A New Home: Who'll Follow
Life in the Clearings
First published in 1839
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We hastened onward at the expense of some terrible thumps, and half an hour or so brought us within hearing, at least, if not within sight, of the village where we had agreed to pass the night. We were made aware of our approach to the abodes of men, by a clatter and howling, a clash of tin pans and a beating of drums, which made together a din sufficiently startling after the long dark drive through the forest, where nothing was heard beyond the screech of the owl or the occasional bark of a fox. So loud and angry were these warlike sounds, that Mr. Sibthorpe concluded at once that they must be occasioned by some great popular commotion.
"What do you suppose it can be?" he inquired; "d'ye know I've the greatest curiosity to see an American mob! Do you think it can be anything of that sort?"
Our replies dampened his hopes. We thought anything else more likely. And very soon we reached the inn, where all was quiet as one could wish, although the crowd from which the noise proceeded was visible by the light of its own restless lanterns, at the further end of the street.
"It's only a parcel of fellers gone to serenade an old widower that's been a marrying of a young girl, and didn't ask the neighbors to the wedding—that's all!" said the landlord. "If he'd come out and treat 'em, they'd go off peaceable; but he's so spunky he won't do that, and I'll warrant ye they'll keep up that hullabaloo all night."
"A charivari in the woods!" exclaimed our companion; "an old French custom transplanted into these Western wilds! You observe the New-year with the Dutch, and 'Thanksgiving' with the Yankees; and I have noticed that you fail not to eat mince-pies religiously with the English at Christmas, and cod-fish and potatoes with Paddy on his saint's day."
We responded by a wish that the naturalization of holidays had been carried still further, as we have so few of our own; and we might have been inclined to enlarge a little upon this point, (it being a favorite one,) but our host had no idea of awaiting the conclusion of an untimely discussion.
"Well!" said he somewhat testily, "if you're a comin' in, come along! if not, it a'n't of no use for me to be a standin' here. I've got sacks of things to do."
Mr. Sibthorpe laughed, as an Englishman well might, and very good-humoredly responded to this crusty speech of our landlord by asking whether he did not consider it a part of his business to wait upon his customers?
"Why, if a man wants a meal's victuals for himself, or his folks, or his dumb critters," responded Mr. Hotchkins, "I am willing to furnish it; but I don't calc'late to wait upon nobody. D'ye want your horses put up? Here, Zack! take these men's horses and put 'em in the stable." Then to the guests—"You can tell him how many oats you want 'em to have."
And with this the innkeeper went into the house, to consult the "women-folks," I suppose.
Zack was kind enough to take off our luggage, which he placed in the entry; and we seated ourselves in a forlorn parlor, with a funereal row of chairs, and one table, on which stood a sepulchral lamp that looked as if it had been intended to burn on for ages, making darkness visible, so minute was the quantity of flame that glimmered on its little wick.
The evening was very chilly, as is often the case after a day of intense heat, and we felt the need of fire to dry our dewy garments, as well as to cheer the dark dismal parlor. The landlord, who was forthcoming upon a call, said there was a fire in the bar-room, and that the "men-folks" could go there, and the women and children could sit in the kitchen.
"But couldn't we have a fire here?"
"Why—the fact is—no, not very well. You see my woman has slicked up her stove, and got her posy-pot in't and all—and she wouldn't like to have it nastied up jist for one night. I guess you'd better fix it t'other fashion."
And to the kitchen we went, and a very nice kitchen it was, with a somewhat prim but kindly dame at the head of affairs, who made the rosy-cheeked damsels under her sway fly about so nimbly that our tea was soon ready. How they managed to do anything was marvellous, for the kitchen was full of newly-ironed sheets, spread on clothes-frames and the backs of chairs, and steaming in the hot air.
The eating-room felt like a cellar, but there was a fire just kindled in a close stove, which, by the time we had finished, began to make it tolerably warm—a not unusual arrangement in taverns. Whether the incipient stages of freezing are induced with a view of benumbing the appetite with the other powers, or whether the air is kept cool for the convenience of the waiters, who might find much exercise uncomfortable in a well-warmed atmosphere, I never was able to guess.
When the children were prepared for bed, one must have been very good-natured indeed not to observe that the sheets were not of the number of those which had just passed beneath the smoothing-iron.
"How is this!" I exclaimed to the maiden in attendance; "these sheets have been used?"
"Oh, yes, ma'am," simpered the girl. "We ha'n't no new sheets."
"But I must have clean sheets," I said, in plain English,—"sheets that have not been slept in since they were washed."
"Oh!" exclaimed the young lady, as if light had suddenly broken in upon her understanding;—"yes—I dare say!—but, you see, ma'am, we've had sich lots of company—there was the Dimocratic Wig convention—they slept here two nights—and then there was this here Log-Cabin celebration—and so all of our sheets but these is a drying in the kitchen—and we thought you'd like these better, 'cause they're so much healthier! you know damp sheets is dreadful unwholesome—and there ha'n't nobody slept in these but some very nice gentlemen!"
But all this eloquence was wasted upon my prejudices, and the chamber-maid, with a toss of her head, went to hasten the airing of the sheets, while we returned to wait by the dining-room stove.
Here we found our gentlemen in conversation with the landlord, who was, with all his odd roughness, a very civil sort of man, and very fond of hearing himself talk, although he had shown so little patience with our prolixity.
He seemed to be warmly engaged in arguing with Mr. Sibthorpe some point connected with the vexed question of distinctions in society.
"Respect!" he exclaimed; "why should I show more respect to any man than he does to me? Because he wears a finer coat? His coat don't do me any good. Does he pay his taxes any better than I do? Is he kinder to his family? Does he act more honestly by his neighbors? Will he have a higher place in heaven than I shall? Show me the man that's a better man than I am, and you'll see if I don't treat him with respect! But to fawn and cringe before a fellow-critter because he's got more money than I have, is agin my principles. I sha'n't help to blow up nobody's pride."
"But," persisted Mr. Sibthorpe, waiving, however, the main question, as one must always do in similar cases, "are you sure that it is not your own pride that makes the difficulty? otherwise, what could be easier than to recognize those different grades in society which have always been marked since the beginning of time, and in all probability will continue to be so as long as earth endures, in spite of the resistance of those who are unwilling to foster anybody's pride but their own?"
"Ah! stop a little!" rejoined the landlord; "there's where you go too far! You think these ranks and distinctions will go on always, because you wish they should go on. I believe they are coming to an end as fast as the earth rolls round. In my opinion this etarnal Yankee nation has set the example to all the rest of the world, and before many years is gone by, there won't be a man in England that'll take off his hat to the queen unless she makes her manners first. All men—and women too—was born not only free but equal; and equal they've got to be, on earth as well as in heaven."
"Well!" said Mr. Sibthorpe, with his usual good humor, "I'm glad to have met at last with one consistent American. You believe in the equal rights of all human beings. You are not for exalting one class of men at the expense of another, or depressing any class that another may live in pride and luxury at their expense—"
"No, indeed!" said our host, with a virtuous severity depicted on his countenance. "Give every man a fair chance, that's what I say; and then we can see what stuff he's made of. Outside a'n't nothing."
"You are not one of those," continued Mr. Sibthorpe, "who would shut a man out from all the privileges of society because God has given him a black skin. You would look only at his worth, his abilities, or his piety; you would be willing to associate with him, and assist him in maintaining his just natural rights in spite of cruel prejudice. You would—"
"What upon airth are you talking about? exclaimed our host, quite aghast at this sweeping conclusion. "I should ra'aly be glad to know if you mean to insult me! Are you talking of niggers? Do you suppose I look upon a nigger as I do upon a white man? Do you think I am sich a fool as not to know who the Africans is? Should I put myself upon an equality with the seed of Cain, that was done over black to show that they was to be sarvants and the sarvants of sarvants? I'm no abolitionist, thank God! and if you're one, the sooner you get back to your own country the better."
"I have not been long enough in your land of liberty, said Mr. Sibthorpe, with a quiet smile, "to have enrolled myself under any of your party banners; I only wished to ascertain how far you carried your creed of equality; and I find you draw the line, like most of your countrymen, just where your interest or your inclination indicates. I can see very plainly why you think there ought to be no distinction of ranks in the world." And without waiting for the angry reply which seemed laboring in the mind of the landlord, Mr. Sibthorpe bade good night, and desired to be shown to his room.
"What prejudiced critters these English are!" said our host as he left the room.
We thought the observation true enough in the main, but not particularly applicable to our friend of the prairie, who had evidently seen the world with too philosophic an eye to be a mere Englishman. To those who have been so happy as to meet with an English gentleman of this character, one for whom nature, education and travel have all done much, I need hardly say how very delightful is such companionship. Agreeable Englishmen are much more like each other than agreeable Americans. Whether their nationality of feeling is so strong as to give always a predominating tone to the character, whatever be its distinctive points, or whether they derive a more obvious national resemblance from the possession of fixed standards of taste, education and manners, I have not had an opportunity of judging. The fact has struck me frequently.
Mr. Sibthorpe continued to be our companion for the rest of our homeward journey, and we were much pleased to learn from him that he had actually purchased a farm about twenty miles from our cottage, and intended proving to his own satisfaction the delights of American forest life.
"Why do you smile?" said he.
"Did I smile?" was the reply, faute de mieux.
"Yes indeed, but you have not seen Mrs. Sibthorpe. She is more romantic, if so you call it, more indifferent to outward appliances, even than I. To rove in the summer woods and read or gather wild flowers makes a paradise for her."
"But we have long—very long winters—"
"More charming still, if possible! fine bracing air for exercise during the day, and long quiet evenings for your favorite pursuits—no wheels thundering on the pavement to break in upon the dreams of fancy—no well-dressed bore coming in to rob you of your time and patience."
There was nothing in this view of country pleasures to be disputed, and it was not necessary to draw a counter picture. This was better left for a photogenic impression. So we parted with Mr. Sibthorpe with the willing promise of an early visit, twenty miles being but dining distance when the roads are good.
Click here for an index to the chapters of A New Home.