The Misses Elliot
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"I lay awake all last night, trying to think what love really is," said Mrs. Edwards in her eightieth year. People in Geneva had reason to wonder about love, for they had seen some of its strangest manifestations. There were people who loved books; there were people who loved the church; there were people who loved dogs. (When one man's will was contested, witness after witness testified to his saying that he loved his dog more than his family.) There were even quite a good many people who loved other human beings.
Even these, however, didn't always behave in ordinary fashion. There were couples who preferred the excitements of eternal courtship to the dullness of matrimony. There were scandals which made respectable citizens shiver with horror. When spring came to this town, it produced strange blossomings in the human heart.
Everybody of ripe age had to have a romance in the background—that is, if he or she didn't have one very much in the foreground. If there wasn't a romance visible, we invented one for him, and we hinted that the trunks of old papers in his garret were not entirely concerned with mortgage settlements and title deeds. Age made no difference; some of the tenderest lovers were over seventy, and we could believe anything of anybody. Miss Evelina Scott used to say that every old lady had to have either an old beau in the cemetery or a new one in the parlor, and preferably several of each. (Miss Evelina herself had the best collection.)
Former lovers and long-lost brothers didn't usually reappear to sweeten the Indian summer of our Geneva ladies. There were, to be sure, a few lost brothers, but everybody was quite content to have them stay lost. One of them turned up in New York and said that if someone didn't pay his fare home to Geneva, he'd jump off a ferryboat into the harbor; whereupon an old Genevan gave him ten cents for the ferryboat. He was fished out of the harbor and sent home, but evidently he made a more successful attempt, later on, and was not fished out.
We had all heard about the Elliots' former sweethearts, but we never really believed in their existence. It was inconceivable that anybody could actually be in love with such terrifying people, and it didn't seem likely that the Elliots themselves had ever been in love at all. If suitors had actually existed, they had probably died of frustration long ago, or had been permanently paralyzed by one of Miss Primrose's stinging shafts.
Dr. Gordon used to speak of Miss Primrose and Miss Candida as his "old sweethearts," but Dr. Gordon was old enough and satiric enough to make even Mr. Van Bruggen seem like a naive schoolboy; the word "sweethearts," on his lips, sounded like gross sarcasm. Mrs. Edwards could have told us something if she wanted to. (It was hinted that Mr. Edwards had once courted the Elliots.)
We had to rely on Mrs. Culpepper's accounts, and she was too charitable to be an accurate reporter.
We conceded that the Elliots had probably been handsome, but we couldn't quite swallow Mrs. Culpepper's statement that they had been striking beauties. (We knew that she had been pretty, because she still was.) Mrs. Culpepper said that the Elliots had been the belles of the town, but then, if they had been invited to only two parties a year, she would have said the same thing. When she spoke of the crowds of suitors who used to swarm around Miss Primrose and Miss Candida, we concluded that some old gentlemen had escorted them home from church once in a while. It was hard for us to take her seriously when she told us that an old beau of Miss Candida's was in town.
"At least, I think he was Candida's, she said. "He may have been Primrose's. He was very attentive to the Elliots when he was in college here. He called this morning, when I happened to be out, and left his card," and she held out a card on which was engraved: "The Venerable Phineas Watkins Watson, Archdeacon of Southeast Rhode Island."
Somehow that didn't sound very romantic.
"He had long whiskers," said Mrs. Culpepper, shattering with every word the idyllic picture which she had conjured up at first. "I think that he and Primrose had a famous quarrel over the position of the litany desk in church architecture, but nowadays people don't think of litany desks as High-Church, so that the Elliots have probably forgiven him by this time. He used to be something of a practical joker, and I don't think that the Elliots always liked his jokes."
The Venerable Phineas looked as if his joking days were over. We saw him in church—a gaunt old clergyman with nose glasses and a long goatee. Mrs. Edwards went up to speak to him, and told him that she supposed he had led a life of fasting and great mortification, implying that he certainly looked it. He called again on Mrs. Culpepper, and she asked him if he had seen the Elliots yet. He seemed rather vague. Surely he remembered the Elliots? Oh, yes, very well indeed; he used to take them to dances.
Were they still alive? Then he supposed he'd have to go and see the old girls sometime; that is, if they still remembered him. He didn't sound like an ardent lover. Mrs. Culpepper's hope of a tender reunion of old sweethearts was rather dampened. She told him that everybody would be greatly disappointed if he didn't go to see his old friends.
The archdeacon's memory of the Elliots may have been vague, but their recollections of him were uncomfortably vivid. They said nothing whatever about the college dances, but the mere mention of his name brought forth a tirade about High Churchmen.
"He was getting High about that litany desk," said Miss Primrose, "and now he's hit the church ceiling in a cloud of incense!"
The Elliots were outraged when they heard that "Phin," as they still called him, was coming to see them— "He can't convert us!" said Miss Candida.
Just what happened during that visit, nobody really knew, except that the Elliots weren't converted to anything. The archdeacon took them a bunch of roses, but any softening effect that it may have had was counterbalanced by his extreme clerical costume, suggestive of crucifixes, rosary beads, and hair shirts. Perhaps his joking days weren't over, after all, and certainly the joking instincts of the most solemn archbishop would be revived after one look at the Elliots as they stood rigid with Low-Church disapproval. You felt like throwing holy water at them no matter how much you might disapprove of holy water yourself.
Somebody passed the Elliots on the street, a few days later, just as Miss Candida was saying:
"He even smelled of incense; I almost asked him if he carried it in his tobacco pouch."
"He ought to be unfrocked," said Miss Primrose decisively.
Soon afterwards, Archdeacon Watson left town, without being unfrocked, and nothing more was seen or heard of him for a long time. Miss Evelina Scott, who, at seventy-four, was in the midst of one of her passionate love affairs, was quite disappointed about it all.
"He should have stayed here," she said. "They would have had such a good time billing and cooing together about religion."
Mrs. Edwards snorted. "You've picked a poor pair of turtledoves," she said. "Instead of billing and cooing, you'd see plucked feathers and scratching claws."
Mrs. Culpepper, that incorrigible romanticist, told everybody that the archdeacon's visit had been a great success.
"The Elliots' maid told my Mary that Primrose and Candida spent hours prinking themselves up to see their old beau." (As a matter of fact, they had probably been planning some crushing witticisms about his churchmanship.) "He gave them a big bunch of roses—'For my old sweethearts,' he said. Candida was quite embarrassed when I spoke to her about it."
And, whenever the Elliots were discussed Mrs. Culpepper would always tell what great belles they had been, and how an elderly clergyman was still courting them; she would shake her head and smile. Miss Primrose's comment was briefer and more to the point. "Southeast Rhode Island seems to have a softening effect on the brain," she said.
Some time later, when the Elliots were known to be having financial reverses, their banker whispered that an unknown person was paying small amounts into their bank account. "A relative, I suppose," he said. "The sums aren't large, and I doubt if Miss Primrose and Miss Candida know that anybody else is helping them."
Mrs. Culpepper seized on that bit of news, and concluded at once that the archdeacon was sending anonymous gifts to his former ladylove. She scouted the suggestion that it might be just the Elliots' Cousin John. The archdeacon was a perfect saint, and of course he wouldn't think of telling people about his benefactions—unlike Miss Evelina Scott's latest adorer, who told the whole town that he practically supported the Scott sisters. The Elliots would have felt uncomfortable if they knew that a bachelor (and a High-Church one at that!) was helping them.
We didn't tell her so, but we all doubted Mrs. Culpepper's theory. The archdeacon wasn't well-to-do, and we refused to believe in his romantic feelings. We were almost equally sure that the money hadn't come from Cousin John Elliot, who likewise had limited means, and who had a large family to support. Our suspicions pointed towards Miss Buxton or some of the other charitable ladies of the community.
One of the most popular guessing games in Geneva might be called "Who Is Supporting Whom?" We had a large assortment of penniless gentlefolk, who obviously couldn't live without help from somebody; we had a smaller assortment of moderately wealthy people, who were known to be charitable— the puzzle was to fit the right givers to the right receivers. If Miss Buxton was supporting the Joneses, then she couldn't have money enough to support the Jiggses, who must be receiving help, therefore, from the Jenkinses. It was all very perplexing. If such private benefactions had been made through the Community Chest, Geneva would have been noted as a paradise of charity—which, in some respects, it was.
In Geneva, the loss of money doesn't signify anything because people who have no money to start with, lose and lose and lose, yet still go on living in the same way. The miracle of the loaves and the fishes seems to be re-enacted over and over again in this miraculous community. On the other hand, several townspeople inherited the entire estates of wealthy relatives, and yet seemed more poverty-stricken than ever—there was just no reason to it all. In finance as in love, we could believe anything of anybody.
Mrs. Culpepper was disappointed when she finally heard that the Elliots were being assisted by Mrs. Edwards. It was a pleasant surprise, to be sure, that Mrs. Edwards, who scolded the Elliots so often, should be helping them; but Mrs. Culpepper had hoped that the archdeacon was still watching over his boyhood sweethearts when he retired from active service, she fully expected him to settle in Geneva, as so many elderly clerics had done, and she was distressed when he left for California without saying good-bye to the Elliots or anybody else.
She was consoled, for a while, by the rumor that Miss Evelina Scott might get married. Miss Evelina was a godsend to old widowers and bachelors—and to some old married men too—because she combined the tolerance and mellowness of age with some of the dash and impudence of youth. Old men found her good to look at, amusing to listen to, and safe. (These young girls might pretend to flirt with an old man, but they'd really be making fun of him.) One of her infatuated suitors openly said that he was offering Evelina his hand and fortunes in marriage, and, since he was a good match, Mrs. Culpepper expected Evelina to accept. The Elliots were not so sure. Anybody who had preserved her independence for seventy-odd years ought to be too proud to give in now, they thought—and anyway no marriage ceremony could "make an honest woman" of Evelina in their opinion.
The rest of us were upset by the rumor too. We were so accustomed to Miss Evelina's frequent romances, that Evelina without a lover would have been as great a disappointment to us as the Elliot sisters without the family swamp. Whenever the Misses Scott appeared in new hats, we wondered which of Evelina's admirers had given them to her, but if she should get married, we'd know who gave them to her, which would spoil all the fun.
Miss Evelina soon put an end to our anxiety—and Mrs. Culpepper's hopes—by encouraging a suitor who was supported by his rich wife. Obviously he wouldn't divorce the wife to support the penniless Scott sisters (whoever married Evelina must take Isabella too), and so we felt sure that she would remain scandalously single. Evelina too had a clerical beau, but there were no quarrels over litany desks in that romance; she didn't care whether he escorted her to a revivalist camp meeting or a solemn vespers, as long as he escorted her somewhere. Shortly afterwards, Miss Evelina displayed three new hats in rapid succession—one of the hats was really a frightful object, but then, as Miss Primrose said, Evelina Scott had no discrimination.
© 1940, Warren Hunting Smith
Click here for an index to the chapters of The Misses Elliot of Geneva