The Misses Elliot
Click here for an index to the chapters of The Misses Elliot of Geneva
The Elliots were good walkers, but they could hardly be called athletic. In their day they had bicycled and played croquet, and perhaps a little tennis of the most gentle sort, but such sports as hunting, fishing, and sailing were outside their province. It was Mrs. Edwards who shamed them into a fishing trip and temporarily damaged the Elliot dignity.
She called on them one day in Girl Scout costume, carrying a pail of worms. (Got 'em in the cemetery," said Mrs. Edwards. "Freddie Culpepper's grave was being dug, and I thought I'd get the worms before they got Freddie!") The Elliots were used to the Girl Scout costume, since Mrs. Edwards, though upwards of seventy, dressed according to her energy and not according to her age. They weren't even shocked by the worms, from which Freddie Culpepper had been so narrowly rescued. It was Mrs. Edwards's "Want to go fishing?" which made them gasp. She didn't give them time to catch their breath. She told them that she was taking a rowboat in her wagon to the stream that bordered the Elliot swamp; that her man would drive them over and launch the boat; and that they would catch some fish and turn the ancestral acres to a profitable use. She ended by calling them timid old maids for not having fished there already.
The Elliots resented the word "timid" which had seldom been applied to them. They, who had rebuked the bishop and browbeaten the mayor, weren't to be taunted with timidity. Besides, Mrs. Edwards wasn't much younger than they were, and they weren't going to let her outdo them, though it wasn't necessary to dress like schoolgirls to show their youthful spirit.
"All right, Hattie, we'll go," said Miss Candida.
Miss Primrose set about filling a tea basket, while Miss Candida collected some old clothes (which were very old indeed) to wear. The wagon drove up; the ladies, with full equipment of worms and tea, got in; and they set out for the Elliot swamp. Mrs. Edwards vigorously rowed the boat upstream to a deep pool and flung her fishing line out. She offered to put a worm on Miss Primrose's hook, but Miss Primrose said that she didn't mind worms, especially one which had fattened itself on the best corpses of Geneva.
"Maybe it's a reincarnation of one of the Culpeppers," she said, with satisfaction. That led to a discussion of the Culpeppers, a fruitful topic for anecdotes. ("All crazy!" said Mrs. Edwards, summing them up briefly.)
The scenery came in for discussion too. Mrs. Edwards admired it. Miss Primrose said that scenery was all light, but rushes and frogs didn't pay dividends.
"You own one of the loveliest spots in this country," said Mrs. Edwards, "and all you can think of is dividends. When I talk to people like you, I just feel like a Communist."
The Elliots, being true Daughters of the Revolution, couldn't let that statement pass. The swamp, they said, was a most inadequate compensation for their great-grandfather's services to his country, and a nice productive farm would look much more beautiful to their eyes. As for Communism, if Hattie Edwards would pool her investments with their swamp, Communism with Hattie would be very desirable. At this point Mrs. Edwards caught a fish and lost interest in Communism. Shortly afterwards, Miss Primrose caught one, and managed to get it in, amid advice from Mrs. Edwards.
"Let it play a little," said Mrs. Edwards. "It isn't hooked yet. Now give it a good jerk and reel it in."
The fish, a brook trout, was landed in the boat, where it flopped about, to Miss Primrose's disgust, until Mrs. Edwards knocked it on the head. Then Mrs. Edwards caught another fish. By the end of the first hour, there were four trout, of respectable size, in the bottom of the boat. The Elliots began to think that their swamp did have some uses. They stopped fishing and had some tea and sandwiches. Then they decided to go farther into the swamp. They were rowing up a shallow inlet when they heard splashes in the distance, and, on rounding a curve, they came upon Miss Evelina Scott, with skirts pinned up above her boots, hunting mudfish for her aquarium. The unfortunate Evelina seemed always to encounter the Elliots at most embarrassing moments.
"Evelina apparently collects other people's fish as well as other people's roast beef said Miss Primrose, as they bore down upon her.
"And other people's husbands," added Mrs. Edwards. "Well Evelina, getting another free meal, I see!"
"No, these are for my aquarium," said Miss Evelina. "Two of my mudfish died."
"Probably you overfed them," said Miss Primrose. "Mudfish aren't used to a hearty diet, and they don't get much to eat in this swamp! How about taking some of our cemetery worms for your mudfish?"
Miss Evelina looked at the worms with disgust.
"These are Culpepper worms," said Miss Primrose, "plucked right from the Culpeppers' burial lot. Look at that one! It's just like one of the Culpeppers, trying to wriggle out of a bad situation."
"Or like one of the Elliots, trying to twist something into a brilliant remark," said Mrs. Edwards, who always suspected the Elliots' witticisms of being premeditated.
"I don't like worms," said Miss Evelina, "and I don't like the Culpeppers, except Sally, who is a dear. It's very kind of you to offer them, and I hope you don't mind my catching mudfish in your swamp."
"Not at all," said Miss Primrose. "I've always known that you are awfully good at catching things, Evelina!"
After that parting shot, the navigators turned back towards the main stream, through a series of inlets. Soon they heard more splashing noises.
"It seems to me that all Geneva is visiting our swamp," said Miss Primrose.
This time, the splashing came from bathers. Two men, very nude and hairy, were found swimming in a pool as the boat came around a bend. The ladies weren't used to such a display, but it was hard to turn back. The men were probably drunk (at least that was Miss Primrose's theory), and in fact it was unlikely that anybody in full possession of his faculties could have stood the fire that blazed from those glaring old ladies. One of the men even tried to steal one of the fish from the bottom of the boat. Mrs. Edwards wasn't daunted. She raised her right oar and brought it crashing down on the man's head. The head was thickly matted with hair (and was probably thick, itself), so that all that she got was a flow of profanity. Miss Primrose tried moral suasion.
"We're the owners of this swamp," she said, "and these are the first fish I ever caught in my life. If you steal them, I'll hale you into court, and I can identify you anywhere, having seen about all there is to see of you. Instead of the fish, I'll give you something else." She held up the pail of worms.
"These are cemetery worms!" said Miss Primrose. "They've been nibbling at the proudest bones in Geneva. No aristocratic fish could possibly resist them, and with these worms you can catch your own fish much more easily than you can steal ours."
She tossed the worms at the dumbfounded men, and told Mrs. Edwards to row the boat away. They were soon downstream pursued only by curses. Then Mrs. Edwards fainted. Miss Candida, favored by the current, was able to get the boat to the landing place, where the wagon was waiting.
Next week there was a new trophy in the Elliots' parlor-a stuffed fish, mounted on a wooden board.
"I caught it myself in our own swamp," Miss Primrose would explain to visitors, "and I fought off some tramps who tried to steal it." Then in tones of contempt: "Hattie Edwards fainted!"
Miss Evelina Scott reported that she too met the drunken bathers, but that they didn't try to take her mudfish away. In fact, she said, they had smiled at her very pleasantly. The Elliots' comment was that Evelina, wading in boots, was a sight to make anybody smile, but Mrs. Culpepper thought that Evelina always did have a way with the men. Miss Evelina's own explanation was that the Elliots were sure to have the most unbelievable adventures, but that ordinary people like herself just went around, quietly collecting their mudfish.
© 1940, Warren Hunting Smith
Click here for an index to the chapters of The Misses Elliot of Geneva