May 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 30

Moonlight and Ague: The Titmouses

"Ah! Who can tell how hard it is to" say—anything about an unpretending village like outs, in terms suited to the delicate organization of "ears polite." How can one hope to find anything of interest about such common-place people? where is the aristocratic distinction which makes the kind visit of the great lady at the sick-bed of suffering indigence so great a favor, that all the inmates of the cottage behave picturesquely out of gratitude—form themselves into a tableaux, and make speeches worth recording? Here are neither great ladies nor humble cottagers, I cannot bring to my aid either the exquisite boudoir of the one class, with its captivating bijouterie—its velvet couches and its draperies of rose-colored satin, so becoming to the complexions of one's young-lady-characters—nor yet the cot of the other more simple but not less elegant, surrounded with clustering eglantine and clematis, and inhabited by goodness, grace, and beauty. These materials are denied me; but yet I must try to describe something of Michigan cottage life, taking care to avoid myself of such delicate periphrasis as may best veil the true homeliness of my subject.

Moonlight and ague are, however, the same everywhere. At least I meet with no description in any of the poets of my acquaintance which might not be applied, without reservation, to Michigan moonlight; and as for the ague, did not great Caesar shake "when the fit was on him?"

T'is true this god did shake:

His coward lips

did from their colour fly—

And in this important particular poor Lorenzo Titmouse was just like the inventor of the laurel crown. We—Mrs. Rivers and I—went to his father's, at his urgent request, on just such a night as is usually chosen for romantic walks by a certain class of lovers. We waited not for escort, although the night had already fallen, and there was a narrow strip of forest to pass in our way; but leaving word whither we had gone, we accompanied the poor shivering boy, each carrying what we could. And what does the gentle reader think we carried? A custard or a glass of jelly each, perhaps; and a nice sponge-cake, or something equally delicate, and likely to tempt the faint appetite of the invalid. No such thing. We had learned better than to offer such nick-nacks to people who "a'n't us'd to sweetnin'." My companion was "doubly arm'd:" a small tin pail of cranberry sauce in one hand, a bottle of vinegar in the other. I carried a modicum of "hop 'east," and a little bag of crackers; a scrap of Hyson, and a box of quinine pills. Odd enough; but we had been at such places before.

We had a delicious walk; though poor Lorenzo, who had a bag of flour on his shoulders, was fain to rest often. This was his "well day," to be sure; but he had some eight or ten fits of ague, enough to wither anybody's pith and marrow, as those will say who have tried it. That innate politeness which young rustics, out of books as well as in them, are apt to exhibit when they are in good humor, made Lorenzo decline, most vehemently, our offers of assistance. But we at length fairly took his bag from him, and passing a stick through the string, carried it between us; while the boy disposed of our various small articles by the aid of his capacious pockets. And a short half mile from the bridge brought us to his father's.

It was an ordinary log house, but quite old and dilapidated; the great open chimney occupying most of one end of the single apartment, and two double-beds with a trundle-bed, the other. In one of the large beds lay the father and eldest son; in the other, the mother and two little daughters, all ill with ague, and all sad and silent, save my friend Mrs. Titmouse, whose untameable tongue was too much even for the ague. Mrs. Titmouse is one of those fortunate beings who can talk all day without saying anything. She is the only person whom I have met in these regions who appears to have paid her devoirs at Castle Blarney.

"How d'ye do, ladies,—how d'ye do? Bless my soul! if ever I thought I'd be catch'd in sitch a condition, and by sich grand ladies too! Not a chair for you to sit down on. I often tell Titmouse that we live jist like the pigs; but he ha'n't no ambition. I'm sure I'm under a thousand compliments to ye for coming to see me. We're expecting a mother of his'n to come and stay with us, but she ha'n't come yet—and I in sitch a condition; can't show ye no civility. Do sit down, ladies, if you can sit upon a chest—ladies like you. I'm sure I'm under a thousand compliments—" and so the poor soul ran on till she was fairly out of breath, in spite of our efforts to out-talk her with our assurances that we could accommodate ourselves very well, and could stay but a few minutes.

"And now, Mrs. Titmouse," said Mrs. Rivers, in her sweet, pleasant voice, "tell us what we can do for you."

"Do for me! Oh, massy! Oh, nothing, I thank ye. There a'n't nothing that ladies like you can do for me. We make out very well—"

"What do you say so for!" growled her husband from the other bed. "You know we ha'n't tasted a mouthful since morning, nor hadn't it, and I sent Lorenzo myself—"

"Well, I never!" responded his help-mate; "you're always doing just so: troubling people. You never had no ambition, Titmouse; you know I always said so. To be sure, we ha'n't had no tea this good while, and tea does taste dreadful good when a body's got the agur; and my bread is gone, and I ha'n't been able to set no emptin; but—"

Here we told what we had brought, and prepared at once to make some bread; but Mrs. Titmouse seemed quite horrified, and insisted on getting out of bed, though she staggered, and would have fallen if we had not supported her to a seat.

"Now tell me where the water is, and I will get it myself, said Mrs. Rivers, "and do you sit still and see how soon I will make a loaf."

"Water!" said the poor soul; "I'm afraid we have not water enough to make a loaf. Mr. Grimes brought us a barrel day before yesterday, and we've been dreadful careful of it, but the agur is so dreadful thirsty—I'm afraid there a'n't none."

"Have you no spring?"

"No, ma'am; but we have always got plenty of water down by the marsh till this dry summer."

"I should think that was enough to give you the ague. Don't you think the marsh water unwholesome?"

"Well, I don't know but it is; but you see he was always a-going to dig a well; but he ha'n't no ambition, nor never had, and I've always told him so. And as to the agur, if you've got to have it, why you can't get clear of it."

There was, fortunately, water enough left in the barrel to set the bread and half-filled the tea-kettle; and we soon made a little blaze with sticks, which served to boil the kettle to make that luxury of the woods, a cup of green tea.

Mrs. Titmouse did not need the tea to help her talking powers, for she was an independent talker, whose gush of words knew no ebb nor exhaustion. "Alike to her was tide or time, Moonless midnight or matin prime." Her few remaining teeth chattered no faster when she had the ague than at any other time. The stream flowed on "in one weak, washy, everlasting flood."

When we had done what little we could, and were about to depart, glad to escape her overwhelming protestations of eternal gratitude, her husband reminded her that the cow had not been milked since the evening before, when "Miss Grimes" had been there. Here was a dilemma! How we regretted our defective education, which prevented our rendering so simple yet so necessary a service to the sick poor.

We remembered the gentleman who did not know whether he could read Greek, as he had never tried; and set ourselves resolutely at work to ascertain our powers in the milking line.

But alas! the "milky mother of the herd" had small respect for timid and useless town ladies. "Crummie kick'd, and Crummie flounced, And Crummie whisk'd her tail."

In vain did Mrs. Rivers hold the pail with both hands, while I essayed the arduous task. So sure as I succeeded in bringing ever so tiny a stream, the ill-mannered beast would almost put out my eyes with her tail, and then oblige us both to jump and run away; and after a protracted struggle, the cow gained the victory, as might have been expected, and we were fain to retreat into the house.

The next expedient was to support Mrs. Titmouse on the little bench, while she tried to accomplish the mighty work; and having been partially successful in this, we at length took our leave, promising aid for the morrow, and hearing the poor woman's tongue at intervals till we were far in the wood.

"Lord bless ye! I'm sure I'm under an everlastin' compliment to ye; I wish I know'd how I could pay ye. Such ladies to waitin' on the likes of me; I'm sure I never see nothing like it, &c, &c.

And now we began to wonder how long it would be before we should see our respected spouses, as poor Lorenzo had fallen exhausted on the bed, and was in no condition to see us even a part of the way home. The wood was very dark, though we could see glimpses of the mill-pond lying like liquid diamonds in the moon-light.

We had advanced near the brow of the hill which descends toward the pond, when strange sounds met our ears. Strange sounds for our peaceful village! Shouts and howling—eldritch screams—Indian yells—the braying of tin horns, and the violent clashing of various noisy articles.

We hurried on, and soon came in sight of a crowd of persons, who seemed coming from the village to the pond. And now loud talking, threats—"Duck him! duck the impudent rascal!" what could it be?

Here was a mob! a Montacute mob! and the cause? I believe all mobs pretend to have causes. Could the choice spirits have caught an abolitionist? which they thought, as I had heard, meant nothing less than a monster.

But now I recollected having heard that a ventriloquist, which I believe most of our citizens considered a beast of the same nature, had sent notices of an exhibition for the evening; and the truth flashed upon us at once.

"In with him! in with him!" they shouted as they approached the water, just as we began to descend the hill. And then the clear fine voice of the dealer in voice was distinctly audible above the hideous din—

"Gentlemen, I have warned you; I possess the means of defending myself, you will force me to use them."

"Stop his mouth," shouted a well-known bully, "he lies; he ha'n't got nothing! in with him!" and a violent struggle followed, some few or our more sober citizens striving to protect the stranger.

One word to Mrs. Rivers, and we set up a united shriek, a screech like an army of sea-gulls. "Help, help!" and we stopped on the hillside, our white dresses distinctly visible in the clear, dazzling moonlight.

We "stinted not nor staid" till a diversion was fairly effected. A dozen forms seceded at once from the crowd, and the spirit of the thing was at an end.

We waited on the spot where our artifice began, certain of knowing every individual who should approach; and the very first proved those we most wished to see. And now came the very awkward business of explaining our ruse, and Mrs. Rivers was rather sharply reproved for her part of it. Harley Rivers was not the man to object to anything like a lark, and he had only attempted to effect the release of the ventriloquist, after Mr. Clavers had joined him on the way to Mr. Titmouse's. The boobies who had been most active in the outrage would fain have renewed the sport; but the ventriloquist had wisely taken advantage of our diversion in his favor, and was no where to be found. The person at whose house he had put up told afterwards that he had gone out with loaded pistols in his pocket; so even a woman's shrieks, hated of gods and men, may sometimes be of service.

Montacute is far above mobbing now. This was the first and last exhibition of the spirit of the age. The most mobbish of our neighbors have flitted westward, seeking more congenial association. I trust they may be so well satisfied that they will not think of returning; for it is not pleasant to find a dead pig in one's well, or a favorite dog hung up at the gate-post; to say nothing of cows milked on the marshes, hen-roosts rifled, or melon-patches cleared in the course of the night.

We learned afterwards the "head and front" of the ventriloquist's offence. He had asked twenty-five cents a-head for the admission of the sovereign people.

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