The Misses Elliot
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One winter we had a "wolf scare" in Geneva. Somebody had shot a timber wolf in the woods near Gorham, and two wolves were afterwards reported to have been seen near Stanley. Then a railroad conductor said that he had seen a whole pack of them crossing the tracks just outside of Geneva. People who lived in isolated houses heard sounds of "Woof! Woof!" in the night, and shivered in their beds. It was rumored that the hard snow had driven all the Pennsylvania wolves up to Geneva, although it was true that Pennsylvania hadn't been noted as a wolf center, and that the Pennsylvanians themselves were probably just as good to eat as the Genevans were. When wolves were supposedly snapping at our heels, we didn't stop to think of things like that. Wars might be raging in Europe and Asia, but they were quite overshadowed by the wolves which were infesting Geneva.
The elder Miss Tibbs, who was said to live on nothing but raw wheat, and who would walk ten or twenty miles at a stretch, was the only person bold enough to take walks in the country, but then, as Mr. Van Bruggen said, not even a starving wolf would bother to pick up "Sparrow" Tibbs. Everyone else stayed away from the country roads, and carefully avoided the woods. The Elliots weren't afraid of being attacked in town, but they decided not to visit their swamp until the coast was clear.
"It's hard enough to keep the wolf from our own door," said Miss Primrose, "and I don't think that we need to go knocking on the wolf's door."
It occurred to the Elliots, however, that wolves might sometimes prefer a vegetable diet. Miss Primrose and Miss Candida were proud of their Christmas roses, which, they said, would attract any wolf, however well-nourished. After all, there wasn't any other vegetation to eat in winter, except evergreens and similar things which would merely stick in the wolf's throat and give him indigestion. The Elliots got chicken wire to cover their roses, but the ground was frozen too hard to permit them to fasten the wire to the ground with stakes. They thought of anchoring it with stones, but there weren't any big stones at hand, and the Elliots certainly weren't going into the country to get a supply. Finally they remembered Mrs. Edwards' heavy iron chairs, of the kind used in cemeteries; they called her on the telephone, and asked if they could borrow her chairs to protect their Christmas roses from the wolves.
"Why don't you hang out a scarecrow?" suggested Mrs. Edwards, trying to keep from laughing into the telephone. "We all used to say that Willie Blenkinsop's modernistic paintings would at least serve to keep the wolf from the door."
Miss Primrose answered that she wouldn't encourage modern art, even for practical purposes.
"How about a family portrait, then?" said Mrs Edwards. "Your Grandfather McGregor used to scare me to death when I was a girl; perhaps he could scare a wolf too."
This suggestion was received as sacrilege. Miss Primrose said that Mr. McGregor looked like such a perfect gentleman that he could make even a wolf feel at home.
"Well, he looked rather like a wolf himself," said Mrs. Edwards, "so I suppose that the wolf would feel at home." Then she suggested hanging out some old clothes, but the Elliots thought that a scarecrow would merely attract the wolf, who would think that it was somebody to eat. They also rejected the idea of putting out poisoned meat—the wolf might eat the Christmas roses as a garnish to his meal, and besides, the Elliots didn't want a dead wolf in their yard any more than a live one.
"You seem to think that wolves have very refined tastes," said Mrs. Edwards. "I never heard of their liking to eat flowers."
"How do you know?" said Miss Primrose. "Maybe Little Red Ridinghood was carrying Christmas roses when she attracted the wolf's attention."
Everybody consulted Freddie Culpepper, who, for the moment, was the most popular person in town, because he had actually been bitten by a wolf when in Canada on a hunting trip. Freddie had never quite recovered from the shock, and Mr. Van Bruggen said it was a pity that the wolf hadn't finished the job.
"He was sort of long and grayish," said Freddie, when questioned. "Sort of like a big dog."
"Did he like to eat flowers?" asked Mrs. Edwards.
"I didn't give him any," answered Freddie. "He seemed to want to eat me!"
The Elliots were unconvinced. After all, there might be vegetarian wolves, just as there were vegetarian people.
"Yes, and I suppose that there might be High-Church wolves, that wouldn't eat meat in Lent," said Mrs. Edwards sarcastically. "The town is full of green things; why should the wolves pick on your Christmas roses anyhow?"
It was certainly true that the town was full of green things. Genevans were unusually fond of plants that stayed green in winter; there were evergreens, boxwood, and English ivy all over the town, not to mention the Christmas roses, which were a sort of local specialty, since they had been numerous in Geneva before they were popular elsewhere in America. Mrs. Culpepper used to tell her Sunday-school class that "Even in winter, we should try to have something green in our gardens, just as we should keep something fresh and growing in our souls."
"Geneva," she used to say, "is a place where the gardens are green in winter, and the people are merry in their old age."
She would go on to tell about the morning when she awoke to find a herd of deer nibbling the evergreens in her back yard, which showed how useful green things were in winter. The deer hadn't touched her Christmas roses, and she was sure that the wolves would spare them too. The Elliots, who were not so sure, fastened their chicken wire to some near-by trees. During the night it disappeared (probably to mend somebody's barnyard fence), and the Elliots' roses were left as unprotected as ever. The wolves, meanwhile, were always being seen or heard at night by timid people, but were never encountered in full daylight by anybody who knew a wolf when he saw one. Various chicken coops were raided, and the railroad conductor saw more dim animal forms loping across the tracks.
"The wolves probably know that the railroad doesn't pay dividends," said Miss Primrose, "and are just waiting to gobble it up."
There was great discussion about the sound which wolves make. Somebody said that they howled; another person claimed that the bayed; another maintained that they barked. As a result, every dog which made a slightly unusual noise was taken for a wolf. Miss Primrose and Miss Candida were walking home from a dinner party one night when they heard a growling noise from some bushes near Mrs. Culpepper's house.
"That's the wolf, I suppose," said Miss
Candida. "Thank goodness he's eating the Culpeppers' bushes."
"But he might follow us home and eat our roses," suggested Miss Primrose.
The Elliots decided that they would walk home by a different way. If they went up to the other end of Main Street, where the sidewalk was much traveled, they might throw the wolf off the scent, and then, if they didn't see him following them, they could get home in safety. They carried out this plan, and reached home about a half an hour later, with the triumphant feeling that they had outwitted the wolf, but just as they were walking up the front steps, they saw a shadowy animal leaping over their fence. After a long consultation, they decided to hang out their roast beef at a height where the wolf could just reach it, in hopes that he would spend so much time over the beef that he would forget to look for his salad course.
"It was a beautiful roast," said Miss Candida afterwards, "but not so beautiful as our Christmas roses."
Before the Elliots went to bed, they locked up the house more carefully than ever; in fact they even locked the bedroom windows, because the wolf might manage to clamber up to the porch roof, and might prefer a tough old lady to the cold roast beef. The next morning, Miss Candida woke up unusually early, and peeked out the window to see if the roses and the beef were still there. The snow over the roses was untouched, but there was a scuffling noise from the place where the beef hung, and she leaned out, just in time to see a woman disappearing around the corner. The beef was gone.
"It was Evelina Scott; I'm sure it was!" whispered Miss Candida. "Imagine her stealing our roast beef!"
"Well," said Miss Primrose, "when you're being supported by your lover on his wife's money, I suppose that a good roast beef is quite a help!"
Miss Evelina was now the Elliots' favorite target. When she appeared in a new caracul coat (presented, no doubt, by one of her admirers), Miss Primrose called her "the wolf in sheep's clothing." When the Elliots saw Miss Evelina coming out of a dentist's office, they said that the dentist must be getting Evelina ready to bite. When they heard dogs howling in the street, they supposed it must be the Scott sisters howling for more roast beef. They even invited the Scotts to lunch one day, in order to confront them with beef broth and cold roast beef. The Bible tells us to turn the other cheek to our enemies, and the Elliots were accordingly turning another roast beef to the Misses Scott.
"Have some more beef, Evelina!" said Miss Primrose, carving a monstrous slice. "You don't have beef at home very often, do you?"
In later years, whenever the "wolf scare" was mentioned, Miss Candida would say:
"It was all a big hoax—the only wolf in town was Evelina Scott who ate our roast beef."
"Well, she didn't eat our Christmas roses," said Miss Primrose, "so perhaps wolves aren't vegetarians after all."
© 1940, Warren Hunting Smith
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