At home I learned that, on account of a cough, I had been the object of a generous conspiracy between mother and Mrs. Olever, and had been brought home because I was worse. Our doctors said I was in the first stage of consumption, that Elizabeth was to reach that point early in life, and that our only hope lay in plenty of calomel. Mother had lost her husband and four vigorous children; there had been no lack of calomel, and now, when death again threatened, she resolved to conduct the defense on some new plan.
She had gained legal possession of our village home, and moved to it. Our lot was large and well supplied with choice fruit, and the place seemed a paradise after our starved lives in the smoky city. My apple tree still grew at the east end of the house. There was a willow tree mother had planted, which now swept the ground with its long, graceful branches. There were quantities of rose and lilac bushes, a walled spring of delicious water in the cellar, and a whole world of wealth; but the potato lot looked up in despair—a patch of yellow clay. Mother put a twelve years’ accumulation of coal ashes on it, and thus proved them valuable both as a fertilizer and a preventive of potato-rot, though at first her project met general opposition.
William did the heavy work and was proud of it. He was in splendid health, for his insubordination had, from a very early age, saved him from drugging either mental or physical. The lighter gardening became part of my treatment for consumption. By having me each day lie on the floor on my back without a pillow, and gentle use of dumb-bells, mother straightened my spine and developed my chest—my clothes being carefully adapted to its expansion. Dancing was strictly forbidden by our church, but mother was educated in Ireland and danced beautifully. She had a class of girls and taught us, and with plenty of fresh air, milk and eggs, effectually disposed of hereditary consumption in her family. But while attending to us, she must also make a living, so she bought a stock of goods on credit, opened a store, and soon had a paying business. In this I was her special assistant. But the work supplied to William did not satisfy the holy men of the church, who furnished us advice. He still made fire engines, and a brook in a meadow presented irresistible temptation to water-wheels and machinery. One of his tilt-hammers made a very good ghost, haunting the meadow and keeping off trespassers. He had a foundry, where he cast miniature cannon, kettles and curious things, and his rifle-practice was a neighborhood wonder. He brought water from the cellar, and did other chores which Pennsylvania rules assigned to women, and when boys ridiculed him, he flogged them, and did it quite as effectually as he rendered them the same service when they were rude to a girl. He was a universal favorite, even if he did hate catechism and love cake.
So mother’s conscience was worked upon until she bound him to a cabinet maker in the city. To him, the restraint was unendurable, and he ran away. He came after dark to bid me good-bye, left love for mother and Elizabeth, and next morning left Pittsburg on a steamboat, going to that Eldorado of Pittsburg boys—“down the river.”