Ebooks, Fiction, Non-Fiction 1000s of Free books and stories online to read now ~ Main Page




A Glass of Old Madeira by Rambler

We had met in Europe some dozen years ago—I from Massachusetts, he from Carolina. We both looked grave for an instant as a friend presented us to each other, naming our respective residences, and then both laughed cheerily, and were good friends ever after. We enjoyed Tartuffe and the Mariage de Figaro in company with each other at the Theatre Francois, heard Mario, Grisi, Gratiano and Borghi Mamo in Verdi's Trovatore at the Opéra Italien, danced with les filles de l'Opéra at Cellarius's saloons, and had many a midnight carouse afterward at the Maison Doré. Nor had our time always been unprofitably spent. Toward Easter we journeyed together to Rome, and stood side by side before the masterpieces of Raphael and Domenichino in the Vatican, strolled by moonlight amid the ruins of the Coliseum, and drank out of the same cup from the Fountain of Trevi; often visited Crawford's studio, where then stood the famous group which now adorns the frieze of the Capitol at Washington, and by actual observation agreed in thinking his Indian not unworthy of comparison with the famous statue of the Dying Gladiator. We stood together on the Tarpeian Rock, and, looking down upon the mutilated Column of Trajan and all the ruins of ancient Rome, read out of the same copy of Horace the famous ode beginning, "Exegi monumentum aere perennius." We were both passionately fond of sculpture and of painting, and often sat for hours before the glorious Descent from the Cross of Daniel da Volterra in the Chiesa della Trinità dei Monti, the principal figure in which is said to have been sketched by Michael Angelo, and which, although less widely known, appeared to our minds equal in execution and superior in grandeur to any other painting in the world.

After our return to this country I happened to go South one winter, and spent a month with my friend on his plantation in the low country of Carolina. It seemed to be our fate to meet amid the ruins of the past. But the war had not then occurred, and we had many a hunt together, in which, after a glorious burst of the hounds through the open savannas, I brought down more than one noble buck. On other days we would drive with the ladies along the broad beach upon which stood the summer residences of the neighboring planters. And sometimes we would stroll lazily about the lanes of his estate, basking in the mellow sunshine in the midst of February, and chatting of Capri and Sorrento in a climate equal to that of Italy.

And we met again the other day in the streets of a Northern city. He looked older certainly, and very careworn, but his eye was as bright as ever and his voice as cheery.

"Come and dine with me," he said after we had given each other a hurried account of our present abodes and occupations. "You will find me in rather modest and decidedly airy lodgings, and I cannot offer you either wild-ducks or venison. A rasher of bacon and a glass of madeira as we chat over old times: what say you to the bill-of fare? You remember the old French adage, 'Quand on n'a pas ce que l'on aime, faut bien aimer ce que l'on a.'"

"A quelle heure, mon ami?"

"Four o'clock."

And at five that afternoon we were seated together, the remnants of our frugal repast removed, and on the scrupulously polished old mahogany table which separated us stood a cut-glass decanter of old Carolina madeira, the bouquet of which filled the room with its fragrance.

"Fill your glass, Harry: 'tis not the fragrance of the wine, but the sentiment connected with it, which prevents me from offering you a pipe. The odor of the best Virginia would seem to me a desecration. There are only a dozen bottles left in that cupboard. I never uncork one except for a near friend. 'Tis out of fashion now: hock and champagne have taken its place; but, do you know, I like it the better on that account. It reminds me of the past, and, though still a young man, it is one of my greatest pleasures to dwell on the picture which a glass of it never fails to recall to my imagination. You remember Woodlawn? For five-and-twenty years, during the whole of a long minority and subsequent travels abroad, those old bottles stood wreathed with cobwebs in the garret of the old mansion. You drank one with me in 1859. The rest were buried at the commencement of the war, and this is one of the few which survived it. There are not many of your compatriots to whom I would tell the story of its preservation, for it illustrates a feature of feudal attachment which they persistently refuse to believe possible.

"You remember the stately old negro who occupied the porter's lodge at Woodlawn, and who told you with such pride that he and his ancestors had always occupied a favored post near the great house? You remember, too, his grand air, fashioned after the gentlemen of the olden time, the contemporaries of Washington, Rutledge and Pinckney? And in what awe and reverence his fellow-servants stood of him! Well, when the war fairly began, and all hope of amicable adjustment was exhausted, I did what every true man on either side was bound to do—raised a company for the service, removed my family to an up-country farm, and left Old John in charge of my residence and interests in the low country. The Federal gunboats soon appeared upon the coast, entered the bay and ran up the rivers. Many of the younger people went off with them, but during the long and dreary four years which ensued Old John remained staunch at his post, cultivating the land as best he might, and sending constantly supplies of money and provisions to his mistress. At last the whole thing broke down: Lee surrendered, Johnston surrendered. Troops as well as gunboats swarmed in all directions. Not only regular soldiers, but raw negro levies, occupied the towns and were posted through the country. Stories were circulated that I was killed, that I was captured; and the latter statement was true. There were rumors that the land was to be divided among the negroes, and one dark night in the early summer of 1865 some drunken sailors, escaped from the gunboats lying in the bay, raised a mob of negroes from the various plantations and gutted nearly every house in the parish. Among others they came to mine eager for wine, and John was pointed out by some of the neighboring negroes as knowing where it was concealed. The sailors threatened his life: he refused to tell. They held a pistol to his head, but the old man remained staunch in his refusal. Provoked by his fidelity, at length they brutally beat him with the butts of their pistols until his gray hairs were dabbled in gore, and went off to other plunder, telling their followers to take what they wanted from my residence. But, bruised, bleeding and crippled though he was, Old John still defended his master's property, and sitting on the front steps of the house kept the whole crowd at bay by the firmness and dignity of his attitude. I heard of the affair first from a white man who lived in the neighborhood, and it was not until I asked him about it that he told me himself. The next day he gave to my own people the furniture remaining in the house to keep until I came back, but positively refused to allow them to take of the crops that had been gathered any more than was required for their subsistence, and this he regularly shared out to them at stated intervals. And when, after a long imprisonment and much enfeebled myself, I landed one evening at the wharf which leads up to the house, the first figure which met my sight was the old man faithfully guarding the barns. His eyesight was too dim for him to see me, but as soon as he heard my voice he seized my hand with passionate fervor, pressing it repeatedly to his lips and bedewing it with tears. Can you wonder if he has shared my fortunes ever since? But not at Woodlawn. The negroes generally were wild with the notion of freedom, and utterly ignorant of the practical meaning of the term. To me they were always civil and affectionate, but I preferred that some other than myself should teach them its rugged lesson, and immediately leased the place for a term of years to one better fitted than I to derive profit from it under the new system. The gentlemen and the negroes are the two classes upon whom the first results of the fearful revolution in society caused by the war fell with heaviest weight. Both were totally unprepared for it, and both have so far suffered cruelly. A year ago Old John died, faithful and cared for to the last. A few months ago the lease I had executed expired, and I visited the estate again. All the glamour of the past had disappeared. The home of my fathers knew me no more, and I have sold it. Cuffee, whom you remember as my body-servant, who followed me through the war, and bore me on his back from the battlefield upon which I was severely wounded, and who would have come with me here had circumstances permitted of my retaining his services,—Cuffee has taken to politics, and now represents the county in the Legislature of the State; and the last figure that I remember seeing as I left the place was that of old Sary, the sick nurse, her long black hair streaming in the wind (you remember she was an Indian half-breed), her feet bare, her petticoat ragged and limp, standing in the lane which leads from the house—her arms akimbo, a sort of miniature Meg Merrilies—screaming out to me, 'You left you own plantashun.' Yes, I have left my own plantation, and am grubbing out a modest and sometimes a rather precarious existence elsewhere. But for all that, it is more wholesome than mouldering among the ruins of a past that can never return. The fight has been fairly fought, and New England has won the day. Germany is up, France is down; Italy united, the pope existing on sufferance in the palace where erstwhile emperors did him homage. I don't quarrel with Fortune. Nay, in many things I dare say the world has benefited by the change. And so, when I take my children sometimes to look at Crawford's famous group, I even enjoy the spirit of pride with which they look upon the figure of America, and the zest with which they enjoy the vigorous onslaught of the pioneer on the forest tree; but my own eyes seek the Indian chieftain reclining in mute despair on the right of the group, and I have a strange sympathy with the fortune which his very attitude so forcibly indicates. Our battle of Dorking has been fought, and, whatever may be the fate of the next generation, all that is left to me of home or of country are the golden drops which sparkle in this tiny glass."