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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Southerner of the Old School

By John William De Forest (1826–1906)

[Born in Humphreysville, now Seymour, Conn., 1826. Died in New Haven, Conn., 1906. Kate Beaumont. 1872.]

“HI!—Yah!—Ho!—Mars Peyt!—Gwine ter git up to-day?”

This incantation is heard in the bedroom of the Honorable Peyton Beaumont. It is pronounced by a shining, jolly youngster of a negro, seated on the bare clean pitch-pine floor, his legs curving out before him like compasses, a blacking-brush held up to his mouth for further moistening, and an aristocratic-looking boot drawn over his left hand like a gauntlet. The incantation is responded to by a savage grunt from a long bundle on a tousled bed, out of which bundle peeps a grizzled and ruffled topknot, and some portion of a swarthy face framed in iron-gray beard and whiskers. After the grunt comes a silence which is followed in turn by a snore so loud and prolonged that it reminds one of the long roll of a drum-corps.

The negro resumes his work, whistling the while in a sort of whisper and bobbing his head in time to the tune. Presently he pauses and takes a look at the bundle of bedclothes. “Ain’t gwine ter wake up yit; mighty sleepy dis mornin’.” More brushing, whistling, and bobbing. Then another look. “Done gone fas’ asleep agin; guess I’ll catch ’nother hold.” There is a small table near him, with a bottle on it and glasses. Hand goes up; bottle is uncorked; liquor is decanted; very neatly done indeed. More brushing, whistling, and keeping time, just to lull the sleeper. Hand seeks the table once more; glass brought down and emptied; set back in its place; no jingle. Then further brushing, and the job is finished.

His work done, the negro got up with an “O Lordy!” walked to the bedside, dropped the boots with a bang, and shouted. “Hi! Mars Peyt!”

“Clear out!” growled Mars Peyton, and made a lunge with a muscular hand, so heavy that it might remind one of the paw of an animal.

There was a rapid rectification of the frontier on the part of the darky; he retreated towards a doorway which led into what was obviously a dressing-room. At a safe distance from the bed he halted and yelled anew, “Hi! Mars Peyt!”

Mars Peyt disengaged one hand entirely from the bedclothes, seized the top of a boot and slung it at the top of the negro, who dodged grinning through the door just as the projectile banged against it.

“Hi! Yah! Ho! ho, Mars Peyt!” he shouted this time with an intonation of triumph, aware that his toughest morning job was over and pleased at having accomplished it without barking a shin.

“Now den, Mars Peyt, you dress youself,” he continued. “When you’s ready, I’ll fix you cocktail.”

“Fix it now,” huskily growled the lord of the manor. “I’m dressing,—confound you!”

Such was the Honorable Peyton Beaumont; something like a big, wilful, passionate boy; such at least he was on many occasions. As for his difficulty in waking up of mornings, we must excuse him on the ground that he slept badly of nights. Went to bed on brandy; honestly believed he should rest the better for it; after two hours of travelling or fighting nightmare, woke up; dull pain and increasing heat in the back of his head; pillow baking hot, and hot all over; not another wink till morning. Then came a short, feverish nap; then this brushing, whistling, shouting Cato,—who wouldn’t throw boots at him? But Cato was continued in the office of valet because he was the only negro in the house who had the impudence to bring about a thorough waking, and because Mr. Beaumont was determined to be up at a certain hour. He was not the sort of man to let himself be beaten, not even by his own physical necessities.

What was he like when he entered the dressing-room in shirt and trousers, with the streaky redness of soap and water about his sombre face, and plumped heavily into a high-backed oak arm-chair, to receive his cocktail and to be shaved by Cato? At first glance he might seem to be a clean but very savage buccaneer. It would be easy to imagine such a man grasping at chances for duels and following the scent of a family feud. His broad, dark red face, overhung by tousled iron-gray hair and set in a stiff iron-gray beard, had just this one merit, of being regular in outline and feature. Otherwise it was terrible; it was nothing less than alarming. Paches, the Athenian admiral who massacred the garrison of Notium, might well have had such a countenance. In the blood-shot black eyes (suffused with the yellow of habitual biliousness), in the stricture of the Grecian mouth, in the cattish tremblings of the finely turned though hairy nostrils, and in the nervous pointings of the bushy eyebrows, there was an expression of intense pugnacity, as fiery as powder and as long-winded as death.

In fact, he had all sorts of a temper. It was as sublime as a tiger’s and as ridiculous as a monkey’s. His body was marked by the scars of duels and rencontres, and the life-blood of more than one human being was crusted on his soul. At the same time he could snap like a cross child, break crockery, and kick chairs. Perhaps we ought partly to excuse his fits of passion on the score of nearly constant and often keen physical suffering. People, in speaking of his temper, said, “Brandy”; but it was mainly brandy in its secondary forms,—broken sleep, an inflamed alimentary canal, and gout.

Meanwhile he had traits of gentleness which occasionally astonished the people who were afraid of him. While he could fly at his children in sudden furies, he was passionately fond of them, supported them generously, and spoiled them with petting. Barring chance oaths and kicks which were surprised out of him, he was kind to his negroes, feeding them liberally, and keeping them well clothed. As proud as Lucifer and as domineering as Beelzebub, he could be charmingly courteous to equals and friends.

“How you find that, Mars Peyt?” asked Cato, when the cocktail had been hastily clutched and greedily swallowed.

“Devilish thin.” Voice, however, the smoother and face blander for it.

“Make you ’nother?”

“Yes.” Mellow growl, not exclusively savage, much like that of a placated tiger.

This comedy, by the way, was played every morning, with a variation Sundays. Mr. Beaumont, having vague religious notions about him, and being willing to make a distinction in days, took three cocktails on the Sabbath, besides lying in bed later.

The shaving commenced; the patient bristling occasionally, but growing milder; the operator supple, cautious, and talkative, slowly getting the upper hand.

“Now hold you head still. You jerk that way, an’ you’ll get a cut. How you s’pose I can shave when you’s slammin’ you face round like it was a do’?”

“Cato, I really need another cocktail this morning. Had a precious bad night of it.”

“No, you don’, now. ’Tain’t Sunday to-day. Laws bless you, Mars Peyt, ho, ho! you’s mos’ ’ligious man I knows of, he, he! befo’ breakfus. You’d jes like t’have Sunday come every day in the week, so’s you could have three cocktails. No you don’, no sech thing. ’Tain’t good for you. There, liked to cut you then. Hold you nose roun’, dere.” (Pushing the noble Greek proboscis into place with thumb and finger.) “Now, then, shut up you mouf; I’se gwine to lather. Them’s um. This yere’s fus-rate soap. Makes a reg’lar swamp o’ lather.”

“Well, hurry up now,” growls Mr. Beaumont, a little sore because he can’t have his third cocktail. “Don’t stand there all day staring at the soap-brush.”

“What’s Mars Vincent up to this mornin’?” suggests Cato, seeking to lull the rising storm with the oil of gossip.

“What is he up to?” demands Peyton Beaumont with a fierce roll of the eyes:—as much as to say, If anybody is up to anything without my permission, I’ll break his head.

“Flyin’ roun’ greasin’ his pistils an’ talkin’ softly with Mars Bent Armitage. Don’ like the looks of it.”

Mr. Beaumont uttered an inarticulate growl and was clearly anxious to have the dressing over. At last he was shaved; his noble beard was combed and his martial hair brushed upward; he rose with a strong grip on the arms of his chair and slipped his arm into his extended coat. He was much improved in appearance from what he had been; he still looked fierce, but not uncouth, nor altogether uncourtly. One might say a gentlemanly Turk, or even a sultan; for, there is something patrician in the expression and port of the man.

In his long, columned piazza, whither he went at once to get a breath of the morning freshness which came in over his whitening cotton-fields, he met his eldest son, Vincent. The young gentleman was sauntering slowly, his hands in the skirt-pockets of his shooting-jacket, a pucker of thoughtfulness on his brow, and the usual satirical smile rubbed out. With dark, regular features, just a bit pugnacious in expression, he resembled his father as a fresh young gamecock resembles an old one tattered by many a conflict.

A pleasant morning greeting was exchanged, the eyes of the parent softening at the sight of his son, and the latter brightening with an air of confidence and cordiality. It was strange to see two such combative creatures look so amiably upon each other. Clearly the family feeling was very strong among the Beaumonts.

Instead of shouting, “What’s this about pistols?” as he had meant to do, Mr. Beaumont gently asked. “What’s the news, Vincent?”

Then came the story of the previous evening’s adventure. It was related to this effect: there had been some ironical sparring between a Beaumont and a McAlister; thereupon the McAlister had said, substantially, “You are no gentleman.”

“How came you to go near the clown?” growled Peyton Beaumont, his hairy nostrils twitching and his thick eyebrows charging bayonets.

“He approached me, while I was talking to Miss Jenny Devine.”

Vincent did not think it the honorable thing to explain that the young lady was much to blame for the unpleasantness.

“The quarrelsome beasts!” snorted Beaumont. “Always picking a fight with our family. Trying to get themselves into decent company that way. It’s always been so, ever since they came to this district; always! We had peace before. Why, Vincent, it’s the most unprovoked insult that I ever heard of. What had you said? Nothing but what was—was socially allowable—parliamentary. And he to respond with a brutality! No gentleman! A Beaumont no gentleman! By heavens, he deserves to be shot on sight, shot at the first street-corner, like a nigger-stealer. He doesn’t deserve a duel. The code is too good for him.”

“That sort of thing won’t do now, at least not among our set.”

“It did once. It did in my day. You young fellows are getting so cursed fastidious. Well, if it won’t do, then—

Mr. Beaumont took a sudden wheel and walked the piazza in grave excitement. When he returned to face the young man, he said with undisguisable anxiety: “Well, my boy! You know the duties of a gentleman. I don’t see that I am permitted to interfere.”

“I have put things into the hands of Bentley Armitage,” added Vincent.

“Very good. Do as well as anybody, seeing his brother isn’t here. Come, let us have breakfast.”

At the breakfast-table appeared only these two men, and the second son, Poinsett. There was not a white woman in the house, though we must not blame Mr. Beaumont for the deficiency, inasmuch as he had espoused and lost two wives, and had been known to try at least once for a third. His eldest daughter, Nellie, was married to Randolph Armitage, of Brownville District; his only other daughter, Kate, and his sister, Mrs. Chester, were, as we know, in Charleston.

For some minutes Poinsett, a fat, tranquil, pleasantly spoken, and talkative fellow of perhaps twenty-five, bore the expense (as the French say) of the conversation.

“Our feminine population will be home soon, I venture to hope,” he said, among other things. “Then, it is to be cheerfully believed, we shall come out of our slough of despond. American men, if you will excuse me for saying so, are as dull and dry as the Devil. They manage matters better in France, and on the Continent generally, and even in England. There, yes, even in England, common prejudice to the contrary notwithstanding, the genus homo is social. Conversation goes on in those countries. I don’t say but that we Southerners are ahead of our Northern brethren; but even we bear traces of two hundred years in the forest. We do speak; there is much monologuing, and I perform my share of it; but as for talking, quick interchange of ideas, fair give and take, we are on a par with Cooper’s noble savage. Let me hope that I don’t wound your patriotism. I admit that I have an immoral lack of prejudices. But I want to know if you don’t find life here just a little dull?”

“Why the deuce don’t you go to work, then?” burst out Peyton Beaumont. “Here you two fellows are as highly educated as money can make you. You are a lawyer, graduated at Berlin. Vincent is a doctor, graduated at Paris. And yet you do nothing; never either of you had a case; don’t want one.”

“Ah, work! that is dull too,” admitted the smiling, imperturbable Poinsett. “Idleness is dull; but work is duller. I confess that it is a sad fact, and painful to me to consider it. So let us change the subject. Most noble Vincent, you seem to be in the doldrums this morning.”

“He has an affair on his hands,” muttered the father of the family.

“Ah!” said Poinsett, with a slight elevation of the eyebrows, comprehending perfectly that a duel was alluded to.

“Another McAlister impertinence,” pursued Mr. Beaumont, and proceeded to tell the story with great savageness.

“Wallace!” exclaimed Poinsett, “I confess that I am the least bit surprised. I thought Wallace an amiable, soporific creature like myself. But the spirit of the breed—the oversoul of the McAlisters—is too much for his individuality. We are drops in a river. I shall fight, too, some day, though I don’t at all crave it. Vincent, if I can do anything for you, I am entirely at your service.”

Vincent’s smile was noticeably satirical. He was disagreeably amused with Poinsett’s coolness over another’s duel. And he did not believe that Poinsett could be easily got to fight.

“I suppose that Bent Armitage will do all that is necessary,” he said.

“Let us hope that the loading of the pistols will be all that is necessary,” replied Poinsett. “Let us hope that Wally will bend his stiff knees, and confess that we march at the head of civilization.”

“By heavens, I want him shot,” broke in Beaumont the elder. “I can’t understand you young fellows, with your soft notions. I belong to the old sort. There used to be shooting in my day. Here is the most unprovoked and brutal outrage that I ever heard of. This beast calls a Beaumont no gentleman. And here you hope there’ll be an apology, and that end it. I want Vincent to hit him. I want the fellow shelved; I don’t care if he’s killed; by heavens, I don’t.”

Mr. Beaumont was in a fit state to break glasses and overturn the table. His black eyes were bloodshot; his bushy eyebrows were dancing and pointing as if they were going through small-sword exercise; there was a dull flame of blood all over his dark cheeks and yellowish mottled forehead. Vincent, the medical graduate of Paris, surveyed his father through half-shut eyes, and thought out the diagnosis, “Temporarily insane.” There was no audible response to the senior’s good old-fashioned Beaumont burst of rage.

After some minutes of silence, during which Poinsett smilingly poured himself a second cup of coffee (holding that he could do it better than any waiter), the father recovered his composure somewhat, and added gravely: “Of course this is a serious matter. I hope, trust, and believe that Vincent will receive no harm. If he does” (here his eyebrows bristled again), “I shall take the field myself.”

“We will see,” smiled Poinsett. “My impression is that my turn comes in somewhere.”

Here Cato, head waiter as well as valet, put in his oar.

“That’s so, Mars Poinsett. We all has our turn, fightin’ these yere McAlisters.”

“Why, what have you been at, Cato?” asked the young man. “Challenging the Judge? Or pulling the wool of his old mauma?”

“No, sah. Yah, yah. I don’ go roun’ challengin’ white folks; knows my business better. An’ when I pulls wool, I pulls he wool. Jes had a tackle yesterday with Matt McAlister, the Judge’s ole man that waits on him. Matt he sets out, ’cause he’s yaller, an’ comes from Virginny, that he’s better than we is, we Souf Carliny niggahs. So every time I sees him I sasses him. Yesr mornin’, I meets him down to the sto’—Mars Bill Wilkins’s sto’, don’ ye know?—kinder lookin’ roun’ for bar’l o’ flour. ‘So,’ says I, ‘Boss,’ says I, ‘how is things up to your ole shanty?’ He’s a kinder gray ole fellow, don’ ye know? puttin’ on airs like he was Noah, an’ treatin’ everybody like they’s childern, rollin’ his eyes out o’ the corners kinder, an’ crossin’ his arms jes as the Judge does. So he looked at me, an’, says he, ‘Boy, who is you?’ Says I, ‘I’m Cato Beaumont.’ So says he, ‘I thought it mought be some o’ that breedin’.’ Says I, ‘I was jes happenin’ down here to teach you your manners.’ So says he, ‘Boy, my manners was learned befo’ you ever heerd they was sech things.’ Then I kinder tripped him, an’ he kinder tripped me, an’ then I squared off and fotched back, an’ says I—”

“Why didn’t you hit him?” roared the Hon. Mr. Beaumont, who had been listening with great interest. “What did you say another word for?”

“I was jest gwine to tell you what I said,” returned Cato. “But now, ’fore gracious, you done made me forgit it. I said a heap to him.”

“And so there wasn’t any fight after all,” inferred the smiling Poinsett. “And nobody got hurt. Heaven favors the brave.”

“It didn’t ’zactly come to a wrastle,” confessed Cato. “But I ’specs it would, for I was gittin’ powerful mad: Only jes as I was thinkin’ o’ gwine at him one o’ Mars Wilkins’s clerks come out, an’ says he, ‘Boys, don’ make so much noise’; an’ so I quit.”

Beaumont senior gave forth a mild growl of disapprobation, as deeply mellow as the anger of waters in caves of the sea-shore. “Cowardly niggers,” was one sound which came from him; and yet, although he despised negroes for being cowardly, he did not blame them for it; he knew that chivalry, prowess, and the like were properly white man’s business.

Half an hour after breakfast pistol-shots resounded from an oak grove in the rear of the mansion. Vincent was practising; had a board five feet eight inches high planted in the ground; hit the upper part of it with fascinating accuracy. “Getting my hand in,” he remarked to his father when the latter came out to look on; and presently the elder gentleman became interested, and made a few exemplary shots himself. The two men were in the midst of this cheering recreation when Cato came running upon them with frantic gestures and a yell of “Mars Peyt! Stage come! Miss Kate come!”

“What’s that, you rascal?” roared Beaumont, his grim face suddenly transformed into the likeness of something half angelic, so honest and pure and fervent was its joy. Plunging a hairy hand into his pocket, he drew out a grip of coins, threw them at the negro, and started for the house on a run which knocked him out of his wind in twenty paces. Then he halted, and shouted back, “Vincent, hide those pistols. Cato, if you say a word about this business, I’ll skin you.”

Then away again, on a plethoric canter, to meet his youngest daughter, his darling.

In the rear piazza of the house a tall and lovely girl rushed into his arms with a cry of “Father!” to which he responded with a sound which was much like a sob of gladness. There were tears of joy shed by somebody; it was impossible to say whether they came from Kate’s eyes or from her father’s; but they were dried between their nestling, caressing cheeks.

“Why, Kate! what a woman you are!” exclaimed Beaumont, holding her back at arm’s length to worship her.

Vincent and Poinsett already stood by waiting their turns for an embrace. It was clear enough that, whatever defects there might be in this Beaumont breed, the lack of family feeling was not one of them.

Meantime Mrs. Chester and Tom were coming through the house, the former chattering steadily in a high, joyful soprano, and the latter roaring his lion-cub content in slangy exclamations.

The scene contrasted with the pistol practice of the oak grove somewhat as paradise contrasts with the inferno.

Of the paradise and the inferno, which is to win?