Now a word or two, touching the second source of evil in country life, — undertaking too much.
There is, apparently, as much fascination in the idea of a large landed estate as in the eye of a serpent. Notwithstanding our institutions, our habits, above all the continual distribution of our fortunes, every thing, in short, teaching us so plainly the folly of improving large landed estates, human nature and the love of distinction, every now and then, triumph over all. What a homily might there not be written on the extravagance of Americans! We can point at once to half a dozen examples of country residences that have cost between one and two hundred thousand dollars; and every one of which either already has been, or soon will be, enjoyed by others than those who constructed them. This is the great and glaring mistake of our wealthy men, ambitious of taste, — that of supposing that only by large places and great expenditures can the problem of rural beauty and enjoyment be solved. The truth is, that with us, a large fortune does not and cannot (at least at the present time) produce the increased enjoyment which it does abroad. Large estates, large houses, large establishments, only make slaves of their possessors; for the service, to be done daily by those who must hold aloft this dazzling canopy of wealth, is so indifferently performed, servants are so time-serving and unworthy in this country, where intelligent labor finds independent channels for itself, that the lord of the manor finds his life overburdened with the drudgery of watching his drudges.
* How great the change at Winnepissauke since that day! — F. A. W.
Hence the true philosophy of living in America is to be found in moderate desires, a moderate establishment, and moderate expenditures. We have seen so many more examples of success in those of even less moderate size, that we had almost said, with Cowley "a little cheerful house, a little company, and a very little feast." *
But among those who undertake too much, by far the largest class is that whose members do so through ignorance of what is to be done.
Although the world is pretty well aware of the existence of professional builders and planters, still the majority of those who build and plant in this country do it without the advice of experienced persons. There is apparently a latent conviction at the bottom of every man's heart that he can build a villa or a cottage and lay out its grounds in a more perfect, or, at least, a much more satisfactory manner than any of his predecessors or contemporaries. Fatal delusion! One may plead his own case in law, or even write a lay sermon, like Sir Walter Scott, with more chance of success than he will have in realizing, in solid walls, the perfect model of beauty and convenience that floats dimly in his head. We mean this to apply chiefly to the production as a work of art.
* An extremely sound philosophy for any land or any age. — Editor.
As a matter of economy, it is still worse. If the improver selects an experienced architect and contracts with a responsible and trustworthy builder he knows within twenty per cent at the farthest of what his edifice will cost. If he undertakes to play the amateur, and corrects and revises his work, as most amateurs do, while the house is in progress, he will have the mortification of paying twice as much as he should have done, without any just satisfaction at last.
What is the result of this course of proceeding of the new resident in the country? That he has obtained a large and showy house, of which, if he is alive to improvement, he will live to regret the bad taste, and that he has laid the foundation of expenditures far beyond his income.
He finds himself now in a dilemma, of which there are two horns. One of them is the necessity of laying out and keeping up large pleasure grounds, gardens, etc., to correspond to the style and character of his house. The other is to allow the house to remain in the midst of beggarly surroundings of meadow and stubble; or, at the most, with half executed and miserably kept grounds on every side of it.
Nothing can be more unsatisfactory than either of these positions. If he is seduced into expenditures en grand seigneur to keep up the style in which the mansion or villa has been erected, he finds that instead of the peace of mind and enjoyment which he expected to find in the country he is perpetually nervous about the tight place in his income, — constantly obliged to make an effort to maintain that which, when maintained, gives no more real pleasure than a residence on a small scale.
If, on the other hand, he stops short, like a prudent man, at the mighty show of figures at the bottom of the builder's accounts, and leaves all about in a crude and unfinished condition, then he has the mortification, if possessed of the least taste, of knowing that all the grace with which he meant to surround his country home, has eluded his grasp — that he lives in the house of a noble, set in the fields of a sluggard. This he feels the more keenly after a walk over the grounds of some wiser or more fortunate neighbor who has been able to sweep the whole circle of taste, and better advised, has realized precisely that which has escaped the reach of our unfortunate improver. Is it any marvel that the latter should find himself disappointed in the pleasures of a country life?
Do we thus portray the mistakes of country life in order to dissuade persons from retiring? Far from it. There is no one who would more willingly exhibit its charms in the most glowing colors. But we would not lure the traveller into an Arcadia without telling him that there are not only golden fruits, but also others, which may prove Sodom-apples if ignorantly plucked. We would not hang garlands of flowers over dangerous pits and fearful chasms. It is rather our duty and pleasure loudly to warn those who are likely to fall into such errors, and to open their eyes to the danger that lies in their paths; for the country is really full of interest to those who are fitted to understand it; nature is full of beauty to those who approach her simply and devoutly; and rural life is full of pure and happy influences, to those who are wise enough rightly to accept and enjoy them.