An Old Virginia Correspondence
THE letters here given stretch over a period of forty-three years, and cover a lifetime spent under conditions that are now past. The earliest of them were written during the Revolutionary War, the last when nearly a quarter of this century had gone. They have the charm of their time, a gentle formality and a quiet regard for effect, and the grace of good company ; the little accounts of Washington and Chief Justice Marshall having a pleasant air of intimacy.
The first is from Miss Mildred Smith, a grave person of sixteen years, to Miss Betsy Ambler, who is a year younger.
YORK, VA., 1780.
When you left our dear little town, I felt as if every ray of comfort had fled. Oh, my dearest loved Betsy (now what would I give if you had a name a little more romantic!), how shall I exist without you ? Life seems a dreary waste since deprived of your loved society.
The girls here are charming and very fond of me, but they are all so much my senior ; and besides, there is so much freedom and levity, almost amounting to indiscretion, in their conduct that I often blush for them, and certainly can never repose that confidence in them that I have long been accustomed to place in you. . . .
Fain would I cast a veil over their frivolities, but since the arrival of the French ships, commanded by the Viscount Roehambeau and Captain M——, their heads seem turned, and a thousand times have I said that it is well for my well loved Betsy that she is removed from these scenes of amusement and dissipation. Her giddy brain would also have been turned were she here. There is something so flattering in the attentions of these elegant French officers, and though not one in ten of them can speak a word of English, yet their style of entertaining and their devotion to the ladies of York are so flattering that almost any girl of sixteen would be enchanted.
But you know how little effect they can have on me, nor would I exchange one rational hour’s conversation with my solid English B——d for all the bagatelles these sprightly Frenchmen lavish daily upon me. Apropos of poor B——d, he has abjured his own country and got a commission in our army, I really and truly believe, from principle; but my Uncle and Aunt still look coldly on him. Alas ! I must endeavour to do so too ! What a prospect have I of ever having it in my power to reward his constancy ? None, for, as my Aunt says, poverty and dependence must be the portion of those who marry a stranger without a shilling ! My own weak heart reluctantly consents to the truth of the observation.
As soon as the bustle and fatigue of moving is over I shall expect a long letter from you. I am all impatience to hear your description of Richmond, which they tell me is enchantingly beautiful. You must not for the world draw any comparisons between it and York. We lowlanders cannot yet make up our minds to give Richmond credit for anything, so vexed are all our old folks at the removal of the seat of government; to us it is pretty much the same.
God bless you, prays your affect.
Though the letter in reply has no date other than 1780, it was evidently an early response.
FROM BETSY JAQUELIN AMBLER TO MILDRED SMITH.
RICHMOND, VA., 1780.
MY DEAREST MILDRED, —— ... And so you really wish that the name of Betsy could be changed, — softened and romanticized into Bessie or Jaquelin or Sophia, or a more modern termination of any sort. Who would have thought that my Millia, or rather my charming Mildred, who is just as sweet and lovely as any heroine of times past, present, or to come, should try her powers of the heroic ?
You who know me so well can readily judge how my heart fluttered when, on the second evening after our arrival at Williamsburg, we received invitations for a ball. It was given at the Palace, by certain gentlemen, in compliment, it was said, “to the Misses Amblers.” Though I cannot for my life treat the poor fellow who was the prime mover in this civility with common good manners, yet was I delighted with an opportunity of showing my consequence by accepting his invitation and playing off a thousand airs which would have provoked a lecture from you an hour long. His more successful friend, Marshall,1 was devoted to my sister.
The entertainment in itself was like most of the entertainments of the present time, simple and frugal as to its viands, but of the brilliancy of the company too much cannot be said ; it consisted of more Beauty and Elegance than I had ever witnessed before, and I was transported with delight at being considered a distinguished personage. (The lady to whom a party is given must always be held, you know, as making the principal character in the Drama.)
In serious truth, however, it was a most charming entertainment, and so much attention did your giddy friend receive as almost turned her poor distracted brain. However, we proceeded on our journey the next morning at a very early hour.
Nothing material happened on our way, and we arrived on the evening of the second day at this famous Metropolis; for so we may now call it, as all heads of departments,2 like ourselves, have arrived here in safety. But where we are to lay our weary heads Heaven knows ; so recently has it become a place of any consequence that accommodations cannot be found for one half the people who are necessarily brought here. It is indeed a lovely situation, and may at some future period be a great city, but at present it will scarce afford one comfort in life.
With the exception of two or three families this little town is made up of Scotch factors, who inhabit small tenements scattered here and there from the river to the hill. Some of them look, as Colonel Marshall3 observed, as if the poor Caledonians had brought them over on their backs, the weakest of whom being glad enough to stop at the bottom of the hill, others a little stronger proceeding higher, whilst a few of the stoutest and the boldest reached the summit.
One of these hardy Scots has thought proper to vacate his little dwelling on the hill, and though our whole family can scarcely stand up all together in it, my father has determined to rent it as the only decent tenement on the hill.
When I have seen more of this delectable spot you may expect another epistle. It would seem as if I should have abundance of leisure for writing, so little have we to amuse us in this New World, for it is absolutely a New World to me. Farewell. Your BETSY.
In the interval of more than a year that seems to have elapsed between this letter and that which follows the war was pressed with vigor in Virginia, Tarleton’s men making themselves especially dreaded by the patriots. The letter itself, broken by sudden flights and its various parts written in different places, is the best evidence of the disturbed state of the country.
FROM BETSY AMBLER TO MILDRED SMITH.
MY DEAR MILDRED, — Our removal from York to this place, which I considered one of the calamities of my life, lost much of its bitterness when I found, the succeeding fall, that you and your much loved family would also be obliged to follow. No sooner had you from necessity been forced to join us, and we were looking forward to days of happiness, than we were forced to separate again. Even here we found no rest for the sole of our foot. Another alarm this morning ! Should it be confirmed that the British are really coming up James River, my poor dear mother will not continue a moment. Poor dear soul, what sufferings are hers !
THE COTTAGE, Friday evening.
At the moment I was writing you, we had too certain confirmation of the British having landed and being actually on their way to town. Not a moment was to be lost, and we were off in a twinkling. I would have almost wished you could get a view of them in your snug little retreat, — where I should hope that you are perfectly secure ; — but my father seemed to think we had not a moment to lose. Such terror and confusion you have no idea of. Governor, Council, everybody scampering.
I have just received yours of last night. How thankful I am that your residence was too remote to subject you to the outrages of these barbarians ! What a gloomy time do I look forward to ! Oh that you were here with me to beguile the tediousness of these unmeasurable days! Continue to write, I beseech you.
Your account of your neighbour S—s escape just as the enemy entered the town made even my poor mother smile. What a gallant fellow he was, to look back and bid them come on, when he was a full mile ahead, with a swift horse that had borne him off many a day before ! But this is not more laughable than the accounts we have of our illustrious Governor, who, they say, took neither rest nor food for man or horse till he reached C —r’s Mountain.
LOUISA COURT HOUSE, Tuesday.
Oh, my dearest girl, I tremble for your safety. Where were you hid when the enemy passed your door ? We only had time to learn that they were on the road from Richmond, when we were again in the carriage, and in a few hours reached this place where it would seem impossible for us to be in any danger.
My much loved father is full of anxiety for us. Much have we to apprehend for him. The public office which he holds makes it absolutely necessary for him to run no risks of falling into the hands of the enemy. We therefore see him safely lodged in the old coach every night, with faithful old Sam as his guard, while we endeavour to make ourselves as comfortable as we can in the overseer’s tiny dwelling, which will scarcely hold us all.
When or where shall we find rest ? Such a journey as we have again had, and now are precisely in the same spot we set out from !
No sooner had we committed our dear father to his solitary confinement on the night I last wrote you, and were endeavouring to console ourselves with the idea that the miserable little hovel we were in was too solitary a situation for us to fear any danger ; then while enjoying our frugal supper of Bonny Clabber, honey, etc., a terrible clatter of horses at the door set us all scampering. The British ! Nothing but the word British did we hear; upon opening the door, however, we soon discovered a parcel of miserable militia belonging to the neighbourhood. They had called to give notice that the enemy were actually proceeding on their way through the country, but not one of them could say which route they had taken. A consultation of our party was then held, and if we had had one particle of our natural reason about us, we should have quietly stayed where we were, but flight had so long been the word that it was determined unanimously that we should be off in a moment. The nearer the mountains the greater the safety, was the conclusion ; so on we traveled through byways and brambles until we could get to the main road leading to Charlottesville. Our design was first to reach a plantation in the neighbourhood of the Springs, where we were at least sure of house room and a bed (a friend of ours having removed his furniture to this place for security) ; and to this place we proceeded, where we arrived just as the sun appeared in all his glory. With difficulty we got admittance,— no soul being in the house,— and were just spreading pallets to rest our weary heads, when the landlord, out of breath, reached the house, saying that Tarleton and all his men had just passed, and would catch the Governor before he could reach Charlottesville.
What a panic for us all! Our best beloved father had pursued the Same route only a half hour before, Charlottesville being the place appointed for public officers to repair to. Fortunately, however, the enemy had got ahead of him by another road, which he by good luck hearing, he immediately joined us and hurried us back to the selfsame spot we had left the night before. Thus were we one whole night and the greater part of the next day accomplishing what placed us precisely in the same situation we were in before, a spot that I defy the British or even the d——1 himself to find.
Great cause have we for thankfulness, and however dreary it is I will endeavour to be contented, hoping and trusting for a speedy deliverance.
But how dreadful the idea of an enemy passing through such a country as ours committing enormities that fill the mind with horror, and returning exultingly without, meeting one impediment to discourage them !
Your affectionate E. J. A.
Another break of about a year occurs in our record of the relations between the two friends, but the next letter shows Miss Smith still in the position of mentor.
MILDREB SMITH TO BETSY AMBLER.
MY DEAR BETSY, — Again are we quietly seated in our old mansion. But oh! how unlike it once was ! Indeed, were you to be suddenly and unexpectedly set down in the very spot where you and I have so often played together, — in that very garden where we gathered flowers or stole your father’s choice fruit, — you would not recognize a solitary vestige of what it once was. Ours is not so totally annihilated, being more remote from the shock and battery — but Heaven knows, it is shocking enough ! Others that remain are so mutilated — particularly the L——ys’ home, which several balls passed through — as to grieve one’s very soul. But it is over!
Our individual sufferings are nothing now we can reflect that the great end is accomplished. Peace is again restored, and we may yet look forward to happy days.
The time passed in the neighbourhood of Richmond so near you, though so often spent in fear and trembling, not infrequently without cause, — particularly that memorable period which made it necessary that you abandon your home, — was yet productive of many pleasurable moments, and but for our British prejudices respecting this one native home, I should have been well satisfied to have made it my residence. Then I should always be near you, always ready with my watchful tenderness to guard you against those juvenile extravagances that, you must allow me to say, need some restraint. . . .
And this leads me to the recollection of your late obstinate infatuation concerning a certain Mr. B——. Oh, my friend, a thousand times have I wondered at the strange weakness of your conduct. It appears to me that if left entirely to your own will you would marry W——, and yet, as if purposely to vex your father, you have suffered the matter to go such lengths ! Will you quit such trifling ? Remember you are this year leaving your childhood. Farewell.
Yours sincerely, M. S.
The three years that elapse between this letter and the one in reply seem not to have been wasted by Miss Smith, and at last her friend feels moved to defend herself. Her disclaimer of vanity appears not wholly superfluous.
FROM BETSY AMBLER TO MILDRED SMITH.
DEAREST MILDRED, — Cease now, dearest friend, with your lectures ; all former follies are done away, and now I am about to take a new character entirely. Really it must be acknowledged that I have behaved very badly, but hereafter you shall have no cause to blame me. You know I have never, with all my faults, betrayed one symptom of vanity ; but now if you should discover a little spice of it, can you wonder ? Just at this moment are at my disposal two of the very smartest beaux this country can boast of. What think you of G—— and B——, both at my feet at once ? There is much speculation going on as to the preference I shall give — and though I do not intend to practice one coquettish air, as you are pleased to call my little innocent gaieties, yet for my own amusement do I intend to leave these speculating geniuses to their own conjectures for some time. At least till I have made up my mind as to the time. For you must know I mean to make one surprise do for all, by being married offhand. Believe me, it is impossible for me to think too long on the subject lest I should in truth be whimsical. They are both men that are not to be trifled with, — men that, either coming separately, no girl in our city would refuse; but both in one day ! What would be done if a little fluttering at the heart did not enable me to decide ? This I found no hesitation in doing; and yet had the other appeared some little time ago, it would not have been impossible to have loved him. Still a little spice of the coquette, I hear you say. No, my friend, not one particle, believe me ; it is only when the object is not entirely to my mind that I could ever feel the least disposition to trifle. Now is my heart seriously interested, and from this moment do I resolve to act precisely as you and all my dear friends would have me.
Colonel Brent is everything that can be wished. In his last visit to Richmond during the summer session he was introduced to me at the theatre. He remained long in our box, but as my friend Eliza was with me, who has the knack of attracting more certainly than the Loadstone, I took it for granted that her charms had riveted him. Not so ; your own giddy friend, who did not consider it worth while to practice one grace extraordinary, stole into his heart, and now he is declaring most vehemently that he has thought nor could think of no other mortal since. How ready we poor silly girls are to believe ! He has lost no opportunity since he has been in town, which is nearly two months, of repeating this, and indeed has done everything in his power to ingratiate himself with my family through our mutual friend Carrington.
He has had a communication with my father, and now, if you were not just at this time laying a similar plan for yourself, I would entreat that about the last week in March you would gladden our hearts hy repairing to——. But this is impossible, so after wishing you as much happiness as I am contemplating for myself, I am
Your own affectionate E. J. A.
The next, which is the first dated letter we have had, gives a melancholy cause for the new observance of days and dates. In spite of the youthful excess of the letter, it is difficult to realize that the writer was only twenty when it was written.
FROM BETSY AMBLER BRENT TO MILDRED SMITH.
RICHMOND, July 10, 1785.
MY DEAR MILDRED, — When I prevailed upon my friend Eliza Marshall to write you before I left the Potomac, it did not appear possible that I should ever gain composure enough to write myself ; but now that I have reached my dear Parents and changed those dreadful scenes which Eliza’s letter too well described to you, I feel as if unburthening my heart to my friend would in some measure mitigate my sufferings.
Four months only have passed since I last wrote you. What have I not endured since then ! Widowed, wretched, forlorn — a month since, I was the happiest of wives, and now — Oh, my friend! In February only I think it was I last wrote you. What vicissitudes have I not experienced since !
The 31st of March made me the happiest of wives; the l5th of June — oh, day never to be forgotten — my adored Brent was snatched from my arms. Forty hours of suffering such as no pen can describe, and then, oh then, I had to give him up forever. Think, oh think, my friend, what it is to part forever with those we fondly love. Forever did I say ? Let me indulge in better hopes and blot out that word.
This dreadful, dreadful blow came too under the most aggravating circumstances. Three weeks after our marriage the carriage of my husband’s mother was sent to convey us to his seat on the Potomac. E—— and C——accompanied us. Everything that the season held there so delightful to one who had seldom had an opportunity of beholding the beauties of nature ; the full tide of health and spirits ; in short, every circumstance that could spread a charm over mortals conspired to make our journey delightful.
On our arrival at Richlands what a reception had we ! A tender and respectable mother, with a countenance beaming with delight at the view of her eldest son’s appearance, watched our approach ; two lovely sisters, eager to call me by that endearing name, ran to meet us. Relations of every degree assembled to welcome us; in short, nothing was wanting to my happiness.
A few weeks was I permitted to taste these pure delights, and then — one fatal night — but it is impossible for me to give you an idea of the scene that succeeded. How I kept my senses is the wonder. The melancholy news soon reached my father, and, with his wonted tenderness, he despatched the carriage with my darling brother Marshall to bring me to my old apartment, where I now sit, — no longer the happy, cheerful friend you once had, but miserable, oh, how miserable! Come, if it is possible, to soothe my wretched state. Farewell.
Yours ever affect.
E. J. A. B.
A period of fourteen years separates this broken-hearted letter from the next, which is written to her sister from the serene atmosphere of Washington’s home at Mount Vernon. The writer has won a serenity of spirit, too. She is again married, — to Colonel Carrington, an old friend of hers and her husband’s; in fact, the “ mutual friend” she speaks of in an earlier letter, and a friend and comrade-in-arms of Washington.
FROM BETSY AMBLER CARRINGTON TO HER SISTER NANCY.
MOUNT VERNON, November 22, 1799.
MY DEAR NANCY, — We arrived at this venerable mansion in perfect safety, where we are experiencing every mark of hospitality and kindness that the good old General’s friendship for Colonel Carrington could lead us to expect. His reception of my husband was that of a Brother. He took us each by the hand, and, with a warmth of expression not to be described, pressed mine and told me that I had conferred a favour, never to be forgotten, in bringing his old friend to see him. Then bidding a servant to call the Ladies, he entertained us most facetiously till they appeared. They were, Mrs. Washington, venerable, kind, and plain, very much resembling our Aunt Ambler; Mrs. Steward, her daughter-in-law, once Mrs. Custis, with her two young daughters, Misses Steward, all pleasant and agreeable; Mrs. H. Lewis, formerly Miss P—— of Richmond ; and last, but not least, Mrs. Lawrence Lewis. But how describe her ? Once I had heard my neighbour, Mrs. Tucker, give a romantic account of her when Miss Custis ; how, her lovely figure made doubly interesting by a light fanciful summer dress, with a garland of flowers she had just entwined and an apron full that she had selected, she came in and threw them at her grandmother’s feet, — all which I considered as the fanciful effusions of my friend’s romantic turn of mind. But now when I see her the Matron, — for such her situation makes her appear, though she has only been ten months a wife ; lovely as nature could form her ; improved in every female accomplishment, and what is still more interesting, amiable and obliging in every department that makes woman most charming, particularly in her conduct to her aged Grandmother and the General, whom she always calls Grandpa, — I seem actually transported in beholding her. Having once seen her as she passed through our town seems to give me a claim to her kindness, and her attentions are unremitted. On retiring for the night, she took me into her apartment, which was elegantly prepared for an expected event. When we separated, “ How glad I am that you are here! ” she said. “ What a pleasure it will be to me to retain you, till this dreaded event has passed.” I assured her nothing would give me more pleasure than to remain and to offer every friendly aid in my power. In this promise I thought this morning I should be indulged, for, on entering the Breakfast Room, I understood she had been complaining all night ; but unfortunately my husband spied the armchair being carried up-stairs, and a moment after ordered our carriage. In vain did the General insist upon our stay, promising to take him over the grounds and farm and show him the Mill, etc., which would occupy them until 3 o’clock ; but no, —the world could not tempt him to stay, at a time when, he said, every one should leave the family entirely undisturbed, but that, after a few days, when we should have finished our visit to my friends in Maryland, we would again see them and prolong our visit. Is it not vexatious to have so scrupulous a husband ? Nothing could distress me more than to leave this charming family at such a moment; but I am bound to obey, and at 12 we are to leave this place for Washington. When I return you may expect to hear further from me.
MOUNT VERNON,November 27th.
After passing a week most charmingly with my numerous friends in and about the City, we returned to finish our visit to this revered mansion. Our Headquarters whilst in the city (for I shall have no terms to use but what are military, hearing as I do a repetition, from these dear old veterans, of Battles, Fortifications, Marches and Countermarches, which are familiar as every-day topics to one connected as I have been with Soldiers and Heroes) —our Headquarters, then, as I said before, were here at D——C——’s, the husband of your old friend Annie Brent. This visit of a week would furnish subjects for a series of letters instead of one. I must therefore only tell you that I found myself while in Washington in a new world, though in the selfsame spot where a few years before I felt quite at home. On those very farms where dwelt my old friends, the Youngs, the Carrolls, etc., did I see the stately edifices of the Capitol, President’s house, etc., all appearing to me like enchantment. But a few years since, when passing an Autumn with these dearly loved friends, I saw the first trees felled on their farms. Now avenues and intersecting streets cover the ground I so often passed over in going from one friend’s house to another. It is absolutely magic! I could not have imagined that the cutting down trees and rearing a few houses (for as yet there are but few in the city) could so totally have metamorphosed this charming spot.
I, having missed the post, continue to scribble, and am well pleased that my letter was not ready, as I have much to say, and am really delighted that our first visit here was shortened so that we are at liberty to finish it at a time when our presence is of more consequence to this amiable family than it would have been before. It is really an enjoyment to be here and to witness the tranquil happiness that reigns throughout the house, except now and then a little bustle occasioned by the young Squire Custis, when he returns from hunting, bringing in a “Valiant Deer,” as he terms it, “ that Grandpa and the Colonel will devour.” Nice venison, I assure you, it is, and my taste in seasoning the stew is not passed unnoticed while the whole party — I won’t say devour it, but do it ample justice. My mornings are spent charmingly, alternately in the different chambers. First, an hour after breakfast, with The Lady in the Straw, dressing the pretty little stranger, who is the delight of the Grandmamma. Then we repair to the old lady’s room, which is precisely on the style of our good old Aunt’s ; that is to say, nicely fixed for all sorts of work. On one side sits the chambermaid with her knitting; on the other a little colored pet learning to sew ; a decent old woman, with her table and shears, cutting out the negroes’ winter clothes ; while the good old lady directs them all, incessantly knitting herself, and pointing out to me several pairs of nice colored stockings and gloves she has just finished, and presenting me with a pair half done, which she begs I will finish and wear for her sake. Her netting too is a great source of amusement, and is so neatly done that all the younger part of the family are proud of trimming their dresses with it, and have furnished me with a whole suit, so that I shall appear àd la domestique at the first party we have when I get home.
It is wonderful, after a life spent as these good people have necessarily spent theirs, to see them, in retirement, assume the domestic manners that prevail in our country, when but one year since they were forced to sacrifice all these innocent delights, which are so congenial to their years and taste, to the parade of the Drawing Room and Levee. The recollections of these “ Lost Days,” as Mrs. Washington calls them, seem to fill her with regret, but the extensive knowledge she has gained in this general intercourse with persons from all parts of the world has made her a most extraordinary companion, and having a vastly retentive memory, she presents an entire history of half a century.
The weather is too wintry to enjoy outof-door scenes, but, as far as I can judge in a view from the windows, the little painting we have seen, that hangs up in my friend Mrs. Wood’s drawing room, furnishes a good specimen of the outlook.
Everything within doors is neat and elegant, but nothing remarkable except the paintings of different artists which have been sent as specimens of their talent, — I think there are five portraits of the General, — some done in Europe and some in America, that do honour to the painters. There are other specimens of the fine arts from various parts of the world, that are admirably executed and furnish pleasant conversation. Besides these there is a complete greenhouse, which at this season is a vast source of pleasure. Plants from every part of the world seem to flourish in this neatly finished apartment, and from the arrangement of the whole I conclude that it is managed by a skilful hand, but whose I cannot tell. Neither the General nor Mrs. Washington seems more interested than the visitors.
We have met with no visitors here, but are told that scarcely a week passes without some, and often more than is convenient or agreeable. When transient persons who call from curiosity, they are treated with civility, but never interfere with the order of the House or the General’s disposition of time, which is as regular as when at the head of the army or in the President’s chair. Even friends who make a point of visiting him are left much to themselves, — indeed, scarcely see him from breakfast to dinner, unless he engages them in a ride, which is very agreeable to him. But from dinner to tea our time is charmingly spent. Indeed, one evening the General was so fascinating, and drew my husband out into so many old stories relating to several campaigns where they had been much together, and had so many inquiries to make respecting their mutual friends, particularly Kosciusko and Pulaski,—who have always corresponded with Colonel Carrington, —that it was long after twelve o’clock before we separated. By the bye, I will show you some of those letters, on my return, for I know you will find great pleasure in them. At breakfast I feel quite at home, — everything is so plain. . . .
[The rest of this letter is missing.]
After another long silence, Mrs. Carrington, who has now become matronly and begun to be reminiscent, writes to strengthen her sister’s remembrances of their father. The office their father held to which she refers was that of Collector of Customs for the King at York, Virginia.
MY DEAR NANCY, — In my last letter I dwelt entirely upon the virtues of our inestimable mother ; now would I bring the best of fathers to your recollection.
Our poor mother being too infirm to engage much in the care of her children, it almost entirely devolved upon my father. When my sister Moll and myself were barely five and six years old, he went through the arduous task of teaching us, and in every particular supplying the place of a mother. Notwithstanding he held an office that afforded little leisure for such employment, every hour from business was devoted to us. Our copies, as soon as we could write, were written in the fairest hand by himself ; short, but always containing a lesson of piety or an elegant moral quotation, the orthography and grammar entirely defective, which we were to correct. No English grammar at that time could be found. Parents and teachers in later times owe much to Lindley Murray in that branch of education, but in my own opinion the good old-fashioned teaching to spell has greatly the advantage of the modern. Our arithmetic commenced most pleasantly. The first figures, I well remember, were encircled with flowers, which had a happy effect in drawing our attention. Amusing books were carelessly left open on the writing table ; letters from the children of his friends in Philadelphia were given us to answer ; and so our education went on without rules or forms.
Thus did our dear father devote himself to us and pursue every means in his power to give us instruction at a time when girls in our country were simply taught to read and write at twenty-five pounds and a load of wood per year. A boarding school in Virginia was nowhere to be found. Such attentions as we experienced were without parallel. It was thought, however, to have too much of severity ; for the Rod, at that time, was an instrument never to be dispensed with, and our dear father used it most conscientiously. . . .
At this time our country was thrown into great confusion By the long continuance of the war, and afterwards seemed to imbibe too much of that infidelity which so much prevailed when Paine and Godwin disseminated their writings abroad, and a more insinuating distinguished personage gave his lessons at home.
The churches in Virginia were almost entirely shut up, and the holy ordinances of religion were unobserved. Most of our men were engaged in the war.
Your loving sister, E.
In the next letter, also to her sister, Mrs. Carrington, in setting down the memories of her girlhood, gives an interesting picture of travel in the Virginia of the eighteenth century. Among the officers with Colonel Carrington, whom she mentions meeting on the way, was Major Brent, who became her first husband.
MY DEAR NANCY, — When in our childhood we were left at Winchester, as we were, our female relation who had us in charge, though truly amiable, was but young and inexperienced, and almost as childish as ourselves.
The society of Winchester consisted of all descriptions of persons who seek a new country to better their fortunes. Thus, you may suppose there could be little refinement and of course little improvement gained amongst them. There were, however, a few genteel and respectable families. There were English, Irish, and Dutch, but the chief population was Dutch. During our stay we often met with genteel travellers, and not unfrequently made acquaintance with agreeable men, who were condemned in various parts to banishment to this dreary place, on account of disaffection, as it was called, to the great cause of liberty. In this remote corner they were entirely precluded any intercourse with Britain or British agents, of course, unable if they had the disposition to enter into any plans with them. Amongst these, proscribed genteel Quakers from Philadelphia were numerous, and I also remember with much pleasure a Colonel Elligood from Norfolk. Added to these there were many charming young officers who had been prisoners in Canada, and just then liberated. Such were Heath, Brown, McGuire, etc. Here was a fine field open for a romantic girl to exhibit in, and here I could tell you many pretty stories of sighing swains, tender billets, love-inspiring sonnets, etc., but that they would be blended with so many childish absurdities that I will not venture to repeat them. Fortunately, nature blessed me with such versatility of temper that at that time it would have been impossible to have fixed my attention on any one object, so that consequently I escaped an entanglement that might have eventuated in regret.
Early in the spring our good father returned and withdrew us from scenes that were so truly improper : and though he treated us himself as children, yet it was evident he saw that we had been considered of an age to attract too much attention. The only consolation I have ever felt for the youthful follies was that, in a subsequent visit to Winchester, I found that my temper and deportment, to those of my acquaintance who remained there, had been such as to inspire them with an affection for me which had induced them to throw a veil over my youthful follies, and that they continued to love me with unabated affection.
It is not a pleasant thing to retrace the follies of youth, but I have determined, by a candid representation of different periods of my life, to guard our dear little girls against errors that I have fallen into ; if our lives are prolonged, probably they may not be exposed or placed in similar situations. Certain it is that another Revolutionary War can never happen to affect and ruin a family so completely as ours has been. The only possible good from the entire change in our circumstances was that we were made acquainted with the manner and situation of our country, which we otherwise should never have known. Added to this, necessity taught us to use exertions which girls of the present day know nothing of. We were forced to industry, to appear genteelly ; to study manners, to supply the place of education ; and to endeavour by amiable and agreeable conduct to make amends for the loss of fortune, which by this time was reduced to a pretty low ebb.
See us at this period reduced to the necessity of travelling in a common wagon, which to be sure was fixed comfortably with swinging seats, etc. Like Goldsmith’s good old vicar’s family we were rather ashamed of our cavalry, but the constant attentions we received from all who knew the virtuous and independent spirit of my father rendered it more supportable. One little mortification, however, I may relate.
We arrived at Fredericksburg rather at a late hour in the evening. Our equipage was safely lodged. We passed the next day with our friends there, had much attention paid us, and were invited to a ball that evening that we declined going to, not having ball dresses with us, which, by the way, were not to be found elsewhere, and besides we were to take our departure at a very early hour in the morning. We prevailed upon our father to let us walk to the outskirts of the town where our vehicle would be in readiness for us, when lo and behold! just as we were stepping into it several genteel and elegant officers appeared who had encamped with their regiment the preceding night at this very spot. Here was a terrible blow to our fancied consequence. Like the Miss Primroses we began to bridle, and perhaps would have glanced at better days and talked of the coach we had lately passed that way in, on our journey up, but our vicar-like father cut the matter short by shaking hands with the gentlemen, all of whom he had known before, said he was carrying his children (for he still treated us as such) to join their mother, and wished them a good journey. The commanding officer proved to be Colonel Carrington, afterwards the friend of all others most respected, and ultimately the husband of my choice.
Your loving sister.
The account of Chief Justice Marshall contained in the next letter is interesting for its warm personal tone and the pleasant light in which it reveals his domestic relations, especially his care of Mrs. Marshall, who, as the letter shows, was an invalid for the greater part of her life.
The York referred to is of course Yorktown, the scene of Cornwallis’ surrender, and the river is York River.
RICHMOND, VA., 1810.
MY DEAR NANCY, — Had I the talents or the necessary information for writing the history of my country, the period of my life mentioned in my last letter would afford an ample opportunity to distinguish myself ; but possessing neither the one nor the other, it is impossible to give you an idea of the interesting state of the Colonies at that time.
That eventful war, which I so often had occasion to dwell on, was at that period carried on in the Northern States with the utmost rigor. Our own, however, for some time was exempt from its ravages, and we returned to our dear York; not indeed to our former mansion, but to a small, retired tenement that had long been occupied by others.
My father at this time accepted an appointment which kept him almost constantly in Williamsburg. Our town had now become a garrison. We should have been left to experience repeated alarms had we not been fortunately next-door neighbour to the commanding officer, Colonel Marshall. It was at this time we became acquainted with our much loved brother, then called Captain Marshall, who, being just then without a command, left the Northern army, to visit his father and friends.
Perhaps no officer that had been introduced to us excited so much interest. We had been accustomed to hear him spoken of by all as a very paragon ; we had often seen letters from him fraught with filial and paternal affection. The eldest of fifteen children, devoted from his earliest years to his younger brothers and sisters, he was almost idolized by them, and every line received from him was read with rapture.
Our expectations were raised to the highest pitch, and the little circle of York was on tip-toe on his arrival. Our girls, particularly, were emulous who should be first introduced. It is remarkable that my sister Mary, then only fourteen, and diffident beyond all others, declared that we were giving ourselves useless trouble, for that she, for the first time, had made up her mind to go to the ball, though she had not even been at dancing school, and was resolved to set her cap at him, and eclipse us all. This in the end proved true, and at the first introduction he became devoted to her.
For my own part, I am free to confess that I felt not the smallest wish to contest the prize with her ; in this, as in every other instance of my life, my sister’s superior discernment and solidity of character has made me feel my own insignificance. She with a glance divined his character and understood how to appreciate it, while I, expecting an Adonis, lost all desire of becoming agreeable in his eyes when I beheld his awkward figure, unpolished manners, and total negligence of person (which, by the bye, did often produce a blush on her cheek).
Nevertheless, how trivial now seem such objections ! Under the slouched hat there beamed an eye that penetrated at one glance the inmost recesses of the human character ; and beneath the slovenly garb there dwelt a heart complete with every virtue. From the moment he loved my sister he became truly a brother to me (a blessing which before I had never known), and the reciprocal interest which we have each felt for the other has never known abatement.
During the short stay he made with us our whole family became attached to him, and though there was then no certainty of his becoming allied to us, we felt a love for him that ean never cease ; and how could it have been otherwise when there was no circumstance, however trivial, in which we were concerned that was not his care ? Much indeed do I owe him in every respect, and if I claim any consequence in life it may be ascribed to my early intimacy with so estimable a friend. Certain it is that whatever taste I may have for reading was entirely gained from him, who used to read to us from the best authors, particularly the Poets, with so much taste and feeling, and pathos too, as to give me an idea of their sublimity, which I should never have had an idea of. Thus did he lose no opportunity of blending improvement with our amusements, and thereby gave us a taste for books which probably we might never otherwise have had.
Soon after making his acquaintance we learned with pleasure that he was determined to attend the law studies in Williamsburg during his absence from his regiment, of about three months ; and at the end of that time, after obtaining a license, he rejoined his regiment, — gaining as much in that short time as would have employed many the same number of years.
Notwithstanding his amiable and correct conduct, there were those who would catch at the most trifling circumstance to throw a shade over his fair fame. Once in particular, I remember an observation of one of his contemporaries, when allusion was made to his short stay at William and Mary College, that he could have gained but little there, and that his talents were greatly overrated. How far he has left this wise observer behind him might be easily shown, were I at liberty to describe the distinguished personage.
One remarkable trait, however, in his character is that he was never known to make even to his most intimate friends an invidious or malevolent retort, though slanders were propagated and whispered in the ear of those with whom of all others he wished to stand well, insidiously representing the most trifling failings into crimes of the blackest dye. And yet has he always preserved the same amiable, unsuspicious temper which so remarkably distinguished him, and has wisely shown that nothing can so completely blunt the shaft of envy and malice as a life spent in virtuous and noble usefulness.
The year after the war closed, his marriage took place at the cottage in Hanover County, to which place we had been invited by our relation, John Ambler. It has been ill-naturedly said that my father made objection on the score of fortune, but nothing was ever less true; for though I have heard Mr. Marshall say a hundred times that, after paying the parson, he had but one solitary guinea left, yet had that been lacking, my father would have considered him the very best choice his daughter could have made. Certainly the event has proved so, for no man, in my estimation, has ever, save one, stood so high in our country. What his conduct has been in the tender relations of domestic life you have had as good an opportunity of knowing as myself. His exemplary tenderness to our unfortunate sister is without parallel. With a delicacy of frame and feeling that baffles all description, she became early after her marriage a prey to extreme nervous affection which more or less has embittered her comfort through life ; but this has only seemed to increase his care and tenderness, and he is, as you know, as entirely devoted as at the moment of their first being married. Always and under every circumstance an enthusiast in love, I have very lately heard him declare that he looked with astonishment at the present race of lovers, so totally unlike what he had been himself.
His never failing cheerfulness and good-humor are a perpetual source of delight to all connected with him, and, I have not a doubt, have been the means of prolonging the life of her he is so tenderly devoted to.
Affect. your sister,
ELIZA JAQUELIN AMBLER CARRINGTON.
The closing letter of this broken series, written on her fifty-eighth birthday, is an old woman’s letter ; cheerful, however, and showing the mellowness and serenity of spirit which came with age.
RICHMOND, March 11, 1823.
MY DEAR NANCY, — This date brings me indeed to my grand climacteric. What an age, with such infirmities as I have had to contend with ! Surely they are now fast drawing to an end. This being a snowy day, my natural propensity for scribbling to you recurs. It is my habit, when time hangs heavy on my hands, which is often the case, to look over old manuscripts and letters which have been carefully put away with a view to retrace a long and variegated life, and so many of them appear so frivolous that I am tempted to commit them to the flames. Frequently have they been brought to the verge of that close, and at this moment I can scarcely forbear consigning them to everlasting oblivion.
With the reflection that they have frequently beguiled a miserable day, I again put them back into the little cabinet which with its contents was always intended for you, either to destroy or to be handed to your daughter. You will discover in them what you have often seen, a strange mixture of good and bad that should induce you to peruse them with a sister’s eye, such as they are. Unless I again change my mind they will at my death be yours.
In the same cabinet are my letters to and from friends (for by strange circumstances I have fallen heir to my own letters). Many from dear Miss Cairns, Kingsdown, Bristol, England. Mildred Smith’s, afterwards Mrs. Dudley of York, etc., etc., with whom I was in correspondence from early life. . . .
[The remainder of this letter torn off.]
The mention, in the closing sentence of the last letter, of Mildred Smith, the writer of the first letter of this correspondence, serves in a manner to close the long gap of time and knit the series together.