George William Bagby.

Selections from the miscellaneous writings of Dr. George W. Bagby (Volume 1) online

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Shall I remain a bachelor? dwindle down and
shrivel up into an old bachelor ? Never ! Since I
cannot marry my own wife, I'll marry the wife of
somebody else ; and if I could only find the wife of
the man who married my wife, I'd mar^y her in
spite of fate. And if I could only ride about in the
cars with a plenty of nurses and children, and Thin-
gamy could see me and know my theory, I should
be perfectly satisfied.

Dear reader, take warning by me; study my
theory ; it was written for you, and for the whole
human race. Try to cultivate your spontaneous,
unconscious apperception. And if ever you sit down
in an old tavern porch and see a beautiful young
lady on the opposite side of the street, don't wait
for dinner, but go right over and demand her in
marriage. You may be mistaken ; she may not be
your wife ; she may be already married ; but no
matter, it is your duty to make the effort. If you
don't, you'll regret it ; you will find yourself in my
predicament. You may see me any day struggling
through the weeds of my uncle's wheat field, look-
ing and feeling unutterably mean. No wonder ; I
have lost my wife !


A BEECH grows askant the Appomattox that
_jLJL_ curves around the foot of Uncle Jim's plan-
tation. The stream, generally muddy, is clear now
as a maiden's eye. Deep under the bushy banks, it
flows with a still surface, but a strong current, a
moving mirror, that reflects the fair October skies,
and every limb and leaf of the over-hanging trees in
beauty not their own, for, under the perfectly out-
lined forms of branch and spray, drooping vines and
fluttering leaves, lie the mysterious, immeasurable
depths of heaven. 'Tis a strange feeling that comes
over a man as he looks down, down, down into those
depths, so fathomless, so wondrous lovely, and yet
so near at hand the cunning trick of light reflected
from calm water. You come back with a start when
you remember how simple it all is.

The beech I spoke of is of great age. Poor old
soul ! he has seen his best days ; he is dying now.'
As he bends over the water, with his lean uplifted
arms stretched out, he reminds me of an old fellow
putting on an overcoat that is too tight across the
shoulders for him. I fancy I can hear the big, pite-
ous splash he will make when he topples over into
the river, and can see his great corpse floating along,
the naked limbs thrust up appealingly, helplessly,
from his watery grave, till the negroes come and


catch him, and cut him up with brutal axes, and
burn him in their quarters 'way into the long winter
nights. But, thank goodness ! the old fellow is
tough and gristly ; he will hang on the bank many
and manjr a day yet, and I hope to catch abundance
of flat-back from under his sheltering boughs before
he takes his final plunge.

The best thing about the old beech is this : lean-
ing over so far from the bank, the better to look at
himself, no doubt, (he must have been vain of his
personal appearance in youth, and I don't wonder at
it, nor blame him a bit), leaning over in this way, he
has been compelled to send out a tremendous growth
of roots to hold on by. All gnarled, twisted, and
interlaced, these roots form as nice a rustic arm chair
as heart could wish the best place to fish you ever
saw r . You can sit down, lean back, rest your feet,
do anything you please. Then the seat is so per-
fectly clean. And it is nicely shaded, too. With
your pole fixed in a crevice right at your hand, you
can smoke or read, prepared in a moment, when a
mullet nibbles to take him.

.As Uncle Jim's plantation was once a part of the
"Bizarre Estate," this old beech has a historical
value. I look upon his roots with great respect.
Jack, and Dick, and Judy, and Nancy Kandolph
have reposed their aristocratic bones on these same
roots often and often. But I look upon these roots
with awe. In the far past, a mightier race than the
Randolphs was here. Indians and Randolphs alike
are gone ; we shall see them no more. In fact, I


never saw them at all ; but I am pleased that mine
-eyes have dwelt their humble glances on those vene-
rated roots, so honored in the days of yore.

It is early in the morning when " me and Billy
Ivvins" and the other fellows set forth in the direc-
tion of the old beech. The air is crisp and cool.
One of the fellows has a double-barreled gun. The
morn, like an eastern queen, is sumptuously clad in
blue and gold; the sheen of her robes is dazzling
sun-light, and she comes from her tent of glistening,
silken, celestial warp, beaming with tender smiles.
Billy Ivvins totes six slender pine poles on his left
shoulder, and a cymling full of the best and biggest
fishing worms in his right hand. The woods, painted
in all the gorgeous dyes of autumn, repose on the
distant hills, their tops trembling in the fresh breeze.
One of the party carries a cold ash-cake to bait the
hole with. The day is beautiful exceedingly. The
veil of dusky silver, the haze of Indian summer, is
rent in twain, and we see nature face to face, in the
unclouded glory of her beauty

" Sweet day ! so calm, so cool, so bright,
. The bridal of the earth and sky."

I've got two splendid Woodall pipes, plenty of
first-rate smoking tobacco, and a box of German
matches in my pocket. It is a day of days for flat-
back, provided the moon is right. Flatback won't
bite on the wane of the moon ; nothing but nigger-
knockers bite then nigger-knockers and eels.

However, we are going to try, moon or no moon.
.Billy Ivvins swears that the planetary bodies have


nothing to do with fish its all confounded supersti-

Arrived at the beech, the lines are quickly un-
wrapped from the poles, the hooks (Sutherland's best)
are baited with two long worms each, a few crumbs
of bread are cast in to keep the roach and other lit-
tle fish busy ; out go the sinkers as far to the middle
of the stream as the poles will allow, the corks after
wabbling for a little while settle down and set jauntily
on the water ; the poles are fastened between the
roots, and the irrepressible piscatorial conflict be-
gins. Billy Ivvins leans against the trunk of the
old beech ; next him is Billy Y., then comes Dr. X.,
the best fisherman of the party, and, lastly, myself,
perched far out on a projecting root. They tell me
the root is rotten, and that I will fall into the water ;
but' I know my weight better. The fish don't bite
fast. I predict that we are going to have bad luck..
Billy Y. does the same thing. Billy Ivvins swears
that we are " 'boun to take 'em." Dr. X. sits per-
fectly silent. We all watch our corks : no move-
ment. A desultory talk springs up, mainly about
the Harper's Ferry affair. Billy Ivvins swears that
an attempt will be made to rescue " old Brown."
" He is of the opinion that the country is full of ab-
olitionists ; says that these oil-cloth and table-cloth
men that tramp about the State are nothing but
emissaries of the underground they ought all to be
hung. And all these northern preachers, professors,
and school-teachers, that we have amongst us, ought
to be made to swear an oath of allegiance to Vir-


ginia, or else be immediately killed. He thinks-
" Gizzard " the very man for the present crisis. Ding
'em ! he'll swing 'em. Gizzard's good grit as ever
fluttered. If Brown is acquitted, he (Billy I.) will
be one of twelve men to follow him and shoot him
on sight, wherever found. Brown ought to be hung,
drawn and quartered, his head stuck over the peni-
tentiary, and the rest of him suspended in trees in
various parts of the State, a terror to all who be-

"The militia ought to be thoroughly organized.
He wondered why old Gizzard had not done this be-
fore. Fine every man ten dollars who don't attend
muster," etc., etc.

Dr. X. thinks he has a nibble, and begs Billy to
stop talking, which he does reluctantly.

We all admire the glorious weather, the lovely
day, the sweet seclusion by the river-side, under the
beechen boughs, with the fresh wind pouring its in-
visible flood over our heads as we sit under the bank,,
and shaking down a Danse shower of golden leaves
from the trees.

There is a plenty to interest and charm us beside
the world of inanimate nature around us.

The tree tops are full of robins eating grapes.
How they chirp, and flutter, and shriek, and dash
about ! as if half afraid and altogether delighted,,
like a parcel of school-girls bathing in a shallow
creek. Crows by the hundred wing their level flight
over the field back of ns, cawing as they go. They
are preparing to hold a caucus in the pines over there.


Here comes a gust of blackbirds. They wheel im-
petuously, and alight in an instant, as if drilled, high
on the limbs of a dead birch-tree right opposite us,
on the other side of the river. There they are, all
in a lump, the black rascals, looking at us as uncon-
cernedly as you please. It is as much as we can do to
keep Billy Y. from banging away at them. But it
will never do to scare the fish. Whew ! robins and
blackbirds go off in a tumultuous cloud.

What's the matter now ? Alia ! No wonder you
new so quickly, my little fellows. There's a hawk,
a big grey one, comes swooping on noiseless wings
out of the sky. By jingo! he's lit not forty feet
from us. Shuh ! he's gone, without a sound, before
Billy Y. can get to his gun. " Hallo ! hallo ! what's
that ?" " Otter." " Otter the devil it's a mus'rat.
No, 'taint it's a duck." " 'Taint a duck either, it's a
didapper." " There he is ; there he is ; I saw him
when he rose." Billy Y. is after him ; but he might
as well try to shoot a witch without a silver bullet.
We hear his gun go off, and he comes back presently
bringing a field-lark in his hand, the yellow breast
all rumpled, and the brown wings hanging limp and

Meantime Dr. X. has caught one or two fish
small ones whitesides. Billy Ivvins, in great
wrath, has pulled out a hideous nigger-knocker, and
I have had a glorious nibble. Billy Y. is in bad
luck ; not a thing has touched his " stopper ;" he is
restless, and keeps moving about, to the great an-
noyance of that exemplary fisherman Dr. X., a


model of quietness and taciturnity. Billy I wins
swears that Billy Y. has got the " evil hand," and
that's the reason the fish won't bite at any thing he
has touched. Whereupon I make a pun, and say
that Billy Y.'s evil hand has given his pole the pole-
evil. Billy I wins swears he will kill me for a fool.
We hear a squirrel barking down the river, and
the "evil hand" goes after him, and brings him.
The fish are beginning to bite pretty well one or
two medium-sized flat-back have been landed by Dr.
X. Again there is silence, interrupted only by the
restless and unlucky Billy Y., and two little negro
girls who are picking peas in the cornfield across the
river. The corn has been topped, and stripped of
its broad fodder blades, each stalk holds out a heavy
yellow pouch, giving promise of endless pone for the
coming year. A slight rustle is heard in the weeds
over the way. Perhaps the partridges are there a
glorious flock, not less than a hundred have grown
up in Uncle Jim's plantation during the summer,
and have come down to spend the fall in the low-
grounds. But while we look, a small inquisitive
head, with a Roman crest, and an eye half hidden
in a white circlet, peers out of the weeds; and
presently a sinuous, graceful neck is lifted high,
disclosing a breast cuirassed in blue, burnished steel ;
it is a lordly peacock, with his mate, anxiously in-
quiring the meaning of those strange forms seated
on the old root over against him. And now a shadow
with expanded wings is seen in the limpid depths
of the stream. We look up, and lo ! far, far aloft in


bright October heavens there floats, on stretched
unmoving pinions, a buzzard that hungry black re-
publican democrat of the skies surveying the wide
territory below him, intent on practical squatter
.sovereignty, and seeking where he may intervene to
protect the carcass of a deceased cow or mule.
Several of them, belonging to Uncle Jim, having
paid the forfeit of too deep affection for poisonous
-mushrooms, now lie stark and cold in the pines be-
yond the tobacco-house. Billy Y. proposes "un-
friendly legislation " in the shape of three fingers of
shot; but as it is important to preserve the harmony
of the party (the fishing party), Senator Douglas I
beg pardon, I should have said the buzzard, is per-
mitted to go on- his way unmolested.

Our lines are continually disturbed by. dead leaves.
They appear to love to hang around the corks, like
a parcel of red-nosed topers round a bottle. As
they come sailing down the river, myriads in num-
ber, and of all the hues of the rainbow, one can't
help thinking that somebody has split a quilting up
the stream, and is naturally anxious to see the girls,
.and find out how the accident occurred. I'll bet
there are some boys up there, and that the quilting
frame, baskets of scraps, etc., got upset while a
tremendous romping was going on.

"Hush!" says Dr. X. (Nobody has said a word.)
"I've got a bite;" he goes on, calmly; "that's a flat-
back. I know by the way he bites, and I shall cer-
tainly catch him." We look the cork gives scarcely
.a sign, and the next moment out comes a dripping


ingot of silver, glistening brightly in the sun. The
ingot proves to be a goodly flat-back, and is soon
thrown high and dry on the bank. Billy Ivvins
swears that the pint of his hook is out, and that's
the reason the fish haven't bit at him this half hour.
He pulls at length, and up comes a tolerable sized
flat-back, who had been quietly sucking all the time.
Now I have a decided nibble. " It's nothing but a
roach," says Billy. "Give him plenty of time,"
says the Doctor. So I w^ait till I can wait no longer,
and then jerk: and by Jove! its a splendid mullet.
The fish are beginning to bite in earnest ; everybody
catches them except Billy with the "evil hand;"
not even a nigger-knocker will bite at him. And
the fish get bigger and bigger, pull stronger and
stronger. Soon the Doctor hangs a whaler a flat-
back sixteen inches long, how he pulls ! How he
bends the pole! "Let him play, let him play!" is
the cry, and we all draw out our lines to give him
room. At last he is wearied out; the Doctor draws
him to the surface, and he lies fully exposed to view,
a prodigious fellow. He has given up entirely and
struggles no more. Just at this crisis, the hook slips
out of his side where it had accidentally caught, and
the noble fish is lost. But flat -back rnagnus don't
know he is loose. There he lies, resigned to his fate.
A second more, he wriggles his tail and darts out of
sight under the water. There is a general outcry of
'disappointment and vexation. But all we have to
do is to make up for lost time ; so we throw in again,
and it is not long before we are rewarded for our


pains. The fish we are catching now are all of good
size, twelve or fourteen inches long, and upon my
word they do pull gallantly. It is equal almost to
trouting. Billy Ivvins swears that the flat-back in
this hole are superior to any other in the river
they are of pure Castilian blood, game and mettle-
some as a wild horse when he is first lassoed.

"Is that the cars?" Yes, it is the train from
Lynchburg. It is half -past one o'clock high time
for dinner. And while the roaring of the train is
still in our ears, here comes Aunt Lockey from the
house, with a heavy basket, little Ada staggering be-
hind her under the weight of a big bucket of fresh
spring water. An old plank makes a good dinner
table ; the plates and dishes, with excellent fried ham,
chicken that needs only a little salt, sweet potatoes,
bread and sweet pickles, make up the repast, which
we devour with hearty relish, watching our corks all
the time. But the fish are too well-bred to interrupt
gentlemen while they are dining. There's not a sin-
gle bite until we are through with onr meal and have
lighted our pipes. Even then the fish trouble us
very little. Doubtless they are taking a siesta, for
it is a well-known fact that fish never bite well from
after dinner until an hour or two before sunset. We
wait patiently. The slant sunbeams creep around the
little tree to our left, and fall upon the water above
the pool.

The biting commences again, but I am chilled and
go up the bank to walk about and warm myself. As
the fish are tossed up, I can but admire them. The


" flat-back," you know, is called " sucker " in some
parts of the country, and, with its broad, mottled,
green back, its large fins and black eyes, makes as
pretty a fish as any that swim in our waters. It is
easily caught, if you have patience. The mullet is
a beautiful fish. Its glistening sides of silver mail
and its broad, purple fins, are a delight to look at.
All fish are beautiful, on account of their clean,
healthy look; but these we are catching seem pecu-
liarly so. What unpolluted blood flows in their
veins ! how free they are from the aches, the ills, the
slow, consuming diseases of human kind ! They owe
no money, buy no clothes, pay nothing for board,
rent no houses, are never taxed, never have any ac-
counts at the dry-goods stores, are never troubled
about bonnets for their wives, or schooling for their
children, own no land and no negroes, care nothing
about old Brown, are not at all excited about the
election in 1860, and don't have to get up, of a cold
winter's morning, and wash their faces in a tin pan.
It is a sin and a shame to drag them out of their
homes into this dirty upper world. How soon their
glory departs, their lustre fades ! Their silver coats
are soon begrimed with dust, and even their round,
undefended eyes, are filled with it. Pity, pity, they
haven't got eye-lids. I declare it hurts me to see
them flapping vainly to get back into the water, as
they lie gasping and panting on the bank. And how
sorrowful their poor mouths look did you ever no-
tice them?

Another name for the nigger-knocker is hog-fish,,


and it is by far the ugliest tenant of the Virginia
waters. Cat-fish are sweet and pretty compared to
nigger-knockers. They have a mean poisonous look.
Their heads are ragged and hideous beyond expres-
sion, reminding me of the stump of a thumb after
the end has been blown off by a pistol, more than
any thing else I can think of.

But now the shades are deepening fast ; it is get-
ting really cold; the water, with its dark reflections,
looks like a wondrous picture in Indian ink. We
hear the dull tinkle of the bells, as the cows pace
slowly to the " cuppen." Still, the fish bite. We
can scarcely see our corks, but we are loath to leave.
Billy Ivvins hangs a monster flat-back ; he pulls like
mad ; as he rushes to and fro under the water, the
pole bends like a bow, and fairly cracks under his
struggles ; but Billy Ivvins knows how to manage
him. At last he is completely exhausted, and
struggles no more. Cautiously, slowly, Billy draws
him up ; he is fairly out of the water, a glorious
fellow, eighteen inches long at the very least, and
hangs as still as death. But ere his tail is six inches
from the water, the treacherous snood snaps, down
he drops, and is gone for ever. You just ought to
have heard Billy Ivvins swear. I have heard many
men curse, such as congressmen, hackdrivers, and
gamblers, but none of them ever equalled Billy
Ivvins on this occasion

"No ancient devil,

Plunged to the chin, when burning hot,
Into a holy water pot ;


Could so blaspheme, or fire a volley
Of oaths so dire and melancholy,"

as Billy I wins fired when that snood snapped and
that flat-back fell back into the Appomattox.

But now we are compelled to leave. "We fix up
our tackle in haste, and put out at high speed, one of
the party carrying the mighty string of flat-back,
mullet, and nigger-knockers; the others taking
charge of the guns, etc. A little way down the river
bank, we discover what appears to be a bundle of
fodder set np on the end to scare the fish away from
three or four poles that hang over the water. It
proves to be Uncle Jim, in a battered wool hat and
a sun-cured old overcoat, with his feet wrapped up in
ft blanket to keep them warm. The old fellow has
displayed his skill by catching nearly as many fish
as all of us boys together. Adding his fish to our
string, we set forth again at a topping pace, to start
the circulation, which has become stagnant by long
sitting on the beech root. Besides, it is very cold.

By the time we reach a snug little bachelor estab-
lishment, the stars are sparkling in the skies, and we
are warm as toasts from the rapid two mile walk.
Supper is soon served. We partake of it sparingly
and go to Farmville to hear old Joe Sweeny. We
find that the old fellow has let down; but he is
welcome to our small change for the sake of what he
used to be when he was young and in his prime.

After the concert is over we repair to the Ran-
dolph House, take a good big drink of excellent Bum-
gardner a whiskey that is said to have power almost


to raise the dead. We pay our respects to Messrs.
Pry or and Goode (it is the night before election day),
and find both of them pretty well used up, and accord-
ingly leave them to their much needed rest. We re-
turn to the bachelor establishment, and about eleven
o'clock sit down to a magnificent flat-back supper;
and we enjoy it as only Appornatox flat-back fisher-
men can enjoy it. At the close of his tenth cup of
coffee, Billy Ivvins looks over a lofty pile of flat-back
bones, and gets very sick. He swears that flat-back
is the greatest eating in the world. He wishes he
may be teetotally dad-blasted into everlasting dad-
blamenation if they ain't superior even to shadses.
The skulls of flat-back parched would make splendid
coffee. Flat-back is the meat of all meats for married
men to eat. He intended to get him a large wagon
and fill it with flat-back, and get married and start in
the morning for Texas, etc., etc.

And so ended the great "ketchin' of flat-back,,
mullet and nigger-knockers, in the Appomattox."


O!N" my return to Lynchburg, all the doctors with-
out exception Payne, Williams, Patterson,
Gilmer, Hobson, Morris, Langhorne, the Lathams,
father and son, the elder and the younger Owen, etc.,
etc. welcomed and encouraged me. But I was much
too sick to practice, wandered about two or three years
in search of health, and finally settled down to
journalism as my vocation. In '59, when I came to
Richmond to live, it was Dr. C. Bell Gibson who
told me I would always find a plate waiting for me
at his table ; and it was Arthur Peticolas, whom I had
known intimately in Lynchburg, who was a constant
visitor to my room at night, and with whom I gladly
renewed the discussions upon art and poetry which
had been begun years before. Though no longer a
member of the profession, I received from all the
Richmond physicians with whom I became ac-
quainted much courtesy and kindness, and in my
sicknesses from time to time, had occasion to call upon
first one and then another of them for advice and
assistance, which they promptly rendered, and for
which I am their debtor to this day.

But I must not forget the country doctors. Among
them I remember with special gratitude and affec-
tion, Dr. James Dillon of Prince Edward, Dr.
Gordon of Tappahannock, Dr. Cochran of Middle-


burg, and Dr. Edmond Taliaferro of Orange. If I
were a novelist hunting for types of a Virginia
country doctor, I could not go amiss among the
gentlemen just named. What worth, what modesty,,
what labor, ill-paid arid often unpaid, what bravery
and what fidelity to high trusts is theirs ! I honor
them and their kind with an honor beyond words.
The tall form, the ruddy face, the thin grey locks
of Dr. Dillon, how familiar and how welcome they
are, and have been for ever so many years, to the
whole country-side near Earmville. I was with
"Dr. Jim" in his quaint old house, "Sandy Ford,''
the scene of boundless hospitality during the days of
the Eandolphs, on one of those terrific nights in the
winter of 55-'6. The water froze in the pail on

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Online LibraryGeorge William BagbySelections from the miscellaneous writings of Dr. George W. Bagby (Volume 1) → online text (page 18 of 27)