Cyrus Emmett: The Unlucky Man

Mary E. Wilkins

From Some of Our Neighbours (J. M. Dent & Co: 1898)

It is not probable that Cyrus Emmett's relations intended any sarcasm toward a helpless and inoffensive infant when they gave him the name of the great Persian conqueror, but that alone has proved a mockery of his lot in life. Poor Cyrus Emmett has not been able to conquer even the petty obstacles of the narrow sphere to which he was born. Even in this humble village of humble folk, who regard the luxuries of life very much as they do the moon, as something so beyond their reach as to make desire ridiculous, Cyrus Emmett has the superior lowliness of the utterly defeated. Not one of the other villagers but at some time or other has had his own little triumph of success, which gave him the sense of power which exalts humanity. He has married the prettiest girl or has made a great crop of hay, or he has grown the finest grapes, or built himself a tasty house, or been deacon or selectman.

Cyrus Emmett has never known anything of these little victories, which, being well proportioned to the simple contests, perhaps produce as fine a quality of triumph as did those of the great Persian whose name he bears.

Poor Cyrus, when a boy at school, never quite got to the head of his class, although no one studied more faithfully than he, and at the end of the term he knew his books better. Once Cyrus would have gone to the head; he spelled the word correctly, but the teacher misunderstood. Once the two scholars above him had the mumps and were absent, and he would then have taken his place at the head had he not slipped on the ice on his way to school, and sprained his ankle.

Always, when he could spell a word, and the scholars above him were failing, and his heart was beating, and his head swimming with anticipated triumph, when he leaned forward and waved his arm frantically, and could scarcely be restrained from declaring his wisdom before his turn, the next boy gave the correct answer and went to the head. If Cyrus had not been so near success his disappointment would not have been so great.

Cyrus made a signal failure in his boyish sports. He could never quite reach the bottom of a hill without a swerve and roll in the snow when almost there, and that, too, on an experienced sled, and with no difference in his mode of steering, that one could see. If there was a stone or snag heretofore unknown on the course Cyrus discovered it and cut short his career; if another boy was to collide with any one it was with him.

At a very early age Cyrus began to excite a feeling compounded of contempt and compassion among everybody with whom he came in contact.

“Cyrus Emmett is a good boy, and tries hard, but he never seems to make out much,” they said.

“Try again, Cy,” the boys shouted when he toiled up the hill for the twentieth time after a hard toss in the snow. And Cyrus would try with fierce energy, and upset again amidst exultant laughter from the top of the hill. There has been, from the first, no lack of energy and perseverance in Cyrus Emmett. It is possible that he might have gained more respect in his defeats if there had been. There is, after all, a certain negative triumph in declining to bestir one's self against excessive odds, and sitting down to the buffetings of fate, like an Indian, maybe with a steady fury of unconquerable soul, but no struggles nor outcries. Cyrus, however, has never ceased to kick against the unending pricks of Providence, and fall back and kick again, and fall until his neighbours seem never to have seen him in any attitudes but those of futile attack and defeat. Had he sat stolidly down on his sled nor tried to coast at all, and defied his adverse fate in that way, it is quite probable that he might have gained more respect.

Cyrus' father was a farmer; a thrifty man, and considered quite well-to-do, as he owned his place and stock clear, with a little balance in the savings bank, until Cyrus was old enough to enter into active co-operation with him in the farm management. Then things began to go wrong, but seemingly through no fault of Cyrus', nor indeed of any living man.

First the woodland caught fire, and all the standing wood and fifty cords of cut went up in flame and smoke. Then there was a terrible hailstorm, which seemed to spend its worst fury on the Emmett farm, and laid waste the garden and the corn-fields. Then the Emmetts' potatoes rotted, although nobody's else in the village did. That year half the little balance in the savings bank was drawn; in two years more the Emmett account was closed. The old man died not long after that, and his son inherited the farm; his wife had died long before, and a maiden sister of his had kept house for him.

The year after his father's death Cyrus' barn was struck by lightning, and burned to the ground with several head of cattle and a valuable horse. Then Cyrus mortgaged the farm to build a new barn and buy stock, and it is one of the tragic tales of the village that the new barn had not been finished a week before that also was burned because of the hired man's upsetting a lantern, and only two cows were saved. Then Cyrus borrowed more, and the neighbours went to the raising of another barn, and lent a hand in the building. They also contributed all they could spare from their small means and bought Cyrus another horse.

But it was not long before the horse sickened and died, and the lightning struck again and badly shattered one end of the new barn, and killed a cow, besides stunning Cyrus so severely that he was in the house for a month in haying-time. Then the neighbours gave up. “It's no use tryin' to help Cy Emmett, he wasn't born lucky,” they said, and they had a terrified and uncanny feeling, as if they had been contending against some evil power.

Once Cyrus had what seemed for a little while a stroke of luck, such as all the village people have known at least the taste of — he drew a prize. The village does not approve of lotteries, and Cyrus had been brought up to shun them, but that time he was tempted. A man went the rounds selling tickets at a quarter of a dollar apiece on a horse which he represented as very valuable. The man was a third cousin of Deacon Nehemiah Stockwell, and people were inclined to think he was reliable, although they had not seen the horse. He represented, also, that the money obtained was to go toward the building of a Baptist church in East Windsor.

Cyrus had just lost his horse, and he had a quarter in his pocket and he bought a ticket and drew the prize. It went around the village like wildfire. “Cy Emmett has drawn the horse.” Pretty soon two men were seen leading the horse through the village. It seemed odd that he should be led instead of ridden, that it should require two men to lead him, also that he should be so curiously strapped and tied about the head and hindquarters. However, he looked like a fine animal, and tugged and pranced as well as he could under his restrictions, thereby showing his spirit. He was said to be very valuable; Cyrus Emmett was thought to be actually in luck that time.

However, poor Cyrus' luck proved to be only one of his usual misfortunes. The horse was a white elephant on his hands; he could not be harnessed, and he threw every rider who bestrode him. As for working the farm he might as well have set the fabled Pegasus at that. He kicked and bit — it was dangerous even to feed him.

Finally he took to chewing his halter apart, and escaping and terrorizing the village. “Cy Emmett's horse is loose!” was the signal for a general stampede. At last he had to be shot.

Cyrus Emmett, when he was a little under forty, had the mortgage on his farm foreclosed, and went to live in a poor cottage with a few acres of land attached. He has lived there ever since, and he is now past sixty.

Cyrus' ill luck seems to have followed him in his love affairs. When he was quite a young man he fell in love with Mary Ann Linfield, but she would not have him. She married Edward Bassett afterward.

It was all over town one morning that Mary Ann had jilted Cyrus. Her mother ran in to Miss Lurinda Snell and told of it. Cyrus did not marry until his old aunt, who kept his house, died; then he espoused a widow in the next village, and she has been a helpless cripple from rheumatism ever since their marriage.

Cyrus has to toil from dawn until far into the night, tilling his few scanty acres, caring for two cows and hens, peddling milk, and eggs, and vegetables, nursing his sick wife, and doing all the household tasks.

It is a curious thing that although Cyrus pays painfully, penny by penny, for all his little necessaries of life, he has no credit. I doubt if a man in the village would trust him with a dollar's worth, and he is said to purchase such infinitesimal quantities as a dozen lumps of sugar, and two drawings of tea, and a cup of beans, because he has no ready cash to pay for more.

Poor Cyrus Emmett goes through the village street, his back bent with years and the hard burdens of life, but there is still the fire of zeal in his eyes, and he is always in spirit trying over again that coast down the hill, although he always upsets before he reaches the goal.

The boys call out, “Hallo, Cy,” when they meet him, and he makes as if he did not hear, although they are, after all, friendly enough, and intend no disrespect. It is only that his lack of progress in life seems somehow to put the old man on a level with themselves.

Once he stopped and said half angrily, half appealingly, “I'm too old a man for you to speak to me like that, boys.” But they only laughed and hailed him in the same way when they met again.

They say that luck is always sure to turn sooner or later. Perhaps later means not in this world; but if poor Cyrus Emmett's luck does turn in his lifetime there will be great rejoicing in this village.