Saving Uncle Marmaduke by John Eugene Hasty

Illustration by W. Andrews for the short story Saving Uncle Marmaduke. A seated old man and a bespectacled younger man clenching his fist are looking at a table with a candle on it as a seance is performed.
"All of a sudden there came from it three short raps."

A short story by John Eugene Hasty from Radio magazine, September 1925

You know, I rather think there might be something in what these philosopher gents say about the darkest hour coming before the dawn. Of course, I imagine that dawn has been following the darkest hour for so many years that it's quite a habit with it by this time; but what I mean to say is that when a fellow gets in a bad jam and then up pops some friend to rally around him in the time of need, it sort of brings home the truth. Here I was facing the disagreeable experience of starving to death -- or what is worse, having to go to work -- when Bill Curtiss drifts into the picture, and … But maybe I had better start at the beginning.

Curtiss is one of these amateur radio sharks, you know. We'd always been more or less chummy, having both been turned out of the same school -- Curtiss with a diploma and I with a reprimand from the dean; so when I decided to become one of the great audience of radiocast listeners, he volunteered to run down to the old homestead and give me some top hole advice as to whether I ought to get a superiodine or a degenerative set. Then this other affair broke loose; and for the time being I forgot all about him.

I was in my room at the club, restoring old tissues with a bit of the pure and unadulterated dreamless, when the telephone rang. Feeling more or less of a blank, I jerked myself out of the downy couch and groped through the cold, gray dawn to the phone. It was my sister Ruth calling. Just what she was doing in the city at that ghastly hour, I couldn't quite fathom; but finally it began to percolate through the old bean that she was all upset about something and wanted me to meet her at breakfast at the St. Francis. One thing about Ruth: when she makes up her mind about a thing, you might just as well give up the struggle. I mean to say that she's firm. Adamantine. The old rock of Gibraltar and that sort of thing. So an hour later, I was sitting across the table from her, waiting for the news. It wasn't long in coming.

"Reggie," she said, after the waiter had taken our order and had toddled out to the kitchen for a game of checkers with the cook, "Reggie, what would you call a man who hid behind a woman's skirt?"

"In view of the present styles," I peeped, "I'd call him a magician. But if you've got any more riddles, save 'em until later in the day. Right now I'm a bit thick."

"Perhaps you' re not too thick to get this," she came back. "You and I are just about to lose every cent we possess. Uncle Marmaduke …. "

"What!" I shouted. "You don't mean to say he's mixed up with another chorus girl?"

"Worse than that. This time it's a medium."

"Medium?" I repeated, "Referring to a steak?"

"Don't be an ass, Reggie, I'm talking about a spiritualist medium -- Mrs. Hoagworth, the new housekeeper. Of course, you know about her."

"I don't," I breathed, all aquiver, "tell me."

She did, to considerable length. It seemed that this estimable Mrs. Hoagworth is a spook sister; one of these ladies who pals around with ghosts, and goes in for table rapping, slate writing and messages from the great beyond. According to Ruth, she's jolly well succeeded in getting Uncle Marmaduke all wrapped up in the subject, and has put in a direct leased wire to the spirit world in order to give him all the advance tips.

"It's positively outrageous the way he follows that woman's advice," Ruth went on, "Absolutely hides himself behind her skirts; won't do anything or say anything without first asking Mrs. Hoagworth what the spirits have to say about it. And lately, mind you, she's been teaching him how to receive spirit messages on his own hook."

"Oh, well, it could be worse," I said, champing on a piece of toast which the waiter had just brought in, "It's certain that any communications he might have with the spirits won't turn up as Exhibit A for the plaintiff in a breach-of-promise suit. If the old boy gets any fun out of it, let him proceed. I'd say it was. all quite harmless."

"Harmless!" Ruth snapped, "Harmless! Do you know what the spirits have been advising him to do? Why, to turn over the entire Rockford-Peebles estate to the spiritualist cause, which means to Mrs. Hoagworth. If that woman succeeds with her plot, you and I will be left without a penny. We'll be paupers. And yet you can sit there calmly eating your breakfast, and say it's harmless."

Of course, that was a horse with a different face -- as the expression goes. I mean to say that after having been raised in the lap of luxury so to speak, it's a bit muggy to be informed that you appear to be a winning candidate for the bread line.

"But-but what am I going to do about it?" I stammered, gulping down the toast.

"You're going home with me," Ruth said, "and you're going to stay there until you've rescued Uncle Marmaduke from that old dragon's clutches. The car is waiting for us outside. Here, waiter, let us have the check; never mind the coffee. Come on, Reggie."

That's the kind of a girl Ruth is. I mean to say firm. Righto!

Being a light hearted and carefree chap who loves to revel among the bright lights, I usually find our country place a bit depressing. On this particular day, it seemed even more so. The lawn was overgrown with rank grass, the hedges needed trimming, and there was a sort of a run-down, gloomy air about the place which reminded me of the old mansion in the book where they break in and find the body of the eccentric millionaire who had been struck over the head with a blunt instrument by parties unknown.

"What, Ho!" I said to Ruth, "The home of my happy boyhood days has a lean and hungry look. What's wrong -- gardeners on a strike?"

"Uncle Marmaduke has discharged all the servants, excepting the cook," she informed me, "It was the will of the spirits."

Inside of the house, things were just as bad: dust over everything, the blinds drawn, and the place so deucedly quiet that it gave a chap an uncomfortable, creepy feeling between the shoulder blades. When I heard a step on the upper landing, I leaped like a frightened young gazelle. Looking up, I saw a large, solid female coming down the stairs. I judged it was Mrs. Hoagworth. I can't say there was anything spiritual about her. Rather beefy, in fact. The sort of a woman who looked as if she might he dangerous to the chap who would try to thwart her. She didn't say anything; but before she disappeared into the library, she shot me a grim, forbidding glance. It made me feel as if I were something the dog had dug up and brought into the parlor. I mean to say it seemed that she resented my being there; and was just biding her time to slip a slug of poison into my coffee.

The whole business was getting on my nerves. Somehow I caught myself tiptoeing about as if there had been a death in the family. If there had been anyone about to talk to, I would have probably spoken in a whisper. But there wasn't. Ruth had gone to her room; Uncle Marmaduke was taking his afternoon nap; and the Hoagworth woman had vanished somewhere in the rear of the house. Finally, the afternoon dragged itself out; and Ruth came down to dinner. Uncle Marmaduke had a tray sent up to his room; so Ruth and I ate by ourselves by candle light. The electric current had been shut off -- another idea which had been passed on to Uncle Marmaduke from the spirit world.

Right after dinner, I decided that if there were any rescuing to be done, it had better be done with dispatch; so I toddled up the stairs and knocked at Uncle Marmaduke's door. For a minute or so, there was nothing but silence; then I heard him tell me to come in -- in one of those sad, faint voices that sound like the bleat of a far-off sheep. I opened the door and oozed in. Even in the candlelight, I could see that the poor old chap was pretty far gone. He was huddled up in an armchair by the fireplace, looking pale and wan, as the poets say.

"Cheerio, Unc," I said, in my sprightliest manner, "What's wrong? The old liver out of joint? What!"

He gave me a cold, fish-like hand, and wearily waived me to a seat before replying.

"I'm afraid I'm not long for this world, Reggie."

"Oh, nonsense," I retorted, "You're quite long enough. Five feet, nine inches, if I remember correctly; or is it five feet, ten?"

But the wisecrack didn't register with him at all. He continued to stare off into space and to speak in a solemn, crushed voice.

"I've been a wicked man in my day, Reggie, a very wicked man. I must make amends before I pass on; and the time of my passing is not far off -- no, it is not far off."

"Oh, you haven't been so bad," I said, comfortingly, "Of course, that affair you had with the chorus girl was a bit of a mess; but by and large, I 'd say you would stack up just about par. There's been lots of chaps much worse than you: Jessie James or Gyp the Blood, for instance. Besides, who has been giving you all the inside dope about your passing?"

"The spirits!" He said it with a soft, sliding sound, biting the word off quickly at the end and then continuing with a hollow-voiced sing-song effect. "The spirits, Reggie. They come to me in the quiet of the night. Rapping, rapping, gently rapping. Revealing what is to be. Guiding and advising me. And always-always they say, 'Purify yourself of all wealth. Remove the taint of earthly gain. The time of your passing approaches.' They say it over and over again -- over and over again."

I say, you know, that sort of thing in a dimly lighted room is likely to make a chap's nerves crawl; but I managed to keep myself bucked up.

"Rot! You've got a plain case of heebie-jeebies. Get out the old golf clubs, play eighteen holes with me tomorrow, and you'll feel better. This spirit business is the …"

I was about to say, "the bunk," But just then something happened that positively made my spine curl. In the center of the room stood a small table. All of a sudden, there came from it three distinct raps. For a moment, I just sat there with my mouth open, and the little shivers frolicking up and down my back.

"The spirits," Uncle Marmaduke whispered, "The spirits, signaling a message."

It was all quiet for an interval, so quiet that I could hear Uncle Marmaduke breathing through his nose like an acrobat getting ready to do a stiff trick. Then the table began rapping again, very slowly-- rat-tat tat-tat-tat. I saw Uncle Marmaduke writing something in a notebook which he took out of his dressing robe pocket. The table kept up the rapping for a minute or two; then stopped.

"The spirit message," Uncle Marmaduke said, handing me his note book. He had written on one of the pages, "Beware of evil influences, Free yourself from the taint of earthly gain. The time of your passing cometh soon."

I've read that chaps, whom Fate. has given the old K.O., have a habit of picking themselves up and piecing themselves together again, so to speak. There's a lot to it. I know, because that's just what I did -- or, at least, tried to do. After the seance in Uncle Marmaduke's room, I felt pretty shaky. I mean to say that the full horror of the thing rolled over me. A fellow can put up a scrap against another fellow; but I ask you, what can he do against a ghost? Absolutely nothing. Right!

But the next morning with the merry sunshine pouring through the windows, I began to feel different about it, sort of got myself together. Here, says I, is a chance to exercise the old bean. Solve the mystery of the rapping table, and win a fortune. I t was worth trying.

So when I heard Uncle Marmaduke go down to breakfast, I gumshoed into his room for a bit of sleuthing. Naturally, my first hunch was that the knocking was produced by strings or wires attached to the table. But there weren't any. I studied the table, moved it about, went over every inch of it with an eagle eye for clues. All minus. The table looked just about like maybe a million other tables I had seen. The thing had me fairly stymied.

Worse than that, it meant I was doomed to be thrust out into the cruel world without even a crust upon which to rest my weary head. I mean to say that the future looked pretty black for the younger generation of the Rockford-Peebles family. No question that Uncle Marmaduke was thoroughly sold on the spirit messages; and it was only a matter of time until he revamped his will as per the spirits' directions. I could close my eyes and see Mrs. Hoagworth, grim and cruel, clutching the deed to the property in one hand while she ordered Ruth and I out of the house with the other.

Feeling pretty low, I dragged myself downstairs, and went out in the garden to puzzle the thing out. There was a Ford car parked in front of the house; and coming up the walk was Bill Curtiss. He looked as fresh and fit as a dew-covered violet. Somehow, the very sight of him seemed to steady the old nerve centers, gave me new born confidence, as it were.

"I say, Bill," I shouted, rushing at him pell-mell and grasping his hand like a drowning man grasps the well known straw, "how in blazes did you happen to drop in?"

"Why," he said, looking a bit ruffled, "I seem to have the impression that you invited me down for the weekend to give you some advice on radio sets."

"So I did! I So I did!" I chortled, dragging him up to the porch, "But sit down; I've got something else on my mind. What do you know about these people who put you In touch with spirits?"

"You mean bootleggers?"

"No, no; spiritualists, mediums."

"Not very much. Why?"

I told him, unburdened my bruised nd bleeding soul to him, so to speak. He listened attentively until I had finished the whole harrowing tale.

"Is your uncle's housekeeper present when these spirit manifestations take place?" he asked.

"No. I mean she wasn't around last night, anyway. Not a sign of her."

"You say you examined the table carefullv?"

"Righto! It's just an ordinary table, been in the family for years."

"Does your uncle, when he is communicating with the spirits, ask questions which the table answers?"

"No, the table seems to do all the talking. I mean to say it raps out messages like, like …"

"Like a telegraph instrument?

"Yes, by Jove, that' s it exactly, just like a telegraph instrument. Unc takes the messages down in a little book."

"Hmm, I wonder if there's any chance of my sitting in on a seance; I'd like to see the table perform. Perhaps you can palm me off as being somewhat of a medium myself."

"What, Ho! There's a brainy thought," I said, jumping up, "we can't get ruled out for trying, anyway. Come along, I'll speak to the old boy about it."

"Wait a minute," he answered," I want to get something out of my bag. And by the way, Reggie, let me borrow your wristwatch for a while."

"What for?" I asked, unstrapping the watch and handing it to him.

"Never mind. Tell you later."

He ran out to his car, fussed around for a moment getting something out of his bag, and was back on the porch in a jiffy.

"All right, Reggie, my boy, lead the way."

We found Uncle Marmaduke in the library with Mrs. Hoagworth. She was talking to him in low tones, but cut her conversation off sharply as we entered.

"Here's good news, Unc," I said, "Meet Professor Bill Curtiss, world-famous medium, the man whose remarkable psychic powers have baffled the scientists of two continents."

Uncle Marmaduke smiled weakly and bowed; but the Hoagworth woman sat bolt upright in her chair and gave me another hard look. I pretended not to notice it, however, and babbled on. "I was just telling the prof about your table rapping stunt, and he says that's kindergarten stuff. He can make it do a song and dance. Eh, professor?"

"I'm afraid your nephew overestimates my ability," Curtiss said, smiling, "I'm merely a student of the occult, and would appreciate attending one of your seances."

"He doesn't hold seances," the Hoagworth woman interrupted.

"Oh, I beg your pardon," Curtiss said smoothly, "No doubt, I misunderstood the facts. If Reggie, here, were simply boasting, why … "

Sunken into the depths as he was, Uncle Marmaduke had still retained a few drops of the old Rockford-Peebles sporting blood. I mean to say that what Curtiss said rather cut him. His face went red, and he completely disregarded the warning glance which Mrs. Hoagworth shot at him.

"I make no claim at being a medium," he said testily, "but if the spirits see fit to communicate with me, I see no reason why you shouldn't witness the phenomenon."

I started to shout, "bravo," but changed it into a cough when I caught the expression on Mrs. Hoagworth's face. I've seen the same look on some of the wild animals at the zoo; a sort of oh-if-I could -only-get-at-you-for-about-a-minute effect.

"The spirits seldom manifest themselves at this time of day," she said.

"Indeed?" Curtiss replied, giving it the rising inflection, "Then perhaps we'd better not disturb them. Frankly, I had my doubts regarding the matter, anyway."

This was too much for Uncle Marmaduke.

"See here, young man," he fumed, "I'll have you to understand that my nephew told you the truth. Come up to my room and I'll prove it." He turned to Mrs. Hoagworth, and went on in a wheedling voice. "There can't be any harm in it. Why don't you join us?"

"I'll have nothing to do with it," she said frostily.

She arose, swept out of the library and up the stairs, with the rest of us following along behind to Uncle Marmaduke's room. In the light of day, it wasn't so dashed spooky. In fact, I was beginning to get quite a kick out of the affair. We waited for about five minutes, and then the table signaled a message. Rat-tat-tat. It was followed by a pause, and, at length, a prolonged rapping. When the knocking finally stopped, Curtiss roused himself from his seat near the table.

"A remarkable psychic demonstration," he said, "Did I understand you to say that you had no control over these spirit manifestations?"

Uncle Marmaduke nodded. "I haven't anything to do with it. Whenever the spirits have a message for me, they knock on the table. Mrs. Hoagworth taught me how to translate the rappings. You see, the various knocks stand for different letters of the alphabet. For instance, one short knock followed by one long one stand for the letter A."

"Yes, I . understand that," Curtiss answered, "In fact, I was able to translate the message. It was, 'Put not your faith in false prophets; for they shall vanish away!' I've had considerable experience with these kind of spirit messages myself."

"You don't tell me?" he said, perking up in his chair.

"Yes, indeed," Curtiss went on, "and what's more, I can usually control the spirits; make them give me messages whenever I'm in the mood. If you'll excuse me for a moment while I run down to my car, I'll be glad to conduct a seance right now."

By this time, Uncle Marmaduke was so tickled that he was twisting about like an electric fan. "Oh, by all means! I would be delighted, positively delighted. And so will Mrs. Hoagworth, I'm sure. I'll send for her."

But he didn't have to send. Curtiss had hardly left the room when in popped Mrs. Hoagworth, her face the color of a bottle of ketchup.

"See here," she shouted, "what's the idea of letting this bum put on a seance? Let this bunk artist pull any of his tricks around here, and I warn you, you'll regret it."

"I can't see why the seance should have any serious consequences. What is there to warn me about?"

"There's this," she hissed, "The minute this smart Alec starts his tomfoolery in this room, it means that the our of your passing is at hand. Just think that over."

With that, she turned and bounced out of the room, slamming the door behind her.

Uncle Marmaduke turned a bit pale; but there's no denying that the old boy was game. H e didn't even flicker an eyelash when Curtiss returned, bringing with him a couple of dry cells, a coil of wire, a push button and a little oblong box, all of which he placed on the bureau.

"Before we start the seance," he began, "I want to explain my interest in this table of yours. It is the only spirit table I know of which transmits messages in Morse code. When Reggie told me about it, I was so fascinated that I decided to try a little experiment. I borrowed Reggie's wrist strap, took out the watch, and inserted a compass in its place." He took off the wrist strap, handed it to Uncle Marmaduke, and went on, "Ordinarily, the hand of the compass points north and south. But when the compass is brought into an electromagnetic field, the hand points in the direction of the electromagnet. I noticed that it did that very thing during the time you were receiving the spirit message; that is, instead of pointing north and south, it pointed toward the table."

"But-but what has all that to do with the spirits?" Uncle Marmaduke inquired, fidgeting about like a small boy waiting for dessert.

"I'm coming to that," Curtiss resumed, "just have patience. Now there's another little device which is also affected by electromagnetic waves. It is called a coherer; and it consists of a glass tube filled with particles of iron between two solid electrodes. These particles of iron offer resistance to an electric current under normal conditions, but when they are brought into the presence of electromagnetic waves, they cohere, and allow the current to pass through. The result is that you can transmit signals between two points without the aid of connecting wires. In fact, the coherer is one of the earliest radio receiving devices. To demonstrate …"

He had been hooking up the dry cells to the oblong box as he spoke. Now he did something to the push button. There was a series of shrill buzzes and the snapping of electric sparks. But what bowled me over, so to speak, was that the table was rapping with every buzz coming from the oblong box. Uncle Marmaduke fairly bounded from his chair.

"What's that?" he gargled, "What does this mean, sir?"

"It means," Curtiss said calmly, "that if you search Mrs. Hoagworth's room, you'll probably find just about the same equipment which I have here: a spark coil, a battery, and a push button or telegraph key. Moreover, if you'll remove the top of the table, you'll find a coherer arranged so that the hammer of the bell strikes against a hollow wooden block. I'll pay for the table just for the satisfaction of proving that I'm right."

He snatched up a poker which stood by the fireplace, and whacked it across the table, splitting the top. Sure enough, concealed in a little partition just underneath the broken top, was a couple of dry cells and the apparatus he had described.

"Why, sir," Uncle Marmaduke roared, "Mrs. Hoagworth has been sending me all these messages herself! I see it all now! It's a fake! I've been deceived!"

"It's 'a fake, all right," Curtiss said with a grin, "but you haven't exactly been deceived. I'd say that the table gave you some rather reliable advice. Didn't it warn you against false prophets, and didn't it tell you they would vanish away? Well, if you'll just glance out of the window, you'll see Mrs. Hoagworth vanishing down the road."

John Eugene Hasty (1894-1974) was an American detective fiction writer who wrote a three-novel series about a California cop and World War II veteran named Rick Gillis: The Man Without a Face (1958), Angel with Dirty Wings (1961) and Some Mischief Still (1963). He also was a radio writer and producer.

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