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

0cd1727067571cab8e90acccb7bb5e69-riding-hats-lace-veils
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

 

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