A Story About My Larger-Than-Life Un­cle


Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Rd Vault - BY STEPHEN LEACOCK


six years old, my fa­ther set­tled on an On­tario farm. There, we lived in an iso­la­tion the like of which is al­most un­known to­day. We were 50 kilo­me­tres from a rail­way. There were no news­pa­pers. No­body came and went, for there was nowhere to come and go.

Into this iso­la­tion broke my dy­namic un­cle, Ed­ward Philip Leacock, my fa­ther’s younger brother. E.P., as ev­ery­one called him, had just come from a year’s travel around the Mediter­ranean. He was about 25, bronzed and self con­fi­dent, with a square beard like a Plan­ta­genet king. His talk was of Al­giers, of the Golden Horn and the Egyp­tian pyra­mids. To us, who had been liv­ing in the wilder­ness for two years, it sounded like The Ara­bian Nights. When we asked, “Un­cle Ed­ward, do you know the Prince of Wales?” he an­swered, “Quite in­ti­mately”—with no fur­ther ex­pla­na­tion. It was an im­pres­sive trick he had.

In that year, 1878, there was a gen­eral elec­tion in Canada, and E.P. was soon in it up to the neck. He picked up the his­tory and pol­i­tics of Up­per Canada in a day, and in a week, he knew ev­ery­body in the coun­try­side. In pol­i­tics, E.P. was on the con­ser­va­tive, aris­to­cratic side, but he was also hail-fel­low-well-met with the hum­blest. A demo­crat can’t con­de­scend be­cause he’s down al­ready, but when a con­ser­va­tive stoops, he con­quers. E.P. spoke at every meet­ing. His strong point, how­ever, was so­cial­iz­ing in bar­rooms, which gave full scope to his mar­vel­lous tal­ent for flat­ter­ing and make-be­lieve.

“Why, let me see,” he would say to some mod­est ru­ral res­i­dent in thread­bare clothes be­side him, glass in hand, “surely, if your name is Fram­ley, you

must be a re­la­tion of my dear old friend Gen­eral Sir Charles Fram­ley of the Horse Ar­tillery?”

“Mebbe,” the flat­tered fel­low would an­swer, “I ain’t kept track very good of my folks in the old coun­try.”

“Dear me! I must tell Sir Charles that I’ve seen you. He’ll be so pleased.”


E.P. had be­stowed dis­tinc­tions on half the town­ship of Georgina. They lived in a re­cap­tured at­mos­phere of gen­er­als, ad­mi­rals and earls. How could they vote any other way but con­ser­va­tive!

The elec­tion was a walkover for John A. Macdon­ald. E.P. might have stayed to reap the fruits, but On­tario was too small a hori­zon for him. Man­i­toba was then just open­ing up, and noth­ing would sat­isfy E.P. but that he and my fa­ther should go west. So we had a sale of our farm, with re­fresh­ments for all com­ers, our lean cat­tle and bro­ken ma­chines fetch­ing less than the price of the whisky. Off to Man­i­toba went E.P. and my fa­ther, leav­ing us chil­dren be­hind at school.

They hit Win­nipeg on the rise of the boom, and E.P. rode the crest of the wave. There is a magic ap­peal in the rush and move­ment of a boom town— a Car­son City of the 1860s, a Win­nipeg of the 1880s. Life is all in the present, all here and now, no past and no out­side—just a clat­ter of ham­mers and saws, rounds of drinks and rolls of money. Every man seems a re­mark­able fel­low; in­di­vid­u­al­ity shines, and char­ac­ter blos­soms like a rose. E.P. was in ev­ery­thing and knew ev­ery­body, con­fer­ring ti­tles and hon­ours up and down Portage Av­enue. In six months he had a great for­tune, on pa­per. He took a trip east and brought back a charm­ing wife from Toronto. He built a large house be­side the Red River, filled it with pic­tures of peo­ple he said were his an­ces­tors and car­ried on a roar­ing hos­pi­tal­ity in­side it.

He was pres­i­dent of a bank (that never opened); head of a brew­ery (for brew­ing the Red River); and sec­re­tary-trea­surer of the Win­nipeg, Hud­son Bay & Arc­tic Ocean Rail­way. They had no track, but E.P. re­ceived free passes for travel over all of North Amer­ica.

He was elected to the Man­i­toba leg­is­la­ture; they would have made him prime min­is­ter but for the ex­is­tence


of the grand old man of the province, John Norquay. At that, in a short time, Norquay ate out of E.P.’s hand.

To aris­toc­racy, E.P. added a touch of pres­tige by al­ways be­ing ap­par­ently about to be called away—im­pe­ri­ally. If some­one said, “Will you be in Win­nipeg all win­ter, Mr. Leacock?” he an­swered, “It will de­pend a good deal on what hap­pens in West Africa.” Just that; West Africa beat them.

Then the Man­i­toba boom crashed in 1882. Sim­ple peo­ple like my fa­ther were wiped out in a day. Not so E.P. Doubt­less he was left ut­terly bank­rupt, but it made no dif­fer­ence. He used credit in­stead of cash; he still had his imag­i­nary bank and his rail­way to the Arc­tic Ocean. Any­one who called about a bill was told that E.P.’s move­ments were un­cer­tain and would de­pend a good deal on what hap­pened in Jo­han­nes­burg. That held them another six months.


when he made his pe­ri­odic trips east—on passes— to impress his cred­i­tors in the west. He floated on ho­tel credit, loans and un­paid bills. A banker was his nat­u­ral vic­tim. E.P.’s method was sim­ple. As he en­tered the banker’s pri­vate of­fice he would ex­claim, “I say! Do you fish? Surely that’s a green­heart cast­ing rod on the wall?” (E.P. knew the names of ev­ery­thing.) In a few min­utes the banker, flushed and pleased, was ex­hibit­ing the rod and show­ing trout flies. When E.P. went out, he car­ried $100 with him. There was no se­cu­rity.

He dealt sim­i­larly with credit at liv­ery sta­bles and shops. He bought with lav­ish generosity, never ask­ing a price. He never sug­gested pay­ment ex­cept as an af­ter­thought, just as he was go­ing out. “By the way, please let me have the bill promptly. I may be go­ing away.” Then in an aside to me he’d say, “Sir Henry Loch has ca­bled again from West Africa.” And so on. They had never seen him be­fore and wouldn’t again.

When ready to leave a ho­tel, E.P. would call for his bill at the desk and break out into en­thu­si­asm at the rea­son­able­ness of it. “Com­pare that,” he would say in his aside to me, “with the Hô­tel de Cril­lon in Paris! Re­mind me to men­tion to Sir John how ad­mirably we’ve been treated; he’s com­ing here next week.” Sir John was our prime min­is­ter. The hotel­keeper hadn’t




known Canada’s elected leader was com­ing—and he wasn’t.

Then came the fi­nal touch. “Now let me see … $76 …” Here, E.P. fixed his eye firmly on the ho­tel man. “You give me $24, then I can re­mem­ber to send an even hun­dred.” The man’s hand trem­bled, but he gave it.

This does not mean that E.P. was dis­hon­est. To him, his bills were merely “de­ferred,” like the Bri­tish debt to the United States. He never made, never even con­tem­plated, a crooked deal in his life. All his grand schemes were as open as sun­light, and as empty.

E.P. knew how to fash­ion his talk to his au­di­ence. I once in­tro­duced him to a group of my col­lege friends, to whom aca­demic de­grees meant a great deal. Ca­su­ally, E.P. turned to me and said, “Oh, by the way, you’ll be glad to know that I’ve just re­ceived my honorary de­gree from the Vatican—at last!” The “at last” was a knock­out. A de­gree from the Pope, and over­due at that!


it could not be sus­tained. Grad­u­ally faith weak­ens, credit crum­bles, cred­i­tors grow hard and friends turn away. Lit­tle by lit­tle, E.P. sank down. Now a wid­ower, he was a shuf­fling, half­shabby fig­ure who would have been pa­thetic ex­cept for his in­domitable self-be­lief. Times grew hard for him and, at length, even the sim­ple credit of the bar­rooms broke un­der him. My brother Jim told me of E.P. be­ing put out of a Win­nipeg pub by an an­gry bar­tender. E.P. had brought in four men, spread the fin­gers of one hand and said, “Mr. Leacock. Five.” The bar­tender broke into oaths.

E.P. hooked a friend by the arm. “Come away,” he said. “I’m afraid the poor fel­low’s crazy, but I hate to re­port him.”

Free travel came to an end. The rail­ways found out at last that there wasn’t any Arc­tic Ocean Rail­way. E.P. man­aged to come east just once more. I met him in Toronto—a tri­fle bedrag­gled but wear­ing a plug hat with a crepe band around it. “Poor Sir John,” he said, “I felt I sim­ply must come down for his fu­neral.” Then I re­mem­bered that the prime min­is­ter was dead and re­al­ized that kindly sen­ti­ment had meant free trans­porta­tion.

That was the last I ever saw of E.P. Fi­nally, some­one paid his fare back to Eng­land. He re­ceived from some




fam­ily trust an in­come of two pounds a week, and on that he lived, with such dig­nity as might be, in a re­mote vil­lage in Worces­ter­shire. He told the peo­ple of the vil­lage—so I learned later—that his stay was un­cer­tain: it would de­pend a good deal on what hap­pened in China. But noth­ing hap­pened in China.

There he stayed for years, and there he might have fin­ished but for a strange chance, a sort of po­etic jus­tice, that gave him an evening in the sun­set.

In the part of Eng­land whence our fam­ily hailed there was an an­cient re­li­gious brother­hood with a cen­turies-old monastery and di­lap­i­dated es­tates. E.P. de­scended on them, since the broth­ers seemed an easy mark. In the course of his pious re­treat he took a look into the broth­ers’ fi­nances and his quick in­tel­li­gence dis­cov­ered an old claim against the gov­ern­ment, large in amount and valid beyond doubt. In no time E.P. was at West­min­ster, rep­re­sent­ing the broth­ers. Bri­tish of­fi­cials were eas­ier to han­dle than On­tario hotel­keep­ers.

The broth­ers got a lot of money. In grat­i­tude they in­vited E.P. to be their per­ma­nent man­ager. So there he was, lifted into ease and af­flu­ence. The years went eas­ily by among gar­dens, or­chards and fish ponds as old as the Cru­sades.

When I was lec­tur­ing in Lon­don in 1921 he wrote to me. “Do come down; I am too old now to travel, but I will send a chauf­feur with a car and two lay broth­ers to bring you here.” Just like E.P., I thought, the “lay broth­ers” touch. But I couldn’t go. He ended his days at the monastery, no ca­ble call­ing him to West Africa.

If there is a par­adise, I am sure the un­beat­able qual­ity of his spirit will get him in. He will say at the gate, “Peter? Surely you must be a re­la­tion of Lord Peter of Titch­field?” But if he fails, then may the earth lie light upon him.

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