One morning in early fall, before the leaves had begun to fade, but the breeze was already carrying the scent of autumn majesty, Ernest the gardener was harvesting carrots. He was also reprimanding himself and slapping himself in the face. “Now Ernest, only eat a few.” His failure in this moral necessity alarmed him and he took a bite of onion to rebuke his gluttony. His face at first lightened and then grimaced and he ran over to an apple tree that the apples might remove the onion taste. “This has failed very badly. But what is this? Hullo, it’s Robert. Strange. His face is flushed. Maybe he’s been exercising.”
Robert had reached him by this time and started shaking the apple tree. “What’s this I hear, Ernest? You’ve had apples stolen? I can’t believe it.”
Ernest looked sadly at the apples which Robert had shaken from the tree. “I can. I just ate one.”
Robert let the branch go and scanned the scene. “No one has ever stollen from us. Have you checked for footprints?”
Ernest began to salvage some of the fallen fruit that was still ripe and whole. “No, I never thought of it. I don’t know that the thief can be caught.”
“Humph! Don’t give up so easily. I for one will find this out. I am almost ashamed of you Ernest. Look, the ground is soft, and here — here are your own footprints!”
Ernest chuckled to himself and began muttering poetry, but his attention was arrested by Robert crawling around on all fours and looking ridiculously like a hound. Every once in a while he made measurements with his fingers and put his eye to the ground. Sometimes he felt the turf and once he even began to sniff with his nose. “Just like his father,” Ernest mused. “Ever so scientific.”
Robert raised a triumphant shout and held up one hand with his thumb and smallest finger spread six inches apart. “Aha! See that? This is the size of his shoe. What does it tell you?”
Ernest hobbled over to Robert and bent over to take a closer look. “Why, it was a child!” He shook his head. “I feel sorry for him.”
“Sorry or not, he had better be brought to justice. …Or she. Have you any idea who it could be?”
Ernest became lost in an examination of a rosebush, but when Robert had finally given up on getting a response, he said, “Oh no, I am only a gardener.”
Robert laughed and then choked. “You…” he stuttered a few words then looked away.
Ernest deliberately got up and engrossed himself in a closer study of the rose bush. He pulled off one of the thorns and stuck it in his thumb, growing solemn and bowing his head. There was a sympathy between Ernest and Robert at this moment that they did not often have. “…Yes, I solved the suicide case, but that does mean I am a detective. Sometimes I have thought that … it was mainly because I was not a detective, but only a simple gardener.”
Robbert ruffled his hair and let out a sigh. “That makes me all the more determined.”
“To solve this case.”
“Because justice is sacred.”
Ernest turned around and a slow smile spread over his face. “Well …” he plucked and apple and tossed it to Robert. “You’ll need this to tide you over until the search is complete.”
Robert turned the apple round in his hand. He dropped it. “But be serious, Ernest. Don’t you have at least a theory? God knows you have an uncommon intellect.”
Ernest grunted. “Why don’t you talk to Peter McDunklin? He knows everything.”
Someone called from down the road and Ernest wheeled on his feet. “He also knows just when to show up.”
Peter McDunklin was whistling to himself as loud as a trumpet and slapping his sides.
“This bodes of trouble” Ernest muttered. “A happy Peter means gossip. But then, Peter is always a gossip. That makes sense. He is always happy.”
“Halalalooo!” Peter crooned, coming up to Ernest and slapping him on the back. Ernest stumbled forward and grunted. “Did you know you have neighbors?” Peter asked. “Of course you don’t, but I do. Came to tell you all about them. They come from an old New England family and used to live — my! Those are fine –” Ernest gave him an apple. “Ah yes.” Peter took a bite. “As I was saying …” Peter was a well off heir but was perpetually starving because he neglected eating. “As I was saying, they used to live in an old manor from the Revolutionary days, but the mother died of the smallpox. The father is a lawyer and used to–“
“You talk too much, Peter.”
Peter McDunklin noticed that Ernest was looking past him and that his attention was fixed on something off in the distance. Wheeling around, Peter saw a gentleman coming toward them of about forty years, though the harshness of his face made him look older. He did not appear unfriendly though, only severe, like a sadly caricatured governess in a novel — the type that always have good intentions but consistently end up on the wrong side of the fight. Walking on either side of him were two lads who fidgeted with their waistcoats and tried to look as refined as the father, but failed miserably. The were like two plain hills on either side of a snow-capped mountain and looked only like young boys always do. When Peter saw them, he blushed, and though they were still a ways off, he became as quiet as a mouse (a dead mouse that is).
Ernest took a long look at Peter, then nodded and began to stroke his beard.
By this time, the doctor had come out and Robert had risen and was ready to greet the visitors. “I had better be going,” said Peter.
Ernest pulled on his beard even harder, his wrinkled brawny hands moving with an evident relish. “But what an opportunity for you, Peter. You will be able to meet them yourself.”
Peter began to shuffle and kept shuffling as the visitors arrived.
The meeting could not have been more professional. The doctor and the lawyer shook hands with their stiff cuffs standing out more than their hands. The doctor’s ease, however, and the lawyers slight nervousness lent a humanity to them which was almost touching.
“I have been wanting to make your acquaintance,” said the lawyer, giving a yank to his son with red-brown hair to keep him in line. “It is an honor to have such respectable neighbors. We are grateful, I assure you.” He gave another tug to the same boy’s arm, only now the arm was not there and the boy had slipped away. He grimaced and pursed his lips in embarrassment.
The doctor began talking about the ways of the district and the principal attractions, but Ernest was lost in meditation. “Now then,” he thought, “They are a fine pair, the austere father, and the troublesome boys. You can tell they are both troublesome though the one with the dark brown hair is behaving for the moment.”
Ernest felt someone grab his shoulder and a warm breath in his ear. “Aha!” Robert hissed, “There’s our lad! Look at that light-haired boy with those apples. You can tell he’s tasted them before.” The boy was, in fact, stuffing his pockets full of the apples and had one in his mouth, covering most of his nose and giving him an ashamed look completely incongruous with his devious eyes. The lad had not noticed them eyeing him, but he did notice a brightly breasted bluebird playing in the grass nearby. The mischievous look in his eyes grew and his eyes dilated the size of quarters. “Take this, beak face,” he hollered, the apple dropping from his mouth as he threw a rotten one at the bird. It narrowly missed its head and the creature screeched as it spooked and launched into the air.
“No,” said Ernest, “I do not think so.”
Robert gawked, but at that moment the lawyer slapped his side attracting everyone’s attention. “Harold! Return those apples. I am ashamed of you, treating our neighbors that way.”
Harold sulked and came, but did not take the apples out of his pockets. His father pursed his lips and tensed his muscles, but said nothing.
“Of course he is,” said Robert. “Plain as day.”
Ernest ignored him and walked over to the dark haired lad. He patted him on the shoulder with his leathery hands and asked if he would like an apple. The lad shrugged and stuck his hands in his pockets, but the lawyer had great dreams for his son and would not allow him to be shy around strangers. “Of course you would, George. Go with the gentleman and see if he can teach you a thing or two.”
The son obediently fell in behind Ernest. Ernest winked at the lawyer as he led the way to the living fruit basket.
The wink seemed to accomplish something magical among the others. It made the lawyer blink, shake his head, and grow silent. Peter McDunklin saw the lawyer’s confusion and began to fidget even more. This attracted the doctor’s critical eye and the whole atmosphere had the effect of making Robert scrutinize the impish Harold with his most critical of critical glares. If Ernest had seen the look, no doubt he would have remarked again, “Just like his father.”
But Ernest was not there at that moment. He was at the apple tree, giving young George a little talk. The Father might have learned from that style of conversation, but unfortunately, just as Ernest was not paying attention to the others, neither were they paying any attention to him. They were all engrossed in their own small talk. When he returned thought with George at his side, the chatter suddenly stopped and every eye turned in his direction.
Ernest held the lad by the hand and walked him straight to the father, then with a nod, “I hope you don’t mind sir. George here has agreed to help me in the garden for a week to pay for the apples he stole.”
The lawyer cringed. “Sir,” he snapped, “I assure–” But his son’s face told it all.” His face melted and then hardened like steel. “Of course he will work for you. Two weeks, three! He will have to be taught better.”
Peter’s fidgeting went into hyper-acceleration and he shot his hands out in a wide arc. “Wait here people! Ernest, you need to explain yourself. You can’t tell a thief by his looks, can you?”
Ernest began to stroke his beard. “His looks … Yes, that was what it was.”
The doctor took a step back in a purely professional alarm at what appeared so unscientific. “But you don’t really mean that it was all in the looks, do you?”
Peter had the look like someone had taken a key and turned his facial expressions ten degrees counter-clockwise. Ernest looked at him for a while and with many “hmm”s and grunts, then explained, “Why, yes, it was you, Peter. You showed me.”
“It was very simple. You were gossiping about our new neighbors and might have continued for who knows how long, but then you saw them coming and snapped quiet that very instant. It was the same thing with George.”
Robert harrumphed. “And by that you mean…?”
But Peter and the lawyer understood. The lawyer had a grim smile and Peter blushed as red as an apple.
Ernest started in alarm and pulled an apple from his pocket for comparison. He sighed. The red of the apple was deeper. That was enough for him.