"THE EMPTY CHAIR
Although he was distinctly a rolling-stone, my father gathered moss in the shape of friends to an extent nothing short of marvelous. His were not the friendships of an hour or a day; they lasted long after he himself had passed away. I inherited many of these friendships, and among the dearest and best was that of Captain John Shackford, of Philadelphia. It was not my fortune to see Captain Shackford often, but those occasions when I did meet him are fraught with tender memories. He had been the commander of one of the White Star Line steamers. My father had often crossed the ocean with him, and they had become fast friends. When I first began to obtain some success in America, Captain Shackford looked me up and asked me to dinner. I went gladly enough. The captain himself and a friend of his and his wife, four of us, composed the party at the Bellevue Hotel. The table was laid for five persons, but we began dinner with one place empty. This place was for my father, who had long been dead.
When dinner was over, Captain Shackford arose and addressed the gathering. One would have thought that there were a hundred people present. He began: "Mr Chairman," addressing his friend opposite, whom, for convenience, I will call Mr. Feathers. "Mr Chairman," said the captain, "Ladies" (to Mrs. Feathers) "and Guests" (to me): "We have with us to-night-" then he launched forth with a eulogy of my father, serious, gentle, and tender. He proposed his health, and drank in silence. Then he resumed his seat to the applause of Mr. and Mrs. Feathers. Feathers then arose and responded. The captain then got on his feet again and made an oration of some minutes without mentioning my name, but pointedly discussing the son of my father, alluding to my various steps toward popularity and generously criticizing my progress. This, too, was interrupted by applause and very meaning glances from Mr. and Mrs. Feathers, as much as to say" "I fancy he must mean you." At length the captain wound up by waving his hand toward me and saying: "I need scarcely say that I allude to our guest, Mr Edward Sother, the son of his father." I then got on my legs and haltingly offered my thanks amid great enthusiasm. The formalities having been complied with, this great solemnity-not at all as a joke-we then came down to earth and to cheerful conversation.
Every year, for many years, this same thing took place. Shackford would come all the way from New York to show me this kindness. Always there was the vacant chair; always the address to my father; always the same adulation of myself, as though I were not aware whom he was discussing.
Captain Shackford was one of the most peaceful of men, but my father, perhaps for that reason, was constantly making him presents of huge firearms. When he died, the captain left me a brace of these-two enormous revolvers.
One experience he had with my father was a precious one which he loved to relate. It seems they had undertaken to attend two parties on one evening in London; one was a ball in a private house, and the other was a children's party. My father, in order to amuse the children, had engaged a man to induce the
servants of the establishment by certain largess to permit him, the man, to take up a position on the roof so that he might talk down the chimney. My father's plan was to indulge in some ventriloquial acts, and astonish the children with the voice from above. Certain questions and replies, and a code of signals had been carefully arranged. As luck would have it, however, my father got the houses mixed up. As the servant was about to open the drawing room door of the first house they entered, he said to Shackford: "Now we'll make the children laugh; let us enter on all fours."
The two men got down on their hands and knees, my father winking at the servant and taking him into his confidence. "Now," said he, "open the door and announce us." The man did solemnly enough. Shackford and my father crawled in. It was the grown-up party! The people were, naturally, amazed, but my father, was as usual, equal to the occasion.
"Stay where you are," said he under his breath to the humiliated Shackford then, aloud: "Quick!" he whispered, "all of you flat on the floor. A man has escaped from the county jail, and they are about to shoot with rifles from across the street. They say they have seen him on the balcony. Quick! For your lives!"
So serious and intense was his tone that actually most of the people went flat on the floor. Others started to investigate;the host especially rushed out with great fortitude onto the balcony. The hoax seemed about to explode when a voice came down the chimney saying in stentorian tones" "Look here! I've had enough of this, it's as cold as hell up here." It was the man who should have been on the roof at the children's party, and who also had been directed to the wrong house. A stampede followed.
"The escaped convict!" cried the host. "Quick follow me!" He rushed to the roof followed by man of his guests. My father and Shackford did their best to calm the company. There was much noise and
argument in the neighborhood of the chimney' then an ominous silence. Then more noise and more protestation on the stairs; then a crowd entered the ballroom holding onto a rough-looking customer, much disordered, and much dazzled by the illuminations and the splendor of attire.
"Convict be hanged!" cried the ventriloquist. "I was engaged by a man to get up on the roof and answer questions when he talked up the chimney. He gave me this address. I came here and tipped the
servants and they let me up.: Here he caught sight of my father. "There he is!" he shouted. "That's the man."
"Call the police!" said the host. "That gentleman is Mr Southern."
"I know who he is!" cried the man. "he paid me to come here."
"A likely story," said the host. "Call the police!"
My father approached the man. "I never saw you before in my life." Said he, and stood looking his confederate in the eye. "Come, you know you are mistaken, don't you? And he began to make passes at the chimney man actually he merely meant to confuse and combat the distressed and disarranged
fellow. Much to his own amazement and that of the lookers-on, the man glued his eyes on him and seemed fascinated.
"Now," said my father, "go slowly down the stairs; when you get to the bottom say 'High cockalorum,' then open the door and walk directly to the police station."
This the man proceeded to do' he walked downstairs, said "High cockalorum," and passed out into the night.
My father was convinced he had mesmerized the man, but what really happened was Shackford, who was holding him behind, had muttered in his ear" "Do what he says, there's money in it."
The party went on, much excitement prevailed and the evening passed away. Next day the confederate called at the hotel, was properly rewarded and comforted with explanations."
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SOURCE: Sothern Edward Hugh, The Melancholy tale of "me": my remembrances (C. Scribner's Sons, 1916), 351-2; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 8 April 2013
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