By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, August 11, 1945
“How queer,” said Jimmie Frise, “the city looks in summer.”
“You mean the streets like this?” I suggested, as we drove up our old familiar avenue. “Sort of slumbering.”
“I imagine,” mused Jim, “there isn’t another city in the world that has the percentage of summer absentees Toronto has. I bet there are more people in Toronto who have summer cottages than in any other big city on earth.”
“It’s because our lake country,” I submitted, “begins less than 50 miles from the city limits. Not many big cities have a Muskoka, Haliburton and Georgian Bay within a couple of hours’ drive.”
“Montreal?” queried Jim.
“In Montreal, I pointed out, “you see the summer cottages right in the suburbs. But per population, I don’t think Montreal uses her Laurentians to the extent Toronto uses Muskoka. For one thing, vast hunks of the Laurentians are leased out to comparatively small clubs of wealthy men. Some of the choicest lakes near Montreal are exclusive.”
“Just look at this street!” cried Jim. “Not a soul in sight. Not a dog, not a cat. Every house deserted. Look at the trees, all hanging heavy with summer. Look at the bushes and the flower beds. Untouched by human hands for weeks.”
“Let out a yell,” I suggested, “and see if a single curtain stirs.”
We drove in our side drive in the dusk. We were home for just overnight, to attend to a matter of urgent business. We were going straight back to the cottage in the morning, as soon as we had bought some potatoes.
“I’ll just run around to my place,” suggested Jim, “and see if everything is okay. Then I’ll come back and spend the night here, so we can get organized for the morning.”
“No use disturbing two houses for the one night,” I agreed. “Let’s leave it until morning, and we’ll call at your place in passing.”
“Okay,” concurred Jim, taking off his coat as we entered the house.
It had the close smell of the summer-deserted house. We went about opening windows and doors. We turned on the radio, tried the taps to see if civilization was still functioning. The cool air of early night blew through the house, freshening it.
We strolled out the kitchen door into the garden. In the gloom of final dusk, we could see the lawn grass thick and wild, and the flower borders tangled and strange with hundreds of blooms. The spare and trim and skimpy garden we had last seen in early July was now a regular jungle of lush growth.
“Jim,” I called, “come over and look at these zinnias!”
Nobody ever succeeds in planting zinnias far enough apart. In the optimism of June, when you buy the little boxes with the baby zinnia plants in them, they look so spindly and lonely, one by one, that you can’t resist the human temptation to plant them close together. Plant them as far apart as you should, and they look like little orphans.
But my zinnia bed was, even in the dusk, a riot of light and dark, of great flat heads of blossom standing above a solid mass of foliage.
We strolled along the borders, peering. The verbenas that had been straggly little wisps of plants were now sturdy clusters from which sprays of bloom lifted, to my lighted match, ping, blue, white and henna. In that false spring we had in April, I had taken a walking stick and poked a hundred little holes here and there all over the borders and dropped cheap nasturtium seeds in. Every inch of my garden that had not already been conquered by some mightier breed was solidly squatted upon by swarms of nasturtiums fairly squirting perfume into the night air. In one spot where I had never seen anything much grow before, a large bush loomed in the dark. My lighted match shower it to be a pom pom chrysanthemum.
“What Was That?”
“Why,” I cried delighted, “there used to be a scraggly little mum bush, here. This is a great year for flowers.”
“It ought to be,” said Jim gravely. “The way we have kicked this poor earth around the past six years I guess it just naturally feels like blooming again.”
“Remember how late the spring was?” I recollected. “It will likely be a wonderful year for autumn flowers.”
“Autumn flowers,” said Jim, “are all Toronto people ought to plant. The average home that can afford a reasonable garden can also afford a summer cottage. The family is all away for July and August. Therefore, Toronto should be famous for its autumn flowers. All our gardens should concentrate or things that bloom in September and October.”
“See that stuff there?” I pointed in the dark to large forests of tall shapes. “Sunflowers, golden glow and other bright gaudy yellow things for September.”
“It’s wonderful the way things have thrived, without watering,” admitted Jim.
“I bet the ground under those things is moist right now,” I said, pushing cautiously among the shadowy stalks and feeling down.
At which instant there was a sharp squeak, right under my hand. And some creature, somewhere in size between a chipmunk and a cocker spaniel, thrashed away up the garden amid the plants.
I leaped back with a yell.
“Hey,” I barked, “what the heck was that?”
“It sounded like a groundhog,” said Jim, tip-toeing up the lawn in the direction in which the animal had gone. “Psst! Scat!”
But whatever it was, it lay very doggo.
“Jim,” I exclaimed, “it was huge. It was as big as a collie.”
“Hardly,” said Jim. “It might have been a rat. Or it might have been a small groundhog.”
“It barked,” I declared.
“No, that was you that barked,” said Jim. “It gave a kind of squeak.”
“Or whistle,” I suggested. “I just about put my hand on it. I was going to feel the ground and I could feel the wind from it as it jumped.”
“Maybe it was a groundhog,” surmised Jim, “that has wandered in from the park. The park is only a few blocks away. And in a city as deserted as this, probably the groundhogs and other animals wander at will through the desolate streets.”
“Let’s get a flashlight,” I proposed, “and ferret it out. I don’t want any wild animals loose in this garden. Why, a groundhog could wreck the place in a week.”
We went and searched the house for a flashlight but without luck. All the torches had been taken to the cottage. We stood on the veranda and gazed up and down the street. Not a window showed a light. There was no flashlight to be borrowed from any neighbor. And the drug store closes at 9, bringing Toronto’s night life to an absolute stop.
“I tell you what we will do,” I suggested. “We’ll each get a clothes prop and poke around in the garden. If we give it a scare, maybe it will keep out for the rest of the summer. I’m worried about what it can do to those lovely plants.”
So we went back to the garden and I located the clothesline props in their usual corner by the garage. Armed with 10-foot poles, Jim and I went systematically around the garden, cautiously poking in among the shrubbery, the flower plots and the unseen tangles of sweet william, perennial phlox, ferns and salvia. In the spot where the mysterious marauder had vanished up the border, Jim thought he detected some movement. He gave a loud “boo” and made a menacing jab with his clothes prop. But it was a false alarm, and when he hauled the pole out, I could see something dangling from the crotch at the end. I struck a match. And it was almost an entire verbena plant Jim had torn loose. One of those rare henna-colored ones.
“Well, if you want me to help hunt…” retorted Jim to my groans.
“Let’s Set a Trap”
We went all over the garden without disturbing anything but a few small moths. And we caused a few crickets to cease their singing for a moment or two.
“It may have been a rabbit,” declared Jim.
“Rabbits don’t bark,” I said sharply.
“That thing did not bark,” said Jim firmly. “It squeaked.”
“Or sort of whistled,” I insisted.
“Okay, whistled,” resigned Jim. “But it certainly isn’t here any more.”
I stood in the dark, picturing my beautiful garden all eaten off to stubble by the time we got home from the cottage.
“I’ve got it!” I cried suddenly. “A trap. Let’s set a trap?”
“What kind of a trap?” demanded Jim.
“Down cellar,” I said, “I’ve got an old rat trap that we brought from a house we used to live in. It’s a sort of oversize mouse trap.”
“It wouldn’t hold a groundhog,” said Jim.
“But it would scare the bejeepers out of it,” I asserted.
“You don’t want some poor little animal,” accused Jim, “wandering around with a trap fastened to it. A trap should be used for vermin, like mice or rats. And it should kill instantly.”
“Wouldn’t a rat trap kill a groundhog instantly?” I demanded. After all, that was a pretty small animal…”
“I thought you said it was as big as a collie dog,” said Jim.
“First impressions are always hasty.” I excused, “especially in the dark.”
“Well, I don’t like the idea of setting traps at random,” declared Jim. “If you know what you’re after, okay. But to set a trap for an unknown animal is pretty risky.”
“No animal has any right,” I asserted, “in my flower beds. I have my gate locked, so no dogs can get in. I have spent quite a number of dollars on this garden. After all, this garden is my crop. It is my property. Even if it is only ornamental, it is still my property. And anything that damages it is liable to the consequences.”
“Let’s see the trap,” suggested Jimmie.
Which was only his excuse for getting back into the lighted kitchen and organizing a cup of tea. While the kettle boiled, I went down cellar and hunted up the trap. Incidentally, I explored the cellar and found a number of things that would be handy up at the cottage. A box of assorted nails, mostly second hand; a scythe that I had forgotten buying, 10 years back; a long iron bar that I had never seen before but which would certainly come in handy for something up at the cottage.
When I came clattering up the cellar stairs, Jim exclaimed:
“What in thunder is all this junk?”
And when I explained, he muttered:
“Some people should never go down cellar!”
I showed him the trap. Just an ordinary over-size mouse trap. He washed it under the tap and it came up as good as new.
“What will you bait it with?” he inquired.
“I don’t intend to bait it,” I said. “I’m just going to set it. And leave it concealed in among the likeliest looking things. I’ll wait until daylight to place it on a runway. All these groundhogs and things follow regular runways or paths. We’ll find them sure, in the morning.”
“Then,” reasoned Jim, “whatever it is we heard squeaking in the bushes will have to step, with its tiny foot, on this tiny little trigger…”
“Ah, no,” I explained. “That is where my humanitarian instincts come into play. I’ll set the trap and then rest a long stick over the trigger in such a way that whatever steps on or disturbs the long stick will set off the trap with a loud and terrifying smack. Listen …”
And I set the trap and then tapped it with a table knife. It sure made a terrifying sound. It made us both jump.
“The idea,” I pointed out, “is to scare the creature, not to kill it.”
“Ah, this is better,” agreed Jim, pouring the tea.
After we had finished the tea, we went back into the garden with the trap. From the lattice fence, I peeled off a slender strip about the size and thickness of a school ruler. Down among the mint and chives, my two favorite vegetables, I hid the trap, ready set, with the help of matches. Across the trigger, I tenderly laid the strip of wood.
“Now,” I explained, “whatever comes through the mint bed gets the fright of its life.”
Caught in the Mint
And feeling a lot happier about the autumn flowers, Jim and I went in and luxuriated in the unaccustomed pleasures of a hot shower, getting off us a lot of that scale that encrusts the human body after a few weeks in the pure air and cold water of the Ontario northland.
And with rooms flushed full of cool night air, we went to our beds with all the oohs and aaahs of summer cottagers returning from the hard mattresses of the vacation to the light, soft mattresses of the effete city.
It was bright gleaming morning when we were awakened.
I sat bolt upright.
Jim called from his room:
“What was that!”
“Something woke me!” I called back.
Then it came.
A loud shriek.
From my back garden.
I leaped to the window, and looked out. There, dancing in the flower border, was my next door neighbor, a charming lady, with my rat trap clinging to her finger. After a pause in which she stared in anger and astonishment at the outrage, she let out another shriek.
Down the stairs we raced in our pyjamas. Out the back door.
“My dear, my dear lady,” I gasped as I reached her and seized the trap.
“Did you set that?” she demanded angrily, snatching it away.
“Please, please,” I begged, “let me open it.”
Jim held it, while I pried its hungry snapper up.
The lady nursed her hand and studied me sternly.
“What was the idea,” she inquired, “of a trap in the mint?”
“Why, last night,” I babbled, “last night, when we got home … we heard a groundhog or something… last night, just after we got home … Say, I didn’t know you were home.”
“I got home at midnight,” said my neighbor. “And I didn’t know you were home!”
“But … but…” I fumbled.
“Your wife told me,” said the lady firmly, “to help myself to the mint any time I was down in the summer. I came down just to get some potatoes and some supplies, and I was leaving right away. Suddenly, I thought of the mint. And this …”
She held up her damaged fingers.
“Do you believe me,” I inquired earnestly, “when I tell you we heard some sort of animal in the shrubbery here… Jimmie, did we hear some sort of groundhog?”
Jimmie, in his pyjamas, solemnly bore me out.
“I don’t think,” said my neighbor, “that you deliberately set the trap for me. But it was me you got.”
So we picked her a nice big bouquet of mint, with some chives too, though they’re not at their best this late.
And I took the trap back down cellar and hid it up in the furnace pipes.
And Jim made another pot of tea.
Editor’s Note: “Down cellar” (meaning “in the basement”) is a regional phrase common to old Ontario. My grandparents said it all the time.