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CHAPTER XIV
I was peacefully enjoying a cup of tea with Mrs. Arnold Harris, when her father, old General Armstrong, entered, and brought me the astounding news that my husband had resigned his position as editor of the Washington union.

"Oh, that boy! He thinks he knows more about foreign politics than I do."

I was very fond of the General, who had always treated me in a fatherly and most kind manner. But of course I could not hear my husband discussed, even by him, so I expressed polite regrets and hastened home. It was too true! The junior partner had published in the union a very strong article, taking the part of Russia in the Crimean War, and General Armstrong had wished him to disavow it "upon further consideration." He had refused, and declared he must write according to his convictions or not at all. The matter might possibly have been adjusted, had not the General, with more zeal than discretion, remonstrated with him upon the ground that he should "think twice before giving up a large salary."

There is a very ugly word in the English language of which I, as a child, stood in mortal fear. I had then never read that word anywhere except in the Bible or my Catechism. I had never heard it except in the pulpit. I had an idea that the devil, in 107whose personality I believed, but of whom I had never thought enough to be afraid, might appear at any moment in connection with that inviting word, if uttered out of church.

Only lately has it been shorn of its terrors by being left out root and branch in the revision of the Bible. Now, although offensive to ears polite, it is no longer supposed to imperil the safety of the soul. Unless refined taste forbids, it may in seasons of peculiar vexation of spirit—à lacher la vapeur—be applied to things inanimate: to a "spot" that will not "out," to tiresome "iteration," to "faint praise," or, on general principles, suitably preface the pronoun "it," but never to living individuals! That would be uncivil to a degree—highly imprudent, and likely to result unpleasantly. There can be no doubt of the fact that it contains certain mysterious elements of relief and comfort, else why its frequent use by men and not infrequent use by some women?

At the time of which I am writing it was to me still a desperate word of evil source and evil omen. Even now the cells of my brain respond with a shudder when I hear it.

You can then imagine the shock I sustained when I learned my husband's reply to the good old General's overture.

"What did you say?" I had sternly demanded.

"Well, if you will have it—I said, 'damn the money!'"

We did not leave Washington immediately. My editor knew he could make good his position in regard to Russia in her quarrel with England, and 108Mr. Gales offered him the columns of the National Intelligencer for that purpose. He wrote a long and able defence of Russia. Caleb Cushing met him afterward and congratulated him on an article which was, he said, "unanswered and unanswerable."

He was fascinated with editorial life, immediately bought an interest in the Richmond Enquirer, and became co-editor with William F. Ritchie. We had inaugurated President Pierce, whose friendship promised much. I had made charming friends in Washington,—Mrs. Gales and Mrs. Seaton, Mrs. Crittenden, beautiful Adele Cutts (afterward Mrs. Douglas), Mrs. "Clem" Clay, and other charming wives of the representatives in Congress. But I was not sorry to leave the city. My dear Blue Mountains were awaiting me. For years I could never return to them without a swelling heart. I was going back for a long visit to my aunt and the baby girl I had lent her (to keep her own dear heart from breaking when I left her), and I had a splendid boy to show my friends in Charlottesville—the old people only—for all my confrères had married and taken wing.

It was not long before Mr. Pierce sent my husband on a special mission to Greece. I could not accompany him. I could not travel with my babies—there were now three—nor could I leave them with my delicate aunt. I went with him as far as Washington, where we spent one day and night. A dinner had been arranged to witness the unfolding of a superb specimen of the Agave Americana, supposed to be over fifty years old, and which now, for 109the first time in the memory of the present generation, had suddenly thrown up a great stalk crowned with a bud nearly a foot long.

We did not attend the dinner, but at midnight, upon answering a knock at the door, there stood a man bearing in his arms the splendid flower. A thick fringe of narrow, pure white petals formed a rosette, and from the centre rose a plume of golden stamens. I was resolved this midnight beauty should not discover the dawn which signals the closing of its petals, so I placed it in the ample fireplace, made a framework of canes, parasols, and umbrellas around it and covered the whole with a blanket. In the morning I peeped in. It presented a tightly twisted spike, having entered upon another long sleep of fifty years, more or less. It was this flower that my husband, with outrageous American boasting, described to Queen Mathilde of Greece as an ordinary floral production of this country, not to be confounded with the commonplace night-blooming Cereus, and fired an ambition in her soul that could hardly have been gratified.

While my husband was absent on his mission, President Pierce spent one day in Charlottesville to visit the tomb and home of Jefferson, the father of his political party. We were then at my aunt's country place, and the President wrote to me regretting he could not go out to see me, and inviting me to spend the one evening of his stay with him and a few friends at his hotel.

I had a delightful evening. He expressed the warmest friendship for the young ambassador to 110Greece, and presented me with two beautiful books, bound sumptuously in green morocco and inscribed in his own fine handwriting, from my "friend Franklin Pierce." Those valued books were taken from me when our house was sacked in 1865. They possibly exist somewhere! certainly in the grateful memory of their first owner.

The President had the courtesy to express pleasure in my piano playing. I made him listen to Thalberg's "La Stranièra," Henselt's "Gondola," and "L'Elisir d'Amour"; and I left him with an impression that has never been lost, of his kindness of heart, his captivating voice and manner.

My husband's letters from Greece and from Egypt were extremely interesting, and I preserved them for publication in book form. Alas! they, too, were lost in 1865. Unable to encumber myself when I fled before the bullets in 1865, I sent my little son back under cover of night to draw the box containing them to some safe place away from the buildings and burn them. Thus I lost all records of our active life in Virginia before the eve of surrender, except those preserved in the files of Northern papers.

Passage was taken in the Pacific for my husband's return, and I went down to Petersburg that I might be with his family to meet him. The Pacific was long overdue before we would acknowledge to each other that we were anxious,—I can hear now, as then, cries of the newsboys, "Here's the New York Herald, and no news of the Pacific,"—repeating like a knell of despair, as they ran down the streets, 111"No news of the Pacific! No news of the Pacific!" At last, when the strain was almost unbearable, my father, Dr. Pryor, ran home with the paper in his hand: "A printed list of the passengers, my dear! Roger's name is not among them!"

It had pleased God to deliver him. He had taken passage on the Pacific and sent his baggage ahead of him. When he reached Marseilles, he found his trunks and packages had been opened,—a discourtesy to an ambassador,—and he remained a few days to obtain redress, allowing the Pacific to sail without him. That ill-starred steamer never reached home. The story of her fate is held where so many secrets, so many treasures lie—in the bosom of the great deep.

I have told elsewhere something of my husband's residence at Athens. It suffices to state here that he accomplished the object of his mission to the satisfaction of his government, and to his own pleasure and profit. He brought me many beautiful pictures and carvings for the home we now made in Richmond, to say nothing of corals, amber, mosaics, curios, and antiques, silks, laces, velvets, perfumes, etc., to my great content. Soon after his return, the President offered him the mission to Persia, which he declined. We found a pleasant house in Richmond, with ample grounds on either side for the flowers I adored. There we set up our Lares and Penates—happy housekeepers, intent on hospitality.

The great day arrived for our first large dinner-party. Although only men were present, they were 112friends and neighbors, and I presided; with my courtly uncle, Dr. Thomas Atkinson, at my right hand. We furnished our dinners from our own kitchens in Richmond. In every respect—so my uncle assured me—my first venture was a success. Soup, fish, roast, game, and salad with the perfection of chill demanded by a self-respecting salad. Presently I saw one of the waiters whisper to the host, and an expression of alarm pass over his face. The bread had "given out"! I had not imagined the enormous consumption of bread of which a wine-bibber could be capable. Passing around to the head of the table, the dire story was repeated to me, and it was well I had a physician at my right hand! Utter collapse threatened his young hostess. As to the young host, he rose nobly to the occasion. "Ah! no bread! Then we must eat cake!" Thenceforth at all our dinners a skeleton entered our closet—if an empty bread-tray might be dignified into a skeleton. At every dinner and supper we gave, my husband stood in mortal terror lest the bread should give out—as it really did in very truth not many years later.

I was very fond of a little factotum of my cook, whom I promoted from the kitchen to my personal service. As no bell or knocker could reach the ear in the regions allotted the servants, George was invested in white linen, and with a primer for his entertainment and culture was stationed at the door during visiting hours. He found it difficult to keep awake. My French teacher would throw up his hands when he passed out, "Mon Dieu! Comme 113il dorme!" If you have ever seen Valentine's bust of the Nation's Ward, you have seen George; asleep, with his head on his bosom and his spelling-book on the floor. He was of a blackness not to be illustrated by the ace of spades, a crow's wing, or any other sable bird or object, and this circumstance, enhancing the purity of his white linen, made him an attractive and interesting object. George had no imagination. He was nothing if not literal. At one time ice was scarce in Richmond. The water of the James was a rich old-gold color from the mud of the red-clay regions through which some of its tributaries ran, but it was considered wholesome. We filtered it for drinking and for tea through a great Vesuvius stone. Some of the old residents were wont to declare they preferred it to the clear water of the springs,—several of which were in the parks of the city,—complaining that the spring water "lacked body." At the time of the ice famine we filled tubs with this cool, muddy water, and in it kept our bottles of milk. George once brought for my admiration some fine lettuce the cook had bought from a cart.

"Put it in water!" I ordered. Soon afterwards, he entered with several bottles of milk—which I also told him to "put in water." What was my dismay when the cook rushed to my room in great heat:—

"I knowed that fool nigger would give you trouble!"

"Why, what's the poor child done?"

"Po' chile! Little devil, I call him! He's 114done po'ed out all the baby's milk in that yaller water, and seasoned it with lettuce leaves!"

We found the society of Richmond delightful. Southern society has often been described, its members praised or blamed, criticised or admired, according to the point of view; sometimes commended as "stately but condescending, haughty but jovial," possessing high self-appreciation, not often indulging in distasteful egotism; fast friends, generous, hospitable; considering conversation an art to be studied, and fitting themselves with just so much knowledge of literature, science, and art, as might be indispensable for conversation; but withal "cultured, educated men of the world who would meet any visitor on his own favorite ground."

Richmond society has always claimed a certain seclusiveness for itself—not exclusiveness—for nobody properly introduced could visit Richmond without having a dinner or evening party given in his honor. "Taken in?"—of course the entertainers were sometimes "taken in"! That did not signify once in a while.

I remember a portly dame with two showy daughters, always handsomely attired, who managed, at some watering-place, to find favor in the eyes of one of our citizens and obtained an invitation, which was eagerly accepted, to make him a visit. An evening party was given to introduce them. I had my doubts after a conversation with Madame Mère—and expressed them, to the disgust of one of my friends. "Impossible," she said, coolly. After they left, Mr. Price, our leading 115merchant, presented a large bill for female fineries with which he had unhesitatingly credited Madame, who had departed with her daughters to parts unknown. It was promptly, and without a grimace, paid by their deluded host. I could remember the sweetly apologetic way in which Madame had told me she feared her "girls were a bit overdressed for the small functions in Richmond. In New York, now! But here, of course, there need be no such display as in New York!"

No amusement, except an occasional song from an obliging guest, was provided for our evening parties. Conversation and a good supper, with the one-and-only Pizzini to the fore—this was inducement enough. Not quite as spirituelle as Lady Morgan, we required something more than a lump of sugar to clear the voice. And Pizzini's suppers! His pyramids of glacé oranges, "non pareil," and spun sugar; his ices, his wine jellies, his blanc manges and, ye gods! his terrapin, pickled oysters, and chicken salad! We assembled not much later than nine, and remained as long as it pleased us. Sometimes we acted—"The Honeymoon," or some other little play; Anna Cora Mowatt (Mrs. Ritchie) gave charming tableaux, with recitations; but usually we talked and talked and talked! "Art of conversation?" I suspect art has nothing to do with conversation. When it becomes art, it ceases to be conversation. We did not gossip, either. Personalities were quite, quite out of the question. Our hosts knew to perfection the art of entertaining.

Sometime in the fifties, Charles Astor Bristed 116wrote his book, entitled, "The Upper Ten Thousand of New York." It appears the world was waiting for some such work. The theme rippled from shore to shore, until within the past few years it seems to have expired with the myth of the Four Hundred. N. P. Willis (wasn't he a bit of a snob himself?) caught with avidity the new departure in Mr. Bristed's book, and eternally harped upon it. From 1852 until the war, and afterward, until the subsidence of the Four Hundred ripple, we have heard a great deal about classes, society; and finally, American manners came to the fore as a subject of journalistic interest. "American manners! Are they improving in grace or dignity?" The question was put to a number of men and women whose experience and frankness could be relied upon. The answers, except for one, were vague and cautious. Nobody likes to appear as a satirist or cynic—and yet nobody is willing to acknowledge that he knows nothing better than what appears at present to be the standard of good breeding, by comparison with the standard twenty or more years ago.

The one honest man revealed by the lamp-light of the inquiring editor remembered the chapter allotted to a contributor in the preparation of "a history of Ireland." The subject of the chapter was dictated—"The Snakes of Ireland"—and it appeared with that heading. It was brief and to the point—"There are no Snakes in Ireland."

"American manners?" answered the one honest man; "there aren't any." 117 "American manners," said George William Curtis, "where do you find them? If high society be the general intercourse of the highest intelligence with which we converse,—the festival of Wit and Beauty and Wisdom,—we do not find it at Newport. Fine society is a fruit that ripens slowly. We Americans fancy we can buy it."

Foreigners have never ceased to comment upon American manners. The subject in the fifties seems to have been of inexhaustible interest. "There's no use," said Max O'Rell, "in forever gazing at the Upper Ten Thousand. They are alike all over the world. It is the million that differ and are interesting." Marion Crawford said: "The Upper Ten can never fraternize with artists, poets, and inventors. These take no account of wealth or of any position not won by absolute genius or merit, treating such position, indeed, with ill-concealed contempt."

Thackeray liked to be agreeable to the people who made his lectures profitable, but he complains of the "uncommon splendatiousness" of Americans. "But I haven't been in Society yet," he wrote, in 1852; "I haven't met the Upper Ten." Another English writer went farther—much farther—but we forbear. Now these harsh judgments were exclusively of manners in New York, Newport, and Washington. No Curtis, Bristed, or Willis ever, to my knowledge, visited Richmond. Thackeray, Max O'Rell, and Ampère never thought us worth while—so our delightful small society, which had ripened slowly and took no account of wealth, and which could 118really have furnished a modicum of "Wit, beauty, and Wisdom" for Curtis's "festival," was unrepresented. As to the criticisms of our elder brother across the water, as long as he sends his sons to America to find the mothers of the future peers of his realm, the edge is blunted of his strictures upon American society and manners.


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