Three Scenes in the Life of a Worldling by Mary Roberts Rinehart
"It is in vain to urge me, brother Robert. Out into the world I must go. The impulse is on me. I should die of inaction here."
"You need not be inactive. There is work to do. I shall never be idle."
"And such work! Delving in and grovelling close to the very ground. And for what? Oh no, Robert. My ambition soars beyond your 'quiet cottage in a sheltered vale.' My appetite craves something more than simple herbs and water from the brook. I have set my heart on attaining wealth; and, where there is a will there is always a way."
"Contentment is better than wealth."
"A proverb for drones."
"No, William; it is a proverb for the wise."
"Be it for the wise or simple, as commonly understood, it is no proverb for me. As a poor plodder along the way of life, it were impossible for me to know content. So urge me no further, Robert. I am going out into the world a wealth-seeker, and not until wealth is gained do I purpose to return."
"What of Ellen, Robert?"
The young man turned quickly toward his brother, visibly disturbed, and fixed his eyes upon him with an earnest expression.
"I love her as my life," he said, with a strong emphasis on his words.
"Do you love wealth more than life, William?"
"If you love Ellen as your life, and leave her for the sake of getting riches, then you must love money more than life."
"Don't talk to me after this fashion. I cannot bear it. I love Ellen tenderly and truly. I am going forth as well for her sake as my own. In all the good fortune that comes as the meed of effort, she will be a sharer."
"You will see her before you leave us?"
"No. I will neither pain her nor myself by a parting interview. Send her this letter and this ring."
A few hours later, and the brothers stood with tightly grasped hands, gazing into each other's faces.
"Farewell, William. Think of the old homestead as still your home. Though it is mine, in the division of our patrimony, let your heart come back to it as yours. Think of it as home; and, should fortune cheat you with the apples of Sodom, return to it again. Its doors will ever be open, and its hearth-fire bright for you as of old. Farewell."
And they turned from each other, one going out into the restless world, an eager seeker for its wealth and honours; the other to linger among the pleasant places dear to him by every association of childhood, there to fill up the measure of his days--not idly, for he was no drone in the social hive.
On the evening of that day, two maidens sat alone, each in the sanctuary of her own chamber. There was a warm glow on the cheeks of one, and a glad light in her eyes. Pale was the other's face, and wet her drooping lashes. And she that sorrowed held an open letter in her hand. It was full of tender words; but the writer loved wealth more than the maiden, and had gone forth to seek the mistress of his soul. He would "come back;" but when? Ah, what a vail of uncertainty was upon the future! Poor stricken heart! The other maiden--she of the glowing cheeks and dancing eyes--held also a letter in her hand. It was from the brother of the wealth-seeker; and it was also full of loving words; and it said that, on the morrow, he would come to bear her as a bride to his pleasant home. Happy maiden!
Ten years have passed. And what of the wealth-seeker? Has he won the glittering prize? What of the pale-faced maiden he left in tears? Has he returned to her? Does she share now his wealth and honour? Not since the day he went forth from the home of his childhood has a word of intelligence from the wanderer been received; and, to those he left behind him, he is now as one who has passed the final bourne. Yet he still dwells among the living.
In a far-away, sunny clime, stands a stately mansion. We will not linger to describe the elegant exterior, to hold up before the reader's imagination a picture of rural beauty, exquisitely heightened by art, but enter its spacious hall, and pass up to one of its most luxurious chambers. How hushed and solemn the pervading atmosphere! The inmates, few in number, are grouped around one on whose white forehead Time's trembling finger has written the word "Death." Over her bends a manly form. There--his face is toward you. Ah! You recognise the wanderer--the wealth-seeker. What does he here? What to him is the dying one? His wife! And has he, then, forgotten the maiden whose dark lashes lay wet on her pale cheeks for many hours after she read his parting words? He has not forgotten, but been false to her. Eagerly sought he the prize, to contend for which he went forth. Years came and departed; yet still hope mocked him with ever-attractive and ever-fading illusions. To-day he stood with his hand just ready to seize the object of his wishes--to-morrow, a shadow mocked him. At last, in an evil hour, he bowed down his manhood prostrate even to the dust in mammon-worship, and took to himself a bride, rich in golden attractions, but poorer, as a woman, than even the beggar at his father's gate. What a thorn in his side she proved!--a thorn ever sharp and ever piercing. The closer he attempted to draw her to his bosom, the deeper went the points into his own, until, in the anguish of his soul, again and again he flung her passionately from him.
Five years of such a life! Oh, what is there of earthly good to compensate therefor? But, in this last desperate throw, did the worldling gain the wealth, station, and honour he coveted? He had wedded the only child of a man whose treasure might be counted by hundreds of thousands; but, in doing so, he had failed to secure the father's approval or confidence. The stern old man regarded him as a mercenary interloper, and ever treated him as such. For five years, therefore, he fretted and chafed in the narrow prison whose gilded bars his own hands had forged. How often, during that time, had his heart wandered back to the dear old home, and the beloved ones with whom he had passed his early years And ah! how many, many times came between him and the almost hated countenance of his wife, the gentle, loving face of that one to whom he had been false! How often her soft blue eyes rested on his own! How often he started and looked up suddenly, as if her sweet voice came floating on the air!
And so the years moved on, the chain galling more deeply, and a bitter sense of humiliation as well as bondage robbing him of all pleasure in life.
Thus it is with him when, after ten years, we find him waiting, in the chamber of death, for the stroke that is to break the fetters that so long have bound him. It has fallen. He is free again. In dying, the sufferer made no sign. Sullenly she plunged into the dark profound, so impenetrable to mortal eyes, and as the turbid waves closed, sighing, over her, he who had called her wife turned from the couch on which her frail body remained, with an inward "Thank God! I am a man again!"
One more bitter drug yet remained for his cup. Not a week had gone by, ere the father of his dead wife spoke to him these cutting words--
"You were nothing to me while my daughter lived--you are less than nothing now. It was my wealth, not my child, that you loved. She has passed away. What affection would have given to her, dislike will never bestow on you. Henceforth we are strangers."
When next the sun went down on that stately mansion which the wealth-seeker had coveted, he was a wanderer again--poor, humiliated, broken in spirit.
How bitter had been the mockery of all his early hopes! How terrible the punishment he had suffered!
One more eager, almost fierce struggle with alluring fortune, in which the worldling came near steeping his soul in crime, and then fruitless ambition died in his bosom.
"My brother said well," he murmured, as a ray of light fell suddenly on the darkness of his spirit: "Contentment is better than wealth. Dear brother! Dear old home! Sweet Ellen! Ah, why did I leave you? Too late! too late! A cup, full of the wine of life, was at my lips; but I turned my head away, asking for a more fiery and exciting draught. How vividly comes before me now that parting scene! I am looking into my brother's face. I feel the tight grasp of his hand. His voice is in my ears. Dear brother! And his parting words, I hear them now, even more earnestly than when they were first spoken:--'Should fortune cheat you with the apples of Sodom, return to your home again. Its doors will ever be open, and its hearth-fires bright for you as of old.' Ah! do the fires still burn? How many years have passed since I went forth! And Ellen? But I dare not think of her. It is too late--too late! Even if she be living and unchanged in her affections, I can never lay this false heart at her feet. Her look of love would smite me as with a whip of scorpions."
The step of time had fallen so lightly on the flowery path of those to whom contentment was a higher boon than wealth, that few footmarks were visible. Yet there had been changes in the old homestead. As the smiling years went by, each, as it looked in at the cottage-window, saw the home circle widening, or new beauty crowning the angel brows of happy children. No thorn in his side had Robert's gentle wife proved. As time passed on, closer and closer was she drawn to his bosom; yet never a point had pierced him. Their home was a type of paradise.
It is near the close of a summer day. The evening meal is spread, and they are about gathering around the table, when a stranger enters. His words are vague and brief, his manner singular, his air slightly mysterious. Furtive, yet eager glances go from face to face.
"Are these all your children?" he asks, surprise and admiration mingling in his tones.
"All ours. And, thank God! the little flock is yet unbroken."
The stranger averts his face. He is disturbed by emotions that it is impossible to conceal.
"Contentment is better than wealth," he murmurs. "Oh that I had earlier comprehended this truth!"
The words were not meant for others; but the utterance had been too distinct. They have reached the ears of Robert, who instantly recognises in the stranger his long wandering, long mourned brother.
The stranger is on his feet. A moment or two the brothers stand gazing at each other, then tenderly embrace.
How the stranger starts and trembles! He had not seen, in the quiet maiden, moving among and ministering to the children so unobtrusively, the one he had parted from years before--the one to whom he had been so false. But her voice has startled his ears with the familiar tones of yesterday.
"Ellen!" Here is an instant oblivion of all the intervening years. He has leaped back over the gloomy gulf, and stands now as he stood ere ambition and lust for gold lured him away from the side of his first and only love. It is well both for him and the faithful maiden that he can so forget the past as to take her in his arms and clasp her almost wildly to his heart. But for this, conscious shame would have betrayed his deeply repented perfidy.
And here we leave them, reader. "Contentment is better than wealth." So the wordling proved, after a bitter experience--which may you be spared! It is far better to realize a truth perceptively, and thence make it a rule of action, than to prove its verity in a life of sharp agony. But how few are able to rise into such a realization!