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A Young Fanny Fern

A Trip To The Caatskills

from "Caper-Sauce" (1872)
By Fanny Fern (Sara Payson Willis Parton)
A Short Biography of Fanny Fern

WELL - I've "done" the Caatskills! I've tugged up that steep mountain, one of the hottest days in which a quadruped or a biped ever perspired, packed to suffocation, it other gasping sufferers, in that crucifying institution called a stage-coach, until I became resignedly indifferent, whether it reached its destination, or rolled head over heels - or rather head over wheels - over the precipice. Landing at last at the hotel, I was conscious of only one want a bedroom; which, when obtained, was close enough, and which shared with three other jaded mortals. The next morning, thanks to a good Providence and the landlord, I emigrated into unexceptionable quarters. Ah - now I breathe! now I remember no more that purgatorial reeling stage-coach, and its protracted jigglings - wriggling - joltings and bumpings. Now I am repaid - now I gaze - oh, how can I gaze with only one pair of eyes, on all this beauty and magnificence? This vast plain spread out so far below our feet like an immense garden, with its luxuriant foliage - its little cottages, smaller than a child's toy: its noble river, specked with white sails, lessened by distance to a silver thread, winding through the meadows; and beyond - still other plains, other streams, other mountains - on - on - stretching far beyond the dizzy ken, till the eye fills, and the heart swells, and leaning in an ecstasy of happiness on the bosom of "Our Father," we cry, "Oh! what is man that Thou art mindful of him!"

Now as if the scene were too gorgeous for mortal sight, nature gently, contpassionately drops a silvery veil of mist before it, veiling, yet not hiding - withdrawing, yet not removing - giving us now sunshine, now shadow; bringing out now the vivid green of a meadow, now the silver sheen of the river; now the bold outline of a pine-girdled mountain. And now - the scene changes, and fleets of clouds sail slowly - glide ghostly, round the mountain's base; winding-sheets wrapped round the shapely trees, from which they burst with a glorious resurrection; while over and above all arches the blue heavens, smiling that it canopies a scene so fair. See - village after village, like specks in the distance - where human hearts throb to human joys and sorrows; where restless ambition flutters against the barred cage of necessity, pining for the mountain-top of freedom; when, gained, oh, weary traveller, to lose its distant golden splendor, and wrap thee in the chill vapors of discontent. What matter - if thou but accept this proof of thy immortality? Yes - village after village; farmers plodding on, as farmers too often will, turning up the soil for dollars and cents, seeing only in the clouds the filter for their crops; in the lakes the refrigerator for their fish; in the glorious trees their fuel; in the waving grass and sloping meadows, feed for their cattle; in the sweet sunrise an alarm bell to labor, in the little bird's vespers but a call to feed and sleep.

Now - twilight steals upon the mountains, calm as heaven. The bright valleys sleep in their deepening shadows, while on the mountain-tops lingers the glory, as if loath to fade into the perfumed night. With a graceful sweep the little bird mounts to the clouds, takes his last circling flight, and sings his evening hymn, sweet and soft as the rapt soul's whispered farewell to earth. And yet - O God! - this is but the porch to the temple, before whose dazzling splendors even Thy seraphs veil their sinless eyes.

In an article in a late weekly, I was shocked at a flippant and unfeeling allusion to "the yellow invalids one meets at watering-places." Surely, the sight of such, wandering forth with feeble step and faded eyes, taking their last look, at this beautiful earth, side by side with the rosy cheek and bounding pulse of health, should excite in us only feelings of tenderest love and compassion. Some such I met; but I would not, if I could, that their pale faces should have been banished from our merry circle. It was no damper on my enjoyment to gaze at their drooping eyelids, and listlessly crossed hands. I would but have yielded them the cosiest corner on the sofa, or the most comfortable armchair, or the sunniest nook on the piazza, or tempted their failing appetite with the daintiest bit at the table. I would like to have taken their transparent hands in my healthy palm, and given them a kindly grasp, by which they would recognize me in that better land, which every day dawns clearer on my sight. It is well that we should have such in our midst; and surely none whose hearts are drawn by yearning, but invisible cords, to the dear ones who once made sunlight in our homes, can fail to recognize and respond to the tacit claims of the stranger-invalid upon our tenderest sympathies.

And while upon this subject, I would speak a word, which, it seems to me, needs to be spoken - upon a courteous recognition of the lonely, unobtrusive traveller, who, for the time, makes one of the same family under a hotel roof. It is easy for all to pay court to the distinguished, the handsome, or the agreeable; to seek an introduction to such, or manufacture a pretext for speaking. It is for the unattractive I would plead, and the aged - for those who have nothing to recommend them to notice, save that they are unnoticed. It seems to me that one need study no book of etiquette to find out, that a passing salutation to such, a kind inquiry after their health, an offer of a flower - when one has been rambling where their weary feet may not go - is the true politeness. One feels like spurning the civility received at the hands of those who see not in these disregarded ones the lineaments of the same Father. It gives me pleasure to say that I have witnessed some noble examples of courtesy to such, extended with a graceful ease, which would seem less to confer a favor than to receive one by their acceptance.

It was very pleasant to see little children at the Caatskills; but they were all too few. Children are generally supposed to be bad travellers; this is a mistake. They have often more self-denial, fortitude, and endurance than half your grown people. I can answer at least for one little girl under my charge from whom no amount of burning sun, hunger, or fatigue, extorted a syllable of complaint; in fact, I once saw her endure a car collision with the same commendable philosophy, while men old enough to be her father were frantic with affright. "Render unto children their due," is on the fly-leaf of my Bible.

Yes, it is good for them to go out of cities. A city child is a cruel, wicked, shapeless, one-sided abortion. 'Tis a pale shoot of a plant, struggling bravely for its little day of life in some rayless corner, all unblest by the warm sunshine which God intended to give to it color, strength, and fragrance. What wonder that the blight falls on it? Do you say, Pshaw? Do you suppose a child, for instance, could appreciate the scenery at the Caatskills? I ask you, do all the adults who flock there to gaze, appreciate it? Do you not hear the words "divine," - "enchanting," - "beautiful," - "magnificent," - applied by them, as often to costume as to clouds? Give me a child's appreciation of such a scene, before that of two-thirds of the adult gazers. Its thought may be half-fledged, and given with lisping utterance, but it is a thought. The eyes, while speaking, may suddenly change their. look, of wondering awe, for one of elfish fun; what matter! The fooling was sincere, though fleeting - genuine, though fragmentary. By and by that little child, leaving its sports, will come back again to my side as I sit upon the rocks ; and any gray-haired philosopher who can, may answer the question with which she seals my lips; any poet who can, may coin a phrase which, more fitly than her's, symbols nature's beauty. Now she's off to play again - leaving the deep question unanswered, but not for that reason to be forgotten - no more than the rock, or mountain, or river, which called it forth, and which is hung up like a cabinet picture in that childish memory, to be clouded over, it may be, by the dust and discolorations of after years, but never destroyed - waiting quietly that master touch, which obliterating all else, as if trivial or unworthy, restores only to the fading eye of age, in freshened beauty, the glowing pictures of childhood.

The great charm of the Caatskills is its constant variety; look where you may, you shall never see twice the same effect of light and shade. Again, and again I said to myself, How, amid such prodigal, changeful beauty, shall the artist choose? Life were all too short for the decision. Ever the busy finger of Omnipotence, silently showing us wonder upon wonder." Silently," did I say? Ah, no; ever writing, on cloud and valley, rock, mountain, and river - "all these as a scroll shall be rolled away, but My Word shall never pass away"

I have not spoken of the lovely rides in the vicinity of the Caatskills, of which we were not slow to avail ourselves. Turn which way we would, all was beauty. And yet, not all - I must not forget among these magnificent mountains the hateful, bare, desolate, treeless, vineless, old-fashioned schoolhouse, resembling a covered pound for stray calves. What a sight it was, to be sure, to see the weary children swarm out into the warm sunshine, shouting for very joy that they might shout, and trying their poor cramped limbs to see if they had not actually lost the use of them in those inquisitorially devised seats. Alas! what an alphabet might a teacher who was a child-lover have deciphered, outside those purgatorial walls, on trees, and flowers, and mountains; the teaching of which would have needed no quickening ferule, cramped no restless limbs, overtasked and diseased no forming brain! What streams of knowledge, waiting only the divining rod of the lover of God, and His representatives - little children - to freshen and to beautify wheresoever they should, flow !

Yes - it was good to see those children kicking their reprieved heels in the air - I only wish they, could have kicked over that desolate old schoolhouse. They didn't know why I nodded to them such a merry good day; they never will know, poor victims, how royally well I sympathized with their somersets on the grass -- they thought, perhaps, that I knew the "school-marm;" - Heaven forbid - I would rather know the incendiary who should set fire to her school-house!

In one neighborhood - which is so small that an undertaker must, be sorely puzzled to find subjects - I noticed a hideous picture of a coffin stuck on the front of a small dwelling-house, with a repulsive ostentation that outdid even New York. This, to an invalid visiting the Caatskills for health (and there are many such), must be an inspiriting sight! This summer travel, after all, is a most excellent thing. It is well for people from different parts of the country to rub off their local angles by collision. It is well for those of opposite temperaments and habits of thought, to look each other mentally in the face. It is well for the indefatigable mother and housekeeper to remain ignorant, for one blessed month, of the inevitable, "What shall we have for dinner?" It is well for the man of business, whose thoughts are narrowed down to stocks and stores, to look out on the broad hills, and let the little bird's song stir memories of days when heaven was nearer to him than it has ever been since. It is well for the ossified old bachelor to air his selfishness in the genial atmosphere of woman's smile. It is well for the overtasked clergyman, and his equally overtasked (though not equally salaried) wife, to have a brief breathing spell from vestries and verjuice. It is well for their daughter, who has been tied up to the parish pillory of - "you must not do this," and "you must not do that," and "you must not do the other," till she begins to think that God did not know what he was about when He made her, to bestow so many powers, and tastes, and faculties, which must be forever folded up in a napkin, for fear of offending "Mrs. Grundy." It is well for the Editor, that he may look in the faces of the women whose books he has reviewed, and condemned, too, without reading a blessed word of them. It is well for everybody - even the exclusives who hesitate, through fear of plebeian contamination, to sit down in the common parlor; because, were all the world wise - which Heaven forbid - there would be nothing to laugh at!

A lack of competition is said to affect progress. That the traveller to the Caatskills has no choice but "The Mountain House," should not, it seems to me, act as an extinguisher to enterprise upon its well- patronized landlord. I might, make many suggestions as to improvements, by which I am sure he would, in the end, be no loser. It needs no great stretch of the imagination to fancy the carriage which conveys victims to "The Falls," a relic of the Inquisition. I did not know till I had tried it, how many evolutions a comfortably-fleshed woman could perform in a minute, between the roof and floor of such a ve-higgle! (Result - a villanous headache - and the black and blues.) I noticed a small bookshelf in the very pleasant ladies' parlor." Praise God Barebones," I think, must have made the selection of the volumes. But it is pleasanter to commend than to find fault. I could forgive many shortcomings for the privilege of feasting on the wholesome light bread, which to a saleratus-consuming - saleratus-consumed New Yorker, was glory enough to nibble at. Blessings, too, on the skilful fingers winch stirred up those appetizing omelettes and sublime orange-puddings. What an amusement it is, to be sure, to watch a man when he gets hold of the dish he fancies! What fun to bother him with innumerable questions while he is trying to eat it in undisturbed rapture - meanwhile wishing you at the North Pole! How cynical the creatures are, the last interminable half hour before meals, and how sweetly amiable and lazy after! Then is your time to try men's soles; to insist upon their taking a walk with you, when they can scarce waddle; when visions of curling Havana smoke invite them to two- legged piazza-chairs, digestion, and meditation. Men is your time to be suddenly seized with an unpostponable longing for a brisk game of ten-pins, to test the sincerity of all their disinterested speeches. My dears, the man who continues amiable while you thus stroke his inclinations the wrong way, may safely be trusted in any matrimonial crisis. I indorse him.

With regard to the Falls it may be a delusion, but I think it is rather a damper to sentiment to fee a man to turn on the water for them! and I know it is a damper to the slippers to go down into the ravine beneath - which, joking aside, is very beautiful, and a great place for a bear to hug you in. Instead of which, I met a young parson whom I knew by token of his very black coat, and very white necktie; and who actually pulled from his sacerdotal pocket a profane handkerchief which I had carelessly dropped, presenting it with as much gravity as if he had been giving me "the right hand of fellowship." Heaven help him - so young - so well-made - and so solemn! - I felt immensely like a frolic. And speaking of frolics - oh, the mountains I had to leave unclimbed, the "campings out" foregone - and all because I was foreordained to petticoats - hampering, bush-catching petticoats! - all because I hadn't courage to put on trousers (in which, by the way, I have made several unsatisfactory private rehearsal attempts to unsex myself, but nature was too much for me), and wade knee-deep in moss to see what man alone, by privilege of his untrammelled apparel, may feast his eyes upon. It is a crying shame. Ten-pins, too; who can get a "ten-strike" in petticoats? See what I would do at it in a jacket and unmentionables, though I really think nature had no eye to this game when she modelled a woman's hand and wrist. Now I dare say there are straight-laced people who will be shocked at the idea of a woman playing ten-pins. Well, let them be shocked. I vote for it for two reasons; first, for the exercise, when dripping grass and lowering skies deny it to us elsewhere; secondly, because it is always a pleasant sight to see husbands sharing this, or any other innocent recreation, with their wives and daughters, instead of herding selfishly in male flocks. I like this feature of domesticity in pleasure-seeking in our friends, the Germans. I like the Germans. Their joy is infectious. A sprinkling of such spirits would do much towards infusing a little life into the solemn business way in which Americans often pursue, but seldom overtake, pleasure. Yes, it is a lovely sight to see them with their families! and oh, how much more honorable - and just, to a painstaking, economical wife and mother, than the expensive meal, shared at a restaurant with some male companion, while she sits solitary, to whom a proposal even for a simple walk would be happiness, as an evidence of that watchful care which is so endearing to a wife's heart.

Not the least among our enjoyments were our evenings at the Caatskills. When warm enough, promenading on the ample piazza with pleasant friends; when the out-door temperature forbade this, seated in the parlors, listening to merry voices, looking on young and happy faces, or, what is never less beautiful, upon those who, having reached life's summit, did not, for that reason, churlishly refuse to cast back approving, sympathizing glances upon the young loiterers who were still gleefully gathering flowers by the way.

Then, too, we had music, heart music, from our German friend; whose artistic fingers often, also, gave harmonious expressions upon the piano to our sunrise thoughts, before we had left our rooms. Happy they, whose full souls can lighten their secret burdens by the low musical plaint, understood only by those who have themselves loved and suffered! Of how many tried and aching hearts has music been the eloquent voice? The ruffled brow grows smooth beneath its influence; the angry feeling, calm as a wayward child, at a mother's loving kiss. Joy, like a white-robed angel, glides softly in, and on the billows of earthly sorrow she lays her gentle finger, whispering, "Peace, be still!"

 


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