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Sketch of Connecticut, Forty Years Since/Chapter I

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SKETCH

OF

CONNECTICUT,


FORTY YEARS SINCE


————

CHAPTER I.


"August she trod, yet gentle was her air,
   Serene her eye, but darting heavenly fire,
Her brow encircled with its silver hair
   More mild appear'd; yet such as might inspire
Pleasure corrected with an awful fear,
Majestically sweet, and amiably severe."
Bishop Lowth.


NOT far from where the southern limits of Connecticut meet the waters of the sea, the town of Norwich is situated. As you approach from the west, it exhibits a rural aspect, of meadows intersected by streams, and houses overshadowed with trees. Viewed from the eastern acclivity, it seems like a citadel guarded by parapets of rock, and embosomed in an ampitheatre of hills, whose summits mark the horizon with a waving line of dark forest green. Entering at this avenue, you perceive that its habitations bear few marks of splendour, but many of them, retiring [2] behind the shelter of lofty elms, exhibit the appearance of comfort and respectability. Travelling southward about two miles, through the principal road, the rural features of the landscape are lost, in the throng of houses, and bustle of men. The junction of two considerable streams here forms a beautiful river, which, receiving the tides of the sea, rushes with a short course into its bosom.

Masts peer over ware-houses, and streets rise above streets, with such irregularity that the base of one line of buildings sometimes overlooks the roofs of another. Here Man, incessantly combating the obstacles of Nature, is content to hang his dwelling upon her rocks, if he may but gather the treasures of her streams. Yet spots of brightness, and of beauty occur amid these eagle-nests upon the cliff; gardens of flowers; bold and romantic shores; pure, broad, sparkling waters; white sails dancing at the will of the breeze; boats gliding beneath bridges, or between islands of verdure, with sportive and graceful motion, like the slight gossamer in the sun-beam.

Between these two sections of the town, which, though sisters, bear no family resemblance, is a landscape, which some writer of romance might be pleased to describe. It is about a mile from the mouth of the smallest of the two streams just mentioned, which, winding its way through green meadows with a mild course, is fringed with the willow, and many aquatic shrubs, bending their drooping branches to kiss its noiseless tide. Suddenly it assumes the form of a cataract. Dashing tumultuously from rock [3] to rock, it sends forth from their excavations, deep, hollow sounds; as if thunders were born in those unvisited caverns. Tossing and foaming over the masses that obstruct its channel, it becomes compressed within narrow limits by two lofty precipices. One, rises frowning and perpendicular like the walls of a castle. A few hardy evergreens cling to its crown, and mark the spot whence the hunted Pequots were forced, by their conquerors the Mohegans, to their fatal plunge from time into eternity. Fancy, awakened by tradition, sometimes paints their forms mingling with the dark, slow waters that circle the base of that fearful cliff; or hears their spirits shrieking amid the clamour of the cataract. The opposite rampart presents a chain of rocks, of less towering height, interspersed with lofty trees, displaying the names of many who have visited and admired this wild and picturesque scenery. The enthusiast of Nature, who should conquer its precipitous descent, and stand upon the margin of the flood which creeps in death-like stillness through this guarded defile, might see on his right, the foam, the vapour, the tossing of a tempestuous conflict; on his left, a broad chrystal mirror, studded with emerald islets, and bounded by romantic shores, where peaceful mansions, embosomed in graceful shades, are seen through vistas of green. Beneath, the black and almost motionless waters seem, to him who gazes intensely, like the river of forgetfulness, annihilating the traces of a passing world. Above, the proud cliff rears its waving helmet, [4] as if in defiance of the bowing cloud. To hear the voice of Nature in passionate strife, and at the same moment to gaze upon her slumbering calmness; to be lost in contemplation upon the moral contrast, then startled into awe by her strong features of majesty; leave the mind uncertain whether, in this secluded temple, beauty ought most to charm, or awe to enchain it, or devotion to absorb all other sensations in reverence to the invisible God.

Retracing our steps to the northern division of Norwich, we find a society remarkable for the preservation of primitive habits. There, was exhibited the singular exam ple of an aristocracy, less intent upon family aggrandizement, than upon becoming illustrious in virtue; and of a community where industry and economy almost banished want. Domestic subordination taught the young to honour the old, while the temperance and regularity which prevailed gave to age both contentment and health. The forty years, which have elapsed since the period of this sketch, have wrought many changes; but some features of similarity remain. That luxury which enervates character, and undermines the simple principles of justice, and charity, has found its ravages circumscribed by the example of those to whom wealth gave influence. An unusual number of individuals, whose first steps were in humble life, have risen to the possession of riches, not by fortunate accidents, or profuse gains, by lotteries or by war, but through an industry which impoverished none, [5] and a prudence which as resolutely frowned upon waste of time, as waste of money. It has been thought that the advantages, arising from a favourable situation for commerce, and from a surrounding country eminently agricultural, languished for want of vigorous enterprize. Yet a source of wealth still less fluctuating has been discovered, in lessening the number of factitious wants, and pruning the excrescences of fashion and of folly. A more moral state of society can scarcely be imagined, than that which existed within the bosom of these rocks. Almost it might seem as if their rude summits, pointing in every direction, had been commissioned to repel the intrusion of vice. In this department of the town was the mansion of Madam Lathrop. It raised its broad, dignified front, without other decorations than the white rose, and the sweet brier, rearing their columns of beauty and fragrance, quite to the projection of the roof. In front, was a court of shorn turf, like the richest velvet, intersected by two paved avenues to the principal entrances, and enclosed by a white fence, resting upon a foundation of hewn stone. On each side of the antiquated gate waved the boughs of a spruce, intermingling their foliage, and defying, in their evergreen garb, the changes of climate. The habitation, which faced the rising sun, had on its left, and in the rear of its long range of offices, two large gardens for vegetables and fruit. A third, which had a southern exposure, and lay beneath the windows of the parlour, was partially devoted to flowers. There, in quadrangles, triangles, [6] and parallelograms, beds of mould were thrown up, and regularly arranged, according to what the florists of that age denominated "a knot." There, in the centre, the flaunting peony reared its head like a queen upon her throne, surrounded by a guard of tulips, arrayed as courtiers in every hue, deep crimson, buff streaked with vermillion, and pure white mantled with a blush of carmine. In the borders, the purple clusters of the lilac, mingled with the feathery orb of the snow-ball, and the pure petals of the graceful lily. Interspersed were various species of the rose, overshadowing snow-drops, and daffodils the earliest heralds of Spring—the violet, whose purple eye seems half to beam with intelligence—the hyacinth, the blue-bell, and the guinea-hen in its mottled robe.

There were also the personified flowers—gaudy soldiers in green—the tawdry ragged lady—the variegated batchelor the sad mourning bride and the monk in his sombre hood. The larkspur mingled with the sweet pea, and the humble fumatory grew at the foot of the proud crown imperial, which lifted its cluster of flowers, and crest of leaves, with patrician haughtiness. A broad walk divided this garden into nearly equal compartments. The western part, covered with rich turf, and interspersed with fruit trees, displayed at its extremity a summer-house, encircled by a luxuriant vine, and offering a delightful retreat from a fervid sun. Seated beneath the canopy of fragrant clusters, you might see the velvet-coated peach, [7] the rich plum with its purple, or emerald robe, and the orange-coloured pear bruising itself in its fall. Raspberries supporting themselves by the fence, interwove their branches with the bushes that lined it, as if ambitious to form an impervious hedge; while at their feet, the red and white strawberry offered its treasures. Near the same region was a small nursery of medicinal plants; for the mind which had grouped so many pleasures for the eye and the taste of man, had not put out of sight his infirmities, or forgotten where it was written, "in the garden was a sepulchre." There, arose the rough leafed sage, with its spiry efflorescence, the hoarhound foe of consumption, the aperient cumphrey, the aromatic tansy, and the bitter rue and wormwood. There, also, the healing balm was permitted to flourish, and the pungent peppermint for distillation. Large poppies, scattered here and there, perfected their latent anodyne, and hop-vines, clasping the accustomed arches, disclosed from their aromatic clusters some portion of their sedative powers. Through these scenes of odoriferous wildness Madam Lathrop often wandered, and like our first mother, amused herself by removing whatever marred its beauty, and cherishing all that heightened its excellence.

Her alert step, and animated aspect would scarcely permit the beholder to believe that the weight of almost seventy years oppressed her; though the spectacles, that aided her in distinguishing weeds from plants, proved that time had not spared to levy some tribute upon his favourite. [8] Her fair, open forehead, clear expressive blue eye, and finely shaped countenance displayed that combination of intellect with sensibility, which marked her character. A tall and graceful person, whose symmetry age had respected, gave dignity to a deportment which the sorrows of life had softened. A vein of playful humour had been natural to her youth, and might still occasionally be detected in her quick smile, and kindling eye. Yet this was divested of every semblance of asperity by the spirit of a religion, breathing love to all mankind. Her voice had that peculiar and exquisite tone, which seems an echo of the soul's harmony. Her brow was circled with thin folds of the purest cambrick, whose whiteness was contrasted with the broad, black ribband which compressed them, and the kerchief of the same colour, pinned in quaint and quaker-like neatness over her bosom. Her countenance in its silence spoke the language of peace within, good will to all around, and the sublimated joy of one. whose "kingdom is not of this world." Her liberality was proverbial. She loved the poor and the sick, as if they were unfortunate members of her own family. To I afford them relief, was not a deed of ostentation, but a source of heartfelt delight. She considered herself as the obliged party, when an opportunity was presented of distributing His bounty, who by entrusting her with riches had constituted her his almoner, and would at length re quire an account of her stewardship. Her piety was not a strife about doctrines, though the articles of her belief [9] were by no means indifferent to her. She thought the spirit of controversy should be held in subjection to that, which moveth to love and to good works.

She disclaimed that bigotry which desires to extinguish every light which its own hand has not kindled. She looked upon the varying sects of Christians, as travellers pursuing different roads to the same eternal city.

This liberality of sentiment was deserving of more praise, forty years since than in our times, when superior illumination bears with stronger influence upon the mists of prejudice. Educated in the metropolis of the state, the daughter of its first magistrate, born of a family of high respectability, introduced by marriage into the aristocracy of Norwich, conscious that her excellencies were so appreciated by those around her, that she was considered almost as a being of an higher order, it would not have been wonderful if some haughtiness had marked her exterior, at a period when those distinctions signified more than they do at present. But that self-complacency, which is the spontaneous growth of the unrenovated heart, was early checked by a religion which taught her "not to glory save in the cross of Christ." Afflictions also humbled the hopes which might have unwisely aspired, or laboured to lay too deep a foundation on the earth. She had borne the yoke in her youth. The early death of her parents was strong discipline for a tender [spirit]. Her husband was endued by nature with every excellence to awaken her attachment and confidence. His mind, enlarged [10] by the best education which this country afforded, had pursued its scientific researches in Europe, and become exalted both by extensive knowledge, and rational piety. It was his pleasure to employ his wealth in the relief of indigence, and the encouragement of enterprise. He was early revered as the patron of merit in obscurity, and his name is still enrolled by the grateful town which gave him birth, as first in the list of its benefactors. United in the warmth of his earliest affections to a kindred spirit, they shared all the blessings of a perfect union of hearts. Many years of conjugal felicity had been their portion. But she was at length appointed to watch the progress of a protracted and fatal disease, and to mark with still keener anguish the mental decay of him who had been her instructer and counsellor. "I have seen an end of all perfection," she said, as his strong and brilliant powers yielded to the sway of sickness and when she bent in agony over his grave, she put her trust in the widow's God. The earlier part of their union had seen three sons rising like olive-plants around their table. The eldest exhibited at the age of seven a precocity of intellect, and i maturity of character, which at once astonished and delighted the beholder. To store his memory with moral and sublime passages, to sit a solitary student over his book, to request explanations of subjects beyond his reason, were his pleasures. The sports of his cotemporaries were emptiness to him, and while he forebore to censure, he withdrew himself from them. Within his reflecting [11] mind, was a desire to render himself acceptable to his Maker. Though younger than the Jewish king, who, at the age of eight years, separated himself for the search of wisdom, he began like him to "seek the God of his Fathers." When he requested from his parents their nightly blessing to hallow his repose, he often inquired, with an interesting solemnity, "Do you think that my Father in Heaven will be pleased with me this day ? To a soul thus embued with the principles of religion, it was sufficient to point out that the path of duty was illumined with the smile of the Almighty, and to deter from the courses of evil, by the assurance of his displeasure.

The second had a form of graceful symmetry, and a complexion of feminine delicacy. The tones of his voice promised to attain the melting richness of his mother s, as a bud resembles the perfect flower. He possessed that rapid perception, and tremulous sensibility, which betoken genius. His character, even in infancy, displayed those delicate involutions, and keen vibrations of feeling, which mark the most poignant susceptibility of pleasure or of pain. His was the spirit on which the unfeeling world delights to wreak her tyranny ; as the harsh hand shivers the harp-strings which it has not skill to controul.

The youngest, just completing his third year, was the picture of health, vigour and joy. His golden curls cluster ed round a bold forehead which spoke the language of command, like some infant warrior. His erect head, and prominent chest, evinced uncommon strength, and so full [12] of glee was this happy and beautiful being, that the mansion or its precincts rang, from morning till night, with the clamour of his sports, or the shouts of his laughter. Active, unwearied, and intelligent, he seemed to bear, within his breast, and upon his brow, the consciousness that he was one of the lords of creation.

On these three objects the affection and solicitude of the parents centered. Often they spake to each other of their differing lineaments of character, consulted on the methods of eradicating what was defective, or confirming what was lovely, and often contemplated the part they might hereafter act in life, with a thrilling mixture of fear and of hope. But for this anxiety it had been written, in the infinite councils, that there was no need. In one week, all these beloved beings were laid in the grave. In one week, and the arms of the mourning parents remained forever vacant. Death, whose "shadow is without order, respected in this awful instance the claims of priority. He first smote the eldest at his studies. His languishing was short. "I go to my Father in Heaven," he said, and without a struggle ceased to breathe. His disease was so infectious, that it was necessary to commit him immediately to the earth.

As the bereaved parents returned from his grave, of whom they had said, "this same shall comfort us concerning all our toil," they found the second, bowing, like a pale flowret upon its broken stem. Pain fed upon his frail frame, "as a moth fretting a garment." Anguish visited, [13] and tried every nerve, yet, if he might but lay his head upon his mother's bosom, he would endure without repining. Tears quivered in his soft, blue eyes, like dew in the bell of the hyacinth, if she were no longer visible. Yet, when in a moment she returned, a smile of the spirit would beam through, and rule the convulsions of physical agony. "My son," said his father, "let us be willing that you should go to your Saviour, and to your brother in heaven." But the suffering child, who could imagine no heaven brighter than the indulgence of his own young affections, sighed incessantly as death approached. Yet his convulsed brow resumed partial tranquillity, when his mother's voice poured forth, in trembling, agonizing harmony, the sacred music of the hymn he loved. It was then that he breathed away his spirit, fancying that angels hastened him to rise, and learn their celestial melodies. But, ere his heart ceased to throb, the destroyer had laid his hand upon the youngest, "the beautiful, the brave." Unconsciousness miserably changed a countenance, which was ever lighted by the glow of intelligence, or the gladness of mirth. Unbroken sleep seemed settling without resistance upon him, who had never been willing even for a moment to be at rest. Yet nature on the eve of dissolution aroused to an afflicting contest with her conqueror. Cries and struggles were long and violent, and now and then a reproachful glance would be bent upon his parents, as if the victim wondered they should lend no aid to his conflict. [14]

Cold, big drops started thick upon his temples, and his golden hair streamed with the dews of pain. It was a fearful sight to see a child so struggle with the king of terrors. At length with one long sob he yielded, and moaning sank to rest.

"The little white monument still marks the couch of the three brothers. Its silence is eloquent on the uncertainty of the hopes of man—on the bitterness that tinges the brightest fountains of his joy.

Such were the adversities to which the heart of Madam Lathrop had been subjected. Her blossoms had been riven from her, as a fig-tree shaketh its untimely figs before the blast. An affecting memorial of her feelings, at this period, is still preserved, where, in a poetical form, she pours out her sorrows before Him who had afflicted her, and urges with the most afflicting earnestness, that her spirit may not lose the benefits of his discipline. After the calmness of resignation had soothed the tumult of woe, she seldom spoke of her griefs. She kept them sacred for the communication of her soul with its Maker. Yet they diffused over her cheerful and faithful discharge of duty, a softness, a sympathy with those who mourned, a serene detachment of confidence from terrestrial things, which realized the tender description of a recent, moral poet:

     "When the wounds of woe are healing,
         "When the heart is all resign'd,
     'Tis the solemn feast of feeling,
         'Tis the Sabbath of the mind."<ref>James Montgomery, The Joy of Grief.

Notes[edit]