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Authors: Jane Langton

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The Transcendental Murder

BOOK: The Transcendental Murder

The Transcendental Murder

Jane Langton


Open Road Integrated Media Ebook

For Grace Brown Gillson and Joseph Lincoln Gillson

Ruth Wheeler of Fairhaven Bay is in no way responsible for the wild idea behind this book, but her knowledge of Henry Thoreau in Concord was a great help in the writing of
The Transcendental Murder.


Homer Kelly … celebrated Emersonian scholar. (In his opinion Concord was a polite little suburban pest-hole, living on its picayune history. It made him sick.)

Mary Morgan … Concord? Mary would never have said as much out loud, but she felt herself walking on holy ground. (Looking at her, Homer found himself mumbling a phrase by Thoreau, “The eye is the jewel of the body.”)

Arthur Furry … Honor Scout. (Practically a witness to the murder at the North Bridge on the anniversary of the celebrated Battle of April 19th, 1775.)

Alice Herpitude … Head Librarian, Concord Public Library. (
Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me

Teddy Staples … stone mason, bird-watcher, modest reincarnation of Henry Thoreau.

Ernest Goss … owner of the letters that were “transcendental dynamite,” father of Charley, Philip, Rowena and Edith.

Elizabeth Goss … wife of Ernest. (No real tears, no true laughter.)

Charley Goss … impersonator of Dr. Samuel Prescott, Concord hero of 1775 who sped Paul Revere's news to Concord and rallied the Minute Men. Charley's feet, alas, were clay.

Philip Goss … by contrast with his brother's, Philip's feet were of some noble material, surely, and set on rising ground.

Rowena Goss … beautiful sister of Charley and Philip.
(Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel

Edith Goss … ugly sister of Charley and Philip.

Thomas Hand … farmer, chairman of April 19th celebrations.

Gwen Hand … wife of Tom, mother of Annie, John, Freddie, expectant mother of a fourth child. (But surely not now, as the wind rises?)

Mrs. Florence Hand … with her son, Tom, real “Old Concord,” true squeezings from the Concord grape.

Howard Swan … chairman of the Alcott Association, Moderator of Town Meetings. (Nobly bald, like Bronson Alcott.)


Roland Granville-Galsworthy … self-styled, Oxford don.

The Concord Independent Battery … good fellows all, guardians of the two historic cannon fired at the North Bridge.

James Flower … Chief of Concord Police. (Nine inches under the required minimum height, a failing counterbalanced by competence, personality and a special dispensation of the Legislature.)

The District Attorney of Middlesex County … (Frightened of cows.)

The Governor of Massachusetts … (Fond of Longfellow.)

… and not to be forgotten—the august wraiths of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Louisa May Alcott and Emily Dickinson.…

Chapter 1

Those whom we can love, we can hate; to others we are indifferent.

There was a big man sitting at the other end of the table in the reference room of the Concord Library when Mary came in and put down her file. He had a safety pin on one side of his glasses and adhesive tape on the other. His necktie was allover butterflies. He glanced up at her briefly. He had to look way up, because Mary was six feet tall. For a minute as she settled down with her book she thought about the sharp look of his small eye and the sawn piece of brown hair hanging across the top of his face. Then she got to work.

Memoirs of the Social Circle in Concord, 1895–1909.
Read the memoir on Sam Staples, who locked up Henry Thoreau in 1846 for not paying any poll tax to a government that countenanced the Fugitive Slave Law and war with Mexico. Read it and stop playing around. Look at Sam's chin-whiskery face. Look for references to your ladies. Did Sam know Elizabeth Hoar, Margaret Fuller, Lidian Emerson? Of course there was no hope that any of them knew Emily Dickinson, glorifying Amherst only one hundred miles away. Sam must have known Sophia Peabody Hawthorne. (Peabody. Was the accent on the first syllable or should you come down hard on the penult, too? If a bag of salted penults costs five cents, how much for a bag of antepenults?)

Mary closed her book with a bang. Come now. It's just this sort of thing that keeps you from getting anything done. Concentrate. What about those female Norcross cousins that Emily Dickinson had in Concord? Did she ever come to visit them? Did the Norcross sisters have any male relatives in the
Social Circle?
Mary ran her finger down the list. No Norcrosses here. Try another volume. She got up and looked through Volumes I and II. No luck. Vaguely she looked around for Volume III.

“Here,” said the man at the table, “what name are you looking for?”

Mary stared at him. He had it. “Norcross,” she mumbled.

His big thumb flipped the book open at the list of memoirs in the front. “Not here,” he said. Then he snapped the book shut and went back to his notes.

Well. That was that. Mary would have liked to look for herself. But she said, “Thank you,” and turned to something else. She found Edward Emerson's book about his father and spent her morning on it. Her beautiful free morning. Even with her eyes on the page she was conscious of the way the stranger at the other end of the table used his books. It was a subject on which she was a connoisseur. All the other days of the week Mary stood behind the charging desk, a guardian of the books in the library rather than a reader. And so she knew them all—the magazine leafer, the morning-paper reader, the homework doer, the author of a talk on Concord gardens of yesteryear. This man knew what he was looking for, where to find it and how to take it away. He made notes in a rapid scrawl on a pad of lined paper. He hauled a sheaf of papers out of his briefcase, ran swiftly through them, extracted one and scribbled across the top. Once he snorted to himself. Something was funny.

Edward Emerson wasn't. He was reverent. No one who had known Ralph Waldo Emerson was ever anything else. Usually Mary felt reverent, too. But now she would have loved a breath of Emersonian scandal. She hung her feet in their big tennis shoes on the rung of her chair, and hunched her shoulders over her book. The man pushed back his chair and got up. He rose and rose and blotted out the window. Mary looked up in spite of herself. Tall enough, she thought, then checked herself savagely, and glared back at Edward Emerson. The man went out.

Mary got up, too, after a while, and left the reference room. She crossed the main room with its check-out desk, its balconies, its white busts of Henry Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott and Bronson Alcott and Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar and its great seated statue of Emerson and went into her own office to eat her paperbag lunch. She left the door open and looked out at Nathaniel Hawthorne's naked classical collarbone. For Mary the Concord Public Library was a pleasure dome and palace of delight. The high dusty ceiling might have been a sultan's canopy, the stern Carrara Transcendentalists so many dancing girls. Mary had caught the transcendental fever long ago, and she planned never to recover. She was writing a book now about the women, taking her time, still reading at random. She had happy thoughts and rattled them out on her typewriter. Everything she wrote was covered over with a film of sweetness, and whenever she read it she licked the sugar. Later it would not be so. She knew how the sugary bits would not fit in, and the grandiose ideas would turn insubstantial. But now it was all sugar, sweet sugar. Mary stared at the wall, put down her sandwich, and turned to her typewriter—

Thoreau made glorious stabs at verse, near-misses. It took an Emily Dickinson to transfix the Transcendental Idea with the hard small shot of her poetry. But how alike are some of their images! Compare Emily's

Split the Lark—and you'll find the Music—

Bulb after Bulb, in Silver rolled—

with Henry Thoreau's

The air over these fields is a foundry full of moulds
for casting bluebirds' warbles.

Mary jumped. “What?” Someone was standing behind her. It was the big man from the reference room. Had he been reading over her shoulder? What was the big idea?

He stuck out a drawer from the card catalogue and pointed to a card.
Thoreau the Poet-Naturalist
, by Channing. “Where is it?”

He might have said please. Mary gave him her big kindly smile and pointed him in the right direction.

A moment later he was back. “Not there.”

“Perhaps Miss Herpitude can help you,” said Mary, wishing he would go away. Then she repented. How could he know it was her day off? “Do you know Jetsom's new book?” she said.

“Jetsom? Which Jetsom?”

Which Jetsom? Why didn't he look it up? Mary looked at her typewriter. “F.A. Jetsom,” she said carefully.

He went out, but a moment later he was back, looking at her suspiciously. “You mean R.F. Jetsom, don't you? Ralph Framingham Jetsom,
Thoreau at Harvard?

“No,” said Mary. “I mean that other Jetsom. F for Flotsam, A for And.” She banged out a sentence of gibberish on her typewriter, then looked up to find him still there. She put her glasses on. “It's my day off,” she said humbly.

She was like a big untidy flower, the man decided, one of those red and white striped carnations named after Mrs. Jocelyn Pope Hopewell or Mrs. Eisenhower Roosevelt Jones, or a sort of bouquet with a couple of fringed gentians in the middle, whatever a fringed gentian looked like, but probably like those black eyelashes hanging down like tassels over those blue eyes. “The eye is the jewel of the body,” he murmured to himself, quoting Henry Thoreau.

“What's that?” said Mary. Some insult, no doubt.

“I said, all right for you.” He turned on his heel and went out of the room.

Mary took the pickle out of her lunchbag and took a bite. She was surprised to find that what was shaping up in her mind was that tiresome triumphal arch again. It was part of the baggage that followed her around. There it was, with all its gear, the colossal cornice and the coffered barrel vaults and the channeled pilasters and the gesturing statuary and the streaked marble columns. And through the opening that same tedious procession was passing, splendid with banners and horns and horsemen in red and blue and gold. What was it for? Who were they? Where were they going? The man on the biggest horse, the one who was looking at her, had a face now, the face of the man with the basso profundo voice. Hey, get out of there. That's my private triumphal arch, my private horses and horns and my red and blue outfits. Go away.

Chapter 2

I have travelled a good deal in Concord.
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