In the whole range of human attributes there are not two more antagonistical qualities than courage and cowardice; yet, how frequently we find them existing in the same person, ensconced under the same coat of skin! In the form that contains a spirit that would face with unblenching eye the fiercest peril of man's existence, we will often discover a timorous sprite, who hems and hesitates, and falters and trembles, at an enemy no more formidable than a pair of soft blue eyes, pouring their streams of liquid subduing tenderness, or else a brace of piercing black orbits, which, like the fire of the ancient Greeks, burn the fiercer for the water which love pours over them, in the shape of tears.
And, odd as it may seem, this discordant association of heroism and timidity is not found in weak effeminate nervous men, but in those whose almost gigantic proportions, eagle eye, and dauntless bearing convey any idea but that there is stuff for trembling in their stalwart frames. But they are the ones who generally manifest the greatest cowardice - place them before a battery of girls' eyes, and it proves literally a gal -vanic battery, shocking them to such a degree that they usually do something they never intended, and say things that they never meant. Let one of these animals be in love, and what a mess he generally makes of the affair! Did you ever know one to "pop the question" in a respectable civilized manner? - That is, if he ever exalted his courage sufficiently to get that near to matrimony. My word for it - never. No suit for breach of promise could be ever brought against one of them - for such is the noncommittalism of their incoherency, that no woman, on her oath, could avow, even were they conjugated at the time, that he ever asked her to marry him; the intuitive feeling of her sex alone enabled her to draw the idea that he was addressing her, from the mass of his discordant, incoherent, lingual ramblings, when the question was being popped.
This philosophizing is intended as a preface or premonitory symptom of a story, illustrative of the trait; which, like measles, when repelled by cold air, has struck in upon my memory, and which, carrying out the idea, requires, like the aforesaid measles, to be brought to the surface in order that I may feel relieved.
Among the many acquaintances that my profession enabled me to make in the swamp, no one afforded me more pleasure than Jerry Wilson, the son of a small planter resident some few miles from my shingle . There was something so manly and frank in his bearing that our feelings were irresistibly attracted towards him. In my case it proved to be mutual: he seemed to take the same interest in me, and we soon became bosom friends. A severe attack of congestive fever that I carried him through successfully, riveted him to me for ever; and Jerry, upon all and every occasion, stood ready to take up the gauntlet in my defence, as willingly as in his own. Being very popular in the neighbourhood, he became of great assistance to me, by advocating my cause, and extending, by his favourable representations, my circle of practice.
The plantation adjoining Jerry's father's was possessed by an old, broken-down Virginian, who, having dissipated one fortune in conforming to the requirements of fashionable life, had come into the swamp, to endure its many privations, in order that he might recruit his impoverished finances.
Adversity, or something better, had taught him the folly of the prominent foible of the Virginian - insane state pride, and consequent individual importance. His mind was prepared to test men by the proper criterion - merit, without regard to the adventitious circumstances of birth, wealth, or nativity.
Major Smith deserves the meed, I believe, for being the first one of the race to acknowledge that he was not an F. F.; which confession, showing his integrity of character, proved to me that he really was one of the very first of the land. But, in describing the father, I am neglecting by far the most interesting, if not the most important character of the story - his daughter - a sweet blooming girl of seventeen, at the time of which I write. Ah! she was the bright exemplar of her sex! Look in her eye - so luminous, yet so tender, and far down in its dreamy still waters, you could see the gems of purity and feeling glimmering; listen to her voice - and never yet forest bird, on the topmost leafy bough, gave forth such a gush of melody, as when it rose and melted away in a laugh; her modesty and timidity - you have seen the wild fawn, when, pausing on the brink of some placid lake, it sees its beautiful image reflected in the waters - thus shrank she, as if into herself, when voice of love, or praise, or admiration stole into her ears - and yet, with all her maidenly reserve and timidity, she loved and was beloved. Knowing that I am a bachelor, think not, in this recital, that my swelling heart is tearing open anew wounds which time and philosophy have just enabled me to heal. No! my fair friend - for friend she was, and is - never kindled in my heart the flames of love, or heard aught of the soft impeachment from me; for, long before I had seen her, the "Swamp Doctor" had wedded his books and calling - rather a frigid bride, but not an unprolific one, and her yearly increase, instead of bringing lines of anxiety to my brow, smooths the wrinkles that care and deep thought - certainly it cannot be age - Lord! Lord! I have broken my wig spring - have dropped upon my visage!
My friend Jerry was the favoured mortal, and, without doubt, in an equal intensity reciprocated her love; but cowardice had hitherto prevented an avowal upon his part, and the two lovers, therefore, dwelt in a delicious state of uncertainty and suspense. No one, to know Jerry, as the majority of men - going through the world with their noses either too elevated or too depressed for observation - know their kind, would have thought him a coward: but I knew, that, as respected women, a more arrant poltroon did not exist. He would have met any peril that resolution, strength, or a contempt for life could overcome, without fear of the consequences or the least tremor; and yet he dared not for his life tell a pretty girl, "that he loved her, and would be highly pleased, and sorter tickled, too, if she would marry him." There was something more terrible in the idea of such an avowal, than fighting bears, hugging Indians, or strangling panthers.
The poor girl, with the intuitive perception of her sex, had long perceived that Jerry loved her as ardently as if the avowal on his part had already been made. Almost daily she saw him, eagerly she awaited a declaration, but poor Jerry never could get his courage to the sticking point; like Bob Acres, it would ooze out at his fingers' points, in spite of himself and his determination to bring things to the condition of a fixed fact.
Matters were in this state when I became fully acquainted with them; she was willing, he was willing, and yet, if they kept on in the way they were pursuing, they both bid fair to remain in single blessedness for a long time to come. Deeply interested in the welfare of both parties, I thought I could not manifest my sympathy better than by kindly intervening and producing that crisis which I knew would accord with the feelings of both.
A slight attack of fever of the lady's, not requiring medical aid, but which a father's fears magnified, and would not be allayed until I had been sent for, introduced me fully to the confidence of the daughter; and a trite experiment, which I tried upon her, convinced me that all that my friend Jerry had to do was to ask, and it would be given.
Holding my fair patient's hand, which, resting in mine, looked like a pearl in a setting of jet, I placed my fingers upon her pulse, and, whilst pretending to number it, accidentally, as it were, mentioned Jerry's name - the sudden thrill that pervaded the artery assured me that she loved - lifting my eyes to her face, I gave her an expressive look, which suffused her beauteous countenance, as if she was passing into the second stage of scarlet fever.
My next duty was to seek Jerry. I found him seated on a log, under a shady willow by the edge of the bayou, pole in hand, assuming to be angling. The tense state of his line, and an occasional quiver of the pole, indicated that a fish was hooked. Passing unnoticed by him, a stranger would have come to one of three conclusions: that he was deranged, in love, or a born fool.
Walking up to him briskly, without his hearing me, although I made considerable noise getting down the bank, I slapped him on the shoulder to engage his attention, and, as I had several patients to visit, and time was precious, without waiting for the usual salutations of the day, commenced my address in a real quarter race manner: -
"Jerry, for a sensible man, and a fellow of courage, you are the d---dest fool and coward unhung. You love a girl - the girl loves you. You know that the old people are willing, and that the girl is only waiting for you to pop the question, to say 'Yes!' and yet, instead of having the thing over, like white folks, and becoming the head of a respectable family, here you sit, like a knot on a tree, with the moss commencing to grow on your back, pretending to be fishing, and yet not knowing that a big cat is almost breaking your line to shivers.
"Now I want to do you a service, and you must take my advice. Jerk that fish out, take the hook out of his mouth, and then put him back in the bayou - perhaps his sweetheart was waiting for him when he got hung; and as you are in a like predicament, you should be able to say to the gal, 'That mercy I to others show, that mercy show to me!' Go home, put on a clean shirt, shave that hair off your face and upper lip; for a sensible woman never yet accepted a man, with nothing but the tip of his nose visible from its wilderness of hair. Dress yourself decently, go up to old Smith's, wait till you get rested, then ask the girl to take a walk in the garden - gardens are a hell of a place to make love in - to look at the flowers, to eat radishes, to pluck grapes - anything for an excuse to get her there - and when you have got her under the arbour, don't fall on your knees, or any of your fool novel notions, but stand straight up before her, take both of her hands in yours, look her dead in the eyes, and ask her, in a bold, manly way - as if you were pricing pork - to marry you. Will you do it? Speak quick! I'm interested in the matter, for if you don't do it to-day, by the Lord, I will, for myself, to morrow. I have held off for you long enough; and if you don't bring matters to a close, as I say, in the next twenty-four hours, as cold weather is coming on, I'll try my hand myself in the courting line - you know doctors are the very devil amongst the women!"
This method of address alarmed Jerry, and he promised he would do as I directed.
Accompanying him home, I saw him fairly dressed, and then left him, as the demands of my patients were urgent.
Jerry mounted his steed, and set of at a brisk canter for Major Smith's. It was only a mile and a half, and would have been travelled in a quarter of an hour, had the steed kept his gait. But, somehow, as the distance shortened, the canter ceased, and a pace superseded it; the last half, his rate had moderated to a walk; and when he made the last turn in the road, his horse was browsing the grass and cane. Up to the last few hundred yards, Jerry was as brave as a panther with cubs, and determined on following out my prescription to the letter; but the moment the house, with its white chimneys, commenced appearing round the bend of the bayou, the white pin feathers began to peep out in his heart, and verily, nothing, I believe, but my threat, if he proved recreant to-day, of courting her myself on the morrow, kept him from giving up the chase, and retracing his steps home.
But the house was reached, and the hearty voice of the Major, bidding him alight, cut off all retreat. He was fairly in it.
Jerry got down, left the yard gate carefully open behind him, led his horse up the Major's fine grass-walk to the steps, and was about bringing him with him into the house, when a servant relieved him of the task by carrying the steed to the stable. Not noticing the air of astonishment with which the old Major was regarding him, he shook hands with the negro for Major Smith, and bowing to a large yellow water-jar, addressed it as "Miss Mary," and then finished the performances by sitting down in a large basket of eggs; the sudden yielding of his seat, and the laughter of both father and daughter, aroused him to a full consciousness of how ridiculously he was acting. His apologies and explanations only served to render bad worse, and he therefore wisely determined to take a chair and say nothing more. Dinner was shortly announced, and this he concluded in very respectable style, without making any more serious mistake than eating cabbage with a spoon, or helping the lady to the drum-stick of the chicken. A cigar was smoked after dinner, and then the old Major, giving a shrewd guess how the land lay, declared that he must take his afternoon nap, and retired, leaving the field to Jerry and the daughter. "Now or never," was the motto with Jerry.
The old Major, in addition to planting cotton, and retrieving a dissipated fortune, was a great dabbler in horticulture, and had bestowed great attention upon the cultivation of the grape. By much care and grafting, he had so improved upon the common varieties of the country as to render them but slightly inferior to the choicest foreign specimens. An extensive arbour was in the middle of the garden - the finest and most extensive in the swamp - and this was literally covered with the ruddy clusters of grapes, now in the fullest tide of ripeness.
"Now or never," I say, was the word with Jerry. Making a desperate effort, he faltered out, "Miss Mary, your father has a very fine garden! shall we go look at the grapes? I am very fond of them, Miss Mary! do you like grapes, Miss Mary? Ha! ha!" - the cold sweat bursting out from every pore.
"Very much, Mr. Wilson, and pa's are really very fine, considering that they have not the quality of being exotics to recommend them to our taste. I will accompany you to taste them with much pleasure," replied Miss Mary; and tripping into the house, soon appeared, with the sweetest little sun-bonnet on, that witching damsel ever wore.
Jerry, frightened nearly to death at the awful propinquity of the "question popping," could scarcely stand, for his agitation; and poor Miss Mary, apprehending from Jerry's manner that the garden was destined to become the recipient of some awfully horrible avowal - perhaps Jerry had murdered somebody, and his conscience was forcing him to disclose; or he had discovered that an insurrection of the negroes was contemplated; or - surely he was not going to make a declaration - oh, no! she knew it was not anything of that kind - began to participate in Jerry's embarrassment and trepidation. More like criminals proceeding to execution, than young people going to pluck grapes, they sought the garden; the gate was closed behind them, and in a few moments more they stood under the arbour.
The grapes were hanging down upon all sides in the greatest profusion; and, twining their purple masses together, seemingly cried out, "Come eat us!"
Jerry was the very picture of terror. Oh! how he wished that he was safe at home! But it was too late to retreat - he could only procrastinate. But still, men had gone as far as walking in a secluded garden with a lady, and then died old bachelors. But then that infernal doctor to-morrow - the die was cast, he would go on. The question was, how should he approach the subject, so as not to destroy life in the young lady, when the dreadful business of his visit was announced? He must prepare her for it gradually - the grapes offered an introductory - the impolite fellow, not to offer her any during the long time they had been in the arbour - they had just a second before reached it.
Plucking off a large bunch, he handed them to her, and selected a similar one for himself. They were devoured in silence, Jerry too badly frightened to speak, and Mary wondering what in the world was to come next. The grapes were consumed, another pair of bunches selected, and the sound of their champing jaws was all that broke the stillness. Jerry's eyes were fixed on his bunch, and Mary was watching the motions of an agile snail. The cluster was in process of disappearance, when Jerry, summoning his whole energies, commenced his declamation: "Miss Mary, I have something to impart" - here he came to a full stop, and looked up, as if to draw inspiration from heaven; but the umbrageous foliage intercepted his view, and only the grapes met his eye - and their juice requires to be gone through with several processes, before much exhilaration or eloquence can be drawn from it. Plucking a quantity, he swallowed them, to relieve his throat, which was becoming strangely dry and harsh.
Miss Mary, poor girl, was sitting there, very much confused, busily eating grapes; neither she nor Jerry knew, whilst continuing to eat, the quantity that they had consumed: their thoughts were elsewhere.
"Miss Mary," again upspoke Jerry, "you must have seen long before this - but la! your bunch is eaten - have some more grapes, Miss Mary? I like them very much" - and amidst much snubbling and champing, another package of grapes was warehoused by the lovers.
Jerry's fix was becoming desperate; time was flying rapidly, and he knew one subject would soon be exhausted, for he could eat but few more grapes. Oh! how he wished that fighting a panther, fist-fight, had been made one of the conventialities of society, and assumed to be declaratory of the soft passion! how quickly would his bride be wooed! - but those infernal words! he could never arrange them so as to express what he meant. "Miss Mary, you must know that I saw Dr. Tensas, to-day, he told me - have some more, Miss Mary, they won't hurt you. I have come expressly to ask you - have another bunch, let me insist. I have come, Miss Mary, to propose - another small bunch" - "Mary, I have come," he almost shrieked, "to ask you to have - only a few more - Oh! Lord!" and he wiped the cold sweat off. Poor fellow! his pluck would not hold out.
Mary, frightened at his vehemence, said nothing, but eat on mechanically, anxious to hear what it was that Jerry wished to disclose.
Again he marshalled his forces: the sun was declining in the west, and the morrow would, perhaps, see the "Swamp Doctor," with his glib tongue, breathing his vows - "Miss Mary, I - I love - grapes - no, you - grapes - will you have me - some grapes - marry me - no grapes - yes, me! Oh! Lord! it is all over! You will - bless you - I must have a kiss. You haven't consented yet - but you must!" The barrier seemed to drop, the spell was lifted off his tongue, and Jerry, in a stream of native eloquence, running the fiercer for being so long pent up plead his cause; could it be unsuccessful? Oh! no! Mary had made up her mind long ago.
Side by side, now, all their diffidence vanished; they sat under the blessed arbour, and discoursed of their past fears, and bright hopes for the future! Jerry held the head of his mistress on his leal and noble breast, and, as in a sweet and pure strain he pictured forth the quiet domestic life they were to lead when married, Mary could scarcely believe that the impudent fellow who now talked so glibly, and stole, in spite of her rebukes, kisses unnumbered, was the timid nervous swain of a few minutes before.
But lo! behold what a sudden transformation! Has Jerry struck some discordant note in his sweet melody of the future - for Mary's features are contracted, as if with pain, and her pretty face, in spite of herself, wears a vinegar aspect. Rather early, I opine, for ladies to commence the shrew - if I am wrong, lady reader, attribute the error to the ignorance of an old bachelor. Jerry, too, seems to partake of the sour contagion - he stamps upon the ground, writhes his body about, and presses his hand upon his stomach, ignorant, I presume, of anatomy. He meant to lay them over his heart, poor fellow! he got too low down. Mary, too, is evincing the ardency of her affection; and with the same deplorable ignorance of the locality of the organs. Verily, love is affecting them singularly. It may be a pleasant passion, but that couple, who certainly have a fresh, I will not say genuine, article of love, look like anything but happy accepted lovers. What can be the matter? They have just read an extract from one of Cowper's bu- colics - but can poetry produce such an effect? They groan, and writhe their bodies about, and would press their hearts, if they only lay where their digestive apparatus certainly does. Can the grapes have anything to do with their queer contortions? "Heavens!" Jerry cries, as a horrid suspicion flashes over his mind, "The cholera! The cholera! Dearest, we will die together, locked in each other's arms!" and Jerry sought to embrace his lady love; but she was scrouched up , I believe the ladies term it, and as he had assumed the same globular position, approximation could not be effected, and death had acquired another pang, from their having to meet him separate.
Fortunately for them, the Major had got his sleep out some hours before, and, becoming anxious at their prolonged stay, set out to seek them. As the garden was a quiet, secluded place, he thought them most likely to be there, and there he found them, labouring under the influence, not so much of love as - the truth must out - an overdose of grapes: and you know how they affect the system.
A boy was despatched post haste after me. Fortunately I was at home, and quickly reached the spot. I reached the house, and was introduced immediately to the apartment where both the patients lay. A glance at their condition and position explained the cause fully of their disease. A hearty emetic effected a cure; and the first child of Jerry and Mary Wilson was distinctly marked on the left shoulder with a bunch of grapes.