Riches and Poverty!
by Timothy Shay Arthur, 1852
"Hard at work, friend Gresler?" said a neighbor, as he stepped into the shop of an industrious, but not very contented tailor. "There is no rest in this world."
"Not for some of us, certainly. It's work, work, work, day in and day out, from one year's end to another, and, after all, we hardly receive enough to keep soul and body together. I get out of all heart sometimes."
"There goes one who has an easy time of it," said the neighbor, glancing out of the window at a middle-aged man, who was riding past on a large and beautiful horse.
"Who? Oh, yes, Melville. Humph! Yes, he has an easy time of it, you may well say. Nothing under the sun to do but ride about and take his pleasure. People talk about a wise and just Providence, but as to the wisdom and justice of giving all the comfort and happiness to one class of people — and all the trouble, poverty, and wretchedness to another class — is what I for one cannot understand."
"It does seem a little unaccountable, friend Gresler," replied the neighbor; "but still it is not wise to arraign Providence. All is no doubt right, if we could only see it so."
"A thing it would be very hard to make me see. Oh, no; you needn't tell me it's all right for one set of people, no better than the rest, to have all — and the others to have none, so to speak. Why should Melville there, for instance, have a fine horse, plenty of money, and nothing to do — while I can scarcely afford to live in this poor den, although I nearly work my finger-ends off? He is no better than I am. There is something wrong in all this, depend upon it. If you were to talk till doomsday, you couldn't convince me to the contrary."
"Depend upon it, neighbor Gresler, it is all right, notwithstanding. We may not be able to see how it is, but still I am satisfied that we have no real cause of complaint against Providence for partiality."
"Not for making one half of the world happy — and the other half miserable?"
"I doubt if that is the case. I doubt very much whether Mr. Melville is a happier man than you are — nay, if he is even as happy."
"Preposterous!" ejaculated the tailor. "His very countenance gives the lie to that assumption!"
"I can't say how that is; I don't see him very often."
"I do, then, frequently; he is often in the shop. I work for him. He was here not an hour ago, looking as sleek and contented as one of his own carriage-horses. And why shouldn't he look so? What has he to trouble him?"
"More than you think, for I have not the least doubt. My doctrine is, that happiness and misery are about equally distributed between what are designated the higher and lower classes, or the rich and the poor. A man in either class may be happy or miserable, but this will depend very much upon himself. I, for instance, am no better off than you are, externally; but I am a happier man, because, though I am compelled to work hard, I try to be contented with my lot; and I envy no man, rich or poor. I would not exchange conditions with any man living."
"I would, then. I would exchange with Melville, tomorrow."
As Gresler had said, the rich man, whose condition he envied, had been in his shop that morning, to order some clothes. The tailor was all smiles and bows to his customer, and showed no evidence of the envy and discontent which were rendering his life miserable.
"Happy dog!" muttered Melville to himself, as he left the tailor's shop and mounted his horse to ride away. "I'd give half my fortune to be as free from trouble as he is. There he sits from morning till night, with little or no care beyond his shop-door. His children look healthy, while mine are always under the doctor's hands, or giving me more heart-trouble than I have ever had in my life. His wife is the picture of health and contentment, while my poor Rosalind, alas, is never free from pain or gloomy despondency. I have heard him singing gaily at his work, as I opened the door of his shop, but I haven't hummed a tune for three years. I always feel as if a ten pound weight were pressing upon my bosom. They call the rich happy, and the poor miserable. The reverse is nearer the truth!"
Such were the thoughts of Mr. Melville, as he rode slowly away from the humble shop of the poor tailor. He was a retired merchant, who had, during a long period of commercial prosperity, amassed a very handsome property. But, in doing this, he had neglected the cultivation of social habits and feelings, and thought and cared too little about the best interests of his family. This neglect did not arise from any lack of home affections, for he was tenderly attached to his wife and children; its cause lay in the absorbing nature of his business pursuits, to which he gave up his thoughts too entirely. The period during which he was thus actively engaged in gathering in a harvest of wealth, was the very period when his elder children's characters and habits were forming, and when they most required a parent's earnest and affectionate care. But this care they did not receive from Mr. Melville, with whom business was the thing of primary importance; and not until he retired into private life and began to turn his thoughts more earnestly upon his family — was he aware of the fatal error he had committed.
The oldest son of Mr. Melville was at this time just twenty years of age; he had been to college up to within a year, and was now reading law, in the office of a distinguished attorney. William Melville was a young man of very fair abilities, and it required only a little more than ordinary application on his part to insure him eminence in the profession he had chosen. But, though he possessed naturally a good disposition and had respectable talents, he had not received from his father, as he grew up, any precepts for right government, nor any warnings of the dangers which beset the path of a young man just entering upon life. He had the advantage of as good an education as could be procured, a liberal allowance of money, and was subjected to but few parental restrictions.
Notwithstanding all this, it was some time after Mr. Melville saw with pain, that his son was falling into bad habits and keeping bad company — before he could comprehend the cause and feel sensible of the error he had committed, when it was too late to remedy the evils arising from it.
Nor did Ardelle, his oldest daughter, give him cause for any more pleasing reflections. Her mother was not a woman of an active, energetic mind, naturally. Ill-health and the lack of an adequately felt purpose, had taken from her even the small measure of activity, decision, and promptness, which she possessed at the time of her marriage.
As Ardelle grew up, she soon showed herself to possess a stubborn will, which her mother, after making a few feeble efforts to subdue, left entirely unbroken. Mr. Melville saw, at times, the exhibition of this, but he had always left the management of Ardelle to her mother, and satisfied his mind on the subject by assuming that she would govern her rightly. At the boarding-school to which Ardelle went, she learned, besides the various branches of education taught there, sundry romantic notions in regard to love and marriage. When she came home, at the age of eighteen or nineteen, she had not only the appearance of a woman of twenty-one or two, but considered herself as much an object of attention from the beaux as any other marriageable young lady in the whole circle of her acquaintance. Long before she had entered her twentieth year, she had, without a word of consultation with either of her parents, engaged herself in a marriage contract with an insolent adventurer.
When this fact became known to Mr. Melville, his mortification and anger may well be supposed. In a moment of passion, he threatened, in the presence of Ardelle, to shoot the young man, if he ever dared to pass his foot across his threshold. This intemperate declaration had been made on the morning of the very day we have introduced him to the reader.
When Mr. Melville returned home, he found his wife in a very unhappy state of mind. Ardelle had left the house, shortly after her father had gone out, taking with her some of her clothes and her mother's purse, containing about a hundred dollars. She left a note upon her dressing-table, stating what she had done, and declaring her intention to fulfill her engagement with the young man, in opposition to the wishes and commands of her parents. This note was brought to Mrs. Melville by a servant, about two hours after Ardelle had taken this rash and imprudent step. When her husband came home, he found her alone in her chamber, weeping most bitterly. To his eager inquiries, Mrs. Melville placed the daughter's note in his hands. He read it, turned pale, and sank with a groan upon a chair. It was some time before he recovered from the shock occasioned by this distressing intelligence. When he arose from his seat, which was not for nearly five minutes, during which time he suffered more than he had under any circumstances in his whole life, he said, with bitter emphasis, and a dark frown upon his face — "He shall not have her, the false-hearted, accursed villain!"
He was turning away to leave the room, when his wife sprang forward, and, seizing him by the arm, said earnestly, "Do nothing rash, William. Find them out, and bring Ardelle home; but, oh! do nothing that will make us worse trouble than we now have."
Mr. Melville broke away from the grasp of his wife, without making any reply, and hurried from the house. The young man who had made so strong an impression on the heart of Ardelle was named Bertrand; he was from the South, and was living at one of the principal hotels. What his business was, if indeed he had any, was not known. As he might be seen almost any day, and any hour in the day, on the fashionable street of the city, the presumption was, that he had no regular vocation. He represented himself as being the son of a rich Southern planter; but this was doubted. How he got introduced into fashionable society, no one could tell. He never had ventured to call at Mr. Melville's to see Ardelle, but once or twice. His reception by all but the daughter was so cold, that he deemed it prudent to keep away.
Mr. Melville, after some inquiry, ascertained at which hotel the young man boarded, and went there immediately.
"Is Bertrand in?" he asked eagerly of the barkeeper.
"I will see," replied the man, ringing a bell.
A servant was dispatched to the young man's room, and soon returned with the information that he was not there.
"Are you sure?" asked Mr. Melville, in a tone of incredulity.
"His door is locked, sir."
"Did you knock?"
"Oh, yes, two or three times."
"Is the proprietor of the hotel in?"
"I wish to see him immediately."
The proprietor was called, to whom Mr. Melville explained his errand, and expressed his belief that the young man was really in his room.
"If so, we will soon bring him out," replied the hotel-keeper, with indignation.
In company with Mr. Melville, he went up to Bertrand's room. He knocked, but no answer was returned. On examining the key-hole, no key was seen inside of the lock.
"He is not here," said the hotel-keeper.
"It is easy to take the key out from the inside. He must be here. Is there no other key that will fit the door?" said Mr. Melville, now much excited.
The chambermaid was called and directed to unlock the door with her key, which was so constructed as to spring the bolt of every lock in that particular part of the house. As the door swung open, Mr. Melville stepped in quickly; but the chamber was empty. A trunk stood in the middle of the floor open, but its contents had been removed.
"The bird has flown!" said the hotel-keeper, as he saw this. "You will have to seek him elsewhere, Mr. Melville."
Strict inquiries were made of the bar-keeper and servants, but no one had seen Bertrand since ten o'clock in the morning.
Mr. Melville's next step was to look up his son William, and inform him of what had occurred. The young man, who was of a fiery temperament, had been drinking rather freely. The bad news made him almost wild with anger. Thrusting a pistol into his pocket, he was striding towards the door with a threat of murder on his tongue, when his father laid his hand upon his arm, and said, somewhat sternly — "William, give me your pistol."
"No, father; I will blow out the scoundrel's brains," returned the young man, passionately, "the moment I get my eyes upon him."
"If you cannot go in a better spirit than that, William, I do not wish you to go at all. Let me have the pistol."
With a good deal of reluctance, William yielded up the pistol, and at his father's request sat down and entered into conference with him as to the steps which ought to be taken in order to discover Ardelle. The father and son then separated, with the understanding that they were to meet in an hour if not successful in their search for the young lady, in order to determine upon some more prompt and efficient mode of action.
When William parted with his father, his first step was to go to the store of a gunsmith in order to procure another pistol. While examining one previous to purchasing it, the thought of a whip as a substitute crossed his mind. This led him to change his purpose. A stout whip was procured and carefully concealed about his person, and then he commenced an eager search for Bertrand and his sister. He first went to all the principal hotels in the city, but gained no information of the objects of his search. This occupied the entire hour, at the close of which he was to meet with his father.
In returning to the place at which they had agreed to meet, William Melville passed a fashionable boarding-house, before the door of which stood a carriage. It was within half an hour of the starting of one of the steamboat lines for the south, and, as there were two trunks on behind, the carriage was evidently waiting to convey some passengers to the boat. Just as William was passing, Bertrand came out with a lady closely veiled upon his arm. William instantly recognized her as his sister. Without a word, or a moment's pause for reflection, he struck Bertrand a heavy blow with the whip, which stunned him so much that he reeled and fell forward upon the pavement. Before Bertrand could recover himself, William was laying his whip over his face and shoulders, with almost the fury of a madman! Ardelle screamed wildly, and sank fainting to the ground.
The quick, smarting strokes of the whip soon restored Bertrand's lost senses and presence of mind. He sprang eagerly to his feet, and before either William or the crowd of bystanders that had already gathered round could prevent the movement, drew a pistol and shot his assailant. William staggered backwards with a curse and fell. During the confusion and excitement of the moment, Bertrand escaped, and succeeded in getting away from the city, and ultimately of eluding all pursuit.
The bullet passed between a pair of the ribs on the right side, shattering one of them and burying itself deep in the left lung, from which it was found impossible to extricate it. Violent inflammation followed, which caused the young man's death in forty-eight hours.
As if to make more bitter the cup which the father had to drink, if that could add to the bitterness of such a cup, when Ardelle was brought home, she had in her possession a regularly signed and witnessed certificate of marriage. She was the wife of Bertrand!
With a weakened frame, shattered nerves, and strength of character all gone, Mrs. Melville sank down under this terrible visitation, and for a time exhibited the most fearful indications of approaching imbecility, thus making the burdens of her husband still more heavy to bear.
Two or three days after the occurrence of the sad event just detailed, Gresler, the tailor, sat humming a tune at his work, much happier than he was willing to acknowledge himself to be. His oldest son, who had been apprenticed to a jeweler, had become free about two months previous to this time. He had proved a steady, industrious boy, was now a good workman, and had received immediate employment at good wages. This son had just left his shop. He had called in to inform him that his old master, whose health was bad, and who had more business than he could possibly attend to under the circumstances, had offered him a good interest in his shop if he would accept of a partnership, and take the management of the most laborious and active branch of the business off of his hands. Before closing with the offer, he had come to consult with his father on the subject, to whose judgment he still felt willing to defer in a matter of so much interest. The father advised an immediate acceptance of the proposition, and the son had just left for the purpose of doing so.
While Gresler's mind was still elated by the circumstance just mentioned, he received a message from Mr. Melville, by a servant, requesting his attendance. Gresler was fully aware of the distressing events that had thrown a pall of gloom over the family of his wealthy customer, and of the precarious state in which William Melville was lying. His death had not yet been announced.
"How is young Mr. Melville?" he asked of the servant who brought the message.
"Dead!" was the brief reply.
"Dead? Poor young man! What a terrible blow it must be to his father!"
"Yes, it almost kills him. But he would have broken his heart anyhow, I am afraid."
"Was he very wild?"
"Yes; he was hardly ever in until after midnight, and then he usually came home in a bad way. It hurt the old gentleman dreadfully, for he always set a good deal of store by William, and calculated on his making a man one of these days. But it is no wonder; he always had his own way, and as much money as he wanted, and that, you know, is not very good for a young man. But everybody liked him, for he was kind to all."
A thought of his own boy, just about the age of William Melville, passed through the mind of Gresler, and, for the first time in his life, he felt thankful that he was as poor as he was.
The tailor repaired immediately to the house of Mr. Melville, and was shown by a servant into one of the parlors. He had never before been in a room so splendidly furnished. Large mirrors reached from the ceiling to the floor; the window curtains were of heavy silk damask; the furniture rich with elaborate carving. Pictures from the most celebrated artists, ancient and modern, covered almost the entire surface of the walls, except those portions occupied by mirrors; while a dozen exquisite pieces of statuary gave to the room more the appearance of a museum to the half-bewildered tailor. Gresler had full time to examine, with a curious eye, the various items of use and luxury around him. He felt the heavy drapery of the windows; pressed his foot over and over again upon the yielding Turkish carpet; viewed the pictures and statuary, and examined the richly-carved furniture with its many curious patterns. From surprise and wonder, his feelings gradually changed. He forgot the object for which he had been summoned. Envy of the rich man filled his whole mind, and he was angry against the Providence that had made him a poor tailor — and Melville a "rich man." This feeling had nearly reached its height, when a servant came in and asked him to step upstairs. The silent tread of the servant as he stepped with him into the hall, the death-like stillness which reigned around, coming as it did upon his immediate recollection that this was the house of mourning, dispelled his envious and murmuring thoughts, and prepared him to come with better feelings into the presence of the stricken-hearted father.
The room into which he was shown was so darkened, that at first he could see objects but indistinctly. Mr. Melville came forward with a slow step, and spoke to the tailor in a voice so changed and mournful, that it caused the tears to spring to his eyes. A low moan, followed by a few quick sobs, gradually sinking away until lost in silence, directed Gresler's eyes to a large cushioned-chair that the darkness of the room had at first prevented his seeing. It needed no one to tell him that these sounds of grief came from the mother of William Melville.
"We have had a terrible affliction, Mr. Gresler," said Mr. Melville, after a pause; "and sometimes it seems as if we could not bear up; but we must look for strength to Him who has sent the trial, and will enable us to endure it."
The quivering voice and lip, the bowed head and air of deep humiliation and distress, touched the feelings of Gresler. He did not venture to make any reply. In a little while, Mr. Melville, recovering himself so as to be able to speak without visible emotion, gave the tailor a few directions about mourning garments for himself and younger sons, and then Gresler withdrew.
"I would not exchange places with that man," said the tailor, as he gained the street and was able to breathe more freely, "for all the wealth he possesses, were it doubled a hundred times!"
But of this mind, the envious and discontented man did not long remain. To be rich, and have nothing comparatively to do — seemed to him to confer all the means of happiness. He could not comprehend how enlarged possessions brought corresponding needs, and, as a natural consequence, disappointment in a like ratio; nor how attendant upon wealth, were dangers and temptations from which the poor man was freed. He felt the lack of money to be an evil; and therefore considered the possession of it, as the greatest good.
But, even with all his discontent and envy, Gresler was and always had been — a happier man than Mr. Melville. And so may every poor man be happier than his rich neighbor, if he will be industrious and frugal in his expenditures; and more especially if he will cultivate a spirit of contentment with his lot. Riches themselves, never bring happiness. The rich have cares and troubles — as well as the poor, and they are usually of a more troublesome and heart-aching kind. They stand higher, and, when stricken down by affliction — fall to the earth with a heavier blow!
Let every man strive to better his condition; let every man get rich if he can; but let none indulge the folly of imagining that, because another is wealthier than he — he is a happier man; for, in nine cases out of ten, if he could see into his heart — the sight would awaken in his own bosom the liveliest feelings of commiseration!