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The Grub-And-Stakers Pinch A Poke
By Charlotte MacLeod
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1988 Charlotte MacLeod
All rights reserved.
"WHAT THE HECK DO we need Sarah Bernhardt's Sunday bustle for?" demanded Zilla Trott.
"There's nothing here about Sarah Bernhardt's bustle," said Dittany Henbit Monk. As secretary to the trustees of the Aralia Polyphema Architrave Museum and also to the Grub-and-Stake Gardening and Roving Club into whose collective hands had fallen the task of managing the museum, Dittany had dealt with a wide range of correspondence. This letter opened up a new vista. "It just says theatrical memorabilia."
"Huh! Signed photographs of Ivor Novello and a lock of Rudy Vallee's hair, I'll bet." Hazel Munson was on a diet, therefore inclined to take the darker view.
"Oh, for Pete's sake have a cookie and quit grumping," said Minerva Oakes. "Rudy Vallee had gorgeous hair. Come on, Dittany. Let's hear the rest of the letter before we get down to the wrangling."
"Well, as I said, it's from Desdemona Portley on behalf of the Traveling Thespians. You know how hard she's worked to keep the troupe together, but things haven't been the same with them since Mum married Bert and went into the fashion eyewear business."
"I'll bet the fashion eyewear business hasn't been the same, either," said Dot Coskoff, who'd once played the former Mrs. Henbit's bosom friend in a souped-up production of Anne of Green Gables. "Skip Dessie's maunderings, she always did go on and on. What's the gist?"
"The gist is that Jenson Thorbisher-Freep and his daughter Wilhedra are trying to get up a drama festival over at Scottsbeck. They want to restore the old opera house and make it a center of cultural vibration for the citizens of Scottsbeck and surrounding communities of which, as Dessie points out in some detail, Lobelia Falls is one."
"As if we didn't know," sniffed Dot. "Cultural vibration sounds like a pretty shaky proposition to me. Is she trying to hit us up for a donation?"
"I expect she means vibrancy and not exactly a donation," Dittany replied. "She wants us to participate."
"Participate how?" Zilla shook her head till her thick short gray hair stood out like a Sioux war bonnet, though in fact she was mostly Cree. "Are we supposed to dance in the chorus?"
"Why not?" chirped Minerva. "My varicose veins are no worse than Dessie's."
"And your teeth are a darn sight better," Zilla conceded loyally.
"Look," snarled Dittany. "Do you want to hear this or don't you?"
"Offhand I'd say no," snapped Hazel Munson, "but go ahead and get it over with. Desdemona Portley wants us to be in some play she's getting up for the Thorbisher-Freeps, is that it?"
"Not precisely, eh. The thing of it is, the Thorbisher-Freeps expect the different groups to produce their own plays. Dessie's asking us to write the play, paint the scenery, provide costumes and props, fill whatever parts the Traveling Thespians don't have enough actors for, and sell lemonade and cookies between the acts on behalf of the Opera House Fund."
"Nope, that seems to be it. The plum in the pudding is that whichever group puts on the best performance wins the Jenson Thorbisher-Freep collection of theatrical memorabilia."
"You already said that, and what's so plummy?" Zilla argued. "What would we do with a bunch of false whiskers and old theater programs?"
"We'd be expected to keep the collection intact and on permanent display either at the opera house or in some appropriate public building," Dittany explained. "Like for instance the Architrave."
"We do still have that little back bedroom over the kitchen to fill up," Minerva pointed out.
"Yes, but would that be the right kind of stuff to fill it with?" asked Hazel. "The Architrave's supposed to represent a typical Canadian house of the post-prairie settling period, you know."
"Couldn't it be the typical home of some Canadian who collected theatrical memorabilia?" Dittany argued. "Anyway, if we decide we don't want the collection, we can always let the opera house keep it."
"What do you mean we?" yelped Hazel. "You're not proposing we stick our necks out again?"
"We always do, don't we?" Dot Coskoff pointed out. "We did use to have a lot of fun at the Traveling Thespians, I must say."
"I didn't," said Dittany. "I always got stuck with the tiny toddler parts."
"That's because you were a tiny toddler at the time," Dot reminded her. Dittany was still roughly a quarter of a century younger than any of her fellow trustees, and indeed always would be unless one of them resigned from the board and somebody's daughter stepped in. Dot didn't go into all that, but merely added, "I suppose Dessie expects Arethusa to write the play."
Arethusa Monk, the one absent trustee, was renowned far and wide as a well-nigh indefatigable author of roguish regency romances. She'd been off queening it at the Moonlight and Roses convention in New York all the past week, but would be back tomorrow.
"Why can't Arethusa and Osbert write it together?" Minerva suggested amiably.
Dittany blanched at the mere thought. At this very moment, as she entertained her colleagues on tea and molasses cookies with crinkly edges around the kitchen table where they always tended to collect regardless of any previous alternative plans, she could hear her husband's typewriter galloping merrily down some far-off arroyo.
Osbert Reginald Monk, better known to his legions of clear-eyed, clean-cut readers as Lex Laramie, was by nature the mildest and sunniest young man any woman could want to be married to. Dittany herself, who was surely in a position to know, had often declared him a woolly baa-lamb with fur-lined booties on. She could think of only one thing that might turn her loving husband into a howling, ravening berserker; and that one thing would be to collaborate with his Aunt Arethusa on anything at all. The thought of having to ride herd on the pair of them while they turned out a full-length play gave Dittany the kind of feeling that Sergeant MacVicar, Lobelia Falls's dauntless defender of law and order, would describe as a cauld grue. She spoke her mind in no uncertain terms. Minerva only shrugged.
"Then Osbert had better hurry up and write the play himself before Arethusa gets back. I personally don't see why we shouldn't give Desdemona Portley a helping hand. She'll never get anywhere with that gang of deadheads she's working with now, and heaven knows they could use a little culture over at Scottsbeck. Besides, Mr. Glunck was saying only yesterday that it mightn't be a bad idea to get more variety into our exhibits."
After having made the spectacular mistake of hiring a curator with a wife, the trustees had selected Mr. Glunck as his successor primarily because Mr. Glunck was a widower. Fortunately, he'd also turned out to be an able and likeable curator. The funding problem they'd faced in trying to run the Architrave had been solved by their selling one artifact so valuable that they could never have put it on exhibition without hopelessly expensive round-the-clock security. An expert replica kept its memory green, and a pamphlet describing the romantic way in which the museum had acquired the original was now on sale and bringing in a pleasant amount of added revenue.
What with one thing and another, the Architrave was gaining a reputation as one of Ontario's finer small museums and being mentioned in some of the more recent tourist guides. On the strength of what the Grub-and-Stakers had already accomplished, it wasn't too surprising that once the initial "Oh gosh, not again" feeling had abated, their chosen representatives had begun to think seriously about acquiring the Jenson Thorbisher-Freep collection, whatever it might consist of. That brought up an interesting question.
"I know the Thorbisher-Freeps live over in Scottsbeck; in that big green house with the chartreuse and canary trimmings between the bandstand and the burying ground, but who are they?" Dittany asked. "I mean, how come Jenson's collection is so important?"
Everybody looked at everybody else. Then Minerva exclaimed, "Wait a minute, eh. Wasn't there a piece about him in the Scottsbeck Sunday Semaphore a while back?"
"That's right," Zilla confirmed. "My lifelong love affair with the stage, he called it. Jenson wanted to be an actor, but he was too rich to tread the boards professionally because his family owned all those copper mines. So he built a private theater and put on amateur performances. When he got sick of that, he went to New York to be an angel."
Dot Coskoff sniffed. "I suppose he figured they could use a few down there."
"I don't mean the harp-and-halo kind. Freep was one of those angels who cough up money to put on big shows because they're sweet on the leading lady. He married an actress or two or three, then I expect he got smart and realized they were just playing him for a sucker. Anyway, he quit angeling and just traveled around going to different theaters. But he never went overseas because he's scared of flying and gets seasick on a ship. Anyway, Freep claimed to know all the big stars from way back, so maybe this collection amounts to something, after all. I wish I'd kept that paper, but how was I to know?"
"We could go over to the Scottsbeck library and look it up," said Hazel. "They keep them all on file."
"Or I could phone Dessie and try to get a little sense out of her," Dot offered.
"Why don't we just call up this Freep man and ask him?" Minerva suggested.
Dittany sighed. "Why don't you all button up and let me finish this letter? Where was I? Oh yes the play has to be about some aspect of Canadian life in an earlier time. What does he mean by an earlier time, I wonder?"
"When they were putting the railroad through?" Hazel's great-grandfather had run the first 4-4-0 engine through Kicking Horse Pass.
"And slaughtering the buffalo," snorted Zilla, her Indian blood beginning to simmer as it often did. "There's a plot for you."
"We can't slaughter a stageful of buffalo," Dittany objected, "even if we could get hold of any."
"We might tie horns and a hump on that so-called dog of yours. Ethel's probably part buffalo anyway, from the look of her."
She might well be, but Dittany was not going to stand for any rude levity about the quasi-canine partner of her youthful joys and sorrows. "Ethel is not going to be a buffalo, and that's final. Let's see if Osbert has any ideas."
No real necromancy was involved in Osbert's appearing as she uttered his name. The psychic bond between the Monks was strong and besides, he'd quit pounding his typewriter a moment ago. Osbert's cowlick was sticking straight up and his shirttail hung half out of his trousers. It must have been a rough afternoon around the old corral.
"Howdy, ladies," was his greeting. "Any tea left in the pot, pardner?"
"Haul up an' set, Old Paint." Dittany couldn't resist putting out a loving hand to smooth down his cowlick. "We were just talking about you."
"Oh?" Baa-lamb though he might be, Osbert had learned to be wary of such casual wifely remarks. "Dittany, if it's about moving those fifty-seven folding chairs back to the library meeting room—"
"No, dear." That had been the time the Boy Scouts were supposed to help out and their leader, who was in love with a sergeant in the Salvation Army, had gone off with her to prayer meeting and forgotten to let the troop know they had a good deed to do.
"Or running the slide projector—"
That had been when somebody stacked the slide holders wrong side up before the lecture and Osbert hadn't noticed quite soon enough. Before he could add to his litany of objections, Dittany intervened.
"Darling, you know I promised never to ask you to do any of those things again. We simply want you to write a play."
"Oh. Then I suppose I—"
Osbert had picked up one of the few remaining molasses cookies and begun to bite the crinkles off its edges. Now he reared back and glared at the cookie as if it had retaliated by taking a snap at him. "Did you say write a play?"
"It's either you or Arethusa, dear. Unless you'd prefer to work as a team?"
Osbert quit glaring at the cookie and glared at his wife instead. "Dittany, are you trying to be funny?"
"No, precious. I'm simply trying to lead up gently to the fact that we need a play written rather quickly so that we can win the Jenson Thorbisher-Freep collection for the Architrave."
Osbert turned his attention back to the cookie. "What kind of play?"
"A play about earlier times in Canada."
"Which earlier times?"
"Any earlier times, I guess. It's supposed to capture the dauntless spirit of our hardy forebears. At least that's what she's got written here."
"Desdemona Portley, an old friend of my mother's. She's trying to revive the Traveling Thespians."
"So they can compete in a drama festival over at Scottsbeck. Mr. Thorbisher-Freep's offering his collection as bait so he can use the ticket money to renovate the old opera house into a center of culture."
"What makes him think Scottsbeck wants culture? They've already got six barrooms and a high-class cocktail lounge."
"That's why they need culture, darling, so everybody won't just sit around guzzling beer."
"They don't just sit around guzzling beer. They also guzzle whiskey, gin, vodka, rum, or peppermint schnapps, as the case may be. And they carry on profound intellectual discussions."
"Hockey, mostly. Were you planning to pour me some tea?"
"Osbert Monk, answer me. Are you planning to write us a play? Or are you going to let Arethusa write it, and find yourself being forced to act the role of a snuff-sniffing, garter- stapping regency buck from Saskatoon?"
"Dittany, you jest!"
"Here's your tea, sweetheart. Finish your cookie and mull it over."
Since Minerva, Zilla, Dot, Hazel, and the wife of his bosom were all eyeing him with the breathless expectancy of spectators at a balloon ascension, Osbert did not enjoy his tea. Rather he started out not enjoying it. Then the dreamy expression Dittany had come to know and respect stole over his comely features. His hazel eyes gazed not upon her, not upon the cookie, but toward some far horizon. The cowlick so recently smoothed down popped up again. He finished his cookie, helped himself to another, and began biting off the crinkles with confidence and determination.
"'A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon,'" he murmured somewhat crumbily.
"Hasn't something along those lines already been done?" Dot Coskoff ventured.
"That's exactly the point." Osbert's eyes were now alight, his blondish cowlick rampant. "We know what happened to Dan McGrew, but why? Who was that miner fresh from the creeks, dog-dirty and loaded for bear? How did he know Dan McGrew was a hound of hell, when they hadn't even been introduced? Why did the lady known as Lou kiss him as he died?"
"And pinch his poke," cried Dittany, all agog at this fresh insight into the stirring annals of Canadian literature. "More tea, darling?"
"Please, darling. Yes, ladies, the shooting of Dan McGrew is one of the great unsolved mysteries of the Yukon Territory. And we, by gum, are going to solve it."CHAPTER 2
NOW THAT HE'D GOT the bit between his teeth, Osbert took off like a one-man stampede. By feminine wiles, Dittany succeeded in getting him to stop for a bite of supper, but he was back to his typewriter at a brisk canter as soon as his plate was empty. He accepted a cup of cocoa at bedtime, but went on typing with one hand even as he quaffed the sustaining beverage.
"Go ahead up, darling," he said, giving his wife a cocoa-flavored kiss. "I'll be along."
But he wasn't. Dittany fell asleep to the clicking of the keys. Come morning, she was relieved to awaken with the head she loved to pat on the pillow beside her. Two heads, in fact. Ethel had sauntered in to drop a hint about breakfast. Dittany strove to quell the whining and tail-thumping on humanitarian grounds.
"Shh," she whispered. "Daddy needs his rest."
But Daddy was in no resting mood. Dittany had barely got the dog food into the basin and the tea into the pot when Osbert came leaping and bounding down the stairs like a particularly sprightly young mountain goat, grabbed a bundle of semi-legible pages off his typewriter stand, and hurtled into the kitchen.
"What do you think of my play, dear?"
"I'll know better when I've read it," Dittany replied. "You don't mean to tell me you've finished the whole thing?"
"Well, not exactly finished, but the rough draft will give you a general idea. Shall I pour the tea?"
Excerpted from The Grub-And-Stakers Pinch A Poke by Charlotte MacLeod. Copyright © 1988 Charlotte MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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