Monday, July 21, 2008

Blood is Thicker Than Water: Chaperone Duty

The next morning began with the usual breakfast at the sideboard. I did not see Melrose, Laura, or Abby while I ate. Mrs. Goodman, our housekeeper, supervised the cleaning of the chandelier and after breakfast I spent the morning moping in my room, the silence of the house lending gloom to the disaster I expected to come. I was not surprised when, just before lunch, Melrose called us all into his study for a conference. Laura looked as though she’d been crying, Melrose was positively grim, and Abigail’s expression was rigid marble. I broke the silence. “You really don’t need me—”

“No. Stay, Pauline. This concerns you.” Melrose chewed his moustache. “This house can no longer continue to be a rumor factory!” He shot from his seat, hands slapping his desk. “Abigail, your mother and I are frankly at a loss of what to do with you.” I noticed Laura began crying again. “I suggested a convent. Unfortunately we aren’t Catholic! Luckily your mother has arrived at a viable alternative.”

Abigail stared stonily at her father. I wanted to crawl under my bed, be away from all of this. Laura said quietly, “Abigail, we are sending you to my old school.”

“Miss May Pettijohn’s School for Young Ladies. It is my hope,” Melrose continued, “that you will learn to deport yourself as a Raintree.”

“I have always done so,” Abigail said stiffly.

“Hardly!” Melrose did not attempt to conceal his anger. “Small wonder I sometimes think you were switched at birth!” He paused awkwardly, then continued. “I give you a chance to defend yourself.”

Abigail was aware that all our eyes were upon her, and she decided to use this undivided attention as best she could. “Father,” she said coolly, “I see nothing wrong with my behavior, nor does Mother or Aunt Polly.”

“Preposterous!” Melrose stammered.

“Not at all. Only you find fault with it because I am not a man. If I were your son instead of your daughter, you’d be slapping me on the back and pouring me another brandy.”

Melrose opened his mouth fishlike in amazement. He began to sputter. Abigail raised a slender hand for silence. “Well, I’ll stop sewing my wild oats. You think you are punishing me by making me leave Abernathie, but you are doing me a great service. Abernathie is the most boring place conceivable upon the earth. Wherever Miss May Pettijohn educates her young ladies, it certainly must be more interesting than here.” Abigail surveyed the room, first her astounded father, then her distraught mother, and turning, glided out of the study with the coldness and stateliness of Anderson’s The Snow Queen. She did not wait for her father’s usual dismissal. I privately wished Miss May Pettijohn much luck with our not penitent Abigail. She would need all our prayers indeed.

Laura melted into Melrose’s arms for comfort, and since this public display of affection made me a touch uncomfortable, I decided to leave. I felt I needed to lie down after all the night and morning dramatics, but Melrose stopped me. “Pauline, there’s more I’d like to say to you.”

I stopped, almost afraid to turn around. Perhaps now was a time of reckoning for the eccentricities I brought to bear on the family. Perhaps Abigail’s behavior was perceived to be somewhat my fault, an unwanted influence by her crazy aunt. “Yes?”

My brother seated Laura on a footstool and sank back into his chair tiredly. Laura was rigid, although tears dampened her face. She was crying bravely, because her chin did not quiver one iota. “We must be firm with Abigail,” Melrose said. “Perhaps we have not been firm enough in the past. But if we hope to change her behavior, we must start now.”

I nodded. No one in the house dared to disagree with Melrose when his mind was set, and he was correct in Abigail’s case. Truly, her behavior had to be molded more suitably so she could represent what the Raintree family stood for in Abernathie. She had to learn to be what people wanted, especially if she hoped to gain a husband and make her mark on proper society.

“Miss Pettijohn raised Laura, you know. Laura has already written to her about Abigail, and Miss Pettijohn is delighted to have her, especially now that the old city is trying to be more pleasant to us Yankees. However, Miss Pettijohn has a full house of girls already. I am reluctant to have Abigail alone in New Orleans. So she will need a chaperone.”

I nodded again. Obviously this was true. Miss Pettijohn would have to divide her attention among all her students equally, whereas Abby would require at least three or four people to supervise her.

New Orleans is a city of many temptations that would attract a girl such as Abigail—theater, socials, gentlemen.”

I agreed with my brother once more. He watched me with a raised eyebrow expectantly. In my mind flashed a terrible idea. I hoped Melrose would not say what I expected him to say.

“Pauline,” Laura spoke this time, “it will be a great burden from my shoulders that Abigail will have someone like you to rely on while she is away from home. She is so fond of you.”

“You must watch her. Control her with an iron fist,” Melrose added.

“Don’t allow her to be homesick.”

“Allow her no slack!”

“Bid her to write us!”

The parental advice was salvoed at me quickly and furiously as I allowed the implications of the situation to seep into my consciousness. It was obviously assumed that I would journey to New Orleans with my niece. Gone would be my carefree days in Abernathie next to my books. Midnight jaunts into the unknown were impossible. I had no choice, however reluctantly I made it, but to chaperone Abigail. I was indebted to Melrose and Laura for giving me a home. True, I hoped to repay them, but I thought more in terms of baking Christmas cookies or nursing them in their sick rooms. Chaperoning Abigail was the ultimate repayment they could require, or so it seemed to me at the time.

I cleared my throat. “Are you certain that I would be the best chaperone you could have for Abigail?”

Melrose leaned toward me, his elbows resting on his desk top. “You are a quiet gentlewoman, Polly. I have every hope that you will inspire those qualities in my daughter.”

Sooner ask the sun to change its path than ask the belle of Abernathie to change her qualities! “Sweet brother and sister,” I said, clasping one of each of their hands, “I feel I have no recourse but to accept.” She was my goddaughter, after all. “You can rely on me to help in anyway I can.” Thus was my doom sealed, and I found myself traveling to New Orleans with Miss Abigail Raintree and her copious amounts of luggage. Abigail left Abernathie one week after the morning discussion I have recorded, her icy bearing in tact. Only once as we began our journey did she reveal to her aunt a chink in her armor. Her eyes brimmed with tears as she kissed her mother goodbye.

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