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Authors: Jane Langton

Tags: #Mystery, #Adult

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BOOK: The Transcendental Murder
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Howard Swan frowned. “The Chair recognizes you, Ernest,” he said.

Ernest had collected himself. He lifted his papers and began to make a speech. “Here in my hand I have the most amazing transcendental documents that have come to light since the death of Emerson. The only word to describe them is sensational. After they have been published, not one shred of present-day scholarship, no matter how eminent its authorship, will remain valid.” He gave a meaningful glance at Homer Kelly, who politely looked stupid. “These letters, which I intend to call the Ernest Goss Collection, will demand a completely new look at the nature of transcendental friendship and the relations between the sexes in what we used to regard as proper and puritanical New England …”

Mrs. Hand looked big-eyed at Mary and whispered at her. “Did he say the relations between the
sexes
?”

Teddy Staples leaned forward, bursting a seam across the back of his coat. “What in God's name are you g-g-getting at, Ernie?”

“Just listen to this,” said Ernest Goss. He put on his glasses and began to read, hemming and hawing a little at first, for effect. The letter was a shocker.

My dear Waldo,

Oh, thou, other half of my thought, other chamber of my heart! Thou the castle's King, I the Queen! Long have I waited in the dust to behold thy golden litter! At first I feared thou wert cold, but now thou hast raised me to reign in full-orbed glory beside thy infinite majesty! That thou shouldst have worshipped poor Mignon's body as well as her soul transports her humanity to heaven's height. O, what rapture in Mrs. O'Flannigan's back sitting-room! O, divine divan! I am chosen among women! And thou, O sage, hast a Queen for thy Soul-wife!

Lilacs perfume the air with ecstasy.

Margaret

But what of Lidian, who shares thy earthly home? Would a more transcendent honesty veil from her the dazzling light of Truth, lest it bring pain upon her lower nature?

Ernest Goss looked up, shook his head and made a ticking sound with his tongue. He looked around at a roomful of blinking eyes and drooping mouths.

“Who did you say that l-l-letter was written to?” mumbled Teddy Staples, looking sidewise at Mary.

“I said Emerson. Ralph Waldo Emerson.”

“You mean, our Ralph Waldo Emerson?” quavered Miss Herpitude.

“Of course I do. What other Ralph Waldo Emerson is there?”

Chapter 5

Miss B—
—,
a mantuamaker in Concord, became a ‘Medium,' and gave up her old trade for this new one; and is to charge a pistareen a spasm, and nine dollars for a fit. This is the Rat-revelation, the gospel that comes by taps in the wall, and thumps in the table-drawer.
RALPH WALDO EMERSON

Homer Kelly suddenly started laughing. He put his hand over his big ugly face and tried to mould it back into shape, shaking silently in his small chair.

Ernest Goss glared at him, and read the next letter stiffly. It was addressed to “My dear Henry,” and it was written in the oblique language of transcendentalist correspondence. But in it the writer gave Henry leave to love her, begging only that he lift his regard for her to the same level of lofty and contemplative affection with which he regarded the stars and the moon and the sun. It was signed, “Your loving friend, Lidian Jackson Emerson.” Breaths were sucked in.

But that wasn't all. There was a trashy bit of sentimental hero worship from Louisa May Alcott to Henry Thoreau. (Mrs. Hand said distinctly, “That's preposterous.”) And there was a glorious elliptical impassioned transfigured love message, half broken poetry, which Ernest described as a letter from Henry Thoreau to one Miss Emily Dickinson at Amherst. “I love thee not as something private and personal, which is your own, but as something universal and worthy of love, which I have found …”

Homer Kelly listened to them all tensely, trying not to shake. But Mary seized on the idea of Henry and Emily, and thought it over. Was it, after all, so preposterous? The two of them had been alike in some ways—both had found satisfaction in seclusion, they had been tuned with the same rapt alertness to the symbolic lessons of nature, and now their two reputations overshadowed all the rest—Longfellow's, Lowell's, even Emerson's. And Emily had been in the habit of writing to at least one literary mentor for guidance—might she not have seen Henry's contributions to Margaret Fuller's
Dial?
She had read
Walden!
Might she not have written to him, might they not then have found one another out? What if they had!

Ernest Goss had still one more letter. Homer Kelly listened to it all the way through, doubting his ears, and then, looking at the stupefied faces of the members of the Alcott Association, sitting bolt upright at attention in Mrs. Alcott's chairs, he lost control of himself altogether and had to leave the room, ducking out into the hall and gasping behind the stairs. Margaret Fuller was scribbling away again, throwing her somewhat frayed bonnet full force at Nathaniel Hawthorne. He was her winged sphinx, his stories reminded her of her own deepest mood—they were moonlit, mesmeric. She wished him to know that she was high priestess of a secret cult called the
Exaltadas
, harbingers of a new era of mystic spiritual discovery, and glorious bodily health through psychodunamy, the science of drawing pain from the limbs by the power of the soul. It had been her constant observation, ever since that day when she had reclined with Nathaniel in Sleepy Hollow cemetery, that her electric fluid flowed more freely into him than into any other person of the opposite sex. Ever since he had permitted her to make a phrenological examination of his skull, she had known that they were kin. Those colossal protuberances! Amativeness, Ideality, Adhesiveness, Intellect! So like her own! Should not two such natures, mutually magnetized, become One?

“Oh, really, that's going too far.” Miss Herpitude looked intensely distressed.

It was the end. There was a terrible silence.

“Is that all, Ernie, or do you have a b-b-billy doo from Mary Magdalene to Jesus Christ?”

Howard Swan rose to his feet. “All right, Ernie, I'm going to ask you to resign the floor now. We appreciate your sense of humor. It was very funny indeed. Where in heaven's name did you get all that trash?”

Ernest Goss was wounded. He bristled with pomposity. “I am not at liberty to reveal the source of my discoveries. I have kept these letters to myself until now so that you people could have the honor of hearing them first, before I prepare them for publication. It's obvious to me that the Alcott Association doesn't appreciate the honor. Very well, I won't bore you with them any longer.”

“Oh, for God's sake, Ernie, you know they're forgeries. I can't believe you can be taken in by such tripe. Here, let me see them.”

Huffily, Goss held the letters behind his back. “I tell you they are genuine.” He picked up his briefcase from the floor, stuffed the papers into it, snapped the fastenings and buckled the straps.

“Ernie, be reasonable.” Most of the Alcott Association was standing up, arguing with him. Mary sat in her chair thinking up headlines. (
FREE LOVE IN CONCORD. SCANDALOUS DOCUMENTS INVOLVE CONCORD SAGE.
)

“At least you'll submit them to some sort of expert opinion before you put them in print,” urged Howard Swan. “Someone at the Houghton Library, a handwriting expert,
somebody?
” He appealed to Homer Kelly, who had come back, wiping his eyes. “Come now, Professor Kelly, give us your opinion.”

“My God,” said Homer Kelly. “The language, the high-flown tone! O divine divan!” He burst into guffaws again, and slapped his knee.

Howard Swan made a gesture of annoyance, and started to shout. He was angry, very angry. And then suddenly the whole room was in an uproar. Teddy Staples had had enough. What was needed was a-a-action. He walked up to Ernie and snatched at his briefcase. It was an old one, and one end of the handle came off in his hand. Ernie jerked it away again. “You can't do it, Ernie!” yelled Teddy. He attached himself to one of the straps and yanked on it with all his might. Alice Herpitude pitched in. She put her arms around Teddy's waist, dug her heels in the rug and pulled. It was a tug of war. But then the other end of the handle broke, the rug went
swoop
and the briefcase socked Teddy in the jaw. He went reeling back on Miss Herpitude, who staggered to the rear, bristling with Teddy's popped staples. She sat down on old Mr. Pusey, who woke up and barked. Ernest Goss fell backward into the piano again, fortissimo. He regained his balance with an E-flat chord and lunged at Teddy. Teddy was half-stunned, and without too much trouble Ernie extricated his briefcase from Teddy's limp fingers and scrambled out of the house. Howard Swan hurried out after him. The meeting broke up in a shambles.

Chapter 6

Hosmer is overhauling a vast heap of manure in the rear of his barn, turning the ice within it up to the light; yet he asks despairingly what life is for.
HENRY THOREAU

Spring seemed grudgingly held behind Winter's back. Mary woke up on Saturday to a world of Venetian glass. The temperature had hovered around 32 for a week, and the rain had frozen in a crystal casing on everything. The least twig of every tree was reproduced in ice. Instead of flinging out their arms in the irregular wild gesture Mary loved, the tall pines across Barrett's Mill Road drooped their heavily burdened branches. The river below Tom's fields was buckled and pock-marked, useless for skating. The driving was a scandal. But the ground was beginning to soften up under the frozen slush, and Tom, anxious to get his com and cabbages in at the earliest possible moment, was spending his days in the tractor shed taking his machines apart. He was the kind of mechanic who usually had his vehicles dismembered when they were most needed, and both his wife and his mother had nagged him into an orgy of greasy diagnosis and surgery. Around eleven o'clock the Goss brothers stopped by to talk to him, firming up plans for the April 19th celebration. Mary picked up Gwen's youngest boy, Freddy, and slid across the road to the tractor shed with a thermos of coffee. “Don't let him stop working while he talks,” said Gwen.

“Tom, you haven't got both engines out, not again?” said Charley.

Tom, his hairy chest showing at the top of his union suit, wrestled with the last intestinal connection, then hauled on the winch. The engine of the John Deere sailed up into the gloom. “Needs an overhaul,” he said. He lowered it gently to the floor and detached the giant hook. Freddy wanted to play with the engine, but Mary wouldn't let him.

“Concord Independent Battery going to be up to its old tricks, Philip?” said Tom.

“The usual thing, I guess,” said Philip.

“You know the old saying,” said Charley. “It's a wet cell, not a dry battery, whaddaya say, Philip?”

“We'll do our duty anyway, I guess,” said Philip.

Tom reviewed the order of events. “Battery cannon fire sunrise salute at the North Bridge. Then the Battery leads off the parade at 9
A.M.,
fires a salute again during the Bridge ceremony at 10:30, then you fellas are off to the Rod and Gun Club to drink lunch. Right? Got your cannons shined up? Hired your horses yet?” Mary loved the way Tom talked. He said “hosses” for “horses.”

“It gets harder every year,” said Philip. “We've got promises from a couple of retired icemen and a garbage-collecting outfit.”

“I always expect every year you're going to blow each other up,” said Tom cheerfully.

“You sound as though you hope we will,” said Philip.

“It'd sure put some pep in it,” said Tom. “Your father still on the active list?”

“Father?” said Charley, with some sarcasm. “He wouldn't miss a chance to strut for the world. He's the rammer on Philip's gun.”

“What does the rammer do?” said Mary.

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