This story occurs under the blue skies and bluer laws of Puritan New England, in the days when religion was still taken seriously by a great many people, and in the town of Plymouth where the “Mayflower,” having ploughed its platitudinous way from Holland, had landed its precious cargo of pious Right Thinkers, moral Gentlemen of God, and—Priscilla.
Priscilla was—well, Priscilla had yellow hair. In a later generation, in a 1921 June, if she had toddled by at a country club dance you would have noticed first of all that glorious mass of bobbed corn-colored locks. You would, then, perhaps, have glanced idly at her face, and suddenly said “Oh my gosh!” The next moment you would have clutched the nearest stag and hissed, “Quick—yellow hair—silver dress—oh Judas!” You would then have been introduced, and after dancing nine feet you would have been cut in on by another panting stag. In those nine delirious feet you would have become completely dazed by one of the smoothest lines since the building of the Southern Pacific. You would then have borrowed somebody’s flask, gone into the locker room and gotten an edge—not a bachelor-dinner edge but just enough to give you the proper amount of confidence. You would have returned to the ballroom, cut in on this twentieth century Priscilla, and taken her and your edge out to a convenient limousine, or the first tee.
It was of some such yellow-haired Priscilla that Homer dreamed when he smote his lyre and chanted, “I sing of arms and the man”; it was at the sight of such as she that rare Ben Jonson’s Dr. Faustus tried, “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?” In all ages has such beauty enchanted the minds of men, calling forth in one century the Fiesolian terza rima of “Paradise Lost,” in another the passionate arias of a dozen Beethoven symphonies. In 1620 the pagan daughter of Helen of Troy and Cleopatra of the Nile happened, by a characteristic jest of the great Ironist, to embark with her aunt on the “Mayflower.”
Like all girls of eighteen Priscilla had learned to kiss and be kissed on every possible occasion; in the exotic and not at all uncommon pleasure of “petting” she had acquired infinite wisdom and complete disillusionment. But in all her “petting parties” on the “Mayflower” and in Plymouth she had found no Puritan who held her interest beyond the first kiss, and she had lately reverted in sheer boredom to her boarding school habit of drinking gin in large quantities—a habit which was not entirely approved of by her old-fashioned aunt, although Mrs. Brewster was glad to have her niece stay at home in the evenings “instead,” as she told Mrs. Bradford, “of running around with those boys, and really, my dear, Priscilla says some the funniest things when she gets a little—er—’boiled,’ as she calls it—you must come over some evening, and bring the governor.”
Mrs. Brewster, Priscilla’s aunt, is the ancestor of all New England aunts. She may be seen today walking down Tremont Street, Boston, in her Educator shoes on her way to S. S. Pierce’s which she pronounces to rhyme with hearse. The twentieth century Mrs. Brewster wears a highnecked black silk waist with a chatelaine watch pinned over her left breast and a spot of Gordon’s codfish (no bones) over her right. When a little girl she was taken to see Longfellow, Lowell, and Ralph Waldo Emerson; she speaks familiarly of the James boys, but this has no reference to the well-known Missouri outlaws. She was brought up on blueberry cake, Postum, and “The Atlantic Monthly”; she loves the Boston “Transcript,” God, and her relatives in Newton Centre. Her idea of a daring joke is the remark Susan Hale made to Edward Everett Hale about sending underwear to the heathen. She once asked Donald Ogden Stewart to dinner with her niece; she didn’t think his story about the lady mind reader who read the man’s mind and then slapped his face, was very funny; she never asked him again.
The action of this story all takes place in Mrs. Brewster's Plymouth home on two successive June evenings. As the figurative curtain rises Mrs. Brewster is sitting at a desk reading the latest instalment of Foxe’s “Book of Martyrs.”
The sound of a clanking sword is heard outside. Mrs. Brewster looks up, smiles to herself, and goes on reading. A knock—a timid knock.
Mrs. Brewster: Come in.
(Enter Captain Miles Standish, whiskered and forty. In a later generation, with that imposing mustache and his hatred of Indians, Miles would undoubtedly have been a bank president. At present he seems somewhat ill at ease, and obviously relieved to find only Priscilla’s aunt at home.)
Mrs. Brewster: Good evening, Captain Standish.
Miles: Good evening, Mrs. Brewster. It’s—it’s cool for June, isn’t it?
Mrs. Brewster: Yes. I suppose we’ll pay for it with a hot July, though.
Miles (nervously): Yes, but it—it is cool for June, isn’t it?
Mrs. Brewster: So you said, Captain.
Miles: Yes. So I said, didn’t I?
Miles: Mistress Priscilla isn’t home, then?
Mrs. Brewster: Why, I don’t think so, Captain. But I never can be sure where Priscilla is.
Miles (eagerly): She’s a—a fine girl, isn’t she? A fine girl.
Mrs. Brewster: Why, yes. Of course, Priscilla has her faults—but she’d make some man a fine wife—some man who knew how to handle her—an older man, with experience.
Miles: Do you really think so, Mrs. Brewster? (After a minute.) Do you think Priscilla is thinking about marrying anybody in particular?
Mrs. Brewster: Well, I can’t say, Captain. You know—she’s a little wild. Her mother was wild, too, you know—that is, before the Lord spoke to her. They say she used to be seen at the Mermaid Tavern in London with all those play-acting people. She always used to say that Priscilla would marry a military man.
Miles: A military man? Well, now tell me Mrs. Brewster, do you think that a sweet delicate creature like Priscilla—
A Voice (in the next room): Oh DAMN!
Mrs. Brewster: That must be Priscilla now.
The Voice: Auntie!
Mrs. Brewster: Yes, Priscilla dear.
The Voice: Where in hell did you put the vermouth?
Mrs. Brewster: In the cupboard, dear. I do hope you aren’t going to get—er—“boiled” again tonight, Priscilla.
(Enter Priscilla, infinitely radiant, infinitely beautiful, with a bottle of vermouth in one hand and a jug of gin in the other.)
Priscilla: Auntie, that was a dirty trick to hide the vermouth. Hello Miles—shoot many Indians today?
Miles: Why—er—er—no, Mistress Priscilla.
Priscilla: Wish you’d take me with you next time, Miles. I’d love to shoot an Indian, wouldn’t you, auntie?
Mrs. Brewster: Priscilla! What an idea! And please dear, give Auntie Brewster the gin. I—er—promised to take some to the church social tonight and it’s almost all gone now.
Miles: I didn’t see you at church last night, Mistress Priscilla.
Priscilla: Well I’ll tell you, Miles. I started to go to church—really felt awfully religious. But just as I was leaving I thought, “Priscilla, how about a drink—just one little drink?” You know, Miles, church goes so much better when you’re just a little boiled—the lights and everything just kind of—oh, its glorious. Well last night, after I’d had a little liquor, the funniest thing happened. I fell awfully good, not like church at all—so I just thought I’d take a walk in the woods. And I came to a pool—a wonderful honest-to-God pool—with the moon shining right into the middle of it. So 1 just undressed and dove in and it was the most marvelous thing in the world. And then I danced on the bank in the grass and the moonlight—oh, Lordy, Miles, you ought to have seen me.
Mrs. Brewster: Priscilla!
Priscilla: ’Scuse me, Auntie Brewster. And then I just lay in the grass and sang and laughed.
Mrs. Brewster: Dear, you’ll catch your death of cold one of these nights. I hope you’ll excuse me, Captain Standish; it’s time I was going to our social. I’ll leave Priscilla to entertain you. Now be a good girl, Priscilla, and please dear don’t drink straight vermouth—remember what happened last time. Good night, Captain—good night, dear.
(Exit Mrs. Brewster with gin.)
Priscilla: Oh damn! What’ll we do, Miles—I’m getting awfully sleepy.
Miles: Why—we might—er—pet a bit.
Priscilla (yawning): No. I’m too tired—besides, I hate whiskers.
Miles: Yes, that’s so, I remember.
(Ten minutes’ silence, with Miles looking sentimentally into the fireplace, Priscilla curled up in a chair on the other side.)
Miles: I was—your aunt and I—we were talking about you before you came in. It was a talk that meant a lot to me.
Priscilla: Miles, would you mind closing that window?
(Miles closes the window and returns to his chair by the fireplace.)
Miles: And your aunt told me that your mother said you would some day marry a military man.
Priscilla: Miles, would you mind passing me that pillow over there?
(Miles gets up, takes the pillow to Priscilla and again sits down.)
Miles: And I thought that if you wanted a military man why—well, I’ve always thought a great deal of you, Mistress Priscilla—and since my Rose died I’ve been pretty lonely, and while I’m nothing but a rough old soldier yet—well, what I’m driving at is—you see, maybe you and I could sort of—well, I’m not much of a hand at fancy love speeches and all that—but—
(He is interrupted by a snore. He glances up and sees that Priscilla has fallen fast asleep. He sits looking hopelessly into the fireplace for a long time, then gets up, puts on his hat and tiptoes out of the door.)
Priscilla is sitting alone, lost in revery, before the fireplace. It is almost as if she had not moved since the evening before.
A knock, and the door opens to admit John Alden, nonchalant, disillusioned, and twenty-one.
John: Good evening. Hope I don’t bother you.
Priscilla: The only people who bother me are women who tell me I’m beautiful and men who don’t.
John: Not a very brilliant epigram—but still—yes, you are beautiful.
Priscilla: Of course, if it’s an effort for you to say—
John: Nothing is worthwhile without effort.
Priscilla: Sounds like Miles Standish; many things I do without effort are worthwhile; I am beautiful without the slightest effort.
John: Yes, you’re right. I could kiss you without any effort—and that would be worthwhile—perhaps.
Priscilla: Kissing me would prove nothing. I kiss as casually as I breathe.
John: And if you didn’t breathe—or kiss—you would die.
Priscilla: Any woman would.
John: Then you are like other women. How unfortunate.
Priscilla: I am like no woman you ever knew.
John: You arouse my curiosity.
Priscilla: Curiosity killed a cat.
John: A cat may look at a—Queen.
Priscilla: And a Queen keeps cats for her amusement. They purr so delightfully when she pets them.
John: I never learned to purr; it must be amusing—for the Queen.
Priscilla: Let me teach you. I’m starting a new class tonight.
John: I’m afraid I couldn’t afford to pay the tuition.
Priscilla: For a few exceptionally meritorious pupils, various scholarships and fellowships have been provided.
John: By whom? Old graduates?
Priscilla: No—the institution has been endowed by God—
John: With exceptional beauty—I’m afraid I’m going to kiss you. Now.
(Ten minutes pass.)
Priscilla: Stop smiling in that inane way.
John: I just happened to think of something awfully funny. You know the reason why I came over here tonight?
Priscilla: To see me. I wondered why you hadn’t come months ago.
John: No. It’s really awfully funny—but I came here tonight because Miles Standish made me promise this morning to ask you to marry him. Miles is an awfully good egg, really Priscilla.
Priscilla: Speak for yourself, John.
John: Again—and again. Oh Lord, I’m gone.
(An hour later John leaves. As the door closes behind him Priscilla sinks back into her chair before the fireplace; an hour passes, and she does not move; her aunt returns from the Bradfords’ and after a few ineffectual attempts at conversation goes to bed alone; the candles gutter, flicker, and die out; the room is filled with moonlight, softly stealing through the silken skein of sacred silence. Once more the clock chimes forth the hour—the hour of fluted peace, of dead desire and epic love. Oh not for aye, Endymion, mayst thou unfold the purple panoply of priceless years. She sleeps—Priscilla sleeps—and down the palimpsest of age-old passion the lyres of night breathe forth their poignant praise. She sleeps—eternal Helen—in the moonlight of a thousand years; immortal symbol of immortal aeons, flower of the gods transplanted on a foreign shore, infinitely rare, infinitely erotic.*)
*For the further adventures of Priscilla, see F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stories in the “Girl With the Yellow Hair” series, notably “This Side of Paradise,” “The Offshore Pirate,” “The Ice Palace,” “Head and Shoulders,” “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” “Benediction” and “The Beautiful and Damned.”
From The Parody Outline of History (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1921) by Donald Ogden Stewart. Copyright (c) 1921 by George H. Doran. Reprinted by permission of the author and Doubleday & Company, Inc.
Donald Ogden Stewart, the playwright and parodist, wrote the parody of Fitzgerald printed in this book as a chapter of his Parody Outline of History in 1921.