BY “NICHOLAS WORTH”
THE LITTLE MILL
WHEN I was a boy, I read in my grandfather’s library what, I dare say, is the most curious book ever published in our country. It was a big volume, bound in sheep, and it was called Cotton is King and Pro-Slavery Arguments. It was the slave-owners’ campaign book in the long ante-bellum controversy. Its fundamental proposition was that the South had a monopoly of cotton culture, and, therefore, a sure foundation of perpetual wealth. The argument was that cotton-culture was possible only by the labor of slaves, and, therefore, slavery had an economic justification.
Never was so sound a premise made the basis of such unsound reasoning. Cotton is a sure foundation of perpetual and even yet undreamed-of wealth; but the development of that wealth is still delayed and hindered because its culture was begun under slavery and is not yet wholly freed from the methods of slavery. How great wealth may be won from the cotton fields, the cotton mills, the cotton trade, no economist has arisen with imagination to predict. What the proper culture of it and the proper manufacture of it will mean to the South, the Southern people themselves least of all yet understand. For no staple plant grows that is as profitable as this will become, and there is no other manufacture of which we have so clear a monopoly. Nor is there any other manufactured product for which the demand is so sure to increase. Our foreign trade will build itself on cotton and cotton products to an extent that few men can yet imagine. Did you know, for instance, that, although we grow three fourths of the world’s cotton supply, we still import more manufactured products of cotton than we export ?
Now, the great changes that have come and are coming in the South, — in industry, in thrift, in all kinds of development, — and, following these, the great changes in thought and feeling, are brought chiefly by the freeing of Cotton from the methods of slavery. We have talked of the freeing of the slaves, and of the freeing of the masters ; we have talked and written much of the political problems of the South, of education, and of all the excellent helps and agencies for bringing these backward English-sprung men from their arrested development, and of lifting up the negro to efficiency. They are all good and worthy, if rightly done. But beneath all these agencies, and, in a sense, controlling them, is — Cotton.
When Cotton is completely freed (for this is the right figure of speech), our very greatest economic task will be rightly solved, and all other good things will follow. The freedom of Cotton means the freedom of men, and more,—it means the freedom of thought, also. It means exact education; it means scientific training; it means intelligent work, — the most intelligent agriculture and the most skillful manufacture; it means large transactions, world-wide in their extent; it means a world-knowledge of markets and of manners; it means the reverse of all that is provincial; and it means wealth, and the gifts of light and thought that wealth, with world-knowdedge, brings.
Cotton, then, is king. The old proslavery proposition is true. It is the big truth of the future for the South. For the story of the South, past and future, is the story of the freeing of Cotton.
Since my own life, and its somewhat exciting small struggle for light and freedom and a proper perspective, have happened to fall in the cotton belt, and illustrate, by small deeds and adventures, this great story of the freedom of a people, partly achieved and now rapidly coming, I have determined to write the story of it. It is a life story of a period when Cotton was beginning to become free. I have changed names and places in the story, and disguised some incidents, not essential facts, only because it is unfair to give publicity to some old deeds and opinions of former enemies that we are all willing to forget. The record of the past is valuable, not for its enmities, but in spite of them; and the twin brother of growth is cheerfulness, and amiability is its cousin.
My father lived in a country house near the railroad. A long avenue of elms led almost to the track. Because he owned, a little cotton mill (it was one of the oldest in the South, a little ramshackle house of spindles on the river-bank), the railroad company had built a side track and a hut that was used as a station; and the train stopped there when there was some one to get off or to get on. But travel was infrequent, and the stopping of the train was an event.
One day, when the cotton fields were white, and the elm leaves -were falling,— the charming autumn in that climate of brilliant sunsets and deep blue skies,— the train blew its whistle a much longer time than usual. Joe and I ran down to the station to see who was coming. I was seven years old, and Joe, my slave, philosopher, and friend, was ten.
There was constant talk about the war. Many men in the neighborhood had gone away somewhere; but Joe and I had a theory that the war was all a story. They had fooled us about old Granny Thomas’s bringing the baby (old Granny Thomas was the stork of those days), and they had fooled us about Santa Claus. The war might be another myth, — so we thought, and wondered.
But we found out the truth that day; and for this reason that day stands out among my earliest recollections. For, when the train stopped, they put off a big box, and gently laid it in the shade of the fence. The only man at the station was the man who had come to change the mail bags, and he told us that this was Billy Morris’s coffin, and that Billy had been killed in the war. He asked us to stay there till he could go home and send word to Mr. Morris, who lived two miles away. The man came back presently, and leaned against the fence till old Mr. Morris arrived an hour later.
The lint of cotton was on his wagon, for he was hauling his crop to the gin when the sad news reached him; and he came in his shirt-sleeves, his wife on the wagon seat with him. Late that afternoon all the neighborhood gathered at the church; a funeral was preached, there was a long prayer for our success against “the invaders,” and Billy Morris was buried. Old Mrs. Gregory wept more loudly than anybody else; and she kept saying, while the service was going on, “It’ll be my John next.” In a little while John Gregory’s coffin was put off, as Billy Morris’s had been; and Joe and I regarded old Mrs. Gregory as a woman gifted with prophecy. And other coffins were put off from time to time. About the war there was no longer any doubt in our minds. And later its unspeakable horrors came nearer home to us.
But my father did not go into the war. He was a “Union man,” as they called those who did not believe in secession. I remember having heard him afterwards call it a “foolishenterprise.” But he could not escape the service of the Confederate government, if he had wished; and, although he opposed the war, I do not think that he wished to be regarded by his neighbors as an active “traitor.” The government needed the whole product of the cotton mill, and of a thousand more which did not exist. My father was, therefore, “detailed” to run the mill at its utmost capacity, and to give its product to the government. He was paid for it, of course, in Confederate money; and, when the war ended, I think there must have been several hundred thousand dollars of these bills in the house. My mother made screens of one-hundreddollar bills for the fireplaces in summer. I once asked her, years afterwards, why my father did not buy something that was imperishable with all this money, when it had a certain value, — land, for instance.
“Your father knew that the Confederacy would fail, and he did not consider it honorable to make such a use of socalled money that, in his judgment, was already valueless.”
The little mill turned constantly; for the river never ran dry; and the thread that it spun went to the making of clothes for soldiers and bandages for the wounded, — mitigated human suffering somewhat, it is now pleasant to think.
The war came nearer to us. At last one night a Confederate cavalry officer slept in our house, — for a few hours, at least; all the next day Confederate cavalrymen rode by, taking our horses from the stable and emptying the meathouse, — poor, hungry devils that they must have been. That night the blue-coats came. All during the afternoon they had a skirmish line along the road. Weeks afterwards a blue coat or a gray one might be seen protruding from the sand by the roadside. Soldiers had been lightly buried just as they had fallen, and the wind or dogs or cats had exposed their coats.
But the death of men seemed like the death of cattle, even to a child. My uncles had been killed, — three of them; and perhaps half the men between twenty and fifty who had lived in the neighborhood were missing when the war ended. Old Jake Raynor was left, for he had deserted. They had caught him more than once up his chimney, and had taken him back “to the front; ” but his cowardly body escaped at last. Old Jake was afterwards held up to scorn because he had been a deserter. It took him many years to live down the disgrace. I recall the big revival at the Methodist church, when several notoriously hardened sinners came to repentance, old Jake among them. He used the church to climb back into respectability.
For, if war and death had worn and torn the common sensibilities of childhood,—emotionally I must have been old at twelve, —the religious excitement that followed soon afterwards was quite as abnormal. When the revival had gone on for a week or more, men and women fell into trances. Some of them told stories of dying and going to hell. Some went to heaven. It was old Mrs. Gregory who declared that she had seen John in paradise. He told her that they had plenty of good rations in the army of the Lord, and the sashes in the windows were made of real gold. (Old Man Gregory had been a carpenter.)
Joe a nd I were older now, but we seemed still to have kept incredulous minds. The war proved itself a fact, but we doubted the story of the gold window-sash. It exercised me much; for we were all wrought up about religion. I discussed with my mother the advisability of my going to “the mourners’ bench.” She seemed more confused about this than about any other subject that I ever discussed with her. My younger brother was very ill while one of these revivals was in progress; and, in an agony of prayer, I proposed this bargain with the Almighty: if he would restore Gus to health, I’d go to the mourners’ bench. The revival ended before Gus recovered; and it rested very heavily on my conscience for a long time that I ought to do something to carry out my part of the bargain. But this intense religious feeling, which most of the community shared, had little to do with conduct. It was an emotional rebound from war.
It was fifteen miles from my father’s home to the capital of the state; and that was the “city” to which we went at intervals. Sometimes we went on the train; but the train went only in the afternoon, and it came back very late at night, — two o’clock in the morning. We oftener drove, therefore, bad as the roads were.
These were the turbulent years that followed war. The camp-followers of two armies, and many other adventurers, had swelled the population of the town, the lowest class of both races. Assassination on the highway was not uncommon.
One night in the autumn after the moon had gone down, — it was one o’clock,— there was a rapping at the front door. My father got up, and, walking into the hall, asked who was there. The answer was not clear; but presently, after a smothered conversation between men on the outside, one said that he was an officer of the law who had come from the city in search of a criminal; that he had ridden far, and was tired, and could not go back to the city that night, — would he be permitted to stay till morning ?
While this explanation was going on, my mother had given the shotgun to my father, who stood in his nightclothes in the hall. The only weapon in the house was this shotgun, with which my cousin had been shooting quail. My father refused to open the door. It was a thin double door, and it could be easily broken down. There was a transom of glass above it and on either side.
“Break it down, then,” said one voice on the outside; and a heavy foot kicked one of the light panels, and it flew open. The man who kicked it stood behind the other panel, — that was plain. My father shot through the closed panel. This surprised the intruders. They, in turn, shot into the hall. A great scar which a bullet made in the wood of the staircase remained for years.
But they ran off a little distance, and shot back at the house several times. Meanwhile the door was open, and my father stood in the hall, with one charge yet in the double-barrelled shotgun. At last he crept toward the door. There was a closet in the front of the hall where there was more ammunition. To prevent being seen he closed the door that had been kicked open. Instantly there was a volley fired from the yard. My father fired the other barrel of his gun through the glass at the side of the door, and the men on the outside, evidently concluding that there was a strong battery inside, ran off and fired no more.
But just as my father fired his last charge a ball from the outside struck his gun, and, glancing, entered his head. He died instantly. By the time my mother reached him, he was already unable to speak. It was a case of murder for robbery. There were many such. My father had been to the city that day, and had received in a public place a sum of money from a man who had bought a tract of land, — a roll of small bills that made less than a hundred dollars; and the robbery must have been planned by some one who saw such a display of money. For him to die so inopportunely, — my mother with three children, — after he had outlived the dangers of war and of a settled difference of opinion with his neighbors in an exciting time, — this was hard fortune for us, indeed. But most families that I knew had lost their men; and such a loss was so common that my mother and her children shared only the common fate. We had become accustomed to death. Thus, at this early age, I was already old in emotional experiences.
But the river ran perpetually, and falling water gave power to the little mill; and every year the cotton would be used till the end of civilization. Here were perpetual forces, elemental and economic. And my mother, grown older, with a sad, sweet, determined way, took the management of the little mill herself.
“THE HEAD OF THE FAMILY”
The schools that I attended — may God forgive the young women who one after another taught the children of the sparsely settled neighborhood — were farces and frauds. There was no public school. The heads of the best-to-do families in the neighborhood engaged a young lady to teach in a little hut that they had built for a schoolhouse. The proper thing for my mother to do was, no doubt, to engage a governess; but governesses were associated, in her mind at least, with the education of girls, not of boys; and only the youngest of her children was a girl. My mother taught her herself; and the neighborhood school was regarded as the place for me and for my younger brother.
We walked two miles, arrived at nine o’clock, sat and droned out things that we did not understand till twelve; we then ate the dinner that we had brought, and played the stupidest games on earth till one; then we droned away three more hours, and walked home again.
“Sacred geography” held an important place in our studies. Nobody in the school, not even the teacher, knew anything about it. But we had an atlas of the Holy Land, and we learned the names of the places and of the rivers by heart, and tried to find them on the finely printed map. Bounding Judea and explaining the course of the River Jordan were great feats. Of course, we spelled and wrote and read (from old “readers” that had been compiled in wartime with the notion that the United States was a foreign country). I do not know what else we did in those stupid years, in which there was no childhood. “ Sacred geography ” holds the place of prominence in my memory.
But at home I read, perhaps, as many books as most country boys of that period. My mother read Scott to us. There was a big “compendium” of English Literature in the “library.” The library contained more books than I had ever seen in any other house, but there could have been only about a hundred volumes, and many of them were on religious subjects; and I read that compendium over and over again. Even these normal pleasures were marred by a necessity that I supposed to be on me to read Baxter’s Saints’ Rest, Wesley’s Sermons, and at some time or other, later, N. P. Willis’s poems, in a red gilt, fancy “gift” volume.
But the school, with a succession of silly and raw young women as teachers, made little impression on me. The two great influences on my life at that time were the two households that I used to visit. My grandfather’s was one. His plantation was near the city. The other was the family of my remoter kinspeople, the Densons, who lived in the city.
Early in the nineteenth century my grandfather had inherited a farm, where he built his home, and he added to his holdings till it became, in the ample phrase of the day, a plantation. It was like hundreds of others in the cotton states, larger than most, smaller than many. The cotton bloomed and ripened every year, even under wasteful slave labor; and by its profits he lived the life of a modest gentleman and reared his family. Three of his sons and two of his sons-in-law perished in the war. When peace was declared my father only was left of his sons; and when he was murdered I was next my grandfather himself in the succession to the headship of the family. This had much to do with the old man’s fondness for me; and he and the “Old Place,” as we called his home, played, perhaps, a dominant part in my life.
Good Dr. Denson was the most eminent physician in the city; and his household was the most cultivated one that I knew in my youth, — a gentler one I have never known. Mrs. Denson (we called her Aunt Margaret, though she was my mother’s cousin) and her daughter, my cousin Margaret, — these and my mother were the women of my younger world. My cousin was of my own age, and we had always been companions.
The people who lived in the neighborhood of my own home were small farmers, — the backbone of the country, the politicians called them; but they were not interesting to me at this period. The country people of the South had no sports. I saw the children at school, I saw the older people at church. We hunted rabbits and set traps for quail. I used to weigh the cotton that was brought to the mill. But these years stand back in a shadow, — nothing seems to have happened. It was a sort of No-man’s-land where few things could happen, — except a revival at the Methodist church, and then, three miles away, a revival at the Baptist church. This was the popular excitement, even if it could not be called an amusement.
If my father had not built the little mill, life would have had a different course for us all; and Heaven knows what it would have been. But the mill held us to the eternal verities.
The question arose about my fourteenth year whether I should give my whole time to the mill and relieve my mother, or whether I should be sent away from home to school. The mill was prosperous, in its small way; and my mother, it turned out later, had never had any doubt, —I must go to Graham’s, then the most famous school for boys in that part of the South.
The sons of generals, of colonels, and of other gentlemen filled “the barracks,” — rows of log huts, in each of which four boys lived. The beds were turned up against the log walls during the day to give room. The school had a military organization and a martial spirit. The boys had a military social standard. The son of a general, if he were at all a decent fellow, had a higher rank among them than
the son of a colonel. There was always some difficulty in deciding the exact rank of a judge or a governor, as a father; for there were boys from ten Southern States, “the very flower of the South, sir.” The son of a preacher had a fair chance of a good social rating, especially of an Episcopalian clergyman. A Presbyterian preacher came next in rank.
I found myself at a certain social disadvantage. My father had been a Methodist, •— that was bad enough ; and he had had no military title at all. If it had become known that he had been a “Union man,” I used to shudder to think of the suspicion in which I should probably be held.
The subject came to a head one day. Tom Warren, a boy from the city where the Densons lived, had remarked that my father was not in the war; and, in the discussion that followed, Tom intimated that he was a coward. I hit him instantly. In a moment we were pounding each other, and a group had gathered about us.
Colonel Graham appeared. “Stand back,” said he, “and see it done fairly;” and the boys made the circle wider.
“What’s it about?”
“He said my father was a coward.”
“I didn’t,” said Tom. “You lie.”
We clinched again; and, while my ears rang from Tom’s blows, I heard the colonel say, “No gentleman will take that.”
After we had fought a little longer, the colonel cried “Halt!” in a military tone. We stood before him and saluted.
“Enough, — neither is a coward. Shake hands now.”
“I did n’t say his father was a coward,” bawled Tom, with the blood streaming down his face. “I said he was n’t in the war.”
We were fighting again, in spite of the colonel. He simply remarked, “Well, I see they’ll have to fight it out.”
By accident or good luck, I presently threw Tom, and the colonel again called “Halt!” We were commanded to shake hands. The colonel explained — I was unspeakably grateful to him — that no braver man than my father had ever lived in the state. “He served the Confederacy in a civil capacity.”
I was no longer at a social disadvantage. I had proved my own courage, and I had given the colonel an opportunity to vindicate my father’s memory in the estimation of the boys. I soon became an officer of the battalion.
But what counted for much more was the thorough fashion in which we were taught Latin, — or so much Latin as a boy may learn at a preparatory school. We had two subjects of study, — Latin and mathematics. A gentleman must know Latin; and, if a man proposed to be capable of thought, he must have a mathematical training. Literature, history, science, — we had none. A man was supposed to read literature himself, if his taste ran in that way. History we might read or absorb. Science, — there was time enough to begin that at college if a man wished to pursue a scientific career.
For the present it was enough that a boy be hardened; it was the simple life reduced to roughness,—he must be a gentleman, he must speak the truth, and he must know his Latin and his mathematics. It must have been regarded as more or less effeminate to read books, other than textbooks; for I cannot recall any reading that I did during those years, except in vacations, when I read much, especially with my cousin, Margaret Denson.
They were eventful years in the great world, of which we knew nothing. We lived in a sort of secluded trainingplace for Southern gentlemen, and I think that nobody there knew what went on in the outside world. The instructors never told us, surely. We never saw a newspaper. Sometimes there was talk of the carpet-bag government; but our talk was mainly of the war. Legends had already begun to build themselves, as they will in a community that entrusts its history to oral transmission. For instance, the fortunes of many of our families before the war became enormous, in our talk and in our beliefs; and the bravery of our fathers had set a new standard in human achievement. Brave soldiers there had been before, but none like them.
My last year at the school was my brother’s first year, my mother still successfully managing the little mill; for the river ran always, and the cotton bloomed and ripened even under the worst system of culture in the world. My brother knew the mill and all its ways as well as anybody. Almost every day of his vacations he would spend there. It had been his play place; gradually it became his work place. He was born for the mill, as the mill had been built for him. I have heard him say that he was the only boy at Graham’s who meant to do such a task as to manage a mill. The rest were going to be lawyers or statesmen (or both), or physicians; and one or two were to follow their fathers and become preachers.
My grandfather was becoming a very old man, but he kept his vigor well; and I spent much of my vacations with him. His constant companion was Uncle Ephraim, who had been his attendant for fifty years. Since my grandmother’s death (she fell dead when the second of her sons was brought home from the battlefield, and buried in the garden), he had had Ephraim sleep in a little room next his own bedroom. He discussed everything with Ephraim, for my Aunt Amanda (widowed, too, by the war), it always seemed to me, was regarded by him as too young to talk about many of the subjects that interested him most. These were the only constant members of the household.
And my grandfather, in spite of the terrible losses that he had suffered in the war, did not often speak of it. He was really an old man when it began, and he had done his thinking and formed his opinions long before. He, too, was a Union man. Rather, he belonged to a past epoch. The period of the war seemed a horrid episode to him, but only an episode. He was born in the presidency of Washington. He had known Henry Clay. All that he ever read he had read before the Civil War was begun. His mind ran back to the times of his early manhood; and old Ephraim, who had been his slave all his life (and was still), linked him to this past time.
Uncle Ephraim was one day entertaining my cousin Margaret and me with stories of half a century before. “Yes ’um,” he said, “’twas a fac’,—’tain’t jes’ no tale. Ol’ mars’er, when he was a-courtin’ ol’ missis, sent me many a time wid a letter twenty mile, jes’ to ax’ how de young lady was, — his complimen’s to her. Dem shore was gret days when de gem’mens paid de ladies deir complimen’s twenty mile erway, — dem was complimen’s fast and furious.”
“ And if anybody were to send me ‘ complimen’s’ every day or two by a servant twenty miles, I’d like that, too,” said my cousin.
“Ya-as ma’am,” said the old man; “ ’cose you wud.”
Tom Warren, too, used to come to the Old Place. It was an attractive visit for a group of young people in the city to make. My aunt was cheered by their presence. My grandfather and old Ephraim, too, were such a venerable and interesting pair as you could find nowhere else.
And the cotton grew there, also. It was ginned in an old machine that must have been made after the primitive pattern of Eli Whitney; and the old press, that packed it into bales which always came unbound, was as old in design as Pharaoh. But the cotton grew, and kept the Old Place a home of comfortable, mellow life under the good management of the two patriarchs, master and slave. My grandfather was now unable to ride a horse, and Uncle Ephraim drove him everywhere, — to the city, about the plantation, and sometimes a longer distance. And there was nothing within the range of either’s knowledge that they had not discussed a hundred times.
My mother wished me to go to the Methodist college; for events seemed so to shape it, without our aid, that I was to go to college and my brother was, in due time, to manage the mill. Indeed, it would have been practically impossible for him to do anything else; for he had already given his life to it.
The Methodist college was selected by my mother for three reasons. She was a devout woman; the president of the college was a man of the most extraordinary eloquence; and she had a third reason, which she long kept a secret.
When I told my grandfather good-by, as I started to college, the old man said: “My son, train yourself to serve your country. All great men have been public men.”
“Yes, sub, dat’s so, Mars’ Nick,” echoed Uncle Ephraim. “In de ol’ times, dat was de way it was, — jes’ as ol’ mars’er says. And dem was gret times.”
“You are to be the head of the family,” said my grandfather, “when I am gone.”
“Yes, dat’s so,” came the echo. “Yo’ pa was de ol’es’.”
A PLACE OF ORATORS
If I have taken too long to tell something of school life in the cotton-belt during the first ten years that followed the war, I beg the reader to remember that the opinions and ideals of many men now active in Southern life — men of fifty years of age or less — were formed by these influences; and I am telling this story of my own experiences mainly to give the reader a key to these men’s thought. Two post-bellum presidents of the United States, who were very friendly to the South, but who encountered the bitterest Southern criticism, confessed that they could not understand the Southern people, nor “the workings of their minds.” If they had said, “the working of their emotions,” they would have expressed their meaning more accurately. And, if these presidents had known of the forces that shaped boys at the Graham School in the late sixties, and at many Southern colleges in the early seventies, they would have understood.
For the college, when I went there was a hotbed of patriotism. I do not mean that a military or even a Confederate feeling and tradition prevailed, as at the Graham School; but there was an intense Southern feeling, although it did not imply a hatred of the North. It was as if we had all said: —
“The South is whipped, degraded, despised. But we love our land all the more for its misfortunes; and we mean that it shall not be degraded and despised forever.”
If this were a somewhat narrow feeling of patriotism, it was because our knowledge was narrow. Only two boys in college, I think, out of more than a hundred, had ever been as far north as Washington.
The president of the college at that time was a man of extraordinary eloquence, within a certain range of emotions. I have heard, I think, all the best orators in our country who spoke during the last quarter of the nineteenth century; and this man, if my memory be good, surpassed them all in his power to throw his hearers into the heroic mood. But he was hardly heard of outside his state and sect, for the period of his prime was the wartime and the ten years thereafter. So far as the great world of intellectual or oratorical activity is concerned, — the world that passed clear judgments on men, and recorded those judgments, — he might as well have lived on Madagascar.
Once — I think only once in his whole life — he went to the indefinite place that we called “ the North.”There was a great religious meeting, perhaps a missionary meeting, in Philadelphia, to which he was invited. When his turn to speak came, impressed by the undreamed-of prosperity all about him, such wealth of men and of churches as he had never thought of, he expressed his surprise and his congratulations; and he told of the poverty and the struggle of his own good people. It was a speech full of patriotic feeling, in a broad way, — one of the first so spoken from the South. Other speakers were to follow. There was a long programme. But the audience rose. Men and women moved forward to shake his hand, to see him, to talk with him; and the meeting was not again called to order that evening.
When he came home, it was on the eve of the annual dinner of one of the literary societies of the college. The two literary societies were by far the most important institutions of college life; and their annual dinners were important occasions. Importuned to tell about his trip to “the North,” the president arose and described his experience and his sensations. As he talked, his emotions rose,—his oratory was the direct call of his own emotions to the emotions of his audience,— and he told many things that he had not meant to say, — how rich “the Yankees” were, in what magnificence they lived, how kind they had been to him (they had given him a check for $200, and he had brought it home and given it to the college); why, in some of their cities they paid their preachers as much as $5000 a year; he had, in fact, had offers from a church in New York and from a church in a Western city, of a salary even larger. (His salary as president of the college was $1500, all of which was not paid every year.)
“But, gentlemen,” — and tears came into his eyes as he addressed the table of students who had fifteen minutes before been in a convivial mood, — “I told them that our own land now needed every son she had left. One generation of Southern men lies slain in war. We who must train the next generation would be cowardly to desert them. Our land has need of you, every one, to make its future glorious as our fathers made its past.”
It was not the simple words, not the obvious thought., but the appeal to the heroic that his incomparable voice and manner and his earnestness put into them, that made this little speech a thing remembered by every lad who heard it. I have never during these thirty years met one of them who was present that did not remember its thrill.
That very night three of us, whose patriotic feeling ran high, swore an oath, kneeling with our hands clasped, to give our lives to our country’s service; and that was the beginning of a little patriotic club that has existed in the college ever since.
Next to patriotism, religion was the strongest influence in college. A number of boys were in training for the ministry, and they had the strength of a long ecclesiastical tradition behind them. But they were not, as a rule, among the foremost men in ability. Still, they made the body of “theologues” a strong body. They could not make prayer-meetings fashionable, but they made them respectable. There was a good deal of freedom of opinion about religious subjects. College prayers were not compulsory; but it was bad form not to attend them when the president was at home to conduct them. The professor of mathematics — so a rumor ran — was a freethinker. He was said to have read Darwin and become an evolutionist. But the report was not generally believed; for, it was argued, even if he had read Darwin, a man of his great intellect would instantly see the fallacy of that doctrine and discard it.
I had no natural affinity for the “theologues.” I did not like that type of man. Moreover, the parting speech of my grandfather had made a profound impression on me; and it was becoming firmly fixed in my mind that a public career was the most worthy one. But by this time (it must have been my third year in college), my mother’s pious secret had come out. She wished me to enter the pulpit. I was harassed by theological doubts. The incessant denunciation of the evolutionists by the preachers made me more and more curious to know what they thought and taught. But I had neither opportunity nor time then to find out. For, as at the preparatory school, the main business of life was Latin and mathematics, to which was now added Greek, — except for the “theologues,” for they, as a rule, omitted mathematics, and had special courses of their own in the “evidences” of something.
One of the many pieces of good fortune that have come to me was to fall under the teaching and to come into the close friendship of the professor of Greek, He was a man of simple, clear mind, and knew no better than to think that Greek was to be read for the literature. I dare say that he would have cut a poor figure among more recent scientific scholars. But he did read, and he took a teacher’s profound joy in his pupils who cared for the subject. There were four or five of us, out of twenty or more, who did care for the subject. He had won us by his simple, superb enthusiasm. He conducted his class solely with reference to us four or five. I think that he was often unaware of the existence of the others. We who loved him (and he was an affectionate old man) spent much time at his frugal table and in his library. We read the orators with him, and all the great tragedians, in this private way.
Intellectually, then, college meant to me Greek, Latin, mathematics, and the literary society to which I belonged. There were courses in other subjects, one, I think, in chemistry, but we hardly learned the symbols from the stupid man who taught it, — a professor that the church had put into his chair. There were lectures on “moral philosophy,” and so on, and so on. But they did not command the respect even of the boys.
The president’s personality gave an additional impetus to the work of the two literary societies, which were simply debating clubs, admirably conducted; and they played an important part in college life. We all wished to have practice in public speaking, which we regarded as the noblest of all the arts. We were all orators; and to be a successful contestant for the main prize offered every year for the best oration was to win the highest honor in college. Not only did the students set this value on it, the whole community set the same value. Traditions of a winning oration would be handed down year after year.
In the third year of my college life I was elated by winning this prize. Most experiences of the rather dull life — it seems monotonous except for the joy that the old professor of Greek gave me, and the thrill and inspiration of the president’s oratory — are forgotten; but I recall very vividly the night of that oratorical triumph. My mother, who had meant to make the long journey to hear me, was too ill to come; and this was a grief to me, and I think to her, for years. But my cousin Margaret and her mother came.
My cousin was now the most beautiful young woman that I had ever seen. That night after the ball (the theological influence was strong enough to forbid a ball at Commencement, but the secular oratorical influence was strong enough to have a mild ball at the time of the winter contest for the great medal), — that night after the ball, when my Aunt Margaret kissed me in her pride, I kissed my cousin and put the medal about her neck. In spite of religious doubts, before I w’ent to bed I knelt and said reverently, “ O Lord, I thank thee for a chance to give my life to my country, and for — her.” And, with my most sonorous periods still sounding in my memory, I fell asleep.
During my last vacation two events happened that strongly impressed me. A little village had now grown up at our home, and a church had been built there. It was prayer-meeting night, and I went with my mother. The preacher had suddenly been taken ill. Who should read the Scriptures and offer a prayer ? One of the old men of the church arose and suggested that I should do so. I am sure that I should have refused if my mother had not sat beside me. Her presence and what I knew’ to be her wish made it impossible for me to refuse. It was a little thing, — reading a chapter from the Bible, and making a prayer. But in that community and under those circumstances it was accepted by the people as an announcement that I would become a preacher. My mother’s opinion was what bothered me; and I felt sure that she had a renewed hope.
It was during this vacation that I was reading Matthew Arnold’s Literature and Dogma and Strauss’s Life of Jesus. This was the question that I must settle, and still settle all alone, — whether the orthodox interpretation of the Bible and of the meaning of life was tenable. Huxley’s essays were appearing then, and I read them, too.
Those whose early life was not spent in a superheated orthodox atmosphere may see small need of a life-and-death struggle about such a subject. But there are others who will know how profoundly it may torment a young life. One of my contemporaries in college was fighting the same battle alone at about the same time; and he killed himself from sheer despair. Another wandered over the world as long as his little fortune would carry him, seeking light; and, when he found it, he was prematurely old. No liberty ever cost a harder struggle than the liberty that I at last won. But, while the struggle was going on, I felt a sort of treason to my mother; and I understood why many men have killed themselves because of religious doubts.
The other event of that vacation was my grandfather’s unexpected action. The old man was now in his tenth decade, with his intelligence still clear. I will try to describe his announcement to me as he made it.
He rang the little bell that he always kept near him when he was in the house. That was the signal for Ephraim.
“Yes, ol’ mars’er.”
“Find your Mars’ Nicholas and fetch him here. I wish to speak with him.”
He sat on the porch, and Uncle Ephraim and I were soon standing near him, I in front, the old servant behind him.
“Nicholas, my son, I have not had a chance to speak to your mother. But I wish you to go for a year at least to Harvard College. Do you hear me, Ephraim ? ”
“Yes, mars’, — whar’s dat?”
“Or to some such place at a distance, to look at our whole country. We live in a distracted corner of it. Judge Ross often said that to me. The great men of my time traveled.”
He stopped a moment. Then he said: “Ephraim, I wish to change my will. When I have seen your mother,” turning to me, “I wish to sell the share of the land that will go to your father’s estate when I die, and I wish you to travel and study with the money.”
“Sell de lan’, mars’er?”
“After that you can settle down with some knowledge of our whole country.”
“Dere '11 be less lan’, ol’ mars’er, atter you sell some.”
“Does this plan please you?”
My grandfather dropped his turkeywing fan over the banister, and Ephraim went to pick it up, saying to himself: —
“Don’ like dat sellin’ ob de lan’.”
“When Mr. Clay was here,” —my grandfather said; but Ephraim interrupted him.
“Is he libin’ yit?”
“His spirit must live, Ephraim.”
“Speerits o’ jus’ men made parfect,” said the old negro.
“As I was saying, the great things now going on in the world are going on elsewhere, not here. The war broke off our thought.”
“Glad Mars’ Nick gwine whar he want ter go, but I don’ like dat sellin’ ob de lan’.”
And the old man arose by Ephraim’s help and mine and walked in to supper.
I was busy wondering what Harvard College could do for me. I knew nothing about it. It was only a name. But it appealed at least to my spirit of intellectual adventure.