Behind the Scenes

by Elizabeth Keckley

Chapter 14: Old Friends

Additional Information
  • Year Published: 1868
  • Language: English
  • Country of Origin: United States of America
  • Source: Keckley, E. (1868) Behind the Scenes London, England: Partridge and Oakey
  • Readability:
    • Flesch–Kincaid Level: 7.4
  • Word Count: 5,043
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Keywords: 19th century literature, african american literature, american history, american literature, autobiography, behind the scenes, biography
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In order to introduce a pleasant chapter of my life, I must take a slight retrospective glance. Mrs. Ann[e] Garland, the mistress from whom I purchased my freedom in St. Louis, had five daughters, all lovely, attractive girls. I used to take pride in dressing the two eldest, Miss Mary and Miss Carrie, for parties. Though the family labored under pecuniary embarrassment, I worked for these two young girls, and they were always able to present a good appearance in society. They were much admired, and both made the best matches of the season. Miss Mary married Dr. Pappan, and Miss Carrie, Dr. John Farrow. I loved them both tenderly, and they were warmly attached to me. Both are now dead, and when the death–film was gathering in the eyes, each called for me and asked to die in my arms. Miss Carrie did not long survive her sister, and I wept many tears over the death–beds of the two lovely flowers that had blossomed so sweetly beneath my eyes. Each breathed her last in the arms that had sheltered them so often in the bright rosy period of life. My mother took care of my son, and Miss Nannie Garland, the fourth daughter, when a wee thing, became my especial charge. She slept in my bed, and I watched over her as if she had been my own child. She called me Yiddie, and I could not have loved her more tenderly had she been the sister of my unfortunate boy. She was about twelve years old when I purchased my freedom, and resigned my charge to other hands. After Mr. Garland's death, the widow moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi, and I lost sight of the family for a few years. My mother accompanied them to Vicksburg, where she died. I made two visits to Vicksburg as a free woman, the object of my second visit being to look after the few effects left by my mother. As I did not visit my mother's grave at the time, the Garlands were much surprised, but I offered no explanation. The reason is not difficult to understand. My mother was buried in a public ground, and the marks of her grave, as I learned, were so obscure that the spot could not be readily designated. To look upon a grave, and not feel certain whose ashes repose beneath the sod, is painful, and the doubt which mystifies you, weakens the force, if not the purity, of the love–offering from the heart. Memory preserved a sunny picture of my mother's face, and I did not wish to weave sombre threads—threads suggestive of a deserted grave–yard—into it, and thus impair its beauty. After spending a few weeks with the family, I returned to St. Louis, and then came North. The war broke out, and I lost all trace of the Garlands. Often, during my residence in Washington, I recalled the past, and wondered what had become of those who claimed my first duty and my first love. When I would mention their names and express interest in their welfare, my Northern friends would roll up their eyes in surprise.

"Why, Lizzie, how can you have a kind thought for those who inflicted a terrible wrong upon you by keeping you in bondage?" they would ask.

"You forget the past is dear to every one, for to the past belongs that golden period, the days of childhood. The past is a mirror that reflects the chief incidents of my life. To surrender it is to surrender the greatest part of my existence—early impressions, friends, and the graves of my father, my mother, and my son. These people are associated with everything that memory holds dear, and so long as memory proves faithful, it is but natural that I should sigh to see them once more."

"But they have forgotten you. They are too selfish to give a single thought to you, now that you no longer are their slave."

"Perhaps so, but I cannot believe it. You do not know the Southern people as well as I do—how warm is the attachment between master and slave."

My Northern friends could not understand the feeling, therefore explanation was next to useless. They would listen with impatience, and remark at the close, with a shrug of the shoulders, "You have some strange notions, Lizzie."

In the fall of 1865 a lady called on me at my apartments in Washington. Her face looked familiar, but I could not place her. When I entered the room, she came towards me eagerly:

"You are surprised to see me, I know. I am just from Lynchburg, and when I left cousin Ann[e] I promised to call and see you if I came to Washington. I am here, you see, according to promise."

I was more bewildered than ever.

"Cousin Ann[e]! Pardon me—"

"Oh, I see you do not recognize me. I am Mrs. General Longstreet, but you knew me when a girl as Bettie Garland."

"Bettie Garland! And is this indeed you? I am so glad to see you. Where does Miss Ann[e] live now?" I always called my last mistress, Miss Ann[e].

"Ah! I thought you could not forget old friends. Cousin Ann[e] is living in Lynchburg. All the family are in Virginia. They moved to the old State during the war. Fannie is dead. Nannie has grown into a woman and is married to General Meem. Hugh was killed in the war, and now only Spot, Maggie, and Nannie are left."

"Fannie, dead! and poor Hugh! You bring sad news as well as pleasant. And so my little pet is married? I can hardly believe it; she was only a child when I saw her last."

"Yes, Nannie is married to a noble man. General Meem belongs to one of the best families in Virginia. They are now living at Rude's Hill, up beyond Winchester, in the Shenandoah Valley. All of them want to see you very badly."

"I should be delighted to go to them. Miss Bettie, I can hardly realize that you are the wife of General Longstreet; and just think, you are now sitting in the very chair and the very room where Mrs. Lincoln has often sat!"

She laughed: "The change is a great one, Lizzie; we little dream to–day what to–morrow will bring forth. Well, we must take a philosophical view of life. After fighting so long against the Yankees, General Longstreet is now in Washington, sueing for pardon, and we propose to live in peace with the United States again."

I had many questions to ask her about old friends, and the time passed rapidly. She greeted me with the frankness that she had always extended to me, and I was transported to days of the long–ago. Her stay in Washington was brief, as the General arranged his business, and they left the capital the next day.

Mrs. Longstreet gave me the Garlands' address, and I wrote to them, expressing the hope that I would be able to see them before long. In reply came letters full of tender sympathy and affection. In the winter of 1865, Miss Nannie wrote to me that she had the best husband in the world; that they designed going to housekeeping in the spring, and that they would be glad to have me make them a visit in July, 1866. She sent me a pressing invitation. "You must come to me, dear Lizzie," she wrote. "We are now living at Rude's Hill. I am dying to see you. Ma, Maggie, Spot, and Minnie, sister Mary's child, are with me, and you only are needed to make the circle complete. Come; I will not take no for an answer."

I was anxious to go myself, and when I received the urgent invitation I concluded to go at once, and I wrote them to expect me in August. On the 10th of August I left Washington for Virginia, taking the train for Harper's Ferry. The journey was attended with several disappointments. We arrived at Harper's Ferry in the night, and being asleep at the time, I was carried to the station beyond, where I had to wait and take the return train. After returning to Harper's Ferry, where I changed cars for Winchester, I missed the train, and was detained another day. From Winchester the only way to reach Rude's Hill was by a line of stages. We commenced the weary drive in the evening, and rode all night. A young gentleman in the stage said that he knew General Meem well, and that he would tell me when we reached the place. Relying upon him, I went to sleep, and it appears that the polite young gentleman followed my example. About four o'clock in the morning one of the passengers shook me, and asked:

"Aunty, don't you want to get out at Rude's Hill?"

I started up, rubbing my eyes. "Yes. Are we there?"

"More than there. We have passed it."

"Passed it!"

"Yes. It is six miles back. You should not sleep so soundly, Aunty."

"Why did you not tell me sooner? I am so anxious to be there."

"Fact is, I forgot it. Never mind. Get out at this village, and you can find conveyance back."

The village, New Market, was in a dilapidated condition; everything about it spoke plainly of the sad destruction of war. Getting out of the stage I went into a house, by courtesy named a hotel, where I obtained a cup of coffee.

"Is there no conveyance from here to Rude's Hill?" I asked.

"Yes; the stage returns this evening," answered the landlord.

"This evening! I want to go as soon as possible. I should die if I had to stay all day in this lonely place."

A colored man behind the bar, seeing how earnest I was, came forward, and informed me that he would drive me over to General Meem's place in an hour. This was joyful news, and I urged him to get ready to start as soon as possible.

While standing in the door of the hotel, impatiently waiting for my colored friend to drive round with his little wagon, a fat old lady waddled across the street and greeted me.

"Ain't you Lizzie?"

"Yes," I answered, surprised that she should know my name.

"I thought so. They have been expecting you at Rude's Hill every day for two weeks, and they do but little but talk about you. Mrs. Meem was in town yesterday, and she said that she expected you this week certain. They will be mighty glad to see you. Why, will you believe it! they actually have kept a light burning in the front window every night for ten nights, in order that you might not go by the place should you arrive in the night."

"Thank you. It is pleasant to know that I am expected. I fell asleep in the stage, and failed to see the light, so am here instead of at Rude's Hill."

Just then the colored man drove up with the wagon, and I got in with him, and was soon on the road to General Meem's country–seat.

As we drove up to Rude's Hill, I observed a young man standing in the yard, and believing it to be Spot, whom I had not seen for eight years, I beckoned to him. With an exclamation of joy, he came running towards me. His movements attracted the attention of the family, and in a minute the door was crowded with anxious, inquiring faces. "It is Lizzie! It is Lizzie!" was the happy cry from all parties. In my eagerness to get to them, I stepped from the wagon to the top of the stile, intending to make a triumphant leap into the yard; but, alas! my exultation was brief. My hoop–skirt caught on one of the posts, and I fell sprawling into the yard. Spot reached me first and picked me up, only to put me into the arms of Miss Nannie, her sister Maggie, and Mrs. Garland. Could my friends of the North have seen that meeting, they would never have doubted again that the mistress had any affection for her former slave. I was carried to the house in triumph. In the parlor I was divested of my things, and placed in an easy–chair before a bright fire. The servants looked on in amazement.

"Lizzie, you are not changed a bit. You look as young as when you left us in St. Louis, years ago," and Mrs. Meem, my foster child, kissed me again.

"Here, Lizzie, this is Minnie, Minnie Pappan, sister Mary's child. Hasn't she grown?" and Miss Maggie led a tall, queenly lady up to me.

"Minnie! Poor dear Miss Mary's child! I can hardly believe it. She was only a baby when I saw her last. It makes me feel old to see how large she has grown. Miss Minnie, you are larger than—your mother was—your dear mother whom I held in my arms when she died;" and I brushed a tear from each of my eyes.

"Have you had your breakfast, Lizzie?" asked Mrs. Garland.

"No, she has not," exclaimed her children in a chorus. "I will get her breakfast for her," and Nannie, Maggie, and Minnie started for the kitchen.

"It is not necessary that all should go," said Mrs. Garland. "Here is the cook, she will get breakfast ready."

But the three did not heed her. All rushed to the kitchen, and soon brought me a nice hot breakfast.

While I was eating, the cook remarked: "I declar, I nebber did see people carry on so. Wonder if I should go off and stay two or three years, if all ob you wud hug and kiss me so when I cum back?"

After I had finished my breakfast, General Meem came in. He greeted me warmly. "Lizzie, I am very glad to see you. I feel that you are an old acquaintance, I have heard so much of you through my wife, her sister, and her mother. Welcome to Rude's Hill."

I was much pleased with his appearance, and closer acquaintance proved him to be a model gentleman.

Rude's Hill, during the war, was once occupied by General Stonewall Jackson for his head–quarters, which gave more than ordinary interest to the place. The location was delightful, but the marks of war could be seen everywhere on the plantation. General Meem was engaged in planting, and he employed a large number of servants to assist him in his work. About a mile from Rude's Hill was Mount Airy, the elegant country–seat of the General's brother. The two families visited each other a great deal, and as both entertained plenty of company, the Autumn months passed pleasantly. I was comfortably quartered at Rude's Hill, and was shown every attention. We sewed together, talking of old times, and every day either drove out, or rode on horseback. The room in which I sat in the daytime was the room that General Jackson always slept in, and people came from far and near to look at it. General Jackson was the ideal soldier of the Southern people, and they worshipped him as an idol. Every visitor would tear a splinter from the walls or windows of the room, to take away and treasure as a priceless relic.

It did not take me long to discover that I was an object of great curiosity in the neighborhood. My association with Mrs. Lincoln, and my attachment for the Garlands, whose slave I had once been, clothed me with romantic interest.

Colonel Harry Gilmore, well known as a partisan leader in Maryland and Virginia during the war, was a frequent visitor at Mount Airy and Rude's Hill. One day I accompanied a party to a tournament, and General Meem laughed pleasantly over the change that had come to me in so short a time.

"Why, Lizzie, you are riding with Colonel Gilmore. Just think of the change from Lincoln to Gilmore! It sounds like a dream. But then the change is an evidence of the peaceful feeling of this country; a change, I trust, that augurs brighter days for us all."

I had many long talks with Mrs. Garland, in one of which I asked what had become of the only sister of my mother, formerly maid to Mrs. G's mother.

"She is dead, Lizzie. Has been dead for some years. A maid in the old time meant something different from what we understand by a maid at the present time. Your aunt used to scrub the floor and milk a cow now and then, as well as attend to the orders of my mother. My mother was severe with her slaves in some respects, but then her heart was full of kindness. She had your aunt punished one day, and not liking her sorrowful look, she made two extravagant promises in order to effect a reconciliation, both of which were accepted. On condition that her maid would look cheerful, and be good and friendly with her, the mistress told her she might go to church the following Sunday, and that she would give her a silk dress to wear on the occasion. Now my mother had but one silk dress in the world, silk not being so plenty in those days as it is now, and yet she gave this dress to her maid to make friends with her. Two weeks afterward mother was sent for to spend the day at a neighbor's house, and on inspecting her wardrobe, discovered that she had no dress fit to wear in company. She had but one alternative, and that was to appeal to the generosity of your aunt Charlotte. Charlotte was summoned, and enlightened in regard to the situation; the maid proffered to loan the silk dress to her mistress for the occasion, and the mistress was only too glad to accept. She made her appearance at the social gathering, duly arrayed in the silk that her maid had worn to church on the preceding Sunday."

We laughed over the incident, when Mrs. Garland said: "Lizzie, during the entire war I used to think of you every day, and have longed to see you so much. When we heard you were with Mrs. Lincoln, the people used to tell me that I was foolish to think of ever seeing you again—that your head must be completely turned. But I knew your heart, and could not believe that you would forget us. I always argued that you would come and see us some day."

"You judged me rightly, Miss Ann[e]. How could I forget you whom I had grown up with from infancy. Northern people used to tell me that you would forget me, but I told them I knew better, and hoped on."

"Ah! love is too strong to be blown away like gossamer threads. The chain is strong enough to bind life even to the world beyond the grave. Do you always feel kindly towards me, Lizzie?"

"To tell you candidly, Miss Ann[e], I have but one unkind thought, and that is, that you did not give me the advantages of a good education. What I have learned has been the study of after years."

"You are right. I did not look at things then as I do now. I have always regretted that you were not educated when a girl. But you have not suffered much on this score, since you get along in the world better than we who enjoyed every educational advantage in childhood."

I remained five weeks at Rude's Hill, and they were five of the most delightful weeks of my life. I designed going direct to Richmond, but the cholera was reported to be raging in that city, so I took the train for Baltimore. In Baltimore I stopped with Mrs. Annette Jordan. Mrs. Garland had given me a letter to Mrs. Douglas Gordon, who introduced me to several Baltimore ladies, among others Mrs. Doctor Thomas, who said to me, with tears in her eyes: "Lizzie, you deserve to meet with success for having been so kind to our friends in the days of the past. I wish there were more women in the world like you. I will always do what little I can to promote your welfare."

After remaining in Baltimore a few days, I came to the conclusion that I could do better in Washington; so I returned to the capital, and reopened my business.

In the spring of 1867, Miss Maggie Garland paid a visit to Baltimore. Before leaving Virginia she said to some of her friends in Lynchburg that she designed going by Washington to see Lizzie. Her friends ridiculed the idea, but she persisted:

"I love Lizzie next to mother. She has been a mother to us all. Half the pleasure of my visit is that I will be able to see her."

She wrote me a letter, saying that she designed visiting me, asking if it would be agreeable. I replied, "Yes, come by all means. I shall be so glad to see you."

She came and stayed at my rooms, and expressed surprise to find me so comfortably fixed.

I can not do better than conclude this chapter with two letters from my dear young friends, the first from Mrs. General Meem, and the second from Miss Maggie Garland. These letters show the goodness of their hearts and the frankness of their natures. I trust that they will not object to the publicity that I give them:

"RUDE'S HILL, Sept. 14, 1867.

"MY DEAR LIZZIE:—I am nearly ashamed of myself for neglecting to acknowledge the receipt of your letter, and the very acceptable box of patterns, some weeks ago; but you will pardon my remissness, I know, for you can imagine what a busy time I've had all summer, with a house full of company most of the time, and with very inefficient servants, and in some departments none at all; so I have had to be at times dining–room servant, house–maid, and the last and most difficult, dairy–maid. But I have turned that department over to our gardener, who, though as green at the business as myself, seems willing to learn, and has been doing the milking all summer. These are a few of the reasons why I have not written to you before, for I hope you will always believe that you occupy a large place in my memory and affection, whether I write to you or not; and such a poor correspondent as yourself ought not to complain. Mother, Mag, Uncle John, and Spot are still with us; the former will pass the winter with me, but the others all talk of leaving before long. The approach of winter always scatters our guests, and we have to spend the long, dreary winters alone. But we are to have the railroad to Mt. Jackson by Christmas, perhaps sooner; and then, if we can raise the wind, we can spend a portion of the winter in the city, and I hope you will find time to come up and spend the day with me, as we will be near neighbors. I so seldom indulge in the pleasant task of writing letters that I scarcely know what will interest my correspondent, but I flatter myself that you will be glad to hear anything and everything about us all, so I'll begin with the children. Hugh has improved a great deal, and is acknowledged to be the smartest child and the finest looking in the State; he talks as plainly as I do, and just as understandingly as a child of ten years old; his nurse often says we need not set our hearts on that child, he is too smart ever to be raised; but I trust his badness will save him, for he is terribly spoilt, as such interesting children are bound to be. Miss Eliza, no longer called Jane, is getting to be a little 'star girl,' as her Papa calls her; she is just learning to walk, and says a good many words quite plainly. You would never take her for the same little cry–baby of last summer, and she is a little beauty too—as white as the driven snow, with the most beautiful blue eyes, and long, dark lashes you ever saw. She will set somebody crazy if she grows up to be as lovely as she now promises to be. My dear good husband has been, like myself, run to death this summer; but it agrees with him, and I never saw him looking better. He has fallen off a little, which is a great improvement, I think. He often speaks of you, and wonders if you were sufficiently pleased with your visit last summer to repeat it. I hope so, for we will always be glad to welcome you to Rude's Hill, whenever you have time to come; provided, of course, you have the wish also. Spot expects to hang out his shingle in St. Louis next winter. His health is greatly improved, though he is still very thin, and very, very much like dear father. Mag has promised to teach a little cousin of ours, who lives in Nelson County, until February, and will leave here in two weeks to commence her labors. I hate to see her leave, but she is bent on it, and our winters are so unattractive that I do not like to insist on her shutting herself up all winter with three old people. She will have very pleasant society at Cousin Buller's, and will perhaps spend the rest of the winter with Aunt Pris, if Uncle Armistead remains in Binghampton, New York, as he talks of doing. Do write to me before you get too busy with your fall and winter work; I am so anxious to hear all your plans, and about your stay in New York. By the by, I will have to direct this to Washington, as I do not know your New York address. I suppose your friends will forward it. If you are going to remain any length of time in New York, send me your address, and I will write again. * * I have somehow made out a long letter, though there is not much in it, and I hope you will do the same before long. All send love.

"Yours affectionately,
"N. R. G. MEEM.

"My pen and ink are both so wretched that I fear you will find some difficulty in making out this scratch; but put on your specks, and what you can't read, just guess at. I enclose a very poor likeness of Hugh taken last spring; don't show it to anybody, for I assure you there is scarcely the faintest resemblance to him now in it.

"N. R. G. M."

I give only a few extracts from the pleasant letter from Miss Maggie Garland. The reader will observe that she signs herself "Your child, Mag," an expression of love warmly appreciated by me:

"SEDDES, Dec. 17, 1867.

"So many months have passed, my dear Lizzie, since I was cheered by a sight of your welcome handwriting, that I must find out what is the matter, and see if I can't persuade you to write me a few lines. Whatever comes, 'weal or woe,' you know I shall always love you, and I have no idea of letting you forget me; so just make up your mind to write me a nice long letter, and tell me what you are doing with yourself this cold weather. I am buried in the wilds of Amherst, and the cold, chilling blasts of December come whistling around, and tell us plainly that the reign of the snow–king has begun in good earnest. Since October I have been teaching for my cousin, Mr. Claiborne, and although I am very happy, and every one is so kind to me, I shall not be sorry when the day comes when I shall shut up school–books forever. None of 'Miss Ann[e]'s' children were cut out for 'school–marms,' were they, Yiddie? I am sure I was only made to ride in my carriage, and play on the piano. Don't you think so? * * * You must write me where you are, so I can stop and see you on my way North; for you know, dear Lizzie, no one can take your place in my heart. I expect to spend the Christmas holidays in Lynchburg. It will be very gay there, and I will be glad enough to take a good dance. This is a short letter to send you after such a long silence, but 'tis too cold to write. Let me hear from you very soon.

"Your child MAG.

"Please write, for I long to hear from you."