Longmeadow: chapter 8

in which Alta receives a parcel and, as well, a little recognition, for a change

 

Alta

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.

“Dearest Alta,

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.

oh my

 

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!

Yours, J.”

 

 

The pamphlets were of a style familiar to me– penny dreadfuls: tales of danger, over-stimulating, full of prurient images.

dreadful

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.

couple of ’em

 

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

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.

mundane

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.

Mrs. P, arrested while trying to present a suffrage petition to George V. 

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.

 

messy

“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!”

the circuit

 

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.

 

 

Longmeadow: chapter seven

Mrs. Tell

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

children like trolls

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

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

mad

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

 

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

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

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

1bgvov
smug

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

311f852ad1a1960af032b2db54199b2b-wildflowers-dean-ogorman
bower of roses

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

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

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

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

Van Gogh painted them

 

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

I noticed that Nancy said not a word.

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

Again, nothing, but her face showed her feelings.

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

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

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

Nancy nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

The door flew open and in burst Bert.

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

loud kiss

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

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

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

 

Longmeadow: chapter four

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

 

Alta

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

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

cheshire-780x502
paintable view

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mother laughed again and thus so did Mr. Somerday.

medical-scientists-look-ban-handshake-health-care-settings
good, firm

 

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

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

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

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

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

bronson-alcotts-fruitlands
one of Father’s inspirations

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

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

“…back when they worshipped trees!” said Juliet

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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similar to what Juliet wanted

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

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

“Oh dear,” I said.

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

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

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

I saw Mr. Somerday’s dismay deepen.

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

I rushed in as if on horseback.

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly,” said Juliet suddenly.

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

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

Mother nodded only.

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

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

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

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

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Diamond Jubilee wallpaper; very au courant

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I felt quite stiff.   “I apologize…”

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

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

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

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

“’Vermilion’” murmured Mother.

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

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

188

__________________

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

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

Immediately, I knelt.

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

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

“Mm,” said Mrs. Tell.

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

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plenty of buttons

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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pea soup

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

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

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

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

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

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

I saw Juliet and Mother exchange a glance.

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

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

“But what a thug,” said Juliet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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Longmeadow: chapter three

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

Mrs. Tell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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nice sandwich
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cradle on the hearth

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you said what?”

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

“Yet,” said I.

all painted up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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regular injections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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how silly

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded, very dark.

“Was it Mike?” said I.

Again, a nod.

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

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

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

“But you fixed it?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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