Continuing with Porte Crayon’s “Home”… but first, as mentioned in the blog post on Tuesday, keep in mind that Crayon (David Hunter Strother) lays out a story that differs from his actual experiences of returning home to Martinsburg and then later, Berkeley Springs. Still, one has to wonder where reality might intersect with fiction. We know few details about Strother’s real-life experiences, other than those mentioned in Cecil Eby’s biographical sketch of Strother (published in 1960).
In this passage, we see a vivid physical description of what the fictional “Porte Crayon” encounters upon his return “home”… and, perhaps more interestingly, his interaction with his former slave. It’s rather curious to consider David Hunter Strother’s life through “Crayon”, initial interaction with that former slave. At that encounter, he refers to the former slave as “our fellow-citizen of color”, and then sends him away as if ordering a slave to work… “Go at once and bring them here, with a tub, a broom, and a floor-cloth.” Remember… Strother is a Southern Unionist who actually went to the extreme end of that spectrum by wearing Union blue, yet, this still does not necessarily mean “abolitionist.” Whether you are familiar with Strother’s life or not, I find the way he writes conveys some thought-provoking discussion.
Moving on to the next passage…
The old place referred to was not an ancestral home endeared by habit and family traditions, nor was it a dapper modern cottage, convenient, sanitary, and picturesque. It was only a plan, old-fashioned, square brick house on the outskirts of a quiet village in the Virginia mountains. Five years before, wife and I had set up housekeeping, and passed our brief hone-moon there. Our planning and planting had been interrupted by the storms of revolution, and now after five years’ exile we were returning, animated with the fond hope of recommencing just where we had left off.
It was a poetic May day when we left the railway station, and with our two weather-beaten trunks mounted the open spring wagon which was to convey us to our destination, six miles distant. Our route was up a narrow valley hemmed in by wooded hills, drained by a brook which meandered through what had formerly been open meadows and cultivated fields, enlivened here and there with the white-washed cottage and log-out buildings of a mountain farm. Now the roadway, overgrown with grass and weeds, was nearly obliterated; all traces of fences and inclosures had disappeared, and the site of the farm house was indicated by a ruined chimney standing like a monument amidst charred logs, straggling lilac bushes, and neglected fruit trees. Savage nature had hastened to repossess herself of the undefended fields and meadows, which were thicketed with a growth of young pines and blackberry and sumac bushes. At frequent intervals we marked by the roadside the mouldering wreck of some vehicle, and the whitening skeletons of horses. Except an occasional dreamy buzzard floating high in the air, a gray rabbit darting across our track, or the whir of a partridge startled from the thicket, the desolate valley was lifeless and silent. It seemed as if in a few more years all traces of man’s conquest would have disappeared, and wile nature would again have reigned supreme. But the labors of our mountain settler are strictly utilitarian; he is instinctively unfriendly to the aesthetic; and I thought I had never seen our valley looking so beautiful. At the village it was quite different. The works of man have no innate powers of reconstruction. Here wasting time, neglect, and violence had left their grimy fingerprints on every thing. The weed-grown streets were silent and deserted. No tidy dames nor merry children thronged the doors as of yore to greet the passing traveler with open-mouthed and cheerful curiosity. When here and there we did catch a glimpse of a care-worn face peering suspiciously through a broken window or dilapidated doorway, it was hastily eclipsed before we could assure ourselves of recognition. This was not an auspicious approach to the goal of our hopes, which stood at the farther end of the village.
Suddenly madame grasped my arm with an exclamation of delight. Home at last! We stopped directly in front of the well-remembered dwelling. It was high noon when the driver landed us and our baggage on the green, took his fee, and departed.
We stood alone and in silence until the emotions of the moment had subsided, then proceeded methodically to reconnoiter the premises. The brick walls were dingy and weather-stained. They had been pierced with loop-holes for musketry, and here and there scarred by bullets, but they stood solidly and substantially uninjured. The shingles had sprung and curled until the roof resembled a frizzled hen. The bare rafters showed through a long rip caused by a glancing cannon-shot, and near one of the chimneys was a large opening whose charred edges indicated the work of fire. The shattered panes and entire absence of sashes in many of the upper windows indicated that the house was tenantless. The wooden portico at the entrance had parted from the wall and fallen prone, lumbering the approach with its wreck. The whole ground was inclosed with a rude hybrid fence, made up of remnants of the old palings, eked out with rough boards, pine logs, and worm-fence rails dragged from the neighboring fields. There was no gate, but we easily climbed the fence, and made our way to the front-door. This was stained, battered, and defaced with rude carvings and scribblings, but there was neither latch nor knob visible, and it was firmly closed. Stepping back, I gave the barrier a heavy blow with my boot-heel, when it fell inward with a loud bang, which reverberated through the house. At the same instant a black cat, with green glaring eyes, fled with a spot and a yowl, escaping through one of the broken windows.
But to us this had never been the abode of fear, so we eagerly entered the stormed fortress . We found no other enemies there than silence, emptiness, and dirt, but enough the latter to have appalled feebler natures than ours. My companion’s courage was of a quality which rose to meet the direst emergencies. As she surveyed the interior she gave bent to her feelings with a vehement whistle – which in a woman I take to be an equivalent for swearing in a man.
“Good gracious, husband, what a pig-sty! Why, it will require a month’s hard scrubbing to make it habitable.”
And no wonder. It had been alternatively a rendezvous for Union Leaguers and rebel raiders, picket post, guard-house, cavalry barrack, and block-house, having changed hands between the contending factions at least fifty times during those four lawless years. From ceiling to wash-board its once white walls were scratched and scribbled over with the records of its diversified occupancy – names which figured on regimental rolls from all the States from Maine to Texas, with scraps of soldier wit in prose, verse, and pictorial illustrations, exhibiting all the varieties of opinion engendered by local prejudice and political exasperation, and conched in a phraseology which would have done honor to the “army in Flanders.”
However, the ceilings indicated no serious leakage, and the floors were sound, except in front of the hearths in the lower rooms, where the planks had been burned through until the mouldy depths of the cellar appeared between the charred sleepers; but up stairs we found a room which we concluded might be made presently habitable, and next proceeded to inspect the back building – kitchen and accessories.
The back-door had a lock, but the hasp yielded to the first pull. As I stepped out on the porch I suddenly stuck a vicious blow with my cane, and with an exclamation of disgust sprung back into the doorway, nearly upsetting my companion, who was just coming out. A large copper-head snake, which had been sunning himself on the planks, wriggled over into the grass with a broken back, where I soon dispatched him.
At this point a voice inquired, somewhat authoritatively, “Who dat da, fussin’ round da now?” Looking up, I saw an old negro man standing by the open well with a tin bucket in this hand. I advanced and demanded with equal gruffness who he was and what he was doing there. As I spoke our fellow-citizen of color dropped his bucket, and hastened forward, seized my extended hand in both his.
“Why, master, I’s mighty glad to see you back safe and sound, I is dat. Dis country ben mighty lonesome sence soldiers went away. Now things begin to look up agin sence folks comin’ back.”
I responded cordially and sincerely to my old freeman’s greeting, for his opportune appearance solved a difficulty which had been worrrying me since our arrival. “Uncle George,” said I, “is your family with you now?”
“Yes, Sir; my wife and a grown daughter;” and he pointed to his cottage at the edge of a wood not more than a hundred yards distant.
“Go at once and bring them here, with a tub, a broom, and a floor-cloth.”
George soon returned with his re-enforcements, who went to work with such zeal that in an hour the room was fairly swept and washed, the trunks carried up, and a brisk fire sparkling in the chimney to dry off the dampness.
I then dispatched my zealous assistant with a written order to a friendly neighbor, at whose house a part of our furniture had been stored for safe-guarding, and in an hour more our chamber was modestly but habitably furnish.
By this time the sun was declining, se we dismissed our assistants with a gratuity and orders to return at eight next morning. Then we opened our respective trunks, and wife spread a clean napkin upon our bit of a tale, with I displayed my camp equipage of tin plates, cups, spoons, knives, and forks for two. Then madame rejoined by excavating from her travelling basket a store of crisp biscuits, potted ham, Stilton cheese, and sugar cakes, then a glass jar containing ground coffee, and small tea-caddy. We decided on tea for the evening beverage, so the little coffee-pot was set aside, and we brewed our drink in a tall porcelain cup. The meal was excellent, and any deficiency in style was more than supplied by the exhilarating consciousness that we were at home – for the first time in five years.
I’m not yet sure if I’m going to transcribe all of Crayon’s “Home”, but I will transcribe a little more, and offer that for consideration in my next post.