I'll See About It!
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1851
I once spent a few days in the family of a much esteemed friend, who had an interesting boy, between seven and eight years of age. One morning as the father was about leaving for his store, little Edgar came running after him, crying —
"Father! father! won't you buy me some paints and a paint-brush?"
"I'll see about it!" the father quietly replied.
"Oh! father is going to buy me a box of paints," exclaimed Edgar, dancing back into the house, almost as happy, in anticipation, as if the box were actually in his hands.
"What are you going to do with your paints?" I asked of the little fellow, drawing him to my side.
"I'm going to paint all the pictures in my coloring book, and make them look so beautiful!" said he, "I wish it wasn't so long until dinner-time. But I'll wait."
"Yes, you must wait patiently. We cannot always have what we want in a moment."
"Father could send them home by John; I wish I had asked him to do so. But I'll wait." And the little boy strove to be as patient as possible.
As often as every half-hour, at least, during the morning, Edgar came to me to talk about the box of paints his father was going to bring home.
"I wish it was dinner-time," he would sometimes say, or, "Isn't dinner-time a long while coming?"
All Edgar's usual modes of passing the hours happily, were neglected. He could think of nothing but his paint-box.
"It's one o'clock!" he cried, bursting into my room, where I sat reading, as the clock struck the hour he had named. "Father comes home at two. Aren't you glad I'm going to get my paint-box soon?"
"Yes, very glad, Edgar."
"So am I. I wonder how large a box he will buy? Henry Thomas has one so big, (measuring nearly twelve inches in length with his hands,) and ever-so-many brushes. He can paint elegantly. You ought to see the flowers he painted; they looked just like real ones."
"Can you paint a flower yet?"
"Oh, no. I haven't learned. But I am going to learn. I mean to ask father to send me to a drawing-school."
Four or five times during the next hour, Edgar came into my room to talk about his box of paints. For more than a quarter of an hour before the usual time for his father to return, he was at the window, and there remained, patiently, on the look-out for him. At length I heard him crying out, "Father is coming! father is coming!" — and running wildly down-stairs.
The little fellow had talked to me so much about his paint-box, that I felt almost as much interest as he did, and could not help leaving my room and going down to see and enjoy his pleasure, on receiving it.
"Where is my paint-box? Give me my paint-box, father!" cried Edgar, eagerly seizing hold of my friend, as he came up the steps.
"What box, child?" returned the father, coldly. "I don't know anything about your paint-box."
"The paint-box you promised me you would buy. Where is it, father? In your pocket?"
"I didn't promise to buy you a paint-box."
"Oh, yes, you did, father!" The tears were springing to the child's eyes. "Don't you know I asked you this morning to get me one?"
"I believe you did, Edgar; but did I say I would buy it for you?"
"You said you would see about it, father."
"That is one thing, and promising to buy the box another. I haven't had time to see about it, Edgar."
This was said with an air of indifference that to me was inconceivable. The disappointed child shrank away, and went quietly up-stairs to his mother, into whose lap he laid his face, sobbing most bitterly.
"What is the matter, my dear?" asked his mother.
The child made no answer.
"Edgar, what ails you, my son?"
But the boy's heart was too full. He could not speak.
"Why don't you say what is the matter?"
The mother's voice had changed from its first expression of tenderness. Still there was no answer.
"Don't come crying to me, unless you can tell me what ails you." And Edgar was pushed away.
The child felt that injustice had been done to him, and the repulse of his mother made him angry. His low, distressed cry changed to one of anger.
"Edgar, what are you crying about? I never saw such a boy! You are always crying about something!"
This had no favorable effect. The tones in which it was spoken were fretful, and these excited, rather than soothed the child. He went away from his mother's side, and leaned against the wall, still continuing to cry, but with more bitterness.
"Edgar, stop crying!"
The mother spoke with authority, and stamped her foot, to give emphasis to what she said. But her words had no effect.
"Look here, Edgar! If you don't stop instantly, you shall be shut up in the closet, and kept there until after dinner!"
The poor child's disappointment had been so great, that he felt indifferent about everything. If his mother had expressed sympathy and spoken kindly, it would have soothed and comforted him. But her words, and the tones in which they were uttered, aroused angry feelings, which made him stubborn. The threat of punishment had no effect; he still cried on.
"Aren't you going to stop?" This was the last angry appeal; and it might as well not have been made. It had no effect whatever.
Being now out of all patience, Edgar's mother seized him by the arm, and, thrusting him into a dark closet, shut the door. His crying instantly ceased. His anger was changed into grief. He had been wronged, and he felt it keenly. Laying his little head upon a pillow that was on the floor of the closet, he sobbed himself to sleep, and was found there when the door was opened about an hour afterwards.
"Where is Edgar?" asked my friend, looking towards his vacant chair at the dinner-table, after we were all seated.
"He has been a naughty boy, and cannot come to the table today," replied the mother, smiling, as she glanced towards me.
"What has he been doing?" asked my friend.
"He came up to me, crying, a little while ago, and would neither tell me what ailed him, nor stop his noise. I persuaded and threatened, but all to no purpose; and had, at last, to shut him up in the closet. He is a very self-willed boy. When he once gets set out, there is no doing anything with him."
My friend said nothing. What he thought, I do not know: but I have very good reasons for believing that he did not for a moment imagine that he, and he alone, was to blame in the matter. When he told Edgar, in reply to his request for a box of paints, that he would see about it, he did so by way of getting off from the child's importunity. From that moment he thought no more about it. Not so with the child. He fully believed that his father had promised to buy him what he so much desired, and, confiding in this promise, he expected to get the box of paints upon his return home, at dinner-time. But he was sadly disappointed, and was too young to bear the disappointment.
So little had Edgar's father thought of what his child asked of him, and so little notice did he take of the effect produced by his failure to get the paints, that it did not occur to him that Edgar had been crying from the disappointment. The mother was, of course, entirely ignorant of the cause of her son's unhappiness. It is true, he had talked to her about the paint-box he was to get when his father came home to dinner: but she had so many matters of interest to which her daily attention was called, that she never thought about any of them longer than ten minutes at a time. The child's crying she attributed to some trifling crossing of his temper, and she did not feel at all disposed to humor him.
I saw all this, and it grieved me deeply. But my position was such that I could say nothing. About two hours after I had left the dinner-table, as I was about going out for a walk, I found Edgar sitting on the front door-steps. He was alone, and was looking at some children playing in the street. He did not show any disposition to join them. As I passed him, he looked up at me with a sober face. I did not speak to him, for I did not know what to say. Once or twice, I turned back to look at him — his eyes were following me.
"Shall I buy him a box of paints?" I asked myself. "Will it be right?"
For some time, I argued these questions, and finally determined that I would risk gratifying the child. His father, I felt quite sure, had given the matter so little thought, and was so entirely ignorant of the effect produced by his failure to buy the paint-box, that he would not look upon my act as an officious one, meant to rebuke him.
I came back sooner than I had intended, with the paint-box in my possession. Edgar still sat where I had left him. His mother came to the door just as I placed my foot upon the step to enter. She greeted me pleasantly, and then said —
"Edgar, why don't you go out and play with the children? There's William Ellis, and Mary Miller, and Thomas Gray, who all love to have you play with them. Go, my son."
"I don't want to play," replied Edgar, looking up into his mother's face. "I would rather sit here."
"Sit there, then. You are a strange child, sometimes."
There was petulance rather than tenderness in the mother's voice. The boy sighed, and remained sitting where he was.
"It's a very hard matter to get along with children," remarked my friend's wife. "You never know how to take them. One moment they are on the mountain top, and the next in the valley. Yesterday, it was next to impossible for me to keep Edgar away from those children, and now he cares nothing about them. It seems as if all their moods and tempers were ever in direct opposition to your wishes or feelings. Yesterday, I did not want him to go into the street, and then nothing else would suit him. Today, I would rather he would amuse himself with the children; but he chooses to sit moping at the door. It requires a great deal of patience to get along with children; much more than I possess."
I did not assent to the last part of the sentence uttered, although, from all that I had seen, I was very well satisfied of its truth.
"I have no doubt," I made answer, "that it is one of the most difficult things in the world to understand the dispositions and feelings of children, and so to act as not to do violence to what is good in them. Their varied moods and tempers are not always mere impulses; they depend upon what we would consider, if we knew all, adequate causes. Subjected, as they are, entirely to others — possessing no abstract freedom of their own — they must be constantly meeting with checks and disappointments. We know how little able we are to encounter such things without disturbance, although our reason is matured, and we can understand causes, and although much experience in life has tended to sober our feelings and give us some support in a rational philosophy. Reflecting thus, we ought not to be surprised at anything we see in children; but should rather seek to understand the reason why they are at any time disturbed."
"But suppose, as was the case with me today, you are not able to draw from the child what it is that disturbs him — how are you to act?"
"I am not able to answer that question," I replied, smiling. "Circumstances always alter cases."
"It is very easy to theorize — one of the easiest things in the world. But it is quite another thing to practice."
To this remark, I had nothing to say. I tacitly admitted its truth. At the same time I could not help feeling that the practice of some people might be better than it was, by a great deal.
"Come up-stairs and see me, Edgar," said I to the boy, after I had changed the subject of conversation with his mother, and chatted with her a little while longer.
The child arose quickly, and walked by my side up-stairs and into the chamber I occupied. Although I did not mean that it should be so, yet I saw, from Edgar's manner, that my voice had betrayed the secret that I had something for him. I had no opportunity, therefore, for surprising him.
"I have got a little present for you, Edgar," said I, drawing forth a small package enclosed in paper.
"What is it? A paint-box?" eagerly asked the little fellow, his face brightening.
"Yes, a paint-box. How do you like it?"
I had by this time taken off the envelope and displayed the box. I really thought the sight of it would set the child wild with delight. He seized it in his hands and fairly hugged it. Then, drawing off the lid, he counted over each paint, and handled and tried the brushes.
"Let me go and show it to mother," said he, and away he ran, crying to his mother that I had given him a box of paints.
"Artless, innocent childhood!" I could not help saying, "how brief is your remembrance of wrong!"
His mother had punished him because he had cried from the severity of his disappointment in not getting his expected box of paints; but this was all forgotten now.
After the box was shown to his mother, Edgar went into the dining-room to paint, and we saw and heard no more of him until tea-time. When his father came home. Edgar was as eager to show his prize to him as he had been to his mother.
The incidents of the day made me thoughtful. I had always entertained for my friend a very high opinion; and had especially esteemed him for his goodness of heart and benevolence. But the circumstance I have just related caused doubting questions to arise. Was it possible for a man of true benevolence to act towards his confiding child with such culpable indifference? I could not reconcile my previous opinion with the fact that had just transpired. They were at variance with each other.
The more I thought about the matter, the more I felt disturbed.
"Can it be possible?" I at length asked myself, "that my friend is naturally a selfish, bad-hearted man — who takes upon himself, in common society, pretenses of virtue?"
"No — no — this cannot be," was my mental answer. "His worst fault must be thoughtlessness."
On the next day, I happened in at my friend's store. While I sat reading a newspaper, and he was busy at his desk, a little girl, rather poorly clad, came in, and said something to him in a low, earnest tone. My friend hesitated, and the child spoke more earnestly. He then asked two or three questions, to which he received answers.
"Very well, I will see about it," he said with a smile.
The little girl seemed satisfied, and went away.
"Your little visitor was quite importunate," I remarked.
"Yes," he replied. "Her father used to work for me. He is an honest, industrious man, but has been sick for some time. He is getting better, however, and now wants me to speak to one of my neighbors about a situation in his store. I told her that if her father would send her, it would do just as well. But she said he wished me to go particularly, for he knew, if I spoke for it, that I could get it for him."
"And so you promised to see about it?" said I, letting my voice rest, with some emphasis, upon the last words of the sentence.
"Yes — I could do no less," he replied, not observing that I had used his own words.
I felt strongly inclined to call my friend's attention to the fact of his having spoke in the same way to Edgar, but could not see my way exactly clear to do so, just then.
Two days afterwards, while I was again sitting in my friend's store, the same little girl came in. Before she had time to speak, my friend said —
"I declare! I have entirely forgotten you! But wait a minute, and I will go and see about it at once."
The child looked disappointed, but sat down quietly. My friend put on his hat and went out. In a little while he came in, and said to her —
"Tell your father that Mr. Peterson says that he would have given him the situation with pleasure, if he had applied earlier, but that it was now filled."
The little girl looked into my friend's face for some time, with what seemed to me a sad expression, and then went slowly away.
"Really, I must blame myself for not having gone at once to see about the situation for this poor man. If I had gone yesterday, I might have secured it for him."
"It's a pity, certainly," I ventured to remark.
"It is, indeed. I really feel bad about it. But, the fact is, he ought to have sent direct to Mr. Peterson and not to have asked me to speak to him."
"No doubt, he believed that you would have more influence, and thus make his application more certain."
"Yes. But the result has shown differently."
"It would have shown differently if you had seen Mr. Peterson immediately."
"But I didn't; and there I was to blame. It can't be helped now, however. I am sorry, and that is as much as I can say."
We talked some time on the subject, I improving an opportunity that offered to call his attention to the sad disappointment his thoughtless promise to see about a box of paints for Edgar had occasioned the little boy. He was surprised and astonished at what I said; and seemed deeply grieved at the pain his child had suffered and the wrong that had been done to him. So little had he thought about what he had said to Edgar, in reply to his request, that it had by this time retired so far from his memory, that it was recalled with considerable difficulty.
We were yet conversing, when a man entered the store, and came slowly back to the little room in which we were sitting. He walked with a feeble, tottering step.
"Why, John, is this you? I am glad to see you out. How are you getting along?" said my friend, the color rising to his face as he spoke.
The man did not smile in return, but knit his brow, compressed his lips, and looked up sternly.
"I am really sorry, John," said my friend, speaking with much apparent confusion, "that I couldn't get that place for you. Mr. Peterson said that he would have taken you with pleasure, if the application had not come too late."
An expression of impatience, mingled with something like contempt, flitted over the man's pale face. He was evidently struggling hard with himself to keep from speaking out too plainly what was in his mind. At length he said, in a subdued but earnest tone —
"Sir, it may be only right for me to let you know, that, in neglecting to see about the situation for me, as you promised you would do, you have put it out of my power to get bread for my family. They have only had potatoes to eat for many days. No one can earn anything but myself, and I have been sick for some weeks and unable to work. If you had told my little girl that you could not apply to Mr. Peterson for me, I would have hobbled out myself. But you promised to see about it, and I rested satisfied that it would be done. Perhaps I was wrong in presuming to trouble you; but I always considered you a kind-hearted man, and believed it would give you pleasure to do me a good turn."
The brows of my friend contracted in anger. Although the man's manner was not insolent, yet the fact of his calling to take him to task, chafed his feelings. He was about making some harsh reply, when the man, feeling, perhaps, that he had, in the excitement produced by the news brought back by his little girl, been led to act improperly, and yet, feeling unwilling to apologize for what had already transpired, turned away, and walked from the store as fast as his feeble steps would carry him.
My friend looked at me, and I looked at him. It was some time before anything was said.
"I shall have to correct this fault of mine," he at length remarked, with a long inspiration after uttering the sentence. "I am too much in the habit of saying I will see about a thing, without really thinking that the words amount to a promise. John's manner has irritated me; but I suppose I must make every allowance for one in his circumstances. He must have a situation. I will get him one somewhere, immediately, if I have to furnish the wages and let his labor go for nothing. But he must not know that I have anything to do in it."
Before two hours had passed, a storekeeper in the neighborhood sent for John, and engaged him as a porter. He inquired very kindly of him as to how long he had been sick, and what were his circumstances, and then offered him a month's wages in advance. The agency of my friend in this, John more than suspected, for he came before night and apologized for what he had said in the morning.
In spite of all my reasoning on the subject, I could not think so highly of my friend as I did before I had the privilege of spending a short time in his family and observing him in his every-day relationships. The amiability of temper and sincerity of manner which he always displayed whenever I saw him, made me consider him one of the best of men I had ever met. But now he stood on the common plane, with faults such as were possessed by common men.
I hold up his peculiar failing as a mirror into which others who are like him may look, and see something of their own character, by reflection.