Friday, October 27, 2017

THE FIRST LADY OF EVANSTON - Cornelia Gray Lunt - BOOK I, Chapter 7 - The Comforting Answer

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 Seven
The Comforting Answer

Maine and Massachusetts

It seemed a long time that I was still with thoughts someway fixed, giving stealthy looks at my Grandfather's absorbed countenance as he tapped the round table by his chair, where decanters and glasses were in disarray since the visitors had passed out and I crept in.  Dignity, hospitality, efficiency and plenty marked the household of which he was the head, and there was an atmosphere always felt in his presence.  I, his oldest grandchild, only daughter of his favorite child, had always felt with delight an instant understanding springing up between us when we were alone.  We visited yearly in the old homestead as I grew to girlhood, and I was puzzled but glad that my tall handsome Grandfather Gray (Note: Samuel Gray, farmer, 1785-1859) never made me feel his age and distinctive haughtiness, or the terror his pride, dominating temper and cold bearing so often inspired.  Always I was pleased to be in that rambling well furnished, vastly interesting old home where my Mother first saw the light.

The house was set on a side hill, or rise, on a corner where the street began and climbed a near-by height.  It was large and quaint, had two entrances equally important; and the family rooms seemed to stretch into spaciousness.  There were quaint chambers unused, opening out of the long shed, and there was a big stable, and a wonderful garret of wide spaces under the sloping roof.  The fine old furnishings were everywhere striking, and good food, ample providing, and gay company marked life in the old home-stead in that New England village of soft bloom, with the whole landscape green and bronze and gold.   There were fields and forests near, and shining rivers, and horizons of dense blue where the landmarks seemed to dissolve.  The great sweep of surrounding country seemed saturated in light.  I loved its beauty, and can remember the exquisite landscapes that pictured so much to my youth.

Sometimes it comes back to me in dreams, in waking ones, as indivisible as my waking life.  To my young heart the main effect when there was of radical well-being a dynamic zest in happiness.  I lived so careless of the moment; alert and gleeful, someway always twinkling joyously from point to point of easy mirth.  A certain spirit of delight rushed on to discovery, and childhood is a mystery, as some writer has put it - "Visited by revelation."  There is often such a distance in childhood from the alien lives about it, and half comprehended impulses kept me silent over certain thronging fancies whenever I was with my young Aunts.  I had ever since the experience of hearing and retailing that sentimentally absurd and ridiculously phrased offer of marriage, had the uncomfortable sensation of the discovered Eavesdropper, ands looking back with uneasy self-scorn, without as yet any of the humour of the performance, only at my own ignorance and breaches of taste, I had ever since avoided telling things I overheard.

Sitting there, looking at my silent Grandfather, a half sentimental though insistent instinct made me long to open the door and disclose myself on certain points and feelings, lately growing stronger while listening to my Grandmother's (Susan Fulton Gray 1795-1885) reminiscences and her frequent and particular remarks to the others about me.  Now, believing in his sympathy, the barriers dropping, - "Grandfather, I burst forth, aren't the Sumner's nice?"  He turned and looked me over quizzically - I was embarrassed for the moment and suddenly shy, but not ashamed for his countenance lightened, and his deep-set eyes had genial kindness instead of amusement or tolerance, and I felt as if I saw the accumulated wisdom of generations.

"Nice" he queried, "Yes and clever too, a good stock your father came from - Who has been talking to you?"  They say they don't see any Gray in me - They say I am all Sumner - and I am always reminding Grandmother of Aria Sumner (c1842-c1870); and, you know, growing more confidential, when I hear "Handsome is that Handsome does,"  and that I am only smart like Aria, it won't matter how I look, and that I don't look like any of you at all, I feel sorry - I am afraid - Grandfather, don't you think I am some pretty?  The last words just slipped from me, and I looked away out of the near window with something misty in my eyes.  There was a tumult and a certain recoil in my hurt soul, an opening consciousness oppressed by the realities of the flesh.

Clear as if illustrated in some highly colored picture the moment stands out when my Grandfather, the so-called stern man, held out his hand and smiled while he answered dryly, "Well!  If you want to see a pretty woman, look at your Mother!  They are not as plentiful as blackberries.  Grandmother needn't mind that you don't favor the Grays.  I have heard some of the Sumners were decent looking, and they have got brains.  You are not half bad looking!  You have got your Father's eyes, and you are awfully proud of those long curls of yours;  You know your hair is pretty, and you are going to look like your Father and I should think that was enough.  Aria has her tongue hung in the middle , and looks - well - no matter - she never stops talking, and I hope you won't keep on when you are grown up till everybody is tired out!  Forget the things you hear about your looks, I like them, - and now I am going to give you a present."  Oh Grandfather! - and all woes were forgotten as I danced upstairs to the old Secretary in his room, and brought down as directed a whole shelf full of small books bound in old leather, the type so old and queer, and the paper coarse and almost brown with age.  "Ossian's Poems" in two little volumes, and all of "Moore's" in six.  "The Scottish Chief's" the "Hungarian Brothers," "The Mysteries of Udolpho" and other quaint works in that fascinating size and binding.  How I jumped for joy!  I had suspicion of the compassionate something that was in his face, and I could hardly believe in my riches.  "Begin your Library, child, since your hobby is reading; you can have all of my books to look at, and those you like best to carry away with you."

Much water has passed under the bridge since then, and memory has become vague in recalling what I pored over longest, and the many that I appropriated to the displeasure of some of the other members of the family, but with my Grandfather's full consent.  I ignored cheerfully, in the sunshine of his felt approval, criticisms that pronounced me a "spoiled child," and likely to be a very selfish one."

But I was absorbed in a world of fiction, and incredible as it is, I feel sometimes the same terror that paralyzed me then over certain farcical tragic stories; fantastic, and to me, terrible like "The Mysteries of Udolpho," and "The Vale of Cedars," "The Torture of the Heretics;" stories of "The Inquisition" and "Accounts of the Martyrdom of the Saints.

It is easy for the very young to substitute books for life as sources of information and resources of amusement; or the entertainment towards which inclination pulls; and I found Grandfather's Library enthralling, the romances; the impossible stories; the histories and the thrill of wonderful events recorded; and the world of print became more and more exciting and made for book-hunger.  To this day I remember some startling incidents as steps to learning, for much of what was pored over at that age made deep impressions; often twisted ones that still persist.  There was no guidance to reading which was rapidly becoming both occupation and recreation.  Fortunately,  I never had to read surreptitiously; but I had often believed that advise, suggestion or direction would have made me climb enough to help myself to Literature. 

I never asked for special "Works," I knew so little; and was merely influenced by environment and whatever I could lay my hands on - and I had no difficulty in accepting trash for truth, because things imagined became true; and I never suffered from Pilate's difficulty in recognizing "truth," since whatever was printed must be true!

It was often a barren field, and, a certain Puritan inheritance it may have been - for something made me, even when not interested, feel that a book if begun should be read to its end.  Mine is a heart that cherishes memory, and nourishes itself on memories and revelations which but for the impetuosity of my youth would have long since dissolved into forgetfulness.

From the Sanctuary of remembrance into which one can retreat at will, I draw out the old sense of relief at my Grandfather's words.  They comforted me - They took me out of myself.  My Grandfather had played Guardian and benefactor.  There were no two ways in his speech, all way clear.  "You are not half-bad" - All was well enough.  I had the most extraordinary sense of being taken for granted, as looking "Well enough" - "Not half-bad looking."

There was gladness in me again.  That chapter at any rate, I thought ended.  Life was as bright as ever.  

Friday, October 20, 2017

THE FIRST LADY OF EVANSTON - Cornelia Gray Lunt - BOOK I, Chapter 6 - The Eavesdropper

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 Six
The Eavesdropper

September, 1851.

THE LITTLE GIRL was in her secret place.  The long curtain hung in concealing folds; and with feet drawn under she cuddled herself into the corner of the window seat.  She had discovered and fled to that hiding place several times of late, especially when she feared to be called upon to help look after baby George.  (Note:  George Lunt 1850-1895).  The new little brother, a rosy-cheeked blue-eyed baby with a mop of golden curls, seemed always sunny and smiling.  Since his advent nearly a year ago, Horace of four had grown fast, was big by comparison and was fond enough of baby brother to amuse him by the hour; but more and more the sister's life became peopled with fancies and new interests.  She cared less and less for romping and playing with the children.  She had no sisters to keep her company; but lately a little girl of her own age had become almost one of the family, and Mother had said she would soon be our cousin Joe.  So we two had often run away from the inflicted cares of service, and left to Nurse Mahaly and little Horace, the task of caring for baby when Mother was otherwise occupied, and the aunts busy with their many pleasures and many visitors.

Since the young lady, Miss Kate Cutting, had been visiting my Aunts there always seemed more company coming and going, and much gaiety and pleasure seeking, and I felt the liveliest interest in all the bright and attractive things about my home.  I was easily enchanted and quickened.

There, hidden behind the curtain the book in my lap remained unopened.  Eyes rested idly on its title - "The Priest and the Huguenot" - my thoughts all on an hour of the day before, when seated comfortably by the window looking out upon the Lake, the trees all yellowing and clouds drifting slowly and softly, something in the air stirred in the blood.

I had heard queer comments on myself that now came freshly back.  One of my aunts had quietly approached and beckoned to the other - I had not noticed until both leaned over me and one in a whisper exclaimed - She is reading "The Preacher and the King," and the other under breath "How can Cornelia let this young one read everything she lays her hands on."  And the first replied. "It will be "The Priest and the Huguenot" next - Why on earth can't she be satisfied with Fairy stories like other children?" - And that sent me to search far and wide, in closets and bureau drawers, for the present volume that someway did not suit the dreamy loveliness of the afternoon.  Everywhere a tremulous whisper of Autumn in the air, and breezes rippling the surface of the Lake.    

The familiar thing that a child wonders at or loves becomes a charm throughout life.  And my Lake, the Ocean, great bodies of water, are to me vivid in beauty and power beyond even the mighty mountains.  The Lake, born as I was within sound of its waves, often made me breathless and jubilant as a child, and has been to me a whole Orchestra and Picture Gallery ever since.  Imagination has its uses at every age.  It creates - It intensifies - It delights.  My world never seemed small to me because I was always happy; but a growing mind reached out from my unchanging world for other things than the simple days afforded, and I found them in romance - in my books.

When I began a new one it was with a brightness of anticipation and the entrancing tales seemed true as the life about me.  New delights unfolded understood or not; fresh joys always awaited me in reading and just that early period had much significance.  I recall absurd lines I made, queer little efforts at high expression - There was one - "An Ode to Lake Michigan" which my family greeted with amusement that I sensed and resented.  A child learns early to keep her thoughts to herself.  She cannot explain that which grips and urges her to expression or action.  She knows nothing of the sequence of things in life.  In that undisciplined stage of childhood to secure information and satisfy curiosity seems an inevitable accompaniment of strange processes of feeling that defy analysis.

I was just then feeling a curious hostility to criticism of my Mother, or of my reading - I did like fairy stories - Not silly ones like "Jack the Giant Killer" or "Little Red Riding-hood" and many like them in small books with foolish pictures; but I loved when the Fairy Prince came and kissed Sleeping Beauty, and I loved "Pilgrim's Progress," and The Arabian Night's" and "Days of Bruce."

I loved words - the music of words - and had formed an entrancing diversion very early in the printed page.  To child as to adult there flood entrancing fancies in which one lives; and often in a spell I would repeat whole sentences that had magic in them, over and over to myself.  And that evening words of the printed page were whispering in my ears: all about me the sweetness the mystic whisperings of wild life of Romance beyond all comprehension; and strange music sounded afar off, strange surging sounds inaudible to other ears.

As the twilight came on, the stir of entrance made me peep through the concealing curtain to behold my pretty Aunt Helen, and the tall, thin Father of the two little Davidson's who lived round the corner.  He had lately come very often to our house, and many others to call and make merry.  The two in the sitting-room, after my instant recognition, passed out of mind for a little; the talk going on so near me had not reached me at first.  I had no conscious interest or intention to spy and listen.  Indeed I did not know what such a course meant, although I had heard them say several times that "Little Pitchers have big ears" whenever I came suddenly into view.  Yet their gaiety, their talk of lovers, and various adventures related to my parents had stirred the nascent romance in me - and I had tried to understand when Mother told me Miss Kate was engaged to Uncle William, and that they would be married before long, and the I would have another Aunt; just as she told me that Aunt Margaret, when she came back from Grandfather's, - her home in Maine, was going to live with little Joe Evans and her Father.

So my mind worked.  I strive to gather in and remember the vision that, at a louder spoken sentence, gave me a thrill of adventure, and stirred suddenly vague impressions to distinct sight and sound.  My pulse quickened to the vibration in his voice.  Exuberant romance in me was about to be satisfied.

Children seem to me to have a queer outlook and their egotism is so unconscious.  They are often artistic as well as sentimental.  The first words I caught held me entranced.  "I implore you Miss Gray - You must listen, we could be so happy - They say love is blind - Mine isn't - I know it, - Oh believe me." - I was instantly all alert as he pronounced the words that have been quoted from that day to this  in hilarious merriment.  "Come with me - We will spend our summers in some quiet watering place, and our Winters in the Orange Groves of the Sunny South."  My presence undivined, the eagerness increasing, I parted the curtain slightly and leaned forward as he tremulously continued, - for I had thrilled as to a trumpet - "Do you object to my children?" he asked.  "No I object to you" - my Aunt replied in very clear accents, and I wish you would never again - The sentence remained unfinished for certain movements caught her eye.  The curtain swayed in my excited grasp and showed a revealing outline.  "Neanie, come here," was the sharp order, as crestfallen I slipped into view and moved slowly forward.  

I didn't comprehend the comedy, nor the absurdity of the whole picture I helped to create.  The burlesque of his insistence in words that painted what he supposed would allure and tempt, was wholly beyond me.  It sounded beautiful to me.  I had no faintest notion that in futile efforts to make marriage look attractive he had made a fool of himself.  All I saw or remember was his black, angry look at me, - My Aunt's flushed face, and the cold good-bye that imperatively dismissed the forlorn lover.

Just before the proper reprimand could be administered, Miss Kate and my Aunt Margaret appeared, the former crying - "Has that old bean-pole been proposing again, he looked furious and rushed by us without a word."  My own face of course must have suggested the eavesdropper and told its own story, as eloquently as Aunt Helen's vivid account and manifest annoyance.  But that could not save her - "Tell us Neanie, what did he say? and like a young parrot I promptly responded, - and peals of laughter followed, that made my Father just entering the house, having ridden as usual on horseback from his warehouse far down on Water Street look in.  "Oh Orrington," cried Aunt Margaret, "Listen to what old Davidson said," and at half-hysterical demand, I repeated solemnly - "We will spend our Summers in some quiet watering place, and our Winters in the Orange Groves of the Sunny South" and my Father's hearty laugh encouraged me to add - and he did say, too "Do you object to my children? and Aunt Helen said, "No, I object to you," - at which another burst of merriment quite convinced me for the moment that I was of extreme importance and very clever too.

Later, alone with my dear Mother, I was taken to task; informed that I had hurt my Aunt's feelings, that I was not funny; but that I had listened to what had not been intended for me to hear.  The moral was sharply pointed that to listen out of sight when no one knew it, was bad in every way.  "It was bad form and it made her ashamed.  It was not kind, not fair, not honourable.  It was trespassing, and she never wanted to think I could do such a thing again."  As a trespasser,I was thoroughly and properly humiliated; ashamed for years to remember the scene and my own share in it; which, as a burlesque, was repeated and reported again and again by the heroine herself, as one of the drollest of all her experiences.  It became classic as a tale of early days, and my verbal memory has kept it ever clear so that I can recall its every detail.  It was a compelling curiosity and longing that drove me that day to listen, when I knew instinctively I must keep still, and not be found out!

I dreamed a great deal at that period, and someway in early childhood one has ideas of emancipation or of freedom from certain claims; always eager to grasp and gain the centre of the stage.  I suppose we are all a law unto ourselves, and associate early the period of growing up as auspicious, because we can do as we choose, without answering to higher authority or human tribunal.

And impressions however vague that remain with distinctness make for mental and physical development.  I was myself of pioneer stock and earlier of English blood.  I was never in childhood cramped by a single unnatural condition; mine was an enlivening spirit, and independence was growing definite and resolute.  To some natures surroundings are just surroundings, - no more.  To certain ones they become inwoven and are the very fabric of thought and deed.  Always, unknowing it myself, the felicities of my simple home life were very great, even as they have ever continued, and will I pray to the very end.  There were no contending forces and contentment was my lot.    

Friday, October 13, 2017

THE FIRST LADY OF EVANSTON - Cornelia Gray Lunt - BOOK I, Chapter 5 - The Gooseberry Feast

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 Five
The Gooseberry Feast

August, 1850.

THE LITTLE GIRL stood listening, puzzled but glad.  Her Mother was speaking brightly, describing three nice little girls who lived in the new brick house on the same Avenue with us.  She told their ages, their pretty names, Delia and Frank and Eva.  And how the lady who had just called wanted me to spend the afternoon with her young daughters.  We were neighbors, and it would be pleasant to get acquainted, and I must be very quiet and gentle, and behave very nicely, and make them all like to have me come again.

It is so easy to entertain children, and love can find the way to interpret a child's feelings where education and discipline may be alike powerless.  I had listened breathlessly, particularly when my Mother said that "She thought that here was to be a little feast," and all these recollections crowd now into my mind - for that one afternoon, little as I could imagine it, held for me a soul-stirring excitement.  Life before had never offered me any provocation, temptation or opportunity, for the uncontrollable primitive passion of anger, and my own training had so far developed a fearless gaiety and cheerful confidence.

And great was my pride, when on that soft summer afternoon I was taken to the large brick house as an invited guest.  It was all so beautiful to me, the enchanting day, and everywhere an articulate language to which my ears had become attuned.  The flower bedecked earth, that overarching sky and singing Lake both of ecstatic blue, and those white feathery clouds when one looked up into the glorious brightness.

I wonder a great deal about this mysterious cavern of memory that enables me now to set down in exact truth the disloyalty to hospitality, the absence of kindness, and the vision that I saw of one sister leading two others into deceit and a practice of lying; a meanness of treachery that they were too young to understand.  I record it all here, incredible as it seems that a well grown girl of a refined family could treat a guest so much younger with such deliberate deceit, and a malicious enjoyment that added cruelty to the act.  If parental training is lacking, it is a pity that in the curriculum of all schools there is no supplement for a course in courtesy and kindness.  Happily tragedies are soon forgotten when one comes of a good stock, and life is rich with all the personal relations fortunate.  

The back garden where we were ushered for play was lovely with greenery. Along its separating sides, against the dividing walls that shut it in, were heavy bushes,  "The Gooseberry's are ripe and we can have them" cried gleefully one of the little hostesses and in plunged the three little girls to pluck and eat the green and yellow berries.  "Oh' it's a Gooseberry Feast" - I said.  It was my first taste of those juicy fruit-balls, so delicious and desirable; but hardly had the feast begun when a sharp call brought it to a sudden termination.  

As if yesterday I can see the picture.  That high back porch of the yellow brick house, the big sister standing clearly outlined at the top of the steps; the imperative voice as she swiftly descended - "Stop children - Stop this minute - Mother says so."  And when she stood beside us she plunged into the near bushes herself, in search it seemed for more of a delicious fruit, and I thought she was joining us in the feast.  Emerging with a smile she called "Here Neanie - Come - Here's a big one - Come and get it."  Her closed hand was extended - "Shut your eyes and open your mouth" - But an intuitive fear, an instinctive dread made me stand back.  "But it's a nice one for you - Here Eva come - Look - Isn't it fine?" and she half opened the curved hand to show its contents.  As I still hesitated - "Look Frank, - See - Such a fine gooseberry," and she beckoned to the still wide-eyed little sister, and both had nodded at her command.  Once more coaxingly she renewed the tempting offer - "Now shut tight and open wide," and the greedy little visitor complied in faith.

Oh the feel of that strange, dreadful furry substance! its swift spitting forth; the sight of that hairy writhing wet caterpillar as it dropped at her feet - huge it seemed as some nightmare horror - and somewhere there was a burst of loud laughter.  Hot and acrid was the taste in my mouth, a strangling sensation of awful nausea.  Then a blur before my eyes, and a strange faintness of mind and body that for a second made me dumb in a paralysis of terror, while self-centered callousness again expressed itself in cries of amusement and riotous laughter.

I think I said no words aloud, but something within shrieked and cried out - "It was a lie - She lied - Liar ' Liar ' The Fate of Liars," and screaming and panting, notwithstanding sudden overtures from the startled trio, the little victim rushed round the walk; away, away out of that place, down the street sobbing, and running wildly to the home-gate to fall into her Mother's astonished arms, and to relate between gasping sobs the terrible tale of her own undoing.  Washing the child's hot cheeks wet with tears, the Mother made no reproaches, pointed no moral, made no comments on lies and deceits.  To this day, and for all days, the simple words stand forth as law - "We will go no more to the little Gurney's.  That is finished."