American Thumbprints by Kate Stephens



          . . .epi kthoni pouluboteirei,
Zeus Kronideis poieise dikaioteron kai aerion,
tois de dik' anthropon bioton kai areion,
Zeus Kronideis kateinasse pateir es peirata gaieis.
---kai toi men naiousin akeidea thumon ekontes
---en makaron neisoisi par' Okeanon bathudinein,
---olbioi heiroes. toisin melieidea karpon
---tris eteos thallonta perei xeidoros aroura


Under Bloudie Diocletian . . . a great number
of Christians which were assembled togither to
heare the word of life . . . were slaine by
the wicked pagans at Litchfield, whereof . . .
as you would say, The field of dead corpses.


UPON the broad level of one of our Litchfield hills is--if we accept ancient legend--a veritable Island of the Blessed. There heroes fallen after strong fight enjoy rest forever.

The domination of unyielding law in the puny affairs of men--the unfathomableness of Moera, the lot no man can escape comes upon one afresh upon this hill-top. What clay we are in the hands of fate! "hapanta tiktei chton palin te lambanei," cried Euripides--"all things the earth puts forth and takes again."

But why should the efforts of men to build a human hive have here been wiped away--here where all nature is wholesome and in seeming unison with regulated human life? The air sparkles buoyantly up to your very eyes--and almost intoxicates you with its life and joy. Through its day-translucence crows cut their measured flight and brisker birds flitter, and when the young moon shines out of a warm west elegiac whippoorwills cry to the patient night.

Neither volcanic ashes nor flood, whirlwind nor earthquake mere decay has here nullified men's efforts for congregated life and work. The soil of the hill, porous and sandy, is of moderate fertility. Native oaks and chestnuts, slender birches and fragrant hemlocks, with undergrowths of coral-flowering laurel, clothe its slopes. Over its sandstone ledges brooks of soft water treble minor airs--before they go loitering among succulent grasses and spearmint and other thirsty brothers of the distant meadows.

Nearly two hundred years ago pioneers of a Roundhead, independent type--the type which led William of Orange across the Channel for preservation of that liberty which Englishmen for hundreds of years had spoken of as "antient"--such men broke this sod, till then untouched by axe or plough. They made clearings, and grouped their hand-hewn houses just where in cool mornings of summer they could see the mists roll up from their hill-locked pond to meet the rosy day; just where, when the sun sank behind the distant New York mountains, they could catch within their windows his last shaft of gold.

Here they laid their hearths and dwelt in primitive comfort. Their summers were unspeakably beautiful--and hard-working. Their autumns indescribably brilliant, hill-side and valley uniting to form a radiance God's hand alone could hold. Their winters were of deep snows and cold winds and much cutting and burning of wood. The first voice of their virid spring came in the bird-calls of early March, when snow melted and sap mounted, and sugar maples ran syrup; when ploughs were sharpened, and steaming and patient oxen rested their sinews through the long, pious Sabbath.

Wandering over this village site, now of fenced-in fields, you find here and there a hearth and a few cobbles piled above it. The chimney-shaft has long since disappeared. You happen upon stone curbs, and look down to the dark waters of wells. You come upon bushes of old-fashioned, curled-petal, pink-sweet roses and snowy phlox, and upon tiger lilies flaunting odalisque faces before simple sweetbrier, and upon many another garden plant which "a hand-some woman that had a fine hand"--as Izaak Walton said of her who made the trout fly--once set as border to her path. Possibly the very hand that planted these pinks held a bunch of their sweetness after it had grown waxen and cold. The pinks themselves are now choked by the pushing grass.

And along this line of gooseberry-bushes we trace a path from house to barn. Here was the fireplace. The square of small boulders yonder marks the barn foundation. Along this path the house-father bore at sunrise and sunset his pails of foaming milk. Under that elm spreading between living-room and barn little children of the family built pebble huts, in these rude confines cradling dolls which the mother had made from linen of her own weave, or the father whittled when snow had crusted the earth and made vain all his hauling and digging.

Those winters held genial hours. Nuts from the woods and cider from the orchard stood on the board near by. Home-grown wood blazed in the chimney; home-grown chestnuts, hidden in the ashes by busy children, popped to expectant hands; house-mothers sat with knitting and spinning, and the father and farm-men mended fittings and burnished tools for the spring work. Outside the stars glittered through a clear sky and the soundless earth below lay muffled in sleep.

Over yonder across the road was the village post-office, and not far away were stores of merchant supplies. But of these houses no vestige now remains. Where the post-house stood the earth is matted with ground-pine and gleaming with scarlet berries of the wintergreen. The wiping-out is as complete as that of the thousand trading-booths, long since turned to clay, of old greek Mycenæ, or of the stalls of the ancient trading-folk dwelling between Jaffa and Jerusalem where Tell-ej-Jezari now lies.

The church of white clap-boards which these villagers used for praise and prayer not a small temple still abides. Many of the snowy houses of old New England worship pierce their luminous ether with graceful spires. But this meeting-house lifts a square, central bell-tower which now leans on one side as if weary with long standing. The old bell which summoned its people to their pews still hangs behind green blinds--a not unmusical town-crier. But use, life, good works have departed with those whom it exhorted to church duty, and in sympathy with all the human endeavor it once knew, but now fordone, in these days it never rings blithely, it can only be made to toll. Possibly it can only be made to toll because of the settling of its supporting tower. But the fact remains; and who knows if some wounded spirit may not be dwelling within its brazen curves, sick at heart with its passing and ineffective years?

Not far from the church, up a swell of the land, lies the burying-ground--a sunny spot. Pines here and there, also hemlocks and trees which stand bare after the fall of leaves. But all is bright and open, not a hideous stone-quarry such as in our day vanity or untaught taste makes of resting-places of our dead. Gay-colored mushrooms waste their luxurious gaudiness between the trees, and steadfast myrtle, with an added depth to its green from the air's clarity, binds the narrow mounds with ever-lengthening cords.

But whether they are purple with the violets of May or with Michaelmas daisies, there is rest over all these mounds--"über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh'." Daily gossip and sympathy these neighbors had. The man of this grave was he who passed many times a day up and down the path by the gooseberry-bushes and bore the foaming milk. He is as voiceless now as the flies that buzzed about his shining pail. And the widow who dwelt across the road--she of the sad eyes who sat always at her loom, for her youthful husband was of those who never came back from the massacre of Fort William Henry--she to whom this man hauled a sled of wood for every two he brought to his own door, to whom his family carried elderberry wine, cider, and home mince-meat on Thanksgiving--she, too, is voiceless even of thanks, her body lying over yonder, now in complete rest--no loom, no treadle, no thumping, no whirring of spinning-wheel, no narrow pinching and poverty, her soul of heroic endurance joined with her long separate soldier soul of action.

The pathos of their lives and the warmth of their humanity!--however coated with New England austerity. Many touching stories these little headstones tell--as this:

"To the memory of Mrs. Abigail, Consort of Mr. Joseph Merrill, who died May 3rd, 1767, in the 52 year of her age."

A consort in royal dignity and poetry is a sharer of one's lot. Mr. Joseph Merrill had no acquaintance with the swagger and pretension of courts, and he knew no poetry save his hill-side, his villagers, and the mighty songs of the Bible. He was a plain, simple, Yankee husbandman, round-shouldered from carrying heavy burdens, coarse-handed from much tilling of the earth and use of horse and cattle. While he listened to sermons in the white church down the slope, his eyes were often heavy for need of morning sleep; and many a Sunday his back and knees ached from lack of rest as he stood beside the sharer of his fortunes in prayer. Yet his simple memorial warms the human heart one hundred and thirty-eight years after his "consort" had for the last time folded her housewifely hands.

"Of sa great faith and charitie,
With mutuall love and amitie:
That I wat an mair heavenly life,
Was never betweene man and wfe."

It was doubtless with Master Merrill as with the subject of an encomium of Charles Lamb's. "Though bred a Presbyterian," says Lamb of Joseph Paice, "and brought up a merchant, he was the finest gentleman of his time."

In May, 1767, when this sharer of humble fortune lay down to rest, the Stamp Act had been repealed but fourteen months. The eyes of the world were upon Pitt and Burke and Townshend--and Franklin whose memorable examination before the House of Commons was then circulating as a news pamphlet. The social gossip of the day--as Lady Sarah Lennox's wit recounts--had no more recognition of the villagers than George the Fourth.

But American sinews and muscles such as these hidden on the Litchfield Hills were growing in daily strength by helpful, human exercise, and their "well-lined braine" was reasoning upon the Declaratory Act that "Parliament had power to bind the colonies in all cases whatsoever."

Another stone a few paces away has quite another story:

"Here lies the body of Mr. Stephen Kelsey, who
died April 2, 1745, in ye 71 year of his age
as you are so was we
as we are you must be"

The peculiarities of this inscription were doubtless the stone-cutter's; and peradventure it was in the following way that the rhymes--already centuries old in 1745 when Stephen Kelsey died--came to be upon his headstone.

The carver of the memorial was undeniably a neighbor and fellow-husbandman to the children of Mr. Stephen Kelsey. Money-earning opportunities were narrow and silver hard to come by in the pioneering of the Litchfield Hills, and only after scrupulous saving had the Kelsey family the cost of the headstone at last in hand. It was then that they met to consider an epitaph.

Their neighbor bespoken to work the stone was at the meeting, and to open the way and clear his memory he scratched the date of death upon a tablet or shingle his own hand had riven.

"Friend Stephen's death," he began, "calleth to mind a verse often sculptured in the old church-yard in Leicestershire, a verse satisfying the soul with the vanity of this life, and turning our eyes to the call from God which is to come. It toucheth not the vexations of the world which it were vain to deny are ever present. You carry it in your memory mayhap, Mistress Remembrance?" the stone-master interrupting himself asked, suddenly appealing to a sister of Master Kelsey.

Mistress Remembrance, an elderly spinster whose lover having in their youth taken the great journey to New York, and crossed the Devil's Stepping-Stones--which before the memory of man some netherworld force laid an entry of Manhattan Island--had never again returned to the Litchfield Hills--Mistress Remembrance recalled the verses, and also her brother, Master Stephen's, sonorous repetition of them.

In this way it came about that the mourning family determined they should be engraven. And there the lines stand to-day in the hills, beautiful air--far more than a century since the hour when Mistress Remembrance and the stone-cutter joined the celestial choir in which Master Stephen was that very evening singing.

But another headstone--

"With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture decked"--

quite outdoes Master Kelsey's in strange English phrase. It reads:

"Michel son of John Spencer
died Jan ye 24th 1756 in ye 10th year of his age.
Death Conquers All
Both young and Old
Tho' ne'er so wise
Discreet and Bold
In helth and Strength
this youth did Die
in a moment without one Cry."

And still another perpetuates the record of the same family:

In Memory of
Mr John Spencer Who
Died June ye 24th
1780 in the 70th
Year of his Age
In Memory of Submit
Spencer Daughter of Mr
John and Mrs Mary
Spencer Who Died
Novbr ye 21th 1755 in ye
1st Year of her Age
Oh Cruel Death to fill this
Narrow space In yonder
House Made a vast emty place

Was the child called "Submit" because born a woman? Or did the parents embody in the name their own spiritual history of resignation to the eternal powers?--"to fill this narrow space, in yonder house made a vast empty place."

Farther up the slope of this God's Acre a shaft standing high in the soft light mourns the hazards of our passage through the world.

In Memory of Mr.
Jeduthun Goodwin who
Died Feb 13th 1809 Aged 40 Years
Also Mrs. Eunice his
Wife who died August 6th
1802 Aged 33 Years
Dangers stand thick
through all the Ground
To Push us to the Tomb
And fierce diseases
Wait around To hurry Mortals home

Every village has its tragedy, alas! and that recounted in this following inscription is at least one faithful record of terrifying disaster. Again it seems at variance with the moral order of the world that these quiet fields should witness the terror this tiny memorial hints at. The stone is quite out of plumb and moss-covered, but underneath the lichen it reads:

"Phebe, wife of Ezekiel Markham Died Jyly 14, 1806 Ae 49

Also their 3 Sons Bela, Ciba, and Brainad was burnt to Death in Oct 1793"
"In the midst of life we are dead"

The mother lived nearly thirteen years after. There is no neighboring record of the father. Perhaps the two migrated after the fearful holocaust, and he only returned to place his wife's body beside the disfigured remains of her little ungrown men. Bela, Ciba, and Brainard rested lonesomely doubtless those thirteen waiting years, and many a night must their little ghosts have sat among the wind-flowers and hepaticas of spring, or wandered midst the drifted needles of the pines in the clear moon-light of summer, athirst for the mother's soul of comfort and courage.

Again in this intaglio "spelt by th' unlettered Muse" rises the question of the stone-cutter's knowledge of his mother tongue. The church of the dead villagers still abides. But nowhere are seen the remains of a school-house. Descendants of the cutter of Master Kelsey's headstone haply had many orders.

The sun of Indian summer upon the fallen leaves brings out their pungent sweetness. Except the blossoms of the subtle witch-hazel all the flowers are gone. The last fringed gentian fed by the oozing spring down the hill-side closed its blue cup a score of days ago. Every living thing rests. The scene is filled with a strange sense of waiting. And above is the silence of the sky.

With such influences supervening upon their lives, these people of the early village--undisturbed as they were by any world call, and gifted with a fervid and patient faith--must daily have grown in consciousness of a homely Presence ever reaching under their mortality the Everlasting Arm.

This potency abides, its very feeling is in the air above these graves--that some good, some divine is impendent--that the soul of the world is outstretching a kindred hand.

In the calm and other-worldliness of their hill-top the eternal moralities of the Deuteronomy and of Sophocles stand clearer to human vision--the good that is mighty and never grows, gray,--megas en toutois theus, oude geiraskei.

The comings and goings, the daily labors, the hopes and interests of these early dwellers make an unspeakable appeal--their graves in the church-yard, the ruined foundations of their domestic life beyond--that their output of lives and years of struggle bore no more lasting local fruit, however their seed may now be scattered to the upbuilding of our South and West, the conversion of China, and our ordering of the Philippines.

And yet, although their habitations are fallen, they--such men and women as they--still live. Their hearts, hands, and heads are in all institutions of ours that are free. A great immortality, surely! If such men and women had been less severe, less honest, less gifted for conditions barren of luxuries, less elevated with an enthusiasm for justice, less clear in their vision of the eternal moralities, less simple and direct, less worthy inheritors of the great idea of liberty which inflamed generations of their ancestors, it is not possible that we should be here to-day doing our work to keep what they won and carry their winnings further. Their unswerving independence in thought and action and their conviction that the finger of God pointed their way--their theocratic faith, their lifted sense of God-leading--made possible the abiding of their spirit long after their material body lay spent.

So it is that upon the level top of the Litchfield Hills--what with the decay of the material things of life and the divine permanence of the spiritual--there is a resting-place of the Blessed--an Island of the Blessed as the old Greeks used to say--an abode of heroes fallen after strong fighting and enjoying rest forever.

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