James Otis.

Ruth of Boston: A Story of the Massachusetts Bay Colony



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That I may not weary you by much explaining, it is best I say that on the seventeenth of September, when the sun had risen, we gathered at the Great House to pray that God would bless us in this which was much the same as our second undertaking, for without delay, and before night had come, we were to go across the bay and make for ourselves other homes.

And now lest it seem as if I were telling the same story twice, I will not set down anything concerning the building of this second village, because of that which we did in Trimountain being the same as had been done in Charlestown.

The Great House was taken apart and carried across the water, as were also the dwellings of logs, and while this was being done, the women and children stayed in Charlestown, where Master Thomas Graves had made, what seemed to Susan and me, odd rules and regulations.

MASTER GRAVES PROHIBITS SWIMMING

He had been placed in command of the settlement by Master Endicott, and among his first acts was the appointment of tithing men, one of whose duties it was to prevent the boys from swimming in the water, as some lads of our company speedily learned when they would have enjoyed such sport.

They were arrested straightway, and but for the fact of being strangers, who were not acquainted with the rules of the settlement, would have been fined three shillings each.

Susan and I had no desire to spend our time swimming, even had it been seemly for girls so to do; but during very warm days it would have pleased us much to go down into the water, properly clad, in order to take a bath. Therefore did we believe Master Graves had done that which was almost cruel, and it surprised us no little when, later, our own fathers passed the same law.

ANNA FOSTER'S PARTY

There were good friends of ours in England who believed that we had come into a wilderness where was to be found naught save savages and furious beasts, and it would have surprised them greatly, I believe, if they could have known how much of entertainment could already be found.

It was while we were waiting in Charlestown for the homes in Trimountain to be built, that Anna Foster, whose father is one of the tithing-men, invited all of us young girls who had come under Governor Winthrop's charge, to spend an evening with her, and we had much pleasure in playing hunt the whistle and thread the needle.

Anna was dressed in a yellow coat with black bib and apron, and she had black feathers on her head. She wore both garnet and jet beads, with a locket, and no less than four rings. There was a black collar around her neck, black mitts on her hands, and a striped tucker and ruffles. Her shoes were of silk, and one would have said that she was dressed for some evening entertainment in London.

Neither Susan nor I wore our best, because of the candles here being made from a kind of tallow stewed out of bayberry plums, which give forth much smoke, and mother was afraid this would soil our clothing.

We were also told that because of there not being candles enough, some parts of the house would be lighted with candle-wood, which last is taken from the pitch pine tree, and fastened to the walls with nails. This wood gives forth a fairly good light; but there drops from it so much of a black, greasy substance, that whosoever by accident should stand beneath these flames would be in danger of receiving a most disagreeable shower.

This entertainment was not the only one which was made for our pleasure while we remained in Charlestown; but because of the sickness everywhere around, very little in the way of merrymaking was indulged in, and it seemed almost a sin for us to be thus light-hearted while so many were in sore distress.

THE TOWN OF BOSTON

The first thing which was done by the governor and his advisors, after we had moved from Charlestown, was to change the name of Trimountain to that of Boston.

As you must remember, Boston in England was near to the home of Captain John Smith, who explored so much of this New World and planted in Jamestown a prosperous settlement. It was also in Boston that the Lady Arabella, and the preacher, John Cotton, who had promised to come here to us, had lived; therefore did it seem as if such were the proper name for a town which we hoped would one day, God willing, grow to be a city.

It is true our new village is built in a rocky place, where are many hollows and swamps, and it is almost an island, because the neck of land which leads from it to the main shore, is so narrow that very often does the tide wash completely over it; but yet, after that time of suffering in Charlestown, it seems to us a goodly spot.

Our dwellings, except the Great House, are made of logs, and the roofs thatched with dried marsh-grass, or with the bark of trees. That each man shall have so much of this thatching as he may need, the governor and chief men of the village have set aside a certain portion of the salt marsh nearby, where any one may go to reap that which is needed for his own dwelling; but no more.

In time to come, so father says, we shall have chimneys built of brick or stone, for when our settlement is older grown some of the people will, in order to gain a livelihood, set about making bricks, and already has Governor Winthrop sent out men to search for limestone so we may get mortar. But until that time shall come, we have on the outside of our houses what are called chimneys, which are made of logs plastered with clay, or of woven reeds besmeared both as to the outside and the inside with mud, until they are five or six inches thick.

GUARDING AGAINST FIRES

It needs not for me to say that these chimneys are most unsafe, for during our first winter in this new town of Boston, hardly a week passed but that one or another caught fire; and among the first laws which our people passed was one providing for the appointment of firewardens, who should have the right, and be obliged, to visit every kitchen, looking up into the chimneys to see if peradventure the plastering of clay had been burned away.

Because of the number of these fires, and the likelihood that they would continue to visit us frequently, another law was made, obliging every man who owned a dwelling of logs to keep a ladder standing nearby, so that it might be easy to get at the thatched roof if the flames fastened upon it; and, as soon as might be, iron hooks with large handles were made to be hung on the outside of the buildings, for the purpose of tearing off the thatch when it was burning.

It has also been decided that when we have a church, as we count on within a year, a goodly supply of ladders and buckets shall be kept therein for the use of the entire town, and then, when a fire springs out, our people will know where to go for tools with which to fight against it.

OUR OWN NEW HOME

It must not be supposed that because of our dwellings being unsightly on the outside, they are rough within, for such is not the case. Many of the settlers, as did father, brought over glass for the windows, therefore we are not forced to put up with oiled paper, as are a great many people living in this New World.

It was partly the dampness inside our homes, so Governor Winthrop believed, which caused the sickness in Charlestown, and therefore it was that my father insisted we should have a floor of wood, instead of striving to get along with bare ground which had been beaten hard. Our floor is made of planks, roughly hewn, it is true, but nevertheless it serves to keep our feet from the ground. We have on the door real iron hinges, instead of leather, or the skins of animals, as we saw in Salem.

Save for the roughness of the floor and the walls, the inside of my father's house is much the same as we had in England, for he, like all of Governor Winthrop's company who were able to do so, brought over the furnishings of the old home, and while some of the things look sadly out of place here, they provide us with a certain comfort which would have passed unheeded in the other country, because there we were not much better off in this world's goods than were our neighbors.

Here, when I see a table made only of rough boards spread upon trestles, I can get much pleasure out of the knowledge that we brought with us those tables which we had been using in England, and, when our dinner is spread, save for the difference in the food, I can well fancy myself in the old home. We have our ware of pewter and of copper, and our trencher bowls are of the best that can be hewn from maple knots.

In order that the walls and crevices, filled with moss and plastered over with clay, may not offend the eye, mother has put up all the hangings which she brought with her, and these, with some skins my father bought at Salem, hide entirely that which is so unsightly in other dwellings.

Contrasting our home with many which we saw in Salem, or in Charlestown, I am come to believe my lines are truly cast in pleasant places, and I strive to be thankful to God for having given me the father which I have.

THE FASHION OF THE DAY

I am afraid it may be almost sinful for me so to set my mind upon the garments which one wears, and yet I cannot but contrast my father with some of the common men in the village.

The ruff which he wears around his neck is always well starched, clean, and stands out in beautiful proportions. On his low, peaked shoes, mother ever has fixed rosettes, or knots made of ribbon. His doublet, which is gathered around the waist with a silken belt, is slashed on the sleeves to show the snowy linen beneath. His trunk hose, meaning those which reach from his waist to his knees, are of the finest wool. His stockings, when he is dressed to meet with the Council, are of silk, while his mandilion, or cloak, is always of silk or velvet.

Perhaps one may think such attire hardly befitting a wild place like this, yet I know of nothing which serves to set off a man's figure, making him seem of importance in the world, better than that he be clad with due regard to the fashion of the day. Master Winthrop would not present the gentlemanly appearance which he does if he wore, as do the common people here, a band, or a flat collar with cord and tassels, breeches of leather, and a leather girdle around his waist. If he had, as do they, heavy shoes with heels of wood, or if his clothing were fastened together with hooks and eyes, instead of silken points, and if his hat were of leather, would we be pleased to call him Governor?

My mother often says that it is unseemly in a child like me to speak of the clothing worn by gentlemen, and yet I have noticed often and again, that she is as careful of my father's attire when he goes out of doors as she was at home in England, where all gentlemen were dressed becomingly.

Verily one need not go abroad in tatters, or oddities, simply because of having come into this New World, where much of work is required, and he who cares for his personal appearance, to my way of thinking, is to be given due credit.

Surely so the Massachusetts Bay Company thought, for they furnished to every man who came from England to settle here, save it be those who could afford such things for themselves, four pairs of shoes and the same number of stockings; four shirts; two suits of doublet, and hose of leather lined with oiled skin; a woolen suit, lined with leather, together with four bands and two handkerchiefs, a green cotton waistcoat, two pairs of gloves, a leather belt, a woolen cap and two red knit caps, a mandilion lined with cotton, and also an extra pair of breeches. Of course such an outfit was for the common people, not the gentlefolk.

In our company, the boys are clothed exactly as are their fathers, and many of them present a most attractive appearance, although my mother would not think it proper for me to say so, much less to put it down in writing.

MY OWN WARDROBE

It surely cannot be wrong for me to think of that which I wear, for if the good Lord has given me a comely body, why shall I not array it properly? Or if it be wrong, why did my father buy for me those things, a list of which I am here setting down, not from vanity, but simply to show how kind were my parents?

I had a cap ruffle and a tucker, the lace of which cost five shillings a yard; eight pairs of white kid gloves, with two pairs of colored gloves, two pairs of worsted hose and three pairs of thread, a pair of laced silk shoes, and a pair of morocco shoes, not to speak of four pairs of plain Spanish shoes, or two pairs made of calf-skin for every day use; a hoop coat and a mask to wear when the wind blows too roughly, and a fan for use when the sun is hot. Susan had two necklaces, one of garnet and one of jet; but I had only garnets. Then I have a girdle with a buckle of silver; a mantle and coat of lutestring; a piece of calico to be made up when mother has time; four yards of ribbon for knots or bows, and one and one-half yards of best cambric. All these were bought especially for me when we left home, and surely it can be no sin that I take pride in them.

MASTER JOHNSON'S DEATH

It was shortly after coming to this town of Boston that we heard of the death of Master Johnson, Lady Arabella's husband. A friendly man was he, ever ready with a kindly word for us children, and we would have mourned his loss much more, but for knowing that it pleased him right well to go out of this world of sorrow, that he might join his wife in God's country.

Susan and I had hoped we should hear of no more deaths among those we cared for, after having come into this last place of abode, and the news of Master Johnson's taking away caused her superstitious fears to break out anew; but I reminded her that we were in God's keeping, whatsoever might befall, and that for us to look forward into the morrow, searching for evil, was the same as an injustice to our Maker, who would do toward us whatsoever seemed good in His sight.

As I look back now upon the time when our town of Boston first came into being, I can understand how well it is for us that we may not read the future. Had we at that time, when the winter was coming on, known how much of sorrow and of suffering was in store for us, before the earth would be freed from its bonds of ice, then I believe of a verity we must have given up in despair.

However, it is not for me to look ahead even in this poor attempt at setting down what we did in the new land. Rather let me go back to our home life, and tell somewhat concerning the odd dishes which were frequently set on our table.

MANY NEW KINDS OF FOOD

There is little need for me to say that we had lobsters in abundance, and of such enormous size that one was put to it to lift them. I have heard it said that twenty-pound weight was not unusual, and whosoever might could catch, in traps made for the purpose, all the lobsters he would.

As for other fish, I can not set down on one page of this paper, the many kinds with which the housewife might provide herself for a trifling sum of money. We often had eels roasted, fried, or boiled, because of father's being very fond of them, and mother sometimes stuffed them with nutmegs and cloves, making a dish which was not to my liking, for it was hot to the tongue.

Some of the good wives in Salem had shown my mother how to prepare nassaump, which those who first came to Salem learned from the Indians how to make: It is nothing but corn beaten into small pieces, and boiled until soft, after which it is eaten hot, or cold, with milk or butter.

Nookick is to my mind more of a dainty than a substantial food, and yet father declares that on a very small quantity of it, say three great spoonfuls a day, a man may travel or work without loss of strength. It is made by parching the Indian corn in hot ashes, and then beating it to a powder. Save for the flavor lent to it by the roasting, I can see no difference between nookick, and the meal made from the ground corn.

Mother makes whitpot of oat meal, milk, sugar and spice, which is much to my taste, although father declares it is not unlike oatmeal porridge such as is eaten in some parts of England; but it hardly seems to me possible, because of one's not putting sugar and spice into porridge.

We often have bread made of pumpkins boiled soft, and mixed with the meal from Indian corn, and this father much prefers to the bread of rye with the meal of corn; but the manner of cooking pumpkins most to my liking, is to cut them into small pieces, when they are ripe, and stew during one whole day upon a gentle fire, adding fresh bits of pumpkin as the mass softens. If this be steamed enough, it will look much like unto baked apples, and, dressed with a little vinegar and ginger, is to me a most tempting rarity. But we do not often have it upon the table because of so much labor being needed to prepare it.

Yokhegg is a pudding of which I am exceedingly fond, and yet it is made of meal from the same Indian corn that supplies the people hereabout with so much of their food. It is boiled in milk and chocolate, sweetened to suit one's taste after being put on the table, and while to English people, who are not accustomed to all the uses which we make of this wheat, it may not sound especially inviting, it most truly is a toothsome dainty.

The cost of setting one's table here is not great as compared with that in England, for we may get a quart of milk by paying a penny, or a dozen fat pigeons, in the season, for three pence, while father has more than once bought wild turkeys, to the weight of thirty pounds, for two shillings, and wild geese are worth but eight pence.

THE SUPPLY OF FOOD

The season had come when, if we had been in England, the people would have been gathering the harvest; but here we had none, having come so late in the year that there was no time to plant, and, consequently, we had no crops.

I had never before realized how necessary it is for people that the earth shall yield in abundance; but I came to know it now right well through hearing father, as he talked with mother regarding the fears which the chief men of the colony had concerning the supply of food.

Of course, girls such as Susan and I would not have been likely to learn anything of the kind, save that matters had come to such a pass as made the situation serious, in which case it was no more than natural we should hear our parents talking about it.

It seems, from what I learned, that a portion of the provisions brought from England were spoiled during the voyage, and also, that many of our people had taken with them no more than enough to sustain life for a month or two, believing that in this New World food of all kinds would be found in abundance.

Then again, many had bartered provisions, which they should have kept for the winter use, with the Indians in exchange for beaver skins, thinking thereby to make much money. So general had this traffic become, that early in September the Governor gave strict orders against it, and it was also ordered that no person in the town be allowed to carry out therefrom anything eatable.

But yet the store of food grew smaller and smaller, for there were many mouths to feed, and it seemed as if we children were more often hungry because of knowing that there was little to be had.

Susan reminded me of what she was pleased to call the "omen," when it was as if the first of our duties in the New World had been to bury two members of the company, and as the days wore on I began really to believe it a sin to harbor such thoughts.

As it had been in Charlestown, so did it come to be here in Boston, when the rains of autumn set in.

Many of the dwellings had not been built with due regard to sheltering those who were to live therein, and because of the dampness – although mother says it was owing quite as well to the homesickness and gloom which came upon us when the leaves in the forest turned brown, and yellow, and golden in token of the dying year – the people sickened.

However it was, much of sickness prevailed among us in Boston, until the time came when my father and mother, to both of whom God had allowed good health, were absent from home day after day, nursing those of our neighbors who were unable to aid themselves.



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