A New Home: Who'll Follow
Life in the Clearings
First published in 1839
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The English Sportsman
Homeward once more. Skies and bowers of fairy-land, but most earthly corduroy; and some few mud-holes that would have suited well with a still grosser sphere. Endless wheatfields—Indian corn glittering in the sunbeams as the morning wind dashed the dew from its broad leaves; rich pastures, where a few maples, kindly left alive, formed shady lounges for the cattle; quiet streams, in which the cows were very sensibly standing half-leg deep, browsing occasionally upon the over-hanging boughs;—such were the commonplace objects that served to give an interest to our journey homewards. The road by which we were returning was a closely-settled one, crossed however here and there by a tract of deep shade, in which the solitude of creation seemed never to have been disturbed, and in one part passing through a strip of unbroken prairie, scarcely tenanted except by wild-fowl and other pensioners of nature.
Jogging along slowly under a blistering sun across this shelterless tract, we saw far in the prairie a moving object, which we took at first for some wild animal, whose outline the dazzling nature of light prevented our tracing distinctly. But presently, when the strange figure moved within its range, it proved to be no prairie wolf, but a human being, oddly accoutered and exhibiting considerable complexity. He would walk a few steps forward, and then, shading his eyes with his hand, gaze earnestly around him. Then turning his eyes to our side, he would seem resolved to reach the road, yet after a few moments turn and gaze wistfully as before. At length we came within speaking distance, and our wild beast turned out an English gentleman who seemed to have been gunning on the prairie. The capacious pockets of a very curious-looking jacket were stuffed with prairie-hens, and instead of a hat a silk pocket-handkerchief was tied about the dissolving head of the sportsman.
We could do no less than stop and inquire the cause of his evident perplexity.
"Pray—I beg your pardon—but can you observe anything on the prairie?" he said, pulling the kerchief from his head, and wiping his brow with a half-distracted air.
We tried faithfully, standing on tiptoe in the waggon, but there was nothing visible but the tall, waving grass, and the long straight road. Not an object broke the line of the horizon except some far distant trees.
"Well now," said our new acquaintance, "d'ye know, this is so very awkward! these prairies of yours—one might as well be on the ocean in a cock-boat. I have been shooting on this very ground for four successive days, and bagged so many birds everyday—grouse too—that I couldn't make up my mind to quit. But this morning I had determined should be the last, you know; and I was enticed further and further; and after I was so loaded that I could scarcely walk, I still saw so much sport that I made a pile of game on a convenient spot, and put my cap upon the heap by way of landmark, so that I should be quite sure, you know, to find it again. But upon my word, I had not brought down three birds after this, before I came to the end of my powder, and then I set out to find my cap and my game. And here I am, wandering about these two hours, you know, and can see nothing but grass every where. It is really excessively awkward"—and again he wiped his forehead, as well he might.
He was a gentleman by no means well fitted for searching the prairies under the fervors of a summer noon, for he was short and very fat, and his head was pink and shining as if it had never known the "excrescence of a moist brain." But he tried to laugh off his vexation like a wise man, saying that he supposed a wolf he had shot at early in the morning had devoured cap and game too, by way of revenge for his evil intentions.
We were so fortunate as to have a spare straw hat—no unusual provision for a summer journey hereabouts,—and this the stranger gladly adopted, his crimsoned countenance looming out from beneath its wide brim like the rising harvest moon encountering a stray bank of clouds. He accepted also a seat in our rough vehicle as far as the next village, and before we had reached the place of destination, we had set him down as a very pleasant Englishman indeed. He was full of animation, interested in everything connected with this new world, and much more desirous of gaining information than of impressing the "Yankees" with an overwhelming idea of his own born and bred superiority. Such an Englishman being almost a wonder in America, we cultivated Mr. Sibthorpe accordingly, and an acquaintance of some duration, since that chance encounter on the prairie, has given us no reason to regret having yielded to first impressions.
We reached Mr. Sibthorpe's lodging-place—the little village of Temperance—a knot of log-houses clustering about a blacksmith's shop, and a "Variety-Store," (I quote the sign,)—just as the world was going to dinner; and Mr. Sibthorpe had so many good things to say of his landlady that we were induced to apply to her for our dinner, instead of making a pic-nic meal in the woods, as we had intended.
The good woman was the picture of neatness, and she was most appropriately framed, for a trimmer cottage sun never shone upon. Everything shone with cleanliness, and the gown and shawl of the poor soul herself had been washed and starched until they were of a gauzy thinness. Poverty was everywhere, but it was cheerful, industrious, and most tidy poverty, and the manners of the hostess and her children were such as would have appeared well in far better circumstances. Her husband was at his work, she said, and had taken his noon-meal with him, but she had prepared dinner for Mr. Sibthorpe, and could soon add to it for our accommodation.
There were not plates and knives enough to allow the children to eat at the same time with us, so that it took a good while to despatch the dinner. Meanwhile our newly-found acquaintance was getting his "traps" together, (an expression picked up on this side of the water, I guess,) and by the time the little folks were repacked and ready, he too had mounted his shaggy pony, and with well-stuffed saddle-bags, and blanket and boot-hose, stood prepared to ride on with us.
The road grew bad enough as we plunged into the "timbered land," so bad that fast driving was out of the question. The late heavy rains, falling upon land that was never shone upon except at noonday, had soaked the clayey soil so completely that in many places we made our way with difficulty; and in this drawling way we travelled several miles. And here our prairie hunter's cheerful and intelligent conversation served as a most agreeable relief to the tedious dullness naturally attendant upon ruts and mudholes. Mr. Sibthorpe had travelled a good deal, and always with his eyes open, and he had beside a fund of enthusiasm, and a genuine love for fresh, free and unpolished nature, which was absolutely romantic. His information was extensive, and his manner of communicating it natural and easy, excluding every idea of ostentation or arrogance.
After all, the charm of his conversation (to me at least) was the tinge of romance which pervaded his views, and which unconsciously to himself, probably, gave a poetical cast to every sentiment and opinion. It is the fashion of the day to laugh at romance, yet who is not fascinated by it when it is evidently genuine? People who dare to be romantic are becoming every day more rare. The spirit of the age, analytical and disenchanting as it is, is fast eradicating the few romantic notions that have survived till this time; and if any country bids fair to be preeminent in the tearing away of all illusion from the dull realities of life—in the systematic exaltation of the material above the ideal, I fear it is our own.
We sometimes encounter a foreigner who has brought with him the fruit of the seed sown by the lore of his infancy, and who will charm us, in spite of ourselves, into something like sympathy with his passionate estimate of the light which imagination can shed on the trials and vexations of the world; but where is the American who would not blush to be suspected of such childish, such unfashionable views?
Mons. De Tocqueville, who has of all others written of us in the kindliest as well as most profound and discriminating spirit, has not failed to perceive and to warn us of this tendency to materialism. He should perfect the good work by pointing out some great practical remedy—some counteracting power or principle by the aid of which we may apply ourselves to the cultivation of the poetical rather than the prosaic estimate of things; learn to crave the intellectual before the physical,—the beautiful with the true,—and, above all, the "believing spirit,"—lately so eloquently commended by a countryman of our own,—in preference to the skeptical, into which so many of our thinkers seem to be relapsing.
But what has all this digression to do with Mr. Sibthorpe? More than appears, perhaps; for the reminiscence of that pleasant afternoon in the muddy "timbered land" brought with it a floating idea of some of the many themes upon which our discursive talk touched; lightly enough, but so amusingly, that we could scarce believe the sun had set, when the woody way became suddenly embrowned, and the cold dew began to fall perceptibly, while we were still at some distance from our purposed resting-place.
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