Letters of Life/VII
ARISTOCRACY OF THE OLDEN TIME.
The upper, or old town of Norwich, my birthplace, was decidedly aristocratical at the period of which I speak. Yet its aristocracy was not founded on wealth alone, but on the firmer basis of honorable descent and moral excellence. Higher principles were called into exercise more not to disgrace an ancestral name embalmed by the respect and love of the community—than merely to amass money, or to display it. Hence the structure of society was good where the influence of wealth aided the power of virtue.
The aristocracy of that favored spot was principally vested in two families and their collateral branches, the Lathrops and Huntingtons. The dynasty of the first dated back some two hundred years, to the industry, integrity, and piety of Mr. Thomas Lathrop (or Lotrop, as the name is found written in ancient books). He left two sons and a daughter, who nobly sustained the paternal dignity. Of the eldest, Dr. Daniel Lathrop, distinguished by talents and education as well as by public spirit and piety, I have spoken in my first letter. He died long before my birth, but his brother, Dr. Joshua Lathrop, I well remember. Indeed, I think I see now his small, well knit, perfectly erect form, his mild, benevolent brow, surmounted by the large round white wig, with its depth of curls, the three-cornered smartly cocked hat, the nicely plaited stock, the rich silver buckles at knee and shoe, the long waistcoat, and fair ruffles over hand and bosom, which marked the gentleman of the old school; and he never yielded to modern innovation. A large oil portrait of him, in this costume, with one of his beautiful wife, courteously presenting him a plentiful dish of yellow peaches, adorned their best parlor, covered with green moreen curtains, at which I gazed when a little child with eyes dilated, as on the wonders of the Vatican.
He was a man of the most regular and temperate habits, fond of relieving the poor in secret, and faithful in all the requisitions of piety. He was persevering to very advanced age in taking exercise in the open air, and especially in daily equestrian excursions, withheld only by very inclement weather. At eighty-four, he might be seen, mounted upon his noble, lustrous black horse, readily urged to an easy canter, his servant a little in the rear. Continual rides in that varied and romantic region were so full of suggestive thought to his religious mind, that he was led to construct a nice juvenile book on the works of nature, and of nature's God. Being in dialogue form, it was entitled "The Father and Son;" and we, younglings, received a copy with great gratitude from the kind-hearted author. It was stitched in coarse flowered paper, and sometimes presented as a Thanksgiving gift to the children of his acquaintance, or any whom he might chance to meet in the streets. How well I recollect his elastic step in walking, his agility in mounting or dismounting his steed, and that calm, happy temperament, which, after he was an octogenarian, made him a model for men in their prime.
A single sister belonged to these two excellent brothers. She married a gentleman of the name of Coit, and was exemplary in the conjugal and maternal duties. I never saw her, but have been told by her contemporaries that she was a lovely, consistent Christian. Her eldest son, Mr. Daniel Lathrop Coit, I remember as a frequent visitant of the venerated widow of that uncle whose name he bore. I think I have been told that he had been a member of her family before his marriage, and he evidently listened with affectionate respect to the treasures of wisdom that flowed from her lips. She also appreciated his accuracy of mind, and close observation of human nature, which had been aided by what was rare in those days, the advantage of travelling in England and France. She used familiarly to style him her "philosophical nephew." I thought he was a second Seneca, and always was mute in his presence.
He was fond of the science of Natural History, and of exploring those labyrinths where nature loves to hide, having made man himself a link in her chain of mystery. By casual observers he was deemed reserved or haughty; but those who were able to comprehend him discovered a heart true to the impulses of friendship and affection, and a mind capable of balancing the most delicate points of patriotic and moral principle. He was the father of an interesting family, and opposite their pleasant residence was a pair of those lofty, wide-spreading elms, which are the peculiar glory of New England. Those were the trees that prompted the simple effusion beginning
I do remember me
Of two old elm trees' shade,
With mosses sprinkled at their feet,
Where my young childhood play'd.
The consort of Dr. Joshua Lathrop was a lady of fine personal appearance and great energy. In an age when domestic science was in universal practice and respect, she maintained the first rank as a pattern housekeeper. The young girls brought up by her were uncommon workers, and thoroughly indoctrinated in moral and religious obligation. They often married well, and in thrift and industry were a fortune to their husbands. She was a sagacious observer of human nature, and not unfrequently a profitable adviser to her lord, whose unsuspicious charity made him occasionally the prey of imposture. One morning a man presented himself with a written paper, purporting that he was deaf and dumb. No institution for the nurture of that class of persons then existed in our country; and as instances of that misfortune were rarely exhibited, they were wont to call forth both curiosity and sympathy. This stranger enforced his claim by signs, and answered in pantomime such queries as were made palpable to the eye. The pity of the good old gentleman was warmly awakened for a fellow-being thus cut off from all the privileges of speech and sound. The antique dark mahogany desk was opened, which never turned upon its hinges in vain. Still a pair of keen black eyes occasionally raised from the needle, critically regarded the mute applicant. Suddenly a sharp report, like a pistol, issued from a chestnut stick that had intruded itself among the hickory on the great, blazing fire, and he involuntarily started.
"My dear," said the lady, "this person can hear."
Horror-struck, and enraged at thus losing the large bounty almost within his grasp, he discourteously, and, it is to be hoped, unconsciously exclaimed, "You lie!" And the illusion was dissolved.
Mrs. J. Lathrop survived her husband many years, and, until past the age of ninety, retained her active habits and mental capacity unimpaired.
Three children appertained to this branch of the Lathrop dynasty. The eldest, Thomas, evidently inherited the energy of his mother. He possessed a laudable ambition to sustain the dignity of an unsullied aristocracy. No equipage was so conspicuous as his, no horses so fine, no harnesses so lustrous, no carriages of such immaculate neatness and taste. An elegant mansion rose at his word, on a commanding eminence. To our more plebeian eyes it was like that of "Peveril of the Peak." Two sons and five daughters enjoyed and beautified this attractive abode. The eldest, who bore the name of her distinguished great-aunt, seemed to partake of her excellences. So many elements of consistency and moral beauty did she reveal, that mothers said to their daughters, and teachers to their pupils, "Do and be like Jerusha Lathrop." A child, who was perhaps too often reproved by comparison or contrast with so perfect a model, replied petulantly, "I wish there wa'n't no Rush' Lotrup. I'm tired out of the sound." Similar was the sentiment of the Athenian peasant, who desired to vote for the banishment of Aristides, because he was tired of hearing him always called "the Just."
The widow of Thomas Lathrop, Esq., is still living, and exhibits, at the age of ninety, a rare example of comely appearance, active habitudes, and serene piety. With unbowed frame she directs the daily operations of a systematic household, and delights in the skilful uses of the needle. She illustrates the theory of Cicero, that "old age is honored, if it maintain its own right, if it is subservient to no one, if it continue to exercise control over its dependents;" and belongs to that class whom the same eloquent philosopher designates as "those with whom wisdom is progressive to their latest breath."
Mr. Daniel Lathrop was a gentleman of portly form, whose movements were as leisurely as those of his elder brother were mercurial. He almost always smiled when he spoke, and ever had a kind word or benevolent deed for the lowly and poor. He and his fair wife were patterns of amiable temperament and domestic happiness. Three daughters and a son, whom they reared with great tenderness, reached maturity, but all slumber in the grave with their parents. The whole family, interesting in themselves, were more so to me from being inhabitants of the mansion of my birth and earliest happiness. I watched the changes that were made in modernizing the premises with somewhat of the jealous exclusiveness that the ancient Jews felt for Zion. Still, the sentiment that leads to the preservation and embellishment of an ancestral mansion, especially in these times, when the fashion is that "all things should be made new," seems to me to possess great filial as well as moral beauty.
Lydia Lathrop, the only sister of the two brothers of whom I have spoken, was brought up in the indulgences of wealth, yet not released from the obligations that a primitive and utilitarian age required of her sex. I have heard that she was accounted beautiful when young, and sought in marriage by those of high position and expectations. When I first saw her she was the thoughtful and rather comely wife of a Presbyterian minister settled at Elizabethtown, New Jersey, whence she came statedly to visit the paternal home, being welcomed like an angel. The echo, "Mrs. Austin has come!" transmitted from servant to servant to our abode on the opposite side of the street, is among the gleeful clarion-cries of memory. She always remembered to bring something to the children. My usual gift was a small sugar radish with a tuft of green leaves. This was treasured for months immaculate, till another came. I recollect feeling great indignation at a visitant to my baby-house, who broke, for the purpose of tasting it, my consecrated treasure.
The choice of her lot for life, by this daughter of the aristocracy, was considered a love-match, and somewhat confirmatory of the ancient adage that "the course of true love never did run smooth."
Her spouse, the Rev. David Austin, was quite a character. He was stately and elegant in person, of insinuating manners, polished by European travel, and possessed of an ample fortune. He was fluent, often eloquent, and took great delight in the exercise of his oratorical powers. He was a good scholar, though a vivid, excursive imagination often made shipwreck of both argument and analysis. Over the people of his charge he had, at first, an entire influence; but intense study of the prophetic portions of Scripture, while partially recovered from an attack of scarlet fever, unsettled his mind, and led to wild theories which ended in his dismission. Afterwards he occupied himself with building on so extensive a scale in his native city of New Haven, as to exhaust his own finances and involve those of his family, and become, for a time, the inmate of a debtor's prison. When released, and finding that his eccentricities had excluded him from the regular pulpits of his own denomination, he was immersed, and joined the Baptists, and then the Methodist connection. His amiable wife, whose native prudence would have been a healthful counterpoise to his eccentricity had its influence been admitted, returned to the abode of her parents. He was there frequently an inmate with her, and eventually a constant resident.
It was in the later years of his life that I knew him, when his peculiarities had been softened by time. He distinguished me by kindness, sometimes directed my juvenile reading, and gave an impulse to my Latin studies. He had pleasant conversational powers, and a fund of humor. The latter was, however, so dependent on manner and gesture, and variation of feature, that its related instances fail of effect.
"I was driving in the country yesterday," said he, "and saw some hoarhound plants by the roadside that looked green and pretty. I got out and took them up, and brought them home. There they are growing, and I call them mine, for it's clever to have something to domineer over." For the latter years of his life he was the pastor of the Congregational church in Bozrah, a small township in the vicinity. There he faithfully and acceptably discharged all parochial duty, still continuing to reside in Norwich, the will of the father of his estimable wife having made respectable provision for his support. His delight in preaching, and his intellectual vigor, were unchanged by advancing years, while his moral purity and true kindness of heart never varied. Among the evidences of his piety were the tender, devout spirit of his prayer, the meekness with which he received reproof, the almost lavish benevolence which shrank not at self-denial, and the calmness with which, at past threescore and ten, he received the summons of dismission to a world unseen.
The name of Huntington has already been mentioned as copartner with Lathrop in the acknowledged aristocracy of olden time. Between them was no rivalry or disturbing force, as among the Montagues and Capulets. Neither is it a slight merit that they should cherish the bonds of private friendship, and seek the general good of the community, since there might naturally arise causes of competition, or of ambitious strife, to which few who were similarly situated would have held themselves always superior.
After I was old enough to become an observer, the dynasty of the Huntingtons was the most numerous; and of those branches which were located around what was then called Huntington Square, my recollections are vivid, our own residence being in that neighborhood.
General Jabez Huntington, the father of this distinguished house, I never saw, and presume that he must have died before my birth. With the eldest son, General Jedediah Huntington, a patriotic and saintly man, and the friend of Washington, I was not personally acquainted, he, with his family, having early become inhabitants of New London. Judge Andrew Huntington, the second in succession, was a man of plain manners and incorruptible integrity. His few words were always those of good sense and truth, and the weight of his influence ever given to the best interests of society. His was that true republican simplicity of virtue that does nothing for show—makes no sacrifice of principle to popularity, pays every one his due, and is content with the silent plaudit of an approving conscience. Would that his mantle had fallen upon many in our own more stirring times! His lady—a second wife, I believe—possessed an elegance of form and address which would have been conspicuous at any foreign court. She was especially fascinating to the children who visited her, by her liberal presentations of cakes and other pleasing eatables, or, what was to some equally alluring, a readiness to lend fine books with pictures.
Colonel Joshua Huntington had one of the most benign countenances I ever remember to have seen. His calm, beautiful brow was an index of his temper and life. Let who would be disturbed or irritated, he was not the man. He regarded with such kindness as the Gospel teaches the whole human family. At his own fair fireside, surrounded by loving, congenial spirits, and in all social intercourse, he was the same serene and revered Christian philosopher.
General Ebenezer Huntington was a noble specimen of the soldier and patriot. I think I have been told that he left college at the age of sixteen, to join the army of our Revolution, and continued with it during the whole war of eight years. The elegant manner and decision of character that are wont to appertain to the higher grades of the military profession, were conspicuous in him, and unimpaired by age. He was the father of a numerous family, and a gentleman of extensive influence.
General Zachariah Huntington was a model of manly symmetry and beauty. He was tall, with noble features, a pure complexion, and a fresh color upon cheek and lip. Though more intimate in his family than in that of any of the other brothers, his daughter being my schoolmate and friend, I always felt afraid of him. To my childish fancy he seemed like one of the chieftains of the old Douglas blood, who ruled the Scottish kings.
With this remarkable brotherhood were two sisters—Elizabeth, the wife of Colonel John Chester, of Wethersfield, the mother of many children, richly gifted both in person and mind; and Mary, the help-meet of our excellent pastor, the Rev. Dr. Joseph Strong. A mistress was she of the minutiæ of that domestic science which promotes household comfort and happiness. Proverbially plain was she in dress and manner, condescending to the lowliest, and of so easy and cheerful a temperament that her words were always mingled with smiles. In those days a minister and his consort were expected to be patterns in all things to all people, and the closest critic perceived in her only those quiet, unambitious virtues that pertain to woman's true sphere, and a cloudless piety. Her husband had erected a handsome parsonage within the precincts of Huntington Square; and they and their children formed an integral part of those weekly social gatherings which kept bright the chain of affection, and the fountain of kindred sympathy. To be occasionally comprehended in those circles, and partake their "feast of reason and flow of soul," which comprised always a most liberal admixture of creature-comforts, was accounted a rare privilege.
On such an occasion I had more than once the pleasure of seeing the venerable mother of that noble race. To young eyes she seemed a person of extreme age, and probably surpassed fourscore. It was beautiful to note how warmly she was welcomed, and what marked and sweet respect was paid her by all her descendants. Her presence seemed the centre and crown of their enjoyments. Tenderly cared for and honored, she dwelt under the roof of her youngest son, General Zachariah Huntington, until her death, which, I think, was sudden, and from the effects of severe influenza. This son, who superintended a mercantile establishment as well as the culture of his extensive grounds, took great delight in music. He possessed a scientific knowledge of it, with a voice of great power and melody. A desire to improve this important department of Divine worship induced him at one time to become the leader of our choir in church. This voluntary service was appreciated by the people, and the labor connected with it felt to be, on his part, both a condescension and a religious offering. When he gave out the name of the tune, which was then always done in a distinct enunciation, and we rose in our seats in the gallery, every eye turning to him for guidance, he seemed, with his commanding presence and dignified form, to our young minds a superior being. One of his requisitions was imperative, that the female portion of the choir should sing without their bonnets. That article of apparel being then the antipodes of the present fashion, and formidable both for size and protrusion, he affirmed not only intercepted the sound, but precluded striking the key-tone with accuracy. None of us would gainsay his wishes, and the simplicity of the times counted it no indecorous exposure. Nevertheless, there was sometimes, as is wont to be in more modern days among those who sustain the sacred harmony, a murmuring of discordant strings. One young lady of the Huntington name, though not a near relative of his own, chanced to take offence, and was seen on a Sunday morning making her way to a seat in the body of the church.
"Come up to us here;" said we.
"No. Zaccheus may climb the tree alone, for all me," was the quick reply. It ought to be mentioned that this bad pun was by no means a fair exponent of her native wit.
The only daughter of this gentleman, Eliza Mary Huntington, my school associate and sisterly friend, returns to my heart through the far lapse of years, as I gather these reminiscences, and claims a heart-tribute. Full of gay life and spirit was that beautiful girl, earnest in her studies, and in the recesses for play our leader. With the vigor of a fine constitution, she exulted in all graceful exercises, and the sensation of fatigue was unknown to her. Together we scaled the ledges of rock with which our native region abounded, searching for hardy plants, when the wild honeysuckle first threw out its bright pink banner. In the evening we sometimes met, and repeated to each other the lessons for the next day, knitting at the same time, with primitive simplicity, our own stockings. When the years of school fled away, and youth ripened, her beauty assumed a more tremulous delicacy, as though health might not be firmly rooted. Watched over like a fair rosebud was she by the stately father, the doting mother, and two fond brothers, with the unwavering idolatry of affection. They would not that the winds of heaven should roughly visit their darling. She was early married, and removed to the city of New York. Early, too, was she transferred to that home where they "neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God."
Ah! does that gentle head
Rest with the ancient of thy noble house
In the tomb's silence? Many a falling tear
Answers my question from the sons of need,
Whom, hungry, thou hast fed—uncovered, clothed
And sorrowing, comforted.
With silent course,
Unostentatious as the heaven-shed dew,
Thy bounties fell; nor didst thou scatter gifts
Or utter prayers with pharisaic zeal,
For man to note. Thy praise was with thy God.
In that domestic sphere where Nature rears
Woman's meek throne, thy worth was eminent;
Nor breathed thy goodness o'er cold, stoic hearts.
What gentleness was thine, what kind regard,
To him thou lov'dst—what dovelike tenderness
In voice and deed! Almost Disease might bear
Its lot without complaining, wert thou near,
A ministering angel.
Scarce had Spring,
Weeping its tear-dews o'er thy daughter's grave,
Return'd, ere thou wert summon'd to ascend,
Like her, to that bright host whose ceaseless harps
Hymn the Redeemer.
She with earnest hand,
When gathered like a rose 'mid perfumed flowers,
Clasp'd the firm hope of everlasting life,
And thou, in trembling, less-confiding trust,
Launch'd on the surge of Death's tempestuous flood
With the same anchor.
So ye are at rest,
Where sorrow comes not. Is there room for us
In the same haven, when the Master calls?
Perhaps I should ask your pardon for adding a tribute which, to uninterested persons, may seem commonplace, but which was with me a heart-voice. The favorite companion of happy school-days, and the loving mother who installed me almost as a daughter, when her own had found first a new residence, and last an eternal home, it was fitting that I should record in verse as well as in memory.
Neither would I omit the expression of gratitude for attentions and kind treatment from almost every member of the ancient aristocracy with whom I became acquainted. In those days it might not have been deemed a slight condescension to notice with a marked, unvarying regard, one of humble origin, unaided by wealth, and unable, even in the large hospitalities of social intercourse, to render an equivalent for benefits conferred.
It was in the autumn of 1857 that I was permitted to attend an interesting festival in Norwich—the gathering, as far as was feasible, of all the remaining branches of the great clan Huntington. Invitations had been sent, for a year previous, in all directions, and preliminary arrangements made for accommodation and comfort.
Nature conspired with this movement of so many of her friends, for the weather was fine and the scenery paradisaical. It was in the "shining morning-face" of Thursday, September 3d, that throngs, in carriages and on foot, were seen wending their way toward the meeting-house on the green, in the ancient town of Norwich—mine own old meeting-house. The body of the edifice was exclusively reserved for those in whose veins flowed the Huntington blood; the galleries and outskirts were for aliens. Every thing—the welcome from the pulpit, the poem pronounced there, the hymns, the music composed for them, the choir that rendered it sweetly vocal—all were from the lips of Huntingtons. Verily they were as the chosen people, the sons of Aaron, in that temple. The genealogical address, happily blending research with enthusiasm, was written and delivered by the Rev. E. B. Huntington, of Stamford, and is already multiplied through the press. After the public exercises, an elegant collation spread in the State House, with beautiful and profuse embellishment of flowers, was enjoyed by the chosen people. The afternoon exercises were finely varied by miscellaneous speaking. Goodly elements had they for such an entertainment—divines, statesmen, civilians, representing the professions and occupations of our widespread land. Among them, the tact and eloquence of Professor Huntington, of Harvard University, were conspicuous. There was a goodly sprinkling of grace and beauty among the feminine portion of this noble house and its collateral branches. Yet I saw no one who, in manly symmetry and bearing, was a better exponent of its ancient dignity and courteousness than Wolcott Huntington, of Norwich, a son of the late elegant Brigadier-General.
It was pleasant to mark the heightened action of kindred blood, as the closing hours of the festivity drew near. Those who had at first scrutinized each other with a strange kind of curiosity, now felt the impulses of affinity, clasped the parting hand with fervor, and regretted that a longer period had not been allotted to their reunion.
For my own part, I wish that such family gatherings were more frequent. If not always able fully to foster ancestral pride, they would still be fruitful in healthful sympathies, perhaps suggestive of mutual action in the blessed fields of patriotism and benevolence.