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The Benefactor
by [?]

“He is a good man who can receive a gift well.”–EMERSON.

There is a sacredness of humility in such an admission which wins pardon for all the unlovely things which Emerson has crowded into a few pages upon “Gifts.” Recognizing that his own goodness stopped short of this exalted point, he pauses for a moment in his able and bitter self-defence to pay tribute to a generosity he is too honest to claim. After all, who but Charles Lamb ever did receive gifts well? Scott tried, to be sure. No man ever sinned less than he against the law of kindness. But Lamb did not need to try. He had it in his heart of gold to feel pleasure in the presents which his friends took pleasure in giving him. The character and quality of the gifts were not determining factors. We cannot analyze this disposition. We can only admire it from afar.

“I look upon it as a point of morality to be obliged to those who endeavour to oblige me,” says Sterne; and the sentiment, like most of Sterne’s sentiments, is remarkably graceful. It has all the freshness of a principle never fagged out by practice. The rugged fashion in which Emerson lived up to his burdensome ideals prompted him to less engaging utterances. “It is not the office of a man to receive gifts,” he writes viciously. “How dare you give them? We wish to be self-sustained. We do not quite forgive a giver. The hand that feeds us is in some danger of being bitten.”

Carlyle is almost as disquieting. He searches for, and consequently finds, unworthy feelings both in the man who gives, and holds himself to be a benefactor, and in the man who receives, and burdens himself with a sense of obligation. He professes a stern dislike for presents, fearing lest they should undermine his moral stability; but a man so up in morals must have been well aware that he ran no great risk of parting with his stock in trade. He probably hated getting what he did not want, and finding himself expected to be grateful for it. This is a sentiment common to lesser men than Carlyle, and as old as the oldest gift-bearer. It has furnished food for fables, inspiration for satirists, and cruel stories at which the light-hearted laugh. Mr. James Payn used to tell the tale of an advocate who unwisely saved a client from the gallows which he should have graced; and the man, inspired by the best of motives, sent his benefactor from the West Indies a case of pineapples in which a colony of centipedes had bred so generously that they routed every servant from the unfortunate lawyer’s house, and dwelt hideously and permanently in his kitchen. “A purchase is cheaper than a gift,” says a wily old Italian proverb, steeped in the wisdom of the centuries.

The principle which prompts the selection of gifts–since selected they all are by some one–is for the most part a mystery. I never but once heard any reasonable solution, and that was volunteered by an old lady who had been listening in silence to a conversation on the engrossing subject of Christmas presents. It was a conversation at once animated and depressing. The time was at hand when none of us could hope to escape these tokens of regard, and the elaborate and ingenious character of their unfitness was frankly and fairly discussed. What baffled us was the theory of choice. Suddenly the old lady flooded this dark problem with light by observing that she always purchased her presents at bazaars. She said she knew they were useless, and that nobody wanted them, but that she considered it her duty to help the bazaars. She had the air of one conscious of well-doing, and sure of her reward. It did not seem to occur to her that the reward should, in justice, be passed on with the purchases. The necessities of charitable organizations called for a sacrifice, and, rising to the emergency, she sacrificed her friends.