Longmeadow: Chapter Ten

in which Alta and Mr. Somerday perambulate

 

Alta

 

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.

nice old lathe

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.

“Alta?”

“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…”

“Unimproved.”

“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.

snoop

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.

Charles Henry Harrod

 

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.”

“Who?”

“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.

 

you can always read about her

Longmeadow: chapter nine

In which Mrs. Tell muses on Alta

 

Mrs. Tell

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.

yawn

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.

the goldbeaters

 

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.

flax tow

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.

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 five

get to earlier chapters by scrolling to end

 

Mrs. Tell

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

delicious pigeons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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little milkmaid

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wished to draw her out some.

“And how do the ladies do?” I asked.

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

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

“Yes,” she said.

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

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

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

 

dancing
jig

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

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

I waited.

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

I waited.

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

“Poor Mary,” I gave her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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lady’s ear

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

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

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she thought marriage was bad for women

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

I believe I gaped.

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

“Yes, mum,” said I.

“No need for mum,” said she.

I nodded and I took a breath and started.

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

Miss Maria looked very serious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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hey hey hey

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

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

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

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

“Problems, Kate?” said Mrs. Grey.

The girl bit her lip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Longmeadow: chapter two

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

 

Longmeadow: Chapter Two

Alta

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

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

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

spooner
Reverend Spooner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Juliet picked back up her cup.

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

fd9c6b39c521e0e9d686ed268b10a8e3
cold stare

 

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

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

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

“As do I!” trumpeted Mr. Strich.

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

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

rabbity eyes

 

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

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

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

“What have I missed?” said Mother.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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a glorious masthead

 

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

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

tupaiaskull1
a shrew

 

a horse
a horse

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

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

I felt he had me exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lameum poporeum (nettle)

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

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

“Truly?” said Mother.

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

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

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

“Well,” I said, “he has yet to.”

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

“…in his mouth!” I said.

“Exactly!” said Mr. Somerday.

darwin-beetles

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

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

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

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

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

———————————

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

some of Alta’s collection

 

 

chapter three coming soon