Short Stories

Fool's Pence (The) by Rev. Charles B. Taylor

 

The Fools' Pence

by Rev. Charles B. Tayler.

 

HAVE you ever seen a London gin-shop? There is, perhaps, no statelier shop in the magnificent chief city of England. No expense seems to be spared in the building and the furnishing of a gin-shop.

Not many years ago a gin-shop was a mean-looking, and by no means a spacious place, with a few small bottles, not bigger than a doctor's largest vials, in the dusty window. But now, however poor many of the working classes may be, it seems to be their pleasure to squander their little remaining money upon a number of these palaces, as if they were determined that the persons whom they employ to sell them poison should dwell in the midst of luxury and splendor. I do not mean to say, that we have a right to throw all the blame upon the master or the mistress of a gin-shop. For my part, I should not like to keep one, and be obliged to get rich upon the money of the poor infatuated creatures who will ruin both soul and body in gin-drinking; but the master of the gin-shop may be heard to say, "I don't force the people to drink; they will have gin, and if I do not sell to them somebody else will." The story of "The Fools' Pence," which follows, is worth attending to.

A little mean-looking man sat talking to Mrs. Crowder, the mistress of the Punch-bowl: "Why, Mrs. Crowder," said he, "I should hardly know you again. Really, I must say you have things in the first style. What an elegant paper; what noble chairs; what a pair of fire-screens; all so bright and so fresh; and yourself so well, and looking so well!"

Mrs. Crowder had dropped languidly into an arm-chair, and sat sighing and smiling with affectation, not turning a deaf ear to her visitor, but taking in with her eyes a full view of what passed in the shop; having drawn aside the curtain of rose-colored silk, which sometimes covered the window in the wall between the shop and the parlor.

"Why, you see, Mr. Berriman," she replied, "our business is a thriving one, and we don't love to neglect it, for one must work hard for an honest livelihood; and then you see, my two girls, Letitia and Lucy, were about to leave their boarding-school; so Mr. Crowder and I wished to make the old place as genteel and fashionable as we could; and what with new stone copings to the windows, and new French window-frames to the first floor, and a little paint, and a little papering, Mr. Berriman, we begin to look tolerable. I must say too, Mr. Crowder has laid out a deal of money in fitting up the shop, and in filling his cellars."

"Well, ma'am," continued Mr. Berriman, "I don't know where you find the needful for all these improvements. For my part, I can only say, our trade seems quite at a stand-still. There's my wife always begging for money to pay for this or that little necessary article, but I part from every penny with a pang. Dear Mrs. Crowder, how do you manage?"

Mrs. Crowder simpered, and raising her eyes, and looking with a glance of smiling contempt towards the crowd of customers in the shop, "The fools' pence--'tis THE FOOLS PENCE that does it for us," she said.

Perhaps it was owing to the door being just then opened and left ajar by Miss Lucy, who had been serving in the bar, that the words of Mrs. Crowder were heard by a man I named George Manly, who stood at the upper end of the counter. He turned his eyes upon the customers who were standing near him, and saw pale, sunken cheeks, inflamed eyes, and ragged garments. He turned them upon the stately apartment in which they were assembled; he saw that it had been fitted up at no trifling cost; he stared through the partly open doorway into the parlor, and saw looking-glasses, and pictures, and gilding, and fine furniture, and a rich carpet, and Miss Lucy, in a silk gown, sitting down to her piano-forte: and he thought within himself, how strange it is, by what a curious process it is, that all this wretchedness on my left hand is made to turn into all this rich finery on my right!

"Well, sir, and what's for you?"

These words were spoken in the same shrill voice which had made the "fools' pence" ring in his ears.

George Manly was still in deep thought, and with the end of his rule-for he was a carpenter-he had been making a calculation, drawing the figures in the little puddles of gin upon the counter. He looked up and saw Mrs. Crowder herself as gay as her daughters, with a cap and colored ribbons flying off her head, and a pair of gold earrings almost touching her plump shoulders. "A glass of gin, ma'am, is what I was waiting for tonight, but I think I've paid the last ‘fools' pence' I shall put down on this counter for many a long day."

George Manly hastened home. His wife and his two little girls were sitting at work. They were thin and pale, many for want of food. The room looked very cheerless, and their fire was so small that its warmth was scarcely felt; yet the commonest observer must have been struck by the neatness and cleanliness of the apartment and every thing about it.

"This is indeed a treat, girls, to have dear father home so soon tonight," said Susan Manly, looking up at her husband as he stood before the table, turning his eyes first upon one and then upon another of the little party; then throwing himself into a chair, and smiling, he said,

"Well, children, ain't you glad to see me? May not those busy little fingers stop a moment, just while you jump up and throw your arms about your father's neck, and kiss him?"

"O yes, we have time for that," said one of the girls, as they both sprang up to kiss their father.

"But we have no time to lose, dear father;" said Sally, pressing her cheek to his, and speaking in a kind of coaxing whisper close to his ear, "for these shirts are the last of the dozen we have been making for Mr. Farley, in the Corn-market."

"And as no work can be done tomorrow," added Betsy gravely, who stood with her little hand in her father's, "we are all working as hard as we can; for mother has promised to take them home on Monday afternoon."

"Either your eyes are very weak tonight, dear wife," said George, "or you have been crying. I'm afraid you work too hard by candlelight."

Susan smiled, and said, "Working does not hurt my eyes," and as she spoke, she turned her head and beckoned with her finger to her little boy.

"Why, John, what's this that I see?" said his father. "What, you in the corner! Come out, and tell me what you have been doing."

"Nay, never mind it, dear husband; John will be very good, I hope, and we had better say no more about what is past."

"Yes, but I must know," said he, drawing John close to him. "Come, tell me what has been the matter."

John was a plain-spoken boy, and had a straight-forward way of speaking the truth. He came up to his father, and looked full in his face, and said, "The baker came for his money tonight, and would not leave the loaves without mother paid for them; and though he was cross and rough to mother, he said it was not her fault, and that he was sure you had been drinking away all the money; and when he was gone, mother cried over her work, but she did not say any thing. I did not know she was crying, till I saw her tears fall, drop, drop, on her hands; and then I said bad words, and mother sent me to stand in the corner."

"And now, John, you may bring me some coal," said Susan; "there's a fine lump in the coal-box."

"But first tell me what your bad words were, John," said his father; "not swearing, I hope?"

"No," said John, coloring, but speaking as bluntly as before, "I said that you were a bad man. I said, bad father."

"And they were bad words, I am sure," said Susan, very calmly; "but you are forgiven, and so you may get me the coal."

George looked at the face of his wife, and as he met the tender gaze of her mild eyes now turned to him, he felt the tears rise in his own. He rose up, and as he put the money into his wife's hands, he said, "There are my week's wages. Come, come, hold out both hands, for you have not got all yet. Well, now you have every farthing. Keep the whole, and lay it out to the best advantage, as you always do. I hope this will be a beginning of better doings on my part, and happier days on yours; and now put on your bonnet, and I'll walk with you to pay the baker, and buy a bushel or two of coal, or any thing else you may be in want of; and when we come back I'll read a chapter of the Bible to you and the girls, while you get on with the needle-work."

Susan went up stairs to put on her bonnet and shawl, and she remained a little longer, to kneel down on the spot where she had often knelt almost heart-broken in prayer-prayer that her heavenly Father would turn her husband's heart, first to his Savior, and then to his wife and children; and that, in the meantime, he would give her patience. She knelt down this time to pour out her heart in thanksgiving and praise. The pleasant tones of her husband's voice called her from her knees.

George Manly told his wife that evening, after the children were gone to bed, that when he saw what the pence of the poor could do towards keeping up a fine house, and dressing out the landlord's wife and daughters; and when he thought of his own hard-working, uncomplaining Susan, and his children in want, and almost in rags, while he was sitting drinking, and drinking, night after night, more like a beast than a man, destroying his own manly strength, and the fine health God had given him, he was so struck with sorrow and shame, that he seemed to come to himself at last. He made his determination, from that hour, never again to put the intoxicating glass to his lips, and he hoped he made it in dependence upon God for grace and strength to keep it.

It was more than a year after Mrs. Crowder, of the Punch-bowl, had first missed a regular customer from her house, and when she had forgotten to express her wonder as to what could have become of the good-looking carpenter that generally spent his earnings there, and drank and spent his money so freely-

"There, get on as fast as you can, dears; run, girls, and don't stop for me, your beautiful dresses will be quite spoilt; never mind me, for my levantine is a French silk, and won't spot."

These words were screamed out as loud as her haste would permit, by Mrs. Crowder, who was accompanying her daughters, one Sunday evening, to the tea-gardens.

She was answered by Miss Lucy, "You know; ma, we can't run, for our shoes are so tight."

"Then turn into one of these houses, dears," said the mother, who was bustling-forward as fast as she could.

"No, indeed," replied the other daughter, who found time to curl her lip with disdain, notwithstanding her haste and her distress, "I'll not set a foot in such filthy hovels."

"Well, dears, here is a comfortable, tidy place," cried the mother at length, as they hastened forward; "here I'll enter, nor will I stir till the rain is over; come in, girls, come in. You might eat off these boards, they are so clean."

The rain was now coming down in torrents, and the two young ladies gladly followed their mother's example, and entered the neat and cleanly dwelling. Their long hair hung dangling about their ears, their crape bonnets had been screened in vain by their fringed parasols, and the skirts of their silk gowns were draggled with mud. They all three began to stamp upon the floor of the room into which they had entered with very little ceremony; but the good-natured mistress of the house felt more for their disaster than for her floor, and came forward at once to console and assist them. She brought forth clean cloths from the dresser-drawer, and she and her two daughters set to work to wipe off, with quick and delicate care, the rain-drops and mud-splashes from the silken dresses of the three fine ladies. The crape hats and the parasols were carefully dried at a safe distance from the fire, and a comb was offered to arrange the uncurled hair, such a white and delicately clean comb as may seldom be seen upon a poor woman's toilet.

When all had been done that could be done, and, as Miss Lucy said, "they began to look themselves again," Mrs. Crowder, who was lolling back at her ease in a large and comfortable arm-chair; and amusing herself by taking a good stare at every thing and every one in the room, suddenly started forward, and cried out, accessing herself to the master of the house, upon whose Bible and at whose face she had been last fixing her gaze, "Why, my good man, we are old friends: I know your face, I'm certain; still, there is some change in you, though I can't exactly say what it is."

"I used to be in ragged clothes, and out of health," said George Manly, smiling, as he looked up from his Bible; "I am now, blessed be God for it, comfortably clad, and in excellent health."

"But how is it," said Mrs. Crowder, "that we never catch a sight of you now?"

"Madam," said he, "I'm sure I wish well to you and all people; nay, I have reason to thank you, for words of yours were the first means of opening my eyes to my own foolish and sinful course. You seem to thrive-so do we. My wife and children were half-naked and half-starved only this time last year. Look at them, if you please, now; for, so far as sweet, contented looks go, and decent raiment befitting their station, I'll match them with any man's wife and children. And now, madam, I tell you, as you told a friend of yours one day last year, that ‘ 'tis the FOOLS' PENCE which have done all this for us.' The fools' pence! I ought to say, the pence earned by honest industry, and spent in such a manner that I can ask the blessing of God, upon the pence."

When Mrs. Crowder and her daughters were gone, George Manly sat without speaking for some considerable time. He was deep in thought, and his gentle, pious wife felt that she knew on what subject he had been thinking so deeply; for when he woke up from his fit of thought, a deep sigh stole from his lips, and he brushed away the tears which had filled his eyes.

"Susan," he said, "what can I render to the Lord for all his goodness to me? From what a fearful depth of ruin have I been snatched! Once I met some of my old companions, who so set upon me to draw me to drink with them, that I thought Satan must have urged them on. Another time, I went walking on, and found myself at the door of the poison-shop, without knowing how I got there; but God gave me strength to turn instantly away, and not linger a moment to dally with temptation.

"I could not help thinking, as I was reading this holy book, when that showy dame came in from whose hand I so often took the poisonous cup, how much I owed to God for saving me from ruin, and giving me that peace and satisfaction in religion which I now enjoy; and making me, I hope, a blessing to you all. O, what a love was the love of Christ to poor sinners! He gave his own blood as our precious ransom; he came to save us from our sins, that we may serve him in newness of life."

The above history, which is taken from a Tract of the Religious Tract Society in London, has its counterpart in the case of multitudes in our own country. Let him who would not shorten his days, and make his family wretched, and ruin his own soul, resolve with George Manly, "never again to put the intoxicating glass to his lips;" and like him, let him go humbly and with childlike confidence to God for strength to keep his resolution, and for grace to pardon all his sins, through the blood and righteousness of Christ. Then shall he have peace of mind, and be a blessing in his day; and when this brief life is ended, he shall enter into eternal joy.