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The Leg of Mutton by Jonathan F. Kelley


I'm going to state to you the remarkable adventures of a very remarkable man, who went to market to get a leg of mutton for his Sunday dinner. I have heard, or read somewhere or other, almost similar stories; whether they were real or imaginary, I am unable to say; but I can vouch for the authenticity of my story, for I know the hero well.

In the year 1812, it will be recollected that we had some military disputes with England, which elicited some pretty tall fights by land and sea, and the land we live in was considerably excited upon the subject, and patriotism rose to many degrees above blood heat. Philadelphia, about that time, like all other cities, I suppose, was the scene of drum-beating, marching and counter-marching, and volunteering of the patriotic people.

The President sent forth his proclamations, the governors of the respective States reiterated them, and a large portion of our brave republicans were soon in or marching to the battle field. There lived and wrought at his trade, carpentering, in the city of Philadelphia, about that time, a very tall, slim man, named Houp; Peter Houp, that was his name. He was a very steady, upright, and honest man, married, had a small, comfortable family, and to all intents and purposes, settled down for life. How deceptive, how unstable, how uncertain is man, to say nothing of the more frail portion of the creation—woman! Peter Houp one fair morning took his basket on his arm, and off he went to get a leg of mutton and trimmings for his next Sunday's dinner. Beyond the object of research, Peter never dreamed of extending his travels for that day, certain. A leg of mutton is not an indifferent article, well cooked, a matter somewhat different to amateur cooks; and as good legs of mutton as can be found on this side of the big pond, can be found almost any Saturday morning in the Pennsylvania market wagons, which congregate along Second street, for a mile or two in a string. Peter could have secured his leg and brought it home in an hour or two at most.

But hours passed, noon came, and night followed it, and in the course of time, the morrow, the joyous Sunday, for which the leg of mutton was to be brought and prepared, and offered up, a sacrifice to the household gods and grateful appetites, came, but neither the leg of mutton, nor the man Peter, husband and father Houp, darkened the doors of the carpenter's humble domicil, that day, the next or the next! I cannot, of course, realize half the agony or tortures of suspense that must have preyed upon that wife's heart and brain, that must have haunted her feverish dreams at night, and her aching mind by day. When grim death strikes a blow, whenever so near and dear a friend is levelled, cold, breathless, dead—we see, we know there is the end! Grief has its season, the bitterest of woe then calms, subsides, or ceases; but lost—which hope prevents mourning as dead, and whose death-like absence almost precludes the idea that they live, engenders in the soul of true affection, a gloomy, torturing and desponding sorrow, more agonizing than the sting actual death leaves behind. I have endeavored to depict what must have been, what were the feelings of Peter Houp's wife. She mourned and grieved, and still hoped on, though months and years passed away without imparting the slightest clue to the unfortunate fate of her husband. Her three children, two boys and a girl, grew up; ten, eleven, twelve years passed away, with no tidings of the lost man having reached his family; but they still lived with a kind of despairing hope that the husband and father would yet come home, and so he did.

Let us see what became of Peter Houp, the carpenter. As he strolled along with his basket under his arm, on the eventful morning he sought the leg of mutton, he met a platoon of men dressed up in uniform, muskets on their shoulders, colors flying, drums beating, and a mob of hurrahers following and shouting for the volunteers. Yes, it was a company of volunteers, just about shipping off for the South, to join the “Old Zack” of that day, General Jackson. Peter Houp saw in the ranks of the volunteers several of his old chums; he spoke to them, walked along with the men of Mars, got inspired—patriotic— drunk. Two days after that eventful Saturday, on which the quiet, honest, and industrious carpenter left his wife and children full of hope and happiness, he found himself in blue breeches, roundabout, and black cap, on board a brig—bound for New Orleans. A volunteer for the war! It was too late to repent then; the brig was ploughing her way through the foaming billows, and in a few weeks she arrived at Mobile, as she could not reach New Orleans, the British under General Packenham being off the Balize. So the volunteers were landed at Mobile, and hurried on over land to the devoted (or was to be) Crescent city. Peter Houp was not only a good man, liable as all men are to make a false step once in life, but a brave one. Having gone so far, and made a step so hard to retrace, Peter's cool reason got bothered; he poured the spirits down to keep his spirits up, as the saying goes, and abandoned himself to fate. Caring neither for life nor death, he was found behind the cotton bags, which he had assisted in getting down from the city to the battle ground, piled up, and now ready to defend his country while life lasted. Peter fought well, being a man not unlike the brave Old Hickory himself, tall, firm, and resolute-looking. He attracted General Jackson's attention during the battle, and afterwards was personally complimented for his skill and courage by the victorious Commander-in-chief. Every body knows the history of the battle of New Orleans—I need not relate it. After the victory, the soldiers were allowed considerable license, and they made New Orleans a scene of revel and dissipation, as all cities are likely to represent when near a victorious army. Peter Houp was on a “regular bender,” a “big tare,” a long spree—and for one so unlike any thing of the kind, he went it with a perfect looseness.

A rich citizen's house was robbed—burglariously entered and robbed; and Peter Houp, the staid, plain Philadelphia carpenter, who would not have bartered his reputation for all the ingots of the Incas, while in his sober senses, was arrested as one of the burglars, and the imputation, false or true, caused him to spend seven years in a penitentiary. O, what an awful probation of sorrow and mental agony were those seven long years! But they passed over, and Peter Houp was again free, not a worse man, fortunately, but a much wiser one! He had not seen or heard a word of those so long dearly cherished, and cruelly deserted—his family—for eight years, and his heart yearned towards them so strongly that, pennyless, pale and care-worn as he was, he would have started immediately for home, but being a good carpenter, and wages high, he concluded to go to work, while he patiently awaited a reply of his abandoned family to his long and penitent written letter. Weeks, months, and a year passed, and no reply came, though another letter was dispatched, for fear of the miscarriage of the first; (and both letters did miscarry, as the wife never received them.) Peter gave himself up as a lost man, his family lost or scattered, and nothing but death could end his detailed wretchedness. But still, as fortune would have it, he never again sought refuge from his sorrows in the poisoned chalice, the rum glass; not he. Peter toiled, saved his money, and at the end of four years found himself in the possession of a snug little sum of hard cash, and a fully established good name. But all of this time he had heard not a syllable of his home; and all of a sudden, one fine day in early spring, he took passage in a ship, arrived in Philadelphia; and in a few rods from the wharf, upon which he landed, he met an old neighbor. The astonishment of the latter seemed wondrous; he burst out—

“My God! is this Peter Houp, come from his grave?”

“No,” said Peter, in his slow, dry way, “I'm from New Orleans.”

Peter soon learned that his wife and children yet lived in the same place, and long mourned him as forever gone. Peter Houp felt any thing but merry, but he was determined to have his joke and a merry meeting. In an hour or two Peter Houp, the long lost wanderer, stood in his own door.

“Well, Nancy, here is thy leg of mutton!” and a fine one too he had.

The most excellent woman was alone. She was of Quaker origin; sober and stoical as her husband, she regarded him wistfully as he stood in the door, for a long time; at last she spoke—

“Well, Peter, thee's been gone a long time for it.”

The next moment found them locked in each other's arms; overtasked nature could stand no more, and they both cried like children.

The carpenter has once held offices of public trust, and lives yet, I believe, an old and highly respected citizen of “Brotherly Love.”


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