A GOOD many years ago, a small girl made the delightful discovery that the joy of travel was not how far you went, but what you brought back with you. Nor were her voyages as circumscribed as one might naturally suppose when it is considered that, in general, they were limited to eight or ten closely built blocks of a little town in Western Maryland.
Although Hagerstown was settled by Germans, adventurous spirits from many lands later flocked to the beautiful valley in the Far West. Pretty well undisturbed by the world cast of the mountain barrier of the Blue Ridge, Welsh, Scotch, Irish, English, and French made the best of it together. Sturdily independent when they came, sturdily independent each race continued, in its family life, to preserve its peculiar customs. So, without being in the least aware of it, we were a little League of Nations and demonstrated, a hundred years before anybody had thought of it, that it was a perfectly feasible scheme.
So it was across no more perilous seas than the puddles of a rain-wet street that I had to go to find myself in early nineteenth-century England. On a hot summer morning, to open the front door of the red brick Georgian house and step into the wide hall with its gray, marbleized paper was to enter a cool cave. Before running through it to the door that led to the garden, there was an appreciative pause before a large steel engraving in which a gentleman in a brief tunic, disregarding a richly laden table, gazed with an expression of acute distaste at a great sword dangling from the ceiling. This gem, the title of which I complacently rendered ‘The Sword of Damacockles,’ I considered the highest expression of art. There was, too, a quick side step into the back parlor. Under the chill stare of an old gentleman hanging above the mantel and looking over a rampart of white neckcloth, a beloved volume of Godey’s Lady’s Book was abstracted from the bookcase. Then out to curl up in the gnarled roots of a silver poplar tree to read with impassioned interest the tale of Arabella, or the Bosom Serpent. The unctuous author would have been perturbed to know that sympathy was entirely with the wicked Arabella, who, disappointingly, did not quite make off with the suitor of the obnoxious young ‘female friend,’ for whom the phrase ‘bathed in tears’ must surely have been invented.
That ended, I would watch the two ladies, Miss Patsy and Miss Betty, as they moved up and down the mossy, red brick paths between the box borders. They wore full, black silk skirts and white muslin morning jackets with pinked ruffles, and might quite well have been faceless, so entirely were their features obscured by the flat sundowns tied close under their chins with broad black ribbons. The whisper of the silk skirts and the gentle murmur of their voices came and went as Miss Patsy cut the Cloth of Gold and the Baltimore Belle roses while Miss Betty held the basket —epitomizing the entire conduct of their lives. They must have pursued the usual avocations of the housekeepers of the day, but I have no memory of them save in the garden and, in the evening, sitting at the parlor windows that gave on the street.
An elderly lady made her home with them for a number of years and spent endless hours creating Canton-flannel rabbits. These lumpy animals had inordinately long, pink cambric, ears, while their faces were enlivened by eyes composed of shiny black shoe buttons. True to their kind, they thickly populated the basket of the Lady’s Aid Society, which, monthly, reluctant little Episcopalians carried from door to door, and every luckless infant in the fold had its nervous system seriously impaired by the relentless gaze of these implacable beasts.
When the time came for the last of the charming sisters to die, she had long since outlived her day and generation, and the grandsons of old friends were asked to be the bearers. They were, surprisingly, requested to wear their high silk hats. To their horror these were tied around with wide black ribbon, with a large bow in the back and floating streamers to the waist. Furthermore, dense black gloves were given them to wear. The wretched young gentlemen bore up as best they could under their doleful plumage. I judge it to have been the last appearance of weepers in the United States. Although I witnessed the funeral, I can never think of the sisters as dying, but as having stepped, not into the grave, but back into the delightful pages of Jane Austen, from whence they must surely have come.
An easy trip was made from England to Germany by the simple process of recrossing the street. And not only Germany, but the peculiar Germany of the Dunkard folk. In conformance with a conviction that the way of life was to be walked soberly and in a literal interpretation of the Word, a patriarchal simplicity ruled the household. In contrast to the lively chatter at our own table, I relished the silence that prevailed throughout the meal, after the blessing was asked by the father, standing in his quaintly cut buttonless suit, his lip shaven, but the chin covered with a beard. The older brother and sister, to whom we were expected to say ‘Yes, ma’am’ and ‘No, sir,’ might join in a few murmured phrases while we ate, but from the young ones silence was expected. This putting aside of the vain luxuries of life did not preclude a generous abundance of all the comforts, and there was an emanation clearly felt of a pleasant and tranquil contentment.
The house was enveloped, periodically, in another emanation, of mysterious herbs and other boiling medicaments, as the father was a physician and a compounder and dispenser of his own medicines. Little leaflets were folded in three and wrapped with each bottle, and we stood for hours folding them with incredible quickness, to be rewarded with thick sticks of black licorice that, after fifteen minutes of diligent sucking, were guaranteed to destroy all appetite for twenty-four hours.
After a game of play, it was like entering the pool of Siloam to go into the spacious upstairs room where the mother and grandmother sat at their sewing. The walnut and cherry chests of drawers with their glittering brass handles, on the bed the ‘Star of the East’ quilt, with its innumerable pieces and tiny stitches, the hooked rugs, naïvely expressing the taste of the designer, apparently floating on the dark waxed floor, and the two quiet figures in the sober dresses made a picture worthy of the brush of the old Dutch masters.
The only object in the room that met with disfavor was the hooded walnut cradle with its diadem of brass knobs. As duty came before pleasure, my little friend had to rock the baby to sleep before she was free to play. I can hear her now, as we sat on the floor, jerking the loudly protesting occupant back and forth, her round blue eyes and rosy cheeks rising, moonlike, as her side went violently down, exclaiming with gloomy conviction, ‘The old baby ain’t worth it!’
Very different was the simplicity of a household some distance away, where Scotch thrift was carried to the highest degree. In the big brick mansion, the long parlor, with the drawn damask curtains, the handsome Sully portraits, and the heavy mahogany furniture, never knew the cheery happiness of a fire. On a cold winter’s day the family moved through the icy halls with steam issuing from their mouths like so many engines. I recall a festivity at which, our noses shining bright red above our fur collars, we sat on the slippery Chippendale chairs and convivially drank very pale and very sour lemonade, accompanied by the variety of ginger cookies only to be found in crossroad country stores. I had not the good fortune to be present at the more lavish entertainment where cracked nuts were added to the menu and a son was sent to borrow a package of large darning needles to be used as nut picks. This same son, although not quite ‘all there’ mentally, was a champion borrower and established an alltime record in fetching and returning a neighbor’s eight-day clock key every week for twenty years. He made the classic reply to the inquiry as to his mother, — dying, true to tradition, on a horsehair-covered sofa, to save the washing of sheets, — ‘Ma is mighty bad off — she can’t neither set nor lay.’
Obviously the early nineteenthcentury houses in Hagerstown were designed and built by men, without any suggestions from the other sex, for the spacious brick dwellings climbing up the Washington Street hill had each a one-storied office building attached to and opening into the main structure. The man of the house was supposed to spend his waking hours there attending to his legal or medical business — for most of the gentlemen followed one or the other of these professions. The truth was that it gave an unexcelled opportunity to extend a masculine supervision over all household affairs that must have been exceedingly trying to feminine patience. In some of them, too, there was a threadbare path in the carpet that led from the office door to the sideboard where the portly decanters were kept.
There was a perilous joy in spending the night in one of these houses where a paterfamilias of good old English yeoman stock kept watch and ward over his family. The good old yeoman idea prevailed of not sparing the rod, as well as the custom of family prayers, at which, no matter how late they had been up the night before, all were obliged to be present at seventhirty in the morning. Prayers were read from a large black book, entitled Jay’s Morning and Evening Exercises, with sometimes the Litany thrown in for good measure. Those of us who were well out of range of the keen paternal eye were wont to sit back on our heels, monotonously droning ‘’seech thee, good Lord,’ while we hungrily eyed the fast-cooling oatmeal.
By the perverse impishness of Fate, the one twisted old apple tree in town that bore forbidden pale yellow-green balls of nectar known as June Transparents grew close to the office window that overlooked the garden of this house. Urged on by crafty Eves, safely ensconced on the upper back porch, daring Adams, hoping the coast clear, essayed to garner the fruit. Inevitably Nemesis issued forth armed with a buggy whip. Penned in by the high garden walls, the luckless pilferers, with shrill outcries, indulged in antic leapings that would have turned a dancing dervish sick with envy. Ironically the one fat boy, too heavy to climb the tree, also lacked the agility to outstep the whip, and as the slender lash curled lovingly around his plump calves, his yelps of anguish, like Abou ben Adhem, led all the rest. Characteristically English, too, after the shouting and the tumult died, was the lack of rancor. The girls had the apples, the boys had the ‘licking’ — and the incident was closed.
It took the small traveler only the few moments necessary to run down the back passage leading from the living to the service end of any house to find herself on Afric’s distant shore. In all of the kitchens presided over by the pleasant, kindly brown people, there was only one in which we were not welcome — the one in which Aunt Fanny held sway. Her cooking labors suspended, she would sit outside the kitchen door, smoking a short black pipe. Huddled at one end of the bench dedicated to the washtubs, we would gaze across Heaven knows what strange dark seas to the squat old figure and the aged, inscrutable, wrinkled face, topped with the bright bandanna. And as we looked, a mysterious, malevolent miasma seemed to rise in the summer-sweet air of the garden.
When she had had enough of our silent inspection, a wave of the pipe and a muttered something we never tarried long enough to hear clearly, about sending us to ‘where the dogs don’t bark,’ would blow us away like chaff before the wind. It was a relief to seek the comforting presence of our housemaid Annie, a gentle, sweet-faced colored woman, who walked with the wide eyes of the mystic. In fact she spent most of the time in the society of ghosts — a peculiar taste she explained by saying they were lonely and were glad to be with someone who sympathized with them. When she swept and dusted the big parlors, the stately figure of a handsome gentleman, clad in blue broadcloth and white frilled shirt, paced up and down the length of the rooms. As a final and disconcerting touch to his costume he wore a noose around his neck, with the loose end trailing on the floor. The poor man was the original owner of the house, and, finding himself financially embarrassed, dispatched his difficulties and himself at one and the same time. The lovely young lady who followed Annie from room to room upstairs was a more agreeable companion, if you had any preference as to ghosts, for there was something appealing about her, in her airy ruffled skirts and flowing curls. Surely it must have been she who, in an idle hour, cut ‘Alice, 1844’ on the pane of glass in the little hall bedroom.
Annie, like all of the Hagerstown servants, went to her own house every night, and there her good husband Jake, departed this life years before, lit the lamps, fed the fire, and sat at ghostly ease before it to await her coming. It is the only instance I ever knew of a ghost bestirring itself to do anything useful.
Ready, as she always was, to tell us the latest news of the spirit world, or to discourse on the Bible, in which she was remarkably well versed, it was only when we questioned her about Aunt Fanny that she fell silent and withdrew behind the curtain that veils, at will, the baffling soul of her race from the white people.
It was a rare treat to travel the two blocks away to spend the night in the quaint house on Franklin Street where dwelt my two maiden aunts. We went to bed entirely at the whim of the little dog Dick, who, being by nature a sybarite, had abandoned the strenuous life with us to live in pampered ease and quiet. Beside the adoring sisters, a bachelor uncle brought him tribute every Sunday — in winter a dozen raw oysters, in summer a carton of ice cream. So when he took his seat before each of us in turn, yawning portentously, no matter how early the hour we straightway retired.
See us then in procession. My aunts had never become reconciled to the use of gas, so Aunt Anna Mary, bearing a small glass oil lamp, went from room to room, while Aunt Julia saw that the heavy shutters had been shut and bolted and the doors locked and barred. Then up the nine stairs to the landing and four more to the upper story. I never paused on that landing, for Aunt Anna Mary, by virtue of her Scotch blood, had the gift of secondsight and told me that when any of the family lay dying she saw those who had gone before stand there and whisper and beckon to the passing soul. Sometimes I would wake at night with a deadly clutch at my small heart, wondering if they were whispering and beckoning to me.
The room we slept in was long and low-ceiled, with a bed at either end. In the centre was the chimney, and the lamp was set in a china basin in the fireplace, to burn dimly and safely the night through. On one side of the chimney was a mahogany rocking-chair, in which Aunt Anna Mary sat and rocked and murmured aloud the greater part of the night. On the other was a little antique doll’s bed of walnut, with high posts. In it Dick went ceremoniously to bed, his rough-haired little head and bright black eyes looking comical enough on the pillow. In summer a mosquito netting was draped over the posts to insure his button of a nose against bites. After all these preparations one would think we were settled for the night. But no. In a few moments, one or the other of the aunts would certainly exclaim, ’Did we shut the pantry window?’ and although we knew we had, the lamp was lifted, the procession re-formed, and with Dick trailing clouds of netting we went to make assurance doubly sure.
In all of the eighty-odd years of their peaceful lives, but twice were they justified of their fears. Once when a too convivial neighbor clamored for admittance, under the impression that he had reached his own rooftree, and again during the Civil War, when, in one of the skirmishes preceding the battle of Antietam, when for three days the little town throbbed with the dismal booming of the cannon but ten miles away, a young soldier fell wounded on their porch. He was taken in and tenderly nursed back to health, but alas! contrary to all the rules of romance as conducted between handsome young ladies and wounded warriors, at the end of some months of convalescence he casually left one day without farewell, and was never heard of more. In spite of this slender record, my aunts still believed in preparedness and nightly dressed in long, straight white garments, surmounted by frilled bed jackets, thus modestly prepared for any emergency, no matter how dire.
As the ultimate pleasure of the whole proceeding, I took to the bed I shared with my Aunt Julia a large piece of bread, well buttered and covered with brown sugar. I still marvel at the patience that accepted the martyrdom of crumbs that must have been her nightlong penance.
My Aunt Julia was one of those to whom the flowers are friendly. Her borders wore the richest bloom, her mignonette was the sweetest, her pansies had the most alluring faces. When she stirred the earth and tended them she was assisted by Betty, the little white hen.
Now Betty was no common fowl, for one bitter night her poor feet were frozen off, and so overcome were the tender-hearted ladies by the tragedy that they could not have her killed and eaten. She proved worthy of their care and to be cast in heroic mould, for, with valorous determination, she learned to balance and walk on her stumps. With a raffish air and the gait of a drunken sailor, she assiduously followed my aunt up and down the garden. When, as often happened, she fell forward on her beak, she righted herself with an undismayed cluck and rolled merrily along. By virtue of this strength of character she became a member of the family and was inquired for as such.
My Aunt Anna Mary should have been named Martha, for on her rested the household cares. She was up so much betimes on Saturday morning that she set out, wrapped in what she called her ’ dolman’ and with her oval Scotch face framed in the black bonnet, in time to hear the opening bell at four o’clock. No trading was allowed before then, but by many thrifty matrons selections had been made, and at times it happened that a specially fine fowl might be the choice of more than one. If so, they were sometimes seen each holding a leg, with dread determination. She who, at the first tap of the bell, gave the most dexterous jerk, thereby gaining possession of the corpus, triumphantly bore off the spoils of war.
My aunt was of the fixed opinion that only the first pick of the market was worth buying and so paid no heed when, later in the morning, Bob’s wagon clattered down the street to the tune of ’Fresh feesh! Fresh feesh! Annie Ranel Cant-ee-lopes! ’ — to which base uses had the noble name of Anne Arundel come. Nor was she to be lured by colored Levi’s rich baritone ringing out on frosty mornings in: —
I love the good reasou the ladies do buy.’
It was only logical that, when breakfast was eaten before dawn, one should dine at ten-thirty and sup at four. We thought it an excellent arrangement, as it made a never-failing source of supplies when the pangs of hunger assailed us between our more normally placed meals.
At times it was my good luck to be the chosen child to journey with my father to one or the other of his farms. It was not only the pleasure of the lands I was to wander in, but the method of getting there that was diverting. My father had uncommon powers of concentration which made him completely oblivious of his surroundings. Prince, the pretty bay horse that drew the buggy, was well aware of this peculiarity, and when the reins slackened fell into a walk and then slyly crept off the road, to hang his head in deep meditation over the near-by fence. Here we would silently sit, to my delight, until some amused passer-by would call out, ‘Hey! Where are you going, Governor?’ and then with a ‘Tut! Tut!
Go along, Prince,’ the journey would be resumed. If Prince did not turn his shapely head and wink at me, I know nothing of a horse.
There were other interruptions to making time, for at the sight of the familiar figure many a plough was left and wagons halted, while the men came to the roadside. It was a tribute to his character that it was generally the discouraged and downhearted who sought his aid and counsel. It was not very enlivening talk for a little girl, and she gave it but scant heed. One thing alone was not to be disregarded — a vague something called a Mortgage, which, like King Charles’s head, crept into every conversation and was pictured as a great, devouring monster dragging its blighting length across the fields at night. Metaphorically speaking, the fancy did not go far astray.
There must have been some frank comment on the dullness of these wayside conversations, for I remember being told that no one was so humble or unlearned that he had not something of value to impart. I must have been the glittering exception to the rule, for my father was greatly dismayed to learn that, at the age of twelve, I preferred Little Women to Froude’s History of England, although I laboriously waded through the latter to please him — in an effort, I suppose, to live up to the depressing family tradition that, when six years old, he read and digested Josephus.
His pronouncement on my hard-won information was somewhat discouraging, as I heard him declare to my mother, with his customary vehemence, ‘Clara, that child has the lightest mental cargo it is possible for a human being to carry.’
As a further barricade against the onslaughts of a superiority complex — only we bluntly called it conceit — my oldest sister had composed in my honor a poem of some twenty stanzas, the first lines being: —
Though many daughters fat had she.
The Idiot! The Idiot!
It was a hideous narrative of the oldest-born dropping the baby on its head, from whence its brains clammily oozed out — hence the dismal refrain. In spite of maternal reassurances, I was much given to going into secluded comers and anxiously feeling my small pate for the crack. I imagine the present school of child psychology would consider this doubtful treatment. It had, however, the supreme qualification of being 100 per cent effective.
To return to our travels. The journey took some time if our destination was the farm ten miles off, whose twelve hundred rich acres rolled in hills and spread in level pastures in the shadow of the western mountains, and were part of the vast tract of land originally granted to the Earl of Stafford by Charles the First. The tenant farmer found ample room for his family in the long wing of the large house, embowered in trees, built on the highest eminence. It was only one of many in Washington County that still stand, silent relics of a departed mode of life. One by one they slipped from the hands of the English, slaveholding owners who, in a changing economic era, were blandly unconscious that, beside a large family, a houseful of company (not omitting the maiden aunts and destitute relations who filled every odd nook) was literally eating them out of house and home. Irresistibly the rising tide of commercialism in the person of the thrifty, indefatigable German farmer, whose idea of relaxation from work was to do some other kind of work, submerged the county gentry, and they were gone, one hardly knew when or how.
There was a half-timid joy in slipping alone into the empty rooms of the main house, so still they were, so waiting in their stillness. It was as if the fires had just gone out in the great fireplaces and the company but just gone through the doorways with their grooved and fluted mouldings. A wide hall ran through the house to meet an equally wide cross hall. Surprisingly, instead of the usual broad, gracious stairway of the Maryland manor house, on opening a small door one discovered narrow steps running darkly and secretly up between the walls.
From the back hall one went down a flight of steps to the lawn level and then, by a succession of terraces, to the abandoned and neglected sunken garden held in by sloping banks of myrtle. Standing in the sagging rose arbor, one heard at first nothing but the little life of the birds and bees, but slowly came the consciousness of something more. Surely behind the lilac hedge there were the rustling of skirts and the sound of softly pacing feet, while from the straggling clumps of lavender and lemon verbena arose a fragrant sighing, as if the unseen lips of Romance lamented the happy days that were no more.
Suddenly oppressed, it was good to run from this pool of unreality to the upper level and around the house where my father sat on the porch and talked on the homely, comfortable topics of pigs and cows and crops. It was good, too, to sit beside him, Prince trotting homeward with happy alacrity, and see, in the blue dusk, the supernal beauty of a myriad fireflies rising from the tawny wheat.
My father did not spoil the pleasure of these trips with moral lectures, but we were at no loss to understand his passionate love of honesty, both in public and in private affairs. Like a good many of his other hearers, we admired his principles in the abstract and secretly thought he leaned backward in the application of them. Take the matter of the silver dollars. Unbelievably, my brother and I had found two of them in an alleyway and ran home to show the manna cast, at our feet. We were horror-struck when he said it must be advertised in the paper. However, he made the major error of his legal career in not holding the treasure in escrow, for a hastily summoned back-yard Court of Appeals decided without a dissenting opinion that ‘Findings were keepings,’ so we went posthaste and spent it. Fortunately no one turned up to claim the ‘sum of money found, and so forth,’ but beside the payment of the advertisement another two dollars went into the pocket, of the good doctor who automatically took charge of us after the orgy.
We also deplored his habit of frowning upon the perquisites and gifts that are pressed on anyone who has attained political preferment. The latter displayed a varied and sometimes a pathetic taste, but in general it ran to live animals which we welcomed with open arms and no arrière-pensées. But just what political or private aspirations could be furthered by a terrorstricken coon leaping around the cellar and defying capture, it puzzles me now to conjecture.
There remains, too, a pensive memory of a dozen diamond-back terrapin (an expensive gift even for those days) which my brother and I let out of the crate and which, with the most unexpected celerity, scuttled under tons of coal and were never more seen.
All unaware of her rare good fortune, the small voyager sailed from port to port, observing the customs and habits and enjoying the dishes of many lands, ranging from the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding of England, through the sausages of Germany, to the delectable apple fritters and brandy sauce of France. But even as she looked came a change. Quick transportation made the world smaller, and from all sides the relentless pressure of Standardization bore down upon us until, ere long, we walked in the proud consciousness of being exactly like everybody everywhere.
And like all mariners who, at the end of their years, sail for the home harbor, she too, who had been ‘strange countries for to see,’ when the dusk fell and the twinkling lights beckoned, dropped anchor in safe waters and bore ashore an imperishable cargo of happy memories.