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Title: Birthday Present Author: Thorne Smith * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1401751h.html Language: English Date first posted: Apr 2014 Most recent update: Apr 2014 This eBook was produced by Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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THE GALTS as a family are emotional about the doorbell. It seems to appeal to their lowest instincts. Whenever it rings they revert, losing all poise and frequently some clothing. Dropping whatever they are doing, forgetting whatever they are saying—and the Gaits are forever saying something —they rush to the front door, impelled thither by the two fundamental impulses of curiosity and fear. In every stage of dress or undress save the final one in either direction, they converge from their various rooms in the narrow reaches of the hall. There, forming themselves into a sort of flying wedge of Galts, they advance to discover who on earth could have conceived the astonishing idea of ringing their bell. From their actions one would be led to believe that no one ever rang their bell; whereas, in truth, the Gaits' bell is always being rung for some irritating reason or other.
Inevitably there is much fumbling and fussing with the door latch. It is doubtful if the Galts' front door has ever been opened in one swift and decisive motion. The deed is usually accompanied by a certain amount of rattling and muttering, caused by a characteristic lack of teamwork. Too many nervous hands.
Rarely does the caller have a chance to grow impatient. He becomes far too absorbed in what is going on behind the Galts' door.
"You look a sight," he hears someone whisper. "Drag your stocking up."
"You're not so hot yourself," the criticized one snaps back.
"Either pull your wrapper together or turn your back to the door."
In between these exchanges, as well as during them, the other Galts ask questions such as, "Who is it?" "Is somebody there?" "Who rang our bell?"
These questions take on the monotonous rhythm of a chant.
"Why doesn't the person speak?" a Galt demands the moment the door is opened.
"He just stands there looking," another one complains.
One Galt alone has refused to become a party to these unseemly exhibitions of undisciplined curiosity. This one is Galt himself. He has remained decently above the battle and contemplated his flesh and blood with repugnance made endurable only by the philosophy of despair. With a mixture of pain and unwilling admiration he has time and again noted that the woman who has so casually presented him with all these unsatisfactory children is always well up in the lead in these impassioned stampedes to the door. As harassed and exhausted as she vigorously proclaims herself to be, she nevertheless seems to possess a sufficient reserve of energy to make herself a serious contestant for first-place honors whenever the doorbell rings...
On a certain day not completely buried in the past Red Galt was seated dispiritedly before his drawing board, brooding over the vast futility of all creative effort. He was doing this in the privacy of a small back room which he was allowed to use as a studio whenever no one else had need of it. At his right was the back door, which gave uninviting access to the gloom of the outer hall. In front of him a series of equally gloomy rooms telescoped into a sort of dim obscurity. Those rooms alone were sufficient to make any sensitive spirit break out into violent protest; but being an eminently unsuccessful artist, Red Galt was the only member of the household who was given no opportunity to express his temperament in public. Little good would it have done him had he attempted to do so. In that family he could seldom make himself heard and but rarely understood. For the simple reason that his wife and his children shared the same sort of lunacy, they considered themselves entirely normal, while to their way of thinking he—the only sane member of the family—was as mad as a hatter. They rather liked and pitied him for it.
From the front of the flat came the clamorous voices of his contentious brood. In loud, exacting voices his sons were demanding coffee, his daughters passionately accusing each other of both grand and petty larceny, while the twins—the youngest of the lot—were being implored by everybody not only to get out of the way but also to remain always and forever out of the way. Exactly where such a place could be was somewhat obscure to the twins, because wherever they went they seemed to encounter a seething mass of Galts. Consequently they stayed where they were and contributed their share to the general confusion.
From time to time the distracted voice of the artist's wife could be heard assuring the entire family that the good God in the press of business had seen fit to give her only one pair of hands, that everyone very well knew how nervous and shaky she was, and that someday in the almost immediate future the whole confounded lot of them was going to be immeasurably sorry for the way they had treated her and this prediction also held for that disgusting lump of a father of theirs, who did nothing all day but sit comfortably in his chair pretending to be an artist, while others slaved and died at his great ugly feet.
Galt was desperate, because on the morrow his wife would come into another birthday. Even though she had passed an unpleasant remark about his feet, he still felt the desire to give her a present. Every member of the family save himself would be giving her a little something. To this end, his children one after another had levied heavily on his small supply of cash. He was now completely deflated. The money thus wheedled from him he had planned to expend in the purchase of a pair of shoes for those same great ugly feet. Now there would be no shoes, and his feet would continue on in their unlovely condition. Looking at them, Galt found it difficult to bear with them himself. What chance would they have with the office boys and reception clerks who guarded the sacrosanct corridor of the better advertising agencies?
The small amount of money remaining in the house was in the possession of his wife Sue. Only too keenly did he realize how impossible it would be to pry any of this loose from that one. So long as he had enough tobacco for his pipe Sue considered the man well fixed. After all, he was little better than a semidomestic animal with red hair at one end and big feet at the other. Money would do him no good. It might give him delusions of grandeur.
Impatiently Galt unfolded himself from his chair and began prowling about the small room. His slipping on a short length of lead pipe almost put an end to this mild emotional outlet. Cursing the pipe bitterly, be stooped and picked it up. Idly he tapped it against the palm of his left hand; and as he did so a desperate enterprise sprang full-armed into his mind.
Was not this an era of violence and direct action? It was. All over the country, all over the world, individuals no less than nations were taking by force what they wanted. Why should he alone of all the human race remain at peace with his fellow men? No, he should not. At this moment he needed money, needed it desperately. Not for himself did he need this money, but for the mother of his children. What simpler way to get it than through the medium of a lead pipe?
In this dangerously exalted frame of mind he recommenced his prowling. He was plotting evil against mankind for the first time in his life. He was quite impersonal about it. Little did it matter to him whom he hit upon the head with that lead pipe, as long as it was an expensive head with lots of cash on hand.
While engaged in these dark meditations Galt became vaguely aware of the sound of refined tapping on the door of the outer hall. He stopped in his tracks and looked at the door. He even scowled at the door as if it were a living adversary. Who could be standing on the other side of it? No one ever used that door. Had Providence provided him with a victim?
Without further hesitation Galt crossed the room and opened the door. A surprisingly well-preserved face, for the amount of russet beard that adorned it, presented itself to the momentarily unhinged artist. A pair of mild but myopic eyes peered into Galt's. The artist with his keen perception noted that the face looked like an expensive face, and that the body to which it belonged appeared to be expensively garbed. Then the mouth of the face opened, and words came from it.
"I beg your pardon," began the face in a cultured voice, "I was wondering if —"
At that moment the face ceased to wonder about anything. With the precision of one who had been slugging heads with lead pipes since early adolescence, the desperate artist now slugged this one. Automatically he reached out with his left hand and snatched a wallet from the gentleman's breast pocket. Then, completely losing his nerve, he slammed the door on his victim's expressionless face, idiotically muttering as he did so the single word "Beaver."
For a moment Galt leaned weakly against the door while on the other side of it the assaulted gentleman did likewise, but with more justification. Then, pulling himself together in all his trembling parts, the criminal artist, now thoroughly cowed, thrust the wallet from his sight as if it were already accusing him of murder. He hid the wallet behind a picture— not behind one of his own pictures, but behind a large photograph of a family group which he especially disliked. He had no desire to have either himself or anything he had ever created associated with the mute witness of his one criminal act.
In the meantime the assaulted gentleman, accompanied by his beard, rolled rather than staggered along the wall of the outer hall, eventually bringing up with a thud against the front door of the Galts' flat. With his rapidly failing strength he pressed a limp finger to the bell push, then abandoned himself to a vacuous twilight which at last grew dark...
At the sound of the bell the strident voices of the Galts were hushed as if all tongues had suddenly been gagged.
Then came the rush for the door, the sound of piercing whispers, and the fumbling of many hands. Finally the door was opened, and all the Galts looked. Then they blinked and looked again. Here was something indeed worth looking at, something to break the monotony of the daily routine—of which there was scarcely any in the Galts' establishment.
"Ooo!" breathed a thin girl of seventeen. "He's all bluggy."
"It's a murder," pronounced Mrs. Galt in the voice of one who had been long suspecting just such a contingency. "A corpse, no less."
"Then shut the door," some callous soul suggested.
"Oh, look at the murdered gentleman's beard," the twins chanted in unison. "Isn't there a lot of it?"
"Altogether too much of it," someone said fastidiously. "I loathe such facial adornments."
"It would be just our luck," Tom, the eldest son, was heard to mutter. "A murdered body would have to call on us! Let's have a cup of Java."
"He's in our flat," objected Mrs. Galt's spinster sister in a slightly outraged voice. "Somebody push him out."
"It's against the law to disturb a dead body," proclaimed Tom, who knew his detective stories and very little else.
"Well, this dead body started in disturbing us first," argued seventeen- year-old Fanny. "Does the law expect private families to keep open house for any old corpse that feels like dropping in?"
"Maybe he's just drunk," suggested the spinster sister. "Most men are, you know."
"His beard is doubled up," one of the twins morbidly observed.
"It continues to grow after death," contributed Dora, a plump child of fifteen. "I forget how long it grows, either in time or space."
In spite of having associated with her family for so many demoralizing years, Mrs. Galt still managed to retain a small shred of decency. She knelt and examined the crumpled results of her husband's enterprising act.
"He doesn't smell drunk," she announced, looking up at the others with her large, slightly wild eyes.
"What does he smell like?" Dora wanted to know.
"Why, I don't know," she replied innocently. "He smells like a man, I suppose."
"How horrid!" murmured the spinster sister.
"He's still breathing," Sue Galt suddenly announced. "Quick, everybody! Help me to get him into bed."
"Into whose bed?" several voices aggressively demanded.
"Into my bed, then," Sue replied wearily, not wishing to start a family brawl.
Motivated more by a desire to close the front door than out of any consideration for the potential corpse, the Galts dragged the body into the room, and after nearly dismembering it in their general carelessness and lack of co-ordinated action, finally succeeded in dumping the unconscious man on the bed jointly shared by Galt and his wife.
"Dear me!" panted Mrs. Galt. "That was a battle royal. If he wasn't dead already he should be now."
"I'm strained for life," declared Dora. "I had practically all of his left leg."
"I had what it grew out of," said Fanny.
"Why, I had his feet—one foot, anyway," replied Tom.
"I wasn't referring to his feet," the girl told him with quiet dignity.
Eventually Mrs. Galt succeeded in gathering her family round her in the front room.
"What are we going to do next?" she asked helplessly. "We should get a cheap doctor—don't you think so?"
While this conference was in progress in the front room the cause of it was growing increasingly terrified in the back one. He was afraid to be alone with himself. For the first time in years he preferred the company of his family to his own. On passing through his room he saw in the dim light the form of a perfect stranger seemingly sleeping comfortably in his bed. Not noticing the stranger's beard, Galt rushed to the front room and confronted his wife.
"What do you mean by letting a stranger go to sleep in my bed?" he demanded. "Haven't I any place left in this house? Why, I'll tear the beggar limb from limb. I'll —"
Galt stopped suddenly and swung round to face Fanny.
"What the devil are you laughing at?" he demanded.
"I don't know," declared Fanny, struggling to throttle her mirth. "It just struck me funny, that's all. You see, that man in there is dying, and when you mentioned tearing him limb from limb—well, I don't know— we've just had a go at that."
"What does she mean?" asked the mystified artist, turning once more to his wife.
"She means," said Mrs. Galt coldly, "that some homicidal maniac has hit that man on the head with a blunt instrument. And I hope you give me credit for having better taste than to prefer a man with a couple of yards of beard —although I shouldn't expect much, seeing that I married you."
Galt was too stunned to take up the insult. When he reached the bed he roughly turned the body over. Then with shrinking eyes he looked down on the bearded face of the ruin he had created.
"Quick!" he called out. "Somebody run for a doctor. If this chap dies your father is a murderer."
Immediately the room was jammed with Galts, all talking at the same time.
"How do you mean, you're the murderer?" his wife wanted to know.
"I did it," said Galt hoarsely. "I nipped him over the head with the twins' lead pipe."
Mrs. Galt's furious eyes sought for and found the twins.
"What did I tell you about that pipe?" she cried. "Now see what you have done! You've made your father a murderer, that's what you've done; and God knows he was bad enough as he was. I've thrown that pipe away, and what happens? Back it comes. Back comes the pipe. Right into the house." Pausing for a much-needed breath, she turned on her husband: "Why did you nip him over the head?" she inquired in a perfectly matter-of-fact voice.
"Well, you see, my dear," Galt began in a weak voice, "tomorrow is your birthday, you know, and quite naturally I wanted to give you a bit of a present, and I didn't have any money at all; so when this chap —"
"Don't go on," interrupted Mrs. Galt. "Don't reconstruct the crime. Save it for the judge." Helplessly she looked at the assembled faces. "Isn't this terrible?" she demanded. "Isn't it? Think of it, children! Your father has given your mother a bearded cadaver for a birthday present! Nice of him, wasn't it? Jolly. Many happy returns of the day." She laughed hysterically.
"But, Susie," protested the artist, "I didn't have any money, and —"
"Don't call me Susie at a time like this," his wife cut in. "Don't call me Susie at any time unless you want to start a riot; I won't be called Susie by a man with blood on his hands. And he gives me a corpse for a birthday present! I can't get over that. A corpse with a flaming beard. And I'm just fool enough to tuck it into our bed, beard and all. What a birthday present!"
With a pained expression Galt gazed back at his wife.
"A nice family," he muttered. "Just a lot of pals. There you stand, the lot of you, callously laughing your father into the electric chair, when you should be getting a doctor."
Sue Galt doubled up and pointed to the still figure in the bed.
"My present!" she gasped. "All mine." She straightened herself again, and with brimming eyes regarded the demoralized face of her husband.
"Had I known you enjoyed murders so much," he re-marked, "I'd have taken up the practice earlier."
To the infinite surprise of everyone present Sue Galt suddenly flung her arms around her husband's neck and hugged him ruthlessly.
"What a man!" she said to his neck. "What a man! To give his wife a birthday present he'd actually commit murder! I must have at least one kiss."
She had it, while Galt remained stupefied. Such endearments had become rare.
"We haven't any time for all these goings on," he said rather feebly. "Must get a doctor."
"You go," replied his wife. "Look for a cheap one."
"I can't be seen on the streets in these shoes," he protested, looking at his feet.
Sue's eyes followed his gaze, then fairly snapped to the feet of the man in bed.
"Borrow his," she said. "They're dandy. Might just as well make some use of him."
"Do you mean," said Galt, "that you actually suggest I step into a dead man's shoes?"
"Easier to step into a dead man's shoes than a live one's," his wife logically replied. "And anyway, he's not dead yet—not entirely."
Fearfully the artist allowed his gaze to rest on the feet of his victim; and as he did so he experienced a pang of envy. Those turned-up feet were shod in exquisite boots. And they looked to be about the right size. As if fascinated, he moved to the bed and began to unlace the shoes.
"I'll just try them on," he muttered. "Just to prove to you they won't fit."
While Galt was straining at the injured man's feet the stranger suddenly opened his eyes and gazed at the artist with an expression of dying reproach. Breaking out into a cold sweat, Galt sprang from the bed.
"He opened his eyes," he quavered, "and he rolled them at me."
"Nonsense," said Sue briskly. "The way you go on, one would think he flung them in your face. Here, let me at those feet."
In a businesslike manner she began to tug at the man's shoes. A hollow groan escaped his lips.
"Oh, God!" exclaimed the artist, clapping a hand to his forehead. "I can't stand here watching this. The poor chap is groaning in anguish."
"He's got nothing on me," complained Mrs. Galt. "I'm actually grunting. Ah! Off they come! Did you ever see snappier shoes?"
In the privacy of his studio Galt put on the shoes of the wounded man. They fitted his feet perfectly; and in spite of his self-repugnance, his spirits rose a little. When he re-turned to the bedroom they fell with a decided thud. It seemed to him that all the hands in the Galt family, including those of the twins, were on some part of the man's person, the majority being in his pockets.
"He's practically penniless," complained Sue. "So far we've been able to find only three dollars and seventeen cents. A man who wears such expensive shoes should carry a fat wallet. We must have money, you know."
At the mention of the missing wallet Galt turned even paler than he had been before. He had not the heart to tell his wife that in addition to brutally assaulting the man he had also stolen his wallet. It seemed to him that there was a little more dignity in being a murderer than a common thief.
"I'd leave him to his own devices," he said, "until the doctor gets here. If you keep on tossing his body about we won't need a doctor."
A quarter hour later, when Galt returned with a doctor, the artist was both gratified and surprised to find his victim still alive and intact. The first thing the doctor wanted to know was the name of the patient.
"It doesn't matter who he is so much as how he is," Mrs. Galt answered.
"Madam," said the doctor sharply, "I'm not going to argue with you."
"Thank God for that!" said Mrs. Galt.
The little doctor made no reply. Instead he devoted a vast amount of nervous irritation to the man in the bed. When he had finished examining the wound and dressing it he turned and faced the standing army of Galts.
"What," he demanded in an exasperated voice, "are all these strange- looking people doing in here? It looks like a mob scene. Those small, soiled children should be removed at once."
"It's affection," said Mrs. Galt promptly. "Pure affection. How is he, Doctor?"
"The patient is a very sick man," replied the doctor. "Must have absolute quiet. Can't be moved or disturbed in any way. A slight concussion, but it can be dangerous. Very."
"How long will he be in my bed?" Red Galt wanted to know.
"Our bed," corrected his wife.
"Maybe two weeks. At the least, ten days," said the doctor. "That is, if he lives."
Galt drew a quick breath.
"Who is he?" asked the doctor.
"He's our uncle," was Mrs. Galt's unexpected reply, while the rest of the Galts stared at her in astonishment.
"Whose uncle?" snapped the doctor. "There are all sizes and ages present."
"Oh," replied Sue vaguely, "you know. He's everybody's uncle. It's like that."
"He isn't my uncle," retorted the doctor. "What's his name?"
"Uncle Galt," said the artist's wife.
"It isn't enough," replied the doctor with rapidly rising impatience. "Hasn't he any more to his name than that?"
"No," said Mrs. Galt. "He might have had once, but we just call him Uncle Galt. You know how it is."
"I do not," retorted the doctor. "And I can't bring myself to write out prescriptions just for Uncle Galt. It would look silly. Can't you remember the rest of it?"
"George Washington," said Mrs. Galt explosively. "That's it, George Washington Galt."
"That's something," replied the doctor as if talking to himself, which was a much wiser thing to do when one was dealing with Galts. "George Washington Galt," he went on. "Sounds a lot like Harlem. It doesn't matter." Here he ceased muttering, to scribble off several prescriptions, which he handed to Mrs. Galt. "Get these filled at once," he told her, "and follow instructions closely. Take his clothes off and put him to bed. No noise at all. How did it happen?"
"He ran into a door," said Mrs. Galt.
"They all do," replied the doctor cynically. "I'll be back this evening."
"Must you come back?" asked the lady in tones of deep anguish.
"Certainly," snapped the doctor. "Unless you want George to die."
"That would never do at all," hastily put in the artist. "We want George to live. You don't know how much we do, Doctor."
"Well, he may pop off anyway," the little man heartlessly observed. "I know I would, with all these faces around me. Chuck 'em out of the room. That will be five dollars."
"If everybody will stay here," said Sue Galt, "I'll go get it." At the door she paused and looked archly back at the doctor. "I have to keep the money hidden," she explained. "There are so many thieves about."
The little doctor started slightly, then surveyed the assembled thieves with professional interest. The thieves in turn calmly surveyed the doctor.
That evening the stranger unexpectedly regained consciousness. The circumstances attending his return to reason were not auspicious. It so happened that the twins had selected that moment for a minute examination of this new and altogether fascinating face. The room was quite dark when the patient came to and found himself being unwinkingly stared at by two pairs of large round eyes. In his fevered imagination the man concluded that these eyes, so close to the ground, could belong to nothing less than a couple of wild animals. Uttering a shriek of mortal terror, he fell back into bed in another dead faint. The Galts, always willing to run in any direction, ran madly in the direction of the shriek and began to chatter round the bed with all the sparkle and animation of a French picnic.
"Has he passed beyond?" asked the spinster sister in a hollow voice.
"I hope so," replied Mrs. Galt, "if he's going to kick up a racket like that."
"He's passed beyond the limits of good taste," observed Fanny. "I hate shrieks in the night."
Galt laughed mirthlessly.
"That's one of the few things this house is ever full of," he said. "Shrieks by day, and shrieks by night."
"You'd better go shrieking for that doctor," Mrs. Galt told him.
This time the little doctor was even more disgusted than on his first visit.
"Why don't you ask in the neighbors," he inquired in a nasty voice, "and make a real party of it?"
Not a Galt answered. They were impervious to any form of sarcasm or insult. Then a voice spoke weakly from the bed, and all eyes turned in that direction.
"Doctor," complained the voice, "is this place a railroad station or a skating rink? More people come dashing back and forth through this room than in the Grand Central Terminal. A moment ago I caught a couple of animals trying to crawl into bed with me. I never saw such people. Don't they ever sit down?"
"Don't you call my children animals," Sue Galt cried, angrily confronting the sick man. "I'll have you to know they're my twins. Look at them, Doctor."
"Why?" demanded the doctor. "Why should I look at your twins?"
"I don't know," replied Sue. "I'm rather tired of looking at them myself; but just the same, they're not animals."
"Madam," said the doctor severely, "I have neither the time nor the inclination to discuss your twins. My duty in this house is to protect this patient. I must have a nurse."
Had the doctor deliberately striven to drive the Galts into an emotional frenzy he could not have set about it more expeditiously. He was almost mobbed.
"A nurse!" cried Mrs. Galt. "That's just great, isn't it? And what are we going to use for food—the nurse? And who is going to pay her wages? The NRA, I suppose."
"By rights," said the doctor calmly, "you should have two nurses."
"Did you hear that?" Mrs. Galt whispered. "If that man keeps it up I'll need a couple of nurses myself. What does he think this is—a death watch?"
While this was going on Red Galt was trying to avoid the eyes of the stranger. At any moment now the artist expected to be discovered and denounced. Once he caught the man gazing intently at his feet. Galt broke into a cold sweat.
"Doctor," said the stranger, "I don't seem able to remember a thing. I don't even know who I am."
"That's easily settled," the doctor told him. "Your name is George Washington Galt, and, according to this lady, you're all these people's uncle. Does that make you feel any better?"
"My God, no!" said the man. "It makes me feel worse. Can't I go home?"
"You are home," continued the doctor soothingly. "You live right here with your family."
For a full minute the stranger savored the honor of this shocking information, then turned his eyes to the doctor.
"I must have led a terrible life," he observed. "Perhaps it's just as well I've forgotten most of it. It's better to be among one's own, I dare say. I'd not like to be obligated to strangers."
"What's that he said about not being obligated to strangers?" Sue Galt broke in. "Why, that man owes me five dollars already, not including the prescriptions; and now with the expense of the nurse —"
"Madam," interrupted the doctor, "your own flesh and blood, remember."
"I won't have any of his flesh and blood," Mrs. Galt answered furiously. "He's my husband's brother. He's not mine."
"And he's not our uncle," put in one of the twins—only to have his mouth covered by half a dozen hands.
"How did this happen?" asked the stranger. "Was I in an accident?"
"We won't worry about that now!" said the doctor.
"No," agreed the artist quickly. "Don't worry your head about how you got hurt. It's important to all of us that you get well."
"You might as well tell him," said Mrs. Galt in a malicious voice. "He's your brother, and he should be told." She turned to the man in the bed. "If you must know, George," she continued, "you came home that way again, and after falling all over the place you ran into a door."
"Do I get drunk?" asked the stranger, his eyes bright with alarm.
"Do you get drunk?" Sue Galt repeated, and answered her own question with a harsh laugh.
This was too much for Fanny. She covered her face with her hands and leaned weakly against her father.
"Is that girl one of my nieces?" asked the stranger. "She is," replied the doctor.
"Then I have very little to live for," murmured the man.
As a result of the presence of a nurse in the house, the spinster sister was forced to sleep on the sofa, while the artist and his wife occupied chairs. Whenever Sue awoke during the course of the nights that followed she made a point of thanking her husband for his lovely birthday present. The children with their customary generosity remained comfortably in bed.
In compensation for the discomfort she was forced to endure Mrs. Galt succeeded in borrowing every penny the nurse possessed, so that the poor woman was forced to become a part of the family, whether she liked it or not.
At the end of his first week in bed the stranger was eating his head off. As a consequence the Galts became more deeply indebted to the local provision dealers. The doctor insisted that George Washington Galt should be given only the best and most nourishing of food.
Red Galt was by this time wearing his victim's suit as well as his shoes. Sue wanted him to make use of the man's socks and underwear, but this the artist refused to do. Attired in this borrowed outfit, he had made the rounds of the advertising agencies and had landed a few cash jobs. In spite of this slight relief, however, the problem of maintaining the recently acquired uncle was daily becoming more serious.
As soon as the man had regained his strength Galt made a daily practice of taking him out for long walks and trying to lose him. Frequently it was the stranger who found his way home first.
"You can't tell me there's anything wrong with that chap's memory," Galt complained to his wife after one of these unsuccessful expeditions. "I've left him in every out-of-the-way corner of this city, and damned if he doesn't get back like a homing pigeon. He must have been a postman once."
Mrs. Galt grinned at her husband.
"Next year," she said sweetly, "I'll be satisfied with just a couple of elephants for my birthday. Nothing elaborate, you know."
Then the arrival of a long letter from their eldest daughter Bonnie, who was studying music in Rochester, momentarily created a diversion—not that diversion was necessary in the crowded days of the Galts. The young lady wrote to inform her mother that she would be almost immediately among them. Something had happened which was worrying her greatly, and she felt sure that her mother would be helpful.
Sue put down the letter and looked thoughtfully at her family, including Uncle George.
"I hope," she said quite distinctly, "I'm not about to become an illegitimate grandmother."
On the day of Bonnie's arrival Red Galt played his last card. He took the stranger to one of the busiest places he knew. It was a railway terminal where trains, subways, taxicabs, and humanity struggled for survival. Here he excused himself for a moment, and never came back. When the artist got back to the flat he was jubilant over his success. The stranger had not preceded him. But as the hours passed he found himself strangely missing the man he had both assaulted and abandoned. His feelings seemed to be shared by the other members of the family.
The nurse, who by this time had been taken almost too fully into the confidence of the family, sat rocking placidly.
"It leaves me in a difficult position," she observed. "Here I am a nurse without a patient."
"We're all patients," declared Mrs. Galt. "This family should live under observation, especially its criminal head."
"Mr. George, or whatever his real name is," went on the nurse, "admitted to me that he didn't dislike you all too much. I don't myself. Do you think there's ever going to be any money?"
Mrs. Galt thought not, but a sudden ringing of the front doorbell put an end to the conversation. Everyone save the artist hurried nervously from the room. He rose and stood listening anxiously.
"Dear, dear me!" he heard his wife exclaim in the hall,
"My birthday present is back again. Where have you been, George?"
Before George could say where he had been Red Galt heard the voice of his eldest daughter.
"He's been wandering around the station dressed like a tramp," she said. "That's where I found him."
"Why, Bonnie," said Mrs. Galt reproachfully, "he's wearing your father's best and only suit. You shouldn't say such things, even though they're true."
"Well, I'd like to know," the artist heard his daughter say, "why on earth my fiancé is wearing my father's suit?"
"He's been doing more than that," came Sue's reply. "He's been sleeping in your father's bed. Tell me, dear, just who is this gentleman?"
"His name is Worthing Wright Taylor, and —"
"You don't mean the famous art critic and collector?" broke in Mrs. Galt in an appalled voice.
"None less," replied her daughter. "And he is going to become a member of your family."
"He already has," said Mrs. Galt.
"On the day he so strangely disappeared," Bonnie continued, "he was coming to call on you. He doesn't know what happened to him."
"Now I do," came the familiar voice of the erstwhile George. "The pleasant shock of so unexpectedly encountering you, Bonnie, has completely restored my memory of things past and present."
Upon the reception of this news a low groan escaped the artist's lips. Retreating to the next room, he hastily divested himself of his borrowed clothing and placed it on the bed. It was quite a blow to his feet to be separated from the shoes. Then he stood listening fearfully as the family trailed into the front room. Mrs. Galt was laughing softly.
"Do you remember everything?" she asked the restored mind.
"Too much," replied the great man.
"That's just wonderful," said Mrs. Galt. "Then you can appreciate how funny it all is."
"Oh, fully," replied Mr. Taylor. "In all its phases. But it's hard to figure out who the joke is on."
"My husband will be so happy when he hears about all this," added Mrs. Galt. "He has a remarkable sense of humor."
"Why does she torture me?" Galt miserably asked himself.
He was stricken by the enormity of his crime. He had assaulted his future son-in-law, one of the wealthiest and most influential art collectors in the country. Not content with that, he had stolen the man's wallet, bereft him of his clothing, and repeatedly tried to lose him. One man could hardly do more to another fellow creature.
It was at this low tide in the life of Red Galt that his twins came staggering in from the outer hall with their arms laden with toys and their mouths filled with candy. With a suppressed exclamation Mrs. Galt collared them.
"Where did you get all those things?" she demanded.
"A nice man gave them to us," mouthed one of the twins without the slightest hope of having his invention accepted.
As he spoke a fat wallet slipped from his blouse and fell with a dull plop to the floor.
"At last!" exclaimed Mr. Taylor, stooping to pick it up. "I remember this too. It's mine."
When he opened the wallet Mrs. Galt turned pale at the sight of so much money.
"God will never forgive you," she said in a choked voice to the twins, "for keeping all that money from your mother."
Unable to look on the scene longer, Galt removed his eye from the slit in the portières and fled in his underwear to the studio, where he stood looking about like a trapped animal. A voice from the doorway made him whirl about.
"My brother!" said Mr. Taylor, smiling at him enigmatically from the doorway. "Don't you recognize your brother George? I drink, you know."
Without attempting to reply to this playful greeting, Galt picked up the lead pipe and handed it to the man.
"Go on," he said. "It's your turn now. You will find your clothing neatly folded on the bed."
With the lead pipe nicely balanced in his hand, Mr. Taylor followed the artist across the room.
"You perhaps are not aware of it," he said, raising the pipe to a striking position as Red Galt flinched, "but that oil thing over there is a little masterpiece. Splendid, really. What price?"
"Absolute silence," answered Red Galt in a low voice. "Is it a deal?"
"Done!" cried Mr. Taylor. "And I'll throw in my shoes to boot."
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