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CHAPTER VIII
The society of Charlottesville in the forties was composed of a few families of early residents and of the professors at the University. Governor Gilmer, Secretary of the Navy in Tyler's time, Mr. Valentine Southall of an old Virginia family, and himself eminent in his profession of the law, Dr. Charles Carter, Professor Tucker, William B. Rogers, Dr. McGuffey, Dr. Cabell, Professor Harrison,—all these names are well known and esteemed to this day. There were young people in these families, and all them were my friends. Along the road I have travelled for so many years I have met none superior to them and very few their equals.

My special coterie was a choice one. It included, among others, Lizzie Gilmer (the lovely) and her sisters; beautiful Lucy Southall; Maria Harrison and her sweet sister Mary, both accomplished in music and literature; Eliza Rives and Mary McGuffey. James Southall, William C. Rives, Jr., George Wythe Randolph, Jack Seddon, Kinsey Johns, Professor Schéle de Vere, John Randolph Tucker, St. George Tucker—these were habitués of my home, and all apparently interested in me and in my music. To each name I might append a list of honors won, at the bar, in literature, and in the army. I have survived them all—and I kept the friendship of each one as long as he lived. 55 The customs in entertaining differed from those in vogue at the present day. Afternoon teas, which had been fashionable during the Revolution—tea then being a rare luxury—had not survived until the forties. Choice Madeira in small glasses, and fruit-cake were offered to afternoon callers. The cake must always be au naturel if served in the daytime. Cake iced—in evening dress—was only permissible at the evening hour.

Dinner-parties demanded a large variety of dishes. They were not served à la Russe. Two table-cloths were de rigueur for a dinner company. One was removed with the dishes of meat, vegetables, celery, and many pickles, all of which had been placed at once upon the table. The cut-glass and silver dessert dishes rested on the finest damask the housewife could provide. This cloth removed, left the mahogany for the final walnuts and wine.

Three o'clock was a late hour for a dinner-party—the ordinary family dinner was at two. The large silver tureen, which is now enjoying a dignified old age on our sideboards, had then place at the foot of the table. After soup, boiled fish appeared at the head.

An interview has been preserved between a Washington hostess of the time and Henry, an "experienced and fashionable" caterer. Upon being required to furnish the smallest list of dishes possible for a "genteel" dinner-party of twelve persons, he reluctantly reduced his menu to soup, fish, eight dishes of meat, stewed celery, spinach, salsify, and cauliflower. "Potatoes and beets would not be genteel." The meats were turkey, ham, partridges, 56mutton chops, sweetbreads, oyster pie, pheasants, and canvas-back ducks. "Plum-pudding," suggested the hostess. "La, no, ma'am! All kinds of puddings and pies are out of fashion." "What, then, can I have at the head and foot of the table?" asked the hostess. "Forms of ice-cream at the head, and at the foot a handsome pyramid of fruit. Side dishes, jellies, custards, blanc-mange, cakes, sweetmeats, and sugar-plums." "No nuts, raisins, figs?" "Oh, no, no, ma'am, they are quite vulgar!"

For the informal supper-parties, to which my aunt was wont to invite the governor and Mrs. Gilmer, Mr. and Mrs. Southall, Professor and Mrs. Tucker, the table was amply furnished with cold tongue, ham, broiled chickens or partridges, and pickled oysters, hot waffles, rolls and muffins, very thin wheaten wafers, green sweetmeats, preserved peaches, brandied peaches, cake, tea, and coffee; and in summer the fruits of the season. These suppers made a brave showing with the Sheffield candelabra and bowls of roses. Ten years later these "high teas" were quite out of fashion, and would, by a modern "fashionable caterer," be condemned as "vulgar." There was a crusade against all card-playing and dancing. The pendulum was swinging far back from an earlier time when the punchbowl and cards ruled the evening, and the dancing master held long sessions, travelling from house to house. To have a regular dancing party, with violins and cotillon, was like "driving a coach-and-six straight through the Ten Commandments!" My 57aunt, however, had the courage of her convictions, and allowed me small and early dances in our parlor, with only piano music. Old Jesse Scott lived at the foot of the hill—but to the length of introducing him and his violin we dared not go. As it was, after our first offence, a sermon was preached in the Presbyterian church against the vulgarity and sin of dancing. My aunt listened respectfully but continued the dance she deemed good for my health and spirits.

The noblest of men, and one of my uncle's dearest friends, was Thomas Walker Gilmer, Secretary of the Navy during Tyler's administration. He was killed on the Potomac by the bursting of a gun on trial for the first time. My uncle and aunt went immediately to Washington to bring him home. No man had ever been so loved and esteemed by all who knew him. I have never seen such grief, as the sorrow of his wife. She had been a brilliant member of the Washington society, noted for ready wit and repartee. Never, as long as she lived, did she re?nter social life. With her orphaned children she lived on "The Hill" very near us. These children were a part of our family always.

As time went on, and we grew tall,—Lizzie and I,—students from the University found us out, and had permission to visit us. Lizzie, three years my senior, became engaged to St. George Tucker, one of our choice circle. When more visitors called on Lizzie than she could well entertain in an evening, it was her custom to send Susan, a little pet negress whom she had taught to read, running down the hill 58with, "Please, Miss Hargrave, please, ma'am, Miss Lizzie say she certn'ly will be glad if you let Miss Sara come up an' help 'er with her comp'ny." My aunt could never deny her anything. I was too young, much too young, but we took our lives very naturally and unconsciously, accepting a guest and doing our best for him, whether he was old or young. We were never announced as débutantes. No Rubicon flowed across our path,—on one side pinafores and long braids, on the other purple-and-fine-linen and elaborate coiffure,—the which if stepped across at an entertainment ushered us into society.

Lizzie and I felt that we were young hostesses, and took pains to be, according to our lights, ceremonious and conventional in our behavior. Some one or two of our guests was sure to be George Gordon, or James Southall, or "Jim" White, or "Sainty" Tucker, who were as brothers to us; and very watchful and strict were these boy chaperons! The great anxiety was lest our visitors should stay too late. So my aunt and Mrs. Gilmer carefully timed the burning of a candle until ten o'clock, and all candles thereafter were cut that length. When they began to flicker in the sockets, good nights were expected.

Mrs. Gilmer's large house was divided in the middle by a hall extending to a door in the rear. On one side were the bedrooms of the family, on the other the parlors and dining-room. She spent her evenings in a darkened room, just across the hall from the parlor, and although she had not the heart to mingle with us, we knew she was near.

One night we had a number of guests, among them 59a stranger, Mr. Tebbs, brought by one of our own band who had introduced him and then left, Mr. Tebbs remarking that he too must soon leave, as a friend was down town waiting for him. The candles burned low, and we allowed long pauses in conversation, vainly hoping the stranger would depart. Presently the knocker sounded an alarum, and little Susan hurried from her mistress's room to answer it. We distinctly heard her announce, "Dish yer's a letter, Miss Ann," and Mrs. Gilmer's languid reply, "Light a candle and read it to me." We essayed to drown Susan's voice, for I was quite sure it was a peremptory order for me to come home, but it rang out clearly and deliberately, "Tebbs, you damn rascal! Are you going to stay at Mrs. Gilmer's all night!" To make matters worse, Susan immediately appeared with the note for the blushing Mr. Tebbs, who then and there bade us a long farewell. We never saw him more! A delicious little story was told with keen relish by Juliet, the fifteen-year-old daughter. She had, as she thought, "grown up," while her mother lived in seclusion, and had a boy-lover of her own. Sitting, after hours, one moonlight night on the veranda under her mother's window, the anxious youth was moved to seize the propitious moment and declare himself. Juliet wished to answer correctly, and dismiss him without wounding him. She assured him "Mamma would never consent." A voice from within decided the matter: "Accept the young man, Juliet, if you want to—I've not the least objection—and let him run along home now. Be sure to bolt the door when you come in!" Evidently 60Mrs. Gilmer had small respect for boy-lovers; and wished to go to sleep.

The Gilmer home was full of treasures of books and pictures. We turned over the great pages of Hogarth and the illustrations of Shakespeare, very much to the damage of these valuable books. Choice old Madeira was kept in the cellar, to which we had free access, mixing it with whipped cream or mingling it with ice, sugar and nutmeg whenever we so listed. A great gilded frame rested against the wall, from which some large painting had been removed. Over this we stretched a netting and inaugurated tableaux vivantes, of which we never wearied. I was always Rowena, to whom Lizzie, as Rebecca the Jewess, gave her jewels. One of the Gilmer boys made an admirable Dr. Primrose, another Moses, whom we dressed for the fair, and the other children were flower girls, nuns, or pilgrims with staff and shell.

When one questions the possibility of this large family living for several years without a head and moving about decorously and systematically, we must not forget the family butler, Mandelbert, and his wife, Mammy Grace. Both were long past middle age. They simply assumed the care of their broken-hearted mistress and her children, ruling the house with patient wisdom and kindness. Mammy Grace, so well known fifty years ago in Virginia, was peculiar in her speech, retaining the imagery of her race and nothing of its dialect. She was straight and tall and always carefully dressed. She wore a dark, close-fitting gown, which she called a "habit," a handkerchief of plaid madras crossed upon her bosom, an ample 61checked apron, and a cap with a full mob crown like Martha Washington's. When she dropped her respectful "curtsey," her salutation, "Your servant, master," was less suggestive of deference than of dignified self-respect. Her one fault was that, like her mistress, she never knew when the children were grown. This was sometimes embarrassing. As surely as 8 o'clock Saturday night came, one after the other would be called from the parlor, and would obey instantly, for fear she would add more than a hint of the thorough, personally superintended bath which awaited each one.

Mandelbert was superb, tall, gray, and very stately. He had been born and trained in the family, a model, distingué-looking servant. Mammy Grace lived to an honored old age, but a liberal use of fine old Madeira proved the reverse of the modern lacteal remedy for old age. In a few years there was no more wine in the cellar—and no more Mandelbert.

The grandmother of the Gilmer children was Mrs. Ann Baker, a lovely old lady who wore a Letitia Ramolino turban, with little curls sewn within its brim. She had been a passenger on James Rumsey's boat in 1786 at Shepherdstown, when he was the first to succeed by steam alone in propelling a vessel against the current of the Potomac, and "at the rate of four or five miles an hour!" She was a lovely, cultivated old lady, the widow of a distinguished man. I cannot be quite sure,—all witnesses are gone,—but I have a distinct impression I was told that General Washington was a passenger with Mrs. Baker on James Rumsey's boat.


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