Our Philadelphia/Chapter 5
CHAPTER V: TRANSITIONAL
AND so it was with a great fear in my heart that, in the course of time and after I had learned as little as it was decent for Philadelphia girls to learn in the days before Bryn Mawr, I left the Convent altogetlier for Philadelphia. I can smile now in recalling the old fear, but it was no smiling matter at seventeen: a weeping matter rather, and many were the tears I shed in secret over the prospect before me. My holidays had not revealed Philadelphia to me as a place of evil and many dangers. But as I was to live there, it represented the world,—the sinful world, worse, the unknown world, to battle with whose temptations my life and training at the Convent had been the preparation.It added to the danger that sin could wear so peaceful an aspect and temptation keep so comfortably out of sight. During an interval, longer than I cared to have it, for I did not "come out" at once as a Philadelphia girl should and at the Convent I had made few Philadelphia friends, my personal knowledge of Philadelphia did not go much deeper than its house fronts. For the most part they bore the closest family resemblance to those of Eleventh and Spruce, with the same suggestion of order and repose in their well-washed marble steps and
ST. PETER'S, INTERIOR
drawn blinds. My Father had then moved to Third Street near Spruce, and there rented a red brick house, one-half, or one-third, the size of my Grandfather's, but very like it in every other way, to the roses in the tiny back-yard and to the daily family routine except that, with a courageous defiance of tradition I do not know how we came by, we dined at the new dinner hour of six and said our prayers in the privacy of our bedrooms. The Stock Exchange was only a minute away, and yet, at our end. Third Street had not lost its character as a respectable residential street. We had for neighbours old Miss Grelaud and the Bullitts and, round the corner in Fourth Street, the Wisters and Bories and Schaumbergs,—with what bated breath Philadelphia talked of the beauty and talents of Miss Emily Schaumberg, as she still was!—and many other Philadelphia families who had never lived anywhere else. Life went on as silently and placidly and regularly as at the Convent. I seemed merely to have exchanged one sort of monastic peace for another and the loudest sound I ever heard, the jingling of my old friend the horse-car, was not so loud as to disturb it.
If I walked up Spruce Street, or as far as Pine and up Pine, silence and peace enfolded me. Peace breathed, exuded from the red brick houses with their white marble steps, their white shutters below and green above, their pleasant line of trees shading the red brick pavement. The occasional brown stone front broke the uniformity with such brutal discord that I might have imagined the devil I knew was waiting for me somewhere lurked behind it, and have seen in its pretentious aping of New York fashion the sin in which Philadelphia, as the Sinful World, must abound. I cannot say why it seemed to me, and still seems, so odious, for there were other interruptions to the monotony I delighted in—the beautiful open spaces and great trees about the Pennsylvania Hospital and St. Peter's; the old Mint which, with its severe classical façade, seemed to reproach the frivolity of the Chestnut Street store windows on every side of it; General Paterson's square grey house with long high-walled garden at Thirteenth and Locust; the big yellow Dundas house at Broad and Walnut, with its green enclosure and the magnolia for whose blossoming I learnt to watch with the coming of spring; that other garden with wide-spreading trees opposite my Grandfather's at Eleventh and Spruce: old friends these quickly grew to be, kindly landmarks on the way when I took the walks that were so solitary in those early days, through streets where it was seldom I met anybody I knew, for the Convent had made me a good deal of a stranger in my native town,—where it was seldom, indeed, I met anybody at all.
THE PENNSYLVANIA HOSPITAL FROM PINE STREET
desire to bridge over the wide gulf of propriety that then yawned between the sex and business. Except for the character of the buildings and the signs at the doors, I might not have been conscious of the embarrassing difference between this and my more familiar haunts. Bankers' and stock-brokers' offices were on every side, but the Third Street car did not jingle any louder as it passed, my way was not more crowded, peace still enveloped me. I gathered from my Father, who was a broker, that the Stock Exchange, when buying and selling had to be done on the spot and not by telephone as in our degenerate days, was now and then a scene of animation, and it might be of noise and disorder, more especially at Christmas, when a brisker business was done in penny whistles and trumpets than in stocks and shares. But the animation overflowed into Third Street only at moments of panic, to us welcome as moments of prosperity for they kept my Father busy—we thrived on panics—and then, once or twice, I saw staid Philadelphians come as near running as I ever knew them to in the open street.
Now and then youth got the better of me and I sought adventure in the unadventurous monotony of Walnut Street where the lawyers had their offices, the courts not having as yet migrated up to Broad Street. It was usually lost in heavy legal slumber and if my intrusion was bold, at least nobody was about to resent it. Nor could there be a doubt of the eminent respectabihty into which I intruded. The recommendation to Philadelphia of its lawyers was not the high esteem in which they were held throughout the country, but their social standing at home—family gave distinction to the law, not the law to family. Approved Philadelphia names adorned the signs at almost every office door and not for some years was the evil day to dawn when the well-known Philadelphia families who inherited the right of the law would be forced to fight for it with the alien and the Jew. For me, I think I am at an age when I may own that the irreproachable names on the signs were not the principal attraction. Sometimes, from one of the somnolent offices, a friendly figure would step into the somnolent street to lighten me on my way, and it was pleasanter to walk up Walnut in company than alone. When I went back the other day, after many years and many changes for Philadelphia and myself, I found most of the familiar signs gone, but at one door I was met by a welcome ghost—but, was it the ghost of that friendly figure or of my lonely youth grasping at romance or its shadow? How many years must pass, how many experiences be gone through, before a question like that can be asked!
If I followed Third Street beyond Walnut to Chestnut, I was in the region of great banks and trust companies and newspaper offices and the old State House and the courts. I had not had the experience, or the training, to realize what architectural monstrosities most of the new, big, heavy stone buildings were, nor the curiosity to investigate what went on inside of them, but after the quiet red brick houses they seemed to have business written all over them and the street, compared to Spruce and Walnut, appeared to my unsophisticated eyes so thronged that I did not have to be told it was no place for me. It was plain that most women felt as I did, so careful were they to efface themselves. I remember meeting but few on Chestnut Street below Eighth until Mr. Childs began to devote his leisure moments and loose change to the innocent amusement of presenting a cup and saucer to every woman who would come to get it, and as most women in Philadelphia, or out of it, are eager to grab anything they do not have to pay for, many visited him in the Ledger office at Sixth and Chestnut.As I shrank from doing what no other woman did, and, as the business end of Chestnut Street did not offer me the same temptation as Walnut, I never got to know it well,—in fact I got to know it so little that my ignorance would seem extraordinary in anybody save a Philadelphian, and it remained as strange to me as the street of a foreign town. I could not have said just where my Grandfather's Bank was, not once during that period did I set my foot across the threshold of the State House, unwilling as I am to confess it. But perhaps I might as well make a full confession while I am about it, for the truth will have to come out sooner or later. Let me say then, disgraceful as I feel it to be, that though I spent two years at least in the Third Street house, with so much of the beauty of Philadelphia's beautiful past at my door, it was not until some time afterwards, when we had gone to live up at Thirteenth and Spruce, that I began to appreciate the beauty as well as my folly in not having appreciated it sooner. St. Peter's Church and the Pennsylvania Hospital I could not ignore, many of my walks leading me past them. But I was several years older before I saw Christ Church, inside or out. The existence of the old Second Street Market was unknown to me; had I been asked I no doubt would have said that the Old Swedes Church was miles off; I was unconscious that I was surrounded by houses of Colonial date; I was blind to the meaning and dignity of great gables turned to the street, and stately Eighteenth Century doorways, and dormer windows, and old ironwork, and a patchwork of red and black brick; I was indifferent to the interest these things might have given to every step I took at a time when, too often, every step seemed forlornly barren of interest or its possibility. Into the old Philadelphia Library on Fifth Street I did penetrate once or twice, and once or twice sat in its quiet secluded alcoves dipping into musty volumes: a mere accident it must have been, my daily reading being provided for at the easygoing, friendly, pleasantly dingy, much more modern Mercantile Library in Tenth Street. But the memory of these visits, few as they were, is one of the strongest my Third Street days have left with me, and I think, or I hope, I must have felt the charm of the old town if I may not have realized that I did, for I can never look back
SECOND STREET MARKET
to myself as I was then without seeing it as the background to all my comings and goings—a background that lends colour to my colourless life.
I can understand my ignorance and blindness and indifference, if I cannot forgive them. All my long eleven years at the Convent I had had the virtue of obedience duly impressed upon me, and, though there custom led me easily into the temptation of disobedience, when I returned to Philadelphia I was at first too frightened and bewildered to defy Philadelphia's laws written and especially unwritten, for in these I was immediately concerned. I was the more bewildered because I had come away from the Convent comfortably convinced of my own importance, and it was disconcerting to discover that Philadelphia, so far from sharing the conviction, dismissed me as a person of no importance whatever. I had also my natural indolence and moral cowardice to reckon with. I have never been given to taking the initiative when I can avoid it and it is one of my great grievances that, good and thorough American as I am, I should have been denied my rightful share of American go. Anyway, I did not have to stay long in Philadelphia to learn for myself that the Philadelphia law of laws obliged every Philadelphian to do as every other Philadelphian did, and that every Philadelphian was too much occupied in evading what was not the thing in the present to bother to cultivate a sentiment for the past. Moreover, I had to contend against what the Philadelphians love to call the Philadelphia inertia, while all the time they talk about it they keep giving substantial proofs of how little reason there is for the talk. The Philadelphia inertia only means that it is not good form in Philadelphia to betray emotion on any occasion or under any circumstance. The coolness, or indifference, of Philadelphians at moments and crises of great passion and excitement has always astonished the outsider. If you do not understand the Philadelphia way, as I did not then, you take the Philadelphian's talk literally and believe the beautiful Philadelphia calm to be more than surface deep, as I did who had not the sense as yet to see that, even if this inertia was real, it was my business to get the better of it and to develop for myself the energy I imagined my town and its people to be without. I have often thought that the Philadelphia calm is a little like the London climate that either conquers you or leaves you the stronger for having conquered it.
If one of Philadelphia's unwritten laws closed my eyes to what was most worth looking at when I took my walks abroad, another, no less stringent, limited those walks to a small section of the town. On the map Philadelphia might stretch over a vast area with the possibility of spreading indefinitely, but for social purposes it was shut in to the East and the West by the Delaware and the Schuylkill, to the North and the South by a single line of the old rhyming list of the streets: "Chestnut, Walnut, Spruce and Pine." I have not the antiquarian knowledge to say who drew that rigid line, or when what had been all right for Washington and Provosts of the University and no end of distinguished people became all wrong for ordinary mortals—I have heard the line ridiculed, but never explained. No geographical boundary has been, or could be, more arbitrary, but there it was, there it is, and the Philadelphian who crosses it risks his good name. Nor can the stranger, though unwarned, disregard it with impunity. I remember when I met Mrs. Alexander Gilchrist, the first friend I made in London, and she told me the number of the house away out North Twenty-second Street where she lived for two years in Philadelphia, I had a moment of Philadelphia uncertainty as to whether her literary distinction could outbalance her social indiscretion. Philadelphia never had a doubt, but was serenely unconscious of her presence during her two years there. And yet she had then edited and published, with the help of the Rossettis, her husband's Life of Blake which had brought her fame in England, and her up-town house must have been one of the most interesting to visit. Walt Whitman was a daily guest and few American men of letters passed through Philadelphia without finding their way to it. Philadelphia, however, would scruple going to Heaven were Heaven north of Market Street.
It is an absurd prejudice, but I am not sure if I have got rid of it now or if I ever shall get rid of it, and when I was too young to see its absurdity I would as soon have questioned the infallibility of the Pope. It was decreed that nobody should go north of Market or south of Pine; therefore I must not go; the reason, probably, why I never went to Christ Church—a pew had not been in my family for generations to excuse my presence in North Second Street—why I never, even by accident, passed the Old Swedes or the Second Street Market. It was bad enough to cross the line when I could not help myself. I am amused now—though my sensitive youth found no amusement in it—when I think of my annoyance because my Great-Grandfather, on my Mother's side, old Ambrose White whose summer home was in Chestnut Hill, lived not many blocks from the Meeting House and the Christ Church Burial Ground where Franklin lies, in one of those fine old Arch Street houses in which Friends had lived for generations since there had been Arch Street houses to live in. Besides, Mass and Vespers in the Cathedral led me to Logan Square, to my dismay that religion should lead where it was as much as my reputation was worth to be met. I have wondered since if it was as compromising for the Philadelphian from north of Market Street to be found in Rittenhouse Square.Outwardly I could see no startling difference between the forbidden Philadelphia and my Philadelphia—"there is not such great odds, Brother Toby, betwixt good and evil as the world imagines," I might have said with Mr.
FOURTH AND ARCH STREETS MEETING HOUSE
Shandy had I known that Mr. Shandy said it or that there was a Mr. Shandy to say anything so wise. The Philadelphia rows of red brick honses, white marble steps, white shutters below and green above, rows of trees shading them, were much the same north of Market Street and south of Pine, except that south of Pine the red brick houses shrank and the white marble and white shutters grew shabby, and north of Market their uniformity was more often broken by brown stone fronts which, together with the greater width of many of the streets, gave a richer and more prosperous air than we could boast down our way. But it was not for Philadelphians, of all people, to question why, and it must have been two or three years later, when I was less awed by Philadelphia, that I went up town of my own free will and out of sheer defiance. I can remember the time when an innocent visit to so harmless a place as Girard College appeared to me in the light of outrageous daring. That is the way in my generation we were taught and learned our duty in Philadelphia.
My excursions to the suburbs, except to Torresdale, were few, which was my loss for no other town's suburbs are more beautiful, and they were not on Philadelphia's Index. Time and the alien had not yet driven the Philadelphian out to the Main Line as an alternative to "Chestnut, Walnut, Spruce and Pine," but many had country houses there; Germantown was popular. Chestnut Hill and Torresdale were beyond reproach. My Father, however, who cultivated most of Philadelphia's prejudices, was unexpectedly heterodox in this particular. He could not stand the suburbs—poor man, he came to spending suburban summers in the end—and of them all he held Germantown most sweepingly in disfavour. I cannot remember that he gave a reason for his dislike. It may be that its grey-stone houses offended him as an infidelity to Philadelphia's red brick austerity. But he could never speak of it with patience and from him I got the idea that it was the abyss of the undesirable. One of the biggest surprises of my life was, when I came to look at it with my own eyes, to find it as desirable a place as beauty and history can make.
The shopping I had not the money to do would have kept me within a more exclusive radius, for a shopping expedition restricted the Philadelphian who had any respect for herself to Chestnut Street between Eighth and Fifteenth. Probably I was almost the only Philadelphian who knew there were plenty of cheap stores in Second Street, but that I bought the first silk dress I ever possessed there was one of the little indiscretions I had the sense to keep to myself. A bargain in Eighth Street might be disclosed as a clever achievement, if not repeated too often. The old Philadelphia name and the historic record of Lippincott's, for generations among the most successful Philadelphia publishers, would have permitted a periodical excursion into Market Street, even if unlimited latitude, anyway, had not been granted to wholesale houses in the choice of a street. The well-known reliability of Strawbridge and Clothier might warrant certain purchases uptown and a furniture dealer as reliable, whose name and address I regret have escaped me, sanction the housekeeper's penetrating still further north. But it was safer, everything considered, to keep to Chestnut Street, and on Chestnut Street to stores approved by long patronage—you were hall-marked "common" if you did not, and the wrong name on the inside of your hat or under the flap of your envelope might be your social undoing. The self-respecting Philadelphian would not have bought her needles and cotton anywhere save at Mustin's, her ribbons anywhere save at Allen's. She would have scorned the visiting card not engraved by Dreka. She would have gone exclusively to Bailey's or Caldwell's for her jewels and silver; to Darlington's or Homer and Colladay's for her gloves and dresses; to Sheppard's for her linen; to Porter and Coates, after Lippincott's, for her books; to Earle's for her pictures;—prints were such an exotic taste that Gebbie and Barrie could afford to hide in Walnut Street, and the collector of books such a rarity that Tenth, or was it Ninth? was as good as any other street for the old book store where I had so unpleasant an experience that I could not well forget it though I have forgotten its proprietor's name. A sign in the window said that old books were bought, and one day, my purse as usual empty but my heart full of hope, I carried there two black-bound, gilt-edged French books of the kind nobody dreams of reading that I had brought home triumphantly as prizes from the Convent: but I and my poor treasures were dismissed with such contempt and ridicule that my spirit was broken and I could not summon up pluck to carry them to Leary's, in Ninth Street, who were more liberal even than Charles Lamb in their definition, and to whom anything printed and bound was a book to be bought and sold.
If hunger overtook the shopper, she would have eaten her oyster stew only at Jones's on Eleventh Street or Burns's on Fifteenth; or if the heat exhausted her, she would have cooled off on ice-cream only at Sautter's or Dexter's, on soda-water only at Wyeth's or Hubbell's. The hours for shopping were as circumscribed as the district. To be seen on Chestnut Street late in the afternoon, if not unpardonable, was certainly not quite the thing.
JOHNSON HOUSE, GERMANTOWN
the Park, by the Wissahickon, to Chestnut Hill, it was looked upon as no less unladylike on our part than the new generation's cigarette and demand for the vote on theirs. But if I did my duty, I was sadly bored by it. Often I turned homeward with that cruel aching of the heart the young know so well, longing for something, anything, to happen on the way to interrupt, to disorganize, to shatter to pieces the daily routine of life. I still shrink from the sharp pain of those cool, splendid October days when Philadelphia was aglow and quiveringly alive, and with every breath of the brisk air came the desire to be up and away and doing—but away where in Philadelphia?—doing what in Philadelphia? I still shrink from the sharp pain of the first langourous days of spring when every Philadelphia back-yard was full of perfume and every Philadelphia street a golden green avenue leading direct to happiness could I have found the way along its bewildering straightness.
If youth only knew! There was everywhere to go, everything to do, every happiness to claim. Philadelphia waited, the Promised Land of action and romance, had I not been hide-bound by Philadelphia conventions, absorbed in Philadelphia ideals, disdaining all others with the intolerance of my years. According to these conventions and ideals, there was but one adventure for the Philadelphia girl who had finished her education and arrived at the appointed age—the social adventure of coming out.