Harper's Round Table, June 16, 1896
Copyright, 1896, by Harper & Brothers. All Rights Reserved.
|published weekly.||NEW YORK, TUESDAY, JUNE 16, 1896.||five cents a copy.|
|vol. xvii.—no. 868.||two dollars a year.|
A VIRGINIA CAVALIER.
BY MOLLY ELLIOT SEAWELL.
"Nature made Washington great; but he made himself virtuous."
he sun shines not upon a lovelier land than midland Virginia. Greatrivers roll seaward through rich woodlands and laughing corn-fields andfair meadow-lands. Afar off the misty lines of blue hills shine faintlyagainst the deeper blue of the sky. The atmosphere is singularly clear,and the air wholesome and refreshing.
Never was it more beautiful than on an afternoon in late October of1746. The Indian-summer was at hand—that golden time when Nature uttersa solemn "Hush!" to the season, and calls back the summer-time for alittle while. The scene was full of peace—the broad and placidRappahannock shimmering in the sun, its bosom unvexed except by thesails of an occasional grain-laden vessel making its way quietly andslowly down the blue river. The quiet homesteads lay basking in thefervid sun, while woods and streams and fields were full of those softharmonious country sounds which make a kind of musical silence.
A mile or two back from the river ran the King's highway—a good roadfor those days, and showing signs of much travel. It passed at one pointthrough a natural clearing, on the top of which grew a few melancholypines. The road came out of the dense woods on one side of this openspace, and disappeared in the woods on the other side.
On this October afternoon, about three o'clock, a boy with a gun on hisshoulder and a dog at his heels came noiselessly out of the woods andwalked to the top of the knoll. The day was peculiarly still, but onlythe quickest[Pg 790] ear could have detected the faint sound the boy made, aswith a quick and graceful step he marched up the hill—for GeorgeWashington was a natural woodsman from his young boyhood, and he hadearly learned how to make his way through forest and field without somuch as alarming the partridge on her nest. No art or craft of thewoods, whether of white man or Indian, was unknown to him; and heunderstood Nature, the mighty mother, in all her civilized anduncivilized moods.
A full game-bag on his back showed what his employment had been, but nowhe gave himself over to the rare but delicious idleness whichoccasionally overtakes everybody who tramps long through the woods. Hesat down and took off his cap, revealing his handsome blond head. Thedog, a beautiful, long-eared setter, laid his nose confidentially uponhis master's knee, and blinked solemnly with his large tawny eyes intohis master's blue ones. The boy's eyes were remarkable—a light butbeautiful blue, and softening a face that even in boyhood was full ofresolution, and even of sternness. His figure was as near perfection asthe human form could be—tall, athletic, clean of limb and deep ofchest, singularly graceful, and developed, as the wise old Greeksdeveloped their bodies, by manly exercises and healthful brain-work andthe cleanest and most wholesome living. Neither the face nor the figurecould belong to a milksop. The indications of strong passions, of fierceloves and hates and resentments, were plain enough. But stronger eventhan these was that noble expression which a purity of soul and acommanding will always write upon the human countenance. This boy was agentleman at heart and in soul—not because he had no temptation to beotherwise, but because he chose to be a gentleman. He sat in silence forhalf an hour, the dog resting against him, the two communing together asonly a boy and a dog can. The sun shone, the wind scarcely ruffled adying leaf. A crow circled around in the blue air, uttering a caw thatwas lost in the immensity of the heavens. The silence seemed to growdeeper every moment, when, with a quick movement, George laid his ear tothe ground. To an unpractised ear there was not the slightest break inthe quiet, but to the boy's trained hearing something was approachingalong the highway which induced him to sit still awhile longer. It wassome time in coming, for the heavy coaches in those days hung upon wideleather straps, and with broad-tired wheels made much commotion as theyrolled along, to say nothing of the steady beat of the horses' hoofsupon the hard road. George's eyes were as quick as his ears, but hecaught nothing of the approaching travellers until the cavalcade flashedsuddenly into the sun, and with its roar and rattle seemed to spring outof the ground.
First came four sturdy negro outriders, in a gorgeous livery of greenand gold, and mounted upon stout bay horses, well adapted for hardtravel. Then came a magnificent travelling coach, crest-emblazoned,which would not have discredited the King's levee. It was drawn by foursuperb roans, exactly matched in form, color, and action. They took theroad as if they had just warmed up to their work; but from the dust onthe whole cavalcade it was plain they had travelled far that day. Withheads well in the air, the horses threw their legs together with a styleand at a gait that showed them to be of the best-blood in the horsekingdom. A black postilion in green and gold rode the off horse of theleaders, while a black coachman handled the reins. On the box, next thecoachman, sat a white man, evidently a servant out of livery. One glancetold that he was an old soldier. He had at his side one of the hugeholsters of the day, in which he carried a pair of long horse-pistols;and a stout wooden box, upon which he rested his feet, showed that theparty had means of defence had it been attacked.
George was so stunned with admiration at the splendor of the equipagethat he scarcely glanced at the interior of the coach until the sunlightflashed upon something that fairly dazzled him. It was a diamond-hilteddress-sword, worn by a gentleman of about fifty, who sat alone upon theback seat. The gorgeous sword-hilt was the only thing about him thatshone or glinted, for his brown travelling suit was as studiously simpleas his equipage was splendid. He wore plain silver buckles at his kneesand upon his handsome high-arched feet, and his hair, streaked withgray, was without powder, and tied into a club with a black ribbon.
One glance at his face fixed George's attention. It was pale andsomewhat angular, unlike the type of florid, high-colored Virginiasquires with which George was familiar. He had been handsome in hisyouth, and was still handsome, with a stately, grave beauty; but even aboy could see that this man had had but little joy in life.
From the moment that George's eyes fell upon this gentleman he lookedupon nothing else. Neither the great coach nor the superb horses had anypower to attract his gaze, although never in all his short life had heseen anything so splendid. His mother had a coach, and so had most ofthe people roundabout, but all had a common air of having once beenhandsome, and of having reached the comfortable, shabby-genteel stage.And many persons drove four horses to these great lumbering vehicles,but all four would not be worth one of the gallant roans that trottedalong the road so gayly.
It was out of sight in a few minutes, and in a few minutes more it wasout of hearing; but in that short time George, who was quick-witted, hadshrewdly guessed the name and rank of the gentleman with the plainclothes and the diamond-hilted sword. It was the great Earl ofFairfax—the soldier, the wit, the rich nobleman—who for somemysterious reason had chosen to come to this new land and to build alodge in the wilderness. The boy had often heard his mother, MadamWashington, speak of Earl Fairfax. Meeting with him was one of theevents of that great journey she had made in her girlhood to England,where for a time she lived in the house of her brother, Joseph Ball, atCookham, in Berkshire, who had left his Virginia home and had taken uphis residence in England. Here Mary Ball had met Angustine Washington,then in England upon affairs connected with his property. AugustineWashington was one of the handsomest men of his day, and from him hiseldest son George inherited the noble air and figure that marked him.Mary Ball was a Virginia beauty, and although admired by many Englishmenof distinction, she chose rather to marry Augustine Washington, albeithe had been married before, and had two motherless boys. In England,therefore, were they married, sailing soon after for Virginia, andwithin twelve years Mrs. Washington was a widow with five children. Sheloved to talk to her children of those happy English days, when she hadfirst pledged herself to Augustine Washington. It had also been the onlytime of excitement in her quiet life, and she had met many of the witsand cavaliers and belles of the reign of George the Second. Shesometimes spoke of Lord Fairfax, but always guardedly; and George hadconceived the idea that his mother perhaps knew Lord Fairfax better, andthe reasons for his abandonment of his own country, than she cared totell.
He began to wonder, quite naturally, where the Earl was bound; andsuddenly it came to him in a flash—"He is going to pay his respects tomy mother." In another instant he was on his feet and speeding like adeer through the woods towards home.
The house at Ferry Farm which was home to him was a good four miles bythe road; but by paths through the woods and fields, and a foot-bridgeacross a creek, it was barely a mile. It took him only a short time tomake it, but before he could reach the house he saw the coach andoutriders dash into sight and draw up before the porch. The old soldierjumped from the box, and opened the door and let down the steps, and theEarl descended in state. On the porch stood Uncle Jasper, the venerableblack butler, in a suit of homespun, with a long white apron thatreached from his chin to his knees. George saw him bowing and usheringthe Earl in. The outriders loosened their horses' girths, and afterbreathing them, led them to the watering-trough in the stable lot backof the house. They then watered the coach horses, the coachman sittingin solitary magnificence on his box, while the old soldier stretched hislegs by walking about the lot. George saw[Pg 791] this as he came through thestableway, his dog still at his heels. Uncle Jasper was waiting for himon the back porch.
"De madam," he began, in a mysterious whisper, "will want you ter put onyo' Sunday clo'es 'fo' you come in ter see de Earl o' Fairfax. He's inde settin'-room now."
George understood very well, and immediately went to his room to changehis hunting-clothes, which were the worse for both dirt and wear. It wasa ceremonious age, and the formalities of dress and manners were verystrictly observed.
Meanwhile, in the sitting-room, on opposite sides of the fireplace, satMadam Washington and the Earl. Truly, the beauty that had distinguishedMary Ball remained with Madam Washington. Her figure was slight anddelicate (not from her had her eldest son inherited his brawn andmuscle), and in her severely simple black gown she looked even slighterthan usual. Her complexion was dazzlingly fair, and little rings ofchestnut hair escaped from her widow's cap; but her fine blue eyes werethe counterpart of her eldest son's. The room was plainly furnished,even for the times, but scrupulously