"Bless the happy art!" ejaculated Mrs. Morton, wiping the moisture from her eyes. "Could anything be more perfect than that likeness of his sweet, innocent face? Dear little Willie! I fear I love him too much."
"It is indeed perfect," said Mr. Morton, after viewing the picture in many lights. "My favourite painter has surpassed himself. What could be more like life, than that gentle, half-pensive face looking so quiet and thoughtful, and yet so full of childhood's most innocent, happy expression?"
Mr. Morton, here introduced to the reader, was a wealthy merchant of Philadelphia, and a liberal patron of the arts. He had, already, obtained several pictures from Sully, who was, with him, as an artist, a great favourite. The last order had just been sent home. It was a portrait of his youngest, and favourite child--a sweet little boy, upon whose head three summers had not yet smiled.
"I would not take the world for it!" said Mrs. Morton after looking at it long and steadily for the hundredth time. "Dear little fellow! A year from now, and how changed he will be. And every year he will be changing and changing; but this cannot alter, and even from the period of manhood, we may look back and see our Willie's face when but a child."
"Every one who is able," remarked Mr. Morton, "should have the portraits of his children taken. What better legacy could a father leave to his child, than the image of his own innocent face! Surely, it were enough to drive away thoughts of evil, and call up old and innocent affections, for any man, even the man of crime, to look for but a moment upon the image of what he was in childhood."
"And yet there are some," added Mrs. Morton, "who call portraits, and indeed, all paintings, mere luxuries--meaning, thereby, something that is utterly useless."
"Yes, there are such, but even they, it seems to me, might perceive their use in preserving the innocent features of their children. The good impressions made in infancy and childhood, are rarely if ever lost; they come back upon every one at times, and are, frequently, all-powerful in the influence they exert against evil. How like a spell to call back those innocent thoughts and affections, would be the image of a man's face in childhood! No one, it seems to me, could resist its influence."
One, two, and three years passed away, and every one wrought some change upon "little Willie," but each change seemed to the fond parents an improvement,--yet, did they not look back to earlier years, as they glanced at his picture, with less of tender emotion, and heart-stirring delight. But now a sad change, the saddest of all changes that occur, took place. Disease fastened upon the child, and ere the parents, and fond sisters of a younger and only brother, were fully sensible of danger, the spirit of the child had fled. We will not linger to pain the reader with any minute description of the deep and abiding grief that fell, like a shadow from an evil wing overspreading them, upon the household of Mr. Morton, but pass on to scenes more exciting, if not less moving to the heart.
For many weeks, Mrs. Morton could not trust herself to look up to the picture that still hung in its place, the picture of her lost one. But after time had, in some degree, mellowed the grief that weighed down her spirits, she found a melancholy delight in gazing intently upon the beautiful face that was still fresh and unchanged--that still looked the impersonation of innocence.
"He was too pure and too lovely for the earth," she said, one day, to her husband, about two months after his death, leaning her head upon his shoulder--"and so the angels took him."
"Then do not grieve for him," Mr. Morton replied in a soothing tone. "We know that he is with the angels, and where they are, is neither evil, nor sorrow, nor pain. Much as I loved him, much as I grieved for his loss, I would not recall him if I could. But, our picture cannot die. And though it is mute and inanimate, yet it is something to awaken remembrances, that, even though sad, we delight to cherish. It is something to remind us, that we have a child in heaven."
But the loss of their child seemed but the beginning of sorrows to Mr. Morton and his family. An unexpected series of failures in business so fatally involved him, that extrication became impossible. He was an honest man, and therefore, this sudden disastrous aspect of affairs was doubly painful, for he knew no other course but the honourable giving up of everything. On learning the whole truth in relation to his business, he came home, and after opening the sad news to his wife, he called his family around him.
"My dear children," he said, "I have painful news to break to you; but you cannot know it too soon. Owing to a succession of heavy failures, my business has become embarrassed beyond hope. I must give up all,--even our comfortable and elegant home must be changed for one less expensive, and less comfortable. Can you, my children, bear with cheerfulness and contentment such a changed condition?"
The heart of each one had already been subdued and chastened by the affliction that removed the little playmate of all so suddenly away, and now the news of a painful and unlooked-for reverse came with a shock that, for a few moments, bewildered and alarmed.
"Are not my children willing to share the good and evil of life with their father?" Mr. Morton resumed after the gush of tears that followed the announcement of his changed fortunes had in a degree subsided.
"Yes, dear father! be they what they may," Constance, the eldest, a young lady in her seventeenth year, said, looking up affectionately through her tears.
Mary, next in years, pressed up to her father's side, and twining an arm around his neck, kissed his forehead tenderly. She did not speak; for her heart was too full; but it needed no words to assure him that her love was as true as the needle to the pole.
Eliza, but twelve, and like an unfolding bud half revealing the loveliness and beauty within, could not fully comprehend the whole matter. But enough she did understand, to know that her father was in trouble, and this brought her also to his side.
"Do not think of us, dear father!" Constance said, after the pause of a few oppressive moments. "Let the change be what it may, it cannot take from us our father's love, and our father's honourable principles. Nor can it change the true affection of his children. I feel as if I could say, With my father I could go unto prison or to death."
The father was much moved. "That trial, my dear children, I trust you may never be called upon to meet. The whole extent of the painful one into which you are about to enter, you cannot now possibly realize, and I earnestly hope that your hearts may not fail you while passing through the deep waters. But one thought may strengthen; think that by your patience and cheerfulness, your father's burdens will be lightened. He cannot see you pained without suffering a double pang himself."
"Trust us, father," was the calm, earnest, affectionate reply of Constance; and it was plain, by the deep resolution expressed in the faces of her sisters, that she spoke for them as well as herself.
And now, the shadow that was obscuring their earthly prospects, began to fall thicker upon them. At the meeting of his creditors which was called, he gave a full statement of his affairs.
"And now," he said, "I am here to assign everything. In consequence of heavy, and you all must see, unavoidable, losses, this assignment will include all my property, and still leave a small deficiency. Beyond that, I can only hope for success in my future exertions, and pledge that success in anticipation. Can I do more?"
"We could not ask for more certainly," was the cold response of a single individual, made in a tone of voice implying no sympathy with the debtor's misfortunes, but rather indicating disappointment that the whole amount of his claim could not be made out of the assets.
Some degree of sympathy, some kind consideration for his painful condition Mr. Morton naturally looked for, but nearly every kind emotion for him was stifled by the sordid disappointment which each one of his former business friends felt in losing what they valued, as their feelings indicated, above everything else--their money.
"When will the assignment be made?" was the next remark.
"Appoint your trustees, and I am ready at any moment."
Trustees were accordingly appointed, and these had a private conference with, and received their instructions from the creditors. In a week they commenced their work of appraisement. After a thorough and careful examination into accounts, deeds, mortgages, and documents of various kinds, and becoming satisfied that every thing was as Mr. Morton had stated it, it was found that the property represented by these would cover ninety cents in the dollar.
"Your furniture and plate comes next," said one of the trustees.
Mr. Morton bowed and said, while his heart sunk in his bosom--
"To-morrow I will be ready for that."
"But why not to-day?" inquired one of the trustees. "We are anxious to get through with this unpleasant business."
"I said to-morrow," Mr. Morton replied, while a red spot burned upon his cheek.
The trustees looked at each other, and hesitated.
"Surely," said the debtor, "you cannot hesitate to let me have a single day in which to prepare my family for so painful a duty as that which is required of me."
"We should suppose," remarked one of the trustees, in reply, "that your family were already prepared for that."
The debtor looked the last speaker searchingly in the face for some moments, and then said, as if satisfied with the examination--
"Then you are afraid that I will make way, in the mean time, with some of my plate!"
"I did not say so, Mr. Morton. But, you know we are under oath to protect the interest of the creditors."
An indignant reply trembled on the lips of Morton, but he curbed his feelings with a strong effort.
"I am ready now," he said, after a few moments of hurried self-communion. "The sooner it is over the better."
Half an hour after he entered his house with the trustees, and sworn appraiser. He left them in the parlour below, while he held a brief but painful interview with his family.
"Do not distress yourself, dear father!" Constance said, laying her hand upon his shoulder. We expected this, and have fully nerved ourselves for the trial."
"May he who watches over, and regards us all, bless you, my children!" the father said with emotion, and hurriedly left them.
A careful inventory of the costly furniture that adorned the parlours was first taken. The plate was then displayed, rich and beautiful, and valued; and then the trustees lifted their eyes to the wall--they were connoisseurs in the fine arts; at least one of them was, but a taste for the arts had, in his case, failed to soften his feelings. He looked at a picture much as a dealer in precious stones looks at a diamond, to determine its money-value.
"That is from Guido," he said, looking admiringly at a sweet picture, which had always been a favourite of Mr. Morton's, "and it is worth a hundred dollars."
"Shall I put it down at that?" asked the appraiser, who had little experience in valuing pictures.
"Yes; put it down at one hundred. It will bring that under the hammer, any day," replied the connoisseur. "Ah, what have we here? A copy from Murillo's 'Good Shepherd.' Isn't that a lovely picture? Worth a hundred and fifty, every cent. And here is 'Our Saviour,' from Da Vinci's celebrated picture of the Last Supper; and a 'Magdalen' from Correggio. You are a judge of pictures, I see, Mr. Morton! But what is this?" he said, eyeing closely a large engraving, richly framed.
"A proof, as I live! from the only plate worth looking at of Raphael's Madonna of St. Sixtus. I'll give fifty dollars for that, myself."
The pictures named were all entered up by the appraiser, and then the group continued their examination.
"Here is a Sully," remarked the trustee above alluded to, pausing before Willie's portrait.
"But that is a portrait," Mr. Morton said, advancing, while his heart leaped with a new and sudden fear.
"If it is, Mr. Morton, it is a valuable picture, worth every cent of two hundred dollars. We cannot pass that, Sir."
"What!" exclaimed Mr. Morton, "take my Willie's portrait? O no, you cannot do that!"
"It is no doubt a hard case, Mr. Morton," said one of the trustees. "But we must do our duty, however painful. That picture is a most beautiful one, and by a favourite artist, and will bring at least two hundred dollars. It is not a necessary article of household furniture, and is not covered by the law. We should be censured, and justly too, if we were to pass it."
For a few moments, Mr. Morton's thoughts were so bewildered and his feelings so benumbed by the sudden and unexpected shock, that he could not rally his mind enough to decide what to say or how to act. To have the unfeeling hands of creditors, under the sanction of the law, seize upon his lost Willie's portrait, was to him so unexpected and sacrilegious a thing, that he could scarcely realize it, and he stood wrapt in painful, dreamy abstraction, until roused by the direction,
"Put it down at a hundred and fifty," given to the appraiser, by one of the trustees.
"Are your hearts made of iron?" he asked bitterly, roused at once into a distinct consciousness of what was transpiring.
"Be composed, Mr. Morton," was the cold, quiet reply.
"And thus might the executioner say to the victim he was torturing--Be composed. But surely, when I tell you that that picture is the likeness of my youngest child, now no more, you will not take it from us. To lose that, would break his mother's heart. Take all the rest, and I will not murmur. But in the name of humanity spare me the portrait of my angel boy."
There was a brief, cold, silent pause, and the trustees continued their investigations. Sick at heart, Mr. Morton turned from them and sought his family. The distressed, almost agonized expression of his countenance was noticed, as he came into the chamber where they had retired.
"Is it all over?" asked Mrs. Morton.
"Not yet," was the sad answer.
The mother and daughter knew how much their father prized his choice collection of pictures, and supposed that giving an inventory of them had produced the pain that he seemed to feel. Of the truth, they had not the most distant idea. For a few minutes he sat with them, and then, recovering in some degree, his self-possession, he returned and kept with the trustees, until everything in the house that could be taken, was valued. He closed the door after them, when they left, and again returned to his family.
"Have they gone?" asked Constance, in a low, almost whispering voice.
"Yes, my child, they have gone at last."
"And what have they left us?" inquired Mrs. Morton somewhat anxiously.
"Nothing but the barest necessaries for housekeeping."
"They did not take our carpets and--"
"Yes, Mary," said Mr. Morton interrupting her, "every article in the parlors has been set down as unnecessary."
"O, father!" exclaimed the eldest daughter, "can it be possible?"
"Yes, my child, it is possible. We are left poor, indeed. But for all that I would not care, if they had only left us Willie's portrait!"
Instantly the mother and daughters rose to their feet, with blanched cheeks, and eyes staring wildly into the father's face.
"O no, not Willie's portrait, surely!" the mother at length said, mournfully. "We cannot give that up. It is of no comparative value to others, and is all in all to us."
"I plead with them to spare us that. But it was no use," Mr. Morton replied. "The tenderest ties in nature were nothing to them in comparison with a hundred and fifty dollars."
"But surely," urged Constance, "the law will protect us in the possession of the picture. Who ever heard of a portrait being seized upon by a creditor?"
"It is a cruel omission; but nevertheless, Constance, there is no law to protect us in keeping it."
"But they shall not have it!" Mary said indignantly. "I will take it away this very night, where they can never find it."
"That would be doing wrong my child," Mr. Morton replied. "I owe these men, and this picture, they say, will bring a hundred and fifty dollars. If they claim it, then, I cannot honestly withhold it. Let us, then, my dear children, resolve to keep our consciences clear of wrong, and endeavor patiently to bear with our afflictions. They can only result in good to us so far as we humbly acquiesce in them. Nothing happens by chance. Every event affecting us, I have often told you, is ordered or permitted by Divine Providence, and is intended to make us better and wiser. This severest trial of all, if patiently borne, will, I am sure, result in good."
But, even while he tried to encourage and bear up the drooping spirits of his family, his own heart sunk within him at the thought of losing the portrait of his child.
One week sufficed to transfer his property into the hands of the individuals appointed to receive it. He sought to make no unnecessary delay, and, therefore, it was quickly done. At the end of that time, he removed his family into a small house at the northern extremity of the city, and furnished it with the scanty furniture that, as an insolvent debtor the law allowed him to claim. Ere he left his beautiful mansion with his wife and children, they all assembled in the parlour where still hung Willie's sweet portrait. The calm, innocent face of the child had for their eyes a melancholy beauty, such as it had never worn before; and they gazed upon it until every cheek was wet, and every heart oppressed. A sale of the furniture had been advertised for that day, and already the house had been thrown open. Several strangers had come in to make examinations before the hour of sale, and among them was a young man, who on observing the family in the parlour, instinctively withdrew; not, however before he had glanced at the picture they were all looking at so earnestly. Aware that strangers were gathering, Mr. Morton and his family soon withdrew, each taking a last, lingering, tearful glance at the dear face looking so sweet, so calm, so innocent.
Their new home presented a painful and dreary contrast to the one from which they had just parted. In the parlours, the floors of which were all uncarpeted there were a dozen chairs, and a table, and that was all! Bedding barely enough for the family, with but scanty furniture, sufficed for the chambers; and the same exacting hands had narrowed down to a stinted remnant the appendages of the kitchen.
It was an hour after the closing in of evening, and the family greatly depressed in spirits, were gathered in one of the chambers, sad, gloomy, and silent, when the servant which they had retained came in and said that Mr. Wilkinson was below and wished to see Miss Constance.
"Indeed, indeed, mother, I cannot see him!" Constance said bursting into tears. "It is cruel for him to come here so soon," she added, after she had a little regained her self-possession.
"You can do no less than see him Constance," her mother said. "Do not lose that consciousness of internal truth of character which alone can sustain you in your new relations. You are not changed, even if outward circumstances are no longer as they were. And if Mr. Wilkinson does not regard these do not you. Meet him my child, as you have ever met him."
"We have only met as friends," Constance replied, while her voice trembled in spite of her efforts to be calm.
"Then meet now as friends, and equals. Remember, that, all that is of real worth in you remains. Adversity cannot rob you of your true character."
"Your mother has spoken well and wisely," Mr. Morton said. "If Mr. Wilkinson, whom I know to be a man of most sterling integrity of character, still wishes your society, or ours, it must not, from any foolish pride or weakness on our part, be denied."
"Then I will see him, and try to meet him as I should, though I feel that the task will be a hard one," Constance replied. And her pale cheek and swimming eye, told but too well, that it would need all her efforts to maintain her self-possession.
In a few minutes she descended and met Mr. Wilkinson in the parlour.
"Pardon me," he said advancing and taking her hand as she entered, "for so soon intruding upon you after the sad change in your condition. But I should have been untrue to the kind feelings I bear yourself and family, had I, from a principle of false delicacy, staid away. I trust I shall be none the less welcome now than before."
"We must all esteem the kindness that prompted your visit," Constance replied with a strong effort to subdue the troubled emotions within, and which were but too plainly indicated, by her now flushed cheek and trembling lips.
"No other feeling induced me to call, except indeed, one stronger than that possibly could be--" Mr. Wilkinson said, still holding her hand, and looking intently in her face--" the feeling of profound regard, nay, I must call it, affection, which I have long entertained for you."
A declaration so unexpected, under the circumstances, entirely destroyed all further efforts on the part of Constance, to control her feelings. She burst into tears, but did not attempt to withdraw her hand.
"Can I hope for a return of like sentiment, Constance?" he at length said, tenderly.
A few moments' silence ensued, when the weeping girl lifted her head, and looked him in the face with eyes, though filled with tears, full of love's tenderest expression.
"I still confide in my father, Mr. Wilkinson," was her answer.
"Then I would see your father to-night."
Instantly Constance glided from the room, and in a few minutes her father came down into the parlour. A long conference ensued; and then the mother was sent for, and finally Constance again. Mr. Wilkinson made offers of marriage, which, being accepted, he urged an immediate consummation. Delay was asked, but he was so earnest, that all parties agreed that the wedding should take place in three days.
In three days the rite was said, and Wilkinson, one of the most prosperous young merchants of Philadelphia, left for New York with his happy bride. A week soon glided away, at the end of which time they returned.
"Where are we going?" Constance asked, as they entered a carriage on landing from the steamboat.
"To our own house, of course!" was her husband's reply.
"You didn't tell me that you had taken a house, and furnished it."
"Didn't I? Well, that is something of an oversight. But you hardly thought that I was so simple as to catch a bird without having a cage first provided for it."
"You had but little time to get the cage," thought Constance, but she did not utter the thought.
In a few minutes the carriage stopped before a noble dwelling, the first glance of which bewildered the senses of the young bride, and caused her to lean silent and trembling upon her husband's arm, as she ascended the broad marble steps leading to the entrance. Thence she was ushered hurriedly into the parlours.
There stood her father, mother, and sisters, ready to receive her. There was every article of furniture in its place, as she had left it but a little over a week before. The pictures, so much admired by her father, still hung on the wall; and there, in the old spot, was Willie s dear portrait, as sweet, as innocent, as tranquil as ever! One glance took in all this. In the next moment she fell weeping upon her mother's bosom.
A few words will explain all. Mr. Wilkinson, who was comparatively wealthy, was just on the eve of making proposals for the hand of Constance Morton, when the sudden reverse overtook her father, and prostrated the hopes of the whole family. But his regard was a true one, and not to be marred or effaced by external changes. When he saw the sale of the house and furniture announced, he determined to buy all in at any price. And he did so. On the day of the sale, he bid over every competitor.
On the night of his interview with Constance and her father, he proposed a partnership with the latter.
"But I have nothing, you know, Mr. Wilkinson," he replied.
"You have established business habits, and extensive knowledge of the operations of trade, and a large business acquaintance. And besides these, habits of discrimination obtained by long experience, which I need. With your co-operation in my business, I can double my profits. Will you join me?"
"It were folly, Mr. Wilkinson, to say nay," Mr. Morton replied. "Then I will announce the co-partnership at once," he said.
And it was announced before the day of marriage, but Constance did not see it.
A happy elevation succeeded of course, the sudden, painful, but brief depression of their fortunes. Nor was any of that tried family less happy than before. And one was far happier. Still, neither Mr. Morton, nor the rest could ever look at Willie's portrait without remembering how near they had once been to losing it, nor without a momentary fear, that some change in life's coming mutations might rob them of the precious treasure, now doubly dear to them.