The New Year's Gift
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1851
"Just four weeks off," said a little boy, striking his hands together, "and papa will be home!"
"Yes, four weeks more, and we shall see dear father. It will be the happiest New Year's day we ever had; won't it, mother?" said the little boy's sister, a bright smile playing over her face.
"I hope so," replied the mother. "Father has been away so long, his coming home would make any day in the year a happy one."
"I wonder what he will bring me for a New Year's present?" said the boy.
"I know what I'll get," said the little sister.
"A hundred kisses!"
"Oh! I don't care much for kisses."
"But I do; and I'm sure of getting them."
"I wonder what mamma will get?"
"I know!" replied the sister, with an arch smile.
"Just what I will." And the little girl looked at her mother, and smiled still more archly.
"A hundred kisses, you mean?"
The mother's hand rested from her work, and she looked at her children, with a calm, yet happy face. Their words had caused her to realize, in imagination, with more than usual distinctness, the fact of her husband's return, which he had written would be on the first day of the coming new year. He had been away for many months, and home had hardly seemed like home during his absence.
"We mustn't think too much about it," said the mother, "or we will get so impatient for dear father's return as to make ourselves unhappy. I am sure we will all love him better than ever we did, when he does come home!"
"I am sure I will," returned the little girl.
"Oh! I think I never loved him so well in my life as I have since he has been away."
Thus talked the mother and her children of the return of one whose presence was so dear to them all.
This brief conversation took place in a farm-house. In the room sat, near the fire, a man whose appearance was anything but pleasant to the eyes. He was a laborer, who had been hired, some months previously, by the farmer. He did not seem to hear what was said, yet he was listening with reluctant attention. The mother and her children continued still to talk of what was uppermost in their minds--the absent one, and his expected return--until the man became restless, and at last got up and went out.
"I don't wonder Mr. Foster went out of the room," said the boy, as the person alluded to shut the door.
"Why, Edward?" asked his sister.
"Can't you think, Maggy?"
"No. What made him go out?"
"Because we said we were so glad papa was coming home on New Year's day. I'm sure he must have thought of his home. They won't be so glad to see him on New Year's day, as we are to see our dear, good father."
"Why do you say that, my son?" asked the mother.
"I'm sure they can't be so glad," said Edward. "I know I wouldn't be so glad to see my father, if he was like Mr. Foster. Doesn't he spend nearly all the money he gets in liquor? I've heard you say that his poor wife and children hardly have enough to eat or to wear, although he gets very good wages, and could make them comfortable if he would. No, I'm sure they can't love him as we love our father, nor be as glad to see him come home as we will be to see our father. And he knows it, and that made him go out of the room. He didn't like to hear us talking."
The boy was correct in his conclusions. The man Foster, of whom he spoke, did feel troubled. He had children and a wife, and he was absent from them, and had been absent for many months. On New Year's day he was to go home; but many painful feelings mingled with the thought of seeing his long-neglected and much-abused family. Since he had been away, he had expended more than half his earnings upon himself, and yet his appearance was worse than when he went from home, for, in exchange for his money, he had received only poison.
It was evening. Without, the air was cold. The sky was clear, and the moon and stars shone brightly. Foster walked a short distance from the house, trying to drive from his mind the images that had been conjured up by the words of the children and their mother; but he could not. His own abused wife and neglected little ones were before him, in their comfortless home, poorly clad, and pale and thin from lack of healthy and sufficient food. Did they think of him, and talk with so much delight of his return? Alas! no. He brought no sunshine to their cheerless abode.
"Wretch! wretch!" he said to himself, striking his hand hard against his bosom. "A curse to them!--a curse to myself!"
For an hour the unhappy man stayed out in the chilly air; but he did not feel the cold. Then he re-entered the house, but did not go into the room where the happy mother sat with her children, but to the lonely attic where he slept.
Twenty miles away lived the wife and three children of Foster. The oldest boy was eleven years of age, and the youngest child, a little girl, just five. Three small mounds, in a burying-ground near by where the humble dwelling stood, marked the place where as many more slept--more blessed than the living. The mother of these children was a pale-faced woman, with an aspect of suffering. She had been long acquainted with sorrow and trouble. Like hundreds and thousands of others in our land, she had left, years before, the pleasant home of her girlhood, to be the loving companion of one on whose solemnly pledged faith she relied with the most unwavering confidence. And, for a time, the trust was not in vain. The first golden period of her married life was a happy time indeed! None could have been more thoughtful of her comfort, nor more tender of her feelings, than was her husband. But, alas! it was with him as with hundreds and thousands of others. Not once did it cross his mind that there was danger to him in the pleasant glass that was daily taken. The bare suggestion he would have repelled as an insult.
On the day of his marriage, Henry Foster received from the father of his wife the title-deeds of a snug little place containing thirty acres, which was well-stocked for a small farmer. He had, himself, laid up a few hundred dollars. Thus he had a fair start in the world, and a most comfortable assurance of happiness and prosperity. For several years everything went on pleasantly. The farm was a very garden spot, and had increased from thirty to sixty acres by the purchase of contiguous lands. Then a change became apparent. Foster took more interest than formerly in what was going on in the village nearby. He attended the various political meetings held at the "Travelers' Rest," and was a prominent man on politics. After a while, his wife began to look on these days with a troubled feeling, for they generally sent him home in a sad plight; and it took nearly a week for him to get settled down again to his work.
Thus the declension began, and its progress was too sadly apparent to the eyes of Mrs. Foster, even before others, less interested than herself, observed it. At the end of ten years from the happy wedding day, the farm, now more like a wilderness than a beautiful garden, was seized and sold for debt. There were no friends to step in and go Foster's security, and thus save his property from sacrifice. The father of his wife was dead, and his own friends, even if they had not lost confidence in him, were unable to render any assistance.
The rented farm upon which Foster went with his family, after being sold out, was cultivated with no more industry than his own had been of late years. The man had lost all ambition, and was yielding himself a slave to the all-degrading appetite for alcohol. At first, his wife opposed a gentle remonstrance; but he became impatient and angry at a word, and she shrank back into herself, choosing rather to bear silently the ills of poverty and degradation, which she saw were rapidly approaching, than to run the risk of having unkindness, from one so tenderly loved, added thereto.
Affliction came with trouble. Death took from the mother's arms, in a single year, three children. The loss of one was accompanied by a most painful, yet deeply warning circumstance. The father came home from the village one evening, after having taken a larger quantity of liquor than usual. While the mother was preparing supper, he took the babe that lay fretting in the cradle, and hushed its frettings in his arms. While holding it, overcome with what he had been drinking, he fell asleep, and the infant rolled upon the floor, striking its head first. It awoke and screamed for a minute or two, and then sank into a heavy slumber, and did not awake until the next morning. Then it was so sick, that a physician had to be called. In a week it died of brain fever, occasioned, the doctor said, by the fall.
For a whole month not a drop of liquor passed the lips of the rebuked and penitent father. Even in that short time the desert places of home began to put forth leaves, and to give promise of sweet buds and blossoms; and the grieving mother felt that out of this great sorrow, was to come forth joy. Alas! that even a hope so full of sadness should be doomed to disappointment. In a moment of temptation her husband fell, and fell into a lower depth. Then, with more rapid steps the downward road was traversed. Five more years of sorrow sufficed to do the work of suffering and degradation. There was another seizure for debt, and the remnant of stock, with nearly all their furniture, was taken and sold. The rented farm had to be given up; with this, the hope of gaining even sufficient food for her little ones died in the wretched mother's mind.
From a farmer on his own account, Foster now became a mere farm laborer; with wages sufficient, however, to have made things comfortable at home under the management of his frugal, industrious wife, if all he earned had been brought home to her. But at least one third, and finally one half, and sometimes more, went to swell the gain of the tavern-keeper. Had it not been that a cow and a few chickens were left to them at the last seizure of their things, pinching hunger would have entered the comfortless home where the mother hid herself with her children.
At last Foster became so good for nothing, that he could not obtain employment as a farm hand anywhere in the neighborhood, and was obliged to go off to a distance to get work. This, to him, was not felt to be a very great trial, for it removed him from the sight of his half-fed, half-clothed children, and dejected, suffering wife; and he could, therefore spend with more freedom, and fewer touches of compunction, the greater portion of his earnings in gratifying the inordinate cravings of his vitiated appetite.
Thus, in general, stood affairs at the opening of our story. Let us now take a nearer and more particular view. Let us approach, and enter the cheerless abode of the man who, to feed an evil and debasing appetite, could heartlessly turn away from his faithful wife and dependent little ones, and leave them to the keenest suffering.
New Year's day, to which the farmer's wife and children were looking forward with so much delight, was but little more than a week off, and Mrs. Foster expected her husband home also. But with what different feelings did she anticipate his arrival! He never brought a glad welcome with his presence; although his wife, when he was absent, always looked for and desired his return. He had been away over three months; and was earning twenty dollars a month. But, he had only sent home eighteen dollars during the whole time. This, we need hardly say, was far from enough to meet the needs of his family. Had it not been that George, who was but eleven years old, went every day to a factory in the village and worked from morning until night, thus earning about a dollar and a half a week, and that the mother took in sewing, spinning, washing and ironing, and whatever she could get to do, they must have lacked even enough to eat.
It was but six days to New Year's. Mrs. Foster had been washing nearly the whole day--work that she was really not able to do, and which always so tired her out, that in the night following she could not sleep from excessive fatigue--she had been washing nearly all day, and now, after cleaning up the floor, and putting the confused room into a little order, she sat down to finish some work promised by the next morning. It was nearly dark, and she was standing, with her sewing, close up to the window, in order to see more distinctly in the fading light, when there came a loud knock at the door. One of the children opened it, and a man, whose face she knew too well, came in. He was the owner of the poor tenement in which they lived.
"Have you heard from your husband since I was here last?" said the man, with an unpleasant abruptness of manner.
"No sir, I have not," replied Mrs. Foster, in a low, timid voice, for she felt afraid of the man.
"When do you expect him home?"
"He will be here at New Year's."
"Humph! Do you know whether he will bring any money?"
"I am sure I cannot tell; but I hope so."
"He'd better!"--the man spoke in a menacing tone--"for I don't intend waiting any longer for my rent!"
No reply was made to this.
"Will you tell your husband, when he returns, my good woman, what I have just said?"
"I will," was meekly replied.
"Very well. If he doesn't come up to the notch then, I shall take my course. It is simple and easy; so you had better be warned in time." And the man walked out as abruptly as he came in. Mrs. Foster looked after him from the window, where she had continued standing, and saw him stop and look attentively at their cow, which stood waiting to be milked, at the door. A faintness came over her heart, for she understood now, better than before, the meaning of his threats.
An hour after dark George came home with his hand in a sling. He went up, quickly, to where his mother was sitting by a table at work, and dropping down in a chair, hid his face in her lap, without speaking, but bursting into tears as he did so.
"Oh George! what is the matter?" exclaimed the mother in great alarm. "What ails your hand?"
"It got mashed in the wheel," replied the boy, sobbing.
"Badly?" asked the mother, turning pale, and feeling sick and faint.
"It's hurt a good deal; but the doctor tied it up, and says it will get well again; but I won't be able to go to work again in a good while."
And the lad, from sobbing, wept bitterly. The mother leaned her head down upon her boy, and wept with him.
"I don't mind the hurt so much," said George, after he had recovered himself; "but I won't be able to do anything at the mill until it gets well."
"Can't I go to work in his place, mamma?" spoke up, quickly, little Emma, just in her tenth year. Mrs. Foster kissed the earnest face of her child and said--
"No, dear; you are not old enough."
"I'm nine, and most as big as George. Yes, mamma, I'm big enough. Won't you go and ask them to let me come and work in brother's place until he gets well?"
The mother, her heart almost bursting with many conflicting emotions, drew the child's head down upon her bosom, and held it tightly against her heart.
The time of severer trial was evidently drawing near. Almost the last resource was cut off, in the injury her boy had sustained. She had not looked at his hand, nor did she comprehend the extent of damage it had received. It was enough, and more than enough, that it was badly hurt--so badly, that a physician had been required to dress it. How the mother's heart did ache, as she thought of the pain her poor boy had suffered, and might yet be doomed to suffer! And yet, amid this pain, came intruding the thought, which she tried to repel as a selfish thought, that he could work no more, and earn no more, for, perhaps, a long, long time.
Yes, the period of severer trial had evidently come. She did not permit herself even to hope that her husband when he returned would bring with him enough money to pay the rent. She knew, too well, that he would not; and she also knew, alas! too well that the man to whose tender mercies they would then be exposed had no affections of compassion.
Wet with many tears was the pillow upon which the mother's head reposed that night. She was too weary in body and sorrowful in mind to sleep.
On the next morning a deep snow lay upon the ground. To some a sight of the earth's pure white covering was pleasant, and they could look upon the flakes still falling gracefully through the air with a feeling of exhilaration. But they had food and fuel in store--they had warm clothing--they had comfortable homes. There was no fear of cold and hunger with them--no dread of being sent forth, shelterless, in the chilling winter. It was different with Mrs. Foster when she looked from her window at daylight.
George had been restless, and moaned a good deal through the night; but now he slept soundly, and there was a bright flush upon his cheeks. With what a feeling of tenderness and yearning pity did his mother bend over him, and gaze into his fair face, fairer now than it had ever looked to her. But she could not linger long over her sleeping boy.
With the daylight, unrefreshed as she was, came her "never ending, still beginning" toil; and now she felt that she must toil harder and longer, and without hope.
Though little Emma's offer to go and work in the mill in her brother's place had passed from the thought of Mrs. Foster, yet the child had been too much in earnest to forget it herself. As young as she was, the very pressure of circumstances by which she was surrounded had made her comprehend clearly the necessity that existed for George to go and work daily in the mill. She knew that he earned a dollar and a half weekly; and she understood very well, that without this income her mother would be greatly distressed.
After she had eaten her breakfast of bread and milk, the child went upstairs and got an old pair of stockings, which she drew on over her shoes, that had long been so worn as to afford but little protection to her feet; and then taking from a closet an old shawl, drew it over her head. Thus attired, she waited at the head of the stairs until her mother was out of the way, and then went quickly down. She managed to leave the house without being seen by anyone, and took her way, through the deep and untracked snow, towards the mill, which was about a quarter of a mile off. The air was bitter cold, and the storm still continued; but the child plodded on, chilled to the very heart, as she soon was, and, at length, almost frozen, reached the mill. The owner had observed her approach from the window, and wondering who she was, or what brought so small a child to the mill through the cold and storm, went down to meet her.
"Bless me! little one!" he said, lifting her from the ground and placing her within the door. "Who are you, and what do you want?"
"I'm George's sister, and I've come to work in his place until he gets well," replied the child, as she stood, with shivering body and chattering teeth, looking up earnestly into the man's face.
"George Foster's sister?"
"Yes, sir. His hand's hurt so bad, that he can't work, and I've come to work in his place."
"You have! Who sent you?"
"Nobody sent me."
"Does your mother know about your coming?"
"Why do you want to work in George's place?"
"If I do, then you'll send mother a dollar and a half every week, won't you?"
The owner of the mill was a kind-hearted man, and this little incident touched his feelings.
"You are not big enough to work in the mill, my child," said he, kindly.
"I'm nine years old," replied Emma, quickly.
"Oh yes! I can work as well as anybody. Do let me come in George's place! Won't you?"
Emma had not been gone very long before she was missed. Her mother had become quite alarmed about her, when she heard sleigh-bells at the door, and, looking out, saw the owner of the mill and her child. Wondering what this could mean, she went out to meet them.
"This little runaway of yours," said the man, in a pleasant voice, "came trudging over to the mill this morning, through the snow, and wanted to take the place of George, who was so badly hurt yesterday, in order that you might get, as she said, a dollar and a half every week."
"Why, Emma!" exclaimed her mother, as she lifted her from the sleigh. "How could you do so? You are not old enough to work in your brother's place."
"Besides," said the man, "there is no need of your doing so; for George shall have his dollar and a half, the same as ever, until he is able to go to work again. So then, my little one, set your heart at rest."
Emma understood this very well, and bounded away into the house to take the good news to her brother, who was as much rejoiced as herself. After inquiring about George, and repeating to Mrs. Foster what he had said to Emma, he told her that he would pay the doctor for attending the lad, so that the accident needn't prove a burden to her.
The heart of Mrs. Foster lifted itself, thankfully, as she went back into the house.
"Don't scold her, mother," said George. "She thought she was doing right."
This appeal, so earnestly made, quite broke down the feelings of Mrs. Foster, and she went quickly into another room, and closing the door after her, sat down by the bedside, and, burying her face in a pillow, allowed her tears to flow freely. Scold the child! She felt more like taking her in her arms, and hugging her passionately to her bosom.
To know that the small income her boy's labor had produced was not to be cut off, proved a great relief to the mind of Mrs. Foster; but, in a little while, her thoughts went back to the landlord's threat and the real distress and hopelessness of their situation. To the period of her husband's return she looked with no feeling of hope; but, rather, with a painful certainty, that his appearance would be the signal for the landlord to put his threat into execution.
Sadly the days went by, each one bringing nearer the time towards which the unhappy woman now looked forward with a feeling of dread. That the landlord would keep his promise, she did not, for an instant, doubt. Without their cow, how could she, with all her exertions, feed her children? No wonder that her heart was troubled.
At last the day before the opening year came.
"Papa will be home tomorrow," said Emma. "I wonder what he will bring me for a New Year's gift."
"I wish he would bring me a book," said George.
"I'd like a pair of new shoes," remarked the little girl, more soberly, looking down at her feet, upon which were tied, with coarse strings, what were called shoes, but hardly retained their semblance. "And mamma needs shoes, too," added the child. "Oh! I wish papa would bring her, for a New Year's gift, a nice new pair of shoes."
The mother heard her children talking, and sighed to think how vain were all their expectations.
"I wish we had a turkey for father's New Year's dinner," said Emma.
"And some mince pies!" spoke up little Hetty, the youngest, clapping her hands. "Why don't we have mince pies, mamma?" she said, taking hold of her mother's apron and looking up at her.
"Papa likes mince pies, I know; and so do I. Don't you like mince pies, George?"
George, who was old enough to understand better than the rest of them the true cause of the privations they suffered, saw that Hetty's questions had brought tears to his mother's eyes, and, with a thoughtfulness beyond his years, sought to turn the conversation into another channel.
But the words of the children had brought to the mind of Mrs. Foster a memory of other times--of the many happy New Years she had enjoyed with her husband, their table crowned with the blessings of the year. Her dim eyes turned from her neglected little ones, and fell upon a small ornament that stood upon the mantle. It was the New Year's gift of her husband in better days. It reminded her too strongly of the contrast between that time and the gloomy present. She went quickly from the room, to weep unheard and alone.
New Year's morning at length broke clear and cold. Mrs. Foster was up early. It was no holiday to her. Early in the day her husband was to come home, and though she could not help looking and wishing for him to come, yet the thought of him produced a pressure in her bosom. She felt that his presence would only bring a deeper sorrow for her heart.
The children had grown eager for him to come. The younger ones talked of the presents he would bring them, while George thought of a book, yet dared hardly hope to receive one. At last, Emma spotted her father far down the road, and announced, in a loud voice, his coming. The heart of the mother throbbed quicker at the word. She went to the window, where the children crowded, feeling troubled, and yet with something of the old gladness about her heart. She strained her eyes to see him, and yet dreaded to fix them upon him too intently, lest more should be seen than she wished to see. He came nearer and nearer, and she was yet at the window, her heart beating audibly. Could her eyes deceive her, or was it indeed so? His form was erect and his step firm, and, though his clothes were the same, they did not look so untidy.
"Thank God!" she ejaculated silently, yet fervently, as he came nearer still--"he is sober!"
Yes, he was sober.
"Henry!" she could not say another word, as she took his hand when he came in. Her eyes were full of tears. He pressed her thin, small, labor-worn hand tightly, and then turned and sat down. He, too, was moved as well as she. But the children gathered around him, and seemed gladder to see him than when he was last home. There was a reason for this. Seeing the hand of George in a sling, he inquired the cause, and when told of the accident, appeared deeply grieved, and said he should not go back to the mill any more. The heart of his wife fluttered. Was there a meaning deeper than a momentary impulse? At last little Hetty, who had climbed upon his knee, said, "Where's my New Year's gift, papa?"
The father put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a small picture-book, and gave it to the child who was wild with joy in a moment. He had a larger book for Emma, and 'Robinson Crusoe' for George.
"And what for mother?" asked Emma, looking earnestly at her father. "Haven't you brought dear mother a New Year's gift, too?"
"Oh, yes," replied the father, "I've got something for her also." His voice was a little unsteady as he said this. Then he put his hand into his pocket again, and, after keeping it there for a moment or two, drew out a large folded piece of paper that looked like a title-deed, and handed it to his wife, who took it with a trembling hand. She opened it, read a few words, and, bursting into tears, turned and went quickly from the room. Hers were tears of joy--unutterable joy.
Was it then a title-deed of property that her husband had given her, filling her heart with gladness at the thought of relief from toil, and privation, and suffering? No, it was better than that, and brought a fuller and more perfect joy. It was a New Year's gift such as she had never dared hope to receive--the dearest gift in the power of her husband to bestow. Already blotted with tears, it was tightly pressed to her heaving bosom.
What was it? What could it be but the blessed temperance pledge, signed, in a firm hand, with her husband's name.
That was indeed a happy New Year's day to the wife and mother, who, when the morning dawned, felt that she was entering upon the darkest days of her troubled existence. But a brighter day unknown was breaking. It broke, and no gloomy clouds have since arisen to obscure its smiling skies!