THE CHARMING town of Wakeville—that fairest and sleepiest of all communities on the Canadian shore of Lake Erie—basked in the golden light of a June morning.
Sunshine bathed the drowsy lassitude of the Four Corners, gleamed from the town clock registering the hour of nine, glinted from the post office roof. Sunshine baked the sandy surface of the ball grounds, edged toward the cool shade of the maples in the park. Sunshine streamed joyously through a kitchen window and caressed the auburn hair of Miss Penny Foster.
Morning sunlight is not welcome at every breakfast table. It is the supreme unmasker of fraud and deceit. A good many women have about as much use for it as for a couple more chins.
But Penny Foster loved it—which is a roundabout way of conveying the fact that she was nineteen and pretty enough to make strong men straighten their neckties. Dreamily she sipped her coffee and gazed through and beyond the tubby man across the table. She was thinking of a young man named George Claybourne.
Poets, and writers of soap advertisements, may not agree, but there is nothing better calculated to make a girl look her best at breakfast than a tender recollection of the man she loves. A close-up of Penny at the moment would have made movie-director Lubitsch swallow his cigar, would have sent Darryl Zanuck into handsprings. Red lips parted, brown eyes dreamy, she gazed raptly at the percolator and murmured:
Beauty is too often wasted. Flannelfoot Foster had such scant appreciation of his blessings that he wasn’t even looking at Penny. He was munching toast and grumbling to himself over the sports page.
“Mmph?” said Mr. Foster. He had never been in great demand socially for his gifts of repartee.
He was Wakeville’s chief of police, and the fattest, sloppiest, fuzziest-brained, best-natured man in seven counties. He had a bland, rosy face, a small blob of nose, and eyes of an innocent and credulous blue; a pair of shaggy black eyebrows gave him an air of perpetual astonishment and emphasized his shimmering baldness. His first name was Obadiah, but few in Wakeville could have told you that; everyone called him Flannelfoot, a term inspired in derision and maintained in affection.
At the moment he was frowning upon a printed baseball rumor that the Toronto Leafs were meditating a change in the outfield. The information grieved him. He shook his head dubiously. It wouldn't do. Change the infield—yes. Get some new pitchers—certainly. But the outfield—oh, no. They couldn't do that. Not the outfield.
Flannelfoot Foster heard the sweet voice from afar. "Dopes!” he mumbled. "Can’t leave well enough alone. If I was running that team—Huh?” He looked up, blinking mildly.
"Do you know what today is?”
"Certainly,” replied Flannelfoot in a deep, throaty rumble. It was a voice that made you think of the whole Legislature speaking at once. “It's Monday.” He squinted at the date line of his paper to make sure. “Of course—Monday. Yesterday was Sunday, wasn’t it? So today,” insisted Flannelfoot, pursuing the argument to its logical conclusion, “today must be Monday.”
"I knew that,” murmured Penny sweetly.
The baffled expression so frequently evident when Flannelfoot exchanged light chitchat with his daughter, slowly clouded his face. He drank some coffee. It helped.
"Then why,” he enquired, reasonably enough, "did you ask me?”
"I didn’t ask you what day it is,” said Penny, gazing starry-eyed into nowhere. "I asked if you knew what today was.”
Constabulary duties in a town such as Wakeville are not exacting. It is seldom that they demand the shrewdness and quick-wittedness so highly valued, for instance, at Scotland Yard. One's mind is apt, consequently, to lose the razor edge. Flannelfoot struggled with his daughter’s observation briefly and gave up.
"Today,” he said doggedly, "is Monday.”
Penny smiled in rapture. "Isn’t George wonderful?”
It is confusing, just when one is grappling with a knotty problem, to have it snatched from under one's nose and replaced by another. Flannelfoot drank some more coffee.
"What has George got to do with it being Monday?” he asked.
"It's his first day as mayor.”
"Oh!” Flannelfoot’s face cleared up. "By gosh, that's right—”
“Twenty-seven!” murmured Penny. Dimpled elbows on the tablecloth, she cupped her hands beneath her chin and smiled lovingly at a fragment of cold toast. “I think it’s remarkable.”
Flannelfoot closed his eyes. He often did this when Penny was talking. It helped him concentrate. It was Monday; that was settled. And it was George’s first day as mayor. So far, so good. But twenty-seven what?
“Did you ever hear of anyone being a mayor at twenty-seven, Pop?” enquired Penny. "It must be a record. You know, if George went into politics and got into Parliament by the time he was thirty, he might be Prime Minister of Canada before forty. Wouldn't it be wonderful?”
Penny mused tenderly on a vision of George addressing the House of Commons. Flannelfoot returned to his newspaper and mumbled that George was a fine boy and would go a long way. He resumed consideration of the disturbing rumor about the Leafs’ outfield.
“I hope George doesn’t let his aunt turn Wakeville inside out.”
Penny had been leading up to this remark, apparently innocent, but actually full of dynamite, all along. Flannelfoot didn’t get it for a moment. But when he did, his eyebrows flew up like a couple of windowblinds. An expression of horrified bewilderment quivered on his features. He looked as startled as if Joe DiMaggio had reached a bat out of the two-column cut on the sports page and bopped him.
"Whazzat? Turn Wakeville inside out? George’s aunt?”
PENNY was pleased. She hadn’t seen her parent so alert since the day he put a pipe in his pocket too soon and his pants caught fire.
“She’s coming here. His Aunt Gertrude. Her name is Miss Duxbury. The minute she heard George was to be mayor she packed up and caught the first train. She's probably here now. George says she is a very commanding personality. That’s a polite way of saying she’s awfully bossy, I suppose.”
“Turn Wakeville inside out?” muttered Flannelfoot, clinging grimly to one idea at a time.
“George was telling me last evening that she has a lot of ideas about bringing modern progress to backward communities, and seeing this is the first time she ever had a nephew who was mayor of any kind of community—George being her only nephew—he’s a little bit afraid that he may have some trouble. In case she wants to try out some of her ideas on Wakeville.”
“What sort of ideas?” demanded Flannelfoot suspiciously.
“Oh—modern ideas. Town planning and factories—”
"Factories!” exploded her father. “What does she mean, factories? We don’t need any factories. We’ve got one.”
“Just a cannery. I hope George will be very firm with her. Heaven knows I don’t want a lot of whistles blowing in my ear at six o’clock every morning. But it’s going to be difficult for George, because after all he owes her a debt of gratitude. She’s his only aunt, and she practically raised him from an infant and put him through law school and he’ll get her money when she dies. So he can’t be rude to her.”
“Turn Wakeville inside out. Factories,” brooded Flannelfoot.
“I know I intend to be very polite when I meet her, and agree with everything she says. That’s the best way to deal with people like that.”
Flannelfoot looked at the clock and heaved himself out of his chair.
“Best way to deal with people like that,” he rumbled, breathing heavily, “is with a axe.”
He waddled ponderously into the hall, returned with his cap lurched rakishly on one side of his bald head. It was his sole concession to uniform—a shapeless and disreputable cap with a once-shiny visor and the word “Chief” in faded gilt. He hitched up his suspenders and brushed toast crumbs off his shirt front. Thus rendered presentable for the day’s duties, he waggled a fat finger at his daughter.
“She better leave me alone,” said Flannelfoot. “That’s all I’ve got to say. She better leave me alone.” He kissed Penny in an absent-minded sort of way and trudged to the door, muttering. “Turn the town inside out. Nothing the matter with this town. Not one solitary, single thing the matter.”
“She’ll probably think so herself after she’s been here a few days. If everybody is just as nice as pie to her,” said Penny with deceptive innocence, “I know it will make things a lot easier for George. Even if she makes you so mad you’d like to choke her, Pop, if you’ll just say, ‘Why, yes, Miss Duxbury, that’s a remarkably sound idea. A re-mark-ably sound idea,’ why she’ll think you’re just about the sweetest and cleverest old constable—”
The screen door slammed hard upon Flannelfoot’s grunt of disgust. He lumbered off down the garden path, his wide, shapeless shoes padding softly in the warm earth. Penny heard a receding, mutinous mutter:
“. . . town’s all right as it is . . . factories, by gosh . . .”
Penny smiled gently at the percolator again. Flannelfoot would be polite to Miss Duxbury. She was pretty sure of that. But whether the ominous Aunt Gertrude would return the courtesy—that was something else again. Penny had an idea that Aunt Gertrude might take a little managing.
She jumped up and began clearing away the breakfast dishes. For this morning, at least, George wouldn’t be in his law office. He would be at the Town Hall, and it wouldn’t do a bit of harm to drop in for a few minutes and encourage him. She hadn’t seen him for practically twelve hours anyway. And, besides, maybe the aunt would be there. Penny was very curious about the aunt.
ON THE broad general principle that in a town like Wakeville there was no place else to go but up, George Claybourne was known as a rising young lawyer.
He looked the part. A brisk, competent, red-headed six-footer, George hadn’t had any trouble making an impression on Wakeville from the day he hung out his shingle. The mayoralty came around wagging its tail before old Mr. Popham—who clung stubbornly to the office for twenty years—was in the cemetery a week. George, the townspeople insisted, was the man for the job.
As he stepped into the Town Hall that morning, however, he did not sizzle with the blithe confidence, the dynamic energy, that might have been expected of a fledgling mayor on his first day in office.
Had he been alone, this might have been so. But George was not alone. His aunt—that dominant, that terrible woman, Miss Gertrude Duxbury—was by his side.
George, in consequence, was depressed. Cowed, in fact. Aunt Gertrude always had that effect on him.
“What a ghastly building!” boomed Aunt Gertrude. She squinted at the Town Hall cornerstone. “Built in 1850, hey? Good heavens, Georgie, it’s probably alive with rats.”
Aunt Gertrude always prided herself on the fact that she said what she thought. She was a massive woman, mostly bust and bustle, and she had been having her own way for a long time. For the past half hour, on a drive through Wakeville, she had been saying what she thought, and George was sorry he had ever seen the town.
“Old building, yes,” he admitted brightly. “But sound. Sound as a bell, aunty. When they built a town hall in those days, they built it to last.”
He ushered his formidable relative indoors, where Town Clerk Niblett peeped out at them over the top of a high desk. Mr. Niblett, a small, desiccated man who looked like a rabbit with family worries, had administered the affairs of Wakeville for a quarter of a century; he was the real mayor, and everybody knew it. He chirped: “ ’Morning, folks,” and scrambled down from his chair.
"Aunty,” said George cheerfully, “I want you to meet Mr. Niblett. Right-hand man, chief cook and bottle-washer. Percy, this is Miss Duxbury. I’ve been showing her around the town.”
Aunt Gertrude said, "Howdyuduh,” in a frosty tone, and Mr. Niblett said he was pleased to meet her, and what did she think of their little community?
“Quaint place,” said Aunt Gertrude, in a manner implying that she considered Wakeville a terrible hole. “I think Georgie has a wonderful opportunity here.”
She looked around Niblett’s dark and dusty den; she missed nothing, from the astonishing litter of papers on the Niblett desk to the fly-specked files against the rear wall, the mountain of old newspapers in the corner, the steel engraving of the Fathers of Confederation hanging drunkenly behind the stove, and the broken-backed couch against the wall.
“Needs cleaning, Georgie,” she observed, and managed to make the remark sound so personal that George looked pleadingly at Niblett and said hastily, “Miss Duxbury is from the city,” as if that explained everything.
“We’re very proud of your nephew, ma’am,” piped Niblett, wishing he had swept out the office that month. “We think we’re very lucky to have him as our new mayor.”
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for Georgie. A won-derful opportunity. So much to be done.” Aunt Gertrude condemned the Niblett lair with another devastating glance. “And where is your office, Georgie? I presume the mayor has a private office.”
“Could stand a little tidying up, I’m afraid,” coughed Niblett, and opened the door of the dark little cell that the late Popham had used chiefly for stud poker sessions and as a refuge from his wife. Aunt Gertrude strode in, very nimbly for a lady of her beam and gross tonnage, took one look, sniffed, then went over and raised the window.
“Well, Georgie!” she said.
Mr. Niblett retreated. George dusted off a chair.
“Well, aunty!” he said brightly.
Aunt Gertrude sat down. The chair creaked alarmingly.
“This building,” said the lady, “should either be torn down or blown up.”
George looked a little nervous. His aunt, he knew, was perfectly capable of touching a match to the Town Hall or setting a time bomb in the cellar, and going to the mat with the insurance company afterward.
“I won’t be in here much anyhow,” he pointed out. “I have my own office down the street. After all, being mayor of a little town like this—”
“A marvellous opportunity, Georgie,” said his aunt firmly. “To take a dirty, frowsy, out-of-date place like this, to modernize it, spruce it up—”
“New furniture, you mean?”
“I’m talking about the whole town.”
Aunt Gertrude looked positively happy. She was as delighted as a missionary stumbling upon an entirely new breed of Hottentots. She squinted at her nephew over her eyeglasses and announced:
“Georgie, we have work to do.”
George shuddered visibly when he heard that “we.” He had been afraid of it. The moment he received his aunt’s telegram he knew the woman had decided to muscle in. And when she squinted at him over her eyeglasses like that he was licked.
She was not looking at Mayor George Claybourne—she was looking at Little Georgie, her nephew, who had to have his meat cut for him, and who had to be sent back to wash behind his ears. She had been squinting at George over those eyeglasses for a good many years, and whenever she did it he became five again and his spine turned to jelly.
“Well, of course, I’d like to do something for Wakeville all right.” George said meekly, “but a fellow has to go easy. Make haste slowly, you know. Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
“Don’t quote proverbs at me. It’s so old-fashioned. No, Georgie, it’s quite obvious that this is a marvellous opportunity for you to make a name for yourself. You’ll have to roll up your sleeves. You’ll have to put your shoulder to the wheel, Georgie.” Aunt Gertrude got up and went to the window. She looked out over Main Street and clucked sadly. “My, oh my!”
GEORGE looked at Main Street too. He didn’t see anything wrong with it. Wakeville had a quiet, sleepy charm that suited George right down to the ground. Main Street looked as it always looked at this hour of the day. Vrooman’s hound dog asleep on the Four Corners, three loafers on the post office steps, a clerk stacking baskets in front of the chain store, cars parked all over the place at all angles, Butch Prout sprawled under a truck in front of the Elite Garage. The wealthy and eccentric Mr. Johnson was emerging from the Continental House for his morning walk; Flannelfoot Foster shuffling majestically around the pool room corner. A peaceful scene.
“Isn't that just too depressing?” demanded Aunt Gertrude. “What this town needs, Georgie, is a touch of modern progress. It needs life, bustle, activity, industry. How many industries have you?”
“Well, there’s just the cannery so far,” George admitted, “but you see, we really don’t need industries. This is a sort of shopping centre for the farmers, and a lot of retired people live here—”
“Every town needs industries. We’ll get ’em. I’ll write to Cousin Shadbolt. He has three or four factories. Might as well have one of ’em here. I’ll write to a lot of people. We’ll start a Campaign.”
George shuddered again. Aunt Gertrude in the throes of a Campaign had all the tact and charm of a cyclone.
A diversion across the street, at the moment turned his thoughts from Cousin Shadbolt. The morning encounter between Flannelfoot Foster and the eccentric Waldo P. Johnson was taking place.
“Listen to this, aunty. It’s a circus.”
Waldo P. Johnson was a sprightly, bristly-mustached little man who wore a toupee, a plaid suit and a flower in his buttonhole. He also carried the only cane and sported the only derby in Wakeville. He had arrived at the Continental House three months previously and had settled down for the announced purpose of writing a bock on the history of Tecumseh County. A bank account of twenty thousand dollars was all that saved him from being regarded as a lunatic.
As Mr. Johnson and Flannelfoot Foster hove within speaking distance, their exchange of courtesies commenced as usual.
“Darned if it ain’t old Flannelfoot!” bawled Mr. Johnson. “Hi, cop!”
“Morning, Mr. Johnson,” boomed Flannelfoot solemnly, and steeled himself for the ordeal.
“Look here, Flannelfoot,” shouted Johnson, in a voice audible for at least a block, “what sort of a cop are you? Don’t you know this town is a cesspool of crime? When are you going to arrest somebody?”
Flannelfoot sighed. This was Mr. Johnson’s notion of good clean fun; he had an odd sense of humor. The routine was an old story by now. Heads began appearing at office windows around the Four Corners.
“Criminals all around you. Why don’t you pinch ’em?” bawled Johnson. “You don't earn your salary, Flannelfoot. How about that bank robbery last night? Didn't you know the bank was blown up and eight thousand dollars stolen?”
“I'd have heard about it if it happened,” said Flannelfoot placidly, edging past.
“Haven’t heard about that yet, eh? Just woke up? And what's the idea of going around town in disguise, Flannelfoot? Where's your uniform. Suppose somebody needed a policeman all of a sudden, and came up to you and asked where they’d find one. How would you feel then? And look, Flannelfoot. See that car over by the fire hydrant?”
“Sure I see it.”
“Then go slap a ticket on it. Against the law to park by a fire hydrant, isn’t it?”
Flannelfoot grinned lazily.
“Well, now, Mr. Johnson. I guess if there was a fire we’d get that car out of the way all right."
“By the hokey, Flannelfoot. I don’t believe you know how to make out a ticket. The traffic in this town is a disgrace. Why don’t you give yourself up?”
And the eccentric Johnson went his way, cackling gleefully and twirling his cane. Flannelfoot, with a sheepish smile, plodded over to the Elite Garage and subsided into a chair just inside the doorway where it was shady.
Aunt Gertrude took a deep breath.
“Well!” she exclaimed. “If I was a constable and a man spoke to me like that, I’d clap the handcuffs on him.”
“It’s just a gag,” explained George. “That goes on every morning. Johnson is a little cracked. He gets a big kick out of it.”
But there was a gleam in Aunt Gertrude’s eye.
“So that’s your town constable! Why doesn't he wear a uniform?”
George looked unhappy. “Why, I suppose he’s more comfortable without it. In a town like this—”
“And if it’s against the law to park a car by a fire hydrant, why doesn’t he do something about it? What’s the use of having laws? Maybe that Mr. Johnson isn’t so foolish after all. And how can you have any respect for authority if your town constable lets people go around calling him names? How long do you think the police commissioner of any city would last if everybody called him Dopey or Snoopy or something?”
Aunt Gertrude left the window and plumped herself into the armchair behind the mayoral desk.
“Get paper and pencils, Georgie. Then sit down. We’ve got work to do.” And she threw the eavesdropping Niblett into a state of jitters and nervous collapse by demanding loudly: “What do you do with your town employees around here when they get too old to get around without a wheel-chair? Have you got a pension scheme, or do you just take ’em out and shoot ’em?”
WHEN Miss Penny Foster, cool and delectable in green linen with white collar and cuffs, tripped gaily into the Town Hall at eleven o’clock that morning, she found Percy Niblett working as if the devil were at his elbow, and the new mayor groaning at his desk in the office beyond, deep in dust and dejection.
"Lamb!” said Penny, and kissed him on the top of the head. “There’s a smudge on your nose. Didn’t you wash your face this morning?”
George stared at her, hollow-eyed. “Don’t!” he begged. “You talk like my aunt.”
“Did she show up?” enquired Penny, brightly.
"Did she show up! Did she show up, the lady asks me. Yes, my love, Aunt Gertrude has shown up. Aunt Gertrude has arrived and gone into action. She has taken over. Long live the revolution. Heaven help Wakeville. I wish I could trade places with Popham.”
“Why, George!” Penny was wide-eyed. “You’re talking so strangely. Mr. Popham is in the cemetery.”
“It still goes. He lived to a ripe old age. He didn’t have any aunt. Darling, how many jobs does your father hold in this town?”
"Jobs? Well—let me see.” Penny began counting them off on her fingers. “He’s the constable, of course. He collects taxes. He makes the assessments and collects water rates.”
“Constable, tax collector, assessor and water rate collector. And isn’t he supposed to prowl around people’s back yards?”
“Oh, yes. Sanitary inspector. And superintendent of streets. And if anybody builds a new house they’re supposed to come to Pop and ask him if it’s okay.”
“And he’s county constable too. It’s sort of honorary.”
“Not truant officer?”
“Oh, yes, of course. Truant officer. And deputy chief of the volunteer fire department. I think that’s all. He’s what they call a pick-and-shovel cop. But George, what’s the matter? Do you think he has too much to do? He hasn’t really, because he just sort of jumps from job to job during the day. Pop can walk down Main Street and one minute he’ll be the truant officer telling some kid to get to school and then he’ll cross the road and have a look at the new warehouse they’re putting up back of the hardware store and he’ll be building inspector for a few minutes, and if the fire bell rings he can hurry around to the fire hall and help them get the truck out. Then he’s deputy chief of the fire department. And when he gets to the fire he hops off the truck and directs traffic so people won’t drive their cars into the fire and get burned to death, and he’s constable again. He really manages very nicely. Now, George, just because you’re mayor, don’t go getting ideas about making things easier for Pop.”
‘‘Darling, I haven’t any ideas about your father except that he’s a swell guy with a lovely daughter. But it’s my Aunt Gertrude who’s been getting the notions—”
"Oh-oh!” said Penny. “Already so soon? Let’s hear the worst.”
Silently, George handed her a sheet of paper. At the top of the page, in bold capitals, Aunt Gertrude had written:
PROGRAM FOR A BIGGER AND BETTER WAKEVILLE
“Your aunt,” mused Penny, “doesn’t waste time. Darling, this is exciting.”
“Wait till you read it. You’ll be excited, all right.”
The manifesto covered a good deal of ground.
1. Clean out the Town Hall. (Build new one if possible.)
2. Clean out and refurnish the mayor’s office. (Mahogany desk, filing cabinet, Venetian blinds, rug, etc.)
“What’s the et cetera? A blond secretary?” enquired Penny.
“Shut up!” growled the mayor, moodily. “It’s no laughing matter.”
“Not to me, she wouldn’t be.” Penny read on.
3. Adopt town slogan. (“Wakeville, Awake!” “Wide-awake Wakeville, the Town of Tomorrow!”)
4. Start campaign to bring industries to Wakeville. (Write at once to Cousin Shadbolt, the President of Coastwide Motors, and the War Office. Also Mr. Yanniff, man I met on train, who buys dead horses and makes glue out of them or something. Also Georgie’s friend, Mr. Scattlebee.)
“Who is Mr. Scattlebee, darling?” asked Penny.
“She dragged that out of me,” replied George, bitterly. “I was keeping quiet about it in case things didn’t work out. Scattlebee is trying to start up a company to make roller skates, and he hinted that he might locate here. After all, Wakeville could use another payroll. I don’t want to see a lot of smoky old factories here, but a nice quiet little roller skate plant—”
"I think it would be wonderful. And you never breathed a word about it to me. You’re so clever at keeping secrets, lamb. Imagine knowing a man by the name of Scattlebee and never mentioning him.”
George glanced at the light of his life suspiciously. But Penny was reading the program again.
5. Instruct town constable to make people keep their cows off the streets.
6. Instruct town constable to wear uniform.
HEY, WHAT’S this?” Penny stared at the dejected George. “Oh, my goodness, sweet, you can’t do that.”
“Is it the part about the cows?”
‘‘No—the uniform. You can’t make Pop wear a uniform.”
“So far as I’m concerned. I don’t care if your father goes around Wakeville in pyjamas. It isn’t my doing,” wailed George. “Don’t look at me like that. He can wear a Prince Albert and a plug hat. He can wear overalls. He can gallop around in his underwear and I’ll be the last man in town to point the finger of scorn at him. I don’t set myself up as a dictator of fashion. I haven’t the slightest interest in what the well-dressed cop will wear. But my Aunt Gertrude thinks Wakeville can never be regarded as a beauty spot until your father togs himself out in a brass-buttoned coat with pants to match.”
“Now, lamb,” soothed Penny, and patted him on the head, “don’t get your self all excited. I know it doesn’t mean anything. It just gave me a bit of a shock when I saw it written down here, that's all. Wouldn’t Pop laugh! He only wears that uniform about twice a year, whenever there’s a parade, or something special, and it takes three strong men and a couple of shoehorns to get him into it.” Penny giggled. “Imagine Pop going down Main Street on a hot day like this, in uniform. He’d die.”
George looked glum.
“Well, darling, I’m sorry, but Aunt Gertrude thinks—”
“George!” Penny stared at him incredulously. It was beginning to dawn on her that this fantastic notion about the uniform was actually getting a measure of official support. “You’re not serious?”
“Honey,” said George in a voice of desperation, “you don’t know my aunt.”
Penny was coming to the conclusion that she didn’t know George either. This hollow-eyed puppet who was afraid of his aunt, this apologetic creature who endorsed a cold-blooded project to put her father into uniform—was this the man she loved? Was this, she asked herself, the knight of her girlish dreams? Was this the bold cavalier who had won her trusting heart, who had sworn to fight dragons on her behalf, who had once even promised to walk through fire for her if by any chance such an excursion should ever be necessary?
No, she told herself, it wasn’t.
“Darling,” she said gently, “your aunt doesn't know my Pop either.”
“She saw him across the street this morning. But she hasn’t met him yet.”
“When she does,” said Penny, “I want a ringside seat. Just let her mention uniform to Pop—”
“Look, honeybee! You’ll have to work on him,” pleaded the desperate George. “It’ll be just for a few days. She’ll probably get tired of all this and clear out in a week. But if she doesn’t get her own way, she’s liable to settle down here and make Wakeville a hell on earth. I know the woman.”
“Well”—Penny was dubious—“I’ll try. But I know Pop will scream like a trapped panther. Where is your female Hitler now, by the way?”
“I’m afraid even to guess. She took my car and went for a drive to get a few more ideas about improving Wakeville,” George replied gloomily. “No good will come of it.”
IT HAD never been said of Gertrude Duxbury, that apostle of civic reform, that she had a habit of letting grass grow under her feet. She had a very definite mission in mind when she set out in George’s car, and if her nephew had known it he would have been jolted out of a year’s growth.
Wakeville, she had decided, needed stirring up. To a zealous lady whose prowess as a stirrer-upper was so infamous that relatives blanched with dread whenever she entered their homes, whose demoniac energy had made her name a byword and a hissing in the women’s clubs of her native city, Wakeville was a challenge and a godsend.
Unerringly, she had selected her first victim. Law and order, as represented by that fat, untidy personage they called Flannelfoot, was in drastic need of overhauling.
“Sets the tone for the whole community,” she muttered grimly. “Imagine! Calling a constable Flannelfoot to his face! And he lets them get away with it!” Aunt Gertrude cluck-clucked. “And as for protecting the public from robbers and murderers—why if a thief ever showed his nose around here, I’ll warrant that old reprobate would run away and hide.”
A believer in direct action, she had set out with the fell purpose of testing out the efficiency of the Wakeville police department. It took some little time before she located a base of operations for the experiment, but eventually she found what she wanted—a discouraged-looking corner grocery on the outskirts of the town.
The proprietor, an elderly, goat-bearded gentleman known to the neighborhood as Grandpaw Foglesby, was taking his ease in a rocking chair beside the potato barrel, armed with a fly swatter, a pencil and a sheet of paper. When Aunt Gertrude asked permission to use the telephone, Grandpaw Foglesby eyed her as if about to ask for references. Then he squinted coldly at a fly on the counter, estimated the range, gave the swatter a flip, scored a hit and sent the insect to its long rest.
“Eighty-seven,” he chirped proudly, and tallied the kill. “Make yourself at home, lady.”
Aunt Gertrude looked at her wrist watch. It was exactly ten minutes past eleven. She went in behind the counter and rang the telephone. A moment later, Grandpaw Foglesby, just going into his backhand with an eye on Victim 88, was pleasantly startled to hear:
“I want the police station.”
Neither Grandpaw Foglesby nor Miss Effie Tillotson, at Central, could have been more flabbergasted if the lady had said she wanted Scotland Yard. Grandpaw Foglesby swerved in mid-stroke as he leaped violently in the rocking chair, and missed No. 88 by a good two feet. As for Effie, she gasped, and blurted; “Did you say the police station?”
“I said the police station,” Aunt Gertrude insisted firmly.
Grandpaw Foglesby hastily jotted an entry in the “miss” column and piped, “What’s the trouble, lady?”
“You said police station?” echoed Effie cautiously. “But there isn't any police station, ma’am. Did you wanna talk to Flannelfoot?”
“I want the Chief of Police.”
Grandpaw Foglesby scrambled out of the rocking chair and came over to help. “What do you want with Flannelfoot, lady?” he bleated. “What’s the trouble?”
Aunt Gertrude waved him away. In her ear, Effie was saying, “I dunno just where I'd find Flannelfoot—I mean Chief Foster—right now. Wait a minute and I’ll look out the window.”
“What’s wrong, lady?” clamored Grandpaw Foglesby, skipping about in a high state of curiosity.
Aunt Gertrude snapped at him, “There isn’t anything wrong.”
“Well, what do you want with Flannelfoot, then? What are you calling the police for? Nobody calls the police unless there’s been trouble,” insisted Grandpaw Foglesby.
And Effie said, “I can’t see him anywhere on the street, ma’am. Is it important? Been a robbery or somebody got hurt or something?”
From the rear, the excited Foglesby yelped, “What do you want him for?”
“None of your business," barked Aunt Gertrude testily, whereupon the offended Effie snapped, “Oh, all right, if that’s the way you take it. I’m only trying to help.”
“Look!” shrieked Aunt Gertrude into the phone. “Have I got to pass an examination to talk to the Chief of Police? Suppose there’s been a robbery? Suppose—”
“You been robbed, lady?” Grandpaw Foglesby was dancing with excitement. “Thought you said there wasn’t any trouble?’’
“—suppose I’ve been held up? Suppose—”
“Held up?” squeaked Effie. “Why didn’t you say so? Gosh, ma’am, you didn’t say anything about a holdup—"
“I didn’t say anything about a holdup,” Aunt Gertrude insisted hoarsely, wishing she hadn’t started this. “I said suppose! Suppose my car was stolen—”
Grandpaw Foglesby bawled helpfully, “Your car ain’t stolen, lady. You drove up in it. It’s right outside where you left it.”
“The dame is screwy,” Effie could be heard remarking to her partner at the switchboard. “First she says she’s been held up and then she says she hasn’t been held up. Now it’s something about a car—”
"Will — you — get — me — the — police?” panted Aunt Gertrude.
“Gettin’ violent,” Effie commented audibly. “You’re speaking from Foglesby’s, aren’t you, ma’am? Well, you just take it easy and I’ll see if I can get a boy to go look for Flannelfoot. Who will I say wants him?”
“The Empress of Japan!” yelled Aunt Gertrude, and slammed the receiver down hard. She turned to face an agitated Grandpaw Foglesby, who seemed to be trying to play leapfrog with himself.
“Your car ain't stolen, lady!” the old gentleman insisted. “Look—there it is right outside the store. Whaddaya want with Flannelfoot? Whaddaya—?”
“Please!" snapped Aunt Gertrude, flushed and perspiring. She steamed past him and bustled out of the store with what dignity she had left. Back in the car she sat down grimly with folded arms, and proceeded to await the arrival of Flannelfoot. Her conviction that Wakeville was in bad need of stirring up had become a certainty.
IT WAS half-past eleven before Effie Tillotson’s little brother ran Flannelfoot to earth in the back room of Mooney’s undertaking parlor.
Flannelfoot had gone there to discuss the little matter of Mooney’s overdue taxes, had remained to discuss the state of the nation. People, said Mooney, weren’t dying the way they used to; there was nothing in it for an undertaker any more; you didn’t get the turnover you got in the old days. Mooney didn’t know why—he suspected the government was behind it—but it seemed that in late years Wakeville people had fallen into a bad habit of going off to the city to die. The result was that Mooney couldn't pay his taxes. So Flannelfoot sympathized, and eventually they sat down to a game of checkers.
Effie Tillotson’s little brother was out of breath and had forgotten most of the message. Awed by the presence of Flannelfoot he stammered out his revised version, and the great man regarded him indulgently.
“And who did you say it was?” rumbled Flannelfoot. “The Empress of Japan? At Foglesby’s store?”
“Don’t hardly seem likely,” marvelled Mooney.
“It ain’t likely,” Flannelfoot said. “In fact it sounds an awful lot like one of that Waldo P. Johnson’s practical jokes, that's what it sounds like.”
Fresh in Flannelfoot’s memory was the embarrassing occurrence of the previous week, when a phone call had sent him all the way up to the town water tank in search of a mysterious “little man” who seemed to be up to no good. Waldo P. Johnson's subsequent identification of the culprit as the little man who wasn’t there had created a good deal of mirth at Flannelfoot’s expense.
“That Johnson,” sniffed Mooney, and captured one of his opponent’s kings. “Crazy as a bedbug.”
“I know his style,” said Flannelfoot with the air of a connoisseur. “It’s his work all right.” He turned to the juvenile messenger. “Now look, young feller. Foglesby’s store is exactly eight yards outside the corporation limits, so I don’t hafta go. You go back and tell Effie that Mr. Johnson outsmarted himself this time. And tell her the Empress of Japan has got to get up earlier in the morning if she wants to make a monkey outa me.”
“Yes, sir.” said the boy.
“Johnson must think I’m dumb.”
“It’s your move,” said Mooney.
A lady who calls a policeman at ten minutes past eleven might be expected to show symptoms of annoyance when the hour of twelve arrives without the policeman. Aunt Gertrude, however, endured the disappointment with astonishing good humor. In fact, as time went by and she waited in the car outside Foglesby’s, she positively beamed with satisfaction.
Grandpaw Foglesby, who kept popping out of his store every few minutes to stare at her, found it all very puzzling. It deepened his original conviction that the woman had suffered a touch of the sun. After a while Aunt Gertrude found that she had become an object of abiding interest to a number of Mr. Foglesby’s customers—two old ladies, a towheaded girl with an all-day sucker, and a youth with a bicycle—who took up positions along the sidewalk and patiently waited for something to happen.
At twelve o’clock sharp Aunt Gertrude looked at her watch, said “Just as I expected,” in a tone of great satisfaction, and drove away. She was so obviously pleased with herself that the parting smile she bestowed upon the little group of serious thinkers could only be described as a gloating leer. Grandpaw Foglesby went back to his chair in such a state of befuddlement that he missed four flies in a row, at easy range.
“I thought as much,” mused Aunt Gertrude in high good humor as she buzzed back downtown. “I mistrusted that constable the minute I laid eyes on him.”
She now had a Purpose. Life was good.
“Whole town could be looted and everybody murdered in their beds and you’d never find hide nor hair of that man—no, not even if you sent out a search party,” she told herself happily.
The good lady was practically purring with contentment by the time she reached the post office. She zipped across the Four Corners. On Elm Street she had to swerve over to the left-hand side of the road because a couple of parked cars blocked the way in front of Hibbert's Hardware.
“Appalling inefficiency,” she beamed. “Wait until I tell George—”
She was just swooping around the parked cars when the massive figure of Flannelfoot emerged directly into her path . . .
Aunt Gertrude screamed.
Things happened rapidly. Flannelfoot Foster leaped like an overweight gazelle. Aunt Gertrude stepped on brake and accelerator at once, swung hard on the wheel, sounded the horn and kept on screaming.
She missed Flannelfoot, flicked a fender of one of the parked cars, drove headlong toward a hardware truck that happened to be backing out of an alley.
Young Red Hibbert, driving the truck, saw disaster hurtling toward him from starboard. He let out a whoop of dismay, yanked the emergency and jumped.
The truck was loaded with a cargo of old stovepipes. Aunt Gertrude smacked it amidships.
The squeal of brakes, the blare of horns, the screams of Aunt Gertrude, the alarmed yelp of young Red and the clattering smash of fender against fender—these constituted merely a lively overture to the appalling racket that followed. Fourteen stovepipes leaped wildly out of the truck with a tinny crash; fourteen stovepipes belabored each other in the air, showering clouds of soot; they bounced off the hood and the roof of the car; they came thundering and smashing to the pavement. People five blocks away thought the cannery had blown up and scattered its contents all over the county. The world seemed to echo with falling tin.
WHEN the uproar died away Aunt Gertrude, quaking, opened her eyes. The windshield was black with soot; a stovepipe, leaning drunkenly over one fender, slid off and clattered to the pavement. Aunt Gertrude had a good deal of soot on her nose and her hat was cocked rakishly over one eye. She took a deep, long breath. A rumbling voice said:
“You hurt, lady?”
The round, rosy face of Flannelfoot Foster was regarding her through the open window. And in the background it seemed that the entire population of Wakeville, and most of the dogs, had come galloping to the scene.
Aunt Gertrude choked—partly from wrath, partly from soot. This was fate’s irony at its worst. To await the town constable for almost an hour, and then to incur an avalanche of old stovepipes to avoid running over the man—
“Lummox!” she exploded.
“Huh?” Flannelfoot blinked mildly.
“Lummox! You’re a lummox!” Aunt Gertrude wrenched open the car door and scrambled out. A last lone stovepipe rolled off the roof and fell to the pavement with a dismal clatter. “A fat lummox!” she insisted hotly. “A great, big, fat, stupid lummox. You made me run into that truck. You’re to blame. You’re responsible—”
“She comes whoopin’ down the wrong side of the road and I ain’t got a chance!” bleated young Red Hibbert, at Flannelfoot’s elbow. “Comes down the wrong side of the road and smacks me. I got a hundred witnesses. Down the wrong side of the road she comes—”
“Yeah,” rumbled Flannelfoot and regarded Aunt Gertrude severely. “You was drivin’ on the wrong side of the road, ma’am. Why, you almost hit me!”
“There wasn’t anywhere else to go!” yelled the lady passionately. “Cars parked out in the middle of the road—”
“But you can’t drive on the left-hand side, ma’am.” Flannelfoot was patient about it, but firm.
“Down the wrong side of the road she comes,” repeated Red Hibbert, for the benefit of any late-comers among the growing audience. “Right smack-dab down the left-hand side of the road. What’s a guy to do? I ain’t got a chance. I’m backin’ out of the alley, she’s on the wrong side of the road—”
“Women drivers,” commented a citizen in overalls.
“Got your driver’s license, ma’am?” said Flannelfoot.
The lady who had been clamoring for a constable an hour ago had a feeling that this was not one of the times when one really wants a constable. Life is like that. One goes about demanding constables and there are no constables. One whacks into a truckload of stovepipes, one has no driver’s license—and lo, by magic appears a constable.
“No, I haven’t got a driver’s license,” Aunt Gertrude admitted hoarsely. “It isn’t my car anyway. I had to drive on the wrong side of the road because of those cars and if I hadn’t hit the truck I’d have hit you, you big lummox, and besides—”
“She admits it, see!” yelped Red Hibbert. “Drivin’ on the wrong side of the road, just like I said.”
“No license, huh? That’s bad,” commented the citizen in overalls.
“Not even her own car. Stolen, most likely,” observed another bystander.
Several home-going natives, finding traffic blocked, set up an insistent blaring of horns, whereupon all the dogs began barking at once and Aunt Gertrude wished she were dead. Flannelfoot fished a notebook out of his pocket and a pencil out of his cap.
“Pick up them stovepipes and get the truck back in the alley, Red.” he ordered. “Now, ma’am, if you’ll get in the car and pull over to the curb so the traffic can get through—”
“Traffic! Let the traffic through!” Aunt Gertrude became slightly hysterical. “If you wouldn’t let cars park all over the street this wouldn’t have happened in the first place. Let me tell you, my good man—”
“Now, now, lady!” Flannelfoot frowned. Being called a fat lummox was one thing, but being called somebody’s good man was something else again. “None of that language, please. You was in the wrong and I gotta do my duty.”
“Listen—” began Aunt Gertrude.
From there on, Flannelfoot listened. He learned that the lady was the mayor’s aunt. He learned her views on Wakeville traffic, of which she had a low opinion, but which opinion was not quite as low as her opinion of himself. He learned that the civic improvement nearest her heart would be his instant discharge from office. Goggling, unable to get a word in edgewise, Flannelfoot heard himself described as an oaf, an ox and a stupid, meddlesome, thickhead. Also a lummox. And there would have been a good deal more, because Aunt Gertrude was just getting her second wind, if Mayor George hadn’t come scrambling frantically through the crowd just as she reached an eloquent passage beginning, “And furthermore, you miserable loafer—’’
George acted with energy and dispatch. Inside five minutes Red Hibbert and his stovepipes had vanished, the crowd had scattered. Flannelfoot had trudged off homeward—talking to himself—and George was driving his soot-smudged car away from there. His aunt, a little hoarse, was still going strong.
". . . telephoned at ten past eleven . . . never showed up . . . lazy, inefficient, unreliable . . . cars parked all over the street . . . almost ran into the big lummox . . . saved his life . . . idiot backed out of an alley and never sounded his horn . . . and the impudence I got! Johnson was right, Georgie, your police department is a shame and a disgrace and you’ve got to do something about it.”
A man of spirit might have said firmly: “Woman, have done! The name you are bandying so recklessly is a sacred name in my presence. I must insist upon respect for the parent of the young lady who has done me the great honor of promising to be my bride.”
A man of spirit might have said that. And although George was a man of spirit in most matters, where Aunt Gertrude was concerned he was but as a little child.
". . . disgrace to your town . . . discharge the fellow . . . pension the lummox ...”
George decided that this was not the moment for remarking casually, “By the way, aunty, speaking of Flannelfoot, you’ll have to meet his daughter. Charming girl. I’m engaged to her.”
No, he told himself, it was not the moment.
To be Continued