Roughing it in the Bush/Chapter XIX
THE "OULD DHRAGOON"
[I am indebted to my husband for this sketch.]
Behold that man, with lanky locks,
Which hang in strange confusion o'er his brow;
And nicely scan his garments, rent and patch'd,
In colours varied, like a pictured map;
And watch his restless glance—now grave, now gay—
As saddening thought, or merry humour's flash
Sweeps o'er the deep-mark'd lines which care hath left;
As when the world is steep'd in blackest night,
The forked lightning flashes through the sky,
And all around leaps into life and light,
To sink again in darkness blacker still.
Yes! look upon that face lugubrious, long,
As thoughtfully he stands with folded arms
Amid his realm of charr'd and spectral stumps,
Which once were trees, but now, with sprawling roots,
Cling to the rocks which peep above the soil.
Ay! look again,
And say if you discern the faintest trace
Of warrior bold;—the gait erect and proud,
The steady glance that speaks the fearless soul,
Watchful and prompt to do what man can do
When duty calls. All wreck'd and reckless now;—
But let the trumpet's soul-inspiring sound
Wake up the brattling echoes of the woods,
Then watch his kindling eye—his eagle glance—
While thoughts of glorious fields, and battles won,
And visions bright of joyous, hopeful youth
Sweep o'er his soul. A soldier now once more—
Touch'd by the magic sound, he rears his head,
Responsive to the well-known martial note,
And stands again a hero 'mid his rags.
It is delightful to observe a feeling of contentment under adverse circumstances. We may smile at the rude and clumsy attempts of the remote and isolated backwoodsman to attain something like comfort, but happy he who, with the buoyant spirits of the light-hearted Irishman, contrives to make himself happy even when all others would be miserable.
A certain degree of dissatisfaction with our present circumstances is necessary to stimulate us to exertion, and thus to enable us to secure future comfort; but where the delusive prospect of future happiness is too remote for any reasonable hope of ultimate attainment, then surely it is true wisdom to make the most of the present, and to cultivate a spirit of happy contentment with the lot assigned to us by Providence.
"Ould Simpson," or the "Ould Dhragoon," as he was generally called, was a good sample of this happy character; and I shall proceed to give the reader a sketch of his history, and a description of his establishment. He was one of that unfortunate class of discharged soldiers who are tempted to sell their pensions often far below their true value, for the sake of getting a lot of land in some remote settlement, where it is only rendered valuable by the labour of the settler, and where they will have the unenviable privilege of expending the last remains of their strength in clearing a patch of land for the benefit of some grasping storekeeper who has given them credit while engaged in the work.
The old dragoon had fixed his abode on the verge of an extensive beaver-meadow, which was considered a sort of natural curiosity in the neighbourhood; and where he managed, by cutting the rank grass in the summer time, to support several cows, which afforded the chief subsistence of his family. He had also managed, with the assistance of his devoted partner, Judy, to clear a few acres of poor rocky land on the sloping margin of the level meadow, which he planted year after year with potatoes. Scattered over this small clearing, here and there might be seen the but-end of some half-burnt hemlock tree, which had escaped the general combustion of the log heaps, and now formed a striking contrast to the white limestone rocks which showed their rounded surfaces above the meagre soil.
The "ould dhragoon" seemed, moreover, to have some taste for the picturesque, and by way of ornament, had left standing sundry tall pines and hemlocks neatly girdled to destroy their foliage, the shade of which would have been detrimental to the "blessed praties" which he designed to grow in his clearing, but which, in the meantime, like martyrs at the stake, stretched their naked branches imploringly towards the smiling heavens. As he was a kind of hermit, from choice, and far removed from other settlers, whose assistance is so necessary in new settlements, old Simpson was compelled to resort to the most extraordinary contrivances while clearing his land. Thus, after felling the trees, instead of chopping them into lengths, for the purpose of facilitating the operation of piling them preparatory to burning, which would have cost him too much labour, he resorted to the practice of "niggering," as it is called; which is simply laying light pieces of round timber across the trunks of the trees, and setting fire to them at the point of contact, by which means the trees are slowly burned through.
It was while busily engaged in this interesting operation that I first became acquainted with the subject of this sketch.
Some twenty or thirty little fires were burning briskly in different parts of the blackened field, and the old fellow was watching the slow progress of his silent "niggers," and replacing them from time to time as they smouldered away. After threading my way among the uncouth logs, blazing and smoking in all directions, I encountered the old man, attired in an old hood, or bonnet, of his wife Judy, with his patched canvas trousers rolled up to his knees; one foot bare, and the other furnished with an old boot, which from its appearance had once belonged to some more aristocratic foot. His person was long, straight, and sinewy, and there was a light springiness and elasticity in his step which would have suited a younger man, as he skipped along with a long handspike over his shoulder. He was singing a stave from the "Enniskillen Dragoon" when I came up with him.
"With his silver-mounted pistols, and his long carbine,
Long life to the brave Inniskillen dragoon."
His face would have been one of the most lugubrious imaginable, with his long, tangled hair hanging confusedly over it, in a manner which has been happily compared to a "bewitched haystack," had it not been for a certain humorous twitch or convulsive movement, which affected one side of his countenance, whenever any droll idea passed through his mind. It was with a twitch of this kind, and a certain indescribable twinkle of his somewhat melancholy eye, as he seemed intuitively to form a hasty conception of the oddity of his appearance to a stranger unused to the bush, that he welcomed me to his clearing. He instantly threw down his handspike, and leaving his "niggers" to finish their work at their leisure, insisted on our going to his house to get something to drink.
On the way, I explained to him the object of my visit, which was to mark out, or "blaze," the sidelines of a lot of land I had received as part of a military grant, immediately adjoining the beaver-meadow, and I asked him to accompany me, as he was well acquainted with the different lots.
"Och! by all manner of manes, and welcome; the dhevil a foot of the way but I know as well as my own clearing; but come into the house, and get a dhrink of milk, an' a bite of bread an' butther, for sorrow a dhrop of the whiskey has crossed my teeth for the last month; an' it's but poor intertainment for man or baste I can offer you, but shure you're heartily welcome."
The precincts of the homestead were divided and subdivided into an infinity of enclosures, of all shapes and sizes. The outer enclosure was a bush fence, formed of trees felled on each other in a row, and the gaps filled up with brushwood. There was a large gate, swung with wooden hinges, and a wooden latch to fasten it; the smaller enclosures were made with round poles, tied together with bark. The house was of the rudest description of "shanty," with hollowed basswood logs, fitting into each other somewhat in the manner of tiles for a roof, instead of shingles. No iron was to be seen, in the absence of which there was plenty of leathern hinges, wooden latches for locks, and bark-strings instead of nails. There was a large fireplace at one end of the shanty, with a chimney, constructed of split laths, plastered with a mixture of clay and cowdung. As for windows, these were luxuries which could well be dispensed with; the open door was an excellent substitute for them in the daytime, and at night none were required. When I ventured to object to this arrangement, that he would have to keep the door shut in the winter time, the old man replied, in the style so characteristic of his country, "Shure it will be time enough to think of that when the could weather sets in." Everything about the house wore a Robinson Crusoe aspect, and though there was not any appearance of original plan or foresight, there was no lack of ingenious contrivance to meet every want as it arose.
Judy dropped us a low curtsey as we entered, which was followed by a similar compliment from a stout girl of twelve, and two or three more of the children, who all seemed to share the pleasure of their parents in receiving strangers in their unpretending tenement. Many were the apologies that poor Judy offered for the homely cheer she furnished us, and great was her delight at the notice we took of the "childher." She set little Biddy, who was the pride of her heart, to reading the Bible; and she took down a curious machine from a shelf, which she had "conthrived out of her own head," as she said, for teaching the children to read. This was a flat box, or frame, filled with sand, which saved paper, pens, and ink. Poor Judy had evidently seen better days, but, with a humble and contented spirit, she blessed God for the food and scanty raiment their labour afforded them. Her only sorrow was the want of "idication" for the children.
She would have told us a long story about her trials and sufferings, before they had attained their present comparative comfort and independence, but, as we had a tedious scramble before us, through cedar-swamps, beaver-meadows, and piny ridges, the "ould dhragoon" cut her short, and we straightway started on our toilsome journey.
Simpson, in spite of a certain dash of melancholy in his composition, was one of those happy fellows of the "light heart and thin pair of breeches" school, who, when they meet with difficulty or misfortune, never stop to measure its dimensions, but hold in their breath, and run lightly over, as in crossing a bog, where to stand still is to sink.
Off, then, we went, with the "ould dhragoon" skipping and bounding on before us, over fallen trees and mossy rocks; now ducking under the low, tangled branches of the white cedar, then carefully piloting us along rotten logs, covered with green moss, to save us from the discomfort of wet feet. All this time he still kept one of his feet safely ensconced in the boot, while the other seemed to luxuriate in the water, as if there was something amphibious in his nature.
We soon reached the beaver-meadow, which extended two or three miles; sometimes contracting into a narrow gorge, between the wooded heights, then spreading out again into an ample field of verdure, and presenting everywhere the same unvarying level surface, surrounded with rising grounds, covered with the dense unbroken forest, as if its surface had formerly been covered by the waters of a lake; which in all probability has been the case at some not very remote period. In many places the meadow was so wet that it required a very large share of faith to support us in passing over its surface; but our friend, the dragoon, soon brought us safe through all dangers to a deep ditch, which he had dug to carry off the superfluous water from the part of the meadow which he owned. When we had obtained firm footing on the opposite side, we sat down to rest ourselves before commencing the operation of "blazing," or marking the trees with our axes, along the side-line of my lot. Here the mystery of the boot was explained. Simpson very coolly took it off from the hitherto favoured foot, and drew it on the other.
He was not a bit ashamed of his poverty, and candidly owned that this was the only boot he possessed, and he was desirous of giving each of his feet fair play.
Nearly the whole day was occupied in completing our job, in which the "dhragoon" assisted us, with the most hearty good-will, enlivening us with his inexhaustible fund of good-humour and drollery. It was nearly dark when we got back to his "shanty," where the kind-hearted Judy was preparing a huge pot of potatoes and other "combustibles," as Simpson called the other eatables, for our entertainment.
Previous to starting on our surveying expedition, we had observed Judy very earnestly giving some important instructions to one of her little boys, on whom she seemed to be most seriously impressing the necessity of using the utmost diligence. The happy contentment which now beamed in poor Judy's still comely countenance bespoke the success of the messenger. She could not "call up spirits from the vasty deep" of the cellar, but she had procured some whiskey from her next-door neighbour—some five or six miles off, and there it stood somewhat ostentatiously on the table in a "greybeard," with a "corn cob," or ear of Indian corn, stripped of its grain, for a cork, smiling most benevolently on the family circle, and looking a hundred welcomes to the strangers.
An indescribably enlivening influence seemed to exude from every pore of that homely earthen vessel, diffusing mirth and good-humour in all directions. The old man jumped and danced about on the rough floor of the "shanty"; and the children sat giggling and nudging each other in a corner, casting a timid look, from time to time, at their mother, for fear she might check them for being "over bould."
"Is it crazy ye are intirely, ye ould omadhawn!" said Judy, whose notions of propriety were somewhat shocked with the undignified levity of her partner; "the likes of you I never seed; ye are too foolidge intirely. Have done now wid your diviltries, and set the stools for the gintlemens, while I get the supper for yes."
Our plentiful though homely meal was soon discussed, for hunger, like a good conscience, can laugh at luxury; and the "greybeard" made its appearance, with the usual accompaniments of hot water and maple sugar, which Judy had scraped from the cake, and placed in a saucer on the table before us.
The "ould dhragoon," despising his wife's admonitions, gave way freely to his feelings, and knew no bounds to his hilarity. He laughed and joked, and sang snatches of old songs picked up in the course of his service at home and abroad. At length Judy, who looked on him as a "raal janius," begged him to "sing the gintlemens the song he made when he first came to the counthry." Of course we ardently seconded the motion, and nothing loth, the old man, throwing himself back on his stool, and stretching out his long neck, poured forth the following ditty, with which I shall conclude my hasty sketch of the "ould dhragoon":—
Och! it's here I'm intirely continted,
In the wild woods of swate 'Mericay;
God's blessing on him that invinted
Big ships for our crossing the say!
Here praties grow bigger nor turnips;
And though cruel hard is our work,
In ould Ireland we'd nothing but praties,
But here we have praties and pork.
I live on the banks of a meadow,
Now see that my maning you take;
It bates all the bogs of ould Ireland—
Six months in the year it's a lake.
Bad luck to the beavers that dammed it!
I wish them all kilt for their pains;
For shure though the craters are clever,
Tis sartin they've drown'd my domains.
I've built a log hut of the timber
That grows on my charmin' estate;
And an illigant root-house erected,
Just facing the front of my gate.
And I've made me an illigant pig-sty,
Well litter'd wid straw and wid hay;
And it's there, free from noise of the chilther,
I sleep in the heat of the day.
It's there I'm intirely at aise, sir,
And enjoy all the comforts of home;
I stretch out my legs as I plase, sir,
And dhrame of the pleasures to come.
Shure, it's pleasant to hear the frogs croakin',
When the sun's going down in the sky,
And my Judy sits quietly smokin'
While the praties are boil'd till they're dhry.
Och! thin, if you love indepindence,
And have money your passage to pay,
You must quit the ould counthry intirely,
And start in the middle of May.