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Sketch of Connecticut, Forty Years Since/Chapter V

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[15]
CHAPTER V.

            ————————————Pure Charity,
            Who in the sun-beam of her Sire doth walk
            Mrtjestic, hath a prayer of love for all;
            Yet not on Indolence and Vice, her gifts
            Profusely pours; lest fostering Sin, she mar
            The Deity s good work, and help to stain
            His beautiful creation.


THE charities of Madam Lathrop had become proverbial. Not only did the sufferers in her vicinity resort to her under the pressure of calamity, but the roving beggar trusted to find in her mansion, relief or shelter. These mendicants, not being restrained at that period by the fear of work-houses, were more numerous in proportion, and vastly more at ease in their peregrinations than at the present day. Although there were not among them, as in England, any selling of stands and circuits, fortunes secretly amassed, or establishments which transformed the gains of the day into nocturnal revels, where the cripple danced, and the blind recovered their sight; yet there existed that system of sympathetic intelligence, by which the houses of the bountiful were seldom unvisited, or those of the churl entered. Madam Lathrop, being one day summoned to the kitchen to receive a guest of that order, was accosted in piteous tones by a man, who raised him self with difficulty by the aid of a staff upon one limb, while [64] the other was so bandaged that it seemed an useless appendage. This he said was disabled by a shot at the battle of the Eutaw Springs, where, being left senseless on the field, his head was dreadfully lacerated by the tomahawks of the Indians. A swelling, and excoriation upon his arm, which he also exhibited, he termed a "Rose-Cancer." Moved by such a combination of ills, and ever alive to the sufferings of those who fought the battles of our revolution, the Lady bestowed on him alms, which rendered him eloquent in thanksgiving, and ordered him some dinner. As she retired to her parlour, Cuff following said in a suppressed voice, "He been here afore, Ma'am. He no more lame, than I lame."

Returning, and scrutinizing him more closely as he partook of his repast, she recognized in his face, half covered by the large cap which concealed his wound, some resemblance to a recent applicant. "Were you here, a short time since?" she inquired. "No—God bless your soul, Ma'am," answered the man, rapidly. "I never see your blessed face till this day," regarding Cuff with eyes in flamed with anger. Beulah then spoke, "three weeks ago yesterday, he come here, walking on two legs, with out any hurt in his head, or Rose-Cancer." "Put a spoon in your calabash-mouth, and see if that will keep down your false tongue," said the beggar, in his hoarse, natural voice; forgetting the melancholy notes, to which he at first set his articulation. Hastily seizing the pack, from which he had unharnassed himself, that he might more [55] easily take refreshment, he slipped the strap over his neck with such an ill grace, as to dislodge the cap, which he said he was obliged always to keep over his wound, because the "air made it ache tormentedly." This unfortunate occurrence discovered an unscalped head, with a thick growth of hair. The wrinkles, with which he had plaited his forehead, suddenly disappeared before the emotion, which put disguise to flight; for, though probably long inured to dissimulation, he could not without some compunction be stripped of his mask, in the presence of abused goodness. "You are the man," said the Lady in a calm voice, "who, a short time since, requested charity for a houseless wife and seven children, whose little home, erected by your industry, was burnt at midnight. You wept, as you said, that your eldest daughter, who was sick, perished in the flames. Did you not tell me the name of the village within the borders of Massachusetts, where your family remained, shelterless, and that you were in haste to gain a little aid, that you might return and comfort them?" To this mild appeal the dissembler had no answer. He would have repelled anger with impudence, but undeserved gentleness silenced him. Busying himself to collect his cap, hat and staff, he unconsciously found his useless limb, very serviceable in facilitating his exit. "Fear not," said the Lady, "that I shall reclaim the alms I have given you. But remember, though you may sometimes deceive your fellow-creatures, there is a Judge whom you cannot escape, whose "eyes are [66] like a consuming fire to all iniquity," Returning to her parlour, she found her brother Dr. Lathrop, waiting to make her his daily visit. He was the only brother of her deceased husband, and a few years younger than herself. The residence of his family was opposite her own; and the unrestrained intercourse, which had ever been main tained, greatly alleviated her loneliness. Dr. Lathrop was a man of great goodness of heart, and exemplary life. Gentleness of manner, moderation in sentiment, and sincere piety were his characteristicks. As he approached the close of a long life, (for more than fourscore year were allotted him,) benevolence became more and more his distinguishing feature; as the stream expands more widely, as it prepares to enter the bosom of that sea, where its course terminates. Invariable temperance, and a mind a stranger to those starts of passion which disorder the wheels of existence, gave him an age of unbroken activity and health; cheered by the sight of his children's children, springing up like olive plants around his path. He lived to see the eyes of this beloved sister closed in death, when she had nearly attained fourscore years and ten. The fraternal attachment, which had been nourished for more than half a century by the sympathies of daily intercourse, did not fully reveal its strength, till its ties were sundered. "Bowing down, he walked heavily, as one who mourneth for his mother," and in two years slumbered near her, beneath the clods of the valley.

At the period of this sketch, he was in his grand climacterick, [67] with a florid brow, and a step like youthful agility. He was of small stature, and correct proportions, and in his attire preserved those ancient fashions, which were then thought to give consistency and dignity to the form which time had honoured. A white, full bottomed wig, beautifully curled, shaded his venerable brow. This was surmounted by a low-crowned three-cornered hat, or, during his favourite rides on horseback, by one with a deep brim, to afford shelter to the eyes. His nicely plaited stock, long waistcoat, and silver buckles, never yielded to modern innovations; and the neatness, which distinguished his dress, extended through his mansion, and its precincts. It also pervaded every branch of the domestic department, and like the spirit of order, promised to be an heir loom in his family. Such was the person to whom Madam Lathrop, with the freedom of sisterly intercourse, related the adventure which had just occurred in her kitchen. "I have long wished," he remarked, "for an opportunity to converse with you on this subject. I believe that you are often deceived by those who solicit your charity. The good are not easily suspicious, and the wicked take advantage of it."

"I know brother," she replied, "that I have sometimes given to the unworthy. The occurrence of to-day is by no means a solitary one. Yet how can we always discriminate, unless we could read the heart? That suspicion, which would guard us against dissimulation in one instance, might turn us from the prayer of real want in [68] another. I have thought that while our reliance was upon a Benefactor "kind to the unthankful and evil," we ought not to hold, with too strict a hand, the balance of merit, when we hear the complaint of misery. I cannot find that our Saviour hath said 'Relieve only the righteous,' but, "the poor ye have always with you, and whenever ye will ye may do them good." Does he not almost make them His substitute? "me ye have not always,"—as if they were to furnish proof of our compassion, when He should be raised above the ills of humanity? When I have thus reflected on this passage, I have felt that I had rather relieve ten unworthy claimants, than to neglect one suffering servant of my Lord."

"These sentiments," said Dr. Lathrop, "might be expected from the benevolence of your heart. Yet while we indulge in charitable feelings, we should be careful not to reward deceit, or cherish vice. We are commanded not "to do evil that good may come?" Is it not possible that, from a zeal to do good, evil may arise? It is always safe to give food to the hungry, and clothing to the naked, and kind words to him who is of a heavy heart. But the indiscriminate gift of money enables the drunkard to repeat his sin, and the indolent to become more vicious. Benevolence is blessed in itself, but it must be associated with discretion, ere it can confer blessings on others. The science of medicine is salutary, but if the physician use but one remedy for every disease, he will sometimes occasion death. Yet I would not speak as if [69] you alone were liable to deception from those who solicit charity. It is but a short time since a young man brought to my house a paper, signed by several persons, declaring him to be deaf and dumb from his birth. His conduct comported with this declaration. His questions were unintelligible to me, and his eye possessed that earnest, inquiring gaze, which characterizes that interesting, and unfortunate race. Affected at the lot of a being, cut off from all the privileges and joys of society, I was preparing to impart liberally to his wants. My wife, regarding him with a penetrating look, said "she had no doubt he was an impostor, who could hear and speak as well as any of us." He could not avoid turning his head as if to listen, and, more moved by resentment than good manners, answered, "You lie!"

"What," inquired the Lady, "do you consider the best method of doing good, with the least possible harm?" "Undoubtedly, that of relieving the poor, through their own industry," he answered. "Thus, instead of the degradation of beggary you elevate their character, with the consciousness of a right improvement of time. If they are addicted to vices, you diminish their strength, by destroying indolence. You dry up the streams, by choking the fountain. A Christian should seek not merely to relieve bodily want, but to elevate moral character. If you support the children of an intemperate man, you take from him the strongest possible motive to reformation and industry. In those countries where establishments for the indigent [70] have been the most abundant, charity has at length discovered, that the way to multiply the poor, is to provide for the poor; or in other words to destroy their motives of action."

"Your theory, my brother, no one can question; the difficulty seems in reducing it to practice. The sick, and the infant must ever be an exception, and those also, who devote themselves to their comfort. The class of roving mendicants would also evade it, until the community shall be so impressed as to erect houses for their restraint and labour. To the families of the poor, who have health, it applies itself, as the most natural, and efficacious system of relief. I have ever found wool and flax gladly received, and wrought by poor, virtuous females. Their children can assist them in some parts of the toil, and thus industrious habits are implanted, where otherwise a vagrant idleness might take root. When these domestic manufactures have exceeded my own wants, I have sometimes disposed of them at reduced prices among those who have wrought them. Thus their families are clad in durable materials, instead of those insufficient fabrics, which the poor often purchase for the sake of cheapness, but which vanish long before one inclement season has past. I have usually found it expedient not to render them payment in money, but in those articles which are necessary to comfortable subsistence; for I believe the cause of poverty will often be found to exist in the destitution of that economy, which warns against spending the little "all for that which is not bread, and [71] the labour for that which satisfieth not."[1] This system of charity creates such an intimacy and freedom of detail, that opportunities are discovered, where medicines for sickness, and books for children may be distributed with great advantage." "This laborious system, have you then been pursuing, so silently that I had not discovered it?" said her brother. "What I began for a reproof ends as asual in the commendation, that, "many daughters have done virtuously, but thou still excellest." "I pray you, answered the Lady, to mention nothing of what I have imparted to you. The detail was given merely for the sake of the inference, that the system was too extensive for an individual. To be rendered effectual, it should be supported, by an association of the charitable. It ought to comprise a warehouse, where the materials for labour should be furnished, the manufactures exposed for sale, and a stock of articles kept, suitable to be rendered in payment. This should be superintended by the directors of the institution; and a poor, and pious widow, might receive a salary for attending in it. A collection of such medicines, as might be administered safely without application to a physician, might also be connected with it, and would often prevent serious sickness in those, whose strengh is put in daily requisition, without the power of obtaining necessary cordials. Books of instruction for children, and of consolation for the aged and sorrowful, should also be kept for gratuitous distribution. I have thought that a Charity School, if it were kept but on Saturday [72] afternoons, might give opportunity of teaching many valuable precepts to the children of those who laboured in this institution. It might at least then be ascertained how they had passed their time during the week, and if they were prepared to attend in a proper manner, the exercises of the approaching Sabbath."

"The great objection to this excellent system," said Dr. Lathrop, "will be found in the love of ease. The rich had generally rather satisfy the poor, and their own consciences, at the least expense of time and thought. These objects are accomplished by the gift of money, and a claim to the title of bountiful is thus easily procured. This mode of relief involves no troublesome inquiry into the sources of want—no difficult, and perhaps abortive attempt to awaken industry. To the actings of this indolent spirit, we are all more or less prone. This moves us even in the education of our children, to overlook instead of exterminating the ramifications of evil, and to cover an injury, which will probably affect them throughout the whole of life, with the soft name of affectionate indulgence."

Their conversation was interrupted by a low rap at the door, and the entrance of a woman apparently in humble life. A cloak of homemade cloth covered a form whose size promised great strength; and a decent black bonnet partially concealed a face, where health and an expression of cheerful contentment reigned. "I have brought home Ma'am," she said "the rest of the yarn which you wished [73] to have spun. If you have any more flax, I should be very glad to take it." "Sit down Mrs. Rawson," said Madam Lathrop, "You never seem to be tired, while any work remains. Have you walked three miles this cold, unpleasant day?"—"Any body who is strong, and well, need not complain of walking a few miles, Ma'am. Some part of the way is rather wet, but since I ve been able through your help to get such a pair of strong shoes, I don't mind any sort of walking. What a blessed thing it is. when the hearts of the rich are turned to give work to the poor, and assist them to get the necessaries of life, for themselves and families."

"Heaven," said Dr. Lathrop, "helps those who are willing to help themselves. Have you any children, good woman?" "O yes sir. God be thanked. What a lonely creature I should be without them. We live almost a mile from any neighbour, and they are company and comfort to me. Some folks blame me, because I don't put them to service. But there are only two of them, and they're very serviceable to me. The boy is twelve years old, and he takes care of the little spot of garden that we have, and raises vegetables, and cuts my wood in the winter, and when he can work out a day or two, with the farmers, he's willing and thankful to do it, to get a little provision for me, or help pay my rent. The girl is two years younger, and does the chores while I spin. She takes to the wheel too, herself, as natural as a duck runs to the water. My eldest son wanted to follow the seas like his [74] father. It was a trial to me, but I remembered that he had the same protector on the water, as on the land. When he went away, he said—"Mother, keep up a good heart. I shall come back, and bring you something to help you along." Oh! with what delight I used then to read the 107th Psalm, which speaks of them "that go down to the sea in ships; to do business in the great waters, how they see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep." Many a time, when I have lain awake, in stormy nights, when my bed has shook under me with the winds that rock'd the house, I have thought perhaps my poor boy is among those who "mount up to the heavens, and go down again to the depths, with their soul melted because of trouble." Then again it would come into my mind, who knows but he "will cry unto the Lord, and he will bring him out of his distresses." That thought comforted me. If he can only be made to seek his God, in the days of his youth, what matter is it though he should suffer, and his mother s heart ache? all would be well in the end. When it came time to expect him back, I found myself too anxious and impatient, for one who ought to trust all to God. One day, when I was looking for him, a wagon drove up to the door. My heart was in my mouth. A man got out, and brought me a chest, and said, "This belonged to your son. He died of a fever, a fortnight before we arrived on this coast." My tongue was speechless—something said to me "be still: and know that I am God."[2] All day long, as I went about [75] my work, that boy seemed to stand beside me, with his face between smiles and tears, as when he last said, "Good bye, mother." When I went to bed, and all was darkness, his pale corpse lay stretched before me, and I trembled with agony as when I bore him. But through that long sleepless night, the same voice repeated, "Be still! and know that I am God." The next day, I opened his chest. There lay all the clothes, that those dear hands had toiled to procure, and I had made for him. But oh! what a blessing. Wrapt up in the choicest manner, I found a prayer, which he had himself written. It has been my comfort ever since, when I have grieved, as a mother will grieve for her first-born. Then I could turn to the psalm, which had been my companion in his absence, and say, "Oh! that men would praise the Lord for his goodness! and for his wonderful works to the children of men." How merciful that he was not thrown overboard, without a moment's time to beg favour of God. But if the child of many prayers did, in his sickness, pray himself for salvation, and be heard, what more have I to desire? Sometimes in my dreams, I have seen him as an angel, walking on the waves, and reaching his hand toward me.—God grant that I may not be deceived in my hope." She paused, to wipe the tears that were escaping down her cheeks; and recollecting herself, said, "I ought to ask pardon, for talking so much about my own poor concerns." Madam Lathrop perceiving that her brother was interested in the narration, said, "I am always edified to [76] hear the events of your life, my good Mrs. Rawson; for you keep in view the Hand that rules, both under the cloud, and in the sun-shine. I wish you would relate to my brother, what you have told me, respecting your husband. "He was a man," she answered, "of better education, than people in his station always enjoy. I married him, when I was sixteen, and my whole endeavour was to please him. I did not consider that it is our duty to seek "first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness." My husband was an ambitious man; and at last became master of a vessel. He was always looking for great things, but seemed to be unfortunate. While he was gone whole years, I would live upon as little as would keep life in me, so as not to be a burden to him; and sometimes when I was sick, and would have been thankful for six-pence, to buy medicine, a letter would come from him, full of nothing but poetry. Yet I was rejoiced to see only a line, written by his hand, "because of the love I bore him." Once, when my babes and I were really in want of food, there came from him a present to me of a gold ring, and his picture as big as life. The children were frightened to death, at the sight of such a great face, that did not talk; and they cried and screamed so, that I had to carry it up garret, and turn it the backside out. I sold the gold ring, and bought Indian meal, and some wool to spin stockings for our bare feet. I would have sold the picture, but nobody would buy it. I thought it was not becoming in me to keep such a costly thing. I wrote to [77] my husband "if you had but sent me a piece of meat as big as the picture, I should know what to do with it. Here are three little mouths, wanting to be rilled, that call you Father." But he meant all in kindness. Once he sent me money to buy a small house, which he liked, But the man, who had the care of it, spent it, and before he got ready to pay me, he failed, and could not. Yet I found that what I repined at, was in mercy. Not long after, that very house took fire in the night, and burnt down: and who knows, but what if we had lived there, one of the children might have been burned in it?— After some time, my husband came home, a poor, sick creature, with a leg to be taken off. I felt as if I knew not which way to turn, to make him comfortable. But strength came with the need. The doctor was favourable in his bill, and I was able to be about, both day and night. My husband suffered every thing in the operation, and in the sickness afterwards. He was disappointed at being so poor, when he had promised himself riches; and all together made him very unhappy, and violent. His oaths and curses made me tremble, but I knew that he was in misery, and my prayers rose for him with almost every breath. Those, who heard him speak to me, thought he was unkind, but they did not know what he suffered. My voice was always cheerful to him; but, when he slept, I took time to weep. My greatest sorrow was, that he seemed to be hastening into the presence of his Maker, with a heart bitter against him. If he awoke, and I was not by. [78] he would shriek after me in a voice that frightened me, saying that when I was away, evil spirits came to tear him. Yet when I appeared, he would sometimes say, that my sight was hateful to him, as theirs. His pain, made him loath all creatures, and himself also. But God in mercy, gave him a better frame of spirit. For a month before his death, there were no blasphemies, but prayers for patience. He would ask me to read from the good book, and listen with tears. I feared to say much to him, because of his weakness; but I thanked my Father in Heaven for his altered mind. When he died, he looked at me, and his children, with a mild, pleasant face, and though he was not able to speak, it seemed as if there was peace within his heart. I asked him, if he could leave his fatherless children with God, and he bowed his head with a smile, that lifted a weight from my heart. For many months, the sound of his groans lingered in my ears, both when I lay down, and when I rose up, but I commended my soul to the God of the widow, and was preserved."

"And were you able," said Dr. Lathrop, "to support your children entirely by your own industry?"

"Oh! that would have been but a light matter, Sir," replied Mrs. Rawson, "for they were ail healthy, and willing to help according to their years. We ate our humble food with a good appetite, and found at night that the "sleep of the labourer is sweet,"[3] and rose in the morning with thankful hearts to Him who permitted us to live in his good and beautiful world. Once, when we were eating [79] our breakfast of potatoes, the youngest boy, who was then about five years old, lifted up to me his bright eye, and rosy face, and said, "Mother, when I am a little bigger, the farmers will hire me to work, and then I shall bring you home, a bushel of rye." But what made me feel for a little while, as if I did not know how to get along, was when my father and mother came to live with me, just after I was left a widow. I was willing to work my ringers to the bone for them, but they were old, and infirm people, and my house was very small, and I feared that I could not make them comfortable. It did seem to me too, that my sister, who sent them down to me from Vermont, was better able to take care of them than I; for she had a husband, and a good farm, and was well-off in the world— while I had to work early and late to get my children bread. But I thought again—God has ordered it, and he will provide; though I have not even a barrel of meal, or a cruse of oil, like the widow in the Old Testament.[4] And so it was—we were all able to live upon the little that my hands obtained, until my poor mother became sick and bedrid; and then the good people were very kind to help me to medicines, and comfortable things for her. She was a heavy woman, and in lifting her I strained my breast, so that it has never been strong since. But how much more did she endure for me in my infancy—and how small a part could I pay the mother, who had patience with my helpless and wayward years. Often have I thought, when I was broke of my rest for many nights, and had [80] laboured hard in the day, "O if I could ever find it in my heart to forsake ray father and mother, how could I hope that the Lord would take me up in my distresses." And I thank Him who gave me strength unto the end; for their aged eyes blessed me, when their voice was lost in death. "Surely goodness and mercy have followed me all the days of my life; and I believe there will always be a handful of corn, on the mountain-tops for me."

"God will bless you, good woman," said Dr. Lathrop, "he will be your shield in necessity, and reward your piety in another world." Then rising to depart, he put something into the hand of his sister, saying, "Be my almoner, you know best how to make it acceptable to her. I perceive there are some, to whom it is safe to give money—in whose hands it ceases to be the "root of evil," and bringeth forth good and peaceable fruits."

Notes[edit]

  1. Isaiah 55:2.
  2. Psalm 46:10.
  3. Ecclesiastes 5:12.
  4. This is the story of the Widow of Zarephath who, during a drout, believed she had enough food for a final small meal. Elijah was told to ask her to feed him—before feeding herself and her son, and she did as he asked. This scant supply of a cruse of oil and a handful of meal miraculously fed her, her son, and Elijah for many days. Her son then dies and Elijah raises him from the dead. 1 Kings 17:9-24.