The Convalescent
by Nathaniel Parker Willis
Letter III
426179The Convalescent — Letter IIINathaniel Parker Willis

Winter Diseases—Foliage in White, after a Light Snow—Capture of a 'Possum—Chase in the Snow, with Bare Legs—'Possum's Habits when caught, etc.

January, 1855.

Winter is seizing us all by the throat, in this part of the country. The sudden blanketings and un-blanketings of the hills—snows and thaws in wonderfully complete alternation—affect the Highland health. One of my stoutest neighbors, a river sloop-man used to all manner of exposure, died yesterday of the prevailing bronchitis. My family table assembles a half-dozen, varied influenzas—a putting out of tune of its usual accord of voices, which, to one who relies upon it for his only music, is quite an interruption of comfort.

On my favorite curative principle of counter-irritation, I started off, with a stuffed head, for a sharp trot in the snow-storm, a day or two ago, and so chanced to see one of those private theatricals with which Nature makes our country entertainments correspond to the dramatic season in the city. I had been gone two hours among the hills, and the sky and my mucous membranes had meantime been clearing up together. It had stopped snowing and I had stopped snuffling; and the sun was setting with a glow in the west, of which the blood in my veins felt like a rosy partaker. Slacking rein as I entered the gate, and removing a pair of "green goggles" (excellent uglinesses with which to protect weak eyes from the patter as well as the glare of the snow in riding), I became suddenly aware of a scene of extraordinary beauty. The soft and feathery snow had so completely foliaged the trees that they looked full and shady, as in June. The woods on either side had the expression of leafy impenetrableness which enchants the forever-refuge-seeking eye; the meadows and slopes were carpeted with the evenness of a lawn; and over all was spread the warm color of the kindling sunset. It was midsummer, performed in white—its burden of leaves all there, and its press and crowd of flowers inimitably copied in snowflakes. The picturesque and beautiful half mile from the river-gate to our door—over meadow and brook, and along the wooded terraces and rocky precipices of the glen—will never be more superb in summer than as I saw it—(riding alone, too, a most unwilling millionaire, to have such a wealthy of splendor all to myself)—in the middle of winter.

(What tempting subjects are these glories of Nature with no events to them—so thrilling to the beholder and so tiresome at second-hand! I have indulged this time, but give me credit for twenty resistances.)

The event of the past month, to my children, has been a shirt-tail chase and capture of a 'possum, in the pitiless snow of midnight, a fortnight ago, by the Vice-President of these united stables and hen-roosts, Sam Bell. The narrative of the affair, in Bell's purset of Know-nothing dialect, would be worth Hackett's coming to hear—but I must confine myself to such mere mention of the circumstances as will suffice to introduce to you our patriotic addition to the family—Native American, and found nowhere else, as the 'possum is accredited to be. Waked up at night, in his farm-cottage under the hill, by a stir among the chickens, Bell, it appears, went to the door (in his integument No. 1) to see what was the matter. It was a bright and bitter cold night, after the clearing up of a snow storm; and, with the opening of the door, he saw some dark animal take up the line of its retreat towards the woods. To almost any gentleman (especially from a foreign country) there would be little doubt as to the outweighing of the comparative attractions—a warm wife in the bed he had just left, or a naked-legged rush, through the snow, after a wild animal. The thinking that can be done in a second, however, by one of our prompt and unchance-losing Yankees, is wonderful to know. The mystery of a month of missing chickens and sucked eggs, was explained to Bell by that dark line drawn over the snow—a fox or a wild-cat, as he took it to be. The jumping motion of "the critter" suggested to him, instantly, that, in deep drifts, he could catch one that would outrun him on hard ground; and, grabbing the first stick from the woodpile, he "after him." The snow "felt ugly up round above his knees," and it was heavy running, though he thought he was helped some by having no trowsers; but he gained on the animal, overtook, and "got a lick at him." Whether he had dropped dead or was stopping to spring back, he did not know, but there was the black lump still as death, on the snow before him. It wasn't a pleasant place to stop and think, though it was awk'ard putting a hand out to take hold of a wild varmint in the dark; but he caught sight of something like a tail, made a plunge at it, and "had hi," safe off the ground. It turned out to be a 'possum (an animal, as you know, that always drops and pretends to be dead when it is close-pressed), and Bell carried him back to the house, put a string round his neck, tied him to the door-post, and went to bed—first raking open the coals a little, of course, and getting on a dry shirt.

Installed behind the table, in the box that Buchanan Read's bust came over in (an apartment with an association at his disposal, of course), the 'possum is now "one of us"—a daily visit to him being, for our little people, among the periodicities of the morning. It is a little tantalizing, perhaps, to see "good society" (the hen-roost and chickens) so absurdly little beyond the limit of his chain, but he bears it with the can't-help-it-ism of a philosopher. You would think, to see him looking from that round hole (a side-door, added to Read's apartment, for his convenience) that those safe chickens whom he is beholding so tranquilly and humbly, were not of the natural species for which nature had given him an appetite—the chickens (vice versû) having no more terror at his presence than at the child's muff, which he closely resembles. How wonderful is civilized resignation at contiguity to forbidden food!

With vile head, and a tail like a rat's, the opossum's body is a superb mass of light grey fur. His taste in food is fastidious, and he is said to taste (to others) like the tenderest of fresh young pork. This one, we regret to find, is a male—the she-'possum being certainly the most remarkable female in the animal world, and of habits (as a mother) very curious to study. In these days of finding wives to expensive, it is interesting to turn to nature, and see what is expected of husbands upon instinct. The she-'possum is herself a house, herself a carriage, herself a doctor. With the providing of neither of these three expensive articles is her mate burdened. The "abdominal pouch," Natural History tells us, "is the residence of the young, for the infancy period after their birth, and they go or ascend a tree, they are "taken by her on the back, where they cling to the fur, and likewise hold on by entwining their little prehensile tails with that of the mother." "Wonderful medical virtues are attributed to the tail of the female opossum." When we add, to this luxury of auto-furnishing in his mate, that the 'possum can support himself by either end—hanging to a tree by his "prehensile tail," and swinging his head in tail-like idleness to the summer air—a professional author, at least, might sigh over the comparison of gifts and privileges!

The drops that have been to the sky to be purified are coming down in countless flakes—cold, separate and pure—to try another course of duty on this defiling earth, mingle again, and wait for another evaporation. Or, as Bell expressed the same bit of news just now, "it snows feather beds." Through this crowd of life-resuming spirits—through these feathers yet unconfined by ticking and pillow-cases—I must gallop to Newburgh with my letter for the mail. Time to be off.

Yours, pen and horse,