April 1994

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The Misses Elliot

of Geneva


Warren Hunting Smith

Click here for an index to the chapters of The Misses Elliot of Geneva

Chapter XIV

Years (in fact, decades) went by, and left the Elliots almost unchanged. They grew a little stouter and a little more gray-haired, and perhaps they walked in a slightly more wavering course, but nobody thought of them as being really old, until Miss Primrose's last illness, when it was reported around town that she was actually seventy-nine. In Geneva, seventy-nine isn't a great age, but it was a greater one than we had attributed to Miss Primrose, even though she was the older of the two.

The course of her illness was a long battle between the Elliots and the hospital staff. The Elliots distrusted hospitals; they belonged to a generation that believed birth and death too sacred to take place anywhere but under one's own roof. The doctor, however, had insisted that she must have special treatments at the hospital, and the Elliots consented, though under constant protest. The doctor was named Dr. Wright, but they called him Dr. Wrong. Perhaps if Miss Primrose had wasted less of her strength in being indignant at the doctors, she might have recovered—but she didn't recover.

To Geneva, her death seemed a major disaster. She was mourned by many outside the small circle of those who really knew and loved her. The Elliot sisters had become local classics, and, to most of us, the Elliot sisters had meant just Miss Primrose; Miss Candida had seemed a mere supporter, an auxiliary who led up to Miss Primrose's bon mots, and joined in duets of indignation. The Elliot teamwork wouldn't have been teamwork without Miss Candida, but we felt that without Miss Primrose it wouldn't have been anything at all.

It was a surprise, then, to find the Elliot genius still flourishing in Miss Candida. Probably she had always been the power behind the throne, and from long association she had even caught some of Miss Primrose's peculiar gifts of expression; it almost seemed as if Miss Primrose's ghost inspired Miss Candida, at moments, to say things which Miss Candida, by herself, would never have uttered. Certainly she, who had formerly played a subordinate part, now had no trouble in filling the whole stage. She had less charm than Miss Primrose, and no subtlety, but she was a true Elliot.

She made this clear, even at Miss Primrose's funeral. Out in the hall, the assembled mourners could hear her telling the clergyman in stage whispers that there were to be no prayers for Primrose's soul; praying for the dead was High-Church. Primrose was in Heaven, and that was that. As for the hymns, she selected a couple that Primrose had liked, and one that Primrose didn't like, but there was nothing that Primrose could do about it now.

Then the funeral procession went around the corner to the old cemetery, where the two sisters had carried on their warfare with the commissioners. This cemetery was now disused, except by a few families who still had plots there, and Miss Primrose's funeral was probably the only one that had entered its gates that year. It was a graveyard quite as individualistic as the Elliots themselves. It wasn't all smoothed and rolled, like these park-like modern cemeteries; in this one, you could have a big hump over your grave if you wanted, and a different tombstone for every member of the family. A single grass-grown driveway wandered up the slope from the gate to the far end of the yard, but this thoroughfare to the dead corresponded to Geneva's Main Street among the living—the great families of the town lay stretched on either side, beneath grass mounds and tottering tombstones; the monuments lurched and the turf swelled and sank with true Main Street individualism.

When it came time to make out a tax statement, Miss Candida was brought into conflict with her family lawyer. He was a cousin, and he knew her too well to argue.

"Very well," he said, "you can get another lawyer, Candida."

This time, she went to a more distant cousin, and he too knew Miss Candida too well to argue.

"I thought Cousin Philip was your lawyer," he said.

"He was," said Miss Candida, "but he's too conscientious for me now!"

© 1940, Warren Hunting Smith
Click here for an index to the chapters of The Misses Elliot of Geneva
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