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- Colonel Carter of Cartersville - 2/23 -
gas,--dark 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.
But I hear the colonel calling down the back stairs:--
"Not a minute over eighteen, Chad. You ruined those ducks last Sunday."
The next moment he had me by both hands.
"My dear Major, I am pa'alized 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 don't know Fitz? Most extraord'nary 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 fender--my fire and yo' fender! No, Fitz's 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 moustache droops over a firm, well-cut mouth and unites at its ends with a gray goatee which rests on his shirt front.
Like most Southerners living away from great cities his voice is soft and low, and tempered with a cadence that is delicious.
He wears a black broadcloth coat,--a double-breasted garment,--with similar colored waistcoat and trousers, a turn-down collar, a shirt of many plaits which is under-starched and over-wrinkled 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 colonel's 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 colonel's 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 mis-mated 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 cuffs--a 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 andyet 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.
When he hands you his card it bears this unabridged inscription:--
Colonel George Fairfax Carter, of Carter Hall, Cartersville, Virginia.
He omits "United States of America," simply because it would add nothing to his identity or his dignity.
* * * * *
"There's 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.
The colonel sprang forward and seized him by both shoulders.
"What the devil do you mean, Fitz, by comin' ten minutes late? Don't you know, suh, that the burnin' of a canvasback is a crime?
"Stuck in the snow? Well, I'll forgive you this once, but Chad won't. Give me yo' coat--bless 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 dinner--not a word befo'."
This railroad was the colonel's 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.
The colonel laughed, seized the poker, and rapped three times on the floor. A voice from the kitchen rumbled up:--
It was Chad "dishin' the dinner" below, his explanations increasing in distinctness as he pushed the rear door open with his foot,--both 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 colonel's chair and with great dignity announced that dinner was served.
"Come, Major! Fitz, sit where you can warm yo' back--you are not thawed out yet. One minute, gentlemen,--an old custom of my ancestors which I never omit."
The blessing was asked with becoming reverence; there was a slight pause, and then the colonel lifted the cover of the tureen and sent a savory cloud of incense to the ceiling.
The soup was a cream of something with baby crabs. There was also a fish,--boiled,--with 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.
Then the ducks!
It was beautiful to see the colonel's face when Chad, with a bow like a folding jack-knife, held this dish before him.
"Lay 'em here, Chad--right under my nose. Now hand me that pile of plates sizzlin' hot, and give that carvin' knife a turn or two across the hearth. Major, dip a bit of celery in the salt and follow it with a mou'ful 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!"
"Suit you, marsa?" Chad never forgot his slave days. "To a turn, Chad,--I wouldn't take a thousand dollars for you," replied the colonel, relapsing as unconsciously into an old habit.
It was not to be wondered at that the colonel loved a good dinner. To dine well was with him an inherited instinct; one 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 fo'ty 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 earth--a true Southern lady!
"Now, Chad, the red pepper."
"No jelly, Colonel?" said Fitz, with an eye on the sideboard.
"Jelly? No, suh; not a suspicion of it. A pinch of salt, a dust ofcayenne, then shut yo' eyes and mouth, and don't open them 'cept for a drop of good red wine. It is the salt marsh in the early mornin' that you are tastin', suh,--not molasses candy. You Nawtherners don't 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'
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