Lady Baltimore

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Author: Owen Wister

XII: From the Bedside

Next morning when I saw the weltering sky I resigned myself to a day of dullness; yet before its end I had caught a bright new glimpse of John Mayrant’s abilities, and also had come, through tribulation, to a further understanding of the South; so that I do not, to-day, regret the tribulation. As the rain disappointed me of two outdoor expeditions, to which I had been for some little while looking forward, I dedicated most of my long morning to a sadly neglected correspondence, and trusted that the expeditions, as soon as the next fine weather visited Kings Port, would still be in store for me. Not only everybody in town here, but Aunt Carola, up in the North also, had assured me that to miss the sight of Live Oaks when the azaleas in the gardens of that country seat were in flower would be to lose one of the rarest and most beautiful things which could be seen anywhere; and so I looked out of my window at the furious storm, hoping that it might not strip the bushes at Live Oaks of their bloom, which recent tourists at Mrs. Trevise’s had described as drawing near the zenith of its luxuriance. The other excursion to Udolpho with John Mayrant was not so likely to fall through. Udolpho was a sort of hunting lodge or country club near Tern Creek and an old colonial church, so old that it bore the royal arms upon a shield still preserved as a sign of its colonial origin. A note from Mayrant, received at breakfast, informed me that the rain would take all pleasure from such an excursion, and that he should seize the earliest opportunity the weather might afford to hold me to my promise. The wet gale, even as I sat writing, was beating down some of the full-blown flowers in the garden next Mrs. Trevise’s house, and as the morning wore on I watched the paths grow more strewn with broken twigs and leaves.

I filled my correspondence with accounts of Daddy Ben and his grandson, the carpenter, doubtless from some pride in my part in that, but also because it had become, through thinking it over, even more interesting to-day than it had been at the moment of its occurrence; and in replying to a sort of postscript of Aunt Carola’s in which she hurriedly wrote that she had forgotten to say she had heard the La Heu family in South Carolina was related to the Bombos, and should be obliged to me if I would make inquiries about this, I told her that it would be easy, and then described to her the Teuton, plying his "antiquity" trade externally while internally cherishing his collected skulls and nursing his scientific rage. All my letters were the more abundant concerning these adventures of mine from my having kept entirely silent upon them at Mrs. Trevise’s tea-table. I dreaded Juno when let loose upon the negro question; and the fact that I was beginning to understand her feelings did not at all make me wish to be deafened by them. Neither Juno, therefore, nor any of them learned a word from me about the kettle-supporter incident. What I did take pains to inform the assembled company was my gratification that the report of Mr. Mayrant’s engagement being broken was unfounded; and this caused Juno to observe that in that case Miss Rieppe must have the most imperative reasons for uniting herself to such a young man.

Unintimidated by the rain, this formidable creature had taken herself off to her nephew’s bedside almost immediately after breakfast; and later in the day I, too, risked a drenching for the sake of ordering the packing-box that I needed. When I returned, it was close on tea-time; I had seen Mrs. Weguelin St. Michael send out the hot coffee to the conductor, and I had found a negro carpenter whose week it happily was to stay sober; and now I learned that, when tea should be finished, the poetess had in store for us, as a treat, her ode.

Our evening meal was not plain sailing, even for the veteran navigation of Mrs. Trevise; Juno had returned from the bedside very plainly displeased (she was always candid even when silent) by something which had happened there; and before the joyful moment came when we all learned what this was, a very gouty Boston lady who had arrived with her husband from Florida on her way North—and whose nature you will readily grasp when I tell you that we found ourselves speaking of the man as Mrs. Braintree’s husband and never as Mr. Braintree—this crippled lady, who was of a candor equal to Juno’s, embarked upon a conversation with Juno that compelled Mrs. Trevise to tinkle her bell for Daphne after only two remarks had been exchanged.

I had been sorry at first that here in this Southern boarding-house Boston should be represented only by a lady who appeared to unite in herself all the stony products of that city, and none of the others; for she was as convivial as a statue and as well-informed as a spelling-book; she stood no more for the whole of Boston than did Juno for the whole of Kings Port. But my sorrow grew less when I found that in Mrs. Braintreewe had indeed a capable match for her Southern counterpart. Juno, according to her custom, had remembered something objectionable that had been perpetrated in 1865 by the Northern vandals.

"Edward," said Mrs. Braintree to her husband, in a frightfully clear voice, "it was at Chambersburg, was it not, that the Southern vandals burned the house in which were your father’s title-deeds?"

Edward, who, it appeared, had fought through the whole Civil War, and was in consequence perfectly good-humored and peaceable in his feelings upon that subject, replied hastily and amiably: "Oh, yes, yes! Why, I believe it was!"

But this availed nothing; Juno bent her great height forward, and addressed Mrs. Braintree. "This is the first time I have been told Southerners were vandals."

"You will never be able to say that again!" replied Mrs. Braintree.

After the bell and Daphne had stopped, the invaluable Briton addressed a genial generalization to us all: "I often think how truly awful your war would have been if the women had fought it, y’know, instead of the men."

"Quite so!" said the easy-going Edward "Squaws! Mutilation! Yes!" and he laughed at his little joke, but he laughed alone.

I turned to Juno. "Speaking of mutilation, I trust your nephew is better this evening."

I was rejoiced by receiving a glare in response. But still more joy was to come.

"An apology ought to help cure him a lot," observed the Briton.

Juno employed her policy of not hearing him.

"Indeed, I trust that your nephew is in less pain," said the poetess.

Juno was willing to answer this. "The injuries, thank you, are the merest trifles—all that such a light-weight could inflict." And she shrugged her shoulders to indicate the futility of young John’s pugilism.

"But," the surprised Briton interposed," I thought you said your nephew was too feeble to eat steak or hear poetry."

Juno could always stem the eddy of her own contradictions—but she did raise her voice a little. "I fancy, sir, that Doctor Beaugarcon knows what he is talking about."

"Have they apologized yet?" inquired the male honeymooner from the up-country.

"My nephew, sir, nobly consented to shake hands this afternoon. He did it entirely out of respect for Mr. Mayrant’s family, who coerced him into this tardy reparation, and who feel unable to recognize him since his treasonable attitude in the Custom House."

"Must be fairly hard to coerce a chap you can’t recognize," said the Briton.

An et cetera now spoke to the honeymoon bride from the up-country: "I heard Doctor Beaugarcon say he was coming to visit you this evening."

"Yais," assented the bride." Doctor Beaugarcon is my mother’s fourth cousin."

Juno now took—most unwisely, as it proved—a vindictive turn at me. "I knew that your friend, Mr. Mayrant, was intemperate," she began.

I don’t think that Mrs. Trevise had any intention to ring for Daphne at this point—her curiosity was too lively; but Juno was going to risk no such intervention, and I saw her lay a precautionary hand heavily down over the bell. "But," she continued, "I did not know that Mr. Mayrant was a gambler."

"Have you ever seen him intemperate?" I asked.

"That would be quite needless," Juno returned. "And of the gambling I have ocular proof, since I found him, cards, counters, and money, with my sick nephew. He had actually brought cards in his pocket."

"I suppose," said the Briton, "your nephew was too sick to resist him."

The male honeymooner, with two of the et ceteras, made such unsteady demonstrations at this that Mrs. Trevise protracted our sitting no longer. She rose, and this meant rising for us all.

A sense of regret and incompleteness filled me, and finding the Briton at my elbow as our company proceeded toward the sitting room, I said: "Too bad!"

His whisper was confident. "We’ll get the rest of it out of her yet."

But the rest of it came without our connivance.

In the sitting room Doctor Beaugarcon sat waiting, and at sight of Juno entering the door (she headed our irregular procession) he sprang up and lifted admiring hands. "Oh, why didn’t I have an aunt like you!" he exclaimed, and to Mrs. Trevise as she followed: "She pays her nephew’s poker debts."

"How much, cousin Tom?" asked the upcountry bride.

And the gay old doctor chuckled, as he kissed her: "Thirty dollars this afternoon, my darling."

At this the Briton dragged me behind a door in the hall, and there we danced together.

"That Mayrant chap will do," he declared; and we composed ourselves for a proper entrance into the sitting room, where the introductions had been made, and where Doctor Beaugarcon and Mrs. Braintree’s husband had already fallen into war reminiscences, and were discovering with mutual amiability that they had fought against each other in a number of battles.

"And you generally licked us," smiled the Union soldier.

"Ah! don’t I know myself how it feels to run!" laughed the Confederate. "Are you down at the club?"

But upon learning from the poetess that her ode was now to be read aloud, Doctor Beaugarcon paid his fourth cousin’s daughter a brief, though affectionate, visit, lamenting that a very ill patient should compel him to take himself away so immediately, but promising her presently in his stead two visitors much more interesting.

"Miss Josephine St. Michael desires to call upon you," he said, "and I fancy that her nephew will escort her." "In all this rain?" said the bride. "Oh, it’s letting up, letting up! Good night, Mistress Trevise. Good night, sir; I am glad to have met you." He shook hands with Mrs. Braintree’s husband. "We fellows," he whispered, "who fought in the war have had war enough." And bidding the general company good night, and kissing the bride again, he left us even as the poetess returned from her room with the manuscript.

I soon wished that I had escaped with him, because I feared what Mrs. Braintree might say when the verses should be finished; and so, I think, did her husband. We should have taken the hint which tactful Doctor Beaugarcon had meant, I began to believe, to give us in that whispered remark of his. But it had been given too lightly, and so we sat and heard the ode out. I am sure that the poetess, wrapped in the thoughts of her own composition, had lost sight of all but the phrasing of her poem and the strong feelings which it not unmusically voiced; there Is no other way to account for her being willing to read it in Mrs. Braintree’s presence.

Whatever gayety had filled me when the Boston lady had clashed with Juno was now changed to deprecation and concern. Indeed, I myself felt almost as if I were being physically struck by the words, until mere bewilderment took possession of me; and after bewilderment, a little, a very little, light, which, however, rapidly increased. We were the victors, we the North, and we had gone upon our way with songs and rejoicing—able to forget, because we were the victors. We had our victory; let the vanquished have their memory. But here was the cry of the vanquished, coming after forty years. It was the time which at first bewildered me; Juno had seen the war, Juno’s bitterness I could comprehend, even if I could not comprehend her freedom in expressing it, but the poetess could not be more than a year or two older than I was; she had come after it was all over. Why should she prolong such memories and feelings? But my light increased as I remembered she had not written this for us, and that if she had not seen the flames of war, she had seen the ashes; for the ashes I had seen myself here in Kings Port, and had been overwhelmed by the sight, forty years later, more overwhelmed than I could possibly say to Mrs. Gregory St. Michael, or Mrs. Weguelin, or anybody. The strain of sitting and waiting for the end made my hands cold and my head hot, but nevertheless the light which had come enabled me to bend instantly to Mrs. Braintree and murmur a great and abused quotation to her:—

"Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner."

But my petition could not move her. She was too old; she had seen the flames of war; and so she said to her husband:—

"Edward, will you please help me upstairs?"

And thus the lame, irreconcilable lady left the room with the assistance of her unhappy warrior, who must have suffered far more keenly than I did.

This departure left us all in a constraint which was becoming unbearable when the blessed doorbell rang and delivered us, and Miss Josephine St. Michael entered with John Mayrant. He wore a most curious expression; his eyes went searching about the room, and at length settled upon Juno with a light in them as impish as that which had flickered in my own mood before the ode.

To my surprise, Miss Josephine advanced and gave me a special and marked greeting. Before this she had always merely bowed to me; to-night she held out her hand. "Of course my visit is not to you; but I am very glad to find you here and express the appreciation of several of us for your timely aid to Daddy Ben. He feels much shame in having said nothing to you himself."

And while I muttered those inevitable modest nothings which fit such occasions, Miss St. Michael recounted to the bride, whom she was ostensibly calling upon, and to the rest of our now once more harmonious circle, my adventures in the alleys of Africa. These loomed, even with Miss St. Michael’s perfectly quiet and simple rendering of them, almost of heroic size, thanks doubtless to Daddy Ben’s tropical imagery when he first told the tale; and before they were over Miss St. Michael’s marked recognition of me actually brought from Juno some reflected recognition— only this resembled in its graciousness the original about as correctly as a hollow spoon reflects the human countenance divine. Still, it was at Juno’s own request that I brought down from my chamber and displayed to them the kettle-supporter.

I have said that Miss St. Michael’s visit was ostensibly to the bride: and that is because for some magnetic reason or other I felt diplomacy like an undercurrent passing among our chairs. Young John’s expression deepened, whenever he watched Juno, to a devilishness which his polite manners veiled no better than a mosquito netting; and I believe that his aunt, on account of the battle between their respective nephews, had for family reasons deemed it advisable to pay, indirectly, under cover of the bride, a state visit to Juno; and I think that I saw Juno accepting it as a state visit, and that the two together, without using a word of spoken language, gave each other to understand that the recent deplorable circumstances were a closed incident. I think that his Aunt Josephine had desired young John to pay a visit likewise, and, to make sure of his speedy compliance, had brought him along with her—coerced him, as Juno would have said. He wore somewhat the look of having been "coerced," and he contributed remarkably few observations to the talk.

It was all harmonious, and decorous, and properly conducted, this state visit; yet even so, Juno and John exchanged at parting some verbal sweet-meats which rather stuck out from the smooth meringue of diplomacy.

She contemplated his bruise. "You are feeling stronger, I hope, than you have been lately? A bridegroom’s health should be good."

He thanked her. "I am feeling better to-night than for many weeks."

The rascal had the thirty dollars visibly bulging that moment in his pocket. I doubt if he had acquainted his aunt with this episode, but she was certain to hear it soon; and when she did hear it, I rather fancy that she wished to smile—as I completely smiled alone in my bed that night thinking young John over.

But I did not go to sleep smiling; listening to the "Ode for the Daughters of Dixie" had been an ordeal too truly painful, because it disclosed live feelings which I had thought were dead, or rather, it disclosed that those feelings smouldered in the young as well as in the old. Doctor Beaugarcon didn’t have them—he had fought them out, just as Mr. Braintree had fought them out; and Mrs. Braintree, like Juno, retained them, because she hadn’t fought them out; and John Mayrant didn’t have them, because he had been to other places; and I didn’t have them—never had had them in my life, because I came into the world when it was all over. Why then—Stop, I told myself, growing very wakeful, and seeing in the darkness He light which had come to me, you have beheld ;he ashes, and even the sight has overwhelmed you; these others were born in the ashes, and have had ashes to sleep in and ashes to eat. This I said to myself; and I remembered that War hadn’t been all; that Reconstruction came in due season; and I thought of the "reconstructed" negro, as Daddy Ben had so ingeniously styled him. These white people, my race, had been set beneath the reconstructed negro. Still, still, this did not justify the whole of it to me; my perfectly innocent generation seemed to be included in the unforgiving, unforgetting ode. "I must have it out withsomebody," I said. And in time I fell asleep.

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Chicago: Owen Wister, "XII: From the Bedside," Lady Baltimore, ed. Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937 and trans. Townsend, R.S. in Lady Baltimore (New York: A. L. Burt Company, 1916), Original Sources, accessed August 15, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3VKWGD5P4TEM3RR.

MLA: Wister, Owen. "XII: From the Bedside." Lady Baltimore, edited by Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937, and translated by Townsend, R.S., in Lady Baltimore, Vol. 22, New York, A. L. Burt Company, 1916, Original Sources. 15 Aug. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3VKWGD5P4TEM3RR.

Harvard: Wister, O, 'XII: From the Bedside' in Lady Baltimore, ed. and trans. . cited in 1916, Lady Baltimore, A. L. Burt Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 15 August 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3VKWGD5P4TEM3RR.