Mrs. Caldwell was so unfortunate as to have a rich husband. Not that the possession of a rich husband is to be declared a misfortune, per se, but, considering the temperament of Mrs. Caldwell, the fact was against her happiness, and therefore is to be regarded, taking the ordinary significance, of the term, as unfortunate.
Wealth gave Mrs. Caldwell leisure for ease and luxurious self-indulgence, and she accepted the privileges of her condition. Some minds, when not under the spur, sink naturally into, a state of inertia, from which, when any touch of the spur reaches them, they spring up with signs of fretfulness. The wife and mother, no matter what her condition, who yields to this inertia, cannot escape the spur. Children and servant, excepting all other causes, will not spare the pricking heel.
Mrs. Caldwell was, by nature, a kind-hearted woman, and not lacking in good sense. But for the misfortune of having a rich husband, she might have spent an active, useful, happy life. It was the opportunity which abundance gave for idleness and ease that marred everything. Order in a household, and discipline among children, do not come spontaneously. They are the result of wise forecast, and patient, untiring, never-relaxing effort. A mere conviction of duty is rarely found to be sufficient incentive; there must be the impelling force of some strong-handed necessity. In the case of Mrs. Caldwell, this did not exist; and so she failed in the creation of that order in her family without which permanent tranquillity is impossible. In all lives are instructive episodes, and interesting as instructive. Let us take one of them from the life of this lady, whose chief misfortune was in being rich.
Mrs. Caldwell's brow was clouded. It was never, for a very long time, free from, clouds, for it seemed as if all sources of worry and vexation were on the increase; and, to make matters worse, patience was assuredly on the decline. Little things, once scarcely observed, now give sharp annoyance, there being rarely any discrimination and whether they were of accident, neglect, or wilfulness.
"Phoebe!" she called, fretfully.
The voice of her daughter answered, half-indifferently, from the next room.
"Why don't you come when I call you?" Anger now mingled with fretfulness.
The face of a girl in her seventeenth year, on which sat no very amiable expression, was presented at the door.
"Is that your opera cloak lying across the chair, and partly on the floor?"
Phoebe, without answering, crossed the room, and catching up the garment with as little carefulness as if it had been an old shawl threw it across her arm, and was retiring, when her mother said, sharply,--
"Just see how you are rumpling that cloak! What do you mean?"
"I'm not hurting the cloak, mother," answered Phoebe, coolly. Then, with a shade of reproof, she added, "You fret yourself for nothing."
"Do you call it nothing to abuse an elegant garment like that?" demanded Mrs. Caldwell. "To throw it upon the floor, and tumble it about as if it were an old rag?"
"All of which, mother mine, I have not done." And the girl tossed her head with an air of light indifference.
"Don't talk to me in that way, Phoebe! I'll not suffer it. You are forgetting yourself." The mother spoke with a sternness of manner that caused her daughter to remain silent. As they stood looking at each other, Mrs. Caldwell said, in a changed voice,--
"What is that on your front tooth?"
"A speck of something, I don't know what; I noticed it only yesterday."
Mrs. Caldwell. crossed the room hastily, with a disturbed manner, and catching hold of Phoebe's arm, drew her to a window.
"Let me see!" and she looked narrowly at the tooth, "Decay, as I live!" The last sentence was uttered in a tone of alarm. "You must go to the dentist immediately. This is dreadful! If your teeth are beginning to fail now, you'll not have one left in your head by the time you're twenty-five."
"It's only a speck," said Phoebe, evincing little concern.
"A speck! I And do you know what a speck means?" demanded Mrs. Caldwell, with no chance in the troubled expression of her face.
"What does it mean?" asked Phoebe.
"Why, it means that the quality of your teeth is not good. One speck is only the herald of another. Next week a second tooth may show signs of decay, and a third in the week afterwards. Dear--dear! This is too bad! The fact is, you are destroying your health. I've talked and talked about the way you devour candies and sweetmeats; about the way you sit up at night, and about a hundred other irregularities. There must be a change in all. This, Phoebe, as I've told you dozens and dozens of times."
Mrs. Caldwell was growing more and more excited.
"Mother! mother!" replied Phoebe, "don't fret yourself for nothing. The speck can be removed in an instant."
"But the enamel is destroyed! Don't you see that? Decay will go on."
"I don't believe that follows at all," answered Phoebe, tossing her head, indifferently, "And even if I believed in the worst, I'd find more comfort in laughing than crying." And she ran off to her own room.
Poor Mrs. Caldwell sat down to brood over this new trouble; and as she brooded, fancy wrought for her the most unpleasing images.
She saw the beauty of Phoebe, a few years later in life, most sadly marred by broken or discolored teeth. Looking at that, and that alone, it magnified itself into a calamity, grew to an evil which overshadowed everything.
She was still tormenting herself about the prospect of Phoebe's loss of teeth, when, in passing through her elegantly-furnished parlors, her eyes fell on a pale acid stain, about the size of a shilling piece, one of the rich figures in the carpet. The color of this figure was maroon, and the stain, in consequence, distinct; at least, it became very distinct to her eye as they dwelt upon it as if held there by a kind of fascination.
Indeed, for a while, Mrs. Caldwell could see nothing else but this spot on the carpet; no, not even though she turned her eyes in various directions, the retina keeping that image to the exclusion of all others.
While yet in the gall of this new bitterness, Mrs. Caldwell heard a carriage stop in front of the house, and, glancing through the window, saw that it was on the opposite side of the street. She knew it to be the carriage of a lady whose rank made her favor a desirable thing to all who were emulous of social distinction. To be of her set was a coveted honor. For her friend and neighbor opposite, Mrs. Caldwell did not feel the highest regard; and it rather hurt her to see the first call made in that quarter, instead of upon herself. It was no very agreeable thought, that this lady-queen of fashion, so much courted and regarded, might really think most highly of her neighbor opposite. To be second to her, touched the quick of pride, and hurt.
Only a card was left. Then the lady reentered her carriage. What? Driving away? Even so. Mrs. Caldwell was not even honored by a call! This was penetrating the quick. What could it mean? Was she to be ruled out of this lady's set? The thought was like a wounding arrow to her soul.
Unhappy Mrs. Caldwell! Her daughter's careless habits; the warning sign of decay among her pearly teeth; the stain on a beautiful carpet, and, worse than all as a pain-giver, this slight from a magnate of fashion;--were not these enough to cast a gloom over the state of a woman who had everything towards happiness that wealth and social station could give, but did not know how to extract from them the blessing they had power to bestow? Slowly, and with oppressed feelings, she left the parlors, and went up stairs. Half an hour later, as she sat alone, engaged in the miserable work of weaving out of the lightest material a very pall of shadows for her soul, a servant came to the door, and announced a visitor. It was an intimate friend, whom she could not refuse to see--a lady named Mrs. Bland.
"How are you, Mrs. Caldwell?" said the visitor, as the two ladies met.
"Miserable," was answered. And not even the ghost of a smile played over the unhappy face.
"Are you sick?" asked Mrs. Bland, showing some concern.
"No, not exactly sick. But, somehow or other, I'm in a worry about things all the while. I can't move a step in any direction without coming against the pricks. It seems as though all things were conspiring against me."
And then Mrs. Caldwell went, with her friend, through the whole series of her morning troubles, ending with the sentence,--
"Now, don't you think I am beset? Why, Mrs. Bland, I'm in a purgatory."
"A purgatory of your own creating, my friend," answered Mrs. Bland with the plainness of speech warranted by the intimacy of their friendship; "and my advice is to come out of it as quickly as possible."
"Come out of it! That is easily said. Will you show me the way?"
"At some other time perhaps. But this morning I have something else on hand. I've called for you to go with me on an errand of mercy."
There was no Christian response in the face of Mrs. Caldwell. She was too deep amid the gloom of her own, wretched state to have sympathy for others.
"Mary Brady is in trouble," said Mrs. Bland.
"What has happened?" Mrs. Caldwell was alive with interest in a moment.
"Her husband fell through a hatchway yesterday, and came near being killed."
"The escape was miraculous."
"Is he badly injured?"
"A leg and two ribs broken. Nothing more, I believe. But that is a very serious thing, especially where the man's labor is his family's sole dependence."
"Poor Mary!" said Mrs. Caldwell, in real sympathy. "In what a dreadful state she must be! I pity her from the bottom of my heart."
"Put on your things, and let us go and see her at once."
Now, it is never a pleasant thing for persons like Mrs. Caldwell to look other people's troubles directly in the face. It is bad enough to dwell among their own pains and annoyances, and they shrink from meddling with another's griefs. But, in the present case, Mrs. Caldwell, moved by a sense of duty and a feeling of interest in Mrs. Brady, who had, years before, been a faithful domestic in her mother's house, was, constrained to overcome all reluctance, and join her friend in the proposed visit of mercy.
"Poor Mary! What a state she must be in!"
Three or four times did Mrs. Caldwell repeat this sentence, as they walked towards that part of the town in which Mrs. Brady resided. "It makes me sick, at heart to think of it," she added.
At last they stood at the door of a small brick house, in a narrow street, and knocked. Mrs. Caldwell dreaded to enter, and even shrank a little behind her friend when she heard a hand on the lock. It was Mary who opened the door--Mary Brady, with scarcely a sign of change in her countenance, except that it was a trifle paler.
"O! Come in!" she said, a smile of pleasure brightening over her face. But Mrs. Caldwell could not smile in return. It seemed to her as if it would be a mockery of the trouble which had come down upon that humble dwelling.
"How is your husband, Mary?" she asked with a solemn face, as soon as they had entered. "I only heard a little while ago of this dreadful occurrence."
"Thank you, ma'am," replied Mrs. Brady, her countenance hardly falling to a serious tone in its expression. "He's quite comfortable to-day; and it's such a relief to see him out of pain. He suffered considerably through the night, but fell asleep just at day dawn, and slept for several hours. He awoke almost entirely free from pain."
"There are no internal injuries, I believe," said Mrs. Bland.
"None, the doctor says. And I'm so thankful. Broken bones are bad enough, and it is hard to see as kind and good a husband as I have suffer,"--Mary's eyes grew wet, "but they will knit and become strong again. When I think how much worse it might have been, I am condemned for the slightest murmur that escapes my lips."
"What are you going to do, Mary?" asked Mrs. Caldwell. "Your husband won't be fit for work in a month, and you have a good many mouths to fill."
"A woman's wit and a woman's will can do a great deal," answered Mrs. Brady, cheerfully. "You see"--pointing to a table, on which lay a bundle--"that I have already been to the tailor's for work. I'm a quick sewer, and not afraid but what I can earn sufficient to keep the pot boiling until John is strong enough to go to work again. 'Where there's a will, there's a way,' Mrs. Caldwell. I've found that true so far, and I reckon it will be true to the end. John will have a good resting spell, poor man! And, dear knows, he's a right to have it, for he's worked hard, and with scarcely a holiday, since we were married."
"Well, well, Mary," said Mrs. Caldwell, in manifest surprise, "you beat me out! I can't understand it. Here you are, under circumstances that I should call of a most distressing and disheartening nature, almost as cheerful as if nothing had happened. I expected to find you overwhelmed with trouble, but, instead, you are almost as tranquil as a June day."
"The truth is," replied Mrs. Brady, drawing, almost for shame, a veil of sobriety over her face, "I've had no time to be troubled. If I'd given up, and set myself down with folded hands, no doubt I should have been miserable enough. But that isn't my way, you see. Thinking about what I shall do, and their doing it, keep me so well employed, that I don't get opportunity to look on the dark side of things. And what would be the use? There's always a bright side as well as a dark side, and I'm sure it's pleasant to be on the bright side, if we can get there; and always try to manage it, somehow."
"Your secret is worth knowing, Mary," said Mrs. Bland.
"There's no secret about it," answered the poor woman, "unless it be in always keeping busy. As I said just now, I've no time to be troubled, and so trouble, after knocking a few times at my door, and not gaining admittance, passes on to some other that stands ajar--and there are a great many such. The fact is, trouble don't like to crowd in among busy people, for they jostle her about, and never give her a quiet resting place, and so she soon departs, and creeps in among the idle ones. I can't give any better explanation, Mrs. Bland."
"Nor, may be, could the wisest philosopher that lives," returned that lady.
The two friends, after promising to furnish Mrs. Brady with an abundance of lighter and more profitable sewing than she had obtained at a clothier's, and saying and doing whatever else they felt to be best under the circumstances, departed. For the distance of a block they walked in silence. Mrs. Caldwell spoke first.
"I am rebuked," she said; "rebuked, as well as instructed. Above all places in the world, I least expected to receive a lesson there."
"Is it not worth remembering?" asked the friend.
"I wish it were engraved in ineffaceable characters on my heart. Ah, what a miserable self-tormentor I have been! The door of my heart stand always ajar, as Mary said, and trouble comes gliding in that all times, without so much as a knock to herald his coming. I must shut and bar the door!"
"Shut it, and bar it, my friend!" answered Mrs. Bland. "And when trouble knocks, say to her, that you are too busy with orderly and useful things--too earnestly at work in discharging dutiful obligations, in the larger sphere, which, by virtue of larger means, is yours to work in--to have any leisure for her poor companionship, and she will not tarry on your threshold. Throw to the winds such light causes of unhappiness as were suffered to depress you this morning, and they will be swept away like thistle down."
"Don't speak of them. My cheek burns at the remembrance," said Mrs. Caldwell.
They now stood at Mrs. Caldwell's door.
"You will come in?"
"No. The morning has passed, and I must return home."
"When shall I see you?" Mrs. Caldwell grasped tightly her friends' hand.
"In a day or two."
"Come to-morrow, and help me to learn in this new book that has been opened. I shall need a wise and a patient teacher. Come, good, true, kind friend!"
"Give yourself no time for trouble," said Mrs. Bland, with a tender, encouraging smile. "Let true thoughts and useful deeds fill all your hours. This is the first lesson. Well in the heart, and all the rest is easy."
And so, Mrs. Caldwell found it. The new life she strove to lead, was easy just in the degree she lived in the spirit of this lesson, and hard just in the degree of her departure.