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Rolf in the Woods(Chapter61)

2006-09-08 19:57

  CHAPTER LXI Dinner At the Governor's

  Was ever there a brighter blazing sunrise after such a night of gloom? Not only a deer, but the biggest of all deer, and Van himself the only one of the party that had ever killed a moose. The skin was removed and afterward made into a hunting coat for the victor. The head and horns were carefully preserved to be carried back to Albany, where they were mounted and still hang in the hall of a later generation of the name. The final days at the camp were days of happy feeling; they passed too soon, and the long-legged lawyer, bronzed and healthy looking, took his place in their canoe for the flying trip to Albany. With an empty canoe and three paddles (two and one half, Van said), they flew down the open stretch of Jesup's River in something over two hours and camped that night fully thirty-five miles from their cabin. The next day they nearly reached the Schroon and in a week they rounded the great bend, and Albany hove in view.

  How Van's heart did beat! How he did exult to come in triumph home, reestablished in health and strengthened in every way. They were sighted and recognized. Messengers were seen running; a heavy gun was fired, the flag run up on the Capitol, bells set a-ringing, many people came running, and more flags ran up on vessels.

  A great crowd gathered by the dock.

  "There's father, and mother too!" shouted Van, waving his hat.

  "Hurrah," and the crowd took it up, while the bells went jingle, jangle, and Skookum in the bow sent back his best in answer.

  The canoe was dragged ashore. Van seized his mother in his arms, as she cried: "My boy, my boy, my darling boy! how well you look. Oh, why didn't you write? But, thank God, you are back again, and looking so healthy and strong. I know you took your squills and opodeldoc. Thank God for that! Oh, I'm so happy! my boy, my boy! There's nothing like squills and God's blessing."

  Rolf and Quonab were made to feel that they had a part in it all. The governor shook them warmly by the hand, and then a friendly voice was heard: "Wall, boy, here ye air agin; growed a little, settin' up and sassin' back, same as ever." Rolf turned to see the gigantic, angular form and kindly face of grizzly old Si Sylvanne and was still more surprised to hear him addressed "senator."

  "Yes," said the senator, "one o' them freak elections that sometimes hits right; great luck for Albany, wa'nt it?"

  "Ho," said Quonab, shaking the senator's hand, while Skookum looked puzzled and depressed.

  "Now, remember," said the governor, addressing the Indian, the lad, and the senator, "we expect you to dine tonight at the mansion; seven o'clock."

  Then the terror of the dragon conventionality, that guards the gate and hovers over the feast, loomed up in Rolf's imagination. He sought a private word with Van. "I'm afraid I have no fit clothes; I shan't know how to behave," he said.

  "Then I'll show you. The first thing is to be perfectly clean and get a shave; put on the best clothes you have, and be sure they're clean; then you come at exactly seven o'clock, knowing that every one is going to be kind to you and you're bound to have a good time. As to any other 'funny-do' you watch me, and you'll have no trouble."

  So when the seven o'clock assemblage came, and guests were ascending the steps of the governor's mansion, there also mounted a tall, slim youth, an easy-pacing Indian, and a prick-eared, yellow dog. Young Van Cortlandt was near the door, on watch to save them any embarrassment. But what a swell he looked, cleanshaven, ruddy, tall, and handsome in the uniform of an American captain, surrounded by friends and immensely popular. How different it all was from that lonely cabin by the lake.

  A butler who tried to remove Skookum was saved from mutilation by the intervention first of Quonab and next of Van; and when they sat down, this uncompromising four- legged child of the forest ensconced himself under Quonab's chair and growled whenever the silk stockings of the footman seemed to approach beyond the line of true respect.

  Young Van Cortlandt was chief talker at the dinner, but a pompous military man was prominent in the company. Once or twice Rolf was addressed by the governor or Lady Van Cortlandt, and had to speak to the whole table; his cheeks were crimson, but he knew what he wanted to say and stopped when it was said, so suffered no real embarrassment.

  After what seemed an interminable feast of countless dishes and hours' duration, an extraordinary change set in. Led by the hostess, all stood up, the chairs were lifted out of their way, and the ladies trooped into another room; the doors were closed, and the men sat down again at the end next the governor.

  Van stayed by Rolf and explained: "This is another social custom that began with a different meaning. One hundred years ago, every man got drunk at every formal dinner, and carried on in a way that the ladies did not care to see, so to save their own feelings and give the men a free rein, the ladies withdrew. Nowadays, men are not supposed to indulge in any such orgy, but the custom continues, because it gives the men a chance to smoke, and the ladies a chance to discuss matters that do not interest the men. So again you see it is backed by common sense."

  This proved the best part of the dinner to Rolf. There was a peculiar sense of over-politeness, of insincerity, almost, while the ladies were present; the most of the talking had been done by young Van Cortlandt and certain young ladies, assisted by some very gay young men and the general. Their chatter was funny, but nothing more. Now a different air was on the group; different subjects were discussed, and by different men, in a totally different manner.

  "We've stood just about all we can stand," said the governor, alluding to an incident newly told, of a British frigate boarding an American merchant vessel by force and carrying off half her crew, under presence that they were British seamen in disguise. "That's been going on for three years now. It's either piracy or war, and, in either case, it's our duty to fight."

  "Jersey's dead against war," said a legislator from down the river.

  "Jersey always was dead against everything that was for the national good, sir," said a red-faced, puffy, military man, with a husky voice, a rolling eye, and a way of ending every sentence in "sir."

  "So is Connecticut," said another; "they say, 'Look at all our defenceless coasts and harbour towns.'"

  "They're not risking as much as New York," answered the governor," with her harbours all the way up the Hudson and her back door open to invasion from Canada."

  "Fortunately, sir, Pennyslvania, Maryland, and the West have not forgotten the glories of the past. All I ask —— is a chance to show what we can do, sir. I long for the smell of powder once more, sir."

  "I understand that President Madison has sent several protests, and, in spite of Connecticut and New Jersey, will send an ultimatum within three months. He believes that Britain has all she can manage, with Napoleon and his allies battering at her doors, and will not risk a war.

  "It's my opinion," said Sylvanne; "that these English men is too pig-headed an' ornery to care a whoop in hell whether we get mad or not. They've a notion Paul Jones is dead, but I reckon we've got plenty of the breed only waitin' a chance. Mor'n twenty-five of our merchantmen wrecked each year through being stripped of their crews by a 'friendly power.' 'Pears to me we couldn't be worse off going to war, an' might be a dum sight better."

  "Your home an' holdings are three hundred safe miles from the seacoast," objected the man from Manhattan.

  "Yes, and right next Canada," was the reply.

  "The continued insults to our flag, sir, and the personal indignities offered to our people are even worse than the actual loss in ships and goods. It makes my blood fairly boil," and the worthy general looked the part as his purple jowl quivered over his white cravat.

  "Gosh all hemlock! the one pricks, but t'other festers. it's tarnal sure you steal a man's dinner and tell him he's one o' nature's noblemen, he's more apt to love you than if you give him five dollars to keep out o' your sight," said Sylvanne, with slow emphasis.

  "There's something to be said on the other side," said the timid one. "You surely allow that the British government is trying to do right, and after all we must admit that that Jilson affair resected very little credit on our own administration."

  "A man ken make one awful big mistake an' still be all right, but he can't go on making a little mistake every day right along an' be fit company for a clean crowd," retorted the new senator.

  At length the governor rose and led the way to the drawing-room, where they rejoined the ladies and the conversation took on a different colour and weight, by which it lost all value for those who knew not the art of twittering persiflage and found less joy in a handkerchief flirtation than in the nation's onward march. Rolf and Quonab enjoyed it now about as much as Skookum had done all the time.

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