By Una Howell (USA - circa 1880)
Chapter 32 - Charm
Copyright Scott Dunbar 2010
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Lilly, to my budding mind, was another name for charm. Lilly had a mazda mind and the verve to snap it on for a beholder. In a kerosene setting, it was a kind of fascination that went to gentlemen’s head. Looking at her, they suddenly changed their plans, if they were not tempted to a more tumultuous and impulsive impression.
Lilly’s hair was black as a crow’s wing and she had dimpled cheeks and a disturbing smile. She adored dancing and at a party was like a colorful bird darting about in rhythmic lightness. Mother used to look at her with pride and say,
“It’s a poor family that can’t support one butterfly.”
Viewed at home, however, behind the scenes, it was necessary to change the figure, for Lilly was more like the queen of an ant colony than a butterfly. When she swept into the kitchen with arms extended to make a cake or a salad, the vegetables wilted in terror and the eggs curdled in apprehension. I loved to be around when she whipped eggs. She was not averse, either, to having an errand runner.
“Una, do you want to help me bake a cake?”
she’d say. When I assented she’d issue her orders.
“Then run down to the grocery and get me a nice fresh coconut. Be sure you shake it and make certain that it has milk inside. You can hear it gurgle if it’s fresh.”
And as quick as lightning, she would measure butter and sugar into a bowl, then sit on the doorstep while she creamed them with her strong, shapely hands.
“Are you going to have company tonight?”
I would inquire before departing.
she’d say with a flirtatious smile.
I would persistently ask.
“Maybe, if there’s a moon,”
she would admit, and off I would run. When I returned with the brown, hairy egg, she would crack it with a hatchet and then energetically grate the snowy white into the bowl till it could be sprinkled over soft icing. Lilly was an expert cake baker. She had even taken a prize at the fair which she had given to me, since it was a gold ring.
When the serenaders, came, by the light of the moon, Mary and I crept out of bed and peeked through the dark windows.
“Come where my love lies dreaming.”
“Stars of the summer night”
were allowed to cast their spell before Lilly, crisp and sparkling, unbolted the door and the singers filed in for their frosted honoraria. Lilly treated her males with hungered consideration.
My first awareness of her as a full-grown belle occurred one night as she stood in front of the mirror in our spare bedroom, putting the final touches to her pink satin evening gown. I looked her over critically as she touched her cheeks with a moist red paper fan. Rouge was forbidden but there were tricks known to the artful and Lilly had achieved a reputation for appled cheeks she was loath to relinquish. Her brows were delicately curved and very black, and as I looked her up and down, I was sure that the Jersey Lily who was said to be the most beautiful woman in America, was but a pale imitation of our own Lilly.
Lilly had undoubtedly caused males to be seized with pains of domesticity long before I discovered her, but prior to that moment I had regarded her as Mother’s helper (she was nine years older than I) who on festive occasions decked me in party raiment and delivered me at some youngster’s celebration. Once too, at her instigation, I had been spanked for mortifying her. We never said embarrassing in those days. I remember crawling under Father’s library table to cry, where I sat on the center board until Brother came and coaxed me out.
“You’ll be a good girl, won’t you, Lovey?”
he asked, and sponsored by him I had returned to favor and the table. Today I haven’t an idea what my offense was though I probably did at the time.
Lilly was so pretty and wore her clothes so well that even the birds knew it. When the Perkin’s Opera House was opened, Father bought tickets for us girls to attend a matinee performance of the ‘Chimes of Normandy.’ It was a very special dedication and Lilly had a new costume suit made for her at the shop. It was of dark green silk and wool cashmere trimmed with moire changeable rose and green matching silk. The jacket of the dress had a large flat silk-lined hood that rested between her shoulder blades and was beautifully tailored. Her hat was an extreme walking form with a large blackbird on it, the shape covered with changeable velvet to match the dress. Mary and I had new outfits too, but Lilly’s was the striking one and we were proud to accompany one who was bound to arouse admiration.
As we set out on foot, looking to wave at Mother who stood at the window, we were smug with delight of anticipation. In front of the Eberhart’s place was a large oak tree that had been part of their lawn till the street was widened. Then, rather, than sacrifice it, the city fathers had curved the sidewalks to avoid the roots. We were stepping gaily as we walked under the old oak tree bound for the opera. Operas were scarce in our young lives. On the top branch of the oak tree said an old crow. Perhaps he didn’t relish the evidences of self-satisfaction that we exuded, or the blackbird on Lilly’s hat might have excited his wrath. At any rate he let fall devastation. With a loud plop Lilly’s hood suddenly took a load that looked as if the plasterer had unexpectedly dropped his hod, and with rapid heel-clicks we all went into reverse.
Mother had the door open when we arrived and we all stood about in consternation while she administered first aid with a bath towel accompanied by excited ‘ohs.’ Then we all had a good laugh and began our peregrinations over again.
Lilly was petite. In High School she ranked among the first three of four in scholarship and loved the competitive rivalry. Her essays were always first and seldom completed before Sunday midnight to be read at eight o’clock Monday morning. If one star had already been given before her turn came, she invariably pulled down two. Just how much psychological rather than literary values dominated is difficult to state.
Males trailed her as bees the flowers. One day one of them asked me what I meant to do when I was a young lady. Without a moment’s hesitation I replied,
“I’m going to give parties, have beaux, and get married like my sister.”
Since Lilly was not engaged at the time, my reply was stimulating.
Lilly’s beaux represented a fair cross section of the young men of the town and I knew quite a bit about them from my intimate post as her messenger de luxe. In fact I was in possession of more facts than any member of the family. When the bell rang portentously, I had a way of slipping in before Lilly appeared. Sometimes, she sent me to announce that ‘she would be down soon.’ I was supposed to be too young and unsophisticated to need watching, but I am convinced that there my family underrated my talents. Adult vocabularies may have been steep for my I.Q. but I had eyes to catch expressions, and ears to hear the mellowing of voices, and my imagination filled in the gaps. When Lilly finally descended the staircase, I was hot on her heels to observe the glorified look of her escort when he first espied her. By such means, I learned to pigeonhole and appraise her admirers. Ambitious ones found it to their advantage to bring me gifts and feed me and those attentions were made easy when I carried notes for them. Occasionally one of them gave me a ride in his runabout but that was usually for the purpose of losing me. Once when I accompanied her downtown we bumped into a boyfriend. He gave one look at me; then he said:
“We’ll take your little sister home and take big sister for a ride.”
He did too, and I never liked him from that moment. He held an important position in one of the banks and was considered a fine ‘up and coming’ young man. He was so ‘up and coming’ that he was soon up and gone, for one day in an acquisitive mood, he helped himself to the bank’s funds and went up to Jefferson City to live for a time. I wasn’t exactly glad that he went to prison but I didn’t grieve over his absence.
Will Whittaker was another chap whose likeness looked down from the side of Lilly’s mirror. It was a dashing type of face and below it were printed the insolent words, ‘Please wait for me.’ He was a traveling salesman and no doubt the phrase was a business device to catch trade, but to my fertile brain it carried a much more exciting and romantic connotation. When I paged him at the wholesale grocery that paid his salary, he gave me all the candy and nuts that I could carry. They were no doubt the company’s nuts, but I had no scruples in such cases and Mr. Whittaker for gastronomic reasons, rated high with me.
For a long time I believe that Lilly gave scant thought to settling her affections on any particular beau with the view of marrying him. She merely enjoyed being popular. Yet by a stroke of fate, unconsciously her affections were fastening with a tenacious hold on one. The particular meddling of Fate that might not bear investigation had to do with the pitchforking of two young people into the same seat in High School. The Freshman class that year was larger than the desk capacity and Ben and Lilly were asked to occupy a double seat temporarily. After school the teacher interviewed Lilly.
“Lilly, do you think your mother would object to your sitting with Ben all the time? He’s a very nice boy.”
“I’m sure I don’t know. I could ask her.”
“You don’t mind do you, Lilly?”
Miss Barnes inquired.
“Not in the least.”
Said Lilly with excitement creeping into her voice.
“Well, you find out and let me know tomorrow, will you?”
“Yes, Miss Barnes, I will.”
Lilly agreed and hurried home.
Previously Miss Barnes had sought Ben’s consent, though she didn’t require him to ask his mother. It probably wouldn’t have done much good anyway for Ben’s admiration for Lilly was of too long standing for him to risk any chances of frustration. As a matter of fact, it had dated from his sixteenth birthday when one of his chores led him past our house. Ben’s family lived in town but his father owned several farms and each morning he rode horseback to the country and drove the cows in to town to be milked, returning them at night. As he passed out house his eyes were sharpened to catch a glimpse of Lilly as she threw out the dishwater.
Mother was a little nonplussed at Miss Barnes’ request but she made no objection to the plan. Once the partnership was formed, it continued throughout High School whether or not the Board of Education provided enough seats and in their spare time, or in surreptitiously stolen moments, they carried on an illuminating correspondence. What went on during school hours I was unable to follow, for although I carried many notes I never peeped inside the envelopes.
Ben was curly haired and smiling, and he treated me as if I were a lady. In the summers he worked either in his father’s bank or at the shoe store. Since the bank windows were so high that I had difficulty pushing my billet-doux through the tiny opening, I much preferred him to stick with the shoe business.
Christmas was my El Dorado. If I decided I had been neglected, someone’s loss was another’s gain. And I exercised my power.
When our house was built, the walls were left with a smooth white finish and when it became necessary to paper them, Lilly, who used the parlor most, conceived the idea of letting us write on the smooth walls for a week or so before the decorators were due. The scheme was a smart one and netted her quite a bit for it was less permanent than an autograph album. The temptation to be frank was greater. Her admirers were delighted and welcomed the opportunity to inscribe extravagant eulogies to her in bold script. Each morning I would hurry downstairs to search the walls for fresh inscriptions and to see what new follies had been committed overnight.
Houses have a way of accumulating intimate material. Walk into an empty one and you feel something of the spirit of the people whose feet wore away the floors or peered through its windows in moments of joy or grief. Our walls certainly accumulated intimate material for a week then prosaic paperhangers ceiled the callow indiscretions under paste and paper.
Cymric Strain, by Una Howell (USA - circa 1880)
Chapter 1 - Introduction
Chapter 2 - Father
Chapter 3 - Dartmouth
Chapter 4 - Killolog
Chapter 5 - America
Chapter 6 - Arrival
Chapter 7 - Gracious Living
Chapter 8 - I Am Born
Chapter 9 - My Name
Chapter 10 - Neighbors
Chapter 11 - The Cyclone
Chapter 12 - The Old Cemetary
Chapter 13 - Music
Chapter 14 - Religion
Chapter 15 - The Circuit
Chapter 16 - Hero No. 1
Chapter 17 - Pageantry
Chapter 18 - Mommy
Chapter 19 - Mental Quirks
Chapter 20 - Decoration
Chapter 21 - Domestic Animals
Chapter 22 - Episode
Chapter 23 - Barn Life
Chapter 24 - Vanities
Chapter 25 - Happy Hollow
Chapter 26 - New Horizons
Chapter 27 - Disciplines
Chapter 28 - An Experimenter
Chapter 29 - Health
Chapter 30 - Murder
Chapter 31 - Misunderstandings
Chapter 32 - Charm
Chapter 33 - Problems
Chapter 34 -Coming Events, Etc.
Chapter 35 - The Wedding
Chapter 36 - At Home
Chapter 37 - Cross Currents
Chapter 38 - A Baby
Chapter 39 - Dr. Winston
Chapter 40 - The Visitor
Chapter 41 - Buffetings
Chapter 42 - Agenda
Chapter 43 - David
Chapter 44 - Exit