JUST after sunset, one evening in summerthat pleasant hour when the air is balmy, the light loses its glare, and all around is imbued with soothing quieton the door-step of a house there sat an elderly woman waiting the arrival of her son. The house was in a straggling village some fifty miles from New York city. She who sat on the door step was a widow; her white cap coverd locks of gray, and her dress, though clean, was exceedingly homely. Her housefor the tenement she occupied was her ownwas very little and very old. Trees clusterd around it so thickly as almost to hide its colorthat blackish gray color which belongs to old wooden houses that have never been painted; and to get in it you had to enter a little rickety gate and walk through a short path, borderd by carrot beds and beets and other vegetables. The son whom she was expecting was her only child. About a year before he had been bound apprentice to a rich farmer in the place, and after finishing his daily task he was in the habit of spending half an hour at his mothers. On the present occasion the shadows of night had settled heavily before the youth made his appearance. When he did, his walk was slow and dragging, and all his motions were languid, as if from great weariness. He opend the gate, came through the path, and sat down by his mother in silence.
As she spoke she put her hand fondly on his head; it seemd moist as if it had been dippd in the water. His shirt, too, was soakd; and as she passd her fingers down his shoulder she felt a sharp twinge in her heart, for she knew that moisture to be the hard wrung sweat of severe toil, exacted from her young child (he was but thirteen years old) by an unyielding task-master.
There were blisters on them like great lumps. Tears started in the widows eyes. She dared not trust herself with a reply, though her heart was bursting with the thought that she could not better his condition. There was no earthly means of support on which she had dependence enough to encourage her child in the wish she knew he was formingthe wish not utterd for the first timeto be freed from his bondage.
Mother, at length said the boy, I can stand it no longer. I cannot and will not stay at Mr. Elliss. Ever since the day I first went into his house Ive been a slave; and if I have to work so much longer I know I shall run off and go to sea or somewhere else. Id as leave be in my grave as there. And the child burst into a passionate fit of weeping.
His mother was silent, for she was in deep grief herself. After some minutes had flown, however, she gatherd sufficient self-possession to speak to her son in a soothing tone, endeavoring to win him from his sorrows and cheer up his heart. She told him that time was swiftthat in the course of a few years he would be his own masterthat all people have their troubleswith many other ready arguments which, though they had little effect in calming her own distress, she hoped would act as a solace to the disturbd temper of the boy. And as the half hour to which he was limited had now elapsd, she took him by the hand and led him to the gate, to set forth on his return. The youth seemed pacified, though occasionally one of those convulsive sighs that remain after a fit of weeping, would break from his throat. At the gate he threw his arms about his mothers neck; each pressd a long kiss on the lips of the other, and the youngster bent his steps towards his masters house.
As her child passd out of sight the widow returnd, shut the gate and enterd her lonely room. There was no light in the old cottage that nightthe heart of its occupant was dark and cheerless. Love, agony, and grief, and tears and convulsive wrestlings were there. The thought of a beloved son condemned to laborlabor that would break down a manstruggling from day to day under the hard rule of a soulless gold-worshipper; the knowledge that years must pass thus; the sickening idea of her own poverty, and of living mainly on the grudged charity of neighborsthoughts, too, of former happy daysthese rackd the widows heart, and made her bed a sleepless one without repose.
The boy bent his steps to his employers, as has been said. In his way down the village street he had to pass a public house, the only one the place containd; and when he came off against it he heard the sound of a fiddledrownd, however, at intervals, by much laughter and talking. The windows were up, and, the house standing close to the road, Charles thought it no harm to take a look and see what was going on within. Half a dozen footsteps brought him to the low casement, on which he leand his elbow, and where he had a full view of the room and its occupants. In one corner was an old man, known in the village as Black Davehe it was whose musical performances had a moment before drawn Charless attention to the tavern; and he it was who now exerted himself in a violent manner to give, with divers flourishes and extra twangs, a tune very popular among that thick-lippd race whose fondness for melody is so well known. In the middle of the room were five or six sailors, some of them quite drunk, and others in the earlier stages of that process, while on benches around were more sailors, and here and there a person dressd in landsmans attire. The men in the middle of the room were dancing; that is, they were going through certain contortions and shufflings, varied occasionally by exceeding hearty stamps upon the sanded floor. In short the whole party were engaged in a drunken frolic, which was in no respect different from a thousand other drunken frolics, except, perhaps, that there was less than the ordinary amount of anger and quarreling. Indeed everyone seemd in remarkably good humor.
But what excited the boys attention more than any other object was an in seated on one of the benches opposite, who, though evidently enjoying the spree as much as if he were an old hand at such business, seemd in every other particular to be far out of his element. His appearance was youthful. He might have been twenty-one or two years old. His countenance was intelligent, and had the air of city life and society. He was dressd not gaudily, but in every respect fashionably; his coat being of the finest broadcloth, his linen delicate and spotless as snow, and his whole aspect that of one whose counterpart may now and then be seen upon the pave in Broadway of a fine afternoon. He laughd and talkd with the rest, and it must be confessd his jokeslike the most of those that passd current therewere by no means distinguishd for their refinement or purity. Near the door was a small table, coverd with decanters and glasses, some of which had been used, but were used again indiscriminately, and a box of very thick and very long cigars.
One of the sailorsand it was he who made the largest share of the hubbubhad but one eye. His chin and cheeks were coverd with huge, bushy whiskers, and altogether he had quite a brutal appearance. Come, boys, said this gentleman, come, let us take a drink. I know youre all a getting dry; and he clenchd his invitation with an appalling oath.
This politeness was responded to by a general moving of the company toward the table holding the before-mentiond decanters and glasses. Clustering there, around, each one helpd himself to a very handsome portion of that particular liquor which suited his fancy; and steadiness and accuracy being at that moment by no means distinguishing traits of the arms and legs of the party, a goodly amount of the fluid was spilld upon the floor. This piece of extravagance excited the ire of the personage who gave the treat; and that ire was still further increasd when he discoverd two or three loiterers who seemd disposed to slight his request to drink. Charles, as we have before mentiond, was looking in at the window.
Walk up, boys! walk up! If there be any skulker among us, blast my eyes if he shant go down on his marrow bones and taste the liquor we have spilt! Hallo! he exclaimd as he spied Charles; hallo, you chap in the window, come here and take a sup.
There, my lads, said he, turning to his companions, theres a new recruit for you. Not so coarse a one, either, he added as he took a fair view of the boy, who, though not what is called pretty, was fresh and manly looking, and large for his age.
Now Charles was not exactly frightend, for he was a lively fellow, and had often been at the country merry-makings, and at the parties of the place; but he was certainly rather abashd at his abrupt introduction to the midst of strangers. So, putting the glass aside, he lookd up with a pleasant smile in his new acquaintances face.
A little irritated by his continued refusal, the sailor, with a loud oath, declared that Charles should swallow the brandy, whether he would or no. Placing one of his tremendous paws on the back of the boys head, with the other he thrust the edge of the glass to his lips, swearing at the same time, that if he shook it so as to spill its contents the consequences would be of a nature by no means agreeable to his back and shoulders. Disliking the liquor, and angry at the attempt to overbear him, the undaunted child lifted his hand and struck the arm of the sailor with a blow so sudden that the glass fell and was smashd to pieces on the floor; while the brandy was about equally divided between the face of Charles, the clothes of the sailor, and the sand. By this time the whole of the company had their attention drawn to the scene. Some of them laughd when they saw Charless undisguised antipathy to the drink; but they laughd still more heartily when he discomfited the sailor. All of them, however, were content to let the matter go as chance would have itall but the young man of the black coat, who has been spoken of.
What was there in the words which Charles had spoken that carried the mind of the young men back to former timesto a period when he was more pure and innocent than now? My mother has often prayd me not to drink! Ah, how the mist of months rolld aside, and presented to his souls eye the picture of his mother, and a prayer of exactly similar purport! Why was it, too, that the young mans heart moved with a feeling of kindness toward the harshly treated child?
Charles stood, his cheek flushd and his heart throbbing, wiping the trickling drops from his face with a handkerchief. At first the sailor, between his drunkenness and his surprise, was much in the condition of one suddenly awakend out of a deep sleep, who cannot call his consciousness about him. When he saw the state of things, however, and heard the jeering laugh of his companions, his dull eye lighting up with anger, fell upon the boy who had withstood him. He seized Charles with a grip of iron, and with the side of his heavy boot gave him a sharp and solid kick. He was about repeating the performancefor the child hung like a rag in his graspbut all of a sudden his ears rang, as if pistols were snappd close to them; lights of various hues flickerd in his eye, (he had but one, it will be rememberd,) and a strong propelling power caused him to move from his position, and keep moving until he was brought up by the wall. A blow, a cuff given in such a scientific manner that the hand from which it proceeded was evidently no stranger to the pugilistic art, had been suddenly planted in the ear of the sailor. It was planted by the young man of the black coat. He had watchd with interest the proceeding of the sailor and the boytwo or three times he was on the point of interfering; but when the kick was given, his rage was uncontrollable. He sprang from his seat in the attitude of a boxerstruck the sailor in a manner to cause those unpleasant sensations which have been describedand would probably have followd up the attack, had not Charles, now thoroughly terrified, clung around his legs and prevented his advancing.
The scene was a strange one, and for the time quite a silent one. The company had started from their seats, and for a moment held breathless but straind positions. In the middle of the room stood the young man, in his not at all ungraceful attitudeevery nerve out, and his eyes flashing brilliantly. He seemd rooted like a rock; and clasping him, with an appearance of confidence in his protection, clung the boy.
Upon sobriety and sense more fully taking their power in the brains of the one-eyed mariner, however, that worthy determined in his own mind that it would be most prudent to let the matter drop. Expressing therefore his conviction to that effect, adding certain remarks to the purport that he meant no harm to the lad, that he was surprised at such a gentleman being angry at a little piece of fun, and so forthhe proposed that the company should go on with their jollity just as if nothing had happend. In truth, he of the single eye was not a bad fellow at heart, after all; the fiery enemy whose advances he had so often courted that night, had stolen away his good feelings, and set busy devils at work within him, that might have made his hands do some dreadful deed, had not the stranger interposed.
In a few minutes the frolic of the party was upon its former footing. The young man sat down upon one of the benches, with the boy by his side, and while the rest were loudly laughing and talking, they two conversd together. The stranger learnd from Charles all the particulars of his simple storyhow his father had died years sincehow his mother workd hard for a bare livingand how he himself, for many dreary months, had been the servant of a hard-hearted, avaricious master. More and more interested, drawing the child close to his side, the young man listend to his plainly told historyand thus an hour passd away.
It was now past midnight. The young man told Charles that on the morrow he would take steps to relieve him from his servitudethat for the present night the landlord would probably give him a lodging at the innand little persuading did the host need for that.
As he retired to sleep, very pleasant thoughts filled the mind of the young manthoughts of a worthy action performdthoughts, too, newly awakened ones, of walking in a steadier and wiser path than formerly.
Who was the stranger? To those that, from ties of relationship or otherwise, felt an interest in him, the answer to that question was not pleasant to dwell upon. His name was Langtonparentlessa dissipated young mana brawlerone whose too frequent companions were rowdies, blacklegs, and swindlers. The New York police offices were not strangers to his countenance. He had been bred to the profession of medicine; besides, he had a very respectable income, and his house was in a pleasant street on the west side of the city. Little of his time, however, did Mr. John Langton spend at his domestic hearth; and the elderly lady who officiated as his housekeeper was by no means surprised to have him gone for a week or a month at a time, and she knowing nothing of his whereabouts.
Living as he did, the young man was an unhappy being. It was not so much that his associates were below his own capacityfor Langton, though sensible and well bred, was not highly talented or refinedbut that he lived without any steady purpose, that he had no one to attract him to his home, that he too easily allowd himself to be temptedwhich caused his life to be, of late, one continued scene of dissatisfaction. This dissatisfaction he sought to drive away by the brandy bottle, and mixing in all kinds of parties where the object was pleasure. On the present occasion he had left the city a few days before, and was passing his time at a place near the village where Charles and his mother lived. He fell in, during the day, with those who were his companions of the tavern spree; and thus it happend that they were all together. Langton hesitated not to make himself at home with any associate that suited his fancy.
The next morning the poor widow rose from her sleepless cot; and from that lucky trait in our nature which makes one extreme follow another, she set about her toil with a lightend heart. Ellis, the farmer, rose, too, short as the nights were, an hour before day; for his god was gain, and a prime article of his creed was to get as much work as possible from everyone around him. In the course of the day Ellis was called upon by young Langton, and never perhaps in his life was the farmer puzzled more than at the young mans proposalhis desire to provide for the widows family, a family that could do him no pecuniary good, and his willingness to disburse money for that purpose. The widow, too, was called upon, not only on that day, but the next and the next.
It needs not that I should particularize the subsequent events of Langtons and the boys historyhow the reformation of the profligate might be dated to begin from that timehow he gradually severd the guilty ties that had so long galld himhow he enjoyd his own home againhow the friendship of Charles and himself grew not slack with timeand how, when in the course of seasons he became head of a family of his own, he would shudder at the remembrance of his early dangers and his escapes.