Home at Last!
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1851
"We're home at last, and I am so glad!" exclaimed a little girl, not over ten years of age, as she paused at twilight with her mother before a small and poor-looking house, one evening late in the month of November.
The mother did not reply, but lifted the latch, when both passed in. There was no light in the dwelling, and no fire on the hearth. All was cold, dark, and cheerless in that place which had been called "home" by the little girl; yet, as cold, dark, and cheerless as it was, she still felt glad to be there once more.
"I will get a light, mother," said she, in a cheerful tone, running to a closet, and taking thence a candle and a match.
In a moment or two afterwards the candle was burning brightly, and throwing its light into every corner of that poorly-furnished room, which contained but few articles, and they the simplest that were needed. An old pine table, without leaves, three or four old chairs — the paint from which had long since disappeared, a bench and a water bucket, with a few cooking utensils, made up the furniture of the room.
A small fire was soon kindled on the hearth, over which the mother hung a tea-kettle. When this had boiled, and she had drawn some tea, she placed upon the table a few slices of bread and a piece of cheese, which she took from a basket that she had borne on her arm. Then the mother and child sat down to partake of their simple meal, which both eat with a keen relish.
"I'm so glad to get home again!" the little girl said, glancing up into her mother's face, with a cheerful smile.
The mother looked upon her child with a tender expression, but did not reply. She thought how poor and comfortless that home was, which seemed so desirable to her child.
"I don't like to go to Mrs. Walker's," said the child, after the lapse of a few moments.
"Why not, Jane?"
"Because I can't do anything right there. Amy scolds me if I touch a thing, and John won't let me go any place, except into the kitchen. I'm sure I like home a great deal better, and I wish you would always stay at home, mother."
"I would never go out, Jane, if I could help it," the mother replied, in the effort to make her daughter understand, that she might acquiesce in the necessity. "But you know that we must eat, and have clothes to wear, and pay for the house we live in. I could not get the money to do all this, if I did not go out to work in other people's houses — and then we would be hungry, and cold, and not have any home to come to."
The little girl sighed and remained silent for a few moments. Then she said, in a more cheerful tone,
"I know it's wrong for me to talk as I do, mother, and I'll try not to complain any more. It's a great deal harder for you than it is for me to go into these rich people's houses. You have to work so hard, and I have only to sit still in the kitchen. But won't father come home soon? He's been away so long! When he was home we had everything we needed, and you didn't have to go out working."
Tears came into the mother's eyes, and her feelings were so moved, that she could not venture to reply.
"Won't he be home soon, mother?" pursued the child.
"I'm afraid not," the mother at length said, in as calm a voice as she could assume.
"Why not, mother? He's been gone a long time."
"I cannot tell you, my child. But I don't expect him home soon."
"Oh, I wish he would come," the child responded, earnestly. "If he was only home, you would not have to go out to work any more."
The mother thought that she heard the movement of someone near the door, and leaned her head in a listening attitude. But all was silent outside, except the occasional sound of footsteps as someone hurried by.
To give the incidents and characters that we have introduced their true interest, we must go back some twelve years, and bring the history of at least one of the individuals down from that time.
A young lady and one of more mature age sat near a window, conversing earnestly, about the period to which we have reference.
"I would make it an insuperable objection," the elder of the two said, in a decided tone.
"But surely there can be no harm in his drinking a glass of wine or brandy now and then. Where is the moral wrong?"
"Do you wish to be a drunkard's wife?"
"No, I would rather be dead!"
"Then beware how you become the wife of any man who indulges in even moderate drinking. No man can do so without being in danger. The vilest drunkard that goes staggering past your door, will tell you that once he dreamed not of the danger that lurked in the cup; that, before he suspected evil, a desire too strong for his weak resistance was formed."
"I don't believe, aunt, that there is the slightest danger in the world of Edward Lee. He become a drunkard! How can you dream of such a thing, aunt?"
"I have seen much more of the world than you have, Alice. And I have seen too many as high-minded and as excellent in character as Edward Lee, who have fallen. And I have seen the bright promise of too many girls utterly extinguished, not to tremble for you. I tell you, Alice, that of all the causes of misery that exist in the married life, drunkenness is the most fruitful. It involves not only external privations, toil, and disgrace — but that unutterable hopelessness which we feel when looking upon the moral debasement of one we have respected, esteemed, and loved."
"I am sure, aunt, that I will not attempt to gainsay all that. If there is any condition in life that seems to me most deplorable and heart-breaking, it is the condition of a drunkard's wife. But, so far as Edward Lee is concerned, I am sure there does not exist the remotest danger."
"There is always danger, where there is indulgence. The man who will drink one glass a day now, will be very apt to drink two glasses in a year; and so go on increasing, until his power over himself is gone. Many, very many, do not become drunkards until they are older men; but, sooner or later, in nine cases out of ten, a man who allows himself to drink habitually, I care not how moderately at first, will lose his self-control."
"Still, aunt, I cannot for a moment bring myself to apprehend danger in the case of Edward."
"So have hundreds said before you. So did I once say, Alice. But years of heart-aching misery told how sadly I was mistaken!"
The feelings of Alice were touched by this allusion. She had never before dreamed that her uncle, who died while she was but a little girl, had been a drunkard. Still, nothing that her aunt said caused her to entertain even a momentary doubt of Edward Lee. She felt that he had too much of the power of principle in his character ever to be carried away by the vice of intemperance.
Edward Lee had offered himself in marriage to Alice Liston, and it was on the occasion of her mentioning this to her aunt, that the conversation just riven occurred. It had, however, no effect upon the mind of Alice. She loved Edward Lee tenderly, and, therefore, had every confidence in him. They were, consequently, married, and commenced life with bright and flattering prospects. But Edward continued to use intoxicating drinks in moderate quantities every day. And, while the taste for it was forming, he was wholly unconscious of danger. He would as readily have believed himself in danger of murdering his wife, as in danger of becoming a drunkard. He was a young merchant in a good business when married, and able to put his young wife in possession of a beautifully furnished house and all required domestic attendance, so as to leave her but a very small portion of care.
Like the passage of a delightful dream were the first five years of her wedded life. No one was ever happier than she in her married lot, or more unconscious of coming evil. She loved her husband tenderly and deeply, and he was all to her that she could desire. One sweet child blessed their union. At the end of the period named, like the sudden bursting of a fearful tempest from a summer sky, came the illness and death of her aunt, who had been a mother to her from childhood.
Scarcely had her heart begun to recover from this shock, when it was startled by another and more terrible affliction. All at once it became apparent that her husband was losing his self-control. And the conversation that she had held with her aunt about him, years before, came up fresh in her memory, like the echo of a warning voice, now heard, alas! too late! She noticed, with alarm, that he drank largely of brandy at dinner, and was much stupified when he would rise from the table — always retiring and sleeping for an hour before going back to his business. Strange, it seemed to her, that she had never marked this before. Now, if she had desired it, she could not close her eyes to the terrible reality.
For many weeks she bore with the regular daily occurrence of what has just been alluded to. By that time, her feelings became so excited, that she could keep silence no longer.
"I wouldn't drink any more brandy, Edward," said she, one day at the dinner table; "it does you no good."
"How do you know that it does not?" was the prompt reply, made in a tone that expressed very clearly a rebuke for interfering in a matter that as he thought, did not concern her.
"I cannot think that it does you any good, and it may do you harm," the wife said, hesitatingly, while her eyes grew dim with tears.
"Do me harm! What do you mean, Alice?"
"It does harm, sometimes, you know, Edward?"
"That is, it makes drunkards sometimes. And you are afraid that your husband will become a drunkard! Quite a compliment to him!"
"O, no, no, no, Edward! I am sure you will never be one. But — but — but — "
"There is always danger, you know, Edward."
"Oh yes, of course! And I am going to be a drunken vagabond, if I keep on drinking a glass of brandy at dinner time!"
"Don't talk so, Edward!" said Mrs. Lee, giving way to tears. "You never spoke to me in this way before."
"I know I never did. Nor did my wife ever insinuate before that she thought me in danger of becoming a debased, despised drunkard!"
"Say no more, Edward, in mercy!" Mrs. Lee responded — "I did not mean to offend you. Pardon me this once, and I will never again allude to the subject."
A sullen silence followed on the part of Lee, who drank frequently during the meal, and seemed to do so more with the evil pleasure of paining his wife than from any other motive. So sadly perverting is the influence of liquor upon some men, when opposed, changing those who are kind and affectionate into cruel and malicious beings.
From that hour Mrs. Lee was a changed woman. She felt that the star of love, which for so many happy years had thrown its rays into the very midst of their fireside circle, had become hidden amid clouds, from which she looked at every moment for the bursting of a desolating storm. And her husband was, likewise, a changed man. His pride and self-love had been wounded, and he could not forgive her who had thus wounded him, even though she was his wife. Whenever he was under the influence of liquor, he would brood over her words, and indulge in bitter thoughts against her because she had presumed to insinuate that there was danger of his becoming a drunkard!
At last he was brought home in a state of drunken insensibility. This humbled him for a time, but did not cause him to abandon the use of intoxicating drinks. And it was not long before he was again in the same condition.
But we cannot linger to trace, step by step, his downward course, nor to describe its effects upon the mind of his wife; but will pass over five years more, and again introduce them to the reader.
How sadly altered is everything! The large and comfortable house, in a fine neighborhood — has been changed for a small, poor, ill-arranged tenement. The elegant furniture has disappeared — and in its place are but few articles, and those old and common. But the saddest change of all is apparent in the face, dress, and air of Mrs. Lee. Her pale, thin, sorrow-stricken countenance — her old and faded garments — her slow, melancholy movements — contrast sadly with what she was a few years before.
A lot of incessant toil is now her portion. Lee has, in consequence of intemperance, causing neglect of business, failed, and had everything taken from him to pay his debts. For a while after this event, he contributed to the support of his wife and child by acting in the capacity of a clerk. But he soon became so dissipated, that no merchant would employ him, and the entire support of the family fell upon his wife. That was, in the very nature of things, an exceedingly meager support. Mrs. Lee had never anticipated such a condition in life, and therefore was entirely unprepared for it. Ordinary sewing was all that she could do, and at this she could make but a small pittance. The little that her husband earned was all expended in the accursed poison that had already ruined himself and beggared his family.
After having allowed everything to sink to this condition, Lee found so little attractive in the appearance of a heart-broken wife and beggared child, and so much about them to reprove him — that he left them without a word, and went off to a neighboring city.
How strange is the effect of drunkenness upon the mind and character of a man! Is it not amazing how the tender, affectionate, and provident husband and father — can become so changed into a worse than brutal insensibility to all the sacred duties of life? Is it not astonishing how the man, who would, today, sacrifice even life itself for the safety of his family — who thinks nothing of toil, early and late, that he may provide for every need — can in a few years forsake them, and leave them to struggle, single-handed, with sickness and poverty? But so it is! Instances of such heartless abandonment are familiar to everyone. "Surely," as it has been said, "strong drink is a devil!" For he who comes under its influence, is transformed into a worse than brutal nature.
For a time after Lee went away, his wife was enabled, by sewing, to meet the scanty needs of herself and child. The burden of supporting him had been removed, and that was something gained. But a severe illness, during which both herself and little Jane suffered much for the lack of nourishing food, left her with impaired sight. She could no longer, by sewing, earn the money required to buy food and pay her rent, and was compelled to resort to severe bodily toil to accomplish that end.
From several of the old friends of her better days, she had obtained sewing, and necessity compelled her to resort to them for still humbler employment.
"Good morning, Mrs. Lee! I have been wondering what in the world had become of you," said one of those former friends, a Mrs. Walker, as the poor woman called to see her, after her recovery.
"I have been very sick," replied Mrs. Lee, in a low feeble voice, and her appearance told too plainly the effects of the sickness upon her.
"I'm sorry to hear it. But I am very glad you are out again, for my sewing is all behindhand."
"I'm afraid that I shall not be able to do any more sewing for a good while," said Mrs. Lee, despondingly.
"Indeed! And why not?"
"Because my eyes have become so weak that I can scarcely see."
"Then what do you expect to do? How will you get along, Mrs. Lee?"
"I can hardly tell myself. But I must do something."
"What can you do besides sewing?"
"I don't know of anything, unless I take in washing."
"Take in washing! You are not fit to stand at the washing tub."
"I know that, ma'am. But when we are driven to it, we can do a great many things, even though we gradually fail under our task."
A pause of a few moments ensued, which was broken by Mrs. Lee.
"Will you not give me your washing to do, Mrs. Walker?" she asked, hesitatingly.
"Why, I don't know about that, Mrs. Lee. I never put my washing out of the house."
"You hire someone in the house, then?"
"Yes, and if you will come for what I pay my present washerwoman, why I suppose I might as well throw it in your way."
"Oh yes, of course I will. How much do you give?"
"I give half a dollar a day. Can you come for that?"
"If you will let me bring my little girl along. I could not leave her alone."
"I don't know about that," replied Mrs. Walker, musingly. "I have so many children of my own about the house."
"She will not be at all troublesome, ma'am," the poor woman urged.
"Will she be willing to stay in the kitchen?"
"Oh yes, I will keep her there."
"Well, Mrs. Lee, I suppose I might as well engage you. But there is one thing that I wish understood. The person that I hire to help do the washing must scrub up the kitchen after the clothes are all out. Are you willing to do that?"
"Oh yes, ma'am. I will do it," said Mrs. Lee, while her heart sank within her at the idea of performing tasks for which her feeble health and strength seemed altogether insufficient. But she felt that she must put her hands to the work, even if she died in the effort to perform it.
Three days afterwards, she entered, as was agreed upon, at half a dollar a day, the kitchen of Mrs. Walker, who had but a few years before been one of her friends and companions.
It is remarkable, how people of the most delicate constitutions will sometimes bear up under the severest toil, and encounter the most trying privations, and yet not fail, but really appear to gain some degree of strength under the ordeal that it seemed, to all human calculation, must destroy them.
So it was with Mrs. Lee. Although she suffered much from debility and weariness, occasioned by excessive toil for one all unaccustomed to hard labor, yet she did not, as she feared, sink rapidly under it. By taking in as much washing and ironing as she could do, and going out two days in the week regularly, she managed to procure for herself and child the bare necessities of life. This she had continued for about two years at the time when first introduced to the reader's attention, as returning with her child to her comfortless home.
The slight movement near her door, which Mrs. Lee had thought to be only an imaginary sound, was a reality. While little Jane spoke of her father, and wondered at his absence, a man, comfortably clad in coarse garments, stood near the door in a listening attitude. Once or twice he laid his hand upon the latch, but each time withdrew it and stood musing in seeming doubt. "Oh, I wish father would come home!" fell upon his ear, in clear, distinct, earnest tones.
He did not hear the low reply, though he listened eagerly. Only for a moment longer did he pause. Then swinging the door open, and stepping in quickly, he said in an earnest voice, "And I have come home at last, my child! — at last, my dear Alice! if you will let me speak to you thus tenderly — never, never again to leave you!"
Poor Mrs. Lee startled and turned pale as her husband entered thus abruptly, and all unexpected. But she saw a change in him that was not to be mistaken; and all her former love returned with overwhelming tenderness. Still she restrained herself with a strong effort, and said —
"Edward, how do you come?"
"As a sober man. As a true husband and father, I trust, to my wife and child; to banish sorrow from their hearts, and wipe the tears from their eyes. Will you receive me thus?"
He had but half finished, when Mrs. Lee sprang towards him, and fell sobbing in his outstretched arms. She saw that he was in earnest, she felt that he was in earnest, and once more a gleam of sunshine fell upon her heart.
Years have passed, and no cloud has yet dimmed the light that then dawned upon the darkness of Mrs. Lee's painful lot. Her husband is fast rising, by industry and intelligence, towards the condition in life which he had previously occupied; and she is beginning again to find herself in congenial associations. May the light of her peaceful home never again grow dim.