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The Bark Covered House
Chapter 13. Metheglin; or, the Detected Drink

AS will be remembered by the early settlers of Michigan, bee hunting and wild honey constituted one of the comforts and luxuries of life. Father being somewhat expert in finding bees found a number of trees, one of which was a large whitewood and stood full a mile or more, from home. One day he and I cut it down. It proved to be a very good tree, as far as honey was concerned. We easily filled our buckets and returned home, leaving a large quantity in the tree, which we intended to return and get as soon as possible. When we returned we found to our surprise, that the tree had caught fire and was burning quite lively where the honey was secreted. The fire originated from the burning of some straw that father had used in singeing the bees to prevent their ferocious attacks and stinging. We found that the fire had melted some of the honey and that it was running into a cavity in the tree which the bees had cleaned out. It looked as nice as though it had dripped into a wooden bowl. Father said there was a chance to save it, and we clipped out a pailful of nice clear honey, except that it was tinged, somewhat, in color and made a little bitter by the fire.

This formed one of the ingredients used in making the metheglin. We also secured some more very nice honey. Father said, judging from the amount we got, he should think the tree contained at least a hundred pounds of good honey, and I should think so too. And he said "This truly is a goodly land; it flows with milk and honey." He also said, "I will make a barrel of metheglin, which will be a very delicious drink for my family and a kind of a substitute for the luxuries they left behind. It will slake the thirst of the friendly pioneers, who may favor us with a call in our new forest home; or those friends who come to talk over the adventures of days now past, and the prospects of better days to come."

But in order to make the metheglin, he must procure a barrel, and this he had to bring some distance on his back, as we had no team. When he got the barrel home, and ready to make his metheglin, he located it across two sticks about three feet long and six inches through. These he placed with the ends toward the chimney on the chamber floor, and on them next to the chimney, he placed his barrel. He filled it with metheglin and said that the heat of the fire below, and warmth of the chimney above, would keep it from freezing. Being placed upon the sticks he could draw from it at his convenience, which he was quite sure to do when any of the neighbors called. Neighbors were not very plenty in those days and we were always glad to see them. When they came father would take his mug, go up the ladder and return with it filled with methegun. Then he would pour out a glass, hand it to the neighbor, who would usually say, "What is it?" Father would say, "Try it and see." This they usually did. He then told them: "This is my wine, it was taken from the woods and it is a Michigan drink, the bees helped me to make it." It was generally called nice. Of course he frequently, after a hard day's work, would go up in the chamber, draw some and give us all a drink. It tasted very good to all, and especially to me, as will be seen by what follows. It so happened that the chamber where the barrel was kept, was the sleeping apartment of myself and brother, John S. I played the more important part in the "Detected drink;" at least I thought so.

I found, by examining the barrel, that by removing a little block, which was placed under the side, taking out the bung and putting my mouth in its place I could roll the barrel a little, on the sticks, and by being very careful, could get a drink with ease. Then replacing the bung and rolling the barrel back to its place, very carefully so as not to make a noise or arouse suspicion, I would put the block in its place thinking no one was any wiser, but me, for the drink which I thought was very palatable and delicious. Not like the three drinks I had taken from the jug some time before.

This continued for sometime very much to my comfort, as far as good drink was concerned. It was usually indulged in at night, after I had undressed my feet, and father and mother supposed I had retired. There was one difficulty. I was liable to be exposed by my little brother, John S., who slept with me; so I concluded to take him into my confidence. There were two reasons for my doing so: first, I wished him to have something good; and second, I wanted to have him implicated with myself, fearing that he might reveal my proceedings. So we enjoyed it together for a few nights. I would drink first, then hold the barrel for him while he drank. We thought we were faring like nabobs. But alas for me! One evening brother John S. and I retired as usual, leaving father and mother seated by the fire, I suppose talking over the scenes of their early days or, more probably, discussing the best way to get along and support their family in this their new forest home.

I thought, of course, we must have some of the good drink before we shut our eyes for the night, and no sooner thought than we went for it. As usual, I removed the block and out with the hung, then down with my mouth to the bung hole and over with the barrel until the delightful liquid reached my anxious lips. My thirst was soon slaked by a good drink, I relished it first rate.

Then came brother John S.' turn, and, some way, in attempting to get his drink I let the barrel slip. He was small and I had to hold it for him, but this time the barrel went. I grabbed for it, made some racket and some of the metheglin came out, guggle, guggle, good, good, and down it went to the chamber floor, which was made of loose boards. It ran through the cracks and there was a shower below, where father and mother were sitting. I was in a quandary. I knew I was doomed unless I could use some stratagem to clear myself from the scrape in which I was so nicely caught. When lo! the first thing I heard from below was father, apparently very angry, shouting, "\Villiam! what in the world are you doing with the metheglin barrel?" Then came my stratagem. I began to retch and make a noise as if vomiting, and hallooed to him that I was sick. Of course, I wanted to make him believe that it was the contents of my stomach that was falling at his feet in place of the metheglin. He said he knew better, it was too sudden an attack, and too much of a shower of the metheglin falling at their feet. I found that I could not make this ruse work. He started for me, his head appeared above the top of the ladder, he had a candle and a gad in his hand. I had been glad to see him often, before, and was afterward, but this time I saw nothing in him to admire. I found I had entirely failed. I told him that I would not do that again. "Oh honestly!" if he would only let me off, I would never do that again.

He would not hear one word I said, but seized hold of my arm and laid it on. Then there might have been heard a noise outside, and for some distance, like something striking against a boy about my size, if there had been any one around to have heard it. He said he did not whip me so much for the metheglin, as for lying and trying to deceive him. I do not think I danced a hornpipe, but I did step around lively, maybe, a little on tip-toe. He said, he thought he had cured me up, that the application he gave would make me well. I crawled into bed very much pleased indeed to think the matter was settled, as far as I was concerned. John S. had crawled into bed while I was paving the penalty. Father excused him because he was so young; he said I was the one to blame, and must stand it all. I thought as all young Americans do that it was rather hard to get such a tanning in Michigan, and I had begun to think myself quite a somebody.

From that day, or night, I made up my mind that honesty was the best policy, at all events, for me. When I went to bed, at night, after that I gave the metheglin barrel a wide berth and a good letting alone, for I had lost my relish for metheglin. The metheglin story is once in a while, until this day, related by John S., especially when we all meet for a family visit. It not infrequently causes much laughter. I suppose the laughter is caused as much by the manner in which he tells it (he trying to imitate or mimic me) as its funniness. It sometimes causes a tear, perhaps, from excessive laughter and may be, from recollections of the past and its associations. It may once in a while cause me to give a dry laugh, but never a sad tear since the night I spilt the metheglin.

One way the bee-hunter took of finding bee trees was to go into the woods, cut a sappling off, about four feet from the ground, square the top of the stump and on this put a dish of honey in the comb. Then he would take his ax, cut and clear away the brush around the place so that he could see the bees fly and be able to get their course or line them. This he called a bee stand. In the fall of the year, when there came a warm, clear and sunny day, after the frost had killed the leaves and flowers, and the trees were bare, was the best time to find bee trees. Sometimes when father and I went bee-hunting he took some old honey comb, put it on a piece of bark or on a log, set it on fire and dropped a few drops of anise on it from a vial. If we were near a bee tree in a short time a lone bee would come. When it came it would fly around a few times and then light on the honey comb in the dish which it had scented. No doubt, it had been out industriously hunting and now it had found just what was desired. Very independently it would commence helping itself and get as much as it could possibly carry off to its home. Then it went and, no doubt, astonished some of its comrades with its large load of wealth. It was obtained so quickly and easily and there was plenty more where it came from. Then some of the other bees would accompany it back, all being very anxious to help in securing the honey they had found ready made. In a short time there were several bees in the dish and others were coming and going; then it was necessary for us to watch them. It required sharp strong eyes to get their line. They would rise and circle around, higher and higher, until they made out their course and then start like a streak straight for their colony. After we had staked or marked out the line the next thing was to move the honey forty or fifty rods ahead. At this the bees sometimes appeared a little suspicious. It was sometimes necessary to make a few of them prisoners even while they were eating by slipping a cover over them, and moving them ahead on the line. This made them a little shy, however, but they soon forgot their imprisonment. They had found too rich a store to be forsaken. After a little while they would come flocking back and load themselves as heavily as before. If they flew on in the same direction it was evident that the bee tree was still ahead, and it was necessary to move the honey again. Then if the bees flew crooked and high and zigzag it was plain to the bee-hunters that they were in close proximity to the bee tree. When the hunters could get sight of the bees going back or up towards the tree tops it was an easy matter to find the bee tree, as that would be between the two stands or right in the hunter's presence.

The little bees had, by their unceasing industry and through their love of gain, labored hard extracting their sweet and had laid it up carefully. Now they pointed out their storehouse by going directly to it when anxious eyes were watching them. The little aeronautic navigators could be seen departing from and returning to their home. Sometimes they went into a small hole in the side of the tree and at other times they entered their homes by a small knot-hole in a limb near the top of the tree. I saw that a swarm which father once found went into the tree top more than eighty feet from the ground. At that distance they did not appear larger than house-flies.

The first thing that father did after finding a bee-tree was to mark it by cutting the initials of his name on the bark with his pocket-knife. This established his title to the bees. After that they had a legal owner. The mark on the tree was one of the witnesses. I knew a man who happened to find a bee tree, and said that he marked it close down to the ground and covered the mark with leaves so that no one could find it. That appeared more sly than wise, as it gave no notice to others, who might find the tree, of his ownership, or of its having been previously found.


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