Two men were walking along a public thoroughfare in New York. One of them was a young merchant--the other a man past the prime of life, and belonging to the community of Friends. They were in conversation, and the manner of the former, earnest and emphatic, was in marked contrast with the quiet and thoughtful air of the other.
"There is so much idleness and imposture among the poor," said the merchant, "that you never know when your alms are going to do harm or good. The beggar we just passed is able to work; and that woman sitting at the corner with a sick child in her arms, would be far better off in the almshouse. No man is more willing to give than I am, if I only knew where and when to give."
"If we look around us carefully, Mr. Edwards," returned the Quaker, we need be at no loss on this subject. Objects enough will present themselves. Virtuous want is, in most cases, unobtrusive, and will suffer rather than extend a hand for relief. We must seek for objects of benevolence in by-places. We must turn aside into untrodden walks."
"But even then," objected Mr. Edwards, "we cannot be certain that idleness and vice are not at the basis of the destitution we find. I have had my doubts whether any who exercise the abilities which God has given them, need want for the ordinary comforts of life in this country. In all cases of destitution, there is something wrong, you may depend upon it."
"Perhaps there is," said the Quaker. "Evil of some kind is ever the cause of destitution and wretchedness. Such bitter waters as these cannot flow from a sweet fountain. Still, many are brought to suffering through the evil ways of others; and many whose own wrong doings have reacted upon them in unhappy consequences, deeply repent of the past, and earnestly desire to live better lives in future. Both need kindness, encouragement, and, it may be, assistance; and it is the duty of those who have enough and to spare, to stretch forth their hands to aid, comfort and sustain them."
"Yes. That is true. But, how are we to know who are the real objects of our benevolence?"
"We have but to open our eyes and see, Mr. Edwards," said the Quaker. "The objects of benevolence are all around us."
"Show me a worthy object, and you will find me ready to relieve it," returned the merchant. "I am not so selfish as to be indifferent to human suffering. But I think it wrong to encourage idleness and vice; and for this reason, I never give unless I am certain that the object who presents himself is worthy."
"True benevolence does not always require us to give alms," said the Friend. "We may do much to aid, comfort and help on with their burdens our fellow travellers, and yet not bestow upon them what is called charity. Mere alms-giving, as thee has intimated, but too often encourages vice and idleness. But thee desires to find a worthy object of benevolence. Let us see if we cannot find one, What have we here?" And as the Quaker said this he paused before a building, from the door of which protruded a red flag, containing the words, "Auction this day." On a large card just beneath the flag was the announcement, "Positive sale of unredeemed pledges."
"Let us turn in here," said the Quaker. "No doubt we shall find enough to excite our sympathies."
Mr. Edwards thought this a strange proposal; but he felt a little curious, and followed his companion without hesitation.
The sale had already begun, and there was a small company assembled. Among them, the merchant noticed a young woman whose face was partially veiled. She was sitting a little apart from the rest, and did not appear to take any interest in the bidding. But he noticed that, after an article was knocked off, she was all attention until the next was put up, and then, the moment it was named, relapsed into a sort of listlessness or abstraction.
The articles sold embraced a great variety of things useful and ornamental. In the main they were made up of watches, silver plate, jewellery and wearing apparel. There were garments of every kind, quality and condition, upon which money to about a fourth of their real value had been loaned; and not having been redeemed, they were now to be sold for the benefit of the pawnbroker.
The company bid with animation, and article after article was sold off. The interest at first awakened by the scene, new to the young merchant, wore off in a little while, and turning to his companion he said--"I don't see that much is to be gained by staying here."
"Wait a little longer, and perhaps thee will think differently," returned the Quaker, glancing towards the young woman who has been mentioned, as he spoke.
The words had scarcely passed his lips, when the auctioneer took up a small gold locket containing a miniature, and holding it up, asked for a bid.
"How much for this? How much for this beautiful gold locket and miniature? Give me a bid. Ten dollars! Eight dollars! Five dollars! Four dollars--why, gentlemen, it never cost less than fifty! Four dollars! Four dollars! Will no one give four dollars for this beautiful gold locket and miniature? It's thrown away at that price."
At the mention of the locket, the young woman came forward and looked up anxiously at the auctioneer. Mr. Edwards could see enough of her face to ascertain that it was an interesting and intelligent one, though very sad.
"Three dollars!" continued the auctioneer. But there was no bid. "Two dollars! One dollar!"
"One dollar," was the response from a man who stood just in front of the woman. Mr. Edwards, whose eyes were upon the latter, noticed that she became much agitated the moment this bid was made.
"One dollar we have! One dollar! Only one dollar!" cried the auctioneer. "Only one dollar for a gold locket and miniature worth forty. One dollar!"
"Nine shillings," said the young woman in a low, timid voice.
"Nine shillings bid! Nine shillings! Nine shillings!"
"Ten shillings," said the first bidder.
"Ten shillings it is! Ten shillings, and thrown away. Ten shillings!"
"Eleven shillings," said the girl, beginning to grow excited. Mr. Edwards, who could not keep his eyes off of her face, from which the veil had entirely fallen, saw that she was trembling with eagerness and anxiety.
"Eleven shillings!" repeated the auctioneer, glancing at the first bidder, a coarse-looking man, and the only one who seemed disposed to bid against the young woman.
"Twelve shillings," said the man resolutely.
A paleness went over the face of the other bidder, and a quick tremor passed through her frame.
"Twelve shillings is bid. Twelve shillings is bid. Twelve shillings!" And the auctioneer now looked towards the young woman who, in a faint voice, said--
By this time the merchant began to understand the meaning of what was passing before him. The miniature was that of a middle-aged lady; and it required no great strength of imagination to determine that the original was the mother of the young woman who seemed so anxious to possess the locket.
"But how came it here?" was the involuntary suggestion to the mind of Mr. Edwards. "Who pawned it? Did she?"
"Fourteen shillings," said the man who was bidding, breaking in upon the reflections of Mr. Edwards.
The veil that had been drawn aside, fell instantly over the face of the young woman, and she shrunk back from her prominent position, yet still remained in the room.
"Fourteen shillings is bid. Fourteen shillings! Are you all done? Fourteen shillings for a gold locket and miniature. Fourteen! Once!---"
The companion of Mr. Edwards glanced towards him with a meaning look. The merchants for a moment bewildered, found his mind clear again.
"Twice!" screamed the auctioneer. "Once! Twice! Three----"
"Twenty shillings," dropped from the lips of Mr. Edwards.
"Twenty shillings! Twenty shillings!" cried the auctioneer with renewed animation. The man who had been bidding against the girl turned quickly to see what bold bidder was in the field: and most of the company turned with him. The young woman at the same time drew aside her veil and looked anxiously towards Mr. Edwards, who, as he obtained a fuller view of her face, was struck with it as familiar.
"Twenty-one shillings," was bid in opposition.
"Twenty-five," said the merchant, promptly.
The first bidder, seeing that Mr. Edwards was determined to run against him, and being a little afraid that he might be left with a ruinous bid on his hands, declined advancing, and the locket was assigned to the young merchant, who, as soon as he had received it, turned and presented it to the young woman, saying as he did so--
"It is yours."
The young woman caught hold of it with an eager gesture, and after gazing on it for a few moments, pressed it to her lips.
"I have not the money to pay for it," she said in a low sad voice, recovering herself in a few moments; and seeking to return the miniature.
"It is yours!" replied Mr. Edwards. Then thrusting back the hand she had extended, and speaking with some emotion, he said--"Keep it--keep it, in Heaven's name!"
And saying this he hastily retired, for he became conscious that many eyes were upon him; and he felt half ashamed to have betrayed his weakness before a coarse, unfeeling crowd. For a few moments he lingered in the street; but his companion not appearing, he went on his way, musing on the singular adventure he had encountered. The more distinctly he recalled the young woman's face, the more strangely familiar did it seem.
About an hour afterwards, as Mr. Edwards sat reading a letter, the Quaker entered his store.
"Ah, how do you do? I am glad to see you," said the merchant, his manner more than usually earnest. "Did you see anything more of that young woman?"
"Yes," replied the Quaker. "I could not leave one like her without knowing something of her past life and present circumstances. I think even you will hardly be disposed to regard her as an object unworthy of interest."
"No, certainly I will not. Her appearance, and the circumstances under which we found her, are all in her favor."
"But we turned aside from the beaten path. We looked into a by-place to us; or we would not have discovered her. She was not obtrusive. She asked no aid; but, with the last few shillings that remained to her in the world, had gone to recover, if possible, an unredeemed pledge--the miniature of her mother, on which she had obtained a small advance of money to buy food and medicine for the dying original. This is but one of the thousand cases of real distress that are all around us. We could see them if we did but turn aside for a moment into ways unfamiliar to our feet."
"Did you learn who she was, and anything of her condition?" asked Mr. Edwards.
"Oh yes. To do so was but a common dictate of humanity. I would have felt it as a stain upon my conscience to have left one like her uncared for in the circumstances under which we found her."
"Did you accompany her home?"
"Yes; I went with her to the place she called her home--a room in which there was scarcely an article of comfort--and there learned the history of her past life and present condition. Does thee remember Belgrave, who carried on a large business in Maiden Lane some years ago?"
"Very well. But, surely this girl is not Mary Belgrave?"
"Yes. It was Mary Belgrave whom we met at the pawnbroker's sale."
"Mary Belgrave! Can it be possible? I knew the family had become poor; but not so poor as this!"
And Mr. Edwards, much disturbed in mind, walked uneasily about the floor. But soon pausing, he said--
"And so her mother is dead!"
"Yes. Her father died two years ago and her mother, who has been sick ever since, died last week in abject poverty, leaving Mary friendless, in a world where the poor and needy are but little regarded. The miniature which Mary had secretly pawned in order to supply the last earthly need of her mother, she sought by her labor to redeem; but ere she had been able to save up enough for the purpose, the time for which the pledge had been taken, expired, and the pawn broker refused to renew it. Under the faint hope that she might be able to buy it in with the little pittance of money she had saved, she attended the sale where we found her."
The merchant had resumed his seat, and although he had listened attentively to the Quaker's brief history, he did not make any reply, but soon became lost in thought. From this he was interrupted by his visitor, who said, as he moved towards the door--
"I will bid thee good morning, friend Edwards."
"One moment, if you please," said the merchant, arousing himself, and speaking earnestly, "Where does Mary Belgrave live?"
The Friend answered the question, and, as Mr. Edwards did not seem inclined to ask any more, and besides fell back again into an abstract state, he wished him good morning and retired.
The poor girl was sitting alone in her room sewing, late in the afternoon of the day on which the incident at the auction room occurred, musing, as she had mused for hours, upon the unexpected adventure. She did not, in the excitement of the moment, know Mr. Edwards when he first tendered her the miniature; but when he said with peculiar emphasis and earnestness, turning away as he spoke--"Keep it, in Heaven's name!" she recognized him fully. Since that moment, she had not been able to keep the thought of him from her mind. They had been intimate friends at one time; but this was while they were both very young. Then he had professed for her a boyish passion; and she had loved him with the childish fondness of a young school-girl. As they grew older, circumstances separated them more; and though no hearts were broken in consequence, both often thought of the early days of innocence and affection with pleasure.
Mary sat sewing, as we have said, late in the afternoon of the day on which the incident at the auction room occurred, when there was a tap at her door. On opening it, Mr. Edwards stood before her. She stepped back a pace or two in instant surprise and confusion, and he advanced into the desolate room. In a moment, however, Mary recovered herself, and with as much self-possession as, under the circumstances, she could assume, asked her unexpected visitor to take a chair, which she offered him.
Mr. Edwards sat down, feeling much oppressed. Mary was so changed in everything, except in the purity and beauty of her countenance, since he had seen her years before, that his feelings were completely borne down. But he soon recovered himself enough to speak to her of what was in his mind. He had an old aunt, who had been a friend of Mary's mother, and from her he brought a message and an offer of a home. Her carriage was at the door--it had been sent for her--and he urged her to go with him immediately. Mary had no good reason for declining so kind an offer. It was a home that she most of all needed; and she could not refuse one like this.
"There is another unredeemed pledge," said Mr. Edwards, significantly, as he sat conversing with Mary about a year after she had found a home in the house of his aunt. Allusion had been made to the miniature of Mary's mother.
"Ah!" was the simple response.
"Yes. Don't you remember," and he took Mary's unresisting hand--"the pledge of this hand which you made me, I cannot tell how many years ago?"
"That was a mere girlish pledge," ventured Mary, with drooping eyes.
"But one that the woman will redeem," said Edwards confidently, raising the hand to his lips at the same time, and kissing it.
Mary leaned involuntarily towards him; and he, perceiving the movement, drew his arm around her, and pressed his lips to her cheek.
It was no very long time afterwards before the pledge was redeemed.