The Wanderer's Return
(A Thanksgiving Story)
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1851
A man, who at first sight, a casual observer would have thought at least forty or fifty years of age, came creeping out of an old, miserable-looking tenement in the lower part of Cincinnati, a little while after night-fall, and, with bent body and shuffling gait, crossed the street an angle; and, after pausing for a few moments before a poor frame building, in the windows of which decanters of liquor were temptingly displayed, pushed open the door and entered.
It was early in November. Already the leaves had fallen, and there was, in the aspect of nature, a desolateness which mirrored itself in the feelings. Night had come, hiding all this, yet by no means obliterating the impression which had been made, but measurably increasing it; for, with the darkness had begun to fall a misty rain, and the rising wind moaned sadly among the eaves.
A short time after sundown the man, to whom we have just referred, came home to the comfortless-looking house we have seen him leaving. All day he had turned a wheel in a small manufactory; and when his work was done, he left, what to him was a prison-house, and retired to the cheap but wretched boarding-place he had chosen, where were congregated about a dozen men of the lowest class. He did not feel happy. That was impossible. No one who debases himself by intemperance can be happy; and this man had gone down, step by step, until he attained a depth of degradation most sad to contemplate. And yet he was not thirty years old! After supper he went out, as usual, to spend the evening in drinking.
The man, as fallen as he was, and as lost to all the higher and nobler sentiments of the heart — had experienced during the day a pressure upon his feelings heavier than usual, which had its origin in some reviving memories of earlier times.
The sound of his mother's voice had been in his ears frequently through the day; and images of people, places, and scenes, the remembrance of which brought no joy to his heart — had many times come up before him. At the supper-table, amid his coarse, vulgar-minded companions, his laugh was not heard as usual; and, when spoken to, he answered briefly and in monosyllables.
The drinking-house to which the man went to spend his day's earnings and debase himself with drink, was one of the lowest haunts of vice in the city. Gambling with cards, dominoes, and dice, occupied the time of the greater number who made it a place of resort, and little was heard there except language the most obscene and profane. For his daily task at the wheel, the man was paid seventy-five cents a day. His boarding and lodging cost him thirty-one cents — and this had to be paid every night under penalty of being expelled from the house. He was a degraded drunkard, and not therefore worthy of confidence nor credit beyond a single day — and he received none. What remained of the pittance earned, was invariably spent in drink, or gambled away before he retired from the saloon for the night; when, staggering home, he groped his way to his room, too helpless to remove his clothes, and threw himself upon a straw pallet, which could scarcely be dignified with the name of bed. This in outline, was the daily history of the man's life; and daily the shadows of vice fell more and more darkly upon his path.
The tavern had two rooms on the first floor. In front was a narrow counter, six or eight feet in length, and behind this stood a short, bloated, vice-disfigured image of humanity, ready to supply the desires of customers. Two or three roughly-made pine tables, and some chairs, stood around the room. The back room contained simply chairs and tables, and was generally occupied by parties engaged in games of chance, for small sums. Tobacco-smoke, the fumes of liquor, and the polluted breaths of the inhabitants, made the atmosphere of these rooms so offensive, that none but those who had become accustomed to inhale it, could have endured to remain there for a minute.
The man, on entering this den of vice, went to the counter and called for whisky. A decanter was set before him, and from this he poured into a glass nearly a gill of the vilest kind of stuff and drank it off, undiluted. About half the quantity of water was sent down after the burning fluid, to partially subdue its ardent qualities; and then the man turned slowly from the bar. As he did so, an individual who had seen him enter, and who had kept his eyes upon him from the moment he passed through the door, came towards him with a smile of pleasure upon his countenance, and reaching out his hand, said, in an animated voice —
"How are you, Martin, my good fellow! How are you?"
And he grasped the poor wretch's hand with a hearty grip and shook it warmly. Something like a smile lighted up the marred and almost expressionless face of the miserable creature, as he gave to the hand that had taken his, a responsive pressure, and replied,
"Oh! very well, very well, considering all things."
"Bad night out," said the man, as he sat down near a stove which was sending forth a genial heat.
"Yes, bad enough," returned Martin. A thought of the damp and chilly air outside caused him to shiver suddenly, and draw a little nearer to the stove.
"Which makes us prize a comfortable place like this, where we can spend a pleasant evening among pleasant friends, so much the more."
"Yes. It's very pleasant," said Martin, spreading himself out before the stove, with a hand upon each knee, and looking with an absent-minded air, through the opening in the door, and seeing strange forms in the glowing coals.
"Pleasant after a hard day's work," remarked the man, with an insinuating air.
"I don't know what life would be worth, if seasons of recreation and social fellowship did not come, nightly, to relieve both body and mind from their wearisomeness and exhaustion."
"Yes — yes. It's tiresome enough to have to sit and turn a wheel all day," said Martin.
"And a relief to get into a place like this at night," returned the man, rubbing his hands with animation.
"It's a great deal better than sitting at the wheel," sighed Martin.
"I would think it was! Come! won't you have a drink."
"No thank you! I've just taken something."
"No matter. Come along, my good fellow, and try something more." And he arose, as he spoke, and moved towards the bar.
Martin was not the man to refuse a drink at any time, so he followed to the counter.
"What'll you take? Whisky, rum, gin, brandy, or spirits? Anything, so it's strong enough to drink to old acquaintanceship. Ha! my boy?" And he leered in Martin's face with a sinister expression, and slapped him familiarly on the shoulder.
"Brandy," said Martin. "Brandy let it be! Nothing like brandy! Set out your pure old Cogniac! Toby. A drink for the gods!"
"Prime stuff! that. It warms you to the very soles of your feet!" added the man. "Don't you think so, Martin?"
"Yes! and through your stockings, to your very shoes!"
"Hat ha! ha! He! he!" laughed the man with a forced effort. "Why,
Bill Martin, you're a wit!"
"It isn't Bill, it's the brandy," said the bar-keeper, with more truth than jest.
"That brandy would put life into a grindstone!"
"It's put life into our friend here, without doubt." And as the very unselfish companion of Martin said this, he slapped him again upon the shoulder.
The two men turned from the bar and sat down again by the stove, both getting more and more familiar and chatty.
"Suppose we try a game of dominoes or chequers?" at length suggested the friend.
"No objection," replied Martin. "Anything to make the time pass agreeably. Suppose we say chequers?"
"Very well. Here's a board. We'll go into the backroom where it's more quiet."
The two men retired into the little den in the rear of the bar-room, where were several parties engaged at cards or dice.
"Here's a cozy little corner," said the pleasant friend of Martin.
"We can be as quiet as kittens."
"What's the stake?" he next inquired, as soon as the board was opened and the pieces distributed. "Shall we say a bit?"
Martin received, at the close of each day, his earnings. Of his seventy-five cents, he had already paid out for board thirty-one cents; and for a glass of liquor and some tobacco, six cents more. So he had but thirty-eight cents left. This sum he drew from his pocket, and counted over with scrupulous accuracy, so as to be sure of the amount. While he was doing so, his companion's eyes were fixed eagerly upon the small coins in his hands, in order, likewise, to ascertain their sum.
"A bit let it be." And the man laid down a twelve-and-a-half-cent piece.
"No! We'll start with a petty amount," said Martin, selecting the smaller coin and placing it on the table.
"That's too trifling. Say a full bit," returned the man, but half concealing the eager impatience he felt to get hold of the poor wretch's money.
"Well, I don't care! Call it a bit, then," said Martin. And the coin was staked.
An observer would have been struck with the change which now came over Martin. His dull eyes brightened; something like light came flashing into his almost expressionless face, and his lips arched with the influx of new life and feeling. He moved his pieces on the board with the promptness and skill of one accustomed to the game, and, though he played with an opponent whose clearer head gave him an advantage, he yet held his own with remarkable pertinacity, and was not beaten until after a long and well-balanced struggle. But beaten he was; and one-third of all he possessed in the world passed from his hand.
Another twelve-and-a-half-cent piece was staked, and, in like manner, lost.
"I can't go but a petty amount this time," said Martin, when the pieces were arranged for the third game. "My funds are getting too low."
"Very well, a petty amount let it be. Anything just to give a little interest to the game. I'm sure you'll win this time."
And win Martin did. This elated him. He played another game and lost. The next was no more successful. Only a single petty amount now remained. For a short time he hesitated about risking this. He wanted more liquor; and, if he lost, there would be no means left to gratify the ever burning thirst which consumed him. Not until the close of the next day would he receive any money; and, without money, he could get nothing. There were unpaid bills against him in a dozen shops.
"Try again. Don't be afraid. You're a better player than I am. You'll be sure to win. Luck lies in the last sixpence. Don't you know that?"
Thus urged, Martin put down the last small remnant of his day's earnings. The interest taken in the games had nearly counteracted the effects of the liquor, and he was, therefore, able to play with a skill nearly equal to that of his companion. Slowly and thoughtfully he made his moves, and calculated the effect of every change in the board with as much intelligence as it was possible for him to summon to his aid. But luck, so called, was against him. His three last pieces, kings, were swept from the board by a single play of his adversary, at a moment when Martin believed himself sure of the game. A bitter imprecation fell from his lips, as he turned from the table, and thrusting his hands nearly to his elbows in his pockets, stalked into the bar-room, leaving the man who had won from him the remnant of his day's earnings for the twentieth time, to enjoy the pleasures of success. This man was too much occupied in kind attentions to others who were to be his victims, to even see Martin again during the evening.
After having lost his last farthing, the latter, feeling miserable enough, sat down at a table on which were three or four newspapers, and tried to find in them something to interest his mind. He was nearer to being sober than he had been for many weeks. On the night before, he had gambled away his last penny, and the consequence was, that he had been obliged to do without liquor all day. The effects of the two glasses he had taken since nightfall had been almost entirely obliterated by the excitement of the petty struggle through which he had passed, and his mind was, therefore, in a more that usually disturbed state. The day had been one of troubled feelings; and the night found him less happy than he had been through the day.
As he ran his eye over the newspaper he was trying to read, pausing now and then at a paragraph, and seeking to find in it something of interest, the words, "Thanksgiving in Massachusetts," arrested his attention, He read over the few lines that followed this heading. They were a simple statement of the fact, that a certain day in November had been appointed as a thanksgiving day by the Governor of Massachusetts, followed by these brief remarks by some editor who had recorded the fact: "How many look forward to this day as a time of joyful re-union! And such it is to thousands of happy families. But, somehow, we always think of the vacant places that death or absence leaves at many tables; and of the shadows that come over the feelings of those who gather in the old homestead. Of the absent, how many are wanderers, like the poor prodigal! And how gladly would they be received if they would only return, and let all the unhappy past be forgotten and forgiven! Does, by any chance, such a wanderer's eye fall upon these few sentences? If so, we do earnestly and tenderly entreat him, by the love of his mother, which is still with him, no matter how far he has gone from the right path, to come back on this blessed day; and thus make the thanksgiving of that mother's heart complete."
Every word of this appeal, which seemed as if it were addressed directly to himself, touched a responsive feeling in the bosom of Martin. One after another, images of other days passed before him — innocent, happy days. His mother's face, his mother's voice, her very words were present with unusual vividness. Then came the recollection of blessed family gatherings on the annual Thanksgiving festival. The rush of returning memories was too strong for the poor, weak, depressed wanderer from home and happiness. He felt the waters of repentance gathering in his eyes; and he drew his hand suddenly across them, with an instinctive effort to check their flow. But a fountain, long sealed, had been touched; and, before he was more than half aware of the tendency of his feelings, a tear came forth and rested on his cheek. It was brushed away quickly. Another followed, and another. The man had lost his self-control. Into one of the lowest haunts of vice and dissipation, the voice of his mother had come, speaking to him words of hope. Even here had her image followed him, and he saw her with the old smile of love upon her face. And he saw the smile give way to looks of sorrow, and heard the voice saying, in tones of the tenderest entreaty, "William! my poor wanderer! come home! Come home!"
Oh! with what deep, heart-aching sincerity did the poor wretch wish that he had never turned aside into the ways of folly. "If I could but go home and die!" he said, mentally.
"If I could but feel my mother's hand upon my forehead, and hear her voice again!"
He had remained sitting at the table with the newspaper before his face, to hide from other eyes all signs of emotion. But, the new feelings awakened were, in no degree congenial to the gross, depraved, and sensual sphere by which he was surrounded; and, as he had no money left, and, therefore, no means of gratifying his thirst for liquor, there was no inducement for him longer to breathe the polluted atmosphere. Rising, therefore, he quietly retired; no one asking him to stay or expressing surprise at his departure. He had no money to spend at the bar, nor to lose at the gaming table; and was not, therefore, an object of the slightest interest to any.
As Martin stepped into the street, the cold rain struck him in the face, and the chilly air penetrated his thin, tattered garments. The driving mist of the early evening had changed to a heavy shower, and the street was covered with water. Through this he plunged as he crossed over, and entered his boarding-house, dripping from head to foot. He did not stop to speak with anyone, but groped his way, in the dark to his attic room. Removing a portion of his wet clothing, he threw himself upon his bed. He had not come to sleep, but to be alone that he might think. But thought grew so painful that he would gladly have found relief in slumber, had that been possible.
"If I had never strayed from the right path!" he murmured, as he tossed himself uneasily. "Oh! if I had never strayed!"
"Shall I go back?" he said, aloud, after some minutes' silence, answering to his own thoughts. "No — no! I will not torment them by my presence. Let them be happy."
But the wish to return, once felt, grew every moment stronger, and he struggled against it until, at last, after hours of bitter remorse and repentance, weary nature yielded, and he fell off into a more quiet sleep than he had known for weeks. In this sleep came many dreams, all of home, the old pleasant home, around which clustered every happy memory of his life; and when morning came, it found him longing to return to that home with an irrepressible desire.
"I will go back," said he, in a firm voice, as he arose at day's dawn, his mind clear and calm. "I will go home. Home — home!"
This proved no mere effervescence of the mind. The idea, once fully entertained, kept possession of his thoughts. His first resolution was to save his earnings until he had enough to procure decent clothing and pay his passage back. A week he kept to this resolution, not once tasting a drop of any intoxicating liquor. But by that time he was so impatient of delay, that he changed his purpose, and procured a situation as deck-hand on board a steamboat that was about leaving for Pittsburgh. For this service, he was to receive three dollars for the trip, besides being furnished with his meals. During his week of sobriety, he had been able to save two dollars. With this money, he got an old pair of boots mended which his employer at the manufactory had given him, and had his clothes repaired and washed, all of which materially improved his appearance, and gave occasion for several of his fellow-workmen to speak encouragingly, which strengthened him greatly in his good purpose.
During the passage up the river, Martin was subjected to many temptations, and once or twice came near to falling into his old ways. But thoughts of home came stealing into his mind at the right moment, and saved him.
With three dollars in his pocket, the wages he had received from the steamboat captain, Martin started for Philadelphia on foot. He was eight days on the journey. When he arrived, his boots were worn through, his money all expended, and himself sick with fatigue, sad and dispirited. Luckily he met an old acquaintance, who was a hand on board a schooner loading with coal for Boston. The vessel was to pass through the canal, and then go by the way of Long Island Sound. Martin told his story to this old crony, who had once been a hard drinker but was now reformed, and he persuaded the captain to give him a passage.
Just two weeks from the time of his leaving Cincinnati, Martin saw the sails expand above him, and felt the onward movement of the vessel which was to bear him homeward. His heart swelled with sad yet pleasant emotions. It was a long time since he had heard from home; and longer still since he had seen the face of any member of his family. For years he had been a wanderer. Now returning, a mere wreck, so marred in every feature, and so changed, that even love would almost fail to recognize him — the eyes of his mind were bent eagerly forward. And, as the distance grew less and less, and he attempted to realize more and more perfectly the meeting soon to take place, his heart would beat heavily in his bosom, and a dimness come before his mental vision.
Thanksgiving, that day of days in New England, had come around again. Among the thousands by whom it was celebrated as a festive occasion, were the Martins, who resided in a village only a few miles from Boston. Old Mr. and Mrs. Martin had four children, two sons and two daughters. One of the daughters remained at home. Rachel, the oldest of the daughters, was in her twenty-third year; and Martha was nineteen. The former was married and lived in the village. Thomas, next older than Rachel, was also married. He resided ten miles away. The oldest of them all, William, was a wanderer; or, for anything they knew to the contrary, had long since passed to his final accounting before God. As many as five years had gone by since there had come from him any tidings; and nearly eight years since his place had been vacant at the Thanksgiving gatherings.
The day rose calm and bright on happy thousands. Perhaps no family in all New England would have experienced a purer delight on this occasion, than that of the Martins, had not the vacant place of an absent member reminded them of the wandering, it might be the dead, son. Thomas was there with his gentle wife and three bright children; Rachel with her husband and babe; and Martha with her sweet young face, which was hardly ever guiltless of a smile. But William was away; and the path in which he was treading, if he were yet alive, was hidden from their view by clouds and darkness.
Dinner, that chief event of every Thanksgiving day, was served immediately after the return of the family from church. It had been prepared by the hands of Martha, and she was in the act of taking an enormous turkey from the oven, when a man came to the door, and, without speaking a word, stood and looked at her attentively. She noticed him as she turned from the oven. He was a sad looking object for a New England village on Thanksgiving day. His eyes were sunken, his face thin and pale, and his old tattered garments hung loosely on his meager limbs. He looked like one just from a bed of sickness, and he bent, leaning upon a rough stick, like an old man yielding to the weight of years. Yet, as poor and weak as he seemed, his clothes were clean, and his face had been recently shaven.
Struck with his appearance, Martha paused and looked at him earnestly.
"Will you let me rest here for a little while?" said the stranger, as soon as he had attracted Martha's attention.
"Oh! yes. Sit down," replied Martha, whose sympathies were instantly awakened by the man's appearance. And she handed him a chair.
Just then, Rachel, who had taken off her things on returning from church, came into the kitchen to assist Martha with the dinner. She merely glanced at the man; but he fixed upon her a most earnest look, and followed her about with his eyes as she moved from one part of the room to another.
"Martha!" called Mrs. Martin from the adjoining room. Neither of the sisters saw the startle which the man gave, nor observed the quick flush that went over his face, as he turned his head in the direction from which the sound came.
Martha ran in to see what her mother wanted. In a little while she came back, and, as she entered the kitchen, she could not help remarking the strange earnestness with which the man looked at her.
Presently, Mrs. Martin herself came in. She was surprised at seeing the miserable looking object who had intruded himself upon them at a time that seemed so inopportune.
"Who is that, Martha?" she asked in a low voice, aside.
"I don't know," was answered in the same low tone — not so low, however, as to be inaudible to the quick ears of the stranger.
"What is he doing here?"
"He asked me if I would let him rest for a little while; and I couldn't say no."
"He looks sick — and he must be very poor."
"Yes, poor, indeed!" returned Mrs. Martin with a sigh; a thought of her own poor wanderer crossing her mind. This thought caused her to turn to the man and say to him,
"Have you been sick, my friend?"
The man who had been looking at her intently from the moment that she entered the room, now turned his face partly away as he replied —
"Yes. I've been sick for a number of days, but I am better now."
"You look very poor."
"I am poor — poor indeed!"
"Do you live in these parts?"
"I do not deserve to," replied the man, low and evasively.
"Where do your friends live?"
"I don't know that I have any friends," said the man. There was a slight tremor in his voice, that thrilled, answeringly, a chord in the heart of his questioner.
"There still live, those who were once my friends."
"And why not your friends now?"
The man shook his head, sadly.
"I have proved myself unworthy, and, doubtless, they have long since cast me forth from their regard."
"Then you have no mother," said Mrs. Martin, quickly. "A mother's love cannot die."
"I have a mother, and I have sisters," replied the man, after a pause. "Feel kindly towards me for their sakes. I have wandered long; but I am repentant; and, now returning to my old home, I seek — "
The voice that had been low and unsteady at the beginning, sunk sobbing into silence, and the stranger's head drooped upon his bosom. At that moment, Mr. Martin entered, and seeing the man, he exclaimed —
"Who in the world is this?"
"William?" fell half joyfully, half in doubting inquiry, from the mother's lips.
"My mother!" ejaculated the stranger, starting forward, and falling into her open arms.
"William — William!" said Mr. Martin. "Oh! no! It cannot be!"
"It is! Yes! It is my poor, poor boy!" replied the mother, disengaging herself from his clasping arms, and pushing him off so that she could get a full view of his face. "Oh! William! My son! my son!" And again she hugged him wildly to her bosom.
How freely the tears of joy mingled on that happy Thanksgiving day, need not be told. There was no longer a vacant place at the table; nor thought turned not away, doubtingly, in a vain search for the absent and the wandering. The long lost son had been found; the straying member had come home. Theirs was, indeed, a Thanksgiving festival. Such joy as is felt in Heaven over a sinner that repents, made glad the mother's heart that day. And it has been glad ever since, for, though Thanksgiving days have come again and again, there has been no absent member since William's return.