From The Wit and Humor of America, edited by Marshall P. Wilder, Volume IV, New York and London: Funk and Wagnalls and Company, 1911; pp. 767-773.
THE LOAFER AND THE SQUIRE
BY PORTE CRAYON
The squire himself was the type of a class found only among the rural population of our Southern States — a class, the individuals of which are connected by a general similarity of position and circumstance, but present a field to the student of man infinite in variety, rich in originality.
As the isolated oak that spreads his umbrageous top in the meadow surpasses his spindling congener of the forest, so does the country gentleman, alone in the midst of his broad estate, outgrow the man of crowds and conventionalities in our cities. The oak may have the advantage in the comparison, as his locality and consequent superiority are permanent. The Squire, out of his own district, we ignore. Whether intrinsically, or simply in default of comparison, at home he is invariably a great man. Such, at least was Square Hardy. Sour and cynical in speech, yet overflowing with human kindness; contemning luxury and expense in dress and equipage, but princely in his hospitality; praising the olden time to the disparagement of the present; the mortal foe of progressionists and fast people in every department; above all, a philosopher of his own school, he judged by the law of Procrustes, and permitted no appeals; opinionated and arbitrary as the Czar, he was sauced by his negroes, respected and loved by his neighbors, led by the 768 nose by his wife and daughters, and the abject slave of his grandchildren.
His house was as big as a barn, and, as his sons and daughters married, they brought their mates home to the old mansion. “It will be time enough for them to hive,” quoth the Squire, “when the old box is full.”
Notwithstanding his contempt for fast men nowadays, he is rather pleased with any allusion to his own youthful reputation in that line, and not unfrequently tells a good story on himself. We can not omit one told by a neighbor, as being characteristic of the times and manners forty years ago:
At Culpepper Court-house, or some court-house thereabout, Dick Hardy, then a good-humored, gay young bachelor, and the prime favorite of both sexes, was called upon to carve the pig at the court dinner. The district judge was as the table, the lawyers, justices, and everybody else that felt disposed to dine. At Dick’s right elbow sat a militia colonel, who was tricked out in all the pomp and circumstance admitted by his rank. He had probably been engaged on some court-martial, imposing fifty-cent fines on absentees from the last general muster. Howbeit Dick, in thrusting his fork into the back of the pig, bespattered the officer’s regimentals with some of the superfluous gravy. “Beg your pardon,” said Dick, as he went on with his carving. Now these were times when the war spirit was high, and chivalry at a premium. “Beg your pardon” might serve as a napkin to wipe the stain from one’s honor, but did not touch the question of the greased and spotted regimentals.
The colonel, swelling with wrath, seized a spoon, and deliberately dipping it into the gravy, dashed it over Dick’s prominent shirt-frill.
All saw the act, and with open eyes and mouth sat in 769 astonished silence, waiting to see what would be done next. The outraged citizen calmly laid down his knife and fork, and looked at his frill, the officer, and the pig, one after another. The colonel, unmindful of the pallid countenance and significant glances of the burning eye, leaned back in his chair, with arms akimbo, regarding the young farmer with cool disdain. A murmur of surprise and indignation arose from the congregated guests. Dick’s face turned red as a turkey-gobbler’s. he deliberated took the pig by the hind legs, and with a sudden whirl brought it down upon the head of the unlucky officer. Stunned by the squashing blow, astounded and blinded with streams of gray and wads of stuffing, he attempted to rise, but blow after blow from the fat pig fell upon his bewildered head. He seized a carving-knife and attempted to defend himself with blind but ineffectual fury, and at length, with a desperate effort, rose and took to his heels. Dick Hardy, whose wrath waxed hotter and hotter, followed, belabouring him unmercifully at every step, around the table, through the hall, and into the street, the crowd shouting and applauding.
We are sorry to learn that among this crowd were lawyers, sheriffs, magistrates, and constables; and that even his honor the judge, forgetting his dignity and position, shouted in a loud voice, “Give it to him, Dick Hardy! There’s no law in Christendom against basting a man with a roast pig!” Dick’s weapon failed before his anger; and when at length the battered colonel escaped into the door of a friendly dwelling, the victor had nothing in his hands but the hind legs of the roaster. He re-entered the dining-room flourishing these over his head, and venting his still unappeased wrath in great oaths.
The company reassembled, and finished their dinner as best they might. In reply to a toast, Hardy made a 770 speech, wherein he apologized for sacrificing the principle dinner-dish, and, as he expressed it, for putting public property to private uses. In reply to this speech a treat was ordered. In those good old days folks were not so virtuous but that a man might have cakes and ale without being damned for it, and it is presumable the day wound up with a spree.
After the squire got older, and a family grew up around him, he was not always victorious in his contests. For example, a question lately arose about the refurnishing of the house. On their return from a visit to Richmond the ladies took it into their heads that the parlors looked bare and old-fashioned, and it was decided by them in secret conclave that a change was necessary.
“What!” said he, in a towering passion, “isn’t it enough that you spend your time and money in vinegar to sour sweet peaches, and your sugar to sweeten crab-apples, that you must turn the house you were born in topsy-turvy? God help us! we’ve a house with windows to let the light in, and you want curtains to keep it out; we’ve plastered the walls to make them white, and now you want to paste blue paper over them; we’ve waxed floors to walk on, and we must pay two dollars a yard for a carpet to save the oak plank! Begone with your nonsense, ye demented jades!”
The squire smote the oak floor with his heavy cane, and the rosy petitioners fled from his presence laughing. In due time, however, the parlors were furnished with carpets, curtains, paper, and all the fixtures of modern luxury. The ladies were, of course, greatly delighted; and while professing great aversion and contempt for the “tawdry lumber,” it was plain to see that the worthy man enjoyed their pleasure as much as they did the new furniture.771
On another occasion, too, did the doughty squire suffer defeat under circumstances far more humiliating, and from an adversary far less worthy.
The western horizon was blushing rosy red at the coming of the sun, whose descending chariot was hidden by the thick Indian-summer haze that covered lowland and mountain as it were with a violet-tinted veil. This was the condition of things (we were going to say) when Squire Hardy sallied forth, charged with a small bag of salt, for the purpose of looking after his farm generally, and particularly of salting his sheep. It was an interesting sight to see the old gentlemen, with his dignified, portly figure, marching at the head of a long procession of improved breeds — the universally-received emblems of innocence an patience. Barring his modern costume, he might have suggested to the artist’s mind a picture of one of the Patriarchs.
Having come to a convenient place, or having tired himself crying co-nan, co-nan, at the top of his voice, the squire halted. The black ram halted, and the long procession of ewes and well-grown lambs moved up in a dense semicircle, and also halted, expressing their pleasure at the expected treat by gentle bleatings. The squire stooped to spread the salt. The black ram, either from most uncivil impatience, or mistaking the movement of the proprietor’s coat-tail for a challenge, pitched into him incontinently. “Plenum sed,” as the Oxonians say. An attack from behind, so sudden and unexpected, threw the squire sprawling on his face into a stone pile.
Oh, never was the thunder’s jar,
The red tornado’s wasting wing,
Or all the elemental war,
like the fury of Squire Hardy on that occasion.772
He recovered his feet with the agility of a boy, his nose bleeding and a stone in each hand. The timid flock looked all aghast, while the audacious offender, so far from having shown any disposition to skulk, stood shaking his head and threatening, as if he had a mind to follow up the dastardly attack. The squire let fly one stone, which grazed the villain’s head and killed a lamb. With the other he crippled a favorite ewe. The ram still showed fight, and the vengeful proprietor would probably have soon decimated his flock had not Porte Crayon (who had been squirrel-shooting) made his appearance in time to save them.
“Quick, quick! young man — your gun; let me shoot the cursed brute on the spot.”
The squire was frantic with rage, the cause of which our hero, having seen something of the affray, easily divined. He was unwilling, however, to trust his hair-triggered piece in the hands of his excited host.
“By your leave, Squire, and by your orders, I’ll do the shooting myself. Which of them was it?”
“The ram — the d—d ram — kill him — shoot — don’t let him live a minute!”
Crayon leveled his piece and fired. The offender made a bound and fell dead, the black blood spouting from his forehead in a stream as thick as your thumb.
“There, now,” exclaimed the squire, with infinite satisfaction, “you’ve got it, you ungrateful brute! You’ve found something harder than your own head at last, you cursed reptile! Friend Crayon, that’s a capital gun of yours, and you shot well.”
The squire dropped the stones which he had in his hands, and looking back at the dead body of the belligerent sheep, observed, with a thoughtful air, “He was a fine 773 animal, Mr. Crayon — a fine animal, and this will teach him a good lesson.”
“In all likelihood,” replied Crayon, dryly, “it will break him of this trick of butting.”
Not long after this occurrence, Squire Hardy went to hear an itinerant phrenologist who lectured in the village. In the progress of his discourse, the lecturer, for purposes of illustration, introduced the skulls of several animals, mapped off in the most correct and scientific manner.
“Observe, ladies and gentlemen, the head of the wolf: combativeness enormously developed, alimentiveness large, while conscientiousness is entirely wanting. On the other hand, look at this cranium. Here combativeness is a nullity — absolutely wanting — while the fullness of the sentimental organs indicate at once the mild and peaceful disposition of the sheep.”
The squire, who had listened with great attention up to this point, hastily rose to his feet.
“A sheep!” he exclaimed; “did you call a sheep a peaceful animal? I tell you, sir, it is the most ferocious and unruly beast in existence. Sir, I had a ram once —”
“My dear sir,” cried the astonished lecturer, “on the authority of our most distinguished writers, the sheep is an emblem of peace and innocence.”
“An emblem of the devil,” interrupted the squire, boiling over. “You are an ignorant impostor, and your science a humbug. I had a ram once that would have taught you more in five seconds than you’ve learned from books in all your lifetime.”
And so Squire Hardy put on his hat and walked out, leaving the lecturer to rectify his blunder as best he might.