George William Bagby.

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

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4 THE OLD VIRGINIA GENTLEMAN.

And whenever the road was adorned by a white-
haired, florid-faced gentleman astride a blooded horse,
with his body-servant in charge of his portmanteau
following at respectful distance behind, that party,
you may be very sure, turned off the main plain road
and disappeared in the depths of the forest. Col.
Tidewater had come half the length of the State to
try a little more of Judge Piedmont's Madeira, to
know what on earth induced Piedmont to influence
the Governor in making that appointment, and to in-
quire if it were possible that Piedmont intended to
bring out Jimson of all human beings, Jim son !
for Congress ?

" Disappeared in the depths of the forest ?" Yes.
And why ? Because there must be plenty of wood
where there is no end of negroes, and fifteen or
twenty miles of worm-fencing to keep in repair. So
there was a forest on this side ancl on that of the Old
Virginia gentleman's home ; sometimes on all sides ;
and the more woodland the better. How is a man
to get along without clearing new ground every year ?
The boys must have some place to hunt squirrels.
Everybody is obliged to have wild indigo to keep
flies off his horse's head in summer. If you have no
timber, what becomes of your hogs when you turn
them out ? How about fuel ? "Where is your plank
to come from, and your logs for new cabins and to-
bacco barns ? Are you going to buy poles for this,
that and the other? There's no use 'talking ne-
groes can't be healthy without wood, nor enjoy life
without pine-knots when they go fishing at night.



THE OLD VIRGINIA GENTLEMAN. 5

Pleasant it was to trot through these forests on a
hot summer day, or any other day, knowing what
was to come at your journey's end. Pleasant, too,
to bowl along under the arching boughs, albeit the
ruts were terrible in places, and there were two or
three immemorial holes, made by the butts of saw-
logs (you could swear that the great mark in the
centre of the road was the tail-trace of an Iguanodon,
or some other Greek beast of prehistoric times)
two or three old holes, that made every vehicle, but
chiefly the bug-back carriage, lurch and careen worse
than a ship in a heavy sea.

But these were useful holes. They educated the
young negro driver, and compelled the old one to
keep his wrinkled, mealy hand in. They toned, or
rather tuned up, the nerves of the young ladies, and
gave them excuse for uttering the prettiest shrieks ;
whereat the long-legged cousin, leaning to the left
at an angle of ninety degrees, with his abominable
red head for ever inside the carriage window, would
display his horsemanship in the most nimble, over-
affectionate, and unpleasing manner unpleasiug to
the young gentleman from the city, who was not a
cousin, did not want to be a cousin, wasn't a bit proud
of riding, but had " some sense of decency, and really
a very high regard for the sensibilities of the most
refined ladies in the whole State of Virginia, sir !"
Many were the short but fervent prayers ejaculated
by the old ladies in consequence of these same holes,
which came to be provocatives of late piety, and on
that account were never molested ; and they were



6 THE OLD VIRGINIA GENTLEMAN.

prized beyond measure by the freckle-face ten-year
old brother, who, standing up behind and hanging-
back by the carriage-straps, yelled with delight every
time the bug-back went " way down," and wished
from the very bottom of his horrid boy's heart that
" the blamed old thing would bust all to flinders and
plump the whole caboodle smack into the middle of
the mud puddle."

Col. Tidewater declared that Piedmont's forest
road was the worst in the world, and enough to bring
in jeopardy soul as well as body ; to which Piedmont
hotly replied that a five mile stretch in August
through the sand in Tidewater's county was eternity
in Hades itself.

The forest once passed, a scene not of enchant-
ment, though contrast often made it seem so, but of
exceeding beauty, met the eye. Wide, very wide
fields of waving grain, billowy seas of green or gold,
as the season chanced to be, over which the scudding
shadows chased and played, gladdened the heart with
wealth far spread. Upon lowlands level as a floor,
the plumed and tasseled corn stood tall and dense,
rank behind rank in military alignment a serried
army, lush and strong. The rich, dark soil of the
gently swelling knolls could scarcely be seen under
the broad, lapping leaves of the mottled tobacco.
The hills were carpeted with clover. Beneath the
tree-clumps, fat cattle chewed the cud or peaceful
sheep reposed, grateful for the shade. In the midst
of this plenty, half-hidden in foliage over which the
graceful shafts of the Lombard poplar towered, with



THE OLD VIRGINIA GENTLEMAN. 7

its bounteous garden and its orchards heavy with
fruit near at hand, peered the old mansion, white or
dusky-red or mellow-gray by the storm and shine of
years.

Seen by the tired horseman, halting at the wood-
land's edge, this picture, steeped in the intense, quiv-
ering summer noonlight, filled the soul with un-
speakable emotions of beauty, tenderness, peace,
home.

" How calm could we rest
In that bosom of shade, with the friends we love best !"

Sorrows and cares were there where do they not
penetrate ? but oh ! dear God, one day in these sweet
tranquil homes outweighed a fevered lifetime in the
gayest cities of the globe. Tell me nothing; I under-
value naught that man's heart delights in; I dearly
love operas and great pageants; but I do know as
I know nothing else that the first years of human
life, and the last, yea, if it be possible, all the
years, should be passed in the country. The towns
may do for a day, a week, a month at most ; but na-
ture, mother nature, pure and clean, is for all time ;
yes, for eternity itself. What think you of heaven?
Is it a narrow street, packed full of houses, with a
theatre at one end and a beer saloon at the other?
Nay ! the city of God is under the trees and beside
the living waters.

These homes of Virginia are ruins now; not like
the ivied walls and towers of European lands, but
ruins none the less. The houses, indeed, are still



8 THE OLD VIRGINIA GENTLEMAN.

there, little changed, it may be, as to the outside ; but
the light, the life, the charm are gone for ever.
"The soul is fled."

About these Virginia homes there was much that
was unlike the houses I have seen in the more popu-
lous States of the North and in Canada. A South-
erner traveling through central Pennsylvania and
western New York to the falls of Niagara, and
thence down the St. Lawrence, is painfully impressed
by the scarcity the absence, one might say of hu-
man beings around the houses and in the fields.
There are no children playing in the cramped-up
yards. The few laborers in the narrow fields make
but a pitiful show, even at harvest time. The farms
have a deserted look, that is most depressing to one
accustomed to the sights and sounds of Virginia
country life. For thirty miles below Quebec I
watched the houses that thickly line the verdant
river banks, but saw no human being not one. The
men were at work in the villages, the women were
at the wash-tubs or in the kitchens; and as for the
children, I know not where they were.

How unlike Virginia of the olden time ! There,
people were astir, and something was always going
on. The young master, with his troop of little dar-
kies, was everywhere in the yard, playing horses;
in the fields, hunting larks or partridges; in the or-
chards, hunting for bird's nests; at the barn, sliding
down the straw stacks; in the woods, twisting or
smoking hares out of hollow trees ; in the " branch,"
fishing or bathing (we call it " washing " in Virginia);



THE OLD VIRGINIA GENTLEMAN. 9

in the patch, plugging half-ripe watermelons ; or else-
where, in some fun or mischief. " Young Mistiss,"
in her sun-bonnet, had her retinue of sable attend-
ants, who, bare-armed and bare-footed, accompanied
her in her rambles through the garden, the open
woodland near the house, and sometimes as far as the
big gate. By the way, whenever you heard the big
gate slam, you might know that "comp'ny" was
coining. And comp'ny was always coming beaux to
see the grown-up girls, neighbors, friends, strangers,
kinfolks no end of them. Then some comely negro
woman, with bright kerchief on her head, was ever
passing to and fro, on business with her mistress;
and few days passed that did not witness the "drop-
shot gang " of small Ethiops sweeping up the fallen
leaves that disfigured the broad yard.

Some one was always coming or going. The gig,
the double buggy, the carryall, the carriage, were in
constant use. Horses, two to a dozen, were seldom
wanting at the rack, and the boy of the family was
sure to be on the horse-block, begging permission to
"ride behind," or to carry the horse to the stable.
Bringing in breakfast, dinner and supper, and carry-
ing the things back to the kitchen, kept three or four
servants busy from dawn till long after dark. The
mistress had a large provision store at the smoke-
house, where there was much to do every day except
Sunday. So, too, with the dairy. From the rooms
set apart for weaving and spinning came the tireless
droning of wheels and the clatter of looms wonder-
ful machines, that delighted the knots of white and



10 THE OLD VIRGINIA GENTLEMAN.

black children gathered at the open doorways. How
gracefully Aunt Sooky stepped back and forth with
her thread, as it kept growing and lengthening on
the spindle ! Why, I can smell the wool-rools now,
and see the brooches, and the shucks on which they
were wound!

These were the scenes and occupations that gave
life to the house. In the fields, from the time that
the gangs of ploughers (we never called them plough-
men), moving steadily en echelon, turned up the rich
sod, until the wheat was shocked, the corn laid by,
the tobacco planted, suckered, primed, topped, cut,
and hung in the golden sunshine to cure, there was
something perpetually afoot to enliven the planta-
tion. But who shall tell of harvest- time, when the
field fairly swarmed with cutters, the binders, the
shockers, the gleaners, all agog with excitement and
joy? A murrain on your modern reapers and mow-
ers ! What care I if Cyrus McCormick was born in
E-ockbridge county ? These new-fangled " contrap-
tions" are to the old system what the little, dirty,
black steam-tug is to the three-decker, with its cloud
of snowy canvass towering to the skies the grand-
est and most beaiutiful sight in the world. I wouldn't
give Uncle Isham's picked man, " long Billy Carter,"
leading the field, with one good drink of whiskey in
him I wouldn't give one swing of his cradle and
one "ketch" of his straw for all the mowers and
reapers in creation.

But what was the harvest-field compared to thresh-
ing-time at the barn ? Great goodness alive ! Do



THE OLD VIRGINIA GENTLEMAN. 11

you all remember that huge cog-wheel aloft, and the
little cog-wheels, that big post that turned 'round,,
the thick shafts, two horses to a shaft; eight or ten
horses to a machine (none of your one-horse, out-
o'-door concerns this was under a large shed, close
to the barn), and how we sat on those shafts, and how
we drove those horses, and hollered at 'em, and how
the dust flew, and what a glorious, glorious racket,,
hubbub and confusion there was ? Surely you do.

Then came beating-cider time. Bless me! how
sick "us boys" used to get from drinking sweet ci-
der and eating apple " pommels !" You recollect the
cider press? None of your fish-traps, cut in two,,
and set on end, with an iron crank, but a good, hon-
est beam, a foot and a half thick, and fifteen to
twenty feet long, jobbed into a hole cut clean through
a stout oak tree, with a wooden trough holding half
a ton of rocks, and an affair with holes and pegs, to
regulate the prizing. Now that was a press, a real
press not a gimcrack. Don't ask me about corn-
shuckings. It would take a separate lecture to de-
scribe them; besides, you already know more about
them than I can tell you.

If the house, the barn, the fields were alive, so
also were the woods. There the ax was ever plying.
Timber to cut for cabins (the negroes increased so
fast), for tobacco houses and for fuel, new ground to-
clear, etc , etc. The crack of the gun was heard con-
tinually the boys were shooting squirrels for Bruns-
wick stew and when the wild pigeons came, there
was an endless f usilade. As for sports, besides squir-



12 THE OLD VIRGINIA GENTLEMAN.

rels, 'coons and 'possums, there were partridges, rob-
ins, larks, and even kildees and bull-bats for shooting ;
but far above all these, was the fox-hunt. Ah! who
can ever forget it ? When the chase swept through
the forest and across the hills, the hounds and the
beagles in full, eager, piercing, passionate cry, mak-
ing music for the very gods and driving the hunts-
men stark mad. What were staked and ridered
fences, tangled underwood, gullies, ditches, banks that
were almost precipices, what was life, what was death
to the young fellow just out of college, that glorious
music ringing in his ears, his horse, a thing all fire
and steel, going under him like a thunderbolt, and
the fox not five hundred yards away? Tell me
Southern country life was monotonous ! Bah !

Why, something or somebody was forever stirring.
In the dead of night, hours before day-break, some
old negro was eternally getting up to chunk his fire,
or to cut another stick or two. In the dead of win-
ter, the wagons were busy hauling wood, to keep up
the grand old fires in the big old fire-places. And
at the worst, the boys could always jump a hare out
of a briar-patch, and then such "hollering," such
whistling, such whooping, such calling of dogs:
"here, here, here! who-eet! whoop! here!" as if
Bedlam had broke loose.

Of church-going on Sunday, when the girls kept
the carriage waiting; of warraiit-tryings, vendues,
election and general muster days, of parties of all
kinds, from candy-stews and "infairs" up to the reg-
ular country balls at the county seat, of fun at negro



THE OLD VIRGINIA GENTLEMAN.

weddings, of fish-fries, barbecues, sailing-parties, sora
and duck-shooting, rides and drives the delights of
Tidewater life of dinings in and dinings out, of the
Bishop's visit, of company come for all day in addi-
tion to the company regularly domiciled for the week,
month or half-year, I need not speak at length.
Country life in Yirginia tiresome'! You are
crazy !

The habitation of the old Yirginia gentleman
house is too short a word to express it always large
enough, however small it might be, was sometimes
stately, like the great, square house of " Rosewell,"
and others I might name. As a rule, to which, in-
deed, there were many exceptions, it was neither
planned nor built it grew : and that was its great
charm. To be sure, the main structure or body of
it had been put up with an eye not to convenience
but to elbow-room and breathing space without
which no Yirginian can live. But in course of time,
as the children came along, as the family connexions
increased, and as the desire, the necessity in fact, of
keeping a free hotel grew upon him, the old gentle-
man kept adding a wing here and tacking a shed room
there until the original building became mixed up,
and, as it were, lost in the crowd of additions. In
cold weather the old house was often miserably un-
comfortable, but at all other times it was simply glo-
rious. There was, of course, a large hall or passage,
a parlor and dining-room, " the chamber " proper for
the old lady and for everybody, and a fine old-time
staircase leading to the guest-chambers, but the rest



14 THE OLD VIRGINIA GENTLEMAN.

of the house ran mostly into nondescript apartments,
access to which was not always easy. For the floors
were on different levels, as they ought to be in an
old country-house. Fail to step up or down at the
proper time, and you were sure to bump your head
or bruise your shins. Then there were dark closets,
cuddies, and big old chests that came mayhap from
England, say nothing of the garret, full of mystery,
that stretched the whole length of the house. Here
was romance for childhood plenty of it. These ir-
regular rooms, two steps up and three down before
you got fairly into them, teemed with poetry ; but
your modern houses, with square rooms all on a dead
level, are prosaic as dry-goods boxes.

A fine old house it was to play hide-and-seek in, to
romp with the girls, to cut all sorts of capers with-
out disturbing the old folks. Then these dark pas-
sages, these cuddies and closets, that big garret, never
failed to harbor some good-natured old hip-shot fool
of a family ghost, who was everlastingly " projicking "
around at night, after the girls had quit their talk,
making the floors crack, the doors creak, and whisper-
ing his nonsense through the keyhole, as if he could
scare you or anybody else ! To modernize the old
Virginian's house would kill .that ghost, and if it be
a crime to kill a live man, what an enormity it must
be to kill one who has been dead a hundred years,
who never harmed a living soul, and who, I suspect,
w r as more fretted than sorry when the young ones
would persist in hiding their heads under the bed-
clothes for fear of him? "You little geese! its no-



THE OLD VIRGINIA GENTLEMAN. 15

body but me," and " whisk, whish, whish," he would
go on with his idiotic whispering.

The heavy, dark furniture ; the huge sideboard ;
the quaint solid chairs; the more common article,
with spraddled legs, scooped seats and stick backs;
the diamond-paned book-case ; the long horse-hair
;sofas, with round tasseled pillows, hard as logs of
ebony, with nooks to hide them in; the graceful
-candle-stand ; the gilt mirror, with its three compart-
ments; the carved mantle, so high you could hardly
reach the silver candlesticks on its narrow top; the
bureaux, with swinging brass handles; the dressing
tables; the high-post bedstead, with valence and
teaster; the

But stay ! it suddenly and painfully occurs to me
there are grown-up men and women in this room,
actually here, immortal beings, who never laid eyes
on a bed-wrench and pin, and who do not so much
as know the meaning of cording a bed ! Think of
it ! Yet these people live on. Ah me ! the fashion
of this world passeth away !

The massive dinner table, never big enough to hold
all the dishes, some of which had to go on the hearth
to be kept warm; the old time silver, the heavy cut
glassware, the glass pitcher for the thick, rich milk
how it foamed, when they "poured it high!" the
Canton >ehina, thin as thin biscuit; the plainer blue
dinner set, for every day use, with the big apples on
the little trees, the blue islands in a white sea, the
man or woman that was always going over that short
bridge, but stopped and stood provokingly in the



16 THE OLD VIRGINIA GENTLEMAN.

middle how they all come back to you! But I
" lay " you have forgotten the band-boxes. Think of
that again ! Band-boxes have fled away from the
face of this earth, but not to heaven ; for they were
much uglier than any sin I'm acquainted with. I
recall the very pattern of them the red brick houses,,
with many windows, the clumsy trees, and that odd
something, more like a pile of rocks than an elephant,
but spouting clods of water, like an elephant who had
got drunk on mud.

When you were a boy, did you sleep in a low-
pitched, dormer-windowed room, with two little
gable windows that looked out upon a narrow-necked
chimney, just where the neck ended and the shoulder
began? You did'nt? Then I pity you; you must
have had a mighty poor sort of boyhood. Why, I
can see the moss growing on that chimney, can see
how very thick the old thing is at the bottom, and,
by George ! there is the identical old toad (frog, we
call him) that pops out every night from the slit in
the wall at the side of the chimney. How well he
looks ! hasn't changed a hair in forty years ! Come !
let's "ketch" some lightning-bugs and feed him,
right now.

Surely, you hav'nt forgotten the rainy days at the
old country house ? How the drops kept dropping,
dropping from the eaves, and popping, popping up
from the little trough worn into the earth below the
eaves ; how draggled and miserable the rooster looked,
as you watched him from your seat in the deep win-
dow-sill; and how (tired of playing in-doors) you



THE OLD VIRGINIA GENTLEMAN. 17

wondered if it would never, never stop raining.
How you wandered from room to room, all over the
bouse, up stairs and down stairs, eating cakes and
apples, or buttered bread and raspberry jam ; bow at
last you settled down in the old lady's chamber and
held a hank till your arms ached, and you longed for
bed-time to corne. If you have never known such
days, never seen the reel the hanks were placed on,
nor the flax-wheels that clacked when the time came
to stop winding, then you have neither seen nor
known anything. You don't know how to "skin
the cat," or to play " Ant'ny over ;" you don't know
how to drop a live 'coal in a little puddle of water,
and explode it with an axe ; you " don't know no-
thiii'," you have never been a Virginia boy.

Yes, your arms ached, poor little fellow, pining for
out-door fun ; they were sure to ache if you held the
hank for Miss Mehaly Sidebottom, the poor lady
who had lived in the family time out o' mind ; but
if you held it for a pretty girl and what Virginia
gentleman's house was without one two three
half a dozen of them ? then your arms didn't give
out half so soon, and you didn't know what it was to
get hungry or sleepy. When you grew older, a
rainy day in the country was worth untold money, for
then you had the pretty girl all to yourself the live-
long day in the drawing room. What music the
rain made on the roof at night, and how you wished
the long season in May would set in, raise all the
creeks past fording, wash away all the bridges, and
keep you there for ever.
2



18 THE OLD VIRGINIA GENTLEMAN.

And such girls ! They were of a piece with the dear
old house ; they belonged to it of right, and it would
not, and it could not have been what it was without
them. Finer women, physically, I may have seen,
with much more bone, a deal more of muscle and
redder cheeks ; but more grace, more elegance, more
refinement, more guileless purity, were never found
the whole world over, in any age, not even that of
the halcyon. There was about these country girls
I mean no disparagement of their city sisters, for
all Virginia girls were city girls in winter and coun-
try girls in summer, so happy was our peculiar social
.system there was about these country girls I know
not what of sauce the word is a little too strong
of mischief, of spirit, of fire, of archness, coquetry,
and bright winsomeness tendrils these of a stock
that was strong and true as heart could wish or
nature frame ; for in essentials their character was
based upon a confiding, trusting, loving unselfish de-
votion a complete, immaculate world of womanly
virtue and home piety was theirs, the like of which,
I boldly claim, was seldom approached, and never ex-
celled, since the Almighty made man in his own image.

What matter if it rained or shone, so you spent
your time with girls like these ? And if one of them
chanced to be a cousin everybody has cousins
then there was no help for you ; literally none,

" Did you ever have a cousin, Tom ?

And did that cousin sing ?
Sisters we've had by the dozen, Tom,
But a cousin's a different thing ! "



THE OLD VIRGINIA GENTLEMAN. 19

I believe you. A cousin, a real female cousin, I
take to be the invention of the De'il himself his
pet bit of ingenuity. She makes you all but crazy
to marry her, then she won't marry you, never had
the remotest idea of marrying you (says so anyhow),
and you know you oughtn't to marry her even if she
were willing; and where are you? There's not a
man of us who has not been robbed of his senses by
one or more of these beautiful witches, not one of
us who does not recall the time when

"Half dying with love,
We ate up her glove
And drank our champagne from her shoe!"

And a little " teenchy " bit of a shoe it was, too
white kid. She never knew who stole it, and you
have had it hid away these twenty years, although
you are married. I know you, sir.

Are there any such girls now-a-days, I wonder ? I
trust so, indeed. The archness and coquetry in the
girls of whom I have been speaking were but charm-
ing arabesques upon Damascus steel, metal of proof,



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