50 YEARS AGO OR, THE CABINS OF THE WEST

 

A series of articles that appeared

in 1875 in Arthur’s Home Magazine

No. 1 … Poor Kitty Sommers

 

Ioften stand there. I always liked to loiter on the sites of the old cabin homes of long, long ago. I like to place my feet on the heap of worn hearthstones, and dream among the ruins of the home where once privation came like a prowling wolf showing his teeth. And not a bristling nettle or thistle would I tread down ; not one broad leaf of the riotous burdock would I displace; not a clinging lichen would I loosen from the humid stone over which it creeps like a luxuriant embroidery, for Nature, loving mother, tenderly wraps in this beautiful drapery the decay that else would be unsightly. Her touch makes sanctity and beauty.

 

I know the whole story, and it all came up before me yesterday as I stood on the old hearthstones on the site of the cabin home of Kitty Somers. Poor Kitty! She married Job Somers when she was seventeen years old, and they moved into the little fourteen by sixteen log cabin down by the creek, on the Gardiner place, the third day after the wedding. How like little beavers did Job and Kitty work, and plan, and manage.

 

They only had three chairs, splint bottomed, and not a tint of paint about them; but that only gave Kitty a good chance to polish them with soap and white sand. They had no cupboard, or dresser, as they were called in those days but Job, brave-hearted little husband that he was, owned a good axe, and there was the grand old woods handy to the house, and all out-doors was his workshop. Why, any man with an axe and an augur and plenty of timber, could go to work and make furniture, or a good substitute.

 

Job made a bedstead by boring holes into the log wall of his cabin, fitting poles into them and into outer posts which stood firmly on the puncheon floor, and then weaving strips of bark across for a bedcord. The shelves of the dresser were made of split clap-boards laid on wooden pins that were driven into holes in the wall. A substitute for chairs were rude little benches three or four feet long standing on four legs. Glass could not be obtained within forty miles, and window-sash not at all; but greased paper pasted on to the rudely contrived sash was a very good substitute for glass.

 

She owned a little wheel and a reel—and in those early days a poor woman was regarded as peculiarly fortunate if she was the owner of this valuable acquisition to the humble home. Oh, their prospects were bright! For hadn't they a straw bed, and an iron pot and spider, and a heifer caff And wasn't the flax crop full of promise? Kitty rubbed her little brown hands together, and thought how rich they were; and in the dim distance she saw Job and herself living on a farm of their own, and eating wheat bread, and owning sheep, and cows, and pigs, and geese.

 

And so the little pair worked on. The chills shook them, and they drank boneset tea, and looked in each other's eyes, and had faith to believe it was the best medicine in the world. They ate bread made of sick wheat, and turned away from it and partook of the honest little "corn dodgers" that never deceived them. They drank coffee made of browned wheat, and helped themselves bountifully to the stewed pumpkin that occupied its place regularly three times a day on the table. They gathered butternuts and hazelnutsand dried wild plums, and cherries; and while Job worked in the clearing, and grubbed saplings, and cut down big trees, and burnt brush, Kitty scutched flax, and hataheled and spun it, and knit to pay for the weaving of the brown linen webs.

Those were blessed days; and they were happy in the enjoyment of the summers and winters that lengthened out into years.

 

A baby came to them—a little, golden-haired, blue-eyed daughter—and then their joy seemed complete. But a cloud no bigger than a man's hand was in their sky; Job saw it not; but Kitty's keen eye detected it. Alas, alas, that clouds must come!

 

Wes Kingsley and Ben Morrison had been friends of Job Somers in his boyhood. They had been working on the canal, and when they came home they brought bad habits with them. Both were addicted to card playing and drinking, and before Job was aware of it his old-time friends had brought him under their influence. From the very first evening when they brought out their cards, Kitty shook her head and said: "Boys, I do not like such amusement; it is not safe. I wish you would not bring cards here. I do not want my husband to touch them."

 

"No more har-rum in keards than there is in yer windin' that flax o' yourn on the distaff," said Ben Morrison.

 

"Looks like as if you was afeard to trust your man to play a game," said the other, sneering at her with a wicked look out from under his bushy eyebrows.

 

"Kitty can trust me; can't you, little wifey?" said Job, patting her under the chin.

 

"Yes, Job; but then—" and she leaned her face down on the baby's head to hide her emotion.

When they were alone, Job would make good promises, and say he would do anything to please; her; but afterwhile he grew weary of her importunate entreaties, and many a night the poor wife cried herself to sleep while the three men were I boisterous over their cards. 'Squire Gardiner, a shrewd, intelligent New Englander, was often one of the party, and at last it was no uncommon thing for the young wife to be awakened alter the hour of midnight by their yells of laughter. Her bed was in the same room, for in those early days a fourteen by sixteen room way considered large enough for one family to live in—eating, sleeping and working in the one apartment.

 

Mr. Gardiner owned a still house, and gave employment to poor men who were willing to be his tools. Sometimes in those days men could be found who were anxious and glad to work in a distillery for their boarding and all they could drink. Very precious in the sight of such was the little mug or glass cup tied by a leather string. No dainty satin ribbon ever worn by fair lady was smoother than this same well-worn, oft-handled leather string.

 

From playing cards, Job Somers went down the next step, which was drinking, and then gradually lower down, until he was considered the best distiller in his township.

 

And Kitty? No words of hers were of avail when her husband was once in the power of a shrewd man like 'Squire Gardiner. He seemed to delight in annoying Job's wife; a gleam was in his eye, and a smile lurked about his mouth, and when he looked at her the expression of his face, to her, seemed to say, "the tigressI"

 

So, while Job worked in the still-house down in the hollow, poor Kitty, thin-faced and wild-eyed, spun and wove, and made sheets and table linen and wearing apparel. Job slept at homo and ate his three meals a day there, but the beautiful and sacred relation of husband and wife was broken. Kitty, white-faced and still, worked from early dawn until late at night. The sound of the clanging loom could be heard, and the buzzing of the spinning-wheel, while only a quarter of a mile away up rose among the green trees the steamy smoke from the chimney of the seething stillhouse, where Job, with senses blunted, plodded on mechanically in the employment of a designing man.

 

Where was the sweet dream of their young wedded years—the hope of owning a home of their own, and with it all the comforts and necessaries of life? Gene now, and in its stead was a hopeless, sad out-look upon a desolate waste.

 

They had three children—two girls and a boy. One day the little girls took the baby out on the green bank above the spring to play, while their mother was warping a web of linen. The warping-bars and the spools of thread so completely tilled the cabin that there was no room left for the children in the house. Kitty talked to herself as she worked. Round and round creaked the warping-bars; now Kitty stooped and looped the gathered threads in her hand upon the pins that secured the web; then round and round went the bars, her quick eye following every motion and every turning spool; then she stood on tiptoe, and picking the thread — now up, now down, from off her deft thumb and fingers, she looped them on the pins of the bars above her head, and, resting her hand on her side wearily, she looked in a dreamy way from the open door.

 

"I could curse you, 'Squire Gardiner I" she hissed, after a moment's pause, her face lighting up, and her brown eyes glaring and glittering. "You knew better; you wanted to madden me and to ruin my husband and to make a tool of him!" and she cried out and stamped her little bare foot as the object of her wrath was seen, a few rods away in an. opening of the wild wood, riding leisurely along on a beautiful horse with waving mane tossing in the summer air.

 

Just then the two little girls came bounding into the house.

 

"Where is Harry?" said the mother. "You should not leave him a minute."

 

"Why, we were playing in the brook, and he was on the grass, and then when we went back he was gone—and—and we thought you had—"

 

Down dropped the carefully held flaxen threads, and the mother cried out: "Were you near the spring?"

 

Not waiting only until the faltering "yes" fell from the child's lips, Kitty flew to tho wide-branching beech-tree, from whose gnarled roots purled a beautiful spring. Down the green bank she sprang at a leap, and never, never, from that awful moment until the day of her death, did the scene fade from her sight! The pallid face of her beloved babe, stark and cold, stared with wide-open eyes at her from the pebbly bottom of that treacherous spring. Dead! dead! With a piercing shriek, like unto nothing that the surrounding hills had ever heard or echoed she bent over and lifted the dripping form of her darling from the crystal grave that had snatched him from her in a moment of time. Then clutching the precious form to her warm bosom, she ran down the wildwood path toward the still-house in the hollow. Her feet flew down the hill, across the ravine, through the nodding brakes, and over the interlacing grape-vines that lay in the well-worn path, then she leaped adown the viny bank and over the stony brook that ran with a pleasant murmur of rippling sounds from under the loud-breathing distillery.

 

Just as she planted her feet, with a bound, upon the heavy log sill at the door, Job was putting down the little drinking cup and drawing his linen shirt sleeve across his moistened lips in a satisfied manner.

 

Poor Kitty! with her precious burden hugged closely in her arms, she sank upon the damp, earthen floor —s ank down softly, and — most blessed provision of nature — her over-taxed nervous system gave way and she fainted.

 

The beautiful steed of 'Squire Gardiner was that moment hitched to a stake at the other door of the low, steaming still-house, and tipping his hat back, he entered and was coming around to where Job was when this tragic scene transpired. He saw Kitty sink down with something gathered closely to her bosom — he saw Job throw his arms above his head, and then groan and press his horny hands over his face, and full upon his knees.

 

The dear little baby! its scant linen frock clung closely to its plump form, its waxen hands were outspread, its yellow-white hair washed back from its pretty forehead, and, oh, its beautiful eyes stared wide open with no laughter, or joy, or sparkle in them! It was a sight never to be erased in the memory of those two men. Job wrung his hands in his distress, and called upon the name of God, and his wails were exceedingly bitter and full of sorrow. They loosed the child from the relaxing arms of the insensible mother, and Mr. Gardiner applied means of restoration, but it was in vain. It was cold in death and gone far out from the reach of all restoratives. When Kitty came to consciousness, she snatched her babe from the hands of the man who had been the means of winning her husband away from the good habits of his young manhood.

 

"I despise you, sir," she said, with an agony of grief too deep and too bitter for tears or for reason. "Touch not my darling with your polluted hands," and she tore the babe from his arms and gathered it to her breast and crooned soft words of endearment over it. "You poisoned my husband and by your wiles you took him from me, but my babe you shall never touch again! Only for you, and we might have had a home of our own instead of being tools and toys for you. My blessed angel boy! He is beyond the reach of your snares, he is safe — my darling, my darling! mamma's baby once, but an angel now," and she laughed wildly and pressed the tip of her toil-stained forefinger softly in the rare dimples in cheeks and dim, then she rained her eager kisses upon the cold, white face of the babe upon her bosom.

 

The blacksmith at the corners came along, and wrapping his jacket tenderly around the dead body, carried it softly in his arms back to the house. Job supported his wife and Mr. Gardiner went to tell the neighbors of the sad event. Weeping women came, and they carefully set aside the half-warped web and spools and bars, and by the sweetest and kindest sympathy they strove to soothe the afflicted household.

 

The white dimity petticoat that Kitty wore on her wedding-day was cut up and made into a shroud for the baby. And the string of beads that Kitty's grandmother had given her, years and years before, she took off and tied round its pretty white neck. It seemed that everything of worldly value she had, she longed to bestow upon the dead baby, so soon to be hidden from her sight in the garden grave that awaited it.

 

It is not uncommon in seasons of Intense grief to see bereft ones turn angrily and with stony face, and reproach God for the sorrow that has come upon them. How often they retort by saying, "He is cruel; He is not kind! I did not deserve this sore chastening. I who have endeavored to keep His law, who have acknowledged Him in everything, I have not merited this bitter woe; it is unjust;" and to such the gracious influences of prayer come not, the heavens are as brass, and the earth an arid desert, and the Father who loveth with a divine love, surpassing all other loves, is

as one heartless, unloving, cold and cruel. All reproaches, and all bitter thoughts of Kitty turned toward Mr. Gardiner; she could not bear him in her sight. Whenever she thought of her baby, dead, snatched away suddenly and in the bloom of a sweet babyhood, the second thought was one of hatred directed to this man.

 

He had been the means of luring her husband away from steady habits and good principles, it is true; there are men whose sensibilities are so dull that they see no further good in another only so far as they can make them subserve their own ends and purposes, and 'Squire Gardiner was one of those. His boyhood's training had been unfortunate, he had been left an orphan at an early age and had been brought up by a niggardly, grasping, old uncle who cared only for acres and dollars out on interest.

 

So, the years went on, and the old "grind of toil" was the same. Job went back to his low life in the still-house, after his grief and good promises had faded away, as the morning dew is exhaled. His face grew red and bloated, and his hands unsteady, and his blue eyes, once frank and clear, grew dim, and blear, and expressionless.. How could it be otherwise? What good thought could come to him, like visiting angels, when his employment, day after day, was distilling, keeping up the right temperature, trading whisky for grain, compounding messes in the huge tubs, taking care of sacks of corn, measuring and keeping account of gallons, quarts, pints and gills, making sharp bargains with poor men and boys whose desire for the draught was a burning thirst like unto a consuming fire, and in keeping the books, the poor, paltry pages soiled, and stained, and scrawled over by the dry stub of a pen that lay beside the ink-horn on the head of a musty barrel a-near the window-hole. How could the face of Job Somers grow noble, and strong, and beautiful, with only this, the chisel of the destroyer at work upon it day after day and year after year? How could it?

 

One day, Kitty and her little girls were out, gathering berries, when suddenly they came upon ’Squire Gardiner, Job Somers, Morrison and Kingsley, sitting in a shaded ravine, engaged in earnest consultation. The ’squire's hat lay beside him with some papers in it, while a heavy cotton handkerchief was carefully rolled up with something inside.

They all looked startled, but the ’squire pushed his hair back off his fine forehead and spoke as though continuing the conversation ; "no, I think it should be seeded down in clover, and then another year it would do if you chose to —" and this was all that Kitty heard.

 

That night Job left home immediately after supper, and did not return until after the hour of midnight. The next night he said he must work in the still-house, and for her not to sit up and wait for him. He seemed absent-minded and a change had come over him.

 

At the expiration of six months Job was another man. He drank as usual, in moderation, but he seemed kinder and he began to care more for his appearance, and it was no uncommon thing now for Job to bring home presents of new dresses, a quarter of tea, a pound of coffee, a paper of pins and things that before they could not afford. When Kitty said: "How can we afford these comforts and luxuries, are your wages so much better?" Job invariably replied, that good times were coming, that poor people ought to have a chance to live. But Kitty was not satisfied. More than once had she seen strange men about, keen-eyed, sharp-looking men, who did not appear like those who toiled in the clearings, or cut roads, or worked in distilleries. Job was oftener at the house of 'Squire Gardiner than usual; he was away from home more than he ever had been before; he was thoughtful, morose, sighed, and drew his hands across his face in an absent way. Somehow Kitty connected all this change and 'Squire Gardiner together—he was her aversion, her fear, her dread.

© 2011 Peggy Mershon                                                                                     Contact at marwelmer@aol.com