The Worlds Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906. Vols. IV: American
A Dinner with Colonel Carter
By Francis Hopkinson Smith (18381915)
From Colonel Carter of Cartersville
WHAT a cozy, charming interior, this dining-room of the colonels! It had once been two rooms, and two very small ones at that, divided by folding doors. From out the rear one there had opened a smaller room answering to the space occupied by the narrow hall and staircase in front. All the interior partitions and doors dividing these three rooms had been knocked away at some time in its history, leaving an L interior having two windows in front and three in the rear.
Some one of its former occupants, more luxurious than the others, had paneled the walls of this now irregular-shaped apartment with a dark wood running half-way to the low ceiling badly smoked and blackened by time, and had built two fireplacesan open wood fire which laughed at me from behind my own andirons, and an old-fashioned English grate set into the chimney with wide hobsconvenient and necessary for the various brews and mixtures for which the colonel was famous.
Midway, equally warmed by both fires, stood the table, its center freshened by a great dish of celery, white and crisp, with covers for three on a snow-white cloth resplendent in old India blue, while at each end shone a pair of silver coastersheirlooms from Carter Hallone holding a cut-glass decanter of Madeira, the other awaiting its customary bottle of claret.
On the hearth before the wood-fire rested a pile of plates, also India blue, and on the mantel over the grate stood a row of bottles adapting themselves, like all good foreigners, to the rigors of our climate. Add a pair of silver candelabra with candlesthe colonel despised gasdark red curtains drawn close, three or four easy chairs, a few etchings and sketches loaned from my studio, together with a modest sideboard at the end of the L, and you have the salient features of a room so inviting and restful that you wanted life made up of one long dinner, continually served within its hospitable walls.
My dear major, I am paalized to think I kep you waitin. Just up from my office. Been workin like a slave, suh. Only five minutes to dress befo dinner. Have a drop of sherry and a dash of bitters, or shall we wait for Fitzpatrick? No? All right! He should have been here befo this. You dont know Fitz? Most extraordnary man; a great mind, suh; literature, science, politics, finance, everything at his fingers ends. He has been of the greatest service to me since I have been in New York in this railroad enterprise, which I am happy to say is now reachin a culmination. You shall hear all about it after dinner. Put yo body in that chair and yo feet on the fendermy fire and yo fender! No, Fitzs fender and yo andirons! Charmin combination!
It is always one of my delights to watch the colonel as he busies himself about the room, warming a big chair for his guests, punching the fire, brushing the sparks from the pile of plates, and testing the temperature of the claret lovingly with the palms of his hands.
He is perhaps fifty years of age, tall and slightly built. His iron-gray hair is brushed straight back from his forehead, overlapping his collar behind. His eyes are deep-set and twinkling; nose prominent; cheeks slightly sunken; brow wide and high; and chin and jaw strong and marked. His mustache droops over a firm, well-cut mouth and unites at its ends with a gray goatee which rests on his shirt-front.
He wears a black broadcloth coata double-breasted garmentwith similar colored waistcoat and trousers, a turn-down collar, a shirt of many plaits which is under-starched and overwrinkled but always clean, large cuffs very much frayed, a narrow black or white tie, and low shoes with white cotton stockings.
This black broadcloth coat, by the way, is quite the most interesting feature of the colonels costume. So many changes are constantly made in its general make-up that you never quite believe it is the same ill-buttoned, shiny garment until you become familiar with its possibilities.
When the colonel has a funeral or other serious matter on his mind, this coat is buttoned close up under his chin, showing only the upper edge of his white collar, his gaunt throat, and the stray end of a black cravat. When he is invited to dinner he buttons it lower down, revealing as well a bit of his plaited shirt; and when it is a wedding this old stand-by is thrown wide open, discovering a stiff, starched, white waistcoat with ivory buttons and snowy neck-cloth.
These several make-ups used once to surprise me, and I often found myself insisting that the looseness and grace with which this garment flapped about the colonels thin legs was only possible in a brand-new coat having all the spring and lightness of youth in its seams. I was always mistaken. I had only to look at the mismated buttons and the raveled edge of the lining fringing the tails. It was the same coat.
The colonel wore to-night the lower-button style with the white tie. It was indeed the adjustment of this necessary article which had consumed the five minutes passed in his dressing-room, slightly lengthened by the time necessary to trim his cuffsa little nicety which he rarely overlooked and which it mortified him to forget.
What a frank, generous, tender-hearted fellow he is! happy as a boy; hospitable to the verge of beggary; enthusiastic as he is visionary; simple as he is genuine. A Virginian of good birth, fair education, and limited knowledge of the world and of men, proud of his ancestry, proud of his State, and proud of himself; believing in States rights, slavery, and the Confederacy; and away down in the bottom of his soul still clinging to the belief that the poor white trash of the earth includes about everybody outside of Fairfax County.
With these antecedents it is easy to see that his reconstruction is as hopeless as that of the famous Greek frieze, outwardly whole and yet always a patchwork. So he chafes continually under what he believes to be the tyranny and despotism of an undefined autocracy, which, in a general way, he calls the Government, but which really refers to the distribution of certain local offices in his own immediate vicinity.
Theres Fitz, said the colonel as a sharp double knock sounded at the outer gate; and the next instant a stout, thick-set, round-faced man of forty, with merry, bead-like eyes protected by big bowed spectacles, pushed open the door, and peered in good-humoredly.
Stuck in the snow? Well, Ill forgive you this once, but Chad wont. Give me yo coatbless me! it is as wet as a setter dog. Now put yo belated carcass into this chair which I have been warmin for you, right next to my dearest old friend, the major. Major, Fitz!Fitz, the major! Take hold of each other. Does my heart good to get you both together. Have you brought a copy of the prospectus of our railroad? You know I want the major in with us on the groun flo. But after dinnernot a word befo.
This railroad was the colonels only hope for the impoverished acres of Carter Hall, but lately saved from foreclosure by the generosity of his aunt, Miss Nancy Carter, who had redeemed it with almost all her savings, the house and half of the outlying lands being thereupon deeded to her. The other half reverted to the colonel.
I explained to Fitz immediately after his hearty greeting that I was a humble landscape painter, and not a major at all, having not the remotest connection with any military organization whatever; but that the colonel always insisted upon surrounding himself with a staff, and that my promotion was in conformity with this habit.
It was Chad dishin the dinner below, his explanations increasing in distinctness as he pushed the rear door open with his footboth hands being occupied with the soup tureen, which he bore aloft and placed at the head of the table.
In a moment more he retired to the outer hall and reappeared brilliant in white jacket and apron. Then he ranged himself behind the colonels chair and with great dignity announced that dinner was served.
The soup was a cream of something with baby crabs. There was also a fishboiledwith slices of hard-boiled eggs fringing the dish, ovaled by a hedge of parsley and supplemented by a pyramid of potatoes with their jackets ragged as tramps. Then a ham, brown and crisp, and bristling all over with cloves.
Lay em here, Chadright under my nose. Now hand me that pile of plates sizzlin hot, and give that caarvin-knife a turn or two across the hearth. Major, dip a bit of celery in the salt and follow it with a mouful of claret. It will prepare yo palate for the kind of food we raise gentlemen on down my way. See that red blood, suh, followin the knife!
It was not to be wondered at that the colonel loved a good dinner. To dine well was with him an inherited instinctone of the necessary preliminaries to all the important duties in life. To share with you his last crust was a part of his religion; to eat alone, a crime.
There, major, said the colonel as Chad laid the smoking plate before me, is the breast of a bird that fo days ago was divin for wild celery within foty miles of Caarter Hall. My dear old aunt Nancy sends me a pair every week, bless her sweet soul! Fill yo glasses and let us drink to her health and happiness. Here the colonel rose from his chair: Gentlemen, the best thing on this eartha true Southern lady!
Jelly? No, suh; not a suspicion of it. A pinch of salt, a dust of cayenne, then shut yo eyes and mouth, and dont open them cept for a drop of good red wine. It is the salt marsh in the early mornin that you are tastin, suhnot molasses candy. You Nawtherners dont really treat a canvasback with any degree of respect. You ought never to come into his presence when he lies in state without takin off yo hats. That may be one reason why he skips over the Nawthern States when he takes his annual fall outin. And he laughed heartily.
Venison is diffent, suh. That game lives on moose buds, the soft inner bark of the sugar-maple, and the tufts of sweet grass. There is a propriety and justice in his endin his days smothered in sweets; but the wild duck, suh, is bawn of the salt ice, braves the storm, and lives a life of peyil and hardship. You dont degrade a oyster, a soft-shell crab, or a clam with confectionery; why a canvasback duck?
The colonel pushed back his chair, and opened a drawer in a table on his right, producing three small clay pipes with reed stems and a buckskin bag of tobacco. This he poured out on a plate, breaking the coarser grains with the palms of his hands, and filling the pipes with the greatest care.
Throw that villainous device away, I say, Fitz, and surprise yo nostrils with a whiff of this. Virginia tobacco, suhraised at Caartersvillecured by my own servants. No? Well, you will, major. Here, try that; every breath of it is a nosegay, said the colonel, turning to me.
But, colonel, continued Fitz, with a sly twinkle in his eye, your tobacco pays no tax. With a debt like ours, it is the duty of every good citizen to pay his share of it. Half the cost of this cigar goes to the Government.
Tax! On our own productions, suh! Raised on our own land! Are you again forgettin that you are an Irishman and becomin one of these money-makin Yankees? Havent we suffed enoughrobbed of our property, our lands confiscated, our slaves torn from us; nothin left but our honor and the shoes we stand in!
Take, for instance, the town of Caartersville: look at that peaceful village which for mo than a hundred years has enjoyed the privileges of free government; and not only Caartersville, but all our section of the State.
Mattah, suh! Just look at the degradation it fell into hardly ten years ago. A Yankee jedge jurisdictin our laws, a Yankee sheriff enfocin em, and a Yankee postmaster distributin letters and sellin postage-stamps.
Colonel Temple Talcott of Fokeer County, Virginia, came into Talcottville one mornin, suha town settled by his ancestorsridin upon his horseor rather a mule belongin to his overseer. Colonel Talcott, suh, belonged to one of the vehy fust families in Virginia. He was a son of Jedge Thaxton Talcott, and grandson of General Snowden Stafford Talcott of the Revolutionary War. Now, suh, let me tell you right here that the Talcott blood is as blue as the sky, and that every gentleman bearin the name is known all over the county as a man whose honor is dearer to him than his life, and whose word is as good as his bond. Well, suh, on this mornin Colonel Talcott left his plantation in charge of his overseerhe was workin it on sharesand rode through his estates to his ancestral town, some five miles distant. It is true, suh, these estates were no longer in his name, but that had no bearin on the events that followed; he ought to have owned them, and would have done so but for some vehy ungentlemanly foclosure proceedins which occurred immediately after the war.
On arriving at Talcottville the colonel dismounted, handed the reins to his servantor perhaps one of the niggers around the doand entered the post-office. Now, suh, let me tell you that one month befo the Government, contrary to the express wishes of a great many of our leadin citizens, had sent a Yankee postmaster to Talcottville to administer the postal affairs of that town. No sooner had this man taken possession than he began to be exclusive, suh, and to put on airs. The vehy fust air he put on was to build a fence in his office and compel our people to transact their business through a hole. This in itself was vehy gallin, suh, for up to that time the mail had always been dumped out on the table in the stage office and every gentleman had heped himself. The next thing was the closin of his mail-bags at a hour fixed by himself. This became a great inconvenience to our citizens, who were often late in finishin their correspondence, and who had always found our former postmaster willin either to hold the bag over until the next day, or to send it across to Drummondtown by a boy to catch a later train.
Well, suh, Colonel Talcotts mission to the post-office was to mail a letter to his factor in Richmond, Va., on business of the utmost importance to himselfnamely, the raisin of a small loan upon his share of the crop. Not the crop that was planted, suh, but the crop that he expected to plant.
Colonel Talcott approached the hole, and, with that Chesterfieldian manner which has distinguished the Talcotts for mo than two centuries, asked the postmaster for the loan of a three-cent postage-stamp.
Think of a Talcott in his own county town bein refused a three-cent postage-stamp by a low-lived Yankee, who had never known a gentleman in his life! The colonels first impulse was to haul the scoundrel through the hole and carve him; but then he remembered that he was a Talcott and could not demean himself, and, drawin himself up again with that manner which was grace itself, he requested the loan of a three-cent postage-stamp until he should communicate with his factor in Richmond, Va.; and again he was refused. Well, suh, what was there left for a high-toned Southern gentleman to do? Colonel Talcott drew his revolver and shot that Yankee scoundrel through the heart, and killed him on the spot.
Hang a Talcott! No, suh; we dont hang gentlemen down our way. Jedge Kerfoot vehy properly charged the coroners jury that it was a matter of self-defense, and Colonel Talcott was not detained mo than haalf an hour.