James Otis.

Ruth of Boston: A Story of the Massachusetts Bay Colony

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It seemed at this time as if the Lord had set His face against the rearing of a nation in this new land, which he had given to the brown men for their homes, and Susan and I were not the only ones who came to believe we were offending Him in some way by thus having come here.

Then Governor Winthrop caused it to be known throughout the town that he had hired Captain Pierce, of the ship Lyon, which was then in Salem Harbor, to go with all haste to the nearest town in England, there to get for us as much of food as could be bought.

This news cheered the people somewhat, for now was the season when the winds blew strong, and it was believed the ship would have speedy passage. Indeed, some of the women declared she must return before the middle of October, and said so much concerning such possibility, that in time they came to believe it true. Therefore, when the month of October had nearly passed, their disappointment was great, and they were more despondent than at first.


Each day saw the store of provisions in the town grow smaller. Every family husbanded that which could be eaten, with greatest care, putting no more on the table than was absolutely necessary for a single meal, and those things which we had considered dainties, were no longer prepared.

Then came the Angel of Death, and man after man, woman after woman, laid themselves down to die, not from being starved, but, so Governor Winthrop declared, from having sickened through scurvy, which had come upon them during the voyage, after which, falling into discontent and giving way to home-sickness, they no longer struggled to live.

Before October had come to an end, food was so scarce in Boston that the poorer people had nothing save acorns, clams, and mussels to eat. During the summer it had seemed as if the sea were actually filled with fish, and yet now, when every boat that could be found in the town and nearby had been sent out, it was difficult for our men to take even fifty pounds weight in a day.

As Susan said, even the fish forsook us, as the clams and mussels would have done had they legs or fins.

The fowls of the forest also appeared to have departed, and by November the most any family could boast of was meal boiled in salt and water. In more happy days I would have turned up my nose at such food, and yet now it was like unto some sweet morsel, for so scanty had our store become that my mother would cook for each meal no more than half as much as we could have eaten.

I have heard father say that for a bushel of flour which had been brought from England, he paid in those dark days fourteen shillings, and there was so little of it even at such price, that mother saved what store we had that it might be made into gruel, or something dainty, which the sick could keep upon their stomachs.


Then it was that our pinnace was made ready for a voyage, and with five of the strongest men on board, was sent along the coast to trade with those Indians who called themselves Narragansetts, taking with them everything in the way of trinkets which was in the general store, or could be gathered up from among the housewives.

Great was our rejoicing, five days later, when the men came back, bringing with them an hundred bushels of Indian corn.

This seemed like a large amount of food, and yet, so many were the mouths to be fed from it, it was, so father said, scarce enough to hold life in our bodies three days, if so be it had been divided equally among all.

Father told us that three men, who were of the poorer people, had walked all the way from Boston town to Plymouth; but even there, where a harvest had been gathered, they could get no more than one half-bushel of meal made from Indian corn.

It was a time of famine such as I pray God we may never know again. In my home, until these dreary days, there had been no scarcity of food, and yet again and again did I save a crust of rye bread, thinking it a dainty to be nibbled upon slowly so that I might have longer the pleasure of eating.


It was as if the ship Lyon, on whose return a few weeks before we had counted so hopefully, was gone, never to come back.

Even the children watched the direction of the winds, saying on this day that it was a favoring one if the Lyon were on her course for Boston, and on the morrow mourning because of the breeze being against her.

Yet she came not, nor did we hear aught concerning her, or any other from the world beyond us.

We were alone in what was much the same as a wilderness, and all those around upon whom we had counted to aid us in time of distress were in nearly the same dismal straits as were we.

Even the Indians declared that they were hard pressed for something to eat, and more than once did they come in twos or in threes to beg from us who were starving, something that could be eaten.

Susan and I, as we sat clasped in each other's arms hungry, and pining for the home over-seas which we had left, came to fancy that the famine which held possession of the land was like unto some terrible monster who hung above us as a cloud, settling slowly but surely day after day, until the hour would come when his terrible fangs would be securely fastened upon us.

During the month of January the deaths through scurvy, if that indeed were the cause, grew less; but all believed that in the stead of being removed by disease, our people were slowly perishing from starvation.

All the food in Boston was brought together, and portioned out, so that no one, whether he had of money, or was penniless, should suffer more than another. And yet again and again in the night have I been awakened by the gnawing of hunger in my stomach.

With the beginning of January, Governor Winthrop appointed a day on which we should all fast and pray, as if indeed we had been doing other than fasting throughout the long, dreary winter. On this day every man, woman, and child in Boston town was to spend his or her time in praying to the Lord to deliver us from our affliction.

We no longer hoped for the coming of the Lyon. Surely she must have been destroyed by the tempest, otherwise had we seen her before this, for nearly five months had gone by since she left Salem Harbor.


It was on the fifth day of February, which is the same as if I had said Saturday, and the fast was to be kept on the next Thursday. Susan had come to my home on Friday night to sleep in my bed with me, so that we might have such poor comfort as could be found in each other's company when we were nigh to starving.

She had awakened before the day dawned on this Saturday morning, which will be remembered by me so long as the Lord permits that I live, and moaned in distress because of the desire for food, until I opened my eyes, fretting because of not being allowed to sleep yet longer, for while I slumbered the pangs of hunger were not known.

Seeing me awake, Susan began to speak of the fast day on the following Thursday, saying that if we had no food whatsoever during the twenty-four hours, at a time when we were so near to starvation, surely would we die, and she was going back to what she called the omens, which came to us shortly after we arrived, when we were startled by a loud shouting in the street next beyond, where could be had a view of the sea.


Dimly, like one in a dream, for there was no thought in my mind this might be a signal that our time of trial was come to an end, I wondered how it was that any in this famine-stricken Boston of ours could raise their voices as if in joy, until I heard father cry out from the living-room below:

"The Lyon has arrived! The Lyon has arrived!"

It might be that I could give you, by the aid simply of words, some faint idea of how we suffered during the time of starvation, of sickness, and of death; but it is impossible for me to set down that which shall picture the heartfelt rejoicings and fervent thanksgiving that were ours at thus knowing we were soon to have enough with which to drive death from our doors.

It was a time of the wildest excitement. I hardly know what Susan and I did or said on that day, save that we dressed hurriedly, running down to the very shore of the cove, finding there nearly every person in Boston, and stood with the water lapping our feet as we watched the oncoming of the ship which was bringing relief.

Never before had I thought a vessel could be beautiful; but I have not seen a fairer sight than was the Lyon on that morning, and before night came, our stomachs, which had been crying out in distress because of lack of food, were groaning through being overly well filled.

The time of famine had passed, at least for this season, and it was as if the sick began to gain new life, and health, and strength, simply through knowing that we were no longer in such dire straits.


Governor Winthrop gave voice to his relief and pleasure by ordering, even before the Lyon had come to anchor, that the fast which had been appointed for the next Thursday should be a day of thanksgiving instead, and so we made it, with prayers all the more fervent because of our stomachs being well filled, and the fear of dying by starvation being put behind us.

The ship was loaded with such things as wheat, peas, oatmeal, pickled beef and pork, cheese and butter, and, with what my mother declared was of the greatest value, lemon juice, which is said to be a remedy for those who are suffering with scurvy.

It was not allowed that those who had money should buy plentifully of this cargo; but it was paid for by the town authorities, and divided equally among us all.

When the day for thanksgiving came, my mother allowed me to have an unusually hearty breakfast, for, she said, there was so much for which to be thankful, and so many who would be present to give thanks, that no one could say when we might be able to have dinner.

It was well she was thus thoughtful, for one of the preachers who came over with us, Master Wilson, preached, while Governor Winthrop treated us to a lecture, and Master Phillips was so blessed with the spirit that he prayed a full hour.

Susan and I feared we would have yet more preaching, for on the ship Lyon had come a young man whom my father said was gifted, and Susan's father believed he would make his influence felt among us. It was Master Roger Williams, and I am ashamed to say that I sat in fear and trembling lest Governor Winthrop should call upon him for a sermon, after we had already had much the same as two; but, fortunately, so it seemed to me, Master Williams did not raise his voice during the service.

It was near to night before we were done with giving thanks, and then at each home was held a feast.

During Governor Winthrop's lecture on this thanksgiving day, he urged that all the people, children as well as grown folks, should take this time of famine as a lesson, reminding us that it would not be a long while before we could hope to reap a harvest, and in the meantime there was very much of labor to be performed.

He declared that even with the cargo of the Lyon, we had not enough to satisfy our wants until crops could be gathered; but it was certain other ships would come to Boston during the summer, with more stores. Yet because of its being possible we might come to a time of suffering again, so must we be careful that not the smallest grain of wheat be wasted.


When the spring had come, and before it was time to put seed into the ground, our fathers set about building a defense for the town.

If you remember, I have already set down that this new village of ours was on a point, connected with the main coast only by a very narrow strip of land. Now to defend our town from an attack by enemies, save they should come by water, it was only necessary the defence be built on this narrow neck, or strip, and so it was built.

From one side to the other, extending even down into the water, was a palisade, or fence, of heavy logs, in the middle of which stood a gate to give entrance, and the law was that it should be shut at sunset, not to be opened again until day had dawned.


Since coming here we have seen so many Indians as to become acquainted with them, which is to say, that we no longer look upon them as savages, and have no fear to stand in the road when they pass. But those whom Susan and I had seen, up to the day when Chickatabut, the chief man of the Massachusetts tribe, came, were only common people, and such servants as are employed here in the town, for you must know that more than one family has a Narragansett Indian, or, mayhap, a Nipmuck, to work in the house.

Mother says that she would rather do all the work of the house alone, than have one of the brown women to help her, for they are not cleanly to look upon, but as for myself, I think I could stand the sight of one of them, especially when it comes to soap making, of which I will tell you later.

Of course there are times when housewives must have some one to aid them, and those girls or women among us who would go out to work in the house are not many in numbers, therefore one must put up with the Indians, which is unpleasant, or take those who are known as indentured servants, meaning the people who have agreed with the Massachusetts Bay Company to work for so many years, in order to pay for their passage over from England.

As for these last people, mother will not have them in the house, because of being afraid that we may not get one of good morals. Therefore in our home mother and I do all that is needed, rather than have around us people of whom we know nothing.


It was not regarding the Indians, or free willers, as indentured servants are called, that I intended to write when I began. That which I counted to say was, that when the spring had come, after the arrival of the Lyon, and we were free for the time being from fears of a famine, the Indian by the name of Chickatabut came to see Governor Winthrop, having been invited to the end that he might sell us, who are here in Boston, this piece of land on which we are building our town.

You must know that he is quite the most important savage roundabout here, and father believes, as does Governor Winthrop, that if he sells us the land, it will be a lawful bargain, because of his standing, as I have said, at the head of all these brown people nearabout.

Now it so chanced that he was the first savage of note I had seen, and really he was something grand to look upon. He had feathers on his head, like unto a crown, and from this drooped a long trail of feathers reaching to the ground, while his leggings and doublet of tanned deer skin were covered with beads, worked in fanciful patterns, together with the claws of beasts. His arrows were carried across his back, in a covering embroidered with the quills of the porcupine painted in various colors, and he held his bow in his hand.

I cannot set down as I would, exactly how he was dressed, because, having come upon him suddenly while on my way to Susan's house, of being startled by so much of adornment that I was like to have run away.

He came, as I have said, to visit Governor Winthrop, and father declares that he sat at the table as a white man would have done, save that instead of using the knife and spoon, he took up food with his fingers. Mother thinks that the Governor must have been relieved indeed when his guest departed, for no one insists so strictly upon proper table manners as does Master Winthrop.

It must have been that Chickatabut was pleased with his visit, for two or three days after having gone back to his people, he sent the Governor as much Indian corn as would fill a hogshead, and, in return for the gift, Master Winthrop presented him with a suit of clothing made in English fashion by a tailor.

Father says that now indeed do we own all the land this side of the neck, for Master Blackstone, who had a farm here, as I have already said, sold it to our people before we moved over from Charlestown, and now with Chickatabut's selling of the same, there should be no question as to who has a lawful claim upon it.


Although, in my own mind, there was never any doubt but that the land was rightfully ours without consulting a savage about it, yet I believe, from all I heard said, that our people felt better in mind after this Indian chief had agreed to our staying here, for it seemed as if he had no sooner made the bargain than work was pushed forward more as it would have been done in England.

As for instance, Governor Winthrop began building a vessel, and now, if you please, we are to have a ship of our own, made in Boston, launched in Boston, and to sail from Boston.

When she is finished, and has sailed to Southampton or Liverpool, the people there must begin to believe that we of the Massachusetts Bay Colony are getting well on in the world if we can own fleets, for in case one vessel can be built, there is no reason why we should not have many, while there is so much of lumber everywhere around.


Do you know what a betty-lamp is? We have two in our house, which were brought over by Captain Pierce of the Lyon, as a gift to my mother.

You, who have more or less trouble with your rush lights, cannot fancy how luxurious it is to have one of these betty-lamps, which costs in care no more than is required to fill them with grease or oil.

Fearing lest you may not know what these lamps are, which Susan's mother says should be called brown-bettys, I will do my best to set down here such a description as shall bring them before you.

The two which we have are made of brass; but Captain Pierce says they are also to be found of pewter or of iron.

These are round, and very much the same shape as half an apple, save that they have a nose an inch or two long, which sticks out from one side. The body of the bowl is filled with tallow or grease, and the wick, or a piece of twisted cloth, is threaded into the nose, with one end hanging out to be lighted.

Ours hang by chains from the ceiling, and the light which they give is certainly equal to, if not stronger than, that of a wax candle; but they are not so cleanly, because if the wick be ever so little too long, the lamps send forth a great smoke.

Father says he has seen a ph?be-lamp, which is much like our betty-lamps, save that it has a small cup underneath the nose to catch the dripping grease, and that I think would be a great improvement, if indeed it is possible to improve upon so useful an article of household furniture as this.

Speaking of our betty-lamps reminds me that Susan's mother had sent over to her in the Lyon, a set of cob irons, which are something after the fashion of andirons, or fire-dogs, save that they are also intended to hold the spit and the dripping pan. She had also a pair of "creepers," which are small andirons, and which she sometimes used with the cob irons.

The andirons which we brought from England are much too fine to be used in this fireplace, which is filled with pothooks, trammels, hakes, and other cooking utensils.

They were a wedding present to my mother, and are in what we call "sets of three," meaning that on each side of the fireplace are three andirons; one to hold the heavy logs that are at the bottom of the fire; another raised still higher to bear the weight of the smaller sticks, and a third for much the same purpose as the second; or, perhaps, to make up more of an ornament, for they are of iron and brass, and are exceeding beautiful to look upon.

I have used the words trammels and hakes, but it is possible that you may not know their meaning, and so I will add by way of explanation that though they are both hooks upon which we may hang pots and kettles, the trammel is so constructed that it may be lengthened or shortened, being made of two parts.


There is no good reason why I should make any attempt at setting down here all that was done by our people in the way of planting, in order that we might have such a harvest in the fall as would put far from us the fear of another famine.

It should be easy for you to fancy how we are employed here in this new town. Some of the men are working at the palisade, or barricade on the Neck; others are in the field planting and hoeing, while yet another company is in the shipyard on the Mystic River.

Ten or twelve of the people are constantly fishing, or hunting, to add to the food supply, while those servingmen or laborers who are not skilled at other work are cutting trees into fuel, and otherwise clearing the land that it may be tilled another year.

The women and children are no less busy, and it is easy for you to guess what their duties are. These log houses, while not requiring as much care as if they were mansions, need very much in the way of woman's work.

Lest the shiftless ones, who have no pride in the appearance of the town, or are too lazy to do other than what may be absolutely necessary, should allow the dirt to gather round about the outside of the houses, a law has been made obliging each person to keep free from dirt or filth of any kind, all the land surrounding his dwelling for a distance of fifty paces, whether in the street or garden, and it is upon us children that this last work falls.

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