109 The Dance, A Personal Adventure of the Author (1833) By Augustus Longstreet
SOME years ago I was called by business to one of the frontier counties, then but recently settled. It became necessary for me, while there, to enlist the services of Thomas Gibson, Esq., one of the magistrates of the county, who resided about a mile and a half from my lodgings; and to this circumstance was I indebted for my introduction to him. I had made the intended disposition of my business, and was on the eve of my departure for the city of my residence, when I was induced to remain a day longer by an invitation from the squire to attend a dance at his house on the following day. Having learned from my landlord that I would probably “be expected at the frolic ” about the hour of ten in the forenoon, and, being desirous of seeing all that passed upon the occasion, I went over about an hour before the time.
The squire’s dwelling consisted of but one room, which answered the threefold purpose of dining-room, bedroom, and kitchen. The house was constructed of logs, and the floor was of puncheons a term which, in Georgia, means split logs, with their faces a little smoothed with the axe or hatchet. To gratify his daughters, Polly and Silvy, the old gentleman and his lady had consented to camp out for a day, and to surrender the habitation to the girls and their young friends.
When I reached there I found all things in readiness for the promised amusement. The girls, as the old gentleman informed me, had compelled the family to breakfast under the trees, for they had completely stripped the house of its furniture before the sun rose. They were already attired for the dance, in neat but plain habiliments of their own manufacture. “What !” says some weakly, sickly, delicate, useless, affected, “charming creature” of the city “dressed for a ball at nine in the morning !” ” Even so, my delectable Miss Octavia Matilda Juliana Claudia Ipecacuanha; and what have you to say against it ? If people must dance, is it riot much more rational to employ the hour allotted to exercise in that amusement than the hours sacred to repose and meditation? And which is entitled to the most credit the young lady who rises with the dawn, and puts herself and whole house in order for a ball four hours before it begins, or the one who requires a fortnight to get herself dressed for it?
The squire and I employed the interval in conversation about the first settlement of the country, in the course of which I picked up some useful and much interesting information. We were at length interrupted, however, by the sound of a violin, which proceeded from a thick wood at my left. The performer soon after made his appearance, and proved to be no other than Billy Porter, a negro fellow of much harmless wit and humor, who was well known throughout the State. Poor Billy! “his harp is now hung upon the willow”; and I would not blush to offer a tear to his memory, for his name is associated with some of the happiest scenes of my life, and he sleeps with many a dear friend who used to join me in provoking his wit and in laughing at his eccentricities; but I am leading my reader to the grave instead of the dance, which I promised. If, however, his memory reaches twelve years back he will excuse this short tribute of respect to Billy Porter.
Billy, to give his own account of himself, ” had been taking a turn with the brethren [the Bar]; and, hearing the ladies wanted to see pretty Billy, had come to give them a benefit.” The squire had not seen him before; and it is no disrespect to his understanding or politeness to say that he found it impossible to give me his attention for half an hour after Billy arrived. I had nothing to do, therefore, while the young people were assembling, but to improve my knowledge of Billy’s character, to the squire’s amusement. I had been thus engaged about thirty minutes, when I saw several fine, bouncing, ruddy-cheeked girls descending a hill about the eighth of a mile off. They, too, were attired in manufactures of their own hands. The refinements of the present day in female dress had not even reached our republican cities at this time ; and, of course,, the country girls were wholly ignorant of them. They carried no more cloth upon their arms or straw upon their heads than was necessary to cover them. They used no artificial means of spreading their frock-tails to an interesting extent from their ankles. They had no boards laced to their breasts, nor any corsets laced to their sides ; consequently, they looked, for all the world, like human beings, ” and could be distinctly recognized as such at the distance of two hundred paces. Their movements were as free and active as nature would permit them to be. Let me not be understood as interposing the least objection to any lady in this land of liberty dressing just as she pleases. If she choose to lay her neck and shoulders bare, what right have I to look at them, much less to find fault with them? If she choose to put three yards of muslin in a frock sleeve, what right have I to ask why a little strip of it was not put in the body? If she like the pattern of a hoisted umbrella for a frock, and the shape of a cheese-cask for her body, what is all that to me? But to return.
The girls were met by Polly and Silvy Gibson at some distance from the house, who welcomed them “with a kiss, of course?” Oh no; but with something much less equivocal a hearty shake of the hand and smiling countenances, which had some meaning.
[Note. The custom of kissing, as practised in these days by the amiables, is borrowed from the French, and by them from Judas.]
The young ladies had generally collected before any of the young men appeared. It was not long, however, before a large number of both sexes were assembled, and they adjourned to the ballroom.
But for the snapping of a fiddle – string, the young people would have been engaged in the amusement of the day in less than three minutes from the time they entered the house. Here were no formal introductions to be given, no drawing for places or partners, no parade of managers, no ceremonies. It was perfectly understood that all were invited to dance, and that none were invited who were unworthy to be danced with; consequently, no gentleman hesitated to ask any lady present to dance with him, and no lady refused to dance with a gentleman merely because she had not been made acquainted with him.
In a short time the string was repaired, and off went the party to a good old republican six reel. I had been thrown among fashionables so long that I had almost forgotten my native dance. But it revived rapidly as they wheeled through its mazes, and with it returned many long-forgotten, pleasing recollections. Not only did the reel return to me, but the very persons who used to figure in it with me, in the hey day of youth.
Here was my old sweetheart, Polly Jackson, identically personified in Polly Gibson; and here was Jim Johnson’s in Silvy, and Bill Martin’s in Nancy Ware. Polly Gibson had my old flame’s very steps as well as her looks. “Ah,” said I, “squire, this puts me in mind of old times. I have not seen a six reel for five-and-twenty years. It recalls to my mind many a happy hour, and many a jovial friend who used to enliven it with me. Your Polly looks so much like my old sweetheart, Polly Jackson, that, were I young again, I certainly should fall in love with her.”
“That was the name of her mother,” said the squire.
“Where did you marry her ?” inquired I.
“In Wilkes,” said he;” she was the daughter of old Nathan Jackson, of that county.”
“It isn’t possible !” returned I. ” Then it is the very girl of whom I am speaking. Where is she?”
“She’s out,” said the squire, “preparing dinner for the young people ; but she ll be in towards the close of the day. But come along, and I’ll make you acquainted with her at once if you’ll promise not to run away with her; for I tell you what it is, she’s the likeliest gal in all these parts yet.”
“Well,” said I, ” I’ll promise not to run away with her, but you must not let her know who I am. I wish to make myself known to her; and, for fear of the worst, you shall witness the introduction. But don’t get jealous, squire, if she seems a little too glad to see me; for, I assure you, we had a strong notion of each other when we were young.”
“No danger,” replied the squire ; “she hadn’t seen me then, or she never could have loved such a hard-favored man as you are.”
In the meantime the dance went on, and I employed myself in selecting from the party the best examples of the dancers of my day and Mrs. Gibson’s, for her entertainment. In this I had not the least difficulty; for the dancers before me and those of my day were in all respects identical.
Jim Johnson kept up the double-shuffle from the beginning to the end of the reel; and here was Jim over again in Sammy Tant. Bill Martin always set to his partner with the same step; and a very curious step it was. He brought his right foot close behind his left, and with it performed precisely the motion of the thumb in cracking that insect which Burns has immortalized; then moved his right back, threw his weight upon it, brought his left behind it, and cracked with that as before; and so on alternately. Just so did Bill Kemp, to a nail. Bob Simons danced for all the world like a “Supple Jack” (or, as we commonly call it, a ” Supple Sawney “) when the string is pulled with varied force at intervals of seconds; and so did Jake Slack. Davy Moore went like a suit of clothes upon a clothing-line on a windy day; and here was his antitype in Ned Clark. Rhoda Nobles swam through the reel like a cork on wavy waters, always giving two or three pretty little perch – bite diddles as she rose from a coupee. Nancy Ware was her very self. Becky Lewis made a business of dancing—she disposed of her part as quick as possible, stopped dead short as soon as she got through, and looked as sober as a judge all the time; even so did Chloe Dawson. I used to tell Polly Jackson that Becky’s countenance, when she closed a dance, always seemed to say, “Now, if you want any more dancing, you may do it yourself !”
The dance grew merrier as it progressed; the young people became more easy in each other s company, and often enlivened the scene with most humorous remarks. Occasionally some sharp cuts passed between the boys, such as would have produced half a dozen duels at a city ball; but here they were taken as they were meant, in good humor. Jim Johnson being a little tardy in meeting his partner at a turn of the reel, “I ax pardon, Miss Chloe,” said he; “Jake Slack went to make a cross-hop just now, and tied his legs in a hard knot, and I stopped to help him untie them!” A little after Jake hung his toe in a crack of the floor and nearly fell. “Ding my buttons,” said he, “if I didn’t know I should stumble over Jim Johnson’s foot at last! Jim, draw your foot up to your own end of the reel!” (Jim was at the other end of the reel, and had, in truth, a prodigious foot.)
Towards the middle of the day many of the neighboring farmers dropped in, and joined the squire and myself in talking of old times. At length dinner was announced. It consisted of plain fare, but there was a profusion of it. Rough planks, supported by stakes driven in the ground, served for a table, at which the old and young of both sexes seated themselves at the same time. I soon recognized Mrs. Gibson from all the matrons present. Thirty years had wrought great changes in her appearance, but they had left some of her features entirely unimpaired. Her eye beamed with all its youthful fire; and, to my astonishment, her mouth was still beautified with a full set of teeth, unblemished by time. The rose on her cheek had rather freshened than faded, and her smile was the very same that first subdued my heart; but her fine form was wholly lost, and, with it, all the grace of her movements. Pleasing but melancholy reflections occupied my mind as I gazed on her dispensing her cheerful hospitalities. I thought of the sad history of many of her companions and mine, who used to carry light hearts through the merry dance. I compared my after-life with the cloudless days of my attachment to Polly. Then I was light-hearted, gay, contented, and happy. I aspired to nothing but a good name, a good wife, and an easy competence. The first and last were mine already; and Polly had given me too many little tokens of her favor to leave a doubt now that the second was at my command. But I was foolishly told that my talents were of too high an order to be employed in the drudgeries of a farm, and I more foolishly believed it. I forsook the pleasures which I had tried and proved, and went in pursuit of those imaginary joys which seemed to encircle the seat of Fame. From that moment to the present my life had been little else than one unbroken scene of disaster, disappointment, vexation, and toil. And now, when I was too old to enjoy the pleasures which I had discarded, I found that my aim was absolutely hopeless; and that my pursuits had only served to unfit me for the humbler walks of life, and to exclude me from the higher. The gloom of these reflections was, however, lightened in a measure by the promises of the coming hour, when I was to live over again with Mrs. Gibson some of the happiest moments of my life.
After a hasty repast the young people returned to their amusement, followed by myself, with several of the elders of the company. An hour had scarcely elapsed before Mrs. Gibson entered, accompanied by a goodly number of matrons of her own age. This accession to the company produced its usual effects. It raised the tone of conversation a full octave, and gave it a triple- time movement; added new life to the wit and limbs of the young folks, and set the old men to cracking jokes.
At length the time arrived for me to surprise and delight Mrs. Gibson. The young folks insisted upon the old folks taking a reel, and this was just what I had been waiting for; for, after many plans for making the discovery, I had finally concluded upon that which I thought would make her joy general among the company; and that was, to announce myself, just before leading her to the dance, in a voice audible to most of the assembly. I therefore readily assented to the proposition of the young folks, as did two others of my age., and we made to the ladies for our partners I, of course, offered my hand to Mrs. Gibson.
“Come, said I, “Mrs. Gibson, let us see if we can’t outdance these young people.”
“Dear me, sir,” said she, ” I haven t danced a step these twenty years.”
“Neither have I; but I’ve resolved to try once more, if you will join me, just for old times’ sake.”
“I really cannot think of dancing,” said she.
“Well,” continued I (raising my voice to a pretty high pitch, on purpose to be heard, while my countenance kindled with exultation at the astonishment and delight which I was about to produce), “you surely will dance with an old friend and sweetheart, who used to dance with you when a girl!”
At this disclosure her features assumed a vast variety of expressions; but none of them responded precisely to my expectation; indeed, some of them were of such an equivocal and alarming character that I deemed it advisable not to prolong her suspense. I therefore proceeded:
“Have you forgot your old sweetheart, Abram Baldwin ?”
“What!” said she, looking more astonished and confused than ever. “Abram Baldwin! Abram Baldwin! I don’t think I ever heard the name before.”
“Do you remember Jim Johnson ?” said I. ” Oh yes,” said she, “mighty well.” her countenance brightening with a smile.
“And Bill Martin ?”
“Yes, perfectly well. Why—who are you ?”
Here we were interrupted by one of the gentlemen, who had led his partner to the floor, with ” Come, stranger, we’re getting mighty tired o’ standing. It won’t do for old people that’s going to dance to take up much time in standing; they ll lose all their spryness. Don’t stand begging Polly Gibson, she never dances; but take my Sal there, next to her; she’ll run a reel with you to old Nick’s house and back agin.”
No alternative was left me, and therefore I offered my hand to Mrs. Sally—I didn’t know who.
“Well,” thought I, as I moved to my place, “the squire is pretty secure from jealousy; but Polly will soon remember me when she sees my steps in the reel. I will dance precisely as I used to in my youth, if it tire me to death. ” There was one step that was almost exclusively my own, for few of the dancers of my day could perform it at all, and none with the grace and ease that I did. ” She’ll remember Abram Baldwin,” thought I, “as soon as she sees the double, cross-hop.” It was performed by rising and crossing the legs twice or thrice before alighting, and I used to carry it to the third cross with considerable ease. It was a step solely adapted to setting or balancing, as all will perceive; but I thought the occasion would justify a little perversion of it, and therefore resolved to lead off with it, that Polly might be at once relieved from suspense. Just, however, as I reached my place, Mrs. Gibson’s youngest son, a boy about eight years old, ran in and cried out, “Mammy, old Boler’s jumped upon the planks, and dragged off a great hunk o’ meat as big as your head, and broke a dish and two plates all to darn smashes!” Away went Mrs. Gibson, and off went the music. Still I hoped that matters would be adjusted in time for Polly to return and see the double cross- hop; and I felt the mortification which my delay in getting a partner had occasioned some what solaced by the reflection that it had thrown me at the foot of the reel.
The first and second couples had nearly completed their performances, and Polly had not returned. I began to grow uneasy, and to interpose as many delays as I could without attracting notice.
The six reel is closed by the foot couple balancing at the head of the set, then in the middle, then at the foot, again in the middle, meeting at the head, and leading down.
My partner and I had commenced balancing at the head, and Polly had not returned. I balanced until my partner forced me on. I now deemed it advisable to give myself up wholly to the double cross -hop; so that if Polly should return in time to see any step it should be this, though I was already nearly exhausted. Accordingly, I made the attempt to introduce it in the turns of the reel; but the first experiment convinced me of three things at once—first, that I could not have used the step in this way in my best days; second, that my strength would not more than support it in its proper place for the remainder of the reel; and, third, if I tried it again in this way I should knock my brains out against the puncheons; for my partner, who seemed determined to confirm her husband’s report of her, evinced no disposition to wait upon experiments, but, fetching me a jerk while I was up and my legs crossed, had wellnigh sent me head foremost to Old Nick’s house, sure enough.
We met in the middle, my back to the door, and from the silence that prevailed in the yard I flattered myself that Polly might be even now catching the first glimpse of the favorite step, when I heard her voice at some distance from the house: ” Get you gone ! G-e-e-e-t you gone ! G-e-e-e-e-e-t you gone!” Matters outdoors were now clearly explained. There had been a struggle to get the meat from Boler; Boler had triumphed, and retreated to the woods with his booty, and Mrs. Gibson was heaping indignities upon him in the last resort.
The three “Get-you-gones” met me precisely at the three closing balances ; and the last brought my moral energies to a perfect level with my physical.
Mrs. Gibson returned, however, a few minutes after, in a good humor; for she possessed a lovely disposition, which even marriage could not spoil. As soon as I could collect breath enough for regular conversation (for, to speak in my native dialect, I was “mortal tired“), I took a seat by her, resolved not to quit the house without making myself known to her, if possible.
“How much, said I, “your Polly looks and dances like you used to at her age!”
“I’ve told my old man so a hundred times,” said she. “Why, who upon earth are you?”
“Did you ever see two persons dance more alike than Jim Johnson and Sammy Tant?”
“Never. Why, who can you be?”
“You remember Becky Lewis?”
“Well, look at Chloe Dawson, and you ll see her over again.”
“Well, law me! Now I know I must have seen you somewhere; but, to save my life, I can t tell wher ! Where did your father live?”
“He died when I was small.”
“And where did you use to see me ?”
“At your father’s, and old Mr. Dawson’s, and at Mrs. Barnes’s, and at Squire Noble’s, and many other places.”
“Well, goodness me! it’s mighty strange I can’t call you to mind!”
I now began to get petulant, and thought it best to leave her.
The dance wound up with the old merry jig, and the company dispersed.
The next day I set out for my residence. I had been at home rather more than two months when I received the following letter from Squire Gibson :
“DEAR SIR, —I send you the money collected on the notes you left with me. Since you left here, Polly has been thinking about old times, and she says, to save her life, she can’t recollect you.” BALDWIN.