Country By-Ways Text
Sarah Orne Jewett
"River Driftwood" first appeared in Atlantic Monthly (48:500-510) in October, 1881, and then was collected in Country By-Ways, 1881. Here the Country By-Ways text is compared with the Atlantic Monthly text.
This text contains the relatively few changes made as it was prepared for the Houghton Mifflin book publication of Country By-Ways.
- The few typographical changes between the texts have been made, but are not marked.
- Text that Jewett deleted for the book appears in [brackets in red.]
- Text that Jewett added for the book appears in [brackets in blue.]
- When hyphens have been added or removed, the original text is followed by bracketed text showing how it was changed for the book.
AT the head of tide-water on the river there is a dam, and above it is a large mill-pond, where most of the people who row and sail keep their boats all summer long. I like, perhaps once a year, to cruise around the shores of this pretty sheet of water; but I am always conscious of the dam above it and the dam below it, and of being confined between certain limits. I rarely go beyond a certain point on the lower or tide river, as people call it, but I always have the feeling that I can go to Europe, if I like, or anywhere on the high seas; and when I unfasten the boat there is no dam or harbor bar, or any barrier whatever between this and all foreign ports. Far up among the hills the ocean comes, and its tide ebbs and flows.
When the tide goes out, the narrow reaches of the river become rapids, where a rushing stream fights with the ledges and loose rocks, and where one needs a good deal of skill to guide a boat down safely. Where the river is wide, at low tide one can only see the mud flats and broad stretches of green marsh grass. But when the tide is in[,] it is a noble and dignified stream. There are no rapids and only a slow current, where the river from among the inland mountains flows along, finding its way to the sea, which has come part way to welcome the company of springs and brooks that have answered to its call. A thousand men band themselves together, and they are one regiment; a thousand little streams flow together, and are one river; but one fancies that they do not lose themselves altogether; while the individuality of a river must come mainly from the different characters of its tributaries. The shape of its shores and the quality of the soil it passes over determine certain things about it, but the life of it is something by itself, as the life of a man is separate from the circumstances in which he is placed. There must be the first spring which overflows steadily and makes a brook, which some second spring joins, and the third, and the fourth; and at last there is a great stream, in which the later brooks seem to make little difference. I should like to find the very beginning and head-water of my river. I should be sorry if it were a pond, though somewhere in the ground underneath there would be a spring that kept the secret and was in command and under marching orders to the sea, commissioned to recruit as it went along. Here at the head of tide-water it first meets the sea, and then when the tide is in there is the presence of royalty, or at least its deputies. The river is a grand thing when it is river and sea together; but how one misses the ocean when the tide is out, for in the great place it filled the stream from the hills, after all, looks of little consequence.
The river is no longer the public highway it used to be years ago, when the few roads were rough, and railroads were not even dreamed of. The earliest chapter of its history that I know is that it was full of salmon and other fish, and was a famous fishing-ground with the Indians, who were masters of its neighboring country. To tell its whole story one would have to follow the fashion of the old Spanish writers whom Garcilasso de la Vega says he will not imitate, in the first chapter of his Commentaries of the Yncas, -- that delightful composition of unconscious pathos and majestic lies. When his predecessors in the field of literature wished to write on any subject whatever, he solemnly tells us, they always began with a history of the globe. One cannot help wishing that he had not disdained to follow their example, and had given his theories, which would have been wildly ahead of even the fancies of his time, in general, and full of most amusing little departures from the truth when he came down to details. But the earliest history of the river can well be ignored; it is but seldom, as yet, that people really care much for anything for its own sake, until it is proved to have some connection with human-kind. We are slow to take an interest in the personality of our neighbors who are not men, or dogs, or horses, or at least some creature who can be made to understand a little of our own spoken language. Who is going to be the linguist who learns the first word of an old crow's warning to his mate, or how a little dog expresses himself when he asks a big one to come and rout his troublesome enemy? How much we shall know when the pimpernel teaches us how she makes her prophecies of the weather, and how long we shall have to go to school when people are expected to talk to the trees, and birds, and beasts, in their own language! What tune could it have been that Orpheus and Amphion played, to which the beasts listened, and even the trees and stones followed them to hear? Is it science that will give us back the gift, or shall we owe it to the successors of those friendly old saints who talked with the birds and fishes? We could have schools for them, if we once could understand them, and could educate them into being more useful to us. There would be intelligent sword-fish for submarine divers, and we could send swallows to carry messages, and all the creatures that know how to burrow in the earth would bring us the treasures out of it. I should have a larger calling acquaintance than ever out-of-doors, and my neighbors down river would present me to congenial friends whom as yet I have not discovered. The gods are always drawing like toward like, and making them acquainted, if Homer may be believed, but we are apt to forget that this is true of any creatures but ourselves. It is not necessary to tame them before they can be familiar and responsive; we can meet them on their own ground, and be surprised to find how much we may have in common. Taming is only forcing them to learn some of our customs; we should be wise if we let them tame us to make use of some of theirs. They share other instincts and emotions with us beside surprise, or suspicion, or fear. They are curiously thoughtful; they act no more from unconscious instinct than we do; at least, they are called upon to decide as many questions of action or direction, and there are many emergencies of life when we are far more helpless and foolish than they. It is easy to say that other orders of living creatures exist on a much lower plane than ourselves; we know very little about it, after all. They are often gifted in some way that we are not; they may even carry some virtue of ours to a greater height than we do. But the day will come for a more truly universal suffrage than we dream of now, when the meaning of every living thing is understood, and it is given its rights and accorded its true value: for its life is from God's life, and its limits were fixed by him; its material shape is the manifestation of a thought, and to each body there is given a spirit.
The great gulls watch me float along the river, curiously, and sail in the air overhead. Who knows what they say of me when they talk together; and what are they thinking about when they fly quickly out of sight? Perhaps they know something about me that I do not know of myself yet; and so may the musk-rat, as he hurries through the water with a little green branch in his mouth which will make a salad for his supper. He watches me with his sharp eyes, and whisks into his hole in the sunny side of the island. I have a respect for him; he is a busy creature, and he lives well. You might be hospitable and ask me to supper, musk-rat! I don't know whether I should care much for you if I were another musk-rat, or you were a human being, but I shall know you again when I see you by an odd mark in the fur on the top of your head, and that is something. I suppose the captive mussels in your den are quaking now at hearing you come in. I have lost sight of you, but I shall remember where your house is. I do not think people are thankful enough who live out of the reach of beasts that would eat them. When one thinks of whole races of small creatures like the mussels which are the natural and proper food of others, it seems an awful fact and necessity of nature; perhaps, however, no more awful than our natural death appears to us. But there is something distressing about being eaten, and having one's substance minister to a superior existence! It hurts one's pride. A death that preserves and elevates our identity is much more consoling and satisfactory; but what can reconcile a bird to its future as part of the tissues of a cat, going stealthily afoot, and by nature treacherous? Who can say, however, that our death [is not only] [may not be simply] a link in the chain? One thing is made the prey of another. In some way our present state ministers to the higher condition to which we are coming. The grass is made somehow from the ground, and presently that is turned into beef, and that goes to make part of a human being. We are not certain what an angel may be; but the life in us now will be necessary to the making of one by and by.
There is a wise arrangement in this merging and combining. It makes more room in the world. We must eat our fellows and be eaten to keep things within a proper limit. If all the orders of life were self-existing, and if all the springs that make up the river flowed down to the sea separately and independently, there would be an awful confusion and chaos still; but this leads one to think of the transmigration of souls and other puzzling subjects! I shall have to end with an ignorant discourse about the globe instead of having begun with it. My river, as I said at first, leads to the sea, and from any port one can push off toward another sea of boundless speculation and curious wonderings about this world, familiar, and yet so great a mystery.
There are a thousand things to remember and to say about the river, which seems to be of little use in the half dozen miles I know best, after it has made itself of great consequence by serving to carry perhaps a dozen or twenty mills, of one kind and another. Between its dams it has a civilized and subjected look, but below the last falls, at the [landing] [Landing], it apparently feels itself to be its own master, and serves in no public capacity except to carry a boat now and then, and give the chance for building some weirs, as it offers some good fishing when the alewives and bass come up, with bony and muddy shad, that are about as good to eat as a rain-soaked paper of pins. I think its chief use is its beauty, and that has never been as widely appreciated as it ought to be. It is the eastern branch of the Piscataqua, which separates the States of Maine and New Hampshire; and I, being a lawless borderer, beg you to follow for a raid on the shores, not for pillaging the farms and cattle-lifting, but to see the trees and their shadows in the water: the high, steep banks where the great pines of Maine thrive[,] on one hand, and the gently sloping Southern New Hampshire fields fringed with willows and oaks on the other. When you catch sight of a tall lateen sail and a strange, clumsy craft that looks heavy and low in the water, you will like to know that its ancestor was copied from a Nile boat, from which a sensible old sea-captain took a lesson in ship-building many years ago. The sail is capitally fitted to catch the uncertain wind, which is apt to come in flaws and gusts between the high, irregular banks of the river; and the boat is called a gundalow, but sometimes spelled gondola. One sees them often on the Merrimac and on the Piscataqua and its branches, and the sight of them brings a curiously foreign element into the New England scenery; for I never see the great peaked sail coming round a point without a quick association with the East, with the Mediterranean ports or the Nile itself, with its ruins and its desert and the bright blue sky overhead; with mummies and scarabei and the shepherd kings; with the pyramids and Sphinx -- that strange group, so old one shudders at the thought of it -- standing clear against the horizon.
A hundred years ago the northern country was covered for the most part with heavy timber, and the chief business at Berwick was receiving this from the lumbermen, and sending it to Portsmouth to be reshipped, or direct to the West Indies, to be bartered for rum and tobacco and molasses, which might be either brought home at once, or sent to Russia, to be exchanged again for iron and sail-cloth and cordage. Not forty years ago there were still twenty gundalows sailing from the Landing wharves, while now there are but two, and long after that the packet boat went regularly every other day to Portsmouth. Until the days of the railroads[,] most of the freight came by water, and the packet skippers were important men. I have always wished to know something more of the history of the quaint little packet storehouse[,] which[,] until within a year or two[,] stood in the mill-yard, just below the falls. It was built of heavy timbers, as if it might some day be called upon to resist a battering-ram. The stories were very low, and the upper one projected over the water[,] with a beam[,] to which was fastened a tackle and fall to hoist and lower the goods. It was a little building, but there was a great air of consequence about it. It was painted a dark red, which the weather had dulled a good deal, and it leaned to one side. Nobody knew how old it was; it was like a little old woman who belonged to a good family, now dead, save herself; and who could remember a great many valuable people and events which everybody else had forgotten. It was the last of the warehouses that used to stand on the river-banks, and I was sorry when it was pulled down. The old wharves have almost disappeared, too, though their timbers can still be seen here and there.
It sometimes takes me a whole afternoon to go two miles down [the] river. There are many reasons why I should stop every now and then under one bank or another; to look up through the trees at the sky, or at their pictures in the water; or to let the boat lie still, until one can watch the little fish come back to their playground on the yellow sand and gravel; or to see the frogs, that splashed into the water at my approach, poke their heads out a little way to croak indignantly, or raise a loud note such as Scotch bagpipers drive out of the pipes before they start a tune. The swallows dart like bats along the surface of the water after insects, and I see a drowned white butterfly float by, and reach out for it; it looks so frail and little in the river. When the cardinal flowers are in bloom I go from place to place until I have gathered a deckload; and as I push off the boat it leaves the grass bent down, and the water-mint that was crushed sends a delicious fragrance after me, and I catch at a piece and put a leaf in my mouth, and row away lazily to get a branch of oak or maple leaves to keep the sun off my flowers. Cardinals are quick to wilt, and hang their proud heads wearily. They keep royal state in the shade, and one imagines that the other flowers and all the weeds at the water's edge take care to bow to them as often as the wind comes by, and pay them honor. They are like fine court ladies in their best gowns, standing on the shore. Perhaps they are sending messages down the river and across the seas, or waiting to hear some news. They make one think of Whittier's high-born Amy Wentworth and her sailor lover, for they seem like flowers from a palace garden[,] that are away from home masquerading and waiving ceremony, and taking the country air. They wear a color that is the sign of high ecclesiastical rank, and the temper of their minds would make them furies if they fought for church and state. They are no radicals; they are tories and aristocrats; they belong to the old nobility among flowers. It would be a pity if the rank marsh grass overran them, or if the pickerel weed should wade ashore to invade them and humble their pride. They are flowers that[,] after all[,] one should not try to put into vases together. They have, like many other flowers, too marked an individuality, and there is more pleasure to be taken from one tall and slender spire of blossoms by itself, just as it is pleasanter to be alone with a person one admires and enjoys. To crowd some flowers together you lose all delight in their shape and beauty; you only have the pleasure of the mass of color or of their perfume; and there are enough bright flowers and fragrant flowers that are only beautiful in masses. To look at some flowers huddled together and losing all their grace and charm is like trying to find companionship and sympathy by looking for a minute at a crowd of people. But there is a low trait of acquisitiveness in human nature. I pick cardinal flowers by the armful, and nothing less than a blue-and-white ginger pot full of daisies is much satisfaction.
But to most people one tree, or flower, or river is as good as another, and trees and flowers and rivers are to be found without trouble, while there are some who would never know who has lived beside my river unless it were told here. That says at once that their fame at best is provincial, except for peppery little Captain John Paul Jones, who gathered the ship's company of the Ranger from these neighboring farms. Old people, who died not many years ago, remembered him as he walked on the wharves at Portsmouth, with his sword point scratching the ground; a little wasp of a fellow, with a temper like a blaze of the gunpowder whose smoke he loved. One can imagine him scrambling up the shore here to one of the old farm-houses, as short as a boy[,] [;] but as tall as a grenadier, in his pride and dignity[,] [;] and marching into the best room, in all the vainglory and persuasiveness of his uniform, to make sure of a good fellow whose looks he liked, and whom he promised to send home a gallant hero, with his sea-chest full of prize-money. And afterward he would land again at one of the stately old colonial mansions that used to stand beside the river, at the Wallingford house[,] by Madam's Cove, or at the Hamilton house, and be received with befitting ceremony.
There were many fine houses in this region in old times, but only one still lingers, -- this same Hamilton house, -- which seems to me unrivaled for the beauty of its situation, and for a certain grand air which I have found it hard to match in any house I have ever seen. It is square and gray, with four great chimneys, and many dormer windows in its high-peaked roof; it stands on a point below which the river is at its widest. The rows of poplars and its terraced garden have fallen and been spoiled by time, but a company of great elms stand guard over it, and the sunset reddens its windows, and the days of the past seem to have come back, when one is near it, its whole aspect is so remote from the spirit of the present. Inside there are great halls and square rooms with carved wood-work, arched windows and mahogany window-seats, and fire-places that are wide enough almost for a seat in the chimney-corner. In the country about I have heard many a tradition of the way this house was kept; of the fine ladies and gentlemen, and the great dinner-parties, and the guests who used to come up the river from Portsmouth, and go home late in the moonlight evening at the turn of the tide. In those days the wharves that are fast being washed away were strong enough, and there were warehouses and storehouses and piles of timber all along the river. The builder of the house was a successful man, who made a great fortune in the lucky West India trade of his time; he was poor to begin with, but everything prospered steadily with his business interests, and one owes him a debt of gratitude for leaving so fine a house to delight our eyes.
A little way up the shore there was formerly a shipyard [ship-yard], and I know of four ships that were built there much less than fifty years ago. My grandfather was part owner of them, and their names, with those of other ships, have been familiar to me from my babyhood. It is amusing that the ships of a family concerned in navigation seem to belong to it and to be part of it, as if they were children who had grown up and gone wandering about the world. Long after some familiar craft has changed owners even, its fortunes are affectionately watched, and to know that a ship has been spoken at sea gives a good deal of pleasure beside the assurance that the cargo is so far on its way to market at Canton or Bombay. I remember wondering why the smooth green bank, where the dandelions were so thick in spring, should be called the shipyard [ship-yard] by my family, and even why any one should call that corner of the town the Lower Landing, since nothing ever seemed to land, unless it were the fleets that children built from chips and shingles. It is a lovely, quiet place, and I often think of an early summer morning when I was going down river in a row-boat. The dandelions were sprinkled all over the short green grass, and high on the shore, under a great elm, were two wandering young musicians. They had evidently taken the wrong road, and discovered that this was a long lane that led only to the great house on the point and to the water's edge. They must have been entertained, for they seemed very cheerful; one played a violin, and the other danced. It was like a glimpse of sunshiny, idle Italy: the sparkling river and the blue sky, the wide green shores and the trees, and the great gray house, with its two hall doors standing wide open, the lilacs in bloom, and no noise or hurry, -- a quiet place, that the destroying left hand of progress had failed to touch.
One day I was in one of the upper rooms of the Hamilton house in a dormer window, and I was amused at reading the nonsense some young girl had written on the wall. The view was beautiful, and I thought she must have sat there with her work, or have watched the road or the river for some one whom she wished to see coming. There were sentimental verses, written at different times. She seemed to have made a sort of scrap-book of the bit of wall, and she had left me the date, which was very kind of her; so I knew that it was 1802, and in the summer, that she used to sit there in her favorite perch. This is one of her verses that I remember: --
"May you be blest with all that Heaven may send,
Long life, good health, much pleasure in a friend;
May you in every clime most happy be,
And when far distant often think of me."
It was very pleasant to catch this glimpse of girlhood in the old house. I wondered how she liked life as she grew older, and if the lover -- if that were a lover -- did think often enough of her, and come back to her at last from the distant climes. She could have wished him nothing better than much pleasure in a friend. I do not know the history of many members of the family; Colonel Hamilton and his consort are buried under a heavy monument in the Old Fields burying-ground, and at the end of the long epitaph is the solemn announcement that Hamilton is no more. It would be a strange sight if one of his heavily laden [heavily-laden] little ships came up the river now; but I like to think about those days, and how there might have happened to be some lumbermen from far inland, who were delighted to gossip with the sailors and carry back up into the country the stories of their voyage. When the French prisoners of war came into Portsmouth, I have heard old people say that there was a great excitement, and as the ships came in they looked like gardens, for the Frenchmen had lettuces for salads, and flowers growing in boxes that were fastened on the decks; and it was amusing to hear of these prisoners being let out on parole about the country towns, in Eliot and Newington and Kittery, and all up and down the river. Perhaps more than one of them found their way to the hospitable families in Berwick[,] and were entertained as became their rank and fortunes. In an old house in Eliot there is a little drawing made by one of these men, and I have an exquisite little water-color painting of a carnation, with the quaintly written request that charming Sally will sometimes think of the poor Ribère, who will never forget her. It is all that is left of what must have been a tender friendship between this gallant young Frenchman and my grandmother. I found it once among her copy-books, and letters from her girl friends, and love-letters from my grandfather which he sent home to her from sea. She was very young when the poor Ribère was so sorry to part from her, for she married at eighteen (and died at twenty-five). I knew very little about her until I found in the garret the little brass-nailed trunk that had kept her secrets for me. I am sure she often made one of the company that used to come up the river to take tea and go home by moonlight. She was a beautiful girl, and everybody was fond of her. The poor Ribère sat beside her in the boat, I have no doubt; and perhaps it was in the terraced garden with the rows of poplars round it[,] that she picked the flower he painted, and no doubt he carried it away with him when he was set free again, and was not a prisoner of war any longer.
There was formerly a bright array of clerical [gentlemen] [talent] in the river towns, and it was most amusing to [collect][listen to] the anecdotes which the old people of the last generation delighted to tell of [them][the ministers]. Not to speak of the well-known Portsmouth divines, and of Dr. Stevens, of Kittery Point, there was the Reverend Mr. Litchfield, of Kittery, who was called the fisher parson, and his neighbor, Parson Chandler, who might have been called the farmer parson, for he was a celebrated tiller of the soil, and his example was a great blessing to the members of his Eliot parish. The fields there slope to the south and west, and the grass grows green sooner than anywhere else in the region, and the fruits of the earth grow and ripen quickly. He taught his neighbors to improve upon the old fashions of agriculture. An old friend of mine told me that once he was driving from Portsmouth to Berwick, in his early manhood, with Daniel Webster for company, and when they passed this clergyman's house Mr. Webster said that he should be perfectly satisfied if he could be as great a man as Parson Chandler; and judging from the stories of his wisdom and eloquence, the young lawyer's was no mean ambition. Mr. Litchfield [, of Kittery,] spent much of his time on week days in the apostolic business of catching fish; and he was a man of rare wit and drollery, with a sailor-like serenity and confidence in everything's coming out right at last, and a true mariner's readiness and intentness when there was work to be done. Once, at a conference in Portsmouth, the preacher failed to come, and some one had to furnish a sermon in his place. It fell to Mr. Litchfield's share; and old Dr. Buckminster said, when the discourse was ended, -- it being extemporaneous and very eloquent, -- "My friends, the fisher parson beats us all!" It is interesting to find that many of the clergymen of that day seem to have been uncommonly practical men. One fancies that they all preached the better because much of their time was spent in a way that brought them in close contact with people's every-day lives. It was no ideal human nature, studied from sermons and theological works, and classified and doomed at the recommendation of the old divines. One can believe that it was not abstract generalities of a state of sinfulness so much as particular [weaknesses] [weakness] and short-comings [shortcomings] that they condemned from their pulpits. Parson Litchfield could preach gallantly at some offender who stole from and lied about his lobster-pots when he took his text from Ananias and Sapphira, and Parson Chandler could be most impressive and ready with illustration when he chose the parable of the sower for the subject of his discourse. In Berwick there was a grave and solemn little man, whom all his great parish long remembered admiringly. The church where the whole town centred was at the Old Fields, and it ought to be standing yet, but I do not know that anything is left of it but a bit of paper I found one day, on which is written the names of the men who built it[,] and the sums of money and bundles of shingles or pieces of timber that each contributed.
I do not know why this should have been so superstitious a neighborhood, but there seems to have been a great deal of trouble from ghosts, and it was the duty of the ministers to drive them away, or to "lay" them, as they called it then. An old man told me once that the parsons made a great secret of it. They met together in a room, which nobody was allowed to enter; so whether it was a service with mysterious rites, or they only joked together, and thought it well to keep up the reverence in the rustic mind for the power of the priesthood, nobody knows to this day. There is still standing at the Landing a house that has always been said to be haunted. Its ghost was laid properly, but she seems to have risen again defiantly. It formerly stood very near the shore of the little harbor, if one may give that name to what was simply the head of navigation on the river. The family who built and owned it first all died long ago, but I never go by the house without thinking of its early history in those days, when the court end of the little town was next the river, and the old elms shaded the men who were busy with their trading and shipping, and the women who kept up a stately fashion of living in-doors, and walked proudly to and fro in the streets dressed in strange stuffs that had been brought home to them from across the seas. There was a fine set of people in the little town, and Berwick held its head very high, and thought some of the neighboring towns of little consequence that have long since outgrown it and looked down upon it in their turn. It even has given up its place as the head of the family of villages into which the original township has been divided. It is only South Berwick now; but I like to call it Berwick here, as it has a right to be called, for it was the oldest settlement, and the points of the compass should have been given to the newer centres of civilization which were its offshoots.
The oldest houses are, with one or two exceptions, by far the finest ones, and the one of which I have spoken still keeps up as well as it can the pride as well as the name of its first owner. One cannot help being interested in this man, who was one of the earlier physicians of the town, and also had a hand in the business that was connected with the river. I have heard that he came from Plymouth in Massachusetts[,] and was a minister's son[;][,] but if ever a man's heart gloried in the good things of this life it was his, and there was not a trace of Puritan asceticism in his character. His first house was the finest in town, and stood at the head of some terraces that still remain, bordered with rows of elms, and overlooked the river; but that was burnt, and afterward replaced by another, which was for some mysterious reason built at the foot of the terraces near the water. The doctor was said to be a very handsome man, and he dressed uncommonly well, delighting himself with fine broadcloth cloaks with red linings and silk facings[;] and his visits to his admiring patients were paid on horseback, as was the custom then, but he always rode an excellent horse, and dashed about the country in great splendor. He made an elaborate will, entailing his property in English fashion. He waited to see how much General Lord or the other rich men of the town would pay toward any subscription, and then exceeded the most generous. He even asked how much the richest man in the town was taxed, and paid of his own accord a larger sum than he[;][,] and [he] somehow contrived to keep up year after year this appearance of great wealth, and expected and received great deference[. Though] [; though] those who knew him best were sure he must be poor, the pride that went with it forbade familiarity and sympathy alike. There has always been a tradition that his first wife came to her death by foul means, and there is a dislike to the house, which seems never to be occupied for any length of time, even after all these years. The people in the neighborhood believe, as I have said, that it is haunted, and I have often heard stories of the strange cries, and the footsteps that sometimes follow you if you go up the hall stairs in the dark. The doctor himself died suddenly, though he has often been seen since in a grand brocade dressing-gown and close velvet cap. His business affairs had naturally become a good deal tangled, but no one knew how much so until after his death. For several years he had been in the habit of carrying back and forth a little padlocked box when he went to Portsmouth, which was supposed to hold money and valuable papers; but when this was brought home from the bank, and broken open, it was found to contain only blank bits of paper.
His wife, whom the old people in town still remember, must have had a hard time of it in the house on the wharf after she was left a widow; but she was still the grande dame, and when she went into society her old laces and silks and her fine manners made her the queen of her company. She gave no sigh of disappointment at her altered fortunes, and as long as the doctor lived[,] and after he died, she was as serenely magnificent and untroubled as he. The Guard could die, but it never surrendered, and the old prestige was kept up bravely. She lived alone, and might sometimes have needed many of the good things of life, for all one knows; but she was always well dressed, and kept up all possible forms of state, and was rigorous in observing all rules of etiquette. By way of doing a great favor to one of her neighbors, she allowed a stranger the use of one of her rooms for a short time, and this person used to hear a bell ring in the morning, after which Madam Hovey would move about in her room; then she would go down-stairs, breakfast being apparently announced; and so on, through the day. There was often a bell heard tinkling in the parlor; she would apologize for opening the outer door herself, and when the lodger called[,] the mistress of the house was always quite at liberty, and seemed to have been awaiting guests in her parlor, with a bit of lace to mend in her fingers, or some silk knitting, as if she occupied her leisure with such dainty trifles. It was some time before the lodger discovered, to her amazement, that there was not a servant under the roof to do my lady's bidding, but that she still kept up the old customs of the house. Poor soul! it was not all silly pretense. If I were to spend a night (which the saints forbid!) in that beloved mansion where she lived in solitary majesty for so many years, I should not expect to be the guest of the proud doctor's first companion[,] whose death is shrouded in mystery, who cries dismally and walks to and fro in the night, to beg for pity and help. I should look over my shoulder for the lady in the high turban, with a red India shawl around her shoulders, who stood so straight, and [who] used to walk up the aisle to her seat in church on Sunday as if she were a duchess. The cries and the steps behind me would be most annoying, but Madam Hovey, if she also haunts her house, would receive me elegantly. One can imagine her alone in her house at night, with the jar of the river falls and the wind rattling her windows, fearful of her future, and of the poverty and misery old age held in its shaking hands for her. But she carried a brave face in the daylight, however troubled she may have been under the stars, and she gave to the towns-people the best of lessons in behavior; for she was always gracious[,] and courteous, and fine in her own manners, a high-bred lady, who had been in her day a most apt scholar of the old school.
My cruises down the river rarely reach beyond High Point, or Pine Point, or the toll-bridge; but one is tempted to linger there late for the sake of the beautiful view. The salt grass is a dazzling green, if the time is early summer and the tide is partly out, and from the bridge to the Hamilton house the river is very wide. The fine old house faces you, and at its right there is a mountain, which is a marked feature in the landscape on a clear day, when it looks far away and blue in the distance. The great tops of the Hamilton elms look round and heavy against the sky, and the shores of the river are somewhat irregular, running out in points which are for the most part heavily wooded, and form backgrounds of foliage for each other. Being at different angles, the light and shade of each are distinct, and make a much finer coloring and outline than could be if the line of the shore were unbroken by so many bays and inlets. It is very pleasant to push the boat ashore in one of these coves, for in the little ravines that lead down to them there are crowds of ferns and wild flowers, and [there will be just] [it is easy to find exactly] the place for a little feast at supper time. I know many a small harbor on the eastern shore, where a willow or a birch stands out in front of the dark evergreens, and at one place an oak reaches its long [bows] [branches] far out over the water; and when you are once under its shade, and watch the sunset grow bright and then fade away again, or see the boats go round the point from the wide bay into the narrow reach of the river above it, and listen to the bells ringing in the village [or in some town farther away], you hate to think you must take the oars again, and go out into the twilight or the bright sunshine of the summer afternoon.
I miss very much some poplars which stood on the western shore, opposite the great house, and which were not long since cut down. They were not flourishing, but they were like a little procession of a father and mother and three or four children out for an afternoon walk, coming down through the field to the river. As you rowed up or down they stood up in bold relief against the sky, for they were on high land. I was deeply attached to them, and in the spring, when I went down river for the first time, they always were covered with the first faint green mist of their leaves, and it seemed as if they had been watching for me, and thinking that perhaps I might go by that afternoon.
On a spring day how the bobolinks sing, and the busy birds that live along the shores go flitting and chirping and whistling about the world! A great fish-hawk drops through the air, and you can see the glitter of the unlucky fish he has seized as he goes off again. The fields and trees have a tinge of green that they will keep only for a few days, until the leaves and grass-blades are larger and stronger; and where the land has been plowed its color is as beautiful as any color that can be found the world over, and the long shining brown furrows grow warm lying in the sun. The farmers call to each other and to their horses as they work; the fresh breeze blows from the southwest, and the frogs are cheerful, and the bobolinks grow more and more pleased with themselves every minute, and sing their tunes, which are meant to be sung slower and last longer, as if the sweet notes all came hurrying out together.
And in the summer, when the days are hot and long, there is nothing better than the glory of the moonlighted nights, when the shrill cries of the insects fill all the air, and the fireflies are everywhere, and a whiff of saltness comes up with the tide. In October the river is bright steel color and blue. The ducks rise and fly away from the coves in the early morning, and the oaks and maples dress themselves as they please, as if they were tired of wearing plain green, like everybody else, and were going to be gay and set a new fashion in the cooler weather. You no longer drift lazily with the current, but pull your boat as fast as you can, and are quick and strong with the oars. And in the winter the river looks cold and dead, the wind blows up and down between the hills, and the black pines and hemlocks stare at each other across the ice, which cracks and creaks loudly when the tide comes up and lifts it.
How many men have lived and died on its banks, but the river is always young. How many sailors have gone down to the sea along its channel, and from what strange countries have the ships come in and brought them home again up this crooked highway! A harbor, even if it is a little harbor, is a good thing, since adventurers come into it as well as go out, and the life in it grows strong, because it takes something from the world[,] and has something to give in return. Not the sheltering shores of England, but the inhospitable low coasts of Africa and the dangerous islands of the southern seas, are left unvisited. One sees the likeness between a harborless heart and a harborless country, where no ships go and come; and since no treasure is carried away no treasure is brought in. From this inland town of mine there is no sea-faring any more, and the shipwrights' hammers are never heard now. It is only a station on the [railway] [railways], and it has, after all these years, grown so little that it is hardly worth while for all the trains to stop. It is busy[,] and it earns its living and enjoys itself, but it seems to me that its old days were its better days. It builds cheaper houses, and is more like other places than it used to be. The people of fifty years ago had some things that were better than ours, even if they did not hear from England by telegraph, or make journeys in a day or two that used to take a week. The old elms and pines look strong yet, though once in a while one blows over or is relentlessly cut down. The willows by the river are cropped and cropped again. The river itself never grows old; though it rushes and rises high in the spring, it never dries up in the autumn; the little white sails flit over it in pleasant weather, like fluttering moths round the track of sunlight on the water; one troop of children after another steals eagerly down to its forbidden shores to play.
Country By-Ways Text