THE DAY OF AUNT SARAH'S WEDDING
The condition of our affairs was that after the great and terrible epidemic of yellow fever we had lived in Knoxville for two years, and now we were come home. Probably we had prospered mildly there, or had great hopes of the return to Chattanooga. Whichever it was, Papa and Mama expected to buy a lot and build a house, and have new and fine furniture for it, and so, in Knoxville they had inventoried their goods (I have one of the printed copies of it that they had distributed, in one of my scrapbooks) and everything that any one would buy had been sold, and the only furniture we now had was what no one would buy.
So, we had been to Tate Spring and then to the Natural Bridge House on Lookout Mountain, and while there, Papa had found the house on the side of Lindsay Street, and on that day, the 2nd of November, 1880, we were in it. There was no paving, hardly any grading, on the whole of Brabson Hill, and Lindsay Street was terrible. Wide, rough, gravelly, steep, and with no indication of where the roadway stopped, and the part that should have been sidewalk began. The lot that house stood in had been graded though, and the whole of it fenced. There was a sharp slope five or six feet high, and then a terrace about 40 feet wide, on which the house stood, and then another lift of ground to another terrace, and so on, up to the corner. The whole was covered with a spindling growth of little trees of one sort and another--the whole of Brabson Hill had been shaved as bare as a man's chin during the months that the Confederates held the town, during which the Brabson house was Bragg's headquarters, but now Uncle David had bought it; and later when the Union forces had won Chattanooga and Gen. Thomas had thrown up breast works right across the top of the Hill on what was afterward our lot--and on the terrace next to the house was a scrubby growth of bushes that were waist high, that is, waist high measured by Bianca and me.
The house was horrible; no light, no water, with no plan any more than that of a dry goods box. There was a narrow little hall in the middle, with the stairs starting up on one side of it, close to the front door. On one side of this hall was a largish, square room, and in that had been set up Mama's bedroom set, and my old crib for Wallie, and Bianca's old cradle for Lovey [Ernestine's younger brother, see http://patphil.com/Noa/noa.html]. That bedroom set was as ugly as sin, and no one had wanted it at the sale in Knoxville, but all of us except Lovey had been born in that bed, and I saw Papa die in it, and then Mama, and now I suppose I shall die in it, one of these days, for when I sold everything I could when I vacated Ararat, no one wanted that, and I sleep in it every night of my life. Ugly as it is, I like it.
Across the hall was a room of the same size and shape for a parlor. On the mantel was the French gilt clock with the young Count sitting on the top of what probably was a wine barrel, and in one hand he held a bunch of grapes, and in his wrist there was a break, a wound, and the clock stood under a glass dome. On one side of the fireplace stacked against the wall were the pictures, the French steel engravings in their ebony and gilt frames, Cornelia and the Gracchi, and The Rape of Lucretia, and whatever other pictures there were. On the other side was Mama's desk, uncrated, but wrapped with papers and string. On the opposite wall was the whatnot. Round the edges of the floor were some small boxes containing our very few books. In the middle of the bare floor stood half a dozen arm- and straight chairs, also uncrated but all wound round with paper and string.
Along the side of the stairway in the hall were rolls of body brussels carpets, wrong side out, each roll tied up tightly with heavy twine. Back of the parlor was a room in which three beds had been set up, mine along the parlor wall, Bianca's opposite, under the window, and, on the hall side, Annie's [see http://www.patphil.com/ANNIE.html for more about this remarkable woman]. The hall ended in a room which was the dining room, and in it were the sideboard (nobody would ever buy that old monstrosity, but how happy Annie was to have it eight years ago!) and a kitchen table, and some barrels of dishes, and some boxes; and back of that was a kitchen. There were rooms upstairs but they were empty.
I have no idea how few or how many days we had been there, but it cannot have been long, considering the state everything was in.
Did I say that it was a real Indian Summer day? The sun was smoky, the air was balmy. It must have been the middle of the morning.
Erne and Bianca Loveman
Mama was sitting by Bianca's bed. She was sewing something. The beds were made and on Bianca's was one of those cheap honeycomb spreads that always felt so common to me. Bianca and Wallie were out in the back yard where there was a little peach orchard. (The next summer we found the orchard was full of passion flowers.) Annie was in the kitchen with Lovey who was sitting in his high chair. Annie was singing Mr. Frog to him, and, so that Sally K. may teach it to her little Harvey, if she knows the tune, I shall copy it here the way Annie taught it to us:
Mistuh Frawg wint a co'tin' he did ride,
Mistuh Frawg wint a co'tin', he did ride,
With a swode an' a pistul by his side,
He rode up to Miss Mousey's hall,
He rode up to Miss Mousey's hall.
First he knocked and then he call',
He say, "Miss Mousey, will you be my bride?"
She say, "Not without Uncle Rat's consint,
I would not marry the pri-si-dint".
Annie was stirring something in a bowl.
"What are you making, Annie?"
"Layovers to ketch meddlers."
I dare say I sighed. All these years and years and years I had been trying to find out what a layover was. She never would tell me, and, of course, no one else knew.
So Uncle Rat laughed and sugar fat sides,
So Uncle Rat laughed and sugar fat sides,
To think his niece would be a bride.
Whey shell the weddin' suppuh be?
Whey shell the weddin' suppuh be?
Way down yonduh in the old holluh tree,
What shell the weddin' suppuh be?
What shell the weddin' suppuh be?
A slice of cake and a cup of tea.
Put the bridle and the saddle on the shelf,
Put the bridle and the saddle on the shelf,
If you want any mo' you kin sing it you'self,
Then Aunt Sarah came. Long afterward I was told that they called her "the beauty of East Tennessee". But I never could see why Middle and West Tennessee were discriminated against, for she really was the most beautiful little thing that ever lived. From her little high-arched feet up to the top of her perfectly set and flawless head she was beautiful. When she blushed, which was often for she was both modest and shy, her pure olive skin took on a warm glow like the inside of an Indian peach under gauze. You could look down, down, down, into her liquid eyes farther than into the deepest well. When she smiled her delicate lips and perfect mouth just moved enough to show the little pearly teeth within. Her elbows were dimpled and so were her shoulders, and when she lay asleep in bed with a little half smile on her lips, and her smooth, soft, black hair spread on the pillow, I knew that when the Prince found his Beauty and kissed her awake she was the image of Aunt Sarah. And I know exactly how she looked asleep, for, beginning with the time, before Knoxville, when we lived on Walnut Street, I used to creep into her room every morning, and look at her. And then I would climb into her bed, and she would wake, and we would fix the pillows, and she would take the Poetry book from the table beside her and read to me. I do not know how much of her time she lived with us--she lived with Grandma and Uncle Dave, really--but she was with us just as often and just as long as we could get her. The first poem was always Lochinvar, and I knew that Fair Ellen was not as lovely as Aunt Sarah. The next was The Bridge of Sighs, and then and forever after when I thought of the line, "Fashioned so slenderly, young and so fair", I said to myself, Aunt Sarah. Then she read The Song of the Shirt. You must not ask me what produced that choice by me. I do not know. But every morning I had to hear those three, and then as many more as there was time for before Annie dragged me away to be washed and dressed. For me Aunt Sarah was Perdita and Titania and Viola, and she was Snow White and Dorothil Goase and Cinderella, and she was Nourmahal, and I felt exactly like the Prince who
Preferred in his heart the least ringlet that curled
Down her exquisite neck, to the throne of the world.
It isn't too much to say that wherever Aunt Sarah was that spot immediately became "a bower of roses by Bendemeer's stream".
She came into that room where Mama sat sewing by the bed. She had on a blue and white dress trimmed with quantities of lace, insertion, and edging. I suppose it was just a dress--she made every stitch that she had to wear--but I have never forgotten how bewitching she looked in it or how lovely I thought it.
She said she wanted to talk to Mama. She sat down on the bed.
"Go away, Erne," said Mama.
I did not want to go away. I said, however, that I'd go as soon as I found something in the closet that I had to have. I crawled into the closet and hoped they would forget me. They began to talk and Mama looked very serious, and then she laughed, and then Aunt Sarah said something else, and threw herself down across the bed, in her blue and white dress, on the white honeycomb spread, and the sun shone out strong and clear on her, and I wish you could have seen her as I saw her then, and as I can see her now. Mama said something and they both giggled, and I was infuriated--I could not hear one word. I must have moved, for Mama looked round and saw a plump leg sticking out of the shallow closet, for I had not been able to crawl all the way in. The Mama said,
"Ernestine, will you go away!"
And when they said Ernestine I knew I had to go, so I took my book--it was there all the time, of course--and went.
Outside Bianca and Wallie [Ernestine's sister and older brother] were sliding down the terrace nearest to the house and they wanted me to come too, but if I could not hear the secrets that were being whispered in the house I wanted to read. I had lately come into possession of a fat, dark blue book, marked with gilt letters, Poems of Thomas Moore, and I was saturated with it, drugged by it, I could not let it out of my hands. Lovey was newly two, then, Wallie a few weeks past four, Bianca six and I nearly nine. I scorned sliding down terraces. But I did, sometimes, condescend to join the children.
Next the terrace, on the house level, was a large, high shrub, its leaves still glossy and thick. Not until the next Spring were we to know that it was a "fire bush" (Japanese quince). It was perfect for my affairs. At a certain angle, with my book placed close to the trunk, under the spreading branches, and with my person disposed, stomach down, toward the terrace, I could lie there and read; I could see whoever came or went, and, except from the top of the terrace, no one could see me. It was my place of sanctuary all thru the springs, summers, and falls of the three years we lived in that house.
Aunt Sarah went away, and Mama called us all to come to her. Bianca and Wallie went. When they did not at once return, I turned over my page, read a few more enthralling stanzas, and then went to see if anything interesting were afoot. They were all three in the parlor. Mama, with her scissors, was rapidly cutting all the strings that bound the legs and arms of the chairs and desk, and the children were pulling away the papers and gathering them in a heap. When we had finished, Annie came and swept the floor.
Papa came home and we had dinner. It was spread upon the kitchen table in the dining room and all of us except Lovey sat on boxes. Lovey had his high chair. After dinner Mama took the baby away for his nap. Papa went away. We three returned to our reading and play. Mama dressed and went out. Bianca was so engrossed that she forgot it was her "turn" to go with Mama, who never would take both of us at once, but was nearly always willing for one of us to go with her. We did rigid bookkeeping on our "turns".
A drayman came with a load of crated objects. Without asking Annie, or, indeed, stopping for instructions, he piled them on the plot of grass in front of the parlor window, and went his way.
When Mama came back she was put out about the muss. She said that she and Annie would have to carry the crates out to the back; but when they tried they could not get them thru the hall on account of the rolls of carpet, or round the house because the passage between the house and the edge of the terrace was too narrow, and the first crate they tried to lift through stuck between the edge of the porch rail and the slope. Mama was cross and not as jolly as she usually was. I knew it was because of the secrets she and Aunt Sarah had been telling in the morning, but I cannot say how I knew.
After a while I went back to the kitchen to see if Annie knew anything, but she was talking to Jinny Cooper, who had turned up with the wash. Jinny Cooper had been our washwoman on Walnut Street, and we were deeply attached to her goat which she had hitched to a little "express wagon", and which she drove round to her clients to gather and return the washes she did. Annie was fluting. I wish I could remember how the fluting iron worked or what it looked like. All I can see is the little iron rods, which, heated red hot in the stove, were fitted into orifices in the fluting iron, and Annie always did the fluting. Some ruffles were always fluted and some never were, and we always wanted to wear the fluted dresses. I looked at Annie and I knew that she knew something, but even if Jinny Cooper had not been there, I could not have asked questions, because her face was working. When Annie was tired, or cross, or bothered, or in a hurry, or agitated, she clamped her teeth together in her right cheek, and across it a nerve worked up and down, up and down. That nerve bothered me from the very dawn of infant observation, and seven years had taught me that she was not to be cajoled or bullied when that little nerve was lifting, falling, lifting, falling, in her cheek.
So I just said, "Annie, can we have - "
And Annie said, "There it is, on that plate. Don't drop it, now."
There were three thick slices of bread smeared with butter and dark brown sugar. I took the three slices in my hand, to save carrying back the plate, and went out.
"Come on, Erne, come on. We're platting Mr. Joe Mitchell's beard," called Bianca, as she and Wallie took their bread and butter.
The grass on the slope of that terrace was the longest I have ever seen, and, sure enough, they were taking tufts of it and braiding them into long plaits that did remind us of our intimate friend in Knoxville, Mr. Joe Mitchell. He was a man of substance and president of the First National Bank, but to us he was just Mr. Joe Mitchell of the beard. At Appomattox he had sworn never again to cut it, and it had grown down to his waist. As a concession to social usage he wore it inside his shirt. Early in our acquaintance he had taken us, one on each knee, loosened his collar and tie, opened his neckband, divided his beard into two portions with his fingers, and let us "plat" it as often as we liked. We used to run eagerly when Maud came to take us to their house so that we could plat Mr. Joe Mitchell's beard.
"We've got to climb up on thith terrath," said Bianca. She had two teeth out, and she lisped anyhow, and didn't like it. "Thereth thomething up there. Come on!" She seized my hand and pulled, but I would not go. I went back to my book, and tho she continued, from time to time, to come and tug at me, I would not go and she would not go alone.
The afternoon wore away and Papa came home to supper. When he saw the pile of crates he was delighted. He said it was the new dining room table and chairs from Cincinnati, and that he would at once begin to unpack them. Mama said he must not unpack them in the front yard, and he asked why not, and she would not tell him. And he explained in his nice way that if he stopped to carry them round to the back it would just waste time, but that if she had a reason, he would do as she wished. Mama would not give him a reason. They had quite an argument and Mama was hot and he was cool, and laughed at her and called her a little goose, which was all he ever did when she was in her rages. All the time of the argument Papa was taking off his coat and collar and tie and vest and rolling up his sleeves and looking for the hammer, and we were hopping round him, wanting to help. He unpacked two chairs before supper and he said the ones who carried away the wrapping and spilled the least paper, could sit on the chairs at supper, and, of course, Bianca and I won, and then Papa said why didn't one of us let Wallie have her chair because he was so much smaller than we, and I daresay Bianca let him, but I can't remember.
All thru supper Mama kept demanding that the remaining crates be carried away from the front yard, and Papa kept saying that if there were any reason for the extra trouble he would, but that without sufficient cause he would continue his unpacking as long as the light lasted. Once, I remember, Bianca, with her mouth full, said, "Thereth thomething on the terrath," but no one noticed her, and we finished supper and Papa returned to his unpacking, and Bianca and I with him. Wallie set up a roar because Mama took him and Lovey right away to be put to bed, and Bianca and I were enraged when, presently, Annie called us in. We were so full of the unfairness of being called away from the fascinations of the uncrating, and of the unequaled injustice of being put to bed long before dark, that I forgot my book. The next morning I was to find it lying open under the fire bush. In a few weeks it will be fifty-eight years since the night when Thomas Moore was left out in the night damp, and it stands on the shelf mutely reproachful, with its dark blue binding all faded and blistered, the gilt on the title almost washed away, and if the book is allowed to do so it opens at the page, blistered too, and discolored, where I had been reading:
So felt the magnificent son of Achbar,
When from power and pomp and the trophies of war
He flew to that valley, forgetting them all
With the Light of the Harem, his young Nourmahal.
With jerks and protests from us, Annie washed us and took our clothes off. And then something happened. Instead of nightgowns she put clean clothes on us. We just looked at each other. When we were re-socked and re-shoed and clean-petticoated, she poured fresh water in the bowl, found the brush and drumstick, set Bianca face-out on her lap, and curled her hair. Then she stood me between her knees and combed and brushed and spread out my hair, and then she put us into clean, fluted dresses and best hair ribbons and sashes. No questions availed, no importunities broke her silence, and the nerve was working in her cheek. As soon as we were finished she took us out in the hall, and on the roll of carpet that was immediately opposite the parlor door, she plumped us down hard and bade us, on pain of instant and complete annihilation, sit still. Our dresses in those days were almost all waist, the skirt part being some four or five inches short, and when a person was set down hard on the outside of a roll of carpet, with nothing to shield her little Fanny but one thin layer of cambric, the wiry little squares that formed the warp of the carpet printed themselves on her softness and hurt. I can always feel them now, just by thinking of that time. In two shakes of a lamb's tail Annie was back with her dress changed and a best apron on. She sat herself down between us, took a hand of each in hers, and again bade us be still.
Mama came out of her room. Papa hammered away at his crates. We sat on the roll of carpet. Grandma and Uncle Herman came in at the gate.
We loved Uncle Herman. He was so handsome. So debonair. He told such matchless stories.
"Hello, Stinechen," he said. "Hello, Binkie. Good evening, Annie." There was a sly look in his merry brown eyes. Under his long mustache his lips quivered into a smile.
We loved Grandma, too, but in a different way. She was always making something for us; she had lately knitted our first black silk long stockings; she was teaching me to sew--against Mama's will. Mama wanted us to climb and run and play outside; she did not want us to sew. But if Grandma said I was to sew, Mama let me sew. Grandma had given me a little thimble. I had lost it, and, just since we had come home, she had brought me another--a little larger, she said, for me to grow into. "B.L. to E." Through all the changes, moves, losses, joys and sorrows of nearly sixty years, the little thimble has stoutly resisted the mutations of time. Presently I shall give it to Jim's little Bianca so that she may learn to sew with it on her little finger. But, Grandma wasn't any fun, if you know what I mean. She was never jolly and she could be grim. Her pretty blue eyes could look like steel with sparks shooting out, and her mouth could set itself into a tight line so that she did not appear to have any lips. That was the way she looked now. She did not speak to us. She did not speak to Mama. She walked into the parlor, spread her wide black silk shirts, and sat down.
A carriage drove to the gate and old Mrs. Crutchfield got out.
When Papa saw her he was at last conquered. He spoke to her, apologized for his appearance, and followed her into the house.
Old Mrs. Crutchfield was very red in the face. She said to Mama, who met her in that ridiculous little hall, "I am very nervous. I have to empty my bladder." Mama took her away.
"Annie, what did she say?"
"Hyshe," said Annie.
"But, Annie, what was that word she said?"
"Hyshe! 'Twasn't anything."
"Was it a bad word?"
"Don't you ever let me ketch you saying it. Hyshe, now!"
"Is it as bad as the worst word?"
The worst word, the very worst word, was the one Annie had taught us never to say, never to think, never, if we could prevent it, to let any one say to us. It was the word that meant "colored person". We never said it. It is too late, now that she is dead, for me to tell her that I have never in my life even written the worst word. Poor Annie, it hurt her so, as all members of persecuted minorities are hurt, wounded, lacerated, by the thoughtless cruelties of majorities.
Old Mrs. Crutchfield sat down in the parlor. Papa came in, re-clothed and neat, and sat down, and so did Mama. Then a stranger came.
"Who is that, Annie?"
"That's Judge Bradford, because Dr. Bachman's gone fishing."
"What does a judge do?"
"Hyshe! He sends people to prison."
"Then what else does a judge do?"
"Miss Sarah. Hyshe your talkin'."
A judge marries people and sends them to prison. All my wits were bent upon the solution of that problem. Did they get married first and then sent to prison, or sent to prison and then married? In the years to come I was to see Judge Bradford often at his little brick cottage, painted gray, when I passed thru Vine Street on my way to school. His narrow porch was so close to the street that there was barely room for the fence between. I always said how do you do; I always hoped for the courage to engage him in a talk that would allow me to ask for elucidation, but I never had. In pursuance of my hope I became conversationally intimate with his homely old daughter, Miss Susy Bradford, but she would talk and talk, standing on the inside of her gate, while the Judge sat on his tiny porch and never said a word. In my mature observation of the wedded state I have seen many, many marriages that were prison at its worst, but I never could figure out why people could not find the prescience to save themselves from that bondage.
Grandma sat on one side of the mantel. Her feet were set on the floor, close together. Her little hands were folded in her lap. Her mouth was grim. Her eyes flashed.
Uncle Herman leaned against the wall behind her. He looked like a gentleman having his picture taken. One hand was thrust negligently into a pocket. One leg was crossed over the other and its adjoining foot stood up on end, the way all gentlemen and small children were posed then.
On the opposite side of the fireplace sat old Mrs. Crutchfield. Her face was very red. Her bonnet strings were untied and hung down by the sides of her cheeks. She fanned herself with one of those small black fans that were slender rods, folded, and opened into a round of accordion pleats.
Across from her, at the other end of the front window, sat Papa, in his invariable coat of black with its edges bound with black and silk braid, his high collar, his black tie, one leg over the other, his big hands loosely clasped on his knee. I tried to go to him, to sit on his knee, but Annie never let go our hands for a second and I had to be still.
Across from Grandma sat Mama. Her black eyes snapped. She kept looking out of the front door, over her shoulder.
Annie and Bianca and I sat on our roll of carpet. Uncle Herman went to the front door and called, "Hello, there!"
Then Mr. Tom Crutchfield came stumbling in. There were lamps burning in the room, and one could see little twigs and blades of grass clinging to his frock coat. His fair hair was towsled. I suppose there were no pocket combs then. He was very pale and very tall and large.
"He been up in them bushes all evenin'", whispered Annie.
"I thaid there was thomething on that terrath, but Erne wouldn't go," whispered Bianca.
What a strange thing is memory. I remember every incident of that day. I can see everything I have described. I cannot see Aunt Sarah at her marriage. Did she come with Grandma and Uncle Herman? Was she already in the house when they came? What did she wear? How did she look?
I do not now. I cannot see her.
Between the two mothers, in front of the French gilt clock, stood Judge Bradford. His hair was too long. It always was. His frock coat hung limp about his tall form. In after days I came to know that it was shabby and greenish. His tie was loose and one end hung down. I suppose there were tobacco stains on his shirt. There always were, in later days.
Standing with their backs to us were Aunt Sarah and Mr. Tom Crutchfield. Judge Bradford married them.
Was there any jollity afterwards? I do not know. Were there refreshments? I do not know. Did Aunt Sarah tell us goodbye, I mean Bianca and Annie and me? I do not know. I think not.
She was married. She was gone. The beauty of East Tennessee. The great belle of the seventies. She was married and gone.
As Annie undressed us she said we had to say, "Uncle Tom" now. She said she had known a great secret which she would now tell us, and it was that while we were on the Mountain, Mr. Lloyd Branson had come, with two horses, one with a lady's saddle, in the night, and had begged and prayed Miss Sarah to ride away with him and be married, had besought her on his knees to go. But she did not go. And, Annie said, all my good times were over now. She said Aunt Sarah would never be asleep for me to look at in the mornings, and never would let me get in her bed to hear her read my poems any more.
Annie was right. That part of my life was finished.