Roughing it in the Bush/Chapter XVII
There was a man in our town,
In our town, in our town—
There was a man in our town,
He made a logging-bee;
And he bought lots of whiskey,
To make the loggers frisky—
To make the loggers frisky
At his logging-bee.
The Devil sat on a log heap,
A log heap, a log heap—
A red hot burning log heap—
A-grinning at the bee;
And there was lots of swearing,
Of boasting and of daring,
Of fighting and of tearing,
At that logging bee.
A logging-bee followed the burning of the fallow, as a matter of course. In the bush, where hands are few, and labour commands an enormous rate of wages, these gatherings are considered indispensable, and much has been written in their praise; but to me, they present the most disgusting picture of a bush life. They are noisy, riotous, drunken meetings, often terminating in violent quarrels, sometimes even in bloodshed. Accidents of the most serious nature often occur, and very little work is done when we consider the number of hands employed, and the great consumption of food and liquor.
I am certain, in our case, had we hired with the money expended in providing for the bee, two or three industrious, hard-working men, we should have got through twice as much work, and have had it done well, and have been the gainers in the end.
People in the woods have a craze for giving and going to bees, and run to them with as much eagerness as a peasant runs to a race-course or a fair; plenty of strong drink and excitement making the chief attraction of a bee.
In raising a house or barn, a bee may be looked upon as a necessary evil, but these gatherings are generally conducted in a more orderly manner than those for logging. Fewer hands are required; and they are generally under the control of the carpenter who puts up the frame, and if they get drunk during the raising they are liable to meet with very serious accidents.
Thirty-two men, gentle and simple, were invited to our bee, and the maid and I were engaged for two days preceding the important one, in baking and cooking for the entertainment of our guests. When I looked at the quantity of food we had prepared, I thought it could never be all eaten, even by thirty-two men. It was a burning hot day towards the end of July, when our loggers began to come in, and the "gee!" and "ha!" to encourage the oxen resounded on every side.
There was my brother S—, with his frank English face, a host in himself; Lieutenant — in his blouse, wide white trousers, and red sash, his broad straw hat shading a dark manly face that would have been a splendid property for a bandit chief; the four gay, reckless, idle sons of —, famous at any spree, but incapable of the least mental or physical exertion, who considered hunting and fishing as the sole aim and object of life. These young men rendered very little assistance themselves, and their example deterred others who were inclined to work.
There were the two R—s, who came to work and to make others work; my good brother-in-law, who had volunteered to be the Grog Boss, and a host of other settlers, among whom I recognised Moodie's old acquaintance, Dan Simpson, with his lank red hair and freckled face; the Youngs, the hunters, with their round, black, curly heads and rich Irish brogue; poor C— with his long, spare, consumptive figure, and thin sickly face. Poor fellow, he has long since been gathered to his rest!
There was the ruffian squatter P—, from Clear Lake,—the dread of all honest men; the brutal M—, who treated oxen as if they had been logs, by beating them with handspikes; and there was Old Wittals, with his low forehead and long nose, a living witness of the truth of phrenology, if his large organ of acquisitiveness and his want of consciousness could be taken in evidence. Yet in spite of his derelictions from honesty, he was a hard-working, good-natured man, who, if he cheated you in a bargain, or took away some useful article in mistake from your homestead, never wronged his employer in his day's work.
He was a curious sample of cunning and simplicity—quite a character in his way—and the largest eater I ever chanced to know. From this ravenous propensity, for he eat his food like a famished wolf, he had obtained his singular name of "Wittals."
During the first year of his settlement in the bush, with a very large family to provide for, he had been often in want of food. One day he came to my brother, with a very long face.
"Mr. S— I'm no beggar, but I'd be obliged to you for a loaf of bread. I declare to you on my honour that I have not had a bit of wittals to dewour for two whole days."
He came to the right person with his petition. Mr. S— with a liberal hand relieved his wants, but he entailed upon him the name of "Old Wittals," as part payment.
His daughter, who was a very pretty girl, had stolen a march upon him into the wood, with a lad whom he by no means regarded with a favourable eye. When she returned, the old man confronted her and her lover with this threat, which I suppose he considered "the most awful" punishment that he could devise.
"March into the house, Madam 'Ria (Maria); and if ever I catch you with that scamp again, I'll tie you up to a stump all day, and give you no wittals."
I was greatly amused by overhearing a dialogue between Old Wittals and one of his youngest sons, a sharp, Yankeefied-looking boy, who had lost one of his eyes, but the remaining orb looked as if it could see all ways at once.
"I say, Sol, how came you to tell that tarnation tearing lie to Mr. S— yesterday? Didn't you expect that you'd catch a good wallopping for the like of that? Lying may be excusable in a man, but 'tis a terrible bad habit for a boy."
"Lor', father, that worn't a lie. I told Mr. S— our cow worn't in his peas. Nor more she wor; she was in his wheat."
"But she was in the peas all night, boy."
"That wor nothing to me; she worn't in just then. Sure I won't get a licking for that?"
"No, no, you are a good boy; but mind what I tell you, and don't bring me into a scrape with any of your real lies."
Prevarication, the worst of falsehoods, was a virtue in his eyes. So much for the old man's morality.
Monaghan was in his glory, prepared to work or fight, whichever should come uppermost; and there was old Thomas and his sons, the contractors for the clearing, to expedite whose movements the bee was called. Old Thomas was a very ambitious man in his way. Though he did not know A from B, he took into his head that he had received a call from Heaven to convert the heathen in the wilderness; and every Sunday he held a meeting in our loggers' shanty, for the purpose of awakening sinners, and bringing over "Injun pagans" to the true faith. His method of accomplishing this object was very ingenious. He got his wife, Peggy—or "my Paggy," as he called her—to read aloud to him a text from the Bible, until he knew it by heart; and he had, as he said truly, "a good remembrancer," and never heard a striking sermon but he retained the most important passages, and retailed them secondhand to his bush audience.
I must say that I was not a little surprised at the old man's eloquence when I went one Sunday over to the shanty to hear him preach. Several wild young fellows had come on purpose to make fun of him; but his discourse, which was upon the text "We shall all meet before the judgment-seat of Christ," was rather too serious a subject to turn into a jest, with even old Thomas for the preacher. All went on very well until the old man gave out a hymn, and led off in such a loud, discordant voice, that my little Katie, who was standing between her father's knees, looked suddenly up, and said, "Mamma, what a noise old Thomas makes." This remark led to a much greater noise, and the young men, unable to restrain their long-suppressed laughter, ran tumultuously from the shanty.
I could have whipped the little elf; but small blame could be attached to a child of two years old, who had never heard a preacher, especially such a preacher as the old backwoodsman, in her life. Poor man! He was perfectly unconscious of the cause of the disturbance, and remarked to us, after the service was over,
"Well, ma'am, did we not get on famously? Now, worn't that a BOOTIFUL discourse?"
"It was, indeed; much better than I expected."
"Yes, yes; I knew it would please you. It had quite an effect on those wild fellows. A few more such sermons will teach them good behaviour. Ah, the bush is a bad place for young men. The farther in the bush, say I, the farther from God, and the nearer to hell. I told that wicked Captain L— of Dummer so the other Sunday; 'an',' says he, 'if you don't hold your confounded jaw, you old fool, I'll kick you there.' Now ma'am—now, sir, was not that bad manners in a gentleman, to use such appropriate epitaphs to a humble servant of God, like I?"
And thus the old man ran on for an hour, dilating upon his own merits and the sins of his neighbors.
There was John R—, from Smith-town, the most notorious swearer in the district; a man who esteemed himself clever, nor did he want for natural talent, but he had converted his mouth into such a sink of iniquity that it corrupted the whole man, and all the weak and thoughtless of his own sex who admitted him into their company. I had tried to convince John R— (for he often frequented the house under the pretence of borrowing books) of the great crime that he was constantly committing, and of the injurious effect it must produce upon his own family, but the mental disease had taken too deep a root to be so easily cured. Like a person labouring under some foul disease, he contaminated all he touched. Such men seem to make an ambitious display of their bad habits in such scenes, and if they afford a little help, they are sure to get intoxicated and make a row. There was my friend, old Ned Dunn, who had been so anxious to get us out of the burning fallow. There was a whole group of Dummer Pines: Levi, the little wiry, witty poacher; Cornish Bill, the honest-hearted old peasant, with his stalwart figure and uncouth dialect; and David, and Nedall good men and true; and Malachi Chroak, a queer, withered-up, monkey-man, that seemed like some mischievous elf, flitting from heap to heap to make work and fun for the rest; and many others were at that bee who have since found a rest in the wilderness: Adam T—, H—, J. M—, H. N—.
These, at different times, lost their lives in those bright waters in which, on such occasions as these, they used to sport and frolic to refresh themselves during the noonday heat. Alas! how many, who were then young and in their prime, that river and its lakes have swept away!
Our men worked well until dinner-time, when, after washing in the lake, they all sat down to the rude board which I had prepared for them, loaded with the best fare that could be procured in the bush. Pea-soup, legs of pork, venison, eel, and raspberry pies, garnished with plenty of potatoes, and whiskey to wash them down, besides a large iron kettle of tea. To pour out the latter, and dispense it round, devolved upon me. My brother and his friends, who were all temperance men, and consequently the best workers in the field, kept me and the maid actively employed in replenishing their cups.
The dinner passed off tolerably well; some of the lower order of the Irish settlers were pretty far gone, but they committed no outrage upon our feelings by either swearing or bad language, a few harmless jokes alone circulating among them.
Some one was funning Old Wittalls for having eaten seven large cabbages at Mr. T—'s bee, a few days previous. His son, Sol, thought himself, as in duty bound, to take up the cudgel for his father.
"Now, I guess that's a lie, anyhow. Fayther was sick that day, and I tell you he only ate five."
This announcement was followed by such an explosion of mirth that the boy looked fiercely round him, as if he could scarcely believe the fact that the whole party were laughing at him.
Malachi Chroak, who was good-naturedly drunk, had discovered an old pair of cracked bellows in a corner, which he placed under his arm, and applying his mouth to the pipe, and working his elbows to and fro, pretended that he was playing upon the bagpipes, every now and then letting the wind escape in a shrill squeak from this novel instrument.
"Arrah, ladies and jintlemen, do jist turn your swate little eyes upon me whilst I play for your iddifications the last illigant tune which my owld grandmother taught me. Och hone! 'tis a thousand pities that such musical owld crathers should be suffered to die, at all at all, to be poked away into a dirthy, dark hole, when their canthles shud be burnin' a-top of a bushel, givin' light to the house. An' then it is she that was the illigant dancer, stepping out so lively and frisky, just so."
And here he minced to and fro, affecting the airs of a fine lady. The suppositious bagpipe gave an uncertain, ominous howl, and he flung it down, and started back with a ludicrous expression of alarm.
"Alive, is it ye are? Ye croaking owld divil, is that the tune you taught your son?
"Och! my old granny taught me, but now she is dead,
That a dhrop of nate whiskey is good for the head;
It would make a man spake when jist ready to dhie,
If you doubt it—my boys!—I'd advise you to thry.
"Och! my owld granny sleeps with her head on a stone,—
'Now, Malach, don't throuble the galls when I'm gone!'
I thried to obey her; but, och, I am shure,
There's no sorrow on earth that the angels can't cure.
"Och! I took her advice—I'm a bachelor still;
And I dance, and I play, with such excellent skill,
(Taking up the bellows, and beginning to dance.)
That the dear little crathurs are striving in vain
Which furst shall my hand or my fortin' obtain."
"Malach!" shouted a laughing group. "How was it that the old lady taught you to go a-courting?"
"Arrah, that's a sacret! I don't let out owld granny's sacrets," said Malachi, gracefully waving his head to and fro to the squeaking of the bellows; then, suddenly tossing back the long, dangling black elf-locks that curled down the sides of his lank, yellow cheeks, and winking knowingly with his comical little deep-seated black eyes, he burst out again—
"Wid the blarney I'd win the most dainty proud dame,
No gall can resist the soft sound of that same;
Wid the blarney, my boys—if you doubt it, go thry—
But hand here the bottle, my whistle is dhry."
The men went back to the field, leaving Malachi to amuse those who remained in the house; and we certainly did laugh our fill at his odd capers and conceits.
Then he would insist upon marrying our maid. There could be no refusal—have her he would. The girl, to keep him quiet, laughingly promised that she would take him for her husband. This did not satisfy him. She must take her oath upon the Bible to that effect. Mary pretended that there was no bible in the house, but he found an old spelling-book upon a shelf in the kitchen, and upon it he made her swear, and called upon me to bear witness to her oath, and that she was now his betrothed, and he would go next day with her to the "praist." Poor Mary had reason to repent her frolic, for he stuck close to her the whole evening, tormenting her to fulfill her contract.
After the sun went down, the logging-band came in to supper, which was all ready for them. Those who remained sober ate the meal in peace, and quietly returned to their own homes; while the vicious and the drunken stayed to brawl and fight.
After having placed the supper on the table, I was so tired with the noise, and heat, and fatigue of the day, that I went to bed, leaving to Mary and my husband the care of the guests.
The little bed-chamber was only separated from the kitchen by a few thin boards; and unfortunately for me and the girl, who was soon forced to retreat thither, we could hear all the wickedness and profanity going on in the next room. My husband, disgusted with the scene, soon left it, and retired into the parlour, with the few of the loggers who at that hour remained sober. The house rang with the sound of unhallowed revelry, profane songs and blasphemous swearing. It would have been no hard task to have imagined these miserable, degraded beings fiends instead of men. How glad I was when they at last broke up; and we were once more left in peace to collect to broken glasses and cups, and the scattered fragments of that hateful feast.
We were obliged to endure a second and a third repetition of this odious scene, before sixteen acres of land were rendered fit for the reception of our fall crop of wheat.
My hatred to these tumultuous, disorderly meetings was not in the least decreased by my husband being twice seriously hurt while attending them. After the second injury he received, he seldom went to them himself, but sent his oxen and servant in his place. In these odious gatherings, the sober, moral, and industrious man is more likely to suffer than the drunken and profane, as during the delirium of drink these men expose others to danger as well as themselves.
The conduct of many of the settlers, who considered themselves gentlemen, and would have been very much affronted to have been called otherwise, was often more reprehensible than that of the poor Irish emigrants, to whom they should have set an example of order and sobriety. The behaviour of these young men drew upon them the severe but just censures of the poorer class, whom they regarded in every way as their inferiors.
"That blackguard calls himself a gentleman. In what respect is he better than us?" was an observation too frequently made use of at these gatherings. To see a bad man in the very worst point of view, follow him to a bee: be he profane, licentious, quarrelsome, or a rogue, all his native wickedness will be fully developed there.
Just after the last of these logging-bees, we had to part with our good servant Mary, and just at a time when it was the heaviest loss to me. Her father, who had been a dairyman in the north of Ireland, an honest, industrious man, had brought out upwards of one hundred pounds to this country. With more wisdom than is generally exercised by Irish emigrants, instead of sinking all his means in buying a bush farm, he hired a very good farm in Cavan, with cattle, and returned to his old avocation. The services of his daughter, who was an excellent dairymaid, were required to take the management of the cows; and her brother brought a wagon and horses all the way from the front to take her home.
This event was perfectly unexpected, and left me without a moment's notice to provide myself with another servant, at a time when servants were not to be had, and I was perfectly unable to do the least thing. My little Addie was sick almost to death with the summer complaint, and the eldest still too young to take care of herself.
This was but the beginning of trouble.
Ague and lake fever had attacked our new settlement. The men in the shanty were all down with it; and my husband was confined to his bed on each alternate day, unable to raise hand or foot, and raving in the delirium of the fever.
In my sister and brother's families, scarcely a healthy person remained to attend upon the sick; and at Herriot's Falls, nine persons were stretched upon the floor of one log cabin, unable to help themselves or one another. After much difficulty, and only by offering enormous wages, I succeeded in procuring a nurse to attend upon me during my confinement. The woman had not been a day in the house before she was attacked by the same fever. In the midst of this confusion, and with my precious little Addie lying insensible on a pillow at the foot of my bed—expected at every moment to breathe her last—on the night of the 26th of August the boy I had so ardently coveted was born. The next day, old Pine carried his wife (my nurse) away upon his back, and I was left to struggle through, in the best manner I could, with a sick husband, a sick child, and a newborn babe.
It was a melancholy season, one of severe mental and bodily suffering. Those who have drawn such agreeable pictures of a residence in the backwoods never dwell upon the periods of sickness, when, far from medical advice, and often, as in my case, deprived of the assistance of friends by adverse circumstances, you are left to languish, unattended, upon the couch of pain.
The day that my husband was free of the fit, he did what he could for me and his poor sick babes, but, ill as he was, he was obliged to sow the wheat to enable the man the proceed with the drag, and was therefore necessarily absent in the field the greater part of the day.
I was very ill, yet for hours at a time I had no friendly voice to cheer me, to proffer me a drink of cold water, or to attend to the poor babe; and worse, still worse, there was no one to help that pale, marble child, who lay so cold and still, with "half-closed violet eyes," as if death had already chilled her young heart in his iron grasp.
There was not a breath of air in our close, burning bed-closet; and the weather was sultry beyond all that I have since experienced. How I wished that I could be transported to a hospital at home, to enjoy the common care that in such places is bestowed upon the sick. Bitter tears flowed continually from my eyes over those young children. I had asked of Heaven a son, and there he lay helpless by the side of his almost equally helpless mother, who could not lift him up in her arms, or still his cries; while the pale, fair angel, with her golden curls, who had lately been the admiration of all who saw her, no longer recognized my voice, or was conscious of my presence. I felt that I could almost resign the long and eagerly hoped-for son, to win one more smile from that sweet suffering creature. Often did I weep myself to sleep, and wake to weep again with renewed anguish.
And my poor little Katie, herself under three years of age, how patiently she bore the loss of my care, and every comfort. How earnestly the dear thing strove to help me. She would sit on my sick-bed, and hold my hand, and ask me to look at her and speak to her; would inquire why Addie slept so long, and when she would awake again. Those innocent questions went like arrows to my heart.
Lieutenant —, the husband of my dear Emilia, at length heard of my situation. His inestimable wife was from home, nursing her sick mother; but he sent his maid-servant up every day for a couple of hours, and the kind girl despatched a messenger nine miles through the woods to Dummer, to fetch her younger sister, a child of twelve years old.
Oh, how grateful I felt for these signal mercies; for my situation for nearly a week was one of the most pitiable that could be imagined. The sickness was so prevalent that help was not to be obtained for money; and without the assistance of that little girl, young as she was, it is more than probable that neither myself nor my children would ever have risen from that bed of sickness.
The conduct of our man Jacob, during this trying period, was marked with the greatest kindness and consideration. On the days that his master was confined to his bed with the fever, he used to place a vessel of cold water and a cup by his bedside, and put his honest English face in at my door to know if he could make a cup of tea, or toast a bit of bread for the mistress, before he went into the field.
Katie was indebted to him for all meals. He baked, and cooked, and churned, milked the cows, and made up the butter, as well and as carefully as the best female servant could have done. As to poor John Monanghan, he was down with fever in the shanty, where four other men were all ill with the same terrible complaint.
I was obliged to leave my bed and endeavour to attend to the wants of my young family long before I was really able. When I made my first attempt to reach the parlour I was so weak, that, at every step, I felt as if I should pitch forward to the ground, which seemed to undulate beneath my feet like the floor of a cabin in a storm at sea. My husband continued to suffer for many weeks with the ague; and when he was convalescent, all the children, even the poor babe, were seized with it, nor did it leave us until late in the spring of 1835.
THE EMIGRANT'S FAREWELLEdit
Rise, Mary! meet me on the shore,
And tell our tale of sorrow o'er;
There must we meet to part no more—
Rise, Mary, rise!
Come, dearest, come! tho' all in vain;
Once more beside you summer main
We'll plight our hopeless vows again—
Unclose thine eyes.
My bark amidst the surge is toss'd,
I go, by evil fortunes cross'd,
My earthly hopes for ever lost—
Love's dearest prize.
But when thy hand is clasp'd in mine,
I'll laugh at fortune, nor repine;
In life, in death, for ever thine—
Then check these sighs.
They move a bosom steel'd to bear
Its own unwonted load of care,
That will not bend beneath despair—
Rise, dearest, rise.
Life's but a troubled dream at best;
These comes a time when grief shall rest,
Kind, faithful hearts shall yet be bless'd
'Neath brighter skies!