Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town by Stephen Leacock
VII. The Extraordinary Entanglement of Mr. Pupkin
Judge Pepperleigh lived in a big house with hardwood floors and a wide piazza that looked over the lake from the top of Oneida Street.
Every day about half-past five he used to come home from his office in the Mariposa Court House. On some days as he got near the house he would call out to his wife:
"Almighty Moses, Martha! who left the sprinkler on the grass?"
On other days he would call to her from quite a little distance off: "Hullo, mother! Got any supper for a hungry man?"
And Mrs. Pepperleigh never knew which it would be. On the days when he swore at the sprinkler you could see his spectacles flash like dynamite. But on the days when he called: "Hullo, mother," they were simply irradiated with kindliness.
Some days, I say, he would cry out with a perfect whine of indignation: "Suffering Caesar! has that infernal dog torn up those geraniums again?" And other days you would hear him singing out: "Hullo, Rover! Well, doggie, well, old fellow!"
In the same way at breakfast, the judge, as he looked over the morning paper, would sometimes leap to his feet with a perfect howl of suffering, and cry: "Everlasting Moses! the Liberals have carried East Elgin." Or else he would lean back from the breakfast table with the most good-humoured laugh you ever heard and say: "Ha! ha! the Conservatives have carried South Norfolk."
And yet he was perfectly logical, when you come to think of it. After all, what is more annoying to a sensitive, highly-strung man than an infernal sprinkler playing all over the place, and what more agreeable to a good-natured, even-tempered fellow than a well-prepared supper? Or, what is more likeable than one's good, old, affectionate dog bounding down the path from sheer delight at seeing you,--or more execrable than an infernal whelp that has torn up the geraniums and is too old to keep, anyway?
As for politics, well, it all seemed reasonable enough. When the Conservatives got in anywhere, Pepperleigh laughed and enjoyed it, simply because it does one good to see a straight, fine, honest fight where the best man wins. When a Liberal got in, it made him mad, and he said so,--not, mind you; from any political bias, for his office forbid it,--but simply because one can't bear to see the country go absolutely to the devil.
I suppose, too, it was partly the effect of sitting in court all day listening to cases. One gets what you might call the judicial temper of mind. Pepperleigh had it so strongly developed that I've seen him kick a hydrangea pot to pieces with his foot because the accursed thing wouldn't flower. He once threw the canary cage clear into the lilac bushes because the "blasted bird wouldn't stop singing." It was a straight case of judicial temper. Lots of judges have it, developed in just the same broad, all-round way as with Judge Pepperleigh.
I think it must be passing sentences that does it. Anyway, Pepperleigh had the aptitude for passing sentences so highly perfected that he spent his whole time at it inside of court and out. I've heard him hand out sentences for the Sultan of Turkey and Mrs. Pankhurst and the Emperor of Germany that made one's blood run cold. He would sit there on the piazza of a summer evening reading the paper, with dynamite sparks flying from his spectacles as he sentenced the Czar of Russia to ten years in the salt mines--and made it fifteen a few minutes afterwards. Pepperleigh always read the foreign news--the news of things that he couldn't alter--as a form of wild and stimulating torment.
So you can imagine that in some ways the judge's house was a pretty difficult house to go to. I mean you can see how awfully hard it must have been for Mr. Pupkin. I tell you it took some nerve to step up on that piazza and say, in a perfectly natural, off-hand way: "Oh, how do you do, judge? Is Miss Zena in? No, I won't stay, thanks; I think I ought to be going. I simply called." A man who can do that has got to have a pretty fair amount of savoir what do you call it, and he's got to be mighty well shaved and have his cameo pin put in his tie at a pretty undeniable angle before he can tackle it. Yes, and even then he may need to hang round behind the lilac bushes for half an hour first, and cool off. And he's apt to make pretty good time down Oneida Street on the way back.
Still, that's what you call love, and if you've got it, and are well shaved, and your boots well blacked, you can do things that seem almost impossible. Yes, you can do anything, even if you do trip over the dog in getting off the piazza.
Don't suppose for a moment that Judge Pepperleigh was an unapproachable or a harsh man always and to everybody. Even Mr. Pupkin had to admit that that couldn't be so. To know that, you had only to see Zena Pepperleigh put her arm round his neck and call him Daddy. She would do that even when there were two or three young men sitting on the edge of the piazza. You know, I think, the way they sit on the edge in Mariposa. It is meant to indicate what part of the family they have come to see. Thus when George Duff, the bank manager, came up to the Pepperleigh house, he always sat in a chair on the verandah and talked to the judge. But when Pupkin or Mallory Tompkins or any fellow like that came, he sat down in a sidelong fashion on the edge of the boards and then they knew exactly what he was there for. If he knew the house well, he leaned his back against the verandah post and smoked a cigarette. But that took nerve.
But I am afraid that this is a digression, and, of course, you know all about it just as well as I do. All that I was trying to say was that I don't suppose that the judge had ever spoken a cross word to Zena in his life.--Oh, he threw her novel over the grape-vine, I don't deny that, but then why on earth should a girl read trash like the Errant Quest of the Palladin Pilgrim, and the Life of Sir Galahad, when the house was full of good reading like The Life of Sir John A. Macdonald, and Pioneer Days in Tecumseh Township?
Still, what I mean is that the judge never spoke harshly to Zena, except perhaps under extreme provocation; and I am quite sure that he never, never had to Neil. But then what father ever would want to speak angrily to such a boy as Neil Pepperleigh? The judge took no credit himself for that; the finest grown boy in the whole county and so broad and big that they took him into the Missinaba Horse when he was only seventeen. And clever,--so clever that he didn't need to study; so clever that he used to come out at the foot of the class in mathematics at the Mariposa high school through sheer surplus of brain power. I've heard the judge explain it a dozen times. Why, Neil was so clever that he used to be able to play billiards at the Mariposa House all evening when the other boys had to stay at home and study.
Such a powerful looking fellow, too! Everybody in Mariposa remembers how Neil Pepperleigh smashed in the face of Peter McGinnis, the Liberal organizer, at the big election--you recall it--when the old Macdonald Government went out. Judge Pepperleigh had to try him for it the next morning--his own son. They say there never was such a scene even in the Mariposa court. There was, I believe, something like it on a smaller scale in Roman history, but it wasn't half as dramatic. I remember Judge Pepperleigh leaning forward to pass the sentence,--for a judge is bound, you know, by his oath,--and how grave he looked and yet so proud and happy, like a man doing his duty and sustained by it, and he said:
"My boy, you are innocent. You smashed in Peter McGinnis's face, but you did it without criminal intent. You put a face on him, by Jehoshaphat! that he won't lose for six months, but you did it without evil purpose or malign design. My boy, look up! Give me your hand! You leave this court without a stain upon your name."
They said it was one of the most moving scenes ever enacted in the Mariposa Court.
But the strangest thing is that if the judge had known what every one else in Mariposa knew, it would have broken his heart. If he could have seen Neil with the drunken flush on his face in the billiard room of the Mariposa House,--if he had known, as every one else did, that Neil was crazed with drink the night he struck the Liberal organizer when the old Macdonald Government went out,--if he could have known that even on that last day Neil was drunk when he rode with the Missinaba Horse to the station to join the Third Contingent for the war, and all the street of the little town was one great roar of people--
But the judge never knew, and now he never will. For if you could find it in the meanness of your soul to tell him, it would serve no purpose now except to break his heart, and there would rise up to rebuke you the pictured vision of an untended grave somewhere in the great silences of South Africa.
Did I say above, or seem to imply, that the judge sometimes spoke harshly to his wife? Or did you gather for a minute that her lot was one to lament over or feel sorry for? If so, it just shows that you know nothing about such things, and that marriage, at least as it exists in Mariposa, is a sealed book to you. You are as ignorant as Miss Spiffkins, the biology teacher at the high school, who always says how sorry she is for Mrs. Pepperleigh. You get that impression simply because the judge howled like an Algonquin Indian when he saw the sprinkler running on the lawn. But are you sure you know the other side of it? Are you quite sure when you talk like Miss Spiffkins does about the rights of it, that you are taking all things into account? You might have thought differently perhaps of the Pepperleighs, anyway, if you had been there that evening when the judge came home to his wife with one hand pressed to his temple and in the other the cablegram that said that Neil had been killed in action in South Africa. That night they sat together with her hand in his, just as they had sat together thirty years ago when he was a law student in the city.
Go and tell Miss Spiffkins that! Hydrangeas,--canaries,-- temper,--blazes! What does Miss Spiffkins know about it all?
But in any case, if you tried to tell Judge Pepperleigh about Neil now he wouldn't believe it. He'd laugh it to scorn. That is Neil's picture, in uniform, hanging in the dining-room beside the Fathers of Confederation. That military-looking man in the picture beside him is General Kitchener, whom you may perhaps have heard of, for he was very highly spoken of in Neil's letters. All round the room, in fact, and still more in the judge's library upstairs, you will see pictures of South Africa and the departure of the Canadians (there are none of the return), and of Mounted Infantry and of Unmounted Cavalry and a lot of things that only soldiers and the fathers of soldiers know about.
So you can realize that for a fellow who isn't military, and who wears nothing nearer to a uniform than a daffodil tennis blazer, the judge's house is a devil of a house to come to.
I think you remember young Mr. Pupkin, do you not? I have referred to him several times already as the junior teller in the Exchange Bank. But if you know Mariposa at all you have often seen him. You have noticed him, I am sure, going for the bank mail in the morning in an office suit effect of clinging grey with a gold necktie pin shaped like a riding whip. You have seen him often enough going down to the lake front after supper, in tennis things, smoking a cigarette and with a paddle and a crimson canoe cushion under his arm. You have seen him entering Dean Drone's church in a top hat and a long frock coat nearly to his feet. You have seen him, perhaps, playing poker in Peter Glover's room over the hardware store and trying to look as if he didn't hold three aces,--in fact, giving absolutely no sign of it beyond the wild flush in his face and the fact that his hair stands on end.
That kind of reticence is a thing you simply have to learn in banking. I mean, if you've got to be in a position where you know for a fact that the Mariposa Packing Company's account is overdrawn by sixty-four dollars, and yet daren't say anything about it, not even to the girls that you play tennis with,--I don't say, not a casual hint as a reference, but not really tell them, not, for instance, bring down the bank ledger to the tennis court and show them,--you learn a sort of reticence and self-control that people outside of banking circles never can attain.
Why, I've known Pupkin at the Fireman's Ball lean against the wall in his dress suit and talk away to Jim Eliot, the druggist, without giving the faintest hint or indication that Eliot's note for twenty-seven dollars had been protested that very morning. Not a hint of it. I don't say he didn't mention it, in a sort of way, in the supper room, just to one or two, but I mean there was nothing in the way he leant up against the wall to suggest it.
But, however, I don't mention that as either for or against Mr. Pupkin. That sort of thing is merely the A B C of banking, as he himself told me when explaining why it was that he hesitated to divulge the exact standing of the Mariposa Carriage Company. Of course, once you get past the A B C you can learn a lot that is mighty interesting.
So I think that if you know Mariposa and understand even the rudiments of banking, you are perfectly acquainted with Mr. Pupkin. What? You remember him as being in love with Miss Lawson, the high school teacher? In love with HER? What a ridiculous idea. You mean merely because on the night when the Mariposa Belle sank with every soul on board, Pupkin put off from the town in a skiff to rescue Miss Lawson. Oh, but you're quite wrong. That wasn't LOVE. I've heard Pupkin explain it himself a dozen times. That sort of thing,--paddling out to a sinking steamer at night in a crazy skiff,--may indicate a sort of attraction, but not real love, not what Pupkin came to feel afterwards. Indeed, when he began to think of it, it wasn't even attraction, it was merely respect,--that's all it was. And anyway, that was long before, six or seven months back, and Pupkin admitted that at the time he was a mere boy.
Mr. Pupkin, I must explain, lived with Mallory Tompkins in rooms over the Exchange Bank, on the very top floor, the third, with Mullins's own rooms below them. Extremely comfortable quarters they were, with two bedrooms and a sitting-room that was all fixed up with snowshoes and tennis rackets on the walls and dance programmes and canoe club badges and all that sort of thing.
Mallory Tompkins was a young man with long legs and check trousers who worked on the Mariposa Times-Herald. That was what gave him his literary taste. He used to read Ibsen and that other Dutch author--Bumstone Bumstone, isn't it?--and you can judge that he was a mighty intellectual fellow. He was so intellectual that he was, as he himself admitted, a complete eggnostic. He and Pupkin used to have the most tremendous arguments about creation and evolution, and how if you study at a school of applied science you learn that there's no hell beyond the present life.
Mallory Tompkins used to prove absolutely that the miracles were only electricity, and Pupkin used to admit that it was an awfully good argument, but claimed that he had heard it awfully well answered in a sermon, though unfortunately he had forgotten how.
Tompkins used to show that the flood was contrary to geology, and Pupkin would acknowledge that the point was an excellent one, but that he had read a book,--the title of which he ought to have written down,--which explained geology away altogether.
Mallory Tompkins generally got the best of the merely logical side of the arguments, but Pupkin--who was a tremendous Christian--was much stronger in the things he had forgotten. So the discussions often lasted till far into the night, and Mr. Pupkin would fall asleep and dream of a splendid argument, which would have settled the whole controversy, only unfortunately he couldn't recall it in the morning.
Of course, Pupkin would never have thought of considering himself on an intellectual par with Mallory Tompkins. That would have been ridiculous. Mallory Tompkins had read all sorts of things and had half a mind to write a novel himself--either that or a play. All he needed, he said, was to have a chance to get away somewhere by himself and think. Every time he went away to the city Pupkin expected that he might return with the novel all finished; but though he often came back with his eyes red from thinking, the novel as yet remained incomplete.
Meantime, Mallory Tompkins, as I say, was a mighty intellectual fellow. You could see that from the books on the bamboo bookshelves in the sitting-room. There was, for instance, the "Encyclopaedia Metropolitana" in forty volumes, that he bought on the instalment plan for two dollars a month. Then when they took that away, there was the "History of Civilization," in fifty volumes at fifty cents a week for fifty years. Tompkins had read in it half-way through the Stone Age before they took it from him. After that there was the "Lives of the Painters," one volume at a time--a splendid thing in which you could read all about Aahrens, and Aachenthal, and Aax and men of that class.
After all, there's nothing like educating oneself. Mallory Tompkins knew about the opening period of all sorts of things, and in regard to people whose names began with "A" you couldn't stick him.
I don't mean that he and Mr. Pupkin lived a mere routine of studious evenings. That would be untrue. Quite often their time was spent in much less commendable ways than that, and there were poker parties in their sitting-room that didn't break up till nearly midnight. Card-playing, after all, is a slow business, unless you put money on it, and, besides, if you are in a bank and are handling money all day, gambling has a fascination.
I've seen Pupkin and Mallory Tompkins and Joe Milligan, the dentist, and Mitchell the ticket agent, and the other "boys" sitting round the table with matches enough piled up in front of them to stock a factory. Ten matches counted for one chip and ten chips made a cent--so you see they weren't merely playing for the fun of the thing. Of course it's a hollow pleasure. You realize that when you wake up at night parched with thirst, ten thousand matches to the bad. But banking is a wild life and everybody knows it.
Sometimes Pupkin would swear off and keep away from the cursed thing for weeks, and then perhaps he'd see by sheer accident a pile of matches on the table, or a match lying on the floor and it would start the craze in him. I am using his own words--a "craze"--that's what he called it when he told Miss Lawson all about it, and she promised to cure him of it. She would have, too. Only, as I say, Pupkin found that what he had mistaken for attraction was only respect. And there's no use worrying a woman that you respect about your crazes.
It was from Mallory Tompkins that Pupkin learned all about the Mariposa people, because Pupkin came from away off--somewhere down in the Maritime Provinces--and didn't know a soul. Mallory Tompkins used to tell him about Judge Pepperleigh, and what a wonderfully clever man he was and how he would have been in the Supreme Court for certain if the Conservative Government had stayed in another fifteen or twenty years instead of coming to a premature end. He used to talk so much about the Pepperleighs, that Pupkin was sick of the very name. But just as soon as he had seen Zena Pepperleigh he couldn't hear enough of them. He would have talked with Tompkins for hours about the judge's dog Rover. And as for Zena, if he could have brought her name over his lips, he would have talked of her forever.
He first saw her--by one of the strangest coincidences in the world--on the Main Street of Mariposa. If he hadn't happened to be going up the street and she to be coming down it, the thing wouldn't have happened. Afterwards they both admitted that it was one of the most peculiar coincidences they ever heard of. Pupkin owned that he had had the strangest feeling that morning as if something were going to happen--a feeling not at all to be classed with the one of which he had once spoken to Miss Lawson, and which was, at the most, a mere anticipation of respect.
But, as I say, Pupkin met Zena Pepperleigh on the 26th of June, at twenty-five minutes to eleven. And at once the whole world changed. The past was all blotted out. Even in the new forty volume edition of the "Instalment Record of Humanity" that Mallory Tompkins had just received Pupkin wouldn't have bothered with it.
She--that word henceforth meant Zena--had just come back from her boarding-school, and of all times of year coming back from a boarding-school and for wearing a white shirt waist and a crimson tie and for carrying a tennis racket on the stricken street of a town--commend me to the month of June in Mariposa.
And, for Pupkin, straight away the whole town was irradiated with sunshine, and there was such a singing of the birds, and such a dancing of the rippled waters of the lake, and such a kindliness in the faces of all the people, that only those who have lived in Mariposa, and been young there, can know at all what he felt.
The simple fact is that just the moment he saw Zena Pepperleigh, Mr. Pupkin was clean, plumb, straight, flat, absolutely in love with her.
Which fact is so important that it would be folly not to close the chapter and think about it.