A Year of Shadow

The time had now come for us to take our leave of Centre Lisle. The rapid exhaustion of timber and bark had now, at the end of six years, begun to be severely felt. The saw mills were short of logs, the local tannery was in financial difficulties, Deacon Briggs, the leading supporter and best intelligence of the church, had sold his farm and removed with his family to the West, and all the tides of life were ebbing from the town and church. With the loss of the Briggs family, Father and Mother felt too forlorn to continue the struggle against the increasing odds. So, although Father’s ministry had been appreciated and he was esteemed and beloved, he sought another field.

This came to him in a call to the church at Mott’s Corners, then popularly called Mottville, now Brookton, Tompkins County, New York, distant fifteen or twenty miles from Centre Lisle, and about six miles from Ithaca. This village which we will henceforth call Brookton was located on what was known as the six-mile creek, with its three small water powers within a stretch of a mile or so, making what there was of the town. It consisted of a single street down the deep valley with its steep sides. The street was lined with a few scattered stores, shops, houses, and the mills. From the point of view of worldly wisdom, Father’s acceptance of this call was not prudent. My mother’s correct judgment was against it; but Father was persuaded that it was duty, and that view prevailed.

The church membership was small and composed almost wholly of farmers living in the surrounding country. The meeting house, badly placed on the high land overlooking the deep valley of the creek and town, was old, small, cold, leaky, without paint and otherwise in ill repair. The church members were as such without ideals or enterprise, mainly because for many years the only pastor had been an aged farmer who lived on a small farm nearby, from which he obtained a slender livelihood, preaching once only on Sunday, without stated salary. The land was richer and the farmers better off than those of the Centre Lisle church, but in intelligence and in generosity they were far behind the Centre Lisle people. The contrast was quickly evident to us, and painful. In four years, Father left the church much enlarged in membership, with a modest but charming new house of worship rightly located in town, a vigorous, enterprising, and self-respecting people, able to sustain, as afterwards they did, an excellent pastor. But, nevertheless, the years of Father’s pastorate at Brookton gave us fewer satisfactions than any other years of his ministry. We struck bottom at the outset, however, and gradually rose from the first year onwards.

Never before or later did Father expose his little family to the hardships of a house such as was our first one here, the worst in the whole country round about, a little unpainted nearly black structure, on the premises of a farmer named Hoffman, hence always called by us the Hoffman House. It had been built many years before for some hired hand, I suppose. It contained two rooms on the ground floor, with a kitchen and woodshed fortunately concealed, leaning on behind. Above, a garret reached by a narrow stairway, and lighted by a small gable window at each end, though wholly unfinished, served as bedroom for the two little boys. Behind the house was a cold and leaky shack which did service as a stable. The location was in a small hollow, through which moved sluggishly a half-concealed rill, with swampy sides. On the opposite side of the road was a forest of hemlock and pine. As it was about half a mile from the village, there were no playmates for Frank and me. Altogether it was an unpromising outlook that we faced when we fronted this house on the first of April 1862. My mother was shocked and deeply grieved. I remember the look of consternation on her face at her first sight of it, and the year of our sojourn there was the darkest year of my childhood. But the unhappy subject need not detain us very long, because the year left few incidents worth recording.

Perhaps this will be the most suitable time to speak of a shadow that the year brought on our family in the permanent ill health of my brother. From infancy Frank had never been quite so vigorous as I. His first real illness had occurred in Centre Lisle, where he had what was then called brain fever. He was seriously and perhaps dangerously sick, and I remember that the doctor, according to the current practice, used the lancet on the artery of the temple. Frank’s illness was long, his recovery slow, and our parents’ fear of a recurrence kept him out of school. In fact, he never went to school again, and gained the necessary knowledge of the three R’s under Mother’s tuition at home. I used to envy him his freedom from school, until I came to see how lonesome his life must be. Not accustomed to mingle with other boys much, Frank himself never realized what he missed, for he could never be persuaded to go to school, even after he became able to do so, perhaps in part because he knew he would be backward in his studies.

But a serious and permanent family affliction came upon us in the Hoffman House, in Frank’s attack of inflammatory rheumatism. Mother and Father always attributed this, erroneously, as I now think, to his exposure to cold and wet in washing our buggy. But he had a hard case of it and the doctor warned us that a serious heart affection usually followed this disease, though he suggested no precautions or after treatment, perhaps because he knew of none. Soon after the rheumatism left him, Frank began to show symptoms of St. Vitus’ dance, a frequent sequence of rheumatism, confined with him almost wholly to the hand and fingers. This continued for several years, but Frank gradually recovered and seemed at last to have the promise of a reasonably prolonged and healthy life, when at the age of perhaps twenty-seven or -eight, the valves of the heart began to disclose the effects predicted of the inflammatory rheumatism at eleven. This is not a medical treatise, and I will not undertake to show that, as is now known, a careful regimen during the intervening years might have lengthened Frank’s life indefinitely. He received the death sentence of the doctor with perfect serenity, and never at any time during the five years left him to live disclosed the slightest sorrow, dread or disappointment. He accepted his fate with outward cheerfulness and composure, assumed in large part, I do not doubt, to relieve the grief and anxiety of the rest of us. But the shadow that first fell on us in the Hoffman House never again was wholly lifted, for Frank’s health was a daily care, from that year forward, and his death was a blow from which Father and Mother never recovered.

Another shadow on the Hoffman House was the visit of “Jim” Seeley and his wife. He was a young man of fine and sensitive spirit, deeply religious, married to a sweet girl of Mother’s earlier acquaintance. One winter’s morning soon after breakfast the two drove up in a sleigh. A sort of horror quickly seized our little household. We children felt it. There was something unnatural and terrible. It soon appeared that Jim Seeley had started out on an apostolic mission. The world was about to end. God had sent him forth on a mission of warning. He was to travel like the Apostles until the end came. He had come to labor with Father and warn him and his flock of approaching doom. Father and Mother quickly saw that Jim Seeley had become a religious monomaniac, but they kept cool and acted with tact. They contrived to separate husband and wife for a few moments and Mother got into confidential talk with Mrs. Seeley, finding her frightened and more than half convinced, against her will, of the terrible truth. Father fell in with Seeley instead of opposing him, and gently persuaded him on one plea or another to go back home—a few miles distant. None of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories which I have read since as masterpieces of horror—stories like the “Fall of the House of Usher”—ever affected me as did that cold, still, subdued, pale maniac, come to warn my father in icy syllables of judgment to come. It froze my blood, for even a child could feel him capable of anything. I reserve the terrible sequel for its proper place.

But the shadow year of the Hoffman House was not wholly shadow. There was some sunshine, for a healthy boy can find ways of amusing himself anywhere. There was a sand bank near, and many a railroad embankment we made, winding in and out as level as a floor and of uniform width. And it was at the Hoffman House that we got our first taste of literature, for we read one at least of the Rollo books, and followed with the most intense interest the experience of Rollo and the hired man Jonas. We had read many Sunday school books, but they made no impression, mainly I suppose, because of the unreality that pervaded them, but to us Rollo and Jonas lived, and we learned that a good book could furnish us companionship, incident, excitement, and instruction. This book brought its sunshine into that year.

No healthy boy who is treated kindly can be wholly unhappy, for life itself is a constant joy to him. He will surely find means of self-entertainment. But Frank and I in that year had few companions; to me the school as usual was a blank, and out of school, that particular year seems to furnish my memory with less of incident than any of the happy years that preceded. So, we will pass on, not unwilling to leave it behind us.

Next Section:
Incidents at Brookton