J. Archibald McKackney (Collector of Whiskers)/Chapter 1
THE EPISODE OF
THE TITIAN BEARD
J. ARCHIBALD McKACKNEY
(Collector of Whiskers)
THE EPISODE OF THE TITIAN BEARD
LATE in a bracing autumn afternoon I was playing golf on the links which adjoin my estate. I was alone save for the stimulating companionship of Colonel Bogey. While driving for the home green I pulled my shot so disastrously that the ball flew off at a sickening tangent and vanished in a dense woodland as if the devil were after it. Struggling through the underbrush with somewhat peevish comment, I headed for the tree against which the ball had struck. It must have caromed wide and far, for the search was bootless.
I had wandered so far into the strip of woodland that as I paused to mop my face, an opening in the trees showed me a green valley and a hillside of pasture beyond, bounded by low stone walls. A man was moving across the pasture, and so vivid a patch of color gleamed against his dark coat that I waited and watched him with an interested eye. As the distant figure drew nearer I became more puzzled and intent.
Just then the sinking sun shot a slanting dazzle across the pasture and the dash of vivid crimson on the wayfarer's chest gleamed like a sheet of flame.
"Good Heavens," I muttered. "It is the man's whiskers! Nothing so very rare about the pattern but that Titian red! I have tried to find that peculiar shade among the whiskers of three continents. I must have his portrait in color, even if I am compelled to kidnap him. God bless me, but his beard is priceless! Why, I have heard of only one other such specimen, and before I could locate the owner he carelessly dropped a match in his whiskers, and they were utterly consumed. I wept at the news and am not ashamed of it."
Without more delay I plunged down the slope, clumsily leaped the brook and crawled over the stone wall of the pasture. The stranger was advancing at a leisurely gait, and as he halted to fill and light his pipe I shivered with an apprehension inspired by the recollection of the tragic experience which I had just called to mind. My quarry was a middle-aged, stocky person, whose features and garments were battered to the edge of the disreputable. Above his flaming beard emerged a sun-burnt cheek, and beneath his shaggy red brows twinkled a merry and unabashed eye. As we met in the cow-path I remarked as calmly as possible:
"Pleasant weather, sir."
The stranger replied in a voice that rumbled from his chest:
"It's all right for them that can afford to toddle around with them silly little sticks you've got in that bag. I'm lookin' for a game where they give away ham-and-eggs for first prizes."
I hesitated, but the spirit of the collector was rampant and another glance at the peerless sweep of Titian whiskers compelled me to throw prudence to the winds.
"Will you not do me the honor of coming home to dine with me?" I asked. "My little place is on the other side of the links. It will be a rare pleasure for me, I assure you."
The bearded one blinked and tugged at his hirsute treasure with his two hands as he cried:
"What kind of a josh is this? I'm nothing but a stranded seafarin' man making his way cross country to Coveport in the hope of finding a berth aboard a coastin' vessel. Thanks, but I think your head-piece may need calkin'."
The upshot of this was that J. Archibald McKackney, a gentleman of some wealth and station, found himself in the odd position of pleading with this derelict wayfarer to come and dine in a mansion. Red Whiskers still eyed me with an air of gloomy misgiving, but at last consented with the frank comment:
"I must be the lost Charlie Ross, and as for you—well, the keeper was lookin' the other way when you broke out for an afternoon romp."
Pleased with my success, I sighed as I reflected that with my sanity already impeached it might be extremely difficult to broach the topic of the whiskers. However, we managed to cross the golf course without more bickering until my home loomed ahead, set far back amid a park-like expanse of grounds. The seafaring pilgrim balked in his tracks and shook his head so violently that his beard waggled like a crimson banner in a big wind.
"I've heard they stow the rich lunatics in such elegant dry docks as this while their stearin' gear is being repaired," he shouted. "But Hank Wilkins don't belong in this gilded bug-house, not by a ding-donged sight."
The mutiny was suppressed only when a head-gardener and a gate-keeper happened to appear. Their attitude toward me was so sane and respectful and my orders were so intelligently delivered that the pilgrim gulped down his fears and walked up the rambling path with somewhat nervous tread. In his time Mr. Hank Wilkins must have seen many curious things, but when he was ushered into the library by a liveried footman, his ruddy countenance became positively pale with emotion. I could not help chuckling as I viewed the agitation of my guest.
"Welcome to my bachelor quarters, Mr. Wilkins," I cried. "Will you have something to drink before you go to your room to dress for dinner?"
"Can a duck swim?" fervently exclaimed Mr. Hank Wilkins. "Rye, if you please, sir, and I begin to think your intellect is getting its bearings. I never heard a saner speech—but all I've got to do about dressing for dinner is to comb the cockle-burrs out of my whiskers and report all standin'."
"Yes, your whiskers, of course," I absently murmured. "First in your thoughts, of course. Pardon me yes, you will find your clothes laid out and a man to help you into them."
Mr. Wilkins sputtered and choked as four fingers of aged whisky slid down his dusty throat. Then like one in a dream he rolled in the wake of the footman, nor did I observe at the time that the decanter was still tightly clutched in the fist of my guest.
It befell, therefore, that while the outer man was being adorned, the inner man was being mightily refreshed. Before the valet swept the crimson beard aside to encircle the bull-neck of Mr. Wilkins with a white tie, the blithe little devils in the decanter had banished all his fears. Beaming, but by no means befogged, the sailorman returned below stairs, a heroic figure in evening clothes whose dazzling front was wholly eclipsed by the magnificent torrent of his beard. I saw him do a few steps of a hornpipe in the hall and bow low before a mirror, but he assumed an imposing dignity of bearing as he joined me in the library.
"If I don't come out of this pipe-dream soon, and I'm to shift myself into these clothes again," said my guest with great emphasis, "I'll chop these whiskers off, so help me."
"Chop those whiskers off!" I echoed with a catch in my voice. "My God, Wilkins, don't say that again, I beg of you. Your beard, I—I——"
"But they douse my gold buttons and shiny shirt," he protested, and then wishing to humor me, he added in soothing accents:
"Now don't get dippy again. You've been doing well. If you admire my whiskers take 'em as a gift."
"Perhaps I ought to explain," I began, just as the butler announced that dinner was served. As the sailor heaved himself out of his chair, his roving eye was drawn to a line of portraits on the opposite wall which displayed some of the choicest specimens of my collections.
"Oh, look at the oakum-faced sundowners, millions of 'em," he exclaimed. "I've fathomed his soft spot. He's gone wrong on whiskers, poor man."
As Mr. Wilkins lumbered into the dining room he sonorously chanted the impromptu refrain which was weaving in his brain:
"Whiskers short and whiskers long,
Whiskers weak and whiskers strong,
Why, this is the place where I belong."
My robustious guest was in a mood even more mellow and melodious after his glass had been thrice filled with champagne, and with his beard parted and flung back over his shoulders like a pair of brilliant sash-curtains he burst into snatches of deep-sea chanties mingled with the original couplet:
"Where the seas are high and the wind so gay
Blows through my whiskers every day."
At length I was able to stem the tide of convivial song and roaring talk and broached the burning topic at issue:
"I wish to paint your beard, Mr. Wilkins, in order to add it to my collection, some of whose exhibits caught your notice in the library."
"Paint my nose sky-blue and pink rings around my dead-lights," thundered Mr. Wilkins, as he pounded the table so that the glasses danced jigs. "Some of 'em plays they're kings or trains of choo-choo cars, but whiskers is certainly harmless and diverting."
"We will have the first sitting to-morrow morning, then," said I. "I am a fair amateur with oils and I can assure you a creditable likeness."
"Don't hurry it, sir," anxiously put in the sailor. "It's a shame to spoil a beard like mine to save time, which was made for slaves."
I had explored some of the remote parts of the Seven Seas which were familiar to this deep-water sailor, and the later hours in the library fled with a flowing sheet. Mr. Wilkins became hugely interested in my hobby after fathoming the ardor with which I had braved dangers and hardships in quest of rare whiskers, and before midnight we had learned to esteem each other as men of uncommon parts and experiences.
It was to be regretted that at length Mr. Wilkins became so drowsy that he suddenly fell asleep in his chair. Nor could he be awakened by shouting, shaking, or tickling in the ribs. The servants had gone to bed, and after tugging in vain at the formidable bulk of my guest, I decided to let him remain as he was. I reflected that he was comfortable, and that whenever he should happen to come to he could find his way to his room. 'Pon my soul, he was like a dead man. I surveyed with the most respectful admiration the flamboyant and unique beard of the sleeper and went upstairs.
Some time later in the night I was aroused by a crashing sound and a scuffling as of a struggle somewhere above my head. Still dazed with sleep I pushed the electric button at my bedside and waited for my valet. There was no response, and after scrambling to the floor I turned on the lights and rang the butler's bell. After waiting through interminable moments I concluded that in some mysterious fashion my household was prevented from coming to my aid.
Tiptoeing carefully into the hall I stole down the broad staircase and fairly ran for the front door. It had flashed into my mind that the sailor might be conducting a lone-handed series of depredations. I thought at once of the valuables below stairs, and I bitterly regretted that I had not taken more precautions to guard my collection of precious stones, a fad of my earlier years, during which I had sought to make my collection of rubies the finest in the world.
But while I was fumbling with the lock, the sound of a prodigious yawn echoed from the library. I cast a swift glance over my shoulder and was relieved beyond words to see Mr. Hank Wilkins stretching himself in the depths of his luxurious arm-chair.
"I will have to trust him," I gasped to myself. "I believe that a desperate gang of scoundrels is after my rubies. I was warned only a week ago to take them to the city for safekeeping."
I fled into the library and Mr. Wilkins blinked and grinned at the sight of my agitated figure in pink pajamas.
"Worried about my getting away with the silver, Commodore?" he asked.
"No, no," I stammered, "but I have been foolish enough to keep in that small safe behind you the finest collection of unset rubies in the United States. Burglars are in the house. They have silenced or killed my servants. They will kill us for those jewels. What can we do? Quick, man."
The mind of Mr. Wilkins had become clear and alert, and he was a man to meet such a crisis as this without flinching.
"If they've captured all hands but us, there must be a gang of 'em with desperate business on hand," he whispered hoarsely. "And we can't get away. And, by Jupiter, we don't want to. Let 'em come. Here, open that safe, quick."
"They will blow it open if I don't, I suppose," I groaned. "We cannot hide the rubies now. They will turn this room upside down when they find us here."
"I heard steps up aloft somewheres," muttered Mr. Wilkins. "Open that safe, I tell you. There, that's more like it." While I was twisting the knob of the combination, the sailor grabbed a bottle of mucilage from the writing table. As I withdrew a small tray on which the clustered gems gleamed like drops of blood, Mr. Hank Wilkins swept up a handful, let a stream of mucilage fall on them, and rolled the gems in his two fists. Then, two and three at a time, he stowed the rubies in the burrowed depths of his Titian beard. It was the work of seconds only to scoop up another fistful of treasure, smear the rubies with the gummy fluid and bury or cache them in this same flaming jungle where they clung secure and wholly invisible.
"Shut the safe and sit down calm and easy, sir," he commanded me. "If the coast is clear, we may make a run for it yet."
But as the sailor slipped toward the nearest window, hoping to find a way of retreat, three masked men appeared in the hall doorway. Three blue-barreled revolvers were leveled at me, and their muzzles looked to be as big as megaphones. The leader cried:
"Hands up. And you with the red whiskers, put 'em over your head. Ride herd on 'em, Bill, and shoot if they bat an eye while we tackle the safe."
Mr. Hank Wilkins stood fixed with hands upraised in an attitude of patriarchal benediction while with an expression of humorous appreciation he listened to my heroic refusal to reveal the combination of the safe. It was not until the door had been blown off by the wrathful burglars that our plight became menacing. As soon as the empty tray was discovered the leader whirled on me with black oaths and yelled:
"We know the stuff is here. It ain't up-stairs, and we'll blow your brains out if you don't give up."
The room was ransacked with destructive fury, desks broken open, cupboards smashed, while one burglar stood over me and pressed a revolver against my bald and fevered brow. Then the sailor was flung to the floor and bound with curtain cords, while our captors fairly ripped off our garments in their ruthless search.
"By —— ——," cried the leader, "toast old McKackney's feet and let him yell. The flunkies is all doped or sand-bagged. The rubies is in this room, we had the tip straight."
To the horror of the helpless sailor and to my own unutterable anguish, I was plucked from my chair and borne toward the fireplace in which smoldered a huge back-log. My struggles were so frantic and my cries so piercing that two of the rascals were wholly absorbed in this hideous task. The third was busily kicking to pieces the one surviving cabinet and Mr. Hank Wilkins was unnoticed for the moment.With a mighty, grunting heave of his big chest, and with every splendid muscle swelled and taut, he strained against his bonds in a supreme effort. Nothing weaker than a wire cable could have withstood it. The curtain cords snapped and the sailor was on his feet with a bound like an angry cat. Before the nearest burglar could turn, Mr. Wilkins had hurled a mahogany chair at him. It sped like a twelve-inch shell, dashed his victim against
the wall with sickening impact and left him senseless. His revolver clattered from his limp hand, and Wilkins scooped it up as he ran. Before the pair of villains near the fireplace could do more than let me fall squirming across the fender, the sailor had shot one of them through the shoulder and beaten the other to the floor with the heavy butt of his weapon.
Having stood me on my feet, my rescuer disarmed his captives, made them fast to chairs with deft knots and hitches and flew up-stairs to muster the servants. One by one he removed their gags and bonds, kicked and cuffed the effects of chloroform from their addled brains and drove them trooping down ahead of him. While they bandaged the hurts of the burglars I was able to steer my tottering limbs to the telephone and summon the police from Coveport.
By the time the captives had been carted away to the hospital, daylight was streaming through the library windows. It illumined with a splendid radiance the beard of Hank Wilkins, who was engaged in plucking from its incarnadined depths a wondrous store of jewels. I watched him with profound gratitude and admiration. The sailor paused in his task to chant a melodious inspiration:
"Heigh, ho! Roll and go!
Rubies in his whiskers,
For he told me so."
I grasped the hard fist of my guest and said with deep feeling:
"You shall not roll and go from this house as long as it suits you to stay. There is a man behind that peerless Titian beard, and I owe you more than I can ever repay."
"My whiskers is my fortune, sir," cheerily replied Mr. Wilkins, "and they are yours to command, even if you want to dye em bottle-green. And here is the last ruby of the lot, sir, all safe and sound. I had to go deep into the underbrush to dig it out."
"I am in need of a faithful assistant," I told the honest fellow with a chuckle, "and I am inclined to dub you 'The Hair Apparent.'"
- The owner of the peerless Titian beard, Hank Wilkins, plays so important a part in the subsequent narratives that it seems advisable to preface them with this account of the singular manner in which the sailor man became the associate of Mr. McKackney. (Editor's Note.)
- Mr. McKackney being of a spare figure, it would have been impossible for the burly Hank Wilkins to insert himself in evening clothes belonging to his host, even with the aid of a shoe-horn. The butler, however, was a fine, upstanding man, who owed his long tenure of service to the possession of a set of the dignified gray whiskers popularly known as "mud-guards." It is to be presumed that some of his extra raiment was requisitioned. (Editor'sNote.)