|Mystery of Uncle Alfred|
He was devoted to those pigs—absolutely devoted; perhaps that had something to do with his sudden, fantastic disappearance....
When the estate of my uncle, Alfred Fry, is finally settled, I shall give the farm to George Harris. I would not spend another night in the house for all creation. But Harris is a strange, elemental sort of man; he hated Uncle Alfred while he worked for him, and now that my uncle is gone, he hates him, still. I think it actually amuses him—and as a matter of fact, I am almost certain that I heard him laugh aloud and shout, "Peeeeg!" in a mocking falsetto, on that last, amazing nigrit that I spent at the farmhouse. There was the clatter of sharp hooves on the bare floor of the hall, and the unmistakable grunting snuffle of a hog. The incongruous sound passed along the corridor to the end where Harris' cubbyhole of a room was. I strode to my door and flung it open—and it was at that moment I heard Harris' roar of mirth and the malicious, "Peeeeg!"—as if he were calling the swine to dinner. I accused him of it later, but he denied it. If that had been all I might have been able to persuade myself that my imagination was responsible, but it was not ail— not by any means.
As a child, I have a vague memory of a tremendously fat man attending the funeral for my mother and father. This I think must have been the first time that ever I saw him, but I am sure that I did not set eyes on him again for over fifteen years. Although, there is much of my unhappy childhood that I have forgotten, Uncle Alfred's grotesque figure must have stood out in my memory in all its terrifying bulk.
After all those years, I met Uncle Alfred as the result of a rather uncomfortable coincidence. Having left the university with an excellently engraved but otherwise worthless degree, I was at length fortunate enough to obtain a job in New York City as a process server. In most cases, to serve a defendant with a summons requires little more skill than that which might be expected of an errand boy, but it does occasionally happen that considerable ingenuity is necessary. Such a case was that of Uncle Alfred.
When my employer gave me the summons for Alfred Fry, he told me that he had been trying to serve it for months and that he had exhausted every dodge in his head. "Try anything you can think of," he said. "I'm beginning to believe the man doesn't exist."
I said, "If he's the man I think he is, the job's as good as done!" And I left the office with a vision of my triumph in my mind. "It was easy," I would say on my return. "Why, there was nothing to it, at all!"
Alfred Fry lived in a big graystone house, just off Fifth Avenue—a town house—a residence—the stately, ugly, dignified sort of dwelling that millionaires inhabit. The front doors were plate glass and wrought iron, and as I rang the bell it occurred to me that it would be far from safe to put my foot in the crack when the door was opened.
Presently a haggard, sickly-looking butler asked me my business. "Is Mr. Alfred Fry at home?" I asked. The butler believed that Mr. Fry was not at home. I said, "If you should happen to find him somewhere in there, would you tell him that his nephew, Julian Barrow, would like to pay his respects?" The butler stared at me doubtfully, and I repeated, "Julian Barrow."
The butler said, "I'll see if Mr. Fry is in," and started to close the door. Before the latch clicked, I said, "Tell him I don't want to borrow any money!" He disappeared into the interior darkness without making any sign of having heard. After what seemed a long time, he returned and said, "Mr. Fry will see you."
I followed the butler through a long, gloomy hall that was draped and carpetted in dark red and gold. There were several massive pieces of carved furniture, the sort of thing that seems to have been made far the lobbies of hotels whose guests are giants: chairs too large for one person, but too small for two—tables too high for convenience—mirrors too large for comfort. We came to a broad oak door where the butler stopped. Murmuring, "Mr. Fry is in the study," he swung it open, and I went in.
From behind his enormous desk, my uncle peered at me. "So!" he said in a high, thin voice, "you are Julian!"
"And you," I said, "are Uncle Alfred. I remember you." And the odd thing is that I did actually remember him. Seeing him again, I wondered how his memory could ever have grown so dim. It was like seeing a motion picture, or a play, for the second time, inadvertently; though apparently you had forgotten everything about it, with the first sequence the whole thing comes back in complete detail. I suppose he had changed—he must have changed in fifteen years!—but it seemed to me that I remembered him exactly as I saw him now.
The man was a hog: that is the most accurate, if not the most charitable way to put it. Not having seen him, you may conclude that Uncle Alfred was merely a sufferer from some such disease as dropsy or elephantiasis. But he was no invalid. On the contrary, he appeared to be in the best of health and spirits—like a vigorous hog. His head was huge and bald except for a few long strands of straight, black hair on the crown; the bulging jowls began just below the rounded brow and descended in a sweeping curve that cradled the chin; the nose was short, the tip raised in such a way that it seemed to be lifting the upper lip, also; the eyes were small, closely-set, and so deeply imbedded that the lids were not visible. They were keen, restless eyes that darted from object to object as if in hungry search for something. (I caught myself wondering what he was looking for: a carrot? An ear of corn?)
"Well, sit down!" he said. "Sit down, my boy! The last time I saw you, you were a baby—and now—look at you—a grown man! Tell me how you are—what you're doing. Did you know that you are my nearest living relative?" His eyes made a quick search of the room for nearer relatives.
It amused me to think of the summons in my pocket and of how angry my uncle would be when I served it on him, and it seemed to me that the longer I delayed, the greater the joke, so I sat down and answered his questions volubly. His curiosity about my life somewhat surprised me, for in the past his interest and his help would have been eagerly welcomed. But he had ignored my existence, and had even failed to reply to my guardians' letters.
Uncle Alfred was obviously impatient with the account I gave him of my childhood. He grunted and twiddled his fat thumbs that just managed to meet across his belly, and it was not until I mentioned my fiancee that he seemed to prick up his rather pointed ears
"Ah!" he said. "You must tell me all about this girl! Her name?"
"She is young? Of course. Beautiful? Surely. You love her very much?"
"Why, yes," I said. "Certainly." His sudden eagerness annoyed me in some obscure way.
"You are a lucky boy—a lucky boy." He sighed reflectively. "And when is the marriage to be?"
Before I could draw breath, he answered his own question. "Why, that depends on Uncle Alfred. That's why you came here, today. 'Will Uncle Alfred give his loving nephew enough money so that he can be married'?"
I was angry, but at the same time, delighted. How could he have stepped into the trap more effectively? I got to my feet and smiled down at his obese head. "Why no, my dear uncle," I said. "My reason for coming here was nothing of the sort. It was simply a matter of business." I reached into my pocket and drew out the paper. "I have here a summons for one Alfred Fry. It gives me pleasure to serve it on you!" And I slapped it down on the desk in front of him.
He snatched it up in his puffy hands and let out a squeal of rage that was exactly like the "eeee-yeee!" of a pig caught under a gate. I laughed at him and started toward the door.
"Wait!" he called after me. "Wait, Julian!"
I turned, and was amazed to see that his face was creased and folded into a kind of porkine smile. "Don't go. Come back and sit down. This"—he picked up the summons and flung it aside—"doesn't mean anything. I should have had to settle the case eventually, anyhow. I'm sorry for what I said—now be a good boy, come back—and let's be friends."
I had nothing to lose, and although I did not like my uncle, his remarkable change of manner excited my curiosity and impelled me to accept his invitation. It was as simple a thing as returning to my chair that altered the whole probable course of my life.
My uncle sang a tune to the title: Blood Is Thicker Than Water. It was a sweet, subtle melody, and well-calculated to fall pleasantly on my ears. I was broke, and I was in love; Uncle Alfred was rich and lonely; and after all, I was his nearest blood relative—the logical person to inherit his fortune. With a hint of tears in his shoe-button eyes he described to me the misunderstanding and ridicule that had cursed his life. He had no friends, a woman's love he had never known, even his own relations (among them, his brother, my father) had refused him their sympathies. In short, it was a melancholy recital. Late in the afternoon he began to plead with me to invite Annette to his house, and nothing would do but that we must stay to dinner.
From the moment of Annette's arrival, Uncle Alfred^ manner changed again; he stopped his moaning, and became on the instant a picture of pathetic and almost absurd gallantry. In every way possible he showed Annette that she was welcome—that she was much more than welcome.
As the evening wore on, he became more and more outspoken in his praises both for Annette and for me; we were his beloved, long-lost niece and nephew, the darlings of his old age sent by Providence to comfort his final years. In leaving him, the last thing that he said to us was: "Remember, children—I have great plans for you! Great plans! Great plans for us all!"
When we were out on the street, and the door closed behind us, I asked Annette, "Well, what do you think of him?"
"The poor old man," she said. "It's not his fault he's so fat."
"Perhaps not entirely," I said. "But to judge by the way he acted at dinner, he had something to do with it."
"You mustn't be too critical—he seems awfully fond of you—"
"Yes," I said, as much to myself as to her. "And I would very much like to know why."
I was a long time finding the answer—if I ever did.
We saw Uncle Alfred frequently in the days that followed. I do not recall exactly how he first introduced the subject of his farm, but each time we visited him he talked more and more enthusiastically of it. Strictly as a farm, it was nothing, he told us—only a few acres in the hills, up-state. An old house, dating from Revolutionary times, that had been restored and modernized, a small orchard, a plot or two of vegetables. But the pigs! That was the attraction for him. He boasted that he had six of the finest pens of pedigreed hogs in the country, and when he spoke of them, it was with the same admiration and affection that a hunter lavishes upon his dog.
Shortly after our first meeting, Uncle Alfred insisted that Annette and I spend a weekend with him at the farmhouse. We found the place much as he had described it—a rather charming old building set among ancient fruit trees. At a little distance there was a modern barn which was flanked by a series of elaborately constructed pig pens. I had always thought of pigs as wallowing in mud and refuse, but these pens were as clean and dry as the cage of any animal in the zoo. Each enclosure contained four well-groomed hogs.
George Harris lived on the place and acted as caretaker. He is a lanky, leather-skinned farmer, surly in manner, taciturn, and completely without humor of any civilized variety. From the beginning, however, I was conscious of a bond of sympathy between Harris and me; unspoken and unadmitted, I believe it was none the less real.
Annette was more charitable than I. She loved the house, the pigs did not disgust her, and she was even able to persuade herself that Uncle Alfred's almost insane fondness for them was somehow praiseworthy. Even when he would get into the pen with them, scratch their bristly backs with a stick, call them individually by name, and grunt crooningly at them, Annette felt only a kind of sorrow for the loveless life that had brought my uncle at last to pigs.
On that first evening at my uncle's house in New York, he had said, "Remember, children—I have great plans for you!" But I doubt very much if he spoke the truth. Instead, I think he realized that eventually he would have a plan—when he had had time, to devise one of sufficient intricacy. When the scheme finally emerged, it was so delicately constructed, so beautifully balanced, that I completely failed to recognize it.
One night my uncle said, "Julian, my boy—I don't know if I ever told you that I have several important business interests in South America. As you can see, I am not built for traveling, so I have always employed agents to represent me. But agents are not always entirely trustworthy. Now if only you could speak Spanish—"
The offer expanded slowly and alluringly, like dawn that begins with a line of light on the horizon and gradually sets the whole sky a-blaze. First, I would give up my miserable job, and devote my entire time for a period of three or four weeks to the study of the South American enterprises, and to learning enough Spanish to handle my uncle's affairs. Then, Annette and I could be married, and sail to Rio for our honeymoon. The salary would be large, but even this was not all. In addition, Uncle Alfred proposed to make me his sole heir. There was one other detail: Uncle Alfred insisted that Annette give up her work and the room where she lived. He wished her to stay at the Savoy Plaza, at his expense. Laughing, he said that she must begin to accustom herself to life as the wife of a rich man.
The month of preparation went according to my uncle's schedule; Annette spent most of her time shopping for her trousseau, and my days were filled by my studies.
On the date set for our marriage, we three went to the farm where it was my uncle's whim to have the ceremony performed. We would spend the night there, and sail in the morning for Brazil. All the arrangements were in Uncle Alfred's hands—hiring the minister, buying the tickets, and so on. Apparently he enjoyed playing Lord Bountiful, for his face was like a smiling mould of jelly.
When we arrived at the farm the weather was unnaturally warm and threatening; heavy, sluggish clouds hung low in the sky, the air was oppressively still, and it seemed to me that I could feel the vibration of distant thunder, though it was not yet audible. Even the hogs seemed affected by the sultry atmosphere; they were restless and irritable, and kept up an annoying squeal of complaint.
Uncle Alfred's gaiety was somewhat dampened by the discovery that George Harris was absent without leave. He said that he supposed Harris would show up in time to feed the pigs, but meanwhile he strongly disapproved of the man leaving the farm aione, even for a short while. "Suppose something should happen to one of the hogs—with nobody here to help!"
Annette and I were in a state of comatose bliss; our new life lay before us, but it had not yet quite begun. "With my arm around her, I remember wandering about the house and grounds—saying little, thinking of nothing but the future: the future that we owed entirely to the kindness of my uncle.
The minister was expected at two o'clock. At three he had not arrived, and since the sky was growing more and more ominous, I began to fear that if he did not come, soon, a storm might interfere with making the trip that day. Uncle Alfred said he would telephone to find out the reason for the delay. He waddled out of the living room, and down the hall to his own bedroom where the telephone was. As I heard his door dose, I heard also the first deep growl of thunder.
The passage of time meant nothing to Annette and me, but I suppose it must have been more than half an hour later when Uncle Alfred appeared in the doorway and clapped his pink hand to his forehead in a gesture of despair.
"My God, Julian!" he groaned. "The most terrible thing has happened! I don't know how to tell you! I can't tell you!"
We stared at him. "What is it?" I demanded. "The sinister—"
"No, not that. I tried to reach him, and there was no answer, so I suppose he's on his way. If it were only that!"
"Afterwards, you see, I called my office. I won't stop to tell you all about it, now, but—" he sighed deeply. "Julian, my boy, you must fly to Mexico City at once! My office has made a reservation for you on the earliest plane—we must leave here within an hour!" As I started to protest, he handed me a long envelope that was sealed in a number of places with red wax. "Here — take this! I will tell you about it before you go. Oh, Julian, I am so sorry about this! So sorry!" Then he sighed again, and added, "But journeys end in lovers' meeting, you know. Annette will follow you as soon as your mission is finished—"
I interrupted, "Why shouldn't she come with me now?"
"Ah!" he said. "There was another piece of bad luck! Terrible luck! There was only room for one more passenger on the plane. But don't worry—I'll send her to you at the first possible moment." He put his arm as far as it would go around her waist, and murmured, "Poor, poor girl—"
Annette looked at me with shining eyes. "It's all right—it's your job—and I can understand that. I'll follow you, darling."
"Of course she will" Uncle Alfred assured me. "And if there isn't time for you to be married here, she'll marry you wherever you are. Won't you, my dear?"
I was enraged by something indefinable in my uncle's manner—or perhaps it was by the situation, itself. In any case, I remember the insane itch to sink my fingers in my uncle's fat neck, to squeeze the life from his disgusting body. But I stood silent in the gloomy room, as if waiting for the next thing to happen. Annette released herself, came to me and put her hands on my shoulders; raising her head, she whispered, "Think of the future, darling. We'll be so happy for so long." I kissed her—and my anger was gone.
The thunder had grown louder, and suddenly there was a piercing squeal from one of the hogs, as if it were being injured. My uncle trundled out of the room, calling back, "Come along, Julian! I'll tell you what you must know while I see what's the matter—" I held Annette a moment longer before I followed.
The sky was boiling black, with intermittent flashes of lightning on the horizon, but so far there was little wind, and no rain. The pens were over a hundred yards from the house, and not visible from it owing to the curve of the hill. As I started along the path, I heard steps behind me, and turned to see George Harris coming around the corner of the porch.
"Looks like bad weather," I said. "Where have you been? My uncle's been looking for you."
"Has he? Why? Anything missing?"
"Missing?" I repeated.
"I'll ask him, myself." We walked a few paces side by side. "I only came back for a saw I forgot."
We had topped the hill, and were looking down at Uncle Alfred who was bending over one of the hogs in the third pen before Harris' statement struck me as curious. I halted, and said, "What do you mean? Has something happened between you and Mr. Fry?"
"Why, sure. Didn't you know? I'm fired. He called me up yesterday, and told me to be off the place by this morning."
Distant lightning glinted in Harris' sardonic eyes as I gazed at him, wonderingly. Why had Uncle Alfred pretended to think that Harris would return? The answer was in a closed cell of my brain—I knew it was there, but I could not find it.
"That's strange," I said at last, and we went down the hill to the pen, inside of which my uncle was comforting one of his swine.
Without looking up, my uncle said, "Galahad has scratched himself on a nail, or something of the sort. Awful thing to happen at a moment like this—just when I've got to give you your instructions and send you off—"
Harris cut in; "Did you want to see me?"
My uncle was obviously startled. He jerked his head around, and exclaimed, "What! Oh—Harris. No, I don't want to see you—why would I? I spoke to you yesterday and I haven't changed my mind."
Harris nodded and leaned against the wall of the pen. My uncle stood up. Sweat was glistening on his forehead and jowls, his upper lips was raised over his yellow teeth, and he looked less human than usual. "Well?" he cried. "Get on about your business! I've got to talk to my nephew!"
"Sure," said Harris. "I just wondered if you knew the telephone line's been cut? I noticed it when I came around the house just now—"
"Damn you!" my uncle shouted. "Go on! Go on! I won't listen to your nonsense!" He turned to me. "Julian, you must hurry! Go before the storm breaks! You'll find the man at the address on the letter. I'll wire you there—I'll—
At that moment the hog named Galahad broke away and trotted painfully to the far end of the pen—my uncle trotted after him. And then, a wide, blinding river of fire spilled out of the sky. I heard it sizzle and crackle before the thunder came, and before the thunder had echoed away I smeiled the sulphur strong in the still air. I turned to Harris and said, shakily, "That was close!"
Harris was staring into the pen, a look of amazement on his face. As my gaze followed his, I, too, was amazed—my uncle had disappeared. I said, "Did you see him go? How did he get away so cniickly?"
Suddenly the rain began to fall as if it were dashed out of buckets, but Harris remained a few seconds, leaning over the wall of the pen. "Five!" I heard him mutter. "Yes, by God, five!"
I waited no longer, but ran back to the house where I arrived soaked and breathless.
Annette met me atdoor, pale and frightened. "Wasn't the lightning ghastly? Where's Uncle Alfred?"
"Isn't he here?" And then it occurred to me where he must have gone. "Oh!" I said. "He's in the barn, of course—though how he got away so quickly, I can't imagine."
Harris came striding out of the rain and joined us on the porch. I noticed he was carrying the hand saw he had mentioned, and I asked, "Did you go into the barn?"
"Was Mr. Fry there?"
He looked at me in what I thought was a very curious way, but he made no answer, and I asked the question again. "Did you see Mr. Fry when you got your saw out of the barn?"
A strange, almost mocking smile spread over Harris' angular face; slowly he dropped the lid over one eye in an adagio wink, and at last he uttered the one syllable: "No."
"Then where is he?"
"If you don't know," said Harris, "I don't know."
Annette said, "You'd both better come in and dry your clothes. Anyhow, darling, you can't possibly get to the airport in this weather."
"No—these clay roads will be impassable for at least several hours. I suppose I had better phone Uncle Alfred's office to have them cancel the plane reservation—but I wish he'd come back here! I don't really know what to do."
Harris chuckled deep in his chest, and then I remembered what he had said about the telephone. I told him that he must be mistaken about it, because Uncle Alfred was making a call just a few minutes before.
Harris said, "Try it if you want to."
As I started out of the room, he asked, "Did you notice how many hogs there was in that pen we was leaning over?"
"Four," I said. "There are four in each of the pens. You know that better than I."
"There's five in that pen, now," Harris told me. "And next time you go down, I'll ask you to look close at one hog in particular—he's the biggest, and the fattest—and he's got no ring in his nose!"
Apparently this meant much more to Harris than to me. To me, the explanation seemed obvious: simply that Uncle Alfred had bought a new hog during Harris' absence. I did not begin to take the man seriously until I raised the telephone receiver to my ear. The line was dead.
The discovery of the severed telephone was the first link in a chain of astonishing revelations. As soon as the condition of the road permitted, Annette, Harris and I drove down to the village of Oaktree. Through the drug store telephone I began to learn some of the truth about my missing uncle. Uncle Alfred had never spoken to the minister whom he had been expecting. I called the North-South Continental Company, which was Uncle Alfred's New York headquarters. They had never heard of an Alfred Fry. I called the airport and found, somewhat to my surprise, that there was a reservation in my name. In canceling it, I asked when the ticket had been bought, and whether there was more room on the plane. There was more room, and the passage had been reserved three days in advance. While I still sat in the telephone booth, Annette and Harris waiting outside, J tore open the elaborately sealed envelope Uncle Alfred had given me. It was addressed to "Carlos Diaz, Hotel Geneva, Mexico City," and it contained two sheets of perfectly blank paper.
For the moment, the problem was too much for me. I went out and told Harris to notify the local authorities of Uncle Alfred's disappearance, and then to go back to the house and stay there until he heard from us or we heard from him.
"He looked at me owlishly. "What should I do about the hogs?"
"Damn the hogs!" I exclaimed. "What difference does it make to me? Do anything!"
"Even the—the new one?"
"Of course!" If I thought anything, I suppose I thought the man was talking about feeding the brutes.
Annette and I drove back to New York and went directly to Uncle Alfred's town house. The place was closed, shades drawn at all the windows, the front door locked.
There we were. The mystery seemed as complete as our despair.
But within the next few days, our fortunes took a sudden upward turn. I got a much better position than I could have hoped for, and within a short time Annette and I were married.
So far as I know, Alfred Fry was never seen again. Although it seems impossible that such a tremendously fat man could vanish like an illusion in a distorting mirror, search has been made for him throughout the world, in vain. If he does not turn up in the time specified by law, his death will be legally presumed, and his considerable estate (which does not include ownership in the North-South Continental Company) will come to me. It seems I am his sole living relative.
I hesitate to speak of the night Annette and I spent at the farmhouse, because as a reasonable, unimaginative man I am not willing to argue the accuracy of my own impressions. We went up to the country shortly after our marriage, and within a month of my uncle's disappearance. The first thing I noticed was that the pens were completely empty, and I asked Harris what had happened to the hogs.
"Oh," he said, "I sent them to market. You'll be getting the check for them."
I said, "If my uncle ever shows up, he'll throw you in jail for it."
Harris grinned at me. "If he ever shows up."
After dinner, Annette, Harris and I talked once again about the mystery of Uncle Alfred. There was little doubt in my mind of what the old devil had planned and I was certain that if I had made the trip to Mexico, I should never have returned. As I said, whatever happened to him, and however it happened, it seemed to me that only the merest, eleventh hour luck had saved my life and spared Annette the most terrible fate. Harris said nothing, but sat staring into the firelight.
The sound woke me from a deep sleep, in the middle of the night—the clatter of hooves on the hardwood floor in the hall outside our doof. I waited, listening, while the beast stopped and snuffled along the bottom of the door, as if food were just beyond his reach. Then the clatter began again as the hog started down the hall. I jumped out of bed, and was in the long, straight corridor before the trotting hooves had reached the end. There was nothing to see. As I stared into empty space, I heard Harris call, "Peeeeg!" and it seemed to me that the sound of the sharp hooves on the bare floor appeared to enter Harris' room, but the door neither opened nor closed.
Fortunately, the commotion had not awakened Annette, and I did not wish to frighten her, now. I sat up for the rest of the night, thinking. I shall not say what I thought, nor shall I advance any theories. But when the estate of my uncle Alfred Fry is settled, Harris shall have the farm.