The Social Serpent
By Timothy Shay Arthur, 1853
A lady, whom we will call Mrs. Harding, touched with the destitute condition of a poor, sick widow, who had three small children — determined, from an impulse of true humanity, to awaken, if possible, in the minds of some friends and neighbors, an interest in her favor. She made a few calls one morning, with this end in view, and was gratified to find that her appeal made a favorable impression. The first lady whom she saw, a Mrs. Miller, promised to select from her own and children's wardrobe, a number of cast-off garments for the widow, and to aid her in other respects, at the same time asking Mrs. Harding to call in on the next day, when she would be able to let her know what she could do.
Pleased with her reception, and encouraged to seek further aid for the widow, Mrs. Harding withdrew and took her way to the house of another acquaintance. Scarcely had she left, when a lady, named Mrs. Little, dropped in to see Mrs. Miller. To her the latter said, soon after her entrance:
"I've been very much interested in the case of a poor widow this morning. She is sick, with three little children dependent on her, and destitute of almost everything. Mrs. Harding was telling me about it."
"Mrs. Harding!" The visitor's countenance changed, and she looked unutterable things. "I wonder!" she added, in well assumed surprise, and then was silent.
"What's the matter with Mrs. Harding?" asked Mrs. Miller.
"I would think," said Mrs. Little, "that she was in nice business, running around, gossiping about indigent widows — when some of her own relatives are so poor they can hardly keep soul and body together!"
"Is this really so?" asked Mrs. Miller.
"Certainly it is. I had it from my chambermaid, whose sister is cook next door to where a cousin of Mrs. Harding's lives; and she says they are, one half of their time, she really believes, in a starving condition."
"But does Mrs. Harding know this?"
"She ought to know it, for she goes there sometimes, I hear."
"She didn't come merely to gossip about the poor widow," said Mrs. Miller. "Her errand was to obtain something to relieve her necessities."
"Did you give her anything?" asked Mrs. Little.
"No; but I told her to call and see me tomorrow, when I would have something for her."
"Do you want to know my opinion of this matter?" said Mrs. Little, drawing herself up, and assuming a very important air.
"What is your opinion?"
"Why, that there is no poor widow in the case at all."
"You needn't look surprised. I'm in earnest. I never had much faith in Mrs. Harding, at the best."
"I am surprised. If there was no poor widow in the case, what did she want with charity?"
"She has poor relations of her own, for whom, I suppose, she's ashamed to beg. So you see my meaning now."
"You surely wrong her."
"Don't believe a word of it. At any rate, take my advice, and be the almoner of your own bounty. When Mrs. Harding comes again, ask her the name of this poor widow, and where she resides. If she gives you a name and residence, go and see for yourself."
"I will act on your suggestion," said Mrs. Miller. "Though I can hardly make up my mind to think so meanly of Mrs. Harding; still, from the impression your words produce, I deem it only prudent to be, as you term it, the almoner of my own bounty."
The next lady upon whom Mrs. Harding called, was a Mrs. Johns, and in her mind she succeeded in also awakening an interest for the poor widow.
"Call and see me tomorrow," said Mrs. Johns, "and I'll have something for you."
Not long after Mrs. Harding's departure, Mrs. Little called, in her round of gossiping visits, and to her Mrs. Johns mentioned the case of the poor widow, that matter being, for the time, uppermost in her thoughts.
"Mrs. Harding's poor widow, I suppose?" said Mrs. Little, in a half-sneering, half-malicious tone of voice.
Mrs. Johns looked surprised, as a matter of course.
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"Oh, nothing, much. Only I've heard of this destitute widow before."
"Yes, and between ourselves" — the voice of Mrs. Little became low and confidential — "it's the opinion of Mrs. Miller and myself, that there is no poor widow in the case."
"Mrs. Little! You astonish me! No poor widow in the case! I can't understand this. Mrs. Harding was very clear in her statement. She described the widow's condition, and very much excited my sympathies. What object can she have in view?"
"Mrs. Miller and I think," said the visitor, "and with good reason, that this poor widow is only put forward as a cover."
"As a cover to what?"
"To some charities that she has reasons of her own for not wishing to make public."
"I'm still in the dark. Speak out more plainly."
"Plainly, then, Mrs. Johns, we have good reasons for believing, Mrs. Miller and I, that she is begging for some of her own poor relations. Mrs. Miller is going to see if she can find the widow."
"Indeed! That's another matter altogether. I promised to do something in the case, but shall now decline. I couldn't have believed such a thing of Mrs. Harding! But so it is; you never know people until you find them out."
"No, indeed, Mrs. Johns. You never spoke a truer word in your life," replied Mrs. Little, emphatically.
On the day following, after seeing the poor widow, ministering to some of her immediate needs, and encouraging her to expect more substantial relief, Mrs. Harding called, as she had promised to do, on Mrs. Miller. A little to her surprise, that lady received her with unusual coldness; and yet, plainly, with an effort to seem friendly.
"You have called about the poor widow you spoke of yesterday?" said Mrs. Miller.
"Such is the object of my present visit."
"What is her name?"
"Where did you say she lived?"
The residence was promptly given.
"I've been thinking," said Mrs. Miller, slightly coloring, and with some embarrassment, "that I would call in and see this poor woman myself."
"I wish you would," was the earnest reply of Mrs. Harding. "I am sure, if you do so, all your sympathies will be excited in her favor."
As Mrs. Harding said this, she arose, and with a manner that showed her feelings to be hurt, as well as mortified, bade Mrs. Miller a formal good-day, and retired.
Her next call was upon Mrs. Johns. Much to her surprise, her reception here was quite as cold; in fact, so cold, that she did not even refer to the object of her visit, and Mrs. Johns let her go away without calling attention to it herself. So affected was she by the singular, and to her unaccountable change in the manner of these ladies, that Mrs. Harding had no heart to call upon two others, who had promised to do something for the widow, but went home disappointed, and suffering from a troubled and depressed state of feeling.
So far as worldly goods were concerned, Mrs. Harding could not boast very large possessions. She was herself a widow; and her income, while it sufficed, with economy, to supply the moderate wants of her family, left her but little for luxuries, the gratification of taste, or the pleasures of benevolence. Quick to feel the wants of the needy, no instance of destitution came under her observation, which she did not make some effort toward procuring relief.
What now was to be done? She had excited the sick woman's hopes — had promised that her immediate wants, and those of her children, should be supplied. From her own means, without great self-denial, this could not be effected. True, Mrs. Miller and Mrs. Johns had both promised to call upon the poor widow, and, in person, administer relief. But Mrs. Harding did not place much reliance on this; for something in the manner of both ladies impressed her with the idea that their promise merely covered a wish to recede from their first benevolent intentions.
"Something must be done" said she, musingly. And then she set herself earnestly to the work of devising ways and means. Where there is a will — there is a way. No saying was ever truer than this.
It was, perhaps, a week later, that Mrs. Little called again upon
"What of Mrs. Harding's poor widow?" said the former, after some ill-natured gossip about a mutual friend.
"Oh, I declare! I've never thought of the woman since," replied Mrs. Miller, in a tone of self-condemnation. "And I promised Mrs. Harding that I would see her. I really blame myself."
"No great harm done, I presume," said Mrs. Little.
"I don't know about that. I'm hardly prepared to think so meanly of Mrs. Harding as you do. At any rate, I'm going this day to redeem my promise."
"The promise I made Mrs. Harding, that I would see the woman she spoke of, and relieve her, if in need."
"You'll have all your trouble for nothing."
"No matter, I'll clear my conscience, and that is something. Come, won't you go with me?"
Mrs. Little declined the invitation at first; but, strongly urged by Mrs. Miller, she finally consented. So the two ladies forthwith took their way toward the neighborhood in which Mrs. Harding had said the needy woman lived. They were within a few doors of the house, which had been very minutely described by Mrs. Harding, when they met Mrs. Johns.
"Ah!" said the latter, with animation, "just the person, of all others, I most wished to see. How could you, Mrs. Miller, so greatly wrong Mrs. Harding?"
"Me wrong her, Mrs. Johns? I don't understand you." And Mrs. Miller looked considerably astonished.
"Mrs. Little informed me that you had good reasons for believing all this story about a poor widow to be a mere subterfuge, got up to cover some doings of her own that Mrs. Harding was ashamed to bring to the light."
"Mrs. Little!" There was profound astonishment in the tones of Mrs. Miller, and her eyes had in them such an indignant light, as she fixed them upon her companion, that the latter quailed under her gaze.
"Acting from this impression," resumed Mrs. Johns, "I declined placing at her disposal the means of relief promised; but, instead, told her that I would myself see the needy person for whom she asked aid. This I have, until now, neglected to do; and this neglect, or indifference I might rather call it, has arisen from a belief that there was no poor widow in the case. Wrong has been done, Mrs. Miller, great wrong! How could you have imagined such baseness of Mrs. Harding?"
"And there is a poor, sick widow, in great need?" said Mrs.
Miller, now speaking calmly, and with regained self-possession.
"There is a sick widow," replied Mrs. Johns, "but not at present in great need. Mrs. Harding has supplied immediate needs."
"Well, Mrs. Little!" Mrs. Miller again turned her eyes, searchingly, upon her companion.
"I — I — thought — . It was my impression — I had good reason for — I — I" stammered Mrs. Little.
"It should have been enough for you to check a benevolent impulse in my case by your unfounded suggestions. Not content with this, however, you must use my name in still further spreading your unjust suspicions, and actually make me the author of charges against a noble-minded woman, which had their origin in your own evil thoughts!"
"I will not bear such language!" said the offended Mrs. Little, indignantly; and turning with an angry toss of the head, she left the ladies to their own reflections.
"I am taught one good lesson from this circumstance," said Mrs. Miller, as they walked away; "and that is, never to even seem to have my good opinion of another affected by the allegations and surmises of a social gossip. Such people always suppose the worst, and readily pervert the most unselfish actions into moral offences. The harm they do is incalculable."
"And, as in the present case," remarked Mrs. Johns, "they make others responsible for their base suggestions. Had Mrs. Little not coupled your name with the implied charges against Mrs. Harding, my mind would not have been poisoned against her."
"While not a breath of suspicion had ever crossed mine, until Mrs. Little came in, and wantonly intercepted the stream of benevolence about to flow forth to a needy, and, I doubt not, most worthy object."
"We have made an enemy of her. At least you have; for you spoke to her with smarting plainness," said Mrs. Johns.
"Better the enmity of such, than their friendship," replied Mrs. Miller. "Their words of detraction cannot harm so much as the poison of evil thoughts toward others — which they ever seek to infuse. Your dearest friend is not safe from them, if she is as pure as an angel. Let her name but pass your lips, and instantly it is breathed upon, and the spotless surface grows dim."