Ebooks, Fiction, Non-Fiction 1000s of Free books and stories online to read now ~ Main Page




A Reminiscence of Harriet Martineau by F. C. M.

It is more than fifty years since I, a mere child, spent a summer with my parents in a sandy young city of Indiana. Eight or nine hundred souls, perhaps more, were already anchored within its borders. Chicago, a lusty infant just over the line, her feet blackened with prairie mud, made faces, called names, and ridiculed its soil and architecture. Nevertheless it was a valiant little city, even though its streets were rivers of shifting sand, through which "prairie-schooners" were toilsomely dragged by heavy oxen or a string of chubby ponies,—these last a gift from the coppery Indian to the country he was fast forsaking. Clouds of clear grit drifted into open casements on every passing breeze, or, if a gale arose, were driven through every crevice. Our little city was cradled amid the shifting sand-hills on Michigan's wave-beaten shore. Indeed, it had received the name of the grand old lake in loving baptism, and was pluckily determined to wear it worthily. Its buildings were wholly of wood, and hastily constructed, some not entirely unpretentious, while others tilted on legs, as if in readiness at shortest notice to take to their heels and skip away. In those early days there was only the round yellow-bodied coach swinging on leathern straps, or the heavy lumber-wagon, to accommodate the tide of travel already setting westward. It was a daily delight to listen to the inspiring toot of the driver's horn and the crack of his long whip, as, with six steaming horses, he swung his dusty passengers in a final grand flourish up to the hospitable door of the inn.

One memorable morning brought to the unique little town a literary lion,—a woman of great heart, clear brain, and powerful pen,—in short, Harriet Martineau. Her travelling companions were a professor, his comely wife, and their eight-year-old son. The last-named was much petted by Miss Martineau, and still flourishes in perennial youth on many pages of her books of American travel. Michigan City felt honored in its transient guest. The whisper that a real live author was among us filled the inn hall with a changing throng eager to obtain a glimpse of the celebrity. Not among the least of these were "the two little girls" she mentions in her "Society in America," page 253. At breakfast the party served their sharpened appetites quite like ordinary folk,—Miss Martineau in thoughtful quiet, broken now and again by a brisk question darted at the professor, who answered in a deliberate learned way that was quite impressive. A shiver of disgust ruffled his plump features at the absence of cream, which the host excused by the statement that, the population having outgrown its flocks and herds, milk was held sacred to the use of babes. Miss Martineau listened to the professor's complaints with a twinkle of mirth in her eyes, while that indignant gentleman vigorously applied himself to the solid edibles at hand. Shortly after breakfast the strangers sallied forth in search of floral treasures, over the low sand-hills stretching toward the lake (a spur of which penetrated the main street), where in the face of the sandy drift nestled a shanty quite like the "dug-out" of the timberless lands in Kansas and New Mexico. The tomb-like structure, half buried in sand, only its front being visible, seemed to afford Miss Martineau no end of surprised amusement as she climbed to its submerged roof on her way to the summit of the hill. A window-garden of tittering young women merrily watched the progress of the quick-stepping Englishwoman, and, really, there was some provocation to mirth, from their stand-point. Anything approaching a blanket, plain, plaided, or striped, had never disported itself before their astonished gaze as a part of feminine apparel, except on the back of a grimy squaw. Of blanket-shawls, soon to become a staple article of trade, the Western women had not then even heard; and here was a civilized and cultivated creature enveloped in what seemed to be a gay trophy wrested from the bed-furniture! Then, too, the "only sweet thing" in bonnets was the demure "cottage," fashioned of fine straw, while the woman in view sported a coarse, pied affair, whose turret-like crown and flaring brim pointed ambitiously skyward. Stout boots completed the costume criticised and laughed over by the merry maidens who yet stood in wholesome awe of the presence of the wearer. With what a wealth of gorgeous wild flowers and plumy ferns the pilgrims came laden on their return! Quoting from "Society in America," page 253, Miss Martineau says, "The scene was like what I had always fancied the Norway coast, but for the wild flowers, which grew among the pines on the slope almost into the tide. I longed to spend an entire day on this flowery and shadowy margin of the inland sea. I plucked handfuls of pea-vine and other trailing flowers, which seemed to run all over the ground."

Miss Martineau piled her treasures on a table and culled the specimens worthy of pressing, and it seemed to pain her to reject the least promising of her perishable plunder. She must have had a passion for flowers, judging from the tenderness with which she handled the lovely fronds and delicate petals under inspection, while her mouth was continually open in admiring exclamation.

And now came what I still fondly remember as the Musicale. A little comrade came in the twilight to sing songs with me. With arms interlaced, we paced the upper hall, vociferously warbling as breath was given us, when a door opened, and the gifted, dark-faced woman, with kindly eyes, beamed out on us. "Come," she called, "come in here, children, and sing your songs for me: I am very fond of music." Very bashfully we signified our willingness to oblige,—indeed, we dared not do otherwise,—and sidled into the room. Closing the door, our hostess curled herself comfortably on a gayly-cushioned lounge, and proceeded to adjust a serpent-like, squirming appendage to her ear. With an encouraging nod, she bade us commence, closing her eyes meanwhile with an air of expectant rapture. But the vibrating trumpet stirred our foolish souls to explosive laughter, partially smothered in a simultaneous strangled cough. Wondering at the double paroxysm and subsequent hush of shame, she unclosed her eyes, softly murmuring, "Don't be bashful nor afraid, my dears. I am very far from home, and you can make me very happy, if you will. Pray begin at once, and then I will also sing for you." Taking courage, we piped as bidden, rendering in a childish way the strains of "Blue-Eyed Mary," "Comin' through the Rye," "I'd be a Butterfly," and "Auld Lang Syne," Our audience, with bright, attentive looks, regarded the performance in pleased approval, softly tapping time on her knee with a slender finger.

"Now it is my turn," said Miss Martineau. Straightening herself and casting aside the trumpet, primly folding her hands and pursing her mouth curiously, she began, in a high, quavering voice, a song whose burden was the fixed objection on the part of a certain damsel to forsaking the pleasures of the world for the seclusion and safety of a convent:

Now, is it not a pity such a pretty girl as I
Should be sent to a nunnery to pine away and die?
But I won't be a nun,—- no, I won't be a nun;
I'm so fond of pleasure that I cannot be a nun.

It is impossible to give an idea of the jerky style of the lady's singing which so tickled our sensitive ears. At every repetition of the refrain, Susy and I squeezed our locked fingers spasmodically in order to suppress the unseemly laughter bubbling to our lips. At every emphatic word she nodded at us merrily, thus adding to our inward disquiet.

I like now, when picturing Harriet Martineau entertaining with noble themes the men and women of letters she drew around her in England and America, to remember, in connection with her strong, plain face and brilliant intellect, the simple kindliness with which she once unbent to a brace of little Hoosier maids in the "Far West."