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.    

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