And our guide, the tall, thin, grey-haired dame, who came forward with such native ease and moved before us, touching this fungused wall, that rusting stairway, and telling, as it were, no one in her soft, slow speech, things that any one could see—what a strange and fitting figure!
Before the smell of the deserted, oozing rooms, before that old creature leading us on and on, negligent of all our questions, and talking to the air, as though we were not, we felt such discomfort that we soon made to go out again into such freshness as there was on that day of dismal heat. Then realising, it seemed, that she was losing us, our old guide turned; for the first time looking in our faces, she smiled, and said in her sweet, weak voice, like the sound from the strings of a spinet long unplayed on: “Don’ you wahnd to see the dome-room: an’ all the other rooms right here, of this old-time place?”
Again those words! We had not the hearts to disappoint her. And as we followed on and on, along the mouldering corridors and rooms where the black peeling papers hung like stalactites, the dominance of our senses gradually dropped from us, and with our souls we saw its soul—the soul of this old-time place; this mustering house of the old South, bereft of all but ghosts and the grey pigeons niched in the rotting gallery round a narrow courtyard open to the sky.
“This is the dome-room, suh and lady; right over the slave-market it is. Here they did the business of the State—sure; old-time heroes up therein the roof—Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Davis, Lee—there they are! All gone—now! Yes, suh!”
A fine—yea, even a splendid room, of great height, and carved grandeur, with hand-wrought bronze sconces and a band of metal bordering, all blackened with oblivion. And the faces of those old heroes encircling that domed ceiling were blackened too, and scarred with damp, beyond recognition. Here, beneath their gaze, men had banqueted and danced and ruled. The pride and might and vivid strength of things still fluttered their uneasy flags of spirit, moved disherited wings! Those old-time feasts and grave discussions—we seemed to see them printed on the thick air, imprisoned in this great chamber built above their dark foundations. The pride and the might and the vivid strength of things—gone, all gone!
We became conscious again of that soft, weak voice.
“Not hearing very well, suh, I have it all printed, lady—beautifully told here—yes, indeed!”
She was putting cards into our hands; then, impassive, maintaining ever her impersonal chant, the guardian of past glory led us on.
“Now we shall see the slave-market—downstairs, underneath! It’s wet for the lady the water comes in now yes, suh!”