Evanston was far from being the swank and cosmopolitan suburb it is today, when on that September morning the conductor called “Evingston” and we stared through the car windows at the level streets that were to “pinch-hit” for the Ozarks. Quiet reigned everywhere. Sleepy and weather-beaten horses hitched to cabs drooped in their harness as their drivers barked “Cab, sir?” at newly arrived passengers. Our party was to disembark at a sub-station back of the Boker House, so we kept our seats and strained our necks to see as much as possible of the college town Mrs. Boker had so glowingly painted for us.
Automobiles had not come off the assembly lines at that date , but smart-looking equipages, complete with coachmen and livery, moved about the streets with impressive elegance. And from the car windows we could see one of the two dry goods stores that supplied the small items necessary to a citizenry that shopped in Chicago.
Lake Michigan was the feature we were most eager to see, coming as we did from a hot inland town. In those days the lake sometimes achieved the front pages of newspapers by surging over boathouses, damaging small craft, and sending thin geysers of spray high over the long, thin breakwaters.
Mary and I gathered our baggage together preparatory into getting off the train and in a few minutes we were trekking over the prairie humps to the new home where three of the six girls Mother was expected to chaperone were already installed. We parked the baggage and inquiries with cooperative discretion, still Cinderella-dazed at the winter prospects.
Our transition from existence in one state to life in another was accomplished almost overnight. Bertha, our Missouri cook, slipped into the new situation with protesting despatch after a critical survey of the Boker flat-silver and furnishings. “Oh well, the rugs are good,” was her laconic comment, lest mother consider her too easily pleased with the change in environment.
The interior of the Boker House was light and well furnished. Mrs. Boker was a woman of taste who never bought a second grade anything. Paintings and etchings graced the walls. Oriental rugs hugged the waxed floors and comfortable easy chairs gave the room an air of informality. Best of all, there was a hot air furnace which promised warm hands foe practicing. The piano, which occupied a corner of the front parlour, was a Chickering. I lost no time in making its acquaintance, and a wave of thankfulness swept over me for the new door of opportunity which had opened wide.
The glimpses Mother had had of the World’s Fair had made her eager to share it with others, and our trunks were scarcely unpacked before she wrote to various relatives urging them to come and see its splendours before our rooms were filled with aspiring students. They arrived promptly and their stays were brief, but we were wildly happy as we tramped the white gravel of its thoroughfares with them. The beauty and atmosphere of that Columbian Exposition still echo down the years, and it was little wonder that to two small-town girls, passing through its turnstiles was like gliding through the Gates of Paradise.
Sightseeing was quickly superseded by school excitements, and a personal call from Mrs. John Jacob Astor could not have evoked more beaming smiles from me than the opening of the university. Living in a house crammed with attractive girls was a new and fascinating experience and my animation touched a threatening high. All of them were members of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority and I was at the proper age to absorb their sales talk. In fact, I was convinced that theirs was the only wholly desirable sorority on the campus and that when heaven was included in their itineraries, Saint Peter glimpsing their tiny, jewelled keys would throw the pearly gates wide open and give them special service.
With the exception of the College Cottage where the girls cooked and swept and peeled potatoes, the Woman’s Hall, later designated Willard Hall, provided the only dormitory for women at the university. That meant that practically every room in the north and adjacent to the campus housed at least one student, Boarding houses abounded, but girls found it more awkward than men to knock about for meals. So Mrs. Boker had made her proposal to Mother. In addition to housing the girls, Mother found it expedient to take men students also for meals and, when she had signified her willingness, one law student and three liberal artsers answered the call. Mary’s and my pet peeves were boarders, but our particular group was so nice that we forgave Mother. Almost regularly before studying began at night, we had either music or a round of cards. Bill Plow played the guitar in the college with banjo and mandolin and was devoted to light opera. He brought scores of Robin Hood and Gilbert and Sullivan operas and we sang solos and choruses with verve and enthusiasm. The after an hour or so the crowd would melt away, doors would close, notebooks would appear on study tables and quiet would drop its spell on our household.
Letters came frequently from Springfield, but Missouri seemed the most remote spot on the globe to me. I was determined to let nothing interfere with my pianistic abilities, and days when I did not practice four hours set heavily on my conscience.
There was no question but that Mrs. Boker had taken my career seriously and she returned to Evanston to initiate me when the university doors swung open. She had definitely convinced Mother of her ability to steer my course, and Mother had figuratively signed on the dotted line and committed me to her judgments. I was to carry a full music schedule at a private institution and register at the Northwestern Academy for as many studies as I could manage. Since our first duty was to convince the director of the music school that I was desirable material, as soon as she arrived we set out for the studio and, as we covered the distance, Mrs. Boker regaled me with tales of his virtuosity. His tutelage might have ended happily too, but for a slight slip.
I had played several numbers for him; he had complimented my playing and praised my hands, reaching over to articulate each finger (a gesture far from my liking); a schedule had been arranged and financial matters settled. I was to begin work at once. As Mrs. Boker walked matter-of-factly through the door, she said in a crisp, business like voice, “Una is just a child, and I hope you will treat her as such.” The man turned and gave me a searching look and my face burned under his scrutiny. After all, I was seventeen, even if I did occasionally see fit to wear a braid down my back.
I did some steep thinking as we walked home that afternoon, and of one thing I was certain – I did not like Evanston’s brand of teacher, though I knew there was little I could do about it. If I kept to the hours arranged, I should be in his rooms every day, and I had observed well how dark and untenanted they were.
When we reached home Mother was busy and it was sometime later when we were alone that she asked, “How do you like your music teacher, Dear?”
“I hate him,” I replied with disheartening candour.
“Why?” she asked, and when no answer was forthcoming she said, “That’s just a childish prejudice.”
It might have been, but eight weeks later I returned from a lesson, threw my books on the couch and in a high-pitched voice announced that “I’ll never return to that school if I never learned another note of music.”
Mother was panicked. She was so stunned that she was mute, My description of the Herr Director’s studio strewn with empty liquor bottles, his whiskied breath and effulgent manner, must have been tops, dramatically. Mother, in direct violation of an ingrained principle that forbade writing a letter when she was angry, composed a blistering indictment to the professor, and the searing severance of my connection with the school went swiftly and devastatingly to its objective. In true Missouri style, she told him that he should thank his lucky stars that my brother was not at hand to mete out what he deserved. (To those who knew Maynard, a horsewhip in his hand would have been a comical sight, but a letter-getter couldn’t know that.)
Mother felt better after her effort. She had a fine catharsis, but I hated the melodrama I had provoked and implored her to keep still about the whole thing. I knew too well how awkward the situation would be when all the young people found out that I had left the school. The episode sounded as if I thought I was just too alluring to be at large, whereas quite the reverse was true. I felt culpable in spite of Mother’s belief that it was all her fault for not having accompanied me on that first visit to the studio. The problem now was what to do with me.
Dinner and the round of cards that night slipped by without Mother divulging anything, but after a day or so it became all too apparent that I was not attending classes, and Bill Plow asked for an explanation Bill had become interested in me. He had had scores from the banjo club’s repertoire copied for me, and I had pulled out my old banjo and played with him. He was also an admirer of Peter Lutkin, director of the university’s music department, and he immediately set out to sell me on the idea of transferring to that school. Mrs. Boker was in Springfield, Mother was in need of advice, and she liked Bill. So she responded to his suggestion.