The Worlds Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906. Vols. IV: American
The Pettibone Lineage
By James Thomas Fields (18171881)
From Atlantic Monthly, 1865
MY name is Esek Pettibone, and I wish to affirm in the outset that it is a good thing to be well-born. In thus connecting the mention of my name with a positive statement, I am not unaware that a catastrophe lies coiled up in the juxtaposition. But I cannot help writing plainly that I am still in favor of a distinguished family-tree. Esto perpetua! To have had somebody for a great-grandfather that was somebody is exciting. To be able to look back on long lines of ancestry that were rich, but respectable, seems decorous and all right. The present Earl of Warwick, I think, must have an idea that strict justice has been done him in the way of being launched properly into the world. I saw the Duke of Newcastle once, and as the farmer in Conway described Mount Washington, I thought the Duke felt a propensity to hunch up some. Somehow it is pleasant to look down on the crowd and have a conscious right to do so.
Left an orphan at the tender age of four years, having no brothers or sisters to prop me round with young affections and sympathies, I fell into three pairs of hands, excellent in their way, but peculiar. Patience, Eunice, and Mary Ann Pettibone were my aunts on my fathers side. All my mothers relations kept shady when the lonely orphan looked about for protection; but Patience Pettibone, in her stately way, said, The boy belongs to a good family, and he shall never want while his three aunts can support him. So I went to live with my plain but benignant protectors, in the State of New Hampshire.
During my boyhood the best-drilled lesson that fell to my keeping was this: Respect yourself. We come of more than ordinary parentage. Superior blood was probably concerned in getting up the Pettibones. Hold your head erect, and some day you shall have proof of your high lineage.
I remember once, on being told that I must not share my juvenile sports with the butchers three little beings, I begged to know why not. Aunt Eunice looked at Patience, and Mary Ann knew what she meant.
My child, slowly murmured the eldest sister, our family no doubt came of a very old stock; perhaps we belong to the nobility. Our ancestors, it is thought, came over laden with honors, and no doubt were embarrassed with riches, though the latter importation has dwindled in the lapse of years. Respect yourself, and when you grow up you will not regret that your old and careful aunt did not wish you to play with the butchers offspring.
I felt mortified that I ever had a desire to knuckle up with any but kings sons, or sultans little boys. I longed to be among my equals in the urchin line, and fly my kite with only high-born youngsters.
Thus I lived in a constant scene of self-enchantment on the part of the sisters, who assumed all the port and feeling that properly belonged to ladies of quality. Patrimonial splendor to come danced before their dim eyes; and handsome settlements, gay equipages, and a general grandeur of some sort loomed up in the future for the American branch of the house of Pettibone.
It was a life of opulent self-delusion, which my aunts were never tired of nursing; and I was too young to doubt the reality of it. All the members of our little household held up their heads, as if each said, in so many words, There is no original sin in our composition, whatever of that commodity there may be mixed up with the common clay of Snowborough.
Aunt Patience was a star, and dwelt apart. Aunt Eunice looked at her through a determined pair of spectacles, and worshiped while she gazed. The youngest sister lived in a dreamy state of honors to come, and had constant zoological visions of lions, griffins, and unicorns, drawn and quartered in every possible style known to the Heralds College. The Reverend Hebrew Bullet, who used to drop in quite often and drink several compulsory glasses of home-made wine, encouraged his three parishioners in their aristocratic notions, and extolled them for what he called their stooping down to everyday life. He differed with the ladies of our house only on one point. He contended that the unicorn of the Bible and the rhinoceros of to-day were one and the same animal. My aunts held a different opinion.
In the sleeping-room of my Aunt Patience reposed a trunk. Often during my childish years I longed to lift the lid and spy among its contents the treasures my young fancy conjured up as lying there in state. I dared not ask to have the cover raised for my gratification, as I had often been told I was too little to estimate aright what that armorial box contained. When you grow up you shall see the inside of it, Aunt Mary used to say to me; and so I wondered, and wished, but all in vain. I must have the virtue of years before I could view the treasures of past magnificence so long entombed in that wooden sarcophagus. Once I saw the faded sisters bending over the trunk together, and, as I thought, embalming something in camphor. Curiosity impelled me to linger, but, under some pretext, I was nodded out of the room.
Although my kinswomens means were far from ample, they determined that Swiftmouth College should have the distinction of calling me one of her sons, and accordingly I was in due time sent for preparation to a neighboring academy. Years of study and hard fare in country boarding-houses told upon my self-importance as the descendant of a great Englishman, notwithstanding all my letters from the honored three came with counsel to respect myself and keep up the dignity of the family. Growing-up man forgets good counsel. The Arcadia of respectability is apt to give place to the levity of football and other low-toned accomplishments. The book of life, at that period, opens readily at fun and frolic, and the insignia of greatness give the school-boy no envious pangs.
I was nineteen when I entered the hoary halls of Swiftmouth. I call them hoary, because they had been built more than fifty years. To me they seemed uncommonly hoary, and I snuffed antiquity in the dusty purlieus. I now began to study, in good earnest, the wisdom of the past. I saw clearly the value of dead men and moldy precepts, especially if the former had been entombed a thousand years, and if the latter were well done in sounding Greek and Latin. I began to reverence royal lines of deceased monarchs, and longed to connect my own name, now growing into college popularity, with some far-off mighty one who had ruled in pomp and luxury his obsequious people. The trunk in Snowborough troubled my dreams. In that receptacle still slept the proof of our family distinction. I will go, quoth I, to the home of my aunts next vacation and there learn how we became mighty, and discover precisely why we dont practise to-day our inherited claims to glory.
I went to Snowborough. Aunt Patience was now anxious to lay before her impatient nephew the proof he burned to behold. But first she must explain. All the old family documents and letters were no doubt destroyed in the great fire of 98, as nothing in the shape of parchment or paper implying nobility had ever been discovered in Snowborough, or elsewhere. But there had been preserved, for many years, a suit of imperial clothes that had been worn by their great-grandfather in England, and, no doubt, in the New World also. These garments had been carefully watched and guarded, for were they not the proof that their owner belonged to a station in life second, if second at all, to the royal court of King George itself? Precious casket, into which I was soon to have the privilege of gazing! Through how many long years these fond, foolish virgins had lighted their unflickering lamps of expectation and hope at this cherished old shrine!
I was now on my way to the family repository of all our greatness. I went up-stairs on the jump. We all knelt down before the well-preserved box; and my proud Aunt Patience, in a somewhat reverent manner, turned the key. My heartI am not ashamed to confess it now, although it is forty years since the quartet, in search of family honors, were on their knees that summer afternoon in Snowboroughmy heart beat high. I was about to look on that which might be a dukes or an earls regalia. And I was descended from the owner in a direct line! I had lately been reading Shakespeares Titus Andronicus; and I remembered, there before the trunk, the lines
O sacred receptacle of my joys,
Sweet cell of virtue and nobility!
The lid went up, and the sisters began to unroll the precious garments, which seemed all enshrined in aromatic gums and spices. The odor of that interior lives with me to this day, and I grow faint with the memory of that hour. With pious precision the clothes were uncovered, and at last the whole suit was laid before my expectant eyes.
Reader, I am an old man now, and have not long to walk this planet. But, whatever dreadful shock may be in reserve for my declining years, I am certain I can bear it; for I went through that scene at Snowborough, and still live!
When the garments were fully displayed, all the aunts looked at me. I had been to college; I had studied Burkes Peerage; I had been once to New York. Perhaps I could immediately name the exact station in noble British life to which that suit of clothes belonged. I could; I saw it all at a glance. I grew flustered and pale. I dared not look my poor deluded female relatives in the face.