Lord knows Miss Alta’s sharp. Talk to her once, and you’ll know it too. Miss Maria was wise to pass her on some responsibilities, even for just the few weeks as she’ll be gone. It’s good for a young person to have a task set before them, even if they’re a young lady. This is something Mr. Charles said and he was right.
Better too much to do than too little–too little and a person can run amuck. If you was to ask me I’d tell you that’s half the problem with them ladies at Arum House. They ought to come to Longmeadow for the fresh air but instead they come bored and looking to adventure.
Miss Alta takes her new duties quite serious. Each and every morning she bids me good-bye and tells me where she’s off to, just as her mother does when she goes out. This way, if Grady needs a decision, or anyone else does, he can know where to find her fast, through me.
“Grady,” said I, “You find Miss Alta and ask her some small thing even if it’s summat you could do yourself with your eyes half-open. It won’t hurt to make her feel a bit of her own importance, especially…” He understood what I was about, which I will tell you: Miss Alta must be brave to go out even though she wears that veil. We’re used to her but some of us stare nonetheless. But Grady’s a good boy and he does what I tell him. He told me about it later.
“I said, ‘Miss Alta, there’s a late calf due tonight. The farmer must decide whether to keep it or butcher it.’”
“And what did she say to that?” said I, thinking that if it was Miss Juliet, she’d have said oh, do let it live.
Grady grinned. “She had a pretty answer, to be sure,” said he. “She said, ‘Well, Grady, what do you advise?’ and I said, ‘Well, I think we could sell a good piece of veal for a pretty penny as well as the goldbeaters need some gut, if you don’t mind the term Miss Alta.’”
I smiled back at him, for in truth it was a bit funny to say ‘gut’ to a young lady but what else might you call it when that’s the only word for it?
Grady’s mouth twitched. “She said, ‘Better to sell the dogie Grady, if you think it’s best.’”
“What’s she mean by dogie?”
“She said that’s what the cowboys in America call calves is dogies.”
I was glad to see Grady grin. He hadn’t much, since the murder.
Things is nice and quiet what with Miss Maria gone away and Miss Juliet, both. I have been troubled in my mind about Miss Juliet for some time: she’s a young lady who likes to have her own way and her own say more than’s good for her. It’s time she was married or engaged to be, at least. Take my Nan: a whole year younger than Miss Julie and happy as a little pearl in a oyster.
Yes, if you was to ask me, I’d say that Miss Juliet needs a nice match made for her. And she’s a girl who might have right many a suitor. Her line is pure aristocratic, her expectations large and she’s a beauty when she ain’t looking at you like she’d like to bite you or laugh at you, one.
Trouble is when you’re a girl in the countryside like Miss Juliet is, you must depend upon your mother to help you in that regard. You must have London seasons and make calls. I have a cousin who cooks in a big house near Devon and can speak of little else than her young mistresses when she visits, which she has done twice. She describes how her mistress schemes every day about who she can marry her two daughters off to.
“Every other weekend, a house party,” grumbled my cousin, “with more roasts and puddings and pluckings than Christmas dinner. Mistress says it’s so young men can come to hunt though the truth is what she hopes for is for them to bag one of them young ladies.”
“Is they plain, then, that it’s so hard to marry them off?” I asked.
“Certainly not,” said my cousin, glaring, which I was glad to see because I like loyalty, “they’re both very pretty, indeed. But all the high-born young men want Americans these days—Americans with their fortunes. A English girl don’t hardly stand a chance.”
Now this ain’t a problem for Miss Juliet. Her fortune’s as fine as any American’s,
I daresay. What she don’t have is a mother who has the time or the inclination to look around. Perhaps now that Miss Julie’s in London, she’ll land someone on her own. We can hope for it.
It’s different for Miss Alta, of course.
I recall back when Mr. Charles was alive, back when he was making his changes to Longmeadow, a family called the Faniels came to visit from America, with their two yellow-haired boys. I think of ‘em often, for I blame Arum House on them. I know I ought not to and yet I do. I ought not to blame them for it, for they was trying to get out of something very like, back in America. They’d tried it and hadn’t liked it and Mr. Faniel had wrote a article about it which Mr. Henry read and then invited the whole family of them to come to England and visit. So, see, the Faniels was rushing away from sin and yet still I blame them for it. And I can’t help but think of them when I think of Arum House. Mrs. Johnston’s that way with Bodger, for she was bit by a big dog when she was but a girl. “But, Ellen,” I say, “Bodger won’t hurt you.” She knows it but she’ll avoid him if she can.
When I think of Miss Alta and her prospects, I think of them two Faniel boys, both tow-headed and freckle-faced, sitting in my kitchen eating at my table next to Miss Juliet and Miss Alta when they were but young theirselves. I had give ‘em all bread and butter, I recall, and I noticed that them boys had thanked me very nice when I gave them their slices.
“What sort of name is Verdy?” said Miss Alta to the younger one as the four of them sat at table together.
“Name of a Greek god,” said Verdy, munching. “Vertumnus, god of vegetables and stuff.”
“Vegetables!” said Miss Juliet.
“What’s yours from?” said Miss Alta to the older boy they called Ero.
“His is a god too,” said Verdy. “Eros.”
“Oh!” said Miss Alta.
I turned to see the boy shrug and redden some, which I thought must be that name or else he’d spilled something.
“Miss Juliet, Miss Alta,” said I very quick, “have you finished? Take the young gentlemen to play if you have.”
“She called us young gentlemen!” crowed Verdy.
“And what should I call you?” I said, turning and smiling, for he was a lovely child after all.
“They’re just boys,” said Miss Juliet, brushing crumbs. “Come along. There’s a swing out here.” She and the younger boy ran out the door.
“Are you coming too?” said Ero to Miss Alta as they stood.
“No,” said Miss Alta. “I prefer to stay inside.”
She didn’t, but I could see: she’d never say it was the sun.
The boy shrugged and turned.
“Perhaps Mr. Ero would like to see the library?” said I.
Miss Alta looked at him. I read that look. She wanted him to choose her and what she could offer. Her hope for it was in her face.
“Why would I?” said Mr. Ero, stepping from behind the table. “Which way’s the swing?” and he was gone.
If I could have, I’d have put my handprint on that boy’s cheek quick enough for rudeness. I looked at Miss Alta to shake my head over it, but when she looked back at me, her face was as flat as glass. I think she see’d her life stretched in front of her just then and I will admit to you: I did not know how to comfort that girl who wouldn’t never have even such simple things as others have. But she didn’t want my pity, it was clear. She turned away and left the kitchen.
Yesterday, I carried some broth down to Longmeadow Village for old Miss Cripps who is ailing. Miss Maria had asked me to visit her so I did it. I’ll tell you what I understood: Miss Maria did not like to ask Miss Alta to do it. Why, you may ask? Because Miss Cripps is right ancient and as Miss Maria says it, “her superstitions get the best of her.” What that means is that Miss Cripps might not be past saying something to hurt Miss Alta’s feelings. And it’s true enough: some of them old ones still talk about faeries and hexes. They might refuse to open the door for Miss Alta if she was to show up on their doorstep, broth or no broth. I almost told Miss Maria to let Miss Cripps find her own soup, but I held my tongue for she’s infirm in a way I’m grateful I ain’t.
in which Alta receives a parcel and, as well, a little recognition, for a change
I had a parcel from London. Juliet found, in some dusty bookshop, a small store of pamphlets which she purchased, tied with a string, and mailed. Dear girl. She knows me so well. I settled down on the small sofa in my bedroom and unpacked it.
You asked me to look for beetle books for you but they make my head itch and so I’m afraid I can’t oblige.
In the meantime, maybe these will do for something to read. I certainly haven’t read them, but from a glance at the drawings within, I judge there’s enough gore to suit you. I say, you are an odd girl. But then so am I. By the by, I bought these under cover of “posting a letter;” if Cousin Jemimah had seen what it was I was buying, there’d have been smelling salts to pay. As it was, when the bookseller peered at me, I said as innocently as I could, “Oh, these aren’t for me, no indeed. They’re for my little sister!
The pamphlets were of a style familiar to me– penny dreadfuls: tales of danger, over-stimulating, full of prurient images.
Mr. Foyle, my favorite of the London booksellers, with whom I have a standing order, sends them when he finds them and I consume them like raspberries. I will admit: I’m a little embarrassed by my propensity for the dreadfuls; they are purple, and absolutely unwholesome, and I ought to know better. Everything about them is coarse, from the paper to the prose. They’re meant for little boys; adventure stories full of cliffs and ponies and flaming arrows. I dug in.
Soon I found myself on the edge of my little sofa, Juliet’s pamphlets around my feet, my nose an inch from a most marvelous story called Calamity Jane at Death Notch. Of course I’d heard of Calamity Jane but I hadn’t read much about her before. And here was everything I never knew I wanted! With engravings! When have I been so thrilled?
“Darling Julie,” I murmured as I turned the flimsy pages.
Calamity Jane was most shocking. Her trousers, the way her hat sat on the back of her head, those adventures! I sat upright—as if I was astride—and raced straight through the material. Through Calamity Jane Rescues City Slickers from Wild Indians! Through Calamity Jane Rides 90 Miles with Vital Dispatch! Through Calamity Jane Rescues Colonel From Certain Death!
When I finished, I took a great breath. I expect I’m like a million others who find excitement between two paper covers rather than on the back of a pony. It came to me suddenly that I missed the stag. The idea of him, so unbound, roaming where he would, was an idea I had loved. He crashed through the undergrowth in the same way I would like to crash but cannot. Though white, he was ready, while here sit I, pinned like one of my beetles by my infirmity. Juliet is like the stag. Or he was like her. She crashes all she wants, while I sit by the window.
I sighed, shrugged, packed up the pamphlets and carried them to my collection room. “There,” I said putting them away, “you deserve your own cabinet, Miss Calamity.”
Mother’s office is at the other end of the house. I entered and seated myself at my own trim desk. By contrast, Mother’s desk is a constant tumult; unfinished articles, sketches of farm machinery, invitations to lectures, lists of goods needed to run the farms, the workshops, the school.
I often assist Mother with more mundane bookkeeping aspects of Longmeadow: how many pots of jam sold, how many chairs sold, how many bales produced. I had just taken up a stack of invoices to sort when Mother walked in. She kissed me and went to her desk to work. Only a moment passed before she put down her pen. I looked up.
“My great fear is that I will somehow undermine all your father achieved,” she said as if we had been in the midst of discussion. Her expression was dark. “I wasted so much of his time, you see, by questioning his ideas and his methods, for he had first to convince me of their legitimacy.”
Mother has been low since the gypsy’s death. While I mourn the stag, Mother takes the death of the man harder. She pities the gypsy band for their loss, she worries for the patience of the townsfolk, she considers the murder a blemish on Longmeadow’s reputation. Her low spirits have permeated her conversation. I can tell: if it weren’t for her corset, she would slump in her chair.
“Your father needed my help,” Mother continued, “but in the beginning, I was reluctant to see his views. I will forever feel,” she said, “that if I had been quicker to come to his understanding, he would have been…he would have felt shored up by me, do you see? But I delayed.” She sighed “I have tried to make up for it since his death, but it is hard to be a woman alone doing the work of a man, especially of one whom she loved as I loved him.”
I recalled; immediately after Father’s death, Mother had taken to her bed. Longmeadow might have fallen apart but for Mrs. Tell and Grady. The two of them made the rounds, remedied the problems, assured the people, while Mother mourned and Juliet and I tried to comfort her. I remember the darkened room, the sour sheets.
And then one day, after a month, Mother rose, straightened her back and went downstairs to breakfast. Her sense of duty seemed to flood back to her; that very day, she ventured into Father’s office and within an hour had called for Grady to help her understand the plans for an upgrade to the drains on the south lawn.
The gypsy’s murder seemed to shake her confidence anew. I understood it: her need to speculate aloud about the murder. Who was the culprit? Was he still at large in Longmeadow? Was Longmeadow in danger? Was there something that she, as leader, might have done to prevent the crime?
I felt that a little distraction was in order.
As if I had just that moment laid my hands on it, I held a newspaper aloft. “Have you seen this?” I asked. “It’s a letter to the Times from Mrs. Pankhurst about the workhouses.”
“The workhouses? Let me see it. Oh, how marvelous.” Mother took the paper and commenced to read the letter aloud.
I’d already read it myself, of course, but I feigned interest nonetheless; in fact, I was proud to have provided so successful a distraction. I heard Juliet’s voice in my head and almost chuckled at its exactness: ‘any other topic of conversation will do,’ drawled the phantom Juliet. ‘The price of grain. New spelling primers at the school. Even the vote. Anything, as long as it’s not that gypsy.’
Later that evening, as I sat in my bedroom reading, the door opened and in walked Mother holding a sheaf of papers, her hair partly fallen from its upsweep.
“Alta,” said Mother, waving the papers, “I must consult with you, my darling. I think I ought to go out onto the circuit again.”
When Father was alive, my parents had often traveled together around Britain—for a week or two at a time, perhaps—on lecture tours. They spoke to rooms of people about Longmeadow and the ideas of equality and shared labor that go into the place. They were extremely popular—Charles, so blonde and intelligent; Maria, so dark and impassioned, such a stirring oratress. Even these years after Father’s death, my mother’s celebrity status had remained intact and she still receives plenty of invitations to speak. Once when Juliet and I were much younger and into the second week of one of our parents’ tours, Juliet had said, “Perhaps they will never come back and you and I will become orphan-queens. I’d laughed, but later that same day, Juliet rode her pony up the front steps of the house and into the parlor and around. Mrs. Tell was so angry at the mud and the breakage that I could not bear it and fled to my room and my books. Juliet had shown no remorse, and had rather, in response to Mrs. Tell’s scolding, ridden round and round the great gravel drive in the front of the manor, grimacing and holding a tasseled table runner aloft like a flag.
“Really,” Mother had said upon her return when she heard of Juliet’s escapade, “Such a fuss! And after all, if your father and I were typical, we might simply hire a governess and then leave you for months while we wintered on the continent.”
“Yes,” said Father, “but we have our work, which is here, and thus we will always return.”
“To Longmeadow,” Juliet had said to me when we were alone together, “Not to us.”
I thought Juliet unfair; our parents never were away for terribly long, after all. They always left the circuit sooner than they wished to, for their responsibilities. Indeed, this habit they had of leaving before they’d worn through their welcome, called forth a constant admiration from their audiences who felt lucky to have caught them before they disappeared back into their small utopia.
Now, Mother’s expression was ardent. I was a little surprised at how things had turned.
“The circuit?” I said. “I am surprised!”
Mother sank into the chair before the fireplace. “Honestly,” she said, “I’ve been so upset by the murder, as you know… and that’s a large part of it, of why I wish to go out again. I feel I need a bit of…I suppose I need a bit of air.” Her face changed suddenly. “Oh, Alta, darling, you know you could come with me. Do you know? You could do it, I am sure. You would enjoy seeing some of the world….” But she tapered off. I know that she knew that I would not go. But I am glad she asked.
“And it will make you feel better, then?” I said.
“Yes, I think it will. I think that if I face the incident–openly and honestly– then it will shine a good light on the place. It’s easier for people to trust in something if they feel a bit of vulnerability from it. Mr. Somerday suggested that perhaps I should even open my lectures with the incident, but I don’t know that I shall go that far.”
“Mr. Somerday?” I said.
“Why yes,” Mother said, rising from the chair, “even before the incident, he was eager that I go on tour. He urges me to do it. He is so enthusiastic about Longmeadow, you know. He is a little in love with the place, I think.”
He wishes Mother to go. He must know that I will stay. There is my heartbeat. My, how it pounds.
“I feel sure that people will welcome me though I am without your father. I shall work hard to spread our message. I feel that this is the right thing, do you not as well?”
“If it’s what you wish,” I said, standing, “And if you think you won’t worry about Longmeadow while you’re gone.”
“My love,” said Mother, hugging me. “I shall know that my lovely girl is here, at Longmeadow, continuing our important work. I plan to be two weeks, three at the most. I shall travel north to Cambridge and then circle around to Oxford and then London to see Juliet with some smaller stops between. If you will not accompany me, Alta, then you shall act in my stead here at Longmeadow. You will take over my daily rounds for me. Grady will be at your side as well as Mrs. Tell. And Alta, one more thing—Mr. Somerday is very easy to talk to, my dear. Avail yourself of his ear. And I shall write to you every day.”
I hugged her back. I was glad to see her mother’s energy renewed. I was glad to see the familiar zeal for mission. I was gratified to be trusted with Longmeadow’s work; I swear, I thought, my eyesight improves by the second as I look around and see the tasks ahead of me. And, because I aim always for honesty, I will admit it: the prospect of a daily ride with Mr. Somerday was not unpleasant.
Preceding chapters, well…they precede, and on this site.
It’s Mother’s habit to drink tea with the artists, if there’s some one of them who can converse intelligently. Mr. Strich had his chance, but the three of us liked Mr. Somerday very much. He was invited back and was indeed extremely charming when he came.
He complimented the Residences, the quartet of guest houses let to artists, such as himself and Mr. Strich, who wished to cloister themselves with their poems or their staff paper. Longmeadow provides housing, solitude, good views, and the cachet of its name, to boot.
He asked Mother to talk about Longmeadow—its origin, its challenges.
“It was my husband’s passion and his idea,” explained Mother, “A modern Eden built from equal parts cooperation…”
“….and good firm handshakes,” interrupted Juliet, “He read too many books, you see, and decided that all people are equal under the sun. That was the germ of it.”
I saw Mr. Somerday’s expression; he seemed a little stunned at what may have felt to him like dissension in the ranks.
“You needn’t worry, Mr. Somerday,” said Mother, laughing at his expression. “To my increasing rue,” she smiled at Juliet, “I stand strong for free speech here at Longmeadow. Juliet may always say what she feels to be the truth.”
“I am refreshing,” said Juliet. “It’s my best quality.”
Mother laughed again and thus so did Mr. Somerday.
“Mostly,” I said so as not to be left out, “we are of like minds, here at Longmeadow.”
“That’s right, Alta,” said Mother. “We’re a peaceable place. We hearken back to simpler, happier times, before the smoke of the cities, before the noise of modern days. And that is how people know us.”
I listened as Mother described the community’s infant days for Mr. Somerday: how my father, the only heir to the vastness of Longmeadow’s estates and farms and people (not really the people of course, but then again perhaps yes), had wished to transform the place into something better. He read and studied and learned: his thumb was a constant bookmark. I remember his wide eyes as he read to Mother at breakfast from letters bristling with hints about harmony.
As we drank tea, Mother told of how Father died four years ago when I was fourteen. “He labored where he oughtn’t to have done,” Mother told a sympathetic Mr. Somerday. “He died from a chill he caught by attending Martin Grove as that man mucked a stall in cold weather. I begged him not to. ‘You have not the constitution for it,’ I said to him as he drew on his boots, but he replied, as he always did, ‘How can I let him see that I will not do the work that he must do every day of his life?’”
Mother paused. I was sitting beside her and took her hand. Mother still mourns Father. As do I. He was the best and kindest of men.
“We were not always as you see us thus,” said Juliet to Mr. Somerday. “Once upon a time, you see, Longmeadow was very grand. When Alta was younger, she found a collection of Longmeadow histories….”
“Yes,” said Mother, “carefully culled into a leather volume by some silly ancestor…”
“…back when they worshipped trees!” said Juliet
Mr. Somerday turned towards me again. “What sort of stories?”
“Well,” I said, “our garden has in it, in a strange little corner, a crumbling Roman mosaic—the story of Theseus. It was lost to blackberries for generations and unearthed by my grandfather.”
“How interesting,” said Mr. Somerday. “I should so like to see it!”
“And Samuel Pepys called our bowling lawns the finest in all the country,” I continued. I heard the timbre of my own voice: see how I warm to the subject with such an audience!
“See how silly?” said Mother, smiling at him.
Mr. Somerday spoke about himself. “I am the second son, Mrs. Pendergrast,” he said. “My brother inherited and lives at Delorme in Bedforshire with his wife and children. It has been, I fear, a while since I have seen them all.”
“You have traveled a good deal?” asked Juliet.
“Quite a lot,” said Mr. Somerday. “I soldiered in India for some years. Can you imagine me: all red serge and buckles?”
“Marvelous,” I said before I thought about it. I felt Juliet’s eyes upon me so I quickly added, “to have traveled.”
“Since then,” he continued, “I have led the life of wanderlust and taken to painting. I did not care for the army enough to make a career of it, I’m afraid. I prefer the brush to the gun.” Mother nodded.
Juliet would not boast, so I did it for her.
“Juliet sings,” I said, “You ought to ask her to sing for you this instant.”
“Oh Alta,” said Juliet, “That’s not fair to poor Mr. Somerday. And besides…”
But at his pleas, she assented. I watched him turn surprised and then delighted.
“How does it come to pass that the name of Juliet Pendergrast is not better known?” Mr. Somerday asked when she was done. “That was beautiful! Why, you would be the toast of London!”
At that, Juliet who had stood to sing her song, sat rather quickly on the sofa and said, “I wish very much to go to London. Our cousin spends the season….”
Mother’s lips tightened. It was impossible not to discern it.
“Oh dear,” I said.
“Have I….” said Mr. Somerday, baffled.
“Not at all, Mr. Somerday,” said Mother, recovering herself. “Juliet is free to leave Longmeadow at any time.”
“You make it sound as if I wish to go to China,” said Juliet, her eyes dark.
I saw Mr. Somerday’s dismay deepen.
He does not understand the problem, I thought, but how could he. Mother wishes for Juliet’s full allegiance and Juliet does not wish to give it. I felt for poor Mr. Somerday. He had likely come to Longmeadow for a little respite from the trials of the hard world and instead he’d walked right into a spat. His features, more expressive than most men’s (in my admittedly limited experience), showed his chagrin. I realized: he thought he was at fault for having praised Juliet, for having mentioned London. He uncrossed his legs, his mouth worked. I wished to save him from hurt feelings. I wished to save us from looking petty.
I rushed in as if on horseback.
“Mr. Somerday,” I said, “I have lately been reading of the wild west in America. Do you know much about it?”
Mr. Somerday turned his face toward me, but I could see that he was still distracted by his gaffe.
I took a deep breath and continued. “Currently,” I said, “I’m in thrall to a volume about the American bison hunter Buffalo Bill. Even as we speak, Mr. Somerday, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show is in London performing for the Queen’s Jubilee. Now that would be a spectacle, don’t you think?”
Everyone’s eyes were upon me though it looked as if no one was actually listening to me. I nattered on, nonetheless.
“It’s true,” I said, feeling a little desperate, “that as it’s unlikely that Mr. Bill would allow me to sit in the middle of his tent, which is where I’d need to be to see the ropings and shootings, I must forego the pleasure. I can read about it though. And I do. The stories are so very exciting and often, Longmeadow seems quite tame.”
“Exactly,” said Juliet suddenly.
Mr. Somerday and I both looked at Juliet, expectant, but there was nothing more.
I forged forth. “Just this morning,” I said, wondering when I’d be able to stop my fountain of words, “I read how Buffalo Bill’s own father was stabbed in the stomach for being an abolitionist. Mother, you would have liked Buffalo Bill’s father.”
Mother nodded only.
Finally Juliet stirred. “Alta’s rather an expert on the West,” she said. “You ought to hear her say some Red Indian words. Say that long one for Mr. Somerday. You know the one.”
“Yes,” said Mother, smiling again at Mr. Somerday, who brightened like a baby. “Do listen, Mr. Somerday, as she says it.”
Thank you, God, I thought. “Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg,” I pronounced. “It’s a lake.”
Mr. Somerday, no doubt relieved beyond measure at the return of harmony, marveled duly.
“That great white stag, Mrs. Pendergrast,” he said, happy again, “is certainly a very fine beast. I confess: in my anxiety to see him more closely and to protect him from that giant hound of yours….” we all looked at Bodger who lay on the floor and snored…. “I neglected to see what I might spoil as I rode ahead.”
“Isn’t he stately?” said Juliet. “I see him sometimes when I ride. I think I could lie quite cradled in the span of his antlers.”
“I’m surprised such an animal comes so near the house,” said Mr. Somerday.
“In truth,” said Juliet, “I believe he strays onto these grounds in his efforts to get out of the way of the gypsies. There’s an encampment of them on the far side of the estate.”
“I’m afraid of them, on his behalf,” I said. “I fear that he will succumb to their poaching. I expect they’ll eat what there is to eat of him and then use his hide to wrap their baby buntings in, rather like the red Indians in America.”
And then, before I could stop myself, I added, “the gypsies dislike me.”
The words tumbled out. I listened to myself speak as if I were sitting right there on the sofa next to myself. Generally I am the very picture of control. But it seemed that whatever strand connected my will to my tongue had snapped.
It’s because of how I am, you know,” I said. “Once, one of them came to the manor in search of Mother and caught sight of me. I can imagine, can you not, what description he brought back to his camp: there is a lady at the house with skin as white as bone. They may believe I can put a hex on them if I like.”
“What if…,” I could not close my mouth! It had opened and I couldn’t shut it! I heard myself continue. “What if I were to creep down to their camp late one evening and stand at attention and sing, oh I don’t know, perhaps God Save the Queen! Think what a start that would give them!”
“Alta, darling,” said Mother. She looked worried. She turned towards me and put her arm around me. “Are you unwell, my love?”
“Yes,” said Juliet, on my other side, “you sound quite odd.”
I daresay I was as surprised at my loquaciousness as they were. It’s usual for me to sit quietly so that I will draw as little attention as possible.
I felt quite stiff. “I apologize…”
“Please,” said Mr. Somerday suddenly, “please.”
We three looked at him, where he sat across from us. His one hand was stretched towards us, as if he would like to hand us something, though it was empty.
“This sounds presumptuous, I know it,” he said, looking at us one after the other, “but I am so glad to be here with you. You are as I hoped you would be when I read about Longmeadow and yearned for it from afar. I step beyond my bounds and I beg your pardon, but I feel as if I have burst out of some gray place and into somewhere vermilion and golden and jade. I am quite moved…. I….I cannot say what I….” And then he stopped, looked abashed, sat back.
“Well,” Juliet said to me after a moment, “he certainly talks like a painter.”
“’Vermilion’” murmured Mother.
“More tea, Mr. Somerday?” said Juliet.
“If you please,” he said. I tried not to stare. His smile was quite perfect.
On my way to bring Bodger inside the house for the evening, I heard a voice from within the kitchen.
“Sluts and hoydens….Arum House… you cannot….” I stopped in the midst of my errand and drew closer to the door. It flew open.
Immediately, I knelt.
“Miss Alta?” said Mrs. Tell stopping short and looking down. “What are you about?”
“Who, I?” I fumbled with my shoe. “An undone button, only.”
“Mm,” said Mrs. Tell.
I considered pressing the point of a question but in the end felt it best to forfeit. Mrs. Tell can be prickly when crossed.
I proceeded to the kennel, where Bodger was held prisoner. The rain had abated, but mist floated wraithlike; fog settled on my hood and made it heavy around my face. The dovecote was alive with the noise of the birds.
Bodger came bounding to meet me, wagging his tail and smiling. “There’s a boy, there’s a great fellow,” I told him as he leapt at the gate, pushing his nose between the slats. “Oh, you’ll stink horribly when you’re inside the house,” I said as I undid the latch.
At once, he exploded with a paroxysm of barks. He shoved hard against the gate, pushed it open, and barreled past me down onto the lane towards the dovecote.
“Oh Lord, not again,” I cried. Juliet had vowed over and over to train him, but whatever she did do, she did in vain. “You’re incorrigible!” I yelled, racing after him. “Bodger, come at once, you bad thing!”
Suddenly, a dark figure appeared through the mist. It stood just outside the dovecote door. I stopped in my tracks. I could see little due to fog and dusk and my own poor eyesight but I could tell by its posture that whomever stood there was abashed by the barking dog. I felt no fear; Longmeadow is safe and Bodger, huge.
“Bodger,” I cried, “do be quiet, will you!” Tiring of his own noise perhaps, Bodger turned away from the figure and ran at me to play. He did not know his strength: he knocked me full over onto my back and then dashed away into the mist. I thought I was not hurt; only that I had the breath knocked out of me. For a moment I could not rise. The figure, whose face was still a mystery, hurried to my assistance, to where I lay on the gravel walk. He reached down to take my arm and help me up.
In truth, I felt a little foolish; my hood had twisted to cover my face. My fur collar was partly in my mouth. I spat it out and pushed back my hood and all at once, my hair tumbled out. I could see it shining whitely in the moonlight.
When the stranger saw my face, he dropped my arm as if it burnt him to touch it. I think I gasped at the force of it, for the roughness hurt me and frightened me as well. There was little light but it was enough for me to see the steam that rose from the man’s shearling vest. His eyes in his dark face glowed large and his breath came raw. He hissed some oath in a guttural tongue, backed quickly away and bared his teeth. He hawked—deeply, loudly—and then spat. The spittle landed in front of me on the ground and glistened roundly in the half-light.
The gypsy and I stared at each other for half a second before he began to back away. It was indeed hard to know what to do with oneself. I wished to cry, but bit back the tears. One thing’s certain: I conciliate as if by compulsion. My manners are by rote. “Thank you for…” I almost sobbed to the gypsy, but at the sound of my voice, he cast me another horrified glance and ran off.
At home, I succumbed to tears. I described the meeting with the gypsy to Mother and Juliet. They fluttered about, called for a bath to be drawn, washed my back, supplied hot milk.
Later, Juliet sat on my bed and brushed my hair. “Never mind him, dear. You are all right?”
“I suppose so,” I said. “It was just so shocking. How he hates me.”
“He does not hate you, Alta darling,” said Mother. “The man acted in ignorance only.”
An image flashed in my mind, from a newspaper story I’d read just that morning—a band of wild Indians had attacked a train of wagons and destroyed the people in them. “Do you know,” I said, “that when Indians attack the wagons they dash out the babies’ brains on the wheels?”
I saw Juliet and Mother exchange a glance.
“You are overwrought, my love” said Mother. “There shall be no dashed brains at Longmeadow.”
I looked at Mother, who looked steadily back. “I suppose not,” I said after a minute.
“But what a thug,” said Juliet.
“Yes, Darling,” said Mother, chafing my hands, “The poor thing is a naif, you know that. A lack of education leaves a hole into which all the prejudices and superstitions of the world may fall. Do not judge him too harshly, my love. He is as much a victim as an offender.”
At once, Juliet took a sharp breath and yanked the hairbrush so hard that my head snapped back. “Ouch, Julie!” I cried, but Juliet did not attend. She jumped up and glared at Mother, the hairbrush forgotten in her hand.
“How can you defend him?” she hissed at Mother. “How can you defend that stupid lump? He is nothing to us. He is less than nothing to us. Alta is everything. She’s a human; he, a beast.”
“Juliet!” said Mother, shocked, leaving go of my hands. “How can you say such a thing?”
“Which?” said Juliet. “That he’s a beast or that you ought to think of your daughters first, before others, before….them?”
I did the only thing I could think to do which was to rise from my bed and open the door of my room so that Bodger who was cowering at the raised voices, could exit.
“Juliet,” cried Mother, “you are unfair. You speak heartlessly. How often must I tell you that we are no different from those born less fortunate….”
“But we are, Mama,” said Juliet, suddenly quiet. “We shall always be different. Do you not see? Alta will always need protecting. I shall always want to go away. She and I: we are both prisoners and you are the warden. And that is how it is here at Longmeadow.” With that, she threw the hairbrush onto the bed and swept out the room.
Mother sat still for half a second and then began to cry, her face in her hands. The tables had turned; now it is Mother who needs coddling. I stroked her rich hair away from her temples as she wept.
“Do I wrong you, my love?” Mother said after a moment, endeavoring to keep her sobs in check. “Have I neglected you for them them? I did not mean to do it, if I have. You and Juliet….you are more to me than anything. But they need so much. I wish only to help them, do you know?”
“They” meant the Longmeadows. “Yes, Mama,” I said, kissing her. “I know. You are generous to them and good to them. Never mind Juliet. Only look at how certain she is of everything, and you will see that you are guilty of no neglect—not to her self-assurance, at any rate.”
Mother tried to smile. “Oh me,” she sighed, “I wonder what your father would say. I wonder what he would do.”
“Well,” I said after a moment, “I think he would let her go to London.”
“Do you really?” said Mother, wiping her nose.
I nodded. “I do,” I said. “I think he would use your own words. ‘A lack of education leaves a hole,’ you said and Father would agree. And Juliet needs more than is to be found here. She is….” I searched for a word.
“Full of life,” said Mother, smiling a little. She nodded, She was again calm. “She is young and beautiful and curious. Perhaps you are right, Alta, my dear wise child. I am a hypocrite, I suppose, if I cannot give my own child a bit of freedom. And certainly…,” she sighed again. “certainly I do not wish to be a warden after all.”
“No, Mama, you do not,” I said. “You must let her go.”
Mother nodded. And then she hugged me very tight and kissed me.
I am young too, I thought, as I lay still in the dark of my room. I am not beautiful. I will always need protecting. I, too, wish for much.
This is the second chapter of Longmeadow. The first is on this site but back, some. I’ll post each new chapter on Facebook as I get around to it.
Longmeadow: Chapter Two
I wondered what would happen if I suddenly hissed at Mr. Strich like a lizard, but as he’s a guest at Longmeadow and a paying one at that, I thought I’d better not. At one point during tea, and apropos of nothing except that I was seated beside him, he recited notable examples of Reverend Spooner’s tongue-ties for Mother. “A well boiled icicle instead of a well-oiled bicycle, is that not amusing, Mrs. Pendergrast?” My proximity to Mr. Strich had apparently reminded him of the Reverend, a fact that appeared quite lost upon him though obviously evident to everyone else.
Everyone in England knows about Reverend Spooner’s deficiency of pigment. Journalists may like his philosophy, but they have their fun with him nonetheless, and call him the lily white knight of the tongue-tie or say that other orators pale in comparison. I myself have never seen him in person, but in photographs he looks like the negative image that appears on the plate before a picture is printed, much the same as I do myself.
I suddenly remembered a moment from a year earlier: while walking with Juliet on the lawns we’d together glimpsed a white rabbit. The thing turned and glowered at us before disappearing into a hedgerow, and I, in top form, proclaimed, “Hail, Sister,” to the thing, just to see Juliet smirk. It’s a hobby of mine, to try to make her grin. And it’s true, of course: our eyes, the rabbit’s and mine, were more than a little alike—the palest grey tinged with pink.
I saw that Mother meant to rise above Mr. Strich’s insults, though I wished she wouldn’t. But Mr. Somerday– the artist who’d been thrown from his horse at the wedding party—looked affronted for my sake, and attempted more than once to distract Mr. Strich.
“I have of course read of Longmeadow, Mrs. Pendergrast,” said Mr. Somerday, “and marveled at the clarity of the ideas as well as the morality of them. I look forward to seeing the place and how it is run.”
“We strive to do our best,” said Mother, “and are quite without guile here. I shall be glad to show you anything you might like to see.”
“Let me sew you to your sheet!” said Mr. Strich.
“Oh, really,” breathed Juliet. I saw Mr. Somerday incline himself very slightly towards her on the sofa they shared, as if he approved both her meaning—Mr. Strich is appalling—as well as her courtesy—that she would not say it aloud.
Mr. Somerday is wrong about Juliet. She’ll do as she wishes, courtesy notwithstanding. She just wasn’t ready yet.
“I have long sustained an interest in such small utopias as Longmeadow,” said Mr. Somerday to Mother, “and much regretted America’s lion’s share of them. It does my heart good to see the success of such a place on English shores and I am grateful to you for the important work you do.”
“As am I,” said Mr. Strich. He turned to Mr. Somerday. “Longmeadow’s a capital place to get some work done, you know. I write. You daub? Well, the views are fine. Little in the way of distraction. Excepting, of course, the ladies.” Here, he bowed at Mother and Juliet.
I am snubbed by an ass. What does it signify to be snubbed by an ass?
“Kinkering Congs Their Titles Take,” crowed Mr. Strich. His eyes were on me, but he addressed the others. “That is a good one, is it not? Conquering Kings, do you see? The hymn, you know…”
Juliet had had enough. She deliberately placed her cup and saucer on the table next to her with a little crash, dabbed at her mouth with her napkin, and fixed her gaze upon Mr. Strich. At first, he may have assumed it was fascination. But not for long. It is impossible to withstand such an immobile force as Juliet’s cold stare unwithered. Mr. Strich slurped, choked, coughed.
“Are you quite alright?” asked Mother. “Perhaps Mr. Somerday ought to pound your back for you?”
Mr. Somerday looked eager but Mr. Strich shook his head and recovered himself.
Juliet picked back up her cup.
I was grateful to her but still mortified, though not enough to miss the tick of amusement that crossed Mr. Somerday’s beautiful face when he looked at Juliet. She pretended not to notice it.
Before Mr. Strich could launch into some harangue or other, Mr. Somerday spoke. “Miss Alta,” he said, turning towards me, “what are your interests?”
“She collects beetles,” said Juliet. “You should see the collection. It’s remarkably crawly.”
“Oh, but may I?” said Mr. Somerday. “I have an interest myself!”
“As do I!” trumpeted Mr. Strich.
“Mr. Strich,” said Juliet sternly, “you will stay here with me and tell me about your new book.”
I hoped I spoke volumes at her with my rabbity eyes.
“Come, Alta,” said Mother, “Show Mr. Somerday and me your study. Perhaps you have added some specimens since I last saw it?”
“Your sister…,” murmured Mr. Somerday as we left the room.
“Is a martyr to my cause?” I suggested. He smiled but just a little, and then glanced back towards the parlor again as Mother closed the door behind us.
“What have I missed?” said Mother.
I knew this moment, from previous like it. Longmeadow dismissed the tradition of the escort; I could tell that Mr. Somerday was taken aback that Juliet was left to entertain Mr. Strich by herself.
Moment like this were sometimes a turning point. Mother’s nostrils flared.
“Mr. Somerday,” said Mother. She quit walking, so that the three of us stood triumvirate in the hall, and she lifted her chin, so that she, though shorter than he, stared him down. “Mr. Somerday, we do not hold with convention here at Longmeadow, as you may have read. Juliet is almost twenty years of age, she is possessed of conscience, intellect, and voice. I daresay you are shocked, but how else will we women change our situation other than by shattering decorum when it is silly and when we see that it is.”
I crossed my fingers for Mr. Somerday. When Mother spoke like this—as if from the mouth of a masthead—some men huffed and turned on their heels, others nodded politely but were gone the next day. A very few listened and understood and shone. I wished Mr. Somerday to shine because I wished him to stay.
It did not take him long. “I do apologize, Mrs. Pendergrast,” he said humbly, “I have heard that your attitudes and the passion of your ideals far surpass the usual thing, but I confess that I never expected to be treated to this private a lesson.”
I breathed out—apparently I’d been holding my breath—and then I said quickly, “It’s not all that private,” just to cut the tension a bit. There above Mr. Somerday’s head: some bewigged ancestor sternly watching.
Mother and Mr. Somerday followed my glance and laughed. The little lines around Mr. Somerday’s eyes crinkled.
My collection room had served as my grandfather’s cabinet of wonders. It is positioned at the back of the house, so that the large windows that look upon the lawn are in shade, good for the artifacts as well as their curator, me. Grandfather’s books of botanical illustrations and some other ancient Pendergrast’s anatomical atlases line the bookshelves. Glass cases hold quite a magnificent assortment of skulls collected by a great uncle.
“Oh look,” said Mr. Somerday, immediately attracted. “That tiny one’s a, oh I see the label now: a shrew. And on this other end, a horse!”
“I arranged them thus,” I said. “My predecessor was untidy.”
“Did you?” he said, all admiration. “I wish I had such patience, such attention to detail!”
I felt he had me exactly.
“I confess to pride in my daughters,” Mother said to Mr. Somerday. “I give them leave to do as they like and see what comes of it!”
The beetles are in boxes on the tables. I drew Mr. Somerday’s attention to them.
“I lose my breath!” he said. “Why, this is remarkable! Did you do all this yourself?”
I will admit to feeling quite thrilled. I rarely show off my collection because guests rarely ask to see it. Mr. Somerday’s courtesy was exceptional, but it was more than courtesy. It’s a naturalness, I decided, that makes him lively and humble. He does not see my difference because he likes my beetles. I believe I almost chirruped like a cricket to think it, but I caught myself before the sound came out.
Mr. Somerday waxed enthusiastic. “How did this come to be?” he asked. “Where did you get them all?”
“Well,” I said, “Joseph—he is a gardener– has got many of them for me. See all these pinned in this row? These are Black Clocks, very ordinary. And these here are Common Sextons. I have read that they show a great deal of maternal care for their larvae.”
“Do they really?” said Mother. “How extraordinary!”
“Yes,” I said. “And this one is the Devil’s Coach Horse. He has a big pinch. Joseph said he pinched his finger so hard he drew blood!”
“Oh dear,” said Mother. “Now I recall why I have left you to yourself in here.”
“Miss Alta,” teased Mr. Somerday, “have a care for your mother. Shall I fetch a chair, Mrs. Pendergrast?” Mother waved him away, smiling.
I giggled. It surprised me; half an hour earlier only, I’d been on the verge of spitting and slapping. And now look at me! I smiled at Mother, to show her that I was well, and she came close and put her hand on my hair.
“Do all the beetles come from Joseph?” said Mr. Somerday.
“Not all,” I told him. “I find some myself. There are plenty in shady places, so I can look. I found these five Green Tortoises on a single dead nettle.”
“Who’s this long gentleman?” asked Mr. Somerday, peering.
“That’s a Black Blister. He’s no gentleman. He came from America. Mr. Alcott sent him.”
“Truly?” said Mother.
I glanced at Mr. Somerday. Surely he was sick of the subject and wished to return to the drawing room? To Juliet? Away, at any rate? But no. He looked back at me, smiling, encouraging me to explain. I resisted the urge to flutter my hands like moths, which is something I have been known to do when overexcited and which certainly would have made me look entirely unbalanced. Alta, I told myself sternly, remember that you are curator, not specimen. Act accordingly.
“Yes,” said I, remaining calm, “I wrote to him, after Father died. Mr. Alcott and my father were great friends and correspondents, you see. My father mentioned to Mr. Alcott that I collect beetles and Mr. Alcott said that he did as well and then, quite recently, he sent me this one. Do you know– this beetle is imbued with a poison much like cyanide. If handled incorrectly, it can cause all manner of damage to one’s internal workings. Mr. Alcott also has a Striped Blister, of which I am very envious, in which the poison is five times stronger than in the Black.”
“He didn’t send that one, did he?” asked Mother faintly.
“Well,” I said, “he has yet to.”
“Do you know,” said Mr. Somerday, “I read once that Darwin was a great collector of beetles. I seem to recollect a story in which he held three beetles: one in each hand and one…”
“…in his mouth!” I said.
“Exactly!” said Mr. Somerday.
“You two are a gruesome pair,” said Mother, shaking her head. “Shall we return to the parlor?”
“Wait, Mother,” I said, “I have one more to show. He’s my very favorite. I keep him in a special box, in this drawer, away from all sunlight.” I extracted the box and showed them.
“Megasoma Elephas,” I said. “The Elephant Beetle.”
“My God,” said Mr. Somerday, “that thing’s as big as my fist!”
“I remember that one!” said Mother, looking quickly and then stepping away, “It’s from Uncle Richard, is it not?” She turned to Mr. Somerday. “I have a brother who is stationed in Madras. He must have sent it to her. I shall have to write to him at once and scold him. Come. Let us go to rescue Juliet, shall we?”
After the gentlemen had gone back to the artist’s residences, Juliet let loose on Mr. Strich. “Fat beast,” she said, “staring so at Alta, as he wolfed his cake. I wished to vomit. No, Mother, truly. I cannot abide a starer. Or a glutton. Do you know what it makes me think of? A dog. Yes indeed. A dog who will eat whatever sort of awful gristle is put into its way and then sit back with greasy lips. I expect he is even now back at the residence, seated on the floor, licking his male parts the way Bodger does. No, now come about, Alta, you know you feel the same as I.”
“Oh Juliet,” said Mother, but I could see dimples.
As I brushed out my hair before bed, I recalled the way that Mr. Strich had absent mindedly massaged a bit of cake between his thumb and forefinger as he gawked at me, droplets of tea shimmering in his mutton-chops. It made me shudder. And then, as I lay in my bed, it crept up: the familiar pang of humiliation. Whenever I think I have worn it in, it changes and again turns brittle. Tonight I am especially fragile because Mr. Somerday witnessed it and that made it that much worse.
Juliet does not tolerate humiliation, for she, herself, seems never to feel it. It’s as if she were born without the ability to blush. Time and again, I have seen her turn her own potential embarrassment into a sneer at what she deems a failure of imagination or taste on the part of another. “I simply cannot see,” she said to me once, truly puzzled, “why you could ever imagine that you are less than someone else when the opposite is always the case. Always.” I appreciate Juliet’s resolute allegiance. But if she cannot feel humiliation for herself, how can she ever understand me?
As for Mother, well, self-pity is not the Longmeadow way of course. For Maria Pendergrast, all of The Cooperative Society of Longmeadow—the ideas, the goals, the methods–are noble. And thus, any irregularity—say the too pale complexion of her younger daughter, that hair the hue of paper, those translucent eyelashes– comprise a challenge! To be met chin up and head high! To be embraced and turned towards the common good! As far as Mother is concerned, my condition is a gift—a gift to Longmeadow—because it helps to demonstrate to the people of the community the way differences must be tolerated rather than despised. I wish it had been another sort of gift, though, because this one, though light, is burden enough.
But after all, why would I want to think of Mr. Strich or anything else unpleasant for that matter, when Mr. Somerday exists in the world? And is here, at Longmeadow! He is all that he ought to be. I hope Juliet doesn’t want him.