My Father

Timothy Shay Arthur, 1856

 

I have a very early recollection of my father as a cheerful man, and of our home as a place full of the heart's warmest sunshine. But the father of my childhood and the father of my more advanced years, wore a very different exterior. He had grown silent, thoughtful, abstracted, but not morose. As his children sprang up around him, full of life and hope, he seemed to lose the buoyant spirits of his earlier manhood. I did not observe this at the time, for I had not learned to observe and reflect. Life was a simple state of enjoyment. Trial had not quickened my perceptions, nor suffering taught me an unselfish regard for others.

The home provided by my father was elegant some would have called it luxurious. On our education and accomplishments, no expense was spared. I had the best teachers and, of course, the most expensive; with none others would I have been satisfied, for I had come naturally to regard myself as on a social equality with the fashionable young friends who were my companions, and who indulged the fashionable vice of depreciating everything which did not come up to a certain acknowledged standard.

Yearly I went to Saratoga or Newport with my sisters, and at a cost which I now think of with amazement. Sometimes my mother went with us, but my father never. He was not able to leave his business. Business! How I came to dislike the word! It was always "business" when we asked him to go anywhere with us; "business" hurried him away from his hastily-eaten meals; "business" absorbed all his thoughts, and robbed us of our father.

"I wish father would give up business," I said to my mother one day, "and take some comfort of his life. Mr. Woodward has retired, and is now living on his income."

My mother looked at me strangely and sighed, but answered nothing.

About this time my father showed some inclination to repress our growing disposition to spend money extravagantly in dress. Nothing but a hundred-dollar shawl would suit my ideas. Ada White had been presented by her father with a hundred-dollar cashmere, and I did not mean to be put off with anything less.

"Father, I need a hundred dollars," said I to him one morning as he was leaving the house, after eating his light breakfast. He had grown dyspeptic, and had to be careful and sparing in his diet.

"A hundred dollars!" He looked surprised; in fact, I noticed that my request made him startle. "What do you want with so much money?"

"I have nothing seasonable to wear," said I, very firmly; "and as I must have a shawl, I might as well get a good one while I am about it. I saw one at Stewart's yesterday that is just the thing. Ada White's father gave her a shawl exactly like it, and you must let me have the money to buy this one. It will last my lifetime."

"A hundred dollars is a large price for a shawl," said my father, in his sober way.

"Oh, dear, no!" was my emphatic answer; "a hundred dollars is a low price for a shawl. Jane Wharton's cost five hundred."

"I'll think about it," said my father, turning from me rather abruptly.

When he came home at dinner-time, I was alone in the parlor, practicing a new piece of music which my fashionable teacher had left me. He was paid three dollars for every lesson. My father smiled as he laid a hundred-dollar bill on the keys of the piano. I started up, and kissing him, said, with the ardor of a pleased girl

"What a dear good father you are!"

The return was ample. He always seemed most pleased when he could gratify some wish or supply some want of his children. Ah! if we had been less selfish less demanding!

It was hardly to be expected that my sisters would see me the possessor of a hundred-dollar shawl, and not desire a like addition to their wardrobes.

"I want a hundred dollars," said my sister Jane, on the next morning, as my father was about leaving for his store.

"Can't spare it today, my child," I heard him answer, kindly, but firmly.

"Oh, but I must have it," urged my sister.

"I gave you twenty-five dollars only day before yesterday," my father replied to this. "What have you done with that?"

"Spent it for gloves and laces," said Jane, in a light way, as if the sum were of the smallest possible consequence.

"I am not made of money, child." The tone of my father's voice struck me as unusually sober almost sad. But Jane replied instantly, and with something of reproach and complaint in her tones "I wouldn't think you were, if you find it so hard to part with a hundred dollars."

"I have a large payment to make today" my father spoke with unusual decision of manner "and shall need every dollar that I can raise."

"You gave sister a hundred dollars yesterday," said Jane, almost petulantly.

Not a word of reply did my father make. I was looking at him, and saw an expression on his countenance that was new to me an expression of pain, mingled with fear. He turned away slowly, and in silence left the house.

"Jane," said my mother, addressing her from the stairway, on which she had been standing, "how could you speak so rudely to your father?"

"I have just as good right to a hundred dollar shawl, as Anna," replied my sister, in a very undutiful tone. "And what is more, I'm going to have one!"

"What reason did your father give for refusing your request today?" asked my mother.

"Couldn't spare the money! Had a large payment to make! Only an excuse!"

"Stop, my child!" was the quick, firm remark, made with unusual feeling. "Is that the way to speak of so good a father? Of one who has ever been so kindly indulgent? Jane! Jane! You know not what you are saying!"

My sister looked something abashed at this unexpected rebuke, when my mother took occasion to add, with an earnestness of manner that I could not help remarking as singular,

"Your father is troubled about something. Business may not be going on to his satisfaction. Last night I awoke, and found him walking the floor. To my questions, he merely answered that he was wakeful. His health is not so good as formerly, and his spirits are low. Don't, let me beg you, do anything to worry him. Say no more about this money, Jane; you will get it whenever it can be spared."

I did not see my father again until tea-time. Occasionally, business engagements pressed upon him so closely that he did not come home at the usual hour for dining. He looked pale weary almost haggard.

"Dear father, are you sick?" said I, laying a hand upon him, and gazing earnestly into his countenance.

"I do not feel very well," he replied, partly averting his face, as if he did not wish me to read its expression too closely. "I have had a weary day."

"You must take more recreation," said I. "This excessive devotion to business is destroying your health. Why will you do it, father?"

He merely sighed as he passed onwards, and ascended to his own room. At tea-time I observed that his face was unusually sober. His silence was nothing uncommon, and so that passed without remark from anyone.

On the next day Jane received the hundred dollars, which was spent for a shawl like mine. This brought the sunshine back to her face. Her moody looks, I saw, disturbed my father.

From this time, the hand which had ever been ready to supply all our wants real or imaginary opened less promptly at our demands. My father talked occasionally of retrenchment and economy when some of our extravagant bills came in; but we paid little heed to his remarks on this head. Where could we retrench? In what could we economize? The very idea was absurd! We had nothing that others moving in our circle did not have. Our house and furniture would hardly compare favorably with the houses and furniture of many of our fashionable friends. We dressed no better indeed, not so well as dozens of our acquaintances. Retrenchment and economy! I remember laughing with my sisters at the words, and wondering with them what could be coming over our father. In a half-amused way, we enumerated the various items of imaginary reform, beginning at the annual summer recreations, and ending with our milliner's bills. In mock seriousness, we proposed to take the places of cook, chambermaid, and waiter, and thus save these items of expense in the family. We had quite a merry time over our imagined reforms.

But our father was serious. Steadily he persisted in what seemed to us, to be a growing stinginess. Every demand for money seemed to give him a partial shock, and every dollar that came to us was parted with reluctantly. All this was something new; but we thought less than we felt about it. Our father seemed to be getting into a very singular state of mind.

Summer came around I shall never forget that summer and we commenced making our annual preparations for Saratoga. Money was, of course, an indispensable prerequisite. I asked for fifty dollars.

"For what purpose?" inquired my father.

"I haven't a single dress fit to appear in," said I.

"Where are you going?" he asked.

I thought the question a strange one, and replied, a little curtly,

"To Saratoga, of course."

"Oh!" It seemed new to him. Then he repeated my words, in a questioning kind of a way, as if his mind were not altogether satisfied on the subject.

"To Saratoga?"

"Yes, sir. To Saratoga. We always go there. We shall close the season at Newport this year."

"Who else is going?" My father's manner was strange. I had never seen him just in the mood he then appeared to be.

"Jane is going, of course; and so is Emily. And we are trying to persuade mother, also. She didn't go last year. Won't you spend a week or two with us? Now do say yes."

My father shook his head at this last proposal, and said, "No, child!" very decidedly.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because I have something of more importance to think about than Saratoga and its fashionable follies."

"Business! business!" said I, impatiently. "It is the idol, father, to which you sacrifice every social pleasure, every home delight, every good! Already you have laid health and happiness upon the bloody altars of this false god!"

A few quick flushes went over his pale face, and then its expression became very sad.

"Anna," he said, after a brief silence, during which even my unpracticed eyes could see that an intense struggle was going on in his mind, "Anna, you will have to give up your visit to Saratoga this year."

"Why, father!" It seemed as if my blood were instantly on fire. My face was, of course, all in a glow. I was confounded, and, let me confess it, indignant; it seemed so like a tyrannical outrage.

"It is simply as I say, my daughter." He spoke without visible excitement. "I cannot afford the expense this season, and you will, therefore, all have to remain in the city."

"That's impossible!" said I. "I couldn't live here through the summer."

"I manage to live!" There was a tone in my father's voice, as he uttered these simple words, partly to himself, which rebuked me. Yes, he did manage to live, but how? Witness his pale face, wasted form, subdued aspect, brooding silence, and habitual abstraction of mind!

"I manage to live!" I hear the rebuking words even now the tones in which they were uttered are in my ears. Dear father! Kind, tender, indulgent, patient, self-denying! Ah, how little were you understood by your thoughtless, selfish children!

"Let my sisters and mother go," said I, a new regard for my father springing up in my heart; "I will remain at home with you."

"Thank you, dear child!" he answered, his voice suddenly veiled with feeling. "But I cannot afford to let anyone go this season."

"The girls will be terribly disappointed. They have set their hearts on going," said I.

"I'm sorry," he said. "But necessity knows no law. They will have to make themselves as contented at home as possible."

And he left me, and went away to his all-exacting "business."

When I stated what he had said, my sisters were in a transport of mingled anger and disappointment, and gave utterance to many unkind remarks against our good, indulgent father. As for my oldest sister, she declared that she would go in spite of him, and proposed our visiting the store of a well-known merchant, where we often made purchases, and buying all we wanted, leaving directions to have the bill sent to father. But I was now on my father's side, and resolutely opposed all suggestions of disobedience. His manner and words had touched me, causing some scales to drop from my vision, so that I could see in a new light, and perceive things in a new aspect.

We waited past the usual time for my father's coming home on that day, and then dined without him. A good deal to our surprise he came home about four o'clock, entering with an unusual quiet manner, and going up to his own room without speaking to any one of the family.

"Was that your father?" We were sitting together, still discussing the question of Saratoga and Newport. It was my mother who asked the question. We had heard the street door open and close, and had also heard footsteps along the passage and up the stairs.

"It is too early for him to come home," I answered.

My mother looked at her watch, and remarked, as a shadow of concern flitted over her face,

"It certainly was your father. I cannot be mistaken in his step. What can have brought him home so early? I hope he is not sick." And she arose and went hastily from the room. I followed, for a sudden fear came into my heart.

"Edward! what ails you? Are you sick?" I heard my mother ask, in an alarmed voice, as I came into her room. My father had laid himself across the bed, and his face was concealed by a pillow, into which it was buried deeply.

"Edward! Edward! Husband! What is the matter? Are you ill?"

"Oh, father! dear father!" I cried, adding my voice to my mother's, and bursting into tears. I grasped his hand; it was very cold. I leaned over, and, pressing down the pillow, touched his face. It was cold also, and clammy with perspiration.

"Send James for the doctor, instantly," said my mother.

"No, no don't." My father partially aroused himself at this, speaking in a thick, unnatural voice.

"Go!" My mother repeated the injunction, and I flew downstairs with the order for James, our waiter, to go in all haste for the family physician. When I returned, my mother, her face wet with tears, was endeavoring to remove some of my father's outer garments. Together we took off his coat, waistcoat and boots, he making no resistance, and appearing to be in partial stupor, as if under the influence of some drug. We chafed his hands and feet, and bathed his face, which wore a deathly aspect, and used all the means in our power to rekindle the failing spark of life. But he seemed to grow less and less conscious of external things every moment.

When the physician came, he had many questions to ask as to the cause of the state in which he found my father. But we could answer none of them. I watched his face intently, noting every varying expression, but saw nothing to inspire confidence. He seemed both troubled and perplexed. Almost his first act was to bleed father copiously.

Twice, before the physician came, had my father been inquired for at the door, a thing altogether unusual at that hour of the day. Indeed, his presence in the house at that hour was something which had not occurred within a year.

"A gentleman is in the parlor, and says that he must see Mr. Webster," said the waiter, speaking to me in a whisper, soon after the physician's arrival.

"Did you tell him that father was very ill," said I.

"Yes, but he says that he must see him, sick or well."

"Go down and tell him that father is not in a state to be seen by anyone."

The waiter returned in a few moments, and beckoned me to the chamber door.

"The man says that he is not going to leave the house until he sees your father. I wish you would go down to him. He acts so strangely."

Without stopping to reflect, I left the room, and hurried down to the parlor. I found a man walking the floor in a very excited manner.

"I wish to see Mr. Webster," said he, abruptly, and in an imperative way.

"He is very ill, sir," I replied, "and cannot be seen."

"I must see him, sick or well." His manner was excited.

"Impossible, sir!"

The door bell rang again at this moment, and with some violence. I paused, and stood listening until the servant answered the summons, while the man strode twice the full length of the parlor.

"I wish to see Mr. Webster!" It was the voice of a man.

"He is sick," the servant replied.

"Give him my name Mr. Walton and say that I must see him for just a moment." And this new visitor came in past the waiter, and entered the parlor.

"Mr. Arnold!" he ejaculated, in evident surprise.

"Humph! This a nice business!" remarked the first visitor, in a rude way, entirely indifferent to my presence or feelings. "A nice business, I must confess!"

"Have you seen Mr. Webster?" was inquired.

"No. They say he's sick."

There was an unconcealed doubt in the voice that uttered this.

"Gentlemen," said I, stung into indignant courage, "this is an outrage! What do you mean by it?"

"We wish to see your father," said the last comer, his manner changing, and his voice respectful.

"You have both been told," was my firm reply, "that my father is too ill to be seen!"

"It isn't an hour, as I am told, since he left his store," said the first visitor, "and I hardly think his illness has progressed so rapidly up to this time as to make an interview dangerous. We do not wish to be rude or uncourteous, Miss Webster, but our business with your father is imperative, and we must see him. I, for one, do not intend leaving the house until I meet him face to face!"

"Will you walk upstairs?" I had the presence of mind and decision to say, and I moved from the parlor into the passage. The men followed, and I led them up to the chamber where our distressed family were gathered around my father. As we entered the hushed room, the men pressed forward somewhat eagerly, but their steps were suddenly arrested. The sight was one to make its own impression. My father's face, deathly in its hue, was turned towards the door, and from his bared arm, a stream of dark blood was flowing sluggishly. The physician had just opened a vein.

"Come! This is no place for us," I heard one of the men whisper to the other, and they withdrew as unceremoniously as they had entered. Scarcely had they gone, before the loud ringing of the door bell sounded through the house again.

"What does all this mean!" whispered my distressed mother.

"I cannot tell. Something is very wrong," was all that I could answer; and a vague, terrible fear took possession of my heart.

In the midst of our confusion, uncertainty and distress, my uncle, the only relative of my mother, arrived, and from him we learned the crushing fact that my father had totally failed in business!

The blow, long suspended over his head; and as I afterwards learned, long dreaded, and long averted by the most desperate expedients to save himself from ruin when it did fall, was too heavy for him. It crushed the life out of his enfeebled system. That fearful night, he died!

It is not my purpose to draw towards the survivors any sympathy, by picturing the changes in their fortunes and modes of life that followed this sad event. They have all endured much and suffered much. But how light has it been, to what my father must have endured and suffered in his long struggle to sustain the thoughtless extravagance of his family to supply them with comforts and luxuries, none of which he could himself enjoy!

Ever before me is the image of his gradually wasting form, and pale, sober, anxious face. His voice, always mild, now comes to my ears, in memory, burdened with a most touching sadness. What could we have been thinking about? Oh, youth! how blindly selfish you are! How unjust in your thoughtlessness! What would I not give, to have my father back again! This daily toil for bread, those hours of labor, prolonged often far into the night season how cheerful would I be if they ministered to my father's comfort. Ah! if we had been loving and just to him, we might have had him still. But we were neither loving nor just. While he gathered with hard toil we scattered. Daily we saw him go forth hurried to his business, and nightly we saw him come home exhausted; and we never put forth a hand to lighten his burdens; but, to gratify our idle and vain pleasures, laid new burdens upon his stooping shoulders, until, at last, the cruel weight crushed him to the earth!

My father! Oh, my father! If grief and tearful repentance could have restored you to our broken circle, long since you would have returned to us. But tears and repentance are vain.