THE RICHEST MAN IN CANADA
That’s what the old man claimed his brother was — but then, as Mrs. Adderley said, “the old coot lies all the time’’
DAVID E. LEWIS
“You’d think Bridgetown had enough characters without the Lord sendin’ us more,” Mrs. Adderley grumbled, as the old man closed the door behind him. I didn’t pay much attention.
Mrs. Adderley was always grumbling. It wasn’t a querulous, irritable type of grumbling, but a kind of pessimistic recitative. She worked better because of it.
I hadn’t noticed the old man when he left the restaurant. At 18, most old people looked all alike to me, like Chinese.
“Says his brother is the richest man in Canada!” she snorted in disgust. “Crazy as a coot!”
I perked up my ears. I had been, for several months, saving every cent I could find for a trip to Halifax, and the mere mention of money intrigued me.
“Who’s the brother supposed to be?” I asked, imagining what dire disaster I could save the old man from and thus merit his undying gratitude.
“Oh, somebody you never heard of. Nor nobody else. If he
David E. Lewis has lived in the Annapolis Valley for most of his life. A collection of his humorous stories is to be published next spring by McClelland and Stewart.
had so much money wouldn’t his name be in the paper all the time? The old coot lies all the time.”
• I made a mental note that Mrs. Adderley had a thing about coots. She kept washing glasses and wiping them on a dirty dishcloth. She was a plump, colorless woman and she owned the only restaurant in town.
“In here all the time, bothering me day after day. Hog-
She dropped a glass on the floor and it broke. She turned red with anger, and continued berating the mentality of the poor old man. It seemed to me an uncalled-for intensity. Mrs. Adderley was a widow.
At dinner that night I casually mentioned to my mother what had happened in the restaurant.
“Oh,” she said, “that’s the poor old man who’s boarding at Martin’s. I pity him, staying there. Everyone says he’s very polite. I doubt if Martha Martin gives him enough to eat.”
“Mrs. Adderley says he’s crazy,” I said.
“Hah!” said my father.
“What does that mean?” said my mother. I could sense a storm coming.
“They’d make a good couple,” said my father calmly, “and perhaps it would give the old girl something else to think about but other people’s business.”
“Harry!” said my mother sternly. My father hid behind his paper. I used to think, when I was younger, that my father was rude to bring his paper to the table. Now I know he was rude and astute. I felt particularly vulnerable, and my mother in a sudden frustration turned on me.
“Go upstairs and tidy up your room,” she said. '
The next day in the restaurant I was having my usual milkshake. The old man came in. This time I noticed him. I must have stared at him, for he came over and sat down beside me.
RICHEST MAN from page 47 I gulped an answer.
“I would deem it an honor if you would have a cup of coffee with me.”
I didn’t deem it an honor to drink Mrs. Adderley’s coffee, but I did not want to be impolite. He assumed I had accepted his offer, for he ordered two cups. Mrs. Adderley scowled, and disappeared into her kitchen. I found my new friend fascinating. He had long, carefully groomed white hair, and it gave him a distinguished look. He was dressed far too meticulously for Bridgetown. The only other person in town who wore a boutonniere was the undertaker, and then only on duty. But this man looked exactly like a Shakespearean actor, or at least what I thought a Shakespearean actor should look like. He held his head as though someone were sketching his profile. Indeed, it was an impressive aquiline nose that he held high. He wore an elaborate ring. It was a coiled gold snake with emerald eyes. Mrs. Adderley returned with two cups of coffee. She was stiff and grim. She gave an offended twitch of her chin and went over and sat down in front of the cash register and stared at us.
“Thank you, dear lady.”
I sniggered. I was 18, and I believed in characters. I mean, I figured individuality was great. But I had never heard anyone call anybody “dear lady” before
except in the movies, and it was too much to hear it applied to the plebeian expansion of Mrs. Adderley’s behind. He caught my eye.
“Beauty, young man,” he said quietly, “is in the eye of the beholder.”
I had never heard that before, and he said it as though it were peculiarly his own. I was so impressed I apologized for sniggering. I gave a covert glance at Mrs. Adderley, looking for the charms which had been hidden from my inexperienced adolescent eyes.
“I don’t think we have been officially introduced,” the old man said.
I had never been officially introduced to anyone. His tone implied trumpet blasts and royal curtsies. I told him my name. He told me his.
“I’m a relative stranger in your beautiful little town.”
“I can hardly wait to get out of it,” I said, and then regretted it. “I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
He looked at me intently.
“You’re 17?” he said.
“I’m 18,” I said proudly. There is nothing so maddening as to be called 17 when you’re really 18.
“Eighteen,” he sighed.
He even sighed dramatically. He’s a phony, I thought. I sipped my coffee. Mrs. Adderley had outstripped herself. It was the most revolting coffee I had
ever tasted in my life. I tried to think of the perpetrator of it as a “dear lady” but it was beyond my capacity. She was much nearer to being the only living descendant of Lucrezia Borgia.
“Eighteen,” he sighed again, as though it were a magical word.
“To have the world ahead of you. I know how you must feel. My brother and I left home when we were very young. I saw the world,” he leaned over to me confidentially, “but my brother conquered it.”
I stared at him.
“He’s the richest man in Canada today.”
He whispered it with a deep pride. His large eyes held my stare. I blushed, and tried to look impressed.
“I’ve . . . I’ve never heard of him. In the papers, I mean.”
This elicited an indulgent smile.
“He pays to keep his name out of the papers. My brother buys privacy, as though it were a rare and valuable jewel.”
He smiled. “And so many of us, owners of that jewel, would do anything to get our names in the paper.”
He held up his hand. He kept one finger, the one with the snake ring, pointing dramatically at me. “He’s never had his photograph taken. Never.”
continued on page 54
RICHEST MAN continued He croaked it like Poe’s raven. I knew then, of course, he was crazy. I felt a little uneasy. He was so deadly serious about it. If he had been kidding, I could have joked and laughed with him, but all I could do was smile weakly and try to appear impressed. I wanted to leave desperately, and made up some anemic excuse and hastened to the door. As I went through it, I heard him say to Mrs. Adderley, “Nice boy, that. Very nice boy.” I didn’t linger to hear Mrs. Adderley’s opinion of me, but I don’t imagine it was any better than her usual graceless adenoidal grunt.
I spent the next week in Halifax visiting a friend. I had saved $20 extra to spend on anything I wanted, which is the greatest luxury in the world. I knew exactly what I wanted, so it took some of the thrill away from it. I arrived home happy and heavy laden with four Gieseking recordings of Debussy. When I opened the door, the first person I saw was the old man sitting in our living room. He got up and greeted me profusely. I mumbled something and hurried upstairs. I shaved, changed my shirt, carefully handled my records and put them aside, like the black jellybeans I
had bought, to be savored later.
I sneaked down the back stairs into the kitchen and found my mother preparing one of her “visitor” meals. She was humming contentedly to herself. She was always happiest when she was feeding someone she thought needed it.
“What’s with the old guy in the living room?” I asked.
My mother frowned at me.
“He is invited to dinner.”
She bustled around the kitchen. “I thought of how lonely he must be, and Martha Martin’s cooking, and so I asked him over.”
“If my brother was the richest man in Canada, I wouldn’t be boarding at Martha Martin’s,” I said sarcastically.
“If he wants to believe that,” she said in her ominous voice, “it’s his business. He’s not hurting anybody. He’s a gentleman, at least, and that makes him the politest man in Canada, present company included.”
“Gee, Mom, I like him okay. But he just sounds so silly. People laugh at him.”
“It doesn’t take much to make people laugh,” she said, her lips tight. “A mirror could do it.”
I knew the tone. I was on thin ice. My mother was long on generalizations. She was not always logical. But she could make her sentences sound as though there was a QED after them.
I walked over and kissed her on the cheek.
“I’ll go in and keep him company until dinner.”
“Play him some of your records. He likes music.”
(I bet, I thought. I had experienced people who “liked music” before. The cute little blond in the post office had invited me over to her house to hear some. I should have known when she said, “I just love Chopin’s Polonaise.” But she did know how to pronounce Chopin, and it was Wednesday night, which is particularly deadly in Bridgetown. We listened to Harry Horlick’s orchestra play Strauss waltzes and then the Harmonica Rascals did the Hora Staccato, and I barely escaped before she found Jeanette MacDonald’s version of the Jewel Song from Faust.)
“Would you like to hear some . . . classical . . . music?” I asked our visitor almost choking on the word.
“That would be delightful,” he said, and then for a moment he looked slightly apprehensive, as though he thought I were going to play Eddy Duchin’s recording of the Moonlight Sonata. I went over to my record player, which was my pride and joy. I had smuggled it in myself from the States, in Tom Dakin’s old jalopy. I decided that I would bore the old fellow, and picked out a Gieseking recording of a Mozart piano concerto, making sure he didn’t continued on page 56
RICHEST MAN continued see what record I had chosen.
I sat down and looked at him as the music started. He leaned back and sighed contentedly and closed his eyes.
“I haven’t heard that concerto for years. I heard him play it in London,” he said.
“Him?” I echoed, flabbergasted.
He opened his eyes. “It is Gieseking, isn’t it?”
I nodded. He went back to his reverie. I sat there abashed. It was the turning point in our relationship. Before that he had been a nice old man, pleasant and harmless and verbose and crazy. Now he unfolded before me like an exotic mysterious orchid. For one crazy wild moment I almost believed that his brother was the richest man in Canada, but my common sense saved me. My father was fond of saying that common sense is the ball bearing on which one’s intelligence teeters, and if one hasn’t got it, it doesn’t matter much about one’s IQ.
“He’s my favorite pianist,” I said, when the record was over.
“It would be difficult, my boy, to find a finer one. Have you got his Debussy recordings?”
“I just bought four in Halifax,” I said excitedly. “I’ll be years getting them all. They’re first on my list.”
I blushed slightly. “I keep a list of all the records I’d like to have.”
My mother called us into dinner. I was very glad now that she had invited him. I knew she would. Her hobby was collecting lonely stray people and feeding them. My father didn’t share in this humanitarian hobby, but bore with her. (He only protested once. Mattie Andrews lived all alone in a small house on the outskirts of town and insisted to everyone, including the Mounties, that there were German spies in her base-
ment who sent messages to Berlin every Wednesday night. She deciphered the code they used. She looked like a bird, and sounded like one, and talked intermittently to a little budgie on her shoulder that wasn’t really there. My father had stormed out of the dining room one night when Mattie was telling the bird how nice the dinner was. Later he apologized to my mother. “I was actually beginning to see the damn thing,” he said. After that mother settled for sending food over to Mattie’s house.)
The old man complimented my mother several times about the dinner. It was very good, and any woman likes to be complimented when they do something well. Or any man, I guess. Anyway, he ensured a return visit, for my mother swelled with pride. My father said nothing, but that didn’t indicate any galloping dislike. He was a firm believer that eating and talking didn’t mix. They were two separate arts and he enjoyed both deeply, but it was silly to try and mix them, he said: that was like looking at a Rembrandt and trying to read John Donne at the same time. Our friend was a talker-eater, in that order. Every dish was the subject of a monologue. My mother was not prone to flattery — at least it never worked for me. But during dinner she was noticeably pleased. I tried to make a mental note of some of the more florid phrases, but they really weren’t my style, anymore than “dear lady” was.
The old man soon became a frequent guest in our house. I had found a kindred spirit. I had always kept my love of music to myself, and was even a bit ashamed of it, because no one else liked it. (Tom Dakin would listen to it, because we were buddies, but he didn’t like it, and that detracted from it for continued on page 58
RICHEST MAN continued
me.) Often the old man talked about his travels. He never actually claimed that he knew any of the musicians and celebrities he talked about, but he did it so suavely and intimately that I often wondered if he had ever shared one of Chaliapin’s gargantuan dinners, or driven Galli-Curci back to her hotel after a concert. He did a great deal for me. He made me feel mature and selfconfident, and when one is in the frightening halcyon period of his late teens that can mean a great deal. I found teenage parties and dances boring, and the so-called adults had not yet accepted a youngster into their orbit. I would have been lonely, unhappy and lost that summer without that odd friendship.
I was not the only one who felt the influence of all this talk about the great world beyond Bridgetown. My mother spent much more time in the kitchen, often with him, as he reminisced about the cafés of Paris. Our meals were slowly transformed into epicurean delights.
Even Mrs. Adderley was affected.
That is equivalent to stating that the Rock of Gibraltar was suddenly found out in the middle of the Mediterranean. I realized one day she had changed her appearance. She had never worn anything but white smocks, somewhat stained. Now she blossomed forth in mad fuchsia and maroons, luscious dark red roses on pink backgrounds, balanced by verdant greens and royal blues. She seemed intent on exhausting the entire color chart in one mad charge. She looked like a huge, mobile, hastily assembled bouquet. Her debut into the cosmetic world was even more startling. She seemed to have been smitten with excessively high blood pressure one day, and jaundice the next, as she valiantly experimented with rouges and powder bases and all the mystical weapons of the cosmetic world. My father insisted that she had leukemia and was making a courageous effort to hide it from the townspeople. But I knew the reason. It was the old man. Not that her manner changed very much. One doesn’t change one’s spots at 65. But I knew. She still slopped the coffee into the saucers, and the taste of it was still horrifying. But an observant guy like myself could detect a certain coyness in her glance, a feminine wiggle of seduction in her ample bottom, as she wobbled back and forth behind the counter.
To Bridgetown, in general, my friend remained a nice silly old man. It pained me to hear people make fun of him. My mother told me the talk would stop. It did. There is something inexorable about the routine of a small town. It can erupt into a murder or scandal, but after the initial thrill the same relentless tempo takes over. The old man became part of it, a familiar daily sight that ceased to arouse curiosity. He still viscontinued on page 60
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ited Mrs. Adderley’s every day, and I usually met him there. He took solitary walks, and daily checked the post office (at the general delivery window) for his mail. His landlady, Martha Martin, complained that he treated her too politely to let her feel his equal. But there were few of her friends who considered she was, and so she played a lonely tune of dissension. Mrs. Adderley confided in a few friends, who confided in a few friends, that she certainly wouldn’t think of accepting any marital advances from any strangers in town, which meant, of course, that she would. But the old man was content to drink her terrible coffee and confuse her with compliments.
And then he simply disappeared.
As completely and secretly as though the Germans spirited him away in a submarine. (Indeed, Mattie Andrews insisted that she witnessed the departure.) It wasn’t until years afterward the Halifax Chronicle-Herald carried a feature article on its front page that a certain Isaak Killam had died in Montreal. He was Nova Scotia born, had an aversion to publicity, and was survived by a brother with the same name as that of the old man who had spent that curious summer in Bridgetown. But the spice of the article was in the fact that his estate left little doubt that he had been the richest man in Canada.
No one ever got the chance to make amends to our Mr. Killam. He had left everything in his room, even his shaving equipment and clothes, and was never seen again. At first Martha Martin caterwauled all over town, but she really had no reason to. Mr. Killam had paid his rent, and his clothes fitted Martha’s brother, whose last job had been in the First World War as private. After the newspaper story Mrs. Adderley spent a lot of her time explaining to tourists that the brother of the richest man in Canada used to sit in that very booth. (It didn’t matter which one — Mr. Killam had warmed all of them in his day.) But it was cold comfort considering her expectations and the fact that he had never got in touch with her.
I fared better. About three months after Mr. Killam disappeared I received a letter. It contained a small note and a large cheque, and the minute I read “Dear Boy” I knew who it was from, which was just as well, as there was no signature. Nor was there an address. I was to buy all the Gieseking records my heart desired and I was to think kindly of my old friend when I played them. I still do. For years I used to diligently try to find some reference to our Mr. Killam in the newspapers, but he was never mentioned at all. As you probably know, it’s possible to pay to keep one’s name out of print — privacy is a jewel of great value. ■