I was hundreds of miles away from home, and very, very lonely. I hardly hoped to ever look upon the dear faces of my family again. Thinking and fearing this, I often put my veil over my head and walked off briskly in any direction that my aimless steps led me. There was one lonely, dreamy, quiet place that I often frequented — a grassy lane past a farm-house; on either side Was a tumble-down stone fence, iviea and wild morning-glories and sweet briers twined in and out and over the picturesque walls of gray and mossy stone. Across the stone fences were old orchards, full of thickly-set trees, some straight as pines, and others bent over and grown crooked and knobby and full of great protuberances that looked like huge joints. I used to wander through these orchards, and watch the robins in their clumsy nests, listen to the trill of the orioles, and rejoice in the placid beauty of the pairs of doves whese nests were in the peach-trees and on the apricot trained against the wall. Then I used to drink from the wayside well, wheso old-time sweep was fastened at one corner of the low-roofed stoop in front of the kitchen.

 

I smile now, after the lapse of years, and think that I loved to loiter about the wayside well and quaff its crystal water, only because of the pastoral poetry of that pretty place. The old oaken bucket was a poem itself, as it came dripping and overflowing its brim from among the green, plumy ferns and the feathery maiden's hair that were swept aside in the upward passage.

 

At length I became acquainted with the inmates of that cozy country heme, and I often sat on the cool, vine-covered porch, and talked with Aunt Mary while she plied her knitting-needles. Aunt Mary was the grandmother, and she lived with her son Levi and his wife Patience — or rather they lived with her, for she was a widow, and the old farm was hers — the farm on which she was born, and, as the only child, inherited from her father.

Everybody knew the "old Pettingill farm," as it was called.

 

One day, the old lady came out into the orchard, with a little pail on her arm, in search of " cookin' apples," and she came suddenly upon me and found me sitting down in a secluded corner with some letters in my lap, crying. I was troubled and sorrowing and, added to this, were all the pains of home-sickness. As soon as I saw her, I cried aloud; I could afford to do it, for was she not a woman, with a woman's tender, sympathizing heart?

 

"Laws, child, don't take on so! that's a dear, now — so there now — there now!" said she, dropping her pail and bending over me with every token of the kindest, motherly affection. . "But my troubles are more than I can bear," I cried, reaching up my hands pitifully.

 

"Oh, no! oh, no! don't say so, child; the Lord gives us strength to bear all our sorrows, if we only have faith and trust Him."

 

With a gentle, caressing touch she smoothed my hair softly, all the while saying these little snatches of comfort that grandmotherly women know so well how to say.

 

"Did you ever have any trouble?" I said, in a low voice, as I leaned forward, soothed by her sweet ministration.

"Trouble, child!" said she; "the Lord knows that my troubles have been given me in full measure, shook down, and heaped up, and runnin' over; poured out as with a hand that spared not, nor gave grudgingly. And here; right there, where you see yon heap of old hath-stones with the nettles growin' in among 'em so viciously, there was where I lived when my sorrows wrapped mo about so powerfully. Troubles! Lord have mercy! I sheuld think I had seen 'em, child! Why, I've laid all night on the hard puncheon floor and rassled with my grief, and cried aloud, and begged o' the Lord to deliver me from them! I used to wish that I could only die and take my little nursin' baby 'long with me to that rest that comes with death and the grave."

 

"Tell me all," said I, "maybe it will do me good and help me to be patient and hopeful."

 

We sat in the old orchard while she told the story. I shall never forget that day. The song of the harvester among the ripened grain came to us from the field beyond the farm-house. The bees hummed and droned among the flowers; the butterflies flitted on gay wings; the swallows darted in and out from under the dusty eaves and from the holes in the peaked gables of the old barn under the giant maples; the doves sang mournfully from the apple-trees, and the robins trilled and warbled from the top of an old drooping elm that stood a-near the site of the cabin home of long ago. A tangled mesh of the brier-rose lay in a fragrant heap where once had been the garden; a thistle stood all a-bristle where once had bloomed a thrifty lilac, and the old-time path that had led to the spring was marked now only by a border of that noisome plant of vigorous growth that the children of now-a-days call "butter and eggs." How mournful to witness all this defacement and cruel obliteration of what was once beautiful and attractive! And this was the story, this the sorrow that life had held for Mary Pettingill:

 

She married Henry Pettingill when she was barely sixteen years of age. He was very kind and affectionate, and never a cloud came into her sky until her baby, Levi, was three years old. About that time a very beautiful young widow, sparkling with attractions, came to live with her sister, whe was a near neighbor of the Pettingills. In these days quilting-bees, and pumpkin-paring bees, and log-rollings, and raisings, and cornhuskings, and dancing frolics were in vogue. Not a week passed, even in these sparse settlements, in which some of these social gatherings were not held. They made friends where else people would have remained strangers; they brought together neighbors in one common interest, and often cemented bonds that remained unbroken through all time.

 

One day, there was a quilting-bee at Jonas Heskins's house. Now the Heskins were near neighbors of the Pettingills, they lived over beyond the big woods about three miles east, on the hill above the Tilton still-house.

 

All the women in the neighborhood were invited to come in the morning and stay all day, whilo the men were to come in the afternoon and roll logs on the five-acre lot back of the house. Among the women invited was the young widow, Salome Chester. Oh, she was a beauty! Small, and spry, and quick-witted, with the strangest, prettiest black eyes and abundant, wavy black hair, rosy cheeks that were dotted with winsome dimples whenever she laughed, teeth as white as pearls, and a step as springy as a kitten's. Her clothes, too, were finer than any of the poor, toiling women in that now settlement could afford. They wore dresses of yellow and white check linen. That they spun and wove themselves, with the exception of a calico dress that they had brought with them to the " new country."

 

That evening, when the men came in to supper, they, good souls, were quite captivated by the little witch in fluttering ribbons. She knew just what to do, and it seemed that she could be in half a dozen places at one lime. She could pass the big dish of wild heney, fill cups with the delicious rye coffee, "cheep!" to the toddling babies, and fry buckwheat cakes on two hot griddles, and keep the supply ahead for the long table full of hungry men, while the other women were slipping around slicing venison, carving wild turkeys and seeing that the "other potatoes" were cooking. Wonderful how easy it came to Mrs. Salome Chester to do whatever work came to her hands. Old Mr. Camden said she "took to work as naturally as a duck took to water." That night, the little widow eclipsed all the other women in the dance. In the Virginia reel she seemed more like a winged fairy than a poor, dependent, young widow.

 

There was Bacon, whose wife was called a good dancer, but he had no inclination to dance with his wife for a partner, that evening, no one would do but Salome Chester. Bacon was from Virginia, and wore a long hunting-shirt of linsey, with a collar cut so that the points came down onto his shoulders. There were slits in the sides of the shirt, arid it was trimmed all around with narrow, green, woollen fringe. None of the other men wore quite such a finished or fanciful garment; they wore roundabouts, or the loose, roomy, comfortable wamus made of linsey, a home-spun material of cotton warp and woollen filling, or woof.

 

It was long after midnight before the frolic was over, the tallow-dips extinguished, the embers buried, and the little, disordered cabin dark and quiet.

 

And so for months and months were like scenes of gayety enacted.

 

In these days it was common for the mother to make a kettle of meal mush and stand it in a warm corner, put a crock of milk on the table, with tin cups and pewter spoons, for the children's suppers, give them their orders about behaving themselves, about burying the fire in the ashes, and then mount on an old horse behind her husband, and start off on a brisk gallop through the woods, five or seven miles away, to a dance.

 

What finely-developed, rosy, buxom, healthy wives our grandmothers were! And no wonder.

 

After awhile it was whispered that the young widow was not a safe woman, that the new neighborhood in the West was better without her. But then when traced back, the insinuation came from Susie Marshall, and they all knew that Susie always was jealous of every woman that Tom Marshall ever smiled upon, and so they laughed at her weakness, and only pitied her.

 

Henry Pettingill always spoke in praise of that "smart little creetur," and his wife sanctioned every word that he said. Salome came and visited Mary frequently, and she was always welcome, and Mary was always learning something new. Salome told her how to fix crabapples to keep all winter; how to preserve wild plums and wild cherries in honey; how to color black, and brown, and yellow, a new and an easier way; how to fix stalks of the golden rod, so that she would have something ornamental to stand beside the little mirror all through the gloomy days of winter; and how to make pantalettes the way they did in York State; and she initiated her into the mysteries of the oak-leaf pattern, and the pretty new kind of netting to put around stand-cloths and bureau-spreads. Why, such an ingenious little woman was worth her weight in gold in any new neighboroeod. All the babies loved her, and two of the babies' mothers had named her little ones after her.

 

One day Mary Pettingill was taken suddenly ill — stricken down with pleurisy — and someone had to care for the duties of the household. Who shall we get? was a question easily answered, for in less than two hours' time the bay mare stood tied to the rail fence, her flanks flecked with foam; and inside the little cabin home the quick step of Salome Chester flitted hither and thither, while her soft touch and her gentle voice brought ease from pain and a sense of contentment to the invalid on the low bed back in the recess. Cut while she lay there her eyes were opened, and the newness of sight alarmed and saddened her almost beyond the utterance of speech. At first she thought what she saw was only the effects of a disordered imagination. She asked herself if it were jealousy that filled her breast, when one day, as the wind blew back the strip of curtain that hung beside her bed, she saw her husband dallying with one of Salome's curls — saw the lustrous, heavy curl lying in his broad palm, and, while he bent over it admiringly, touched it to his lips? Why did she shrink, unless the fires of jealousy were burning in her bosom? she asked herself. Oh, of all women she would dread most to be like Tom Marshall's wife — the fun and jeer of the whole settlement. Wasn't her Henry faithful, and kind, and loving? And wasn't he the father of her babe, the choice of her girlhood, and the pride of her heart? Couldn't a man touch to his lips a shining curl of hair just as purely and rightfully as he'd touch a velvety rose to his cheek? Shouldn't her husband, Henry Pettingill, have the same privilege of loving and admiring all beautiful things the same as she had? Of course. And turning her face to the wall, she closed her eyes, and counted all the precious blessings that were hers in this life.

 

The next evening there was to be preaching at Simpkins's School-house. It was rarely that a Methodist itinerant preacher came that way, but when one did he always stopped at Brother Simpkins's, and he sent his boys around among the neighbors to inform them that there would be preaching at his house, or sometimes at the log school-house at the forks of the Vernon Road.

 

Mary saw that Salome would like to go to hear the new preacher; and Henry remarked that he did wish Mary was well, he would hitch up the oxen and they would drive over. She said it seemed a pity, just because she was sick, they should both be debarred the pleasure of going to meeting, and that if they fixed everything comfortable and safe, she could stay alone with baby Levi that length of time.

 

They both mounted the little bay and rode off. How long the time did seem till nine o'clock! The fire in the wide fireplace burned briskly, and throw dancing shadows all around. She lay and watched the drooping feathers and the asparagus that airily surrounded the broad, white face of the little old buckeye clock high up on the wall. Then she watched the long, tedious swing, swing, back and forth, of the pendulum, until, in a feverish nightmare, the heavy gray weights looked in the dimness like two big, dull eyes watching her unwinkingly. She looked away; and again and again she counted the shells of the bird-eggs that were strung on a thread and drawn across the top of the little mirror—one blue, one white, one blue, one white; then she looked at the snow-white little towel of fine huck-a-buck that was starched stiffly, ironed into diamond checks, and tacked on the wall under the mirror.

 

The clock struck nine — ten — eleven — the baby, slept soundly, and his fat little arms lay outside the blue and green coverlet. He was the very picture of rosy health and beauty — his cheeks were a-bloom with the roses of sweet babyhood — but, oh, these two heavy, leaden weights, how they stared at her from the wall! how like devilish eyes they were! how they frightened and chilled her! and that old pendulum, how it did measure off the moments — moments of time that were passing away forever and forever! Hew strange a thing time did seem just then! How like an ocean with a wide, wide expanse stretching away far around her, and she, like a lone little atom, seemed to be drifting on the broad bosom of that immense ocean, alone, not even her baby was with her.

 

The fire grew dim, the white ashes crept over the red coals, the face of the clock looked in the gray dimness like a leering, staring white face up on the cabin wall — it struck twelve — the moments went on —t he white clock face looked now like the face of one dead, one who had died a violent and a horrible death. She screamed, the baby woke and clutched tightly his mother's neck; in, her moment of frightful delirium she thought the fearful face on the wall belonged to a stalwart form, and that it had come down and was clutching its talony fingers tightly around her throat. She knew no more. When she woke to consciousness, the sun was shining into the cabin — the long rays streamed in from the eastern hills and fell across her bed. Some of her neighbors were ministering to her. Levi sat on his father's knee, and Salome Chester was arranging some wild-wood flowers in a little jar that stood on a shelf under the long, narrow window. Mary rubbed her eyes and marvelled at the strangeness of everything that surrounded her. She thought she was aroused from a terrible dream. A suspicion of the truth lingered with her, but she forbore to ask any questions. Salome stayed two weeks longer, and then Mary, in a feeble way, resumed her usual duties. If she had any remote thuught of her husband's unfaithfulness, she banished it as unbecoming a wife and mother.

 

About this time an itinerant preacher called there for dinner. He was a godly man, and he improved the opportunity of speaking to his entertainers on the subject of their soul's salvation. Mary had given this solemn and important theme but little earnest thought. From this time she was thoroughly awakened to a sense of her duty and her need. Henry gave but little heed to the kindly-spoken words of the earnest wayfaring man of God.

 

After this, Mary found a delight in reading and meditating — she was never lonely, never afraid or work and cowardly. Henry would be absent half the night at a dance in the settlement, while his wife remained at home from choice.

 

One night, as she sat reading, there was a shuffling step at the door, then a gentle rap.

"Who is there?" she spoke, kindly.

 

"Only Johnny” was the laughing reply, as the door opened and Johnny Appleseed entered with a sack on his back.

 

Everybody in the West knew and welcomed to their homes, at any hour of the day or night, Uncle Johnny, as he was familiarly called. His right name was John Chapman, but he was better known as Johnny Appleseed. He was an eccentric old man, but very kind, and tender-hearted and good. He always carried in his bosom a wellworn testament and a book or two setting forth the principles of the beautiful religion that he daily lived.

 

Mary welcomed the poor old man, and gave him something to eat, then he read to her and talked until bed-time. He called her Mary, even as a tender lather would address his daughter. When the hour for retiring came, she asked him to occupy the spare bed in the low loft, but he said, "My habits are not changed; you know I always sleep on the floor." Then he laid the sack of dry apple-seeds down beside the wide stone jamb, flattened it out smoothly and made a little hollow in it for his head, spread down beside it a ragged old coat to make a resting-place for his shoulders, and with a pleasant chuckle of satisfaction he lay down and soon slept the sleep of the weary good man, at peace with all the world, and cherishing only good will toward all of God's creatures.

 

Johnny Chapman was the pioneer nurseryman of the West. Much of the good he did lives after him. From my window I can count no less than six, and almost seven, orchards that were in good bearing condition fifty and fifty-five years ago. Only for the unselfish sacrifices made by this old man in these early days did this valuable heritage come down to ours and us. He frequently travelled fifty miles on foot with a sack of seeds on his shoulder.

 

In the morning, after Johnny left their cabin, Henry took his axe and went out to the clearing. He was dull-eyed and not refreshed after the rude gayety of the previous night. He had only gone as far as the spring, when he returned and said he believed he would leave his flannel warmus and let her sew on a couple of buttons and mend the ripped lining in the sleeve — that every time he put it on, his fingers were quite sure to catch in the rip.

 

Mary set back the little wheel against the wall, and went to the dresser and took down a box that contained the buttons. Henry put on an old roundabout, and started again to the clearing.

50 YEARS AGO OR, THE CABINS OF THE WEST

 

A series of articles that appeared

in 1875 in Arthur’s Home Magazine

© 2011 Peggy Mershon                                                                  Contact at marwelmer@aol.com

No. 2 … The Old Pettingill Farm Page1