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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

The Colonel’s Clothes

By Caroline Howard Gilman (1794–1888)

[Born in Boston, Mass., 1794. Died in Washington, D.C., 1888. Recollections of a Southern Matron. 1867.]

EVERY man has some peculiar taste or preference, and, I think, though papa dressed with great elegance, his was a decided love of his old clothes; his garments, like his friends, became dearer to him from their wear and tear in his service, and they were deposited successively in his dressing-room, though mamma thought them quite unfit for him. He averred that he required his old hunting-suits for accidents; his summer jackets and vests, though faded, were the coolest in the world; his worm-eaten but warm roquelaure was admirable for riding about the fields, etc. In vain mamma represented the economy of cutting up some for the boys, and giving others to the servants; he would not consent, nor part with articles in which he said he felt at home. Often did mamma remonstrate against the dressing-room’s looking like a haberdasher’s shop; often did she take down a coat, hold it up to the light, and show him perforations that would have honored New Orleans or Waterloo; often, while Chloe was flogging the pantaloons, which ungallantly kicked in return, did she declare that it was a sin and a shame for her master to have such things in the house; still the anti-cherubic shapes accumulated on the nails and hooks, and were even considered as of sufficient importance to be preserved from the fire at the burning of Roseland.

Our little circle about this time was animated by a visit from a peddler. As soon as he was perceived crossing the lawn with a large basket on his arm, and a bundle slung across a stick on his shoulder, a stir commenced in the house. Mamma assumed an air of importance and responsibility; I felt a pleasurable excitement; Chloe’s and Flora’s eyes twinkled with expectation; while, from different quarters, the house servants entered, standing with eyes and mouth silently open, as the peddler, after depositing his basket and deliberately untying his bundle, offered his goods to our inspection. He was a stout man. with a dark complexion, pitted with the small-pox, and spoke in a foreign accent. I confess that I yielded myself to the pleasure of purchasing some gewgaws, which I afterward gave to Flora, while mamma looked at the glass and plated ware.

“Ver sheap,” said the peddler, following her eye, and taking up a pair of glass pitchers; “only two dollar—sheap as dirt. If te lady hash any old closhes, it is petter as money.”

Mamma took the pitchers in her hand with an inquisitorial air, balanced them, knocked them with her small knuckles—they rang as clear as a bell—examined the glass—there was not a flaw in it. Chloe went through the same process; they looked significantly at each other, nodded, set the pitchers on the slab, and gave a little approbatory cough.

“They are certainly very cheap,” said mamma.

“They is, for true, my mistress,” said Chloe, with solemnity, “and more handsomer than Mrs. Whitney’s that she gin six dollars for at Charleston.”

“Chloe,” said mamma, “were not those pantaloons you were shaking to-day quite shrunk and worn out?”

“Yes, ma’am,” said she; “and they don’t fit nohow. The last time the colonel wore them he seemed quite onrestless.”

“Just step up,” said her mistress, “and bring them down; but stay—what did you say was the price of these candlesticks, sir?”

“Tish only von dollars; but tish more cheaper for te old closhes. If te lady will get te old closhes, I will put in te pellows and te prush, and it ish more sheaper, too.”

Chloe and mamma looked at each other, and raised their eyebrows.

“I will just step up and see those pantaloons,” said mamma, in a consulting tone. “It will be a mercy to the colonel to clear out some of that rubbish. I am confident he can never wear the pantaloons again; they are rubbed in the knees, and require seating, and he never will wear seated pantaloons. These things are unusually cheap, and the colonel told me lately we were in want of a few little matters of this sort.” Thus saying, with a significant whisper to me to watch the peddler, she disappeared with Chloe.

They soon returned, Chloe bearing a variety of garments, for mamma had taken the important premier pas. The pantaloons were first produced. The peddler took them in his hand, which flew up like an empty scale, to show how light they were; he held them up to the sun, and a half contemptuous smile crossed his lips; then shaking his head, he threw them down beside his basket. A drab overcoat was next inspected, and was also thrown aside with a doubtful expression.

“Mr. Peddler,” said mamma, in a very soft tone, “you must allow me a fair price; these are excellent articles.”

“Oh, ver fair,” said he, “but te closhes ish not ver goot; te closhesman is not going to give me noting for dish,” and he laid a waistcoat on the other two articles.

Mamma and Chloe had by this time reached the depths of the basket, and, with sympathetic exclamations, arranged several articles on the slab.

“You will let me have these pitchers,” said mamma, with a look of concentrated resolution, “for that very nice pair of pantaloons.”

The peddler gave a short whistle expressive of contempt, shook his head, and said, “Tish not possibles. I will give two pisher and von prush for te pantaloon and waistcoat.”

Mamma and Chloe glanced at each other and at me; I was absorbed in my own bargains, and said, carelessly, that the pitchers were perfect beauties. Chloe pushed one pitcher a little forward, mamma pushed the other on a parallel line, then poised a decanter, and again applied her delicate knuckles for the test. That, too, rang out the musical, unbroken sound, so dear to the housewife’s ear, and, with a pair of plated candlesticks, was deposited on the table. The peddler took up the drab overcoat.

“Te closhesman’s give noting for dish.”

Mamma looked disconcerted. The expression of her face implied the fear that the peddler would not even accept it as a gift. Chloe and she held a whispering consultation. At this moment Binah came in with little Patsey, who, seeing the articles on the slab, pointed with her dimpled fingers, and said her only words,

“Pretty! pretty!”

At the same moment, Lafayette and Venus, the two little novices in furniture-rubbing, exclaimed,

“Ki! if dem ting an’t shine too much!”

These opinions made the turning-point in mamma’s mind, though coming from such insignificant sources.

“So they are pretty, my darling,” said mamma to Patsey; and then, turning to the peddler, she asked him what he would give in exchange for the pantaloons, the waistcoat, and the coat.

The peddler set aside two decanters, one pitcher, the plated candlesticks, and a hearth-brush.

“Tish ver goot pargains for te lady,” said he.

Mamma gained courage.

“I cannot think of letting you have all these things without something more. You must at least throw in that little tray,” and she looked at a small scarlet one, worth perhaps a quarter of a dollar.

The peddler hesitated, and held it up so that the morning sun shone on its bright hues.

“I shall not make a bargain without that,” said mamma, resolutely. The peddler sighed, and laying it with the selected articles said,

“Tish ver great pargains for te lady.”

Mamma smiled triumphantly, and the peddler, tying up his bundle and slinging his stick, departed with an air of humility.

Papa’s voice was soon heard, as usual, before he was seen.

“Rub down Beauty, Mark, and tell Diggory to call out the hounds.”

There was a slight embarrassment in mamma’s manner when he entered, mingled with the same quantity of bravado. He nodded to her, tapped me on the head with his riding-whip, gave Patsey a kiss as she stretched out her arms to him, tossed her in the air, and, returning her to her nurse, was passing on.

“Do stop, colonel,” said mamma, “and admire my bargains. See this cut glass and plate that we have been wishing for, to save our best set.”

“What, this trash?” said he, pausing a moment at the table—“blown glass and washed brass! Who has been fooling you?”

“Colonel,” said mamma, coloring highly, “how can you—”

“I cannot stop a minute, now, wife,” said he. “Jones and Ferguson are for a hunt to-day! They are waiting at Drake’s corner. It looks like falling weather, and my old drab will come in well to-day.”

Mamma looked frightened, and he passed on up-stairs. He was one of those gentlemen who keep a house alive, as the phrase is, whether in merriment or the contrary, and we were always prepared to search for his hat, or whip, or slippers, which he was confident he put in their places, but which, by some miracle, were often in opposite directions. Our greatest trial, however, was with mamma’s and his spectacles, for they had four pairs between them—far-sighted and near-sighted. There were, indeed, optical delusions practised with them; for when papa wanted his, they were hidden behind some pickle-jar; and when mamma had carefully placed hers in her key-basket, they were generally found in one of papa’s various pockets; when a distant object was to be seen, he was sure to mount the near-sighted, and cry “Pshaw!” and if a splinter was to be taken out, nothing could be found but the far-sighted ones, and he said something worse: sometimes all four pairs were missing, and such a scampering ensued!

We now heard a great outcry up-stairs. “Wife! Chloe! Cornelia! come and find my drab coat!” We looked at each other in dismay, but papa was not a man for delay, and we obeyed his summons.

“Wife,” said he, beating aside the externals of man that hung about his dressing-room, “where is my old drab coat?”

Mamma swallowed as if a dry artichoke was in her throat, as she said, slowly, “Why, colonel, you know you had not worn that coat for months, and as you have another one, and a roquelaure, and the coat was full of moth-holes, I exchanged it with the peddler for cut glass and plate.”

“Cut devils!” said papa, who liked to soften an oath by combinations; “it was worth twenty dollars—yes, more, because I felt at home in it. I hate new coats as I do—”

“But, colonel,” interrupted mamma, “you did not see the scarlet tray, and the—”

“Scarlet nonsense,” shouted papa; “I believe, if they could, women would sell their husbands to those rascally peddlers!”

Beauty and the hounds were now pronounced ready. I followed papa to the piazza, and heard his wrath rolling off as he cantered away.