One of the best things about working as a bookseller is access, of course. Not only is one surrounded by books on the sales floor, but in addition, in the back room, there are the ARCs. Advanced Reading Copies abound. Publishers send us the books before they’re books: hardback-sized but bound in paper, with the future due dates printed on the back, along with a bookseller-friendly blurb. ARCs exist so that we booksellers can read the books in preparation for their debuts. The publishers (and authors, of course) hope that we will enthuse, wax eloquent, build anticipation.
Every bookstore has so many of these ARCs in the back that we could all build second stories by stacking them up, gluing them together, and slapping a roof on top. There are SO MANY. And no, we aren’t allowed to sell them, and even if we were, we wouldn’t, because bookselling is not a business that makes you rich in the first place, and if a bookstore were to sell an arc before its publication date, that bookstore would be shooting itself in the cash register in more ways than one.
Some books are so Big that they don’t require ARCs. It’s not like the new Harry Potter was going to need a concerted bookseller push in order to sell. Also, what if the surprises leaked. Thus: no advanced reading copies.
But most of the time, there are ARCs.
What this means is that I get to read the book before you do. That’s a perk of the job. Many jobs have perks. If you work in a restaurant, you might get to take home the leftover cheesecake. If you’re a surgeon, you likely get special attention when you get your gall-bladder removed. If you’re the current president, you get to spend most of your time on the golf-course at the country’s expense. Whatever.
But ARCs pose more than just a perk. They are also a responsibility.
Any bookseller who’s in it to win it needs to know about a new book: not just that it exists but indeed, how it exists. The customer has questions. Is it exciting? Does it enlighten? Is it too gory for my sensitive 13 year old? Is it saccharine? What’s it like? Will I like it?
Do I want to spend my fleeting moments and my treasure on this book if it’s going to flit along the surface/not make me laugh/make me wince at the style (or lack thereof)/piss me off/etc/?
As you see, the bookseller’s burden is gigantic. We’re the frontline. We’re what’s between the author and obscurity. You write a book and see if you can sell it without us. Go ahead.
And so: we read ARCs. We read them and report on them and write about them. If we don’t like a book, we don’t finish it and we remain mum. Not everyone likes the same things.
I myself like a little stream of consciousness with my tea and something new under the sun. Other people like A Gentleman from Moscow. If I only sold stuff I like, well then I’d refuse to show you books by Nicholas Sparks and instead show you the door. But I am a merchant and I’m not stupid. And also, I know that there are multitudes of wonderful readers out there reading multitudes of wonderful books and that therefore, I need not despair of the state of the written word.
One of my favorite memories is this: a young man walked into the store looking for a recommendation. Perhaps he was chagrined to find himself talking to me, a little grey-haired lady in a dress. If so, he didn’t let on and then we fell in love. He wanted something to read. Had he read The Pesthouse by Jim Crace? He had, and had loved it as had I. Could he deal with Lincoln in the Bardo? Of course he could. Did he know The Orphan Master’s Son? He thought it unsurpassed, so I relayed the story of how once, when the book’s author, Adam Johnson, came into the store to sign books, I had told him that his book made me want to throw up in the best possible way, and he’d laughed and shaken my hand. I observed to the young customer that he was a good reader (by which I meant of course, that he was a reader like me). I told him that I was going to show him something I kept only for good readers and he said, “Good. I want to go there,” which is a modern way of saying, “I’m ready.” then I put Milkman into his hands. He went away. Some months later he came in again and sought me out. I could tell that he wanted to hug me. But we kept things formal.
The above is simply to illustrate the immense power with which we booksellers are imbued. I hope it highlights, in some way, why it is that ARCs are serious business. We read so that you, my friends, may read.
Anyhow, I am coming to the conclusion—not immediately, but in due course–of my bookselling career. This means that new ARCs will no longer flow into my house like they were riding the tide of Boston’s Great Molasses Flood which I read about recently in an ARC of Bowlaway, a novel by Elizabeth McCracken.
What this means is that I’ll now have the pleasure of reading old stuff I’ve missed, the not-greatest-hit books, the quieter, less-known works by the writers I’ve read and loved. I look forward to Mishima and Murakami, to Pat Barker and Cormac McCarthy, to Atwood and Solnit and Dunmore and Woolf. But first, I’m going to revisit Jane Austen’s Persuasion, having just read about that novel in an arc of Rachel Cohen’s book Austen Years: A Memoir in 5 Novels. It’s pretty good, so far, and it’s due in May.
In which Mrs. Tell opines on the lost cause of equity; boasts about her cherry cordial; remembers her youth; suffers an epiphany.
We expected Miss Maria back by now, but she has wrote that she’ll visit Miss Juliet in London before she returns here to Longmeadow. I am glad that she ain’t in a rush for home, for she needed a holiday which talking to crowds in fancy halls ain’t my idea of it, but I then I ain’t high born. Perhaps she’ll find a little fun in London. I recall that when she and Mr. Charles was first married, they used to enjoy the theater which there ain’t none of that here at Longmeadow so maybe she’s missed it. Maybe she’ll watch Miss Julie sing which we hear she’s very popular.
I am grateful to Mr. Somerday for fixing things the way he did. First, he pushed Miss Maria to go, for he saw her misery around that gypsy and that she needed some new air. And he was as good as his word and has helped Miss Alta plenty on her rounds. Also, he told Miss Maria that Miss Alta’s doing splendid at her task of minding Longmeadow.
“I wrote that Alta is doing a masterful job,” he told me. “I bespoke her praises quite ardently and told Mrs. Pendergrast that she ought not to hurry home.”
He sort of twinked at me when he said it, if you take my meaning, and I twinked back. We didn’t say the words but I think we was both thinking the same thing: that it’s good for Miss Maria and Miss Alta both. Miss Maria gets a holiday; Miss Alta has a chance to come out of her shell, some.
“Mr. Somerday,” said I, “Would you like a sip of cherry cordial? I made it last summer and it ought to be right just about now.”
I fetched him a glass and watched while he drank it. He smiled which it’s the best cordial I have ever tasted if I do say so. We all like Mr. Somerday for he is a sunny person and polite.
And indeed, there he is, is regular as sunrise, ready for rounds with Miss Alta each day. This very morning, he climbed into the trap without a word of asking, just as natural as milk.
I had business at the sweet shop with Mrs. Miller which that woman will complain about a bent pin if you let her, so Miss Alta said I might ride along.
“We shall go to the workshops today, if you please, Mr. Somerday,” said Miss Alta when Mr. Somerday climbed up. “As it rains, we’ll be less likely to disrupt a group of visitors.”
He smiled at her and took the reins.
The shops make a neat little row: the cabinet makers and the straw-plaiters, the glassblower and the weavers, the sweet shop with its shelves of jellies and compotes, which that last is where Mrs. Miller works. But today them shops lack bustle. It’s too bad, too. July ought to be bringing daily tourists handling bonnets and jars of jam, but this rain which it’s been raining for days now, keeps ‘em all away.
Miss Alta chose the plaiting shop first. I went with, for I had a parcel to give to Sarah Ruth. She is my niece which her father was brother to my David. That was Dan Tell, and he moved him and his wife and eight of his children out of Longmeadow and down to Bristol, for he was in business and wished to live in a port city. Sarah Ruth stayed back, which I expect she didn’t want to live her life looking after them kids. It was good of Dan to let her stay here when he likely needed her there. But he’s a loving pa to his kids, though he has so many it’s right wonderful he can keep them straight. Sarah Ruth lives in a little house near Longmeadow Village with four other unmarried girls and Mrs. Couch looks after them, which she is kindly enough and a good cook too.
“Good morning!” said Miss Alta when we walked in.
“Good morning, Miss Alta,” the girls said together. They nodded at Mr. Somerday, who greeted each of them by name. Sarah Ruth stood up to kiss me on my cheek.
There were three of them at work—Sarah Ruth, and also Louisa and Kitty. They’re comely girls, even Sarah Ruth who is a little plump. Miss Maria likes to give them tourists their money’s worth: if them girls were big-nosed or grey toothed, they’d more likely be jam cookers or baby tenders than here in this shop to be viewed by all. Similar to Arum House: them good looking young men, all them roses, that swing on the branch of the oak. Sometimes Longmeadow seems like a giant pantomime, but for the players being real people.
To be truthful, I will say that this idea of Longmeadow as a great stage don’t come from my own head, but from Miss Juliet’s.
“I wonder,” I heard her say to Miss Maria during breakfast once, “why you are so adamant that the gypsies stay when they are universally unwanted. Perhaps you like them for their rough picturesqueness? Maybe you think that any performance without a dark foil cannot be much fun.”
Miss Maria just shook her head and sighed at Miss Juliet, as I recall.
Them plaiting girls sit on their little platform
behind the half wall that separates them from what ought to have been the tourists but today was only Miss Alta and Mr. Somerday and me. Their work tables are set close to big windows which let light in and fresh air too. Mr. Charles, bless his soul, placed a deal of value in fresh air. In this weather, though, the windows were closed and the lamps turned up.
“You are all alone,” said Miss Alta.
“Yes,” said Louisa. “The rain keeps them away.”
“No one even just to watch us,” said Kitty. “Not a soul.”
“It may yet clear,” said Mr. Somerday.
The girls nodded politely and went back to their plaiting.
I was about to leave on my errand when I heard Miss Alta say, “I have always wondered how you do it. Could you teach me, do you think?”
Now I was born plaiting as is most lasses in these parts but I have yet to see a piece of straw in the fingers of a high born girl, which I was curious to see how she’d do at it so I lingered.
Sarah Ruth said, “Ah then, Miss Alta, You must have nothing better to do, I suppose, if you want to learn such a thing as this. But come around and we’ll show you. Louisa’s the best at it, oh now, Lou, don’t be coy. She can do seventeen strands, she’s that good.”
“She’s a right marvel,” said Kitty. “This here English Wave is hers. No one else can do nothing near as good as this.”
“I didn’t realize this was yours in particular, Louisa,” said Miss Alta. “Why, it really is ornate, isn’t it.”
“Very fancy,” said I. “Not everyone can do that.”
“Thank you, Miss,” said Louisa to Miss Alta.
“And anyway,” said Kitty, “how could you of known it was hers—that pattern–for they’re all on the shelves lumped together with no way to tell who made what.”
“It’s all right, Miss,” said Louisa, throwing a look at Kitty, “We know we’re not meant to stand apart from one another. And Kitty and Sarah Ruth here, why, their stuff’s as lovely as can be too. Now, would you like to try it yourself?”
“Shall I?” Miss Alta said to Mr. Somerday.
“And why not?” he smiled. “Your fingers are certainly slender enough for fine work such as these ladies do.”
“Ladies!” giggled Kitty, while the other two smiled and blushed.
They showed Miss Alta how to sit for the task. “Now first,” said Louisa, “look here.” She held out her hands, palms up. “See the ends of my fingers?” she said.
“Oh my,” said Miss Alta, “They look…”
All three laughed again. “Much like cow hide?” said Louisa. “Go ahead, Miss Alta, if you don’t mind. Feel Kitty’s and then mine.”
“And mine,” said Sarah Ruth.
Miss Alta felt their fingers. “Well, yes,” she said, “you are right. They feel much like Bodger’s leash.”
The girls looked at each other and laughed when she said it which made Miss Alta blush as bright as a raspberry.
“I’m sorry!” she said. “That was very rude.”
“Not at all,” said Mr. Somerday, looking at the girls. “You took no offense?”
“No, no offense,” said Sarah Ruth, “and we offered, didn’t we. But they’re something, ain’t they, these fingers of ourn. My mam, who plaited for ever so long, used to tell us that work changes a body– and this is what she meant by it. Her own fingers was so rough from the years of it that she used to say she couldn’t feel her own baby’s cheek.”
“That’s right,” I said, “that’s exactly it.”
“Let me see how to do it,” said Miss Alta.
“Are you sure, Miss?” said Sarah Ruth. “For you’ll be bleeding afore you’ve even begun.”
“Let her try on that miscolored rye, there,” said Kitty. “Beggin’ your pardon, Miss. For we must keep the pretty stuff back.”
“Of course,” said Miss Alta. “That’s wise.”
“Very wise,” agreed Mr. Somerday.
“Hold it this way,” said Louisa. “You must hold seven strands at once, do you see?”
“Yes,” said Miss Alta, “but they’re quite stiff! My word! How do you make them do as you wish!”
“We wet ‘em, is what,” said Sarah Ruth. “See the vat there?”
“Your fingers is so white!” said Kitty absently.
“Kitty!” said Louisa.
“Oh, Miss,” said Kitty, alarmed. “I’m sure I didn’t mean anything. I’m sure I didn’t.”
“I know, Kitty,” said Miss Alta. “Just show me how to bend this without breaking it. I cannot see how to do it at all.”
“Here, Miss,” said Sarah Ruth, “here’s a rhyme we say to help us learn when we’re little: over one, under two….”
“….pull it tight, and that will do,” Louisa and Kitty and I finished for her, which I have knowed that rhyme all my life.
“Same old song,” I said, and the girls smiled.
They helped Miss Alta for a quarter of an hour. Mr. Somerday watched, throwing compliments at her for trying. Finally her fingers were about as pricked as she could bear.
“I must stop,” she said, “but thank you for showing me.”
“Well now you know,” said Louisa, smiling.
“It ain’t easy to do is it?” said Kitty. “Now you know, for you’ve tried it yourself.”
I looked hard at Kitty to see if she was whinging, for Miss Maria don’t stand for whinging here at Longmeadow.
“No, indeed,” said Miss Alta. “It obviously takes a great deal of skill.”
“Indeed,” said Mr. Somerday, “I have heard visitors say that your shop is the jewel of Longmeadow for the quality of the work you do. It’s a favorite.”
I saw Miss Alta look at him but as usual, I couldn’t tell nothing from her expression. Lord, that girl keeps it in. It may be that she had the same question in her mind as did I.
Which was that I wondered if Mr. Somerday had spoke a little out of turn, which he didn’t mean to do it. But here at Longmeadow, we try not to talk about which shop is favorite or which jam turned out best or whose chickens lay the biggest eggs. I might know my cherry cordial is ten miles better than Mrs. Johnston’s, but I know better than to say it out loud. One, it ain’t polite to Lord things over. Two, it don’t make for a peaceful feeling betwixt us all.
But Kitty ain’t known for her brains. When she heard what Mr. Somerday said about their shop being a jewel, she turned to the other girls and said “Haven’t I told you it was so?” which it looked like they had often discussed this very thing. I noticed: Louisa bit her lip and sneaked a look at Sarah Ruth which it seemed like she had come upon a snarl in her plaiting.
I might have reminded Kitty that we’re all for one and one for all, like Miss Maria says, but Miss Alta said very quick, “Mrs. Tell, did you say you had an errand? Mr. Somerday and I will visit Ben’s shop while you’re occupied and wait in the trap for you if you like.” So Kitty got away scot free which she was lucky this time.
In truth, I took Kitty’s meaning clear enough. It ain’t nothing but pure human nature to hold yourself next to your neighbor, to see who’s done better. Everyone does it, no matter if we should or shouldn’t. When the county holds a fair-day, Mrs. Johnston don’t sleep a wink for her careful icing of her Longmeadow White Cake for which she has took top prizes. The younger children show lambs, and the older, hogs, and they are praised and made much of for any honors they get. Miss Maria don’t attend the fairs but I describe the award ceremonies to her if she asks.
“Lord,” I said to her just two week ago, “you should have seen Mrs. Miller when that gooseberry jam took first place. Twas as if she was Admiral Nelson at Trafalgar, looking this a’way and that a’way for people to notice her, and smiling as broad as pie. I was standing right next to her and, as I am a Christian woman and was feeling charitable just then, I did not bother to say to her that that jam was a cooperating effort, no I didn’t, and you’ll forgive me, Miss Maria, ‘cause it would have broke her heart right in two to have it pointed out to her. So I let it lay.”
Such pridefulness worries Miss Maria. Trying to best your neighbor just don’t fly at such a place as Longmeadow where the first idea is of equalness. Mr. Charles and Miss Maria tried from the beginning to lead us away from contests where a winner meant losers. Mr. Charles would have liked to ban the county fairs entire which even he could see that them Longmeadows would rise up in revolution if he did, so he gave up the idea.
And so, Mr. Charles and Miss Maria put a stop to races and contests, and instead said us sermons on hoops for the children and dancing and singing for adults. At our fetes we play Blind Man’s Bluff, but not croquet; we don’t have no contests of strength, but instead the young men chase a greased pig which can be done best when all work together toward the common goal.
But I understand the plaiting girls. They do not care to be unknown. They’d like a little credit. They’re just girls and they wish for special treatment. Likely that’s true of all them who work the shops and farms of Longmeadow, from the great ones to the small.
Today was too bright a day for Miss Alta to leave the house; I believe she spent her time back with them creepy things she likes so much and then in her mother’s office adding figures. At teatime, the doorbell rang and there stood Mr. Somerday, which he might as well walk in without ringing, for he’s come for tea every day since he landed at Longmeadow, more or less. I brought him into the parlor and went to tell her. I found her in the morning room now that the sun was in the west, sitting in a window-seat reading one of her Red Indian books.
I made Lil bring the tea. This was a point of disagreement between Miss Maria and Mr. Charles for a time, whether it was proper to have a girl to serve the tea. Mr. Charles said no, no one should serve no one else here at Longmeadow. “God gave me two legs in order that I can fetch my own tea when I want it,” he said. Miss Maria said, yes dear, but what of our guests; they can hardly be expected… They compromised. (I’ll tell you, I believe Grady was mouthing ‘compromise’ before he’d reached six.) Mr. Charles finally put it this way, “All right then, when we have guests, we will have servers who then may learn how to do it, so that if they’d like to explore the world on their own, they’ll have that small skill. Though,” he added, “I have no doubt that they will find, after having lived at Longmeadow, that the real world is not all it ought to be.”
“Yes, dear,” I remember Miss Maria smiling (which smiling was easy for her, for she had won her case to be served, of course) “and then we will welcome them back to us with open arms.”
That made Mr. Charles feel better for he loved to think that if any of us left, it wouldn’t be long before we returned to his fold, hat in hand, shaking our heads at what we’d seen outside of Longmeadow.
I had myself a cup and a chat with Mrs. Johnston back in the kitchen and then made a round of the house, which passed me right by the parlor, where Miss Alta and Mr. Somerday sat together as they drank their tea.
“Oh no, Alta,” I heard Mr. Somerday say through the doorway, “I am sure you are quite wrong. I am certain that…what did you call her?”
“Whistling Bird,” said Miss Alta.
“…Whistling Bird did what she did for love. I am sure that she was loved fully by her husband and he by her, though he was white, and she red. Her devotion illustrates it, does it not? Why else would she have died for him, as she did?”
I recognized the story. Often of a evening Miss Alta will read aloud from one of her Wild West books, and if I am about, I will listen. I remembered this one: when this Whistling Bird (what sort of name is that, for the dear Lord’s sake) was but a young girl, she was taken from her tribe by a white man who was out hunting and came upon her in the wood and was besmitten. He married her though how Christian that wedding was, I cannot tell you. Some years later, her own people robbed her back to them, but by that time she loved him, so she starved herself to death when they would not let her return to him who she thought of as her husband.
Miss Alta spoke next. “I cannot say whether indeed she loved him or not, Mr. Somerday. It may be that she didn’t. It may be that her devotion was borne of duty and nothing more.”
I was surprised to hear Miss Alta say such. When she read the story to Miss Juliet, both young ladies sighed about the lovey part of it. Once, I catched eyes with Miss Maria about it and we both smiled like we was having a secret together. Young girls will believe in violets and roses, and who’s to tell ‘em they oughtn’t?
“Alta, you are a cynic!” I heard Mr. Somerday say. “I wouldn’t have thought it of you!”
I listened but she did not answer for a moment. And then she did.
“Well,” she said, “I suppose I wonder about them, Mr. Somerday. It seems to me that when first they laid eyes on one another, they must each have felt a shock, as one feels when presented with something unfamiliar and perhaps bizarre. He must have seemed feeble to her; she must have seemed coarse to him. It seems more likely that they felt antipathy rather than attraction. And then, you see, to have had to overcome such….disgust?”
“But Alta, they surely found each other’s trueness through their actions. And in this way became beautiful to each other. All depends on the beholder, you know. In their case, love seems to have surrounded them like a flowering vine, blocking out any weeds of distaste at such a small a thing as a difference of feature.”
“So,” said Miss Alta quite slow, “it does not seem impossible to you, Mr. Somerday, to love someone who is so apart from you that they seem, perhaps, as if they were of an entirely different species?”
“Not at all, Alta. Not for me anyhow. I believe I could grow to love any pure heart, no matter her country, her language, her dress, her color.”
And then, as I listened, I saw what it was I’d missed. I don’t miss much, but I’d missed this.
Mr. Somerday accompanies me on my rounds. We ride side by side on grey days, and on the sunny ones, I seek the shelter of the trap while he reins his horse alongside me. I’ve always felt proud of Longmeadow, both for its ancient lineage and its modern ideas. But Mr. Somerday’s enthusiasm helps me to see the place with new eyes.
He is enthusiastic about all of Longmeadow: he admires the land itself; he admires the people who work it; he admires Grady for his patience; he admires the turn of Ben Mangum’s lathe; he admires the high ideals of the place and the straw-plaiting girls’ skill equally. As well as much else. He waxes eloquent on my parents’ work and speaks about them with high regard.
“Really, Alta, it’s wonderful, Longmeadow is. I have looked a bit into other places that make similar claims and there’s no comparison.”
“Yes,” I called to him from within the trap. We were on our way to Arum House for a look-see. “I agree. My father wished not to repeat the mistakes of others, he said.”
Mr. Somerday nodded. “And from what I’ve read, failures are plentiful. Places like Longmeadow usually don’t last. I have read that it is hard to make a go of them.”
Look at how the sun dapples his white shirt as he rides along. If I had the skill, I’d like to paint a portrait of that shirt.
“Oh! Yes, Father used to call it a labor of love. He and my mother spoke about it at supper very often: how it is, for example that one may wish to improve a person who may prefer to remain…”
“Yes. One reason for Longmeadow’s success may be its mildness. Some of the communities were quite extreme,” I told him. “Oneida, for example.” Immediately, I regretted my words. I felt myself blush fiercely from my seat inside the trap. I hoped Mr. Somerday would not ask me to elaborate.
I had my information on Oneida from a treatise in Father’s locked desk which I had opened without permission. Lord, some of those images may never leave me.
“And the Shakers,” said Mr. Somerday.
“Mmm,” I said. I wished I had not opened this Pandora’s box.
“Why did they shake, do you imagine?” he inquired seriously.
I said nothing.
“Alta,” he said more loudly, “why do you suppose they shook?”
I think I sighed. “I imagine…I believe it had to do with…”
Mr. Somerday did not take the hint.
“With what? I am having trouble hearing you. Suppose I climb in beside you and Rudo can trot behind? This topic is quite interesting.”
“They shook to rid themselves of their animal urges!” I yelped out as quickly as I could.
He looked surprised—had I shocked him yet again?– and then he laughed loudly.
“Alta!” he said, “You are quite a girl. You do a fellow good!”
I was glad he thought so.
I have rarely visited Arum House. Mostly, I do not care to meet the ladies. On the rare occasions that one or another of them is invited to take supper at the manor, they treat me as if I am diseased; as if I am quite radical for wishing to dine at my own table and should, out of politeness, dine underneath it instead. At first, Mother urged me to ignore their rudeness, but she has lately relented and, upon the ladies’ infrequent visits, has allowed me to take my meal in the kitchen where I feel more comfortable.
“They’re ghastly,” said Juliet at breakfast once, the morning after one of them had come to supper. “And always all the same. Vastly overdressed and vastly underburdened with the sense God gave to a cat.”
“They are spoiled and bored and therefore mean,” said Mother. “I sometimes think about closing Arum House altogether.”
“Why not do it?” I asked.
“Did you know,” Mother told us, “that the Widows & Orphans is supported almost entirely by the revenues from Arum House? That’s one reason.”
“A valid reason,” I said.
“Another reason is the caliber of guest,” said Juliet. “You can say it, Mama, though it sounds coarse. She wants Longmeadow,” Juliet said to me, “to be talked about at an earl’s table as well as at a dyer’s. Maybe even more.”
Mother looked at Juliet. “Not more, no. But as much. Longmeadow will thrive best if it can appeal to all.”
“Mama,” Juliet had said, “you must take care not to sound too much like a clerk at Harrod’s.”
Mother drew herself up but then suddenly seemed to deflate. “Yes,” she said, sighing. “There are so many things I do for Longmeadow that I never expected to do in my life. Sometimes I feel confused by what I am about.”
Juliet relented. “I’m sorry, Mama,” she said. “I didn’t mean to be rude.”
Mother patted Juliet’s hand.
“Mother,” I said, “it seems strange that Father conceived of such an idea as Arum House in the first place. A holiday place for ladies? Whatever gave him the notion?”
“Oh my,” Mother replied, consulting the little timepiece at her bosom, “is it as late as that? Well, there are things to see to. I’ll see the both of you later at tea.” And she had gone off to her office.
Arum House was as charming to look at as ever. I’d forgotten its prettiness—all those roses. I could just see Mike on the roof, hammer in hand. He tipped his cap to me as Mr. Somerday helped me down from the trap.
As I tied on my sun hat, a plump lady emerged from the house and walked languidly over to the swing, trailing a parasol. I watched as the lady shielded her eyes from the sun with a mitted hand and looked at us, at the landscape, up at Mike on the roof.
I nodded at the lady who appeared not to notice.
I turned back to Mr. Somerday. “The woods here are especially lovely. I should like to walk a bit before we say our hellos inside, but we must seek shade, if you don’t mind.”
“Let’s go this way,” said Mr. Somerday taking my arm. “We’ll have an old-fashioned tromp, shall we?”
Mrs. Grey walked out of the house to greet us—tea? cold water?—and I told her we’d be back in a bit for some refreshment. Off we went. The sun was high and hot but my hat brim, made especially wide for my by the girls in the strawshop, protected me quite well. I’m a good walker.
“Do not dawdle, Mr. Somerday,” I said to him as he stopped here to peer at a fern, there, at a moss. “I will outpace you and lose you and you will worry that you have lost me when in fact I will be back at the trap awaiting you with impatience. Do come along.”
“Coming, coming,” he said, pretending to pant with exertion. In fact, he is quite lean and in no danger of losing breath. It was a great pleasure to be with him in the wood.
“What do you hear from your sister?” he said as we walked.
“She is quite thrilled with herself,” I reported. “She writes that she attends any numbers of parties. She’s become a salon favorite and is asked often to perform. I told her that I expect she’s become very artistic and that when I see her next, she’ll be swathed in veils of red and gold and have taken to kohling her eyes and I shan’t recognize her at all.”
“Well,” said Mr. Somerday, holding a briar away from my skirt as we walked along, “I understand that the urge to ornament one’s person is quite universal, but for my own part, I much prefer what is natural. Watch now, I’m letting go of this briar. Like you, Alta. Unadorned, natural, hair like Titania’s; why, you’re perfect just as you are.”
For a moment, I could not catch my breath.
“Well in that case,” I made myself answer, “you would not, I think, care overmuch for Olive Oatman.”
“Olive Oatman. She was captured by the Yavapai Indians of the Arizona territory. They tattooed her chin to show that she was their slave. She was later rescued but the tattoo remained, of course.”
“My God,” said Mr. Somerday. “Poor girl.”
“Well,” I said, “but think of the adventure. And she came out of it all right.”
‘But for the tattoo,” he said.
My heart was still beating hard from his compliment. I had never received one from a man before except for Father. The artists, Mother’s friends, and those visitors who came to supper—they might laugh at my jokes or nod at my comments. They might tell me that they were pleased to see me looking well. They might smile and even kiss my hand, but never had one of them told me that I possessed hair like Titania’s.
We walked on. My eyes are bad but my hearing, quite good. “What was that?” I said low. We both stopped. It had occurred to me, and must have to him as well, that the last time we were in each other’s company in such a landscape, the stag lay dead.
Mr. Somerday whispered, “I think it came from over there,” and sprinted in the wrong direction. I stood where I was until I heard the sound again. One more step and then I saw: the plump lady from Arum House, her back against a tree, her bustle quite flattened behind her. The man in her embrace—it was Mike– had his face pressed to her wide-open bodice as he moved up and down. I heard her moan: that was the sound. I could see the lady’s white skin—not as white as my own of course—shining in the sunlight.
I backed away as quietly as I could and then I ran—in the direction of the house and of Mr. Somerday, whom I wished both to see and not see, at once.
Lord knows Miss Alta’s sharp. Talk to her once, and you’ll know it too. Miss Maria was wise to pass her on some responsibilities, even for just the few weeks as she’ll be gone. It’s good for a young person to have a task set before them, even if they’re a young lady. This is something Mr. Charles said and he was right.
Better too much to do than too little–too little and a person can run amuck. If you was to ask me I’d tell you that’s half the problem with them ladies at Arum House. They ought to come to Longmeadow for the fresh air but instead they come bored and looking to adventure.
Miss Alta takes her new duties quite serious. Each and every morning she bids me good-bye and tells me where she’s off to, just as her mother does when she goes out. This way, if Grady needs a decision, or anyone else does, he can know where to find her fast, through me.
“Grady,” said I, “You find Miss Alta and ask her some small thing even if it’s summat you could do yourself with your eyes half-open. It won’t hurt to make her feel a bit of her own importance, especially…” He understood what I was about, which I will tell you: Miss Alta must be brave to go out even though she wears that veil. We’re used to her but some of us stare nonetheless. But Grady’s a good boy and he does what I tell him. He told me about it later.
“I said, ‘Miss Alta, there’s a late calf due tonight. The farmer must decide whether to keep it or butcher it.’”
“And what did she say to that?” said I, thinking that if it was Miss Juliet, she’d have said oh, do let it live.
Grady grinned. “She had a pretty answer, to be sure,” said he. “She said, ‘Well, Grady, what do you advise?’ and I said, ‘Well, I think we could sell a good piece of veal for a pretty penny as well as the goldbeaters need some gut, if you don’t mind the term Miss Alta.’”
I smiled back at him, for in truth it was a bit funny to say ‘gut’ to a young lady but what else might you call it when that’s the only word for it?
Grady’s mouth twitched. “She said, ‘Better to sell the dogie Grady, if you think it’s best.’”
“What’s she mean by dogie?”
“She said that’s what the cowboys in America call calves is dogies.”
I was glad to see Grady grin. He hadn’t much, since the murder.
Things is nice and quiet what with Miss Maria gone away and Miss Juliet, both. I have been troubled in my mind about Miss Juliet for some time: she’s a young lady who likes to have her own way and her own say more than’s good for her. It’s time she was married or engaged to be, at least. Take my Nan: a whole year younger than Miss Julie and happy as a little pearl in a oyster.
Yes, if you was to ask me, I’d say that Miss Juliet needs a nice match made for her. And she’s a girl who might have right many a suitor. Her line is pure aristocratic, her expectations large and she’s a beauty when she ain’t looking at you like she’d like to bite you or laugh at you, one.
Trouble is when you’re a girl in the countryside like Miss Juliet is, you must depend upon your mother to help you in that regard. You must have London seasons and make calls. I have a cousin who cooks in a big house near Devon and can speak of little else than her young mistresses when she visits, which she has done twice. She describes how her mistress schemes every day about who she can marry her two daughters off to.
“Every other weekend, a house party,” grumbled my cousin, “with more roasts and puddings and pluckings than Christmas dinner. Mistress says it’s so young men can come to hunt though the truth is what she hopes for is for them to bag one of them young ladies.”
“Is they plain, then, that it’s so hard to marry them off?” I asked.
“Certainly not,” said my cousin, glaring, which I was glad to see because I like loyalty, “they’re both very pretty, indeed. But all the high-born young men want Americans these days—Americans with their fortunes. A English girl don’t hardly stand a chance.”
Now this ain’t a problem for Miss Juliet. Her fortune’s as fine as any American’s,
I daresay. What she don’t have is a mother who has the time or the inclination to look around. Perhaps now that Miss Julie’s in London, she’ll land someone on her own. We can hope for it.
It’s different for Miss Alta, of course.
I recall back when Mr. Charles was alive, back when he was making his changes to Longmeadow, a family called the Faniels came to visit from America, with their two yellow-haired boys. I think of ‘em often, for I blame Arum House on them. I know I ought not to and yet I do. I ought not to blame them for it, for they was trying to get out of something very like, back in America. They’d tried it and hadn’t liked it and Mr. Faniel had wrote a article about it which Mr. Henry read and then invited the whole family of them to come to England and visit. So, see, the Faniels was rushing away from sin and yet still I blame them for it. And I can’t help but think of them when I think of Arum House. Mrs. Johnston’s that way with Bodger, for she was bit by a big dog when she was but a girl. “But, Ellen,” I say, “Bodger won’t hurt you.” She knows it but she’ll avoid him if she can.
When I think of Miss Alta and her prospects, I think of them two Faniel boys, both tow-headed and freckle-faced, sitting in my kitchen eating at my table next to Miss Juliet and Miss Alta when they were but young theirselves. I had give ‘em all bread and butter, I recall, and I noticed that them boys had thanked me very nice when I gave them their slices.
“What sort of name is Verdy?” said Miss Alta to the younger one as the four of them sat at table together.
“Name of a Greek god,” said Verdy, munching. “Vertumnus, god of vegetables and stuff.”
“Vegetables!” said Miss Juliet.
“What’s yours from?” said Miss Alta to the older boy they called Ero.
“His is a god too,” said Verdy. “Eros.”
“Oh!” said Miss Alta.
I turned to see the boy shrug and redden some, which I thought must be that name or else he’d spilled something.
“Miss Juliet, Miss Alta,” said I very quick, “have you finished? Take the young gentlemen to play if you have.”
“She called us young gentlemen!” crowed Verdy.
“And what should I call you?” I said, turning and smiling, for he was a lovely child after all.
“They’re just boys,” said Miss Juliet, brushing crumbs. “Come along. There’s a swing out here.” She and the younger boy ran out the door.
“Are you coming too?” said Ero to Miss Alta as they stood.
“No,” said Miss Alta. “I prefer to stay inside.”
She didn’t, but I could see: she’d never say it was the sun.
The boy shrugged and turned.
“Perhaps Mr. Ero would like to see the library?” said I.
Miss Alta looked at him. I read that look. She wanted him to choose her and what she could offer. Her hope for it was in her face.
“Why would I?” said Mr. Ero, stepping from behind the table. “Which way’s the swing?” and he was gone.
If I could have, I’d have put my handprint on that boy’s cheek quick enough for rudeness. I looked at Miss Alta to shake my head over it, but when she looked back at me, her face was as flat as glass. I think she see’d her life stretched in front of her just then and I will admit to you: I did not know how to comfort that girl who wouldn’t never have even such simple things as others have. But she didn’t want my pity, it was clear. She turned away and left the kitchen.
Yesterday, I carried some broth down to Longmeadow Village for old Miss Cripps who is ailing. Miss Maria had asked me to visit her so I did it. I’ll tell you what I understood: Miss Maria did not like to ask Miss Alta to do it. Why, you may ask? Because Miss Cripps is right ancient and as Miss Maria says it, “her superstitions get the best of her.” What that means is that Miss Cripps might not be past saying something to hurt Miss Alta’s feelings. And it’s true enough: some of them old ones still talk about faeries and hexes. They might refuse to open the door for Miss Alta if she was to show up on their doorstep, broth or no broth. I almost told Miss Maria to let Miss Cripps find her own soup, but I held my tongue for she’s infirm in a way I’m grateful I ain’t.
in which Alta receives a parcel and, as well, a little recognition, for a change
I had a parcel from London. Juliet found, in some dusty bookshop, a small store of pamphlets which she purchased, tied with a string, and mailed. Dear girl. She knows me so well. I settled down on the small sofa in my bedroom and unpacked it.
You asked me to look for beetle books for you but they make my head itch and so I’m afraid I can’t oblige.
In the meantime, maybe these will do for something to read. I certainly haven’t read them, but from a glance at the drawings within, I judge there’s enough gore to suit you. I say, you are an odd girl. But then so am I. By the by, I bought these under cover of “posting a letter;” if Cousin Jemimah had seen what it was I was buying, there’d have been smelling salts to pay. As it was, when the bookseller peered at me, I said as innocently as I could, “Oh, these aren’t for me, no indeed. They’re for my little sister!
The pamphlets were of a style familiar to me– penny dreadfuls: tales of danger, over-stimulating, full of prurient images.
Mr. Foyle, my favorite of the London booksellers, with whom I have a standing order, sends them when he finds them and I consume them like raspberries. I will admit: I’m a little embarrassed by my propensity for the dreadfuls; they are purple, and absolutely unwholesome, and I ought to know better. Everything about them is coarse, from the paper to the prose. They’re meant for little boys; adventure stories full of cliffs and ponies and flaming arrows. I dug in.
Soon I found myself on the edge of my little sofa, Juliet’s pamphlets around my feet, my nose an inch from a most marvelous story called Calamity Jane at Death Notch. Of course I’d heard of Calamity Jane but I hadn’t read much about her before. And here was everything I never knew I wanted! With engravings! When have I been so thrilled?
“Darling Julie,” I murmured as I turned the flimsy pages.
Calamity Jane was most shocking. Her trousers, the way her hat sat on the back of her head, those adventures! I sat upright—as if I was astride—and raced straight through the material. Through Calamity Jane Rescues City Slickers from Wild Indians! Through Calamity Jane Rides 90 Miles with Vital Dispatch! Through Calamity Jane Rescues Colonel From Certain Death!
When I finished, I took a great breath. I expect I’m like a million others who find excitement between two paper covers rather than on the back of a pony. It came to me suddenly that I missed the stag. The idea of him, so unbound, roaming where he would, was an idea I had loved. He crashed through the undergrowth in the same way I would like to crash but cannot. Though white, he was ready, while here sit I, pinned like one of my beetles by my infirmity. Juliet is like the stag. Or he was like her. She crashes all she wants, while I sit by the window.
I sighed, shrugged, packed up the pamphlets and carried them to my collection room. “There,” I said putting them away, “you deserve your own cabinet, Miss Calamity.”
Mother’s office is at the other end of the house. I entered and seated myself at my own trim desk. By contrast, Mother’s desk is a constant tumult; unfinished articles, sketches of farm machinery, invitations to lectures, lists of goods needed to run the farms, the workshops, the school.
I often assist Mother with more mundane bookkeeping aspects of Longmeadow: how many pots of jam sold, how many chairs sold, how many bales produced. I had just taken up a stack of invoices to sort when Mother walked in. She kissed me and went to her desk to work. Only a moment passed before she put down her pen. I looked up.
“My great fear is that I will somehow undermine all your father achieved,” she said as if we had been in the midst of discussion. Her expression was dark. “I wasted so much of his time, you see, by questioning his ideas and his methods, for he had first to convince me of their legitimacy.”
Mother has been low since the gypsy’s death. While I mourn the stag, Mother takes the death of the man harder. She pities the gypsy band for their loss, she worries for the patience of the townsfolk, she considers the murder a blemish on Longmeadow’s reputation. Her low spirits have permeated her conversation. I can tell: if it weren’t for her corset, she would slump in her chair.
“Your father needed my help,” Mother continued, “but in the beginning, I was reluctant to see his views. I will forever feel,” she said, “that if I had been quicker to come to his understanding, he would have been…he would have felt shored up by me, do you see? But I delayed.” She sighed “I have tried to make up for it since his death, but it is hard to be a woman alone doing the work of a man, especially of one whom she loved as I loved him.”
I recalled; immediately after Father’s death, Mother had taken to her bed. Longmeadow might have fallen apart but for Mrs. Tell and Grady. The two of them made the rounds, remedied the problems, assured the people, while Mother mourned and Juliet and I tried to comfort her. I remember the darkened room, the sour sheets.
And then one day, after a month, Mother rose, straightened her back and went downstairs to breakfast. Her sense of duty seemed to flood back to her; that very day, she ventured into Father’s office and within an hour had called for Grady to help her understand the plans for an upgrade to the drains on the south lawn.
The gypsy’s murder seemed to shake her confidence anew. I understood it: her need to speculate aloud about the murder. Who was the culprit? Was he still at large in Longmeadow? Was Longmeadow in danger? Was there something that she, as leader, might have done to prevent the crime?
I felt that a little distraction was in order.
As if I had just that moment laid my hands on it, I held a newspaper aloft. “Have you seen this?” I asked. “It’s a letter to the Times from Mrs. Pankhurst about the workhouses.”
“The workhouses? Let me see it. Oh, how marvelous.” Mother took the paper and commenced to read the letter aloud.
I’d already read it myself, of course, but I feigned interest nonetheless; in fact, I was proud to have provided so successful a distraction. I heard Juliet’s voice in my head and almost chuckled at its exactness: ‘any other topic of conversation will do,’ drawled the phantom Juliet. ‘The price of grain. New spelling primers at the school. Even the vote. Anything, as long as it’s not that gypsy.’
Later that evening, as I sat in my bedroom reading, the door opened and in walked Mother holding a sheaf of papers, her hair partly fallen from its upsweep.
“Alta,” said Mother, waving the papers, “I must consult with you, my darling. I think I ought to go out onto the circuit again.”
When Father was alive, my parents had often traveled together around Britain—for a week or two at a time, perhaps—on lecture tours. They spoke to rooms of people about Longmeadow and the ideas of equality and shared labor that go into the place. They were extremely popular—Charles, so blonde and intelligent; Maria, so dark and impassioned, such a stirring oratress. Even these years after Father’s death, my mother’s celebrity status had remained intact and she still receives plenty of invitations to speak. Once when Juliet and I were much younger and into the second week of one of our parents’ tours, Juliet had said, “Perhaps they will never come back and you and I will become orphan-queens. I’d laughed, but later that same day, Juliet rode her pony up the front steps of the house and into the parlor and around. Mrs. Tell was so angry at the mud and the breakage that I could not bear it and fled to my room and my books. Juliet had shown no remorse, and had rather, in response to Mrs. Tell’s scolding, ridden round and round the great gravel drive in the front of the manor, grimacing and holding a tasseled table runner aloft like a flag.
“Really,” Mother had said upon her return when she heard of Juliet’s escapade, “Such a fuss! And after all, if your father and I were typical, we might simply hire a governess and then leave you for months while we wintered on the continent.”
“Yes,” said Father, “but we have our work, which is here, and thus we will always return.”
“To Longmeadow,” Juliet had said to me when we were alone together, “Not to us.”
I thought Juliet unfair; our parents never were away for terribly long, after all. They always left the circuit sooner than they wished to, for their responsibilities. Indeed, this habit they had of leaving before they’d worn through their welcome, called forth a constant admiration from their audiences who felt lucky to have caught them before they disappeared back into their small utopia.
Now, Mother’s expression was ardent. I was a little surprised at how things had turned.
“The circuit?” I said. “I am surprised!”
Mother sank into the chair before the fireplace. “Honestly,” she said, “I’ve been so upset by the murder, as you know… and that’s a large part of it, of why I wish to go out again. I feel I need a bit of…I suppose I need a bit of air.” Her face changed suddenly. “Oh, Alta, darling, you know you could come with me. Do you know? You could do it, I am sure. You would enjoy seeing some of the world….” But she tapered off. I know that she knew that I would not go. But I am glad she asked.
“And it will make you feel better, then?” I said.
“Yes, I think it will. I think that if I face the incident–openly and honestly– then it will shine a good light on the place. It’s easier for people to trust in something if they feel a bit of vulnerability from it. Mr. Somerday suggested that perhaps I should even open my lectures with the incident, but I don’t know that I shall go that far.”
“Mr. Somerday?” I said.
“Why yes,” Mother said, rising from the chair, “even before the incident, he was eager that I go on tour. He urges me to do it. He is so enthusiastic about Longmeadow, you know. He is a little in love with the place, I think.”
He wishes Mother to go. He must know that I will stay. There is my heartbeat. My, how it pounds.
“I feel sure that people will welcome me though I am without your father. I shall work hard to spread our message. I feel that this is the right thing, do you not as well?”
“If it’s what you wish,” I said, standing, “And if you think you won’t worry about Longmeadow while you’re gone.”
“My love,” said Mother, hugging me. “I shall know that my lovely girl is here, at Longmeadow, continuing our important work. I plan to be two weeks, three at the most. I shall travel north to Cambridge and then circle around to Oxford and then London to see Juliet with some smaller stops between. If you will not accompany me, Alta, then you shall act in my stead here at Longmeadow. You will take over my daily rounds for me. Grady will be at your side as well as Mrs. Tell. And Alta, one more thing—Mr. Somerday is very easy to talk to, my dear. Avail yourself of his ear. And I shall write to you every day.”
I hugged her back. I was glad to see her mother’s energy renewed. I was glad to see the familiar zeal for mission. I was gratified to be trusted with Longmeadow’s work; I swear, I thought, my eyesight improves by the second as I look around and see the tasks ahead of me. And, because I aim always for honesty, I will admit it: the prospect of a daily ride with Mr. Somerday was not unpleasant.
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. He 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
jams n jellies
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. Mrs. 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.
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!”
“Naturally,” said Mrs. Grey, “it contains a mayonnaise.”
“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.
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.
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.
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. But 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.
Preceding chapters, well…they precede, and on this site.
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.
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.
“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.
“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!”
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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!”
“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.”
“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.
“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.