Read CHAPTER II of People of the Whirlpool, free online book, by Mabel Osgood Wright, on ReadCentral.com.

MISS LAVINIA’S LETTERS TO BARBARA

NEW YORK, “GREENWICH VILLAGE,” January 20, 19 .

“So you are glad that I have returned? I wish that I could say so also, in your hearty tone of conviction. Every day of the two years that I have been scattering myself about Europe I have wished myself at home in the house where I was born, and have wandered through the rooms in my dreams; yet now that I am here, I find that I was mixing the past impossibly with the present, in a way common to those over fifty. Yes, you see I no longer pretend, wear unsuitable headgear, and blink obliviously at my age as I did in those trying later forties. I not only face it squarely, but exaggerate it, for it is so much more comfortable to have people say ‘Fifty-five! Is it possible?’

“By the way, do you know that you and I share a distinction in common? We are both living in the houses where we were born, for the reason that we wish to and not because we cannot help ourselves. Since I have been away it appears that every one I know, of my own age, has made a change of some sort, and joined the two streams that are flowing steadily upward, east and west of the Park; while the people who were neither my financial nor social equals thirty years ago are dividing the year into quarters, with a house for each. A few months in town, a few of hotel life for ‘rest’ in the south, then a ‘between-season’ residence near by, seaside next, mountains in early autumn, and the ‘between-season’ again before the winter cruise through the Whirlpool.

“I like that name that your Martin Cortright gives to New York. Before I went abroad I should have resented it bitterly, but the two months since my return have convinced me of its truth, which I have fought against for many years; for even the most staid of us who, either of choice or necessity, give the social vortex a wide berth, cannot escape from the unrest of it, or sight of the wreckage it from time to time gives forth. It is strange that I have not met this Cortright, or never even knew that he shared your father’s admiration of your mother, though owing to our school tie we were like sisters. Yet it was like her to regret and hold sacred any pain she might have caused, no matter how unwillingly. Did his elder sister marry a Schuyler, though not one of the well-known branch, and did he as a boy live in one of those houses on the west side of Lafayette Place that were later turned into an hotel?

“The worst of it all appears to me to be that the increase of wealth in the upper class is exterminating the home idea, to which I cling, single woman as I am; and consequently the middle classes, as blind copyists, also are tending to throw it over.

“The rich, having no particular reason for remaining in any particular place until they become attached to it, live in half a dozen houses, which seems to have a deteriorating effect upon their domesticity; just as the Sultan, with fifty wives that may be dropped or replaced according to will, cannot prize them as does the husband of only one.

“Your letters are so full of questions and wonderments about ways in your mother’s day, that they set me rambling in the backwoods of the sixties, when women were sending their lovers to the Civil War, and then bravely sitting down and rolling their own hearts up with the bandages with which they busied their fingers. I suppose you are wondering if I lost a lover in those days, or why I have not married, as I am in no wise opposed to the institution, but consider it quite necessary to happiness. The truth is, I never saw but two men whose tastes so harmonized with mine that I considered them possible as companions, and when I first met them neither was eligible, one being my own father and the other yours! I shall have to list your queries, to be answered deliberately, write my letters in sections, day by day, and send them off packet-wise, like the correspondence of the time of two-shilling post and hand messengers. To begin with, I will pick out the three easiest:

“1. What is it in particular that has so upset me on my home-coming?

“2. Do I think that I could break through my habits sufficiently to make you a real country visit this spring or early summer, before the mosquitoes come? (Confessing with your altogether out-of-date frankness that there are mosquitoes, a word usually dropped from the vocabulary of commuters and their wives, even though they live in Staten Island or New Jersey.)

“3. Is the Sylvia Latham, to whom I have been a friendly chaperon during my recent travels, related to the Lathams who are building the finest house on the Bluffs? You have never seen the head of the house, but his initials are S.J.; he is said to be a power in Wall Street, and the family consists of a son and daughter, neither of whom has yet appeared, although the house is quite ready for occupancy.

“(My German teacher has arrived.)”

“January 22d.

“1. Why am I upset? For several reasons, some of which have been clouding the horizon for many years, others crashing up like a thunder-storm.

“I have for a long time past noticed a certain apathy in the social atmosphere of the little circle that formed my world. I gave up any pretensions to general New York society after my father’s death, which came at a time when the social centre was splitting into several cliques; distances increased, New Year’s calling ceased, going to the country for even midwinter holidays came in vogue, and cosmopolitanism finally overcame the neighbourhood community interest of my girlhood. People stopped making evening calls uninvited; you no longer knew who lived in the street or even next house, save by accident; the cosey row of private dwellings opposite turned to lodging houses and sometimes worse; friends who had not seen me for a few months seemed surprised to find me living in the same place. When I began to go about again, one day Cordelia Martin (she was a Bleecker your father will remember her) met me in the street and asked me to come in the next evening informally to dinner and meet her sister, an army officer’s wife, who would be there en route from one post to another, and have an old-time game of whist.

“I went, glad to see old friends, and anticipating a pleasant evening. I wore a new soft black satin gown slightly V in front, some of my best lace, and my pearl ornaments; I even wondered if the latter were in good taste at a family dinner. You know I never dwell much upon attire, but it is sometimes necessary when it is in a way epoch making.

“A butler had supplanted Cordelia’s usual cordial waitress; he presented a tray for the card that I had not brought and said ‘second story front.’ This seemed strange to me, as Cordelia herself had always come to the stairway to greet me when the door opened.

“The ‘second story front’ had been done over into a picturesque but useless boudoir, a wood floor polished like glass was dotted by white fur islands; the rich velvet carpets, put down a few years before, had in fact disappeared from the entire house. A maid, anything but cordial, removed my wrap, looking me and it over very deliberately as she did so. I wondered if by mistake I had been bidden to a grand function no, there were no visible signs of other guests.

“Not a word was spoken, so I made my way down to where the library living-room had been, not a little curious to see what would come next. Thick portieres covered the doorway, and by them stood the butler, who asked my name. Really, for a moment I could not remember it, I was so startled at this sudden ceremony in the house of a friend, of such long standing that I had jumped rope on the sidewalk with her, making occasional trips arm-in-arm around the corner to Taffy John’s little shop for molasses peppermints and ‘blubber rubbers.’

“My hesitation seemed to add to the distrust that my appearance had in some way created. The butler also swept me from head to foot with his critical stare, and at the same moment I became internally aware that I had forgotten to remove my arctic over-boots. Never mind, my gown was long, I would curl up my toes, but return to the dressing-room in full sight of that man, I whose forbears had outbowled Peter Stuyvesant, and, I fear, outdrunk him never! Then the portieres flew apart, and facing a glare of bilious-hued electric light, I heard the shouted announcement of ‘Miss Doormat’ as I stumbled over a tiger rug into the room. I believe the fellow did it on purpose. However, it was very funny, and my rubber-soled arctics probably prevented my either coasting straight across into the open fireplace, or having a nasty fall, while the laugh that the announcement created on the part of my host, Archie Martin, saved me from an awkward moment, for from a sort of gilt throne-like arrangement at one side of the hearth, arrayed in brocaded satin gowns cut very low and very long, heads crimped to a crisp, and fastened to meagre shoulders by jewelled collars, the whole topped by a group of three ‘Prince of Wales’ feathers, Cordelia and her sister came forward two steps to greet me.

“Of course, I thought to myself, they are going to a ball later on. I naturally made no comment, and we went in to dinner. The dining room was very cold, as extensions usually are, and the ladies presently had white fur capes brought to cover their exposure, while I, sitting in the draught from the butler’s pantry, was grateful for my arctics. The meal was more pretentious than edible, a strange commentary upon many delightful little four or at most five course affairs I had eaten in the same room. I soon found that there was no ball in prospect, also that Cordelia and her sister seemed ill at ease, while Archie had a look of suppressed mischief on his face, which in spite of warning signals broke forth as soon as, the coffee being served, the butler left.

“One great comfort about men is that they do not take easily to being unnatural. Archie and I, having been brought up like brother and sister from the time we went to a little mixed school over in old Clinton Hall, were always on cordial terms.

“‘Well, Lavvy,’ he began, ’I see you’re surprised at the change of base here, and I’m going to let you in on the ground floor, if Cordelia won’t. You see, Janet (she’s not in town to-night, by the way) is coming out next month, and we are getting in training for what her mother thinks is her duty toward her, or else what they both think is their duty to society, or something else equally uncomfortable.’

“‘Archie!’ remonstrated Cordelia, but he good-naturedly ignored her and continued: ’Now I want Janet to have a jolly winter and marry a good fellow when the time comes, but as we’ve got the nicest sort of friends, educated and all that, who have travelled along with us, as you have, from the beginning, why should we change our habits and feathers and try to fly for a different roost?’

“‘Archibald,’ said Cordelia, in such a tone that she was not to be gainsaid, ’Lavinia, as a woman of the world, will understand what you refuse to: that it is very important that our daughter should have the surroundings that are now customary to the social set with whom she has been educated, and into which, if she is to be happy, she must marry. If she is to meet the right people, she must be rightly presented. All her set wear low gowns at dinner, whether guests are present or not, just as much as men wear their evening dress at night and their business suits in the morning. That we have kept up our old-fogy habits so long has nothing to do with the present question.’

“’Except that I have to strain my purse to bring up everything else to suit the clothes, as naturally gaslight, a leg of mutton, and two vegetables do not make a good foreground to bare shoulders and a white vest! And I’d rather fund the cash as a nest-egg for Jenny.’

“‘Archie, you are too absurd!’ snapped Cordelia, yet more than half inclined to laugh; for she used to be the jolliest woman in the world before the spray of the Whirlpool got into her eyes.

“‘As to meeting suitable people to marry, and all that rubbish,’ pursued Archie, relentlessly, ’I was considered fairly eligible in my time, and did you meet me at any of the dances you went to, or at the Assemblies at Fourteenth Street Delmonico’s that were the swell thing in those days? No; I pulled you out of an old Broadway stage that had lost a wheel and keeled over into a pile of snow opposite father’s office, when you were practically standing on your head. You didn’t fuss, and I got to know you better in five minutes than any one could in five years of this rotten fuss and feathers.’

“’That was purely accidental, and I wish you wouldn’t mention it so often,’ said Cordelia, flushing; and so the conversation, at first playful, gradually working toward a painful dispute, went on, until my faithful Lucy came to escort me home, without our having our game of whist, that excuse for intelligent and silent companionship.”

“January 25th.

“I dwelt on that little dinner episode, my dear Barbara, because in it you will find an answer to several questions I read between your lines. Since my return I find that practically all my old friends have flown to what Archie Martin called ‘a different roost,’ or else failing, or having no desire so to do, have left the city altogether, leaving me very lonely. Not only those with daughters to bring out, but many of my spinster contemporaries are listed with the buds at balls and dinner dances, and their gowns and jewels described. Ah, what a fatal memory for ages one has in regard to schoolmates! Josephine Ponsonby was but one class behind us, and she is dancing away yet.

“The middle-aged French women who now, as always, hold their own in public life have better tact, and make the cultivation of some intellectual quality or political scheme at least the excuse for holding their salons, and not the mere excuse of rivalry in money spending.

“I find the very vocabulary altered for rest read change, for sleep read stimulation, etc, ad infin.

“Born a clergyman’s daughter of the old regime, I was always obliged to be more conservative than was really natural to my temperament; even so, I find myself at middle life with comfortable means (owing to that bit of rock and mud of grandma’s on the old Bloomingdale road that father persistently kept through thick and thin), either obliged to compromise myself, alter my dress and habits, go to luncheons where the prelude is a cocktail, and the after entertainment to play cards for money, contract bronchitis by buzzing at afternoon teas, make a vocation of charity, or stay by myself, these being the only forms of amusement left open, and none offering the intimate form of social intercourse I need.

“I did mission schools and parish visiting pretty thoroughly and conscientiously during forty years of my life, on my return an ecclesiastical, also, as well as a social shock awaited me. St. Jacob’s has been made a free church, and my special department has been given in charge of two newly adopted Deaconesses, ’both for the betterment of parish work and reaching of the poor.’ So be it, but Heaven help those who are neither rich nor poor enough to be of consequence and yet are spiritually hungry.

“The church system is necessarily reduced to mathematics. The rector has office hours, so have the curates, and they will ’cheerfully come in response to any call.’ It was pleasant to have one’s pastor drop in now and then in a sympathetic sort of way, pleasant to have a chance to ask his advice without formally sending for him as if you wished to be prayed over! But everything has grown so big and mechanical that there is not time. The clergy in many high places are emancipating themselves from the Bible and preaching politics, history, fiction, local sensation, and what not, or lauding in print the moral qualities of a drama in which the friendship between Mary Magdalene and Judas Iscariot is dwelt on and the latter adjudged a patriot. I don’t like it, and I don’t like hurrying to church that I may secure my seat in the corner of our once family pew, where as a child I loved to think that the light that shone across my face from a particular star in one of the stained-glass windows was a special message to me. It all hurts, and I do not deny that I am bitter. Those in charge of gathering in new souls should take heed how they ignore or trample on the old crop!

“So I attend to my household duties, marketing, take my exercise, and keep up my French and German; but when evening comes, no one rings the bell except some intoxicated person looking for one of the lodging houses opposite, and the silence is positively asphyxiating if they would only play an accordion in the kitchen I should be grateful. I’m really thinking of offering the maids a piano and refreshments if they will give an ‘at home’ once a week, as the only men in the neighbourhood seem to be the butchers and grocery clerks and the police. There is an inordinate banging going on in the rear of the house, and I must break off to see what it is.”

“January 3th.

“MY DEAR CHILD:

“Your second question, regarding visiting you the coming season, was answering itself the other day when I was writing. Life here, except in winter, is becoming impossible to me. I have lost not only Josephus, but my back yard! The stable where they keep the pigeons has changed hands. Yes, you were right, he did haunt the place, the postman says; and I suppose they did not understand that he was merely playful, and not hungry, or who he was, else maybe he was too careless about sitting on the side fence by the street. I could replace Josephus, but not the yard, there are no more back yards to be had; their decadence is complete. I’ve closed my eyes for years to the ash heap my neighbour on the right kept in hers; also to the cast-off teeth that came over from the ‘painless’ dentist’s on the left.

“When the great tenement flat ran up on the north, where I could, not so long ago, see the masts of the shipping in the Hudson, I sighed, and prayed that the tins and bottles that I gathered up each morning might not single me out when I was tying up my vines in the moonlight of early summer nights.

“Josephus resented these missiles, however, and his foolish habit of sitting on the low side fence under the ailantus tree then began. Next, I was obliged to give up growing roses, because, as you know, they are fresh-air lovers; and so much air and light was cut off by the high building that they yielded only leaves and worms. Still I struggled, and adapted myself to new conditions, and grew more of the stronger summer bedding plants.

“Five days ago I heard a banging and pounding. Only that morning Lucy had been told that the low, rambling carpenter’s shop, that occupied a double lot along the ’street to the southwest, had been sold, and we anxiously waited developments. We were spared long suspense; for, on hearing the noise, and going to the little tea-room extension where I keep my winter plants, I saw a horde of men rapidly demolishing the shop, under directions of a superintendent, who was absolutely sitting on top of my honeysuckle trellis. After swallowing six times, a trick father once taught me to cure explosive speech, I went down and asked him if he could tell me to what use the lot was to be put. He replied: ’My job is only to clean it up; but the plans call for a twelve-story structure, warehouse, I guess. But you needn’t fret; it’s to be fireproof.’

“‘Fireproof! What do I care?’ I cried, gazing around my poor garden or rather I must have fairly snorted, for he looked down quickly and took in the situation at a glance, gave a whistle and added: ’I see, you’ll be planted in; but, marm, that’s what’s got to happen in a pushing city it don’t stop even for graveyards, but just plants ’em in.’

“My afternoon sun gone. Not for one minute in the day will its light rest on my garden, and finis is already written on it, and I see it an arid mud bank. I wonder if you can realize, you open-air Barbara, with your garden and fields and all space around you, how a city-bred woman, to whom crowds are more vital than nature, still loves her back yard. I had a cockney nature calendar planted in mine, that began with a bunch of snowdrops, ran through hot poppy days, and ended in a glow of chrysanthemums, but all the while I worked among these I felt the breath of civilization about me and the solid pavement under my feet.

“I believe that every woman primarily has concealed in the three rounded corners of her heart, waiting development, love of home, love of children, and love of nature, and my nature love has yet only developed to the size of a back yard.

“Yes, I will come to visit you at Oaklands gladly, though it’s a poor compliment under the circumstances. The mother of twins should be gone to; but tremble! you may never get rid of me, for I may supplant Martha Corkle, the miraculous, in spoiling the boys.”

“February 1st.

“One more question to answer and this budget of letters will go to the post with at least four stamps on it, for since you have yoked me to a stub pen and begged me not to criss-cross the sheets, my bills for stamps and stationery have increased.

“Sylvia Latham is the daughter of your Bluff people. Her father’s name is Sylvester Johns Latham, and he is a Wall Street broker and promoter, with a deal of money, and ability for pulling the wires, but not much liked socially, I should judge, that is, outside of a certain commercial group.

“Mrs. Latham was, at the time of her marriage, a pretty southern girl, Vivian Carhart, with only a face for a fortune. In a way she is a beautiful woman now, has quite a social following, a gift for entertaining, and, I judge, unbounded vanity and ambition.

“Quite recently some apparently valueless western land, belonging to her people, has developed fabulous ore, and they say that she is now more opulent than her husband.

“They were pewholders at St. Jacob’s for many years, until three seasons ago, when they moved from a side street near Washington Square to ‘Millionaire Row,’ on the east side of the Park. There are two children, Sylvia, the younger, and a son, Carhart, a fine-looking blond fellow when I knew him, but who got into some bad scrape the year after he left college, a gambling debt, I think, that his father repudiated, and sent him to try ranch life in the West. There was a good deal of talk at the time, and it was said that the boy fell into bad company at his mother’s own card table, and that it has caused a chilliness between Mr. and Mrs. Latham.

“However it may be, Sylvia, who is an unspoiled girl of the frank and intellectual type, tall, and radiant with warm-hearted health, was kept much away at boarding-school for three years, and then went to college for a special two years’ course in literature. She had barely returned home when her mother, hearing that I was going abroad, asked me to take Sylvia with me, as she was deficient in languages, which would be a drawback to her social career.

“It seemed a trifle strange to me, as she was then nineteen, an age when most girls of her class are brought out, and had been away for practically five years. But I took her gladly, and she has been a most lovable companion and friend. She called me Aunt, to overcome the formal Miss, and I wish she were my daughter. I’m only wondering if her high, unworldly standpoint, absorbed from wise teachers, and the halo that she has constructed from imagination and desire about her parents during the years of her separation from them, will not embarrass them a little, now that she is at home for good.

“By the way, we met in England last spring a young sub-professor, Horace Bradford, a most unusual young man for nowadays, but of old New England stock. He was one of Sylvia’s literature instructors at Rockcliffe College, and he joined our party during the month we spent in the Shakespeare country. It was his first trip, and, I take it, earned by great self-sacrifice; and his scholarly yet boyish enthusiasm added hugely to our enjoyment.

“He spoke constantly of his mother. Do you know her? She lives on the old place, which was a farm of the better class, I take it, his father having been the local judge, tax collector, and general consulting factotum of his county. It is at Pine Ridge Centre, which, if I remember rightly, is not far from your town. I should like you to know him.

“I have only seen Sylvia twice since our return, but she lunches with me to-morrow. You and she should be fast friends, for she is of your ilk; and if this happens, I shall not regret the advent of the Whirlpool Colony in your beloved Oaklands as much as I do now.

“I am really beginning to look forward to my country visit, and am glad to see that some ‘advance season’ tops are spinning on the pavement in front of the house, and a game of marbles is in progress in my front yard itself, safe from the annoying skirts of passers-by. For you should know, dear Madam Pan, that marbles and tops are the city’s first spring sign.

“By the way, I am sure that Horace Bradford and Sylvia are keeping up a literary correspondence. They are perfectly suited to each other for any and every grade of friendship, yet from her family standpoint no one could be more unwelcome. He has no social backing; his mother is a religious little country woman, who doubtless says ‘riz’ and ‘reckon,’ and he only has what he can earn by mental effort. But this is neither here nor there, and I’m sure you and I will have an interesting summer croon in spite of your qualms and resentment of the moneyed invasion. Not another word, Lucy is waiting to take this to the post-box.

“Yours faithfully,

“LAVINIA DORMAN.

“P. S. Josephus has just come back! Lean, and singed by hot ashes, I judge. I dread the shock to him when he knows about the yard!”