A Rebel's Recollections
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Breakfast over, the young housekeeper scalds and dries the dishes and glassware with her own hands. Then she goes to the garden, smoke-house, and store-room, to "give out" for dinner. Morning rides, backgammon, music, reading, etc., furnish amusement until one o'clock, or a little later. The gentlemen go shooting or fishing, if they choose, or join the host in his rides over the plantation, inspecting his corn, tobacco, wheat, and live stock. About one the house grows quiet. The women retire to their chambers, the gentlemen make themselves comfortable in various ways. About two it is the duty of the master of the mansion to offer toddy or juleps to his guests, and to ask one of the dining-room servants if "dinner is 'most ready." Half an hour later he must send the cook word to "hurry it up." It is to be served at four, of course, but as the representative of an ancient house, it is his bounden duty to ask the two-o'clock question and send the half-past-two message.
Supper is served at eight, and the women usually retire for the night at ten or eleven.
If hospitality was deemed the chief of virtues among the Virginians, the duty of accepting hospitality was quite as strongly insisted upon. One must visit his friends, whatever the circumstances, if he would not be thought churlish. Especially were young men required to show a proper respect and affection for elderly female relatives by dining with them as frequently as at any other house. I shall not soon forget some experiences of my own in this regard. The most stately and elegant country-house I have ever seen stood in our neighborhood. Its master had lived in great state there, and after his death his two maiden sisters, left alone in the great mansion, scrupulously maintained every custom he had established or inherited. They were my cousins in the Virginian sense of the word, and I had not been long a resident of the State when my guardian reminded me of my duty toward them. I must ride over and dine there without a special invitation, and I must do this six or eight times a year at the least. As a mere boy, half-grown, I made ready for my visit with a good deal of awe and trepidation. I had already met the two stately dames and was disposed to distrust my manners in their presence. I went, however, and was received with warm, though rather stiff and formal, cordiality. My horse was taken to the stable. I was shown to my room by a thoroughly drilled servant, whose tongue had been trained to as persistent a silence as if his functions had been those of a mute at a funeral. His name I discovered was Henry, but beyond this I could make no progress in his acquaintance. He prided himself upon knowing his place, and the profound respect with which he treated me made it impossible that I should ask him for the information on which my happiness, perhaps my reputation, just then depended. I wanted to know for what purpose I had been shown to my room, what I was expected to do there, and at what hour I ought to descend to the parlor or library.
It was manifestly out of the question to seek such information at the hands of so well-regulated a being as Henry.He had ushered me into my room and now stood bolt upright, gazing fixedly at nothing and waiting for my orders in profound and immovable silence. He had done his part well, and it was not for him to assume that I was unprepared to do mine. His attitude indicated, or perhaps I should say aggressively asserted, the necessity he was under of assuming my entire familiarity with the usages of good society and the ancient customs of this ancient house. The worst of it was I fancied that the solemn rogue guessed my ignorance and delighted in exposing my fraudulent pretensions to good breeding. But in this I did him an injustice, as future knowledge of him taught me. He was well drilled, and delighted in doing his duty, that was all. No gaucherie on my part would have moved him to smile. He knew his place and his business too well for that. Whatever I might have done he would have held to be perfectly proper. It was for him to stand there like a statue, until I should bid him do otherwise, and if I had kept him there for a week I think he would have given no sign of weariness or impatience. As it was, his presence appalled and oppressed me, and in despair of discovering the proper thing to do, I determined to put a bold face upon the matter.
"I am tired and warm," I said, "and will rest awhile upon the bed. I will join the ladies in half an hour. You may go now."
At dinner, Henry stood at the sideboard and silently directed the servants. When the cloth was removed, he brought a wine tub with perhaps a dozen bottles of antique Madeira in it and silently awaited my signal before decanting one of them. When I had drunk a glass with the ladies, they rose and retired according to the custom, leaving me alone with the wine and the cigars, – and Henry, whose erect solemnity converted the great silent dining-room into something very like a funeral chamber. He stood there like a guardsman on duty, immovable, speechless, patient, while I sat at the board, a decanter of wine before me and the tub of unopened bottles on the floor by my side – enough for a regiment.
I did not want any wine or anything else except a sound of some sort to break the horrible stillness. I tried to think of some device by which to make Henry go out of the room or move one of his hands or turn his eyes a little or even wink; but I failed utterly. There was nothing whatever to be done. There was no order to give him. Every want was supplied and everything was at my hand. The cigars were under my nose, the ash pan by them, and a lighted wax candle stood within reach. I toyed with the decanter in the hope of breaking the stillness, but its stand was too well cushioned above and below to make a sound. I ventured at last to move one of my feet, but a strip of velvet carpet lay between it and the floor.
I could stand it no longer. Filling a glass of wine I drank it off, lighted a fresh cigar, and boldly strode out of the house to walk on the lawn in front.
On the occasion of subsequent visits I got on well enough, knowing precisely what to expect and what to do, and in time I came to regard this as one of the very pleasantest houses in which I visited at all, if on no other account than because I found myself perfectly free there to do as I pleased; but until I learned that I was expected to consult only my own comfort while a guest in the house the atmosphere of the place oppressed me.
Not in every house were the servants so well trained as Henry, but what they lacked in skill they fully made up in numbers, and in hardly anything else was the extravagance of the Virginians so manifest as in their wastefulness of labor. On nearly every plantation there were ten or twelve able-bodied men and women employed about the house, doing the work which two or three ought to have done, and might have done; and in addition to this there were usually a dozen or a score of others with merely nominal duties or no duties at all. But it was useless to urge their master to send any of them to the field, and idle to show him that the addition which might thus be made to the force of productive laborers would so increase his revenue as to acquit him of debt within a few years. He did not much care to be free of debt for one thing, and he liked to have plenty of servants always within call. As his dinner table bore every day food enough for a battalion, so his nature demanded the presence of half a dozen servitors whenever one was wanted. Indeed, these people usually summoned servants in squads, calling three or four to take one guest's horse to the stable or to bring one pitcher of ice-water.
And yet I should do the Virginians great injustice were I to leave the impression that they were lazy. With abundant possessions, superabundant household help and slave labor, they had a good deal of leisure, but they were nevertheless very industrious people in their way. It was no light undertaking to manage a great plantation and at the same time fulfil the large measure of duties to friends and neighbors which custom imposed. One must visit and receive visitors, and must go to court every month, and to all planters' meetings. Besides this there was a certain amount of fox hunting and squirrel and bird and turkey shooting and fishing to be done, from which it was really very difficult to escape with any credit to oneself. On the whole, the time of the planters was pretty fully occupied. The women had household duties, and these included the cutting and making of clothes for all the negroes on the plantation, a heavy task which might as well have been done by the negro seamstresses, except that such was not the custom. Fair women who kept dressmakers for themselves worked day after day on coarse cloths, manufacturing coats and trousers for the field hands. They did a great deal of embroidery and worsted work too, and personally instructed negro girls in the use of the needle and scissors. All this, with their necessary visiting and entertaining, and their daily attendance upon the sick negroes, whom they always visited and cared for in person, served to make the Virginian women about the busiest women I have ever known. Even Sunday brought them little rest, for, in addition to other duties on that day, each of them spent some hours at the "quarters" holding a Sunday-school.
Nevertheless the Virginians had a good deal of leisure on their hands, and their command of time was a very important agent, I should say, in the formation of their characters as individuals, and as a people. It bred habits of outdoor exercise, which gave the young men stalwart frames and robust constitutions. It gave form to their social life. Above all, it made reading men and students of many, though their reading and their study were of a somewhat peculiar kind. They were all Latinists, inasmuch as Latin formed the staple of their ordinary school course. It was begun early and continued to the end, and even in after life very many planters were in the habit of reading their Virgil and their Horace and their Ovid as an amusement, so that it came to be assumed, quite as a matter of course, that every gentleman with any pretension to culture could read Latin easily, and quote Horace and Juvenal from memory.
But they read English literature still more largely, and in no part of the country, except in distinctly literary centres like Cambridge or Concord, are really rich household libraries so common a possession, I think, as they were among the best classes of Virginian planters. Let us open the old glass doors and see what books the Virginians read. The libraries in the old houses were the growth of many generations, begun perhaps by the English cadet who founded the family on this side of the water in the middle of the seventeenth century, and added to little by little from that day to this. They were especially rich in the English classics, in early editions with long s's and looped ct's, but sadly deficient in the literature of the present. In one of them, I remember, I found nearly everything from Chaucer to Byron, and comparatively little that was later. From Pope to Southey it furnished a pretty complete geologic section of English literature, and from internal evidence I conclude that when the founder of the family and the library first took up his residence in the Old Dominion, Swift was still a contributor to the Gentleman's Magazine, and Pope was a poet not many years dead.
There was a copy of "Tom Jones," and another of "Joseph Andrews," printed in Fielding's own time. The "Spectator" was there, not in the shape of a reprint, but the original papers, rudely bound, a treasure brought from England, doubtless, by the immigrant. Richardson, Smollett, Swift, and the rest were present in contemporary editions; the poets and essayists, pretty much all of them, in quaint old volumes; Johnson's "Lives of the Poets;" Sheridan's plays, stitched; Burke's works; Scott's novels in force, just as they came, one after another, from the press of the Edinburgh publishers; Miss Edgeworth's moralities elbowing Mrs. Aphra Behn's strongly tainted romances; Miss Burney's "Evelina," which was so "proper" that all the young ladies used to read it, but so dull that nobody ever opens it nowadays; and scores of other old "new books," which I have no room to catalogue here, even if I could remember them all.
Byron appeared, not as a whole, but in separate volumes, bought as each was published. Even the poor little "Hours of Idleness" was there, ordered from across the sea, doubtless, in consequence of the savage treatment it received at the hands of the Edinburgh Review, bound volumes of which were on the shelves below. There was no copy of "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers," but as nearly all the rest of Byron's poems were there in original editions, it seems probable that the satire also had once held a place in the library. It had been read to pieces, perhaps, or borrowed and never returned.
There were histories of all kinds, and collected editions of standard works in plenty, covering a wide field of law, politics, theology, and what not.
Of strictly modern books the assortment was comparatively meagre. Macaulay's "Miscellanies," Motley's "Dutch Republic," Prescott's "Mexico," "Peru," etc.; stray volumes of Dickens, Thackeray, Bulwer, and Lever; Kennedy's "Swallow Barn," Cooke's "Virginia Comedians," half a dozen volumes of Irving, and a few others made up the list.
Of modern poetry there was not a line, and in this, as in other respects, the old library – burned during the war – fairly represented the literary tastes and reading habits of the Virginians in general. They read little or no recent poetry and not much recent prose. I think this was not so much the result of prejudice as of education. The schools in Virginia were excellent ones of their kind, but their system was that of a century ago. They gave attention chiefly to "the humanities" and logic, and the education of a Virginian gentleman resembled that of an Englishman of the last century far more closely than that of any modern American. The writers of the present naturally address themselves to men of to-day, and this is precisely what the Virginians were not, wherefore modern literature was not at all a thing to their taste.
To all this there were of course exceptions. I have known some Virginians who appreciated Tennyson, enjoyed Longfellow and Lowell, and understood Browning; just as I have known a few who affected a modern pronunciation of the letter "a" in such words as "master," "basket," "glass," and "grass."