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Sketch of Connecticut, Forty Years Since/Chapter II

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CHAPTER II.

      "The toil-worn Cotter from his labour goes—
      This night his weekly moil is at an end;
      Collects his spades, his mattocks, and his hoes,
      Hoping the morn in ease and rest to spend ;
      And weary o'er the moor his course doth homeward bend."
                                         Burns' Cotter's Saturday Night.


Our sketch, commences at the opening of the year 1784. Winter had subtracted from the charms of the landscape, by substituting for its variegated garniture a robe of uniform hue. It had, like the envious brethren of Joseph, "rent the coat of many colours." Still, the brightness of the pure white surface, the conical mounds which attested the play of the elements, the incrustations clinging in every fanciful form to boughs sparkling with the beams of morning, gave brilliancy to scenery, which more favouring seasons had forsaken.

The war of revolution, which for a long period had drained the resources of the country, had been terminated for a space of somewhat more than two years. The British Colonies of America were numbered among the nations. The first tumults of joy subsiding, discovered a government not organized, and resting upon insecure foundations. Gold might be discerned among the materials of the future temple, but the hand of a refiner was needed, "to purge the dross, and to take away all the tin." Light had sprung from chaos; but the voice of the Architect, had not yet caused "the day-spring to know his place."

In Connecticut, the agitation, which pervaded the general council of the nation, was unknown. The body of the people trusted in the wisdom of those heroes and sages of whom they had furnished their proportion. They believed that the hands, which had been strengthened to lay the foundation of their liberty, amid the tempest of war, would be enabled to complete the fabric, beneath the smiles of peace. In gratitude, and quietness of spirit, they rested beneath the shadow of their own vine; and had they possessed "no law, would have been a law unto themselves."

We return to Norwich, which might be considered, at this period, the stronghold of "steady habits," and moderated desires. The family of Madam Lathrop was usually enlivened by the residence of some of her relations. The daughter of a beloved sister had been adopted by her, soon after the death of her three sons. She had taken a maternal pleasure in superintending the unfolding of a character, whose maturity afforded her the consolations of an endearing intercourse. A heart of sensibility—a rapid and strong intellect—superiority in those attainments of her sex, which give comfort and elegance to the domestic department—a liberal soul, indignant at meanness and oppression, and imbued with deep reverence towards God, were the characteristics of this object of her affections. She depended much upon this gentle and zealous companion, during the mental decay of her husband; but, soon after his decease, shuddered as she remarked the pale cheek and hollow eye of this dear friend, whose delicate frame was gradually resigning the elasticity of health.

All the powers of medicine were exerted to mitigate the sufferings of a long, nervous consumption; until attenuated like a shadow, her mind still gathering brightness amid the wasting of its tabernacle, her spirit was "exhal'd, and went to heaven." This bereavement was recent, and the heart of the aged mourner felt a deep void, whenever her eye rested upon the places usually occupied by this daughter and friend.

She was now soothed by the society of a son of her husbands only sister, who, since the death of his uncle, had made her house his home, except during an interval of absence in England and France. His accurate mind, stored with knowledge, which a wide sphere of observation had given him the means of acquiring, rendered him both an interesting and instructive companion. Nor did he forget to profit from those treasures of wisdom, which he daily beheld falling from the lips of age. He was particularly fond of the science of Natural History, and of exploring those labyrinths in which nature delights to involve her operations, where she has made man, both the habitant of a region of wonders, and a link in their mysterious chain. His aged relative, whom he revered as a parent, and by whom his attachment was reciprocated, used familiarly to style him her "philosophical nephew." By the light-minded, he was considered reserved, and by the ignorant, haughty; but those, who were worthy to comprehend him, discovered a heart, alive to the impulses of friendship and affection, and a mind, occupied in a tissue of thought too intricate for vulgar comprehension; or balancing the delicate and almost imperceptible points of moral principle.

Besides this nephew, the family of Madam Lathrop comprised, at the present time, only herself, and two domestics. These were blacks, and descendants of ancestors who had originally been slaves, before the voice of a wise and free people decreed the abolition of slavery. Several Africans had been owned by the father of her husband, in whose family she had become an inmate at the time of her marriage. His death took place, at the advanced age of ninety-two, while his frame still possessed vigour, and his unimpaired mind expatiated freely upon the past, and looked undaunted toward the future. Temperance had guarded his health, and economy the fortune, which his industry had acquired. Religion had been his anchor from his youth, sure and stedfast; and, with the dignity of a patriarch, he descended to the tomb, illustrious at once, by the good name he bequeathed to his offspring, and by the lustre which their virtues in turn, reflected upon him. He lived at a time, when to hold in servitude the children of Africa, had not been set in a true light by the eloquence and humanity of a more favoured age. Clarkson, and Wilberforce had not then arisen to unlock "indignantly the secrets of their prison-house," nor Cowper, to bid the eye of sensibility weep over their wrongs. In the community, where the lot of this venerable patriarch had been cast, they were found in the families of a few men of wealth, nurtured as dependants, but never oppressed as slaves. Under his roof they were treated with uniform kindness, and after the accession of his son to the paternal estate, received their freedom.

Two descendants of these "servants born in the house," still continued with Madam Lathrop, one as a hireling, the other for the sake of his clothing, board and education, until his minority should cease. Beulah, who had reached her twenty-second winter, was an athletic, industrious female, grave in her deportment, and of strict honesty. Cuff, her brother, was her junior by six years, active, and of an affectionate disposition, with some mixture of African humour. Both were attached to their mistress, like the vassals of feudal times, regarding her as "but a little lower than the angels."[1] She cherished their unaffected regard, by a sway of equanimity, and gentleness, professing herself to be, like the Vicar of Wakefield, an "admirer of happy human faces."[2]

It was now Saturday night, and the setting sun ushered in that stillness which used to mark its return, forty years since, in Connecticut. Every ware-house, and shop was shut, and man, like the creation around him, seemed relapsing into quietness and repose. There was something both soothing and dignified in the solemnity with which this period was then observed. Labour and revelry were alike laid aside, and a pause of silence announced the approach of that day, which the Creator consecrated.

It seemed like the deference of a reflecting spirit, conscious that its habitual vocations were earthly, and unwilling, without purifying itself from their defilement, to rush into those services, which, to be acceptable, are required to be holy. It was like the change of garments of the Levitical priesthood, ere they entered the Sanctuary. Our puritanic fathers then said to their worldly cares, as Abraham to his servants at the base of Mount Moriah, "abide ye here, while I go yonder and worship."

They maintained that, if according to scripture, the evening and the morning constituted the first day, the Sabbath embraced the preceding evening within its ap pointed limits. So strictly did they enjoin the sanctification of Saturday night, that it might be said of them in that season, as it was of the Egyptians during their tempest of hail, "he who feared the word of the Lord, made his servants, and his cattle flee into their house." The penal laws, which guarded the observance of the Sabbath among our ancestors at the first settlement of this country, had relaxed in their severity. Still, to travel on that day was considered an offence, meriting close examination from those vested with authority and ending in restraint, unless the sickness or distress of distant relations sanctioned the measure. "Sunday airings," were then unknown, and would have been deemed an "iniquity to be punished by the judges." So fully had the saint-like simplicity of our predecessors embued Saturday eve with the sanctity of the subsequent morn, that seldom were the wheels of the traveller, or his voice, asking admission at the inns, known to disturb the silence of this hallowed period. Labourers restored to their places the instruments of their weekly toil; mechanics the implements of their trade; students their books of entertainment; and "every good man and true," was supposed to be convening his family around the domestic altar.

In the parlour of Madam Lathrop, this was a season of solitary and heartfelt meditation. The reflection of a clear wood-fire gleamed fitfully upon the crimson moreen curtains, gilded clock, ebony-framed mirror, and polished wainscot, ere light glimmered more brightly from two stately, antiquated candlesticks. The lady was seated in her rocking-chair, which stood in its accustomed corner. A favourite grey-robed cat, with neck and paws of the most exquisite whiteness, sat at the feet of her mistress, gazing wistfully in her face. Slowly erecting herself, she advanced a soft velvet paw to the hand which rested upon the arm of the chair, as if to remind its owner of ancient friendship, or claim some expression of fondness. Finding herself unnoticed, she removed her station to a green cushion in the vicinity, and turning round thrice, betook herself to repose, in the attitude of a caterpiller, coiled upon a fresh verdant leaf.

On a small found table, lay the Scriptures and "Young's Night Thoughts," the favourite poem of Madam Lathrop. The latter was open at that canto, where the author so feelingly describes the loss of friends, and her spectacles laid therein, as if to preserve some striking passage for further perusal, while she indulged in those contemplations which it awakened. Her brow resting on her hand, displayed the emotions of a soul, whose strong susceptibility the influences of religion had tempered, purified, sublimated. Before her, past in review, the pictured scenes of childhood, the gaiety of youth, the sorrows of maturity, the loneliness of age. Memory awoke Grief from the slumber into which time had soothed her, and revived her long buried energies. The mourner seemed to see her mother, the soft nurse of her infancy, the watchful monitress of her childhood, again smitten by an unseen hand, and covered suddenly with the paleness of the tomb: one moment, bending over her plants, in the sweet recesses of her garden, the next, lying lifeless among them, blasted by Him who maketh all the "glory of man, as the flower of grass."

Her father, venerable for years, and high in publick honour, was again stretched before her, in the agonies of dissolving nature. Once more, his farewell tone faltered on her ear, as she wiped the dews from his, temples, "My daughter! visit the fatherless, and the widow in their afflictions, and keep thyself unspotted from the world." Her faithful obedience to this admonition, uttered from the confines of another state, might have cheered her heart, had it been wont to linger amid the recollections of its own virtue. The tissue of her good deeds, which was extolled by others as woven by a perfect hand, she was accustomed so to scan, as to administer to her humility.

Such influence had imagination in this hour of excited feeling, that almost, her husband, the companion of her youth, seemed present, in his accustomed seat by her side. In fancy, she gazed upon his mild features, radiant with the beams of intelligence. Half she listened to his voice, explaining the axioms of science, or pouring forth the spirit of benevolence. Then came the prattling tones of children, the smile, the sport, the winning attitudes of those three boys, who returned no more. But illusion vanished, and more bitterly than her melancholy poet, she might have apostrophized the grim conqueror;

     "Thy dart flew thrice and thrice my peace was slain,
     And thrice, ere thrice, yon moon had fill'd her horn."[3]

Yet no repining mingled with her sorrow. She loved Him who had chastened her; and raising upward eyes, whose pure azure shone through the big tear, she uttered in the low tone of mental devotion, " I thank Thee that I am not alone, for Thou art with me." Tenderly impressed by a renovation of her woes, yet gratefully revolving the short space which separated her from her beloved, her sainted ones—she sang in tones of the gentlest melody that beautiful hymn of Watts


            "There is a land of pure delight,
               Where saints immortal reign;
            Infinite day excludes the night,
               And pleasures banish pain."[4]


At its close, she relapsed into a train of animating, devotional contemplations, admirably fitting the mind for the duties of that day, on which the Redeemer, whom she loved, ascended from the tomb.

Around the fire of her domestics, quietness and comfort, though of a different nature, predominated. The clean-wash'd floor, well-brush'd shoes, and preparations for a Sunday s dinner, shewed that the householders of that time provided, in their domestic regulations, that their servants also might attend the worship of the sanctuary, and enjoy the privileges of a day of rest. Neatness and order, in which the ancient house-keeping matrons certainly yield not the palm to their daughters, or granddaughters, prevailed throughout the simply-furnished apartment. The dressers, unpainted, but as white as the nature of the wood permitted them to be, sustained the weight of rows of pewter, emulous of silver in its beautiful lustre.

A long oaken table in their vicinity, once used at refections, when the family comprised many more members, but now summoned to do service only on ironing days, emitted as much lustre as the strength of a brawny arm daily applied to its surface, could produce. A heavy oaken cupboard, the sound of whose opening doors was music to the mendicant, and the neighbouring poor, and five or six tall chairs, with rush bottoms, completed the furniture. A wooden seat or sofa, commonly called a settle, was immoveably fixed, not far from the ample expanse of the fire-place. Over the mantle-piece, was a high and narrow shelf, which, at its western extremity, was multiplied into a triple row of shorter ones; forming a repository for a servant s library. This was composed principally of pamphlet sermons, or what was considered Sunday reading—ere the writer of novels had engrossed that department. Approximating to this library, hung the roasting-jack; which, when put in motion, with its complicated machinery extending from garret to cellar, alarmed the unlearned by its discordant sounds, and awoke in the minds of the superstitious some indefinite suspicion of the agency of evil spirits. On the broad hearth-stone, sat Beulah and her brother; the former, in token of seniority occupying the post of honour, in front of a blazing fire; the latter, with due decorum ensconced in a corner. The brow of the ebon damsel exhibited a more than usual cast of solemnity, by way of testifying respect to a New-Testament, on whose pages her eyes were devoutly fixed.

Cuffee regarded her for some minutes, as if doubtful whether an interruption of her studies would be tolerated. At length, with a long yawn, he hazarded the experiment, of expatiating on the excellence of the supper he had recently eaten. To distinguish Saturday night, by a dish of beans baked with pork, was one of the peculiarities of their native town. Many of the oldest householders could recollect no instance in which this ancient custom had been violated beneath their roof; and children sometimes formed an inseparable connection in their minds, between this prelusive dish, and the duties of the Sabbath. The inhabitants still preserve this usage of their ancestors, as faithfully as the sons of Rechab transmitted his prohibition of wine to their remote posterity. Cuffee, finding his exordium unchecked, proceeded to relate with proportionable astonishment, that once within the memory of an aged man of his own colour, the Saturday-night Statute-act was violated, at the inn where he was a servitor.

"Next mornin," said he, elevating his eyes with becoming gravity, "next mornin, they ebery soul forget it be Sabba-day. They go 'bout their work—wash, scour—Misse take her knitten-work—Massa write his 'counts Brister go to barn—thrash grain."

He described their utter consternation, when the bell from an adjoining steeple reminded them of their transgression; and the haste with which they made themselves ready to appear in the sanctuary.

He next proceeded to state, on the authority of a young man of his acquaintance, the dire disasters which befel his father's household, for a similar omission. Their residence was on Bean-hill, a section of the town, where this important article is required to appear on the table, twice in a week, on the evenings of Wednesday and Saturday. This ordinance, it seems, had but once been neglected since the building of their house. That night, a strange uproar awoke every member of the family, and frightful dreams disturbed their repose. Lo! in the morning, their culinary furnace was found prostrate, and every brick dislodged from its station; as if invisible agents had assumed the punishment of the offence. Cuffee, though somewhat diffuse in his narrations, drew no sign of attention from his sister, who greatly valued herself upon a solemn deportment at devotional seasons. At length, slowly rolling towards him an eye, where white remarkably predominated, she inquired into the nature of the book, which he held unopened in his hand.

"Catechize," he replied, with the tone of an indolent boy at school, equally reluctant to study, or to recite his lesson. But Beulah, moved with righteous zeal, drew her chair into a line with his, and enveloping the volume in her huge hand, took it from him with no gentle grasp.

By dint of spelling, she rendered the title-page vocal, which proved to be, "The Scholar's Introduction to the Science of Arithmetic. By Master Edward Cocker."

"That's a Catechise-Book, I s'pose!" she exclaimed with commendable asperity. Her brother hastily proceeded to justify himself, on the ground of a mistake made in the volume, before the candle was lighted. Wishing however to divert attention from this view of the subject, he descanted upon the carelessness of the owner of this ancient volume, who had torn sundry leaves, besides decorating the blank spaces with ill-drawn pictures, and blots. He repeated a quaint saying, purporting that those who deface their books, have within them that principle of carelessness, which leads to want and disgrace. To his expressions of wonder that the name of "Benedict Arnold," so often occurred, in almost illegible scrawls, Beulah replied that this was the book, which taught the elements of arithmetic to the traitor of that name, who resided in that house for several years, as one of the clerks of her deceased master. Unable to resist the tempation of displaying superiour knowledge, her pious taciturnity vanished. She spoke eloquently of his enormities in burning a neighbouring town, and putting to death all the brave defenders of the fort; many of whom had been his acquaintance, and friends. She complained that, after landing on the devoted spot, and dining with a worthy lady, who took great pains for his accommodation, he ordered her house to be the first set on fire.

She described the men of her native place, marching to the relief of their distressed neighbours, as soon as the sound of the cannon reached them, and their wives and daughters weeping at the doors and windows, as they departed. In enlarging upon the losses sustained by the conflagration of so many buildings, she could not avoid descanting upon the quantity of eatables that were destroyed, especially the "oceans of butter and lard," which were seen frying in the cellars; naturally feeling strongest sympathy for the waste of those condiments, which in her culinary art she most highly valued. But she dwelt with the deepest interest upon an exploit of a female of her own colour, with whom she profest a particular acquaintance, calling her Aunt Rose. It seems that Arnold, fatigued with the contest, had paused to quench his battle-thirst at a well. As he stooped over it, this ebon heroine, who had been commissioned to hold his horse, made some questionable advances towards him, and had actually grasped his ancles, to precipitate him into the pit. Proving unsuccessful in her enterprize, she found it expedient to withdraw with unusual despatch.

"That very night," subjoined Beulah, "Aunt Rose, hab most remarkable dream. She 'tink she die, and go rite to Heaven. All beautiful place, no hard work dere. Presently come in, her Misse, and all her darters lookin exceedin grand. "Where Rose?" they cry. "Tell her get supper." Aunt Rose feel strange courage. She speak out to 'em, and say, "how you spect me to get supper? Don't ye see there's no kitchen in Heaven?"

Beulah then launched into a new tide of invective, against the wicked traitor, as she styled him, until Cuffee inquired if he had no good quality, observing that his mistress said, that she should not forget to speak of the good, as well as the evil in the characters of our fellow creatures. The maiden, inly reproved, deigned no answer; but suddenly began to realize that their conversation was too diffuse for Saturday night. This she perceived much more readily, when she herself ceased to be the chief speaker. After a decent pause, she explained her doubts to her brother, with an emphatic nasal twang, whether he had yet proceeded in the Assembly of Divines' Catechism,[5] as far as "Effectual Calling;" adding, that long before she had reached his age, she was able to repeat the whole, with the proofs, and ask herself the questions, into the bargain.

"I wonder," he replied, "who had not rudder ax demselves questions, dan hab any body else. Den if you can't answer em, no matter; no body to scold 'bout it."

The ringing of the bell, which on Saturday night, like the old Norman curfew, was always at eight o clock, reminded them that much time had been spent, and until nine, the stated hour for retiring, each seemed absorbed in their respective studies.

Notes[edit]

  1. Psalm 8:5.
  2. Goldsmith, Oliver. The Vicar of Wakefield. Chapter 3.
  3. Edward Young, The Complaint: or Night-Thoughts on Life, Death & Immortality, Night I.
  4. Isaac Watts, There Is a Land of Pure Delight.
  5. This might refer to The Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Assembly of Divines which was first published in 1647.