from Saturday Evening Post
by Ellis Parker Butler
The big mistake made by Matilda Uffing was in sending Augustus for the green paint that evening. At four o'clock Emmy Tutz phoned she simply must see Matilda, because she was to leave the next day for the summer and she did want to knit gores in under the arms of the sweater she meant to make, and this was positively the only chance to have Miss Matty show her how to do it. Miss Matilda thought rapidly as she faced the telephone.
"Dear me!" she thought. "And she'll have on that new blue dress, and her hair marceled, and those gray silk stockings, and she'll look so bright and youngish over school being out! What can I do with Augustus?
"Oh, my dear --" she said into the telephone.
Then suddenly she thought of the back fence and how wistfully Augustus had said, quite often of late, that it needed paint.
"Oh, my dear," she said to Miss Emmy, "I'll be so delighted to have you come over after dinner. About eight? Yes, do!"
That was better, Miss Matilda thought, than saying "Oh, my dear! But I'm so sorry --" She could, of course, have said she had to go over to Mrs. Ellerberry's. Mrs. Ellerberry had asked her to run over that evening if she had nothing else to do; but it was better to know, rather completely, what Emmy's plans were. She could, at dinner, suggest to Augustus that he certainly ought to paint the back fence, and he -- poor thing -- would jump at the chance, and then she could send him to the village to get the paint. She could get him off by five minutes to eight and then get rid of Miss Emmy before he returned, and that would be all right; and it did seem to work beautifully.
At dinner, Miss Matilda, sitting graciously large at her end of the table, said to Augustus in her full rich voice, "Augustus, I do think, since you have decided to stay at home this vacation, that you ought to paint the back fence."
Augustus, sitting rather bent over his plate, looked up at Matilda with a quick jerk of eager delight. There was nothing in the world he liked better than painting things, and nothing Matilda was more opposed to letting him do, unless it was letting him marry Emmy Tutz. As a painter Augustus was really awful. He was childish about it. He was one of those men who know they can paint without getting paint on themselves, and who always do. If, for example, Augustus was permitted to do a little painting on Saturday afternoon, he would insist it was not necessary to change into old clothes, because he only meant to do a little painting. Then, as soon as he got to the shed, he would open the can of paint and spill some on his shoes. He would then wipe the paint from his shoes with an old rag and put the rag on a box and lean his elbow on the rag and paint his elbow. By the time he had mixed the paint well and had painted a while Augustus would have paint on his shirt, on his collar, in his hair, back of his ears and in seventeen places on his suit.
The next morning, that being Sunday, Augustus would dress for church; and while waiting for Matilda he would go out to see how the paint was drying. There would be one or two places that needed just a touch of paint and Augustus would carefully open the paint can. To do this he would take two clean rags and hold the can with one while he lifted the lid with the other. Then he would wrap one of the rags cautiously around the handle of the paintbrush lest he get even the slightest smudge of paint on his hands. The brush would then slip out of the rag and fall in the can of paint, causing it to splash on his shoes, trousers, wrists and face; but in grasping for the falling brush Augustus would upset the can of paint and hasten to find a piece of flat cardboard to scoop up the paint, and ten minutes later Miss Matilda would find Augustus practically paddling in paint; so to speak, swimming in it. Paint behaves that way for some men.
Of course Augustus was always contrite after such an experience; but at heart he never did understand that something similar happened every time he touched paint. Each time he supposed he had had a rare and unfortunate accident of a sort that would never happen to him again.
It was more cruel of Matilda to prohibit Augustus from painting, because painting was the only thing Augustus believed he did at all well. He was a rather thoroughly discouraged and disillusioned man. At forty-five he was wearing a short little billy-goat beard because Matilda had so often said he must be careful not to get into temptation, since a man with such a weak chin was practically lost if he ever let himself be tempted. The beard hid the chin from others, but Augustus knew it was the same old chin. He knew, too, that he was a failure, and that but for Matilda there was no telling what might have become of him. Without Matilda, the gutter was the very highest he could have expected to have reached by this time, he was convinced. She practically told him so.
Perhaps it was because Augustus was a baby when Matilda was entering womanhood that he had come to look upon her wisdom with awe, and perhaps it was because Matilda had no husband or children that she ruled Augustus so sternly; but Emmy Tutz had something to do with this latter. As a schoolteacher, Emmy Tutz had developed no little bossiness herself, and for almost twenty years Matilda had dreaded Emmy's possible acquisition of Augustus.
"Augustus is exactly the sort of dependent creature to fall in love with a pushing, masterful woman like Emmy Tutz," Matilda said to herself more than once. "I must do what I can to see that Augustus does not fall into her clutches."
In twenty years of seeing that Augustus did not fall into Emmy Tutz's clutches, poor Augustus had to be taught that when Matilda snapped her fingers he must sit up and beg. For more than twenty years he went back and forth to his work in the city -- he was an assistant bookkeeper -- and never so much as thought of calling his soul his own. Matilda, large and full-breasted and high-headed, a queenly woman, told Augustus when he needed a new suit and what color to get and how much to pay for it. She wore him down to dark green ties and plain black socks. She told him what his religion could be, and which was the proper political party; and when she said, "Augustus, I think your hair needs cutting," he went and had it cut.
In his early days he had thought of Emmy Tutz a great deal. He had liked her looks. For one thing, Emmy Tutz was one of the few women not taller than Augustus, and in her early days she had often seemed to listen to things Augustus said without showing impatience, and, indeed, with interest. Of late years Emmy had grown much stouter, so that she was almost as wide as she was tall; but she could still give Augustus a sort of dull, hopeless feeling, and Matilda knew it. With other men and women Augustus was now merely meek and subdued; but when he had been seeing Emmy he came home depressed and sad, and Matilda was wise enough to know that this meant something. She feared it meant that, if he dared, Augustus would like to change masters, and she knew that with Emmy it was getting to be now or never. She was afraid of Emmy. She had a rather correct idea that Emmy, if she had half a chance, might steal Augustus.
For years one of Matilda's most important activities had been to slide between Augustus and Emmy on every occasion, to inculcate in Augustus the idea that he was not in any way fitted to be a husband, and to do this by keeping him thinking he was not much good for anything at all. She had succeeded admirably, and now she saw through Emmy's knit sweater as easily as through a pane of clear glass. In a thousand years Emmy Tutz would never knit a sweater, and Matilda knew it. The expressed desire to know how to widen the underarm of a sweater was a mere excuse to come to the house and have Augustus see the neat Tutz ankles in gray silk stockings.
"I think, Augustus," Miss Matilda said, "a half gallon of paint will be enough to get at first. If you happen to step in the can and upset it --"
"Yes, Matilda," Augustus said meekly, for the last can he had stepped in had been a full gallon.
"You'll have plenty of time to get more," she said.
This meant that, as Augustus was beginning his fortnight of vacation that evening, he would have abundant time to buy paint.
"And I think you had better get a new paintbrush. I think you can get one that will do well enough for seventy-five cents. I don't think it will be necessary to pay more. Seventy-five cents, to my mind, is enough to pay for a paintbrush. And get one about three inches wide, Augustus. If the first shop does not have a paintbrush three inches wide for seventy-five cents, don't let them talk you into buying one for more. They'll try to. I'm telling you this for your own good."
"Yes, Matilda," said Mr. lifting.
"And I want you to get French-green color. French green is the color the fence was, and I liked it. Don't get any other color. If the first shop don't have French green, don't let them persuade you to take anything else. Remember that, will you, Augustus?"
"Yes; French green. I'll remember that, Matilda."
"And while you are in the village you can get me a copy of Favorite Styles. It will be sixty cents. And don't get Cream of the Modes instead. That's seventy-five cents, and I don't like it half as well. They'll try to sell it to you instead, because they make more profit on it; but don't take it. I want Favorite Styles. Can you remember that, Augustus?"
"Yes; Favorite Styles, sixty cents," said Augustus.
"And if the first shop doesn't have it, just you look until you find a shop that does have it," said Matilda. "I won't be put upon by these people just because they want to make an extra profit. Now do you know what you are to get?"
"A paintbrush, three inches wide, not over seventy-five cents. Half a gallon of French-green paint --"
"Outside paint," said Matilda.
"Outside paint," repeated Augustus. "Favorite Styles, sixty cents."
"Yes," said Matilda, and she wondered whether the walk to the village, making these purchases, and the return walk, would give her time to get rid of Emmy Tutz.
"And, Augustus," she said, "I don't want you to go the short cut through the wood. I'm afraid of that wood every time I walk through it; and with this red-haired bandit holding people up everywhere, I don't think it is safe for you. Heaven only knows what you'd do if you ever came face to face with a bandit. Now, mind, don't go through the woods."
"No, Matilda," said Mr. Uffing, obediently, and he arose from the table. He coughed gently. "I -- I'll have to have some money, I'm afraid, Matilda."
"Of course," said Matilda. "I wouldn't think of letting you go without the money."
She got her purse from the sideboard drawer and counted out what Mr. Uffing would need, for he had been trained to turn over to her his salary when he received it.
"And I'm giving you fifteen cents extra, Augustus," she said, "for you may want to get a soda; it's so warm this evening."
"Why, thank you, Matilda," said Mr. Uffing. "I don't often care for sodas, you know."
"Well, I know you don't," said Matilda, "but you might. If you do feel like one, just you get it, Augustus."
"Well, thank you," said Mr. Uffing.
It was indeed a warm evening, and Mr. Uffing had nothing to put on but his straw hat; but Miss Matilda went into the hall with him to see him put it on. When he had put it on she moved it ever so slightly to one side, straightening it on his head, as if to say, "You see? You couldn't even put your hat on correctly without your Matilda's help, you poor child!"
"French green, three-inch brush, Favorite Styles, sixty cents," she said at the door; and when he had closed the screen she closed it again, showing him that there was a right way and a wrong way. She closed it exactly as Mr. Uffing had closed it, but even these little things help.
Mr. Uffing walked to the corner and turned south. At this corner, had he wished, he might have taken the diagonal path through the woods, but Matilda had warned him not to do that. The woods were merely two blocks of undeveloped land, overgrown with bushes and small trees, and diagonally across them wandered the well-beaten footpath; but Mr. Uffing followed the sidewalks as he had been told to do. He thought nothing about it at all. At the end of the two blocks he turned west again and followed the main road down into the village.
The night was so warm and so beautiful that many people were out. The automobiles were so close together on the main road that when a car tried to enter from a crossroad it caused quite a congestion of waiting cars. On the sidewalks many young couples were walking; some were arm in arm, some walked with clasped hands swinging between them, some walked slightly apart. Mr. Uffing hardly noticed them; he was thinking of green paint. He passed the huge structure of the old cement warehouse, now the shops of the Granger-Ultimo Bombing-Plane Company, and did not so much as notice that every window was alight, because the concern was working night and day on the order it had received from the Government. At the point where the main road met the main street a man on a box was selling pot-metal safety razors, and he addressed some remark to Mr. Uffing's beard that made the little crowd laugh; but Mr. Uffing did not hear either the remark or the laugh. He did not so much as know there was a man selling safety razors. His eyes were on the brilliantly lighted window of the nearest paint-and-oil shop.
But Mr. Uffing did not enter the paint shop. Like a child who saves the frosting of his cake until last, Mr. Uffing walked on down the street to the nearest newsstand to buy Favorite Styles, sixty cents.
"Huh? Favorite Styles? No, we ain't got it. We got Cream of the Modes. You don't want Favorite Styles, mister. Everybody gets it this Cream of the Modes nowadays. Maybe your wife don't know it yet. You take it, she'll be better satisfied, you'll see."
"I -- ah -- I'm sorry," said Mr. Uffing. "I was told to get Favorite Styles and I think I'll have to get it. Ah -- perhaps there'll be something else some other time."
"Did you see him?" asked the newsstand man when Mr. Uffing had gone out. "He was scared stiff when I told him to take something else, the poor fish! I bet he's one what his wife tells him where to get on and off at, huh? If I had a wife that bossed me the way some of these fellers gets bossed -- say!"
Mr. Uffing continued up the main street, seeking Favorite Styles, sixty cents.
"No, I'm sorry," he said to a persistent woman who was bound to have him take Cream of the Modes; "but it's not for me, you see; it's for my sister, and she was very particular. She told me quite positively. I'm sorry; perhaps there will be something else some other time."
He found Favorite Styles at last at Zincowski's. Mrs. Zincowski, fat and jolly made no ado about it.
"Sure we got it!" she said as soon as he had asked, half apologetically, for the style book. "Ain't we got everything? Himmel, what a lot of magazines we got to keep yet, to satisfy everybody! And whatever we got they want something else yet. Can you beat it? You ain't a dressmaker?"
"Dear me, no!" exclaimed Mr. Uffing.
"Well, you got it such a beard like an artist," laughed Mrs. Zincowski, "I thought maybe you should be. It ain't such a bad job. Wait, I wrap up the magazine; your wife ain't going to like it when you get the pages all torn."
"You needn't --" said Mr. Uffing.
"Ah, I know these wifes. Ain't I one? Maybe you get a page torn and back you come and I got a bum magazine on hand then. There! Fine! Sixty cents."
She snapped the cord and handed the longish cylinder to Mr. Uffing, who tucked it under his arm.
He was almost at the far end of the main street now, and that was as well, for if the first or second paint shop did not have three-inch brushes for seventy-five cents he could stop in other shops on the way. But the first shop did have cheap brushes. It also had French green in half-gallon cans and Mr. Uffing made his purchases there. He let the paint man wrap the brush, and he put it in his hip pocket, but he took the weighty pail of paint by its wire handle. To the soda he gave not another thought. He started for home.
At the jeweler's next to the paint shop Mr. Uffing paused to note the time. It was now ten minutes after nine and he stood the pail of paint on the walk between his feet while he regulated his watch. It was three-quarters of a minute out of the way. Then he glanced carelessly at the array of sparkling things in the jeweler's window, but the only thing that caught his eye was a spark of green -- an emerald in a ring, with a small diamond at either side. It was beautiful, Mr. Uffing thought; as beautiful as fresh green paint, almost. But on the other hand, an emerald must be hard to cut; nothing like the delightful gliding of a full brush of paint along a well-planed board. The only trouble was that when paint was sold as mixed paint it always had to be stirred and stirred and stirred before the accumulated thickness in the bottom of the pail was thinned and the floating thinness at the top of the pail was thickened. If the paint did not get so thick as you neared the bottom of the pail when painting --
A daring thought came to Mr. Uffing; the most daring thought he had had for years. He still had the fifteen cents Matilda had given him for a soda. What if he bought a bottle of turpentine with which to thin the paint when it got thick? Of course Matilda had not said to get turpentine; but she had given him the fifteen cents. Surely, if he did not want a soda, and did want a bottle of turpentine, it would be all right to buy the turpentine. Mr. Uffing went back to the paint shop. He found that he could buy a bottle of turpentine for fifteen cents, and he bought it and put it in his other hip pocket. As he passed the jeweler's he noticed that it was then 9:29. He looked at his watch and found it was one-tenth of a second wrong, so he set his watch. Then he picked up the pail of paint again and went homeward.
Mr. Uffing turned into the path through the woods, quite unconscious that he was doing so. He was thinking of the back fence and the pail of green paint and the delightful time he would have spreading the paint on the fence with the three-inch brush. There would be whole hours during which Matilda would not come near him. For hours, while he wielded the paintbrush, he would be as good as any man; he would be on his own and his own boss. Matilda would keep away from him; she would not yell at him to drop what he was doing and come into the house to do something else. She would be afraid that he might get green paint on things, and she would leave him alone. For entire hours, while he painted, he would be as free and independent and unenslaved as Julius Caesar or Napoleon Bonaparte or George Washington ever dared be when they were painting back fences. Mr. Uffing, striding along the wood path, swinging the pail of paint in his right hand and holding the cylindrical Favorite Styles package under his left arm, did not know whether he was walking a wood path or on the clouds.
As he walked, coming down hard on his right foot, the swinging of the heavy paint pail took on a rhythmic pendulum swing, and in his brain, but silently, Mr. Uffing began singing a little song to himself:
"Oh, there was an old man,
And he had a wooden leg --"
He was very happy. He had not been so happy for years. He rounded a little turn in the path --
"Oh, there was an old man,
And he had a wooden leg.
He was too --"
"Hands up, you!" said a cold, hard voice; and Mr. Uffing looked into the ugly round hole in the end of an automatic's muzzle. Beyond the automatic he saw a black mask and the red hair of the red-haired bandit.
"Oh, there was an old man --"
repeated Mr. Uffing's brain automatically and his hands went up instantly. They went up with the swing of the paint-pail pendulum, quickly and unhesitatingly; but an amazing thing happened. The heavy paint pail on its upward swing jarred leadenly against the underside of the bandit's chin and the bandit dropped the automatic and pawed comically in the air for an instant, as a tortoise paws when turned on its back. Then the bandit tottered backward and lay on his back in the path, motionless.
For a moment Mr. Uffing stood bending forward, staring at the red-haired bandit in utter amazement.
"'Oh, there was an old man --'" His brain kept repeating "'Oh, there was an old man --' Why, this is odd! He seems to be quite inert. 'Oh, there was an old man --' I believe I do believe I have rendered him unconscious -- 'And he had a wooden leg --' I -- why, I believe I have knocked him out -- 'Oh, there was an old man --' Why, I have knocked him out -- 'And he had a wooden leg --' And I believe there was a reward offered for his capture -- 'And he had a wooden leg -- And there was an old man -- And he had a wooden leg --'"
As carefully and painstakingly as when Matilda made him carry out the garbage pail, Mr. Uffing removed the black mask and tore it into strips and bound the red-haired bandit's hands and feet.
"He might have got my paint," thought Mr. Uffing. "It is lucky I knocked him out -- 'And he had a wooden leg --' But perhaps I'd better not say anything to Matilda about it. She told me not to come through the wood. 'Oh, there was an old man --'"
Mr. Uffing, tying the bandit's feet, kicked with his own foot, for it had caught on something -- something that clung to the hem of his trousers leg. He turned to loosen it and found it was the end of a piece of barbed wire. There were yards of the barbed wire, coiling like a snake, and carefully and painstakingly Mr. Uffing wrapped it around the red-haired bandit and around a small tree that stood there. When he had finished, the red-haired bandit looked like a barbed-wire entanglement on the Western front in the Great War, or like a poorly constructed cocoon.
"'Oh, there was an old man,'" Mr. Uffing's brain rhythmed as he straightened his back and picked up his pail of paint and his cylinder of Favorite Styles. "I can tell someone that the red-haired bandit is here in the wood," he thought. He felt in his hip pockets to see that the turpentine and the paintbrush were there, and they were. "Matilda need never know. Matilda would never let me go out again at night if she knew a bandit had pointed a pistol at me. 'Oh, there was an old man --'"
With a backward glance at the red-haired bandit, who was still unconscious, Mr. Uffing went on.
He reached the street and did not notice it, because he was raising the paint pail up and down, hefting it, swinging it, to gage just how dangerous as a weapon a paint pail was.
"Why, I knocked out the red-haired bandit!" he thought suddenly. "I did it! I, Augustus Uffing, did it! He pointed a pistol at me and I whacked him in the chin -- alone, without help!"
Mr. Uffing crossed the street and entered the second block of wood, and he was holding his head higher than he had held it for years. He took a deep breath and swelled out his chest -- swelled it more than he had swelled it for years. He reached up his left hand and set his hat askew rakishly.
"Oh, there was a tweedledum,
And he had a tweedledee --"
Mr. Uffing grinned and whacked his ribs with his elbows. Big man! Some bandit knocker! Come on, you bandits! In the dusk of the dark wood, where no one could see him, Mr. Uffing actually strutted. Hah! After all, a man who could knock red-haired bandits cold with one blow of a paint pail wasn't such a worm!
As Mr. Uffing came out of the woods at the corner of the second block he stopped instantly the jiggy step he had permitted himself in the dark, for at the corner, in the shadow of a tree, a man stood by a panting motorcycle. The man had a cap pulled well down over his eyes and he came at Mr. Uffing with an oath.
"Thunder and blazes!" he growled. "Blood and briskets! Where you been all this time? You think it's safe for me to hang around here all night? Why in tunket wasn't you here when you said you'd be?"
"I -- I --" stammered Mr. Uffing.
"Well, don't stand there like a pie-eyed codfish!" the man in the cap growled. "I gotta get away from here. Gimme them papers. Here!"
Rudely the man in the cap grabbed Matilda's Favorite Styles and jerked the cylinder out from under Mr. Uffing's left arm. He thrust something into Mr. Uffing's hand and leaped astride the seat of the motorcycle.
"Here! Come back here! That's Matilda's magazine!" Mr. Uffing cried, but the man was already under way on the popping motorcycle. Mr. Uffing did not hesitate an instant. A powerful he rage boiled in him and he heaved the paint pail over his head and let it fly at the departing motorcyclist.
The paint pail crashed into the rear wheel of the motorcycle and for a moment there was a twanging of breaking spokes, a showering of green paint, a clang of metal as the motorcycle fell. Then the man in the cap leaped up and grasped the Favorite Styles and sped down the street as fast as his legs could carry him.
"Hah!" exclaimed Mr. Uffing triumphantly. "They can't do things like that to me!"
Then he looked at the soft thing the man in the cap had thrust into his hand. It was money. Mr. Uffing stepped over to the electric light on the corner and looked at the money. He counted it. There were fifty bills -- ten-dollar bills -- five hundred dollars.
"Well! Well! Well!" said Mr. Uffing. "Now, I wonder what that fellow thought Matilda's fashion book was!"
Then he did a most un-Augustan thing. He took the bottle of turpentine from his hip pocket, and without taking particular aim slammed it against the motorcycle. The brush he sent after the turpentine.
Ten minutes later Mr. Uffing was leaning in a rather swaggering way on the glass show case of a jeweler's shop that was adjacent to a paint shop.
"A very good emerald," the jeweler was saying. "Not so large, maybe, but flawless. One hundred and fifty dollars, and not a cent less. Now here is a ruby --"
"I want it green," said Mr. Uffing in a tone that was almost bloodthirsty. "Green! I'll give you one hundred and twenty-five for the emerald."
"Oh, it can't be done! One hundred and fifty is the very lowest figure. Not a cent less."
"One hundred and twenty-five -- take it or leave it," said Mr. Uffing positively. "And speak quick; I can't waste time on it."
"It's yours!" said the jeweler. "And it is a pleasure to do business with you -- a man who knows what he wants."
"You can bet I know what I want!" swaggered Augustus. "How long is it going to take you to engrave 'A.U. to E.T.' in that ring?"
"Five minutes," said the jeweler.
"In five minutes I'll be back," said Mr. Uffing, looking at his watch.
At the police station, Mr. Uffing had the desk man sitting straight in one sentence.
"I got that red-headed bandit for you," he said. "He pointed a gun at me, up there in the woods, and I knocked him down and tied him to a tree. Augustus Uffing is my name, if you want to know it. The reward is mine, isn't it?"
"Hey, Jimmy! Mike! Henry!" shouted the desk man. "Come on out here! Here's a guy says he's got the red-headed bandit! Get a move on, youse!"
"No, sir!" said Mr. Uffing, when they had taken his name and address. "No, I won't go with you. I've got business to attend to -- important business. You can get him. You won't need me. But you might take a pair of wire clippers; you can get to him easier that way."
Fifteen minutes later Mr. Uffing pushed the bell of Emmy Tutz's door long and commandingly. From an upstairs window, after a slight delay, Emmy Tutz called down.
"Who is it?" she asked. "What do you want? I've gone to bed."
"Then get up and dress," replied Mr. Uffing. "This is Augustus Uffing, and I want to talk to you."
"But, Augustus, isn't it very late?"
"I don't care how late it is," declared Mr. Uffing. "If you don't want me to stand here ringing this bell all night, you get up and dress and let me in."
"But what do you want?" asked Emmy.
"I want," said Augustus brazenly, "what I've wanted for twenty years. I want to give you an engagement ring."
For a moment Emmy said nothing.
"Just a minute," she said then, "and I'll be down."