4. A momentous meeting

Last week I left you at the threshold of Elsie’s first meeting with Dr Wellman, 40 years her senior, twice married, with four grown children—a recipe for either the dullest of dull evenings, or the start of a tumultuous (and adulterous) affair leading to who could possibly foretell what.

Let us see what happened next to the young Elsie Dunn and take up last week’s narrative.

            It was in a period when my father’s always fluctuating finances were at a temporary ebb, and he had not, I suppose, as had happened in a previous instance, asked for help from my grandfather; who was still in very good circumstances, but as I recall it had grown dubious of new ventures; which, indeed, after the Car Company, my father, as far as I know, never undertook again.  My mother was sympathetic, and we had temporarily dispensed with the cook; not difficult as my father was seldom at home then, and was depressed by my mother’s presence when he was.  I, however, agreed to cook the dinner for Dr Wellman; whom my father justly said was the one and only man of real intellectual stature whom he had encountered since he became an adult and went into business.

The evening has been written of in Life Is Too Short; the early portions of that fine book having been, apparently, less cut, over-edited, and re-written by someone external to it, than the middle portions.

I am breaking into Elsie’s narrative at this point as Life Is Too Short, Dr Wellman’s autobiography, became the focus of her angry attention some 30 years later.  More on the reasons for this in due course.

 I was enchanted to discover an adult human being to whom, though I was of the opposite sex, I could really talk about the literature, philosophy, painting and music that were beginning to be my life.  His second wife proved a vicious enemy, but I also enjoyed her piano-playing, at that time.  She had been a professional and was a pupil of Leschetitzky, her name was Edna Willis.  Dr Wellman had met her abroad, after his divorce from his first wife, Lydia Isley, to whom he was married fourteen years, and who had gone to West Africa with him as a missionary, when he had one there as mission doctor to an American mission at Benguella.

Dr Wellman and his first wife and fallen into bitter disagreement as science began, more and more, to affect his religious views.  After their divorce, she had refused to permit him to see their four children, Paul I, Fredrick Lovejoy, Alice and Manly Wade Wellman.  Their mother, I have gathered, was a very good woman according to her lights, but to deflect from orthodoxy seemed to her of the “Devil”; and she honestly feared the influence of science on the views of her children.

The second wife was a sophisticated woman; and that Dr Wellman made the mistake he did in respect to their congeniality, is very explicable when one realizes how many are the marriages based on the human predilection for antidotes for unhappiness in an antithesis.  She was not shocked by scepticism in religious matters, but she had no sympathy for him in his unhappiness over his children; and even as he had found little tenderness in her make-up, she had been disappointed in her worldly ambition for wealth when, after marrying a scientist of international reputation in several fields, she discovered he was almost poor, and that his monetary resources did not extend beyond a good salary and what he received for medical monographs and articles on medical and botanical topics.

Perhaps Elsie Dunn and Fredrick Creighton Wellman fell in love on sight, for I can still remember the comforted and elated feeling with which I went to bed that night, after our guests had partaken of the Sally Lunn mentioned in Life Is Too Short and gone home.  I thought continually of Dr Wellman from that time on until we eloped.  My father and mother were equally taken with him; both having often complained sincerely, in their disparate ways, of the lack of cultural response to cultural interests among most of the people they had met.  Edna Willis Wellman, as she then was, became, eventually, so ruthless an enemy that I could not think of her existence for years without the most bitter and righteous resentment.  But it was the first time but one I had ever had the pleasure of listening to a technically fine pianist who played some of the things I myself asked for, and that, too, I enjoyed, with no feeling of rivalry as imminent.

Dr Wellman—or Cyril Kay Scott as he became and is to me—is innately one of the most innocent-minded of men, I think.  His character is that I have referred to, one in which emotions felt simply are deep, not easily changing, and intellect, nonetheless, is of the fine type that engenders no inner conflicts.

Before I ever saw him or talked to him alone, along before in fact, he and his second wife had discussed separation and even eventual divorce.  She had told him she did not love him; but, as such discussions do in people without his detachment, she had accused him, in the usual way, of “wrecking” her life, and had spitefully declared that she would divorce him, not then, but when it should become “convenient” to her.  She had reminded him of his first divorce, and—knowing the orthodoxy then still prevalent in New Orleans and among the medical fraternity—she had spitefully assured him that she had the “whip hand”, and would settle the matter of divorce on her “own terms”, at her leisure.

It was not a situation any man with self-respect could have been expected to endure.  I think Dr Wellman would have left her, and, perhaps, returned to Africa or some other remote place, even had he not met me.  But he was at once interested in me as a “phenomenon” in that era in the South, a young woman not quite twenty-one, usually considered pretty, and entirely serious in outlook.

I was, having left off both college and art school, at loose ends; and on that first evening had admitted that my education was scientifically non-existent, as I had recoiled from every science course offered because these impinged on time given to imaginative literature, painting and music.  Dr Wellman saw my father sometimes, and my expressed wish to have at least a little more knowledge of science was mentioned.  My father, too, had, by that time, decided I was too indifferent to science and it would do me no harm to learn more.  The course at the Dramatic Academy was still pending when Dr Wellman wrote to me the first letter I ever had from him, and asked me whether I would like to take a course in laboratory technique in the laboratory where he and his assistants were engaged in some experiments.  I have already forgotten what they were trying to prove, and remember vividly only my first look at some beautifully-coloured mosquitoes through a microscope.

I was almost mawkishly “kind to animals”, and I was repelled by experiments proceeding nearby—some Dr Wellman’s own—on monkeys and small mammals.  But this time, once enrolled as Dr Wellman’s student, I had no doubt I had fallen in love.

I was very deeply and grossly insulted on his behalf as well as my own by the sort of rumour that spread about New Orleans and Memphis once we had eloped, and which concerned our relations before our elopement.  We took occasional walks together after “school hours”, but we had never so much as kissed until an afternoon when Dr Wellman asked me to stroll with him in Audubon Park, and when we were far enough from St Charles Avenue to be unlikely to encounter other people, told me of his first marriage, and his second, and said he could not go on as he was but must get back into some simpler environment where he could re-assemble a life in emotional wreckage on the basis of the detachment he felt being shattered by continual friction with a woman whose animus, apparently, was such as would stop at nothing.

It was then that he abruptly said at the end of the confession of unhappiness, that I would probably think him fantastic, or, if I did not, other people would, but that ever since he had first met me he had thought of what the primitive surroundings of his missionary days might be like with a companion such as I was.  I was startled.  I had already told him that I was not happy at home, that my parents loved me, but not each other, although my mother was impeccably loyal to my father in every outward sense.  I thought later she loved him, but her love was not requited.  I had also told Dr Wellman that my grandfather, as was true, was daily becoming more eccentric, that my grandfather had given up his career to her, and that, as a man whose life-long preoccupation had been business, he was miserable in being idle; and that notwithstanding an otherwise selfless view of me, his only grandchild, he distressed himself all the time because I did not love my grandmother as he did—something that had been beyond my father, too.

Dr Wellman then asked me whether I would like to cut loose as he would doubtless eventually do from the miseries that beset us both among people, also, miserable, whose miseries we could not mend.  He said he had thought it all out before mentioning it, and that we might go to Brazil, where the Portuguese he knew well, was spoken, and where, among strangers, we could make our own lives.  He said frankly he had little money, and he knew I had none, but if I agreed I was not to worry for he would take the responsibility for everything involved.  We discussed the Amazon—for I agreed at once—and other places in Brazil; and when we parted before evening, he had said he would resign from the Boston Club, of which he was a member in high standing, and would pay his dues to me, as he second wife had access to his bank account, and was watchful of expenditures.  He also decided then to sell a very fine high-power microscope that was his personal property and to bank what he received for it—he sold it for a thousand dollars—and keep it safe until we left.

Dr Wellman and I exchanged our first kiss at the end of this conversation at Audubon Park.  It was to me, as I think it was to him, like the sealing of a pact we had made to fight together for some purer joy in life.  We agreed that we could not meet often, again, until we were ready to elope; as to be seen together might attract attention to our interest in each other.  It was also decided between us, although this was at his suggestion, that the most feasible time for leaving New Orleans would be at Christmas, when college was closed and everyone was on vacation.  He, later, wrote his second wife a letter she was at liberty to show anyone in which he said whatever was pertinent to “bear hunting” somewhere in the South.  He also wrote to her as we were leaving telling her he had decided to cut the Gordian knot, and saying—as was the truth—that he was taking nothing with him but a suitcase containing a few clothes, and that the money in the bank still untouched and anything that might accrue as due him was hers, but that she was not to say anything about what he was doing until he was far from New Orleans, because once the newspapers got hold of the facts, there would be scandal; unjust to my parents and grandparents I add—Dr Wellman did not mention either me or them.

I was most distressed about my mother, and I tried to confide in her, thinking to make her see the future as a temporary separation.  But I got no further than saying Dr Wellman and myself were in love, and I would gladly marry him whenever this became feasible, and he felt the same; for at that point my mother rushed for the revolver my father had given me when wishing me to learn to shoot, and threaten to kill herself.

This experience, used in combination with the fictions in The Narrow House, resulted in a temporary congealing of emotion toward her.  I had thought some revision of our plan might be made in adaptation to her wishes, as she continually lamented the fact that I was continually lamented the fact that I was considered brilliant and had no opportunity to meet any men fit to “tie my shoestring”.  I felt, after that, that I must leave home no matter what, to bring my mother to her normal senses.

Dr Wellman and myself left New Orleans on December 26th, 1913.