The sleepy town of Wakeville suddenly is on the receiving end of a rude jolt when, having elected as their mayor the energetic young GEORGE CLAYBOURNE, citizens find that the mayoralty chair has been pre-empted by George's forceful maiden aunt, GERTRUDE DUXBURY, who has fixed ideas about civic progress and how to gain it. Among the first to fall foul of her sweeping schemes for civic betterment is FLANNELFOOT FOSTER, town police chief who in five years has made no arrests, and whose added duties include some twenty civic jobs and the raising of PENNY FOSTER, his charming daughter who is engaged to the new mayor. Penny, bright as she is beautiful, sees signs of conflict and warns George, but without result.
Convinced that the slothful ways of Flannelfoot Foster are a main detriment to Wakeville's progress, Aunt Gertrude fakes an emergency police call as a test, and is delighted when there is no response. Headed downtown with fire in her eye she swings round a corner in her nephew’s car and crashes wildly into a hardware truck loaded with stovepipes. To her outspoken disgust, Flannelfoot is on the scene and tags her for a series of traffic infractions. Aunt Gertrude tells George bluntly that Flannelfoot Foster must go. George decides it is no time to tell his irate aunt of his engagement to Penny Foster, and Penny, in turn, anticipates difficulty in carrying out a promise to George that she will have Flannelfoot obey Aunt Gertrude’s order to wear his policeman’s uniform.
The day that Flannelfoot—convinced at last by Penny—appears in his uniform, is a great day for Wakeville's citizenry. Urchins trail him, dogs sniff him and scuttle down back alleys, the loafers of Four Corners fill the summer air with witty jibes. To add to Flannelfoot’s misery, orders come from Aunt Gertrude at the Town Hall stating that, to create a good impression during the impending visit of Leander Scattlebee, the roller skate king, all traffic and other by-laws must be rigidly enforced. The result shakes drowsy, casual-driving Wakeville to its civic core. Flannelfoot Foster finds himself dubbed a crackpot cop, a public nuisance and a blight upon the town. Daughter Penny feels keenly for him and when an appeal to George to defy Aunt Gertrude and her orders is ignored. Penny hands George the ring, sets her jaw, and declares a stale of open war.
(This is the third of four parts)
NO ONE who saw Miss Penny Foster tripping lightly homeward from the Town Hall that morning would have guessed that she was sizzling mad.
But it was so. A delicious smile played about the comers of her charming mouth and she looked happy and carefree. Nevertheless she was in a dangerous mood.
"Very well, George!” she mused. "You asked for it.”
She found her father, free of the detested uniform coat, reading the paper in the cool shade of the porch. Penny flitted lightly up the steps.
“Pop,” she announced, “you are not going to resign.”
Flannelfoot lowered the newspaper. He regarded his daughter with pride and admiration. There, he told himself, was a girl in a million. Ten million. Half an hour ago he had been all ready to resign. No other way out. Now he didn’t have to resign after all. And he owed it to Penny. How she had fixed it he didn’t know, but she hadn’t taken long.
“Ah!” said Flannelfoot gratefully.
"I talked to George.”
“I knew George’d be sensible,” beamed Flannelfoot. “What did you tell him, Penny? Tell him it’d just about break my heart to give up this job after all these years? Tell him I’d rather quit than go around persecutin’ my friends and neighbors?”
Penny sat down on the top step, clasped her hands around her pretty knees and said, “Pop! You wouldn't want me to marry a jellyfish, would you?”
“Yessir, I knew George would think twice before he’d let me quit my job. Why, what would people say? Wouldn’t seem like the same town—huh? What was that about jellyfish?”
“I wouldn’t marry one,” said Penny. Flannelfoot looked a little dazed. “But if you liked him a lot you’d have to be really sure he was a jellyfish before you didn’t marry him, don’t you think?”
Flannelfoot wondered if he hadn’t been better off downtown—uniform and all. It was hard to cope with this sort of stuff on a warm day. He fanned himself with his cap and perspired gently.
“Yes,” he said, in what he hoped was an intelligent tone. Then, “How did you fix it that I don’t have to resign, Penny?”
“So the best thing would be to make him prove he isn’t a jellyfish, because it would save a lot of trouble and unhappiness if it turned out he was one, even if it did cause a lot of fuss proving it one way or the other. That’s clear," said Penny firmly.
Flannelfoot fanned himself more vigorously. He hoped she would get back to the subject of his job.
“Pop! If you wanted to have Joe Hochberger fined for unloading his truck in front of the grocery store this morning, what would you do?”
“Why,” rumbled Flannelfoot professionally, “I’d go and lay an information and get a summons from Doc Wheelby. He’s a justice of the peace. Then I’d give Joe the summons and he’d have to come to court for breakin’ a municipal by-law.”
“I’d like to see that by-law. Where is it, Pop?”
“They’re all kept in a book at the Town Hall.”
“Go down and snaffle that book for me, Pop. During lunch hour, when Mr. Niblett is out.”
Flannelfoot gaped at her. Then he shuddered.
“Snaffle it? Me—the Chief of Police—snaffling a book from the Town Hall!”
“Why not? Haven’t you got a right to look up the law?”
“What in the name of time do you want to look at it for?”
“I don’t believe it’s against the law to unload a truck in front of a grocery store,” said Penny.
Flannelfoot sighed. This had been the burden of Hochberger’s lament that morning.
“It’s this way,” he said. “Law like that gets put on the books a long time ago when groceries used to be delivered a couple of times a year, about a couple of tons at a time. Nowadays things are different, and you can deliver an order to a grocery store without blockin’ traffic for half a day. Miss Duxbury dug away back and found that old by-law. It ain’t ever been repealed, see. So when you get right down to it, Hochberger was breakin’ a local law all right.”
“You couldn’t respect a jellyfish in the first place,” she said, and got up from the step. “But I don’t think he is one.”
“Get me that book, Pop.” Penny opened the screen door. “We’re having a salad for lunch.”
“It’s certainly a relief to know I don’t have to quit my job,” sighed her vast parent. “You don’t know how much that means to me. After all the years I’ve been constable here, to have folks makin’ fun of me and gettin’ mad at me like they did this morning—”
“No, Pop.” his daughter assured him, “you won’t have to resign. You may be fired. In fact, it won’t surprise me a bit if you are fired. But you’re not going to resign. I fixed that.”
The screen door closed gently. Flannelfoot opened his mouth very wide, then fell to fanning himself violently.
“Jellyfish,” he brooded.
Perhaps, he told himself, it was the heat. Things didn’t seem to make sense any more.
WHEN THE bewildered Flannelfoot lugged home the book of municipal by-laws, purloined from the Town Hall at noonday. Penny retired to the kitchen with orders that she wasn’t to be disturbed.
“Nothing like a quiet hour with a good book, Pop. And when George comes panting up the front walk, don’t let him in.”
Flannelfoot was enjoying a quiet snooze on the porch swing when Penny emerged from the house later on. Her chin was tilted at an angle that boded no good to someone. Flannelfoot opened one eye.
"George was here,” he yawned. “George said—”
“Poor George,” murmured Penny regretfully. She danced down the steps. “ ’By, Pop. Lock up the house if you go out.”
“Where you going?”
“To start an earthquake,” Penny told him, and was gone.
Flannelfoot gave his head a little shake, as if hoping to settle his thoughts.
“Earthquake,” he muttered. “Jellyfish.”
He had a notion, from the clickety-click of Penny’s heels, that the girl was on the warpath. This was so. Penny wanted to know if George Claybourne’s stalwart frame housed a spinal column. And she meant to find out. Also, there was Flannelfoot’s career and happiness at stake. Time was a-wasting.
Penny’s first moves toward starting the promised earthquake were innocent enough. She paid a visit to Doc Wheelby, that eminent stamp collector, amateur astronomer, poultry fancier and justice of the peace. Doc Wheelby was an old friend; she talked to him for half an hour and left him bellowing with laughter. Then she went downtown, where she appeared to do nothing in particular. She had a soda, she looked at some new dresses in the Bon Ton Ladies’ Shoppe, she met some girls and they went for a walk. She made occasional notes in a small book she carried in her purse. At about four o’clock she went back to Doc Wheelby’s house, where there was a typewriter.
Penny made the typewriter sing.
The typewriter, in fact, sang intermittently all evening. Doc Wheelby, gleeful and enthusiastic, helped. Flannelfoot was called into consultation about eight o’clock. When he learned what was afoot, he turned pale and would have fled, but they bullied him into subjection.
“You’re in this, Pop, up to your neck,” Penny told him. “Stick around and help.”
“My goodness,” moaned Flannelfoot, his eyes bulging, “you can’t do this. They’ll run me outa town. They’ll fire me. They’ll—”
“Come on, Flannelfoot,” chuckled Doc Wheelby. “Sit in and deal yourself a hand. It’s for your own good. And sign these papers while you’re about it.”
George Claybourne rang the Foster doorbell three times before eleven o'clock that evening. But the session at Doc Wheelby’s didn’t break up until nearly midnight, so George didn’t see Penny. He went to bed worried. But not as worried as he could have been.
Far into the night argued Flannelfoot. All through breakfast next morning he argued, protested, raised his voice in mutiny and lamentation. It gained him exactly nothing.
“You’re going through with this, Pop, whether you like it or not,” said Penny firmly. “And what’s more. I’m going along with you to see that it’s done right. I never heard of such ingratitude. After all the work I’ve done, all the trouble I’ve taken.”
“But it won’t do any good,” groaned Flannelfoot hoarsely. “It’ll just cause trouble. It’ll make a worse fool of me than I am now.”
“You’re just being modest. Get your cap. Here—carry these papers. They’re in alphabetical order, so don’t get ’em mixed.”
Flannelfoot trudged down the walk like a reluctant prisoner on his way to the gallows.
“You shoulda let me resign yesterday like I wanted to,” he protested. “I’m through and I know it. What’s the use of just makin’ more fuss?”
“Stop beefing, Pop. I’m going to show you how to handle this. After you see how easy it is, you’ll get the idea. It’ll become a sort of game.”
They came out into Elm Street. Penny spied young Mr. Homer Gillespie, bank clerk and man-about-town, emerging from the Okay Café.
“We’ve got one for Homer,” said Penny. “Dig it out, Pop. You’ll find it under the G’s.”
Flannelfoot stared at her incredulously.
“You wrote one out for Homer Gillespie?” he exclaimed. “What for?”
“I was having a soda yesterday afternoon and I saw Homer come out of the bank and—why, look! The careless thing! He’s doing it again.”
Young Mr. Gillespie, standing on the café steps, lit a cigarette and flipped the empty packet to the pavement. Then he saw Penny and Flannelfoot.
“Good morning, Miss Foster,” he said, with his best smile. “Good morning, Chief. Lovely day, isn’t it?” Flannelfoot grunted a guilty greeting.
“Good morning, Homer,” said Penny sweetly. “How old are you, Homer?”
Young Mr. Gillespie choked a little on his cigarette.
“How—how old—did you ask me how old I am, Miss Foster?”
“Yes. You know—how many years have you lived?”
OVERWHELMED by this sudden interest in his private life, Homer stammered out the information that he would be twenty in August.
“Too bad,” said Penny regretfully. “And you always throw your empty cigarette packets on the sidewalk, don’t you, Homer? Yesterday afternoon you threw one on the sidewalk in front of the bank—I know Pop hates to do this, but it's against the municipal by-laws, you know, and he has orders to enforce them. What’s the number of that by-law, Pop?”
Flannelfoot located the summons in Homer Gillespie’s name and refreshed his memory.
“By-law number two hundred and eighty-three, dated May twelve, nineteen-oh-nine," he rumbled. “Litterin’ the public thoroughfare.” He thrust the document at Horner. “Hate to do this, Homer.”
“Orders is orders,” chirped Penny.
Young Mr. Gillespie gaped at the paper, pop-eyed. The summons, signed by Beniah Wheelby, J.P., on information laid by John Y. Foster, chief constable of Wakeville, urged him to appear in court for violation of municipal by-laws against littering the public thoroughfare and against smoking in public, he being under the age of twenty-one.
“But—but—holy cats, Flannelfoot,” he gurgled.
“By-law two hundred and seventeen, dated November eight, nineteen-oh-seven, says you gotta be twenty-one before you can smoke in public, Homer.”
“Don’t be mad at Pop.” begged Penny. “He got orders in writing to enforce all the laws, every one of ’em. Maybe if you go down to the Town Hall they’ll do something about it.”
They departed, leaving young Mr. Gillespie looking like a stranded trout.
“I typed out a lot of them,” said Penny happily. “If you go down to Hogan’s pool room, you can’t miss. All those young smarty pants—”
“Pickin’ on kids, huh?” growled Flannelfoot.
“You’ll find a whole stack of profane language summonses in there too. All the gang that hang around the Elite Garage—I just wrote in their names as a matter of course. They re not kids.”
“But look,” yelped Flannelfoot, “you’ve got to prove these things. You didn’t actually hear ’em use profane language."
Penny laughed merrily, “If they pleaded not guilty, everyone in town would laugh themselves sick. Here’s Lew Medwick, Pop. You’ve got one for him.”
Mr. Lew Medwick, broom in hand, was just emerging from his jewellery store to sweep the sidewalk.
“Too bad Mr. Medwick hasn’t got a hitching post,” said Penny.
“Morning, folks,” beamed Medwick. “What’s this it’s too bad I haven’t got?”
“Hitching post," Penny told him. “Did you ever know that a town by-law says every place of business in Wakeville has to have a hitching post out front?”
“That so?” Medwick was interested. "Never heard of it.”
“Passed in eighteen seventy-four,” rumbled Flannelfoot, and gave Medwick a summons. “Hate to do this, Lew but orders is orders.”
Anyone could have knocked Mr. Medwick over with his own broom. He said so later. It took a minute or so for the incredible truth to register. Then, when he realized that the summons was real, that he was being haled to court for neglecting to install a hitching post for the convenience of any stray customers who might drive up with horse and buggy—when this dawned on Mr. Medwick, he cut loose with a yipe like a kicked pup.
“Hitching post!” he squealed in his anguish. “What would I be doing with a hitching post? It's persecution. It’s an outrage. Nobody can do this to me.”
"Silliest thing I ever heard of,” sympathized Penny. “Why don’t you go down to the Town Hall and kick about it, Mr. Medwick? It isn’t Pop’s fault. That by-law should have been repealed ages ago. He got a written order telling him to enforce all the laws on the books, and there are so many of them. I’m sure there isn’t a hitching post in town.” Mr. Medwick was performing something that looked like a cross between the broom dance and an epileptic fit when they left. He was yelping hysterically that he would light right through to the Privy Council.
“I’m enjoying this,” beamed Penny.
“I'm not,” Flannelfoot groaned unhappily. “I’m just storin’ up trouble for myself.”
“Oh. no. You’re just making trouble for George and his aunt and Mr. Snead. That’s the loveliest part of it. The loveliest, loveliest part of it all. You have it right there in black and white, signed by Abel Snead, chairman of the police committee, and George Claybourne, mayor, ordering you to enforce all municipal by-laws to the full extent of the law. Let ’em laugh that off.”
She stopped in front of the Bon Ton Ladies’ Shoppe. “Ooh! Look, Pop! Isn’t it shocking?”
Flannelfoot blinked at the window display of girdles and brassieres, slips, panties and nighties.
“Now listen. Penny,” he pleaded, “don’t make me go in there and give Cassie Fife a summons for not havin’ a hitching post in front of the store. After all—”
"We’ve got something special for Cassie. Come on.”
SHE dragged the blushing Flannelfoot into the Bon Ton.
“Pop’s shy,” she told Cassie Fife. “He’s got a paper for you and he’s afraid you’ll be mad. But it isn’t his fault, Cassie. He's just obeying orders. Give Cassie her summons, Pop."
It was the first Flannelfoot had known about any summons for Cassie Fife, he thumbed through the thick wad of documents. He found the paper, read from it: “Municipal by-law number one ninety-one, dated October seven, nineteen-oh-four”—Flannelfoot gulped and became crimson—“says it’s against the law' to display—um—women’s undergarments for advertising purposes.”
He thrust the paper across the counter at the gasping Miss Fife, mumbled, “Sure hate to do this.” and promptly fled.
“Pop feels terrible about it. Your window display, Cassie. Silly old law. Pop has to do it because he got orders in writing, and if I were you, Cassie, I’d go right down to the Town Hall and throw a fit on the doorstep.”
“Does this mean I’m arrested?” squeaked Cassie Fife, trying to read the summons upside down. “For my window display? Why, Penny! I’m so mortified. I could die. The shame of it! What’s wrong with my window display? My goodness. Penny—”
Miss Fife was rehearsing for sackcloth and ashes when Penny cleared out. She joined the guardian of public morals a few doors away. Flannelfoot was mopping his brow.
“A mean trick!” he growled. “A low-down trick on Miss Fife. And a low-down trick on your own father.”
“It says plain as plain in the book of by-laws that you can’t display women’s underwear—yoo-hoo, Mr. Hembruff!” Penny beckoned to Sam Hembruff, auctioneer, widower, and ladies’ man, who had gallantly raised his hat to her from the other side of the road. “Quick, Pop, get his summons ready.”
Sam Hembruff scuttled over, smiling toothily, and received his reward. It was a summons for spitting on the sidewalk at the corner of Elm and Main at 4.15 the previous afternoon.
“Sure hate to do it, Sam,” rumbled Flannelfoot, who was acquiring technique. “Orders is orders.”
The astounded Hembruff could only gurgle. “But why pick on me?” he managed at last.
"Oh, Pop isn’t picking on you, Mr. Hembruff. It isn’t his fault. He got his orders in writing. If you go down to the Town Hall they’ll tell you. I know it seems silly, but—” Her shrug was expressive.
“But—but, Miss Penny,” gasped the flabbergasted criminal, “after all—a summons—for merely spitting on the sidewalk—a summons—”
“Naughty, naughty,” Penny reproved, and waggled her finger at him. “Vulgar habit, Mr. Hembruff.”
“There’s only one man in this town that I’d take real pleasure in giving a summons,” said Flannelfoot, “and I’ll bet there ain’t one here for him.”
“We play no favorites, Pop," said Penny. “Those who don’t get a summons this morning will have one as soon as I can get around to it. There are enough fool unrepealed laws on the books to keep everybody in Wakeville in hot water. And if you’re talking about Waldo P. Johnson, there is so a summons for him.”
Flannelfoot looked. Mr. Johnson was accused of the crime of creating a litter.
“I saw him throw away a cigar stub yesterday afternoon,” Penny explained. “He threw it right on the pavement, the untidy man.”
Flannelfoot beamed happily.
“This,” he said, “is going to be good.”
They went over to the Continental House—eighteen rooms and three baths—but Flannelfoot was disappointed to learn that Mr. Johnson had gone out of town overnight and wasn’t expected back until the morning train.
“Now that you’re here,” suggested Penny, “I guess you might as well give Mr. Blossom his paper.”
Flannelfoot, startled, flipped through his summonses. There, sure enough, was a document for Mr. Albert Blossom, proprietor of the Continental House. Flannelfoot read it over gravely.
“I certainly hate to do this, Albert,” he said, “but I’m just doing my duty. I got orders.”
When Mr. Blossom read the summons he screamed like a wounded wildcat.
“Horse trough! Drive shed! Of course I ain’t got no horse trough and drive shed for the convenience of the travellin’ public! You’ve gone clean crazy, Flannelfoot. I never heard of any such fool law...."
“It was passed in eighteen ninety-three,” said Flannelfoot. “It’s still on the books, Albert.”
"I been running this hotel without a horse trough for twenty-two years,” yelled Albert Blossom, “and now you tell me I gotta go to court for not havin’ a horse trough. Or a drive shed either. Where am I going to find a horse trough? And what do I need with a drive shed? Fun is fun, Flannelfoot, but this ain’t fair.” Mr. Blossom brandished the summons. He ran up and down behind the desk. He babbled. He waved his arms. He whimpered.
“I think it’s an outrage.” said Penny. “Of course, it isn’t Pop’s fault, Mr. Blossom. He’s merely carrying out orders of the police committee.”
“You mean,” choked Albert Blossom, incredulously, “that they actually told him to come over here and summons me for not having no horse trough and no drive shed?”
“Orders is orders,” mumbled Flannelfoot, with regret.
“Why don’t you take it up with the Town Hall, Mr. Blossom?” suggested Penny.
Hoarsely, Mr. Blossom said he would do just that.
"TOO BAD Waldo P. Johnson wasn't in," grumbled Flannelfoot on the way out. "Wouldn't I love to hand that smart-aleck a summons to get even for all the times he’s tried to make a fool outa me.”
“He’ll keep. You’ll have plenty to do before he turns up,” said Penny. “Now that you’ve got the hang of it, Pop, I think you ought to be able to carry on alone. There’s a summons in that stack for pretty nearly every merchant in town, for not having a hitching post. And there’s one for practically everybody who owns an automobile. It’ll be a shock to most people when they learn you’re supposed to honk your horn three times before you go past a street corner. And there’s a special one for truck drivers—they won’t believe their eyes when they read it. And of course all those young fellows for smoking, and the gang around the Elite Garage, for profane language. And the whole volunteer fire department, Pop—”
“Now listen, Penny. We can't do that. I’ve sat in that poker game myself,” blurted Flannelfoot, greatly distressed.
“Oh, not for playing poker. The by-law just forbids any kind of card playing in the municipal buildings, even rummy or Old Maid. So poor Mr. Niblett gets a summons for his solitaire game. This must have been a godly town fifty years ago. Pop. And then—well, so help me, Hannah !”
Down the road, neat and dimple-kneed in shorts, marched the Wakeville Senior Outdoor Girls, under the leadership of Miss Daisy Spratt. They were having a little workout before meeting the train which was to bring the great Mr. Scattlebee to Wakeville; no civic welcome would be complete without Daisy Spratt and her Outdoor girls.
“Miss Spratt should never wear shorts,” murmured Penny. “Her knees would look better in a pair of baseball pants. And besides, it’s against the law.”
Flannelfoot blinked apprehensively. “Now listen—”
“It was a by-law passed about thirty-five years ago,” said Penny, “and it says distinctly that no female can appear in public around here with her knees uncovered. Too bad about Daisy Spratt and her Outdoor girls, but law is law. And I know I can get a lot more names if I walk around by the tennis courts on my way home. I ’ll have a stack of new summonses ready for you by noon, Pop. Carry on and blame it all on the Town Hall.”
She drifted away.
Flannelfoot saw Butch Prout getting gas for his delivery truck at the Elite Garage. He thumbed through the papers. There was a summons for Butch all right. He read it.
Mr. Prout, apparently, had violated a law which prohibited the driver of any motor vehicle from crossing a sidewalk at a lane or private driveway without first laying down two planks to save wear and tear on the walk. This law had been considered necessary in 1909.
“Imagine!” marvelled Flannelfoot. “Never even knew that myself.”
He ambled over to Mr. Prout, summons in hand.
“Hate to do this, Butch,” he said, “but orders is orders ...”
The cares of office weigh heavily upon our public men. Chamberlain does not look as robust as he did a few years ago. Daladier’s hair is thinner. Mussolini has lost his entirely. Roosevelt shows evidences of strain. And after less than a week in the mayor’s chair George Claybourne was beginning to look gaunt and hollow-eyed. Worried. Harassed. And jittery. As a matter of fact, he felt like a man lost in a revolving door factory.
All unaware of the Reign of Terror that was even then burgeoning in Wakeville, he sat morosely in the mayoral office that morning with his feet on the desk, and talked to Niblett.
“As man to man, Percy,” he said, “if you were in my place, what would you do?”
Mr. Niblett said he didn’t know.
“Penny wants me to tell Aunt Gertrude to go climb a tree. Now look me in the eye, Percy, and tell me the truth. You’ve seen Aunt Gertrude. You’ve talked to her. Would you be capable of telling her to go climb a tree?”
Niblett coughed. “It would have to be done very diplomatically.”
“It would have to be done by long distance. Or by cable.” George reached for the telephone and asked Effie Tillotson at Central to ring Penny again. Effie tried and reported that there was still no answer. George sighed.
“Trouble is,” he said, “that Flannelfoot is part right and Aunt Gertrude is part right. Just because Flannelfoot doesn’t go around checking up people about trifles doesn’t mean that he isn’t a good cop. The old boy does a lot of work and he does it so quietly you hardly know it. But he was getting a bit sloppy. For all their wisecracks, I think the people respect him a lot more when they see their cop in uniform.”
Niblett nodded solemnly.
“And I don’t care what anybody says,” declared George, with fire in his eye, “I think a nice little industry like a roller skate factory will help this town a lot.”
“Oh yes, indeed,” said Niblett. “A very fine thing. In my younger days,” confessed Niblett coyly, “I enjoyed roller-skating very much.”
“Fancy,” murmured George. He looked at his watch. “Well, I’m to pick up Aunt Gertrude after a while and then we’re to meet the eleven o’clock train—”
The telephone jangled sharply. George gave a convulsive leap and snatched at the instrument. He hoped it was Penny. It wasn’t. It was Lew Medwick, who appeared to be in delirium.
"HITCHING post!” said Medwick bitterly. “Hitching post! George, I want to know what’s the big idea.”
“You heard me. Are you trying to be funny, George?”
"Funny? Why no, Lew. But I thought you said something about a hitching post.”
“And so I did. I thought maybe it was a joke and I called up Wheelby. But he said no, it’s a real summons and if I’m guilty, maybe I’ll have to pay a fine. For not having a hitching post!" shrieked Medwick.
“What hitching post?”
“Don’t let on you don’t know about it, George. Flannelfoot says he got orders. I’m warning you, George, if it’s a joke, it’s the wrong kind of a joke. You’re a young man, George, and maybe you’ve got an odd sense of humor,” said Medwick with rising passion, “but when it comes to practically throwing a man in jail for not having a hitching post—”
Medwick's indignant voice reached high C and then it seemed that he either blew out a tonsil or expired on the spot, for the rest was silence. The phone clicked sharply.
George looked blankly at Niblett.
“Lew Medwick,” he said, mystified. “I always thought he didn’t touch the stuff. But he’s yelling something about a hitching post—”
Immediately, the phone jangled again. As George reached for it there was a sound of wailing and a noise of lamentation in the outer office. Percy Niblett scuttled out, and Sam Hembruff barked in George’s ear: “And what if I did spit on the sidewalk? Didn’t you ever spit on the sidewalk, George Claybourne? Did you ever hear of anyone being pinched for it?”
“Wait a minute,” begged George, getting rattled. “Who is this? What’s it all about?” In the outer office he could see Niblett arguing with Miss Cassie Fife of the Bon Ton Ladies Shoppe, and Miss Fife was apparently in sore distress.
“It’s Sam Hembruff, and I'm the one who wants to know what it’s all about? Why pick on me, that’s what I want to know?” bawled Mr. Hembruff. “If I went around drooling on all the sidewalks in town all the time, maybe there’d be some excuse. But I don’t!” howled the insulted citizen. “I don’t do it. You make me out to be an insanitary slobberer—”
Percy Niblett backed into the office, retreating before Miss Fife, who was wailing:
“—never so humiliated and ashamed in all my life. I’m surprised at you, Mr. Claybourne, and if you did it as a joke I’m sure it’s not funny to me. There isn’t anything in my window—anything—anyone could take exception to—”
“What is this?” yelled George frantically.
Percy Niblett squeaked: “She got a summons for showing her underwear.”
“And what’s more,” Sam Hembruff said, “I’ve got a good mind—”
“Sam! I’ll call you back. I don’t know anything about it. I’m busy.” George dropped the receiver. Instantly the telephone trilled back at him like an infuriated rattlesnake.
“I’m a decent woman, as everybody knows,” insisted the tearful Cassie Fife between sobs, “and I’m only trying to make an honest living.”
George snatched up the receiver again. In the outer office he saw Al Blossom of the Continental Hotel charging through the doorway.
“Horse trough!” bawled Mr. Blossom in a voice of thunder. “If I did have a horse trough, George Claybourne, I’d drown you in it.”
“The embarrassment of it!” wailed Cassie Fife. “The humiliation! I’ll never be able to hold up my head in this town again.”
Sweat was popping out on George’s feverish forehead. Into the telephone he said hoarsely, “Mayor’s office.”
“This is Sol Weiss speaking, George,” said the proprietor of the Bijou Dream Theatre. “Now listen, George—”
George found it pretty difficult to listen, for Al Blossom was in the office by now and shaking a large, meaty fist beneath his nose.
“Why should I have a horse trough?” demanded Mr. Blossom above Cassie Fife’s sobs and the gibberings of Niblett. “It’s spite work and nothing else. Trying to show off how much you know about the law, huh?”
“I don’t know what’s behind this, George,” Sol Weiss was saying over the telephone, “but I’m gonna fight, see. Maybe you’re working for one of the big theatre chains, but it won’t do you any good. I’m gonna fight. You can’t get away with it, George. I’ll fight clean through to the Supreme Court, see.”
“It’s all over my head,” shouted George. “What’s going on? Everybody’s gone crazy all of a sudden. I don’t know what you’re talking about, Sol.”
“—and a drive shed, too!” Al Blossom bellowed. “There’s more to this than meets the eye, young fella.”
“Just because Wednesday night was prayer meeting night forty years ago and it was against the law to have public entertainments on Wednesday nights then,” said Sol Weiss, “that doesn’t mean you can pinch me for running my theatre on Wednesday nights now, George. Oh, no. There isn’t a court in the land—”
The remainder of the Weiss discourse was inaudible, for Al Blossom was bellowing like a forsaken bull, plainly determined to make himself heard. Miss Fife stopped sobbing and burst into hysterical laughter. The outer door crashed open and Mr. Paul Kotsopolous, fruit merchant, danced into the Town Hall brandishing a summons and whooping: “Creating a litter, is it? The new mayor gets funny, does he? Ha-ha! Creating a litter. It’s an insult,” howled Mr. Kotsopolous. “Seven children I’ve got, yes, but since when does a man get a summons for that? Come out, George Claybourne, and fight like a man !”
And at the same time Percy Niblett, glancing out the window, emitted a bleat of terror.
“My goodness, George!” he yelped. “What will we do? Half the town seems to be heading this way.”
George swung around in his chair. He looked. His eyes bulged. Percy Niblett had spoken nothing less than the truth.
From all directions, citizens of Wakeville were converging on the Town Hall. The buzz of their wrath was mindful of an upset beehive. Most of them were clutching summonses. One of them, Butch Prout, was clutching something a good deal more practical—to wit, a baseball bat.
“Call my kids a litter!” yowled Mr. Kotsopolous.
“Are you or are you not going to listen to me?” bellowed Al Blossom.
Miss Fife uttered another screech of maniacal laughter and fainted over the wastebasket.
“Percy,” said George to the faithful Niblett, “do something for me, and do it quick. Go out and find Penny. I don’t know where she is, but find her. Tell her I need her. Tell her I can’t live without her. Especially right now.”
“Yes. sir.” Niblett scuttled out.
“Go by the back way.”
“Leave the back door open,” George hastily decided. “I may want to use it.”
To be Concluded