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- Driven Back to Eden - 4/38 -
Mousie's soft black eyes always lighted up at the prospect of a flower-garden that should be as big as our sitting-room. Even in our city apartments, poisoned by gas and devoid of sunlight, she usually managed to keep a little house-plant in bloom, and the thought of placing seeds in the open ground, where, as she said, "the roots could go down to China if they wanted to," brought the first color I had seen in her face for many a day.
Winnie was our strongest child, and also the one who gave me the most anxiety. Impulsive, warm-hearted, restless, she always made me think of an overfull fountain. Her alert black eyes were as eager to see as was her inquisitive mind to pry into everything. She was sturdily built for a girl, and one of the severest punishments we could inflict was to place her in a chair and tell her not to move for an hour. We were beginning to learn that we could no more keep her in our sitting-room than we could restrain a mountain brook that foams into a rocky basin only to foam out again. Melissa Daggett was of a very different type--I could never see her without the word "sly" coming into my mind--and her small mysteries awakened Winnie's curiosity. Now that the latter was promised chickens, and rambles in the woods, Melissa and her secrets became insignificant, and the ready promise to keep aloof from her was given.
As for Bobsey, he should have a pig which he could name and call his own, and for which he might pull weeds and pick up apples. We soon found that he was communing with that phantom pig in his dreams.
A MOMENTOUS EXPEDITION
By the time Christmas week began we all had agreed to do without candy, toys, and knick-knacks, and to buy books that would tell us how to live in the country. One happy evening we had an early supper and all went to a well-known agricultural store and publishing-house on Broadway, each child almost awed by the fact that I had fifteen dollars in my pocket which should be spent that very night in the purchase of books and papers. To the children the shop seemed like a place where tickets direct to Eden were obtained, while the colored pictures of fruits and vegetables could portray the products of Eden only, so different were they in size and beauty from the specimens appearing in our market stalls. Stuffed birds and animals were also on the shelves, and no epicure ever enjoyed the gamy flavor as we did. But when we came to examine the books, their plates exhibiting almost every phase of country work and production, we felt like a long vista leading toward our unknown home was opening before us, illumined by alluring pictures. To Winnie was given a book on poultry, and the cuts representing the various birds were even more to her taste than cuts from the fowls themselves at a Christmas dinner. The Nimrod instincts of the race were awakened in Merton, and I soon found that he had set his heart on a book that gave an account of game, fish, birds, and mammals. It was a natural and wholesome longing. I myself had felt it keenly when a boy. Such country sport would bring sturdiness to his limbs and the right kind of color into his face.
"All right, Merton," I said: "you shall have the book and a breech- loading shot-gun also. As for fishing-tackle, you can get along with a pole cut from the woods until you have earned money enough yourself to buy what you need."
The boy was almost overwhelmed. He came to me, and took my hand in both his own.
"O papa," he faltered, and his eyes were moist, "did you say a gun?"
"Yes, a breech-loading shot-gun on one condition--that you'll not smoke till after you are twenty-one. A growing boy can't smoke in safety."
He gave my hand a quick, strong pressure, and was immediately at the farther end of the store, blowing his nose suspiciously. I chuckled to myself: "I want no better promise. A gun will cure him of cigarettes better than a tract would."
Mousie was quiet, as usual; but there was again a faint color in her cheeks, a soft lustre in her eyes. I kept near my invalid child most of the time, for fear that she would go beyond her strength. I made her sit by a table, and brought the books that would interest her most. Her sweet, thin face was a study, and I felt that she was already enjoying the healing caresses of Mother Nature. When we started homeward she carried a book about flowers next to her heart.
Bobsey taxed his mother's patience and agility, for he seemed all over the store at the same moment, and wanted everything in it, being sure that fifteen dollars would buy all and leave a handsome margin; but at last he was content with a book illustrated from beginning to end with pigs.
What pleased me most was to see how my wife enjoyed our little outing. Wrapped up in the children, she reflected their joy in her face, and looked almost girlish in her happiness. I whispered in her ear, "Your present shall be the home itself, for I shall have the deed made out in your name, and then you can turn me out-of-doors as often as you please."
"Which will be every pleasant day after breakfast," she said, laughing. "You know you are very safe in giving things to me."
"Yes, Winifred," I replied, pressing her hand on the sly; "I have been finding that out ever since I gave myself to you."
I bought Henderson's "Gardening for Profit" and some other practical books. I also subscribed for a journal devoted to rural interests and giving simple directions for the work of each month. At last we returned. Never did a jollier little procession march up Broadway. People were going to the opera and evening companies, and carriages rolled by, filled with elegantly dressed ladies and gentlemen; but my wife remarked, "None of those people are so happy as we are, trudging in this roundabout way to our country home."
Her words suggested our course of action during the months which must intervene before it would be safe or wise for us to leave the city. Our thoughts, words, and actions were all a roundabout means to our cherished end, and yet the most direct way that we could take under the circumstances. Field and garden were covered with snow, the ground was granite-like from frost, and winter's cold breath chilled our impatience to be gone; but so far as possible we lived in a country atmosphere, and amused ourselves by trying to conform to country ways in a city flat. Even Winnie declared she heard the cocks crowing at dawn, while Bobsey had a different kind of grunt or squeal for every pig in his book.
A COUNTRY CHRISTMAS IN A CITY FLAT
On Christmas morning we all brought out our purchases and arranged them on a table. Merton was almost wild when he found a bright single-barrelled gun with accoutrements standing in the corner. Even Mousie exclaimed with delight at the bright-colored papers of flower-seeds on her plate. To Winnie were given half a dozen china eggs with which to lure the prospective biddies to lay in nests easily reached, and she tried to cackle over them in absurd imitation. Little Bobsey had to have some toys and candy, but they all presented to his eyes the natural inmates of the barn-yard. In the number of domestic animals he swallowed that day he equalled the little boy in Hawthorne's story of "The House of the Seven Gables," who devoured a ginger-bread caravan of camels and elephants purchased at Miss Hepzibah Pyncheon's shop.
Our Christmas dinner consisted almost wholly of such vegetables as we proposed to raise in the coming summer. Never before were such connoisseurs of carrots, beets, onions, parsnips, and so on through almost the entire list of such winter stock as was to be obtained at our nearest green-grocery. We celebrated the day by nearly a dozen dishes which the children aided my wife in preparing. Then I had Merton figure the cost of each, and we were surprised at the cheapness of much of country fare, even when retailed in very small quantities.
This brought up another phase of the problem. In many respects I was like the children, having almost as much to learn as they--with the advantage, however, of being able to correct impressions by experience. In other words, I had more judgment; and while I should certainly make mistakes, not many of them would be absurd or often repeated. I was aware that most of the homely kitchen vegetables cost comparatively little, even though (having in our flat no good place for storage) we had found it better to buy what we needed from day to day. It was therefore certain that, at wholesale in the country, they would often be exceedingly cheap. This fact would work both ways: little money would purchase much food of certain kinds, and if we produced these articles of food they would bring us little money.
I will pass briefly over the period that elapsed before it was time for us to depart, assured that the little people who are following this simple history are as eager to get away from the dusty city flat to the sunlight, breezy fields, brooks, and woods as were the children in my story. It is enough to say that, during all my waking hours not devoted to business, I read, thought, and studied on the problem of supporting my family in the country. I haunted Washington Market in the gray dawn and learned from much inquiry what products found a ready and certain sale at some price, and what appeared to yield to the grower the best profits. There was much conflict of opinion, but I noted down and averaged the statements made to me. Many of the market-men had hobbies, and told me how to make a fortune out of one or two articles; more gave careless, random, or ignorant answers; but here and there was a plain, honest, sensible fellow who showed me from his books what plain, honest, sensible producers in the country were doing. In a few weeks I dismissed finally the tendency to one blunder. A novice hears or reads of an acre of cabbages or strawberries producing so much. Then he figures, "if one acre yields so much, two acres will give twice as much," and so on. The experience of others showed me the utter folly of all this; and I came to the conclusion that I could give my family shelter, plain food, pure air, wholesome work and play in plenty, and that not very soon could I provide much else with certainty. I tried to stick closely to common-sense; and the humble circumstances of the vast majority living from the soil proved that there was in these pursuits no easy or speedy road to fortune. Therefore we must
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