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New England Bygones
NEW ENGLAND BYGONES.
IN Northern New England, in the traditional good old times, to own a house was a condition of thrifty citizenship. For this a young couple would toil early and late with heroic self-denial. No matter how humble this home was, it must be one's own. When a man married, he at once set up a household, and, as he needed, he let out his four walls, and seamed and patched them. His barns ran over, and he added to them. He planted an orchard, and set out poplars before his door. The roughness of toil was ground into his bones and muscles. He grew hard-featured and hard-fisted, while his wife grew jaded and angular. Their children became like them. They were all weather-changed into a kind of peculiar peasantry, — a readily recognized product of their condition, — the busy, honest, persistent, hopeful, helpful New England farmer's family. The visible signs of their labors were hardly more than an orchard of straggling trees; the annual rotation of crops; and the daily spilling out from the doors of family-life. It was a most simple living, easily described with few words; but the core of progressive culture, the nursery of strong character.
Their houses and their surroundings were such as might be expected. The apple-trees, which they set out, bore crabbed fruit, and were of little value; but, as a feature of farm-life, they served their purpose. There were always good apples enough for home use. The names of some of them, given by accident, became household words; and, when they had lived their life out, the excellence of their fruits passed into tradition. I could walk to-day to the very spot where stood Farmer M.'s Long-nose and Pudding-sweet, — two ragged, stalwart trees, famous in the district. The mildly-sour Long-nose tasted best when just picked from the greensward, and the mealy Pudding-sweet when sucked by the eater while sitting upon a low-lying branch of the tree which bore it.
An old orchard is a friendly place. Wherever you stumble upon one the spirit of home-likeness and past occupation are with it. If there are no house-walls to be seen, you are sure to find near by the rubbish of them, by which you know that once the simple processes of farm-life went daily-on under its trees. The jagged, sprouting old stumps are the record of it.
On the whole, what farm appendage was better in possession, is better in memory, than its riotous old orchard? It was, in spring, a rose-garden, which scented the air with attar, and filled the landscape with a transient glory. In summer, standing in the foreground of its overtopping verdure, the houses let out into it the homeliness of their vocations. Then into the postures and implements of housewives, and the work they did, passed the glamour of its growth and its sunshine. In it, and by it, people and things, otherwise unattractive, became beautiful incidents and accidents of it. You have not forgotten the bare-armed women, spreading their linen to bleach; pans scalding in the sunshine; the bee-hives; the grindstone; the mowers whetting their scythes, and other loose-lying debris of farm-work; the picturesque absorption of the orchard's summer-life. You hold fast in memory some tree, or trees, the ripening and gradual gathering of whose fruits were happy features of your childhood.
The orchard almost always started from the back-door of a farm-house, where burdocks and other rank-smelling weeds grew and waste waters trickled out; but it stretched into a verdure, the sweetness and cleanliness and tenderness of which could only be found under its trees. Here night-dews lingered, and apples mellowed toothsomely, under the matted grass. Here was the couch of the tired laborer and the play-ground of children, who wore ruts in its sod, and half lived in summer upon its forage.
The Lombardy poplars, which were planted in front of these earlier farm-houses, were stiff, compact, erect trees, always aggressive upon the landscape. They were fast-growing, but of short-lived vigor, and died by early though slow decay. They were perhaps the natural outcrop of a generation which began and ended with shoulder to the plough, and hand to the distaff; whose chief literature was the Bible; whose law was truth, and whose highest recreation was the rest of the Sabbath. You still see, here and there, these aged poplars scattered through New England. They are ghosts of trees, half dead, often isolated; yet, should search be made, sure to be found standing steadfast by the site of an ancient homestead. Often they linger in front of a square, flat-roofed old house, given over, like themselves, to decay; both come down from a long dead generation. They have a way of lifting themselves up and standing out from a landscape. One sees them from afar, like index-fingers, pointing backwards, not without pathos, to the past.
If the farmers who planted these trees seemed hard and stern, it was owing largely to their resolute fidelity to the necessities of their vocation. They were pioneers; the hewers out of a path to a broader culture. They were not unlike their own hills, which, though rugged and steep, were, at the same time, the glory of the landscape. They loved the homes to which they had given the richness and strength of their days. That power of association which comes from dwelling long in a spot, and which clings eternally to it, took deep root in them. At the same time, there went out from them, into their walls and furnishings, that sweetness of life-expression given to them by long use. Time mellowed their homes; scars enriched them; necessity added to them, — until, from very bare beginnings, grew the quaintly furnished, picturesque, simply beautiful old farm-houses.
Very much of the thrift and honesty peculiar to the New England race has flowed through this primitive and sturdy stock. Looking back, I see men and women whose characters were of the best; the lines of which, like etchings, are sharp and suggestive.
The last time I ever saw old Farmer M. he was firmly grasping a pitchfork, which was planted in his load; and, from his cart, was giving directions to half a score of stalwart laborers. His hat was weather-beaten; his garments were coarse and ill-fitting. To one unused to country life, he would have seemed a rough old man, — a common farmer; the worn-out owner of a few acres and a little money, gotten by working while others slept; by self-denial when indulgence would have seemed a virtue; one who doubled the toils of summer, and cheated himself out of the rest of winter, — a sort of barren waif, almost cast out from one century upon the shore of another.
Altogether otherwise this man seemed to me. I had known him from my earliest childhood. He had done faithfully the work which had been given him to do. Whatever lay within its scope and possibilities he had accomplished. Whatever of dignity could be given, by truth and industry and self-respect, to a farmer's life, had been given to his. Forty years before he had been a rustic king in his fields. He was a king still, this old man of eighty-odd years. There was the same stamp of force upon him. He was old age wiser than youth; decay more potent than growth; weakness dictating to strength. Time had ploughed over him; but, if his hand had lost its cunning, his eye had not lost its fire. If his body was well-nigh spent, his intellect was unabated. As he stood, poised upon the fruits of his harvest, ruling, with positive will and clear judgment, his laborers of a later generation, he seemed like the old hero that he was; a half-defiant conqueror over circumstance, brave and resistant to the last. It was grand to see him, this half-wild son of nature, standing clear-cut against the blue sky, held up by the instruments and adjuncts of a life of toil; the wrinkled, aged harvester, tossed out at his last, with a sort of fierce gesture, into this transient, but suggestive, picture. Clad in homespun, roughened by toil, with no acquired graces of speech, there was yet about him a certain expression of inborn dignity which compelled respect. His eye was piercing; his voice incisive; his words few; his manner forcible. He was an eager, honest, successful man, who had taken and held life by siege and storm.
This farmer's story will be read hereafter in character; not in books. It would be tame written out, the daily life of this man, who, through all his working years, tilled the soil in summer and split rocks in winter. But by and by some famous man will have inherited good blood from this farmer, who, in his plain village life, was known for his uprightness, his thrift, his intelligence, and his sagacity. He will be proud of this ancestor, whom the bad feared and the good honored; of this man, whose nobility of nature gave breadth to the narrowness of his calling. Some woman, with more than ordinary beauty, may owe it to this old man, whose sinews, given early to the tuition of nature, grew into symmetrical stature; and whose fresh young features were hardened, by care and exposure, into an expression of honest and heroic audacity.
S., the blacksmith, who shod horses by day and after nightfall reasoned with his neighbors in the village store, was a remarkable man. He was well-read; was especially strong in history, and an excellent debater. His eyes were always bloodshot, and his face was as hard lined as the steel bars upon which he wrought; yet, on Sundays, washed clean from the smut of toil, it was a face worthy to be remembered. Then he was a noble-looking man, sitting, broad-browed, erect, and observant, at the head of his pew, where he followed Parson B.'s long and sensible discourses with the keen relish of an apt logician. This blacksmith shod horses admirably. His shoes fitted, and his nails never missed. In his chosen vocation he had a perfect career, because whatever he did he did well. People came to him from far and near, for no known blacksmith shod horses so well as he. In this merit of his work lay the pathos of his life; for this man, who shod horses, might have ruled men. The logic which swayed the loungers in the village store should have been given to his equals. It is a mystery why this stalwart wrangler, who might have figured and grown famous in the world, hammered away, all his days, at horses' feet in a village smithy.
There is no end to these remembered representative characters; quaint and positive, always grand, because underlaid by simplicity and fidelity to right.
These farmers did not adorn their houses much, either in-doors or out, for they were almost always work-driven and weary. Nature took up their task where they left it. They planted fences and gates and well-sweeps. She, with her frosts and stains and mosses, tumbled and embellished them. The saplings they started grew into prim poplars and dense, ill-bearing orchards; but there was about these half-worthless trees, in their moss-clad old age, a kind of fitness which served its time and purpose. When the square, brown farm-houses began to decay, and farmers to graft their newly-planted stocks, the poplars and shaggy old apple-trees began also to die. Each was a sort of appendage to the other, and so they passed away together.
The sweetest and most natural outgrowth of old-time pastoral life was a love of, and clinging to, the old homesteads. Once New England was full of them; great, brown, roomy, homely houses, facing the south; led to by green lanes; shut in by ancestral fields; standing quite even with the greensward, which they met with low-lying stones dug out from their own pastures. Each had its family burial-place, — blessed spot. They were all rich in springs and brooks and woodlands. They had added to them, year after year, the glory of trees and bushes and vines; the wild growth of seeds, flung by the winds into the crevices of walls and unused places. That which was peculiar to them, that which could not be simulated by art, was a certain beauty given to them by time and use and decay, — a sort of mellowing into the landscape of the piles and their adjuncts, by which each homestead took unto itself an individual expression for its owner and his descendants. The aspect of a farmhouse was, to the children of it, as personal of recognition as the face of a father or grandfather. It was to be held in the family name, and go down with it. It was the sanctuary of homely virtues; the centre of family reunions; the place of its yearly thanksgiving; a spot from which its membership had enlarged and diverged; and to which, when they died, its sons and daughters were brought back for burial. In it, generation after generation, there was always one left. It was either a faithful son or daughter who had married one of her own sort. These men and women were spoken of as "the boys and girls" at home, and, as such, they were most admirable. No matter how little fitted they seemed to be for any other sphere, as the appendages and rulers of these old houses they could have hardly been changed for the better. They were a portion of their appropriate machinery, and stayed by them from choice, because their lives had not grown away from them. The men had a certain audacity of mien; the simple abandon of persons whose dealings were largely with nature. The women had no artificial ways; little learning; but much good sense, and their greatest charm was that they were easily satisfied with small pleasures. Their children were the "country cousins"; as much a sweet feature of farm-life as were its dandelions and buttercups and daisies.
Thus, by rotation, the homestead was always filled. The foreign land, to which its in-dwellers all travelled, was the little burial-ground close by. The journey to this was short by linear measurement; but, reckoned by the events and worth of the days and months and years it took to get there, it was a travel wonderfully rich in effort and results. The external signs of this journey were the ruts in the boards and stones, worn by the steady tramp of feet. What you could not see was the life which had been constantly diverging from such fountains of piety, truth, and industry.
As I look back, what strikes me most in that old country living is its simplicity, its earnestness, its honesty, and its dignity. The men and women seemed to grapple with their inherited burdens. They were a race of born athletes and wrestlers with the soil; the natural outgrowth of it.
I see them walking, as they used, across the green fields to the meeting-house, which stood on a hill a mile away from my grandfather's, clad in their long-kept, variously-made holiday garments, — a quaint procession. There are samples of shawls and dresses, preserved by me in memory from the attire of my grandfather's fellow-worshippers, every thread of whose real texture has been eaten away. I know just how they were worn. Old Dame H. had a soft, silky, crimson shawl, which she drew closely over her shoulders, and pinned three times down in front. The pins seemed never to vary a thread; and year after year her sharp shoulders rubbed at its warp and woof until it grew stringy and streaked.
There were coats and cloaks and dresses, so far removed from any suggestion of mode that their strangeness of make, joined with richness of fabric, gave dignity to them, and the men and women who wore them were the authors of a true style.
Old Squire S. never put aside his plaid cloak lined with green baize. His sons and daughters went away from the homestead, and came back richly clad in the world's fashions. That made no difference to him. He walked up the church aisle, year after year, in front of the gayest of them, with his old plaid, which wrapped him about like a tartan; and, through the singing of psalms, prayers, and benedictions, he stood, with the green baize flung over his shoulders, unconscious that there was anything queer or old-fashioned about him. There was nothing old-fashioned. He was a splendid old man, erect, proud, with a broad, white brow, and a grand record for brain-work in all the courts. The old cloak had become a kind of toga, invested by him with the worth of long association, and so had grown to be invaluably a part of himself.
There is a sentiment about old wraps, which have travelled with you, and stood by you when the flimsiness of other attire has failed. It needs not to be woven in with camel's hair, and it does not suit the texture of lace. It is hostile to fashion, and comes only with using. It is tender, and touches you like keepsakes of lost friends. Your best imported wraps are those which you have brought across the sea yourself; which have the imprint of travel and good companionship; which have been tossed about in many lands, and had their colors mellowed by much usage. Such can never be duplicated nor simulated. They are a true tapestry, in-wrought with a part of the richness of your life. Why cannot some web be woven fit for lifelong wear, so that memory may be allowed to crystallize about it, and then the mantles of those we have loved could literally fall upon us?