The Misses Elliot
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Chapter VII, Part 1
Mrs. Culpepper sympathized with the sexton. She too suffered on the Fourth of July—not because she was an alien or a High Churchwoman, but because she was a Democrat. The Elliots' politics were as fierce as their religion; they implied that the founder of the Democratic party was Benedict Arnold. President Wilson ran a considerable risk of assassination when the Elliots spent their winters in Washington. Mrs. Culpepper was a Daughter of the Revolution, and the Elliots felt that a Daughter of the Revolution who voted the Democratic ticket was a traitor to her Revolutionary ancestors; they told her so. They also resented her loyalty to the church and its rector. When they complained about a visiting bishop who had flaunted a mitre in their faces, Mrs. Culpepper had said:
"But how can you blame the poor man—he has so little hair!"
When they criticized a certain sermon directed against unnecessary worrying, Mrs. Culpepper had replied:
"I found the sermon very useful. My feet were so chilly in church that I was worried about catching cold, but after that sermon I'm not going to worry any more."
Mrs. Culpepper exasperated the Elliots by defending nearly everything that they attacked, and also by never attacking anything herself. When she didn't like certain things, she just kept quiet about them-which wasn't the Elliots' method of procedure. In the face of all the Elliots' exclamations and exaggerations, she maintained a quiet, dry sense of humor. She was a perfect lady, with all the gentleness which characterized the perfect lady of Victorian upbringing, and that too was a rebuke to the Elliots, who exemplified gentility but not gentleness. They were trained to the role of grande dame, not to that of the perfect lady.
The perfect lady, they said, was a woman who learned a set of rules and then stuck to them slavishly. She showed no originality whatever. Everybody ought to be taught the rules, to be sure, and everybody ought to know when to use them if necessary, but the code of the lady was to be used as a point of departure. Genius consisted in breaking the rules audaciously, and the Elliots weren't afraid of breaking any rules short of the Ten Commandments and the United States Constitution, which they regarded with equal veneration.
It was simply traitorous they said, to keep quiet about the evils that ought to be exposed and attacked. It might be good manners to restrain righteous rage, but it certainly wasn't good patriotism; the Elliots put patriotism above mere etiquette. Just as the Crusaders, in olden days, set out to rescue the Holy City from the infidels, so did the Elliot sisters intend to do their part in rescuing America from foreigners, Democrats, High Churchmen, and companies that didn't pay dividends.
Mrs. Culpepper believed in self-discipline, but Miss Primrose and Miss Candida believed in disciplining other people. She wasn't afraid of uttering an occasional platitude, now and then, just to be agreeable, but the Elliots said nothing that didn't have their own stamp upon it. Courtesy was her shield and buckler; sincerity was theirs. Mrs. Culpepper seemed to get a sort of perverse pleasure in sitting unruffled through the Elliots' onslaughts; as they grew more fiery, she became all the more pleasant. A lifetime of gracious self-restraint couldn't be upset by mere tirades across the tea table.
"Mrs. Culpepper," said a little girl, "Mother says you're the only person who can tell me what a lady is."
"I don't think that it's any use to tell you, my dear, because you'll probably never see one."
Mrs. Culpepper had put herself to the severest test imaginable by marrying into the Culpepper family. Anybody who could survive fifty years of that, without complaint, was able to treat even the Elliots with tolerance, and the Elliots weren't easy to tolerate when you disagreed with them. They said just what they thought about Mrs. Culpepper, and she, being a perfect lady, couldn't say just what she thought about them. Her manner, however, conveyed more than her words did; it was a manner which impressed everybody whom she met.
Once she heard about an old farmer, reported to be the worst swearer in the whole county. She wanted to see him in action. A friend guaranteed to deliver him, cursing, at her doorstep. The farmer was duly delivered there, but one look at Mrs. Culpepper froze the flow of profanity. The friend tried to get him started by telling tall stories-he merely said "Gosh." The friend told even taller stories. "Gee!" said the farmer, and that was the worst that he could do in Mrs. Culpepper's presence.
The Elliots made fun of Mrs. Culpepper's loyalty. If the Devil himself was rector of Trinity Church, they said, Mrs. Culpepper would approve of everything that he did; if the Devil himself was running on the Democratic ticket, Mrs. Culpepper would vote for him; if the Devil himself was married to Mrs. Culpepper (and they implied that Mr. Culpepper and the Devil had much in common), she would still love, honor, and obey him.
Somebody said that Mrs. Culpepper represented the Everlasting Aye, and the Elliots the Everlasting Nay.
Mrs. Culpepper's method of retaliation was to praise the Elliots very emphatically. They made fun of her reminiscences, and said that she loved to spin a yarn; she never made fun of their reminiscences, however.
"Of course I don't really belong in Geneva, so I don't know so much about these things," she would say. "I moved here when I was twelve years old. The Elliots have lived here much longer, and of course they know everything about Geneva"
Or she would say: "The Elliots know more about the Revolution than I do because their great-grandfather was the most fiery patriot in Connecticut. If there hadn't been a Revolution, Colonel Elliot would have started one all by himself."
"My house," she would say, "doesn't have such valuable paintings as the Elliots have. My ancestors were such busy people that they didn't spend so much time having their portraits painted."
Somehow, even Miss Primrose's most pungent sarcasms couldn't make a dent on Mrs. Culpepper's armor. A quiet dignified look from her was worth several dozen bombshells from the Elliots, and we all realized that she, in her own way, gave as perfect a performance as the Elliots did in theirs. Somebody asked her, once, how she could endure to look, every day, at the lake where her father had been drowned.
"Could anyone have a lovelier grave?" she said.
It was her attitude about taxes which most infuriated the Elliots. Miss Primrose and Miss Candida were sure that the city, state, and federal governments were squandering all the people's money. They grumbled at the magnificence of the public schools and the size of their school tax. They grumbled about the taxes on their swamp. It had been given to their great-grandfather for his patriotic services, and they felt it should be tax-exempt forever.
© 1940, Warren Hunting Smith
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