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Cymric Strain

By Una Howell (USA - circa 1880)

Chapter 36 - At Home


Copyright Scott Dunbar 2010

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 CHAPTER 36

      “At Home”

The storm that had climaxed Lilly’s wedding on that last night of October seemed an appropriate finale of tear-shedding, and the morning of November first, truly the first day of winter.  Our high spirits fell to zero in a drop that was sudden and chilling.  Returning to school was prosaic and our feet dragged.  On Sunday we watched the train pull out with Mayne aboard and wept again.  The postal cards from Chicago and St. Louis began to arrive to punctuate our gloom and the bride and groom continued to occupy the front page of our interest.  The house, like the family’s spirits, was in a state of deshabille.  The petticoated portion set about at once to restore order, packing wedding presents, and replacing furniture after its wanderings over the house.  The honeymoon had to be short; Ben was needed in the store.  In two weeks when the snow was falling, the happy couple returned and settled down with Ben’s family.

          Mr. Murray, Ben’s father, was one of the most prominent men in Springfield and actively associated with its civic projects.  He had been one of its first mayors in 1871.  Young men about to embark on a business career sought his advice in the bank where he served as President.  He had a large family, five sons and two daughters, and lived in a big old-fashioned, Colonial house near the public square.  It was to this home that Ben took Lilly after their honeymoon and there she held her first formal “At Home.”

          The Murray house was on west Walnut Street almost at the back door of the shopping district.  Set far back from the street on a lawn shaded with fine old trees, it had a huge porch across the wide front.  Like all true Colonial houses a center hall divided the rooms on either side, the parlor on the left and the living room on the right.  In early American days, the parlor by thrift and custom had become the unused room of the house.  Generally speaking, only weddings and funerals could pry open its uninviting doors.  It was uniformly cold.  The Murray parlor was not only cold but large as well, an unsympathetic room.  Huge glass cases filled with stuffed tropical birds gave it an aspect of a museum which the haircloth sofa and chairs were unable to mitigate.

          The Murrays lived quietly and unostentatiously.  Mrs. Murray’s chief concern was her husband, and so far as she was able to prevent it, not a breeze was allowed to chill him.  She anticipated his wants, kept her home in order with the aid of a Negro maid, and looked after the needs of her family.  She had been born into a Presbyterian minister’s family and married Mr. Murray in California.  After moving to Springfield with true loyalty, she had united with the church of her husband’s choice and outside the home her activities centered around the Methodist Church.  She had no interest whatsoever in society.  Parties had no appeal for her and when Mr. Murray attended state functions he did so without the encouragement of her presence.  Her interest in his social life, however, never flagged and she kept a scrapbook of all his activities and gloried in his achievements.

          Having so many sons had accustomed her to pets and they ran the gamut from pigeons to Billy goats.  After Lilly and Ben joined the Murray household, Mary and I dropped in frequently to visit her.  On one of our calls we found a spaniel dying in the back yard.  We were dreadfully troubled and rushed in the house to find Mrs. Murray.

          “Mrs. Murray, the dog in the back yard is sick,”

          Mary said expecting Mrs. Murray to register a shock.

          “Yes, I know Mary, but even if he dies we have plenty more,”

          Mrs. Murray replied.

          Mary and I were horrified.  We had once owned a spaniel and lost him through death and we decided to head for home in a hurry so as not to be in at the dissolution.

          The entrance hall of the Murray house was wide and long.  At the right a cheerful living room with an open fireplace and high mantel was lighted by windows west and north.  The family so habitually occupied it that there was no need to use the more formal room on the left.  I’m sure the parlor had the shock of its life when the door was opened and figures moved about, sat on its uncompromising divans and studied the forms of decorative birds that had had their habitat in the tropics.

          In the ‘eighties’ it was customary for a lady to have a day “at home” either once a week or month, preferably every week.  Being “in” was as correct as “coming out”, and the particular day was engraved on one’s visiting card.  Callers were served tea or coffee or cakes, or if the day was warm, a cooling drink.  On these occasions the hostess wore a tea-gown.

          If you roll a negligee and a hostess gown into one and add a train, you have a tea-gown, which in its day was a glorified garment, a wrapper-de-luxe.  Lilly’s was of fine figured cashmere with chrysanthemums of the loveliest hues tossed on a rose beige background and had a pleated front panel of surah silk as green as a lover’s hopes.

          The day of her first ‘at home’ was a raw November Thursday.  The tightly-closed door of the big parlor had been opened early to allow the heat to penetrate every corner.  Flowers, bric-a-brac, and ingratiating wedding presents were distributed about the room to mellow the harsh outlines of the Puritan furniture.  Lilly unpacked her own glass and china and on a small tea table, dainty cups awaited her thirsty or cold callers.

          When the first arrival rang the old-fashioned doorbell, I was at attention, clad in my bridesmaid’s frock, to admit her and guide her to Lilly.  It was Fanny Wingate who swept through the doorway.  There was nothing lethargic about Fanny.

          “Well, Lilly how does it feel to narrow down to one male?”
         
          Said the petite belle as she breezed in, looking very smart in a new fall suit with a fancy fur neckpiece and muff.

          “Miss Wingate, I blush at your effrontery!”

          Lilly retorted with animation.

          Fanny was the town’s most sensational dresser.  One summer she had appeared on the square, in a complete scarlet outfit, even to screening her turned-up nose with a parasol of the same unmoral hue.  She was like a fire alarm at large; a revivifying sight for bored loiterers.  Half way round the square she had met Pete Ackerman, the community’s dude, equally sensationally garbed in virgin white, shoes, gloves, hat, everything.  He and Fanny exchanged bows, a wink and a laugh.

“Will it be tea or coffee, Fanny?”

Lilly asked lifting an empty cup

“Oh, tea, please.  I don’t need a bracer.  I haven’t a sin on my conscience.  I confessed them all this morning.  I’m as pure as the virgin snow.”

She finished.

“But Fanny,”

Interpolated Lilly,

“That was hours ago.  Surely you’ve not been asleep all day, now have you?”

She lifted her voice as she handed Fanny her tea.

“Suspicion haunts the guilty mind, but surely that wouldn’t be yours, Lill.”

A group of Presbyterians entered the room just then.  Fanny was not the idol of the circumspect and she cautiously moved over to examine the birds in the glass case at the other end of the room.

Judge Grawn’s wife and daughter were Father’s friends and they were paying their respects promptly and properly.  The daughter, Mabel, was younger than Lilly and with an admiring glance she said,

“Your tea-gown is lovely.  I want one but Mother thinks I’m too young.  Do you?”

She looked wistfully at Lilly, then at her prim parent, as she spoke.

“Well that depends,”

Said Lilly sparring for time. She had no intention of arousing maternal criticism unnecessarily.

“I’m sure you would be lovely in one.”

“May I pour you a cup of coffee, or will it be tea, Mrs. Grawn?”

She asked flashing her company smile with dimples on the older woman.

“Tea if you please, Lilly,”

Said the judge’s wife.

“I think your wedding was quite too beautiful,”

Mabel continued while Lilly poured her tea,

“But my, wasn’t it a stormy night?  I almost ruined my best dress.”

She was settling down for a visit.

“Your father must have been proud of you, Lilly,”

Mrs. Grawn conceded, while Lilly murmured,

“I’m afraid you’ll turn my head.”

“Come, Mabel.  Here are the Williamses and Julia Barstow and her daughter.”

Mrs. Grawn turned to greet the women approaching.

“How are you Nelly?”

And the pair were swept from hearing.  The room was filling fast and the party was going well when out of one corner of her eye Lilly saw a figure that struck terror to her heartstrings.  It was a new relation, a skeleton of the Murray closet.  Cousin Nora was capable of ruining her party, Lilly knew, and a strained look crossed her face to be succeeded by one of intense relief as she watched the older woman make a right turn into the family living room across the hall.

Lilly had been brought up to respect age but she ran into the jaws of trouble at the Murray menage.  She had entered the living room one day just at the moment that Cousin Nora had made an insulting remark to Mrs. Murray.  She could scarcely believe her ears, but there was no mistaking the situation.  Lilly’s reaction time was short and she jumped to the defense of her new mother with all her might.

“How dare you speak to Mother Murray like that!”

She burst forth, her blue eyes snapping fire.

“What’s that to you, child?”

Sneered Cousin Nora.

“It’s a lot to me and I won’t have you say such things,”

Blazed Lilly.

“Oh, you won’t?  Well, my advice to you, little girl, is to run along and play with your rag dolls.”

Contemptuously finished the sardonic relative.

Lilly was literally shocked into silence.  At that moment she intercepted a glance from Mother Murray that said,

“Do as she suggests,”

and reluctantly she backed from the room her wrath at boiling heat.  She flew up the stairs, ran into the room she and Ben occupied, and fell on the bed in a flood of tears, tears of anger and insurgence.  Vaguely, she had known that this step relation had constantly bullied her husband and the Murrays ever since she had married into the family.

The prospect of a scene at her first social attempt chilled Lilly.  It brought back, too, other stormy dialogues, and when the handsome parasite finally made her entrance at the party and in a silken voice requested a cup of tea, her affability was almost too much for the bride.  Only regards for her guests and family pride kept Lilly from spilling the liquid over her tea-gown.  With a silent prayer she pulled herself together.

People shuttled in and out for two hours, and the first day ‘at home’ chalked a high mark for the newly-initiated matron.  I was thrilled at the poise and charm of her.  I think I had expected marriage to work some miracle of change on her.  Married people were always so proper and serious.  Lilly was as eager to dance and be gay as before the minister murmured words over her and she became Mrs. Murray.  Lilly was a curious combination of sophistication and naivete.  In the consideration of family problems she seemed as old as Mother, yet when a party was in the wind she was still the butterfly Mother had always likened her to.  She had always loved dancing above every other activity with roller skating second.  Her heels seemed to do what wings do for a bird; they set her free.  Perhaps marriage had lost its deadening power, I thought.

Through the winter Ben and Lilly shared the hospitality of the Murrays.  Then in February, Brother returned from Washington.  Our friend, Mr. Abbott, had been appointed postmaster and immediately he invited Brother to become his assistant.  Though the salary was bleaker than he was accustomed to, the prospect of having an admiring family at his elbow coerced him and he accepted the offer to return.  Months before, he had taken a flier at real estate and purchased the house and lot between the Eberhart’s and ours.  It was an old property with nice trees and a fairly good cottage.  Ben and Lilly were eager to go to housekeeping, so when Mayne offered them the house next door, they joyfully invited him to make his home with them.

The arrangement seemed ideal for everybody, a sort of reunion of our forces.  When spring election parades were in full swing and chattering Flossies strolled with their callow ‘fellows’ in the mellow twilight, Ben and Lilly packed the Lares and Penates and, with a star border, set up housekeeping.  The only barrier between us was a wire fence.

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