Domestic Manners of the Americans, by Fanny Trollope

Chapter 23

Fruits and Flowers of Maryland and Virginia — Copper-head Snake — Insects — Elections

Our summer in Maryland, (1830), was delightful. The thermometer stood at 94, but the heat was by no means so oppressive as what we had felt in the West. In no part of North America are the natural productions of the soil more various, or more beautiful. Strawberries of the richest flavour sprung beneath our feet; and when these past away, every grove, every lane, every field looked like a cherry orchard, offering an inexhaustible profusion of fruit to all who would take the trouble to gather it. Then followed the peaches; every hedgerow was planted with them, and though the fruit did not equal in size or flavour those ripened on our garden walls, we often found them good enough to afford a delicious refreshment on our long rambles. But it was the flowers, and the flowering shrubs that, beyond all else, rendered this region the most beautiful I had ever seen, (the Alleghany always excepted.) No description can give an idea of the variety, the profusion, the luxuriance of them. If I talk of wild roses, the English reader will fancy I mean the pale ephemeral blossoms of our bramble hedges; but the wild roses of Maryland and Virginia might be the choicest favourites of the flower garden. They are rarely very double, but the brilliant eye atones for this. They are of all shades, from the deepest crimson to the tenderest pink. The scent is rich and delicate; in size they exceed any single roses I ever saw, often measuring above four inches in diameter. The leaf greatly resembles that of the china rose; it is large, dark, firm, and brilliant. The sweetbrier grows wild, and blossoms abundantly; both leaves and flowers are considerably larger than with us. The acacia, or as it is there called, the locust, blooms with great richness and profusion; I have gathered a branch less than a foot long, and counted twelve full bunches of flowers on it. The scent is equal to the orange flower. The dogwood is another of the splendid white blossoms that adorn the woods. Its lateral branches are flat, like a fan, and dotted all over, with star-like blossoms, as large as those of the gum-cistus. Another pretty shrub, of smaller size, is the poison alder. It is well that its noxious qualities are very generally known, for it is most tempting to the eye by its delicate fringe-like bunches of white flowers. Even the touch of this shrub is poisonous, and produces violent swelling. The arbor judae is abundant in every wood, and its bright and delicate pink is the earliest harbinger of the American spring. Azalias, white, yellow, and pink; kalmias of every variety, the too sweet magnolia, and the stately rhododendron, all grow in wild abundance there. The plant known in England as the Virginian creeper, is often seen climbing to the top of the highest forest trees, and bearing a large trumpet-shaped blossom of a rich scarlet. The sassafras is a beautiful shrub, and I cannot imagine why it has not been naturalized in England, for it has every appearance of being extremely hardy. The leaves grow in tufts, and every tuft contains leaves of five or six different forms. The fruit is singularly beautiful; it resembles in form a small acorn, and is jet black; the cup and stem looking as if they were made of red coral. The graceful and fantastic grapevine is a feature of great beauty, and its wandering festoons bear no more resemblance to our well-trained vines, than our stunted azalias, and tiny magnolias, to their thriving American kindred.

There is another charm that haunts the summer wanderer in America, and it is perhaps the only one found in greatest perfection in the West: but it is beautiful every where. In a bright day, during any of the summer months, your walk is through an atmosphere of butterflies, so gaudy in hue, and so varied in form, that I often thought they looked like flowers on the wing. Some of them are very large, measuring three or four inches across the wings; but many, and I think the most beautiful, are smaller than ours. Some have wings of the most dainty lavender colour; and bodies of black; others are fawn and rose colour; and others again are orange and bright blue. But pretty as they are, it is their number, even more than their beauty, that delights the eye. Their gay and noiseless movement as they glance through the air, crossing each other in chequered maze, is very beautiful. The humming-bird is another pretty summer toy; but they are not sufficiently numerous, nor do they live enough on the wing to render them so important a feature in the transatlantic show, as the rainbow-tinted butterflies. The fire-fly was a far more brilliant novelty. In moist situations, or before a storm, they are very numerous, and in the dark sultry evening of a burning day, when all employment was impossible, I have often found it a pastime to watch their glancing light, now here, now there; now seen, now gone; shooting past with the rapidity of lightning, and looking like a shower of falling stars, blown about in the breeze of evening.

In one of our excursions we encountered and slew a copperhead snake. I escaped treading on it by about three inches. While we were contemplating our conquered foe, and doubting in our ignorance if he were indeed the deadly copper-head we had so often heard described, a farmer joined us, who, as soon as he cast his eyes on our victim, exclaimed, “My! if you have not got a copper. That’s right down well done, they be darnation beasts.” He told us that he had once seen a copper-head bite himself to death, from being teazed by a stick, while confined in a cage where he could find no other victim. We often heard terrible accounts of the number of these desperate reptiles to be found on the rocks near the great falls of the Potomac; but not even the terror these stories inspired could prevent our repeated visits to that sublime scene; Luckily our temerity was never punished by seeing any there. Lizards, long, large, and most hideously like a miniature crocodile, I frequently saw, gliding from the fissures of the rocks, and darting again under shelter, perhaps beneath the very stone I was seated upon; but every one assured us they were harmless. Animal life is so infinitely abundant, and in forms so various, and so novel to European eyes, that it is absolutely necessary to divest oneself of all the petty terrors which the crawling, creeping, hopping, and buzzing tribes can inspire, before taking an American summer ramble. It is, I conceive, quite impossible for any description to convey an idea of the sounds which assail the ears from the time the short twilight begins, until the rising sun scatters the rear of darkness, and sends the winking choristers to rest.

Be where you will (excepting in the large cities) the appalling note of the bull-frog will reach you, loud, deep, and hoarse, issuing from a thousand throats in ceaseless continuity of croak. The tree-frog adds her chirping and almost human voice; the kattiedid repeats her own name through the livelong night; the whole tribe of locusts chirp, chirrup, squeak, whiz, and whistle, without allowing one instant of interval to the weary ear; and when to this the mosquito adds her threatening hum, it is wonderful that any degree of fatigue can obtain for the listener the relief of sleep. In fact, it is only in ceasing to listen that this blessing can be found. I passed many feverish nights during my first summer, literally in listening to this most astounding mixture of noises, and it was only when they became too familiar to excite attention, that I recovered my rest.

I know not by what whimsical link of association the recapitulation of this insect din suggests the recollection of other discords, at least as harsh and much more troublesome.

Even in the retirement in which we passed this summer, we were not beyond reach of the election fever which is constantly raging through the land. Had America every attraction under heaven that nature and social enjoyment can offer, this electioneering madness would make me fly it in disgust. It engrosses every conversation, it irritates every temper, it substitutes party spirit for personal esteem; and, in fact, vitiates the whole system of society.

When a candidate for any office starts, his party endow him with every virtue, and with all the talents. They are all ready to peck out the eyes of those who oppose him, and in the warm and mettlesome south-western states, do literally often perform this operation: but as soon as he succeeds, his virtues and his talents vanish, and, excepting those holding office under his appointment, every man Jonathan of them set off again full gallop to elect his successor. When I first arrived in America Mr. John Quincy Adams was President, and it was impossible to doubt, even from the statement of his enemies, that he was every way calculated to do honour to the office. All I ever heard against him was, that “he was too much of a gentleman;” but a new candidate must be set up, and Mr. Adams was out-voted for no other reason, that I could learn, but because it was “best to change.” “Jackson for ever!” was, therefore, screamed from the majority of mouths, both drunk and sober, till he was elected; but no sooner in his place, than the same ceaseless operation went on again, with “Clay for ever” for its war-whoop.

I was one morning paying a visit, when a party of gentlemen arrived at the same house on horseback. The one whose air proclaimed him the chief of his party, left us not long in doubt as to his business, for he said, almost in entering,

“Mr. P— I come to ask for your vote.”

“Who are you for, sir?” was the reply.

“Clay for ever!” the rejoinder; and the vote was promised.

This gentleman was candidate for a place in the state representation, whose members have a vote in the presidential election.

I was introduced to him as an English woman: he addressed me with, “Well madam, you see we do these things openly and above-board here; you mince such matters more, I expect.”

After his departure, his history and standing were discussed. “Mr. M. is highly respectable, and of very good standing; there can be no doubt of his election if he is a thorough-going Clay-man,” said my host.

I asked what his station was.

The lady of the house told me that his father had been a merchant, and when this future legislator was a young man, he had been sent by him to some port in the Mediterranean as his super-cargo. The youth, being a free-born high-spirited youth, appropriated the proceeds to his own uses, traded with great success upon the fund thus obtained, and returned, after an absence of twelve years, a gentleman of fortune and excellent standing. I expressed some little disapprobation of this proceeding, but was assured that Mr. M. was considered by every one as a very “honourable man.”

Were I to relate one-tenth part of the dishonest transactions recounted to me by Americans, of their fellow-citizens and friends, I am confident that no English reader would give me credit for veracity it would, therefore, be very unwise to repeat them, but I cannot refrain from expressing the opinion that nearly four years of attentive observation impressed on me, namely, that the moral sense is on every point blunter than with us. Make an American believe that his next-door neighbour is a very worthless fellow, and I dare say (if he were quite sure he could make nothing by him) he would drop the acquaintance; but as to what constitutes a worthless fellow, people differ on the opposite sides of the Atlantic, almost by the whole decalogue. There is, as it appeared to me, an obtusity on all points of honourable feeling.

“Cervantes laughed Spain’s chivalry away,” but he did not laugh away that better part of chivalry, so beautifully described by Burke as “the unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, that chastity of honour, which feels a stain as a wound, which ennobles whatever it touches, and by which vice itself loses half its evil, by losing all its grossness.” The better part of chivalry still mixes with gentle blood in every part of Europe, nor is it less fondly guarded than when sword and buckler aided its defence. Perhaps this unbought grace of life is not to be looked for where chivalry has never been. I certainly do not lament the decadence of knight errantry, nor wish to exchange the protection of the laws for that of the doughtiest champion who ever set lance in rest; but I do, in truth, believe that this knightly sensitiveness of honourable feeling is the best antidote to the petty soul-degrading transactions of every day life, and that the total want of it, is one reason why this free-born race care so very little for the vulgar virtue called probity.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:50