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"He Saw Washington" from Holland's Magazine

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from Holland's Magazine
He Saw Washington
by Ellis Parker Butler

It was the year 1849, in the town of Riverbank, in Iowa; and old Coonrod Burgmann, eighty-five years old, sat by the fire in his son's house, drowsing after dinner, which had been, as usual, at noon. Outside, a small blizzard was howling; and the children were playing jackstones on the hearth; and old Coonrod's daughter-in-law had chosen the hour to "rid out" her desk.

From one of the drawers she had taken a bundle of papers and letters, and untied the ribbon that bound them; and she opened the first of the papers, a letter scrawled on blue-gray coarse-ribbed paper, the ink faded to brown. It had no envelope or stamp, since those useful affairs had not been invented when the letter was written, but had been sealed with wafers; and the address was "Mistress Fitie Van Wysten, at the Black Bull Tavern, New York," and in one corner "Kindness Mr. Dwight."

"Look, Emily," said old Coonrod's daughter-in-law. "This will interest you; this is the only love letter your grandfather ever wrote."

At that the old man raised his head and opened his eyes.

"Yes, yes!" he said, looking at the letter in his daughter-in-law's hand. "The time I saw Washington, when I get home to Great Barrington, I write that letter, and always Fitie kept it until she is dead. A good woman. A good wife. Before long I am with her again. Yes!"

And you saw George Washington, too, didn't you grandpa?" said little Henry. "You saw him yourself, didn't you?"

"Yes, yes!" said old Coonrod Burgmann. "I saw that great man. With my own eyes I saw him. I am the only man in this town who saw George Washington. Yes!" And with that he drowsed again, his head drooping forward, his white beard spread out on his chest.

At her mother's side, Emily was deciphering the only love letter old Coonrod had ever written. It was dated "12th May, 1789," and from Great Barrington, with no state given, because Fitie Van Wysten, having been born there, needed not to be told that the town was in Massachusetts. This was the letter:

Misstress Fytie: Hearwith by barer Mr Dodge 10 pounds, silver, for ixpence by scooner or sloop and come as soon as you can for I am reddy to open tavern and will meat you at Klaverack Land'g if you send word when and will marry you at wunce so come soon because tavern is reddy to open. I love you dearly.

Respectfully your obd't servant,
Coonrod Burgmann.

"He didn't spell very well, did he, mother?" Emily said.

"No one spelled very well in those days, I imagine," said old Coonrod's daughter-in-law, and she folded the letter. Old Coonrod, hearing the voices, half raised his head, but fell asleep again. He slept soundly now, perhaps dreaming of the time he saw Washington.

All that winter of 1788-1789, Coonrod Burgmann's mother had been pestering him to be bold and say the word to Esther Parks and marry her, declaring that the young woman needed only to be asked; but Coonrod was always ready with one excuse or another. All his mother said about Esther Parks was true -- she was healthy, she was good-looking, she was a strong and eager worker -- but the slow-thinking and slow-acting Coonrod, spreading paint or mending a floor board in the big house for which he had traded the Burgmann long-lot farm, felt within him a reluctance.

A wife he must have, if he was to keep tavern, and he could see Esther as a good tavern-keeper's wife; but the thought gave him no great happiness. He could not reason it out and did not try, and never could he have put it into words, but something in the straight line of Esther's mouth warned him that before many years he would be unhappy with Esther. She would be the master.

"Ah, well!" he told himself. "I wait a while, anyhow," and sighed, because his mother usually got what she wanted.

With the approach of spring, 1789, his mother became more insistent. The tavern must be opened soon. The fitments, bought from the tavern on the Long Pond Road that was being abandoned, were in place; and Coonrod saw nothing but submission to his mother's endless urgings, when she herself gave him a further short respite by saying he must go to New York town to get the money for the warrants he held.

The warrants were for 120-7-6, silver, issued to him for fat kine, good wheaten flour, and hide leather furnished the Government, and payable now that the Government had funds. He could, as he suggested, send the warrants to New York by Mr. Dodge or some other who now and then made trips there; but his mother would have none of that, pointing out that these agents charged a sharp commission on such business; and it was finally agreed that Coonrod himself should make the journey. He did not want to do so. He had never been twenty miles from home. He was shy.

"So much more reason you should go," insisted his mother. "You a great man of twenty-five years! It is time you ended this fear of strange people, if you are to keep a tavern."

"In my own tavern I will not he afraid," said Coonrod. "There I will be master."

"It is to be hoped," said his mother. "But, see, Coonrod -- the warrants must go to New York. There you will meet men of fashion. You will see taverns and learn much, perhaps. What do you know of taverns, seeing none but these in these wooded hills?"

But what turned the scale was the news that came that in late April -- on the 30th day, to be exact -- the hero of the Nation, General George Washington, would be given the oath of office as first President of the United States, and that too in view of all who might assemble. Coonrod yielded. In truth, he had felt growing in himself as his mother talked the young man's eagerness to adventure, and to see new sights, and to be free, for the first time in his life, from his mother's apron strings.

When he mounted his horse at the door of what was soon to be the Burgmann Tavern, he felt fine indeed. His coat and breeks were brown homespun, woven -- yes, and cut and made too -- by his mother; and his stockings were gray, of his mother's knitting. New brogans were on his feet, and leathern legging protected him against the splashing of the mud, for the April roads were little better than bogs.

A hat he would not buy, for he dreaded to be thought a dandy, and his cap of gray squirrel was pulled down well on his head. To see him depart, a goodly group of his friends had gathered, Esther Parks standing on the step with her arm around his mother's waist. The warrants were safely sewn inside his shirt, his other possessions were in his saddlebags, and his squirrel rifle hung from his saddle.

"Beware of the New York ladies, Coon," one of the young fellows called out. "They're dangerous creatures, they tell me."

To this Coonrod gave no reply.

"Mother, farewell," he said, and "Farewell, all!" and rode away.

He turned from the village street into the Great Road that ran from Boston to Albany, following it until he turned off toward Claverack Landing; and so he came through the mud and mire to the Landing, and saw the schooner Nellie there, anchored close by the shore of the Hudson.

The captain of the schooner he found by the shore, superintending the loading of green hides, and made prompt arrangement with him for passage to New York. He was the last, the captain said, that could be accepted, his list being filled by those who had taken passage at Albany, some wishing to see the inauguration of General Washington. Coonrod, indeed, would have to sleep on deck on the hides in blankets with the crew, the cabin being overfilled.

At the tavern, Coonrod arranged to have his horse cared for until his return. About six of the evening, having eaten at the tavern, Coonrod was rowed with others to the schooner, which raised anchor and got under way, drifting rather than sailing, the wind being light and adverse.

That first night -- for it was a voyage of three days and three nights -- Coonrod sat long on the heaped hides, watching the shore and the sky. He conversed some with the sailors of the schooner; but it was not until the next morning, when he was eating his food, that any passenger spoke to him. A young fellow came and stood near him, leaning with his back to the rail. He was nattily dressed in a deep garnet coat and breeks of the same broadcloth, with a ruffle to his shirt and fine silver buckles to his shoes, and a cocked hat of black.

"For New York, friend?" he greeted Coonrod. "I, too -- and never have I made the voyage with a more stinking cargo. Does business or pleasure take you?"

"Business and pleasure," said Coonrod, who was glad to be spoken to; and he explained about the warrants, and his hope to see General Washington, too; and soon the young fellow was to all intents his friend and companion for the voyage. His name, he said was Edward Dench, a man of business making many trips between New York and Albany.

"But if you have not bespoken a place to hang your hat," he said, "you are in ill luck, for the town will be like maggoty meat with all who come to see the doings. Never will such a mammoth gathering be seen, what with delegations from near and far. The chance is, Coonrod Burgmann, you will have to sleep under some tree."

"That I can do, too," said Coonrod, "and with more comfort than on these hides."

"And yet," said Edward Dench, "even the hides are softer than the bare ground. But hold a moment, Coonrod! I like you. I knew you from the first for an honest fellow, and I will do for you what I would do for few men. I have a room bespoken at the Black Bull Tavern, making that my home, such times as I am in New York; and I ask you to share the room with me while you are in the town."

Against this Coonrod protested; but Edward Dench would not listen to him, saying that the landlord could throw together some sort of bed and would be glad to do so. And so it was agreed; and for the rest of the voyage the two were constant companions, Edward Dench pointing out this and that of interest, giving their names to the mountains and points of land, and telling Coonrod more about New York than he could otherwise have learned in a hundred years.

As Edward Dench chattered on, Coonrod was glad he had met this friendly companion, for he learned from him each minute some new peril that lurked for a yokel in the great town.

"But of that you need not worry," Dench said, "for I will be with you, and I was born and bred in the town and know all the scurvy tricks. And look you, Coonrod -- there will be no business in the town until this week of great affairs is over, and may I be cursed if I do not make myself your mentor until you are safe on board your schooner again." Your warrants are safely placed?"

"Sewn in my shirt next my skin, where with every breath I can feel them."

"And well done!" exclaimed Dench. "You are a wise bird, I see. There are fellows down there who can pick a pocket while your own hand is in it. And bear this in mind as well, Coonrod -- play no cards with strangers. Unless a friend be in the game, have no part in it."

"I'll play no cards whilst I am in New York."

"Unless --" said Dench. "But, no -- you are wise there again. Play no games of chance." But he thought. "There I overplayed my own hand; this bumpkin is even more of a bumpkin than I thought him. This is enough of warning, or I will warn myself out of all chance of a profit from him." And he began telling tales of the gayety that New York offered young bucks like himself and Coonrod. But to these Coonrod gave but poor attention.

The Nellie arrived at her slip, entering it cleverly, on the eve of the 28th day of April; and across the wide Hudson, Coonrod saw the meadows and hills of New Jersey, and the great Inner Bay below the point of Manhattan. The Nellie, he learned, would sail with the turn of tide on the 30th, and he engaged passage. There were porters both negro and white, and Edward Dench called one and ordered him to shoulder his box; but Coonrod had but his saddlebags, and he threw these across his broad shoulders.

The way to the Black Bull Tavern seemed long, but Coonrod's eyes goggled at all he saw. This was indeed a mighty city, for here were over thirty thousand souls dwelling, with countless houses and many streets, and fine residences of brick with coaches before them, two-horse and four-horse, and the whole town aflutter with flags. Across Broadway, Dench led the way, and down Wall Street until they came to a narrower street; and here they found the Black Bull Tavern, an ancient building, weatherworn and near dilapidation, its sign creaking in the wind, the black bull almost obliterated.

"No room," called a man's voice as Dench opened the door; but as he saw Dench, he cried, "Oh, 'tis you, Neddy!" and went on serving his guests, the Common Room being filled with them. Beyond, in a rear room, the clatter of knives and forks and noise of voices told that the meal was being served.

Dench made Coonrod known, saying, "Nick, this is a friend of mine; he will share my room. Throw a pallet, or what you have for him to sleep on, will you, into the room?"

"Fitie!" the red-faced landlord called, and a brisk female voice answered.

"Coming, sir!" the voice said, and Coonrod saw Fitie Van Wysten push open the door and enter, holding high a tray of food of various sorts.

"Here's Ned Dench back," said Landlord Nick, "and he's brought one with him to share his room. See he has wherewith to sleep on, that's my fine girl."

Every table that could be found, and every bench and stool, had been crowded into the Common Room, and all were filled. Some at the tables were talking. and some pounding impatiently, and some already drunk were singing, and the air was blue with smoke of tobacco; and Ed Dench had turned to speak with one of his own age, while Landlord Nick hastened with four great mugs of beer to a far table. The girl stared at Coonrod a moment.

'Coon Burgmann, ain't you?' she said, smiling at him broadly. 'Thought I knowed you when I set eyes on you. And how is Great Barrington, Coon.'

"Coon Burgmann, ain't you?" she said, smiling at him broadly. "Thought I knowed you when I set eyes on you. And how is Great Barrington, Coon, and all the --"

"Fitie!" called Landlord Nick.

"Coming sir!" Fitie answered; and to Coonrod, "It's good to see you again. Coon. I must hear from you of those I knew before I came away."

With that she was gone, but Coonrod turned and followed her with his eyees. She was a fine hearty girl now, and one able to take care of herself even in such a rowdy crowd as this seemed to be. He remembered her as a rosy-cheeked child, hair in twin pigtails, laughing-eyed at play among a dozen others in the schoolyard.

"Come," Ed Dench said. "We'll clean ourselves and eat." And they saw that the box and saddlebags were safely bestowed behind the bar.

The next day, that being the 29th of April, Ed Dench devoted himself to Coonrod's affair of the warrants; and without his help it might have proved an affair of a week or move, but by good-natured bullying and insistence, and by his knowledge of the shortest paths from this man to that man, Dench had the affair completed by mid-afternoon. There was time for Coonrod to be shown the Battery Park and the Bowling Green, and the opulence of Broadway. They stopped in at Fraunce's Tavern, filled with elegants and men of business and men of note from all the states, until Coonrod was dizzy with sights.

They ate at the Black Bull that night; and Coonrod saw Fitie Van Wysten hurrying to and fro with food and drink, but had no chance to talk with her. She nodded to him pleasantly, though, and he let his eyes follow her, thinking how efficiently she handled the many tasks the great crowd commanded. After the meal, Dench walked with Coonrod to the North River to see the ships docked there; and they sat on coils of rope and talked of the town. It was well toward nine, and dark, when they returned to the tavern.

At the door of the tavern they found two young fellows standing, and Ed Dench greeted them as old friends. They were awaiting him, they said, and so too were a couple more inside; and Ed Dench made Coonrod known to them. They were merrily friendly, having been drinking, and nothing would do but that Coonrod join the party.

"All good Americans must drink to the Nation and to the First President tonight," they said; and inside the tavern, Coonrod found the long table of the Common Room crowded on either side with men already celebrating, for joy was the spirit of that week. With Washington the president, all felt the new Nation would be safe.

Room was made for Ed Dench and his friends by pushing up a small table against the long one, and drinks were instantly set before them. A sailor with but one arm was toasting the Navy amid cheers.

"Drink up, Coonrod," Dench urged. "This is a night such as comes but once in a man's life. Tonight we all celebrate."

All the landlord's helpers were busy serving drinks, and Coonrod saw Fitie Van Wysten among them. The toasts came thick and fast -- such toasts as no honest patriot could refuse to drink; toasts to the Army, to the Congress, to George Washington, to the United States now one and indivisible. Although he meant to drink little, Coonrod's glass was always filled; and as the toasts gave way to songs, all joining in the choruses, Coonrod knew he was becoming tipsy, but he felt a patriotic joy in it. This was a night of nights.

He remembered the next day that someone -- it may have been Dench -- had proposed "The Bay State Boys, ever brave and true," and that he had been pushed to his feet to answer it. What he said he could not remember; but he recalled the cheers and laughter, and that while they were singing Yankee Doodle, all pounding on the table, he fell across it. Dench, he remembered, had pulled him back into his chair; and then he must have fallen asleep, for he remembered no more.

It was close to noon when Coonrod opened his eyes. The sun was beating on his eyeballs like hot iron, and when he turned his head a steel ball seemed to roll in it, thudding from side to side. He opened his eyes and cringed from the glare. Ed Dench was standing, looking down at him.

"Get up. Burgmann," Dench said. "It is midday, and there is the devil and all to pay! Drink this and get into your clothes."

Dench had brought him a mug of beer, and Coonrod downed it at a single gulp. His head swam and thudded as he got to his feet, and Dench helped him into his garments, ejaculating pity for Coonrod as he did so.

"What is it?" Coonrod asked. "What is wrong?"

"I blame myself for it," Dench said. "It is a cursed business. I should have dragged you away before you struck him in the face; but why you slapped the face of a friend of mine I do not know, you poor fool."

"I slapped a face?" asked Coonrod, gawping at Dench.

"Don't tell me you do not remember it!" said Dench. "Were you that drunk? Don't you remember slapping the face of Captain Marcel Delorme, you poor yokel?"

"I know nothing of it" said Coonrod. "I do not remember that I slapped a face."

"After we retired to the small room behind the bar, a dozen of us? Do you mean to tell me you do not remember getting to your feet when Captain Delorme was toasting the King of France, and shouting that all kings were tyrants, and slapping Delorme across the mouth?"

"I remember none of it," Coonrod insisted.

"Poor fool! Poor drunken fool!" said Dench sadly. "And to think you must die for what you cannot remember!"

"Die?" said Coonrod, his face blanching. "I die, Edward?"

"What else?" asked Dench. "Captain Delorme is waiting for you below there now, with his seconds, to accompany you to the Jersey shore to fight the duel, as arranged last night."

"Fight? A duel?" stammered Coonrod.

"What else?" demanded Dench. "What do you expect, when you have struck Marcel Delorme, who loves a duel better than a maid? He is below there now, pacing the barroom, swearing he will kill you."

But I will beg his pardon," said Coonrod. "I was drunk. I did not know what I was doing. I want no duel, Edward. I am a peaceable man. What weapons were chosen?"

"Rapiers -- and he is most deadly with the rapier."

Coonrod groaned. "I have never so much as held a rapier in my hand!" he said.

"Then," said Dench, "I am doubly sorry for you, for you are a dead man indeed. But, come -- he is waiting. If you have letters to write, or a will to make, I will get you pen and ink; but we must make haste."

With this, Coonrod sat him down on the edge of Dench's bed and buried his face in his hands. When he looked up his face was white indeed.

"Is there no way out of this tavern that I need not meet him, Edward?" he asked. "I will write a letter begging his pardon, and slip away."

Dench laughed scornfully.

"So that is what you are -- a coward?" he said with a sneer. "Well, since you value your poor carcass more than your honor, there may be a way you can save it; but you will have to pay well, Burgmann. By chance, there was some question of lawbreaking in the matter of the last man Marcel Delorme killed, and he has been in hiding. I know that had he a hundred pounds, he would make his way out of this country and to the Bermudas, for which islands a ship sails within an hour. If you think your life worth that much, Burgmann, I will talk with Delorme. He may count his own safety worth more than a country yokel's life."

Coonrod, still sitting on the bed, groaned again. His head was still whirling, sending the steel ball thumping about, and he was in utter misery of all sorts.

"Go to him, Edward," he said. "Be my good friend and send him away. Offer him the money."

"Since that is your wish," said Dench haughtily, "I will talk with Delorme -- though such a coward's mission I surely never expected to go upon!"

He went out, leaving the door ajar as it had been, and so down the stairs; and Coonrod sat on the bed edge, his head drooped low. As he sat so the door was pushed wider, and he looked up and saw Fitie Van Wysten standing there, a towel around her hair and a broom in one hand. One finger was at her lips, commanding silence, and she stepped inside and closed the door.

"Hear me, Coonrod," she said, coming closer to him and leaning on her broom. "I listened at the door. I heard all that Ned Dench said. He is a worthless rascal, and all he said was a trap to catch your money."

At that Coonrod raised his head.

"He will come back for your hundred pounds," she said, "but you may laugh at him. There is no small room behind the bar, and you struck no Captain Marcel Delorme on the mouth or elsewhere, for you fell asleep in the barroom, and remained there until I helped that rascal Ned Dench carry you to this room. There will be no murder done by any Captain Marcel Delorme, Coonrod, because there does not nor ever did exist a Captain Delorme. No one is waiting below for you. No one. I tell you this because --"

She hesitated, and for a minute or so Coonrod stared at her. Then he was on his feet, his great hand on her shoulder, and he looked straight into her eyes and she into his. He saw the color flood her face.

"Now, by my soul, Fitie," he cried, "you are the finest girl in America, and the best friend I ever had, and this is a thing I will never forget!" And before he quite knew what he was doing he had kissed her; and before that he had never kissed a girl.

He released her as Ed Dench opened the door with a cock-and-bull story ready for Coonrod's hearing; and Coonrod's big fist doubled and struck Ed Dench full in the face, sending him to the floor. He crawled away and got to his feet, and went scurrying down the stairs like the rat he was; and Coonrod set about packing his saddlebags in haste. He had had enough of New York and New York ways.

But as Coonrod packed, he told Fitie of the tavern ready for a mistress, and how he must have a wife to help him manage the tavern, and just what wife he wanted now.

So, toward one o'clock or a little later, Coonrod Burgmann, with his saddlebags over his shoulder, made his way as best he could toward where the schooner Nellie lay, his money safe in his pocket. He did not know the streets, but he asked his way, and thus he came to Wall Street; but through that street he could not pass because of the great crowd there; so he turned down another and, in turning, he looked up Wall Street and saw on the balcony of a pillared building, under its striped awning, a man exceedingly tall, garbed in brown homespun, holding his hand high to be sworn.

And thus Coonrod saw George Washington.


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