A Humorous Short Story by O. Henry
When Major Pendleton Talbot, of Mobile, sir, and his daughter, Miss Lydia Talbot, came to Washington to reside, they selected for a boarding place a house that stood fifty yards back from one of the quietest avenues. It was an old-fashioned brick building, with a portico upheld by tall white pillars. The yard was shaded by stately locusts and elms, and a catalpa tree in season rained its pink and white blossoms upon the grass. Rows of high box bushes lined the fence and walks. It was the Southern style and aspect of the place that pleased the eyes of the Talbots.
In this pleasant private boarding house they engaged rooms, including a study for Major Talbot, who was adding the finishing chapters to his book, Anecdotes and Reminiscences of the Alabama Army, Bench, and Bar.
Major Talbot was of the old, old South. The present day had little interest or excellence in his eyes. His mind lived in that period before the Civil War when the Talbots owned thousands of acres of fine cotton land and the slaves to till them; when the family mansion was the scene of princely hospitality, and drew its guests from the aristocracy of the South. Out of that period he had brought all its old pride and scruples of honor, an antiquated and punctilious politeness, and (you would think) its wardrobe.
Such clothes were surely never made within fifty years. The Major was tall, but whenever he made that wonderful, archaic genuflexion he called a bow, the corners of his frock coat swept the floor. That garment was a surprise even to Washington, which has long ago ceased to shy at the frocks and broad-brimmed hats of Southern Congressmen. One of the boarders christened it a “Father Hubbard,” and it certainly was high in the waist and full in the skirt.
But the Major, with all his queer clothes, his immense area of plaited, raveling shirt bosom, and the little black string tie with the bow always slipping on one side, both was smiled at and liked in Mrs. Vardeman’s select boarding house. Some of the young department clerks would often “string him,” as they called it, getting him started upon the subject dearest to him–the traditions and history of his beloved Southland. During his talks he would quote freely from the Anecdotes and Reminiscences. But they were very careful not to let him see their designs, for in spite of his sixty-eight years he could make the boldest of them uncomfortable under the steady regard of his piercing gray eyes.
Miss Lydia was a plump, little old maid of thirty-five, with smoothly drawn, tightly twisted hair that made her look still older. Old-fashioned, too, she was; but antebellum glory did not radiate from her as it did from the Major. She possessed a thrifty common sense, and it was she who handled the finances of the family, and met all comers when there were bills to pay. The Major regarded board bills and wash bills as contemptible nuisances. They kept coming in so persistently and so often. Why, the Major wanted to know, could they not be filed and paid in a lump sum at some convenient period–say when the Anecdotes and Reminiscences had been published and paid for? Miss Lydia would calmly go on with her sewing and say, “We’ll pay as we go as long as the money lasts, and then perhaps they’ll have to lump it.”
Most of Mrs. Vardeman’s boarders were away during the day, being nearly all department clerks and business men; but there was one of them who was about the house a great deal from morning to night. This was a young man named Henry Hopkins Hargraves–every one in the house addressed him by his full name–who was engaged at one of the popular vaudeville theaters. Vaudeville has risen to such a respectable plane in the last few years, and Mr. Hargraves was such a modest and well-mannered person, that Mrs. Vardeman could find no objection to enrolling him upon her list of boarders.
At the theater Hargraves was known as an all-round dialect comedian, having a large repertoire of German, Irish, Swede, and black-face specialties. But Mr. Hargraves was ambitious, and often spoke of his great desire to succeed in legitimate comedy.
This young man appeared to conceive a strong fancy for Major Talbot. Whenever that gentleman would begin his Southern reminiscences, or repeat some of the liveliest of the anecdotes, Hargraves could always be found, the most attentive among his listeners.
For a time the Major showed an inclination to discourage the advances of the “play actor,” as he privately termed him; but soon the young man’s agreeable manner and indubitable appreciation of the old gentleman’s stories completely won him over.
It was not long before the two were like old chums. The Major set apart each afternoon to read to him the manuscript of his book. During the anecdotes Hargraves never failed to laugh at exactly the right point. The Major was moved to declare to Miss Lydia one day that young Hargraves possessed remarkable perception and a gratifying respect for the old regime. And when it came to talking of those old days–if Major Talbot liked to talk, Mr. Hargraves was entranced to listen.
Like almost all old people who talk of the past, the Major loved to linger over details. In describing the splendid, almost royal, days of the old planters, he would hesitate until he had recalled the name of the negro who held his horse, or the exact date of certain minor happenings, or the number of bales of cotton raised in such a year; but Hargraves never grew impatient or lost interest. On the contrary, he would advance questions on a variety of subjects connected with the life of that time, and he never failed to extract ready replies.
The fox hunts, the ’possum suppers, the hoe-downs and jubilees in the negro quarters, the banquets in the plantation-house hall, when invitations went for fifty miles around; the occasional feuds with the neighboring gentry; the Major’s duel with Rathbone Culbertson about Kitty Chalmers, who afterward married a Thwaite of South Carolina; and private yacht races for fabulous sums on Mobile Bay; the quaint beliefs, improvident habits, and loyal virtues of the old slaves–all these were subjects that held both the Major and Hargraves absorbed for hours at a time.
Sometimes, at night, when the young man would be coming upstairs to his room after his turn at the theater was over, the Major would appear at the door of his study and beckon archly to him. Going in, Hargraves would find a little table set with a decanter, sugar bowl, fruit, and a big bunch of fresh green mint.
“It occurred to me,” the Major would begin–he was always ceremonious–“that perhaps you might have found your duties at the–at your place of occupation–sufficiently arduous to enable you, Mr. Hargraves, to appreciate what the poet might well have had in his mind when he wrote, ’tired Nature’s sweet restorer’–one of our Southern juleps.”
It was a fascination to Hargraves to watch him make it. He took rank among artists when he began, and he never varied the process. With what delicacy he bruised the mint; with what exquisite nicety he estimated the ingredients; with what solicitous care he capped the compound with the scarlet fruit glowing against the dark green fringe! And then the hospitality and grace with which he offered it, after the selected oat straws had been plunged into its tinkling depths!
After about four months in Washington, Miss Lydia discovered one morning that they were almost without money. The Anecdotes and Reminiscences was completed, but publishers had not jumped at the collected gems of Alabama sense and wit. The rental of a small house which they still owned in Mobile was two months in arrears. Their board money for the month would be due in three days. Miss Lydia called her father to a consultation.
“No money?” said he with a surprised look. “It is quite annoying to be called on so frequently for these petty sums, Really, I–“
The Major searched his pockets. He found only a two-dollar bill, which he returned to his vest pocket.
“I must attend to this at once, Lydia,” he said. “Kindly get me my umbrella and I will go downtown immediately. The congressman from our district, General Fulghum, assured me some days ago that he would use his influence to get my book published at an early date. I will go to his hotel at once and see what arrangement has been made.”
With a sad little smile Miss Lydia watched him button his “Father Hubbard” and depart, pausing at the door, as he always did, to bow profoundly.
That evening, at dark, he returned. It seemed that Congressman Fulghum had seen the publisher who had the Major’s manuscript for reading. That person had said that if the anecdotes, etc., were carefully pruned down about one-half, in order to eliminate the sectional and class prejudice with which the book was dyed from end to end, he might consider its publication.
The Major was in a white heat of anger, but regained his equanimity, according to his code of manners, as soon as he was in Miss Lydia’s presence.
“We must have money,” said Miss Lydia, with a little wrinkle above her nose. “Give me the two dollars, and I will telegraph to Uncle Ralph for some to-night.”
The Major drew a small envelope from his upper vest pocket and tossed it on the table.
“Perhaps it was injudicious,” he said mildly, “but the sum was so merely nominal that I bought tickets to the theater to-night. It’s a new war drama, Lydia. I thought you would be pleased to witness its first production in Washington. I am told that the South has very fair treatment in the play. I confess I should like to see the performance myself.”
Miss Lydia threw up her hands in silent despair.
Still, as the tickets were bought, they might as well be used. So that evening, as they sat in the theater listening to the lively overture, even Miss Lydia was minded to relegate their troubles, for the hour, to second place. The Major, in spotless linen, with his extraordinary coat showing only where it was closely buttoned, and his white hair smoothly roached, looked really fine and distinguished. The curtain went up on the first act of A Magnolia Flower, revealing a typical Southern plantation scene. Major Talbot betrayed some interest.
“Oh, see!” exclaimed Miss Lydia, nudging his arm, and pointing to her program.
The Major put on his glasses and read the line in the cast of characters that her fingers indicated.
Col. Webster Calhoun …. Mr. Hopkins Hargraves.
“It’s our Mr. Hargraves,” said Miss Lydia. “It must be his first appearance in what he calls ’the legitimate.’ I’m so glad for him.”
Not until the second act did Col. Webster Calhoun appear upon the stage. When he made his entry Major Talbot gave an audible sniff, glared at him, and seemed to freeze solid. Miss Lydia uttered a little, ambiguous squeak and crumpled her program in her hand. For Colonel Calhoun was made up as nearly resembling Major Talbot as one pea does another. The long, thin white hair, curly at the ends, the aristocratic beak of a nose, the crumpled, wide, raveling shirt front, the string tie, with the bow nearly under one ear, were almost exactly duplicated. And then, to clinch the imitation, he wore the twin to the Major’s supposed to be unparalleled coat. High-collared, baggy, empire-waisted, ample-skirted, hanging a foot lower in front than behind, the garment could have been designed from no other pattern. From then on, the Major and Miss Lydia sat bewitched, and saw the counterfeit presentment of a haughty Talbot “dragged,” as the Major afterward expressed it, “through the slanderous mire of a corrupt stage.”
Mr. Hargraves had used his opportunities well. He had caught the Major’s little idiosyncrasies of speech, accent, and intonation and his pompous courtliness to perfection–exaggerating all to the purpose of the stage. When he performed that marvelous bow that the Major fondly imagined to be the pink of all salutations, the audience sent forth a sudden round of hearty applause.
Miss Lydia sat immovable, not daring to glance toward her father. Sometimes her hand next to him would be laid against her cheek, as if to conceal the smile which, in spite of her disapproval, she could not entirely suppress.
The culmination of Hargraves audacious imitation took place in the third act. The scene is where Colonel Calhoun entertains a few of the neighboring planters in his “den.”
Standing at a table in the center of the stage, with his friends grouped about him, he delivers that inimitable, rambling character monologue so famous in A Magnolia Flower, at the same time that he deftly makes juleps for the party.
Major Talbot, sitting quietly, but white with indignation, heard his best stories retold, his pet theories and hobbies advanced and expanded, and the dream of the Anecdotes and Reminiscences served, exaggerated and garbled. His favorite narrative–that of his duel with Rathbone Culbertson–was not omitted, and it was delivered with more fire, egotism, and gusto than the Major himself put into it.
The monologue concluded with a quaint, delicious, witty little lecture on the art of concocting a julep, illustrated by the act. Here Major Talbot’s delicate but showy science was reproduced to a hair’s breadth–from his dainty handling of the fragrant weed–“the one-thousandth part of a grain too much pressure, gentlemen, and you extract the bitterness, instead of the aroma, of this heaven-bestowed plant”–to his solicitous selection of the oaten straws.
At the close of the scene the audience raised a tumultuous roar of appreciation. The portrayal of the type was so exact, so sure and thorough, that the leading characters in the play were forgotten. After repeated calls, Hargraves came before the curtain and bowed, his rather boyish face bright and flushed with the knowledge of success.
At last Miss Lydia turned and looked at the Major. His thin nostrils were working like the gills of a fish. He laid both shaking hands upon the arms of his chair to rise.
“We will go, Lydia,” he said chokingly. “This is an abominable–desecration.”
Before he could rise, she pulled him back into his seat.
“We will stay it out,” she declared. “Do you want to advertise the copy by exhibiting the original coat?” So they remained to the end.
Hargraves’s success must have kept him up late that night, for neither at the breakfast nor at the dinner table did he appear.
About three in the afternoon he tapped at the door of Major Talbot’s study. The Major opened it, and Hargraves walked in with his hands full of the morning papers–too full of his triumph to notice anything unusual in the Major’s demeanor.
“I put it all over ’em last night, Major,” he began exultantly. “I had my inning, and, I think, scored. Here’s what The Post says:
“’His conception and portrayal of the old-time Southern colonel, with his absurd grandiloquence, his eccentric garb, his quaint idioms and phrases, his motheaten pride of family, and his really kind heart, fastidious sense of honor, and lovable simplicity, is the best delineation of a character role on the boards to-day. The coat worn by Colonel Calhoun is itself nothing less than an evolution of genius. Mr. Hargraves has captured his public.’
“How does that sound, Major, for a first-nighter?”
“I had the honor”–the Major’s voice sounded ominously frigid–“of witnessing your very remarkable performance, sir, last night.”
Hargraves looked disconcerted.
“You were there? I didn’t know you ever–I didn’t know you cared for the theater. Oh, I say, Major Talbot,” he exclaimed frankly, “don’t you be offended. I admit I did get a lot of pointers from you that helped out wonderfully in the part. But it’s a type, you know–not individual. The way the audience caught on shows that. Half the patrons of that theater are Southerners. They recognized it.”
“Mr. Hargraves,” said the Major, who had remained standing, “you have put upon me an unpardonable insult. You have burlesqued my person, grossly betrayed my confidence, and misused my hospitality. If I thought you possessed the faintest conception of what is the sign manual of a gentleman, or what is due one, I would call you out, sir, old as I am. I will ask you to leave the room, sir.”
The actor appeared to be slightly bewildered, and seemed hardly to take in the full meaning of the old gentleman’s words.
“I am truly sorry you took offense,” he said regretfully. “Up here we don’t look at things just as you people do. I know men who would buy out half the house to have their personality put on the stage so the public would recognize it.”
“They are not from Alabama, sir,” said the Major haughtily.
“Perhaps not. I have a pretty good memory, Major; let me quote a few lines from your book. In response to a toast at a banquet given in–Milledgeville, I believe–you uttered, and intend to have printed, these words:
“’The Northern man is utterly without sentiment or warmth except in so far as the feelings may be turned to his own commercial profit. He will suffer without resentment any imputation cast upon the honor of himself or his loved ones that does not bear with it the consequence of pecuniary loss. In his charity, he gives with a liberal hand; but it must be heralded with the trumpet and chronicled in brass.’
“Do you think that picture is fairer than the one you saw of Colonel Calhoun last night?”
“The description,” said the Major, frowning, “is–not without grounds. Some exag–latitude must be allowed in public speaking.”
“And in public acting,” replied Hargraves.
“That is not the point,” persisted the Major, unrelenting. “It was a personal caricature. I positively decline to overlook it, sir.”
“Major Talbot,” said Hargraves, with a winning smile, “I wish you would understand me. I want you to know that I never dreamed of insulting you. In my profession, all life belongs to me. I take what I want, and what I can, and return it over the footlights. Now, if you will, let’s let it go at that. I came in to see you about something else. We’ve been pretty good friends for some months, and I’m going to take the risk of offending you again. I know you are hard up for money–never mind how I found out, a boarding house is no place to keep such matters secret–and I want you to let me help you out of the pinch. I’ve been there often enough myself. I’ve been getting a fair salary all the season, and I’ve saved some money. You’re welcome to a couple hundred–or even more–until you get—-“
“Stop!” commanded the Major, with his arm outstretched. “It seems that my book didn’t lie, after all. You think your money salve will heal all the hurts of honor. Under no circumstances would I accept a loan from a casual acquaintance; and as to you, sir, I would starve before I would consider your insulting offer of a financial adjustment of the circumstances we have discussed. I beg to repeat my request relative to your quitting the apartment.”
Hargraves took his departure without another word. He also left the house the same day, moving, as Mrs. Vardeman explained at the supper table, nearer the vicinity of the downtown theater, where A Magnolia Flower was booked for a week’s run.
Critical was the situation with Major Talbot and Miss Lydia. There was no one in Washington to whom the Major’s scruples allowed him to apply for a loan. Miss Lydia wrote a letter to Uncle Ralph, but it was doubtful whether that relative’s constricted affairs would permit him to furnish help. The Major was forced to make an apologetic address to Mrs. Vardeman regarding the delayed payment for board, referring to “delinquent rentals” and “delayed remittances” in a rather confused strain.
Deliverance came from an entirely unexpected source.
Late one afternoon the door maid came up and announced an old colored man who wanted to see Major Talbot. The Major asked that he be sent up to his study. Soon an old darkey appeared in the doorway, with his hat in hand, bowing, and scraping with one clumsy foot. He was quite decently dressed in a baggy suit of black. His big, coarse shoes shone with a metallic luster suggestive of stove polish. His bushy wool was gray–almost white. After middle life, it is difficult to estimate the age of a negro. This one might have seen as many years as had Major Talbot.
“I be bound you don’t know me, Mars’ Pendleton,” were his first words.
The Major rose and came forward at the old, familiar style of address. It was one of the old plantation darkeys without a doubt; but they had been widely scattered, and he could not recall the voice or face.
“I don’t believe I do,” he said kindly–“unless you will assist my memory.”
“Don’t you ’member Cindy’s Mose, Mars’ Pendleton, what ’migrated ’mediately after de war?”
“Wait a moment,” said the Major, rubbing his forehead with the tips of his fingers. He loved to recall everything connected with those beloved days. “Cindy’s Mose,” he reflected. “You worked among the horses–breaking the colts. Yes, I remember now. After the surrender, you took the name of–don’t prompt me–Mitchell, and went to the West–to Nebraska.”
“Yassir, yassir,”–the old man’s face stretched with a delighted grin–“dat’s him, dat’s it. Newbraska. Dat’s me–Mose Mitchell. Old Uncle Mose Mitchell, dey calls me now. Old mars’, your pa, gimme a pah of dem mule colts when I lef’ fur to staht me goin’ with. You ’member dem colts, Mars’ Pendleton?”
“I don’t seem to recall the colts,” said the Major. “You know. I was married the first year of the war and living at the old Follinsbee place. But sit down, sit down, Uncle Mose. I’m glad to see you. I hope you have prospered.”
Uncle Mose took a chair and laid his hat carefully on the floor beside it.
“Yessir; of late I done mouty famous. When I first got to Newbraska, dey folks come all roun’ me to see dem mule colts. Dey ain’t see no mules like dem in Newbraska. I sold dem mules for three hundred dollars. Yessir–three hundred.
“Den I open a blacksmith shop, suh, and made some money and bought some lan’. Me and my old ’oman done raised up seb’m chillun, and all doin’ well ’cept two of ’em what died. Fo’ year ago a railroad come along and staht a town slam ag’inst my lan’, and, suh, Mars’ Pendleton, Uncle Mose am worth leb’m thousand dollars in money, property, and lan’.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” said the Major heartily. “Glad to hear it.”
“And dat little baby of yo’n, Mars’ Pendleton–one what you name Miss Lyddy–I be bound dat little tad done growed up tell nobody wouldn’t know her.”
The Major stepped to the door and called: “Lydie, dear, will you come?”
Miss Lydia, looking quite grown up and a little worried, came in from her room.
“Dar, now! What’d I tell you? I knowed dat baby done be plum growed up. You don’t ’member Uncle Mose, child?”
“This is Aunt Cindy’s Mose, Lydia,” explained the Major. “He left Sunnymead for the West when you were two years old.”
“Well,” said Miss Lydia, “I can hardly be expected to remember you, Uncle Mose, at that age. And, as you say, I’m ’plum growed up,’ and was a blessed long time ago. But I’m glad to see you, even if I can’t remember you.”
And she was. And so was the Major. Something alive and tangible had come to link them with the happy past. The three sat and talked over the olden times, the Major and Uncle Mose correcting or prompting each other as they reviewed the plantation scenes and days.
The Major inquired what the old man was doing so far from his home.
“Uncle Mose am a delicate,” he explained, “to de grand Baptis’ convention in dis city. I never preached none, but bein’ a residin’ elder in de church, and able fur to pay my own expenses, dey sent me along.”
“And how did you know we were in Washington?” inquired Miss Lydia.
“Dey’s a cullud man works in de hotel whar I stops, what comes from Mobile. He told me he seen Mars’ Pendleton comin’ outen dish here house one mawnin’.
“What I come fur,” continued Uncle Mose, reaching into his pocket–“besides de sight of home folks–was to pay Mars’ Pendleton what I owes him.
“Yessir–three hundred dollars.” He handed the Major a roll of bills. “When I lef’ old mars’ says: ’Take dem mule colts, Mose, and, if it be so you gits able, pay fur ’em.’ Yessir–dem was his words. De war had done lef’ old mars’ po’ hisself. Old mars’ bein’ long ago dead, de debt descends to Mars’ Pendleton. Three hundred dollars. Uncle Mose is plenty able to pay now. When dat railroad buy my lan’ I laid off to pay fur dem mules. Count de money, Mars’ Pendleton. Dat’s what I sold dem mules fur. Yessir.”
Tears were in Major Talbot’s eyes. He took Uncle Mose’s hand and laid his other upon his shoulder.
“Dear, faithful, old servitor,” he said in an unsteady voice, “I don’t mind saying to you that ’Mars’ Pendleton spent his last dollar in the world a week ago. We will accept this money, Uncle Mose, since, in a way, it is a sort of payment, as well as a token of the loyalty and devotion of the old regime. Lydia, my dear, take the money. You are better fitted than I to manage its expenditure.”
“Take it, honey,” said Uncle Mose. “Hit belongs to you. Hit’s Talbot money.”
After Uncle Mose had gone, Miss Lydia had a good cry—for joy; and the Major turned his face to a corner, and smoked his clay pipe volcanically.
The succeeding days saw the Talbots restored to peace and ease. Miss Lydia’s face lost its worried look. The major appeared in a new frock coat, in which he looked like a wax figure personifying the memory of his golden age. Another publisher who read the manuscript of the Anecdotes and Reminiscences thought that, with a little retouching and toning down of the high lights, he could make a really bright and salable volume of it. Altogether, the situation was comfortable, and not without the touch of hope that is often sweeter than arrived blessings.
One day, about a week after their piece of good luck, a maid brought a letter for Miss Lydia to her room. The postmark showed that it was from New York. Not knowing any one there, Miss Lydia, in a mild flutter of wonder, sat down by her table and opened the letter with her scissors. This was what she read:
DEAR MISS TALBOT:
I thought you might be glad to learn of my good fortune. I have received and accepted an offer of two hundred dollars per week by a New York stock company to play Colonel Calhoun in A Magnolia Flower.
There is something else I wanted you to know. I guess you’d better not tell Major Talbot. I was anxious to make him some amends for the great help he was to me in studying the part, and for the bad humor he was in about it. He refused to let me, so I did it anyhow. I could easily spare the three hundred.
H. HOPKINS HARGRAVES.
P.S. How did I play Uncle Mose?
Major Talbot, passing through the hall, saw Miss Lydia’s door open and stopped.
“Any mail for us this morning, Lydia, dear?” he asked.
Miss Lydia slid the letter beneath a fold of her dress.
“The Mobile Chronicle came,” she said promptly. “It’s on the table in your study.”