Miss Tabitha's Farming

Memories and Legends of Connecticut III: Miss Tabitha's Farming  (1855) 
by Lydia Sigourney

The Ladies Repository, December 1855. Pages 725-727.

In most ages of the civilized world it has been fashionable to satirize females who have continued exempt from matrimony. Sometimes this wit, if analyzed, leaves an element of praise. A young lady is more neat or systematic than her companions, and forthwith it is prophesied she will be an "old maid;" whereas, neatness and adherence to system are among the most commendable virtues of her sex. After all, is the lot of unmarried females justly deprecated? If they miss the more tumultuous joys of life, they also escape its correlative trials. If prone to sympathy and to take part in the burdens of others, as they often are, they rank among the most excellent of the earth. Their good impulses have a better chance, from more leisure and unchecked force, of being brought into perfect action.

A clergyman from New England, who exercised for several years his sacred profession in one of our new western states, said, "I love my situation, and the frankness of our warm-hearted people; but painfully feel in my congregation the want of two important classes—hoary-headed men, with whom is experience, and unmarried females who are ever doing good to all."

The history of our own times, as well as the private record of friendship, is rich in examples of their benevolence, intellectual effort, and piety. Still licensed sarcasm pronounces them selfish, odd, and eccentric. Selfish! what human being can be more disinterested than the sister who devotes herself to aid the domestic cares and training the offspring of her nearest kindred? except the daughter, who yet more nobly gives her life as the stay and comfort of aged parents. Odd and eccentric! Do these charges mean any thing more than that, standing alone, as they do, unsheltered by husband or children, their peculiarities are made more manifest?

But let this matter be as it may, my present business is to give a few traits of one formerly belonging to this fraternity, who gloried in her condition, and its inherent independence, and, being, perhaps, suspicious of the scorn of mankind, set herself, somewhat on the Ishmaelitish principle, against them. Miss Tabitha, or, as she was occasionally rather irreverently called, Aunt Tabitha, was a lady of a certain age, by which is meant an age not to be inquired into. She guarded this sacred point with as much vigilance as the Romans their vestal fire. A very capable person was she; straight as a dart, and smart as a steel-trap, and prompt in repairing any ravage of time as the Russians at Sevastopol. If a tooth got dilapidated, suddenly appeared a new one in its place. She studied the reigning modes of apparel, and, with needle and shears, was skillful in all kinds of repair, or transmigration.

She professed a contempt of the ruling sex, and great pity for the oppression of her own, and had truly a strong fancy for managing things in her own way. Having received the gift in fee simple of a small freehold, she felt it her duty, when she first came into possession, to-assume the entire charge of it. So she dismissed the tenants, for she did not like the doings of men, and hoped to exhibit grounds taken care of as they should be. Forthwith she made war on sundry trees, and exulted over their fallen trunks like Semiramis or Boadicea.

Certain plats of long-established turf she directed to have dug up and planted. Stakes were driven, and cords stretched, and beds laid out at her bidding. Trenches and holes were excavated according to her measurement. She was determined to drop her peas and beans herself, for she hoped she had some practical knowledge, as well as these men who monopolized all the power of earth, and all the glory of it. As for gardens, she had observed they always sowed too thick or too thin. So at it she- went, with a pair of huge masculine gloves drawn over her attenuated hands. At it she went, working fast and valiantly. Out came the hot sun, and into her face mounted the color, till it seemed enveloped in a case of red flannel. In a day or two there was bitter grunting and complaining. She had gotten the crick in the back, and her doctor's bills came to more than her garden stuff would sell for.

"Aunt Tabitha," said one of the neighbor's children, "what makes your cabbages all so full of holes?" "Holes! what do you mean?" Whereat, peering sharply through an eye-glass, for she never indulged herself in spectacles, she exclaimed, "It is them villainous hens. They shall be shut up."

At sunset there was a fierce chasing by Miss Tabitha's second self—a colored woman, who, like her mistress, had been growing young for a matter of thirty years. Nearly breathless was Ebony, when she paused and announced that they were at last all locked up in the barn. After sitting in council, and taking fully into view that there was a small yard surrounded by a high fence, where the aforesaid poultry might take fresh air, and disport themselves health should demand, it was decided to keep them close prisoners of state during the remainder of the summer. This penal statute was pronounced sufficiently merciful, considering their many willful depredations.

The next morning, bright and early, some two dozen hens were seen actively scratching among the garden beds. By dint of flying and boosting the whole clumsy family had gotten over the palisades. Aunt Tabitha said something scarcely audible about joiners and a higher inclosure; but disliked to call in the aid of men, and fell back upon woman's rights, proposing to clip their wings with a large pair of shears. So the dark-browed woman—who , some of the shrewd ones said, ruled her mistress—commenced a running fight, and by sundry screeches heard within the barn, appeared to be carrying into effect the sentence of mutilation. Nevertheless, a few light, heeled, half-grown chickens eluded her pursuit, and, roosting nightly on the highest trees, contrived through the day, by hiding, dodging, and purloining, to take care of themselves and form a colony of malcontents.

Miss Tabitha had a commercial taste. She thought it one of the wrongs of her sex that men should take it upon themselves to do the buying and selling of this whole round world. Perambulating her premises to discover their affinities with the market, she fixed her choice upon certain rows of currant bushes.

"How much better they look than when men had the care of them! Not a withered spray or a yellow leaf. I know what pruning means."

The long fruit-stalks put forth abundantly; and ere the berries were as large as pin's heads she had mathematically apportioned their products, paying no attention to the antique adage of counting unhatched chickens. So many pecks she would sell for jellies, and so many for wine. And in imagination her purse was already dropsically distended with bits of silver, "current money of the merchant." But the fair leaves began strangely to shrink and blister. Worms were busy there. At first the system of excision was resorted to till the branches threatened to be left bare. Then the reddening fruit grew pale, and some of it fell to the ground, and the poultry, getting a taste, leaped up and ate the remainder.

Aunt Tabitha was a lover of turnips. She bought a quantity of seed, inquiring earnestly for the best bearers. Remembering the crick in the l back and the doctorial stuff, an Emeraldine was smuggled within the walls to sow. She designated, with an imperative air, the spaces where the seeds were to be deposited, marking each with a small stake. Soon there came a request for new supplies.

"More seed!" she exclaimed; "he has had enough to stock a farm. I shall buy no more!"

So several spots were left bare. Young Ireland could not make them hold out, and murmured as the ancient people did when told to make brick without straw. The sun shone and the showers fell, and up came the green turnips. As soon as they opened their sheaths they saw they were in evil case. The land was too strait for them, and they fell to crowding and quarreling. Some stood on each others' backs, and jostled for a place like politicians. Narrow and tall as grass blades they pushed upward into the air, having no possibility of expansion. He of the Verdant Isle was sent for and rebuked, and bade to thin the turnip patches. Whereupon he filled sundry large baskets with masses torn up at discretion, or, rather, indiscretion. And the hens, issuing surreptitiously from their retreat, seized upon the bare places with delight, and, wallowing there in temporary nests, uprooted the remainder. So there-was an end of Aunt Tabitha's turnip tops.

It so happened that - the first season of her farming was marked by a superabundance of rain. Her corn became broken-backed, and her potatoes spread out long, sickly arms, and lay sprawlingly upon the ground. She perceived that the harvest would be small; yet in this she was no worse off than her neighbors. But not to be better than they—her men-neighbors, too—there was the rub.

Though disappointed, she was too proud to repine, and trusted to another year for more brilliant prosperity. As the vernal season again approached, she resolved to devote her attention more exclusively to the culture of grass and fruits, which she thought might yield a more immediate revenue. But the soil happened not to be in a good condition to favor her first-named hope. It proved unusually propitious to the growth of burdocks and mullens. Indignantly she uprooted a quantity of these interlopers, and scattered clover-seed. Yet Nature, with obstinate partiality, fostered her wild children, and refused to nourish the exotics.

Nolens volens, outspread the tough-stalked white daisy, and the hard-wooded yellow-dock, and the hard-headed mullen, while the prickly thistle took stand in every corner, turning the edge of the mowers' scythes, and causing those who had purchased the hay in advance to demand a large discount.

But Miss Tabitha looked on her loaded fruit-trees, and found comfort. A few fine peaches had she, from which she had scrupulously removed every yellow leaf, and caused the roots to be refreshed with the soap-suds of the weekly washings. It so happened that a regimental training was to coincide felicitously with their perfect ripeness, and they were to be disposed of on very advantageous terms to a fruit vender. But other eyes it seems had taken note of them as sufficiently ripe a few nights earlier, and in the morning nothing was found but a few hard peaches on the topmost limbs, and the ground strewed with those partly eaten, mixed with quantities of the stones and trampled leaves. All search was fruitless. The only comfort was in blaming the masculine sex, who were by nature pirates and marauders.

Still Aunt Tabitha's spirit did not fail. Like a true hero, it seemed to gather strength from defeat. A plenty of apples had she. To them she turned as a last resource. To them also turned a multitude of boys for their anticipated reflection. Deep pockets, and large baskets, and dark nights favored their spoliations. They were not removed all at once, like the peaches, but by detachment. The lady of the manor would have sat up and watched, but the orchard was too distant from the house. She meditated setting man-traps, but was afraid of falling into them herself. What should she do? There was no resort but to apply to a neighboring justice of the peace. It was a shame that there were no female justices.

But he undertook her cause so zealously that some of the nimble-footed urchins failed to escape, and were brought to condign punishment. Passing then from one extreme to the other, as the mind is sometimes prone to do, she sought his advice in all her movements. She would neither plant nor harvest without his counsel. As the distance rendered it inconvenient to consult as frequently as it was deemed expedient, it was at length the mutual conclusion that the justice should transfer his residence to that of his client.

This he was the more ready to do, inasmuch as his last daughter had recently married and he was averse to a stranger-housekeeper, and thought he discovered in the lady in question some resemblance to his deceased wife. She also considered him an exception to her expressed opinion of the sex at large, and had been convinced by his arguments that the yoke matrimonial might be borne without wholly compromising the rights of women. So there was an end of Miss Tabitha's farming.

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.