
"Do so, by all means. And besides, you should give more time to John in the evenings. If, for instance, you devoted an evening to him once a week, it would enable you to understand how he is progressing, and give you a control over him not now possessed."
"You are right in this, no doubt, Margaret."
But reform went not beyond this verbal acknowledgment. Mr. Green could never find time to see John's teacher, nor feel himself sufficiently at leisure, or in the right mood of mind, to devote to the boy even a single evening.
And thus it went on from day to day, from month to month, and from year to year, until, finally, John was sent home from school by Mr. Elden with a note to his father, in which idleness, disorderly conduct, and wicked habits were charged upon him in the broadest terms.
The unhappy Mr. Green called immediately upon the teacher, who gave him a more particular account of his son's bad conduct, and concluded by saying that he was unwilling to receive him back into his classes.
Strange as it may seem, it was four months before Mr. Green "found time" to see about another school, and to get John entered therein; during which long period, the boy had full liberty to go pretty much where he pleased, and to associate with whom he pleased. It is hardly to be supposed that he grew any better for this omission by his father.
By the time John was seventeen years of age, Mr. Green's business had become greatly enlarged and his mind was still more absorbed therein. With him, gain was the primary thing; and, as a consequence, his family held a secondary place in his thoughts. If money were needed, he was ever ready to supply the demand; that done, he felt that his duty to them was, mainly, discharged. To his wife, he left the work of the children's wise direction in the paths of life, their government and education — but she was inadequate to the task imposed.
From the second school at which John was entered, he was dismissed within three months, for bad conduct. He was then sent to school in a distant city, where, removed from all parental restraint and admonition, he made viler associates than any he had hitherto known, and took, thus, a lower step in vice. He was just seventeen, when a letter from the principal of this school conveyed to Mr. Green such unhappy news of his son — that he immediately resolved, as a last resort, to send him to sea. And this was done, spite of all the mother's tearful remonstrances, and the boy's threats that he would escape from the vessel on the very first opportunity.
And yet, for all this sad result of parental neglect, Mr. Green devoted no more time nor care to his children. Business absorbed the whole man. He was a merchant, body and soul. His responsibilities were not felt as extending beyond his store and his counting-room, further than to provide for the worldly well-being of his family. Is it any cause of wonder that, with his views and practice, it should not turn out well with his children; or, at least, with some of them?
At the end of a year, John came home from sea — a rough, tobacco-chewing, cigar-smoking, alcohol-drinking, overgrown boy of eighteen, with all his sensual desires and animal passions more active than when he went away — while his intellectual faculties and moral feelings were in a worse condition than at his separation from home. Grief at the sad change, oppressed the hearts of his parents; but their grief was unavailing. Various efforts were made to get him into some business, but he remained only a short time in any of the places where his father had him introduced. Finally, he was sent to sea again. But he never returned to his friends. In a drunken street-brawl, which occurred while he was on shore at Valparaiso, he was stabbed by a Spaniard, and died shortly afterwards.
On the very day this tragic event took place, Mr. Green was rejoicing over a successful speculation from which he had come out the gainer by five thousand dollars. In the pleasure this circumstance occasioned, all thoughts of the absent one, ruined by his neglect, were swallowed up.
Several months had elapsed since John had been sent back to sea. Mr. Green had returned home, well satisfied with his day's business. In his pocket was the afternoon paper, which, after the younger children were in bed, and the older ones out of his way — he sat down to read. To the telegraphic column, his eyes turned. There had been an arrival in Boston from the Pacific, and almost the first sentence he read was the news of his son's death. The paper dropped from his hands, while he uttered an expression of surprise and grief which caused the cheeks of his wife, who was in the room, to turn deadly pale. She had not power to ask the cause of her husband's sudden exclamation; but her heart, which ever yearned towards her absent boy, instinctively guesses the truth.
"John is dead!" said Mr. Green, at length speaking in a tremulous voice.
There was, from the mother, no wild burst of anguish. The boy had been dying, to her, daily, for years; and she had suffered, for him, worse than the pangs of death. Burying her face in her hands, she wept silently, yet hopelessly.
"If we were only blameless of the poor child's death," said Mrs. Green, lifting her tearful eyes, after the lapse of nearly ten minutes, and speaking in a sad, self-rebuking tone of voice.
When those with whom we are in close relationship die, how quickly is that in memory's book turned on, in which lies the record of unkindness or neglect! Already had this been turned for Mr. Green, and conscience was sweeping therefrom the dust, which well-near obscured the handwriting. He trembled, inwardly, as he read the condemning sentences that charged him with the guilt of his own son's ruin.
"If we were only blameless of the poor child's death!"
How these words of the grieving mother smite upon his heart! He did not respond to them. How could he do so at that moment?
"Where is Edward?" he inquired, at length.
"I don't know," sobbed the mother. "He is out somewhere almost every evening. Oh! I wish you would look to him a little more closely. He is past my control!"
"I must do so," returned Mr. Green, speaking from a strong conviction of the necessity of doing as his wife suggested, "If I only had a little more time — "
He checked himself. It was the old excuse — the rock upon which all his best hopes for his first-born had been fearfully wrecked! His lips closed, his head was bowed, and, in the bitterness of unavailing sorrow — he mused on the past, while every moment the conviction of wrong towards his child, now irreparable, grew stronger and stronger.
After that, Mr. Green made an effort to exercise more control over his children; but he had left the reins loose so long, that his tighter grasp produced restiveness and rebellion. He persevered, however, and, though Edward followed too closely the footsteps of John, yet the younger children were brought under beneficial restraints. The old excuse — lack of time — was frequently used by Mr. Green, to justify neglect of parental duties; but a recurrence of his thoughts to the sad ruin of his oldest boy had, in most cases, the right effect — and, in the end, he ceased to give utterance to the words, "I haven't time." He never again fell into neglect of his children, from believing that business demanded his undivided attention.