Normally I ignore holidays, but Christmas is different. Yesterday, while tracking down a lead, I ran across a longish story written by Mathew Franklin Whittier (myself in the 19th century) when he was working as a reporter for the New Orleans "Daily Delta," in 1846. It so happens he was also working undercover for the cause of Abolition--whether under the direction of William Lloyd Garrison, as it appears he would do a few years later, or for one of his liberal New England editors, is unclear. I found only this much--that one of them, Elizur Wright, editor of the Boston "Chronotype," knew he was there, and knew he was in peril.
I discovered Mathew's work in pretty-much reverse order; so I recognized this body of work as his, before I learned that he had done something very similar in his late teens, for two successive New York papers. Throughout the rest of his career, most of his productions are veiled autobiography; but during these two periods, when he is reporting the "blotter," he seems to take the stories of real people which he particularly resonates with, and render them in literary form. So there is an element of autobiography in them, inasmuch as the person's life being portrayed echoes his own; and yet, it isn't himself he is writing about.
I thought I had everything of Mathew's from the "Delta," but I was mistaken. I keyed in the story I'm going to reproduce, below, yesterday morning, and it occurred to me that it would make an appropriate Christmas offering, even though it isn't about Christmas, per se. This one is a puzzle, to me, because it reads somewhat like his late wife, Abby's prose; and yet, it is probably either an account of the life of someone Mathew met; or else, it is a lyrical rendering of his own life; or some mysterious combination of all three. If I am not mistaken, Mathew spent about a year at sea, after running away from home at age 14 (not uncommon in that era); the character "Plain Charley" could be him, or someone he met; or, "Plain Charley" could be a maritime preacher. There was a sailor's church in Portland; I have a hunch Mathew was involved with them somehow, or friends with them.
At the same time, Mathew's life with Abby proceeded, symbolically, very much as you will see in this story (i.e., if you take the time to read it). They were shunned; and as a result, they were reduced to poverty. Being shunned can so derail a family, that they cannot remain afloat, especially if dogged by a few runs of bad luck. One can go from having a bright future, to being homeless, quicker than one would ever imagine. But it is the writing style which puzzles me, because it is deliberately more--what's a good way to put it--Victorian, expansive and genteel--than Mathew's usual. And yet, all the "F."-signed pieces in this paper, at this period of time, are clearly his. The concluding passage particularly stands out--
He comes! all arms enfold him, and the lisping infant, whose walk extends not over the catching distance of a mother's care, breathes his name, with its own, Chas. Winn Melville! In a city not a thousand miles from New Orleans, lives "Plain Charley," filling a highly respectable and responsible situation, with daily opportunities for the kindly ministering of his nature, and winning the love of all who know him.
Mathew always had a purpose in using italics--if it wasn't a pun, it was meaningful in some other way. When he says "In a city not...," it is an irony of some kind, and, perhaps, means that the real "Charley" actually lives in New Orleans--and may be himself, or may be someone like the local maritime minister. Meanwhile, the use of exclamations is more like Abby's prose, than Mathew's, as is the entire paragraph. Is this a story Mathew told Abby about his seafaring days, which she wrote and he has then published, under his own accustomed initial, for her posthumously? Is it written in her style, as a tribute to her? Or is he "Plain Charley"? My intuition tells me that "Plain Charley" is a minister for the Maritime Church in Portland, and that he assisted Mathew and Abby, when they were at their lowest point, probably in 1839/40. Or, that this story is an accurate rendition of the life of someone he met in New Orleans, which reminded Mathew of his own experience; or both. I have not tried to look up the name of the pastor of the Maritime Church, to see whether it was "Charles."
Anyway, I have digitizing work to do--I apologize for such a long introduction. I hope you'll take time out from your busy day to read this. Oh, one more thing (which really was not my first motivation for sharing)--this is definitely Mathew Franklin Whittier's work, if it isn't his wife, Abby's. You will see that this makes it entirely plausible that they could have written the original of "A Christmas Carol," together.
The column heading simply indicates that Mathew was covering the "blotter" at the police station, and most of his columns had to do with reporting the people brought in there. He would then represent them sympathetically, in prose or poetry.
Pickings from my Safety Office.
THE LAST SOVEREIGN.
There is a spirit within man which arrays
The thing we doat upon with colorings
Richer than roses--brighter than the beams
Of the clear sun at morning.--Barry Cornwell.
And well, thus gifted, may ye bear the thrill
Of social sorrows and ideal wrong;
The AEolian harp that heaven's pure breezes fill,
Must breathe, at times, a melancholy song.--Good.
George Melville was born in Liverpool, some forty years agone, more or less--for we are not of that gossip class who are nice to a fault, especially when facts get on the wrong side of time; and as the friend's eye may follow the sketching of incidents which shadowed his early career, we would not send him to the wife or glass to count wrinkles or grey hairs, which so becomingly adorn the upper man, or call to his mind an unpleasant thought, but to establish and brighten the links of social joy. Honors and titles had been wreathed in the history of his forebears from William of Normandy, and family pride, in later days, had bound misery to the wheels of fortune with the iron chains of poverty, under which their descendants languished for many years, until an effort of enterprise on the part of the grandfather of George, broke the bonds with the restraints of rank which lay enwrapped in the cerements of the dead, by connecting himself in commercial pursuits with a gentleman of wealth. The titled merchant was never forgiven by the collateral branches, for having so demeaned himself as to prefer independence and usefulness, to inflated dignity with the concomitant evils of indolence and poverty; and his children were wont to look with regret upon what they unjustly deemed a stained escutcheon; one, however, widely followed in the father's path, believing that honest industry, wherever bestowed, would bring comfort, peace and honor. The third generation were looking for footing and place in the world, under the golden banners which prosperous years of labor had thrown over their house, when war was declared between Great Britain and a giant child, that was springing to national stature--the nursling of freedom--her Antaeus arms already outstretching for the world's embrace in love and liberty, with strength beyond the power of Herculean tyranny to strangle. The effects of this, from the peculiar relations of the affairs of the firm with the mercantile communities involved in the dispute, were disastrous; the blast of the war-trumpet left in the path of its tempest-breath the princely merchant an utter wreck. George was old enough to have a faint perception of the change which war's mischance had wrought for him; but his was a sturdy nature, and with the sanguine confidence of youth, he looked cheerfully forward, giving his mite of consolation to those who bowed beneath the storm, as they resigned the luxuries and magnificence of their stately halls.
The father, nothing daunted by the overwhelming calamity, nor regretting the gilded visions of the past, replaced by forereaching shadows, labored among the ruins to make them go as far as possible to meet the obligations resting upon his fair name, and to rebuild with the fragments a more humble business--dropping from his canvass-spread merchant ships over the world, to the supply of the daily wants of a small community; and thus was he enabled to complete the education of his children, and provide all the necessaries of life for his family, retaining the respect and love of all who had known him as the skilful and liberal manager of capital told by the interests of millions of pounds and people. George Melville, long before finishing his education, had become attached to a daughter of his father's partner: the descent on either side had not made necessary any change in the style of the original form--so, with the children, what had been the natural results of associate interest, became, in the hour of affliction, that sympathy which builds love's temple in the heart, and brings into partnership the joys, cares and anxieties of life. The father of Lucy Darron (we do not describe her, for she was nothing else than perfect) had not been able to bear up under the reverses of fortune, and he sunk to his rest with a broken heart, leaving his family to suffer the cumulating ills of the transition from one extreme to the other, of the vicissitudes of life, until by the energy of Melville, enough was retrieved to make a partial support. He devoted to the family of his friend a pro rata interest in the profits of his new business; and the blessings of good hearts followed him for preventing the tears of widow or orphans. He carried into life the spirit of the Delta's sweet and happy thought on kindness: "Speak kindly to thy brother man, for he has many cares thou dost not know. * * * * Oh, speak kindly to him! Perhaps a word from thee will kindle the light of joy in his o'ershadowed heart, and make his pathway to the tomb a pleasant one." It was not thought prudent that George and Lucy should be united until the smiling of better days: but George had determined to make a bold cast for his fortunes in the New World, and she was willing to follow where his spirit might lead, and share his weal or woe.
"But thou, O Hope, with eyes so fair,
What was thy delighted measure?
Still it whisper'd promised pleasure,
And bade the lovely scenes at distance hail."
They were married; and, with the fervent prayers of parents, that the light of heavenly love might be cast on their unknown path and mingle in their heart's affections, they embarked for Boston, where they landed in safety in the spring of 1833, to take their first lesson in the realities of life. They established a school in the city; and, through the jealousy of rival institutions, of perhaps less merit, and the fact of their being strangers and foreigners making it more difficult to excite interest and obtain the confidence necessary for success, they failed in the undertaking, with the loss of most of the means which they had predicated upon it; but their hearts did not sink under the first cloud, or its gloom chase their spirit's lightness.
They visited New York for the purpose of making another trial, with the thought that the locality and wisdom of Gotham would be more propitious; but their first misfortunes followed them as the shadow of evil; their exertions were met by want of confidence, caused by the incorrect and uncharitable statements of those who had helped their ruin. After fruitless attempts to obtain other business they left for Baltimore, where they hoped [gap] brighter things in store, seeing that but few remained of those shining passports to human favor in the shape of dollars. They looked not behind, or thought of advising the dear friends in the far home, whose hearts would ache knowing their troubles. They loved, and would endure alone such fate as might await them; and the wife had the sweet Christian's trusting disposition, referring all her care back to the Great Source from whence it came in earnest prayer; and the husband rested upon her pure faith as a guardian angel arm, when the darkening shade shrouded in all the picturings which home had spread upon his soul.
They had made every effort that their energetic and confident hearts could suggest, but they had proved ineffectual; their means had wasted, and at last they are left without shelter; and from overwrought mind and anxiety the husband is taken sick, whilst the devoted wife draws near to the most interesting period of woman's existence. They have been compelled to seek a house in the outskirts of this city, where the western farmers, drovers and wagoners are entertained, and where the privilege of sleeping on the floor of a lumber and harness room is accorded to them for a shilling each night, for which they provide out of the least necessary articles of their wardrobe. Medicine and advice are necessary for the invalid, and the wife, in an agony of fear, prepares for a last effort to procure assistance; she quietly withdraws with her bonnet and her last shawl; and well was it a heavy Scotch plaid, for the evening was wet and cold, a drizzling rain falling near skin to sleet.--Urged by the duties of love and a dear life at hazard, with a vague hope of kindling in her heart, she could not be stopped, but with lightsome step she trips along the slippery path. An American ship from Hamburg had arrived in port some two weeks previous to the time we now reach, and among her crew was a youth of eighteen years, who had chosen the sailor's life of toil and peril in the enthusiasm of boyhood, and continued in it to preserve consistency and independence, although he might have been comfortably berthed on shore, having family and connexions to secure any position that he might have desired.
Charles Winn was a noble, warm-hearted sailor, combining the frankness and honesty that seems best nurtured by the rocking of the ocean-wave, with the urbanity and courtesy of a polished gentleman; and, having been some days on shore, his funds had melted from his grasp, where or how he had scarcely heeded; but the not quite pleasant thought was creeping into his mind, that he must "look out a ship." He has, however, one sovereign left; and, donning his best, he sallies forth "to make a night of it" for the last; to begin with a "bowse" at the theatre. The sailor's costume of rich material for his shore pastimes he ever doffed for the "long-tail straights of the cit," for the reason that he had the faultless form that best becomes it. His eye, of the quick black, indicated intelligence, wit, humor and benevolence, and he could win you to his fun and frolic in a moment. All knew the jovial tar as he threaded the crowded thoroughfare, and all would trust the frankness that beamed from his soul in every look he gave. He passed on his way with careless air, and yet, with graceful and classic step, his face brightening with pure heart-joys, and spirits untouched by life's cares, until a sweet blue eye from beneath a cottage-bonnet caught his gaze, and a light form sprung to his side a moment to stay his step, assured that in that look lay the hope that sparkled in her mind, knowing also that Jack's fault is generosity, she hesitated not to pour into his ear, with a voice of melting sweetness, her sorrowing tale. At the moment he thought it the cunning witchery of some syren who would mislead him, and he passed onward, leaving unanswered the plaintive wailing of sorrow's child; but a heart-reproach caused him to turn ere a dozen steps were made, and he saw the angel look of despondency in the fixed, drooping eye, evidently overcome by the agony of disappointed expectation in the only countenance she had dared to trust in two hours' wandering. With a chill deadening the heart-throb of hope, and gently raising her eye to heaven, she was preparing to return disconsolate, with no oil to pour into the wounds of affliction, when the sailor boy was at her side, had taken her hand and asked forgiveness for misdoubting for an instant her pleadings, which she had evidently been unused to make. He made affectionate inquiries; gave cheering words and the last sovereign, which he had intended to waste in idle and unprofitable pleasures, and causing her to take his arm, he called upon a physician, who had practiced for years in his father's family, and whose benevolence and skill played kindly together; begging him, as the evening was closing in with a dark, dreary night, to go with her to her temporary home of distress. She is handed into a carriage, followed by one whose nature was love, and in a few moments is by the side of her husband, who is transferred to a comfortable apartment and bed, under the treatment that looked as much to soothe the secret sorrow, which oft lies at the bottom of disease, as to direct physical treatment. The husband is saved; and the humane physician would receive no fee, being instructed by the noble sailor where to find his reward for all he might outlay.
On the first morning that Melville, half leaning on his wife's arm, entered the ladies' witting room, he was met by a plainly clad but venerable-looking country man, who accosted him with kindly words of inquiry--sympathy following in the path of sympathy opened by the generous deed of the not thoughtless boy, christened by his messmates, "Plain Charley," who was then bounding over the deep blue sea, with heart as feather light, buoyed up by the unspoken thanks of the saved wife--for she would have fallen as the withered leaf, had he left the trunk, vital to her; and the husband felt grateful for the chords of feeling that he found wakening around him. The old gentleman observed: "I have been waiting here twelve days for your recovery, having understood that you wished to establish a school: if so, I want you to hurry on a coat of health, and go West with me,--for if I stay here much longer, wife will be looking for a husband, and my boys will become as wild as our prairie-deer." Few words were necessary to detail the wants of the hamlet, and its log school and meeting house--a city that now is; and the arrangements are made. One incident only occurring to break a little upon the plans of all: when they arrived at Wheeling, Mrs. Melville was taken sick, and a fine son came to call up new affections to intertwine in their hearts; and if the old gentleman fretted, he said nothing about it, but waited quietly until mother and child were in condition to continue the journey; and they arrived safely, being welcomed by a matron, who had not even a scolding word or look to give, as had been so often intimated, in words that meant just the converse of their apparent sense. Years, smiling years! have been theirs, as one may see who crosses the Prairie du -----, observing to his right, just before reaching it, the gentle slope, spotted with stock, and in the bottom before him, a pure streamlet, hurrying to lose its purity in the turbid bosom of the great waters; the bridge a little to your left, leading to the cottage half-concealed with forest-trees and shrubs, and the golden-lock group of children, sporting in the shade, are part of the nine gifts of love. As I have looked upon and enjoyed this blessed scene, it seemed
------- "An hour of Paradise restored--
Eden forth mirror'd to the view again,
As yet ere happiness forsook its bowers,
Or sinless creatures own'd the sway of death."
One word for "Plain Charley," whose last sovereign, with the denial of his evening's enjoyments, wrought as fair a picture as ever rested on the lap of earth, and more happiness than often falls to mortals' lot. After some years buffetting with wind and weather, and various fortunes, he wearied of the sea; where he had never forgotten, in the hour of peril, or moment of joy, the sweet peace that flowed upon his soul when he had made one heart happy. Let those who have feeling, follow him in a morning's ride from a prosperous Western city, which terminated at the cottage we have briefly noticed; where hearts are waiting to give love's warm welcome to the name that had visited their lips morning and evening, in praise and thanksgiving, for long years--the form even unknown, that was to meet their cordial greetings. He comes! all arms enfold him, and the lisping infant, whose walk extends not over the catching distance of a mother's care, breathes his name, with its own, Chas. Winn Melville! In a city not a thousand miles from New Orleans, lives "Plain Charley," filling a highly respectable and responsible situation, with daily opportunities for the kindly ministering of his nature, and winning the love of all who know him.
He laughs at the world, and he laughs at care,
With a sovereign and love ever to spare!
Stephen Sakellarios, M.S.
Music opening this page: "Friendly Man,"
by The Free Design, from the album, "One by One"