Human Life

Timothy Shay Arthur

Benjamin Parker was not as thrifty as some of his neighbors. He could not "get along in the world."

"Few men are more industrious than I am," he would sometimes say to his wife. "I am always attending to business, late and early, rain or shine. But it's no use, I can't get along, and am afraid I never shall. Nothing turns out well."

Mrs. Parker was a meek, patient-minded woman; and she had married Benjamin because she loved him above all the young men who sought her hand, some of whom had fairer prospects in the world than he had; and she continued to love him and confided in him, notwithstanding many reverses and privations had attended their union.

"You do the best you can," she would reply to her husband when he thus complained, "and that is as much as can be expected of anyone. You can only plant and sow the Lord must send the rain and the sunshine."

The usually pensive face of Mrs. Parker would lighten up, as she spoke words of comfort and encouragement like these. But she never ventured upon any serious advice as to the management of her husband's affairs, although there were times when she could not help thinking that if he would manage a little differently, it might be better. To his fortunes she had united her own, and she was ready to bear with him their lot in life. If he proposed anything, she generally acquiesced in it, even if it cost her much self-sacrifice; and when, as it often happened, all did not turn out as well as had been expected, she never said "I expected this," or "I never approved of it," or, "If I had been allowed to advise you, it never would have been done." No, nothing like this ever passed the lips of Mrs. Parker. But rather words of sympathy and encouragement, and a reference of all to the wise but inscrutable dispensations of Providence.

It might have been better for them if Mrs. Parker had possessed a stronger will and had manifested more decided traits of character; or it might not. The pro or con of this we will not pretend to decide. As a general thing it is no doubt true that qualities of mind in married partners have a just relation the one to the other, and act and react in a manner best suited for the correction of the peculiar evils of each and the elevation of both into the highest moral state to which they can be raised. At first glance this may strike the mind as not true as a general rule. But a little reflection will cause it to appear more obvious. If an all-wise Providence governs in the affairs of men, it is but reasonable to suppose that, in the most important act of a man's life, this Providence will be most conspicuous. Marriage is this most important act, and without doubt it is so arranged that those are brought together between whom action and reaction of intellectual and moral qualities will be just in the degree best calculated to secure their own and their children's highest good.

We are not so sure, therefore, that it would have been any better for Mr. and Mrs. Parker had the latter been less passive, and less willing to believe that her husband was fully capable of deciding as to what was best to be done in all things relating to those pursuits in life by which this world's goods are obtained. She was passive, and therefore we will believe that it was right for her to be so.

Mrs. Parker, though thus passive in all matters where she felt that her husband was capable of deciding and where he ought to decide, was not without activity and force of character. But all was directed by a gentle and loving spirit, and in subservience to a profound conviction that every occurrence in life was under the direction or permission of God. No matter what she was called upon to suffer, either of bodily or mental pain, she never murmured, but lifted her heart upward with pious submission and felt, if she did not speak the sentiment "May Your will be done."

Mrs. Parker was one of three sisters, between whom existed the tenderest affection. Their mother had died while they were young, and love for each other had been strengthened and purified in mutual love and care for their father. They had never been separated, from childhood. The very thought of separation was always attended with pain. If in the marriage of Rachel with Benjamin Parker anything crossed the mind of the loving and happy girl to cast over it a shade, it was the thought of being separated from her sisters. Not a distant separation, for Benjamin was keeping a store in the village, and there was every prospect therefore of their remaining there, permanently; but a removal from the daily presence of and household fellowship with those, to love whom had been a part of her nature.

In the deeper, tenderer, more absorbing love with which Rachel loved her husband, she found a compensation for what she lost in being separated from her sisters and father. She was happy but happy with a subdued and thankful spirit.

Not more than a year elapsed after their marriage, before Parker began to complain of the badness of the times, and to sit thoughtful and sometimes gloomy during the evenings he spent at home. This grieved Rachel very much, and caused her to exercise the greatest possible prudence and economy in order that the household expenses might be as little burdensome as possible to her husband. But all would not do.

"I am afraid I shall never get ahead here in the world," Parker at length said outright, thereby giving his wife the first suspicion of what was in his mind a wish to try his fortune in some other place.

The truth was, Parker was making a living and a little over, but he was not satisfied with this, and had moreover a natural love of change. An acquaintance had talked to him a good deal about the success of a young friend who had commenced in a town some fifty miles away, a business precisely like the one in which he was engaged. According to the account given, on half the capital which Parker possessed, this person was selling double the quantity of goods and making better profits.

A long time did not pass before Parker, after a bitter complaint in regard to his business, said:

"I don't know what is to be done unless we go to Fairview. We could do a great deal better there."

"Do you think so?" asked Rachel, in a calm voice, although her heart sank within her at the thought of being separated from those she so tenderly loved.

"I know it," was the answer. "Fairview is a thriving town, while this place is going behindhand as fast as possible. I shall never get along if I remain here, that is certain."

Rachel made no reply, but the hand that held the needle with which she was sewing moved at a quicker rate.

"Are you willing to go there?" the husband asked, with some hesitation of manner.

"If you think it best to go I am willing, of course," Rachel said, meekly.

Parker looked into the face of his wife, as it bent lower over the work she held in her hand, and tried to understand as well as read its expression. But he could not exactly make it out. Nor did the tone of voice in which she so promptly expressed her willingness to move, if he thought it best, entirely satisfy his mind. Her assent, however, had been obtained, and this being the thing he most desired, he was not long in forgetting the manner in which that assent was given. Of the cloud that fell upon her heart of the sadness that oppressed of the foreshadowing loneliness of spirit that came over her he knew nothing.

A move once determined upon, it was soon made. A large portion of the goods in Mr. Parker's store was sold at a rather heavy sacrifice and converted into cash. What remained of his stock was packed up and sent to Fairview, where with his wife and child he quickly followed. While he looked hopefully ahead, the tearful eyes of Rachel were turned back upon the beloved and loving friends that were left behind. But she did not murmur, or make any open manifestation of the grief she felt. She believed it to be her duty to go with her husband, and her duty, if she could not go cheerfully, at least to conceal from others the pain she suffered.

For a time, things looked very bright in Fairview to the eyes of Mr. Parker. He sold more goods and at better prices than at the old place; but he had to credit more. The result of his first year's business was quite encouraging. There was, however, a slight drawback very much more than his profits were outstanding. But he doubted not that all would come in.

As for Mrs. Parker the year had not gone by without leaving some marks of its passage upon her heart. Some are purified by much suffering who, to common observation, seem purer far than hundreds around them whose days glide pleasantly on and whose skies are rarely overcast, and then only by a swiftly-passing summer cloud. Rachel Parker was one of these. During the first year of her absence from those who were loved next to her husband and child her father died. And what rendered the affliction doubly severe, was the fact, that it occurred while she herself was so ill that she could not be moved without endangering her life. He died and she could not be with him in the last sad hours of his earthly existence! He died and was buried, and she was not there to look for the last time upon his beloved face to follow him to his quiet resting-place to weep over his grave! She suffered but to no mortal eye the signs of that suffering were apparent.

Even her husband was misled by the calm surface of her feelings, into the belief that there was no wild turbulence beneath. He did not see the tears that wet the pillow upon which she slept. He did not know how many hours she lay sleepless in the silent midnight watches. Daily all her duties were performed with unvarying assiduity; and when he spoke to her, she answered with her usual gentle smile. That it faded more quickly than was its custom, Benjamin Parker did not notice, nor did he remark upon the fact that she rarely introduced any subject of conversation. Indeed, so entirely was his mind engrossed by business, that it was impossible for him to have any realizing sense of the true state of his wife's feelings.

Four years were past at Fairview, during which time Parker barely managed to get sufficient out of his store to live upon; the greater portion of his profits being represented by the figures on the debtor side of his ledger. Many of these accounts were good, though slow in being realized; but many more were hopelessly bad. He was very far from being satisfied with the result. He lived, it is true, and by carefully attending to his business could continue to live, and it might be lay up a little; but this did not satisfy Benjamin Parker. He wanted to be getting ahead in the world.

"Why don't you go to the West?" said an acquaintance, to whom he was one day making complaint of his slow progress. "That is the country where enterprise meets a just reward. If I were as young a man as you are, you wouldn't catch me long in these parts. I would sell out and buy five or six hundred acres of government land and settle down as a farmer. In a few years you'd see me with property on my hands worth looking at."

This set Parker to thinking and inquiring about the West. The idea of becoming a substantial farmer, with broad acres covered with grain and fields filled with livestock, soon became predominant in his mind, and he talked of little else at home or abroad. His wife said nothing, but she thought almost as much on the subject as did her husband. At length Benjamin Parker determined that he would move to Northern Indiana, more than a thousand miles away, upon a farm of five hundred acres, that was offered to him at two dollars and a half an acre. It was government land that had been taken up a year or two before, and slightly improved by the erection of a log hut and the clearing of a few acres, and now sold at one hundred percent advance. Instead of first visiting the West and seeing the location of the land that was offered to him, Parker was willing to believe all that was said of its excellence and admirable location, and weak enough to invest in it more than half of all he was worth.

The store at Fairview was sold out, and Mrs. Parker permitted to spend a week with her sisters before parting with them, perhaps, forever. When the final moment of separation came, it seemed to her like a death-parting. The eyes of Rachel lingered upon each beloved countenance, as if for the last time, and when these passed from before her bodily visions, love kept them as distinct as ever, but distinct in their tearful sadness.

If the wishes and feelings of Rachel Parker had been consulted if she had been at all considered and her true feelings and character justly appreciated a removal to the West would never have been determined upon. But her husband's mind was all absorbed in ideas of worldly things. Not possessing the habits and qualities of mind that ensure success in any calling, he was always oppressed with the consciousness that he was either standing still, or going behind-hand. Instead of seeking to better his condition by greater activity, energy, and concentration of thought upon his business he was ever looking to something beyond it, and to change of place and pursuit as the means of improving his fortunes. This at last, as has been seen, led him off to the West in the ardent hope of becoming in time a wealthy farmer.

In an inverse ratio to the hopeful elevation of spirits with which Parker set out upon his journey, was the sorrowful depression experienced by his wife. But Rachel kept meekly and patiently her feelings to herself. It was her duty, she felt, to go with her husband. She had united her fortunes with his, and without murmuring or complaining, she was ready to go with him through the world and to stand bravely up by his side in any and all circumstances.

After a journey of five weeks, Benjamin Parker and his wife, with their family of three children, arrived at their new home in the West. It was early in the spring. The main body of the farm, which was densely wooded, lay upon the eastern bank of a small, sluggish river, with broad, marshy bottom-lands. The cabin, which had been put up the year before on a small clearing, stood on an eminence just above this river, and was five miles away from any other human habitation. It consisted of two rooms and a small loft above. One of these rooms had only a ground floor. The windows were not glazed. The last thirty miles of the journey to this wild region had been performed in a wagon, which contained their furniture and a small supply of provisions.

The first night spent in this lonely, cheerless place was one that brought no very pleasant reflections to either Parker or his wife. He was disappointed in his expectations, and she felt as if a heavy hand were pressing upon her bosom.

But there they were, and the only thing for them to do was to make the best of what was in their hands. Parker obtained an assistant and went to work to prepare the cleared ground for spring crops, and his wife, with a babe at her bosom and no help, assumed all the duties pertaining to her family. In cooking, washing, milking, sewing, etc., she found enough to occupy all her time late and early. It was a rare thing for her to lay her head upon her pillow, without extreme weariness and even exhaustion.

Time went on, and they began to reap the first fruits of their industry. The wilderness and solitary place blossomed. The little clearing widened gradually its circle, and many little comforts, at first lacking, were obtained. Still they suffered many privations, and Mrs. Parker far more than her husband imagined.

The first summer, hot and sultry, drew near to its close. Thus far they had been blessed with health. But now slight headache, nausea, and a general feeling of debility were experienced by all. The first to show symptoms of serious illness was the oldest child. She was nearly five years of age, her name was Rachel, and she was aptly named, for she was the image of her mother. The bright eyes, sweet, loving face, and happy voice of little Rachel, that was heard all day long, lightened the mother's toil, refreshed her spirits, and often made her forget the loneliness and seclusion in which they lived. She was like a cool spring in the desert, a bright flower in a barren wasteland, a ray of sunshine from a wintry sky.

Little Rachel was the first to droop. Saturday was always the busiest day of the week; it was the day of preparation for the Sabbath; for even separate and lonely as they were, this family sacredly regarded the Sabbath as a day of rest from worldly care and labor. It was Saturday, and Mrs. Parker, in the more earnest attention which she gave to her household duties, did not notice that the child was more quiet than usual; nor did the fact of finding her fast asleep on the floor when dinner was ready, cause anything further than a thought that she had tired herself out with play. At night she refused her supper, and then it was observed for the first time, that her eyes were heavy, her hands hot, and that she was affected with a general languor. Her mother undressed her and put her to bed, and the child sank off immediately into a heavy sleep. For some time Mrs. Parker stood bending over her with a feeling of unusual tenderness for the child. She also felt concern, but not arising from any definite cause. The fear of extreme sickness and impending death, she had not yet known. That was one of the lessons she had still to learn.

In the morning little Rachel awoke with a severe chill, accompanied by vomiting. A raging fever followed to this. The parents became alarmed, and Mr. Parker started off on horseback, for a physician, about seven miles distant. It was noon when the doctor arrived. He did not say much in answer to the anxious questions of the mother, but administered some medicine and promised to call on the next day. At his second visit he found nothing favorable in the symptoms of his little patient. Her fever was higher than on the day before. There had been a short intermission after midnight, which lasted until morning, when it had returned again greatly exacerbated.

Nine days did the fever last without the abatement of a single symptom, but rather a steady increase of all. The little sufferer had not only the violence of a dangerous disease to bear, but there was added to this a system of medical treatment that of itself, where no disease existed, would have made the child extremely ill. In the first place large doses of mercury were given, followed by other nauseous and poisonous drugs; then copious bleeding was resorted to; and then the entire breast of the child was covered with a blister that was kept on until the whole surface of the skin was ready to peel off. Afterward the head was shaved and blistered. During all this time, medicines that the poor sufferer's stomach refused to take were forced down her throat, almost hourly! If there had been any hope of escape from the fever, this treatment would have made death certain!

At the close of the ninth day, the physician informed the parents that he could do no more for their child. When Mrs. Parker received this news, there was little change in her external appearance, except that her pale, anxious face grew slightly paler. She tried to say in her heart, as she endeavored to lift her spirit upward "May Your will be done." But she failed in the pious effort. It was too much to take from her this darling child; this companion of her loneliness; this blossom so gently unfolding and loading the desert air with soul-refreshing sweetness. It was too much she bowed her spirit in meek endurance, but she could not say "May Your will be done."

Little Rachel died. The father dug her grave near by their humble dwelling; he made the rough coffin in which they enclosed her; and then bore out the body and laid it in the ground, while the weeping mother stood by his side. Sole mourners were they at these sad funereal rites. No holy words from the book of consolation were read, no solemn hymn was sung all was silence, heart-oppressing silence.

On the following day, Parker had to go for the physician again. His next child was taken sick. His wife was far from being well, and he felt strangely. After the doctor had prescribed for the family, and was about leaving, he took Mr. Parker to an eminence overlooking the river that bounded his farm on the western side, and spoke to him thus:

"My friend, do you see that river, with more than half of its muddy bed exposed to the hot sun? Your farm lies upon its eastern side, and the poisonous miasma that arises from its surface and banks is steadily blown upon you by the south-westerly and westerly winds of summer. Is it any wonder that your family have become sick? I wouldn't live here if you would give me fifty farms like this! Already a whole family have died on this spot, and your's will be the next if you do not leave immediately. You have lost one child; let that suffice. Flee from this place as hurriedly as Lot fled from Sodom. Medical aid I solemnly believe to be useless while you remain here. The village of Ames is healthy. Move your wife and children there immediately. Do not wait for a single day. It is the only hope for their lives."

A warning like this was not a thing to be let go by unheeded. Parker promptly announced to his wife what the doctor had communicated, and ended by saying

"We must go at once!"

"And leave Rachel?" she returned, sadly.

"Our staying here cannot do her any good," replied the husband, in a choking voice.

"I know I know," quickly answered the mother. "I am weak and foolish. Yes yes we had better go."

A few hours sufficed for all needful preparations, and then, with his wife and children in his wagon, Parker mounted one of the horses and drove off for the village of Ames, distant a little over ten miles. As they moved away the mother's eyes were turned back upon the little mound of earth beneath which slept the body of her precious child, and remained fixed upon that one spot until by intervening trees, all was hidden from her sight. Then her eyes closed, and she leaned her head down against the side of the wagon, while her arm tightened its hold of the babe that was sleeping on her bosom. For a long time she remained lost to all that was around her. Years afterward she said to a friend that the severest trial of her whole life was in leaving her child alone in that wild, desolate place. It seemed as if the little one must feel the desertion.

At the town of Ames, Parker and his family obtained accommodations in a poor tavern, where they remained for six weeks, during which time everyone suffered more or less severely from fevers, contracted in the poisoned atmosphere in which they had been residing. During the time that Parker remained at Ames, he obtained more information in regard to Western life, and the prospects of a man like himself getting ahead as a farmer on wild lands, than he had ever before had. He learned, too, some particulars about his own farm, of which he was before ignorant. All along the river upon which it was situated, the fall sickness swept off every new-comer, and was in very many instances fatal to the oldest residents. He was assured that if he went back there to live before frost set in, it would be almost certain death.

The loss of his oldest and best-beloved child; the bad location of his farm; and the new and more correct views he had received on the subject of Western life, completely opened the eyes of Parker to the folly he had committed.

"If I could make anything like a fair sale of my farm, I think I would let it go, and return to the East," he said to his wife, after they had all recovered from the worst effect of the fevers from which they had been suffering.

"If you could do as well at the East, Benjamin, I think we would all be happier there," Rachel replied, in her usual quiet way. Her husband did not notice that the tears sprang instantly to her eyes, nor did he know with what a quick throb her heart answered to his words.

A short time after this, Parker was fortunate enough to meet with a purchaser for his land, who was willing to take it with all its improvements at government price. With seven hundred dollars, the remnant of his property, after an absence of eight months, Parker returned to the East a wiser man, and his wife a more thoughtful, pensive woman. The loss of little Rachel was a sad thing for her. She could not get over it. It would have been some comfort to her if they could have brought back the child's remains, and buried them where her mother had slept for years, and where the body of her father had been so recently laid; but to leave her alone in the wild region where they had buried her, was something of which she could not think without a pang.

On the small sum of money which he had brought back from his western adventure, Parker recommenced his old business in the very town where he lived, and in the store that he occupied at the time of his marriage. As his means were more contracted, he could not do as good a business as the one he had been so foolish as to give up several years before, and he soon fell into his old habit of complaining and perhaps now with more cause. To such complaints, his meek-tempered wife would reply in some words of encouragement and comfort, as

"You do the best you can, and that is as much as can be expected of any one. You plant and sow the Lord must send the rain and the sunshine."

Back in the old place and among her loving sisters, the heart of Mrs. Parker felt once more the warm sunshine upon it the gentle dews and the refreshing rain. But a year or two only elapsed, before her husband determined to seek some better fortune in another place. Without a complaining word, his wife went with him, but her cheek grew paler and thinner afterward, her step slower and her voice even to the ear of her husband sadder. But he was too much absorbed in his efforts to get along in the world to be able to see clearly the true condition of his wife, or, if he at all understood it, to be aware of the cause.

Their new location proved to be an unhealthy one, and the loss of another child drove them away, after a residence of a year. Mrs. Parker suffered here severely from intermittent fever. She was just able to go about, when her husband declared his intention to leave the place on account of its being sickly.

"Where do you think of going?" she asked, raising to his her large pensive eyes.

"I have hardly made up my mind yet," he replied. "But I was thinking of Richmond."

Rachel's eyes fell to the floor, and a gentle sigh escaped from her bosom. This was noticed by her husband.

"Have you any objection to Richmond?" he asked.

"Why not go back to the old place?" Rachel ventured to say, while her eyes were again fixed upon him, but now earnestly and tearfully.

"Would you rather live there?" he asked, with more than usual tenderness in his voice.

"I have never been happy since we left there," the poor wife replied, sinking forward and hiding her tearful face on his bosom.

Parker was confounded. He had never dreamed of this. Rachel had always so patiently acquiesced in all that he had proposed to do, that he had imagined her as willing to move from one place to another as he had been. But now a new truth flashed upon his mind "Never been happy since we left there?"

"We will go back, Rachel," he said, with some emotion. "If I had only known this!"

And back they went. But somehow or other, Rachel Parker did not recover the healthy tone of body or mind that she had lost. By strict attention to business and continuing at it for some years in one place, her husband got along well enough, though he did not get rich. As for Rachel, she gradually declined and three years after her return, was laid at rest.