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The Happy Waterman

Charles Doe



A gentleman who was one day a passenger on the river Thames, observed on the stern of the boat these words: “HONESTY THE BEST POLICY.” Taking notice of it, he deter-mined to enter into conversation with the Waterman; and, inquiring into his situation in life, found that he had a wife and five children, and supported also an old father and mother-in-law by his own labor. The gentleman upon this was still more desirous to know why he had given such a title to his boat, and asked him the reason of it. “I can easily explain this to your satisfaction,” answered the young man, “if you will give me leave;” and being desired to proceed, he spoke as follows:

“My father and mother died a few years ago, and left a large family; my father was a waterman, and I was his assistant in the management of a ferry-boat, by which he supported his family; on his death, it was necessary, in order to pay his just debts, to sell our boat. I parted from it even with tears: but the distress that I felt spurred me on to industry, for I said I will use every kind of diligence to purchase my boat back again. I went to the person who had bought it, and told him my design; he had given five guineas for it, but told me, as I was once the owner, that I should have it whenever I could raise five pounds. ‘Shall the boat be mine again?’ said I; my heart bounded at the thought, and I resolved to do my utmost in an honest and fair way to obtain my object.

“I was at this time married to a good young woman, and we lived in a small cottage. She was healthy, industrious, and careful. We loved one another dearly, and, united in our affections and our efforts, what might we not under-take? My father used to say to me, ‘Always do what is right; labor diligently, and spend your money carefully; and God will bless your store.’ We treasured up these rules, and determined to try the truth of them. My wife had long chiefly supported two aged parents: I loved them as my own—and the desire of contributing to their sup-port, was an additional spur to my endeavors to repurchase the boat. I entered myself as a day-laborer, in the garden of our squire; and my wife was called occasionally to perform some services at the house; and employed herself in needle-work, spinning, or knitting at home; not a moment in the day was suffered to pass unemployed. We lived sparingly; not a shilling was spent at the ale-house, nor on any improper object; and by these means we were enabled to contribute a little both to the support of religion, and to real objects of charity; and also to drop, every week, a little overplus into a fairing-box, to buy the boat. If any accident or charity brought us an additional shilling, we did not enlarge our expense, but kept it for the boat! The more careful we were, the more comfortable we felt, for we were more independent, and daily approached nearer to the object of our wishes. Our family indeed increased, but with it our friends increased also; for the cleanliness and frugality which furnished our cottage, and the content and cheerfulness that appeared in it, drew the notice of our rich neighbors; of my master and mistress particularly, whose rule was to assist the industrious, but not to encourage the idle. They did not approve of giving money to the poor; but in cold winters, or dear times, allowed us to buy things at a cheaper rate: this was money to us, for when we counted our little cash for the week’s marketing, all that was saved to us by our tickets to purchase things at reduced prices, went into our ‘little box.’ If our children got a penny at school for a reward, or a present from a neighbor for any little service done, instead of buying gingerbread with it, they brought it home and gave it to their mother, saying it would help to buy the boat. I felt it my duty to teach them, from their infancy, to be obliging, industrious, and careful; recollecting that early habits are most lasting; and when we ‘train up a child in the way he should go,’ we have the assurance of God’s promise, that ‘when he is old, he will not depart from it.’

“Thus our little store insensibly increased from time to time, till one pound only was wanting of the sum so much desired; and often my dear wife and I used to remark, that the blessing of heaven was very observable in the success of our honest endeavors.

The Waterman“But the following accident seemed to disappoint our hopes. Coming home one evening from my work, I saw in the road a small pocketbook; and on opening it, I found a bank note of ten pounds, which plainly enough belonged to my master, for his name was upon it, and I had also seen him passing that way in the evening: it being too late, however, to return to the house, I went on my way. When I told my family of the incident, the little ones were thrown into a transport of joy. ‘My dears,’ said I, ‘what is the matter?’ ‘O, daddy, the BOAT! the BOAT! we may now have two or three boats!’ I checked them by my looks, and asked them if they recollected whose money that was. They said, ‘Yours, as you found it.’ I reminded them that I was not the real owner, and bade them think how they would all feel, supposing a stranger was to take our box of money, if I should happen to drop it on the day I went to buy back the boat. This thought had the effect on their young minds that I desired: they were silent and pale with the representation of such a disaster, and I begged it might be a lesson to them never to forget the golden rule of ‘doing as they would wish others to do to them;’ and never to turn aside from what God had made their duty. I also took this opportunity to explain to them, that the possession of the boat by dishonest means would never answer, since we could not expect the blessing of GOD upon bad deeds. Nothing, I think, sir, is of greater consequence than to embrace such opportunities for warning children against what is wrong; and for earnestly pressing upon their tender minds these principles of religion and morality, which are the means appointed by heaven for guiding their youthful minds to what is right. Early religious instruction has been an unspeakable blessing to me.

“To go on with my story: The next morning I put the pocketbook into my bosom, and went to my work, intending, as soon as the family arose, to give it to my master; but what were my feelings, when, on searching in my bosom, it was nowhere to be found! I hasted back along the road I came, looking diligently all the way, but in vain! there were no traces of any such thing. I would not return into my cottage, because I wished to save my family the pain I felt; and in the hope of still recovering the book, I went to my work, following another path which I recollected I had also gone by. On my return to the garden-gate, I was accosted by the gardener, who, in a threatening tone, told me I was suspected; that our master had lost a pocketbook, describing what I had found, and that I being the only man absent from the garden at the hour of work, the rest of the men also denying that they had seen any such thing, there was every reason to conclude that I must have got it. Before I could answer, my distressed countenance confirmed the suspicion; and another servant coming up, said I was detected, for that a person had been sent to my house, and that my wife and family had owned it all, and had described the pocketbook. I told them the real fact, but it seemed to every one unlikely to be true; every circumstance was against me, and (my heart trembles to look back upon it) I was arrested, and hurried away to prison! I protested my innocence, but I did not wonder that I gained no credit. Great grief now oppressed my heart; my poor wife, my dear children, and my gray-headed parents, were all at once plunged into want and misery: instead of the ease and happiness which we were expecting, all our hopes were blasted at the very time when we were just arriving at the height of our earthly wishes; and what was worse, my character was tarnished, and all my ungodly fellow-servants, whose practices I had often condemned, were triumphing, and reviling religion on my account.

“My misery seemed almost complete; and under these accumulated sufferings I should certainly have sunk, if the consolations of religion had not borne me up. I knew, however, I was innocent; and in frequent and fervent prayer endeavored to ‘commit my way unto the Lord, and trust in him.’

“I resolved that, having been the cause (though without any design) of the second loss of the property, I would offer the whole of our little store to make it good, as far as in my power; and accordingly sent for my dear wife, to give her this sad commission. But alas! when she came, I found this sacrifice could be of no avail, ‘for,’ said she, ‘my master has been at the cottage, when I told him freely how you had found the note, but unfortunately had lost it again; and I added, that I was sure, both I and my husband would make the best return in our power; after which I produced our little fairing-box, and begged him to accept the con-tents, which had been so long raising, as all we had to offer:’ but, sir,” said the Waterman, “conceive my agony, when she added, that my master angrily refused, saying, that our being in possession of all that money, was of itself the clearest proof of my guilt; for it was impossible, with my large family, and no greater opportunities than my neighbors, that I could come honestly by such a sum; therefore he was determined to keep me in jail till I should pay the whole. My unhappiness was very great; however, my mind by degrees began to be more easy, for I grew confident that I should not trust in God and my own innocence in vain; and so it happened: one of my fellow-laborers proved to be the person who had picked up the pocketbook after I had dropt it, having come a few minutes after me along the same road to his work, and hearing that the suspicion had fallen altogether upon me, he was tempted to turn the accident to his own advantage, and conceal the property; which having kept in his own box for a few weeks, till he thought no suspicion would rest upon him, he went and offered the note for change, and being then suspected, my master had him taken up, and I was released.

“The second change, from so much misery to happiness, was almost too much for us. My master sent for me, and with many expressions of concern for what had passed, made me give him an account of the means by which I had collected the little fund that fixed his suspicions so strongly upon me. I accordingly related the history of it, as I have now done; and when I came to that part, where I checked my children for their inconsiderate joy, on their finding the note, he arose with much kindness in his looks, and putting the bank-bill into my hand, he said, ‘Take it: the bank-note shall be theirs. It is the best and only return I can make you, as a just reward of your honesty: and it will be a substantial proof to your children of the goodness of your instructions; for they will thus early see and feel the benefit of honesty and virtue!’

“This kind and worthy gentleman interested himself much in the purchase of my boat, which, in less than a week, I had in my possession. The remainder of my master’s bounty, and the additional advantage of the ferry, have placed me in comfortable circumstances, which I humbly trust God will continue to us, as long as we continue our labor and honest diligence; and I can say, from my long experience, that the fruit of our own industry is always sweetest. I have now also the pleasure of being able to help others; for when a rich passenger takes my ferry, as my story is well known in the neighborhood, he often gives me more than my fare, which enables me to let the next poor person go over for half price.

“My employment in this way has become also a pleasure. I see the blessing of God on my honest and lawful industry; and when I go home to my family at night with my little earnings, I find it a paradise of domestic enjoyment. My wife, according as our slender circumstances will permit, is always contriving how she can make me happier at home than anywhere else. My children are waiting to share a father’s smiles, and tell me all their little tales of what has passed during the day. And my little cottage, though poor, is always neat and clean, and orderly, and the habitation of peace. By never frequenting the ale-house, I save daily from sixpence to a shilling more than many others in my employment; and this, put into one of the Savings Banks lately instituted for the benefit of the poor, has amounted, last year, to twelve pounds. Vice and extravagance, sir, are the fruitful parents of misery; but godliness as the Scripture says, ‘is profitable unto all things, having the promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.’ ”

The gentleman was exceedingly pleased with the Waterman’s story, and the piety of his remarks; and from this time, becoming acquainted with his family, he did him every service in his power, giving books and schooling to the little ones, and such things as would make the aged parents comfortable, as long as they survived. He was very desirous of knowing what became of the unfortunate fellow-laborer, who had so dreadfully gone aside from the principles of honesty; and he learnt that he was, after a short imprisonment, set at liberty by his master, at the earnest entreaty of the honest Waterman: and the thought of what he had done, together with the generosity of the Waterman, had so strong an effect upon this poor fellow, that he afterwards had it written upon his cottage door, DO AS YOU WOULD BE DONE UNTO. This simple and certain rule is the same to all ranks; it is the sum of the second table of the law and the man who does not act under its influence, shows too plainly that he has never been changed by the renewing of his mind. For the Scriptures assure us that every man is by nature “dead in trespasses and sins,” Ephesians 2:1; but when he becomes a new man, and is “created in Christ Jesus unto good works,” the dispositions and affections of his mind are changed; and his devout, and regular, and honest conduct are the most certain evidences which we can have, that he is a Christian.

Christianity is not that empty and notional thing which many take it to be. It is not a mere name; a Sabbath ceremony; a compliance with the customs of a country. It changes a man’s character and conduct; makes him con-tented, industrious, and useful, like this honest Water-man. And if it does not this, it wants the signature of heaven; and the man who professes it, while he maintains not a conversation becoming the Gospel, is only deceiving his own soul.

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