Longmeadow: Chapter Ten

in which Alta and Mr. Somerday perambulate

 

Alta

 

Mr. Somerday accompanies me on my rounds. We ride side by side on grey days, and on the sunny ones, I seek the shelter of the trap while he reins his horse alongside me. I’ve always felt proud of Longmeadow, both for its ancient lineage and its modern ideas. But Mr. Somerday’s enthusiasm helps me to see the place with new eyes.

nice old lathe

He is enthusiastic about all of Longmeadow: he admires the land itself; he admires the people who work it; he admires Grady for his patience; he admires the turn of Ben Mangum’s lathe; he admires the high ideals of the place and the straw-plaiting girls’ skill equally. As well as much else. He waxes eloquent on my parents’ work and speaks about them with high regard.

“Really, Alta, it’s wonderful, Longmeadow is. I have looked a bit into other places that make similar claims and there’s no comparison.”

“Yes,” I called to him from within the trap. We were on our way to Arum House for a look-see. “I agree. My father wished not to repeat the mistakes of others, he said.”

Mr. Somerday nodded. “And from what I’ve read, failures are plentiful. Places like Longmeadow usually don’t last. I have read that it is hard to make a go of them.”

Look at how the sun dapples his white shirt as he rides along. If I had the skill, I’d like to paint a portrait of that shirt.

“Alta?”

“Oh! Yes, Father used to call it a labor of love. He and my mother spoke about it at supper very often: how it is, for example that one may wish to improve a person who may prefer to remain…”

“Unimproved.”

“Yes. One reason for Longmeadow’s success may be its mildness. Some of the communities were quite extreme,” I told him. “Oneida, for example.”  Immediately, I regretted my words. I felt myself blush fiercely from my seat inside the trap. I hoped Mr. Somerday would not ask me to elaborate.

snoop

I had my information on Oneida from a treatise in Father’s locked desk which I had opened without permission. Lord, some of those images may never leave me.

“And the Shakers,” said Mr. Somerday.

“Mmm,” I said. I wished I had not opened this Pandora’s box.

“Why did they shake, do you imagine?” he inquired seriously.

I said nothing.

“Alta,” he said more loudly, “why do you suppose they shook?”

I think I sighed. “I imagine…I believe it had to do with…”

Mr. Somerday did not take the hint.

“With what? I am having trouble hearing you. Suppose I climb in beside you and Rudo can trot behind? This topic is quite interesting.”

“They shook to rid themselves of their animal urges!” I yelped out as quickly as I could.

He looked surprised—had I shocked him yet again?– and then he laughed loudly.

“Alta!” he said, “You are quite a girl. You do a fellow good!”

I was glad he thought so.

 

I have rarely visited Arum House. Mostly, I do not care to meet the ladies. On the rare occasions that one or another of them is invited to take supper at the manor, they treat me as if I am diseased; as if I am quite radical for wishing to dine at my own table and should, out of politeness, dine underneath it instead.  At first, Mother urged me to ignore their rudeness, but she has lately relented and, upon the ladies’ infrequent visits, has allowed me to take my meal in the kitchen where I feel more comfortable.

“They’re ghastly,” said Juliet at breakfast once, the morning after one of them had come to supper. “And always all the same. Vastly overdressed and vastly underburdened with the sense God gave to a cat.”

“They are spoiled and bored and therefore mean,” said Mother. “I sometimes think about closing Arum House altogether.”

“Why not do it?” I asked.

“Did you know,” Mother told us, “that the Widows & Orphans is supported almost entirely by the revenues from Arum House? That’s one reason.”

“A valid reason,” I said.

“Another reason is the caliber of guest,” said Juliet. “You can say it, Mama, though it sounds coarse. She wants Longmeadow,” Juliet said to me, “to be talked about at an earl’s table as well as at a dyer’s. Maybe even more.”

Mother looked at Juliet. “Not more, no. But as much. Longmeadow will thrive best if it can appeal to all.”

“Mama,” Juliet had said, “you must take care not to sound too much like a clerk at Harrod’s.”

Mother drew herself up but then suddenly seemed to deflate. “Yes,” she said, sighing. “There are so many things I do for Longmeadow that I never expected to do in my life. Sometimes I feel confused by what I am about.”

Juliet relented. “I’m sorry, Mama,” she said. “I didn’t mean to be rude.”

Mother patted Juliet’s hand.

“Mother,” I said, “it seems strange that Father conceived of such an idea as Arum House in the first place. A holiday place for ladies? Whatever gave him the notion?”

“Oh my,” Mother replied, consulting the little timepiece at her bosom, “is it as late as that? Well, there are things to see to. I’ll see the both of you later at tea.” And she had gone off to her office.

Charles Henry Harrod

 

Arum House was as charming to look at as ever. I’d forgotten its prettiness—all those roses. I could just see Mike on the roof, hammer in hand. He tipped his cap to me as Mr. Somerday helped me down from the trap.

 

 

As I tied on my sun hat, a plump lady emerged from the house and walked languidly over to the swing, trailing a parasol. I watched as the lady shielded her eyes from the sun with a mitted hand and looked at us, at the landscape, up at Mike on the roof.

I nodded at the lady who appeared not to notice.

I turned back to Mr. Somerday. “The woods here are especially lovely. I should like to walk a bit before we say our hellos inside, but we must seek shade, if you don’t mind.”

“Let’s go this way,” said Mr. Somerday taking my arm. “We’ll have an old-fashioned tromp, shall we?”

Mrs. Grey walked out of the house to greet us—tea? cold water?—and I told her we’d be back in a bit for some refreshment.  Off we went. The sun was high and hot but my hat brim, made especially wide for my by the girls in the strawshop, protected me quite well. I’m a good walker.

“Do not dawdle, Mr. Somerday,” I said to him as he stopped here to peer at a fern, there, at a moss. “I will outpace you and lose you and you will worry that you have lost me when in fact I will be back at the trap awaiting you with impatience. Do come along.”

“Coming, coming,” he said, pretending to pant with exertion. In fact, he is quite lean and in no danger of losing breath. It was a great pleasure to be with him in the wood.

 

“What do you hear from your sister?” he said as we walked.

“She is quite thrilled with herself,” I reported. “She writes that she attends any numbers of parties. She’s become a salon favorite and is asked often to perform. I told her that I expect she’s become very artistic and that when I see her next, she’ll be swathed in veils of red and gold and have taken to kohling her eyes and I shan’t recognize her at all.”

“Well,” said Mr. Somerday, holding a briar away from my skirt as we walked along, “I understand that the urge to ornament one’s person is quite universal, but for my own part, I much prefer what is natural. Watch now, I’m letting go of this briar. Like you, Alta. Unadorned, natural, hair like Titania’s; why, you’re perfect just as you are.”

For a moment, I could not catch my breath.

“Well in that case,” I made myself answer, “you would not, I think, care overmuch for Olive Oatman.”

“Who?”

“Olive Oatman. She was captured by the Yavapai Indians of the Arizona territory. They tattooed her chin to show that she was their slave. She was later rescued but the tattoo remained, of course.”

“My God,” said Mr. Somerday. “Poor girl.”

“Well,” I said, “but think of the adventure. And she came out of it all right.”

‘But for the tattoo,” he said.

My heart was still beating hard from his compliment. I had never received one from a man before except for Father. The artists, Mother’s friends, and those visitors who came to supper—they might laugh at my jokes or nod at my comments. They might tell me that they were pleased to see me looking well. They might smile and even kiss my hand, but never had one of them told me that I possessed hair like Titania’s.

We walked on. My eyes are bad but my hearing, quite good. “What was that?” I said low. We both stopped. It had occurred to me, and must have to him as well, that the last time we were in each other’s company in such a landscape, the stag lay dead.

Mr. Somerday whispered, “I think it came from over there,” and sprinted in the wrong direction. I stood where I was until I heard the sound again. One more step and then I saw: the plump lady from Arum House, her back against a tree, her bustle quite flattened behind her. The man in her embrace—it was Mike– had his face pressed to her wide-open bodice as he moved up and down. I heard her moan: that was the sound.  I could see the lady’s white skin—not as white as my own of course—shining in the sunlight.

I backed away as quietly as I could and then I ran—in the direction of the house and of Mr. Somerday, whom I wished both to see and not see, at once.

 

you can always read about her

Longmeadow: chapter 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 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