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Title: Social Life in Old Virginia Before the War
Author: Page, Thomas Nelson
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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                      SOCIAL LIFE IN OLD VIRGINIA
                            BEFORE THE WAR

[Illustration: “_Tall lilies, white as angels’ wings and stately as the
maidens that walked among them._”]

                      Social Life in Old Virginia
                           _Before the War_

                          THOMAS NELSON PAGE

                        _With Illustrations by_
                           THE MISSES COWLES


                               NEW YORK
                        CHARLES SCRIBNER’S SONS
                             M DCCC XCVIII

                          _Copyright, 1897_,
                      BY CHARLES SCRIBNER’S SONS.

                           University Press:

List of Illustrations


 “_Tall lilies, white as angels’ wings and stately as
    the maidens that walked among them_”                FRONTISPIECE

 _The Plantation House_                                            9

 “_Shining tables with slender brass-tipped legs_”                12

 “_There the guns were kept_”                                     13

 “_Bookcases filled with brown-backed, much-read books_”          15

 “_The flower of all others was the rose_”                        18

 _Tobacco_                                                        20

 _A Typical “Mammy”_                                              23

 “_The little girls in their great sun-bonnets_”                  26

 “_Busy over their little matters with that ceaseless
    energy of boyhood_”                                           27

 “_The test of the men’s prowess_”                                29

 _The Exclusive Property of the Mistress_                         33

 “_His thoughts dwelt upon serious things_”                       47

 _An Old Virginia Sideboard_                                      53

 “_She was never anything but tender with the others_”            59

 “_The Butler was apt to be severe, and was feared_”              63

 _The Lady and the Ox-Cart_                                       67

 _An Old-fashioned Grist-Mill_                                    73

 _A Colonial Stove_                                               79

 _Dressing the Church_                                            85

 “_At last the ‘big gate’ is reached_”                            91

 _The Virginia Reel_                                              97

 _A Negro Wedding_                                               101

 _A Typical Negro Cabin_                                         105


Which none need read unless he pleases.

No one can be more fully aware of the shortcomings of this brief
sketch of Social Life in the South before the War than is the writer.
Its slightness might readily have excused it from republication. And
yet it has seemed well to let it go forth on its own account, to take
such place as it may in the great world of books. One reason is the
partiality of a few friends who have desired to see it in this form.
Another is the absolute ignorance of the outside world of the real life
of the South in old times, and the desire to correct the picture for
the benefit of the younger generation of Southerners themselves. One
of the factors in that life was slavery. The most renowned picture
of Southern life is one of it as it related exclusively to that
institution. As an argument in the case then at bar, it was one of
the most powerful ever penned. Mrs. Stowe did more to free the slave
than all the politicians. And yet her picture is not one which any
Southerner would willingly have stand as a final portrait of Southern
life. No one could understand that life who did not see it in its

The old life at the South passed away in the flame of war and in
the yet more fiery ordeal of Reconstruction. So complete was this
devastation that now unless one knows where to go he may search in vain
for its reality. Its remnants lie scattered in far-off neighborhoods;
its fragments almost overgrown with the tangles of a new life. The
picture of it which at present is mainly presented is wholly unreal.
The Drama is one of the accepted modes of judging of passing life. It
is assumed to be a reasonably true reflection of the life it pretends
to portray. If this standard shall be accepted, what a life that
must have been which existed in the South! The bloodhounds, brute
and human, that chased delicate women for sport, have mainly been
given up. But their place has been taken by a different species of
barbarian if possible even more unreal than those they supplanted.
Quite a large crop of so-called Southern plays, or at least plays in
which Southerners have figured, has of late been introduced on the
stage, and the supposititious Southerner is as absurd a creation as
the wit of ignorance ever devised. The Southern girl is usually an
underbred little provincial, whose chief characteristic is to say
“reckon” and “real,” with strong emphasis, in every other sentence.
And the Southern gentleman is a sloven whose linen has never known
starch; who clips the endings of his words; says “Sah” at the end of
every sentence, and never uses an “r” except in the last syllable of
“nigger.” With a slouched hat, a slovenly dress, a plentiful supply
of “sahs,” and a slurred speech exclusively applied to “niggers,”
he is equipped for the stage. And yet it is not unkindly meant:
only patronizingly, which is worse. That Thackeray, Matthew Arnold,
Lawrence, and other visitors whose English passes current, declared
after a visit to America that they found the purest English speech
spoken in Virginia, goes for nothing.

If the writers of the plays referred to would attend one of the formal
assemblies under one of the old social associations in the South,--for
instance, the St. Cecilia Ball in Charleston, one of the final refuges
of old-fashioned gentility and distinguished manners,--they would get
some idea of what old-time good breeding and high courtesy were.

It is perhaps partly to correct this erroneous idea of the Old South
that this little essay has been attempted. But mainly it has been from
sheer affection.

                                                             T. N. P.


Let me see if I can describe an old Virginia home recalled from
a memory stamped with it when a virgin page. It may, perhaps, be
idealized by the haze of time; but it will be as I now remember it.

The mansion was a plain “weather-board” house, one story and a half
above the half-basement ground floor, set on a hill in a grove
of primeval oaks and hickories filled in with ash, maples, and
feathery-leafed locusts without number. It was built of timber cut
by the “servants” (they were never termed slaves except in legal
documents) out of the virgin forest, not long after the Revolution,
when that branch of the family moved from Yorktown. It had quaint
dormer windows, with small panes, poking out from its sloping upstairs
rooms, and long porches to shelter its walls from the sun and allow
house life in the open air.

A number of magnificent oaks and hickories (there had originally been a
dozen of the former, and the place from them took its name, “Oakland”),
under which Totapottamoi children may have played, spread their long
arms about it, sheltering nearly a half-acre apiece; whilst in among
them and all around were ash and maples, an evergreen or two, lilacs
and syringas and roses, and locusts of every age and size, which in
springtime filled the air with honeyed perfume, and lulled with the
“murmur of innumerable bees.”

[Illustration: _The Plantation House._]

There was an “office” in the yard; another house where the boys used
to stay, and the right to sleep in which was as eagerly looked forward
to and as highly prized as was by the youth of Rome the wearing of the
_toga virilis_. There the guns were kept; there the dogs might sleep
with their masters, under, or in cold weather even on, the beds; and
there charming bits of masculine gossip were retailed by the older
young gentlemen, and delicious tales of early wickedness related, all
the more delightful because they were veiled in chaste language phrased
not merely to meet the doctrine, _maxima reverentia pueris debetur_,
but to meet the higher truth that no gentleman would use foul language.

Off to one side was the orchard, in springtime a bower of pink and
snow, and always making a pleasant spot in the landscape; beyond which
peeped the ample barns and stables, and farther yet lay the wide green

Some of the fields that stretched around were poor, and in places where
the rains had washed off the soil, red “galls” showed through; but the
tillage was careful and systematic, and around the house were rich
hay-fields where the cattle stood knee-deep in clover. The brown worm
fences ran in lateral lines, and the ditches were kept clean except for
useful willows.

[Illustration: “_Shining tables with slender brass-tipped legs._”]

[Illustration: “_There the guns were kept._”]

[Illustration: “_Bookcases filled with brown-backed, much-read books._”]

The furniture was old-timey and plain,--mahogany and rosewood bedsteads
and dressers black with age, and polished till they shone like mirrors,
hung with draperies white as snow; straight-backed chairs generations
old interspersed with common new ones; long sofas with claw feet; old
shining tables with slender brass-tipped legs, straight or fluted,
holding some fine old books, and in springtime a blue or flowered
bowl or two with glorious roses; bookcases filled with brown-backed,
much-read books. This was all.

The servants’ houses, smoke-house, wash-house, and carpenter-shop were
set around the “back yard,” with “mammy’s house” a little nicer than
the others; and farther off, upon and beyond the quarters hill, “the
quarters,”--whitewashed, substantial buildings, each for a family, with
chicken-houses hard by, and with yards closed in by split palings,
filled with fruit trees, which somehow bore cherries, peaches, and
apples in a mysterious profusion even when the orchard failed.

Beyond the yard were gardens. There were two,--the vegetable garden and
the flower garden. The former was the test of the mistress’s power; for
at the most critical times she took the best hands on the place to work
it. The latter was the proof of her taste. It was a strange affair:
pyrocanthus hedged it on the outside; honeysuckle ran riot over its
palings, perfuming the air; yellow cowslips in well-regulated tufts
edged some borders, while sweet peas, pinks, and violets spread out
recklessly over others; jonquilles yellow as gold, and, once planted,
blooming every spring as certainly as the trees budded or the birds
nested, grew in thick bunches; and here and there were tall lilies,
white as angels’ wings and stately as the maidens that walked among
them; big snowball bushes blooming with snow, lilacs purple and white
and sweet in the spring, and always with birds’ nests in them with the
bluest of eggs; and in places rosebushes, and tall hollyhock stems
filled with rich rosettes of every hue and shade, made a delicious
tangle. In the autumn rich dahlias and pungent-odored chrysanthemums
ended the sweet procession and closed the season.

[Illustration: “_The flower of all others was the rose._”]

But the flower of all others was the rose. There were roses everywhere;
clambering roses over the porches and windows, sending their fragrance
into the rooms; roses beside the walks; roses around the yard and in
the garden; roses of every hue and delicate refinement of perfume;
rich yellow roses thick on their briery bushes, coming almost with
the dandelions and buttercups, before any others dared face the April
showers to learn if March had truly gone, sweet as if they had come
from Paradise to be worn upon young maidens’ bosoms, as they might well
have done--who knows?--followed by the Giant of Battles on their stout
stems, glorious enough to have been the worthy badge of victorious
Lancastrian kings; white Yorks, hardly less royal; cloth-of-golds;
dainty teas; rich damasks; old sweet hundred-leafs sifting down their
petals on the grass, and always filling with two the place where one
had fallen. These and many more whose names have faded made the air
fragrant, whilst the catbirds and mocking-birds fluttered and sang
among them, and the robins foraged in the grass for their greedy
yellow-throats waiting in the hidden nests.

Looking out over the fields was a scene not to be forgotten.

Let me give it in the words of one who knew and loved Virginia well,
and was her best interpreter:[1]--

    [1] Dr. George W. Bagby. His “Old Virginia Gentleman” is
    perhaps the best sketch yet written in the South. To it I am
    doubtless indebted for much in this paper. His description
    might do for a picture of Staunton Hill resting in delicious
    calm on its eminence above the Staunton River.

[Illustration: _Tobacco._]

“A scene not of enchantment, though contrast often made it seem so, met
the eye. Wide, very wide fields of waving grain, billowy seas of green
or gold as the season chanced to be, over which the scudding shadows
chased and played, gladdened the heart with wealth far spread. Upon
lowlands level as the floor the plumed and tasselled corn stood tall
and dense, rank behind rank in military alignment--a serried army
lush and strong. The rich, dark soil of the gently swelling knolls
could scarcely be seen under the broad lapping leaves of the mottled
tobacco. The hills were carpeted with clover. Beneath the tree-clumps
fat cattle chewed the cud, or peaceful sheep reposed, grateful for the
shade. In the midst of this plenty, half hidden in foliage, over which
the graceful shafts of the Lombard poplar towered, with its bounteous
garden and its orchards heavy with fruit near at hand, peered the old
mansion, white, or dusky red, or mellow gray by the storm and shine of

“Seen by the tired horseman halting at the woodland’s edge, this
picture, steeped in the intense quivering summer moonlight, filled the
soul with unspeakable emotions of beauty, tenderness, peace, home.

              “How calm could we rest
    In that bosom of shade with the friends we love best!

“Sorrows and care were there--where do they not penetrate? But, oh!
dear God, one day in those sweet, tranquil homes outweighed a fevered
lifetime in the gayest cities of the globe. Tell me nothing; I
undervalue naught that man’s heart delights in. I dearly love operas
and great pageants; but I do know--as I know nothing else--that the
first years of human life, and the last, yea, if it be possible, all
the years, should be passed in the country. The towns may do for a day,
a week, a month at most; but Nature, Mother Nature, pure and clean, is
for all time,--yes, for eternity itself.”

[Illustration: _A Typical “Mammy.”_]

The life about the place was amazing. There were the busy children
playing in groups, the boys of the family mingling with the little
darkies as freely as any other young animals, and forming the
associations which tempered slavery and made the relation one not to
be understood save by those who saw it. There they were, stooping down
and jumping up; turning and twisting, their heads close together,
like chickens over an “invisible repast,” their active bodies always
in motion: busy over their little matters with that ceaseless energy
of boyhood which could move the world could it but be concentrated
and conserved. They were all over the place; in the orchard robbing
birds’ nests, getting into wild excitement over catbirds, which they
ruthlessly murdered because they “called snakes”; in spring and summer
fishing or “washing” in the creek, riding the plough-horses to and from
the fields, running the calves and colts, and being as mischievous as
the young mules they chased.

[Illustration: “_The little girls in their great sun-bonnets._”]

There were the little girls in their great sunbonnets, often sewed on
to preserve the wonderful peach-blossom complexions, with their small
female companions playing about the yard or garden, running with and
wishing they were boys, and getting half scoldings from mammy for being
tomboys and tearing their aprons and dresses. There, in the shade,
near her “house,” was the mammy with her assistants, her little charge
in her arms, sleeping in her ample lap, or toddling about her, with
broken, half-formed phrases, better understood than framed. There
passed young negro girls, blue-habited, running about bearing messages;
or older women moving at a statelier pace, doing with deliberation
the little tasks which were their “work;” whilst about the office or
smoke-house or dairy or wood-pile there was always some movement
and life. The peace of it all was only emphasized by the sounds that
broke upon it: the call of ploughers to their teams; the shrill shouts
of children; the chant of women over their work, and as a bass the
recurrent hum of spinning-wheels, like the drone of some great insect,
sounding from cabins where the turbaned spinners spun their fleecy
rolls for the looms which were clacking in the loom-rooms making
homespun for the plantation.

[Illustration: “_Busy over their little matters with that ceaseless
energy of boyhood._”]

From the back yard and quarters the laughter of women and the
shrill, joyous voices of children came. Far off, in the fields, the
white-shirted “ploughers” followed singing their slow teams in the
fresh furrows, wagons rattled, and ox-carts crawled along, or gangs
of hands in lines performed their work in the corn or tobacco fields,
loud shouts and peals of laughter, mellowed by the distance, floating
up from time to time, telling that the heart was light and the toil not
too heavy.

[Illustration: “_The test of the men’s prowess._”]

At special times there was special activity: at ice-getting time,
at corn-thinning time, at fodder-pulling time, at threshing-wheat
time, but above all at corn-shucking time, at hog-killing time, and
at “harvest.” Harvest was spoken of as a season. It was a festival.
The severest toil of the year was a frolic. Every “hand” was eager
for it. It was the test of the men’s prowess and the women’s skill.
For it took a man to swing his cradle through the long June days and
keep pace with the bare-necked, knotted-armed leader as he strode and
swung his ringing cradle through the heavy wheat. So it demanded a
strong back and nimble fingers in the binding to “keep up” and bind
the sheaves. The young men looked forward to it as young bucks look to
the war-path. How gay they seemed, moving in oblique lines around the
“great parallelograms,” sweeping down the yellow grain, and, as they
neared the starting-point, chanting with mellow voices the harvest song
“Cool Water”! How musical was the cadence as, taking time to get their
wind, they whet in unison their ringing blades!

Though the plantations were large, so large that one master could not
hear his neighbor’s dog bark, there was never any loneliness: it was
movement and life without bustle; whilst somehow, in the midst of it
all, the house seemed to sit enthroned in perpetual tranquillity, with
outstretched wings under its spreading oaks, sheltering its children
like a great gray dove.

Even at night there was stirring about: the ring of an axe, the
infectious music of the banjos, the laughter of dancers, the festive
noise and merriment of the cabin, the distant, mellowed shouts of ’coon
or ’possum hunters, or the dirge-like chant of some serious and timid
wayfarer passing along the paths over the hills or through the woods,
and solacing his lonely walk with religious song.

Such was the outward scene. What was there within? That which has been
much misunderstood,--that which was like the roses, wasteful beyond
measure in its unheeded growth and blowing, but sweet beyond measure,
too, and filling with its fragrance not only the region round about,
but sending it out unmeasuredly on every breeze that wandered by.

The life within was of its own kind. There were the master and the
mistress: the old master and old mistress, the young masters and young
mistresses, and the children; besides some aunts and cousins, and the
relations or friends who did not live there, but were only always on

[Illustration: _The Exclusive Property of the Mistress._]

Properly, the mistress should be mentioned first, as she was the most
important personage about the home, the presence which pervaded the
mansion, the centre of all that life, the queen of that realm; the
master willingly and proudly yielding her entire management of all
household matters and simply carrying out her directions, confining
his ownership within the curtilage solely to his old “secretary,”
which on the mistress’s part was as sacred from her touch as her
bonnet was from his. There were kept mysterious folded papers, and
equally mysterious parcels, frequently brown with the stain of dust
and age. Had the papers been the lost sibylline leaves instead of old
receipts and bills, and had the parcels contained diamonds instead of
long-dried melon-seed or old flints, now out of date but once ready to
serve a useful purpose, they could not have been more sacredly guarded
by the mistress. The master usually had to hunt for a long period for
any particular paper, whilst the mistress could in a half-hour have
arranged everything in perfect order; but the chaos was regarded by her
with veneration as real as that with which she regarded the mystery of
the heavenly bodies.

On the other hand, outside of this piece of furniture there was nothing
in the house of which the master even pretended to know. It was all
in her keeping. Whatever he wanted he called for, and she produced
it with a certainty and promptness which struck him as a perpetual
miracle. Her system appeared to him as the result of a wisdom as
profound as that which fixed and held the firmament. He would not
have dared to interfere, not because he was afraid, but because he
recognized her superiority. It would no more have occurred to him to
make a suggestion about the management of the house than about that of
one of his neighbors; simply because he knew her and acknowledged her
infallibility. She was, indeed, a surprising creature--often delicate
in frame, and of a nervous organization so sensitive as perhaps to be
a great sufferer; but her force and character pervaded and directed
everything, as unseen yet as unmistakably as the power of gravity
controls the particles that constitute the earth.

It has been assumed by the outside world that our people lived a life
of idleness and ease, a kind of “hammock-swung,” “sherbet-sipping”
existence, fanned by slaves, and, in their pride, served on bended
knees. No conception could be further from the truth. The ease of
the master of a big plantation was about that of the head of any
great establishment where numbers of operatives are employed, and to
the management of which are added the responsibilities of the care
and complete mastership of the liberty of his operatives and their
families. His work was generally sufficiently systematized to admit
of enough personal independence to enable him to participate in the
duties of hospitality; but any master who had a successfully conducted
plantation was sure to have given it his personal supervision with an
unremitting attention which would not have failed to secure success in
any other calling. If this was true of the master, it was much more
so of the mistress. The master might, by having a good overseer and
reliable headmen, shift a portion of the burden from his shoulders;
the mistress had no such means of relief. She was the necessary and
invariable functionary; the keystone of the domestic economy which
bound all the rest of the structure and gave it its strength and
beauty. From early morn till morn again the most important and delicate
concerns of the plantation were her charge and care. She gave out and
directed all the work of the women. From superintending the setting
of the turkeys to fighting a pestilence, there was nothing which was
not her work. She was mistress, manager, doctor, nurse, counsellor,
seamstress, teacher, housekeeper, slave, all at once. She was at the
beck and call of every one, especially of her husband, to whom she was
“guide, philosopher, and friend.”

One of them, being told of a broken gate by her husband, said, “Well,
my dear, if I could sew it with my needle and thread, I would mend it
for you.”

What she was, only her husband divined, and even he stood before her in
dumb, half-amazed admiration, as he might before the inscrutable vision
of a superior being. What she really was, was known only to God. Her
life was one long act of devotion,--devotion to God, devotion to her
husband, devotion to her children, devotion to her servants, to her
friends, to the poor, to humanity. Nothing happened within the range
of her knowledge that her sympathy did not reach and her charity and
wisdom did not ameliorate. She was the head and front of the church;
an unmitred bishop _in partibus_, more effectual than the vestry
or deacons, more earnest than the rector; she managed her family,
regulated her servants, fed the poor, nursed the sick, consoled the
bereaved. Who knew of the visits she paid to the cabins of her sick
and suffering servants! often, at the dead of night, “slipping down”
the last thing to see that her directions were carried out; with her
own hands administering medicines or food; ever by her cheeriness
inspiring new hope, by her strength giving courage, by her presence
awaking faith; telling in her soft voice to dying ears the story of
the suffering Saviour; with her hope soothing the troubled spirit, and
lighting with her own faith the path down into the valley of the dark
shadow. What poor person was there, however inaccessible the cabin,
that was sick or destitute and knew not her charity! Who that was
bereaved that had not her sympathy!

The training of her children was her work. She watched over them,
inspired them, led them, governed them; her will impelled them; her
word to them, as to her servants, was law. She reaped the reward.
If she admired them, she was too wise to let them know it; but her
sympathy and tenderness were theirs always, and they worshipped her.

There was something in seeing the master and mistress obeyed by the
plantation and looked up to by the neighborhood which inspired the
children with a reverence akin to awe which is not known at this
present time. It was not till the young people were grown that this
reverence lost the awe and became based only upon affection and
admiration. Then, for the first time, they dared to jest with her;
then, for the first time, they took in that she had been like them
once, young and gay and pleasure-loving, with coquetries and maidenly
ways, with lovers suing for her; and that she still took pleasure in
the recollection,--this gentle, classic, serious mother among her tall
sons and radiant daughters. How she blushed as they laughed at her and
teased her to tell of her conquests, her confusion making her look
younger and prettier than they remembered her, and opening their eyes
to the truth of what their father had told them so often, that not one
of them could be as beautiful as she.

She became timid and dependent as they grew up and she found them
adorned with new fashions and ways which she did not know; she gave
herself up to their guidance with an appealing kind of diffidence; was
tremulous over her ignorance of the novel fashions which made them so
charming. Yet, when the exactions of her position came upon her, she
calmly took the lead, and, by her instinctive dignity, her wisdom, and
her force, eclipsed them all as naturally as the full moon in heaven
dims the stars.

Such in part was the mistress. As to the master himself, it is hard
to generalize. Yet there were indeed certain generic characteristics,
whether he was grave and severe, or jovial and easy. There was the
foundation of a certain pride based on self-respect and consciousness
of power. There were nearly always the firm mouth with its strong
lines, the calm, placid, direct gaze, the quiet speech of one who
is accustomed to command and have his command obeyed; there was a
contemplative expression due to much communing alone, with weighty
responsibilities resting upon him; there was absolute self-confidence,
and often a look caused by tenacity of opinion. There was not a
doubtful line in the face nor a doubtful tone in the voice; his
opinions were convictions; he was a partisan to the backbone; and
not infrequently he was incapable of seeing more than one side. This
prevented breadth, but gave force. He was proud, but rarely haughty
except to dishonor. To that he was inexorable. He believed in God, he
believed in his wife, he believed in his blood. He was chivalrous, he
was generous, he was usually incapable of fear or of meanness. To be a
Virginia gentleman was the first duty; it embraced being a Christian
and all the virtues. He lived as one; he left it as a heritage to
his children. He was fully appreciative of both the honors and the
responsibilities of his position. He believed in a democracy, but
understood that the absence of a titled aristocracy had to be supplied
by a class more virtuous than he believed any aristocracy to be. He
purposed in his own person to prove that this was practicable. He
established the fact that it was. This and other responsibilities made
him grave. He had inherited gravity from his father and grandfather.
The latter had been a performer in the greatest work of modern times,
with the shadow of the scaffold over him if he failed. The former had
faced the weighty problems of the new government, with many unsolved
questions ever to answer. He himself faced problems not less grave.
The greatness of the past, the time when Virginia had been the mighty
power of the New World, loomed ever above him. It increased his
natural conservatism. He saw the change that was steadily creeping
on. The conditions that had given his class their power and prestige
had altered. The fields were worked down, and agriculture that had
made his class rich no longer paid. The cloud was already gathering in
the horizon; the shadow already was stretching towards him. He could
foresee the danger that threatened Virginia. A peril ever sat beside
his door. He was “holding the wolf by the ears.” Outside influences
hostile to his interest were being brought to bear. Any movement must
work him injury. He sought the only refuge that appeared. He fell back
behind the Constitution that his fathers had helped to establish, and
became a strict constructionist for Virginia and his rights. These
things made him grave. He reflected much. Out on the long verandas in
the dusk of the summer nights, with his wide fields stretching away
into the gloom, and “the woods” bounding the horizon, his thoughts
dwelt upon serious things; he pondered causes and consequences; he
resolved everything to prime principles. He communed with the Creator
and his first work, Nature.

This communion made him a wonderful talker. He discoursed of
philosophy, politics, and religion. He read much, generally on these
subjects, and read only the best. His bookcases held the masters (in
mellow Elzevirs and Lintots) who had been his father’s friends, and
with whom he associated and communed more intimately than with his
neighbors. Homer, Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden,
Goldsmith, “Mr. Pope,” were his poets; Plutarch, Bacon, Burke, and
Dr. Johnson were his philosophers. He knew their teachings and tried
to pattern himself on them. These “new fellows” that his sons raved
over he held in so much contempt that his mere statement of their
inferiority was to his mind an all-convincing argument.

In religion he was as orthodox as the parson. He might not be a
professing member of the church; but he was one of its pillars:
ready to stand by, and, if need were, to fight to the death for the
Thirty-nine Articles, or the Confession of Faith. Yet, if he was
generally grave, he was at times, among his intimates and guests,
jovial, even gay. On festive occasions no one surpassed him in
cheeriness. To a stranger he was always a host, to a lady always a
courtier. When the house was full of guests, he was the life of the
company. He led the prettiest girl out for the dance. At Christmas he
took her under the mistletoe, and paid her gracious compliments which
made her blush and courtesy with dimpling face and dancing eyes. But
whatever was his mood, whatever his surroundings, he was always the
exponent of that grave and knightly courtesy which under all conditions
has become associated with the title “Virginia gentleman.”

[Illustration: “_His thoughts dwelt upon serious things._”]

Whether or not the sons were, as young men, peculiarly admirable may
be a question. They possessed the faults and the virtues of young men
of their kind and condition. They were given to self-indulgence; they
were not broad in their limitations; they were apt to contemn what
did not accord with their own established views (for their views were
established before their mustaches); they were wasteful of time and
energies beyond belief; they were addicted to the pursuit of pleasure.
They exhibited the customary failings of their kind in a society of
an aristocratic character. But they possessed in full measure the
corresponding virtues. They were brave, they were generous, they were
high-spirited. Indulgence in pleasure did not destroy them. It was
the young French noblesse who affected to eschew exertion even to
the point of having themselves borne on litters on their boar-hunts,
and who yet, with a hundred pounds of iron buckled on their frames,
charged like furies at Fontenoy. So these same languid, philandering
young gentlemen, when the crucial occasion came, suddenly appeared as
the most dashing and indomitable soldiery of modern times. It was the
Norfolk company known as the “Dandies” that was extirpated in a single

But, whatever may be thought of the sons, there can be no question as
to the daughters. They were like the mother; made in her own image.
They filled a peculiar place in the civilization; the key was set to
them. They held by a universal consent the first place in the system,
all social life revolving around them. So generally did the life shape
itself about the young girl that it was almost as if a bit of the age
of chivalry had been blown down the centuries and lodged in the old
State. She instinctively adapted herself to it. In fact, she was made
for it. She was gently bred: her people for generations (since they
had come to Virginia) were gentlefolk. They were so well satisfied
that they had been the same in the mother country that they had never
taken the trouble to investigate it. She was the incontestable proof of
their gentility. In right of her blood (the beautiful Saxon, tempered
by the influences of the genial Southern clime), she was exquisite,
fine, beautiful; a creature of peach-blossom and snow; languid,
delicate, saucy; now imperious, now melting, always bewitching. She
was not versed in the ways of the world, but she had no need to be;
she was better than that; she was well bred. She had not to learn to
be a lady, because she was born one. Generations had given her that
by heredity. She grew up apart from the great world. But ignorance of
the world did not make her provincial. Her instinct was an infallible
guide. When a child she had in her sunbonnet and apron met the visitors
at the front steps and entertained them in the parlor until her mother
was ready to appear. Thus she had grown up to the duties of hostess.
Her manners were as perfectly formed as her mother’s, with perhaps a
shade more self-possession. Her beauty was a title which gave her a
graciousness that well befitted her. She never “came out,” because she
had never been “in;” and the line between girlhood and young-ladyhood
was never known. She began to have beaux certainly before she reached
the line; but it did her no harm: she would herself long walk “fancy
free.” A protracted devotion was required of her lovers, and they
began early. They were willing to serve long, for she was a prize worth
the service. Her beauty, though it was often dazzling, was not her
chief attraction.

[Illustration: _An Old Virginia Sideboard._]

That was herself: that indefinable charm; the result of many
attractions, in combination and perfect harmony, which made her
herself. She was delicate, she was dainty, she was sweet. She lived
in an atmosphere created for her,--the pure, clean, sweet atmosphere
of her country home. She made its sunshine. She was generally a
coquette, often an outrageous flirt. It did not imply heartlessness.
It was said that the worst flirts made the most devoted wives. It was
simply an instinct, an inheritance; it was in the life. Her heart was
tender towards every living thing but her lovers; even to them it was
soft in every way but one. Had they had a finger-ache, she would have
sympathized with them. But in the matter of love she was inexorable,
remorseless. She played upon every chord of the heart. Perhaps it was
because, when she gave up, the surrender was to be absolute. From the
moment of marriage she was the worshipper. Truly she was a strange
being. In her muslin and lawn; with her delicious, low, slow, musical
speech; accustomed to be waited on at every turn, with servants to do
her every bidding; unhabituated often even to putting on her dainty
slippers or combing her soft hair,--she possessed a reserve force
which was astounding. She was accustomed to have her wishes obeyed
as commands. It did not make her imperious; it simply gave her the
habit of control. At marriage she was prepared to assume the duties of
mistress of her establishment, whether it were great or small.

Thus, when the time came, the class at the South which had been deemed
the most supine suddenly appeared as the most efficient and the
most indomitable. The courage which the men displayed in battle was
wonderful; but it was nothing to what the Southern women exemplified
at home. There was, perhaps, not a doubtful woman within the limits
of the Confederacy. Whilst their lovers and husbands fought in the
field, they performed the harder part of waiting at home. With more
than a soldier’s courage they bore more than a soldier’s hardship. For
four long years they listened to the noise of the guns, awaiting with
blanched faces but undaunted hearts the news of battle after battle;
buried their beloved dead with tears, and still amid their tears
encouraged the survivors to fight on. It was a force which has not been
duly estimated. It was in the blood.

She was indeed a strange creature, that delicate, dainty, mischievous,
tender, God-fearing, inexplicable Southern girl. With her fine grain,
her silken hair, her satiny skin, her musical speech; pleasure-loving,
saucy, bewitching--deep down lay the bedrock foundation of innate
virtue, piety, and womanliness, on which were planted all for which
human nature can hope, and all to which it can aspire. Words fail to
convey an idea of what she was; as well try to describe the beauty of
the rose or the perfume of the violet. To appreciate her one must have
seen her, have known her, have loved her.

There are certain other characters without mention of which no
picture of the social life of the South would be complete: the old
mammies and family servants about the house. These were important,
and helped to make the life. The Mammy was the zealous, faithful, and
efficient assistant of the mistress in all that pertained to the care
and training of the children. Her authority was recognized in all
that related to them directly or indirectly, second only to that of
the Mistress and Master. She tended them, regulated them, disciplined
them: having authority indeed in cases to administer correction; for
her affection was undoubted. Her _régime_ extended frequently through
two generations, occasionally through three. From their infancy she
was the careful and faithful nurse, the affection between her and the
children she nursed being often more marked than that between her and
her own offspring. She may have been harsh to the latter; she was
never anything but tender with the others. Her authority was, in a
measure, recognized through life, for her devotion was unquestionable.
The young masters and mistresses were her “children” long after they
had children of their own. When they parted from her or met with her
again after separation, they embraced her with the same affection as
when in childhood she “led them smiling into sleep.” She was worthy of
the affection. At all times she was their faithful ally and champion,
excusing them, shielding them, petting them, aiding them, yet holding
them up too to a certain high accountability. Her influence was always
for good. She received, as she gave, an unqualified affection. If she
was a slave, she at least was not a servant, but was an honored member
of the family, universally beloved, universally cared for--“the Mammy.”

[Illustration: “_She was never anything but tender with the others._”]

Next to her in importance and rank were the Butler and the
Carriage-driver. These with the Mammy were the aristocrats of the
family, who trained the children in good manners and other exercises;
and uncompromising aristocrats they were. The Butler was apt to be
severe, and was feared; the Driver was genial and kindly, and was
adored. I recall a butler, “Uncle Tom,” an austere gentleman, who was
the terror of the juniors of the connection. One of the children, after
watching him furtively as he moved about with grand air, when he had
left the room and his footsteps had died away, crept over and asked her
grandmother, his mistress, in an awed whisper, “Grandma, are you ’fraid
of Unc’ Tom?”

The Driver was the ally of the boys, the worshipper of the girls, and
consequently had an ally in their mother, the mistress. As the head of
the stable, he was an important personage. This comradeship was never
forgotten; it lasted through life. The years might grow on him, his
eyes might become dim; but he was left in command even when he was
too feeble to hold the horses; and though he might no longer grasp
the reins, he at least held the title, and to the end was always “the
Driver of Mistiss’s carriage.”

Other servants too there were with special places and
privileges,--gardeners and “boys about the house,” comrades of the
boys; and “own maids,” for each girl had her “own maid.” They all
formed one great family in the social structure now passed away, a
structure incredible by those who knew it not, and now, under new
conditions, almost incredible by those who knew it best.

The social life formed of these elements combined was one of singular
sweetness and freedom from vice. If it was not filled with excitement,
it was replete with happiness and content. It is asserted that it was
narrow. Perhaps it was. It was so sweet, so charming, that it is little
wonder if it asked nothing more than to be let alone.

[Illustration: “_The Butler was apt to be severe, and was feared._”]

They who lived it were a careless and pleasure-loving people; but,
as in most rural communities, their festivities were free from
dissipation. There was sometimes too great an indulgence on the part
of young men in the State drink, the julep; but whether it was that it
killed early, or that it was usually abandoned as the responsibilities
of life increased, an elderly man of dissipated habits was almost
unknown. They were fond of sport, and excelled in it, being generally
fine riders, good shots, and skilled hunters. Love of horses was a race
characteristic, and fine horsemanship was a thing little considered
only because it was universal.

The life was gay. In addition to the perpetual round of ordinary
entertainment, there was always on hand or in prospect some more
formal festivity,--a club meeting, a fox-hunt, a party, a tournament,
a wedding. Little excuse was needed to bring people together where
every one was social, and where the great honor was to be the host.
Scientific horse-racing was confined to the regular race-tracks, where
the races were not dashes, but four-mile heats which tested speed and
bottom alike. But good blood was common, and even a ride with a girl in
an afternoon meant generally a dash along the level through the woods,
where, truth to tell, Miss Atalanta was very apt to win. Occasionally
there was even a dash from the church. The high-swung carriages, having
received their precious loads of lily-fingered, pink-faced, laughing
girls with teeth like pearls and eyes like stars, helped in by young
men who would have thrown not only their cloaks but their hearts into
the mud to keep those dainty feet from being soiled, would go ahead;
and then, the restive saddle-horses being untied from the swinging
limbs, the young gallants would mount, and, by an instinctive common
impulse, starting all together, would make a dash to the first hill, on
top of which the dust still lingered, a golden nimbus thrown from the
wheels that rolled their goddesses.

[Illustration: _The Lady and the Ox-Cart._]

The chief sport, however, was fox-hunting. It was, in season,
almost universal. Who that lived in that time does not remember the
fox-hunts,--the eager chase after “grays” or “old reds”! The grays
furnished more fun, the reds more excitement. The grays did not run
so far, but usually kept near home, going in a circuit of six or
eight miles. “An old red,” generally so called irrespective of age,
as a tribute to his prowess, might lead the dogs all day, and end by
losing them as evening fell, after taking them a dead stretch for
thirty miles. The capture of a gray was what men boasted of; a chase
after “an old red” was what they “yarned” about. Some old reds became
historical characters, and were as well known and as much discussed
in the counties they inhabited as the leaders of the bar or the crack
speakers of the circuit. The wiles and guiles of each veteran were the
pride of his neighbors and hunters. Many of them had names. Gentlemen
discussed them at their club dinners; lawyers told stories about them
in the “Lawyers’ Rooms” at the court-houses; young men, while they
waited for the preacher to get well into the service before going into
church, bragged about them in the churchyards on Sundays. There was one
such that I remember: he was known as “Nat Turner,” after the notorious
leader of “Nat Turner’s Rebellion,” who remained in hiding for weeks
after all his followers were taken.

Great frolics these hunts were; for there were the prettiest girls in
the world in the country houses round about, and each young fellow was
sure to have in his heart some brown or blue-eyed maiden to whom he had
promised the brush, and to whom, with feigned indifference but with
mantling cheek and beating heart, he would carry it if, as he counted
on doing, he should win it. Sometimes the girls came over themselves
and rode, or more likely were already there visiting, and the beaux
simply followed them by a law as immutable as that by which the result
follows the premises in a mathematical proposition.

Even the boys had their lady-loves, and rode for them on the colts or
mules: not the small girls of their own age (no “little girls” for
them!). Their sweethearts were grown young ladies, with smiling eyes
and silken hair and graceful mien, whom their grown cousins courted,
and whom they with their boys’ hearts worshipped. Often a half-dozen
were in love with one--always the prettiest one--and, with the generous
spirit of boys in whom the selfish instinct has not yet awakened,
agreed among themselves that they would all ride for her, and that
whichever got the brush should present it on behalf of all.

What a gallant sight it was! The appearance of the hunters on the
far hill, in the evening, with their packs surrounding them! Who does
not recall the excitement at the house; the arrival in the yard, with
horns blowing, hounds baying, horses prancing, and girls laughing;
the picture of the young ladies on the front portico with their arms
round each other’s dainty waists,--the slender, pretty figures, the
bright faces, the sparkling eyes, the gay laughter and musical voices,
as with coquettish merriment they challenged the riders, demanding to
blow the horns themselves or to ride some specially handsome horse
next morning! The way, the challenge being accepted, they tripped
down the steps,--some with little screams shrinking from the bounding
dogs; one or two with stouter hearts, fixed upon higher game, bravely
ignoring them and leaving their management to their masters, who at
their approach sprang to the ground to meet them, hat in hand and the
telltale blood mounting to their sunburned faces, handsome with the
beauty and pride of youth!

[Illustration: _An Old-fashioned Grist-Mill._]

I am painfully aware of the inadequacy of my picture. But who could do
justice to the truth!

It was owing to all these and some other characteristics that the life
was what it was. It was on a charming key. It possessed an ampleness
and generosity which were not splendid because they were too genuine
and refined.

Hospitality had become a recognized race characteristic, and was
practised as a matter of course. It was universal; it was spontaneous.
It was one of the distinguishing features of the civilization; as much
a part of the social life as any other of the domestic relations. Its
generosity secured it a distinctive title. The exactions it entailed
were engrossing. Its exercise occupied much of the time, and exhausted
much of the means. The constant intercourse of the neighborhood,
with its perpetual round of dinners, teas, and entertainments, was
supplemented by visits of friends and relatives from other sections,
who came with their families, their equipages, and personal servants,
to spend a month or two, or as long a time as they pleased. A dinner
invitation was not so designated. It was, with more exactitude, termed
“spending the day.” On Sundays every one invited every one else from
church, and there would be long lines of carriages passing in at the
open gates.

It is a mystery how the house ever held the visitors. Only the mistress
knew. Her resources were enormous. The rooms, with their low ceilings,
were wide, and had a holding capacity which was simply astounding. The
walls seemed to be made of india-rubber, so great was their stretching
power. No one who came, whether friend or stranger, was ever turned
away. If the beds were full--as when were they not!--pallets were put
down on the floor in the parlor or the garret for the younger members
of the family, sometimes even the passages being utilized. Frequently
at Christmas the master and mistress were compelled to resort to the
same refuge.

It was this intercourse, following the intermarriage and class feeling
of the old families, which made Virginians clannish, and caused a
single distinguishable common strain of blood, however distant, to be
recognized and counted as kinship.

Perhaps this universal entertainment might not now be considered
elegant. Let us see.

It was based upon a sentiment as pure and unselfish as can animate the
human mind,--upon kindness. It was easy, generous, and refined. The
manners of entertainers and entertained alike were gentle, cordial,
simple, with, to strangers, a slight trace of stateliness. The best the
hosts had was given; no more was required.

The conversation was surprising; it was of the crops, the roads,
history, literature, politics, mutual friends, including the entire
field of neighborhood matters, related not as gossip, but as affairs of
common interest, which every one knew or was expected and entitled to

Among the ladies, the fashions came in, of course, embracing
particularly “patterns.”

Politics took the place of honor among the gentlemen, their range
embracing not only State and national politics, but British as well,
as to which they possessed astonishing knowledge, interest in English
matters having been handed down from father to son as a class test.
“My father’s” opinion was quoted as conclusive authority on this
and all points, and in matters of great importance historically “my
grandfather, sir,” was cited. The peculiarity of the whole was that it
was cast on a high plane, and possessed a literary flavor of a high
order; for, as has been said, the classics, Latin and English, with a
fair sprinkling of good old French authors, were in the bookcases, and
were there not for show, but for companionship. There was nothing for
show in that life; it was all genuine, real, true.

[Illustration: _A Colonial Stove._]

They had preserved the old customs that their fathers had brought
with them from the mother country. The great fête of the people was
Christmas. Spring had its special delights,--horse-back rides through
the budding woods, with the birds singing; fishing parties down on the
little rivers, with out-of-doors lunches and love-making; parties of
various kinds from house to house. Summer had its pleasures,--handsome
dinners, and teas with moonlight strolls and rides to follow; visits to
or from relatives, or even to the White Sulphur Springs, called simply
“the White.” The Fall had its pleasures. But all times and seasons
paled and dimmed before the festive joys of Christmas. It had been
handed down for generations; it belonged to the race. It had come over
with their forefathers. It had a peculiar significance. It was a title.
Religion had given it its benediction. It was the time to “Shout the
glad tidings.” It was The Holidays. There were other holidays for the
slaves, both of the school-room and the plantation, such as Easter and
Whit-Monday but Christmas was distinctively “The Holidays.” Then the
boys came home from school or college with their friends; the members
of the family who had moved away returned; pretty cousins came for the
festivities; the neighborhood grew merry. The negroes were all to
have holiday, the house-servants taking turn and turn about, and the
plantation, long before the time, made ready for Christmas cheer. It
was by all the younger population looked back to half the year, looked
forward to the other half. Time was measured by it: it was either so
long “since Christmas,” or so long “before Christmas.” The affairs
of the plantation were set in order against it. The corn was got in;
the hogs were killed; the lard “tried;” sausage-meat made; mince-meat
prepared; turkeys fattened, with “the big gobbler” specially devoted
to the “Christmas dinner;” the servants’ winter clothes and new shoes
stored away ready for distribution; and the plantation began to be
ready to prepare for Christmas.

In the first place, there was generally a cold spell which froze up
everything and enabled the ice-houses to be filled. (The seasons, like
a good many other things, appear to have changed since that old time
before the war.) This spell was the harbinger; and great fun it was
at the ice-pond, where the big rafts of ice were floated along, with
the boys on them. The rusty skates with their curled runners and stiff
straps were gotten out, and maybe tried for a day. Then the stir began.
The wagons all were put to hauling wood--hickory. Nothing but hickory
now; other wood might do for other times. But at Christmas only hickory
was used; and the wood-pile was heaped high with the logs; while to
the ordinary wood-cutters “for the house” were added three, four, a
half-dozen more, whose shining axes rang around the wood-pile all
day long. With what a vim they cut, and how telling was that earnest
“Ha’nh!” as they drove the ringing axes into the hard wood, sending the
big white chips flying in all directions! It was always the envy of the
boys, that simultaneous, ostentatious expulsion of the breath, and
they used to try vainly to imitate it.

In the midst of it all came the wagon or the ox-cart from “the depot,”
with the big white boxes of Christmas things, the black driver feigning
hypocritical indifference as he drove through the choppers to the
storeroom. Then came the rush of all the cutters to help him unload;
the jokes among themselves, as they pretended to strain in lifting, of
what “master” or “mistis” was going to give them out of those boxes,
uttered just loud enough to reach their master’s or mistress’s ears
where they stood looking on, whilst the driver took due advantage of
his temporary prestige to give many pompous cautions and directions.

The getting the evergreens and mistletoe was the sign that Christmas
had come, was really here. There were the parlor and hall and
dining-room to be “dressed,” and, above all, the old church. The last
was the work of the neighborhood; all united in it, and it was one of
the events of the year. Young men rode thirty and forty miles to “help”
dress that church. They did not go home again till after Christmas.

The return from the church was the beginning of the festivities.

Then by “Christmas Eve’s eve” the wood was all cut and stacked high in
the wood-house and on and under the back porticos, so as to be handy,
and secure from the snow which was almost certain to come. It seems
that Christmas was almost sure to bring it in old times; at least it is
closely associated with it. The excitement increased; the boxes were
unpacked, some of them openly, to the general delight; others with a
mysterious secrecy which stimulated curiosity to its highest point and
added immeasurably to the charm of the occasion. The kitchen filled up
with assistants famed for special skill in particular branches of the
cook’s art, who bustled about with glistening faces and shining teeth,
proud of their elevation and eager to prove their merits and add to the
general cheer.

[Illustration: _Dressing the Church._]

It was now Christmas Eve. From time to time the “hired out” servants
came home from Richmond or other places where they had been hired or
had hired out themselves, their terms having been by common custom
framed, with due regard to their rights to the holiday, to expire
in time for them to spend the Christmas at home.[2] There was much
hilarity over their arrival, and they were welcomed like members of the
family as, with their new winter clothes donned a little ahead of time,
they came to pay “bespec’s to master and mistis.”

    [2] The hiring contracts ran from New Year to Christmas.

Then the vehicles went off to the distant station for the visitors--the
visitors and the boys. Oh the excitement of that! at first the drag of
the long hours, and then the eager expectancy as the time approached
for their return; the “making up” of the fires in the visitors’
rooms (of the big fires; there had been fires there all day “to air”
them, but now they must be made up afresh); the hurrying backwards
and forwards of the servants; the feverish impatience of every one,
especially of the children, who are sure the train is “late” or that
something has “happened,” and who run and look up towards the big gate
every five minutes, notwithstanding the mammy’s oft-repeated caution
that a “watch’ pot never b’iles.” There was one exception to the
general excitement: the Mistress, calm, deliberate, unperturbed, moved
about with her usual serene composure, her watchful eye seeing that
everything was “ready.” Her orders had been given and her arrangements
made days before, such was her system. The young ladies, having
finished dressing the parlor and hall, had disappeared. Satisfied at
last with their work, after innumerable final touches, every one of
which was an undeniable improvement to that which had already appeared
perfect, they had suddenly vanished--vanished as completely as a
dream--to appear again later on at the parlor door, radiant visions
of loveliness, or, maybe, if certain visitors unexpectedly arrived,
to meet accidentally in the less embarrassing and safer precincts
of the dimly lighted halls or passages. When they appeared, what a
transformation had taken place! If they were bewitching before, now
they were entrancing. The gay, laughing, saucy creature who had been
dressing the parlors and hanging the mistletoe with many jests and
parries of the half-veiled references was now a demure or stately
maiden in all the dignity of a new gown and with all the graciousness
of a young countess.

But this is after the carriages return. They have not yet arrived. They
are late--they are always late--and it is dark before they come; the
glow of the fires and candles shines out through the windows on the
snow, often blackened by the shadows of little figures whose noses are
pressed to the cold panes, which grow blurred with their warm breath.
Meantime the carriages, piled outside and in, are slowly making their
way homeward through the frozen roads, followed by the creaking wagon
filled with trunks, on which are haply perched small muffled figures,
whose places in the carriages are taken by unexpected guests. The
drivers still keep up a running fire with their young masters, though
they have long since been pumped dry as to every conceivable matter
connected with “home,” in return for which they receive information
as to school and college pranks. At last the “big gate” is reached; a
half-frozen figure rolls out and runs to open it, flapping his arms
in the darkness like some strange, uncanny bird; they pass through;
the gleam of a light shines away off on a far hill. The shout goes
up, “There she is; I see her!” The light is lost, but a little later
appears again. It is the light in the mother’s chamber, the curtains
of the windows of which have been left up intentionally, that the
welcoming gleam may be seen afar off by her boys on the first hill--a
blessed beacon shining from home and her mother’s heart.

[Illustration: “_At last the ‘big gate’ is reached._”]

Across the white fields the dark vehicles move, then toil up the house
hill, filled with their eager occupants, who can scarce restrain
themselves; approach the house, by this time glowing with lighted
windows, and enter the yard just as the doors open and a swarm rushes
out with joyful cries of, “Here they are!” “Yes, here we are!” comes in
cheery answer, and one after another they roll or step out, according
to age and dignity, and run up the steps, stamping their feet, the boys
to be taken fast into motherly arms, and the visitors to be given warm
handclasps and cordial welcomes.

Later on the children were got to bed, scarce able to keep in their
pallets for excitement; the stockings were all hung up over the big
fireplace; and the grown people grew gay in the crowded parlors. There
was no splendor, nor show, nor style as it would be understood now.
Had there been, it could not have been so charming. There were only
profusion and sincerity, heartiness and gayety, cordiality and cheer,
and withal genuineness and refinement.

Next morning the stir began before light. White-clad little figures
stole about in the gloom, with bulging stockings clasped to their
bosoms, opening doors, shouting “Christmas gift!” into dark rooms at
sleeping elders, and then scurrying away like so many white mice,
squeaking with delight, to rake open the embers and inspect their
treasures. At prayers, “Shout the glad tidings” was sung by fresh young
voices with due fervor.

How gay the scene was at breakfast! What pranks had been performed in
the name of Santa Claus! Every foible had been played on. What lovely
telltale blushes and glances and laughter greeted the confessions!
The larger part of the day was spent in going to and coming from the
beautifully dressed church, where the service was read, and the anthems
and hymns were sung by every one, for every one was happy.

But, as in the beginning of things, “the evening and the morning were
the first day.” Dinner was the great event. It was the test of the
mistress and the cook, or, rather, the cooks; for the kitchen now was
full of them. It is impossible to describe it. The old mahogany table,
stretched diagonally across the dining-room, groaned; the big gobbler
filled the place of honor; a great round of beef held the second place;
an old ham, with every other dish that ingenuity, backed by long
experience, could devise, was at the side, and the shining sideboard,
gleaming with glass, scarcely held the dessert. The butler and his
assistants were supernaturally serious and slow, which bespoke plainly
too frequent a recourse to the apple-toddy bowl; but under the stimulus
of the mistress’s eye, they got through all right, and their slight
unsteadiness was overlooked.

It was then that the fun began.

After dinner there were apple-toddy and egg-nog, as there had been

[Illustration: _The Virginia Reel._]

There were games and dances--country dances, the lancers and
quadrilles. The top of the old piano was lifted up, and the infectious
dancing-tunes rolled out under the flying fingers. Haply there was some
demur on the part of the elder ladies, who were not quite sure that
it was right; but it was overruled by the gentlemen, and the master
in his frock coat and high collar started the ball by catching the
prettiest girl by the hand and leading her to the head of the room
right under the noses of half a dozen bashful lovers, calling to them
meantime to “get their sweethearts and come along.” Round dancing was
not yet introduced. It was regarded as an innovation, if nothing worse.
It was held generally as highly improper, by some as “disgusting.” As
to the german, why, had it been known, the very name would have been
sufficient to damn it. Nothing foreign in that civilization! There was
fun enough in the old-fashioned country dances, and the “Virginia reel”
at the close. Whoever could not be satisfied with that was hard to

But it was not only in the “great house” that there was Christmas
cheer. Every cabin was full of it, and in the wash-house or the
carpenter-shop there was preparation for a plantation supper.

At this time, too, there were the negro parties, where the ladies and
gentlemen went to look on, the supper having been superintended by the
mistresses, and the tables being decorated by their own white hands.
There was almost sure to be a negro wedding during the holidays. The
ceremony might be performed in the dining-room or in the hall by the
master, or in one of the quarters by a colored preacher; but it was
a gay occasion, and the dusky bride’s trousseau had been arranged by
her young mistress, and the family was on hand to get fun out of the
entertainment, and to recognize by their presence the solemnity of the

Other weddings there were, too, sometimes following these Christmas
gayeties, and sometimes occurring “just so,” because the girls were
the loveliest in the world, and the men were lovers almost from their
boyhood. How beautiful our mothers must have been in their youth to
have been so beautiful in their age!

[Illustration: _A Negro Wedding._]

There were no long journeys for the young married folk in those times;
the travelling was usually done before marriage. When a wedding took
place, however, the entire neighborhood entertained the young couple.

Truly it was a charming life. There was a vast waste; but it was not
loss. Every one had food, every one had raiment, every one had peace.
There was not wealth in the base sense in which we know it and strive
for it and trample down others for it now. But there was wealth in the
good old sense in which the litany of our fathers used it. There was
weal. There was the best of all wealth; there was content, and “a quiet
mind is richer than a crown.”

We have gained something by the change. The South under her new
conditions will in time grow rich, will wax fat; nevertheless we have
lost much. How much only those who knew it can estimate; to them it was

That the social life of the Old South had its faults I am far from
denying. What civilization has not? But its virtues far outweighed
them; its graces were never equalled. For all its faults, it was, I
believe, the purest, sweetest life ever lived. It has been claimed
that it was non-productive, that it fostered sterility. Only ignorance
or folly could make the assertion. It largely contributed to produce
this nation; it led its armies and its navies; it established this
government so firmly that not even it could overthrow it; it opened up
the great West; it added Louisiana and Texas, and more than trebled
our territory; it christianized the negro race in a little over two
centuries, impressed upon it regard for order, and gave it the only
civilization it has ever possessed since the dawn of history. It
has maintained the supremacy of the Caucasian race, upon which all
civilization seems now to depend. It produced a people whose heroic
fight against the forces of the world has enriched the annals of the
human race,--a people whose fortitude in defeat has been even more
splendid than their valor in war. It made men noble, gentle, and
brave, and women tender and pure and true. It may have fallen short
in material development in its narrower sense, but it abounded in
spiritual development; it made the domestic virtues as common as light
and air, and filled homes with purity and peace.

[Illustration: _A Typical Negro Cabin._]

It has passed from the earth, but it has left its benignant influence
behind it to sweeten and sustain its children. The ivory palaces have
been destroyed, but myrrh, aloes, and cassia still breathe amid their
dismantled ruins.

       *       *       *       *       *

 Transcriber’s Notes:

 --Text in italics is enclosed by underscores (_italics_).

 --Punctuation and spelling inaccuracies were silently corrected.

 --Archaic and variable spelling has been preserved.

 --Variations in hyphenation and compound words have been preserved.

 --Added missing captions to the illustrations on pages 12, 18, 26
   and 27, from the List of Illustrations.

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