The Eastern Shore
( Originally Published 1907 )
THE Eastern Shore! What suggestive power these words have! What visions of hospitable living they conjure up! And there is such delightful arrogance in the name. It is as if all the other eastern shores are of no account; as if, literally, they do not exist, and as if everyone must instantly comprehend that, when the Eastern Shore is mentioned, there is no possibility that anything but that part of Maryland which lies on the eastern side of the Chesapeake can be meant.
A journey thither is but the matter of a few hours from Philadelphia, down through the peach orchards of Delaware and into the land of charm, where there are romantic houses, and far-inreaching inlets, and huge oaks, and brilliant holly bushes, and honey-suckle, and where, with unexpected appreciation of the highest demands of "local color," scarlet tanagers now and then flit across the white shell roads.
We chose at random for our stopping place, a town, a county seat, whose name had a pleasing sound. It proved to be a quaint old place, with houses whose dormer windows suggested attic treasure and whose roofs of shingle were green with heavy moss.
Yet there were not many houses of real distinction within the town itself for it had been the custom, with most of the families of prominence, to live away from the towns in houses facing tidewater and surrounded by broad acres.
Buzzards were much in evidence too; an affable, amicable, neighborly breed, who loiteringly fly over the fields or perch in unostentatious lines upon back fences. Colored folk give the impression of being all-pervasive; and, as in other parts of the South, there is considerable old furniture in their possession, although perhaps so dilapidated as to be beyond repair.
A Heppelwhite sideboard, with two legs missing, was propped up in the shed of a negro family, in the outskirts of the town. The brass handles had disappeared, but a nail projected from each drawer in equivalence. Seed-corn, and mule medicine, and bits of old iron, were in the drawers. But we did not seriously consider its rejuvenation, .as at that time we were anticipating the possession of a side-board from another part of the country.
At the edge of the shaded green beside the court-house, black men and women were seated in rows, selling their wares in public market. Such shad there was, and such oysters! A basket was all that each one had and the emptying of that meant a prosperous day's work. The residents were out getting supplies. Men who gave critical attention to the choice of shad, and who were followed each by his old dusky servant with a lidded basket, were a common sight. A reputation for hospitality and good living is not founded on telephone orders to the butcher.
The warm spring air, the line of horses at the hitching bar, the general aspect of plenty of time, the homely character of the simple market by the road-side, carried one back many years from the life of to-day. This is a sort of living which was typical of much of the South before the Revolutionary War, and one can understand the story of the colored steward who, for a dinner at the executive mansion on Cherry Hill, in New York, bought, to please President Washington, an early shad, for two dollars-but only to have it coldly ordered away as a rebuke for such extravagance.
But, fascinating as were the roads and the trees and the water, the shad and the oysters, the poke-weed shoots and the baskets of beaten biscuits, we had not gone to the Eastern Shore altogether for perishable delights or for scenery.
After a general look about the town we came again to the business street. The shops were close together, and there were stationers and booksellers, and vendors of needles and pins, the modern idea of consolidation not having penetrated here.
Along the thin brick pavement, under the wooden awnings which extended over the sidewalk and rested upon curbstone rods, we walked slowly on, until, just beyond the onions and radishes of a green-grocer, we caught sight of an Empire sideboard, upon whose front and ends and top the polish had whitened under the influence of drip from the awning.
It came to us that this must be the sideboard of which our innkeeper, garrulously discoursing of old furniture for our behoof, had told. "He bought my grandfather's sideboard at a sale, suh, and wanted to sell it to me for four dollars! And I told him I would give him three dollars for it, suh, and then I worked up to three fifty, but we have n't come to terms yet, suh."
There were four fine columns across the front. There were three large cupboard doors. There was a claw foot at one end and a short stub, toeless and shapeless, at the other, giving it a cant forward that threw its bottle drawers open with a rakish and desperate look. At each end, under the board of the top, on pulling a brass knob, there appeared a long mahogany slide, thus increasing the already generous length very considerably. How many glasses and bottles and custard cups had been set forth on those slides! And what a clever idea it was, and one so very easily made use of.
We entered; and found that we were in the undertaking shop of the county. An old man greeted us, and told us he was tending the shop for his son, who was out. The old man liked to talk, and he told how many years he had been a cabinet-maker and how many great men of the Shore he had measured.
He was very much out of patience with the factory furniture of to-day, and with the heavy varnish put on with, a brush. He was full of tales of old times and old ways, and told how Admiral B- used to have his mahogany polished. "No shellac in that house! No French polish for him! No stuff of that kind! Just a big cork and a darky and bees-wax! That was the old Admiral's way and it 's the way of the whole Eastern Shore, and it's the best way-only you can't get a darky nowadays who 'll rub all day on the top of a dining table."
The sideboard at the front was spoken of, but as a piece of furniture it did not seem to please the old cabinet-maker particularly and he sniffed out that his son had bought it and wanted to sell it. "He 's been offering it for four dollars but maybe he 'll take less. There's a better one out in the barn, for four dollars, straight."
It soon appeared that the old man had a positive dislike for veneer; and as the Empire sideboard was veneered on its whole face, on all its panels and on the margins of doors and drawers, the reason for his dislike of the piece was sufficiently evident. And for our part, the knowledge that the innkeeper was trying to get it because of its having belonged to his grandfather was alone sufficient to restrain us from trying to make an acquisition.
The old cabinet-maker of the Eastern Shore disliked veneer because he was of what may be termed the school of Chippendale, who, although veneer was in use long before his time, notably by Boulle, and in his time, by Riesener, stoutly made all of his effects by solid wood alone. But Sheraton and Heppelwhite used veneer with admirable effectiveness, and the Empire workers used it even more although oftentimes to less good purpose.
There is a widespread prejudice against veneer, not based upon full knowledge, like that of the old cabinet-maker, but owing its strength to the figurative use of the word as meaning surface gloss or false pretense.
But veneer is often admirable, and whether or not it is so depends upon the motive of the cabinet-maker as well as his skill. If used as a makeshift or mask it should be condemned as false.
The top of a table or bureau is sometimes veneered to obtain the highly desired "quartered" effect, or "tree" pattern as it is sometimes called, but flat veneered surfaces are much more easily damaged than are solid tops. Water or oil spilled upon veneer is liable to raise blisters, which are serious defacements, whereas spill-marks upon solid wood are easily effaced.
But there are some curved surfaces, such as round pillars, with which beautiful effects can be secured with veneer, through the natural lines of the grain of the wood, where effectiveness would largely be lost with solid wood unless it were carved. Carving was used by some old-time makers where effects in veneer and inlay were depended upon by others.
There are sometimes edges and panels effectively veneered, and admirably so where the edges are protected by the surrounding wood from damage. That some of the best old furniture shows mahogany veneer upon solid mahogany, well illustrates what is meant by an honest and admirable use of veneer.
Leaving the old veneered sideboard, the cabinet-maker adjusted a bell so that it would ring when the door opened and led us back into his yard and barn.
And a great surprise was in store for us. For in the barn, half-filled as it was with hay and corn, stood nine pieces of exceptionally fine mahogany.
Near the door was a solid, dark, huge corner-cupboard, with bonnet-top; or "broken-arch" top as it is frequently termed; it being the style, introduced two hundred years ago into furniture, in which the pediment is broken by a space in the middle. The cupboard was polished by the cork and beeswax and rubbing of many years and gleamed dully amid the litter of the shabby barn. The cupboard doors were solid instead of one being of glass, and this was a distinctly unfavorable point, even though they were of good wood and of good proportions. On opening the doors, it was seen that there was a curious blemish-though a tribute, of sorts, to the good cheer that had once been there-for rats had gnawed great holes through every shelf.
Balanced with its legs in air was a small work-table with two drawers and rope-carved legs. This table had a slide below the drawers from which tatters of green silk still hung where the silk work-bag used to be, as seen so often in old-time pictures. The price of this little table was seven dollars; and this seemed curious, for it was not of so fine a style as the great corner-cupboard or as other pieces there. But the explanation was simple. It was small, and would for that reason sell more readily, for the ex-press charges would be light. And it was ready to use except for a new silk bag.
Purchasers dread the express charges on heavy old pieces; and the amateur in collecting fears to face the world with a sideboard without a leg. A pillar gone, or an urn missing from a mirror top, sends the value sharply down in the judgment of most purchasers. A small chip in the veneer will check the otherwise ardent buyer of a chest of drawers, although it could be mended for fifty cents, or by twenty minutes' work if the purchaser would do it himself at his home.
In that shabby building, too, there was a tilting-table which would both revolve and tip, and which, moreover, had a raised edge to prevent cups from slipping off. A treasure, that, indeed! To be sure, the slender graceful snake feet had been painted red and the top had been roughly used for holding flower pots, but the flame of the wood still glowed, and the table could easily be restored to full beauty.
There was, too, a dining table of heavy fine dark wood; a Pembroke table-which sounds so very much better than merely to say that it had two leaves which hung almost to the floor. This is the sort of table that, if it belonged to one's grandfather, one would be glad to place in the middle of the dining room, but which, unless it have some such personal association, repels by its long and dolorously drooping leaves.
Such examples of what may be found by a stranger making a flying visit, at random, are sufficient to give an intimation of what is still to be discovered along the Eastern Shore.
It used to be not uncommon for some of the big salesrooms to say in their advertisements, that they were going to dispose at auction of carloads of "old furniture from the Eastern Shore"; and the picture of a country denuded of its treasures had begun to fix itself in our minds; and had we not known something of the ways of advertisers we should not have had the courage to go into that particular field in search of furniture. As a matter of fact, a collection of furniture offered for sale as being from a specified locality, is likely to contain not only pieces that are genuinely from that locality, but pieces from much nearer home and even imitations and reproductions. Many a lot of furniture to which an attractive name, such as the Eastern Shore, or Beaufort, is attached, consists of the fraudulent new as well as the genuine old. It is not uncommon, too, in disposing of the belongings of some well-known collector, to augment the total with other articles, good or bad.
But, although not nearly so much as has been claimed has been taken away from the Eastern Shore by dealers, great quantities have been taken, and we deemed ourselves fortunate to discover nine good old pieces in one old barn.
While we were still in the barn, looking over the things with the old cabinet-maker, the bell jangled and we heard active approaching footsteps, and the son appeared. A wiry alert sort of man he was, and he began by saying that there was little profit in the sale of furniture in such a broken-down condition.
"What I mean to do is fix it up. If I can only get the time I can make these old things worth while. I was up in Baltimore last winter and I saw tables that were tables! Polished-well, I should say they were! And inlaid!-well, all along the edges there were lines, and down the legs there were rows of tapering flowers! I found where I could buy such things for inlay work and I bought a whole out-fit. Just as soon as there 's a lull in our undertaking business-we've been pretty busy, you know," he interpolated brightly-"I mean to get these old things out and fix them up. Father, here, could do it but he does n't feel like beginning at it, and anyway, we 've both been too busy."
"How much do you want for the tip-table?" he was asked.
"You can have that for three dollars. You can scrape that paint off and get the surface off the top and you '11 have a fine table and fine wood. Father taught me all he knows, and it 's no small learning when you learn cabinet-making from a man of the old school."
The young man turned to the hay-mow and dragged down by one leg a graceful but shattered bandy-leg table. It was of the Chippendale period or older. It had graceful curving legs, slim above the feet and ending in perfect bird's claws clasping a ball. The top was formed of what had been the extension leaves, and was fastened to the frame by coarse wooden pins. It had seen service as a drip-board for dishes and the beautiful hard wood had been made fairly fuzzy by hot water.
The top, being larger than it ought to be, had been the salvation of the graceful legs and of the claw-and-ball feet, for, projecting so far as it did, it had protected them from serious mars.
It was evident that the top was large enough and to spare for the cutting from it of a top of good proportions, and that the fuzzy surface could be planed away, thus getting down to the fine dark grain.
The young man went to his . workshop, and returned with a handful of the inlays that he had told of purchasing. They looked as if they were made of yellow celluloid-or, rather, they looked like dark macaroni cut into inlay designs. There were drooping garlands of bellflower, and corner designs, and little panels for drawers, and wooden ovals for keyhole escutcheons. Such things we had seen many times in the finished products in the fine shops where Antiquities with a big A are sold, but we had not thought to handle them, loose, in an old barn on the Eastern Shore.
He laid some on the bandy-leg table. Inlays were pushed along the fuzzy, water-ruined top, with a suggestive hand. Memories of that Baltimore shop were crowding in his mind. It was clear that he thought the graceful old Chippendale table would look very fine smartened up with this Heppelwhite ornamentation; with an oval panel in the middle, with a heavy line all around the edge, with geometric figures at the four corners.
"Should you like to sell it as it stands?" we asked, but thinking that a man so ardent in affection for inlay would be hard to persuade to part with an opportunity of using it.
"Oh, yes. As it stands you can have it for a dollar," he said.
Of course it at once became ours, and for three dollars the tilting-table became ours too! And these were the prices at which the dealer first offered them -there was no beating down. And therefore there was again that sense of pleasure which accompanies a pleasant triumph.
"I 'll see to the shipping," he added casually; "I can get time between funerals to send them to the station."
The old Pembroke table, not nearly the equal of the others in design, but with its wood in good condition, he prized more highly. And we almost felt like buying it to save it when he explained his reason.
"You see, a table with big wings like that has got a lot of good flat wood in it. I can get-let me see, five feet wide, eight feet the other way-I can get forty square feet of West Indian mahogany out of it. That 's where I get some money out of old furniture! I knock the leaves off, and crate them up rough and easy, and get a good price for all I can send to that man I told you of, in Baltimore."
Leaving his shop, after securing the treasures that we most cared for, we went forth to see the country beyond the limits of the town.
A long drive over the white shell roads, past giant oaks in the fields and holly bushes gleaming with glossy green and with the blue of the broad tide-water inlets constantly coming into view, brought us in sight of many stately old homes, well placed, with terraces and groves, and always facing toward some arm of the bay.
These inlets, and the fine old homes as well, have names well chosen and old and full of charm.
The houses are a delight to any lover of the old, for not only do they outwardly possess beauty and distinction, but they have wainscoting in their halls, and twirled balustrades upon the staircases, and fire places in their drawing rooms, and corner-cupboards in their dining rooms-or buffets, we should call them here on the Eastern Shore. The houses have also window seats in the bedrooms, cranes in the kitchens, and knockers on the doors, and in some of them there are quantities of fine furniture. And as to this point, one must needs bear in mind, as elsewhere in regions of fine houses, that at any time there may be a sale and a dispersion. There had been a sale at one of the great houses the winter before we were there.
We returned from our long drive thrilled and filled with the spirit of it all. Our dreams were haunted by old Gilbert Stuart gentlemen in mulberry-colored coats who sat in fireside chairs and read in the wainscoted rooms and took candles up broad and easy stairs on their way to bed.
Next day we went to a shore town with a name suggestive of green quadrangles and stone halls, and found ourselves in a small and quiet village with a number of well-kept houses, some small byways, and a willow-shaded landing. Unimportant, and far away, was the railroad. The Chesapeake was sparkling and blue; and the winding tidewater estuaries tempted with their fascination.
The inn was a rambling structure, part new and part old, and we were shown into the older portion, overlooking the water, and our room was one that was legendarily associated with a noted figure of Colonial and Revolutionary period; a room with wainscoted side, and a fireplace, and many elusory and annoying drafts.
Early in the morning we took a boat, the typical boat of this part of the world; a "cunner"-thus the Shore pronounces it, and the word was once, presumably, "canoe" ; but "canoe" gives the impression of lightness, airiness, and paddles, while a "cunner" is long and heavy, and carries a good stout sail, and needs a man and a boy to handle it in a wind, and is capable of speed. "Cunners" are made of four hollowed pine trunks, and fit the landscape just as the boats with prairie-schooner tops fit Como or the la-teen sails fit the harbor of Salerno.
We sailed up long stretches of sparkling estuary, past house after house built in 1720 or 1740 and associated with men who served with Braddock or signed the Declaration or won fame as general or admiral.
Sweeping up one of the tidewater inlets before a sharp wind, the spray dashed in over the bow, and our boatman adjusted what may be called a wooden fin, to heighten the bow and keep off the flying water. The shape of the fin and the purpose for which it was used seemed strangely familiar. Where had we seen such a thing? And then it came to us. In crossing from Monnikendam to Marken, in a high sea, the old Dutch skipper, in his ribbed knee-stockings, and trousers of wonderful cut, and his silver-buttoned jacket, stooped and slipped just such a fin into place as a wave came over the bow, remarking stolidly that out on the North Sea it must be "vindisch and sturmish." It was curious to recognize the similarity between the methods of the Zuyder Zee and the Chesapeake.
Ahead of us, in the estuary, was a rounding curve of land, a little higher than the neighboring river bank. It sloped on three sides gently and grassily to the water. There was a stretch of silvery sand where the tide rose and fell below the grass line. There were great elms in park-like plenty. From the water's edge and the ruins of a small landing a broad path went up, very straight, to an old house. It was Easter week, and that path, grassgrown now, was still bordered on either side by the green and yellow of daffodils. We could see that, as the path approached the house, it rose by two stone steps to a smooth terrace immediately in front.
We were rounding the bend, when a gust of wind took us very suddenly and the pole of the rudder cracked off short, and the boatman turned the craft toward the shore and grounded it under the bank. He would borrow an ax, he said, to cut and trim a new rudder pole from a cedar tree.
So we landed, to explore this enchanted land. We walked under the elms around the headland so that we might go up the daffodil path. The house to which it led was low and rambling, with wings. The main part had four dormer windows and was bowered in honeysuckle. It was empty, and in care of a negro. He came from his cabin, some distance away, opened the door, and told us the owners would be glad to have us see the house and rest in the shade.
The house was built for hospitality and not for solitude. It had individuality. It welcomed us although it was empty. We entered the great room under the dormers. It had a waxed floor and low ceiling. On the side toward the daffodil path and the water there were two windows and a door. On the opposite side were other two windows and an-other door, and the river-like estuary so curved that they also looked out toward the water. The rising sun would shine in at one side and the setting sun at the other. This room, which had been the library, was unusually long, and at either end stood a fireplace, set in a paneled and wainscoted wall.
And how charming it would be to take such a home in such a region-to fill it with old furniture treasures gathered hereabouts and from other regions as old. Why, it would be the very poetry of living! The gleaming water, everywhere the magic touch of a charming age, everywhere repose and peace and beauty, with honeysuckle and oaks, with scarlet birds, with climbing vines and nodding dormers, with fires flaming joyously at each other from opposite ends of the noble library, and with the long room, like the hall of the famous chateau of the Cher, "illuminated from either side by the flickering river-light" -what could possibly be more felicitous!
People can almost always find the house for which they earnestly seek, the house which their temperament and needs demand. Hawthorne, in New England, found the Old Manse and the little red house at Stockbridge Bowl; Stevenson, on the Pacific, found his Silverado; and others may find a Silverado or an Old Manse as they alternatively prefer.
The thirty houses of the Farmington-this house and other empty houses that we found, along this Eastern Shore-our own old inn-all show what may be done by him who would do it. And always, a region of such houses tells unmistakably that it is a region where charming old furniture may be acquired.
-Charming'? Of course! Old furniture is always charming! Why, even when Hardcastle tried to be sarcastic, with Marlow, he couldn't help expressing the beauty and the charm of the very things that the present generation has come to collect with such enthusiasm. "There 's a pair of silver candlesticks, and there 's a fire-screen, and here 's a pair of brazen-nosed bellows-perhaps you may take a fancy to them? There are a set of prints too, and there 's a mahogany table that you may see your own face in."