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I do not know if I was ever taken, as J. I cannot recall the firemen's fights and the cries of negroes selling pop-corn and ice-cream through the streets that fill some Philadelphia reminiscences I have read. I cannot say if I ever went anywhere by the omnibus sleigh in winter, or to West Philadelphia by the stage at any time of the year. I never coasted down the hills of Germantown, I never skated on the Schuylkill. When my contemporaries compare notes of these and many more delightful things in the amazing, romantic, [Pg 27] incredible Philadelphia they grew up in, it annoys me to find myself out of it all, sharing none of their recollections, save one and that the most trivial.
For, from the vagueness of the remote past, no event emerges so clearly as the periodical visit of "Crazy Norah," a poor, harmless, half-witted wanderer, who wore a man's hat and top boots, with bits of ribbon scattered over her dress, and who, on her aimless rounds, drifted into all the Philadelphia kitchens to the fearful joy of the children; and my memory may be less of her personally than of much talk of her helped by her resemblance, or so I fancied, to a picture of Meg Merrilies in a collection of engravings of Walter Scott's heroines owned by an Uncle, and almost the first book I can remember.
But great as was my loss, I fancy my memories of old Philadelphia gain in vividness for being so few. One of the most vivid is of the interminable drive in the slow horse-car which was the longest part of the journey to and from my Convent school,—which is the longest part of any journey I ever made, not to be endured at the time but for the chanting over and over to myself of all the odds and ends of verse I had got by heart, from the dramas of Little Miss Muffett and Little Jack Horner to Poe's Bells and Tennyson's Lady of Shalott —but in memory a drive to be rejoiced in, for nothing could have been more characteristic of Philadelphia as it was then.
I believe it is used as a freight station now and I have sometimes thought that, for sentiment's sake, I should like to make a pilgrimage to it over the once well-travelled road. But the modern trolley has deserted the straight course of the unadventurous horse-car of my day and I doubt if ever again I could find my way back. The old horse-car went, without turn or twist, along Third Street. I started from the corner of Spruce, having got as far as that by the slower, more infrequent Spruce Street car, and after I had passed the fine old houses where Philadelphians—not aliens—lived, a good part of the route lay through a busy business section.
But there has stayed with me as my chief impression of the endless street a sense of eternal calm. No matter how much solid work was being done, no matter how many fortunes were being made and unmade, it was always placid on the surface, uneventful and unruffled. The car, jingling along in leisurely fashion, was the one sign of animation.
Or often, in spring and summer, I went by boat, from—so false is memory—I cannot say what wharf, up the Delaware. This was a pleasanter journey and every bit as leisurely and as characteristic in its way of Philadelphia life. For though I might catch the early afternoon boat, it was sure to be full of business men returning [Pg 31] from their offices to their houses on the river.
Philadelphians did not wait for the Main Line to be invented to settle in the suburbs. They have always had a fancy for the near country ever since Penn lived in state at Pennsbury, and Logan at Stenton; ever since Bartram planted his garden on the banks of the Schuylkill, and Arnold brought Peggy Shippen as his bride to Mount Pleasant; ever since all the Colonial country houses we are so proud of were built. I have the haziest memory of the places where the boat stopped between Philadelphia and Torresdale and of the people who got out there.
But I cannot help remembering Torresdale for it was as prominent a stopping-place in my journey through youth as it is in the journey up the Delaware. The Convent was my home for years, and I had many friends in the houses down by the riverside and scattered over the near country. Their names are among the most familiar in my youthful recollections: the Macalisters, the Grants—one of my brothers named after the father—the Hopkins—another of my brothers marrying in the family—the Fishers, Keatings, Steadmans, Kings, Bories, Whelans.
It was not often I could go or come without meeting somebody I knew on board. I am a cockney myself, I love the town, but I can understand that Philadelphians whose homes were in the country, especially if that country lay along the shores of the Delaware, liked to get back early enough to profit by it; that, busy and full of affairs as they might be, they not only liked but managed to, shows how far hustling [Pg 32] was from the old Philadelphia scheme of things.
Nowadays the motor brings the country into town and town into the country. But the miles between town and country were then lengthened into leagues by the leisurely boat and the leisurely horse-car which, as I look back, seem to set the pace of life in Philadelphia when I was young. At first my holidays were spent mostly at the Convent.
My Father, with the young widower's embarrassment when confronted by his motherless children, solved the problem the existence of my Sister and myself was to him by putting us where he knew we were safe and well out of his way. I do not blame him.
What is a man to do when he finds himself with two little girls on his clumsy masculine hands? But the result was he had no house of his own to bring us to when the other girls hurried joyfully home at Christmas and Easter and for the long summer holiday. It hurt as I used to watch them walking briskly down the long path on the way to the station.
And yet, I scored in the end, for Philadelphia was the more marvellous to me, visiting it rarely, than it could have been to children to whom it was an everyday affair.
For years my Grandfather's house was the scene of the occasional visit. He lived in Spruce Street above Eleventh—the typical Philadelphia Street, straight and narrow, on either side rows of red brick houses, each with white marble steps, white shutters below and green [Pg 35] shutters above, and along the red brick pavement rows of trees which made Philadelphia the green country town of Penn's desire, but the Philadelphian's life a burden in the springtime before the coming of the sparrows.
Philadelphia, as I think of it in the old days at the season when the leaves were growing green, is always heavy with the odour of the evil-smelling ailantus and full of measuring worms falling upon me from every tree. My fear of "Crazy Norah" is hardly less clear in my early memories than the terror these worms were to the dear fragile little Aunt who had cared for me in my first motherless years, and who still, during my holidays, kept a watchful eye on me to see that I put my "gums" on if I went out in the rain and that I had the money in my pocket to stop at Dexter's for a plate of ice-cream.
I can recall as if it were yesterday, her shrieks one Easter Sunday when she came home from church and found a green horror on her new spring bonnet and another on her petticoat, and her miserable certainty all through the early Sunday dinner that many more were crawling over her somewhere.
But, indeed, the Philadelphians of to-day can never know from what loathsome creatures the sparrows have delivered them. My Grandfather's house was as typical as the street—one of the quite modest four-story brick houses that were thought unseemly sky-scrapers and fire-traps when they were first built in Philadelphia. I can never go by the old house of many memories—for sale, alas! And I see myself, when, in answer to our ring, the servant had opened the inner one as well, entering in a fresh access of shyness the wide lofty hall, with the front and back parlours to the right; Philadelphians had no drawing-rooms then but were content with parlours, as Penn had been who knew them by no other name.
Compared to the rich Philadelphian's house to-day, my Grandfather's looks very unpretending, but when houses like it, with two big parlours separated by folding doors, first became the fashion in Philadelphia, they passed for palaces with Philadelphians who disapproved of display, and the "tradesmen" living soberly in them were rebuked for aspiring to the luxury of princes. I cannot imagine why, for the old Colonial houses are, many of them, as lofty and more spacious, though it was the simple spaciousness of my Grandfather's and the loftiness of its ceilings that gave it charm.
My Grandfather's two parlours, big as they were, would strike nobody to-day as palatial. It needs the glamour time throws over them for me to discover princely [Pg 39] luxury in the rosewood and reps masterpieces of a deplorable period with which they were furnished, or in their decoration of beaded cushions and worsted-work mats and tidies, the lavish gifts of a devoted family.
But I cannot remember the parlours and forget the respect with which they once inspired me. I own to a lingering affection for their crowning touch of ugliness, an ottoman with a top of the fashionable Berlin work of the day—a white arum lily, done by the superior talent of the fancy store, on a red ground filled in by the industrious giver.
It stood between the two front windows, so that we might have the additional rapture of seeing it a second time in the mirror which hung behind it. Opposite, between the two windows of the back parlour, was a "Rogers Group" on a blue stand; and a replica, with variations, of both the ottoman and the "Rogers Group" could have been found in every other Philadelphia front and back parlour.
I recall also the three or four family portraits which I held in tremendous awe, however I may feel about them now; and the immensely high vases, unique creations that could not possibly have been designed for any purpose save to ornament the Philadelphia mantelpiece; and the transparent lamp-shade, decorated with pictures of cats and children and landscapes, that at night, when the gas was lit, helped to keep me awake until I could escape to bed; and the lustre chandeliers hanging from the ceiling—what joy when one of the long prisms came loose and I could capture it and, looking through it, walk across the parlours [Pg 40] and up the stairs straight into the splendid dangers of Rainbow Land!
I had no time for these splendours on my arrival, nor, fortunately for me, was I left long to the tortures of my shyness. At the end of the hall, facing me, was the wide flight of stairs leading to the upper stories, and on the first landing, at their turning just where a few more steps led beyond into the back-building dining-room, my Grandmother, in her white cap and purple ribbons, stood waiting.
In my memory she and that landing are inseparable. Whenever the door bell rang, she was out there at the first sound, ready to say "Come right up, my dear! To her right, filling an ample space in the windings of the back stairs, was the inexhaustible pantry which I knew, as well as she, we should presently visit together.
Though there could not have been in Philadelphia or anywhere quite such another Grandmother, even if most Philadelphians feel precisely the same way about theirs, she was typical too, like the house and the street. She belonged to the generation of Philadelphia women who took to old age almost as soon as they were mothers, put on caps and large easy shoes, invented an elderly dress from which they never deviated for the rest of their lives, except to exchange cashmere for silk, the everyday cap for one of fine lace and wider ribbons, on occasions of ceremony, and who as promptly forgot the world outside of their household [Pg 41] and their family.
I do not believe my Grandmother had an interest in anybody except her children, or in anything except their affairs; though this did not mean that she gave up society when it was to their advantage that she should not.
Our Philadelphia. Described by Elizabeth Robins Pennell, Illustrated with One Hundred & Five Lithographs by Joseph Pennell [Joseph, and Pennell, Elizabeth . Free kindle book and epub digitized and proofread by Project Gutenberg.
In her stiff silks and costly caps, she presided at every dinner, reception, and party given at home, as conscientiously as, in her sables and demure velvet bonnet, she made and returned calls in the season. My other memories are of comfortable, spacious rooms, good, solid, old-fashioned furniture, a few more old and some better-forgotten new family portraits on the walls, the engraving of Gilbert Stuart's Washington over the dining-room mantelpiece, the sofa or couch in almost every room for the Philadelphia nap before dinner, the two cheerful kitchens where, if the servants were amiable, I sometimes played, and, above all, the most enchanting back-yard that ever was or could be—we were not so elegant in those days as to call it a garden.
Since it has been the fashion to revive everything old in Philadelphia, most Philadelphians are not happy until they have their garden, as their forefathers had, and very charming they often make it in the suburbs. But in town my admiration has been asked for gardens that would have been lost in my Grandfather's back-yard, and for a few meagre plants springing up about a cold paved square [Pg 42] that would have been condemned as weeds in his luxuriant flower beds. The kindly magnifying glasses of memory cannot convert the Spruce Street yard into a rival of Edward Shippen's garden in Second Street where the old chronicles say there were orchards and a herd of deer, or of Bartram's with its trees and plants collected from far and wide, or of any of the old Philadelphia gardens in the days when in Philadelphia no house, no public building, almost no church, could exist without a green space and great trees and many flowers about it, and when Philadelphians loved their gardens so well, and hated so to leave them, that there is the story of one at least who came back after death to haunt the shady walks and fragrant lawns that were fairer to her than the fairest Elysian Fields in the land beyond the grave.
Much of the old beauty had gone before I was born, much was going as I grew from childhood to youth. My Uncle, Charles Godfrey Leland, has described the Philadelphia garden of his early years, "with vines twined over arbours, where the magnolia, honeysuckle and rose spread rich perfume of summer nights, and where the humming bird rested, and scarlet tanager, or oriole, with the yellow and blue bird flitted in sunshine or in shade.
Philadelphia's one magnolia tree stood in front of the old Dundas house at Broad and Walnut. All the same, my Grandfather's was a back-yard of enchantment. A narrow brick-paved path led past the kitchens; on one side, close to the wall dividing my Grandfather's yard from the next door neighbour's, was a border of roses and Johnny-jump-ups and shrubs—the shrubs my Grandmother used to pick for me, crush a little in her fingers, and tie up in a corner of my handkerchief, which was the Philadelphia way—the most effective way that ever was—to make them give out their sweetness.
Beyond the kitchens, where the yard broadened into a large open space, the path enclosed, with a wider border of roses, two big grass plots which were shaded by fruit trees, all pink and white in the springtime. Wistaria hung in purple showers over the high walls. I am sure lilacs bloomed at the kitchen door, and a vine of Isabella grapes—the very name has an old Philadelphia flavour and fragrance—covered the verandah that ran across the entire second story of the back-building.
If sometimes this delectable back-yard was cold and bare, in my memory it is more apt to be sweet and gay with roses, shrubs and Johnny-jump-ups,—summer and its pleasures oftener waiting on me there: probably because my visits to my Grandfather's were more frequent in the summer time.