The Oleander-Tree: A Story of the British Press-Gang

I CHANCED to spend a few weeks of a hot summer in a little village among the New England hills. A series of small table-lands around the base of one of the tallest mountains in the State gave space for farms and houses and narrow roads to be located in the high, dry air, which, though bracing and wholesome, did not encourage vegetation nor wealth of bloom. As one drove through the ragged, winding lanes, or up and down the wooded roads which ascended the different sides of the mountain or descended into the plain, everywhere green and gray hues only met the eye: the green of the grass and the trees, the gray of the granite that cropped out in broad ledges, showing the enormous quarries that underlay the town, or stood in giant bowlders scattered through the pastures.

Later, as July passed, I noticed that in almost every door-yard of the little hamlet an oleander grew; generally, in its big, green tub, the one solitary ornament of the broad stone in front of the threshold. Some of these oleanders were very large, standing six feet high, and some were very small slips just potted, or with one year’s growth of stature; but to possess an oleander of some size or other seemed to be a passion with the townsfolk of Princeton.

I understood at once that some singular chance bad brought this foreign tropical beauty to the secluded spot, and that it had become the fashion. Who that has seen a new overskirt or apron, or even a milk-strainer or coal scuttle, run through a country village like wildfire, can fail to understand the spread of this prettier novelty ? But how came the first one hither?

As the scarlet buds of the oleanders swelled and paled at the same time, and the pink, peachy blooms began to deck the door - yards, and constantly thrust themselves on my sight, I wondered more and more about their history. Sometimes in quiet summer leisure in a solitary farm-house the imagination fastens itself on a trifle, and curiosity gets hungry. Where did the parent oleander come from ?

Wandering one day to a little brown homestead set on a ledge of the mountain, at a house where I stopped for a glass of water I found the noblest Roman of them all, a mighty tree of an oleander, standing some twelve feet high, and crowded with pale pink blossoms. I praised the beautiful foreigner with its exquisite flowers and faint, refined odor, and the bent and wrinkled old woman who gave me my refreshing draught was greatly pleased.

“ Where did you get it? ” I asked.

“ That ’ere flower has quite a story to it, I can tell ye. It come fust from the West Indies, and was sent to a friend of mine by her beau, who was a seafarin’ man. Don’t you want I should tell you about it? ”

I was loafer at large and conscientiously dawdling for a pain in my side, and was really very glad to fill the time in so pleasant a way, besides satisfying my curiosity in hearing the history of I the patriarch oleander, its tribe and its family.

I sat down in the list-bottomed chair she brought out from her “keepin’room ” and put upon the grass by the door, while she gave me this little village history, whose pathos or whose joy cannot be entirely hid by her homely speech.

Katy Goodnow was the nicest girl anywhere about. Of Course the young men all found it out, and she had lots of ’em a-waitin’ on her, but afore she was eighteen she bad settled down to Tom Mariner, a real snappin', drivin’ lad who lived just across the way from her. You know them two stun houses on the north road to the mountain? Well, them two tumble-down ones, all to pieces, were Tom’s and Katy’s homes.

There wa’n’t much chance for Tom to more ’n earn a living for himself if he stayed to Princeton. His father worked the farm, and was a healthy, middleaged man, and there were eight other boys and girls, beside Tom, a-comin’ up. He was willin’ to give Tom his time, and Tom thought he 'd like to go seafarin' for a while. You see he was kind of ambitious, and so was she; and seein’ as she ’d sent off the young doctor and the young minister and the store-keeper’s son, Tom sort o’ wanted to do well by her, and he hankered to get suthin ahead and buy a farm of his own. He did n’t exactly like to set Katy to work in his father’s kitchen, as he 'd ’a’ had to do if he did n’t start for himself.

Well, he went to see her one Sunday night, and the next day but one he started off to go to Middletown, Connecticut; a long ways off, but trade was brisk there, and a smart young fellow had good chances to run to the West Indies on a sloop, and when he had sailed a voyage or two, and l’arnt the handlin’ of the ship, just as like as not the captain would take him as mate, and then his fortin would be made.

Tom went off, and in six months he came back with a lot of cokynuts and queer things, and said he ’d done well. He was sailin’ for Seebor & Co., rich Jews of Middletown, and they had made him mate, and like as not he ’d be captain afore long. He come to meetin’ with Katy, and they was proud enough of each other, I can tell ye.

Well, Tom went back’ard and for’ard for two years or more, and Katy she stayed at hum and raised flax, and hackled and spun and bleached, till she ’d got a nice lot of sheets and towels, and a pillow-case full of stockings. She was a smart girl any way, and an extra fast knitter. Why, she could beat every girl in the village a-knitting round, and she was the quickest quilter I ever did see, and the tastiest of us all. She used to look as handsome as a picter every Sunday, a-standin’ up so straight in the gallery along with the bass-viol, a-singin’ with all her might. Well, well, she needed all her strength and courage afore she got through.

In them days we had a mail only once a fortnight, and sometimes there was n’t a letter come then, except for the parson, for as much as two months. A man went down through the woods on horseback, and brought up the paper which was printed once a week down to Boston. One day Katy’s brother Joe, who was the mail-carrier, was sick, and it was hayin’ time, and Katy’s father was awful busy, and mail day come round. Everybody wanted to see the Boston paper and read the news, ’cause it was just along them years that the Britishers were carryin’ on so, and takin’ our men off our merchant sloops, and maldn’ ’em serve in their navy.

Katy come ridin’ along that mornin’, as chirk as could be, and give a call at the back door to let me know she was there; and says she, “Mattie, I ’m goin’ down to Worcester to get the mail. The men folks are all busy with their hayin’ and can’t spend time to go, and I want to hear pretty bad myself.” So she talked a minute or two, and I sent down a little bundle of yarn I had spun, for her to change off at the store with some steel needles and thread, and then she said good-by, and I see her go joggin’ along on Brown Bill through the pine woods and down the hill. Of course there wa’n’t no railroads then, but pikes w’a’nt built either. There was a sort of foot-path cut through the underbrush, and it was blazed quite correct on the trees, and one could see the big white spots when it was quite dark.

I’ve traveled down to Worcester in this path many a time, and very pleasant it was on a warm summer’s day. It used to be so sweet and cool and still under the dark pines.

The next day I see her coming crosslots to see me, and she was bright and handsome as a red hollyhock. She threw my little bundle of storin’s into my lap, and said, “ They threw in some darnin’-needles extra, Mattie,” and then she went on a talkin’ to me and ma, who was a-sittin’ spinnin’ and reelin’ together, and ’most the fust thing she said was, “ Ab'gail Griffith’s boy has come home to Leicester, and Tom ’s sent me a letter and his pay, and a slip of a new kind of geranium in a pot. He says it has real pretty flowers, but it is n’t tough, though it looks so, and I must n’t let it freeze. And he ’s sent word to buy the Widder Thompson’s farm, and the money to pay for it is in the Bank of Worcester, and I’m going to get the house all ready against his coming home in the spring.”

“ S’pose you calkilate to get married then,” I spoke right out.

“ Tom says so,” and she blushed real pretty about it. Well, the farm was bought, and she went to work, and how that girl did work! She made rag-carpets for every room in the house, — to be sure there were only four on ’em, but it takes a lot of rags when you cut and dye and weave every bit on ’em with your own hands, — and she braided rugs, and she picked and cured live geese feathers enough for two beds and four pillows; and she was just as chirk and set up as she could be.

And this here oleander grew and grew. She covered it up every night from the frost, and allus put a pail of water by it every night through Janoary to keep it from freezin', and it throve fust-rate.

In the spring Tom come home, and he wanted to be married right off, and they was married about the middle of May. Katy had some apple-blows in her hair, and looked splendid; but no good comes of a weddin’ in May any more than on a Friday, and you ’ll see it’s so afore I’ve got through. Tom meant to stay to hum and farm it for the summer, and then go voyagin’ again in the winter, after the crops were got in. You see they was dreadful ambitious, and wanted to get on fast.

Well, when Thanksgivin’ was over, Tom went off. It was tough parting, and he said if he had n’t give his word he would have stayed to hum. You see neither of ’em thought just how it would be, and that it was n’t just right to leave Katy all alone in the dead of winter, with four feet of snow on the ground, and she not quite so able to get about as usual. He wanted her to go and stay to his or her father’s while he was gone, but she said no. She’d got plenty of sewin’ to do afore spring, and the cattle to fodder; and she quoted the Bible, and said that she “ would abide by the stuff.”

I guess he felt awful to leave her, though he expected to be back afore her trouble was on her, but she kep’ up and talked brave to him. I went over there the arternoon of the day he went he went away of a Thursday mornin’), and her eyes were as red and stuck out like lobsterses, and she kind o’ choked when she fust see me, afore she could tell me to set down and take a chair, and take my calash off and stay to tea.

Well, I used to go over and see her as often as I could. She kep’ busy; she milked, and made butter and laid it down, and the cow had a calf, and it got to be April. One day she said to me, “ Mattie, I ’m not so light-footed as I was, and I ’m thinking that I ’ll take the new sechoolma'am to board, so’s to have her little brother help me outdoors. He can fodder the cows and do the milking, and drive them to pasture, and I can keep more in - doors and do the house work. ” Elviney Skinner was very glad to come, ’cause Katy was a fust-rate cook, and as neat as a new pin, and I felt kind o’ easier about her after they come, ’cause she’d always have company. I wanted to go and stay with her myself, hut ma said I was n’t big enough.

One mornin’ I see the doctor go by, and Miss Mariner with him, and I knew Katy’s groanin’ time had come. Ma had brought me over a piece of the groanin’ cake a week afore. I felt dreadful bad to think of poor Katy, and Tom not back. I ran out to the gate to see the doctor when he come back, and he said, “ Mattie, tell your ma there are two peradventures this time. Katy Mariner has got twins; two big twin boys.” I never was so sot down in my life, and I ran right in to tell ma and ask her if I might n’t go over and see them. She would n’t let me go that day, but as soon as I could she sent me over there to see the twins, and likely children they were. I did n’t say nothin’ about Tom, for fear of worryin’ her, she lay so calm, and rested with a baby on each arm; but I spoke to Miss Mariner, Tom’s mother, and she said she was kind o’ troubled, for Tom had said he would be back in March sure, and now it had got to be May.

And it got to be June, and nothing was heard of Tom. Katy went right to work as soon as she was out of bed, and sowed corn and oats; she had the plowin’ all done afore she was sick; and she and the little lad planted a garden, so she 'd have garden sass through the summer. She had her hands full, what with her babies and her farm, but they were such good babies, and jest as contented as kittens. She used to tie ’em one in each end of the cradle, and give ’em each a tin pan and an iron spoon, and they ’d make music till they went off to sleep, and she’d jest go round and do her work. She seemed pretty contented too, and took up with the babies and her farm, and I guess she worked too hard to fret much.

But when fall come and the farm work was mostly over, and Thanksgivin' would be along pretty soon, and Tom not back and no word of him, she could n’t stand it no longer. One day she come over to see me while the babies was asleep. She called ’em Romulus and Remus, ’cause, she said, she was a kind of wolf mother to them, and she said something about keepin’ the wolf from the door and sucklin’ them at the breast of poverty; but I did n’t know what she meant then, and don’t now, for that matter, except that she ’d do her dooty by ’em. Says she to me, says she, “ Mattie, can you go over to my house to-morrow to see to things, while I go to Worcester and try if I can find out something about Tom ? I can’t wait no longer. I must try to find out what has become of him, or my heart will break,” and she most broke down and cried, and so did I.

I went over early in the mornin’ and found her all wrapt up, a-waitin’ for me. She was going to take one baby with her, and leave the one that had learned to drink out of a cup, at hum with me. “Land’s sakes, Katy,” says I, “how well you do manage! jest as the Injuns do with their pappoosos; ” for she slung the baby on her back with a shawl, so that both her hands were left free for the reins ; and her horse was dreadful gentle. I saw her start off once more through them same pine woods.

A good while arter, she told me ever so much about her feelin’s on her two rides. She was so happy when she went afore she got married, a-plannin' about it and her home with Tom. She was so proud to work for him and make him comfortable, and she thought about it all the way to Worcester and back, and when she got to the very stillest place, she stopped Brown Bill and said her prayers, and then come home feelin' so glad. The second time her heart was heavy as lead — for where was Tom? He might be in the bottom of the sea, for all she knew!

Well, she rode on over the light November snowfall, which showed her the tracks of the wild birds and the wild beasts all about her. Once a red fox looked out at her from the thicket, and she saw where the great paws of the gray wolves had crossed her path. She said she kept thinking of the old graveyard on Princeton hill, where the sod that covered her little dead brother had been heavily weighted down with large stones piled up on it, to keep the wolves from their “hunger sacrilege,” as the parson called it; and she shuddered all over. You see she was kind o’ tuckered out with all her hard work through the summer, and nursin’ them two big young ones beside. And then, she 'd got narvous, and felt as though she’d ought to have seen about Tom afore. She 'd somehow got a fancy' (I s'pose it was narves partly) that she 'd neglected him for his babies ; but I told her over and over that takin’ care of his babies was the same as takin’ care of him, and if people did n’t show their love a-workin’ for each other, I did n’t see how they could.

And then the Injuns, who lived all round Princeton in them days, come into her head, and she thought some cross fellow might come out of the woods and steal her horse and leave her right there to get home as she could. But just then she remembered her aunt Nixon she was named for, and how, when the Injuns come to Roxbury, close by Boston, and surrounded her house, and she all alone in it, she put the great oak bars up agin the door, and turned the big brass kettle over her baby to keep it from the arrows, and fired her husband’s gun out the winder till she druv them off. Katy, she said, says she, “ I ’m as big as aunt Nixon; let me see, if the Injuns come, if I can’t be as brave.” Well, the baby was proper good and was sort o’ quieted down by the cold air and the jolting, and in three hours she got to Worcester, and the fust man she see in the street was John Hutchings, that, sailed shipmate with Tom Mariner. He’d just got back from his third voyage that year, for he did nothin’ else but go to sea, and bad news he had brought. Them Britishers had boarded the sloop on the fust voyage out and had carried off Tom with their press-gang. He was just such a strong fellow as they wanted, and they fixed on him right away and nobody could stop it. But las mate had his sea-chest and his back pay and his British bounty, which, wicked us they were to take him, they had sent to his wife, and even asked if he had one.

John Hutchings said Katy never said nothin’, only looked very white and kinder clutched the baby, till he told her what Tom said about wanting to get back to her, and how he fought the men that took him, and how he hoped to get home afore the little fellow came; then she cried right out, “ Oh, Tom, Tom! ” and fell right off her horse.

Well, he got her somehow to her cousins’, and she had some samp and milk and baked beans and cherry bounce, that revived her up, and then she started to come home all that lonesome road through the woods. She got back as it was falling dark, and she come inter the kitchen where I was settin’, ’most like a ghost. She ’d put up the horse and given him some hay and some oats, and sent the school-ma’am’s brother to water him, afore she said anything. Then she took the baby that had stayed to hum, and give him a drink. He was all undrest and ready to go to bed. So when he dropped off we woke the other one, Remus it was, and put his night-gown on him, and warmed his little squirming pink toes at the fire, but his long ride made him sleepy, and he soon went off. Then when they both were in the big cradle she begun to talk, and she said, —

“ Tom has been carried off for a Britisher; ” but she never cried a bit. I asked her what she was goin’ to do,

“ Write to Washington and Boston to-night, and send Jerome ” — that was the school-ma’am’s brother —“ down to Worcester to-morrow with the letter.”

“ But pony will be tired after to-day,” says I.

“ He can go on Brown Bill,” says she. You see she’d been thinking it over, all the way back, and got her mind clear.

Well, I give her a cup of tea as sweet and strong and hot as I could make it, and then, as I could n’t do nothing more for her, I put my things on and went home across-lots. Oh! afore I went, she took out Tom’s pay, which was in a canvas bag in his chest, and which John Hutchings was glad enough to hand over safe to her, and told me to put it away in the cupboard. I asked her how much it was, and she said she did n’t know, and I sat down and counted it for her, and it come to more ’n fifty dollars, all in gold and silver. He was proper smart to work, was Tom; but she wa’n't a bit glad over it. She said it seemed like the price of Tom’s blood; life, I s'pose she meant.

Jerome, when he come back from Worcester, brought the news that war was declared between England and us, because they would have press-gangs and search-warrants, and steal men out of our ships to man theirs, and we would n’t bear it no longer.

Oh, how worked up we was! Miss Mariner, Tom’s mother, used to come over with her knittin’ - work and big patch - bag on mail days to see Katy and the children, and hope for some news of Tom. By’mby a letter did come. He was well, had his pay reg'lar, and was watching his chance to get away; then nothin’ more come for months and months. Katy managed the farm somehow, and the neighbors would get her hay in for her and do her plowin’, and she did the rest. Everything she sot her hand to did well, and everything grew, especially the children, and the oleander, that she thought a sight of. She used to say, “ As long as that lives, Tom lives;” and I’ve seen her many a time hold her babies up to it, as soon as they took notice, and tell them their father sent it to their mother.

Well, I sp’ose a young thing like you don’t remember when Preble and Decatur captured the Macedonian. That was a British man-of-war; and one of the prisoners turned out to be a shipmate of Tom, carried off at the same time Tom was, from the Lively Peggy. He turned up, and he 'd come out of his way clear up to Princeton, to tell Katy about her husband. He said that Tom went on shore in a boat in the Mediterranean Sea, and was caught by au Algerine pirate who was watching the harbor for captives. He being an American was not protected by the British flag, which was powerful enough to steal him but not to save him from the pirates. There was nobody to pay any ransom for him, and John did n’t know a bit what had become of him.

Poor Katy! She had kep’ up brave till then, but now she clear broke down. She was sick for a week; didn’t eat nothin’ nor take no notice; but she did n’t cry none, at least when anybody was round. I wish she had. It would have eased her off some.

The shipmate brought her some more back pay, all in gold guineas, and Katy managed not to spend it, but to keep it agin the time when Tom should come back, though she was clear discouraged and never smiled for ever so long. Evenings, she ’d take her boys up in her lap and talk to them about their father, and they sort of supported her.

She took real comfort in those young ones, and gradually she settled down to doin’ without him, but she never forgot him. Mr. Winchester, the richest farmer in Princeton, came to ask her to keep company with him, when he was a widower, — he married Hanner Blagden afterwards, — but she said quite fierce to him, “ How dare you ask me such a question, when my husband is a-livin? ” but it hurt her, and she cried about it afterwards, though she did n’t say nothin’ to nobody.

The twins got to be four years old, and never a word from Tom. Then, three years after the war began, Decatur went sailin’ into Tripoli. He took a frigate and spiked forty-nine guns and rode right into the harbor of Algiers to deliver the American prisoners. And among the very first lot, he found Tom, with a ball and chain at his ankle, a-rowin’ at the galleys. And Decatur was high-handed with them pirates, and would n’t give a cent of ransom for their captives, and he brought ’em all back safe and sound, although Tom was black as a nigger from workin’ bareheaded out under them hot suns. Lucky he did n’t have a sunstroke, and perhaps he did without a-knowin’ on it, for he was kind o’ strange - like when he got back.

He come home in 1815 or ’16, and precious glad he was to get here. He was n’t nat’ral fust, but sort of curious and in a dream. He did n’t know a bit what to say to Romulus and Remus, and took no notice of ’em fust off, when he was so dreadful tickled to see Katy; but when another baby come to keep her busy, he took to ’em quick enough, and they were allus a-followin’ him round the farm.

He was dreadful pleased at the way Katy had worked the land and paid off the mortgage, and he did n’t take control himself, but let her do jest what she was a mind ter, and give her her own way in everything. He did jest what she told him to do, and did n’t start nothin’ himself out of his own head, like as if he was her hired man. Somehow he was kind o’ broken down, and seafarin’ had got into his head, and got him out of the notion of farmin’; and he never exactly took to it again. He used to leave her every two or three years and go a-voyagin’; and she’d got used to the business and she went right on, and Tom was awful proud and satisfied with her.

That oleander - tree there began to blow as soon as Tom got home, and has had some, blows on it every year since. One hard winter it got frosted and did n’t have so many, and the next summer Tom died. Lots of slips have been cut off from it, and ’most every house in the town has a big or little oleander cut from this tree.

Romulus and Remus grew up and went into the grocery business down to New York, and they both of ’em drive in their carriage. Them old houses was sold when the last two Mariners went to Ohio, and are a-droppin’ to pieces, but I heern tell that one of Katy’s grandsons means to fix hers up for a summer villa. Anyways, he come two or three years ago and got some shoots of his grandmother’s oleander for his greenhouse.

“I suppose Mrs. Mariner died some time since,” said I, as she paused.

“Who, Katy? Yes, she was six or seven years older than I, and I am eightynine; and she made the beautifulest corpse you ever did see. Her long hair was as white as silver, and Remus’s wife jest braided it like a crown all around her head, and her coffin was more than six feet long. Her twins were proper big men too, and so was her husband, though he never was jest the same after livin’ with the Mahomedans and the pirates. He died fust, and she used to sit and forget her knitting-work and patches and look at that oleander as if it would bring him back.”

Emily E. Ford.