MOUTH OF THE BASS
BY AUGUSTA MOORE.
The Ladies' Repository 12 (5):349-352
HOU quaint, unique Cape Cod, before the winds blow thee away, or the wild waves I sweep thee under—which, judging from appearances, will soon be—one who has found upon thy cool sands delicious rest and refreshment, would fain sketch thee, and thy primitive homes and people, for ages of those who can never look on thee. Justice has never been done thee, thou droll but good Cape Cod.
Were one, unacquainted with the cape, to land suddenly in Japan, he could hardly be more surprised or amused by the strangeness to him of the scenes and the customs he would find, than he is on coming here. Though a New Englander, and always interested in studying my native land, I was quite unprepared to find Palestine within a few hours' ride of Boston. Rather a Yankeefied Palestine, 't is true; but none the worse for that. Indeed, according to the concurring testimony of all travelers to the Holy Land, I am sure that all who share my horror of filth and vermin would much prefer this Palestine to the more celebrated one. And, for one, with a little help from imagination, I can make this country do very well for the Holy Land.
Before my door, the fishermen spread out their nets to dry. But a few yards farther east is the beach of hard, yellow sand. At the left, Bass River comes quietly down, and, without so much as a ripple, pours itself into the sea, which stretches away at the right into immeasurable distance. Up out of the dawn come, every morning, the fishermen's boats; and when they reach the shore with their fish, and trot about barefooted on the sands, I long to call them "Peter," "James," "John," and ask, "Where have you left the Lord?" And I look up and down the beach, but there is no fire, with bread and fish laid thereon, and no marvelous One calling to them, "Children, come and dine." And yet I feel, in every pulse of my heart, that He is upon the shore. Just as they did in Palestine, and do there now, they do here; that is, pass by foot-paths, through all gardens and fields, wherever they will. Not a fence do you see that is without its "gap," left large enough to admit a man or a woman (not her bustle—a rare sight here). Thus the people wander in all directions, seen nowhere so seldom as in the public roads.
"Company is coming," says the novice, thinking the persons approaching the house to be almost at the door. No one knocks or enters. All have passed on. One gap let them into your garden; another, on the opposite side, let them out. After living awhile where is so much freedom of choice for one's walking, it is very disagreeable to be fenced and walled into one street or way; especially so in a village, where you can not pass a house without being seen, and, perhaps, called after. Here one might walk for miles, and, though near to dwellings all the time, never pass within speaking distance of one. Thus, 't is a good land for quiet meditation. As in Palestine, the frequent footpath is an absolute necessity for the pedestrian. 'T is said that natives of Cape Cod can walk these sands without taking any portion of them into their shoes. I hardly think they often put their ability to proof. Else, why so common the sight of persons stopping to pull off and empty their shoes?
This year of 1873 is uncommonly dusty. The drought is said to be unparalleled in the history of the cape. Dust and ashes seem to heap the highways, and the grass every-where is perishing. How any thing manages to live, grow, and bear fruit, in such a dry time, is a mystery. Fields and gardens are a mournful sight. Gladly we turn from them seaward again. Ocean is an always new delight. In this fine harbor you can often count thirty or fifty sail, if you look. off to the horizon about tile time of sun-rising. Soon after this, they slowly vanish away, sliding down the slope of the sea. This beach is a very fine one. It is a thousand wonders that speculators have not, long since, found it out, and caused prices to rise, so that persons of small means must be banished from all its pleasures and benefits.
Cape Cod has been greatly misunderstood and undervalued as a place of Summer resort. For those really in search of rest and improved health, it is fully equal to most of the far-famed and expensive resorts of fashion. And in this locality—thankful we are to say it—it is really and truly an unpretending home, without a single one of the contrivances of art for amusement or mischief. And this leads me to speak of the people. They are plain and simple in all their ways. Neat—O, how neat, must be seen to be appreciated. "Quaint," in its old meaning of exact nicety, describes them. No Holland village was ever cleaner than many of these dwellings. The mop, which hangs not far from where I write, is white, sir, as your shirt-bosom; and how any body dares to cook on these shining stoves, I hardly see. The houses are rendered immaculate, and then closed, except to boarders or company. The family room for Summer is generally an unfinished, shed-like apartment, in the rear of the main building. This is both cook-room and sitting-room. It is frequently large and convenient, and is kept scrupulously clean. Doors open opposite to each other, and these and windows give free play to the outer air. Willow-trees, which grow in all directions in this region, often shade the roof and the doorways of these kitchens; and they are not unfrequently the pleasantest rooms in the house. Mosquito-bars are generally needed, but not always. The kitchen of my "south-side " neighbors is a room of rare interest. You would know this, only to enter it and look about. Here, at least, the spirit of change has never come. I think there is hardly such another cool place in the United States. They never know there the full meaning of hot weather. No stove mars the look of venerable antiquity which gives such a charm to that kitchen. To this very day, the open fire-place and the brick oven reign there. In them the cooking for the household is done during the Summer. For Winter, there is another kitchen as large and comfortable, no doubt, but not so interesting as this one. Along one side of the latter runs the old-time "settle," the box of which is capable of holding vast numbers of sheets, towels, table cloths, or whatever else may be stowed away in them. Tables hang from the wall above the settle. All manner of queer old articles are distributed about the room. Between the two opposite doors, at the upper end of that kitchen, gather in their sewing-chairs the members of the household and their guests, of whom they always have plenty; for their hearts seem to be as roomy as their house (and the rooms in the latter are beyond my counting. I've got as far as twelve, and I know there are others; but how many, I know not). O, the happy hours that have been spent between those two wide, shaded doors! May the blessing of the Lord, which always does abide there, be more and more upon the heads and hearts of those dear sisters!
A large family once dwelt there; but one by one they went across the sea. Not the one that thunders to-day at their very gate (no figure; for the town has had to drive spiles, and take other precautions for the safety of this fine old homestead), but that other sea, over which we all shall sail forth, seeking our eternal home, whether it be the golden city or the fiery gulf. Two maiden sisters alone remain, and with them a good and faithful woman that God sent all the way from Sweden to comfort and care for them, and be cared for by them. These sisters are most remarkable women. Young they are at seventy; and the young ask no more agreeable company than they. Respected, admired, beloved by all who know them there in the house where they were born, where they have lived all these years, far from the world's rude noises, these gentle Christians wait. They are merry Christians, and the sight of their sweet, fair faces (beautiful yet) does good to the eyes.
Strangely things do fall out in this world. It happens sometimes that "swine," in women's shape, sit throned and crowned queen of home, while "they of whom the world is not worthy " go unmated to their graves. It is hard to understand this; for "pearls," that is, little children, are "cast before" those "swine," and they do "rend them." Rend them, and there is none to deliver. While apart, in secluded homes, are a dwelling women whose loving and wise hearts, and tender though firm hands, would fitly polish those poor little pearls, and place them in proper setting. It is dark; but the day cometh that will explain it.
Over that great kitchen is a chamber not quite a mile long, perhaps; but to the imagination of happy childhood it would seem, at least so far as its capacity of affording pleasure went, endless. I only wish your eyes, my reader, could see into that chamber, and count its treasures from all parts of earth and sea. I should require one number of the magazine to describe them. Of the settle in the kitchen, the owners are wont to say, with pardonable pride: "Many a distinguished character has sat there. Besides all the ministers [there is a 'prophet's chamber' in the house] that have occupied that seat, there have been missionaries, authors, and poets." Painters also, I think she said, and rulers of the land. The father of these women was a man eminent for piety and usefullness, and he was particular to obey the command to entertain strangers. His house was a home—a free home—to all ministers coming this way. May He who can control the sea in its wildest strength, forbid it to invade the borders of this sacred home!
The salt-works of the cape are a singular feature—not unpleasant, as it seems to me—of the place. The tide mills that whirl along the shore, pumping up the water as the tide comes in, are peculiar. They slam and bang and creak and groan like tormented spirits—seem almost fearful, to one unaccustomed to them, but soon become an appropriate feature of the scene. A huge wind-mill, tended by an intelligent old man, also sails ponderously through the heavens. It stands upon the bank of the Bass River, not far from its mouth, and is an object of great curiosity and interest to strangers who never before saw such a thing. As the people make no pretense of being farmers, they do not need large cellars; and it is really funny to see the little round wells of places they make and call their cellars. They are closely bricked up, and kept clean as a bread-board. Fishing is the chief business of the men. The men who stay ashore are as good women as are the women themselves; and they seem to enjoy it too. They cook and wash, and wash dishes, and sew shirts, and make quilts, rugs, and pincushions. They are ready not only for bringing in the woman's wood and water, but for taking her whole work up and carrying it on as well as she can, if she feels weary and has a mind to take a nap. Is n't this better than being, when in the house, only a burden and a trouble to woman, as too many men are taught that it is their proper place to be?
It does seem odd (just like every thing else in Japan-Palestine-Cape Cod, I mean), when you go out to spend the afternoon, to find a gentleman sitting down with you, busy with his patchwork or his embroidery, or to have him getting out, to show you, his quilts, cushions, rugs, etc. This is a part of the new experience which being here furnishes. When a housekeeper has an unexpected increase of guests, she sends out to ask, not the daughter, but the son, of her neighbor, to come over and help her get dinner, or clear away. I know not how many "Elnathans" there are on the cape; but the two who are near neighbors to me are excellent specimens. I would not for a great deal have missed their acquaintance. Deft, quiet, thorough, who could do things better than Elnathan? No wonder that his mother names him with every second breath. Different days would be seen in many homes, were all boys so useful and so happy in usefulness as Elnathan. And why not teach boys to sew, and to do house-work? This is quite as worth while as to have women vote. Few families can always have good hired help. If father knew as well as mother how to order the house, and to do the work, things need not go to ruin when she is laid aside by sickness. No: and he need not be in such distress for another housekeeper when she dies, as to rush into a disastrous marriage. He can himself keep the house and the children all right, and take time, and use his best judgment, in choosing a second mate. Thus he will be less likely to turn out of doors, by the very means he took to befriend them, his motherless children. Would that Elnathans were as plenty in the earth as blackberries and cranberries are on Cape Cod!
It is unutterably funny, though, when over you comes the realizing sense of it, that you are sitting, each with sewing-apron and thimble on, and with busy needles and busy tongues, men and women, women and men, all in a circle, or all in a row—but then you are on the cape.
This Summer the project was talked of for building a large boarding-house upon the beach, to which clergymen (not the rich ones) might be able to come, and recover their wilted energies. No better place could be desired. Land is cheap, work is cheap—only you can not catch any body to do it, till after camp-meeting—food is cheap, fuel is cheap, and the sea, like salvation, is free. How it would restore and encourage the poor, worn-out ministers of the interior to come here, and bathe and breathe and rest! Families have died, or gone and left from their homes; there are, therefore, not a few such places that are for sale. Prices from one hundred and fifty dollars to three hundred dollars; and any of them quite good enough for Summer camps. Land sufficient for a garden is attached to every house. Cape Cod may endure as long as the present generation; so it would not be a very great risk to buy. And while it does endure, it is a pity that so few should enjoy its Summer delights.
Bible names are yet the rule in Cape Cod, and those old names that had about them almost a halo of divinity, and to which after ward were given by modern story a comic sound, here become tragic by the often wild and touching histories of those who bear them. "Lost overboard," "Died at sea," "His fate unknown,"—these are the words written under many a name of Reuben or Caleb or Jabez, in the pleasant evergreen grave-yards of old Cape Cod.
The Ladies' repository: a monthly periodical, devoted to literature, arts, and religion. / Volume 12, Issue 5. Nov 1873
published by: Methodist Episcopal Church [etc.]. Cincinnati, Ohio
images of text: Moore, Augusta, Mouth of the Bass Pages: 349-352
online source: Making of America at University of Michigan