Bitter things dried behind the eyes of Miss Ella like garlic on a string before an open fire. The acrid fumes of sweet memories had gradually reddened their rims until at times they shone like the used places in copper saucepans. Withal she was not a kitchen sort of person, nor even a person whom life had found much use in preserving. She was elegant, looking exactly like one of the ladies in a two-tone print on the top of a fancy glove box. Her red hair stuck out of a choir cap on Sundays in a tentative attempt to color the etching of her personality.
When I was young I loved Miss Ella. Her fine high instep curved into her white canvas shoes in summer with the voluptuous smoothness of a winter snowbank. She had a lace parasol and was so full of birdlike animation that she teetered on her feet when she spoke to you—sometimes she had meals with us and I remember her twittering about on our hearth after supper, dodging the popping bits of blue flame from our bituminous coal, believing ardently that “one” could keep fit by standing up twenty minutes after eating.
All the people in the world who were not her blood relations were impersonally “one” to Miss Ella. She was severe with the world and had she ordered the universe she would have kept it at runners’ tension toeing the chalk starting mark forever. I don’t know which would have upset her equanimity more: the materialization of a race or the realization that there wasn’t going to be any. In any case, “one” must keep fit for all problematical developments.
Even her moments of relaxation were arduous, so much so as to provoke her few outbursts of very feminine temper and considerable nervous agitation. She was essentially Victorian. Passing along the sidewalk in the heat of the afternoon and seeing Miss Ella far away in her hammock in the shade of the big elms by the house, her white skirt dusting a white flutter off the snowball bushes as she rocked herself back and forth, you would never have guessed how uncomfortable she was or how intensely she disliked hammocks. It always took at least three tries before she was tolerably ensconced: the first invariably loosened the big silver buckle that held her white-duck skirt in place; the second was wasted because it might result in immodest exposure of her fragile legs, by furling too tightly around her the white canvas lengths. After that she simply climbed into the hammock and did her arranging afterwards, which is about as easy as dressing in a Pullman berth. The hammock fanned its red and yellow fringe in a triumphant crescent motion that discomfited Miss Ella. By holding tightly to the strings at one end and desperately straining her foot against the worn patch of clay in the grass underneath, she managed to preserve a more or less static position. With her free hand she opened letters and held her book and brushed away things that fell from the trees and scratched the itchings that always commence when stillness is imperative.
These were Miss Ella’s hours of daytime rest. She never allowed herself to be disturbed until the sun had got well to the west and down behind the big house, its last light pulsing through the square hallways in the back windows and out the front, vivisected by the cold iron tracery of the upstairs balcony, to fall in shimmering splinters on the banana shrubs below. At five a decisive old lady rolled up the drive in a delicate carriage, high and springy, with a beige parasol top. Her hair was snow-white and her face was white and pink with antebellum cosmetics. Even from far away they emanated the pleasant smell of orris root and iris. She held the reins absentmindedly in one hand, the big diamonds in their old-fashioned settings poking up through her beige silk gloves. Her other arm made a formal, impersonal nest for a powdered spitz. When she called to Miss Ella the words slid along the sun rays with the sound of a softly drawn curtain on brass rings. “Ella! It’s time to cool off, my child. The dust is settled by now. And oh, Ella, be a good girl and find Aunt Ella’s fan, will you?”
So Miss Ella and Aunt Ella and the white dog went for their afternoon drive, leaving the sweet cool of the old garden to the aromatic shrubs, the fireflies, and the spiders who made their webs in the boxwood, to the locusts tuning the air for night vibrations and to three romantic children who waited every day for the carriage to roll out of sight before scaling the highest bit of wall that surrounded the grounds.
We loved that garden. Under two mulberry trees where the earth was slippery beneath our bare feet there stood a wooden playhouse, relic of Miss Ella’s youth. To me it never seemed an actual playhouse but to represent the houses associated with childhood in homely stories; it was in my imagination the little red schoolhouse, the farmhouse, the kindly orphan asylum, literary locales that never materialized in my own life. I never went inside but once, because of a horror of the fat summer worms that fell squashing from the mulberry trees. It was dry and dusty, scattered traces of a frieze of apple blossoms still sticking to the walls where Miss Ella had pasted them long ago.
No one but us ever went near the playhouse, not even the grandnieces of Aunt Ella when they came occasionally to visit. Almost buried in a tangle of jonquils and hyacinths dried brown from the summer heat, its roof strewn with the bruised purple bells of a hibiscus overhanging its tiny gables, the house stood like a forgotten sarcophagus, guarding with the reticent dignity that lies in all abandoned things a paintless, rusty shotgun. Here was a rough oasis apart from the rest of the orderly garden. From out of the delicate concision there foamed and billowed feathery shell-colored bushes that effervesced in the spring like a strawberry soda; there were round beds of elephant’s ears with leaves that held the water after a rain and changed it to silver balls of mercury running over the flat surface. There were pink storm lilies on their rubbery stems, and snowdrops, and shrubs with bottle-green leaves that ripped like stitching when you tore them. Japonicas dropped brown flowers into the damp about the steps of the square, somber house, and wistaria vines leaned in heavy plaits against the square columns. In the early morning Miss Ella came with a flat Mexican basket and picked the freshest flowers for the church. She said she tended the garden, but it was really Time and a Negro contemporary of his who did that. In front of the kitchen door, the old black man had a star-shaped bed of giant yellow cannas covered with brown spots and in a crescent were purple pansies. He scolded appallingly when he caught us on the grounds: he was most proprietary about the place and guarded the playhouse like some cherished shrine.
That was the atmosphere that enveloped the life of Miss Ella. Nobody knew why she found it sufficient; why she did not follow the path of the doctor’s coupe that divided its time between the downtown club and the curb in front of her shadowy lawn. The reason was Miss Ella’s story, which like all women’s stories was a love story and like most love stories took place in the past. Love is for most people as elusive as the jam in Alice in Wonderland—jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but no jam today. Anyhow, that was how it was with Miss Ella, living titularly on the jam of some time ago, skimming over life’s emotions like a bird flying low over the water detaching bright sprays into the air with its wings.
In her youth she was as slim and smooth as a figure in blown glass. Compact in long organdies that buoyed themselves out on the bars of a waltz, she stood firm in the angular aloof arm of her fiance.
He pyramided above her, two deep lines from the corners of his eyes, his mouth closed tight over many unuttered words, a deep triangle about the bridge of his nose. In the autumn he stood for hours up to his knees in the greasy backwash from the river, the long barrel of his gun trained skyward on wide files of green-backed ducks flying south over the marshes. He brought his loot to Miss Ella in bunches and she had them cooked in her white-pine kitchen, steeped in port and bitters and orange peel, till the brown delicious odor warmed the whole house. They sat together over an enormous table, eating shyly in the dim rings of light that splattered the silver and crept softly over the heavy frames of the dark still lifes that lined the wall. They were formally in love. There was a passive dignity in the currents that passed between them that quieted the air like a summer Sunday morning. The enveloping consideration of him, the luminous fragility of her, they made a harmonious pair.
In those days the town was small, and elegant ladies agitated their rockers with pleasure back of boxwood gardens as Miss Ella and her beau whipped past in his springy carriage, the light pouring over the polished spokes of the wheels like the flowing glint of water over a mill.
He called her “dear”; she never called him anything but Mr. Hendrix. In the soft chasm of the old hall after a late party, he reverently held her hands, hands filled with a dance card, a butterfly pin, a doll in feathers, trinkets of the dance, souvenirs of dreamy rhythms that wavered in her head with the fluctuations of watered silk propelled by the warmth of quiet happiness. They poured the plans for their life together into the molds of the thick tree shadows and turned them out on the midnight air marked with the delicate tracings of the leaves—modest stable plans of two in love. He told her how things were to be, and she acquiesced, pleased with his quiet voice piling up in midair like smoke in an airless room.
They were both religious to a fashionable restrained extent, and it was the church which drew Andy Bronson across the strings of their devotion, to saw them and haggle them and finally leave the broken ends twisting upward, frayed and ruined, dangling loose in tragedy with the resonance of twisted catgut. Miss Ella and Mr. Hendrix planned to be married in the square white church in the spring. Entering from the back where the iron banisters led to the balcony, they planned to walk in solemnity through the misty gusts of face powder, the green smell of lilies, the holiness of candles, to barter with God at the altar; toil and amiability for emotional sanctity. He said that there would be beauty and peace forever after and she said “Yes.”
Sorting their dreams absentmindedly, like putting clean linen in a cupboard, they stood side by side dreaming of that at Christmastime. A church festival was going on and there were eggnog and lemonade and silver cake baskets filled with sliced fruitcake and bonbonnieres of nuts and candy in the Sunday school room. The church was hot, and young men drifted out and in again, bringing with them the odor of overcoats and cigarettes smoked in the cold, and fumes of bourbon. There in the smoky feminine confusion stood Andy Bronson, the excitement of Christmas hanging bright wreaths about his cheekbones, a mysterious quiet certitude proclaiming nefarious motives.
Miss Ella was conscious of him in a still world beyond reality, even as she talked with animation of all the years that would churn behind the honeymoon boat that plied between Savannah and New York. From that tremulous duality she shivered into the confusion that followed the bang of the giant firecracker that Andy had lit beneath the steps that led to the balcony. A spark caught in her flimsy Dolly Varden and Ella’s dress was in flames. Through the slow split groups laughing, disapproving, explaining, not knowing what had happened, Andy was the first to reach her burning skirts, clapping the blaze between his palms until only a black, charred fringe was left.
The day after Christmas, hid in an enormous box of roses so deep in red and remorse that their petals shone like the purple wings of an insect, he sent her yards and yards of silk from Persia, and then he sent her ivory beads, a fan with Dresden ladies swinging between mother-of-pearl sticks, a Phi Beta Kappa key, an exquisite miniature of himself when his face was smaller than his great soft eyes—treasures. Finally he brought her a star sapphire (which she tied about her neck in a chamois bag lest Mr. Hendrix should know) and she loved him with desperate suppression. One night he kissed her far into the pink behind her ears and she folded herself in his arms, a flag without a breeze about its staff.
For weeks she could not tell Mr. Hendrix, saving and perfecting dramatically the scene she hopefully dreaded. When she did tell him, his eyes swung back in his head with the distant pendulousness of a sea captain’s. Looking over her small head through far horizons with the infinite sadness of a general surrendering his sword, finding no words or thoughts with which to fill her expectant pathos, he turned and slowly rolled the delicate air of early spring down the gravel path before him and out into the open road. Afterwards he came to call one Sunday and sat stiffly in a bulbous mahogany chair, gulping a frosted mint julep. The depression about him made holes in the air, and Miss Ella was glad when he left her free to laugh again.
The southern spring passed, the violets and the yellow-white pear trees and the jonquils and cape jasmine gave up their tenderness to the deep green lullaby of early May. Ella and Andy were being married that afternoon in her long living room framed by the velvet portieres and Empire mirrors encasing the aroma of lives long past. The house had been cleaned and polished, and shadows and memories each put in their proper place. The bride cake nested on southern smilax in the dining room and decanters of port studded the long sideboard mirrors with garnets. Between the parlor and the dining room calla lilies and baby’s-breath climbed about a white tulle trellis and came to a flowery end on either side of the improvised altar.
Upstairs, Miss Ella was deep in the cedar and lavender of a new trunk; fine linen nightgowns and drawnwork chemises were lifted preciously into the corners and little silk puffs of sachet perched tentatively over the newness. A Negress enamored of the confusion stood in the window drinking in the disorder from behind dotted swiss curtains, looking this way and that, stirring the trees with the excitement of her big black eyes and quieting the room with the peace they stole from the garden.
Miss Ella heard the curtains rip as the strong black hands tore them from the fragile pole. “O Lawd—O Lawd—O Lawd.” She lay in a heap of fright. By the time Ella reached the heavy mass, the woman could only gesticulate toward the window and hide her face. Ella rushed to the window in terror.
The bushes swished softly in the warmth. On the left there was nothing remarkable: a carriage crawling away far down the road, and plants growing in quiet now that their flowers were shed. Reassurance of the coming summer pushed her leaping heart back into place. Ella looked across the drive. There on the playhouse steps lay Mr. Hendrix, his brains falling over the earth in a bloody mess. His hands were clinched firmly about his old shotgun, and he as dead as a doornail.
Years passed but Miss Ella had no more hope for love. She fixed her hair more lightly about her head and every year her white skirts and peekaboo waists were more stiffly starched. She drove with Auntie Ella in the afternoons, took an interest in the tiny church, and all the time the rims about her eyes grew redder and redder, like those of a person leaning over a hot fire, but she was not a kitchen sort of person, withal.
First appeared in Scribner’s Magazine, December 1931. Previously collected in Bits of Paradise (1973).