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The Worship of Gold - Harper's


IT is curious to look back on the fatal and universal prevalence of Gold-worship recorded in the history of our race, from the period when Midas became its victim, and the boy chased the rainbow to find the pot of treasure at its foot, to the days when the alchemist offered his all a burnt-sacrifice on the altar; until we reach the present time, when, although the manner of its worship has changed, the old idolatry remains in spirit the same. One or two anecdotes illustrative of the passion for gold worship may not prove uninteresting.

The hero of our first story—a chamois hunter of the Swiss Alps—was for many years of his existence an absolute stranger to the very sight of gold. He dwelt in a mountain chalet, in the peaceful contentment and ignorant simplicity of former ages—lord of his own freedom, with nature for his domain, and the fleet Alpine creatures for his subjects. By some unfortunate chance, however, he moved from this dwelling of his youth to the lower station, and to the side of a pass frequented by travelers, toward whom he was frequently called on to exercise hospitality. His services, and the shelter he afforded, were occasionally rewarded with gold, which, though of little actual use or value to him as a circulating medium, gradually exercised a strange fascination over his senses. He hoarded his guineas with the doting fondness of the miser; he looked on them with more pleasure than on the faces of his children; and listened to their chink with a satisfaction no tone of household love or sweet Alpine melody could call forth. It chanced one day that our hunter, in the pursuit of his ordinary avocation, perceived a tiny cavern hitherto unknown to him. He determined to snatch his hasty noon-tide meal beneath its shelter; and in order to enter it, rolled away a block of stone which obstructed the mouth of the fissure. To his amazement, its removal presented to his gaze a deep hole, in which a vase of considerable size was buried. He removed the lid, and there, fresh and bright, as if they were coins of yesterday, glittered before his eyes a multitude of golden pieces, mingled with shining particles of ore. A buried treasure of long past ages was before him. He took them in his hands, he clutched them, he stared at them with half-insane delight. He could not, of course, divine how they had come to be in their strange hiding-place, or who had placed them there; the inscriptions on them—the figure of a lamb, which some few bore—said nothing to him. There appeared to be something supernatural in the discovery, and he wasted all the remaining hours of daylight beside the vase; then, as night closed in, he replaced both the lid and the stone above the treasure. He did not attempt to remove it to his own dwelling, nor did he breathe a word of his discovery even to his wife; but from that hour he became an altered man.

The love of gold is an absorbing passion, especially when thus embodied and materialized. He lived only beside his treasure; thither he bent his steps daily, nor left it till the gloom of evening hid the object of his idolatry from his eager gaze. His hunter's craft was neglected; his family pined for food; he himself grew gaunt and thin, anxious and suspicious; ever dreading that his secret might be discovered; restless and miserable except when beside his wealth, where want, and hunger, and the sad, suffering faces of those he had once loved, were all forgotten. Only when the gathering darkness drove him from his hoard did he think of using his fowling-piece, and scanty was the provision thus obtained. In order fully and perfectly to contemplate his gold, it was necessary for him to stretch himself at full length before the entrance to the little hollow; his head and shoulders to the waist being thus within the cave, immediately over the vase, his body and legs outside. The cliff above the opening was nearly perpendicular, and had been much split and shaken by the frosts since an avalanche had deprived it of its crown of snow; but of his danger he was heedless or unconscious. One morning while lying prone, repeating for the fiftieth time his daily counting of the old coins, a portion of the rock detached itself slowly, and falling on his waist, pinned him to the earth, without however crushing or greatly injuring him. He uttered a loud cry, and made desperate exertions to raise it and free himself, but in vain; a force beyond his strength to resist had fixed him to the spot of his unhallowed and insane devotion. Imagination can scarcely conceive a more fearful death than the slow lingering one of bodily torture and starvation that must have followed. He was of course sought for as soon as missed; but the spot was unknown even to the most practiced hunters, and it was more than a week before the body was discovered. The surprise and horror of his family may be imagined. They had never been able to comprehend his altered conduct and mysterious disappearances: all was explained, however, when the huge stone being removed, he was found—perhaps from his position involuntarily—clutching in his dead fingers the fatal gold.

We relate this incident on the authority of a Swiss lady who had seen the cave, and who assured us that the simple mountaineers avoid the spot with superstitious horror. To them there must have appeared to be some strange magic in the hidden treasure; and so to the calmest judgment it would seem, when in the ordinary course of life we behold, not only the fearful and painful sacrifices made for the attainment of gold, but the court paid, the homage offered to its possessors by those who have no hope of gaining any thing by their reverence for the mere name of wealth.

To come nearer home, our village at one time rejoiced in a gold-worshiper, whose history is worth relating. While still young, and taking our daily walk with our nurse, we observed an old man working at the repairs of some miserably dismantled houses. He was a tall, gaunt personage, painfully meagre, and very ragged. His jawbones protruded distressingly, and his poor thin elbows looked so sharp, that one could have fancied they had cut their way through the torn coat that no longer covered them. We pitied, and with childlike sympathy and freedom made acquaintance with him; always pausing to speak to him when we passed the spot on which he labored. Sometimes a little boy, a fair delicate child, was with him, assisting in the work as far as his age allowed; and with this young creature we grew intimate, and were at length led by him to the old man's home. It was a very large, old-fashioned farm-house, but so much out of repair that only three or four rooms were habitable. These, however, were kept in exquisite order by the wife, who was a very pretty, sad-looking woman, many years younger than her husband. By her care the antique furniture, which must have counted its century at least, was preserved brightly polished; the floors were so clean, that the lack of carpeting was scarcely perceptible; and the luxuriant jessamine she had trained round the windows was a charming substitute for curtains. There was one peculiarity about the dwelling, of a striking kind when its apparent poverty and the character of its owner were considered: it contained a music-room! in which was a tolerably large church-organ, made and used by the miser himself. To the debasing and usually absorbing passion which governed him, he united a wonderful taste and genius for music, to gratify which he had constructed himself the instrument we have named, on which we have heard him perform in a style of touching, and at times sublime, expression, the compositions of Purcell, Pergolesi, Handel, &c. We have always thought this love of harmony in a miser a more singular and inconsistent characteristic than the avarice of Perugino or Rembrandt, since in their case the art they practiced fed their reigning passion for gold; nevertheless, so it was—old Mr. Monckton would go without a meal, see his wife and family want common necessaries, with plenty of money at his command, and yet solace himself by performances on the organ, which frequently went far into the night, startling the passing stranger by bursts of solemn midnight melody; for he never played till the faded daylight rendered it impossible for him to work at the various little jobs by which he added to his hoards.

He had two sons: the pretty child we first knew, and an elder one—a slim, delicate youth, who was by nature an artist. His father's parsimony rendered it, however, a difficult matter for him to procure materials for the exercise of his art, which was wholly self-taught; and it was wonderful to witness the effect he could produce from a bit of common lamp-black, or an ordinary drawing-pencil. His genius at last found aid in the loving heart of his mother, who secretly and at night—often while her strange husband filled the house with solemn music—worked at her needle to procure the means of purchasing paints, canvas, brushes, &c., for her boy; toiling secretly, for if she had permitted the father to know that she possessed even a few shillings, he would have extorted them from her. It was all she could do to help the young painter in his eager self-teaching; for she possessed no other knowledge than that acquired at a village school during her childhood. Her own fate had been a very sad one. She was a laborer's daughter, betrothed from early girlhood to a sailor, who was her cousin; but during one of his voyages—the last he was to make before their marriage—her beauty attracted the admiration of the rich Mr. Monckton, and he offered to make her his wife. The poor girl would fain have refused him, and kept her promise to her absent lover, but her family were flattered and dazzled by the idea of her wedding a man known to be so wealthy, and she was not proof against their entreaties and their anger. She married him; her relatives, however, derived no benefit from the match their selfishness had made. The miser's doors were closed against them; and lest his wife should be tempted to assist their poverty at his expense, he forbade her ever seeing her parents. A weary lot had been poor Mary's from that hour she married. Her only comfort was derived from her children; and even they became a source of sorrow as they grew past infancy, and she found that her husband's avarice would deny them even the advantages she had enjoyed as a poor cottage child. They received no education but such as she could give them; nay, were made to toil at the lowest drudgery in return for the scanty food and clothing their father bestowed. She taught them to read and write; and afterward Richard, the elder, became his own instructor. There were many old books to be found in the farm-house, and of those he made himself master. The villagers, who had a few volumes, were willing to lend them to such a clever lad; and at length, as we have said, his genius for painting developed itself, and was ministered to by his mother's industry. We remember seeing his first attempt at original composition. It was boldly conceived and well executed, considering the difficulties under which he labored: the subject was Phaeton driving the chariot of the sun. It was shown to the clergyman of the village, a man of great taste, and a connoisseur in painting. He was so much pleased with it that he became the warm friend of the young artist, and, as far as circumstances permitted, his instructor in literature and painting. The younger brother inherited his father's taste for music, and was a quiet, thoughtful child, passionately attached to Richard, on whom he looked as a prodigy of learning and talent. Nothing, in fact, could be more touching than the attachment of these two brothers: at their leisure hours they were always to be seen together; their pleasures or sorrows were mutual.

The privations, injustice, and restraint to which they were subjected appeared to bind them to each other with a love "passing the love of woman;" and both found consolation in the mental gifts mercifully imparted to them.

About four years after we first became acquainted with the Moncktons, the fair, gentle child, then nearly fourteen, became ill; growing thin, pale, and weak, till his mother and Richard, in great alarm, besought old Monckton to let him have medical advice. The request produced a storm of passionate reproaches. "The boy," he said, "was well enough. He ate as much as was good for him. Did they think people could not live without gormandizing as they did? Did they imagine he should throw away his little means upon doctors, who were all a set of cheats? He should do nothing of the kind!" And poor Ernest was left to pine and wither, till Richard in despair sought out a physician, and telling him their story, besought him to come and see his brother, promising to repay the advice he asked by his future toil.

Dr. N—— was a kind-hearted, benevolent man. He at once complied with the youth's entreaty, and called at an hour when the old man was absent at the farm. He found his patient worse than the brother's report had led him to believe. The illness was decline, caused probably by want of sufficiently nourishing food at a period of rapid growth, and increased by the overworking of a mind that was ever craving after knowledge. He prescribed such remedies as he judged best; but informed the mother, at the same time, that strengthening food was of the first importance, and would be the best means to effect a cure. Alas! how was it to be obtained? The heart of the miser was impenetrable to their remonstrances and entreaties—what was life in his eyes compared with gold? When they found that no human sympathy could be expected from the father, the mother and brother determined to use their own exertions to obey the behest of the physician. Early and late the former worked at her needle, the good doctor finding her as much employment as he could; while Richard, abandoning the study of his art, painted valentines, card-racks, and fancy articles for the stationers, and sought eagerly for every opportunity of winning a few shillings, to be spent in ministering to the comfort of the beloved sufferer. But it was all too late: Ernest sank slowly, but surely.

There were intervals when life, like the flicker of an expiring lamp, appeared successfully struggling with death; but these occasional brightenings were always succeeded by a more entire prostration and languor. The personal beauty, for which Ernest had always been remarkable, grew almost superhuman during his illness, and Richard could not resist stealing a little time from his busy labors to paint his brother's portrait. In the execution of this task of love, however, many hindrances occurred; and before it was more than a sketch, the dear original had passed away from them in one of those quiet sleeps which in such cases, are the usual harbingers of death. The painting was removed to Richard's chamber, and in the first agony of his grief, forgotten; but when Ernest had been committed to the grave, and life had assumed its usual monotony—more gloomy now than ever—he remembered his attempt, and resolved on finishing the likeness from memory. An easy task! for nightly, in his slumbers, he saw the fair, sweet face of his young brother. The second morning after he had resumed his pencil, he was startled at finding that the painting appeared to be in a more advanced state than he had left it the night before, but he fancied imagination must be juggling him, and that he really had done more than he remembered. The following day, however, the same phenomenon startled him, and he mentioned the circumstance to his mother. She was superstitious, and nervous from sorrow and regret; and she at once adopted the fanciful notion that there was something supernatural in the matter; suggesting the possibility of their dear Ernest's gentle spirit having thus endeavored to show them, that in another world he still thought of them and loved them. Richard combated the idea by every argument his reason offered him; but as he was convinced of the fact, and could give no satisfactory explanation of it, he was at last persuaded by her earnest entreaties to leave the picture untouched for two or three days, and see what consequences would follow. The painting progressed! daily, or rather nightly, it advanced toward completion. Every morning a stronger likeness of the dead smiled on them from the canvas, and a more skillful hand than the young painter's appeared to be engaged on the work. It was a marvel past their simple comprehension; but the mother, confirmed in her first belief, resolved to watch, and try if it might be permitted to her living eyes to gaze upon the child whom the grave had shut from her sight. With this hope she concealed herself, without Richard's knowledge, in a large closet in his bed-room—placing the door ajar that she might see all that passed in the chamber. Her watch was of no long duration; suddenly her sleeping son rose from his couch, lighted his candle, approached his easel, and began to work at the portrait! Much amazed and half angry at the deception she believed he had practiced on her, Mrs. Monckton issued from her hiding-place, and spoke to him. He made her no answer; she stood before him—he saw her not; he was fast asleep! It was indeed a spirit's painting; for love had in this instance burst the bands of matter, and the somnambulist had achieved a work of art that surpassed all the efforts of his waking hours.

The story of the sleep-painting got abroad, and reached the ears of a gentleman of large fortune, who resided in the neighborhood. He called on the young artist; was pleased with his manners; and proposed engaging him as traveling companion to his own son, a youth about to visit Italy with his tutor; proffering a salary that would enable him to cultivate his genius for painting in the land of its birth, and of its perfect maturity. The offer was eagerly and thankfully accepted, and old Monckton made no opposition to his son's wish: he was only too thankful to be relieved from the burden of supporting him. Indeed the miser was somewhat changed since Ernest's death; not that he expressed in words any remorse for having preferred his gold to the life of his fair young son; but from that time he never touched the organ—the spirit of music appeared to have died with Ernest; and he often visibly shrank from meeting the silent reproach of Richard's eyes. The neighbors also shunned him; they had loved poor Ernest, and the conduct of his father toward him—the fact of his refusing to pay the physician who had attended him, "because he never sent for him"—and the mean, pauper-like funeral which he had grudgingly bestowed on the dead—revolted and disgusted them. A mean funeral was one of the offenses the people of K—— never forgave! The old man probably detected something of their feelings in their manners, for he gradually gave up his ordinary work about the village—that is, the keeping in repair such cottages as belonged to him—and remained much within doors. This change of habits and want of exercise told fatally on three score and ten, and probably hastened his death, which took place two years after his son's. He died without a will, but left very considerable property. It was supposed he died intestate, either because he grudged the expense of making a will, or because he could not endure the thought of parting from the gold which had had the worship and service of his life. Richard, on his return, repaired the old farm-house, and restored it to something like comfort. He proved liberal, but not (as is frequently the case in such instances) lavish. The only piece of extravagance of which he was ever accused—and it was the village stone-mason who blamed him for that—being the procuring an elegant marble monument from Italy, the work of a first-rate sculptor, to place over the grave of his beloved brother. The figures on it were—an admirable likeness of Ernest, taken from the somnambulist's picture, and two angelic beings in the act of presenting the risen spirit with the palms and crown of victory gained over sorrow, suffering, and death. The inscription on the tomb had an awful and touching meaning to those who knew the story of the brother's life; and we know not how we can better conclude our sketches of the insane folly of gold-worship, than by finishing them with those solemn words—"Lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven."