Thackeray In Love


Dinner at the British minister’s, a reception at the White House, a ball at the Assembly Room, a sightseeing trip to Mount Vernon—all these Thackeray held out as inducements when he begged Mrs. Baxter to bring Sally down to Washington so he could see her before he started south, offering to put them up in his own rooms. “What fun we will have! What dismal little queer bedrooms to sleep in!”

They did not come, and he had to do his sightseeing alone or with his secretary, being shown over the Capitol by Senator Sumner and the War Department by old General Winfield Scott. Sauntering through Lafayette Square, he saw the new equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson and afterward convulsed Washington dinner tables by his description of “the hero sitting in an impossible attitude, on an impossible horse with an impossible tail.” At a dinner given by Senator Hamilton Fish, Senator Seward asked Thackeray how “Seward” would be pronounced in England. Thackeray’s reply, “Like sewer, I think,” was relished in some circles—but not by Seward.

One cold day there was an excursion down the Potomac aboard John Ericsson’s new “caloric ship.” In the party were not only Thackeray and Washington Irving, who was in town doing research in government archives^ but the two Presidents—Mr. Fillmore, who was still in the White House, and General Pierce, who had not yet been inaugurated. It was the custom for the outgoing President to accompany the incoming President everywhere, to introduce him to Washington; they came together to the last night of Thackeray’s lectures.

At the end of his three weeks in Washington he left to fill engagements in Richmond, Charleston, and Savannah. On the journey he saw for the first time the Rappahannock River, where the Esmonds had their estates, and it gave him the queerest sensation: for a moment or two he imagined that the story was actually true, and that if he rode over the hills he would come upon the old Mansion House where the little Colonel lived with his jealous wife. And the southern cities were like a journey into the past. The streets and houses had an antiquated charm; the people’s voices were more like English voices than any he had heard, because for generations boys of good families had been sent back to England to school; and the southerners were more leisurely and more mannerly than the people of the northern cities.

In Richmond he had his first encounter with the reality of slavery. His young secretary indeed got into what Thackeray regarded as a dreadful scrape over it. Crowe went into the atiction rooms of a slave dealer and began sketching—a field hand who was being made to walk up and down to show off his paces, like a horse; a woman with her baby on her lap; a row of house servants neatly dressed in gray with white aprons and white collars fastened by scarlet bows. When the aucioneer and dealers saw what he was doing, he came very near being mobbed.

Thackeray’s greatest concern was that the incident might hurt the lectures. He had been warned on his arrival in Boston not to commit himself on one side or the other of the slavery question. After his southern tour he confessed to English friends that slavery had not shocked him as much as perhaps it ought to. In the good families in southern cities he saw no evidences of mistreatment; on the contrary he observed that the masters took good care not only of the Negroes who could work, but of the old, the sick, and the young. This was a heavy burden. He believed that slaveowners generally wanted to get rid of slavery (except perhaps on the vast cotton plantations in the Deep South); and that common sense rather than Mrs. Stowe and the abolitionists would certainly before long destroy it. The slaves themselves seemed to him to be comfortable, lazy, and happy. He went to a Negro ball in Charleston and was fascinated by the finery, the laughter, the waltzes and quadrilles danced to the music of bull fiddle, tambourine, and bones.

A slave auction in Charleston, held out-of-doors in the soft spring sunshine against a background of palmettos, was much less horrifying to young Crowe than the one in Richmond, and nobody objected this time when he got out his pencil and began sketching. Charleston was sophisticated and cosmopolitan. The ships whose tall masts rose almost as high as the towering steeples of the beautiful churches brought passengers and commerce from New York, Havana, and more distant ports. In the elegant, balconied houses the society was excellent.

But the new scenes were beginning to pall. For some time Thackeray had been sick of the “stale old lectures”; he was now, he wrote the Baxters, “very brownhouse-sick,” and impatient for the end of his tour. After a week in sleepy little Savannah, where Spanish moss hung down over wide, unpaved, sandy streets, he started north. By April 2 he was back in New York at the Clarendon.

He had made as yet only £2,500 of the £4,000 he had expected, but he still had an engagement in Montreal in May. In the meantime he was constantly at the Brown House, writing verses for Lucy’s birthday, going to balls and to the theater with the Baxters. But this time things were not quite the same. He could never get Sally alone; there was always the milliner or the dressmaker. Was she avoiding him?