Chapter V. A Country Christmas in a City Flat

On Christmas morning we all brought out our purchases and arranged them on a table. Merton was almost wild when he found a bright single-barrelled gun with accoutrements standing in the corner. Even Mousie exclaimed with delight at the bright-colored papers of flower-seeds on her plate. To Winnie were given half a dozen china eggs with which to lure the prospective biddies to lay in nests easily reached, and she tried to cackle over them in absurd imitation. Little Bobsey had to have some toys and candy, but they all presented to his eyes the natural inmates of the barn-yard. In the number of domestic animals he swallowed that day he equalled the little boy in Hawthorne's story of "The House of the Seven Gables," who devoured a ginger-bread caravan of camels and elephants purchased at Miss Hepzibah Pyncheon's shop.

Our Christmas dinner consisted almost wholly of such vegetables as we proposed to raise in the coming summer. Never before were such connoisseurs of carrots, beats, onions, parsnips, and so on through almost the entire list of such winter stock as was to be obtained at our nearest green-grocery. We celebrated the day by nearly a dozen dishes which the children aided my wife in preparing. Then I had Merton figure the cost of each, and we were surprised at the cheapness of much of country fare, even when retailed in very small quantities.

This brought up another phase of the problem. In many respects I was like the children, having almost as much to learn as they--with the advantage, however, of being able to correct impressions by experience. In other words, I had more judgment; and while I should certainly make mistakes, not many of them would be absurd or often repeated. I was aware that most of the homely kitchen vegetables cost comparatively little, even though (having in our flat no good place for storage) we had found it better to buy what we needed from day to day. It was therefore certain that, at wholesale in the country, they would often be exceedingly cheap. This fact would work both ways: little money would purchase much food of certain kinds, and if we produced these articles of food they would bring us little money.

I will pass briefly over the period that elapsed before it was time for us to depart, assured that the little people who are following this simple history are as eager to get away from the dusty city flat to the sunlight, breezy fields, brooks, and woods as were the children in my story. It is enough to say that, during all my waking hours not devoted to business, I read, thought, and studied on the problem of supporting my family in the country. I haunted Washington Market in the gray dawn and learned from much inquiry what products found a ready and certain sale at some price, and what appeared to yield to the grower the best profits. There was much conflict of opinion, but I noted down and averaged the statements made to me. Many of the market-men had hobbies, and told me how to make a fortune out of one or two articles; more gave careless, random, or ignorant answers; but here and there was a plain, honest, sensible fellow who showed me from his books what plain, honest, sensible producers in the country were doing. In a few weeks I dismissed finally the tendency to one blunder. A novice hears or reads of an acre of cabbages or strawberries producing so much. Then he figures, "if one acre yields so much, two acres will give twice as much," and so on. The experience of others showed me the utter folly of all this; and I came to the conclusion that I could give my family shelter, plain food, pure air, wholesome work and play in plenty, and that not very soon could I provide much else with certainty. I tried to stick closely to common-sense; and the humble circumstances of the vast majority living from the soil proved that there was in these pursuits no easy or speedy road to fortune. Therefore we must part reluctantly with every penny, and let a dollar go for only the essentials to the modest success now accepted as all we could naturally expect. We had explored the settled States, and even the Territories, in fancy; we had talked over nearly every industry from cotton and sugarcane planting to a sheep-ranch. I encouraged all this, for it was so much education out of school-hours; yet all, even Merton, eventually agreed with me that we had better not go far away, but seek a place near schools, markets, churches, and well inside of civilization.

"See here, youngsters, you forget the most important crop of all that I must cultivate," I said one evening.

"What is that?" they cried in chorus.

"A crop of boys and girls. You may think that my mind is chiefly on corn and potatoes. Not at all. It is chiefly on you; and for your sakes mamma and I decided to go to the country."

At last, in reply to my inquiries and my answers to advertisements, I received the following letter:--

Maizeville, N.Y. March 1st, '83

Robert Durham, Esq.

Dear Sir

I have a place that will suit you I think. It can be bought at about the figure you name. Come to see it. I shant crack it up, but want you to judge for yourself.

Resp'y John Jones

I had been to see two or three places that had been "cracked up" so highly that my wife thought it better to close the bargain at once before some one else secured the prize--and I had come back disgusted in each instance.

"The soul of wit" was in John Jones's letter. There was also a downright directness which hit the mark, and I wrote that I would go to Maizeville in the course of the following week.