Timothy Shay Arthur 1809 - 1885
A DOLLAR ON THE CONSCIENCE
"Fifty-five cents a yard, I believe you said?" The customer was
opening her purse.
Now fifty cents a yard was the price of the goods, and so Mr. Levering had informed the lady. She misunderstood him, however.
In the community, Mr. Levering had the reputation of being a conscientious, high-minded man. He knew that he was thus estimated, and self-complacently appropriated the good opinion as clearly his due.
It came instantly to the lip of Mr. Levering to say, "Yes, fifty-five." The love of gain was strong in his mind, and ever ready to accede to new plans for adding dollar to dollar. But, ere the words were uttered, a disturbing perception of something wrong restrained him.
"I wish twenty yards," said the customer taking it for granted that fifty-five cents was the price of the goods.
Mr. Levering was still silent; though he commenced promptly to measure off the goods.
"Not dear at that price," remarked the lady.
"I think not," said the storekeeper. "I bought the case of goods from which this piece was taken very low."
"Twenty yards at fifty-five cents! Just eleven dollars." The customer opened her purse as she thus spoke, and counted out the sum in glittering gold dollars. "That is right, I believe," and she pushed the money towards Mr. Levering, who, with a kind of automatic movement of his hand, drew forward the coin and swept it into his till.
"Send the bundle to No. 300 Argyle Street," said the lady, with a bland smile, as she turned from the counter, and the half-bewildered store-keeper.
"Stay, madam! there is a slight mistake!" The words were in Mr. Levering's thoughts, and on the point of gaining utterance, but he had not the courage to speak. He had gained a dollar in the transaction beyond his due, and already it was lying heavily on his conscience. Willingly would he have thrown it off; but when about to do so, the quick suggestion came, that, in acknowledging to the lady the fact of her having paid five cents a yard too much, he might falter in his explanation, and thus betray his attempt to do her wrong. And so he kept silence, and let her depart beyond recall.
Any thing gained at the price of virtuous self-respect is acquired at too large a cost. A single dollar on the conscience may press so heavily as to bear down a man's spirits, and rob him of all the delights of life. It was so in the present case. Vain was it that Mr. Levering sought self-justification. Argue the matter as he would, he found it impossible to escape the smarting conviction that he had unjustly exacted a dollar from one of his customers. Many times through the day he found himself in a musing, abstracted state, and on rousing himself therefrom, became conscious, in his external thought, that it was the dollar by which he was troubled.
"I'm very foolish," said he, mentally, as he walked homeward, after closing his store for the evening. "Very foolish to worry myself about a trifle like this. The goods were cheap enough at fifty-five, and she is quite as well contented with her bargain as if she had paid only fifty."
But it would not do. The dollar was on his conscience, and he sought in vain to remove it by efforts of this kind.
Mr. Levering had a wife and three pleasant children. They were the sunlight of his home. When the business of the day was over, he usually returned to his own fireside with buoyant feeling. It was not so on this occasion. There was a pressure on his bosom--a sense of discomfort--a want of self-satisfaction. The kiss of his wife, and the clinging arms of his children, as they were twined around his neck, did not bring the old delight.
"What is the matter with you this evening, dear ? Are you not well ?" inquired Mrs. Levering, breaking in upon the thoughtful mood of her husband, as he sat in unwonted silence.
I'm perfectly well," he replied, rousing himself, and forcing a smile.
"You look sober."
"Do I ?" Another forced smile.
"Something troubles you, I'm afraid."
"O no; it's all in your imagination."
"Are you sick, papa?" now asks a bright little fellow, clambering upon his knee.
"Why no, love, I'm not sick. Why do you think so ?"
"Because you don't play horses with me."
"Oh dear! Is that the ground of your suspicion ?" replied the father, laughing. "Come! we'll soon scatter them to the winds."
And Mr. Levering commenced a game of romps with the children. But he tired long before they grew weary, nor did he, from the beginning, enter into this sport with his usual zest.
"Does your head ache, pa?" inquired the child who had previously suggested sickness, as he saw his father leave the floor, and seat himself, with some gravity of manner, on a chair.
"Not this evening, dear," answered Mr. Levering.
"Why don't you play longer, then ?"
"Oh pa!" exclaimed another child, speaking from a sudden thought, "you don't know what a time we had at school to-day."
"Ah! what was the cause ?"
"Oh! you'll hardly believe it. But Eddy Jones stole a dollar from Maggy Enfield !"
"Stole a dollar!" ejaculated Mr. Levering. His voice was husky, and he felt a cold thrill passing along every nerve.
"Yes, pa! he stole a dollar! Oh, wasn't it dreadful ?"
"Perhaps he was wrongly accused," suggested Mrs. Levering.
"Emma Wilson saw him do it, and they found the dollar in his pocket. Oh! he looked so pale, and it made me almost sick to hear him cry as if his heart would break."
"What did they do with him?" asked Mrs. Levering.
"They sent for his mother, and she took him home. Wasn't it dreadful ?"
"It must have been dreadful for his poor mother," Mr. Levering ventured to remark.
"But more dreadful for him," said Mrs. Levering. "Will he ever forget his crime and disgrace ? Will the pressure of that dollar on his conscience ever be removed? He may never do so wicked an act again; but the memory of this wrong deed cannot be wholly effaced from his mind."
How rebukingly fell all these words on the ears of Mr. Levering. Ah ! what would he not then have given to have the weight of that dollar removed? Its pressure was so great as almost to suffocate him. It was all in vain that he tried to be cheerful, or to take an interest in what was passing immediately around him. The innocent prattle of his children had lost its wonted charm, and there seemed an accusing expression in the eye of his wife, as, in the concern his changed aspect had occasioned, she looked soberly upon him. Unable to bear all this, Mr. Levering went out, something unusual for him, and walked the streets for an hour. On his return, the children were in bed, and he had regained sufficient self-control to meet his wife with a less disturbed appearance.
On the next morning, Mr. Levering felt something better. Sleep had left his mind more tranquil. Still there was a pressure on his feelings, which thought could trace to that unlucky dollar. About an hour after going to his store, Mr. Levering saw his customer of the day previous enter, and move along towards the place where he stood behind his counter. His heart gave a sudden bound, and the color rose to his face. An accusing conscience was quick to conclude as to the object of her visit. But he soon saw that no suspicion of wrong dealing was in the lady's mind. With a pleasant half recognition, she asked to look at certain articles, from which she made purchases, and in paying for them, placed a ten dollar bill in the hand of the storekeeper.
"That weight shall be off my conscience," said Mr. Levering to himself, as he began counting out the change due his customer; and, purposely, he gave her one dollar more than was justly hers in that transaction. The lady glanced her eyes over the money, and seemed slightly bewildered. Then, much to the storekeeper's relief, opened her purse and dropped it therein.
"All right again !" was the mental ejaculation of Mr. Levering, as he saw the purse disappear in the lady's pocket, while his breast expanded with a sense of relief.
The customer turned from the counter, and had nearly gained the door, when she paused, drew out her purse, and emptying the contents of one end into her hand, carefully noted the amount. Then walking back, she said, with a thoughtful air
"I think you 've made a mistake in the change, Mr. Levering."
"I presume not, ma'am. I gave you four and thirty-five," was the quick reply.
"Four, thirty-five," said the lady, musingly.
"Yes, here is just four, thirty-five."
"That's right; yes, that's right," Mr. Levering spoke, somewhat nervously.
"The article came to six dollars and sixty-five cents, I believe ?"
"Yes, yes; that was i !"
"Then three dollars and thirty-five cents will be my right change," said the lady, placing a small gold coin on the counter. "You gave me too much."
The customer turned away and retired from the store, leaving that dollar still on the conscience of Mr. Levering.
"I'll throw it into the street," said he to himself, impatiently. "Or give it to the first beggar that comes along."
But conscience whispered that the dollar wasn't his, either to give away or to throw away. Such prodigality, or impulsive benevolence, would be at the expense of another, and this could not mend the matter.
"This is all squeamishness," said Mr. Levering trying to argue against his convictions. But it was of no avail. His convictions remained as clear and rebuking as ever.
The next day was the Sabbath, and Mr. Levering went to church, as usual, with his family. Scarcely had he taken a seat in his pew, when, on raising his eyes, they rested on the countenance of the lady from whom he had abstracted the dollar. How quickly his cheek flushed! How troubled became, instantly, the beatings of his heart! Unhappy Mr. Levering! He could not make the usual responses that day, in the services; and when the congregation joined in the swelling hymn of praise, his voice was heard not in the general thanksgiving. Scarcely a word of the eloquent sermon reached his ears, except something about "dishonest dealing;" he was too deeply engaged in discussing the question, whether or no he should get rid of the troublesome dollar by dropping it into the contribution box, at the close of the morning service, to listen to the words of the preacher. This question was not settled when the box came round, but, as a kind of desperate alternative, he cast the money into the treasury.
For a short time, Mr. Levering felt considerable relief of mind. But this disposition of the money proved only a temporary palliative. There was a pressure on his feelings; still a weight on his conscience that gradually became heavier. Poor man! What was he to do? How was he to get this dollar removed from his conscience? He could not send it back to the lady and tell her the whole truth. Such an exposure of himself would not only be humiliating, but hurtful to his character. It would be seeking to do right, in the infliction of a wrong to himself.
At last, Mr. Levering, who had ascertained the lady's name and residence, inclosed her a dollar, anonymously, stating that it was her due; that the writer had obtained it from her, unjustly, in a transaction which he did not care to name, and could not rest until he had made restitution.
Ah! the humiliation of spirit suffered by Mr. Levering in thus seeking to get ease for his conscience! It was one of his bitterest life experiences. The longer the dollar remained in his possession, the heavier became its pressure, until he could endure it no longer. He felt not only disgraced in his own eyes, but humbled in the presence of his wife and children. Not for worlds would he have suffered them to look into his heart.
If a simple act of restitution could have covered all the past, happy would it have been for Mr. Levering. But this was not possible. The deed was entered in the book of his life, and nothing could efface the record. Though obscured by the accumulating dust of time, now and then a hand sweeps unexpectedly over the page, and the writing is revealed. Though that dollar has been removed from his conscience, and he is now guiltless of wrong, yet there are times when the old pressure is felt with painful distinctness.
Earnest seeker after this world's goods, take warning by Mr. Levering, and beware how, in a moment of weak yielding, you get a dollar on your conscience. One of two evils must follow. It will give you pain and trouble, or make callous the spot where it rests. And the latter of these evils is that which is most to be deplored.
WHICH WAS MOST THE LADY ?
"Did you ever see such a queer looking figure?" exclaimed a young lady, speaking loud enough to be heard by the object of her remark. She was riding slowly along in an open carriage, a short distance from the city, accompanied by a relative. The young man, her companion, looked across the, road at a woman, whose attire was certainly not in any way very near approach to the fashion of the day. She had on a faded calico dress, short in the waist; stout leather shoes; the remains of what had once been a red merino long shawl, and a dingy old Leghorn bonnet of the style of eighteen hundred and twenty.
As the young man turned to look at the woman, the latter raised her eyes and fixed them steadily upon the young lady who had so rudely directed towards her the attention of her companion. Her face, was not old nor faded, as the dress she wore. It was youthful, but plain almost to homeliness; and the smallness of her eyes, which were close together and placed at the Mongolian angle, gave to her countenance a singular aspect.
"How do you do, aunty?" said the young man gently drawing on the rein of his horse so as still further to diminish his speed.
The face of the young girl--for she was quite young--reddened, and she slackened her steps so as to fall behind the rude, unfeeling couple, who sought to make themselves merry at her expense.
"She is gypsy!" said the young lady, laughing.
"Gran'mother! How are catnip and hoarhound, snakeroot and tansy, selling to-day? What's the state of the herb market?" joined the young man with increasing rudeness.
"That bonnet's from the ark--ha! ha !"
"And was worn by the wife of Shem, Ham or Japheth. Ha! now I've got it! This is the great, great, great granddaughter of Noah. What a discovery! Where's Barnum? Here's a chance for another fortune !"
The poor girl made no answer to this cruel and cowardly assault, but turned her face away, and stood still, in order to let the carriage pass on.
"You look like a gentleman and a lady," said a man whom was riding by, and happened to overhear some of their last remarks; "and no doubt regard yourselves as such. But your conduct is anything but gentlemanly and lady-like; and if I had the pleasure of knowing your friends, I would advise them to keep you in until you had sense and decency enough not to disgrace yourselves and them !"
A fiery spot burned instantly on the young man's face, and fierce anger shot from his eyes. But the one who had spoken so sharply fixed upon him a look of withering contempt, and riding close up to the carriage, handed him his card, remarking coldly, as he did so,
"I shall be pleased to meet you again, sir. May I ask your card in return ?"
The young man thrust his hand indignantly into his pocket, and fumbled there for some moments, but without finding a card.
"No matter," said he, trying to speak fiercely; "you will hear from me in good time."
"And you from me on the spot, if I should happen to catch you at such mean and cowardly work as you were just now engaged in," said the stranger, no seeking to veil his contempt.
"The vulgar brute! O, he's horrid!" ejaculated the young lady as her rather crestfallen companion laid the whip upon his horse and dashed ahead. "How he frightened me !"
"Some greasy butcher or two-fisted blacksmith," said the elegant young man with contempt. "But," he added boastfully, "I'll teach him a lesson !"
Out into the beautiful country, with feeling a little less buoyant than when they started, rode our gay young couple. As the excitement of passion died away both feel a little uncomfortable in mind, for certain unpleasant convictions intruded themselves, and certain precepts in the code of polite usage grew rather distinct in their memories. They had been thoughtless, to say the least of it.
"But the girl looked so queer!" said the young lady. "I couldn't help laughing to save my life. Where on earth did she come from ?"
Not very keen was their enjoyment of the afternoon's ride, although the day was particularly fine, and their way was amid some bits of charming scenery. After going out into the country some five or six miles, the horse's head was turned, and they took their way homeward. Wishing to avoid the Monotony of a drive along the same road the young man struck across the country in order to reach another avenue leading into the city, but missed his way and bewildered in a maze of winding country roads. While descending a steep hill, in a very secluded place, a wheel came off, and both were thrown from the carriage. The young man received only a slight bruise, but the girl was more seriously injured. Her head had struck against a stone with so strong a concussion as to render her insensible.
Eagerly glancing around for aid, the young man saw, at no great distance from the road, a poor looking log tenement, from the mud chimney of which curled a thin column of smoke, giving signs of inhabitants. To call aloud was his first impulse, and he raised his voice with the cry of "Help !"
Scarcely had the sound died away, ere he saw the door of the cabin flung open, and a woman and boy looked eagerly around.
"Help !" he cried again, and the sound of his voice directed their eyes towards him. Even in his distress, alarm, and bewilderment, the young man recognized instantly in the woman the person they had so wantonly insulted only an hour or two before. As soon as she saw them, she ran forward hastily, and seeing the white face of the insensible girl, exclaimed, with pity and concern,
"O, sir! is she badly hurt ?"
There was heart in that voice of peculiar sweetness.
"Poor lady!" she said, tenderly, as she untied the bonnet strings with gentle care, and placed her hand upon the clammy temples.
"Shall I help you to take her over to the house ?" she added, drawing an arm beneath the form of the insensible girl.
"Thank you!" There was a tone of respect in the young man's voice. "But I can carry her myself;" and he raised the insensible form in his arms, and, following the young stranger, bore it into her humble dwelling. As he laid her upon a bed, he asked, eagerly,
"Is there a doctor near ?"
"Yes, sir," replied the girl. "If you will come to the door, I will show you the doctor's house; and I think he must be at home, for I saw him go by only a quarter of an hour since. John will take care of your horse while you are away, and I will do my best for the poor lady."
The doctor's house, about a quarter of a mile distant, was pointed out, and the young man hurried off at a rapid speed. He was gone only a few minutes when his insensible companion revived, and, starting up, looked wildly around her.
"Where am I? Where is George ?" she asked, eagerly.
"He has gone for the doctor; but will be back very soon," said the young woman, in a kind, soothing voice.
"For the doctor! Who's injured ?" She had clasped her hands across her forehead, and now, on removing them, saw on one a wet stain of blood. With a frightened cry she fell backs upon the pillow from which she had risen.
"I don't think you are much hurt," was said, in a tone of encouragement, as with a damp cloth the gentle stranger wiped very tenderly her forehead. "The cut is not deep. Have you pain anywhere ?"
"No," was faintly answered.
"You can move your arms; so they are uninjured. And now, won't you just step on to the floor, and see if you can bear your weight? Let me raise you up, There, put your foot down--now the other--now take a step--now another. There are no bones broken! How glad I am !"
How earnest, how gentle, how pleased she was. There was no acting in her manner. Every tone, expression, and gesture showed that heart was in everything.
"O, I am glad!" she repeated. "It might have been so much worse."
The first glance into the young girl's face was one of identification; and even amid the terror that oppressed her heart, the unwilling visitor felt a sense of painful mortification. There was no mistaking that peculiar countenance. But how different she seemed! Her voice was singularly sweet, her manner gentle and full of kindness, and in her movements and attitude a certain ease that marked her as one not to be classed, even by the over-refined young lady who was so suddenly brought within her power, among the common herd.
All that assiduous care and kind attention could do for the unhappy girl, until the doctor's arrival, was done. After getting back to the bed from which she bad been induced to rise, in order to see if all her limbs were sound, she grew sick and faint, and remained so until the physician came. He gave it as his opinion that she had received some internal injuries, and that it would not be safe to attempt her removal.
The young couple looked at each other with dismay pictured in their countenances.
"I wish it were in my power to make you more comfortable," said the kind-hearted girl, in whose humble abode they were. "What we have is at your service in welcome, and all that it is in my power to do shall be done for you cheerfully. If father was only at home--but that can't be helped."
The young man dazed upon her in wonder and shame--wonder at the charm that now appeared in her singularly marked countenance, and shame for the disgraceful and cowardly cruelty with which he had a little while before so wantonly assailed her.
The doctor was positive about the matter, and so there was no alternative. After seeing his unhappy relative in as comfortable a condition as possible, the young man, with the doctor's aid, repaired his crippled vehicle by the restoration of a linchpin, and started for the city to bear intelligence of the sad accident, and bring out the mother of the injured girl.
Alone with the person towards whom she had only a short time before acted in such shameless violation of womanly kindness and lady-like propriety, our "nice young lady" did not feel more comfortable in mind than body. Every look--every word--every tone--every act of the kind-hearted girl--was a rebuke. The delicacy of her attentions, and the absence of everything like a desire to refund her of the recent unpleasant incident, marked her as possessing, even if her face and attire were plain, and her position humble, all the elements of a true lady.
Although the doctor, when he left, did not speak very encouragingly, the vigorous system of the young girl began to react and she grew better quite rapidly so that when her parents arrived with the family physician, she was so much improved that it was at once decided to take her to the city.
For an hour before her parents came she lay feigning to be in sleep, yet observing every movement and word of her gentle attendant. It was an hour of shame, self-reproaches, and repentance. She was not really bad at heart; but false estimates of things, trifling associations, and a thoughtless disregard of others, had made her far less a lady in act than she imagined herself to be in quality. Her parents, when they arrived, overwhelmed the young girl with thankfulness; and the father, at parting, tried to induce her to accept a sum of money. But the offers seemed to disturb her.
"O, no, sir!" she said, drawing back, while a glow came into her pale face, and made it almost beautiful; "I have only done a simple duty."
"But you are poor," he urged, glancing around. "Take this, and let it make you more comfortable."
"We are contented with what God has given to us," she replied, cheerfully. "For what he gives is always the best portion. No, sir; I cannot receive money for doing only a common duty."
"Your reward is great," said the father, touched with the noble answer, "may God bless you, my good girl ! And if you will not receive my money, accept my grateful thanks."
As the daughter parted from the strange young girl, she bent down and kissed her hand; then looking up into her face, with tearful eyes, she whispered for her ears alone,
"I am punished, and you are vindicated. O, let your heart forgive me !"
"It was God whom you offended," was whispered back. "Get his forgiveness, and all will be right. You have mine, and also the prayer of my heart that you may be good and wise, for only such are happy."
The humbled girl grasped her hand tightly, and murmured, "I shall never forget you--never !"
Nor did she. If the direct offer of her father was declined, indirect benefits reached, through her means, the lonely log cottage, where everything in time put on a new and pleasant aspect, wind the surroundings of the gentle spirit that presides there were more in agreement with her true internal quality. To the thoughtless young couple the incidents of that day were a life-lesson that never passed entirely from their remembrance. They obtained a glance below the surface of things that surprised them, learning that, even in the humblest, there may be hearts in the right places--warm with pure feelings, and inspired by the noblest sentiments of humanity; and that highly as they esteem themselves on account of their position, there was one, at least, standing below them so far as external advantages were concerned, who was their superior in all the higher qualities that go to make up the real lady and gentleman.
RIGHTS AND WRONGS
It is a little singular--yet certainly true--that people who are very tenacious of their own rights, and prompt in maintaining them, usually have rather vague notions touching the rights of others. Like the too eager merchant, in securing their own, they are very apt to get a little more than belongs to them.
Mrs. Barbara Uhler presented a notable instance of this. We cannot exactly class her with the "strong-minded" women of the day. But she had quite a leaning in that direction; and if not very strong-minded herself, was so unfortunate as to number among her intimate friends two or three ladies who had a fair title to the distinction.
Mrs. Barbara Uhler was a wife and a mother. She was also a woman; and her consciousness of this last named fact was never indistinct, nor ever unmingled with a belligerent appreciation of the rights appertaining to her sex and position.
As for Mr. Herman Uhler, he was looked upon, abroad, as a mild, reasonable, good sort of a man. At home, however, he was held in a very different estimation. The "wife of his bosom" regarded him as an exacting domestic tyrant; and, in opposing his will, she only fell back, as she conceived, upon the first and most sacred law of her nature. As to "obeying" him, she had scouted that idea from the beginning. The words, "honor and obey," in the marriage service, she had always declared, would have to be omitted when she stood at the altar. But as she had, in her maidenhood, a very strong liking for the handsome young Mr. Uhler, and, as she could not obtain so material a change in the church ritual, as the one needed to meet her case, she wisely made a virtue of necessity, and went to the altar with her lover. The difficulty was reconciled to her own conscience by a mental reservation.
It is worthy of remark that above all other of the obligations here solemnly entered into, this one, not to honor and obey her husband, ever after remained prominent in the mind of Mrs. Barbara Uhler. And it was no fruitless sentiment, as Mr. Herman Uhler could feelingly testify.
From the beginning it was clearly apparent to Mrs. Uhler that her husband expected too much from her; that he regarded her as a kind of upper servant in his household, and that he considered himself as having a right to complain if things were not orderly and comfortable. At first, she met his looks or words of displeasure, when his meals, for instance, were late, or so badly cooked as to be unhealthy and unpalatable, with
"I'm sorry, dear; but I can't help it."
"Are you sure you can't help it, Barbara ?" Mr. Uhler at length ventured to ask, in as mild a tone of voice as his serious feelings on the subject would enable him to assume.
Mrs. Uhler's face flushed instantly, and she answered, with dignity:
"I am sure, Mr. Uhler."
It was the first time, in speaking to her husband, that she had said "Mr. Uhler," in her life the first time she had ever looked at him with so steady and defiant an aspect.
Now, we cannot say how most men would have acted under similar circumstances; we can only record what Mr. Uhler said and did:
"And I am not sure, Mrs. Uhler," was his prompt, impulsive reply, drawing himself up, and looking somewhat sternly at his better half.
"You are not ?" said Mrs. Uhler; and she compressed her lips tightly.
"I am not," was the emphatic response.
"And what do you expect me to do, pray ?" came next from the lady's lips.
"Do as I do in my business," answered the gentleman. "Have competent assistance, or see that things are done right yourself."
"Go into the kitchen and cook the dinner, you mean, I suppose ?"
"You can put my meaning into any form of words you please, Barbara. You have charge of this household, and it is your place to see that everything due to the health and comfort of its inmates is properly cared for. If those to whom you delegate so important a part of domestic economy as the preparation of food, are ignorant or careless, surely it is your duty to go into the kitchen daily, and see that it is properly done. I never trust wholly to any individual in my employment. There is no department of the business to which I do not give personal attention. Were I to do so my customers would pay little regard to excuses about ignorant workmen and careless clerks. They would soon seek their goods in another and better conducted establishment."
"Perhaps you had better seek your dinners elsewhere, if they are so little to your fancy at home."
This was the cool, defiant reply of the outraged Mrs. Uhler.
Alas, for Mr. Herman Uhler; he had, so far as his wife was concerned, committed the unpardonable sin; and the consequences visited upon his transgression were so overwhelming that he gave up the struggle in despair. Contention with such an antagonist, he saw, from the instinct of self-preservation, would be utterly disastrous. While little was to be gained, everything was in danger of being lost.
"I have nothing more to say," was his repeated answer to the running fire which his wife kept up against him for a long time. "You are mistress of the house; act your own pleasure. Thank you for the suggestion about dinner. I may find it convenient to act thereon."
The last part of this sentence was extorted by the continued irritating language of Mrs. Uhler. Its utterance rather cooled the lady's indignant ardor, and checked the sharp words that were rattling from her tongue. A truce to open warfare was tacitly agreed upon between the parties. The antagonism was not, however, the less real. Mrs. Uhler knew that her husband expected of her a degree of personal attention to household matters that she considered degrading to her condition as a wife; and, because he expected this, she, in order to maintain the dignity of her position, gave even less attention to these matters than would otherwise have been the case. Of course, under such administration of domestic affairs, causes for dissatisfaction on the part of Mr. Uhler, were ever in existence. For the most part he bore up under them with commendable patience; but, there were times when weak human nature faltered by the way--when, from heart-fulness the mouth would speak. This was but to add new fuel to the flame. This only gave to Mrs. Uhler a ground of argument against her husband as an unreasonable, oppressive tyrant; as one of the large class of men who not only regard woman as inferior, but who, in all cases of weak submission, hesitate not to put a foot upon her neck.
Some of the female associates, among whom Mrs. Uhler unfortunately found herself thrown, were loud talkers about woman's rights and man's tyranny; and to them, with a most unwife-like indelicacy of speech, she did not hesitate to allude to her husband as one of the class of men who would trample upon a woman if permitted to do so. By these ladies she was urged to maintain her rights, to keep ever in view the dignity and elevation of her sex, and to let man, the tyrant, know, that a time was fast approaching when his haughty pride would be humbled to the dust.
And so Mrs. Uhler, under this kind of stimulus to the maintainance of her own rights against the imaginary aggressions of her husband, trampled upon his rights in numberless ways.
As time wore on, no change for the better occurred. A woman does not reason to just conclusions, either from facts or abstract principles like man; but takes, for the most part, the directer road of perception. If, therefore her womanly instincts are all right, her conclusions will be true; but if they are wrong, false judgment is inevitable. The instincts of Mrs. Uhler were wrong in the beginning, and she was, in consequence, easily led by her associates, into wrong estimates of both her own and her husband's position.
One day, on coming home to dinner, Mr. Uhler was told by a servant, that his wife had gone to an anti-slavery meeting, and would not get back till evening, as she intended dining with a friend. Mr. Uhler made no remark on receiving this information. A meagre, badly-cooked dinner was served, to which he seated himself, alone, not to eat, but to chew the cud of bitter fancies. Business, with Mr. Uhler, had not been very prosperous of late; and he had suffered much from a feeling of discouragement. Yet, for all this, his wife's demands for money, were promptly met--and she was not inclined to be over careful as to the range of her expenditures.
There was a singular expression on the face of Mr. Uhler, as he left his home on that day. Some new purpose had been formed in his mind, or some good principle abandoned. He was a changed man--changed for the worse, it may well be feared.
It was late in the afternoon when Mrs. Uhler returned. To have inquired of the servant whether Mr. Uhler had made any remark, when he found that she was absent at dinner time, she would have regarded as a betrayal to that personage of a sense of accountability on her part. No; she stooped not to any inquiry of this kind--compromised not the independence of the individual.
The usual tea hour was at hand--but, strange to say, the punctual Mr. Uhler did not make his appearance. For an hour the table stood on the floor, awaiting his return, but he came not. Then Mrs. Uhler gave her hungry, impatient little ones their suppers--singularly enough, she had no appetite for food herself--and sent them to bed.
Never since her marriage had Mrs. Uhler spent so troubled an evening as that one proved to be. A dozen times she rallied herself--a dozen times she appealed to her independence and individuality as a woman, against the o'er-shadowing concern about her husband, which came gradually stealing upon her mind. And with this uncomfortable feeling were some intruding and unwelcome thoughts, that in no way stimulated her self-approval.
It was nearly eleven o'clock when Mr. Uhler came home; and then he brought in his clothes such rank fumes of tobacco, and his breath was so tainted with brandy, that his wife had no need of inquiry as to where he had spent his evening. His countenance wore a look of vacant unconcern.
"Ah! At home, are you ?" said he, lightly, as he met his wife. "Did you have a pleasant day of it ?"
Mrs. Uhler was--frightened--shall we say ? We must utter the word, even though it meet the eyes of her "strong minded" friends, who will be shocked to hear that one from whom they had hoped so much, should be frightened by so insignificant a creature as a husband. Yes, Mrs. Uhler was really frightened by this new aspect in which her husband presented himself. She felt that she was in a dilemma, to which, unhappily, there was not a single horn, much less choice between two.
We believe Mrs. Uhler did not sleep very well during the night. Her husband, however, slept "like a log." On the next morning, her brow was overcast; but his countenance wore a careless aspect. He chatted with the children at the breakfast table, goodnaturedly, but said little to his wife, who had penetration enough to see that he was hiding his real feelings under an assumed exterior.
"Are you going to be home to dinner to-day ?" said Mr. Uhler, carelessly, as he arose from the table. He had only sipped part of a cup of bad coffee.
"Certainly I am," was the rather sharp reply. The question irritated the lady.
"You needn't on my account," said Mr. Uhler. "I've engaged to dine at the Astor with a friend."
"Oh, very well!" Mrs. Uhler bridled and looked dignified. Yet, her flashing eyes showed that cutting words were ready to leap from her tongue. And they would have come sharply on the air, had not the manner of her husband been so unusual and really mysterious. In a word, a vague fear kept her silent.
Mr. Uhler went to his store, but manifested little of his usual interest and activity. Much that he had been in the habit of attending to personally, he delegated to clerks. He dined at the Astor, and spent most of the afternoon there, smoking, talking, and drinking. At tea-time he came home. The eyes of Mrs. Uhler sought his face anxiously as he came in. There was a veil of mystery upon it, through which her eyes could not penetrate. Mr. Uhler remained at home during the evening, but did not seem to be himself. On the next morning, as he was about leaving the house, his wife said
"Can you let me have some money to-day ?"
Almost for the first time in her life, Mrs. Uhler asked this question in a hesitating manner; and, for the first time, she saw that her request was not favorably received.
"How much do you want ?" inquired the husband.
"I should like to have a hundred dollars," said Mrs. Uhler.
"I'm sorry; but I can't let you have it," was answered. "I lost five hundred dollars day before yesterday through the neglect of one of my clerks, while I was riding out with some friends."
"Riding out!" exclaimed Mrs. Uhler.
"Yes. You can't expect me to be always tied down to business. I like a little recreation and pleasant intercourse with friends as much as any one. Well, you see, a country dealer, who owed me five hundred dollars, was in the city, and promised to call and settle on the afternoon of day before yesterday. I explained to one of my clerks what he must do when the customer came in, and, of course, expected all to be done right. Not so, however. The man, when he found that he had my clerk, and not me, to deal with, objected to some unimportant charge in his bill, and the foolish fellow, instead of yielding the point, insisted that the account was correct. The customer went away, and paid out all his money in settling a bill with one of my neighbors. And so I got nothing. Most likely, I shall lose the whole account, as he is a slippery chap, and will, in all probability, see it to be his interest to make a failure between this and next spring. I just wanted that money to-day. Now I shall have to be running around half the morning to make up the sum I need."
"But how could you go away under such circumstances, and trust all to a clerk?" said Mrs. Uhler warmly, and with reproof in her voice.
"How could I!" was the quick response. "And do you suppose I am going to tie myself down to the store like a slave! You are mistaken if you do; that is all I have to say! I hire clerks to attend to my business."
"But suppose they are incompetent ? What then ?" Mrs. Uhler was very earnest.
"That doesn't in the least alter my character and position." Mr. Uhler looked his wife fixedly in the face for some moments after saying this, and then retired from the house without further remark.
The change in her husband, which Mrs. Uhler at first tried to make herself believe was mere assumption or caprice, proved, unhappily, a permanent state. He neglected his business and his home for social companions; and whenever asked by his wife for supplies of cash, invariably gave as a reason why he could not supply her want, the fact of some new loss of custom, or money, in consequence of neglect, carelessness, or incompetency of clerks or workmen, when he was away, enjoying himself.
For a long time, Mrs. Uhler's independent spirit struggled against the humiliating necessity that daily twined its coils closer and closer around her. More and more clearly did she see, in her husband's wrong conduct, a reflection of her own wrong deeds in the beginning. It was hard for her to acknowledge that she had been in error--even to herself. But conviction lifted before her mind, daily, its rebuking finger, and she could not shut the vision out.
Neglect of business brought its disastrous consequences. In the end there was a failure; and yet, to the end, Mr. Uhler excused his conduct on the ground that he wasn't going to tie himself down like a galley slave to the oar--wasn't going to stoop to the drudgery he had employed clerks to perform. This was all his wife could gain from him in reply to her frequent remonstrances.
Up to this time, Mr. Uhler had resisted the better suggestions which, in lucid intervals, if we may so call them, were thrown into her mind. Pride would not let her give to her household duties that personal care which their rightful performance demanded; the more particularly, as, in much of her husband's conduct, she plainly saw rebuke.
At last, poverty, that stern oppressor, drove the Uhlers out from their pleasant home, and they shrunk away into obscurity, privation, and want. In the last interview held by Mrs. Uhler with the "strong minded" friends, whose society had so long thrown its fascinations around her, and whose views and opinions had so long exercised a baleful influence over her home, she was urgently advised to abandon her husband, whom one of the number did not hesitate to denounce in language so coarse and disgusting, that the latent instincts of the wife were shocked beyond measure. Her husband was not the brutal, sensual tyrant this refined lady, in her intemperate zeal, represented him. None knew the picture to be so false as Mrs. Uhler, and all that was good and true in her rose up in indignant rebellion.
To her poor, comfortless home, and neglected children, Mrs. Uhler returned in a state of mind so different from anything she had experienced for years, that she half wondered within herself if she were really the same woman. Scales had fallen suddenly from her eyes, and she saw every thing around her in new aspects and new relations.
"Has my husband really been an exacting tyrant ?" This question she propounded to herself almost involuntarily. "Did he trample upon my rights in the beginning, or did I trample upon his ? He had a right to expect from me the best service I could render, in making his home comfortable and happy. Did I render that service ? did I see in my home duties my highest obligation as a wife? have I been a true wife to him ?"
So rapidly came these rebuking interrogations upon the mind of Mrs. Uhler, that it almost seemed as if an accuser stood near, and uttered the questions aloud. And how did she respond? Not in self justification. Convinced, humbled, repentant, she sought her home.
It was late in the afternoon, almost evening, when Mrs. Uhler passed the threshold of her own door. The cry of a child reached her ears the moment she entered, and she knew, in an instant, that it was a cry of suffering, not anger or ill nature. Hurrying to her chamber, she found her three little ones huddled together on the floor, the youngest with one of its arms and the side of its face badly burned in consequence of its clothes having taken fire. As well as she could learn, the girl in whose charge she had left the children, and who, in the reduced circumstances of the family, was constituted doer of all work, had, from some pique, gone away in her absence. Thus left free to go where, and do what they pleased, the children had amused themselves in playing with the fire. When the clothes of the youngest caught in the blaze of a lighted stick, the two oldest, with singular presence of mind, threw around her a wet towel that hung near, and thus saved her life.
"Has your father been home ?" asked Mrs. Uhler, as soon as she comprehended the scene before her.
"Yes, ma'am," was answered.
"Where is he ?"
"He's gone for the doctor," replied the oldest of the children.
"What did he say ?" This question was involuntary. The child hesitated for a moment, and then replied artlessly
"He said he wished we had no mother, and then he'd know how to take care of us himself."
The words came with the force of a blow. Mrs. Uhler staggered backwards, and sunk upon a chair, weak, for a brief time, as an infant. Ere yet her strength returned, her husband came in with a doctor. He did not seem to notice her presence; but she soon made that apparent. All the mother's heart was suddenly alive in her. She was not over officious--had little to say; but her actions were all to the purpose. In due time, the little sufferer was in a comfortable state and the doctor retired.
Not a word had, up to this moment, passed between the husband and wife. Now, the eyes of the latter sought those of Mr. Uhler; but there came no answering glance. His face was sternly averted.
Darkness was now beginning to fall, and Mrs. Uhler left her husband and children, and went down into the kitchen. The fire had burned low; and was nearly extinguished. The girl had not returned; and, from what Mrs. Uhler gathered from the children would not, she presumed, come back to them again. It mattered not, however; Mrs. Uhler was in no state of mind to regard this as a cause of trouble. She rather felt relieved by her absence. Soon the fire was rekindled; the kettle simmering; and, in due time, a comfortable supper was on the table, prepared by her own hands, and well prepared too.
Mr. Uhler was a little taken by surprise, when, on being summoned to tea, he took his place at the usually uninviting table, and saw before him a dish of well made toast, and a plate of nicely boiled ham. He said nothing; but a sensation of pleasure, so warm that it made his heart beat quicker, pervaded his bosom; and this was increased, when he placed the cup of well made, fragrant tea to his lips, and took a long delicious draught. All had been prepared by the hands of his wife--that he knew. How quickly his pleasure sighed itself away, as he remembered that, with her ample ability to make his home the pleasantest place for him in the world, she was wholly wanting in inclination.
Usually, the husband spent his evenings away. Something caused him to linger in his own home on this occasion. Few words passed between him and his wife; but the latter was active through all the evening, and, wherever her hand was laid, order seemed to grow up from disorder; and the light glinted back from a hundred places in the room, where no cheerful reflection had ever met his eyes before.
Mr. Uhler looked on, in wonder and hope, but said nothing. Strange enough, Mrs. Uhler was up by day-dawn on the next morning; and in due time, a very comfortable breakfast was prepared by her own hands. Mr. Uhler ventured a word of praise, as he sipped his coffee. Never had he tasted finer in his life, he said. Mrs. Uhler looked gratified; but offered no response.
At dinner time Mr. Uhler came home from the store, where he was now employed at a small salary, and still more to his surprise, found a well cooked and well served meal awaiting him. Never, since his marriage, had he eaten food at his own table with so true a relish--never before had every thing in his house seemed so much like home.
And so things went on for a week, Mr. Uhler wondering and observant, and Mrs. Uhler finding her own sweet reward, not only in a consciousness of duty, but in seeing a great change in her husband, who was no longer moody and ill-natured, and who had not been absent once at meal time, nor during an evening, since she had striven to be to him a good wife, and to her children a self denying mother.
There came, now, to be a sort of tacit emulation of good offices between the wife and husband, who had, for so many years, lived in a state of partial indifference. Mr. Uhler urged the procuring of a domestic, in place of the girl who had left them, but Mrs. Uhler said no--their circumstances would not justify the expense. Mr. Uhler said they could very well afford it, and intimated something about an expected advance in his salary.
"I do not wish to see you a mere household drudge," he said to her one day, a few weeks after the change just noted. "You know so well how every thing ought to be done, that the office of director alone should be yours. I think there is a brighter day coming for us. I hope so. From the first of next month, my salary is to be increased to a thousand dollars. Then we will move from this poor place, into a better home."
There was a blending of hopefulness and tenderness in the voice of Mr. Uhler, that touched his wife deeply. Overcome by her feelings, she laid her face upon his bosom, and wept.
"Whether the day be brighter or darker," she said, when she could speak calmly, "God helping me, I will be to you a true wife, Herman. If there be clouds and storms without, the hearth shall only burn the brighter for you within. Forgive me for the past, dear husband! and have faith in me for the future. You shall not be disappointed."
And he was not. Mrs. Uhler had discovered her true relation, and had become conscious of her true duties. She was no longer jealous of her own rights, and therefore never trespassed on the rights of her husband.
The rapidity with which Mr. Uhler rose to his old position in business, sometimes caused a feeling of wonder to pervade the mind of his wife. From a clerk of one thousand, he soon came into the receipt of two thousand a year, then rose to be a partner in the business, and in a singularly short period was a man of wealth. Mrs. Uhler was puzzled, sometimes, at this, and so were other people. It was even hinted, that he had never been as poor as was pretended. Be that as it may, as he never afterwards trusted important matters to the discretion of irresponsible clerks, his business operations went on prosperously; and, on the other hand, as Mrs. Uhler never again left the comfort and health of her family entirely in the hands of ignorant and careless domestics, the home of her husband was the pleasantest place in the world for him, and his wife, not a mere upper servant, but a loving and intelligent companion, whom he cared for and cherished with the utmost tenderness.