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American Wit and Humor
Everybody knows that, in the famous city of New York, whose proper name is Nieuw Amsterdam, the excellent St. Nicholas (who is worth a dozen St. Georges, with dragons to boot, and who, if every tub stood on its right bottom, would be at the head of the Seven Champions of Christendom) — I say, everybody knows that the excellent St. Nicholas, in holiday times, goes about among the people in the middle of the night, distributing all sorts of toothsome and becoming gifts to the good boys and girls in this his favorite city. Some say that he comes down the chimneys in a little Jersey wagon; others, that he wears a pair of Holland skates, with which he travels like the wind; and others, who pretend to have seen him, maintain that he has lately adopted a locomotive, and was actually detected on the Albany railroad. But this last assertion is looked upon to be entirely fabulous, because St. Nicholas has too much discretion to trust himself in such a newfangled jarvie; and so I leave this matter to be settled by whomsoever will take the trouble. My own opinion is, that his favorite mode of traveling is on a canal, the motion and speed of which aptly comport with the philosophic dignity of his character. But this is not material, and I will no longer detain my readers with extraneous and irrelevant matters, as is too much the fashion with our statesmen, orators, biographers, and story-tellers.52
It was in the year one thousand seven hundred and sixty, or sixty-one, for the most orthodox chronicles differ in this respect; but it was a very remarkable year, and it was called annus mirabilis on that account. It was said that several people were detected in speaking the truth, about that time; that nine staid, sober, and discreet widows, who had sworn on an antimasonic almanac never to enter a second time into the holy state, were snapped up by young husbands before they knew what they were about; that six venerable bachelors wedded as many buxom young belles, and, it is reported, were afterward sorry for what they had done; that many people actually went to church from motives of piety; and that a great scholar, who had written a book in support of certain opinions, was not only convinced of his error, but acknowledged it publicly afterward. No wonder the year one thousand seven hundred and sixty, if that was the year, was called annus mirabilis!
What contributed to render this year still more remarkable was the building of six new three-story brick houses in the city, and the fact of three persons’ setting up equipages, who, I cannot find, ever failed in business afterward, or compounded with their creditors at a pistareen in the pound. It is, moreover, recorded in the annals of the horticultural society of that day (which it is said were written on a cabbage-leaf), that a member produced a forked radish of such vast dimensions that, being dressed up in fashionable male attire at the exhibition, it was actually mistaken for a traveled beau by several inexperienced young ladies, who pined away for love of its beautiful complexion, and were changed into daffadowndillies. Some maintained it was a mandrake, but it was finally detected by an inquest of experienced matrons. No wonder the year seventeen hundred and sixty was called annus mirabilis!53
But the most extraordinary thing of all was the confident assertion that there was but one gray mare within the bills of mortality; and, incredible as it may appear, she was the wife of a responsible citizen, who, it was affirmed, had grown rich by weaving velvet purses out of sows’ ears. But this we look upon as being somewhat of the character of the predictions of almanac-makers. Certain it is, however, that Amos Shuttle possessed the treasure of a wife who was shrewdly suspected of having established within doors a system of government not laid down in Aristotle or the Abbé Sieyès, who made a constitution for every day in the year, and two for the first of April.
Amos Shuttle, though a mighty pompous little man out of doors, was the humblest of human creatures within. He belonged to that class of people who pass for great among the little, and little among the great; and he would certainly have been master in his own house, had it not been for a woman. We have read somewhere that no wise woman ever thinks her husband a demigod. If so, it is a blessing that there are so few wise women in the world.
Amos had grown rich, Heaven knows how — he did not know himself; but, what was somewhat extraordinary, he considered his wealth a signal proof of his talents and sagacity, and valued himself according to the infallible standard of pounds, shillings, and pence. But, though he lorded it without, he was, as we have just said, the most gentle of men within doors. The moment he stepped inside of his own house, his spirit cowered down, like that of a pious man entering a church; he felt as if he was in the presence of a superior being — to wit, Mrs. Abigail Shuttle. He was, indeed, the meekest of mortals at home, except Moses; and Sir Andrew Aguecheek’s song, which Sir Toby Belch declared “would draw nine souls 54 out of one weaver,: would have failed in drawing half a one out of Amos. The truth is, his wife, who ought to have known, affirmed he had no more soul than a monkey; but he was the only man in the city thus circumstanced at the time we speak of. No wonder, therefore, the year one thousand seven hundred and sixty was called annus mirabilis!
Such as he was, Mr. Amos Shuttle waxed richer and richer every day, insomuch that those who envied his prosperity were wont to say, “that he had certainly been born with a dozen silver spoons in his mouth, or such a great blockhead would never have got together such a heap of money.” When he had become worth ten thousand pounds, he launched his shuttle magnanimously out of the window, ordered his weaver’s beam to be split up for oven-wood, and Mrs. Amos turned his weaver’s shop into a boudoir. Fortune followed him faster than he ran away from her. In a few years the ten thousand doubled, and in a few more trebled, quadrupled — in short, Amos could hardly count his money.
“What shall we do now, my dear?” asked Mrs. Shuttle who never sought his opinion, that I can learn, except for the pleasure of contradicting him.
“Let us go and live in the country, and enjoy ourselves,” quoth Amos.
“Go into the country! go to ——” I could never satisfy myself what Mrs. Shuttle meant; but she stopped short, and concluded the sentence with a withering look of scorn, that would have cowed the spirits of nineteen weavers.
Amos named all sorts of places, enumerated all sorts of modes of life he could think of, and every pleasure that might enter into the imagination of a man without a soul. Hs wife despised them all; she would not hear of them.
“Well, my dear, suppose you suggest something; do now, 55 Abby,” at length said Amos, in a coaxing whisper; “will you, my onydoney?”
“Ony fiddlestick! I wonder you repeat such vulgarisms. But if I must say what I should like, I should life to travel.”
“Well, let us go and make a tour as far as Jamaica, or Hackensack, or Spiking-devil. There is excellent fishing for striped bass there.”
“Spiking-devil!” screamed Mrs. Shuttle; “a’n’t you ashamed to swear so, you wicked mortal! I won’t go to Jamaica, nor to Hackensack among the Dutch Hottentots, nor to Spiking-devil to catch striped bass. I’ll go to Europe!”
If Amos had possessed a soul, it would have jumped out of its skin at the idea of going beyond seas. He had once been on the sea-bass banks, and got a seasoning there; the very thought of which made him sick. But, as he had no soul, there was no great harm done.
When Mrs. Shuttle said a thing, it was settled. They went to Europe, taking their only son with them. The lady ransacked all the milliners’ shops in Paris, and the gentleman visited all the restaurateurs. He became such a desperate connoisseur and gourmand, that he could almost tell an omelette au jambon from a gammon of bacon. After consummating the polish, they came home, the lady with the newest old fashions, and the weaver with a confirmed preference of potage à la Turque over pepperpot. It is said the city trembled as with an earthquake when they landed; but the notion was probably superstitious.
They arrived near the close of the year, the memorable year, the annus mirabilis, one thousand seven hundred and sixty. Everybody that had ever known the Shuttles flocked to see them, or rather to see what they had brought with them; and 56 such was the magic of a voyage to Europe that Mr. and Mrs. Amos Shuttle, who had been nobodies when they departed, became somebodies when they returned, and mounted at once to the summit of ton.
“You have come in good time to enjoy the festivities of the holidays,” said Mrs. Hubblebubble, an old friend of Amos the weaver and his wife.
“We shall have a merry Christmas and a happy New-year!” exclaimed Mrs. Doubletrouble, another old acquaintance of old times.
“The holidays?” drawled Mrs. Shuttle; “the holidays? Christmas and New-year? Pray, what are they?”
It is astonishing to see how people lose their memories abroad, sometimes. They often forget their old friends and old customs; and, occasionally, themselves.
“Why, la! now, who’d have thought it?” cried Mrs. Doubletrouble; “why, sure you haven’t forgot the oly koeks and the mince-pies, the merry meetings of friends, the sleigh-rides, the Kissing-bridge, and the family parties?”
“Family parties!” shrieked Mrs. Shuttle, and held her salts to her nose; “family parties! I never heard of anything so Gothic in Paris or Rome; and oly koeks — oh, shocking! and mince-pies — detestable! and throwing open one’s doors to all one’s old friends, whom one wishes to forget as soon as possible — oh! the idea is insupportable!” And again she held the salts to her nose.
Mrs. Hubblebubble and Mrs. Doubletrouble found they had exposed themselves sadly, and were quite ashamed. A real, genteel, well-bred, enlightened lady of fashion ought to have no rule of conduct, no conscience, but Paris — whatever is fashionable there is genteel — whatever is not fashionable is vulgar. There is no other standard of right, and no other 57 eternal fitness of things. At least so thought Mrs. Hubblebubble and Mrs. Doubletrouble.
“But is it possible that all these things are out of fashion, abroad?” asked the latter, beseechingly.
“They never were in,” said Mrs. Amos Shuttle. “For my part, I mean to close my doors and windows on New-year’s day — I’m determined.”
“And so am I,” said Mrs. Hubblebubble.
“And so am I,” said Mrs. Doubletrouble.
And it was settled that they should make a combination among themselves and their friends, to put down the ancient and good customs of the city, and abolish the sports and enjoyments of the jolly New-year. The conspirators then separated, each to pursue her diabolical designs against oly koeks, mince-pies, sleigh-ridings, sociable visitings, and family parties.
Now the excellent St. Nicholas, who knows well what is going on in every house in the city, though, like a good and honorable saint, he never betrays any family secrets, overheard these wicked women plottig against his favorite anniversary, and said to himself:
“Vuur en Vlammen!1 but I’ll be even you, mein vrouwen.” So he determined he would play these conceited and misled women a trick or two before he had done with them.
It was now the first day of the new year, and Mrs. Amos Shuttle, and Mrs. Doubletrouble, and Mrs. Hubblebubble, and all their wicked accomplices, had shut up their doors and windows, so that when their old friends called they could not get into their houses. Moreover, they had prepared neither mince-pies, nor oly koeks, nor crullers, nor any of the good things consecrated to St. Nicholas by his pious and well-intentioned votaries; and they were mightily pleased at having 58 been as dull and stupid as owls. while all the rest of the folks were as merry as crickets, chirping and frisking in the warm chimney-corner. Little did they think what horrible judgments were impending over them, prepared by the wrath of the excellent St. Nicholas, who was resolved to make an example of them for attempting to introduce their newfangled corruptions in place of the ancient customs of his favorite city. These wicked women never had another comfortable sleep in their lives!
The night was still, clear, and frosty — the earth was everywhere one carpet of snow, and looked just like the ghost of a dead world, wrapped in a white winding-sheet; the moon was full, round, and of a silvery brightness, and by her discreet silence afforded an example to the rising generation of young damsels, while the myriads of stars, that multiplied as you gazed at them, seemed as though they were frozen into icicles, they looked so cold, and sparkled with such a glorious luster. The streets and roads leading from the city were all alive with sleighs filled with jovial souls, whose echoing laughter and cheerful songs mingled with a thousand merry bells, that jingled in harmonious dissonance, giving spirit to the horses and animation to the scene. In the license of the season, warranted by long custom, each of the sleighs saluted the others in passing with a “Happy New-year,” a merry jest, or a mischievous gibe, exchanged from one gay party to another. All was life, motion, and merriment; and as old frost-bitten Winter, aroused from his trance by the rout and revelry around, raised his weather-beaten head to see what was passing, he felt his icy blood warming and coursing through his veins, and wished he could only overtake the laughing buxom Spring, that he might dance a jig with her, and be as frisky as the best of them. But as the old rogue could not bring this desirable 59 matter about, he contented himself with calling for a jolly bumper of cocktail, and drinking a swinging draught to the health of the blessed St. Nicholas, and those who honor the memory of the president of good fellows.
All this time the wicked women and their accomplices lay under the malediction of the good saint, who caused them to be bewitched by an old lady from Salem. Mrs. Amos Shuttle could not sleep, because something had whispered in her apprehensive ear that her son, her only son, whom she had engaged to the daughter of Count Grenouille, in Paris, then about three years old, was actually at that moment crossing Kissing-bridge, in company with little Susan Varian, and some others. Now Susan was the fairest little lady of all the land. She had a face and an eye just like the Widow Wadman in Leslie’s charming picture, a face and an eye which no reasonable man under heaven could resist, except my Uncle Toby — beshrew him and his fortifications I say! She was, moreover, a good little girl, and an accomplished little girl — but alas! she had not mounted to that step in the Jacob’s ladder of fashion which qualifies a person for the heaven of high ton, and Mrs. Shuttle had not been to Europe for nothing. She would rather have seen her son wedded to dissipation and profligacy than to Susan Varian; and the thought of his being out sleigh-riding with her was worse than the toothache. It kept her awake all the livelong night; and the only consolation she had was scolding poor Amos, because the sleigh-bells made such a noise.
As for Mrs. Hubblebubble and Mrs. Doubletrouble, neither of the wretches got a wink of sleep during a whole week, for thinking of the beautiful French chairs and damask curtains Mrs. Shuttle had brought from Europe. They forthwith besieged their good men, leaving them no rest until they sent out orders to Paris for just such rich chairs and curtains as 60 those of the thrice-happy Mrs. Shuttle, from whom they kept the affair a profound secret, each meaning to treat her to an agreeable surprise. In the meanwhile they could not rest, for fear the vessel which was to bring these treasures might be lost on her passage. Such was the dreadful judgment inflicted on them by the good St. Nicholas.
The perplexities of Mrs. Shuttle increased daily. In the first place, do all she could, she could not make Amos a fine gentleman. This was a metamorphosis which Ovid would never have dreamed of. He would be telling the price of everything in his house, his furniture, his wines, and his dinners, insomuch that those who envied his prosperity, or, perhaps, only despised his pretensions, were wont to say, after eating his venison and drinking his old Madeira, “that he ought to have been a tavern-keeper, he knew so well how to make out a bill.” Mrs. Shuttle once overheard a speech of this kind, and the good St. Nicholas himself, who had brought it about, almost felt sorry for the mortification she endured on the occasion.
Scarcely had she got over this, when she was invited to a ball by Mrs. Hubblebubble, and the first thing she saw on entering the drawing-room was a suit of damask curtains and chairs as much like her own as two peas, only the curtains had far handsomer fringe. Mrs. Shuttle came very near fainting away, but escaped for that time, determining to mortify this impudent creature by taking not the least notice of her finery. But St. Nicholas ordered it otherwise, so that she was at last obliged to acknowledge they were very elegant indeed. Nay, this was not the worst, for she overheard one lady whisper to another that Mrs. Hubblebubble’s curtains were much richer than Mrs. Shuttle’s.
“Oh, I dare say,” replied the other — “I dare say Mrs. 61 Shuttle bought them second-hand, for her husband is as mean as pursley.”
This was too much. The unfortunate woman was taken suddenly ill — called her carriage, and went home, where it is supposed she would have died that evening, had she not wrought upon Amos to promise her an entire new suit of French furniture for her drawing-room and parlor to boot, besides a new carriage. But for all this she could not close her eyes that night, for thinking of the “second-hand curtains.”
Nor was the wicked Mrs. Doubletrouble a whit better off, when her friend Mrs. Hubblebubble treated her to the agreeable surprise of the French window-curtains and chairs. “It is too bad — too bad, I declare,” said she to herself; “but I’ll pay her off soon.” Accordingly she issued invitations for a grand ball and supper, at which both Mrs. Shuttle and Mrs. Hubblebubble were struck dumb at beholding a suit of curtains and a set of chairs exactly of the same pattern with theirs. The shock was terrible, and it is impossible to say what might have been the consequences had not the two ladies all at once thought of uniting in abusing Mrs. Doubletrouble for her extravagance.
“I pity poor Mr. Doubletrouble,” said Mrs. Shuttle, shrugging her shoulders significantly, and glancing at the room.
“And so do I,” said Mrs. Hubblebubble, doing the same.
Mrs. Doubletrouble had her eye upon them, and enjoyed their mortification, until her pride was brought to the ground by a dead shot form Mrs. Shuttle, who was heard to exclaim, in reply to a lady who observed that the chairs and curtains were very handsome:
“Why, yes; but they have been out of fashion in Paris a long time; and, besides, really they are getting so common, that I intend to have mine removed to the nursery.”62
Heavens! what a blow! Poor Mrs. Doubletrouble hardly survived it. Such a night of misery as the wicked woman endured almost made the good St. Nicholas regret the judgment he had passed upon these mischievous and conceited females. But he thought to himself he would persevere, until he had made them a sad example to all innovators upon the ancient customs of our forefathers.
Thus were these wicked and miserable women spurred on by witchcraft from one piece of prodigality to another, and a deadly rivalship grew up between them, which destroyed their own happiness and that of their husbands. Mrs. Shuttle’s new carriage and drawing-room furniture in due time were followed by similar extravagances on the part of the two other wicked women who had conspired against the hallowed institutions of St. Nicholas; and soon their rivalry came to such a height that not one of them had a moment’s rest or comfort from that time forward. But they still shut their doors on the jolly anniversary of St. Nicholas, though the old respectable burghers and their wives, who had held up their heads time out of mind, continued the good custom, and laughed at the presumption of these upstart interlopers, who were followed only by a few people of silly pretensions, who had no more soul than Amos Shuttle himself. The three wicked women grew to be almost perfect skeletons, on account of the vehemence with which they strove to outdo each other, and the terrible exertions necessary to keep up the appearance of being the best friends in the world. In short, they became the laughingstock of the town; and sensible, well-bred folks cut their acquaintance, except when they sometimes accepted an invitation to a party, just to make merry with their folly and conceitedness.
The excellent St. Nicholas, finding they still persisted in 63 their opposition to his rites and ceremonies, determined to inflict on them the last and worst punishment that can befall the sex. He decreed that they should be deprived of all the delights springing from the domestic affections, and all taste for the innocent and virtuous enjoyments of a happy fireside. Accordingly, they lost all relish for home; were continually gadding about from one place to another in search of pleasure; and worried themselves to death to find happiness where it is never to be found. Their whole lives became one long series of disappointed hopes, galled pride, and gnawing envy. They lost their health, they lost their time, and their days became days of harassing impatience, their nights nights of sleepless, feverish excitement, ending in weariness and disappointment. The good saint sometimes felt sorry for them, but their continued obstinacy determined him to persist in his scheme for punishing the upstart pride of these rebellious females.
Young Shuttle, who had a soul, which I suppose he inherited from his mother, all this while continued his attentions to little Susan Varian, and so added to the miseries inflicted on the wicked old woman. Mrs. Shuttle insisted that Amos should threaten to disinherit his son, unless he gave up this attachment.
“Lord bless your soul, Abby,” said Amos, “what’s the use of my threatening? The boy knows, as well as I do, that I’ve no will of my own. Why, bless by soul, Abby ——”
“Bless your soul!” interrupted Mrs. Shuttle; “I wonder who’d take the trouble to bless it, but yourself! However, if you don’t, I will.”
Accordingly she threatened the young man with being disinherited, unless he turned his back on little Susan Varian, which no man ever did without getting a heartache.64
“If my father goes on as he has done lately,” sighed the youth, “he won’t have anything left to disinherit me of but his affection, I fear. But if he had millions I would not abandon Susan.”
“Are you not ashamed of such a plebeian attachment? You, that have been to Europe! But, once for all, remember this, renounce this lowborn upstart, or quit your father’s home forever.”
“Upstart!” thought young Shuttle — “one of the oldest families in the city.” He made his mother a respectful bow, bade Heaven bless her, and left the house. He was, however, met at the door by his father, who said to him:
“Johnny, I give my consent; but mind, don’t tell your mother a word of the matter. I’ll let her know I’ve a soul, as well as other people,” and he tossed his head like a war-horse.
The night after this, Johnny was married to little Susan, and the blessing of affection and beauty lighted upon his pillow. Her old father, who was in a respectable business, took his son-in-law into partnership, and they prospered so well that, in a few years, Johnny was independent of all the world, with the prettiest wife and children in the land. But Mrs. Shuttle was inexorable, while the knowledge of his prosperity and happiness only worked her up to a higher pitch of anger, and added to the pangs of jealousy perpetually inflicted on her by the rivalry of Mrs. Hubblebubble and Mrs. Doubletrouble, who suffered under the like infliction from the wrathful St. Nicholas, who was resolved to make them an example to all posterity.
No fortune, be it ever so great, can stand the eternal sapping of wasteful extravagance, engendered and stimulated by the baleful passion of envy. In less than ten years from the hatching 65 of the diabolical conspiracy of these three wicked women against the supremacy of the excellent St. Nicholas, their spendthrift rivalship had ruined the fortunes of their husbands, and entailed upon themselves misery and remorse. Rich Amos Shuttle became at last as poor as a church-mouse, and would have been obliged to take to the loom again in his old age, had not Johnny, now rich, and a worshipful magistrate of the city, afforded him and his better half a generous shelter under his own happy roof. Mrs. Hubblebubble and Mrs. Doubletrouble had scarcely time to condole with Mrs. Shuttle, and congratulate each other, when their husbands went the way of all flesh, that is to say, failed for a few tens of thousands, and called their creditors together to hear the good news. The two wicked women lived long enough after this to repent of their offense against St. Nicholas; but they never imported any more French curtains, and at last perished miserably in an attempt to set the fashions in Pennypot alley.
Mrs. Abigail Shuttle might have lived happily the rest of her life with her children and grandchildren (who all treated her with reverent courtesy and affection), now that the wrath of the mighty St. Nicholas was appeased by her exemplary punishment. But she could not get over her bad habits and feelings, or forgive her lovely little daughter-in-law for treating her so kindly when she so little deserved it. She gradually pined away; and though she revived on hearing of the catastrophe of Mrs. Hubblebubble and Mrs. Doubletrouble, it was only for a moment. The remainder of the life of this nefarious woman was a series of disappointments and heart-burnings. When she died, Amos tried to shed a few tears, but he found it impossible; I suppose because, as his wife always said, “he had no soul.”
Such was the terrible revenge of St. Nicholas, which ought 66 to be a warning to all who attempt to set themselves up against the venerable customs of their ancestors, and backslide from the hallowed institutions of the blessed saint, to whose good offices, without doubt, it is owing that this his favorite city has transcended all others of the universe in beautiful damsels, valorous young men, mince-pies, and New-year cookies. The catastrophe of these three iniquitous wives had a wonderful influence in the city, insomuch that, from this time forward, no gray mares were ever known, no French furniture was every used, and no woman was hardy enough to set herself up in opposition to the good customs of St. Nicholas. And so, wishing many happy New-years to all my dear countrywomen and countrymen, saving those who shut their doors to old friends, high or low, rich or poor, on that blessed anniversary which makes more glad hearts than all others put together — I say, wishing a thousand happy New-years to all with this single exception, I lay down my pen, with a caution to all wicked women to beware of the revenge of St. Nicholas.
1 Fire and flames.
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