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Sketch of Connecticut, Forty Years Since/Chapter X

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[135]
CHAPTER X.

                        —————————"the azure skies,
            The cheerful Sun, that thro' Earth's vitals pours
            Delight, and health, and heat;—all,—all conspire
            To raise, to sooth, to harmonize the mind,
            And lift on wings of praise to the Great Sire
            Of being, and of beauty."
                                                            Warton.[1]

THE sway of Winter was now broken. His "ruffian winds,"[2] which had howled and moaned through the many rocky defiles of Norwich, as if they were reverberating in the cave of Eolus, subsided into fitful gales, or sighed in humid breezes. The roads were no longer enlivened by the sound of sleigh-bells, and the neighbouring farmers exchanged the sled which had long conveyed their pro ducts to market, for the heavy wheel'd, and creaking wain. The boys, who had been seen, during the daily school-intervals, descending with surprizing velocity the steep, snowy declivities, or marking with "armed heel," graceful circles upon a surface of ice, now resigned the instruments of their favourite sports. Those, who had been nurtured in the economical habits of their fathers, restored to the accustomed peg in the barn, or tool-house, their sled and skates, carefully anointed with oil, as a preservative of the wood, and the metal, which entered into their composition, covered with paper, as an additional security against rust. Some there are, in these modern [136] days, who would sneer at the plebeian toil, which seeks to give a longer date to objects of such trifling value. Yet those, who are most forward to tax with the name of meanness that "saving knowledge" which they are too indolent to practise, are not always more elevated above mercenary motives, or more accessible to the claims of charity, than those who, in a consistent economy, lay the foundation of both justice and liberality.

But we return, from this digression, to our original plan of attending Madam Lathrop on an excursion to the house of her agriculturist. The roads had not yet attained that settled state, when a ride may be considered a pleasure; yet she did not hesitate whether on that account she should defer the business which she wished to transact. She had not been educated when it was a test of sensibility to be alarmed at every imaginary danger, or a mark of refinement to magnify every trifling inconvenience.

It was one of those fine mornings, in which a. softer sea son makes its first effectual resistance against the lingering claims of winter; like a buxom infant springing from the arms of a wrinkled dame, whose caresses chill it. Still the influence of the Sire of Storms was perceptible. The small streams moved but torpidly, between margins of ice, or beneath a thin veil which might have hidden their progress, had it not been revealed by a. cold, subterranean murmuring. Over the larger rivers small boats were seen gliding, while their cheerful navigators repelled with long poles those masses of ice which essayed too near an approach; [137] or supporting themselves on their slippery surface, collected the drift-wood which adhered to them. Other labourers were busily employed in replacing bridges, which the swollen waters had injured or destroyed; for seldom did the spring-tide floods pass Norwich, but the faces of the inhabitants gathered gloom from the prospect of an additional weight of taxation. While the solitary amateur admired the wrath of the resounding streams, the richer, and less romantic burgher would calculate the cost, like Marlow in the well-furnished inn, apprehending, "how horridly a fine side-board, and marble chimney-piece would swell the reckoning." But the labourers, who had nothing to pay, and foresaw gain from being employed about broken bridges, and dilapidated fences, contented themselves with lamenting, in a less rueful tone, the evils of their almost insular situation. Considerable loss and suffering had frequently been sustained in the southern extreme of the town, which occupied the ground at the junction of the two principal rivers. These waters, when swollen by dissolving snows, and the in creased revenue of their tributaries, came rushing down with great power. Inundated streets, merchants lamenting the loss of their goods, and sometimes of the warehouses which contained them, or millers gazing with uplifted hands after their floating fabrics, attested the ravages of the triumphant flood. Here and there, the sharp eaves of a fisherman's hut, or the upper story of some building of larger dimensions would rise above the encompassing [138] element; while the boats employed to take from their windows the sick, or the softer sex, encountered continual obstacles from trees partly immersed, and fences planted like chevaux de frise, beneath the treacherous waters.

Occasionally, a bridge from some neighbouring town has been borne along, a reluctant visiter: in one instance a structure of this sort glided by, displaying in unbroken majesty a toll-gate, upon whose topmost bar, a red-wing'd cockerel was perched. Having evinced his fidelity to his favourite roost, by adhering to it during all the shocks of its midnight disruption, morn beheld the undaunted bird, clapping his wings as he passed the town, and sending forth shrill notes of triumph, from excitement at his extraordinary voyage of discovery.

Once, an infant, in his cradle-ark, suddenly washed from the cabin of his slumbering parents, glided over the bosom of the pitiless surge. He was rescued—not by the daughter of Pharoah, and her maidens, but by the father urging on his light boat with eager strokes, while the mother, not standing "among the flags by the river's brink,"[3] but wading unconsciously into the cold, slippery channel, received with extended arms, the babe smiling as he awoke.

But the Spring, which we describe, had witnessed no uncommon accident. On the contrary, the breaking up of the frosts of Winter had been peculiarly favourable. The course of Madam Lathrop, being directed toward the west, led her gradually from the vicinity of the larger [139] rivers, into a country, beautifully peninsulated by small winding streamlets. Already the turf, seen through melting snows, shewed the first tints of its mantle of green, seeming to promise early vegetation.

The trees with their swelling buds confessed the action of genial warmth, and the squirrel issuing from his nest at their roots, eyed the traveller for a moment, ere he commenced his half aerial course. The blue-bird sent forth a few clear notes, as if to remind his more tardy companions, that the "time of the singing of birds had come."[4]

Madam Lathrop was attentive to every change of nature, whose works she loved. In her heart was a perpetual spring of cheerfulness, which, throwing a charm over every season, rendered her peculiarly susceptible to the delights of that which was now unfolding, so redolent, and full of the Creator's beauty. Her ride, which extended to the distance of about five miles, and which it has been mentioned was directed to the house of her farmer, did not terminate until the sun had a little passed the meridian. She had paused for some time at the abode of good Mrs. Rawson, which was on the road; for, as usual, charity constituted a part of the business which had led her from home. Finding one of the children sick, she had remained so long at the dwelling of poverty, that she thought it probable she might reach Farmer Larkins at the time of his recess from labour at noon. Her equipage, which moved rather slowly, was a chaise, whose form displayed none of the light and graceful elegance of [140] modern times. Its heavy body was painted a dun yellow, and studded thick at the sides, and edges with brass nails. This supported a top, whose wide and low dimensions jutted over in so portentous a manner, that had a person of the height of six feet essayed to be benefitted by its shelter, he must have persisted in maintaining that altitude, which Dr. Franklin recommended to those who would enter his study.[5] Its clumsy footstep, and uncurved shaft was so near the ground, as greatly to facilitate the exploit of ascending, and likewise to diminish the danger of a fall, in case of accident. This vehicle, which was of venerable antiquity, was the first of its kind which had been seen in the streets of Norwich. In those early days, it was viewed as a lamentable proof of aristocratic pride, particularly as on the back might be traced the semblance of a coat of arms. It was now so much reverenced by its owner, that she could never consent to subject it to those changes of fashion, which the taste of her younger friends suggested. To her there was a sacredness, even in the form of whatever had administered to the comfort of the departed, and the beloved. She loved better to lay her hand where theirs had laid, than to bury it amid the garniture of a gorgeous coach. Such also was the good sense of her cotemporaries, that they bowed not to her with slighter respect, nor pointed her out to strangers with less enthusiasm, because she declined to make her equipage the herald of her wealth, or the sole interpreter of her merit. It was drawn by a heavy black steed, who, [141] some fifteen years before, had been in his prime, and who had as much the habit of stopping at the abodes of poverty, as Peveril's Black Hastings[6] had of turning towards the window of mourning.

He also was cherished by his kind mistress, for the same reason that she valued the vehicle to which he was harnessed.

"He is like me," she would sometimes say, "in having seen his best days, and I love to be reminded by that faithful animal how deeply I have entered the vale of years."

Her attachment to this favoured servant seemed to be reciprocal; for, when she occasionally visited him in his abode, he would raise his long black visage from the well-fill'd rack, and greet her with a loving sound, the echo of the neigh of his better years. With his mane some white hairs were mingling, and the elasticity of his youthful step had changed into the heavy tramp of a loaded dray-horse; yet he was still strong and sure-footed, and his clumsiness seemed as much the result of full feeding, and want of exercise, as of the weight of age. In summer, he was carefully guarded from the depredations of flies by a net made of twine, while one of bleached cotton with tassels and balls, exquisitely white, overshadowed his huge frame, when he bore his load on Sundays to the house of God.

Such was the steed, and such the equipage, which now approached the abode of Mr. Larkin. It was a long, low [142] unpainted house, with narrow casements, situated about half a mile from the main road. Near it was a substantial barn, surrounded by a large yard, where a number of animals assembled exhibited an appearance of comfort, which denoted at once a kind and careful master. Cuffee alighting, removed the bars, which formed, or rather obstructed, the rustic entrance to the demesne; and then addressed a few soothing words to his horse, who advanced his head, and bent down his quivering ear, as if the sounds of the human voice were either comprehended, or beloved.

As Madam Lathrop entered she heard, in the clattering of knives and forks, the reason, why she was not as usual welcomed at the door. Unwilling to interrupt the refection of the family, she took a seat unobserved. She found herself in the best room of the mansion, but to this the inhabitants of the neighbouring villages would assign, neither the name of "parlour, hall, or drawing-room," avoiding the example of their city acquaintance, as the ancient reformers did the abominations of the Church of Rome. Adhering to their habits of precision as tenaciously as to their ideas of simplicity, they gave to this most honourable room an appellation derived from its bearing upon the cardinal points. The one under present consideration, being visited by the latest beams of the setting sun, and the first breathings of the summer breeze, was denominated the "south-west room." As the furniture of this best apartment of Farmer Larkin may serve as a [143] sample of the interiour of most of the Sanctum Sanctorums of the better sort of agriculturists at that early period, it may be well to add a brief description.

The bed, an indispensable appendage, was without either curtains, or high posts, and decorated with a new woollen coverlet, where the colour of red gorgeously predominated over the white and green, with which it was intermingled. So small a space did it occupy, that if, like Og, king of Bashan, whose gigantic height was predicated from his bedstead of nine cubits, the size of our farmers should have been estimated by the dimensions of their places of repose, posterity would do them immense injustice.

A buffet, or corner-cupboard was a conspicuous article, in which were arranged a set of bright, pewter plates, some red and white cups and saucers, not much larger than what now belong to a doll's equipage, and a pyramidal block-tin tea-pot. The lower compartment of this repository, which was protected by a door, furnished a receptacle for the Sabbath-day hats and bonnets of the children, each occupying its own place upon the shelves. In the vicinity was what was denominated "a chist o' draws," namely, a capacious vault of stained pine, which, opening like a chest, contained the better part of the wardrobe of the master and mistress of the family; while, beneath, space was left for two or three drawers, devoted to the accommodation of the elder children. But the masterpiece of finery was a tea-table, which, elevating its round [144] disk perpendicularly, evinced that it was more for show than use.

Its surface displayed a commendable lustre, protected by a penal statute from the fingers of the children. But an unruly kitten used to take delight in viewing, on the lower extremity of that polished orb, a reflection of her own round face, and formidable whiskers. Unhappily mistaking the appearance of these for an adversary, she imprinted thereon the marks of her claws, too deeply for all the efforts of the good housewife to efface, and soon after expiated her crime upon the scaffold. A looking-glass, much smaller than the broad expansion of the Farmer's face, hung against the roughly plastered, yet unsullied wall. A few high, strait-back'd chairs, and a pair of small andirons nicely black'd, whose heads bore a rude resemblance to the "human form divine," completed the inventory of goods and chattels. Over the low, wide fireplace, hung in a black frame, without the superfluity of a glass, the family record, legibly penned, with a space very considerately left for future additions. The apartment had an air of neatness, beyond what was then generally observed in the houses of those who made the dairy, and spinning-wheel, their prime objects of attention. The white floor was carefully sanded, and at each door a broad mat, made of the husks of the Indian corn, claimed tribute from the feet of those who entered. Where Madam Lathrop was seated, she had a full view of the family, surrounding their peaceful board, and so cordially engaged [145] in doing justice to its viands, that not a glance wandered to the spot which she occupied.

The table, covered with a coarse white cloth, bore at the head a large supply of boiled beef, and pork, served up in a huge dish of glazed ware, of a form between platter and bowl, though it probably would rank with the latter genus. A mass of very fine cabbage appeared in the same reservoir, like a broad, emerald islet, flanked with parsnips and turnips, the favourite "long and short saace" of the day. At the bottom of the board was an enormous pudding of Indian meal, supported by its legitimate concomitants, a plate of butter, and jug of molasses. Four brown mugs of cider, divided into equal compartments the quadrangle of the board, and the wooden trenchers, which each one manfully maintained, were perfectly clean and comfortable.

Farmer Larkin, and his wife, not deeming it a point of etiquette to separate as far as the limits of the table would permit, shared together the post of honour by the dish of meat. At the left hand of the father, sat his youngest son, and at the right hand of the mother, her youngest daughter. Thus the male line, beginning at Jehu, and touching every one according to his age, passed over the heads of Timothy and Jehoiakim, ending in Amariah, the nephew, and would-be Methodist. On the other hand, the female line, from the mother, who held in her lap the chubbed Tryphosa, passed with geometrical precision through the spaces allotted to Tryphena, Keziah, Roxey and Reuey, [146] terminating with buxom Molly. She was indeed a damsel of formidable size, but of just proportions, and employed her brawny arm, in cutting slices from a large loaf of brown bread, which she distributed with great exactness by each trencher, as soon as her father had stocked it with meat, and her mother garnished it with vegetables. There was something pleasing in the sight of so many healthy and cheerful faces, and in the domestic order which evidently prevailed. The first course past in silence, except that Farmer Larkin said to his wife,—

"Do pray, Mammy, put down Tryphosa on the floor, and give her a crust o bread to gnaw. I can't bear to see ye always a carryin' some burden or other, so that ye get no rest even at meal times."

The wife obediently placed the plump infant in a humbler station, who lifted up its broad blue eyes, as if it thought itself aggrieved, until the father reaching it a piece of bread, said,—"there, baby, larn to take care o' yourself."

It soon became so much absorbed with its fragment of the staff of life, as to make no overtures to return to the arms of it mother. In a short time, each trencher, neatly scraped, was presented to Molly for a slice of the pudding in her vicinity, to which Amariah carefully added the usual condiments. When Tim's plate, in due rotation, was replenished, the farmer said,—

"Amariah, that boy did not do his ta-a-sk this mornin. Don't ye put any lasses[7] on his puddin. Lazy folks [147] sha-ant fare so well as others in my house. That's right an't it Tim, to larn ye to be industrious?"

"Yes Father," said the boy, eating his dry pudding without complaint, and with the air of one who intended to profit by the justice which he acknowledged. The meal was accompanied by a few questions from the parents, to which the younger members returned brief answers; but refrained from holding light conversation among themelves, with far greater sense of propriety, than is always witnessed at the tables of the professedly polite. At the close of the repast, the Father, bowing his head, uttered brief but hearty thanks to the Giver of all Mercies, during which even the youngest children stood as if in an act of devotion. They had been taught that the food of each day, however homely, was a favour; that it was both a duty and pleasure to thank Him who bestowed it; and that it was sinful to do this with a light, irreverent deportment. Madam Lathrop, touched at this scene of domestic order, harmony and devotion, thought that the careless, the proud, or the epicure, who would scorn these humble inmates, might still receive from them a salutary lesson. Perchance, in her mind was a train of thought, similar to what inspired the ploughman-poet, when he exclaimed—

               "From scenes like these, old Scotia's grandeur springs.
            Which makes her lov'd at home, rever'd abroad
               Princes and lords are but the breath of kings,
            An honest man's the noblest work of God."<ref>Burns, Robert. ""The Cotter's Saturday Night."

As she came forward from the apartment, where she had remained unobserved, she was received with the most [148] cordial delight by every individual. The good Farmer approached with a fervent welcome tempered with respect, and the matron with an apology for not having met her at the door, little imagining that she had so long been their guest. Bows and court'sies multiplied among the junior class, as they were kindly addressed by the Lady. Molly produced with great rapidity a plate of nut-cakes and cheese, a basket of fine apples, and a glass of metheglin. Roxey and Pteuey ran to add a "saacer of presarved barberries," from the jar, which was filled with fruit gathered and prepared by their own hands, for a dessert on extraordinary occasions. Jehoiakim also hastened to convey refreshments to Cuffee, who in turn presented him with some grafts from the Vergaloue, the Bennet, and the Winter Pear, eulogizing their respective merits; and not forgetting to add, that his Mistress had "eight bery large fine tree, most hundred year old."

Mrs. Larkin, after the lady had concluded her business with her husband, was anxious to shew her dairy, where the large cheeses, turned and rubbed daily by her own bands, and the stores of gold-coloured butter, arranged with perfect neatness, attested her industry, and good housewifery. Madam Lathrop took pleasure in conversing with this worthy family, where each fulfilled their part, with such faithfulness, and harmony. She distributed to each of the children some little present adapted to their age. To the older ones she gave books, after questioning them en the contents of those which she had last presented, {{tag|[149] and expressing satisfaction that they had been preserved with so much attention. To Amariah she gave a New Testament, saying with kindness, that she had marked with a pencil some passages which she thought applicable to him, and doubted not that he would perceive that religion was confined to no particular sect, but was valued in the eye of the Almighty according to its effects upon the heart and life. Amid expressions of sincere gratitude and affection from all, she took her leave, with more heartfelt satisfaction than is found among the courtly pomp of a ceremonious party;

               "Where e'en while Fashion's brightest arts decoy,
               The heart, distrusting asks, if this be joy?"[8]

Such, forty years since, were most of the agriculturists, who tenanted the lands of others in the villages of Connecticut. Uncorrupt integrity, and reverence for religion were their distinguishing characteristics; and their families were nurtured in that industry, and subordination, which are the germs of the strength and peace of communities. By no profession might that beautiful passage of inspiration be with more justice assumed as a motto, "in simplicity, and godly sincerity we have our conversation in the world."[9]

Since that period, those luxuries and refinements, which spread so rapidly in our cities, have pervaded, in some degree, the abodes of the tillers of the earth. They are becoming a more enlightened race than their fathers, and from their habitations have issued some of our most distinguished [150] merchants, statesmen and divines. Their sons have been distinguished in our seminaries of science, for the zeal with which they have pursued knowledge, and the indefatigable application with which they have supplied the defects of early culture. When the sons of rich men, languid from indulgence, have shrunk from mental effort as insupportable hardship, and fallen a prey to those vices which indolence creates, the offspring of those who hold the plough have wrested from their feeble hands the prize of honour, and pressed on in the path of their country's praise and pride. There is, in the pursuits of agriculture, a salutary discipline both for the body and mind, as they are gradually developed. That hardihood of frame, which despises privation, or change of elements, is more congenial to elevation of character, than the enervating nurture of patrician families, where animal tastes are pampered, at the expense of vigour of intellect, and ease of body promoted, even to the bondage of the free spirit. Possibly also, in the simplicity of man's primeval occupation, there may be, like the angels hovering over Eden, natural and invisible guards around the avenues of innocence, cheerfulness, and that religion which springs from a view of the Creator in his works.

Agriculture has been, in the New-England States, a source of wealth, less splendid indeed than some others, but far less fluctuating. It has been a fountain, not always as profuse in its streams as avarice or ambition might, desire, but perennial when sought by industry and patience. [151] How frequently does it happen, in our republican government, that a fortune, acquired by the economical agriculturist furnishes the means of vanity and pride to his son; who, removing to the city, and educating his children in indolence, prepares them to squander the inheritance of their ancestors. The next generation, born in poverty, seek an antidote in labour, and find that "tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood leads on to fortune."

Many such instances had fallen under the observation of Madam Lathrop, and her silent reflections upon them were not interrupted, until her approach to the Turnpike, a few miles from her residence. There she saw an unusual bustle, and heard the tones of the red-faced gatekeeper, elevated like the hoarse croak of a raven. But these were overpowered by the loud brogue of an Irish man of enormous stature, who mounted on a pony ready to sink beneath the weight of the rider, contested the rate of toll:—

"I tell ye, I ll not be paying nine-pence for travelling on such a confounded bog of a road, with the danger of breaking my neck into the bargain."

"Zounds!" roared the sturdy, square shouldered Englishman, lifting up his shoemaker's hammer, by the aid of which, with the profits of his gate, he earned a subsistence for his family, "are ye not able to read the printed board before your face, or d'ye think ye're in Cork, where club law will silence the jailors." [152]

"Of what use, my dair," said Paddy without regarding the threat, "of what use is that sort of a whirligig thing, which bears some indifferent likeness to the cross of St. Patrick?"

"It is the wicket, where people on foot go through for nothing," replied the toll-keeper, approaching to shut the gate, which, not apprehending any contention, he had thrown open at the arrival of the passenger. But Paddy, dismounting with as much haste, as Lord Marmion displayed in clearing the falling portcullis of the indignant Earl of Douglas, threw his arms round his shadow of a steed, and lifted him fairly over the debateable ground. Then turning about, he walked through the wicket, and resuming his seat upon the wretched animal, shouted to the amazed toll-keeper,

"If a man may walk through your limboes by himself, without any burden at all, for nothing, my jewel, should not he be desarving of some pay, when he carries a baste upon his shoulders? And so, ye're so covetous in this beggarly country, as never to be giving so much as a drop of drink to a friend, who has left the swatest island in the world, just to be travelling through this wilderness among thieves, and lubberly pickpockets."

Without waiting to hear the torrent of recrimination, which burst from the lips of the baffled toll-gatherer, he pursued his journey, with a peal of laughter, which echoed from the surrounding rocks and woods, as if a colony of Hibernians were mocking from beneath their canopy. [163]

Madam Lathrop reached the gate, at the moment when its enraged superintendant was preparing for pursuit. His square, thick figure, bustling about with uncommon agility, had a comic appearance, while on his brow was somewhat of that eager impatience, with which he of Bosworth field exclaimed, "My kingdom for a horse." The Lady suddenly changed the fierce expression of his countenance, by putting into his hand, with her own toll, the sum for which his recreant brother of Erin was indebted; and kindly wishing him a good afternoon, departed with a smile of that conciliating spirit, which prompted the patriarch's exhortation to his kinsman, "let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee, and my herdsmen and thy herdsmen, for we be brethren."[10]

Notes[edit]

  1. This is a short excerpt of a poem by Joseph Warton called "The Enthusiast: or, the Lover of Nature." Warton, Joseph. Odes on Various Subjects London: R. Dodsley, 1746.
  2. This might be a quotation from James Hervey's Meditations and Contemplations, which was first published in the eigheenth century, one edition appearing in 1750. The author was contemplating various flowers and plants in the garden:
    Next peeps out the crocus, but cautiously,and with an air of timidity. She hears the howling blasts, and skulks close to her law situation. Afraid she seems to make large excursions from her root, while so many ruffian winds are abroad, and scouring along the aether.
    Hervey, James. Meditations and Contemplations. Vol I. Troy, New York: Solomon Wilbur, 1813. Page 149.
  3. Darby, John Nelson. The Passage of the Red Sea. This quotation is nearly identical to the biblical text in Exodus, and is found in Darby's commentary on Hebrews 11:24-26. These are references to the story of Moses found in Exodus 2:1-10.
  4. Song of Solomon 2:12
  5. This may be a slight corruption of a story found in a letter to Samuel Mather dated May 12, 1784. Dr. Franklin recounts that he was visiting Reverend Mather's father.
    He received me in his library, and on my taking leave shewed me a shorter way oat of the house through a narrow passage, which was crossed by a beam over head. We were still talking as I withdrew, he accompanying me behind, and I turning partly towards him, when he said hastily, stoop, stoop! I did not understand him till I felt my head hit against the beam. He was a man that never missed any occasion of giving instruction, and upon this he said to me, you are young, and have the world before you; STOOP as you go through it, and you will miss many hard thumps. This advice thus beat into my head has frequently been of use to me, and I often think of it, when I see pride mortified, and misfortunes brought upon people by their carrying their heads too high.
  6. Scott, Walter. Peveril of the Peak. Black Hastings is the main character's horse.
  7. molasses
  8. Goldsmith, Oliver. The Deserted Village. 1770. Reprinted in The Miscellaneous Works of Oliver Goldsmith. London: Macmillan and Co, 1881. p. 586.
  9. 2 Corinthians 1:12
  10. Abraham in Genesis 13:8