Nonfiction > Lionel Strachey, et al., eds. > The World’s Wit and Humor > American
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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes.  1906.
Vols. I–V: American
 
Living in the Country
By Frederick Swartwout Cozzens (1818–1869)
 
From “The Sparrowgrass Papers”

IT is a good thing to live in the country. To escape from the prison-walls of the metropolis—the great brickery we call “the city”—and to live amid blossoms and leaves, in shadow and sunshine, in moonlight and starlight, in rain, mist, dew, hoarfrost, and drouth, out in the open champaign and under the blue dome that is bounded by the horizon only. It is a good thing to have a well with dripping buckets, a porch with honey-buds and sweet-bells, a hive embroidered with nimble bees, a sun-dial mossed over, ivy up to the eaves, curtains of dimity, a tumbler of fresh flowers in your bedroom, a rooster on the roof, and a dog under the piazza.
  1
  When Mrs. Sparrowgrass and I moved into the country, with our heads full of fresh butter, and cool, crisp radishes for tea; with ideas entirely lucid respecting milk, and a looseness of calculation as to the number in family it would take a good laying hen to supply with fresh eggs every morning; when Mrs. Sparrowgrass and I moved into the country, we found some preconceived notions had to be abandoned, and some departures made from the plans we had laid down in the little back parlor of Avenue G.  2
  One of the first achievements in the country is early rising! with the lark—with the sun—while the dew is on the grass, “under the opening eyelids of the morn,” and so forth. Early rising! What can be done with five or six o’clock in town? What may not be done at those hours in the country—with the hoe, the rake, the dibble, the spade, the watering-pot? To plant, prune, drill, transplant, graft, train, and sprinkle! Mrs. S. and I agreed to rise early in the country.
 Richard and Robin were two pretty men,
They laid in bed till the clock struck ten;
Up jumped Richard and looked at the sky;
O, Brother Robin, the sun’s very high!
Early rising in the country is not an instinct; it is a sentiment, and must be cultivated.
  3
  A friend recommended me to send to the south side of Long Island for some very prolific potatoes—the real hippopotamus breed. Down went my man and, what with expenses of horse-hire, tavern bills, toll-gates, and breaking a wagon, the hippopotami cost as much apiece as pineapples. They were fine potatoes, though, with comely features, and large, languishing eyes, that promised increase of family without delay. As I worked my own garden (for which I hired a landscape gardener at two dollars per day to give me instructions), I concluded that the object of my first experiment in early rising should be the planting of the hippopotamuses. I accordingly arose next morning at five, and it rained! I rose next day at five, and it rained! The next, and it rained! It rained for two weeks! We had splendid potatoes every day for dinner. “My dear,” said I to Mrs. Sparrowgrass, “where did you get these fine potatoes?” “Why,” said she, innocently, “out of that basket from Long Island!” The last of the hippopotamuses were before me, peeled, and boiled, and mashed, and baked, with a nice thin brown crust on the top.  4
  I was more successful afterward. I did get some fine seed-potatoes in the ground. But something was the matter; at the end of the season I did not get as many out as I had put in.  5
  Mrs. Sparrowgrass, who is a notable housewife, said to me one day, “Now, my dear, we shall soon have plenty of eggs, for I have been buying a lot of young chickens.” There they were, each one with as many feathers as a grasshopper, and a chirp not louder. Of course, we looked forward with pleasant hopes to the period when the first cackle should announce the milk-white egg, warmly deposited in the hay which we had provided bountifully. They grew finely, and one day I ventured to remark that our hens had remarkably large combs, to which Mrs. S. replied, “Yes, indeed, she had observed that; but if I wanted to have a real treat I ought to get up early in the morning and hear them crow.” “Crow!” said I, faintly, “our hens crowing! Then, by ‘the cock that crowed in the morn, to wake the priest all shaven and shorn,’ we might as well give up all hopes of having any eggs,” said I; “for as sure as you live, Mrs. S., our hens are all roosters!” And so they were roosters! They grew up and fought with the neighbors’ chickens, until there was not a whole pair of eyes on either side of the fence.  6
  A dog is a good thing to have in the country. I have one which I raised from a pup. He is a good, stout fellow, and a hearty barker and feeder. The man of whom I bought him said he was thoroughbred, but he begins to have a mongrel look about him. He is a good watch-dog, though; for the moment he sees any suspicious-looking person about the premises he comes right into the kitchen and gets behind the stove. First, we kept him in the house, and he scratched all night to get out. Then we turned him out, and he scratched all night to get in. Then we tied him up at the back of the garden, and he howled so that our neighbor shot at him twice before daybreak. Finally we gave him away, and he came back; and now he is just recovering from a fit, in which he has torn up the patch that has been sown for our spring radishes.  7
  A good, strong gate is a necessary article for your garden—a good, strong, heavy gate, with a dislocated hinge, so that it will neither open nor shut. Such a one have I. The grounds before my fence are in common, and all the neighbors’ cows pasture there. I remarked to Mrs. S., as we stood at the window in a June sunset, how placid and picturesque the cattle looked, as they strolled about, cropping the green herbage. Next morning I found the innocent creatures in my garden. They had not left a green thing in it. The corn in the milk, the beans on the poles, the young cabbages, the tender lettuce, even the thriving shoots on my young fruit-trees had vanished. And there they were, looking quietly on the ruin they had made. Our watch-dog, too, was foregathering with them. It was too much; so I got a large stick and drove them all out, except a young heifer, whom I chased all over the flower-beds, breaking down my trellises, my woodbines and sweet-briers, my roses and petunias, until I cornered her in the hotbed. I had to call for assistance to extricate her from the sashes, and her owner has sued me for damages. I believe I shall move in town.
*        *        *        *        *
  8
  Mrs. Sparrowgrass and I have concluded to try it once more; we are going to give the country another chance. After all, birds in the spring are lovely. First come little snowbirds, avant-couriers of the feathered army; then bluebirds in national uniforms, just graduated, perhaps, from the ornithological corps of cadets with high honors in the topographical class; then follows a detachment of flying artillery—swallows; sandmartens, sappers and miners, begin their mines and countermines under the sandy parapets; then cedar birds, in trim jackets faced with yellow—aha, dragoons! And then the great rank and file of infantry, robins, wrens, sparrows, chipping-birds; and lastly—the band!
 From nature’s old cathedral sweetly ring
The wild bird choirs—burst of the woodland band,
            —who mid the blossoms sing;
Their leafy temple, gloomy, tall and grand,
Pillared with oaks, and roofed with Heaven’s own hand.
There, there, that is Mario. Hear that magnificent chest note from the chestnuts! then a crescendo, falling in silence—à plomb!
  9
  Hush! he begins again with a low, liquid monotone, mounting by degrees and swelling into an infinitude of melody—the whole grove dilating, as it were, with exquisite epithalamium.  10
  Silence now—and how still!  11
  Hush! the musical monologue begins anew; up, up into the tree-tops it mounts, fairly lifting the leaves with its passionate effluence, it trills through the upper branches—and then dripping down the listening foliage, in a cadenza of matchless beauty, subsides into silence again.  12
  “That’s a he catbird,” says my carpenter.  13
  A catbird? Then Shakespeare and Shelley have wasted powder upon the skylark; for never such “profuse strains of unpremeditated art” issued from living bird before. Skylark! pooh! who would rise at dawn to hear the skylark if a catbird were about after breakfast?  14
  I have bought me a boat. A boat is a good thing to have in the country, especially if there be any water near. There is a fine beach in front of my house. When visitors come I usually propose to give them a row. I go down—and find the boat full of water; then I send to the house for a dipper and prepare to bail; and, what with bailing and swabbing her with a mop and plugging up the cracks in her sides, and struggling to get the rudder in its place, and unlocking the rusty padlock, my strength is so much exhausted that it is almost impossible for me to handle the oars. Meanwhile the poor guests sit on stones around the beach with wobegone faces.  15
  “My dear,” said Mrs. Sparrowgrass, “why don’t you sell that boat?”  16
  “Sell it? Ha! ha!”  17
  One day a Quaker lady from Philadelphia paid us a visit. She was uncommonly dignified, and walked down to the water in the most stately manner, as is customary with Friends. It was just twilight, deepening into darkness, when I set about preparing the boat. Meanwhile our Friend seated herself upon something on the beach. While I was engaged in bailing, the wind shifted, and I became sensible of an unpleasant odor; afraid that our Friend would perceive it, too, I whispered Mrs. Sparrowgass to coax her off and get her farther up the beach.  18
  “Thank thee, no, Susan; I feel a smell hereabout and I am better where I am.”  19
  Mrs. S. came back and whispered mysteriously that our Friend was sitting on a dead dog, at which I redoubled the bailing and got her out in deep water as soon as possible.  20
  Dogs have a remarkable scent. A dead setter one morning found his way to our beach, and I towed him out in the middle of the river; but the faithful creature came back in less than an hour—that dog’s smell was remarkable indeed.  21
  I have bought me a fyke! A fyke is a good thing to have in the country. A fyke is a fish-net, with long wings on each side; in shape like a nightcap with ear lappets; in mechanism like a rat-trap. You put a stake at the tip end of the nightcap, a stake at each end of the outspread lappets; there are large hoops to keep the nightcap distended, sinkers to keep the lower sides of the lappets under water, and floats as large as muskmelons to keep the upper sides above the water. The stupid fish come downstream, and, rubbing their noses against the wings, follow the curve toward the fyke and swim into the trap. When they get in they cannot get out. That is the philosophy of a fyke. I bought one of Conroy. “Now,” said I to Mrs. Sparrowgrass, “we shall have fresh fish to-morrow for breakfast,” and went out to set it. I drove the stakes in the mud, spread the fyke in the boat, tied the end of one wing to the stake, and cast the whole into the water. The tide carried it out in a straight line. I got the loose end fastened to the boat, and found it impossible to row back against the tide with the fyke. I then untied it, and it went downstream, stake and all. I got it into the boat, rowed up, and set the stake again. Then I tied one end to the stake and got out of the boat myself in shoal water. Then the boat got away in deep water; then I had to swim for the boat. Then I rowed back and untied the fyke. Then the fyke got away. Then I jumped out of the boat to save the fyke and the boat got away. Then I had to swim again after the boat and row after the fyke, and finally was glad to get my net on dry land, where I left it for a week in the sun. Then I hired a man to set it, and he did, but he said it was “rotted.” Nevertheless, in it I caught two small flounders and an eel. At last a brace of Irishmen came down to my beach for a swim at high tide. One of them, a stout, athletic fellow, after performing sundry aquatic gymnastics, dived under and disappeared for a fearful length of time. The truth is, he had dived into my net. After much turmoil in the water, he rose to the surface with the filaments hanging over his head, and cried out, as if he had found a bird’s nest: “I say, Jimmy! begorra, here’s a foike!” That unfeeling exclamation to Jimmy, who was not the owner of the net, made me almost wish that it had not been “rotted.”  22
  We are worried about our cucumbers. Mrs. S. is fond of cucumbers, so I planted enough for ten families. The more they are picked, the faster they grow; and if you do not pick them, they turn yellow and look ugly. Our neighbor has plenty, too. He sent us some one morning, by way of a present. What to do with them we did not know, with so many of our own. To give them away was not polite; to throw them away was sinful; to eat them was impossible. Mrs. S. said, “Save them for seed.” So we did. Next day, our neighbor sent us a dozen more. We thanked the messenger grimly and took them in. Next morning another dozen came. It was getting to be a serious matter; so I rose betimes the following morning, and when my neighbor’s cucumbers came I filled his man’s basket with some of my own, by way of exchange. This bit of pleasantry was resented by my neighbor, who told his man to throw them to the hogs. His man told our girl, and our girl told Mrs. S., and, in consequence, all intimacy between the two families has ceased; the ladies do not speak, even at church.  23
  We have another neighbor, whose name is Bates; he keeps cows. This year our gate has been fixed; but my young peach-trees near the fences are accessible from the road; and Bates’s cows walk along that road morning and evening. The sound of a cow-bell is pleasant in the twilight. Sometimes, after dark, we hear the mysterious curfew tolling along the road, and then with a louder peal it stops before our fence and again tolls itself off in the distance. The result is, my peach-trees are as bare as bean-poles. One day I saw Mr. Bates walking along, and I hailed him: “Bates, those are your cows there, I believe?” “Yes, sir; nice ones, ain’t they?” “Yes,” I replied, “they are nice ones. Do you see that tree there?”—and I pointed to a thrifty peach, with about as many leaves as an exploded sky-rocket. “Yes, sir.” “Well, Bates, that red-and-white cow of yours yonder ate the top off that tree; I saw her do it.” Then I thought I had made Bates ashamed of himself, and had wounded his feelings, perhaps, too much. I was afraid he would offer me money for the tree, which I made up my mind to decline at once. “Sparrowgrass,” said he, “it don’t hurt a tree a single mossel to chaw it if it’s a young tree. For my part, I’d rather have my young trees chawed than not. I think it makes them grow a leetle better. I can’t do it with mine, but you can, because you can wait to have good trees, and the only way to have good trees is to have ’em chawed.”
*        *        *        *        *
  24
  We have put a dumb-waiter in our house. A dumb-waiter is a good thing to have in the country, on account of its convenience. If you have company, everything can be sent up from the kitchen without any trouble; and if the baby gets to be unbearable, on account of his teeth, you can dismiss the complainant by stuffing him in one of the shelves and letting him down upon the help. To provide for contingencies, we had all our floors deafened. In consequence, you cannot hear anything that is going on in the story below; and when you are in the upper room of the house there might be a democratic ratification meeting in the cellar and you would not know it. Therefore, if any one should break into the basement it would not disturb us; but, to please Mrs. Sparrowgrass, I put stout iron bars in all the lower windows. Besides, Mrs. Sparrowgrass had bought a rattle when she was in Philadelphia; such a rattle as watchmen carry there. This is to alarm our neighbor, who, upon the signal, is to come to the rescue with his revolver. He is a rash man, prone to pull trigger first and make inquiries afterward.  25
  One evening Mrs. S. had retired and I was busy writing, when it struck me a glass of ice-water would be palatable. So I took the candle and a pitcher and went down to the pump. Our pump is in the kitchen. A country pump in the kitchen is more convenient; but a well with buckets is certainly more picturesque. Unfortunately, our well water has not been sweet since it was cleaned out. First I had to open a bolted door that lets you into the basement hall, and then I went to the kitchen door, which proved to be locked. Then I remembered that our girl always carried the key to bed with her and slept with it under her pillow. Then I retraced my steps, bolted the basement door, and went up into the dining-room. As is always the case, I found, when I could not get any water, I was thirstier than I supposed I was. Then I thought I would wake our girl up. Then I concluded not to do it. Then I thought of the well, but I gave that up on account of its flavor. Then I opened the closet doors: there was no water there; and then I thought of the dumb-waiter! The novelty of the idea made me smile. I took out two of the movable shelves, stood the pitcher on the bottom of the dumb-waiter, got in myself with the lamp; let myself down, until I supposed I was within a foot of the floor below, and then let go!  26
  We came down so suddenly that I was shot out of the apparatus as if it had been a catapult; it broke the pitcher, extinguished the lamp, and landed me in the middle of the kitchen at midnight, with no fire and the air not much above the zero point. The truth is, I had miscalculated the distance of the descent—instead of falling one foot, I had fallen five. My first impulse was to ascend by the way I came down, but I found that impracticable. Then I tried the kitchen door; it was locked. I tried to force it open; it was made of two-inch stuff, and held its own. Then I hoisted a window, and there were the rigid iron bars. If ever I felt angry at anybody it was at myself for putting up those bars to please Mrs. Sparrowgrass. I put them up, not to keep people in, but to keep people out.  27
  I laid my cheek against the ice-cold barriers and looked out at the sky; not a star was visible; it was as black as as ink overhead. Then I thought of Baron Trenck and the prisoner of Chillon. Then I made a noise. I shouted until I was hoarse, and ruined our preserving-kettle with the poker. That brought our dogs out in full bark, and between us we made night hideous. Then I thought I heard a voice and listened—it was Mrs. Sparrowgrass calling to me from the top of the staircase. I tried to make her hear me, but the infernal dogs united with howl, and growl, and bark, so as to drown my voice, which is naturally plaintive and tender. Besides, there were two bolted doors and double-deafened floors between us; how could she recognize my voice, even if she did hear it? Mrs. Sparrowgrass called once or twice and then got frightened; the next thing I heard was a sound as if the roof had fallen in, by which I understood that Mrs. Sparrowgrass was springing the rattle! That called out our neighbor, already wide awake; he came to the rescue with a bull-terrier, a Newfoundland pup, a lantern, and a revolver. The moment he saw me at the window he shot at me, but fortunately just missed me. I threw myself under the kitchen table and ventured to expostulate with him, but he would not listen to reason. In the excitement I had forgotten his name, and that made matters worse. It was not until he had roused up everybody around, broken in the basement door with an ax, gotten into the kitchen with his cursed savage dogs and shooting-iron, and seized me by the collar, that he recognized me—and then he wanted me to explain it! But what kind of an explanation could I make to him? I told him he would have to wait until my mind was composed, and then I would let him understand the whole matter fully. But he never would have had the particulars from me, for I do not approve of neighbors that shoot at you, break in your door, and treat you, in your own house, as if you were a jailbird. He knows all about it, however—somebody has told him—somebody tells everybody everything in our village.  28
 
 
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