Our Philadelphia/Chapter 3

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Our Philadelphia
A Child in Philadelphia—Continued

CHAPTER III: A CHILD IN PHILADELPHIA—CONTINUED

I

NATURALLY, I could not live in Spruce Street and not believe, as every Philadelphian should and once did, that no other kind of a house except the Spruce Street house was fit for a Philadelphian to live in. The Philadelphian, from infancy, was convinced by his surroundings and bringing-up that there was but one way of doing things decently and respectably and that was the Philadelphia way, nor can my prolonged exile relieve me from the sense of crime at times when I catch myself doing things not just as Philadelphians used to do them.

I was safe from any such crime in my Grandfather's house. All Philadelphia might have been let in without fear. Had skeletons been concealed in the capacious cupboards, they would have been of the approved Philadelphia pattern. My Grandfather was not at all of Montaigne's opinion that order in the management of life is sottish, but looked upon it rather as "Heaven's first law." His day's programme was the same as in every red brick house with white marble steps and a back-yard full of roses and shrubs and Johnny-jump-ups. Everything at Eleventh and Spruce was done according to the same Philadelphia rules at the same hour, from the washing of the family linen on Monday, when Sunday's beef was eaten cold for dinner, to the washing of the front on Saturday morning, when Philadelphia streets from end to end were all mops and maids, rivers and lakes.

When my Grandfather, with his family on their knees around him, began the day by reading morning prayers in the back-building dining-room, he could have had the satisfaction of knowing that every other Philadelphia head of a family was engaged in the same edifying duty, but I hope, for every other Philadelphia family's sake, with a trifle less awe-inspiring solenmity. After being present once at my Grandfather's prayers, nobody needed to be assured that life was earnest.

He did not shed his solemnity when he rose from his knees, nor when he had finished his breakfast of scrapple and buckwheat cakes and left the breakfast table. He was as solemn in his progress through the streets to the Philadelphia Bank, at Fourth and Chestnut, of which he was President, and having said so much perhaps I might as well add his name, Thomas Robins, for in his day he was widely known and it is a satisfaction to remember, as widely appreciated both in and out of Philadelphia. His clothes were always of the most admirable cut and fit and of a fashion becoming to his years, he carried a substantial cane with a gold top, his stock was never laid aside for a frivolous modern cravat, his silk hat was as indispensable, and his slow walk had a dignity royalty might have envied. He was a handsome old man and a noticeable figure even in Philadelphia streets at the hour when John Welsh from the corner, and Biddies and Cadwalladers and Whartons and Peppers and Lewises and a host of other handsome old Philadelphians with good Philadelphia names from the near neighborhood, were starting downtown in clothes as irreproachable and with a gait no less dignified. The foreigner's idea of the American is of a slouchy, free-and-easy man for ever cracking jokes. But slouchiness and jokes had no place in the dictionary or the deportment of my Grandfather and his contemporaries, at a period when Philadelphia supplied men like John Welsh for its country to send as representatives abroad and there carry on the traditions of Franklin and John Adams and Jefferson. My Father—Edward Robins—inherited more than his share of this old-fashioned Philadelphia manner, making a ceremony of the morning walk to his office and the Sunday walk to church. But it has been lost by younger generations, more's the pity. In memory I would not have my Grandfather a shade less solemn, though at the time his solemnity put me on anything but easy terms with him.


II

The respectful bang of the front door upon my Grandfather's dignified back after breakfast was the signal for the family to relax. The cloth was at once cleared, my Grandmother and my Aunts—like all Philadelphia

INDEPENDENCE SQUARE AND THE STATE HOUSE

mothers and daughters—brought their work-baskets into the dining-room and sat and gossiped there until it was time for my Grandmother to go and see the butcher and the provision dealer, or for my Aunts to make those formal calls for which the morning then was the unpardonable hour.

It seems to me, in looking back, as if my Grandmother could never have gone out of the house except on an errand to the provision man, such an important part did it play in her daily round of duties. She never went to market. That was not the Philadelphia woman's business, it was the Philadelphia man's. My Grandfather, at the time of which I write, must have grown too old for the task, which was no light one, for it meant getting up at unholy hours every Wednesday and every Saturday, leaving the rest of the family in their comfortable beds, and being back again in time for prayers and eight o'clock breakfast. I cannot say how this division of daily labour was brought about. The century before, a short time as things go in Philadelphia, it was the other way round and the young Philadelphia woman at her marketing was one of the sights strangers in the town were taken to see. But in my time it was so much the man's right that as a child I believed there was something essentially masculine in going to market, just as there was in making the mayonnaise for the salad at dinner. A Philadelphia man valued his salad too highly to trust its preparation to a woman. It was almost a shock to me when my Father allowed my motherly little Aunt to relieve him of the responsibility in the Spruce Street house. And later on, when he re-married and again lived in a house of his own, and my Step-Mother made a mayonnaise quite equal to his or to any mere man's, not even to her would he shift the early marketing,—his presence in the Twelfth Street Market as essential on Wednesday and Saturday mornings as in the Stock Exchange every day—and his conscientiousness was the more astonishing as his genius was by no means for domesticity. Philadelphia women respected man's duties and rights in domestic, as in all, matters. I remember an elderly Philadelphian, who was stopping at Blossom's Hotel in Chester, where all Americans thirty years ago began their English tour, telling me the many sauces on the side table had looked so good she would have liked to try them and, on my asking her why in the world she had not, saying they had not been offered to her and she thought perhaps they were for the gentlemen. Only a Philadelphian among Americans could have given that answer.

Towards three o'clock in the Spruce Street house, my Grandmother would be found, her cap carefully removed, stretched full-length upon the sofa in the dining-room. The picture would not be complete if I left out my Father's rage because the dining-room was used for her before-dinner nap as for almost every purpose of domestic life by the women of the family. I have often wondered where he got such an un-Philadelphia idea. In every house where there was a Grandmother, she was taking her nap at the same hour on the same sofa in the same dining-room. I could never see the harm. It was the most comfortable room in the house, without the isolation of the bedroom or the formality of the parlours.

At four, my Grandfather returned from his day's work, the family re-assembled, holding him in sufficient awe never to be late, and dinner was served. The hour was part of the leisurely life of Philadelphia as ordered in Spruce Street. Philadelphians had dined at four during a hundred years and more, and my Grandfather, who rarely condescended to the frivolity of change, continued to dine at four, as he continued to wear a stock, until the end of his life. It was no doubt because of the contrast with Convent fare that the dinner in my recollection remains the most wonderful and elaborate I have ever eaten, though I rack my brains in vain to recall any of its special features except the figs and prunes on the high dessert dishes, altogether the most luscious figs and prunes ever grown and dried, and the decanter at my Grandfather's place from which he dropped into his glass the few drops of brandy he drank with his water while everybody else drank their water undiluted. When friends came to dinner, I recall also the Philadelphia decanter of Madeira, though otherwise no greater ceremony. Dinner was always as solemn an affair in my Grandfather's house as morning prayers or any act of daily life over which he presided, the whole house, at all times when he left it, relapsing into dressing-gown and slippered ease after the full-dress decorum his presence required of it.

The eight o'clock tea is a more definite function in my memory, perhaps because the hours of waiting for it crept by so slowly. After dinner, the Aunts, my Father, the one Uncle who lived at home, vanished I never knew where, though no doubt Philadelphia supplied some amusement or occupation for the forlorn wreck four o'clock dinner made of the afternoon. But the interval was spent by my Grandfather and Grandmother at one of the front parlour windows, the old-fashioned Philadelphia afghan over their knees, their hands folded, while I, alone, my Sister having had the independence to vanish with the grown-ups, sat at the other, not daring to break the silence in which they looked out into the drowsy street for the people who seldom came and the events that never happened; nothing disturbing the calm of Spruce Street save the Sunday afternoon invasion of the colored people in their Sunday clothes from every near alley. It gives me a pang now to pass and see the window empty that once was always filled, in the hour before twilight, by those two dear grey heads.


III

As I grew a little older, I had the courage to bring a book to the window. It was there I read The Lamplighter which I confuse now with the memory of our own

CHRIST CHURCH INTERIOR

lighter making his rounds; and The Initials with a haughty Hilda for heroine—she must have been haughty for all real heroines then were; and Queechy and The Wide, Wide World and Faith Gartney's Girlhood, against whose sentiment I am glad to say I revolted. And mixed up with these were Mrs. Southworth's Lost Heiress and the anonymous Routledge, light books for whose presence I cannot account in my Grandfather's serious house. Does anybody read Routledge now? Has anybody now ever heard of it? What trash it was, but, after the improving romances with a religious moral of the Convent Library, after Wiseman's edifying Fabiola and Newman's scholarly—beyond my years—Callista, how I revelled in it, with what a choking throat I galloped through the love-sick chapters! I could recite pages of it to myself to relieve the dreariness of those long drives in the Third Street car, or the long waiting in the dreary station. To this day I remember the last sentence—"with his arm around my waist and my face hidden on his shoulder, I told him of the love, folly and pride that had so long kept me from him." Could Queechy, could Faith Gartney's Girlhood have been more sentimental than that? I dare not look up the old books to see, lest their charm as well as their sentiment should fade in the light of a more critical age. Then Scott and Dickens, Miss Edgeworth, more often Holiday House, filled the hours before tea. After all, the old division of the day, the young generation would be ashamed to go back to, had its uses.


IV

The tea, when announced, was worth waiting, or putting down the most entrancing book, for. Had I my way I would make Philadelphia dine again at four o'clock for the sake of the tea—of the frizzled beef that only Philadelphia ever frizzled to a turn, the smoked salmon that only Philadelphia ever smoked as an art, the Maryland biscuits that ought to be called Philadelphia biscuits for they were never half so good in their native land, the home-made preserves put up in that sunshiny kitchen where lilacs bloomed at the door. After all this long quarter of a century, the smell of beef frizzling would take me back to Eleventh and Spruce on a winter evening as straight as the fragrance of the flowering bean carries me to Pompeii in the early springtime, or of garlic to the little sunlit towns of Provence at any season of the year. The tea was a triumph of simplicity, but when there were guests it became a feast. As a rule, it was the meal to which the children and grandchildren who did not live in the Spruce Street house were invited, and loved best to be invited. For on these occasions my Grandmother could be relied upon to provide stewed oysters, the masterpiece of Margaret, her old grey-haired cook; and oyster croquettes from Augustine's—my Grandfather would as soon have begun the day without prayers as my Grandmother have given a feast without the help of Augustine, that caterer of colour who was for years supreme in Philadelphia; brandy peaches that, like the preserves, had been put up at home, the brandy poured in with unexpected lavishness for so temperate a household; and little round cakes with white icing on top—what dear little ghosts from out a far past they seemed when, after a quarter of a century in a land where people know nothing of the delights of little round cakes with white icing on top, I ate them again at Philadelphia feasts. If the solemn, dignified Grandfather at one end of the table kept our enjoyment within the bounds of ceremony, we felt no restraint with the little old Grandmother who beamed upon us from the other, as she poured out the tea and coffee with hands trembling so that, in her later years, the man servant,—usually coloured and not to Philadelphia as yet known as butler or footman,—always stood close by to catch the tea or coffee pot when it fell, which it never did.


V

I recall more formal family reunions, above all the Golden Wedding, as impressive as a court function, the two old people enthroned at the far end of the front parlour, the sons and daughters and grandchildren approaching in a solemn line—an embarrassed line when it came to the youngest, always shy in the awful presence of the Grandfather—and offering, each in turn, their gifts. We were by no means a remarkable family, to the unprejudiced we may have seemed a commonplace one, my forefathers evidently having decided that leaving land for America was a feat remarkable enough to satisfy the ambitions of any one family and having then proceeded to rest comfortably on their respectable laurels, but we took each other with great seriousness. The oldest Aunt, who was married and lived in New York, received on her annual visit to Spruce Street the homage due to a Princess Royal, and no King or Emperor could have caused more of a flutter than my Grandfather when he honoured one of his children with a visit. Family anniversaries were scrupulously observed, the legend of family affection was kept up as conscientiously, whatever it cost us in discomfort, and there were times when we paid heavily. I would have run many miles to escape one Uncle who, when he met me in the street, would stop to ask how I was, and how we all were at home, and then would stand twisting his moustache in visible agony, trying to think what the affectionate intimacy between us that did not exist required him to say, while I thanked my stars that we were in the street and not in a house where he would have felt constrained to kiss me. We were horribly exact in this matter of kissing. There was a family legend of another Uncle from New York who once, when he came over for some family meeting, was so eager to do his duty by his nieces that he kissed not only all of them—no light task—but two or three neighbours' little girls into the bargain. I think, however, that every Philadelphia family took itself as seriously and that our scruples were not a monopoly brought with us from Virginia and Maryland. In a town where family names are handed down from generation to generation, so that a family often will boast, as ours did, not only a "Jr." but a "3d," and lose no opportunity to let the world know it, family feeling is not likely to be allowed to wilt and die.

Every public holiday also was a family affair to be observed with the rigours of the family feast. Christmas for me, when I did not celebrate it at the Convent with Midnight Mass and a Crèche in the chapel and kind nuns trying to make me forget I had not gone home like other little girls, took me to the Spruce Street house in time to look on at the succession of Uncles and Aunts who dropped in on Christmas Eve and went away laden with bundles, and carrying in some safe pocket a collection of envelopes with a crisp new greenback in each, the sum varying from one hundred dollars to five according to the age of the child or grandchild whose name was on the envelope—my Grandfather gave with the fine patriarchal air he maintained in all family relations. The family appropriation of Thanksgiving Day and Washington's Birthday I did not grasp until after I left school, for while I was at the Convent they were both spent there, where they dwindled into insignificance compared to Reverend Mother's feast and its glories. As a rule, I must have been at the Convent as well for the Fourth of July, though I retain one jubilant vision of myself and a bag of torpedoes in the back-yard, solemnizing a little celebration among the roses. And I have larger visions of military parades in broiling sunshine and of the City Troop filling the quiet streets with their gorgeousness which awed me long before the knowledge of their historic origin and uniform inspired me with reverence.


VI

Other duties and pleasures and observances that for most Philadelphia children were scattered through the interminable year, were crowded into my short holiday: visits to the dentist, to Dr. Hopkins, Dr. White's assistant, it being a test of Philadelphia respectability to have one's teeth seen to by Dr. White or one of his assistants or students, and the regular appointment was as much of obligation for me as Mass on Sunday; visits to the Academy of Fine Arts in the old Chestnut Street building, as I remember set back at the end of a court that made of it a place apart, a consecrated place which I entered with as little anticipation of amusement as St. Joseph's Church hidden in Willing's Alley, and was the more surprised therefore to be entertained, as I must have been, by Benjamin West, for of no other painter there have I the faintest recollection; visits to the Academy of Natural Sciences, where I liked the rows upon rows of stuffed birds, and the strange things in bottles, and the colossal skeletons that filled me with the same delicious shivers as the stories of afreets and genii in The Arabian Nights; visits to Fairmount Park, leagues away, houses left behind before it

CLASSIC FAIRMOUNT

was reached, where the mysterious machinery of the Waterworks was as terrifying as the skeletons, and I thought it much pleasanter outside under the blue sky; visits to the theatre—the most wonderful visits of all, for they took me out into the night that I knew only from stolen vigils in the Convent dormitory, or glimpses from the Spruce Street windows. Romance was in the dimly-lit streets, in the stars above, in the town after dark, which I was warned I was never to brave alone until I can laugh now to think how terrified I was the first time I came home late by myself, in my terror jumping into a street-car and claiming the protection of a contemptuous young woman whom work had not allowed to draw a conventional line between day and night.

I have never got rid of that suggestion of romance, not so much in the theatre itself as in the going to it, and, to this day, a matinée in broad daylight will bring back a little of the old thrill. But nothing can bring back to any theatre the glitter, the brilliancy, the splendour of the old Chestnut, the old Walnut, the old Arch, then already dingy with age I have no doubt, but transfigured by my childhood's ecstasies in them. Nothing can persuade me that any plays have been, or could be, written to surpass in beauty, pathos and humour, Solon Shingle, and Arrah-na-Pogue, and Our American Cousin, and The Black Crook, and Ours, though I have forgotten all but their names; that in opera Clara Louise Kellogg ever had a rival; that in gaiety and wit La Grande Duchesse and La Belle Hélène could be eclipsed; or that any actors could compete with Sothern and Booth and Mrs. Drew and the Davenports, and Charlotte Cushman as Meg Merrilies—there was a bit of good old melodramatic acting to make a small Convent girl's flesh creep! Shakespeare was redeemed by Booth from the dulness of the Convent reading-book and entered gloriously into my Convent life. For one happy winter, it was not I who led the long procession down to the refectory, though nobody could have suspected it, but the Ghost of Hamlet's Father, with, close behind me, in gloom absorbed, the Prince of Denmark, mistaken by the unknowing for the little girl, my friend, whose father, with more than the usual father's amiable endurance, had taken me with her and her sister to see the play of Hamlet during the Christmas holidays.

The theatre has become part of the modern school course. If an actor like Forbes-Robertson gives a farewell performance of Hamlet, or a manager like Beerbohm Tree produces a patriotic melodrama, or the company from the Théâtre Français perform one of the rare classics that the young person may be taken to, I have seen a London theatre filled with school girls and boys. From what I hear I might imagine the theatre and the opera to be the most serious studies of every Philadelphia school. At the Convent I should have envied the modern students could I have foreseen their liberty, but they have

DOWN PINE STREET

more reason to envy me. The gilt has been rubbed too soon off their gingerbread, too soon has the tinsel of their theatre been tarnished. My Spartan training gave me a theatre that can never cease to be a Wonderland, just as it endowed me with a Philadelphia that will endure, until this world knows me no more, as a beautiful, peaceful town where roses bloom in the sunny back-yards, and people live with dignity behind the plain red brick fronts of its long, straight streets.