“HERE we are, Mrs. Sparrowgrass, just on the eve of retiring to private life. We must shake hands with our friends, and say ‘good-bye.’ This is to be the last paper — ‘to-morrow to fresh fields and pastures new.’ ” Mrs. Sparrowgrass smiled a little smile, and sighed a little sigh; then it became very still, but the clock ticked loudly on the library mantel, and the wood-fire chirped, and the sound of thread and needle tugging through a stiff piece of linen, were quite audible. “I think,” said Mrs. S., after a long pause, “I think there is a great deal to be said about living in the country; a great deal yet to be said.”
“True,” I replied, “but I believe, Mrs. S., I have said my say about it. I begin to feel that the first impressions, the novelty, the freshness, 245 incident to the change from city to country are wearing away.”
“Do you think so?” said Mrs. Sparrowgrass.
“Yes,” I replied, “I think so; in truth I am very sure of it. Do you not see it with very different eyes from those you first brought with you out of the city?”
Mrs. Sparrowgrass said, she did not know but that she did.
“Of course you do,” I continued, “the novelty of the change is gone; we have become used to our new life — custom has made every part of it familiar.”
“Not to me,” answered Mrs. S., brightening up; “not to me; every day I see something new, every day the country seems to grow more beautiful; there are a thousand things to attract me, and interest me here, which I never could have seen in the city; even the winters seem to be brighter, and the days longer, and the evenings pleasanter; and then I have so much to be thankful for, that the children are so strong and hardy; that we keep such good hours; and that you have grown to be so domestic.”
This compliment made me smile in turn, but I pretended to be very busy with my writing. The 246 smile, however, must have been seen, I think, for Mrs. S. repeated, very softly, “You have grown to be more domestic, and that alone is enough to make me happy here.”
“So, my dear,” said I, after a pause, “you believe that, among other things, a domestic turn of mind can be better cultivated in the country than in the city?”
Mrs. Sparrowgrass assented by nodding like a crockery Chinese lady.
“Then,” said I, “the fact is worth publishing, and it shall be, for the benefit of all concerned. And now let me read to you a short essay I have been writing on country life, seen in a twofold aspect — that is, as we had imagined it, and as we have found it.”
Mrs. Sparrowgrass placed the candles nearer the desk and resumed her needlework. Now then —
There are very few persons insensible to the tender influences of nature; few who do not feel at times a yearning to exchange a limited life, held in common with the vast multitude, for one of more generous boundaries, where the soul can repose amid contemplation, and he mind rest from its labors, and even the languid pulse thrill with an inspiration that is independent of excitement. It is this feeling that lends a crowning grace to works of fiction, that adds enchantment to narrative, that makes every virtue conceivable, that echoes into music, and blossoms into song. It is this feeling that leads us to prefer Sir Roger de Coverley to Sir Andrew Freeport; it is this that transports us with delight as we wander with Robinson Crusoe; this that weaves a spell of fascination around the loves of Paul and Virginia.
But we may leave the kingdom of books and pass from their royal domains into the broader commons of every-day life, and if yonder laborer, trudging along the dusty high road, far from the pitiless pavements, could give expression to his thought, he would affirm that this early, summer, Sunday morning is, to him, an idyl full of poetic beauty and tenderness.248
Take, too, the city school-boy and his mates, and see them with uncontrollable instincts pouring forth from the avenues of the town to revel in the ragged grass of the suburbs, to sit, haply, beneath the shadow of a tree, or to bathe in waters that dimple over beaches of sand, instead of beating against piers of weedy timber. Take the school-boy, and if he tell you truly, he will confess that, even amid the discipline of the school, his mind was truant to his hard arithmetic, and his dry grammar; that while he was seemingly plodding through his lessons, he was really dreaming of green fields, and sunny air, tremulous with the murmur of books, and fragrant with the odor of lilacs.
Nor is this feeling limited to certain classes of men, nor is it incident only to our earlier years. It is the prospect of some ideal home in the country, that often binds the merchant to the town, in order that he may win a competency to retire with; binds him to his desk until his head begins to silver over, and habit has made the pursuit of wealth a necessity. It is this ideal future that often haunts the statesman with pictures scarcely less seductive than ambition itself, with prospective hopes, which he promises himself some day 249 shall be realized — some day, when his labors are over, and the nation is safe. It is this that passes like a vision before the eyes of the soldier in the solitary fortress; this that lulls and cradles the mariner to sleep, in his oaken prison; this that leads the angler into the depths of the solemn woods; this that depopulates cities in the sweet summer time.
Most natural then as this wish may be, to those accustomed to the life of a city, there are certain seasons only when the desire throbs in the veins with an impulse not to be resisted — as during the feverish dog-days, or in the dewy mornings of early spring —
At such times the heart, instinctively led by its own happiness, revels in, anticipation of, winding woodpaths, and green glades and quiet nooks, and streams, and the twitter of birds, and the voluptuous breathing of flowers, and the murmur of insects in the holiday fields.250
But when the winter comes, the bright city, with its social populace, presents a striking contrast to the dreary, solitary country, with its lonely roads, dark plains, and desolate woods, so that the very thought itself is suggestive only of gloom and discomfort.
There are other considerations, too, sympathies that may not be readily, nor rudely divorced — actualities by which we are strongly, though almost imperceptibly, bound to a city life, such as customary habits, familiar acquaintances, and communion with old, time-honored friends. These, in themselves, are often potent enough to prevent us. Separation if the saddest word in the book of humanity.
Then again come other actualities — little actualities of two, and four, and six years old, with preternatural eyes, and feverish lips, and wasted arms, mutely imploring us to follow the doctor’s advice, and give them a change of air — not for a few weeks, but for a few years, and these have their influence. For I pity the parent who does not feel the welfare of his little ones nearest his heart. So that at last, after weighing all arguments on either side, the great word is spoken — 251 “We will move into the country.” Once settled as a fixed fact, once established as a thing no longer debatable, the idea of living in the country speedily invests itself with its old and happiest colors, puts on cap and kirtle, and cottages the future in an Eden of lattice-work, and lawn. Thenceforth every grass-plat in the city becomes an object of interest, every tree a study, every market vegetable a vital topic. Anticipation can scarcely wait upon fluent time; weeks and months seem narrow and long, as the streets we traverse. At last the period of thraldom over, for such it seems, the May day of moving comes, and then, with all the silver in a basket, and all the children in a glow, and all the canary birds in a cage, we depart from the city, its houses, and its streets of houses, its associations, and its friendships. We depart from the city, not forgetful of its benevolence, its security, its protection. Sorrow be to him who would launch a Parthian arrow at his own birth-place, wherever, or whatever that may be!
It must be confessed, that the realization of a hope is sometimes not so beautiful as the hope itself. It must be confessed that turnpike roads are not always avenues of happiness; that distance, 252 simply contemplated from a railroad depot, does not lend enchantment to the view of a load of furniture travelling up hill through a hearty rain-storm; that communion with the visible forms of nature, now and then, fails to supply us with the requisite amount of mild and healing sympathy; that a rustic cottage may be overflowing with love, and yet overflowed with water; that, in fine, living in the country rarely fulfils at once the idea of living in clover. To one accustomed to the facile helps of a great city, its numerous and convenient stores, its limited distances, its ready attentions, and its easy means of information and communication, the slow and sleepy village presents a contrast, which, upon the whole, can scarcely be considered as favorable to the latter. Plumbers are very slow in the country; carpenters are not swift; locksmiths seldom take time by the forelock; the painter will go off fishing; the grocer on a pic-nic; the shoemaker to the menagerie:
Say, however, that by the driving wheel of perseverance, the customary, inside economy moves on regularly as usual, yet are there new sources of disquiet; the chickens will walk into the kitchen, the dogs will get into the parlor, and the children will march into the dining-room with an incalculable quantity of mud. This last is the most grievous trouble of all, for how can we keep the children in, or keep them out? The, too, there are other little matters; the well will dry up, or the chimney will smoke, or the dogs will dig immense holes in the garden-beds, or somebody’s wagon will take a slice off the turf border of the grass-plat, or the garden-gate will fracture one of its hinges, or something or other of some kind will happen, in some way, to disturb the serenity of the domestic sky. And let it be remembered also, that although a green hedge is a very pretty object, it requires to be trimmed; that peas must be supplied with bushes from infancy; that lima beans when they want poles, have to be indulged in that weakness; that tomatoes get along best on crutches; that corn and potatoes, being very courteous plants, require a little bowing and scraping at times, with a hoe; that garden vegetables of all conditions seem 254 rather fond of leading a ragged, vagabond life, and therefore should be trained by themselves, and not suffered to grow up in a rabble of weeds.
Let it then be fairly and candidly confessed, that living in the country does not exempt from care and laborious patience, those, who build their habitations beneath its halcyon skies. There are many things which should have been thought of, and which one never does think of as accessories in the ideal picture. The first effort of rural simplicity is to disabuse the mind of these fallacies. Once understood that life in the country does not imply exemption from all the cares and business of ordinary life; that happiness, here as elsewhere, is only a glimpse between the clouds; that there are positive disadvantages incurred by living out of town; and that anticipation must succumb to the customary discount; once understood, and carefully weighed in a just balance, life in the country becomes settled on a firm basis and puts on its pleasantest aspect.
Then a well-ordered garden presents manifold charms to the eye, whether it be when the first green shoots appear, or in the ripened harvest; 255 then every bud that blows bears in its heart a promise or a memory; then rain-storms are fountains of happiness; then the chirping of early birds is sweeter than the cunning of instruments; then the iterated chorus of insects in the fields is pleasanter than a pastoral poem; then the brown, unbroken soil has an earthy smell no thing can match; and the skies, the river, the mountains, with a thousand touches, illustrate the bounty, the tenderness, the wondrous providence of the Creator.
Furthermore, the very toil, which at first seems like a hardship, betimes, carries with it a recompense. As the frame becomes disciplined by the additional duties imposed upon it, the labor grows lighter, and more attractive; not only that, the blood circulates with renewed life, the eye becomes brighter, the muscles more elastic, cheerfulness begins to ring out its bells in the clear air, and sleep falls upon the lids, gentle as a shadow.
If you have little ones, think what a blessing such discipline it to them. Just look at the boys, and their red-blown cheeks, and their sled out in the snow there! Listen; did you ever hear such a Christmas carol in the streets?256
Not the smallest item in the account is this, that for want of other pleasures, parents are prone, in the country, to turn their attentions to the little ones, to enter more familiarly into their minor world, to take a part in its pageants, to read more carefully its tiny history, to become developed by its delicate sympathies, so that in time one gets to be very popular there, and is hailed as a comrade and good fellow — one of the elected — and eligible to receive all the secret grips and pass-words of the order. And this is not to be lightly considered either, for how can we expect our children will make us their choicest companions when we are old, if we make them not our friends when they are young? And as a child is often like a star in the house, why should not the father and mother be nearest to its light. Jean Paul Richter somewhere says of children, “The smallest are nearest to God, as the smallest planets are nearest the sun.” Therefore, it is a good thing not to be on the outside of their planetary system.
Take it all in all, then, we may rest assured, that although our first experiences do not fulfill the ideal images we had raised, yet when the fibres become familiar to the soil, and spread, and strengthen, we soon overcome the shock of transplantation. Then 257 our new life burgeons and blossoms, like a tree, that in more open ground spreads forth its happy leaves to catch the sunshine and the rain, the air and the dews; and ever and ever growing and growing, its harmonious proportions are uplifted nearer and nearer to that harmonious Heaven, which God has hung with clouds and studded with stars, as types and symbols, only, of the glories of that which lies still further beyond.
“Is that all you have to say?” said Mrs. Sparrowgrass. “That is all, my dear,” I replied, and then very composedly lighted a cigar. The clock ticked loudly again, the wood-fire chirped, and the thread and needle tugged its way through the linen with a weary note, like a prolonged sigh with the bronchitis.
“For my part,” said Mrs. S., after a pause of fifteen minutes’ duration by the library clock, “I think you have not done justice to the country. You do not speak at all of the pleasant neighbors we know, of the pleasant visits we have had, and the parties on the river, and the beach in front of the house, where the children go in bathing during the summer months, and the fishing, and crabbing, 258 and the delightful drives and rides, and the interest we take in planting, and the pleasure of picking off the early peas, and the quiet of our Sabbaths, and ‘the charm of seclusion,’ which you so often allude to in your library, when you sit down at a pile of books.”
“And although it may be a trifling matter, yet it is a very pleasant thing to own a boat, and to have a hammock swung under the trees for the children to play in, or to read and smoke in, when you are tired; and to keep poultry, and to watch a young brood of chickens, and to have eggs fresh laid for breakfast.”
“I know it.”
“And even if we do meet with mishaps, what of them? I never do expect to pass through life without some disappointments; do you?”
“And then you have scarcely alluded to the country in winter time: why nothing can compare with it; I could not have believed that it would have been so beautiful, if I had not seen it and known it.”
(Three puffs of smoke in rapid succession.)259
“And then to walk through a green, winding lane, with daisies and roses all along on both sides, as we often do towards evening, n summer, is a thing worth remembering.”
“Worth remembering? It is a poem in itself.”
“And the pleasant note of a cow-bell at nightfall, or in the wood by day, is a pretty sound.”
“It is a wonder the golden chime of that bell has not been rolled out in melodious lines by somebody.” (two puffs and a half.)
“And, although it may make you smile, there is something very musical to me, in the bullgrog’s whistle. I love to hear it, in early spring.”
“After that we may expect blue-birds.”
"Yes," said Mrs. S., "ah, how fond the children are of blue-birds."
“Yes, and how thankful we should be that they have such innocent loves.”
“I think,” said Mrs. S., “children can scarcely develop their natural affections in the city. There is nothing for them to cling to, nothing to awaken their admiration and interest there.”
“Except toy-stores, which certainly do wake up an immense amount of admiration and interest in the small fry, Mrs. S.”260
“True, but they are better off with a few occasional presents. I know how happy they are for a short time with them; but I fear me the excitement is not productive of good. Toys produce more strife among the little ones than all the pleasure is worth. For my part, I almost dread to see them come into the house, although I do feel gratified in witnessing the surprise and delight with which they are received by the children.”
“That is a clear case.”
“If you want to see a picture,” continued Mrs. S., full of the theme, and putting down her sewing, “I think I can show you one worth looking at.”
(One short puff, and one eye shut, expressive of an anxious desire to see the picture.)
Mrs. Sparrowgrass rolled back the library window-shutters, and the flood of white light that poured into the room fairly dimmed the candle on the table. There was the pure white snow; and the round, full moon; and the lustrous stars; and the hazy line of the Palisades; and the long reach of river glistening with a thousand brilliants. For from every point of ice there shone a nebulous light, so that the river seemed a galaxy studded with magnificent planets; and as we stood gazing 261 upon this wondrous scene, we heard the sound of an approaching train, and then, suddenly reddening through the stone arch in the distance, there darted forth into the night, the Iron Meteor with its flaming forehead, and so flying along the curve of the road, thundered by, and was presently heard no more.
I think Mrs. Sparrowgrass rather surpassed herself when she conjured up this splendid vision, for she became very grave and silent.
“This beautiful scene,” said I, “this glistening river, reminds me of something, of a scientific fact, which, although true in itself, sounds like the language of oriental fable. Did you know, my dear, that those vast Palisades yonder, rest upon beds of jewels?”
“Beds of jewels?” echoed Mrs. Sparrowgrass.
“Yes, my dear, beds of jewels; for these are basaltic rocks of volcanic birth, and at some time were spouted up, from the molten caverns below the crust of the earth, in a fluid state; then they spread out and hardened on the surface; so that if we go to, or a little below, low-water mark, we shall find the base of them to be the old red sandstone, upon which they rest.
“I thought,” replied Mrs. S., “They went down very deep in the earth — that they were like all other rocks.”
“No,” I answered, “they are not rooted at all, but only rest upon the top of the old red sandstone. Well, in the crevices between the basaltic and sandstone rocks, the mineralogists find the best specimens of amethysts, onyxes, sapphires, agates, and cornelians. And that this is the case with the Palisades, has been often proved at Fort Lee, where the cliffs begin. There the sandstone is visible above ground, and there the specimens have been found imbedded between the strata.”
“You are sure the idea is not imaginary?” said Mrs. S.
“All true, my dear.”
“Then I shall never think of them in future, without remembering their old jewels; I wonder, if they were to tumble down now and expose their riches, whether the amethyst and onyxes would compare with the brightness of those frozen gems?”
“Certainly not.” (Shutters close.)
“And now,” continued Mrs. Sparrowgrass, “I want to show you another picture;” and with that 262 she lifted the candle and walked softly up stairs before me into the nursery; there were five little white-heads, and ten little rosy-cheeks, nestled among the pillows,and I felt a proud, parental joy in gazing upon their healthy, happy faces, and listening to their robust breathings.
“These,” said Mrs. S., in a whisper, as she shaded the light, “are my jewels.”
“And mine too, Mrs. Sparrowgrass,” said I.
“Yes,” whispered Mrs. S., very seriously, “and if ever I should be taken away from them, I want you to promise me one thing.”
“Tell me what it is,” said I, very much determined that I would do it, whatever it might be.
“Promise me,” said Mrs. S., “that while they are growing up you will keep them from the city — that their little minds and bodies may be trained and taught by these pure influences, that, so long as they are under your direction, you will not deprived them of the great privilege they now enjoy — that of living in the country.”