Friday, September 29, 2017

THE FIRST LADY OF EVANSTON - Cornelia Gray Lunt - BOOK I, Chapter 3 - The Christmas Message

This is the next installment in the autobiography of Cornelia Gray Lunt of Evanston, Illinois: Sketches of Childhood and Girlhood, Chicago, 1847-1864.  For more about the life and times of Miss Lunt, please see the first installment:                           

Chapter Three
The Christmas Message

December 24, 1849

THE LITTLE GIRL watched her Father.  He sat before the fire in the big chair, his feet stretched out, his eyes fixed on the bright flames.  Why was he so still?  They had made much noise, she thought, at the table. It was her Father's Birthday.  She had been allowed to sit up for late supper.  She was very proud and happy and tried to understand the stories, and why they laughed so hard while the young Aunt said many things and looked so pretty.

"Father, I am glad you had a Birthday" she said and sidled close up to his knee.  "I am glad you had a Birthday Father" she repeated as he looked down and smiled his beautiful smile.  "I will tell my little girl of a more wonderful Birthday" he answered, lifting her to his knee and putting strong arms about her.  But she felt a little pain as he explained slowly that there was no real Santa Claus that came down chimneys, that the pretty piece she had learned about his Reindeer and the bells on the sleigh, and the pack of presents for good children, was all only a picture, made to show little and big ones how lovely it was to give and celebrate the Birthday of The Christ Child by helping to make everybody happy.

So was the sweet and sacred Story of Manger and Infant Jesus and Wise Men travelling far, and the beautiful Star shining and showing the way to where the Young Child lay, gently told me and the Christmas message repeated, - "Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men," spoken softly.  Say it dear, "Peace on Earth, Good Will To Men." He told me of an indescribable light that shone on the Child's face, and made the wise men kneel and lay gifts before Him.  And so Christmas was the time for ever to love our friends and give gifts.

"Why it's your Birthday too," I said, "Oh Father you were born with the little Jesus" - "No, Oh no, only on His birthday to learn to love Him more," he answered.  And as his dear eyes met mine they were charged with some message he could not utter, and I was silent with the inarticulate yearning of childhood.

Almost three quarters of a century since the revelations of that Christmas Eve, and I can summon back the new feelings about Santa Claus and the Christ Child as I said my prayers that night, and was put to bed in the small Hall bedroom out of the large one, where I had been moved two years before, when the brother beloved of a life-time first opened his eyes on earth.  Often I had been lonely there, and often frightened.

So far it seemed from Father and Mother and the baby boy who slept in my place.  The Lake made a loud song at night.  Sometimes it shook the bed and called out, and I hid under the clothes, and I heard cries when great waves broke and said angry words in a language I tried to understand.  Voices that Christmas night seemed to come nearer and nearer - "Peace on Earth, Peace on Earth," softer and softer.

All suddenly I awoke from childhood's slumber and dreaming its dreams.  I started up in the darkness - "I must see what Santa Claus brought?"  No there was no Santa Claus only a cold wind blowing in my face, and around me all the mysterious darkness of midnight, its vastness, its silence, its loneliness.  I can recall only my swift action, but I can still feel the cold night air blowing on my face as I saw the white moonlight filtering over the floor.  The sound of waves breaking on snow and ice-banks called to me out of the great waste of waters.  It was my first Christmas message - "Come and see!  Come and see?"

I crept out of bed - Oh, very softly, and softly on hands and knees I crawled stealthily through the ever open door.  I have not forgotten so much as the pattern on the carpet the faint glimmer of the night lamp, but how dark looked the alcove, how long and strange the shadows, and how far to that fireplace where from the mantelpiece hung two stockings.  The low windows let in a faint glimmer, and as he eyes grew accustomed to its wavering shadow, I stood erect both hands outstretched - I must find out what was left for me.  No one woke to be aware of the little daughters search as she felt, in a tremor of delight, the larger stocking.  Yet even as she stood the chill that has no name swept over her.  A clutch at the heart - a fear that made for pause. There must have been a faint stirring, a suggestion of honour or principle that fought with curiosity and desire but could no conquer it. Once again with lingering loving touch she felt the outline of well filled stockings.  Her cold numb feet hitting something solid beneath, she dropped to the floor to feel for the first time in life the joy of handling books.  It was a gloating delight.  She lifted and hugged them.  Those small books were all hers.  All her very own.  She held them tight in her arms until the stir of the sleepers, or the icy chill, sent the little Trespasser shivering to hide under the blankets, and fall happily to sleep.

Was I the victim of an excited imagination?  My intelligence was not advanced for my years, only the power to read had come without conscious effort.  Over a year before, when I was only five, my Mother had taken me to a neighbouring Dame School, and I sat in a little Rocker she had purchased, while all the other little scholars superior in years, if not in attainment, were at desks or on benches.  They seemed many to me - and the Teacher very cross.  I trembled when she sent the noisy or naughty children to stand in corners, and sometimes even put a tall cap on them and made them sit on a high stool before everyone.  I cried sometimes, but, as the very youngest and littlest, she pointed to me often as the child who learned to read so fast and loved all stories.  Oh! that little Rocking chair, from which I saw and felt, and had those first shrinking impressions of discipline and severity!  The inexpressible dread and the vivid interest of those first school days - and the dislike of the loud voiced teacher.

But that Christmas Eve I had found what was left for me.  Yes, while Father and Mother and little Brother slept peacefully, I had found my treasures.  I had not waited - I could not wait.  The burning ardour in me to see, to discover, to enjoy without delay, had fought the icy breath of winter itself.  I have never waited willingly from that day to this,. I have seized my joys.  It was the hope and eagerness in me then, and the long years were to intervene before learning to hold them in check and to conquer impetuous action.

In the morning when I was shaken awake and heard the "Merry Christmas" calls, and saw little Horace playing with rattle and coloured worsted ball I felt no excitement.  Had I been dreaming?  No.  There before the fire hung my stocking and under the window the pile of little books.  And never, never until that moment when I held those little books in the dark night, had I known the rapture of discovery, or the enchanted silence of the night. 

Friday, September 22, 2017

THE FIRST LADY OF EVANSTON - Cornelia Gray Lunt - BOOK I, Chapter 2 - The Little Dishes

This is the next installment in the autobiography of Cornelia Gray Lunt of Evanston, Illinois: Sketches of Childhood and Girlhood, Chicago, 1847-1864.  For more about the life and times of Miss Lunt, please see the first installment:                           

Chapter Two
The Little Dishes

March 19, 1849.

THE LITTLE GIRL looked down in an ecstasy too deep for words - Then looking up at the smiling faces round the table the barriers broke - "Oh are they mine!  My little dishes!  Oh Mother they are big, not like the others for dolls and babies!  Oh Mother they have little posies and green springs, and a gold band against the green.  They are beautiful, they are beautiful!" she repeated, as she bent lower and clasped her hands in a delight even too great to touch the treasures.

Yes, it was her (6th) Birthday, but who could have thought she was to have such a surprise; All on a tray at her own plate when she came down to breakfast!  Why the plates were as big as saucers, and anyone could drink out of the lovely cups, and there would be plenty of tea for them all in that little Tea-pot with its Creamer and Sugar, almost like the old ones of Great Grand-mother Patten's that Mother loved so much.

But her awe deepened and her heart beat fast at the words she heard - "A party? A real party," and she could ask six little girls that very day for Saturday afternoon!  Addie, their neighbour's daughter three years her senior, would go with her from house to house.  Her spirits overflowed. She rushed for a paper to have her Mother write the names and just what to say; and from that moment the great event took precedence of all others in thought and speech - and the hours were long until the little coat was buttoned tight, the comforter tied about her throat, for March winds were cold and the Lake sang a sinister song - "Don't be too happy little girl!  A storm is brewing!"

What cared the proud little lady holding hands with Addie and tripping along so happily.  "Isn't it great to have a party?  Did you have one when you were six?"  "It isn't a party was the strangely scornful reply. It's just six children.  That doesn't make a party.  It takes lots more.  I had twenty-five once" - and all joy was blotted out.  A queer pain burned in her eyes, she winked away something hot and blistering, and at first Addie's words hardly penetrated to consciousness.  "You could ask them - You know lots of little girls at the school.  I know lots of little girls right round here - Come on - if you want a real party."  And the way was opened.  A sudden sense of power and confidence aroused. - No questions made her hesitate.  It was a party she wanted - and she breathed again with pride, and called at every house in the neighbourhood her companion indicated; and when she saw some children playing in groups near by to each one was repeated carefully her Mother's message, the invitation for Saturday afternoon. Strangely elate (sic), only half understanding Addie's warning, she returned to her "Little Dishes" with no disturbing fears, no terrifying questions, no punitive anticipations, no conscious asking - "Why did ye so?"  Oh no! She was afraid of nothing.  It was to be a real party, and holding that thought to her little heart she exulted and never trembled once.  She had no realization of wrong - Why should she? - Addie said that it was to be a fine party and that she needn't tell anyone.

As clear as today it now rises before me.  It stands high at the very beginning of memory - That Saturday afternoon.  The scene as I first saw it - when  my Aunt called quickly - "Oh look! what can it mean? See all those children coming," and I ran with the others to the door, to behold what to my vision was a regiment of white frocked children!  I see now those colored sashes and switching skirts, and feel the same astonished sensation - inexplicable and dreamlike for the moment, while I looked on breathlessly as they reached the house, fully forty in number when all the different companies arrived.  As I have not so much as forgotten the shining faces, or my sudden shyness as my astonished Mother and Aunts who had time for no single inquiry, made them doubtless as welcome and comfortable as conditions and circumstances permitted.   

The spirit of adventure is of great assistance to disobedience, and there was no piety within to disturb me at that moment.  "A party - a real party." - I had a real party.  And my little dishes.  It was enough - bliss could mount no higher.   What secret feeling in me ascended to its throne?  What nascent delight in hospitality had birth?  What happiness in having and giving brought colour to the cheeks, and warmed a little heart that heard a hundred jubilant notes and not one discord as the enchanting afternoon began?  It might have been imaginary music that sang within - No forebodings - No shadows crowded thickly, the disregarded Mother's directions penetrated to no secret chamber of memory.  Oh the merry hours!  the gladness of my first party, with no fears of a price to be paid or that a profoundly significant lesson must be taught.  Pride and pleasure ran a race as we shouted and played, and my kind Aunts, proficient in ways to entertain, made the hours fly.

I lived in so rich a present there was nothing to be desired, until opening a door into the dining-room, eager for my "little dishes" to be displayed, my eyes beheld a place alive with curious preparations.  Lo! the big table was spread with many dishes, the pyramidal centre-piece with apples, and I saw cakes and candies and nuts and raisins as I peered eagerly, and then rushed to the door from which steps descended to the kitchen.

There was my Mother sitting before the slanting cellar door, in her lap a flat-iron with hammer raised above the nuts to be cracked.  She looked up as I looked down, the naughty little girl standing on the top step smiling!  Mother, Mother, where are my little dishes, Can't I have my little dishes?"  and something in her stern glance turned my eyes to busy Mahaly spreading with butter and sugar the thin slices of bread. What did it all mean?  all this activity and haste so manifest.  It was odd and menacing.  I had never before seen excitement apparent , and I stared and repeated eagerly - You said I could have my little dishes." One sudden look - and fright stirred and hurt.  "You are a naughty girl, you will not have your little dishes for a long time.  You have been disobedient - You will be punished when the little girls have gone."  As if I had known punishment instead of indulgence all my six years I shivered - terror for a second shadowed and enveloped me as I backed swiftly out of sight and returned to the merry throng.  The terror was unreal, the party was real, and the feast that followed reassuring.  But as dusk descended the ghost of fear spoke insistently - Don't go yet, please; don't go, please don't - as they trooped away in smiling groups, well filled and well pleased and with no penalties or explanations to meet or make.

As the last one was departing, one little stranger, the guest of a friend who brought her, thanked me prettily for being allowed to come, and gave me a sense of surprised gratification and new importance.  At that moment the intervening door opened and I heard the ominous call repeated, as I hung defiantly back, until without one further word my hand was grasped and dragging feet could no longer help me.  Into the adjacent bed-room we passed, and I remember even a curious creaking of the hinges as the door closed.  I remember how the carved Bureau mirror reflected my Mother's face as in a fog - And how I screamed and screamed.  It was the first hurt of my little life, my first punishment.  With a firm hand castigation of a primitive sort was being administered.  The spanking was not severe in fact but terrible in fancy, and as I felt each deliberate stroke I writhed in futile rebellion and a sense of injury.  I had not realized my offence - its weight or measure could not appeal without adequate explanation.  I shrieked again and again thinking to lessen deserved pain - My Mother's gentle hand had become a sledge-hammer to me.

That same little uninvited visitor who came with her cousin rose like salvation to save me! - Oh Mother, I didn't invite Teresa Foot, I didn't invite Teresa Foot, I didn't, I didn't" over and over as each fresh stroke fell.

Ah' that deep intuitive feeling that excuses and palliates and believes that the climax of full criminality not having been reached, Justice should be stayed.  But I sought redress in vain, and I realize again that stubborn resistance of spirit, of outraged pride.  I was not toned to repentance or to any clear understanding of the nature of my disobedience, - Why! I had not invited Teresa Foot, whose name I will remember as I do my own, and as long - and I had not had my little dishes."

My face was wet with tears under its heavy curls was lifted at last.  Never mind little girl, it is all over.

The storm the Lake threatened had burst and passed.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

THE FIRST LADY OF EVANSTON - Cornelia Gray Lunt - BOOK I, Chapter 4 - The Fate of Liars

This is the next installment in the autobiography of Cornelia Gray Lunt of Evanston, Illinois: Sketches of Childhood and Girlhood, Chicago, 1847-1864.  For more about the life and times of Miss Lunt, please see the first installment:                           

Chapter Four
The Fate of Liars

June, 1850.

THE LITTLE GIRL sat under the Lilac bushes that clustered together to form the hedge shutting the street from view.  Above her head green leaves shook gently, and the great purple blossoms seemed to rise and fall and breathe out sweetness.  The glad voice of her little brother joined in joyous chorus with bright soft wings and sweet scents everywhere, and a quiver of light that sang  with the birds.  That miraculous day, all flowery and intoxicating like childhood's happiness!  And the air was so heavy with the breath of lilacs, a peculiar tenacious sweetness, which only later years could teach her was the very essence of Spring.  

The little brother on the grass among his toys seemed also aware of blossoms and perfume and shouted in the soft summer air until sister gave him a big spray to play with.  The book in her lap had fallen face downward on the carpet of green that stretched from door to gate and all about the yard.  The sky of flowery blue bent lovingly above them, for theirs was a blessed heritage, and the two children were being raised with that gentleness of love prophetic of peace and power to serve.  It was the little one who cried - "See Mother" as she came smiling towards them so slim and tall.  Why did my Mother look always different from other Mothers? - Her hair so curly soft, her face so fair, her gowns so pretty, and now she had on the hat with blue feathers that danced in the circle of sunlight and shadow, and seemed alive as she stopped before us.  She wore her fine lace mantilla too, and had a parasol, and now she was going to make visits, and see the Mother of the little girls who lived in the new brick house, and ask them to come and see me.  "Take good care of your little brother while I am away. he's only three you know and all the little son I have.  And don't go near that gate, or open it.  It is a dirty place and the ugly cow lives there" - pointing to the back yard cut off by a high fence.  "No Mother," was my swift response, and "No Mother" repeated the three year old charge sitting beside me.  His little face looked up at her from under the mass of gold-brown curls.  He was a delicate child; but there was no shyness in his manner, and everyone felt the charm of his beauty.  "Mother's beautiful boy, Mother's own boy" she said, stooping to kiss him, endearments I had heard so often, for his rare loveliness was the pride of all, and I had heard repeatedly how people stopped Mahaly in the street to ask whose child it was? and she always chuckled when she repeated those praises.  "Remember now to be very good and Mother will not be long away, and looking back again, "Remember all I have told you!"  And, "Yes Mother" I said, and "Yes Mother" echoed the baby boy, and played on happily in that June sunshine, while the sister's book remained unopened.

Fragrance floated all around to enwrap us in its magic; but strangely I grew restless and curious, those emphatic orders strangely disquieted me.  Why couldn't I see just through the gate if the cow had come home?  It was a nice back yard with a big tree in it, and the branches came down low.  I walked very slowly to the gate, and childish imagination made a fascinating picture that lured me to push it open - just a little bit!  Something called loudly as fancy picked out wonderful spots in that forbidden cow-yard.  Like other dreamers, something within conspired to make her forget orders, to push the gate wide, to peer in every corner and between slats on one side, as she stepped within, she saw the pretty next door garden where Lily Scammon was playing.

The sun was no more joyous than she as she set her little feet upon the lowest branch of the old, gnarled oak.  The tree cast slanting shadows;  She was not afraid - she was exultant and there were no foes within or without to terrify her.  She had visions to conjure with, as forgetting all troubles she began to climb up higher when a little voice called gleefully - "Take me up, Take me up too."  The shock brought the disobedient sister to earth to see little Horace standing in the filth of the place, proud and smiling, both little hands stretched high.

As smoke rises to reach the sky and falls, so she fell to learn of trouble untasted before!  She was not repentant, she listened to no voice of conscience or duty, but she was miserable; and hurried back only in time to hear the carriage stop.  And the Mother came out suddenly like a gigantic shape.  Without one word she pointed to our shoes.  That look again, that strange look that greatly hurt that she had seen before in her Mother's eyes when she had asked for her "Little Dishes."  It was sharp and piercing now and at the steady gaze she paled in fright.  "You have disobeyed Mother.  You took little Horace into that yard" - All softness and tenderness gone from her look or voice.  

The tide of feeling rising high threatened to submerge me, and I was suddenly hurled into a mad whirl of fear.  "No-No-No - I cried, Mother I did not."  I was rudely taught by something within to  adjust myself to harsh contrasts of life, to the dark side of deceit and disobedience.  The ease of falsehood, first showing itself as means of escape to a child who had before only known love and truth.  "You have told Mother a lie," and eyes were fixed on me from which all softness had fled.  My Mother was suddenly a mystery. - Her voice too was different - Go to your Father's room - shut the door and stay until he comes.  Go at once." 

There was a damp chill in the room that I do not forget, or that as the hours passed the rain began to drum on the roof and splash upon the windows.  The Lake became significant in its noise and nearness; the wind began blowing a gale; low lying mists were travelling quickly as the light faded from the sky.  The sound of the  Lake like the wild whir of leaves had strange threats.  It was a dim night and the twilight very long.  I had thought nothing out, I only waited.  I had acted on deep seated impulse and many experiences come back to me. thrust me back into the agonizing emotions of childhood and frustrated desires, into dreams - dreams - and waking ones indivisible as daily like.  Images come back to me and events  shake me even now, for mine is a heart that cherishes memory.

Presently I heard the step upon the stairs, ascending, drawing near, heavily it sounded.  Never shall I forget that first startled impression.  How large and strange and grave and terrifying!  He had in hand a book and a long switch.  Did it come from the biggest  Lilac bush that had great roots and strong branches?  He laid it down on the table near.  My heart beat very fast at my Father's look.  There was oppression in the air and a threat that stirred to fright.  Suddenly he opened his arms and the sorrow and tenderness in his face I can see again and again as he lifted me close, and I burst into a passion of crying. 

He waited patiently until the tempest of tears should pass, and the tearing sobs that shook the little body cease, and then opening the Bible read the verses - "He that overcometh shall inherit all things. I shall be his God and he shall be my son; - but the unbelieving and idolaters and all liars shall have their part in the Lake which burneth with fire and brimstone, which is the second death."  My little girl did not know how terrible it was to lie?  God is our Father - He hates a lie.  It would break Mother's heart to have her little girl a liar - Liars' - why listen to the Fate of Liars.  "All liars shall have their part in the Lake which burneth with fire and brimstone which is the second death."  I was curiously fascinated by the picture of a burning fiery Lake.  My nascent dramatic sense immediately painted it, and I kept whispering to myself "The Fate of Liars - The Fate of Liars," while my Father prayed his lovely prayer to his God of Love to forgive his child who would try to never lie again.  And forgiveness blesses me now as if I had gone to Heaven which I felt was all about me as he prayed.

I clung happily as we passed from the room, restored and comforted by that Child of the Most High - My Father - who was teaching me that humiliation and shame attached to falsehood.  The crime of telling a lie had been impressed upon a mind that worked quickly.  I began to understand how it chokes and destroys.  A vivid lesson in the idea, so dim at first, of loyalty, of the dividing line between truth and falsehood, honour and dishonour, which he illustrated in my case.  My Father was a source of joy forever after, - A refuge - A belief.  Something unfelt, unknown yet intimate and close stirred warmly and merged again into the right merry humour that for hours had forgotten to smile.  Was it the sight of that unused switch, and the droll imitation of the drama that had made him cut and bring it before me, which added to the joy of escape?  Had he merely felt the desire to impress me by a suggested punishment that he never could have administered? 

My Puritan ancestors some way left out the stuff that makes either  martyrs or saints.  There was in me no genius for suffering, to prolong trouble was unnatural.  I was soon above its remembrance even; my liking was for laughter and frolic and I never knew then or since whether it was flesh or devil, or what notion or impetuosity of impulse unchecked might lie in wait to destroy the soul I had not understood I possessed.  Joy and gaiety the native quality quickly expressed itself as, afraid no longer that memorable night, gladness and cheer returning, father and child descended the stairs together.

"I like to be lively, Father.  You know I like to be lively," I said simply clinging to his hand, tears wet on my lashes; but joy in my heart.  

The years go by and explain many vital facts patiently, and I was slowly succumbing without knowledge or clear recognition to the magic of beauty and the love of truth.