Friday, January 12, 2018

THE FIRST LADY OF EVANSTON - Cornelia Gray Lunt - BOOK I, Chapter 13 - The Little Southerner

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 Thirteen
The Little Southerner

Bowdoinham, Maine
In the warm rays of the setting sun the past, not melting away, rises ever more clearly before me.  Nothing of my early life seems very distant or indistinct, and today with all those years behind me, my Lake, stretching from infinite distance with the sunshine making dazzling glory, sings as always to create moods of adventure and revive the old dreams that used to make me so poignantly happy.  Circumstances and temperament combined to make me an Optimist in the grain.  Mine was a sort of insolent joy in life and with every physical care and comfort, the colour of my past tinged always the colour of my future,  And as a schoolgirl of eleven I only missed for a time the vital accents of happiness.

The family gathered at the old Maine homestead that Summer as usual.  My grandfather was changed, very listless and very tired - not interested as before, and I was warned not to disturb him.  His mind stored with knowledge of life and men, no longer acted with its rapier clearness; he was very hollow-eyed, the lines had deepened between and around his eyes, there were dark circles under them, and in them no longer the old flashes of cynical humour.  The cheeks fallen in and the skin like old ivory, made his countenance strange.  But the full significance of his condition did not dawn upon me, only the undoubted fact that he was no longer interested in me caused at first a sharp pang.  He looked oddly short and shrunken sitting in a rolling chair, and my chief memory is how strange a smile curled his lips, and how he raised one hand, the other limp and useless, and someway made for me a picture of splendid isolation.

One day I crept close, and he frowned just a little as I asked timidly - "Oh! dear Grandfather, are you very sick?"  Then he looked exactly at me and those dimmed blue eyes told their story all too plainly.  Life no longer throbbed in face or voice and that twisted smile and futile effort to talk, plainly haunted me for long.  My distress ending in a flood of tears and many inquiries, after that I was kept from the room although I took many a flying look at his closed door, and could not help knowing he was stricken sorely.  My beloved but broken Grandfather with a face carved in ivory , and lips still smiling that strange half smile!  It was a picture I could not shake, I struggled with its unreality; but the heavy weight of loss at ties made the blood seem to leave my heart.

But that special Summer I felt many a thrill of admiration over the grace and beauty of my two youngest Aunts, whose shining dark eyes and glossy hair nipped quickly any bud of vanity ever threatening to grow in me, and my flagrant tendency to hold the center of the stage and focus attention on myself was gone.  I was in good temper with the things around me and there was quickening appreciably in me the love of intrinsic beauty.

And one thing was very different that vacation.  I went often to Grandfather Lunt's, especially after my Aunt Dolly and her step-daughter  Lou Burge arrived for a long deferred visit.  I never lacked skill in making friendly approaches to girls of my own age and I quickly felt her sympathy and understanding.  

She was a clever little girl of middle height.  She was dark-haired, with velvet black eyes, her hair was thick and vital and grew prettily round her slender neck.  She had no freckles; I noticed her skin was smooth and dark, her features straight and clean, and face and eyes were alive with passionate distinction.  She moved slower than any girl I had ever seen, and spoke with a soft drawl.  She was all fire and flame even as a child, and she could repel with pettish words and gestures for her temper was not equal to her looks.  I thought her very graceful and felt the fervent quality in her  - She won allegiance with an effortless ease and we became friends with brave assumption on each side of self-dependence.

Lou would tell me of her entire liberty at the Plantation, and I accepted every factor of that picturesque life of the South with enthusiasm.  It was strange to me that she turned against bonds; the personal will in her always rebelling against the claims of those older; nature clamouring for entire freedom.

If she was slow and drawled her words often, yet at times she talked as fast as the human tongue could go, and I was lost in admiration of her vocabulary.  She was the first human being of my own age I'd ever met difficult to match or over-top.  She told me her Ancestors were Knights, "Such as you read about you know," and threw up her little chin a moment, continuing - "When they died they were all laid in rows and rows of great Vaults, and they had swords and armour too - You can read in history about them, and how they wore knee-breeches and walked in armour and carried big swords and were splendidly handsome like Princes."  Her little oval face was flushed and she looked proud enough to assist in highest functions at Westminster, and to have Manor Houses to bestow on us all!  Well! however useless such knowledge she disturbed me with it - I could only reply that my Grandfather said were direct lineal descendents from the ancient Grays of England, and so Lady Jane Grey belonged to my family and I supposed Oliver Cromwell and perhaps Queen Elizabeth, for anyway they were - Grandfather had told me - very distinguished people of the name of Grey.

She looked at me scornfully "Lade Jane Grey had her head chopped off and never had any children, and Queen Elizabeth wasn't married either."  I looked at her resentfully, and I certainly didn't chasten myself at that point without any knowledge or belief as to how the mighty Grays had fallen to our first American Ancestor, whose epitaph on the tombstone in Old Plymouth graveyard reads simply - "Here lies ye body of Edward Gray, Gentleman." - I merely continued proudly boastful, and Lou frowned listening to my further statements.  She had entirely disassociated self consciousness and disbelief from her features, and both of us recovering equanimity, merriment and satisfaction ensued.  She had concluded me a worthy playmate wherever our family Mansions or mythical Estates were situated!  We were both plainly mere vessels of emotion, and phases of such earlier childhood lurked in our speech and aspect.

The hours were like bubbles in which so much that was unreal was reflected.  When childhood's hours are weighted with happiness that we have no true names they are as fragile as they are beautiful.  And little indeed do we know that ugly or ordinary things are critical crises, and if beautiful weeks of joy are to be found in their effects idealism must never be destroyed.  That will save and prove itself.

We talked very freely together and I told her all sorts of little intimate things about which I was habitually reticent, for frankness itself hides when it dreads criticism or amused comment, and often after I had ceased talking some remark of the young Aunts or one of the elders would make me feel I was nothing but a born prattler.  One thing is certain those gay members of the household, or of the family, never tried to patch up things with the younger generation.  There were never quarrels or estrangements in our immediate circle, but the younger ones were relatively indifferent or critical, and, as I had no sister and neither Joe nor my little cousins were with me in the Gray homestead, I gladly adopted this little Southerner whose voice was as persistent and ready as my own.

I felt a sort of shock when I heard hot and unexpected declarations of dislike to any members of her own family, and sometimes she'd say - "I've made a vow I'll never never when I'm grown up have anything to do with So-and-So: - And she'd draw back as if trying to shake off a grip, as if nerves were shrinking, as if there was some invincible interior recoil.  It was curiously as if the child were struggling to free herself - forcibly facing away from things as they were - with now and then sensations of impotent wrath, and yet all such temporary revolt was easily appeased - sometimes gone as rapidly as it had come.  Lou had no looseness about her, no lack of firmness and she could strike boldly if upset by a touch.  As far as she was concerned emotionally there was an instinctive certitude in her responses, in the swiftness of her speech and in the changes of her mood.

Lou was haughty even to her Step-mother whose every impulse, every word was tenderness.  My Aunt Dolly had a subtly expressive countenance, human kindness could hardly speak more plainly in a human face; her keen intelligence was free from personal preoccupation; hers was a warm Christian outlook on the whole world.  There was something arresting, something noble in both my Father's sisters.  And my Aunt Dolly's dark brows arching on a white forehead, her luxuriant mass of wavy gray hair coiled back on a head so like Father's; a head well carried as though conscious of ancestry and tradition, yet in character she was too benignant to realize or count upon anything so extraneous.  She was wise and humanly beneficent - Sweetened by generosity and sympathy she took upon her own shoulders many burdens and many needs.  She bore her responsibilities and met her emergencies, and gave comfort, enjoyment and service without stint or any troublesome reflections.  She rejoiced to see us together and encouraged every indication of intimacy.

We had fallings out of course, both so positive and self assured, but they were like the filmiest of summer clouds floating mistily for a second, and melting into the blue before one really saw or felt the least danger of dimming the sunshine of unclouded youth and gaiety.  Alas! one careless remark of mine, made with no  foreboding of possible disaster, precipitated trouble prophetic in its nature and its threat of ultimate rupture.

Many of Lou's words and my hot replies have left their lasting imprint - but even when words have apparently left no impression on the memory the scenes of that period in my life cast on such simple lines, the fact of those experiences, the knowledge of the people and familiarity of surroundings, the effects of time and pl;ace and their long after results, all unite to bring back easily, and to make real exactly what in that early period was said and done.

I can see again just how we looked and spoke because in the nature of things, realizing my own feelings and recalling those events, the whole series that led up to climaxes of sensation comes back forcibly - emotions voice themselves naturally and with characteristic spirit and expression.  It is then that with a surge of recollection and feeling the words themselves, largely as they were spoken, accurately as they told their story, come back to me.

We had come in from the orchard up into the small hall bedroom called the library, with its one large book-case, a table and two or three chairs on one of which Lou had climbed, and stood up to rummage the upper shelf, to be sure nothing was hidden away from us.  Suddenly my eye caught the title of that shabby old volume, accounting for the careless question - "Did you know Grandfather Lunt called Byron a bad book?"  "Byron was a man, and he was a Lord and he's good looking - I saw his picture - It's "Byron's Works," don't you know enough to speak it right? - But Grandfather never read it; I have, and it's a beautiful book."  Being very much chagrined over the nature of her rebuke, the justness of its criticism appealing, I was silenced for a moment by rallied to remark stingingly - "Oh! you think you're very smart and know more than anybody else - Byron must be bad, I believe Grandfather, you aren't right always."  "I know bad books and I know the very wickedest one, It's Uncle Tom's Cabin."  For a second I was dumb and then shouted irritably, "Why Lou Burge, You don't know anything - That book is nice - I say it isn't wicked - I say you're crazy" - and with no deference or any reserve politeness for her as a visitor I added the unnecessary slight - "And I guess you are wicked yourself."

She grew more excited.  She was clean mad - carried away by something she had heard or remembered - but I interrupted raising my voice, my heart beating proudly and with some sense of power - "I tell you "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is a fine book, - You never read it- Everybody knows its fine."  Her cry nearly rang through the house - "No, I wouldn't read it - My Uncle said he wouldn't touch it with the tongs - They ought to make a bon-fire as tall as the sky to burn them all up."  But the ordeal of battle was not over, for she added scathingly "Wicked yourself! - I reckon you-all are wicked - I reckon you-all are black inside.  Yes! you-all are black inside, worse than n_____s, - Worse than pore white trash - I hate you Yankees - You-all are common."  And my shocked silence was the price of her triumph.  I was dazed, humiliated, bewildered - and I had long after a picture of her as she stood, that little figure drawn to its full height pointing at me with blazing eyes the finger of scorn.  Those flashing eyes! and that face crimson with the hot blood of her race was photographed upon my brain.

"For Shame! Children, How can you quarrel so?"  The furious tones had resounded through the house.  There was something oddly direct, oddly compelling in the level steady glance of my Aunt Dolly's grave unsmiling eyes.  Always self possessed, always gentle and sympathetic there was now as she stood before us no sense of unfinished youth anywhere about her.She was the Judge, the experienced woman, and a very determined and decided one.

We had been fighting as truly as if we had used weapons of steel instead of sharp words.  And we were not willing to pick up what we had lost.  It was still rage in both hearts with no desire for reconciliation.  I slipped by and got myself blindly into the hall, as she addressed her step-daughter in reproof, but could beat no retreat.  "Don't run away - Come here Neanie - You poor child! - Lou, how could you, dear? - Why you too are cousins," but the little Southerner could not be silenced.  "She called "Uncle Tom's Cabin" a nice book - She said we were a wicked set - She is nothing but a Yankee." - "There, There! not another word - Now listen both of you - You don't either of you know what you mean.  You, Lou, are rude and ill-bred to call names.  You're a visitor and I'm ashamed that you shouldn't behave better.  The Northerners are just the same as Southerners.  Some are very fine - and some are not like our people.  You don't like everybody down there! - Neanie - You see that book isn't true, I mean it says lots of things that aren't true.  It makes you believe lots of things that are not true."  There was neither invective nor sarcasm in her quiet words as she proceeded to tell me how they took acre of all their slaves, saw they had clothes and plenty to eat, and looked after every one of them when they were sick, and that they all had little cabins of their own on the place.  And I never forgot the emphasis of her closing sentence - "It takes over a hundred of our slaves to pick the cotton, and if you could only hear them singing while they work or when they sit in their own cabins sometimes, you'd know why they were happy and well taken care of.  There are cruel and wicked people everywhere all over the world, but down South we don't any of us know such terrible ones as she writes about."

My Aunt Dolly in her benevolence saw only her own and her neighbours Plantations.  She had experienced only the Patriarchal system, and kindness to the core herself she could not conceive of injustice or tyranny.  It only illustrates that truth that we all cut the diagram of human nature by our own limitations.  Curious when one begins to think of a subject how it crops up at most unexpected times and in most unexpected places.  I verily believe looking back that I perceive objects not visible to those of us who always depend on the usual senses - That is - I can see things of which I now write without my eyes; but certain things are very curious and yet are all capable of a natural explanation in coming back to me, marching again into my field of vision as if they all actually stood up before the camera for it to take afresh the old-time pictures.  There are faint differences of course, sometimes a sort of shadowiness, sometimes almost a lack of definition because indistinct and so far off, to you who read - But I can smile at my feeblest efforts, and I am held so that I can neither turn away nor forget.   

My Aunt talked long and wisely.  She drew us both figuratively as well as literally into her arms, and we were both finally reduced to apparently friendly relations, but were neither fully thawed nor at all altered in our mental attitudes.  Lou's tones of scorn echoed and re-echoed.  "I hate you Yankees, you-all are common."  I had been chilled, dashed down from my high perch, and the humiliation of that encounter, the recoil and futile dislike it engendered, would have lasted long and killed all affection but for the skill and tact with which we were handled.  We shook hands before I stole away but neither of us were going to be beaten from the field.  I had a fancy that in both cases our strength was spent.  I realized long after that hour of revealment, that we had reached each other understandingly.  Those words spoken in sharp detached particles that hurt swept so much aside - it was  momentous and revealing - but the force was not evil.  We were both true to our standards.  We were only riven apart by a blinding stroke, and Aunt Dolly's wise and tender touch connected for us the two edges of conscious thought.  Aunt Dolly knew the signs - Knew a receptive mind from an inquiring one,and had understood the peculiar mental excitement in each of us.

As I ascended the steps and entered the larger lining-room at the homestead I so shrank from its recollection that I tried to slip through unseen.  But there was Aunt Beulah Patten talking to my Grandmother, and the loveliest looking old lady ever seen, Aunt Hannah Gray, who had just come from grandfather's room and there were tears in her eyes.  Aunt Beulah was always smiling, humourous and kind, and now she called out - "Don't run away - What's the matter?  You look peaked." - and out it came!  They all laughed at being called "Yankees," and Sarah Ann Fulton who came in with my Aunt Sarah in time to hear the tragic tale, cried out, "Mercy Sakes!  What do you care?  They don't know us and we don't know them, and don't want to, I guess.  You'd better give your Grandfather Lunt the go-by for a while, I should think Dolly Burge ought to make that young one she brought North behave better."  But something stirred in my heart to defend her.  "I said just as bad as I could and I wanted to make her mad" - and in a subtle sense not comprehending it at all I seemed to see that if we wanted to keep something good and sweet we must not stop loving but snatch at the joy of being together.  The thought of little Lou and Aunt Dolly being so severely blamed brought about in me a complete recovery from anger or aversion.

Aunt Beulah invited me to spend the next day with her.  She always gave me seed-cakes and awfully thick cream over the blueberries when I made her visits and I loved to go there.  Her daughter Nannie was very pretty but very fat.  She drank cream they said.  Everybody laughed and had a good time at Aunt Beulah's.  I guess there were no shadows or clouds hanging over the home.  It was a lovely farm and they were dear and lovely people.

On the second day after that, Aunt Dolly brought her little stepdaughter and came to the Gray house to spend the afternoon.  She and my Aunts were great friends having grown up together from childhood.  Lou's sparkle had no sobering touch as we met again.  She was a born charmer and something had completely tranquilized her.  I felt the summons of her warm and impulsive nature.  It answered to mine.  The inner doors opened - Our hearts met - We forgot differences, - We felt the call of an acknowledged kinship.  We glowed comfortably in happy sunshine far removed from angry clouds or the black background of battle.  For years after that summer it was a reign of peace - Ah! God that it could not have lasted!  Why!  Why should enmities burrow in and burn until they flash into destructive flame?  It was s supreme chance that parted us for ever.

And now I look back to that last day we spent together, to the last time I ever saw her and I cannot forbear speaking just here of a little scene, and some words that surprised and gave me a thrill of pleasure unqualified, as all praises of those dear to us invariably must.  Lou said to me at first what seemed a funny thing - It sounded as if it came out of a book - "I think your Mother is statuesque."

My Mother always impressed me as tall, but she is not above medium height, only with a figure very straight and slender so that seeming height only adds to the extreme grace and dignity of her carriage.  She has fair hair that shows a natural wave and is abundant, and large eyes of hazel or grey; dear deep eyes that look out upon the world always serene and yet with a touch of sadness and something indefinable.  All that I felt, as I looked at the little speaker, but I could not then have put it into words.  All I said was to quote Grandfather - "They say Mother was beautiful." - Well she is, only she's very pale and they say she's very delicate, but she makes everybody comfortable, I like to be near her and I like to look at her."

Whatever tests or trials my Mother met must have early opened her eyes to the calls and claims of others - to sorrows and disappointments perhaps - most certainly to the exigencies and demands of life we face daily.  As I grew older my sensations were sometimes vivid as I looked and noticed the lines ands shadows on that delicate countenance, that gave a touch of sadness and meaning that young faces never have.  It is the great in spirit who have no affectations, know no jealousies, acquire a sort of infinite patience or gentle tolerance and never know fears of losing place or position, wherever they may be, or with whomever they are associating.  My Mother never appraised human beings by possessions instead of personal attributes.  She was very fastidious in tastes and habits, but she never showed that instinct of criticism of which she was not devoid, where it could hurt or wound anyone.

All this returns to my  mind in such vividness and strength that, almost the actual surroundings are here, and I am back at my Grandfather Lunts once more and see again the Little Southerner's bright face, and realize that she never harboured unkind feelings long however unexpected or ominous her outbreaks.  We two flew on swift wings of confidence until the eternal division came.  There is no vagueness and no imperfect memory of that companionship.  It is ever clearer and less incomprehensible from my childhood's point of view that what so often and necessarily hung about my intercourse with grown people.

That summer gave me surpassing views of beauty and peace, a sort of tranquilness grew in me and, but for my Grandfather Gray's continued illness and close confinement to the closed room, the joy of its many experiences would have filled me to overflowing.  But no days passed wholly without thoughts of him and memories of his undeviating kindness never lost poignancy or strength.  It was all mysterious, inexplicable, deadly that I could no longer see or talk to him.  The Gray homestead had lost so much of its charm.  It had lost its stately Head that embodied such dignity and hospitality.  There was something pain burdened in the atmosphere.  And invariably I rebelled at the authoritativeness that shut me out from vision and association with the beloved invalid.  I was always regretfully aware of the fact I could not get away from that Grandfather was changed, that he no longer listened to what was said - and that no one must trouble to question or interrupt the train of thought in which he seemed so strangely, so completely wrapped up.  He had never been unsympathetic.  He had never before waved me aside - The few times I saw him he looked as if he did not see me - as if I did not exist, and I knew he must not be bothered, but did not know enough to understand that he would never again be free to occupy himself as of yore, or that never again could I look into his eyes. hang on his words or draw spiritual and intellectual strength from his store of knowledge and reservoir of experience.  never got away from hope - because I had never known its failure to warm the hearts, and bring back life to the death-stricken.

No intimate possessions of the Past have lost meaning nor have any been rudely wrenched away from me.  They belong now as they did then, and if happiness in age is sometimes crossed by melancholy recollection I quickly shut the doors on any reproachful emptiness of the present.

I write for you - Oh! Children of our blood!  You that are here - You that will come after - And I am still touched with excitement recounting fancies and feelings that flooded everything with sunlight.