A Colonial Wooing/Chapter 2

A Colonial Wooing  (1895)  by Charles Conrad Abbott
Chapter 2: New to the Neighborhood

Chapter II.

New to the Neighborhood.

Easy communication with Philadelphia, by water, had made it so practicable for the settlers of the back country, as the valley of Crosswicks Creek was then called, to procure such household articles and farm utensils as were needed, that so early as 1695 only grist-mills had as yet been established, and these were few and far between. The Indian mortars were still in common use, and he was the thriftiest settler who was the best mechanic and could most easily depend upon himself. The ordinary divisions of labor outside the village of Philadelphia were practically wanting, and so it was a decided novelty, and hailed as evidence of better days when perhaps a village would centre about some convenient point, when John Bishop and William Blake built a wheelwright-shop and smithy at a sharp bend of the winding road that led from the forest and scattered plantations of Burlington County, where it crossed the creek and continued to the river. It was a particularly pleasing feature of the neighborhood to those who were keenly bent upon acquiring an estate, because it was evidence of a steady and healthy growth of the scattered community, and it was hailed with keen delight by the descendants of those earliest settlers, English, Swedes, and Dutch, who, having provided for their few wants, were pleased to have a lounging-place; and so it came about that at Bishop and Blake's those who for the time being might be idle were soon wont to congregate.

Skilled workmen were then more prominent in the social world than now. Not that labor has ever lost its dignity, but wealth had not yet become the arrogant tyrant of to-day; and among the Friends some calling was required of every one. There was but one profession open to them, medicine, and but few had the opportunity, even if the inclination, to devote themselves thereto. To have a trade was a necessity; to be apprenticed and learn to work with hands as well as head the experience of every boy. To master the trade's secrets, to become a skilled workman, was, in short, to become a successful man; one that commanded, and deservedly so, the respect of his fellows.

Wheeled vehicles were not a prominent feature of the public roads at this time, and Bishop and Blake had but few carts to build or mend, but still they were not idle. They offered their services in every way as good mechanics, and there was enough simple furniture to be made and of miscellaneous repairing to keep their tools bright. The shop itself was a primitive affair, a long, low wooden shed, built of squared logs, and not unlike in general appearance many a dwelling in the lonely valley. There were two features, however, that appealed to every one who passed by. During summer and early autumn a superb, spreading oak near the shop door cast a welcome shade, wherein the lounger was well content to linger, and a roomy fireplace with its rude forge, that defied the most earnest efforts of winter to make the place cheerless even when storms raged without. An all-pervading evidence of welcome greeted every comer, and a stranger was hailed with demonstrations of delight. Communication with the outside world, and especially with England, was infrequent, and a letter from across the sea would often be read to those gathered under the oak, with but scanty omission of strictly private matter. Naturally every unusual occurrence among the settlers was quickly known to all, and so every prolonged conversation ultimately turned upon the future of the province.

As the warm October sunshine brings the bees and wasps to our south windows, where they busily hum and buzz as if they had the cares of the world upon their shoulders, so, this pleasant afternoon, it had brought several of the neighbors to the front of the shop, some with a purpose and, as usual, others without one. Among the former was Matthew Watson, to take away a mended tool that he had left, and as he was passing from the door he gave a disapproving glance at the little knot of idlers, as he thought them who were standing about the old oak's gnarly trunk. As these few men were quite unconscious of any impropriety in congregating as they had done, they gave no heed to Friend Watson beyond a pleasant greeting, and so were the more surprised that he should interrupt their conversation.

"Is it not most unseemly," he asked, "to idle away such precious time, when the season is so favorable for labor? Is it possible that you have no greater concern upon your minds than idle gossip?"

"I was not aware, Neighbor Watson," remarked Robert Pearson, with some excitement, "that either I or these friends were idling our own time; and what if it were true, for you have yourself said it was our own time that was passing, and so not yours," giving emphasis to the "you" and "yours" with evident satisfaction, for Robert was a churchman of a belligerent stamp.

Matthew Watson had been so successful in worldly affairs that he had become in a measure dictatorial, as is so often the case, and this unfortunate feature had gradually intensified as his views of religion became more and more pronounced. Possibly he would not have burned a church or hanged a churchman, but he would have removed them from the province to the nearest desert.

Robert Pearson had turned his back upon his neighbor when he ceased speaking, and was about resuming his conversation that had been so strangely interrupted, when it occurred to him that he would still further speak his mind, and, facing about, added, "I am as much bound by my interests to this country as you are, hold as many acres, pay as large a tax, and trust I have a right to expect as much respect from my fellows. We were talking of a project that concerns us all, that of building a draw-bridge over the creek, where the ferry now is. You know the ford was but a poor accommodation, and now the ferry is little better. A bridge would be greatly to our advantage."

"I do not know that the ferry has ever failed to bring me over safely," remarked Matthew, in a haughty tone, for his anger still glowed under the thin covering of non-resistant principles.

"Nor has it failed me; but in winter, as you know, we have to trust to the uncertain ice at times, and that was nearly an accident when the ice broke behind your cart instead of under it. Your memory is short."

"I trust it will never become as short as thy tongue is flippant," Matthew replied, and moved away.

"Do, friends, do be guarded in your conversation, lest Friend Watson take offence," exclaimed William Blake, running, bareheaded, from the shop. "He may prejudice the neighbors and so we lose their trade."

"Don't worry on that score, William," replied Robert Pearson; "the whole province is not made up of Quakers, not even this township of Chesterfield, and, thank goodness, all are not of the stamp of Matthew Watson."

"I know, I know; but, friends, I've forty pounds silver money in this venture and John has but ten, and it weighs upon me that we may not succeed."

His hearers laughed heartily at the poor fellow's fears and began teasing him, when his partner, John Bishop, walked from the shop door. The little group at once turned towards him as he approached, for he was, though a young man, one that commanded the respect of all who knew him. The influence of his presence is not readily explained. There was nothing in his manner in the nature of a demand except for that respectful treatment that all true men ask for themselves; but beyond this was a subtle something, a look, a tone, a motion, what you will, that attracted attention and excited admiration. Of medium height, properly proportioned, with delicate features, but with chin so far prominent and square as to indicate firmness, yet without a trace of obstinacy; in short, a man capable of forming an opinion, and not incapable of relinquishing it if convinced of its defectiveness. In other words, John Bishop was a superior man; one that would be looked to, if not always as a leader, at least as one to whom it is desirable to listen should he see fit to speak.

"William, thee left an iron in the fire that is far more likely to suffer than thy forty pounds." And taking the hint, John's timid partner slipped quietly back to the shop and was seen no more. Turning then to Robert Pearson, John continued, "Let us counsel patience when we have so much to do to make our community a success, and certainly anything like a quarrel is a step backward."

Robert said nothing in reply, and while it was plain that he was annoyed and took the reproof as a disguised threat, it was equally evident that he would be very slow to pick a quarrel with John Bishop, than whom there was no more peaceful man in the province, and yet none that would more promptly face danger if the necessity arose. To these gifts should be added a happy quickness of wit that grasped an awkward situation promptly and placed others at ease more quickly than their own efforts would have done. "You were talking of the ferry, I think, so let us walk down to it now, and on the spot we can better plan for the change to a bridge, if determined upon." And the group started for the creek, John Bishop and Robert Pearson taking the lead.

It was but a short distance, a small fraction of a mile, and in a few minutes these earnest men were standing on the east bank of the creek, which, after curving and twisting through the wide meadows, was here, at the ferry, narrow, rapid, and deep.