Friday, December 8, 2017

THE FIRST LADY OF EVANSTON - Cornelia Gray Lunt - BOOK I, Chapter 12 - The First Vacation

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 Twelve
The First Vacation

Boston, Mass.

What we hear, think or see produces many results of which we are not aware.  The smallest events often play their part in moulding the machinery of our mental or spiritual life, in making an indelible record, and difficult as it may be to entirely decipher or recall them their influence is always working.

I am only interested with the conscious processes, and illustrative experiences rise easily in the simplest occurrences - not in the least uncommon; but significant because they link the common with the seemingly unusual and are individual and impressive as belonging exclusively to the writer.

These Sketches have application to development and I can explain them to myself sometimes by a flash of insight, and think and write rapidly , extensively and correctly even in the very language of my childhood.  A certain Physcologist has said, "The method of recall is the association of ideas, and if we once can pull the right string all sorts of forgotten memories will come into consciousness."  Evidently impressions made upon the mind are retained and used without any sense of dependence upon an efficient memory; but we are not supplied with information sufficient for their solution.  The dreams, longings and golden panoramas of life rolled up in the film of memory, their richness of colour, strangeness of thought and fervour of emotion, I do not believe, are wholly lost.

The delight of that moment, when learning Captain Gray was waiting for us, and I dashed into Carrie's room in excitement, was sobered to see her sitting on the side of the bed, cloak and little hood all on and hands calmly folded in her muff, with a well stuffed, funny looking shiny black carpet bag at her feet.  In the hush of that second sew looked, to my bewildered gaze, unusually pretty.  She had such white teeth and brown eyes under thick curling lashes.  I had often wished mine were not blue and that I resembled a brunette!

"What's the matter?  It's time to go!  My Uncle's downstairs!  Where's your trunk?"  "Do you suppose I am going to take my things home when I've got to come back?  I've got plenty there anyway, and this," kicking the bag, "is full of dirty clothes that I've kept out of the wash and I've got to carry it down myself."  "Why, I'll help you," I said, and suddenly her passionate tone changed to a good humoured one.  She gave me a side look and a little grin, "Don't you know I had to have a few in the wash to please the old lady, and here they go home and I'll be scoulded; but I don't know what for, I get in hot water easy there."

"Oh! who cares, come on," and imperatively I turned, and with little muttered exclamations we dragged the huge carpet-bag between us, which thumped down the stairs and brought Mrs. Spaulding to the scene.  She held in her hand the box of candy my Mother had sent me three months before, and with words of caution as to behaviour, she ushered us into the room where my Uncle waited.

He was a large man, with an unusually humourous expression, and patting us on head and shoulders said jovially "Ahoy! Ahoy little ship-0mates, Let's be off" and shaking hands with Mrs. Spaulding picked up Carrie's carpet-bag as if it were a paper parcel.  My own little horse-hair covered trunk I saw strapped on behind the old hack and we were hilariously pile din and soon steaming out of the town and far away.

I have never mentioned Uncle Horace's (Horace A. Gray 1814-1887) fine house on the hill opposite my Grandfather Gray's which I passed every time I turned towards Grandfather Lunt's.  It had a very shut-up look, the parlous was always dark; but there were beautiful things from over-seas, and the furniture looked very heavy and handsome.  They said his wife painted, and I thought it was pictures instead of her cheeks, but I saw always how very red they were, and that she never seemed well or at ease.  My Aunts did not like their older brother's wife, but all I ever heard was that "She was a Tinker, that no one could expect anything better of the Tinker's - a family that lived on the outskirts - that it was true she was pretty, but Horace must have been crazy to marry her.

They had no children; and I only remember taking a meal once in that pretentious house, and having all the red-currants and purple plums I wanted, and that the cakes were small and had sugar on the top.  I didn't care for Aunt Eliza (Eliza A. Tinker Gray 1830-1904), but my Uncle Horace was jolly, he gave me pretty shells and showed me a model of his "Big Ship" and said he would bring me something pretty from Russia, where he was going on his next voyage.  But I never felt well-acquainted, as with Uncle William of Uncle John, until that day hurrying towards Boston.

Carrie and I disposed of a goodly amount from the Candy box he handed over, old and stale, and someway sticking in my throat, reviving sharply that sense of injury from its long detention.  "Better than nothing," Carrie exclaimed, and "I like candy better than fruit.  We have fruit orchards, and if it wasn't winter there'd be lots of apples and pears and plums and grapes."  And with astonishing irrelevance the question - "Do you like Olives?"  "Are they big," I countered.  "Mercy! don't you know, - Why you must eat ten before you can like them, but don't make a fuss or splutter swallowing, or Mother will say you are silly and send you from the table.  No, she won't, you'll be a visitor, but you'd better not hate Olives, or say you don't like anything on the table, for Mother will tell us you are under-bred - that's awful you know."

I was rather frightened at that picture so unflinchingly presented, and I determined secretly in a sort of panic to hurry ands eat those ten Olives, big or little, and gain her Mother's good opinion.  I felt splendidly direct in a steadfast purpose not to quail at any such test.

About Carrie there was something clean and valiant and I never had to compromise with my liking, and I think I looked candid and fearless interrogation as I turned my face and said - "I guess your Mother will like me?" - and in equally candid knowledge she responded - "Mother's only twenty-nine and she had notions."

My lovely Mother was thirty-five on her last Birthday, I murmured, and felt a homesick stab that hurt and filled me with unutterable longing. I was sorry she was so old; but she wouldn't care whether I ate ten Olives or not, and I was sure she was prettier than Carrie's Mother!  I kept winking away the sudden rush of tears, and just then my Uncle produced a good sized package which checked home-sickness and aroused considerable satisfaction.  It was a great treat, two big squares of Berwick Sponge Cake. 

There never was such sponge-cake in all the world as that made by some woman in North Berwick, Maine.  You might say it had a national reputation for whenever trains went through all the passengers emptied out and went to the counter, to purchase the delectable golden squares so fine you could tear off strips as if from delicate muslin, smooth as silk in its delicate grain and with a brown rich top - "Just like the shiny brown oil-cloth in the back hall," cried Carrie in glee, as we opened the white paper parcels.

That promised treat for us nearly cost me my life, I swallowed great mouth-fulls so fast and greedily that I failed to stop as my mouth got dry - It closed with a chunk I could not down and the choke increased till I could neither gasp not cry out.  "Why's she choking, Oh Captain Gray, she's going to die" yelled my little companion.  I think I must have been purple in the face, I could not seem to see or speak, and my amazed Uncle caught hold of me and poured something awful down my throat.  I felt him shaking me while that strangling continued, and breath would not come.  "Damn' that cake!  Devil take it, you little fool, to eat so fast and with no water," and he threw disgustedly the remaining half of his too generous supply out of the car window.  Carrie hid hers under her cape.  He displayed sort of an unregenerate wrath instead of sympathy.

Politeness does not carry a person far when human nature gets stirred up, and that scene just experienced rankled, as still weak from my monstrous glut of Sponge cake contrition overcame me, and I stammered out slowly, "I couldn't help choking, Uncle Horace - that's the silly kind I am - don't mind now please, I'm all right," and there were actually tears of mortified pride in my eyes, real tears that time, not the choking kind that had poured out a few minuted before.  

I still shuddered a little in anticipation of a dreadful unbecoming seizure, which one lamentable senses or feels, when wrenches in the lower regions make existence a horror to all beholders, as well as fiendish to its victim.

Sharp exclamations again broke from him, "Damn' it" I heard again, she's going to be sick," and I shrank from words I thought belonged to the unpardonable wicked who swore.

Staring at him and at all around in astonished perturbation, Carrie's smiling calm restored me to more normal poise, and I at last breathed naturally, but with inarticulate deprecating murmurs of apology.  I was conscious of a hostile feeling, I had been so shocked at such, to me, awful swearing and looking at Carie for similar fear or disapproval of his profanity, I caught her covering her mouth to  control laughter.  "That's like Father when he's mad, only he says worse."  It was the first oath I had ever heard - I was lost in amaze that anyone's Father could say such bad words, but someway I was reassured by her amused indifference which seemed to most comfortingly reduce my horror and cover distress.  It became to me curiously an increasingly sympathetic companionship in evil!  I welcomed carelessness and indifference, and when after a few moments she whispered, "I like your Uncle, I think he's handsome," and he later looked up to smile on us as we were quietly finishing what Carrie had kept hidden under the flap of her coat, and tossed us each a shining half-dollar, all my formless and foreign uneasiness fled.  I heard him say "Do learn to eat with moderation children," but the atmosphere had again become friendly.

"Don't you think it's wicked to swear" I whispered under my breath to Carrie - A little spasm of amusement lit up her pretty face - "Why no, when anyone's mad enough, - I say "Damn'" softly when my shoe-strings get in knots, I hate tying them anyway, - I don't have to do it at home - and anyone can say bad words in a temper" was my serene reply.

As we descended from the cars, a man wearing a dark coat with big brass buttons and a cockade on his hat touched it with two fingers and without a word grabbed Carrie's awful carpet-bag, - She nodded "Hello Tom" and we followed his rapid strides to the street outside.  There was a fat coachman on top the waiting carriage, and he lifted his whip to his hat; nobody spoke, and my Uncle and I saw her whirled off in the big carriage; nobody had come to meet her and she didn't seem to mind, Oh! I thought, where were her Father and Mother?

My kindly disposed Uncle, to make amends, for what he felt had been undue impatience, took me first to a Hotel, - perhaps the old Revere House.  It was large and impressive, and he plied me with "goodies," ice cream, lots of fruit, cakes and candies.  A sicker child than I became on reaching my Aunt's, or a bigger stomachache was never before felt.  I went on record for nausea and its dire results, was put to be instanter, and treated with solicitous tenderness.  Later I heard Aunt Nan say to her husband who hovered about the door, - Horace is such a fool with children - It's well he never had any, they'd never live to grow up, Eliza would neglect them, and he'd never known better than to stuff, or swear at them, just as he felt."

It is not too long ago for me to remember definitely the few wonderful things that marked the first vacation spent at my Aunt Nancy's in Boston.  She had married for the second time, a very brilliant lawyer, and they had a charming little home just out of the City.  I felt no freedom there to do exactly what I like.  It was impressed upon my mind that I was a visitor and everyone wished to make it pleasant, and I had surprises, and was amazed at much I saw and experienced.  

Carrie's home in Roxbury, where by special invitation I spent two days and a night, was quite a revelation.  The large grounds gave me wild flights of fancy.  So many birds and trees and flowers, and fruit in Summer they told me.  How far removed it was from the business of lessons.  It was a beautiful home.  Something there seemed to sing in the trees and the loveliness all about served only to make me more terribly scornful of our school.  But I asked no real questions of the young laughing Mother, so pretty and graceful and gay, who appeared to think children were made for her own amusement merely, yet my soul was full of interrogations.  

They were a family so widely different from anything I had ever met or seen before.  The children, her two sisters and brother, seemed to regard each other with disfavour frequently - and Carrie once whispered to me, "You'd better believe I am not going back to Newburyport after next year, but Georgianna will have to; Good! I'm glad" and I was a bit bewildered, although on the surface the remarks seemed good-humoured enough.

Several new traits in the characters of Mothers were revealed to me, when Mrs. Reed would call us to her room and asking pertinent questions, in evident enjoyment, of the result to make me talk fast and furious, working insidiously on whatever I liked, or disliked most, with peals of laughter making me think myself of vast consequence.

I used ridiculous phrases in trying to be grand enough to please her, and it must have been preposterous, for several times she sent Carrie away, the first time saying, "I want to have Neannie alone, you are dull and she's never anything but entertaining.  Her little daughter, dismissed so ruthlessly, .flounced out of the room with the expression of a martyr.  It was my first sight of indifferent coldness on the part of the Mother and flaming jealousy on the part of the Mother and flaming jealousy on the part of the daughter,

Carrie was comparatively sullen to me during the rest of my stay; but I didn't care; I preened myself as something especially precious in the eyes of that woman, only then in the late twenties.  The merry gleam in those pretty eyes, and the open flattery of her words made me each time more resolutely determined to do and say whatever she wanted.  It was a strangely glorious triumph over Carrie to be for an hour her Mother's favorite.  The trenchant emphasis of that experience, because of my obvious enthusiasm over things and people, made me while with her, and under such supposed admiration, like a galvanized little Mercury flying hither and yon over personal subjects, and manoeuvering in speech for a better seat in the heaven of her regard.

In my inflated vanity she suddenly made me feel a great dislike to others who gave me what, by comparison, seemed only a grudging appreciation.  Praise was a benevolent germ, and its effects upon me even after all those pages were closed, made for so much quiet elation in weeks and months that followed.  I had no analytical knife to use, and no symbols to save me by showing that experience in its worthlessness.  I had been too fevered with delight, and was too ignorant to measure values, not to fail to believe that I had fully justified myself.  It was a triumph, for which I had waited a long time, and it only added new richness to facts of existence.  And feelings, that I only began very slowly to comprehend years and years after, return to me when conscious of that great romantic longing to be first; interpreting itself to more mature feelings as the ultimate purpose, the dream and aspiration which is the "Open Sesame" of every woman's life.

One afternoon my Aunt Nancy found me happily engaged and said quickly - "Come Neanie, put up that book - Mrs. Benedict has come to take you for a long drive."  Oh! No, - No - No, Not Aria, I cried - I can't see her, - I can't.  You know I look like her - Oh, no" - and I tried not to cry but the tears were forced out of a huge lump in my throat, and I made a display of overwhelming grief while my enormously puzzled Aunt, unaware of the terrible experience that name recalled, distressed and annoyed but growingly determined argued a bit hotly until she led me a despairing little victim, trembling and tearful to the dreaded presence.

All the time confused with that returned misery and fear the conflict raged within - Oh! if I could hide somewhere - If I could get away - I'm a visitor - I'm a visitor.  Mother said I must do whatever they asked but I'm not going to loo at her - I won't look - and I hung as far behind as I dared.  

Just inside the door, listening to my Aunt's apologies - "She's out of sorts - she's had a fit of home-sickness I suppose - I heard what made the blood race through every vein - "How she favours Orrington!"  And with eyes still fixed on the ground the blessed words made a riot of joy when she repeated " I was saying, child, how much you look like your Father.  I hope you have his beautiful voice.  Do you like music?"  I gave a feeble assent, and too deeply interested to have time or desire for more tears I slowly lifted my eyes to the face quite close to mine.

Why!  She wasn't so awful looking.  She had on a big bonnet with a big blue bow on top and one tied under her chin, and a curl hung each side her face tucked a little inside that fine bonnet, and she was smiling.  "We'll have some fine Christmas music.  Get you things on quick."  As soon in the carriage we whirled to the Music Hall - a sacred place where I listened spell-bound to the Oratorio of The Messiah - My first sight of the High Altar - my first introduction into the realm of glorious sound - My first knowledge of the Divine language - My first kneeling at that Shrine where I have worshipped and swung incense ever since.  

Bewildered, with inexpressible delight I critically and secretly regarded my kind entertainer, and when I made my thanks in a state of open excitement, she smiled and said, "I'll have to plan it with your Aunt and take you to the theatre."  She was no longer terrible - She had changed - She was a kind lady; and enormously difficult as it was for my tyrannous imagination I disputed with my first impressions, and all suddenly considered her as a sort of splendid investment to know and to feel as a part of our family.  And that face I had thought of such distinctive ugliness I found well worth reading, with its hidden writing of character that must have been plainly visible and so dear to those who loved her.

Someone has aptly said, "That kindness is the most difficult quality to manifest because it demands the essence of sympathy."  When she said "You are a delightful little girl to take out, and next week there are Play's of Shakespeare, and we'll go to hear "The Tempest" and The Mid Summer Night's Dream," - to, show you that there are real Fairies."  I somehow felt her to be genuinely of my kind and unequivocally surrendered my dislike, and felt tempted to resent the recoil which at the outset had made me so pathetically wretched.

And after that introduction to the Drama that opened a new country, those wonderful sights consecrated forever to immensities of charm and sacrifice and heroism.  When Edwin Booth, making his debut there, bowed to the acclaim of that critical Boston audience, I was whirled into a wild and breathless world - a child in love - in love with Genius and Art.

Oh! those symbols of infinity and spaciousness! Oh! the violence of delight that caught my breath - the overwhelming realization of the weird and wonderful - the unutterable joy as I sat forward in the seat with clasped hands and fixed eyes and throbbing heart.  Some racing, twisting, turning feelings that could only afterward be paralleled when with a strong wrist on the bridle of a tearing thorough-bred, I have rushed through forests or over hills in the very heart of the Rockies.

Booth looked like a streak of flame when he raised those splendid eyes and sent messages that I could catch, but not understand.  Oh! the rollicking answer in me to the happy ending for the lovers.  I was too obviously happy, with no words to express what, when you get right down to the fundamentals, all young hearts feel at the first revelation of romance.

Strong winds blew over me, something stuck in my eyes and on hot cheeks as I drew up close to Mrs. Benedict, and kissed her gratefully  when she took her leave and returned me to every-day life.  She seemed to me, and yet I know not how to express it, to have an affectionate understanding of sanctities, humanities and spiritualities.  She had talked to me as if to an equal, such was her sympathetic understanding of a child.  

No realization can be perfected in us that teaches human nature unless we have the gift of imagination, and among influences that were unconsciously moulding me, wherever associations moved freely and uncontrolled, was the quest of adventure.  And whatever has since linked my soul with the soul of beauty that Music and the Drama stirs to reverent worship in its eternal remembrance of that spirit if divine childhood lived amidst what most energizes and urges.

The jumble of odds and ends in those days in those days, the treasures and promises have sorted themselves out so that memories and impressions are tacked on to the right people and places, and all sorts of forgotten notions come into consciousness.  To my mind, then in a world of uncertainties, there was but one thing to do, to grow up too soon, to go upon the stage, and to play plays with Edwin Booth.  

I had no suspicion of difficulties or unrealities for a long time, everything else but that mimic life which tugged at my heart slipped into the background.  It was extraordinary how adventurous and exciting life suddenly became.  The twin arts, Music and the Drama, made for a new surprising life of freedom.  It brought delicious, poignant satisfaction that ran through the days like magic.  It was no disturbing phenomenon, it was only a sum of addition.  It seemed quite sane and sensible for me to read between the lines of all literary expression thereafter, in buoyant optimism and expectation, the grandeur if life on the Stage.