Sunday, July 4, 2010

One - 1833

June 16, 1833

It was three hours before dawn. The Elder household was in turmoil. The lamps had been lit, a fire was blazing on the hearth. Everyone moved about purposefully. The door to the street would open and then close again; voices whispered; something deemed necessary was searched for and found. Someone hurried, heavy footed down the hallway; a man, from the sound of the boots on the wide plank floors.

Magdelen Elder, as she took a pot of steaming tea, and poured it out into cups, making a rich mix of tea, cream and sugar to brace the other adults. Her daughter Anne Elder Pythian, young and as pretty as the Queen of Scots, with her red-gold hair drawn up into a knot at the nape of her neck, moved deftly, taking several of the hot mugs to the Elder brothers, the men and boys gathered in the sitting room. William, round faced and florid, stood by the fire staring into the flames, twiddling his waistcoat button nervously. Young Samuel, composed and steady, already taller than the rest at 16, and his little brother Joseph, sat on the floor, their long frames folded easily, their heads together, talking in that quiet way they had. They took the tea as their sister passed it round. The only brother not there was John Robinson, who had been sent off to Mercersburg Academy the past fall and was not yet home from his studies.

One brother looked more sheepish than the others. Clifford Elder, with his unruly red hair and boyish face, still looking down at the offending boots and smarting from his mother’s rebuke. The boots were his fault, the noise was his fault, all of this was his fault—again! He took a cup of the tea gratefully from his sister Anne, and then peered into the hallway.

“They have things well in hand upstairs,” intoned William, who always sounded as if he were going to preach a sermon—and a long one. The look on his face a mix of weariness and disdain. “Cliff; there is no need to get yourself all worked up about it. After all, if you are going to insist on making babies, you must be prepared for them to arrive. Compose yourself as a father-to-be ought.”

“I was thinking Rosanna,” said Clifford to his older brother, now, ostensibly the head of the family. William, with his fussy, pompous ways! Where did they come from? Certainly not from their father. Old Dr. Elder had been a proud and wise Presbyterian, with the Edinburgh polish, always correct. But never, never pompous. And their mother Magdelen, no matter how old she grew, she still was the young lassie of the Ennskillen hills. You could almost hear the heather in her voice and see the shimmer of the loch in her eyes. Clifford did his best to ignore William, and instead rubbed his hand through his unruly hair, making matters worse, not better. “I’ll just go and look in on them.” Clifford took himself down the hall toward the small anteroom that for the moment served as the birthing room. He stood there in the hallway for he knew not how long, thinking these things. There was a rustle behind him. Clifford sensed but not saw his sister in the hallway.

“If father were here…” Clifford said quietly, so that only his sister could hear.

“He’d let John take charge,” his sister answered, resting her hand on his shoulder for just a moment. “Why, no self-respecting doctor would deliver his own grandchild. Not if he didn’t have to. Not if there were someone else to do it. And John is a good doctor.”

“Aye, that he is; and a good man,” said Clifford. John Pythian had been Clifford’s boon companion of boyhood, lazy hours fishing and swimming in the Cassleman River, rollicking over the laurel highlands. Now, a popular physician, John had become his darling sister’s husband; they had been happily married for four years, and seemed more in love than ever.

Another whispered voice said, simply, “All will be well.” It was their mother, Magdelen, who had tiptoed to their side.

“Yes,” Anne replied, “Rosanna will be fine. She takes everything in life with a readiness and a sweetness that we all admire.”

“How true,” Magdelen turned back toward the kitchen, sensing it was time to check the progress of the hearty potato cakes. “And when it is time, all will be well.”

Clifford seemed to suddenly relax.

“Mother!” said Anne, with more than a twinkle in her voice, “if we were surrounded by fifty savages all threatening to scalp us, and not a gun in the house, she would still say, ‘All will be well’.”

Clifford simply smiled at his sister, and nodded his head. All would be well, for the Elders and for their Pennsylvania town of Somerset.

Somerset had known its wild days and altercations with the native population. Guns aimed at savages, however, were mostly a thing of the past. The days of the hunters and traders were gone. It was still in the memory of some, how old Harmon Husband had fled from North Carolina to this valley, back in 1771, to be one of the first permanent settlers. His big house still stood in the town, not far from their own home. But he was long in the grave, just a memory, as were the others who came with him and made a new settlement along the Cassleman River in the foothills of the Alleghenies. There were Wilsons, too, and their extended kin, who had come with Harmon Husband, all the way from Orange County, North Carolina. Those North Carolina transplants had been part of the rebellion—the first armed rising against the British in 1769. Oh, others might boast of the Boston Massacre or Sons of Liberty, and let them, but the ever-contentious Scots Presbyterians had started it all, and had kept it going and had made these United States free of their British oppressors.

Those first settlers had a difficult time. When they weren’t agitating and fighting against England; they were agitated by and had to fight against the wilderness and its people. When nearby Hannastown was destroyed by the natives, there was a general Indian scare. 1783 was a bad year. But that was before Clifford’s father had come to Somerset. In fact, the county itself had not been carved out of Bedford County until 1795; and the town was incorporated in 1804, only two years after Clifford had been born here. Some homesick fellow had named it for the shire of Somerset in England he’d left behind. The rest of the populace seemed, generally, to be glad to be living here and now, as the pleasant little town grew and the frontier shifted farther and farther westward into Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and beyond.

By 1833, the rugged Allegheny Mountains that had presented such a formidable barrier to the eighteenth century settlers had been tamed, more or less, along with the rest of the countryside. There were the old roads that Braddock and Forbes had hewn westward into Pittsburgh, much improved and in heavy use for commerce. The goods moved ponderously over the toll roads and the keepers of the quaint octagonal tollbooths kept track of it all. There was the Cassleman River, leading as it did into the Monongahela, and from there, down to Pittsburgh and the broad Ohio as far as the Mississippi, a highway of water all the way to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. And on April 4 of that year, the Reading Railroad was incorporated.

And so he came into the world, the baby that all the commotion was about. He came into the world in the same way as every child. As did those whose names ring down through history and those whose names time has forgotten. The boy was born, the excitement died down, the new uncles went home.

Later, when she felt able, Rosanna sat in the chair by the window, with the baby in her arms. He slept there, and once or twice Clifford moved quietly to her side, rested his hand tenderly on her shoulder, and peered down into the face of his newest son. As he stood there, his mother entered the room and went to the desk in the corner. It was the best piece of furniture, by far, in the room, a Chippendale slant top desk, of walnut with satinwood inlay and beautiful brass hardware. There were large, locking drawers below the desktop, and inside the desk, small
drawers, also with locks, and various pigeonholes, and several secret compartments. Magdelen paused as she sat down before it, thinking of her husband. The desk had been his, Clifford’s father’s, Dr. William Gore Elder’s.

William Gore Elder had been born in 1759 in County Leitrim, Ireland, one of that band of Scots Presbyterians who found a temporary home in Ireland but whose heart and soul remained Scottish to the core. A bright and sturdy lad, William Gore impressed upon his parents his desire to study medicine, which, matched by his ability, led to his being sent to the best school, graduating from the College of Medicine in Edinburgh. Eventually, Scotland could not hold him, nor could Ireland, and not long after the Revolution, he removed to Pennsylvania. Dr. Elder thus became the first physician to settle and serve in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, beginning his practice there in 1797.

It was there in Somerset that Magdelen had met William. She, too was Scots-Irish, they had come to Pennsylvania where her father, John Armstrong, Sr., became a successful and widely sought stonemason. Magdelen was one of many young ladies of Somerset who had noticed that Dr. Elder cut a fine figure as he made his rounds, and looked particularly handsome as he bent over a patient, his sandy hair glowing in the candlelight. One hot August day, when her own father had been ill, she had taken the doctor a cup of cool water from the spring. And when he took it from her hand; for an instant, their fingers had touched.

She could still feel the thrill it had given her these many years later. And the look of tenderness in his eyes as he took the cup and lifted it to his lips. Closer to her father’s age than her own, tall and fine-looking, with a presence that immediately instilled confidence, the doctor was, even so, a painfully shy man.

Yet with his patients, the shyness melted away and everyone said that Dr. Elder made people better just by the sight of him, the moment he walked into the room. The doctor had done well in his practice and one early spring day in 1800 he asked his friend John Armstrong to build him a house. They were standing on the bare lot the doctor had purchased, looking it over, when Dr. Elder gave Armstrong his ideas of what he wanted.

“No skimping, John; I need a place where a doctor can treat his patients and where a doctor can raise a family,” he told the stonemason. “It has to be sturdy and the rooms of good proportion. I want something that will last.”

“Oh, make no mistake, Will. I can give you a fine house that will last. It will stand long after your grandchildren are old and decrepit,” Armstrong answered, “but where are you going to get this family of yours—you, with no wife?”

“As for the wife…” Dr. Elder said, hesitantly.

John Armstrong looked at the man—nearly his contemporary—almost forty, and saw he was blushing like a schoolgirl. “Go on, man!” Armstrong said, “Finish what you started.”

Elder smiled uneasily, “You know where I am going, then, John?”

“How could I not, my friend, when I have seen you stand there unaware of everything else around you when she walks by? Not that I blame you, but then, I am not an uninterested bystander. You may be shy about speaking your mind, but the whole town knows what is on it.”

“Do they, then?” answered the doctor. “What are they all saying’, do you suppose?”

“I am not one to suppose; but only to encourage you to speak your piece. Speak up, Will; speak now. If not now, then when?”

“And you think, John, that I have reason to expect a favorable reply?” the doctor asked in all sincerity, with a look that betrayed all his emotions.

The stonemason laughed aloud, and heartily, in spite of the doctor’s look of pain and love mixed together. “Come on, Will!” he said, “The lass is pining away to hear what’s on your mind.”

“May I, then, my friend, ask you for permission to speak to your daughter Magdelen?”

“You may, but only if you do so before the sun sets today,” Armstrong answered. The doctor looked at him, puzzled. Armstrong explained, “If you hesitate any longer, you’ll work yourself into such a state that the words will never pass your lips!”

The doctor, whose shyness had nearly bested his longing, struggled to find the humor that made the stonemason so gleeful. He drew himself to his full six feet two inches and announced, “I’ll go then; right now, if you don’t mind.”

“Mind?” said Armstrong, “I’ve practically given you a good swift kick with my boots, old man. What more can I say? She is hoping and praying and there is no doubt in this father’s mind that she will say yes before you say two words of your speech. So, get you on your way, Will. I will follow along in a while. I have no doubt but that I will find two very happy people when I arrive at home.”

Magdelen was at home, as her father knew she would be. The girl—for she was only sixteen if truth were told—was in the yard, speaking with a neighbor, when she saw the doctor striding up the street.

“Oh, here comes that dear Dr. Elder,” Mrs. Parsons said, nodding in that direction and smiling slyly, as if she had not noticed the look in Magdelen’s eyes.

“Aye,” said the girl softly. “And without his bag.”

“Right you are,” replied Mrs. Parsons. “A good omen, my dear!”

“Good morning, ladies,” the doctor said, raising his hat to them both, “Mrs. Parsons. Miss Armstrong.”

“A fine day Dr. Elder,” said Mrs. Parsons with spirit.

“Indeed, ma’am, and promises finer,” the doctor answered.

There was a pause, and the little group fell silent.

The doctor toed the gravel with one of his long boots. Magdelen fiddled with her bonnet ribbon, and Mrs. Parsons, all smiles, looked from face to face as if she were about to witness some natural wonder, like a total eclipse of the sun.

“I have those books my father would be lending you,” Magdelen said, abruptly.

Dr. Elder, who had never heard of John Armstrong opening a book except books of house plans, paused almost too long before he understood Magdelen’s ruse, “I’d like to see them,” he said at last.

“Well, they are spread all over the table, you’ll have to pick out the ones you like; come and see,” she said. And when Mrs. Parsons seemed to move in the direction of the house, Magdelen quickly added, “Good day to you, then Mrs. P!”

So the two of them walked up to the door alone.

At the door, the doctor cleared his throat and said, “It wasn’t about the books that I came. Nor about borrowing.”

“No?” said Magdelen.

“Not at all,” Will answered, as they stepped into the front hall.

“What then?” asked Magdelen, as she closed the door.

“I came to speak,” said Will Elder, “about you and about me.” He looked earnestly into her eyes.

“And?” said Magdelen, with a beautiful openness to her face that seemed to draw Will closer.

“Will you marry me, Magdelen? Say you will. Say yes, and I will do all I can to make you happy.”
“You’ve done it already, dearest Will. Yes, of course, yes. I will be your bride.”

They kissed but only for an instant.

“Is that you Magdelen?” a voice called from the kitchen. “Who do you have with you, dear?”

“It’s Doctor Elder, Mother,” Magdelen replied.

“Indeed?” Mrs. Armstrong came from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. “So it is, and it looks to me as if you have news, Will?”

“Yes, Ann,” he answered, “we are… that is to say… Magdelen and I…”

“The Good Lord be praised!” Ann Armstrong said, not waiting to hear the rest. She ran to her daughter and hugged and kissed her and then turning to Will, she stood on tiptoes and said, “It is about time, Will Elder!”

“That’s what John said, too,” Will replied, smiling at last a smile of relief and joy.

“Did he now?” said Ann. “You mean to say you too slugabouts have talked this over?”

“Well I couldn’t speak with Maggie without first speaking to John,” said Will.

“For a long time, Will, we weren’t sure you knew how to speak at all,” Ann Armstrong teased him. “But all’s well now.”

“Yes,” said Magdelen softly, “All will be well.”

* * * * *

It seemed only yesterday, Magdelen thought, as she took the old Bible from its place and opened it to the page where the first inscription appeared:

“On Sunday, May 8, 1800, in Somerset, Pennsylvania, Dr. William Gore Elder married Magdelen Armstrong, born in 1784 in Enniskillian, Fermanagh County, Ireland.”

Ah! What a day that had been, of worship and of celebration. People came from miles around—mostly relations and connections. The year before, Magdelen had served as the maid of honor and witnessed her dearest friend Elizabeth Tom’s marriage to Henry Liphart; of course, they were there that May Sunday to share in Magdelen and William’s nuptials. Will’s family, of course, were back in Ireland, but her family was prolific; they gathered round, along with the doctor’s many appreciative patients, who numbered the greater part of the population. The joyous throng made it a daylong remembered throughout the county.

Her Mother and Father had made the house a wedding present to the young couple. Her brother-in-law, blacksmith John Cox had forged all the hinges and fittings for the house himself, at his Somerset smithy. Her brother Joseph’s wife, the Quaker poet Elsie Strawn Armstrong—mother of eleven children, his wife had written a poem, which she then had worked in needlepoint. There it stood to this day, framed, over the desk. Magdelen read it through, and then looked down to the Bible, open to the family pages. How odd that a simple line of few
words, written there, could take her back all those years to all those treasured memories of her wedding day.

There, after her own wedding, were recorded the births of each of their children, the boys and Anne, written in her William’s fine, distinctive hand. The handwriting changed when she go to the sad words, “Dr. William Gore Elder departed this life, 1820, Somerset.” And then the marriage of Anne to John Pythian. And then the marriage of Clifford to Rosanna Benford.

She touched the page, lightly, and sighed. Then, Magdelen took the Bible from the desk and placed in her son Clifford’s hand. “Here, Cliff,” she said, “as is our tradition. Put this new lad’s name in its rightful place in the family Bible.”

Clifford nodded.

“Cliff, what have you decided to name him?” Rosanna asked.

“I think I should not be the one to do that, Rosie; why don’t you name the boy?”

She looked down at the new little one there in her arms. “I cannot find a name that suits him,” she said. “We’ll want to consult the Good Lord about it, Cliff.”

Clifford went to the desk, sat down, the Bible still in his hands. His wife and his mother watched him as he closed the book, and then let it fall open at will. It was a ritual they had seen before. Not with every child, but with some. He read the place silently for a moment. Then he sat back in his chair, rubbed a hand through his hair, and bent over and read the passage again. Then he turned to the women.

“Ah, I have found it at once. Listen! Here begins the passage,” said Clifford, clearing his throat, “Isaiah Chapter 45, verses one through three.” And then he read with his strong baritone voice:

“Thus saith the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden; to subdue nations before him, and I will loose the loins of kings, to open before him the two leaved gates; and the gates shall not be shut; I will go before thee, and make the crooked places straight; I will break in pieces the gates of brass, and cut in sunder the bars of iron; and I will give thee the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places, that thou mayest know that I, the Lord, which called thee by thy name, am the God of Israel.”

Then, Clifford turned to the front of the Bible, to the family pages, and in the next line, where nothing had yet been recorded, he inscribed with the strokes of his pen these words: “Cyrus Elder, son of Clifford and Rosanna Benford Elder, born June 16, 1833, Somerset, Pennsylvania.”

“Cyrus Elder,” Rosanna said, turning the name over in her mind and looking down at the boy in her arms, “Cyrus Elder. I like it Cliff. It may be a big name for a small baby, but it’s a name a man can live with.”

“Aye, the name of a man and a king,” said Clifford. “And a man blessed by God.”

“What more could a man want of a name?” said Rosanna.

“Rest, Cyrus Elder; rest.” said Magdelen, “All will be well, with thee.”

* * * * *

1833 was a year of strange happenings. An earthquake shook the entire region in September. About the same time, there occurred the great 1833 Somerset fire. It had lasting implications for the Elder family. It was the first of three great fires that destroyed much of Somerset. The conflagration began, as best anyone could tell, in a blacksmith shop and spread rapidly throughout the business section of the town. As it raged, the fire consumed every house that stood between Edgewood Avenue and the Diamond. The buildings that were a total loss included six stables, nine businesses, and ten shops. More than thirty families were left homeless. The damage was estimated to be in excess of $80,000. Miraculously, no one was injured; no one was killed.

But the Elder family’s wealth was consumed by the fire, having consisted chiefly of real estate. Their pride, too, was damaged, since the blacksmith shop in which the fire was said to have begun was the shop of Magdelen’s brother-in-law, John Cox.

* * * * *
November 13, 1833

The family sold its homes and farmland in the neighborhood of Somerset, and, having disposed of what stock and stuff they could not take with them, on the 13th of November, 1833, they were ready to start upon the journey for their new home in the West. On the evening of the twelfth, many of their dear friends came to bid them adieu, and they remained until a very late hour, when, after a prayer, the most of them returned to their homes, a few remaining to see them off in the morning. They had very little rest that night. Sometime before three o’clock in the morning, they were all awakened by Clifford who roused them from their slumbers, to make preparation for an early start.

Rosanna, looking out of the window, said, “It is almost broad daylight, Cliff; you must have the time all wrong!”

"That cannot be," Clifford answered, "For it is scarcely three o’clock."

"I can’t help what the clock says," replied Rosanna, "my eyes cannot deceive me. It is almost broad daylight. Look for yourself!"

After this little discussion, the Clifford went to the door. There was not a cloud in the heavens. But by a glance, everything was made clear.

“Come to the door, Rosie; it is as if the world is coming to an end!"

She leapt to the door and what she saw filled her with awe.

"The whole heavens are on fire! All the stars are falling!"

Rosanna stood there, wrapped in a quilt, with the baby Cyrus in her arms. He lay softly there, awake, with his tiny eyes turned toward the uncannily bright sky. Rosanna, too, looked upward, where it appeared as if every star had left its moorings, and was drifting rapidly in a westerly direction, leaving behind a track of light which remained visible for several seconds. Some of those wandering stars seemed as large as the full moon, or nearly so.
And in some cases they appeared to dash at a rapid rate across the general course of the main body of meteors, leaving in their track a bluish light, which gathered into a thin cloud, not unlike a puff of smoke from a tobacco-pipe. Some of the meteors were so bright that they were visible for some time after day had fairly dawned. Imagine large snowflakes drifting over your head, so near you that you can distinguish them, one from the other, and yet so thick in the air as to almost obscure the sky; then imagine each snowflake to be a meteor, leaving behind it a tail like a little comet; these meteors of all sizes, from that of a drop of water to that of a great star, having the size of the full moon in appearance: and you may then have some faint idea of this
wonderful scene.

With the dawn, the family set out on their journey, first by road and then by river. Their belongings loaded onto a flatboat, with a captain named John McCalmont Wilson, assisted by his young son Joseph. They pushed off from shore and were soon on their way down-river, following the current, steered deftly through the shallows and snags by Wilson, who was an old river hand. Most of the talk that day was about the meteor shower.

In that day, there was not much knowledge among the masses upon the subject of meteorology. No tome in a thousand could give any rational account of this wonderful phenomenon; so it will not appear strange that there was widespread alarm at this "star-shooting," so called.

“It seems as if the Judgment Day is at hand,” said Wilson, thoughtfully. “At home some of the family they fell on their knees in penitence, confessing all the sins of their past lives, and calling upon God to have mercy.”

“Did you?” asked Rosanna, trying to picture the captain praying for God’s mercy.
“Naw,” said Wilson, “I had too much to do to be bothered one way or t’other.”

On the remainder of their journey the Elder family heard little talked of but the "falling of the stars." All sorts of conjectures were made by all sorts of people—people on the boat, people at the various stopping places—excepting there were but few, if any, wise conjectures, and very few wise people to make them along the way they traveled. Not a few thought it an evidence of God’s displeasure.

“Fearful calamities will probably speedily follow,” said one old crone.

There were those who believed the Judgment Day was near at hand, and undertook to prove out of the Scriptures that this was one of the signs of the coming of the Son of Man. One old lady was emphatic in the statement that it was certainly a "token of some sign." Though for the life of them Clifford and Rosanna could not imagine what that sign might be. Of course, with the earthquake of September still fresh in their minds, any other odd portent seemed to point to more than just a natural explanation.

Statements made even by good-meaning people were often quite erroneous. Some men declared that they saw great balls of fire fall into the water, and heard the sizzling noise, like that made when a red-hot iron is thrown into a slake-tub. Others thought they saw these great balls of
fire bursting among the treetops. The Elders had seen none of that. And they did not hesitate to say so.

As they followed the Monongahela they came to Pittsburgh, where the procession paused to take on supplies and a few more travelers. Even in the city, there were people who were in a high state of excitement over the meteor shower. They had more wild tales and wilder explanations, their testimony must be taken with many grains of allowance. Some professed religion under the influence of these lights. This was met by approval by many. For in that day, a sinner who could say he had seen a light, whether he had heard a voice or not, furnished a ready passport into almost any church in the land.

“Do you think it was God telling us something?” Rosanna asked one night, as she and Clifford clung together in their narrow berth.

“I suppose there may be something in it,” Clifford answered. “God can change a man with meteors, like as not as well as with a sermon.”

But these professions of faith, like the appearance of the meteors themselves, seemed to be of very short duration. One passenger who said he had left off pastoring a church and was on his way to take up an appointment as Post Master in Paducah agreed, saying, “I have no faith in
any repentance grounded upon objects of sense. The gospel only is the power of God unto salvation. Love to God and hatred for sin, only can work a permanent change in the life of a man; and nothing short of this can be trusted as permanent in its effects.”

Clifford took it at face value, and said, “Wasn’t it grand?”

And as she thought about it, it was grand. Those westward wandering stars made Rosanna think of their own wandering. It seemed a personal omen of their pilgrimage. Was it a good or a bad omen? She wondered. While the rocking of the boat aided her slumbers, Rosanna seemed to hear in the lapping of the river against the boat the voice of her mother-in-law saying, “All will be well.”

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