The Crater

James Fenimore Cooper

Preview: Issue 1 of 62

Chapter I.

"'Twas a commodity lay fretting by you; 'Twill bring you gain, or perish on the seas."

Taming of the Shrew.

There is nothing in which American Liberty, not always as much restrained as it might be, has manifested a more decided tendency to run riot, than in the use of names. As for Christian names, the Heathen Mythology, the Bible, Ancient History, and all the classics, have long since been exhausted, and the organ of invention has been at work with an exuberance of imagination that is really wonderful for such a matter-of-fact people. Whence all the strange sounds have been derived which have thus been pressed into the service of this human nomenclature, it would puzzle the most ingenious philologist to say. The days of the Kates, and Dollys, and Pattys, and Bettys, have passed away, and in their stead we hear of Lowinys, and Orchistrys, Philenys, Alminys, Cytherys, Sarahlettys, Amindys, Marindys, &c. &c. &c. All these last appellations terminate properly with an a, but this unfortunate vowel, when a final letter, being popularly pronounced like y, we have adapted our spelling to the sound, which produces a complete bathos to all these flights in taste.

The hero of this narrative was born fully sixty years since, and happily before the rage for modern appellations, though he just escaped being named after another system which we cannot say we altogether admire; that of using a family, for a christian name. This business of names is a sort of science in itself and we do believe that it is less understood and less attended to in this country than in almost all others. When a Spaniard writes his name as Juan de Castro y Muños, we know that his father belonged to the family of Castro and his mother to that of Muños. The French, and Italian, and Russian woman, &c., writes on her card Madame this or that, born so and so; all which tells the whole history of her individuality Many French women, in signing their names, prefix those of their own family to those of their husbands, a sensible and simple usage that we are glad to see is beginning to obtain among ourselves. The records on tomb-stones, too, might be made much more clear and useful than they now are, by stating distinctly who the party was, on both sides of the house, or by father and mother; and each married woman ought to be commemorated in some such fashion as this: "Here lies Jane Smith, wife of John Jones," &c., or, "Jane, daughter of Thomas Smith and wife of John Jones." We believe that, in some countries, a woman's name is not properly considered to be changed by marriage, but she becomes a Mrs. only in connection with the name of her husband. Thus Jane Smith becomes Mrs. John Jones, but not Mrs. Jane Jones. It is on this idea we suppose that our ancestors the English--every Englishman, as a matter of course, being every American's ancestor--thus it is, we suppose, therefore, that our ancestors, who pay so much more attention to such matters than we do ourselves, in their table of courtesy, call the wife of Lord John Russell, Lady John, and not Lady--whatever her Christian name may happen to be. We suppose, moreover, it is on this principle that Mrs. General This, Mrs. Dr. That, and Mrs. Senator T'other, are as inaccurate as they are notoriously vulgar.

Mark Woolston came from a part of this great republic where the names are still as simple, unpretending, and as good Saxon English, as in the county of Kent itself. He was born in the little town of Bristol, Bucks county, Pennsylvania. This is a portion of the country that, Heaven be praised! still retains some of the good old-fashioned directness and simplicity. Bucks is full of Jacks, and Bens, and Dicks, and we question if there is such a creature, of native growth, in all that region, as an Ithusy, or a Seneky, or a Dianthy, or an Antonizetty, or a Deidamy. The Woolstons, in particular, were a plain family, and very unpretending in their external appearance, but of solid and highly respectable habits around the domestic hearth. Knowing perfectly how to spell, they never dreamed anyone would suspect them of ignorance. They called themselves as their forefathers were called, that is to say, Wooster, or just as Worcester is pronounced; though a Yankee schoolmaster tried for a whole summer to persuade our hero, when a child, that he ought to be styled Wool-ston. This had no effect on Mark, who went on talking of his uncles and aunts, "Josy Wooster," and "Tommy Wooster," and "Peggy Wooster," precisely as if a New England academy did not exist on earth; or as if Webster had not actually put Johnson under his feet!

The father of Mark Woolston (or Wooster) was a physician, and, for the country and age, was a well-educated and skilful man. Mark was born in 1777, just seventy years since, and only ten days before the surrender of Burgoyne. A good deal of attention was paid to his instruction, and fortunately for himself, his servitude under the eastern pedagogue was of very short duration, and Mark continued to speak the English language as his fathers had spoken it before him. The difference on the score of language, between Pennsylvania and New Jersey and Maryland, always keeping in the counties that were not settled by Germans or Irish, and the New England states, and through them, New York, is really so obvious as to deserve a passing word. In the states first named, taverns, for instance, are still called the Dun Cow, the Indian Queen, or the Anchor: whereas such a thing would be hard to find, at this day, among the six millions of people who dwell in the latter. We question if there be such a thing as a coffee-house in all Philadelphia, though we admit it with grief, the respectable town of Brotherly Love has, in some respects, become infected with the spirit of innovation. Thus it is that good old "State House Yard" has been changed into "Independence Square." This certainly is not as bad as the tour de force of the aldermen of Manhattan when they altered "Bear Market" into "Washington Market!" for it is not a prostitution of the name of a great man, in the first place, and there is a direct historical allusion in the new name that everybody can understand. Still, it is to be regretted; and we hope this will be the last thing of the sort that will ever occur, though we confers our confidence in Philadelphian stability and consistency is a good deal lessened, since we have learned, by means of a late law-suit, that there are fifty or sixty aldermen in the place; a number of those worthies that is quite sufficient to upset the proprieties, in Athens itself!

Dr. Woolston had a competitor in another physician, who lived within a mile of him, and whose name was Yardley. Dr. Yardley was a very respectable person, had about the same degree of talents and knowledge as his neighbour and rival, but was much the richest man of the two. Dr. Yardley, however, had but one child, a daughter, whereas Dr. Woolston, with much less of means, had sons and daughters. Mark was the oldest of the family, and it was probably owing to this circumstance that he was so well educated, since the expense was not yet to be shared with that of keeping his brothers and sisters at schools of the same character.

In 1777 an American college was little better than a high school. It could not be called, in strictness, a grammar school, inasmuch as all the sciences were glanced at, if not studied; but, as respects the classics, more than a grammar school it was not, nor that of a very high order. It was a consequence of the light nature of the studies, that mere boys graduated in those institutions. Such was the case with Mark Woolston, who would have taken his degree as a Bachelor of Arts, at Nassau Hall, Princeton, had not an event occurred, in his sixteenth year, which produced an entire change in his plan of life, and nipped his academical honours in the bud.

Although it is unusual for square-rigged vessels of any size to ascend the Delaware higher than Philadelphia, the river is, in truth, navigable for such craft almost to Trenton Bridge. In the year 1793, when Mark Woolston was just sixteen, a full-rigged ship actually came up, and lay at the end of the wharf in Burlington, the little town nearly opposite to Bristol, where she attracted a great deal of the attention of all the youths of the vicinity. Mark was at home, in a vacation, and he passed half his time in and about that ship, crossing the river in a skiff of which he was the owner, in order to do so. From that hour young Mark affected the sea, and all the tears of his mother and eldest sister, the latter a pretty girl only two years his junior, and the more sober advice of his father, could not induce him to change his mind. A six weeks' vacation was passed in the discussion of this subject, when the Doctor yielded to his son's importunities, probably foreseeing he should have his hands full to educate his other children, and not unwilling to put this child, as early as possible, in the way of supporting himself.

The commerce of America, in 1793, was already flourishing, and Philadelphia was then much the most important place in the country. Its East India trade, in particular, was very large and growing, and Dr. Woolston knew that fortunes were rapidly made by many engaged in it. After, turning the thing well over in his mind, he determined to consult Mark's inclinations, and to make a sailor of him. He had a cousin married to the sister of an East India, or rather of a Canton ship-master, and to this person the father applied for advice and assistance. Captain Crutchely very willingly consented to receive Mark in his own vessel, the Rancocus, and promised "to make a man and an officer of him."

The very day Mark first saw the ocean he was sixteen years old. He had got his height, five feet eleven, and was strong for his years, and active. In fact, it would not have been easy to find a lad every way so well adapted to his new calling, as young Mark Woolston. The three years of his college life, if they had not made him a Newton, or a Bacon, had done him no harm, filling his mind with the germs of ideas that were destined afterwards to become extremely useful to him. The young man was already, indeed, a sort of factotum, being clever and handy at so many things and in so many different ways, as early to attract the attention of the officers. Long before the vessel reached the capes, he was at home in her, from her truck to her keelson, and Captain Crutchely remarked to his chief mate, the day they got to sea, that "young Mark Woolston was likely to turn up a trump."

As for Mark himself, he did not lose sight of the land, for the first time in his life, altogether without regrets. He had a good deal of feeling in connection with his parents, and his brothers and sisters; but, as it is our aim to conceal nothing which ought to be revealed, we must add there was still another who filled his thoughts more than all the rest united. This person was Bridget Yardley, the only child of his father's most formidable professional competitor.

The two physicians were obliged to keep up a sickly intercourse, not intending a pun. They were too often called in to consult together, to maintain an open war. While the heads of their respective families occasionally met, therefore, at the bed-side of their patients, the families themselves had no direct communications. It is true, that Mrs. Woolston and Mrs. Yardley were occasionally to be seen seated at the same tea-table, taking their hyson in company, for the recent trade with China had expelled the bohea from most of the better parlours of the country; nevertheless, these good ladies could not get to be cordial with each other. They themselves had a difference on religious points, that was almost as bitter as the differences of opinions between their husbands on the subject of alternatives. In that distant day, homoeopathy, and allopathy, and hydropathy, and all the opathies, were nearly unknown; but men could wrangle and abuse each other on medical points, just as well and as bitterly then, as they do now. Religion, too, quite as often failed to bear its proper fruits, in 1793, as it proves barren in these, our own times. On this subject of religion, we have one word to say, and that is, simply, that it never was a meet matter for self-gratulation and boasting. Here we have the Americo-Anglican church, just as it has finished a blast of trumpets, through the medium of numberless periodicals and a thousand letters from its confiding if not confident clergy, in honour of its quiet, and harmony, and superior polity, suspended on the very brink of the precipice of separation, if not of schism, and all because it has pleased certain ultra-sublimated divines in the other hemisphere, to write a parcel of tracts that nobody understands, themselves included. How many even of the ministers of the altar fall, at the very moment they are beginning to fancy themselves saints, and are ready to thank God they are "not like the publicans!"

Both Mrs. Woolston and Mrs. Yardley were what is called 'pious;' that is, each said her prayers, each went to her particular church, and very particular churches they were; each fancied she had a sufficiency of saving faith, but neither was charitable enough to think, in a very friendly temper, of the other. This difference of religious opinion, added to the rival reputations of their husbands, made these ladies anything but good neighbours, and, as has been intimated, years had passed since either had entered the door of the other.

Very different was the feeling of the children. Anne Woolston, the oldest sister of Mark, and Bridget Yardley, were nearly of an age, and they were not only school-mates, but fast friends. To give their mothers their due, they did not lessen this intimacy by hints, or intimations of any sort, but let the girls obey their own tastes, as if satisfied it was quite sufficient for "professors of religion" to hate in their own persons, without entailing the feeling on posterity. Anne and Bridget consequently became warm friends, the two sweet, pretty young things both believing, in the simplicity of their hearts, that the very circumstance which in truth caused the alienation, not to say the hostility of the elder members of their respective families, viz. professional identity, was an additional reason why they should love each other so much the more. The girls were about two and three years the juniors of Mark, but well grown for their time of life, and frank and affectionate as innocence and warm hearts could make them. Each was more than pretty, though it was in styles so very different, as scarcely to produce any of that other sort of rivalry, which is so apt to occur even in the gentler sex. Anne had bloom, and features, and fine teeth, and, a charm that is so very common in America, a good mouth; but Bridget had all these added to expression. Nothing could be more soft, gentle and feminine, than Bridget Yardley's countenance, in its ordinary state of rest; or more spirited, laughing, buoyant or pitying than it became, as the different passions or feelings were excited in her young bosom. As Mark was often sent to see his sister home, in her frequent visits to the madam's house, where the two girls held most of their intercourse, he was naturally enough admitted into their association. The connection commenced by Mark's agreeing to be Bridget's brother, as well as Anne's. This was generous, at least; for Bridget was an only child, and it was no more than right to repair the wrongs of fortune in this particular. The charming young thing declared that she would "rather have Mark Woolston for her brother than any other boy in Bristol; and that it was delightful to have the same person for a brother as Anne!" Notwithstanding this flight in the romantic, Bridget Yardley was as natural as it was possible for a female in a reasonably civilized condition of society to be. There was a vast deal of excellent, feminine self-devotion in her temperament, but not a particle of the exaggerated, in either sentiment or fueling. True as steel in all her impulses and opinions, in adopting Mark for a brother she merely yielded to a strong natural sympathy, without understanding its tendency or its origin. She would talk by the hour, with Anne, touching their brother, and what they must make him do, and where he must go with them, and in what they could oblige him most. The real sister was less active than her friend, in mind and body, and she listened to all these schemes and notions with a quiet submission that was not entirely free from wonder.

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