J. Archibald McKackney (Collector of Whiskers)/Chapter 3


 

THE TRAGEDY OF
THE PEASANT'S REVENGE

 

 

CHAPTER III
THE TRAGEDY OF THE PEASANT'S REVENGE

WHEN the twenty-two members of the Hirsute Orchestra filed into my library on the morning named for the first rehearsal, I surveyed their varied assortment of whiskers with a good deal of pride and satisfaction. It had been no easy task to find and assemble this animated keyboard with which I proposed to test my new theory of musical vibration. But before attempting to extract harmony from their whiskers I had to contend with annoying discords of individual temperament, for my assistant, Hank Wilkins, had selected these gentlemen for their whiskers alone. Here on the eve of the first rehearsal old Captain Rust showed a quarrelsome mood. He had been picked up on the Boston water front because his snowy and majestic beard promised to supply a musical note of rare power and resonance, and I had been very patient with his infirmities of temper. But as he entered the library at the head of the three octaves, he bellowed at me in a stormy voice:

"I ain't going to be treated in this ridikilus fashion. I'll take my whiskers and go home. I didn't expect to be herded with a passel of looneytics and used as a gosh-whanged Æolian harp."

My most tactful efforts finally subdued him, and I mention the incident only to show the kind of trials I had to contend with at this time. As simply as possible I explained to the company the theory of sound vibration and the application of these proven facts to the Human Whisker. They listened with respectful interest, although their eyes could not help wandering to study the long lines of framed photographs and paintings on my walls, which exhibited the choicest specimens of my unique collection of whiskers, wild and tame.

At length I led them upstairs, and after me trooped Boston clubmen, deep-water skipper, sea-cook, physician, artist and lawyer, all of them eager to know more about the reason for my interest in them. I ushered them into my "work-shop," and directed them to be seated at random on three rows of chairs which were arranged on a platform at one end of the spacious room. They stared with amazement at the seeming chaos of intricate machinery that filled the place and I hastened to explain:

"We will set to work, gentlemen, according to my tentative diagrams of the respective tonal qualities of your whiskers. Captain Rust is placed at the lowest note of the scale to begin with."

The old gentleman rebelled at being put lower in the scale than the Portuguese sea-cook and swore that he outranked the "putty-faced son of a tea-kettle." The more intelligent members of the orchestra grasped the fact, however, that the longer and more luxuriant the whisker the lower must be the pitch of the resultant musical note, and that I had mastered the principle of the Æolian harp in a novel and startling manner. One by one the "notes" of this singular scale were given their proper positions according to my carefully prepared diagrams. It was more or less guesswork until I could begin to tune these picturesque and delicate vibratory media.

At last I was ready to seat myself in front of the electric switch board which operated the automatic series of bellows, and I applied to my ears the receivers of the microphone batteries. Wilkins, my assistant, had fastened the head of each bewhiskered gentleman in a cushioned clamp and adjusted a polished sound reflector just behind him. I have been accused of lacking a sense of humor, and I confess I could see no cause for the suppressed hilarity which seemed to be shaking Wilkins to his foundations. The aspect of these solemn rows of strangers pinned in position like so many luxuriant botanical specimens was of course odd and unusual. From the pained expressions of their features I judged that they expected me to electrocute them to a man. But my trained artistic eye was busy with admiring the beautiful regularity with which the serried whiskers grew shorter and shorter as they ascended the scale of three octaves.

At length I pressed a key and my fingers were tremulous with excitement. The bellows directly in front of old Captain Rust drove a swift blast of air on his face and his beard played to and fro like a miniature cascade. I waited an instant and again turned on the air current. The bellows next in line responded to an electric impulse and the flowing "Dundrearys" of the Salvation Army derelict waggled perceptibly. I turned to my tuning forks and almost stopped breathing. I had heard the first note struck from the vibrations of Captain Rust's magnificent beard and now I found that the next ascending note was no more than a quarter of a tone off the key. I realized that my fondest dreams were coming true, and my emotions were beyond words.

Step by step my marvelous mechanism stirred the sensitive vibratory impulses of this human scale into sounds too fine to be heard by the human ear. Ah, but they were rich and enjoyable! Up, up the scale I tried each note until at last the needle-like mustaches and spiked goatee of the Portuguese sea-cook were trilling a faint, sweet chord, yes, a genuine chord of three notes, not quite in key, but magnificently promising. I was so carried away with joy and excitement that I played furiously up and down the scale, oblivious to the false notes and discords, now caressing the harmonious whiskers with a pianissimo breeze, again fetching great booming notes from the beard of Captain Rust with cyclonic fortissimo gusts.

My instruments were of course eager to hear for themselves, and one by one I allowed them to use the microphone receivers and listen to the music of each other's whiskers. At last I had to tear them away from this fascinating diversion, and announced that the tuning process would begin at three o clock in the afternoon.

Wilkins had already summoned a skilled barber from Boston, with instructions to bring his complete outfit of shears. I was fidgeting with anxiety until the orchestra had reassembled. As soon as affairs were in readiness I instructed the phlegmatic German barber as follows:

"You must be sure to do exactly as I tell you. When I am prepared to test the first note (that old gentleman on the lower right), you are to trim him as directed. Be sure to preserve the most perfect symmetry. If you cut on one side, the other must match it to a hair's breadth or there will be discord."

The barber was a person of discretion and made no comment beyond a muttered, "Mein Gott, vat it is?" He wore a beard of Teutonic cut over which I made him slip a small silk bag lest it might be set vibrating with inharmonious effect. As soon as the knight of the shears knelt beside Captain Rust, I found the pitch of the note with a tuning fork, while I told the barber:

"Clip a little off the left side. Now the same off the right. Ah, that is better. It is still a shade too low. Now a fraction off the bottom. The tone is almost perfect. Clip the merest strand from under his chin. There, he is absolutely in tune."

With deft shears the bewildered barber altered, curtailed and harmonized the contrasting types of whiskers that were displayed along the ornate sequence of three octaves. By shortening the vibratory media the tones were easily raised, but when I found three sets of whiskers pitched too low, I was compelled to ask their owners to withdraw from rehearsals until the natural process of growth should lower their pitch.

When I dismissed the orchestra for the day I cautioned them to keep away from damp places lest the myriads of delicate strings of their "Æolians" should shrink and get out of tune. Wilkins suggested advising them to use moth powder freely, but I think the fellow was jesting.

I sent for him that evening and confided my cherished purpose. In another fortnight I hoped to be ready to play simple airs in the key of C Natural on the McKackney Hirsute
 
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"Now a fraction off the bottom. The tone is almost perfect."

 
Orchestra. Then I intended to invite to a private concert or exhibition a score of the leading musicians and scientists of the East, including the head of the Musical Department of Harvard University. My bold crusade in behalf of the Human Whisker as a field for Nature study[1] had won me some small reputation in the intellectual world, and I had reason to believe that my invitation would be respectfully entertained.

The rehearsals were conducted day and night, and so far advanced were my plans three days before the date of the concert that I had the superb pleasure of listening to a programme of no less than eight popular airs played with notable beauty of expression. I had become like a man in a dream, and had lost all interest in other affairs. I therefore paid little attention to Hank Wilkins when he read me the following cablegram from Berlin:


"Bearded peasant shipped per instructions. Due arrive steamer Bremen nineteenth.

"Steinbach."

 

"Bearded peasant?" I echoed blankly. "What the deuce is that. Some curio my Berlin agent has sent me on approval? Do you know anything about it, Wilkins?"

"Yes, sir," he replied. "Don't you recall Steinbach's sending you word that he had found a peasant near Hanover with a beard six feet four and a half inches long, which he braided and wore in three half-hitches around his neck? You wanted to add him to your collection, sir, and we were on the point of starting for Germany to look him over when you ran afoul of your musical vibration theory and chucked everything else in the discard."

Then I remembered the bearded peasant. I had cabled Steinbach to ship him to me and to ask Lloyds to insure his whiskers for the voyage. But I had no time to bother with my collections now, for the concert was only two days away. I asked Wilkins to run down to New York and fetch the trophy home and find quarters for him. In another week I could study and photograph him at my leisure. Then I dismissed this rare importation from
 
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"Wilkins brought the hairy exile home with him."

 

my mind and plunged with furious energy into the final series of rehearsals.

Wilkins met the steamer as directed and brought the hairy exile home with him, while curious crowds followed them to my gates. I did not clap eyes on him at the time, and the incidents leading up to the horrible tragedy perpetrated by this base wretch came to my knowledge after the event. The bearded one, Hans Bumphauser by name, turned out to be a vain and stupid yokel who had been vastly puffed up by the invitation of the "great American nobleman." His whiskered eminence had won him a certain notoriety in his own village and he had come to conquer new and glittering worlds. He had expected to be received by me in person and the ends of his beard were bound with gaudy fillets of tinsel by way of a festal toilet. It vexed and disgruntled him to find that the "nobleman" was too busy to notice him.

The humiliated object de art sent numerous messages to the mansion demanding art audience with me, between whiles combing and braiding his beard with praiseworthy diligence and holding himself in readiness for the summons that never came. I had forbidden the household servants to annoy me with outside matters, and I had forgotten the very existence of Hans Bumphauser, the pride of Eistelberg. Would to Heaven I had given him the finest suite in my mansion and dined him at my right hand!

It seems that in his gloomy excursions over the estate the bearded peasant had noticed the unusual number of whiskered gentlemen who seemed to be welcome guests at the mansion. He saw them going to and fro in groups and squads, and the sensational beard of Hank Wilkins also helped to confirm the black suspicions of Hans Bumphauser that these strangers had crowded him out of favor with the Lord of the Manor. He was even overheard to mutter, "Gott in Himmel, are these second-rate whiskers to make me forgotten already?" But no importance was attached to this ominous hint of what was shortly to befall.

Jealousy was flaming his grief into slow and sullen anger and he began to hunger for revenge. His thick wits could devise no way of harming the neglectful and fickle Mr. McKackney until in an evil moment he happened to meet my orchestral barber in the village tavern. To his fellow-countryman the peasant unfolded his tale of deception and heartache. They lingered over many glasses of beer and the barber became criminally confidential. He began to brag of his own importance in my household and hinted that upon his skill and fidelity hinged the success of the most important undertaking of my life.

The bearded one listened with more interest and fairly pricked up his ears when the barber became loquacious enough to tell him, "Every day I must trim the whiskers of the twenty-two visiting gentlemen exactly just so or there will be ten thousand devils to pay."

Hans Bumphauser objected that it was a sin to trim the whiskers at all, and that no sane man would ever lay hand upon a whisker except in kindness. But the barber sighed:

"Ach, but it is the music. I have not heard the wonderful music, but I have seen it every day."

Bumphauser wanted to know what the music had to do with a barber, and the latter was rash enough to say:

"It is the grand concert to-morrow, stupid. But if I do not do my duty right, the concert will be ruined. And Herr von McKackney will die of a broken heart."

Of course the misguided peasant was keenly interested by this time, and he had heard enough to make him thirst for more information. The German farm-hand with whom he lodged had been previously summoned to the music-room to help move some heavy machinery, and he had watched the barber at work with his tuning. By persistent questioning Hans Bumphauser began to piece together a working theory of revenge. In short, his conclusion must have been that if in some way he could tamper with the whiskers of the twenty-two guests he would deal a mortal blow at the hated Herr von McKackney.

Ignorant of any menacing danger I was preparing to welcome the distinguished company of scientists and musicians. They were to arrive for dinner Saturday night. In the evening I planned to deliver a lecture to pave the way for the demonstration, and on Sunday morning they would listen to the first concert of the Hirsute Orchestra. Fearing to expose myself to baseless ridicule I had so worded my invitations that my guests should not learn the nature of my discovery until I had a chance to explain it on scientific grounds.

As was to be expected, they came in mingled moods of doubt and curiosity, but I flatter myself that before the dinner was over they had begun to consider the journey well worth while. After coffee and cigars in the library I requested their attention and began to read from a roll of manuscript. The savants were interested from the start. The originality of my views made them breathless, but I took them step by step from one unassailable premise to an equally sound conclusion. The first mention of "Whiskers" evoked a ripple of levity, but this was soon smothered in hearty applause as I began to describe the experiments which had led to the assembling of the Hirsute Orchestra. Then I laid my manuscript aside and announced in ringing tones:

"You may think me a madman, gentlemen, but to-morrow morning you shall listen to the music which I have tried to describe. You shall hear for yourselves and be convinced. You have been very patient, and your reward shall be in proportion. Gentlemen, the Hirsute Orchestra is an accomplished fact and——"

There was a sound of clattering footsteps in the hall. I paused and waited, and an instant later Hank Wilkins burst into the library like a tornado. He was breathless from running, and his eyes were fairly popping from his head. I had never seen him so agitated and I knew that he bore some dreadful tidings. Even after years my memory is stamped with the words which he hoarsely stammered:

"The Hirsute Orchestra is busted all to Hell, Commodore. There's no repairin' damages. It's a total wreck."

The guests rose in confusion while I swayed in my tracks and could only murmur in a far away voice that I scarcely recognized as my own:

"Explain yourself, Wilkins. For Heaven's sake, pull yourself together. I—I—don't understand."

My devoted assistant snatched a decanter from a table and hurried to my side as he cried:

"Throw in a stiff one, sir. You'll need it. It was the prize Dutchman, sir, the Bumphauser lad, that came by cable. He was sore about something and he ran amuck with a big pair of scissors—just now—in the dormitory. Some of the Æolians had turned in early and was asleep. He hacked at their whiskers right and left. The devastation was appalling. Great handfuls chopped out of 'em. Then he broke into the smoking room. Four of the priceless Middle Octaves were playing poker. Before they could get steerage way the whiskers of two of 'em was in ghastly ruins."

I fell into an armchair and gasped for air. I could not find speech, and while the company
 
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"He was sore about something and ran amuck with a big pair of scissors."

 
stood as if rooted to the floor Wilkins concluded:

"And while I was running to the scene I met old man Rust and Peter O'Dwyer staggerin' home from the village. Their whiskers had gone by the board, decks swept as clean as the back of my hand, sir. The Bumphauser pirate had loaded them with booze and gashed their whiskers off in the back room of the tavern. There ain't a whole Octave left, and the Hirsute Orchestra is fit for nothing but the junk-shop."

"Did you capture the infernal scoundrel?" I finally managed to gasp.

"He's bound and gagged in the stable, sir, and I left orders to hang him in his own whiskers if he moved an eyelash."

With sympathetic accord my guests stole into the dining room, and as soon as possible I begged them to excuse me for the night. As I fairly tottered into the hall, leaning on the arms of my faithful Wilkins I said to him:

"I want to forget it all for a while. It is the most crushing blow of my long life. We must go away from here at once. Engage passage on the next steamer bound for Europe. Thank Heaven, Wilkins, your own peerless Titian beard was spared."


  1. See Appendix A.