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During the voyage he would pour out the beauties that were stored within the treasures of his memory. His friend Wilkinson writes :
" He would recline upon the quarter-deck, and hour after hour rehearse from Shakspeare, Spenser, Milton, Byron, Scott, and the chief poets of England page by pago in his finest style; many of the best passages I afterwards recognized, as he would reproduce them in his public speeches. He kept us in excellent spirits during the long voyage, although, with his characteristic impatience, he would sometimes wish for a storm as a relief to the dead calm of the sea. His mind was in perfect tune. He was not then distinguished in the great world; it was just before his genius burst upon the country in all its splendor. The commonest incident that happened in the ship was sure to call forth some highly poetical and happy illustration or witty remark, sometimes borrowed, but almost always original. A dolphin, for example, was taken, and as it died on deck, he gave its requiem from the beautiful lines of Byron :
• Parting day
The last still loveliest, till ’tis gone, and all is gray.' “Well, at last the vessel anchored in port, and a day or two afterwards we agreed to take an excursion together to West Point. IIere, being entire strangers to every one, we sat at the table-d'hôte, opposite a party quite distinguished in appearance, one of whom was the attractive and distinguished Miss W., afterwards Madame L., of Mobile. Some courtesies of the table passed between our parties, and after we had withdrawn from the dining-parlor, Miss W. sent a gentleman to us to request an introduction. Prentiss declined,—he did not at that time frequent the company of ladies,--but upon hearing who the lady was I readily complied. At the end of a pleasant interview, I, after a long search, found Prentiss lying in the shade, on the bank of the river, in a somewhat sad and contemplative mood. I rallied him upon his want of gallantry, and for the only time I ever heard him, he alluded most feelingly to the dwarfed and crippled condition of one portion of his body, alleging that as his reason for not desiring and ever shunning the society of ladies, and he would not be persuaded that any man could possess attractions sufficient to obscure such a defect as his."
The closing sentence of this beautiful letter illustrates what I have already said, that Prentiss's physical misfortune was the secret bane of his early career; but this was an under-current of feeling rarely ever revealed to mortal sympathy. Even to Major Shields, his most devoted friend, he never alluded to the
subject. Wilkinson and Henry A. Wise (as we shall hereafter see) were the only ones to whom he unbosomed this hidden anguish of his soul.
His eldest sister met him in New York, and together they went to his dear old home in Gorham. The meeting of the mother and her darling boy, after an eight years' separation, cannot be described, for there are some feelings pictured in the soul that no limner's pencil can paint, and some emotions of the heart too deep for utterance.
His brother George was at Brunswick, and, being apprised by note that he was at the hotel, hastened thither, and, as he writes,
“ Found him sitting in a retired room and absorbed seemingly in deep thought. IIe was musing, doubtless, upon the varied fortunes which had attended him since nine years before, when he bade adieu to college
His appearance at this time was very striking, and arrested the eye of the most casual observer. When animated by conversation every feature glowed with intellectual beauty. His smile was peculiarly radiant; the tones of his voice were clear and persuasive, while the shape of his mouth and the whole carriage of his head gave assurance of an indomitable will. IIis mother at first thought him greatly altered, but in a few days the boyish looks came back, and he seemed just as he did on the day of setting out for the far West."
The accuracy of the above graphic pen-picture can be verified by the portraits taken of him at that time.
He spent weeks most delightfully in going over his old playgrounds. The reverberation of his fame in the far Southwest had, to use a modern word, been telephoned to his home; friends and neighbors had heard it and were very proud of the Gorham product. They flocked to see and hear and congratulate him.
In the midst of this enjoyment he received a shock on learning of the painful tragedy which occurred at this time in Vicksburg. It was one of those popular upheavals which, like a storm, sweep over a place to purify its atmosphere. The circumstances, in brief, are as follows: The city had been overrun by men of the baser sort. Professional gamblers had flocked in, to pick the carcasses of the unwary. Outrages occurred, with murder and rioting. Ladies were insulted on the streets, The people rose in mass and notified the gamblers to leave; they refused to obey the order. The citizens formed in a body and went to their dens, forcibly to eject them. In the mêlée one of the most beloved and distinguished physicians of the city, Dr. Bodley, was killed. This aroused the people to a frenzy beyond all bounds. The gamblers were driven out, some of them were caught and hanged on the spot, while others escaped“ by the skin of their teeth” in jumping on a boat which was just then casting off her tow-line. This act was justifiable under the great maxim, salus republicæ suprema
lex. After spending halcyon days in the midst of his family and friends, Prentiss returned to Vicksburg about the 1st of September, and once more resumed the harness. He wrote back home that business was crowding in upon him, and felicitated himself upon having returned in time to reap the harvest.
During the fall of this year occurred an incident which proves the self-sacrificing spirit of the man. The appalling news reached him that his former partner and friend, General Huston, had been stricken down by the smallpox at “Coventry.” As soon as he learned this he got on a boat and came down to nurse him. If I remember correctly, Eli, General Huston's brother, had already died of this loathsome disease, and his wife had soon followed him. She literally died of a broken heart. It must not be forgotten how Prentiss had stood on the quarantine question at Vicksburg, and here he proved by his works the faith that was in him. He nursed his sick friend as tenderly as a woman could have done. His friend recovered, but, as was to be expected, he contracted the disease, and it broke out upon him after his return to Vicksburg. Having been vaccinated, however, in early youth, the disease ran its course under the mild type of varioloid. He recovered without being pitted, and was ever after contagion-proof. Upon his recovery he resumed his practice; but he is now to appear in a new róle, which must be deferred to another chapter.
ALTHOUGH up to the year 1835 Prentiss had often been solicited to take the political field, he had persistently refusedl, upon the ground that it was distasteful to him, and that he had not the time to spare from his life-work; now, however, the public pressure became so urgent that he could no longer resist.
The Whigs, by seizing upon the troubled pecuniary condition of the country,—which they attributed to the Democratic administration in destroying the United States Bank,—had carried the State by electing Charles Lynch governor and by electing a majority of the Legislature. Prentiss went in on this tidal wave as a member from Warren County.
Inasmuch as this was before the erection of our present handsome State-house, the Legislature met on the first Monday in January, 1836, in a very plain two-story brick house built by one S. Hines, as we shall see by the sequel, out of mortar not well tempered. This house stood upon the north side of the present Capitol Street, about midway between the governor's mansion and the State house. The Senate occupied the upper and the House of Representatives the lower story, therefore we had literally an upper and a lower house of parliament.
This Legislature was composed of a very able body of men, probably the most able that ever assembled there. The profound lawyer and pure patriot, George Winchester, was senator, while John T. McMurran and Adam L. Bingaman were representatives, from Adams County; Talbot and Wall were from Amite; the able but eccentric Buckner Harris and A. G. Brown represented Copiah; Nicholson, Dunlap, Amos R. Johnson, and Thomas H. Williams were from Hinds; Prosper K. Montgomery was from Jefferson ; Sam Dale, from Lauderdale ; S. J. Gohlson, from Monroe; King, from Rankin ; Volney E. Howard, from Scott; Morgan McAffee, from Tallahatchee;
Alfred Cox, from Washington ; George H. Gordon and Preston W. Farrer, from Wilkinson; T. J. Green and S. S. Prentiss, from Warren; E. C. Wilkinson and Duval, from Yazoo. As this roll is called the intelligent reader need not be told that some of these men acquired national reputations.
Into this galaxy of talent the young representative from Warren at once took position as a star of the first magnitude, rising with some in conjunction and with others in apogee. He was appointed chairman of the Judiciary; this is at all times an important post, but particularly was it so at that era, for the statute law of the State had not as yet been completely modulated to accord with the progressive spirit of the age as embodied in the new constitution, whose radical changes from the old have already been noted. Through the crucible of the Judiciary Committee had to pass all the new acts proposed and all the proposed amendments to existing laws. The post of chairman of this committee, therefore, besides being one of the first honor, involved great labor and great responsibility. We shall see farther on how faithfully Prentiss fulfilled his allotted duties in this position.
At that time what was called the “ Chickasaw purchase" was embraced within the arms of the three great northern counties, Monroe, Tallahatchee, and Washington. One of the first acts of the session was to parcel out and subdivide this large territory into twelve new counties. There is a tradition that in the naming of them the State is indebted to the poetical taste of Bingaman, who in doing so blended classic lore and Indian fable,--thus it was that History and Legend stood sponsors at their baptism. While the names of “Marshall," “ De Soto,” “Lafayette,” and “Bolivar” perpetuate the memory of those illustrious men of our own race, the names of “Tishemingo," “Itawamba,” “Tippali,” “Pontotoc,” “Chickasaw,” “Panola," “ Tunica,” “Coahoma,” and “ Issaquena” serve to keep alive the memory of the “red men,”—each carrying a story in its liquid title.
We shall soon see what a “muss” was stirred up when these infants were lifted from the cradle into the State. It may have been owing to the fact of Bingaman's having named these coun