Oldtown Folks by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896). Boston: Fields, Osgood & Co., 1869.
MRS. STOWE’S NOVELS.
UNCLE TOM’S CABIN.
AGNES OF SORRENTO.
THE MINISTER’S WOOING.
THE PEARL OF ORR’S ISLAND.
Each in one volume 12mo.
FIELDS, OSGOOD, & CO., Publishers.
HARRIET BEECHER STOWE
AUTHOR OF “UNCLE TOM’S CABIN,” ETC.
FIELDS, OSGOOD, & CO.,
SUCCESSORS TO TICKNOR AND FIELDS.
Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1869, by
HARRIET BEECHER STOWE,
In the Clerk’s Office of the District Court of the District of Connecticut.
UNIVERSITY PRESS: WELCH, BIGELOW & CO.,
GENTLE READER, – It is customary to omit prefaces. I beg you to make an exception in my particular case; I have something I really want to say. I have an object in this book, more than the mere telling of a story, and you can always judge of a book better if you compare it with the author’s object. My object is to interpret to the world the New England life and character in that particular time of its history which may be called the seminal period. I would endeavor to show you New England in its seed-bed, before the hot suns of modern progress had developed its sprouting germs into the great trees of to-day.
New England has been to these United States what the Dorian hive was to Greece. It has always been a capital country to emigrate from, and North, South, East, and West have been populated largely from New England, so that the seed-bed of New England was the seed-bed of this great American Republic, and of all that is likely to come of it.
New England people cannot be thus interpreted without calling into view many grave considerations and necessitating some serious thinking.
In doing this work, I have tried to make my mind as still and passive as a looking-glass, or a mountain lake, and then to give you merely the images reflected there, I desire that you should see the characteristic persons of those times, and hear them talk; and sometimes I have taken an author’s liberty of explaining their characters to you, and telling you why they talked and lived as they did.
My studies for this object have been Pre-Raphaelite, – taken from real characters, real scenes, and real incidents. And some of those things in the story which may appear most romantic and like fiction are simple renderings and applications of facts.
Any one who may be curious enough to consult Rev. Elias Nason’s book, called “Sir Charles Henry Frankland, or Boston in the Colonial Times,” will see there a full description of the old manor-house which in this story is called the Dench House. It was by that name I always heard it spoken of in my boyhood.
In portraying the various characters which I have introduced, I have tried to maintain the part simply of a sympathetic spectator. I propose neither to teach nor preach through them, any farther than any spectator of life is preached to by what he sees of the workings of human nature around him.
Though Calvinist, Arminian, High-Church Episcopalian, sceptic, and simple believer all speak in their turn, I merely listen, and endeavor to understand and faithfully represent the inner life of each. I myself am but the observer and reporter, seeing much, doubting much, questioning much, and believing with all my heart in only a very few things.
And so I take my leave of you.
CHAPTER I. PAGE
OLDTOWN AND THE MINISTER 1
MY FATHER 11
MY GRANDMOTHER 18
THE VILLAGE DO-NOTHING 28
THE OLD MEETING-HOUSE 39
FIRE-LIGHT TALES IN MY GRANDMOTHER’S KITCHEN 61
OLD CRAB SMITH 85
MISS ASPHYXIA 97
HARRY’S FIRST DAY’S WORK 109
MISS ASPHYXIA’S SYSTEM 119
THE CRISIS 128
THE LION’S MOUTH SHUT 134
THE EMPTY BIRD’S-NEST 141
THE DAY IN FAIRY-LAND 146
THE OLD MANOR-HOUSE 159
SAM LAWSON’S DISCOVERIES 169
THE VISIT TO THE HAUNTED HOUSE 179
TINA’S ADOPTION 198
MISS MEHITABLE’S LETTER, AND THE REPLY, GIVING FURTHER HINTS OF THE STORY 212
MISS ASPHYXIA GOES IN PURSUIT, AND MY GRANDMOTHER GIVES HER VIEWS ON EDUCATION 234
WHAT IS TO BE DONE WITH THE BOY? 249
DAILY LIVING IN OLDTOWN 261
WE TAKE A STEP UP IN THE WORLD 274
WE BEHOLD GRANDEUR 290
EASTER SUNDAY 305
WHAT “OUR FOLKS” SAID AT OLDTOWN 325
HOW WE KEPT THANKSGIVING AT OLDTOWN 336
THE RAID ON OLDTOWN, AND UNCLE FLIAKIM’S BRAVERY 354
MY GRANDMOTHER’S BLUE BOOK 367
WE BEGIN TO BE GROWN-UP PEOPLE 391
WHAT SHALL WE DO WITH TINA? 400
THE JOURNEY TO CLOUDLAND 421
SCHOOL-LIFE IN CLOUDLAND 441
OUR MINISTER IN CLOUDLAND 441
THE REVIVAL OF RELIGION 457
AFTER THE REVIVAL 468
THE MINISTER’S WOOD-SPELL 478
ELLERY DAVENPORT 487
LAST DAYS IN CLOUDLAND 498
WE ENTER COLLEGE 508
NIGHT TALKS 519
SPRING VACATION AT OLDTOWN 525
WHAT OUR FOLKS THOUGHT ABOUT IT 535
MARRIAGE PREPARATIONS 548
WEDDING BELLS 558
WEDDING AFTER-TALKS AT OLDTOWN 570
BEHIND THE CURTAIN 576
TINA’S SOLUTION 584
WHAT CAME OF IT 592
THE LAST CHAPTER 602
OLDTOWN AND THE MINISTER.
IT has always been a favorite idea of mine, that there is so much of the human in every man, that the life of any one individual, however obscure, if really and vividly perceived in all its aspirations, struggles, failures, and successes, would command the interest of all others. This is my only apology for offering my life as an open page to the reading of the public.
Besides this, however, every individual is part and parcel of a great picture of the society in which he lives and acts, and his life cannot be painted without reproducing the picture of the world he lived in; and it has appeared to me that my life might recall the image and body of a period in New England most peculiar and most interesting, the impress of which is now rapidly fading away. I mean the ante-railroad times, – the period when our own hard, rocky, sterile New England was a sort of half Hebrew theocracy, half ultra-democratic republic of little villages, separated by a pathless ocean from all the civilization and refinement of the Old World, forgotten and unnoticed, and yet burning like live coals under this obscurity with all the fervid activity of an intense, newly kindled, peculiar, and individual life.
My early life lies in one of these quiet little villages, – that of Oldtown, in Massachusetts. It was as pretty a village as ever laid down on the banks of a tranquil river. The stream was one of those limpid children of the mountains, whose brown, clear waters ripple with a soft yellow light over many-colored pebbles, now brawling and babbling on rocky bottoms, dashing hither and thither in tiny cascades, throwing white spray over green mossed rocks, and then again sweeping silently, with many a winding curve, through soft green meadows, nursing on its bosom troops of water-lilies, and bordering its banks with blue and white violets, snow-flaked meadow-sweet, and wild iris. Hither and thither, in the fertile tracts of meadow or upland through which this little stream wound, were some two dozen farm-houses, hid in green hollows, or perched on breezy hill-tops; while close alongside of the river, at its widest and deepest part, ran one rustic street, thickly carpeted with short velvet green grass, where stood the presiding buildings of the village.
First among these was the motherly meeting-house, with its tall white spire, its ample court of sheds and stalls for the shelter of the horses and the various farm-wagons which came in to Sunday services. There was also the school-house, the Academy, and Israel Scran’s store, where everything was sold, from hoe-handles up to cambric needles, where the post-office was kept, and where was a general exchange of news, as the different farm-wagons stood hitched around the door, and their owners spent a leisure moment in discussing politics or theology from the top of codfish or mackerel barrels, while their wives and daughters were shopping among the dress goods and ribbons, on the other side of the store. Next to the store was the tavern, – with a tall signpost which used to creak and flap in the summer winds, with a leisurely, rich, easy sort of note of invitation, – a broad veranda in front, with benches, – an open tap-room, where great barrels of beer were kept on draft, and a bar where the various articles proscribed by the temperance society were in those days allowed an open and respectable standing. This tavern veranda and tap-room was another general exchange, not in those days held in the ill repute of such resorts now. The minister himself, in all the magnificence of his cocked hat and ample clerical wig, with his gold-headed cane in his hand, would sometimes step into the tap-room of a cold winter morning, and order a mug of flip from obsequious Amaziah the host, and, while he sipped it, would lecture with a severe gravity a few idle, ragged fellows who were spending too much time in those seductive precincts. The clergy in those days felt that they never preached temperance with so warm a fervor as between the comfortable sips of a beverage of whose temperate use they intended to be shining examples. The most vivid image of respectability and majesty which a little boy born in a Massachusetts village in those early days could form was the minister. In the little theocracy which the Pilgrims established in the wilderness, the ministry was the only order of nobility. They were the only privileged class, and their voice it was that decided ex cathedra on all questions both in Church and State, from the choice of a Governor to that of the district-school teacher.
Our minister, as I remember him, was one of the cleanest, most gentlemanly, most well bred of men, – never appearing without all the decorums of silk stockings, shining knee and shoe buckles, well-brushed shoes, immaculately powdered wig, out of which shone his clear, calm, serious face, like the moon out of a fleecy cloud.
Oldtown was originally an Indian town, and one of the most numerous and powerful of the Indian tribes had possessed the beautiful tracts of meadow and upland farms that bordered the Sepaug River. Here the great apostle of the Indians had established the first missionary enterprise among them, under the patronage of a society in England for the propagation of the Gospel in foreign parts; here he had labored and taught and prayed with a fervor which bowed all hearts to his sway, and gathered from the sons of the forest a church of devoted Christians. The harsh guttural Indian language, in the fervent alembic of his loving study, was melted into a written dialect; a Bible and hymn-book and spelling-book seemed to open a path to an Indian literature. He taught them agriculture, and many of the arts and trades of civilized life. But he could not avert the doom which seems to foreordain that those races shall dry up and pass away with their native forests, as the brook dries up when the pines and hemlocks which shaded its source are torn away.
In my boyhood, three generations had passed since the apostle died. The elms which two grateful Indian catechumens had set out as a little saplings on either side of his gateway were now two beautiful pillars, supporting, each its firmament of leafy boughs, and giving a grand air of scholarly retirement to the plain, old fashioned parsonage; but the powerful Indian tribe had dwindled to a few scattered families, living an uncertain and wandering life on the outskirts of the thrift and civilization of the whites.
Our minister was one of those cold, clear-cut, polished crystals, that are formed in the cooling-down of society, after it has been melted and purified by a great enthusiam. Nobody can read Dr. Cotton Mather’s biography of the first ministers of Massachusetts without feeling that they were men whose whole souls were in a state of fusion, by their conceptions of an endless life; that the ruling forces which impelled them were the sublimities of a world to come; and that, if there be such a thing possible as perfect faith in the eternal and invisible, and perfect loyalty to God and to conscience, these men were pervaded by it.
More than this, many of them were men of a softened and tender spirit, bowed by past afflictions, who had passed through the refining fires of martyrdom, and come to this country, counting not home or kindred dear to them, that they might found a commonwealth for the beloved name and honor of One who died for them. Christo et Ecclesiæ, was the seal with which they consecrated all their life-work, from the founding of Harvard College down to the district school in every village. These men lived in the full spirit of him who said, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live: yet not I, but Christ liveth in me”; and the power of this invisible and mighty love shed a softening charm over the austere grandeur of their lives. They formed a commonwealth where vice was wellnigh impossible; where such landmarks and boundaries and buttresses and breastworks hedged in and defended the morality of a community, that to go very far out of the way would require some considerable ingenuity and enterprise.
The young men grew up grave and decorous through the nursing of church, catechism, and college, all acting in one line; and in due time many studious and quiet youths stepped, in regular succession, from the college to the theological course, and thence to the ministry; as their natural and appointed work. They received the articles of faith as taught in their catechism without dispute, and took their places calmly and without opposition to assist in carrying on a society where everything had been arranged to go under their direction, and they were the recognized and appointed leaders and governors.
The Rev. Mr. Lothrop had come of good ministerial blood for generations back. His destination had always been for the pulpit. He was possessed of one of those calm, quiet, sedate natures, to whom the temptations of turbulent nerves or vehement passions are things utterly incomprehensible.
Now, however stringent and pronounced may be the forms in which one’s traditional faith may have been expressed, it is certain that temperament gradually, and with irresistible power, modifies one’s creed. Those features of a man’s professed belief which are unsympathetic with his nature become to his mind involved in a perpetual haze and cloud of disuse; while certain others, which are congenial, become vivid and pronounced; and thus, practically, the whole faith of the man changes without his ever being aware of the fact himself.
Parson Lothrop belonged to a numerous class in the third generation of Massachusetts clergy, commonly called Arminian, – men in whom this insensible change had been wrought from the sharply defined and pronounced Calvinism of the early fathers. They were mostly scholarly, quiet men, of calm and philosophic temperament, who, having from infancy walked in all the traditions of a virtuous and pious education, and passed from grade to grade of their progress with irreproachable quiet and decorum, came to regard the spiritual struggles and conflicts, the wrestlings and tears, the fastings and temptations of their ancestors with a secret scepticism, – to dwell on moralities, virtues, and decorums, rather than on those soul-stirring spiritual mysteries which still stood forth unquestioned and uncontradicted in their confessions of faith.
Parson Lothrop fulfilled with immaculate precision all the proprieties exacted in his station. Oldtown having been originally an Indian missionary station, an annual stipend was paid the pastor of this town from a fund originally invested in England for the conversion of the Indians; and so Parson Lothrop had the sounding-board of Eliot’s pulpit put up over the great armchair in his study, and used to call thither weekly the wandering remnants of Indian tribes to be catechised. He did not, like his great predecessor, lecture them on the original depravity of the heart, the need of a radical and thorough regeneration by the Holy Spirit of God, or the power of Jesus as a Saviour from sin, but he talked to them of the evil of drunkenness and lying and idleness, and exhorted them to be temperate and industrious; and when they, notwithstanding his exhortations, continued to lead an unthrifty, wandering life, he calmly expressed his conviction that they were children of the forest, a race destined to extinction with the progress of civilization, but continued his labors for them with automatic precision.
His Sunday sermons were well-written specimens of the purest and most elegant Addisonian English, and no mortal could find fault with a word that was in them, as they were sensible, rational, and religious, as far as they went. Indeed, Mr. Lothrop was quite an elegant scholar and student in literature, and more than once surprise had been expressed to him that he should be willing to employ his abilities in so obscure a town and for so inconsiderable a salary. His reply was characteristic. “My salary is indeed small, but it is as certain as the Bank of England, and retirement and quiet give me leisure for study.”
He, however, mended his worldly prospects by a matrimonial union with a widow lady of large property, from one of the most aristocratic families of Boston. Mrs. Dorothea Lucretia Dixwell was the widow of a Tory merchant, who, by rare skill in trimming his boat to suit the times, had come through the Revolutionary war with a handsome property unimpaired, which, dying shortly after, he left to his widow. Mrs. Dixwell was in heart and soul an Englishwoman, an adorer of church and king, a worshipper of aristocracy and all the powers that be. She owned a pew in King’s Chapel, and clung more punctiliously than ever to her prayer-book, when all other memorials of our connection with the mother country had departed.
Could it be thought that the elegant and rich widow would smile on the suit of an obscure country Congregational clergyman? Yet she did; and for it there were many good reasons. Parson Lothrop was a stately, handsome, well-proportioned man, and had the formal and ceremonious politeness of a gentleman of the old school, and by family descent Mrs. Dorothea’s remembrance could trace back his blood to that of some very solid families among the English gentry, and as there were no more noblemen to be had in America, marrying a minister in those days was the next best thing to it; and so Mrs. Dixwell became Mrs. Parson Lothrop, and made a processional entrance into Oldtown in her own coach, and came therein to church the first Sunday after her marriage, in all the pomp of a white brocade, with silver flowers on it of life-size, and white-satin slippers with heels two inches high. This was a great grace to show to a Congregational church, but Mrs. Lothrop knew the duty of a wife, and conformed to it heroically. Nor was Parson Lothrop unmindful of the courtesies of a husband in this matrimonial treaty, for it was stipulated and agreed that Madam Lothrop should have full liberty to observe in her own proper person all the festivals and fasts of the Church of England, should be excused from all company and allowed to keep the seclusion of her own apartment on Good Friday, and should proceed immediately thereafter in her own coach to Boston, to be present at the Easter services in King’s Chapel. The same procession to Boston in her own coach took place also on Whitsunday and Christmas. Moreover she decked her house with green boughs and made mince-pies at Christmas time, and in short conducted her housekeeping in all respects as a zealous member of the Church of England ought.
In those days of New England, the minister and his wife were considered the temporal and spiritual superiors of everybody in the parish. The idea which has since gained ground, of regarding the minister and his family as a sort of stipendiary attachment and hired officials of the parish, to be overlooked, schooled, advised, rebuked, and chastened by every deacon and deacon’s wife or rich and influential parishioner, had not then arisen. Parson Lothrop was so calmly awful in his sense of his own position and authority, that it would have been a sight worth seeing to witness any of his parish coming to him, as deacons and influential parishioners now-a-days feel at liberty to come to their minister, with suggestions and admonitions. His manner was ever gracious and affable, as of a man who habitually surveys every one from above, and is disposed to listen with indulgent courtesy, and has advice in reserve for all seekers; but there was not the slightest shadow of anything which encouraged the most presuming to offer counsel in return. And so the marriage with the rich Episcopal widow, her processional entry into Oldtown, the coach and outriders, the brocade and satin slippers, were all submitted to on the part of the Oldtown people without a murmur.
The fact is, that the parson himself felt within his veins the traditional promptings of a far-off church and king ancestry, and relished with a calm delight a solemn trot to the meeting-house behind a pair of fat, decorous old family horses, with a black coachman in livery on the box. It struck him as sensible and becoming. So also he liked a sideboard loaded with massive family plate, warmed up with the ruby hues of old wines of fifty years’ ripening, gleaming through crystal decanters, and well-trained man-servants and maid-servants, through whom his wig, his shoes, and all his mortal belongings, received daily and suitable care. He was to Mrs. Dorothea the most deferential of husbands, always rising with stately courtesy to offer her a chair when she entered an apartment, and hastening to open the door for her if she wished to pass out, and passing every morning and evening the formal gallantries and inquiries in regard to her health and well-being which he felt that her state and condition required.
Fancy if you can the magnificent distance at which this sublime couple stood above a little ten-year-old boy, who wore a blue checked apron, and every day pattered barefoot after the cows, and who, at the time this story of myself begins, had just, by reaching up on his little bare tiptoes, struck the great black knocker on their front door.
The door was opened by a stately black servant, who had about him an indistinct and yet perceptible atmosphere of ministerial gravity and dignity, looking like a black doctor of divinity.
“Is Mr. Lothrop at home,” I said, blushing to the roots of my hair.
“Yes, sonny,” said the black condescendingly.
“Won’t you please tell him father ‘s dying, and mother wants him to come quick?” and with that, what with awe, and what with grief, I burst into tears.
The kind-hearted black relaxed from his majesty at once, and said. “Lord bress yer soul! why, don’t cry now, honey, and I ‘ll jes’ call missis”; – and in fact, before I knew it, he had opened the parlor door, and ushered me into the august presence of Lady Lothrop, as she used to be familiarly called in our village.
She was a tall, thin, sallow woman, looking very much like those portraits by Copley that still adorn some old houses in Boston; but she had a gentle voice, and a compassionate, womanly way with her. She comforted me with a cake, which she drew from the closet in the sideboard; decanted some very choice old wine into a bottle, which she said I was to carry to my mother, and be sure and tell her to take a little of it herself. She also desired me to give her a small book which she had found of use in times of affliction, called “The Mourner’s Companion,” consisting mainly of choice selections from the English Book of Common Prayer.
When the minister came into the room I saw that she gave a conjugal touch to the snowy plaited frill of his ruffled shirt, and a thoughtful inspection to the wide linen cambric frills which set off his well-formed hand, and which were a little discomposed by rubbing over his writing-table, – nay, even upon one of them a small stain of ink was visible, as the minister, unknown to himself, had drawn his ruffles over an undried portion of his next Sunday’s sermon.
“Dinah must attend to this,” she said; “here ‘s a spot requiring salts of lemon; and, my dear,” she said, in an insinuating tone, holding out a richly bound velvet prayer-book, “would you not like to read our service for the Visitation of the Sick, – it is so excellent.”
“I am well aware of that, my love,” said the minister, repelling her prayer-book with a gentle stateliness, “but I assure you, Dorothea, it would not do, – no, it would not do.”
I thought the good lady sighed as her husband left the house, and looked longingly after him through the window as he walked down the yard. She probably consoled herself with the reflection that one could not have everything, and that her spouse, if not in the Established Church of England, was every way fitted to adorn it had he only been there.
MY good reader, it must sometimes have fallen under your observation that there is a class of men who go through life under a cloud, for no other reason than that, being born with the nature of gentlemen, they are nevertheless poor. Such men generally live under a sense of the dissatisfaction and rebuke of our good mother world; and yet it is easy to see all the while that even a moderate competence would at any moment turn their faults into virtues, and make them in everybody’s opinion model characters.
Now you know there are plants to whom poor soil or rich soil seems to make no manner of difference. Your mullein and your burdock do admirably on a gravelly hillside, and admirably in rich garden soil. Nothing comes amiss with them. But take a saffrano rose or a hyacinth and turn it out to shift for itself by the roadside, and it soon dwindles and pines, and loses its color and shape, till everybody thinks such a wretched, ragged specimen of vegetation had better be out of the world than in it.
From all I remember of my poor father, he had the organization and tastes of a scholar and a gentleman; but he was born the son of a poor widow, who hardly knew from week to week where the few hard-earned dollars were to come from which kept her and her boy in the very plainest food and clothing. So she thought herself happy when she apprenticed him to a paper-maker. Thence he had fought his way up with his little boy hands towards what to him was light and life, – an education. Harvard College, to his eyes, was like the distant vision of the New Jerusalem to the Christian. Thither he aspired, thither he meant to go. Through many a self-denial, many an hour of toil, – studying his Latin grammar by night in the paper-mill, saving his odd pennies, and buying book after book, and treasuring each one as a mine of wealth, – he went on, till finally he gained enough of a standing to teach, first the common school and then the Academy.
While he was teacher of the Academy he made his first false step, which was a false step only because he was poor, – he fell in love with my mother. If he had been well to do in the world everybody would have said that it was the most natural and praiseworthy thing possible. It was some extenuation of his fault that my poor mother was very pretty and attractive, – she was, in fact, one of my father’s prettiest scholars. He saw her daily, and so the folly grew upon him, till he was ready to sacrifice his life’s object, and consent to be all his days a poor academy teacher in Oldtown, that he might marry her.
One must be very much of a woman for whom a man cam sacrifice the deepest purpose of his life without awaking to regret it. I do not say that my father did so; and yet I could see, from the earliest of my recollection, that ours was a household clouded by suppressed regrets, as well as embarrassed by real wants.
My mother was one of those bright, fair, delicate New England girls who remind us of the shell-pink of the wood anemone, or the fragile wind-flower; and every one must remember how jauntily they toss their gay little heads as they grow in their own mossy dells, at the root of old oaks or beeches, but how quickly they become withered and bedraggled when we gather them.
My mother’s gayety of animal spirits, her sparkle and vivacity, all went with the first year of marriage. The cares of house-keeping, the sicknesses of maternity and nursing, drained her dry of all that was bright and attractive; and my only recollections of her are of a little quiet, faded, mournful woman, who looked on my birth and that of my brother Bill as the greatest possible misfortunes, and took care of us with a discouraged patience, more as if she pitied us for being born than as if she loved us.
My father seemed to regard her with a half-remorseful tenderness as he strove by extra reading and study to make up for the loss of that education the prospect of which he had sacrificed in his marriage. In common with a great many scholars of that day and of this, he ignored his body altogether, and tasked and strained his brain with night studies till his health sank under it; and Consumption, which in New England stands ever waiting for victims, took his cold hand in hers, and led him quietly but irresistibly downward.
Such, to this moment, was my father’s history; and you will see the truth of what I have been saying, – that a modest little property would have changed all his faults and mistakes into proprieties and virtues.
He had been sick so long, so very long, it seemed to my child-mind! and now there was approaching him that dark shadow so terrible to flesh and heart, in whose dimness every one feels an instinctive longing for aid. That something must be done for the dying to prepare them for their last lonesome journey is a strong instinct of every soul; and I had heard my mother pathetically urging my father that morning to send for the minister.
“What good will it do, Susy?” had been his answer, given with a sort of weary despondence; but still he had assented, and I had gone eagerly to bring him.
I was, for my part, strong in faith. I wanted to do something for my father, and I felt certain that the minister would know what was the right thing; and when I set forth with him, in his full panoply, – wig and ruffles and gold-headed cane, – I felt somehow as if the ark of the covenant was moving down the street to our house.
My mother met the minister at the door, with tears yet undried in her eyes, and responded in the fullest manner to the somewhat stately, but yet gracious, inquiries which he made as to my father’s health and condition, and thanked him for the kindly messages and gifts of Lady Lothrop, which I had brought.
Then he was shown into the sick-room. My father was lying propped up by pillows, and with the bright flush of his afternoon fever on his cheeks. He was always a handsome man, fastidious about his person and belongings; and as he lay with his long thin hands folded together over the bed-clothes, his hair clinging in damp curls round his high white forehead, and his large, clear hazel eyes kindled with an unnatural brightness, he formed on my childish memory a picture that will never fade. There was in his eyes at this moment that peculiar look of deep suffering which I have sometimes seen in the eyes of wounded birds or dying animals, – something that spoke of a quiet, unutterable anguish.
My father had been not only a scholar, but a thinker, – one of those silent, peculiar natures whose thoughts and reasonings too often wander up and down the track of commonly received opinion, as Noah’s dove of old, without finding rest for the sole of their foot. When a mind like this is approaching the confines of the eternal unknown, there is often a conflict of thought and emotion, the utterance of which to a receptive and sympathizing soul might bring relief. Something there was of intense yearning and inquiry in the first glance he threw on the minister, and then it changed to one of weary languor. With the quick spiritual instincts of that last dying hour, he had seen into the soul of the man, – that there was nothing there for him. Even the gold-headed cane was not the rod and staff for him in the dark valley.
There was, in fact, something in the tranquil, calm, unpathetic nature of that good man, which rendered him peculiarly inapt to enter into the secret chamber of souls that struggle and suffer and doubt. He had a nature so evenly balanced, his course in life had been so quiet and unruffled, his speculations and doubts had been of so philosophical and tranquil a kind, that he was not in the least fitted to become father confessor to a sick and wounded spirit.
His nature was one that inclined to certain stately formalities and proprieties; and although he had, in accordance with his station in the Congregational church, put from him the forms of the Church of England, and was supposed to rely on the extemporaneous movements of the hour, his devotional exercises, nevertheless, had as much a stereotype form as if they had been printed in a book. We boys always knew when the time for certain familiar phrases and expressions would occur in his Sunday morning prayer, and exactly the welcome words which heralded the close of the afternoon exercise.
I remember now, as he knelt by my father’s bedside, how far off and distant the usual opening formula of his prayer made the Great Helper to appear. “Supremely great, infinitely glorious, and ever-blessed God,” it said, “grant that we may suitably realize the infinite distance between us, worms of the dust, and thy divine majesty.”
I was gazing earnestly at my father, as he lay with his bright, yearning, troubled eyes looking out into the misty shadows of the eternal world, and I saw him close them wearily, and open them again with an expression of quiet endurance. The infinite distance was a thing that he realized only too well; but who should tell him of an infinite nearness by which those who are far off are made nigh?
After the prayer, the minister expressed the hope that my father would be resigned to the decrees of infinite wisdom, and my father languidly assented; and then, with a ministerial benediction, the whole stately apparition of ghostly aid and comfort departed from our house.
One thing, at all events, had been gained, – my father had had the minister and been prayed with, and nobody in Oldtown could say that everything had not been properly done, according to the code of spiritual etiquette generally established. For our town, like other little places, always kept a wide-awake eye on the goings and doings of her children. Oldtown had had its own opinion of my father for a great while, and expressed it freely in tea-drinkings, quiltings, at the store, and at the tavern. If Oldtown’s advice had been asked, there were a hundred things that he did which would have been left undone, and a hundred things done which he did not do. Oldtown knew just whom he ought to have married instead of marrying my mother, and was certain he could have had her too. Oldtown knew just how and when he might have made himself a rich man, and did n’t. Oldtown knew exactly when, how, and why he caught the cold that set him into consumption, and what he ought to have taken to cure it, and did n’t. And now he was, so to speak, dying under a cloud, just as Oldtown always knew he would. But one thing was certain, and Oldtown was glad to hear of it, – he was n’t an infidel, as had been at different times insinuated, for he had had the minister and been prayed with; and so, though he never had joined the church, Oldtown indulged some hope for his hereafter.
When the minister was gone, my father said, with a weary smile: “There, Susy dear, I hope you are satisfied now. My poor child,” he added, gently drawing her to sit down by him, and looking at her with the strange, solemn dispassionateness of dying people, who already begin to feel that they are of another sphere, – “my poor dear little girl! You were so pretty and so gay! I did you a great wrong in marrying you.”
“O, don’t say that Horace,” said my mother.
“It ‘s true, though,” said my father. “With a richer and more prosperous man, you might have been blooming and happy yet. And this poor little man,” said my father, stroking my head, – “perhaps fate may have something better in store for him. If I had had but the ghost of a chance, such as some men have, – some who do not value it, who only throw it away, – I might have been something. I had it in me; but no one will ever know it now. My life is a miserable, disgusting failure. Burn all my papers, Susy. Promise me that.”
“I will do just what you say, Horace.”
“And, Susy, when I am gone, don’t let all the old gossips of Oldtown come to croak and croon over me, and make their stupid remarks on my helpless body. I hate country funerals. Don’t make a vulgar show of me for their staring curiosity. Death is dreary enough at best, but I never could see any sense in aggravating its horrors by stupid funeral customs. Instead of dressing me in those ghostly, unnatural grave-clothes that people seem to delight in, just let me be buried in my clothes and let the last look my poor children have of me be as natural and familiar as possible. The last look of the dead ought to be sacred to one’s friends alone. Promise, now, Susy” he said earnestly, “promise to do as I say.”
“O Horace, I do promise, – I promise to do all you say. You know I always have.”
“Yes, poor dear child, you have; you have been only too good for me.”
“O Horace, how can you say so!” and my poor mother fell on my father’s neck in a paroxysm of weeping.
But his great, bright eyes gathered no tears; they were fixed in an awful stillness. “My darling, you must not,” he said tenderly, but with no answering emotion. “Calm yourself. And now, dear, as I am sure that to-morrow I shall not be with you, you must send for your mother to be with you to-night. You know she will come.”
“Father,” said I earnestly, “where are you going?”
“Where?” said he, looking at me with his clear mournful eyes. “God knows, my son. I do not. It ought to be enough for me that God does know.”
“NOW, Horace,” said my mother, “you must run right up to your grandfather’s, and tell your grandmother to come down and stay with us to-night; and you and Bill must stay there.”
Bill, my brother, was a year or two older than I was; far more healthy, and consequently, perhaps, far more noisy. At any rate, my mother was generally only too glad to give her consent to his going anywhere of a leisure afternoon which would keep him out of the house, while I was always retained as her own special waiter and messenger.
My father had a partiality for me, because I was early an apt reader, and was fond of the quiet of his study and his books. He used to take pride and pleasure in hearing me read, which I did with more fluency and understanding than many children of twice my age; and thus it happened that, while Bill was off roaming in the woods this sunny autumn afternoon, I was the attendant and waiter in the sick-room. My little soul was oppressed and sorrowful, and so the message that sent me to my grandmother was a very welcome one, for my grandmother was, in my view, a tower of strength and deliverance. My mother was, as I have said, a frail, mournful, little, discouraged woman; but my grandmother belonged to that tribe of strong-backed, energetic, martial mothers in Israel, who brought to our life in America the vigorous bone and muscle and hearty blood of the yeomanry of Old England. She was a valiant old soul, who fearlessly took any bull in life by the horns, and was ready to shake him into decorum.
My grandfather, a well-to-do farmer, was one of the chief magnates of the village, and carried on a large farm and certain mills at the other end of it. The great old-fashioned farm-house where they lived was at some distance from my father’s cottage, right on the banks of that brown, sparkling, clear stream I have spoken of.
My grandfather was a serene, moderate, quiet man, upward of sixty, with an affable word and a smile for everybody, – a man of easy habits, never discomposed, and never in a hurry, – who had a comfortable faith that somehow or other the affairs of this world in general, and his own in particular, would turn out all right, without much seeing to on his part.
My grandmother, on the contrary, was one of those wide-awake, earnest, active natures, whose days were hardly ever long enough for all that she felt needed to be done and attended to. She had very positive opinions on every subject, and was not at all backward in the forcible and vigorous expression of them; and evidently considering the apostolic gift of exhortation as having come straight down to her, she failed not to use it for the benefit of all whom it might concern.
Oldtown had in many respects a peculiar sort of society. The Indian tribe that once had been settled in its vicinity had left upon the place the tradition of a sort of wandering, gypsy, tramping life, so that there was in the town an unusual number of that roving, uncertain class of people, who are always falling into want, and needing to be helped, hanging like a tattered fringe on the thrifty and well-kept petticoat of New England society.
The traditions of tenderness, pity, and indulgence which the apostle Eliot had inwrought into the people of his day in regard to the Indians, had descended through all the families, and given to that roving people certain established rights in every house-hold, which in those days no one ever thought of disowning. The wandering Indian was never denied a good meal, a seat by the kitchen fire, a mug of cider, and a bed in the barn. My grandfather, out of his ample apple-orchard, always made one hogshead of cider which was called the Indian hogshead, and which was known to be always on tap for them; and my grandmother not only gave them food, but more than once would provide them with blankets, and allow them to lie down and sleep by her great kitchen fire. In those days New England was such a well-watched and schooled and catechised community, and so innocent in the general tone of its society, that in the rural villages no one ever locked the house doors of a night. I have lain awake many a night hearing the notes of the whippoorwills and the frogs, and listening to the sighing of the breeze, as it came through the great wide-open front-door of the house, and swept up the staircase. Nobody ever thought of being afraid that the tramper whom he left asleep on the kitchen floor would rouse up in the night and rob the house. In fact, the poor vagrants were themselves tolerably innocent, not being guilty of very many sins darker than occasional drunkenness and habitual unthrift. They were a simple, silly, jolly set of rovers, partly Indian and partly whites who had fallen into Indian habits, who told stories, made baskets, drank cider, and raised puppies, of which they generally carried a supply in their wanderings, and from which came forth in due time an ample supply of those yellow dogs of old, one of whom was a standing member of every well-regulated New England family. Your yellow dog had an important part to act in life, as much as any of his masters. He lay in the kitchen door and barked properly at everything that went by. He went out with the children when they went roving in the woods Saturday afternoon, and was always on hand with a sober face to patter on his four solemn paws behind the farm-wagon as it went to meeting of a Sunday morning. And in meeting, who can say what an infinite fund of consolation their yellow, honest faces and great soft eyes were to the children tired of the sermon, but greatly consoled by getting a sly opportunity to stroke Bose’s yellow back? How many little eyes twinkled sympathetically through the slats of the high-backed pews, as the tick of their paws up and down the broad aisle announced that they were treating themselves to that meditative locomotion allowed to good dogs in sermon-time!
Surrounded by just such a community as I have described, my grandmother’s gifts never became rusty for want of exercise. Somebody always needed straightening up and attending to. Somebody was to be exhorted, rebuked, or admonished, with all long-suffering and doctrine; and it was cheering to behold, after years of labors that had appeared to produce no very brilliant results on her disciples, how hale and vigorous her faith yet remained in the power of talking to people. She seemed to consider that evil-doers fell into sins and evils of all sorts merely for want of somebody to talk to them, and would fly at some poor, idle, loafing, shiftless object who staggered past her house from the tavern, with the same earnestness and zeal for the fortieth time as if she had not exhorted him vainly for the thirty-nine before.
In fact, on this very Saturday afternoon, as I was coming down the hill, whence I could see the mill and farm-house, I caught sight of her standing in the door, with cap-border erect, and vigorous gesticulation, upbraiding a poor miserable dog commonly called Uncle Eph, who stood swaying on the bridge, holding himself up by the rails with drunken gravity, only answering her expostulations by shaking his trembling fist at her, irreverently replying in every pause of her expostulation, “You – darned – old sheep you!”
“I do wonder now, mother, that you can’t let Uncle Eph alone,” said my Aunt Lois, who was washing up the kitchen floor behind her. “What earthly good does it do to be talking to him? He always has drank, and always will.”
“I can’t help it,” quoth my grandmother; “it ‘s a shame to him, and his wife lying there down with rheumatism. I don’t see how folks can do so.”
“And I don’t see as it ‘s any of our business,” said Aunt Lois “What is it to us? We are not our brother’s keeper.”
“Well, it was Cain that said that to begin with,” said my grandmother; “and I think it ‘s the spirit of Cain not to care what becomes of our neighbors!”
“I can’t help it if it is. I don’t see the use of fussing and caring about what you can’t help. But there comes Horace Holyoke, to be sure. I suppose, mother, you ‘re sent for; I ‘ve been expecting it all along. – Stand still there!” she called to me as I approached the door, “and don’t come in to track my floor.”
I stood without the door, therefore, and delivered my message; and my grandmother promptly turned into her own bedroom, adjoining the kitchen, to make herself ready to go. I stood without the door, humbly waiting Aunt Lois’s permission to enter the house.
“Well,” said Aunt Lois, “I suppose we ‘ve got to have both boys down here to-night. They ‘ve got to come here, I suppose, and we may as well have ’em first as last. It ‘s just what I told Susy, when she would marry Horace Holyoke. I saw it just as plain as I see it now, that we should have to take care of ’em. It ‘s aggravating, because Susy neglected her opportunities. She might have been Mrs. Captain Shawmut, and had her carriage and horses, if she ‘d only been a mind to.”
“But,” said my Aunt Keziah, who sat by the chimney, knitting, – “but if she could n’t love Captain Shawmut, and did love Horace Holyoke – “
“Fiddlestick about that. Susy would ‘a’ loved him well enough if she ‘d ‘a’ married him. She ‘d ‘a’ loved anybody that she married well enough, – she ‘s one of the kind; and he ‘s turned out a very rich man, just as I told her. Susy was the only handsome one in our family, and she might have done something with herself if she ‘d had sense.”
“For my part,” said Aunt Keziah, “I can’t blame people for following their hearts. I never saw the money yet that would ‘a’ tempted me to marry the man I did n’t love.”
Poor Aunt Keziah had the reputation of being, on the whole, about the homeliest woman in Oldtown. She was fat and ill-shapen and clumsy, with a pale, greenish tinge to her complexion, watery, whitish-blue eyes, very rough thin hair, and ragged, scrubby eyebrows. Nature had been peculiarly unkind to her; but far within her ill-favored body she had the most exalted and romantic conceptions. She was fond of reading Young’s Night Thoughts, Mrs. Rowe’s Meditations, and Sir Charles Grandison, and always came out strong on the immaterial and sentimental side of every question. She had the most exalted ideas of a lofty, disinterested devotion, which she, poor soul! kept always simmering on a secret altar, ready to bestow on some ideal hero, if ever he should call for it. But, alas! her want of external graces prevented any such application. The princess was enchanted behind a hedge of ragged and unsightly thorns.
She had been my mother’s aid and confidante in her love affair, and was therefore regarded with a suppressed displeasure by Aunt Lois, who rejoined, smartly: “I don’t think, Kezzy, that you are likely to be tempted with offers of any sort; but Susy did have ’em, – plenty of ’em, – and took Horace Holyoke when she might ‘a’ done better. Consequence is, we ‘ve got to take her and her children home and take care of ’em. It ‘s just our luck. Your poor folks are the ones that are sure to have children, – the less they have to give ’em, the more they have. I think, for my part, that people that can’t provide for children ought not to have ’em. Susy ‘s no more fit to bring up those boys than a white kitten. There never was a great deal to Susy,” added Aunt Lois, reflectively, as, having finished the ablution of the floor, she took the dish of white sand to sand it.
“Well, for my part,” said Aunt Kezzy, “I don’t blame Susy a mite. Horace Holyoke was a handsome man, and the Holyokes are a good family. Why, his grandfather was a minister, and Horace certainly was a man of talents. Parson Lothrop said, if he ‘d ‘a’ had early advantages, there were few men would have surpassed him. If he ‘d only been able to go to college.”
“And why was n’t he able to go to college? Because he must needs get married. Now, when people set out to do a thing, I like to see ’em do it. If he ‘d a let Susy alone and gone to college, I dare say he might have been distinguished, and all that. I would n’t have had the least objection. But no, nothing would do but he must get married, and have two boys, and then study himself into his grave, and leave ’em to us to take care of.”
“Well now, Lois,” said my grandmother, coming out with her bonnet on, and her gold-headed cane in her hand, “if I were you, I would n’t talk so. What do you always want to fight Providence for?”
“Providence!” said my Aunt Lois, with a sniff. “I don’t call it providence. I guess, if folks would behave themselves, Providence would let them alone.”
“Why, everything is ordered and foreordained,” said Aunt Keziah.
“Besides that,” said my grandmother, setting down her stick hard on the floor, “there ‘s no use in such talk, Lois. What ‘s done ‘s done; and if the Lord let it be done, we may. We can’t always make people do as we would. There ‘s no use in being dragged through the world like a dog under a cart, hanging back and yelping. What we must do, we may as well do wilIingly, – as well walk as be dragged. Now we ‘ve got Susy and her children to take care of, and let ‘s do it. They ‘ve got to come here, and they shall come, – should come if there were forty-eleven more of ’em than there be, – so now you just shut up.”
“Who said they should n’t come?” said Aunt Lois. “I want to know now if I have n’t moved out of the front room and gone into the little back chamber, and scoured up every inch of that front-room chamber on my hands and knees, and brought down the old trundle-bed out of the garret and cleaned it up, on purpose to be all ready for Susy and those children. If I have n’t worked hard for them, I ‘d like to have any one tell me; and I don’t see, for my part, why I should be scolded.”
“She was n’t scolding you, Lois,” said Aunt Keziah, pacifically.
“She was, too; and I never open my mouth,” said Lois, in an aggrieved tone, “that you all don’t come down on me. I ‘m sure I don’t see the harm of wishing Susy had married a man that could ‘a’ provided for her; but some folks feel so rich, nothing comes amiss with ’em. I suppose we are able to send both boys to college, and keep ’em like gentlemen, are n’t we?”
My grandmother had not had the benefit of this last volley, as she prudently left the house the moment she had delivered herself of her reproof to Aunt Lois.
I was listening at the door with a troubled spirit. Gathering from the conversation that my father and mother, somehow, had been improperly conducted people, and that I and my brother Bill had no business to have been born, and that our presence on the earth was, somehow or other, of the nature of an impertinence, making everybody a vast deal of trouble. I could not bear to go in; and as I saw my grandmother’s stately steppings in the distance, I ran after her as fast as my little bare feet could patter, and seized fast hold of her gown with the same feeling that makes a chicken run under a hen.
“Why, Horace,” said my grandmother, “why did n’t you stay down at the house?”
“I did n’t want to, grandma; please let me go with you.”
“You must n’t mind Aunt Lois’s talk, – she means well.”
I snuffled and persisted, and so had my own way, for my grandmother was as soft-hearted to children as any of the meekest of the tribe who bear that revered name; and so she did n’t mind it that I slid back into the shadows of my father’s room, under cover of her ample skirts, and sat down disconsolate in a dark corner.
My grandmother brought to the sick-room a heavier responsibility than any mere earthly interest could have laid on her. With all her soul, which was a very large one, she was an earnest Puritan Calvinist. She had been nourished in the sayings and traditions of the Mathers and the Eliots, and all the first generation of the saints who had possessed Massachusetts. To these she had added the earnest study of the writings of Edwards and Bellamy, and others of those brave old thinkers who had broken up the crust of formalism and mechanical piety that was rapidly forming over the New England mind.
My remembrances of her are always as a reader. In her private chamber was always a table covered with books; and though performing personally the greater share of the labors of a large family, she never failed to have her quiet hour every afternoon for reading. History and biography she delighted in, but she followed with a keen relish the mazes of theology.
During the days of my father’s health and vigor, he had one of those erratic, combative minds that delight in running logical tilts against received opinions, and was skilled in finding the weak point in all assertions. My grandmother, who believed with heart and soul and life-blood everything that she believed at all, had more than once been worsted by him in arguments where her inconsiderate heat outran her logic. These remembrances had pressed heavily on her soul during the time of his sickness, and she had more than once earnestly sought to bring him to her ways of thinking, – ways which to her view were the only possible or safe ones; but during his illness he had put such conversation from him with the quick, irritable impatience of a sore and wounded spirit.
On some natures theology operates as a subtle poison; and the New England theology in particular, with its intense clearness, its sharp-cut crystalline edges and needles of thought, has had in a peculiar degree the power of lacerating the nerves of the soul, and producing strange states of morbid horror and repulsion. The great unanswerable questions which must perplex every thinking soul that awakes to consciousness in this life are there posed with the severest and most appalling distinctness. These awful questions underlie all religions, – they belong as much to Deism as to the strictest orthodoxy, – in fact, they are a part of human perception and consciousness, since it cannot be denied that Nature in her teaching is a more tremendous and inexorable Calvinist than the Cambridge Platform or any other platform that ever was invented.
But in New England society, where all poetic forms, all the draperies and accessories of religious ritual, have been rigidly and unsparingly retrenched, there was nothing between the soul and these austere and terrible problems; it was constantly and severely brought face to face with their infinite mystery. When my grandmother came into the room, it was with an evident and deep emotion working in her strong but plain features. She came up to the bed and grasped my father’s hand earnestly.
“Well, mother,” he said,” my time is come, and I have sent for you to put Susy and the children into your hands.”
“I ‘ll take ’em and welcome, – you know that,” said my grandmother heartily.
“God bless you, mother, – I do know it,” he said; “but do have a special eye on poor little Horace. He has just my passion for books and study; and if he could be helped to get an education, he might do what I have failed to do. I leave him my books, – you will try and help him, mother?”
“Yes, my son, I will; but O my son, my son!” she added with trembling eagerness, “how is it with you now? Are you prepared for this great change?”
“Mother,” he said in a solemn voice, yet speaking with a great effort, “no sane man ever comes to my age, and to this place where I lie, without thinking a great deal on all these things. I have thought, – God knows how earnestly, – but I cannot talk of it. We see through a glass darkly here. There perhaps we shall see clearly. You must be content to leave me where I leave myself, – in the hands of my Creator. He can do no wrong.”
THE VILLAGE DO-NOTHING.
“WAL now, Horace, don’t ye cry so. Why, I ‘m railly concerned for ye. Why, don’t you s’pose your daddy’ better off? Why, sartin I do. Don’t cry, there ‘s a good boy now. I ‘ll give ye my jack-knife now.”
This was addressed to me the day after my father’s death while the preparations for the funeral hung like a pall over the house, and the terror of the last cold mystery, the tears of my mother, and a sort of bustling dreariness on the part of my aunts and grandmother, all conspired to bear down on my childish nerves with fearful power. It was a doctrine of those good old times, no less than of many in our present days, that a house invaded by death should be made as forlorn as hands could make it. It should be rendered as cold and stiff, as unnatural, as dead and corpse-like as possible, by closed shutters, looking-glasses pinned up in white sheets, and the locking up and hiding out of sight of any pleasant little familiar object which would be thought out of place in a sepulchre. This work had been driven through with unsparing vigor by Aunt Lois, who looked like one of the Fates as she remorselessly cleared away every little familiar object belonging to my father, and reduced every room to the shrouded stillness of a well-kept tomb.