The Misses Elliot
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Dr. Theophilus Gordon was the uncle of Mr. and the Misses Van Bruggen. The Van Bruggens were at least sixty years old, so that Dr. Gordon must have been quite old enough to die—and the Elliots thought it was high time for him to do so. The Van Bruggen waggishness was said to be an inheritance from Dr. Gordon, and one of the doctor's most subtle jokes consisted in just staying alive. He could remember humiliating episodes in everybody's past; he could remember the humble origins of some of our most respected families; above all, he could remember every woman's exact age.
Dr. Gordon had taught for a while at the Geneva Medical College, but when the Medical College was moved elsewhere, he decided that it was too much trouble to pack up his library and his collection of Indian relics, and so he stayed in Geneva, giving an occasional lecture at the other college, taking a few trips abroad, and generally observing life.
His nephew, William Van Bruggen, was a wit of different caliber. Van Bruggen was a bluff, hearty person, whose jokes were never unintelligible, but Dr. Gordon was a devil of sarcasm who didn't care whether anybody understood him or not. Geneva, to Dr. Gordon, was a vast comedy, played for his especial benefit. When a clergyman was suspected of scandalous behavior, Dr. Gordon collected all the scandal, and poured it into the tingling ears of the Misses Tibbs, who were intimate friends of the clergyman's wife. Then Dr. Gordon sat back to watch things happen—and they did happen.
Mr. Van Bruggen was something of a lady's man, as Miss Evelina Scott could testify, but Uncle Theophilus Gordon never encouraged any Geneva maiden's aspirations. The Elliots' Uncle Peter had proposed marriage to everyone, but the Van Bruggens' Uncle Theophilus never proposed anything more entangling than a tea party.
The Elliots regarded the doctor with something like horror. At a public meeting, Dr. Gordon had said:
"I think that perhaps Miss Primrose Elliot could give us a few illuminating words on this subject."
Miss Primrose, who had been bursting with very pungent words, had delivered a fiery speech, containing more heat than illumination.
"Very well," Dr. Gordon had said. "Since Miss Elliot feels so strongly about it, I move that we elect her our delegate to convey our resolutions to President Wilson."
Woodrow Wilson was the Elliots' chief political target at that time, and Miss Primrose not only conveyed the resolutions to him, but threw in some of her opinions about the President himself, with the result that the Elliots became embroiled with various local politicans and entangled in a series of embarrassing events, all very diverting to the doctor.
In spite of their horror, Miss Primrose and Miss Candida often asked him to tea, because he was a distinguished and stimulating person, and because he knew too much about them to make him a safe person to antagonize. He would come walking down the street with Cassandra, his cat, who, he said, was the nicest old lady in Geneva. Cassandra would curl up in the back parlor, provoking a stream of invective from the Elliots' parrot. Cassandra was very polite about it. She would calmly clean her paws, with the air of a great lady ignoring the clamor of some street urchin.
"Primrose," said Dr. Gordon. "How lucky you both are not to know too much! I've just been talking to a girl who knows everything, or thinks she does, and life has no illusions for her. Your generation took things at their face value, without finding sex motives behind everything."
"You can hardly expect us to find sex motives at our age," said Miss Primrose.
"Ah, but you mustn't be so sure," said Dr. Gordon. "If sex still operates in Evelina Scott, it may in you."
"It's just a habit with Evelina," said Miss Primrose. "She collects lovers much as you collect Indian tomahawks, and the only advantage is that she gets supported by her collection."
"She collects roast beef too," said Miss Candida. "That's also very supporting."
"Now, my dear ladies," said Dr. Gordon. "Evelina likes my nephew for more things than his money and his conversation, and it seems to me that you women resent Evelina for more things than her depredations. Doesn't it make you just a little bit jealous to see all the men flocking to her?"
Miss Primrose and Miss Candida exploded so vociferously that Cassandra stopped cleaning her paws, and looked at them as if she were sure that no real ladies could be so very ungenteel.
"Now don't protest so violently," said Dr. Gordon. "Your excitement just shows that I'm right about it."
"It does nothing of the sort," said Miss Primrose. "If a woman's a thief, our disapproval doesn't mean that we're jealous of what she steals."
"I remember a time," Dr. Gordon began, in his most smooth and malicious manner, "when your feelings towards Hattie Edwards were very much like your feeling towards Evelina now."
This remark touched a sore spot—a very sore spot—and Miss Primrose answered firmly."At that time, we didn't quite appreciate Hattie."
"Are you sure that you now appreciate Evelina?" he asked.
A chorus of "Only too well!" came from the Elliot sisters. Cassandra glanced disapprovingly at them.
"It seems to me," continued the doctor, "that you good church people might remember something in the Bible about casting the first stone at a woman."
"It says 'He that is without sin' may cast the first stone," Miss Primrose retorted. "It doesn't say 'She that is without sin,' so I suppose that we women can cast all the stones we want."
"Excellent Biblical casuistry!" exclaimed Dr. Gordon.
"Besides," Miss Primrose continued, "my conscience is quite clear concerning Evelina's forms of sinning."
"Dr. Freud would certainly enjoy meeting you," murmured Dr. Gordon at his deadliest. Cassandra smacked her lips.
"No, he wouldn't!" answered Miss Candida, probably with a great deal of truth. "We'd disprove all his theories."
"He couldn't twist my dreams into anything bad!" said Miss Primrose. "I usually dream about being at Sunday school."
"Oh, that's bad, that's very bad," Dr. Gordon clucked in tones of commiseration, "It's a sure sign of one of the most subtle perversions."
"Nonsense!" said Miss Primrose. "It's a sign of indigestion. I had a bad tummy-ache once in Sunday school, and now when I have just a touch of indigestion I dream about that Sunday school."
"Somebody ought to investigate the effects of religion on the digestive organs," said the doctor. "Maybe if I'd gone into medical practice I could have done it myself. Here are all these religious people, and most of them do have indigestion."
"This High-Church business sometimes turns my stomach," said Miss Candida, "but most of my attacks come from excessive acidity."
"Yes, I can sometimes detect excessive acidity in your conversation," said the doctor, "so that probably it settles in the stomach. But, mark my words, all acidity comes from sex!"
"Maybe yours does," said Miss Primrose. "And if you go into medical practice, you'll be the last doctor I'll ever call on! You say quite enough about my outside, without snooping in the interior!"
"What an interesting snoop it would be," murmured the doctor. "But it's time that Cassandra was starting home for her supper. Cassandra isn't bothered by indigestion, not she! Come along, Cassandra, don't mind that parrot; he merely suffers from acidity.
"Miss Cassandra and I," he concluded, "thank you for a most pleasant and entertaining afternoon. I shall write about it in my diary."
Cassandra cast a final withering glance at the parrot, and coolly ignored the Misses Elliot as she walked out.
© 1940, Warren Hunting Smith
Click here for an index to the chapters of The Misses Elliot of Geneva