Within Our Gates

I

AMONG the old customs and habits with limbs too feeble to make the leap across the great divide of the World War, which therefore quietly lay down on the far side and gave up the ghost, was that of visiting. Until then Maryland had clung, with a curious charm, to the formalities handed down from a gay Colonial society, and in our small corner of it we strictly observed the rigor of the game.

When I was growing up, Hagerstown boasted two hotels, but they were, in truth, oversized boarding houses and had few transient guests save an occasional ‘drummer.’ He drove in state the two blocks from the station to the hotel in the omnibus, a rattling vehicle painted green and further embellished on each side by an incongruous seascape in an oval gilt medallion. In the intervals of slipping off and on the narrow lengthwise seat he could keep an eye on his sample trunks hopping about in an open cart attached to his chariot. As a matter of course, anyone else who came to town stayed with friends. And stayed is the correct word, for weeks and often months rolled by with neither hosts nor visitors dreaming that a limit had been reached. Indeed we knew of one lady who came for a few weeks’ stay, occupied the guest bedroom for forty years, and peacefully died in it.

One may wonder now how, in those days of big families, houses of no great size could take care of the influx. As, naturally, the house could not expand, the problem was solved by an accordion-like compression of the family. I well remember a neighbor’s mahogany four-poster so long and wide that four medium-sized children, each with his own pillow, could be comfortably ensconced crosswise of the bed. Then, from beneath the dimity valance, would appear the trundle-bed on its little rollers, with spool railing and bedding complete. This having the charm of the unusual, the three inhabitants for the night were drawn by lot. As a pirate craft, swiftly propelled by hand power over the high seas of the bare floor and flying the Jolly Roger of a small petticoat, it had no equal.

This condensing process made room for the guests that, like the poor, were always with us. They entered into the family life, and as a rule we younger members regarded with a detached curiosity the inexplicable pursuits of the grown-ups. For some, however, the tocsin sounded, and, all minor differences forgotten, we presented a solid front against any we were pleased to consider the enemy.

The chief of these was a clergyman from a distant parish, who periodically descended on us to consult with my father on legal matters and, in a booming voice, instruct everybody else in the conduct of life. Strangely enough, among the numerous things of which he disapproved was oatmeal, and he refused to come to the table and say grace until it was removed. Hitherto we had regarded it with lukewarm interest as a pallid messenger of better things to come, but being thus excommunicated, as it were, it was at once in great demand as smacking pleasantly of the Devil and all his works.

With the jungle instinct of the defenseless, all six of us assumed, within doors, a protective coloration that caused us to blend almost indistinguishably with the draperies and furniture. Like Agag, we walked delicately and with manners so impeccable as to draw no glance from the most cynically suspicious. At table, in the glare of pitiless publicity, with quite a little histrionic skill we put on our faces of average intelligence an expression of semi-imbecility, calculated to discourage the most persistent of child-baiters.

That is, all save one, — my nextoldest brother, — who could not quench the burning interest in life that shone in his bright blue eyes. Sooner or later he was a writhing victim. He would be arrested in full flight and called upon to say — and never could — the collect for the day and that pitfall of the young Episcopalian, ‘My duty towards my neighbor.’ Once even, in the fancied security of the round table in the bay window where we lesser ones sat at supper, the thunders of that mighty voice rolled about his head in the terrible request, ‘Will our little man ask the blessing?’ Somehow our little man found himself on his feet and dived for religious inspiration into the whirling chaos that was his mind, to emerge with this masterpiece of fervent brevity: ’OLord, for Heaven’s sake Amen.’

He was irresistible, as well, to the older members of the family, and when, as a matter of education in politeness, he and I accompanied my mother on a round of visits, the dignity of our setting out was seriously impaired by the conduct of my oldest sister. She was wont to stand in the doorway in an attitude of extreme mortification and send after him a quotation, culled from I know not where. It caused him to go down the street with a peculiar and crab-like gait, in an effort to see a nonexistent hole in his long black stockings, the while he asked so earnestly and anxiously, ‘Mama, does my marble limb gleam fitfully?’

II

Our first call was always made on an old lady who looked, as she sat in her high-backed rosewood chair, as if one of the Dresden figurines had come down from the mantelpiece to grow delicately and exquisitely old. I liked her cap with the lace lappets hanging down beside her soft pink cheeks, and the little feet, in prunella gaiters, so precisely placed on the gayly worked footstool. There was the sweetest smell of sandalwood in the room — but spicy too, like the look that sparkled in her bright, dark, bird-like eye. My mother sat on the rosewood sofa and my brother and I on two small chairs on each side of the fireplace, whose pointed Gothic backs gave us quite an ecclesiastical feeling. We were admitted by a little serving maid, an orphan of tender years, bound out, as was the custom, to be cared for and trained until she should be sixteen. She had, owing to her hair being strained back under a round comb and tied like a horse’s tail behind, a bleak and wind-swept appearance. Whether from a general misanthropy or a special resentment of my stylish bangs, behind which my forehead and eyebrows were ambushed, I know not, but from a vantage point in the hall, where none but I could see, the orphan would stick out her tongue and make the most appalling grimaces, to indicate her strong distaste for my presence.

At a certain moment of the visit my brother and I were called upon in turn to mount the stool at the great square piano and entertain with music. With his foot relentlessly pressed on the loud pedal he painstakingly pounded his way through the ‘Black Hawk Waltz’ — the alpha and omega of his musical career. I followed with the ‘Music Box,’an airy trifle played in the high treble, but the piano was old and the black keys stuck so that the result was surprisingly interjectional, even for that tinkling melody. Lest you should think us unduly accomplished, it is necessary to make it clear that no child of our generation escaped taking music lessons, and all family life was carried on to a practically incessant accompaniment of Czerny’s ‘FiveFinger Exercises.’ It was with profound envy that we young slaves of the piano looked upon a friend who had sustained a family bereavement. Not only were the outside parlor shutters bowed and tied with black for the space of a year, but the piano was locked and covered lest any gay strain should disturb the peace of the departed spirit.

After being shown out by the twofaced orphan with respectful curtsies, we continued to our next port of call. It was with difficulty we found our way to chairs in the darkened room into which we were ushered. An unceasing warfare was waged by the two elderly daughters against the wanton sunbeams that crept through the cracks in the slatted shutters, and all day long newspapers were shuffled about on the threatened pink roses on the fawn carpet. In some manner it was conveyed to us children that we were expected to walk only on the papers. As they were laid here and there, this necessitated a sort of politely conducted game of hopscotch as we leaped from isle to isle.

You may be sure we had no wine or cookies there, and our only amusement, after replying to the inane questions invariably addressed by the old to the young, was to look with fascinated interest at a portrait over the mantelpiece. It was of an infant son called suddenly to a better world and painted after his departure. Although the Hagerstown artist had omitted the little casket and placed the small figure on a cloud with neatly ruffled edges, he had conscientiously depicted the eternally closed eyes and the waxen hue of death.

On the whole, we thought portraits in general depressing, but found much to admire in the gayer forms of art. At that time young ladies did not feel themselves under the necessity of being moving-picture stars, actresses, or what not. Until such time as they got married they stayed at home and ’painted by hand.’ So diligent were they that most of the parlor walls were spotted with a rash of tambourines and palmleaf fans decorated with poppies and roses. With long streamers of ribbon to match the flowers, these were considered especially effective. There was also a marked tendency to add to the charm of the designs by putting them on the most unexpected objects and materials. Thus large kitchen stone jars became umbrella stands, and my teeth are still on edge at the recollection of a certain red plush mantel drapery adorned with pink wild roses. There seemed to be a special cat-tail cult, and these unmanageable floral emblems, if such they may be called, stood spikily on screens and door panels in almost every house.

In the pleasant dwelling where next we went lived two widows — one in fact, the other in heart. The first was a handsome woman who invariably spoke of the other as ‘my poor dear sister.’ On some Southern battlefield ‘my poor dear sister’s’ hope of happiness had died, and the rest of her life was dedicated to the memory of its brief existence. She moved, in her dresses of lavender and gray, in a twilight zone between the quick and the dead. Sometimes my eager wish was gratified to see her enter the room in her gentle, tremulous way and say a few words in her soft voice. Once she took me in her garden — a still place and shaded. As she left me to walk across the grass, which, I recall, was thickly set with the silver bells of the star of Bethlehem, I had the singular impression of seeing a shade in the fabled fields of asphodel. One wonders now, knowing the vigorous, autocratic stock from which she sprang, how much this cloistered life was of her own volition and how much due to the subtle, unconscious pressure brought to bear by those for whom she stood as romance incarnate. Did there never come a day before she faded out of life when she yearned to see, instead of her rosemary and rue, a row of flaming poppies, or to stand on a high hill and feel rushing around her the rough, tonic wind of reality?

My mother had a little basket phaëton and a glossy bay horse, so small as to be almost a pony. Occasionally we drove far afield, even as far as five or six miles, to pay country calls. The phaëton had a parasol top and the crowning glory of a tiny rumble seat. The one who proudly occupied it paid the penalty of all those that sit in high places, for the long fringe hanging from the top incessantly tickled his nose and obscured all but fleeting visions of the landscape.

About the big houses, at the end of the long avenues of maple trees, hung the veil of melancholy that attaches to things belonging to times past and gone. They were built for the spacious, leisurely life founded on slavery, and it was not so much the houses themselves as the quarters, the blacksmith shop, the smokehouses, grouped under distant trees and all empty and silent, that struck the note of sadness of abandoned places. Then as Earl, the little horse, pattered along, we heard the stories that grow around old habitations— stories of old loves and old hates, of gay weddings and tragic deaths. Then too, as twilight fell and the evening air grew heavy with the scent of blooming clover fields, there came to us from the lonely, walled-in family burying grounds, so soon to be ploughed over and forgotten, the plaintive requiem of the whippoorwill.

III

I never read a present-day novel exalting the doctrine of self-expression without being overcome by the feeling of chill dismay that possessed us on receiving the letter heralding the arrival of a certain distant relative. Unfortunately for us, who were still struggling, more or less successfully, with the moral concept of the Golden Rule, her philosophy of life was thirty years ahead of her time. Of course one could not expect a free spirit to be bound down by such household regularities as meals, which meant that she had to be sustained, at the oddest and most inopportune times, with tea and hot buttered toast. Nor could it suffer bores gladly, and of course our most egregious ones came promptly and beamingly to call. My mother found it trying, also, when our guest would flatly decline, at the last moment, to go to parties given in her honor.

It was incredible to us how anyone could fail to be entertained by our parties. We had a special penchant for costume affairs, with the costumes strictly homemade. One of the most elaborate was entirely Shakespearean, Antony and Cleopatra easily carrying off the honors. Antony’s mother, being of an economical turn, saw no reason to make a new costume when one was at hand. She argued, not illogically, that one general had much in common with another, and what was suitable for Washington would equally become a Roman. Cleopatra’s dress had, as well, a modern touch. Our hostess, having a rigid idea of propriety, considered the flowing cheesecloth draperies too revealing and insisted on the addition of a little cloth cape with a rabbit-skin collar. These and other small anachronisms were lightly passed over. Indeed, in solving the problem of who represented what, time was prevented from hanging heavy on our hands until the arrival of the inevitable ice cream and cake. Hamlet was the only character about whom there was not the slightest doubt. Having surveyed in the mirror his father’s long black coat festooned around his thin legs, he retired to a corner with an expression of justifiable gloom that Booth himself might have envied.

We were also addicted to book parties, which were quite a tax on our intellectual powers — so much so that at one there appeared, with no ironical intent, no less than four persons blowing out lighted candles to represent ‘The Light That Failed.’ It was a relief to fall back on Mother Goose, where without strain we could adequately portray Simple Simon and his fellows.

It was equally difficult for us to believe — and in truth we never did, although assured of the fact by our much-traveled relative—that our modest little town could not hold its own with Paris and Rome and suffered severely in comparison with these somewhat larger centres. We thought it likely that a drive through the Bois de Boulogne might have its pleasures, but were convinced that for sheer human interest it could in no way compare with a ride on our first street car. Starting in the Public Square, it made a circuit of the town and found itself back again in fifteen minutes. The schedule was rather elastic, as the friendly Pennsylvania Dutchman in charge, who combined in himself the duties of motorman and conductor, abandoned the controls and got down politely to assist every lady passenger from the car. If she was burdened with packages, he also obligingly carried them to the porch. In addition the little chats at each corner held by those departing and those left behind took up quite a bit of time. When the car finally completed its circuit, those making a more extended tour mounted its twin, which climbed the Washington Street hill, and having reached the top, like the King of France and all his men, turned around and came down again. Our house was on the crest of the hill, midway of the block, and it was a pleasant convenience to have the conductor affably inquire, ‘Want off at Mama’s?’ and halt at the very door. How much more agreeable than the soulless bus that now, as inexorable as fate, deposits one at the proper corner and nowhere else!

IV

It was the merit or defect, as you will, of our small society that in the main we had to depend on ourselves for our amusements. If assiduous visiting was one of them, at least we were unconsciously obeying Pope’s dictum that the proper study of mankind is man. If not wide, it was deep; there was a general gift for the summing up of character in a succinct phrase that left nothing to be desired in accuracy. This saved the wise any amount of trouble in seeming to be other than they were. Our slowly built up knowledge was not on a par, however, with the subtle discrimination in degrees of ‘quality’ that was the special gift of the oldtime colored servant. Our housemaid, Annie, who met everyone with smiling politeness, needed but one glance, and the unwitting caller was classified and led to the place proper to her station. This, in order of merit, was the sitting room, the east parlor, then the west. It was some time before we found that the last ranked superlative, thanks to a copy of Titian’s ’Bella Donna’ enshrined in a broad, gold Italian frame. Annie was of the innocent belief that the Beauty, gorgeous in her winecolored velvet, flaring lace collar, and pearls, was an ancestress shedding more lustre on the family than the staid citizens in dark raiment and high stocks that hung around the hall. As neither fine feathers nor fine manners put Annie off, we would often find a dowdy, timid little lady, from whom evidently emanated the sacred aura, enthroned under the ‘Bella Donna,’ while a bird of paradise would languish in the semisocial obscurity of the sitting room.

Almost every household had, as an adjunct, a small colored girl of eight or ten years of age whose duties consisted of playing with the little children, running errands, and learning the fine points of the domestic arts from the grown-up housemaids. Our neophyte was Aunt Kate’s granddaughter and was captured by that martinet every Saturday, put in one of the laundry tubs, and scoured with a sand soap. After this her short, kinky hair was laid off in departments, like the map of France, a pigtail wound with string standing up in each one, resembling a diminutive mountain peak. Some of our New England visitors, being deeply imbued with ideas of the romantic South, were doubtless under the impression that her wails of anguish under this drastic treatment, wafted from the nether regions, were the baleful cries of the family banshee.

There were certain of our callers turned over by Annie to her ministrations, with our assistance. Far from anyone’s mind, in those days, was a thought of social welfare or charity scientifically administered. The kindhearted fed the hungry and clothed the naked, naïvely assuming them to be part of the divine scheme. Incidentally we encouraged the shiftless to be more shiftless and the lazy more lazy. That there is no loss without some gain is proved by the fact that some of us learned at first hand the meaning of the beautiful word ‘compassion.’

Among those who unremittingly visited our doorstep was the family of a care-free individual who took no thought of the morrow and had an appalling number of children. When remonstrated with on that score, he found a dignified and unanswerable reply: ‘I follow the Good Book, ma’am, where it says to increase and multiply and blemish the earth.’ So the good ladies heaved a resigned sigh and searched for garments in which to encase the new and most aptly named little blemish.

For more years than I can remember, Miss Ella Jane made a weekly appearance for a dole of a pound of butter. The family next door paid tribute of a loaf of bread and a pound of coffee. These offerings enabled Miss Ella Jane to sit and rock genteelly all day long in her little parlor. She took passionate care of her long white hands and roseleaf complexion, which she never took out save under the protection of a thick, dark blue barège veil. For some mysterious reason she was always spoken of as ‘poor Miss Ella Jane,’ probably because of a soft complaining voice and the enjoyment of poor health. In fact, she enjoyed it so much that she clung to it until well in her eighties.

We had another outside guest, so to speak, who came not to beg but to praise. This was a little German tailor, who every so often got outrageously drunk. He then invariably appeared to take his stand under the horsechestnut tree at the corner of the house and deliver an oration. We knew it to be soundly democratic in character, as the rapid flow of unintelligible Pennsylvania Dutch was punctuated by staccato bellows of ‘Hurrah for Hamilton!’ and ‘Down with the Hohenzollerns!’ When the clamor became too insistent he was led away home by our one lone policeman, who was greatly pleased to have something to do to relieve the tedium of his unoccupied hours.

V

It is to be noted that our more conventional comings and goings were markedly lacking in the masculine element — possibly because most of it was daytime calling, possibly because the gentlemen reserved their strength for one grand outburst on New Year’s Day. By eleven o’clock on that morning the ladies were dressed and ready to receive the top-hatted and frock-coated callers starting on their rounds. In the dining room the table was extended to its full length. At one end a block of ice, cunningly hollowed out, held quarts of pickled oysters; at the other was placed a large roasted turkey, boned if one’s cook was skillful enough. Midway reposed the noble ham baked with spices, basted with Madeira, and thickly studded with cloves, without which no Hagerstown party was complete. The great bowl of eggnog, mellifluous and potent, accompanied by the richest of black fruit cake, was on a lace-decked table in the parlor. When it is understood that politeness demanded that something should be eaten and drunk at each house, one can only exclaim, regarding the gentlemen from a gastronomical standpoint, ‘Truly there were giants in those days! ’

It is not to be wondered at that, as the shades of night fell, some of them were a thought the worse for wear. There comes to mind a Virginia youth who, after his farewells, got only to the end of the pavement and six times returned to us. Completely baffled by the unexpected reappearance of the same faces and much depressed by a visible lessening of enthusiasm in his welcome, he was at length taken away by a friend, weeping bitterly and irately demanding, ‘What’s the matter with me, anyway? I’ve a pedigree as long as a horse.’

And that pillar of society, a gentleman of the old school, whose lightest phrase instantly conjured up visions of Daniel Webster and the halls of Congress! On taking leave, aided and abetted by the eggnog, he rose to heights of eloquence that would have given even that worthy pause. It was unfortunate, perhaps, that the full grandeur of his urbane periods perforce missed its mark, in that they were laid at the feet of the whitely aloof and scantily clad Venus, in her niche.

Like all dwellers in old, slow-growing American towns, we had to bear, with what meekness we could muster, the expressed or hinted-at commiseration of the world at large. After being marooned for many years on the Scylla of provincialism, we floated off, only to be cast in the monotonously whirling Charybdis of standardization. Sequestered the former certainly was, but on it, if one may judge by some of those well-remembered faces, were to be found, here and there, hidden wells of deep content and shaded paths of tranquil ease. One may surely be permitted now to breathe a half-smiling sigh for the lost charm of those days so newly and yet so irrevocably past.