Emma’s stomach felt like a fish about to do a flip as she sat stiffly on the sofa, watching the door. Her mother sat to her left with her workbox, busy with her fancy needlework, and her younger sister, Grace, sat to her right reading an Oz book by L. Frank Baum.
The doorbell rang, and Hannah, the housekeeper, scuttled off to answer. When Hannah returned, Frank Delaney was in tow with a bunch of wildflowers in his hand.
“Frank Delaney, how pleased we are that you’ve come to call,” said Emma’s mother. “Oh, Grace,” she said. “I need your help to water the flowers in the hothouse.”
“But I’m reading,” said Grace. “They’ve just introduced a new character, a clockwork man named Tik-Tok.”
“Tik-Tok. How interesting. The flowers need watering, dear,” said her mother.
Frank sat down in the armchair and, for a moment, looked like he had something to say on the subject of clockwork men, but the mother of Emma and Grace took her youngest daughter by her hand and pulled her out of the scene … exit left.
“Emma,” said Frank. “Uh … I brought you these.”
“They’re lovely, Frank,” she said, as she took the bunch. “I always prefer wildflowers to hothouse flowers.” She admired the bunch in her hand. “I see you’ve found bread-and-butter.”
“It’s also called toadflax,” said Frank, “but it’s Latin name is linaria vulgaris.”
“Oh, very interesting,” said Emma. She handed her bouquet to Hannah who hurried off to put them in water.
“Yes, I’m glad you prefer the wildflowers to the hothouse ones. I spend a lot of time in nature, studying. I like science. Toads, for instance …”
“You didn’t bring any with you?”
Frank reddened a little. “No, only the toadflax.” He cleared his throat. “There are three varieties of toad in the area: the American toad, the fowler’s toad and the eastern spadefoot.”
“How interesting,” said Emma, with more enthusiasm than she felt.
Frank smiled, encouraged, and continued. After three or four minutes of Frank’s speech, it looked like Emma was in for a lecture on the regional toads. It wasn’t true that she wasn’t at all interested in science or the natural world, but if Frank was going to lecture on toads, she wished he would at least speak with some passion in his voice. Instead, his voice droned monotonously, his eyes nervously roamed around the room, and his storytelling style meandered from point to point in a circular rather than linear way.
Emma’s mind wandered, and her eyes also began to wander, to the antimacassar behind Frank’s head. It was a creation of her Aunt Margaret’s. She was always sending gifts by post from her home in Connecticut, bits of gorgeous handiwork, a crocheted table runner or pillowcase or a bit of fancy needlework. Aunt Margaret was coming this evening to stay for a week. Her mother had Hannah put all of the fancy gifts on display in the parlor with the hopes that her sister would feel they were appreciated.
It was evident to Emma from Frank’s slicked coiffure and his aroma of ylang-ylang that he used a liberal amount of Rowland’s Macassar Oil. Every time he leaned his head back, staring at the ceiling, with a new toad fact on his lips, Emma worried about him soiling her auntie’s antimacassar. It was strange that she should worry about the bit of fanciwork fulfilling the purpose for which it was made, but she, like her mother, wanted all of her aunt’s things to look fresh and clean, yet used all at once.
Soon, her gray cat, Xerxes, hopped up on top of the back of the chair where Frank was sitting, and this gave Emma some distraction and something new on which to set her eyes. This was one of the few times Frank chose to actually make eye contact with her, and he smiled to see her seemingly look at him with such affection.
Shortly afterwards, Xerxes batted her aunt’s handiwork onto the floor, and she had a new worry. She rose to her feet, but before she could even blink, Henry, her Jack Russell terrier, attacked it like it was a groundhog, holding it in its mouth, while thrashing and shaking his head.
“Oh no?” said Frank.
“Auntie’s antimacassar.” She pointed at Henry, and Frank, spurred to action, stood up. Emma stood up too and chased her pet through the parlor and back through the kitchen. Frank followed, and as they raced out into the rear yard, he took the lead.
“Emma!” called her mother. “Why are you running in such an unladylike way?”
Emma pointed at Henry. “Auntie’s antimacassar!”
Henry ran straight into the vegetable garden where he dug a hole and buried his prey just as if he were trying to plant another carrot in the row. Frank knelt beside the naughty dog, but it was too late to stop him. This brought an abrupt end to his visit –which Emma did not regret.
For her and her mother, it brought a frenzied cleaning session. Rather, most of the work fell to Hannah and Emma, while her mother spent the next hour or so on the candlestick telephone, calling half the wives in the neighborhood, inquiring about the best way to wash soiled white linens.
Hannah lit the copper in the scullery. Emma filled it with buckets of water to which Hannah added Sunlight carbolic soap and baking soda. Later, Hannah used a five-legged wooden dolly to agitate and mangle the wash. They tried some bluing to it also, adding a bluebag tied with muslin to the wash.
Amazingly, it came out clean and sparkling white, but it barely had time to dry on the line before Aunt Margaret arrived. Emma returned the antimacassar to its spot on the chair while it was still slightly damp and hoped her aunt wouldn’t touch it.
Aunt Margaret didn’t touch it. She did, however, take note of it and how clean it was as she came in with her bags. “I see you’re using the antimacassar I made. It’s sparkling white. I don’t think you ever use it.”
Emma blushed. “Oh we do, Auntie. We use it all the time.”