The Convalescent
by Nathaniel Parker Willis
Letter I
426033The Convalescent — Letter INathaniel Parker Willis



Advantage of Evergreen Trees—Swapping Hats—Billy Babcock, the Centenarian—His Habits and Dress—His Memory of Washington—His Pension—Droll effect of meeting on the Road a given-away Suit of Old Clothes, etc., etc.

January 7, 1855.

Weather to sit out of doors with a book! April is reconnoitering. And I never so much realized, as to-day (though I have recorded it before), the wisdom and luxury of a home buried in evergreen trees. Without the ice in the river, there would be no necessity of knowing that it is not summer. Every particle of snow gone from the fields and mountains, and a sun so warm, that to the children exercising out of doors, the full shade of our groves of hemlocks and cedars is welcome! The farmer, about here, is bothered with the luxuriant pertinacity of these evergreens. He thinks of them as Bombastes thought of Fuzbos:

"He conquered all but Fuzbos—Fuzbos him;"

but, to grounds cultivated for beauty, such prodigal growth of trees, whose foliage recognizes no winter, are a wealth and a blessing. To-day, we look out of open windows, upon a summer of both trees and temperature.

I was called upon yesterday to remember an appeal to your patriotism, which I promised to make—you being a general and the object of appeal being a revolutionary soldier with whom I have lately swapped hats, with the understanding that your influence to procure him a pension was to be "thrown in." As the hat I got by my bargain is a relic, having been worn by a revolutionary head while crossing from its first to its second century, and two years beyond the crossing, I must be excused for giving the history of "our trade" rather circumstantially—the hat being thus made authentic by having its story told, and the wearer being brought to your charitable notice, "as agreed."

My friend Torrey, the village blacksmith, had sevral times offered to "show me the beat" of the revolutionary soldier I visited and described in the Home Journal last summer. He declared that "old Babcock, up in the mountains," was "more of a cur'osity," for he could hold a stick in both hands and jump over it, at a hundred years old, and that was two years ago. He was "still full of fun and as sharp as a 'coon," though quite a vagrant in his habits, and going to and fro, between here and Jersey, as he could find temporary work, or as he took the whim. Five or six generations of his descendants were scattered along through the mountains (the old man counted them last at one hundred and sixty-five) but they were all poor, and he was still homeless and thriftless. His one steady idea seemed to be to get a pension, as he had served six years in the revolutionary army, and had been in the battle of Monmouth and the battle of Stony Point, and was wounded at Monmouth. The difficulty lay in his having left the army "without any writing to show for it," though he did it to work in the mountain forge, back of West Point, where he was a journeyman when the war begun, and where he was sent for again, to help cast cannon balls for the army. I was interested in the story, as Torrey's hammer emphasized it on the heels of my mare, and promised to give the old man a kind welcome when he should come.

One bright morning, accordingly, his name was sent up to me. Torrey had been too busy to leave his shop, but another of my village cronies, Chatfield, the tanner, had undertaken to show the old man the way. He sat in the library, when I went in, directly under a bust of venerable Tasso—a closely-shaved and pinched-faced little old man, under a heavily-bearded old patriarch—and my first thought, I must own, was a wonder that so beautiful and needful a drapery, for the features of age, could ever be refused its natural growth and offices. A veil of snowy white had been given by God to that little toothless mouth and to the stringy wrinkles of that repulsive chin and throat, and yet with the cost perpetual, and pains daily and vexatious, Nature's unceasing effort to put it on were resisted!

"A bit and a glass of summat" had preceded me, and my visitor was lively and talkative. His hearing and sight were apparently as good as ever, and in quickness of reply he certainly excelled most men, young or old, of his class of life. I began conversation rather jokingly, but he was soon "down upon me," as my neighbor said, "like a thousand of brick." Hilarity and imperturbable good-nature seemed to have constant possession of him. He had no reserves. Some allusion was made to his favoring one leg more than the other in his movements; and he ascribed it to a rheumatism, got by sleeping "out on the road the other night" (in November) "after a glass too much." He said he knocked at all the doors as he went along, and asked for a night's lodging, and they "passed him on" with their "no room, go to the next house!" till he was tired. So he lay down under a wall; and "it wouldn't have hurt him, if it hadn't sprung up cold in the night, and froze!" In this homeless habit of wandering, as in the making of baskets, which is his resource, when he can find nothing better to do, he seemed to show gipsy blood.

The questions we naturally put to him concerning General Washington (of whom he told us nothing except that he saw him every day for years), brought up the "pension" matter, and he stated his case—urging it much more strenuously when he found I had a General among my acquaintances. Seeing his hate, which he had thrown into the corner behind the door on entering the library, I took it up while he was talking, and inquired into its history. He had bought it in his ninety-ninth year, and worn it ever since—now three years. It had evidently been sat upon and slept upon, and used for the receiving and conveying away of potatoes and cold victuals—the shape long since gone, if it ever had one, and the band supplied by a piece of coarse twine. It was perhaps a "two shilling felt," to being with; but the honor it had had, in covering a head while it stepped into its second century, gave it a value—to say nothing of the wear-out it had received, upon a brain whose boyish recklessness and jollity a hundred years had failed to sober or make sorry! Oh, I wanted that hat! Stepping into the entry, I brought him my Idlewild broadbrim, with its spacious silk band—a hat, the first glance at which "warranted the man to own a cow"—and proposed a "swap." It was amusing to see the cunning old chap assume a value for his hat immediately on finding it was wanted, and dodge all admission that he was making a good bargain. He only agreed, finally, on condition of my "speaking to my friend the General about his pension." So never come to Idlewild, my dear Morris, or venture to look at the old hat (which now surmounts the bust of John Quincy Adams in the hall), until you have done your possible with the secretary of war, for Billy Babcock and his revolutionary claims.

But I was indebted to the old man, shortly after, for a sudden retrospect, which, I fear, I can hardly make interesting to you—the contrast and grotesqueness of it depending very much on the associations it awakened in my own memory. Driving to Newburgh in the afternoon, we met him, at a sudden turn of the road. He had been down with a load of baskets (eight miles, on foot), and was returning to the mountains—toddling jauntily along with his stick, but the mud and other signs showing that he had stopped to rest when quite too happy to mind where. He was dressed from head to foot in a suit of my own clothes which I had given him; and though it was funny, of course, to see my coat and trowsers going to Newburgh with a load of baskets, and coming back "so," there was still, for me, a remoter reach of association in the spectacle. The suit chanced to be the sole memorial of that "dandyism" of twenty years ago, the pickled memory of which is still carefully preserved by my brother editors, and used for the acid to their criticisms. Both coat and trowsers were of London make, in 1836—relics that had seen a deal of sly wear as old clothes in my rainy-day wood-choppings and brook-clearings, but the fancy cut and decoration of which had hitherto prevented their being given away. There was as much fun as anything else in bestowing them upon the ragged and merry old basket-maker. But, by dint of long keeping and tumbling over, they had insensibly become the furniture of my remembrance of gay life in London; and to meet them now, suddenly, on the road, zig-zag-ing about on legs and arms a hundred years old, and bound to finish their career in unhoused dirt and vicissitude—there was a mingled drollery and contradictoriness in the confused impression, which made me both laugh and grow thoughtful. If there must be reappearances of one's coats and trowsers, it would be pleasanter to see them in their cleanly and decent wont—not spattered with mud while they are honored by longer wear—and if I had foreseen the venerableness of these after-walks of mine, I certainly should have selected the pantaloons of a plainer period. You see my old-clothes moral, I hope.

My friend, the merry centenarian, has called on me once since. He was finding it too cold in the mountains, and was going over into Jersey for the winter. My velvet facings and silk braids had proved good material for "swap," and he had parted with all of my toggery except the hat—the pillow-and-cushion duties of this last, however, having rendered its previous history a matter of pure faith. He was as blithe and quick-witted as ever, and his gaiety—patriarch as he is—was positively infections. It is the elixir of his unfailing vitality, I am certain. He has no idea of dying, and is "coming round in the spring, to see if that General has got his pension fixed." So keep the matter in mind.

We have had another strange visitor here—but my letter is long enough for these short days. Adieu.


P.S. Jan. 10—Let me record that two steamboats passed down the river yesterday, and a sloop to-day, though the ice, which has suddenly vanished with the rain, has been dotted with skates for a month.