June 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 XV, Conclusion

Most of these surviviors, however, had a certain zest for life which Miss Candida shared only when she had to convey a reprimand or a complaint. She had trouble, therefore, in keeping servants—a trouble which most old Genevans didn't have. We once saw Miss Agatha Van Bruggen rush into the railroad station one morning, with her hair disheveled and tears streaming down her face—all because her maid was eloping with some presumably unworthy person, and Miss Agatha wanted to intercept them before it was too late. Miss Candida's procedure was to let eloping maids elope.

Miss Candida's standards, of course, were rather uncomfortable, just as her kitchen was rather uncomfortable. Nobody who was High-Church, not to mention Romanist, need apply. She even refused to send messages to friends by servants whom she suspected of belonging to the wrong churches. As for servants who belonged to no church at all—or who stayed out late, or who entertained young men in the kitchen, or who were cross to Miss Candida's parrot—but the catalogue of potential crimes was endless. It was a miracle that Miss Candida in her later years got Hannah to keep house for her. Hannah was old enough to realize that she was in the presence of genius, however exasperating. She had ceaseless patience in interpreting telephone calls and conveying messages; she hovered behind Miss Candida's portieres at her entertainments, ready to dash in and save the situation; she brought out Miss Candida's needlework and water colors which the lady herself was too modest to exhibit to visitors. Anybody else would have hailed Hannah as a priceless treasure; Miss Candida's approval was rather grudgingly given.

With Hannah and the parrot, then, she settled down to lead the final stage of a Geneva lady's life, and she played her part well. Her gray, old-fashioned clothes, her lavish white hair, her stoop, her cane, and her parrot all suited it. She didn't mope; this museum piece was constantly on exhibit. You liked her, not for what she said and did, which often enough, were disagreeable, but just for what she represented; you felt that while she yet lived and spoke, time stood still for a brief space, and the past stopped receding into oblivion.

If she had just made an occasional appearance, smiled, and said a few sweet words, she would be remembered as just another dear old lady. That wasn't the Geneva way of doing things, however; it certainly wasn't the Elliot way. Miss Candida couldn't help being an individual up to the very last; she never sank into that anonymity which sometimes overtakes old people who are merely old and nothing else. With the same grim persistence which characterized her walk, her falls, and her entertainments, she maintained her individuality. There wasn't going to be anything soft and saccharine about Miss Candida. Once she had been to see somebody's newly painted portrait.

"Wasn't it a good portrait!" exclaimed Mrs. Culpepper. "It was just like her!"

"Yes, pitifully like her," said Miss Candida.

Nor did she stop traveling. Her annual winter exodus was made as faithfully as ever; "the Misses Elliot of Geneva" were merely reduced from the plural to the singular. A Genevan must be poor indeed to be unable to take a trip of some sort, once in a while, just to enjoy Geneva all the more when he comes home again.

"You needn't talk about your trip to Europe!" the Misses Griscom had said. "We've just had a ride on the canalboat!"

At her various winter resorts, Miss Candida conducted herself in characteristic fashion. There were always former Genevans to be called upon, and she went the rounds faithfully. People were kind to her, knowing that their reward would be in Heaven, or, better still, in Geneva. She visited the sick and the unsick too, and her bedside manner was infuriating enough to make people forget all their ailments in their hurry to be rid of her. To her landladies, she was an endless trial, and a ceaseless topic of conversation.

The Geneva gentlewoman upon her travels always remained unmistakably Genevan (and unmistakably a gentlewoman). In European hotels, people who had visited Geneva would catch sight of somebody whom, as an individual, they didn't recognize at all, and would exclaim "Geneva!" just because the stranger was so true to type. Miss Candida wasn't quite so representative of her town as Miss Primrose had been, but her clothes and manner conveyed that antiquated distinction which shines like a halo around old Genevans, and which is quite different from mere dowdiness and Victorianism.

The magic of her name was enough to give her admittance into any household which had ever been connected with her native town. The words "Miss Elliot of Geneva" recalled memories of childhood days on Main Street, of spacious dresses sweeping down the aisle in church, of sprightly conversation over the teacups. Miss Candida was a symbol of all that.

Her friends at home weren't forgotten when she was away. Postals would come from her, saying "How I wish you were here!" ("Yes, Lizzie," said someone to the recipient of one of these messages, "you don't know what you're missing!") Instructions about the care of her house or her parrot would send people dashing off on errands for her.

The parrot was usually boarded out at the seamstress's when Miss Candida was away. Before she left, she would carry the shrouded cage down the street, murmuring endearments as she went. Once she got there, only to find that the cage was empty—Poll, forseeing the purpose of her preparations, had slipped out when Miss Candida wasn't looking, and was found in the front parlor when the indignant lady returned. That time, the cage was carried down the street with no fond farewells, and was deposited at the seamstress's with a final angry shake.

Miss Evelina Scott said that the parrot ought to be trained to take Miss Primrose's place. She claimed that once, when she walked past Miss Candida's house, she heard the bird screech "Wicked woman!" The parrot is still alive, and anyone who cares to do so can listen at the bars of the cage for echoes of the Elliots' conversation, but probably the parrot considers the seamstress's conversation much more interesting.

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