No. 12. Uncle Harry off to the canal

 

 

No one would dream that a cabin had stood there. How smooth is the ground, how gentle its undulations, how calm the scene around! That sloping meadow, with the sunshine falling aslant from the western hills, is beautiful to look upon. Every hollow is transformed into a dimple. The drooping elms, softlv stirred by the breeze, wave like mourning-plumes upon a hearse. Once that meadow was a thicket of tangled thorn, and haw, and bramble, and bristling wild vines; later, it was a dark morass, whose miasmatic breath was the poison that brought sickness, and suffering, and sorrow, and death to cabin homes; and later yet, it was like a luxuriant wild garden, from whose fertile bosom the barefoot country girl gathered her brown arms full of wild lilies, gorgeous meadow pinks, honeysuckles, wake robins, sweet Williams and rare vines and grasses.

 

Where stood the cabin, none may know save the few to whom the spot is sacred ground. When they have passed away, the stranger's plow wilt turn over brown furrows, and he will plod with weary step behind the steady team, calculating the profits of the coming crop, with his eyebrows drawn stolidly beneath the broad brim of his straw hat. When the soil turns over and bits of delft lie exposed to the light of day, the stranger's eye will not grow bright with curiosity and recognition. If he stoops to pick thorn up, and wipes off the grime of half a hundred years, his lip may curl at the bright yellow flowers, and dark red leaves, and the glaring absurdity of the table service of long ago. He will see pictures of sunflowers on tea-saucers, and vines with leaves like burdock on cups, and maroon dogs, and blood-red cats, and yellow men wearing gigantic hats with peaked crowns, and outreached arms bearing cutlasses, cimetars, javelins and cumbersome implements of war and carnage. He will pick up bits of bowls round which a dark brown, sinuous serpent had wreathed its repulsive length, and little cream pitchers with storks diving their bills down into the hearts of over-blown roses, poppies or hollyhocks.

 

And little will the ploughman think, when he cultivates a low corner anear, that once a woodland spring had been sheltered there in the dusky depths of an unbroken wild; that feathery ferns had waved about its brim, and the delicate arbutus had trailed its sweet lengths on the banks above, and that below a little brooklet had crept along under the dead leaves and among the tufted violets, and only had the lapwing and the oriole and shy forest birds slaked their thirst from the lowly rill that flowed unseen for years by the white man.

 

As he rests on his hoe handle, and surveys the work he has just done, little will he dream that he stands where once was a garden, and that the brown soil beneath his feet, fifty years ago, sent up from its wonderful laboratory beds of flaunting flowers; that where his heavy brogans stand, pitilessly as the feet of oxen, were once mats of pansies, and pinks, and ruby-hearted roses, among which fluttered gay butterflies and green-and-gold-winged humming birds, while the busy bees in yellow armor droned and dozed dreamily down in the sweet hearts of the garden flowers.

 

As I thought of all this, I sat down on a boulder which had been placed on the site of the first cabin home in the wilderness. And as I recalled scene after scene that had been enacted on that hallowed spot, none touched me as did this one that comes to me now so vividly. It is of a favorite uncle, a young man, a member of the family born and brought up in the old cabin. I scarcely recall his blue eyes and light brown hair, but I cannot forget my place upon his knee and upon his bosom and within his sheltering arms. His musical laugh comes to me yet, and his quizzing way of teasing me and getting funny answers. Then I remember, as though it was a calamity that befell the family, of the boy Harry and an associate, Will, going away to earn money by working on the canal. At that time it was all the way that was open to earn tolerable wages. I remember soft low voices in consultation, the sad faces, the soft footfall, the silent preparation for the lonely journey, and the white knapsacks with clothing and provisions. I even recall how they were made, out of coarse, unbleached muslin, with places like armholes, through which the poor boys thrust their arms and fitted the ungainly little packs snugly upon their shoulders. I recall the sobbing women who stole out silently that they might not bid farewell; the men who strove to appear bold, and brave, and manly, and to speak light words; the knotted crab-stick canes with which they walked off with hasty strides; and then the shadow that fell upon the lonely home, and lay like a ban upon its threshold.

 

That first sorrow of my life often comes up to me yet, robbed, alas, of not one atom of its sting! I often go back adown the shadowed vista of years, and uncover that baby-grief and look upon it. I remember so distinctly of wandering about restlessly from place to place, not hungry, nor sleepy, nor happy, but like one bewildered, lost and without kindred or friends. In my pocket I carried a fragmentary bit of new calico, saving it to show Uncle Harry on his return, and to tell him that when I grew to be a woman I meant to buy him a pair of pantaloons off that piece. Then I carried a soft bit of cambric that was intended to tie up his thumb when he cut it, and my little mug was filled with nuts that were his very own. Every day I looked away to the dusty yellow road that wound round the hill, and shaded my eyes, hoping to see the one who was all the world to me.

 

But he never came again. He was thrown among rude, rough men. The fair boy stood for days working in mud and water; his food was very coarse, and illy prepared by the unskilled hands of careless men. He slept on the ground on bare straw in a rude shanty. Mail facilities were not as they are now, and his letters rarely reached his home. At the first streak of dawn the laborers were called from their slumbers to resume their shovels and mattocks, and through the day an overseer, to whom "flesh and blood were cheap," drove them with no mercy in his harsh demands. All this could not last long.

 

One night the comrade, Will, was roused by Harry's hot hands clutching him with, "Will, what was that moving like a great shadow?"

 

His bed-fellow felt the fever's fire in the twitching hands, and, half-awake, he said: "Oh, that's the big sycamore in the moonlight; you see it through the crevices of the roof; shut your eyes and sleep."

 

Just as Will had forgotten the murmured response and fallen asleep, Harry cried out sharply: "That noise! that noise! They are coming! I hear them whispering!"

 

"Don't, Harry," was the reply; "it is only the rushing of the water in the river. We always hear that, both day and night."

Again he soothed him; but soon with a law, satisfied laugh he called out: "There she stands! Oh, see her! Just like a white mist."

"Yes, yes," said his companion, soothingly; "and now let me cover you up, for you are shivering with cold;" and he tucked the one scanty covering down close to his back, and creeping owor into the straw, tried to sleep.

 

But the broken words, and pitiful moans, and stifled cries of the sick boy, mingled with the plashing of the waves, and rustling of the leaves without and straw within, made very lonely the slow hours of the autumn night.

 

The fever increased; its fatal fire burned brighter and hotter. The lad lay for days on the straw in the shanty. The physician administered medicines and denied cold water, and said: "You will soon be up again; this is nothing serious."

 

"If I could see some of them at home, oh, it would do me so much good!" was the quivering cry of his sane moments; but only the bare walls of a rude shanty of slabs met his gaze, while without the song, and jest, and laughter of his fellow laborers, the sound of the mattock's blow, and the rushing of the swift waters, all made a confused noise that blended together.

 

The wife of the contractor, in going down to the wayside well one day, heard the sharp cry of the sick boy, and putting down the pail she carried, she entered the low shanty from which proceeded the noise. The heart of the poor little overworked woman was touched with pity, and she sat down beside the pallet of straw and talked to Harry. How kind were her words, and how soothing the touch of her woman's hand!

 

"Have you no home?" she asked; "no friends to come and nurse you?"

 

"Both," he replied; "a good home and good friends —a nd, oh, I want to see some of them I I shall die here! Won't you write to them and tell them to come for me with the wagon? Tell them to put a bed and pillows in it. And, oh, tell them not to wait an hour, for I am dying in this lonely place! Oh, my home! my home!"

 

"I cannot write," was her answer; "but my brother James will, and I will tell him what you say; and in the meantime I will have you taken out of this lonely shanty and kindly cared for. The men shall carry you down to mother's, and she will attend to you as if you were her own son. And now cheer up, and try and be well enough to ride when your brothers come for you with the wagon. That will be so nice to go to your own home again!" and she soothed him and left him.

 

A letter was dispatched to Harry's relatives, telling them of his serious illness and his anxiety to be taken home. Then the kind woman asked the men after they had dined to carry the sick boy to the pleasant little cabin home of her widowed mother. There he was properly cared for by her brothers.

 

But the weary days dragged their tedious lengths along; the fever-fire burned unabated in his veins; one sole desire had possession of his mind, and that was to reach his dear familiar home and friends once more.

 

But a weekly mail in those days comprised our facilities, and frequently that was delayed. The boy grew worse; the desire to see his home was maddening; his thoughts all centered on that one idea.

 

His letter reached its destination, but the postmaster was careless, and when the brothers asked if there wasn't a letter from Harry, the grim old man looked up from his newspaper, peered with white eyes over his glasses, and gruffly responded, "No."

At different times have things unaccountably strange entered into my life for a brief moment, and then passed away and left me wondering, and unable to explain.

 

The first of these came then, when my best beloved lay sick unto death, a stranger among strangers. I have no pleasure in uncovering these strange and sacred events, and letting passers-by look upon them, as we let our neighbors look upon the dear faces of our dead; I shrink of being called superstitious.

 

At this time I slept alone in a little trundle-bed near my parents. One night I called: "Papa, here he is! he's come! but, O papa!"

Yes, it was my Uncle Harry, and yet how unlike him. He seemed to float instead of stand, his eyes were sunken and sad instead of bright and laughing, his face was unreal, and white, and fading like a mist. I called out sharply the names of papa and mamma, and wondered how they could lie there and manifest no joy over his unexpected arrival.

 

They said: "There now, shut your eyes and sleep," and the two treating it as a dream, slept, and the vision came again and again, and the long hours were unbroken save by the lonesome sound of their regular breathing. I remember of my mother asking me questions in a light way on the day following, but my cautious parents were so careful lest their children imbibe superstitious ideas that the painful subject was never alluded to in my presence.

 

Harry's anxiety became so intense that he had his bed moved near to a window, and his head raised higher, so he could lie and look out in the direction of his home, and be the first one to see the horses and the wagon with the bed in it and the dear, familiar lace of the brother who would come for him.

 

The weary days dragged on. He grew weaker and weaker; the fever fed upon his remaining vitality; at last he could not look out from the window, but he would say: "Tell me the minute you see them coming — a brown wagon and one white and one bay horse. Then I will get up and dress, and get my knapsack, and cane, and my coat with the pretty buttons. Oh, I can ride easily in the wagon on one of Sally's good beds!"

 

Then soon his mind wandered all the time, and he would say: "Look out, I think I heard the wagon stop; tell me if one horse is white and the other a bay, and if it is, get my clothes, and — I’m so tired that you may put them in the knapsack."

 

One night, the contractor's wife said to her brother: "He cannot live; you must go immediately for his relatives," and at the lonely hour of midnight the brother started on his mission. I remember the tired young man, and just how he appeared as he stood in the door, dusty and worn with travel, his hat in his hand respectfully, and I very distinctly recall seeing my mother spring to her feet and, with quickened breath, say to the stranger: "Oh, sir, you bring us ill tidings!" How keen are a woman's intuitions. Then he told her, and after the first rain of tears, she remembered the rite of hospitality, and the stranger was tenderly cared for.

 

Then, as soon as possible, one of the brothers and the messenger started. They galloped over the rough roads, and through the woods, and up and down the rugged hills, actuated by the desire to reach the bedside of the dying before it was too late. They hardly spoke during the wearisome journey.

 

"They will soon be here," said the sick boy, In a paroxysm of excitement; "you will know the horses, one white and one bay. Tell me the minute you see them come down the hill. Lay my knapsack here on the foot of the bed; stand my cane there, and put my hat beside it. Oh, I can ride on one of Sally's beds! It will seem so good to get out in the fresh air. I am so tired of digging in the hard yellow clay and standing in the mud and water. But I have to work and earn something. There! there! help me out of this! Give me your hand, "Will, heave-ho! now reach me the mattock and shovel — there — there," and he sank back exhausted, and the breath came with a feeble flutter, and the blue eyes closed and the heavy lashes shut down slowly. The woman wet her palm in camphor and softly slid it down over his lace. He revived and seemed to sleep.

 

In the meantime the brother was hastening on, some of the time leaning forward and standing up in the stirrups. Oh, the agony of suspense! In the sorrowing home, a sister walked the floor hurriedly and wrung her hands in grief; the brothers moved about silently and listlessly, and the old postmaster rubbed his forehead thoughtfully and said: "There's been a letter in the office a good while, somehow, it seems."

 

Suddenly the dying boy opened his eyes and stared wildly, and then a smile lighted up his face and he spoke joyfully, saying: "There! I heard him say whoa; oh, I'm so glad — you can see them from the window, a white horse and a bay, and the bed's in the wagon, and I'll leave this clay bank and the heavy mattock now. Get my hat, and reach me the knapsack, and you may place it on my shoulders, and Where's my crab-apple cane, you know we'll not want to lose any time, they'll need the team, maybe, and — and — have me all ready. I can't see; where is the knapsack? put my hand on it and — my hat — you get it — there's not a minute to lose and — now I'll be off — yes — give them to me — I knew they would come! well, yes. now I'll go; good-bye," and the blue eyes opened wide in a death-stare as he fell back upon iis pillow, dead.

 

Some of the laborers on the canal came in and stood beside the bed. They stepped softly and one of them drew the back of his brown hand across his eyes and said: "Poor lad! he's done with this world," and very gently he lifted the white knapsack from off the foot of the bed, removed the hat from the stiffening grasp of the thin hand, and laid the smooth crab-apple cane away, and he whispered, as he shook his head, saying: "My God! it must 'a' been hard for him to give up and die when he was so anxious to git home." Hardly was the bitterness of death past until two galloping horsemen rode up and dismounted. The beasts were flecked with foam. The face of the widowed mother looked out from the window; as soon as her son saw it he knew all, and taking the bridle from the hands of the other, he bade him, in a husky voice, to enter.

 

The sorrowing brother staggered into the house, glanced around and his eye fell upon the outline of a human figure lying on the bed under a sheet. There was no voice to greet him with expressions of joy; no eye to brighten at his coming; he was too late. His grief was intense; he called upon the name of the dead, he spoke his pet name in tender, loving tones, as if he would bring the light of recognition into the eyes dim in death. It was very hard to give him up and know him in this life no more forever.

 

I remember his lonely return after the burial. Not a word was spoken when he crossed the threshold and laid down the little burden that Harry had borne away on his shoulders —his poor little worldly effects. The young sister looked at the knapsack and the bundle of clothing, and, with a wailing cry that I never can forget, fell senseless on the floor. My mother turned aside and buried her face among the pillows of her bed and cried piteously. I knew not what death was, so I stood with my hands clasped behind me and looked upon the sorrowful scene, unable to comprehend it. I felt in my pocket and took out the bit of pretty calico, and for the fiftieth time admired it and thought of my cherished plan.

 

When the knapsack was opened and the bundle of clothing shaken out, I recognized every garment, and went and felt of them and touched the pretty, gray, shiny buttons to my cheeks. A great sorrow filled my heart, but I knew not what it was, I could not define or understand it, but it lay like a leaden weight.

 

When a little paper was unrolled and all the precious things looked upon by the family for the first time, the sacred privacy of poor Harry's boyish heart lay revealed. There were pretty keepsakes, and bits of poetry, and letters, and most treasured of all, was a beautiful braid of soft, silken, brown hair — a lady's — long, and bright, and flossy. The sisters wept over it in silence.

 

Next, I remember distinctly of a heavy gravestone borne into the house by three or four men and placed on a trestle, and then a curly-haired, little, spry stone-cutter, with mallet and chisel, went to work copying the inscription that lay before him. I rarely left the side of the busy workman. I watched the formation of every gracefully wrought letter, and followed the curves with a meddlesome forefinger.

 

When finished, the stone was lifted into a wagon and hauled down to the creek and put in a skiff, and one of the brothers was delegated to bear it away to that lonely grave in a strange land. It was a somewhat singular mode of transportation, but in early days settlers were driven to devise ways and means.

 

The young man followed his freight into the skiff, and bidding a low good-bye, took up the oars and silently departed on his sad errand ofl ove. After a few miles the creek was joined by a tributary which widened and made it deeper, a few miles further and another joined it, and finally it became the Walhonding River and continued so until the end of his journey.

 

My desire to visit the grave of our beloved dead, as I grew up to womanhood, became all-absorbing, a pain, a grief that was almost unendurable, and, at last, I could brook restraint no longer, and went, almost alone. To me it was the pilgrim's Mecca.

I fortunately chanced to meet the good woman who had so kindly ministered unto him. When I stood before her and, in a voice broken with sobs of emotion, told her my errand and who I was, she laid her palms on my head and slid them down over my temples and smiled sadly and pityingly, and told me the old story all over again, adding: "You resemble Harryj his face comes back to me in yours."

 

I went across the woods, beneath the shadows of towering oaks, to that precious grave, alone. The woodland was like a great grove, with no small timber. At last, where a travelled road curved beautifully, I discerned a few tombstones, and unconsciously my steps grew hurried, my heart beat faster, the sobs uprose and when I drew near I saw and remembered the familiar stone with the plain inscription that the baby finger-tip had followed in that long-ago time. I could not control my intense emotion; I had felt this visit to be a sacred duty and, with a cry that welled up from the very depths of my sorrowing soul, I ran to the grave and laid my arms over it and pressed my face upon the sod and cried: "Oh, I've come! I've come at last!"

 

It seems to me that I lay there a long time. I could not endure the idea of leaving him there in that lonely place when he had so agonized to reach his home and kindred; but after a while this sweet and precious promise came to me, as though spoken in a voice," This sleeping dust shall rise and live again." Then my soul was filled with peace, and I calmly gathered some of the vines and flowers and grasses from the grave, and brought them home to look upon and be comforted. I frequently look at them and press them to my face, but all the bitterness of my sorrow is gone; it is lost in that beautiful promise of eternal life

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