Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
Borrowing in a New Settlement
By Caroline Matilda Stansbury Kirkland (18011864)
[Born in New York, N. Y., 1801. Died there, 1864. A New Home. 1839.]
MOTHER wants your sifter, said Miss Ianthe Howard, a young lady of six years standing, attired in a tattered calico, thickened with dirt; her unkempt locks straggling from under that hideous substitute for a bonnet, so universal in the western country, a dirty cotton handkerchief, which is used, ad nauseam, for all sorts of purposes.
This excellent reason, cause youve got plenty, is conclusive as to sharing with your neighbors. Whoever comes into Michigan with nothing will be sure to better his condition; but woe to him that brings with him anything like an appearance of abundance, whether of money or mere household conveniences. To have them, and not be willing to share them in some sort with the whole community, is an unpardonable crime. You must lend your best horse to qui que ce soit, to go ten miles over hill and marsh, in the darkest night, for a doctor; or your team to travel twenty after a gal; your wheelbarrows, your shovels, your utensils of all sorts, belong, not to yourself, but to the public, who do not think it necessary even to ask a loan, but take it for granted. The two saddles and bridles of Montacute spend most of their time travelling from house to house a-manback; and I have actually known a stray martingale to be traced to four dwellings two miles apart, having been lent from one to another, without a word to the original proprietor, who sat waiting, not very patiently, to commence a journey.
Then within doors, an inventory of your plenishing of all sorts would scarcely more than include the articles which you are solicited to lend. Not only are all kitchen utensils as much your neighbors as your own, but bedsteads, beds, blankets, sheets, travel from house to house, a pleasant and effectual mode of securing the perpetuity of certain efflorescent peculiarities of the skin, for which Michigan is becoming almost as famous as the land twixt Maidenkirk and John o Groats. Sieves, smoothing-irons, and churns run about as if they had legs; one brass kettle is enough for a whole neighborhood: and I could point to a cradle which has rocked half the babies in Montacute. For my own part, I have lent my broom, my thread, my tape, my spoons, my cat, my thimble, my scissors, my shawl, my shoes; and have been asked for my combs and brushes; and my husband, for his shaving apparatus and his pantaloons.
But the cream of the joke lies in the manner of the thing. It is so straightforward and honest, none of your hypocritical civility and servile gratitude! Your true republican, when he finds that you possess anything which would contribute to his convenience, walks in with, Are you going to use your horses to-day? if horses happen to be the thing he needs.
I have been frequently reminded of one of Johnsons humorous sketches. A man returning a broken wheelbarrow to a Quaker, with, Here Ive broke your rotten wheelbarrow usin ont. I wish youd get it mended right off, cause I want to borrow it again this afternoon. The Quaker is made to reply, Friend, it shall be done; and I wish I possessed more of his spirit.
One of my best neighbors is Mr. Philo Doubleday, a long, awkward, honest, hard-working Maine man, or Mainote I suppose one might say; so good-natured that he might be mistaken for a simpleton; but that must be by those that do not know him. He is quite an old settler, came in four years ago, bringing with him a wife who is to him as vinegar-bottle to oil-cruet, or as mustard to the sugar which is used to soften its biting qualities. Mrs. Doubleday has the sharpest eyes, the sharpest nose, the sharpest tongue, the sharpest elbows, and above all, the sharpest voice that ever penetrated the interior of Michigan. She has a tall, straight, bony figure, in contour somewhat resembling two hard-oak planks fastened together and stood on end; and, strange to say! she was full five-and-thirty when her mature graces attracted the eye and won the affections of the worthy Philo. What eclipse had come over Mr. Doubledays usual sagacity when he made choice of his Polly, I am sure I never could guess; but he is certainly the only man in the wide world who could possibly have lived with her; and he makes her a most excellent husband.
She is possessed with a neat devil; I have known many such cases; her floor is scoured every night, after all are in bed but the unlucky scrubber, Betsey, the maid of all work; and woe to the unfortunate indiffidle, as neighbor Jenkins says, who first sets dirty boot on it in the morning. If men come in to talk over road-business, for Philo is much sought when the public has any work to do, or school-business, for that being very troublesome, and quite devoid of profit, is often conferred upon Philo, Mrs. Doubleday makes twenty errands into the room, expressing in her visage all the force of Mrs. Raddles inquiry, Is them wretches going? And when at length their backs are turned, out comes the bottled vengeance. The sharp eyes, tongue, elbow, and voice are all in instant requisition.
Fetch the broom, Betsey! and the scrub-broom, Betsey! and the mop, and that ere dish of soap, Betsey; and why on earth didnt you bring some ashes? You didnt expect to clean such a floor as this without ashes, did you?What time are you going to have dinner, my dear? says the imperturbable Philo, who is getting ready to go out.
Dinner! Im sure I dont know! theres no time to cook dinner in this house! nothing but slave, slave, slave, from morning till night, cleaning up after a set of nasty, dirty, etc., etc. Phew! says Mr. Doubleday, looking at his fuming helpmate with a calm smile, Itll all rub out when its dry, if youll only let it alone.
This is his favorite mode of vengeancepoetical justice he calls it; and as he is never at a loss for a rhyme of his own or other peoples, Mrs. Doubleday stands in no small dread of these efforts of genius. Once, when Philos crony, James Porter, the blacksmith, had left the print of his blackened knuckles on the outside of the oft-scrubbed door, and was the subject of some rather severe remarks from the gentle Polly, Philo, as he left the house with his friend, turned and wrote over the offended spot:
Knock not here!
Or dread my dear.
and the very next person that came was Mrs. Skinner, the merchants wife, all drest in her red merino, to make a visit. Mrs. Skinner, who did not possess an unusual share of tact, walked gravely round to the back door, and there was Mrs. Doubleday up to the eyes in soap-making. Dire was the mortification, and point-blank were the questions as to how the visitor came to go round that way; and when the warning couplet was produced in justification, we must draw a veil over what followedas the novelists say.
Sometimes these poeticals came in aid of poor Betsey; as once, when on hearing a crash in the little shanty-kitchen, Mrs. Doubleday called in her shrillest tones, Betsey! what on earths the matter? Poor Betsey, knowing what was coming, answered in a deprecatory whine, The cows kicked over the buckwheat batter!
Yet, Mrs. Doubleday is not without her excellent qualities as a wife, a friend, and a neighbor. She keeps her husbands house and stockings in unexceptionable trim. Her emptins are the envy of the neighborhood. Her vinegar is, as how could it fail? the ne plus ultra of sharpness; and her pickles are greener than the grass of the field. She will watch night after night with the sick, perform the last sad offices for the dead, or take to her home and heart the little ones whose mother is removed forever from her place at the fireside. All this she can do cheerfully, and she will not repay herself as many good people do by recounting every word of the querulous sick man or the desolate mourner with added hints of tumbled drawers, closets all in heaps, or awful dirty kitchens.
I was sitting one morning with my neighbor Mrs. Jenkins, who is a sister of Mr. Doubleday, when Betsey, Mrs. Doubledays hired girl, came in with one of the shingles of Philos handiwork in her hand, which bore in Mr. Doubledays well-known chalk-marks
And the next intelligence was of a fine new pair of lungs at that hitherto silent mansion. I called very soon after to take a peep at the latest found; and if the suppressed delight of the new papa was a treat, how much more was the softened aspect, the womanized tone of the proud and happy mother. I never saw a being so completely transformed. She would almost forget to answer me in her absorbed watching of the breath of the little sleeper. Even when trying to be polite, and to say what the occasion demanded, her eyes would not be withdrawn from the tiny face. Conversation on any subject but the ever-new theme of babies was out of the question. Whatever we began upon whirled round sooner or later to the one point. The needle may tremble, but it turns not with the less constancy to the pole.
As I pass for an oracle in the matter of paps and possets, I had frequent communication with my now happy neighbor, who had forgotten to scold her husband, learned to let Betsey have time to eat, and omitted the nightly scouring of the floor, lest so much dampness might be bad for the baby. We were in deep consultation one morning on some important point touching the well-being of this sole object of Mrs. Doubledays thoughts and dreams, when the very same little Ianthe Howard, dirty as ever, presented herself. She sat down and stared awhile without speaking, à lordinaire; and then informed us that her mother wanted Miss Doubleday to let her have her baby for a little while, cause Bennys mouths so sore thatbut she had no time to finish the sentence.
LEND MY BABY!!!and her utterance failed. The new mothers feelings were fortunately too big for speech, and Ianthe wisely disappeared before Mrs. Doubleday found her tongue. Philo, who entered on the instant, burst into one of his electrifying laughs with
Ask my Polly,
To lend her dolly!
and I could not help thinking that one must come west in order to learn a little of everything.