Pencil Sketches; or, Outlines of Character and Manners, page 16
"Chacun a son gout."--_French Proverb._
It has often been a subject of surprise to me, that so many even ofthose highly-gifted people who are fortunate enough to possess bothsorts of sense (common and uncommon), show, nevertheless, on someoccasions, a strange disinclination to be guided by the self-evidenttruth, that in all cases where the evil preponderates over the good, itis better to reject the whole than to endure a large portion of certainevil for the sake of a little sprinkling of probable good. I can thinkof nothing, just now, that will more aptly illustrate my position, thanthe practice so prevalent in the summer-months of quitting a commodiousand comfortable home, in this most beautiful and convenient of cities,for the purpose of what is called boarding out of town; and wilfullyencountering an assemblage of almost all "the ills that flesh is heirto," in the vain hope of finding superior coolness in thoseestablishments that go under the denomination of country lodgings, andare sometimes to be met with in insulated locations, but generally inthe unpaved and dusty streets of the villages and hamlets that arescattered about the vicinity of Philadelphia.
These places are adopted as substitutes for the springs or thesea-shore; and it is also not unusual for persons who have alreadyaccomplished the fashionable tour, to think it expedient to board out oftown for the remainder of the summer, or till they are frightened homeby the autumnal epidemics.
I have more than once been prevailed on to try this experiment, in theuniversal search after coolness which occupies so much of the attentionof my fellow-citizens from June to September, and the result has beenuniformly the same: a conviction that a mere residence beyond thelimits of the city is not an infallible remedy for all the _desagremens_of summer; that (to say nothing of other discomforts) it is possible tofeel the heat more in a small house out of the town than in a large onein it.
The last time I was induced to make a trial of the delights of countrylodgings, I had been told of a very genteel lady (the widow of anEnglishman, said to have been highly connected in his own country), whohad taken a charming house at a short distance from the city, with theintention of accommodating boarders for the summer; and I finallyallowed myself to be prevailed on to become an inmate of herestablishment, as I had just returned from the north, and found theweather still very warm.
Two of my friends, a lady and gentleman, accompanied me when I went toengage my apartment. The ride was a very short one, and we soon arrivedat a white frame house with green window-shutters, and also a green gatewhich opened into a little front garden with one gravel walk, two grassplats, and four Lombardy poplar trees, which, though excluded in thecity, still keep their ground in out-of-town places.
There was no knocker, but, after hammering and shaking the door for nearfive minutes, it was at last opened by a barefooted bound-girl, who hidherself behind it as if ashamed to be seen. She wore a ragged lightcalico frock, through the slits of which appeared at intervals a blackstuff petticoat: the body was only kept together with pins, and partlyconcealed by a dirty cape of coarse white muslin; one lock of her longyellow hair was stuck up by the wreck of a horn comb, and the remainingtresses hung about her shoulders. When we inquired if Mrs. Netherby wasat home, the girl scratched her head, and stared as if stupified by thequestion, and on its being repeated, she replied that "she would go andlook," and then left us standing at the door. A coloured servant wouldhave opened the parlour, ushered us in, and with smiles and curtsiesrequested us to be seated. However, we took the liberty of enteringwithout invitation: and the room being perfectly dark, we also used thefreedom of opening the shutters.
The floor was covered with a mat which fitted nowhere, and showedevidence of long service. Whatever air might have been introducedthrough the fire-place, was effectually excluded by a thickchimney-board, covered with a square of wall-paper representing KingGeorge IV. visiting his cameleopard. I afterwards found that Mrs.Netherby was very proud of her husband's English origin. Themantel-piece was higher than our heads, and therefore the mirror thatadorned it was too elevated to be of any use. This lofty shelf was alsodecorated with two pasteboard baskets, edged with gilt paper, andpainted with bunches of calico-looking flowers, two fire-screens ditto,and two card-racks in the shape of harps with loose and crooked stringsof gold thread. In the centre of the room stood an old-fashioned roundtea-table, the feet black with age, and the top covered with one ofthose coarse unbleached cloths of figured linen that always look likedirty white. The curiosities of the centre-table consisted of a tumblerof marigolds: a dead souvenir which had been a living one in 1826: ascrap work-box stuck all over with figures of men, women, and children,which had been most wickedly cut out of engravings and deprived of theirbackgrounds for this purpose: an album with wishy-washy drawings andsickening verses: a china writing-apparatus, destitute alike of ink,sand, and wafers: and a card of the British consul, which, I afterwardslearnt, had once been left by him for Mr. Netherby.
The walls were ornamented with enormous heads drawn in black crayon, andhung up in narrow gilt frames with bows of faded gauze riband. One headwas inscribed Innocence, and had a crooked mouth; a second wasBeneficence, with a crooked nose; and a third was Contemplation, with aprodigious swelling on one of her cheeks; and the fourth was Veneration,turning up two eyes of unequal size. The flesh of one of these headslooked like china, and another like satin; the third had the effect ofvelvet, and the fourth resembled plush.
All these things savoured of much unfounded pretension; but we did notthen know that they were chiefly the work of Mrs. Netherby herself, who,as we learned in the sequel, had been blest with a boarding-schooleducation, and was, according to her own opinion, a person of greattaste and high polish.
It was a long time before the lady made her appearance, as we hadarrived in the midst of the siesta in which it was the custom of everymember of the establishment (servants included) to indulge themselvesduring the greatest part of the afternoon, with the exception of thebound-girl, who was left up to "mind the house." Mrs. Netherby was atall, thin, sharp-faced woman, with an immense cap, that stood out allround, and encircled her head like a halo, and was embellished with anenormous quantity of yellowish gauze riband that seemed to incorporatewith her huge yellow curls: fair hair being much affected by ladies whohave survived all other fairness. She received us with abundance ofsmiles, and a profusion of flat compliments, uttered in a voice ofaffected softness; and on making known my business, I was conductedup-stairs to see a room which she said would suit me exactly. Mrs.Netherby was what is called "a sweet woman."
The room was small, but looked tolerably well, and though I was not muchprepossessed in favour of either the house or the lady, I was unwillingthat my friends should think me too fastidious, and it was soon arrangedthat I should take possession the following day.
Next afternoon I arrived at my new quarters; and tea being ready soonafter, I was introduced to the other boarders, as they came down fromtheir respective apartments. The table was set in a place dignified withthe title of "the dining-room," but which was in reality a sort ofanti-kitchen, and located between the acknowledged kitchen and theparlour. It still retained vestiges of a dresser, part of which wasentire, in the shape of the broad lower-shelf and the under-closets.This was painted red, and Mrs. Netherby called it the side-board. Theroom was narrow, the ceiling was low, the sunbeams had shone full uponthe windows the whole afternoon, and the heat was extreme. A mulatto manwaited on the tea-table, with his coat out at elbows, and a marvellousdirty apron, not thinking it worth his while to wear good clothes in thecountry. And while he was tolerably attentive to every one else, he madea point of disregarding or disobeying every order given to him by Mrs.Netherby: knowing that for so trifling a cause as disrespect to herself,she would not dare to dismiss him at the risk of getting no one in hisplace; it being always understood that servants confer a great favour ontheir employers when they condescend to go with them into the country.Behind Mrs. Netherby's chair stood the long-haired bound girl (calledAnna by
The aspect of the tea-table was not inviting. Everything was in thesmallest possible quantity that decency would allow. There was a plateof rye-bread, and a plate of wheat, and a basket of crackers: anotherplate with half a dozen paltry cakes that looked as if they had beenbought under the old Court House: some morsels of dried beef on twolittle tea-cup plates, and a small glass dish of that preparation ofcurds, which in vulgar language is called smearcase, but whose _nom deguerre_ is cottage-cheese, at least that was the appellation given it byour hostess. The tea was so weak that it was difficult to discoverwhether it was black or green; but, finding it undrinkable, I requesteda glass of milk: and when Bingham brought me one, Mrs. Netherby saidwith a smile, "See what it is to live in the country!" Though, afterall, we were not out of sight of Christ Church steeple.
The company consisted of a lady with three very bad children; anotherwith a very insipid daughter, about eighteen or twenty, who, like hermother, seemed utterly incapable of conversation; and a fat Mrs.Pownsey, who talked an infinite deal of nothing, and soon took occasionto let me know that she had a very handsome house in the city. Thegentlemen belonging to these ladies never came out till after tea, andreturned to town early in the morning.
Towards sunset, I proposed taking a walk with the young lady, but shedeclined on account of the dew, and we returned to the parlour, wherethere was no light during the whole evening, as Mrs. Netherby declaredthat she thought nothing was more pleasant than to sit in a dark room inthe summer. And when we caught a momentary glimpse from the candles thatwere carried past the door as the people went up and down stairs, we hadthe pleasure of finding that innumerable cockroaches were running overthe floor and probably over our feet; these detestable insects havingalso a fancy for darkness.
The youngest of the mothers went up stairs to assist her maid in thearduous task of putting the children to bed, a business that occupiedthe whole evening; though the eldest boy stoutly refused to go at all,and stretching himself on the settee, he slept there till ten o'clock,when his father carried him off kicking and screaming.
The gentlemen talked altogether of trade and bank business. Someneighbours came in, and nearly fell over us in the dark. Finding theparlour (which had but one door) most insupportably warm, I took my seatin the entry, a narrow passage which Mrs. Netherby called the hall.Thither I was followed by Mrs. Pownsey, a lady of the Malaprop school,who had been talking to me all the evening of her daughters, MaryMargaret and Sarah Susan, they being now on a visit to an aunt inConnecticut. These young ladies had been educated, as their motherinformed me, entirely by herself, on a plan of her own: and, as sheassured me, with complete success; for Sarah Susan, the youngest, thoughonly ten years old, was already regarded as quite a phinnominy(phenomenon), and as to Mary Margaret, she was an absolute prodigal.
"I teach them everything myself," said she, "except their French, andmusic, and drawing, in all which they take lessons from the firstmasters. And Mr. Bullhead, an English gentleman, comes twice a week toattend to their reading and writing and arithmetic, and the grammar ofgeography. They never have a moment to themselves, but are kept busyfrom morning till night. You know that idleness is the root of allevil."
"It is certainly the root of _much_ evil," I replied; "but you know theold adage, which will apply equally to both sexes--'All work and no playmakes Jack a dull boy.'"
"Oh! they often play," resumed Mrs. Pownsey. "In the evening, after theyhave learned their lessons, they have games of history, and botany, andmathematics, and all such instructive diversions. I allow them no otherplays. Their minds certainly are well stored with all the arts andscience. At the same time, as I wish them to acquire a sufficient ideaof what is going on in the world, I permit them every day to read overthe Marianne List in our New York paper, the Chimerical Advertiser, thatthey may have a proper knowledge of ships: and also Mr. Walsh's Expertsin his Gazette; though I believe he does not write these little moralthings himself, but hires Mr. Addison, and Mr. Bacon, and Mr. Locke, andother such gentlemen for the purpose. The Daily Chronicle I never allowthem to touch, for there is almost always a story in every paper, andnone of these stories are warranted to be true, and reading falsehoodswill learn them to tell fibs."
I was much amused with this process of reasoning, though I had more thanonce heard such logic on the subject of fictitious narratives.
"But, surely, Mrs. Pownsey," said I, "you do not interdict all works ofimagination? Do you never permit your daughters to read for amusement?"
"Never," replied this wisest of mothers; "amusement is the high-road tovice. Indeed, with all their numerous studies, they have little or notime for reading anything. And when they have, I watch well that theyshall read only books of instruction, such as Mr. Bullhead chooses forthem. They are now at Rowland's Ancient History (I am told he is not thesame Rowland that makes the Maccassar oil), and they have already gotthrough seven volumes. Their Aunt Watson (who, between ourselves, israther a weak-minded woman) is shocked at the children reading thatbook, and says it is filled with crimes and horrors. But so is all theAncient History that ever I heard of, and of course it is proper thatlittle girls should know these things. They will get a great deal morebenefit from Rowland than from reading Miss Edgeworth's story-books,that sister Watson is always recommending."
"Have they ever read the history of their own country?" said I.
"I suppose you mean the History of America," replied Mrs. Pownsey. "Oh!that is of no consequence at all, and Mr. Bullhead says it is never readin England. After they have got through Rowland, they are going to beginSully's Memoirs. I know Mr. Sully very well; and when they have read it,I will make the girls tell me his whole history; he painted my portrait,and a most delightful man he is, only rather obstinate; for with all Icould say, I could not prevail on him to rub out the white spots that hefoolishly put in the black part of my eyes. And he also persisted inmaking one side of my nose darker than the other. It is strange that inthese things painters will always take their own course in spite of us,as if we that pay for the pictures have not a right to direct them as weplease. But the artist people are all alike. My friend, Mrs. Oakface,tells me she had just the same trouble with Mr. Neagle; in that respecthe's quite as bad as Mr. Sully."
She paused a moment to take breath, and then proceeded in continuationof the subject. "Now we talk of pictures, you have no idea whatbeautiful things my daughters can paint. The very first quarter theyeach produced two pieces to frame. And Mary Margaret is such a capitaljudge of these things, that whenever she is looking at a new souvenir,her first thought is to see who did the pictures, that she may knowwhich to praise and which not. There are a great many artists now, but Iremember the time when almost all the pictures were done by Mr. Sculpand Mr. Pinx. And then as to music! I wish you could hear my daughters.Their execution is wonderful. They can play crotchets quite as well asquivers; and they sing sollos, and dooets, and tryos, and quartettiesequal to the Musical Fund. I long for the time when they are old enoughto come out. I will go with them everywhere myself; I am determined tobe their perpetual shabberoon."
So much for the lady that educated her daughters herself.
And still, when the mother is capable and judicious, I know no system ofeducation that is likely to be attended with more complete success thanthat which keeps the child under the immediate superintendence of thosewho are naturally the most interested in her improvement and welfare;and which removes her from the contagion of bad example, and the dangerof forming improper or unprofitable acquaintances. Some of the finestfemale minds I have ever known received all their cultivation at home.But much, indeed, are those children to be commiserated, whose educationhas been undertaken by a vain and ignorant parent.
About nine o'clock, Mrs. Netherby had begun to talk of the lateness ofthe hour, giving hints that it was time to think of retiring for thenight, and calling Bingham to
The night was warm, and after removing the chimney-board, I left thesash of my window open: though I had been cautioned not to do so, andtold that in the country the night air was always unwholesome. But Iremembered Dr. Franklin's essay on the art of sleeping well. It was longbefore I closed my eyes, as the heat was intense, and my bed veryuncomfortable. The bolster and pillow were nearly flat for want ofsufficient feathers, and the sheets of thick muslin were neither longenough nor wide enough. At "the witching time of night," I was suddenlyawakened by a most terrible shrieking and bouncing in my room, andevidently close upon me. I started up in a fright, and soon ascertainedthe presence of two huge cats, who, having commenced a duel on thetrellis of an old blighted grape-vine that unfortunately ran under theback windows, had sprung in at the open sash, and were finishing thefight on my bed, biting and scratching each other in a style that an oldbackwoodsman would have recognised as the true rough and tumble.
With great difficulty I succeeded in expelling my fiendish visiters,and to prevent their return, there was nothing to be done but to closethe sash. There were no shutters, and the only screen was a scantymuslin curtain, divided down the middle with so wide a gap that it wasimpossible to close it effectually. The air being now excluded, the heatwas so intolerable as to prevent me from sleeping, and the cats remainedon the trellis, looking in at the window with their glaring eyes,yelling and scratching at the glass, and trying to get in after somemice that were beginning to course about the floor.
The heat, the cats and the mice, kept me awake till near morning; and Ifell asleep about daylight, when I dreamed that a large cat stood at mybed-side, and slowly and gradually swelling to the size of a tiger,darted its long claws into my throat. Of course, I again woke in afright, and regretted my own large room in the city, where there was notrellis under my windows, and where the sashes were made to slide downat the top.
I rose early with the intention of taking a walk, as was my custom whenin town, but the grass was covered with dew, and the road was ankle-deepin dust. So I contented myself with making a few circuits round thegarden, where I saw four altheas, one rose-tree, and two currant-bushes,with a few common flowers on each side of a grass-grown gravel walk;neither the landlord nor the tenant being willing to incur any furtherexpense by improving the domain. The grape-vine and trellis had beenerected by a former occupant, a Frenchman, who had golden visions ofwine-making.
At breakfast, we were regaled with muddy water, miscalled coffee; asmall dish of doubtful eggs; and another of sliced cucumbers, veryyellow and swimming in sweetish vinegar; also two plates containinground white lumps of heavy half-baked dough, dignified by the title ofMaryland biscuit; and one of dry toast, the crumb left nearly white, andthe crust burnt to a coal.
After breakfast, there came walking into the room a tame white pigeon,which Mrs. Netherby told us was a turtle-dove. "Dear sweet Phebe," sheexclaimed, taking up the bird and fondling it, "has it come for itsbreakfast; well, then, kiss its own mistress, and it shall have somenice soft bread."
The pigeon was then handed round to be admired (it was really a prettyone), and Mrs. Netherby told us a long story of its coming to the housein the early part of the summer with its mate, who was soon afterkilled by lightning in consequence of sitting on the roof close by theconductor during a thunderstorm, and she was very eloquent andsentimental in describing the manner in which Phebe had mourned for herdeceased companion, declaring that the widowed _dove_ often reminded herof herself after she had lost poor dear Mr. Netherby.
Our hostess then crumbled some bread on the floor, and placed near it asaucer of water, and she rose greatly in my estimation when I observedthe fixed look of delight with which she gazed on the pet-bird, and herevident fondness as she caressed it, and carried it out of the room,after it had finished its repast. "Notwithstanding her parsimony and herpretension," thought I, "Mrs. Netherby has certainly a good heart."
I went to my own room, and could easily have beguiled the morning withmy usual occupations, but that I was much incommoded by the intense heatof my little apartment, whose thin walls were completely penetrated bythe sun. Also, I was greatly annoyed by the noise of the children in thenext room and on the staircase. It was not the joyous exhilaration ofplay, or the shouts and laughter of good-humoured romping (all that Icould easily have borne); but I heard only an incessant quarrelling,fighting, and screaming, which was generally made worse by theinterference of the mother whenever she attempted to silence it.
Shortly before dinner, the bound-girl came up and went the rounds of allthe chambers to collect the tumblers from the washing-stands, whichtumblers were made to perform double duty by figuring also on thedining-table. This would have been no great inconvenience, only that noone remembered to bring them back again, and the glasses were notrestored to our rooms till after repeated applications.
The dinner consisted of very salt fried ham; and a pair of skeletonchickens, with a small black-looking leg of mutton; and a fewhalf-drained vegetables, set about on little plates with a puddle ofgreasy water in the bottom of each. However, as we were in the country,there was a pitcher of milk for those that chose to drink milk atdinner. For the dessert we had half a dozen tasteless custards, the topsburnt, and the cups half-full of whey, a plate of hard green pears,another of hard green apples, and a small whitish watermelon.
"What a fine thing it is to be in the country," said Mrs. Netherby,"and have such abundance of delicious fruit! I can purchase everyvariety from my next neighbour."
The truth is, that even where there is really an inclination to furnisha good table, there is generally much difficulty and inconvenience inprocuring the requisite articles at any country place that is notabsolutely a farm, and where the arrangements are not on an extensivescale. Mrs. Netherby, however, made no apology for any deficiency, butalways went on with smiling composure, praising everything on the table,and wondering how people could think of remaining in the city when theymight pass the summer in the country. As the gentlemen ate their mealsin town (a proof of their wisdom), ours were very irregular as to time;Mrs. Netherby supposing that it could make no difference to ladies, orto any persons who had not business that required punctual attention.
Two days after my arrival, the dust having been laid by a shower, Mrs.Pownsey and myself set out to walk on the road, in the latter part ofthe afternoon. When we came home, I found that the washing-stand hadbeen removed from my room, and the basin and pitcher placed in thecorner on a little triangular shelf that had formerly held a flower-pot.The mirror was also gone, and I found as a substitute a littlehalf-dollar Dutch glass in a narrow red frame. The two best chairs werealso missing, one chair only being left, and that a broken one; and aheavy patch-work quilt had taken the place of the white dimitybed-cover. I learnt that these articles had been abstracted to furnish achamber that was as yet disengaged, and which they were to decorate byway of enticing a new-comer. Next morning, after my room had been put inorder, I perceived that the mattrass had been exchanged for afeather-bed, and on inquiring the reason of Mrs. Netherby she told me,with much sweetness, that it had been taken for two southern ladies thatwere expected in the afternoon, and who, being southern, could notpossibly sleep on anything but a mattrass, and that she was sorry tocause me any inconvenience, but it would be a great disadvantage to_her_ if they declined coming.
In short, almost every day something disappeared from my room to assistin fitting up apartments for strangers; the same articles beingafterwards transferred to others that were still unoccupied. But whatelse was to be done, when Mrs. Netherby mildly represented theimpossibility of getting things at a short notice from town?
My time passed very monotonously. The stock of books I had brought withme was to
After a trial of two weeks, during which I vainly hoped that customwould reconcile me to much that had annoyed me at first, I determined toreturn to Philadelphia; in the full persuasion that this would be mylast essay at boarding out of town.
On the day before my departure, we were all attracted to thefront-garden, to see a company of city volunteers, who were marching toa certain field where they were to practise shooting at a target. Whilewe were lingering to catch the last glimpse of them as long as theyremained in sight, the cook came to Mrs. Netherby (who was affectedlysmelling the leaves of a dusty geranium), and informed her that thoughshe had collected all the cold meat in the house, there was still notenough to fill the pie that was to be a part of the dinner. "Oh!then," replied Mrs. Netherby, with perfect sang-froid, and in her usualsoft voice, "put Phebe on the top of it--put Phebe on the top." "Do youmean," said the cook, "that I am to kill the pigeon to help out with?""Certainly," rejoined Mrs. Netherby, "put Phebe in the pie."
[Footnote 85: Fact.]
There was a general exclamation from all present, except from theautomaton young lady and her mamma; and the children who were lookingout of the front windows were loud in lamentations for the poor pigeon,who, in truth, had constituted their only innocent amusement. For mypart, I could not forbear openly expressing my surprise that Mrs.Netherby should think for a moment of devoting her pet pigeon to such apurpose, and I earnestly deprecated its impending fate.
Mrs. Netherby reddened, and forgetting her usual mildness, her eyesassumed a very cat-like expression as she replied to me in a loud sharpvoice. "Upon my word, miss, this is very strange. Really, you astonishme. This is something quite new. I am not at all accustomed to havingthe ladies of my family to meddle in my private affairs. Really, miss,it is excessively odd that you should presume to dictate to me aboutthe disposal of my own property. I have some exquisite veal-cutlets andsome delicious calves-feet, but the pie is wanted for a centre dish. Iam always, as you know, particular in giving my table a handsomeset-out."
In vain we protested our willingness to dine without the centre dish,rather than the pigeon, whom we regarded in the light of an intimateacquaintance, should be killed to furnish it, all declaring that nothingcould induce us to taste a mouthful of poor Phebe. Mrs. Netherby,obstinately bent on carrying her point (as is generally the case withwomen who profess an extra portion of sweetness), heard us unmoved, onlyreplying, "Certainly, miss, you cannot deny that the bird is mine, andthat I have a right to do as I please with my own property. Phillis, putPhebe in the pie!"
The cook grinned, and stood irresolute; when suddenly Bingham the waiterstepped up with Phebe in his hands, and calling to a black boy of hisacquaintance, who lived in the neighbourhood, and was passing at themoment: "Here, Harrison," said he, "are you going to town?" "Yes,"replied the boy, "I am going there of an errand." "Then take this herepigeon with you," said Bingham, "and give it as a gift from me to yoursister Louisa. You need not tell her to take good care of it. I knowshe'll affection it for my sake. There, take it, and run." So saying, hehanded the pigeon over the fence to the boy, who ran off with itimmediately, and Bingham coolly returned to the kitchen, whistling as hewent.
"Well, if I ever saw the like!" exclaimed Mrs. Netherby. "But Binghamwill always have his way; he's really a strange fellow." Then, lookingfoolish and subdued, she walked into the house. I could not helplaughing, and was glad that the life of the poor pigeon had been savedon any terms, though sorry to find that Mrs. Netherby, after all, hadnot the redeeming quality I ascribed to her.
To conclude,--I have no doubt that summer establishments may be foundwhich are in many respects more agreeable than the one I have attemptedto describe. But it has not been my good fortune, or that of my friendswho have adopted this plan of getting through the warm weather, to meetwith any country lodgings (of course, I have no reference to decidedfarm-houses), in which the comparison was not decidedly in favour of thesuperior advantages of remaining in a commodious mansion in the city,surrounded with the comforts of home, and "with all the appliances, andmeans to boot," which only a large town can furnish.