"Our parlor carpet is beginning to look real shabby," said Mrs. Cartwright. "I declare! if I don't feel right down ashamed of it, every time a visitor, who is anybody, calls in to see me."
"A new one will cost--"
The husband of Mrs. Cartwright, a good-natured, compliant man, who was never better pleased than when he could please his wife, paused to let her finish the sentence, which she did promptly, by saying,--
"Only forty dollars. I've counted it all up. It will take thirty-six yards. I saw a beautiful piece at Martin's--just the thing--at one dollar a yard. Binding, and other little matters, won't go beyond three or four dollars, and I can make it myself, you know."
"Only forty dollars! Mr. Cartwright glanced down at the carpet which had decorated the floor of their little parlor for nearly five years. It had a pleasant look in his eyes, for it was associated with many pleasant memories. Only forty dollars for a new one! If the cost were only five, instead of forty, the inclination to banish this old friend to an out-of-the-way chamber would have been no stronger in the mind of Mr. Cartwright. But forty dollars was an item in the calculation, and to Mr. Cartwright a serious one. Every year he was finding it harder to meet the gradually increasing demand upon his purse; for there was a steadily progressive enlargement of his family, and year after year the cost of living advanced. He was thinking of this when his wife said,--
"You know, Henry, that cousin Sally Gray is coming here on a visit week after next. Now I do want to put the very best face on to things while she is here. We were married at the same time, and I hear that her husband is getting rich. I feel a little pride about the matter, and don't want her to think that we're growing worse off than when we began life, and can't afford to replace this shabby old carpet by a new one." No further argument was needed. Mr. Cartwright had sixty dollars in one of the bureau drawers,--a fact well known to his wife. And it was also well known to her that it was the accumulation of very careful savings, designed, when the sum reached one hundred dollars, to cancel a loan made by a friend, at a time when sickness and a death in the family had run up their yearly expenses beyond the year's income. Very desirous was Mr. Cartwright to pay off this loan, and he had felt lighter in heart as those aggregate of his savings came nearer and nearer to the sum required for that purpose.
But he had no firmness to oppose his wife in anything. Her wishes in this instance, as in many others, he unwisely made a law. The argument about cousin Sally Gray was irresistible. No more than his wife did he wish to look poor in her eyes; and so, for the sake of her eyes, a new carpet was bought, and the old one--not by any means as worn and faded as the language of his wife indicated--sent up stairs to do second-hand duty in the spare bedroom.
Not within the limit of forty dollars was the expense confined. A more costly pattern than could be obtained for one dollar a yard tempted the eyes of Mrs. Cartwright, and abstracted from her husband's savings the sum of over fifty dollars. Mats and rugs to go with the carpet were indispensable, to give the parlor the right effect in the eyes of cousin Sally Gray, and the purchase of these absorbed the remainder of Mr. Cartwright's carefully hoarded sixty dollars.
Unfortunately, for the comfortable condition of Mrs. Cartwright's mind, the new carpet, with its flaunting colors, put wholly out of countenance the cane-seat chairs and modest pier table, and gave to the dull paper on the wall a duller aspect. Before, she had scarcely noticed the hangings on the Venetian blinds, now, it seemed as if they had lost their freshness in a day; and the places where they were broken, and had been sewed again, were singularly apparent every time her eye rested upon them.
"These blinds do look dreadfully!" she said to her husband, on the day after the carpet went down. "Can you remember what they cost?"
"Eight dollars," replied Mr. Cartwright.
"So much?" The wife sighed as she spoke.
"Yes, that was the price. I remember it very well."
"I wonder what new hangings would cost?" Mrs. Cartwright's manner grew suddenly more cheerful, as the suggestion of a cheaper way to improve the windows came into her thought.
"Not much, I presume," answered her husband.
"Don't you think we'd better have it done?"
"Yes," was the compliant answer.
"Will you stop at the blind-maker's, as you go to the store, and tell him to send up for them to-day? It must be attended to at once, you know, for cousin Sally will be here on next Wednesday."
Mr. Cartwright called at the blind-maker's, as requested, and the blind-maker promised to send for the blinds. From there he continued onto the store in which he was employed. There he found a note on his desk from the friend to whom he was indebted for the one hundred dollars.
"Dear Cartwright" (so the note ran), "if it is possible for you to let me have the one hundred dollars I loaned you, its return to-morrow will be a particular favor, as I have a large payment to make, and have been disappointed in the receipt of a sum of money confidently expected."
A very sudden change of feeling did Mr. Cartwright experience. He had, in a degree, partaken of his wife's pleasure in observing the improved appearances of their little parlor but this pleasure was now succeeded by a sense of painful regret and mortification. It was nearly two hours before Mr. Cartwright returned an answer to his friend's note. Most of that time had been spent in the vain effort to discover some way out of the difficulty in which he found himself placed. He would have asked an advance of one hundred dollars on his salary, but he did not deem that a prudent step, and for two reasons. One was, the known character of his employers; and the other was involved in the question of how he was to support his family for the time he was working out this advance? At last, in sadness and humiliation, he wrote a brief reply, regretting his inability to replace the loan now, but promising to do it in a very short time. Not very long after this answer was sent, there came another note from his friend, written in evident haste, and under the influence of angry feelings. It was in these words:--
"I enclose your due bill, which I, yesterday, thought good for its face. But, as it is worthless, I send it back. The man who buys new carpets and new furniture, instead of paying his honest debts, can be no friend of mine. I am sorry to have been mistaken in Henry Cartwright."
Twice did the unhappy man read this cutting letter; then, folding it up slowly, be concealed it in one of his pockets. Nothing was said about it to his wife, whose wordy admiration of the new carpet, and morning, noon, and night, for the next two or three days, was a continual reproof of his weakness for having yielded to her wishes in a matter where calm judgement and a principle of right should have prevailed. But she could not help noticing that he was less cheerful; and once or twice he spoke to her in a way that she thought positively ill-natured. Something was wrong with him; but what that something was, she did not for an instant imagine.
At last the day arrived for cousin Sally Gray's visit. Unfortunately the Venetian blinds were still at the blind-maker's, where they were likely to remain for a week longer, as it was discovered, on the previous afternoon, that he had never touched them since they came into his shop. Without them the little parlor had a terribly bare look; the strong light coming in, and contrasting harshly the new, gaudy carpet with the old, worn, and faded furniture. Mrs. Cartwright fairly cried with vexation.
"We must have something for the windows, Henry," she said, as she stood, disconsolate, in the parlor, after tea. "It will never do in the world to let cousin Sally find us in this trim."
"Cousin Sally will find a welcome in our hearts," replied her husband, in a sober voice, "and that, I am sure, will be more grateful to her than new carpets and window blinds."
The way in which this was spoken rather surprised Mrs. Cartwright, and she felt just a little rebuked.
"Don't you think," she said, after a few moments of silence on both sides, "that we might afford to buy a few yards of lace to put up to the windows, just for decency's sake?"
"No," answered the husband, firmly. "We have afforded too much already."
His manner seemed to Mrs. Cartwright almost ill-natured. It hurt her very much. Both sat down in the parlor, and both remained silent. Mrs. Cartwright thought of the mean appearance everything in that "best room" would have in the eyes of cousin Sally, and Mr. Cartwright thought of his debt to his friend, and of that friend's anger and alienation. Both felt more uncomfortable than they had been for a long time.
On the next day cousin Sally arrived. She had not come to spy out the nakedness of the land,--not for the purpose of making contrasts between her own condition in life and that of Mr. Cartwright,--but from pure love. She had always been warmly attached to her cousin; and the years during which new life-associations had separated them had increased rather than diminished this attachment. But the gladness of their meeting was soon overshadowed; at least for cousin Sally. She saw by the end of the first day's visit that her cousin was more concerned to make a good appearance in her eyes,--to have her understand that she and her husband were getting along bravely in the world,--than to open her heart to her as of old, and exchange with her a few pages in the history of their inner lives. What interest had she in the new carpet, or the curtainless window, that seemed to be the most prominent of all things in the mind of her relative? None whatever! If the visit had been from Mary Cartwright to herself, she would never have thought for an instant of making preparations for her coming in the purchase of new furniture, or by any change in the externals of her home. All arrangements for the reception would have been in her heart.
Cousin Sally was disappointed. She did not find the relative, with whom so many years of her life had been spent in sweet intercourse, as she had hoped to find her. The girlish warmth of feelings had given place to a cold worldliness that repelled instead of attracting her. She had loved, and suffered much; had passed through many trials, and entered through many opening doors into new experiences, during the years since their ways parted. And she had come to this old, dear friend, yearning for that heart intercourse,--that reading together of some of the pages of their books of life,--which she felt almost as a necessity. What interest had she for the mere externals of Mary's life? None! None! And the constant reference thereto, by her cousin, seemed like a desecration. Careful and troubled about the little things of life, she found the dear old friend of her girlish days, to whom she had come hopefully, as to one who could comprehend, as in earlier years, the feelings, thoughts, and aspirations which had grown stronger, deeper, and of wider range.
Alas! Alas! How was the fine gold dimmed in her eyes!
"Dear Mary!" she said to her cousin, on the morning of the day that was, to end her visit,--they were sitting, together in the little parlor, and Mrs. Cartwright had referred, for the fortieth time, to the unshaded windows, and declared herself mortified to death at the appearance of things,--"Dear Mary! It was to see you, not your furniture, that I came. To look into your heart and feel it beating against mine as of old; not to pry, curiously, into your ways of living, nor to compare your house-furnishing with my own. But for your constant reference to these things, I should not have noticed, particularly, how your house was attired; and if asked about them, could only have answered, 'She's living very nicely.' Forgive me for this plain speech, dear cousin. I did not mean to give utterance to such language; but the words are spoken now, and cannot be recalled."
Mrs. Cartwright, if not really offended, was mortified and rebuked and these states of feeling united with pride, served to give coldness to her exterior. She tried to be cordial in manner towards her cousin; to seem as if she had not felt her words; but this was impossible, for she had felt them too deeply. She saw that the cherished friend and companion of her girlhood was disappointed in her; that she had come to look into her heart, and not into the attiring of her home; and was going away with diminished affection. After years of divergence, their paths had touched; and, separating once more, she felt that they would never run parallel again.
A few hours later, cousin Sally gave her a parting kiss. How different in warmth to the kiss of meeting! Very sad, very dissatisfied with herself,--very unhappy did Mrs. Cartwright feel, as she sat musing alone after her relative had departed. She was conscious of having lost a friend forever, because she had not risen to the higher level to which that friend had attained--not in external, but in the true internal life.
But a sharper mortification was in store for her. The letter of her husband's friend, in which he had returned the due bill for one hundred dollars, fell accidentally into her hands, and overwhelmed her with consternation. For that new carpet, which had failed to win more than a few extorted sentences of praise from cousin Sally Gray, her husband had lost the esteem of one of his oldest and best friends, and was now suffering, in silence, the most painful trial of his life.
Poor, weak woman! Instead of the pleasure she had hoped to gain in the possession of this carpet, it had made her completely wretched. While sitting almost stupefied with the pressure that was on her feelings, a neighbor called in, and she went down to the parlor to meet her.
"What a lovely carpet!" said the neighbor, in real admiration. "Where did you buy it?"
"At Martin's," was answered.
"Had they any more of the same pattern?" inquired the neighbor.
"This was the last piece."
The neighbor was sorry. It was the most beautiful pattern she had ever seen; and she would hunt the city over but what she would find another just like it.
"You may have this one," said Mrs Cartwright, on the impulse of the moment. "My husband doesn't particularly fancy it. Your parlor is exactly the size of mine. It is all made and bound nicely as you can see; and this work on it shall cost you nothing. We paid a little over fifty dollars for the carpet before a stitch was taken in it; and fifty dollars will make you the possessor."
"Are you really in earnest?" said the neighbor.
"Never more so in my life."
"It is a bargain, then."
"When can I have it?"
"Just as soon as I can rip it from the floor," said Mrs. Cartwright, in real earnest.
"Go to work," replied the neighbor, laughing out at the novelty of the affair. "Before your task is half done, I will be back with the fifty dollars, and a man to carry home the carpet."
And so she was. In less than half an hour after the sale was made, in this off-hand fashion, Mrs. Cartwright sat alone in her parlor, looking down upon the naked floor. But she had five ten-dollar gold pieces in her hand, and they were of more value in her eyes than twenty carpets. Not long did she sit musing here. There was other work to do. The old carpet must be replaced upon the parlor floor ere her husband's return. And it was replaced. In the midst of her hurried operations the old blinds with the new hangings came in, and were put up to the windows. When Mr. Cartwright returned home, and stepped inside of the little parlor, where he found his wife awaiting him, he gave an exclamation of surprise.
"Why, Mary! What is the meaning of this? Where is the new carpet?"
She laid the five gold pieces in his hand, and then looked earnestly, and with tears in her eyes, upon his wondering face.
"What are these, Mary? Where did they come from?"
"Cousin Sally is gone. The carpet didn't seem attractive in her eyes, and it has lost all beauty in mine. So I sold the unlovely thing, and here is the money. Take it, dear Henry, and let it serve the purpose for which it was designed."
"All right again!" exclaimed Mr. Cartwright, as soon as the whole matter was clear to him. "All right, Mary, dear! That carpet, had it remained, would have wrecked, I fear, the happiness of our home. Ah, let us consult only our own eyes hereafter, Mary--not the eyes of other people! None think the better of us for what we seem--only for what we are. It is not from fine furniture that our true pleasure in life is to come, but from a consciousness of right-doing. Let the inner life be right, and the outer life will surely be in just harmony. In the humble abode of virtue there is more real happiness than in the palace-homes of the unjust, the selfish, and wrong-doers. The sentiment is old as the world, but it must come to every heart, at some time in life, with all the force of an original utterance. And let it so come to us now, dear wife!"
And thus it did come. This little experience showed them an aspect of things that quickened their better reasons, and its smart remained long enough to give it the power of a monitor in all their after lives. They never erred again in this wise. For two or three years more the old carpet did duty in their neat little parlor, and when it was at last replaced by a new one, the change was made for their own eyes, and not for the eyes of another.