At times, Sofia Merriweather was not altogether sure that, had Providence graciously given her the opportunity, she would have chosen the relatives allotted to her as the people to whom she looked for support, comfort, virtue, and, well, sanity.
Not there was anyone mad in her family –or, as Sofia herself often amended, not dangerously mad, anyway. Of course, second cousin Lewis Farland had long thought himself the son of an obscure Russian czar and that he ought to be reveling in the decadence of the palaces of Saint Petersburg instead of languishing at the provincial plow.
And then there had been poor Uncle Wilson, who had once tripped over a tree root, fallen unconscious, and awoke the next morning convinced he felt called to join a monastery in the snow-laced mountains of Switzerland. But, despite their delusions, they were both really quite harmless and, as Lewis Farland had, happily, died recently and Uncle Wilson had actually gone to Switzerland in pursuit of godliness, nobody minded.
No, she was thinking of sanity in its loosest terms –the kind that could go missing for wild grief or impetuousness or raging tempers. In that, they really were incompetent. Never was there a family less equipped to deal with its own misfortunes.
Sofia had her own ways of coping with their incompetence. She wrote. It helped, somehow. But she had a terrible habit of writing idly, and too often, of people that did exist. She could not prevent herself. So many interesting people really lived and breathed, not just within the pages of a book, that to ignore their foibles would have been almost… ludicrous.
There was Mrs. Westergrinne, down the lane. She had the voice of a cracked plate of Royal Albert China and looked exactly like a withered yellow flower pressed between the pages of a book of verses –with dry, folded skin and a knobby, strangling handshake. Her hair had a blueish and unreal tint; thin and cloud-like. Yet when she smiled and her eyes sparkled –one could imagine, with a little effort, that she might once have been beautiful. Strange –what time could do! For all her pruneishness, Mrs. Westergrinne had a reputation for being the kindest, heartiest woman alive. She did not hesitate to give a wanderer a bowl of piping soup or invite passing and straggling children in for a treat.
And then Mr. Poole, the Merriweathers’ neighbor, had always proved a fascinating study. For years and years he had made a point of going out of his way to propose to every single girl within ten miles. Sofia herself had heard his offer thrice since her fifteenth birthday. His prospects were not improving, for he was full fifty and as bald and round as Humpty Dumpty of nursery rhyme fame. His ill-luck did not faze him in the least, and he kept on proposing and laughing and carrying on with abundant good humor.
No one denounced his practices (except Sofia’s Aunt Myra, who denounced everyone but herself, God, and the English –in that order.) It would have been a brave person indeed who would have said anything against the peculiarities of one of the wealthiest men in that part of the country—barring the Merriweather family. But, alas, his wealth could not procure him a wife. The young ladies of that town, Ferbury, had been brought up too sensibly to be dazzled by the allure of money and position. Their vanities prevented it.
Oh, yes, Sofia had but to stroll through the town square for an inexhaustible source of entertainment. She only wrote them to amuse herself, and took care that no one else ever saw them. They were safely stowed in her writing desk. Fortunately the servants were remarkably lazy and would never have thought to clean inside desks –fortunately her mother would not have known, fortunately her father would not have cared, fortunately her sister Susan was enraptured with her own affairs and her brother Terence also absorbed with his activities. If Aunt Myra had known her hiding place (a little nook in the back corner) and thought she could manage a peek without detection, she certainly would have. Her Victorian ideals prevented her from snooping outright, though she had no qualms about covert investigation.
If any of her family had known that Sofia could spend hours drawing elaborate caricatures and inventing situations for their friends and neighbors and acquaintances alike, doubtless they might have expressed more interest. But everyone, though knowing Sofia wrote, assumed that it was poetry, or fictitious accounts of people who had never lived in Ferbury, never lived in Pennsylvania anywhere near the year 1900, and certainly never had anything to do with anyone else.
They were half-right, for Sofia did write poetry, when in the mood—and no self-respecting writer can resist those wild bursts of heavenly inspiration—and she did write novels of exactly that kind. There was something so noble in a knight on his steed, so beautifully helpless in a maiden weeping into her handkerchief at a tall tower window –that Sofia had not learned to ignore its romantic tug. The romance of centuries past did, after all, have the charm of being utterly removed from the reality of the present. But her secret pleasure, to which she succumbed only occasionally, remained recording the attributes and idiosyncrasies of those near to her.
But not nearest to her.
Sofia never, ever wrote of her family –not because she did not feel equal to the task or because she was too afraid of discovery or because they were uninteresting –no, certainly not that. The Merriweather family was nothing if not interesting. And that was the difficulty.
One could write cheerfully of other people, of people not so completely involved in one’s life, but –well, that was it, of course. They were there, always, more tangible than anyone else. She could smile at Mrs. Westergrinne’s toupee and privately laugh over the shining beacon that was Mr. Poole’s head –but she did not, could not make light of her family members. They alone were sacred.
She had to bear her mother’s indolence, soothe her father’s tantrums, listen to Susan’s tales, placate Terence’s moodiness –and tolerate Aunt Myra in general. Aunt Myra would have been too beautiful of a description –too perfect; for Sofia knew, as she lounged at her writing desk, idly frowning upon her pen, that, had she permitted herself, she could have delivered a worthy essay on that woman.
Sofia closed her eyes and dreamt for a little while.
Tall and violently, pretentiously, preposterously austere, with cool blue eyes rimmed in lines, eyes that never blinked save to communicate unutterable words from the soul, long, slim, graceful hands, a wreath of silver hair, and a weak mouth. Yes, weak. Silly, even –perhaps not indicative of a femme formidable; merely a middle-aged woman, with definite ideas about every subject, cabbages and kings certainly not excluded, and an expert on them all. A woman who believed in the inerrancy of the English and pretended to know all there was to know about everything.
She had a husband suitably dead. He had been suitably dead for so long that no one clearly remembered him or could imagine him as anything but. It was doubtful if even Aunt Myra herself could conjure up an accurate picture of his face, although she mentioned him often enough in her daily musings –“Oh, if only Claude could have seen it!” –“When my poor dear Claude was alive” –“it’s so lonely, sometimes, without Claude’s companionship.” Claude Wright, who had escaped Fate when he had passed away peacefully and properly of a bout of pneumonia some twenty-five years before, had never done his wife a greater service than to die. It gave her distinction and sympathy from her neighbors, a more luxurious home from her relatives, and something to talk of when gossip ran thin or the rain prevented an outing into society where she could look into everyone else’s affairs. She had not married again –not Aunt Myra, though so young when bereaved. Marriage to the incomparable Claude had convinced her that she could not be so fortunate in her choice of partner another time. Perhaps that paragon of virtue might have gained more attention and lasting memory as an edifice of evil. But no one in Ferbury would have stood for such a man. And Aunt Myra, as much as she might secretly have enjoyed telling the tale once he had departed earth, would soon have put him to right.
Yes, Sofia nodded her head as she restrained her aching pen, yes that would be Aunt Myra! If only she could… but no, she must not do it –she could not –she would not! Her pen drifted, as if by its own will, down to the deliciously empty page in front of her –no, no–
Suddenly, the doors of the garret swung open mightily with a pompous creak. It had been fondly nicknamed the “Tower” for its isolated situation on the north end of the house facing a vast, thick forest of fir trees, still a favorite haunt of the Merriweather children, though two-thirds of them had nearly grown up.
Terence wandered in, breathless and cross. He was small for his age (thirteen) –dark and sullen and lean with an upside-down, crooked grin and startling green, catlike eyes that gleamed with boyish secrets. One of his shoulders bent downward when he walked from a childhood accident–and so he loped, a little, and fiercely hoped that no one noticed and just as fiercely hoped that they would, just so he could prove that he did not mind. He yearned for attention, yet disdained it when given –easily resentful, easily hurt, easily proud, easily brought low. Not an unusual boy.
“Sofie, I’ve been looking for you for ages!” cried Terence petulantly and not without a bit of unjustifiable reproach. This was not as great an exaggeration as it might have been, for the Merriweathers frequently lost their way in the house. And well they might have –for it was large and rambling. No –not large –that is not adequate. It does not encompass the five-stories, twenty-six bedrooms, three and a half parlors, two dining rooms, ballroom, first and third floor kitchens, expansive library, and comparatively opulent furnishings in the servants’ wing that signified an unrestrained expenditure of wealth. There was nothing discreet about the Merriweathers.
“Have you?” said Sofia, firmly but regretfully putting down her pen and half-turning in the chair.
“You writing stories again?” Terence sniffed disgustedly. Though he spent many hours poring over his insect diagrams and nautical charts and secret, self-drawn maps of the grounds, other indoor activities did not amuse him. Nor could he, with the conceit of all unformed young minds, conceive that anyone could like anything that he did not.
Sofia sighed. “I was about to, yes.” She glanced at the sheet of paper (beside the forbidden blank one) and the single word scrawled on it –an impressive, beautiful, eloquent word that spoke volumes, full of hidden meaning, and cunning, deceptive simplicity. “The.” A commendable start, that. Ought she to stop having just embarked on that thrilling journey of possibilities which that single most compelling article invoked? “Sadly,” she added, being in general a truthful sort of person, “I have not progressed much further than the beginning.”
“How nice,” said Terence, yawning, and meandered about the room in search of something to pick up, examine, and replace straightaway with a bored impatience.
Sofia watched him, perplexed. He had run in and promptly forgotten what it was he had been so anxious about. “Terence,” said she expectantly, “did you have something to tell me, or ask me?”
Terence made a prodigious effort of remembrance. “Oh, yes! I know now! It’s dinner time.”
“Is it really?” Sofia started. That meant she had spent over an hour contemplating that solitary word. “But I haven’t heard George ring the bell. Has he?”
“No, it’s broken again,” said Terence, crossing over to her and tugging at her hand. He gave her one of his fiendish upside-down grins. “I might have had something to do with that.”
“Oh, Terence!” remonstrated Sofia. “Someday, you’re going to ruffle George’s coat-tails just a bit too enthusiastically, and he’ll chase you about the dining room with a rolling-pin he’s borrowed from the kitchen.”
“Not George!” Terence snorted in contempt, ignoring Sofia’s quick warnings as he half-slid, half-careened down the twisted railing of the back staircase from the Tower to a drafty, largely unused hallway. “Why, George wouldn’t be bothered by a Latrodectus Hesperus!”
“And what is that?” said Sofia with a laugh, skipping to keep up with his haphazard and unpredictable steps.
“A poisonous spider!” crowed Terence with triumph, always delighted when his knowledge of the Insectum exceeded hers, and he tumbled off the last end of another staircase, sending him into a fit of painful giggles.
“Are you all right, Terence?” said Sofia, half-fearful.
Instantly a lopsided grimace blackened his features and his brows drew almost to the edges of his glowering eyes. “Of course I am,” said he, brushing from his clothes invisible specks of dust and not nearly so invisible wrinkles. He started hopping about to show his dexterity, and then broke into a trot, calling behind him, “Catch me if you can, Sofie –I’ll beat you to the dining room!”
“Ooh, you wouldn’t run against a lady!” gasped Sofia, shooting after him.
“I wouldn’t –and I’m not!” Smirked Terence as he looked back so that he could wink at her.
“Naughty, impudent boy,” Sofia said with a chuckle, increasing her pace and lifting her skirts an inch higher, “I’ll catch you, I will!” They ran through a maze of passageways and well-lit hallways –through rooms that seemed to serve no purpose but to say “I am here, to be admired, come look at me!” and through other rooms with pianos and music stands and sheets and sheets of music –very useful rooms, if any in the family had played. Aunt Myra pretended to, of course, but even she could not ignore the thick dust coating the pages of Clair de Lune and Concerto in D Minor.
Very soon, much sooner than either of them had first anticipated, they arrived in the dining room –one of the dining rooms, at least. Sometimes, it was true, the family switched to the other (just as grand) without warning any of the children or Aunt Myra –either at their mother or father’s whims. It was, needless to say, an extremely rare occasion when any of the family was not late to dinner.
At the table was already seated their father and elder sister, Susan. Susan smiled; Mr. Theodore Merriweather growled. He was in one of his moods. Mr. Merriweather –not a tall man, but imposing in figure– could, when in a rage, make any of his self-important clerks quake to their very marrow. But his children had long been indifferent to his bouts of temper.
“There you are!” He barked. “What have you been about? And where is your mother? I just left her in the parlor. What does she think she’s doing?” mumbled Mr. Merriweather to himself. “Amelia!” he bellowed.
“Coming, dear!” A soft, willowy, gentle yet insistent voice wafted through the air. “Just a moment!” Mrs. Amelia Merriweather materialized not long after, draped in a gown of soft pinkish stuff, her silvery blond hair piled outrageously high above her head. “I’m sorry, I seem to have misplaced my green shawl –has anyone seen it, by chance?” asked she wistfully.
“Oh, I gave it to my gnome friends to eat!” declared Terence cheerfully as he took his place. He was inclined to be cheerful at mealtimes. Sofia sat next to Susan and rolled her eyes in sisterly understanding.
Mrs. Merriweather smiled indulgently. “Of course, darling, but do you think that was the brightest of inspirations? I have an idea that shawls aren’t good for the digestion, of gnomes especially. We wouldn’t want to make the poor creatures ill, would we?”
“What’s all this nonsense I’m hearing?” said Aunt Myra with shrill disapproval as she entered the room, her ears always preceding the rest of her.
Mrs. Merriweather indicated the seat beside her and smiled sweetly at her sister-in-law. “Darling, I really couldn’t say –only I’ve misplaced my green shawl –or was it the mauve shawl?– I get them confused so often because they have the same lace trim –or is it fringe? at the bottom. Hmm… do I have a green shawl? Or is it only Mrs. Prigglemeyer’s niece who has one? Darling Ted, have you seen me wear my green shawl today, or any other day?”
“You know very well I haven’t, Amelia, and if I had I shouldn’t have remembered it. Where the devil is my dinner?”
His wife cocked her head. “But surely –one would hope –that the devil didn’t have anything to do with your dinner?”
“Amelia, I’m ashamed of you!” said Aunt Myra. “Talking of outlandish elves or something one moment and the –well– the devil,” she lowered her voice, “the next –why, it isn’t at all–”
“But Aunt,” interrupted Terence with a frown, “they aren’t elves. Gnomes, I mean.”
“I beg your pardon?” Aunt Myra at her frostiest.
“Oh, yes, Myra, he’s quite right. What a clever boy you are, Terence! Elves are tall beings who live in the woods –though sometimes I think they can be short and fat and play tricks –or perhaps those are brownies –oh dear, let me think –that German Goethe or Andersen or whatever his name was would know all about it, I’m sure –he describes everything so well except everyone seems to die or have their feet frozen in the end, which is most unfortunate. But they’re most definitely short and round, with pointy beards and more than their share of capriciousness.”
“Who?” Aunt Myra again, her chin shaking ominously.
Mrs. Merriweather looked mildly surprised. “Why –gnomes of course, what else have we been talking of, darling?” She laughed, a lovely, bell-like sound that echoed pleasantly. “Haven’t you read that funny little German man? Only –I don’t think he was little; he looks tall in the illustrations –oh, I don’t mean in the book, for he wouldn’t be there, but at the front, there’s always a sketch of them and a story about how tragic their lives are. Though of course, one never can tell with these celebrities –after all, he might be short…”
“If I may,” cut in George with courteous hesitation.
“No, you may not,” commanded Aunt Myra.
George went on undeterred. “I believe, madam, that the man of which you speak is Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish renowned writer of fairy stories –and yes, from what limited research I have done on the subject, most gnomes do have pointed beards and are a bit, I believe, on the portly side.”
Mrs. Merriweather cried happily, “Oh, he isn’t German then? Of course, I should have known –for I always think of pastries when I hear his name and country, which is quite distracting. How very lucky, George, that you know almost everything. You’ve been so useful. Thank you so much. I’m sure we’re all obliged to you. I would have gone the rest of the day wondering about it.”
“Yes, we are all completely indebted.” Mr. Merriweather scowled thunderously. “But the rest of us would be happier if, be it not too inconvenient for a connoisseur of fairy stories as yourself, we could have our soup before the clock strikes midnight!”
“Right away, sir.” George bowed and left.
“Insolence, that,” muttered Mr. Merriweather. “I ought to let him go one of these days.”
“But you won’t, dear,” said Mrs. Merriweather with a pitying smile.
Mr. Merriweather grunted in grudging assent. “I ought to, though.”
Poor George. For a butler, especially an imported English one, he had entirely too much personality to satisfy Mr. Merriweather’s ideals completely. In his mind, butlers should be observable, but nonentities –like a shabby chair or a bit of crockery. But George was so obviously there, and so irritatingly knew something on every civilized conversational topic that he could never quite blend in with the wallpaper. In all other respects as a butler, he did his absolute best. Nothing could ever surprise or worry him unduly. He had nearly memorized the Encyclopædia Britannica in his spare time and slept with it under his satin pillows. His black hair was always greased back as severely and as correctly as any man of his profession’s. His figure was rotund, his gloves never soiled –and he had a sincerely and deceptively silly face that, when not ornamented with an expression of keen interest in his surroundings, revealed a devotion to the Merriweather family that did credit to more than his character.
“And how was your evening, Su?” whispered Sofia to her sister in the short interval that followed George’s exit.
“Oh!” Susan blushed, a pretty sight against her fair ivory skin and shimmering gold hair. “Aunt Myra and I walked into town and happened to meet Seth Carlisle next to the millinery.”
“Seth Carlisle?” Sofia raised an eyebrow. “No. Susan, dear, you’d better not begin liking him, I forbid it!”
“Why not?” said Susan a little indignantly, if her sweetness of disposition could have allowed her to be indignant.
“His nose.” Sofia tapped her own.
“Why, it’s beautiful!” exclaimed Susan in surprise.
“Too beautiful, I say. A man like that cannot be any good, if he has such a saintly nose. He’s too perfect –nearly a Greek god, not for mere mortals to fall in love with. Even you, Su, who are as close to Aphrodite as any could get in Pennsylvania! No –Mr. Carlisle knows he is beautiful (not handsome, mind!) and will turn up his snooty city nose at you while he’s yet making sheep’s eyes.”
“Really, Sofia,” said Susan in a little of a huff, “it is as if you thought I love every man to pay me a compliment!”
Sofia forbore from answering and, luckily, escaped having to construct a placating reply by the entrance of George, his entourage, and the soup.
And, forgetting the question of sanity, gnomes, elves, Greek gods, and the green, mauve, or nonexistent shawl, the family began dinner.