by FRANCES H. ELIOT
A FEW years ago, when a newcomer to Cambridge called on me, I asked her how she happened to choose Cambridge as a place to live, when Chestnut Hill and other near-by suburbs of Boston offered so much more, topographically speaking. She replied, “Because of the extraordinary and original characters you have in Cambridge.”
I said, “Alas! they are all dead now, I fear.”
“Well! I don’t know about that!” she said. “I went to a dinner party the other night and the gentleman on my right rose in the middle of dinner, went out into the hall, and returned with an umbrella which he opened and put over his shoulder to ‘keep off the draft.’ That seemed odd to me, but apparently to no one else.”
“Oh!” I said, “that was just Will Newell.”
“ I dare say,” she murmured.
That conversation started me thinking backward some sixty-odd years, to some of the rare and unusual persons I had grown up with. At the time, of course, I had taken them for granted. Later I learned to glory in those individualists and to wish we still produced them. One day the thought flashed through my mind: “Perhaps we do. To the next generation, perhaps we are some of them.” I hope we are!
I go back to a Harvard Square which was a village full of “characters” among its tradespeople. There was old Mr. Saunders, who ran the dry-goods store and never had what you wanted — but, summer or winter, always added, “We have plenty of fans.” He was followed by an ambitious young man, and the new sign read: “ Buy your goods of a good-looking man. H. G. Lowes.” (The box or bottle from the prescription department of a present-day Cambridge drugstore bears on its label: “Dispensers to the Cultured.”)
Then there was very old Mr. Hunnewell, the jeweler, who, when he dropped a small instrument while repairing a watch, would throw another one down to the floor “to find it.” That was fascinating to a child. And when one asked him the price, he would sigh, and murmur, “No charge— no charge.” Yet somehow he earned enough to found the Avon Home for Destitute Children.
And there was handsome Mr. Lucien Carr, who walked daily on perfectly level Brattle Street bearing an Alpine stock higher than his head.
I also remember coming home in the trolley one afternoon from a concert. When the car stopped to let Miss Carrie and Miss Kitty Parsons alight, Miss Kitty was still talking to her neighbor. She made no move to rise. The impatient conductor shouted, “Get a move on, lady.” I remember with what dignity Miss Carrie drew herself up and said, “Cambridge has come to a pretty pass when Miss Kitty Parsons is not allowed to finish her conversation!” And one summer evening I met Miss Carrie walking to her sewing club dressed as Little Bo-Peep — crook and all.
Then there were the Misses Palfrey, one of whom rode a tricycle — a machine fashionable in those days — which she modestly draped. She was a majestic sight as she pedaled through the Cambridge streets on the cumbersome machine adorned with concealing fringes, and with her long crepe veil floating out behind. She owned a little dog named Dandy, but said, “I do not like to take him to Harvard Square with me for fear that when I call ‘Dandy! Dandy!’ some Harvard student might think I was addressing him.”
When the first summer school was started, after the Spanish War, Cuban students were invited to attend. The Misses Palfrey, living near the College, hastened in some perturbation to see their old friend and adviser, Dr. Henry P. Walcott. They asked him earnestly if it would be quite safe for them to remain in their home—because, they said, “we hear that the Cubans are very passionate people.” It was one of the Palfrey sisters who made the famous criticism of matrimony, that “it broke down the natural barrier between the sexes.”
SIXTY years ago Cambridge traveled by horsecar, and I can remember going many times to Harvard Square in the same car with Mrs. Charles Edward Russell. When we reached the one butcher shop, kept by David Brewer, she would wave to the conductor to stop, and from the window beckon to Mr. Brewer to come out. She would give him her order, which he would write down on a very dirty cuff. Then she would wave the car onward — and curiously enough, it did not seem in the least out of the ordinary. It was just Mrs. Russell and her way of doing things.
Those were leisurely days. One driver of a horsecar, dressed in a great brown Buffalo coat (the driver’s platform had no shelter), picked up along his route on Concord Avenue enough bricks, dropped from the passing brick carts, to build his house.
Of the professors at Harvard at that time, there are many amusing tales. Professor Royce was a startling sight as, in abbreviated drawers, —which now would be called “shorts,” — he sprinted along the Cambridge streets of an afternoon for exercise, causing Miss Palfrey to say, “Very strange and indelicate, but of course we must remember that Mr. Boyce comes from California.” I can remember old Professor Lovering, on hot August days, shuffling along in shawl and arctics, and Miss Bowen, daughter of a professor, who, to her dying day, looked as if she had stepped out of Godey’s Lady’s Book, with hoop skirts and tiny parasol.
Dr. Andrew Preston Peabody, preacher to the University, had the habit of taking off his spectacles when he read the Bible and putting them on when he prayed. One time the consequence of Dr. Peabody’s absent-mindedness was amusing: he forgot to give out the hymn at a morning chapel service attended by professors and students — whereupon the organist wildly chose a number at random for his male choir to sing. It happened to be “To Thee, O God in Heaven, this little one we bring” — a christening hymn.
Of all the strange and interesting characters at Harvard at that time, the most fascinating was Professor Evangelinus Apostolides Sophocles, a bachelor who lived a solitary life. But he kept hens in the yard of Fay House, now one of the buildings of Radcliffe College. He loved his “cockerels and pullets” as he called them — and named the pullets after the Cambridge ladies who had befriended him and invited him to meals.
As eggs appeared, he would write on each one the name of the hen that laid it, and when from time to time he would bring an offering of a basket of fresh eggs to my husband’s father and mother, the two small boys — my husband and his brother — would sort the eggs according to the names written on them, for they too had their favorites among the Cambridge ladies. I can remember only Professor Sophocles’s personal appearance — piercing black eyes under shaggy eyebrows, a shock of white hair, and the great unkempt beard and whiskers.
Alt these things were the outward sign of intense individualism and represented a refreshing indifference to public opinion. At times the traits were ludicrous, but the stimulating and original minds they indicated added to the glory of our community.
One afternoon this spring I was sitting out on the lawn. As the mailman approached, I beckoned him over to me. He handed me a postcard. I exclaimed, “That was hardly worth your while” — to which he replied, “You won’t think so when you’ve read it.” It was news from my daughter in Chicago.
Years ago we had a carrier who stopped my motherin-law on the street one day, saying he had some mail for her. But after vainly searching through his bag, he gave up and said, “Well, never mind. It was only a postcard saying your ‘Bee’ is meeting at Miss Carrie Hayes’s next Friday.”
One hot June day more recently, I was walking up Brattle Street eating an ice-cream cone, when a lady — a stranger to me, though evidently I was not to her — crossed the street and exclaimed, “How I envy you!”
“Why don’t you do likewise?” I asked.
She replied, “Oh, no! I couldn’t! I’ve only lived in Cambridge for ten years.”
So perhaps the stranger in our midst really does find people a little queer — in Cambridge.