Norwood, chapter 4

July 17, 2015

[A great example of Beecher lecturing through his characters. (There’s a lot of this.)]

STARTING IN LIFE.After his marriage, ’Biah Cathcart, (as he was familiarly called by his neighbors,) not without much thought and consultation, determined to buy him a farm. After many searchings, and much deliberation, he chose a place of sixty acres, two miles from the goodly town of Norwood. There were, besides, twenty acres of woodland, lying three miles away, mountain lots, as they were called. On the home farm there was an old-fashioned farm-house, of two stories.

But instead of one story additions, in the rear, such as are now built, for kitchen, shed, &c., the rear roof ran from the ridge-pole down nearly to the ground, covering the two stories and the single story with one long slant.

The former occupant had suffered the property to waste. Paint had long since ceased to cover the clapboards on the sides; the roof was patched and cumbered with moss, and the water gutters at the eaves had collected so much of dust and decayed leaves, as to form little patches of soil, out of which grew a fringe of mingled vegetation. Both flowers and weeds, whose seeds had been lodged there by birds, or uplifted by the winds, grew lovingly together, and cast their slender shadows down upon the cornice, like a pencil tracery of arabesques.

It was the day that Dr. Wentworth had been called to see Widow Nance, a mile beyond, that Cathcart took in hand the old house.

“You see, Doctor, that I’ve got a job here. Old Templeton’s liquor bills were so heavy that he couldn’t afford paint or putty.”

“Make a clean job of it, ’Biah. You’ll have to lay these chimney-tops over again; filling and pointing won’t do. I suppose you will shift your flower garden, too, from the roof to the ground.”

“Flower garden?”

“Yes, poor things,” said the Doctor, going to the back eaves and standing upon an old wash-bench, where he could look upon the low roof.

“I wish I had this old mossy roof, or one just like it. I am willing to ride a mile out of my way, any time, to see the moss in Peak’s ravine, and all along the wood on each side of it. How kind of it to creep over decaying things and cover their homeliness with such a cheerful garment! Did you ever think that in the animal kingdom there is no beauty in death. A crow, a dog or a wounded deer dies, and is soon consumed. They seem to have had their time when alive. But vegetation, with fewer privileges in life, has more comeliness after death. Nobody makes shrouds for trees, and so nature takes care of them and hides them under new life—making beauty do sexton’s work, and shroud death with the garments of life. I was over yesterday at the ravine, and found an old tree-trunk, half decayed, on and around which was a garden such as no gardener could make. It lay on the edge of the wood; the streams of the brook had kept its mosses, of which I counted many species, in admirable health and color. Ah, it was like a trunk of emerald! Down on the south side, where the leaves had kept them warm all winter, were blood-root blossoms, white as snow, shooting up in squads, like white troopers mustering for some tournament; and at the upturned roots was a tangle of balckberry vines, as fine in lines as any thing that Raphael ever imitated from the ancients, and a great deal more beautiful. Men’s eyes make finer pictures, when they know how to use them, than any body’s hands can.”

“And so, Doctor, I am to keep this half-acre of a roof, am I, just out of pity to this moss? And what’ll become of us when it rains, with this green old sieve letting through enough rain to dampen every room in the house? I see—you want our custom, Doctor! We should soon have moss growing over us, as it is over old Templeton—though, by-the-bye, he never suffered when on earth from too much water, I’m thinking! Hiram Beers says he wouldn’t touch it when he could get it, and now can’t get it when he wants it. Hiram is very hard on old Templeton. He says the old man was so hot, that flowers ought to start early where his grave is.”

“What a pity that thrift and sentiment can’t compromise matters a little better! It would make any gardener’s reputation if he could plant such a little moss-Eden as this. Well, if you choose to be healthy rather than beautiful, you must have your own way. I’ll be back in a couple of hours. Widow Nance, poor thing, is about spent! Save me some of the moss—that great patch yonder, with cherry-stones heaped along its upper edge.”

And with that he carried away his great blue eyes, and white face, wide at the top, but fine and clean cut, though large-featured to the very chin.

“As good sense at the bottom as ever man had,” said Cathcart, as the chaise rolled out from under the elm trees, in front of the yard, “and he needs it all too, or his queer notions would run away with him. Rachel says the Doctor’s face and presence are better than most doctors’ medicine; and they are reviving. I always feel after he’s gone as if there was more in every thing about me than I had any notion of before, though I can’t exactly tell what it is.”

It was about two o’clock when Dr. Wentworth returned, and, not seeing Cathcart, he walked under a ragged cherry-tree, and stood watching with a kind of sober smile the workmen, inspired with the subtle eagerness which the work of destroying is apt to infuse.

The shingles came down in showers. The light ones whirled and glimmered in the sunlight, and shied out hither and thither all over the yard. Those covered with moss came headlong and thumped the ground at his feet.

“Poor thing, do you know me?” raising a moss-loaded shingle thoughtfully, as if it were alive; and he laughed out as if he had been answered by some unexpected cry.

For a rakeful of shingles had sent a flock of hens in sudden scare toward the barn-yard, while the great golden-speckled rooster drew up with magisterial dignity and called out, “Cut-tark-cut, cut, cut?” Receiving no answer, with a low-crooning noise in his throat, he cocked his eye, first at the doctor, then at the house, as much as to say, “Do you know what’s going on here?” And then, letting down his right foot which had been drawn up, in suspense, he pompously moved off to lecture his hens, that were already picking and scratching in the straw, upon the mystery of life.

The doctor drew the now cast-away gutter, and stooping, plucked two or three of the weeds, and putting them under his hat-band, laid down his hat on the well-stone, while he unrolled the ricketty old windlass and sent down the remnants of a bucket for water. It was an old-fashioned well, of mysterious depth. If you looked down its narrow and dark throat, you saw nothing. If you still looked, and dropped a pebble down, a faint light was reflected from the crinkling water far below. For four or five feet at the top, the stones were lined with moss. Up, after long winding, came the bucket, spurting out its contents on every side, and filling the well with a musical splashing sound, reserving hardly enough, at last, to serve for a good drink. “Well, ’Biah, I understand the old proverb—truth is at the bottom of the well. If I was to go down after the water, very likely there is foul air enough down there to put me out like a candle; and if I send a bucket down the greatest part leaks out before I can reach it. Much work and little truth do men get in the wells they dig now-a-days.”

“But come in and see the house.”

“I have seen it too often. Wait till you have lived awhile here and changed every association. I shall see the terrible sight that I witnessed when old Templeton had delirium tremens. He yelled and moaned by turns, saw men and devils after him, and died more horribly than any other creature that I ever saw, and I’ve seen many. Scour your walls, ’Biah.”

Bad as the house was, the grounds were in even worse condition. The barns were utterly dilapidated; the fences were poor; the soil had been fleeced, and scarcely anything that was bad in husbandry had been left untried upon this much-enduring farm.

But this universal deterioration had so depreciated the market value of the place, that Cathcart was enabled to buy it—making a payment of a thousand dollars, and borrowing the rest, with his own time to pay it off. If he had been industrious and frugal before, he was far more so now. What he lacked in capital he must make up for in enterprise.

For a year or two the struggle was close. His wife was his equal in industry and frugality. Her patience was never even ruffled. At four in summer and at five in winter, the light blazed on the hearth, and there were sounds in the barn. After the cattle were foddered, and until daylight, he worked at “closing” boots and shoes, earning thus a small addition to his means. At dark the same labor was resumed. This rigid, methodical industry was cheerfully pursued without intermission for years, and, at length, began to produce its results. One by one each field had been deepened; for Cathcart said: “No farmer owns any deeper than he can plow.”

Little by little the near lots were cleared of stone, which reappeared in stone walls, built with a breadth and accuracy fit for a castle wall, and which at length were carried around the whole farm. The low-lying lots, filled with muck, were drained and reduced to meadows; and acres, which before had been impassable to cattle, except in the driest summer weather, or, when frozen, became solid, and the most productive of all the farm. The number of division fences was greatly reduced, Cathcart believing that far more ground was wasted by fences than any good farmer could afford. The land actually occupied by the fence, the waste each side of it by brambles or weeds, the time consumed in clearing these useless occupants away, if the farmer was neat, Cathcart argued, constituted, in ten years, a heavy tax on industry.

In such a climate, in such a soil, and in such a community, a farm will not pay, unless it be made to move with the accuracy of a machine, and with an economy which reaches to the most minute elements.

Availing himself of Dr. Wentworth’s library, he had read the best works on husbandry, and extracted from them enough to guide his practice to a result far beyond that which was common in the neighborhood. Whoever had, at first, criticized the new-fangled farming, no longer doubted its success, when, at length, the farm was clear of debt, and returning no mean revenue.

Here years rolled on, and Cathcart grew to prosperity and into universal respect. Sons and daughters were born to him; with only two of whom, however, shall we have to do—the youngest two—Barton and Alice, who will in due time take their places in our history.


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