Return by T. S. Arthur
A THANKSGIVING STORY.
A MAN, who at first sight, a casual observer would have thought at
least forty or fifty years of age, came creeping out of an old,
miserable-looking tenement in the lower part of Cincinnati, a little
while after night-fall, and, with bent body and shuffling gait,
crossed the street an angle; and, after pausing for a few moments
before a mean frame building, in the windows of which decanters of
liquor were temptingly displayed, pushed open the door and entered.
It was early in November. Already the leaves had fallen, and there
was, in the aspect of nature, a desolateness that mirrored itself in
the feelings. Night had come, hiding all this, yet by no means
obliterating the impression which had been made, but measurably
increasing it; for, with the darkness had begun to fall a misty rain,
and the rising wind moaned sadly among the eaves.
A short time after sundown the man, to whom we have just referred,
came home to the comfortless-looking house we have seen him leaving.
All day he had turned a wheel in a small manufactory; and when his
work was done, he left, what to him was a prison-house, and retired
to the cheap but wretched boarding-place he had chosen, where were
congregated about a dozen men of the lowest class. He did not feel
happy. That was impossible. No one who debases himself by
intemperance can be happy; and this man had gone down, step by step,
until he attained a depth of degradation most sad to contemplate. And
yet he was not thirty years old! After supper he went out, as usual,
to spend the evening in drinking.
The man, fallen as he was, and lost to all the higher and nobler
sentiments of the heart, had experienced during the day a pressure
upon his feelings heavier than usual, that had its origin in some
reviving memories of earlier times.
The sound of his mother's voice had been in his ears frequently
through the day; and images of persons, places, and scenes, the
remembrance of which brought no joy to his heart, had many times come
up before him. At the supper-table, amid his coarse, vulgar-minded
companions, his laugh was not heard as usual; and, when spoken to, he
answered briefly and in monosyllables.
The tippling-house to which the man went to spend his day's
earnings and debase himself with drink, was one of the lowest haunts
of vice in the city. Gambling with cards, dominoes, and dice, occupied
the time of the greater number who made it a place of resort, and
little was heard there except language the most obscene and profane.
For his daily task at the wheel, the man was paid seventy-five cents a
day. His boarding and lodging cost him thirty-one and a quarter
cents,—and this had to be paid every night under penalty of being
expelled from the house. He was a degraded drunkard, and not
therefore worthy of confidence nor credit beyond a single day, and he
received none. What remained of the pittance earned, was invariably
spent in drink, or gambled away before he retired from the grogshop
for the night; when, staggering home, he groped his way to his room,
too helpless to remove his clothes, and threw himself upon a straw
pallet, that could scarcely be dignified with the name of bed. This in
outline, was the daily history of the man's life; and daily the
shadows of vice fell more and more darkly upon his path.
The drinking-house had two rooms on the first floor. In front was a
narrow counter, six or eight feet in length, and behind this stood a
short, bloated, vice-disfigured image of humanity, ready to supply
the wants of customers. Two or three roughly-made pine tables, and
some chairs, stood around the room. The back apartment contained
simply chairs and tables, and was generally occupied by parties
engaged in games of chance, for small sums. Tobacco-smoke, the fumes
of liquor, and the polluted breaths of the inmates, made the
atmosphere of these rooms so offensive, that none but those who had
become accustomed to inhale it, could have endured to remain there
for a minute.
The man, on entering this den of vice, went to the counter and
called for whisky. A decanter was set before him, and from this he
poured into a glass nearly a gill of the vilest kind of stuff and
drank it off, undiluted. About half the quantity of water was sent
down after the burning fluid, to partially subdue its ardent
qualities; and then the man turned slowly from the bar. As he did so,
an individual who had seen him enter, and who had kept his eyes upon
him from the moment he passed through the door, came towards him with
a smile of pleasure upon his countenance, and reaching out his hand,
said, in an animated voice—
"How are you, Martin, my good fellow! How are you?"
And he grasped the poor wretch's hand with a hearty grip and shook
it warmly. Something like a smile lighted up the marred and almost
expressionless face of the miserable creature, as he gave to the hand
that had taken his a responsive pressure, and replied,
"Oh! very well, very well, considering all things."
"Bad night out," said the man, as he sat down near a stove, that
was sending forth a genial heat.
"Yes, bad enough," returned Martin. A thought of the damp and
chilly air without caused him to shiver suddenly, and draw a little
nearer to the stove.
"Which makes us prize a comfortable place like this, where we can
spend a pleasant evening among pleasant friends, so much the more."
"Yes. It's very pleasant," said Martin, spreading himself out
before the stove, with a hand upon each knee, and looking with an
absent-minded air, through the opening in the door, which had once
been closed by a thin plate of mica, and seeing strange forms in the
"Pleasant after a hard day's work," remarked the man, with an
"I don't know what life would be worth, if seasons of recreation
and social intercourse did not come, nightly, to relieve both body and
mind from their wearisomeness and exhaustion."
"Yes—yes. It's tiresome enough to have to sit and turn a wheel all
day," said Martin.
"And a relief to get into a place like this at night," returned the
man, rubbing his hands with animation.
"It's a great deal better than sitting at the wheel," sighed
"I should think it was! Come! won't you liquor."
"Thank you! I've just taken something."
"No matter. Come along, my good fellow, and try something more."
And he arose, as he spoke, and moved towards the bar.
Martin was not the man to refuse a drink at any time, so he
followed to the counter.
"What'll you take? Whisky, rum, gin, brandy, or spirits? Any thing,
so it's strong enough to drink to old acquaintanceship. Ha! my boy?"
And he leered in Martin's face with a sinister expression, and
slapped him familiarly on the shoulder.
"Brandy," said Martin. "Brandy let it be! Nothing like brandy! Set
out your pure old Cogniac! Toby. A drink for the gods!"
"Prime stuff! that. It warms you to the very soles of your feet!"
added the, man after he had turned off his glass. "Don't you say so,
"Yes! and through your stockings, to your very shoes!"
"Hat ha! ha! He! he!" laughed the man with a forced effort. "Why,
Bill Martin, you're a wit!"
"It ain't Bill, it's the brandy," said the bar-keeper, with more
truth than jest.
"That brandy would put life into a grindstone!"
"It's put life into our friend here, without doubt." And as the
very disinterested companion of Martin said this, he slapped him again
upon the shoulder.
The two men turned from the bar and sat down again by the stove,
both getting more and more familiar and chatty.
"Suppose we try a game of dominoes or chequers?" at length
suggested the friend.
"No objection," replied Martin. "Any thing to make the time pass
agreeably. Suppose we say chequers?"
"Very well. Here's a board. We'll go into the backroom where it's
The two men retired into the little den in the rear of the
bar-room, where were several parties engaged at cards or dice.
"Here's a cozy little corner," said the pleasant friend of Martin.
"We can be as quiet as kittens."
"What's the stake?" he next inquired, as soon as the board was
opened and the pieces distributed. "Shall we say a bit?"
Martin received, at the close of each day, his earnings. Of his
seventy-five cents, he had already paid out for board thirty-one and
a quarter cents; and for a glass of liquor and some tobacco, six
cents more. So he had but thirty-seven and a half cents. This sum he
drew from his pocket, and counted over with scrupulous accuracy, so
as to be sure of the amount. While he was doing so, his companion's
eyes were fixed eagerly upon the small coins in his hands, in order,
likewise, to ascertain their sum.
"A bit let it be." And the man laid down a twelve-and-a-half-cent
"No! We'll start with a picayune," said Martin, selecting the
smaller coin and placing it on the table.
"That's too trifling. Say a bit," returned the man, but half
concealing the eager impatience he felt to get hold of the poor
"Well, I don't care! Call it a bit, then," said Martin. And the
coin was staked.
An observer would have been struck with the change that now came
over Martin. His dull eyes brightened; something like light came
flashing into his almost expressionless face, and his lips arched
with the influx of new life and feeling. He moved his pieces on the
board with the promptness and skill of one accustomed to the game,
and, though he played with an opponent whose clearer head gave him an
advantage, he yet held his own with remarkable pertinacity, and was
not beaten until after a long and well-balanced struggle. But beaten
he was; and one-third of all he possessed in the world passed from his
Another twelve-and-a-half-cent piece was staked, and, in like
"I can't go but a picayune this time," said Martin, when the pieces
were arranged for the third game. "My funds are getting too low."
"Very well, a picayune let it be. Any thing just to give a little
interest to the game. I'm sure you'll win this time."
And win Martin did. This elated him. He played another game and
lost. The next was no more successful. Only a single picayune now
remained. For a short time he hesitated about risking this. He wanted
more liquor; and, if he lost, there would be no means left to gratify
the ever burning thirst that consumed him. Not until the close of the
next day would he receive any money; and, without money, he could get
nothing. There were unpaid scores against him in a dozen shops.
"Try again. Don't be afraid. You're a better player than I am.
You'll be sure to win. Luck lies in the last sixpence. Don't you know
Thus urged, Martin put down the last small remnant of his day's
earnings. The interest taken in the games had nearly counteracted the
effects of the liquor, and he was, therefore, able to play with a
skill nearly equal to that of his companion. Slowly and thoughtfully
he made his moves, and calculated the effect of every change in the
board with as much intelligence as it was possible for him to summon
to his aid. But luck, so called, was against him. His three last
pieces, kings, were swept from the board by a single play of his
adversary, at a moment when he believed himself sure of the game. A
bitter imprecation fell from his lips, as he turned from the table,
and thrusting his hands nearly to his elbows in his pockets, stalked
into the bar-room, leaving the man who had won from him the remnant of
his day's earnings for the twentieth time, to enjoy the pleasures of
success. This man was too much occupied in kind attentions to others
who were to be his victims, to even see Martin again during the
After having lost his last farthing, the latter, feeling miserable
enough, sat down at a table on which were three or four newspapers,
and tried to find in them something to interest his mind. He was
nearer to being sober than he had been for many weeks. On the night
before, he had gambled away his last penny, and the consequence was,
that he had been obliged to do without liquor all day. The effects of
the two glasses he had taken since nightfall had been almost entirely
obliterated by the excitement of the petty struggle through which he
had passed, and his mind was, therefore, in a more that usually
disturbed state. The day had been one of troubled feelings; and the
night found him less happy than he had been through the day.
As he ran his eye over the newspaper he was trying to read, pausing
now and then at a paragraph, and seeking to find in it something of
interest, the words, "Thanksgiving in Massachusetts," arrested his
attention, He read over the few lines that followed this heading.
They were a simple statement of the fact, that a certain day in
November had been appointed as a thanksgiving day by the Governor of
Massachusetts, followed by these brief remarks by some editor who had
recorded the fact:—"How many look forward to this day as a time of
joyful re-union! And such it is to thousands of happy families. But,
somehow, we always think of the vacant places that death or absence
leaves at many tables; and of the shadows that come over the feelings
of those who gather in the old homestead. Of the absent, how many are
wanderers, like the poor prodigal! And how gladly would they be
received if they would only return, and let all the unhappy past be
forgotten and forgiven! Does, by any chance, such a wanderer's eye
fall upon these few sentences? If so, we do earnestly and tenderly
entreat him, by the love of his mother, that is still with him, no
matter how far he has gone from the right path, to come back on this
blessed day; and thus make the thanksgiving of that mother's heart
Every word of this appeal, which seemed as if it were addressed
directly to himself, touched a responsive feeling in the bosom of
Martin. One after another, images of other days passed before
him—innocent, happy days. His mother's face, his mother's voice, her
very words were present with unwonted vividness. Then came the
recollection of blessed re-unions on the annual Thanksgiving
festival. The rush of returning memories was too strong for the poor,
weak, depressed wanderer from home and happiness. He felt the waters
of repentance gathering in his eyes; and he drew his hand suddenly
across them, with an instinctive effort to check their flow. But a
fountain, long sealed, had been touched; and, ere he was more than
half aware of the tendency of his feelings, a tear came forth and
rested on his cheek. It was brushed away quickly. Another followed,
and another. The man had lost his self-control. Into one of the lowest
haunts of vice and dissipation the voice of his mother had come,
speaking to him words of hope. Even here had her image followed him,
and he saw her with the old smile of love upon her face. And he saw
the smile give way to looks of sorrow, and heard the voice saying, in
tones of the tenderest entreaty, "William! my poor wanderer! come
home! Come home!"
Oh! with what deep, heart-aching sincerity did the poor wretch wish
that he had never turned aside into the ways of folly. "If I could
but go home and die!" he said, mentally.
"If I could but feel my mother's hand upon my forehead, and hear
her voice again!"
He had remained sitting at the table with the newspaper before his
face, to hide from other eyes all signs of emotion. But, the new
feelings awakened were, in no degree, congenial to the gross,
depraved, and sensual sphere by which he was surrounded; and, as he
had no money left, and, therefore, no means of gratifying his thirst
for liquor, there was no inducement for him longer to breathe the
polluted atmosphere. Rising, therefore, he quietly retired; no one
asking him to stay or expressing surprise at his departure He had no
money to spend at the bar, nor to lose at the gaming. table; and was
not, therefore, an object of the slightest interest to any.
As Martin stepped into the street, the cold rain struck him in the
face, and the chilly air penetrated his thin, tattered garments. The
driving mist of the early evening had changed to a heavy shower, and
the street was covered with water. Through this he plunged as he
crossed over, and entered his boarding-house, dripping from head to
foot. He did not stop to speak with any one, but groped his way, in
the dark to the attic. Removing a portion of his wet clothing, he
threw himself upon his bed. He had not come to sleep, but to be alone
that he might think. But thought grew so painful that he would fain
have found relief in slumber, had that been possible.
"If I had never strayed from the right path!" he murmured, as he
tossed himself uneasily. "Oh! if I had never strayed!"
"Go back?" he said, aloud, after some minutes' silence, answering
to his own thoughts. "No—no! I will not blast them by my presence.
Let them be happy."
But the wish to return, once felt, grew every moment stronger, and
he struggled against it until, at last, after hours of bitter remorse
and repentance, weary nature yielded, and he fell off into a more
quiet sleep than he had known for weeks. In this sleep came many
dreams, all of home, the old pleasant home, around which clustered
every happy memory of his life; and when morning came, it found him
longing to return to that home with an irrepressible desire.
"I will go back," said he, in a firm voice, as he arose at day's
dawn, his mind clear and calm. "I will go home. Home—home!"
This proved no mere effervescence of the mind. The idea, once fully
entertained, kept possession of his thoughts. His first resolution
was to save his earnings until he had enough to procure decent
clothing and pay his passage back. A week he kept to this resolution,
not once tasting a drop of any intoxicating liquor. But by that time
he was so impatient of delay, that he changed his purpose, and
procured a situation as deck-hand on board a steamboat that was about
leaving for Pittsburg. For this service, he was to receive three
dollars for the trip, besides being furnished with his meals. During
his week of sobriety, he had been able to save two dollars. With this
money he got an old pair of boots mended which his employer at the
manufactory had given him, and had his clothes repaired and washed,
all of which materially improved his appearance, and gave occasion for
several of his fellow-workmen to speak encouragingly, which
strengthened him greatly in his good purpose.
During the passage up the river, Martin was subjected to many
temptations, and once or twice came near falling into his old ways.
But thoughts of home came stealing into his mind at the right moment,
and saved him.
With three dollars in his pocket, the wages he had received from
the steamboat captain, Martin started for Philadelphia on foot. He was
eight days on the journey. When he arrived, his boots were worn
through, his money all expended, and himself sick with fatigue, sad
and dispirited. Luckily he met an old acquaintance, who was a hand on
board a schooner loading with coal for Boston. The vessel was to pass
through the canal, and then go by the way of Long Island Sound. Martin
told his story to this old crony, who had once been a hard drinker but
was now reformed, and he persuaded the captain to give him a passage.
Just two weeks from the time of his leaving Cincinnati, Martin saw
the sails expand above him, and felt the onward movement of the
vessel that was to bear him homeward. His heart swelled with sad yet
pleasant emotions. It was a long time since he had heard from home;
and longer still since he had seen the face of any member of his
family. For years he had been a wanderer. Now returning, a mere
wreck, so marred in every feature, and so changed, that even love
would almost fail to recognize him, the eyes of his mind were bent
eagerly forward. And, as the distance grew less and less, and he
attempted to realize more and more perfectly the meeting soon to take
place, his heart would beat heavily in his bosom, and a dimness come
before his mental vision.
Thanksgiving, that day of days in New England, had come round
again. Among the thousands by whom it was celebrated as a festive
occasion, were the Martins, who resided in a village only a few miles
from Boston. Old Mr. and Mrs. Martin had four children, two sons and
two daughters. One of the daughters remained at home. Rachel, the
oldest of the daughters, was in her twenty-third year; and Martha was
nineteen. The former was married and lived in the village. Thomas,
next older than Rachel, was also married. He resided ten miles away.
The oldest of them all, William, was a wanderer; or, for ought they
knew to the contrary, had long since passed to his great account. As
many as five years had gone by since there had come from him any
tidings; and nearly eight years since his place had been vacant at
the Thanksgiving re-unions.
The day rose calm and bright on happy thousands. Perhaps no family
in all New England would have experienced a purer delight on this
occasion, than that of the Martins, had not the vacant place of an
absent member reminded them of the wandering, it might be the lost.
Thomas was there with his gentle wife and three bright children;
Rachel with her husband and babe; and Martha with her sweet young
face, that was hardly ever guiltless of a smile. But William was
away; and the path in which he was treading, if he were yet alive,
was hidden from their view by clouds and darkness.
Dinner, that chiefest event of every Thanksgiving day, was served
immediately after the return of the family from church. It had been
prepared by the hands of Martha, and she was in the act of taking an
enormous turkey from the oven, when a man came to the door, and,
without speaking a word, stood and looked at her attentively. She
noticed him as she turned from the oven. He was a sad looking object
for a New England village on Thanksgiving day. His eyes were sunken,
his face thin and pale, and his old tattered garments hung loosely on
his meager limbs. He looked like one just from a bed of sickness, and
he bent, leaning upon a rough stick, like an old man yielding to the
weight of years. Yet, poor and weak as he seemed, his clothes were
clean, and his face had been recently shaven.
Struck with his appearance, Martha paused and looked at him
"Will you let me rest here for a little while?" said the stranger,
as soon as he had attracted Martha's attention.
"Oh! yes. Sit down," replied Martha, whose sympathies were
instantly awakened by the man's appearance. And she handed him a
Just then, Rachel, who had taken off her things on returning from
church, came into the kitchen to assist Martha with the dinner. She
merely glanced at the man; but he fixed upon her a most earnest look,
and followed her about with his eyes as she moved from one part of the
room to another.
"Martha!" called Mrs. Martin from the adjoining room. Neither of
the sisters saw the start which the man gave, nor observed the quick
flush that went over his face, as he turned his head in the direction
from which the sound came.
Martha ran in to see what her mother wanted. In a little while she
came back, and, as she entered the kitchen, she could not help
remarking the strange earnestness with which the man looked at her.
Presently, Mrs. Martin herself came in. She was surprised at seeing
the miserable looking object who had intruded himself upon them at a
time that seemed so inopportune.
"Who is that, Martha?" she asked in a low voice, aside.
"I don't know," was answered in the same low tone—not so low,
however, as to be inaudible to the quick ears of the stranger.
"What is he doing here?"
"He asked me if I would let him rest for a little while; and I
couldn't say no."
"He looks sick; and he must be very poor."
"Yes, poor, indeed!" returned Mrs. Martin with a sigh; a thought of
her own poor wanderer crossing her mind. This thought caused her to
turn to the man and say to him,
"Have you been sick, my friend?"
The man who had been looking at her intently from the moment that
she entered the room, now turned his face partly away as he replied—
"Yes. I've been sick for a number of days, but I am better now."
"You look very poor."
"I am poor—poor indeed!"
"You do not belong to these parts?"
"I do not deserve to," replied the man, low and evasively.
"Where do your friends live?"
"I don't know that I have any friends," said the man. There was a
slight tremor in his voice, that thrilled, answeringly, a chord in
the heart of his questioner.
"There still live those who were once my friends."
"And why not your friends now?"
The man shook his head, sadly.
"I have proved myself unworthy, and, doubtless, they have long
since cast me forth from their regard."
"Then you have no mother," said Mrs. Martin, quickly. "A mother's
love cannot die."
"I have a mother, and I have sisters," replied the man, after a
pause. "Feel kindly towards me for their sakes. I have wandered long;
but I am repentant; and, now returning to my old home, I seek—"
The voice that had been low and unsteady at the beginning, sunk
sobbing into silence, and the stranger's head drooped upon his bosom.
At that moment, Mr. Martin entered, and seeing the man, he exclaimed—
"Who in the world is this?"
"William?" fell half joyfully, half in doubting inquiry, from the
"My mother!" ejaculated the stranger, starting forward, and falling
into her open arms.
"William—William!" said Mr. Martin. "Oh! no! It cannot be!"
"It is! Yes! It is my poor, poor boy!" replied the mother,
disengaging herself from his clasping arms, and pushing him off so
that she could get a full view of his face. "Oh! William! My son! my
son!" And again she hugged him wildly to her bosom.
How freely the tears of joy mingled on that happy Thanksgiving day,
need not be told. There was no longer a vacant place at the board;
and thought turned not away, doubtingly, in a vain search for the
absent and the wandering. The long lost had been found; the straying
member had come home. Theirs was, indeed, a Thanksgiving festival.
Such joy as is felt in heaven over a sinner that repenteth, made glad
the mother's heart that day. And it has been glad ever since, for,
though Thanksgiving days have come again and again, there has been no
absent member since William's return.