May 1993

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The Misses Elliot

of Geneva


Warren Hunting Smith

Click here for an index to the chapters of The Misses Elliot of Geneva

Chapter V, Part 1

The Elliots were a shock to visiting cousins. A family funeral would bring whole tribes of these outlying connections to town, including some who had never been there before. They would expect to find a sleepy old country place, with a few quaint old people in it; they would be introduced to the Elliots, who looked suitably quaint and old, and it was only when the Elliots started talking (which they did at the first opportunity) that the cousins realized that they were in the presence of something more than mere quaintness. This usually happened when the subject of discussion was the Elliot swamp.

The Elliot ancestors, it seemed, had once owned a vast tract of land, but later generations had sold most of it (or had been cheated out of it, as Miss Primrose always maintained), and now the two sisters were left with nothing but a stretch of marsh. It wasn't good for anything except puns, but the Elliots made full use of its conversational possibilities. "We've always been swamped!" said Miss Primrose.

"Our assets are at least liquid," she would say-referring to the family bog-"the only thing that it won't float is a loan!"

"When I had a cold," Miss Candida would continue, "Primrose said that I was ready to croak to our tenants in their native tongue."

"When Uncle Fred had a floating kidney-"and so the conversation would go on.

The swamp, by the time that the Elliots were finished with it, became an epic subject; it was the sinkhole of the family fortunes; it was the Slough of Despond. The Elliots objected to the Twenty-third Psalm because its line about the "still waters" suggested the family swamp to them-they had been led beside the still waters all their lives, and didn't want to continue doing it in Heaven. When their maid brought in some soup with a strange-looking scum on top, the Elliots said that it must have been dished out of the family swamp.

Just what the sisters lived on, nobody knew. All their investments, from the swamp to the railroad company stock,

seemed to produce conversation but little else. Never were two intelligent women so constantly pursued by financial disaster. Ordinary people lost money in ordinary ways, but the Elliots were always being betrayed and swindled by insidious villains. Furthermore, they never got rid of these bad bargains; they apparently clung to the swamp just to be able to complain about it; anybody else would have let it go for taxes long ago.

For one thing, it was a family swamp. It was the last remnant of the original Elliot grant of land, and so their Cousin John would some day inherit it, along with the ancestral silver and the family portraits. They offered to give it to John right away, but he told them that he didn't like duck shooting, and wasn't fond of eating frogs' legs, and didn't see why he should pay taxes on a swamp for securing these privileges. The Elliots thought that he wasn't showing the proper spirit, and they considered leaving the swamp to Cousin John's little boy, in hopes that he would appreciate its ancestral importance more highly.

"Some day it may be drained," said Miss Candida, "and then it will be very good land."

"In the meantime it's draining us," said Miss Primrose.

The swamp gave the Elliots the sensation of being landed gentry, or rather watered-out gentry, as Miss Primrose expressed it. They would have felt a bit cramped in their quarter-acre plot of ground if they hadn't had the swamp in the background, with its suggestion of ancestral acres. They had a couple of chair bottoms woven with rushes from the swamp, just to prove that it was useful; in the spring, they got pussy willows from it.

"Our crops!" Miss Primrose would say, pointing to the pussy willows, and certainly the Elliots' pussy willows were pussier and more willowy than anybody else's, testifying to the richness of the ancestral soil. The waggish Mr. Van Bruggen called the Elliots the "marsh hens" and the "swamp angels," because they talked so much about the swamp, and he implied that their somewhat plodding

gait was due to webbed feet. One of their principal grudges against the railroad company was that it withheld dividends that might be used in developing their property; they had heard of coal mines being discovered beneath swamps, and a gold mine wouldn't have surprised them in the least.

All Geneva would have been greatly disappointed, however, if the swamp had produced any such hidden treasures. The greatest service which the swamp, like the railroad company, performed, was that it kept the Elliots poor. Poverty is a blessing to old Geneva ladies, though they themselves don't seem to think so. It keeps them rooted to their native soil when other people are losing their local flavor abroad. It makes them keep the old-fashioned clothes and antique ornaments which seem almost part of them. It gives them the chance to perform the little acts of grace which only poor old ladies know that other poor old ladies need. The Griscom sisters couldn't afford to travel, and so they exchanged bedrooms now and then, just to get a fresh outlook on life. Both bedrooms had faded wallpaper and cracked ceilings, but they commanded different views of the lake, so that the Misses Griscom could imagine that they had traveled from Lausanne to Bellagio.

The Elliots gloried in that sort of poverty, though they thought that the Griscoms overdid it Miss Primrose and Miss Candida remembered the camel trying to go through the eye of the needle, and flattered themselves that their swamp and bad investments would pull them through the needle's eye without any trouble. They were expert in little charities, and big ones too. They knew when Mrs. Culpepper's bathroom (her only one) was being done over, and invited her to use their guest room and ancient plumbing. (Mrs. Culpepper, knowing the Elliots and their bathroom very well, preferred to go to a boardinghouse.) They knew when Mrs. Edwards's maid was taking a holiday, and invited Mrs. Edwards to meals during that trying period, though, as they said, Mrs. Edwards could well afford to hire a substitute maid if she wanted to. They lent their china for the Miss Griscoms' tea, and robbed their rose bushes for Miss Evelina Scott's luncheon. When Miss Primrose and Miss Candida put their money in the church collection, the contributions of all the millionaires in the country couldn't outweigh the spiritual importance of the Elliots' charitable sacrifices. It was a shock to us to find that the Elliots were in danger of becoming rich.

© 1940, Warren Hunting Smith
Click here for an index to the chapters of The Misses Elliot of Geneva
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