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Oldport Days Thomas Wentworth Higginson


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"Ben!" vociferated he to the guide, now rapidly receding. Ben paused on his oars.

"Remember to bo-o-oil the venison, Ben!" shouted the pensive artist, while all the slumbering echoes arose to applaud this culinary confidence.

"And, Ben!" he added, imploringly, "don't forget the dumplings!" Upon this, the loons, all down the lake, who had hitherto been silent, took up the strain with vehemence, hurling their wild laughter at the presumptuous mortal who thus dared to invade their solitudes with details as trivial as Mr. Pickwick's tomato-sauce. They repeated it over and over to each other, till ten square miles of loons must have heard the news, and all laughed together; never was there such an audience; they could not get over it, and two hours after, when we had rowed over to the camp and dinner had been served, this irreverent and invisible chorus kept bursting out, at all points of the compass, with scattered chuckles of delight over this extraordinary bill of fare. Justice compels me to add that the dumplings were made of Indian-meal, upon a recipe devised by our artist; the guests preferred the venison, but the host showed a fidelity to his invention that proved him to be indeed a dweller in an ideal world.

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Another path that comes back to memory is the bare trail that we followed over the prairies of Nebraska, in 1856, when the Missouri River was held by roving bands from the Slave States, and Freedom had to seek an overland route into Kansas. All day and all night we rode between distant prairie-fires, pillars of evening light and of morning cloud, while sometimes the low grass would burn to the very edge of the trail, so that we had to hold our breath as we galloped through. Parties of armed Missourians were sometimes seen over the prairie swells, so that we had to mount guard at nightfall; Free-State emigrants, fleeing from persecution, continually met us; and we sometimes saw parties of wandering Sioux, or passed their great irregular huts and houses of worship. I remember one desolate prairie summit on which an Indian boy sat motionless on horseback; his bare red legs clung closely to the white sides of his horse; a gorgeous sunset was unrolled behind him, and he might have seemed the last of his race, just departing for the hunting-grounds of the blest. More often the horizon showed no human outline, and the sun set cloudless, and elongated into pear-shaped outlines, as behind ocean-waves. But I remember best the excitement that filled our breasts when we approached spots where the contest for a free soil had already been sealed with blood. In those days, as one went to Pennsylvania to study coal formations, or to Lake Superior for copper, so one went to Kansas for men. "Every footpath on this planet," said a rare thinker, "may lead to the door of a hero," and that trail into Kansas ended rightly at the tent-door of John Brown.

And later, who that knew them can forget the picket-paths that were worn throughout the Sea Islands of South Carolina,-- paths that wound along the shores of creeks or through the depths of woods, where the great wild roses tossed their airy festoons above your head, and the brilliant lizards glanced across your track, and your horse's ears suddenly pointed forward and his pace grew uneasy as he snuffed the presence of something you could not see. At night you had often to ride from picket to picket in dense darkness, trusting to the horse to find his way, or sometimes dismounting to feel with your hands for the track, while the great Southern fire-flies offered their floating lanterns for guidance, and the hoarse "Chuck-will's-widow" croaked ominously from the trees, and the great guns of the siege of Charleston throbbed more faintly than the drumming of a partridge, far away. Those islands are everywhere so intersected by dikes and ledges and winding creeks as to form a natural military region, like La Vendee and yet two plantations that are twenty miles asunder by the road will sometimes be united by a footpath which a negro can traverse in two hours. These tracks are limited in distance by the island formation, but they assume a greater importance as you penetrate the mainland; they then join great States instead of mere plantations, and if you ask whither one of them leads, you are told "To Alabama," or "To Tennessee."

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Oldport Days
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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