FICTION

Who Is Sylvia?

ROBERT COMSTOCK January 15 1943
FICTION

Who Is Sylvia?

ROBERT COMSTOCK January 15 1943

Who Is Sylvia?

Marcia’s mother was Holloway's main motivating force until—wham!—came Gopher Gap Sylvia

ROBERT COMSTOCK

THIS WEIRD commercial interlude began literally with a breeze—a quisling breeze that wafted through the open window of our Gopher Gap teacherage dining room, a frigid reminiscence of bygone snows. I sneezed.

“You’re getting another touch of ’flu, Holloway,” Marcia cautioned me with wifely solicitude. “I wish you’d try a course of that serum Aunt Nellie uses.”

“I should hardly call Aunt Nellie a glowing testimonial to its effectiveness,” I responded. “To what refuge is she fleeing from the malignant coryza virus this season?”

“She’s leaving on Monday for Banff,” said Marcia. «

“And little Evangeline’s coming to stay with us while her mother’s away,” said Marcia’s mother. “Isn’t that nice?”

Little Evangeline is not a favorite of mine. I

buttered a raisin crumpet grimly, wordlessly.

“Well,” sniffed Marcia’s mother, “I suppose a man who would eat raisin crumpets would butter them.”

“Alluding to dairy products,” I ventured, “Abigail Hack informed me this morning at recess that, owing to an abrupt decline in production among her grandfather’s herd, they will be unable to supply us with milk in the future.”

“This day and age!” cried Marcia’s mother. “Evangeline must have milk. The doctor prescribed it for her diet. Six glasses of fresh milk every day.”

“I suppose we’ll have to get it from the Thompsons,” Marcia said dubiously.

“Impossible,” declared Marcia’s mother. “Mrs. Thompson’s such a careless housekeeper, it would be crawling with germs. And boiling it would destroy the vitamins.” “Perhaps little Evangeline could obtain hospitality elsewhere,” I suggested hopefully.

Marcia’s mother announced, “I have an idea.”

1 quaked internally. Wrymouthed experience has taught me that Marcia’s mother’s ideas are like lighted fuses in their catastrophic potentialities.

“We’ll buy a cow,” said Marcia’s mother.

Marcia’s mother has been known to complain that in moments of extreme amazement 1 am apt to resemble a fish. Remembering this I closed my mouth firmly.

“A cow?” Marcia’s expression was blank. “But, Mother, wherever could we keep a cow?”

“Right here in Gopher Gap school barn,” lier mother said. “With the scholars all riding bicycles it’s standing empty.”

“Why it sounds like an excellent idea,” Marcia commented. “Don’t you think so, Holloway?” The odds were two to one, but it cannot be asseverated that Holloway Jessup is deficient in courage. I answered: “Unfortunately such a transaction would involve an expenditure far beyond the reach of my slender stipend.”

“If you’re trying to say we can’t afford a cow, you needn’t spend a penny,” declared Marcia’s mother, pouring herself a cup of tea. “You could trade the Basenji for one.” Now the Basenji is our car. A product of the remote nineteen twenties, it is erratic in temperament. Under my guidance it performs creditably enough, but when the hand of another takes the wheel it becomes recalcitrant and balky. This peculiarity has prompted Marcia to call it the Basenji after a certain breed of African dog that knows but one master.

Marcia’s mother inadvertently jostled the teapot as she set it down. “This day and age!” she gasped. “I wouldn’t have it broken for the world. I got it thirty years ago as a wedding present. Hand-painted. There isn’t another just like it anywhere on earth.”

This seemed quite probable. The urn, in truth, was a singular one. It bore a design depicting incredibly obese cherubs playing quoits with garlands of crimson roses.

“It’s more patriotic to walk these days,” Marcia said. “What do you think, Holloway?”

My feelings for the Basenji are those of a doting parent for a wayward child. “The reply,” I said firmly, “is unequivocally in the negative.”

Throughout the remainder of the luncheon the talk was restricted to table amenities. Nevertheless the set of Marcia’s mother’s lips warned me that the topic of bovine acquisition had been deferred rather than dropped.

THAT evening, when I retraced my steps to the teacherage from the schoolhouse where I am employed by the trustees of Gopher Gap, I found the premises vacant. Pinned to the tablecloth

was a note executed in Marcia’s most hurried and least legible scrawl:

Holloway—mother and I driving to Radnor with Mr. Thompson to stay with Aunt Nellie until she leaves for Banff. Hope you make out all right with cooking. Marcia.

P.S. Good luck in buying cow love and kisses M.

The second sentence I reread with scrupulous attention. Although I disliked to accuse Marcia of indulging in covert irony— it was a fact that she knew me to be the world’s worst cook.

H’m! I reflected. Can it be possible that Marcia and her mother are conspiring to let me flounder in the depths of my culinary ineptitude until indigestion drives me to yield to their wishes and purchase a cow? Surely they could not expect such a paltry stratagem to wear down the moral resistance of Holloway Jessup.

Kindling the fire, and opening Marcia’s cook book at a paragraph entitled “Raisin Crumpets,” I set about concocting a panful of these delectable delicacies. Hardly had I placed them in the oven when a visitor arrived in the person of Abigail’s grandfather, Mr. Ephraim Flack.

“Mr. Jessup, could I borrow your car for the week end?” Mr. Flack requested. “Our own has gone on the hummer at a time when it is sorely needed. Brother Skelton is sojourning with us.” Tall and sparse, with stern features embellished by a grizzled beard, Mr. Flack reminds me irresistibly of a Hebrew prophet. This illusion is heightened by his habit of interlarding his speech profusely with Scriptural phrases.

“Brother Skelton?” I queried.

“Our minister,” elucidated Mr. Flack. “A righteous man who goes about doing good works. But that busted crown gear has sure put a crimp on his going about.”

“You are welcome to the car,” I assured him, and I picked up Marcia’s mother’s teapot to fill it.

That, at least, was my intention. Actually I picked up only the handle of the teapot. The rest of the receptacle, becoming detached from the handle in some mysterious manner, fell to the floor and broke in a dozen fragments.

“Tst! Tst!” said Mr. Flack.

Visions of Marcia’s mother, majestic in her ire, flitting through my mind, I seized a broom and began unhappily to sweep up the pieces. Mr. Flack watched the salvage operations with keen interest.

“That’s funny,” he remarked. “My wife—”

I did not feel interested just then in listening to a discussion of Mr. Flack’s good helpmeet. “Mr. Flack,” I said,

“have you a cow you would consider selling to me?”

Mr. Flack sniffed. “Something burning?”

I had forgotten the raisin crumpets.

Snatching them, scorched and smoking out of the oven, 1 observed ruefully,

“My memory is not what it should be.”

“Reckon my hearing ain’t the best, either,” said Mr. Flack. “Would you believe it, I thought just now l heard you say you wanted to buy a cow off of me.”

“Mr. Flack,” I assured him, “your auditory powers are beyond reproach.

You see, the idea of buying the cow was Marcia’s mother’s. The teapot 1 have broken was likewise hers. 1 fear its destruction will no please her; and I thought that by acceding to her wishes in the matter of purchasing the cow, I might—”

The accumulated wisdom of all the ages was in Mr. Flack’s grave nod.

“Say no more, Mr. Jessup, say no more. I once had a mother-in-law myself. Now, about the cow—”

“She must be a good milker,” I stipulated. “And gentle.”

I trust I am not unduly timid. Nevertheless, it is a fact that the unknown does inspire awe. And, to my townbred self, cows are virtually unknown quantities.

“Well, there’s Sylvia.” Mr. Flack stroked his beard with a patriarchial gesture. “She’s gentle as a kitten. How much was you thinking of paying, Mr. Jessup?”

“Since your own car is out of commission,” I suggested, “would you consider exchanging Sylvia for the Basen—for ours?”

MR. FLACK accompanied me outside and scrutinized the Basenji with care.

“About due for the old age pension, ain’t it?” he commented.

“Its age is actually an advantage,” I pointed out. “It will be all the easier to replace its tires.” Mr. Flack raised the hood and peered into the Basenji’s interior. “What’s this dinkus here?” he enquired, fingering gingerly a contrivance of tubing and tin cans soldered together.

“I made that myself,” I informed him with justifiable pride. “Its performance is incomparably superior to that of any carbureter I could buy.” Mr. Flack grunted and clamped the hood back into place. “Well, Mr. Jessup, if you can run it, I reckon I can. We’ll drive over to my place so you can size up Sylvia.”

Upon arriving at the Flack farmstead, we found the cattle assembled in the barnyard waiting to be milked.

“Malachi,” Mr. Flack called to one of his grandsons, “run Sylvia into the barn. Mr. Jessup’s thinking of buying her.”

“Ah, gee, grampa, if you wanna sell a cow why doncha sell ol’ Sapph—”

“Malachi, that will suffice,” Mr. Flack hushed him austerely. “Do your grandfather’s bidding.” Sylvia proved to be a demure little creature with a beige coat and an expression of pensive benignity. Mr. Flack handed me a milk stool and an empty pail and I approached Sylvia with the polite reserve one instinctively manifests upon meeting a stranger. Malachi snickered.

“No, no, Mr. Jessup. The other side,” Mr. Flack said. And his low, shocked tone warned me I had committed a deplorable faux pas.

I sat down. Discovering that Sylvia was slightly

Maclean's Magazine, January 15, 1943

beyond my reach, I edged the stool closer. Sylvia remained gratifyingly passive, swinging her nether jaw with a scythelike motion, and gazing moodily into space. I set to work. Despite the fact that the resulting fluid displayed an annoying propensity for getting up my sleeves instead of into the pail, I persevered.

“You done famously for the first try,” Mr. Flack complimented me at the conclusion of the ordeal. “Is it a trade?”

“It is a trade, Mr. Flack,” I replied. “The car is yours.”

“The children will bring you Sylvia in the morning when they go to school,” Mr. Flack promised. “And, since the Good Book says to give full measure, here’s a little boot on the deal.”

He rummaged through a shed filled with cast-off odds and ends and emerged, his beard festooned with cobwebs, dragging a rusty and decrepit twoseated bicycle.

“You can ride it home,” said Mr. Flack kindly. “The tires are still in fair shape.”

THE following morning Abigail and Malachi Flack appeared at Gopher Cap school riding an ancient bucKskin pony and driving ahead of them a reluctant cow. “Grampa says to tether her out to grass on a long rope and tie her in the barn to milk her,” Abigail informed me. “You should oughta water her three times a day and milk her twice.”

Throughout that day the schoolroom was pervaded with the ominous quiet every teacher dreads, full of suppressed snickers and surreptitious glances. Once, turning suddenly from the blackboard, I surprised Alvin Loessing spiritedly pantomiming the act of milking a cow. A little later, when Vladimir Minsky attempted to declaim Mr. William Shakespeare’s exquisite lyric commencing, “Who is Sylvia, what is she?” the pupils burst into a whoop of what was to me incomprehensible mirth.

I was not a little relieved when the hour of dismissal arrived and my charges, released from their desks, scattered homeward. In the silence that followed their departure, Sylvia’s suppliant low sounded nerve-rackingly loud.

Walking over to Sylvia, I untied her from the picket and led her to the pump, where she imbibed a prodigious quantity of water. I conducted her into the stable, secured her to a manger, and seated myself beside her with a pail between my knees.

Murmuring, “So, boss!” in the timeestablished fashion, I stroked her flank.

My first wild surmise was that I had been torpedoed at sea. This impression, however, was erroneous. The cataclysmic force that had laid me sprawling upon the stable floor had been, not a charge of TNT, but the potent hind foot of Sylvia.

Somewhat dazedly I picked up the empty peach crate that I was using as a stool and retrieved the pail which had rolled an astonishing distance. Sylvia’s expression was no longer benign. Her eyes, distended and lurid, followed every move I made. With considerably diminished confidence I reseated myself and resumed my former overtures.

Swift as a rocket bomb Sylvia’s hind foot again shot out, and again I found myself grovelling upon the none too immaculate stable floor.

Springing to my feet I snatched up the overturned crate and brandished it aloft. The emotions surging through my breast at that instant would have brought horror to a Humane Society inspector’s heart. But his concern would have been groundless. Sylvia was more than able to protect herself.

Once more her foot lashed out. It struck my improvised weapon squarely, and I held, not a peach crate, but a handful of splintered wood. Continued on page 30

Continued from page 20—Starts on page 19

Shaken and bruised, I repaired to the teacherage. Not once did I question Mr. Flack’s good faith, but I was shrewdly puzzled. How could a cow be a paragon of docility one evening and a high-kicking demon the next? Was Sylvia afflicted with a split personality? Had she a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde complex?

Slumber failed to banish the harassing problem from my mind. That night, in sooth, Sylvia’s was such a face as drifts through dreams. Unpleasant dreams, of a distinctly nightmarish cast.

The succeeding day, Saturday, Mr. Thompson called at the teacherage in his truck. A nervous, grasshopperlike little man with shuttling dark eyes, he cocked an ear at Sylvia's importunate low, and tried hard not to laugh.

“Sounds to me, Mr. Jessup, like that cow wants milkin’.”

“That is a task only a commando trooper could accomplish,” I responded. Recollecting that Mr. Thompson was a man versed in the ways of livestock, I propounded to him the riddle of Sylvia’s startling reversal of disposition.

“Trouble is, Mr. Jessup, that cow ain’t Sylvia at all. She’s Sapphira.”

“Sapphira?”

“Yep. Eph Flack had two cows, full sisters, both alike as two peas. But the likeness is only skin deep. Sylvia’s gentle as a lamb, but Sapphira can outkick a steel mule. Eph’s gone and switched cows on you. Sylvia’s the one you thought you was gettin’—Sapphira’s the one you got.”

I sat stock-still for ten seconds, digesting this intelligence. Then I arose slowly and put on my hat.

“Where you goin’?” Mr. Thompson enquired.

I replied: “I am going to hold an earnest conversation with Mr.Flack.”

“Won’t do no good to roughtongue Eph,” Mr. Thompson asserted. “A dicker’s a dicker. You got Sapphira. He’s got your car. You might make him take back Sapphira, but could you make him give back the car?”

THIS reasoning sounded convincing. Although my instincts impelled me to heap recriminations upon Mr. Flack’s hypocritical head, I

realized that such a proceeding would probably be as fruitless as it cenainly would be undignified. I resumed my seat.

‘‘Seein’ Sapphira ain’t no use to you, if you like, Mr. Jessup, I could take her off’n your hands. Ernie Schram, the butcher at Buffalo Butte, wants me to truck him in a cow to be butchered tonight.”

The proposition appealed to me as an easy way of cutting my loss. I enquired: “What do you suppose he would pay for her?”

“Well, now, Mr. Jessup, I was thinkin’ maybe you an’ me might sw:ng a deal. You’ll need a barn if you’re goin’ to keep a cow. How about swappin’ her for that barn over on my east pasture?”

“That is little better than a ruinous shed,” I reminded him. “Besides, it is over a mile distant, while the empty school stable is right here at hand.”

“School barn won’t be empty next winter when the roads get snowed in and the kids take to usin’ horses again. Tell you, Mr. Jessup—I figger Eph give you a raw deal, and I want to help you out. Swap Sapphira for the barn, and I’ll sell you a good gentle milker outa my own herd reasonable, takin’ your note if you ain’t got the cash handy. Soon’s you get the government permit to move the barn, I’ll hook my tractor to it and pull it right here onto the school lot free gratis. What do you say?” Caution whispered in my ear, “Beware!” Mr. Thompson’s reputation as a dickerer reflected more credit upon his acumen than upon his principles. But the calamitous prospects of a teapotless Marcia’s mother and a milkless Evangeline deafened my ear to caution. “Mr. Thompson,” I said, “the answer is yes.”

“Then,” said Mr. Thompson briskly, “let’s load up Sapphira an’ I’ll get goin’.”

“If you don’t mind,” I said, “I shall accompany you to Buffalo Butte to arrange for the permit to move the barn.”

Mr. Thompson batted his eyes like a pair of blinker lights. “Ain’t that big a hurry, is there?”

“On the contrary,” I rejoined, “time, in this particular instance, is of the essence. Both cow and barn must be here on the school grounds before Monday evening.”

When Marcia and Marcia’s mother returned, I could point out the barn as a tangible asset in place of the vanished Basenji.

“Okay, okay,” said Mr. Thompson. “But I won’t be cornin’ back this road so you’d better bring along that double-header bike to ride home on.” He backed his truck against the open stable door and let down a cleated gangway. “You lead the cow up, Mr. Jessup, an’ I’ll drive her,” he suggested.

I clambered into the truck and tugged at the lead rope. Sapphira rolled her eyes askance, braced her forelegs, and relapsed into a state of statuesque immobility. Mr. Thompson seized her tail.

“Oh, dear!” I exclaimed. “I wouldn’t do that!”

Mr. Thompson twdsted the tail. Sapphira’s retaliatory heels whisked him lightly off the gangway. Mr.

Thompson’s head struck the stable ¡ wall with a poignant thwack, and, j exhaling a gusty sigh, he sank to the j ground. With one bound Sapphira ! entered the truck, and with another I departed from it.

Hastily I fumbled the end gate shut and turned my attention to Mr. Thompson. He struggled to his feet. His eyes glared wildly, and he made frantic clawing motions at his mouth.

“Awk-cruck !” hesputtered. “Awkcruck!”

A shower of white and crimson objects issued from his mouth and rattled upon thedrought-bakedearth.

I gazed aghast.

“My upper plate’s busted,” Mr. Thompson snarled bitterly. “Thirtyfive bucks shot. This trip’s a loss before I’m even started !”

Arrived at Buffalo Butte, we consigned Sapphira to fate and Mr. Schram.

“I gotta hustle over to Radnor an’ pick up a load of scrap,” Mr. Thompson informed me. “Be seein’ you, Mr. Jessup.”

“The permit,” I reminded him firmly.

“Oh, yeah, the permit.” Mr. Thompson let in the clutch. He called out through the cab window, “You get that at the municipal office. Ask for Mr. Cullen.”

I found Mr. Cullen engrossed with a heap of forms. He was a bony, desiccated-looking man with thinning reddish hair and a rasping voice.

That voice now rasped: “Barn

can’t be moved off the place before taxes are paid up. Government regulations.”

THIS was a jarring item of information. I began to understand Mr. Thompson’s reluctance to accompany me to the municipal office. ; Determined, however, to put the best possible face on the matter, I said: “Doubtless I could arrange for their payment. What is the amount of the tax arrears?”

Mr. Cullen scratched his nose I and consulted a voluminous ledger. j “Thompson kind of let them pile up,” he announced. “They come to three hundred ninety-eight dollars and seventy-three cents. Which is just about four times what that old hurrah’s nest of a barn is worth.”

The office proceeded to gyrate in a disconcerting fashion. I managed to j articulate, “Perhaps I had better j reconsider the matter.”

“Perhaps you better had,” Mr. Cullen said pleasantly.

I walked thoughtfully out of the ! office. Twice within the past three days I had made an incursion upon the sordid marts of trade. I had begun my operations with a car. I had ended them with a decrepit shed j anchored firmly to the arid soil by a liability of nearly four hundred dollars.

My mood of utter dejection was stirred by another and a more violent emotion. Mine is not a nature easily stirred to wrath. Nevertheless, I found myself longing to meet face to face either one or both of those arch swindlers, Messrs. Thompson and Flack.

Arriving at the front of the Golden West Cafe, where I had left the twoseater, I found it surrounded by a

large group of moronic burghers who were grinning broadly and uttering facetious comments. Ignoring such pitiful attempts at badinage as, “You got a front wheel drive, mister,” and “Hey, where’s Daisy?” I mounted the forward seat and peddled haughtily out of Buffalo Butte.

As I glided homeward, my spirits descended like a bathysphere into the indigo depths of despondency. On Monday Marcia and Marcia’s mother would return to Gopher Gap, bringing little Evangeline with them. They would find no teapot, no cow, and no Basenji. Furthermore, they would learn that my crass incompetence in the ways of barter had made the fair name of Jessup into a byword and a jest.

Then, drawn up by the roadside, a cloud of steam voluting skyward from its radiator, I beheld the Basenji.

Mr. Flack’s venerable beard was bent over its stilled engine. Mr. Flack’s sonorous voice was raised, but not, I regret to state, in prayer.

Dismounting, I said severely, “Mr. Flack, I must remind you that such language is most unseemly.”

He turned upon me a greasestippled countenance convulsed with wrath.

“You dithering, long-eared offspring of Ananias !” he roared. “You gypped me! I bought a car in good faith, and what did I get? Nothing but a fiat-tired, busted-springed, short-circuited heap of cast-off—”

This string of derogatory epithets directed at the Basenji inflamed my smoldering indignation into a veritable holocaust of wrath.

“Stop!” I thundered. “Stop flinging such reprehensible aspersions at a helpless car. And you, of all men, have the colossal effrontery to accuse me of cheating! Knowing full well that you have perpetrated upon me one of the most despicable examples of roguery that ever—”

Under my withering tirade, Mr. Flack changed with startling abruptness from truculence to entreaty. “Mr. Jessup, speak softly,” he pleaded. “Brother Skelton’s right behind you!”

TURNING my head, I perceived that a gentleman garbed in sober habiliments as befitted a minister of the Gospel was indeed' approaching. He carried a can that doubtless contained water to replenish the Basenji’s radiator. And now I knew that I held Mr. Flack in the hollow of my hand.

“What if he is?” I demanded loudly. “Mr. Skelton has a right to know the kind of viper he has innocently associated himself with.” “Mr. Jessup,” Mr. Flack begged abjectly. “Don’t tell him ! I’m sorry I switched them cows on you. I’ve even tried to square things already. The wife had a teapot that’s the spitting image of the one you busted, down to the last little angel. I left it in the teacherage just now, passing by. Take your car and give me back Sapphira and we’ll call the deal off.’» “I fear Sapphira is beyond recall,”

I replied. “I traded her to Mr. Thompson for the barn on his east pasture. The building is still in fair condition, and if you—”

“Just what I need, Mr. Jessup. I’ll move that barn over onto my own place. It’s only four miles. Give me the Thompson barn for your car back again, and we’ll call everything square.”

“You shall not find me ungenerous, Mr. Flack,” I said. “Here is boot on the trade.” And I pushed the two-seater toward him.

Mr. Flack accepted it with touching gratitude. “Hop on behind, Brother Skelton, and we’ll be on our way.”

They wobbled down the road.

1 poured into the Basenji’s radiator the water Mr. Skelton had fetched, tightened the carbureter screw an eighth of a turn, and turned the motor over a dozen times. Then I opened the switch and pressed down the starter.

The engine came to life with an ear-splitting roar.

As we rolled swiftly Gopher Gapward, my spirit ranged the gamut of mingled emotions. The seasons would continue to revolve in their inexorable cycle. The pleasant verdancy of summer would yield to the sombre hues of autumn. Inclement winter would return. I thought with melancholy of Mr. Flack trudging through four miles of dreary snow to perform his chores in Mr. Thompson’s immovable barn.

Nearing our gate, I saw two bicycle riders turn into it ahead of me. One of them, slacked and snooded, was Marcia. The other, decorously skirted and surmounted by a hat that resembled a pillbox camouflaged as a cassowary, was Marcia’s mother.

We alighted, all three, at the teacherage door simultaneously.

“Darling!” exclaimed Marcia, according me a marital hug. “Aunt Nellie’s trip to Banff is off. Little Evangeline’s sick with the measles, and Auntie has to stay home to mind her. And it was such a swell day mother and I just borrowed two bicycles and started home. Why, Holloway, you’re limping!”

Indeed it was a fact that the impact of Sapphira’s maleficent heels had wrought a pronounced if temporary alteration in my gait. “I had a fall,” I explained, holding to the truth in part at least.

We entered the teacherage. “I was unable to negotiate the purchase of a cow,” I admitted.

“Just as well,” said Marcia’s mother. “Marcia and I talked it over and decided that a cow would be too much bother to take care of, so—heavenly days, Holloway Jessup! You’ve left my best teapot on the kitchen table!”

Snatching up the teapot Mr. Flack had left, she examined it minutely. It was obvious that her lynx eye for detail had detected some discrepancy from the original. I recollected that no hand-painted copy could be an absolute facsimile. I clenched my hands and waited . . .

“This day and age!” exclaimed Marcia’s mother. “It seems you have to get away from things now and then to see them as they really are. Here I’ve been making tea in this teapot for thirty years, and I never noticed until just now that one of the little angels is standing on his head !”