We and Our Neighbors: or, The Records of an Unfashionable Street
Гарриет Бичер-Стоу

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We and Our Neighbors: or, The Records of an Unfashionable Street
Harriet Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe

We and Our Neighbors / or, The Records of an Unfashionable Street

CHAPTER I

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STREET

"Who can have taken the Ferguses' house, sister?" said a brisk little old lady, peeping through the window blinds. "It's taken! Just come here and look! There's a cart at the door."

"You don't say so!" said Miss Dorcas, her elder sister, flying across the room to the window blinds, behind which Mrs. Betsey sat discreetly ensconced with her knitting work. "Where? Jack, get down, sir!" This last remark was addressed to a rough-coated Dandie Dinmont terrier, who had been winking in a half doze on a cushion at Miss Dorcas's feet. On the first suggestion that there was something to be looked at across the street, Jack had ticked briskly across the room, and now stood on his hind legs on an old embroidered chair, peering through the slats as industriously as if his opinion had been requested. "Get down, sir!" persisted Miss Dorcas. But Jack only winked contumaciously at Mrs. Betsey, whom he justly considered in the light of an ally, planted his toe nails more firmly in the embroidered chair-bottom, and stuck his nose further between the slats, while Mrs. Betsey took up for him, as he knew she would.

"Do let the dog alone, Dorcas! He wants to see as much as anybody."

"Now, Betsey, how am I ever to teach Jack not to jump on these chairs if you will always take his part? Besides, next we shall know, he'll be barking through the window blinds," said Miss Dorcas.

Mrs. Betsey replied to the expostulation by making a sudden diversion of subject. "Oh, look, look!" she called, "that must be she," as a face with radiant, dark eyes, framed in an aureole of bright golden hair, appeared in the doorway of the house across the street. "She's a pretty creature, anyway – much prettier than poor dear Mrs. Fergus."

"Henderson, you say the name is?" said Miss Dorcas.

"Yes. Simons, the provision man at the corner, told me that the house had been bought by a young editor, or something of that sort, named Henderson – somebody that writes for the papers. He married Van Arsdel's daughter."

"What, the Van Arsdels that failed last spring? One of our mushroom New York aristocracy – up to-day and down to-morrow!" commented Miss Dorcas, with an air of superiority. "Poor things!"

"A very imprudent marriage, I don't doubt," sighed Mrs. Betsey. "These upstart modern families never bring up their girls to do anything."

"She seems to be putting her hand to the plough, though," said Miss Dorcas. "See, she actually is lifting out that package herself! Upon my word, a very pretty creature. I think we must take her up."

"The Ferguses were nice," said Mrs. Betsey, "though he was only a newspaper man, and she was a nobody; but she really did quite answer the purpose for a neighbor – not, of course, one of our sort exactly, but a very respectable, lady-like little body."

"Well," said Miss Dorcas, reflectively, "I always said it doesn't do to carry exclusiveness too far. Poor dear Papa was quite a democrat. He often said that he had seen quite good manners and real refinement in people of the most ordinary origin."

"And, to be sure," said Mrs. Betsey, "if one is to be too particular, one doesn't get anybody to associate with. The fact is, the good old families we used to visit have either died off or moved off up into the new streets, and one does like to have somebody to speak to."

"Look there, Betsey, do you suppose that's Mr. Henderson that's coming down the street?" said Miss Dorcas.

"Dear me!" said Mrs. Betsey, in an anxious flutter. "Why, there are two of them – they are both taking hold to lift out that bureau – see there! Now she's put her head out of the chamber window there, and is speaking to them. What a pretty color her hair is!"

At this moment the horse on the other side of the street started prematurely, for some reason best known to himself, and the bureau came down with a thud; and Jack, who considered his opinion as now called for, barked frantically through the blinds.

Miss Dorcas seized his muzzle energetically and endeavored to hold his jaws together, but he still barked in a smothered and convulsive manner; whereat the good lady swept him, vi et armis, from his perch, and disciplined him vigorously, forcing him to retire to his cushion in a distant corner, where he still persistently barked.

"Oh, poor doggie!" sighed Mrs. Betsey. "Dorcas, how can you?"

"How can I?" said Miss Dorcas, in martial tones. "Betsey Ann Benthusen, this dog would grow up a perfect pest of this neighborhood if I left him to you. He must learn not to get up and bark through those blinds. It isn't so much matter now the windows are shut, but the habit is the thing. Who wants to have a dog firing a fusillade when your visitors come up the front steps – barking-enough-to-split-one's-head-open," added Miss Dorcas, turning upon the culprit, with a severe staccato designed to tell upon his conscience.

Jack bowed his head and rolled his great soft eyes at her through a silvery thicket of hair.

"You are a very naughty dog," she added, impressively.

Jack sat up on his haunches and waved his front paws in a deprecating manner to Miss Dorcas, and the good lady laughed and said, cheerily, "Well, well, Jacky, be a good dog now, and we'll be friends."

And Jacky wagged his tail in the most demonstrative manner, and frisked with triumphant assurance of restored favor. It was the usual end of disciplinary struggles with him. Miss Dorcas sat down to a bit of worsted work on which she had been busy when her attention was first called to the window.

Mrs. Betsey, however, with her nose close to the window blinds, continued to announce the state of things over the way in short jets of communication.

"There! the gentlemen are both gone in – and there! the cart has driven off. Now, they've shut the front door," etc.

After this came a pause of a few moments, in which both sisters worked in silence.

"I wonder, now, which of those two was the husband," said Mrs. Betsey at last, in a slow reflective tone, as if she had been maturely considering the subject.

In the mean time it had occurred to Miss Dorcas that this species of minute inquisition into the affairs of neighbors over the way was rather a compromising of her dignity, and she broke out suddenly from a high moral perch on her unconscious sister.

"Betsey," she said, with severe gravity, "I really suppose it's no concern of ours what goes on over at the other house. Poor dear Papa used to say if there was anything that was unworthy a true lady it was a disposition to gossip. Our neighbors' affairs are nothing to us. I think it is Mrs. Chapone who says, 'A well-regulated mind will repress curiosity.' Perhaps, Betsey, it would be well to go on with our daily reading."

Mrs. Betsey, as a younger sister, had been accustomed to these sudden pullings-up of the moral check-rein from Miss Dorcas, and received them as meekly as a well-bitted pony. She rose immediately, and, laying down her knitting work, turned to the book-case. It appears that the good souls were diversifying their leisure hours by reading for the fifth or sixth time that enlivening poem, Young's Night Thoughts. So, taking down a volume from the book-shelves and opening to a mark, Mrs. Betsey commenced a sonorous expostulation to Alonzo on the value of time. The good lady's manner of rendering poetry was in a high-pitched falsetto, with inflections of a marvelous nature, rising in the earnest parts almost to a howl. In her youth she had been held to possess a talent for elocution, and had been much commended by the amateurs of her times as a reader of almost professional merit. The decay of her vocal organs had been so gradual and gentle that neither sister had perceived the change of quality in her voice, or the nervous tricks of manner which had grown upon her, till her rendering of poetry resembled a preternatural hoot. Miss Dorcas beat time with her needle and listened complacently to the mournful adjurations, while Jack, crouching himself with his nose on his forepaws, winked very hard and surveyed Miss Betsey with an uneasy excitement, giving from time to time low growls as her voice rose in emphatic places; and finally, as if even a dog's patience could stand it no longer, he chorused a startling point with a sharp yelp!

"There!" said Mrs. Betsey, throwing down the book. "What is the reason Jack never likes me to read poetry?"

Jack sprang forward as the book was thrown down, and running to Mrs. Betsey, jumped into her lap and endeavored to kiss her in a most tumultuous and excited manner, as an expression of his immense relief.

"There! there! Jacky, good fellow – down, down! Why, how odd it is! I can't think what excites him so in my reading," said Mrs. Betsey. "It must be something that he notices in my intonations," she added, innocently.

The two sisters we have been looking in upon are worthy of a word of introduction. There are in every growing city old houses that stand as breakwaters in the tide of modern improvement, and may be held as fortresses in which the past entrenches itself against the never-ceasing encroachments of the present. The house in which the conversation just recorded has taken place was one of these. It was a fragment of ancient primitive New York known as the old Vanderheyden house, only waiting the death of old Miss Dorcas Vanderheyden and her sister, Mrs. Betsey Benthusen, to be pulled down and made into city lots and squares.

Time was when the Vanderheyden house was the country seat of old Jacob Vanderheyden, a thriving Dutch merchant, who lived there with somewhat foreign ideas of style and stateliness.

Parks and gardens and waving trees had encircled it, but the city limits had gained upon it through three generations; squares and streets had been opened through its grounds, till now the house itself and the garden-patch in the rear was all that remained of the ancient domain. Innumerable schemes of land speculators had attacked the old place; offers had been insidiously made to the proprietors which would have put them in possession of dazzling wealth, but they gallantly maintained their position. It is true their income in ready money was but scanty, and their taxes had, year by year, grown higher as the value of the land increased. Modern New York, so to speak, foamed and chafed like a great red dragon before the old house, waiting to make a mouthful of it, but the ancient princesses within bravely held their own and refused to parley or capitulate.

Their life was wholly in the past, with a generation whose bones had long rested under respectable tombstones. Their grandfather on their mother's side had been a signer of the Declaration of Independence; their grandfather on the paternal side was a Dutch merchant of some standing in early New York, a friend and correspondent of Alexander Hamilton's and a co-worker with him in those financial schemes by which the treasury of the young republic of America was first placed on a solid basis. Old Jacob did good service in negotiating loans in Holland, and did not omit to avail himself of the golden opportunities which the handling of a nation's wealth presents. He grew rich and great in the land, and was implicitly revered in his own family as being one of the nurses and founders of the American Republic. In the ancient Dutch secretary which stood in the corner of the sitting-room where our old ladies spent their time were many letters from noted names of a century or so back – papers yellow with age, but whose contents were all alive with the foam and fresh turbulence of what was then the existing life of the period.

Mrs. Betsey Benthusen was a younger sister and a widow. She had been a beauty in her girlhood, and so much younger than her sister that Miss Dorcas felt all the pride and interest of a mother in her success, in her lovers, in her marriage; and when that marriage proved a miserable failure, uniting her to a man who wasted her fortune and neglected her person, and broke her heart, Miss Dorcas received her back to her strong arms and made a home and a refuge where the poor woman could gather up and piece together, in some broken fashion, the remains of her life as one mends a broken Sèvres china tea cup.

Miss Dorcas was by nature of a fiery, energetic temperament, intense and original – precisely the one to be a contemner of customs and proprieties; but a very severe and rigid education had imposed on her every yoke of the most ancient and straitest-laced decorum. She had been nurtured only in such savory treatises as Dr. Gregory's Legacy to his Daughters, Mrs. Chapone's Letters, Miss Hannah More's Coelebs in Search of a Wife, Watts On the Mind, and other good books by which our great grandmothers had their lives all laid out for them in exact squares and parallelograms, and were taught exactly what to think and do in all possible emergencies.

But, as often happens, the original nature of Miss Dorcas was apt to break out here and there, all the more vivaciously for repression, in a sort of natural geyser: and so, though rigidly proper in the main, she was apt to fall into delightful spasms of naturalness.

Notwithstanding all the remarks of Mrs. Chapone and Dr. Watts about gossip, she still had a hearty and innocent interest in the pretty young housekeeper that was building a nest opposite to her, and a little quite harmless curiosity in what was going on over the way.

A great deal of good sermonizing, by the by, is expended on gossip, which is denounced as one of the seven deadly sins of society; but, after all, gossip has its better side: if not a Christian grace, it certainly is one of those weeds which show a good warm soil.

The kindly heart, that really cares for everything human it meets, inclines toward gossip, in a good way. Just as a morning glory throws out tendrils, and climbs up and peeps cheerily into your window, so a kindly gossip can't help watching the opening and shutting of your blinds and the curling smoke from your chimney. And so, too, after all the high morality of Miss Dorcas, the energetic turning of her sister to the paths of propriety, and the passage from Young's Night Thoughts, with its ponderous solemnity, she was at heart kindly musing upon the possible fortunes of the pretty young creature across the street, and was as fresh and ready to take up the next bit of information about her house as a brisk hen is to discuss the latest bit of crumb thrown from a window.

Miss Dorcas had been brought up by her father in diligent study of the old approved English classics. The book-case of the sitting-room presented in gilded order old editions of the Rambler, the Tattler, and the Spectator, the poems of Pope, and Dryden, and Milton, and Shakespeare, and Miss Dorcas and her sister were well versed in them all. And in view of the whole of our modern literature, we must say that their studies might have been much worse directed.

Their father had unfortunately been born too early to enjoy Walter Scott. There is an age when a man cannot receive a new author or a new idea. Like a lilac bush which has made its terminal buds, he has grown all he can in this life, and there is no use in trying to force him into a new growth. Jacob Vanderheyden died considering Scott's novels as the flimsy trash of the modern school, while his daughters hid them under their pillows, and found them all the more delightful from the vague sensation of sinfulness which was connected with their admiration. Walter Scott was their most modern landmark; youth and bloom and heedlessness and impropriety were all delightfully mixed up with their reminiscences of him – and now, here they were still living in an age which has shelved Walter Scott among the classics, and reads Dickens and Thackeray and Anthony Trollope.
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