Harry's Island/Chapter 12

Harry's Island by Ralph Henry Barbour
12. Chub Scents a Mystery


AFTER the dinner things had been cleared up there was naturally but one thing to do, and that was to go out in the Pup. So they did it. The engine showed some unwillingness to start, but relented presently and they were off. They had no boats in tow this time and were, besides, going with the current, and the way the Pup slid along brought joy to Dick’s heart.

“Isn’t she a great little Pup?” he asked, beamingly. And they all agreed that she was, even Chub.

“The Pup,” observed the latter impressively, “is a fine bark.”

They had an exciting time in the village while Dick made his purchases and ordered his flags. Chub was full of suggestions and wanted Dick to buy all sorts of things, from a pocket compass to a pair of davits by which to sling the canoe on to the launch and use it for a tender. Dick got a gallon of white paint, warranted to dry hard in twelve hours, and four brushes, Harry having expressed a determination to aid in the work of turning the black Pup into a white one. When they were ready to leave the wharf Dick produced his small oil-can filled with gasolene and set it beside him while he prepared to turn the fly-wheel over. Whether it was the sight of that can I can’t say, but it’s a fact that the engine started at the first turn. They ran up the river in the late afternoon sunlight, a little wind which had risen since noon kicking the water into tiny white-caps which caught the rays and turned to gold and copper. The breeze rumpled their hair and tingled their cheeks, and to what Chub called “the merry barking of the Pup” they sailed home past the shadowed shore and dropped anchor (it was a folding one and weighed seven pounds) in Victory Cove.

“That was a dandy sail!” exclaimed Harry, her cheeks ruddy under their tan. And they all agreed with her and vied with each other in saying nice things about the Pup. And Dick beamed and beamed, and everything was lovely. They had purchased provisions in the village, and supper that evening was in the nature of a banquet, there being a large steak, Saratoga chips, big rolls, still warm from the baker’s oven, cucumbers (there wasn’t any vinegar, but no one seemed to care), and a blueberry pie. And there were present appetites to do justice to the banquet.

Afterward, just as Roy had lighted the camp-fire, which, to tell the truth was necessary to distract the attention of the mosquitos, there was a hail and Billy Noon appeared. He joined the group and listened interestedly to Dick’s account of the afternoon’s experience with the launch.

“You won’t have much trouble with her now, I guess,” he said. “Gas-engines are kind of queer things, but there’s generally a reason for it when they don’t act right. The only trouble is in discovering the reason. There’s a reason for everything if you can only find it.”

“Have you composed any poetry lately?” asked Harry when the conversation had wandered away from launches and gas-engines. Billy shook his head.

“No, my dear young lady,” he answered.

There’s been no time for building rhyme,
For I’ve been very busy.
My daily work I must not shirk

“For if you do, you’ll get dizzy,” suggested Chub.

“Thank you,” laughed Billy. “‘Busy’ ’s a bad word to rhyme to. I ought to have known better than to use it.”

“Did—did it just come natural for you to make poetry?” asked Harry. “Or did you have to learn?”

“I guess it came natural,” was the reply.

“I wish I could do it,” Harry said wistfully. “But I can’t. I’ve tried and tried. I never can think of any rhymes. Do you think I could learn, Mr. Noon?”

“I dare say you could,” answered Billy. “I never did much of it until I joined the Great Indian Chief Medicine Company. Then I sort of worked it up.”

“Did you write advertisements?” asked Chub.

“No. You see, we traveled around from one place to another in a couple of big wagons selling this medicine. It was fine medicine, too, if you believed the wrappers and the boss. It cured anything, from warts to laziness, and cost a dollar a bottle, or six bottles for five dollars with your horoscope thrown in. There were five of us with the outfit, and we dressed like Indians and talked five languages, including North of Ireland. I was Wallapoola, the great Choctaw Poet, and my part was to stand under the gasolene torch at the end of the wagon and make rhymes on the names of the folks in the audience. That pleased them, generally, and they’d plank down their dollar and go away happy with a bottle of Great Indian. Some of the rhymes were pretty bad, especially at first, and now and then I’d just simply get floored like I was awhile ago. It was easy enough as long as they gave us names like Smith and Jones and White and Brown, but one night a big, lanky farmer pushed his way to the front and told Doc—Doc was the boss, you know—that he’d buy six bottles if I’d make a rhyme for his name. I scented trouble right away and tried to tip Doc the wink, but he wasn’t worried a bit. He just laughed and said there wasn’t a word in the English language I couldn’t find a rhyme for. And then he asked the farmer what his name was.

“‘Humphrey,’ says the farmer.

Ch 12 illus--Harry's island.jpg

“‘Did it just come natural for you to make poetry?’”

“Doc laughed scornfully. ‘I thought it was something difficult,’ he says. ‘But that’s an easy one for the Choctaw Poet, that is. Why, gentlemen, I assure you—’ But I was humping up and down on my toes the way I did when courting the Muse and saying ‘Ugh! Ugh!’ which was all the Indian I knew for ‘Nothing doing!’ And the Doc got on to the fact that I wasn’t over pleased with the job. So says he, ‘While the Poet is polishing up his pome we’ll have some music from the orchestra.’ Well, the orchestra, which was a banjo, guitar, and accordion, gave them some rag-time and I kept on dancing around on my toes and doing a lot of hard thinking. I wanted to throw up my job pretty bad right then, I tell you. But Doc was scowling hard at me and the big, lanky farmer was grinning up like a catfish. The orchestra got through and I was trying to make Doc see that I wanted more time for contemplation when the rhyme came to me. It wasn’t much of a one, but it had to do. So I stopped dancing and looked scornful at the farmer. And says I:

“‘At a dollar a bottle it’s cheap, you know,
But you are in luck, Mr. Humphrey;
It’s six for five to you, and so
You see you are getting some free.’”

“That was fine!” cried Chub above the laughter. “Did he buy the medicine?”

“He had to,” answered Billy. “He claimed that the rhyme ought to have been one word, but Doc quoted authorities to him so fast he couldn’t answer. You couldn’t very often feaze the Doc. Besides, we had the crowd with us. So Mr. Humphrey gave up his five dollars and went off growling with six bottles of Great Indian. I don’t know how much good it did him; anyhow, it couldn’t do him any harm, I guess, for it was mostly licorice and water. We had a big sale that evening.”

“Was that before you joined the circus?” asked Chub with elaborate carelessness, nudging Roy.

“Yes, several years,” answered Billy. “I wasn’t with the Great Indian Medicine Company more’n six weeks.”

“Why did you leave?” asked Roy. “Did you run out of rhymes?”

“No,” answered Billy reminiscently, “but I got my man and—I mean I found another job that I liked better. After that,” he continued hurriedly, “I found a chap out in Big Bow, Iowa, that was going out of the dentist business and I bought him out, stock, good-will, and all. The stock was a set of tools, a broken-down wagon, and a flea-bitten gray horse about sixteen years old. I traveled around for awhile, but the fellow only gave me three lessons and so I wasn’t up to much except pulling. Filling was beyond me. Folks weren’t particular out there in the country towns, though, and as it was cheaper to have a tooth out at twenty-five cents than to have it filled at five dollars—you see, I had to make the price steep so’s they wouldn’t want it done—they generally had it out. But there wasn’t much money in dentistry, and I sold the horse and wagon in Keokuk and came East.”

“Then what did you do?” asked Chub.

“Oh, I tried my hand at several things after that. Nothing particular, though.”

Billy didn’t seem to want to continue the subject and so Chub, with a wink at Roy, desisted. Dick asked Billy how he was getting on with his canvassing.

“Pretty well,” was the answer. “I had a long tramp this afternoon for nothing, though. I went about three miles up the river to a place called Hutchins and then walked about eight miles. Ever been over in that part of the world?”

The boys said that they hadn’t.

“Well, it’s a forsaken country; I only found about six houses all the way, and didn’t sell a thing. Do you get around much on shore?”

Roy explained that they had prospected the country around Ferry Hill pretty well for several miles in each direction, and Billy asked a good many questions about it; whether it was thickly settled, whether the folks were well-off or poor, whether they had ever come across any camps or huts. They answered his questions as best they could, wondering somewhat at the character of them, and finally their guest bade them good night and took his departure. There was silence for a minute or two around the camp-fire after he had gone. Then Chub spoke.

“Say, what do you think of him?” he asked.

“Blessed if I know,” answered Roy. “According to his story he has been a little of everything at some time or other. And what do you suppose he wanted to know so much about the country around here for?”

“Probably wanted to find out whether it was worth while going there to sell Billings’ ‘Wonders of the Deep,’” answered Dick.

“I don’t believe he’s a book agent at all!” exclaimed Roy.

“What? Then what is he?” asked Dick. But Roy only shook his head.

“I don’t know. But I don’t believe he’s what he says he is.”

“Why, he sold some books to papa!” cried Harry.

“Have you seen them?” Chub asked.

“No, they haven’t come yet. He doesn’t carry them with him. He just takes orders, you know, and the publishers send the books to you by express.”

“How much do you have to pay down?” asked Roy eagerly.

“Not a cent,” answered Harry. “So, Mister Smarty!”

“Huh!” muttered Chub. “That just shows how foxy he is.”

“I think you’re perfectly horrid, Chub Eaton,” said Harry. “Mr. Noon is just as nice as he can be, and very—very gentlemanly!”

“That’s so,” allowed Chub. “He seems a mighty decent sort, but—but just the same I don’t believe he’s a book agent. There’s a mystery about him.”

Harry’s eyes brightened.

“Oh, do you think so?” she asked eagerly. “Perhaps he’s a lord or something traveling in—in—”

“Incognito,” aided Roy.

“Yes,” cried Harry. “Haven’t you noticed that he talks sort of—sort of foreign sometimes?”

“Can’t say I have,” Roy laughed. “Although now and then there’s just a suggestion of brogue about his talk.”

“The idea!” Harry said indignantly. “He’s not Irish a bit! I think he’s either English or—or Scotch.”

“Probably Lord Kilmarnock looking for a wealthy bride,” said Chub. “I’ll ask him to-morrow if he has his kilts with him.”

“And his bagpipe,” Dick added.

“Come now, it’s a shame to spoil Harry’s romance,” Roy remonstrated. “We’ll call him His Lordship until we learn what he really is.”

“He’s already been the ‘Licensed Poet,’ ‘W. N.,’ ‘Seth Billings,’ and ‘Mr. William Noon,’” said Chub. “So I guess another name or two won’t matter. There’s just one thing I wouldn’t think of calling him, though.”

“What’s that?” asked Roy.

“Book agent,” Chub answered dryly.