Read CHAPTER VI - THE PORCH WREN of Ma Pettengill, free online book, by Harry Leon Wilson, on ReadCentral.com.

So it befell, in a shining and memorable interlude that there was talk of the oldest living boy scout, who was said to have rats in his wainscoting; of the oldest living debutante, who was also a porch wren; and of the body snatcher.  Little of the talk was mine; a query now and again.  It was Ma Pettengill’s talk, and I put it here for what it may be worth, hoping I may close-knit and harmonize its themes, so diverse as that of the wardrobe trunk, the age of the earth, what every woman thinks she knows, and the Upper Silurian trilobites.

It might be well to start with the concrete, and baby’s picture seems to be an acceptable springboard from which to dive into the recital.  It came in the evening’s mail and was extended to me by Mrs. Lysander John Pettengill, with poorly suppressed emotion.  The thing excited no emotion in me that I could not easily suppress.  It was the most banal of all snapshots ­a young woman bending Madonna-wise above something carefully swathed, flanked by a youngish man who revealed a self-conscious smirk through his carefully pointed beard.  The light did harshly by the bent faces of the couple and the disclosed fragment of the swathed thing was a weakish white blob.

I need not say that there must be millions of these pathetic revealments burdening our mails day by day.  I myself must have looked coldly upon over a thousand.

“Well, what of it?” I demanded shortly.

“I bet you can’t guess what’s in that bundle!” said my hostess in a large playful manner.

I said what I could see of it looked like a half portion of plain boiled cauliflower, but that in all probability the object was an infant, a human infant ­or, to use a common expression, a baby.  Whereupon the lady drew herself up and remarked in the clipped accent of a parrot: 

“No, sir; it’s a carboniferous trilobite of the Upper Silurian.”

This, indeed, piqued me.  It made a difference.  I said was it possible?  Mrs. Pettengill said it was worse than possible; it was inevitable.  She seemed about to rest there; so I accused her of ill-natured jesting and took up the previous day’s issue of the Red Gap Recorder, meaning to appear bored.  It worked.

“Well, if Professor Oswald Pennypacker don’t call his infant that, you can bet your new trout rod he calls it something just as good.  Mebbe I better read what the proud mother says.”

“It would be the kind thing before you spread evil reports,” I murmured in a tone of gentle rebuke.

So the woman polished her nose glasses and read a double sheet of long up-and-down calligraphy ­that is, she read until she exploded in triumphant retort: 

“Ha!  There now!  Don’t I know a thing or two?  Listen:  ’Oswald is so enraptured with the mite; you would never guess what he calls it ­“My little flower with bones and a voice!"’ Now!  Don’t tell me I didn’t have Oswald’s number.  I knew he wouldn’t be satisfied to call it a baby; he’d be bound to name it something animal, vegetable, or mineral.  Ain’t it the truth?  ‘Little flower with bones and a voice!’ What do you know about that?  That’s a scientist trying to be poetic.

“And here ­get this:  She says that one hour after the thing was born the happy father was caught by the doctor and nurse seeing if it could hold its own weight up on a broomstick, like a monkey.  She says he was acutely distressed when these authorities deprived him of the custody of his child.  Wouldn’t that fade you?  Trying to see if a baby one hour old could chin itself!  Quite all you would wish to know about Oswald.”

I hastily said no; it was not nearly all I wanted to know about Oswald.  I wanted to know much more.  Almost any one would.  The lady once more studied the hairy face with its bone-rimmed glasses.

“Shucks!” said she.  “He don’t look near as proud in this as he does in that one he sent me himself ­here, where is that thing?”

From the far end of the big table she brought under the lamp a basket of Indian weave and excavated from its trove of playing cards, tobacco sacks, cigarette papers, letters, and odd photographs another snapshot of Oswald.  It was a far different scene.  Here Oswald stood erect beside the mounted skeleton of some prehistoric giant reptile that dwarfed yet left him somehow in kingly triumph.

“There now!” observed the lady.  “Don’t he look a heap more egregious by that mess of bones than he does by his own flesh and blood?  Talk about pride!”

And I saw that it was so.  Here Oswald looked the whole world in the face, proud indeed!  One hand rested upon the beast’s kneecap in a proprietary caress.  Oswald looked too insufferably complacent.  It was the look to be forgiven a man only when he wears it in the presence of his first-born.  If snapshots tell anything at all, these told that Oswald was the father of a mammoth sauropod and had merely dug up the baby in a fossil bed somewhere.

“That’s where the man’s heart really lies,” said his stern critic, “even if he does drivel about his little flower with bones and a voice!  Probably by now he’s wishing the voice had been left out of his little flower.”  Impressively she planted a rigid forefinger on the print of the mounted skeleton.

“That there,” she glibly rattled off, “is the organic remains of a three-toed woolly bronsolumphicus of the carboniferous limestone, or Upper Silurian trilobite period.  I believe I have the name correct.  It was dug up out of a dry lake in Wyoming that years ago got to be mere loblolly, so that this unfortunate critter bogged down in it.  The poor thing passed on about six million or four hundred million years ago ­somewhere along there.  Oswald and his new father-in-law dug it from its quiet resting place in the old cemetery.  Such is their thrilling work in life.

“This father-in-law is just an old body snatcher that snoops round robbing the graves of antiquity and setting up his loot in their museum at the university.  No good telling that old ghoul to let the dead rest.  He simply won’t hear of it.  He wants remains.  He wants to have ’em out in the light of day and stick labels on their long-peaceful skulls.  He don’t act subdued or proper about it either, or kind of buttery sad, like a first-class undertaker.  He’s gleeful.  Let him find the skeleton of something as big as a freight car, that perished far in the dead past, and he’s as tickled as a kid shooting at little sister with his new air gun.

“Bones in his weakness ­and periods of geology.  He likes period bones the way some folks like period furniture; and rocks and geography and Lower Triassics, and so forth.  He knows how old the earth is within a few hundred million years; how the scantling and joists for it was put together, and all the different kinds of teeth that wild animals have.  He’s a scientist.  Oswald is a scientist.  I was a scientist myself two summers ago when they was up here.

“By the time they left I could talk a lot of attractive words.  I could speak whole sentences so good that I could hardly understand myself.  Of course after they left I didn’t keep up my science.  I let myself get rusty in it.  I probably don’t know so much more about it now than you would.  Oh, perhaps a little more.  It would all come back to me if I took it up again.”

So I said that I had nothing to do for an hour or so, and if she would not try to be scientific, but talk in her own homely words, I might consent to listen; in this event she might tell the whole thing, omitting nothing, however trifling it might seem to her, because she was no proper judge of values.  I said it was true I might be overtaken by sleep, since my day had been a hard one, reaching clear to the trout pool under the big falls and involving the transportation back to seventeen rainbow trout weighing well over seventeen pounds, more or less, though feeling much like more.  And what about Oswald and the primeval ooze, and so forth.  And would it be important if true?  The lady said ­well, yes, and no; but, however ­

He’s Professor Marwich up at the university ­this confirmed old coroner I’m telling you about.  Has a train of capital letters streaming along after he’s all through with his name.  I don’t know what they mean ­doctor of dental surgery, I guess, or zoology or fractions or geography, or whatever has to do with rocks and animals and vertebraes.  He ain’t a bad old scout out of business hours.  He pirooted round here one autumn about a dozen years ago and always threatened to come back and hold some more of these here inquests on the long departed; but I heard nothing until two summers ago.  He wrote that he wanted to come up to do field work.  That’s the innocent name he calls his foul trade by.  And he wanted to bring his assistant, Professor Pennypacker; and could I put them up?

I said if they would wait till haying was over I could and would.  He answered they would wait till my hay was garnered ­that’s the pretty word he used ­and could he also bring his mouthless chit with him?  I didn’t quite make him.  He writes a hand that would never get by in a business college.  I thought it might be something tame he carried in a cage, and would stay quiet all day while he was out pursuing his repulsive practices.  It didn’t sound troublesome.

I never made a worse guess.  It was his daughter he talked about that way.  She was all right enough, though astounding when you had expected something highly zoological and mouthless instead of motherless.  She was a tall roan girl with the fashionable streamline body, devoted to the ukulele and ladies’ wearing apparel.  But not so young as that sounds.  Her general manner of conduct was infantile enough, but she had tired eyes and a million little lines coming round ’em, and if you got her in a strong light you saw she was old enough to have a serious aim in life.

She did use massage cream and beauty lotions with a deep seriousness you wouldn’t suspect her of when she sat out in the hammock in the moonlight and scratched this ukulele and acted the part of a mere porch wren.  That was really the girl’s trade; all she’d ever learned.  Mebbe she had misspent her early youth, or mebbe she wasn’t meant for anything else ­just a butterfly with some of the gold powder brushed off and the wings a little mite crumpled.

Gee!  How times have changed since I took my own hair out of a braid!  In them fond old days when a girl didn’t seem attractive enough for marriage she took up a career ­school-teaching probably ­and was looked at sidewise by her family.  It’s different now.  In this advanced day a girl seems to start for the career first and take up marriage only when all other avenues is closed.  She’s the one that is now regarded by her brainy sisters as a failure.  I consider it an evil state for the world to be in ­but no matter; I can’t do anything about it from up here, with haytime coming on.

Anyway, this Lydia girl had not been constructed for any career requiring the serious use of the head; and yet so far she had failed in the other one.  She was on the way to being an outcast if she didn’t pull something desperate pretty soon.  She was looking down on thirty, and I bet her manner hadn’t changed a bit since she was looking up to twenty.

Of course she’d learned things about her game.  Living round a college she must of tried her wiles on at least ten graduating classes of young men.  Naturally she’d learned technique and feminine knavery.  She was still flirty enough.  She had a little short upper lip that she could lift with great pathos.  And the party hadn’t more than landed here when I saw that at last she did have a serious aim in life.

It was this here assistant to her father, who was named Professor Oswald Pennypacker; and he was a difficult aim in life, because he didn’t need a wife any more than the little dicky birds need wrist watches.  You seen his picture there.  About thirty-five he was and had devoted all his years to finding out the names of wild animals, which is said to be one of our best sciences.  He hadn’t got round to women yet.  A good snappy skeleton of one might of entertained him if he could of dug it up himself and called it a sedimentary limestone; but he had never trifled with one that was still in commission and ornamented with flesh and clothes.

And fussy!  I wish you could of seen that man’s room after he had carefully unpacked!  A place for everything, and he had everything, too ­everything in the world.  And if someone switched his soap over to where his tooth paste belonged it upset his whole day.  The Chink never dared to go into his room after the first morning.  Oswald even made his own bed.  Easy to call him an old maid, but I never saw any woman suffer as much agony in her neatness.

His shoes had to be in a row, and his clothes and hats and caps had to be in a row, and there was only one hook in the room his pyjamas could lawfully hang on, and his talcum powder had to stand exactly between the mosquito dope and the bay rum, which had to be flanked precisely by his manicure tools and succeeded by something he put on his hair, which was going the way of all flesh.  If some marauder had entered his room in the night and moved his compass over to where his fountain pen belonged he would of woke up instantly and screamed.

And then his new wardrobe trunk!  This was a great and holy joy that had come into his bleak life; all new and shiny and complicated, with a beautiful brass lock, one side for clothes on correct hangers and the other side full of drawers and compartments and secret recesses, where he could hide things from himself.  It was like a furnished flat, that trunk.  And this was his first adventure out in the great cruel world with it.  He cherished it as a man had ought to cherish his bride.

He had me in to gaze upon it that first afternoon.  You’d of thought he was trying to sell it to me, the way he showed it off.  It stood on end, having a bulge like a watermelon in the top, so no vandal could stand it up wrong; and it was wide open to show the two insides.  He opened up every room in it, so I could marvel at ’em.  He fawned on that trunk.  And at the last he showed me a little brass hook he had screwed into the side where the clothes hangers was.  It was a very important hook.  He hung the keys of the trunk on it; two keys, strung on a cord, and the cord neatly on the hook.  This, he told me, was so the keys would never get lost.

“I always have a dread I may lose those keys,” says he.  “That would be a catastrophe indeed, would it not?  So I plan to keep them on that hook; then I shall always know where they are.”

The crafty wretch!  He could wake up in the night and put his hand on those keys in the dark.  Probably he often done so.  I spoke a few simple words of praise for his sagacity.  And after this interesting lecture on his trunk and its keys, and a good look at the accurate layout of his one million belongings, I had his number.  He was the oldest living boy scout.

And this poor girl with the designful eyes on him was the oldest living debutante.  I learned afterward that the great aim of science is classification.  I had these two classified in no time, like I’d been pottering away at science all my life.  Why, say, this Oswald person even carried a patent cigar lighter that worked!  You must of seen hundreds of them nickel things that men pay money for.  They work fine in the store where you buy ’em.  But did you ever see one work after the man got it outside, where he needed it?  The owner of one always takes it out, looking strained and nervous, and presses the spring; and nothing happens except that he swears and borrows a match.  But Oswald’s worked every time.  It was uncanny!  Only a boy scout could of done it.

So they got settled and the field work begun next day.  The two men would ride off early to a place about five miles north of here that used to be an ancient lake ­so I was told.  I don’t know whether it did or not.  It’s dry enough now.  It certainly can’t be considered any part of our present water supply.  They would take spades and hammers and magnifying glasses and fountain pens, and Oswald’s cigar lighter and some lunch, and come back at night with a fine mess of these here trilobites and vertebrae; and ganoids and petrified horseflies, and I don’t know what all; mebbe oyster shells, or the footprints of a bird left in solid rock, or the outlines of starfish, or a shrimp that was fifty-two million years old and perfectly useless.

They seemed to have a good time.  And Oswald would set up late writing remarks about the petrified game they had brought in.

I didn’t used to see much of ’em, except at night when we’d gather for the evening meal.  But their talk at those times did wonders for me.  All about the aims of science and how we got here and what of it.  The Prof was a bulky old boy, with long gray hair and long black eyebrows, and the habit of prevailing in argument.  Him and Oswald never did agree on anything in my hearing, except the Chink’s corn muffins; and they looked kind of mad at each other when they had to agree on them.

Take the age of this earth on which we make our living.  They never got within a couple of hundred million years of each other.  Oswald was strong for the earth’s being exactly fifty-seven million years old.  Trust him to have it down fine!  And the old man hung out for four hundred million.  They used to get all fussed up about this.

They quoted authorities.  One scientist had figured close and found it was fifty-six million years.  And another, who seemed to be a headliner in the world of science, said it was between twenty million and four hundred million, with a probability of its being ninety-eight million.  I kind of liked that scientist.  He seemed so human, like a woman in a bean-guessing contest at the county fair.  But still another scientist had horned in with a guess of five hundred million years, which was at least easy to remember.

Of course I never did much but listen, even when they argued this thing that I knew all about; for back in Fredonia, New York, where I went to Sunday-school, it was settled over fifty years ago.  Our dear old pastor told us the earth was exactly six thousand years old.  But I let the poor things talk on, not wanting to spoil their fun.  When one of ’em said the world was made at least fifty-seven million years ago I merely said it didn’t look anywhere near as old as that, and let it go.

We had some merry little meals for about a month.  If it wasn’t the age of God’s footstool it would be about what we are descended from, the best bet in sight being that it’s from fishes that had lungs and breathed under water as easy as anything, which at least put dimmers on that old monkey scandal in our ancestry.  Or, after we moved outside on the porch, which we had to do on account of Oswald smoking the very worst cigars he was able to find in all the world, they would get gabby about all things in the world being simply nothing, which is known to us scientists as metaphysics.

Metaphysics is silly-simple ­like one, two, three.  It consists of subject and object.  I only think I’m knitting this here sock.  There ain’t any sock here and there ain’t any me.  We’re illusions.  The sound of that Chink washing dishes out in the kitchen is a mere sensation inside my head.  So’s the check for eighty dollars I will have to hand him on the first of the month ­though the fool bank down in Red Gap will look on it with uneducated eyes and think it’s real.  Philosophers have dug into these matters and made ’em simple for us.  It took thousands of books to do it; but it’s done at last.  Everything is nothing.  Ask any scientist; he’ll make it just as clear to you as a mist in a fog.

And even nothing itself ain’t real.  They go to that extreme.  Not even empty space is real.  And the human mind can’t comprehend infinite space.  I got kind of hot when one of ’em said that.  I asked ’em right off whether the human mind could comprehend space that had an end to it.  Of course it can’t comprehend anything else but infinite space.  I had ’em, all right; they had to change the subject.  So they switched over to free will.  None of us has it.

That made me hot again.  I told ’em to try for even five minutes and see if they could act as if they didn’t have the power of choice.  Of course I had ’em again.  Mebbe there ain’t free will, but we can’t act as if there wasn’t.  Those two would certainly make the game of poker impossible if folks believed ’em.

I nearly broke up the party that night.  I said it was a shame young men was being taught such stuff when they could just as well go to some good agricultural college and learn about soils and crops and what to do in case of a sick bull.  Furthermore, I wanted to know what they would do to earn their daily bread when they’d got everything dug up and labelled.  Pretty soon they’d have every last organic remains put into a catalogue, the whole set complete and unbroken ­and then what?  They’d be out of a job.

The Prof laughed and said let the future take care of itself.  He said we couldn’t tell what might happen, because, as yet, we was nothing really but supermonkeys.  That’s what he called our noble race ­supermonkeys!  So I said yes; and these here philosophers that talked about subject and object and the nothingness of nothing reminded me of monkeys that get hold of a looking-glass and hold it up and look into it, and then sneak one paw round behind the glass to catch the other monkey.  So he laughed again and said “Not bad, that!”

You could kid the Prof, which is more than I can say for Oswald.  Oswald always took a joke as if you’d made it beside the casket holding all that was mortal of his dear mother.  In the presence of lightsome talk poor Oswald was just a chill.  He was an eater of spoon-meat, and finicking.  He could talk like Half Hours With the World’s Best Authors, and yet had nothing to say but words.

Still, I enjoyed them evenings.  I learned to be interested in vital questions and to keep up with the world’s best thought, in company with these gents that was a few laps ahead of it.  But not so with the motherless chit.  This here Lydia made no effort whatever to keep up with the world’s best thought.  She didn’t seem to care if she never perfected her intellect.  It would of been plain to any eye that she was spreading a golden mesh for the Oswald party; yet she never made the least clumsy effort to pander to his high ideals.

She was a wonder, that girl!  All day she would set round the house, with her hair down, fixing over a lace waist or making fudge, and not appearing to care much about life.  Come night, when the party was due to return, she would spry up, trick herself out in something squashy, with the fashionable streamlike effect and a pretty pair of hammock stockings with white slippers, and become an animated porch wren.  That seemed to be the limit of her science.

Most motherless chits would of pretended a feverish interest in the day’s hunt for fossil cockroaches, and would even of gone out to chip off rocks with a hammer; but not Lydia.  She would never pretend to the least infatuation for organic remains, and would, like as not, strike up something frivolous on her ukulele while Oswald was right in the middle of telling all about the secret of life.  She was confident all the time, though, like she already had him stuffed and mounted.  She reminded me of that girl in the play What Every Woman Thinks She Knows.

Lydia had great ideas of cooking, which is an art to ensnare males.  She said she was a dandy cook and could make Saratoga chips that was all to the Kenosha ­whatever that meant.  Think of it ­Saratoga chips!  Over eight hundred ways to cook potatoes, and all good but one; and, of course, she’d have to hit on this only possible way to absolutely ruin potatoes.  She could cook other things, too ­fudge and stuffed eggs and cheese straws, the latter being less than no food at all.  It gives you a line on her.

I suppose it was all you could expect from a born debutante that had been brought up to be nice to college boys on a moonlit porch, allowing them to put another sofa pillow back of her, and wearing their class pins, and so forth.  And here she was come to thirty, with fudge and cheese straws and the ukulele still bounding her mental horizon, yet looking far above her station to one of Oswald’s serious magnitude.

I never have made out what she saw in him.  But then we never do.  She used to kid about him ­and kid him, for that matter.  She’d say to me:  “He does care frightfully about himself, doesn’t he?” And she said to me and said to him that he had mice in his wainscoting.  Mice or rats, I forget which.  Any wise bookmaker would of posted her up in this race as a hundred-to-one shot.  She had plenty of blandishment for Oswald, but not his kind.  She’d try to lure him with furtive femininity and plaintive melodies when she ought to have been putting on a feverish interest in organic fauna.  Oswald generally looked through or past her.  He give a whole lot more worry to whether his fountain pen would clog up on him.  They was both set in their ways, and they was different ways; it looked to me like they never could meet.  They was like a couple of trained seals that have learned two different lines of tricks.

Of course Oswald was sunk at last, sunk by a chance shot; and there was no doubt about his being destroyed, quantities of oil marking the surface where he went down.  But it seemed like pure chance.  Yet, if you believe Oswald and scientific diagnosis, he’d been up against it since the world was first started, twenty million or five hundred million years ago ­I don’t really know how many; but what’s a few million years between scientists?  I don’t know that I really care.  It’s never kept me wakeful a night yet.  I’d sooner know how to get eighty-five per cent. of calves.

Anyway, it was Oswald’s grand new wardrobe trunk that had been predestined from the world’s beginning to set him talkative about his little flower with bones and a voice; this same new wardrobe trunk that was the pride of his barren life and his one real worry because he might sometime lose the keys to it.

It’s an affecting tale.  It begun the night Oswald wanted the extra table put in his room.  They’d come in that day with a good haul of the oldest inhabitants round here that had passed to their long rest three million years ago ­petrified fishworms and potato bugs, and so forth, and rocks with bird tracks on ’em.  Oswald was as near human as I’d seen him, on account of having found a stone caterpillar or something ­I know it had a name longer than it was; it seemed to be one like no one else had, and would therefore get him talked about, even if it had passed away three million years before the Oregon Short Line was built.

And Oswald went on to ask if he could have this extra table in his room, because these specimens of the disturbed dead was piling up on him and he wanted to keep ’em in order.  He had lighted one of his terrible cigars; so I said I would quickly go and see about a table.  I said that with his venomous cigar going I would quickly have to go and see about something or else have my olfactory nerve resected, which was a grand scientific phrase I had brightly picked out and could play with one finger.  It means having something done so you can’t smell any more.

The Prof laughed heartily, but Oswald only said he hadn’t supposed I would feel that way, considering the kind of tobacco my own cigarettes was made of, though he was sorry and would hereafter smoke out of doors.  He took a joke like a child taking castor oil.  Anyway, I went out and found a spare table in the storeroom, and the Chink took it to Oswald’s room.

The fateful moment was at hand for which Nature had been conspiring all these ages.  The Chink held the table up against him, with the legs sticking out, and Oswald went ahead to show him where to put it.  Close by the door, inside his room, was the lovely, yawning new trunk.  Oswald must of been afraid one of the table legs would spear it and mar its fair varnish.  He raised one hand to halt the table, then closed the trunk tenderly, snapped the lock, and moved it over into the corner, beyond chance of desecration.

Then he give careful directions for placing the table, which had to be carried round the foot of the bed and past another table, which held marine fossils and other fishbones.  It was placed between this table and still another, which held Oswald’s compass and microscope and his kill-kare kamp stove and his first-aid kit and his sportsman’s belt safe ­all neatly arranged in line.  I had followed to see if there was anything more he needed, and he said no, thank you.  So I come out here to look over my mail that had just come.

Ten minutes later I felt the presence of a human being and looked up to see that Oswald, the oldest living boy scout, was dying on his feet in the doorway there.  His face looked like he had been in jail three years.  I thought he had seen a ghost or had a heart shock.  He looked as if he was going to keel over.  He had me scared.  Finally he dragged himself over to the table here and says faintly: 

“I believe I should like a severe drink of whisky!”

I didn’t ask any questions.  I saw it must be some private grief; so I got the whisky.  It happened I had just one bottle in the house, and that was some perfectly terrible whisky that had been sent me by mistake.  It was liquid barbed wire.  Even a little drink of it would of been severe.  Two drinks would make you climb a tree like a monkey.  But the stricken Oswald seemed able to outfight it.  He poured out half a tumblerful, drunk it neat and refused water.  He strangled some, for he was only human after all.  Then he sagged down on the couch and looked up at me with a feeble and pathetic grin and says: 

“I’m afraid I’ve done something.  I’m really afraid I have.”

He had me in a fine state by this time.  The only thing I could think of was that he had killed the Prof by accident.  I waited for the horrible details, being too scared to ask questions.

“I’m afraid,” he says, “that I’ve locked the keys of my new trunk inside of it.  I’m afraid I really have!  And what does one do in such a case?”

I nearly broke down then.  I was in grave danger of fatal hysterics.  I suffered from the reaction.  I couldn’t trust myself; so I got over to the door, where my face wouldn’t show, and called to the Prof and Lydia.  I now heard them out on the porch.  Then I edged outside the door, where people wouldn’t be quite so scared if I lost control of myself and yelled.

Then these two went in and listened to Oswald’s solemn words.  The Prof helped me out a lot.  He yelled good.  He yelled his head off; and under cover of his tumult I managed to get in a few whoops of my own, so that I could once more act something like a lady when I went in.

Lydia, the porch wren, was the only one to take Oswald’s bereavement at all decent.  The chit was sucking a stick of candy she had shoved down into a lemon.  Having run out of town candy, one of the boys had fetched her some of the old-fashioned stick kind, with pink stripes; she would ram one of these down to the bottom of a lemon and suck up the juice through the candy.  She looked entirely useless while she was doing this, and yet she was the only one to show any human sympathy.

She asked the stricken man how it happened, and he told the whole horrible story ­how he always kept the keys hanging on this little brass hook inside the trunk so he would know where they was, and how he had shut the trunk in a hurry to get it out of the way of the table legs, and the spring lock had snapped.  And what did one do now ­if anything?

“Why, it’s perfectly simple!  You open it some other way,” says Lydia.

“Ah, but how?” says Oswald.  “Those trunks are superbly built.  How can one?”

“Oh, it must be easy,” says Lydia, still clinging to her candy sour.  “I’ll open it for you to-morrow if you will remind me.”

“Remind you?” says Oswald in low, tragic tones.  You could see he was never going to think of anything else the rest of his life.

By this time the Prof and I had controlled our heartless merriment; so we all traipsed in to the scene of this here calamity and looked at the shut trunk.  It was shut good; no doubt about that.  There was also no doubt about the keys being inside.

“You can hear them rattle!” says the awed Oswald, teetering the trunk on one corner.  So each one of us took a turn and teetered the trunk back and forth and heard the imprisoned keys jingle against the side where they was hung.

“But what’s to be done?” says Oswald.  “Of course something must be done.”  That seemed to be about where Oswald got off.

“Why, simply open it some other way,” says Lydia, which seemed to be about where she got off, too.

“But how?” moans the despairing man.  And she again says: 

“Oh, it must be too simple!”

At that she was sounding the only note of hope Oswald could hear; and right then I believe he looked at her fair and square for the first time in his life.  He was finding a woman his only comforter in his darkest hour.

The Prof took it lightly indeed.  He teetered the trunk jauntily and says: 

“Your device was admirable; you will always know where those keys are.”  Then he teetered it again and says, like he was lecturing on a platform:  “This is an ideal problem for the metaphysical mind.  Here, veritably, is life itself.  We pick it up, we shake it, and we hear the tantalizing key to existence rattle plainly just inside.  We know the key to be there; we hear it in every manifestation of life.  Our problem is to think it out.  It is simple, as my child has again and again pointed out.  Sit there before your trunk and think effectively, with precision.  You will then think the key out.  I would take it in hand myself, but I have had a hard day.”

Then Lydia releases her candy long enough to say how about finding some other trunk keys that will unlock it.  Oswald is both hurt and made hopeful by this.  He don’t like to think his beautiful trunk could respond to any but its rightful key; it would seem kind of a slur against its integrity.  Still, he says it may be tried.  Lydia says try it, of course; and if no other key unlocks it she will pick the lock with a hairpin.  Oswald is again bruised by this suggestion; but he bears up like a man.  And so we dig up all the trunk keys and other small keys we can find and try to fool that trunk.  And nothing doing!

“I was confident of it,” says Oswald; he’s really disappointed, yet proud as Punch because his trunk refuses coldly to recognize these strange keys.

Then Lydia brings a bunch of hairpins and starts to be a burglar.  She says in clear tones that it is perfectly simple; and she keeps on saying exactly this after she’s bent the whole pack out of shape and not won a trick.  Yet she cheered Oswald a lot, in spite of her failures.  She never for one instant give in that it wasn’t simple to open a trunk without the key.

But it was getting pretty late for one night, so Oswald and Lydia knocked off and set out on the porch a while.  Oswald seemed to be awakening to her true woman’s character, which comes out clad in glory at times when things happen.  She told him she would sure have that trunk opened to-morrow with some more hairpins ­or something.

But in the morning she rushed to Oswald and said they would have the blacksmith up to open it.  He would be sure to open it in one minute with a few tools; and how stupid of her not to of thought of it before!  I liked that way she left Oswald out of any brain work that had to be done.  So they sent out to Abner to do the job, telling him what was wanted.

Abner is a simple soul.  He come over with a hammer and a cold chisel to cut the lock off.  He said there wasn’t any other way.  Oswald listened with horror to this cold-blooded plan of murder and sent Abner sternly away.  Lydia was indignant, too, at the painful suggestion.  She said Abner was a shocking old bounder.

Then Oswald had to go out to his field work; but his heart couldn’t of been in it that day.  I’ll bet he could of found the carcass of a petrified zebra with seven legs and not been elated by it.  He had only the sweet encouragement of Lydia to brace him.  He was depending pathetically on that young woman.

He got back that night to find that Lydia had used up another pack of hairpins and a number of the tools from my sewing machine.  All had been black failure, but she still said it was perfectly simple.  She never lost the note of hope out of her voice.  Oswald was distressed, but he had to regard her more and more like an object of human interest.

She now said it was a simple matter of more keys.  So the next day I sent one of the boys down to Red Gap; and he rode a good horse to its finish and come back with about five dozen nice little trunk keys with sawed edges.  They looked cheerful and adequate, and we spent a long, jolly evening trying ’em out.  Not one come anywhere near getting results.

Oswald’s trunk was still haughty, in spite of all these overtures.  Oswald was again puffed up with pride, it having been shown that his trunk was no common trunk.  He said right out that probably the only two keys in all the world that would open that lock was the two hanging inside.  He never passed the trunk without rocking it to hear their sad tinkle.

Lydia again said, nonsense!  It was perfectly simple to open a trunk without the right key.  Oswald didn’t believe her, and yet he couldn’t help taking comfort from her.  I guess that was this girl’s particular genius ­not giving up when everyone else could see that she was talking half-witted.  Anyway, she was as certain as ever, and I guess Oswald believed her in spite of himself.  His ponderous scientific brain told him one thing in plain terms, and yet he was leaning on the words of a chit that wouldn’t know a carboniferous vertebra from an Upper Silurian gerumpsus.

The keys had gone back, hairpins was proved to be no good, and scientific analysis had fell down flat.  There was the trunk and there was the keys inside; and Oswald was taking on a year in age every day of his life.  He was pretty soon going to be as old as the world if something didn’t happen.  He’d got so that every time he rocked the trunk to hear the keys rattle he’d shake his head like the doctor shakes it at a moving-picture deathbed to show that all is over.  He was in a pitch-black cavern miles underground, with one tiny candle beam from a possible rescuer faintly showing from afar, which was the childish certainty of this oldest living debutante that it was perfectly simple for a woman to do something impossible.  She was just blue-eyed confidence.

After the men left one morning on their hunt for long-defunct wood ticks and such, Lydia confided to me that she was really going to open that trunk.  She was going to put her mind on it.  She hadn’t done this yet, it seemed, but to-day she would.

“The poor boy has been rudely jarred in his academic serenity,” says she.  “He can’t bear up much longer; he has rats in his wainscoting right now.  It makes me perfectly furious to see a man so helpless without a woman.  Today I’ll open his silly old trunk for him.”

“It will be the best day’s work you ever done,” I says, and she nearly blushed.

“I’m not thinking of that,” she says.

The little liar!  As if she hadn’t seen as well as I had how Oswald was regarding her with new eyes.  So I wished her good luck and started out myself, having some field work of my own to do that day in measuring a lot of haystacks down at the lower end of the ranch.

She said there would be no luck in it ­nothing but cool determination and a woman’s intuition.  I let it go at that and went off to see that I didn’t get none of the worst of it when this new hay was measured.  I had a busy day, forgetting all scientific problems and the uphill fight our sex sometimes has in bringing a man to his just mating sense.

I got back about five that night.  Here was Miss Lydia, cool and negligent on the porch, like she’d never had a care in the world; fresh dressed in something white and blue, with her niftiest hammock stockings, and tinkling the ukulele in a bored and petulant manner.

“Did you open it?” I says as I went in.

“Open it?” she says, kind of blank.  “Oh, you mean that silly old trunk!  Yes, I believe I did.  At least I think I did.”

It was good stage acting; an audience would of thought she had forgotten.  So I took it as calm as she did and went in to change.

By the time I got out the men was just coming in, the Prof being enthusiastic about some clamshells of the year six million B. C. and Oswald bearing his great sorrow with an effort to do it bravely.

Lydia nodded distantly and then ignored the men in a pointed way, breaking out into rapid chatter to me about the lack of society up here ­didn’t I weary of the solitude, never meeting people of the right sort?  It was a new line with her and done for effect, but I couldn’t see what effect.

Supper was ready and we hurried in to it; so I guess Oswald must of forgot for one time to shake his trunk and listen to the pretty little keys.  And all through the meal Lydia confined her attentions entirely to me.  She ignored Oswald mostly, but if she did notice him she patronized him.  She was painfully superior to him, and severe and short, like he was a little boy that had been let to come to the table with the grown-ups for this once.  She rattled along to me about the club dances at home, and how they was going to have better music this year, and how the assembly hall had been done over in a perfectly dandy colour scheme by the committee she was on, and a lot of girlish babble that took up much room but weighed little.

Oswald would give her side looks of dumb appeal from time to time, for she had not once referred to anything so common as a trunk.  He must of felt that her moral support had been withdrawn and he was left to face the dread future alone.  He probably figured that she’d had to give up about the trunk and was diverting attention from her surrender.  He hardly spoke a word and disappeared with a look of yearning when we left the table.  The rest of us went out on the porch.  Lydia was teasing the ukulele when Oswald appeared a few minutes later, with great excitement showing in his worn face.

“I can hear the keys no longer,” says he; “not a sound of them!  Mustn’t they have fallen from the hook?”

Lydia went on stripping little chords from the strings while she answered him in lofty accents.

“Keys?” she says.  “What keys?  What is the man talking of?  Oh, you mean that silly old trunk!  Are you really still maundering about that?  Of course the keys aren’t there!  I took them out when I opened it to-day.  I thought you wanted them taken out.  Wasn’t that what you wanted the trunk open for ­to get the keys?  Have I done something stupid?  Of course I can put them back and shut it again if you only want to listen to them.”

Oswald had been glaring at her with his mouth open like an Upper Triassic catfish.  He tried to speak, but couldn’t move his face, which seemed to be frozen.  Lydia goes on dealing off little tinkles of string music in a tired, bored way and turns confidentially to me to say she supposes there is really almost no society up here in the true sense of the word.

“You opened that trunk?” says Oswald at last in tones like a tragedian at his big scene.

Lydia turned to him quite prettily impatient, as if he was something she’d have to brush off in a minute.

“Dear, dear!” she says.  “Of course I opened it.  I told you again and again it was perfectly simple.  I don’t see why you made so much fuss about it.”

Oswald turned and galloped off to his room with a glad shout.  That showed the male of him, didn’t it? ­not staying for words of gratitude to his saviour, but beating it straight to the trunk.

Lydia got up and swaggered after him.  She had been swaggering all the evening.  She acted like a duchess at a slumming party.  The Prof and I followed her.

Oswald was teetering the trunk in the old familiar way, with one ear fastened to its shiny side.

“It’s true!  It’s true!” he says in hushed tones.  “The keys are gone.”

“Naughty, naughty!” says Lydia.  “Haven’t I told you I took them out?”

Oswald went over and set limply down on his bed, while we stood in the doorway.

“How did you ever do it?” says he with shining eyes.

“It was perfectly simple,” says Lydia.  “I simply opened it ­that’s all!”

“I have always suspected that the great secret of life would be almost too simple when once solved,” says the Prof.

“It only needed a bit of thought,” says the chit.

Then Oswald must of had a sudden pang of fear.  He flew over and examined the lock and all the front surface of his treasure.  He was looking for signs of rough work, thinking she might of broken into it in some coarse manner.  But not a scratch could he find.  He looked up at Lydia out of eyes moist with gratitude.

“You wonderful, wonderful woman!” says he, and any one could know he meant it from the heart out.

Lydia was still superior and languid, and covered up a slight yawn.  She said she was glad if any little thing she could do had made life pleasanter for him.  This has been such a perfectly simple thing ­very, very far from wonderful.

Oswald now begun to caper round the room like an Airedale pup, and says let’s have the keys and open the trunk up, so he can believe his own eyes.

Then Lydia trifled once more with a human soul.  She froze in deep thought a long minute then says: 

“Oh, dear!  Now what did I do with those wretched old keys?”

Oswald froze, too, with a new agony.  Lydia put a hand to her pale forehead and seemed to try to remember.  There was an awful silence.  Oswald was dashed over the cliff again.

“Can’t you think?” says the wounded man.  “Can’t you remember?  Try!  Try!”

“Now let me see,” says Lydia.  “I know I had them out in the living room ­”

“Why did you ever take them out there?” demands Oswald in great terror; but the heroine pays no attention whatever to this.

“ ­and later, I think ­I think ­I must have carried them into my room.  Oh, yes; now I remember I did.  And then I emptied my wastebasket into the kitchen stove.  Now I wonder if they could have been in with that rubbish I burned!  Let me think!” And she thought again deeply.

Oswald give a hollow groan, like some of the very finest chords in his being had been tore asunder.  He sunk limp on the bed again.

“Wouldn’t it be awkward if they were in that rubbish?” says Lydia.  “Do you suppose that fire would destroy the silly things?  Let me think again.”

The fiend kept this up for three minutes more.  It must of seemed longer to Oswald than it takes for a chinch bug to become a carboniferous Jurassic.  She was committing sabotage on him in the cruellest way.  Then, after watching his death agony with cold eyes and pretending to wonder like a rattled angel, she brightens up and says: 

“Oh, goody!  Now I remember everything.  I placed them right here.”  And she picked the keys off the table, where they had been hid under some specimens of the dead and gone.

Oswald give one athletic leap and had the precious things out of her feeble grasp in half a second.  His fingers trembled horrible, but he had a key in the lock and turned it and threw the sides of the grand old monument wide open.  He just hung there a minute in ecstasy, fondling the keys and getting his nerve back.  Then he turns again on Lydia the look of a proud man who is ready to surrender his whole future life to her keeping.

Lydia had now become more superior than ever.  She swaggered round the room, and when she didn’t swagger she strutted.  And she says to Oswald: 

“I’m going to make one little suggestion, because you seem so utterly helpless:  You must get a nice doormat to lay directly in front of your trunk, and you must always keep the key under this mat.  Lock the trunk and hide the key there.  It’s what people always do, and it will be quite safe, because no one would ever think of looking under a doormat for a key.  Now isn’t that a perfectly darling plan?”

Oswald had looked serious and attentive when she begun this talk, but he finally got suspicious that she was making some silly kind of a joke.  He grinned at her very foolish and again says:  “You wonderful woman!” It was a caressing tone ­if you know what I mean.

Lydia says “Oh, dear, won’t he ever stop his silly chatter about his stupid old trunk?” It seems to her that nothing but trunk has been talked of in this house for untold ages.  She’s tired to death of the very word.  Then she links her arm in mine in a sweet girlish fashion and leads me outside, where she becomes a mere twittering porch wren once more.

Oswald followed, you can bet.  And every five minutes he’d ask her how did she ever ­really now ­open the trunk.  But whenever he’d ask she would put the loud pedal on the ukulele and burst into some beachy song about You and I Together in the Moonlight, Love.  Even the Prof got curious and demanded how she had done what real brains had failed to pull off ­and got the same noisy answer.  Later he said he had been wrong to ask.  He said the answer would prove to be too brutally simple, and he always wanted to keep it in his thought life as a mystery.  It looked like he’d have to.  I was dying to know myself, but had sense enough not to ask.

The girl hardly spoke to Oswald again that night, merely giving him these cold showers of superiority when he would thrust himself on her notice.  And she kept me out there with her till bedtime, not giving the happy trunk owner a chance at her alone.  That girl had certainly learned a few things beyond fudge and cheese straws in her time.  She knew when she had the game won.

Sure, it was all over with Oswald.  He had only one more night when he could call himself a free man; he tried hard enough not to have even that.  He looked like he wanted to put a fence round the girl, elk-high and bull-tight.  Of course it’s possible he was landed by the earnest wish to find out how she had opened his trunk; but she never will tell him that.  She discussed it calmly with me after all was over.  She said poor Oswald had been the victim of scientific curiosity, but really it was time for her to settle down.

We was in her room at the time and she was looking at the tiny lines round her eyes when she said it.  She said, further, that she was about to plan her going-away gown.  I asked what it would be, and she said she hadn’t decided yet, but it would be something youth-giving.  Pretty game, that was!  And now Oswald has someone to guard his trunk keys for him ­to say nothing of this here new specimen of organic fauna.

Then I talked.  I said I was unable to reach the lofty altitude of the Prof when even a fair mystery was concerned.  I was more like Oswald with his childish curiosity.  How, then, did the young woman open the trunk?  Of course, I could guess the answer.  She had found she could really do it with a hairpin, and had held off for effect.  Still, I wanted to be told.

“Nothing easy like that,” said Ma Pettengill.  “She’d been honest with the hairpins.  She didn’t tell me till the day before they were leaving.  ’It was a perfectly simple problem, requiring only a bit of thought,’ she says.  ’It was the simple thing people do when they find their front door locked.  They go round to the back of the house and pry up a kitchen window, or something.’  She pledged me to secrecy, but I guess you won’t let it go any farther.

“Anyway, this is what she done:  It was a time for brutal measures, so she’d had Abner wheel that trunk over to the blacksmith shop and take the hinges off.  Abner just loves to do any work he don’t have to do, and he had entered cordially into the spirit of this adventure.  It used up his whole day, for which he was drawing three dollars from me.  He took off one side of four pair of hinges, opened the trunk at the back far enough to reach in for the keys, unlocked it and fastened the hinges back on again.

“It was some job.  These hinges was riveted on and didn’t come loose easy.  The rear of that trunk must of been one sad mutilation.  It probably won’t ever again be the trunk it once was.  Abner had to hustle to get through in one day.  I wish I could get the old hound to work for me that way.  They’d just got the trunk back when I rode in that night.  It was nervy, all right!  I asked her if she wasn’t afraid he would see the many traces of this rough work she had done.

“‘Not a chance on earth!’ says Lydia.  ’I knew he would never look at any place but the front.  He has the mind of a true scientist.  It wouldn’t occur to him in a million years that there is any other way but the front way to get into a trunk.  I painted over the rivets and the bruises as well as I could, but I’m sure he will never look there.  He may notice it by accident in the years to come, but the poor chap will then have other worries, I hope.’

“Such was the chit.  I don’t know.  Mebbe woman has her place in the great world after all.  Anyway, she’ll be a help to Oswald.  Whatever he ain’t she is.”