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The Chainbearer; Or, The Littlepage Manuscripts By James Fenimore Cooper Characters: 28718

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"A comfortable doctrine, and much may be said of it. Where lies your text?"-Twelfth Night; or, What You Will.

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A month glided swiftly by. During that interval, Frank Malbone was fully installed, and Andries consented to suspend operations with his chain until this necessary work was completed. Work it was; for every lease granted by my grandfather having run out, the tenants had remained on their farms by sufferance, or as occupants at will, holding from year to year under parole agreements made with Mr. Newcome, who had authority to go that far, but no farther.

It was seldom that a landlord, in that day, as I have already said, got any income from his lands during the first few years of their occupation. The great thing was to induce settlers to come; for, where there was so much competition, sacrifices had to be made in order to effect this preliminary object. In compliance with this policy, my grandfather had let his wild lands for nominal rents in nearly every instance, with here and there a farm of particular advantages excepted; and, in most cases, the settler had enjoyed the use of the farm for several years, for no rent at all. He paid the taxes, which were merely nominal, and principally to support objects that were useful to the immediate neighborhood; such as the construction of roads, bridges, pounds, with other similar works, and the administration of justice. At the expiration of this period of non-payment of rents, a small sum per acre was agreed to be paid, rather than actually paid, not a dollar of which had ever left the settlement. The landlord was expected to head all subscriptions for everything that was beneficial, or which professed to be beneficial to the estate; and the few hundreds a year, two or three at most, that my rent-roll actually exhibited, were consumed among the farms of the 'Nest. It was matter of record that not one shilling had the owner of this property, as yet, been able to carry away with him for his own private purposes. It is true, it had been in his power to glean a little each year for such a purpose; but it was not considered politic, and consequently it was not the practice of the country, in regard to estates so situated and before the revolution; though isolated cases to the contrary, in which the landlord was particularly avaricious, or particularly necessitous, may have existed. Our New York proprietors, in that day, were seldom of the class that needed money. Extravagance had been little known to the province, and could not yet be known to the State; consequently, few lost their property from their expenditures, though some did from mismanagement. The trade of "puss in the corner," or of shoving a man out of his property, in order to place one's self in it, was little practised previously to the revolution; and the community always looked upon the intruder into family property with a cold eye, unless he came into possession by fair purchase, and for a sufficient price. Legal speculations were then nearly unknown; and he who got rich was expected to do so by manly exertions, openly exercised, and not by the dark machinations of a sinister practice of the law.

In our case, not a shilling had we, as yet, been benefited by the property of Ravensnest. All that had ever been received, and more too, had been expended on the spot; but a time had now arrived when it was just and reasonable that the farms should make some returns for all our care and outlays.

Eleven thousand acres were under lease, divided among somewhat less than a hundred tenants. Until the first day of the succeeding April, these persons could hold their lands under the verbal contracts; but, after that day, new leases became necessary. It is not usual for the American landlord to be exacting. It is out of his power, indeed, for the simple reason that land is so much more abundant than men; but, it is not the practice of the country, a careless indulgence being usually the sin of the caste; an indulgence that admits of an accumulation of arrears, which, when pay-day does arrive, is apt to bring with it ill-blood and discontent. It is an undeniable truth in morals, that, whatever may be the feeling at the time, men are rarely grateful for a government that allows their vices to have a free exercise. They invariably endeavor to throw a portion of the odium of their own misdeeds on the shoulders of those who should have controlled them. It is the same with debts; for, however much we may beg for lenity at the time, accumulations of interest wear a very hostile aspect when they present themselves in a sum-total, at a moment it is inconvenient to balance the account. If those who have been thus placed would only remember that there is a last account that every man must be called on to settle, arrearages and all, the experience of their worldly affairs might suggest a lesson that would be infinitely useful. It is fortunate for us, without exception, that there is a Mediator to aid us in the task.

The time had come when Ravensnest might be expected to produce something. Guided by the surveys, and our own local knowledge, and greatly aided by the Chainbearer's experience, Frank Malbone and I passed one entire fortnight in classifying the farms; putting the lowest into the shilling category; others into the eighteen pence; and a dozen farms or so into the two shillings. The result was, that we placed six thousand acres at a shilling a year rent; three thousand eight hundred at eighteen pence the acre; and twelve hundred acres at two shillings. The whole made a rental of fourteen thousand one hundred shillings, or a fraction more than seventeen hundred and forty-two dollars per annum. This sounded pretty well for the year 1784, and it was exclusively of the 'Nest farm, of Jason Newcome's mills and timber-land, which he had hitherto enjoyed for nothing, or for a mere nominal rent, and all the wild lands.

I will confess I exulted greatly in the result of our calculations. Previously to that day I placed no dependence on Ravensnest for income, finding my support in the other property I had inherited from my grandfather. On paper, my income was more than doubled, for I received then only some eleven hundred a year (I speak of dollars, not pounds) from my other property. It is true, the last included a great many town-lots that were totally unproductive, but which promised to be very valuable, like Ravensnest itself, at some future day. Most things in America looked to the future, then as now; though I trust the hour of fruition is eventually to arrive. My town property has long since become very valuable, and tolerably productive.

As soon as our scheme for reletting was matured, Frank summoned the occupants of the farms, in bodies of ten, to present themselves at the 'Nest, in order to take their new leases. We had ridden round the estate, and conversed with the tenantry, and had let my intentions be known previously, so that little remained to be discussed. The farms were all relet for three lives, and on my own plan, no one objecting to the rent, which, it was admitted all round, was not only reasonable, but low. Circumstances were then too recent to admit of the past's being forgotten; and the day when the last lease was signed was one of general satisfaction. I did think of giving a landlord's dinner, and of collecting the whole settlement in a body, for the purpose of jovial and friendly communion; but old Andries threw cold water on the project.

"T'at would do, Mortaunt," he said, "if you hat only raal New Yorkers, or Middle States men to teal wit'; but more t'an half of t'ese people are from t'e Eastern States, where t'ere are no such t'ings as lantlorts and tenants, on a large scale you unterstant; and t'ere isn't a man among 'em all t'at isn't looking forwart to own his farm one tay, by hook or by crook. T'ey're as jealous of t'eir tignities as if each man wast a full colonel, and will not t'ank you for a tinner at which t'ey will seem to play secont fittle."

Although I knew the Chainbearer had his ancient Dutch prejudices against our Eastern brethren, I also knew that there was a good deal of truth in what he said. Frank Malbone, who was Rhode Island born, had the same notions, I found on inquiry; and I was disposed to defer to his opinions. Frank Malbone was a gentleman himself, and men of that class are always superior to low jealousies; but Frank must know better how to appreciate the feelings of those among whom he had been bred and born than I could possibly know how to do it myself. The project of the dinner was accordingly abandoned.

It remained to make a new arrangement and a final settlement with Mr. Jason Newcome, who was much the most thriving man at Ravensnest; appearing to engross in his single person all the business of the settlement. He was magistrate, supervisor, deacon, according to the Congregational plan, or whatever he is called, miller, store-keeper, will-drawer, tavern-keeper by deputy, and adviser-general, for the entire region. Everything seemed to pass through his hands; or, it would be better to say, everything entered them, though little indeed came out again. This man was one of those moneyed gluttons, on a small scale, who live solely to accumulate; in my view, the most odious character on earth; the accumulations having none of the legitimate objects of proper industry and enterprise in view. So long as there was a man near him whom he supposed to be richer than himself, Mr. Newcome would have been unhappy; though he did not know what to do with the property he had already acquired. One does not know whether to detest or to pity such characters the most; since, while they are and must be repugnant to every man of right feelings and generous mind, they carry in their own bosoms the worm that never dies, to devour their own vitals.

Mr. Newcome had taken his removal from the agency in seeming good part, affecting a wish to give it up from the moment he had reason to think it was to be taken from him. On this score, therefore, all was amicable, not a complaint being made on his side. On the contrary, he met Frank Malbone with the most seeming cordiality, and we proceeded to business with as much apparent good-will as had been manifested in any of the previous bargains. Mr. Newcome did nothing directly; a circuitous path being the one he had been accustomed to travel from childhood.

"You took the mill-lot and the use of five hundred acres of woodland from my grandfather for three lives; or failing these, for a full term of one-and-twenty years, I find, Mr. Newcome," I remarked, as soon as we were seated at business, "and for a nominal rent; the mills to be kept in repair, and to revert to the landlord at the termination of the lease."

"Yes, Major Littlepage, that was the bargain I will allow, though a hard one has it proved to me. The war come on"-this man was what was called liberally educated, but he habitually used bad grammar-"The war come on, and with it hard times, and I didn't know but the major would be willing to consider the circumstances, if we make a new bargain."

"The war cannot have had much effect to your prejudice, as grain of all sorts bore a high price; and I should think the fact that large armies were near by, to consume everything you had to sell, and that at high prices, more than compensated for any disadvantage it might have induced. You had the benefits of two wars, Mr. Newcome; that of 1775, and a part of that of 1756."

My tenant made no answer to this, finding I had reflected on the subject, and was prepared to answer him. After a pause, he turned to more positive things.

"I suppose the major goes on the principle of supposing a legal right in an old tenant to enj'y a new lease? I'm told he has admitted this much in all his dealin's."

"Then you have been misinformed, sir. I am not weak enough to admit a right that the lease itself, which, in the nature of things, must and does form the tenant's only title, contradicts in terms. Your legal interest in the property ceases altogether in a few days from this time."

"Y-a-a-s-y-a-a-s-sir, I conclude it doose," said the 'squire, leaning back in his chair, until his body was at an angle of some sixty or seventy degrees with the floor-"I conclude it doose accordin' to the covenants; but between man and man, there ought to be suthin' more bindin'."

"I know of nothing more binding in a lease than its covenants, Mr. Newcome."

"Wa-a-l"-how that man would 'wa-a-a-l' when he wished to circumvent a fellow-creature; and with what a Jesuitical accent did he pronounce the word! "Wa-a-a-l-that's accordin' to folk's idees. A covenant may be hard; and then, in my judgment, it ought to go for nothin'. I'm ag'in all hard covenants."

"Harkee, frient Jason," put in the Chainbearer, who was an old acquaintance of Mr. Newcome's, and appeared thoroughly to understand his character-"Harkee, frient Jason; do you gift back unexpected profits, ven it so happens t'at more are mate on your own pargains t'an were look for?"

"It's not of much use to convarse with you, Chainbearer, on such subjects, for we'll never think alike," answered the 'squire, leaning still farther back in his chair; "you're what I call a particular man, in your notions, and we should never agree."

"Still, there is good sense in the Chainbearer's question," I added. "Unless prepared to answer 'yes,' I do not see how you can apply your own principle with any justice. But let this pass as it will, why are covenants made, if they are not to be regarded?"

"Wa-a-l, now, accordin' to my notion, a covenant in a lease is pretty much like a water-course in a map; not a thing to be partic'lar at all about; but as water-courses look well on a map, so covenants read well in a lease. Landlords like to have 'em, and tenants a'n't particular."

"You can hardly be serious in either case, I should hope, Mr. Newcome, but are pleased to exercise your ingenuity on us for your own amusement. There is nothing so particular in the covenants of your lease as to require any case of conscience to decide on its points."

"There's this in it, major, that you get the whull property back ag'in, if you choose to claim it."

"Claim it! the whole property has been mine, or my predeces

sors', ever since it was granted to us by the crown. All your rights come from your lease; and when that terminates, your rights terminate."

"Not accordin' to my judgment, major; not accordin' to my judgment. I built the mills at my own cost, you'll remember."

"I certainly know, sir, that you built the mills at what you call your own cost; that is, you availed yourself of a natural mill-seat, used our timber and other materials, and constructed the mills, such as they are, looking for your reward in their use for the term of a quarter of a century, for a mere nominal rent-having saw-logs at command as you wanted them, and otherwise enjoying privileges under one of the most liberal leases that was ever granted."

"Yes, sir, but that was in the bargain I made with your grand'ther. It was agreed between us, at the time I took the place, that I was to cut logs at will, and of course use the materials on the ground for buildin'. You see, major, your grand'ther wanted the mills built desperately; and so he gave them conditions accordin'ly. You'll find every syllable on't in the lease."

"No doubt, Mr. Newcome; and you will also find a covenant in the same lease, by which your interest in the property is to cease in a few days."

"Wa-a-l, now, I don't understand leases in that way. Surely it was never intended a man should erect mills, to lose all right in 'em at the end of five-and-twenty years."

"That will depend on the bargain made at the time. Some persons erect mills and houses that have no rights in them at all. They are paid for their work as they build."

"Yes, yes-carpenters and millwrights, you mean. But I'm speakin' of no such persons; I'm speakin' of honest, hard-workin', industrious folks, that give their labor and time to build up a settlement; and not of your mechanics who work for hire. Of course, they're to be paid for what they do, and there's an eend on't."

"I am not aware that all honest persons are hard-working, any more than that all hard-working persons are honest. I wish to be understood that, in the first place, Mr. Newcome, phrases will procure no concession from me. I agree with you, however, perfectly, in saying that when a man is paid for his work, there will be what you call 'an end of it.' Now twenty-three days from this moment, you will have been paid for all you have done on my property according to your own agreement; and by your own reasoning, there must be an end of your connection with that property."

"The major doesn't mean to rob me of all my hard earnin's!"

"Mr. Newcome, rob is a hard word, and one that I beg may not be again used between you and me. I have no intention to rob you, or to let you rob me. The pretence that you are not, and were not acquainted with the conditions of this lease, comes rather late in the day, after a possession of a quarter of a century. You know very well that my grandfather would not sell, and that he would do no more than lease; if it were your wish to purchase, why did you not go elsewhere, and get land in fee? There were, and still are, thousands of acres to be sold, all around you. I have lands to sell, myself, at Mooseridge, as the agent of my father and Colonel Follock, within twenty miles of you, and they tell me capital mill-seats in the bargain."

"Yes, major, but not so much to my notion as this-I kind o' wanted this!"

"But, I kind o' want this, too; and, as it is mine, I think, in common equity, I have the best claim to enjoy it."

"It's on equity I want to put this very matter, major-I know the law is ag'in me-that is, some people say it is; but some think not, now we've had a revolution-but, let the law go as it may, there's such a thing as what I call right between man and man."

"Certainly; and law is an invention to enforce it. It is right I should do exactly what my grandfather agreed to do for me, five-and-twenty years ago, in relation to these mills; and it is right you should do what you agreed to do, for yourself."

"I have done so. I agreed to build the mills, in a sartain form and mode, and I done it. I'll defy mortal man to say otherwise. The saw-mill was smashing away at the logs within two months a'ter I got the lease, and we began to grind in four!"

"No doubt, sir, you were active and industrious-though, to be frank with you, I will say that competent judges tell me neither mill is worth much now."

"That's on account of the lease"-cried Mr. Newcome, a little too hastily, possibly, for the credit of his discretion-"how did I know when it would run out? Your gran'ther granted it for three lives, and twenty-one years afterward, and I did all a man could to make it last as long as I should myself; but here I am, in the prime of life, and in danger of losing my property!"

I knew all the facts of the case perfectly, and had intended to deal liberally with Mr. Newcome from the first. In his greediness for gain he had placed his lives on three infants, although my grandfather had advised him to place at least one on himself; but, no-Mr. Newcome had fancied the life of an infant better than that of a man; and in three or four years after the signature of the lease, his twenty-one years had begun to run, and were now near expiring. Even under this certainly unlooked-for state of things, the lease had been a very advantageous one for the tenant; and, had one of his lives lasted a century, the landlord would have looked in vain for any concession on that account; landlords never asking for, or expecting favors of that sort; indeed most landlords would be ashamed to receive them; nevertheless, I was disposed to consider the circumstances, to overlook the fact that the mills and all the other buildings on the property were indifferently built, and to relet, for an additional term of twenty-one years, woodlands, farms, buildings, and other privileges, for about one-third of the money that Mr. Newcome himself would have been apt to ask, had he the letting instead of myself. Unwilling to prolong a discussion with a man who, by his very nature, was unequal to seeing more than one side of a subject, I cut the matter short by telling him my terms without further delay.

Notwithstanding all his acting and false feeling, the 'squire was so rejoiced to learn my moderation that he could not but openly express his feelings; a thing he would not have done did he not possess the moral certainty I would not depart from my word. I felt it necessary, however, to explain myself.

"Before I give you this new lease, Mr. Newcome," I added, holding the instrument signed in my hand, "I wish to be understood. It is not granted under the notion that you have any right to ask it, beyond the allowance that is always made by a liberal landlord to a reasonably good tenant; which is simply a preference over others on the same terms. As for the early loss of your lives, it was your own fault. Had the infants you named, or had one of them, passed the state of childhood, it might have lived to be eighty, in which case my timber-land would have been stripped without any return to its true owner, but your children died, and the lease was brought within reasonable limits. Now the only inducement I have for offering the terms I do, is the liberality that is usual with landlords, what is conceded is conceded as no right, but as an act of liberality."

This was presenting to my tenant the most incomprehensible of all reasons for doing anything. A close and sordid calculator himself, he was not accustomed to give any man credit for generosity; and, from the doubting, distrustful manner in which he received the paper, I suspected at the moment that he was afraid there was some project for taking him in. A rogue is always distrustful, and as often betrays his character to honest men by that as by any other failing. I was not to regulate my own conduct, however, by the weaknesses of Jason Newcome, and the lease was granted.

I could wish here to make one remark. There ought certainly to be the same principle of good fellowship existing between the relations of landlord and tenant that exist in the other relations of life, and which creates a moral tie between parties that have much connection in their ordinary interests, and that to a degree to produce preferences and various privileges of a similar character. This I am far from calling in question; and, on the whole, I think, of all that class of relations, the one in question is to be set down as among the most binding and sacred. Still, the mere moral rights of the tenant must depend on the rigid maintenance of all the rights of the landlord; the legal and moral united; and the man who calls in question either of the latter, surely violates every claim to have his own pretensions allowed, beyond those which the strict letter of the law will yield to him. The landlord who will grant a new lease to the individual who is endeavoring to undermine his rights, by either direct or indirect means, commits the weakness of arming an enemy with the knife by which he is himself to be assaulted, in addition to the error of granting power to a man who, under the character of a spurious liberty, is endeavoring to unsettle the only conditions on which civilized society can exist. If landlords will exhibit the weakness, they must blame themselves for the consequences.

I got rid of Mr. Newcome by the grant of the lease, his whole man?uvring having been attempted solely to lower the rent; for he was much too shrewd to believe in the truth of his own doctrines on the subject of right and wrong. That same day my axe-men appeared at the 'Nest, having passed the intermediate time in looking at various tracts of land that were in the market, and which they had not found so eligible, in the way of situation, quality, or terms, as those I offered. By this time, the surveyed lots of Mooseridge were ready, and I offered to sell them to these emigrants. The price was only a dollar an acre, with a credit of ten years; the interest to be paid annually. One would have thought that the lowness of the price would have induced men to prefer lands in fee to lands on lease; but these persons, to a man, found it more to their interests to take farms on three-lives leases, being rent-free for the first five years, and at nominal rents for the remainder of the term, than to pay seven dollars a year of interest, and a hundred dollars in money, at the expiration of the credit.[11] This fact, of itself, goes to show how closely these men calculated their means, and the effect their decisions might have on their interests. Nor were their decisions always wrong. Those who can remember the start the country took shortly after the peace of '83, the prices that the settlers on new lands obtained for their wheat, ashes, and pork; three dollars a bushel often for the first, three hundred dollars a ton for the second, and eight or ten dollars a hundred for the last, will at once understand that the occupant of new lands at that period obtained enormous wages for a laborer by means of the rich unexhausted lands he was thus permitted to occupy. No doubt he would have been in a better situation had he owned his farm in fee at the end of his lease; so would the merchant who builds a ship and clears her cost by her first freight, have been a richer man had he cleared the cost of two ships instead of one; but he has done well, notwithstanding; and it is not to be forgotten that the man who commences life with an axe and a little household furniture, is in the situation of a mere day-laborer. The addition to his means of the use of land is the very circumstance that enables him to rise above his humble position, and to profit by the cultivation of the soil. At the close of the last century, and at the commencement of the present, the country was so placed as to render every stroke of the axe directly profitable, the very labor that was expended in clearing away the trees meeting with a return so liberal by the sale of the ashes manufactured, as to induce even speculators to engage in the occupation. It may one day be a subject of curious inquiry to ascertain how so much was done as is known to have been done at that period, toward converting the wilderness into a garden; and I will here record, for the benefit of posterity, a brief sketch of one of the processes of getting to be comfortable, if not rich, that was much used in that day.

It was a season's work for a skilful axe-man to chop, log, burn, clear, and sow ten acres of forest land. The ashes he manufactured. For the heavier portions of the work, such as the logging, he called on his neighbors for aid, rendering similar assistance by way of payment. One yoke of oxen frequently sufficed for two or three farms, and "logging-bees" have given rise to a familiar expression among us, that is known as legislative "log-rolling;" a process by which, as is well known, one set of members supports the project of another set, on the principle of reciprocity.

Now ten acres of land, cropped for the first time, might very well yield a hundred and fifty bushels of merchantable wheat, which would bring three hundred dollars in the Albany market. They would also make a ton of pot-ashes, which would sell for at least two hundred dollars. This is giving five hundred dollars for a single year's work. Allowing for all the drawbacks of buildings, tools, chains, transportation, provisions, etc., and one-half of this money might very fairly be set down as clear profit; very large returns to one who, before he got his farm, was in the situation of a mere day-laborer, content to toil for eight or nine dollars the month.

That such was the history, in its outlines, of the rise of thousands of the yeomen who now dwell in New York, is undeniable; and it goes to show that if the settler in a new country has to encounter toil and privations, they are not always without their quick rewards. In these later times, men go on the open prairies, and apply the plough to an ancient sward; but I question if they would not rather encounter the virgin forests of 1790, with the prices of that day, than run over the present park-like fields, in order to raise wheat for 37-1/2 cents per bushel, have no ashes at any price, and sell their pork at two dollars the hundred!

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