A New Home: Who'll Follow
Life in the Clearings
First published in 1839
Click here for an index to the chapters of A New Home.
Many English families reside in our vicinity, some of them well calculated to make their way anywhere; close, penurious, grasping and indefatigable; denying themselves all but the necessaries of life, in order to add to their lands, and make the most of their crops; and somewhat apt in bargaining to overreach even the wary pumpkin-eaters, their neighbors; others to whom all these things seem so foreign and so unsuitable, that one cannot but wonder that the vagaries of fortune should have sent them into so uncongenial an atmosphere. The class last mentioned, generally live retired, and show little inclination to mingle with their rustic neighbors; and of course, they become at once the objects of suspicion and dislike. The principle of "let-a-be for let-a-be" holds not with us. Whoever exhibits any desire for privacy is set down as "praoud," or something worse; no matter how inoffensive, or even how benevolent he may be; and of all places in the world in which to live on the shady side of public opinion, an American back-woods settlement is the very worst, as many of these unfortunately mistaken emigrants have been made to feel.
The better classes of English settlers seem to have left their own country with high-wrought notions of the unbounded freedom to be enjoyed in this; and it is with feelings of angry surprise that they learn after a short residence here, that this very universal freedom abridges their own liberty to do as they please in their individual capacity; that the absolute democracy which prevails in country places, imposes as heavy restraints upon one's free-will in some particulars, as do the over-bearing pride and haughty distinctions of the old world in others; and after one has changed one's whole plan of life, and crossed the wide ocean to find a Utopia, the waking to reality is attended with feelings of no slight bitterness. In some instances within my knowledge these feelings of disappointment have been so severe as to neutralize all that was good in American life, and to produce a sour discontent which increased every real evil and went far towards alienating the few who were kindly inclined toward the stranger.
I ever regarded our very intelligent neighbors the Brents, as belonging to the class who have emigrated by mistake, they seemed so well-bred, so well-off, so amiable and so unhappy. They lived a few miles from us, and we saw them but seldom, far less frequently than I could have wished, for there were few whose society was so agreeable. Mr. Brent was a handsome, noble-looking man of thirty or perhaps a little more, well-read, and passionately fond of literary pursuits; no more fit to be a Michigan farmer than to figure as President of the Texan republic; and his wife a gentle and timid woman, very dependent and very lovely, was as ill fitted to bear the household part of a farmer's lot. But all this seemed well-arranged, for the farm was managed "on shares" by a stout husbandman and his family, tolerably honest and trustworthy people as times go; and Mr. Brent and his pale and delicate Catherine disposed of their hours as they thought proper; not however without many secret and some very audible surmises and wonderings on the part of their immediate neighbors, which were duly reported, devoutly believed, and invariably added to, in the course of their diffusion in Montacute.
I might repeat what I heard at a Montacute tea-party; I might give Mrs. Flyter's view of the probable duration of Mr. Brent's means of living on the occasion of having learned from Mrs. Holbrook that Mrs. Brent did not see to the butter-making, and had never milked a cow in her life. I might repeat Mrs. Allerton's estimate of the cost of Mrs. Brent's dress at meeting on a certain Sunday. But I shall tell only what Mrs. Nippers said, for I consider her as unimpeachable authority in such matters. Her decided and solemn assertion was that Mrs. Brent was jealous.
"Jealous of whom?"
"Why of Mr. Brent to be sure!"
"But it is to be supposed that there is somebody else concerned."
"Ah yes! but I don't know. Mrs. Barton didn't know."
"Oh, it was Mrs. Barton who told you then."
Mrs. Nippers had declined giving her authority, and Mrs. Barton was the wife of Mr. Brent's farmer. So she colored a little, and said that she did not wish it repeated, as Mrs. Barton had mentioned it to her in confidence. But since it had come out by mere chance, she didn't know but she might just as well tell that Mrs. Barton was sure that Mrs. Brent was jealous of somebody in England, or somebody that was dead, she didn't know which. She hoped that none of the ladies would mention it.
There were some fourteen or so in company, and they had not yet had tea. After tea the poor Brents were completely "used up," to borrow a phrase much in vogue with us, and the next day I was not much surprised at being asked by a lady who made me a three hours' morning call beginning at nine o'clock, if I had heard that Mr. and Mrs. Brent were going to "part."
I declared my ignorance of anything so terrible, and tried to trace back the news, but it must have passed through several able hands before it came to me.
We rode over to see the Brents that afternoon, found them as usual, save that Mrs. Brent seemed wasting, but she always declared herself quite well; and her husband, whose manner towards her is that of great tenderness, yet not exactly that of husbands in general, a little constrained, was reading aloud to her as she lay on the sofa. They seemed pleased to see us, and promised an afternoon next week to meet "a few friends,"—that is the term, I believe,—but not Mrs. Nippers.
Among those whom I invited to partake our strawberries and cream on the occasion, were Mr. Cathcart and his beautiful wife, English neighbors from a little vine-clad cottage on the hill west of our village; much older residents than the Brents, who had not yet been a year in our vicinty. Mrs. Cathcart is one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen, and certainly a very charming one in all respects, at least to me, who do not dislike a good share of spirit and energy in a lady. Her spouse, though far different, has his good points, and can make himself agreeable enough when he is in the humor; which sometimes occurs, though not often. He is at least twenty years older than his lady, and as ugly as she is handsome, and horribly jealous, I say it myself, of everything and everybody which or whom Mrs. Cathcart may chance to look at or speak to, or take an interest in, gentle and simple, animate or inanimate. It is really pitiable sometimes to see the poor man grin in the effort to suppress the overboiling of his wrath, for he is a very polite person, and generally says the most disagreeable things with a smile.
These neighbors of ours are persons of taste—taste in pictures, in music, in books, in flowers; and thus far they are well mated enough. But there are certain glances and tones which betray to the most careless observer that there are points of difference, behind the scenes at least; and little birds have whispered that after Mrs. Cathcart had spent the morning in transplanting flowers, training her honeysuckles and eglantines, and trimming the turf seats which are tastefully disposed round their pretty cottage, Mr. Cathcart has been seen to come out and destroy all she had been doing; ploughing up the neat flower-beds with his knife, tearing down the vines, and covering the turf sofas with gravel. And the same little birds have added, that when Mr. Cathcart, sated with mischief, turned to go into the house again, he found the front-door fastened, and then the back-door fastened; and after striding about for some time till his bald head was well nigh fried, he was fain to crawl in at the little latticed window, and then—but further these deponents say not.
Well! our little strawberry party was to consist of these English neighbors and some others, and I made due provision of the fragrant rubies, and the et-ceteras of a rural tea-visit. Roses of all hues blushed in my vases—a-hem! they were not pitchers, for the handles were broken off,—and forests of asparagus filled the fire-place. Alice and Arthur figured in their Sundays, little Bell had a new calico apron, and Charlie a shining clean face; so we were all ready.
First of all came the Cathcarts, and their one only and odd son of three years old; a child who looked as old as his father, and walked and talked most ludicrously like him. It did seem really a pity that the uncommonly fine eyes of his beautiful mamma had not descended to him; those large-pupilled grey eyes, with their long black lashes! and her richest of complexions, brighter in bloom and contrast than the sunniest side of a ripe peach; and her thousand graces of face and person. But there he was, a frightful little dwarf, just what his father would seem, looked at through a reverse telescope, or in a convex mirror. And Mr. Cathcart was all smiles and politeness, and brought a whole pocket full of literary novelties lately received from "home." And Mrs. Cathcart, always charming, looked lovelier than usual, in a pale-colored silk and very delicate ornaments.
She was sitting at the piano, playing some brilliant waltzes for the children, and Mr. Cathcart looking over some New-York papers which lay on the table, when Mrs. Brent, wan and feeble as usual, glided into the room. I introduced her to my guests, with whom she was evidently unacquainted, and in the next moment Mr. Brent entered.
It needed but one glance to convince me that, to Mrs. Cathcart at least, there was no occasion to introduce the latest comer. She half rose from her seat, painful blushes overspread her beautiful countenance, and instantly subsiding left it a deathly pale, while Mr. Brent seemed equally discomposed, and Mr. Cathcart gazed in undisguised and most angry astonishment. I went through with the ceremony of presentation as well as I could, awkwardly enough, and an embarrassed pause succeeded, when in walked Mrs. Nippers and Miss Clinch.
"Well, good folks," said the widow fanning herself with a wide expanse of turkeys' feathers, which generally hung on her arm in warm weather; "this is what you may call toiling for pleasure, Mrs. Cathcart, how do you manage too get out in such melting weather? Well! I declare you do look as if you was overcome by the weather or something else!" and she laughed very pleasantly at her own wit.
"Warm or cool, I believe we had better return home, Mrs. Cathcart," said her amiable spouse with one of his ineffable grins. She obeyed mechanically, and began putting her own straw bonnet on little Algernon.
"I declare," said the agreeable Mrs. Campaspe, "I thought—I was in hopes you were going to stay, and we could have had such a nice sociable time;" for Mrs. Nippers was very fond of inviting company—to other people's houses.
"No, Madam!" said Mr. Cathcart, "we must go instantly. Fanny, what are you doing? Can't you tie the child's hat?"
"One word, Sir!" said Mr. Brent, whose fine countenance had undergone a thousand changes in the few moments which have taken so many lines in telling; and he stepped into the garden path, with a bow which Mr. Cathcart returned very stiffly. He followed, however, and, in less than one minute, returned, wished us a very good day with more than the usual proportion of smiles—rather grinnish ones, 'tis true; but very polite; and almost lifting his trembling wife into the vehicle, which still stood at the gate, drove off at a furious rate.
And how looked the pale and gentle Catherine during this brief scene? As one who feels the death-stroke; like a frail blighted lily.
And beside her stood in silence
One with a brow as pale,
And white lips rigidly compress'd
Lest the strong heart should fail.
"Your ride has been too much for you, Mrs. Brent," said I; "you must rest awhile;" and I drew her into a small room adjoining the parlor, to avoid the industrious eyes of Mrs. Nippers.
She spoke not, but her eyes thanked me, and I left her, to receive other guests. Mrs. Nippers made a very faint move to depart when she began to perceive that company had been invited.
"Remain to tea, Mrs. Nippers," I said—could one say less—and she simpered, and said she was hardly decent, but—and added in a stage whisper, "If you could lend me a smart cap and cape, I don't know but I would." So she was ushered in due form to my room, with unbounded choice in a very narrow circle of caps and capes, and a pair of thin shoes, and then clean stocking, were successively added as decided improvements to her array. And when she made her appearance in the state-apartments, she looked, as she said herself, "pretty scrumptious;" but took an early opportunity to whisper, "I didn't know where you kept your pocket-handkerchiefs." So Alice was despatched for one, and the lady was complete.
Mr. Brent, with Bella in his arms, paced the garden walk, pretending to amuse the child, but evidently agitated and unhappy.
"Did you ever see anything so odd?" whispered Mrs. Nippers, darting a glance toward the garden.
But, fortunately, the person honored by her notice was all unconscious; and happening to observe his wife as he passed the low window in the little west-room, he stopped a few moments in low and earnest conversation with her. It was not long before Mrs. Brent appeared, and, apologizing with much grace, said, that feeling a little better, she would prefer returning home, I took leave of her with regretful presentiments.
In less than a week, Mrs. Nippers had more than she could attend to. The Brents had left the country, and Mrs. Cathcart was alarmingly ill. The unfortunate strawberry-party so unexpectedly marred by this rencontre, was the theme of every convention within five miles, to speak moderately; and by the time the story reached home again, its own mother could not have recognized it.
A letter from Mr. Brent to say farewell and a little more gave us in a few words the outlines of a sad story; and while all Montacute was ringing with one of which not the smallest particular is lacking, I am not at liberty to disclose more of the "OWRE TRUE TALE," than the reader will already have conjectured—"a priory 'tachment."
The way Mrs. Nippers rolls up her eyes when the English are mentioned is certainly "a caution."
Click here for an index to the chapters of A New Home.