Thursday, 19 November 2015

The Picture Puzzle

The Canadian Magazine cover 3/1910
The Picture Puzzle
By W. Lacey Amy
From The Canadian Magazine, March 1910.
Digitized by Doug Frizzle, November 2015

IT occupied but a small space in the morning paper, but it was set off by a picture of a group of children intent on something lying on a table. Hovering near was a homey father and a happy mother with a baby in her arms. The faces of all were lit up with the joy a family-man loves to see on the faces of his family.
There was very little reading in the advertisement: “The popular Picture Puzzle has taken the place of bridge in polite society. Everybody plays it. It brightens the wits and is an education to young and old.’’
Now I am not one of those men who affect an English drawl or support the Suffragette movement simply because “polite society’’ leans that way. I pride myself that I am intensely practical and unimpressionable. But as I dropped my paper and read the morning dunners it did not take me long to decide that whatever took “the place of bridge” would please the butcher and me; and as the father of a rising family I attached due importance to the game that would also be an “education.” Their mother has ambitions for each of the children—ambitions that will require some education in their fulfilment.
Ever since my picture puzzle experience I know I was right in feeling the need of “education” for my children, seeing that they inherited so little from one side of the house. I have also learned that the illustrator of an advertisement requires no photograph to work from.
With canny care that I should not be taken in by untried experiments I, first of all, purchased a small twenty-five piece puzzle and presented it to my second youngest boy. The process of education for the youngest is yet in the spanking stage. Harry was delighted—even though I had already pieced together fourteen of the twenty-five before I handed them over. During the matching of the fourteen Harry was being educated by proxy.
Anyone could see the great mindtraining of picture puzzles. After even my short experience with it I was undoubtedly brilliant at dinner—even my wife noticed that, and she rarely shows an eagerness to acknowledge that characteristic in me. I frankly imputed my brightness to the “keening up of intellectual games,” and used several other phrases of that kind that would qualify for an advertisement. I announced that in the face of such evidence I would purchase a picture puzzle of proportions for my two eldest boys, Harry, aged ten, and Simpson, aged fourteen. Even William, a year old, would profit by the “elevated atmosphere that would pervade the house,” and could use the pieces for playthings when the boys had completed their education.
My wife did not look convinced. I am not yet able to claim that my wife thinks through my brains. In strictest honesty, I sometimes think she cannot be made to believe what she does not actually see—in this case I mean the gray matter, not the out-ward form of brains. I had, I confess, used similar arguments before I bought the boys the roller skates with which we found them one day learning to fall safely on the oak border around the drawing-room rug. It was I, too, who had presented them with a set of tools after reading a treatise on manual training. When a newel post, was sawed off and a face carved on a mahogany pedestal I raised no objection to the impounding of the tools.
I ought to know my boys don’t educate according to advertisement. But the picture puzzle panic was over me.
With the idea of getting the most education for the least money, and incidentally to procure something befitting the father of a family, I devoted an hour of a busy day to discovering the biggest puzzle on sale.
I have come to the conclusion that a man can be judged by the size of his picture puzzle—in inverse ratio. When I found one with five hundred and four pieces I was satisfied.
“Please tear the picture off the box,” I demanded of the patent-pale girl who waited on me. I did not purpose to allow the boys to build with the picture in front of them. Even I was not to see it.
The girl did as she was told. A shop girl meets all kinds of—me.
“After dinner,” I announced to the family when I reached home, ‘‘we’ll spend an hour in educative pleasure.”
The introduction of the five hundred and four pieces into our house was a distinct success. After a few words of wisdom left over from my brilliancy of the night before, I emptied the box on the table which had been cleared for the purpose. The baby, whose education was important enough to break his bed routine, gurgled all over when the brightly coloured, irregular shapes tumbled on the table. Harry jumped around in glee. My wife looked happily at the happy faces, and even Simpson showed interest. As for myself, I experienced a keen elation at having discovered a game with all the virtues of a course in Ruskin. Under the inspiration of the moment I remarked to my wife that it pays to read advertisements.
William and Harry made a dive for the pieces, but I calmly, though firmly, restrained an excitement that presented no direct relation to education.
“You had better let me start it for you,” I explained, as I pushed them all back and looked interestedly at the jumble. Then the chaos began to get into my system. I felt as if a few hundred pieces less would not have been an insurmountable obstacle to the acceptance of a cheaper, smaller puzzle, nor any impairment of its instructive value. Even the picture would not have been amiss to start on.
All eyes were on me: I must be cool. I must show them the earmarks of education in embryo. Carefully I studied the pieces.
“Ah, a nose!” I exclaimed at last, picking up a piece about the size of a man’s reputation just before his wife returns from a month’s visit out of town. “Now we have a nose. That will be the foundation of our building. Now what would naturally go with that?”
“A handkerchief,” answered Harry, and received a fitting rebuke, which extended to my wife when she laughed.
“With a nose, an eye would go.” I continued in the tone of a Sunday School superintendent who desires to make the answer appear to the distinguished visitor to come from the scholars.
“Now, who can find an eye? Simpson, spread out those pieces. Clear off that other table and lay out some other pieces on it. Things are too crowded here.”
But the eye was watching for us. It is surprising how many things look like an eye, and how many eyes resemble something else, when you are looking for one in a picture puzzle. I saw an eye in everything and Simpson saw it in nothing.
“Now that,” I said, as I tried to make an angle fit a curve, “is an eye of anger. You see the low threatening brow? This”—I picked up another piece and ran it all around the nose to find a fit—“is an eye of fear—dilated pupil, fixed expression. To the ordinary observer they may not be distinct but the highest art—ahem!—is that which does not stoop to details—a stroke of the pen or brush and you have the expressive eye. In this case—”
“Aw, this ain’t no nose,” broke in Harry, who had been viewing my first find from all possible angles.
It will be noted that my second son’s education has so far been more along the line of mental and visual development than in English. That can come later.
“This ain’t no nose,” he repeated, throwing it back on my table. “It’s the corner of a box—or a bit of cloud—or any old thing.”
Harry was feeling the chaos too.
“Hadn’t you better start with an outside piece?” hastily interposed my wife, observing the cool eye of speculation with which I measured Harry’s punishable parts. She had picked up a piece with one straight edge and a white streak along it where the paper of the picture had not quite reached the edge. “That would make it easier; you could work inwards, then.”
One thing about my wife, when she goes to clean a room she starts at the floor, sweeps, wipes the borders and dusts the chairs in the same routine every time. It is simply work to her. Her idea is merely to get it finished. There are no elevating thoughts on cleanliness and example to the boys while she draws the duster through the rungs of the chair.
“This, my dear,” I answered, and I hope I showed the dignity I felt—“this is an intellectual game. The profit from it is in the game, not in the finish. Anybody could solve the puzzle by starting from the outside, after which it would merely be a process of fitting. The boys and myself”—the implication was plain—“are doing this not alone for the sport that is in it.”
Simpson took the piece from his mother, while I continued my search for any two pieces that would match. Finally, in desperation I settled on one piece, and, one by one, ran the others around it. At the three hundredth piece, or thereabouts, I was rewarded.
“There,” I gloated, placing the two pieces tenderly on the table, and step ping back to view my success. “That shows what I mean, dear. Application, application! That’s the reward, you see, of patience and concentration.”
“Have you only got two, dad?” asked Harry from the other table “Why, Simpson and me have twenty pieces matched here.”
The pang—was it jealousy?—was drowned in the knowledge that the boys were receiving their education. Their table looked very interesting.
“Now, boys, you two come to this table and match while I build up from yours. This work will be better for you.”
Fortunately nobody asked me to explain my reasoning. After all, who had paid for that game, anyway?
The matching progressed wonder fully. I was successful in placing a dozen more pieces and a nice little square met my admiring gaze. I must share my joy.
“Bring Willie here, my dear,” I said to my wife. “Let him see the picture budding forth. It may be the evolution of things will enter his tiny brain. Let him receive all the education he can from this.”
My wife urged that it was William’s bed-time, but I insisted on allowing nothing to interfere with education. So William was brought, and the first thing he did was to make a playful sweep at my structure of pieces, one of those innocent movements that break your eyeglasses or upset the coffee in your lap. The corner piece fell loudly to the floor.
“If you don’t take that boy to bed right away,” I thundered, “his education will proceed with the more direct application of hands.” And William a education was very near to starting.
In the meantime the boys had formed a section and another table was necessary. Simpson came to look at my work.
“Why, father,” he said, after a moment’s scrutiny, “a girl’s boot doesn’t run out of her ear.”
Simpson was called after a maiden aunt of mine whose money might otherwise have gone towards a home for Indigent Italian Gray Hounds, and he felt the weight of those prospective riches. He is only fourteen, but his attendance at the Fletcher College for Boys gives him a right to the name of “Student,” and a desire for combing his hair before a mirror. As a boy of culture his remarks are supposed to carry weight. Accordingly, he accompanies them with an inflection of the upper lip that makes me wish him back in his baby days for about four minutes.
I felt at that moment I could not have done Simpson justice in that short period.
I ordered him and Harry to bed. It was their bed-time anyway. It would nettle any father to see a son of fourteen with an education in fuller bud than his own. I never attended the Fletcher College for Boys, to be sure—but—but—I have a son who does, and besides I foot the bills. I have always believed that concentration is necessary to perfect accomplishment—and concentration is scarcely possible with two boys aged ten and fourteen, one of whom is not overburdened with reverence and the other of whom has difficulty in concealing his contempt.
With concentration, four tables and two chairs I felt in a position to do myself justice. I began to work on a system—that is, I matched every unplaced piece to the built section until I found the one that fitted. I was not conscious of any great mental development, but concentration and system must develop something, and as there was no appearance of development in the picture puzzle, why, of course, it must have been taking effect in my brain.
The sound of my wife’s voice down the stairs roused me to an abrupt appreciation of the clocks striking two. Leaving a large note on the table ordering the maid to touch nothing I tip-toed to bed. Another notice on the boys’ door gave similar instructions, but before I got into bed I turned the key in their door to forestall disobedience. I am adopting different methods with William to enforce obedience since my success with the other two boys would scarcely provide copy for a woman’s journal.
Concentration seemed to have got into my system. It remained with me the next morning, and now that I can think of it calmly it was my long suit to the end of the puzzle. It hustled my shaving and induced me to omit all breakfast but porridge Porridge is an institution in our house. I want my boys to incorporate the desirable traits of the Scotch, and have no other available means of assisting than by supplying plenty of porridge.
Concentration kept me at the game until a message from my stenographer broke in. At luncheon time I took another hasty dip into the maze, and at 4.30 was back in the sitting-room trying to find that girl’s arm. Dinner was an interruption, and Eliza, the maid, came in for a rebuke for her slowness in serving. We broke an engagement for the evening, as I really had no desire to go out. I always was a great home-man—but I didn’t mind giving the boys fifty cents to take in a “show” that night. Boys must have their fling.
I have a misty recollection of pulling myself upstairs sometime in the morning, with my wife watching me anxiously from the landing.
From that point my adventures with the picture puzzle have been collected from my wife. The thing had got on my nerves. I dreamt and ate pieces, and thought in comers, points and curves. To be sure, I remembered the more important events of the next day, such as the finding of that arm, but apart from that the story is my wife’s.
I made straight for the sitting-room the next morning, and fruit and porridge were served there. I stopped long enough to thresh Harry for asking fool questions about where his education was to come in, but I even interrupted the threshing to fit in a piece. I signed the cheque for the butcher’s bill without asking for a bill. To the office I would not go, and I have a faint recollection of hearing my wife tell someone over the ’phone that I was ill; and then she came and looked at me with mournful eyes. I also remember the family physician looking me over from the door.
At six-thirty my wife did succeed in drawing me away to dinner at which we were entertaining a couple of friends. During the meal I was absorbed in cutting my meat into fantastic shapes, and then piecing them together. I slid my knife between the fork tines and examined it critically to see if it was a match. Between courses I spent the time fitting the salt cellar, the olive dish, the knife handle, the water glass into the scallops in the edge of the centre-piece, and in matching the entree shells I had to reach for my neighbour’s before I found a satisfactory fit. When I helped the desert I first glanced at the mouths of my guests and served to match.
Just as soon as possible I bolted from the table for the puzzle. Nothing else mattered now.
Everything seemed to be at sixes and sevens in the picture puzzle when I resumed the “game.” It looked almost as if the pieces had been moved, but I knew this could not be, as the entire family had been with me at dinner. The guests left very early. I was so busy trying to finish a corner on some square thing that the world seemed made for nothing else. Not a piece could I match. Every piece remaining was tried from all sides.
My hair was wandering wildly over my eyes, my coat was off, a deep frown puckered my brow. I wandered excitedly from table to table. The pieces shook so in my fingers that even if they had matched they would never have reached their places.
I had proceeded far enough with the “game” to feel that there was a woman in it. I felt I might have known that, and I was wild at any woman balking me. My wife had never done so.
A woman! a woman!
With shut teeth I shoved a point viciously up into a corner. It did not fit. I sat down and seized the evening paper, trying to read it upside down. I leaped up again and jammed in another piece. I examined that woman from all sides but the back. She showed no consciousness that her belt buckle wasn’t straight or that her waist was not pulled down properly. Drat that woman! I thought fully as bad as that. I took a long breath and slowly ran my eye over the pieces. Ah, there it was! I seized it and lowered it carefully over the opening Something was wrong. I pressed it down. I slammed it down—and the corner broke off.
*
My wife fled from the room, leaving me pounding the pieces of that puzzle with a footstool. Harry came to the door, and with a whoop bolted for the kitchen, returning in a moment with a hatchet. He was going to help dad. While I was transforming those five hundred and four pieces into several thousands, Harry was attacking two of the tables with the hatchet, at the same time handing out encouragement to me.
“Go it, dad.” And I “go-ed” it with supreme delight.
“Give her an upper-cut, dad.”
I used all the blows I know.
“Wallop her. Knock her block off. Perforate her think-tank.”
I guess I did it all.
Blasphemy—such blasphemy as “Thunderin’ Jehosophat,” “Jiminy Crickets,” “Jumpin’ Judas”—flowed from my lips. And Harry elaborated with a proficiency that made me envious. Simpson happened to look in—and Simpson got his.
I was having more real satisfaction than I had had for many a day.
When my wife returned with the family physician, I was in bed sound asleep with my boots on. Harry was doing a picture puzzle with the pieces of the tables and making them fit with a hatchet.
After a day’s rest they broke the news to me. While I had been at dinner the doctor, fearing for my reason, had crept in and substituted parts of another puzzle for the unmatched pieces of mine.

So that it was no sign of failing power that I had been unable to handle that woman. I could have finished her all right—if she hadn’t first finished me.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.