A Municipal Report – Pre-Intermediate Level

I stepped off the train in Nashville at 8 PM. It was raining lightly, and there was a strange smell in the air. It was a little sweet, but there was also a smell of gas and other things that were not very nice.

I took a carriage to my hotel. It was very old, and pulled by horses that may have been even older. It drove along so slowly that I felt like climbing up and showing 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. He had only asked for fifty cents, but I gave him seventy-five. Yes, I know the journey was very slow. But I also know the ways of drivers like this. I did not want to be held up by paying the correct amount and then hearing him talk 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, new floor and wall coverings, and new furniture. The management was excellent and the service, although terribly slow, was provided in that polite 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 fried chicken.

At dinner I asked a waiter if there was anything happening in town. He thought carefully for a minute. “Well, sir,” he answered, “I don’t think anything at all happens here after sundown.”

Sundown had already come and gone. It had been drowned by the rain long before. However, I went out upon the streets to see what might be there.

As I left the hotel a group of wild looking men came running excitedly towards me. At first I was frightened because I thought they were carrying guns. But then I saw that they were not guns at all but whips. Looking down the street, I noticed a line of black carriages and horses in the darkness. I heard some shouts, “Carry you anywhere in the town, sir, for fifty cents”. I quickly understood that I was not someone under attack, but simply someone who might want a ride.

I walked through long streets, all seeming to lead uphill. I wondered how those streets ever came down again. On a few of the ‘main streets’ I saw lights in shops 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. I heard laughter coming from an ice-cream shop. The streets other than ‘main’ seemed to be lined with peaceful family houses. Lights were shining in many of them behind closed curtains. In a few, pianos were playing. I could see that there was, truly, little happening 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. He was hunting about the hotel entrance like a hungry dog that could not remember where he had hidden a bone. I knew the type of person he was the moment I saw him. He was a good for nothing rat. People like him don’t live in any single part of the world, but can be found everywhere. I hoped to get away, but on seeing me Major Caswell walked up and introduced himself. He soon seemed to think that we had become friends and pulled me to the bar.

As soon as we got to the bar, Major Caswell hit it loudly with his hand and ordered drinks. Then he started to talk about the war. When he was nearly finished with this, I began to hope that I could get away. But then he started to talk about his family tree. He followed this back to the beginning of time, and then started to talk about his wife’s family and how rich she was.

By this time I was beginning to think that Major Caswell was trying to hide by his noise the fact that he had ordered the drinks so that I would pay for them. But when they were finished he put a silver dollar loudly upon the bar. Then, of course, I had to offer to buy him a drink. When I had paid for that, I quickly said good night. I wanted no more of him.

When I got my key, the man behind the desk asked me if Major Caswell was causing any problems. “If so, we can ask him to leave,” he said . “He causes nothing but trouble in the bar. However, although he never works, he always seems to have money. Under the law, we can only ask him to leave if someone staying in one of our rooms complains about him.”

“No, I don’t think that I want to complain,” I said after thinking for a moment. “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 or excitement have you to offer to visitors?”

“Well, sir,” said the man, “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 rain continued, the drops shining in the street lights.

“A quiet place,” I said to myself, as my first shoe hit the floor. “Nothing of the life here that gives color and excitement to the cities to the East and West. Just a boring business town, where nothing special ever seems to happen.”

I must tell you how I came to be in Nashville. I was traveling in the South on my own business, and was given a job by a Northern magazine. It was to stop over in Nashville 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 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 magazine offered ten or twenty cents a word.

At nine o’clock the next morning, after more of that wonderful fried chicken, I went out again into the rain. At the first corner, I came upon Uncle Caesar. He was a big, strong looking Negro, older than the Pyramids, with gray woolly hair. He had a face that made me think of King Cettiwayo, the famous Zulu king who had died recently. He wore the strangest 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 changed its appearance so much 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 cannot expect anything to happen quickly in Nashville. Once it must have been the coat of a Southern army officer. 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 tied to the coat with thick yellow string. The front of the coat was held together by the same 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 and horses so old that they might have used in biblical times. As I walked up to him he threw open the door and pulled out a cleaning cloth. He waved it about without using it and said in a loud, deep voice. “Step right in, sir. It is very clean inside. Just got back from a funeral, sir.”

I guessed that, in Nashville, carriages were given a special cleaning for funerals. 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 old Negro put one of his huge arms in front of me. For a moment, I saw an unfriendly look on his face as if I had said or done something wrong. Then, with quickly returning pleasantness, he said politely, “Can I ask what are you going there for, sir?”

“What is it to you?” I answered, a little angrily.

“Nothing, sir, just nothing. Only it’s a quiet part of town and few people ever have business out there. Step right in. The seats are clean. I just got back from a funeral.”

It must have been a mile and a half to our journey’s end. I could hear nothing but the noise of the carriage wheels on the uneven road. I could smell nothing but the rain, now further mixed with the smoke from cooking fires. I could see little through the rain covered windows.

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 had little left to show of the wonderful house that it must once have been. But in the story, I have not yet got inside.

When the carriage stopped and the tired horses came to a rest, I held out for Uncle Caesar his fifty cents with an additional twenty five. He wouldn’t take it.

“It’s two dollars, sir,” he said.

“How is that?” I asked. “I clearly heard you call out at the hotel: ‘Fifty cents to any part of the town.’”

“It’s two dollars, sir,” he said again. “It’s a long way from the hotel.”

“It is well inside the city,” I argued. “Don’t think that you have picked up some Northerner who doesn’t know the area. Do you see those hills over there?” Although I could not see them for the rain, I pointed toward the east. “Well, I was born and grew up on the other side. You old fool, can’t you tell local people from others when you see them?”

The serious face of King Cettiwayo softened. “Are 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 Southerner to wear.”

“Then the cost is fifty cents?” I asked.

The look on his face hardened in a way that looked as if he might use force to get what he wanted. But this remained only a few seconds and was gone.

“Sir,” he said softly, “fifty cents is right; but I need two dollars, sir. I must have two dollars. I’m not saying that you must give it to me, sir, now that I know where you’re from. I’m just saying that I have to have two dollars before tonight, and business is very slow.”

Peace and hopefulness showed on his face. 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.

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 put back together again. A piece of blue paper, stuck over the tear, held the two parts together.

Enough of the African thief for now. I left him happy, lifted the rope and opened the old gate.

The house, as I said, was in very poor condition. 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 grew close and saw that they provided the house with support against storm, enemy and cold.

Azalea Adair was fifty years old, white-haired, and from one of the leading families in Nashville. She was as thin and weak looking as the house she lived in. However, she met me with the quiet air of a queen dressed in the cheapest but cleanest dress I had ever seen.

The room we met in seemed a mile square. There was nothing in it but some unpainted book shelves, a broken table, a heavily worn rug, an old sofa and two or three chairs. There was a picture on one of the walls, but it was a simple colored child’s drawing of some flowers.

Azalea Adair and I spoke about many things, some of which I will tell here. She was a product of the old South who grew up cut off from the troubles of the outside world. Her learning was not wide, but was deep and wonderfully original. She had been taught at home and never went to school. She had never traveled. What she knew of the world came from her mind and her imagination after reading the works of famous writers. She was certainly a valuable find for the magazine. Nearly everybody nowadays knows far too much about real life.

I could see clearly that Azalea Adair was very poor. She owned this old house, some clothes and not much else. As I listened, I found that her voice was like music. I could not lower myself to speak of contracts and put the value of her writing at just two cents for each word. We would have to have another meeting after I had thought some more. But I did speak of why I had come, and set three o’clock of the next afternoon as the time for talk about business.

“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 town, I should say, where few unusual things ever happen.”

Azalea Adair thought about what I had said for a moment. “I have never seen it that way,” she said, with an honest seriousness that seemed to come naturally to her. “Isn’t it in the peaceful, quiet places that things do happen?”

“Of course,” I said, not really wanting to talk more about it but letting her think that I was interested in her question. “Human nature is the same everywhere. But there is more color, more excitement, more happening in some cities than in others.”

“It may look that way to you,” said Azalea Adair. “But 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 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. This was to make her promise never to 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 lifelong friends. This was 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.”

Someone knocked softly on the door at the back of the house. Azalea Adair excused herself and went to see who was there. She came back in three minutes with brightened eyes and looking ten years younger.

“You must have a cup of tea before you go,” she said, “and a sugar cake.”

She picked up a little bell that was on the table and rang it. 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 held together with a piece of blue paper. It was one of the bills I had given the Negro carriage driver.

“Go up to shop 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.”

“We finished the last of the tea in the house this morning,” she explained to me.

Impy left by the back door. Before the sound of her hard shoeless feet had died away, a cry… 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 stood up without surprise and disappeared. For two minutes I heard the sounds of some kind of argument. Then she returned calmly to her chair.

“This is a large house,” she said, “and I have rented part of it out. I am sorry to have to take back my offer of tea. The shop did not have any of the kind that I always buy. Perhaps they will have some tomorrow.”

I was sure that Impy had not had time to leave the house. I asked about the nearest streetcar lines and left.

That day saw the first of two terrible actions that this seemingly boring city forced upon me. I was to be in the town only two days. However, in that time I would manage to lie to my employer without feeling at all bad about it 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 carriage, waved his cleaning cloth and began what must be his usual welcome. “Step right in, sir. Carriage is clean. Just got back from a funeral. Fifty cents to any…”

And then he saw who I was and smiled widely. “Excuse me, sir. You are the kind man that rode out with me this morning.”

“I am going out to Jessamine Street again tomorrow afternoon at three,” I said. “If you are here, I’ll let you drive me.” Thinking of my dollar bill, I added, “So you know Miss Adair?”

“I was once owned by her father, Judge Adair, sir,” he answered.

“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 fine, sir,” he said slowly. “She has resources, sir; she has resources.”

“I shall pay you fifty cents for the trip,” said I.

“That will be fine, sir,” he answered. “I just had to have that two dollars this morning, and thank you again for it.”

I went to the hotel and called the magazine. “Azalea Adair will only sign the contract for eight cents a word”, I lied.

“Give it to her, but get her to sign quickly,” was the answer.

Just before dinner, Major Caswell came up to me again as if I were a long-lost friend. There are few men whom I have so hated from the moment I saw them, 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 happily paid for the first drinks so that I could escape staying for another. But he was one of those noisy types who, when drunk, must show the world that they have money.

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.

After I paid for a second drink I went up to my room. The continuous rain and the fact that there was nothing for a visitor to do in this boring Southern town had made me tired. I remember that just before I went to bed I tried to explain the strange movements of the 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 body over the uneven road again out to 861 Jessamine Street. I asked him 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 a word. Then she began to fall out of her chair. Without much trouble I managed to help her lay down on the old sofa. Then I ran outside and called for Uncle Caesar to bring a doctor. With a cleverness that I had not expected in him, he left his old horses and ran off, knowing that it was important to go quickly.

In ten minutes he returned with a gray-haired man of medicine. In a few words I explained to the doctor what had happened and why I was there.

The doctor turned to the old Negro. “Uncle Caesar,” he said calmly, “run up to my house and ask Miss Lucy to give you a bottle of milk and some red wine. And come back as fast as you can. Don’t drive… run. I want you to get back sometime this week.”

I seems that Dr. Merriman shared my thoughts that Uncle Caesar’s horses were too old to go anywhere fast. Being such a big man, running did not come easily to Uncle Caesar. The way he ran looked far from smooth and natural. However, he set off up the street surprisingly quickly.

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 happy to help her. However, she will not accept help from anyone other than that old Negro who was once owned by her family.”

“Mrs. Caswell!” I said 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, useless drunk,” said the doctor. “It is said that he even takes from her the small amounts of money that the old Negro 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 color and beauty of the autumn leaves that were then in season. She spoke lightly of what had happened, saying that it was the result of an old problem of the heart. Impy took care of her as she lay on the sofa. When the doctor left, I followed him to the door. I told him that I would give some money to Azalea Adair which she could pay back out of her future writings for the magazine. He seemed pleased with this.

“By the way,” he said, “perhaps you would like to know that you have had someone of royal blood for a carriage driver. Old Caesar’s grandfather was a king in the Congo. Caesar himself has royal ways, as you may have seen.”

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 decided to give her fifty dollars, telling her that it was needed to complete 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 usual welcome. “Step right in, sir. Fifty cents to anywhere in the city. Carriage’s very clean. Just got back from a funeral…”

It was only then that he saw me. I think he must have been having trouble with his eyes. His coat had taken on a few more different colors, and the last remaining yellow button was gone. He was a very poor looking grandson of a king!

About two hours later I saw an excited group of people standing around the front of a shop. In a place where I thought nothing special ever happened, this was a wonderful surprise. I pushed my way inside. On a bed of empty boxes lay the body of Major Wentworth Caswell. A doctor was testing him for signs of life. His decision was that there were none.

The body of the once Major had been found in the small, dark street next to the shop and brought inside. It showed that he had been in a great battle. The Major may have been a lazy drunk, but he had also been a fighter. However, he had lost. His hands were still closed so tightly in the form of fists that his fingers could not be opened. The good people who had known the Major stood about and tried to think of some nice things to say about him. One kind looking man, after some time, said “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 over the side of a white wooden box next to me, relaxed. Something fell to the floor. I quietly covered it with one foot. A little later, when no one was watching, I picked it up and put it in my pocket. I decided that he may have unknowingly taken hold of it during his fight and held it in his hand until the moment of death.

At the hotel that night everyone was talking about the death of Major Caswell.

“It seems to me,” I heard one man say, “that Caswell was murdered by a group of no-good thieves. He had fifty dollars this afternoon which he showed to some of us in the hotel. When he was found, the money was not on him.”

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 half-dollar, and had torn pieces of thick yellow string hanging from it. I threw it out of the window into the brown, slow moving waters below.