Ceremony of the innocent, p.1
Ceremony of the Innocent, page 1
of the Innocent
First published by
Doubleday & Company, Inc.
FOR ROBERT J. GIBBONS—one of the very few real friends I have had in my life—with gratitude and affection. He is also a great gentleman who has cheered me and is responsible for this book, for without his constant encouragement, I could not have started or continued.
This is a story of a tragic woman and a tragic country. It is two stories, but they parallel each other and often touch and briefly merge, and at the end they are one.
The historical details in this book were given in an earlier book of mine, Captains and the Kings, which carries a complete bibliography, and need not be repeated here. The conspiracy does indeed exist, but under other names.
While this book is not my autobiography, and Ellen Porter’s background is not mine, nor her appearance—and I was born many years later than she was born—her thoughts have been my thoughts and her experiences mine also. I have encountered many of the people in this book and have endured from them what Ellen Porter had endured, though they are a composite picture here and so cannot be identified. Many of them, too, are now dead.
So in many ways though this is a bitter book it is a true one.
There is an old saying, “Only a man can hurt himself. But only a man can hurt a woman.”
Love—or perish? No! Love—and perish.
C H A P T E R 1
THE PASTOR POINTED OUT HIS TOES to the limit of extension, spread his arms like wings, and lifted his head in an utmost pose of rapture, his old face exalted, his eyes staring as if with ecstasy at the mildewed white ceiling of his church. It was as if he were embracing a vision of angels suffused with dawn, and his congregation stared at him in fascination. His emaciated features appeared to be rayed with another light and his smile was transported.
He spoke softly and with tremolos: “Love or perish, love or perish. That is the Law and there is nothing else. If we do not love our neighbor with all our hearts, after God, we are as poor as the dust and lower than the beasts. What if we possess the riches of Midas and do not love? We are nothing. Trust, trust. He who does not trust his fellow man is evil. He is wicked. There is black sin in his heart. Love! Trust!”
The organ groaned in sympathy, then rose to an accusing note. The meager little church vibrated all through its sifting plaster. The hot noon sun glared through the plain glass windows. As if with grief the pastor slowly dropped his thin arms, his gaunt head; a dry sob sounded from his channeled throat. He was an old man and he was very stupid, only a little less stupid than his congregation. He whispered in awe, “Trust, trust. Love, love.”
He had never been so moving. Women wiped their eyes furtively under their cheap straw hats and peeped at their neighbors to see if their “feelings” had been noted—and approved. Men coughed hoarsely and shifted their heavy boots. The organ almost wept. A child whined in the midsummer heat; the yellow dust blew through the open door. The light was intense, burning, harsh. The pastor began to hope that the collection plates would hold more today than usual, for he had not tasted meat for nearly two weeks except for a lean fowl last Sunday. He studied his people from under his pale lashes and was gratified to see that he had quickened them as never before.
He knew them all well, and intimately. He had married many of them, had baptized even more, and had buried their dead. He knew their guilts, and had no compassion for their weaknesses, their spiritual and bodily sufferings. It was all sin, all wickedness. The children reeked of it, even those in their mothers’ arms. All women were inherently dissolute, all men fornicators and adulterers and faithless and liars. Trust! Love! What did they know of these? He sobbed drily again and let his half-hidden pallid eyes rove over every subdued face, every weary face, every sad face, and every young face. Sinners, all, ripe for the plucking and the burning.
He saw his young granddaughter in the middle distance, prim and clean in her dotted-swiss Sunday dress and her straw hat with the red cotton roses. Amelia, ah! She was a saint, the only saint in this church. Like most of the girls present, she had a small pink tight mouth, demurely fixed, a pale complexion, long dropped eyelashes, and polished tubes of hair hanging on her maidenly shoulders. Near her, but not too close, sat that hideous girl, Ellen Watson, in her coarse dress which had been washed so often that its original blue was almost white, and the hem, let down several times, was lined and resisted ironing. She wore no hat, and this was an insult both to the church and to the pastor. She was the only female present who had no head covering, and he was affronted. Moreover, her eyes were not cast down in girlish shyness and meekness. They were fixed on him intently; he could see the brilliant blue shine of them, the great blue stare. She was nodding as if he was still speaking, and she in entire agreement. She was thirteen years old, the same age as his dearest Amelia. Her offering, as usual, would be only one copper penny, and this again was an outrage.
He was pleased at her hideousness. There she sat, poised on the edge of the hard bench, waiting for him to speak again, and her hair was an immense mass of flowing red, all tendrils and waves and glitter in the sunlight, and it was not confined by a proper ribbon as was the hair of all the other girls. It had a turbulent, even uncontrollable, appearance, and was so vital that it seemed to crackle, to rise of its own volition at her slightest movement. It resembled the leaping of fire. She was larger in every way than the other girls. Thirteen, it was said. She looked all of sixteen, at least, and her breasts, nubile and pointed, pushed against the faded cotton, as if trying to burst through it. The pastor felt an ancient stirring in his loins, and hated the cause of it. No one with hair like that, and with that slender but ripe young figure, could be anything but evil, anything but a snare for the virtuous. Her face! He had never before seen a face like this on any girl-child or woman. It was almost square, and lustrous as china and very white, except for the apricot blaze on cheekbone and on wide full lip. Her chin was dimpled, her ears carved of marble as was her bare throat. Her nose was clearly molded, and impeccable. Her large hands, long and slender and very clean, were scoured with hard work, the nails chipped.
She possessed grandeur, and a kind of classic grace. The pastor did not know she was extraordinarily beautiful and striking to the point of perfection. He noted her arms, bare to the elbow, round and gleaming and without a single freckle or mole, and again his loins stirred. A snare for the unrighteous. A wicked girl who would soon be a bad woman. A hideous girl.
Ellen gazed at him patiently with those enormous blue eyes which were fringed with thick bright lashes, as vivid as gold. Her soft breast lifted the worn fabric over it. Her hands were clasped in her lap. Her feet, in their broken buttoned boots, were crossed lightly. Her old dress was too short and her smooth calves were encased in darned black stockings. The other girls her age had hems that touched the tops of their boots, as was proper. Had Mrs. Watson, her aunt, no decent shame that she could send her niece to church, to listen to holy words and admonitions, in such clothing, in such revealment? The girl was like a flaming bird in the midst of brown hens, and there was an uneasy if derisive space about her as if she were a pariah. She had no friends, no relatives but her aunt, who was both a dressmaker and a household drudge. True, Mrs. Watson was poor, poorer than most of the others in the church, but could she not find a length of cotton to make a dress for the girl so she would not be a scandal in this company?
The organ rose to a higher wail and the congregation stood up with hymnbooks in their hands. The pastor said, “Hymn fifty-nine.” Voices lifted, feeb
“Brightly beams our Father’s mercy
From His lighthouse evermore,
But to us He leaves the keeping
Of the lights along the shore!”
The singing was stronger and more sure now, and louder, but above it rose an amazingly lovely voice, full and passionate and fervid, and it was the voice of Ellen Watson.
“Let the lower lights keep burning,
Cast a beam across the wave!
Some poor sinking, drowning seaman
You may rescue, you may save!”
“Amen, amen,” moaned the pastor, only too aware of that powerful and exultant voice rising over the other voices like a shining and melodious wing. Why did the strumpet have to bellow like that? He frowned at Ellen, but her eyes were lifted and a beatific smile widened her lips and her white teeth caught the sunlight. She was making a mockery of the hymn! Her neighbors were glaring at her, eyes narrowed, some vindictive, and all disapproving. She was unconscious of them, as always she was unconscious. She did not recognize viciousness even when it intruded upon her, sneered at her, rejected her, and hated her. She did not know she was despised. She only knew that she was always alone, except for her aunt. This did not disturb her. She believed, with sometimes a little childlike sadness, that no one wished to be with her because she and her aunt were very poor, even poorer than any of these poverty-stricken village people. She accepted life with simplicity and hope and sometimes joy, for she was innocent by nature and trustful.
The pastor knew all the gossip of the little village of Preston. He had often heard, snickeringly, that Mrs. Watson was no “Mrs.” but a stranger from another place and that Ellen was not her niece but her illegitimate daughter. She had arrived in Preston from “upstate” when Ellen was but an infant, and said she was a widow and a dressmaker, and that she would “help out” in any household which needed emergency aid. She never came to church, though she sent Ellen. The pastor did not question the slanders, the innuendos, the slurs. Ellen was enough to arouse instant hatred in the drab, and instant rejection from the dull and sly. It was rumored, whisperingly, that she was often seen in the fields “with some boy,” at night. Her beauty did not move anyone but an occasional youth or lustful field hand. She was considered “showy” and repulsive, and ignorant, above all. For she never seemed to be aware of the animosity which was constantly about her.
Because she was so unusual—a bonfire on the cobbled streets—she was detested and avoided by the other girls, who were of a piece and as undifferentiated as the kernels on a cob of corn. She was singular, uncommon, spectacular, both in face and body and in movement, and so she awakened enmity among the uniform, who could endure no variance, no distinguishing characteristics. Ellen’s very innocence, obscurely recognized, was an affront to those who were not innocent however they were meek and conforming in speech and manner and opinion. She was suspect of every vileness, of every corruption. She was accused, among the girls, of acts and behavior and words that were unspeakable and not to be openly mentioned and designated. Of this, too, Ellen was unaware. She accepted jibes and sly smiles and insults with a still serenity and patience which confirmed the slanderous whispers and made heads nod. If a classmate lost a cherished ribbon, a five-cent piece, a book, a pencil, a pen, Ellen was the thief.
She never understood that the wicked and the mean accused others of wickedness and meanness, especially if those others were at all unusual. Occasionally she would become aware that her peers held her guilty of something mysterious and unspoken, and as a result she felt a confused guilt in her heart, a self-deprecation that made her uneasy and sad, for a little while. But she was too innocent and innately too joyful, too trusting, too eager to please and conciliate, for prolonged melancholy. She excused her defamers on the grounds of misunderstanding. She was often sorry for them, for she knew their poverty and their laborious lives. Love. Trust. She alone knew what these meant in their fullest revelation, and this was unconsciously suspected and so aroused malice. When the malevolent behavior of others was forcibly thrust upon her attention she was only bewildered. “You are a fool, Ellen,” her aunt would say with shrillness and impatience, and Ellen would not answer. She suspected that her aunt was quite correct, and would suffer a thrill of shame. But why she was a “fool” she did not know.
She thought she was ugly, for she was so much taller than her small and ungenerous schoolmates. Sometimes she envied them their ordinary prettiness, their mincing ways, their sweet little simpers, their tiny little voices, and she would gaze at them wistfully. They laughed at her hair, her height, her great blue eyes, and she did not know it was envy, though subconscious. She felt herself gawky and graceless and odd. When she looked at herself in the little smeared mirror above the kitchen sink in her aunt’s house she did not see miraculous beauty, or color, or perfect contour. She saw distortion and did not know it was the distortion of others.
Her aunt would say with a sigh, “You are no beauty like your mother, Ellen. She was small and dainty, with black curls and bright gray eyes. You don’t look like other people, and I worry about you. Never mind. Well, you must make yourself useful and that, in this world, is very important.” Even May Watson’s opinion of her niece was distorted by the memory of a strange laughing sister, who, though not of Ellen’s coloring or nature, had been enigmatic and sweetly mocking. Mary had been as “different” in her tragic way as Ellen was “different” in her way. May did not as yet know that she truly feared for Ellen, as she had feared for her own sister.
When Ellen left the church this Sunday noon no one spoke to her, though eyes trailed her malignantly and mouths were twisted in ridicule. As always, she was unaware of it all. However, some other sense often made her briefly alert to dislike. She had little of the instinct of self-preservation and did not know, and would never know, that this was extremely dangerous in a most dangerous world. If only I had a pretty new dress, she thought, instead of this old thing I’ve had for ages. Then people might love me, too. Well, anyway, the Bible says God loves me and that’s all that matters. She thought of what the pastor had said: “Love or perish.” She nodded to herself. She felt a familiar bursting in her heart, a peculiar longing, and a kind of exaltation that hinted of a future full of love and joy and acceptance. She had only to work and be useful; that would answer all her yearnings.
Her long and exquisitely formed legs carried her smoothly over the rough stones of the one long street of the village. Her tumultuous hair tossed behind her in the hot and dusty wind. Her face was alight with eagerness and expectation. She thought of the coming Fourth of July celebrations and the band that would play patriotic songs in what passed for a park in Preston, just outside the village limits. Music, to her, even the roaring Sousa marches, was an ecstatic experience. When she heard a mechanical piano clamoring out a “piece” from some parlor, or heard the high grinding of the new phonographs emanating from a house, she would suddenly come to a halt on the street, incapable of moving, unaware of anything about her, her face transfigured, held in ecstasy. This would excite laughter and open jeers from passersby, particularly children, but she was always unconscious of this, transported to another dimension where all was harmony and a thousand voices sang, and everything was understood, everything revealed. She had, as yet, no discrimination; she only knew that she winced and even cringed when she heard modern and maudlin ballads sung in trembling pathos. She would say to herself, “Cheap,” but did not know exactly what she meant.
She loved music even more than she loved books. She had a little library at home, culled from garbage pails or bought for a cent at Sunday school, and this consisted of a tattered copy of Quo Vadis?, a coverless collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets, David Copperfield, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and a sifting ancient Bible with print so small that it strained even her young eyesight. She read these over and over, elated to find something new at each reading. But she had little time to read.
As she passed the various hous
The longest street in Preston boasted the “finest houses in town,” houses standing arrogantly beyond careful lawns and with trees plated with dusty gold. There were water troughs for horses here, and carriage blocks, and narrow gardens behind the houses. Ellen would look at the houses with pleasure, and without envy, for she knew nothing of envy and was incapable of it. Somewhere, she insistently believed, there was a house like these waiting for her, with cool dim interiors, portieres, lace-covered windows, rich carpets and polished floors and carved doors.
She came on a lawn in which little white daisies crouched in the grass. She immediately knelt to examine them, and was filled with delight. She touched one or two flowers with the gentle finger of love and awe. The satin petals immediately conveyed to her the euphony of music, infinite dulcitude; the diapason of perfection. She gazed, marveling, at the minute golden hearts, powdered with an infinitude of almost microscopic points. It never occurred to her to pick one, to ravish one with death. They had their being, which no one should violate. She could not put these thoughts into actual words, but the emotion was there.
As she knelt there on the grass, her hair a tumbling effulgence in the sunlight, a handsome carriage rolled along the street, containing a middle-aged man and a youth of about twenty-two. The latter was holding the reins of two black horses with gleaming hides. He pulled the horses almost to a halt as he saw the girl. “What a beauty!” he exclaimed to his companion, who looked past him at the girl.
by Taylor Caldwell / Literature & Fiction / Historical Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes