Farewells To The Old House By The River
( Originally Published 1893 )
CRITICISED BY A CROW-FAREWELLS TO THE OLD HOUSE BY THE RIVER-CONVINCED THAT ONE ACRE IS ENOUGH-AN OLD-TIME HARLEM LETTER-OUR FAMILY DINNER-THE LAST NIGHT OF "MY SUMMER ACRE."
As I stood upon the back porch this morning to drink in the sunshine just dashed with frost, I heard the last of the woodpeckers hammering at the trunk of the old cherry-tree in search of his breakfast. He did not seem to be at all lonesome, but rather was a cheery little fellow with whom business had driven sentiment out of his head, or else, as I fancied, he might have paused and twittered out a few bird thoughts about the flight of all the rest of his fellows in feathers. But he was as heedless of creatures who cannot fly as were the sea-gulls that were skimming the waters of Hell Gate, and who, as they at times swung slowly up and then darted swiftly down through the sunshine, were a flash of silver in the sky. I stood and drew in once more the full beauty of the scene: the rushing river and unquiet Gate, the islands, head-lands, and black bits of rock amid the broken waters, with each one its own story of shipwreck and legend of the goblin days of the colony-the brown marshes, with their stretches of green lawn on the uplands beyond them-the trees that bounded the horizon, all bare and brown when seen close at hand, but now transfigured by the embrace of the sun-and I drew it all in, every fair feature of this wonderful Venice in America, so as to call it up before my eyes in the days to come when I should talk or think of the old house by the river. " If I were to moralize upon this scene," I began, half aloud, thinking that Nebuchadnezzar and Martha Washington, who sat curled up in quiet content on one of the steps at my feet, were my only auditors. " But you know that you never do anything else, father," broke in mischievous Mistress Nell, who had come quietly forward and stood at my elbow, " and the coffee is getting cold and I am hungry." Just then there came down from the upper sky the strident," Ah ! ah !" of a crow who was winging his way to the fishing-grounds of Long Island, and who had paused for a moment to fling down his mockery of the idea that age could moralize or youth be hungered, and Nellie and I turned to each other and smiled at the wise saying of the bird.
There was nothing left for regret in the lawn and gardens upon which we turned our backs. There are bits of emerald in the grass-plot, but for the most part it is sere and brown. The syringa and lilac bushes, moved thereto by plentiful rains and a few days of late, warm sunshine, have sent out stray leaves o green, as if they were dreaming of a second spring, and a few marigolds and dandelions yet linger defiant of frost, but the glory of the flowers has departed. In black Diana's realm a solitary pumpkin, a very apple of her eye, revels in riotous sunbeams, and a few dilapidated and disreputable stalks of corn keep it company. The rest has become only a memory that we can carry away with us. It will serve us hereafter for epics at the fireside. There is not one of us who will forget the wealth that this memorable acre poured out at our feet. " If I were to moralize," I had remarked only yesterday in strict confidence to my cats, " I would say that you will dream many a time in the coming winter of the delights that have been yours in this delectable land, and whole armies of edible and well-digested songsters will rise from their graves and flit through your slumbers-but I forbear." It sounds magnanimous to close in this way, for, as I have tried to impress upon Mistress Nellie, I never moralize. We leave the gardens to the toads and crickets, for whom the builders, when they come next spring to remove the roof that has sheltered us and to lay the foundation of a modern brick abomination in the shape of flats, will make life a burden.
The coffee was all right, and so were the delicate pancakes, in whose concoction Diana was a phenomenon ; but somehow we brought little appetite to our breakfasts. If we were but sojourners for a season in the tents of the Knickerbockers we had come to be fond of our temporary home, and none of us liked to say to the other in words that this was the last morning that we should sit down together and have the trees above our heads and the river at our feet. Even Master Felix had caught the oppression in our hearts, and had commenced with, I say, papa, at this time to-morrow-" when he checked himself, looked at us with a sudden pang of thought and gave relief to his feelings by stooping to pinch Nebuchadnezzar's tail, drawing from that patient animal such a howl of indignant protest that we all joined in the boy's hysterical laughter. Master Felix turned it off well, and inquired with deep affectation of interest in antiquities, " I say papa, when will you finish about Harlem ?" It was a relief to me to say: " That depends on the future, my son. I have only scratched the surface of the ground that is rich with a harvest of remembrance. It would take a whole volume to do justice to the men who from first to last have made the marshes and wooded heights of Harlem to blossom into a city. Some day you may set yourself to the task, if you like." Master Felix smiled. He likes best to hear of the times when the Indians had their October camp at Hell Gate Bay, and reared the piles of oyster-shells which in after-years testified to their fondness for the delicious bivalve ; or of the days when, with blunderbuss and musquetoon, the slow but sagacious Dutch youth pursued the otter and rabbit across the spoor at the Kills and on to Horn's Hook.
But I must pause here to speak of a letter which I have recently unearthed and that is addressed to the "Honorable, Valiant, and Worthy Lords, my Lords Petrus Stuyvesant, Director-general, and the Council of New Netherlands." It is written by a worthy voorleeser and schepen, one of the founders of Harlem, who had sought and obtained the assistance of the council in wooing for his second wife a buxom widow whose husband had been lost at sea. Things had not gone well with him afterwards. The winters had been hard ; his pay had been small ; harvests had been niggardly, and age had added to his troubles until, at sixty-eight, he had incurred reproof from the council for being in debt upon their books. It was a primitive community, in which unflinching honesty was the rule, and incessant labor every man's lot. The unfortunate pioneer received the rebuke " with great heart grief," but he adds, "not that my conscience witnesses to me that I am fallen into the same by any quis cingit ostio that I may have practised, having (without boasting) always kept my household in victuals and clothes temperately as a common burgher here ; but the excessive dearth of all things has driven me insensibly into such need and poverty as that never in the sixty-eight years that I have lived, so great distress have felt, finding myself destitute of all means to provide for my daily bread and provisions for the winter." Yet his courage was undaunted. " My life," he writes, "is in Him who hath always helped me." So the brave old man, whose do-main covered my little summer acre, and many an-other that was then equally unprofitable, girds himself anew for the fight, and comes out victor in the end. These, were the heroes and this the rude but heroic work that redeemed the Island of Mahattan to civilization. Doubtless their spirit survives in their descend-ants, but I sometimes wish that there were more of the ancient courtesy of address extant, such as is shown in this quaint old letter, to which the writer subscribes himself, "Your Worthy Honors' humble and willing servant."
One of the surviving and immortal wonders of the world is the amount of luggage and trash which one small family can accumulate in the course of a season. We brought nothing when we came here, which is the way we put it to ourselves, but it is certain that we shall carry a mountain away. A few books here, a few pictures there, an easy chair or two, some additional comforts, then the furnishings of our temporary home kept accumulating at the expense of our city house, and now we have been compelled to pack up amid many groanings of heart and at the expense of a day of rare discomfort. It would not be so bad if we were glad to go, but in our hearts we know that we dislike to close this pleasant chapter in the book, and though we say to each other that it will be a relief to be back in our old haunts, we somehow feel an attachment to this ancient mansion that makes the very ghosts of the men and women who dwelt here in past centuries seem like familiar acquaintances. This breaking-up recalls the legend of the enchanted palace in which a mortal couple were allowed to dwell in uninterrupted bliss, but warned that the walls would collapse and their luxurious contents vanish at the first farewell that should be spoken.
The old colonel was our guest at dinner, and Mistress Nellie was charming as she waited tenderly upon him. There is a secret between them, as I long have known, and I trusted to this dinner to reveal it, but even the mince-pie-which my old friend, the Presiding Bishop, says is not orthodox until " Stir Up Sun-day," for which see the Collect for the First Sunday in Advent-with its genial cheer, did not bring it to the surface. But we did bravely, none the less. The old colonel was in his best mood and gave us rare reminiscences of his campaigns in Florida against the re-doubtable " Billy Bowlegs" and the Seminoles, those fierce but courtly paladins of the Everglades, and at the request of Master Felix, and on condition that he will put it into words, I told the story of the " Two Brothers," from whom the two little islands off Port Morris in the East River are named. But Diana capped the climax, when the boy insisted that she should tell him the story of the two Hog's Backs and Captain Kidd, with which she had more than once entertained him in the kitchen. "'Deed and 'deed, Mas'r Felix, I don't know nuffin 'bout dem beastesses !" she cried out from her post behind Mistress Nellie's chair. " Dat fool nigger what's courtin' me done tell me 'bout de debbil flying away wid ole Dutchman and leavin' him straddle de Hog's Back, and he wants me to go down and hear de old ghostesses sizzlin' on de Frying Pan Rock. I'se glad to go back to folkses any way, 'cause if I stay here any longer dat nigger 'll want me to dig down at de foot ob de rock by de garden shore for Cappen Kidd's gold." And so here were love and legend, buried gold and ancient fable, as the cap-sheaf of " My Summer Acre." It was marvellous.
Just then something still more wonderful happened. My daughter left her place at the table-the twilight was coming on then apace, but we would not have the candles lighted yet-and went and stood by the old colonel, placing her little hand in his. " Father," she said, with a playfulness that was painful to me because its touch of solemnity, " you have been teaching me all this summer that one acre is enough for happiness, and I have learned the lesson of contentment with a small lot in life." I did not dare smile at her little joke, but the old colonel chuckled and said under his breath : " A centre shot, by George !" Then Nellie went on, with a tremor in her voice that lent added beauty to its gentle music: " Please don't laugh at my confession of conversion, but make room at your table to-day for the man whom I honor and revere of all the world next to you, and to whom I have given my heart." I was speechless. Nellie came and knelt at my chair. The door opened. I heard a smothered duet of laughter which convinced me that Diana's lover and that sable spinster were in the plot, and then a young man came and knelt by Nellie's side, whom I knew to be the old colonel's grandson, a college tutor and preacher in Connecticut. Now, I do not like preachers outside of the Established Church, and I am still somewhat of a Dutchman in regard to Yankees, but what was a man of peace to do under such circumstances? If I objected that he was not rich in this world's goods, what became of my pet theory about a single acre and an old - fashioned home? Besides, I should be in a minority of one. When the young man came in at the door behind him stalked Nebuchadnezzar, bristling all over with friendliness, his tail borne high in air as a sacred oriflamme, and doing all that a cat could do to give the young couple his benediction. He had at once adopted Nellie's suitor into the family, and what could I do then but lift Nellie up and kiss her, with a few natural tears, as I placed her hand in that of her future husband and bade God bless them ? It was Master Felix who broke the silence with a re-mark that set us all at our ease : " Nellie, I'll get him to teach me how to shoot rabbits."
The old colonel departed early, but it was nine o'clock before the family took up its line of march and left the Ark. Like our predecessors of Noah's time, we went out in pairs, Diana and her sable escort, both giggling audibly with happiness, in advance. Master Felix and I came next, and in a basket on his arm were Nebuchadnezzar and Martha Washington, growling savagely. At the gate Nellie and Paul lingered for a moment in the shadow of the tall fir-tree. "Come away," I said to Master Felix, who had no memories of youth to recall other lingerings in unforgotten shadows. The quiet night' came down and wrapped us up. I heard only the chirp of a cricket among the leaves of the honeysuckle vine on the porch that still was full of life though bronzed with frost.
I do not wish to be thought irreverent, but in that one of the many mansions which will have my name upon the door-plate, I hope to be as happy as we have been in " My Summer Acre."