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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesIn The Sweet Dry And Dry - Chapter 5. The Treachery Of Miss Chuff
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In The Sweet Dry And Dry - Chapter 5. The Treachery Of Miss Chuff Post by :1234Piano Category :Long Stories Author :Christopher Morley Date :May 2012 Read :1721

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In The Sweet Dry And Dry - Chapter 5. The Treachery Of Miss Chuff

CHAPTER V. THE TREACHERY OF MISS CHUFF

"My story," said Miss Chuff, as the car slid along the road, "is rich in pathos. My father, as you can imagine, is an impossible man to live with. My poor mother was taken to an asylum years ago. Her malady takes a curious form: she is never violent, but spends all her time in poring over books, magazines and papers. Every time she finds the word HUSBAND in print she crosses it out with blue pencil.

"From my earliest days I was accustomed to hear very little else but talk about liquor. The fairy tales that most children are allowed to enjoy merely as stories were explained to me by my father as allegories bearing upon the sinister seductions of drink. Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, for instance, became a symbol of young womanhood pursued by the devouring Bronx cocktail. The princess from whose mouth came toads and snakes was (of course) a princess under the influence of creme de menthe. Cinderella was a young girl who had been brought low by taking a dash of brandy in her soup. Every dragon, with which good fairy tales are liberally provided, was the Demon Rum. It is really amazing what stirring prohibition propaganda fairy tales contain if you know how to interpret them.

"All this kind of palaver naturally roused my childish curiosity as to the subject of intoxicants. But, like a docile daughter, I fell into the career marked out for me by my father. I became a militant for the Pan-Antis. I distributed tracts by the million; I wrote a little poem on the idea that the gates of hell are swinging doors with slats. I can honestly say that I never felt any real hankering for liquor until it was prohibited altogether. That is a curious feature of human nature, that as soon as you forbid a thing it becomes irresistibly alluring. You remember the story of Mrs. Bluebeard.

"It occurred to me, after booze had gone, that it was a sad thing that I, Bishop Chuff's daughter, who was devoting my life to the prohibition cause, should have not the slightest knowledge of the nature of this hideous evil we had been pursuing. I brooded over this a great deal, and fell into a melancholy state. The thought came to me, there must be some virtue in drink, or why would so many people have stubbornly contested its abolition? It would be too long a story to tell you all the details, but it was at that time that I first became aware of my psychic gift."

"Your psychic gift?" queried Bleak, wondering.

She turned her bright beer-brown eyes upon him gravely. "Yes," she said, "I am an alcoholic medium. It is the latest and most superior form of spiritualism. By gazing upon crystal--particularly upon an empty tumbler--I am able to throw myself into a trance in which I can communicate with departed spirits. A good drink does not die, you know: its soul hovers radiantly on the twentieth plane, and through the occult power of a medium those who loved it in life can get in touch with it once more. Through these trances of mine I have been privileged to put many bereaved ones in communication with their dear departed spirits. To hear the table-rappings and the shouts of ecstasy you would perceive that a great deal of the anguish of separation is assuaged."

"Do you often have these trances?" said Bleak, with a certain wistfulness.

"They are not hard to induce," she said. "All that is necessary for a seance is a round table, preferably of some highly polished brown wood, a brass rail for the worshipers to put their feet on, and an empty tumbler to concentrate the power of yearning. If those present all wish hard enough there is sure to be a successful reunion with the Beyond."

"But surely," said the fascinated editor, "surely not any--well, actual MATERIALIZATION?"

"Oh, no; but the communion of souls produces quite sufficient results. You see, so many fine spirits passed over at once, suddenly, on that First of July, that the twentieth plane is quite thronged with them, and they are just as eager to come back as their friends could be to welcome them. One good yearn deserves another, as we say. The only time when these seances fail is when some inharmonious soul is present--some personality not completely EN RAPPORT with the spirit of the gathering. I remember, for instance, an occasion when a gentleman from Kentucky had most ardently desired to get into communication with the astrals of some mint juleps he had loved very deeply in life. Everything seemed propitious, but though I struggled hard I simply could not get the julep spirit to descend to our mortal plane. Finally I made inquiry and found that one of the guests was a root-beer manufacturer. Of course you may say that was petty jealousy on the side of the departed, but even these vanished spirits have their human phases."

She was silent for a moment.

"You can imagine," she said, "what a perplexity I was in when I discovered these hitherto unsuspected powers in myself. Was I justified in putting them to use, for the good of humanity? And wasn't there a certain pathetic significance in the fact that I, the daughter of the man who had done so much to put these poor lonely spirits into the Beyond, should be made their sole channel of reunion with their bereaved and sorrowing adorers? In all his harangues, I had never heard my Father attack anything but the actual DRINKING of liquor. This form of communication seemed to me to solve so many problems. And it was in this way that I first met Virgil."

"Virgil?" said Bleak, absent-mindedly, for he was wondering whether he might be privileged to attend one of these seances.

"Virgil Quimbleton," she said. "In the early days of my trances I was much haunted by the spirit of a certain cocktail--blended, I believe, of champagne and angostura--which insisted that it would be inconsolable until it could get in contact with Quimbleton and reassure him as to the certainty of its existence beyond mortal bars. The deep affection and old comradeship evidently cherished between Quimbleton and this cocktail was very touching, and I was more than happy to be able to effect their reunion. It was for this reason that Quimbleton, under a careful disguise, came to live next door to us on Caraway Street. I would go out into the garden and have a trance; Quimbleton, poor bereaved fellow, would sit by me in the dusk and revel with the spirit of his dear comrade. This common bond soon ripened into Jove, and we became betrothed."

She stripped off one of her gloves and showed Bleak a beautiful amethyst ring.

"This is my engagement ring," she said. "It's a very precious symbol, for Quimbleton explained to me that the amethyst is a talisman against drunkenness. I looked it up in the dictionary, and found that he was right. As long as I wear this ring the departed spirits have no ill effect upon me. But I sometimes wonder," she added with a sigh, "whether Virgil really loves me for myself, or only as a kind of swinging door into the spirit world."

The car was now approaching an open belt of country. Behind them lay the dark line of pine woods; far off, across a wide shimmer of sun and sandy fields sweetened by purple clover; and flowering grasses, was a blue ribbon of sea. But even in this remote shelf of New Jersey the implacable hand of Chuff was at work. From a meadow near by they saw an observation balloon going up and the windlass unwinding its cable. A huge paraboloid breath-detector (or breathoscope) was stationed on a low ridge. This terribly ingenious machine, which had just been invented by the pan-antis, records the vibrations of any alcoholic breath within five miles, and indicates on a sensitive dial the exact direction and distance of the breath. It was only too evident that the search for Quimbleton was going forward with fierce system. In the shelter of an old barn they heard a cork-popping machine-gun going off rapidly. This was one of the most atrocious ruses employed by the chuffs in their search for conscientious drinkers. The gun fires no projectile, but produces a pleasant detonation like the swift and repeated drawing of corks. Set up in the neighborhood of any bottle-habited man, it will invariably lure him into an approach. Near it was an ice-tinkling device, used for the same purposes of stratagem.

"Poor Virgil!" said Miss Chuff with a sigh. "I'm afraid he has had a grievous ordeal. We must run carefully now, so as not to give him away."

Fortunately Miss Chuff's presence at the wheel, and Bleak's credentials as war correspondent, enabled them to pass several scouting parties of chuff uhlans without suspicion. In this way they neared the extensive grounds surrounding the Federal Home for Inebriates, Cana, N. J. This magnificent Gothic building, already showing some signs of decay from two years of vacancy, stands on a slight eminence among what the real estate agents call "old shade," with a fine and carefully calculated view over one of the largest bodies of undrinkable fluid known to man, the Atlantic Ocean.

The car turned into a narrow sandy road skirting one side of the walled park. This byway was completely screened from outside observation by the high bulwark of the Home and by thick masses of rhododendron shrubbery. At a bend in the road Miss Chuff halted the motor, and motioned Bleak to descend.

"Now we will look for the persecuted patriot," she said.

Bleak took charge of the basket of food, and Miss Chuff drew a small rope ladder from a locker under the driver's seat. This she threw deftly up to the top of the wall, hooking it upon the iron spikes. Bleak politely ascended first, and they scaled the wall, dropping down into a tangle of underbrush.

"I left him in here somewhere," said the girl, as they set off along a narrow path. "This was obviously the best place to hide, as, except for Father's horse, the Home hasn't had an inmate for two years. There was some talk of Father making this the headquarters of the Great General Strafe in this campaign, but I don't believe they have done so yet."

"Hush!" said Bleak. "What is that I hear?"

A dull, regular, recurrent sound, a sort of rasping sigh, stole through the thickets. They both listened in some agitation.

"Sounds a little like an airplane, with one engine missing," said Bleak.

"Can it be the sea, the surf breaking on the sand?" asked Miss Chuff.

This seemed probable, and they accepted it as such; but as they pushed on through the tangle of saplings and bushes the sound seemed to localize itself on their left. Bleak peeped cautiously through a leafy screen, and then beckoned the girl to his side. They looked down into a warm sandy hollow, overgrown and sheltered by a large rhododendron with knotted branches and dry, shiny leaves. Curled up on the sand bank, in the unconsciously pathetic posture of sheer exhaustion, lay Quimbleton, asleep. A droning snore buzzed heavily from where he lay.

"Poor Virgil!" said Miss Chuff. "How tired he looks."

He did, indeed. The gray and silver uniform was ragged and soil-stained; his boots were white with dust; his face was unshaved, though a razor lay beside him, and it seemed that he had been trying to strop it on his Sam Browne belt. His pipe, filled but unlit, had fallen from his weary fingers; beside him was an empty match-box and tragic evidence of a number of unsuccessful attempts to get fire from a Swedish tandsticker. Crumpled under the elbow of the indomitable idealist was a much-thumbed copy of The Bartender's Benefactor, or How to Mix 1001 Drinks, in which he had been seeking imaginary solace when he fell asleep. Near his head ticked a pocket alarm clock, which they found set to gong at two o'clock.

"It seems a shame to wake him," said Theodolinda. Her brown eyes liquefied and effervesced with tenderness, until (as Bleak thought to himself) they were quite the color of brandy and soda, without too much soda.

The sleeper stirred, and a radiant smile passed over his unconscious features--a smile of pure and heavenly beatitude.

"Say when, Jerry," he murmured.

"He's dreaming!" cried Theodolinda. "See, his soul is far away!"

"Two years away," said Bleak enviously. "Let him go to it while we reconnoiter. I believe in the Prevention of Cruelty to Sleep. He didn't intend to wake up just yet, you can see by the alarm clock."

"That's a good idea," she agreed. "I'd like to find out whether we're in any immediate danger of pursuit."

They set the basket of food beside Quimbleton, and carefully moved on through the strip of young trees until they neared the broad lawns that surround the Home for Inebriates. Miss Chuff, spying delicately through a leafy chink, gave a cry of alarm.

"Heavens!" she said. "The place is full of people!"

To their amazement, they saw the white banner of the Pan-Antis floating on one of the towers of the building, and the grounds about the Home blackened with a moving throng. Though they were too far distant to discern any details of the crowd, it was plain (from the curious to-and-fro of the gathering, like the seething of an ant-hill) that its units were imbued with some strong emotion. At that distance it might have been anger, or fear, or (more appropriate to the surroundings) drink.

They hurried back to Quimbleton's hiding place, and found him already sitting up and attacking the shrimp salad. Bleak courteously averted his eyes from the affectionate embrace of the lovers.

"Bless your heart for this grub," said Quimbleton to Bleak. "As soon as I smelt that shrimp salad I woke up. Do you know, I haven't eaten for two days."

"Oh Virgil!" cried Theodolinda, "what does this mean--all the crowd round the Home? Mr. Bleak and I looked up there, and the place is simply packed. You can't stay undiscovered long with all those people around. Who are they, anyway?"

Quimbleton had to delay his reply until deglutition had mastered a bulky consignment of shrimp. His large, resolute face, while somewhat marred by hardships, showed no trace of panic.

"I know all about it," he said. "It is the latest step on the route of all evil taken by that fanatical person whom I shall presently call father-in-law. He is not content with arresting people found drinking. This morning they began to seize people who THINK about drinking. Any one who is guilty of thinking, in an affirmative way, about liquor, is to be interned in the Federal Home for a course in mental healing."

"But how can they tell?" asked Bleak, nervously.

"I don't know," said Quimbleton. "Perhaps they have a kind of Third Degree, flash a seidel of beer on you suddenly, and if you make an involuntary gesture of pleasure, you're convicted. Perhaps they've invented an instrument that tells what you think about. Perhaps they just arrest you on suspicion. At any rate all the folks who have been thinking about booze are being collected and sent over here. I know because I've seen most of my friends arriving all morning. I suppose they'll get me next. I don't much care as long as I've had something to eat."

"Virgil, dear," said Miss Chuff, "you MUSTN'T give up hope now, after being so brave. You know I'll stand by you to the end--to the very dregs."

"If only I had some disguise," said Quimbleton sadly, "it wouldn't be so bad. But I must confess that these breath detectors and other unscrupulous instruments they use have rather unnerved me."

Bleak suddenly remembered, and thrust his hand in his hip-pocket. He pulled out the hank of white beard that had floated down from the airplane a few days before. It was much crumpled, but intact.

"Good man!" cried Quimbleton. "My jolly old beard!" He clapped it onto his face and beamed hopefully. "Now, if there were some way of getting rid of this tell-tale uniform--"

They discussed this problem at some length, sitting in the sheltered bowl of sand, while Quimbleton finished his lunch. Bleak's suggestion of stitching together a sort of Robinson Crusoe suit of rhododendron leaves did not meet Quimbleton's approval.

"No Robinson trousseau for me," he said. "I thought of pasting together the leaves of The Bartender's Benefactor, but I'm afraid that would be rather damning. No, I don't see what to do."

"I have it!" said Theodolinda, gleefully. "I've got a sewing kit in the car--we'll unrip the upholstery and I can stitch you up a suit in no time. At least it will be better than the C. P. H. get-up, which would take you in front of a firing squad if it were seen."

This seemed a good idea. Bleak volunteered to escort Miss Chuff back to the car and help her rip the covers off the cushions. This was done, and they carried back to Quimbleton's hiding place many yards of pale lilac colored twill (or whatever it is) and a flask of iced tea. In spite of distant sounds of warfare, the time passed pleasantly enough. Miss Chuff cut out and stitched assiduously; Quimbleton and Bleak, under her directions, sewed on the buttons snipped from the uniform. Birds twittered in the greenery about them, and they all felt something of the elation of a picnic when the garments were done and Quimbleton retired to a neighboring copse to make the change. The other two were too seriously concerned for his welfare to laugh when they saw him.

"Splendid!" cried Bleak. "Now you can lie down in Miss Chuff's car and if any one looks in they'll just think you're part of the furnishings."

"And I think we'd better get back to the car without delay," said Theodolinda. "I'd like to get you out of this danger zone as soon as possible."

They hastened back to the wall, scaled it with the rope ladder--and stared in dismay. The car had gone. They could see it far down the road, guarded by a group of Pan-Antis. A cordon of the enemy had been thrown completely round the Home and escape was impossible. Worse still, the treachery of Miss Chuff must have been discovered, and they trembled to think what retaliation the Bishop might devise.

In this moment of crisis Quimbleton regained his customary hardihood. Quilted in his lilac garments, with the white hedge of beard tossing in the breeze, he looked the dashing leader.

"There's only one thing to do," he said. "We're surrounded in this place. We must go to the Home, make common cause with the prisoners there, and lead them in a sudden sally of escape."

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