Monday, July 14, 2008

Blood is Thicker Than Water: Abby Breaks Curfew

Melrose thought that my spinstership was driving me crazy, and left me to my own devices. Laura worried more than anyone else. “Are you a voodooienne?” she asked me one morning in the sitting room.

I laughed. I had read about voodoo. “I have not sacrificed any chickens to date,” was my glib reply. Voodoo was a perversion of my clean, vaguely scientific attempts at magic, and I was most diverted. Laura told me that all people in New Orleans used some sort of magic. I explained to her that most people in Vermont did not. Like a true sister, she decided that Melrose didn’t need to know what I was up to.

With such beautiful parents, Abigail was destined to be a beautiful child. She inherited her mother’s dark eyes and hair, and while she was more Melrose’s rosier skin color, she still appeared a beautiful belle like her mama. I admit we spoiled her because it seemed Melrose and Laura could successfully have no other children. After three miscarriages, the doctor suggested steps be taken to protect Laura’s health. Abigail was adventurous and daring like her father. I loved her perhaps more than if she had been my own daughter, as I had no other creature to whom I could wholly give my affections. I loved her parents, but I loved her more, and I believe she loved me right back. All of us made the mistake of allowing her all that she wanted, but of course, how could we not? She was the light of our home.

The time in which I begin this narrative is some years from Abigail’s birth, and, alas, my twenty-third birthday. Let us say I am a woman of a certain age now. Our family is well. Melrose may well find himself governor of Vermont, or at least in the state house if he is not careful. Laura is the glowing and elegant hostess of the key parties of Abernathie’s social season. Abigail is the flower of these parties, for she is truly in bloom when surrounded by five or six beaux in want of her card for dancing. And I? I have four walls, ceiling to floor, of books, and have successfully communicated once with the spirit world.

It is around Abigail that the next part of this narrative centers. I am sure, dear reader, that you are aware of some of the behaviors of the more high spirited of our young women. If the woman is plain, as I am, I do not see this as a disadvantage, for these women are likely to remain spinsters, and therefore must use all the tools at their disposal to make their way in the world. When they have secured their niche, then they can tame their personalities. However, spiritedness in a comely girl is entirely a different matter. Most young men, except for the most disreputable, are attracted to gentleness in young women, both in behavior and personality. My niece’s personality was fiery and her exploits were far from gentle. As a matter of fact, Abigail’s behavior bordered on scandalous. She had many male companions of the disreputable type in her wayward adventures. My Abigail could trap a suitor of any sort with ease. Her chestnut hair cascaded down her back in waves, her emerald eyes dazzled young men with their richness and sparkle, and her eighteen inch waist was the envy of many Abernathie women who scarcely breathed in their bustles and corsets.

In addition to luring young men with her looks, Abigail used impropriety as a weapon. She would allow the occasional flash of ankle at waltzes, would sneak off in dark corners unchaperoned to cozen secret kisses, and once dared to play field hockey with the young men of Abernathie Secondary School. Yes, Abigail scandalized grandmothers, mortified her parents, turned other Abernathie girls green with envy, and was a favorite of the young men. It is allowed without saying that none of them would ever settle down with her. Her reputation was only saved from absolute ruin because dear Aunt Polly would protect her reputation with timely alibis. Once Abby picnicked with John Price in our orchard at midnight. I told her parents she’d spent the night in my room because of the rainstorm. I did not tell her parents she had climbed up my rose trellis and was sopped to the skin when she had finally come home.

Unfortunately, I could not protect Abigail from all the harm her antics would cause her. I did not feel comfortable lying to Laura about the girl. In some ways I felt I was protecting Laura from what would be a horrible disappointment in her unladylike daughter. Melrose was a good father inasmuch as he ran his business thoroughly and successfully. Words of his daughter’s exploits surely must have reached him, but he truly did not listen if they did, or he must have seen the home as Laura’s domain, for he never broached the subject with Abby. One night, however, Abigail took matters too far. If she had wished to enrage her father more completely, I do not see how she could have planned it.

I was in my room, propped cozily against the headboards, reading. Some woman in the book was claiming that she had made contact with her long dead husband and the author of the story was documenting all the details of her encounter with great care, from the Indian spiritual guide to the rising table, when from downstairs came a crash. No ordinary dropped vase this. It sounded as though someone had knocked over the china cabinet! I uncozied myself, wrapping myself in my robe. I cracked the door open and gazed cautiously into the gloomy hall.

Our upstairs landing opens over the reception room. I peered over the landing. The giant chandelier was no longer in its customary spot. Its fragments lay all over the floor. The huge chain upon which it was lowered for cleaning was stretched down and still in one piece. Abigail leaned against a wall, choking with laughter. Melrose, fists clenched, teeth gritted, stood silently by her.

My niece’s laughter subsided. “Oh Daddy,” she gasped, “I’m sorry. I let it down too fast.” She giggled again. I was struck that she was altogether too gay for this catastrophe. She had been drinking.

Laura was by me on the landing. She began to climb down the stairs and I stopped her. Melrose’s face went from white to livid. In two strides he reached his daughter. He slapped her. She cried out, stunned. “Get to bed,” he said. Then he stormed upstairs, passing Laura and myself, into his bedroom, slamming the door.

Laura looked helplessly at Abby and me. She followed Melrose, and I knew I was to take care of Abby. Abby marched by me, brushing me off, and slammed the door to her room.

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