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[574]

Chapter 41: the winter of 1859.

In 1859 there was an unspoken feeling of avoidance between the political men of the two sections, and even to some extent between such of their families as had previously associated socially together. Unconsciously, all tentative subjects were avoided by the well-bred of both sections; it was only when some “bull in a china shop” galloped over the barriers good breeding had established, that there was anything but the kindest manner apparent. Still the restraint was unpleasant to both sides, and induced a rather ceremonious intercourse. I remember a general start at a dinner party, when Mrs. F., a very well-bred, refined, excellent woman said, “An abolitionist friend of ours.” Those of us-at least half of the company — who were from the South felt the neutrality of the feast had not been preserved, and Mr. Davis whispered to his Southern vis-a-vis, “Suppose we were to speak of our barn-burner friends.”

In the winter of 1858 Mr. Davis, in the [575] midst of the heat and excitement of the session, caught a very severe cold which gave him laryngitis; and, before this subsided, the left eye became intensely inflamed. He lay speechless and blind, only able to communicate his thoughts by feeling for the slate and writing them, more or less intelligibly, for four weeks. About this time there was a congress of medical men in Washington, and fortunately our dear friend and family physician, Dr. Thomas Miller, brought the great specialist, Dr. Hayes, of Philadelphia, to see our poor sufferer, though he had been previously ably attended also by Dr. William Stone, of the District. Mr. Davis's anguish was intense — a procedenture of the pupil had taken place, and the eye was in imminent danger of bursting. My husband's fortitude and self-control had been so great that no one but I knew how much he suffered, and I only because one day I begged him to try to take nourishment, and he gave only one smothered scream and wrote, “I am in anguish, I cannot.” While they examined the eye Mr. Davis sat in the room which had the full morning light streaming through it, that the doctors might see its condition. Dr. Hayes turned to me as I stood holding the emaciated hand that wrung mine at every pang, and said, “I do not see why this eye has not [576] burst.” My husband felt for the slate and wrote, “My wife saved it.” All the triumphs of my life were and are concentrated in and excelled by this blessed memory. He sat patiently until the examinations were over, without a word of remonstrance, and was taken nearly fainting back to bed. Dr. Hayes asked me if he was never irritable and remarked such patience surpasses that of man, it is godlike. There he lay, silent, uncomplaining, anxious to save everyone trouble, and most concerned about my little brother, Jefferson Davis Howell, who was ill with scarlet fever in the room above. As soon as Mr. Davis could speak he insisted on going up to him. When I objected because he had never had the disease, he watched the opportunity of my absence and had himself led upstairs.

On my return he was sitting close by the child, whispering, for he could not speak yet aloud, bear stories to him with his arm under the little man's head, looking as happy as he. This boy was the pride of his later years and the object of his tender affection, until our brother's gallant deeds swept him in to the blessed immortality he so well earned. My brother was baptized, at a time when Mr. Davis was supposed to be mortally wounded in Mexico, Jefferson Davis-and none more [577] worthy will ever again bear that honored name.

During Mr. Davis's two months confinement to the dark room, men of all politics came to him with a personal affection most charming.

Colonel Edwin V. Sumner, a stout-hearted, tender preux chevalier of the old regime, who, when promotion was to have been expected at Secretary Davis's hands, never made any pretence of leaning toward Southern opinions, would sit in almost total darkness and talk army matters, explorations, Indians, anything by which he thought he could lighten the tedium of these gloomy hours-and often holding Mr. Davis's hand with the tenderness of a woman. The brave old Colonel came to Washington intent upon “having satisfaction” from General Harney, for a discourtesy he thought had been done to him, .and asked Colonel Hardie to be his friend in the altercation; and in the course of his conversation with Mr. Davis, which was carried on through me, my husband inquired, “You do not want to fight, of course, but to have this matter explained and the wrong acknowledged.” “Well, I do not know,” said the old gentleman, “I rather think I prefer fighting.” It was, however, happily settled without resort to violent measures. [578]

Colonel Hardie, too, came very often, and sat reading and writing for him when I had driven out for fresh air for an hour.

The English minister at that time was Lord Napier, afterward Governor of India. He, too, used to come like a healthy, tender boy, and brought a reminiscence of sunshine and cheer with him to Mr. Davis's bedside. He had hardly reached middle age, was a most presentable man in appearance, and his manners were a singular compromise between those of the English and French. Lord Napier was much more approachable than Englishmen in his position generally are, was quick to appreciate every social exigence, and sympathetic as a boy; he had a certain empressement of manner like a Frenchman, with a blunt kind of self-respecting English honesty that put finesse to fault. He liked most people, and was too kind-hearted to show the opposite feeling when it existed.

Hundreds still remember his gracious life among us, and he and his lovely wife, one of the most charming and holy women of her day, as well as one of the most accomplished, are enshrined in many hearts as memories that are precious possessions.

The President, Mr. Buchanan, paid Lady Napier a compliment, on her farewell visit before leaving the embassy, that was gratifying [579] to every woman in society, and evinced his power of saying, upon the moment, as graceful things as Talleyrand. For some unaccountable reason Lord Napier had been recalled suddenly, Mr. Buchanan assured me that he had no idea why. Everyone in society felt the recall a personal grievance, and some of the English legation believed that the President or Secretary of State had intimated that another minister would be more acceptable. So great was the sympathy and regard for the retiring minister, that his friends gave him a large ball at Willard's, which was attended by the good society of all the neighboring cities.

During their last official visit, just as Lord and Lady Napier were making their adieux, the President bent his stately head over Lady Napier's hand and gravely said, “Madam, I have holy writ to substantiate my warning that you are in imminent danger.” She looked startled, and he added: “Beware when all men speak well of you. No English minister and his wife that I have known were ever so beloved as were Lord and Lady Napier in Washington.”

Mr. Seward came for an hour daily, and sometimes oftener, to tell all the “passing show” of the Senate and House of Representatives. One of his favorite expressions [580] when recounting a debate was, “Your man out-talked ours, you would have liked it, but I didn't.” He inquired about every symptom, and one day when our hopes of saving the eye were small, as he went downstairs he suddenly said, with moist eyes-“I could not bear to see him maimed or disfigured, he is a splendid embodiment of manhood, he must not lose his eye.” There was an earnest, tender interest in his manner which was unmistakably genuine, and thus I thought of him when he lay wounded unto death, when war had almost obliterated the pleasant memories of years gone by.

It was on one of these visits that he said a most remarkable thing to me. We were speaking of the difficulty men generally had in doing themselves justice, if not cheered on by the attention and sympathy of the audience. Mr. Davis remarked, “I lose much of the vigor of my thoughts when the audience is inattentive or seems ‘ill at ease.’” Mr. Seward said, “I do not, it is rather a relief to me to speak to empty benches.” I exclaimed, “Then, whom do you impersonate?” “The papers,” said he, “I speak to the papers, they have a larger audience than I, and can repeat a thousand times if need be what I want to impress upon the multitude outside; and then there is also the power to pin my antagonists [581] down to my exact words, which might be disputed if received orally.”

Another day he began to talk on the not infrequent topic among us, of slavery. Heartily liking him, and taking a good many liberties of expression with him, I said, “Mr. Seward, how can you make, with a grave face, those piteous appeals for the negro that you did in the Senate; you were too long a schoolmaster in Georgia to believe the things you say?”

He looked at me quizzically, and smilingly answered, “I do not, but these appeals, as you call them, are potent to affect the rank and file of the North.” Mr. Davis said, very much shocked at Mr. Seward's answer, “But, Mr. Seward, do you never speak from conviction alone?” “Nev-er,” answered he. Mr. Davis raised up his blindfolded head, and with much heat whispered, “As God is my judge, I never spoke from any other motive.” Mr. Seward put his arm about him and gently laid down his head, saying, with great tenderness, “I know you do not — I am always sure of it.”

After this inscrutable human moral, or immoral, paradox left us, we sat long discussing him with sincere regret, and the hope that he had been making a feigned confidence to amuse us. Mr. Davis grew slowly better, the [582] unimpaired eye cleared, his throat had been for some time pretty well; but Mr. Seward came daily until the day Mr. Davis was taken in a close carriage up to address the Senate on an appropriation for the coast survey. Mr. Seward and I both objected earnestly, but Mr. Davis said, “It is for the good of the country and for my boyhood's friend, Dallas Bache, and I must go if it kills me.” He left me at the door of the waiting-room with beef-tea and wine in a little basket and went in — carried his point, then came almost fainting home. From that time he began to slide back into his accustomed place for an hour or two each day, and convalescence had its gentle and perfect work. After many weeks Mr. Seward said he might, with the practice of a raconteur he had acquired, have grown to the height of a second book nearly equal to Mr. Benton's “Thirty years in the Senate,” had his short digests of its acts not been interrupted by “this unlucky convalescence.” I met him looking very bored once on the street, and he stopped and said, “I think Mr. Davis must get sick again, I miss my daily walks.” So powerful was the attraction my husband's elevated character and graceful deference for others exercised over the most prejudiced of his antagonists.

Mr. Seward's was a “problematical character [583] full of contradictions, but a very attractive study to us.” He was thoroughly sympathetic with human suffering, and would do most unexpected kindnesses to those who would have anticipated the opposite only. He frankly avowed that truth should be held always subsidiary to an end, and if some other statement could subserve that end he made it. He said, again and again, that political strife was a state of war, and in war all stratagems were fair.

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