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James Baldwin

The Big-House

A T length the harvest was gathered. The barn was filled with hay and oats, and in the high-fenced lot behind it there were three or four huge stacks of wheat waiting for the time of thrashing. The corn had been "laid by"—that is, it had received its last plowing—and the pumpkins were growing yellow in the field. There were peaches in the orchard, and a great surplus of early apples. On every hand there was plenty of everything—even plenty of work for every member of the family.

"Now we must finish the new house," said father; "the frame has been standing unenclosed so long that I am ashamed. If all of us do what we can, we may get everything finished before the next quarterly meeting; and what a satisfaction it will be to be able to entertain friends in a suitable manner."

All hands, therefore, were put to the work. From daylight till dark, six days in the week, we could hear nothing but the sound of hammers and saws and planes and augers. Father was a skillful carpenter. He had built more houses and barns than any other man in the New Settlement, if not in the whole world. The big boys, David and Jonathan, were willing and strong, and quick to do whatever task was set for them. And I, small as I was, had my own part to perform, running errands, carrying shingles and nails and bricks, and helping my seniors in a thousand ways.

There was little time for reading in those busy days; but I kept my Parley Book on the unused end of father's work bench, and whenever I could catch a moment's leisure, I turned to its pages for solace and delight. Sometimes I would ask father the meaning of an unusual word or expression, and sometimes he would pause in the midst of his work, and explain whole passages that were perplexing to me. And thus, my dear Leonidas, in one month's time, I learned more geography than you, with all your "opportunity" and modern methods, will have learned in two years of schooling.

It was another red-letter day when the finishing touches were put upon the "big-house," as we thereafter called it, and it was pronounced ready for occupancy. You may smile at the idea of calling it a big house, for it was only twenty feet long and not quite so broad; but to me it seemed a very spacious dwelling, as commodious as a meetin'-house and as elegant as a king's palace.

Two-thirds of the floor space was given up to the "settin'-room," and the remainder was divided equally into two very small bedrooms. At one end of the settin'-room there was a diminutive fireplace, and a chimney built of home-burned bricks, neatly laid and painted red; for father in addition to his other pursuits, was a brickmaker, a mason and a painter. On each side of the house there was a door with a window close by, and at the farther end there were two tiny windows, one for each of the bedrooms. The entire arrangement was so perfect that none of us could imagine any way to improve upon it.

And now the work of furnishing the big-house was begun with great zest and delight on the part of all. Six brand new "Windsor" chairs which father had made in the winter months, were brought from their place of storage in the shop and ranged in a stiff prim row along the back wall of the settin'-room. A big rocking chair was set facing them on the opposite side to keep them in order when they were left to themselves. A three-legged candlestand, which Jonathan claimed as his own handiwork, was set beside the south window; and a little looking-glass, with a red frame and the picture of a tiny white house at the top, was hung on the opposite wall. A Seth Thomas clock with wooden wheels (which mother had for years kept safely in the big "chist" in the loft, waiting for a suitable place and occasion like the present) was brought out and burnished and set to going; and then, to our great admiration, it was put exactly in the middle of the mantlepiece above the little fireplace. A last year's almanac also was laid on the mantel-shelf, and a many-colored hussif (housewife), full of thread and needles and buttons, was hung by the chimney corner. This completed the furnishing of the settin'-room.

The two bedrooms were fitted out each exactly alike, each with a bed and a chair; and it was here that the artistic skill of Cousin Mandy Jane and Cousin Sally were exhibited to the full. For the latter, as an expert in all matters of household economy, had been invited to come over and help "fix up." The bedsteads were very high with elaborately turned posts, the tops of which touched the ceiling. Father took great interest in seeing them set up, for he, with Jonathan, had spent many a long winter evening in shaping and framing them. Instead of bed springs there was a net work of ropes upon which the bed was "made up." And the making-up was in the following order: first, the straw "tick," a sort of mattress filled with clean wheat straw; second, "the feather tick," a huge bag stuffed with feathers from our own ducks and geese; third, a pair of snow-white linen sheets, made of flax grown in our own field, spun, woven, bleached and hemmed by our own womenfolk; fourth, another feather tick (called the "kivver tick"), not so heavy as the first, and wonderfully soft and soothing. Over this last was spread a white blanket, made of wool from our own lambs; and then, capping the whole, there was a patchwork quilt composed of hundreds of bits and samples of calico and gingham and linsey-woolsey—the gatherings of years from every imaginable and available source.

When the bed was completely "made up," it was so high that Cousin Sally had to stand on her tiptoes to reach to the top of it. Finally, two huge feather "pillers" were laid at the head, on top of this mountain of repose; and a valance of "figured" pink calico was stretched from post to post between the straw tick and the floor.

"Now jist come and look at it," said Cousin Sally. "It's jist fine enough for a queen to lay on."

The whole family assembled to admire this triumph in the bed-making art, and every voice was loud in its praises.

"Now," said father in tones of deepest satisfaction, "we are in a condition to accommodate traveling Friends decently and becomingly."

"It would be nice if we only had a little lookin'-glass to hang in each bedroom," suggested Cousin Mandy Jane. "Then the women could see how to fix their hair when they git up in the mornin'."

"No such thing is necessary," remarked father. "If they want to see themselves they can go out and use the glass that hangs in the settin'-room. We won't pander to anybody's vanity."

"I've heerd tell," said Cousin Sally, "that in some of the fine houses in Wayne, they put a tin of water and a wash-pan in each bedroom, so that the women can wash their faces and hands when they git up. I think that's purty nice."

"It's nice enough for quality folks," said mother, "but common folks don't need any sich conveniences. The Friends that lodge with us can go out to the kitchen bucket or down to the spring branch to wash theirselves. It won't hurt 'em to do like we do."

"That's right, mother," said David. "If they're too good to do like common folks, let 'em go without washin', I say."

The beds were patted and smoothed, and patted and smoothed; the chairs were rearranged against the wall; the floor was swept and garnished; the walls were dusted; and the hearth was mopped and polished. Then Cousin Sally brought in two cracked "chany" cups, each containing a posy of marigolds and sweet-williams.

"I'll set one of these on the winder-sill in each bedroom," she said. "They'll kinder match the quilts and make things cheerful and sweet-smellin'."

Finally, Cousin Mandy Jane brought in an armload of green sprigs of "sparrow grass" which she arranged with great skill and taste in the little brick fireplace.

"Well, now!" she said, standing back and admiring her work. "I jist think it's as purty as a picter and right more useful."

"Yes," added Cousin Sally, "it can't be beat nowhere in the New Settlement."

Every excuse was made for prolonging the work of furnishing and decorating; but at length it was pronounced completed—the skill of womankind could do no more. Then all of us went out, and although the doors and windows were left open to admit the sunshine and the soft breezes, it was distinctly understood that, except in cases of real necessity, none of us should again venture to set foot within the hallowed precincts. The big-house was altogether too fine for every-day use; it was to remain sacredly unoccupied until the advent of honored company, or of Friends from abroad, should make its reopening desirable and proper.