August 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 19

A Gentleman Settler

The Winter—the much dreaded winter in the woods, strange to tell, flew away more rapidly than any previous winter of my life. One has so much to do in the country. The division of labor is almost unknown. If in absolutely savage life, each man is of necessity "his own tailor, tentmaker, carpenter, cook, huntsman, and fisherman;"—so in the state of society which I am attempting to describe, each woman is, at times at least, her own cook, chambermaid and waiter; nurse, seamstress and school-ma'am; not to mention various occasional callings to any one of which she must be able to turn her hand at a moment's notice. And every man, whatever his circumstances or resources, must be qualified to play groom, teamster, or boot-black, as the case may be; besides "tending the baby" at odd times, and cutting wood to cook his dinner with. If he has good sense, good nature, and a little spice of practical philosophy, all this goes exceedingly well. He will find neither his mind less cheerful, nor his body less vigorous for these little sacrifices. If he it too proud or too indolent to submit to such infringements upon his dignity and ease, most essential deductions from the daily comfort of his family will be the mortifying and vexatious result of his obstinate adherence to early habits.

We witnessed by accident so striking a lesson on this subject, not long after our removal to Montacute, that I must be allowed to record the impression it made upon my mind. A business errand called Mr. Clavers some miles from home; and having heard much of the loveliness of the scenery in that direction, I packed the children into the great waggon and went with him.

The drive was a charming one. The time, midsummer, and the wilderness literally "blossoming as the rose." In a tour of ten miles we saw three lovely lakes, each a lonely gem set deep in masses of emerald green, which shut it in completely from all but its own bright beauty. The road was a most intricate one "through bush—through briar," and the ascents, the "pitches," the "sidlings" in some places quite terrific. At one of the latter points, where the road wound, as so many Michigan roads do, round the edge of a broad green marsh, I insisted upon getting out, as usual. The place was quite damp; but I thought I could pick my way over the green spots better than trust myself in the waggon, which went along for some rods at an angle (I said so at least,) of forty-five. Two men were mowing the marsh, and seemed highly amused at my perplexity, when after watching the receding vehicle till it ascended a steep bank on the farther side, I began my course. for a few steps I made out tolerably, but then I began to sink most inconveniently. Silly thin shoes again. Nobody should ever go one mile from home in thin shoes in this country, but old Broadway habits are so hard to forget.

At length, my case became desperate. One shoe had provokingly disappeared. I had stood on one foot as long as ever a goose did, but no trace of the missing Broqua could I find, and down went the stocking six inches into the black mud. I cried out for help; and the mowers, with "a long and a loud guffaw," came leisurely towards me. Just then appeared Mr. Clavers on the green slope above mentioned. It seems his high mightiness had concluded by this time that I had been sufficiently punished for my folly, (all husbands are so tyrannical!) and condescended to come to my rescue. I should have been very sulky; but then, there were the children. However, my spouse did try to find a road which should less frequently give rise to those troublesome terrors of mine. So we drove on and on, through ancient woods, which I could not help admiring; and, at length, missing our way, we came suddenly upon a log house, very different from that which was the object of our search. It was embowered in oaks of the largest size; and one glance told us that the hand of refined taste had been there. The underbrush had been entirely cleared away, and the broad expanse before the house looked like a smooth-shaven lawn, deep-shadowed by the fine trees I have mentioned. Gleams of sunset fell on beds of flowers of every hue; curtains of French muslin shaded the narrow windows, and on a rustic seat near the door lay a Spanish guitar, with its broad scarf of blue silk. I could not think of exhibiting my inky stocking to the inmates of such a cottage, though I longed for a peep; and Mr. Clavers went alone to the house to inquire the way, while I played tiger and held the horses.

I might have remained undiscovered, but for the delighted exclamations of the children, who were in raptures with the beautiful flowers, and the lake which shone, a silver mirror, immediately beneath the bank on which we were standing. Their merry talk echoed through the trees, and presently out came a young lady in a demi-suisse costume; her dark hair closely braided and tied with ribbons, and the pockets of her rustic apron full of mosses and wild flowers. With the air rather of Paris than of Michigan, she insisted on my alighting; and though in awkward plight, I suffered myself to be persuaded. The interior of the house corresponded in part with the impressions I had received from my first glance at the exterior. There was a harp in a recess, and the white-washed log-walls were hung with a variety of cabinet pictures. A tasteful drapery of French chintz partly concealed another recess, closely filled with books; a fowling piece hung over the chimney, and before a large old-fashioned looking-glass stood a French pier table, on which were piled fossil specimens, mosses, vases of flowers, books, pictures, and music. So far all was well; and two young ladies seated on a small sofa near the table, with netting and needle-work were in keeping with the romantic side of the picture. But there was more than all this.

The bare floor was marked in every direction with that detestable yellow dye which mars everything in the country, although a great box filled with sand stood near the hearth, melancholy and fruitless provision against this filthy visitation. Two great dirty dogs lay near a large rocking-chair, and this rocking-chair sustained the tall person of the master of the house, a man of perhaps forty years or thereabouts, the lines of whose face were such, as he who runs may read. Pride and passion, and reckless self-indulgence were there, and fierce discontent and determined indolence. An enormous pair of whiskers, which surmounted the whole lower part of the countenance, afforded incessant employment for the long slender fingers, which showed no marks of labor, except very dirty nails. This gentleman had, after all, something of a high-bred air, as if one did not look at the floor, and could forget certain indications of excessive carelessness discernible in his dress and person.

We had not yet seen the lady of the cottage; the young girl who had ushered me in so politely was her sister, now on a summer visit. Mrs. B_______ shortly after entered in an undress, but with a very lady-like grace of manner, and the step of a queen. Her face, which bore the traces of beauty, struck me as one of the most melancholy I had ever seen; and it was over-spread with a sort of painful flush, which did not conceal its habitual paleness.

We had been conversing but a few minutes, when a shriek from the children called everyone out of doors in an instant. One of Mr. B________'s sons had ventured too near the horses, and received a kick from our "old Tom," who is a little roguish, a kick on the arm.

He roared most lustily, and everybody was very much frightened, and ran in all directions seeking remedies. I called upon a boy, who seemed to be a domestic, to get some salt and vinegar, (for the mother was disabled by terror;) but as he only grinned and stared at me, I ran into the kitchen to procure it myself. I opened a closet door, but the place seemed empty or nearly so; I sought everywhere within ken, but all was equally desolate; I opened the door of a small bed-room, but I saw in a moment that I ought not to have gone there, and shut it again instantly. Hopeless of finding what I sought, I returned to the parlor, and there the little boy was holding a vinaigrette to his mother's nose, while the young ladies were chafing her hands. She had swooned in excessive alarm, and the kick had, after all, produced only a trifling bruise.

After Mrs. B________ had recovered herself a little, she entered at some length, and with a good deal of animation on a detail of her Michigan experiences; not, as I had hoped at the beginning, "in equal scale weighing delight and dole;" but giving so depressing a view of the difficulties of the country, that I felt almost disposed for the moment to regret my determination of trying a woodland life. She had found all barren. They had no neighbors, or worse than none—could get no domestics—found everyone disposed to deal unfairly, in all possible transactions; and though last not least, could get nothing fit to eat.

Mr. B_______'s account, though given with a careless, off-hand air, had a strong dash of bitterness in it—a sort of fierce defiance of earth and heaven, which is apt to be the resource of those who have willfully thrown away their chances of happiness. His remarks upon the disagreeables which we had to encounter, were carried at least as far as those of his wife; and he asserted that there was but one alternative in Michigan—cheat or be cheated.

We were not invited to remain to tea; but took our leave with many polite hopes of further acquaintance. Mr. Clavers found the spot he had been seeking, and then, taking another road home, we called to see Mrs. Danforth; whom we considered even then in the light of the very good friend which she has since so often proved herself. I told of our accidental visit and learned from the good lady some particulars respecting this family, whose condition seemed so strange and contradictory, even in the western country, where every element enters into the composition of that anomalous mass called society.

Mr. B________, was born to a large fortune, a lot which certainly seems in our country to carry a curse with it in a large proportion of instances. Feeling quite above the laborious calling by which his father had amassed wealth, the son's only aim had been to spend his money, like a gentleman; and in this he had succeeded so well that by the time he had established himself, at the head of the ton in one of our large Eastern cities, and been set down as an irreclaimable roué by his sober friends, he found that a few more losses at play would leave him stranded. But he had been quite the idol of the "good society" into which he had purchased admission, and the one never-failing resource in such cases—a rich wife, was still perhaps in his power. Before his altered fortunes were more than whispered by his very particular friends, he had secured the hand of an orphan heiress, a really amiable and well-bred girl; and it was not until she had been his wife for a year or more that she knew that her thousands had done no more than prop a falling house.

Many efforts were made by the friends on both sides, to aid Mr. B______ in establishing himself in business, but his pride and indolence proved insuperable difficulties; and after some years of those painful struggles between pride and poverty, which so many of the devotees of fashion can appreciate from their own bitter experience, a retreat to the West was chosen as the least of prospective evils.

Here the whole country was before him "where to choose." He could have bought at government price any land in the region to which he had directed his steps. Water-power of all capabilities was at his command, for there was scarce a settler in the neighborhood. But he scorned the idea of a place for business. What he wanted was a charming spot for a gentlemanly residence. There, with his gun and his fishing rod he was to live; a small income which still remained of his wife's fortune furnishing the only dependence.

And this income, small as it was, would have been, in prudent and industrious hands, a subsistence at least; so small is the amount really requisite for a frugal way of life in these isolated situations. But unfortunately Mr. B_______'s character had by no means changed with his place of residence. His land, which by cultivation would have yielded abundant supplies for his table, was suffered to lie unimproved, because he had not money to pay laborers. Even a garden was too much trouble; the flower-beds I had seen were made by the hands of Mrs. B_______, and her sisters; and it was asserted that the comforts of life were often lacking in this unfortunate household, and would have been always deficient but for constant aid from Mrs. B_______'s friends.

Mrs. B_______ had done as women so often do in similar situations, making always a great effort to keep up a certain appearance, and allowing her neighbors to discover that she considered them far beneath her; she had still not forgotten her delicate habits, and that they were delicate and lady-like, no one can doubt who had ever seen her, and labored with all her little strength for the comfort of her family. She had brought up five children on little else beside Indian meal and potatoes; and at one time the neighbors had known the whole family live for weeks upon bread and tea without sugar or milk;—Mr. B_______ sitting in the house smoking cigars, and playing the flute, as much of a gentleman as ever.

And these people, bringing with them such views and feelings as make straitened means productive of absolute wretchedness anywhere, abuse Michigan, and visit upon their homely neighbors the bitter feelings which spring from that fountain of gall, mortified yet indomitable pride. Finding themselves growing poorer and poorer, they persuade themselves that all who thrive, do so by dishonest gains, or by mean sacrifices; and they are teaching their children, by the irresistible power of daily example, to despise plodding industry, and to indulge in repining and feverish longings after unearned enjoyments.

But I am running into an absolute homily! I set out to say only that we had been warned at the beginning against indulging in certain habits which darken the whole course of country life; and here I have been betrayed into a chapter of sermonizing. I can only beg pardon and resume my broken thread.

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