The adroit Uncle Ralph solves the mystery of an unusual love affair
L. PAUL KUHRING
CHESTER is a small city. Not Montreal, nor yet Toronto, though, like them, it has its trust companies and banks, its factories and commercial establishments, wherein executives toil and spin, or, as one might put it pithily, ‘execute’. And it has its leading family. Oh, yes, indeed! For the Titherwaites, in a way, are Chester, and have been for a hundred years. And, in case the world might not recognize at once the merits of the leaders and the led, is there not the Chester Chronicle to tell the world about the virtues of both?
Finally there is Uncle Ralph—a Titherwaite, of course; almost, one might say, the Titherwaite, who broods over later generations of the family, and who lifts meddling far, far, above its ordinary plane and makes of it a beneficent art.
Uncle Ralph? One might introduce him in a variety of ways, this presiding genius. Life in Chester, in fact, is but a changing panorama with the slight gentlemanly figure of old Uncle Ralph moving along from foreground to foreground.
There was the sad case of young Torrington Titherwaite who went to college in a larger and less restrained community, discovered the lure of a chorus lady— wherein he was no Columbus—thereby grieving his mother and all the Titherwaites exceedingly. The chorus lady accepted a providential offer to play in stock far away in the middle west. Nor, for months, did we in Chester know that Providence was a slim old gentleman, Uncle Ralph and none other. Bribery, if you like!
Not that he lacked finesse, this old man. For consider Torrington’s cousin, Wilfred. Wilfred, starting out on one of those safely charted world tours with the Best People for companions; Wilfred becoming enamored of the Orient, debarking at Hong Kong, resolved there to stay for months, maybe years. Wilfred’s mother quite frantic about it all. For, hitherto, the lad had never as much as tugged at the apron strings. Finally Uncle Ralph speeding West, and we of the family will never forget the day his cable reached us:—
“Wilfred will not wear his winter flannels but has compromised on a cholera belt.”
Decidedly, a diplomat, Uncle Ralph Titherwaite.
You will see him when you come to Chester, this gentleman of the old school. You will notice how white his hair has grown, how sprucely he wears those clothes of conservative cut. You will see how everyone bows to him, for he is already tradition in Chester. And if you detect a slight droop to shoulders hitherto held taut and square—well, put it down to his latest diplomatic success . . . and what he learned thereby.
UNCLE RALPH descended from his motor half way up the Avenue. For he used such modern conveniences only as conveniences. He had no objection to being whirled swiftly through a factory zone, or down our principal business streets. But when he reached the upper Avenue he preferred to walk slowly through that region where the Lares and Penates of the Titherwaite Clan were housed in every conceivable style of genteel architecture.
So he dismissed the chauffeur and walked on, head up, nodding here and there to pleasant-faced matrons on broad verandahs, receiving in return the tribute of respect that was incense to him—and came, at last, to the broad sweep of driveway and the ornate mansion where the Manson Titherwaites lived.
As he passed up the drive, he saw Brookin’s delivery boy chatting with the second housemaid at the side entrance. And he sighed with relief. Delivery boys do not pause to chat with the dependents of bankrupts— not the uniformed, smartly brass-bound boy from Brookin’s, at any rate. So the crisis, whatever it was, had nothing to do with dollars and cents. And if Manson was in trouble it evidently had nothing to do with the Titherwaite Trust. Which, after all, he had already guessed, this clever old patrician. For it was Marcia, Manson’s wife who had sent forth the Macedonian cry. And Marcia . . some of the younger set called her a
‘dumbed’ . . . and, reprehensible as the term was, this was one occasion on which Uncle Ralph could agree. Marcia, he feared, was just that.
The grave butler, himself, opened the door, and ushered him into the long drawing room. Marcia, a blob of white on a distant chesterfield, rose, and came toward him. She writhed in her walk, an achievement indeed for one of her figure. A handkerchief, like a white moth, fluttered from eye to lip, from lip to eye. Uncle Ralph had seen Bernhardt in the flesh—but not in so much
flesh. And, anyway, if Marcia must grow histrionic, why not postpone it, at least, until she had told him what was bothering her?
Nevertheless he took her hand and bowed over it in his old world fashion and led her back to that distant chesterfield. Once anchored there, perhaps, he could pick her brain in comfort.
OH UNCLE RALPH.” She looked up at him. There were new tears in her eyes. The woman was, positively, a tap. “Oh, Uncle Ralph. What can it mean ... if not that ...”
“Tut, tut, my dear!” He patted her hand which showed a tendency to wander, clutching, over the lapels of his trig morning coat. Reminded him of Carmen, that —Somebody or other’s particularly messy, emotional Carmen. “Tut, tut, my dear! How can I guess? Suppose we start at the beginning.”
“The beginning? The beginning?” Marcia twisted her handkerchief into a knot, dabbed her eyes again. “It’s the end, Uncle Ralph, the end, I tell you. The end . . ”
“But, my dear.” He sought to stem her flood of words.
“What can it mean? What else, I ask you? Never here. Only to sleep and eat.. Sometimes not that ...”
“I gather,” he spoke dryly; “I gather, my dear, that Manson ... is cutting up rough?”
“Rough? If he only would. I could pardon him that, uncle. If he’d strike me, beat me ...”
“Why not?” Uncle Ralph suppressed this obvious retort, but he thought it just the same. For Marcia was again dissolving before his very eyes.
“He . . . justs sits there . . . and looks through me ... as if .. I were a shadow,” she sobbed.
“And then, my dear?”
“He says‘Hah!’ Puts on his hat . . . and goes out,”
Marcia answered, and hid her face in plump hands.
* Decidedly a dumbell.
“But where does he go? What does he do?” Uncle Ralph persisted.
“Brace up, Marcia. If you won’t tell me what worries you, how can I help?”
“He looks through me . . . and says ‘Hah!’ then he puts on his hat and . . ”
“Goes out.” Uncle Ralph hastened to finish the vain repetition. “But where, my dear, where? Men don’t say ‘Hah!’ and go out unless they’re going somewhere. What do you suspect? Is there, can there be, another ...”
“Another?” Marcia dried her eyes. They became hard and bright.
“Another! Last night ... he woke up. He’d been sleeping there in that very chair. He woke up . . . he swears he didn’t . . . but he did I know. And what do you think he said? Sitting there, in that very chair ...”
“How can I guess, my dear?” Uncle Ralph was beginning to grow interested. Here, evidently, was some carking care—a she-dragon that he might joust with and slay. “What did Manson say, sitting there, in that very . . . well, what did he soy?”
“ ‘I love them all.’ ” Marcia quoted. “Just that. ‘Them all!’ ”
Uncle Ralph rose. “Now, my dear,” he walked briskly towards the door. “Now, my dear, dry those pretty eyes. I have one object—to discover what’s wrong—then fix it.
Leave everything to me. Above all, don’t na . . . er . . . speak to Manson about this. Don’t tell him
you’ve talked with me. Perhaps, after all, you deceive yourself ...” “ ‘I love them all ’ ” Marcia repeated “ ‘All’ . . . Bluebeard!” “Calm yourself, calm yourself, my
dear.” Uncle Ralph turned at the threshold, held up one hand in a manner almost pontifical. That gesture said— ‘Trust me. The greatest of diplomats proceeds to arrange everything.’
Somehow, Marcia felt slightly better when he had gone. And if she went through the pockets of Manson’s golf suit before the tailor came for it, has not every wife her privileges?
UNCLE RALPH hailed a cruising taxi. This was his custom whenever family affairs intruded on his gentlemanly leisure. There was a certain gratifying sense of importance to be derived from the ticking of that devilish and expensive little clock; gave one the feeling of being a doer. There was a sort of ‘Man-dashing-about full-of-affairs’ to this swift flight down town. He could think, and rapidly.
Manson? Manson had been a biddable boy—till he had hardened, of late into a successful business man. He had dealt with Manson before, had Uncle Ralph. The time he wanted to run for parliament—a hopeless fight that, for look what happened to the man who finally did run? The silly War business—and a valuable man like Manson wasting himself overseas. Thank God, he Ralph Titherwaite had stopped that. Other cases—they came one after the other. Manson could be ‘worked’ once. Of late though ... he must be diplomatic. A parable— sketched delicately . . . depicting what happened to a man who . . .
The taxi stopped. Through the window he saw the granite facade of the Titherwaite Trust.
He got out, told the chauffeur to wait. Then entered, passing the office boys, the minor employees, slipping by even the sleek, efficient Perks, Manson’s secretary.
On the door of Manson’s private office was a sign of cardboard:
CONFERENCE. Do not disturb.
“Tush!” Uncle Ralph Titherwaite unhooked the peremptory lozenge and handed it to the uneasy Perks. “Tush!” and entered.
Across the wide room Manson, a chubby little man, sat at a desk innocent of documents. He sat alone. He was in the act of crumpling between broad palms, the local daily paper, the Chronicle. And from his lips, even as Uncle Ralph entered, even as he cast the crumpled ball of newsprint into a corner, came the monosyllable, “Hah!”
With great presence of mind Uncle Ralph stepped between his relative and the mahogany hatrack. But the proceeding was needless. Manson remained sitting there. His right hand leafed over the business calender on his desk. He frowned, as if to say:
‘Look at me—everything falls on me ... as much on one day’s leaf of this calendar as most men crowd into a month!
What he did say was: “G’morning Une’ Ra’f. Busy’s the deuce.”
“Good morning, my dear boy, good morning.” Uncle Ralph drew up a chair, sank into it and settled himself as for a long chat . . . “Just passing ...”
“Look it!” Manson flashed the desk calendar in front of him, showed him a sheet crammed with minute writing.
“Uplift . . . service . . . one after ’nother . . . noon lunch with the Auks . . . Talkin’ on boy-welfare . Two o’clock ves’ry meeting . . c’mittee on building ...”
“Such a contrast. Such a contrast. I’m a butterfly— just that—by comparison . . and yet . . . there are compensations, Manson, my dear boy,” Uncle Ralph sighed. “I potter about, from club to club . . . but . . . you have no eavesdropping stenographer in here, Manson? Wise, wise . . .’’
“What you mean?” Manson looked at him. “Heard somethin?”
“At the Epicurean . . . this very morning. No names, Manson, my boy, no names. In these matters, you know ...”
“Apt to hear anything there.” Manson thrust out his chest. “If some of those loafers would join us in our uplift work ...”
“Whited sepulchre,” thought Uncle Ralph. “Very well—now for the parable ...”
Manson’s eyes were eager. He waited. Uncle Ralph tried to look miserable as if he shared sorrows. “Sad, sad,” said he. “Wife in tears, they say . . . man old enough to know better ... no names, Manson, my boy . . . what is the lure these . . these women have? . . . Business slipping . . . friends, one by one guessing the guilty secret ...”
Manson got up with a jump and a bounce. He strode around the corner of his desk and clamped one pudgy hand on Uncle Ralph’s thin shoulders . . .
“Why do you tell me this? What are you hinting at?” he asked. “You must know . . . know . . . what the news means to me ...”
“Perhaps I do.” Uncle Ralph wondered if the parable had been too true to fact. “But no names, Manson my boy, no names ...”
“Nod’s as good as a wink. Got it. You’ve heard. You know what’s doing. You’ve come in to pass me the tipin your gentlemanly way. God bless you, Uncle Ralph “Manson pressed a button. The sleek Perks entered, noiselessly. “Bentley!” Manson crowed. “it’s Bentley, Perks—find out
. . . Hogg and Bacon’ll tell you . . . how ‘Hide and Hair’s acting on ‘Change’.”
He whirled towards Uncle Ralph. “If you’re right the stock’ll show it,” he cried.
Uncle Ralph blushed, guiltily. “No names, Manson, my boy, no names,” he mumbled. That parable was, evidently, hitting the wrong target. Bentley; he remembered him—a gross man who sometimes came to the Epicurean Club. Had a habit of buttering his ears when corn in the cob was in season . . deserved all he got, did Bentley. Now if Manson, blind to his own peccadillos was going to pin this parable on Bentley . . . “No names, Manson, my boy,” he repeated.
“Don’t need ’em,” Manson carolled, glancing at a slip of paper which Perks, the secretary brought. “Hide and Hair’s down four points. Means the news is out. Got to hustle, uncle. Make yourself at home.” He walked swiftly to the hatrack, kicked the balled up newspaper from his path, cried ‘Hah!’ in a loud impatient voice, slammed his hat on his head and walked out.
“Hah!” repeated Uncle Ralph. “Hah!” And watched the efficient Perks until he too had crossed the threshold.
Then he reached for that crumpled ball of paper, and spread it out on the desk. There was a gaping hole, a rectangle of emptiness on page four. Someone had removed a clipping, but whether it dealt with a church festival or the police court news Uncle Ralph could not say. Though he owned most of the stock in the Chronicle he rarely perused its columns.
But whatever the item was, it seemed probable that it had forced that sinful exclamation, ‘Hah!’ from Manson’s lips. And if Manson was going to go along, ‘hah-ing’ his way to perdition, it was time something drastic was done about it.
He tore out page four of the Chronicle with its aching void. Then pressed the desk button. Perks came, swiftly. Uncle Ralph looked him over.
“I see no reason . . . ” he mused, aloud.
“For what, sir?”
“You’ve been on the waiting list two years, Perks
. . . Hillandale Golf Club . . . Can’t see what the membership committee’s about. Must speak to them . . . up-and-coming young man like you cooling his heels ...”
Perks beamed. Perks bowed.
“Perks!” Uncle Ralph fixed him with his eagle eye. “What’s wrong with your boss?”
“Really, sir ... I don’t understand ... I can’t
“Oh, yes, you do. Oh, yes, you can. Have you seen anything . . . suspicious ... of late?”
Perks hesitated. Finally he pointed to a small wall safe . . . “He ... he keeps something in there . . . I’ve wondered, sir ...” He lifted his right arm, elbow bent, tilted his head back.
“You don’t mean . . . you can’t mean he’s ...” Uncle Ralph got up, measured the door of that wall safe with two frail, blue-veined hands . . . “Yes, a bottle would just go in.”
“The Brokers’ and Bankers’ Cafe, sir ... he lunches there every day. They serve it ... in coffee cups.”
“Harumph!” Uncle Ralph reached for his hat and cane. “Women, and now . . . wine.” He gripped the secretary by the lapel of his neat business suit. “Have you heard him singing, of late, Perks?” “Why . . . sir . . . I . . .”
“For if you have, Perks, it’s all up with your esteemed boss, my nephew. Wine, women and song, Perks.” Uncle Ralph dashed for the door. “Read Omar Khayyam!”
The taxi, standing there at the curb was ticking its way along towards the three dollar mark. But Uncle Ralph, eyeing the dial of the devil-clock benignly, felt that he was getting full value.
“Chronicle office,” he commanded, and the taxi rolled away down the street.
DIBBS, the editor, looked up from his littered desk, as old Ralph Titherwaite entered.
“H’lo, Boss!” Thus he bore tribute to wealth and position. For, after all, this ancient newcomer owned the paper—or most of it.
“Good morning, Dibbs. Busy, as usual, I see.”
“Busy!” Dibbs snorted. “Way things are, you could fire me. Boy with a blue pencil could run this man’s sheet.”
Dibbs grabbed a spindle that pierced a pile of miscellaneous papers. “Public writes its own news,” said he. “Every man jack his own. Take a look—they shoot this stuff at us morning, noon and night. And we have to crowd it in or they cancel their subscriptions.” He leaned back in his chair. “Don’t mind Manson and his lot. Owner’s family and friends have their privileges. But the whole damn world’s doing it. There was a time when we wrote news. When there wasn’t news we made it. But now . . . ever read us? Guess you don’t. Can’t blame you. Look at this!” and selected a sheet of soiled copybook paper from that pile.
Continued on page 80
Continued from page 17
“Tony Maglonio . . . keeps a fruit stall over on the market . . .• got married or buried or someth’n . . . and here’s his own pers'nal impressions of the event. If we don’t shove some oí it in he cancels his ad. And it ain’t just Tony. Look! Old Bentley—of Hide-andHair. Wouldn’t think he’d have time to blow his own horn. Yet . . say, if he
was running for premier of Canada he couldn’t want more space than he’s using up. And why? Because he aims to be Main Squeeze in that fool Better Garden Club. I’ll tell the world,” mourned Dibbs, the editor, “if you got any friends jumping into journalism tell ’em to try a leap off a dock first. The lighting is easier ”
“I will, Dibbs, I will.” Uncle Ralph hastened to promise. “But just now ... if you have one handy . . . to-day’s issue ...”
Dibbs rummaged on the floor where papers lay in a heap. He extracted one and laid it on the desk. ‘Page four.’ Uncle Ralph flipped it open, drew from his pocket a crumpled sheet, spread it and laid it over Page Four. The rectangular hole in this sheet served as a frame. Through it he read:
IN CIRCUS SMASH
Mastodons Mash Way to Freedom
“Dear, dear,” Uncle Ralph sighed, for he seemed to have drawn blank here. Nothing in this innocent item to make Manson growl ‘Hah’.
“You looking for something special? Mebbe it’s on the other side, page three,” Bibbs suggested.
Uncle Ralph turned the sheet over, readjusted his rectangle and through it read
BETTER GARDENS SURE
AVERS THOMAS BENTLEY
He read, steadily, for three minutes.
“Found it, hey?” Dibbs asked
Uncle Ralph reached for a great pair of shears on the disordered desk and cut something from the paper
“Partly, Dibbs, partly. As you might say, my suspicions are aroused. If you’ll still oblige me, there’s something else
“That same being ...”
Uncle Ralph leaned forward. “Dibbs, my boy. You are the Power of the Press. You see all. You know all. Have you seen, do you know, a discreet, reliable burglar?”
“A specialist in safes . . . wall safes,”
Uncle Ralph explained, and waited for the reply.
When he entered the waiting taxi, the meter was reaching madly for the five dollar mark.
f I 'HE taxi stopped at Uncle Ralph’s door. It was night now and the devilclock was rocketting towards seventeen dollars.
Uncle Ralph got out. He was carrying a heavy, square bundle. The chauffeur, touching his cap, waited.
“You will go,” Uncle Ralph extricated his billfold, leafed over notes, “to Manson Titherwaite’s house. A lady will be waiting. Bring her here. I owe you, now, seventeen dollars, nearly—this other little trip is short. Here is twenty dollars . . . but — one moment. Do you remember the quaint chap we picked up . . . just after dinner . . . who left us so suddenly after we came from the Titherwaite Trust?”
“Sure do,” the chauffeur answered.
“This,” said Uncle Ralph passing over another bill, “this is to help you forget him. Young men driving taxis cannot afford to remember such . . . er . . . reprehensible people.”
“I ain’t never seen him.” The chauffeur sprang into his seat, threw in his clutch, and made off up the Avenue.
Uncle Ralph, with his square bundle, went into his house. He must ’phone his niece Marcia at once. That taxi driver was bent on giving service.
\/I ARCIA came. She panted up the ^-4 steps. Uncle Ralph himself swung the door wide, and led her to his study, an old, old room, with heavy dull furniture. One modern touch there was—a radio cabinet in a corner. The banjo clock on the wall was ticking its way towards eleven.
Marcia paused there, in the centre of the room. Her face was tragic. Uncle Ralph, fumbling for words knew that in another moment she’d be play-acting all over him, pawing him, bleating . . .
His mouth twisted in a sardonic smile: “The fire, my dear Marcia, has not reached the powder magazine,” said he “Sit down.” And drew a chair forward.
She crumpled into it, uncomprehending. On the table before her was a pile of books, great black volumes with leaves of brown paper.
Uncle Ralph Titherwaite sat down beside her. “You might look through those,” suggested he. “They are .... you might say ... the documents in the case.”
“Where . . . where did you get them ...”
“Most unconventionally ... I stole them . . . with a professional assisting. From your husband, Manson’s, wall safe,” answered the old man, and opened the first volume.
Marcia dropped her eyes to the table. She read. Then turned a page, another: then leafed her way frantically through that first great book, through a second, and, finally, reached for the third.
“Why ...” she gasped. “Why . . . it’s all about Manson . . . clippings . . . from the newspapers ...” “It would appear that you are right.” Uncle Ralph had already looked through those three volumes. Pasted there, page after page was Manson’s past. Manson in high school, prominent in the glee club. Manson at college, posing before the cameras after the big game. Manson in health and sickness. The rogue even got publicity out of that broken wrist—cranking the first auto in Chester had done it. Manson making speeches during the war —the demon recruiter, speaking glibly of‘Over there’—a locality with which he had no personal acquaintance. Other clippings.
Uncle Ralph could vision Manson as day by day, he scanned the papers, snipped these out, pasted them in the great books, filling them one after the other. And Uncle Ralph could remember, with a pang, a little more. Vanity? Was it not to Manson’s vanity he had appealed during the war when in that first fine flush of patriotism Manson had spoken glibly of the trenches? Hadn’t he warned him against burying his talents over therewhen they might have shone so at home? And other times when he had influenced Manson. Vanity? He had used it right along, this old meddling man. Power? His power over these other Titherwaites, was it not based on their weaknesses? But he shook this mood off. He was, after all, the chief of the clan. He had his privileges.
“I suppose,” he mused. “I suppose, Tonio Maglonio has one of these morgues too ...”
“Uncle ...” Marcia raised puzzled eyes, “I ... I don’t understand you . . . Tonio? I can’t see what this has to do with . . . ”
The radio in the corner began to whine.
“Hah!” said Uncle Ralph Titherwaite. “Hah!” Thus making that once offensive expletive his own. “A wonderful invention, my dear. I always try to get the late programme.” And he drew a crumpled clipping from his pocket.
BETTER GARDENS SURE
AVERS THOMAS BENTLEY
Spadework still far from complete, counters Manson Titherwaite
No Love Feast To-night?
“The speeches,” said Uncle ' Tithewaite, nodding towards the radio cabinet. “So far, they have been most elevating. I believe ... ah, yes, they are cheering now. They must have elected their new president. And, if I’m not mistaken, blossoms are assured, my dear ...” His voice tailed off as the faint cheers lifted into a roar, as the radio broadcasted the final climax of the Better Gardens Banquet.
Then as, for a moment, the cheers died, Uncle Ralph spoke again, his voice dropping into that unlovely yet distinct tone employed by the local announcer: “You are lis-ten-ing,” said Uncle Ralph Titherwaite, “to the pres-i-dent of the Better Gardens Club, broadcasting from Station SELF. . .” and stopped again, as another fainter voice grew and grew. And Marcia, at sound of that second voice, stiffened in her chair. For it was the voice of her husband Manson Titherwaite and it was saying,—
“Large gardens, small gardens,
I love them all . . . ”
They listened, these two in the old library, till the last echo of that remembered voice had died. They sat silent, for moments afterwards. Marcia it was who first spoke.
“And you mean . . . he’s not in love . . . with anyone else . . . after all?”
“He is, my dear,” Uncle Ralph answered, softly, “in love? I should say so. In love with himself. Really, my dear, you should get the poor boy a press agent. He’s running himself ragged pursuing publicity.”