I was in the midst of the fourth draft of my doctorate thesis when Aunt Matilda’s telegram came. It could not have come at a worse time. The deadline for my thesis was four days away and there was a minimum of five days of hard work to do on it yet. I was working around the clock.
If it had been a telegram informing me of her death I could not have taken time out to attend the funeral. If it had been a telegram saying she was at death’s door I’m very much afraid I would have had to call the hospital and order them to keep her alive a few days longer.
Instead, it was a tersely worded appeal. ARTHUR STOP COME AT ONCE STOP AM IN TERRIBLE TROUBLE STOP DO NOT PHONE STOP AUNT MATILDA.
So there was nothing else for me to do. I laid the telegram aside and kept on working on my thesis. That is not as heartless as it might seem. I simply could not imagine Aunt Matilda in terrible trouble. The end of the world I could imagine, but not Aunt Matilda in trouble.
[Illustration: Wherever he went Arthur felt the power behind the lens.]
She was the classic flat-chested ageless spinster living alone in the midst of her dustless bric-a-brac and Spode in a frame house of the same vintage as herself at the edge of the classic small town of Sumac, near the southwest corner of Wisconsin. I had visited her for two days over a year ago, and she had looked exactly the same as she had when I stayed with her when I was six all summer, and there was no question but what she would some day attend my funeral when I died of old age, and she would still look the same as always.
There was no conceivable trouble of terrestrial origin that could touch her--or would want to. And, as it turned out, I was right in that respect.
I was right in another respect too. By finishing my thesis I became a Ph.D. on schedule, and if I had abandoned all that and rushed to Sumac the moment I received the telegram it could not have materially altered the outcome of things. And Aunt Matilda, hanging on the wall of my study, knitting things for the Red Cross, will attest to that.
You, of course, might argue about her being there. You might even insist that I am hanging on her wall instead. And I would have to agree with you, since it all depends on the point of view and as I sit here typing I can look up and see myself hanging on her wall.
But perhaps I had better begin at the beginning when, with my thesis behind me, I arrived on the 4:15 milk run, as they call the train that stops on its way past Sumac.
I was in a very disturbed state of mind, as anyone who has ever turned in a doctorate thesis can well imagine. For the life of me I couldn’t be sure whether I had used symbol or token on line 7, sheet 23, of my thesis, and it was a bad habit of mine to unconsciously interchange them unpredictably, and I knew that Dr. Walters could very well vote against acceptance of my thesis on that ground alone. Also, I had thought of a much better opening sentence to my thesis, and was having to use will power to keep from rushing back to the university to ask permission to change it.
I had practically no sleep during the fourteen-hour run, and what sleep I did have had been interrupted by violent starts of awaking with a conviction that this or that error in the initial draft of my thesis had not been corrected by the final draft. And then, of course, I would have to think the thing through and recall when I had made the correction, before I could go back to sleep.
So I was a wreck, mentally, if not physically, when I stepped off the train onto the wooden depot platform that had certainly been built in the Pleistocene Era, with my oxblood two-suiter firmly clutched in my left hand.
With snorts of steam and the loud clanking of loose drives, the train got under way again, its whistle wailing mournfully as the last empty coach car sped past me and retreated into the distance.
As I stood there, my brain tingling with weariness, and listened to the absolute silence of the town triumph over the last distant wail of the train whistle, I became aware that something about Sumac was different.
What it was, I didn’t know. I stood where I was a moment longer, trying to analyze it. In some indefinable way everything looked unreal. That was as close as I could come to it, and of course having pinned it down that far I at once dismissed it as a trick of the mind produced by tiredness.
I began walking. The planks of the platform were certainly real enough. I circled the depot without going in, and started walking in the direction of Aunt Matilda’s, which was only a short eight blocks from the depot, as I had known since I was six.
The feeling of the unreality of my surroundings persisted, and with it came another feeling, of an invisible pressure against me. Almost a resentment. Not only from the people, but from the houses and even the trees.
Slowly I began to realize that it couldn’t be entirely my imagination. Most of the dozen or so people I passed knew me, and I remembered suddenly that every other time I had come to Aunt Matilda’s they had stopped to talk with me and I had had to make some excuse to escape them. Now they were behaving differently. They would look at me absently as they might at any stranger walking from the direction of the depot, then their eyes would light up with recognition and they would open their lips to greet me with hearty welcome.
Then, as though they just thought of something, they would change, and just say, “Hello, Arthur,” and continue on past me.
It didn’t take me long to conclude that this strange behavior was probably caused by something in connection with Aunt Matilda. Had she perhaps been named as corespondent in the divorce of the local minister? Had she, of all people, had a child out of wedlock?
Things in a small town can be deadly serious, so by the time her familiar frame house came into view down the street I was ready to keep a straight face, no matter what, and reserve my chuckles for the privacy of her guest room. It would be a new experience, to find Aunt Matilda guilty of any human frailty. It was slightly impossible, but I had prepared myself for it.
And that first day her behavior convinced me I was right in my conclusion.
She appeared in the doorway as I came up the front walk. She was breathing hard, as though she had been running, and there was a dust streak on the side of her thin face.
“Hello, Arthur,” she said when I came up on the porch. She shook my hand as limply as always, and gave me a reluctant duty peck on the cheek, then backed into the house to give me room to enter.
I glanced around the familiar surroundings, waiting for her to blurt out the cause of her telegram, and feeling a little guilty about not having come at once.
I felt the loneliness inside her more than I ever had before. There was a terror way back in her eyes.
“You look tired, Arthur,” she said.
“Yes,” I said, glad of the opportunity she had given me to explain. “I had to finish my thesis and get it in by last night. Two solid years of hard work and it had to be done or the whole thing was for nothing. That’s why I couldn’t come four days ago. And you seemed quite insistent that I shouldn’t call.” I smiled to let her know that I remembered about party lines in a small town.
“It’s just as well,” she said. And while I was trying to decide what the antecedent of her remark was she said, “You can go back on the morning train.”
“You mean the trouble is over?” I said, relieved.
“Yes,” she said. But she had hesitated.
It was the first time I had ever seen her tell a lie.
“You must be hungry,” she rushed on. “Put your suitcase in the room and wash up.” She turned her back to me and hurried into the kitchen.
I was hungry. The memory of her homey cooking did it. I glanced around the front room. Nothing had changed, I thought. Then I noticed the framed portrait of my father and his three brothers was hanging where the large print of a basket of fruit used to hang. The basket of fruit picture was where the portrait should have been, and it was entirely too big a picture for that spot. I would never have thought Aunt Matilda could tolerate anything out of proportion. And the darker area of wallpaper where the fruit picture had prevented fading stood out like a sore thumb.
I looked around the room for other changes. The boat picture that had hung to the right of the front door was not there. On the floor under where it should have been I caught the flash of light from a shard of glass. Next to it, the drape framing the window was not hanging right.
On impulse I went over and peeked behind the drape. There, leaning against the wall, was the boat picture with fragments of splintered glass still in it.
From the evidence it appeared that Aunt Matilda had either been trying to hang the picture where it belonged, or taking it down, and it had slipped out of her hands and fallen, and she had hidden it behind the drape and hastily swept up the broken glass.
But why? Even granting that Aunt Matilda might behave in such an erratic fashion (which was obvious from the evidence), I couldn’t imagine a sensible reason.
It occurred to me, facetiously, that she might have gone in for pictures of musclemen, and, seeing me coming up the street, she had rushed them into hiding and brought out the old pictures.
That could account for the evidence--except for one thing. I hadn’t dallied. She could not possibly have seen me earlier than sixty seconds before I came up the front walk.
Still, the telegrapher at the depot could have called her and told her I was here when he saw me get off the train.
I shrugged the matter off and went to the guest room. It too was the same as always, except for one thing. A picture.
It was a color photograph of the church, taken from the street. The picture was in a frame, but without glass over it, and was about eighteen inches wide and thirty high.
It was a very good picture. Very lifelike. There was a car parked at the curb in front of the church, and someone inside the car smoking a cigarette, and it was so real I would have sworn I could see the streamer of smoke rising from the cigarette moving.
The odor of good food came from the kitchen, reminding me to get busy. I opened my two-suiter and took out my toilet kit and went to the bathroom.
I shaved, brushed my teeth, and combed my hair. Afterward I popped into my room just for a second to put my toilet kit on the dresser, and hurried to the dining room.
Something nagged at the back of my mind all the time I was eating. After dinner Aunt Matilda suggested I’d better get some sleep. I couldn’t argue. I was already asleep on my feet. Her fried chicken and creamed gravy and mashed potatoes had been an opiate.
I didn’t even bother to hang up my clothes. I slipped into the heaven of comfort of the bed and closed my eyes. And the next minute it was morning.
Getting out of bed, I stopped in mid motion. The picture of the church was no longer on the wall. And as I stared at the blank spot where it had been, the thing that had nagged me during dinner last night finally leaped into consciousness.
When I had dashed into the room and out again last night on the way to the dining room I had glanced briefly at the picture and something had been different about it. Now I knew what had been different.
The car had no longer been in front of the church.
I lit a cigarette and sat on the edge of the bed. I thought about that picture, and simply could not bring myself to believe the accuracy of that fleeting impression.
Aunt Matilda had slipped into my room and removed the picture while I slept. That was obvious. Why had she done that? The fleeting impression that I couldn’t be positive about would give her a sensible reason.
I studied my memory of that picture as I had closely studied it. It had been a remarkable picture. The more I recalled its details the more remarkable it became. I couldn’t remember any surface gloss or graining to it, but of course I had not been looking for such things. Only an expert photographer would notice or recognize such technical details.
My thoughts turned in the direction of Aunt Matilda--and her telegram. Her source of income, I knew, was her part of the estate of my grandfather, and amounted to something like thirty thousand dollars. I knew that she was terrified of touching one cent of the capital, and lived well within the income from good sound stocks.
I took her telegram out of the pocket of my coat which was hanging over the back of a chair. COME AT ONCE STOP AM IN TERRIBLE TROUBLE ... The only kind of terrible trouble Matilda could be in was if some swindler talked her out of some of her capital! And that definitely would not be easy to do. I grinned to myself at the recollection of her worrying herself sick once over what would happen to her if there was a revolution and the new government refused to honor the old government bonds.
Things began to make sense. Her telegram, then those pictures moved around in the front room, and the one she had forgotten to hide, in the guest room. If the other pictures were anything like it, I could see how Aunt Matilda might cash in on part of her securities to invest in what she thought was a sure thing.
But sure things are only as good as the people in control of them. Many a sure thing has been lost to the original investors by stupid decisions leading to bankruptcy, and many a seemingly sure thing has fleeced a lot of innocent victims.
Slowly, as I thought it out, I became sure that that was what had happened.
Then why Aunt Matilda’s about-face, hiding the pictures and telling me to go back to Chicago? Had she threatened whoever was behind this, and gotten her money back? Or had she again become convinced that her financial venture was sound?
In either case, why was she trying to keep me from knowing about the pictures?
I made up my mind. Whether Aunt Matilda liked it or not, I was going to stay until I got to the bottom of things. What Aunt Matilda evidently didn’t realize was that no inventor who really had something would waste time trying to find backing in a place like Sumac.
Getting dressed, I decided that first on the agenda would be to find where Matilda had hidden those pictures, and get a good look at them.
That was simpler than I expected it to be. When I came out of my room I stuck my head in the kitchen doorway and said good morning to her, and she leaped to her feet to get some breakfast ready for me. It was obvious that she was anxious to get me fed and out of the house.
Then I simply took the two steps past the bathroom door to the door to her bedroom and went in. The pictures were stacked against the side of her dresser. The one of the church was the first one. It was on its side.
With a silent whistle of amazement I bent down to watch it. The car was not parked at the curb in it, but there were several children walking along, obviously on their way to school. And they were walking. Moving.
I picked up the picture. It was as heavy as it should be, but not more. A faint whisper of sound seemed to come from it. I put my ear closer and heard children’s voices. I explored with my ear close to the surface, and found that the voices were loudest when my ear was closest to the one talking, as though the voices came out of the picture directly from the images!
All it needed to be perfect was a volume control somewhere. I searched, and found it behind the upper right corner of the picture. I twisted it very slowly, and the voices became louder. I turned it back to the position it had been in.
The next picture was of the railroad depot. The telegrapher and baggage clerk were going around the side of the depot towards the tracks. A freight train was rushing through the picture.
Even as I watched it in the picture, I heard the wail of a train whistle in the distance, and it was coming from outside, across town. That freight train was going through town right now.
I put the pictures back the way they had been, and stole softly from Aunt Matilda’s bedroom to the bathroom, and closed the door.
“No wonder Aunt Matilda invested in this thing!” I said to my image in the mirror as I shaved.
Picture TV would make all other TV receivers obsolete! Full color TV at that! And with some new principle in stereophonic sound!
What about the fact that neither picture had been plugged into an outlet? Probably run by batteries.
What about the lack of weight? Obviously a new TV principle was involved. Maybe it required fewer circuits and less power.
What about the broadcasting end, the cameras? Permanently set up? What about the broadcast channels?
There had been ten or twelve pictures. I’d only looked at two. Was each a different scene? Twelve different broadcasting stations in Sumac?
It had me dizzy. Probably the new TV principle was so simple that all that could be taken care of without millions of dollars worth of equipment.
A new respect for Aunt Matilda grew in me. She had latched on to a money maker! It didn’t hurt to know that I was her favorite nephew, either. With my Ph.D. in physics, and my aunt as one of the stockholders, I could probably land a good job with the company. What a deal!
By the time I finished shaving I was whistling. I was still whistling when I went into the kitchen for breakfast.
“You’ll have to hurry, Arthur,” Aunt Matilda said. “Your train leaves in forty-five minutes.”
“I’m not leaving,” I said cheerfully.
I went over to the bright breakfast nook and sat down, and took a cautious sip of coffee. I grunted my approval of it and looked around toward Aunt Matilda, smiling.
She was staring at me with wide eyes. She looked as haggard as though she had just heard she had a week to live.
“But you must go!” she croaked as though my not going were unthinkable.
“Nonsense, you old fox,” I said. “I know a good thing as well as you do. I want to get a job with that outfit.”