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Golden Wedding - Atlantic

The reader whose eye is arrested by my title will doubtless anticipate a romance on that ever-old, ever-new theme of a certain god with a torch leading two souls bound together by iron concealed in flower-wreaths, until, alas! life seems ordinary enough to be symbolized by tin,—of the tin-wedding entering into the refiner's fire, and, by sure transmutation, rising from the baser metal to the paler, but purer silver,—of the subtile alchemy of years, which, in human life's great crucible,

  "Transmute, so potent are the spells they know
  Into pure gold the silver of to-day."

Perhaps, reader, you are not altogether to be disappointed; and yet, for the present, it is only a glass of sparkling wine I wish you to take with me. You will please read on that delicate strip of paper around the bottle's neck the name in gilt,—"Golden Wedding." At once you grow transcendental, and suppose that some German vine-dresser in Catawba-land—by the way, Gerritt Smith's gardener is a nephew of Schiller!—was dreaming of the marriage of the Sun with the Vine, his darling plant, in whose juice linger and sparkle the light and joy of many faded days. But no, it was named from a real Golden Wedding.

Let me take you—as the clairvoyants say—to a large, sooty, toiling city in the West. From street to street you shall go, and see but little to excite your admiration, unless you are a constant believer that work is worship. But here, in the centre of the city, is a noble old mansion with its beautiful park around it, which a traveller who saw it once compared to a pearl on the breast of a blacksmith. Here it was that the Golden Wedding took place.

Who that was there can ever forget it? In my own memory that throng of the worthy, the beautiful, the gay of a great city will stand as the one fulfilment which Fate has given me of many Oriental promissory dreams, most of which she has failed to honor. In that great company you might have traced all the circles of that city's growth, as you may trace a tree's history in its rings. That lady there was the first white baby born here, where now over two hundred thousand human beings reside. Here are the pioneers who filled the first log-huts on the city's site, until they overflowed through the roofs. And here is an inner circle of children, and an outer one of grandchildren, about the two who are the heart of this beautiful celebration. Can that lovely, erect, blooming lady be a bride of fifty years? Looking at her, one would say it is a great and unnecessary mistake of ours to grow old. But more closely must we look at that quaint old man by her side. Lately he has passed away; but every day of his long life left a trace worthy to be noted well. His eighty years and twenty-five days of life comprise an epitome of the history and growth of a great community. Not so would you at first interpret that plain old man; though, to a knowing eye, that eye, clear with looking at the duty that lies nearest, that mouth, telling of patient, unimpulsive energy, that broadness about the brow, would be guaranties of a marked life.

And now for my story, which you must let me tell in a rambling way; for any systematic biography of that man would be like putting one of his own Catawba-vines into your herbarium.

I introduce you to a fair-haired, handsome youth, on the deck of a small steamboat, which is bearing him to his fortune in the great West. He is penniless. His father was wealthy; but in the war he was a Tory, and, in the confiscation of his property, his sin was visited upon his son. But he was not the boy to repine, with youth and the great West before him. And now as from the steamer's deck he sees a fine landscape with a few log-houses on it, he believes that it is one day to be a great city, and concludes to stop there. So he is put ashore with his trunk.

He has already determined to study law. He goes to the one judge who resides there, and is taken as a student into his office. More log-houses are built; a court-house is erected; and presently that institution at sight of which the shipwrecked Englishman fell on his knees and thanked God he was in a Christian land—the gallows—made its appearance. So the young man had a fair practice.

The records of the West, if they are ever written, will testify how often whimsical Fortune thrusts her favors on men against their will. This very judge with whom our youth studied law became environed with pecuniary difficulties, and wished once to satisfy a claim of a few hundred dollars by deeding away a sheep-pasture of a few acres, which was of no sort of use to him. But when he went to get his wife's signature to the conveyance, she burst into tears; she knew, she said, that the pasture was worthless; but she had in her childhood heard there the tinkling of the bells of her father's sheep; it was very foolish, she knew, but now that they had all passed away, the bells over in the pasture tinkled on in her memory, and she hated to give it up. The kind husband would not insist, but went sadly to his work. It was not long before the sheep-pasture was worth a million dollars! Sentiment, you see, is not always an unproductive article.

But this case was scarcely so curious as that which presently thrust a goodly capital on the hands of our young law-student. His first case in the court was that of a horse-thief, whom he induced a jury to acquit. When he came to his client for a fee, the scapegrace whispered that he had nothing on earth wherewith to pay the fee except two old whiskey-stills and—a horse. When he heard this last word, the lawyer's conscience gave him a twinge. After a moment's reflection, he said,—"You will need the horse; and you had best make him take you as far as possible from this region of country. I must be satisfied with the whiskey-stills." It was not for a long time that he thought even to inquire about the stills. When he did so, he found them in possession of a man who implored him not to take them away, and promised to pay something for them. Finding that he could not do this, he begged our hero to accept as payment for them a few acres of barren land, which, with great reluctance, he agreed to do. Erelong the tide of emigration set westward, and this land is to-day worth two million dollars!

But his subsequent life showed that the man's fortune was not luck; for by economy, not by hoarding,—by foresight, and a generous trust to all laborers who wished to lease lands, his wealth grew to nearly fifteen million dollars.

When he found that he had enough to live comfortably upon, he retired from the bar, and devoted himself to horticulture. He found that the region in which he lived was adapted to the growth of the vine, and began his experiments, which, during his life, extended to the culture of more than forty varieties. He laid before the community, from time to time, a report of his successes, he called on all to come and taste the wines he made, until the tidings went over the earth, and from Germany, France, Italy, came vine-dressers and wine-makers, who covered every hill-side for miles around him with vintages.

Those who came from afar to inquire into this new branch of industry, for which he had opened the way, were surprised to meet the millionnaire, the Catawba-Prince, in his plain garb and with his humble habits.

How many stories I could tell you of this unintentional, odd homeliness of manner and life, from which he never departed, and which those around him found it impossible to depart from, even in respect to the style of the coffin in which he was laid, and the procession which followed him to the beautiful cemetery! His dress was always that of a man of the humblest fortunes; and Dame Gossip says that he was so fond of his old coat, that, when a change became absolutely necessary, his daughters were obliged to prepare the new one, and substitute it for the old whilst he was asleep, so that in the morning he should put it on unconsciously, or, if he discovered the change; must wear the new or none. The same dame has it that a youth, who afterward became his son-in-law, having caught sight somewhere of one of the old man's daughters, desired to know her, and that, in the park, which was open to all, he met the old gentleman, whom he supposed to be the gardener, and offered him a bribe, if he would bring the lady out among the roses. The old man accepted the bribe, and returned with the lady, whom, with a sly twinkle of the eye, he introduced as "my daughter" to the blushing youth. And again it is told, that once, on a very warm day, the old man, having to wait for a friend, sat down on a stone just outside of his own gate, took off his hat, and, closing his eyes, dozed a little. When he got up, he found a silver quarter in his hat. Whether it was put there by some one who really thought he was an object of charity, or by a wag, the old man appreciated the joke, and, with a smile, put it into the pocket out of which had to come forty thousand dollars for annual taxes. These stories may or may not be true; but in some sense such stories have a certain truth, whether invented or not. They can live and circulate only in a community where they are characteristic of the person of whom they are told. Generous men are not pursued by stories of parsimony; mean men never hear even untrue stories of their generosity.

And this last remark leads me to speak of the relation in which the wealthiest man of the West stood to the throngs of the poor and the suffering who surrounded him.

If, in the city, you had gone to the President of the Boorioboola-Gha Sewing-Circle, or to the Tract-Society Rooms, or to the clergy, and inquired whether the city's richest man was charitable, you would have received an ominous shrug in reply. Vainly have they gone to him for any such charities. Vainly did they go to him for some "poor, but worthy and Christian woman."

"I will give nothing," he replied; "there are enough who will give to her; what I have to give shall go to the unworthy poor, whom none will help,—the Devil's poor, Sir,—those whom Christians leave to the Devil."

Many a minister has been sorely puzzled by the receipt of a fifty-dollar bill "for the relief of the depraved." His office was constantly thronged with outcasts, who were generally relieved by small sums. In his relations with these people, his simplicity and eccentricity were noted by all who knew him. Among many stories which I know to be true, I select the following.

Some six or eight years ago the winter was very cold; the river was frozen, and all the "wharf-rats" were thrown out of work. A near relative of the old gentleman came to the city, and passed the night at his house. After tea he sauntered to the office to take a quiet cigar. To his surprise, he found it filled with a crowd—more than fifty—of brawny, beastly-looking men. The presence of the childlike old man, his face beaming with shrewdness and kindly humor, seemed alone to keep them from being a mob. His manner to them said,—"You poor wretches, I know how reckless you are; yet I am not sure but I should be as bad, had I been exposed to the same bad influences." These houseless vagrants had been coming every night, while the river was frozen, to get a dime for a night's lodging.

The young man had been forced by the unpleasantness of the crowd to go and enjoy his cigar outside. As he sat there, the ugly crowd filed out quietly, each with his dime, (the clerk distributing,) till the last man. He seemed to feel very ill-used, and was scarcely clear of the door-way before he gave vent to his indignation:—"I'll be d——d, if I don't let Old —— know that I won't be put off with a five-cent piece and a three-cent piece! Let me ketch him out, and I'll mash his," etc., etc.

Glowing with righteous indignation, and glad of the opportunity, the young relative rushed in and exclaimed,—

"Mr. ——! I have had many occasions to remonstrate with you on your indiscriminate charities, your encouragement of beggary and vice. The wretch who went out last is breathing threats of personal violence against you, because he has been put off with a five-cent piece and a three-cent piece!"

How was the indignant remonstrant mortified, when the old man simply turned his head to the clerk and said,—

"Mark, why did you not give that man his dime?"

"I had given out all the dimes, Sir, and I gave him all I had left."

"See that he gets his extra two cents the next time he comes. I have no doubt I should have been mad, if I had been in his place."

A forlorn-looking man once came and asked for help.

"I am afraid to give you money. I think I know how you will spend it."

Of course the man protested that strong drink was an abomination unto him,—that what his nature most craved was "pure, fresh milk."

The old man, with a look in which it would be hard to say whether shrewdness or credulity predominated, at once hastened to the milk-cellar and returned with a glass of milk; the fellow swallowed the dose with an eager reluctance quite comical to behold, but which excited no movement in the muscles of the old gentleman's face.

On a raw, wet winter's day, a loafer applied for a pair of shoes. He had on an old, shambling pair, out at both toes. The old Wine-Prince was sitting with a pair of slippers on, and had his own shoes warming at the fire.

"Well," said he to the applicant, "you do look rather badly off, for such a cold, wet day; here, see if these shoes will fit you," handing his own.

The fellow tried them on and pronounced them a complete fit, and went on his way rejoicing. The clerk was amused, half an hour after, to see the old gentleman searching for his shoes and wondering what had become of them. He was reminded that he had given them to the beggar. On further inquiry, he found that he had no other pair in the house.

The following significant story was told me by the son of the old man. I present it in nearly his own words.

"Adjoining me in the country lives an old German who nearly seventy years ago was sold in New York for his passage. A confectioner of Baltimore bought him for seven years' service, and he went with his master to fulfil his obligation. When his time was out, he turned his face towards the setting sun, and started to seek his fortune. On arriving in Pittsburg, having no money, he engaged to 'work his way' down the river on a flat-boat. He stopped at the little village, as our city then was, and opened a shop. He was skilful, and succeeded. He came to my father, and bought, on ten years' credit, a place in the country, where, in course of time, he built a house, and, with my father's assistance, planted a vineyard. He then gave up all other business but that of the vine-dresser.

"One day, in the autumn, a few years ago, I overtook the old man on horseback, on his way to town. After wishing me a cheery good-morning, he said,—

"'I am on my way to town, to sell your father my wine.'

"'He will be glad to get it; he is buying wine, and yours is made so carefully that he will be glad to have it.'

"'I mean to sell it to him for fifty cents a gallon.'

"'Oh,' said I, 'don't offer it at that. I know he is paying double that sum.'

"'Nevertheless, I mean to sell it to him for half a dollar.'

"I looked inquiringly.

"'Well, Sir, I was but a boy when I left Germany; but I was old enough to remember that a man, after a hard day's work, could go to a wine-house, and for two cents could get a tumblerful. It did him good, and he went home to his family fresher and brighter for his wine. He was never drunk, and never wasted his earnings to appease a diseased appetite. I want to see that state of things brought about here. Our poor people drink whiskey. I want them to have cheap wine in its place. Fifty cents a gallon will pay me well this year for my capital and labor, and next year I think I can sell it for forty cents.'

"'But, my friend, see how this will work. You will sell your wine to Mr. —— for fifty cents; and he will send it to his wine-cellar, and they will bottle it and sell it for all they can get.'

"'That's their lookout,' said the Teuton; 'I shall have done my duty.'

"It was rather hard to get an advantage of my father, but I thought now I had him. On reaching the city, I sought him out, and told the story with all its circumstances.

"'Now, Sir, in presence of the example of this old German,—sold in New York for his passage, faithfully fulfilling the years of his servitude, working his way to a small competency by savings and industry,—will you dare to let the world hear of you, a rich man, making a profit on wine?'

"The old man's eye dropped an instant, then he said,—

"'My son, Heaven knows I do not wish to make money out of wine. I have given much time and much money for the last fifty years to make this doubtful experiment successful. I have paid high prices for wine, and used all other means in my power to make it remunerative,—to induce others to plant vineyards. If I should now take your suggestion and bring wine down to a low price, I should ruin the enterprise. But let the extended cultivation of the grape be once firmly established, and then competition will bring it low enough.'

"'Well,' said I, 'that may be good worldly wisdom; but I like the spirit of the old Dutchman better, after all.'

"'There I agree with you; for once, you are right.'"

A most careful accountant has shown that his contributions to grape-culture amounted to one-fourth of his whole fortune: a clear loss to him, but not to the public.

Though the lips of Christendom repeat, Sunday after Sunday, the warning that the left hand should not know what the right hand doeth, yet it is very apt to judge of a man's liberality by the paragraphs concerning him in the newspapers. The old gentleman once gave his city several acres of land for an observatory which was to be erected; and there is no doubt that he had reason to conclude, as have others, that it was the worst, as it was the most public, charity of his life. That his private charities were numerous and without self-crediting, the present writer happens to know. Once, after going through the great wine-cellar where millions were coined, I went through the barracks in the upper portion of the same building, where a wretched tenantry of the Devil's poor lived in squalor. Each of these families was required to pay room-rent to the millionnaire. As I passed along, I found one man and woman in wrathful distress. They must pay their rent, or be turned out of their rooms. The rent was two or three dollars. I said,—

"The old gentleman will not turn you out."

"You do not know him; he will be sure to, if we do not pay him every cent."

I determined to search him out and represent the case. I could not find him; but before I concluded my search, I found that the poor people had been compelled to sell a table and some chairs to pay the rent. The next day I saw them again, and found them heartily abusing the old man as "a stingy brute," who would "sell the chairs from under them." Yet I observed that they had a new table and three new chairs. When I asked them how they came by them, they said they had been sent by an unknown hand, which they supposed to be mine. A thought struck me, and after some trouble I ferreted out the fact, that, although the rich old man had, for reasons connected with the good order of the barracks, always exacted every cent of the rent from each tenant, whatever the consequences, he had many times, as in this case, secretly returned more than it had cost them to pay it. They were left to believe him a hard man, and often attributed his benefits to societies and persons whose charity would have been stifled by the whiskey-stench of their rooms.

Thus, then, went on his life, until the day when the Golden Wedding was to be celebrated. That year, the sons, with the vine-dressers, the bottlers, corkers, and all, gathered together and said,—

"Come, now! let us this year make a wine that shall be like the nectar for a true man's soul!"

So, with one accord, they gathered the richest grapes, and selected from them; then they made the wine-press clean and sweet, and cast the grapes therein. One great hiss,—a spurt of gold flushed with rubies,—and all that is acrid is left, all that is rich and sweet is borne away, to be labelled "GOLDEN WEDDING."

And now, as I taste it, it seems to me flavored beyond all earthly wine, as if it were the expression of an humble and faithful man, who had a legitimate object, which he obtained by steadfastness. The wine-makers maintain, that wine, though long confined in bottles, sympathizes still with the vines from which it was pressed; and when the season of the flowering of vines comes, it is always agitated anew. Surely the Catawba must ever sparkle afresh, when in it, as now, we pledge the memory of the brave and wise pioneer whose life climbed to its maturity along with the purple clusters which so had garnered the frost and sunshine of a life as well as of the seasons.