August 1990

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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 33

The Montacute Female Beneficent Society

My dear neighbor, Mrs. Nippers, whose garden joins ours, and whose "keepin' room," I regret to say it, looks into my kitchen, was most cruelly mortified that she was not elected President of the Montacute Female Beneficent Society. It would have been an office so congenial to her character, conditon, and habits! 'T was cruel to give it to Mrs. Skinner, "merely," as Mrs. Nippers declares, "because the society wanted to get remnants from the store!"

Mrs. Campaspe Nippers is a widow lady of some thirty-five, or thereabout, who lives with her niece alone in a small house, in the midst of a small garden, in the heart of the village. I have never noticed anything peculiar in the construction of the house. There are not, that I can discover, any contrivances resembling ears; or those ingenious funnels of sail-cloth which are employed on board-ship to coax fresh air down between-decks. Nor are there large mirrors, not a telescope, within doors, nor yet a camera obscura. I have never detected any telegraphic signals from without. Yet no man sneezes at opening his front door in the morning; no woman sweeps her steps after breakfast; no child goes late to school; no damsel slips into the store; no bottle comes out of it; no family has fried onions for dinner; no hen lays an egg in the afternoon, no horse slips his bridle; no cow is missing at milking-time; and no young couple after tea; but Mrs. Nippers, and her niece, Miss Artemisia Clinch, know all about it, and tell it to everybody who will listen to them.

A sad rumor was raised last winter, by some spiteful gossip against a poor woman who had taken lodgers to gain bread for her family; and when Mrs. Nippers found it rather difficult to gain credence for her view of the story she nailed the matter, as she supposed, by whispering with mysterious meaning, while her large light eyes dilated with energy and enjoyment—"I have myself seen a light there after eleven o'clock at night!"

In vain did the poor woman's poor husband, a man who worked hard, but would make a beast of himself at times, protest that malice itself might let his wife escape; and dare any man to come forward and say aught against her. Mrs. Nippers only smiled, and stretched her eye-lids so far apart, that the sky-blue whites of her light-grey eyes were visible both above and below the scarce distinguishable iris, and then looked at Miss Artemisia Clinch with such triumphant certainty; observing, that a drunkard's word was not worth much. It is impossible ever to convince her, in anybody's favor.

But this is mere wandering. Association led me from my intent, which was only to speak of Mrs. Nippers as connected with the Montacute Female Beneficent Society. This Association is the prime dissipation of our village, the magic circle within which lies all our cherished exclusiveness, the strong hold of caste, the test of gentility, the temple of emulation, the hive of industry, the mart of fashion, and I must add, though reluctantly, the fountain of village scandal, the hot-bed from which springs every root of bitterness among the petticoated denizens of Montacute. I trust the importance of the Society will be enhanced in the reader's estimation, by the variety of figures I have been compelled to use in describing it. Perhaps it would have been enough to have said it is a Ladies' Sewing Society, and so saved all this wordiness; but I like to amplify.

When the idea was first started, by I know not what fortunate individual—Mrs. Nippers does, I dare say,—this same widow-lady espoused the thing warmly, donned her India-rubbers, and went all through the sticky mud, breakfasted with me, dined with Mrs. Rivers, took tea with Mrs. Skinner, and spent the intervals and the evening with a half-a-dozen other people, not only to recommend the plan, but to give her opinion of how the affair ought to be conducted, to what benevolent uses applied, and under what laws and by-laws; and though last, far from least, who ought to be its officers. Five Directresses did she select, two Secretaries, and a Treasurer, Managers and Auditors,—like the military play of my three brothers, who always had "fore-captain," "hind-captain," and "middle-captain," but no privates. But in all this Mrs. Campaspe never once hinted the name of a Lady President. She said, to be sure, that she should be very glad to be of any sort of service to the Society; and that from her position she should be more at leisure to devote time to its business, than almost any other person; and that both herself and her niece had been concerned in a sewing-society in a certain village at "the East," whose doings were often quoted by both ladies, and concluded by inquiring who her hearer thought would be the most suitable President.

In spite of this industrious canvassing, when the meeting for forming the society took place at Mrs. Skinner's, Mrs. Campaspe Nippers' name was perversely omitted in the animated ballot for dignities. No one said a word, but everyone had a sort of undefined dread of so active a member, and, by tacit consent, every office which she had herself contrived, was filled, without calling upon her. Her eyes grew preternaturally pale, and her lips wan as whit-leather, when the result was known; but she did not trust herself to speak. She placed her name on the list of members with as much composure as could be looked for, under such trying circumstances, and soon after departed with Miss Artemisia Clinch, giving a parting glance which seemed to say, with Sir Peter Teazle, "I leave my character behind me."

A pawkie smile dawned on two or three of the sober visages of our village dames, as the all-knowing widow and her submissive niece closed the door, but no one ventured a remark on the killing frost which had fallen upon Mrs. Nippers' anticipated "budding honors," and after agreeing upon a meeting at our house, the ladies dispersed.

The next morning, as I drew my window curtain, to see whether the sun had aired the world enough to make it safe for me to get up to breakfast,—I do not often dispute the pas with Aurora—I saw Mrs. Nippers emerge from the little front door of her tiny mansion, unattended by her niece for a marvel, and pace majestically down Main-street. I watched her in something of her own prying spirit, to see whither she could be going so early; but she disappeared in the woods, and I turned to my combs and brushes, and thought no more of the matter.

But the next day, and the next, and the day after, almost as early each morning, out trotted my busy neighbor; and although she disappeared in different directions—sometimes P.S. and sometimes O.P.—she never returned till late in the afternoon. My curiosity began to be troublesome.

At length came the much-desired Tuesday, whose destined event was the first meeting of the society. I had made preparations for such plain and simple cheer as is usual with such feminine gatherings, and began to think of arranging my dress with the decorum required by the occasion, when about one hour before the appointed time, came Mrs. Nippers and Miss Clinch, and ere they were unshawled and unhooded, Mrs. Flyter and her three children—the eldest four years, and the youngest six months. Then Mrs. Muggles and her crimson baby, four weeks old. Close on her heels, Mrs. Briggs and her little boy of about three years' standing, in a long-tailed coat, with vest and decencies of scarlet circassian. And there I stood in my gingham wrapper, and kitchen apron; much to my discomfiture, and the undisguised surprise of the Female Beneficent Society.

"I always calculate to be ready to begin at the time appointed," remarked the gristle-lipped widow.

"So do I," responded Mrs. Flyter, and Mrs. Muggles, both of whom sat the whole afternoon with baby on knee, and did not sew a stitch.

"What! isn't there any work ready?" continued Mrs. Nippers with an astonished aspect; "well, I did suppose that such smart officers as we have, would have prepared all beforehand. We always used to, at the East."

Mrs. Skinner, who is really quite a pattern-woman in all that makes woman indispensable, viz. cooking and sewing, took up the matter quite warmly, just as I slipped away in disgrace to make the requisite reform in my costume.

When I returned, the work was distributed, and the company broken up into little knots or coteries; every head bowed, and every tongue in full play. I took my seat at as great a distance from the sharp widow as might be, though it is vain to think of eluding a person of her ubiquity, and reconnoitred the company who were "done off" (indigenous) "in first-rate style," for this important occasion. There were nineteen women with thirteen babies—or at least "young 'uns" (indigenous) who were not above gingerbread. Of these thirteen, nine held large chunks of gingerbread, or doughnuts, in trust, for the benefit of the gowns of the society; the remaining four were supplied with bunches of maple sugar, tied in bits of rag and pinned to their shoulders, or held dripping in the fingers of their mammas.

Mrs. Flyter was "slicked up" for the occasion, in the snuff-colored silk she was married in, curiously enlarged in the back and not as voluminous in the floating part as is the wasteful custom of the present day. Her three immense children, white-haired and blubber-lipped like their amiable parent, were in pink ginghams and blue glass beads. Mrs. Nippers wore her unfailing brown merino, and black apron; Miss Clinch her inevitable scarlet calico; Mrs. Skinner had her red merino with baby of the same; Mrs. Daker shone out in her very choicest city finery—where else could she show it, poor thing; and a dozen other Mistresses shone in their "'tother gowns," and their tamboured collars. Mrs. Doubleday's pretty black-eyed Dolly was neatly stowed in a small willow-basket, where it lay looking about with eyes full of sweet wonder, behaving itself with marvellous quietness and discretion, as did most of the other little torments, to do them justice.

Much consultation, deep and solemn, was held as to the most profitable kinds of work to be undertaken by the society. Many were in favor of making up linen, cotton linen of course, but Mrs. Nippers assured the company that shirts never used to sell well at the East, and she was therefore perfectly certain that they would not do here. Pincushions and such like femininities were then proposed; but at these Mrs. Nippers held up both hands, and showed a double share of blue-white around her eyes. Nobody about here needed pincushions, and besides where should we get the materials? Aprons, capes, caps, collars, were all proposed with the same ill success. At length Mrs. Doubleday, with an air of great deference, inquired what Mrs. Nippers would recommend.

The good lady hesitated a little at this. It was more her forte to object to other people's plans, than to suggest better; but after a moment's consideration she said she should think fancy-boxes, watch-cases, and alum baskets would be very pretty.

A dead silence fell on the assembly, but of course it did not last long. Mrs. Skinner went on quietly cutting out shirts, and in a very short time furnished each member with a good supply of work, stating that any lady might take work home to finish if she liked.

Mrs. Nippers took her work and edged herself into a coterie of which Mrs. Flyter had seemed till then magnet. Very soon I heard, "I declare it's a shame!" "I don't know what'll be done about it;" "She told me so with her own mouth;" "Oh but I was there myself!" etc., etc., in many different voices; the interstices well filled with undistinguishable whispers "not loud but deep."

It was not long before the active widow transferred her seat to another corner;—Miss Clinch plying her tongue, not her needle, in a third. The whispers and exclamations seemed to be gaining ground. The few silent members were inquiring for more work.

"Mrs. Nippers has the sleeve! Mrs. Nippers, have you finished that sleeve?"

Mrs. Nippers colored, said "No," and sewed four stitches. At length "the storm grew loud apace."

"It will break up the society—"

"What is that?" asked Mrs. Doubleday, in her sharp treble. "What is it, Mrs. Nippers You know all about it."

Mrs. Nippers replied that she only knew what she had heard, etc., etc., but, after a little urging, consented to inform the company in general, that there was a great dissatisfaction in the neighborhood; that those who lived in log-houses at a little distance from the village, had not been invited to join the society; and also that many people thought twenty-five cents quite too high, for a yearly subscription.

Many looked aghast at this. Public opinion is nowhere so strongly felt as in this country, among new settlers. And as many of the present company still lived in log-houses, a tender string was touched.

At length, an old lady who had sat quietly in a corner all the afternoon, looked up from behind the great woollen sock she was knitting—

"Well now! that's queer!" said she, addressing Mrs. Nippers with an air of simplicity simplified. "Miss Turner told me you went round her neighborhood last Friday, and told how that Miss Clavers and Miss Skinner despised everybody the lived in log-houses; and you know you told Miss Briggs that you thought twenty-five cents was too much; didn't she, Miss Briggs?" Mrs. Briggs nodded.

The widow blushed to the very centre of her pale eyes, but "e'en though vanquished," she lost not her assurance. "Why, I'm sure I only said that we only paid twelve-and-a-half cents at the East; and as to log-houses, I don't know, I can't just recollect, but I didn't say more than others did."

But human nature could not bear up against the mortification; and it had, after all, the scarce credible effect of making Mrs. Nippers sew in silence for some time, and carry her colors at half-mast for the remainder of the afternoon.

At tea each lady took one or more of her babies into her lap and much grabbing ensued. Those who wore calicoes seemed in good spirits and appetite, for green tea at least, but those who had unwarily sported silks and other unwashables, looked acid and uncomfortable. Cake flew about at great rate, and the milk and water which ought to have gone quietly down sundry juvenile throats, was spirited without mercy into various wry faces. But we got through. The astringent refreshment produced its usual crisping effect upon the vivacity of the company. Talk ran high upon almost all Montacutian themes.

"Do you have any butter now?" "When are you going to raise your barn?" "Is your man a going to kill, this week" "I ha'n't seen a bit of meat these six weeks." "Was you to meetin' last Sabbath?" "Has Miss White got any wool to sell?" "Do tell if you've been to Detroit!" "Are you out o' candles?" "Well I should think Sarah Teals wanted a new gown!" "I hope we shall have milk in a week or two," and so on; for, be it known, that in a state of society like ours, the bare necessities of life are subjects of sufficient interest for a good deal of conversation. More than one truly respectable woman of our neighborhood has told me, that it is not very many years since a moderate allowance of Indian meal and potatoes, was literally all that fell to their share of this rich world for weeks together.

"Is your daughter Isabella well?" asked Mrs. Nippers of me solemnly, pointing to little Bell who sat munching her bread and butter, half asleep, at the fragmentious table.

"Yes, I believe so, look at her cheeks."

"Ah yes! it was her cheeks I was looking at. They are so very rosy. I have a little niece who is the very image of her. I never see Isabella without thinking of Jerushy; and Jerushy is most dreadfully scrofulous!"

Satisfied at having made me uncomfortable, Mrs. Nippers turned to Mrs. Doubleday, who was trotting her pretty babe with her usual proud fondness.

"Don't you think your baby breathes rather strangely?" said the tormentor.

"Breathes! how!" said the poor thing, off her guard in an instant.

"Why rather croupish, I think, if I am any judge. I have never had any children of my own to be sure, but I was with Mrs. Green's baby when it died, and—"

"Come, we'll be off!" said Mr. Doubleday, who had come for his spouse. "Don't mind the envious vixen"—aside to his Polly.

Just then, somebody on the opposite side of the room happened top say, speaking of some cloth affair, "Mrs. Nippers says it ought to be sponged."

"Well, sponge it then, by all means," said Mr. Doubleday, "nobody else knows half as much about sponging;" and with wife and baby in tow, off walked the laughing Philo, leaving the widow absolutely transfixed.

"What could Mr. Doubleday mean by that?" was at length her indignant exclamation.

Nobody spoke.

"I am sure," continued the crest-fallen Mrs. Campaspe, with an attempt at a scornful giggle, "I am sure if anybody understood him I would be glad to know what he did mean."

"Well now, I can tell you," said the same simple old lady in the corner, who had let out the secret of Mrs. Nippers' morning walks. "Some folks calls that sponging, when you go about getting your dinner here and your tea there, and sich like; as you know you and Meesy there does. That was what he meant I guess." And the old lady quietly put up her knitting, and prepared to go home.

There have been times when I have thought that almost any degree of courtly duplicity would be preferable to the brusquerie of some of my neighbors: but on this occasion I gave all due credit to a simple and downright way of stating the plain truth. The scrofulous hint brightened my mental and moral vision somewhat.

Mrs. Nippers' claret cloak and green bonnet, and Miss Clinch's ditto ditto, were in earnest requisition, and I do not think either of them spent a day out that week.

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