MY BROTHER'S KEEPER
Letters from James Alexander (1804-1859)
to his younger brother, on the virtues and
vices, the duties and dangers of youth.
Gratitude to Parents
My dear brother,
I wrote you on this subject thus early in my course of letters, because I think that gratitude to parents is the foundation of a great many virtues; and that one of the first and most distressing symptoms of a decline from the paths of virtue is the unkind or contemptuous treatment of parents. The first commandment with promise is the command to 'honor our parents', and our earliest duties are those which we have to render to our father and our mother. You will find counsels on this subject scattered through my letters; but as young people are apt to be impressed by narrative, I will give you a little history, which I am sure you will find interesting.
There lived two poor men in a very rough and mountainous country, where they kept their flocks, and cultivated such little spots of earth as they could find among the rocks and crags. It was a region abounding in rapid streams, which poured in torrents from the precipices. There was scarcely any point from which you might not see the tops of mountains covered with snow. The hills were so rough that it was difficult and dangerous to travel even a mile, from one hamlet to another. Carriages were almost unknown, and most of the inhabitants traveled on foot, and carried their goods upon mules or donkeys .
Each of these men had large families, and in each of these was a little boy about eleven years of age. These boys often played together—but they were exceedingly unlike in temperament. Little Ulrich was sullen and crude; while his playmate Godfrey was kind and gentle. Ulrich's mother found it very hard to manage the stubborn little boy. He was undutiful and unkind, and gave his parents many hours of anxiety. Sometimes when he was sent to look for the cattle, which strayed in the mountains, he would go to some of the neighbors' houses, and stay several days, while his mother would be in the greatest alarm, lest some accident had befallen him. The ungrateful boy seemed never to think of what might be the cares of his parents. He did not reflect on the hours and days and months of solicitude which his poor mother had felt on his account; how she had watched by his pillow when he slept, and nursed him when he was sick, and provided his food, and sat up many a long night to make or mend his clothes. Forgetful of all this, Ulrich would be sulky and sour when she spoke to him, and would even reproach her in the harshest and most inappropriate language.
Little Godfrey was just the reverse of all this. He loved his parents most tenderly, and delighted to obey them in every particular. Consequently he was far happier himself, and made all around him happy.
One afternoon, Ulrich's mother had directed him to do some little piece of work which was not quite agreeable to him, and the bad boy as usual flew into a passion, and called his mother several harsh names. The poor woman wept as if she would break her heart—but this only made him rage more furiously. At last, giving his mother a look more like that of a wild beast than a son, he dashed out of the house, muttering to himself that he would never return again. This was as foolish as it was wicked, for the silly child had no place where he could live for any length of time; and he might have known that his father, whose temper was as violent as his own, and who was often drunk, would soon drag him back home, besides chastising him.
But people in a rage seldom stop to consider—and Ulrich hastened away, and began to ascend one of the steep mountain paths. As he advanced, his mind was drawn away, by degrees, to other thoughts. At one moment he would pause to examine the scanty flowers which peeped out from among the rocks; at another, he would stand and listen to the distant waterfall, or the hunter's rifle; and then he would be attracted by the circling flight of the Alpine eagle. Amidst these thoughts his conscience began to whisper to him, "Ulrich, Ulrich, you are a wicked boy! You are breaking the heart of your affectionate mother! Go back, go back!"
As Ulrich sat by a tall cliff, looking westward to where the sun was going behind a range of blue mountains, he thought he heard voices in the winding path above him. "I think I know that voice," said he; "it must be old Mr. Simon, coming down the valley. Poor old man! I wonder that he does not fall and break his neck among these sharp crags." I ought here to mention, that Mr. Simon was a very aged man, more than eighty years old, who used to travel about the mountains with the aid of a little dog; the faithful animal ran before, with a little bell at his collar, and the old man, who was totally blind, felt his way with a long staff, and held a small rope which was fastened around the dog's neck. But on the day I have mentioned, the poor little dog had been disabled by a large stone which fell upon his back from one of the crags, and Mr. Simon was forced to sit down and wait some hours for assistance. It was indeed his voice which Ulrich heard—but to whom was he speaking? Ulrich listened, and soon perceived that it was a child's voice, and a moment after, as the blind man came into sight, by turning a corner, Ulrich saw that he was guided by his playmate, little Godfrey.
"Step this way, Mr. Simon," said the kind little boy, as he helped the poor old man along. "Now lean on my shoulder, and put your right foot down into this hollow." "May Heaven reward you, my dear boy," said the old man; "happy are the parents who have such a son. My poor sightless eyes cannot behold your face—but I hear the gentle tones of your voice. I am weary; let us rest for a few moments here, where the ground seems level." So saying, Mr. Simon slowly bent his aged limbs, and sat down by the side of a rock. At the same moment Godfrey recognized his neighbor Ulrich, who was seated a few paces off, and whom he was delighted to meet.
I have said that Ulrich was in no very pleasant state of mind. Conscience was piercing him for his filial ingratitude; and, at such a moment to see his friend Godfrey engaged in an act of kindness made him feel still more guilty. He could not help saying to himself, "See what Godfrey is doing for that old man. He is kinder to a poor stranger than I am to my own mother! Indeed, I must be a very wicked boy."
As these thoughts passed in his mind, he drew near to the others, and Godfrey told Mr. Simon that this was one of his friends and playmates. "Well, my children," said Mr. Simon, "if you will rest with me here for a short time, I will try to say something to you which may be useful. This little boy has been very kind to a poor old blind man; he has perhaps saved my life, for since I have lost my dog, I have no friend left, and I might have lain and perished on the mountain. My child, God sees and approves such conduct, and he will reward it. The command of God is, 'You shall rise up before the hoary head, and honor the face of the old man.' I hope you remember what became of the youth who cried after an old prophet, 'Go up, you bald head!' When I find a child who is very kind to poor and aged people, I feel sure that he is affectionate and obedient to his parents."
Ulrich felt very badly when he heard this, for it seemed as if the old man had known what was passing in his mind. Mr. Simon went on to say—"I often say these things to young people, because I remember with sorrow many things I might have done for my parents when I was a child; and I think of them the more because Providence has left me in my old age without son, or grandson, to take care of me. Children, mark my words—if you desire to lead happy lives, obey your parents; love them, honor them, and serve them. Never let the evil one tempt you to give them a harsh word or an angry look.
Little Godfrey looked up, and said, "Mr. Simon, I think none but a very wicked boy could be cross to his dear father and mother." Ulrich's face became as red as crimson at these words, because he knew that he was just such a boy.
Mr. Simon went on to say—"If you wish to make your parents happy in their old age, take pains to please them in every way. 'A wise son takes a glad father; but a foolish son is the heaviness of his mother.' Your parents are the best friends you can ever have in this world; never let your conduct give them pain. 'A foolish son is a grief to his father, and a bitterness to her who bore him.' When parents become old and weak, their greatest comfort is in their children; be sure to attend to their wishes. 'Hearken unto your father that begat you, and despise not your mother when she is old.' For if you should grow up in wickedness, and treat your parents with contempt, you will fall under that awful curse—'The eye that mocks at his father, and despises to obey his mother, the ravens of the valley shall pick it out, and the young eagles shall eat it.' The whole course of God's providence will be as much against you, as if the birds of prey which you see every day in these mountains were to turn against you, and tear you with their talons."
Here the old man, being somewhat rested, arose, and taking Godfrey's hand, proceeded on his way. Ulrich sat still under the rock; he was so agitated and alarmed, that his limbs trembled. At length he suddenly arose, and said to himself, "I will go back to my mother." He quickened his steps, as he saw that night was coming on, and soon reached his father's cottage. As he went along, he thought a great deal about what he would say to his offended parent. He slowly lifted the latch, and found her sitting in her little room mending his clothes. Her eyes were red with weeping, and she was so grieved by his conduct that she hid her face in her hands, and was unable to speak. O, what a return was this for a mother's love and kindness! Ulrich was moved to tears. He fell upon her neck, and begged her forgiveness. She put her arms round him, and forgetting all his unkind looks and reproachful words, pressed him to her bosom. Ulrich promised to love and obey her, and if at any time he felt for a moment disposed to be angry or sullen, he remembered the promises and tears of that day, and the words of Mr. Simon.
Your affectionate brother,