The Prodigal's Return
by Ellis Parker Butler
In every family, so they say, there is apt to be a black sheep and according to all accounts this old whisker-face named Henry Okth was about as dingy as any Okth had ever got to be. His so-called mine -- The Constant Hope -- was nothing but a hole in the ground and not worth two cents, and used by Henry as an excuse for owing money to all and sundry.
Along about one o'clock one night old Henry poured gasoline on his cabin on the hill back of Hell's Bells, Arizona, set it afire and got out of the state as soon as he could. He left a letter nailed to a tree saying that the report that he had robbed the till in Hennessy's store was a dirty lie, and that death was better than dishonor, and that he was ending it all and he hoped one and all would forgive and forget.
All that was found when the fire died down was a few squares of corrugated iron roofing, one old boot sole with the heel still on it, and a lot of ashes supposed to contain Henry.
Ordinarily nothing more would have been done about Henry, he having been considered a detriment to Hell's Bells and his demise a good riddance, but Henry had bragged a lot about what a fine old family his was, and how aristocratic and hifaluting his nieces, Seraphina and Cherubina, back in Massachusetts were. He had boasted how they kept a genealogy book of all the Okths, alive and dead, so Bill Tuss, the postmaster thought that the only square thing to do would be to take his pen in hand and let her know that Henry was dead, so she could write him down in the genealogy book. So he did.
About a week later, along about eleven o'clock in the morning a telegram came for Bill Tuss from East Okthville, Massachusetts, paid, to this effect, viz., and namely:
PLEASE SEND REMAINS OF
HENRY OKTH HERE STOP MY EX-
PENSE. SERAPHINA OKTH.
Bill Tuss showed this telegram to Oscar Glack, proprietor of the Hell's Bells Commercial Tourists' Rest, and Oscar frowned as he read it.
"Remains?" Oscar Glack said. "There ain't no remains. But still and all --"
"Still and all what?" Bill Tuss wanted to know.
"Still and all, Bill, there's ashes. There's enough ashes up there to make five or six barrels of Henry. I don't say, mind you, they're all Henry but old Henry is mixed in amongst them somewheres.
"The way I look at it, Bill, we'd ought to do what we can to stop this Seraphina lady's expense."
"Stop what expense?"
"Why, it says here," explained Oscar Glack, pointing to the telegram: "It says here 'Stop my expense.' It says that, plain enough."
"How's sending her five or six barrels of ashes going to stop her expense?" Bill Tuss demanded.
"How do I know?" Oscar asked. "That's her business. Maybe she's got to keep on paying some kind of premium or something until she can show Henry to somebody. That ain't my business. What I say, Bill, is that if a lady wants Henry we wouldn't be no gentlemen if we didn't send Henry to her."
"Well, I'm against sending her any five or six barrels of him, anyway," said Bill Tuss positively. "How do we know she ain't a delicate female with a lot of nerves? It might be a terrible bad shock to her to think Henry had growed to the size of two or three elephants. If we could sift out Henry from all them ashes I'd be with you, Oscar."
"I don't know how we could do that, Bill," Oscar said. "I don't know how we'd know which was Henry and which was planks and timbers, strewn all through like he is. Still and all --"
"Still and all what, Oscar?"
"Why, still and all," said Oscar, "with an old reprobate like Henry it ain't necessary to be too blamed particular. If we get ashes from about where Henry's bunk was we'd ought to get a right fair mixing of Henry -- somewheres around sixty per cent, of Henry, anyway, Bill. And from what we knowed about Henry, Bill, sixty per cent, of him ought to be enough to satisfy anybody."
This was good sense and good logic and Bill Tuss could not deny it and did not try to. He saw that Oscar was right and, that point being settled, they consulted Dr. Feltner about the amount of ashes Henry would probably have made. Doc Feltner said he thought Henry would have had pretty thorough combustion owing to the amount of alcohol in him and that two pounds of ashes would be about right.
"I'd say a quart, more or less," Doc Feltner said. "That ought to come pretty close to it."
The best box Bill Tuss could find was a tin candy box with a hinged lid. He had to choose between that and using a couple of tomato cans. The box had the picture of a beautiful girl on the lid with "Sweets to the Sweet" and "Wentworth's Superior Chocolates" printed above and below her lovely face. The girl did not look at all like Henry Okth, but neither did the pictures of the tomatoes on the tomato can, except in complexion.
So Bill Tuss took the small sheet iron shovel he used to stoke the post office stove, and Oscar Glack carried the candy box and a sieve, and they went up to the cabin site on the hill to pack Henry for shipment back home.
The first thing Bill Tuss and Oscar Glack found when they started to fill the candy box was an old boot sole with the heel still on it, considerably scorched, and they put that in the bottom of the candy box as a sort of guarantee that the contents was genuine Henry, just as honey dealers put a piece of honeycomb in a jar of extracted honey to prove it is genuine honey. Then they filled the box full of ashes and patted them down with the flat of the shovel and closed the lid.
When they got back to the post office Bill Tuss wrote out a card -- Remains of Henry Okth, with compliments of W. Tuss and O. Glack -- and put it in the box while Oscar Glack went over to Joe Billmeyer's general store to beg an empty cardboard shoebox to pack the candy box in. Joe gave Oscar a nice clean shoebox that had held a pair of 4 1/2 lady's tan bluchers, B last, $3.75, and Bill and Oscar put the candy box in the shoebox and crammed crumpled paper in to keep Henry from joggling, and did the whole thing up neatly and addressed it to Miss Seraphina Okth, East Okthville, Mass.
Oscar Glack wanted to toss up a coin to see which should pay the postage, but Bill Tuss thought that would be too sacrilegious or something, so they went halvers for the postage and Henry went into the mail bag, post paid and insured for twenty-five dollars against loss in transit.
Bill Tuss then telegraphed Miss Seraphina Okth that the remains of Henry Okth were on the way, and Bill and Oscar went over to the back room of the Hell's Bells Commercial Tourists' Rest and had a couple of snifters apiece and called it a good job well done -- which it was.
By that time old Henry himself was somewhere east of Rochester and making fair to middling time by boxcar and hitchhike. But his remains made better time and passed him near Albany. When his ashes went whizzing by on a mail train Henry and another tough old reprobate were cooking coffee in a tin can alongside the road and Henry was letting loose some of his feelings.
"No, sir," he said. "I don't owe them two girls nothing. Here I've been their uncle for forty years or more, and aside from giving me house room and feed, five or six years ago, what have they done for me? Not a blame thing."
"Wimmen got no hearts," agreed Henry's new pal. "I remember one of my wives --"
"I don't know nothing about wives," Henry said, "and I don't want to. All I know is I've been an uncle to them two girls -- a fond and loving uncle, never disowning them or nothing and letting them go right along being my nieces -- and what's my reward?"
"Ingratitude," said Red. "That's what a man gets -- ingratitude,"
"And that's the truth," said Henry. "I offered to make their fortunes for them -- wrote them I'd sell them half of that mine of mine for five hundred dollars -- and I never even got an answer. All right; I'll get even with them. They can't kick me out and not pay up for it."
The incident to which Henry referred had happened on his last visit to East Okthville. He had drifted into the village and made himself at home in the Okth house, and in spite of the namby-pamby ideas of Seraphina, who objected to pipe smoking in the parlor, he had been willing to stay forever, but at the end of three weeks Seraphina had told him she would as lief he went elsewhere. A ten dollar bill had disappeared out of her purse half an hour before Uncle Henry had a ten dollar bill changed at the tobacco store.
"I'll get even with them," Henry repeated. "I know how. I know where they keep their jewelry and don't you forget it. Nieces! They ain't no nieces of mine no more; I disown the both of them."
"And serve them right, the ingrates," said Red. "Ain't that coffee cooked yet?"
Back in East Okthville the word that all that was left of Uncle Henry was en route put Seraphina and Cherubina in quite a twitter. They were the only Okths remaining in the vicinity of Okthville Center, which had been the original home of all the Okths in America, and every now and then an Okth returned to be tucked away in Shady Grove burial ground, making Seraphina and Cherubina masters of ceremonies. As soon as she got word from Bill Tuss by wire Seraphina telephoned to M. J. Wallover to watch the trains and meet Henry and convey him to Shady Grove, and she telephoned to Rev. Edgar Tellman to hold himself in readiness. She had considered Uncle Henry a disgrace but, after all, he was an Okth and as such she meant to do the right thing by him now that he could not dip into purses any longer.
When the day came on which Uncle Henry should have arrived if he came by express Seraphina telephoned and asked M. J. Wallover if Henry had come in on the 2:16 but he hadn't, and after that she telephoned whenever a train arrived from the west, but there was no Uncle Henry. So she was puzzled when the postman brought a package to the door and asked her to sign for it. As soon as the door was closed she tore off the wrapper and saw the shoebox.
"Shoes?" she said. "I did not order any shoes," and she took off the lid of the shoebox and saw the candy box with the beautiful girl tin the lid and the words "Sweets to the Sweet" and "Wentworth's Superior Chocolates," and she was even more surprised. Seraphina was not the sort of woman to whom people sent chocolates with "Sweets to the Sweet" on the lid.
"Chocolates?" she said. "I wonder who would send me chocolates?" and she opened the candy box lid and saw at once that the contents was not bonbons. She picked up the card and dusted it and read on it "Remains of Henry Okth, with compliments of W. Tuss and O. Glack," and she knew instantly that Uncle Henry had arrived.
"Cherubina!" she called up the stairs, "Cherubina, Uncle Henry has come."
"Dear me!" Cherubina called back. "Why did they bring him here? Have them put him in the parlor, Seraphina."
"He isn't --" Seraphina began, but she did not know whether to say "complete" or "entire" so she said "He's ashes."
"Oh!" Cherubina exclaimed, and perhaps she remembered how untidy Uncle Henry had always been, for she said: "If he's sifting, Seraphina, don't let him sift on the rugs."
But Uncle Henry was not sifting much, and what he did sift only sifted into the shoebox, so Seraphina put a newspaper under him and presently Cherubina came down. She said: "Tut, tut!" when she saw the untidy paper in which the shoebox had been wrapped, and she carried the box to the pantry and wrapped it neatly in clean white shelf paper, and tied a string around it.
While Cherubina was doing this in the pantry, Seraphina was telephoning to M. J. Wallover that he would not be needed after all.
"Henry is here, Mr. Wallover," she said, "and you won't be needed after all, because he is ashes. We will take him in the car with us," and then she called up Rev. Edgar Tellman.
"Uncle Henry is here," Seraphina said, "and if it is convenient for you we will go to Shady Grove tomorrow. We will stop for you with the car about eleven."
When Cherubina heard no more sound of Seraphina's voice she left Uncle Henry on the low shelf in the pantry and hurried to the front hall.
"Don't you think we ought to call up Cousin Elvira and Cousin Constance and let them know we are taking Uncle Henry to Shady Grove?" she asked, but at first Seraphina did not think so. Without saying so, she suggested that Uncle Henry hadn't been much of a credit to the Okth family, and that just about enough had been done by bringing him all the way from Arizona, without bothering Elvira and Constance, but in the end they did telephone the cousins.
While they were telephoning to the cousins at South Okthville the grim-faced individual who was chauffeur, gardener and general choreman for Seraphina and Cherubina came into the kitchen and looked around for the box of eggs he was to take to Mrs. Tunis Betz, the widow who was sick with lumbago. Cherubina had put the box of eggs in the refrigerator and Ted Doolittle looked around and the only box he saw was the one containing Henry, all done up neatly in white shelf paper and, naturally, he supposed that was the box of eggs, so he took it. He took it to Mrs. Betz. He rapped on the door and Mrs. Betz called to him to come in.
"How are you, ma'am?" he asked, holding his hat in his hand. "This here is a box of eggs Seraphina and Cherubina sent over to you, and they hope you enjoy them. How's your lumbago?"
"It ain't no better, and it won't be till we get past this mizzable March weather," said Mrs. Betz. "I ache in every j'int. You thank the girls for me, Mr. Doolittle, because I do appreciate eggs. Eggs is one thing I dast eat and if there's one thing I do know it is that eggs from Seraphina and Cherubina Okth is fresh eggs. I'm much obliged to 'em, and you tell 'em so."
Jed Doolittle said he would, but on the way home he stopped to gossip at E. Hetterbury's store and got into a checker game there.
So when Seraphina and Cherubina got through telephoning to their cousins Elvira and Constance, Cherubina went to the pantry to get Uncle Henry and put him in a more appropriate place than the kitchen pantry shelf. As she reached the pantry she gasped and then uttered a cry of dismay; she could hardly believe her own eyes, but Uncle Henry was gone.
"Seraphina! Seraphina, did you take Uncle Henry from here?" poor Cherubina called to her sister, and Seraphina hurried to the pantry.
"No, I certainly did not," she declared. "I haven't touched him since you brought him out to wrap him up. Cherubina, do you mean to tell me you have mislaid Uncle Henry?"
"Oh, dear!" Cherubina exclaimed, all in a flutter. "I was sure I left him right here."
But Cherubina was not sure she had left Uncle Henry right there; she was always losing things or putting them in queer places where they turned up days later, so she began opening pantry drawers while Seraphina poked in the pantry shelves. Cherubina went into the dark parlor on the chance that she had taken Uncle Henry there, and she looked under the hall table, with Seraphina saying: "Tut, tut!" and "If this isn't just like you, Cherubina!"
"He's somewhere," Cherubina insisted. "He must be somewhere, Seraphina," and she went back to the kitchen and stood there and thought.
"This is a nice state of affairs," Seraphina said accusingly. "We've telephoned Cousin Elvira and Cousin Constance and Mr. Tellman, and now you've lost Uncle Henry. I certainly am not going to telephone them the funeral is postponed because we've lost Uncle Henry's remains; you'll have to telephone them."
By that time Cherubina was closer to tears than she had ever imagined she would be on account of Uncle Henry Okth. Just another cruel word from Seraphina and she would have wept.
"Perhaps," she said, "somebody came in and stole him."
"Nonsense!" declared Seraphina, "Utter nonsense! Who would come into our kitchen and take anything?" but suddenly she remembered that they had told Jed Doolittle to take a box of eggs to Mrs. Betz, and she hurried to the refrigerator and threw open the door, and there was a box all neatly done up in clean white shelf paper. Seraphina drew out the parcel and shook it, and it made an eggy noise.
"There!" she exclaimed. "That's what has happened to Uncle Henry -- he's gone to Mrs. Betz instead of eggs. That's what comes of leaving him in the pantry."
"Oh, dear!" Cherubina wailed. "What will she think of us?"
As a matter of fact Mrs. Betz was quite surprised when she opened the box and saw nothing but ashes from which a scorched boot heel protruded. She knew instantly that this must be one of Cherubina Okth's flutter-brained mistakes and she might have thrown Uncle Henry into her ash can if she had not happened to see the card Bill Tuss had written, but as soon as she read the words "Remains of Henry Okth, with compliments of W. Tuss and O. Glack" she realized that these were the ashes of Cherubina's Uncle Henry. She did up the box as neatly as she could and waited at the window until she saw little Orville Preston going by, and sent him to the Okths with the box.
Cherubina had just put on her hat when little Orville knocked on the kitchen door, and when she opened the door he held out the package and Cherubina took it.
"Now, why, Mis' Betz she says," said Orville, "she -- now -- says this ain't eggs; she says -- now, why -- it's your Uncle Henry. Anyway she says to tell you -- now, why -- she guesses it's your Uncle Henry. Anyway -- why, now -- there's a card in it that says -- now -- it's your Uncle Henry. Anyway it ain't eggs -- so -- now -- she sent it back to you and -- why -- she says to say she's much obliged for the eggs because anyway -- now -- you didn't know it wasn't eggs."
"Oh, thank you, Orville, thank you!" Cherubina cried, and Seraphina came hurrying with the box of eggs, and Cherubina rushed off to get a dime for Orville, and they sent him back to Mrs. Betz with the eggs. The moment the door was closed Seraphina turned to Cherubina.
"Thank goodness --" she began, meaning to say that she was thankful Uncle Henry was back, but she saw that Cherubina did not have the box in her hands. "Well," she asked, "where have you put him now? I do hope you haven't lost him again."
For an instant Cherubina was all in a twitter again but this time she was quite sure where she had put Uncle Henry. She had left him upstairs on her bed when she went up to get a dime for Orville, and, sure enough, he was there when the sisters went up to see.
Cherubina Okth was as gentle as any creature in Massachusetts and she was quite accustomed to being scolded by Seraphina for mislaying things, but she felt the injustice of being blamed for losing Uncle Henry when she had not lost him.
"I don't think, Seraphina," she said now, "that you ought to say I lost Uncle Henry when I did not. I don't wonder that he got mislaid, or that Jed Doolittle made a mistake and thought Uncle Henry was eggs. And even considering what Uncle Henry was when he was alive, I think it is undignified for any Okth to be put in a candy box and wrapped up in shelf paper. Just imagine, sister, what Mr. Tellman will think when we hand him a shoebox and say 'This is Uncle Henry.'"
Seraphina admitted that Mr. Tellman might be surprised. She also agreed that a candy box with "Sweets to the Sweet" on the lid was an undignified container for the purpose to which it was being put, but they could not think of anything better until Seraphina remembered the jewel box grandma Mercy Okth had left the sisters. The jewel box was large and heavy, twelve inches long and seven inches high, and locked with a key. It was not an urn, but it was a more dignified container than a candy box.
Seraphina hated to part with the jewel box, but she and Cherubina went into Seraphina's room and emptied the box. In it were all the Okth heirloom jewelry pieces that had from time to time come to the sisters -- brooches and rings and necklaces and bracelets to the value of a good many hundreds of dollars -- and until they could get another jewel box Seraphina put these between the mattresses of her bed.
Using a thumb and one finger she put the scorched boot sole, with the heel still attached, in the bottom of the jewel box and tilted Uncle Henry's ashes into the box, and laid the card "Remains of Henry Okth, with compliments of W. Tuss and O. Glack," on the very top, and closed the lid and locked it. "And now, Cherubina," she said, "we had better get supper or we will be late for prayer meeting," and they went down, leaving Uncle Henry where he was.
Along about half past eight that night the whisker-faced old reprobate from Hell's Bells and his sinful companion, Boston Red, opened the back gate and mooched along in the shadows until they stood under Seraphina's window, The night was dark and the house was dark.
"Ain't it like I told you?" Henry whispered, "There's the trellis like I said. There's the window. I could climb it myself, Red."
"A cinch, that's what it is, Hen."
"And the jool box, that had ought to be right inside on the sort of dresser. You can reach for it and get it."
But Red could not reach the box from the window. He raised the window carefully and reached, but Seraphina had left the box at the far end of the dresser, and Red climbed in and struck a match. He saw the box immediately and recognized it from old Henry's description.
"Look out down there!" he whispered and dropped the box, and Uncle Henry picked it up and tucked it under his arm. He was at the back gate when Red reached him.
Constable Amos Hooks told Seraphina and Cherubina the rest of it the next morning. He was puffed up considerably over his smartness, too, but nobody could blame him.
"Yes, ma'am," he said, "I didn't like the looks of them two, and I snuck along after them to Gracey's lot, and I watched whilst this other fellow -- the one that got away from me -- pried open the lid of the box. He throwed open the lid and your Uncle Henry looked into the box and the words he said I wouldn't repeat before ladies. No, ma'am. He was surprised. So he cussed awhile and picked up this card -- this one with 'Remains of Henry Okth, with compliments of So and So' wrote on it -- and what he said then I'd be ashamed to repeat before man or woman. 'Remains!' he says; 'If I ever get hold of that Bill Tuss he won't have any remains,' and he let loose again and I'd heard about enough of it, so I stepped in and laid hands on him."
"Did you put him in jail?" asked Seraphina.
"Well, temporary, as you might say," said Constable Hooks. "I got him under lock and key, but being an Okth I ain't made no charges against him yet, I didn't know as how you'd want your Uncle Henry prisoned for keeps."
So as Uncle Henry was an Okth, and as he had not stolen much but what were, so to say, his own ashes, he was turned loose and he got away from Okthville as fast as he could. Seraphina went to the telephone and spoke to Reverend Tellman first, and then to Cousin Elvira Okth and then to Constance Okth.
She said the same to all of them: "I'm sorry, but Uncle Henry's funeral is temporarily postponed."