May 1989

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A New Home: Who'll Follow

Life in the Clearings


Caroline M. Kirkland

First published in 1839
Click here for an index to the chapters of A New Home.

Chapter 16

Snakes, Toads and Agues

Mr. Clavers at length returned; and the progress of the village, though materially retarded by the obliquities of Mr. Mazard's course, was still not entirely at a stand. If our own operations were slow and doubtful, there were others whose building and improving went on at a rapid rate; and before the close of the summer, several small tenements were enclosed and rendered in some sort habitable. A store and a public-house were to be ready for business in a very short time.

I had the pleasure of receiving early in the month of September, a visit from a young city friend, a charming lively girl, who unaffectedly enjoyed the pleasures of the country, and whose taste for long walks and rides was insatiable. I curtained off with the unfailing cotton sheets a snow-white bower for her in the loft, and spread a piece of carpeting, a relic of former magnificence, over the loose boards that served for a floor. the foot square window was shaded by a pink curtain, and a bed-side chair and a candle-stand completed a sleeping apartment which she declared was perfectly delightful.

So smoothly flowed our days during that charming visit that I had begun to fear my fair guest would be obliged to return to _____ without a single adventure worth telling, when one morning as we sat sewing, Arthur ran in with a prodigious snake-story, to which, though we were at first disposed to pay no attention, we were at length obliged to listen.

"A most beautiful snake," he declared, "was coming up to the back door."

To the back door we ran; and there, to be sure, was a large rattlesnake, or massasauga, lazily winding its course towards the house, Alice standing still to admire it, too ignorant to fear.

My young friend snatched up a long switch, whose ordinary office was to warn the chickens from the dinner table, and struck at the reptile which was not three feet from the door. It reared its head at once, made several attempts to strike, or spring, as it is called here, though it never really springs. Fanny continued to strike; and at length the snake turned for flight, not however without a battle of at least two minutes.

"Here's the axe, cousin Fanny," said Arthur, "don't let him run away!" and while poor I stood in silent terror, the brave girl followed, struck once ineffectually, and with another blow divided the snake, whose writhings turned to the sun as many hues as the windings of Broadway on a spring morning—and Fanny was a heroine.

It is my opinion that next to having a cougar spring at one, the absolute killing of a rattlesnake is peculiarly appropriate to constitute a Michigan heroine;—and the cream of my snake-story is, that it might be sworn to, chapter and verse, before the nearest justice. What cougar story can say as much?

But the nobler part of the snake ran away with far more celerity than it had displayed while it "could a tail unfold," and we exalted the coda to a high station on the logs at the corner of the house—for fear none of the scornful sex would credit our prowess.

That snake absolutely haunted us for a day or two; we felt sure that there were more near the house, and our ten days of happiness seemed cut short like those of Seged, and by a cause not very dissimilar. But the gloom consequent upon confining ourselves, children and all, to the house, in delicious weather, was too much for our prudence; and we soon began to venture out a little, warily inspecting every nook, and harassing the poor children with incessant cautions.

We had been watching the wheelings and flittings of a flock of prairie hens, which had alighted in Mr. Jenkins' cornfield, turning ever and anon a delighted glance westward at the masses of purple and crimson which make sunset so splendid in the region of the great lakes. I felt the dew, and warning all my companions, stepped into the house. I had reached the middle of the room, when I trod upon something soft, which eluded my foot. I shrieked "a snake! a snake!" and fell senseless to the floor.

When I recovered myself I was on the bed, and well sprinkled with camphor, that never failing specific in the woods.

"Where is it?" said I, as soon as I could utter a word. There was a general smile. "Why, Mamma," said Alice, who was exalted to a place on the bed, "don't you recollect that great toad that always sits behind the flour-barrel in the corner?"

I did not repent my fainting though it was not a snake, for if there is anything besides a snake that curdles the blood in my veins it is a toad. The harmless wretch was carried to a great distance from the house, but the next morning, there it sat again in the corner catching flies. I have been told by some persons here that they "liked to have toads in the room in fly time." Truly may it be said, "What's one man's meat—" Shade of Chesterfield, forgive me!—but that anybody can be willing to live with a toad! To my thinking nothing but a toady can be more odious.

The next morning I awoke with a severe head-ache, and racking pains in every bone. Dame Jennings said it was the "agur." I insisted that it could be nothing but the toad. The fair Fanny was obliged to leave us this day, or lose her escort home—a thing not to be risked in the wilderness. I thought I should get up to dinner, and in that hope bade her a gay farewell, with a charge to make the most of the snake story for the honor of the woods.

I did not get up to dinner, for the simple reason that I could not stand—and Mrs. Jennings consoled me by telling me every ten minutes, "Why, you've got th' agur! woman alive! Why, I know the fever-agur as well as I know beans! It a'n't nothin' else!"

But no chills came. My pains and my fever became intense, and I knew but little about it after the first day, for there was an indistinctness about my perceptions, which almost, although not quite, amounted to delirium.

A physician was sent for, and we expected, of course, some village Galen, who knew just enough to bleed and blister, for all mortal ills. No such thing! A man of first-rate education, who had walked European hospitals, and who had mother-wit in abundance, to enable him to profit by his advantages. It is surprising how many such people one meets in Michigan. Some, indeed, we have been led to suppose, from some traits in their American history, might have "left their country for their country's good:"—others appear to have forsaken the old world, either in consequence of some temporary disgust, or through romantic notions of the liberty to be enjoyed in this favored land. I can at this moment call to mind, several among our ten-mile neighbors, who can boast university honors, either European or American, and who are reading men, even now. Yet one might pass any one of these gentlemen in the road without distinguishing between him and the Corydon who curries his horses, so complete is their outward transformation.

Our medical friend treated me very judiciously; and by his skill, the severe attack of rheumatic-fever, which my sunset and evening imprudences had been kindling in my veins, subsided after a week, into a daily ague; but Mrs. Jennings was not there to exult in this proof of her sagacity. She had been called away to visit a daughter, who had been taken ill at a distance from home, and I was left without a nurse.

My neighbors showed but little sympathy on the occasion. They had imbibed the idea that we held ourselves above them, and chose to take it for granted, that we did not need their aid. There were a good many cases of ague, too, and, of course, people had their troubles to attend to. The result was, that we were in sad case enough. Oh! for one of those feminine men who can make good gruel, and wash the children's faces! Mr. Clavers certainly did his best, and who can more? But the hot side of the bowl always would come to his fingers—and the sauce-pan would overset, let him balance it ever so nicely. And then—such hungry children! They wanted to eat all the time. After a day's efforts, he began to complain that stooping over the fire made him very dizzy. I was quite self-absorbed, or I should have noticed such a complaint from one who makes none without cause; but the matter went on, until, when I asked for my gruel, he had very nearly fallen on the coals, in the attempt to take it from the fire. He staggered to the bed, and was unable to sit up for many days after.

When matters reached this pitch—when we had, literally, no one to prepare food, or look after the children—little Bell added to the sick-list, too—our physician proved our good genius. He procured a nurse from a considerable distance; and it was through his means that good Mrs. Danforth heard of our sad condition, and sent us a maiden of all-work, who materially amended the aspect of our domestic affairs.

Our agues were tremendous. I used to think I should certainly die in my ten or twelve hours' fever—and Mr. Clavers confidently asserted, several times, that the upper half of his head was taking leave of the lower. But the event proved we were both mistaken; for our physician verified his own assertion, that an ague was as easily managed as a common cold, by curing us both in a short time after our illness had assumed the intermittent form. There is, however, one important distinction to be observed between a cold and the ague—the former does not recur after every trifling exertion, as the latter is sure to do. Again and again, after we seemed entirely cured, did the insidious enemy renew his attacks. A short ride, a walk of two or three miles, and we were prostrated for a week or two. Even a slight alarm, or anything that occasioned an unpleasant surprise, would be followed by a chill and fever.

These things are, it must be conceded, very discouraging. One learns to feel as if the climate must be a wretched one, and it is not till after these first clouds have blown over, that we have resolution to look around us—to estimate the sunny skies of Michigan, and the ruddy countenances of its older inhabitants as they deserve.

The people are obstinately attached to some superstitious notions respecting agues. They hold that it is unlucky to break them. "You should let them run on,," say they, "till they wear themselves out." This has probably arisen from some imprudent use of quinine, (or "Queen Ann,") and other powerful tonics, which are often taken before the system is properly prepared. There is also much prejudice against "Doctor's physic;" while Lobelia, and other poisonous plants, which happen to grow wild in the woods, are used with the most reckless rashness. The opinion that each region produces the medicines which its own diseases require, prevails extensively,—a notion which, though perhaps theoretically correct to a certain extent, is a most dangerous one for the ignorant to practise upon.

These agues are, as yet, the only diseases of the country. Consumption is almost unknown, as a Michigan evil. Indeed many, who have been induced to forsake the seaboard, by reason of too sensitive lungs, find themselves renovated after a year in the peninsula. Our sickly season, from August till October, passed over without a single death within our knowledge.

To be sure, a neighbor told me, not long ago, that her old man had a complaint of "the lights," and that "to try to work any, gits his lights all up in a heap." But as this is a disease beyond the bounds of my medical knowledge, I can only "say the tale as't was said to me," hoping, that none of my emigrating friends may find it contagious:—any disease which is brought on by working, being certainly much to be dreaded in this western country!

Click here for an index to the chapters of A New Home.
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