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7. THE PERFECTIONIST (2)


Teddy ate like a little pig. When he had finished he lay down on the floor of the pantry with a resolute air. My aunt had to carry him into the dining-room and deposit him in a sunny spot near her easel. He was asleep and snoring before I left the room.

We had lunch late that day, almost two-thirty in the afternoon, so Aunt Muriel would be able to take full advantage of Teddy’s lethargy. I was hungry, and Amy had prepared a really snazzy (17) meal, centering around fried chicken Southern style. As a result, it wasn’t until I had finished with the fresh peach mousse that I paid much attention to my aunt. Then I saw that she was looking distracted and morose.

«Didn’t the drawing go well this morning, Aunt Muriel?», I asked.

She shook her head until the pendants of her bright earrings jangled violently.

«No, Charles, it did not. Teddy –». She halted, looking very sad.

«What was the matter? Wouldn’t he stay asleep?».

If my aunt had been a different type of woman she would have laughed sardonically. As it was, she gave a tiny, delicate snort.

«Oh, he slept», she replied. «Yes, he slept. But he kept twitching and jumping and panting in his sleep until – well, really, Charles, it was quite impossible. Like trying to draw an aspen in a high wind!».

«That’s too bad. I guess you’ll have to find another subject».

For a moment my aunt did not answer. Looking at her, I thought I caught the glint of tears in her eyes.

«Yes», she replied slowly, «I guess I will ... I think, Charles, I’ll go into town this afternoon and buy a few little things for Teddy».

For a moment something cold slid up and down my spine. Then it was gone, and I was thinking it was nice of the old girl, considering how much store she set by her drawing, not to be annoyed at the little dog ...

She came up to my room just before dinner and showed me what she’d bought for Teddy. There was a bright red collar with a little bell, a chocolate-flavored rubber bone, and a box of some confection called «Dog Treet», which, according to the label, was a wholesome sweetmeat for pets.

She put the collar on Teddy while I watched and then gave him two of the dark brown lozenges out of the «Dog Treet» box. He ate them with a flurry of little growls, and seemed to relish them. ...

Sunday morning I sat around, nursing the old bones until my watch told me it was time to get going if I didn’t want to be late for the all-day hike Drake and I had planned with the girls.

We had a fine time in the country. Drake wandered into a thicket of poison oak, and Virginia, giggling, dropped a woolly caterpillar down my neck.

It was quite dark when I returned to the house. Even before I got inside I noticed that all the lights were on and that there was a general air of confusion.

When I opened the door I found Aunt Muriel standing in the hallway, having what looked like a fit. Amy was standing before her waving a bottle of smelling salts.

«It’s Teddy!», my aunt gasped when she saw me. «Oh, Charles, he’s –».

I put my arm around her comfortingly, and my aunt dissolved into tears. They began to trickle over the coating of talcum powder on her cheeks and drop on the high net collar around her neck.

«It’s Teddy», she whimpered. «Oh, Charles, he’s dead!».

I’d been expecting it subconsciously, but all the same I jumped.

«What happened?», I asked.

«I let him out in the yard for a little run about three hours ago. He was gone a long time, and at last I went out to look for him. I called and called and finally I found him out under the rhododendron. He was awfully sick. So I came right in and called the doctor, but when he got here, poor little Teddy – was – was gone. Somebody must have poisoned him». She began to cry again.

I stroked my aunt’s shoulder and murmured reassuring words while my mind was busy. Some one of the neighbors? Teddy had been a quiet little beast, but he did bark once in a while, and some people just don’t like dogs.

«Dr. Jones was ever so nice and sympathetic about it. He took poor little Teddy away in a bag. He’s going to take him to a man he knows and have him stuffed».

Stuffed? I felt sweat break out along my shoulder blades and under my arms. Mechanically I pulled the handkerchief out of my hip pocket and handed it to my aunt.

She took it and began to blot her eyes. «It’s such a comfort to me, anyway», she said, blowing her nose, «to think that he did – enjoy his – last day – on earth».

I took her up to her room and mixed her a bromide. I stood over her while she drank and talked to her soothingly and patted her hand. After a while I got her calm enough so I could go to my room.

I lay down on the bed and stared up at the spots on the ceiling for a while. My heart was beating hard and quick. Pretty soon I reached in my coat pocket for cigarettes and began to smoke.

I emptied the pack while I lay there, looking at the ceiling, not thinking about anything, keeping my mind back, with an effort that was barely conscious, from the edge of something I didn’t want to explore. About twelve I undressed and went to bed.

I felt soggy (18) the next day. I’d slept, but it hadn’t done me any good. Aunt Muriel came in later after I’d pushed aside my toast. She was red-eyed. I said good morning and went out into the garden.

The day was muggy and overcast, and I didn’t feel like doing much, anyhow. I disbudded peonies for a while and clipped off seed pods; then I decided to give the Oriental cherries a light going over with the pruning shears. It ought to have been done earlier. When I’d finished, I went into the shed for some linseed oil and bordeaux to mix a poultice for their wounds.

Reaching for the can of bordeaux, an unfamiliar gleam in the corner behind it caught my eyes. It was a can of arsenate of lead. The label bore the usual skull and crossbones. I opened the can. About a quarter of an inch of the poison was gone.

It might have been in the shed before, of course; I wasn’t sure it hadn’t been. I held on to that idea: I wasn’t sure.

I don’t know what I did the rest of the day. I must have pottered around in the garden, trying not to think, until dinner time. Aunt Muriel came to the window once and asked me if I didn’t want any lunch, and I said I wasn’t hungry.

I guess she spent the day looking at Teddy’s box in the living room.

Well, I got over it. Two or three days later, when Teddy came back from the taxidermist’s, I’d pushed the whole thing back so far in my mind that my reaction had begun to seem slightly comic as well as inexplicable.

Even when Aunt Muriel got her pencils and started on an endless series of sketches of the little stuffed animal, it was all right with me. If anyone had asked me, I’d have said it was only natural for her to want to draw the pet of which she’d been so fond.

While she drew Teddy over and over again, I started re-roofing the house. It was a rough job because it was full of old-fashioned turrets and cupolas, and the summer was well along before I finished.

Aunt Muriel kept urging me to relax, but I just couldn’t be quiet.

After the roof, I started a lath house in back for seedlings. Virginia and I were dating almost every night, and I told myself I was feeling fine. I did notice a slight, steady loss of weight, but I pretended it was due to my smoking too much.

One hot night toward the end of August, my aunt got out the packet of drawings she’d made of Teddy, and I went over them with her.

«I think I’ll try a few more», she said when I’d laid the last sketch aside. «And then – well, I must get something else». She looked sad.

«Yes», I said noncommittally. The subject made me uneasy, somehow. But so thoroughly had I repressed my awareness, I had no idea why.

«Charles», she said after a minute. She was looking more depressed than ever. «You’ve made an old woman very happy. This Virginia you’ve been going around with so much – are you fond of her?».

«Why – unh – yes. Yes, I am».

«Well, I’ve been thinking. Would you like it, Charles, if – if I were to advance you the money to set up a little nursery business here in Downie? You seem to have a real talent for that sort of thing. I’d miss you, of course, but if you wanted to – I’m sure you’d be happy with Virginia, and –». She choked up and couldn’t go on. The old darling! I went around to her side of the table and gave her a hug and kiss. I managed to tell her how happy it would make me and how much I’d been wanting to do just what she suggested. A business of my own, and Virginia for a wife! She was better than a fairy godmother.

We sat up late discussing plans for the nursery – location, stock, advertising, policy – items that I found fascinating, and Aunt Muriel seemed to enjoy listening to.

When I went upstairs to bed, I was feeling so elated I didn’t think I could ever go to bed. I whistled while I undressed. And, despite my expectations, I corked off (19) almost as soon as my head hit the pillow.

I awoke about three in the morning, my mind filled with an unalterable conviction. It was as if what I’d only suspected, what I’d made myself forget, had added itself up and become, while I slept, an unyielding certainty. I sat on the edge of the bed in my pajamas, shivering.

Aunt Muriel was going to kill me. Lovingly, regretfully, she was going to put poison in my food or in my drink. Lovingly, regretfully, she was going to watch my agonies or smooth my pillow.

With tears in her eyes, she would delay calling the doctor until it was too late. She’d be most unhappy over the whole thing. And, after I was dead, she’d give me to the best mortician in Downie to embalm.

A week later, after drawing me for eighteen hours daily, she’d consign me to the earth, still regretfully, but with her regret a little alleviated by the knowledge that my last days on earth had been happy ones. The nursery business and the marriage with Virginia Drake were, you see, to be the equivalent for me of Teddy’s red collar and chocolate-flavored bone. I went over my chain of reasoning rapidly. It was flawless. But there was one tiling more – I had to see for myself.

I drew on my bathrobe and tiptoed along the corridor and down the back stairs. When I got into the shed, I lighted matches and looked until I found the spot on the shelf behind the can of bordeaux where the arsenate of lead should have been. It wasn’t there.

Back in my room, I dressed, threw things into my suitcase, and exited in the classical way. That is, I knotted sheets together, tied them to the four-poster bed, and slid down them to the ground. I caught the five-thirty train for the city at the station.

I never heard from Aunt Muriel again. After I got to L.A. (20) I wrote a few cards to Virginia, without any address, just to let her know I hadn’t forgotten her. After a while I got into private employment and met a nice girl. One thing led to another, and we got married.

But there’s one thing I’d give a good deal to know. What did Aunt Muriel draw next?

 

Margaret St. Clair, a modern American short story writer.

 

READING NOTES.

 

1. she ran to italics: she was very emphatic and emotional.

2. old girl (coll): an elderly woman.

3. she’d been held together by whalebone: she’d been kept in one piece by tight corsets stiffened with whalebone.

4. Pomeranian: a breed of long-haired dogs.

5. hiatus: a pause, gap.

6. make amends: make up (for a blunder, offense, loss, etc.).

7. brown study: deep thought.

8. nursery: a place where young plants are reared for transplanting.

9. gabfest (sl): a chat, talk.

10. post mortem: here it is used figuratively in the sense of «a discussion of something after it is ended», though what Aunt Muriel and Charles did was, actually, more like a medical examination of a dead body.

11. hold brief for: argue in favour of.

12. chump (coll): a fool; champion chump: a prize fool, idiot.

13. tops (sl): here the limit. Generally, the word stands for «the best of anything (either people or things)».

14. honey and claws: here sweetness and fight.

15. bear up: endure, hold out.

16. hamburger: finely chopped meat shaped into a round flat cake and fried.

17. snazzy (sl): attractive.

18. soggy (coll): low-spirited, depressed.

19. cork off (sl): fall asleep.

20. L.A.: an abbreviation for Los Angeles.

 

EXERCISES.

 

(a) Questions:

1. How did it happen that Charles went to stay with Aunt Muriel?

2. In what ways was Charles expected to make himself useful in Aunt Muriel’s house?

3. What was Aunt Muriel’s hobby?

4. What did Charles think of Aunt Muriel’s drawings?

5. What troubled Aunt Muriel most when drawing?

6. How did Charles feel chopping down the sapling?

7. Why did Charles think he ought to buy his aunt a present?

8. How did Aunt Muriel make the goldfish keep still?

9. What happened to Teddy?

10. What did Charles finally come to realize?

 

(b) Read through the story once again and see if you can find facts to prove that:

1. Charles had no choice other than accepting Aunt Muriel’s invitation.

2. Aunt Muriel really needed somebody to keep her company.

3. Drawing had become an obsession with Aunt Muriel.

4. Charles was fully justified in suspecting that Aunt Muriel had designs on his life.

5. Charles worked hard towards his upkeep.

 

(c) Talking points:

1. What do you believe was actually behind Aunt Muriel’s invitation to Charles to come and live at her place?

2. Imagine what happened when Aunt Muriel woke up in the morning to discover that Charles was gone.

3. Beggars can’t be choosers. Say whether you think the proverb can be applied to any of the situations described in the story. If so, which one.

4. The difference between a hobby and an obsession.

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