The Editor at Work

To go back a little, for several days after his child’s birth Major Carteret’s chief interest in life had been confined to the four walls of the chamber where his pale wife lay upon her bed of pain, and those of the adjoining room where an old black woman crooned lovingly over a little white infant. A new element had been added to the major’s consciousness, broadening the scope and deepening the strength of his affections. He did not love Olivia the less, for maternity had crowned her wifehood with an added glory; but side by side with this old and tried attachment was a new passion, stirring up dormant hopes and kindling new desires. His regret had been more than personal at the thought that with himself an old name should be lost to the State; and now all the old pride of race, class, and family welled up anew, and swelled and quickened the current of his life.

Upon the major’s first appearance at the office, which took place the second day after the child’s birth, he opened a box of cigars in honor of the event. The word had been passed around by Ellis, and the whole office force, including reporters, compositors, and pressmen, came in to congratulate the major and smoke at his expense. Even Jerry, the colored porter⁠—Mammy Jane’s grandson and therefore a protégé of the family⁠—presented himself among the rest, or rather, after the rest. The major shook hands with them all except Jerry, though he acknowledged the porter’s congratulations with a kind nod and put a good cigar into his outstretched palm, for which Jerry thanked him without manifesting any consciousness of the omission. He was quite aware that under ordinary circumstances the major would not have shaken hands with white workingmen, to say nothing of negroes; and he had merely hoped that in the pleasurable distraction of the moment the major might also overlook the distinction of color. Jerry’s hope had been shattered, though not rudely; for the major had spoken pleasantly and the cigar was a good one. Mr. Ellis had once shaken hands with Jerry⁠—but Mr. Ellis was a young man, whose Quaker father had never owned any slaves, and he could not be expected to have as much pride as one of the best “quality,” whose families had possessed land and negroes for time out of mind. On the whole, Jerry preferred the careless nod of the editor-in-chief to the more familiar greeting of the subaltern.

Having finished this pleasant ceremony, which left him with a comfortable sense of his new dignity, the major turned to his desk. It had been much neglected during the week, and more than one matter claimed his attention; but as typical of the new trend of his thoughts, the first subject he took up was one bearing upon the future of his son. Quite obviously the career of a Carteret must not be left to chance⁠—it must be planned and worked out with a due sense of the value of good blood.

There lay upon his desk a letter from a well-known promoter, offering the major an investment which promised large returns, though several years must elapse before the enterprise could be put upon a paying basis. The element of time, however, was not immediately important. The Morning Chronicle provided him an ample income. The money available for this investment was part of his wife’s patrimony. It was invested in a local cotton mill, which was paying ten percent, but this was a beggarly return compared with the immense profits promised by the offered investment⁠—profits which would enable his son, upon reaching manhood, to take a place in the world commensurate with the dignity of his ancestors, one of whom, only a few generations removed, had owned an estate of ninety thousand acres of land and six thousand slaves.

This letter having been disposed of by an answer accepting the offer, the major took up his pen to write an editorial. Public affairs in the state were not going to his satisfaction. At the last state election his own party, after an almost unbroken rule of twenty years, had been defeated by the so-called “Fusion” ticket, a combination of Republicans and Populists. A clean sweep had been made of the offices in the state, which were now filled by new men. Many of the smaller places had gone to colored men, their people having voted almost solidly for the Fusion ticket. In spite of the fact that the population of Wellington was two thirds colored, this state of things was gall and wormwood to the defeated party, of which the Morning Chronicle was the acknowledged organ. Major Carteret shared this feeling. Only this very morning, while passing the city hall, on his way to the office, he had seen the steps of that noble building disfigured by a fringe of job-hunting negroes, for all the world⁠—to use a local simile⁠—like a string of buzzards sitting on a rail, awaiting their opportunity to batten upon the helpless corpse of a moribund city.

Taking for his theme the unfitness of the negro to participate in government⁠—an unfitness due to his limited education, his lack of experience, his criminal tendencies, and more especially to his hopeless mental and physical inferiority to the white race⁠—the major had demonstrated, it seemed to him clearly enough, that the ballot in the hands of the negro was a menace to the commonwealth. He had argued, with entire conviction, that the white and black races could never attain social and political harmony by commingling their blood; he had proved by several historical parallels that no two unassimilable races could ever live together except in the relation of superior and inferior; and he was just dipping his gold pen into the ink to indite his conclusions from the premises thus established, when Jerry, the porter, announced two visitors.

“Gin’l Belmont an’ Cap’n McBane would like ter see you, suh.”

“Show them in, Jerry.”

The man who entered first upon this invitation was a dapper little gentleman with light-blue eyes and a Vandyke beard. He wore a frock coat, patent leather shoes, and a Panama hat. There were crow’s-feet about his eyes, which twinkled with a hard and, at times, humorous shrewdness. He had sloping shoulders, small hands and feet, and walked with the leisurely step characteristic of those who have been reared under hot suns.

Carteret gave his hand cordially to the gentleman thus described.

“How do you do, Captain McBane,” he said, turning to the second visitor.

The individual thus addressed was strikingly different in appearance from his companion. His broad shoulders, burly form, square jaw, and heavy chin betokened strength, energy, and unscrupulousness. With the exception of a small, bristling mustache, his face was clean shaven, with here and there a speck of dried blood due to a carelessly or unskillfully handled razor. A single deep-set gray eye was shadowed by a beetling brow, over which a crop of coarse black hair, slightly streaked with gray, fell almost low enough to mingle with his black, bushy eyebrows. His coat had not been brushed for several days, if one might judge from the accumulation of dandruff upon the collar, and his shirtfront, in the middle of which blazed a showy diamond, was plentifully stained with tobacco juice. He wore a large slouch hat, which, upon entering the office, he removed and held in his hand.

Having greeted this person with an unconscious but quite perceptible diminution of the warmth with which he had welcomed the other, the major looked around the room for seats for his visitors, and perceiving only one chair, piled with exchanges, and a broken stool propped against the wall, pushed a button, which rang a bell in the hall, summoning the colored porter to his presence.

“Jerry,” said the editor when his servant appeared, “bring a couple of chairs for these gentlemen.”

While they stood waiting, the visitors congratulated the major on the birth of his child, which had been announced in the Morning Chronicle, and which the prominence of the family made in some degree a matter of public interest.

“And now that you have a son, major,” remarked the gentleman first described, as he lit one of the major’s cigars, “you’ll be all the more interested in doing something to make this town fit to live in, which is what we came up to talk about. Things are in an awful condition! A negro justice of the peace has opened an office on Market Street, and only yesterday summoned a white man to appear before him. Negro lawyers get most of the business in the criminal court. Last evening a group of young white ladies, going quietly along the street arm-in-arm, were forced off the sidewalk by a crowd of negro girls. Coming down the street just now, I saw a spectacle of social equality and negro domination that made my blood boil with indignation⁠—a white and a black convict, chained together, crossing the city in charge of a negro officer! We cannot stand that sort of thing, Carteret⁠—it is the last straw! Something must be done, and that quickly!”

The major thrilled with responsive emotion. There was something prophetic in this opportune visit. The matter was not only in his own thoughts, but in the air; it was the spontaneous revulsion of white men against the rule of an inferior race. These were the very men, above all others in the town, to join him in a movement to change these degrading conditions.

General Belmont, the smaller of the two, was a man of good family, a lawyer by profession, and took an active part in state and local politics. Aristocratic by birth and instinct, and a former owner of slaves, his conception of the obligations and rights of his caste was nevertheless somewhat lower than that of the narrower but more sincere Carteret. In serious affairs Carteret desired the approval of his conscience, even if he had to trick that docile organ into acquiescence. This was not difficult to do in politics, for he believed in the divine right of white men and gentlemen, as his ancestors had believed in and died for the divine right of kings. General Belmont was not without a gentleman’s distaste for meanness, but he permitted no fine scruples to stand in the way of success. He had once been minister, under a Democratic administration, to a small Central American state. Political rivals had characterized him as a tricky demagogue, which may of course have been a libel. He had an amiable disposition, possessed the gift of eloquence, and was a prime social favorite.

Captain George McBane had sprung from the poor-white class, to which, even more than to the slaves, the abolition of slavery had opened the door of opportunity. No longer overshadowed by a slaveholding caste, some of this class had rapidly pushed themselves forward. Some had made honorable records. Others, foremost in negro-baiting and election frauds, had done the dirty work of politics, as their fathers had done that of slavery, seeking their reward at first in minor offices⁠—for which men of gentler breeding did not care⁠—until their ambition began to reach out for higher honors.

Of this class McBane⁠—whose captaincy, by the way, was merely a polite fiction⁠—had been one of the most successful. He had held, until recently, as the reward of questionable political services, a contract with the State for its convict labor, from which in a few years he had realized a fortune. But the methods which made his contract profitable had not commended themselves to humane people, and charges of cruelty and worse had been preferred against him. He was rich enough to escape serious consequences from the investigation which followed, but when the Fusion ticket carried the state he lost his contract, and the system of convict labor was abolished. Since then McBane had devoted himself to politics: he was ambitious for greater wealth, for office, and for social recognition. A man of few words and self-engrossed, he seldom spoke of his aspirations except where speech might favor them, preferring to seek his ends by secret “deals” and combinations rather than to challenge criticism and provoke rivalry by more open methods.

At sight, therefore, of these two men, with whose careers and characters he was entirely familiar, Carteret felt sweep over his mind the conviction that now was the time and these the instruments with which to undertake the redemption of the state from the evil fate which had befallen it.

Jerry, the porter, who had gone downstairs to the counting-room to find two whole chairs, now entered with one in each hand. He set a chair for the general, who gave him an amiable nod, to which Jerry responded with a bow and a scrape. Captain McBane made no acknowledgment, but fixed Jerry so fiercely with his single eye that upon placing the chair Jerry made his escape from the room as rapidly as possible.

“I don’ like dat Cap’n McBane,” he muttered, upon reaching the hall. “Dey says he got dat eye knock’ out tryin’ ter whip a cullud ’oman, when he wuz a boy, an’ dat he ain’ never had no use fer niggers sence⁠—‘cep’n’ fer what he could make outen ’em wid his convic’ labor contrac’s. His daddy wuz a’ overseer befo’ ’im, an’ it come nachul fer him ter be a nigger-driver. I don’ want dat one eye er his’n restin’ on me no longer ’n I kin he’p, an’ I don’ know how I’m gwine ter like dis job ef he’s gwine ter be comin’ roun’ here. He ain’ nothin’ but po’ w’ite trash nohow; but Lawd! Lawd! look at de money he’s got⁠—livin’ at de hotel, wearin’ di’mon’s, an’ colloguin’ wid de bes’ quality er dis town! ’Pears ter me de bottom rail is gittin’ mighty close ter de top. Well, I s’pose it all comes f’m bein’ w’ite. I wush ter Gawd I wuz w’ite!”

After this fervent aspiration, having nothing else to do for the time being, except to remain within call, and having caught a few words of the conversation as he went in with the chairs, Jerry, who possessed a certain amount of curiosity, placed close to the wall the broken stool upon which he sat while waiting in the hall, and applied his ear to a hole in the plastering of the hallway. There was a similar defect in the inner wall, between the same two pieces of studding, and while this inner opening was not exactly opposite the outer, Jerry was enabled, through the two, to catch in a more or less fragmentary way what was going on within.

He could hear the major, now and then, use the word “negro,” and McBane’s deep voice was quite audible when he referred, it seemed to Jerry with alarming frequency, to “the damned niggers,” while the general’s suave tones now and then pronounced the word “niggro,”⁠—a sort of compromise between ethnology and the vernacular. That the gentlemen were talking politics seemed quite likely, for gentlemen generally talked politics when they met at the Chronicle office. Jerry could hear the words “vote,” “franchise,” “eliminate,” “constitution,” and other expressions which marked the general tenor of the talk, though he could not follow it all⁠—partly because he could not hear everything distinctly, and partly because of certain limitations which nature had placed in the way of Jerry’s understanding anything very difficult or abstruse.

He had gathered enough, however, to realize, in a vague way, that something serious was on foot, involving his own race, when a bell sounded over his head, at which he sprang up hastily and entered the room where the gentlemen were talking.

“Jerry,” said the major, “wait on Captain McBane.”

“Yas, suh,” responded Jerry, turning toward the captain, whose eye he carefully avoided meeting directly.

“Take that half a dollar, boy,” ordered McBane, “an’ go ’cross the street to Mr. Sykes’s, and tell him to send me three whiskies. Bring back the change, and make has’e.”

The captain tossed the half dollar at Jerry, who, looking to one side, of course missed it. He picked the money up, however, and backed out of the room. Jerry did not like Captain McBane, to begin with, and it was clear that the captain was no gentleman, or he would not have thrown the money at him. Considering the source, Jerry might have overlooked this discourtesy had it not been coupled with the remark about the change, which seemed to him in very poor taste.

Returning in a few minutes with three glasses on a tray, he passed them round, handed Captain McBane his change, and retired to the hall.

“Gentlemen,” exclaimed the captain, lifting his glass, “I propose a toast: ‘No nigger domination.’ ”

“Amen!” said the others, and three glasses were solemnly drained.

“Major,” observed the general, smacking his lips, “I should like to use Jerry for a moment, if you will permit me.”

Jerry appeared promptly at the sound of the bell. He had remained conveniently near⁠—calls of this sort were apt to come in sequence.

“Jerry,” said the general, handing Jerry half a dollar, “go over to Mr. Brown’s⁠—I get my liquor there⁠—and tell them to send me three glasses of my special mixture. And, Jerry⁠—you may keep the change!”

“Thank y’, gin’l, thank y’, marster,” replied Jerry, with unctuous gratitude, bending almost double as he backed out of the room.

“Dat’s a gent’eman, a rale ole-time gent’eman,” he said to himself when he had closed the door. “But dere’s somethin’ gwine on in dere⁠—dere sho’ is! ‘No nigger damnation!’ Dat soun’s all right⁠—I’m sho’ dere ain’ no nigger I knows w’at wants damnation, do’ dere’s lots of ’em w’at deserves it; but ef dat one-eyed Cap’n McBane got anything ter do wid it, w’atever it is, it don’ mean no good fer de niggers⁠—damnation’d be better fer ’em dan dat Cap’n McBane! He looks at a nigger lack he could jes’ eat ’im alive.”

“This mixture, gentlemen,” observed the general when Jerry had returned with the glasses, “was originally compounded by no less a person than the great John C. Calhoun himself, who confided the recipe to my father over the convivial board. In this nectar of the gods, gentlemen, I drink with you to ‘White Supremacy!’ ”

“White Supremacy everywhere!” added McBane with fervor.

“Now and forever!” concluded Carteret solemnly.

When the visitors, half an hour later, had taken their departure, Carteret, inspired by the theme, and in less degree by the famous mixture of the immortal Calhoun, turned to his desk and finished, at a white heat, his famous editorial in which he sounded the tocsin of a new crusade.

At noon, when the editor, having laid down his pen, was leaving the office, he passed Jerry in the hall without a word or a nod. The major wore a rapt look, which Jerry observed with a vague uneasiness.

“He looks jes’ lack he wuz walkin’ in his sleep,” muttered Jerry uneasily. “Dere’s somethin’ up, sho ’s you bawn! ‘No nigger damnation!’ Anybody’d ’low dey wuz all gwine ter heaven; but I knows better! W’en a passel er w’ite folks gits ter talkin’ ’bout de niggers lack dem in yander, it’s mo’ lackly dey’re gwine ter ketch somethin’ e’se dan heaven! I got ter keep my eyes open an’ keep up wid w’at’s happenin’. Ef dere’s gwine ter be anudder flood ’roun’ here, I wants ter git in de ark wid de w’ite folks⁠—I may haf ter be anudder Ham, an’ sta’t de cullud race all over ag’in.”