An Outcast/Chapter XI
You must know, reader, that King street is our Boulevard of fashion; and though not the handsomest street in the world, nor the widest, nor the best paved, nor the most celebrated for fine edifices, we so cherish its age and dignity that we would not for the world change its provincial name, or molest one of the hundred old tottering buildings that daily threaten a dissolution upon its pavement, or permit a wench of doubtful blood to show her head on the "north sidewalk" during promenade hours. We are, you see, curiously nice in matters of color, and we should be. You may not comprehend the necessity for this scrupulous regard to caste; others do not, so you are not to blame for your ignorance of the customs of an atmosphere you have only breathed through novels written by steam. We don't (and you wouldn't) like to have our wives meet our slightly-colored mistresses. And we are sure you would not like to have your highly-educated and much-admired daughters meet those cream-colored material evidences of your folly—called by Northern "fanatics" their half-sisters! You would not! And your wives, like sensible women, as our wives and daughters are, would, if by accident they did meet them, never let you have a bit of sleep until you sent them to old Graspum's flesh-market, had them sold, and the money put safely into their hands. We do these things just as you would; and our wives being philosophers, and very fashionable withal, put the money so got into fine dresses, and a few weeks' stay at some very select watering-place in the North. If your wife be very accomplished, (like ours,) and your daughters much admired for their beauty, (like ours,) they will do as ours did—put wisely the cash got for their detestable relatives into a journey of inspection over Europe. So, you see, we keep our fashionable side of King street; and woe be to the shady mortal that pollutes its bricks!
Mr. Absalom McArthur lives on the unfashionable side of this street, in a one-story wooden building, with a cottage roof, covered with thick, black moss, and having two great bow windows, and a very lean door, painted black, in front. It is a rummy old house to look at, for the great bow windows are always ornamented with old hats, which Mr. McArthur makes supply the place of glass; and the house itself, notwithstanding it keeps up the dignity of a circular window over the door, reminds one of that valiant and very notorious characteristic of the State, for it has, during the last twenty or more years, threatened (but never done it) to tumble upon the unfashionable pavement, just in like manner as the State has threatened (but never done it!) to tumble itself out of our unfashionable Union. We are a great people, you see; but having the impediment of the Union in the way of displaying our might, always stand ready to do what we never intended to do. We speak in that same good-natured sense and metaphor used by our politicians, (who are become very distinguished in the refined arts of fighting and whiskey-drinking,) when they call for a rope to put about the neck of every man not sufficiently stupid to acknowledge himself a secessionist. We imagine ourselves the gigantic and sublime theatre of chivalry, as we have a right to do; we raise up heroes of war and statesmanship, compared with whom your Napoleons, Mirabeaus, and Marats—yes, even your much-abused Roman orators and Athenian philosophers, sink into mere insignificance. Nor are we bad imitators of that art displayed by the Roman soldiers, when they entered the Forum and drenched it with Senatorial blood! Pardon this digression, reader.
Of a summer morning you will see McArthur, the old Provincialist, as he is called, arranging in his great bow windows an innumerable variety of antique relics, none but a Mrs. Toodles could conceive a want for—such as broken pots, dog-irons, fenders, saws, toasters, stew-pans, old muskets, boxing-gloves and foils, and sundry other odds and ends too numerous to mention. At evening he sits in his door, a clever picture of a by-gone age, on a venerable old sofa, supported on legs tapering into feet of lion's paws, and carved in mahogany, all tacked over with brass-headed nails. Here the old man sits, and sits, and sits, reading the "Heroes of the Revolution," (the only book he ever reads,) and seemingly ready at all times to serve the "good wishes" of his customers, who he will tell you are of the very first families, and very distinguished! He holds distinguished peoples in high esteem; and several distinguished persons have no very bad opinion of him, but a much better one of his very interesting daughter, whose acquaintance (though not a lady, in the Southern acceptation of the term) they would not object to making—provided!
His little shop is lumbered with boxes and barrels, all containing relics of a by-gone age—such as broken swords, pistols of curious make, revolutionary hand-saws, planes, cuirasses, broken spurs, blunderbusses, bowie, scalping, and hunting-knives; all of which he declares our great men have a use for. Hung on a little post, and over a pair of rather suspicious-looking buckskin breeches, is a rusty helmet, which he sincerely believes was worn by a knight of the days of William the Conqueror. A little counter to the left staggers under a pile of musty old books and mustier papers, all containing valuable matter relating to the old Continentals, who, as he has it, were all Carolinians. (Dispute this, and he will go right into a passion.) Resting like good-natured policemen against this weary old counter are two sympathetic old coffins, several second-hand crutches, and a quantity of much-neglected wooden legs. These Mr. McArthur says are in great demand with our first families. No one, except Mr. Soloman Snivel, knows better what the chivalry stand in need of to prop up its declining dignity. His dirty little shelves, too, are stuffed with those cheap uniforms the State so grudgingly voted its unwilling volunteers during the Revolution. Tucked in here and there, at sixes and sevens, are the scarlet and blue of several suits of cast-off theatrical wardrobe he got of Abbott, and now loans for a small trifle to Madame Flamingo and the St. Cecilia Society—the first, when she gives her very seductive balmasques; the second, when distinguished foreigners with titles honor its costume balls. As for Revolutionary cocked hats, epaulettes, plumes, and holsters, he has enough to supply and send off, feeling as proud as peacocks, every General and Colonel in the State—and their name, as you ought to know, reader, is legion.
The stranger might, indeed, be deceived into the belief that Absalom McArthur's curiosity shop was capable of furnishing accoutrements for that noble little army, (standing army we call it!) on which the State prides itself not a little, and spends no end of money. For ourselves, (if the reader but permit us,) we have long admired this little Spartan force, saying all the good things of it our prosy brain could invent, and in the kindest manner recommending its uniform good character as a model for our very respectable society to fashion after. Indeed, we have, in the very best nature of a modern historian, endeavored to enlighten the barbarian world outside of South Carolina as to the terrible consequences which might accrue to the Union did this noble little army assume any other than a standing character. Now that General Jackson is out of the way, and our plebeian friends over the Savannah, whom we hold in high esteem, (the Georgians,) kindly consent to let us go our own road out of the Union, nothing can be more grateful than to find our wise politicians sincerely believing that when this standing army, of which other States know so little, shall have become allied with those mighty men of Beaufort, dire consequences to this young but very respectable Federal compact will be the result. Having discharged the duties of a historian, for the benefit of those benighted beings unfortunate enough to live out of our small but highly-civilized State, we must return to McArthur.
He is a little old-maidish about his age, which for the last twenty years has not got a day more than fifty-four. Being as sensitive of his veracity as the State is of its dignity, we would not, either by implication or otherwise, lay an impeachment at his door, but rather charge the discrepancy to that sin (a treacherous memory) the legal gentry find so convenient for their purposes when they knock down their own positions. McArthur stood five feet eight exactly, when young, but age has made him lean of person, and somewhat bent. His face is long and corrugated; his expression of countenance singularly serious. A nose, neither aquiline nor Grecian, but large enough, and long enough, and red enough at the end, to make both; a sharp and curiously-projecting chin, that threatens a meeting, at no very distant day, with his nasal organ; two small, watchful blue eyes deep-set under narrow arches, fringed with long gray lashes; a deeply-furrowed, but straight and contracted forehead, and a shaggy red wig, poised upon the crown of his head, and, reader, if you except the constant working of a heavy, drooping lower lip, and the diagonal sight with which his eyes are favored, you have his most prominent features. Fashion he holds in utter contempt, nor has he the very best opinion in the world of our fashionable tailors, who are grown so rich that they hold mortgages on the very best plantations in the State, and offer themselves candidates for the Governorship. Indeed, Mr. McArthur says, one of these knights of the goose, not long since, had the pertinacity to imagine himself a great General. And to show his tenacious adherence to the examples set by the State, he dresses exactly as his grandfather's great-grandfather used to, in a blue coat, with small brass buttons, a narrow crimpy collar, and tails long enough and sharp enough for a clipper-ship's run. The periods when he provided himself with new suits are so far apart that they formed special episodes in his history; nevertheless there is always an air of neatness about him, and he will spend much time arranging a dingy ruffled shirt, a pair of gray trowsers, a black velvet waistcoat, cut in the Elizabethan style, and a high, square shirt collar, into which his head has the appearance of being jammed. This collar he ties with a much-valued red and yellow Spittlefields, the ends of which flow over his ruffle. Although the old man would not bring much at the man-shambles, we set a great deal of store by him, and would not exchange him for anything in the world but a regiment or two of heroic secessionists. Indeed we are fully aware that nothing like him exists beyond the highly perfumed atmosphere of our State. And to many other curious accomplishments the old man adds that of telling fortunes. The negroes seriously believe he has a private arrangement with the devil, of whom he gets his wisdom, and the secret of propitiating the gods.
Two days have passed since the emeute at the house of the old hostess. McArthur has promised the young missionary a place for Tom Swiggs, when he gets out of prison (but no one but his mother seems to have a right to let him out), and the tall figure of Mister Snivel is seen entering the little curiosity shop. "I say!—my old hero, has she been here yet?" inquires Mr. Snivel, the accommodation man. "Nay, good friend," returns the old man, rising from his sofa, and returning the salutation, "she has not yet darkened the door." The old man draws the steel-bowed spectacles from his face, and watches with a patriarchal air any change that comes over the accommodation man's countenance. "Now, good friend, if I did but know the plot," pursues the old man.
"The plot you are not to know! I gave you her history yesterday—that is, as far as I know it. You must make up the rest. You know how to tell fortunes, old boy. I need not instruct you. Mind you flatter her beauty, though—extend on the kindness of the Judge, and be sure you get it in that it was me who betrayed her at the St. Cecelia. All right old boy, eh?" and shaking McArthur by the hand warmly, he takes his departure, bowing himself into the street. The old man says he will be all ready when she comes.
Scarcely has the accommodation man passed out of sight when a sallow-faced stripling makes his appearance, and with that characteristic effrontery for borrowing and never returning, of the property-man of a country theatre, "desires" to know if Mr. McArthur will lend him a skull.
"A skull!" ejaculates the old man, his bony fingers wandering to his melancholy lip—"a skull!" and he fusses studiously round the little cell-like place, looking distrustfully at the property-man, and then turning an anxious eye towards his piles of rubbish, as if fearing some plot is on foot to remove them to the infernal regions.
"You see," interrupts Mr. Property, "we play Hamlet to-night—expect a crammed house—and our star, being scrupulous of his reputation, as all small stars are, won't go on for the scene of the grave-digger, without two skulls—he swears he won't! He raised the very roof of the theatre this morning, because his name wasn't in bigger type on the bill. And if we don't give him two skulls and plenty of bones to-night, he swears—and such swearing as it is!—he'll forfeit the manager, have the house closed, and come out with a card to the public in the morning. We are in a fix, you see! The janitor only has one, and he lent us that as if he didn't want to."
Mr. McArthur says he sees, and with an air of regained wisdom stops suddenly, and takes from a shelf a dingy old board, on which is a dingier paper, bearing curious inscriptions, no one but the old man himself would have supposed to be a schedule of stock in trade. Such it is, nevertheless. He rubs his spectacles, places them methodically upon his face, wipes and wipes the old board with his elbow. "It's here if it's anywhere!" says the old man, with a sigh. "It comes into my head that among the rest of my valuables I've Yorick's skull."
"The very skull we want!" interrupts Property. And the old man quickens the working of his lower jaw, and continues to rub at the board until he has brought out the written mystery. "My ancestors were great people," he mumbles to himself, "great people!" He runs the crusty forefinger of his right hand up and down the board, adding, "and my customers are all of the first families, which is some consolation in one's poverty. Ah! I have it here!" he exclaims, with childlike exultation, frisking his fingers over the board. "One Yorick's skull—a time-worn, tenantless, and valuable relic, in which graveyard worms have banqueted more than once. Yes, young man, presented to my ancestors by the elder Stuarts, and on that account worth seven skulls, or more." "One Yorick's skull," is written on the paper, upon which the old man presses firmly his finger. Then turning to an old box standing in the little fireplace behind the counter, saying, "it's in here—as my name's Absalom McArthur, it is," he opens the lid, and draws forth several old military coats (they have seen revolutionary days! he says, exultingly), numerous scales of brass, such as are worn on British soldiers' hats, a ponderous chapeau and epaulets, worn, he insists, by Lord Nelson at the renowned battle of Trafalgar. He has not opened, he adds, this box for more than twelve long years. Next he drags forth a military cloak of great weight and dimensions. "Ah!" he exclaims, with nervous joy, "here's the identical cloak worn by Lord Cornwallis—how my ancestors used to prize it." And as he unrolls its great folds there falls upon the floor, to his great surprise, an old buff-colored silk dress, tied firmly with a narrow, green ribbon. "Maria! Maria! Maria!" shouts the old man, as if suddenly seized with a spasm. And his little gray eyes flash with excitement, as he says—"if here hasn't come to light at last, poor Mag Munday's dress. God forgive the poor wretch, she's dead and gone, no doubt." In response to the name of "Maria" there protrudes from a little door that opens into a passage leading to a back-room, the delicate figure of a female, with a face of great paleness, overcast by a thoughtful expression. She has a finely-developed head, intelligent blue eyes, light auburn hair, and features more interesting than regular. Indeed, there is more to admire in the peculiar modesty of her demeanor than in the regularity of her features, as we shall show. "My daughter!" says the old man, as she nervously advances, her pale hand extended. "Poor woman! how she would mourn about this old dress; and say it contained something that might give her a chance in the world," she rather whispers than speaks, disclosing two rows of small white teeth. She takes from the old man's hand the package, and disappears. The anxiety she evinces over the charge discloses the fact that there is something of deep interest connected with it.
Mr. McArthur was about to relate how he came by this seemingly worthless old package, when the property-man, becoming somewhat restless, and not holding in over high respect the old man's rubbish, as he called it in his thoughts, commences drawing forth, piece after piece of the old relics. The old man will not allow this. "There, young man!" he says, touching him on the elbow, and resuming his labor. At length he draws forth the dust-tenanted skull, coated on the outer surface with greasy mould. "There!" he says, with an unrestrained exclamation of joy, holding up the wasting bone, "this was in its time poor Yorick's skull. It was such a skull, when Yorick lived! Beneath this filthy remnant of past greatness (I always think of greatness when I turn to the past), this empty tenement, once the domain of wisdom, this poor bone, what thoughts did not come out?" And the old man shakes his head, mutters inarticulately, and weeps with the simplicity of a child.
"The Star'll have skulls and bones enough to make up for his want of talent now—I reckon," interposes the property-man. "But!—I say, mister, this skull couldn't a bin old Yorick's, you know—"
"Yorick's!—why not?" interrupts the old man.
"Because Yorick—Yorick was the King's jester, you see—no nigger; and no one would think of importing anything but a nigger's skull into Charleston—"
"Young man!—if this skull had consciousness; if this had a tongue it would rebuke thee;" the old man retorts hastily, "for my ancestors knew Yorick, and Yorick kept up an intimate acquaintance with the ancestors of the very first families in this State, who were not shoemakers and milliners, as hath been maliciously charged, but good and pious Huguenots." To the end that he may convince the unbelieving Thespian of the truth of his assertion, he commences to rub away the black coating with the sleeve of his coat, and there, to his infinite delight, is written, across the crown, in letters of red that stand out as bold as the State's chivalry—"Alas! poor Yorick." Tears of sympathy trickle down the old man's cheeks, his eyes sparkle with excitement, and with womanly accents he mutters: "the days of poetry and chivalry are gone. It is but a space of time since this good man's wit made Kings and Princes laugh with joy."
This skull, and a coral pin, which he said was presented to his ancestors by Lord Cornwallis, who they captured, now became his hobby; and he referred to it in all his conversation, and made them as much his idol as our politicians do secession. In this instance, he dare not entrust his newly-discovered jewel to the vulgar hands of Mr. Property, but pledged his honor—a ware the State deals largely in notwithstanding it has become exceedingly cheap—it would be forthcoming at the requisite time.
- See Senator Sumner's speech in Congress on Plantation manners.