The Misses Elliot
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Woman Sufferage and Prohibition were both sure to be hotly contested causes in Geneva because of the strong feminist element. The whole town was run by old ladies—overrun with them in fact. The public schools were ruled by as valiant a crew of old ladies as ever tanned a small boy's hide. They had taught the fathers and grandfathers of their flock, and so they had little respect for the third generation ("If you can't learn Latin better than your Dad did, you'd better not take it!") The Ladies' Book Club was mostly composed of old ladies, and was managed by the oldest lady of them all. The first woman physician in the country studied in Geneva; there were several old ladies who came as near to being clergymen as the church permitted, and it was a wonder that there were no old lady policemen because there would have been many eligible candidates for the job. Every charitable organization had its corps of old ladies, and often the charitable old ladies were themselves so poor that we really needed a new organization to give charity to the givers of charity, but that organization, if it had been founded, would have been composed of old ladies too.
At the close of the eighteenth century, adventurous spirits rejoiced at being young at the dawn of a revolution, but in the twentieth century most Genevans agreed that it was much better to be old, in Geneva.
The Elliots, though believing that old ladies were quite capable of running the universe satisfactorily, were not so confident about certain specific old ladies of their acquaintance. It certainly wouldn't do much good to admit Mrs. Culpepper or the Scott sisters to the polls; the Elliots voted merely in order to kill the votes of these women. George Washington had been elected without benefit of women's suffrage, and so had Abraham Lincoln—the Elliots didn't think that the modern presidential candidates were any improvement. If the writers of the Constitution had decreed that women should not vote, they must have known what was best; just as St. Paul doubtless knew what was what, when he said that women should keep silent in the churches.
On the other hand, most of the property owners in Geneva were women, and "taxation without representation" seemed unfair. The Elliots had a poor opinion of the brains of most of their female acquaintances, but their opinion of the men was just as bad.
"We don't have any men in Geneva, but we have some people that we use for men," they would say, quoting a famous local remark.
Prohibition was likewise a doubtful blessing, they said. People with ancestors and family portraits simply had to have a decanter of sherry on the sideboard; the poor ancestors would have looked thirsty without it. Miss Primrose and Miss Candida had a beautiful decanter, though there usually wasn't much sherry in it. They couldn't forget, however, all the people who were victims of alcohol: Miss Evelina Scott's father had spent so much time and money at the bottle, that Miss Evelina now had to depend mostly on her lovers and stolen roast beef. As for the Culpeppers, the liquor consumed by that family would have floated any of their stranded business ventures. Even some of the Elliot's own ancestors hadn't been too abstemious, though the Elliots didn't mention that fact when they displayed the family portraits. A certain ruddiness of cheeks and nose was left to speak for itself.
It was a collateral ancestor who restored their faith in the virtues of alcohol, but who likewise testified to the virtues of Prohibition. Their Aunt Annabel was ninety-three years old, living in a nursing home. She was not completely bedridden, but the Elliots took pride in her, because her very existence made them belong to the younger generation; she was an excellent testimonial to the toughness of the family constitution. Her nieces felt that she was well worth the extra ten dollars or so which they contributed to her monthly expenses, though they admitted that Aunt Annabel was so far gone that conversation with her was almost impossible. They would sit by her bedside, exchanging salvos of repartee, while Aunt Annabel's eyes vaguely turned from one to the other without seeming to understand very much.
The time came when Aunt Annabel seemed to be rapidly failing; the Elliots were distressed. As Mrs. Edwards said, the Elliots didn't really like Aunt Annabel; they seemed to regard her as just another family portrait, slightly animated, and they talked to the doctor as they would have talked to a man who was trying to keep one of the ancestral canvases from fading. They told Mrs. Edwards that Aunt Annabel's appetite was gone; she complained of chills; she was plainly growing weaker every day. The doctor seemed to think that sheer old age was killing her, but Aunt Annabel was only ninety-three, and Great-Aunt Harriet had lived to be ninety-nine.
"Give her some whisky," suggested Mrs. Edwards.
"The doctor did speak of that, but Aunt Annabel used to be a great temperance worker," said Miss Primrose. "She never touched a drop in her life."
"Well, it's about time she started then," said Mrs. Edwards "And, if she never tasted whisky before, she won't recognize it unless you tell her what it is. Just put some water in it, and tell her it's medicine."
The doctor agreed to this suggestion, and the Elliots produced the only bottle of whisky which was left in their cellar, and pasted on it a label saying "two table-spoonfuls a day." The effects were miraculous: Aunt Annabel regained her appetite, recovered some strength, and even got back a few of her wits. The bottle didn't last long, and the Elliots had to get a prescription to buy a new bottle. The nurse reported that Aunt Annabel always looked forward to taking her medicine, and always complained if she wasn't given a full dose. The Elliots decided that keeping Aunt Annabel in whisky was going to be quite a drain on their purses.
"This is for medicinal purposes only!" Miss Candida snapped, when the druggist made some sly comment on their frequent investments in whisky. "It keeps our old aunt alive, and a very expensive process it is."
"I wish I had an aunt to be kept alive that way," said the druggist, who plainly didn't believe that people as old as the Elliots could possibly have an aunt extant.
When Miss Candida told Miss Primrose that she must have inherited Aunt Annabel's nose, Miss Primrose said: "That's all I ever will inherit from her—except whisky bills!" To hear the Elliots talk, you would think that Aunt Annabel was the world's leading dipsomaniac, and that she would probably end in delirium tremens.
Actually, they were afraid that she might live for ever at their expense. They wanted to keep her alive, but didn't want her to drink them out of house and home. They suggested diluting Aunt Annabel's daily doses, but the old lady always detected these attempts, and promptly complained of pains and sinking feelings.
("How can she sink any further?" said Miss Primrose. "She's on the bottom now!")
Aunt Annabel's recovery was a good test of the virtues of alcohol, but the Elliots began to wish that those Prohibitionists would prohibit medicinal alcohol too. If Miss Primrose and Miss Candida refused to buy Aunt Annabel any more whisky, the old lady would promptly die on them, and then people would say that those miserly Elliots had murdered their old aunt. People were always making such accusations: Mr. Potts had murdered his wife by refusing to take her to California every winter, and Mrs. Jenkins had murdered her son-in-law ty making him shovel the sidewalk when he wasn't feeling well. The Elliots themselves had often made such indictments before grand juries of Geneva tea drinkers. Miss Primrose and Miss Candida would have felt uncomfortable in church when they were reminded that in Heaven Aunt Annabel would be plied with whisky, while the Elliots would be sent empty away.
Miss Evelina Scott saved the situation. The Scott sisters were remotely related to Aunt Annabel; in fact it was their father's example which gave Aunt Annabel her zeal for temperance. (Old Tom Scott, in his cups, had been enough to make almost anybody a Prohibitionist.) Miss Evelina sometimes went to see "Cousin Annabel," as she called her, and one afternoon she was present when the old lady was being given her dose of whisky. Miss Evelina knew perfectly well what the bottle contained, and she saw where the nurse put it. The whisky made Aunt Annabel drowsy, and she soon dozed off; Miss Evelina, however, was quite wide-awake. She got the bottle off the shelf and poured herself a glass. All would have been well if Miss Primrose and Miss Candida hadn't decided to pay Aunt Annabel a visit, just then. Miss Evelina heard them, and hurried to put the glass away, but she was a second too late.
"Well, Evelina, I suppose you'd snatch the bottle right out of a baby's mouth!" said Miss Primrose. "No wonder that Aunt Annabel's medicine went so fast! How fond of the old lady you must be!"
"I just felt a chill coming on," said Miss Evelina, "and I thought I'd take a nip of your aunt's medicine, since I knew it was whisky."
"Whisky?" said Aunt Annabel, suddenly turning her head on the pillow. "Is my medicine whisky!"
"Yes, and very good whisky it is," said Miss Evelina. "Bought by your loving nieces."
"I'll never touch another drop of it," groaned Aunt Annabel. "Oh, to be given whisky at my age!"
"Better late than never!" shouted Miss Evelina, disappearing out the door.
From that time, Aunt Annabel never touched a drop of medicine of any kind, she suspected everything of being alcoholic. She grew weaker and more doddery every day, and it wasn't long before the Elliots were able to say, with great satisfaction, that "Evelina Scott practically murdered our Aunt Annabel."
© 1940, Warren Hunting Smith
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