Boston adventure, p.20

Boston Adventure, page 20


Boston Adventure

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  “I don’t know why it is nowhere but in New England do you find a well-turned cemetery. In France, they’re nondescript. There is one other graveyard that took my fancy. When I was a young lady, I one time went to New Orleans and took a side trip to a little town where some sort of pioneers, German, I believe, had been buried. (My ignorance about the rest of this country, my dear, will shock you. I’m like the woman who said she went to Los Angeles by way of Charles River Village.) It was in a grove of oaks, dripping with Spanish moss which made everything most gloomy, most Doré. I found it creepy, I must admit, but it was handsome.”

  I admired the darling of her heart but asked her why she preferred it to all the others, and she said, “Well, in some of them, the newer ones, the horticulture is rather too much and the epitaphs have certainly gone downhill. But the fact is, that the names in the others are second-rate. That is, even Mr. Emerson can’t compete with Revere or Otis. Don’t misunderstand me. Some of my best friends are named Emerson.”

  She had sent Mac on and we walked to her house down the street past the State House to which I found myself indifferent. And at the moment I released my long-cherished impression of it, I realized that my desire for Boston had never been so real as it was now as, grimy, tattered, large for my age, I strode beside this clean, tart woman, so certain of her good blood, her wit, her wealth, her position in society (so au courant with her ancestral history that she could call a Cabot inferior to a Prescott, like a Howard running down the House of Windsor) that she could appear on the streets of her city in any company without the slightest risk of censure. Earlier, I had told her that I was not properly dressed to go to tea. “Dressed?” she had said. “Do you call me dressed? You may be more formal in Chichester at tea time than we are in Boston, but you look dressed enough to me. The important thing is, are you warm enough?”

  “Now, we turn here,” she said, “and then we start going down. Our Hill is a real hill. I always say it’s really much steeper than the Great Blue Hill.” Indeed, with a push, one could go hurtling down the brick-paved sidewalk and never stop, but shoot into the Charles which was visible, far below, as a wedge of chilly blue, crossed now and then by a white sail. Miss Pride, sure-footed as a burro, marched briskly down, and I, joyously regarding her from the corner of my eye, kept as close to the houses as I could in order not to bump clumsily into her. Her house was not far; its front windows faced Louisburg Square and here, as if it were an oasis chosen to delight the eyes of some favored heavenly power, the sun, hidden elsewhere by the city’s smoke, shone brilliantly on white doorways and their brass trimmings.

  Tea was served to us in the library, a lofty room at the back of the house, chilled and dark. Through the drawn, dark red curtains, the late afternoon light barely penetrated. Miss Pride asked me if I would like to have the lamps turned on and when I replied that I liked the dimness (it was not true; I would have liked to look at everything under a searchlight), she said, “It seemed a little triste to me, but you, of course, are feeling a little triste.” She had thought to have a fire today but it had turned out so warm we would only be uncomfortable—she found the room stuffy as it was. I agreed, although the damp coolness of the place filtered through the layers of my skin and set my bones to dancing.

  When she went out for a moment to speak to a servant, I made a tour of the room. The middle sections of the end walls were recessed for twin fire-places with black marble frames; in either was a bed of solid, tawny ashes, the careful accumulation of years. The hearths were flanked with bookshelves reaching to the ceiling and in a far corner, near the windows, stood ladders which might be attached to a track at the baseboard and to an upper shelf so that one might investigate the high books. I was more impressed by these appurtenances than by any other in the room, for they suggested a most serious purpose and I had never dreamed of seeing anything like them in an establishment other than a public library or a shoe store. The outer wall was taken up by two long casements between which stood a Governor Winthrop secretary. On the wall above, a gentleman forthrightly speculated on the tall cabinet opposite him through whose glass doors were visible silver loving cups and brass placques standing upright in a narrow trough. I say “gentleman” because I knew at once that he could have been nothing else. The edges of his gray waistcoat were piped in white and his cutaway, the warm color of a dove’s back, was striped with fine silver threads. He was a lean man and in his severe face, age had peeled the flesh almost to the skeleton, but it was evident, in the bright, flat eyes (uncannily perceptive either through the painter’s skill or his model’s power to project his character into the canvas) that age had not deprived the brain of its faculties; they almost spoke. He was, I knew, some relative of Miss Pride’s, and I believed he was her father, for the eyes were exactly like hers and, for the sake of experiment, endowing them with life, I observed that from numerous angles, they, too, seemed to stare suddenly first at one thing and then at another. They did not follow me, but waited until I had reached my new destination before they apprehended me again. I was standing near the cabinet when Miss Pride came back into the room. Before me was a small table on which stood a satinwood chess-board and ivory men. Two chairs had been drawn up in readiness for a game and upon a little glass-topped stand, a decanter had been placed with two inhalers.

  “Oh, do you play?” asked Miss Pride. I said I did not. “You should learn. It is the best of all games, the greatest test of intelligence. Bridge, I have no use for. My father, whom you see up there above the desk, was the foremost chess-player of Beacon Hill in his time. This room, in a sense, is dedicated to his pastimes. For in addition to being a past-master at chess, he was a great reader, as you can see from the size of his library. And here, in this cabinet are his yachting trophies. But I have tried to make the place cozy, not too much like a museum, you know, not too much like a mausoleum. After all, we have graveyards to take care of the dead, we needn’t keep their ghosts in our houses.”

  I was curious to know who the chess-game had been set up for, and presently she enlightened me. “I must confess to a degree of vanity over my own game. My friends were corrupted some years ago by that humdrum Oriental importation, Mah Jong, and have never since been able to keep their wits about them at the chess-board. Consequently, for a long time I have had to be satisfied with playing against myself. Occasionally I get wind of a young man at Harvard College who knows a smattering and I do enjoy the combat. But a young man against an old woman is not quite pleasing. They’re always anxious to finish the game so that they can start reforming me.” The word “reforming” she whispered, drawing out the second syllable with an intentionally comic puckering of her lips that made me laugh and ask her what their mission was.

  “My dear,” she said, leading me to a fat, short sofa, upholstered in red velour which had faded in some places to a rusty pink, “don’t ask me that until I have had a cup of tea.” The tea had arrived just then, and I was disappointed to see that the refreshments were only rye bread spread with sweet butter and thin slices of fruit cake to which I had always had an aversion. “Will you have sugar and lemon or sugar and cream?” she asked. I told her I took nothing in my tea and I refused anything to eat. My abstention seemed to please her for she remarked, “Why, you’re a perfect guest. I think it’s foolish to stuff oneself at tea time on strawberry tarts and all sorts of sandwiches. In some houses it’s become a regular meal. I feel we carry our Anglophilia too far sometimes, don’t you? Or perhaps you think we don’t go far enough?”

  I had no idea what she meant. There was nothing patronizing in her voice, nothing in the least supercilious and I concluded that any young lady should be able to specify at once, and with reasons for her choice, the camp to which she belonged on the question of the American imitation of British customs (I was at least, through the help of my reading, able to grasp the meaning of the word). I was tongue-tied, but at length, when I saw her hand poised over the teapot as she waited for my answer and re
alized that she did not introduce subjects of conversation that one might take or leave, I brought out, “I have never been to England.” The faintest of smiles pinched the corners of her eyes, and she changed the subject to literature which I had told her, on the way in, was my principal interest.

  I learned that she regarded literature as utilitarian, as essential to good breeding. It was an ingredient of life like religion, and just as one believed in God and invoked Him but trafficked only with the minister, so one believed in Shakespeare but depended on The Atlantic Monthly. Instinctively she felt learning to be a masculine province, even though she was an advocate of equal rights. She told me how well-read her father had been, how he had been instructed by all these books that lined the walls, whether they were poetry or fiction or history, and she rather raised her voice on “poetry” as though it were remarkable that he had found it useful, and admirable that he had renounced the temptation to enjoy it, had solemnly been “instructed.” In the last years of his life, he had taken up Oriental languages and for this she had the deepest respect. “Now the mastery of a language I can understand. It is as thrilling as chess, and it is useful, although poor Papa never benefited from his Japanese as he only learned it when he was too old to travel. But he had the illusion, at least, that he was getting somewhere, don’t you see.” Hastily, as an afterthought, she added, “My dear, you must not think for a minute I’m like that quixotic Mr. Brock at the Barstow. A foreign language is useful in a foreign country, and I suppose that if one were cast on to a desert island and had nothing to read but a French translation of Mr. Emerson, one would be justified in reading it.”

  The mission of the young men who played chess with her was, it appeared, to induce her to read modern poetry. She had no patience with these eccentric cubs who had demolished tradition, and she found particularly infuriating certain New Englanders who had seen fit to poke fun at their countrymen. “I see nothing intrinsically humorous in the name, The Boston Evening Transcript,” she said in temper, “and much as the author of its contumely is respected, I think he writes doggerel. I have never quite got his connections clear. All I know of him is that he was born in Saint Louis, even though he really was an Eliot. Times change. In the old days the people we claimed as our literary men were born in Concord or Cambridge.” I asked her if she had known Amy Lowell well and she replied, “The less said about Amy Lowell, the better,” so that I supposed—because I was sure Miss Pride had the pick of all Boston society—that the two had had a disagreement in which, of course, Miss Pride had been in the right. And later when she said, reverting to an earlier subject, that literary people were often “brainy” and that she did not enjoy brains when she was relaxing at her tea-table (“All things,” she said, “in their places.”), I decided that Miss Lowell had perhaps never been invited to the house and that their meetings had only taken place in the Athenaeum.

  Poetry frankly made her uncomfortable. She had not the same aversion to music or painting, perhaps because the media of the composer and the painter were foreign to her and she did not see their creations in the context of their lives. Not so with a poet who laid his very heart at her feet, tracing upon it as upon a contour map, his unbridled passions. Some young person, child of an old friend, had one day come to tea and had brought with him the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, and in spite of her protests, had managed to read one aloud to her. It was a particularly passionate one (Miss Pride, disliking such words as “passionate” said “fantastic”) ending with the couplet:

  Except you’ enthrall me, never shall be free,

  Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

  The same young man had, she understood, taken to writing poems himself, much in the insolent tone of the mocker of The Boston Evening Transcript, and had composed some vicious lines on the Granary Burying Ground. The young man’s “case” was a mystery to her because he had not only come from a perfectly dignified family and had gone straight to Harvard from Groton and was going into the law, but also because he was directly descended from at least two of the illustrious skeletons in the yard.

  I was in love with that young man who had perhaps sat on this very sofa, resplendent in a long coat and trousers of a different cloth and thick-soled shoes and a bean-shave, reading poetry in the accents of Beacon Hill’s Olympians. Magnificent creature, that intellectual aristocrat, pausing between crew practice and an evening at the Porcellian Club to exhibit, in an old lady’s fusty house, the fullness of his life! I at once hoped that I should one day see him here in all his gentlemanly regalia and that he had been forbidden to come again for his importunity. For equally in love was I with Miss Pride whose small, dour world was governed by one and only one principle, a principle that varied neither in time nor place, a law which forbade riot to follow on the heels of chance: John Donne might once in her house pose as a forward woman, begging, in so many words, to be seduced, but he would not behave so twice. Between those two astronomies, the young man’s whose earth was plural, and Miss Pride’s whose solitary world was Boston, round which the trifling planets revolved at a respectful distance, I could not choose, for both were true.

  We had finished our tea. Miss Pride rose and as she moved about the room turning on the lamps, she said, “Your letter so charmed me. And as I read it—let me say that I was impressed by your calligraphy which has the purity without the flourishes of the Spencerian hand—I said to myself, ‘Here is one person of the new generation who preserves the ideals of my own. I will, indeed, come to her aid.’ I cannot tell you how much it grieves me that I was too late. My little flower, I’m afraid, was hardly a substitute. Yet, without me, you solved your problem, you were not stumped. Oh, you’ll be all right! I will say quite candidly that it flatters me to think I have perhaps had some influence on the development of your character. I have, although you have perhaps not been aware of it, been closely observant of you for several years and had thought, from time to time, of making the proposition to you which you set forth in your letter, that is, that you enter my service. But when you wrote me, I knew then that that was not the ticket. My dear child, what talents you have! And a chambermaid!”

  I had nothing to say in reply, but cast my eyes down at the carpet as she went on, “I was saying to my niece that if she had only kept her eyes and ears open as you have done, she would have been a singular young woman. Now I know nothing of your circumstances and little of your capacities, but I shall not lose my interest in you and since I should like to do a little something, in return for the rare pleasure your letter gave me, I have ordered The Atlantic Monthly for you and in the next few days will send you a box of books which I am sure you’ll find profitable.”

  “That’s very good of you, Miss Pride,” I said. “I like to read.”

  She asked me then if I knew stenography. “What a pity,” she said. “I thought they taught you that sort of thing in the public schools. I was about to say that I shall presently be looking for a secretary. The fact is, my dear, which I hope you won’t breathe, that I have been thinking of writing my memoirs. Now you’ll think me outrageously pretentious. I haven’t a scrap of talent, as I’m quite aware, but I feel it my duty to preserve certain things, certain recollections of my father, a most praiseworthy man. But there’s no time to tell you about Papa. Perhaps you wouldn’t care for that sort of work anyhow.”

  “Oh, on the contrary,” I cried. “I should like nothing better. But of course I could not leave my mother.”

  “No, I suppose not. One’s first duty, after all, is to one’s mother, or to one’s father, as in my case. Well, we shall see.”

  The chiming of an unseen clock warned me that I must leave. Miss Pride led the way to the drawing-room to show me her Copley which she had mentioned earlier. As she opened the door, I saw, seated before the fire on a low bench, a girl with long red hair. She did not turn at the sound of the door but said, “Auntie?”

  Miss Pride turn
ed to me. “Some other day you shall see the Copley. Good-by.” And without shaking hands with me, she disappeared into the drawing-room, closing the door behind her.

  The word “drawing-room” had fascinated me for many years. When I first learned that Miss Pride’s house was equipped with such a place, I furnished it with an erratic ensemble, elements of which I borrowed from every interior I had known or read about. It contained, among other things, a box of ferns like the one in the sixth-grade room at school. I had at first interpreted the meaning of the word as “a room where people draw pictures”; but this I rejected when I heard the expression “to draw out,” and I thought that a drawing-room would be the setting for skillful conversation. When at last I learned that the word had been truncated and was actually “withdrawing,” I envisaged a group of ladies cringing through a door as brutal men advanced, much in the manner of “The Rape of the Sabine Women,” a brown, stained print of which hung in the classroom of the Latin and French teacher.

  Today, seeing my first drawing-room, I was deeply shocked, for in that brief glimpse, I was able to take in everything. It was no larger than the library and because it was well-lighted and the other had been dark, seemed even a little smaller. It was dominated by three large rival “units”: a bay window equipped with a long seat and a great many pots of foliage, a grand piano draped with a Spanish shawl, and a fire-place. Amongst, between, around those three behemoths, crouched chairs, to each of which had been assigned a companion, if not a table, at least a footstool or a standing lamp. The impression I got from the threshold was that if one wanted to reach the bay window, for example, he would have to “thread” his way through the furniture as in a crowded restaurant where the only vacant table is at the farthest end from the door.

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