How to Be Happy

Timothy Shay Arthur, 1856


Old Mr. Cleveland sat by his comfortable fireside one cold winter's night. He was a widower, and lived alone on his plantation; that is to say, he was the only white person there; for of negroes, both field hands and house servants, he had enough and to spare. He was a strange old man, this Mr. Cleveland; a man of kind, good feelings but of eccentric impulses, and blunt and startling manners. You must always let him do everything in his own odd way; just attempt to dictate to him, or even to suggest a certain course and you would be sure to defeat your wisest designs. He seemed at times possessed by a spirit of opposition, and would often turn right round and oppose a course he had just been vehemently advocating, only because someone else had ventured openly and warmly to approve it.

The night, as I have said, was bitter cold, and would have done honor to a northern latitude, and in addition to this, a violent storm was coming on. The wind blew in fitful gusts, howling and sighing among the huge trees with which the house was surrounded, and then dying away with a melancholy, dirge-like moan. The old tree rubbed their leafless branches against the window panes. Mr. Cleveland grew moody and restless, threw down the book in which he had been reading, kicked one of the andirons until he made the whole blazing fabric tumble down, and finally called, in an impatient tone, his boy Tom.

Tom soon popped his head in at the door, and said, "Yer's me, sir."

"Yer's me, indeed!" exclaimed Mr. Cleveland, "what sort of a way is this to build a fire?"

"I rispec you is bin kick um, sir," said Tom.

"Hey? What? Well! suppose I did bin kick um, if it had been properly made, it would not have tumbled down. Fix it this minute!"

"I is gwine to fix um now, sir," said Tom, fumbling at the fire.

"Well! fix it, without having so much to say about it; you had better do more, and say less," said Mr. Cleveland.

"Yes, sir," answered Tom.

"You 'will' keep answering me when there is no occasion!" exclaimed Mr. Cleveland; "I just wish I had my stick here, I'd crack the side of your head with it."

"Yer's de stick, sir," said Tom, handing the walking cane out of the corner.

"Put it down, this instant," said Mr. Cleveland; "how dare you touch my stick without my permission?"

"I bin tink you bin say you bin want um, sir," said Tom.

"You had better think about your work, and stop answering me, or I'll find a way to make you," said Mr. Cleveland. "Bring in some more light wood, and make the fire, and shut in the window shutters. Do you hear me?"

"Yes, sir," replied Tom.

"Well, why don't you answer, if you hear, then? How am I to know when you hear me, if you don't answer?" said Mr. Cleveland.

"I bin tink you bin tell me for no answer you, sir," said Tom.

"I said when there was no occasion, boy; that's what I said," exclaimed Mr. Cleveland, reaching for his stick.

"Yes, sir," said Tom, as he went grinning out of the room.

Mr. Cleveland was, in the main, a very kind master, though somewhat hasty and impatient. Tom and he were forever sparring, yet neither could have done without the other; and there was something comical about Tom's disposition which well suited his master's eccentric and changeable moods. Tom evidently served as a kind of safety valve for his master's nervous system, and many an explosion of superfluous excitability he had to bear.

On the night in question, Mr. Cleveland was particularly out of sorts. The truth is, he was naturally a generous, warm-hearted man but in consequence of early disappointment, had lived a solitary life, and was really suffering for lack of objects of affection. His feelings, unsatisfied, unemployed, yet morbidly sensitive, were becoming soured, and his untenanted heart often ached for lack of sympathy.

He rose and took several diagonal turns across the room. At length he opened a window, and looked out upon the stormy night. "What confounded weather!" he muttered to himself, "it makes a man feel like blowing his brains out! There are no two ways about it, I'm tired of life. What have I to live for? If I were to die tomorrow who would shed a tear?"

Then whispered conscience, "It is your own fault. A man need not feel alone because there are none in the world who bear his name, or share his blood. All men are your brethren. You are one of the great human family and what have you done to relieve the poor and suffering around you? Will not your Master say to you at the last day, 'I was an hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you took me not in; naked, and you clothed me not; sick, and in prison, and you visited me not. Inasmuch as you did it not to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it not to me.'"

This was a strong and direct appeal, and it was not without its effect. Then muttered Mr. Cleveland to himself again, "Well, how can I help it? It has not been for lack of inclination. Heaven knows I am always ready to put my hand in my pocket whenever people call on me for charity. How can I help it if the poor and suffering do not make their needs known to me?"

Then again spoke Conscience: "You are trying to deceive yourself but you cannot deceive nor silence 'me'. You have known of the existence of suffering, and your indolence has prevented you from going abroad to relieve it. Did your Master thus? Did he not 'go about' to do good? Did he not sit down to eat with publicans and sinners? Can you stand here, and look out upon such a night as this, and not think of those who are exposed to its bitterness? Can your human heart beat only for itself when you think of the thousand miseries crying to Heaven for relief? Resolve, now, before your head touches its comfortable pillow, that with the morning's dawn you will resolutely set about your work; or, rather, your Master's work."

"It is very hard," still muttered Mr. Cleveland to himself, "that these thoughts will continually intrude themselves upon me. They give me no peace of my life. Stifle them as I may, they come with tenfold force. People have no business to be poor. I was poor once, and nobody gave charity to me. I had to help myself up in the world as well as I could. I hate poor people; I hate unfortunate people; in fact, confound it! I hate the world and everybody in it!"

Then answered once again the still, small voice: "For shame, Mr. Cleveland, for shame! You will ruin your soul if you thus darken the light within. You know better than all this, and you are sinning against yourself. You want to be happy; well, you may be so. There is a wide field of duty open before you; enter, in God's name, and go to work like a man. What you say about having helped yourself, is perfectly true, and you deserve all credit for it. But remember that the majority of the poor are entirely destitute of your advantages. You had the foundation rightly laid. A thousand circumstances in your early life conspired to render you energetic and self-reliant. You had the right sort of education, and Providence also helped to train you. Besides, once more I ask you, did your Master stop to inquire how human misery was brought about, before he relieved it? Away with this unmanly, selfish policy! Follow your generous impulses, follow out the yearnings of your heart, without which you never can have peace; above, all, follow Christ."

Mr. Cleveland shut the window, heaved a deep sigh, and took several more turns across the room. "I believe it is all true," at length he said, "and I have been a confounded fool. I'll turn about, and lead a different life, so help me Heaven! I have wealth, and not a chick nor a child to spend it on, nor to leave it to when I die, and so I'll spend it in doing good, if I can only find out the best way; that's the trouble. But never mind, I'll be my own executor." He now rang the bell for Tom.

Tom immediately appeared, with his usual "Yer's me, sir."

"Tom," said Mr. Cleveland, "put me in mind in the morning, to send a load of wood to old Mrs. Peters."

"Yes, sir," said Tom, "an' you better sen' some bacon, 'cause little Mas Jack Peter say him ain't bin hab no meat for eat sence I do' know de day when. I rispec dey drudder hab de meat sted o' de wood, 'cause dey can pick up wood nuf all about."

"You mind your own business, sir," said Mr. Cleveland, "I'll send just what I please. How long is it since I came to you for advice? Confound the fellow!" he muttered aside, "I meant to send the woman some meat, and now if I do it, that impudent fellow will think I do it because he advised it. Anyhow, I'll not send bacon, I'll send beef or mutton."

Just at this moment, there was a knock at the door, and Tom, going to open it, admitted Dick, the coachman.

"What do you want, Dick, at this time of night?" inquired his master.

"Dere's a man down stays, sir," replied Dick, "and he seem to be in great affliction. He says dey is campin' out 'bout half a mile below, sir, and de trees is fallin' so bad he is 'fraid dey will all be killed. He ask you if you kin let dem stay in one of de out-houses tell tomorrow."

"Camping out such a night as this?" exclaimed Mr. Cleveland, "the Lord have pity on them! How many are there of them, Dick?"

"He, an' his wife, and six little children, sir," answered Dick.

"No negroes?" inquired his master.

"Not a nigger, sir," said Dick. "I ain't like poor buckrah, no how, sir but I 'spect you best take dese people in, lest dey might die right in our woods."

Tom, knowing his master's dislike of advice, and fearing that Dick had taken the surest method to shut them out, now chimed in, and said, "Massa, if I bin you, I no would not tek dem in at all."

"What do you mean, sir?" exclaimed Mr. Cleveland; "you surely must be taking leave of your senses. Dick, you'll have to give that boy of yours a thrashing. I'll not stand his insolence much longer. Don't stand there, grinning at me, sir."

"No, sir," snickered Tom, skulking behind Dick, who was his father.

"Let the man come up here, Dick," said Mr. Cleveland.

When the traveler made his appearance, Mr. Cleveland was startled at his wan and woe-begone appearance. "Sit down, my man," said he.

"I thank you, sir," replied the stranger, "but I must be back as soon as possible to my family. Can you grant us a night's lodging, sir?"

"Certainly, sir," replied Mr. Cleveland; "have you any means of getting your family hither? I am told you have six little ones."

"They must walk, sir," replied the stranger, "for our only horse has been killed by a falling tree; but I have not a word to complain. It might have been my wife or one of my little ones, and, poor as I am, I can spare none of them."

Mr. Cleveland, whose feelings were at this time in an usually softened state, got up, and walked rapidly to the book-case to conceal his emotion, dashed away a tear, and muttered to himself, as was his accustomed, "'Tis confoundedly affecting, that's a fact." Then turning to the stranger, who was in the act of leaving the room, he said, "If you will wait a few moments I will have my carriage got; your wife and little ones must not walk on such a night as this."

"God bless you, sir!" said the stranger, in a trembling voice; "but I am too uneasy to stay a moment longer."

"Well, go on," said Mr. Cleveland, "and the carriage shall come after you, and I will go in it myself." The stranger brushed his hand across his eyes, and left the room without speaking a word; while Dick and Tom exchanged glances of surprise at their master's uncommon fit of philanthropy; Tom feeling fully assured that the "poor buckrahs," as he termed them, owed their good fortune to his seasonable interference.

The carriage was soon in readiness, and Mr. Cleveland rode in it to the spot. He found the family all gathered around the dead horse, and lamenting over it; while the father, having just arrived, was expatiating upon his kind reception by Mr. Cleveland. It took them some little time to stow themselves away in the carriage, and Mr. Cleveland actually carried two sturdy children on his knees. Yes, there he was, riding through the dreadful storm, in danger every moment from the trees which were falling all around him, with an infant in its mother's arms squealing with all its might, and a heavy boy on each knee, and squeezed almost to death into the bargain for there were nine in the carriage and yet feeling so happy! ay, far happier than he had felt for many a long day. Truly, charity brings its own reward.

When they arrived at Mr. Cleveland's house, instead of being stowed away in an out-building, as the poor man had modestly requested, they were comfortably provided for beneath his own roof. That night, as he laid his head upon his pillow, he could not help feeling surprised at his sudden accession of happiness. "Well, I will go on," he soliloquized; "I will pursue the path I have this night taken, and if I always feel as I do now, I am a new man, and will never again talk about blowing my brains out." He slept that night the sleep of peace, and rose in the morning with a light heart and buoyant spirits.

His first care was to take the father of the family aside, and gather from him the story of his misfortunes. It was a long and mournful tale, and Mr. Cleveland was obliged, more than once, to pretend a sudden call out of the room, that he might hide his emotion. And the tale was by no means told in vain. True to his new resolutions, Mr. Cleveland thankfully accepted the work which Providence had given him to do, and the family of emigrants, to this day, mention the name of Cleveland with tears of gratitude and love, and, when they implore God's mercy for themselves, never forget to invoke, for their kind benefactor, Heaven's choicest blessings. Nor is that the only family whose hearts glow at the mention of Mr. Cleveland's name. Far and wide his name is known, and honored, and beloved.

And Mr. Cleveland has found out the real secret of happiness. It is true that he and Tom still have their squabbles, for Tom is really a provoking fellow, and Mr. Cleveland is, and always will be, an eccentric, impulsive man but his heart, which, when we first introduced him to our readers, was far from being right with God, or with his fellow-men, is now the dwelling-place of love and kindness, and the experience of every day contributes to strengthen the new principles he has imbibed, and to confirm him in the right.

Reader! are you sad or solitary? I can offer you a certain cure for all your woes. Contemplate the life of Him who spoke as never man spoke. Follow him through all those years of toil and suffering. See him wherever called by the sorrows of his human brethren, and witness his deeds of mercy and his offices of love, and then, "go and do likewise!"