Roughing it in the Bush/Chapter VII
UNCLE JOE AND HIS FAMILYEdit
"Ay, your rogue is a laughing rogue, and not a whit the less
dangerous for the smile on his lip, which comes not from an
honest heart, which reflects the light of the soul through
the eye. All is hollow and dark within; and the contortion
of the lip, like the phosophoric glow upon decayed timber,
only serves to point out the rotteness within."
Uncle Joe! I see him now before me, with his jolly red face, twinkling black eyes, and rubicund nose. No thin, weasel-faced Yankee was he, looking as if he had lived upon 'cute ideas and speculations all his life; yet Yankee he was by birth, ay, and in mind, too; for a more knowing fellow at a bargain never crossed the lakes to abuse British institutions and locate himself comfortably among despised Britishers. But, then, he had such a good-natured, fat face, such a mischievous, mirth-loving smile, and such a merry, roguish expression in those small, jet-black, glittering eyes, that you suffered yourself to be taken in by him, without offering the least resistance to his impositions.
Uncle Joe's father had been a New England loyalist, and his doubtful attachment to the British government had been repaid by a grant of land in the township of H—. He was the first settler in that township, and chose his location in a remote spot, for the sake of a beautiful natural spring, which bubbled up in a small stone basin in the green bank at the back of the house.
"Father might have had the pick of the township," quoth Uncle Joe; "but the old coon preferred that sup of good water to the site of a town. Well, I guess it's seldom I trouble the spring; and whenever I step that way to water the horses, I think what a tarnation fool the old one was, to throw away such a chance of making his fortune, for such cold lap."
"Your father was a temperance man?"
"Temperance!—He had been fond enough of the whiskey bottle in his day. He drank up a good farm in the United States, and then he thought he could not do better than turn loyal, and get one here for nothing. He did not care a cent, not he, for the King of England. He thought himself as good, any how. But he found that he would have to work hard here to scratch along, and he was mightily plagued with the rheumatics, and some old woman told him that good spring water was the best cure for that; so he chose this poor, light, stony land on account of the spring, and took to hard work and drinking cold water in his old age."
"How did the change agree with him?"
"I guess better than could have been expected. He planted that fine orchard, and cleared his hundred acres, and we got along slick enough as long as the old fellow lived."
"And what happened after his death, that obliged you to part with your land?"
"Bad times—bad crops," said Uncle Joe, lifting his shoulders. "I had not my father's way of scraping money together. I made some deuced clever speculations, but they all failed. I married young, and got a large family; and the women critters ran up heavy bills at the stores, and the crops did not yield enough to pay them; and from bad we got to worse, and Mr. C— put in an execution, and seized upon the whole concern. He sold it to your man for double what it cost him; and you got all that my father toiled for during the last twenty years of his life for less than half the cash he laid out upon clearing it."
"And had the whiskey nothing to do with this change?" said I, looking him in the face suspiciously.
"Not a bit! When a man gets into difficulties, it is the only thing to keep him from sinking outright. When your husband has had as many troubles as I have had, he will know how to value the whiskey bottle."
This conversation was interrupted by a queer-looking urchin of five years old, dressed in a long-tailed coat and trousers, popping his black shock head in at the door, and calling out,
"Uncle Joe!—You're wanted to hum."
"Is that your nephew?"
"No! I guess 'tis my woman's eldest son," said Uncle Joe, rising, "but they call me Uncle Joe. 'Tis a spry chap that—as cunning as a fox. I tell you what it is—he will make a smart man. Go home, Ammon, and tell your ma that I am coming."
"I won't," said the boy; "you may go hum and tell her yourself. She has wanted wood cut this hour, and you'll catch it!"
Away ran the dutiful son, but not before he had applied his forefinger significantly to the side of his nose, and, with a knowing wink, pointed in the direction of home.
Uncle Joe obeyed the signal, drily remarking that he could not leave the barn door without the old hen clucking him back.
At this period we were still living in Old Satan's log house, and anxiously looking out for the first snow to put us in possession of the good substantial log dwelling occupied by Uncle Joe and his family, which consisted of a brown brood of seven girls, and the highly-prized boy who rejoiced in the extraordinary name of Ammon.
Strange names are to be found in this free country. What think you, gentle reader, of Solomon Sly, Reynard Fox, and Hiram Dolittle and Prudence Fidget; all veritable names, and belonging to substantial yeomen? After Ammon and Ichabod, I should not be at all surprised to meet with Judas Iscariot, Pilate, and Herod. And then the female appellations! But the subject is a delicate one and I will forbear to touch upon it. I have enjoyed many a hearty laugh over the strange affectations which people designate here very handsome names. I prefer the old homely Jewish names, such as that which it pleased my godfather and godmothers to bestow upon me, to one of those high-sounding christianities, the Minervas, Cinderellas, and Almerias of Canada. The love of singular names is here carried to a marvellous extent. It is only yesterday that, in passing through one busy village, I stopped in astonishment before a tombstone headed thus: "Sacred to the memory of Silence Sharman, the beloved wife of Asa Sharman." Was the woman deaf and dumb, or did her friends hope by bestowing upon her such an impossible name to still the voice of Nature, and check, by an admonitory appellative, the active spirit that lives in the tongue of woman? Truly, Asa Sharman, if thy wife was silent by name as well as by nature, thou wert a fortunate man!
But to return to Uncle Joe. He made many fair promises of leaving the residence we had bought, the moment he had sold his crops and could remove his family. We could see no interest which could be served by his deceiving us, and therefore we believed him, striving to make ourselves as comfortable as we could in the meantime in our present wretched abode. But matters are never so bad but that they may be worse. One day when we were at dinner, a waggon drove up to the door, and Mr. — alighted, accompanied by a fine-looking, middle-aged man, who proved to be Captain S—, who had just arrived from Demarara with his wife and family. Mr. —, who had purchased the farm of Old Satan, had brought Captain S— over to inspect the land, as he wished to buy a farm, and settle in that neighbourhood. With some difficulty I contrived to accommodate the visitors with seats, and provide them with a tolerable dinner. Fortunately, Moodie had brought in a brace of fine fat partridges that morning; these the servant transferred to a pot of boiling water, in which she immersed them for the space of a minute—a novel but very expeditious way of removing the feathers, which then come off at the least touch. In less than ten minutes they were stuffed, trussed, and in the bake-kettle; and before the gentlemen returned from walking over the farm, the dinner was on the table.
To our utter consternation, Captain S— agreed to purchase, and asked if we could give him possession in a week!
"Good heavens!" cried I, glancing reproachfully at Mr. —, who was discussing his partridge with stoical indifference. "What will become of us? Where are we to go?"
"Oh, make yourself easy; I will force that old witch, Joe's mother, to clear out."
"But 'tis impossible to stow ourselves into that pig-sty."
"It will only be for a week or two, at farthest. This is October; Joe will be sure to be off by the first of sleighing."
"But if she refuses to give up the place?"
"Oh, leave her to me. I'll talk her over," said the knowing land speculator. "Let it come to the worst," he said, turning to my husband, "she will go out for the sake of a few dollars. By-the-by, she refused to bar the dower when I bought the place; we must cajole her out of that. It is a fine afternoon; suppose we walk over the hill, and try our luck with the old nigger?"
I felt so anxious about the result of the negotiation, that, throwing my cloak over my shoulders, and tying on my bonnet without the assistance of a glass, I took my husband's arm, and we walked forth.
It was a bright, clear afternoon, the first week in October, and the fading woods, not yet denuded of their gorgeous foliage, glowed in a mellow, golden light. A soft purple haze rested on the bold outline of the Haldimand hills, and in the rugged beauty of the wild landscape I soon forgot the purport of our visit to the old woman's log hut.
On reaching the ridge of the hill, the lovely valley in which our future home lay smiled peacefully upoon us from amidst its fruitful orchards, still loaded with their rich, ripe fruit.
"What a pretty place it is!" thought I, for the first time feeling something like a local interest in the spot, springing up in my heart. "How I wish those odious people would give us possession of the home which for some time has been our own."
The log hut that we were approaching, and in which the old woman, R—, resided by herself—having quarrelled years ago with her son's wife—was of the smallest dimensions, only containing one room, which served the old dame for kitchen, and bed-room, and all. The open door, and a few glazed panes, supplied it with light and air; while a huge hearth, on which crackled two enormous logs—which are technically termed a front and a back stick—took up nearly half the domicile; and the old woman's bed, which was covered with an unexceptionally clean patched quilt, nearly the other half, leaving just room for a small home-made deal table, of the rudest workmanship, two basswood-bottomed chairs, stained red, one of which was a rocking-chair, appropiated solely to the old woman's use, and a spinning wheel. Amidst this muddle of things—for small as was the quantum of furniture, it was all crowded into such a tiny space that you had to squeeze your way through it in the best manner you could—we found the old woman, with a red cotton handkerchief tied over her grey locks, hood-fashion, shelling white bush-beans into a wooden bowl. Without rising from her seat, she pointed to the only remaining chair. "I guess, miss, you can sit there; and if the others can't stand, they can make a seat of my bed."
The gentlemen assured her that they were not tired, and could dispense with seats. Mr. — then went up to the old woman, and proffering his hand, asked after her health in his blandest manner.
"I'm none the better for seeing you, or the like of you," was the ungracious reply. "You have cheated my poor boy out of his good farm; and I hope it may prove a bad bargain to you and yours."
"Mrs. R—," returned the land speculator, nothing ruffled by her unceremonious greeting, "I could not help your son giving way to drink, and getting into my debt. If people will be so imprudent, they cannot be so stupid as to imagine that others can suffer for their folly."
"Suffer!" repeated the old woman, flashing her small, keen black eyes upon him with a glance of withering scorn. "You suffer! I wonder what the widows and orphans you have cheated would say to that? My son was a poor, weak, silly fool, to be sucked in by the like of you. For a debt of eight hundred dollars—the goods never cost you four hundred—you take from us our good farm; and these, I s'pose," pointing to my husband and me, "are the folk you sold it to. Pray, miss," turning quickly to me, "what might your man give for the place?"
"Three hundred pounds in cash."
"Poor sufferer!" again sneered the hag. "Four hundred dollars is a very SMALL profit in as many weeks. Well, I guess, you beat the Yankees hollow. And pray, what brought you here to-day, scenting about you like a carrion-crow? We have no more land for you to seize from us."
Moodie now stepped forward, and briefly explained our situation, offering the old woman anything in reason to give up the cottage and reside with her son until he removed from the premises; which, he added, must be in a very short time.
The old dame regarded him with a sarcastic smile. "I guess, Joe will take his own time. The house is not built which is to receive him; and he is not a man to turn his back upon a warm hearth to camp in the wilderness. You were GREEN when you bought a farm of that man, without getting along with it the right of possession."
"But, Mrs. R—, your son promised to go out the first of sleighing."
"Wheugh!" said the old woman. "Would you have a man give away his hat and leave his own head bare? It's neither the first snow nor the last frost that will turn Joe out of his comfortable home. I tell you all that he will stay here, if it is only to plague you."
Threats and remonstrances were alike useless, the old woman remained inexorable; and we were just turning to leave the house, when the cunning old fox exclaimed, "And now, what will you give me to leave my place?"
"Twelve dollars, if you give us possession next Monday," said my husband.
"Twelve dollars! I guess you won't get me out for that."
"The rent would not be worth more than a dollar a month," said Mr. —, pointing with his cane to the dilapidated walls. "Mr. Moodie has offered you a year's rent for the place."
"It may not be worth a cent," returned the woman; "for it will give everybody the rheumatism that stays a week in it—but it is worth that to me, and more nor double that just now to him. But I will not be hard with him," continued she, rocking herself to and fro. "Say twenty dollars, and I will turn out on Monday."
"I dare say you will," said Mr. —, "and who do you think would be fool enough to give you such an exorbitant sum for a ruined old shed like this?"
"Mind your own business, and make your own bargains," returned the old woman, tartly. "The devil himself could not deal with you, for I guess he would have the worst of it. What do you say, sir?" and she fixed her keen eyes upon my husband, as if she would read his thoughts. "Will you agree to my price?"
"It is a very high one, Mrs. R—; but as I cannot help myself, and you take advantage of that, I suppose I must give it."
"'Tis a bargain," cried the old crone, holding out her hard, bony hand. "Come, cash down!"
"Not until you give me possession on Monday next; or you might serve me as your son has done."
"Ha!" said the old woman, laughing and rubbing her hands together; "you begin to see daylight, do you? In a few months, with the help of him," pointing to Mr. —, "you will be able to go alone; but have a care of your teacher, for it's no good that you will learn from him. But will you really stand to your word, mister?" she added, in a coaxing tone, "if I go out on Monday?"
"To be sure I will; I never break my word."
"Well, I guess you are not so clever as our people, for they only keep it as long as it suits them. You have an honest look; I will trust you; but I will not trust him," nodding to Mr. —, "he can buy and sell his word as fast as a horse can trot. So on Monday I will turn out my traps. I have lived here six-and-thirty years; 'tis a pretty place and it vexes me to leave it," continued the poor creature, as a touch of natural feeling softened and agitated her world-hardened heart. "There is not an acre in cultivation but I helped to clear it, nor a tree in yonder orchard but I held it while my poor man, who is dead and gone, planted it; and I have watched the trees bud from year to year, until their boughs overshadowed the hut, where all my children, but Joe, were born. Yes, I came here young, and in my prime; and I must leave it in age and poverty. My children and husband are dead, and their bones rest beneath the turf in the burying-ground on the side of the hill. Of all that once gathered about my knees, Joe and his young ones alone remain. And it is hard, very hard, that I must leave their graves to be turned by the plough of a stranger."
I felt for the desolate old creature—the tears rushed to my eyes; but there was no moisture in hers. No rain from the heart could filter through that iron soil.
"Be assured, Mrs. R—," said Moodie, "that the dead will be held sacred; the place will never be disturbed by me."
"Perhaps not; but it is not long that you will remain here. I have seen a good deal in my time; but I never saw a gentleman from the old country make a good Canadian farmer. The work is rough and hard, and they get out of humour with it, and leave it to their hired helps, and then all goes wrong. They are cheated on all sides, and in despair take to the whiskey bottle, and that fixes them. I tell you what it is, mister—I give you just three years to spend your money and ruin yourself; and then you will become a confirmed drunkard, like the rest."
The first part of her prophecy was only too true. Thank God! the last has never been fulfilled, and never can be.
Perceiving that the old woman was not a little elated with her bargain, Mr. — urged upon her the propriety of barring the dower. At first, she was outrageous, and very abusive, and rejected all his proposals with contempt; vowing that she would meet him in a certain place below, before she would sign away her right to the property.
"Listen to reason, Mrs. R—," said the land speculator. "If you will sign the papers before the proper authorities, the next time your son drives you to C—, I will give you a silk gown."
"Pshaw! Buy a shroud for yourself; you will need it before I want a silk gown," was the ungracious reply.
"Consider woman; a black silk of the best quality."
"To mourn in for my sins, or for the loss of the farm?"
"Twelve yards," continued Mr. —, without noticing her rejoinder, "at a dollar a yard. Think what a nice church-going gown it will make."
"To the devil with you! I never go to church."
"I thought as much," said Mr. —, winking to us. "Well, my dear madam, what will satisfy you?"
"I'll do it for twenty dollars," returned the old woman, rocking herself to and fro in her chair; her eyes twinkling, and her hands moving convulsively, as if she already grasped the money so dear to her soul.
"Agreed," said the land speculator. "When will you be in town?"
"On Tuesday, if I be alive. But, remember, I'll not sign till I have my hand on the money."
"Never fear," said Mr. —, as we quitted the house; then, turning to me, he added, with a peculiar smile," That's a devilish smart woman. She would have made a clever lawyer."
Monday came, and with it all the bustle of moving, and, as is generally the case on such occasions, it turned out a very wet day. I left Old Satan's hut without regret, glad, at any rate, to be in a place of my own, however humble. Our new habitation, though small, had a decided advantage over the one we were leaving. It stood on a gentle slope; and a narrow but lovely stream, full of pretty speckled trout, ran murmuring under the little window; the house, also, was surrounded by fine fruit trees.
I know not how it was, but the sound of that tinkling brook, for ever rolling by, filled my heart with a strange melancholy, which for many nights deprived me of rest. I loved it, too. The voice of waters, in the stillness of night, always had an extraordinary effect upon my mind. Their ceaseless motion and perpetual sound convey to me the idea of life—eternal life; and looking upon them, glancing and flashing on, now in sunshine, now in shade, now hoarsely chiding with the opposing rock, now leaping triumphantly over it, creates within me a feeling of mysterious awe of which I never could wholly divest myself.
A portion of my own spirit seemed to pass into that little stream. In its deep wailings and fretful sighs, I fancied myself lamenting for the land I had left for ever; and its restless and impetuous rushings against the stones which choked its passage, were mournful types of my own mental struggles against the destiny which hemmed me in. Through the day the stream still moaned and travelled on,—but, engaged in my novel and distasteful occupations, I heard it not; but whenever my winged thoughts flew homeward, then the voice of the brook spoke deeply and sadly to my heart, and my tears flowed unchecked to its plaintive and harmonious music.
In a few hours I had my new abode more comfortably arranged than the old, although its dimensions were much smaller. The location was beautiful, and I was greatly consoled by this circumstance. The aspect of Nature ever did, and I hope ever will continue—
"To shoot marvellous strength into my heart."
As long as we remain true to the Divine Mother, so long will she remain faithful to her suffering children.
At that period my love for Canada was a feeling very nearly allied to that which the condemned criminal entertains for his cell—his only hope of escape being through the portals of the grave.
The fall rains had commenced. In a few days the cold wintry showers swept all the gorgeous crimson from the trees; and a bleak and desolate waste presented itself to the shuddering spectator. But, in spite of wind and rain, my little tenement was never free from the intrusion of Uncle Joe's wife and children. Their house stood about a stone's-throw from the hut we occupied, in the same meadow, and they seemed to look upon it still as their own, although we had literally paid for it twice over. Fine strapping girls they were, from five years old to fourteen, but rude and unnurtured as so many bears. They would come in without the least ceremony, and, young as they were, ask me a thousand impertinent questions; and when I civilly requested them to leave the room, they would range themselves upon the door-step, watching my motions, with their black eyes gleaming upon me through their tangled, uncombed locks. Their company was a great annoyance, for it obliged me to put a painful restraint upon the thoughtfulness in which it was so delightful to me to indulge. Their visits were not visits of love, but of mere idle curiosity, not unmingled with malicious pleasure at my awkward attempts at Canadian house-wifieries.
The simplicity, the fond, confiding faith of childhood is unknown in Canada. There are no children here. The boy is a miniature man—knowing, keen, and wide awake; as able to drive a bargain and take an advantage of his juvenile companion as the grown-up, world-hardened man. The girl, a gossipping flirt, full of vanity and affectation, with a premature love of finery, and an acute perception of the advantages to be derived from wealth, and from keeping up a certain appearance in the world.
The flowers, the green grass, the glorious sunshine, the birds of the air, and the young lambs gambolling down the verdant slopes, which fill the heart of a British child with a fond ecstacy, bathing the young spirit in Elysium, would float unnoticed before the vision of a Canadian child; while the sight of a dollar, or a new dress, or a gay bonnet, would swell its proud bosom with self-importance and delight. The glorious blush of modest diffidence, the tear of gentle sympathy, are so rare on the cheek, or in the eye of the young, that their appearance creates a feeling of surprise. Such perfect self-reliance in beings so new to the world is painful to a thinking mind. It betrays a great want of sensibility and mental culture, and a melancholy knowledge of the arts of life.
For a week I was alone, my good Scotch girl having left me to visit her father. Some small baby-articles were needed to be washed, and after making a great preparation, I determined to try my unskilled hand upon the operation. The fact is, I knew nothing about the task I had imposed upon myself, and in a few minutes rubbed the skin off my wrists, without getting the clothes clean.
The door was open, as it generally was, even during the coldest winter days, in order to let in more light, and let out the smoke, which otherwise would have enveloped us like a cloud. I was so busy that I did not perceive that I was watched by the cold, heavy, dark eyes of Mrs. Joe, who, with a sneering laugh, exclaimed—
"Well, thank God! I am glad to see you brought to work at last. I hope you may have to work as hard as I have. I don't see, not I, why you, who are no better than me, should sit still all day, like a lady!"
"Mrs. R—," said I, not a little annoyed at her presence, "what concern is it of yours whether I work or sit still? I never interfere with you. If you took it into your head to lie in bed all day, I should never trouble myself about it."
"Ah, I guess you don't look upon us as fellow-critters, you are so proud and grand. I s'pose you Britishers are not made of flesh and blood like us. You don't choose to sit down at meat with your helps. Now, I calculate, we think them a great deal better nor you."
"Of course," said I, "they are more suited to you than we are; they are uneducated, and so are you. This is no fault in either; but it might teach you to pay a little more respect to those who are possessed of superior advantages. But, Mrs. R—, my helps, as you call them, are civil and obliging, and never make unprovoked and malicious speeches. If they could so far forget themselves, I should order them to leave the house."
"Oh, I see what you are up to," replied the insolent dame; "you mean to say that if I were your help you would turn me out of your house; but I'm a free-born American, and I won't go at your bidding. Don't think I came here out of regard to you. No, I hate you all; and I rejoice to see you at the wash-tub, and I wish that you may be brought down upon your knees to scrub the floors."
This speech only caused a smile, and yet I felt hurt and astonished that a woman whom I had never done anything to offend should be so gratuitously spiteful.
In the evening she sent two of her brood over to borrow my "long iron," as she called an Italian iron. I was just getting my baby to sleep, sitting upon a low stool by the fire. I pointed to the iron upon the shelf, and told the girl to take it. She did so, but stood beside me, holding it carelessly in her hand, and staring at the baby, who had just sunk to sleep upon my lap.
The next moment the heavy iron fell from her relaxed grasp, giving me a severe blow upon my knee and foot; and glanced so near the child's head that it drew from me a cry of terror.
"I guess that was nigh braining the child," quoth Miss Amanda, with the greatest coolness, and without making the least apology. Master Ammon burst into a loud laugh. "If it had, Mandy, I guess we'd have cotched it." Provoked at their insolence, I told them to leave the house. The tears were in my eyes, for I felt that had they injured the child, it would not have caused them the least regret.
The next day, as we were standing at the door, my husband was greatly amused by seeing fat Uncle Joe chasing the rebellious Ammon over the meadow in front of the house. Joe was out of breath, panting and puffing like a small steam-engine, and his face flushed to deep red with excitement and passion. "You — young scoundrel!" he cried, half choked with fury, "If I catch up to you, I'll take the skin off you!"
"You — old scoundrel, you may have my skin if you can get at me," retorted the precocious child, as he jumped up upon the top of the high fence, and doubled his fist in a menacing manner at his father.
"That boy is growing too bad," said Uncle Joe, coming up to us out of breath, the perspiration streaming down his face. "It is time to break him in, or he'll get the master of us all."
"You should have begun that before," said Moodie. "He seems a hopeful pupil."
"Oh, as to that, a little swearing is manly," returned the father; "I swear myself, I know, and as the old cock crows, so crows the young one. It is not his swearing that I care a pin for, but he will not do a thing I tell him to."
"Swearing is a dreadful vice," said I, "and, wicked as it is in the mouth of a grown-up person, it is perfectly shocking in a child; it painfully tells he has been brought up without the fear of God."
"Pooh! pooh! that's all cant; there is no harm in a few oaths, and I cannot drive oxen and horses without swearing. I dare say that you can swear too when you are riled, but you are too cunning to let us hear you."
I could not help laughing outright at this supposition, but replied very quietly, "Those who practice such iniquities never take any pains to conceal them. The concealment would infer a feeling of shame; and when people are conscious of the guilt, they are in the road to improvement." The man walked whistling away, and the wicked child returned unpunished to his home.
The next minute the old woman came in. "I guess you can give me a piece of silk for a hood," said she, "the weather is growing considerable cold."
"Surely it cannot well be colder than it is at present," said I, giving her the rocking-chair by the fire.
"Wait a while; you know nothing of a Canadian winter. This is only November; after the Christmas thaw, you'll know something about the cold. It is seven-and-thirty years ago since I and my man left the U-ni-ted States. It was called the year of the great winter. I tell you, woman, that the snow lay so deep on the earth, that it blocked up all the roads, and we could drive a sleigh whither we pleased, right over the snake fences. All the cleared land was one wide white level plain; it was a year of scarcity, and we were half starved; but the severe cold was far worse nor the want of provisions. A long and bitter journey we had of it; but I was young then, and pretty well used to trouble and fatigue; my man stuck to the British government. More fool he! I was an American born, and my heart was with the true cause. But his father was English, and, says he, 'I'll live and die under their flag.' So he dragged me from my comfortable fireside to seek a home in the far Canadian wilderness. Trouble! I guess you think you have your troubles; but what are they to mine?" She paused, took a pinch of snuff, offered me the box, sighed painfully, pushed the red handkerchief from her high, narrow, wrinkled brow, and continued: "Joe was a baby then, and I had another helpless critter in my lap—an adopted child. My sister had died from it, and I was nursing it at the same breast with my boy. Well, we had to perform a journey of four hundred miles in an ox-cart, which carried, besides me and the children, all our household stuff. Our way lay chiefly through the forest, and we made but slow progress. Oh! what a bitter cold night it was when we reached the swampy woods where the city of Rochester now stands. The oxen were covered with icicles, and their breath sent up clouds of steam. 'Nathan,' says I to my man, 'you must stop and kindle a fire; I am dead with cold, and I fear the babes will be frozen.' We began looking about for a good spot to camp in, when I spied a light through the trees. It was a lone shanty, occupied by two French lumberers. The men were kind; they rubbed our frozen limbs with snow, and shared with us their supper and buffalo skins. On that very spot where we camped that night, where we heard nothing but the wind soughing amongst the trees, and the rushing of the river, now stands the great city of Rochester. I went there two years ago, to the funeral of a brother. It seemed to me like a dream. Where we foddered our beasts by the shanty fire now stands the largest hotel in the city; and my husband left this fine growing country to starve here."
I was so much interested in the old woman's narrative—for she was really possessed of no ordinary capacity, and, though rude and uneducated might have been a very superior person under different circumstances—that I rummaged among my store, and soon found a piece of black silk, which I gave her for the hood she required.
The old woman examined it carefully over, smiled to herself, but, like all her people, was too proud to return a word of thanks. One gift to the family always involved another.
"Have you any cotton-batting, or black sewing-silk, to give me, to quilt it with?"
"Humph!" returned the old dame, in a tone which seemed to contradict my assertion. She then settled herself in her chair, and, after shaking her foot awhile, and fixing her piercing eyes upon me for some minutes, she commenced the following list of interrogatories:—
"Is your father alive?"
"No; he died many years ago, when I was a young girl."
"Is your mother alive?"
"What is her name?" I satisfied her on this point.
"Did she ever marry again?"
"She might have done so, but she loved her husband too well, and preferred living single."
"Humph! We have no such notions here. What was your father?"
"A gentleman, who lived upon his own estate."
"Did he die rich?"
"He lost the greater part of his property from being surety for another."
"That's a foolish business. My man burnt his fingers with that. And what brought you out to this poor country—you, who are no more fit for it than I am to be a fine lady?"
"The promise of a large grant of land, and the false statements we heard regarding it."
"Do you like the country?"
"No; and I fear I never shall."
"I thought not; for the drop is always on your cheek, the children tell me; and those young ones have keen eyes. Now, take my advice: return while your money lasts; the longer you remain in Canada the less you will like it; and when your money is all spent, you will be like a bird in a cage; you may beat your wings against the bars, but you can't get out." There was a long pause. I hoped that my guest had sufficiently gratified her curiosity, when she again commenced:—
"How do you get your money? Do you draw it from the old country, or have you it with you in cash?"
Provoked by her pertinacity, and seeing no end to her cross-questioning, I replied, very impatiently, "Mrs. R—, is it the custom in your country to catechise strangers whenever you meet with them?"
"What do you mean?" she said, colouring, I believe, for the first time in her life.
"I mean," quoth I, "an evil habit of asking impertinent questions."
The old woman got up, and left the house without speaking another word.
'Tis merry to hear, at evening time,
By the blazing hearth the sleigh-bells chime;
To know the bounding steeds bring near
The loved one to our bosom dear.
Ah, lightly we spring the fire to raise,
Till the rafters glow with the ruddy blaze;
Those merry sleigh-bells, our hearts keep time
Responsive to their fairy chime.
Ding-dong, ding-dong, o'er vale and hill,
Their welcome notes are trembling still.
'Tis he, and blithely the gay bells sound,
As glides his sleigh o'er the frozen ground;
Hark! he has pass'd the dark pine wood,
He crosses now the ice-bound flood,
And hails the light at the open door
That tells his toilsome journey's o'er.
The merry sleigh-bells! My fond heart swells
And throbs to hear the welcome bells;
Ding-dong, ding-dong, o'er ice and snow,
A voice of gladness, on they go.
Our hut is small, and rude our cheer,
But love has spread the banquet here;
And childhood springs to be caress'd
By our beloved and welcome guest.
With a smiling brow, his tale he tells,
The urchins ring the merry sleigh-bells;
The merry sleigh-bells, with shout and song
They drag the noisy string along;
Ding-dong, ding-dong, the father's come
The gay bells ring his welcome home.
From the cedar-swamp the gaunt wolves howl,
From the oak loud whoops the felon owl;
The snow-storm sweeps in thunder past,
The forest creaks beneath the blast;
No more I list, with boding fear,
The sleigh-bells' distant chime to hear.
The merry sleigh-bells, with soothing power
Shed gladness on the evening hour.
Ding-dong, ding-dong, what rapture swells
The music of those joyous bells.
[Many versions have been given of this song, and it has been set to music in the States. I here give the original copy, written whilst leaning on the open door of my shanty, and watching for the return of my husband.]