A Contemporary Challenge
THERE rose from the dimness the fairest face to haunt me. It rose from a neglected corner of the library of the house near Boston where I was a guest. It was a miniature by the famous Malbone — a portrait of a girl with fair hair piled a shade carelessly on a proud little head. From long ago came the beauty of that face, the gayety and wistfulness of the deep eyes. I looked at the portrait more than a hundred years old. I saw the mocking, charming, lovely mouth — laughing, it seemed, at the demure muslin folded over the long and graceful neck and at the ridiculous little sleeves. I saw the high, serene brow which the careless hair tried to hide. And I said: ‘Eliza Southgate of Scarboro, Maine, — you lovely creature born in 1783, — what do you say about these modern girls? You went to school in Medford; you went to school in Boston; you knew Boston well. Won’t you tell me whether this present age is so terribly different? Whether you or we are to be counted happier?’ The laughing eyes seemed friendly; but the serene brow baffled me.
Then I went to my case and found the picture of a girl of 1925. Not a painstaking miniature. A photograph. And I looked at her. She too was lovely. Her eyes slightly puzzled, but fearless. Her hair fell cropped in a rather hard line against her thin, pointed face. She is a little over twenty now. Very gay and oddly serious. A frank mixture. She is gifted and brilliant and undeniably beautiful and, as it happens, English. She has recently been working among some derelict people in Europe. I myself am a little too old to understand exactly what she does. It is something to do with fighting ugliness and stupidity and dirt and wrong ideas. She is doing things Eliza Southgate could never have glimpsed in a dream. So I said: ‘Peggy, — dear child, so much more clever than I am,—what would you say to Eliza about life? About the fun and loneliness, the splendor and muddle of this age?’ And as I looked at her grave and hopeful eyes it seemed as if she answered: ‘Judge for yourself. You have those letters of mine. You have hers. Why should I tell you anything?’ So I read the letters the same day.
Eliza Southgate, having gone to school at Medford, aged fourteen, writes to her parents: —
May 12, 1797
With pleasure I sit down to the best of parents to inform them of my situation, as doubtless they are anxious to hear. Permit me to inform them something of my foolish heart. When first I came here I gave myself up to reflection, but not pleasing reflections. I burst into tears, and instead of trying to calm my feelings I tried to feel worse. I begin to feel happier and will soon gather up all my philosophy and think of the duty that now attends me, to think that here I may drink freely of the fountain of knowledge. But I will not dwell any longer on this subject. I hope I am in some measure sensible of the great obligation I am under to you for the inexpressible kindness and attention which I have received of you from the cradle to my present situation in school. In my infancy you nursed and reared me up, my inclinations you have indulged and checked my follies, have liberally fed me with the bounty of your table, and from your instructive lips I have been admonished to virtue, morality, and religion.
With filial duty I my parents greet.
I wish and trust to glad declining years
May each heart go, each eye refrain from tears.
When days are finished and when time shall cease,
May you be wafted to eternal peace
is the sincere wish of your dutiful
Robert Southgate, Esq., and Lady
On February 13, 1798, Eliza, aged fifteen, writes from school in Boston, where she has been sent by her parents to be ‘ finished’: —
‘HONORED FATHER: I am again placed at school under the tuition of an amiable lady, so mild, so good, no one can help loving her. She treats all her scholars with such tenderness as would win the affection of the most savage brute, tho’ scarcely able to receive an impression of the kind. I learn embroidery and geography at present, and wish your permission to learn musick. You may justly say, my best of fathers, that every letter of mine is one asking for something more, never contented. If you refuse me, I know you do what you think best, and I am sure I ought not to complain, for you have never yet refused me anything that I have asked. My best of parents, how shall I repay you? You answer, “By your good behaviour.”
Heaven grant that it may be such as may repay you.’
Eliza, aged seventeen, still in Boston, writes on February 7, 1800: —
‘Now, mamma, what do you think I am going to ask for? A wig. Eleanor Coffin has got a new one just like my hair, and only 5 dollars. I must either cut my hair or have one. I cannot dress it at all stylish. At the assembly I was quite ashamed of my head, for nobody has long hair. If you will consent to my having one, do send me over a 5 dollar bill by the post immediately after you receive this, for I am in hopes to have it. for the next assembly.’
Eliza, still seventeen, shows a critical spirit toward the older generation. In a letter from Bath to her sister she writes:—
‘After a fortnight very pleasantly spent in Wiscasset I return to Bath. In my last I mentioned that Judge Lowell’s family were expected in Wiscasset; they came immediately after. Judge Lowell appears to be one of the mildest, most amiable men I ever saw. Mrs. Lowell is a fine ladylike woman, yet her manners are such as would have been admired 50 years ago; there is too much appearance of whalebone and buckram to please the depraved taste of the present age.’
At the age of nineteen, Eliza Southgate writes a long epistle to her cousin, Moses Porter: —
‘I have often thought what profession I would choose were I a man. I have often thought, if I felt conscious of possessing brilliant talents, the law would be my choice. Then I might hope to arrive at an eminence which would be gratifying to my feelings. I should then hope to be a public character, respected and admired. But unless I was convinced I possessed the talents which would distinguish me as a speaker, I would be anything rather than a lawyer, — from the dry sameness of such employments as the business of an office all my feelings would revolt, — but to be an eloquent speaker would be the delight of my heart. I thank Heaven I was born a woman. I have now only patiently to wait until some clever fellow shall take a fancy to me and place me in a situation. We ladies, you know, possess that “sweet pliability of temper” that disposes us to enjoy any situation, and we must have no choice in these things till we find what is to be our destiny; then we must consider it the best in the world. But remember, I desire to be thankful I am not a man. I should not be content with moderate abilities — nay, I should not be content with mediocrity in anything; but as a woman I am equal to the generality of my sex, and I do not feci that great desire of fame I think I should feel if I were a man.’
In September of the same year Eliza writes a letter which bears the interpretation that she is in love:—
‘ I know not, my dearest mother, how to introduce this subject, yet as I fear you may hear it. from others I consider it a duty to tell you all. At Albany, on our way to Ballston, we put up at the same house with a Mr. Bowne from New York, and from that time he was particularly attentive to me. I felt cautious of encouraging his attentions, though I did not wish to discourage them. I felt myself in a situation truly embarrassing. His conduct was such as I shall ever reflect on with the greatest pleasure. And now, my dearest mother, I submit myself wholly to the wishes of my father and you. That I feel deeply interested in Mr. Bowne I candidly acknowledge, and I have every reason to think he has well weighed his sentiments toward me. I have referred him wholly to you, and you, my dearest parents, must decide.’
The following year Eliza is married. She describes an introduction during her honeymoon: —
‘We always kept by ourselves, but in passing the entry General Knox, who had just come in the stage, met Mr. B. and asked where he was from. He told him from the Eastward. Alone? No. Who is with you? Mrs. Bowne. So plump a question he could not evade, so the General insisted on being introduced to the bride. I was walking the room and reading, perfectly unsuspicious, when the opening of the door and Mr. Bowne’s voice, “General Knox, my love,” quite roused me. He came up, took my hand very gracefully, prest it to his lips, and begged leave to congratulate me on the event that had lately taken place. After a few minutes’ conversation, “And pray, sir,” said he, turning to Mr. Bowne, “when did this happy event take place?” I felt my face glow, but Mr. Bowne, always delicate and collected, said: “’T is not a fortnight since, sir.” . . . General Knox introduced me to General Pinckney from Carolina. General Pinckney, they say, is to be our next President. “Mr. Bowne,” said General Knox to General Pinckney, “has done us the honour to come to the District of Maine for a bud to transplant in New York.’”
From Peggy. A letter undated, but internal evidence proves it to be written in April 1916: —
‘DEAR FATHER AND MOTHER: As soon as the train started I felt awful. So I ate my sandwiches at once. The old lady opposite was quite decent, and she offered me her magazine and some butterscotch, so I felt better. There were five other girls on the train. Two of them are jolly. When I think of the dogs, I get awfully homesick. The school is beastly. Whatever did you send me here for? I hate it. PEGGY.’
From Peggy, May 1916: —
‘DEAREST MOTHER: Thanks for the money. I am getting on all right. I have decided that I want to be an actress as soon as I leave school. I am going to be in a play here next term. We have a good many arguments about religion. I think there is a good deal to be said against a God. There is cruelty to animals, which why does God let? I hope father won’t mind if I say I am now an atheist.'
From Peggy, 1922: —
‘DARLINGS BOTH: I think you are wrong about my being too young to decide about my life. One is much older now at nineteen than you were, I think. I dare say I am talking nonsense to some extent; but the main body of my feeling is sound and sincere. Of course, I may fall in love; but I have several times already. It is a rather disappointing experience. There is so much clumsiness, so little beauty and light, or so it seems to me. I know there is a good deal of sentimental rubbish talked about careers and callings; but one has the feeling that one has to challenge this awful world so stupefied by the war. One has to see to it that the world is cleared for the real business of living and doing fine things all together. I want to fight my own battles, and to know that I am fighting for a new world. I suppose life is a series of battles. First I hated school; then I conquered and adored it. Once I detested the Church and hated God. I see now that I was only fighting my way through to understanding what God means for me. And now I think it must be God, as He seems to me, that urges me to be myself at this stage; not to care much what people say, but to follow this inner urge which is taking me toward championing a cause.
‘Of course, darlings, you hate me to be odd and different; but I am sure you would be ashamed of me if I danced round looking pretty and waiting for marriage, or sprawled about looking for it. I shall fly into it if it comes. Of course I shall. But I shall see to it that it’s got the real shine on it, if I do, and that it is n’t just sham. Meanwhile I want something I have n’t had so far. You ‘ve given me a wonderfully good time; and now I want hardness, mental fight, some sort of discipline. I want to challenge every old fallacy, every ancient prejudice, and all the new ones too, and win the way for beauty and creativeness. We want new art, new poetry, new vision, as well as new politics, don’t we? Well, I’ve simply got to take my share in winning it. I love you more than ever. I could cry like a little fool for thinking of you at this moment; but I must go my own right way, and you will let me, I know, and your love will follow me all the way.’
‘Judge for yourself,’ she had said to me. An uneasy recollection of other words of Peggy’s stole across my mind — words about a contemporary of mine. ‘He’s about my age,’ I had said, and was about to add: ‘Forty. Quite young.’ I did not add it, for Peggy had interrupted carelessly: ‘Oh! Not young, then.’ So who am I, who are we, the ‘not young,’ to judge? And it seemed, as I sat with portraits and letters, that there was no question of yesterday or to-day, but eternally challenging youth, pilgrims in every age, asking everything of life, venturing, defying, risking. Only to-day, perhaps as never before, in Bojer’s great words, youth ‘sowing corn in the enemy’s field that God may exist.’