The Misses Elliot
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Chapter V, Conclusion
They were at Mrs. Edwards's house when they heard the news. Mrs. Edwards was one of their chief ports of call in those daily navigations up and down Main Street. Her house was smothered in shrubs ("I've always wanted to live in a bosky dell! said Mrs. Edwards), and she herself was usually surrounded by visitors, because she liked people, and she felt that she had a knack for bringing their minds to life. Her methods were sometimes rather brusque, but you always felt like talking back at Mrs. Edwards, and she felt like talking back at you, so the conversation seldom lagged. Dr. Gordon had condescended to say that it was a pity that she had never had an education.
That afternoon, Mrs. Edwards was dealing with minds that might be said to be past resuscitation, because the Misses Elliot and the Misses Griscom were all nearly seventy, and Freddie Culpepper was nearly eighty and feeble in the head.
"The Elliots were the life of the party," said Mrs. Edwards afterwards.
The Griscom sisters were too shy to be the life of any party, and they were so poverty-stricken as to make the Misses Tibbs and the Misses Scott seem well-to-do, and the Misses Elliot downright plutocratic, by comparison. The Griscoms' only possession was their ramshackle old house, but it was one of the most beautiful houses in town. They raised a few fruits and vegetables in the tangled garden that fell down in terraces to the lake; they made cakes and jellies for people; they taught the Bible to a small group of children whose parents were glad to pay the Misses Griscom for that privilege. The various churches had their Sunday schools, but no Sunday school could make you feel, as you felt in the Griscom's dilapidated house, that God would always temper the wind to the shorn lamb, and that a Heavenly Father watched with special tenderness over poor old ladies.
The Griscom family wasn't distinguished (their father had been a miller), but in Geneva any spinsterly pair, living in an old house, were automatically aristocratic. The Griscoms were small and quaint; they weren't as dignified as the Elliots, or as pinched-looking as the Tibbses. When you heard Miss Lizzie Griscom playing the hymns for her Bible class on the tinkly old piano, you realized that here was Geneva poverty at its sweetest. The Griscoms' little pupils felt that if being poor was to be like the Misses Griscom, then nobody need ever want to be rich.
The Elliots didn't feel that way about it. They thought that Miss Lizzie Griscom was lacking in gumption, and that Miss Susie had more gumption but no brains. (Miss Susie's gumption unfortunately led her to apply for positions as stenographer, hotel hostess, or telegraph operator, without realizing that any training or ability was needed for such posts.) Probably the Elliots resented the Griscoms chiefly because the Elliots, when the Griscoms were around, could no longer feel themselves quite so poverty-stricken. Complaints about the family swamp and the bad investments sounded rather hollow before the Griscoms, who had no swamp and no investments at all.
Miss Primrose started the conversation by telling about a friend of hers who had devoted her life to the study of the earthworm. According to Miss Primrose, the earthworm was not only fascinating in itself, but it had remade the woman's entire life, much as a religious conversion might do.
"Primrose," she had whispered, "why don't you take up earthworms?"
Miss Primrose had made the obvious retort that she owned a swamp, and had better take up tadpoles.
"You can study smaller things than that," said Mrs. Edwards, who prided herself on a smattering of scientific knowledge. "Dr. Gordon says that all animal life developed from
Actually, they were afraid that she might live for ever at their expense. They wanted to keep her alive, but didn't want her to drink them out of house and home. They suggested diluting Aunt Annabel's daily doses, but the old lady always detected these attempts, and promptly complained of pains and sinking feelings.
("How can she sink any further?" said Miss Primrose. "She's on the bottom now!")
Aunt Annabel's recovery was a good test of the virtues of alcohol, but the Elliots began to wish that those Prohibitionists would prohibit medicinal alcohol too. If Miss Primrose and Miss Candida refused to buy Aunt Annabel any more whisky, the old lady would promptly die on them, and then people would say that those miserly Elliots had murdered their old aunt People were always making such accusations: Mr. Potts had murdered his wife by refusing to take her to California every winter, and Mrs. Jenkins had murdered her son-in-law by making him shovel the sidewalk when he wasn't feeling well. The Elliots themselves had often made such indictments before grand juries of Geneva tea drinkers. Miss Primrose and Miss Candida would have felt uncomfortable in church when they were reminded that in Heaven Aunt Annabel would be plied with whisky, while the Elliots would be sent empty away.
Miss Evelina Scott saved the situation. The Scott sisters were remotely related to Aunt Annabel; in fact it was their father's example which gave Aunt Annabel her zeal for temperance. (Old Tom Scott, in his cups, had been enough to make almost anybody a Prohibitionist.) Miss Evelina sometimes went to see "Cousin Annabel," as she called her, and one afternoon she was present when the old lady was being given her dose of whisky. Miss Evelina knew perfectly well what the bottle contained, and she saw where the nurse put it. The whisky made Aunt Annabel drowsy, and she soon dozed off; Miss Evelina, however, was quite wide-awake. She got the bottle off the shelf and poured herself a
glass. All would have been well if Miss Primrose and Miss Candida hadn't decided to pay Aunt Annabel a visit, just then. Miss Evelina heard them, and hurried to put the glass away, but she was a second too late.
"Well, Evelina, I suppose you'd snatch the bottle right out of a baby's mouth!" said Miss Primrose. "No wonder that Aunt Annabel's medicine went so fast! How fond of the old lady you must be!"
"I just felt a chill coming on," said Miss Evelina, "and I thought I'd take a nip of your aunt's medicine, since I knew it was whisky."
"Whisky?" said Aunt Annabel, suddenly turning her head on the pillow. "Is my medicine whisky!"
"Yes, and very good whisky it is," said Miss Evelina. "Bought by your loving nieces."
"Ill never touch another drop of it," groaned Aunt Annabel. "Oh, to be given whisky at my age!"
"Better late than never!" shouted Miss Evelina, disappearing out the door.
From that time, Aunt Annabel never touched a drop of medicine of any kind, she suspected everything of being alcoholic. She grew weaker and more doddery every day, and it wasn't long before the Elliots were able to say, with great satisfaction, that "Evelina Scott practically murdered our Aunt Annabel."
© 1940, Warren Hunting Smith
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