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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Francis Hopkinson Smith (1838–1915)

A Dinner with Colonel Carter

From “Colonel Carter of Cartersville”

WHAT a cozy, charming interior, this dining-room of the colonel’s! It had once been two rooms, and two very small ones at that, divided by folding doors. From out the rear one there had opened a smaller room answering to the space occupied by the narrow hall and staircase in front. All the interior partitions and doors dividing these three rooms had been knocked away at some time in its history, leaving an L interior having two windows in front and three in the rear.

Some one of its former occupants, more luxurious than the others, had paneled the walls of this now irregular-shaped apartment with a dark wood running half-way to the low ceiling badly smoked and blackened by time, and had built two fireplaces—an open wood fire which laughed at me from behind my own andirons, and an old-fashioned English grate set into the chimney with wide hobs—convenient and necessary for the various brews and mixtures for which the colonel was famous.

Midway, equally warmed by both fires, stood the table, its center freshened by a great dish of celery, white and crisp, with covers for three on a snow-white cloth resplendent in old India blue, while at each end shone a pair of silver coasters—heirlooms from Carter Hall—one holding a cut-glass decanter of Madeira, the other awaiting its customary bottle of claret.

On the hearth before the wood-fire rested a pile of plates, also India blue, and on the mantel over the grate stood a row of bottles adapting themselves, like all good foreigners, to the rigors of our climate. Add a pair of silver candelabra with candles—the colonel despised gas—dark red curtains drawn close, three or four easy chairs, a few etchings and sketches loaned from my studio, together with a modest sideboard at the end of the L, and you have the salient features of a room so inviting and restful that you wanted life made up of one long dinner, continually served within its hospitable walls.

But I hear the colonel calling down the back stairs:

“Not a minute over eighteen, Chad. You ruined those ducks last Sunday.”

The next moment he had me by both hands.

“My dear major, I am pa’alized to think I kep’ you waitin’. Just up from my office. Been workin’ like a slave, suh. Only five minutes to dress befo’ dinner. Have a drop of sherry and a dash of bitters, or shall we wait for Fitzpatrick? No? All right! He should have been here befo’ this. You don’t know Fitz? Most extraord’nary man; a great mind, suh; literature, science, politics, finance, everything at his fingers’ ends. He has been of the greatest service to me since I have been in New York in this railroad enterprise, which I am happy to say is now reachin’ a culmination. You shall hear all about it after dinner. Put yo’ body in that chair and yo’ feet on the fender—my fire and yo’ fender! No, Fitz’s fender and yo’ andirons! Charmin’ combination!”

It is always one of my delights to watch the colonel as he busies himself about the room, warming a big chair for his guests, punching the fire, brushing the sparks from the pile of plates, and testing the temperature of the claret lovingly with the palms of his hands.

He is perhaps fifty years of age, tall and slightly built. His iron-gray hair is brushed straight back from his forehead, overlapping his collar behind. His eyes are deep-set and twinkling; nose prominent; cheeks slightly sunken; brow wide and high; and chin and jaw strong and marked. His mustache droops over a firm, well-cut mouth and unites at its ends with a gray goatee which rests on his shirt-front.

Like most Southerners living away from great cities, his voice is soft and low, and tempered with a cadence that is delicious.

He wears a black broadcloth coat—a double-breasted garment—with similar colored waistcoat and trousers, a turn-down collar, a shirt of many plaits which is under-starched and overwrinkled but always clean, large cuffs very much frayed, a narrow black or white tie, and low shoes with white cotton stockings.

This black broadcloth coat, by the way, is quite the most interesting feature of the colonel’s costume. So many changes are constantly made in its general make-up that you never quite believe it is the same ill-buttoned, shiny garment until you become familiar with its possibilities.

When the colonel has a funeral or other serious matter on his mind, this coat is buttoned close up under his chin, showing only the upper edge of his white collar, his gaunt throat, and the stray end of a black cravat. When he is invited to dinner he buttons it lower down, revealing as well a bit of his plaited shirt; and when it is a wedding this old stand-by is thrown wide open, discovering a stiff, starched, white waistcoat with ivory buttons and snowy neck-cloth.

These several make-ups used once to surprise me, and I often found myself insisting that the looseness and grace with which this garment flapped about the colonel’s thin legs was only possible in a brand-new coat having all the spring and lightness of youth in its seams. I was always mistaken. I had only to look at the mismated buttons and the raveled edge of the lining fringing the tails. It was the same coat.

The colonel wore to-night the lower-button style with the white tie. It was indeed the adjustment of this necessary article which had consumed the five minutes passed in his dressing-room, slightly lengthened by the time necessary to trim his cuffs—a little nicety which he rarely overlooked and which it mortified him to forget.

What a frank, generous, tender-hearted fellow he is! happy as a boy; hospitable to the verge of beggary; enthusiastic as he is visionary; simple as he is genuine. A Virginian of good birth, fair education, and limited knowledge of the world and of men, proud of his ancestry, proud of his State, and proud of himself; believing in States’ rights, slavery, and the Confederacy; and away down in the bottom of his soul still clinging to the belief that the poor white trash of the earth includes about everybody outside of Fairfax County.

With these antecedents it is easy to see that his “reconstruction” is as hopeless as that of the famous Greek frieze, outwardly whole and yet always a patchwork. So he chafes continually under what he believes to be the tyranny and despotism of an undefined autocracy, which, in a general way, he calls “the Government,” but which really refers to the distribution of certain local offices in his own immediate vicinity.

When he hands you his card it bears this unabridged inscription:

  • Cartersville, Virginia.
  • He omits “United States of America,” simply because it would add nothing to his identity or his dignity.

    “There’s Fitz,” said the colonel as a sharp double knock sounded at the outer gate; and the next instant a stout, thick-set, round-faced man of forty, with merry, bead-like eyes protected by big bowed spectacles, pushed open the door, and peered in good-humoredly.

    The colonel sprang forward and seized him by both shoulders.

    “What the devil do you mean, Fitz, by comin’ ten minutes late? Don’t you know, suh, that the burnin’ of a canvasback is a crime?

    “Stuck in the snow? Well, I’ll forgive you this once, but Chad won’t. Give me yo’ coat—bless me! it is as wet as a setter dog. Now put yo’ belated carcass into this chair which I have been warmin’ for you, right next to my dearest old friend, the major. Major, Fitz!—Fitz, the major! Take hold of each other. Does my heart good to get you both together. Have you brought a copy of the prospectus of our railroad? You know I want the major in with us on the groun’ flo’. But after dinner—not a word befo’.”

    This railroad was the colonel’s only hope for the impoverished acres of Carter Hall, but lately saved from foreclosure by the generosity of his aunt, Miss Nancy Carter, who had redeemed it with almost all her savings, the house and half of the outlying lands being thereupon deeded to her. The other half reverted to the colonel.

    I explained to Fitz immediately after his hearty greeting that I was a humble landscape painter, and not a major at all, having not the remotest connection with any military organization whatever; but that the colonel always insisted upon surrounding himself with a staff, and that my promotion was in conformity with this habit.

    The colonel laughed, seized the poker, and rapped three times on the floor. A voice from the kitchen rumbled up:

    “Comin’, sah!”

    It was Chad “dishin’ the dinner” below, his explanations increasing in distinctness as he pushed the rear door open with his foot—both hands being occupied with the soup tureen, which he bore aloft and placed at the head of the table.

    In a moment more he retired to the outer hall and reappeared brilliant in white jacket and apron. Then he ranged himself behind the colonel’s chair and with great dignity announced that dinner was served.

    “Come, major! Fitz, sit where you can warm yo’ back—you are not thawed out yet. One minute, gentlemen—an old custom of my ancestors which I never omit.”

    The blessing was asked with becoming reverence; there was a slight pause, and then the colonel lifted the cover of the tureen and sent a savory cloud of incense to the ceiling.

    The soup was a cream of something with baby crabs. There was also a fish—boiled—with slices of hard-boiled eggs fringing the dish, ovaled by a hedge of parsley and supplemented by a pyramid of potatoes with their jackets ragged as tramps. Then a ham, brown and crisp, and bristling all over with cloves.

    Then the ducks!

    It was beautiful to see the colonel’s face when Chad, with a bow like a folding jack-knife, held this dish before him.

    “Lay ’em here, Chad—right under my nose. Now hand me that pile of plates sizzlin’ hot, and give that caarvin’-knife a turn or two across the hearth. Major, dip a bit of celery in the salt and follow it with a mou’ful of claret. It will prepare yo’ palate for the kind of food we raise gentlemen on down my way. See that red blood, suh, followin’ the knife!”

    “Suit you, marsa?” Chad never forgot his slave days.

    “To a turn, Chad—I wouldn’t take a thousand dollars for you,” replied the colonel, relapsing as unconsciously into an old habit.

    It was not to be wondered at that the colonel loved a good dinner. To dine well was with him an inherited instinct—one of the necessary preliminaries to all the important duties in life. To share with you his last crust was a part of his religion; to eat alone, a crime.

    “There, major,” said the colonel as Chad laid the smoking plate before me, “is the breast of a bird that fo’ days ago was divin’ for wild celery within fo’ty miles of Caarter Hall. My dear old aunt Nancy sends me a pair every week, bless her sweet soul! Fill yo’ glasses and let us drink to her health and happiness.” Here the colonel rose from his chair: “Gentlemen, the best thing on this earth—a true Southern lady!

    “Now, Chad, the red pepper.”

    “No jelly, colonel?” said Fitz, with an eye on the sideboard.

    “Jelly? No, suh; not a suspicion of it. A pinch of salt, a dust of cayenne, then shut yo’ eyes and mouth, and don’t open them ’cept for a drop of good red wine. It is the salt marsh in the early mornin’ that you are tastin’, suh—not molasses candy. You Nawtherners don’t really treat a canvasback with any degree of respect. You ought never to come into his presence when he lies in state without takin’ off yo’ hats. That may be one reason why he skips over the Nawthern States when he takes his annual fall outin’.” And he laughed heartily.

    “But you use it on vension?” argued Fitz.

    “Venison is diff’ent, suh. That game lives on moose buds, the soft inner bark of the sugar-maple, and the tufts of sweet grass. There is a propriety and justice in his endin’ his days smothered in sweets; but the wild duck, suh, is bawn of the salt ice, braves the storm, and lives a life of peyil and hardship. You don’t degrade a oyster, a soft-shell crab, or a clam with confectionery; why a canvasback duck?

    “Now, Chad, serve coffee.”

    The colonel pushed back his chair, and opened a drawer in a table on his right, producing three small clay pipes with reed stems and a buckskin bag of tobacco. This he poured out on a plate, breaking the coarser grains with the palms of his hands, and filling the pipes with the greatest care.

    Fitz watched him curiously, and when he reached for the third pipe, said:

    “No, colonel, none for me; smoke a cigar—got a pocketful.”

    “Smoke yo’ own cigars, will you, and in the presence of a Virginian? I don’t believe you have got a drop of Irish blood left in yo’ veins, or you would take this pipe.”

    “Too strong for me,” remonstrated Fitz.

    “Throw that villainous device away, I say, Fitz, and surprise yo’ nostrils with a whiff of this. Virginia tobacco, suh—raised at Caartersville—cured by my own servants. No? Well, you will, major. Here, try that; every breath of it is a nosegay,” said the colonel, turning to me.

    “But, colonel,” continued Fitz, with a sly twinkle in his eye, “your tobacco pays no tax. With a debt like ours, it is the duty of every good citizen to pay his share of it. Half the cost of this cigar goes to the Government.”

    It was a red flag to the colonel, and he laid down his pipe and faced Fitz squarely.

    “Tax! On our own productions, suh! Raised on our own land! Are you again forgettin’ that you are an Irishman and becomin’ one of these money-makin’ Yankees? Haven’t we suffe’d enough—robbed of our property, our lands confiscated, our slaves torn from us; nothin’ left but our honor and the shoes we stand in!”

    The colonel on cross-examination could not locate any particular wholesale robbery, but it did not check the flow of his indignation.

    “Take, for instance, the town of Caartersville: look at that peaceful village which for mo’ than a hundred years has enjoyed the privileges of free government; and not only Caartersville, but all our section of the State.”

    “Well, what’s the matter with Cartersville?” asked Fitz, lighting his cigar.

    “Mattah, suh! Just look at the degradation it fell into hardly ten years ago. A Yankee jedge jurisdictin’ our laws, a Yankee sheriff enfo’cin’ ’em, and a Yankee postmaster distributin’ letters and sellin’ postage-stamps.”

    “But they were elected all right, colonel, and represented the will of the people.”

    “What people? Yo’ people, not mine. No, my dear Fitz, the Administration succeeding the war treated us shamefully, and will go down to postehity as infamous.”

    The colonel here left his chair and began pacing the floor, his indignation rising at every step.

    “To give you an idea, suh,” he continued, “of what we Southern people suffe’d immediately after the fall of the Confederacy, let me state a case that came under my own observation.

    “Colonel Temple Talcott of F’okeer County, Virginia, came into Talcottville one mornin’, suh—a town settled by his ancestors—ridin’ upon his horse—or rather a mule belongin’ to his overseer. Colonel Talcott, suh, belonged to one of the vehy fust families in Virginia. He was a son of Jedge Thaxton Talcott, and grandson of General Snowden Stafford Talcott of the Revolutionary War. Now, suh, let me tell you right here that the Talcott blood is as blue as the sky, and that every gentleman bearin’ the name is known all over the county as a man whose honor is dearer to him than his life, and whose word is as good as his bond. Well, suh, on this mornin’ Colonel Talcott left his plantation in charge of his overseer—he was workin’ it on shares—and rode through his estates to his ancestral town, some five miles distant. It is true, suh, these estates were no longer in his name, but that had no bearin’ on the events that followed; he ought to have owned them, and would have done so but for some vehy ungentlemanly fo’closure proceedin’s which occurred immediately after the war.

    “On arriving at Talcottville the colonel dismounted, handed the reins to his servant—or perhaps one of the niggers around the do’—and entered the post-office. Now, suh, let me tell you that one month befo’ the Government, contrary to the express wishes of a great many of our leadin’ citizens, had sent a Yankee postmaster to Talcottville to administer the postal affairs of that town. No sooner had this man taken possession than he began to be exclusive, suh, and to put on airs. The vehy fust air he put on was to build a fence in his office and compel our people to transact their business through a hole. This in itself was vehy gallin’, suh, for up to that time the mail had always been dumped out on the table in the stage office and every gentleman had he’ped himself. The next thing was the closin’ of his mail-bags at a hour fixed by himself. This became a great inconvenience to our citizens, who were often late in finishin’ their correspondence, and who had always found our former postmaster willin’ either to hold the bag over until the next day, or to send it across to Drummondtown by a boy to catch a later train.

    “Well, suh, Colonel Talcott’s mission to the post-office was to mail a letter to his factor in Richmond, Va., on business of the utmost importance to himself—namely, the raisin’ of a small loan upon his share of the crop. Not the crop that was planted, suh, but the crop that he expected to plant.

    “Colonel Talcott approached the hole, and, with that Chesterfieldian manner which has distinguished the Talcotts for mo’ than two centuries, asked the postmaster for the loan of a three-cent postage-stamp.

    “To his astonishment, suh, he was refused.

    “Think of a Talcott in his own county town bein’ refused a three-cent postage-stamp by a low-lived Yankee, who had never known a gentleman in his life! The colonel’s first impulse was to haul the scoundrel through the hole and carve him; but then he remembered that he was a Talcott and could not demean himself, and, drawin’ himself up again with that manner which was grace itself, he requested the loan of a three-cent postage-stamp until he should communicate with his factor in Richmond, Va.; and again he was refused. Well, suh, what was there left for a high-toned Southern gentleman to do? Colonel Talcott drew his revolver and shot that Yankee scoundrel through the heart, and killed him on the spot.

    “And now, suh, comes the most remarkable part of this story. If it had not been for Major Tom Yancey, Jedge Kerfoot, and myself, there would have been a lawsuit.”

    Fitz lay back in his chair and roared.

    “And they did not hang the colonel?”

    “Hang a Talcott! No, suh; we don’t hang gentlemen down our way. Jedge Kerfoot vehy properly charged the coroner’s jury that it was a matter of self-defense, and Colonel Talcott was not detained mo’ than haalf an hour.”

    The colonel stopped, unlocked a closet in the sideboard, and produced a black bottle labeled in ink, “Old Cherry Bounce, 1848.”

    “You must excuse me, gentlemen, but the discussion of these topics has quite unnerved me. Allow me to share with you a thimbleful.”

    Fitz drained his glass, cast his eyes upward, and said solemnly, “To the repose of the postmaster’s soul.”