Sunday in Tippah: A Southern Village Twenty-Five Years Ago

ON Sunday the women and children of Tippah, and the older men with the exception of Dr. Courtenay, all go to church. Of the young men, some sit under a big catalpa tree in front of the post-office, when they ought to be holding parasols over their mothers’ or sweethearts’ heads as they tread together the strait and narrow way; others are in a mysterious place called a ‘ blind tiger’, drinking the very bad whiskey for which Prohibition is indirectly responsible. Tippah, I grieve to say, is a ‘dry town,’ and there prevails in it an appalling amount of drunkenness. This statement refers to the men. It is quite safe to say that no woman in Tippah has ever tasted a stronger stimulant than a light, sweet wine, or an egg-nog at Christmas. A woman drinking a cocktail would be regarded there with the same eyes as a woman smoking a cigarette or riding astride; in other words, she would be thought to have ‘unsexed herself,’which is more soul-destroying than the Seven Deadly Sins all put together.

The godless young men who are not in their places when the church-bell rings are looked on with disfavor, but Dr. Courtenay, the idol of the whole village, may do as he pleases, and is above criticism. When a stranger comes to Tippah his host points out Dr. Courtenay with an air that says, ‘Of course you know who he is’; but when the stranger says, ‘Yes?’ in a vague tone, the explanation that follows is given with an eagerness that betrays how great a disappointment would have ensued had there been no necessity for it.

Dr. Courtenay had been sent abroad when he was only sixteen, by his South Carolina parents, who were of a very fine old Huguenot family, — this important detail is never left out, — and had studied in Paris and in Germany for fifteen years. He had all sorts of degrees. He spoke seven languages. He was the third American to make the ascent of Mont Blanc. In the Paris hospitals he had performed the most delicate and difficult operations; his clinics were the talk of the medical world before he was thirty. ‘He will go far,’ had been the prophecy. Then — the War broke out, and he came home to serve his State. He entered the Confederate Army as a surgeon, and after the surrender found himself without home, family, or fortune. His right coat-sleeve dangled empty; the hand that had saved so many lives could not save itself: it had been amputated after Gettysburg, and the story goes that Lee himself—the name is always pronounced slowly and reverently in Tippah — had said, ‘I wish I could give my hand to save yours, Doctor.’ Another loss, equally grave, but less conspicuous, was that of his left lung. It was this trouble that had brought him to Tippah’s mild climate. For nearly twenty years he had lived there alone in his three-room cottage, riding out every day to his little farm, five miles from town, and reading and smoking far into the night. His library was the wonder of Tippah. Books in five languages lined the walls of his house — all in the cheapest bindings, for the Doctor was poor; but, as he used to say, it was the meat in the nut he cared for, not the shell outside. He never practiced medicine, except occasionally among persons too poor to pay for medical advice, or, more frequently, in serious cases when called in consultation. It was known that he had never taken a fee in Tippah. Every one believed implicitly in his skill. It was a common thing to hear it said, after a death, ‘Nothing could have saved him; Dr. Courtenay said so.’

By this time the stranger who has never heard of Dr. Courtenay before, thinks that he has listened long enough to the singing of his praises; but he has to possess his soul in patience while there follows a grave account of Dr. Courtenay’s services during the Fever.

Two events in the history of Tippah stand out in relief, and in the eyes of its inhabitants are more important than all other history from the Creation down to Cleveland’s election. (It will be remembered that I am writing of Tippah in 1885.) These events are the War, and the Yellow-Fever Epidemic of 1878. The story of the War and its consequences has been often told. Tippah suffered more than most places: fifty-two raids were made on this little village; Grant’s army was encamped there on its way to Vicksburg. As everywhere else, fathers and sons, brothers and husbands, laid down their lives for the Cause, and the women were left to weep and work, but not to despair. In the War, Tippah shared the common lot of the whole South; in the Fever, it was devastated by a scourge so deadly, so inexorable, that even the horrors of the battlefield seem by comparison less ghastly.

Like the War, the Fever struck down the men, leaving the women; for the reason that the women and children were sent north, out of danger, as soon as the first cases appeared. The men stayed, to fight it out. They had invited the Fever there, they said, and they must face the consequences. When refugees from plague-ridden towns farther south fled from their homes as from a burning house, Tippah threw open its doors. ‘Come, come to us,’ had been the cry. ‘We can’t have the Fever here. It’s too high, and too cool, and too late in the season.’ For a week, all Tippah was devoted to caring for the refugees — nursing them when they fell sick, burying the dead, making mourning-dresses for the survivors, offering the most gracious hospitality to strangers whose only claim was their distress. In the following week, a hundred of Tippah’s own people were stricken down, and ninety of these died. By this time the terrified question, Can it be the Fever, was no longer asked, and the men, having sent their families away, set themselves to the work in hand. There was plenty for each to do, and not one thought of leaving. Nor was there in their attitude any self-conscious heroism; the sacrifice was made very simply and quietly. Later, when ‘the great white blessing of the frost’ drove out the pestilence, sorrowing women returned and made sad pilgrimages to the cemetery, where rows of new-made graves mutely told the story of the great love by which a man lays down his life for his friends. So when a flippant schoolgirl said the population of Tippah was thirteen hundred souls, — mostly widows, — she was quickly made to see the cheapness of her jest by being reminded why such was the case.

Dr. Courtenay, as I said, does n’t go to church. ‘It is very shocking, of course,’ says Mrs. Ambler, ‘but Dr. Courtenay is an atheist.’ The ‘very shocking ’ is perfunctory; at the bottom of her heart she admires his atheism as an indication of superior intellect. She knows he is much more intelligent than the rector, — dear old Mr. Pendleton, whose Johnsonian English and inability to see the point of any but his own jokes make him a deadly bore. Perhaps the Bishop may be Dr. Courtenay’s intellectual equal; in fact, Mrs. Ambler is sure he is, and she breathes a sigh of relief and feels that Christianity is safe, after all.

Let us take a magic carpet, and an invisible cloak and helmet, and make a little visit to Tippah on a Sunday in May. Later, it might be hot and dusty and the roses would have stopped blooming, waiting for the new lease of life they take in September; but in April or May it is perfect. It is eleven o’clock; the church-bells are ringing. For so small a town, Tippah is rich in places of worship. One is reminded of the old saying that the French have a hundred sauces and one religion, while the English are a nation of a hundred religions and one sauce. All Tippah is of one mind on questions of politics, morals, social conventions, and education; but the paths to Paradise are many. Tradition is not strictly followed; a man is expected to go to his wife’s church rather than to that of his parents.

An invisible cloak bestows no power of being in two places at the same time, — that unique achievement was never performed except by the Irish lord’s bird, — so we must choose one of the many open doors and pass by the others. As the Bishop is in Tippah today, we shall find the largest congregation at St. Faith’s.

Tippah is proud of the Bishop, in spite of his contempt for Tippah. So confident is every one that his native town is the fairest spot on earth that it has never been possible to take the Bishop seriously when he pronounced it an old mud-hole; any more than it was possible for the State at large to feel any resentment when the great man, at an important gathering in New York, spoke of Mississippi as the diocese of which, by the judgment of God, he was bishop; or when he said that with the exception of his friend Mr. Jefferson Davis, and of the life-convicts in the penitentiary, he was the only man who could not leave Mississippi. All this is overlooked, and much more, because, as Mrs. Vernon often says, with a toss of her head, ‘Of course you know he is one of the twelve great men of the century.’ When the good ladies of Tippah read of the Bishop preaching to thousands at St. Paul’s Cathedral and of the London newspapers chronicling the movements of the ‘Lord Bishop of Mississippi,’ they swell with pride, and forgive him for not eating their carefully-prepared dinners, and for preaching the same sermon at St. Faith’s four times in succession.

On the steps of St. Faith’s stands Mrs. Crenshaw, waiting to shake the Bishop’s hand when he arrives, under Mr. Pendleton’s escort ; which courtesy performed, she intends to go home. Nothing would induce her to enter the church. With a proud air she says that she has never been inside St. Faith’s since her husband’s death — the association would be too painful.

‘You lose the best of life if you avoid what is painful,’ says the Bishop, intent as usual upon an abstract idea, and ignoring the individual. He does not recognize Mrs. Crenshaw, although he has eaten her salt many a time, and smoked dozens of Captain Crenshaw’s fine cigars. She, dear lady, finds nothing amiss in his greeting, and is sure he would have left Tippah unsatisfied if he had not had the pleasure of seeing her. She turns to Sally Carter, who approaches, followed by John Dabney, Tom Pritchard, and a few others.

Sally is a radiant vision in a beruffled and be-flowered organdy, and an enormous leghorn hat covered with roses. Her brownish-red hair and reddish-brown eyes, with her intensely scarlet lips, are in vivid contrast to the perfect whiteness of her cheeks, to which neither exercise nor excitement ever brings a touch of color. Hers is, however, a healthy pallor; she has never been sick in her life, but she is by no means of an athletic type. Her tiny feet were made for French slippers and dancing, not for heavy boots and a tramp over the country in pursuit of a little ball; her soft arms, visible now through her thin sleeves, are predestined to no more vigorous exercise than beating eggs for Somebody’s favorite cake, or carrying her baby while she walks the floor to still its crying.

‘I was just telling the Bishop, Sally,’ says Mrs. Crenshaw, cheerfully, ‘why I cannot bear to enter the church. People who feel things less keenly than I do are very fortunate.’

‘Oh, but Miss Annie,’ cries Sally, who of course follows the Southern custom by which married women are called ‘Miss’ by young people and by servants, ‘you know the church is going to be painted all over, inside, and new windows put in. You won’t feel that way then, will you? It will be a different place.’

Mrs. Crenshaw sighs and smiles and shakes her head, and Sally turns to her band of admirers.

‘ I want every last one of you boys to march right straight into that church,’ she says. ‘Not that it’s likely to do you any good, to go just once, but the Bishop just despises empty seats, and he’s not used to them, except when he comes to little one-horse places like Tippah. And he does n’t care a row of pins about women; he likes to see men in the congregation ’ — Here Sally fixes her eyes on the youngest boy in the party, Dick Minor, who several months before had secretly purchased a razor, and is now fretting his life out because he has no occasion to use it. ‘You can’t all sit in our pew, you must scatter over the church, but Robert’ — singling out the one who looked most reluctant — ‘ had better sit by me, so I can show him the places in the Prayer-Book. Mother told me to ask any of the boys I wanted home to dinner, and I’ll ask you all, as Aunt Charity is in a good humor to-day because I gave her a nice white dress for her daughter to be baptized in, and mother told her she might go to the hanging next Friday. She’s feeling so good that she killed nine chickens for dinner, and mother made a chocolatecake, and there’s two gallons of strawberry ice-cream — Aunt Charity made Sam freeze it this morning while he was waiting for an answer to that note you sent me, John. So there’s plenty to eat, and you all may come. There! the bell has stopped ringing.’

And Sally, followed by the lucky Robert, walks gracefully, in spite of her high-heeled shoes, up the aisle to her place, while the other six boys, obedient to instructions, sit in different parts of the church.

Jim, the sexton, a colored ‘boy’ fifty years old, has finished ringing the bell, and before going to pump the organ for the ‘voluntary,’ steps out to hold Mrs. Ambler’s old sorrel mare while she and her sister alight from their little phaeton.

‘Thank you, Jim,’ says Mrs. Ambler, pleasantly. She is very old, very wrinkled, with sweet eyes and pink cheeks, and three stiff white curls hanging on each side of her delicately powdered face. ‘ I was afraid we were late. I lost my buggy-whip several days ago, and Dame just would n’t go.'

‘Los’ it!’ echoes Jim contemptuously. ‘Lor’, Miss May, don’ you know dat ar no-count nigger o’ yourn done consolidated wid it ?’

‘Oh, Jim,’ protests Mrs. Ambler, greatly shocked, ‘do you think Cæsar would take things?’

Mrs. Ambler considers ‘steal’ as ‘unladylike’ a word as ‘lie’ or ‘damn.’

Jim has no time to discuss the honesty of Mrs. Ambler’s ‘boy,’ for at that moment little Nick Carter, in very clean clothes and with bare legs much tanned and scratched, comes running up to tell Jim that Miss Clara (meaning Mrs. Vernon, the organist) is ‘hoppin’ mad because he does n’t come on and blow the organ.’

Mrs. Ambler, followed by her sister, Miss Kitty Page, enters the church, and takes her seat at the end of her pew, near the window sacred to the memory of her husband, the General. For a few moments she kneels decorously in silent prayer; then, as she resumes her seat, her bright eyes dart all over the church. Sally Carter’s sevenfold victory is not lost on her, and she smiles affectionately at the girl, who is a favorite with both sexes, with old and young, with black and white. She shakes her head in disapproval as Lucy Dudley makes a little curtsey toward the altar before going into her pew.

‘That comes of sending that child to Baltimore to boarding-school,’ she whispers to Miss Kitty. ‘Head full of notions, of course. Mrs. Dudley tells me that Lucy won’t eat meat on Friday or wear aigrettes in her hats. If she had as many beaux as Sally she’d leave off such silly ways, and take some interest in the realities of life.’

There are a good many children in church, the little girls exquisitely dressed in their new Easter frocks, which have cost their young mothers many consultations, exchanges of patterns, and midnight stitches; the boys, up to fourteen years old, barefooted, as is the custom from April to November. Before the sermon the children all go home, in deference to the Bishop’s often-expressed wish.

Mr. Erasmus Jones, on the front seat where he can stretch his stiff leg, — he was shot at the Battle of Corinth, — unhampered by a pew in front of him, settles himself comfortably for an intellectual treat, as the Bishop, without text or other introduction, begins to preach. Mrs. Ambler wonders how Erasmus contrived to persuade his wife to let him come, for he does not belong there, and Mrs. Erasmus disapproves of the Bishop’s theology. She has been heard to say that she understands the Bishop has doubts about the doctrine of Eternal Penalty, and that if he has, he will unquestionably have convincing proof of it in the next world. The Bishop, she says, is dangerous.

‘He has planted poisonous weeds in our garden, and we can’t let our little lambs graze there any more,’ she says.

No one ever looked less like a little lamb than Erasmus, with his six feet four inches of height and his startling black beard; but it is said in Tippah that little Mrs. Erasmus, who looks like a bisque doll, winds him round her little finger. On this occasion, however, he has had his own way, and he listens with grave pleasure while the Bishop discourses on the mental activities and the spiritual development of the Life of the World to Come.

The sermon is over, the blessing is pronounced, the congregation streams out into the May sunshine. Sally’s little band of seven rallies round her, and she leads the way home to Aunt Charity’s chocolate-cake and chicken. Alas, our magic carpet refuses to carry us with her.