A Connecticut Yankee at Bryn Mawr College
In October 1890, my sister, Ethel Walker, and I found ourselves entering Bryn Mawr College. But we were staying at the old Bryn Mawr Hotel, waiting to be assigned to our college rooms in the new Denbigh Hall, which gave no promise of being habitable before the Christmas holidays. Meanwhile, we unfortunates were missing many of the social and student events on the campus.
In the dining room at the same table with my sister and me were Mr. and Mrs. Clemens of Hartford and their daughter, Susie to them, and to us always Olivia, a frail, attractive, charming young girl. As the Clemens were not willing to leave Olivia alone in a hotel, even though there were chaperones, we had the pleasure of their company for several weeks.
The long tables in the dining room seated about a dozen or more people. Seated opposite us was a Norwegian woman. Miss Wergeland had come as a fellow in history. However, she spoke no English, and when Mr. Clemens discovered her difficulty ordering meals, he very quietly removed himself from our group to the other side of the table, introduced himself to her, and began speaking German fluently to help her order. This he did three times a day for at least two weeks.
Finally, Mr. Clemens convinced the college authorities that, much as he would like to spend Olivia's freshman year with her, he was obliged to get back to work, but added that he would not leave her in a hotel.
So, suddenly, Olivia was given a room in Radnor Hall and, owing to Mr. Clemens's good offices, we two Walker sisters found ourselves happily settled in a suite in Merion Hall. How we blessed Mr. Clemens!
At the time it seemed to us very natural that Olivia, like ourselves, should be coming to college. But later I realized how strong was the tie between her and her father, how much they minded being separated, and also how eager Mrs. Clemens was that Olivia should be happy in a new environment, leading an independent life of her own.
Olivia was very emotional, high-strung, temperamental, and all of us were afraid she might be homesick. But fortunately she had an exquisite soprano voice, and liked to sing and act. So we almost immediately decided to give the opera "Iolanthe," with lovely Olivia as Phyllis. Olivia was in her element.
Mrs. Clemens would come down occasionally for a short stay, I think in order to keep Mr. Clemens from coming - she told me he would make any excuse, even bringing down Olivia's laundry! As time came near for the production of the opera, Mrs. Clemens was established in the then-empty infirmary on the top floor of Merion Hall, where she helped us cut out and fit fairy costumes, told us stories of her travels, and won our hearts. She stayed for the opera, which was very successful. But in those days men were not invited to our student productions, so Mr. Clemens was not with us!
Meanwhile, it occurred to us that it would be very interesting to have Mr. Clemens come down and give us one of his readings. Olivia was delighted, even though, as I remembered afterward, her mother was not particularly enthusiastic. I think she felt the nervous strain would be too great for Olivia. And she was quite right, for the moment
Mr. Clemens accepted the invitation and the date was set, Olivia became very restless and nervous. Letters were written back and forth and details were discussed. Apparently there were some of his stories - especially the "Ghost Story" - that she did not like and felt were not suitable for the "sophisticated group at Bryn Mawr College."
"No," she said, she was "not going to allow him to tell that story!"
Finally, the two of them settled upon a program satisfactory to both and the day arrived.
The moment we met Mr. Clemens at the station, Olivia clung to his hand, saying repeatedly as we walked to the college: "Father, promise me that you will not tell the Ghost Story!"
He laughed and patting her hand said, "I have written you that I would not tell the Ghost Story. Let's forget about it."
The entire college turned out for his lecture in the late afternoon, and he kept his audience laughing. I was sitting with Olivia on the main aisle about the middle of the room holding her damp hand in mine. She was shaking like a leaf. I tried to encourage her because everyone was enjoying Mr. Clemens thoroughly.
There were no printed programs, and after each "number" he would walk back and forth on the platform, his fine head thrown back, and when the applause ceased he would announce the next title. Finally we came to the end of the program, and as the room grew darker, he walked up and down the platform apparently deliberating.
Olivia was whispering in my ear, "He's going to tell the 'Ghost Story' - I know he's going to tell the 'Ghost Story.' And he's going to say 'Boo!' at the end and make them all jump."
His audience was so entirely with him I was not worried. However, I must say, I got a bit nervous as time went on and he said nothing, and the audience began to grow a little restless.
Whereupon, with no announcement, he began with the "Ghost Story."
Olivia quietly fled up the aisle. I followed. We crossed the hall to a large classroom and there she flung herself down on a desk and wept aloud!
There was nothing to do or say, no comfort that I could give her, except to reiterate that she must know the audience was simply delighted!
The applause was thunderous and people began to pour out of the chapel.
Finally, Mr. Clemens rushed in and in a moment he had her in his arms.
"But Father," she moaned, "you promised!"
"Oh my Dear. I tried to think of something else, and my mind refused to focus. All I could hear was your voice saying: 'Please don't tell the Ghost Story' - and I could think of nothing else. Oh, my dear, my dear, how could I!"