THE “SCRUB” PARTY
DURING the winter that I taught at the university many things had happened in the state. The country folk had become dissatisfied with the management of the political bosses. A farmers’ movement, which had had for its purpose the then impossible task of improving the farmers’ condition, had been diverted into a political movement. There was a blind feeling, which grew stronger under formulation and agitation, that the Colonels and the town lawyers who were dominant in politics were in some way to blame for the hard times. Without clear reasoning, but instinctively, the country folk were beginning to rise.
One incident of the legislative session gave an interesting glimpse of the popular mood. Professor Billy, who never yet put his hand to a plough and turned back, again came bravely forward with his plan to establish a free state college for women. The committees expected to pigeonhole the bill, as they had done before. But the forces in favor of the plan had received noteworthy reinforcement. A public hearing was so loudly demanded of the committee that a day was set when the committeemen would hear discussion of it. The committee room was overcrowded before the hour. More and more people came, women as well as men. The majority of the members of the legislature were there.
The committee was obliged to conduct its hearing in the House of Representatives. First a Colonel spoke against the measure. Then a leader of the new Farmers’ party spoke in favor of it. Next came a woman, a country school-teacher, whose earnestness made a profound impression. “The lonely and neglected women of our remote counties,” she said, — “what does the state do for them? What has it ever done for them ? ”
I heard her speech. It was a strange sight to see a woman speak there at all; but for that reason it was the more impressive. And I have never heard a more pathetic appeal. It stirred many men to tears.
Professor Billy’s ruddy, manly, huge cheeks were damp when he arose. With a thunder of indignation he turned on the suave lawyer who had declared that any girl who wished to be educated could now go to some of the “female seminaries;” and he had the eloquence of a prophet.
“ Here is the proof of your error, — your hindering and cruel error, your stifling and deadly mistake, — proof of the suffocating lie that the young women of the commonwealth have a fair chance.” He read figures of the illiteracy of women in the counties where he had traveled. “ Are we sunk so low that we deny the very beginnings of civilization to our women,— we, who boast of our chivalry ? Consider these country girls of whom I have told you. Are they not comely? Are they not capable ? Yet we leave every one of them to become the mother of ignorant children, who in turn will have ignorant children.
“I appeal to the state, to every man and woman in it, in their behalf; and, when every man and woman hears their appeal, the horrid lie that we have cherished can no longer prevail. Too poor to educate these young women ? We are too poor to neglect them. Neglect of them has made us poor; and it is a measure and a badge of the poverty of our thought, of our sympathy, of human brotherhood, of our civilization.”
The school was won.
A governor was to be elected in the fall, and the Farmers’ party had gained courage. They threatened to make an alliance with the Republicans; and the dominant politicians became anxious. If the coalition should find good leaders, it would have a fair chance of success. Into the midst of this unusual political stir I awoke from my academic dream. It was really a social revolt against the Confederate Colonels and the Daughters, but it was never expressed in social terms. I became more and more interested, — at first as a spectator. But a man cannot long be a mere spectator in a general struggle.
The Democratic “ring” learned no wisdom. They made cut-and-dried nominations of the most objectionable sort. There were quick rumblings of dissent. The Farmers had waked up. But they were not willing to become Republicans. That meant something disreputable to them.
About that time there was a meeting of the Sunrise Club to congratulate Professor Billy on his election as the president of the new college for women that was to be built immediately. The half-dozen of us went to the rendezvous in a congratulatory mood. We had no other thought than to make a hero of Professor Billy that night, and to pledge him our help.
But the talk turned on the political situation, and one man’s thought fired another’s. By midnight we had written a call for an educational convention; and the people were asked to send delegates to consider what was the wisest course to pursue with reference to the building up of schools for the whole people.
The dissatisfied were waiting for a rallying cry, — any rallying cry. There was a surprising response, in spite of the ridicule that most of the newspapers heaped on the call. We were obliged to make a definite programme,—to make a “slate,” in fact; and we made it. We were unwilling to “bolt” the Democratic party; but we were determined to make an educational protest. When the little convention assembled, it was a hard task to prevent the aroused and indignant countrymen from putting forth a long declaration of belligerent “principles.” No doubt they were right, and we were cowardly. But they were at last satisfied with demanding some economic nonsense for the farmers,and we were satisfied with demanding the election of a man as Superintendent of Public Instruction who favored free education for all the people.
Professor Billy was the man to nominate — clearly. He had been born for this very part. He could win. He could bring things to pass after he had won; he was the natural leader. But he was inflexible. He was now a servant of the state — the president of a state institution which he had called into existence after years of hard work. If he should give up this task, it would fail, even yet. The upshot was that, after a deal of talk, I was selected as the candidate to be presented to the convention; and the convention nominated me.
I felt dazed and uncertain. The educational platform of this protesting party, which was at once nicknamed the “Scrub,” was a sound one. But the rest of the platform was nonsense. It was the countrymen’s ignorant protest against the townsmen, expressed in economic fallacies. I contented myself with the part of the platform that concerned me; and, although I still had grave doubts of the wisdom of the movement, I accepted the nomination. The purpose — my purpose — was clear and right. The education of all the people and the establishment of an agricultural and mechanical school, —for these measures I was willing to stand in any company and to fight any battle. The plan to lend public money to farmers who should store their cotton as security, — that was a crazy notion; yet probably more men would vote for me because of this project than because of any interest in schools. In doing the rough work of a democracy we cannot choose our tools.
And there was no other tool than this rump party. The Republican leaders were wholly disreputable. They kept their organization for the sole purpose of trading (for profit) in Federal offices. A Republican leader would secure the appointment of a postmaster — for a part of the postmaster’s salary. Delegates (most of them negroes) would go to national conventions to sell their votes. There was no hope of a party with such leaders or such followers. The party of the Colonels and the Daughters was better than that.
But the Republican state convention met the next week; and, after nominating Republicans for every other office, they endorsed me as the candidate for Superintendent of Public Instruction. I did not formally accept the nomination. I said simply that I was an independent candidate for an office that had nothing to do with national party doctrines; that I stood for a clear-cut plan of building up our own people, and that I should be glad to receive the votes of men of any party. But I was regarded as the candidate of the “Scrubs” and of the Republicans. This brought a certain social penalty. I had been cast out of good political society, and the Colonels and the Daughters were confirmed in their opinion that I was a “ traitor to our people.” My political conduct had justified my dismissal from the university. My brother said that I was right and brave, but foolish. Ihad thrown away all my chances in the future, academic or political. “ You will do good, be beaten, and finally, I am afraid, will have to leave the state to find a career.”
My youthful dream had been to “serve my country.” But the chance had come to me not by my planning, but by the very kicks of fortune. I had been kicked by my enemies into the position in which I found myself. But, beside my friends of the Sunrise Club, especially Professor Billy and my brother, I had now found another counselor.
It is impossible to explain the complex life of the South at this time; and I know not what incidents to select to illustrate it. But at least this story inside my own story must be told.
Ten years before, in the turbulent times in Virginia, a man of many accomplishments, who had served as a Confederate soldier and come out of the war with one leg, had bravely taken up his profession as a lawyer, which he had been about to enter upon when the war began. He had then just married a lady in Philadelphia, and both families were reasonably wealthy. The young wife lived through the suspense and the excitement of the war; but when peace came both she and her husband, though still young in years, were old. He decided that his duty was to take up his career where war had interrupted it, — not to change the plan of his life at all. They had two children, a boy of four and a girl who was born on the very day that General Lee surrendered to General Grant. This baby—they named her Lee — came with the coming of peace and of poverty.
Helped by his wife’s kinspeople, this heroic man — for he had stern stuff in him — fitted up his home comfortably. (It had been turned into a hospital for a year.) He began life again bravely. The struggle of the next few years was just beginning to show hope of a modest living, when his wound began to give him trouble. Bad surgery made it worse; and within a year it resulted in his death.
His wife, now cared for by her kinspeople, went to Philadelphia; but so strange and strong is the comradeship of sorrow that she never felt at home there. In the course of time she inherited a small fortune and returned to Virginia; for she wished her children to be educated there, — this in loyalty to their father. Such a wearing loyalty — for life was as hard as it was sorrowfully sweet — made her gray; and after a few more years she died.
So far there had been tragedy enough. But the bitterest tragedy was just beginning. The boy was at college. There he must remain. The girl was put to school near by. These two came very close together in their orphaned sorrow. He fell under the influence of one of the few really thorough scholars in the South; and this man’s influence turned him to an academic career. He must go to one of the German universities to complete his linguistic studies. His serious academic purpose was shared and caught by his sister, and she was sent to one of the best colleges for women “in the North.”
Both came back to Virginia to decide where they should live. He was offered an appointment in the faculty of the university where I taught history; and I found him there, struggling between loyalty and freedom.
His sister had taught for a year in a school for girls in Philadelphia. “But why,” she asked, “should I teach girls in Philadelphia ? There are thousands of women who can do that as well as I. But in the South, where there is a pathetic need of teachers, none can do it so well as we who were born here.”
In this mood she came to visit her brother. He felt suppressed, smothered, yet eager to clear the atmosphere; and they found such support in each other’s companionship that she spent most of the year with him. Could they ever work to complete freedom of thought and speech and action in that atmosphere ? Or must they go away ? Which was their first duty, — their duty to themselves and their own growth, or their duty to “the South”?
Many a man and woman of their generation led that same life of exhausting self-examination and debate. Some went away, and were never quite happy, feeling that they had shirked a duty. Some remained, and lost their intellectual ambitions in the surrounding inertia. Some rebelled and sacrificed themselves. The majority compromised their ambitions with the homely good qualities of Southern life, and lived at peace with their neighbors. For to them that are of it there has always been a charm in Southern life, a charm that those who are not born to it probably never understand. It is “home.” The call of duty to build up this home was the strongest impulse that could be felt by any Southern man or woman of that generation.
Thus it happened that I came to know Miss Lee Talcott. She was a part of the revolt in which I was now engaged; and she became my best counselor.
“With all my heart I congratulate you, us all,and the State,” she had telegraphed me as soon as she heard of my nomination; and afterwards she had said: “Fight it out. Win ? We are sure to win. Have you not said a thousand times that you believe that the people’s instincts are right, that some day they will push their way upward ? This is the day. They have needed leadership. They now have a leader. All that we have longed for is coming to pass.”
A WOBBLING PLANET
Well, the contest promptly began. In a land that never tires of oratory, and where all men are orators, leadership must be won by public speaking. I spent four months making speeches. I went to every part of the State. Sometimes I made three speeches a day, six days a week. How I enjoyed it! You may say what you will, there are few sensations more pleasant than the sensation of delivering an earnest and apparently a convincing speech; nor is there any other instrument of persuasion so direct or so powerful. Those who think that, the day of the orator is past know nothing of our democracy, and live far from the people.
My disappointment was great, during the early days of the summer, to discover that most of my audiences were negroes. I was regarded by them as the nominee of their party; and the Democratic leaders had sent out requests to discourage the whites from hearing me. “Let him train with radicals and niggers, — that’s where he belongs.” I was waited upon by negro delegations and asked what I proposed to do “for the race.”
Now I had no false sentiment about the negro. I am sure of that. It seemed to me that the “problem” was far less difficult than it had been represented. Here was a mass of ignorant folk. O God! if they had never been brought here! Their unwilling coming was the cause of all our woes. It was the one structural error made by the fathers when they laid the wide arches of our freedom. But our duty seemed to me plain. They are here. They must be trained to usefulness.
“You, too,” I said to them, “must, have agricultural and trade schools; and I will do my best to provide them for you. The public schools for your children must be made as good and as practical as possible. The public-school money must be spent fairly on your schools, spent in proportion to the children of school age, without regard to race.”
This was no new doctrine. Many a Colonel had said the same thing to many an audience of negroes before. But there was this difference: the Colonels had not meant what they said; I meant it every word, and everybody knew that I meant it. The Democratic press and the Democratic speakers at once let loose a flood of personal abuse. “The nigger professor” they called me, “with a plan to educate the blacks and put them above the whites.” Everywhere these formulas were repeated— “ to put the blacks above the whites;” “to put the bottom rail on top;” “to subvert Anglo-Saxon civilization.” One caricature represented me teaching history to a class of negro boys. It was labeled, “What our university would become.” Another represented me as building a fence. As the bottom rail I had put down a white man, a one-armed Confederate veteran; and the top rail was a grinning negro.
Nevertheless, in spite of this ridicule and of bitter misrepresentations, the white country people did not forget that I stood for the education of their neglected sons and daughters. Some of them thought, too, that I would in some way bring about the building of public warehouses where they could receive cash for their cotton. Whatever their reasons were, they came in increasing numbers to hear my speeches. During the last month, my campaign was beginning to have effect. Frequent predictions were made that I should be elected; and the Democratic managers became alarmed.
One day there appeared this inquiry in one of the religious weekly papers, published at the capital, in the form of a letter from a distant town: —
“ To THE EDITOR OF THE REFLECTOR:
“ There is a rumor here that one of the nigger-loving candidates on the state ticket has put into practice already his social equality creed. Give us the facts.”
The editor published the note under this headline:—
“ TO WHOM DOES THIS REFER ? ”
The letter and the headline were copied the next day in the daily paper, and for three or four successive days. Then an editorial appeared saying that the inquiry ought to be followed further. That was all.
But by this time all the Democratic papers in the state had published paragraphs about it; and gossip had been very active. Almost every man in the state had learned the story which had been set going, by word of mouth, from the Democratic headquarters. It was this: —
Colonel Doak, the chairman of the Democratic committee, had said in his drawling way to his fellows, “Gentlemen, we’ve got to look after this young Worth — Niggerlas Worth. Old Johnson whom we are runnin’ against him is more ’n half fool an’ he ain’t boldin’ up his en’ o’ the campaign. Reckon it’s about time we were fixin’ Niggerlas.”
“ What can we do ? ” they asked.
“ I have n’t spent much thought on it,” said the Colonel. “But I ’ll throw out an idea and see if you catch it.. His grandfather’s old place, you know, is just out of town here a few miles. Now they tell me that there’s a mighty likely yaller woman there who has a still yallerer baby; and young Niggerlas has been known to spend the night there — the night there in the house with niggers, mind you. An’ if you want to work up the public feelin’ a little more, you can get a tassel to the story. The last night he stayed there, they tell me, he quarreled with the woman and beat her over the head so that her beauty is gone. My authority for this part of the story is Pompey, the barber. Pompey says this is what the niggers in Egypt say.”
“Oh, Colonel! ” protested one member of the committee, “I don’t think we want to bring the campaign down to this level. Do spare us this.”
“ And get beat ? ” replied Colonel Doak. “ What are we here for, to conduct a ladylike campaign, or to win?”
The committee discouraged it. But the Colonel became more and more alarmed; and mysterious letters of inquiry about the candidate who had the habit of spending nights in negro houses appeared more often in the newspapers. At last the Colonel gave the word. He had a long conference with Captain Locke, the editor of the principal paper. The story was to be written as hearsay. I was not to be directly accused; but I was to be called on to explain the rumor.
The editor and the Colonel worked on the story for a day or two; and at last they had it in proof sheets to their satisfaction. “ It ’ll put all the women against him,” said the Colonel, “and no man can win in the state with that handicap.”
I then knew nothing of all this. But a rumor of the campaign bomb that was about to be exploded spread through political circles. It reached Professor Billy. Instantly—for he acted while other men took time to think — he telegraphed Captain Locke to hold that story till he could see him; and he took the first train to the capital. He told the editor that he knew it to be a lie.
“We ’ll merely print a rumor. He can defend himself, if he has a defense.”
“But such a lie as this always sticks.”
Professor Billy was not content with his interview with the editor. He drove to the Old Place and saw Uncle Ephraim. He told the old man the whole story.
“Dey lie ’bout Mars’ Nick,” he said. “Dat young Tom Warren what used to come here to shoot — he’s de daddy o’ dat chile.”
Professor Billy drove back to the city and just at night found Tom Warren.
“Warren,” he said, “I ’ve an unpleasant story to tell you. The News in the morning will accuse Nick Worth of being the father of the child of a woman who lives at his grandfather’s place. You, and you alone, can stop the story.”
Tom paced the floor and said, “O God! Billy, Nick Worth always fought fair — did n’t he ?”
“Well, then, this is n’t fair. Come with me.”
They went to see Captain Locke.
“Captain,” said Tom, “I am told that you will accuse Nick Worth of the paternity of a colored child.”
“I shall not accuse him. I shall simply publish the rumor.”
“The lie, you mean.”
“ He can defend himself. Besides, why make such a fuss about it ? I ’ll tell you, gentlemen,” the captain went on after a moment’s pause, “we ’re too squeamish in this campaign. We deserve to get beaten. I care nothing about Worth’s living with niggers or doing what he pleases. What’s that to me ? But I’m here to win this campaign; and what’s the nigger for but to make campaign use of ? Why do you come to inquire about this?”
“Because it’s a lie.”
“I will prove it. I will stand up and swear that I am the father of that child, and clear Worth. Now if you wish to deal me this blow, I suppose T can’t help it. That’s all I have to say.”
Tom fought fair. As soon as I heard this story, I went to him and told him so. The story was never published.
When I next saw Professor Billy he had a new epigram. “A gentleman is a man who fights fair.”
The election day came and I was elected. Nobody had any doubt of that. But riots at the polls were provoked in several negro counties ; the count of the ballots was confused; they were thrown out; and some of the boxes were destroyed. My opponent took the office.
Some months afterwards when I met Colonel Doak, he was in a very good humor. “Worth,” said he, “I ’m afraid our boys ran you pretty hard on that nigger business. Don’t take it to heart. Now you ’re beat, stay in the fold. Nobody cares a damn about the nigger — except for campaign purposes. But you can’t ever buck against the Anglo-Saxon — see ? That ’ll down the Radicals every time. You’d better come back to the party where you belong. This is the advice of an old campaigner.”
“The nigger,” said the Colonel on another occasion, —“I’m sorry for him. The Democrat in the South uses him to hold on to his political power, and the Republican in the North uses him for the same purpose. He is used to fire the heart of the North and to fire the heart of the South; and he never gets paid for being a bogy.”
When all the wrangle about the ballots had passed and the election that had been won had been snatched from us, I was at the home of my friend and of his sister, now my betrothed.
“What’s the use?” we asked one another. “ We won it and we have nothing but the humiliation of having been cheated. The suffrage is a fraud as long as such a thing can happen.” Armed revolution, if that were possible, seemed the only remedy for wrongs like these.
We decided, on that despondent evening —all three of us — to go away — to seek careers (it was not yet too late) in the West. There was no hope if the very ballot-boxes were stolen. We would at once set about making inquiries and plan quietly to go away. I was weary — wearier than I had ever been, weary for the first time with despair. A man can fight and be beaten and fight again with good courage, if he keep hope. But when all hope is gone, he cannot fight on. For my part, I had done my duty. I would now give it up.
Yet, at that very time, the cotton bolls were white. Ill as men cultivated it, ill as they picked and packed and sent it to mill or market, its bolls were opening in the autumn sunlight, white with a harvest richer than any other land can yield. And the little river that turned our mills flowed on. These two forces of nature—the maturing of the cotton and the flow of the falling water — meant more than the changing game of politics and the crime of stealing ballot-boxes.
It soon came to me that my brother, after an outburst of indignation, thought little of the whole adventure of my political summer. That was a mere episode. It had come; it had passed; it had failed. The mill never failed — its activity was incessant. The demand for cotton cloth would never cease. Here was the difference between a babbling battle of effort and slander and the productive work of a man who had to do with a fundamental task of civilization.
It came to me, too, that Professor Billy had not had an interruption in the building of his college for women. He had planned the buildings; he had seen them rise; he had selected his faculty; he had made ready for the coming of the young women for whom he had worked and talked all these years; and there they were —hundreds of them, — glad, as he had said they would be, to be taught. He, too, had gone down deep — far beneath the babble of a campaign — and had laid the foundation of permanently useful work. These men were doing the real work of the commonwealth, and they felt no discouragement. I had, at best, been talking. I seemed to have done nothing.
It was the coming back to the soil,— the soil that would forever grow cotton,— and to the people, the women of the country, who would ever look upward for help and who would through endless generations become the mothers of children,— it was the coming back to these that restored a right view of the problem. But, so far, my efforts to serve my country still found my country without apparent wish for my service. The world, true as it swung on its axis, still wobbled under my feet.
WITH AGAMEMNON BY THE SEA
But I was tired, and there was no reason why I should not rest. I needed to go away for a time. Old Uncle Ephraim sent me word that he was “mighty poo’ly.” Aunt Martha had died this fall. I must go and see the old man, perhaps for the last time. I found him feeble, but still “game.” He kept his spirits well. He talked of “ol’ Marser.” He reminded me that I was the head of the family and that I ought to marry. When I told him that I should soon do so, he said reverently, “ May de good Lord save me to see de young missus!”
Nor did he seem to lay much stress on my defeat. He did not clearly understand how I had been cheated. He knew simply that I had not won. “Did n’ Mars’ Henry Clay git beat sometimes?” he asked. Such illustrious companionship in defeat ought to take the sting away. The trouble with me was, I reflected that night as I went to bed again in the old parlor, that I had n’t a cotton mill, nor a school for women, nor an old man’s wisdom; and I fell to sleep thinking of Professor Billy’s definition of a gentleman. Tom Warren fought fair. But was he playing fair with his own child? When the old man should die, what would become of this “family”?
The next morning the thought came to me to go to the seashore at Valtona, and to take Uncle Ephraim with me on a vacation. Valtona was a quiet place of pine forest that sloped down to the sea, in an adjacent state. There was a hotel there and about it in the forest a number of huts called cottages. The well-to-do old ladies and gentlemen of these slates went there for a peaceful period before they died.
The old man was willing to go. He had never seen the ocean. He had never been on so long a journey. The idea quite took possession of me — to go off on a vacation with Uncle Ephraim. He asked many profound questions while he was getting ready. That afternoon we drove to the city and in another day we were at Valtona.
“How I gwine ter live dar?” Uncle Ephraim had asked.
“You are my servant, Uncle Ephraim.”
“ ’Cose I is. Dat’s what I aliens been, Mars’ Nick, and de servant o’ your pa afore you and o’ his pa afore him. But dat ain’t er answerin’ my question. I means what sort o’ place dey got fer ol’ niggers lak me ter sleep?”
“ Uncle Ephraim, I’m going to tell you now. You are going to sleep in the room next to my room. A waiter is going to bring your meals to you, and I am going to wait on you myself. I am bringing you down here to rest. When you feel like it, you can go out and walk under the pines; or you and I will go and look at the ocean. We ’ll have nothing to do. You ’ll have nothing to do. They shall wait on you as they wait on any other old gentleman, and you shall have what you want, and do as you please.”
“Now dat ’ll be a fine come-off,” said the old man, “a ol’ broke-down nigger and his young marster a-waitin’ on him. Mars’ Nick, you ’se gittin’ frolicsome, you is— thinking ’bout dat young missus, I be bound.”
“But, don’t you forget, you’ve got to be my old servant —my venerable family servant.”
“I ain’t gwine to forgit nothin’,” said the old man with a chuckle.
I engaged a cottage, one in a row. On the left and on the right were old men and old ladies, come to get the early winter air, still soft and full of the resin and of the sea. There were two rooms, — one for me, one for the old man; and I explained that my venerable family servant would perhaps not be able to go out the next day. His meals must be brought to him.
I made him stay in bed the next morning till I went to breakfast. But, when I came back, he was up. An officious negro boy presently brought his breakfast. The old man looked at him and said, “You ain’t use’ to waitin’on ol’ niggers, is yer ? ” When the boy had gone, he said, “ Dat’s a town nigger,all starch’up — no ’count.”
I spread the table and put the breakfast on it and served him, much to his amusement. He regarded it as a great joke, but it gave him pleasure to humor me. “Mars’ Nick, you sho’ is frolicsome.”
The old times — the old times — over and over again he told me of my grandfather — of his marriage, of his adventures, of good fortune and bad. Old Ephraim had never seen the problem of which he was a part. Again I saw how my own activity was only superficial.
But another pleasure awaited me at Valtona. Professor Murphy, my old teacher in Greek, now growing old, was there. I had not seen him since I had left college. He hardly knew that I had been engaged in a great campaign. He made a passing and jocular allusion to it one day; but we habitually talked of more serious things. Of course we came back to our Greek authors. He had a Homer with him. I found, to my great delight, that with a little practice I could read it.
I told Uncle Ephraim the story of the Iliad. I saw that parts of it were confused in his mind with stories that he had heard of the civil war. But most of it he regarded as an invention of my own. Professor Murphy had not seen the old man, till one day I walked with Uncle Ephraim to the professor’s cottage. Both were old, gray, and venerable. Both had seen and suffered much. The professor was the more learned, of course, but Ephraim was the wiser. Both were gentle now — both gentlemen too. Finer manners no men ever had.
“Professor Murphy,” said I, bowing low, “I introduce to you mighty Agamemnon.”
“Yo’ humble sarvant, sah,” said Ephraim.
“I am glad to welcome your shade to these shades,” gravely answered the professor. Ephraim bowed low, very low, as if he were performing a religious ceremony, and said nothing.
“Now, professor,” said I, “I propose that you make a plan here in the sand with your cane of the windy plain of Troy, of the seacoast, and of the city; and Agamemnon will tell us whether we have a correct notion of that mighty struggle.”
Well, we played there half the day — these two old men and I; and Uncle Ephraim remarked as we came away, “Mars’ Nick, you sho’ is frolicsome today. But what’s dat ar ’Memnon you tell de gem’man I was? You oughtn’t ter mislead a ol’ man lak dat. You know I ’se allers been a Baptis’.”
I think that nobody now complained that I was “practicing social equality.” The campaign had passed. Besides, we were in another state. But I wondered whether a correspondent of Captain Locke’s paper might not amuse himself or herself by writing a letter about me. And sure enough, this very thing happened. But the letter was a surprise and a joy. I was discovered after a turbulent and misdirected and fortunately unsuccessful campaign — so the letter ran — in this quiet place, in the company of my old teacher, the learned and venerable Professor Murphy; and Professor Murphy and I were spending our time reading the Greek authors! Then followed half a column of feminine eulogy of the scholarship of the Southern Gentleman. In his relaxation, he did not go to Saratoga or Newport and lead a frivolous life, but sought quiet, and communed with the eternal youths of the ancient world. Then came another half column in praise of my own scholarly habits. Not a word about Agamemnon or old Ephraim or our living in the same house.
I feared these Greeks, bringing gifts. But that was because I had for a moment forgotten the oratorical habit of mind — of either sex. It was only a pretty piece of newspaper oratory in praise of the Southern people and their scholarly habits!
This insincerity of the oratorical mind — Ido not know whether it, too, be a product of slavery — this it is that makes me hopeless. The newspaper opposition to me during the campaign was not sincere. It was professional. Everybody knew that I had never thought for a moment of proposing or of practicing “the social equality of the races;” yet men (thousands of men) voted against me and thousands of women regarded me as a sort of social ogre, because these oratorical phrases about “social equality,” “white supremacy,” the “bottom rail on top” and the like, were repeated thousands of times. As soon as I was defeated, by fair means or foul, my “social equality” was no longer subversive of society, even though, perhaps, I was not quite forgiven. And now a casual remark, made no doubt by Professor Murphy, about our reading Homer, provoked an equally insincere eulogy of me for accomplishments that I did not have. A month ago I was a vile enemy of social order. Now I was a scholarly ornament of society!
And it became plainer and plainer to me that there was nothing real in the oratorical zone of Southern life. The real things were these pines and the sea, these two old men, my brother’s work and the cotton fields, Professor Billy and his college for girls, — a college that was to be outside the oratorical zone of life.
Weeks passed. Uncle Ephraim was becoming stronger, and I was becoming wiser. One day a letter came that made me wiser still, and sadder too,—and yet glad. My cousin Margaret was soon to marry the young clergyman of eloquent prayers for the Daughters. He had lately been chosen as bishop coadjutor. Nothing could be more fit. He was of the level of the Daughters and the Daughters were his flock. I wrote them both a congratulatory letter, wondering whether good Dr. Denson saw far enough beyond the cases of individual suffering that he gave his life to relieving, to understand the soft decline that awaited his family; for he was a very real man.
I was vain enough to say to my old philosopher, “Uncle Ephraim, I once came near marrying a young lady who was too soft.”
“ ’Fore God, Mars’ Nick, ’t ain’t de bony ones you likes best, is it?”
And another letter came that was wholly sad. Why was so much news from home sent by letter that might have been told me? Was I drifting away from my own people, so that they preferred to write to me rather than to talk to me ? This letter was from my sister, giving her final decision to go to China as a missionary.
Again the ancient trail of the Negro! But for slavery and its moral blight, lingering long after, she might have been happily married to a man who, whatever his shortcomings, was a gentleman, for he always fought fair. Now she was banished, by her conscience and her piety, from a woman’s right life to a career that was to me infinitely sad because it was futile, and she had been brought to it by the theologically oratorical view of living. My protest had come too late; but I would at least go home.
Agamemnon and I left the good professor, wh o was not growing stronger. We left him to die, and we came back to the real world, — I to make my decision whither I should go, and old Ephraim to spend a little while longer above ground at the Old Place, now become very lonesome even to him.
IN THE ORATORICAL ZONE
I spent one day in the city, and every one I met spoke about my scholarly diversion. You might have thought that I was a distinguished Hellenist in a community where scholarship gave one supreme distinction. The unreality of the whole incident saddened me, not only because of the oratorical absurdity of the praise, but also because not a man who spoke to me could read a word of Greek or cared a fig that he could n’t. Yet for some strange reason the silly newspaper letter about me had become the talk of the whole town.
Though I had made up my mind to emigrate, I could not easily decide whither. It seemed to me necessary to escape this overwhelming unreality — the oratorical insincerity that met me at every turn. Yet I had no profession. I was not a teacher. I was not a public servant. I was fitted for — what? That was the real puzzle. Suppose I should go to some community where things were what they seemed, what should I do ?
While I was pondering my own deficiencies as well as the deficiencies of the community, several surprising things happened. The whole Democratic state ticket had been declared elected; but a majority of the Legislature had been won by the “Scrubs” and the Republicans. In many counties the countrymen who wanted governmental cotton warehouses and better schools for their children had elected men of their own kind to the Legislature.. We were to have a rump, “scrub” Legislature. What on earth would it do? It could not build cotton warehouses. But would it build schools ? My brother laughed and said: “It doesn’t matter much. They can’t do worse than the regulars have done.”
I wrote to Professor Billy: “Now, are you willing to take your chances with this crew ? ” His answer was an unhesitating “Yes, I’m satisfied and hopeful.”
But the Legislature was a tame surprise in comparison with a letter that I read in the News, Captain Thorne’s paper, over this long signature, “ Let us be True to the South.” This letter was provoked by the death of an important American consular officer in Greece, a Southern man. The writer went on to say that, of course, no Democrat could hope to receive the appointment to succeed the dead man: that a Southern man ought to have it; that our State had a most distinguished Greek scholar who would perhaps be acceptable to the Republican administration at Washington, and so on and so on. My name was not called in the letter, but the writer used the same silly phrases that I had heard ever since I came home from Valtona. The next day the editor formally nominated me. In a few days came a letter from Professor Murphy, advising me to seek the appointment and saying that he had written to both United States senators from my state. One of them was then in Washington. The next surprise was a telegram from him saying that he had made an appointment with the President for me.
In a dazed mood I went to Washington. I discovered that within a week I had been recommended to the vacant place by the Republican leaders of the state and by both Democratic senators, the like of which had never happened before. I could not explain it. The senators’ cordiality was as fluent as their abuse of me had been a few months before.
I was a novice in politics; and it was not till I had gone to bed after I had found out all these surprising things that a rational explanation of them occurred to me. I had myself been living in a rhetorical atmosphere. These political gentlemen, of course, wished me to leave my country for — their own good. This was a pleasant way to give me a political vacation. Yet this view of their sudden fondness for me seemed absurd, for I was not dangerous: I was going away of my own will. But they did not know that.
My perplexity increased until I got up from bed and wrote two telegrams — one to Miss Talcott and the other to Professor Billy. I asked their advice, and I requested immediate answers, for I should see the President at noon the next day.
The telegrams were no sooner gone than I wished that I had not sent them. To go to Greece — with her. Why should I spurn such a gift of the gods as this, even if it came from men who imagined that they were punishing me ? Why should I care for their motives? Why should I not read Greek literature in fact, in days of happiness by the Ægean itself ? And I was tired — infinitely and endlessly tired of the insincerity of the life about me. I could yet become a scholar; and, many as are the ways in which man has found joy in a world that is tolerable despite disappointments, in none has he found a keener joy than in living with the great Greeks. And to go with her!
I rang the bell for a boy. “Yes, sir,” he said, “dem telegrams done gone long ago.”
“No matter,” I said as I fell asleep with a double dream of happiness, “I ’ll go, whatever they say.”
But I awoke in doubt. Go away of my own accord, I might. But was it not cowardly to be driven by one’s enemies ? Might I not save the state yet?
Lee’s answer came first;—“Greece is a glorious dream. But more glorious is your duty at home. Refuse.”
And Professor Billy: “ I wrote you yesterday by no means go away now. Never do what the enemy wishes. Besides, we need you. A thousand times, No.”
It was an odd brief interview that I had with the President; for, of course, the appointment had to be kept. The senator was disappointed and angry. He asked me, with an oath, what he could say to the President in such a predicament. It was plain that he thought that I had made a fool of him, and perhaps I had. I tried to explain to him that I had been obliged, since I had seen him the day before, to change my plans.
He told the President, in an awkward way, that I had received “important business information that very morning” which made my “presence at home imperative for the next year.” He went on with his pompous lie; “Mr. Worth belongs, Mr. President, to one of our most important manufacturing families, a family of large interests.” I recovered my breath, made a lame apology (the senator had already withdrawn what he called my application), and we came away. It was very awkward. I felt guilty of a sort of discourtesy. For a moment, I wished again to change my mind. But the senator’s glib lie (to which he never alluded afterwards) came into my mind,and I felt that I had done wisely by not doing what he wished, no matter what that might be. With another apology I left him, to continue to be, as Colonel Doak afterwards expressed it, “an ungrateful fool in spite of forgiving friends.”
Gradually my vision became clearer. If I had accepted a consular appointment, I should have been regarded as having committed myself to the local Republican machine; and that I was not willing to do.
All the while I was obliged to observe the successful career of my brother. He did not bother himself about politics or learning. For the river ever ran, and every year the cotton ripened and was gathered for his spindles and looms. The river and the white fields made a world as real as my world of futile effort had been artificial. But that was his career, not mine; that was his happy temperament, not mine. The more unfortunate all this was for me. But I was sometimes cheered and sometimes amused by the real deference that he paid me, as if he would say by his manner, “You can fight and win a great battle for us all. I only spin and weave and make money to be spent for higher things.” And all the while he (and perhaps he only) was safely anchored to definite usefulness. For Cotton was king, and was every year taking a more surely royal place in the world. And the South had a practical monopoly of it.
IN IGNORANCE OF OURSELVES
My own pitiful indecision — was it the result of a misdirected education, of heredity, of temperament, or of the times ? — for men, when they cannot curse other things, have always cursed the times they lived in. Was it, in fact, not a part of the Southern miseducation ? Had I not been guilty myself of acting a sort of “ oratorical ” part ? A teacher, twice dismissed; a political rider — for a fall; an undecided “applicant” for an office which I would not have; and now what ? But for the cotton and the river and my brother, how should I even have had a modest living?
But there was a great task for somebody to do. I knew that, clouded as my vision was. I had had glimpses of it everywhere,— in my early school experience, in my short college experience, in my “bishop’s” work, — surely I was clearsighted then,—and again in my political effort. But it was hard to formulate,— this high duty, — in terms of my own activity, when there was nothing to do.
Light came in the end. After I was married (for why should I miss or postpone this happiness, which was certain ? and we were married and went to live in the little university village) — after I was married, that very winter, I took up the task of writing a short history of the state; and I at once began to make almost startling discoveries.
First, I found out that I knew nothing about the history of the state. Secondly, I found out that nobody else knew more than I did. Traditions had long been accepted as facts. The condition of society “ before the war ” was thought, even by men whose lives ran back into that period, to be very different from what it really was. A few phrases about “cavaliers” and “great, planters” had made a picture in the popular mind that, so far as this state was concerned, was wholly untrue. The prevalent notion of the civil war, fostered by the Daughters, was erroneous. The real character even of General Lee was misrepresented. His name was worshiped; but his opinions were misunderstood and had been curiously distorted.
What I discovered was that the people did not know their own history; that they had accepted certain oft-repeated expressions about it as facts; and that the practical denial of free discussion of certain subjects had deadened research and even curiosity to know the truth. Yet the story of the state and of the people was as interesting as the story of the people in any other part of the Union.
Then it was that I saw clearly. I was sure that, if I could write this story forcibly and well, they would read it. I should again bring the people to themselves; for slavery, by forbidding free inquiry and free discussion on certain subjects, had deadened intellectual inquiry into all great subjects. All the other harm that slavery had done was as nothing compared with this intellectual harm. The loss of men, the loss of property, the stagnation of industry — all these could and would be repaired or replaced by time. But a free intellectual life, and only this, could bring us into our real heritage and break down the bars that still separated us from our kinspeople in the Northern States. The oratorical habit of mind, the false basis of opinion, the traditions that had taken the place of facts — in a word dead men’s hands — must be put aside if we would once look straight even into the simple story of our state life. I went about this task with a joy that I praise Heaven for.
Meantime many interesting things were happening in the little circle of acquaintances that the reader has made in this narrative.
Old Ephraim had died and he was buried in the garden by his old master. The Old Place was much on my mind. The land was poor. Generations of unscientific culture had left it almost a waste. The house was gone to decay. Strange Negroes lived in the cabins, and in the neighborhood there were few white people. My brother and I bought the groves, the fields, and the forests near by, as well as the old homestead. We had the “old” house tom down, and the “new” house, which also was dilapidated, rebuilt; my grandmother’s garden was put in order, the graves were cared for, the grove of oaks cleaned up, the cabins removed. The old cotton-press, which had been built after a model familiar to the Pharaohs, we allowed to stand. We would save ourselves the reproach of permitting the family homestead to go to decay. The estate could hardly become more than a shooting place for quail; but we could at least think of it without reproach.
The only member of Uncle Ephraim’s family left — for “ Doc ” was never heard of again — was Jane, the very light mulatto whom Aunt Martha had in a way adopted. She was a daughter of an acquaintance of Aunt Martha’s, who had lived on a plantation adjacent to the Old Place, and she came to Aunt Martha and “took up” in the first wandering days of freedom. Jane went to the city — to “Egypt” as the negro portion of the town was called. There her little daughter could attend school, she said.
Professor Billy’s college for women, in one hastily constructed, hideous brick building, opened its doors to a still larger attendance. Never was there a less attractive place to train young women, as it appeared in the newly broken, almost treeless ground outside the village of Centralia. It had been built there for two reasons — the town had given the site and a few thousand dollars, and it was near the centre of the state. There were five members of the faculty. In their enthusiasm for their work — they were fired with an apostolic zeal — the repulsive barren newness of the house, of the rooms, of the flimsy furniture, was forgotten.
Two hundred young women appeared. There was no possible way to keep more than one hundred of them. But there was no difference between “possible” and “impossible” in Professor Billy’s mind. The little bedrooms had been meant each to accommodate two girls. Professor Billy at once bought fifty more beds and put four girls in every room. Still another hundred applied during the next few weeks. They were sent home; but their applications were used to advantage. The Scrub Legislature soon assembled. It turned out that almost every country member of it had sent his daughter or his niece or his granddaughter to Professor Billy’s college. An appropriation, therefore, was easily passed to put up another building and to increase the faculty.
The Scrub Legislature did more than that. It demanded better public schools and changed the tax laws so as to double the sum that had been spent on public education. The people were rising. We had won a great victory toward their awakening. The beginning had come.
Professor Billy wished me to take a place on his faculty,—“any place you please.” I was more eager than he. The pathetic earnestness of these ill-prepared young women — thousands of them would soon come — presented the most interesting aspect of the problem of building up the neglected people of this rural state. But twice I had run foul of the Mighty Dead, and it seemed wise at least to wait.
Moreover, the conviction was already clear that perfect freedom of opinion and of speech could not yet be used by any man who held a public post. Since I was fortunate enough to have a modest income from the mill, was it not my duty to use this financial independence to maintain my intellectual independence, — in a word, to carry out my plan of writing the history of the state, and to tell the whole truth without fear? It so seemed to me. Thus we worked the winter through in the quiet life of the little university village, — the very scene of my dismissal. I had lost no friends at the university itself. In fact, I had the gratification to know that both the faculty and the students wished very much that I were again at work with them.
(To be continued.)