Roughing it in the Bush/Chapter IX
PHOEBE R—, AND OUR SECOND MOVINGEdit
"She died in early womanhood,
Sweet scion of a stem so rude;
A child of Nature, free from art,
With candid brow and open heart;
The flowers she loved now gently wave
Above her low and nameless grave."
It was during the month of March that Uncle Joe's eldest daughter, Phoebe, a very handsome girl, and the best of the family, fell sick. I went over to see her. The poor girl was very depressed, and stood but a slight chance for her life, being under medical treatment of three or four old women, who all recommended different treatment and administered different nostrums. Seeing that the poor girl was dangerously ill, I took her mother aside, and begged her to lose no time in procuring proper medical advice. Mrs. Joe listened to me very sullenly, and said there was no danger; that Phoebe had caught a violent cold by going hot from the wash-tub to fetch a pail of water from the spring; that the neighbours knew the nature of her complaint, and would soon cure her.
The invalid turned upon me her fine dark eyes, in which the light of fever painfully burned, and motioned me to come near her. I sat down by her, and took her burning hand in mine.
"I am dying, Mrs. Moodie, but they won't believe me. I wish you would talk to mother to send for the doctor."
"I will. Is there anything I can do for you?—anything I can make for you, that you would like to take?"
She shook her head. "I can't eat. But I want to ask you one thing, which I wish very much to know." She grasped my hand tightly between her own. Her eyes looked darker, and her feverish cheek paled. "What becomes of people when they die?"
"Good heavens!" I exclaimed involuntarily; "can you be ignorant of a future state?"
"What is a future state?"
I endeavoured, as well as I was able, to explain to her the nature of the soul, its endless duration, and responsibility to God for the actions done in the flesh; its natural depravity and need of a Saviour; urging her, in the gentlest manner, to lose no time in obtaining forgiveness of her sins, through the atoning blood of Christ.
The poor girl looked at me with surprise and horror. These things were all new to her. She sat like one in a dream; yet the truth seemed to flash upon her at once.
"How can I speak to God, who never knew Him? How can I ask Him to forgive me?"
"You must pray to him."
"Pray! I don't know how to pray. I never said a prayer in my life. Mother; can you teach me how to pray?"
"Nonsense!" said Mrs. Joe, hurrying forward. "Why should you trouble yourself about such things? Mrs. Moodie, I desire you not to put such thoughts into my daughter's head. We don't want to know anything about Jesus Christ here."
"Oh, mother, don't speak so to the lady! Do Mrs. Moodie, tell me more about God and my soul. I never knew until now that I had a soul."
Deeply compassionating the ignorance of the poor girl, in spite of the menaces of the heathen mother—for she was no better, but rather worse, seeing that the heathen worships in ignorance a false God, while this woman lived without acknowledging a God at all, and therefore considered herself free from all moral restraint—I bid Phoebe good-bye, and promised to bring my bible, and read to her the next day.
The gratitude manifested by this sick girl was such a contrast to the rudeness and brutality of the rest of the family, that I soon felt a powerful interest in her fate.
The mother did not actually forbid me the house, because she saw that my visits raised the drooping spirits of her child, whom she fiercely loved, and, to save her life, would cheerfully have sacrificed her own. But she never failed to make all the noise she could to disturb my reading and conversation with Phoebe. She could not be persuaded that her daughter was really in any danger, until the doctor told her that her case was hopeless; then the grief of the mother burst forth, and she gave way to the most frantic and impious complainings.
The rigour of the winter began to abate. The beams of the sun during the day were warm and penetrating, and a soft wind blew from the south. I watched, from day to day, the snow disappearing from the earth, with indescribable pleasure, and at length it wholly vanished; not even a solitary patch lingered under the shade of the forest trees; but Uncle Joe gave no sign of removing his family.
"Does he mean to stay all the summer?" thought I. "Perhaps he never intends going at all. I will ask him, the next time he comes to borrow whiskey."
In the afternoon he walked in to light his pipe, and, with some anxiety, I made the inquiry.
"Well, I guess we can't be moving afore the end of May. My missus expects to be confined the fore part of the month, and I shan't move till she be quite smart agin."
"You are not using us well, in keeping us out of the house so long."
"Oh, I don't care a curse about any of you. It is my house as long as I choose to remain in it, and you may put up with it the best way you can," and, humming a Yankee tune, he departed.
I had borne patiently the odious, cribbed-up place during the winter, but now the hot weather was coming, it seemed almost insupportable, as we were obliged to have a fire in the close room, in order to cook our provisions. I consoled myself as well as I could by roaming about the fields and woods, and making acquaintance with every wild flower as it blossomed, and in writing long letters to home friends, in which I abused one of the finest countries in the world as the worst that God ever called out of chaos. I can recall to memory, at this moment, the few lines of a poem which commenced in this strain; nor am I sorry that the rest of it has passed into oblivion:—
Oh! land of waters, how my spirit tires,
In the dark prison of thy boundless woods;
No rural charm poetic thought inspires,
No music murmurs in thy mighty floods;
Though vast the features that compose thy frame,
Turn where we will, the landscape's still the same.
The swampy margin of thy inland seas,
The eternal forest girdling either shore,
Its belt of dark pines sighing in the breeze,
And rugged fields, with rude huts dotted o'er,
Show cultivation unimproved by art,
That sheds a barren chillness on the heart.
How many home-sick emigrants, during their first winter in Canada, will respond to this gloomy picture! Let them wait a few years; the sun of hope will arise and beautify the landscape, and they will proclaim the country one of the finest in the world.
The middle of May at length arrived, and, by the number of long, lean women, with handkerchiefs of all colours tied over their heads, who passed my door, and swarmed into Mrs. Joe's house, I rightly concluded that another young one had been added to the tribe; and shortly after, Uncle Joe himself announced the important fact, by putting his jolly red face in at the door, and telling me, that "his missus had got a chopping boy; and he was right glad of it, for he was tired of so many gals, and that he should move in a fortnight, if his woman did kindly."
I had been so often disappointed that I paid very little heed to him, but this time he kept his word.
The LAST day of May, they went, bag and baggage, the poor sick Phoebe, who still lingered on, and the new-born infant; and right joyfully I sent a Scotch girl (another Bell, whom I had hired in lieu of her I had lost), and Monaghan, to clean out the Augean stable. In a few minutes John returned, panting his indignation.
"The house," he said, "was more filthy than a pig-sty." But that was not the worst of it, Uncle Joe, before he went, had undermined the brick chimney, and let all the water into the house. "Oh, but if he comes here agin," he continued, grinding his teeth and doubling his fist, "I'll thrash him for it. And thin, ma'am, he has girdled round all the best graft apple-trees, the murtherin' owld villain, as if it could spile his digestion our ating them."
"It would require a strong stomach to digest apple-trees, John; but never mind, it can't be helped, and we may be very thankful that these people are gone at last."
John and Bell scrubbed at the house all day, and in the evening they carried over the furniture, and I went to inspect our new dwelling.
It looked beautifully clean and neat. Bell had whitewashed all the black, smoky walls and boarded ceilings, and scrubbed the dirty window-frames, and polished the fly-spotted panes of glass, until they actually admitted a glimpse of the clear air and the blue sky. Snow-white fringed curtains, and a bed, with furniture to correspond, a carpeted floor, and a large pot of green boughs on the hearthstone, gave an air of comfort and cleanliness to a room which, only a few hours before, had been a loathsome den of filth and impurity.
This change would have been very gratifying, had not a strong, disagreeable odour almost deprived me of my breath as I entered the room. It was unlike anything I had ever smelt before, and turned me so sick and faint that I had to cling to the door-post for support.
"Where does this dreadful smell come from?"
"The guidness knows, ma'am; John and I have searched the house from the loft to the cellar, but we canna find out the cause of thae stink."
"It must be in the room, Bell; and it is impossible to remain here, or live in this house, until it is removed."
Glancing my eyes all round the place, I spied what seemed to me a little cupboard, over the mantel-shelf, and I told John to see if I was right. The lad mounted upon a chair, and pulled open a small door, but almost fell to the ground with the dreadful stench which seemed to rush from the closet.
"What is it, John?" I cried from the open door.
"A skunk! ma'am, a skunk! Shure, I thought the divil had scorched his tail, and left the grizzled hair behind him. What a strong perfume it has!" he continued, holding up the beautiful but odious little creature by the tail.
"By dad! I know all about it now. I saw Ned Layton, only two days ago, crossing the field with Uncle Joe, with his gun on his shoulder, and this wee bit baste in his hand. They were both laughing like sixty. 'Well, if this does not stink the Scotchman out of the house,' said Joe, 'I'll be contint to be tarred and feathered;' and thin they both laughed until they stopped to draw breath."
I could hardly help laughing myself; but I begged Monaghan to convey the horrid creature away, and putting some salt and sulphur into a tin plate, and setting fire to it, I placed it on the floor in the middle of the room, and closed all the doors for an hour, which greatly assisted in purifying the house from the skunkification. Bell then washed out the closet with strong ley, and in a short time no vestige remained of the malicious trick that Uncle Joe had played off upon us.
The next day, we took possession of our new mansion, and no one was better pleased with the change than little Katie. She was now fifteen months old, and could just begin to prattle, but she dared not venture to step alone, although she would stand by a chair all day, and even climb upon it. She crept from room to room, feeling and admiring everything, and talking to it in her baby language. So fond was the dear child of flowers, that her father used to hold her up to the apple-trees, then rich in their full spring beauty, that she might kiss the blossoms. She would pat them with her soft white hands, murmuring like a bee among the branches. To keep her quiet whilst I was busy, I had only to give her a bunch of wild flowers. She would sit as still as a lamb, looking first at one and then another, pressing them to her little breast in a sort of ecstacy, as if she comprehended the worth of this most beautiful of God's gifts to man.
She was a sweet, lovely flower herself, and her charming infant graces reconciled me, more than aught else, to a weary lot. Was she not purely British? Did not her soft blue eyes, and sunny curls, and bright rosy cheeks for ever remind me of her Saxon origin, and bring before me dear forms and faces I could never hope to behold again?
The first night we slept in the new house, a demon of unrest had taken possession of it in the shape of a countless swarm of mice. They scampered over our pillows, and jumped upon our faces, squeaking and cutting a thousand capers over the floor. I never could realise the true value of Whittington's invaluable cat until that night. At first we laughed until our sides ached, but in reality it was no laughing matter. Moodie remembered that we had left a mouse-trap in the old house; he went and brought it over, baited it, and set it on the table near the bed. During the night no less than fourteen of the provoking vermin were captured; and for several succeeding nights the trap did equal execution. How Uncle Joe's family could have allowed such a nuisance to exist astonished me; to sleep with these creatures continually running over us was impossible; and they were not the only evils in the shape of vermin we had to contend with. The old logs which composed the walls of the house were full of bugs and large black ants; and the place, owing to the number of dogs that always had slept under the beds with the children, was infested with fleas. It required the utmost care to rid the place of these noisome and disgusting tenants.
Arriving in the country in the autumn, we had never experienced any inconvenience from the mosquitoes, but after the first moist, warm spring days, particularly after the showers, these tormenting insects annoyed us greatly. The farm, lying in a valley cut up with little streams in every direction, made us more liable to their inflictions. The hands, arms, and face of the poor babe were covered every morning with red inflamed bumps, which often threw out blisters.
The banks of the little streams abounded with wild strawberries, which, although small, were of a delicious flavour. Thither Bell and I, and the baby, daily repaired to gather the bright red berries of Nature's own providing. Katie, young as she was, was very expert at helping herself, and we used to seat her in the middle of a fine bed, whilst we gathered farther on. Hearing her talking very lovingly to something in the grass, which she tried to clutch between her white hands, calling it "Pitty, pitty;" I ran to the spot, and found that it was a large garter-snake that she was so affectionately courting to her embrace. Not then aware that this formidable-looking reptile was perfectly harmless, I snatched the child up in my arms, and ran with her home; never stopping until I gained the house, and saw her safely seated in her cradle.
It had been a very late, cold spring, but the trees had fully expanded into leaf, and the forest world was glorious in its beauty. Every patch of cleared land presented a vivid green to the eye; the brook brawled in the gay sunshine, and the warm air was filled with soft murmurs. Gorgeous butterflies floated about like winged flowers, and feelings allied to poetry and gladness once more pervaded my heart. In the evening we wandered through the woodland paths, beneath the glowing Canadian sunset, and gathered rare specimens of strange plants and flowers. Every object that met my eyes was new to me, and produced that peculiar excitement which has its origin in a thirst for knowledge, and a love of variety.
We had commenced gardening, too, and my vegetables did great credit to my skill and care; and, when once the warm weather sets in, the rapid advance of vegetation in Canada is astonishing.
Not understanding much about farming, especially in a climate like Canada, Moodie was advised by a neighbouring settler to farm his farm upon shares. This advice seemed very reasonable; and had it been given disinterestedly, and had the persons recommended (a man and his wife) been worthy or honest people, we might have done very well. But the farmer had found out their encroaching ways, was anxious to get rid of them himself, and saw no better way of doing so than by palming them upon us.
From our engagement with these people commenced that long series of losses and troubles to which their conduct formed the prelude. They were to live in the little shanty that we had just left, and work the farm. Moodie was to find them the land, the use of his implements and cattle, and all the seed for the crops; and to share with them the returns. Besides this, they unfortunately were allowed to keep their own cows, pigs, and poultry. The produce of the orchard, with which they had nothing to do, was reserved for our own use.
For the first few weeks, they were civil and obliging enough; and had the man been left to himself, I believe we should have done pretty well; but the wife was a coarse-minded, bold woman, who instigated him to every mischief. They took advantage of us in every way they could, and were constantly committing petty depredations.
From our own experience of this mode of farming, I would strenuously advise all new settlers never to embrace any such offer, without they are well acquainted with the parties, and can thoroughly rely upon their honesty; or else, like Mrs. O—, they may impudently tell you that they can cheat you as they please, and defy you to help yourself. All the money we expended upon the farm was entirely for these people's benefit, for by their joint contrivances very little of the crops fell to our share; and when any division was made, it was always when Moodie was absent from home; and there was no person present to see fair play. They sold what apples and potatoes they pleased, and fed their hogs ad libitum. But even their roguery was more tolerable than the irksome restraint which their near vicinity, and constantly having to come in contact with them, imposed. We had no longer any privacy, our servants were cross-questioned, and our family affairs canvassed by these gossiping people, who spread about a thousand falsehoods regarding us. I was so much disgusted with this shareship, that I would gladly have given them all the proceeds of the farm to get rid of them, but the bargain was for twelve months, and bad as it was, we could not break our engagement.
One little trick of this woman's will serve to illustrate her general conduct. A neighbouring farmer's wife had presented me with some very pretty hens, who followed to the call of old Betty Fye's handsome game-cock. I was always fond of fowls, and the innocent Katie delighted in her chicks, and would call them round her to the sill of the door to feed from her hand. Mrs. O— had the same number as I had, and I often admired them when marshalled forth by her splendid black rooster. One morning I saw her eldest son chop off the head of the fine bird; and I asked his mother why she had allowed him to kill the beautiful creature. She laughed, and merely replied that she wanted it for the pot. The next day my sultan walked over to the widowed hens, and took all his seraglio with him. From that hour I never gathered a single egg; the hens deposited all their eggs in Mrs. O—'s hen-house. She used to boast of this as an excellent joke among her neighbours.
On the 9th of June, my dear little Agnes was born. A few days after this joyful event, I heard a great bustle in the room adjoining to mine, and old Dolly Rowe, my Cornish nurse, informed me that it was occasioned by the people who came to attend the funeral of Phoebe R—. She only survived the removal of the family a week; and at her own request had been brought all the way from the — lake plains to be interred in the burying ground on the hill which overlooked the stream.
As I lay upon my pillow I could distinctly see the spot, and mark the long funeral procession, as it wound along the banks of the brook. It was a solemn and imposing spectacle, that humble funeral. When the waggons reached the rude enclosure, the coffin was carefully lifted to the ground, the door in the lid opened, and old and young approached, one after another, to take a last look at the dead, before consigning her to the oblivion of the grave.
Poor Phoebe! Gentle child, of coarse, unfeeling parents, few shed more sincerely a tear for thy early fate than the stranger whom they hated and despised. Often have I stood beside that humble mound, when the song of the lark was above me, and the bee murmuring at my feet, and thought that it was well for thee that God opened the eyes of thy soul, and called thee out of the darkness of ignorance and sin to glory in His marvellous light. Sixteen years have passed away since I heard anything of the family, or what had become of them, when I was told by a neighbour of theirs, whom I accidentally met last winter, that the old woman, who now nearly numbers a hundred years, is still living, and inhabits a corner of her son's barn, as she still quarrels too much with his wife to reside with Joe; that the girls are all married and gone; and that Joe himself, although he does not know a letter, has commenced travelling preacher. After this, who can doubt the existence of miracles in the nineteenth century?
THE FAITHFUL HEART THAT LOVES THEE STILLEdit
I kneel beside the cold grey stone
That tells me, dearest, thou art gone
To realms more bless'd—and left me still
To struggle with this world of ill.
But oft from out the silent mound
Delusive fancy breathes a sound;
My pent-up heart within me burns,
And all the blessed past returns.
Thy form is present to mine eye,
Thy voice is whispering in mine ear,
The love that spake in days gone by;
And rapture checks the starting tear.
Thy deathless spirit wakes to fill
The faithful heart that loves thee still.
For thee the day's bright glow is o'er,
And summer's roses bloom no more;
The song of birds in twilight bowers,
The breath of spring's delicious flowers,
The towering wood and mountain height,
The glorious pageantry of night;
Which fill'd thy soul with musings high,
And lighted up thy speaking eye;
The mournful music of the wave
Can never reach thy lonely grave.
Thou dost but sleep! It cannot be
That ardent heart is silent now—
That death's dark door has closed on thee;
And made thee cold to all below.
Ah, no! the flame death could not chill,
Thy tender love survives thee still.
That love within my breast enshrined,
In death alone shall be resign'd;
And when the eve, thou lovest so well,
Pours on my soul its soothing spell,
I leave the city's busy scene
To seek thy dwelling, cold and green,—
In quiet sadness here to shed
Love's sacred tribute o'er the dead—
To dream again of days gone by,
And hold sweet converse here with thee;
In the soft air to feel thy sigh,
Whilst winds and waters answer me.
Yes!—though resign'd to Heaven's high will,
My joy shall be to love thee still!