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Two Hat Wearers
Princess Anne as its royal name implies, is an old seat of justice, and gentle-minded town on the Eastern Shore. The ancient county of Somerset having been divided many years before the revolutionary war, and its courts separated, the original court-house faded from the world, and the forest pines have concealed its site. Two new towns arose, and flourish yet, around the original records gathered into their plain brick offices, and he would be a forgetful visitor in Princess Anne who would not say it had the better society. He would get assurances of this from "the best people" living there; and yet more solemn assurances from the two venerable churches, Presbyterian and Episcopalian, whose gravestones, upright or recumbent, or in family rows, say, in epitaphs Latinized, poetical, or pious, "We belonged to the society of Princess Anne." That, at least, is the impression left on the visitor as he wanders amid their myrtle and creeper, or receives, on the wide, loamy streets, the bows of the lawyers and their clients.
There were but two eccentric men living in Princess Anne in the early half of our century, and both of them were identified by their hats.
The first was Jack Wonnell, a poor fellow of some remote origin who had once attended an auction, and bought a quarter gross of beaver hats. Although that happened years before our story opens, and the fashions had changed, Jack produced a new hat from the stock no oftener than when he had well worn its predecessor, and, at the rate of two hats a year, was very slowly extinguishing the store. Like most people who frequent auctions, he was not provident, except in hats, andpresented a startling appearance in his patched and shrunken raiment when he mounted a bright, new tile, and took to the sidewalk. His name had become, in all grades of society, "Bell-crown."
The other eccentric citizen was the subject of a real mystery, and even more burlesque. He wore a hat, apparently more than a century old, of a tall, steeple crown, and stiff, wavy brim, and nearly twice as high as the cylinders or high hats of these days. It had been rubbed and re-covered and cleaned and straightened, until its grotesque appearance was infinitely increased. If the wearer had walked out of the court of King James I. directly into our times and presence, he could not have produced a more singular effect. He did not wear this hat on every occasion, nor every day, but always on Sabbaths and holidays, on funeral or corporate celebrations, on certain English church days, and whenever he wore the remainder of his extra suit, which was likewise of the genteel-shabby kind, and terminated by greenish gaiters, nearly the counterpart, in color, of the hat. To daily business he wore a cheap, common broadbrim, but sometimes, for several days, on freak or unknown method, he wore this steeple hat, and strangers in the place generally got an opportunity to see it.
Meshach Milburn, or "Steeple-top," was a penurious, grasping, hardly social man of neighborhood origin, but of a family generally unsuccessful and undistinguished, which had been said to be dying out for so many years that it seemed to be always a remnant, yet never quite gone. He alone of the Milburns had lifted himself out of the forest region of Somerset, and settled in the town, and, by silence, frugality, hard bargaining, and, finally, by money-lending, had become a person of unknown means--himself almost unknown. He was, ostensibly, a merchant or storekeeper, and did deal in various kinds of things, keeping no clerk or attendant but a negro named Samson, who knew as little about his mind and affections as the rest of the town. Samson's business was to clean and produce the mysterious hat, which he knew to be required every time he saw his master shave.
As soon as the lather-cup and hone were agitated, Samson, without inquiry, went into a big green chest in the bedroom over the old wooden store, and drew out of a leather hat-box the steeple-crown, where Meshach Milburn himself always sacredly replaced it. Then "Samson Hat," as the boys called him, exercised his brush vigorously, and put the queer old head-gear in as formal shape as possible, and he silently attended to its rehabilitation through the medium of the village hatter, never leaving the shop until the tile had been repaired, and suffering none whatever to handle it except the mechanic. In addition to this, Samson cooked his master's food, and performed rough work around the store, but had no other known qualification for a confidential servant except his bodily power.
He was now old, probably sixty, but still a most formidable pugilist; and he had caught, running afoot, the last wild deer in the county. Though not a drinking man, Samson Hat never let a year pass without having a personal battle with some young, willing, and powerful negro. His physical and mental system seemed to require some such periodical indulgence, and he measured every negro who came to town solely in the light of his prowess. At the appearance of some Herculean or clean-chested athlete, Samson's eye would kindle, his smile start up, and his friendly salutation would be: "You're a good man! 'Most as good as me!" He was never whipped, rumor said, but by an inoffensive black class-leader whom he challenged and compelled to fight.
Whenever Samson indulged his gladiatorial propensities he disappeared into the forest whence he came, and being a free man of mental independence equal to his nerve, he merely waited in his lonely cabin until Meshach Milburn sent him word to return. Then silently the old negro resumed his place, looked contrition, took the few bitter, overbearing words of his master silently, and brushed the ancient hat.
Meshach kept him respectably dressed, but paid him no wages; the negro had what he wanted, but wanted little; on more than one occasion the court had imposed penalties on Samson's breaches of the peace, and he lay in jail, unsolicitous and proud, until Meshach Milburn paid the fine, which he did grudgingly; for money was Meshach's sole pursuit, and he spent nothing upon himself.
Without a vice, it appeared that Meshach Milburn had not an emotion, hardly a virtue. He had neither pity nor curiosity, visitors nor friends, professions nor apologies. Two or three times he had been summoned on a jury, when he put on his best suit and his steeple-crown, and formally went through his task. He attended the Episcopal worship every Sunday and great holiday, wearing inevitably the ancient tile, which often of itself drew audience more than the sermon. He gave a very small sum of money and took a cheap pew, and read from his prayer-book many admonitions he did not follow.
He was not litigious, but there was no evading the perfectness of his contracts. His searching and large hazel eyes, almost proud and quite unkindly, and his Indian-like hair, were the leading elements of a face not large, but appearing so, as if the buried will of some long frivolous family had been restored and concentrated in this man and had given a bilious power to his brows and jaws and glances.
His eccentricity had no apparent harmony with anything else nor any especial sensibility about it. The boys hooted his hat, and the little girls often joined in, crying "Steeple-top! He's got it on! Meshach's loose!" But he paid no attention to anybody, until once, at court time, some carousing fellows hired Jack Wonnell to walk up to Meshach Milburn and ask to swap a new bell-crown for the old decrepit steeple-top. Looking at Wonnell sternly in the face, Meshach hissed, "You miserable vagrant! Nature meant you to go bareheaded. Beware when you speak to me again!"
"I was afraid of him," said Jack Wonnell, afterwards. "He seemed to have a loaded pistol in each eye."
No other incident, beyond indiscriminate ridicule, was recorded of this hat, except once, when a group of little children in front of Judge Custis's house began to whisper and titter, and one, bolder than the rest, the Judge's daughter, gravely walked up to the unsocial man; it was the first of May, and he was in his best suit:
"Sir," she said, "may I put a rose in your old hat?"
The harsh man looked down at the little queenly child, standing straight and slender, with an expression on her face of composure and courtesy. Then he looked up and over the Judge's residence to see if any mischievous or presuming person had prompted this act. No one was in sight, and the other children had run away.
"Why do you offer me a flower?" he said, but with no tenderness.
"Because I thought such a very old hat might improve with a rose."
He hesitated a minute. The little girl, as if well-born, received his strong stare steadily. He took off the venerable old head-gear, and put it in the pretty maid's hand. She fixed a white rose to it, and then he placed the hat and rose again on his head and took a small piece of gold from his pocket.
"Will you take this?"
"My father will not let me, sir!"
Meshach Milburn replaced the coin and said nothing else, but walked down the streets, amid more than the usual simpering, and the weather-beaten door of the little rickety storehouse closed behind him.