The Misses Elliot
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Chapter II, Part 1
The Elliots could often be seen at the college chapel, which was dear to them because it remained Victorian—architecturally and liturgically. At the west end was the wheezy old organ with its wooden pump handle, an organ worthy of the hymns favored by Miss Primrose and Miss Candida. At the Sunday evening service, you could hear the two ladies disputing in loud whispers about whether or not they had left the key under the door mat, and a warm feeling would come over you as you realized that you were really in Geneva. To see the Elliots in their true ecclesiastical element, however, you had to go to their church, that great source of beneficence and gossip. Nothing but religion could make such a caustic people a kindly company, nowhere but in church could human comedy find so sublime a foil. Against a background of infinity and eternity, where one star differeth from another star in glory, a parish supper assumes epic significance, and the feathers of an old lady's hat are gilded by the dayspring from on high.
Genevans have been accused of believing that nobody can go to Heaven without going to Geneva first. This is an understatement. Many Genevans apparently used to think that you couldn't go to Heaven without going to Trinity Church. When a lady leaned across her pew to whisper: "She's a nice little woman, but she won't get very far in this town belonging to the ________ Church!" the inference was that the nice little woman wouldn't get very far in celestial regions either. Snobbery is too undiscerning a name for this attitude, which was merely one of complete confidence in Trinity's peculiar aura of sanctity; the colored parishioners and the white ones all felt alike about it. Trinity tower dominated Main Street, and Main Street dominated the lake shore of Geneva, much in the same way that
"The mountain looks on Marathon,
And Marathon looks on the sea."
Even religion, in Geneva, had a special local flavor. It was in Trinity parish that money was collected for a memorial to a woman who was still alive. When astonishment was expressed, the soliciting committee said, "No, she isn't dead yet, but then of course she will be, some day." As a result, the lady had the unique satisfaction of surviving her own memorial, which was dedicated, burned, and replaced during her lifetime. It was in Geneva that a retired sailor kept a baptismal font in his front parlor, and that a religious fanatic carved texts on any woodwork that he could get his hands on (a kitchen stool, marked "Be ye holy," was one monument to his devotion). God is said to move in a mysterious way, and movements in Geneva are, in this respect, unquestionably inspired.
If there is a patron saint of ecclesiastical levity—and there should be—this parish must be one of his favorite shrines. The church kitchen, of sepulchral aspect, was named "The Black Hole of Calcutta"; the church cat was named Martha; the nearby parishes of Sodus, Sodus Point, and Sodus Center were named "the three Sodi." When a visiting Chinaman preached an endless sermon on the exposure of girl babies in China, a Geneva churchwoman said it was too bad that he hadn't been a girl baby himself. When a clergyman said that his sermon was inspired by a dream, it was a Geneva lady who rushed up to say: "If that's the case, dream all the time; never wake up!" The Friday evensong used to be the prelude to a card game between the rector, the organist, and two vestrymen. (As the service drew to a close, the organist quickened his tempo, the rector prayed with more alacrity, and the vestrymen peeked expectantly at their watches.)
You could visualize all the bygone characters of that period by simply remembering the way that they walked up the aisle. There were ponderous strides and mincing steps; the tapping of canes and rolling of wheel chairs announced various arrivals. Widows' veils were numerous, for Geneva is a place where lone females perpetually flourish. One of the longest veils was worn by one of the tiniest old ladies, who looked so fragile and saintly that policemen and conductors always rushed to her aid—and were told that they were getting "much too familiar."
The congregation, in the old days, was an inspiring sight because it revealed the infinite inventiveness of the Creator. Nothing but Providence could possibly assemble such people and such clothes. The hats alone deserved hours of pious contemplation. One woman's self-trimmed millinery was always fluttering with little feathers and trinkets, in rearranging which she must have spent many of her weekday hours. A summer visitor was suspected of saving her outmoded bonnets for rural consumption in Geneva—a theory shattered by those who found her wearing even worse hats in New York. (Her favorite creation looked like an exploding bomb, with livid flashes bursting forth in all directions.) All these adornments were the pride of their owners and the delight of their spectators.
A hat which appeared at every funeral was the prized possession of Miss Arabella, who was a little bit vague in the head. She wasn't a member of this church, but a funeral was enough to get her into any house of worship. A neighbor would regularly compliment her on the hat when they met on the street; the compliments and the hat were both unvarying, but each was received with astonishment, as something astounding and sublime. Miss Arabella would usually start the conversation by saying: "Now I wonder what you're going to say about my hat!" The gentleman, thus prompted, would respond with exclamations of awe at the lovely object; the lady would express surprise and rapture at the gentleman's compliments, and this highly satisfactory interview would close—to be repeated the next day.
Before the Civil War, the most striking costumes in church were worn by the girls who occupied the front pews on either side. Every Sunday, they swept up the aisle in their hoop skirts and gave the eyes of the congregation something rich to feast upon—a dress of blue velvet, or a wine-colored satin. If a bishop in cope and mitre had appeared (and bishops did not so appear, in those days, in Geneva), the dazzling vestments in the front pews would have eclipsed his glory completely. A church costume was taken very seriously then, and even in the twentieth century a Geneva lady wrote in her diary that she spent Sunday at home because it was too hot to wear her church dress.
In this atmosphere, Miss Primrose and Miss Candida found a perfect background. They weren't merely devout (anybody could be that!); they insisted on being religious in their own way, and a very effective way it was. It might seem narrow, but so, they would retort, was the straight and narrow path; any deviation (especially in the High-Church direction) would be fatal. All the concentration of Miss Primrose's wit and Miss Candida's vehemence was brought to bear upon their religious battles. Their Protestantism, reached its grand climax every Fourth of July, when the Daughters of the Revolution held their annual service in Trinity Church, and Miss Primrose and Miss Candida saw to it that no Popery marred the feast of Independence. When the service was read by a foggy-throated visitor, Miss Primrose remarked that it was interesting indeed to hear the Bible in the original Hebrew. When an offering was taken for a missionary sisterhood, Miss Candida said that not a penny of her money was going to be squandered on nunneries.
To get contributions from the Elliot sisters was a task requiring infinite tact. They were glad to contribute, oh, yes, but they wanted to be sure that their money wasn't going to be misspent. "This may not be the widow's mite," said Miss Primrose, "but it's the old maid's farthing!" The diocesan treasurer, associated as he was with the nefarious railroad company, was a suspicious character. It was bad enough to have the rector collect money for a nunnery, but the treasurer probably embezzled all the money that the rector sent him. They once sent their money direct to the bishop, telling him that he, at least, was an honest man.
They always sat in a pew on a side aisle, near enough to see and hear everything that went on, but placed so that they could indignantly get up and walk out when they disapproved of anything (they often did disapprove of things). The Elliot sisters sat together, unlike the Van Bruggen sisters who sat as far apart as possible because Miss Anna was nearsighted and liked to be in front, and Miss Agatha was farsighted and liked to be in the rear. The Elliots saw alike, felt alike, and acted alike in religious matters. When something was wrong, you could hear a hissing sound from their pew as they whispered fiercely to each other. It was like an electric current discharging sparks. Then, with full voltage of indignation, the sisters would storm down the aisle and out the door.
© 1940, Warren Hunting Smith
Click here for an index to the chapters of The Misses Elliot of Geneva