The Misses Elliot
Click here for an index to the chapters of The Misses Elliot of Geneva
During the course of each winter, Miss Evelina Scott usually made a short trip to New York to buy some clothes and see some plays. Sometimes Miss Isabella Scott went too, if her sister's admirer at the moment happened to be unusually generous or unusually anxious for a chaperone. Most of Evelina's escorts, however, thought that it was no use wasting money on Isabella, because Evelina didn't give a whoop about what people might say, and, besides, nothing in Geneva was a secret anyhow. When she and her friend walked into the railroad station, the newspaper correspondent who was lurking there immediately wrote on a pad that "Miss Evelina Scott and Mr. William Van Bruggen of this city are spending a few days in New York." The ticket agent and the people in the waiting room knew all about them, and so did many of the people on the train. The car was full of Genevans, and New York was full of Genevans too, so that really they were just going to an extension of Geneva—in fact most places, like the Kingdom of Heaven, seemed to be mere extensions of Geneva.
"Geneva," said Miss Primrose, "is the biggest little place in America."
The single Pullman car which penetrated directly to Geneva from the Grand Central Station was as much a local institution as the bank itself. There were a few passengers who got on or off at Auburn and other places, but they didn't matter. The porter recognized most of his patrons, even if he didn't know their names, and he could probably tell as good stories about them as anybody in Geneva could. Around Christmas, the sacred Car Thirty-Nine was crowded with schoolboys returning for the holidays, or New Yorkers coming to spend Christmas in Geneva. You could lie hidden in your berth and recognize the voices of the people as they came into the car.
There was a Geneva-in-New York, just as there was a Geneva-in-New Haven, a Geneva-in-Princeton, and a Geneva-in-Washington. One of the New York hotels used to be owned by an old Geneva lady. It wasn't one of the largest or newest hotels, but it made up in distinction for what it lacked in other respects. People in Geneva were envious of its owner when she stayed at her own hotel and packed her trunk with her own hotel towels. (A hotel in another city, on seeing the towels, put a special maid on guard to see that she didn't take their towels too.) New York was full of ex-Genevans, from the Hudson to the East River: the Genevans from Main Street were aristocratic on Park Avenue, and the Genevans of African descent were aristocratic in Harlem—or would be if they deigned to go there.
On this particular visit, it was Miss Evelina's fate to run into Mrs. Edwards and the Elliot sisters at every turn. The New York Genevans would indiscriminately invite the visiting Genevans to their parties, because the local Geneva feuds were so numerous and so shifting that out-of-town people couldn't keep up with them. It was assumed in New York that Miss Evelina and the Elliots were devoted friends, and that Mr. Van Bruggen doted on them all alike. That was trying enough to the Elliots, but their homeward trip to Geneva, in the same car with Miss Evelina and her friend, was comparable only to Hannibal's crossing the Alps. The Elliots usually refused to travel in Pullmans because it was expensive, un-American, and (in sleeping cars) indecent. They preferred to sit up all night, and to change trains at bleak junctions, rather than to travel by a "through" sleeper. Mrs. Edwards, however, was in charge of this trip. She told them that she wasn't going to have any nonsense about sitting up in day coaches. If they chose to travel by day, all right, but if they went home by a night train they would do so in Pullman berths.
The Elliots gave in. If they waited another day, they would have had to travel on Sunday, which they never did under any circumstances. To wait until Monday was unthinkable—two more hotel bills to pay, and they would have to go to church in New York. (Mr. Van Bruggen had offered to take them to St. Patrick's Cathedral, but his suggestion was not well received.) If they had known that he and Miss Evelina were to be on the train, the Elliots would certainly have canceled their reservations.
The two Geneva delegations were on opposite sides of the aisle, and might just as well have been on opposite sides of a fortified frontier. Miss Evelina said afterwards that Pullman cars really ought to have bullet-proof curtains. She was already in her berth when the Elliots entered the car, but they recognized her suitcase beneath the curtains. She had no trouble in recognizing them.
"Primrose, put your money in a safe place," Miss Candida had whispered. "Evelina Scott is on the train!"
Then there was a long conversation in whispers about where Miss Primrose and Miss Candida were to hide their money so that Evelina couldn't steal it. If Miss Evelina had been inclined to pick up a few extra dollars, the Elliots couldn't have given her better suggestions. Miss Candida finally hid her pocketbook so effectively that it wasn't found by the porter until several days afterwards—meanwhile, Miss Evelina got full credit for its disappearance.
That didn't make the Elliots too cordial, the next morning, to the couple across the aisle. The car was chilly anyway, but the glances of Miss Primrose and Miss Candida were enough to lower the temperature another twenty degrees at least. The train was several hours late, and there was no dining car on it. Miss Evelina whispered to her companion that the Elliot sisters looked as if they wanted to eat her for breakfast. She offered them some candy to divert their cannibalistic longings, but they refused the candy and looked more ferocious than ever.
"They probably think it's poisoned." said Miss Evelina. She and Mr. Van Bruggen ate a few chocolates, making the Elliots feel hungrier than ever. The passengers were all huddled in their overcoats, and the wind was blowing little wisps of snow through the cracks around the windows. As Mr. Van Bruggen said, the amount of joie de vivre in Car Thirty-Nine, that morning, would have made the Gulf of Mexico freeze solid.
The Elliots were unusually furious because they owned stock in this railroad too, and of course got no dividends. They always traveled on this line, however, in the vain hope that their fares would put the company on its feet, just as they always bought their shoes at a store on which they owned a nonpaying mortgage (the shoes never fitted very well). Since they were both owners and patrons of the railroad, they saw no reason why they shouldn't get perfect service, and the service on Car Thirty-Nine that morning, though as perfect as the porter could make it, was far below their expectations.
Another cause for fury was Mr. Van Bruggen's shoes. They were handsome brown shoes that looked quite inoffensive, but they had undoubtedly been underneath Miss Evelina's berth all night. Miss Evelina might just as well have produced an illegitimate child so far as the Elliots were concerned; they regarded the shoes as the pledges of sin. The porter had shined them brightly, but no amount of shoe polish could wipe away the stigma of guilt. Mrs. Edwards said afterwards that Mr. Van Bruggen had certainly occupied the upper berth, and Miss Evelina the lower one, but the Elliots weren't so sure. They imagined Miss Evelina as spending the night in sinful company, with intervals of purse snatching.
Of course they couldn't speak their thoughts out loud with the guilty couple sitting right across the aisle—there were limits even to the Elliots' plain speaking, and, besides, it might corrupt the porter's morals to hear such subjects discussed. Miss Primrose and Miss Candida limited themselves to significant glances at the offending shoes and the offending lady.
"What's wrong with my feet, Evelina?" Mr. Van Bruggen whispered. He looked down to see if his socks were mismated, but it was another sort of mismating which the Elliots were interested in. They considered Evelina Scott as not only a purse snatcher but a cradle snatcher because Billy Van Bruggen, inspite of his white hair, his stoop, and his satiric tongue, was barely sixty years old. They considered Evelina a modern Ninon de Lenclos.
Miss Evelina admitted afterwards that she always felt like an adventuress when she was with the Elliots-partly because they treated her like one, and partly because the two sisters never failed to bring a train of adventures in their wake.
"When I heard them getting on the train," she said, "I was sure that we were going to be wrecked, and that they would blame it all on me."
The conductor came through the car, and made some apologies for the lateness of the train.
"I suppose," said Miss Candida, "that we'll end by being stuck in a snowdrift and attacked by banditti," and she implied that there were plenty of banditti already on board.
The train slowed down, and finally came to a complete stop. Mrs. Edwards looked out the window and said that she couldn't see any houses, but Miss Primrose replied that the train regularly stopped at plenty of places where there weren't any houses or people either. The railroad, she said, liked to put up stations in the middle of the countryside, just to add more names to the timetable, and give the trains more excuses for being late.
"The stockholders have more confidence in the railroad if they know that it's tapping the trade of Skuse's Corners and Aurelius's Cowpath," she said.
The halt gave Miss Evelina and her escort a chance to go out on the platform and smoke cigarettes. The platform was rather breezy, but Mr. Van Bruggen said that the North Pole itself would feel warm after one had basked in the society of the Misses Elliot. This departure gave Miss Primrose and Miss Candida the chance to indulge in a little discreet conversation. As usual, they thought that they were talking in undertones, but all Car Thirty-Nine heard and trembled. The little old lady from Canandaigua in the next section, began to think that Geneva was the wickedest city in the state, and she thanked her lucky stars that her son had married a Rochester girl instead of that flippity-flidget from Geneva. The man in the section next to Miss Evelina's decided to look at his neighbor, with greater interest when she came back—she had seemed like just a cheerful old lady, but great Scott! the things that those women said about her!
When the train finally reached Geneva, a blizzard was sweeping across the tracks, and the station seemed to be deserted. Evidently everybody had got tired of waiting and had gone home—everybody, that is, except Mr. Van Bruggen's chauffeur, who was patiently sitting in the only automobile that was visible. Mr. Van Bruggen politely invited all four ladies to ride home with him. Miss Evelina accepted and climbed into the car, but Mrs. Edwards hesitated, and glanced at the Elliots.
"Nonsense!" said Mr. Van Bruggen. "It's a bitter morning; you've had no breakfast, and it may be hours before a taxi comes."
Mrs. Edwards finally capitulated, and got in the car with Miss Evelina, but the Elliot sisters had no intention of following her example. Better to perish like Napoleon's army on the snowbound steppes of Russia than ride home with Evelina and her paramour! Mr. Van Bruggen argued, but it was useless. He tried to take them by force, by putting their suitcases in the car, but the Elliots had no intention of leaving their luggage in a place where Evelina Scott could get her hands on it. They said that they didn't mind waiting on the platform; that they didn't need breakfast; that they liked to stand and wait, even in zero weather; that the car would be too crowded if they got in it.
"It would be extremely uncomfortable," said Miss Candida, looking as if she meant to make it even more uncomfortable than it already was.
Mr. Van Bruggen saw that he was getting nowhere, and he found that even a heated argument with both the Elliots wasn't enough to keep him warm. He told them that he would send a cab to their rescue as soon as he could, and then his car drove off, leaving the sisters like twin peaks of the Himalayas, snow-capped and unconquerable, on the station platform.
Evidently the newspaper correspondent returned just in time to see Mr. Van Bruggen and the Elliots arguing on the platform, because the next edition of the local paper announced that "Mr. William Van Bruggen and the Misses Elliot of this city have returned from New York on the sleeper."
Mrs. Edwards put down her paper and chuckled. Then she went to the telephone. Miss Primrose's voice answered.
"Well, Primrose," said Mrs. Edwards, "you're compromised now all right! Nobody will ever believe that Billy Van Bruggen's shoes weren't under your berth!"
Next winter, when Mrs. Edwards proposed to the Elliots that they take another trip to New York with her, Miss Primrose answered:
"No, I'm not going to waste my money on another trip to New York for a long time. What's the use of going on a trip just to run into Evelina Scott everywhere!"
© 1940, Warren Hunting Smith
Click here for an index to the chapters of The Misses Elliot of Geneva