Read CHAPTER XIII of Ups and Downs in the Life of a Distressed Gentleman , free online book, by William L. Stone, on


“My stars shine darkly over me” Shakspeare.

“A most poor man, made tame by fortune’s blows.” Idem.

How little do one half of the world know how the other half live! And how just the remark of Goldsmith, that they who would know the miseries of the poor, must see life and endure it. More especially do these remarks hold good in respect to the inhabitants of crowded cities. In country towns, and small villages, every body knows every body, and, very commonly, almost too much of every body’s business. But in large cities, the people are huddled together in close proximity, and are yet as much strangers to each other as though divided by a waste of wilderness or waters. The rich, who fare sumptuously; the middling class, who have enough, and a little to spare; and the squalid wretch who would be overjoyed with a basket of coals, and a joint of meat; may all be found in the same block, and yet neither one of them know any thing of the comforts, the distress, or the affluence of the other. The middling and lower classes of people in the country are prone to form an undue estimate of the advantages, and the comparative ease, of a city life. Because so much is said of the wealth of cities, they imagine that all who dwell in them must be rich, and consequently have no hard labor to perform. But it is a sad mistake. “Great cities,” says the philosopher of Monticello, “are great sores;” and if the envious and discontented poor know little of the splendid misery of the fancied rich, of the number of aching heads and hearts upon beds of down, much less do the truly rich, living within great cities, and the world at large without them, know of the wretchedness and the crime, the poverty and the woe, to be found in the great and crowded marts of trade and commerce in every country. Were mankind, in general, better informed upon these particulars, there would be less of envy in the world, and less of poverty. There would likewise be fewer people “well to do” in the country, crowding to the cities, to become beggars, and at last either to find dishonorable graves, or, when honestly dead, to merit the Italian inscription upon a well man who took physic “I was well I wished to be better and here I am.”

During the five years immediately succeeding the catastrophe recorded at the close of the last chapter, I neither saw, nor heard a syllable from, the subject of this narrative. The winter of 1827-28, was one of extraordinary severity in New-York. The month of January, in particular, was unusually tempestuous and severe. Those of the common poor, who had been the most improvident and reckless when they should have husbanded their earnings, were brought upon the public bounty considerably earlier than usual, and backs “hanging in ragged misery” were already more plenty than was wont.

It was on a bitterly cold Saturday morning of that month, that my old and unfortunate friend presented himself in my office but alas how changed! He looked exceedingly dejected and poverty-stricken as though what little of energy he ever might have possessed, had been utterly extinguished by the withering touch of penury. A single glance of course served to show that matters had gone hard with him and that if “the world owed him a living,” as he was formerly wont to boast, it was turning him off with a very scanty one. A storm, which had been fiercely raging for several days, gave no signs of exhaustion. The snow, which had been falling for fifty or sixty hours not in a fleecy shower, but mingled with cutting particles like hail filled the atmosphere, and with each successive gust of a stiff northwester, was whirled aloft in vast curling sheets and wreaths or driven through the narrow streets with a force that was blinding and almost irresistible. Nor man nor beast ventured forth, save from dire necessity, and it seemed as though the storm-king with his fiercest aspect, and armed with all his terrors, had made a conquest of the city. Wheelwright’s left arm was in a sling, and his tattered garments afforded but a sorry protection against the rude peltings of the pitiless storm, of which I have given a very inadequate description.

After the ordinary and reciprocal inquiries as to health, &c. had been interchanged, he sat several minutes with averted eyes, and without uttering a syllable. I saw that he was embarrassed, poor fellow! and turned to the window viewing the clouds of snow that were high upborne, like a canopy over the city, or playing in fantastic wreaths as the wind whistled around the cornices of the contiguous buildings that he might collect himself. At length he broke silence nearly as follows:

“I’m afeard you will think I have come on rather curious business-like for me.”

“How so? What is the case, Mr. Wheelwright?”

“Why, I’ve had a hard life on’t, since I seen you, when my school was broke up; and I’ve called to see I was too proud once to come of such an arrant but I thought ’twas likely you would not see a poor family suffering in such a storm as this.”

“Surely not if it is in my power to render assistance.”

“Well, I thought as much and I’ve called to see if you have not some second-hand clothes, and a little something to eat, that you can give us or any thing else that you can spare for we are in very great distress.”

“Indeed in actual want of food and clothes, did you say? What has brought

“O, don’t ask that woman there I little thought I should ever come to this.”

“Why have you not informed me of it before? Pray what is the matter with your hand, doctor?”

“I accidentally run a gouge through it, and hain’t been able to do any work since. We had nothing to live upon. My hands were my only resources from day to day; my working tools, and every article of furniture in the house, to the last blanket, the last shirt, and my wife’s last shawl, have been pawned at the broker’s, to enable us to keep the breath of life in us. We have now neither a stick of wood to burn, nor a morsel to eat!”

“Can it be possible, my dear sir, that you are reduced to a condition so deplorable? Why have you not been to see me sooner?”

“I was ashamed.”

“But you need not have been. You should not have been left to suffer deprivations like these.”

“I knew that, very well; but after all that has happened, I wished to bury myself, and never see the face of an old friend again. I hoped to live through, until my hand got well, and then I could have gone to work again.”

“Work? What work?”

“You know I had partly larnt a trade once pity I ever left it! and as I retained knowledge enough of the use of tools to make common bedsteads, after my school run down, and my visions of property all vanished, I engaged in that business, and have contrived to get a poor living by it ever since, until I cut my hand so dreadfully.”

“But your wife cannot she do something with her needle?”

“What! that woman?”

He paused, and heaved a deep sigh. It was a bitter exclamation, from the heart.

“No,” he continued. “She has no faculty for getting along. She does nothing but harass my life out.”

“A misfortune, in

“True enough, I missed the fortune; and I should not have come to you now, but that we are freezing, and the children were shivering and crying for something to eat, when I left.”

“Children! How many have you?”

“The woman, you know, had one when I married her, and we have had two since. One of these is dead. I am not sorry. Poor little fellow! he is much better off.”

But it is needless to continue the colloquy. My heart bled for him. His tale of want and woe was told with the honest simplicity of truth. He did not shed any tears, but looked as though he was past weeping like the personification of disappointment and despair.

From his relation it appeared, that during four years, my unfortunate friend’s only income had been derived from the manufacture of the common article of furniture already mentioned. His place of residence and workshop were in the remote eastern part of the city. He had never the means of purchasing the materials for more than one bedstead at a time, and was obliged, from his extreme poverty, to carry the timber on his shoulders from the Albany Basin to his shop a distance of two miles. This labor he performed at evenings. The article done, he had then to carry it to the furniture auction rooms in Chatham-square, for sale. The profit, over and above the cost of the materials, constituted the whole of his income sometimes amounting to a dollar upon each, and sometimes to not more than two and six-pence according to the run of the sales. And thus from day to day, for four long years, had the poor fellow been living, as we have seen, without allowing the friends of his better years to know where he was, or in what business or occupation he was engaged. Having once been the cause of his father’s ruin, he was resolved not to call upon the old gentleman again while he could possibly avoid it, or preserve life without it. The motive for his conduct in this trying emergency, was honorable; and in the present hour of his bitter affliction I felt more sympathy for him, than I had ever supposed it possible to entertain for a man who, in times past, had made such indifferent use of his advantages. If there is any thing in this world that can subdue the passions, damp the ardor, or quench the spirit of a man, it is biting, remediless, hopeless poverty. Many are the minds, far more powerful than that of Mr. Wheelwright, which have sunk under its chilling influence. And my wonder was, how the doctor had borne up as well as he seemed to have done, under the complication of calamities which had befallen him.

Having heard his woeful relation through, I did what any one entitled to the name of man, would have done under the like circumstances. He was provided with an overcoat, and furnished with a little basket of provisions; and I promised to call in the afternoon, and examine into his condition for myself; albeit one of the ancient writers hath informed us that “he that spendeth his liuelode to helpe the poore at theyr nede, semeth mad vnto hym who hath reposed the ayd of this présente lyfe in worldlie riches.”

The melancholy history just related by my unfortunate friend, threw me, after his departure, into a train of musing upon the vicissitudes of life, and the inequality with which Fortune distributes her favors. I could not help calling to mind Miss Edgeworth’s admirable tale of Murad the Unlucky, and his friend the lucky Saladin. Like the former, Wheelwright seemed destined but to fall from one calamity into another, and effort to retrieve his affairs, did but plunge him deeper into the slough of misery. I could not but perceive, however, that as in the case of the persecuted Mussulman, the misfortunes of my poor friend had their origin in his own bad management, and to speak the honest truth, of common sense. The wound in his hand, indeed, might perhaps be accounted an unavoidable casualty; but had it not been for his previous errors, this misfortune would not have proved the cause of such hopeless penury and suffering.

We shall see, ere we close our tale whether a better if not a brighter destiny did not await him in coming years. Meantime, those who would avoid contemplating a scene of suffering like that which is to follow, should remember with Seneca, “He that never was acquainted with adversity, has seen the world but on one side, and is ignorant of half the scenes of nature.”

Too many there are, even in this boasted age of benevolence, who are thus ignorant of the scenes referred to by the ancient moralist who believe it a virtue to be rich, and that there is no sin but beggary. “When fortune wraps them warm” while their tables smoke with savory viands, and the choicest wines distil their grateful aroma they turn a deaf ear to every sound of distress, exclaiming,

“I am rich, And wherefore should the clamorous voice of woe Intrude upon mine ear?”

But we can forgive them, as their own worst enemies. They know nothing of the luxury of doing good, and when they are called to make up their last account, they will mourn that they have no investments in those funds that never fluctuate in that bank “where moth and rust doth not corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.” Let such remember, moreover, that as they brought nothing into world, so they can carry nothing out of it. And let it also be remembered, in the language of another, that were there as many worlds as there are particles of sand in our globe, and were those worlds composed of angel gold; or were there any thing in the wide extent of the Almighty’s dominion, which is more precious than gold, and were those worlds composed of that material, all melted into one solid mass, to fill the coffers of a single individual, it would avail him nothing in procuring the salvation of his soul, or in affording him happiness beyond the brief period of his three-score years and ten!