Here I have done the same thing to you twice–though there really was a crisis on my hands at that moment. I’ll go further into it a little later, but since I left off where I had just heard the names of my cousins. Cousins, plural! And they were such melodramatic names, as though their mother intended them to act in operettas–or, perhaps, recreate them.
The first of the young ladies curtseyed and quite visibly elbowed the next, who did so with considerably less grace. I was so flabbergasted at this point that I actually looked to Aunt Clara to see if she could help me out, but she had sunk into a leather chair, and was dabbing at her eyes, in tears once more. Mr. Simms fluttered at her side attentively, so there was no help from him.
Thus it must have been up to me to say something. “Girls,” I said, “I’m your Cousin Imogen, and your Aunt Clara came with me to see you.”
“Oh, I’m so glad!” said the first, the one who’d curtseyed. “Izzy has been saying that you’d be horrible old maids who were coming to lock us up!” She rushed over to me and embraced me, much to my surprise. “I’m Melisande, actually, Mimi–is it really true that you never heard of us until last week?”
“Ah–yes, in fact, I didn’t even know that there were three of you.”
Melisande–Mimi–shook her head with a sad smile. “Oh, Papa. He never did bother with anything but business. Well, let me tell you about us. I’m the oldest–I’m going to be eighteen in October–and Izzy is the youngest, at thirteen. Thiz just turned sixteen in June.”
“Thisbe,” the second girl corrected meticulously, though there was an element of familiarity about the correction–I got the impression that Thisbe fought for her whole name regularly.
Izzy spoke up for the first time. “We call her Thiz, or Bebe, whenever we can. It makes her so mad!”
I shot a sympathetic glance at Thisbe, who was frowning at the youngest. “I fought a battle against being Immie, Gennie, and a whole host of other nicknames, growing up.” Thisbe’s frown, if anything, deepened and her look at me was just a touch shy of being a glare.
At this point Aunt Clara was revived enough to stand and greet her nieces, and I had a chance to stand back and observe them for a few minutes, to take stock of what I saw.
Mimi talked a blue streak the whole time. I like the girl–I do–but she hasn’t any notion of when to hold her tongue. She uses Western slang promiscuously and gestures wildly as she talks. Her whole demeanor, I surmised, would offend Grandmother’s sensibilities greatly. She is, though, a very pretty girl. She is petite, with rounded features and huge greenish-blue eyes. The Western sun has freckled her nose, though Izzy has borne the brunt of the freckling. Her hair is curly (it looks very similar in texture to mine, all things considered), but hers is unfortunately very, very red. She looks very Irish, all things considered, and I immediately knew Grandmother would be very put out to have a member of her family look and act so common.
Since I mentioned her freckles, I’ll describe Izzy now. She’s got nearly the same coloring as Mimi, though her is was straight and quite a bit lighter, close to a reddish blonde in color, and her eyes are a darker blue. She’s got white eyebrows and eyelashes, though I suspect that, once she stays out of the sun, they, like her freckles, will eventually resolve themselves. Unlike Mimi, Izzy looked a perfect fright–her hair in two tails, but flying out of them in every which direction, her clothes rumpled and worn and, frankly, inappropriate for a tall girl of thirteen. She’s already passed Mimi in height and is at that gangling age that some girls get to. Her neck, arms and legs are all absurdly skinny, with her joints knobby. However, her underlying bone structure is good, and I suspect that in a few years she will rival her eldest sister for looks.
Thisbe, now–at the time I was convinced that she was “the plain sister,” though I think now that it may have been the sullen expression that she kept up during that entire time. Unlike either of her sisters, she is not fair at all. Her skin is light, but she was utterly without color, and her eyes had bruised-looking dark circles underneath them. Her hair is a deep mahogany brown. It was braided back that day and curling out of the braid with vehemence. And her eyes are unusual–at first I thought she had blue eyes like her sisters, but upon closer look I saw that they are hazel, actually a clear gold color, quite unnerving, actually, with a darker ring around the iris. Add to that her slender height and delicate features, and she has a presence about her. But all that really struck me then was that she looked worn and surly.
All three were dressed in cheap-looking faded black dresses. The two younger girls’ fit them extremely poorly, indeed. Mimi’s, while a little better-fitted, accented her brilliant hair and made her look like a little Irish widow. I found out from her later that a local woman had found them the dresses so that they might meet us and be in proper mourning and Mimi was able to make some alterations to her own so that it fit. (Why she didn’t do so for her sisters was a question that occurred to me, but I chose not to ask at the time.)
Mr. Simms took Aunt Clara and me aside to discuss the business side of what was occurring. It appears that the girls’ father made more than a small fortune out there, and he left no real directions as to its use. The girls will of course inherit it all, and I believe that they are to split it evenly, but what I eventually asked Mr. Simms to do was to contact Grandpapa at his office to deal with the money matters. I could, perhaps, have dealt with it, but I would have been sure the whole time that I was doing something terribly wrong with their money.
Of course it didn’t help that any time we’d get into a discussion and Aunt Clara and Mr. Simms would meet each other’s gaze, they’d both lapse into incoherency. I swear, it was rather like being with a lovesick adolescent.
At the girls’ boarding-house (their father never bothered to buy a house, and apparently never really took care of them–their mother died after Izzy was born–and they’ve never had any real upbringing), I took stock of the situation. None of them had any decent clothing. Apparently Izzy tends to run around wildly wearing men’s clothing and riding horses bareback. Mimi is interested in being “a lady” but has primarily had the example of the . . . “ladies” . . . who inhabit the town (mostly dancing in the saloons–all the other respectable women look old and staid, and for a young girl who’s had no real upbringing, I can see why the vivid silks, satins and laces of the dancing girls look like real fashion).
A missionary’s wife taught them for a time with some other children from the region, so they’re not entirely ignorant. Thisbe adores books–the first time she looked at me without a glare was when I mentioned our library in passing–but she regained her composure and glared at me all the more vehemently when she realized she’d betrayed her enthusiasm for books. I sense a kindred soul in her, but I could be mistaken. She seems determined to be all prickles, so I have not chosen to invade her privacy.
It took a week to arrange things to our liking. After extensive telegraphing back to Grandmother, I arranged to stop over in St. Louis to get the girls clothed and set up as befits Stuarts. We probably should have done it in New York or Boston, but judging from their half-wild looks and demeanor just now, we decided it might be best to “scrub them up” first, in order that they not horrify those of our connection who will be around when we bring the girls to Newport.
So after a week of preparation, packing the few belongings of the girls, and trying to keep track of the wild Izzy (she is trouble incarnate!), Aunt Clara and I and the girls met the stagecoach and crowded in. Mr. Simms, who had been assiduously tailing us whenever he could manage it, said some sentimental goodbyes with a weeping Aunt Clara. I might have imagined it, but I think I saw him press a letter into her hand. She tried to secretly open it in the stagecoach–Mimi noticed and started to ask her about it, but I distracted her with a question about millinery (she will always be diverted with notions of fashion), and she forgot about it. Thisbe noticed, and glared at me, and Izzy noticed nothing, but sulked in the corner, because I’d made her wear her dress and made her brush her hair and turn her braid up with a ribbon, neatly. She prefers to wear two tails of hair like the Indian women in the region do.
We made it to the train with no real troubles, and I was very thankful that we had only two trunks to keep track of. Once on the train, Izzy perked up and kept me at wit’s end by insisting on exploring the entire train, end to end. Mimi came with us half the time and asked a thousand questions, but Thisbe turned up her nose and kept to her seat. Aunt Clara absorbed herself in writing pages upon pages of letters, which she mailed off in secrecy every time we stopped. Since she has never showed any tendency toward writing before now, I suspected that these may be a correspondence with the dapper Mr. Simms.
However, with no real incident, we made it to St. Louis, established ourselves in a blessedly modern hotel, and prepared to visit the shops to get the girls ready to return to the East.
I’ll continue my narrative later, dear Elizabeth, because the size of this epistle is getting unwieldy at present.