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In the vicinity of one of Richmond’s fashionable schools there was often seen on winter afternoons, in the late sixties, a group of young girls, who possessed far more than the usual attractiveness that belongs ever to health and youth. Two, at least, Lizzie Cabell and Mary Triplett, were singularly beautiful. The third, a tall, slender girl, with a trim figure, dark skin and hair, and eyes perhaps downcast as she stepped lightly along listening to her companions, a stranger would scarcely have observed. If, perchance, however, as they paused on a street corner for a last word before separating, the downcast eyes were lifted, there gazed from out their soft depths a spirit that transformed the entire face. They were truly the windows of a soul, looking out upon the world with a frankness that was irresistible, and with a certain caressing fondness for life that begot a kindred glow in all it looked upon. In her sweet voice there was the same tone of caress as it gave a parting utterance to some flashing thought to which, likely as not, she paid the tribute of that honest smile, whose witchery still lingers in many minds. As she continued her walk homeward many lifted hats greeted her passing, many eyes followed her, and her name was murmured among many groups, for, young as she was, Mattie Ould was already wandering in the pathway of a fame that was to make her later the idol of the people of the South.
Before she was beyond the tutelage of her old mammy the piquancy of her wit had established her title to popularity. It had, moreover, much of that audacity that had characterized the wit of another Virginia belle, Ann Carmichael, of Fredericksburg, who flourished fifty years earlier in the century. Conventionality was a term with which Mattie Ould had no concern. She was a genius, and with a spontaneity that was overwhelming she dared to give utterance to every sparkling thought that crossed her mind. She was a very small girl when she made that bright sally which connects her name with that of her father’s friend, General Young.
A famous raconteur and hon vivant, and reveling in her gift for repartee, her father frequently had her brought forward as a little child to grace his stag dinners, seating her in the centre of the table, whence she sent forth such sallies of wit as captivated many a veteran dinner giver and guest.
One evening, when she had kept up her amusing prattle until a later hour than usual, she went up to General Young, who was seated near her father, and stood beside him, resting her head against his shoulder. “Come, come,” called her father, “it’s time mammy was hunting you up, little sleepy head. General Young can’t get on very well with you there.’ “No, no,” insisted Mattie, dreading a summons of that autocrat, in whose presence there could be neither pleading nor protest; “don’t send for mammy. I’m not sleepy. I was just trying an old head on young shoulders.” She was quoted through all grades of Richmond life, and long before she had grown to womanhood a frequent question on many lips was, “Have you heard what Mattie Ould said?” Then everyone listened to her latest bon mot, which was repeated till the whole city had heard and laughed. With a dash and esprit that were peculiarly her own, she had many masculine traits, an independence and a camaraderie that were irresistible.
With the magnetism of her gifts she would have been known to fame even had her family been of less prominence. Well placed, however, as she was in life, her brilliancy illumined a vast horizon. Her father Judge Robert Ould, always held a distinguished position, both in the District of Columbia, where he was born, and in Richmond, whither he removed at the outbreak of the war. Besides being thrown in intimate contact with the prominent citizens of both places, he was frequently called upon to extend his hospitality to eminent strangers who came to him with letters of introduction. His home during part of his residence in Washington was in the quaint old building opposite the Treasury Department, now Riggs Bank. There President Buchanan was his guest for several days after he quitted the White House. No extraordinary preparations, however, were made for the entertainment of the ex-President in a household where distinguished guests were a frequent occurrence. A loose rod in the stair carpet was secured on the suggestion of Mrs. Ould’s mother, lest Mr. Buchanan, not accustomed to the circumnavigation that it had imposed upon the family, should fall and break his leg, in which event they would have him three weeks instead of three days.
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Judge Ould came prominently before the public as the district attorney at the time of the prosecution of General Daniel Sickles for the killing of Barton Key, Sickles being defended by Edwin M. Stanton, who became more widely known later as Lincoln’s Secretary of War.
Ould’s prominence was rather augmented after the outbreak of the war and his removal to Richmond, where he was made commissioner of the Confederate government for the exchange of prisoners. He had married a celebrated Virginia beauty. Miss Sarah Turpin, and had four children, all of whom, with one noted exception, are still living. His wife, after having been long an invalid, died before his family was grown, and he, some years later, married Mrs. Handy, of Baltimore, the mother of the beautiful May Handy, one of Richmond’s belles of the present day.
Mattie Ould was born in the District of Columbia, which she left in her childhood for the home with which her fame is associated. She returned, however, to spend the last two years of her school life in the Visitation Convent, Georgetown. Though known to all Richmond from her childhood, her renown throughout the South dates from her first appearance at the White Sulphur Springs, which in her day, before the advent of the Northern pleasure seeker, still possessed all the distinctive features of a Southern watering place. Though it was already a long established resort, to the magic which her presence shed about it during the seasons that she spent there it owes much of its wide fame today. All the details of the war were then yet vivid memories, and there many a battle was fought over again in graphic words by men whose bravery and gallantry in action have never been surpassed. Many of them had been distinguished officers in the army of the Confederacy, Joe Johnston, of Virginia; Wade Hampton, of South Carolina; Gordon, of Georgia; Beauregard, of Louisiana; Butler, Gary, the gallant Pickett, of Gettysburg fame; and Hood, of Alabama, then lifting himself about on his crutches. It was such men as these who stamped their striking individuality upon the life of the Southern watering places at that period, and among whom, keenly appreciating the wit, ardently loving the beauty, and reverencing the goodness of a woman beyond all things, Mattie Ould came to be the greatest belle the South has had since the war.
While she was ever superlatively attractive to men, she was yet a generous friend to women, and frequently avenged the slights to which she saw some plain woman subjected, for, besides the scintillating qualities that made her a popular idol she had many noble traits that commended her to a more profound and lasting admiration.
The toast which is more celebrated than any of her other equally clever utterances was offered at a supper at the Springs, given in honor of herself and another famous Richmond belle, Mary Triplett, the late Mrs. Philip Haxall. Miss Triplett had been asked to propose a toast and had declined. Mattie Ould, however, rose without hesitation, lifted her glass, inclined her graceful head towards Miss Triplett, and in her clear musical voice, said, “Here’s to beauty, grace, and wit, which united make a Triplett.” There was, indeed, a peculiar enchantment about all she did and said that seemed never to have belonged to anyone else. Her dancing infused a new charm into the atmosphere of a ballroom, and as a horsewoman she possessed a skill and grace that few could rival.
Her horse once ran away with her in Richmond, just as the groom mounted her and before she had put her foot in the stirrup. It dashed off at top speed, running several squares through the residence district of the city, and then turned into a business street, where it rushed madly into a hack. The hackman, however, had seen it coming, and realizing that he could not get out of its way, he stood up, and throwing his arm around the rider’s waist, he lifted her from the saddle as the horse crashed into the hack, partly demolishing it, and fell. A great crowd witnessed the rescue, and cheered lustily for the courageous old hackman. When Mattie Ould was recognized, however, the enthusiasm assumed a more substantial form, and the hands of many men went generously into their pockets. He was never forgotten, and as long as Mattie Ould lived she provided for him and his family, some of the many who had loved her keeping up the good work after she was gone.
Though she was the object of the ardent devotion of many men, she did not marry until she had passed her twenty-fifth year. It was rumored that she was engaged to a friend of her father’s, a man many years her senior, and the indignation with which her father received the news of her marriage to Oliver Schoolcraft substantiated in many minds the report of the former engagement.
Her marriage occurred at the end of the summer of 1876, which she had spent with her grandmother at the White Sulphur Springs. Thither Schoolcraft, one of the wealthiest of the younger set of men who adorned Richmond life, had followed her, taking with him his own valuable horses and traps, with which adjuncts he was ever at her disposal. They drove over to Salem one day, and were quietly married there that evening, at the home of Mr. and Mrs. John A. McCall; one of Miss Ould’s brothers and several of her friends witnessing the ceremony. As no preparation had been made for her marriage, she wore, instead of the conventional white satin, a simple gown of white organdy, set off with bands of black velvet.
She was never more bewitchingly lovely than she was that night, and so impressed herself indelibly on the minds of all who gathered about her, some of whom were but little children. Being asked to sing in the course of the evening, she complied with her usual graciousness, for part of the charm of her manner lay not only in her readiness to contribute to the pleasure of others, but in the absolute enjoyment she evinced in so doing. She made her own selection, and sang the little song that was then in favor with her, “Under the Daisies.” It was singularly prophetic, for just as the daisies of another spring were putting forth their bloom the sweet voice, whose vibrations had rung so many glad echoes from the world, lapsed forever into silence.
Schoolcraft took her to Richmond the day following their marriage, where her father insisted upon having the ceremony performed again, owing to some technicality of the law to the effect that a marriage license should be obtained at the usual place of residence of the bride. Though the spirit of comradeship had existed to an unusual degree between this father and daughter, he never forgave her until it was too late for that forgiveness to be any comfort to her.
She lived, after her marriage, in an elegant suite of rooms, built over Schoolcraft’s handsomely equipped stables. When someone twitted her about the peculiar location of her new abode, she replied, with her unfailing readiness, that she was not the first person who had lived in a stable, and quoted a precedent that no Christian could gainsay.
One morning, in the spring following her marriage, Richmond was appalled by the report which, in the course of a few hours had spread over the entire city, that Mattie Ould was dying. The world was so full of her and all she did and said, that it was not credible that her beguiling presence was passing from it. A silent depression and a sense of personal loss settled upon the people in every walk of life.
Richmond had never beheld such a sight as Mattie Ould’s funeral. Old St. Paul’s Church and the Square opposite were thronged, the streets all along the route to the cemetery were lined, and even the hills of beautiful Hollywood were black with people. The entire population of the city was there, many, who were too poor to ride, walking, for she had brightened all their lives, and she belonged to them all.
She lies all through the spring and summer beneath a bed of daisies, and near her sleeps the infant whose life closed her own. In the memory of the people of the South she is yet a living presence, whose words, wise and droll, are repeated, ever with a keen relish for their pungency, for she touched all things with that true wit which is:
Nature to advantage dressed.
What oft before was thought.
But never so well expressed.