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When Anne arrived at the Cyrus Taylor house the next evening she felt the chill in the atmosphere as soon as she entered the door. A trim maid showed her up to the guest room but as Anne went up the stairs she caught sight of Mrs. Cyrus Taylor scuttling from the dining-room to the kitchen and Mrs. Cyrus was wiping tears away from her pale, careworn, but still rather sweet face. It was all too clear that Cyrus had not yet “got over” the nightshirt.
This was confirmed by a distressed Trix creeping into the room and whispering nervously,
“Oh, Anne, he’s in a dreadful humor. He seemed pretty amiable this morning and our hopes rose. But Hugh Pringle beat him at a game of checkers this afternoon and Papa can’tbear to lose a checker game. And it had to happen today, of course.
He found Esme ‘admiring herself in the mirror,’ as he put it, and just walked her out of her room and locked the door. The poor darling was only wondering if he looked nice enough to please Lennox Carter, Ph.D. She hadn’t even a chance to put her pearl string on. And look at me. I didn’t dare curl my hair . . . Papa doesn’t like curls that are not natural . . . and I look like a fright. Not that it matters about me . . . only it just shows you. Papa threw out the flowers Mamma put on the dining-room table and she feels it so . . . she took such trouble with them . . . and he wouldn’t let her put on her garnet earrings. He hasn’t had such a bad spell since he came home from the west last spring and found Mamma had put red curtains in the sitting-room, when he preferred mulberry. Oh, Anne, do talk as hard as you can at dinner, if he won’t. If you don’t, it will be too dreadful.”
“I’ll do my best,” promised Anne, who certainly had never found herself at a loss for something to say. But then never had she found herself in such a situation as presently confronted her.
They were all gathered around the table . . . a very pretty and well appointed table in spite of the missing flowers. Timid Mrs. Cyrus, in a gray silk dress, had a face that was grayer than her dress. Esme, the beauty of the family . . . a very pale beauty, pale gold hair, pale pink lips, pale forget-me-not eyes . . . was so much paler than usual that she looked as if she were going to faint. Pringle, ordinarily a fat, cheerful urchin of fourteen, with round eyes and glasses and hair so fair it looked almost white, looked like a tied dog, and Trix had the air of a terrified school-girl.60
Dr. Carter, who was undeniably handsome and distinguished-looking, with crisp dark hair, brilliant dark eyes and silver-rimmed glasses, but whom Anne, in the days of his Assistant Professorship at Redmond, had thought a rather pompous young bore, looked ill at ease. Evidently he felt that something was wrong somewhere . . . a reasonable conclusion when your host simply stalks to the head of the table and drops into his chair without a word to you or anybody.
Cyrus would not say grace. Mrs. Cyrus, blushing beet-red, murmured almost inaudibly, “For what we are about to receive the Lord make us truly thankful.”
The meal started badly by nervous Esme dropping her fork on the floor.
Everybody except Cyrus jumped, because their nerves were likewise keyed up to the highest pitch. Cyrus glared at Esme out of his bulging blue eyes in a kind of enraged stillness. Then he glared at everybody and froze them into dumbness. He glared at poor Mrs. Cyrus, when she took a helping of horseradish sauce, with a glare that reminded her of her weak stomach. She couldn’t eat any of it after that . . . and she was so fond of it. She didn’t believe it would hurt her. But for that matter she couldn’t eat anything, nor could Esme. They only pretended. The meal proceeded in a ghastly silence, broken by spasmodic speeches about the weather from Trix and Anne. Trix implored Anne with her eyes to talk, but Anne found herself for once in her life with absolutely nothing to say. She felt desperately that she must talk, but only the most idiotic things came into her head . . . things it would be impossible to utter aloud. Was everyone bewitched? It was curious, the effect one sulky, stubborn man had on you. Anne couldn’t have believed it possible. And there was no doubt that he was really quite happy in the knowledge that he had made everybody at his table horribly uncomfortable. What on earth was going on in his mind? Would he jump if any one stuck a pin in him? Anne wanted to slap him . . . rap his knuckles . . . stand him in a corner . . . treat him like the spoiled child he really was, in spite of his spiky gray hair and truculent mustache.
Above all she wanted to make him speak. She felt instinctively that nothing in the world would punish him so much as to be tricked into speaking when he was determined not to.
Suppose she got up and deliberately smashed that huge, hideous, old-fashioned vase on the table in the corner . . . an ornate thing covered with wreaths of roses and leaves which it was most difficult to dust but which must be kept immaculately clean. Anne knew that the whole family hated it, but Cyrus Taylor would not hear of having it banished to the attic, because it had been his mother’s. Anne thought she would do it fearlessly if she really believed that it would make Cyrus explode into vocal anger.61
Why didn’t Lennox Carter talk? If he would, she, Anne, could talk, too, and perhaps Trix and Pringle would escape from the spell that bound them and some kind of conversation would be possible. But he simply sat there and ate. Perhaps he thought it was really the best thing to do . . . perhaps he was afraid of saying something that would still further enrage the evidently already enraged parent of his lady.
“Will you please start the pickles, Miss Shirley?” said Mrs. Taylor faintly.
Something wicked stirred in Anne. She started the pickles . . . and something else. Without letting herself stop to think she bent forward, her great, gray-green eyes glimmering limpidly, and said gently,
“Perhaps you would be surprised to hear, Dr. Carter, that Mr. Taylor went deaf very suddenly last week?”
Anne sat back, having thrown her bomb. She could not tell precisely what she expected or hoped. If Dr. Carter got the impression that his host was deaf instead of in a towering rage of silence, it might loosen his tongue. She had not told a falsehood . . . she had not said Cyrus Taylor was deaf. As for Cyrus Taylor, if she had hoped to make him speak she had failed. He merely glared at her, still in silence.
But Anne’s remark had an effect on Trix and Pringle that she had never dreamed of. Trix was in a silent rage herself. She had, the moment before Anne had hurled her rhetorical question, seen Esme furtively wipe away a tear that had escaped from one of her despairing blue eyes. Everything was hopeless . . . Lennox Carter would never ask Esme to marry him now . . . it didn’t matter any more what any one said or did. Trix was suddenly possessed with a burning desire to get square with her brutal father. Anne’s speech gave her a weird inspiration, and Pringle, a volcano of suppressed impishness, blinked his white eyelashes for a dazed moment and then promptly followed her lead. Never, as long as they might live, would Anne, Esme or Mrs. Cyrus forget the dreadful quarter of an hour that followed.
“Such an affliction for poor papa,” said Trix, addressing Dr. Carter across the table. “And him only sixty-eight.”
Two little white dents appeared at the corners of Cyrus Taylor’s nostrils when he heard his age advanced six years. But he remained silent.62
“It’s such a treat to have a decent meal,” said Pringle, clearly and distinctly.
“What would you think, Dr. Carter, of a man who makes his family live on fruit and eggs . . . nothing but fruit and eggs . . . just for a fad?”
“Does your father . . . ?” began Dr. Carter bewilderedly.
“What would you think of a husband who bit his wife when she put up curtains he didn’t like . . . deliberately bit her?” demanded Trix.
“Till the blood came,” added Pringle solemnly.
“Do you mean to say your father . . . ?”
“What would you think of a man who would cut up a silk dress of his wife’s just because the way it was made didn’t suit him?” said Trix.
“What would you think,” said Pringle, “of a man who refuses to let his wife have a dog?”
“When she would so love to have one,” sighed Trix.
“What would you think of a man,” continued Pringle, who was beginning to enjoy himself hugely, “who would give his wife a pair of goloshes for a Christmas present . . . nothing but a pair of goloshes?”
“Goloshes don’t exactly warm the heart,” admitted Dr. Carter. His eyes met Anne’s and he smiled. Anne reflected that she had never seen him smile before. It changed his face wonderfully for the better. What was Trix saying? Who would have thought she could be such a demon?
“Have you ever wondered, Dr. Carter, how awful it must be to live with a man who thinks nothing . . . nothing–of picking up the roast, if it isn’t perfectly done, and hurling it at the maid?”
Dr. Carter glanced apprehensively at Cyrus Taylor, as if he feared Cyrus might throw the skeletons of the chickens at somebody. Then he seemed to remember comfortingly that his host was deaf.
“What would you think of a man who believed the earth was flat?” asked Pringle.
Anne thought Cyrus would speak then. A tremor seemed to pass over his rubicund face, but no words came. Still, she was sure his mustaches were a little less defiant.63
“What would you think of a man who let his aunt . . . his only aunt . . . go to the poorhouse?” asked Trix.
“And pastured his cow in the graveyard?” said Pringle. “Summerside hasn’t got over that sight yet.”
“What would you think of a man who would write down in his diary every day what he had for dinner?” asked Trix.
“The great Pepys did that,” said Dr. Carter with another smile. His voice sounded as if he would like to laugh. Perhaps after all he was not pompous, thought Anne . . . only young and shy and overserious. But she was feeling positively aghast.
She had never meant things to go as far as this. She was finding out that it is much easier to start things than finish them. Trix and Pringle were being diabolically clever. They had not said that their father did a single one of these things. Anne could fancy Pringle saying, his round eyes rounder still with pretended innocence, “I just asked those questions of Dr. Carter for information.”
“What would you think,” kept on Trix, “of a man who opens and reads his wife’s letters?”
“What would you think of a man who would go to a funeral . . . his father’s funeral . . . in overalls?” asked Pringle.
What would they think of next? Mrs. Cyrus was crying openly and Esme was quite calm with despair. Nothing mattered any more. She turned and looked squarely at Dr. Carter, whom she had lost forever. For once in her life she was stung into saying a really clever thing.
“What,” she asked quietly, “would you think of a man who spent a whole day hunting for the kittens of a poor cat who had been shot, because he couldn’t bear to think of them starving to death?”
A strange silence descended on the room. Trix and Pringle looked suddenly ashamed of themselves. And then Mrs. Cyrus piped up, feeling it her wifely duty to back up Esme’s unexpected defense of her father.
“And he can crochet so beautifully . . . he made the loveliest centerpiece for the parlor table last winter when he was laid up with lumbago.”
Every one has some limit of endurance and Cyrus Taylor had reached his. He gave his chair such a furious backward push that it shot instantly across the64 polished floor and struck the table on which the vase stood. The table went over and the vase broke in the traditional thousand pieces. Cyrus, his bushy white eyebrows fairly bristling with wrath, stood up and exploded at last.
“I don’t crochet, woman! Is one contemptible doily going to blast a man’s reputation forever? I was so bad with that blamed lumbago I didn’t know what I was doing. And I’m deaf, am I, Miss Shirley? I’m deaf?”
“She didn’t say you were, Papa,” cried Trix, who was never afraid of her father when his temper was vocal.
“Oh, no, she didn’t say it. None of you said anything! You didn’t say I was sixtyeight when I’m only sixty-two, did you? You didn’t say I wouldn’t let your mother have a dog! Good Lord, woman, you can have forty thousand dogs if you want to and you know it! When did I ever deny you anything you wanted . . . when?”
“Never, Poppa, never,” sobbed Mrs. Cyrus brokenly. “And I never wanted a dog.
I never even thought of wanting a dog, Poppa.”
“When did I open your letters? When have I ever kept a diary? A diary! When did I ever wear overalls to anybody’s funeral? When did I pasture a cow in the graveyard? What aunt of mine is in the poorhouse? Did I ever throw a roast at anybody? Did I ever make you live on fruit and eggs?”
“Never, Poppa, never,” wept Mrs. Cyrus. “You’ve always been a good provider . . . the best.”
“Didn’t you tell me you wanted goloshes last Christmas?”
“Yes, oh, yes; of course I did, Poppa. And my feet have been so nice and warm all winter.”
“Well, then!” Cyrus threw a triumphant glance around the room. His eyes encountered Anne’s. Suddenly the unexpected happened. Cyrus chuckled. His cheeks actually dimpled. Those dimples worked a miracle with his whole expression. He brought his chair back to the table and sat down.
“I’ve got a very bad habit of sulking, Dr. Carter. Every one has some bad habit . . . that’s mine. The only one. Come, come, Momma, stop crying. I admit I deserved all I got except that crack of yours about crocheting. Esme, my girl, I won’t forget that you were the only one who stood up for me. Tell Maggie to65 come and clear up that mess . . . I know you’re all glad the darn thing is smashed . . . and bring on the pudding.”
Anne could never have believed that an evening which began so terribly could end up so pleasantly. Nobody could have been more genial or better company than Cyrus: and there was evidently no aftermath of reckoning, for when Trix came down a few evenings later it was to tell Anne that she had at last scraped up enough courage to tell her father about Johnny.
“Was he very dreadful, Trix?”
“He . . . he wasn’t dreadful at all,” admitted Trix sheepishly. “He just snorted and said it was about time Johnny came to the point after hanging around for two years and keeping every one else away. I think he felt he couldn’t go into another spell of sulks so soon after the last one. And you know, Anne, between sulks Papa really is an old duck.”
“I think he is a great deal better father to you than you deserve,” said Anne, quite in Rebecca Dew’s manner. “You were simply outrageous at that dinner, Trix.”
“Well, you know you started it,” said Trix. “And good old Pringle helped a bit.
All’s well that ends well . . . and thank goodness I’ll never have to dust that vase again.”
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