The Misses Elliot
Click here for an index to the chapters of The Misses Elliot of Geneva
The Elliot's house was a toy box of clapboards and shingles, shapeless and weather-beaten, with gables, lattices, and bay windows all over it. It looked as fussy as the Elliots themselves. The garrets were infested with squirrels, which the city fire department was regularly summoned to expel-the Elliots saw no reason why good taxpayers shouldn't get their money's worth, and after all, the firemen were called upon to kill bees in the chimney of the Church Home, so why shouldn't they deal with the Elliots' squirrels? (The squirrels, who probably thought that the russet-roofed cottage was just a bigger and hollower oak tree, were not in sympathy with the Elliots' reasoning-nor were the firemen.)
On the front porch stood one of the original pews of Trinity Church, cherished by old Genevans who resented the intrusion of shiny oak pews in place of the battered pine ones where village fathers had dozed, and college boys had carved initials. With an old Trinity pew beneath her, a Genevan of the old regime felt that she sat upon a firm foundation, upon a rock of ages. In the Trinity of today there might be candles and chasubles, but her pew had stood in a church that was lit only with gas jets, and was sat upon by a congregation which could look at one another's clothes without being distracted by vestments in the chancel.
Inside the front door, a hallway led to the front parlor with its Duncan Phyfe sofa, its Boulle cabinet, and its ancestral portraits by Sully and Morse. The portraits were the background which gave the Elliots much of their assurance; their house might be small, but what other house in Geneva could exhibit such Trumbulls, such Morses, such a Gilbert Stuart! The Elliots might be poor, but what did that matter when you had ancestral portraits worth a small fortune, and ancestors who made the presence or absence of that fortune a thing of no importance!
There were trophies of the sisters' prowess on display too. In a town where nearly everyone could at least sketch, it would be surprising to find the Elliots unskilled in brush or pencil. Miss Candida had done a very
creditable water color of Trinity Church, and had belonged to the valiant Sketching Club which sallied forth, on summer afternoons, to make drawings of lake views and woodland scenes. Miss Candida had trouble with her perspective, but her pictures were always recognizable, unlike those of certain modern artists whom the Elliots didn't understand, and didn't want to understand. Miss Primrose wove the pattern of an oriental rug into a piece of needlework which was deemed too precious to be put on the floor, and which graced the Duncan Phyfe sofa instead.
In the fireplace, there would probably be some smoldering logs. The Elliots' fires were only surpassed in smokiness by those of Mrs. Culpepper, whose chimney was constructed to throw most of the smoke out into the room, and to expose a wooden floor joist to the flames. Hospitality, however, requires a fire in cold weather, and Mrs. Culpepper, like a good Genevan, was ready to endure blinking eyes and imminent conflagration for the sake of a warm hearth-as for repairing the fireplace, that never occurred to her, and would have seemed a wicked waste of money anyway!
Through the Elliots' back parlor, sunnier and less pretentious than the front one, you entered the dining room, with its old silver, and more family portraits. It was the scene of many small luncheons and dinners, at which the fruit of ancestral recipes would appear on ancestral china. Genevans have always been interested in good food (that is, with the exception of the Misses Tibbs, who were supposed to live on raw wheat in order to save money for their charities), and the Elliots were proud of their culinary lore.
"Name this child!" Miss Primrose would say, on being confronted with a dish unknown to her. The Elliots were especially noted for their spongecake, and no Geneva kitchen was complete without their recipe for it.
The most valuable object in their house was a portrait; but it wasn't a portrait of an ancestor, and it didn't belong to the Elliot sisters. They were merely keeping it for their Cousin Millie, who had no room for it herself
(the Elliots often stored things for friends and relatives who found that family heirlooms didn't fit into city apartments). This portrait was important because it was the key to many of the Elliots' convictions about government and religion.
If the Elliots had lived at the time of the American Revolution, they would probably have melted the family silver to uphold King George; their great pride, however, was in their descent from leaders of that revolution. They felt that the United States of America was, in a spiritual sense, almost their own property, just as they felt that Geneva almost belonged to them. The Fourth of July was a sacred day in their lives, and in their house they had an original portrait of the Father of his Country.
To be sure, it didn't belong to them, but so long as it remained under their roof, the Elliots considered themselves the custodians of a bit of the True Cross. When deplorable political events happened (and most politics were, to the Elliots, deplorable), they wondered how the face in that portrait would have regarded them-sometimes they seemed to think that the face was regarding them and sighing over the degeneracy of America and of Geneva.
The Elliots were disturbed when they heard that Cousin Millie thought of selling the portrait. She had a good right to sell it, since it was hers, but the Elliots disapproved of selling family things. George Washington wasn't a member of their own family, but he was a member, by courtesy, of every true American family, and so he was theirs in a very special way. A devout Italian household would have felt about an ancestral portrait of the Madonna much as the Elliots felt about George. They would have lighted candles in front of his portrait if they had approved of candles and shrines, which they most emphatically did not.
"But, Candida,' said Mrs. Culpepper, "candles are harmless. They gave light for centuries when there was no other way of lighting."
"Never mind," interposed Miss Primrose. "Candles are candles, but Popery is Popery, and I know how to distinguish between illumination and idolatry!"
The homage which George received from the Elliots was therefore restrained, but it was true homage nevertheless. George deserved it. He gave the Elliots the feeling that he was behind them in every dispute that they had-and they had many. They hung out their flags on Independence Day with the warm conviction that George was watching them with approval. They felt that the swarms of tourists who drove past their house ought to know that behind their flag was the very face of the man who made that flag possible. When they attacked High-
Church practices, they knew that George felt just the same way about it, and that the religion of their forefathers, as exemplified by George, was the true model for them all.
Obviously then, they wanted the portrait to stay where it was. It wasn't one of the best portraits of Washington, but the fact that your bit of the True Cross is just a splinter doesn't make it any less true. This one portrait, crowning the collection of the Elliot and McGregor ancestors, made the Elliots' house unique. They felt that a special star must be hovering over them.
The price offered for the picture was confided to their closest friends in awe-struck whispers (and was instantly known to everybody in Geneva). That too was a reason why they didn't want George to be sold. It's much better to have in your house a picture for which ten thousand dollars has been refused, than to have no picture, and Cousin Millie ten thousand richer. The Elliots implied that they wouldn't be so mercenary as Cousin Millie. They might be poor, but family things were a sacred trust, not to be abandoned for mere money.
Of course, as they admitted, it was a responsiblity to have valuable things in your house, and a wooden house too! When Primrose asked Candida in church whether she was sure that they had locked the kitchen door before they left, she was thinking of George. When Candida put the screen in front of two dying coals in the fireplace, she was protecting George. When a suspicious-looking person loitered down the street, and looked at their house, the sisters knew that he was scheming to steal George away from them. They almost thought that the railroad company was withholding its dividends under the impression that poverty would make them part with George. They bristled at the idea of the portrait falling into the unworthy hands of somebody who was not descended from Revolutionary ancestors.
The two sisters took care never to emerge together from the house, unless the maid was there. If some lurking thief should see them both departing, he might conclude that the house was empty, and that he could now break in, and steal George. Miss Candida would walk out of the house first, and then, after a safe interval, Miss Primrose would follow, locking the door furtively, and concealing the key. She would probably start in a different direction, so that anybody who had seen them both leaving would think that they had gone on separate errands, and would be afraid that they might return at any moment.
The Elliots weren't nonchalant about their things. They weren't like the Geneva lady who said she would just tell any burglar that if he could get anything for her family silver, it was more than she could do. The Elliots knew that they could get a small fortune for their silver and a large fortune for their paintings. This painting was Cousin Millie's property, and of course they had to be particularly careful of it in order to protect her interests.
The suspense grew greater and greater. The value of George was so well advertised in Geneva that it was a real tribute to the townspeople's honesty for the portrait to remain unstolen. When the Elliots' friends came to the house, they now took a long look at George because they were afraid that they would never see him there again. The Elliots themselves wondered, as they turned out the lights each night, whether George would be with them much longer.
Finally George was sold. Miss Primrose implied that the Father of his Country had been betrayed for thirty pieces of silver, although she would hardly have made so irreverent a comparison, and she certainly had no wish to see Cousin Millie share the fate of Judas. The lowering, packing, and departure of the portrait were like the obsequies of a member of the family; we felt that mere should be pallbearers holding the American flag; and a bugle corps making mournful strains.
The note of sorrow turned into one of indignation when Miss Primose read in the paper, several months later, that a portrait of Washington had been sold for fifteen thousand dollars. Obviously, Cousin Millie had been cheated out of five thousand. The Elliots' expressions about the railroad company were pale beside their denunciations of the man who had swindled poor guileless Cousin Millie out of her heirloom.
Their remaining portraits were now doubly dear to them. The Elliot ancestors were hardly as distinguished as George, but they were much better-looking and better-painted (George's portrait was, it must be admitted, a bit crude), and so Miss Primrose and Miss Candida were sure that some designing dealer would soon come to haggle for them. The Elliots rehearsed the expressions of withering contempt with which the dealer would be repulsed-a leading sentence from Miss Candida, to be followed by a shattering explosion from Miss Primrose. It is a pity that there was no opportunity to use this little drama; from the opening "Poor though we are," to the last crushing words, it was typical Elliot eloquence. The dealer, the Elliots felt, would be too thick-skinned to appreciate the rapier thrusts which could be used upon fellow Genevans; the Elliots' attack was to be of the nature of a heavy bombardment. It would be useless to quote it, for much of its effectiveness depended upon the fierce aspect of the embattled sisters, upon certain deadly emphases, and upon the ranks of ancestral portraits in the background.
The Elliots were suspicious when their portraits were requested for a loan exhibition in New York. The gallery, to be sure, was above reproach, but the Elliots had read a detective story about valuable paintings which had been stolen when in transit to an exhibition, and had been replaced by copies. It didn't occur to them that it would hardly be possible for anybody to make copies of such comparatively unknown paintings as theirs, or that it wouldn't be worth the trouble to steal them so ingeniously; the Elliots felt that their portraits should travel under police protection, or rather under military protection since they distrusted policemen almost as much as postmen. They were proud that their paintings should be in such demand, but they felt that the honor was being purchased by a considerable risk.
After the paintings left, the Elliots hardly dared to look at the newspapers, for fear of an announcement that thieves had stolen their paintings from the exhibition, or that the gallery had burned down.
"Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre," said Miss Primrose, "and I'm sure that Mona Lisa wasn't nearly as good-looking as Grandmother McGregor!"
"And she wasn't a Daughter of the Revolution, either," said Miss Candida. "I've heard that Mona Lisa was painted from some artist's model of no family importance, and I'm sure it's a greatly overrated painting."
The Elliots implied that Mona Lisa would not pass muster in Geneva.
Letters of congratulation began to arrive, from New York friends who had been to the exhibition. "So charming to see a bit of old Geneva in the Museum!" they said, and they seemed to think that all Geneva belonged in a museum, expecially Miss Primrose and Miss Candida. They enclosed clippings from newspaper accounts of the exhibit, which Miss Primrose and Miss Candida read to callers very laboriously, with due emphasis on "lent by the Misses Elliot of Geneva."
The portraits finally returned. The Elliots were sure that they still possessed the originals, because certain marks made by Miss Primrose on the backs of the canvases were still there. The glory of the exhibition was, however, an addition to the risk of theft, because now every thief in New York doubtless knew all about the Elliots' portraits, and would probably come up to steal them. Miss Primrose and Miss Candida fixed the the loose catch on the dining-room window, and had a carpenter look at the lock on the kitchen door.
"You little know how much depends upon the security of this house!" said Miss Primrose.
© 1940, Warren Hunting Smith
Click here for an index to the chapters of The Misses Elliot of Geneva