By Una Howell (USA - 1876-1949)
Chapter 39 - Dr. Winston
Copyright Scott Dunbar 2010
I often wonder what power sustains people’s morale when they have no religion to fall back upon. We never talked much about religion in our family but it was a very virile force in determining our actions. We believe confidently that if we fulfilled our parts, things were bound to work together for our good. Mother went to church very intermittently but we children were fairly regular in attendance, and church and Sunday school contributed more than any other agency to Mary’s and my well-being.
Dr. Winston was our pastor for many years and we loved him dearly. He was a sensitive man of fine tastes and made his judgments without unnecessary probing. When he first took charge of our church, I was so stirred by his sermons that I felt he must have had me in mind when he wrote them. I was far from sure however, that he would consider me worthy enough potential material to add to the church’s roster. From the moment that he did, I was his loyal advocate.
Choosing a minister is a process that has never appealed to me. There are so many unlovely features to it. It is like a big gossip-fest in which all the members participate – a time when the circulation of near-scandal is made legitimate. The minister’s personality and those of his household are shaken out like washing on a line. Winds whip it and the weak or mended places are exposed to the view of all the neighbors or a passerby.
Our church was kinder than most yet when Dr. Winston arrived to take up his pastorate. We knew that his wife, by her own statement had been a ‘high-flier;’ that their eldest son was destined for medicine; another for music and that there were two redheads, a daughter and a son. Children were no less critical than their elders and we were especially interested because this family corresponded with our own in size and ages, although they had three sons and two daughters and we, three daughters and one son. Dr. Winston satisfied me as a minister at once. He was refined, a cultured gentleman, small and sartorially correct. Mrs. Winston was large and handsome, generous of heart, and energetic in manner. She at once assumed charge of the Primary department of the Sunday school and her conscientious whispers and ‘shushes’ were more penetrating than restless, chair-scraping three-year olds. Renfrow, the eldest son, was good-looking and stirred the hopes of many budding Presbyterian maids. James was younger but attractive and played the piano quite well. Then came Sylvia, red-haired and striking in appearance, George another auburn top, and Mabel, who was only about nine and very pretty.
George and I were about the same age and he and I met at parties and church functions. I liked him but I didn’t approve of talking about boys and my personal opinions about them. If you really liked someone you didn’t herald it from the housetops. Minister’s children draw criticism as honey draws flies, and when gossip began to circulate that the Winstons were ‘fast,’ our family discounted the tales as concocted by envious parents. James and Sylvia played with a society group and now that Lilly was married and concerned with her baby she and Ben mingled less with society partygoers.
Brother watched over Mary and me like a personal F.B.I. and if we ever made favorable comments in his hearing about a young male he adjudged differently, he would say, “Mary, don’t you and Una have anything to do with so-and-so. He’s not our sort.”
That meant the end of so-and-so, and family loyalty was such that we never questioned his judgment. The result was that if we ever found the features and neckties of a boy to our liking, any possibilities of that interest blossoming into the palest admiration were swiftly sidetracked.
James Winston was several years my senior and he was mildly interested in my piano playing. He played around with a very sophisticated crowd but occasionally he flattered me by hanging around when older girls were present. Then my Dutch uncle Maynard told me to keep away from him and I most certainly did. Sylvia was not pretty according to my standard but she was piquant and intriguing. Tendrils of red hair blew about her face with a charm of naturalness at variance with blue eyes that threw out a cold challenge while they peered about for conquest material. She wore striking shades of blue and on Sundays sat in the back pew with the more daring young men and girls. My loyalty to Dr. Winston made me especially critical of the women of his menage. I thought Sylvia should be endearing herself to the church members by wiping noses of insensitive beginners or collecting buttons and plugged nickels for the Sunday school, at least reflecting her father’s ideals through social channels. Sylvia, however, had her own ideas, and they did not coincide with mine. If she appeared in church circles, she gave the impression that she was there under protest.
Sometimes an ardent defender would tell how charming she was in her family and I would try desperately to penetrate her icy insouciance and see her as a warm and affectionate daughter, but I was too young to catch her attention, so the barriers remained. Frequently stories drifted in that seemed to have some basis of truth. The younger crowd was beginning to take liquor on its picnics and a few snapshots of spectacular drinking scenes were furtively passed about. In some of them Sylvia posed with a bottle in her hand and mothers were scandalized.
“Poor Dr. Winston!” they said and looked sad or jubilant as they shook their heads.
After his return from living in Washington, Brother had been more critical of the state of Springfield society. His perspective had been sharpened and he was depressed at the prospects for Mary and me. There seemed to be no group in which we could find normal social life. All-night parties were on the increase in the dancing set and the homes of prominent families were said to present shocking scenes at daybreak. Our own family cares kept us away from the main currents of scandal and the most we heard was when Mayne and Ben brought tales circulated in the barbershops, bowling alleys, the post office, or similar spots where men congregate and swap gossip.
Among the picturesque figures whose escapades were the talk of the town was Alec Chase. He was the son of Mrs. Blouke, one of Mother’s friends and a Saturday Club member, who had an attractive home at the edge of town and entertained a great deal. A woman of the world, Mrs. Blouke had traveled extensively and among her collections was a crucifix specially blessed by the Pope, which Mother greatly admired. Mrs. Blouke offered to give it to her if she would become Catholic, but Mother was too deep-dyed in Protestantism to become a proselyte, so Mrs. Blouke kept the crucifix.
Alec was Mrs. Blouke’s keepsake from a former marriage, and a lively one. His father had left him ten thousand dollars, which he inherited on his twenty-first birthday, and the investment day by day furnished the Police Gazette with front-page material. First he eloped with one of the most vivacious and well-bred Presbyterian daughters and not fitting into the groove of domesticity he turned to greener fields. He was both handsome and clever. He had never exhibited signs of stability, however, and now a love of conviviality invited him to enjoy a sensation or two. Springfield conversation would be enlivened by remarks such as, “Have you heard Alec’s latest?”
“No, what now?”
Then the narrator would pull out a copy of the lurid journal wherein the latest escapade was headlined. Once he chartered a train, filled it with odd people, while he rode the tender. Occasionally he would select Springfield streets for the scenes of his gayety. He bought two bolts of bright colored plush, hired a landau and with a fancy drive paraded our streets, the bolts trailing behind like gay streamers. On another spree he bought a casket. His confrere for this occasion had been jilted by a woman, so the men arranged that Alec’s companion should rise from the dead in front of her house with the object of shocking her during pregnancy. Alec was drunk at the time and fastened the lid of the coffin and the suffocated man burst through the glass to do his act. In order to stage these dramatics with distinction, Alec frequently hired a band, a male quartet or a trumpeter to herald his approach.
In a few months the inheritance passed into the coffers of the public. With it Alec passed into obscurity and when he was discharged from a sanitarium to the custody of his mother, little attention was accorded him by the old crowd. He was still handsome enough to arouse hopes in uncritical, feminine minds and Sylvia Winston’s flaming hair and reckless air caught his attention. Months slipped by. Alec and Sylvia exchanged fascinations; that much we knew. One day Dr. Winston appeared at the post office window. Mr. Abbott, the Postmaster, was an elder in our church so Dr. Winston was a familiar figure at the office.
Springfield society knew that Sylvia was in the east for a visit. We Howell women were columnists who had duly chronicled her departure. After an exchange of greetings, Dr. Winston said to Brother, “We’ve just had a telegram that Sylvia is ill in Philadelphia. It makes us anxious.”
“I hope it’s nothing serious,” Brother remarked as he weighed a package for the minister.
“I’ve wired for more information,” the Dr. continued, “and if there is any danger Mrs. Winston and I will go tonight.”
About an hour later the wire came. Sylvia was dead. The word flew over town. The details grapevined more arduously. When on Saturday the pine box labeled with the cause of death, was lifted on to the undertaker’s black wagon, everyone in Springfield knew just which young man had supplied the unethical advice and the Philadelphia doctor’s address. Everyone except the proud father and mother.
That same night in the pastor’s study they broke the seal; unfolded the grief-strewn pages, and read the last messages and confession of their little daughter. The letter was transcribed by a friend of her father’s whom she had summoned to see her through this last adventure.
The next day was Sunday. Dr. Winston entered his church as usual and seated himself back of the pulpit. We were among the absent that day. I think I could not have borne the strain of hearing him as he faced his people and told them the simple story as old as time and far more poignant. It was his swan song. Those who heard him recognized its cadence. A northern church called him almost immediately and our search for a new pastor began.
In the community cemetery, on a curving corner, under arching maple trees, an undated marker was raised to guard the memory of ‘OUR SYLVIA’ and the ivies of love keep the grave green.
Cymric Strain, by Una Howell (USA - 1876-1949)
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 cemetery
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