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BACK through the green lane again to the old farm-house. I gently push open a door which leads into a hall, wherein I have sported away many a day in childhood. At the other end of this hall is another door, through which came, forty years ago, the odor of sweet-brier and honeysuckle. I tiptoe across the fragile floor and look out. Field-scents greet me, so familiar that I am almost dazed into believing that many things have not been, and that the dear old days have come back. Once a bench and basin stood beside this door, where tired laborers used to make themselves tidy for their meals. Just beyond was a kitchen-garden, with a beehive close by, and a grindstone under a maple. Bench and basin, hive and stone are gone, and burdocks and plantain have taken the place of homely vegetables; but the sapling little Benny planted has grown into a massive tree. Who would have thought to have tracked him after a lapse of more than forty years? Is this not a true spirit communion, — this catching glimpses, among the shadows of the long past, of dear faces which have not grown old; this wistful turning back towards the sunshine of our earlier days?
My grandfather's kitchen was a sombre room, ceiled and painted brown; with huge beams, high dressers, and yawning fireplace. It had only two small windows, and was entered by nine doors. It was in reality the great hall of the house. What it lacked by day was light and sunshine. At night, brightened by a roaring backlog, it was full of cheer. Then its beams and ceilings and simple furnishings were enriched by shadows, and the pewter dishes upon its brown dressers shone in dancing firelight like silver. The two shelves, full of leather-covered books; the weatherwise almanac, hanging from a peg; the cross-legged table and prim chairs; the long crane, with its hissing teakettle; the brush; the bellows; the settle in the corner, and whatever else was there, all became fire-changed, and were mellowed into the bright scene. This room was by night the best part of the house. It was always the true heart of it; that vital centre from which diverged its indwelling life. It was the place where people lounged and lingered. Because its small windows let in few sunbeams, those which did come in were all the more precious. Because it was full of homely things, and was, as the women said, "most convenient," it had inwrought into it, as a picture, a quaint beauty of adaptation. Mellow, brown old kitchens, — how many costly rooms simulate, in their furnishings, your inexpensive colors!
There was a dignity in the domestic labor of my grandfather's kitchen. Its workers wrested from the humility of their vocation some measure of that beauty which would have been thrust upon them by more gracious conditions of life. Their daily walk was narrow: it was almost bounded by their kitchen; but this latter was glorified by firelight and consecrated by use. The simple harmony of it, which has made it a charming thing of memory, was reflected upon these women. They became a part of it, and, as such, they are not drudges in plain garments, but quaintly-costumed life-studies in a picture of a delightful old room.
I can see now my stately grandmother preparing her noontide meal. Her checked apron and muslin cap were spotlessly clean, and she handled her clumsy utensils with a becoming deftness. Hannah, the maid, hovered around, ready to lend a helping hand. The crane, hung with pots, kept up a constant sizzling, and covered pans spluttered from ember-heaps in the corner. There was no hurry, no bustle, no rattling of dishes. Hannah blew a tin horn from the back-door. There was a swashing at the little bench outside. The crane was swung out; covers were lifted; pans were taken from the corners; with perfect order the dinner passed from the fire to the table, well cooked, sufficient, and wholesome. It was not daintily served, with cut-glass and china, but it was full of the essence of vitality, and had the merit of utter cleanliness. My grandmother presided over it with a serious dignity untaught by rules of etiquette; and in no way was the discipline of her household better shown than by the utter decorum of its meals.
The kitchen floor was white and worn with much scrubbing, — hollows telling where its best seats by the hearth were. The doors opened into rare rooms: this one into a granite-walled dairy, as cool, clean, and compact as if it were cut from the solid rock. The next led into the cellar, full of compartments and bins and dark closets, crammed in winter with farm products. This storehouse never failed. Its apples were wild things, but toothsome, for they were the best from a great orchard, and one scented them from the stairway out of a long line of barrels. Nothing can quite equal for richness the flavor which a year's ripeness pours into a farm-house. It is only found in country homes, — this condensed sweetness, which has gone out of all the months of the year into the fashioning of the many things which were heaped and hoarded at the gathering in of the harvest.
How fruits stored in old cellars kept their freshness! That of one apple-tree in particular, at my grandfather's, never got its true ripeness until late in April. When first harvested it was crabbed, puckering the mouth. It was a tiny, bright fruit, profusely mottling its tree with crimson. It shrank and withered by keeping; but it grew palatable in inverse ratio to its size. I remember a branch, broken off by accident, which carried its relish into the days of June. It was a pretty thing, hanging from the cellar-wall, — a hardy waif from the dead harvest of the past year.
Two doors led into bedrooms, in which were chests of drawers full of homespun linen. Over the dairy ran the stairway, leading to chambers severely simple in furnishing, but clean, and made bright by sunshine. The floors of these chambers were kept strewn with sand, — a cheap, changeful covering, which at night I used to scrawl over with skeleton pictures, to be scattered in the morning.
The doors mostly opened with iron latches. These latches were clumsy things, lifting by a thumb-piece with a sharp click, and sending a shiver through one on frosty days. On the shed doors, made of wood, they were drawn up by the traditional bobbin. Brass knobs adorned the doors of the spare room. These were kept polished, and were held in high esteem. Their machinery, shut into a clumsy iron case, was screwed upon the outside of the door. As works of art none of these fastenings were much to be commended, but as quaint appendages to their homely doors were the best latches I have ever known.
The west room was the family "keeping-room," also lighted up at night by a roaring backlog. The brush and bellows in this room were pretentious with green and gold, and the shovel and poker were headed with brass knobs; but the fire was not a whit more cheerful than that in the brown kitchen.
I have sat hour after hour in that kitchen watching the backlog's slow consumption, half blinding my eyes with its flickering brightness. It was a long-dying, companionable thing, taking strong hold upon a child's fancy. It had been dragged to its place in the early morning, snow-bound and shaggy. It was defiant of its fate, and fought against it through the whole day. It truly died by inches. From its ends sizzled and dropped its sap, — its true life-blood; its substance fell off ring by ring; its ashes settled slowly upon the hearth. Everybody hacked at it; it was constantly plied with shovel, tongs, and poker; sparks flew furiously; coals flaked off; by degrees the log grew thin in the middle. At last a solid blow finished it; it snapped, and the parted ends fell without the iron dogs; the brands were ready to be raked up; the backlog was no more. Its life was jocund and brilliant. It was eloquent with fiery tongues, and the stories it told to a child, with crackling voice, went not out with its smoke.
Farmers were not stingy with their fuel, for the brush in the woodlands grew faster than they could burn the ancient trees. My grandfather's backlogs were drawn through the house on a hand-sled, — snowy, mossy things, dripping with sap and shaggy with bark. They were buried in embers, and then supplemented with a forelog, which, in its own turn, was plied with lighter fuel and bolstered up with iron dogs. The building of this pile was an art; and the practical farmer knew how to adjust the size of the log to the day's consumption, so that it was quite sure to shatter and break in season for the early "raking up" of the night. This "raking up" at my grandfather's was his own care; and it was thought worthy of note in an almanac when, once upon a time, his coals had failed to keep, and a fresh supply was brought from a neighbor's half a mile away. The ashes of those ancient wood-fires were full of virtue. They went to leach in spring for the making of family soap, and spread their richness far and wide over hungry fields.
The west room of the old farm-house was most cheerful in long winter evenings; not made so by social life or by artificial adornments, but rather by a sweet peace, and by the rich gifts of its outlying world. With face flattened against its window-panes, I, a nature-loving child, peered out at the glittering mill-pond and the dark woodland; traced the thread of a highway; caught the sound of transient bells; made friends with snow and clouds and shadows, and came to love its wild winter scenery. Without a love for nature life in this isolated farm-house, through the winter months, to one unused to it, must have been lonely and monotonous. In February, when the lane almost daily filled with snow, my grandfather opened a highway through the "upper field." This was more easily kept clear, but it failed to entice many comers. People hugged their firesides through winter snows, and learned to be content. There was a largeness about the home-life of ancient well-to-do country people. They had space, great houses, and great rooms; and if they had little show, they had at least no shams. Their houses needed few furnishings, because so much embellishment was given to them by nature. Through many years, vivid and beautiful, have stood by me the rare adornments of my grandfather's great house. They were skies and woods and water and far-off hills let in through its windows; the shifting aspects of winter snows and summer verdure; and many especial revelations from earth and sky. It was a great house, so large that its uncarpeted chambers gave back an echo to my footsteps; and I never went up to its garret, which I did seldom and softly, without a feeling of loneliness. This garret was a weird place, with shelves and scaffolds packed with the waste of years, and its beams hung with dried herbs. It was dimly lighted by two small gable windows, and at the head of the stairway was cut in two by a rambling old chimney. More than any other spot in the house it had the air of age and decay. Its dealings appeared to be wholly with the past, and things out of which life had gone. All that was in it looked as if it had belonged to another century; and herbs filled the air with a sickish, musty smell. It was so far away from the living-rooms that few sounds of busy in-door life ever reached it. It was a gray ghost of a chamber, in which nobody had ever lived; a sort of burial-place for worn-out and faded things. It was delightful to come down from it into the brighter rooms, which seemed, all of them, to be pervaded by some savory odor. Dried lavender and rose-leaves sent out their scents from chests and drawers; the dairy, the cellar, the cheese-room had each their own flavor; and the best essence of every edible seemed to disengage itself over the open fire. Johnny-cakes baked in the corner; pies cooked in the oven; meat roasted on the spit; potatoes boiled in pots; and from them all into the room came appetizing steams.
The old folks talked but little in winter evenings. My grandmother's knitting-work dropped stitches now and then, which she drowsily picked up with an "Oh, dear suz!" My grandfather, sitting opposite to her, by one corner of the hearth, dozed, with the ruddy firelight mocking at his wrinkles.
Across them both, on the chest of drawers, on the bed-curtains, on the tall clock, on the white walls, danced this same firelight; out through the small panes it streamed over the waste of snow into the highway, cheering the cold traveller; bright, beautiful home-light. Peaceful, long-seeming, dreamy winter evenings, you made one used to the sighing of winds, the roaring of storms, the cold glitter of snow; and you taught one, through isolation, to find how much there is that is beautiful and satisfying to be gotten out of the roughest aspects and moods of nature; you also taught how simple may be the resources of a true home-life.
The door on the other side of the front entry opened into the east room. This was the "best room," or, as my grandfather called it, the "fore" room. Most noticeable of its furnishing was the bed, — more for show than use. It was a tall structure, built up of corn-husks and feathers, not to be leaned against or carelessly indented. Its blue and white checked canopy, edged with knotted fringe, suspended by hooks from the ceiling, was spun and dyed and woven by the women of the household. Every piece of linen they used was of their own make. A pillow-case from that house is marked in plain letters A. D., meaning Abigail Drake, who spun and wove it there more than eighty years ago. The letters are stitched in with yellow silk (it must once have been black) after an ancient sampler. This sampler was a curious thing, running through the alphabet and numerals in several texts and various-colored silks, punctuated at the end by two skeleton birds, and winding up with this wise maxim, "Industry is its own reward." It also announced in written text that Abigail Drake, at the age of twelve, in such a year, wrought this sampler.
Such samplers were worked by girls in the village schools. Their letters were pricked in and out with extreme care, and the best executed of them were generally framed and hung in the fore room. They were as precious to those who made them as if they had been rare water-colors, and the measure of a young woman's accomplishment was taken from the skill with which she had done this task. As rags, these old samplers are worthless now; as the faded work of bright young girls of a past century, they interest one; for they are fabrics into which, in long ago summer days, were inwrought some of the old-fashioned simplicity and patience and industry of a dead generation.
My grandfather's flax was of good grain. Its bed was just inside of the pasture-bars, making a dainty show of blue blossoms. There could be nothing prettier in the way of flowers than it was. Waving in the wind, it seemed like a bit of summer sky let down. It was tended with great care, and harvested and made ready for use with much labor. Failure of the crop by untoward weather, or any mishap in its preparation, was looked upon as a great misfortune.
In long summer afternoons my grandmother and Hannah planted their little wheels by the back-door, and hour after hour drew out the pliant threads which were to be woven, in the loom up-stairs, into variously patterned coverlets, table-cloths, and towels. One is touched in handling, at this remote day, the fabrics fashioned by these ancient women. It seems as if they had woven into them a warp and woof of their own vitality, and that the strength which went out of the patient workers entered into their webs, and gave to them a texture of beauty and endurance. This old farm-house pillow-case of mine is as firm as if its fibre had been plucked from the flax-bed but yesterday, and it is as lustrous as it was when the fingers which wove it first cut it from the beam. To nothing does the past cling more than to such ancient cloths. The threads you handle, which moth and mildew have marred, are not the real thing; that is a finer undershot, impalpable to touch of stranger, but trailing down to you, like silken folds, glittering and precious with tenderest memories.
How many operations of breaking and bleaching and boiling those home products had to go through before they came out at last faultless as the fruits of foreign looms! The bureau, in the fore room, was always crammed with fine twined linens, white as snow, and scented with lavender and rose-leaves. How did those women accomplish so much? I look back upon them with pride and wonder; for my grandmother was no drudge: she was a true lady. Never was there a more dignified or better bred woman than she; never the mistress of a more well-ordered household. She was never hurried, never behindhand with her work; was given to hospitality, and was tasteful in her dress. Very few, in those days, were the complications of daily living; still I marvel how my grandmother managed to be so cultivated and so elegant, and yet sit, hour after hour, at the loom, plying her shuttle with no less persistence than, in spinning, she drew out her threads.
Across the huge beams, under and over each other, crossed and recrossed these threads, like a spider's web. I know by what manifold toil they were gotten there: by reeling, sizing, spooling, and warping, before my grandmother could begin to throw her shuttle. The work was slow, but it never flagged. Threads were broken and carefully taken up; quills gave out, and were patiently renewed; the web grew, thread by thread, inch by inch; the intricate pattern came out upon the surface, and pleased the weaver's eye; neighbors dropped in and gossiped over and about it. The days wore on; the worker never failed at her beam; until, most likely at the close of some long summer's afternoon, the end of the warp was reached; the treadles stopped; the web was done. How delighted the women used to be with their woven fabric, so slowly constructed, so quickly unwound! They stretched it out, clipped its hanging threads, held it up to the light, and stroked and caressed it as if it were a living thing. It would have been a mean web indeed had it brought them no high satisfaction. It may have been that spinning and weaving, by long practice, grew to be a sort of unconscious mechanical process; that the workers, in their long hours of monotonous employment, were given to meditation; and thus, from their double vocation, came perhaps that air of serious dignity common among the better class of farm-house women.
Nothing could be more picturesque or prettier, in country life, than the little flax-wheel, with well-filled distaff, being plied in a shady doorway by comely matron or rosy lass. The loom, with its web and weaver, made a classic picture; and its continuous thud, sounding hour after hour from an upper room, was a symbol of that pathetic patience which entered so largely into the lives of working women.
The fore room was seldom used. It was rather a store-room for household treasures; for such things as had been bought with hard-earned money were highly prized by these simple people. Its furniture was the costliest and most modern, as well as the ugliest, in the house. It was a sort of show-room. The china and glass in its cupboard were marvellously fine, and have come down as heirlooms. They are suggestive of the tendencies and tastes of women, who are traditionally most charming, through simplicity, because, from the force of their condition, their lives could not be otherwise than simple. Their merit, therefore, is not so much in the fact that they lived so near nature, which they could not help doing, — that they took to themselves a beauty of which they knew not, — as that, while possessing the common instincts of woman, they bore burdens with heroic patience, and, through long, hard-worked lives, kept up a holiday simulation of that ease and luxury which was not their own.
A narrow flight of stairs led, from the front entry, up to the guest-chambers. One of them was haunted. The ghost of this room was a harmless thing. A child of the house, Olly by name, had been found crushed in the woodland by a fallen tree. It was so long ago that his little grave had sunk far below its fellows; yet his memory had been kept fresher than the turf above it by the legend of this east chamber. Its furnishings were quaint and homely: a huge oaken chest of drawers, rush-bottomed chairs, and a low bedstead hung with checked brown and white linen. Between the two front windows was a looking-glass in a queer little frame, with a silhouette picture of my grandfather and grandmother on either side of it. In a cupboard by the chimney was a set of fine china, painted in flowing blue.
In through its windows came the eternal, ever-shifting glory of the outlying landscape. As I looked out of these windows on summer mornings, my heart grew full, like a heart touched by love, so profuse in variety and beauty was the scenery of this wild, lonely spot.