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A Night in Bedford, Virginia by Richard B. Elder

"The general has been sending his ambulance"—Bless these ambulances! they are as common in Virginia as hen-nest grass or clumps of sassafras—"to the dépôt every morning for three or four days for you."

"The deuce he has! Then why didn't he let me know by letter, as I asked him to do?"

"Can't say, really."

This conversation took place in the main street of the extraordinary city of Lugston—a city so very peculiar that I must give it an entire article some day.

Repairing forthwith to a newspaper office, I wrote to the general how sorry I was that he had been put to so much trouble—I had not received the letter which he must have written—obliged to go home in the morning—hoped at some future time to have the pleasure, etc., etc. Then I went to my lodgings on Federal Hill, and, behold! there was the letter. "Although the ambulance"—ever blessed!—"had been so often to the dépôt, it would be there on Monday morning, and again on Tuesday evening. Don't fail to," etc. Whereupon I called for paper and wrote the general that, in spite of the necessity for my returning home the next day, I would be at Blank Station on Tuesday evening and meet that ambulance—blessed ambulance!—or die in the struggle. Go I would, and go I went—if that is grammar.

A newspaper editor—there is no end of editors in Virginia: wherever there is a tank, a tan-yard or a wood-pile, there you find one—a learned professor who had a flourishing school a few miles up the road (public instruction is playing hob with most of the private schools in Virginia), and a judge on a lecturing-tour (how is a Virginia judge to support his family without lecturing, wood-sawing or other supplementary business?) entertained me most agreeably on my way to the station.

A cadet from Annapolis was the first object that met my eye when I got out.

"'S death! a Virginian in that hated uniform?"

I said no such thing, felt no such thing, but was inwardly pleased that Uncle Sam's money (he gets ten millions a year out of Virginia tobacco, and then brags about what he does for our children, the sly old dog!) was educating some of our boys who otherwise might not be educated half so well, if at all. Moreover, the broad shoulders, the trim flanks, the aquiline nose, brown hair and ruddy cheeks of the young fellow recalled the best specimens of British lads whom I had seen in Canada and elsewhere. In truth, I could hardly persuade myself that he was not English.

Albion was in the air, for on the other side of the dépôt there was a lot of trunks and other baggage, the make of which could not be mistaken. I soon learned that one of the best estates in the neighborhood had been sold to an Englishman, who had arrived that very day.

"Furies! the sacred soil of Virginia again passing into the hands of the blarsted Hinglish, from whom it was wrested a century ago by the blood and treasure of George Washington's hatchet! A Federal cadet on one side and an Englishman on the other of Blank Dépôt, away off here in Bedford! What are we coming to?"

I did not say or think this either, but was delighted to find John Bull pervading the Old Dominion.

Another and a bitterer pill, had I been as disloyal as I was five years ago, and ought to be now, awaited me, as you shall hear.

But where is that ambulance? The blessed vehicle was there, and, after so long and painful a separation, we should have met face to face if it had not been backed up to the platform to receive—whom? me? No, a parcel of ladies, who filled every seat. My inflammable Southside soul would have burst into a high blaze at this if a gentleman had not immediately stepped forward with a snug jug of whisky. Whisky in any vessel I love, but whisky in a jug not too big to handle easily I adore. My viznomy relaxed, a beam of joy began to irradiate my features, when to my extreme surprise the benevolent jug-gentleman said, "Take a glass of claret punch"—he had the glass as well as the jug—"won't you, sir?"

Amazement! claret punch in a jug at a dépôt in the heart, or at any rate the pericardium, of Bedford county! Where was I? who was I? what was my name? and where was I going to? In my life I was never more nonplussed.

The ambulance drove off, and I was consigned to a spring wagon with a white boy for a driver.

"How far is it to the general's?" I ventured to ask as I stepped in.

"Eight miles."

"Whew!"

"Never mind, sir: we shall be there in an hour and a half."

And off we went like the wind. He drove very boldly and at the same time very cautiously, avoiding the numerous stumps, stones and ruts with admirable dexterity. I began to suspect that the boy was not a Virginia boy. When at length we reached the smooth stage-road I began to question him: "Are you the general's son?"

"No, sir: that was my father at the station"—he of the jug.

"How do you like this country?"

My habit from childhood had been to take the life of any stranger who had the audacity to tell me that he did not like any and every part of Virginia, but of late I have contented myself with slicing off his ears.

"The longer I live here the better I like it."

Smart boy! he had saved his auditory organs. But as yet his accent had not been sufficiently defined to enable me to tell his nationality. "You are not from England, are you?"

"No, indeed, sir—from New Hampshire."

The appalling truth was out. First, a Yankee uniform; second, an Englishman; third, a whole raft, a "hull lot," of New Hampshire Yankees; and yet they call this Virginia!

No wonder I was silent. Night had fallen, we had entered a dark forest, there was an unreconstructed penknife (somehow or other, I always forget my bowie-knife and Derringers now-a-days) recently sharpened in my pocket. Why did I not cut the throat of this little Oppressor and fatten the soil of my native land with the blood of the small ruthless Yankee Invader?

It was just because at this moment we caught up with the ambulance. The two vehicles halted, a young girl and a little boy left the ambulance and took seats by the side of my driver, and the greeting of the brother and sister—the latter having just returned from a visit to her native granite hills—was actually as affectionate, beautiful and sweet as if they had been born in the middle of the Mother of States and of Statesmen. And as the ambulance drove on there came floating back to us ever and anon on the night wind a still sweeter voice. It came from a young lady—a young Yankee lady at that—and it sounded sweet to me—to me myself, my own dear, unadulterated, real Old Virginia self.

Turning from the main road, we wound around among the rocky ravines in a fashion truly bewildering to a body with weak eyes, but my little Yankee driver seemed so much at home that I felt no shadow of fear. Arriving safely at the general's capacious mansion, I bade my Northern friends good-night, and sat down to a supper without fried chickens or coffee. In lieu of the latter we had cold tea, with a slice of lemon in each goblet. After a long talk on matters of no concern to the reader, during which the general related a number of capital war-anecdotes, I contrived, as is my wont, to turn the conversation upon agricultural topics, with the view of imparting to him a modicum of that consummate farming wisdom which appertains to every thoroughly conceited scribbler.

"Fine country you have, general."

"Yes: from Lugston to the Tennessee line, two hundred good miles, the country is as fine as the sun ever shone upon."

"Appears to be thinly settled."

"You may well say so. Between my house and the station there are eight or nine thousand acres, most of it excellent land, belonging to only five or six owners."

"Indeed! What are such immense tracts good for now-a-days?"

"Good for grass."

"But they seem to pay little attention to grass."

"True. It is a splendid cheese country, as I have proved, but our people are not up to that as yet."

"They will grow tobacco. I saw some fine timber sacrificed for the sake of new-ground tobacco."

"And why not? A man gets tired of paying taxes for twenty or thirty years on timber which yields him nothing."

I smiled an invisible smile, reverting in my thoughts to an assault I had made the week before upon my kinsman in Buckingham. "William," said I, "why will you Southside people continue to exhaust your land with tobacco?"

"Dick," he replied, "you are the doggonedest fool out of jail. You, raised in Virginia, and ask a question like that! Wheat is uncertain, corn doesn't pay, we are too far from market for vegetables, too poor to put our lands in grass, and tobacco is the only thing that will fetch money. As for exhausting land, plenty of tobacco is raised in Ohio and Connecticut, and you never hear anybody talk about exhausting land there."

"Yes, but there they manure heavily, giving back to the land as much as they take, or more."

"Well, old-field pine is good enough manure for a man who has plenty of land and can take his time."

Thus in two instances my anti-tobacco wisdom turned out to be about as profitable as King James's memorable Counterblast against the beloved weed of Virginia.

"But, general," said I, "surely your neighbors don't want to retain such vast tracts of land."

"Certainly not. Men do not like to part with good land, and if my friends could set their farms well in grass, so that a few hands could attend to them, they would only sell at very high figures; but being unable to do this, they are willing, and many of them anxious, to sell on most reasonable terms."

"What is the trouble, then?"

"The trouble is about houses."

"Explain."

"Wealthy people seldom emigrate. The men who leave home have generally but limited means, and coming here they find just the soil and climate they desire, but no place to lay their heads; and few if any of them can afford to buy land and build houses at the same time. This, I am satisfied, is the main difficulty in the way of the speedy filling up of Virginia with the best class of yeoman settlers."

"A difficulty not easily remedied."

"No, for our people, rich in land, are even poorer in money than the immigrants themselves."

"How on earth, then, did you manage to sell to the New Hampshire gentleman who came with me this evening, and who, as I learn, bought a part of your farm?"

"Why, I had a roomy house, and I just opened my doors to him and his family, and kept them here free of charge till their own house was finished."

"Well, general," dropping my voice to the Secesh conspirator level, "how do you like him?"

The general, known by the antique name of Jones (though the Sixth Pennsylvania and other Northern cavalry were acquainted with him under another cognomen), like all the strapping sons of thunder who went actively into the field instead of staying at home and abusing Jeff. Davis, does not regard his late enemies with that intense hatred which is so gratifying to myself and some other people.

He spoke out aloud: "I like him first rate. He is an admirable neighbor—a man of sense, practical, sagacious and industrious; and his family, wife, sons and daughters, are in all respects worthy of him. I wish the county had a thousand of just such people."

This was a crusher for me. Drawing myself up to my full height—which ought to be but is not six feet—I seized a kerosene lamp with my right hand, and looking the unfortunate man full in the eye, I said very respectfully, "General, good-night."

Undismayed, he eyed me back, and, in a tone of what I took to be cordiality, replied, "Maybe you'd like a little whisky-and-water before going to bed?"

I thanked him "No," mounted the lofty staircase, divested myself of sundry sartorial cerements and plunged my earthly tabernacle into the centre of a big delicious bed. There, while the thunder rolled among the mountains, the rain plashed upon the window-shutters and the wind blew like the very devil, I muttered to myself, "Here is a man bearing worthily one of the most honored names in the Commonwealth—a member, in fact, of one of the first—the first—first fam—families in Vir—gin—ia, actually pr—prais—praising Yan—Yank—Yankees in—in's own hou—" I was asleep.

On the morrow, when I returned to the station and saw how very lovely the country was, how fertile—the rounded mountains, when cleared of their royal forests, arable to their very summits, the air like Olympian nectar, the sunshine a divine balm, the whole scene a Sabbath-land of peace and of boundless plenty, awaiting only the cohorts of the North and of the white-cliffed isle—I would fain have cried, "Come, ye moderately pecunious Bulls, and you, ye hyperborean Vandals from the far Lake of Winnipiseogee and the uttermost Cape of Cod—come to this Canaan, not like carpet-bagging spies to steal our big bunch of grapes and tote it off on a stick between two of you (as per authentic pictures in Sunday-school books), but with your shekels, your deniers, your pence, pounds sterling and crisp greenbacks: come to this beauteous land, take it, own it, possess it, buy freely, and be sure you reserve enough cash to build a house with; or, better still, bring your houses ready made, in nests like buckets or painted pails (I am sure you have them in your inventive realm). Come, I say, and oust these mutton-headed Virginians, or sit down beside them, work with them, teach them to work (you are so certain you can), and make this American republic the Storehouse of the nations, the Cornucopia of all creation!"

I got to the station just three hours after the train I intended to take had  left, and had to wait only two hours for the next train; which was doing pretty well for Virginia. Possessing my Southside soul in patience, I bought two not very bad cigars for ten cents, and fell to contemplating some eight or nine of the Down-Trodden who were hanging around. I must say that the Down-Trodden did not appear to have been much flattened by the heel of the Oppressor. As I gazed, a foolish parody started itself in my idle brain:

When the fair land of Bedford

Was ploughed by the hoof

Of the ruthless invader—

There the thing broke down, and—the events of the night before, the Englishman, the happy Northern family and the thoroughly reconstructed general, suggesting it in some queer cerebral way—a still more foolish negro song, which I had forgotten for years, popped up in my brain-pan:

Lit-tel gal, I give you ninepunce

Ef you will dance de Haul-back;

And I kin dance de Haul-back,

And you kin dance de Haul back,

And we kin dance de Haul-back.

The relevancy of this utterly absurd thing did not then strike me. I see it now. A certain people—whom I do love with my whole heart, not in spite of their faults, but because of them: are they not my own?—have been dancing the Haul-back for many generations, and now, under my own eye and quite perceptibly in the rural parts of Virginia, the dance is coming to an end. Slowly but surely we are lapsing into Bullo-doodledom, with a momentary preponderance of Bull. Tempora—do, I entreat you, allow me the use of my solitary dear delightful old bit of Latin—mutantur; ay! and we mutate with them. The world moves, and no amount of Haul-back will stay it.