The Misses Elliot
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All good Genevans went "downstreet" every morning (whether they had anything to buy or not), and visited the bank (whether they had any money or not). It was just the proper way of spending the morning and making one's presence felt in the community. The bank had all the attractions of a salon, including a witty president who was the social genius of the place (fortunately there were other geniuses too), and a sparkling clientele. At the bank, you gathered the local news which would furnish you with topics for the day's conversation; if anybody had died overnight, you heard of it at the bank, hours before the evening paper was delivered at your door. If you wanted to see somebody without going through the formality of ringing his doorbell, you lurked in the bank and pounced upon him. As the Rialto was to Venice, or the Forum to ancient Rome, or the Pump Room to Bath, so was the bank to Geneva.
The Elliots went to the bank nearly every morning. Just what they did there in the way of banking, nobody knew, but we certainly knew other things that they did. Here, within a limited space, they could see all the people whose scattered houses would require hours of calling. The Elliots would probably call anyway, but in the meantime the bank gave them quicker access to their friends.
Outside the bank lay Seneca Street, which was the outer court to this inner sanctum. If you didn't see your friends in the bank, you would surely catch sight of them on Seneca Street before the morning was over. You would perhaps see them tiptoeing down the slippery hill from Main Street, a dangerous spot, responsible for many a sprained ankle. People who slipped on Geneva streets couldn't collect damages from the city because Dr. Gordon had put a neat clause into the charter by which anyone who was injured by a fault in the street must first have filed an affidavit showing that the fault existed. As no one had the foresight to predict when he was going to slip on Seneca Hill, no affidavits were filed and no damages were collected.
The Elliots came down faithfully every day—two dumpy brown figures clinging to each other and to the railing as they made the perilous descent. Nobody could tell which sister was holding the other sister up. Miss Candida was really the taller of the two, but she usually wore low, broadbrimmed hats, while Miss Primrose preferred high turbans, so that their heights were somewhat equalized. There was nothing gaunt or old-maidish-looking about the Elliots; even Miss Candida seemed plump and matronly, and Miss Primrose had a pleasant smile. They caught their breaths at the foot of the hill (to be ready for the coming conversations), and their progress from there was slow but sociable, reaching its climax in the bank.
One morning, they were met in the bank by Mr. Van Bruggen, the town wag. The Elliots knew that he regarded them with amusement, but if they had known just how much amusement he got from them, they would never have spoken to him again. It was he who once told a party of tourists that Miss Primrose ran a gambling den, and Miss Candida a speakeasy, thus involving the two sisters in various mystifying adventures which they never thoroughly understood.
That morning, the Elliots should have known that he was up to something, because he had just finished talking with the Scott sisters, Miss Isabella Scott didn't count for anything, except that she kept house for her sister Evelina, a trim sporty-looking old lady, who was very jolly and didn't care what she said or did. The Scott sisters had no money to speak of, but Miss Evelina's friends kept them afloat—especially gentlemen friends, of waggish tendencies. In return, Miss Evelina was said to supply her admirers with the choicest gossip.
Mr. Van Bruggen certainly seemed to be well supplied when he came to speak to the Elliots. He towered over them with his mop of white hair, and with a twinkle in his eyes which should have put the Elliots on their guard.
He had a real piece of news for them, though it was told out of sheer mischief. An English couple, who were spending the winter in a Geneva apartment, had hung out their English flag with an American one on Armistice Day, and the superintendent of the apartment house had made them take down the English flag. The Armytages had been quite hurt by the superintendent's attitude; they had hung out their flags to show the friendly relations between the two countries, and they felt that they were misunderstood. He was sure that the Elliots, who knew the Armytages, would be able to smooth things over.
The effect of this news on the Elliots was all that could be desired. A torrent of words burst from them both, in which phrases like: "Insult to our visitors!" "Blot on Geneva's hospitality!" "Flag of a friendly nation!" and "That man!" were distinguishable. Miss Primrose finally got the upper hand and summed of their sentiments.
"This is outrageous! We will call on the Armytages at once and apologize to them."
"We'll make the superintendent apologize too," said Miss Candida.
The ladies bustled out of the bank and hurried to finish their errands. Their temper didn't improve. A gypsy woman hailed Miss Primrose by asking, "Want your fortune told, mother?"
"Mother!" snapped Miss Primrose. "My good woman, you'll tell no fortunes in this town if you call ladies 'mother'!"
An encounter with the plumber didn't help matters because he was the plumber who had misplaced the Elliots' lavatory fixtures. A man who was too stupid to realize that toilet seats were made to be sat upon and not just to be looked at—well, it had led to topics which the Elliots didn't usually discuss with plumbers, and they preferred to forget both the incident and the plumber. Then they went to the hardware store where nobody waited on them. Miss Candida said that the clerks in the hardware store all hid behind the counters whenever a customer came in, and the clerks said that when she came in, that's just what they did!
When they had run the gauntlet of friends and enemies, the Elliots toiled back to Main Street and up to the apartment house. They had once lived there for a while, when their own house was being repaired and so they took a proprietary interest in its inhabitants. Mr. Moriarty, the superintendent, was sitting in his lair in the basement, with his feet on the table. Poor Man! he was peacefully smoking his pipe, thinking about the football game that he was going to see that afternoon.
"We hear that you made the Armytages take down their English flag," said Miss Candida as they burst upon him. "The flag of an allied nation!"
"If you would stop bothering about other people's flags and pay more attention to your own work, this would be a better apartment house!" said Miss Primrose.
Mr. Moriarty had taken his feet off the table as a concession to politeness; he now took the pipe from his mouth.
"I hate the British," said Mr. Moriarity.
"Your private prejudices shouldn't interfere with courtesy to the strangers within our gates," said Miss Primrose.
"If your forebears had been treated by the British as mine were-" He couldn't have given them a better opening.
"Our ancestors fought in the Revolution!" cried Miss Primrose and Miss Candida in chorus.
"Our great-grandfather tore down a British standard at Bunker Hill, but I never heard of his tearing down the flags of innocent civilians," said Miss Primrose.
"We are going to apologize to the Armytages; you must apologize too!" said Miss Candida.
"Pooh, Candida; he doesn't know what the word apology means!" snapped Miss Primrose. "Come; we're wasting our time."
The sisters stormed up the basement stairs, and climbed to the second floor. (Mr. Moriarity usually ran the elevator for them but they felt that it would be contamination to ride up with him now.) Mrs. Armytage was at home, and received the breathless Elliots with surprise.
"Excuse us for calling at such an hour," said Miss Primrose, when she had regained her wind, "but we've only just heard what happened to your English flag on Armistice Day."
Mrs. Armytage tried to say something disarming, but the Elliots weren't going to be disarmed so easily.
"An insult from any Genevan, however unworthy, is an insult from us all!" said Miss Primrose.
"Here in Geneva, where we pride ourselves on our hospitality!" said Miss Candida.
"We are Daughters of the Revolution, but we are also members of the English-Speaking Union," said Miss Primrose.
"We admire England very much," said Miss Candida.
"As a guest of Geneva, you can hang out the Kaiser's nightshirt if you want to," said Miss Primrose, "and we'll fix anybody who dares complain about it!"
"Oh, poor Mr. Moriarity!" murmured Mrs. Armytage.
"Don't give him any sympathy!" said Miss Primrose, still relentless. "He was smoking his pipe, with his feet on the table, when he should have been busy. He's a rude lazy man!"
After further apologies and speeches on international relations, the Elliots descended the stairs majestically, with the air of Roman consuls retiring after a deed of justice. Mr. Moriarity watched their retreating backs from his basement window, and took the pipe out of his mouth again.
"Them old ladies!" said Mr. Moriarity. "If the Angel Gabriel was running this apartment house, he couldn't satisfy them old ladies!"
© 1940, Warren Hunting Smith
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