Unlike the last time Lovecraft satirized prohibition, this comedy’s jokes are pretty apparent to me even writing as I am from 2019, nearly a full century after the end.
Her name was originally Ethyl Ermengarde, but her father persuaded her to drop the praenomen after the passage of the 18th Amendment, averring that it made him thirsty by reminding him of ethyl alcohol, C2H5OH.
That’s kinda funny. There’s another couple all in the first paragraph:
She had large black eyes, a prominent Roman nose, light hair which was never dark at the roots except when the local drug store was short on supplies, and a beautiful but inexpensive complexion. She was about 5ft 5.33…in tall, weighed 115.47 lbs. on her father’s corn scales—also off them—and was adjudged most lovely by all the village swains who admired her father’s farm and liked his liquid crops.
Ermengarde has a villainous suitor who hopes to marry her and so gain the vein of untapped gold that he alone knows is under her father’s farm. Why that doesn’t belong to her father is unclear. But Ermengarde has another suitor, one Jack Manly:
Close by the village dwelt another—the handsome Jack Manly, whose curly yellow hair had won the sweet Ermengarde’s affection when both were toddling youngsters at the village school.
Bad news for Squire McVillainous, the childhood friend always wins. Jack proposes, and Ermengarde is overtaken with joy:
[“]Such is your natural nobility that I had feared—I mean thought—you would be blind to such slight charms as I possess, and that you would seek your fortune in the great city; there meeting and wedding one of those more comely damsels whose splendour we observe in fashion books.[“]
Shit, you think that would work? Maybe this proposal is a mistake.
“But, Jack, since it is really I whom you adore, let us waive all needless circumlocution. Jack—my darling—my heart has long been susceptible to your manly graces. I cherish an affection for thee—consider me thine own and be sure to buy the ring at Perkins’ hardware store where they have such nice imitation diamonds in the window.”
Can you rescind a proposal after giving one? Divorce laws are like 50 years out, but you can still break off an engagement, right? It’s not too late to go after a fashion book damsel, Jack.
But these tender passages, sacred though their fervour, did not pass unobserved by profane eyes; for crouched in the bushes and gritting his teeth was the dastardly ’Squire Hardman! When the lovers had finally strolled away he leapt out into the lane, viciously twirling his moustache and riding-crop, and kicking an unquestionably innocent cat who was also out strolling.
“Curses!” he cried—Hardman, not the cat—“I am foiled in my plot to get the farm and the girl! But Jack Manly shall never succeed! I am a man of power—and we shall see!”
Though nominally taking place in the real world, Lovecraft does ask us to indulge the fantasy of an unquestionably innocent cat. In any case, Squire Hardman goes to Ethyl’s father with a wicked scheme.
“Farmer Stubbs, I cherish a tender affection of long standing for your lovely offspring, Ethyl Ermengarde. I am consumed with love, and wish her hand in matrimony. Always a man of few words, I will not descend to euphemism. Give me the girl or I will foreclose the mortgage and take the old home!”
Okay, less a wicked scheme and more the brute force of wealth. And hang on, if he owns Farmer Stubbs’ mortgage, why is he marrying Ermengarde for the gold on the farm? Can’t he just seize it with the foreclosure?
Scarce had he departed, when there entered by the back door the radiant lovers, eager to tell the senior Stubbses of their new-found happiness. Imagine the universal consternation which reigned when all was known! Tears flowed like white ale, till suddenly Jack remembered he was the hero and raised his head, declaiming in appropriately virile accents:
“Never shall the fair Ermengarde be offered up to this beast as a sacrifice while I live![“]
You could use this narration/dialogue unaltered as the basis for a YouTube sketch.
Jack swears to go to the city and make his fortune, while Squire Hardman finds a pair of criminal accomplices and together kidnap Ermengarde whilst Jack is busy in the city and unable to leap to her rescue. Which is too bad, because being imprisoned for kidnapping would presumably impede Hardman’s ability to foreclose on mortgages.
One day as ’Squire Hardman sat in the front parlour of his expensive and palatial home, indulging in his favourite pastime of gnashing his teeth and swishing his riding-crop, a great thought came to him; and he cursed aloud at the statue of Satan on the onyx mantelpiece.
“Fool that I am!” he cried. “Why did I ever waste all this trouble on the girl when I can get the farm by simply foreclosing? I never thought of that! I will let the girl go, take the farm, and be free to wed some fair city maid like the leading lady of that burlesque troupe which played last week at the Town Hall!”
And so he went down to the settlement, apologised to Ermengarde, let her go home, and went home himself to plot new crimes and invent new modes of villainy.
Huh. That worked itself out.
But our heroine’s travails are not over yet, for a second, more cunning villain arrives, and, knowing about the gold and not having a convenient mortgage to exploit, persuades Ermengarde to elope. Presumably hoping that the whole “Squire Hardman about to seize the farm” thing will work itself out the same way the kidnapping-and-forced-marriage plot did.
On the train Algernon became sleepy and slumped down in his seat, allowing a paper to fall out of his pocket by accident. Ermengarde, taking advantage of her supposed position as a bride-elect, picked up the folded sheet and read its perfumed expanse—when lo! she almost fainted! It was a love letter from another woman!!
“Perfidious deceiver!” she whispered at the sleeping Algernon, “so this is all that your boasted fidelity amounts to! I am done with you for all eternity!”
So saying, she pushed him out the window and settled down for a much needed rest.
For the YouTube version, we need to have his body bloodily dismembered on sharp rocks waiting outside the train, just to make it clear that our heroine just killed a guy.
When the noisy train pulled into the dark station at the city, poor helpless Ermengarde was all alone without the money to get back to Hogton. “Oh why,” she sighed in innocent regret, “didn’t I take his pocketbook before I pushed him out?[“]
Seriously, Lovecraft just keeps ’em coming through the whole story. I’ve skipped over a couple of the gags because there’s one almost every line. Though one of them does require some context for the modern reader:
Once a wily and wicked person, perceiving her helplessness, offered her a position as dish-washer in a fashionable and depraved cabaret; but our heroine was true to her rustic ideals and refused to work in such a gilded and glittering palace of frivolity—especially since she was offered only $3.00 per week with meals but no board.
In 1920 money, that’s about $40. Per week. Granted, there’s free meals, but still, that’s not much of a temptation.
One day she found a neat but costly purse in the park; and after seeing that there was not much in it, took it to the rich lady whose card proclaimed her ownership. Delighted beyond words at the honesty of this forlorn waif, the aristocratic Mrs. Van Itty adopted Ermengarde to replace the little one who had been stolen from her so many years ago.
I guess Farmer Stubbs doesn’t get a say in this.
Now a wealthy heiress, Ermengarde eventually learns there’s gold on her father’s farm and returns to save him from the mortgage.
So one bright day Ermengarde motored back to Hogton and arrived at the farm just as ’Squire Hardman was foreclosing the mortgage and ordering the old folks out.
“Stay, villain!” she cried, flashing a colossal roll of bills. “You are foiled at last! Here is your money—now go, and never darken our humble door again!”
Then followed a joyous reunion, whilst the ’squire twisted his moustache and riding-crop in bafflement and dismay. But hark! What is this? Footsteps sound on the old gravel walk, and who should appear but our hero, Jack Manly—worn and seedy, but radiant of face. Seeking at once the downcast villain, he said:
“’Squire—lend me a ten-spot, will you? I have just come back from the city with my beauteous bride, the fair Bridget Goldstein, and need something to start things on the old farm.” Then turning to the Stubbses, he apologised for his inability to pay off the mortgage as agreed.
“Don’t mention it,” said Ermengarde, “prosperity has come to us, and I will consider it sufficient payment if you will forget forever the foolish fancies of our childhood.”
That’s twice now Lovecraft’s taken one of my joking comments and then used it later on in the actual narrative. Bastard’s gonna put me out of a job.
All this time Mrs. Van Itty had been sitting in the motor waiting for Ermengarde; but as she lazily eyed the sharp-faced Hannah Stubbs a vague memory started from the back of her brain. Then it all came to her, and she shrieked accusingly at the agrestic matron.
“You—you—Hannah Smith—I know you now! Twenty-eight years ago you were my baby Maude’s nurse and stole her from the cradle!! Where, oh, where is my child?” Then a thought came as the lightning in a murky sky. “Ermengarde—you say she is your daughter. . . . She is mine! Fate has restored to me my old chee-ild—my tiny Maudie!—Ermengarde—Maude—come to your mother’s loving arms!!!”
But Ermengarde was doing some tall thinking. How could she get away with the sixteen-year-old stuff if she had been stolen twenty-eight years ago? And if she was not Stubbs’ daughter the gold would never be hers. Mrs. Van Itty was rich, but ’Squire Hardman was richer. So, approaching the dejected villain, she inflicted upon him the last terrible punishment.
“’Squire, dear,” she murmured, “I have reconsidered all. I love you and your naive strength. Marry me at once or I will have you prosecuted for that kidnapping last year. Foreclose your mortgage and enjoy with me the gold your cleverness discovered. Come, dear!” And the poor dub did.
I love a happy ending.
This story is so good that I quoted like two-thirds of it. Almost every development was funny enough to be worth citing directly rather than summarizing. I wish Lovecraft did more comedies.