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Thackeray In Love
“You may marry anybody you please & I don’t care.” Thus the famous English author to wild, pretty Sally Baxter of New York; which is to say that he—and his American love—never got over it at all.
April 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 3
This was what philanthropy had done for the Negro, she wrote, and abolition for the slave, and civil war for the white man. And what does it do for me? Do you care to know? Apart from home and friends, alone amongst strangers, the husband for whom I left all, in arms against the country where are still all I love,—dying slowly of a disease which baffles all physic and all care, I am far different from the gay girl you perhaps remember, years and years ago. I have been at death’s door for many months now with one hemorrhage after another wasting my little remaining strength. My poor Father and Mother, my only sister, do not even know that I live, or if they do, only that,—for a year we have had little intercourse,—for six months, none. … If you get this, write and tell them of me, or send the letter. If you care to write to me, and you will care, I am sure, when you think how doubly dear the letter will be to me now, send it enclosed to the house of Fraser, Trenholm and Co., Liverpool, directed inside to me, Charleston. It will run the blockade, and come to me safely and secretly, or go to the bottom of the fathomless ocean, that tells no tales.
Thackeray’s reply may have rotted in the hold of a sunken blockade-runner, for it has not survived.
This was the last letter from Sally. Sometime in the fall Thackeray heard in a roundabout way that she had died at Millwood Plantation on September 10, 1862. Later there was a letter from the Baxters. When her family heard that she was dying, Mr. Baxter and Lucy had traveled south to be with her, but were refused permission by the Federal authorities to pass through the Confederate lines. Telling the story of their sad journey to young Henry Adams (who had met and admired Sally), Thackeray’s voice trembled and his eyes filled with tears: he broke out into violent denunciations of the “coarse cruelty” of the Federals. Many days went by before he was able to write to the Baxters. When he did, he dwelt on his memories of Sally that first winter in New York—“What a bright creaturel What a laugh, a life, a happiness! And it is all gone.” How well he remembered that first look of her, with the red ribbon in her hair.
On the wall of his sitting room in London there always hung a print that he had bought long ago because it looked like Sally when he first saw her. In his new house in Kensington, furnished superbly with Queen Anne pieces and hung with old and valuable paintings, the cheap colored print must have seemed as out of place as those he had seen on damask walls in New York mansions. It was a Currier lithograph of a girl with an oval face in a drooping feathered hat, entitled The Belle of the West —a reminder, as poignant as Sally’s Strauss waltzes, of the gaieties and absurdities and sentimentalities—and love—he had found in America.