Letters of Life/XIV
Good-bye. Don't you think it is time? I am sure I do. Ancient people are apt to be prolix, and young ones too, if you let them talk about themselves. Yet there's scarcely any thing more that I care to tell you about, even if you cared to hear.
So, good-bye! the hearty old Saxon word, less elegant than the French adieu, or the classic, mournfully euphonious word, farewell. But in this last letter I wish to say to you, my kind friend, how comfortably I am living. Far happier am I at seventy than at seventeen. Fashionable persons who should look at my lowly house, might not think so. That is no matter. I have lived long enough to know that showy mansions, and lofty staircases, and halls of gleaming marble, and castellated domes, do not necessarily include happiness. I have tried them all.
Here am I, in a plain wooden structure, without pretension to elegance, yet exactly adapted to my comfort, and to the "plain intent of life." In summer, the vines that embower it give it somewhat of the aspect of a cottage orné; but in the nakedness of winter one might notice many defects, and that the whole would be improved by a coat of paint. Still, it satisfies me. I have three small parlors, so redolent with the love-tokens of friendship, that should the donors attempt to enter them at once, it would be by no means possible. There is also, on the northern side, a writing-room called my den, where I have intense enjoyment, and spend such time between early morning and the dining hour as housekeeping propensities, and many calls from acquaintances and strangers, allow. The edifice, though narrow in front, stretches out longitudinally, comprising more space than appears to a casual observer, so that I am the mistress of eighteen apartments from attic to cellar, besides some dozen closets of various capacities.
The financial cares of forecasting and purchasing supplies, in which my husband was so perfect as to require no aid, and leave me little chance for experience, seemed burdensome during the first years of widowhood; but now they are so systematized, and the improvements in some departments so visible, as to form an agreeable variety. My elementary principle is to keep out of debt, or, in the vernacular phrase, to "pay as I go." The surplus earnings of my pen, however small they might be, having been carefully laid aside from the beginning, the interest on those investments assists me in the accomplishment of this purpose, and with economical management keeps me free from anxiety. More than this. I am enabled sometimes to realize the truth, how much greater is the blessing "to give than to receive," for which I heartily thank my Heavenly Father.
Should you like to look still further into my domestic establishment? My agricultural and quadrupedal possessions are diminished and meagre. Never, until residing in this habitation, had I been without the appendages of gardens and a cow. Of course, I had never before fully appreciated their value. For several years after our removal thither, we continued to keep poultry, but robbers decimated them, and the servants disliked their charge, so they gradually vanished away. The only animated beings over whom I at present hold dominion, are a large pussy, and two hives of bees. Those winged chemists are my perpetual admiration. Their early explorations, their tireless industry, the mathematical symmetry of their hexagonal cells, their internal order, the mystery with which they seek to veil their habitudes, with other strong peculiarities, are a curious and pleasant study.
A German bee-master comes at stated periods to claim their sweet rental. He boldly takes them in his hands if he wishes to transfer them from one abode to another. I asked him by what art he surmounted their belligerent propensities. He simply answered, "By not being afraid of them." Whether this internal armor would be sufficient in all cases, I am not ready to aver. If their irascible properties were in action, I should choose to keep at a respectful distance. Equally skeptical am I with regard to the creed that they will not sting the members of the family where they abide. An old lady, distinguished for kindness to all the inferior creation, especially to her own retainers, used to say it was well to go out frequently and speak pleasantly to the bees. She thought them susceptible of pleasure from the attention, and cultivated by it. Acting upon her own suggestion, and regarding their marked characteristic of neatness, she arrayed herself in a clean cap and collar for the especial benefit of her apiary, and flattered herself that her visits were manifestly acceptable. How far this was an amiable illusion I do not pretend to say, but think the peculiar lineaments of this remarkable insect have never been fully and philosophically deduced.
I always participate in their resentment when their lawful property, the treasures of their labor, are reft away, and give continual charge that my portion be not made exorbitant. Yet there is always enough for us both; and the fragrant, streaming comb, is grateful to neighbors and invalids. Indulge me, kind friend, in reciting that fine passage from Shakspeare's Henry V., which first inspired me with the desire to be an owner of bees. But the wonderful poet, who understood so well the arcana of Nature and the phases of the human heart, erred in applying the masculine gender to the chief sovereignty of the hive, the Salique law not being in operation there:
"So work the honey-bees—
Creatures that by a ruling instinct teach
The arts of order to a peopled kingdom.
—They have a king, and officers of sort—
Where some like magistrates correct at home—
Others, like merchant-princes trade abroad—
Others, like soldiers armed in their stings
Make war upon the summer's velvet buds,
Which pillage they with merry march bring home
To the tent royal of their emperor:—
Who busied in his majesty, surveys
The singing mason building roofs of gold,
The civil citizens heading up the honey,
The poor, mechanic porters crowding in
Their heavy burdens at his narrow gate,
The sad-eyed justice with his surly hum
Delivering o'er to execution dire
The lazy, yawning drone."
Snugly sheltered in a southern nook is a vigorous hop-vine, which, taking hold with its thousand hands, mantles the wall and a portion of the roof in its graceful drapery. Its beautiful clusters of a delicate green are gathered in autumn, and their odor always touches my reminiscences of the vast fields devoted to their culture in Kent, the ancient Cantrum of England. Mine are carefully spread and dried, for they enter into the domestic pharmacopœia. A slight infusion of them warm, at retiring, propitiates the visits of Morpheus, as many a nervous person can testify; "while taken cold, an hour before the principal meal, it exercises a strengthening influence on the digestive organs, being both a sedative and tonic.
By the side of this Humulus Lapulus, as the botanists call it, flourishes a less aspiring plant, the Sambucus Nigra, or common elder. Its large masses of white blossoms, which beautify so many wild and waste places in June, are saved for medicinal purposes, having purifying and alterative powers; while some sister housekeepers, more enterprising than myself, compound from its autumnal berries a kind of wine, which they pronounce both salubrious and palatable.
At the feet of these patronizing herbs, and in and out among the grass-blades, a few strawberries run, now and then hiding themselves, as if ashamed of their semi-barbarous state, and anon exultant, as though they heard the almost irreverent praise of Sidney Smith.
I have told you that I have no garden. Nevertheless, I plant a few rows of beans, which are the delight of my eyes; and in winter, sow tomato seeds in a box of rich earth, which, being early intrusted to my rather insoluble, clay soil, produce a vegetable of greater freshness than can be procured of the grocers. Once I was inspired with the lofty ambition to be a producer of potatoes. A small plot of ground in the rear of my offices was properly prepared and stocked with the most approved kinds of the pomme de terre. I watched their green heads protruding through the mould, and their healthful efflorescence, as Diocletian did his cabbages. Suddenly the withering of the green tops seemed to betoken that the bulb was perfected, and I directed the test of the spade to be applied. Lo! every hill had been rifled, their surface dexterously smoothed, and the rootless vines set out again. Only a few luckless tubers remained, to show us the excellence of what we had lost. The busy personage who had toiled so acquisitively while we slept, was not even so obliging as his prototype, to sow tares.
You should see by what a world of grape-vines I am encompassed. They climb upon my piazzas, draw a cordon around the walls, besiege every loophole, look in at the chamber windows, and leap from my summer-house to the surrounding boughs, hanging their clusters in the air. I have striven to restrain the last-named class of explorers, and woven them perseveringly in with the lattice-work, but they have an irresistible pioneer spirit. Were the prolific impulses of my vines as strong as their emigrating ones, I might know how to garner their fruits. As it is, my harvest of grapes is bountiful. Besides the claims of hospitality, and the pleasure of friendly gifts, the clusters may be so packed as to form an agreeable dessert during a part of the winter; and I mingle the expressed juice of others with sugar and water, producing by fermentation a wine which may be presented to the advocates of Temperance without reproof. My surplus currants and blackberries, in which some portion of the ground is fruitful, are also sometimes subjected to a similar vintage, for I have a natural desire to be a producer.
Of the flowers which spring up quite sparsely, I have no boast to make. There are a few roses, a flaunting piony, some lilies of the valley, flowering almonds, and a syringa bush. By their aid, with the evergreen from the hedge, I can fill mantel vases, or construct a homely bouquet. I have ceased to plant rare seeds, for they seldom come up; and if they do, the worms eat them. My principal show is from plants sheltered in the house through the winter, geraniums, orange trees, and varieties of the Cactus Speciossimus, which enjoy their vernal emancipation.
So that is my garden. You can laugh at the epithet if you choose. I fancy I hear you asking, Have you no trees? Trees, to be sure! Yes, and some of them notable ones. Look at that weeping-willow. It is not remarkable for grace, but has an aristocratic pedigree. It is a descendant from Pope's willow at Twickenham, and was sent me a slender slip in a tin box, which I set out and cherished. He received a basket of figs from the Levant, and observing among the twigs that enveloped it one that appeared to possess vitality, ordered his gardener to plant and watch it, and from that unsightly stock came the first weeping-willow that England ever saw. From such a classic root was my own derived. It has now a large trunk, but being the denizen of too dry a spot, does not throw out redundant branches, or droop as gracefully as it otherwise might.
I have an elm, also of noble ancestry, the child of a majestic one planted by the traveller Ledyard, who went round the world on foot. It was sent by an antiquarian friend, with compost adapted to its transmission. I ordered a large hole to be dug, into which I descended to receive my guest, arranging its roots and fibres in a becoming manner, sifting upon them the light, rich soil, and directing the man to trample and press the surface, leaving a slight cavity around the trunk, and finish by a plentiful ablution. I gave it good advice to be content with its new home, and to adorn it, which it seems to have taken, and uplifts its respectable head as the watch and ward of my south eastern boundary.
Another elm have I, without patrician pretensions. I placed it myself opposite my front door, on the outer edge of the sidewalk, and had the pleasure of hearing it flattered by some of my friends for its lilliputian proclivities with the title of "Mrs. Sigourney's broomstick." Notwithstanding all their abuse, it is now a tree of goodly height and size, the centre of a line of some half dozen of the Hippocastanus tribe, remarkable for little else save their reluctance to put forth their flowers at the proper season.
We found a clan of maples on the outer border of our territory when we first took possession of it. There they still maintain a sort of sullen sovereignty, like aborigines who conceive themselves not sufficiently esteemed, but are doggedly determined to live and look as they please.
Among the original settlers was a bevy of sprawling apple trees. Coming from scenes where every growing thing had been trained to symmetry, and made as beautiful as its nature would admit, I was extremely disgusted at their aspect. But when their season of efflorescence came, I was mollified, for they surfeited us with fragrance. One of them, a delicately shaped crab, in its fleecy white tissue, like a bride, called forth unqualified admiration, while its bright red fruit supplied us with pure, delicious jellies.
So, sacrificing my prejudices, I caused the bodies of these despised retainers to be bathed autumnally with a dilution of soap, sulphur, and wood-ashes, enriched and loosened the earth about their roots, and removed some of their most odious excrescences. These friendly offices seemed to me no more than a fit offering, or atonement for my first injustice; but look you, how they have been repaid! Loads of the best fruitage their various capacities could command have been showered at our feet.
From the time that the early saccharines robe themselves in gold, to the frosty nights when the rough russet puts on its brown overcoat, and asks admission to the garner, is no stay or hindrance to their revenue. The last year more than fifty barrels have been produced. How to dispose of them, over and above all culinary expenditure, has been a study. Besides gifts to neighbors, and weekly baskets to pensioners, and Christmas barrels to the State Prison and two hundred inmates of the Reform School, I sent many bushels to a cider-mill, from whence they emerged a sparkling liquid, which, eventually assuming the more pungent form of vinegar, made itself useful in a variety of ways. As I am not ashamed of being a practical woman, let me mention that its exhalations, when poured on burning coals, diffuse a pleasant, healthful odor, if the house in rainy weather has not been fully ventilated, and that it is considered a powerful disinfecting agent in hospitals.
My commerce in apples has led to a unique kind of philanthropy. From the time of their first taking an orbicular shape, and when it might be supposed their hardness and acidity would repulse all, save elephantine tusks and ostrich stomachs, they were the prey of roaming children. When they became heavy enough to fall, their enterprise was unbounded. They surmounted every enclosure, they darted in and disappeared with magical alertness; those who had achieved an entrance supplied, through gates or hedges, those who stood without. They came in the evening with baskets and barrows, and, discovering there was no man upon the premises, waxed bolder and bolder. The accustomed phrases of dismission and dispersion failed to put them to flight. Rappings at the window, and commands to disappear, they met with a dogged defiance. I grieve to say that, in impudence of deportment, the girls were conspicuous. Since the usual forms of objurgation were powerless, I bethought me of another expedient. I said pleasantly: "Come in at the gate, to my south piazza, and I will give you apples." There I kept a large reservoir, and put some into every dirty hand, assuring them that all who would not help themselves should be thus supplied. They seemed content, and eventually their faces brightened at being called the children who would not take what did not belong to them. Encouraged by this proof of susceptibility, I proceeded, with the aid of an amiable and intelligent servant-girl, who was pleased to officiate as semi-almoner and usher, to teach the phrase "I thank you," and by little and little, the feat of a bow or courtesy. The last was considered as a grotesque achievement, or an act of supererogation, and at first was regarded with grins, or stifled laughter; but eventually they ceased to be marvellous, and I fancied had a sort of refining influence, drawing them still more palpably within the pale of humanity. So a rude species of mission-school sprang out of this apple traffic.
Another form of prudential ministration of these same trees ought not to be omitted. Observing their tendency to expand and make wood, and ambitious to train them to some degree of proportion, I caused their excrescent branches to be removed every autumn. These, cut in equal lengths and dried, gave aliment to an old-fashioned fire-place in my writing-room, which, notwithstanding the house is warmed by a powerful furnace, I have still kept open. With the occasional aid of hickory, purchased of the wood merchants, they afford a cheering, genial warmth, of a more healthful character than the smouldering, underground machinery of Vulcan, which is capable of concocting gases of no very salubrious nature.
Oh! those black, unsocial registers. Would that the unfortunate people who congregate around them in long winter evenings, might enjoy the cheerful blaze which now, while I am writing, irradiates my den! This corner is sacred, because my blessed father sat in it, and his staff still stands by the cushioned chair that he brought from his own Norwich abode. Relics of the loved and lost always have power over the heart.
Great comfort, have I beside my declining fire just before the hour of retirement. Down go the parted sticks, thankful that their day's work is done, perhaps proud if it has been well performed. Up mounts the flickering flame, tracing pictures on the wall, unwilling to be dismissed, the spirit rising over the wreck of the body. Around the fading coals the white ashes gather, like legends of a buried dynasty, soon themselves to sink in oblivion. Such a good time is it for reverie that I linger until scarcely a brand remains to be covered, as seed for the following day. Often am I reminded of that sublime passage of Israel's poet-king:
"While I was musing the fire burned: then spake I with my tongue. Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am."
These severed boughs from my own domain emit a pleasant odor from their funeral pyre, as if with Christian forgiveness they blessed me even in martyrdom. So much for the sprawling apple trees that I at first scorned and derided. Do they not enforce the lesson taught by the "great sheet, knit at the four corners, not to call any thing common or unclean"?
Since the departure of my daughter to her own abode, I have had the society of several young companions. They have been in different degrees lovely, intelligent, accomplished, or efficient. I was attached to each, and regard them all as friends. Two are presiding happily over homes of their own, and one has entered that angelic sphere with which her own unselfish nature was accordant. I think with gratitude of the many kind offices they rendered me; but often felt anxious lest a deficiency of excitement should be a damper to their free spirits. My chief error was in aiming to consider them as real daughters. I have never yet discovered any chemical compound for the manufacture of kindred blood.
Recently I have dispensed with a permanent companion, and think the arrangement judicious.
Though mine usually expressed themselves happy in my society, I often feared they were not. My intellectual engagements requiring comparative sequestration for a part of every morning, made me uneasy lest their time should hang heavily. This interrupted my trains of thought, and abridged the availability of my labors. Their conversation was agreeable at the seasons allotted to its enjoyment, yet I sometimes imagined that the monthly stipend which I insisted should be theirs, might not be an equivalent for the privation of dwelling with an ancient, sedentary personage. Now, I can seclude myself without the inward reproof of discourtesy, and my time, which must be necessarily short on earth, and is much curtailed by interruptions, is made to bear with greater precision on what I strive to accomplish. Still, loving the young as I do, their frequent visits are prized, and I gather vitality from their smile.
Solitude of the heart must, in some measure, ever adhere to those who outlive their relatives and early friends. Yet my daughter, who is the only being, with the exception of her little ones, in whose veins my blood flows, had for nine years after her marriage a residence so near, that we often met, and by daily sketches of journalizing letters I still keep her sympathies fresh in my heart, and lead a new, or double life in hers. Faithful in every duty, and self-forgetful almost to a fault, the light of her countenance, and the flitting of her robes when she enters my door, are like those of an angel. The taper of filial love still glows amid the gaslight of stronger loves, and she spares me those droppings from newer and more intense affections which my lone heart gratefully receives. If she cannot "take the children's bread, and cast it under the table," yet the crumbs that fall from her free hand give nutriment and joy. Recently she has become a resident of western New York, and I add the simple effusion that sprang forth at the
DEPARTURE OF THE ONLY CHILD.
Bid not farewell, love!
Pass from my door
As one whose returning
An hour may restore;
Use no parting phrases,
But let the smile speak,
Bright from thy blue eye,
And fair o'er thy cheek.
Call thy young children
In from their play,
Cover their faces up,
Lead them away;
Methinks, my enfeebled heart
Wilder'd and lone,
Dreadeth the going
More than the gone.
From the first life-throb,
When on my breast,
One bright Sabbath morning
They laid thee to rest;
We have dwelt undivided,
Like sapling and spray,
But newer loves govern thee,
Hie thee away.
Throw the dark mountains
That nothing may sever,
Throw leagues of forest
Between us forever,
To a new mansion
With vision'd hopes gay,
Stronger loves beckon thee,
Hie thee away.
Mid lakelets of silver,
In caskets of green,
Forget not, despise not
Thy far native scene.
Lo! years leave their burdens
And Time draws his dart,
Think of me, pray for me,
Child of my heart.
Good angels attend thee,
Since forth thou must go,
Thou last of the loves
That is left me below;
Where'er thou shalt rest thee,
Where'er thou may'st roam,
God's blessing be with thee
Till Heaven is thy home.
Friendship, that solace of the soul, has been most liberally accorded me. It has sprung up where I had no reason to expect, in the clefts of the rock, by the wayside, among strangers, and in foreign lands. I thank Him, who disposeth as He will all the hearts that He hath made, for this liberal infusion of its balm-drops in my cup of life.
Some of my former pupils have been to me as daughters. They have confided to me their concerns, and sought my counsel even when their fair locks were sprinkled with gray. Sometimes their children have partaken of this partiality. Though friendship is not necessarily hereditary, I have seen delightful instances of its transmission.
One of the advantages of age is the test it applies to the truth or falsehood of affectionate professions. Being considered a species of declension, it divides the worshippers of the rising sun from those who patiently regard its setting.
I have known a few who, like the visitants of Job, were adroit in searching out the "dwelling of the prince," wherever their path might lead. Since my residence is no longer in an elegant mansion, and I have suffered myself somewhat to fade out of fashionable society, here and there one may have permitted an intimacy, of which they were formerly boastful, to subside into indifference or neglect. Such sycophancy, however, is usually as slightly deplored as it is easily detected.
Another of the advantages derived from seventy years, is the correct estimate it enables us to form of popular opinion. In our palmiest days that was a yoke of bondage. "Mr. What-did-he-say," and "Mrs. How-did-she-say," have now become less formidable personages. It is discovered that both praise and blame may be misapplied, and that neither are long remembered. From the slightest circumstances, as well as from inventions, grave accusations may be formed by the evil-disposed. Therefore the censure of good persons may rest on an erroneous basis, while that of the light-minded is nothing worth. Since none can perfectly sift evidence, save Him unto whom the night shineth as the day, all human verdicts may be fallible. Words of applause or blame weigh little, inasmuch as both those who utter, and those who hear, so soon pass away, to return no more.
Most of us have reason to regret that the time and zeal spent in justifying ourselves, or deprecating harsh judgments, had not been devoted to useful knowledge, or benevolent enterprise. For myself, now that the romance of life has subsided into reality, and shadows cease to delude, I cannot view without gratitude the kind opinions that, beyond my deserts, have attended me, and that encouragement from the good which has often given new strength to my labors.
To my young friends, whose bright eyes are so eager in the pursuit of happiness, let me say that they will find it to depend less on combinations of circumstances, than on the temper of mind with which they meet the dealings of the All-Wise. A harmonizing spirit will extract sweetness where an unsubdued one only combats thorns. Byron, with all his misanthropic infidelity, shed tears, when told of a fair young creature who had expired, exclaiming, "God's happiness! God's happiness!"
"Still at my lessons!" said Michael Angelo, when, at past eighty, he was found in the solitary recesses of the Coliseum, studying the models and monuments of ancient art. "Still at my lessons!" I repeat, at past threescore years and ten.
So would I have it to be. It is one of the privileges of age that we may ever be learning. A deeper sense of the value of time ought also to be among its acquisitions. For as the richness of every blessing is more fully revealed by the approach of its departure, our days become more precious when but few remain. Force is thus added to the injunction of good Bishop Taylor: "Lift up your heart at the striking of every clock, that the hour may be usefully spent, and help you heavenward." "Still at my lessons?" Yes. Still a beginner—a backward pupil at the feet of Jesus of Nazareth.
A beautiful life have I had. Not one more trial than was for my good. Countless blessings beyond expectation or desert. How infinite is the mercy that has so long sustained this frail house of the body, and nourished its undying tenant! Well may we say with the Psalmist, "Gracious is the Lord, and full of compassion." As I review all the way in which He hath led me, smiles of joy mingle with tears of gratitude. The Almighty Friend, who hath held my hand through all my wanderings here, I fear not to trust for the life hereafter. That it is to me unknown, gives vitality and beauty to the Christian's faith. Not claiming to know either of that life, or the time of entering it, I cling to Him, and am satisfied, and at rest.
Behind me stretch the green pastures and still waters, by which I have been led all my days. Around, is the lingering of hardy flowers, and fruits, that bide the winter. Before, stretches the shining shore. The shadowy valley between seems not worthy to come into remembrance. Past, present, and future, concur like three harmonies. May their grateful ascription never end!
"But oh! Eternity's too short,
To utter all Thy praise."
Sweet Friend! to whose prompting and continued urgency these letters of life owe their existence, if you shall have patience to read them, I bless you. If you have not, I bless you. Your affection has been a sunbeam and a song in the house of my pilgrimage. Our Father in Heaven repay you fourfold, and give you a mansion where these poor instrumentalities of pen and ink are no longer needed to express the love that never dies. Good-bye! Good-bye!
L. H. S.