Friday, November 24, 2017

THE FIRST LADY OF EVANSTON - Cornelia Gray Lunt - BOOK I, Chapter 11 - The Boarding School

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 Eleven
The Boarding School

Newburyport, Mass., 1853-1854

The entire course of my life was now to be changed.  It suited my family mightily when asked if I would like to go to Boarding-school with my cousin Etta Lunt (1841-1879) and little Joe Evans, as soon as Aunt Margaret could consummate arrangements?  I was tremendously interested over the idea it sounded so like a story-book-adventure.

We were certain, at the small family school selected, to be brought up in the fear of the Lord, and instruction in the Holy Scriptures was very properly, from the widow of the Missionary's point of view, the most important part of our education.  But I had seemed to live under the eaves of the Sanctuary without any sense of bondage, unaware in my parents of either bigotry or intolerance, or any enslavement.  And here the despotism exercised over the ten or twelve pupils never seemed benevolent.  Only one of the "grown-ups" was affectionately regarded.  She was kind, gentle and sweet to look upon, and meant encouragement to an existence where festivities rarely occurred, and most pleasures seemed regarded as either foolish or wicked pastimes.  Her Mother, the Head of the House, was tall and thin and taciturn, an extreme Puritan type.  The hair grey and very smooth, very sharp-eyed, very straight, very severe looking, and the verbal shafts she let fly reached their goal passing righteous judgments on us all.  She insisted that her household  should live up to Scriptural injunctions - and I at first, sat in a sort of hypnotized astonishment when I heard that deep voice demanding sternly why this or that had, or had not been done.  I never lacked courage to assert myself; but the first evening taught me that  I no longer breathe the air of freedom.  We all, at the supper table, had been asked, "Which will you have, butter or molasses?" presumably to make the dry bread edible - and when my turn came , I answered promptly - "Both!" with a perfect sense of security, serene in the belief of my own right to have all I wanted, yet with no excess of boldness.  Great was my astonishment at that first encounter when, for reasons I could not comprehend, I was instantly reprimanded.  "No - You can have but one - Understand! it is either butter or molasses, and I asked you which?"  The dearest friend of more mature years, always declared I went through life demanding both! that neither butter nor molasses alone was enough for me.

No such suffering from such small self-denials had before been exacted from me without adequate explanations.  Reserves and reticences and unmovedness always with me baffles understanding, and suddenly, as she spoke, something snapped like a whip handle and I wished myself off somewhere else.  Earthly faults and failures stood up in shape unknown before.  Lay the reason to the fact that I knew little or nothing of small deprivations or restrictions, and the entering into a relation so personal that She, a stranger, should curb my lightly expressed wish filled me with misgivings.  It was a novel, trivial, new aspect of human nature embodied; and a proceeding of restraining power I met for the first time.  The situation incommoded me.  It hinted at caution in future demands.  I was not at all incensed, or even markedly embarrassed - only something depicted itself at that particular time that was serviceable, because it suggested my waiting in silence for whatever was to follow, and omitting hereafter any flourish of words or wishes.

Soon after arrival, one stormy afternoon during the so-called play hour, I had a sort of illuminative recollection of the force and frenzy of the "Whirling Dervishes" as pictured in a traveller's account in a pamphlet of Grandfather's, who had further enlightened me as to their religious beliefs and practises to which I had listened in wide-eyed wonder.  "I have thought of a new play" I whispered eagerly to my cousins, to Susie and the little Gleason girls, and we six trooped to the upper front chamber with its two big feather-topped beds, in one of which Etta slept with Mary Waldron and Joe and I in the other.  We formed a circle at my solemn directions and began to whirl slowly, increasing speed at my excited demands - faster and faster.  "Keep at it, girls, the one that holds on longest gets to Heaven first," and then Susie dropped with a thud, and thump thump went the little Gleason girls and Etta tumbled after.  At that moment I heard a foot-fall on the stairs, softly she came to surprise us; but I sprang to the door, turned the key and whispered wildly, "Oh girls' Mrs. Spaulding," and in a sudden access of fear we all - little cowards - dashed under the beds.  I quick turning of the knob which resisted entrance and made the intended catching us unawares impossible - a jerk and sharp call - "Open at once" - It was useless - the door was shaking violently - no escape and delay dangerous.  Another loud call with punishment looming.  "This instant open the door," and I crawled out and unlocked the barrier.  One glance at me and she strode across the room and and lifted the copper-plate calico cover which hung to the floor each side.  "Come out this minute, ever4y one of you" and the trembling quartet, Etta, Susie and the others ranged themselves beside me.  "Is that all," in the same stentorian tones.  "no, Ma'am, I'm here" squealed a frightened little voice.  And poor Joe who could have escaped if she'd kept still, was ordered sternly, - "Come out this instant."  She emerged the whitest and most terrified little object, crying audibly, and in muffled accents repeating, "I won't do it again, I won't do it again, Please ma'am, I won't."  And spectacles of woe we weer marshalled below stairs to receive sentence.  An extra study hour then and there in the deserted school-room, and still punitive justice unsatisfied, we were forbidden all chances in our rooms that term; and in further reprimand, must lose this coming Sunday half-holiday.

The noise that summoned that severe judge must have warranted belief in a regiment of culprits.  At each new ultimatum I learned the hopelessness of argument, and I speedily realized the character of encounters bound to ensue if I ever undertook to assert any wish outside the rules of the school.  My Militant Guardian Angel taught me soon the sense of security in silence and submission.

One day Miss Mary told us if we wanted to write well begin a Journal and put down what happened and what interested us, and at my immediate request, she further explained, "You can write whatever you chose, and no one need see it," and she smiled at my interest and gave me a mottled-covered blank book, some pages of which are still in existence.

So, perhaps here, a few excerpts from my first efforts may throw further light on the experiences of no unusual or outside interest, but significant as to growth either mentally or morally - both of which I have thought retarded in a sense, although my amused family have declared that "No one could have prophesied what I would have become without the discipline at Newburyport!"

The quotations that follow tell their own arid little tale.

October 15, 1854
"Mrs. Spaulding seems to think we play too much ever since that afternoon recess when we all powdered our hair with some flour somebody had stolen, and pinned leaves all over our dresses, to pretend we were foreigners.  Miss Coffin saw us first, and called us in to brush off and get clean before any one else knew it.  Miss Coffin laughed we looked so funny, and, Oh, what a time we had shouting and laughing at each other, until we were found out and got scolded.  We couldn't get that flour out of our hair.  I have enjoyed good health, I never feel sick like Mary and Susie, I scarcely know how to be thankful enough, and another very great blessing is that my Parents and brothers are also enjoying this great blessing of good health.  We have the most beautiful sunsets here I ever saw.  I got my package today.  It contained my winter coat and a pretty new red marino dress.  And my tippet newly lined with cherry silk.  It looks twice as nice as it did before;but I wish I had a new muff.  

October 20.
"I received a letter from my own dear Mother Tuesday morning.  It was written from Boston and they were going to New York that afternoon to buy furniture for the new home, and after November first I was top address all my letters to 171 Michigan Avenue.  Mother asked me if I was brave and good, and asked my not to cry and be homesick, so I will try and smile oftener.  She said people loved to see smiles.  Mother dear Mother how I long to see you again, God forever bless my dear Parents and brothers.  I asked Susie if she didn't think my little brother George was beautiful, and had beautiful yellow curls, and she wouldn't answer at first, but after hesitating for a short time she said "Yes" - very slowly - "I think he looks well enough but his curls aren't very long.":  I don't like her for that, and besides she hasn't had any spirit playing, she just as lief be a beggar girl as anything else.  She is Motherless and her Father is a Doctor of Divinity and that makes me sorry.  She hasn't any beautiful brothers and she has to live with a married sister.  I'll try to like her some; but not the way I do little Sarah.  She is only nine and she has to wear black stockings.  I never saw a pair before; but I read once of a little girl whose Mother went Missionarying, and an ugly Aunt put all her lovely white ones into a pot and dyed them black.  Poor thing! she has to wear long dark woolen dresses, I mean Sarah, and her Mother is so queer.  Whenever she comes to visit here she prays so long after Supper, and her voice goes up and down awfully funny, I never heard such a voice, she almost screeches as if the Lord couldn't hear, it makes Carrie and me laugh behind our hands and nudge each other when we are on our knees."

October 31.
"I received a letter from my very dear Mother, it is very kind of my Mother to write me so regularly.  She says that next years I shall attend a Seminary for young ladies now being erected in Chicago.  I am now writing a story for which I have located in Newport, the name of it is "The Blonde and the Brunette" and I am describing my Mother for the Blonde, and my Aunt Helen for the Brunette, Oh how good God is to me to give me such Parents.

Next year if we all live and nothing happens what happiness I shall enjoy!  For dinner today we had salt fish, potatoes and butter, squash and cabbage and I hate both; home bread and course brown bread and for dessert we baked apple pudding.  It's better than dried apple pie, the crust is so think it gags me sometimes and I go out and almost vomit, but I am hungry so I eat it.  Miss Davis gave me "Snowflake Polka" for my last music lesson, but she says she won't give me such an easy piece again.

November 2.
"As I was descending the stairs yesterday morning Mary Waldron slipped into my hands a large round gum-drop.  It was mighty good of her, she had on a beautiful large plaid dress, it was blue and yellow and had yellow trimming, but she got out of Church by saying she had a terrible toothache.  She often has cramps in her legs and I jump out of bed and rub them, she makes me do it a long time before she stops groaning and I am tired of doing it.  She never calls anyone else and I have to kneel by the bed when I am rubbing and my feet get  cold as ice, and Carrie told me "She could have cramps in her legs all she wanted to for all of her," But I hate to hear her say - "Oh' how it hurts, do come Neanine, come quick, do rub them hard" - and so I do and that's the only reason.

November 9.
Miss Coffin said that if we spoke without raising our hands for permission, or whispered once she would have to put a mark against our names, and at a specified time show them to Mrs. Spaulding and there would be a penalty assigned for a certain number of marks as those were her orders.  But she said it was not her arrangement and she blushed when we looked up at her to the very temples, she has a dimple.  Miss Coffin is pretty and I think I shall; put her in my story.  I will have another girl not quite so pretty as my Aunt Helen.  I'd like to make Mrs. Spaulding an Ogre.  I haven't cried since I came the way I did when she took away the box of candy Mother sent me.  She said my Mother couldn't have known that it was against the rules, that she never let the girls have any candy in term time, and Oh! when she took that box and put in on a high shelf in the closet I almost screamed.  "It's your candy of course and you can have it when Christmas comes and you go to your Aunt in Boston."  I try not to see it when I go but the corner sticks out and Mother gave it to me.  I just hated Mrs. Spaulding and I'll make a face at her when her back's turned.  And I hope she won't go to Heaven!  So there!

November 15.
We are in subtraction of Vulgar Fractions now and in Latin we are almost to the life of Joseph.  Miss Mary says that next term Carrie and I may drop arithmetic for a while and take up History and draw maps.  I am at the head of the spelling class all the time.  Last week Carrie's and my clothes were starched.  Harriet told me Mrs. Spaulding did not allow her to starch the girl's clothes.  But I rather think she starched mine because I gave her two pears from the basket of fruit Mother sent me.  She wrote Aunt Nancy to buy it in Boston foe me, and perhaps Carrie's clothes were starched because she has such few pieces.

November 18.
Yesterday afternoon Carrie and I were real saucy to Miss Coffin.  I will relate the circumstances.  Miss Coffin called the first class in reading.  We all took our places.  Carrie was head and she gave her Reader to Miss Coffin and turned to look over with me.  I opened my book to find the place.  "No let me" said Carrie.  It was my book and I held on.  She insisted she would have it, and seeing I wouldn't let her but grabbed it tighter every minute, she spoke up loud to Miss Coffin.  "Can't I find the place, I won't read if I can't."  Miss Coffin said "You will if I tell you to."  "I shan't unless you make Neanie give me that book, I am head of the class today, - it's my day."  "Give it to her Neanie" I heard in a gentle voice.  "She has no right to my book, I was head yesterday and I'll be head tomorrow, Carrie had better mind her own business and let me alone."  Miss Coffin looked at us and never said another word.  I felt queer, but I found the place myself, and then handed it to Carrie, and she read without a word and as soon as we got through I ran and got the biggest bunch of grapes Mother sent me and gave them to Miss Coffin, and she smiled and her dimple looked so pretty and I tried to say something, "I - I wish I hadn't," and Miss Coffin took my hand and I felt something choke me, and winked very hard.  And Miss Coffin pressed my hand, "Never mind Neanie," she said, and told me she was very much obliged for the grapes.  And that evening before she went home after school she kissed me.  Just think! she never kissed any of the girls before, and I shouldn't have thought she would have don it today of all days when I had been so saucy.  I will never speak so again - Never - Never.

December 4.
This is my little brother George's birthday, and I expect Mahaly will make him a little cake with three candles and I know Mother will let him have a piece of candy.  Sometimes I long to see Mother so it seems as if I should fly.  Mother - Mother - How very much I do love you.  How pleasant it is to feel that Mother loves me dearly.  I know she does because she told me so in her last letter.

Wednesday Afternoon, December 19.
Mary Waldron is engaged to be married.  She whispered it to me and said his name was Eddie Crawford.  Oh, it is very silly - A girl of fourteen.  She says she is writing to him now and keeps saying, Sh-Sh-Sh-if I say a word about her horrid boy, for he must be horrid.  "If you ever breathe a word I'll never tell you one of my secrets again as long as I live."  I never asked her to tell me her secrets, and I do think it is low for her to be cutting up such capers.  I don't approve of them certainly.  Yesterday we had such a beautiful snowfall and everything is so white and shining now.  All the girls have some marks against their names for speaking improperly but Miss Coffin told me I had none.  Wasn't it wonderful.  Oh, the twenty-second will it never, never come?  I am going to Boston to be with Aunt Nancy for the holiday vacations and I am to visit Carrie in Dorchester.

December 20.
Father told me his first Ancestor was one of the founders of Newburyport - his name was Henry Lunt (1610-1662) and he came over awfully long ago and they are as thick as flies now, I mean the people named Lunt.  But in Chicago there is nobody named Lunt but Father.  It is so far from Newburyport I suppose, and Miss Mary said they were home loving people and didn't like to roam.  Yesterday Carrie was mad about something and said it was so stupid here she felt crazy to have to spend two more days.  My Uncle Horace is coming to take me to Boston and Carrie is going home at the same time.

Then I thought up a play to use up the time.  And Carrie asked Mrs. Spaulding if we could stay upstairs in her room and Mrs. Spaulding graciously said yes, because we were going away in two days I guess.  Littler Sarah sleeps with Carrie and we called Susie in and I gave them all strict injunctions.  Susie was to be lover and little Sarah a fair maiden, Carrie was to abduct her for me, and I was Brigand in a cave.  The name of the play was "The Cave of Despair" and I made it up right then, but I did not tell them.  I told them I was Captain of the Band and the maiden was my "Pray" (sic), and Carrie must drag her off up in the corner by the bed which we called the Cave and say "Death or Dishonour."  They wouldn't play nicely, Sarah wouldn't do it right.  "When I told her she mustn't choose Dishonour, she said she wouldn't say Death, because she didn't want o die, and Carrie got cross and said "What's the difference - Let her say what she wants for mercy's sakes," and I told her they always got rescued if they said the right thing, I had read it lots of times and it was going to be a noble play.  But it all got spoiled because Sarah began to cry.  I just hate whimpering, nobody wanted to do it right, Susie said she was tired and ran out, and she was a fearful disappointment to me.  Anyway she isn't coming back next term and I thought I was sorry, but we will have a new girl in her place."

The experiment for me of Boarding School for me was far from satisfactory; but after long periods of watching and waiting I had become relatively reconciled; nothing could wipe out wholly my confidence or sweep away the comfort of my innermost self, because the whole fabric of my life had been built on security, and no unknown or incalculable power could readily destroy it.  However gloomy or prison-like the house sometimes seemed I pursued my way, finally enduring the occasionally withering sarcasms, that often in disapproval measured me from top to toe with cold critical glances, in an ever growing indifference. 

The barometer rose as soon as I was out of sight of the One who held such tight reins, and Carrie Reid had become my chosen chum.  We laughed and talked much together, and allowed our fancies full flower in a game which we played often, walking up and down the big yard.  We would meet and part - exchange polite greetings as Mrs. Seymour and Mrs. Gordon, our chosen married titles.  We were each the proud Mother of seven children whose adventures were in turn glowingly recounted.  We were always devising startling incidents to attract, and arouse in our individual consciousness the poignant certainty of the supremacy and greater charms our own little ones could show.  I ranged afar in wondrous tales to prove transcendent gifts in mine, and to manifest in my progeny points of vantage unapproachable!  It was very exciting to work for their pre-eminence, and sometimes affecting such wonders produced emotions that made for sharp comments of disbelief, and sudden separations!  I was hardly fitted by nature, however sharp our differences, or quarrels over facts of possibility to cease strenuous efforts to prove my children superior, and finer than hers.  I must concede now that my  pictures of their strange performances showed surprising contradictions and they produced frequent contention.

Curiously enough in my regular letters home I never once wrote of what was hard and unpleasant, I some way did not think of complaining.  I had no experience of great grievance.  I was never personally abused, and outside the dreary round my spirits always rose responsive to fresh air and sunlight.  To many details my mind reacted rather than noted the comparative coldness, or the lack of warmth which had hitherto always surrounded me.  Brought up in that sheltered happiness where all things were tempered I had never suffered from uncertainties or fears, and I was immensely fitted to understand and meet small difficulties than those who had known struggles or friction in their home lief.  

So youthful good spirits asserted themselves, and the future seemed assured as forebodings fled and self-confidence refused to weaken.  And while that present did not please me it could not hold me.  I supposed or concluded it was always that way at schools, that there, one was inevitably reduced to a state of subjugation, and the habit of going unchecked after what one wanted could be allowed to compromise.

But my curtailed imagination ran riot in secret when the girls grew to demand stories and would ask so frequently - "now Neanie tell us again what we all wish would happen to Mrs. Spaulding?"  Since her taking away the one box of candy I had had, she embodied what caused rebellion to rage in my soul.  I was brilliantly successful to the delight of all my school-mates in depicting horrors, and creating scenes of terrible drama where the Head of the House could not escape the devised defeats and torments which expressed retaliation.  She was thus miraculously made to suffer; in one way or another my vivid interest in life continued, and laughter was mine at all times.

Carrie was always so bright and responsive and she had the immeasurable advantage of knowing how to smooth down the irateness of our ruler, who, very evidently had a marked preference for that brown-eyed little Bostonian.  As I said before, it was indisputable that the small specimen from Chicago held no such personal charms.  There was a sparkle about Carrie that was beautifully proved one night at Supper.

Over our Bible verses we had come to try to regularly outdo each other by their length or the importance of their selection.  Before each evening meal we sat silent after grace: In turn each child repeated the verse command for that day with which we were always to prepare ourselves.  We had been solemnly told when first initiated that no circumstances should ever arise that ought to find us lacking in suitable selections.

But Oh!, one fatal Sunday evening for me, our gloating eyes fell on piles of snow-white bakers bread of very different quality and consistency from that served daily.  I have never understood why it appeared on that single occasion unless there was strife in the kitchen, and a dearth of what was usually set before us; for, to my recollection, I never saw its like again.  It was Heavenly Manna to my imagination when beyond my reach.  Whatever that household contingency our eyes glistened as they fell on the tempting plate, and those white slices appealed as a blessing no less appreciated than the plum preserves, which were served once in a while as the greatest treat.

Every detail rises before me.  I can feel this minute the gusto with which I seated myself and whispered to my equally eager neighbour, "Mercy!, Look at the bread" - "Verses first," she retorted.  The usual solemn ceremony of repetition had reached us; but when I heard Carrie beside me say earnestly - "Lord, evermore give us this Bread" I was instantly fired not to be daunted, not to be outdone; impatience for the bread was lost for a second as spurred with sudden ambition my mind leaped to the only verse it could recall.  It was not so strictly relative as Carrie's; but it seemed sufficiently important. - Firmly and clearly it was enunciated - "I am the Bread of Life."  They had tittered at Carrie's.  They broke order and laughed aloud at mine.  "Neanie, leave the table.  Go to your room.  You will spend the evening alone."  There was no "present help" for me in that desperate "time of trouble."  Carrie had scored her great victory.  And I - Alas! I never tasted that Bread.   

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