It was Saturday night, and the widow of the pine cottage sat by her blazing fire with her five tattered children by her side endeavoring to lift the heavy gloom that pressed upon her mind. For a year her own feeble hands had provided for her helpless family, for her husband had passed away and she could think of no friend in all the wide and unfriendly world around. It was mid-winter and the snow lay heavy and deep through all the surrounding forests. The last herring smoked upon the hearth before her. It was the only article of food she possessed. In latter times Providence had deprived her of the companion in the person of her husband. Yet to this hour she had been upborne; she had not only been able to provide for her little flock, but had never lost an opportunity of ministering to the want’s of the miserable and destitute.
The indolent may well bear with poverty while the ability to gain sustenance remains. The individual who has but his own wants to supply may suffer with fortitude the winter of want; his affections are not wounded, his heart not wrung. The most desolate in populous cities may hope, for charity has not quite closed her hand and heart and shut her eyes on misery; but the industrious mother of helpless and depending children, far from the reach of human charity, has none of these to console her. Such a one was the widow of the pine cottage; but as she bent over the fire and took up the last scanty remnant of food to spread before her children her spirits seemed to brighten up, as by some sudden and mysterious impulse, and Cowper's beautiful lines came uncalled across her mind:
"Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face."
The smoked herring was scarce laid upon the table when a gentle rap at the door and loud barking of a dog attracted the attention of the family. The children flew to open it, and a weary traveller, in tattered garments and apparently indifferent health, entered and begged a lodging and a mouthful of food. Said he, "It is now twenty-four hours since I tasted bread." The widow's heart bled anew, as under a fresh complication of distresses, for her sympathies lingered not around her fireside. She hesitated not even now; rest and share of all she had she proffered to the stranger. "We shall not be forsaken," said she, "or suffer deeper for an act of charity."
The traveller drew near the table, but when he saw the scanty fare he raised his eyes towards heaven with astonishment. "And is this all your store?" said he;
"and a share of this do you offer to one you know not? Then never saw I charity before. But madam," he continued, "do you not wrong your children by giving a part of your last mouthful to a stranger?"
"Ah," said the poor widow, and the tear-drops gushed from her eyes as she said it, "I have a boy, a darling son, somewhere on the face of the wide world, unless heaven has taken him away, and I only act towards you as I would that others should act towards him. God, who sent manna from heaven, can provide for us as he did for Israel; and how should I this night offend Him if my son should be a wanderer, destitute as you, and should have provided for him a home even poor as this, were I to turn you unrelieved away!"
The widow ended, and the stranger, springing from his seat, clasped her in his arms. "God indeed has provided just such a home for your wandering son, and has given him wealth to reward the goodness of his benefactress. My Mother!
O, my mother!
It was her long lost son, returned to her bosom from the Indies. He had chosen that disguise that he might the more completely surprise his family, and never was surprise more perfect or followed by a sweeter cup of joy. That humble residence in the forest was exchanged for one comfortable, indeed beautiful, in the valley, and the widow lived long with her dutiful son in the enjoyment of worldly plenty and in the delightful employments of virtue; and at this day the passer-by is pointed to the luxuriant willow that spreads its branches broad and green above her grave, while he listens to the recital of this simple and homely, but not altogether worthless tale. From "Perfect Jewels." Painting by Frank Holl.