Letters of Life/I

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LETTERS OF LIFE.




LETTER I.


HOME AND ITS INHABITANTS.


You request of me, my dear friend, a particular account of my own life. It is little varied by incident, and has no materials for romance. Yet your wish ought to be sacred to my much indebted heart; and I believe there is no earthly pilgrimage, if faithfully portrayed in its true lights and shadows, but might impart some instruction to the future traveller, and set forth His praise, whose mercies are "new every morning, and fresh every moment."

I was born in Norwich, Connecticut; beautiful Norwich, whose varied scenery reveals sometimes the Caledonian wildness, and at others the tender softness of the vale of Tempe. The earliest pictures of Memory, and they hang still unfaded in her gallery, are of rude ledges of towering rock, which were to me as the Alps, and of the rushing and picturesque cascade of the Yantie, creating the same class of sensations that were, in after years, deepened to speechless awe at the thunder-hymn of solemn, sublime Niagara.

My still earlier recollections are of the mansion where, near the close of the last century, on the first day of September, 1791, I first saw the light. It was among the better class of New England houses at that time of day—spacious but not lofty, a broad hall intersecting it in the middle, with suits of rooms on each side. Its court-yard was of the richest velvet turf; two spruce trees, in their livery of dark green, stood as sentinels at the gate, and alternate columns of the fragrant eglantine and the luxuriant white rose were trained from the basement to the eaves. It was environed by three large gardens, each of which enchanted my childhood, and even now linger with me, as those of the Hesperides.

The southern one stretched out in view of the windows of the parlor, where we usually sat. There were the flowers, transposed in an old-fashioned parterre, or knot—a diamond-shaped bed in the centre—with its chief glory, a rich crimson peony, surrounded by others in angles and parallelograms, whose dark mould was sprinkled with every tint and perfume, in their season. There flourished the amaryllis family, white and orange-colored, the queenly damask-rose, the deep-red, the pale-cheeked, and the sweet briar; tulips in gorgeous and varied robes, the protean sweet-william, the aspiring larkspur, the proud crown imperial, the snowdrop, the narcissus, and the hyacinth, so prompt to waken at Spring's first call, side by side with the cheerful marigold, braving the frost-kiss; pinks in profusion, and a host of personified flowers, peeped out of their tufted homes, like nested birds; the beauty by night, the ragged lady, the mourning widow, and the mottled guinea hen. The dahlias had not then appeared with their countless varieties, but the asters instituted a secondary order of nobility; coxcombs and soldiers in green rejoiced in their gay uniform; the borders were enriched with shrubbery, tastefully disposed, at whose feet ran the happy blue-bell and the bright-eyed hearts-ease, intent with a few other lowly friends on turning every crevice to account, and making the waste places beautiful.

A portion of ground was allotted to such herbs as were supposed to possess the latent power of repelling disease. There grew the tansy, and the peppermint, and the spearmint; the wormwood and the rue, a spoonful of whose expressed juice, given either as tonic or vermifuge, was never forgotten by the mouth that received it; the spikenard, and the lovage, and the elecampane, the pungent pennyroyal, the bitter boneset, famed for subduing colds; the aromatic thyme that fought fevers, and the sapient sage, which seemed complacently satisfied with its own excellences, or bearing on its roughened lip the classic question, "Cur moriatur homo, dum salis crescit in horto?"[1]

A broad gravel walk intersecting the garden, divided the parterre from an expanse of fair, even-shorn turf, at whose termination was a pleasant arbor, with its lattice-work interwoven and overshadowed by an ancient, thickly clustering grape-vine. Grouped around it was a copse of peach trees, the rich golden fruited, the large crimson and white cling, the colorless autumnal varieties, and the more diminutive ones, whose pulp, blood-tinted throughout, were favorites for the preserving pan.

Yet the garden at the opposite extremity of the house was emphatically the fruit region. It was longitudinally divided by a grassy terrace, and with the exception of a few esculents, rows of graceful peas and beans, decking their rough props with blossoms, was directed to the varieties of fruit that a New England climate matures: currants reached forth their rich and pendulent strings, large gooseberries rejoiced amid their thorny armor, over a broad domain ran the red and white strawberry, hand in hand, like a buxom brother giving confidence to his pale, exquisite sister. Through the apple-boughs peered the small orb of the deep-colored pearmain, and the full cheek of the golden sweeting, while many lofty pear trees aristocratically bore their varied honor thick upon them. There were the minute harvest-pear, the coveted of childhood for its bland taste and early ripeness, the spreading bell, notching a century on its trunk, with unbowed strength, the delicious vergaloo, the high-flavored bennet with its deep blush, and multitudes of the rough-coated later pears, destined, with culinary preparation, to give variety to the wintry tea-table.

Another extensive and highly cultured spot, called the lower garden, as it was approached from the rear of the establishment, by descending a long flight of wooden stairs, exulted in all manner of vegetable wealth to enrich the domestic board. There towered the tasselled maize, with its humbler compeer the potato; the salads swelled, the green cucumber adorned its mound, fair squashes with their crooked spines, and immense pumpkins commended themselves to the pastry-cook by their leafy banners; the carrot and turnip, the sallow parsnip, and the blood-red beet, revealed their subterranean abodes; while a large turfy mound, rounded and entered like a tomb, the celery and the savoy cabbage claimed as their own exclusive winter palace.

Beyond stretched an extensive meadow, refreshed at its extremity by a crystal streamlet, flowing on with a pleasant murmur to the neighboring river. The domain comprised also a hill, where trees were sparsely scattered, and which, gently sloping toward the house, had at its foot a large barn, where the domestic animals found ample accommodations and plentiful supplies. Its yard communicated by a large gate with an area in the rear of the mansion, which was surrounded by a little village of offices. Among them were the carriage-house, the wood-house, whose ranges of sawed hickory were disposed with geometrical precision; the gardener's tool-house, where every thing had a place, and was in it; the distillery, where the richer herbs from the dispensary, and the fragrant petals of the damask-rose yielded their essence for health or luxury; and the poultry-house, with its glass windows and varied compartments, where the brooding mothers and their hopeful offspring found systematic lodgment and a large prosperity.

I shall hope to be forgiven for this minute description, which may seem dry and prosaic, but in my heart touches chords that ring out like pleasant melodies. Every feature of our birthplace is wont to become beautified by time; and I am the more desirous to preserve a transcript of mine as it was, because the moods and tenses of modern days are prone to modify or obliterate the idioms that memory had consecrated.

This edifice and estate, comprehending a farm in a neighboring village, with other portions of land in the vicinity, appertained to the name of Lathrop, one of the most ancient and meritorious of the aristocratic families of Norwich. It was owned by the widow of Dr. Daniel Lathrop, a lady of noble bearing, cultivated intellect, and eminent piety, the daughter of John Talcott, Governor of Connecticut, and born in Hartford, May 3, 1717. Though far advanced in years when I first beheld her, time had not impaired either her physical or mental system. Her tall, majestic form, was unbowed, her step elastic, and her heart in ardent, healthful action. My early life retains no more cherished or indelible picture than her beautiful age.

Left childless, and destitute of near male relatives, the care of my father over her affairs had become indispensable; and he, with his household, were tenants of a part of her mansion, which was admirably arranged for the accommodation of two families. His name was Ezekiel Huntley, and he was born in Franklin, in the neighborhood of Norwich, April 12th, 1752. His father, a native of Scotland, emigrated to this country in early life, and married Miss Mary Walbridge, a woman of consistent domestic loveliness and piety. From the comforts of his home he went forth as a colonial soldier in the war waged by our mother land with the French and Indians. Returning from the comparatively successful campaign of 1760, he became a victim of the small-pox on the way, and never more saw the home of his affections.

His widow, my grandmother, is among the gentle, yet strong images of my infancy, seated by the fireside of her son, in quietness and honor.

Ever industrious, peaceful, and an example of all saintly virtues was she. At the age of seventy, not a thread of silver had woven itself with her lustrous black hair. Then a mild chill of paralysis checked the vital current, and gave me the first picture of serene death.

My father resembled her in his calm spirit and habitual diligence, as he did also in a cloudless longevity. The blessing of the fifth commandment came upon him who had honored the lone parent, resting on him for protection. He became a member, in his boyhood, of the family of Dr. Daniel Lathrop, a man of distinguished talents and collegiate education, matured by foreign travel. Destined for the medical profession, but possessing acute sensibilities, he was rendered so unhappy by the sufferings of others, especially by the necessity of performing any surgical operation, that he commuted active practice for the business of an apothecary. This allowed him frequent opportunities of giving salutary advice, especially to the poor, which gratified his benevolence, and kept his scientific knowledge from oblivion. To a competent patrimony he added a very large fortune gathered in his mercantile department, which he expended with great liberality. He was held in high honor, and numbered among the benefactors of his native city, being the first to found a school where the common people might be instructed gratuitously in Latin and Greek, as well as in the more essential branches of a solid education.

In the course of his extensive business he employed a variety of clerks, whom it was his choice to domesticate under his own roof. Their moral and intellectual habits were to him, and his estimable lady, objects of interest. Indeed, to their conscientious minds they were in some measure as children, for whose right principles and good conduct they felt responsible both to the world and to God. Perhaps they were in no instance so signally baffled in these philanthropic efforts, as by Benedict Arnold, known in his country's history as the traitor. Being the son of a widow, they received him at rather an early age, and cherished for him added sympathy. Strong capacities and strong faults were soon revealed. Among the latter was barbarity to every form of animal life. Dogs avoided him for good reasons; cats never flourished where he dwelt; it was thought that horses were none the better for his ministrations, unless it might be for habits of break-neck speed and marvellous kicking and prancing. Dismembered birds were found lying about the premises, of whose state no satisfactory solution could be obtained. The blue eggs of the robin were crushed and strewn upon the turf, and the voice of the mourning mother resounded among the branches.

"Methinks," said the kind lady in whose house he was fostered, "her cry is 'Cruel Benedict Arnold! cruel Benedict Arnold!'" At which the boy secretly laughed.

It was customary, in those days of republican simplicity, for merchants' clerks, who were received into the household of the master, to take part in a variety of services for the comfort of the family. Conformably to this custom, Benedict was sometimes despatched to a mill at the distance of about two miles, carrying, on the horse that he rode, bags of Indian corn to be transmuted into meal. There, while waiting, he amazed the miller with sundry fantastic tricks. Sometimes his affrighted eyes would descry the urchin clinging to a spoke of the great mill-wheel in its revolutions, now submerged and anon flying through the air for his amusement, heeding no remonstrance, and enjoying the terror of the honest man, who in his objurgations was wont to style him an "imp of the Evil One."

In this reckless daring and deficiency of moral sensibility, might be traced the elements of that character which afterwards, with equal hardihood, could lead his soldiers through perils in the wilderness, or aim a traitor's blow at the heart of his endangered country.

My father had several books of elementary science in his possession, among which I particularly recollect a Dilworth's Grammar and an Arithmetic, which bore in multifarious places the sobriquet of Benedict Arnold, scrawled heedlessly and often with blots through the middle of mathematical problems or examples of syntax. Sometimes they were accompanied with unsymmetrical and hideous drawings. Possibly the boys might have used the books in common, or rather in succession, during their school culture. Yet it must have required some courage thus to deface books which the New England mind was trained to revere, both from scarcity and a sense of their value; and to persevere wilfully in such courses, in days when scholastic discipline was wont to make itself both felt and remembered. I can well recollect with what veneration and clean hands I was instructed to approach our few, half-sainted volumes, and with what horror I regarded any child whose book disclosed the guilt of a dog's ear or a missing leaf.

My father, like his compeer, or, more properly, his predecessor, was also called to take part in the battles of his native land. He joined the first regiment that was raised in that portion of Connecticut, and marched with them to Boston, ere the Declaration of Independence had been promulgated. They passed their first night in the neighborhood of the lion-hearted Putnam, at Brooklyn, Conn., who had then but newly left his plough in the unfinished furrow, and rushed onward to stand by his country, till her struggle for existence should end in liberty and glory.

I may not here command space to particularize the events that connected my blessed father with the perils and victories of the Revolution. They took place long before my birth; but I have heard their recital, seated on his knee, and my heart now kindles at their memory as a trumpet-cry.

One recital of those warlike gatherings made a strong impression on my infantine imagination, probably because it was coupled with home scenery. In the autumn of 1781, the inhabitants of Norwich beheld their whole southern horizon wrapped in the strange, flickering redness of a distant flame. Thundering sounds were on the air, like the cannon's death-peal. There was a quick mustering of the men of war. Boys who had never seen service, besought their troubled mothers for leave to gird on the harness, and go where danger called. In hot haste, and with as much of military order as the occasion would admit, horse and foot sped on to the point of danger.

No rail-train in those days rapidly conveyed tidings, no telegraph bore them on the lightning's wing; but the fleetest leader of the cavalry, gaining a commanding ascent, announced that New London, our neighbor city, was in flames. From van to rear passed the mournful sound, "New London is in flames!" Indignation sat on every face. Their beautiful seaport! The favorite and finest harbor of Connecticut! Every individual thought of some acquaintance or friend left houseless, if, indeed, among the living. They hurried to meet the foe. The fourteen miles that divided Norwich from New London was achieved as on eagle's wings. But they came too late. Too late for defence! Too late for vengeance!

Smoking ruins and homeless people were on every side. The helpless sick had been removed to fields and gardens, and sobbing children clung to their bewildered mothers. Those who had been nurtured in wealth knew not where to turn for bread. Their holy and beautiful temple, where they had worshipped God, was in ashes. And Benedict Arnold had done it. Returning from a predatory excursion on the shores of Virginia, he had made this visit to his native State. Here were old friends with whom he had held early intercourse. By them he was recognized, seated on his horse, and giving orders. He even ventured to take some refreshment in the house of a former acquaintance, but bade the flames enwrap the roof as he rose from the table. He expressed a wish that it were possible to reach Norwich, that he might there burn at least the abode in which he was born. Instinct, however, protected him from this exposure, doubtless assuring him that the beautiful region which gave him birth would feel it its duty to provide him a grave.

But it was on the opposite side of the river that the most fearful carnage marked his career. There, Fort Griswold, which had been taken by sudden siege, after such brave resistance that the traitor general was blamed by his adopted realm for the large loss of officers and soldiers, became the scene of reckless devastation. Amid piles of slain, destroyed by barbarous butchery after they had surrendered, sought distracted women and children, cleansing many dead and distorted faces from the corrugated blood ere they could discern a feature of the husband or the father, the brother or the son, over whom they should mourn while life lasted. And Benedict Arnold had done it. He was seen to point with his glittering sword, and say, "Soldiers, to your duty!"

Ah, stern duty of pitiless war! executed, as we trust, sometimes with compunction, otherwise man would be a fiend. Came there not, in future years, some lingering cry of these widows and orphans into the heart of that bold, bad man, when, bowed with age, he felt in a foreign land the loneliness, neglect, and loathing which are wont to overtake the traitor? We cannot say. Fain would we hope that such remorse was there as led to penitence and God's forgiveness.

Details like these were softened by my father, and not dwelt upon with the stern delight of a soldier. He was not a man of war in his heart, though duty led him to defend his home and hearthstone, and the altars of his native land. He was of a singularly mild nature and unassuming manners. Perseverance in well-doing, regardless of applause or ambition, and a disciplined, trustful, most affectionate spirit, were among the elements of his character. I never remember seeing him, throughout his long life, excited with anger, or hearing him utter a hasty or unkind word. Patience, that true courage of virtue, was eminently his own; and at the close of his pilgrimage he was styled, by one well qualified to judge, "the man without an enemy."

After peace and liberty had been vouchsafed to his beloved country, and she had taken her seat among the nations, he married a lovely creature, to whom he had been long affianced. Lydia Howard was his earliest love, but the unsettled state of the land had been unfavorable to "marrying and giving in marriage." Her health, also, was delicate, and they waited, with the hope that it might be more confirmed ere she assumed the responsibilities of a housekeeper. But pulmonary disease in our Northern climate exacts, like the Minotaur, its terrible tribute from the fair and young, defying both the sword of Theseus and the clue of Ariadne. Not a year of life, after her nuptials, was meted out to this gentle being. Just before the thick fall of the rustling leaves, and while the forests were rich with the later tints of autumn, she went to the land that hath no decay, leaning calmly on the Redeemer whom she loved.

The desolated husband passed several years of lonely mourning, and then garnered up his heart in a new trust. Sophia Wentworth was beautiful and attractive, fourteen years younger than himself, and of a family which, though limited in pecuniary resources, stretched its pedigree back through the royal and tory governors of New Hampshire, to the gifted Earl of Strafford, the hapless friend of Charles I. She possessed intellect of no common order, rapid perceptions, strong retentive powers, facility of seizing knowledge almost by intuition, and a command of language comprising somewhat of histrionic force. Her mind, but little disciplined by education, sprang to its results without intermediate toil, and in its flights of fancy and originality of thought revealed the true impulses of genius.

By this fair young mother I was received with a joy that remembered not the anguish which for three days and nights had threatened to terminate her life; and by my father, usually grave beyond his years, with an amazement of delight and gratitude. Their first gift to me was the name of the early-smitten consort, consecrated by the baptismal water from the hand of the Rev. Dr. Joseph Strong, in the church of the old town, under the gray cliffs, ere the second week of my infant pilgrimage was completed. Such was the custom of those days. Before the moon had filled her horn, which, perchance, hung its faintest crescent over the cradle, the new babe must be presented to the priest, in the great congregation. During the early periods of colonial existence it was thought proper that the day of its birth should be also that of its baptism. A venerable friend, whose advent was during the coldest part of a very severe winter, and who has recently died at the age of almost ninety, assured me that she was not spared by her parents, but borne out to the house of public worship a few hours after her first appearance, which chanced to be on Sunday. Her father being the minister, it was deemed that any abatement of the strictest requisition would be singularly improper; but tempering the zeal of piety with the solicitude of love, she was enveloped in a white satin bag, elaborately tied around the tiny neck, and preserved as an heirloom in the family.

This extreme primitive usage did not permit the mother the privilege of dedicating, in person, her offspring at the hallowed font. My father presented his own little, waif to the good pastor for the blessed rite, accompanied by the nurse and a faithful servant woman. The latter, after the frost of fourscore had settled upon her, was fond of relating the scene, with its minutest circumstances, as one of some note in her annals. I, too, must speak of her; for in her line of life she was an example worthy of comment and imitation.

Faithful Lucy Calkins! Methinks I see her now, in the costume of early days, a neat calico short wrapper, and in winter one of green baize, with shining black skirt and blue checked apron. There would she be, churning butter of golden hue, or drawing from a large brick oven the most delicate bread, or feeding her flock of poultry, or, perchance, lecturing the waiter-boy, who might have neglected his duty, she having, especially on the latter occasion, not a melodious voice or a fascinating physiognomy. Most truthful was she. I doubt whether she ever concealed a fact, and she was seldom guilty of mollifying it. She had a strong temper but a kind heart. One of my earliest recollections at entering her kitchen, was earnestly looking in her face to see if she was pleasant. If she was, nothing could exceed my joy. If she was not—and children are great casuists in such matters—I usually made good my retreat, laying hands upon nothing.

A remarkable person was she for persevering diligence and consistency of conduct. Only at two service-places had she lived during a life which extended to more than fourscore, save the one where her childhood was nurtured until she reached the age of eighteen. For more than forty years after the breaking up of the family at Norwich, she resided in the household of Daniel Wadsworth, Esq., at Hartford, first as an active housekeeper, then as a superintendent of other servants; and lastly, seated quietly in the corner, and appealed to for the benefits of her experience, she rested from her labors in peace and goodwill. Excellent gowns she now wore, and nice caps; nor would the delicate hand of the mistress neglect to arrange her apparel when she walked slowly to the house of God, wherein was her delight, or aid her into the family carriage when she occasionally went to pass the day with an early friend. Respect to her virtues was paid by those whom she had so long and so faithfully served. Great kindness of heart had she for sickness and sorrow; and to claims of charity, and especially those from her own poor relatives, her liberality was free and untiring. By prudence in preserving the surplus of her wages, she had secured an independence, and, after the death of the beloved benefactors under whose roof for almost half a century she had dwelt, returned to beautiful Norwich, to be solaced by the nursing care of her kindred.

There she was provided and attended like any lady of the land; for she lived upon the income of her own money, and was a devisor by will and testament of legacy and donation. There I sometimes saw her, in great comfort, sleeping in a large apartment hung with pictures, and the small bed of a nursing relative near her own, lest she might want aid in the night.

When I saw her for the last time, shortly before her death, she was on the verge of her eighty-fifth year. I had heard that she mourned after me, and wondered why I so neglected to call, thinking, in her brokenness of mind, that I was still a neighbor. When I told her that I had come by the railroad forty miles since dinner, and ere tea-time should return home, making eighty miles in all on purpose to see her, she seemed bewildered. Intellectual memory slumbered, but the memory of the heart was wakeful.

"It is her voice," she said; "yes, her voice—the baby that I held when she was christened."

Then I touched some of the chords of early days, and they vibrated truly and lovingly. Sunlight came again over that wintry face. The Book of God was dear to her, and the Saviour who had led her with his flock many years beside the still waters.

I knew that I should see her no more in this life, for the mark of the Better Land was upon her. That I remember her still with tenderness, is but a fitting tribute to one who, in honesty of purpose and consistent goodness, was a model for that class of persons on whose aid the comfort of domestic life so essentially depends. Often, when, like my sister housekeepers of this section of our Union, I have been annoyed by the habits of those whom we call helps, and who are sometimes hindrances—annoyed by their want of principle, their pretending to understand what they never knew, their leaving suddenly after having been laboriously instructed, or staying when confidence had ceased, my thoughts have recurred to the efficiency, the integrity of this relic of the olden time, in whom the hearts of those whom she served safely trusted.

Humble, venerable friend, farewell. "Faithful over a few things," we believe that thou hast entered "into the joy of thy Lord."

  1. Why need a man die, who has sage in his garden?"