‘Thunder!’ said he, ’I had forgotten all about you. Let’s go right in to dinner.
He sat at the head of the table and I next to him. I remember how, wearied by the day’s burden, he sat, lounging heavily, in careless attitudes. He stirred his dinner into a hash of eggs, potatoes, squash and parsnips, and ate it leisurely with a spoon, his head braced often with his left forearm, its elbow resting on the table. It was a sort of letting go, after the immense activity of the day, and a casual observer would have thought he affected the uncouth, which was not true of him.
He asked me to tell him all about my father and his farm. At length I saw an absent look in his eye, and stopped talking, because I thought he had ceased to listen.
‘Very well! very well!’ said he.
I looked up at him, not knowing what he meant.
‘Go on! Tell me all about it,’ he added.
‘I like the country best,’ said he, when I had finished, ’because there I see more truth in things. Here the lie has many forms — unique, varied, ingenious. The rouge and powder on the lady’s cheek — they are lies, both of them; the baronial and ducal crests are lies and the fools who use them are liars; the people who soak themselves in rum have nothing but lies in their heads; the multitude who live by their wits and the lack of them in others — they are all liars; the many who imagine a vain thing and pretend to be what they are not liars everyone of them. It is bound to be so in the great cities, and it is a mark of decay. The skirts of Elegabalus, the wigs and rouge pots of Madame Pompadour, the crucifix of Machiavelli and the innocent smile of Fernando Wood stand for something horribly and vastly false in the people about them. For truth you ve got to get back into the woods. You can find men there a good deal as God made them’ genuine, strong and simple. When those men cease to come here you’ll see grass growing in Broadway.
I made no answer and the great commoner stirred his coffee a moment in silence.
‘Vanity is the curse of cities,’ he continued, ’and Flattery is its handmaiden. Vanity, flattery and Deceit are the three disgraces. I like a man to be what he is — out and out. If he’s ashamed of himself it won’t be long before his friends’ll be ashamed of him. There’s the trouble with this town. Many a fellow is pretending to be what he isn’t. A man cannot be strong unless he is genuine.
One of his children — a little girl — came and stood close to him as he spoke. He put his big arm around her and that gentle, permanent smile of his broadened as he kissed her and patted her red cheek.
‘Anything new in the South?’ Mrs Greeley enquired.
‘Worse and worse every day,’ he said. ’Serious trouble coming! The Charleston dinner yesterday was a feast of treason and a flow of criminal rhetoric. The Union was the chief dish. Everybody slashed it with his knife and jabbed it with his fork. It was slaughtered, roasted, made into mincemeat and devoured. One orator spoke of “rolling back the tide of fanaticism that finds its root in the conscience of the people.” Their metaphors are as bad as their morals.