“Kings Port is ever ready to discuss strangers,” she further explained. “The Exchange has been going on five years, and the resident families have discussed each other so thoroughly here that everything is known; therefore a stranger is a perfect boon.” Her gayety for a moment interrupted her, before she continued, always mocking and always sweet: “Kings Port cannot boast intelligence offices for servants; but if you want to know the character and occupation of your friends, come to the Exchange!” How I wish I could give you the raciness, the contagion, of her laughter! Who would have dreamed that behind her primness all this frolic lay in ambush? “Why,” she said, “I’m only a plantation girl; it’s my first week here, and I know every wicked deed everybody as done since 1812!”
She went back to her counter. It had been very merry; and as I was settling the small debt for my lunch I asked: “Since this is the proper place for information, will you kindly tell me whose wedding that cake is for?”
She was astonished. “You don’t know? And I thought you were quite a clever Ya— I beg your pardon—Northerner.
“Please tell me, since I know you’re quite a clever Reb—I beg your pardon—Southerner.”
“Why, it’s his own! Couldn’t you see that from his bashfulness?”
“Ordering his own wedding cake?” Amazement held me. But the door opened, one of the elderly ladies entered, the girl behind the counter stiffened to primness in a flash, and I went out into Royal Street as the curly dog’s tail wagged his greeting to the newcomer.
III: Kings Port Talks
Of course I had at once left the letters of introduction which Aunt Carola had given me; but in my ignorance of Kings Port hours I had found everybody at dinner when I made my first round of calls between half-past three and five—an experience particularly regrettable, since I had hurried my own dinner on purpose, not then aware that the hours at my boarding-house were the custom of the whole town. (These hours even since my visit to Kings Port, are beginning to change. But such backsliding is much condemned.) Upon an afternoon some days later, having seen in the extra looking-glass, which I had been obliged to provide for myself, that the part in my back hair was perfect, I set forth again, better informed.
As I rang the first doorbell, another visitor came up the steps, a beautiful old lady in widow’s dress, a cardcase in her hand.
“Have you rung, sir?” said she, in a manner at once gentle and voluminous.
Nevertheless she pulled it again. “It doesn’t always ring,” she explained, “unless one is accustomed to it, which you are not.”