George William Bagby.

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

. (page 4 of 27)
Online LibraryGeorge William BagbySelections from the miscellaneous writings of Dr. George W. Bagby (Volume 1) → online text (page 4 of 27)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

whose mortal sharpness, bitter and keen, he was sure
to feel, and quickly too, who dared to come too near.
But since the war, I am told, a change has come to
pass, and approaches, impossible in 1 purer days, are
allowed. Is it so? Then are we lost indeed! It
cannot be so ; but if it be so in part only, who is to
blame ? Are not you, young gentleman ? Hold off,
sir ; stand back, I say ; lay not so much as a finger-
tip lightly upon her, for she is sacred. If she be not
yours, she is your brother's ; and if your own, will


you harm ever so little her whom yon intend to make
your wife ? Oh ! wait, do but wait. In the hallowed
stillness of your bridal eve, ere the guests have all
assembled, lift up to yours the fair pale face, love's
perfect image, and you shall see that vision to which
God our Father vouchsafes no equal this side the
jasper throne you shall see the ineffable eyes of in-
nocence entrusting to you, unworthy, oh ! so un-
worthy, her destiny through time and eternity. In-
hale the perfume of her breath and hair, that puts
the violets of the wood to shame; press your first
kiss (for now she is all your own), your first kiss
upon the trembling petals of her lips, and you shall
hear, with ears you knew not that you had, the silver
chiming of your wedding bells far, far up in heaven.

As were the girls, so was their mother; only of a
type, if possible, still higher; for I can but think
that, since the Colonial and Revolutionary days, each
generation has shown a slight falling away from
those grand models of men and women who really
existed in Virginia, but whom we have come to look
upon almost as myths. That the mother was lovelier
or more lovable than her daughters, I will not say.
That she was purer, tenderer, truer, sweeter, I will
not say ; but certainly there was about her a dignity,
a repose, an impressiveness, at all events, a some-
thing that one missed in the beautiful maidens who
grew up around her. Perhaps it was the effect of
age. I know not; but I do know that, in some re-
spects, her daughters were not quite equal to her.

Words fail to tell what the Virginia lady of the


best type was. During the first decade of her mar-
ried life, a part of each recurring winter was passed
at the State capital or in Washington, and a part of
each summer at the springs; she was at that time no
stranger to the great cities and seasides of the North ;
and, in some instances (though these, to speak the
truth, were very rare), she had travelled abroad, and
knew the delights of European capitals. But now,
for many years, her whole life had been spent at
home. She was much too busy to leave it. The
bodily and spiritual welfare of too many human
beings depended upon her gentle presence, her bene-
ficent guidance, to permit more than the briefest
visit, once a year, to her aged parents. Retaining
the grace, and, to some extent, the ease of mariner,
characteristic of her class and peculiarly her own in
early womanhood, whilst moving in the brilliant
throngs of cities and watering places, and accustomed,
as she had ever been, to receive and entertain the
best people of her own and other States, there had
nevertheless crept over her, in consequence, no doubt,
of her long seclusion, an almost girlish shyness, a
maidenly timidity, a little uncertainty as to herself,
an absence of readiness and aplomb^ which were in-
expressibly beautiful. The ways of the great world
had ceased, long ago, to be her ways. She lived in
a little world of her own. She cared not to keep
pace with the fast-changing fashions, which, to her
pure mind, were not always for the better. Her
manner was not, in the usual sense, high-bred ; for
her's was the highest breeding, and she had no man-


C^C cttTi

ner. But her welcome as you entered her door, and
her greeting, meet her when you might, on the end-
less round of her duties, in-doors or out, was as sim-
ple and genial as sunshine, and as sweet as spring
water. Full well she knew the seriousness of life.
Over and over the cares and responsibilities of her
station, as the mother of so many children, the mis-
tress of so many servants, and the hostess of so many
guests, had utterly overwhelmed her. Again and
again, had she been willing, nay glad were it God's
pleasure to lay down the burthen that was too
heavy for poor human nature to bear. To her own
sorrows she added the sorrows of her friends, her
neighbors, her dependents. Into how many negro
cabins had she not gone, when the night was far
spent and the lamp of life nickered low in the
breast of the dying slave ! How often she minis-
.tered to him with her own hands! Thin hands,
wasted with over-work for she disdained no labor,
manual or mental I can see them now ! Nay, had
she not knelt by his lowly bed and poured out her
heart to God as. his soul winged its flight, and closed
his glazed and staring eyes as the day was dawning ?
yet the morning meal found her at her accustomed
seat, tranquil and helpful, and no one but her hus-
band the wiser for her night's ministrations. What
poor woman for miles around knew not the bright-
ness of her coming ? Some of her own children had
been taken from her that deep anguish ! she knew
it all and the children of her neighbors, even the
humblest, had died in her lap ; herself had washed


and shrouded them. To feed, to clothe, to teaph, to
guide, to comfort, to nurse, to provide for and to
watch over a great household and keep its complex
machinery in noiseless order these were the wo-
man's rights which she asserted, and there was no
one to dispute; this was her mission, and none ever
dared to question it. Mother, mistress, instructor >
counsellor, benefactress, friend, angel of the sick-
room ! if ever I am tempted to call down the fire of
divine wrath, it is upon the head of those (there
have been such, incredible as it may seem,) who
have wilfully and persistently misrepresented thi&
best and purest of God's creatures as the luxurious,,
idle, cruel and tyrannical favorite of some Eastern
harem. The arch-fiend himself could not have
originated a slander more gross, more infinitely and
detestably foul.

My rambles before the war made me the guest of
Virginians of all grades. Brightest by far of the
memories of those days, that seem to have been
passed in some other planet, is that of the Virginia
mother, as I have so often seen her, in the midst of
her tall sons and blooming daughters. Her delicacy,
tenderness, freshness, gentleness ; the absolute purity
of her life and thought, typified in the spotless neat-
ness of her apparel and her every surrounding, it is
quite impossible to convey. Withal, there was about
her a naivete mingled with sadness, that gave her a
surpassing charm. Her light blush, easily called up
when her children rallied her, as they habitually
would, about her old-fashioned ways and her igno-


ranee of the world, was something never to be for-
gotten. Sunlight, flushing with faint rose-tints the
driven snow, could scarcely more excite the rapture
of admiration. Her pride in her sons, her delight
in her daughters, her lowliness and her humility
for she was least among them all, and they were as
yet too young and full of bounding life to revere and
worship her as she deserved who shall, who can
fitly tell of these things ?

When I think of the days that will come no more,
I sometimes pass my hand quickly across my eyes,
as one who wishes to brush away a vision, not be-
cause it is unpleasing, but simply because it is un-
real. And in the solitude of my room I sometimes
ask myself aloud, u Was this actually so ? Did I
live in those days ? Isn't it a dream ? Did I ever
know such women ? Is there not some mirage, some
rosy but false light thrown upon the picture as it
appears in memory ? It is very, very beautiful ; but
is it not of the fancy merely ?"

No ! blessed be the Giver of every good and per-
fect gift, the picture is not imaginary. It is real.
These women lived. The most of us who are bearded
men have seen them and talked with them; and
some of you (alas ! I am not of your number) re-
member with trembling and with tears, that, long,
long years ago, by the embers and low-flames flutter-
ing in the nursery fire-place, you knelt at the feet
of such a woman, and while her soft hand rested on
your head, said the little prayer her pure lips had


taught you to pray. You called her mother. She
was your mother.

How did these Virginia mothers and housekeepers
manage to put things in order and keep them so ex-
quisitely clean? That was always a mystery to me.
"Servants," you say. Oh ! yes ! servants of course ;
but when servants have so many things to do, how
is it that you never see them doing any one of them ?
If you laid awake all night long, you would, in some
vague daybreak hour, hear a peculiar humping,
rumbling noise, never heard north of the Susque-
hanna, which was occasioned, I am told, by a per-
formance called " dry-rubbing." A grey-beard Vir-
ginia boy told me only yesterday that riding on the
scrubbing-brush, by squatting astraddle the brush
and holding on to the long handle, was the best sort
of fun. But by the time you got down stairs, nobody
was to be seen, the floors were so slick that your
neck was in danger, the silver candlestick, snuffers
and tray were spotless, so were the big brass and-
irons, so was the brass fender, and as for the door-
knobs, why, you could see your face in them any-
time; and a comical, big-mouthed, narrow-fore-
headed face it was, as every Virginia boy knows.
Who did it ? When ? how ? what for ? I don't
like things so terrifically clean do you ? One
morning I did catch a girl coming out of the parlor
with a bucket in her hand. She trembled like a
guilty thing surprised, turned a little yellow, then
blushed a reddish black, " curche'd," and said:

"I jes' bin clayin' de h'ath, sir."


What pleasure, what joy indeed, it was to visit
a house over which one of these dear Virginia ladies-
presided ! But what time of year was the best for
your visit? Mortal man could never tell. There
was the summer time, when you died daily of a
surfeit of peaches and cream, and watermelons,
tingling cold from the ice-house, all on top of your
regular dinner; and somehow you never felt well
enough to go bat-shooting with the boys about sun-
down, but did gather up strength enough to walk
out with one of the girls, "it didn't matter which
one," you said, and told a whopper when you said so.
When night came, and the girls with their beaux
were in the parlor, and the old gentleman was talk-
ing politics with his friends in the front porch, your
energy increased. Without a thought of fatigue,
you strolled under the manorial oaks alone? no,
not altogether alone. The incessant chatter of the
katydids, and the active vocal correspondence of the
frogs in the mill-pond and the creeks, made it certain
that whatever you had to say would be heard only
by yourself ? Yes, oh ! yes. The drowsy tinkle;
of the cow-bells in the " cup-pen" smote softly on
your ear. The switching of the whipperwill mingled
with the ululations of the half-scared negro, trudg-
ing homeward through the distant woods. Music-
from the open windows of the parlor, dipped in the
perfume of flowers freshened by the night dews,,
lifted your soul into Elysium. But the voice of the
lady in white, whose little hand rested on your arm,
was sweeter than music and flowers combined.


(If, in the beautiful vista of life that opened then
before you, a panorama not seen distinctly, but ap-
prehended by some fine lover-sense, unknown to
ordinary mortals if in that entrancing vista, a
panorama of a possible "plantation and negroes,"
superadded to the young lady in the simple lawn
dress, presented itself to you, ah ! how could you
help it ? and what poor, but handsome and aspiring,
young man in this audience will blame you ? I cer-
tainly will not.)

But it was too sweet to last. You didn't want to-
go in, not you, if it was midnight; but she made
you go. Then came the unrepose in the lavendered
bed, with the night- wind murmuring through the
locusts and aspens, and the starlight spilling down
from heaven where you cared not to go, yet awhile.
!N"o rest for brain and heart were on fire with hopes-
and fears. No rest. The mocking-bird in the thorn
bush, for all his melody, was a nuisance ; and that
screech owl in the old catalpa, how you would have
liked to cut his throat, slowly, ever so slowly, with a,
dull case-knife ! At last, consciousness melted away
into the paradise of dreams, and you awoke in the
morning to find your sweetheart fairer than the
fleecy clouds and sweeter than the dew-washed roses.

On some accounts, the winter was even better than
the summer for a visit to the old Virginia gentle-
man's home. There were more sports, Christmas
parties, sleigh-rides, etc., and a different order of
eatables and drinkables. But you devoured your
lady-love, opposite whom the cunning waiter was.


sure to seat you. She was fatter, plumper, rosier,
arm-fuller, warmer, impudenter, more mischievous,
harder to catch, marriageable!*, exceedingly much
more to be desired in marriage, and everything more
delicious than before. After breakfast, and such a
breakfast, a ride on horseback was demanded by all
the laws of digestion. Coming back at a flying
gallop, she was apt to look something very like "yes,"
and put whip to her steed. Then came a race.
Fox-hunting was a fool to it ! Rather than fail in
finding out the full meaning of that look, you would
have killed the last one of her father's blooded
horses. And when you caught up, oh ! misery the
slippery minx had no affirmative for you, and you
were "Mr. Impudence" for your pains. During
the dance at night, she would give you, once an
hour, a glance that was worth a king's ransom, and
for the ensuing fifty-nine minutes and fifty -nine
seconds was anybody's, everybody else's but yours.
"When the dancing was all over, and you hail lingered
at the foot of the staircase until you had well-nigh
disgraced yourself, she would bid you good-night in
tones that melted the very soul within you, dazzle
you with her parting smile, and with the least little
bit of a pressure of her tiny hand "just enough to
last you till morning," dart up stairs like a meteor.
The house was so full of company that you were
sent out to the "office" in the yard, to stay with the
boys. Time was when you asked nothing better;
now, it was pure torture. The gabble of brothers
and cousins about horses, dogs, guns, duels, " old


Soc," "old Gess," "Schele," "Math," getting
"pitched," and the deuce knows what, disgusted and
maddened you. You wanted to be alone with your
celestial thoughts, and they wanted you to play
euchre and drink whiskey-punch or apple-toddy.
Idiots ! You consigned them all, without scruple,
to the bottom of the pit that has no bottom.

Ah me ! those were days of the gods. Ask any
man here of five and forty or fifty if they were not.
Are there any such country homes left in Virginia ?
Is there even one such home ? And do they have
such delights in them now ? I know not I know
not. I have outlived my time.

Carried away by recollections of the sweethearts
of other days, the most of whom are grandmothers
now, I seem to have forgotten the old Virginia
gentleman himself. But I have not. It was neces-
sary to give his surroundings. The large estate, the
commodious house, the gentle wife, the sons and
daughters, are but accessories of the principal figure.
How shall I draw that true to nature ? The popular
idea of the old Virginia gentleman, even in our own
minds, is about as correct as that of the typical
Yankee, in bell-crown hat, swallow-tail coat, striped
breeches and short waistcoat. " Porte Crayon" has
a picture of the old gentleman in " Virginia Illus-
trated;" Kennedy, in the "Swallow Barn," gives
us another ; and Elder, in an admirable unfin-
ished sketch of a country court-day in Virginia,
furnishes a third. All agree in representing him as


.a stout, bluff, hearty, jovial old fellow, fond of juleps,
horse races, and " a little game of draw." This, to
be sure, is one kind of Virginian, but not the typical
kind, and by no means my ideal of an old Virginia
gentleman. The truth is, there are several types,
of which I distinguish five as more clearly marked
than any others, viz :

I. The one above given by Elder, Strother and

II. A small, thin, sharp featured, black-eyed,
swarthy man; passionate, fiery indeed in temper;
keen for any sort of discussion ; profane, but swear-
ing naturally and at times delightfully ; hot, quick,
bitter as death; magnanimous, but utterly implac-
able a red Indian imprisoned in the fragile body
of a consumptive old Roman.

III. A broad, solid, large-headed, large-faced,
heavy, actually fat, deeply-pious old gentleman
beaming with benevolence, the soul (and body, too !)
of hospitality and kindness, simple as a child, absent-
minded, unpractical to the last degree, and yet pros-
perous, because God just loves him a dear, big, old
father to everybody.

IV. A refined, scrupulously-neat, carefully-dressed,
high-toned, proud, exclusive man ; courteous, but
somewhat cold ; a judge of rare old wines and a
lover of them ; a scholarly but dry and ungenial in-
tellect; regardful of manners, a stickler for forms
and social distinctions; fond of ancient customs,
observances and fashions, even to the cut of his
clothes, which he would fain have made colonial;


an aristocrat, born and bred, and never quite un-
conscious of the fact; a high type, one that com-
manded more of respect than love, but not, I think,
the highest type.

Y. Last and best comes the Virginian, less fiery
than the old Roman-Indian, but of spirit quite as
high ; as courteous every whit as the aristocrat just
named, but not so mannered ; in culture not inferior
to either, and adding thereto a gentleness almost
feminine, and a humility born only, as my experience
teaches, of a devout Christian spirit; a lover of
children with his whole heart, and idolized by them
in turn; knightly in his regard for womankind, in
the lowest fully as much as in the highest sphere ;
in a word, as nearly perfect as human infirmity
permits man to be. An old gentleman of Maryland,
himself a fine specimen of an admirable class, told
me that what impressed him most in the Virginia
gentlemen whom he met at the Springs and else-
where, but more especially those who lived nearest
him in the Northern Neck, was a humility amount-
ing almost to forgetfulness of self, and yet joined to
so perfect a knowledge of human worth that they
could not and would not for an instant brook in
others any disregard of those claims of simple man-
hood which instinct alone, and quite apart from
education or social advantage, suffices thoroughly to

In our college presidents and professors, our judges,
senators, and other dignitaries, this lack of all pre-
tence, and even of self-assertion, amounted, I have


sometimes thought, to a fault. But better this, far
better, when back of it lay all proper pride and per-
sonal courage, than the starchy vanity and conceit
of priggish Dons in other quarters of the globe.

It cannot be said that the last of the five classes
just given is the typical Virginian. He, indeed,
must be found by combining the separate types ; but
we have all seen specimens of this 'best class, few
counties but contained one or more of them, and
we do know that higher, nobler men never lived on

"No ; to me the strangest possible of mistakes is to
reckon the broad-waisted, jovial, rollicking English
squire as the true Virginia type. The richest and
most varied growths do not come out of cold white
clay, but out of dark warm mould ; and in the depths
of the A r irginia character there was ever a stratum
of grave thought and feeling that not seldom sank
into sadness and even gloom.

How could it be otherwise ? Whether he lived
on the banks of the great tidal rivers, and from his
porches and windows was wont to watch the trees,
faint and spectral, standing on the distant points far
across the waves, with here and there a tired sail
wandering away into the underworld, as if nevermore
to return ; or from his quiet home upon the hills of
Piedmont saw, day after day from childhood, the
mighty Ridge, a rampart of Cyclopean steel, thrown
all athwart the sky and fading in misty fire at the
portals of the setting sun ; or in the great Valley be-
held himself in an earthlv Paradise, shut in between


battlements built by the gods ; or in the heart of the
Alleghanies felt his young soul awed by the huge
mountain forms, sphynxes as silent and much more
vast than that of Egypt ; live wherever he might in
Virginia, the breadth and grandeur of these aspects
of nature imparted their solemnity to him. His
spirit was attuned from infancy to the moaning of
the pines and the sea-like murmur of the wind in
the forests around him ; the desolation and barren-
ness of some of his neighbors' fields, wasted by bad
tillage, left their impress upon him ; insensibly his
mind took the sombre coloring of these surround-
ings, and, however gay he might be at times, the
warp of his life was always grave.

The profound sense of responsibility to his Maker
added to this gravity. As husband, father, master,
he felt to the full the weight of human duty. But
high above them all rose his Roman sense of civic
obligation. Civis Americanus sum had in his day
a meaning which seems lost in these later times.
That meaning never left him. He could not forget
it, and what is more, he did not want to. Often the
presiding magistrate of his county ; often, too, its
representative in the legislature or in congress, he
continued to direct its politics long after he ceased
to take active part in them. His interest in public
affairs abated only with his breath. In addition to
the many cares that grew out of this interest were
the scarcely less heavy anxieties that pressed upon
him as the friend, the counsellor, the fiduciary, the
referee and the arbitrator in the troubles and differ-


ences of opinion among his neighbors. His old
escritoir or secretary was full of wills, deeds, notes
of hand, and settlements of every kind. The widow
and the orphan turned at once to him in all their
trials. He never failed them never.

His reading helped largely to increase the gravity
due to all the trusts just named. The Federalist
and other writings of Madison, the works of George
Mason, Jefferson and Calhoun, Elliott's Debates, the
Greek and especially the Roman historians, the
Letters of Junius and the speeches of Burke, made
up the bulk of his library, and fed his mind with
thoughts of that deepest and saddest of all problems
human government. If his neglect of scientific
studies was, as I once held, simply shameful, it was,
1 am now willing and glad to believe, because science
had not done in his day what indeed it has even now
but imperfectly done found its true objective in
questions of government the one paramount, under-
lying and absorbing interest of the Virginian's life.
His place on the border, in immediate sight of the
national capital, the centre of power, would not per-
mit him to forget the boding prophecies of Henry
anterior to the adoption of the Constitution. In his
ears rang ever the hollow murmur of that " fire-bell
in the night" that affrighted the philosopher of
Monticello. If jealously guarding the only charter
of rights left to him as a part of an ever-weakening
minority, he insisted upon strict constructions, not
of the letter only, but of the spirit of the organic
law, and that were a fault, it was a fault from which


there was no escape short of absolute surrender of
his own liberty and that of the American people.
His nice distinctions were drawn in defence of truth,
of justice, of the good of the whole Union, nay, of
all mankind ; and he did well to split hairs when but
a hair stood between him and degradation.

Could he for a moment fail to remember that the

Online LibraryGeorge William BagbySelections from the miscellaneous writings of Dr. George W. Bagby (Volume 1) → online text (page 4 of 27)