Harry's Island/Chapter 9
THE LICENSED POET
THE group about the camp stared in open-mouthed amazement, while Snip barked hysterically and the stranger having completed his bow, returned their regard with merry, twinkling eyes.
He was rather small in stature and slight of build, with a round, much freckled face, an extremely stubbed nose, a wide mouth, a pair of intensely blue eyes and, crowning all, a thin crop of the most violently red hair that you can conceive of, red hair of that peculiar shade which usually wins for the possessor the nickname of “Carrots.” In age he appeared to be somewhere—almost anywhere, in fact—between thirty and thirty-five years.
But it was neither face nor figure which excited the wonder and amusement of the campers, but the attire. To begin at the ground and work upward, there was, first of all, a pair of low tan shoes; then came a pair of black stockings; then, strange to relate, a pair of voluminous white trousers which hung about the wearer like the folds of a deflated balloon and reached down one leg almost to the ankle and on the other scarcely below the knee. They were decorated in the queerest way, too! For on one leg was a disk of red, while on the other was a black star. Above the trousers was what seemed to be a brief space of red flannel, and surmounting this was a light blue Zouave jacket, much faded and stained, trimmed with a deal of tarnished silver braid and many silver buttons. Above this was a high collar and a black dress-tie, and as a finishing touch to the incongruous apparel he held in his hand a high silk hat upon which the level rays of the sun scintillated dazzlingly. Roy was the first one to find his voice.
“H-how do you do?” he stammered. But Dick’s amazement got the better of his manners, and—
“Who the dickens are you?” he blurted.
The stranger’s broad, smiling mouth drew itself into lines of decorum and, with the silk hat held at his breast, he advanced toward them with measured and dignified tread. At three yards’ distance he stopped, drew himself up with his right knee bent until only the toe touched the ground, thrust his left hand into a pocket of his huge trousers and pulled them out for almost a yard on that side, stretched the silk hat straight before him, crown down, at arm’s length, threw back his head, and—
“Lady and gentlemen!” he announced grandiloquently. “I have the honor to introduce to your attention the world-famed Signor Billinuni, late of the Royal Hippodrome, Vienna!”
Harry gasped, Snip redoubled his barking and the others stared in amazed and admiring awe. There was a moment of silence, save for the frantic voice of the indomitable Snip. Then—
“It’s Seth Billings!” cried Chub.
“It’s ‘W. N.’!” murmured Roy.
“It’s the Poet!” exclaimed Harry.
“More familiarly known,” laughed the man, abandoning his pose and extravagant manner, “as Billy Noon, at your service.”
“Oh!” cried Harry, scrambling somewhat confusedly to her feet. “You—you’ve come to supper, haven’t you? Won’t you—won’t you be seated?”
“After you, my dear young lady,” answered Mr. Noon gallantly.
“We thought you weren’t coming,” said Chub. “We were just sending Dick over on a relief expedition with some clothes. What happened? Did you get wet?”
The guest had laid aside his tall silk hat and seated himself on the ground at Harry’s side. At Chub’s question his smiling face instantly took on an expression of thoughtful gravity.
“Have you ever,” he asked Chub, “been immersed in the Hudson River with your clothes on?”
Chub assured him that he never had, feeling rather apologetic about it. Mr. Noon sighed.
“Then you don’t know what it is to be thoroughly wet. I was so wet that after I had removed my apparel I was obliged to go in bathing to get dry.”
Harry gasped and looked puzzledly at Mr. Noon’s sober countenance until Chub and Dick and Roy burst out laughing. Then Mr. Noon laughed also, and Snip, who had been nosing nearer and nearer, took courage to sniff at the newcomer, and, recognizing an acquaintance, to strive frantically to lick his face.
“Hello, ‘K 9,’” said the guest of honor, patting Snip, “did you deliver that note I gave you?”
“Yes, he did,” answered Harry. “And we were so surprised, because Snip doesn’t like strangers usually.”
“I never have any trouble making friends with dogs,” said Mr. Noon. “And that’s a lucky thing for me, because in my present pursuit I meet all kinds of dogs, and if I didn’t get on with them pretty well I wouldn’t do much business.”
“Oh, are you a dog doc—I mean a veterinary surgeon?” asked Harry interestedly. But the other shook his head.
“I have been a good many things,” he said, “but I haven’t tried that yet. It’s a good idea, though,” he added thoughtfully, “a very good idea. I’ll keep it in mind.”
Dick, assisted by Roy, had been transferring the delayed supper back on to the “table,” and now all was in readiness for a new start. Mr. Noon sniffed the aroma of ham and potatoes and tea with frank appreciation. Then he sighed comfortably.
“Well, I’m glad I decided to waive the conventions and accept your kind invitation,” he remarked as he accepted his helping. “You see, as soon as I sent that note I regretted it. I said to myself: ‘Billy, you’ve made a mistake. You’ve missed a good meal because of over-sensitiveness. These kind friends don’t care what sort of clothes you wear. Forget your pride.’ So I overhauled my wardrobe and found—these.” He looked down at the blue jacket and the flowing white pantaloons and sighed. “They are all I have left to remind me of my former glory. Faded but dear to my heart,” he murmured sadly.
Harry looked very sympathetic.
“Well, it’s a mighty nobby coat,” said Chub cheerfully, between mouthfuls. “Were you in the army?”
Mr. Noon shook his head and chuckled.
“No,” he answered. “These garments were worn by me when I traveled with Northcott’s Great United Shows. I was Signor Billinuni, the celebrated European Clown. That explains the pantaloons. The coat I wore in the parades. I played the trombone in the band.” He sighed again. “Those were indeed glorious days!”
“A circus clown!” cried Chub. “Say, that’s bully. I’ve always wanted to meet a real clown!” And the others murmured assent; all save Harry, whose face fell.
“I thought you were a poet,” she faltered.
Mr. Noon turned to her and smiled apologetically.
“I have been a great many things,” he said, “but I can’t truthfully claim the poet’s mantle. I own to a certain ability in the felicitous rhyming of words, but nothing more, nothing more.” He waved his fork on which a slice of fried potato was impaled and smiled modestly about the circle.
“But I think your verses are perfectly lovely!” cried Harry.
“You are too kind,” he murmured with a bow. “Which reminds me that I owe an apology, never rightly expressed, for the liberty I took with your commissariat.” They all looked rather blank; all except Dick. “I had arrived on this island but an hour before and the problem of supper was occupying a great deal of thought. To be frank, I had in my pantry a little coffee, a fried egg left over from dinner and—and a can of mushrooms, I may better say the can of mushrooms.”
“Mushrooms!” repeated Roy curiously.
“Yes. You see, I happen to be inordinately fond of mushrooms. In an extravagant moment I purchased a can of them; they cost me sixty cents. Naturally, they can only be opened on some occasion of special importance, an occasion which has not yet transpired. So, to all practical purposes, the can of mushrooms was non-existent. Well, considering the problem confronting me, I took a walk about my new domain and stumbled on your camp. It was empty. ‘Providence,’ thought I, ‘has befriended me. I will investigate.’ I assure you, young gentlemen—and young lady—that I took no liberties beyond what you know of. Said I, ‘I will take of their plenty, paying as I can, now in a verse and later, maybe, in something more practical.’ So I took half a loaf of bread and perhaps half a pound of butter, the whole valued at about eighteen cents, let us say. In return I left two verses worth, at market rates, about two dollars. My conscience was at rest and my stomach at peace.”
“Why,” exclaimed Harry, “then we owe you a dollar and seventy-two cents!”
“Eighty-two,” corrected Roy. But the Licensed Poet raised his left hand, which at that moment happened not to be busy, in a gesture of disavowal.
“The market price, dear young lady,” he said, “is not my price. My price for the verses was about eighteen cents.”
“Oh!” murmured Harry, a little mystified.
“Thanks for the fish,” said Dick. “They were fine.”
“You are very welcome. I was so fortunate as to catch eight that morning.”
“Here on the island?” asked Chub interestedly.
“No, some distance up the river, near where a small stream enters.”
“I know the place,” said Chub eagerly. “We must try it some time, fellows.”
“Then you have a boat,” said Roy.
“Yes,” answered the Poet. “The Minerva. She is neither large nor beautiful, but she does very well. I bought her for four dollars and a half, throwing in a set of dentist’s instruments. The instruments originally cost nearly twenty dollars, but they were no longer in their first bloom.”
“Are you a dentist, too?” asked Harry, shrinking a little away from him.
“I was a dentist for a brief space,” was the reply. “But I never had any heart for the profession. I am by nature, though I say it myself, very gentle. If I had my way there’d be no pain in the world. Naturally, extracting teeth was not an agreeable task; I believe that in most cases I suffered more agony than the patient. Would it be a breach of manners to ask for another small piece of the ham?”
“No, indeed,” declared Dick, replenishing the guest’s plate. Although he had been talking almost constantly since sitting down, the Poet had managed to do full justice to the viands. Harry was at first pained to observe that his table manners did not match his speech; he relied rather too much on his knife, for one thing, while there was also a marked tendency to fill the mouth somewhat too full and to talk while it was in that condition. But presently Harry recollected that the poets of whom she had read had all been notably eccentric and, in some cases, even more disregardful of the social niceties than Mr. Noon.
“Are you going to be here long?” asked Roy when the visitor’s wants had been attended to.
“I hardly know,” was the reply. “It is a convenient spot and very attractive and peaceful. I love peace and Nature. I have led rather a busy life heretofore, and now to sleep under the trees when I want to, to lie on my back in the sunlight, to watch the water ripple past the boat—these are delights for which my soul has long yearned.”
Harry breathed a sigh of ecstasy and forgot then and there that the Poet had ever been a dentist.
“Then you’re just camping out?” asked Dick curiously.
Mr. Noon waved a slice of bread airily and smiled gently across the twilight water.
“I am combining business with pleasure, sir. After the day’s work is over I am the owner of the yacht Minerva, taking a pleasure cruise down the Hudson River. During the day I am an agent for the enlightenment of mankind and more especially for Billings’ ‘Wonders of the Deep.’”
“You’re a book agent!” exclaimed Dick.
Mr. Noon bowed.
“Right the first time! Although I prefer the word canvasser. I am selling sets of Billings’ great work, I may say his masterpiece—”
“Seth Billings!” cried Chub.
“On the contrary, I believe his given name is Horace,” replied Mr. Noon. Whereupon they explained about the words found on the back of the slip of paper and their interpretation of them. Mr. Noon found this interesting and amusing, but not enough so to divert his attention from the supper. Harry pressed preserves and cake on him and he politely helped himself generously.
“It must be hard work,” said Roy. “Selling books, I mean.”
“All work is hard if you make it so,” was the reply. “In the same way the hardest work may be easy if you enjoy it. I enjoy selling books. To be a successful book agent one must be a general. Every engagement requires special study. The prospective customer is the enemy to be surrounded and captured. Your ammunition is address, tact, patience, the ability to read character and the power of presenting your wares attractively.” Mr. Noon took a third helping of preserve and cake and warmed to his subject. “To sell a set of books to some one who wants them is nothing; it brings no warmth to the heart. To sell a set of books to some one who needs them but doesn’t want to buy them is worth while but still lacks the highest artistic touch. But to sell those books to a person who doesn’t need them, doesn’t want them and will never use them—that is an accomplishment!”
“I should think so!” muttered Roy admiringly.
“Yes,” resumed Mr. Noon, smiling reminiscently, “yes. One of the most artistic sales I ever made was of a set of Brainard’s ‘Animal Kingdom’; six volumes, half morocco, profusely illustrated by the world’s foremost artists. I sold that set to a gentleman who had been blind for twenty years.”
Harry gave a gasp.
“Why, what did he want with them?” she asked.
“He wanted to possess them,” was the reply. “I pictured those books to him so graphically, so attractively, that he found he couldn’t be happy without them.”
“But he couldn’t read them, nor see the pictures,” objected Dick.
“And that,” replied Mr. Noon gravely, “was an advantage, for the ‘Animal Kingdom’ is a miserable set of books; I handled it less than three months. If he had read them he’d have been disappointed. As it was he imagined what he liked.”
“But that doesn’t seem to me to be quite—quite fair,” said Roy. “It was a good deal like—like cheating.”
“Roy!” murmured Harry distressedly. But Mr. Noon only smiled gently as he gazed over the empty plates.
“I may have been guilty,” he replied, “of slight exaggeration, but the gentleman was quite able to afford the books and the possession of them made him happier than he had been before. We should always keep in mind the Final Good.”
Roy looked perplexed but not convinced.
“Only this afternoon,” continued Mr. Noon, leaning comfortably back on one elbow, “I made a creditable sale and at the same time met a most agreeable gentleman. This afternoon was one of the bright spots in the life of a canvasser. I waited on a Doctor Emery who keeps the school over there, and—”
“Why, that’s my father!” cried Harry.
“Yes, so I learned,” replied Mr. Noon easily. “In fact, I introduced you, my dear young lady, as an entering wedge, so to speak. I mentioned that we were, in a manner, spending our vacations at the same resort—”
“But you’d never seen me!”
“Pardon me, but I had seen you several times. One morning I passed you on the river in my boat. Once or twice I have seen you here at this camp when I have been out looking for wood or communing with Nature.”
“Oh,” said Harry. “And did you sell papa a set of—of—”
“Billings, yes. He preferred the buckram binding. We had a very pleasant chat, besides. A most interesting gentleman, I found him.”
The Licensed Poet arose. It was almost dark.
“And now,” he said, “having spent a busy day after an early arising I find that mind and body yearn for repose. You will pardon me if I take my departure early? I have enjoyed your hospitality greatly, appreciating both the kindness which prompted its offer and the excellent repast provided. I only regret that I am unable to return it. Some day I shall hope to do so, but at present I am so situated that—”
“That’s all right,” interrupted Chub. “We were mighty glad to have you, and we’ve enjoyed meeting you. If you’re round here for awhile I hope you’ll come again.”
“Thank you,” responded the Poet earnestly. “And perhaps, although I cannot entertain you at my board, you will call some time and view my humble abode.”
“Sure,” said Dick. “We’ll come around some time, maybe to-morrow.”
“I hope you will. Good night, and again thanks. Good night, my dear young lady.” The Licensed Poet bowed low to Harry, his ridiculous white pantaloons looming large in the half darkness.
“Good night,” said Harry.
“Good night,” echoed the others. The Licensed Poet turned toward the woods, exposing as he did so the startling design of a donkey’s head on the back of his trousers. He waved his hat, set it jauntily over one ear and moved away, becoming instantly lost in the gloom of the trees.
“Please!” cried Harry. “Mr. Noon!”
“At your service, my dear young lady,” came the reply from the darkness.
“Won’t you—would you mind—couldn’t you compose a—a verse before you go?” she asked breathlessly. There was a moment’s silence. Then the Poet’s voice came back to them from a little distance:
“Thanks, all, for this pleasant occasion,
And pardon my leaving so soon.
That you’ll spend a delightful vacation
Is the wish of your friend, Billy Noon.”