Charleston, South Carolina
THREE white swans settle on a sapphire stretch of water — three white swans that have escaped from somewhere. What is the weight of a swan, when one tulip petal is too great a burden to carry in the mind when the wind is thus and so? We think of life and how it passes, death and the worms that will eat us — all because white swans have escaped to blue water and we must stay at home and listen to the sad imploring frogs.
Some days are worse to live than others. In winter New England dies particularly dead, locked in such stillness that, standing in the middle of a winter night, our intimate earth becomes detached and strange. In March she holds a pallor like a drowned man, and back yards show the disarranged affairs of the deceased. Who would at such times dream of yellow roads around the hills to Samarkand, or the beauty that a breaking universe gives out when galaxies of stars are chipped to pieces on a skiff’s flat bottom? But after dandelions torch the lawns! Cardinal birds and a revolution! Then there are days when the wind has its way with us, when the wind or a small brown owl on the branch of a tree sets us longing for the beautiful ones, whom we do not know, nor what, nor how, nor who they are, only that two things are carried across the morning, memories of the ‘old-gold’ downs and a voice from the hills which says: ‘Life is the sea, so go a-fishing while the tide is high,’ and says: ‘How have you planned to circumvent the gray November days forever?’ until we must rush out to meet life face to face and kiss the lady on her lips, or grab the time of day to stop its ticking until we can discover the most winelike way to use it.
So on a certain day of a certain spring I longed to find some well-born ease to thwart a season’s capricious pain which forces us to weep at mouldy cabbages and laugh at dead relations; I wished to pluck December roses to lighten and brighten the latter winds. And as I remembered that Héloïse and Abélard, riding to Orléans, ‘snuffed the faint fragrance of the chestnut trees now all in flower’ I looked at the white road round a hill from our town, and knew that because it is across a bridge and past a signpost, is divided by one clump of birches and a lane, the distance held a flavor that would never walk down our main street; for though a frog sits on a stone in our river, and farther down the blown narcissi hold themselves with pride, and though these things made life seem like a ‘perfect gift’ to Héloïse, yet even so Romance lies over the mountain and always will while we remain at home. Therefore I planned a way to go through ‘ hilly lands and hollow lands’ until I should come to the Mountains of the Moon and cross to El Dorado, or, as this case might be, from where I could see that open space of water below my hill to the magnolia gardens of Charleston, South Carolina.
I had thought to travel by rail, having heard of how, after the death of a day and night, the hope of resurrection stirs when reaches of low yellow meadows catch the eye, meadows bordered in heavy shade-trees and split by a winding river colored like the words that Conrad argued over — bleu de faïence. But the gods have their own plans; therefore boast not, ye humans, about this and that or the state of your health, for an’ you do they will see you have thrown all your handkerchiefs into the wash and give you a cold in the head. So it was from the deck of a boat that I observed how between here and there is nothing to help one recognize Romance. For, unlike most journeys hither and yon, going is not the better part of arriving. On the contrary, boats for tourists smell of tourists — which is not the smell of the open road, where dirt is frankly dirt with no half-measures, but, picked up from labor, heartily brown and weathered, takes on some of the clean atmosphere of work. This other is a pallid sort, dirt wrung from pleasure and the peels of oranges, covered, as if to give it respectability, with the damp perfume of stewardesses’ linen. And the sea goes by the bows, not this time like the white sea-horses, but paid out by the yard, as if each passenger would hold it for a measure to discover the length of this unending trip. So I said, as I leaned to look at the chocolate-colored harbor water while Fort Sumter passed on the left, shrunken in size like the giants of childhood, that the earth had never been so modern, so symbolical of corrugated-iron roofs and billboards for Castoria.
Yet let it be understood at once that a city such as Charleston would never allow a guest to remain in such a frame of mind for long. It knows its business far too well, its heritage is much too deep. That is why its Customhouse faces the sea, where it stands a little above and apart, like the true master of the house waiting to bid one welcome. That is why also there was an entertainment on the lower deck where, as the hawsers wore thrown to the dock, the Negroes began to unload.
Orders came to start uncovering the hatch, and a small confusion worse confounded was the purpose of the joy. There were grunts as ropes were pulled away and bars removed, interspersed with shouts and wails — mere sound — just any kind of satisfactory loud sound to please themselves with, sometimes like moose, sometimes like children ; and a yellow nigger shouted above the general pandemonium while bars were hoisted into the air.
’Yo-ho! Comin’ again!’ he yelled at each displacement. ‘Yo-ho! Comin’ again!’ And the heads ducked to the sound of half-smothered bellows of laughter.
‘Májaw!’ one nigger called out to another. ‘Hi, Májaw, doan’t yuh wahnt some ice water?’
‘Suah ah do,’ the other answered. ‘Hand it down heah, you. Ahm doin’ some almighty boilin’ up in this yeah kettle er soup.’
‘Look to yerse’f, den,’ shouted the first. ‘Hit’s a-comin’!’ And he poured the pail of icy water full on his friend’s head.
Chaos was in the air. Then there came a voice from the bridge, carrying over the madness below.
‘Good Gawd,’ it cut down, toneless and quiet, ‘Good Gawd, we won’t get tied up for a week.’
It was a hose sprayed on the fire. The gang in the hold ceased their buffoonery and went to work, giggling behind their hands.
And then I heard a tired voice behind me saying something that I did not catch until I turned to listen.
‘It’s full of freaks,’ he said, and pointed to the city.
I answered ‘Oh,’ not knowing what to say.
‘I’m one myself,’ he said, in such a tone that I could not tell if I were meant to admit it or to contradict him.
He wore a soft brown hat like anybody else.
‘I have an aunt,’ he said.
But then, I had a dozen aunts, and what it was about his aunt that made him particularly strange I could not tell, for in that minute we were hurried off to go ashore.
The best way to discover a city is to go out and about day after day, up and down its streets, through and between and around again and again, until they come to have a meaning and an air. Strange beauty is a pleasure, but familiar beauty is a pleasure enhanced an hundredfold by its familiarity. Therefore we must acquire, as soon as possible, associations for our sunsets and our mornings. This is not hard to do in Charleston. But for the first few days we note simply the tangible form and feature of the town, and that to one who has never visited the South is difficult.
Charleston is a city, but one may be waked in the early morning by the chant of the street criers singing the wonders they have found in the deep waters. Charleston is a city, and our ideas of cities mean brownstone houses either on or off the proper sides of streets. What then do we make of the delicate color of these sun-steeped buildings? For in the latter days of April the sun is bright indeed and falls on baked old yellow walls which here are bare and glittering and there are covered with dark-green vines which frame hung blinds and lattices. There are no rules concerning wood and stone. One house behind an iron fence is brick with white verandahs, and gone-toruin quarters of its slaves crowd on its wings; another has a porte-cochére and broad admittance over cobblestones for coach and four; another is wood with crumbling corners, and yet another is weathered plaster. There are no rules even for iron fences, except that should you stop to lean on one you will be asked at once to share the hospitality which it encloses.
It is in the first few days also that we note the configuration of the city, how business keeps its proper station in the background and allows its better half to live in undisputed decoration on the river and the bay. We note how the streets are neither short nor long nor wide nor narrow, but all four unexpectedly, and how the angles of the buildings face them in a fashion quite unlike the ones we know, having as it were been slid in sideways to escape the heat, instead of arranged close, cheek by jowl, with back yards carefully concealed. Indeed, back yards in Charleston are rarely concealed at all, many of them being as gracefully overrun by greenery as the more formal lawns. This is no creation of a day, as are the modern Southern towns. The long progress of its growth can be seen in its casual unset appearance. King Street blazes in the sun, polished and clean as the knockers on its doors or the curtains in its windows, but turn to the right and go down a block or two and Legaré Street shows gates and rambling lawns with heavy trees and balconies where creepers run up to the second story, turn over backward, and drop down in waving tails. Or turn to the left and pass three corners — there is a tumble-down wooden ruin or a rose-red shanty for pickaninnies; or follow your nose with your back to the river and you will come into squares for churches and the attendant space they use to bury people in, where grass has overgrown the gravestones and vagrant flowers intersperse the green.
In the first few days will be seen light and shadow, names and faces, but after all they will be only untranslated lists of ‘things,’ until on a sudden, as if by wandering there had been found a key, the inward spirit of its outward grace will spring to life.
In the tale of the place one may know that Charleston was settled first by the French, ‘but, misfortune overtaking them, they abandoned the place, only to be done to death by the Spaniards at St. Augustine, dying for their faith and scorning to abjure.’ Nothing whatever did they leave behind them but a tumbled fort, the name of their king for the Province, and the spirit of their heroism. The English settlers who came some hundred years later found it and nailed it to their mast as if it had in verity been a flag. They also died for their faith in their own right to exist, to govern themselves, and to make of their city and state a thing of beauty, honor, and industry after their own fashion; so, though Indians harassed them, Spaniards massacred, and pirates — those (to us) red-bandaged, fearfully delicious symbols of the real Romance — even though pirates burned and killed and pillaged, still they too ‘scorned to abjure,’ and so, although they died, the Province lived.
When the tumults of birth were over, the city grew, but it did not grow with ease. The young man began his education in the rice-fields and the young woman at the cotton-loom, with malarial fever bonily rattling the door, while more than one generation saw the work of the last swept to perdition by fire or flood.
Yet out of these efforts came the prosperity which stands behind what the popular fancy regards as a desirrable pattern of fine, cultured society. We know the picture of it. Fair women in billowing laces who spoke ‘with the tongues of men and of angels.’ Upright, courteous men who rode like knights, thought wisely for their State, founded churches, schools, and libraries, and gathered together as the representatives of a people who flourished in fine minds. Charleston, as it lived in the old days, stands somewhat to the imagination as the Chevalier sans peur et sans reproche. Indeed Charleston fits so precisely in this frame that it is hard to remember the working-clothes she wore. One is apt to be carried on the wind of the story which includes banquets and dances, corn cakes and stuffed pheasants’ breasts, elopements, escapades, luxury, and love, and is half inclined to leave her first prosperity, after her first battle with the wilderness, inseparate, as it was not left by the cannon balls of the Revolution. But these are a part of her life — or death — and must roll murderously in to put a period here and there to the phrases that write of civilization.
We of the North are too prone to imagine that we alone fired ‘the shot heard round the world ‘ and that, as is the rule to-day, no one would be invited to the Boston Tea Party but Bostonians. This, however, was not the case, for not only would Carolinians have been most welcome, but, oblivious of outside invitations, they held one of their own, which took place in Hog Island Channel outside Charleston Harbor, and afterward held to their defiance, sending the British fleet packing before the half-finished palmettolog barriers of Fort Moultrie.
We Northerners are too apt to believe that we bore the whole burden of that war, yet Charleston was eventually captured and the British came in and sat in the high places for three interminable years. That was the time of Marion’s Men, the troop of outriders made up from the bluest blood of the city as well as the reddest blood of the farms, who galloped through the country rescuing beleaguered houses whose men had joined the army, ambushing the British columns, and bringing help wherever a hint flew through the swamps on the heels or tongue of a Negro boy that someone was in danger. Wild gallops there were, mad escapades, performed by thoroughbreds and gentlemen, with a country to lose for the one who faltered. High hearts, in short, with danger and distress spurned by spurred heels of bravery and laughter. But they were also the days when whole families were turned out of their houses by British officers with no warning and no excuse, when plundering was rife, when houses were burned to emphasize the terror and women harassed for sheltering their own relations, when in fact a conquering army made itself at home.
But Charleston awaited the end, and when Cornwallis surrendered she started at once to build herself anew. The old struggle was fought through once more. She was plagued by fever and destroyed by fire and flood, but even so, during the following period of peace she was able to dress herself in such becoming colors and appear so strong and splendidly made that Washington and Lafayette declared the whole could truly represent the part, an individual beauty of that time.
Such was the blossom Charleston grew from her beginnings. She took her name from a king and bore it with a greater grace than Majesty itself. She was prosperous, she was fair, she had suffered and had won. Charleston was a queen.
Yet, as I walked my century’s hour through her streets, their quietness belied this pride and wonder. They slept in the sun. Odd phrases for her wandered through my brain. ‘She is a maiden lady thinking of her lovers,’‘she is a fragile beauty, died before her time,’ ‘she is a ghost that never found fulfillment.’ Even an invasion into the heart of the town left me only half convinced of its existence. There was an evanescent quality. ‘America with its hurtling vitality has no place here,’ I said.
Then, not content with exploring the immediate vicinity to establish its reality, I pushed out to the surrounding country, anxious to find the rock it sprang from. But the surrounding country spreads out in low marshes, which tell no tale except of fever; and the roads that lead through them, arched overhead by feathery branches, end for the most part in grandeur that has been and is no longer, or only inasmuch as all things five again in other forms, and the ruins of bygone gayety are run ariot in a bonfire of azalea bushes.
On my return I found a statue near a park. It was much like the statues made to-day; the face was younger, the figure slimmer, the uniform a different sort, but underneath was written all the answer.
Charleston was no maiden, but a mother.
It is from backgrounds such as hers that land begets a love for itself — a fiery, unbreakable, enduring passion, stronger perhaps in the South than elsewhere, on account of the sumptuous rewards she gives her children. So it was that when she most needed them, so it was that when her real ruin stared her in the face, ‘quick and bright was the answer,’ for ‘the State knew her sons,’ so it ended that when ‘the best of Carolina lay dead in their jackets, unmarked by band or star, even their mothers said: “It is well.”’
One morning, after the city had been got to acknowledge my acquaintance, I was wandering here and there in the desultory fashion which is the only way to learn the hidden ways of cities, when a brown hat and a bald head parted company and gravely saluted me.
‘Mornin’, ma’am,’he said, ‘seein’ the town ? ‘
I said I was.
‘They mostly do,’ he said. ‘P’r’aps you’d like to hear about this town of Charleston? ‘
I said I would.
‘As I was tellin’ you, I’m one of those freaks I was mentionin’. There’s lots here — every sort and kind. See that balcony yonder? Used ter be a judge who sat there in a rockin’ chair. He’d drop things on people as they went by. Yankees, of course you understand, ma’am. He was n’t crazy, either — just a freak like the rest of us. The women are the same, ma’am — full of kinks and queerness.’
‘But why? ‘ I asked.
‘I don’t know, ma’am. I suppose it comes from stayin’ here all their lives. Most of ‘em have n’t the money to go anywheres, and they get to livin’ on memories.’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘but these people never could have known — ‘
‘Not they, ma’am, of course,’ he said with obvious patience, ‘but I expect the fathers of most of these ladies put ideas into their haids. Maybe you passed a big white house on your way down?’ He looked at me while I nodded. ‘Well, there’s three women livin’ in that house, poor as church mice, ma’am, but they won’t speak to any livin’ soul who did n’t have a relative near nor far in the Confederate Army.’
I looked my amazement.
‘That’s true as gospel, ma’am,’ he said.
‘Why, I’ve an aunt,’he said, ‘she was ninety-four last winter. I went to take dinner with her on her birthday. Ma’am, the house was a sight for sinners. That old lady had chased the servant girl outter the house for knockin’ over a picture of General Lee.’
He looked me in the eye.
‘The fact is, ma’am,’ he said, ‘the people of Charleston in the old days never did have ter put up with ignorant discourtesies.’
I winced a little under his look.
‘Just freaks, you see, ma’am,’he forgave me.
So with this escort I saw the result of that sacrifice, and looked at the face of the city from the other side of its windows; for an’ I promised to take care of how I spoke of General Lee, I was taken to call on the aunt who had known him, where she lived on a street not far from me across a thoroughfare.
From this view Charleston is the color of lavender. There ‘where the world is quiet ‘ live the gentlefolk, and most of them are poor — so poor that living does not vary in the year, and washing dishes must be lied about, for all are fiercely proud and all at the same time insistently hospitable. The surrounding color is lavender. The women’s faces make you sure of it, soft hands and low voices press it on you. You are led through small lanes into sweet entangled gardens to the tune of it — gardens which are the most unpublic places, which wipe from your mind other more open spaces where tramps sleep on the benches; which are full of nice, private flowers that you may touch and personally praise aloud, and are kept like Spanish beauties behind veils of delicately manufactured iron lattices. Even the musty smell of the wooden halls makes one aware of its presiding presence, so that you feel that you have found an atmosphere of cobweb delicacy, a spun existence that a noise would shatter.
But on the other side of this soft color there are bloodstains, and these are never forgotten; indeed they form a halo for the host of young husbands, young brothers, — that darling youth! — all children, so they tell, all beautiful, all loved, who died æons and æons ago, it seems, for the same old causes, and have become, as they sit in their tiny dignified gilded frames in the half-dark Southern parlors, audibly worshiped, heroicly portrayed, the symbol of all the beauty of all their world. They are told to you simply, in spite of their grandeur, as ‘ my father’s only brother’ or ‘my mother’s youngest cousin,’and it is rather like an epitaph which says: ‘I will not speak at all for fear I say too little.’
I noticed about the mouth and eyes of all these figures a certain wistfulness. Now these are half-done baby pictures of them all, made before they were really grown, made for their mothers who loved their youth, made before they went away to war; so I stood before them and wondered: ‘How did they find that gentleness before they knew? Was Youth then not a little hard?’
I have thought to myself that these pictures say: ‘We wish a little that we had not had to die.’ How did they acquire that? Youth throws itself away like a running song; it is only age that has time to regret that the notes are gone. It is because of this that I surmise that the twist to their mouths does not belong to the pictured people after all. It has been transferred by some mysterious magic from the ones who have looked so long at these fair faces and have wished so hungrily that they had not had to die. For not only did they take love with them, but their promise, which for a miracle to help the world goes hand in hand with love. Old hands have had to carry on the work they were to do, old age has had to fight the aftermath, and take the staff of dreams. And Age dreams back, not forward; it cannot manufacture something out of nothing, or build a castle on a charred remains, as Youth can, simply by the contemplation of its endless undeveloped years. So Charleston shut its doors and, being very tired, slept, clasping its past, and let its azalea blossoms blaze its only defiance to the rushing world.
That for many years was Charleston. I do not mean ‘was in the sense that it is over — only it is past. It exists still in the tangled gardens that one looks at through the latticed gates; there are still tears and graves, and voices that tremble to explain how bullets were made from the leaden gutters; there are still hot words to say to Yankees; there is still sacred ground where you may not put your foot, or if you are fool or cad enough to try you will be met with spears.
But mark! Now a difference begins. Not everyone is poor. The city builds on its foundations still another time. And more! For Charleston holds a secret.
Step quietly, and perhaps you’ll hear an echoing laughter, and after it has gone you will turn to your neighbor and say: ‘Sir, is it the darling youth come back again?’ And you will not need an answer, for they are all before your eyes.
Charleston sits quietly, decorated with fat roses and racing children. Death has departed: it has been packed in a box and put away. Tears there are and legends, but after these — well, you can see the resurrection in the tousled heads; for the first time you may remember that to have a son ranks one with the immortals.