Longmeadow: chapter 8

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

 

Alta

I had a parcel from London. Juliet found, in some dusty bookshop, a small store of pamphlets which she  purchased, tied with a string, and mailed. Dear girl. She knows me so well. I settled down on the small sofa in my bedroom and unpacked it.

“Dearest Alta,

You asked me to look for beetle books for you but they make my head itch and so I’m afraid I can’t oblige.

oh my

 

In the meantime, maybe these will do for something to read. I certainly haven’t read them, but from a glance at the drawings within, I judge there’s enough gore to suit you. I say, you are an odd girl. But then so am I. By the by, I bought these under cover of “posting a letter;” if Cousin Jemimah had seen what it was I was buying, there’d have been smelling salts to pay. As it was, when the bookseller peered at me, I said as innocently as I could, “Oh, these aren’t for me, no indeed. They’re for my little sister!

Yours, J.”

 

 

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

dreadful

Mr. Foyle, my favorite of the London booksellers, with whom I have a standing order, sends them when he finds them and I consume them like raspberries. I will admit: I’m a little embarrassed by my propensity for the dreadfuls; they are purple, and absolutely unwholesome, and I ought to know better. Everything about them is coarse, from the paper to the prose. They’re meant for little boys; adventure stories full of cliffs and ponies and flaming arrows. I dug in.

couple of ’em

 

Soon I found myself on the edge of my little sofa, Juliet’s pamphlets around my feet, my nose an inch from a most marvelous story called Calamity Jane at Death Notch. Of course I’d heard of Calamity Jane but I hadn’t read much about her before. And here was everything I never knew I wanted! With engravings! When have I been so thrilled?

“Darling Julie,” I murmured as I turned the flimsy pages.

 

Calamity

Calamity Jane was most shocking. Her trousers, the way her hat sat on the back of her head, those adventures! I sat upright—as if I was astride—and raced straight through the material. Through Calamity Jane  Rescues City Slickers from Wild Indians! Through Calamity Jane Rides 90 Miles with Vital Dispatch! Through Calamity Jane Rescues Colonel From Certain Death!

When I finished, I took a great breath. I expect I’m like a million others who find excitement between two paper covers rather than on the back of a pony. It came to me suddenly that I missed the stag. The idea of him, so unbound, roaming where he would, was an idea I had loved. He crashed through the undergrowth in the same way I would like to crash but cannot. Though white, he was ready, while here sit I, pinned like one of my beetles by my infirmity. Juliet is like the stag. Or he was like her. She crashes all she wants, while I sit by the window.

I sighed, shrugged, packed up the pamphlets and carried them to my collection room. “There,” I said putting them away, “you deserve your own cabinet, Miss Calamity.”

Mother’s office is at the other end of the house. I entered and seated myself at my own trim desk. By contrast, Mother’s desk is a constant tumult; unfinished articles, sketches of farm machinery, invitations to lectures, lists of goods needed to run the farms, the workshops, the school.

mundane

I often assist Mother with more mundane bookkeeping aspects of Longmeadow: how many pots of jam sold, how many chairs sold, how many bales produced. I had just taken up a stack of invoices to sort when Mother walked in. She kissed me and went to her desk to work. Only a moment passed before she put down her pen. I looked up.

“My great fear is that I will somehow undermine all your father achieved,” she said as if we had been in the midst of discussion. Her expression was dark. “I wasted so much of his time, you see, by questioning his ideas and his methods, for he had first to convince me of their legitimacy.”

Mother has been low since the gypsy’s death. While I mourn the stag, Mother takes the death of the man harder. She pities the gypsy band for their loss, she worries for the patience of the townsfolk, she considers the murder a blemish on Longmeadow’s reputation. Her low spirits have permeated her conversation. I can tell: if it weren’t for her corset, she would slump in her chair.

“Your father needed my help,” Mother continued, “but in the beginning, I was reluctant to see his views. I will forever feel,” she said, “that if I had been quicker to come to his understanding, he would have been…he would have felt shored up by me, do you see? But I delayed.” She sighed “I have tried to make up for it since his death, but it is hard to be a woman alone doing the work of a man, especially of one whom she loved as I loved him.”

I recalled; immediately after Father’s death, Mother had taken to her bed. Longmeadow might have fallen apart but for Mrs. Tell and Grady. The two of them made the rounds, remedied the problems, assured the people, while Mother mourned and Juliet and I tried to comfort her. I remember the darkened room, the sour sheets.

And then one day, after a month, Mother rose, straightened her back and went downstairs to breakfast. Her sense of duty seemed to flood back to her; that very day, she ventured into Father’s office and within an hour had called for Grady to help her understand the plans for an upgrade to the drains on the south lawn.

The gypsy’s murder seemed to shake her confidence anew. I understood it: her need to speculate aloud about the murder. Who was the culprit? Was he still at large in Longmeadow? Was Longmeadow in danger? Was there something that she, as leader, might have done to prevent the crime?

I felt that a little distraction was in order.

As if I had just that moment laid my hands on it, I held a newspaper aloft. “Have you seen this?” I asked. “It’s a letter to the Times from Mrs. Pankhurst about the workhouses.”

“The workhouses? Let me see it. Oh, how marvelous.” Mother took the paper and commenced to read the letter aloud.

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

I’d already read it myself, of course, but I feigned interest nonetheless; in fact, I was proud to have provided so successful a distraction. I heard Juliet’s voice in my head and almost chuckled at its exactness: ‘any other topic of conversation will do,’ drawled the phantom Juliet. ‘The price of grain. New spelling primers at the school. Even the vote. Anything, as long as it’s not that gypsy.’

Later that evening, as I sat in my bedroom reading, the door opened and in walked Mother  holding a sheaf of papers, her hair partly fallen from its upsweep.

 

messy

“Alta,” said Mother, waving the papers, “I must consult with you, my darling. I think I ought to go out onto the circuit again.”

When Father was alive, my parents had often traveled together around Britain—for a week or two at a time, perhaps—on lecture tours. They spoke to rooms of people about Longmeadow and the ideas of equality and shared labor that go into the place. They were extremely popular—Charles, so blonde and intelligent; Maria, so dark and impassioned, such a stirring oratress. Even these years after Father’s death, my mother’s celebrity status had remained intact and she still receives plenty of invitations to speak.              Once when Juliet and I were much younger and into the second week of one of our parents’ tours, Juliet had said,  “Perhaps they will never come back and you and I will become orphan-queens.                                                                                                                                I’d laughed, but later that same day, Juliet rode her pony up the front steps of the house and into the parlor and around. Mrs. Tell was so angry at the mud and the breakage that I could not bear it and fled to my room and my books. Juliet had shown no remorse, and had rather, in response to Mrs. Tell’s scolding, ridden round and round the great gravel drive in the front of the manor, grimacing and holding a tasseled table runner aloft like a flag.

“Really,” Mother had said upon her return when she heard of Juliet’s escapade, “Such a fuss! And after all, if your father and I were typical, we might simply hire a governess and then leave you for months while we wintered on the continent.”

“Yes,” said Father, “but we have our work, which is here, and thus we will always return.”

“To Longmeadow,” Juliet had said to me when we were alone together, “Not to us.”

I thought Juliet unfair; our parents never were away for terribly long, after all. They always left the circuit sooner than they wished to, for their responsibilities. Indeed, this habit they had of leaving before they’d worn through their welcome, called forth a constant admiration from their audiences who felt lucky to have caught them before they disappeared back into their small utopia.

Now, Mother’s expression was ardent. I was a little surprised at how things had turned.

“The circuit?” I said. “I am surprised!”

the circuit

 

Mother sank into the chair before the fireplace. “Honestly,” she said, “I’ve been so upset by the murder, as you know… and that’s a large part of it, of why I wish to go out again. I feel I need a bit of…I suppose I need a bit of air.” Her face changed suddenly. “Oh, Alta, darling, you know you could come with me. Do you know? You could do it, I am sure. You would enjoy seeing some of the world….” But she tapered off. I know that she knew that I would not go. But I am glad she asked.

“And it will make you feel better, then?” I said.

“Yes, I think it will. I think that if I face the incident–openly and honestly– then it will shine a good light on the place. It’s easier for people to trust in something if they feel a bit of vulnerability from it. Mr. Somerday suggested that perhaps I should even open my lectures with the incident, but I don’t know that I shall go that far.”

“Mr. Somerday?” I said.

“Why yes,” Mother said, rising from the chair, “even before the incident, he was eager that I go on tour. He urges me to do it. He is so enthusiastic about Longmeadow, you know. He is a little in love with the place, I think.”

He wishes Mother to go. He must know that I will stay. There is my heartbeat. My, how it pounds.

“I feel sure that people will welcome me though I am without your father. I shall work hard to spread our message. I feel that this is the right thing, do you not as well?”

“If it’s what you wish,” I said, standing, “And if you think you won’t worry about Longmeadow while you’re gone.”

“My love,” said Mother, hugging me. “I shall know that my lovely girl is here, at Longmeadow, continuing our important work. I plan to be two weeks, three at the most. I shall travel north to Cambridge and then circle around to Oxford and then London to see Juliet with some smaller stops between. If you will not accompany me, Alta, then you shall act in my stead here at Longmeadow.  You will take over my daily rounds for me. Grady will be at your side as well as Mrs. Tell. And Alta, one more thing—Mr. Somerday is very easy to talk to, my dear. Avail yourself of his ear. And I shall write to you every day.”

I hugged her back. I was glad to see her mother’s energy renewed. I was glad to see the familiar zeal for mission.  I was gratified to be trusted with Longmeadow’s work; I swear, I thought, my eyesight improves by the second as I look around and see the tasks ahead of me. And, because I aim always for honesty, I will admit it: the prospect of a daily ride with Mr. Somerday was not unpleasant.

 

 

Longmeadow: chapter seven

Mrs. Tell

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

children like trolls

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

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

mad

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

 

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

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

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

1bgvov
smug

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

311f852ad1a1960af032b2db54199b2b-wildflowers-dean-ogorman
bower of roses

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

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

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

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

Van Gogh painted them

 

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

I noticed that Nancy said not a word.

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

Again, nothing, but her face showed her feelings.

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

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

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

Nancy nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

The door flew open and in burst Bert.

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

loud kiss

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

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

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

 

Longmeadow: chapter six

earlier chapters below

 

Alta

Juliet writes from London: quail in aspic is her new favorite; Cousin Jemima’s servants bow as they deliver letters on a salver; Cousin Jemima wears her stays too tight. As a postscript, Juliet added that she had only contempt for Annie Besant for instigating the recent matchgirl strike. I shook my head, rereading this last part. I knew that Juliet had included it only to irritate Mother.

“Indeed,” said Mother as she read the letter in her turn, “Juliet need not have added that bit about Annie. That was unkind.”

I agreed with her. Annie Besant is one of Mother’s best friends and on her frequent visits to Longmeadow, the discussions are more than enthusiastic. And numerous. Workers’ rights. The lack of sanitary conditions. The vote. And if you aren’t with them, why, you’re against them. I have seen more than one gentleman end in tatters for proffering an alternate point of view.

On such visits, which I find entertaining to a point, Juliet looks as if she’d like to weep from boredom. I understand Juliet’s dilemma; if she asks to be excused from the conversation too soon, Mother would lecture her for paragraphs on the subject’s importance. I myself just wait out the discussions patiently and then slip away, unnoticed, when Mother is distracted. But patience is in my nature. Or at least it’s my habit.  As I’ve said, I’m used to sitting quietly so as not to draw attention.

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“Phossy Jaw,”  (Phosphorus necrosis of the jaw, an occupational hazard of those who work with white phosphorus, such as the match-stick industry of the late nineteenth century.  One of the reasons for the  London Matchgirl Strike of 1888.)

 

Sometimes, however, even I feel restless. The day was grey; perfect for a sojourn out of doors. I felt like a ride. I asked Mark Grove to help me get my horse Roger, ready. I am to do it myself, as Juliet does, but I find the saddle heavy and the hook high. Mark is  obliging and so it our their secret that he does it for me and in truth, he does not seem to mind.

It was drizzling a bit as I went out. Longmeadow had recently enjoyed a fortnight of fine weather and I’d been cloistered for days. For me, the sun is no friend. But I wondered as I rode: was it the sunshine, really, that had kept me inside for these two weeks? Or was it, rather, some new fear brought on by the night I met the gypsy by the dovecote?

Certainly, the gypsy humiliated me. But humiliation is nothing new. And indeed, I agree with Mother’s assessment: it had not been his intention to hurt me. I know I was in no real danger that night.

Nevertheless, I find myself discomfited. I think it’s because I suddenly feel unsafe in my own home. And how can it be otherwise when I know that there are people here at Longmeadow who cannot tolerate even the sight of me?

protection against hex

It is one thing for the fat novelist Mr. Strich to gape; he is a gentleman, after all, and cannot imagine that I will hex his cat to death, or whatever other sort of nonsense there is to invent. But the gypsies who live in their carts just the other side of the wood? I imagine they think me quite dangerous.

 

However, here I am, riding in the morning on what is, after all, my land. (I suppose I ought to feel a pang for thinking that way—that Longmeadow is mine—‘mine,’ rather than ‘ours’—as if Mother were beside me, jabbing me with her crop, to remind me that we must share and share alike. Jabbing is not, of course, something Mother would do. It’s something Juliet might do, but in this case, as she’d agree with me, she’d likely keep her crop to herself.).

I rode in the direction of the great meadow some small distance from the manor. My veil whipped around my face, so I slowed Roger and removed it and then nudged him to a canter. Oh, it was exhilarating! The meadow stretches to the sea—if one rides far enough, one can catch a sight of the waves from the cliff’s edge. For some time, Grady has wanted part of the meadow for haying, but ancient Longmeadow tradition forbids its use as anything other than ornament. It is very beautiful, as it stretches over the hills. Were it up to me, it would remain in this wild state forever.

“Miss Alta?” I heard a voice on the wind and turned round in my saddle.

“Mr. Somerday!” There he was! His white shirt was open at his neck and his hair was blown about. I laughed at his expression: pure enjoyment.

“Miss Alta, do you mock me? How cruel. No, it’s too late for apologies. Well, I ought to be angry but it’s not possible. This field is marvelous for a hard ride. You are here for the same purpose, I see? Do you know, I have traveled throughout the country and these wilder places are disappearing! Oh, the moors are left, I suppose, but there your horse will break a leg if you ride too hard, by falling into some hole or other. This field’s one of the finest, and so vast!”

“Long,” I said to him, smiling at his enthusiasm.

“Long,” he nodded and then understood. “Meadow! I see! Well, it’s marvelous. Now, where are you off to? May I join you?”

We cantered along.

“Listen to the birdsong!” he called to me. “It’s quite deafening!”

I expect that I smiled and nodded. In truth, I’m surprised my heartbeat didn’t drown out

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veils are important

all peeps and twitters. I thought perhaps I should replace my veil. I was afraid the constancy of my smile might make me look simple. It occurred to me: we had never yet been outside together, he and I, though we had come to know each other pretty well. Mr. Somerday visits me daily at the Manor, even now that Juliet had gone away to London. After one visit, I felt particularly delighted; when I realized why, I almost laughed aloud. It’s because he’d neglected to ask about Juliet even once, which I think would have amused Juliet entirely—that I liked it so much that he hadn’t. Not that I’d tell her, and not that she’s not marvelous, of course. But she’s in London, which is what she has wanted. All I have ever wanted is here. So we are each, in our own ways, contented.

During Mr. Somerday’s visits, he often describes the sights he sees as he accompanies Mother on her rounds to farms and the village and all about. The workshops in particular enchant him—he says he loves the chair turners and the weavers, but the straw-plaiters are his special favorites.

“They are so young, those girls,” he told me once, as we drank tea in the parlor, “not above your own age, Miss Alta. So dignified, as they sit at their braiding. And the place smells so sweetly of straw. And the hats they make; I suppose they’re marvelous, aren’t they? I felt like purchasing one myself, but in the end, wasn’t quite sure what I’d do with a bonnet in a hatbox.”

“Well,” I told him, “you could save it til you wished to paint an outdoor scene, I suppose. And then you’d have your model wear it, as she plucks a rose and holds it to her nose. You know.”

Mr. Somerday looked hurt. “Is that really what you think of me, Miss Alta,” he said to me as I tried not to smile, “that I would paint a girl with a rose? Is it? I am bruised, indeed, to my quick. Can you not see me as I am? A wild man, ready to paint an Indian with his bow and arrow?  Bring me an Indian! Mrs. Tell! Where are you? I require an Indian!” And with this, he picked up his teacup, crooked his little finger like a dandy, and took a tiny sip. I remember that I burst into giggles.

 

I’m grateful to Mother for having invited Mr. Somerday to accompany her on her rounds because it obviously brings him so much enjoyment.

“Yes,” said Mother, “I am glad to show him around. He’s listens so attentively and he’s so sensitive as to the nuances of the place. I wish you would come with us, Alta. Just cover up! You’ll be no worse for the wear, after all, and it would do you good to take the air.

I demurred, but I did not tell Mother the real reason. In truth, I have begun to depend on Mr. Somerday’s visits, and worry that if I rode out with the two of them in the morning, he might not visit me in the afternoon. Mother sometimes joins us at tea, and sometimes Mrs. Tell wanders through the room, but often it’s just the two of us, Mr. Somerday and me. I can tell that he still feels the strangeness of no chaperone, but he tells me that he’s getting used to it.

“Longmeadow—your mother’s ways—they still take a fellow aback, a bit,” he whispered to me one day when we were alone together. He affected a nervous glance at the door, pretending that Mother was hiding there, might overhear him, might pounce to scold him for being staid. “But I am learning how to be enlightened, as you see. And it is indeed the most charming and artless thing, of course it is.”

“I must compliment you on your flexibility, Mr. Somerday,” I said. I know I was flirting, but he didn’t seem to mind. Rather, he seemed to quite like it.

“Yes, I am a quick learner,” he smiled.

As we rode across the meadow, side by side, I recalled a letter from London, received just that morning. In it, Juliet extended her wish that we again thank Mr. Somerday for his part in convincing Mother to let her go to London.

“What can Juliet mean?” I asked Mother as I read the letter at breakfast, “about thanking Mr. Somerday? What had he to do with your decision?”

“Oh,” said Mother, buttering her toast, “I talked to him about it. He advised that it was time to let Juliet see something other than Longmeadow. I trust him, you see, because he seems already to understand important subtleties….

as of yet unbuttered

and  he spoke so eloquently about youth and freedom… and finally I realized that perhaps I’d been shortsighted….and then of course, my dear, you had been telling me the same thing, for months really, you know…and thus it came to be.”“Oh,” I said, “how marvelous of him.”

Mother nodded and bit her toast.

 

As we trotted along together, we called to each other about this or that birdsong, the clouds, the horses’ gaits.  After a few minutes, Mr. Somerday slowed and directed my attention to a gathering of horses on the side of the meadow, where the forest came up.

“What’s that, do you suppose?” said Mr. Somerday. “Shall we go see?”

There were men in the wood. We dismounted and picked our way through the undergrowth to where the men stood. There was Mr. Whitehead, the sheriff, and his assistant as well as two other men from the village. And there, on the floor of the forest, lay the white stag.

“Oh no,” cried Mr. Somerday and at his voice, Mr. Whitehead turned and stepped aside. There, some paces from the stag, lay the gypsy—that is to say, my gypsy—with his face partly gone. I recognized him by his vest. He lay on his back. One eye was out and where there had been a cheek, there was now nothing at all.

I may have made some noise, for Mr. Whitehead quickly made to shield me from the view of the dead man. One of the other men threw something over the gypsy’s face.

“Miss Alta,” said Mr. Whitehead, “are you faint?”

I thought not, but did wish to sit. There was of course, no chair. Mr. Somerday came quickly to my assistance and put an arm around my waist until my breathing calmed.

“What happened here?” said Mr. Somerday. “Can you tell?”

“That man’s a poacher,” I said.

Heads turned towards me. “At least,” I said, “at least…I found him just outside the dovecote…” I ceased speaking.

The men grumbled in assent, all but Mr. Whitehead.

“You do not agree, Mr. Whitehead?” said Mr. Somerday.

The sheriff looked confused. “Well,” he said, “it certainly seems the case….”

“Except?”

“Well, except that the stag and the man both was brought down by gunshot,” Mr. Whitehead said, bending over the animal, pointing at the hole in its side.

“Have the gypsies no guns?” asked Mr. Somerday.

“We’ve never known one of ‘em to own a gun,” said Mr. Whitehead.

“How strange,” said Mr. Somerday.

Mr. Whitehead shrugged.

 

This is not Alta’s gypsy. This is George Bennet who, in the late 1800’s, served time in jail for poaching quail, rabbits, and even beehives. He had three tattoos and no little finger on his left hand. 

 

 

Mr. Somerday and I rode back to the house where we found Mother in her office. Together, we delivered the news. Mother called for Grady immediately and then paced, wholly distressed.

“A murder at Longmeadow,” she said, “I cannot fathom it. I am glad Charles is not alive to see this. What would he have thought! What would he do?”

I shook my head. “I knew the stag was in trouble the moment the gyspsies arrived in their wagons. I knew they’d get him. I’m sure I told you they would.”

“Yes,” said Mr. Somerday, “it seems clear that they had a hand in this tragedy.”

I was pleased to hear him say it. But Mother objected violently.

“It is not so clear to me, Mr. Somerday,” she said.  “Nothing is clear to me at all.”

“How can you say that?” I asked. “There was the gypsy man lying dead!”

“Yes, but, that’s just it…,” said Mother, “he himself is dead…….” She suddenly stopped pacing and stood quite still and stared out the window towards the lawn. The day had darkened further; rain beat steadily against the panes. Her hand drifted up to her hair. I could see a dark stain under her arm.

“Mama,” I said, “you must calm yourself.” I rose to help Mother to the chair that Mr. Somerday proffered up.

Mother took a breath and then sat. “Yes, my love,” she nodded, “you are right. We must be calm. We must be sensible of their feelings at such a time. It would not do to act too hastily.”

“Yes,” said Mr. Somerday, “the Longmeadows trust you, Mrs. Pendergrast. They’ll take their lead from you, as ever, and you’ll decipher how best to ease them of their fears.”

I knew that Mr. Somerday was on the right track. Mother knew how badly it would distress the Longmeadows to hear of such a crime in their wood, how they would feel at peril themselves, how they might lash out by reflex. I knew that Mother was wondering how best to calm them, how best to pacify them. This was part of her own anxiety—how best to lessen theirs.

And this was the track that Mr. Somerday saw.

gigantic-chunk-of-railroad-track-stolen-in-massachusetts-workers-have-never-seen-anything-like-it
just one set, right here

But I knew, as Mr. Somerday did not, that there was more than one track to Mother’s thoughts. As much as she might concern herself with the equanimity of the Longmeadows themselves, and their happiness and their peace of mind, she worried as much about the face of Longmeadow to the outside world. Maybe more. And I knew, if Mr. Somerday did not, that the lion’s share of Mother’s work revolves around the good name, the noble aspect, the perfect idea of Longmeadow. A murder could muck all that up in a moment.

Mother is Longmeadow’s matron Joan of Arc. She daily battles the criticism of those who consider Longmeadow ungodly, those who believe that she twists scientific method for her own gain. When these enemies of Longmeadow heard of the murder, they’d blame it on the nature of the place, its unruliness, its arrogance. They’d sneer, and shrug their I told you so’s to each other, and Longmeadow would suffer for it. I understood that this—this public shaming–was at the heart of Mother’s distress.

But I esteemed Mr. Somerday for thinking first of the Longmeadows themselves and for thinking that Mother thought of them first, as well. He is such a good man, so decent, and kind. The bones in his face are so very fine.

As Mr. Somerday and I together bent over Mother to minister to her in her distress, our eyes met. He smiled at me and I swear I almost swooned.

“It is clear,” said Mother suddenly. She was calm again. I saw that she had figured out her path.

“We must remember what we are for!” said Mother.  “We must strive for justice! They promised to leave the stag alone. I must believe that they kept their promise. And now the gypsy man lies dead and cannot defend himself.  It will not do to falsely accuse. We must wait for the fullness of facts. Do you see?”

And I did see. Mother would use the murder as a lesson. And then before I could stop it, the thought flashed in: like she uses my condition. I bit my lip to punish myself for my selfishness. It’s my worst habit: that I turn outside events in. I try not to do it, but they seep nonetheless. I can be a self-centered girl.

I was aggravated, nonetheless. I turned to Mr. Somerday. He had seen the gore in the wood. He had seen it close up. The gypsies have brought violence to Longmeadow. The Longmeadows feel it. I have felt it. I do not want to feel it again. I looked at him, trying to encourage him with my eyes. Action is called for, not lessons. We must form a united front, he and I against Mother and her philosophies.

He did not look back at me. He spoke.

“Yes,” he said, still nodding at Mother, “you are right. It would not do to accuse the man without the fullness of the facts.”

I felt my jaw clench. Changeable Mr. Somerday!

varying

 

But then he smiled at me and of course I melted. And after all, his motivation was so pure: he wished to listen and learn; he wished to be useful; he was so eager to bolster us up.

“Miss Alta,” he said, “I think we could do with a bit of brandy. Will you fetch it? Shall you take a bit of brandy, Miss Maria?”

On my return with the glasses, Mother was still seated, and Mr. Somerday was on his knees in front of her, looking into her face. She was better, and almost smiling at something he’d said.

“Ah,” he said, taking the glass from my hand, “here we are. This will help, I think. Thank you, Miss Alta.”

I took a chair and pulled it close to Mother and together with Mr. Somerday, we watched the color return to Mother’s face.

 

oh Brandy

 

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.

b98555d033ec6976ae4772c6e451af69-ship-figurehead-sailing-ships
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