Bronson

Let’s talk about Bronson Alcott.

Maybe it’s a little weird that I’m interested in Mr. Alcott considering that his daughter, Louisa May, is the family celebrity. Lousia’s having a(nother) heyday right now, what with Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women. I just heard an interesting discussion on NPR about the new movie, in which the scholars discussed the meta-ness of the film: how the publisher in the movie wouldn’t publish Jo’s book unless the heroine married at the end, which that’s likely what happened to Louisa May, who had to marry off her heroine in order to get her real book published.

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sincerely, Louisa

Apparently, much of the “marriage is an economic proposition” talk in the film comes from Louisa May’s personal letters and wasn’t in the book itself. Meta meta meta. I love that stuff.

 

It’s not so unusual anymore, for us to be interested in the non-celebrity family members of famous people. This, in my opinion, is often thanks to feminism. It’s similar to the history of wet nursing scholarship (about which I know some stuff): what  19th-century stuffed shirt gentleman scholar wanted to write about wet nursing? None, that’s who. Same with Alice James, the troubled and brilliant sister of William and Henry. Until some woman came along, who wrote about her? Nobody, that’s who. (That woman being Anna Robeson Brown Burr who edited Alice’s diaries, albeit poorly according to various reviewers.)

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Here’s a novel about Alice. Look who blurbed it!

 

And what about Dorothy Wordsworth? Ernest Selincourt wrote her biography in 1933. (He also taught Virginia Woolf nee Stephen when he was a professor in the Ladies Department of King’s College.) But after 1933? Here are the first names of the people who had something to say about Dorothy: Frances, Kathleen, Susan, Catherine, and Jo (which there’s another coincidence right there seeing as what we’re supposed to be talking about is Louisa May’s father). I digress, duh. I would also like to tell you that the Wordsworth brother and sister rambled around Scotland quite a bit.

(Once, on one of my own few rambles, I stayed in a small hotel where they’d stayed. There, framed, on the wall of the lounge, was Dorothy’s memory of the very inn in question. In the essay, she describes how she’d rather have hung out in the kitchen with the drovers and the carters than in the formal lounge, which was, as I can attest, slightly dreary.

 

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The Inveroran Hotel

 

When I arrived at the Inveroran Hotel, I was drenched due to how I’d just walked over a mountain in a tempest. I’m not sure when I’ve been more exhilarated. My whole body felt like a wide (wet) eye. I was wearing a cheap poncho which descended almost to my boots, and in the wind and torrent, it whipped around my ankles like Emily Bronte’s skirts must’ve done. It was extremely energizing and damp enough a walk that when I reached the inn, I poured the water out of my boots like they were twin pitchers.)

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good lord

 

So right here, I am turning the tables, albeit slightly, and instead of writing about an anonymous lady, I want to talk about a (now) (semi) anonymous man. Meet Amos Bronson Alcott.

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“A government, for protecting business only, is but a carcass, and soon falls by its own corruption and decay.” 

 

***Bronson wasn’t always anonymous, which means I have taken this comparison and stretched it way out of shape but whatever. He was, in fact, pretty damn famous for a lot of his life. He had a lot to say and people listened and he had friends in high places (Ralph Waldo Emerson).

***Bronson founded Fruitlands, a utopian community which lasted about 7 minutes, well, okay, 7 months. Still, its name lives on with those of us who are interested in utopian communities which I am enough that I wrote a whole novel about a made-up one (I called it Longmeadow) (I took the name from a dairy farm that supplied our school with those little cardboard school-lunch milk cartons of the past)

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what a relief

(now, they’re likely plastic but maybe I’m a cynic). So I got all interested in utopian communities and did some research. And that’s how I found out about Fruitlands. I am glad to say that unlike some of them which shall remain nameless (Oneida, oh my god) there wasn’t too much bizarre sex at Fruitlands but who knows really.

 

 

****Fruitlands enjoyed (probably not all that much) such a short tenure because Bronson was extremely highly principled (read: a dictator) and made a bunch of rules no one could actually follow. Like: no animal labor was allowed and no artificial lights (which meant no candles in pre-electricity times) and everyone had to be vegan, though the word vegan hadn’t yet been invented. download (1).jpegThe community failed, in large part, because the women (there were two of them, Mrs. Alcott and a lady named Ann) had to do all the women’s work and the men, who were supposed to tend the fields, spent most of their time philosophizing. Then, Ann ate a piece of fish and got kicked out of the commune.

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fish tacos…..mmmmm

 

***Bronson was an abolitionist and supported women’s rights except, apparently, when it came to what men did on a farm and what women did on a farm, which every woman knows that a man may work from dusk to dawn but a woman’s work is never done. No wonder Ann felt like she needed some protein, is what I have to say.

 

I’m not saying that I don’t like Bronson. I like him fine. I figure that between him and his wife Abby, they turned out a right nice young daughter.

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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.

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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.