It was Saturday night, and the widow of the Pine Cottage sat by her blazing bundle of sticks, with her five tattered children by her side, endeavoring by listening to the artlessness of their prattle, to dissipate the heavy gloom that pressed upon her mind. For a year her own feeble hand had provided for her helpless family, for she had no supporter: she thought of no friend in all the wide, unfriendly world around.
But that mysterious Providence, the wisdom of whose ways is above human comprehension, had visited her with wasting sickness, and her little means had become exhausted. It was now, too, mid-winter, and the snow lay heavy and deep through all the surrounding forests, while storms still seemed gathering in the heavens, and the driving wind roared amid the neighboring pines and rocked her puny mansion.
The last herring smoked upon the coals before her; it was the only article of food she possessed, and no wonder her forlorn, desolate state brought up in her lone bosom all the anxieties of a mother, when she looked upon her children. And no wonder, forlorn as she was, if she permitted the heart swellings of despair to rise, even though she knew that He whose promise is to the widow and to the orphan, cannot forget His word.
Providence had, many years before, taken from her her eldest son, who went from his forest home to try his fortune on the high seas, since which she had heard no tidings of him; and, in her latter time, had by the hand of death, deprived her of the companion and staff of her earthly pilgrimage, 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 wants 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. And 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 scarcely 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 traveler 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 a 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 traveler drew near the board, but when he saw the scanty fare, he raised his eyes toward 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,” said he, continuing, “do you not wrong your children by giving a part of your last mouthful to a stranger?”
“Ah,” said the poor widow, and the teardrops gushed into 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 toward you, as I would that others should act toward 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 he should have provided for him a home, even as 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 your son a home and has given him wealth to reward the goodness of his benefactress: my mother! oh 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, and indeed beautiful, in the valley. The widow lived long with her dutiful son, in the enjoyment of plenty, and in the delightful employments of virtue. And at this day the passer-by is pointed to the willow that spreads its branches above her grave.
The Moore McGuffey Readers, Book 4, 114–117.