Very Poor by T.S. Arthur
"What has become of the Wightmans?" I asked of my old friend Payson. I had returned to my native place after an absence of several years. Payson looked grave.
"Nothing wrong with them, I hope. Wightman was a clever man, and he had a pleasant family."
My friend shook his head ominously.
"He was doing very well when I left," said I.
"All broken up now," was answered. "He failed several years ago."
"Ah! I'm sorry to hear this. What has become of him?"
"I see him now and then, but I don't know what he is doing."
"And his family?"
"They live somewhere in Old Town. I havn't met any of them for a long time. Some one told me that they were very poor."
This intelligence caused a feeling of sadness to pervade my mind. The tone and manner of Payson, as he used the words "very poor," gave to them more than ordinary meaning. I saw, in imagination, my old friend reduced from comfort and respectability, to a condition of extreme poverty, with all its sufferings and humiliations. While my mind was occupied with these unpleasant thoughts, my friend said,
"You must dine with me to-morrow. Mrs. Payson will be glad to see you, and I want to have a long talk about old times. We dine at three."
I promised to be with them, in agreement with the invitation; and then we parted. It was during business hours, and as my friend's manner was somewhat occupied and hurried, I did not think it right to trespass on his time. What I had learned of the Wightmans troubled my thoughts. I could not get them out of my mind. They were estimable people. I had prized them above ordinary acquaintances; and it did seem peculiarly hard that they should have suffered misfortune. "Very poor"--I could not get the words out of my ears. The way in which they were spoken involved more than the words themselves expressed, or rather, gave a broad latitude to their meaning. "Very poor! Ah me!" The sigh was deep and involuntary.
I inquired of several old acquaintances whom I met during the day for the Wightmans; but all the satisfaction I received was, that Wightman had failed in business several years before, and was now living somewhere in Old Town in a very poor way. "They are miserably poor," said one. "I see Wightman occasionally," said another--"he looks seedy enough." "His girls take in sewing, I have heard," said a third, who spoke with a slight air of contempt, as if there were something disgraceful attached to needle-work, when pursued as a means of livelihood. I would have called during the day, upon Wightman, but failed to ascertain his place of residence.
"Glad to see you!" Payson extended his hand with a show of cordiality, as I entered his store between two and three o'clock on the next day.
"Sit down and look over the papers for a little while," he added. "I'll be with you in a moment. Just finishing up my bank business."
"Business first," was my answer, as I took the proffered newspaper. "Stand upon no ceremony with me."
As Payson turned partly from me, and bent his head to the desk at which he was sitting, I could not but remark the suddenness with which the smile my appearance had awakened faded from his countenance. Before him was a pile of bank bills, several checks, and quite a formidable array of bank notices. He counted the bills and checks, and after recording the amount upon a slip of paper glanced uneasily at his watch, sighed, and then looked anxiously towards the door. At this moment a clerk entered hastily, and made some communication in an undertone, which brought from my friend a disappointed and impatient expression.
"Go to Wilson," said he hurriedly, "and tell him to send me a check for five hundred without fail. Say that I am so much short in my bank payments, and that it is now too late to get the money any where else. Don't linger a moment; it is twenty five minutes to three now."
The clerk departed. He was gone full ten minutes, during which period Payson remained at his desk, silent, but showing many signs of uneasiness. On returning, he brought the desired check, and was then dispatched to lift the notes for which this late provision was made.
"What a life for a man to lead," said my friend, turning to me with a contracted brow and a sober face. "I sometimes wish myself on an island in mid ocean. You remember C----?"
"He quit business a year ago, and bought a farm. I saw him the other day. 'Payson,' said he, with an air of satisfaction, 'I haven't seen a bank notice this twelvemonth.' He's a happy man! This note paying is the curse of my life. I'm forever on the street financiering--Financiering. How I hate the word! But come--they'll be waiting dinner for us. Mrs. Payson is delighted at the thought of seeing you. How long is it since you were here? About ten years, if I'm not mistaken. You'll find my daughters quite grown up. Clara is in her twentieth year. You, of course, recollect her only as a school girl. Ah me! how time does fly!"
I found my friend living in a handsome house in Franklin street. It was showily, not tastefully, furnished, and the same might be said of his wife and daughters. When I last dined with them--it was many years before--they were living in a modest, but very comfortable way, and the whole air of their dwelling was that of cheerfulness and comfort. Now, though their ample parlors were gay with rich Brussels, crimson damask, and brocatelle, there was no genuine home feeling there. Mrs. Payson, the last time I saw her, wore a mousseline de lain, of subdued colors, a neat lace collar around her neck, fastened with a small diamond pin, the marriage gift of her father. Her hair, which curled naturally, was drawn behind her ears in a few gracefully falling ringlets. She needed no other ornament. Anything beyond would have taken from her the chiefest of her attractions, her bright, animated countenance, in which her friends ever read a heart-welcome.
How changed from this was the rather stately woman, whose real pleasure at seeing an old friend was hardly warm enough to melt through the ice of an imposed formality. How changed from this the pale, cold, worn face, where selfishness and false pride had been doing a sad, sad work. Ah! the rich Honiton lace cap and costly cape; the profusion of gay ribbons, and glitter of jewelry; the ample folds of glossy satin; how poor a compensation were they for the true woman I had parted with a few years ago, and now sought beneath these showy adornments in vain!
Two grown-up daughters, dressed almost as flauntingly as their mother, were now presented. In the artificial countenance of the oldest, I failed to discover any trace of my former friend Clara.
A little while we talked formally, and with some constraint all round; then, as the dinner had been waiting us, and was now served, we proceeded to the dining-room. I did not feel honored by the really sumptuous meal the Paysons had provided for their old friend; because it was clearly to be seen that no honor was intended. The honor was all for themselves. The ladies had not adorned their persons, nor provided their dinner, to give me welcome and pleasure, but to exhibit to the eyes of their guest, their wealth, luxury, and social importance. If I had failed to perceive this, the conversation of the Paysons would have made it plain, for it was of style and elegance in house-keeping and dress--of the ornamental in all its varieties; and in no case of the truly domestic and useful. Once or twice I referred to the Wightmans; but the ladies knew nothing of them, and seemed almost to have forgotten that such persons ever lived.
It did not take long to discover that, with all the luxury by which my friends were surrounded, they were far from being happy. Mrs. Payson and her daughters, had, I could see, become envious as well as proud. They wanted a larger house, and more costly furniture in order to make as imposing an appearance as some others whom they did not consider half as good as themselves. To all they said on this subject, I noticed that Payson himself maintained, for the most part, a half-moody silence. It was, clearly enough, unpleasant to him.
"My wife and daughters think I am made of money," said he, once, half laughing. "But if they knew how hard it was to get hold of, sometimes, they would be less free in spending. I tell them I am a poor man, comparatively speaking; but I might as well talk to the wind."
"Just as well," replied his wife, forcing an incredulous laugh; "why will you use such language? A poor man!"
"He that wants what he is not able to buy, is a poor man, if I understand the meaning of the term," said Payson, with some feeling. "And he who lives beyond his income, as a good many of our acquaintances do to my certain knowledge, is poorer still."
"Now don't get to riding that hobby, Mr. Payson," broke in my friend's wife, deprecatingly--"don't, if you please. In the first place, it's hardly polite, and, in the second place, it is by no means agreeable. Don't mind him"--and the lady turned to me gaily--"he gets in these moods sometimes."
I was not surprised at this after what I had witnessed, about his house. Put the scenes and circumstances together, and how could it well be otherwise? My friend, thus re-acted upon, ventured no further remark on a subject that was so disagreeable to his family. But while they talked of style and fashion, he sat silent, and to my mind oppressed with no very pleasant thoughts. After the ladies had retired, he said, with considerable feeling--
"All this looks and sounds very well, perhaps; but there are two aspects to almost everything. My wife and daughters get one view of life, and I another. They see the romance, I the hard reality. It is impossible for me to get money as fast as they wish to spend it. It was my fault in the beginning, I suppose. Ah! how difficult it is to correct an error when once made. I tell them that I am a poor man, but they smile in my face, and ask me for a hundred dollars to shop with in the next breath. I remonstrate, but it avails not, for they don't credit what I say. And I am poor--poorer, I sometimes think, than the humblest of my clerks, who manages, out of his salary of four hundred a year, to lay up fifty dollars. He is never in want of a dollar, while I go searching about, anxious and troubled, for my thousands daily. He and his patient, cheerful, industrious little wife find peace and contentment in the single room their limited means enables them to procure, while my family turn dissatisfied from the costly adornments of our spacious home, and sigh for richer furniture, and a larger and more showy mansion. If I were a millionaire, their ambition might be satisfied. Now, their ample wishes may not be filled. I must deny them, or meet inevitable ruin. As it is, I am living far beyond a prudent limit--not half so far, however, as many around me, whose fatal example is ever tempting the weak ambition of their neighbors."
This and much more of similar import, was said by Payson. When I returned from his elegant home, there was no envy in my heart. He was called a rich and prosperous man by all whom I heard speak of him, but in my eyes, he was very poor.
A day or two afterwards, I saw Wightman in the street. He was so changed in appearance that I should hardly have known him, had he not first spoken. He looked in my eyes, twenty years older than when we last met. His clothes were poor, though scrupulously clean; and, on observing him more closely, I perceived an air of neatness and order, that indicates nothing of that disregard about external appearance which so often accompanies poverty.
He grasped my hand cordially, and inquired, with a genuine interest, after my health and welfare. I answered briefly, and then said:
"I am sorry to hear that it is not so well with you in worldly matters as when I left the city."
A slight shadow flitted over his countenance, but it grew quickly cheerful again.
"One of the secrets of happiness in this life," said he, "is contentment with our lot. We rarely learn this in prosperity. It is not one of the lessons taught in that school."
"And you have learned it?" said I.
"I have been trying to learn it," he answered, smiling. "But I find it one of the most difficult of lessons. I do not hope to acquire it perfectly."
A cordial invitation to visit his family and take tea with them followed, and was accepted. I must own, that I prepared to go to the Wightmans with some misgivings as to the pleasure I should receive. Almost every one of their old acquaintances, to whom I had addressed inquiries on the subject, spoke of them with commiseration, as "very poor." If Wightman could bear the change with philosophy, I hardly expected to find the same Christian resignation in his wife, whom I remembered as a gay, lively woman, fond of social pleasures.
Such were my thoughts when I knocked at the door of a small house, that stood a little back from the street. It was quickly opened by a tall, neatly-dressed girl, whose pleasant face lighted into a smile of welcome as she pronounced my name.
"This is not Mary?" I said as I took her proffered hand.
"Yes, this is your little Mary," she answered. "Father told me you were coming."
Mrs. Wightman came forward as I entered the room into which the front door opened, and gave me a most cordial welcome. Least of all had time and reverses changed her. Though a little subdued, and rather paler and thinner, her face had the old heart-warmth in it--the eyes were bright from the same cheerful spirit.
"How glad I am to see you again!" said Mrs. Wightman. And she was glad. Every play of feature, every modulation of tone, showed this.
Soon her husband came in, and then she excused herself with a smile, and went out, as I very well understood, to see after tea. In a little while supper was ready, and I sat down with the family in their small breakfast room, to one of the pleasantest meals I have ever enjoyed. A second daughter, who was learning a trade, came in just as we were taking our places at the table, and was introduced. What a beautiful glow was upon her young countenance! She was the very image of health and cheerfulness.
When I met Wightman in the street, I thought his countenance wore something of a troubled aspect--this was the first impression made upon me. Now, as I looked into his face, and listened to his cheerful, animated conversation, so full of life's true philosophy, I could not but feel an emotion of wonder. "Very poor!" How little did old friends, who covered their neglect of this family with these commiserating words, know of their real state. How little did they dream that sweet peace folded her wings in that humble dwelling nightly; and that morning brought to each a cheerful, resolute spirit, which bore them bravely through all their daily toil.
"How are you getting along now Wightman?" I asked, as, after bidding good evening to his pleasant family, I stood with him at the gate opening from the street to his modest dwelling.
"Very well," was his cheerful reply. "It was up hill work for several years, when I only received five hundred dollars salary as clerk, and all my children were young. But now, two of them are earning something, and I receive eight hundred dollars instead of five. We have managed to save enough to buy this snug little house. The last payment was made a month since. I am beginning to feel rich."
And he laughed a pleasant laugh.
"Very poor," I said to myself, musingly, as I walked away from the humble abode of the Wightmans. "Very poor. The words have had a wrong application."
On the next day I met Payson.
"I spent last evening with the Wightmans," said I.
"Indeed! How did you find them? Very poor, of course."
"I have not met a more cheerful family for years. No, Mr. Payson they are not 'very poor,' for they take what the great Father sends, and use it with thankfulness. Those who ever want more than they possess are the very poor. But such are not the Wightmans."
Payson looked at me a moment or two curiously, and then let his eyes fall to the ground. A little while he mused. Light was breaking in upon him.
"Contented and thankful!" said he, lifting his eyes from the ground. "Ah! my friend, if I and mine were only contented and thankful!"
"You have cause to be," I remarked. "The great Father hath covered your table with blessings."
"And yet we are poor--very poor," said he, "for we are neither contented nor thankful. We ask for more than we possess, and, because it is not given, we are fretful and impatient. Yes, yes--we, not the Wightmans, are poor--very poor."
And with these words on his lips, my old friend turned from me, and walked slowly away, his head bent in musing attitude to the ground. Not long afterwards, I heard that he had failed.
"Ah!" thought I, when this news reached me, "now you are poor, very poor, indeed!" And it was so.