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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesMr. Bingle - Chapter 3. The Death Of Uncle Joe
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Mr. Bingle - Chapter 3. The Death Of Uncle Joe Post by :Bizmakers Category :Long Stories Author :George Barr Mccutcheon Date :May 2012 Read :2063

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Mr. Bingle - Chapter 3. The Death Of Uncle Joe

CHAPTER III. THE DEATH OF UNCLE JOE

When Thomas Bingle made his inspired visit to Geoffrey Hooper in the interest of peace, he took it upon himself to advise his wealthy cousin to read "The Christmas Carol" before it was too late, and formed a permanent and irradicable opinion of the pauper's son when that individual curtly informed him that he was not in the habit of reading "trash." Mr. Bingle was patient enough to inquire if he knew anything about "The Christmas Carol" and Geoffrey in turn asked "who wrote the words for it," although it really didn't matter, he added by way of cutting off the reply of his astonished visitor, who naturally could not have expected to know that his cousin was a consistent church-goer and knew a great deal about Christmas carols. If it had been in his power to hate any one, Mr. Bingle would have hated his solitary male cousin for that stupendous insult to literature. As it was, he could only pity him for his ignorance, and at the same time blame Uncle Joseph for bringing up his son in such a slip-shod manner.

It all went to show the trend of the world, however, in this callous age of ours; it went to show that the right sort of missionary work was not being performed. Mr. Bingle never forgave Geoffrey for calling "The Christmas Carol" trash. In the light of what took place afterwards, he felt that he was completely justified in an opinion formed almost on the instant the abominable word was uttered.

Christmas fell on a Wednesday. Three days out of each year Mr. Bingle slept late of a morning: Christmas, Easter Sunday and Labour Day. On this particular Christmas morning he slept much later than usual; the little clock in the parlour was striking eight when he awoke and scrambled out of bed.

Mrs. Bingle always had her coffee in bed. She adhered strictly to that pleasant custom for the somewhat pathetic reason that it afforded a distinct exemplification of the superiority of mistress over maid. By no manner of means could Melissa have arrived at this expression of luxury.

"Merry Christmas," said Mr. Bingle, crimping his toes on the cold carpet and bending over to kiss his companion's cheek. She responded with unwonted vigour, proving that she had been wide awake for some time.

"I shall get up, Thomas," she declared, much to his surprise.

"It's pretty cold," said he. "Better stay where you are."

"I thought I heard Uncle Joe moving about in the sitting-room quite a while ago," she said. "Do you suppose he needed a hot-water bottle?"

Mr. Bingle sighed. "If he did, you may be quite sure he would have got the whole house up with his roars, Mary."

"You will take cold, Thomas, standing around without your--"

"I'll just run in and see if Uncle Joe needs anything," he interrupted, a note of anxiety in his voice. Pausing at the bedroom door, with his hand on the knob, he turned toward her with a merry grin on his deeply-seamed face. His sparse hair was as tousled and his eyes as full of mischief as any child's. "Maybe it was old Santa you heard out there, Mary--filling the stockings."

She was too matter-of-fact for anything like that. "If you knew what was good for you, Tom Bingle, you'd fill that pair of stockings lying at the foot of the bed instead of running around in your bare feet," she said, pulling the covers up about her chin. "I think I'll have my breakfast in bed, after all."

"That's right," said he, and hurried nimbly out of the room so that she would not hear the chattering of his teeth. Mrs. Single was enjoying the paroxysm of a luxurious, comfortable yawn when she heard a shout of alarm from the sitting-room. She sat straight up in bed.

"Mary! Oh, my goodness! I say, Melissa!"

Then came the pattering of Mr. Bingle's feet across the floor, followed by the intrusion of an excited face through the half-open door.

"Wha--what IS the matter?" she quavered.

"He--he's gone!"

"Dead?" she shrieked.

"No! Gone, I said--left the house. Out in the cold. Freezing. Wandering about in the streets--"

"In--in his night clothes?" gasped his wife. "Don't tell me he has gone into the street without--"

"Get up!" cried Mr. Bingle, making a dash for his own garments. "We must do something. Let me think--give me time. Now what is the first thing to do? Notify the police or--"

"IS HE DRESSED?" she demanded.

"Of course," he replied. "At least he took his clothes with him. They're not in his bedroom."

"Well, ask the elevator boy. He'll know when he went out. Hurry up, Thomas. Don't stop to put on a collar. Do hurry--"

"I'm not putting on a collar," came in smothered tones. "I'm putting on a shirt."

He didn't quite have it on when Melissa appeared in the doorway, wide- eyed and excited.

"Uncle Joe has disappeared, ma'am," she chattered. "I can't find hide or hair of him. Did you call, Mr. Bingle, or was it--"

"I called," said Mr. Bingle, getting behind the foot-board of the bed. "Where is he? Did you--"

"I heard him moving about the kitchen about six or half-past. I peeked out of my door, and there he was, all dressed, putting the coffee pot on the stove. I says to him: 'What are you doing there?' and he says: 'I'm getting breakfast, you lazy lummix,' and I says: 'Well, get it, you old bear, 'cause I won't, you can bet on that,'--and went back to bed. Oh, goodness--goodness! I wouldn't ha' said that to him if I'd knowed he--"

"Don't blubber, Melissa," cried Mrs. Bingle. "Ask the elevator boy what time it was when--"

"Hand me my trousers, Mary," shivered Mr. Bingle, "or send Melissa out of the room. I can't--"

"He made himself some coffee and--"

"Call the elevator boy, as I tell you--No, wait! Dress yourself first, you silly thing," commanded Mrs. Bingle, and Melissa fled.

The old man was gone, there could be no doubt about that. Investigations proved that he had left the building at precisely sixteen minutes of seven, the janitor declaring that he had looked at his watch the instant the old man appeared on the sidewalk where he was shovelling away the snow. He admitted that nothing short of a miracle could have caused him to go to the trouble of getting out his watch on a morning as cold as this one happened to be, and so he regarded old Mr. Hooper's exit as a most astonishing occurrence. Further investigation showed that he had walked down the six tortuous flights of stairs instead of ringing for the elevator, and that he was clad in Mr. Bingle's best overcoat, an ulster of five winters, to say nothing of his arctics, gloves and muffler.

No one, not even Mr. Bingle, could deny that it was a very shabby thing to do on a Christmas morning, and for once the gentle bookkeeper lost faith in his fellow-man. In all probability he would have excused Uncle Joe's early morning stroll in garments that did not belong to him had it not been for the fact that the old gentleman also took away with him all of his own scanty belongings neatly wrapped in the morning newspaper, an almost priceless breakfast possession from Mr. Bingle's way of looking at it.

At first Mrs. Bingle insisted on having the police notified. It was so evident that Uncle Joe had departed without even contemplating an early return that she couldn't see why her husband shouldn't at least recover what belonged to him before the old ingrate could get to a pawn-shop, notwithstanding the family shame that would attend an actual arrest.

"He is an old scamp, Tom, and I don't see why you should put up with the scurvy trick he has played on you," she protested, almost in tears. "After all we've done for him, it really seems--"

"I swear to goodness, Mary, I believe I'd do it if--if it wasn't Christmas," groaned Mr. Bingle, who sat dejectedly over the fire, his hands jammed deep into his pockets, his chin on his breast. "But really, my dear, I--I can't--I just can't set the police after him on Christmas Day. Besides, he may come back of his own accord."

"He can't go very far on what he will get for your overcoat," she said ironically. "He'll be back, never fear, when he gets good and hungry, and he'll not bring your overcoat with him, either."

"My dear, whatever else Uncle Joe may have been, he is not a thief," said Mr. Bingle stiffly.

"How do you know?" she demanded. "He may have been in the penitentiary, for all we know about him. At any rate, he HAS stolen your overcoat, and your rubbers, and--and--"

"My ear-muffs," supplied Mr. Bingle, seeing that she was taxing her memory.

"I suppose you regard all that as the act of an honest man," she said irritably. "I DO wish, Tom Bingle, that you had a little more backbone when it comes to--"

"Tut, tut!" interposed Mr. Bingle, uncomfortably. He resented her occasional references to his backbone, or rather to the lack of it.

"--being put upon," she concluded. "Oh, just to think of the old scamp doing this to you on Christmas Day!" she wailed. "No wonder his children despise him."

"Well, we'll see what--" he began and then cleared his throat in some confusion. His wife's appraising eye was upon him.

"What are we going to see?" she inquired, after a moment.

"We'll see what turns up," said he, somewhat defiantly, "I don't believe in condemning a man unheard. I have a feeling that he--"

"What do you expect to wear when you go down to the bank in the morning?" she demanded, still eyeing him severely. "Your spring overcoat? People will think you're crazy. It's below zero."

"Oh, I'll get along all right," said he stoutly. "Don't you worry about me, Mary. By hokey, I wish he'd come back this afternoon, just to prove to you that it isn't safe to form an opinion without--"

"There you go, Tom Bingle, wishing as you always do that somebody would do something good just to show me that no one ever does anything bad. You dear old goose! Only the meanest man in the world could have the heart to rob you. That's what Uncle Joe is, my dear--the meanest man in the world."

Mr. Bingle sighed. He was in no position to argue the point. Uncle Joe had not left him very much to stand upon in the shape of a theory. There was nothing to do but to concede her the sigh of admission.

"It's possible," he said hopefully, "that the poor old man is--is out of his head. Let us hope so, at any rate." And with this somewhat doubtful sop to the family honour, he lapsed into the silence of one who realizes that he has uttered a foolish remark and shrinks from the consequences.

Mrs. Bingle said "Humph," and no more, but there is no word in any vocabulary that represents as much in the way of sustained argument as that homely, unspellable ejaculation.

Mr. Hooper DID return, but not until the Saturday following Christmas Day. He justified Mr. Bingle's faith in mankind to some extent by restoring the overcoat and the arctics, but failed to bring back the ear-muffs and the newspaper. He also failed to account for his own scanty belongings which he had taken away from the flat wrapped up in the newspaper. As a matter of fact, he did not feel called upon to account for anything that had transpired since a quarter before seven on Christmas morning. He merely walked in upon Mrs. Bingle at noon and told her to send for Dr. Fiddler at once. Then he got into bed and shivered so violently that the poor lady quite forgot her intention to berate him for all the worry and trouble he had caused. She proceeded at once to dose him with quinine, hot whisky and other notable remedies while Melissa telephoned for the doctor and Mr. Bingle.

"Don't you think I'd better send for Dr. Smith, on the first floor, Uncle Joe?" said Mrs. Bingle nervously.

"I want Dr. Fiddler," growled the old man. "I won't have anybody else, Mary. He's the only doctor in New York. Well, why are you standing there like a fence-post? Can't you see I'm sick? Can't you see I need a doctor? Can't--"

"I only thought that perhaps Dr. Smith could do something to relieve you before Dr. Fiddler arrives. You should not forget that Dr. Fiddler is a great man and a--a busy one. He may not be able to come at once, and in that case--"

"He'll come the minute you send for him," argued the sick man. "Didn't he say he would? Do you want me to die like a dog? Where's Tom?"

"He is at the bank, Uncle Joe," said Mrs. Bingle patiently. "Now, try to be quiet, we'll have the doctor here as quickly as possible."

"I don't want any of your half-grown doctors, Mary, understand that. I want a real one. I'm a mighty sick man, and--"

"You'll be all right in a day or two, Uncle Joe," said she soothingly. "Don't worry, you poor old dear. Drink this."

"What is it?"

"Never mind. It's good for you. Take it right down."

Uncle Joe surprised himself by swallowing the hot drink without further remonstrance. His own docility convinced him beyond all doubt that he was a very sick man.

"Send for Tom," he sputtered. "Send for him at once. He ought to be here. I am his uncle--his only uncle, and he--"

"Now, do be quiet, Uncle Joe. Tom will be here before long. It's Saturday, you know--a half holiday at the bank."

She sat down on the edge of the bed and gently stroked his hot forehead. For a short time he growled about the delay in getting the doctor to the apartment; then he became quietly watchful. His gaze settled upon the comely, troubled face of Tom Bingle's wife and, as he looked, his fierce old eyes softened.

"Mary," he said at last, and his voice was gentle, almost plaintive; "you are a real angel. I just want you to know that I love you and Tom, and I want you to tell me now that you forgive me for--for--"

"Sh! See if you can't go to sleep, Uncle Joe."

"I'd just like to hear you say that you don't hate me, Mary."

"Of course, I don't hate you. How can you ask such a question?"

"I've been a dreadful--"

"Hush, now. Here's Melissa. Did you get Dr. Fiddler, Melissa?"

"Yes, ma'am," said the little maid-of-all-work, appearing in the doorway with a couple of blankets that she had been warming behind the kitchen range. "He's coming at once, ma'am, and--" her eyes were expressive of an immense pity for her mistress--"he says he's prepared to stay all night if necessary, and he's sent for TWO nurses, night and day. Besides all that, his assistant is coming with him."

"That's the kind of a doctor to have," said Uncle Joe, with a vast satisfaction. "None of your cheap, dollar-a-visit incompetents for me, Mary. If a man's life is worth anything at all, it's worth more than a couple of one dollar visits from these--What's the matter with you, Melissa? Don't glare at me like that. Haven't I the right to live? Can't I ask for a doctor--a mere doctor--without being--"

"Oh, I ain't begrudgin' you a doctor, Uncle Joe," said Melissa shortly. "It's none of my business. You can have all the doctors in New York if you want 'em."

"I don't want 'em, confound you," exclaimed Uncle Joe. "I only want a fighting chance, that's all. I--"

"Nobody's fighting you, is they?" demanded Melissa, whipping a blanket across the bed with more energy than seemed necessary. She began tucking in the edges. "I guess we've always been pretty nice to you, Uncle Joe--every one of us--and I guess we'll keep on being nice to you, so don't growl."

"That's right, Melissa," said the sick man humbly. "You've been a jewel, my girl. I--I shall never forget you."

"I'm a soft-hearted fool or I'd ha'--" began Melissa, somewhat ominously, but checked herself after a quick glance at her mistress's face. "Try to go to sleep, Uncle Joe," she substituted. "I'll have some toast and tea for you when you wake up. You--you look as if you hadn't eat anything since you left, you poor old thing."

"I hope Tom didn't need his overcoat while I was away, Mary," said Uncle Joe, abruptly changing the topic of conversation.

(Illustration with caption: That's the kind of a doctor to have," said Uncle Joe)

"He has another coat," said Mrs. Bingle, evasively. "When you feel better you must tell us what you have been doing for the past--"

"I'm not going to feel any better," said Uncle Joe, quite cheerfully. "I may hang on for a long time but I'm not going to be any better. This is the finish for me, Mary. And I'd like you to know that I didn't come back here to die on your hands without first giving my children a chance to take me in. I--I tried them once more."

"You--you went to them again?" she cried. Melissa laid the second blanket across the bed more gently than the first.

"Yes," said Mr. Hooper, his thick eyebrows meeting in a scowl of anger. "Yes, I talked with all three of them this morning before I came here. I told them that I was sick and--and--" He choked up suddenly as Mrs. Bingle began to pat his lean old knuckles with her soft, warm hand.

"I wouldn't talk about it if I were you, Uncle Joe."

"But I--I want to talk about it," he said, with an effort. "First I wrote a nice, kind letter to each one of them. Then I called them up on the telephone and told them all how sick I was, that I couldn't last much longer, that I didn't want to die in the street, or a charity hospital, or--the police station. That confounded Christmas Carol of yours made me relent. I read the thing the other night after you went to bed. They all asked me where I was and said they would send an ambulance to take me to Bellevue, and that was the best they could do for me. After the holidays, when they had a little more time, they might possibly send me to a sanitarium if I--if I showed any signs of improvement. That was all there was to it, Mary. I told them-- each one of 'em--that I washed my hands of them, and they could all go to the devil. They won't do it, of course. People like that never go to the devil for the simple reason that the devil hasn't anything to offer them that they don't already possess. And so, Mary, I came back here to see if you'd take me in. You and Tom have been my best, my only real friends, and I--I thought you'd give me another chance. If you feel even now that I am going to be too much bother and expense, I'll get out. I'll go to a hospital and--"

"Not another word, Uncle Joe," said Mary Bingle, and she kissed his grim old cheek. "Not another word."

"Thank you, Mary, thank you for that. I--I was just wondering whether you could stand all of the expense and--"

Melissa broke in sharply: "Of course, we can. My wages can go over till--"

"And you will not turn me out?" whispered Uncle Joe, his eyes shining.

"Never!" said Mrs. Bingle.

"Never!" said the maid-of-all-work.

Mr. Hooper turned over on his side and was strangely quiet after that. His nephew came home at three and found himself confronted by two nurses, two doctors and a cabman who was waiting in the hallway for his fare. It seemed that Uncle Joe had driven home in a cab, and being somewhat uncertain as to the duration of his stay in the apartment of his nephew, instructed the fellow to wait, which the fellow did for a matter of more than three hours and was prepared to wait a good while longer unless he got his pay. Uncle Joe's forgetfulness cost Mr. Bingle six dollars and fifty cents, and he entered the sitting-room with a heart doubly sore. Of one thing he was uncomfortably certain: the nurses would cost fifty dollars a week and they would have to be paid on the dot. They were not like doctors, who could afford to wait. They were working for a living.

Mr. Bingle's salary at the bank was one hundred dollars a month. He was an expert accountant, but it did not require the intelligence of an expert to do the "sum" that presented itself for his hasty consideration. His small, jealously guarded account in the savings bank would be wiped out like a flash. And yet he entered the sick-room with a cheerful countenance and an unfaltering faith in the fitness of all things. He greeted his repentant Sindbad with such profound gladness and relief that one might well have believed him to be happy in having the burden restored to his frail shoulders.

"Well, well, here you are!" he cried, rubbing his cold hands vigorously before offering to grasp the bony old fingers that were extended to him. "Glad to see you back, Uncle Joe. Comfortable? Well, well, how are you?" He shook his uncle's hand warmly. "Sorry to see you laid up again, sir, but we'll have you as good as new in no time. Eh, doctor? As good as new, eh?"

Uncle Joe had nothing to say. He clung to his nephew's hand and smiled faintly.

Mr. Bingle looked puzzled. This was not like the Uncle Joe he had known. He sent a questioning glance toward the sober-faced doctor, and then sat down beside the bed, very much shaken by the news that came to him in the significant shake of Dr. Fiddler's head.

After many minutes had passed, Uncle Joe began to speak to his nephew. His voice was weak and the words came haltingly.

"Tom, you are a good boy--as good as gold. No, that isn't fair to you. You're better than gold. I honestly believe you like me, wretched and troublesome as I am. Your mother loved me, Tom. No one ever had a sister who loved a brother more than she loved me. Thank God, she died long before I came to this dreadful pass. She was spared seeing me as I am now. Well, I want to ask a last favour of you, nephew. I want you to see that I am buried beside your mother up at Syracuse. Just have a simple funeral, my boy. No fuss, no flowers, no singing. Then take me up to the old burying ground and--and I won't bother any one after that. I suppose it will cost you something to do it, but--but if you knew how much it will mean to me now if I have your promise to--"

"Sh!" whispered Mr. Bingle. "Don't talk of dying, Uncle Joe. Don't speak of graveyards while--"

"Will you promise? That's the question," said Uncle Joe stubbornly.

"Yes," said Mr. Bingle painfully; "when the time comes I'll lay you beside my mother. Don't worry about it, Uncle Joe."

"I hate to put you to the expense of--"

"Pooh!" said Mr. Bingle, as if the cost of the thing was the merest trifle to him.

"If I were to live for a thousand years, Tom, I could never find the means to adequately compensate you and Mary for the joy and comfort you have given me at so great a cost to yourselves. By dying, I may be able to make your load lighter, so I am going to die as quickly as the doctor will allow me to do so."

He died at nine o'clock that night. The next day Mr. Bingle notified his three children that he was taking their father to Syracuse for burial, and that if they chose to do so they could come to the apartment late that afternoon for the brief funeral service. Geoffrey, speaking for his sisters as well as for himself, expressed regret that poor Tom had been saddled with certain annoyances and inconvenience in connection with the late Joseph Hooper, and that they, as a family, would be pleased to assume the cost of his funeral, provided Tom would present an itemized statement on his return from Syracuse, covering all legitimate expenses not only in connection with the funeral but also anything that may have arisen during his most recent illness.

And Mr. Bingle, without consulting his wife, informed Geoffrey that he was quite able to meet all of the expenses without aid from "the family" and that he preferred to have nothing more said about the matter. Whereupon Geoffrey told him to go ahead and do as he pleased about it, and hung up the telephone receiver.

Greatly to the amazement and relief of the Bingles, Dr. Fiddler insisted on paying all of the funeral expenses, including the railroad fare of the two mourners to and from Syracuse. Moreover, he calmly announced that he would not accept a penny from Mr. Bingle for services rendered the sick man.

"Mary," said Mr. Bingle, on the way back to New York after the interment in Syracuse, "if everybody in this world was as good as Dr. Fiddler, what a happy place it would be. Just think of it! He gave all of his time, all of his experience--everything--and now refuses to take a cent from me. It isn't everybody who is as easy on the poor as that man is, my dear. He is a--a real nobleman."

Mrs. Bingle had been thinking too. "Well, I dare say he makes up for it by being a little harder on the rich every time he finds it necessary to be easy on the poor," she said cryptically.

"What do you mean?"

"Nothing," she said, ashamed of her estimate of the good doctor. "I shouldn't have said that."

"I insist on an explanation."

"Well, if you must have it, I'll bet he gets even somehow. I'd hate to be his next patient if I was rich enough to call him in to attend me."

"I am surprised at you, Mary," said Mr. Bingle, and his expression convinced her that he really was.

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