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    Our Country Neighbours

    by Harriet Beecher Stowe
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    We have just built our house in rather an out-of-the-way place--on
    the bank of a river, and under the shade of a patch of woods which is
    a veritable remain of quite an ancient forest. The checkerberry and
    partridge-plum, with their glossy green leaves and scarlet berries,
    still carpet the ground under its deep shadows; and prince's-pine and
    other kindred evergreens declare its native wildness,--for these are
    children of the wild woods, that never come after plough and harrow
    have once broken a soil.

    When we tried to look out the spot for our house, we had to get a
    surveyor to go before us and cut a path through the dense underbrush
    that was laced together in a general network of boughs and leaves,
    and grew so high as to overtop our heads. Where the house stands,
    four or five great old oaks and chestnuts had to be cut away to let
    it in; and now it stands on the bank of the river, the edges of which
    are still overhung with old forest-trees, chestnuts and oaks, which
    look at themselves in the glassy stream.

    A little knoll near the house was chosen for a garden-spot; a dense,
    dark mass of trees above, of bushes in mid-air, and of all sorts of
    ferns and wild-flowers and creeping vines on the ground. All these
    had to be cleared out, and a dozen great trees cut down and dragged
    off to a neighbouring saw-mill, there to be transformed into boards
    to finish off our house. Then, fetching a great machine, such as
    might be used to pull a giant's teeth, with ropes, pulleys, oxen, and
    men, and might and main, we pulled out the stumps, with their great
    prongs and their network of roots and fibres; and then, alas! we had
    to begin with all the pretty wild, lovely bushes, and the
    checkerberries and ferns and wild blackberries and huckleberry-
    bushes, and dig them up remorselessly, that we might plant our corn
    and squashes. And so we got a house and a garden right out of the
    heart of our piece of wild wood, about a mile from the city of H-.

    Well, then, people said it was a lonely place, and far from
    neighbours,--by which they meant that it was a good way for them to
    come to see us. But we soon found that whoever goes into the woods
    to live finds neighbours of a new kind, and some to whom it is rather
    hard to become accustomed.

    For instance, on a fine day early in April, as we were crossing over
    to superintend the building of our house, we were startled by a
    striped snake, with his little bright eyes, raising himself to look
    at us, and putting out his red, forked tongue. Now there is no more
    harm in these little garden-snakes than there is in a robin or a
    squirrel--they are poor little, peaceable, timid creatures, which
    could not do any harm if they would; but the prejudices of society
    are so strong against them that one does not like to cultivate too
    much intimacy with them. So we tried to turn out of our path into a
    tangle of bushes; and there, instead of one, we found four snakes.
    We turned on the other side, and there were two more. In short,
    everywhere we looked, the dry leaves were rustling and coiling with
    them; and we were in despair. In vain we said that they were
    harmless as kittens, and tried to persuade ourselves that their
    little bright eyes were pretty, and that their serpentine movements
    were in the exact line of beauty: for the life of us, we could not
    help remembering their family name and connections; we thought of
    those disagreeable gentlemen the anacondas, the rattlesnakes, and the
    copper-heads, and all of that bad line, immediate family friends of
    the old serpent to whom we are indebted for all the mischief that is
    done in this world. So we were quite apprehensive when we saw how
    our new neighbourhood was infested by them, until a neighbour calmed
    our fears by telling us that snakes always crawled out of their holes
    to sun themselves in the spring, and that in a day or two they would
    all be gone.

    So it proved. It was evident they were all out merely to do their
    spring shopping, or something that serves with them the same purpose
    that spring shopping does with us; and where they went afterwards we
    do not know. People speak of snakes' holes, and we have seen them
    disappearing into such subterranean chambers; but we never opened one
    to see what sort of underground housekeeping went on there. After
    the first few days of spring, a snake was a rare visitor, though now
    and then one appeared.

    One was discovered taking his noontide repast one day in a manner
    which excited much prejudice. He was, in fact, regaling himself by
    sucking down into his maw a small frog, which he had begun to swallow
    at the toes, and had drawn about half down. The frog, it must be
    confessed, seemed to view this arrangement with great indifference,
    making no struggle, and sitting solemnly, with his great unwinking
    eyes, to be sucked in at the leisure of his captor. There was
    immense sympathy, however, excited for him in the family circle; and
    it was voted that a snake which indulged in such very disagreeable
    modes of eating his dinner was not to be tolerated in our vicinity.
    So I have reason to believe that that was his last meal.

    Another of our wild woodland neighbours made us some trouble. It was
    no other than a veritable woodchuck, whose hole we had often wondered
    at when we were scrambling through the underbrush after spring
    flowers. The hole was about the size of a peck-measure, and had two
    openings about six feet apart. The occupant was a gentleman we never
    had had the pleasure of seeing, but we soon learned his existence
    from his ravages in our garden. He had a taste, it appears, for the
    very kind of things we wanted to eat ourselves, and helped himself
    without asking. We had a row of fine, crisp heads of lettuce, which
    were the pride of our gardening, and out of which he would from day
    to day select for his table just the plants we had marked for ours.
    He also nibbled our young beans; and so at last we were reluctantly
    obliged to let John Gardiner set a trap for him. Poor old simple-
    minded hermit, he was too artless for this world! He was caught at
    the very first snap, and found dead in the trap,--the agitation and
    distress having broken his poor woodland heart, and killed him. We
    were grieved to the very soul when the poor fat old fellow was
    dragged out, with his useless paws standing up stiff and imploring.
    As it was, he was given to Denis, our pig, which, without a single
    scruple of delicacy, ate him up as thoroughly as he ate up the

    This business of eating, it appears, must go on all through creation.
    We eat ducks, turkeys, and chickens, though we don't swallow them
    whole, feathers and all. Our four-footed friends, less civilized,
    take things with more directness and simplicity, and chew each other
    up without ceremony, or swallow each other alive. Of these
    unceremonious habits we had other instances.

    Our house had a central court on the southern side, into which looked
    the library, dining-room, and front hall, as well as several of the
    upper chambers. It was designed to be closed in with glass, to serve
    as a conservatory in winter; and meanwhile we had filled it with
    splendid plumy ferns, taken up out of the neighbouring wood. In the
    centre was a fountain surrounded by stones, shells, mosses, and
    various water-plants. We had bought three little goldfish to swim in
    our basin; and the spray of it, as it rose in the air and rippled
    back into the water, was the pleasantest possible sound of a hot day.
    We used to lie on the sofa in the hall, and look into the court, and
    fancy we saw some scene of fairy-land, and water-sprites coming up
    from the fountain. Suddenly a new-comer presented himself,--no other
    than an immense bull-frog, that had hopped up from the neighbouring
    river, apparently with a view to making a permanent settlement in and
    about our fountain. He was to be seen, often for hours, sitting
    reflectively on the edge of it, beneath the broad shadow of the
    calla-leaves. When sometimes missed thence, he would be found under
    the ample shield of a great bignonia, whose striped leaves grew hard

    The family were prejudiced against him. What did he want there? It
    was surely some sinister motive impelled him. He was probably
    watching for an opportunity to gobble up the goldfish. We took his
    part, however, and strenuously defended his moral character, and
    patronized him in all ways. We gave him the name of Unke, and
    maintained that he was a well-conducted, philosophical old water-
    sprite, who showed his good taste in wanting to take up his abode in
    our conservatory. We even defended his personal appearance, praised
    the invisible-green coat which he wore on his back, and his gray
    vest, and solemn gold spectacles; and though he always felt
    remarkably slimy when we touched him, yet, as he would sit still and
    allow us to stroke his head and pat his back, we concluded his social
    feelings might be warm, notwithstanding a cold exterior. Who knew,
    after all, but he might be a beautiful young prince, enchanted there
    till the princess should come to drop the golden ball into the
    fountain, and so give him a chance to marry her and turn into a man
    again? Such things, we are credibly informed, are matters of
    frequent occurrence in Germany. Why not here?

    By-and-by there came to our fountain another visitor,--a frisky,
    green young frog of the identical kind spoken of by the poet

    "There was a frog lived in a well,
    Rig dum pully metakimo."

    This thoughtless, dapper individual, with his bright green coat, his
    faultless white vest, and sea-green tights, became rather the popular
    favourite. He seemed just rakish and gallant enough to fulfil the
    conditions of the song

    "The frog he would a-courting ride,
    With sword and pistol by his side."

    This lively young fellow, whom we shall call Cri-Cri, like other
    frisky and gay young people, carried the day quite over the head of
    the solemn old philosopher under the calla-leaves. At night, when
    all was still, he would trill a joyous little note in his throat,
    while old Unke would answer only with a cracked guttural more
    singular than agreeable; and to all outward appearance the two were
    as good friends as their different natures would allow.

    One day, however, the conservatory became the scene of a tragedy of
    the deepest dye. We were summoned below by shrieks and howls of
    horror. "Do pray come down and see what this vile, nasty, horrid old
    frog has been doing!" Down we came; and there sat our virtuous old
    philosopher, with his poor little brother's hind legs still sticking
    out of the corner of his mouth, as if he were smoking them for a
    cigar, all helplessly palpitating as they were. In fact, our solemn
    old friend had done what many a solemn hypocrite before has done,--
    swallowed his poor brother, neck and crop,--and sat there with the
    most brazen indifference, looking as if he had done the most proper
    and virtuous thing in the world.

    Immediately he was marched out of the conservatory at the point of a
    walking-stick, and made to hop down to the river, into whose waters
    he splashed, and we saw him no more. We regret to say that the
    popular indignation was so precipitate in its results; otherwise the
    special artist who sketched Hum, the son of Buz, intended to have
    made a sketch of the old villain, as he sat with his luckless
    victim's hind legs projecting from his solemn mouth. With all his
    moral faults, he was a good sitter, and would probably have sat
    immovable any length of time that could be desired.

    Of other woodland neighbours there were some which we saw
    occasionally. The shores of the river were lined here and there with
    the holes of the muskrats; and in rowing by their settlements, we
    were sometimes strongly reminded of them by the overpowering odour of
    the perfume from which they get their name. There were also owls,
    whose nests were high up in some of the old chestnut-trees. Often in
    the lonely hours of the night we could hear them gibbering with a
    sort of wild, hollow laugh among the distant trees. But one tenant
    of the woods made us some trouble in the autumn. It was a little
    flying-squirrel, who took to making excursions into our house in the
    night season, coming down the chimney into the chambers, rustling
    about among the clothes, cracking nuts or nibbling at any morsels of
    anything that suited his fancy. For a long time the inmates of the
    rooms were awakened in the night by mysterious noises, thumps, and
    rappings, and so lighted candles, and searched in vain to find whence
    they came; for the moment any movement was made, the rogue whipped up
    the chimney, and left us a prey to the most mysterious alarms. What
    could it be?

    But one night our fine gentleman bounced in at the window of another
    room, which had no fireplace; and the fair occupant, rising in the
    night, shut the window, without suspecting that she had cut off the
    retreat of any of her woodland neighbours. The next morning she was
    startled by what she thought a gray rat running past her bed. She
    rose to pursue him, when he ran up the wall, and clung against the
    plastering, showing himself very plainly a gray flying-squirrel, with
    large, soft eyes, and wings which consisted of a membrane uniting the
    fore paws to the hind ones, like those of a bat. He was chased into
    the conservatory, and a window being opened, out he flew upon the
    ground, and made away for his native woods, and thus put an end to
    many fears as to the nature of our nocturnal rappings.

    So you see how many neighbours we found by living in the woods, and,
    after all, no worse ones than are found in the great world.
    If you're writing a Our Country Neighbours essay and need some advice, post your Harriet Beecher Stowe essay question on our Facebook page where fellow bookworms are always glad to help!

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