Longmeadow: chapter seven

Mrs. Tell

 

Now I have said that my Grady and my Nancy are the two halves of my heart. I recall when Mags died and I couldn’t get them children from Dick and I was so distressed I was sick with it. My David couldn’t do nothing for me; I cried all the livelong day and my hair fell out in clumps.

The very night Mags died I told Dick I’d be glad take those children off his hands. I said, “Dick, you’ll give me Grady and Nan now, for you can’t raise ‘em all by yourself.”

And he said, “No, they’re mine and I’ll keep ‘em,” which I think he didn’t want them really, but more he didn’t want no one else to have them, not even their granny. That was a man who squeezed his happiness out of holding it back from someone else.

“But what’ll you do with ‘em when you’re down in the mines?” said I, for tin-mining was his job and his heart might’ve been made of it for all the loving-kindness in it. And his fist too, to judge by the marks on Mags’s cheek when she was still living. It ain’t right to hate a man, but hate him I did.

“I’ll do what I do,” said he, “and thank you to mind your own business.”

So, on a day so cold the birds fell froze from the sky, David and I stood together in the churchyard and watched Mags, our only child, go into the ground. Through my tears I looked at them babes, standing wide-eyed with their dad–he, grim as ever, the steam pouring from his open mouth like a great dragon– and I saw how he had his hands on them two little ones, not gentle, not loving, but like as if you’re holding a mean dog back, though they two were nothing but lambs. And I prayed, not for my Mags’s soul which needed her mother’s prayer, but instead that He would protect them two children from their own father, which I don’t know why she ever loved him in the first. I never could see it but she was my only one, and what she wanted was what I wanted for her. labio-partido_8He never hit her before they was married so I didn’t know to warn her away from him. I will never forgive myself that I couldn’t read him and what he would do once they was man and wife.

 

After the burying, I gave them three days, for David said I shouldn’t spy or nag, and then I went to the house with a basket. And there were those little ones, alone without no one to look after them, and no fire in the grate, and Nan with her little nose all a’snot and Grady, who was just five years old, trying to make her warm. And I made the fire up and gave them some soup and told them some stories like I had told Mags when she was little, which they loved the trolls for what child don’t love a troll in a story, and they went to sleep from finally being warm and full.

children like trolls

Some hours later in came Dick, all hale from drink and the first thing he said was what the hell was I was doing there.

Now I am a big woman, tall and stout, and I was as mad as a wasp and I stood myself up next to him and said, “These babes of yours was cold and hungry and what did you do, except for yourself,” and I could see that look in his eyes like murder.

mad

And my heart quavered in my chest, for I felt afraid for myself as well as for those little ones. I knew for certain: one way or the other, them children had to come to me lest they starve  or freeze or he beat them to death. But that night I had to leave them alone with him. I think I cried all the way home.

 

The next day I was mending a collar in the pantry when in came Miss Maria, which we downstairs ones still wasn’t used to, nor was she. But we was all trying this new way of working together and if that meant her below stairs with us, well, then we’d get used to it, for it was her house. Down she sat at the table with something on her mind, but I never did find out what it was for she saw my red nose and my pouring eyes and she stopped in her tracks. She asked me what was wrong and thanks to God, I told her, for I might’ve kept it to myself, as a servant ought to have done, but it was too awful and it all came out.

I told her about Dick and the two babes and the look she had was worried and then, and I thank God for this, it was furious. I could see her teeth set and her eyes dark up.  But she was quiet, for she’s a lady. And then she told me not to worry, that she would talk to Mr. Charles and they would figure it out.

And then, not a week passed and t’was like a miracle: Dick came to me very proud of hisself, and said he’d been offered a job up near Aubrey as captain in a tin-mine, but he’d have to live in a barracks among the miners and so did I still want the babes.

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smug

It was all I could do not to bite the smug look off his face. Instead, I said very calm, “Yes, Dick, I’ll take care of ‘em,” and off he went like he owned the mine hisself and I never heard from him again, nor do I know if he’s alive or dead.

 

 

And so them babes were finally safe and sound. I put ‘em in with the Widows & Orphans during the day, which they was looked after very nice, and they went to the new school when it was opened up. In the evening, they came home to me and their grandpap in our cottage and we loved ‘em and coddled ‘em as we liked. I have never forgot what Miss Maria did for me. And never will I. And if she asks to me to do a thing I don’t care to do, I think back to what it is she did for me and then I go do the thing with a smile on my face. And that includes Arum House.

But today I mean to go visit my Nancy, which is a delight to me. I ain’t seen her for four days running what with my chores. I have a nice figgy cake which Mrs. Johnston made two of, one for her Sheila and one for my Nan and so I packed it up in a basket with two jars of jam and a tea cloth for her press, and went visiting.

When I knocked on the door of her little cottage, she opened it and bade me come in, all pink and smiles.

“Now how’s that Bert of yours,” said I, handing her the treats I brought with me.

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bower of roses

“Aw, Gran,” she said, “he’s good to me, see what he brought me,” and there she pointed to a wilty little bunch of wildflowers set on the table like they was a bower of roses. I gave her a kiss and sat for a cup.

“And how does Grady do?” said she as she served me cake, all proper like a little lady of the house.

“Oh, well,” said I, “he’s up to his ears with that murder.”

Most of us who live and work here around the manor as well as down to Longmeadow Village would’ve run them gypsies out the very hour that stag was found dead. But Mr. Whitehead, who’s the sheriff after all, and of course Miss Maria herself wanted proof. And there’s been none, neither one way nor the other. So there them gypsies stay in those carts painted like a circus. Mr. Leighton the new curate, kindly as he is, didn’t want to let them bury that dead one in the churchyard—for he hadn’t never been christened– but Miss Maria convinced him, so heathen or not, that one had as nice a burial as I’ll have, though the folks attending didn’t know no better than to dress like they was going to a fair. Appalling, is what I say. But, I must keep my thoughts to myself for Grady’s getting enough muttering from everywhere else.

Van Gogh painted them

 

“I wish them gypsies would pick themselves up,” I said to Nan, “with whatever trash they’ve strowed all about, for I have no doubt it’s filthy, their camp, and get out, once and for all.”

I noticed that Nancy said not a word.

“Nan, my heart,” said I, “what could the matter be?”

Again, nothing, but her face showed her feelings.

“Nancy! Wait: they didn’t frighten you or hurt you, none, surely? No? Well then what is it, lovey?”

Nancy wiped her hands on a cloth and sat slowly down at her little table. “Gran,” she said very quiet, “What if they didn’t have nothing to do with that dead one after all?”

“What?” said I. “What can you mean, my love? Of course they did! It’s plain as the nose on your face! They must have been out there poaching and come to a quarrel. That dead man lost, I’d say. Lord, I’m just glad Miss Juliet ain’t here to see this. She loved that animal to distraction.”

Nancy nodded.

“Did you know that the dead one was the very same one as scared Miss Alta half to death that night?” I said. “Indeed he was. She saw him lying shot to bits there in the wood with her own eyes and knew him for the very one—I heard it from her own mouth. Now what do you think of that!”

Nan still looked worried. “I just thought that perhaps…that it’s wrong to accuse ‘em? Without knowing? Like Miss Maria says?” Her little face was pale under her yellow hair. I know my Nancy outside and in, but I could not think what she was about.

“Well and you’re right, my love,” said I to soothe her. “The evidence will out and prove it was them. And if it ain’t them and they’re truly innocent, which they ain’t, but if they are, then they have naught to fear, from neither God nor man.”

She looked at me with her eyes very large, just as if she was small again, trusting me to take care of her and make her slights, whatever they was, fall away. Lord knows I’ve tried my best for this sweet girl, though nothing in the world can take the place of a mother. I lost my own when I was but small, so I know. It’s a hole that can’t be filled, is what, by neither granny, nor husband, nor child of your own.

“Now Nan,” said I reaching for her hand, “are you all right, then?”

The door flew open and in burst Bert.

“Gran!” said he, for that’s what he calls me same as her, and he gave me a buss on my cheek loud as a gunshot, to make me laugh which it did, and then he picked up my girl and swung her around that little room til she squealed. He’ll turn a sob into a chuckle he will, and that’s why we love him.

loud kiss

I thought about it later that day, after I returned to the manor house—about how she was being so careful not to judge them gypsies. What could she know that I don’t, I asked myself–a little thing like her? I shook my head. No: that girl was too innocent to keep a secret; if she knew anything, she’d have spilled it to me in a trice. I wondered what the matter could be.

And then it came to me in a flash and for a moment my head was so light I had to sit down. Now Margery Tell, I asked myself, trying to be calm, when is it in a woman’s life that her chest can’t hardly contain her heart? When is it that she feels a deep well of charity inside her–deeper than the deep blue sea–towards all them who’ve lived before and all those who have yet to be born? When is it that a woman looks around the world and feels a part of all the people in it, even gypsies?

Could it be that my sweet girl was carrying a child inside her? A baby which I will hold it and smell its head and kiss it and love it? I thought I’d like to run back down to her cottage and hug her to bits but I knew better: if she hadn’t told me it’s because she don’t know herself and must come to it in her own time. Or maybe she and Bert are keeping it special between them, their own secret together for a little while, til the whole of Longmeadow gets hold of it. And that’s a thing I understood.

 

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Longmeadow: chapter six

earlier chapters below

 

Alta

Juliet writes from London: quail in aspic is her new favorite; Cousin Jemima’s servants bow as they deliver letters on a salver; Cousin Jemima wears her stays too tight. As a postscript, Juliet added that she had only contempt for Annie Besant for instigating the recent matchgirl strike. I shook my head, rereading this last part. I knew that Juliet had included it only to irritate Mother.

“Indeed,” said Mother as she read the letter in her turn, “Juliet need not have added that bit about Annie. That was unkind.”

I agreed with her. Annie Besant is one of Mother’s best friends and on her frequent visits to Longmeadow, the discussions are more than enthusiastic. And numerous. Workers’ rights. The lack of sanitary conditions. The vote. And if you aren’t with them, why, you’re against them. I have seen more than one gentleman end in tatters for proffering an alternate point of view.

On such visits, which I find entertaining to a point, Juliet looks as if she’d like to weep from boredom. I understand Juliet’s dilemma; if she asks to be excused from the conversation too soon, Mother would lecture her for paragraphs on the subject’s importance. I myself just wait out the discussions patiently and then slip away, unnoticed, when Mother is distracted. But patience is in my nature. Or at least it’s my habit.  As I’ve said, I’m used to sitting quietly so as not to draw attention.

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“Phossy Jaw,”  (Phosphorus necrosis of the jaw, an occupational hazard of those who work with white phosphorus, such as the match-stick industry of the late nineteenth century.  One of the reasons for the  London Matchgirl Strike of 1888.)

 

Sometimes, however, even I feel restless. The day was grey; perfect for a sojourn out of doors. I felt like a ride. I asked Mark Grove to help me get my horse Roger, ready. I am to do it myself, as Juliet does, but I find the saddle heavy and the hook high. Mark is  obliging and so it our their secret that he does it for me and in truth, he does not seem to mind.

It was drizzling a bit as I went out. Longmeadow had recently enjoyed a fortnight of fine weather and I’d been cloistered for days. For me, the sun is no friend. But I wondered as I rode: was it the sunshine, really, that had kept me inside for these two weeks? Or was it, rather, some new fear brought on by the night I met the gypsy by the dovecote?

Certainly, the gypsy humiliated me. But humiliation is nothing new. And indeed, I agree with Mother’s assessment: it had not been his intention to hurt me. I know I was in no real danger that night.

Nevertheless, I find myself discomfited. I think it’s because I suddenly feel unsafe in my own home. And how can it be otherwise when I know that there are people here at Longmeadow who cannot tolerate even the sight of me?

protection against hex

It is one thing for the fat novelist Mr. Strich to gape; he is a gentleman, after all, and cannot imagine that I will hex his cat to death, or whatever other sort of nonsense there is to invent. But the gypsies who live in their carts just the other side of the wood? I imagine they think me quite dangerous.

 

However, here I am, riding in the morning on what is, after all, my land. (I suppose I ought to feel a pang for thinking that way—that Longmeadow is mine—‘mine,’ rather than ‘ours’—as if Mother were beside me, jabbing me with her crop, to remind me that we must share and share alike. Jabbing is not, of course, something Mother would do. It’s something Juliet might do, but in this case, as she’d agree with me, she’d likely keep her crop to herself.).

I rode in the direction of the great meadow some small distance from the manor. My veil whipped around my face, so I slowed Roger and removed it and then nudged him to a canter. Oh, it was exhilarating! The meadow stretches to the sea—if one rides far enough, one can catch a sight of the waves from the cliff’s edge. For some time, Grady has wanted part of the meadow for haying, but ancient Longmeadow tradition forbids its use as anything other than ornament. It is very beautiful, as it stretches over the hills. Were it up to me, it would remain in this wild state forever.

“Miss Alta?” I heard a voice on the wind and turned round in my saddle.

“Mr. Somerday!” There he was! His white shirt was open at his neck and his hair was blown about. I laughed at his expression: pure enjoyment.

“Miss Alta, do you mock me? How cruel. No, it’s too late for apologies. Well, I ought to be angry but it’s not possible. This field is marvelous for a hard ride. You are here for the same purpose, I see? Do you know, I have traveled throughout the country and these wilder places are disappearing! Oh, the moors are left, I suppose, but there your horse will break a leg if you ride too hard, by falling into some hole or other. This field’s one of the finest, and so vast!”

“Long,” I said to him, smiling at his enthusiasm.

“Long,” he nodded and then understood. “Meadow! I see! Well, it’s marvelous. Now, where are you off to? May I join you?”

We cantered along.

“Listen to the birdsong!” he called to me. “It’s quite deafening!”

I expect that I smiled and nodded. In truth, I’m surprised my heartbeat didn’t drown out

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veils are important

all peeps and twitters. I thought perhaps I should replace my veil. I was afraid the constancy of my smile might make me look simple. It occurred to me: we had never yet been outside together, he and I, though we had come to know each other pretty well. Mr. Somerday visits me daily at the Manor, even now that Juliet had gone away to London. After one visit, I felt particularly delighted; when I realized why, I almost laughed aloud. It’s because he’d neglected to ask about Juliet even once, which I think would have amused Juliet entirely—that I liked it so much that he hadn’t. Not that I’d tell her, and not that she’s not marvelous, of course. But she’s in London, which is what she has wanted. All I have ever wanted is here. So we are each, in our own ways, contented.

During Mr. Somerday’s visits, he often describes the sights he sees as he accompanies Mother on her rounds to farms and the village and all about. The workshops in particular enchant him—he says he loves the chair turners and the weavers, but the straw-plaiters are his special favorites.

“They are so young, those girls,” he told me once, as we drank tea in the parlor, “not above your own age, Miss Alta. So dignified, as they sit at their braiding. And the place smells so sweetly of straw. And the hats they make; I suppose they’re marvelous, aren’t they? I felt like purchasing one myself, but in the end, wasn’t quite sure what I’d do with a bonnet in a hatbox.”

“Well,” I told him, “you could save it til you wished to paint an outdoor scene, I suppose. And then you’d have your model wear it, as she plucks a rose and holds it to her nose. You know.”

Mr. Somerday looked hurt. “Is that really what you think of me, Miss Alta,” he said to me as I tried not to smile, “that I would paint a girl with a rose? Is it? I am bruised, indeed, to my quick. Can you not see me as I am? A wild man, ready to paint an Indian with his bow and arrow?  Bring me an Indian! Mrs. Tell! Where are you? I require an Indian!” And with this, he picked up his teacup, crooked his little finger like a dandy, and took a tiny sip. I remember that I burst into giggles.

 

I’m grateful to Mother for having invited Mr. Somerday to accompany her on her rounds because it obviously brings him so much enjoyment.

“Yes,” said Mother, “I am glad to show him around. He’s listens so attentively and he’s so sensitive as to the nuances of the place. I wish you would come with us, Alta. Just cover up! You’ll be no worse for the wear, after all, and it would do you good to take the air.

I demurred, but I did not tell Mother the real reason. In truth, I have begun to depend on Mr. Somerday’s visits, and worry that if I rode out with the two of them in the morning, he might not visit me in the afternoon. Mother sometimes joins us at tea, and sometimes Mrs. Tell wanders through the room, but often it’s just the two of us, Mr. Somerday and me. I can tell that he still feels the strangeness of no chaperone, but he tells me that he’s getting used to it.

“Longmeadow—your mother’s ways—they still take a fellow aback, a bit,” he whispered to me one day when we were alone together. He affected a nervous glance at the door, pretending that Mother was hiding there, might overhear him, might pounce to scold him for being staid. “But I am learning how to be enlightened, as you see. And it is indeed the most charming and artless thing, of course it is.”

“I must compliment you on your flexibility, Mr. Somerday,” I said. I know I was flirting, but he didn’t seem to mind. Rather, he seemed to quite like it.

“Yes, I am a quick learner,” he smiled.

As we rode across the meadow, side by side, I recalled a letter from London, received just that morning. In it, Juliet extended her wish that we again thank Mr. Somerday for his part in convincing Mother to let her go to London.

“What can Juliet mean?” I asked Mother as I read the letter at breakfast, “about thanking Mr. Somerday? What had he to do with your decision?”

“Oh,” said Mother, buttering her toast, “I talked to him about it. He advised that it was time to let Juliet see something other than Longmeadow. I trust him, you see, because he seems already to understand important subtleties….

as of yet unbuttered

and  he spoke so eloquently about youth and freedom… and finally I realized that perhaps I’d been shortsighted….and then of course, my dear, you had been telling me the same thing, for months really, you know…and thus it came to be.”“Oh,” I said, “how marvelous of him.”

Mother nodded and bit her toast.

 

As we trotted along together, we called to each other about this or that birdsong, the clouds, the horses’ gaits.  After a few minutes, Mr. Somerday slowed and directed my attention to a gathering of horses on the side of the meadow, where the forest came up.

“What’s that, do you suppose?” said Mr. Somerday. “Shall we go see?”

There were men in the wood. We dismounted and picked our way through the undergrowth to where the men stood. There was Mr. Whitehead, the sheriff, and his assistant as well as two other men from the village. And there, on the floor of the forest, lay the white stag.

“Oh no,” cried Mr. Somerday and at his voice, Mr. Whitehead turned and stepped aside. There, some paces from the stag, lay the gypsy—that is to say, my gypsy—with his face partly gone. I recognized him by his vest. He lay on his back. One eye was out and where there had been a cheek, there was now nothing at all.

I may have made some noise, for Mr. Whitehead quickly made to shield me from the view of the dead man. One of the other men threw something over the gypsy’s face.

“Miss Alta,” said Mr. Whitehead, “are you faint?”

I thought not, but did wish to sit. There was of course, no chair. Mr. Somerday came quickly to my assistance and put an arm around my waist until my breathing calmed.

“What happened here?” said Mr. Somerday. “Can you tell?”

“That man’s a poacher,” I said.

Heads turned towards me. “At least,” I said, “at least…I found him just outside the dovecote…” I ceased speaking.

The men grumbled in assent, all but Mr. Whitehead.

“You do not agree, Mr. Whitehead?” said Mr. Somerday.

The sheriff looked confused. “Well,” he said, “it certainly seems the case….”

“Except?”

“Well, except that the stag and the man both was brought down by gunshot,” Mr. Whitehead said, bending over the animal, pointing at the hole in its side.

“Have the gypsies no guns?” asked Mr. Somerday.

“We’ve never known one of ‘em to own a gun,” said Mr. Whitehead.

“How strange,” said Mr. Somerday.

Mr. Whitehead shrugged.

 

This is not Alta’s gypsy. This is George Bennet who, in the late 1800’s, served time in jail for poaching quail, rabbits, and even beehives. He had three tattoos and no little finger on his left hand. 

 

 

Mr. Somerday and I rode back to the house where we found Mother in her office. Together, we delivered the news. Mother called for Grady immediately and then paced, wholly distressed.

“A murder at Longmeadow,” she said, “I cannot fathom it. I am glad Charles is not alive to see this. What would he have thought! What would he do?”

I shook my head. “I knew the stag was in trouble the moment the gyspsies arrived in their wagons. I knew they’d get him. I’m sure I told you they would.”

“Yes,” said Mr. Somerday, “it seems clear that they had a hand in this tragedy.”

I was pleased to hear him say it. But Mother objected violently.

“It is not so clear to me, Mr. Somerday,” she said.  “Nothing is clear to me at all.”

“How can you say that?” I asked. “There was the gypsy man lying dead!”

“Yes, but, that’s just it…,” said Mother, “he himself is dead…….” She suddenly stopped pacing and stood quite still and stared out the window towards the lawn. The day had darkened further; rain beat steadily against the panes. Her hand drifted up to her hair. I could see a dark stain under her arm.

“Mama,” I said, “you must calm yourself.” I rose to help Mother to the chair that Mr. Somerday proffered up.

Mother took a breath and then sat. “Yes, my love,” she nodded, “you are right. We must be calm. We must be sensible of their feelings at such a time. It would not do to act too hastily.”

“Yes,” said Mr. Somerday, “the Longmeadows trust you, Mrs. Pendergrast. They’ll take their lead from you, as ever, and you’ll decipher how best to ease them of their fears.”

I knew that Mr. Somerday was on the right track. Mother knew how badly it would distress the Longmeadows to hear of such a crime in their wood, how they would feel at peril themselves, how they might lash out by reflex. I knew that Mother was wondering how best to calm them, how best to pacify them. This was part of her own anxiety—how best to lessen theirs.

And this was the track that Mr. Somerday saw.

gigantic-chunk-of-railroad-track-stolen-in-massachusetts-workers-have-never-seen-anything-like-it
just one set, right here

But I knew, as Mr. Somerday did not, that there was more than one track to Mother’s thoughts. As much as she might concern herself with the equanimity of the Longmeadows themselves, and their happiness and their peace of mind, she worried as much about the face of Longmeadow to the outside world. Maybe more. And I knew, if Mr. Somerday did not, that the lion’s share of Mother’s work revolves around the good name, the noble aspect, the perfect idea of Longmeadow. A murder could muck all that up in a moment.

Mother is Longmeadow’s matron Joan of Arc. She daily battles the criticism of those who consider Longmeadow ungodly, those who believe that she twists scientific method for her own gain. When these enemies of Longmeadow heard of the murder, they’d blame it on the nature of the place, its unruliness, its arrogance. They’d sneer, and shrug their I told you so’s to each other, and Longmeadow would suffer for it. I understood that this—this public shaming–was at the heart of Mother’s distress.

But I esteemed Mr. Somerday for thinking first of the Longmeadows themselves and for thinking that Mother thought of them first, as well. He is such a good man, so decent, and kind. The bones in his face are so very fine.

As Mr. Somerday and I together bent over Mother to minister to her in her distress, our eyes met. He smiled at me and I swear I almost swooned.

“It is clear,” said Mother suddenly. She was calm again. I saw that she had figured out her path.

“We must remember what we are for!” said Mother.  “We must strive for justice! They promised to leave the stag alone. I must believe that they kept their promise. And now the gypsy man lies dead and cannot defend himself.  It will not do to falsely accuse. We must wait for the fullness of facts. Do you see?”

And I did see. Mother would use the murder as a lesson. And then before I could stop it, the thought flashed in: like she uses my condition. I bit my lip to punish myself for my selfishness. It’s my worst habit: that I turn outside events in. I try not to do it, but they seep nonetheless. I can be a self-centered girl.

I was aggravated, nonetheless. I turned to Mr. Somerday. He had seen the gore in the wood. He had seen it close up. The gypsies have brought violence to Longmeadow. The Longmeadows feel it. I have felt it. I do not want to feel it again. I looked at him, trying to encourage him with my eyes. Action is called for, not lessons. We must form a united front, he and I against Mother and her philosophies.

He did not look back at me. He spoke.

“Yes,” he said, still nodding at Mother, “you are right. It would not do to accuse the man without the fullness of the facts.”

I felt my jaw clench. Changeable Mr. Somerday!

varying

 

But then he smiled at me and of course I melted. And after all, his motivation was so pure: he wished to listen and learn; he wished to be useful; he was so eager to bolster us up.

“Miss Alta,” he said, “I think we could do with a bit of brandy. Will you fetch it? Shall you take a bit of brandy, Miss Maria?”

On my return with the glasses, Mother was still seated, and Mr. Somerday was on his knees in front of her, looking into her face. She was better, and almost smiling at something he’d said.

“Ah,” he said, taking the glass from my hand, “here we are. This will help, I think. Thank you, Miss Alta.”

I took a chair and pulled it close to Mother and together with Mr. Somerday, we watched the color return to Mother’s face.

 

oh Brandy

 

Longmeadow: chapter five

get to earlier chapters by scrolling to end

 

Mrs. Tell

Poor Grady—he ain’t a cheery soul to begin with, and now this. Look see how the one already scared Miss Alta half to death, though I wish she would not walk outside at night like she does, which I have told her that before. She’s lucky she wasn’t worse than scared. However, this is her home and them gypsies are just trespassers which I suspect he was finding his supper at the dovecote for why else might he have loitering there? Them people ought to pack up their carts and hie away as fast as ever they can, but Miss Maria still wants to help them.

delicious pigeons

Grady has his hands full as it is. He can’t afford to worry hisself about whatever little fret them ladies down to the Arum house has got themselves into. So I thought to help him out by looking in on the place myself, though it makes me sick.

As I have admitted, it shook me up some to hear about the trouble at the Arum House, what with Mike shirking his duties. For it’s Grady’s job, which we’re all so proud of him, to see to the details of the place, and if summat goes wrong, it’s he who’ll  be blamed. I explained this to him when he first got the job.

“Grady, my dear boy,” I said, “you listen to your Gran. Miss Maria is doing her best to make Longmeadow to be a paradise. She needs our help. And sometimes, she needs things she don’t know she needs. So it’s we who must take care of the this’s and that’s here at Longmeadow. One day, perhaps, it’ll be like she imagines: with all of us, high, low and middle having the same philosophy. But it ain’t so yet.”

Grady is sharp, alright, and he knows I speak wisely.

I got the boy to hitch the trap. As I climbed up I saw a group of city folk strolling in the manor garden. The tourists visit all through the spring and summer, great bunches of them. They spend the day. Longmeadow’s popular over the whole of England with them who come looking for a quaintness they can’t no longer find in the cities and towns where they live. That’s how Miss Maria put it to us.

“They yearn for a simpler, prettier time, and thus they come,” she says.

We dress the place up for them.  The cottage roofs are newly thatched in antique style, the workers wear mob caps and clogs like my own Gran wore. There’s often a few sheep on the lanes, being herded by a lass dressed in the old milkmaid way and Grady has a whole team of men to tend the views alone.

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little milkmaid

But it’s worth it. I believe Longmeadow does right well by those views judging from the tourists’ sighs when they see ‘em.

The tourists ride down to the farms to watch a sheep sheared and a cow milked and maybe try it themselves. They visit the school. They ramble past the workshops; that’s a sweet walk and everyone’s favorite, for that’s where they can spend their money: at the kitchen shop, they can buy a pot of jam all gussied up with a Longmeadow label, or at the weavers where they can buy fancy table covers and shawls. They can watch the plaiting girls as they weave them bonnets the Arum House ladies favor and they can stop in at Ben Mangum’s workshop to watch him and his boys fashion the famous Longmeadow furniture.

Once Miss Alta sat in the kitchen and read to Mrs. Johnston and me from a story in one of the London newspapers about them shops and what’s in ‘em.

“They describe the furniture as ‘a sigh of relief in the form of a chair; wood in its natural state, untortured, untasseled, unupholstered,’” she read which then I said, “that’s a frilly enough way to put it, I guess,” and then we laughed.

 

On my drive out to Arum House, I saw Miss Maria’s buggy stopped in front of Ben’s shop. She tours Longmeadow daily to make sure all’s well—she calls it her rounds, as do we all. I thought to stop quick and ask her when to expect the newest artist, who was due that very day.

Ben’s place was crowded with tourists who were having a special treat: Miss Maria herself had agreed to say a word to them. Sometimes, if she stops in when there’s tourists there, she’ll talk to them and they love it, for she’s famous as Longmeadow’s leader.

She was speaking as I entered. “It is my dearest wish,” she was saying in her loud, clear voice as the visitors listened, “to hearken back to the time when there was a more natural union between intellectual and manual labor, when life did not revolve around the soot and noise of the soulless machine.”

“You may see, dear guests, in this one man,” she pointed to Ben who was busy turning a chair leg, “worker and artist in one. This is the way we ought to live and labor, my dear friends. And it is possible to achieve it, when we cooperate to make it so.”

The guests nodded and clapped for her when she finished. I saw Mr. Somerday standing somewhat in the back. Sometimes them artists hole themselves up with their paints or pens and we don’t never see a hair of them, but others of them, like Mr. Somerday here, seem to enjoy the place and its sights. I guess they work at night. Mr. Somerday watched Miss Maria as she greeted the visitors. He seemed to like what he saw and I don’t blame him. She’s dignified, is Miss Maria. She’s a tall woman, and slender, and her hair’s lovely and thick.

I caught her eye when she was finished and had my word with her and we shook hands as we parted, as we do here at Longmeadow. As I climbed back up onto the trap, I saw her leaving the place with Mr. Somerday. They were smiling very broad at each other; I saw him hand her up into her gig and follow her in.

At Arum House, the lane sweeps around and then you see the manse set perfect under them old trees. Mr. Charles and Miss Maria spent a good deal of time planning it to look just so—roses and thatch, and that swing hanging from a tree branch on the lawn in front.

Mrs. Grey walked out to meet me. She’s the housekeeper at Arum House and has been for these four years. Mrs. Grey was the right choice for the job, to be sure. She came from London and what she did there before she came here is not something she’s likely to tell, though I have my ideas. She keeps to herself out here at Arum House, and don’t mix with the Longmeadows, and between us, that’s just as well.

“How are you, Mrs. Grey?” I said as I climbed down.

“Very well, thank you. How good of you to visit. How is your granddaughter?”

I knew she was just being polite to ask, but I don’t care to have Nancy’s name brought up in such a vicinity. But no point in being rude.

“She’s very well,” said I. “A lovely wedding.”

“Bert is indeed a fine young man,” she said. I looked at her sharp when she said it; I wished to know if she meant more than them few simple words, but her face didn’t have nothing more to say.

“How is it here?” I asked as we walked toward the house. I had no idea whether Mrs. Grey had heard of Mrs. Bartlett’s complaints or not. And so I thought to fish around a bit.

“All is well, thank you,” said Mrs. Grey.

I wished to draw her out some.

“And how do the ladies do?” I asked.

“As you know,” she said, “they require some attention.”

“Like children,” I said, hoping she’d give over some details.

“Yes,” she said.

“Anything in particular?” I said, which I was acting like a small dog, panting all about for a tidbit, which she did not intend to give me.

“Not really,” she answered and then she said nothing more.

And here I felt my bile come up. I stopped walking quite sudden. Mrs. Grey may have been raised finer than me and she may have come from London and for all I know her knickers may be silk and all the colors of the rainbow, but I’m the one to have Miss Maria’s ear, whereas she don’t. 2af033ef363c6ed341b16c17e39f52e4Mrs. Grey must go through me when she wants something. And when I want something from her, whether it might be a bit of small talk or to know a piece of information or to ask her to stand on the roof and dance a jig, well, she must do it.

 

dancing
jig

When I stopped walking, she did too, for she was curious as to why I did it. So she looked at me, full in my face. She ain’t simple.  I saw her look change from looking down her nose at me to being afraid of me. A half a second—less—and she smiled—a weak smile to be sure, but she understood me.

“Why just yesterday,” she said though she had to clear her throat to say it, “Lady Dilworth asked for what she called Waldorf Salad. Neither Mary nor I had heard of it, which I was forced to admit. And to our surprise, Lady Dilworth simply wrote out the receipt!”

I waited.

“Naturally,” said Mrs. Grey, “it contains a mayonnaise.”

I waited.

“In this warm weather!” said Mrs. Grey.

“Poor Mary,” I gave her.

We smiled at each other, very polite and she invited me inside for a cup.

I sat and waited for my tea and looked around the room. Even the kitchen in that house is pretty in case the ladies look in, with pink striped curtains and flowers on the table. Everything there was chose for how it looked, like a stage for pantomime. It was disgusting, if you want to know the truth.

“And how does Mike do?” said I as she poured.

“Things are back to normal,” said Mrs. Grey, offering sugar. “I do hope you enjoy Lapsang.”

I drank my Lapsang which you can give me plain black tea any day of the week and I thought back to when Arum House was but a fancy in Mr. Charles’s head which is where I wished it’d stayed.

Back then Miss Maria seemed to know right off that this new idea of Mr. Charles’s would turn people away from him, and she fretted about it. She didn’t like to say no to him; for all his fine ideas about who’s equal to who, he was still a man, wasn’t he, and men like their words to be followed. But sometimes his mind would go too far, like a runaway horse, and she would have to rein him back to a nice quiet walk. For she wanted what he wanted here at Longmeadow, but she wanted it to last. She knew, if he didn’t, that a idea that was too far-fetched, like this one was, would bring the whole thing down.

Ever since they’d started thinking about their new ideas, Miss Maria had talked to me when she couldn’t talk to him. She wanted someone who could talk for us low ones, I suppose. And too, she might’ve seen that I was smart enough in my own way. So, many an afternoon, she would sit at the big table in the kitchen and worry this or that problem, whilst I plucked or polished. That listening is how I came to be housekeeper of Longmeadow Manor, though I never had much schooling. But I had the lady’s ear, and I knew it was a value, and I did my best for her and still do.

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lady’s ear

When Miss Maria came into the kitchen those years ago and told me of Mr. Charles’s new fancy, I was that shocked. As high as I thought of him, well, that idea was outlandish and sinful.

She could see how I felt and defended him some. “It came from Mr. Newton, in America,” she said, like it would make a difference that someone else had thought it up first.  “He says that marriage is like a shackle to a woman.

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she thought marriage was bad for women

In Mr. Newton’s community, the members do not marry, but live together in what they call free love hotels. Mr. Pendergrast would like Longmeadow to live under the same arrangement.”

I believe I gaped.

“Mrs. Tell,” she said after a moment, “I know you have much to say and I wish to hear it. I must admit that I am somewhat troubled by this facet of Mr. Charles’s plans. Please do speak plainly to me about your feelings. I greatly desire your opinion.”

“Yes, mum,” said I.

“No need for mum,” said she.

I nodded and I took a breath and started.

“I believe that if Mr. Charles means to keep us Longmeadows…,” I said with my share of ahems,  “that is, ….if he wishes to keep us on his side…”

Miss Maria looked very serious.

“….I don’t believe he’d better ask that of us, Miss Maria. People here is brought up in the church. They believe in Hell. The Bible tells us that marriage is a sacred bond that God made and that outside of it… ”

I tried to speak as gentle as I could but she reddened some. It’s to her credit that she didn’t anger, much less jump up and slap me. After all, all these ideas of who was equal to who was as new to her as they was to the rest of us. She was having to learn how to tolerate, just as we was. And whereas before the Grand Experiment (which she and Mr. Charles liked to call it) she might’ve thought it fine to pinch a lady’s maid for a misplaced pin, nowadays she was having to thank the maid very much for her help and ask about her mother.

She nodded. “Go on,” she said when I stopped.

“They’d call it filth, you know, and it’d turn them away from all the good he’s done.” I said that piece all in a rush.

“But Mrs. Tell,” she said like she was thinking hard, “can you imagine a time when the people might accept it as our natural state? As if we were all Adams and Eves? Mr. Charles believes that we are all perfect in God’s eyes, as we are born, and that our natural passional attractions are pure, rather than sinful. Cannot you imagine a time when we might all live together so innocently?”

I recall how it put the wind up me to hear those words. I felt I had to speak my piece or live with the sin of silence forever. So I made up my mind to trust her. It was brave of me, for I did not then know how much above my station I could safely talk, but I said to her, “Miss Maria, most of these here at Longmeadow spend their lives trying to rise above what’s natural. Dirt’s natural, ain’t it, and we like to wash it off when we can. Now, you bring ‘em back down to it and that’s the end of Mr. Charles’s new Longmeadow. And that’s what.”

Miss Maria bit her lip and her eyes flashed angry for a moment—I held my breath, I did!—but then she nodded and sighed. “Well,” she said, “I think you must be right, Mrs. Tell. I hope you will keep this conversation between the two of us. ” And here she looked at me straight. “It may be that Mr. Charles must forego this detail of his plans.”

And she made him give up his idea, more or less. It was her that thought of the compromise—that’s a word you take with your mother’s milk here at Longmeadow. Miss Maria suggested to Mr. Charles that they might make a place where he could try his ideas on that particular front without that it’s right in folks’ faces. And that’s what Arum House was meant to do. London ladies come to stay here with the flowers and the fresh milk and the lambs. And then, if they want a little extra from one of the young men who work at the place, why, all they need to do is bat their lashes and let Nature take its course.

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hey hey hey

At first, I worried that Mr. Charles might be interested in finding some of his own Nature down to Arum House. But he was a slender man and prone to catarrh and maybe that’s what kept him mostly in his own study. Which was a relief to me.

Arum House is on the far edge of the estates, much out of the way of the Longmeadows. The hiring is done very careful as the staff must be just so. It takes quiet girls who know how to keep their mouths shut and it takes hardy handsome boys who don’t have too much religion to enjoy the work. They’re paid well so they’ll keep quiet. As it turns out: free love ain’t that free after all.  If word gets out, which every once in a while it does, people shake their heads and blame it on the ladies for being slatternly, which they certainly are.

We’d have closed it up long ago, but no part of Longmeadow makes more money than Arum House. We can charge as much as we like and it’s never empty, not even in the midst of winter. And, as well, I think it stays in honor of Mr. Charles’s memory (and that’s as nasty a monument as ever there was).

Mrs. Grey and I sat there in that pretty kitchen and drank our tea when in walked Kate, one of the maids, carrying a basket of soiled sheets. She looked at me and nodded but said not a word such as good morning. Very rude, I’d say.

“Problems, Kate?” said Mrs. Grey.

The girl bit her lip.

“Out with it then, girl,” I said. “Best to have your say.”

Kate nodded. “I wouldn’t say nothing,” she said slowly, “but I heard Miss Maria says that we should air our discontentments. She says we have the right to.”

Mrs. Grey stiffened up. I almost felt sorry for her. There ain’t nothing worse than having someone under you complain to someone over you, especially when you’re sitting right there. But I was curious, so before Mrs. Grey could stop her, I nodded for Kate to speak her piece.

“Well,” said Kate, “I want a sprigged.”

“What?” I said. Mrs. Grey and I looked at each other, both of us took aback. I thought Kate might be putting herself in trouble, for I saw Mrs. Grey’s eyes, and they was hard as bullets.

“I do,” said Kate, sniffing. “Mr. Webb down to Barton just got the prettiest sprigged cotton in and I want a frock of it, like I saw in The Woman at Home. But I can’t manage it. It’s not fair.”

“Not fair!” said Mrs. Grey, “Is life meant to be fair?”

Kate shrugged. “I always wanted a sprigged. They’re in style,” she said, as if that explained it. “Well, I’ve got this here laundry,” she said and nodded at me and went out the door.

I was shocked enough I didn’t have the words. After a bit, I bade Mrs. Grey good-bye and climbed into the trap. As I whipped up the horse, I looked back at Arum House and turned it over in my mind. I understand a girl wanting a new frock; why, that’s as natural as rain in springtime, ain’t it. No, I don’t begrudge a girl for her wishes. What shocked me was how Kate felt she deserved that frock. She felt entitled to it. She felt she ought to have it just because she wished for it. I recalled what Grady told me about Mike and Lady Bartlett: Mike’s arrogance in not wishing to do what he was hired to do. Same thing, I thought. Very same.

This is what comes from raising up them who ought to mind their places. This is the danger of Longmeadow. As the horse rounded the bend and Arum House disappeared from my sight, I thought about how the master and mistress felt they was doing such a good thing making us all equal. But it may be that they never thought about this: Mike feeling persnickety about his duties; Kate wanting a sprigged. Them grand ideas of Mr. Charles and Miss Maria’s only work if no one’s selfish. And when are we not?

I’m just that sorry that Grady has to have anything to do with Arum House at all.  He’s a good boy and he don’t like it. 0aa69e0a0c10a8898e6a757b34028c93-vegan-tattoo-pig-illustrationBut it’s like I told him once to make him laugh: if you want the pork, you’ve got to smell the shit. I think I probably never said nothing truer in my whole life than that.

Longmeadow: chapter four

Preceding chapters, well…they precede, and on this site. 

 

Alta

It’s Mother’s habit to drink tea with the artists, if there’s some one of them who can converse intelligently. Mr. Strich had his chance, but the three of us liked Mr. Somerday very much. He was invited back and was indeed extremely charming when he came.

He complimented the Residences, the quartet of guest houses let to artists, such as himself and Mr. Strich, who wished to cloister themselves with their poems or their staff paper. Longmeadow provides housing, solitude, good views, and the cachet of its name, to boot.

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paintable view

 

He asked Mother to talk about Longmeadow—its origin, its challenges.

“It was my husband’s passion and his idea,” explained Mother, “A modern Eden built from equal parts cooperation…”

“….and good firm handshakes,” interrupted Juliet, “He read too many books, you see, and decided that all people are equal under the sun. That was the germ of it.”

I saw Mr. Somerday’s expression; he seemed a little stunned at what may have felt to him like dissension in the ranks.

“You needn’t worry, Mr. Somerday,” said Mother, laughing at his expression. “To my increasing rue,” she smiled at Juliet, “I stand strong for free speech here at Longmeadow. Juliet may always say what she feels to be the truth.”

“I am refreshing,” said Juliet. “It’s my best quality.”

Mother laughed again and thus so did Mr. Somerday.

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good, firm

 

“Mostly,” I said so as not to be left out, “we are of like minds, here at Longmeadow.”

“That’s right, Alta,” said Mother. “We’re a peaceable place. We hearken back to simpler, happier times, before the smoke of the cities, before the noise of modern days. And that is how people know us.”

I listened as Mother described the community’s infant days for Mr. Somerday: how my father, the only heir to the vastness of Longmeadow’s estates and farms and people (not really the people of course, but then again perhaps yes), had wished to transform the place into something better. He read and studied and learned: his thumb was a constant bookmark.  I remember his wide eyes as he read to Mother at breakfast from letters bristling with hints about harmony.

As we drank tea, Mother told of how Father died four years ago when I was fourteen. “He labored where he oughtn’t to have done,” Mother told a sympathetic Mr. Somerday.  “He died from a chill he caught by attending Martin Grove as that man mucked a stall in cold weather. I begged him not to. ‘You have not the constitution for it,’ I said to him as he drew on his boots, but he replied, as he always did, ‘How can I let him see that I will not do the work that he must do every day of his life?’”

Mother paused. I was sitting beside her and took her hand. Mother still mourns Father. As do I. He was the best and kindest of men.

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one of Father’s inspirations

“We were not always as you see us thus,” said Juliet to Mr. Somerday. “Once upon a time, you see, Longmeadow was very grand. When Alta was younger, she found a collection of Longmeadow histories….”

“Yes,” said Mother, “carefully culled into a leather volume by some silly ancestor…”

“…back when they worshipped trees!” said Juliet

Mr. Somerday turned towards me again. “What sort of stories?”

“Well,” I said, “our garden has in it, in a strange little corner, a crumbling Roman mosaic—the story of Theseus. It was lost to blackberries for generations and unearthed by my grandfather.”

“How interesting,” said Mr. Somerday. “I should so like to see it!”

“And Samuel Pepys called our bowling lawns the finest in all the country,” I continued. I heard the timbre of my own voice: see how I warm to the subject with such an audience!

“See how silly?” said Mother, smiling at him.

 

Mr. Somerday spoke about himself. “I am the second son, Mrs. Pendergrast,” he said. “My brother inherited and lives at Delorme in Bedforshire with his wife and children. It has been, I fear, a while since I have seen them all.”

“You have traveled a good deal?” asked Juliet.

“Quite a lot,” said Mr. Somerday. “I soldiered in India for some years. Can you imagine me: all red serge and buckles?”

“Marvelous,” I said before I thought about it. I felt Juliet’s eyes upon me so I quickly added, “to have traveled.”

“Since then,” he continued, “I have led the life of wanderlust and taken to painting. I did not care for the army enough to make a career of it, I’m afraid. I prefer the brush to the gun.” Mother nodded.

Juliet would not boast, so I did it for her.

“Juliet sings,” I said, “You ought to ask her to sing for you this instant.”

“Oh Alta,” said Juliet, “That’s not fair to poor Mr. Somerday. And besides…”

But at his pleas, she assented. I watched him turn surprised and then delighted.

“How does it come to pass that the name of Juliet Pendergrast is not better known?” Mr. Somerday asked when she was done. “That was beautiful! Why, you would be the toast of London!”

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similar to what Juliet wanted

At that, Juliet who had stood to sing her song, sat rather quickly on the sofa and said, “I wish very much to go to London. Our cousin spends the season….”

Mother’s lips tightened. It was impossible not to discern it.

“Oh dear,” I said.

“Have I….” said Mr. Somerday, baffled.

“Not at all, Mr. Somerday,” said Mother, recovering herself. “Juliet is free to leave Longmeadow at any time.”

“You make it sound as if I wish to go to China,” said Juliet, her eyes dark.

I saw Mr. Somerday’s dismay deepen.

He does not understand the problem, I thought, but how could he. Mother wishes for Juliet’s full allegiance and Juliet does not wish to give it. I felt for poor Mr. Somerday. He had likely come to Longmeadow for a little respite from the trials of the hard world and instead he’d walked right into a spat. His features, more expressive than most men’s (in my admittedly limited experience), showed his chagrin. I realized: he thought he was at fault for having praised Juliet, for having mentioned London. He uncrossed his legs, his mouth worked. I wished to save him from hurt feelings. I wished to save us from looking petty.

I rushed in as if on horseback.

“Mr. Somerday,” I said, “I have lately been reading of the wild west in America. Do you know much about it?”

Mr. Somerday turned his face toward me, but I could see that he was still distracted by his gaffe.

I took a deep breath and continued. “Currently,” I said, “I’m in thrall to a volume about the American bison hunter Buffalo Bill. Even as we speak, Mr. Somerday, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show is in London performing for the Queen’s Jubilee. Now that would be a spectacle, don’t you think?”

Everyone’s eyes were upon me though it looked as if no one was actually listening to me. I nattered on, nonetheless.

“It’s true,” I said, feeling a little desperate, “that as it’s unlikely that Mr. Bill would allow me to sit in the middle of his tent, which is where I’d need to be to see the ropings and shootings, I must forego the pleasure. I can read about it though. And I do. The stories are so very exciting and often, Longmeadow seems quite tame.”

“Exactly,” said Juliet suddenly.

Mr. Somerday and I both looked at Juliet, expectant, but there was nothing more.

I forged forth. “Just this morning,” I said, wondering when I’d be able to stop my fountain of words, “I read how Buffalo Bill’s own father was stabbed in the stomach for being an abolitionist. Mother, you would have liked Buffalo Bill’s father.”

Mother nodded only.

Finally Juliet stirred. “Alta’s rather an expert on the West,” she said. “You ought to hear her say some Red Indian words. Say that long one for Mr. Somerday. You know the one.”

“Yes,” said Mother, smiling again at Mr. Somerday, who brightened like a baby. “Do listen, Mr. Somerday, as she says it.”

Thank you, God, I thought.     “Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg,” I pronounced.  “It’s a lake.”

Mr. Somerday, no doubt relieved beyond measure at the return of harmony, marveled duly.

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Diamond Jubilee wallpaper; very au courant

 

“That great white stag, Mrs. Pendergrast,” he said, happy again, “is certainly a very fine beast. I confess: in my anxiety to see him more closely and to protect him from that giant hound of yours….” we all looked at Bodger who lay on the floor and snored…. “I neglected to see what I might spoil as I rode ahead.”

“Isn’t he stately?” said Juliet. “I see him sometimes when I ride. I think I could lie quite cradled in the span of his antlers.”

“I’m surprised such an animal comes so near the house,” said Mr. Somerday.

“In truth,” said Juliet, “I believe he strays onto these grounds in his efforts to get out of the way of the gypsies. There’s an encampment of them on the far side of the estate.”

“I’m afraid of them, on his behalf,” I said. “I fear that he will succumb to their poaching. I expect they’ll eat what there is to eat of him and then use his hide to wrap their baby buntings in, rather like the red Indians in America.”

And then, before I could stop myself, I added, “the gypsies dislike me.”

The words tumbled out. I listened to myself speak as if I were sitting right there on the sofa next to myself. Generally I am the very picture of control. But it seemed that whatever strand connected my will to my tongue had snapped.

It’s because of how I am, you know,” I said.  “Once, one of them came to the manor in search of Mother and caught sight of me. I can imagine, can you not, what description he brought back to his camp: there is a lady at the house with skin as white as bone. They may believe I can put a hex on them if I like.”

“What if…,” I could not close my mouth! It had opened and I couldn’t shut it! I heard myself continue. “What if I were to creep down to their camp late one evening and stand at attention and sing, oh I don’t know, perhaps God Save the Queen!  Think what a start that would give them!”

“Alta, darling,” said Mother. She looked worried. She turned towards me and put her arm around me. “Are you unwell, my love?”

“Yes,” said Juliet, on my other side, “you sound quite odd.”

I daresay I was as surprised at my loquaciousness as they were. It’s usual for me to sit quietly so that I will draw as little attention as possible.

I felt quite stiff.   “I apologize…”

“Please,” said Mr. Somerday suddenly, “please.”

We three looked at him, where he sat across from us. His one hand was stretched towards us, as if he would like to hand us something, though it was empty.

“This sounds presumptuous, I know it,” he said, looking at us one after the other, “but I am so glad to be here with you. You are as I hoped you would be when I read about Longmeadow and yearned for it from afar. I step beyond my bounds and I beg your pardon, but I feel as if I have burst out of some gray place and into somewhere vermilion and golden and jade. I am quite moved…. I….I cannot say what I….” And then he stopped, looked abashed, sat back.

“Well,” Juliet said to me after a moment, “he certainly talks like a painter.”

“’Vermilion’” murmured Mother.

“More tea, Mr. Somerday?” said Juliet.

“If you please,” he said. I tried not to stare.  His smile was quite perfect.

188

__________________

On my way to bring Bodger inside the house for the evening, I heard a voice from within the kitchen.

“Sluts and hoydens….Arum House… you cannot….” I stopped in the midst of my errand and drew closer to the door. It flew open.

Immediately, I knelt.

“Miss Alta?” said Mrs. Tell stopping short and looking down. “What are you about?”

“Who, I?” I fumbled with my shoe. “An undone button, only.”

“Mm,” said Mrs. Tell.

I considered pressing the point of a question but in the end felt it best to forfeit. Mrs. Tell can be prickly when crossed.

spring_sided_victorian_era_boots
plenty of buttons

 

I proceeded to the kennel, where Bodger was held prisoner. The rain had abated, but mist floated wraithlike; fog settled on my hood and made it heavy around my face. The dovecote was alive with the noise of the birds.

Bodger came bounding to meet me, wagging his tail and smiling. “There’s a boy, there’s a great fellow,” I told him as he leapt at the gate, pushing his nose between the slats. “Oh, you’ll stink horribly when you’re inside the house,” I said as I undid the latch.

At once, he exploded with a paroxysm of barks. He shoved hard against the gate, pushed it open, and barreled past me down onto the lane towards the dovecote.

“Oh Lord, not again,” I cried. Juliet had vowed over and over to train him, but whatever she did do, she did in vain. “You’re incorrigible!” I yelled, racing after him. “Bodger, come at once, you bad thing!”

Suddenly, a dark figure appeared through the mist. It stood just outside the dovecote door. I stopped in my tracks. I could see little due to fog and dusk and my own poor eyesight but I could tell by its posture that whomever stood there was abashed by the barking dog. I felt no fear; Longmeadow is safe and Bodger, huge.

“Bodger,” I cried, “do be quiet, will you!” Tiring of his own noise perhaps, Bodger turned away from the figure and ran at me to play. He did not know his strength: he knocked me full over onto my back and then dashed away into the mist. I thought I was not hurt; only that I had the breath knocked out of me.  For a moment I could not rise. The figure, whose face was still a mystery, hurried to my assistance, to where I lay on the gravel walk. He reached down to take my arm and help me up.

In truth, I felt a little foolish; my hood had twisted to cover my face. My fur collar was partly in my mouth. I spat it out and pushed back my hood and all at once, my hair tumbled out. I could see it shining whitely in the moonlight.

When the stranger saw my face, he dropped my arm as if it burnt him to touch it. I think I gasped at the force of it, for the roughness hurt me and frightened me as well. There was little light but it was enough for me to see the steam that rose from the man’s shearling vest. His eyes in his dark face glowed large and his breath came raw. He hissed some oath in a guttural tongue, backed quickly away and bared his teeth. He hawked—deeply, loudly—and then spat. The spittle landed in front of me on the ground and glistened roundly in the half-light.

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pea soup

The gypsy and I stared at each other for half a second before he began to back away. It was indeed hard to know what to do with oneself. I wished to cry, but bit back the tears. One thing’s certain: I conciliate as if by compulsion. My manners are by rote. “Thank you for…”  I almost sobbed to the gypsy, but at the sound of my voice, he cast me another horrified glance and ran off.

At home, I succumbed to tears. I described the meeting with the gypsy to Mother and Juliet. They fluttered about, called for a bath to be drawn, washed my back, supplied hot milk.

Later, Juliet sat on my bed and brushed my hair. “Never mind him, dear. You are all right?”

“I suppose so,” I said. “It was just so shocking. How he hates me.”

“He does not hate you, Alta darling,” said Mother. “The man acted in ignorance only.”

An image flashed in my mind, from a newspaper story I’d read just that morning—a band of wild Indians had attacked a train of wagons and destroyed the people in them. “Do you know,” I said, “that when Indians attack the wagons they dash out the babies’ brains on the wheels?”

I saw Juliet and Mother exchange a glance.

“You are overwrought, my love” said Mother. “There shall be no dashed brains at Longmeadow.”

I looked at Mother, who looked steadily back. “I suppose not,” I said after a minute.

“But what a thug,” said Juliet.

“Yes, Darling,” said Mother, chafing my hands, “The poor thing is a naif, you know that. A lack of education leaves a hole into which all the prejudices and superstitions of the world may fall. Do not judge him too harshly, my love. He is as much a victim as an offender.”

At once, Juliet took a sharp breath and yanked the hairbrush so hard that my head snapped back. “Ouch, Julie!” I cried, but Juliet did not attend. She jumped up and glared at Mother, the hairbrush forgotten in her hand.

“How can you defend him?” she hissed at Mother.  “How can you defend that stupid lump? He is nothing to us. He is less than nothing to us. Alta is everything. She’s a human; he, a beast.”

“Juliet!” said Mother, shocked, leaving go of my hands. “How can you say such a thing?”

“Which?” said Juliet. “That he’s a beast or that you ought to think of your daughters first, before others, before….them?”

I did the only thing I could think to do which was to rise from my bed and open the door of my room so that Bodger who was cowering at the raised voices, could exit.

“Juliet,” cried Mother, “you are unfair. You speak heartlessly. How often must I tell you that we are no different from those born less fortunate….”

“But we are, Mama,” said Juliet, suddenly quiet. “We shall always be different. Do you not see? Alta will always need protecting. I shall always want to go away. She and I: we are both prisoners and you are the warden. And that is how it is here at Longmeadow.” With that, she threw the hairbrush onto the bed and swept out the room.

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Mother sat still for half a second and then began to cry, her face in her hands. The tables had turned; now it is Mother who needs coddling. I stroked her rich hair away from her temples as she wept.

“Do I wrong you, my love?” Mother said after a moment, endeavoring to keep her sobs in check. “Have I neglected you for them them? I did not mean to do it, if I have. You and Juliet….you are more to me than anything. But they need so much. I wish only to help them, do you know?”

“They” meant the Longmeadows. “Yes, Mama,” I said, kissing her. “I know. You are generous to them and good to them. Never mind Juliet. Only look at how certain she is of everything, and you will see that you are guilty of no neglect—not to her self-assurance, at any rate.”

Mother tried to smile. “Oh me,” she sighed, “I wonder what your father would say. I wonder what he would do.”

“Well,” I said after a moment, “I think he would let her go to London.”

“Do you really?” said Mother, wiping her nose.

I nodded. “I do,” I said. “I think he would use your own words. ‘A lack of education leaves a hole,’ you said and Father would agree. And Juliet needs more than is to be found here. She is….” I searched for a word.

“Full of life,” said Mother, smiling a little. She nodded, She was again calm. “She is young and beautiful and curious. Perhaps you are right, Alta, my dear wise child. I am a hypocrite, I suppose, if I cannot give my own child a bit of freedom. And certainly…,” she sighed again. “certainly I do not wish to be a warden after all.”

“No, Mama, you do not,” I said. “You must let her go.”

Mother nodded. And then she hugged me very tight and kissed me.

 

I am young too, I thought, as I lay still in the dark of my room. I am not beautiful. I will always need protecting. I, too, wish for much.

 

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Longmeadow: chapter three

Here’s the third chapter of Longmeadow, a recent novel of mine. I invite you to begin at the beginning–that is, chapter one–but you do as you please. Thanks for reading. 

Mrs. Tell

“Grady, my boy,” said I, “come in and have a cup of tea. Perhaps Mrs. Johnston will give you a bite.”

Grady sat with us at the table. He’s right silent lots of times, which his mother never was so I guess he got it from his father. He’s quick, though. He was but a young man when Mr. Charles died but there wasn’t nobody more helpful to Miss Maria than my Grady. Miss Maria learned to depend upon him and gave him the job of groundskeeper when it came up. He ain’t never given her a reason to regret it for which we are all very proud.

Mags, who was his mother and Nancy’s too, was my only child, and she died of the cancer when they was both tiny. If you wish to know something for certain, it is this: if you could take your child’s pain into your body to rid them of it, why, you would in a instant. But I could do nothing for her. She scratched at her poor belly to shreds to get at what was gnawing at her there. And all the while—every hour–she begged me to look after Grady and Nan when she was gone. She fretted something fierce, for Dick was a drinker and a mean one. She could hardly breathe for the pain and yet still she was afraid to die and leave them little ones alone with him. And so I promised her over and over that I would take them and raise them and see that no harm came to them, for I loved them too. But she died worrying it, pleading with me like I was denying her that one deathbed wish, though I smoothed her and kissed her and told her I would, yes I would, of course I would. But she could not hear me say it. She died in grief and fear and that’s what.

And then, after she died, it was very terrible, for Dick would not let me have them babes, though I bribed and begged. And I am a person who usually gets what I am after. But this—this thing which was more important than any other thing I’d set my mind to, ever in my life—was the thing I could not get. Not right away.

“I’m feared something awful about them gypsies,” said Mrs. Johnston as she set down Grady’s sandwich in front of him. I noticed she cut the bread nice and thick for which I was grateful for it meant she’d come around from her pouting. When Grady didn’t want her daughter Sheila, them sandwiches got scant for a while. Sheila’s married now to Bob Greene and as big as a barn with child and Mrs. Johnston’s so proud you’d think that girl was carrying the Duke of York hisself.

“Why’d they have to choose Longmeadow to stop at?” complained Mrs. Johnston. “Everybody knows that gypsies kidnap babies. I told my Sheila: don’t you never let them catch sight of that baby of yours when it’s born. You keep that cradle on the hearth where you can see it and when you must use the privy, you just take the baby with you. It’s a juggle, but it can be done.”

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nice sandwich
cradle
cradle on the hearth

 

I looked at Grady quick like, but he just sat quiet and let her talk.

“Can you not convince her?” pleaded Mrs. Johnston. “She listens to you. Can you not convince her to make them go?”

Grady shifted his long body in his chair. “Now, Mrs. Johnston,” he said, “you know how Miss Maria feels. She means to help them if she can.”

Mrs. Johnston shook her head.  “They’re beyond help,” she said. “They ain’t civilized, they ain’t clean, they ain’t Christian. And what’s more,” she said (and I saw that sharp look she gave him) “I ain’t the only one who thinks so, no indeed.”

I recall the day, not two months before, when them gypsies arrived in their painted carts. Grady found them stopped on the outskirts of the estate, but it being vast, even he couldn’t tell whether they was fully inside Longmeadow’s property line. He had to check the charts to see.

“What said she?” I asked when he first told me about them.

“I told her I thought we might ask ‘em to move on,” said Grady. “But she asked me what harm they’d done.”

“And you said what?”

“I told her that they hadn’t done no harm that I knew of,” he said.

“Yet,” said I.

all painted up

He nodded. “I told her that they seemed a quiet bunch but that it’s likely they won’t much care for ‘em.”

He meant the Longmeadows. I saw the problem. It’s her passion, Miss Maria’s, to get them Longmeadows to open their minds. She’d like to crack their heads open for them, and pour in a little human kindness, but it ain’t easy to make them listen. She has to talk to them over and over ‘til she’s hoarse to make them see anything a new way.

“I told her poaching might be a problem…” suggested Grady.

“What do they eat?” I asked. “If they don’t poach?”

“Hedgehogs and badgers, mainly,” he said, “is what I’ve heard.”

“How did she answer?” I asked the question though I knew the outcome.

“Oh, but we must let them stay,” I could hear her say.  “We must be generous and civil. They live in harmony with nature, which is something we should all strive to do. I shall ride down to them tomorrow and welcome them and tell them that if they are fair to us, we shall be fair to them. The people of Longmeadow will accept them after a time, I am sure of it.”

“She said we ought to welcome ‘em,” said Grady. “She said to, so I guess we’ll try.”

“Them Longmeadows’ll take it ill,” I said, shaking my head. “You’re right about that.”

“Perhaps not,” said Grady. I cast him a glance, but he looked away.

Now, if you was to ask me, I would tell you as quick as a flea: Mrs. Johnston is exactly right. Them gypsies do no good at all for us here at Longmeadow. They make people jumpy and they ought to be cleared off quick. Yes indeed, Mrs. Johnston has a point.

However, I can’t tolerate a mutiny from the staff.

“Now Ellen,” I said to Mrs. Johnston as we sat at the table, “I should think that you of all people would trust Miss Maria to know what’s best. After Milly, and all.”

I hate to bring up a sad incident, but people forget to be grateful.

Milly was Mrs. Johnston’s sister who there was something wrong with. They grew up nice enough, Milly and Ellen, but when they got to be of a age, why, Milly she went bad. She’d been a modest girl, like Ellen, but soon men from inside and outside Longmeadow Village came asking for her and she’d go with them just like that. Her daddy beat her for it, but then he died and she was free to do whatever she liked. It was a nasty business. Ellen came to cook at the manor house but she was right haunted by her sister’s doings, you could tell.

One day, things went too far. Two strangers fought over Milly and one of them ended up in the middle of Longmeadow Village at midday with his belly slit. When the constable went to ask Milly about her part in the business, he found her behind her house.
“She was naked from the waist down,” he said to Ellen as I sat with her right here in the manor kitchen holding her hand. “Her body down below was covered in pig slops and she was laughing and smearing, laughing and smearing. I had to call Tom Brady to help me get her, for she threatened me with a stick. She’s in the gaol right now and she’ll go to the asylum unless you can take her.”

“Don’t worry, Ellen,” I remember saying to her as she sat in front of him and wept, “Mr. Charles and Miss Maria will know what to do.”

And they did. Milly went to the asylum, to be sure, but only for a fortnight. In the meantime, Mr. Charles found a house a ways north of town with no one living in it and had it cleaned up until it was quite comfortable. Miss Maria hired two sturdy nurses and they brought Milly back and she lived in that house until she died of a fever some five years later. Others lived there too and live there still, like old William Patterson who wanders at night, and Mrs. Raper’s bent daughter who never did learn to dress herself, and Nally Christmas, who lost so many babies that she lost her mind too, and others besides that. The doctor visits regular with injections to calm the patients and the nurses tend them day in and out.  The house remains a deal better than the madhouse down in Hillard which Lord, you shold hear the stories. It’s paid for by the revenues from Longmeadow’s shops and its visitors. It’s called The Longmeadow Sanitary Institution and people throughout England hold it up as a model of its type. Seems to me that his success there, is what might’ve give Mr. Charles the taste for improving Longmeadow yet more.

sturdy nurses
regular injections

“Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you about them gypsies,” sighed Mrs. Johnston but she refilled my cup, which showed me that my reminder about Milly had worked just as I’d meant it to.

I nodded at her. “That’s right, Ellen,” I said. “Grady, will you come to my rooms for a moment? My wardrobe needs a bit of shifting and you can do it in a trice, I daresay.”

“All right, Laddie,” I said once we were alone, “Come, Grady, and sit for a bit and tell Granny what’s wrong.  Trouble? Not them gypsies, or not just them, right?”

He sat his long body hard down in a chair and stared out the window and said nothing. I saw that stare. I thought I knew what might be the matter. I thought it had to do with Arum House and them ruffled ladies.

“Now my dear,” I said, “sometimes we don’t care for what we must do. Nothing’s truer. But you want to hold onto your post now, don’t you? That we’re all so proud of you for?”

Grady cast me a dark look from where he sat but nodded all the same.

Arum House ladies hail mostly from money and from London. They holiday here at Longmeadow for a week or a month in order to sample what Miss Maria says is rustic country life but that ain’t no country life like none of us have ever heard of, no indeed. Them ladies might dress up in white frocks and stand for a quarter of an hour holding a beribboned staff, to watch a lamb in a field. Or perhaps they might give a newborn piglet a bath in buttermilk. Or churn a bit of butter for no longer than it takes to get bored by it. Now, is that like any farm life you ever heard of? Lord, you should hear Miss Juliet on them ladies; it’s like to make you cry for laughing. But there’s more to Arum House than just playacting. I wish there wasn’t, but there is.

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how silly

I looked at Grady as he sat there in that chair in my room but he wouldn’t look back.

“Tell me, my dear,” I said again. “Tell Granny the problem.”

Sometimes Grady needs a little push to talk about this or that. This has been his way since childhood. I have learned to be patient and let him take his time, though patience ain’t my strong suit, believe you me. But, though oftimes I’ve wished to reach down his throat and drag them words right out, it don’t work that way. God gave him to me to teach me tolerating which I have tried my best to learn.

“You know what it is already, don’t you,” he said.

“Well, yes,” I admitted. Not much I don’t see here at Longmeadow.  “You took care of it?”

He nodded, very dark.

“Was it Mike?” said I.

Again, a nod.

“How did you make him see, my love?” I said.

Grady huffed. “Gran,” he said, “I cannot talk about this with you. You know that. For it’s filthy.”

I nodded to show him I understood him, for I did.

“But you fixed it?” I asked.

Grady shrugged. “I told him it was part of the job.”

“What was his worry, I wonder,” said I.

Grady shrugged again. “Maybe he thinks Mrs. Bartlett’s too fat.” As soon as he said it, he got up out of his chair. “I shouldn’t have told you. It ain’t right. I wish I hadn’t of said it to you.” He quick gave me a peck on my cheek and was gone.

I had a pang for him, having to think about such nasty things, for I knew how he felt. Many a time I’ve had to do some such here or there that didn’t sit well—especially down to Arum House. But that’s the way of things, I suppose. Us having to do what we know is wrong for them that’s higher up. It ought not to be so, especially here at Longmeadow where we’re all supposed to be equal to one another, but it is. You’d be stupid if you thought it wasn’t.

In truth, it shocked me to hear Mike’s reason. I sat on my bed and thought about it. “Arrogance,” said I to myself. “Arrogance is what that is. Maybe Mike would prefer the fields.”

It ain’t Grady’s way to give a threat, but perhaps he’ll come to it over time.

 

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madwomen

 

 

 

Longmeadow: chapter two

This is the second chapter of Longmeadow. The first is on this site but back, some. I’ll post each new chapter on Facebook as I get around to it. 

 

Longmeadow: Chapter Two

Alta

I wondered what would happen if I suddenly hissed at Mr. Strich like a lizard, but as he’s  a guest at Longmeadow and a paying one at that, I thought I’d better not. At one point during tea, and apropos of nothing except that I was seated beside him, he recited notable examples of Reverend Spooner’s tongue-ties for Mother. “A well boiled icicle instead of a well-oiled bicycle, is that not amusing, Mrs. Pendergrast?” My proximity to Mr. Strich had apparently reminded him of the Reverend, a fact that appeared quite lost upon him though obviously evident to everyone else.

Everyone in England knows about Reverend Spooner’s deficiency of pigment. Journalists may like his philosophy, but they have their fun with him nonetheless, and call him the lily white knight of the tongue-tie or say that other orators pale in comparison. I myself have never seen him in person, but in photographs he looks like the negative image that appears on the plate before a picture is printed, much the same as I do myself.

I suddenly remembered a moment from a year earlier: while walking with Juliet on the lawns we’d together glimpsed a white rabbit. The thing turned and glowered at us before disappearing into a hedgerow, and I, in top form, proclaimed, “Hail, Sister,” to the thing, just to see Juliet smirk. It’s a hobby of mine, to try to make her grin. And it’s true, of course: our eyes, the rabbit’s and mine, were more than a little alike—the palest grey tinged with pink.

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Reverend Spooner

I saw that Mother meant to rise above Mr. Strich’s insults, though I wished she wouldn’t. But Mr. Somerday– the artist who’d been thrown from his horse at the wedding party—looked affronted for my sake, and attempted more than once to distract Mr. Strich.

“I have of course read of Longmeadow, Mrs. Pendergrast,” said Mr. Somerday, “and marveled at the clarity of the ideas as well as the morality of them. I look forward to seeing the place and how it is run.”

“We strive to do our best,” said Mother, “and are quite without guile here. I shall be glad to show you anything you might like to see.”

“Let me sew you to your sheet!” said Mr. Strich.

“Oh, really,” breathed Juliet. I saw Mr. Somerday incline himself very slightly towards her on the sofa they shared, as if he approved both her meaning—Mr. Strich is appalling—as well as her courtesy—that she would not say it aloud.

Mr. Somerday is wrong about Juliet. She’ll do as she wishes, courtesy notwithstanding. She just wasn’t ready yet.

“I have long sustained an interest in such small utopias as Longmeadow,” said Mr. Somerday to Mother, “and much regretted America’s lion’s share of them. It does my heart good to see the success of such a place on English shores and I am grateful to you for the important work you do.”

“As am I,” said Mr. Strich. He turned to Mr. Somerday. “Longmeadow’s a capital place to get some work done, you know. I write. You daub? Well, the views are fine. Little in the way of distraction. Excepting, of course, the ladies.” Here, he bowed at Mother and Juliet.

I am snubbed by an ass. What does it signify to be snubbed by an ass?

“Kinkering Congs Their Titles Take,” crowed Mr. Strich. His eyes were on me, but he addressed the others.  “That is a good one, is it not? Conquering Kings, do you see? The hymn, you know…”

Juliet had had enough. She deliberately placed her cup and saucer on the table next to her with a little crash, dabbed at her mouth with her napkin, and fixed her gaze upon Mr. Strich. At first, he may have assumed it was fascination. But not for long. It is impossible to withstand such an immobile force as Juliet’s cold stare unwithered. Mr. Strich slurped, choked, coughed.

“Are you quite alright?” asked Mother. “Perhaps Mr. Somerday ought to pound your back for you?”

Mr. Somerday looked eager but Mr. Strich shook his head and recovered himself.

Juliet picked back up her cup.

I was grateful to her but still mortified, though not enough to miss the tick of amusement that crossed Mr. Somerday’s beautiful face when he looked at Juliet. She pretended not to notice it.

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cold stare

 

Before Mr. Strich could launch into some harangue or other, Mr. Somerday spoke. “Miss Alta,” he said, turning towards me, “what are your interests?”

“She collects beetles,” said Juliet. “You should see the collection. It’s remarkably crawly.”

“Oh, but may I?” said Mr. Somerday. “I have an interest myself!”

“As do I!” trumpeted Mr. Strich.

“Mr. Strich,” said Juliet sternly, “you will stay here with me and tell me about your new book.”

I hoped I spoke volumes at her with my rabbity eyes.

rabbity eyes

 

“Come, Alta,” said Mother, “Show Mr. Somerday and me your study. Perhaps you have added some specimens since I last saw it?”

“Your sister…,” murmured Mr. Somerday as we left the room.

“Is a martyr to my cause?” I suggested. He smiled but just a little, and then glanced back towards the parlor again as Mother closed the door behind us.

“What have I missed?” said Mother.

I knew this moment, from previous like it. Longmeadow dismissed the tradition of the escort; I could tell that Mr. Somerday was taken aback that Juliet was left to entertain Mr. Strich by herself.

Moment like this were sometimes a turning point. Mother’s nostrils flared.

“Mr. Somerday,” said Mother. She quit walking, so that the three of us stood triumvirate in the hall, and she lifted her chin, so that she, though shorter than he, stared him down. “Mr. Somerday, we do not hold with convention here at Longmeadow, as you may have read. Juliet is almost twenty years of age, she is possessed of conscience, intellect, and voice. I daresay you are shocked, but how else will we women change our situation other than by shattering decorum when it is silly and when we see that it is.”

I crossed my fingers for Mr. Somerday. When Mother spoke like this—as if from the mouth of a masthead—some men huffed and turned on their heels, others nodded politely but were gone the next day. A very few listened and understood and shone. I wished Mr. Somerday to shine because I wished him to stay.

It did not take him long. “I do apologize, Mrs. Pendergrast,” he said humbly, “I have heard that your attitudes and the passion of your ideals far surpass the usual thing, but I confess that I never expected to be treated to this private a lesson.”

I breathed out—apparently I’d been holding my breath—and then I said quickly, “It’s not all that private,” just to cut the tension a bit. There above Mr. Somerday’s head: some bewigged ancestor sternly watching.

Mother and Mr. Somerday followed my glance and laughed. The little lines around Mr. Somerday’s eyes crinkled.

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a glorious masthead

 

My collection room had served as my grandfather’s cabinet of wonders. It is positioned at the back of the house, so that the large windows that look upon the lawn are in shade, good for the artifacts as well as their curator, me. Grandfather’s books of botanical illustrations and some other ancient Pendergrast’s anatomical atlases line the bookshelves. Glass cases hold quite a magnificent assortment of skulls collected by a great uncle.

“Oh look,” said Mr. Somerday, immediately attracted. “That tiny one’s a, oh I see the label now: a shrew. And on this other end, a horse!”

tupaiaskull1
a shrew

 

a horse
a horse

“I arranged them thus,” I said. “My predecessor was untidy.”

“Did you?” he said, all admiration. “I wish I had such patience, such attention to detail!”

I felt he had me exactly.

“I confess to pride in my daughters,” Mother said to Mr. Somerday. “I give them leave to do as they like and see what comes of it!”

The beetles are in boxes on the tables. I drew Mr. Somerday’s attention to them.

“I lose my breath!” he said. “Why, this is remarkable! Did you do all this yourself?”

I will admit to feeling quite thrilled. I rarely show off my collection because guests rarely ask to see it. Mr. Somerday’s courtesy was exceptional, but it was more than courtesy. It’s a naturalness, I decided, that makes him lively and humble. He does not see my difference because he likes my beetles. I believe I almost chirruped like a cricket to think it, but I caught myself before the sound came out.

Mr. Somerday waxed enthusiastic. “How did this come to be?” he asked. “Where did you get them all?”

“Well,” I said, “Joseph—he is a gardener– has got many of them for me. See all these pinned in this row? These are Black Clocks, very ordinary. And these here are Common Sextons. I have read that they show a great deal of maternal care for their larvae.”

“Do they really?” said Mother. “How extraordinary!”

“Yes,” I said. “And this one is the Devil’s Coach Horse. He has a big pinch. Joseph said he pinched his finger so hard he drew blood!”

“Oh dear,” said Mother. “Now I recall why I have left you to yourself in here.”

“Miss Alta,” teased Mr. Somerday, “have a care for your mother. Shall I fetch a chair, Mrs. Pendergrast?” Mother waved him away, smiling.

I giggled. It surprised me; half an hour earlier only, I’d been on the verge of spitting and slapping. And now look at me! I smiled at Mother, to show her that I was well, and she came close and put her hand on my hair.

“Do all the beetles come from Joseph?” said Mr. Somerday.

“Not all,” I told him. “I find some myself. There are plenty in shady places, so I can look. I found these five Green Tortoises on a single dead nettle.”

lameum poporeum (nettle)

“Who’s this long gentleman?” asked Mr. Somerday, peering.

“That’s a Black Blister. He’s no gentleman. He came from America. Mr. Alcott sent him.”

“Truly?” said Mother.

I glanced at Mr. Somerday. Surely he was sick of the subject and wished to return to the drawing room? To Juliet? Away, at any rate? But no. He looked back at me, smiling, encouraging me to explain. I resisted the urge to flutter my hands like moths, which is something I have been known to do when overexcited and which certainly would have made me look entirely unbalanced. Alta, I told myself sternly, remember that you are curator, not specimen. Act accordingly.

“Yes,” said I, remaining calm, “I wrote to him, after Father died. Mr. Alcott and my father were great friends and correspondents, you see.  My father mentioned to Mr. Alcott that I collect beetles and Mr. Alcott said that he did as well and then, quite recently, he sent me this one. Do you know– this beetle is imbued with a poison much like cyanide. If handled incorrectly, it can cause all manner of damage to one’s internal workings. Mr. Alcott also has a Striped Blister, of which I am very envious, in which the poison is five times stronger than in the Black.”

“He didn’t send that one, did he?” asked Mother faintly.

“Well,” I said, “he has yet to.”

“Do you know,” said Mr. Somerday, “I read once that Darwin was a great collector of beetles. I seem to recollect a story in which he held three beetles: one in each hand and one…”

“…in his mouth!” I said.

“Exactly!” said Mr. Somerday.

darwin-beetles

“You two are a gruesome pair,” said Mother, shaking her head. “Shall we return to the parlor?”

“Wait, Mother,” I said, “I have one more to show. He’s my very favorite. I keep him in a special box, in this drawer, away from all sunlight.” I extracted the box and showed them.

“Megasoma Elephas,” I said. “The Elephant Beetle.”

“My God,” said Mr. Somerday, “that thing’s as big as my fist!”

“I remember that one!” said Mother, looking quickly and then stepping away, “It’s from Uncle Richard, is it not?” She turned to Mr. Somerday. “I have a brother who is stationed in Madras. He must have sent it to her. I shall have to write to him at once and scold him. Come. Let us go to rescue Juliet, shall we?”

———————————

After the gentlemen had gone back to the artist’s residences, Juliet let loose on Mr. Strich.  “Fat beast,” she said, “staring so at Alta, as he wolfed his cake. I wished to vomit. No, Mother, truly. I cannot abide a starer. Or a glutton. Do you know what it makes me think of? A dog. Yes indeed. A dog who will eat whatever sort of awful gristle is put into its way and then sit back with greasy lips. I expect he is even now back at the residence, seated on the floor, licking his male parts the way Bodger does. No, now come about, Alta, you know you feel the same as I.”

“Oh Juliet,” said Mother, but I could see dimples.

As I brushed out my hair before bed, I recalled the way that Mr. Strich had absent mindedly massaged a bit of cake between his thumb and forefinger as he gawked at me, droplets of tea shimmering in his mutton-chops. It made me shudder. And then, as I lay in my bed, it crept up: the familiar pang of humiliation. Whenever I think I have worn it in, it changes and again turns brittle. Tonight I am especially fragile because Mr. Somerday witnessed it and that made it that much worse.

Juliet does not tolerate humiliation, for she, herself, seems never to feel it. It’s as if she were born without the ability to blush. Time and again, I have seen her turn her own potential embarrassment into a sneer at what she deems a failure of imagination or taste on the part of another. “I simply cannot see,” she said to me once, truly puzzled, “why you could ever imagine that you are less than someone else when the opposite is always the case. Always.”  I appreciate Juliet’s resolute allegiance. But if she cannot feel humiliation for herself, how can she ever understand me?

As for Mother, well, self-pity is not the Longmeadow way of course. For Maria Pendergrast, all of The Cooperative Society of Longmeadow—the ideas, the goals, the methods–are noble. And thus, any irregularity—say the too pale complexion of her younger daughter, that hair the hue of paper, those translucent eyelashes– comprise a challenge! To be met chin up and head high! To be embraced and turned towards the common good! As far as Mother is concerned, my condition is a gift—a gift to Longmeadow—because it helps to demonstrate to the people of the community the way differences must be tolerated rather than despised. I wish it had been another sort of gift, though, because this one, though light, is burden enough.

But after all, why would I want to think of Mr. Strich or anything else unpleasant for that matter, when Mr. Somerday exists in the world? And is here, at Longmeadow! He is all that he ought to be. I hope Juliet doesn’t want him.

 

 

some of Alta’s collection

 

 

chapter three coming soon

Longmeadow: Chapter One

I wrote a novel a couple of years ago and it’s been hiding like a rabbit in a hole. It’s time for it to say hey.  I’m posting it here on this site in proper chapter order. Each time I put up another chapter, I’ll post it on Facebook. Or, if you can figure out how to do it, you can sign up on WordPress. Thanks.

 

Longmeadow, chapter one

It was all I could do to keep Mrs. Johnston from killing that dog when she saw what he did to the bride cake. She pushed past me for a better view and put her hands on her hips which them is some hips if you’ve ever seen ‘em.

“Why Mrs. Tell,” she cried, “I worked for three days on that cake and then that great horrid cur spoils it in a minute. It took ten pounds of butter to make it and now there it lies in smithereens!”

“Now, now,” I said to her. “It’s only cake.” It’s my job to calm her, for Miss Maria likes a peaceful attitude here at Longmeadow. It’s true, there’s a mess to clean up from that dog and that horse and them little boys which I do not know whether to laugh or cry. But cleaning messes is something I am right good at, even if I must cut a corner here or there.  It’s what I’m for. And don’t I get my practice here at Longmeadow.

My name is Margery Tell. Grady, who is groundskeeper here, and Nancy, who was married today, are my grandchildren. I am the housekeeper at the manor house and thus must keep the keys at my waist and my wits about me, even on my granddaughter’s wedding day.

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Mrs. Tell’s keys

It’ll make you sigh to look at Nan and her Bert, for there’s a true love match there. Watching them together recalls me to my David, for when we were young just a sideways glance from me could pink his face all over. That was long ago though sometimes still, when I lie abed in the morning, I forget he ain’t next to me and feel for his leg with mine, though he’s been in the ground these ten years.

But this is no time to be mulling, no indeed. I left Mrs. Johnston staring very mournful at that cake and went to tell a maid to get her apron, which I have seen her flirting this last half hour at least.

————-

Earlier this morning, just after the wedding service in the church, we all walked together to the manor lawn where there were tents set up very pretty. There was Miss Maria tall and straight, which that new bustle of hers is right chic. She welcomed every guest with a hand shake as is our way here at The English Cooperative Society of Longmeadow, for we don’t curtsey to no one, nor bow.

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stylish bustle

 

It was a large party. Longmeadow’s old men sat together smoking them clay pipes they like so well. A group of village ladies ate ice creams, and Lord, them hats. Children hung from trees like they was Red Indians which I did not scold for this was a happy day. The great green lawn stretched down to the sea yonder.

I spied Miss Alta who is Miss Maria’s youngest, under an awning and under her veil both, for she must be careful of the sunburn.

“Miss Alta,” said I going up to her, “I have brought you this glass of lemonade, for the day’s hot, ain’t it.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Tell,” said she taking the cup. “This thing stifles.” She was talking about her veil, which she put back from her face to drink, for I guess she thought she was safe enough being under the tent.

We watched together as Miss Juliet, who is Miss Alta’s older sister, pulled my  Nancy to the maypole to claim her ribbon.

“Ain’t she the prettiest thing,” I sighed. Miss Alta looked at me with them weird eyes of hers, which I guess I don’t often sound so soft so maybe she was surprised.

“She makes a lovely bride,” she said nodding.

As we watched, three of them Arum House ladies came forward to grasp a ribbon at the pole as well. They were guests at Longmeadow and so had been invited to the wedding, which there was nothing I could do about that though it made me sick to my stomach.

“Do you know,” said Miss Alta sort of sudden, “that my parents modeled Arum House on Marie Antoinette’s rural pleasure house at Versailles? That’s where the queen played at being a milkmaid while her people starved.”

I have heard of Marie Antoinette, for Mr. Charles may he rest in peace had used to talk about that very queen and how she got her head chopped for living too high, but I didn’t care to know more about her just then, for I wasn’t in a learning mood.

The Arum ladies, which ladies is one word for what they are, are different from the regular Longmeadow girls at the maypole, for both their age and their many ruffles. They had a look on their faces like they were at a servant’s ball which we used to have them here before Mr. Charles and Miss Maria changed Longmeadow from a regular country estate to what we are now.

“….so like slumming,” I heard one of them say, as she pranced. Her friend shushed her.

Suddenly there came a crashing. The white stag that lives on the far edge of the property charged from the trees right out onto the lawn where we were gathered. After him came Miss Alta’s Great Dane dog she calls Bodger and that dog’s a shedder, with his chain broke and dragging, barking fit to beat the band. All three of them Arum House ladies screamed, and one of them—the plump one– sat herself right down on the ground, her ruffles splayed about her.

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ruffles

 

The rest of the dancers dropped their ribbons and scattered, except for Miss Juliet who ran towards Bodger to snatch up his chain, only before she could get to him,  he bumped the table that held the bride cake, which toppled and split wide open. Bodger, which that dog is always hungry, lost interest in the stag, which had bolted who knows where, and had turned to the broken cake along with every child at the party. We were all of us still gaping when very sudden a man on horseback burst from the woods— after the stag maybe–or perhaps after Bodger—maybe both—but when he saw what he was riding into—the wedding party, or the remains of it– he pulled back his horse so hard that it reared up and threw him to the ground.

Miss Maria ran to him; I did too, but by the time I got there, he was already sitting up and wincing. He was smiling at Miss Maria so I guessed he was alright.

I looked around me. Nancy was looking right tearful at the ruination of her wedding, so I made to go to her, but Bert got there first. He knelt down in front of her and pulled her very gentle onto his one knee, and jollied her out of her tears, until she was smiling again. It’s his right now and his duty too to help his little wife, not her granny’s no more, which I was both happy and sad together. I turned my attention to that cake and Lord. Jimmy Redder, all of eight years old, was like to taking a bath in it, while several boys watched and laughed, so I took Jimmy and another boy besides by the ears to talk to them about the difference between right and wrong. Out of the corner of my eye I spied Mike who labors down to Arum House. He was helping the plump ruffled lady to her feet. She was grinning at him very broad and his hand was on her waist, which I glared at him so hard he felt it and looked up at me and then away. I do not blame him for being ashamed.

When I finished with them boys, I went to where Miss Juliet and Miss Alta was surveying the scene together from underneath Miss Alta’s tent. “Good Lord,” I said to them, “there’s a jumble for you.”

Miss Alta nodded and then she said, “Who’s that man, do you suppose? The one who was thrown?”

“John Somerday, I heard him say to Mother,” said Miss Juliet. “I judge he’s a painter by his cases.”

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much like Mr. Somerday’s supplies

“One of them new artists,” I put in. “Miss Maria told me to expect him.”

“I hope he’s alright,” said Miss Alta, which her eyes is bad so may be she couldn’t see him sitting up and talking to her mother.

“Looks to be, “said Miss Juliet and then, “I wonder: do you think Bodger will sicken from eating so much? He’s so big I can’t restrain him.”

“Let him eat cake,” said Miss Alta, which she made Miss Juliet smile when she said it, and that ain’t easy.

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big dog

 

 


My people have worked for Pendergrasts here at Longmeadow for as long as anyone can remember. Our families are tied together as string and cheese. My father was a groom to old Mr. Pendergrast, and his before him, and weren’t my parents delighted when I went into service at the manor at the tender age of thirteen. “Just fancy,” said my mother, “to be in the great house and see all the lovely things!”

When Mr. Charles and Miss Maria first married, they lived much as others like them do, what with their seasons in London and their shooting parties and fancy suppers with guests.

But then, when the old Mr. Pendergrast died, and Mr. Charles inherited, he began to read about places like they had in America and in England too, and he studied on them and then he decided that’s how he wanted Longmeadow to be: a place where no one bows to no one else and having a peerage don’t make the world spin. It was, he told us, a radical notion, which we figured that out for ourselves.

First thing, Mr. Charles and Miss Maria gathered us into the church to tell us about how Longmeadow was to change. I remember: some of the men would fret if a woman dared to raise her hand to ask a question, some were drunk, often we didn’t have no idea as to what Mr. Charles was getting at, which he was apt to talk very high, about men and wars we hadn’t none of us ever heard of, and philosophies none of us cared about. I recall that we all laughed when Jack Cord muttered, “Oh, sorry, we was busy shoveling shit and missed our lessons the day they was a’teaching that.”

manure

 

But when Miss Maria spoke, it was different. Mr. Charles could speak to high born, but not to us. But Miss Maria could carry any room, high or low for she is a tall lady who walks into the middle of a hall and looks you in your eye when she talks to you. Mr. Charles might think the things up, but without her to say them, it didn’t much matter if he thought a way to get to the moon and harvest the cheese, did it.

“While it is true,” she might say, walking into the aisle of the church where we were assembled, “that Mr. Pendergrast has inherited the whole of Longmeadow…”

I daresay we were all of us thinking that indeed that’s a quantity of inheriting. What with the fields and the forests and farms, the lake and them manors and all. And the village to support it. And, then of course, us. Now, it ain’t like he could really inherit us, not really….but then again, maybe a person as rich as Mr. Pendergrast could do after all.

“Mr. Pendergrast understands,” Miss Maria went on, “that a place as grand as Longmeadow can exist only by the grace of the people who support it with their labors– whether as blacksmiths or snake catchers or farmers or a million other vital tasks. It is only by your effort, your skill, your cunning, that Longmeadow thrives!”

“For example,” said Miss Maria, with us hung on every of her words, “Mrs. Kyle, here, has worked hard all of her life, has she not?” Mrs. Kyle, standing hunched over, the very picture of a sad old one, might look up at Miss Maria, thanks on her face for being remembered.

We listened.

“And as you know, she gave both of her sons to England, one in the Crimean and one in India?”

We nodded.

“And thus,” said Miss Maria, “is it not our duty now to care for her the way her sons would have, were they still with her? If you, sir,” and here she turned towards Lucas Vander, one of the loudest of the grumblers, his grandparents having come from the Dutch land where they can squeeze a half-penny like you’d pick a tick from your dog’s ear, “if you, sir, were to be lost in battle or at work, would you not wish for your mother to be cared for, to live out her days in peace?” Lucas Vander nods, his eyes a mite pink. (Miss Maria’s a smart one: she knows how them Vander boys love their mam.)

At first, we was all suspicious of Mr. Charles. Don’t it seem strange now: us so afraid of something new we couldn’t hear what he had to offer.  But people are often stupid. I learned that as a child.

When I was but nine years old, my father carried me to a harvest fete up here at Longmeadow Manor—before Mr. Charles inherited, when his parents were still living like the Pendergrasts had always lived. There was refreshment for us all and they was giving away oranges and lemons, a rare treat. There were two lines in front of the table, a long one and a short one, and no one would leave the line they was in, even if it meant they could get to the oranges quicker. They was stuck. I wanted to shift lines but my father said not to.  “Hush and wait,” he said, “and you’ll have yours.”

orangesandlemons-waltercrane

Well, it’s hushing and waiting that kept the men in the pubs and the children without their letters and the floors dirt and the poor ones hungry until Mr. Charles and Miss Maria commenced what they called their Grand Experiment.

Before Mr. Charles altered Longmeadow, you’d only look around the estates for a moment before you’d find a tumbledown shack– or three or seven– tucked on the edge of town, stuffed with a widow and her pack of brats eating the clay from their yard for lack of anything better. Now, thanks to Mr. Charles’s grand idea and how he made it work, those widows live together in a house set aside for them and their children go to school and learn a trade. Before the changes, you’d see a right many men in the pubs, drunk as sailors, ready to go home and slap their wives. Now those same men are busy making the chairs Longmeadow’s famous for and down to ale with supper.

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before Longmeadow changed to what it is now

 

Things are certainly different than they used to be. The farmers must take apprentices, the guild pays the artisans when the selling ain’t good, everyone works, the poor are looked after, everyone has a place. The grumblers still grumble, to be sure, for they don’t keep as much as they once did, and are forced to share what they have, but mostly Longmeadow’s like a great clock ticking away very regular and it all came from Mr. Charles’s head.

I well recall those first days when they were trying to figure it all out. Miss Maria and Mr. Charles hosted very many guests from all over Britain and France and even America, those who had tried something like it and had stories to tell about it. And they would talk and sometimes shout too, late into the night. Lord, the house was like a inn, and Mrs. Johnston kept two girls busy with peeling and plucking day after day.

One afternoon, as I passed by the open drawing room door, Mr. Charles called me in. He sometimes liked to say his ideas to me, to see what I thought of them, like I was to speak for the lot of us Longmeadows. When I walked into the room, I saw, to my vast horror, that he and his guests had rolled the carpet back, and covered the floor with paper, which they were writing all over with black crayon.

“Mrs. Tell,” said Mr. Charles looking up from where he was on his hands and knees, “do just come in and look at this—it’s a plan for the workshops I have in mind, for the artisans to demonstrate their trades to the public. Do you see? Just here the turning shop and here the glassblowers? And here the weavers?  And, oh look, just here: an opening where we shall build a platform—perhaps a pavilion! For music and lectures, but out of doors, do you see…oh, indeed this is marvelous!” And he jumped up and caught Miss Maria around the waist and danced a step or two with her while she laughed and laughed as did their guests.

And me? All I could do was thank the good Lord that just the day before I’d had four footmen (this was back when there were footmen, which I miss them days) to come and carry out them carpets- all of ‘em Turkey, all of ‘em heavy as corpses–to be beat, and two maids to sweep and wash that floor. And what if I hadn’t! Lord, it stopped my heart to think of Mr. Charles rolling back them carpets to see a mess of dust and dog hair—for Bodger’s grandsire, he blowed his hair just as much and more than what his grandson does now, which life would be a sight easier if that dog could hold onto his fur some.

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heavy as corpses

 

chapter two’s coming soon