The Militant Maggot
A rollicking tale of a timid lover, a tempestuous parent and the perils of entomology
OCTAVIA GRESHAM polished off a little morsel by John Sebastian Bach, ended with a crashing, resonant chord that made seven musicians, including Gluck and Handel, roll over in their graves, and, turning gracefully on the piano stool, accepted the applause of the dozen or so music-lovers and their husbands who had been tricked into coming to Mrs. Sowers-Watkins’ delightful musicale.
In some of the eyes that focussed on her was wonder, in others amazement, in others homicide, but in the feeble blue orbs of Tracy Harkins was frank and un-
cualified adoration. Love—it was love, no less, that yc.ing Tracy Harkins felt for Octavia, though the expression on his face may have reminded cynical persons of a goat when he has consumed too many straw hats.
“Dee-vine,” breathed Tracy, sitting close to the aesthetic Octavia. “Simply dee-vine.”
“Do you think so, Tracy?” murmured the artiste, touching his hand lightly and still further demolishing his morale by throwing the full power of her jetty orbs upon him.
Not a bad-looking girl, Octavia; it was a pity that she preferred to be a terrible pianiste rather than just a good-looking girl. But, Tracy, having been unable since infancy to distinguish the strains of “God Save the King” from those of “The Campbells Are Coming,” was little concerned with her playing, in which wrong notes were as conspicuous as last year’s flies in a currant cake.
It was odd, too, that in spite of recent statistics putting the number of unmarried women at close to four millions, and the near certainty that 99 44-100 per cent of these were willing to commit matrimony—odd that Tracy should pick on a girl like Octavia Gresham who had been wooed in vain by thirteen young men and whose father was a terrible ogre who cut up tadpoles, newts, lizards and stray patients, and who couldn’t see any of his daughter’s many suitors through the strongest microscope he had in his laboratory.
But there you are—Tracy was wildly in love with the gipsy-like, raven-haired Octavia. Gazing raptly now on the carmine bud of her mouth, the columnar, snowy sweep of her neck, the . . . but why go on? Enough to say that, looking bemusedly upon her loveliness, Tracy cared nothing at all for the bruited fierceness of Professor Hapsby Gresham, the eminent biologist and surgeon. And it is quite safe to say that had the professor known of Tracy’s existence, he would have cared rather less for Tracy than for a five-days-old polliwog.
However, Tracy was very happy. Octavia’s slim hand rested on his arm as they strolled out into the garden, Octavia’s fragrant, lotus-like breath fanned his cheek while she talked. She had a charming habit of bending close to him when she spoke, thus giving a great touch of intimacy to a remark so banal as, “Don’t you just adore that last agitato?”
Tracy on her request would have adored toadstools, the way he felt now. It was only lately that she had called him Tracy; only lately that she had taken to hanging on his arm and on his rare observations. He was a man of few words, not through reticence, but because he really had very little to say. With Octavia, though, silence was his greatest charm. She loved to talk, to chatter like Lord Tennyson’s brook and, like it, to go on forever. You can imagine how far gone Tracy was when he found pleasure in listening to continuous speech in ten minute doses.
This night he felt masterful. There was a moon, several stars; there was a breeze. Back in the music-room of Mrs. Sowers-Watkins’ house an orchestra played the never-failing barcarolle of Offenbach, a great aid to young love and matrimony. Languorous, sensuous, ambrosial and worse, the saccharine tune drifted out to them where they stood in the shadow of the rhododendrons that bordered a small pond. Octavia, her eyes a-shine, listened breathlessly to the magic sounds. Tracy himself was moved—moved so far as to recall the Merchant of Venice, which he had studied his last year in High School. He quoted:
Soft stillness and the night Become the touches of sweet harmony. Here will we rest and let the sound Of music sweet creep in our ears . . .
It was a bench, not a grassy bank, to which he led her, but it served well. The heavenly music, the moon, the stars, the breeze, all got in their fell work; on such a night as this they could not fail. Tracy Harkins, having kissed Octavia, thought he would like to go on kissing her forever, and asked her to be his wife. To which, being a dutiful daughter, she said tritely and anachronistically: “You must see my father, Tracy, dear.”
Ay—there was the rub. Her father. Tracy had seen Professor Gresham at a distance; a huge, fiery-faced, white-mustached old gentleman who looked as if he had been a stevedore in his youth and could still swing a nasty hook to the jaw. Tracy didn’t want to see him again. True, Tracy had an income that, with careful budgetting, would suffice for two, but he also had a deep-rooted inferiority complex that Octavia’s confessed love, instead of transforming to an illusion of grandeur, merely succeeded in aggravating. Tracy was afraid of Professor Hapsby Gresham and all his degrees.
“Tracy!" Her face blanched as she discovered the havoc that had been wrought. The snakes had escaped!
“I—I’ll speak to him to-morrow,” he murmured. “I’d do anything for you, Octavia.”
AFTER a sleepless night, a bath and some ham and Lx. eggs and coffee, Tracy Harkins prepared to beard the lion in his den. He made several false starts; he quailed, he trembled, he couldn’t. It was bitter; but the idea of facing that roaring, blustering giant rendered him helpless. No; he’d persuade Octavia to elope, to do something that would save him from the professor’s certain wrath.
Just then the telephone rang.
“Tracy—” It was Octavia’s voice, nervous, quick. “Don’t come to the house. It’s no use. I’ll meet you down town in an hour—in the grill at Spencer Harrod’s. Be sure—” A sound like the closing up of the Red Sea on the scurrying minions of Pharaoh ended her talk. Tracy guessed rightly that the professor had roared. He turned away, weak and dejected, from the telephone, meditating upon the bumps that strew the course of true love. Büt what was it—? Had her father found out there was insanity or something in his family?
He was wretched when he met Octavia; even the sight of his beatific vision—sweet, voluble, volatile Octavia— did not restore him to normal. They satoijn a leathercushioned alcove and ate, for some reason, meringue glacée.
“Tracy,” said Octavia, toying with her meringue, “father has found out about—about us. He’s furious; smashing test-tubes and retorts in his laboratory and roaring like a lion with an ulcerated wisdom-tooth. O-oh, it’s awful. Some Mrs. Grundy must have spied on us and—”
“But—but what’s he got against me?” bleated Tracy.
“It’s your uncle, Cyrus Wilkes.”
“Uncle Cyrus! Why, what’s he got to do with it?”
“He’s a biologist, isn’t he?”
“I believe he—he’s kind of queer. Some sort of entomologist.”
“The facti s, he’s father’s rival. They’ve both been experimenting on the same thing—winged tadpoles or striped maggots or some such nonsense—each trying to outdo the other. They insult each other monthly in the Biological Review. Each promises a discovery that will completely demolish all rivals. They’ve been promising it for two years. And how they hate each other . . . !”
Tracy gasped. His face was very wan and pallid. He thrust away the meringue and lighted one of that brand of fags that is supposed to cover embarrassment. But he was very much upset. Here was a barrier that seemed insurmountable. His Uncle Cyrus was an old crab, but even so . . .
“Tracy,” said Octavia, her head perked on one side, a jet curl peeping out under her hat brim. “I have an idea that may help us—not much of a one, to be sure. But it has possibilities—father needs an assistant in the laboratory. He doesn’t know you. I understand that you studied biology and entomology for a while when you had notions of being a doctor. Now—why not go to work for father? I can get Dr. Hawley to fake a lot of credentials and ...”
“That idea,” interrupted Tracy, “has possibilities— of the grimmest nature. Suppose he found out who I was —found out when I was locked in the laboratory with him. Ugh ! I don’t fancy being brained with a crockeryjug full of newts.”
“But suppose he doesn’t,” insisted Octavia. “Suppose you—you endear yourself to him. He’s usually quite fond of his assistants. Only, Mr. Jenner, the last one ...”
“Yes—what happened to him?”
“Well, he’s coming along nicely now ...”
“Say you’ll do it, Tracy.” Octavia’s hand rested on his, tenderly. “Just give it a try. Believe me, it’s our only chance.”
“A darned slim one, too,” discouraged Tracy. Then, looking into her eloquent eyes, he felt the old urge to slay dragons and tilt at concrete elevators. “For your sake, Octavia,” he said firmly. “I’ll give it a try!”
' I 'HE leading pests—I speak of the wheat-pests,” boomed Professor Gresham to his new assistant, “are the Hessian fly, Mayeliola Destructor, the midge, the stem maggot . . . Damit, Mr. Jones, don’t stare at the snakes—they’re not going to bite you !”
Tracy Harkins, who was now, much to his horror, Mr. Alfred Jones, laboratory-assistant to Professor Gresham, jumped like a neurotic rabbit and smiled vacantly. His terror of the professor, great at a distance ,had grown to a hideous fixation. If you gaze at a tall policeman through the right end of a sky-glass, then look at him through the wrong end, you’ll have a fair idea of Tracy’s mental contrasting of himself and his proposed fatherin-law. And that was by no means all—■”
Tracy’s knowledge of entomology was neither modern nor complete. Two years at McGill had discouraged him and the faculty. In preparation for this ordeal he had boned up a bit on coleóptera, hymenoptera and what not, but his equipment was poor indeed. Mercifully, the professor was too much taken up with his own pet craze to bother much about Mr. Jones’ inability to tell the Calandra from the Cynipid or to lift a jar of lively young snakes without a quaking of the nether limbs like St. Vitus dance.
“You must bear in mind,” said the professor—and his white mustache blew out like ectoplasm when he spoke, and his eyes, under their bluff-like brows, glared with the light of the man who has a mania. “You must bear in mind that while all the stem-maggots are said to be exclusively herbiverous, I am by no means ready to admit that a carnivorous variety may not be developed. Another old fool—that is, a person named Cyrus Wilkes, is also working on this problem. He will have no success —none. But do you realize how many miles of Manitoba and Saskatchewan wheat the maggots eat each year? And can you grasp what it will mean if I can turn loose my carnivorous maggots—the Militantia Greshama— do you?”
“Yes, sir,” said Tracy brightly. “They’ll eat the other maggots and the wheat besides.”
“Hmm!” said the professor. And again, “Hmm!” He pondered for a moment. “No, they won’t,” he said decisively. “Not my maggots.”
Tracy was quite agreeable.
“I have progressed,” said the professor, plucking at his mustache, far enough to know what I want. The Militantia Greshama-—which is another name for the Militant Maggot—will be striped—somewhat like a zebra—and large. He will at once attack an ordinary herbiverous maggot and destroy him. But the statement you made about the danger of my maggots eating up the wheat, too, is not ...”
“I see now, sir,” put in Tracy. “Your maggots would be too tired after eating up the . . . the other maggots
“Precisely. They will be carnivorous—exclusively. Now—let us get to work, Mr. Jones.” He rubbed his hands briskly. “Hand me that jar of Calandra.” He looked in the general direction of a shelf on which there were seven jars. Tracy, after a moment’s hesitation, picked up what looked like a glass arena full of June bugs . . . which was exactly what he did pick up. The professor snorted. Tracy dropped the jar and spent the next ten minutes playing hide and seek with a lot of coy June bugs on the floor.
There were many similar nerve-racking experiences. If, perchance, he did anything right, the professor roared; if he did, as often, anything wrong, the professor roared, and to Tracy’s inability to distinguish between roars of approval and roars of wrath was due the state of near nervous collapse in which at noon he emerged to go eat luncheon with Octavia.
“I can’t stand it,” he said bitterly. “I can’t! One more day of this and ...”
“Ssh! Here comes father.” Octavia placed a silencing finger on Tracy’s pale lips and they sat down to luncheon.
“A good morning’s work,” said the professor amiably. “Excellent. We’re progressing now. I find Mr. Jones invaluable. We’ll have that old scamp, Wilkes, on the hip before long. Have you read my latest reply to him in this month’s Review?”
“Not yet,” said Tracy, swallowing hard and wishing devoutly that Octavia would not try to hold his hand under the table.
“Well, by all means read it. I scotched the old anaconda this time, and, by George, if I catch his half-wit of a nephew hanging around Octavia . . . ouch, why are you kicking me, Octavis-2”
“I’m sorry, father. My foot was asleep.”
Tracy drew several deep breaths.
“Now what was I saying . . . Let me . . . ”
“You were talking about Dr. Hawley,” said Octavia helpfully.
“Ah, yes! I’m grateful to Tom Hawley for sending you to me, Mr. Jones. He is an old friend and a good one.”
“He is, indeed,” agreed Octavia, with a sly look at Tracy. “And very ready to help. He’d do anything for me. But I’m sure Mr. Jones is every bit as clever as the doctor said.”
The professor looked dubious, but it may have been at the omelet. Anyway, he said nothing; and Tracy was glad. The conversation had been on dangerous ground and he didn’t like Octavia so much for keeping it there. But after all, he mused, any ground would be equally dangerous unless they talked about chess or agriculture or some such uncompromising subject. He felt better when they had finished. Octavia promptly took possession of him and led him into the garden.
“You are doing splendidly, Tracy,” she told him, her lips close to his ear in that darling habit of intimacy. “Father is such a dear old goose. Did you find him cross? He is really kind-hearted underneath it all.”
“Isn’t he, just!” said Tracy ironically. “But he needs excavating.”
“He seems to like you,” Octavia reproached him. “I’m sure he will become very fond of you.”
“Which will make matters worse when he finds out the truth. I’m positive ...”
“Mr. Jones!” Like the voice of a foghorn, Professor Gresham’s stentorian hail interrupted them. “Can you come soon?”
“Good-by, Octavia,” said Tracy clinging to her hand. “I’ll see you soon again, I hope.”
It was said without much conviction. He walked leadenly into the house, followed the professor upstairs, donned the smock Octavia had thoughtfully provided, and went to work. Work, for a half-hour, consisted in “yessing.” Professor Gresham, watching the death-agony of a lizard and making visits every few hours to the professor’s colony of maggots to see what, if anything, was afoot.
Then the professor fell to work upon several small but unfriendly looking snakes with eyes of peculiar greenness and malignancy. Tracy felt cold, clammy thrills of horror at the sight of them. The professor was tying them in knots or trying to break their backs, Tracy couldn’t tell which, because he stayed behind the comfortable shelter of the large biologist as well as he could. He had a primitive dread of snakes and all things slippery.
“Lively young devils,” remarked the professor. “Where are you, Mr. Jones? Oh, back there. The bite of these reptiles is rarely dangerous . . . Hello!”
There was a light tap at the door. The housekeeper’s voice—“Telephone, sir. It’s Professor Wavely and very important.” “Good. I’ve been waiting for that. Here, Mr. Jones—hold the snakes.”
The professor promptly let go and dashed out of the laboratory. The snakes, thus released, paused for a moment to contemplate their new freedom, wriggled around and began to investigate the appetizing jars of toads and maggots, ants and tadpoles on the shelves. Tracy stood, transfixed with horror. How could he stop those things—those ugly, gleaming monsters? But he must do something. Suppose they escaped, bit him or bit Octavia—
He made a lunge at an insolent tail that was just vanishing between two jars; he missed by a single scale, overbalanced, grabbed wildly at the shelf and caught strong hold of it. Unfortunately it didn’t hold; it came loose and went to the floor on top of Tracy Harkins, bringing with it almost as complete a collection of maggots, newts, yankee settlers, ants and snakes as could be found west of Montreal.
From the midst of this awful ruin Tracy Harkins arose, mumbling with panic and dread, brushing his smock with frantic hands, for he was host to some three hundred assorted bugs.
“Octavia!” he called, but his voice was only a hoarse croak. Anyway, what use to summon her? She could do nothing. The professor would be back any minute to witness this awful disaster and very likely to hurl the contents of the other shelves at his hapless assistant.
Gingerly, Tracy picked his steps through the insect hordes and backed toward the window. He climbed to the sill and there, secure for the moment, drew breath and strove to think. Below him on the floor was a regular carnival of bugdom. There the boll-weevil hobnobbed with the spider, the grub rubbed shoulders with the devil’s darning-needle, and the wasp exchanged amenities with the horse-fly, and the maggots—It would take hours to sort them out and put them back where they belonged.
“Woe is me,” ran the current of Tracy’s thoughts. “Why doesn’t the old boy come and get on with the execution? This will surely make him like me. I only hope he doesn’t get violent and ...”
The door knob rattled—ominous, pregnant with drama as the knocking at the portal in Macbeth. It turned; the door opened.
“Tracy!” Her face blanched as she discovered the havoc he had wrought. “What has happened? Are you hurt? Did you . . .?”
“The snakes escaped and when I tried to capture them I pulled down a shelf— and behold! But—but where is he?” “Gone!”
“Gone? He’s not around then?”
“He has been called to Professor Wavely’s, I don’t know what about. He told me to inform you that you could carry on the work till he gets back. I think we’d better start picking up these bugs first. If he ever finds out they were spilled . . ”
“Yes,” said Tracy. “I know.”
So they went to work earnestly. New jars were found to replace those that had been smashed; by twos, threes and handfuls the insects were gathered up and thrown into their glass houses. After an hour the work was done, the wreckage cleared away, the shelf back in place and Tracy more at ease.
“I don’t think there’s been much harm done,” he observed cheerfully.
“You’ll know when father gets back,” said Octavia, with no thought of malice. “Suppose we walk in the garden.”
That afternoon the professor ’phoned that he would not return for several days. He was going with Wavely to an impromptu conference of wheat-pest experts at Fort William. His great rival, Wilkes, would be there. He had to leave hurriedly.
That was a respite. At any other time Tracy would have been very happy to be thrown thus freely with Octavia; but now he feared. No one could tell what damage had been done to the professor’s pets—no one save the professor himself. All those bugs had been carefully divided and categoried; now they were in a jumble; sons were separated from their parents, husbands and wives ruthlessly divided—surely Professor Gresham would know it and demand the truth, which, when he learned it—
“Let me play for you, Tracy,” suggested Octavia, seeing his distraught condition. But her music did not help. No; nothing could help. He would never win her now. Years of research, he feared, had been rendered futile by his disastrous upsetting of that shelf. Her father would never forgive him, her father might even be moved to do violence to him.
He did not again go near the laboratory. He shunned it as a murderer shuns the room where lies the body. His fear augmented as four days dragged by and the professor did not return. Octavia shared his forebodings. She could not comfort him, for all her helpful suggestions had a hollow ring.
On the fifth day the professor returned. It was at noon. Octavia and Tracy were in the garden when he stepped out of the taxi and, at first sight, it was obvious that he was in a great rage; there was dried foam on his mustache and, even before they came in range of his voice, he was delivering himself of an impassioned oration against Cyrus Wilkes who, it appeared, had discomfited him at the bug conference and promised a great, imminent discovery relating to the Militant Maggot.
“I’ll show him!” bellowed Professor Gresham. “I’ll beat him to it. I must get to work at once. Preoare for some good, hard work, Mr. Jones.”
He stamped into the house. Tracy lingered.
“D-do you think he’ll notice anything, Octavia?”
She patted her lover’s arm.
“Don’t worry now, dear. He’s gone upstairs and we’ll know in a few seconds !”
Together, with bated breath they listened. A minute, two minutes, three, trickled by. A Cyclopean roar came from the upper chamber, a door banged, there were rude tramplings on the stairs and lesser roars.
“Oh!” said Tracy. Octavia’s hand touched her throat. She clung loyally to her hapless swain.
The professor burst from the house.
“Jones!” he shouted. “Come here, you young scamp ! Come on now!”
Tracy tried to run, but his feet had taken root on the lawn. He could not. He tried to say farewell to her he loved; his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. Professor Gresham’s hand descended on his shoulder with all the gentleness of a policeman’s. He was dragged, stumbling away.
Into the house, up the stairs, into the room of execution. Now he felt his hour had come. The professor hit him a mighty clump in the small of the back.
“My boy,” said the professor. “You are a wonder—a wonder ! ”
“See the little beauties—see them!”
He pointed to a jar. Tracy goggled. Octavia, who had followed to render first aid, came and stood by Tracy’s side, her shoulder pressing his. In the jar were many striped maggots, black and white striped like the sweaters and socks of some hockey players, and like hockey players they were busy knocking each other and a number of unstripéd bugs on the head and jumping on the bodies.
“The Militant Maggot!” said the professor. “I congratulate you, Mr. Jones. I can see that you have done some remarkable cross-breeding to produce this unique species. See how they scorn those sheaves of best Peace River wheat in the jar and slay their rivals! Now I have settled Cyrus Wilkes. Thanks to you, boy.”
It was the acceptable time. Tracy blurted out the truth.
“Pouf! So you’re Tracy Harkins,” boomed the professor. “Good. You’re the kind of man I want for Octavia. A real scientist. God bless you both. Now I must get down stairs and start the paper that will forever silence Cyrus Wilkes. It’s a double triumph—his own nephew assisting me in the great discovery.”
He went. Tracy turned with infinite tenderness to Octavia—lovely, lovely Octavia. He gazed raptly upon her. She was watching the Militant Maggots.
“Oh, look!” she said. “They’ve killed all the others and now they’re starting to eat up the wheat.”
“Eh !” Tracy tore his gaze from her face and took a peek at the striped gladiators. Sure enough, they were busily consuming the pride of Peace River.
“What does it mean?” asked Octavia.
“It means,” said Tracy, earnestly, seizing her hand and starting for the door, “that you and I are to be wed with all speed—preferably at once.”