The Perfect Word

THE perfect word — when to say it, how to say it, when not to say it. ... I pondered this problem as I walked in the pleasant rain along the top of Catoctin Mountain, from whence one may look down upon two of the loveliest valleys in Maryland, Frederick Valley on one side and Middletown on the other; while every now and again the wind — ‘air in a hurry,’ as some schoolboy has defined it — snatched from the wet catnip by the roadside wafts of fragrance that rebuked all human speech. One fleeting breath of its perfume said to my nose more things of moment than I could say to anybody’s ears in the whole of a long life.

Nevertheless, I reflected, scrunching happily along the wet lane, though we may not speak with the ecstasy of fragrance, yet we humans do sometimes, in our own poor way, come very near to perfection in the art of words. This I thought because just the day before I had heard what appeared to me to be the perfect word spoken in a perfect way, and by just the right person.

To my mind the perfect word must be much more than merely an apt or witty reflection; it must not only relieve a situation with exquisite tact, but must also raise the spirits and rejoice the heart, so that for all concerned the world becomes a pleasanter place because for a moment certain words have patterned the air. Moreover, my own preference is not, as a rule, for the sayings of the great upon great occasions, but rather for those of the man in the street, or the woman in the kitchen, tossed off casually in shirt sleeves, or spoken from behind gingham aprons. All of which is a large order, perhaps, but it has been done in the past — just yesterday, for instance — and I hope for it again in the future.

Would that I might recall some remark of my own to offer as Exhibit A in a collection of perfect words; but for myself, alas, I can only offer examples of the imperfect word, or how not to do it. In the matter of felicitous speech any old colored mammy of the South can give me points. Here is an instance: I am a visitor, but have overslept, and am so late for breakfast that I come down to an empty dining room. I apologize for my lateness to the old colored waitress. ‘Oh, you is n’t late — we’s early,’ she responds with prompt courtesy.

Indeed, so many classic examples of happy speech on the part of the old-time Negro — or the new-time one as well, for that matter — rise to my memory that I am happy to think that sometimes the perfect word has been spoken to them. Dr. Moton, the head of Tuskegee, tells this incident of his father, who, when still in his teens, went to the war with his master as his body servant. The master was killed, and the Negro boy, taking his watch and epaulets, started for home with the sad news. In attempting to slip through the Northern lines, however, he was captured, and brought before General Grant. The boy was in great distress — anguish over the death of his master, and wild panic over being captured by the enemy. The tears were rolling down his cheeks.

Grant, a figure of supreme terror to the captive, was slouching in a low camp chair.

‘What are you doing here?’ he thundered.

The boy made out to tell his story as best he could.

‘My master’s been killed, an’ I promised my mistress I’d take good keer of him, but now he’s dead, an’ — an’ so I’m takin’ his watch an’ things on back home.’

‘What do you go back there for? Stay here!’ Grant shot at him, still slouching in his chair, and glaring at him.

’No, sah,’ the boy sobbed. ‘I gotter git back. My master’s dead, an’ —’

‘Stay here, and we’ll set you free,’ he was offered.

‘No, sah, no!’ he persisted through his tears. ‘I got ter git on back — I jest got to! My master’s dead, an’ I promised I’d take keer of him — an’ I ’m takin’ his things back. I — I promised — an’ now he’s dead — ’

Then Grant straightened up, tore a sliver from a newspaper, wrote and signed. ‘Pass Negro boy with trophies of his master through the lines, and give him every assistance.’

Perfect words, I submit; still they were written long ago, while the ones which started me on these reflections were spoken just yesterday.

My friend and I, in her motor, slipped down the long slope of Catoctin Mountain. In the distance was South Mountain, a battlefield of the War between the States, as my Southern friends insist it should be called; or the War of the Rebellion, as my New England grandmother, with a flash in her eye, used to startle me by calling it; or the Civil War, as just anybody calls it. All the road we traveled, indeed, knew the alarums and excursions of that period. But now the valley is healed of conflict, and lay so still and serene that one could imagine its heart to be tuned to the Negro spiritual, ‘Ain’t goin’ study ’bout war no more.’ So in the golden light of afternoon we came at last to our destination, Harpers Ferry, where, rushing out of the mountains, the two lovely rivers swirl their waters together, and three states touch.

The first citizen to approach was an ancient Negro, making what speed he could on two sticks to cross the road to us for the sake of selling picture postcards of the town. As we bought of him, he exploded spontaneously into speech. My dull ears failed to catch what he said, but my friend was transfixed. ‘Oh, you must hear this!’ she cried, turning to me. ‘This old uncle says his father was owned by George Washington’s father, and that Washington told the father his first son must be named after him and all his brothers. He was the first son, so his name is — ’ She turned back to the smiling old colored man. ‘Lawrence,’ he prompted her, bowing happily. ‘ Lawrence,’ my friend tossed neatly on to me. ‘Augustine George,’ the old darky continued. ‘Augustine George,’ my friend amplified. I caught George all right, but muffed Augustine, as he was new to me. So it went on like some quaint game of ball, the names of Washington and all his brothers flying gayly about from mouth to mouth in the open street, until at last I had them all, and realized that before me, done in ebony, stood Lawrence Augustine George Samuel John Charles Washington.

I was stunned. Was it possible, even old as this old citizen undoubtedly was, that his father could have been owned by Washington’s father? No doubt those wise in dates — in which I am otherwise — could have settled the matter at once, but my mind was teased by it all through our inspection of Harpers Ferry. So much so that I could not keep my doubts decently to myself, but needs must blurt them out to all the world, when on our departure we paused at the toll bridge. ‘ Uncle ’ had returned to what was evidently his accustomed seat near the bridge. My friend, pointing him out to the toll keeper, said, ‘That old colored man says his father was owned by George Washington’s father.’ Whereat I, always as blundering as a June bug indoors, and not realizing that Lawrence Augustine George Samuel John Charles Washington might overhear me and be hurt, broke in with, ‘Oh, that can’t be so!’

Then it was that the toll keeper, in one clean leap of words, rose, as it seemed to me, to the starry heights of speech. Evincing none of the Anglo-Saxon superiority to the African race to which he was heir, and too courteous to insult our ignorance with dates, he permitted just the faintest flicker of amusement to dawdle over his face — none of your broad sarcastic grins, only the merest twinkle from the banked fires of mirth within, as he drawled, ‘Must be so if he says it.’

The perfect word! The whole situation was saved, everybody was pleased, nobody’s feelings were hurt, and truth, if not exactly established, had been at least respected. ‘Uncle’ waved a forgiving hand to us, crying, ‘Hope you-all gits home safe!’ And we sped away across the bridge, laughing. We laughed and laughed, all the way from Harpers Ferry to the Merry Land Tract in Maryland.

I laughed again as I recalled it this morning, twirling my umbrella in the rain on Catoctin Mountain. And as I did so even the catnip, in a fresh gust of fragrance, offered what seemed to me its applause as well.