Father and the French Court by Clarence Day

Except in his very last years, when he began to get shaky, Father wasn’t bored in his old age, like some men. He kept up his billiards, enjoying the hard shots, until his eye grew less true; and he always found it absorbing to try to beat himself at solitaire. He enjoyed his drives until automobiles came and ruined the roads with their crowding. He enjoyed having a go at the morning paper, in a thoroughly combative spirit. Every time the President said or did anything which got on the front page, Father either commended him–in surprise–for having some backbone for once, or else said he was an infernal scoundrel and ought to be kicked out of office. “And I’d like to go down there and kick him out myself,” he’d add fiercely. This was especially the case in President Wilson’s two terms. There was something about Woodrow Wilson that made Father boil.

His dentist had made a bridge for him, at this time, to replace a lost tooth in front.

Father soon took it back. “What’s wrong, Mr. Day?” Dr. Wyant said. “Is the occlusion imperfect?”

“Why, your thing won’t stay in; that’s what’s wrong with it,” Father replied.

Dr. Wyant was puzzled. “You mean that the denture seems to work loose when you are at table?”

“No,” said Father, “it stays in when I eat, and it usually stays in when I talk, but when I read my paper in the morning, and say what I think of that man Wilson, your thing pops right out.”

So life wasn’t boring in his old age to Father. He read more books then, too; particularly books about past and current political clashes. In these he always took sides. When his side won, he wanted their victory to be decisive; but if the other side won, they needn’t hope to inflict a decisive defeat. The harder they pressed Father, the angrier and more determined he got; the more bloodthirsty, I was about to say, but he was always that, win or lose. This made reading an active and exciting way of spending his time.

He didn’t care much for detective stories. The people in them were flashy. He no more wished to read about rascals than he did about saints. When he read fiction, he went back to Dickens or Dumas or Thackeray. In his forties he often bought paper-bound books on the train–W. Clark Russell’s sea tales, or novels by a new man, R. L. Stevenson, which were then coming out. Some cost fifty cents, some twenty-five. And he always liked books about horses, provided they weren’t sentimental. But problem novels, especially Mrs. Humphry Ward’s, seemed to him bosh, also any books with triangles in them, or “men like that fellow Hamlet.” Father preferred to read about people who knew their own minds.

He liked English history, but chiefly of the days before Cromwell. From about 1630 on, it was American Colonial times that he turned to, as though some ancestral self in him was retracing its steps.

One day Mother was persuaded, by a beautifully dressed woman book-agent, to buy on instalment a set of Memoirs of the French Court. She never read them–she hated the hard cynical tone of that period, and “those wicked women who robbed the poor queens of their silly old husbands.” And she wailed with remorse and despair when each instalment fell due. A package of two volumes, at ten dollars apiece, was delivered each month. “Oh dear!” she would cry, as she hunted through her bureau drawers and her purse, to get twenty dollars together without using the Altar Society’s money (which could never even be touched, it was so sacred, and yet was always sitting there, staring at her). “Those dreadful French creatures, they come so often I just can’t stand it. I did hope there wouldn’t be any this month. Why, if they are going to keep on coming like this I don’t know what I shall do!”

She had been ashamed to tell Father about them. She hid the books from him. But when paying twenty a month became too harassing, as it very soon did, she burst in on him one day and said she had been buying him a present which she hoped he’d appreciate; and she dumped all she had of the French Court on his library table.

Father was startled. He put on his glasses suspiciously and said: “What the devil’s all this?”

“Oh, Clare,” Mother said, impatiently pushing him, “don’t be so stupid. It’s the French Court, I tell you. It’s a present for you.”

“I don’t want it,” said Father.

“Yes you do too!” Mother shrieked. “You haven’t even looked at it. It cost me enough, I can tell you. It’s a very nice present.”

She hurried back upstairs before he could refuse it again, leaving him wondering what she was up to.

The following month he found out. Two more volumes arrived, and she told him there was twenty dollars to pay on them. Father promptly exploded.

“But the messenger’s waiting in the hall!” Mother cried.

“He can go and wait in hell!” Father shouted. “I hope he sizzles there, too.”

“Oh, Clare, he can hear you,” Mother begged him. “Please, Clare. Do behave.” And after the battle was over, Father was out twenty dollars.

“I thought you said those books were a present,” he said to her, later.

“But not all of them, Clare,” Mother said reproachfully, as though he was being too greedy. “The ones that I gave you were a present, but of course you must pay for the others.”

Father bitterly warned her never to do such a fool thing again, and set to work to try to get his money’s worth out of the French Court. He toiled through its oily intrigues as long as he could stand it, but he had to give up in disgust. He put away the kings, queens, and courtesans in an orderly row, with a yawn. They were nothing but a damned pack of foreigners. His ancestral self wasn’t there.

One point I’ve left out is that each volume had the owner’s monogram on it. This had made the set seem quite de luxe when the agent hypnotized Mother. But even then Mother had been doubtful about the French Court; she hadn’t felt sure they were nice, though she had hoped for the best, and she thought it would be safer not to have her own monogram on them. So she had had the agent use Father’s. This afterward seemed to prove she really had meant them to be a gift from the start. Father didn’t believe it for a moment. Yet there was the evidence.

“I can’t make Vinnie out,” I heard him mutter, staring hard at the monogram.

They had been married for almost fifty years.

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