FICTION

A SLIP of the TONGUE

FRANK MANN HARRIS May 1 1934
FICTION

A SLIP of the TONGUE

FRANK MANN HARRIS May 1 1934

A SLIP of the TONGUE

FICTION

FRANK MANN HARRIS

THIS MATTER of prison reform, which occupies so much space in some of our newspapers, is one of which I know but little. As I said to my father-in-law at the dinner table only this evening, I am not sufficiently versed in the subject of criminology to care to express an opinion on the subject.

“But,” I added, "should the time ever come when our jienal institutions, following the example of some of those enlightened places m the United States, will allow their inmates to have their own football teams, glee clubs, brass bands and the like. 1 tanc\ that the penitentiary down in Kingston will not need to look far afield for a capable leading man for its dramatic society.”

My father-in-law, over his coffee, laughed heartily at this. "That fellow was certainly one bad actor and no mistake,” he said.

“On the contrary,” I replied, “he was such a good actor that he acted himself into a seven years steady engagement, which is a better record than even Miss I Iressler or any of the numerous Barrymores can boast ”

In her place at the foot of the table 1 could see a not unfamiliar gleam of suspicion come into my w ife's eyes, and 1 hastily changed the topic of conversation. But later, in the seclusion of our own chamber, she taxed me about it.

“You'll never make me believe, you old meany.” she said, “that you are not keeping something back about that hold-up affair.”

"Darling,” 1 made answer, “we have agreed to let the matter drop, and dropped it is. There was not. as you seem to think, any mystery about it. As 1 have said before. 1 simply used what small powers of deduction I possess. And now that it is all over, I bear the poor chap no ill will. In fact, when the proper time comes I intend to induce your father to use his influence to have the sentence mitigated, well deserved though it was. For, after all, had it not been

for what happened I might never have won you, my dear, and that would have been extremely sad sad for me, I mean to say.”

At which my wife rumpled my hair and called me “Old Silly” and other irrelevant but gratifying things, and pretended to be satisfied. But deep down inside she still suspects, I know, that 1 am as she would phrase it — holding out on her.

Ah, well, some day, no doubt, she will cozen me into telling her the whole tale; but 1 intend to keep my secret as long as ]x>ssible. That ancient ditty about "Always Keep Them (messing” expressed. I fancy, a rather sound principle of human conduct especially so in relation to one’s dealings with the weaker but more inquisitive, sex.

Yet 1 would not have you surmise that 1 did anything of which I should be really ashamed; although it is indubitably true that from his first appearance in Paynesville 1 was guilty of an unreasonable and instinctive dislike for Bradbury Owens and that, despite my earnest efforts to suppress this unworthy emotion, it grew rather than diminished.

Consider the facts, however, before you judge me too harshly for this. Up to the time of his coming to our little town 1 considered myself one of the happiest of men. I held a g(xxl position which 1 had won by my own efforts, and had prosjxvts of advancement. My place in the society of our small but prosjx-rous community was fairly prominent, and that in spite of a natural reserve of manner amounting almost to bash fulness.

Best of all. 1 had reason to believe I was making steady, if slow, progress in my quest for the affections of the dearest girl in the world.

But with the coming of Owens, my felicity was soon overcast. I well remember the morning when old Mr. \alentine, the chief accountant at the Jordan Woollen Mills,

brought him into the bank and introduced him to the staff.

“Stanley,” he said, “I want you to meet Mr. Owens who has come to Paynesville to join our office staff. Mr. Owens —Mr. Talbot.”

I looked out from my teller’s cage and beheld a large, ruddy sort of chap with the type of face that some people, girls in particular, seem to consider handsome. He had a large, mellow voice and a large, breezy manner.

“I am very pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Owens,” I murmured politely.

“Nix on the mister stuff.” he bellowed. “Brad is the name and I’m tickled pink to meet you. I been hearing plenty about you. They tell me that you know more big

words and how to sling them around than Old Man Webster himself, and that Big Bill Tilden would be a sucker for you out on a tennis court. , , Such tribute, even if rather fulsome, should have been trràtifving; but there are some people who have the faculty of making you feel small and insignificant even when they are paving you compliments. Owens was one of them. 1 spoke about it to Ruth Jordan a couple of weeks later, just after I had won three straight sets from Owens on the Jordan tennis court.

“Ruth,” I said, “I beat that chap without any difficulty every time we play. I shall probably always be able to beat him, as his game, though flashy, is unsound.

So why is it that each time I do it he makes me feel as if he had just let me win out of the goodness of his heart—like a kindly uncle playing down to the level of a small nephew?”

She was looking across the lawn to where Owens sat fanning himself in the midst of a cluster of girls. Her manner of replying to me indicated that she had been paying scant attention to what I had said.

“Yes, isn’t he a peach?” Ruth said. “Have you heard him sing, Stan? He can do Bing Crosby stuff so that it is better than Crosby himself. I think Brad is smooth.”

“What does your father think?” I asked.

“Oh—dad,” Ruth scoffed. “You know how dad is.

He doesn’t even know that Queen \ ictoria is dead like a lot more folks around here. \V hat this old town needed was a late number like Brad to wake it up out of its trance.”

I seemed to gather that the father had failed to share his daughter’s enthusiasm for the newcomer, and took what scant comfort I might out of that; for J. E. Jordan didn’t reach the position of owning pretty near all of Paynesville without being a fairly shrewd judge of character.

But no matter what J. B. Jordan might think, or what my own unexpressed opinion was, for that matter, there was no denying that Owens had become, in a very short space of time, the town’s most popular young man. 1 íe was the centre of every group he found himself in, the life and soul of every party. He danced in a manner that made every other man present feel he had been born with two left feet. He sang without the necessity of the slightest urging, and with a depth of yearning in his voice that made up for its technical flaws. His conversation, though as unceasing as the flow of the late Mr. Tennyson’s brook, sparkled with witticism. And above all, he had a way with women.

The truth is that he must have dazzled us townsfolk ; for it is curious, looking back at it now, that nobody should have thought to question why such brilliance should come and, so to speak, bury itself in a place like Paynesville, Yes, he dazzled us, tossing around

the names of famous personages as a farmer tosses hay; for you could not mention anyone at all notable, particularly in the realms of stage and sport, that Owens did not convey the idea that he and that person were on terms of closest intimacy. He might not actually say that he had, for instance, taught Vallee to croon, Rubinoff to play the violin, or Chabot to tend goal; but from his manner you might easily infer that such had been the case.

But it was as a mimic that he really excelled, for there is no denying that he had a real genius in that art. He could give an imitation of almost anybody that, except for a touch of exaggeration that made it funnier, was absolutely lifelike.

Nor were his impersonations confined, as is often the case, to celebrities whom his audience knew,

perhaps, only by reputation. He could take off local characters. after but slight observation, in a way that was uncanny. His mimicry, for example, of gruff old Mr. Thompson, our bank manager, refusing to give an extension on a note was a thing to marvel at.

NEED I SAY that it did not in any way help to endear Owens to me that the most hilariously successful of his local impersonations was that of myself. Perhaps I should tell you that I am supposed to be somewhat precise, both in manner and speech, having schooled myself, for certain

private reasons, into a careful choice of language. Ixing before the autumn was over, tlie constant girlish plea of “Oh, Brad, do Stan Talbot for us,” followed by an imitation that even I had to admit approximated the original only too closely, had come to sound most gratingly in my ears.

Without boasting, I can say that my own laughter always managed to blend itself with the peals that ever followed this masterpiece; but that it was as hearty as it sounded l very much doubt.

But I had a deeper reason than that for gradually developing tlie belief that the coming of Owens to our town had not been an auspicious event. Have I said that this paragon had a way with women? I might better have put it in the singular because, from the beginning, Owens made no effort to conceal his opinion that Ruth Jordan stood supreme Ruth whom long I had adored, timidly and except latterly, from afar.

Picture my emotions, then, when 1 saw Owens on terms of easier, more affectionate familiarity with her in a month than I had been able to achieve in years. What was worse, Ruth seemed to like it.

Some of this was in my mind while making up the semi-monthly payroll money for the Jordan Woollen Mills that memorable Thursday a task that had, through long practice, come to tie more or less mechanical. To be exact, as I was counting out the bills of various denominations and placing them in the brown leather handbag in which they were carried to the mills. I w!as thinking, “He had his arm around her out on the verandah last night —and she wasn’t struggling very hard to get away.”

I was alone in the bank. Or practically so, because, as it was close to one o’clock, old Mr. Thompson was enjoying his customary nap in the manager's office at the rear, and I had sent our junior over to the Chinese restaurant for the luncheon tray from which it was my habit to regale myself on payroll days instead of going out.

Ours is a somewhat old-fashioned establishment. Perhaps I should say “was old-fashioned as, since taking over tlie management, I have made some changes. One of the very few private banking institutions left in our country, our ways might strike people from larger centres as free and easy. For instance, old Mr. Valentine would telephone from The Mills in the morning for what money he needed, and I would have it all ready when he and Brad Owens came for it in the afternoon; and if sometimes Mr. Valentine forgot to make out a cheque to cover it well, lx>th bank and mills belonged to J. B. Jordan and there was no fuss alxiut it.

The payroll was a sizable one. Even in depressed times the Woollen Mills had pros|x*red, employing several hundred persons; and I had just finished dropping the last of some fifteen thousand dollars into the bag when 1 heard the front door open. Thinking it was the junior with the tray, I did not oup immediately. I finished adding a column of figures and jotted down tlie total before raising my head.

I lixiked straight into the muzzle of a revolver that must have been, 1 am certain, only slightly smaller than the biggest gun on French soil during the late war, in which I took a small and non-combatant fxirt. Behind this monstrous weaixm was a figure, masked from cap-|x;ak to chin in black cloth. I*rom back of this mask emerged a hoarse voice saying;

"Git ’em up. and if you make one wrong move I 11 blast daylight through you.”

T WOULD prefer to draw a veil over this part of it, A but candor compels me to admit that, for an instant, my overwrought nerves gave way and 1 cried out something that made me wish 1 had bitten my tongue olT before emitting. Wild ideas surged through my brain. I thought of seizing the ancient six-shooter that lay in the drawer beside me, but suppressed the impulse because, in addition to its being so rusty that I doubted if it would go off, 1 have always been timid of firearms and violence of any kind.

The masked face spoke again.

“Hand over that bag or I 'll plug you like a rat.” The voice carried conviction. Briefly, I handed out the money, opening the barred wicket to do so.

The hooded figure seized it and walked briskly to the dwr. Like one in a nightmare, I watched it cross the sidewalk and get into a flivver coupé that stood waiting with another man at the wheel. I he coupé bounded away with a wail of tortured gears. In the dead silence w-hich followed I could hear Mr. Ihompson’s gentle snore sounding rhythmically from the back office.

I sprang into action and ran to the telephone and vigorously turned the crank. As usual, Tessie Brewster, our Central, took her time answering it. Tessie, I think, rather resented my interest in Ruth Jordan and showed her resentment by being extra slow in answering my calls. In a few words I told her what liad happened and instructed her to give the alarm. In

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A Slip of the Tongue

Continued from page 15—Starts on page 14

less than ten minutes there must have been all of a dozen people in the bank, talking excitedlv and getting in one another’s way. While the tumult was at its height Mr. Valentine and Brad Owens came in, and I remember that Owens’ first remark, after hearing what had happened, was:

“Gee, isn’t it a shame that I wasn’t here to walk in on that stick-up guy?”

Police help arrived. Henry McFee, our local constable, slouched in, looked around, asked a few questions and remarked, “Well, it looks like they made a clean getaway.” The city detectives, who came on the scene later, were much more helpful. They searched the premises for clues and fingerprints, quizzed everybody in sight, and took their departure saying, “It looks like a clean getaway.”

What I think is called technically a police network” was cast around the county, and travellers on all near-by roads were questioned; but the only thing that came of it was that one farmer, bound for town, “had seen a flivver coupé stepping pretty lively down the highway.” But as cars of that type are by no means rarities in our district, and as the farmer was certain that this one had but one man in it, the network caught no fish.

AS THE DAYS passed the excitement A died down, as those things will, even in a small town. J. B. Jordan took it coolly.

“Good job I let you persuade me to take out that hold-up insurance, Stan,” he said; and when I tried to apologize for my unheroic part in the affair, merely remarked: "Only a fool tries to fight it out with the wrong end of a gun. Don’t you ever try and do that, boy. We don t want you getting vourself shot up.”

But if this attitude on the part of my employer was soothing to my lacerated selfesteem, there were others who took delight in rubbing salt into the wounds. For you may readily imagine that our great local mimic, the ever-popular Mr. Owens, very soon added to his extensive repertoire the newest and most riotously successful of all his impersonations. To wit, that of Stanley Talbot and the hold-up man.

The skill with which he did it was simply devilish. He would take the parts of both myself and the bandit, imitating what were supposed to be my actions with fiendish ingenuity. Of course, as was his way, he added to it with every repetition, putting in deft touches every one of which helped to convey increasingly the idea that I had been but a feeble and pitiable figure. Without saying it, he gave you the impression that I had played a coward’s part and that if he, Owens, had been in my place there would have been at least one dead bandit, and more likely two of them.

The thing preyed on my mind and I became more and more morose, and kept to my rooms over the bank practically all the time excepting in working hours. Then, late one afternoon, the telephone rang. It was Ruth.

“Hello, stranger,” she said.

“How do you do, Ruth?” I replied. “Where have you been all these years?” “Why,” I said, “I haven’t been anywhere in particular.”

“Well,” she said, “you don’t need to forget all your friends and admirers.”

“I’m afraid,” I replied, “that I haven’t many of either.”

“Oh, don’t be a sap all your life.” Somehow this rude expression heartened me immensely. “Listen, Stan, what’s the idea of hiding yourself away like an old hermit or something? Where does it hurt worst? Have you got a mad on at me?”

“I have been busy,” I said shortly.

“Well, busy or not, you had better be up to the shanty this p.m. I am throwing a small party in honor of a visiting fireman who is departing.”

“Who is that?” I enquired.

“Brad Owens.”

“If he is going to be there you won’t need me,” I said, somewhat bitterly. “Just ask him to give an imitation of me and it will be better than the original.”

Ruth’s voice fairly sparked over the ware. “Listen, Stan,” she said, “you don’t have to try and be sillier than nature made you.

If I didn’t want you I wouldn’t ask you. And you be here or I’ll—I’ll come down and dig you out of bed and drag you through the streets in your pyjamas, and think what a scandal that would make. You wouldn’t want to ruin my reputation, would you? ’

“I wouldn’t want to do anything to hurt you, Ruth,” I answered.

“Well, then, why are you acting the way you have been doing?” she said—and hung up.

THAT EVENING I made a lengthy task of getting ready. I was not eager to go, but something impelled me to do so.

When I arrived at the big Jordan house, it was brightly lit up and the party was in full swing. Owens, of course, was holding the spotlight, noisier and more jovial than usual. Girls were clustered around him, listening to him admiringly, but I noted that Ruth was not among them. She was sitting by herself over in a corner. Owens greeted me loudly.

“Well, as I live and breathe, if it isn’t my old pal, Stan, the terror of the bandits. Stan, friend of my boyhood days, gather around the wassail bowl with me and let us pour a small libation, or maybe five or six, in memory of the occasion. For I am going away, Stan, let the tears flow as they may.” “You are leaving us?” I said, moving with him to the punch bowl, which contained, as was usual at Jordan’s, only an innocuous fruit beverage. Owens, I felt certain, had been imbibing something more potent, as he was somewhat above himself.

“You are going away?” I repeated.

“And how,” he replied. “When that midnight flyer pulls out of the dep]X), your old buddy, Brad, will be aboard, bound for the wide open spaces where men are men and smell of horse liniment.” Owens had an immense stock of such ancient wheezes which he would utter as if he had just newly coined them.

“You are not coming back? I queried

hopefully. ,

“I will tell the universe I will be back, he said. "I just got to go out to Winnipeg to sell a piece of property I just had a swell offer for; but after I have cleaned that up, I will be back with large, merry bells all over me. You didn’t think I would go away for good, now did you, Stan, and leave you here all alone to slaughter every poor, defenseless stick-up guy that comes through town? ■ Surely you didn t think I would do that,

Stan?” . .

“No,” I replied, “I didn t think that j

anything so pleasant could happen.

It was the first time I had ever said anything like that to Owens, and I could see that he didn’t like it, as his face flushed rosier than ever. He made no direct reply, but blustered noisily, in the manner of one ; of those chaps who orate in front of a circus j side-show.

“Come gather closer, neighbors and friends,” he chanted. “Gather close, because you are now about to see that thrilling drama, that blood-curdling tragedy, entitled ‘Stan Talbot and the Bold, Bad Bandit.’. Push up close and give those behind a chance to see.”

The words were hardly out of his mouth when Ruth pushed through the little group.

“Brad,” she said, “remember what I told you. No more of that.”

Owens stopped for a moment, looking at Ruth, while the others urged him to go on with the show.

“Never mind him, Ruth,” I said, let him go ahead. Continue, Owens,’ I addressed him. “Perhaps by watching you, I

I will be able to improve my technique for the next time I have an armed visitor.”

I could feel my arm squeezed approvingly. “I told that big clown,” Ruth whispered, “that if he pulled that stunt once more I would never speak to him again. But it’s better this way.”

So Owens went on with his act, and once again I could not help admiring his picturization of myself, even while I was inwardly writhing at the ridicule.

He had developed the thing into quite a little dramatic sketch; playing both parts himself. First, there was myself, sitting in the teller’s cage, working on the cash and giving instructions to our junior. The voice and gestures were so lifelike as to be startling. Then came the entrance of the bandit, his stealthy approach to the wicket, the thrusting forward of the revolver, the hoarse ; demand to “Stick ’em up.”

And now Owens introduced a novelty. Other times that I had seen him do this act, my reaction to the bandit’s challenge had been depicted as a pair of hands reaching skyward and a piercing cry that rose almost to a shriek. This cry was supposed, by many, to be very humorous. Now, however, instead of this wordless cry, I heard Owens, in the rôle of myself, saying in terrified accents, “Pleathe, mithter, don’t thoot.”

If I had been struck by lightning it couldn’t have been more of a shock. I turned to leave the group.

“Don’t go, Stan,” Ruth murmured. “Who cares what sort of a fool he makes out of himself?”

“I’ve got to go for a few minutes, Ruth,” I said, "but I’ll be back.”

A FEW MINUTES later, as I was coming out of the bank, Henry McFee, our local police force, came along.

“Hello, Stan,” he said. “Looks like you’ve took to burglarizing.”

“Henry,” I said, “you’re just the man I wanted to see. Come along with me to Jordan’s.”

“What’s up there?” Henry asked.

“I’ll tell you as we go,” I answered. “Have you got your handcuffs with you, Henry?”

“Why, sure I have,” Henry answered. “I always carry them night-times—or near always anyway.”

As we crossed the big Jordan lawn we caught up to Charley Gifford, who is always late at social affairs through not being able to close the drug store till nine-thirty.

“Charley,” I said to him, “I want you to do me a favor.”

“Sure thing, Stan. What is it?”

“As soon as you get inside, try and get Brad Owens to give his imitation of me being held up at the bank.”

“Try and get him to,” Charley said. “You mean, try and stop him. Personally I’m getting weary of that big flannel-mouth and his stunts, and so are lots more folks around here. But, anything you say, Stan; it’s your funeral.”

Henry McFee waited outside on the verandah. As Charley and I entered, the voice of Owens dominated the room. Hushed with admiration and excitement —and perhaps something else, for we found a ; partly-emptied bottle among the bushes outside the house next day—the guest of honor was in his glory. Charley Gifford made his way to him and said something.

! “Well,” Owens bellowed, “it isn’t very often I repeat the same performance twice in one night, but seeing it’s you, Charley . . . La-dees and gentiles”—he held up his big paw to command silence—“by special request of my thousands of unseen listeners, I am about to give an encore on that great drammer of ‘Stan Talbot and the Bank Robber.’ Hold your horses, the elephants are coming.”

He began his too familiar act again. This time, however, instead of backing away, I wormed my way forward till I was right in front of him. When he came to the climax, where I was supposed to be clawing the air and moaning “Mithter, pleathe don't thoot” —for he repeated the same phrase—I spoke.

“Owens,” I said, “I don’t like to criticize, but I don't think you have those hands just

right. Perhaps this will help you.” I thrust forward the bank revolver, pointing right at where Owens was largest—a mark that even I could not miss.

If there had been imitation terror in Owens’ mimicry of my voice, what sounded in his own was real enough.

“Put down that gun, you fool,” he said. “What’s the big idea? It might go off.” He did not, however, make any move to overpower me as he would have done—we had heard him say so—in the case of a real hold-up. On the contrary he kept his hands just about as high as they would reach.

There was a babble of talk around me, most of the boys and girls thinking it was some sort of joke, although I had never been given to that particular type of humor.

“Henry,” I called loudly, and Henry McFee came in from the verandah.

“What was it you wanted, Stan?” he said.

“I want you to arrest that man,” I said. “On what charge?” Henry asked.

“On the charge of robbing the Jordan Bank at the point of a gun,” I answered.

THE SILENCE that followed, so thick that you could have cut it like butter, showed how startling to the listeners my charge had been. It was broken by the voice of J. B. Jordan. He generally holed up in his own den when there was a party going on, but this time he happened to be present.

“Are you crazy, Stan?” he said, coming forward. “What is the idea of flourishing guns around here and making fool arrests? Is it some fool joke, or what?”

“If you think it is a joke, J.B.”—it was the first time in my life I had ever called him anything but Mister Jordan, but tonight I somehow felt I was equal to anybody— “If you think it is a joke, J.B., take a look at this chap’s face.”

And the expression on Owens’ pale face —isn’t it curious how quickly those blusterers collapse when their bubble is pricked? —was enough to convict any man.

Henry clapped the handcuffs on him before he could recover. And when he did recover to his usual blustering self, as later he did, the game was up. No amount of protesting could explain away the fifteen thousand dollars discovered in the Gladstone bag in his room, all neatly packed and ready for his departure.

But to give the poor devil his due, it was a crafty plan that he evolved and almost got away with. The idea of him staying in town with the money while his accomplice drove away without having been seen closely enough for recognition, was ingenious. So, too, was their plan of waiting till things cooled down before meeting to divide the loot.

Still, the absolutely perfect crime will probably never be committed. Plan how they may, make their schemes no matter how ingenious, criminals almost always find something to trip them up. Sometimes they leave a clue behind. Sometimes they give themselves away by bragging. Once in a while they run into somebody who—perhaps without physical courage—possesses powers of deduction.

But what puzzles Ruth is how I deduced it. My wife doesn’t question my deductive powers, but she can’t see what clue I found on which to start my chain of reasoning. But, as I said before, it is perhaps as well to let it remain a mystery to her. Only the really great crime solvers, like Mr. Sherlock Holmes, can afford to give all their secrets away, and I am too busy managing the

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J. B. Jordan enterprises, and too happy letting J. B. Jordan’s daughter manage me, to desire to go any further in the science of detection.

So happy am I that, even if my wife does cozen me into telling her about it, I doubt if I shall mind, although I know she will laugh and chaff me without mercy. You see, what Ruth doesn’t know is that when I was young, before I ever came to Paynesville, I suffered from an annoying physical handicap. I had taken a long course of treatment—lessons, rather—and had this handicap corrected.

Corrected permanently, I thought. But in the terror of the moment when I looked down the muzzle of that bandit’s revolver, for the first—and I hope the last—time, I forgot my carefully studied lessons; neg-

lected the careful choice of words that has perhaps made me seem more precise and meticulous than I really am.

But perhaps it was just as well. Otherwise, Owens would never have been caught. For if my horror of a gun had not startled me back into the lisp which I thought I had eradicated from my speech, Owens would never have heard me cry, “Pleathe, mithter, don’t thoot.” And if he hadn’t heard it, he couldn’t possibly have imitated that cowardly cry with such astonishing verisimilitude.

And if he hadn’t given that all too realistic impersonation, my deductive powers might not have worked so well. For I knew that only two people in Paynesville had ever heard me lisp. One of them was myself, and the other was the bandit.