« AnteriorContinuar »
to probe the working of things to the very bottom, regardless of cost. As an illustration of this, I remember he once had a common silver watch. Most boys would have prized it highly, common as it was, but he one day took it all to pieces in order to study out its internal workings; he succeeded in satisfactorily exploring its mysteries, but when he came to endeavor to readjust its parts, it was "no go"; it sank from a speaking to a dumb watch, and was thrown away. The knowledge he thus acquired was afterwards turned to a good account, as we shall see hereafter
He who marks the course of a genius must follow it sometimes in its erratic flights. I once asked the question of an eminent divine how it so often happened that men of talents were prone to recklessness and excess. His reply was, “Great minds are like big ships; it requires strong passions to move the one, and heavy winds to move the other.” Their activity is such that they require corresponding relaxation.
The most pleasing and refining safeguard is found in the society of ladies. But Prentiss, in his early life in Mississippi, in consequence of his physical infirmity and sensitiveness on account of it, shrunk from the effect of seeking ladies' society. True, his handsome face and fascinating manners could have
way, but he did not think so, and therefore did not seek it. He had an exalted estimate of the gentler sex; with such a mother and such sisters as he had it conld not have been otherwise. But he could not dance attendance upon the ladies on festive occasions and scatter the airy triflings that flitter for a moment in the sunbeams of pleasure, and he was too diffident at other times to obtrude himself upon their society, therefore he was forced to seek relaxation in the society of gentlemen only.
Unfortunately, at this era card-playing was one of the venial faults of the age. It was not confined to this latitude alone, it was the habit of some of America's greatest statesmen, as well as of England's too, but it is not necessary to mention their names. It need not be disguised that in early life Prentiss became a victim to this mysterious and singular infatuation; it was not from the love of lucre, but the wild excitement of the hazard and the pleasure of exhibiting great skill in the game.
Bearing in mind the above observations, the reader will throw the mantle of extenuation over the following incident in his early career. In the prosecution of his legal studies he made it a point to attend the session of the Circuit Court at Fayette, in Jefferson County, to see and learn the routine of practice. On one of these visits, after the adjournment of the court for the day, as usual, a game of brag was proposed, and the neophyte invited “ to take a hand.” The peculiar feature of this game is that, no matter how small the amount of the “ante,”--that is, the amount each player is required to put up at the beginning of the game, yet thousands may be won and lost at a single sitting. Its name indicates its character, for a player with a weaker may bluff off and win from another with a stronger hand. This is done by staking a heavy sum, which the timid player is afraid to meet; he failing to do so, the bragger wins, and takes the pile upon the table. As in everything that Prentiss undertook, so here also he showed himself a master. His coolness and nerve never deserted him, while his quickness and perception of memory gave him skill.
The play progressed, and to his astonishment, when he rose from the table, he was winner to the amount of several hundred dollars. Was he elated ? or did the monitor within him whisper some note of warning and reproof? The dénouement will best answer the question. A few days afterwards he rode into Natchez, went to the first jeweller in the city, selected the finest watch in the establishment, and paid two hundred and fifty dollars for it. He took it to "Rokeby,” and, in spite of protestations, presented it to his favorite pupil, with the solemn injunction that he was never to throw a card in gambling, and upon the condition that if he did so the watch was to be forfeited. That pupil wore it forty-five years, and until he went to join his old friend in the spirit-land. To-day it is an heirloom in his family, and his initial letters engraved on the backS. S. P. to G. B. S.—are as distinct as though cut but yesterday. The watch itself still faithfully notes the fleeting hours as they pass,-a memento of the solemn injunction and of its having been faithfully obeyed.
About three miles east of “Rokeby" there once stood a plain wooden country church upon a spot called “ Pleasant Hill.” It was on the high ridge separating the waters of Fairchild from those of Cole's Creek, on what was called the old “Natchez Trace,” the main track engineered by the Indians through the territory of their nation. The trace was adopted as a road by the whites, and three dead towns, like shrivelled fruit, still hang upon its line in close proximity,—“Selser Town,” “Pleasant Hill,” and “Union Town.” The church itself rested in the fork where the road branches off from the old trace and trends to Church Hill. Having been built by the joint contributions of the Protestant denominations, it was named “Union Chapel” in commemoration of that fact. It was never formally consecrated, and the neighbors therefore felt at liberty to use it for moral purposes and to hold their meetings therein. The pulpit stood at the gable end, and rude benches were the substitute for pews.
At the era of which I write the gentlemen of the neighborhood conceived the idea that it would be an improvement, both morally and intellectually, to the young gentry to form a debating society, and they selected Union Chapel as the most convenient place of meeting. Joseph Dunbar, locally speaking clarum et venerabile nomen, was its first president, and the society was composed of the leading men of the vicinage. Saturday was its regular day of meeting. Questions were propounded at each sitting, to be discussed at the next, and speakers were appointed respectively on the affirmative and negative sides. Essayists and declaimers were also appointed. The society flourished, and during its ephemeral existence enkindled a literary spirit and mental activity.
A mile or so east of Union Chapel there then lived in the family of Mr. Thomas Hall a young teacher by the name of James Alden. He and Prentiss became members of the society, and it was in that sylvan forum that the boy orators first, in Mississippi at least, displayed their wonderful powers before their enraptured audiences.
A stirring occasion, coupled with surrounding circumstances, may of itself inspire eloquence, but it requires extraordinary intellectual power to inject with eloquence a mere abstract question
before a debating society, yet these two young men did so.
At one bound they sprung to be the leaders in the mimic parliament, and, as a rule, they were generally pitted against each other. The one was brilliant, witty, sarcastic, and logical; the other was cool, clear, and elucidated his arguments like a mathematical demonstration.
The intellectual combats between these youthful gladiators filled the hearers with admiration. Captain Magruder already saw the dawn of his prediction about Prentiss, and Thomas Hall, whose name so often figures in the reminiscences of the early days of the boy teacher, became perfectly enthusiastic and formed an undying affection for him. The two Yankee schoolteachers were so well matched that the battle between them was often a drawn one, but on one occasion Alden acknowledged he was beaten, and gracefully paid a glowing tribute to the victor. The career of this young
rival of Prentiss was brief. He had inherited that disease in which death, as though in mockery, agsumes the hue of health, but which slowly and surely saps the vital energies, in spite of change of clime or any earthly remedy. He passed from the school-room to the bar of Opelousas, Louisiana, but before he had had an opportunity to distinguish himself he faded into death, the victim of consumption.
The old Union Chapel, redolent with the fame of Winans, Drake, Watkins, and other eminent divines, and of the early fame of Prentiss and his youthful competitor, was demolished. A new brick building, more pretentious, was reared on the spot, but that too has been utterly shattered by one of our southern tornadoes, and now stands a melancholy ruin. Pleasant Hill has lost its name, for it has ceased to merit the title. The very few lonely travellers as they now pass the place and see its desolation, can hardly realize that it was there that the youthful prodigy once electrified an enthusiastic and happy people.
Prentiss closed his “ Rokeby” school in June, 1828. As I drop the curtain upon this part of his life and remember how few of the scholars are left, the plaintive song of “Ben Bolt” wells up in my memory, and a tear dims the
“Do you remember the school, Ben Bolt?
The master so kind and so true ?
Where we gathered the flowers as they grew ?
And the running little brook is now dry,
There remain, Ben, but you and I.". Even the clear running brook, which was a perennial stream, by the changes of time now ceases in midsummer to flow.
The leaving of “Rokeby" was to Prentiss like an exodus from a second home, for he seemed “to be one of us,” and we loved him as though he were a member of the family, and he was devotedly attached to his favorite pupil. His seven months of teaching was not lost time even to himself. He had imbibed deeply and profitably from the law library. He had paid all his debts, including what he had borrowed from his noble friend, Mr. Wright. He had fifteen or twenty dollars in his pocket, and was square with the world.
When he left “Rokeby” he heard of a situation at St. Francisville, a then beautiful village in Louisiana, overlooking Bayou Sara on the Mississippi River,—the first being on the hills, the latter on the bottom. Prentiss made the trip down to the place on horseback—a distance of one hundred miles-in about two days; he found the vacancy had been filled ere his arrival and returned home, reaching Natchez on the 3d of July. Before he retired that night he asked Bell, the Boniface of the “ Mansion House,” to wake him at daylight, as he wanted to get out to “ Pleasant Hill” on the 4th to hear his Transylvania friend make his maiden speech in Mississippi. Bell forgot his promise to awake Prentiss, who therefore slept till late in the day; when he awoke, however, he had his horse saddled and started, but only reached the classic ground just as his friend had finished speaking and was descending from the rostrum, and therefore could only echo the post-limine congratulations.
Prentiss was not long out of employment. He was called and took charge of a large academy at "Dunbarton," the country residence of Mrs. Martha W. Dunbar, ten miles from Natchez, This place, like “Rokeby," was a pleasant spot, at least in one