A Municipal Report – Intermediate Level
NASHVILLE: A city, port of delivery, and the capital of the State of Tennessee, is on the Cumberland River and on the N. C. & St. L. and the L. & N. railroads. This city is regarded as the most important educational center in the South.
I stepped off the train at 8 PM. It was drizzling. A light gray rain was falling that created a foggy effect. And there was a strange smell in the air which it is hard to find the right words to describe. It was a little sweet like the smell honeysuckle flowers in the early morning, but at the same time it made me think of things not so nice. Things like disease and leaking gas.
I took a carriage directly to my hotel. It was very old, pulled by equally old horses, and driven so slowly that it took all of my self control not to climb up and show the thin, dark shape that sat on top how to drive.
I was tired and sleepy, so when I got to the hotel I quickly paid the driver the fifty cents demanded plus a little extra. Even though the journey was slow, I knew the habits of drivers like this. I did not want to be held up by paying the correct amount and then hearing him go on and on about how poor he was in the hope that I would pay more.
The hotel was a nice surprise. It had recently been modernized with electric lights, some new floor and wall coverings, and other decorative items. The management was excellent, the attention was polite, and the service, although as slow as a snail, was provided in that happy and friendly way so common in the South. And the food was worth traveling a thousand miles for! I am sure that there is no other hotel in the world where you can get such fine chicken en-brochette.
At dinner I asked a Negro waiter if there was anything doing in town. He thought carefully for a minute, and then replied: “Well, boss, I don’t really reckon there’s anything at all doing after sundown.”
Sundown had already come and gone. It had been drowned in the drizzle long before. But I went out upon the streets to see what might be there.
The city of Nashville is not flat, but built among rolling hills, and the streets are lighted by electricity at a cost of $32,470 per year.
As I left the hotel in the still falling drizzle I received a fright. A group of wild looking men came running excitedly towards me. At first I thought they were carrying guns, but then I saw that they were not guns at all but whips for controlling horses. Then I noticed in the darkness a line of black carriages and heard their shouts, “Carry you anywhere in the town, boss, for fifty cents”. I quickly understood that I was not someone under attack, but just a likely customer.
I walked through long streets, all seeming to lead uphill. I wondered how those streets ever came down again. Perhaps they won’t until the next grader comes. On a few of the “main streets” I saw lights in stores here and there. I saw streetcars go by carrying townspeople to this place and that. I saw other people walking, talking quietly to each other, and heard laughter coming from an ice-cream shop. The streets other than “main” seemed to be lined with peaceful family houses. In many of them lights shone behind closed curtains. In a few, pianos were playing. There was, indeed, little “doing” in Nashville. I returned to my hotel, wishing that I had come before sundown when things might have been more interesting.
Here I first met “Major” Wentworth Caswell. I knew the type of person he was the moment I saw him… a worthless rat. People like him don’t live in any single part of the world, but can be found everywhere. And of one thing I am certain: it doesn’t matter what it calls itself… a rat is a rat wherever you find it.
This man was hunting about the hotel lobby like a hungry dog that could not remember where he had buried a bone. He had a face of great acreage, red, fatty, that made him look like a sleepy Buddha. He had only one single good point — he was very smoothly shaven. In my opinion, a man who goes about showing the beginnings of a beard carries the mark of evil. I think that if the Major had not shaved that day I would not have spoken with him. And if I hadn’t, the crime records of the world might list one less murder!
I tried to get away, but on seeing me Major Caswell took the opportunity to introduce himself. Within four minutes he considered himself to have become my friend and pulled me to the bar.
Major Caswell immediately banged the bar with his hand, ordered drinks and began to talk about the war. When he was nearly finished with this I began to hope that I could get away. But then he began on his family tree. He told how Adam was but a distant cousin of a much older branch of the Caswell family. When he was finished with this he took up, much to my dislike, his private family matters. He spoke of his wife and described her family back to Eve. “Any story that my wife may have relations in the Land of Nod is totally untrue”, he rudely claimed.
By this time I was beginning to think that he was trying to hide by his noise the fact that he had ordered the drinks on the chance that I would be tricked into paying for them. But when they were finished he put a silver dollar loudly upon the bar. Then, of course, it was necessary for me to offer to buy him another serving. When I had paid for that, I quickly said good night for I wanted no more of him. But before I could leave he spoke loudly of an income that his wife received, and showed a handful of silver money.
When I got my key at the desk the clerk said to me politely: “If that man Caswell is causing problems and you are not happy having him here, we can have him removed. He causes nothing but trouble, but although he never works he always seems to have money so there is no way that we can legally throw him out. That is, of course, unless a guest complains.”
“Why, no,” said I, after thinking for a moment; “I don’t see my way clear to making a complaint. But I would like to place myself on record as saying that I truly do not care for his company. Your town, “I continued, “seems to be a quiet one. What kinds of entertainment, adventure, or excitement have you to offer to strangers within your gates?”
“Well, sir,” said the clerk, “there will be a show here next Thursday. I’ll look it up and have the notice sent up to your room with the ice water. Good night.”
After I went up to my room I looked out the window. It was only about ten o’clock, but I looked upon a silent town. The drizzle continued, the rain drops shining in the streetlights.
“A quiet place,” I said to myself, as my first shoe hit the floor. “Nothing of the life here that gives color and variety to the cities to the East and West. Just a good, ordinary, boring, business town.”
Nashville is one of the leading manufacturing centers of the country. It is the fifth boot and shoe market in the United States. It is the largest candy and cracker manufacturing city in the South. And it is a major center for merchants in the clothing and textile, grocery, and drug businesses.
I must tell you how I came to be in Nashville. I was traveling elsewhere on my own business, but was given a job from a Northern literary magazine. It was to stop over there and meet one of its writers, Azalea Adair.
Adair had sent in some stories and poems that the magazine editor thought were very, very good. But there was no information known about the person other than a name and address. So they had asked me to find said Adair and sign a contract for all his or her further writing. I was to try to get Adair to agree to a payment of two cents a word. The editor wanted me to do this quickly before some other publisher offered ten or twenty cents a word.
At nine o’clock the next morning, after more chicken en-brochette, I went out again into the drizzle. It looked like it would continue to rain forever. At the first corner, I came upon Uncle Caesar. He was a strong looking Negro, older than the Pyramids, with gray wool-like hair. He had a face that at first made me think first of Brutus from Roman times. A second later I thought of the late King Cettiwayo, the famous Zulu chief. He wore the most remarkable coat that I had ever seen or expect to see in the future. It reached almost to the ground and had once been gray in color. But rain and sun and age had so changed its appearance that it was now many different colors. I must talk more about that coat, for it has to do with the story. It is a story that is a long time in coming, because you can hardly expect anything to happen in Nashville.
Once it must have been the military coat of a southern army officer. Originally it would have had had beautiful tassels, but these were long gone. In their place were patiently sewn new ones, cleverly made from common rope, which were starting to come apart at the ends through too much wear. And to add to the funny yet sad look of the coat, all of its buttons were gone but one. Only the second button from the top remained; it was yellow, the size of a half-dollar and attached with thick string. The front of the coat was held together by the same thick string, tied from one side to the other where the missing buttons used to be. There can never have been such a strange coat of so many colors anywhere else in the world.
This Negro stood by a carriage so old that it might have used in biblical times. As I approached he threw open the door and pulled out a feather-duster. He waved it about without using it, and said in a loud, deep voice:
“Step right in, sir; isn’t a spot of dust in it — just got back from a funeral, sir.”
I guessed that on such special occasions as funerals, carriages were given an extra cleaning. I looked up and down the street and saw that there was little better choice among the other carriages that were there. I looked in my note book for the address of Azalea Adair.
“I want to go to 861 Jessamine Street,” I said, and was about to step into the carriage when the thick, long gorilla-like arm of the old Negro stopped me. For a moment, I saw a wild look on his huge face as if I had said or done something wrong and he was thinking of doing me harm. Then, with quickly returning pleasantness, he asked with forced politeness: “What are you going there for, boss?”
“What is it to you?” I asked, a little angrily.
“Nothing, sir, just nothing. Only it’s a lonely kind of part of town and few people ever have business out there. Step right in. The seats are clean — just got back from a funeral, sir.”
It must have been a mile and a half to our journey’s end. I could hear nothing but the horrible noise of the ancient carriage over the uneven road. I could smell nothing but the drizzle, now further flavored with coal smoke, and could see little more through the rain clouded windows than the two rows of dark houses lining the road.
The city has an area of 10 square miles; 181 miles of streets, of which 137 miles are paved; a system of waterworks that cost $2,000,000, with 77 miles of mains.
Eight sixty one Jessamine Street was once a grand house but now it was old and looked in very bad condition. It stood thirty yards back from the street among some big, beautiful trees that must have been as old as the house. All around it were bushes and other plants that were growing wildly and clearly hadn’t had any care for a very long time. The fence was falling to pieces, and the gate kept closed by a piece of rope. When you got inside you saw that 861, which must have been a wonderful house in years gone by, was now nothing but a shell, a shadow, a ghost of its former excellence. But in the story, I have not yet got inside.
When the carriage stopped and the tired horses came to a rest I handed Uncle Caesar his fifty cents with an additional twenty five cents, feeling generous as I did so. He refused it.
“It’s two dollars, sir,” he said.
“How is that?” I asked. “I plainly heard you call out at the hotel: ‘Fifty cents to any part of the town.'”
“It’s two dollars, sir,” he repeated stubbornly. “It’s a long ways from the hotel.”
“It is within the city limits and well within them.” I argued. “Don’t think that you have picked up some Northerner who doesn’t know local ways. Do you see those hills over there?” I went on, pointing toward the east (I could not see them, myself, for the drizzle); “well, I was born and raised on their other side. You old fool, can’t you tell local people from others when you see them?”
The serious face of King Cettiwayo softened. “Is you from the South, sir? I think it was those shoes of yours that fooled me. They are something sharp in the toes for a Southern gentleman to wear.”
“Then the charge is fifty cents, I suppose?” said I patiently.
His expression momentarily hardened, with a look that I thought showed not only greed but the possibility of violent action to get what he wanted. But this remained only a few seconds and was gone.
“Boss,” he said softly, “fifty cents is right; but I need two dollars, sir; I must have two dollars. I’m not demanding it now, sir, after I know where you’re from. I’m just saying that I have to have two dollars before tonight, and business is very poor.”
Peace and hopefulness settled upon his heavy features. He had thought he had picked up someone from the North who didn’t know local rates, but had been even luckier. He had come upon someone from the South who would help him.
“You greedy old thief” I said, smiling as I reached down to my pocket, “you should be turned over to the police.”
For the first time I saw him smile. He knew I would help; he knew. HE KNEW.
I gave him two one-dollar bills. As I handed them over I noticed that one of them had seen hard times. Its top right-hand corner was missing, and it had been torn through the middle but joined again. A piece of blue paper, glued over the tear, held the two parts together.
Enough of the African thief for the present: I left him happy, lifted the rope and opened the old gate.
The house, as I said, was a shell. A paint brush had not touched it in twenty years. At first I could not see why a strong wind should not have blown it over like a house of cards. But then I looked again at the trees that hugged it close and saw that their protecting branches also provided the house with support against storm, enemy and cold.
Azalea Adair, fifty years old, white-haired, and from one of the leading local families, was as thin and weak looking as the house she lived in. She received me with the quiet air of a queen, dressed in the cheapest but cleanest dress I ever saw.
The room we met in seemed a mile square. There was nothing in it except some rows of unpainted book shelves, a broken table, a heavily worn rug, an old sofa and two or three chairs. Yes, there was a picture on the wall, but a simple colored child’s drawing of some flowers.
Azalea Adair and I had a conversation, a little of which I will tell here. She was a product of the old South, gently raised in a protected life. Her learning was not wide, but was deep and wonderfully original in its rather narrow range. She had never been to school but was taught at home. She had never traveled. Her knowledge of the world came from reasoning and her imagination after reading the works of famous writers. She was indeed a valuable discovery. Nearly everybody nowadays knows too much — oh, so much too much — of real life.
I could see clearly that Azalea Adair was very poor, owning this old house, a dress and not much else. So, divided between my duty to the magazine and my loyalty to the great writers and poets who had shaped her writing ability, I listened to her. And as I did I found that her voice was like music. I could not lower myself to speak of contracts and reduce the value of her writing to just two cents per word. We would have to have another meeting after I had thought some more. But I did speak of my purpose in coming, and set three o’clock of the next afternoon as the time for discussion of the business proposal.
“Your town,” I said, as I began to get ready to leave (which is the time for such small talk), “seems to be a quiet, peaceful place. A home town, I should say, where few things out of the ordinary ever happen.”
It carries on an extensive trade in stoves and tableware with the West and South, and its flour mills can produce more than 2,000 barrels.
Azalea Adair considered what I had said for a moment.
“I have never thought of it that way,” she said, with a kind of honest seriousness that seemed to belong to her. “Isn’t it in the still, quiet places that things do happen? Think back to when God began to create the earth on the first Monday morning. People could have looked out of their window and watched the drops of mud falling from His shovel as He built up the everlasting hills. And what did the noisiest project in the history of world – I mean the building of the Tower of Babel – result in finally? A page and a half story in a literary magazine.
“Of course,” I said, becoming bored with the conversation but letting her think it was a serious issue. “Human nature is the same everywhere; but there is more color… um… more drama and movement and… um… romance in some cities than in others.”
“On the surface,” said Azalea Adair. “I have traveled many times around the world in a golden airship carried along by two wings – my books and my dreams. I have seen (on one of my imaginary tours) the Sultan of Turkey kill with his own hands one of his wives who had uncovered her face in public. I have seen a man in Nashville tear up his theater tickets because his wife was going out with her face covered – with rice powder. In San Francisco’s Chinatown I saw the slave girl Sing Yee lowered slowly, inch by inch, in boiling oil to make her promise she would never see her American lover again. She gave in when the boiling oil had reached three inches above her knee. At a card party in East Nashville the other night I saw Kitty Morgan cut dead by seven of her schoolmates and lifelong friends because she had married a house painter. The boiling oil reached as high as her heart; but I wish you could have seen the fine little smile that she carried from table to table. Oh, yes, it is a boring town – just a few miles of red brick houses and mud and lumberyards.”
Someone knocked quietly at the back of the house. Azalea Adair quietly excused herself and went to see who was there. She came back in three minutes with brightened eyes, a pink glow on her cheeks, and ten years lifted from her shoulders.
“You must have a cup of tea before you go,” she said, “and a sugar cake.”
She reached and shook a little iron bell. In came a small Negro girl of about twelve, no shoes, not very tidy, with thumb in mouth. The girl looked unhappily at me through big eyes.
Azalea Adair opened a tiny, worn purse and took out a dollar bill. It had the top right-hand corner missing, and was torn in two pieces and glued together with a piece of blue paper. It was one of the bills I had given the Negro carriage driver — there was no doubt about it.
“Go up to Mr. Baker’s store on the corner, Impy,” she said, handing the girl the dollar bill. “And get a quarter of a pound of tea — the kind he always sends me. And ten cents worth of sugar cakes. Be quick about it, please.”
“The supply of tea in the house happens to be used up,” she explained to me.
Impy left by the back way. Before the sound of her hard, shoeless feet had died away, a scream — I was sure it was hers — filled the empty house. Then the sound of a man’s angry voice could be heard along with the girl’s further cries.
Azalea Adair rose without surprise or emotion and disappeared. For two minutes I heard the deep sounds of the man’s voice; then something like a slight scuffle, and she returned calmly to her chair.
“This is a roomy house,” she said, “and I have rented part of it out. I am sorry to have to take back my invitation to tea. It was impossible to get the kind I always use at the store. Perhaps tomorrow, Mr. Baker will have some.”
I was sure that Impy had not had time to leave the house. I asked about the nearest streetcar lines and took my leave. After I was well on my way I remembered that I had not learned Azalea Adair’s name. But tomorrow would do.
That same day I started in on the course of several terrible actions that this uneventful city forced upon me. I was to be in the town only two days, but in that time would manage to lie shamelessly to my employer and cover up details of a murder.
As I rounded the corner nearest my hotel the African carriage driver with the one and only coat of many colors took my arm. He opened the door of his ancient carriage, waved his feather-duster and began what must be his standard welcome: “Step right in, boss. Carriage is clean — just got back from a funeral. Fifty cents to any –”
And then he knew me and smiled widely. “Excuse me, boss; you are the gentleman that rode out with me this morning. Thank you kindly, sir.”
“I am going out to 861 again tomorrow afternoon at three,” said I, “and if you will be here, I’ll let you drive me. So you know Miss Adair?” I asked, thinking of my dollar bill.
“I belonged to her father, Judge Adair, sir,” he replied.
“I see that she is pretty poor,” I said. “She hasn’t much money to speak of, has she?”
For a moment I looked again at the wild look of King Cettiwayo, and then he quickly changed back to a greedy old Negro carriage driver.
“She will be alright, sir,” he said slowly. “She has resources, sir; she has resources.”
“I shall pay you fifty cents for the trip,” said I.
“That is perfectly correct, sir,” he answered respectfully. “I just had to have that two dollars this morning, boss.”
I went to the hotel and sent a message to the magazine in the form of a lie: “A. Adair demands eight cents a word”, I wrote.
The answer that came back was: “Give it to her quick.”
Just before dinner I was greeted by “Major” Wentworth Caswell as if I was a long-lost friend. I have seen few men whom I have so immediately hated, and of whom it was so difficult to get away from. I was standing at the bar when he came in and could not get away before he saw me. I would have paid gladly for the drinks, hoping, in doing so, to escape another. But he was one of those worthless, noisy types. When drunk, they tell the world how generous they are as if marching bands and fireworks would follow upon every cent that they wasted in their foolishness.
With an air of producing millions he drew two one-dollar bills from a pocket and threw one of them upon the bar. I looked once more at the dollar bill with the top right-hand corner missing, torn through the middle, and held together with a piece of blue paper. It was my dollar bill again. It could have been no other.
I went up to my room. The continuous drizzle and the fact that there was nothing for a visitor to do in this event-less Southern town had made me tired with no energy to do anything. I remember that just before I went to bed I tried to explain the mysterious dollar bill to myself. I thought sleepily: “Seems as if a lot of people here own a share in that carriage driver’s business? I wonder if –“. And then I fell asleep.
King Cettiwayo was at his post the next day, and his carriage shook my bones over the stones again out to 861 Jessamine Street. He was to wait and shake me back again when I was ready.
Azalea Adair looked cleaner and weaker than she had looked on the day before. Her face had less color, and grew even whiter after she had signed the contract at eight cents per word. Then she began to fall out of her chair. Without much trouble I managed to get her up on the old sofa and then I ran outside and called to Uncle Caesar to bring a doctor. With a wisdom that I had not expected in him, he left his horses and ran off, realizing the value of speed.
In ten minutes he returned with a gray-haired man of medicine. In a few words (worth much less than eight cents each) I explained to the doctor what had happened and why I was in the empty house of mystery. The doctor introduced himself in the proud way of Southern gentlemen, and then turned to the old Negro.
“Uncle Caesar,” he said calmly, “Run up to my house and ask Miss Lucy to give you a jar full of fresh milk and half a glass of port wine. And hurry back. Don’t drive — run. I want you to get back sometime this week.”
It occurred to me that Dr. Merriman also did not trust the speeding powers of Uncle Caesar’s horses. I could see from the way Uncle Caesar moved that running did not come easily. Being such a big man, it required a lot of effort and his running style was far from smooth and natural. Having said this, he ran off up the street with surprising speed.
After Uncle Caesar was gone the doctor looked me over politely and decided that I must be O.K. “It is only a case of not enough food,” he said quietly. “In other words, the result of being poor, proud, and not eating. Mrs. Caswell has many good friends who would be glad to help her, but she will take nothing except from that old Negro who was once owned by her family.”
“Mrs. Caswell!” said I, in surprise. And then I looked at the contract and saw that she had signed it “Azalea Adair Caswell.”
“I thought she was Miss Adair,” I said.
“Married to a lazy, worthless drunk, sir,” said the doctor. “It is said that he takes from her even the small sums that her old servant gives toward her support.”
When the milk and wine had been brought Azalea Adair was soon much better. She sat up and talked of the beauty of the autumn leaves that were then in season, and their height of color. She spoke lightly of the recent event, saying that it was the result of an old problem of the heart. Impy fanned her as she lay on the sofa. The doctor was due elsewhere, and I followed him to the door. I told him that I would make an advance of money to Azalea Adair on her future writings for the magazine, and he seemed pleased.
“By the way,” he said, “perhaps you would like to know that you have had royalty for a carriage driver. Old Caesar’s grandfather was a king in the Congo. Caesar himself has royal ways, as you may have observed.”
As the doctor was moving off I heard Uncle Caesar’s voice inside: “Did he get both of them two dollars from you, Miss Azalea?”
“Yes, Caesar,” I heard Azalea Adair answer weakly. And then I went in and completed business discussions with her. I took the decision to advance her fifty dollars, telling her that it was a necessary step in completing the contract. And then Uncle Caesar drove me back to the hotel.
At about six o’clock I went out for a walk. Uncle Caesar was at his corner. He threw open the door of his carriage, and began his now familiar sales line: “Step right in, sir. Fifty cents to anywhere in the city — carriage’s perfectly clean, sir — just got back from a funeral –”
And then he recognized me. I think his sight was getting bad. His coat had taken on a few more different colors, and the last remaining yellow button was gone. A poor looking grandson of a king was Uncle Caesar!
About two hours later I saw an excited crowd gathered around the front of a drug store. In a desert where nothing happens this was like a gift from heaven; so I pushed my way inside. On a quickly made bed of empty boxes was stretched the body of Major Wentworth Caswell. A doctor was testing him for signs of life. His decision was that there were none.
The former Major had been found dead on a dark street and brought to the store. He had been in a great battle — the details showed that. A lazy drunk though the Major had been, he had been also a fighter. But he had lost. His hands were still closed so tightly in the form of fists that his fingers would not be opened. The good people who had known him stood about and searched for some kind words, if it were possible, to speak of him. One kind-looking man said, after much thought: “When ‘Cas’ was about fourteen he was one of the best spellers in school.”
While I stood there the fingers of the right hand of “the man that was”, which hung down the side of a white wooden box, relaxed, and dropped something at my feet. I covered it with one foot quietly and a little later, when no-one was watching, I picked it up and put it in my pocket. I reasoned that he must have unknowingly taken hold of that object during his fight and held it in his hand until the moment of death.
At the hotel that night one of the main items of conversation was the death of Major Caswell. I heard one man say to a group of listeners:
“In my opinion, gentlemen, Caswell was murdered by some no-good thieves. He had fifty dollars this afternoon which he showed to several of us in the hotel. When he was found the money was not on his person.”
I left the city the next morning at nine. As the train was crossing the bridge over the Cumberland River I took out of my pocket a coat button. It was yellow, the size of a fifty-cent piece, and had torn pieces of thick string hanging from it. I threw it out of the window into the muddy, slow moving waters below.