The Misses Elliot
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Miss Candida was at her best when she was presiding at her own tea table. There, backed by her family treasures, she wasn't just an eccentric old woman, she was the last of an imperial race. All that she had to offer was, perhaps, a dish of cookies, some coffee in a silver urn, or some tea, or cold punch, but she dispensed them with majesty. As you looked around at the photographs of friends and the portraits of ancestors, you realized that this lonely old woman, though she was of real importance to few people, meant something to a great many—that in New York, in London, or in Honolulu, when Genevan met Genevan, something would be said about the Elliot sisters, and Miss Candida's age would be computed.
The people who now reappeared in her life were the children and grandchildren of people whom she used to know. A remote cousin's remote descendant would come to town, would pay his respects to Miss Candida, and would be invited to a highly uncomfortable tea at her house, when she would look very dignified with her snowy hair and her wide lace collar, and would ask to be called "Cousin Candida."
Or perhaps a woman, visiting in town, would remember that her mother had been to school in Geneva, and had known two sisters named Elliot who used to live on the main street near the lake. "There was a Miss Primrose and a Miss — "
"Oh, the Elliots!" her hostess would exclaim. "Of course I must take you to call on Miss Candida; she'll be so pleased to talk about your mother."
Then there would be frantic explanations over the telephone, with first Miss Candida trying to understand, and then Hannah the maid trying to understand, and finally the message somehow conveyed to Miss Candida that her old friend Bessie Wittlesbach was visiting in town and wanted to see her.
"But Bessie died ten years ago," Miss Candida would complain.
Then more explanations would follow, the truth would somehow penetrate at last; the call would be made, and Miss Candida would produce some rather vague reminiscences of the Wittlesbachs' country house where she used to visit in the 1890's.
Miss Evelina Scott called on her, one day. This unexpected attention put Miss Candida somewhat on her guard; she looked at Miss Evelina with a "What-are-you-up-to-now?" expression. She little knew what Miss Evelina really was up to.
"Candida," shouted Miss Evelina, after a few preliminaries. "It must be lonely for you living here all by yourself."
Miss Candida leaned forward in order to hear better. If she was going to be insulted by Evelina, she'd have to listen carefully in order to deal out appropriate punishment.
"Of course I don't have as many gentlemen visitors as you do, Evelina," she said, "but I'm not especially lonely."
"I miss dear Isabella very much," said Miss Evelina, "and I know how you too must miss your sister."
Miss Candida smiled contemptuously. Isabella Scott had done most of Evelina's housework, but, conversationally, Isabella had been a complete blank. The idea of comparing her to Primrose was absurd. The Scott sisters as a pair had been a poor team—Evelina got the lovers, the money, and the invitations, leaving Isabella in the kitchen.
"At our age, Candida, it isn't good to be too much alone. I thought that it might be nice for me to come and live with you, so that we can share expenses."
Miss Candida for a moment was stunned. Probably she had never felt Primrose's loss as keenly as at that moment. Primrose would have annihilated Evelina on the spot; her retort would have shot like a bullet from a pistol, but Miss Candida's artillery was of the long-range variety that required a little preparation. It used to be deadlier than Primrose's when properly charged and aimed, but then Primrose had done most of the aiming.
"I just thought that we old-timers ought to take care of each other a little better," Miss Evelina continued.
Miss Candida sat silent, but her senses must have been reeling. Evelina sitting with her paramours on the Duncan Phyfe sofa!—Evelina helping herself to all the best food in the refrigerator!—Evelina bringing that miserable daub of her grandmother to hang with Elliot ancestors!—Evelina finally chiseling a resting place in the Elliots' burial plot. It was intolerable.
"Pretty lady! Pretty lady!" called the parrot from the back parlor. Evelina would probably steal his affections too.
Miss Candida pulled herself together, and did the best that she could.
"Do you still need a chaperone, Evelina?" she said. "The horse has been out of the stable for nearly eighty years—why do you keep the door locked now?"
Miss Evelina laughed, "If I could only have been as wicked as you thought I was!" she said.
"You've laughed at my sister and me for some fifty years," said Miss Candida. "Maybe we weren't as funny as you thought we were."
Hannah appeared at the door.
"Miss Scott says that she wants to live with us, Hannah," said Miss Candida.
"Then I guess I'll be leaving," said Hannah, who didn't like the idea of being caretaker of a battlefield.
"No, Miss Scott is leaving," said Miss Candida, "and you might air that needlework of my sister's that she's sitting on."
When Miss Evelina had gone, Miss Candida said to Hannah:
"Miss Scott was up to one of her tricks. She just made that proposal to see how angry I'd be. She liked to make us angry—my sister was funny, you know; she said bright things."
Then a puzzled expression came over her face.
"Evelina may have been serious," she said. "Her sister's dead, and it's upsetting, I suppose, to lose a housekeeper, even if she does happen to be one's stupid sister. I'd hate to be too severe, and I suppose that there were times when we were severe, my sister and I. When I had somebody to back me up all the time, I didn't have misgivings about these things, but now—Well, Evelina shan't make my house a house of ill fame!"
A typical Elliot pun occurred to her.
"Miss Messalina Scott!" she said. In the old days, she and Primrose would have made that the climax to a lively dialogue.
On the day of Miss Evelina's funeral, Miss Candida refused an invitation to tea.
"Evelina Scott was an old family friend," she said. "I think she was a treacherous woman, but I can't help going to her funeral. I wonder how many of her old beaux will be there."
Not many old beaux were left to attend, because most of them were already awaiting Miss Evelina in the realm where (Miss Candida believed) the Scott sisters would get what was coming to them. Evelina left an elaborate will, including legacies to the Elliots, but that, as Miss Candida said, was just Evelina's final joke, because everybody knew that the Scotts had no money.
The next summer proved to be Miss Candida's last. It was fitting that she should have one of the most Protestant funerals ever held in Trinity parish.
"It was just the way she would have wanted it," sighed Mrs. Culpepper as the mourners were coming out.
"You bet it was!" whispered Mr. Moriarity to the sexton. "It was the doggonedest funeral I ever did see, and it was just like those Miss Elliots to do the doggonedest things. We'll never see the likes of them again!"
Archdeacon Watson didn't come to the funeral of his so-called sweetheart; instead, he sent a very ecclesiastical-looking floral piece, which Mrs. Culpepper regarded as the last delicate attention of romance. Mrs. Edwards called it a practical joke.
"Candida would consider this thing much too High-Church," she said. "I think she'll rest easier if we don't put it on her grave."
She looked around the cemetery, and her glance fell on a stone marked "Evelina Scott 1852-1935."
"Evelina never cared whether things were High-Church or not," she said.
And so the archdeacon's last gift to his boyhood friend was fittingly placed on the grave of Miss Evelina, who had been receiving flowers from gentlemen thoughout her life of eighty-three years, and probably wasn't at all surprised to continue getting them in the hereafter.
"Stealing our flowers, Evelina!" the Elliots would have said.
* * *
Today, they are all gone, even Mrs. Culpepper and Mrs. Edwards. We miss them very much. When people talk about the old days in Geneva, the best stories are usually about the Elliots, and the best quotations begin: "As Miss Primrose used to say…" Year after year, the leaves and then the snow drift over the graves in the humpy old cemetery; even the elms that looked across the lake so proudly from Main Street are going, one by one, like all the proud things of this world, but we still remember how Mrs. Culpepper was the only one who could tell us what a lady was—and how Miss Primrose said that people aren't really born till they come to Geneva. We think so too.
© 1940, Warren Hunting Smith
Click here for an index to the chapters of The Misses Elliot of Geneva