A short tale from the Meigs Family of Savannah, Macon, & Inaha at Christmas, circa 1915.
The rising cigar smoke formed a light haze that hung high against the tall ceiling in the gentleman’s parlor. The conversations were jovial. Contentious politics, rumors of war, and local controversies had all been set aside in the endeavor to keep the spirit of Christmas. The discussion was thus kept to stories of seasons past, loved ones now passed on, and good friends separated now by distance but never by affection.
Uriah was in Savannah, spending Christmas in Georgia during his break from studies in England. This season he was accepted in the parlor as a man, fully admitted to indulge in bourbon, cigars, and the status among the men in attendance. This was a rite of passage. He sipped carefully, not wishing the drink to spoil the experience of his first real taste of the benefits of being a true Southern gentleman.
He was no stranger to drink as his pals at King’s, and previously at Eton, were capable of acquiring and concealing Scotch and gin. He also knew his limitations and exceeding them could mean a loss of status among the gray hairs. He also knew an impressive debut in the parlor would clear the way for success and influence among the Southern aristocracy. Being sent away to school wasn’t necessarily weeding out his rebellious streak. It was teaching him wiser ways to wield it.
Amongst the laughter and the chatter the front doorbell rang and shortly thereafter the butler affived with a wire for Elijah. He opened the message and read it as a smile crossed his face. “Peacock Jones”, he chuckled. “I haven’t seen Peacock Jones in years.”
There was some murmuring and then one of the older gentlemen responded, “Good heavens! Is that ghastly parvenu coming here?”
Elijah laughed, “I’m afraid he must. He can’t seem to find hospitality elsewhere in this town.”
“Paw”, Uriah asked, “Who is Peacock Jones?”
With an exuberant flourish, Elijah explained. Certainly, the man’s parents had not named him “Peacock”. That would have been absurd. No, his birth name, given to him just minutes after he was born in a small tobacco farm cabin outside Metter, was Joe Bob. Not Joseph Robert Jones. Not even Joey Bobby Jones. Joe Bob Jones. Joe Bob’s mother, like so many women in rural Georgia in the 1880’s, died in a subsequent childbirth, taking Joe Bob’s newborn sister with her. Joe Bob’s father soon went stark raving crazy and was admitted to the Georgia State Lunatic, Idiot, and Epileptic Asylum in Milledgeville. It was a cruel and tragic series of turns in Joe Bob’s life. But if anything, he was resilient. Before the state could take custody of him, Joe Bob jumped a train to Savannah and made his way performing odd jobs and eventually became employed by Elijah as a warehouse courier on the riverfront. When the Second Boer War broke out, Joe Bob ran off again, this time in search of adventure with the British Army. He returned from the war inexplicably wealthy, fabulously dressed and adorned, but not one bit more socially refined than when he left for Africa. He used his newfound wealth to acquire some businesses, increasing his treasury along the way. Riches helped him gain entrance into some of polite society’s finer events. However, his lack of charm and grace did not sit well with the locals. Soon, Peacock, as he came to be known, was a pariah everywhere but the Meigs house on Monroe Square. He eventually left town and became somewhat of a drifter, albeit of a much more wealthy variety. Elijah was anxious to hear of the younger man’s travels.
“The man’s manners are absolutely dreadful, Elijah. Your negro butler has more class.”
Elijah raised his glass and smiled to the railroad magnate, “I do have one classy butler, don’t I?”
“You know that’s not what I mean. Peacock Jones is a disgusting fellow. He has no respect for expectations or morals.”
“Edward, I don’t think he is quite as barbaric as you are painting him to be.”
“What about the morning he showed up at Christ Church with a harlot? I don’t mean that figuratively. The wench was still being paid from the night before.”
“I do remember that. If I recall correctly, your wife fainted. The only other time I’ve seen someone faint in church like that was in that snake handling church in Alabama.”
“Very funny, Elijah. But I don’t seem to remember you laughing when he and his guest starting passing the flask back and forth.”
“I don’t recall that. I might have been paying attention to the liturgy at that moment.”
“Clever. So tell us then, what do you see in this man?” Edward Gordon crossed his arms across his chest with a smirk that demanded a satisfactory answer.
“Peacock Jones and I were walking out of a mercantile in Timbuktu in nineteen and three.” He started. “You ever been to Timbuktu, Edward? No, I didn’t think so. I was attacked by a crazed warrior of some sort. He hit me from behind and knocked me to the ground. I rolled over to try to fight back. Before I could react further, Peacock Jones grabbed the assailant by the arm, spun him around, caught him with a kick square to the throat, spun him around again, and tripped him to the ground. By the time he got back up, Peacock had pulled the Colt revolver he had concealed in his coat and blasted the lunatic in the forehead. This is one of several instances in which Peacock Jones has saved my neck. Peacock might not be a prime choice for a polite society Christmas party, but I know I can count on him when it matters.”
Edward tried to maintain his poise but the weight of the eyes in the room made the back of his neck heat up and his own eyes cast downward. His face was that of a man who had called a bluff in a hand of poker only to learn his opponent was holding four aces.
Just then the butler's voice filled the parlor, "Mister Meigs, Mister Peacock Jones."
Edward's face was still a bright scarlet as Elijah cried out "Peacock! What a pleasant surprise!" without taking his eyes off Edward. The Elijah turned and faced his guest to greet him with a handshake and offer him something to drink.
Uriah smiled wide at the interactions. He always found Edward Gordon to be stuffy and arrogant and if his trains did not carry Meigs cotton from Inaha to Savannah, it was doubtful he'd ever be invited to these events. These were the moments that Uriah was most proud of his beloved grandfather.
Peacock was gracious toward Elijah's greeting and responded "Thank you, Elijah, I'll have a mint julep, hold the sugar and you can keep those silly leaves as well. Edward! How are you? I haven't seen you since your wife fainted at church that morning. I do hope she was not seriously ill." Peacock offered a handshake that the older man refused. "Fine by me. I never liked you anyway you pretentious old fart."
Peacock stepped over to check the curled ends of his dandy mustache in a wall mirror as Edward steamed. So many breaches of etiquette in such a short time. He would have challenged Peacock to a duel if the younger man's pistol skills did not make such an undertaking a certain death sentence.
The smaller conversations resumed as Elijah returned with Peacock's drink and then the two men discussed recent visits to Egypt and the Far East. Before long the guests began to trickle out, each offering formal good byes, including a rather disheveled Edward Gordon.
The parlor was emptied except for Elijah, Uriah, and Peacock. The guest dipped his head. "Elijah, I'm afraid I've killed your party."
"Nonsense." Elijah replied. "The party ended on time, as planned."
"I must say that I appreciate the way the two of you handled Mr. Gordon." Uriah said, retrieving two cigars from his inner coat pocket and offering one of them to Peacock, "I've never really liked that man."
"Much obliged." Peacock replied taking the cigar and lighting it. "It seems your grandfather is doing well in mentoring you. You'll turn out to be a better human than Edward. I'm not sure what I've ever done to him but, now that I think about it, I'm not sure anyone in this town cares for me much. Except you, Elijah."
"You will always be welcome in this home, Peacock. If you and Uriah are the only guests I have for the rest of the night, I will be content."
"You have always been a good friend to me, Elijah. You deal with me as a man, rather than some character in a story you wish to tell. Everyone else in this town is trying to make up some crooked manner in which I make my fortunes, trying to debate whether I've had my fortune long enough to be respected, or complaining about how I spend my fortune."
"Mr. Jones, it seems to me that your fortune is your business." Uriah said.
"You have to call me Peacock. That name is one thing these people have given me that I truly enjoy. One of them, can't remember which one, decided that I was pompous and overly adorned and slapped that nickname on me. I find that once people see you own the insults they hurl at you, it often comes back to get them. Besides, Mr. Jones is my father."
"How is your father, Peacock?" Elijah's inquiry was sincere.
"Since you asked, that's why I am here. I'm spending the holiday in Savannah since the crew will be on holiday as well. But I received and urgent telegram and caught the first ship from London. I'm heading to Milledgeville to bury my father."
"Bless your soul, good man. What horrible news to receive at this time of year. I do hope you'll be staying here with us." Elijah rang for his butler and gave him instructions to prepare a guest room for Mr. Jones. "Uriah," Elijah continued, "can you accompany us to Milledgeville to bury Mr. Jones?"
"My ship departs New Year's Eve so I don't think it would be a problem."
Peacock's eyes welled up. "My father was never able to be the father I needed. But I have never held that against him. He fought valiantly in the war and worked his fingers to the bone growing tobacco. When my mother and sister died, something just snapped. I've been to see him so many times over the years. Sometimes he recognized me, sometimes he thought I was Napoleon or maybe Julius Caesar. I've worked to make sure that no matter how crazy he was at the moment, he never was left wanting anything. But even though he was not able to be a traditional father, I'm still heartbroken at his passing."
"Peacock, I remember losing my father. The Yankees took him from me and much of Georgia mourned with me. Now Uriah and I will mourn with you."
"I'm not here to ruin your family's Christmas."
"You aren't ruining it." Uriah said. "Paw just told you that you are part of our family Christmas. You enjoy the holiday with us and then we'll accompany you for the funeral."
The mood of the evening had changed. It wasn't a bad thing though. There had been mirth with acquaintances and socially connected people. Now there was mourning with a true friend. The conversation shifted to stories of Christmases past. Peacock had some wild ones.
Once the holiday passed, the three men loaded a train for Milledgeville. They retrieved the body of Mr. Jones and transported him via train back to Metter. Peacock had wished to bury his father alongside his beloved wife and daughter he had lost so many years ago. New Year's Eve, Uriah sailed for England and Peacock left for...well...wherever Peacock goes when he wasn't in Savannah. So many possibilities and so few obligations left even him often wondering where he would wind up next. But he would always have a home in Savannah, so long as a Meigs family member owned the house on Madison Square.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire