“The Four Wills” (from Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet, September 1854, pp. 103-110)
With my courteous reader’s permission—I must have that, or I cannot advance a step further—I am going to rehearse a brief chapter from the chronicles of Blue Hill. These chronicles—I am telling a secret now, and I beg, as a special favor, that you will not name the thing to any one—came into my possession by the merest accident in the world. The good old man who collated them—but really I must not tell any more. I am half frightened at what I have already revealed. As I was saying, I will rehearse a chapter from these chronicles. If you find it spicy and pungent, as well as didactic and suggestive, why there is no telling what I may do in respect to the rest of the chronicles. This chapter we will entitle “The Four Wills,” if you please.
“But why the Four Wills? What do you mean by four wills?”
“I will beg leave to say, that, if you will listen to the chronicles, you will find out what is here meant by wills, and that if you will not listen to it, I will not tell you. And so do you not see that the very best thing you can do is to lend me your ears until this Blue Hill chronicle is despatched?
Blue Hill, it may not be amiss to premise, for the benefit of a few whose geographical knowledge may have some limits, is situated quite in the heart of good old Connecticut. It is the name of a parish. A well-authenticated hill so named actually exists, and many are the black snakes, and hen-hawks, and woodchucks which inhabit it. But long ago, as in the case of ancient Rome, it found itself so important, as to justify itself in giving its name to a large district of country adjacent to it. The parish of Blue
Hill embraces a very considerable tract of huckleberry bushes, sweet fern, thistles, dwarf oaks, and mulleins. As for the soil, I have heard good farmers say that its value was very much under-rated—that although its products had hitherto been somewhat unimportant in kind and stunted in size, there is no doubt but it would do its duty, if one could only get at it, a rather formidable shelf of rock covering most of its surface. But be that as it may—and we are not now discussing agricultural questions, which we leave to farmers’ clubs, who are sometimes sadly in want of profitable questions, I fancy—the Blue Hill people, who were generally farmers, never seemed to be owing much to the soil. It paid them but poorly for the nursing they gave it. And so it came to pass that in their efforts to enter the kingdom of heaven, very few of them had to contend against any such formidable obstacle as wealth. To this rule I don’t believe there were half a dozen exceptions in the district. At this moment, indeed, I do not recollect but three men who could properly be called wealthy. One of these personages has so much to do with our chronicle, that we must give a slight sketch of him.
Colonel Fish was the great man of Blue Hill. He paid the highest taxes, sported the finest horses, ate the most sumptuous dinners, drank the best wine, made the greatest speeches in town meetings, represented the town oftenest in the legislature, visited in the best society, and measured the most around the body, in the region of the diaphragm, of any person in the parish. Marvelous were the stories which were told of his riches, in the days of my boyhood. At this later period, I am accustomed to look upon them as slightly apocryphal; but I wanted but little evidence then to convince me that the component part of the moon was green cheese. The colonel was an indisputably rich man, though. His house seemed a palace to the common people, who were now and then dazzled with its inside splendor, just before the town elections. At such times he played the prince with astonishing success.
Colonel Fish was waggishly said to have been descended from one of the “first families of Connecticut”—the pith of the joke consisting in the fact that no one in those parts ever heard of
his ancestors until his father set up a blacksmith’s shop on the hill, and it was contended that as the family must consequently have originated there, no one had a better claim to be called one of the first families. The colonel, as you have surmised before this time, dug but little of his gold from the granite-bound soil of Blue Hill. He went to Demarara early in his career, and there made his fortune. How he made it, the chronicle does not very distinctly state, though it compliments his shrewdness and tact in several particulars touching money matters, and dwells at length on his adroitness in marrying a native lady, and being obliged to leave for home, on pressing business, as soon as he obtained the control of her fortune, forgetting, in his haste, to take his bride along with him.
Colonel Fish was most decidedly aristocratic in his feelings and habits. Like the fat alderman whom Dickens speaks of, he considered it a crime to be poor, and wanted all the poor men “put down.” One of his hobbies was, that poverty and crime were sisters, and so much alike that they might be taken for twins. On this account he disliked his brothers, of whom there were three or four, all living in the parish, and a sister, living in a neighboring township. Of course, he did not associate with his kindred; for do not “evil communications corrupt good manners?” The bare mention of such an intimacy to him would have brought on a fit of laughter sufficiently severe to have endangered his vest buttons, to say no more; and, indeed, when I think of the difference between the haughty colonel and his humble relatives, it makes me laugh, too. Just fancy the old Dives sitting at the table of his brother Dan, with eight children—it may be nine—and harpooning, with an iron fork, bits of fried beef from a dish common to the whole family, in the centre of the table!
If the colonel possessed a vast amount of weight of character, his physical weight was even greater. Good eating and good drinking had done an immense service for him. He always had a great many barrels in his cellar; and to his fondness for their contents, perhaps, more than to any other one circumstance, was due the fact, that he gradually assumed a form somewhat like
these barrels. He had a red nose, too—another sign of good living, if not of good society and respectability. His mind did not keep pace with his body. Indeed, he never troubled himself much about the former, presuming that it would take care of itself if the other were well provided for. What he most prided himself upon, besides his money, was his cunning. It was often his boast, that he was never outwitted in his life. He was an uncommonly shrewd man, it must be admitted, and all the neighbors conceded that the man or woman who caught him napping, would have to get up very early in the morning.
Colonel Fish was married, soon after his return from Demarara, to a lady of distinction, belonging to one of the three families I have already mentioned as among the èlite of Blue Hill. After the twain had become one—one great Fish—they were undoubtedly very happy. Of course they were. What was there to hinder their happiness? They had nearly all that heart could wish—all but children. It so happened that the colonel had plenty of money and no children, while each of his brothers and his sister had plenty of children and no money. This state of things made it necessary for the millionaire, when he got to be somewhat in years, to set his scheming machinery at work, to devise means for a judicious disposition of his property, when his little soul should leave his huge body. After an outlay of a vast amount of sagacity, which, directed in a different channel, might almost have stretched an electric wire from Boston to San Francisco, a plan was finally hit upon. It was this: to make an heiress of Dan’s daughter Patty, who had always been a favorite with the uncle, on account of some high notions which he had heard had crept into her head, and to marry her—as of course he could easily do, when the nature of his will was known—to William Littleworth, only son of the wealthiest man in the county. “A fine stroke that,” said the old man to himself, as he rung the bell for a bottle of Madeira to drink over the success of his plotting—“a fine stroke that—bold, but cunning, very cunning.”
The next step was to adopt Miss Patty. This proved to be no difficult thing to bring about. Dan had no great love for his
lordly brother. But he found it rather difficult to feed and clothe the little army that hovered around his hearthstone, and on the whole, he was glad to hear of a project that relieved him of the responsibility of providing for one of the number. As for Patty, she was delighted at the idea; and a very few weeks found her installed at the residence of her uncle, as an adopted daughter.
It will be readily believed that so shrewd a man as Colonel Fish lost no time in displaying to the eyes of the Littleworth family the attractive bait which he had prepared for them. Not a month had elapsed after the adoption of the niece, before, to use the old man’s expression, “they were playing around the hook.” Will Littleworth soon became a constant visitor at the colonel’s house; and it did the shrewd diplomatist’s heart good to see how intimate he and Patty soon became.
There was another William in the neighborhood, who had previously taken quite a fancy to Miss Patty, and Rumor declared that the girl liked him pretty well. But no one was so foolish as to suppose that he would dare to aspire to so high a platform as that on which the girl now stood. Still less did any one deem it possible that Patty could be guilty of such folly as to bestow a thought upon him, now that she had become an heiress. In fact, Will Merrifield had been heard to say—so that same Madame Rumor deposed—that he believed there were as good fish in the sea as ever were caught, which repetition of a well-known proverb was understood to have been intended as a clever put upon Patty’s name, and to have some significance in respect to one of her cousins, to whom he had been formerly not a little attentive.
Well, time traveled on. Littleworth and Patty were by everybody understood to be engaged. Everybody was slightly mistaken, however, for this once, as the youth, deeming his prize perfectly secure, I suppose, never avowed his preference in so many words, though his actions certainly seemed to indicate it. This tardiness on the part of the young man did not altogether chime in with the colonel’s whims. It had been an axiom with him from childhood, that if there was anything to be done, the
quicker it was done the better. His gout grew worse. Apoplexy had hit him one hard blow. His hands began to tremble ominously, and he could not help thinking that his lease on the good things of this world was pretty nearly run out. Such being the state of things, it is not at all wonderful that he was slightly impatient at the delay which was taking place in the execution of the darling scheme which lay nearest his heart. “I’ll have that business done up to-morrow,” said he, one afternoon, as his dangerous situation suddenly flashed upon him.
And the next day, sure enough, when his favorite Will came over, he called him into his library, and had a long private interview with him.
“Young man,” said he, in a lofty tone, “I perceive that you are attached to my daughter.”
“And you wish to marry her?”
“Why, yes, sir—that is, if”—
“If she is willing. Of course she is.”
“I didn’t mean that exactly, but—I thought—in fact”—
The cowardly fellow could not finish the sentence. He has not finished it to this day; and for that I commend him. His biting it off unfinished shows that there was some sense of shame in his bosom. The truth is, he was not perfectly sure that Colonel Fish had, in his will, been as liberal to his adopted daughter as was generally reported. The shrewd old man detected the cause of this embarrassment, and instead of being indignant at such meanness, told the young man that, except the matter of the widow’s dower, Patty was his sole heir.
Will’s countenance brightened up at this announcement, and he said there was no obstacle in the way of making a proposal to Miss Patty at once. He would, he added, consult his parents that very day, and if agreeable to the colonel, he would propose, in due form, the day after.
Patty suspected the nature of the business that was on foot between her foster-father and her suitor; and in less than a minute after the latter left the library, she entered it. “I’ll play my part next,” said she to herself. “Now or never.”
She found the old gentleman in an immensely good humor. It was evident that the result of the interview with the young man had been perfectly satisfactory on his side of the house.
After a minute or two the old gentleman began to grow a little fidgety. He evidently wanted to broach his favorite topic. “Now for it,” thought Patty.
“My dear father,” said she, her voice trembling with emotion.
“My darling daughter.”
“I have a great favor to ask of you.”
“I love to bestow favors upon you, my child.”
“I know it. But this is so great”—and she burst into tears. The colonel was completely overwhelmed, and caressed his daughter, again and again, something, she herself said, as a bear would caress one of his cubs. When she had sufficiently recovered to speak intelligibly, she knelt down before the old man, told him frankly her love for Will, and his love for her, and implored him to sanction their union.
This was just what the worldly-wise man desired; and he chuckled inwardly to perceive how admirably the plan was working. Still, he was too much of a diplomatist to yield to such a request, as if it were a mere bauble he was giving away. He bade her rise; covered his face with his hands; remained for fifteen minutes apparently in deep thought, frequently uttering parts of sentences to himself; and then, with a deep smile overspreading his face, said,
“My daughter, take Will, and be happy.”
Of course Patty covered the hand he held out to her with kisses, and of course Colonel Fish was one of the happiest men alive.
The next day, sure enough, Will came, bright and early, all provided with a touching speech to Miss Patty, which was to gain for him her hand and her fortune.
The speech went off to his satisfaction. As soon as it was completed, however, Patty burst into one of the merriest laughs which that old parlor had ever heard.
“And so you consent to make me happy?” said Will, quite mistaking the cause of the girl’s merriment.
“No, no, Mr. Littleworth,” said she, more seriously, “what you ask I have promised to another. My heart is not now mine to give.”
“And pray who has it? if I may be so bold as to ask the question.”
“Will Merrifield, and he is to have my hand, too, one of these days. So you see they are both pledged.”
“And your uncle”—
“Declares I shall be the happiest woman within ten miles of Blue Hill.”
“So then the old fellow has given his consent?”
And without waiting for an answer, he ran to the library, where the colonel was sitting, awaiting the issue of the interview between the young couple, and indignantly told him the whole story. The daughter was immediately summoned, and somewhat sternly interrogated.
“Did you not solemnly ask my consent yesterday, to your union with htis young gentleman?”
“No, dear father, I meant Will Merrifield, not Will Littleworth.”
Poor old man! He was immediately seized with a fit of apoplexy, and though he lingered several days, he never spoke again. This last disappointment crushed him into the grave.
Poor Fish! he got caught at last—caught in a very complicated net. You see there were four wills in the case. There was, first, his own will about a matter of some thousands of dollars; secondly, his daughter’s will, rather formidable, as it turned out; thirdly, Will Littleworth, who spoke too late; and fourthly, Will Merrifield, who spoke just in time.
In presenting this chapter from the Blue Hill chronicles, the reader will not understand me as approving of Miss Patty’s stratagem. The moral of the tale does not lie in that direction. I deduce from the chronicle, this wholesome lesson: that where there are four wills concerned, each distinct and conflicting, a man, though he should have grown gray in scheming, may have his match in an encounter with a simple girl.