Old Hickory's Ball by Will Allen Dromgoole
It was in the
year of our Lord
the State of
the tenth year
of its age,
as a State.
The summer was over, the harvests ripe, the year growing ruddy. Down in the
cotton fields the balls had begun to burst, and the “hands,” with their great
baskets, to trudge all day down the long rows, singing in that dreamy, dolefully
musical way which belongs alone to the tongue of the Southern slaves and to the
Southern cotton fields. Across the fields, and the rich, old clover bottoms that
formed a part of the Hermitage farm, the buzz of a cotton gin could be
distinctly heard, adding its own peculiar note to the music of Southern nature.
A cotton gin! it was a rare possession in those days, and General Jackson’s
was known from Nashville to New Orleans. Indeed, the whole of the previous
year’s crop had not yet been disposed of. The great bales were heaped about,
waiting for the flat-boats that would carry them up the Cumberland, down the
Ohio and the Mississippi, and land them at the great New Orleans market. A slow
trip for the bulky bales. Could they have foreseen the time when the tedious
river’s journey would be shortened to one day’s run over a steel track, what
must the big bales have thought! And those gigantic heaps of cotton seed which
all the cows in the county could not have consumed, could they have “peered into
the future” and found themselves in the lard cans! The old gin would have
groaned aloud could it have known that it was buzzing itself into history as
surely as was the tall, spare, erect man coming across the field in the late
afternoon to see that the day’s work was well done.
What a heroic figure! and a face that even in youth bore the impress of a man
marked by destiny for daring deeds. Imperious in temper, majestic in courage,
and unyielding in will, he was one born to lay hold of fate and bend it
to his desires. Yet, there was a timidity in the eye which no danger
could make quail. And when down the lane there came the clatter of horses’ hoofs
striking the hard, dry earth, and with the horses a vision of long, dark skirts
waving like black banners in the breeze made by the hurrying steeds, the owner
of the cotton gin stepped within and beyond the vision of the lady visitors.
But they were not to be out-generaled even by a general; and straight up to
the gin the horses were headed.
“General Jackson,” one of the ladies—there were but two—called to the timid
hero who had run away at her approach. Instantly he appeared. He wore a large,
white beaver hat, the broad brim half-shading the clear-cut, strongly outlined
features. When he lifted it, even Beauty could not fail to notice the high and
noble forehead, the quick, eager eye, and the delicate flush that swept across
the patrician features. “General Jackson, I have come in the name of charity.
No, no, you need not take out your wallet. We are not asking money.”
A smile played across the strong, thin lips. “How?” said he, “doesn’t charity
always mean ‘money’? I was of the impression the terms were synonymous.”
“Then for once own yourself in the wrong,” laughed Beauty. “We have come to
ask the privilege of a charity ball at the Hermitage.”
“A charity ball; and at the Hermitage.”
A most comically pleased expression came into the earnest eyes of the master
for an instant. Only an instant, and then a heavy frown contracted his forehead.
A flash of scorn in the clear eye, and a curl of the proud, sensitive lip, told
of the suppressed anger that had suddenly smitten him.
“The Hermitage,” said he, “is the home of my wife. She is its
mistress, and to her is confided its honor and the honor of its master. To her
belongs, and to her alone, the right to choose its guests, and to open its doors
to her friends. I am surprised you should come to me with your
Ah! she was forearmed; how fortunate. Beauty smiled triumphantly. “But your
servant who opened the gate, told us that Mrs. Jackson was not at home.”
“Ah!” the frown instantly vanished, and the hand ever ready to strike for her
he loved with such deathless devotion was again lifted to the broad old beaver.
“I think,” said he, “in that case I may answer for Mrs. Jackson, and pledge
for her the hospitality of the Hermitage for—charity.”
Again he lifted his hat; across the fields the sound of a whistle had come to
him, and a servant waited, with polite patience, near by with the horse that was
to carry his master down to the river where the boats were waiting to be
inspected—the new boats which, like everything pertaining to the master of the
Hermitage, were to have a place in history.
“Ladies,” said he, “charity is not the only voice calling upon the Hermitage
farmer. Our country,”—he waved his hand toward the river where the boats were
being builded,—“or one who nobly represents her, is calling for those vessels
now in the course of construction yonder.”
“Will there be war?”
How the clear eyes danced and shone beneath that question which over and over
again he had put to his own heart,—“Will there be war?”
“We hope so,” he replied. “All the West wishes it, the people demand it, and
the time is ripe for it. Already a leader has been chosen for it; those boats
were ordered by him.”
“Aye, Aaron Burr.”
The night was balmy and deliciously fragrant with the odors of cedar and
sweet old pine. Balmy and silent, save for a rebellious mocking-bird that
trilled and trolled, and seemed trying to split its musical little throat in a
honeysuckle bush before the open window of a little “two-story” log house set
back from the road in a tangle of plum trees, wild rose-bushes, and sweet old
Every window was wide open, and from both windows and doors streamed a flood
of light, to guide and welcome the guests who came by twos, and threes, and half
dozens to the Hermitage ball. They were not in full-dress array, for most of the
guests were equestrians, or equestriennes, and brought their finery in the
little leathern band-boxes securely buckled to the saddle-horse. Stealthily the
fair ones dismounted, and stealthily crept along the low piazza, through the
side room, carefully past the pretentious “big room,” and up the stairs, a
narrow little wooden concern, each tenderly hugging her precious band-box.
There were but three rooms below, barring the dining-room which was cut off
by the low piazza. The stairway went up from Mrs. Jackson’s little bedroom into
a duplicate guest-chamber above. Two others, as diminutive, one above and below,
were tucked onto these. And this, with the big room, was the Hermitage. A very
unpretentious cabin was the first Hermitage; the humble and honored roof of
Rachel and Andrew Jackson, the couple standing under the waxen candles in the
big room waiting to receive their guests. The master was resplendent, if
uncomfortable, in his silken stockings, buckles, and powder, and rich velvet.
For, whatever his faults, he was no coxcomb, and the knee breeches and finery
had only been assumed for that one occasion, at the “special request” of
charity’s fair committee.
The vest of richly embroidered silk was held at the waist with a glittering
brilliant, and left open to the throat, as if in deference to the flutes, and
frills, and delicate laces of the white shirt bosom. There was a glitter at the
knees where the silver buckles caught now and then a gleam from the waxen
candles dangling from the low ceiling in a silver and iridescent chandelier, to
the imminent peril of the white roll of powdered hair surmounting the tall
general’s forehead. At his side, proud, calm, and queenly in her womanly dignity
and virtue, stood Rachel, the beloved mistress of the Hermitage. Her dress of
stiff and creamy silk could add nothing to the calm serenity of the soul beaming
from the gentle eyes, whose glance, tender and fond, strayed now and then to the
figure of her husband, and rested for a brief moment upon the strong, gentle
face with something akin to reverence in their shadowy depths. Her face,
beautiful and beneficent, was not without a shadow: a shadow which grief had set
there to mellow, but could not mar, the gentle sweetness of the patient
There was the sound of banjo and fiddle, as one by one the dusky musicians
from the cabins ranged themselves along the wall of the big room, which had been
cleared of its furnishings, and young feet came hurrying in when the old
Virginia reel sounded through, the low rooms, calling to the dance.
More than one set of ivories shone at door and windows where the slaves
gathered to “see the whi’ folks dance.” But prominent and conspicuous, in a suit
as nearly resembling his master’s as might be, and in a position at the
immediate right hand of the slave who played the bass viol, stood Cæsar, the
general’s favorite man-servant. He bore himself with the same courtly dignity,
the same dignified courtesy, and had stationed himself beside the viol in order
to have a more thorough view of the dancers, and above all of his beloved
master. He had faithfully ushered in the last guest, and had hurried to his
place in order to see General Jackson step down the long line of dancers and bow
to his partner. Not for worlds would he have missed that bow, to him the
perfection of grace and dignity.
Two by two the couples entered, crossed to the centre of the room and bowed
each other to their places opposite in the long, wall-like line which
characterizes the stately reel.
The ladies dropped like drooping lilies for one brief moment in the midst of
their silken stiffness, skirts that “stood alone,” and made their courtesies to
their swains with proper maiden modesty.
Cæsar saw it all from his post of vantage near the big viol, but he was not
interested in the visitors, he knew what they could do. He was waiting to see
his master “lay ‘em all in the shade bimeby.” Of course he would open the ball.
He wasn’t fond of dancing but it was the custom of the day, and he and Miss
Rachel “knew their manners.”
But for once the custom of the day was changed. Cæsar was destined to
disappointment. Mrs. Jackson’s rustling silk announced her approach before she
appeared, leaning, not upon the arm of the general, but in company with a
florid, rather fleshy gentleman, no stranger, however, to the Hermitage
hospitality. Much to the negro’s chagrin he led her to the very head of the long
lines of bright dresses and gay gallants, and stepped himself, as Cæsar
declared, “like a young cock,” into the general’s own place opposite. The master
stood at the very foot, the escort of a lady Cæsar had never set eyes upon
before, and who for the life of him he could not forgive for being the general’s
He was grievously disappointed, so that when the florid fat gentleman at the
head danced down between the gay columns, and made his manners to the lady at
the foot, as gallantly as anyone could have done, Cæsar expressed his opinion
loud enough to be heard by the very gentleman himself.
“Mr. Grundy tryin’ step mighty high to-night,” he said.
But it was when “Miss Rachel” danced down in her silken skirts and met the
master midway the line, and dropped a low courtesy, her full skirts settling
about her like a great white umbrella, and the stately general bowed over his
silver buckles like some royal knight of old, that Cæsar’s enthusiasm got the
better of his indignation.
“Beat dat, Mr. Grundy!” he said, in a low, if enthusiastic, whisper,
“beat dat, sar.” And Mr. Grundy pranced down again to “beat” the master in the
“swing with the right” movement of the old-fashioned dance.
Promptly the general followed, meeting “Miss Rachel” half way with a second
courtesy over the tips of her fingers, just visible under the lace ruffles at
“Try dat, now, Mr. Grundy!” And this time Cæsar forgot his whisper so
that a burst of applause followed the challenge, to Mr. Grundy’s extreme
chagrin; for he, alas! had forgotten his bow before swinging the lady.
It was then the dancing assumed something of the appearance of real rivalry.
Down the line galloped Mr. Grundy again, stopped, bowed, “swung with the
left,” and bowed again.
The general had been outdone, even Cæsar had to admit it, and the dancers
laughed aloud and clapped their hands at the pretty little gallantry.
But the master was equal to the emergency. Again the stately figure met “Miss
Rachel,” the couple bowed, swung with the left, bowed again, hands still
clasped, and then the powdered head of the master dropped for an instant over
the lady’s hand, that was lifted to his lips, and the dancers parted.
Amid the spirited confusion of “chasing the fox,” passing under the gates
held “high as the sky,” and passing back again into line, Cæsar’s voice could be
heard still sounding the challenge:—
“Beat it, if you kin, Mr. Grundy. Chassay to yer best,
Mr. Grundy! Back yerse’f to de lead, Mr. Grundy!”
Clearly, Mr. Grundy was not the favorite. Cæsar’s “backing” had inspired
confidence in the general.
However, if Mr. Grundy was, as he said, “a cock,” he was nevertheless a game
one. Down the centre he tripped again, flushed and determined, courtesied
exceeding low, swung “with both” hands, then dropped for an instant upon one
knee while the lady tripped back into line. There was a murmur of quick
appreciation and all eyes were turned on Jackson. Would he, could he,
think of anything so delightfully graceful?
Cæsar’s mouth stood wide open. His confidence in his beloved and stately
master never once faltered. He knew he would never suffer Felix Grundy to outdo
him in the simple matter of a bow; but how? What?
Straight on came the general; bowed, extended his arms, when, as ill luck
would have it, he set the toe of his shoe upon the front hem of “Miss Rachel’s”
silken gown, and, rising from her courtesy, there was nothing to do but drop
forward into the arms extended, amid the shouts of the assembled guests,
emphasized by Cæsar’s emphatic—
He had done a very awkward thing. One of those happily awkward things
which crown a man conqueror more surely than all the tricks of art can do.
Nobody attempted to surpass that feat, and when the couples had each in turn
passed their parade, for such is the old Virginia reel, and the dancers filed
into the supper room, General Jackson was still, in the judgment of his servant
at all events, the master of grace and chivalry.
A sumptuous supper and worthy the mistress who planned it. At the head of the
table sat Jackson; at the foot, the young statesman and guest, Mr. Grundy.
When the company had all been seated, the master rose, his right hand resting
upon a tiny tumbler of red wine, such as stood at every plate. He motioned Mr.
Grundy, and lifted the tumbler. “The man honored by fate, and fostered by
fortune. The man chosen and set apart for the service of the nation. A man whose
name shall go down the years as the synonym of courage and of honor. The
foremost man of the age,”—and the voice ever strong for the friend, absent or
near, pronounced the name of one at that moment tottering upon the brink of
ignominious destruction and disgrace—“Aaron Burr.”
There was an instant of intense silence, but not a tumbler was lifted. Insult
to the host, or insult to conviction? was the thought which held each guest;
when quick into the breach stepped Mr. Grundy. With one palm pressed upon the
rim of his tumbler, and with head proudly lifted in a half defiant sternness,
wholly belying the careless voice in which he offered the compromise, “No absent
heroes,” said he. “In lieu of that I offer Andrew Jackson! the future President
of the United States of America.” It was said in jest, yet not one but
understood that Mr. Grundy refused to drink to the man with whose name one
stinging, startling word was already cautiously whispered,—traitor.
General Jackson’s fine eye flashed; but courtesy could unsheath no sword
against a guest. And after all, it was nothing. A mere flash of words. Aye! yet
something whispered that the flash carried a meaning, was, indeed, a spark from
that mightier flash of arms that would, ere long, blaze out at the very
mention of that name.
The ball was over; still wearing their evening finery the master of the
Hermitage and his wife sat over the fading embers, smoking their “last pipe”
Cæsar had bowed the last guest from the door, and was about to close it for
the night, when the sound of galloping hoofs attracted his attention. It was a
single horseman, and he was making straight for the Hermitage. The servant
waited under the low piazza, curious but not uneasy. The horse stopped at the
block, and into the long line of light streaming from the open doorway, came the
figure of a man, hurrying as if to reach the door before it should close. He had
ridden hard, and had barely arrived in time.
“Is General Jackson at home?” he asked. “I must see him to-night, at once.
Tell him so.”
The servant bowed, and silently ushered the late arrival into the deserted
His keen eye took in the surroundings with a half-amused, half-bewildered
expression. The banquet table, despoiled of its beauty, the half-emptied wine
glasses, the broken bits of cake, crumbled by beauty’s fair fingers; the odor of
dying roses, smothered in their bloom, mingled with the scent of the undrunk
wine; all told the story of revelry and its inevitable destiny.
The stranger crossed the room to the pillaged sideboard, and with the air of
a man thoroughly at home, lifted a decanter and poured a tumbler full of wine,
lifted it carelessly to his lips, drained it, and with the emptied vessel still
in his hand turned to meet the master of the house.
He still wore the finery in which he had decked himself for the ball. In one
hand he carried his pipe, over which he had been dozing with Rachel. But the eye
was alive now; the quick, eagle eye. The ball had become a thing of the past.
And as he stood for one brief moment in the doorway, himself, in his gala dress,
seemed but another illustration of that indomitable grimness which hangs about a
forsaken banquet room. At that moment the stranger lifted his face. It was a
face stamped with the cunning of a fox, the courage of a lion, the simplicity of
a child, the ambition of a god.
The master met the cool, fixed eye, and into his own leaped the smothered
fire of outraged dignity. He lifted his hand, as if to curse.
“Do you know, sir, that the world is branding you a traitor? And that Felix
Grundy refused to drink your health in my house to-night?”
A sneer flitted across the handsome features, but the low, rich voice only
said, “Let him.”
It was the voice of Aaron Burr.