May 24th.—The enemy are landing at Georgetown. With a little more audacity where could they not land? But we have given them such a scare, they are cautious. If it be true, I hope some cool-headed white men will make the negroes save the rice for us. It is so much needed. They say it might have been done at Port Royal with a little more energy. South Carolinians have pluck enough, but they only work by fits and starts; there is no continuous effort; they can’t be counted on for steady work. They will stop to play—or enjoy life in some shape.
Without let or hindrance Halleck is being reenforced. Beauregard, unmolested, was making some fine speeches— and issuing proclamations, while we were fatuously looking for him to make a tiger’s spring on Huntsville. Why not? Hope springs eternal in the Southern breast.
My Hebrew friend, Mem Cohen, has a son in the war. He is in John Chesnut’s company. Cohen is a high name among the Jews: it means Aaron. She has long fits of silence, and is absent-minded. If she is suddenly roused, she is apt to say, with overflowing eyes and clasped hands, “If it please God to spare his life.” Her daughter is the sweetest little thing. The son is the mother’s idol. Mrs. Cohen was Miriam de Leon. I have known her intimately all my life.
Mrs. Bartow, the widow of Colonel Bartow, who was killed at Manassas, was Miss Berrien, daughter of Judge Berrien, of Georgia. She is now in one of the departments here, cutting bonds—Confederate bonds—for five hundred Confederate dollars a year, a penniless woman. Judge Carroll, her brother-in-law, has been urgent with her to come and live in his home. He has a large family and she will not be an added burden to him. In spite of all he can say, she will not forego her resolution. She will be independent. She is a resolute little woman, with the softest, silkiest voice and ways, and clever to the last point.
Columbia is the place for good living, pleasant people, pleasant dinners, pleasant drives. I feel that I have put the dinners in the wrong place. They are the climax of the good things here. This is the most hospitable place in the world, and the dinners are worthy of it.
In Washington, there was an endless succession of state dinners. I was kindly used. I do not remember ever being condemned to two dull neighbors: on one side or the other was a clever man; so I liked Washington dinners.
In Montgomery, there were a few dinners—Mrs. Pollard’s, for instance, but the society was not smoothed down or in shape. Such as it was it was given over to balls and suppers. In Charleston, Mr. Chesnut went to gentlemen’s dinners all the time; no ladies present. Flowers were sent to me, and I was taken to drive and asked to tea. There could not have been nicer suppers, more perfect of their kind than were to be found at the winding up of those festivities.
In Richmond, there were balls, which I did not attend— very few to which I was asked: the MacFarlands’ and Lyons’s, all I can remember. James Chesnut dined out nearly every day. But then the breakfasts—the Virginia breakfasts—where were always pleasant people. Indeed, I have had a good time everywhere—always clever people, and people I liked, and everybody so good to me.
Here in Columbia, family dinners are the specialty. You call, or they pick you up and drive home with you. “Oh, stay to dinner!” and you stay gladly. They send for your husband, and he comes willingly. Then comes a perfect dinner. You do not see how it could be improved; and yet they have not had time to alter things or add because of the unexpected guests. They have everything of the best—silver, glass, china, table linen, and damask, etc. And then the planters live “within themselves,” as they call it. From the plantations come mutton, beef, poultry, cream, butter, eggs, fruits, and vegetables.
It is easy to live here, with a cook who has been sent for training to the best eating-house in Charleston. Old Mrs. Chesnut’s Romeo was apprenticed at Jones’s. I do not know where Mrs. Preston’s got his degree, but he deserves a medal.
At the Prestons’, James Chesnut induced Buck to declaim something about Joan of Arc, which she does in a manner to touch all hearts. While she was speaking, my husband turned to a young gentleman who was listening to the chatter of several girls, and said: “Ecoutez! ” The youth stared at him a moment in bewilderment; then, gravely rose and began turning down the gas. Isabella said: ” Ecoutez, then, means put out the lights.”
I recall a scene which took place during a ball given by Mrs. Preston while her husband was in Louisiana. Mrs. Preston was resplendent in diamonds, point lace, and velvet. There is a gentle dignity about her which is very attractive; her voice is low and sweet, and her will is iron. She is exceedingly well informed, but very quiet, retiring, and reserved. Indeed, her apparent gentleness almost amounts to timidity. She has chiseled regularity of features, a majestic figure, perfectly molded.
Governor Manning said to me: “Look at Sister Caroline. Does she look as if she had the pluck of a heroine?” Then he related how a little while ago William, the butler, came to tell her that John, the footman, was drunk in the cellar—mad with drink; that he had a carving-knife which he was brandishing in drunken fury, and he was keeping everybody from their business, threatening to kill any one who dared to go into the basement. They were like a flock of frightened sheep down there. She did not speak to one of us, but followed William down to the basement, holding up her skirts. She found the servants scurrying everywhere, screaming and shouting that John was crazy and going to kill them. John was bellowing like a bull of Bashan, knife in hand, chasing them at his pleasure.
Mrs. Preston walked up to him. “Give me that knife,” she demanded. He handed it to her. She laid it on the table. “Now come with me,” she said, putting her hand on his collar. She led him away to the empty smoke-house, and there she locked him in and put the key in her pocket. Then she returned to her guests, without a ripple on her placid face. “She told me of it, smiling and serene as you see her now,” the Governor concluded.
Before the war shut him in, General Preston sent to the lakes for his salmon, to Mississippi for his venison, to the mountains for his mutton and grouse. It is good enough, the best dish at all these houses, what the Spanish call “the hearty welcome.” Thackeray says at every American table he was first served with “grilled hostess.” At the head of the table sat a person, fiery-faced, anxious, nervous, inwardly murmuring, like Falstaff, “Would it were night, Hal, and all were well.”
At Mulberry the house is always filled to overflowing, and one day is curiously like another. People are coming and going, carriages driving up or driving off. It has the air of a watering-place, where one does not pay, and where there are no strangers. At Christmas the china closet gives up its treasures. The glass, china, silver, fine linen reserved for grand occasions come forth. As for the dinner itself, it is only a matter of greater quantity—more turkey, more mutton, more partridges, more fish, etc., and more solemn stiffness. Usually a half-dozen persons unexpectedly dropping in make no difference. The family let the housekeeper know; that is all.
People are beginning to come here from Richmond. One swallow does not make a summer, but it shows how the wind blows, these straws do—Mrs. “Constitution ” Browne and Mrs. Wise. The Gibsons are at Doctor Gibbes’s. It does look squally. We are drifting on the breakers.