PULLING his black coat tails from underneath him, Uncle Fred settled himself comfortably in his seat. The porter was fussing with his bags, fitting them in between the steam pipes and his chair. They’d be off soon. Farewells all said. Everything ready to go.
‘Good-bye, Uncle Fred,’ they said. ‘So good of you to come.’
‘Oh, I know,’ said Uncle Fred.
‘Dear old Uncle Fred,’ they said when he had gone.
He took off his top hat and smoothed the nap. He regarded the shine on it thoughtfully.
‘Just hand me that hatbox,’ he said to the porter.
He fumbled with the brass lock and the strap of the battered, old-fashioned box, oval in shape, dark brown cowhide, lined with red velvet. The porter waited for a moment, but Uncle Fred, hat in hand, had closed his eyes. It had been a long and tiring day.
‘Now I should say,’ thought Uncle Fred, ‘that Edith’s interment to-day was the very model of what such sad events should be. Everything in perfect taste and up to the second in punctuality.
‘That’s the way I like to see things done. Everything right — and I ought to know. Of course, it might be a little hypercritical to suggest that a glass of sherry before we left the house . . . However, on the whole, a model. When I pass on, I must remember to leave a note that there is to be a glass of sherry — or possibly old brandy.’
Uncle Fred still had his hat in his hand, his famous hat. Beside him lay the battered leather box. That hat went with him to all the family funerals. Sewn inside the lining was a strip of parchment on which he wrote the names of the members of the family whose funerals he attended. For Uncle Fred at seventy-five it was a rapidly lengthening list, for it began with Aunt Jobyna and came down to poor Cousin Edith.
Eighteen names in that hat already, and with poor Edith’s nineteen. This attendance at the family obsequies had become a passion. Distance was no obstacle; obscurity of relationship only added to his collector’s zeal. There was n’t another hat like it.
Uncle Fred opened his eyes again on a rapidly moving world. Outside, the snow was falling in great soft flakes. They flew past the windows of the train and collected in the corners of the sills. Windows of houses shone golden; signal lights cast patches of raw color on the clean surface of the snow. The train roared over a bridge under which the water was cold and black in the white trough of its banks. Its ripples shivered the reflections. Black girders, harsh and angular, leaped momentarily across his vision.
From lighted warmth, Uncle Fred, hat in hand, watched the pale fields go by. He was being carried westward to sunshine again.
But the day had been tiring. A little bracer, just a thimbleful, would n’t be a bad idea. In his suitcase was a flask of old brandy, pale as straw, rich and nutty, mild as milk. It was a wellrounded, deceitful liquor which led you on with its very smoothness.
Uncle Fred pressed the bell and asked for a table. While it was being brought, he fumbled in his bag for his flask. He hitched his knees up a little as the table was fixed in front of him.
‘Just a touch,’ he said aloud. He poured out the mellow brandy into the silver cup, off the bottom of his flask. ‘Just a touch — the least taste.’
In a silver cup it was impossible to see how much you had poured, and what with the jerking of the train and one thing and another — ‘No harm,’ he said; and he passed it under his nostrils to get the full aroma.
He set the cup down on the polished mahogany of the table. Over his head was a pleasantly shaded light. From the steam pipes rose a grateful heat. On either hand were the lines of black caverns of windows looking out on to the snowy dark, pricked with the flickering lights of farm and village. In the corner of each window was a gathering of snow. At the far end of the car the porter in his white coat lolled against the pale green bulkhead.
Uncle Fred, with half-closed eyes, idly watched his silver cup sliding across the mahogany of the table to the vibration of the train. It followed a course set by unknown forces, and its silver side was reflected on the polished board. Uncle Fred picked it up again before it reached the edge.
‘Aah!’ he said again, as he put it down in the exact middle of the table. That stuff could n’t hurt you — you could drink a bottle of it. It might make your tongue trip a little, but even at seventy-odd it sent the blood hot through your veins, and eased the burden of a tiring day. Uncle Fred’s beautifully shaven pink-and-white face, which had been a trifle pale, grew a little pinker.
There had been a lot of the family to meet. His mind went back to the blackwalnut living room, full of good solid stuff nicely done up in warm red, where they had all come together. The low voices, the velvety leather of dark gray gloves, the soft-footed movements on the thick pile of the carpet — the whole thing was beautifully done, even in his experience. Except, of course, for that glass of sherry, which would have gone down so well before going out into the bitter wind which caught up leaves and scraps of paper at the street corners and sent them flying upwards to the steelcolored sky.
Don’t tell him that Tom had n’t got some good stuff stowed away somewhere. Tom — he’d always liked a drop. Not that he took too much, — that, at least, was n’t a fault of Tom’s, — but he liked it good.
Annoying, the way that silver cup jittered across the polished wood of the table. He passed it under his nostrils and sniffed generously.
‘Aah!’ he sighed as he replaced it. You needed just a sip every now and then. That was the way to take old brandy. Just a sip now and then to wash over the surface of the tongue.
Standing under the chandelier in poor Edith’s living room. A real family gathering.
‘Poor Edith,’ they whispered. ‘So sudden, you know.’
‘Yes, dreadfully sudden; poor Edith.’
He heard them all, and he knew that their thoughts were not on poor Edith, but on each other. In the old days, in Aunt Jobyna’s time, they talked about Edith all right. Everyone did. They watched her slow, graceful passage through the room — this very room — between bits of solid black walnut and under the glass dingledangles of the chandelier.
Years ago, that — nearly forty, or more? When Edith was tall and fairskinned, and her high breasts rounded under sleek black satin, they talked about her because she was Edith.
He sat opposite to her at dinner and peered through the flowers and round the lavishly piled fruit decorating the silver epergne. There were pears and apples and hothouse grapes, — Black Hamburgs, the delicate gray bloom still on them, — and somewhere a pair of silver grape-scissors with heavily chased loops of handles.
Aunt Jobyna was master in her own house. She took the head of the table and refused offers to carve. She wore a black bonnet perched on the tight sweep of her white hair, even in the evening at her own dinner table. She regimented the guests to lead them in, two and two.
After dinner Aunt Jobyna sat by the fire, the light glinting on the diamonds in her rings. Her mouth was a straight line under the shadow of her moustache, a dark finger mark smudged across her upper lip. There was a mole on her chin.
’Come and sit here, Fred,’ she said in her harsh voice, ‘and tell me the news.’
His eyes searched into the dusk of the room to where Edith was sitting at the piano, the candles burning blue-hearted in the brass sconces.
‘Be careful, boy,’ she said, seeing his look. ‘What’s the news? I’m expecting Tom any moment — his train should be in.’
Outside in the hall Tom’s feet stamped off snow on the doormat and he shook his hat. Edith rose to greet him.
‘You see?’ said Aunt Jobyna. Tom was always her favorite. Tom got Edith — and Aunt Jobyna was at the top of his list.
Uncle Fred reached out just in time to save his silver cup. Just a touch now — and Uncle Fred passed his cup perfunctorily under his nose. These sniffs at the aroma were becoming mere gestures of courtesy to a priceless old brandy.
‘Aah!’ he said as he put it down.
The family was delighted. Edith and Tom made a wonderful pair, so they all said — and most of them had passed on to grace his list. That was the way it happened. They were fated to go. Uncle Fred laughed slowly aloud.
‘ Ha — ha — ha! ’ The sound made the porter look in his direction.
Tom was there, too — his name, Thomas Selvage Blaber, right under Aunt Jobyna’s. It had all taken time, but it was the price they paid for going against Uncle Fred.
Dear old Uncle Fred — the mythical rich uncle who came out of the West to see them home. They all liked Uncle Fred, with his fluffy white moustache and his pink-and-white face. He looked round the room at the sombre gathering buzzing whispers to each other. Dear old Uncle Fred — they did not know how he hated them all.
In his hand he clasped his wonderful hat — sixteen, seventeen, eighteen names. Edith, nineteen; she had turned him down for Tom.
Nineteen, — it was a silly number, — an odd number, and he looked at them searching for the twentieth. Into twenty you could divide two, four, five, and ten. Into nineteen, nothing.
‘Well, well, Fred,’ said Frank, shaking his hand, soft leather clinging to soft leather. Uncle Fred had to change his hat to his left hand before Frank could take his limp fingers. ‘Well, well, Fred. Sad, is n’t it? Poor Edith!’
‘Yes,’ said Uncle Fred, mechanically.
‘Wonderful personality,’ said Frank. ‘I remember in this very room when Aunt Jobyna was still with us.’
‘Yes,’ said Uncle Fred. In this very room — his last, desperate effort; the feel of her skin under the silk of her puffed sleeve, which rasped under the roughness of his fingers.
‘Fred! Really!’ said Aunt Jobyna, opening that very door. ‘ I think you ’d better go now — and stay away.’
A masterful woman, Aunt Jobyna — but there she was, her name a little blurred, in the lining of his hat.
‘You hardly knew Edith, of course,’ said Frank. ‘But if you had, you’d have realized. . . . When she married Tom they made a great pair.’
‘Aah!’ said Fred. So here was another. He viewed Frank dispassionately. So here was another of ’em.
‘When are you coming West to see me, Frank?’ he asked.
‘I? At my age, you know, Fred —’ Frank said. At his age. . . .
Uncle Fred put out his hand in time to catch his little silver cup before it slipped off the table, and in doing so he nearly upset it. Near thing — got to be more careful. Very deliberately he took his handkerchief from his breast pocket and mopped a spot or two of old brandy from his sleeve.
He sucked his moustache clean with his underlip as he put down his cup.
At Frank’s age! Poor Frank, they’d be saying — and Frank’s name was as good as any for the twentieth name. Well, well — poor Frank. And dear old Uncle Fred fumbled in his pocket for his pen.
He took his hat and copied in Edith’s name. Poor Edith, he thought sardonically.
The lights burned fuzzily under the cozy shades down the long tunnel of the car. It was all dimly green in there, like the cool inside of an aquarium. Uncle Fred felt as if he were under water. Gray-green blinds had been pulled down over the aching black windows, shutting out the dark. It was all green in there, and the car wove back and forth to the speed of the train.
Just a little one now, and he’d add Frank’s name to his list. At Frank’s age — Ha-ha! He took his flask and tipped it into his cup. Just that much. He let the last drop run out — pity to waste it. The neck of the flask ticked on the edge of the cup.
He sighed gustily as he put the empty cup down on the table. He shook the ink from his pen on to the floor and began to write. A capital F, r — letters meticulously formed.
‘You’re disgustingly drunk,’ said Aunt Jobyna from the chair across the aisle, ‘but hurry up, all the same.’
There she was: dark smudge of moustache, mole, black bonnet, snowy hair.
‘Why — Aunt Jobyna! ’ he said, half rising.
‘Hurry up! ’ she snapped. ‘We’re all waiting, and we want to hear the news.’
‘Sign on the dotted line,’ said Tom with his hoarse, hearty laugh.
‘Oh, Tom dear,’ said Edith. ‘Give him a minute.’
All the others sitting up and down the car craned round in their chairs to look. ‘Come on, Fred,’ they said.
Capital F — r — e — . He formed the letters slowly, filling the twentieth space. ’Fred,’ he wrote.
The empty cup jittered for the last time across the table and fell with a tiny tinkle to the floor. It rolled away under the steam pipes. Even that failed to rouse Uncle Fred.