June 1991

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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 43

The Death of the Bee-Hunter

The evening had fallen when we arrived at our lodging-place, and the stars were beginning to be visible, like specks of chaste silver in the dazzling but shaded gold of the western sky. We had left Constantinople several miles behind us, and the dwelling to which we had now come stood solitary in the centre of a wide clearing, with not a tree on the dense forest left to shade it from the burning sun. This was nothing new to us, for it is the prevailing taste of the country, but one can never get accustomed to so barbarous a fashion. The new feature on this occasion consisted in thirteen huge pillars, not supporting the low roof of the cottage, but standing in a semicircle, with nothing above them but the star-spangled arch of night. They were of Saxon proportions—almost as thick as they were high; and they bore not the outline of mere stumps, for they were of nearly even size throughout. Black-looking and ominous things were they, and in the dying light they gave the scene of Druid gloom. As we drew up at the bars the house-dogs barked, and with some aid from Leo, made abundance of noise, but no sign of humanity greeted our approach. One does not wait for invitation however in such cases, and we opened the door upon a sad scene.

The master of the family, a stout farmer of forty, whom we had met only a day or two before, lay extended on the bed, evidently beyond the help of man. His eyes had begun already to wear the cold glaze of death, and his countenance expressed an intensity of anxiety and distress which was fully reflected in the faces gathered around his bed. An awful silence, which we of course were most careful not to disturb, reigned in the room, broken only at long intervals by a faint moan from the dying man, echoed with heart-breaking emphasis by his poor wife, who wiped his forehead frequently, with a trembling hand. A large family of children, and two or three neighbors, made up the company, and one of the latter, stepping out of the door, beckoned my husband, and explained the dreadful casualty which had thus brought sorrow like a whirlwind.

The poor man had been crushed by a falling tree. He had been an adventurous and successful bee-hunter, and the pillars which had attracted our attention were the trophies of his triumphs in this line. He had by his very success been excited to still further effort, intending to surpass all his neighbors in his collections of bees, and in the quantity of honey which he should prepare for market. The thirteen monuments near his house had every one been procured at the risk of life or limb. They were the shafts of bee-trees, found in the forest at much expense of time and trouble, and cut down with so much skill as not to disturb the inhabitants, although this implies not only felling, but also cutting off all that part of the tree which grows above the hive.

The mode in which this is accomplished is this: another tree, or perhaps more than one, is first felled in such a direction as to form an elastic bed for the reception of the bee-tree, which thus falls without shattering itself to pieces, as from its hollowness it is sure to do when it falls on the ground. The upper portion is then to be removed, and when this is very heavy, as is generally the case, since the hives are almost always found in very large old trees, the greatest care and accuracy are requisite to prevent a tremendous and dangerous rebound of one or both parts.

After all his experience and all his triumphs, poor Mallory, perhaps grown less careful as he became more self-confident, had received the whole force of a huge limb across his neck and shoulders, and though no fracture could be discovered, it was evident from the first, that death was in the blow.

There was not only no medical aid in the neighborhood, but his son, who was his assistant on the occasion, was obliged to walk two miles before he could procure a yoke of oxen and a sled on which to bear him home. One scarcely dares to imagine what his wife must have suffered as she pursued her weary way over a thousand obstacles to the depth of the dense wood where she was to find him dying—perhaps dead. But it may be that our imaginations would not picture such scenes faithfully. He who "tempers the wind to the shorn lamb," does not, we may hope, give to those of his children, whose lot it is to dare the perils and trials of the unhewn wilderness, that cultivated sensitiveness which places new and keen weapons in the hand of sorrow. Their lives are occupied with stern realities—some of them sad and heavy ones; and the necessity for constant effort and for habitual fortitude, is a protection against the exaggerations of fancy.

The woodsman is continually subject to accidents of the most appalling kind. Added to the incredible toil of clearing heavily timbered land, the hardy settler goes to his work every morning with the consciousness that only the same Providence that could preserve him unharmed on the field of battle, can shield him from the perils of his daily labor. The ordinary operation of cutting down large trees, if performed where the timber is scattered, involves considerable risk; since a splinter, a limb heavier than was allowed for, or a heart more decayed than appeared outwardly, may thwart his nice calculations, and wound if not kill him. But it is in the dark and heavy wood, where the fathers of the forest stand in ranks almost as serried as those of the columns of Staffa, that peculiar dangers are found. If a tree, when felled, happen to lodge against another, it is almost a miracle if it is dislodged without an accident. This the best and most experienced woodsmen acknowledge, yet there are few of them who can resist the temptation to try.

In cutting down the supporting tree, the one first felled is almost certain either to slide or to rebound in a way which baffles all calculation, and accidents from this cause are frightfully frequent. The only safe course is to girdle the second tree, and let both stand until they decay, or until some heavy storm sweeps down the incumbrance. But this involves too great a vexation to the axeman, since his ambition is to see the piece of land he has undertaken to clear, bereft of every thing but the unsightly stumps which attest his skill and bravery.

Here the fatal consequences of too adventurous daring had brought so unutterable, and we could read volumes of anguished thought in the darkening countenance of the sufferer, as he rolled his dim eye slowly round the circle of youthful countenances, and fixed it at last on the face of his wife.

"If you and they were provided for"—he said in a faint, husky voice,—and he tried to add—"God's will be done!"

The words were not fully audible, but the feeling was there, for the calm expression which belonged to it took gradual possession of the sunken features.

To stay to witness so heart-rending a scene would have been worse than useless, for what could we do or say? If a stranger "intermeddleth not with our joy," how much less with our sorrow!

A lad had been sent fifteen miles for the nearest physician, and at this moment a slight bustle at the door announced their arrival. As the medical man entered, we withdrew, and, setting out once more, drove on with over-burdened hearts to the next house, which was perhaps three miles off. There we explained our circumstances and asked for lodging, which was very hospitably accorded by the sole inmates, an old man and his wife. They had but one room, and much of one of its sides was occupied by a carpenter's bench and tools; but the space was still large, and they had plenty of bedding, so that it was not difficult to arrange resting-places for weary people.

After the children were in bed, I looked out for a while at a low meadow which lay at no great distance from the house, now covered with a splendid show of fire-flies. The moon had not yet risen, and the evening being somewhat cloudy, the effect of this ever-changing expanse of green light was most brilliant. Yet all was saddened for the time by the impression of the scene we had just quitted. The busy flitting, the appearing and disappearing of these shining creatures, seemed to image only the efforts, the successes and the disappointments of human life; and I was glad at length to forget in sleep fatigue and heavy thoughts.

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