J. Archibald McKackney (Collector of Whiskers)/Chapter 5


 

THE TALE OF
THE WANDERING BOOK-CASE

 

 

CHAPTER V
THE TALE OF THE WANDERING BOOK-CASE

(As Told in the Smoking Room of the Hoch Der Kaiser on the Last Night at Sea.)

AT one time I was keenly interested in collecting, as a sort of side issue, locks or clippings from the whiskers of famous men. It was a pursuit which I later forsook in favor of my more valuable and elaborate collections of whisker portraits, but in the course of several years I had acquired fragments of the beards or whiskers of nearly every man of national importance at home and abroad. Some were given me by their owners, others were obtained by bribing their barbers, while a few came to me by means not so scrupulous.

I was unhappy, however, because my collection lacked a souvenir snipped from the royal adornment of a certain illustrious ruler of a European state whose name I must withhold. Suffice it to say that he was generally acknowledged to wear one of the most magnificent beards in Christendom. Diplomacy and intrigue had failed me and I had about given up this specimen as hopeless.

While traveling on the Continent I was one day filled with excitement to behold this illustrious sovereign enter a first-class railway carriage in my own train. He was accompanied by a military officer of high rank, and I guessed that he was making a journey incog. I could not help fingering a pair of folding scissors in my waistcoat pocket, but of course I was not mad enough to attempt an open assault upon the coveted trophy.

Presently the train pulled out from the station and there I sat with only the walls of a compartment carriage between me and the prize that I would have given a handsome fortune to possess. I racked my brains to devise some scheme for making the acquaintance of His Majesty, but my mission was so delicate and even insulting that I could only writhe in baffled helplessness.

At length the train halted at a wayside station and there seemed to be some trouble on the tracks ahead. I summoned the guard to unlock my door, and stepped on the platform to stretch my legs. A minute or so later I saw the illustrious potentate impatiently throw up his window and poke his head out to glare to and fro as if seeking the cause of our detention. His noble beard fell outside in a torrent and waggled in an imposing manner. While I was staring at it with envious eyes, the guard signaled the order to go ahead. I was about to hurry into my compartment when a startling outcry arose from the adjoining carriage. I turned and beheld a truly amazing spectacle. While his majesty was withdrawing his head from the open window the sash had dropped with great force. The end of his beard was caught and held as in a vise and almost a foot of it hung over the window-sill outside.

The helpless prisoner was roaring for assistance and beating the glass with his fists. I saw the chance of a lifetime. The train was in motion, and swinging myself on the foot board, I whisked out my scissors, and with a lightning sweep of the arm, snipped a generous handful from the end of the captive beard. It was hideous lese majestie, but my ardor reckoned not with consequences. Never shall I forget the murderous wrath that flamed in the countenance of my august prey as he gnashed his teeth at me through the window pane.

It was all over in a second or two. I knew that the king's companion would stop the train if his release were not instantly effected. Tucking my trophy in an inside pocket I abandoned my luggage and ran swiftly across the platform, through the station, and into the traffic-crowded street. Leaping into an empty cab I threw a gold piece at the driver, ordered him to drive like the devil for nowhere in particular, and was borne swiftly away from the scene of my remarkable achievement.

I shall pass over the incidents of my flight
 
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"Snipped a generous handful from the end of the captive beard."
 
and escape. Thanks to a lavish use of money and a frequent change of disguise I succeeded in passing the frontier, and within three days was crossing the English Channel. The European newspapers were ringing with garbled reports of the assault of an anarchist or lunatic upon the person of a certain illustrious ruler, but none of them connected the dastardly incident with the American tourist, J. Archibald McKackney.

At that time there was a keen rivalry in this field of collecting between a New York man named Pillsover and myself. He was, in fact, no more than an imitator, and had begun to seek the whiskers of celebrities through hearing of my success. He was a friend of mine, in a way, and I had often entertained him at my New England country place. After my return from abroad I asked him down to view the trophy shorn from the chin of the European ruler in the manner already described. He tried to conceal his consuming envy, but I could see that he was wretchedly unhappy. His two most notable captures were totally eclipsed. One of them had been purchased from the barber of a petty Hapsburg prince, and the other begged from an American cabinet minister.

We spent the evening among my collections in the library and when we were ready to go upstairs, I went to replace the priceless trophy in my fireproof vault. The steel doors had been closed by my secretary, however, who took it for granted that I had finished my business with it. The time lock had been set to open next morning, so that I was barred out.

I had been examining a volume of a costly edition of a standard author, and one of the books lay open on the library table. Without more ado I tucked the parchment envelope containing the royal strands of whiskers between the leaves of this book which I restored to its case, intending to look after it in the morning.

My friend, and rival, Pillsover, was compelled to take the midnight train to the city and we parted on the best of terms. Little did I dream that when next we met it would be as implacable enemies.

Early in the morning I was aroused by a telegram demanding my immediate presence in Boston on a matter of large financial importance. The news was so disturbing that the recollection of the trophy hidden in the book case was wholly driven from my thoughts. In fact I did not recall it until my return late in the afternoon of the following day. Then I hastened to the library, withdrew the volume which I had been reading two nights before, and searched it with some small excitement.

No one but a collector can imagine my emotions when I discovered that the parchment envelope was missing. I ran through every one of the thirty odd volumes with furious haste. Tearing my hair and fairly breathless I summoned my secretary. His tidings added fresh fuel to my wrath and consternation. I should explain that this subscription edition of books, with their handsomely carved case, had been shipped to me on approval. Through a blunder of the publisher a binding slightly different from the style selected by me had been sent. I had noticed the error and intended to write about it at my leisure.

In the meantime, however, the publisher had discovered the mistake, and during my absence in Boston he had sent an agent to my house with the other set of books to replace those already in my possession. My secretary explained to me that the agent had taken the wrong edition back to New York with him, and placed the new set of books in their case in my library. Knowing that I desired to have this change made, my secretary had made no objections. I am afraid that my language was shocking, but the provocation was immense. Here was my parchment envelope, containing the gem of my hirsute collection, whisked off to Heaven knew where, by a misguided wretch of a book agent.

When I became calmer I asked if anything else had happened during my unlucky absence. I was informed that Pillsover had called on the previous day, just as the publisher's agent was driving away with the first or wrong set of books. He had recognized the agent as a salesman from Vellum & Co., and had shown considerable curiosity concerning his errand.

"I explained the circumstances," confessed my secretary, "and Mr. Pillsover asked me if you knew of the transfer of books. I told him that you had to go to Boston without a chance to attend to any business at home. Then he wanted to know whether you had left me any special instructions about the collections. I told him I had not seen you that morning. Then he spent some little time in the library, made some inquiries about the time lock of the vault, and said he was thinking of getting one like it."

A few more questions and I had fathomed the purpose of the conscienceless Pillsover. He had returned to try to secure, by trade or purchase, the Sovereign's Whisker. A collector myself, I could imagine him as passing a restless night tortured with the desire to win from me my prize. He knew where I had stowed the trophy overnight, and he was able to make a shrewd guess that it still reposed in the book. As soon as I had pumped my secretary dry, my surmise amounted to a conviction that, unknown to me, the book along with its fellows had been carted away to the publisher and that Pillsover had followed its trail in hot haste.

I perceived at once that if Pillsover could overtake the book-case, he would abstract the parchment envelope, and that I should not be able to prove his guilt. In fact, there would be no way of bringing home the theft to anybody. Pillsover had obtained the start over me, but I instantly called up the New York office of Vellum & Co. on the long distance 'phone and ordered them to hold the returned set of books until I could make a personal examination of them.

Their reply pained me beyond words. The books had been received, but there happened to be so many orders on file for this particular edition that they had been reshipped by express within an hour of their arrival. I demanded the address of the consignee, and was told that four sets of this edition had been sent out in the afternoon and that it was impossible to tell which of the four had been returned by me. Here was the very deuce to pay. I insisted upon having the four addresses of the consignees. They were scattered from Skowhegan, Maine, to Richmond, Virginia. The publisher tried to console me over the 'phone by adding:

"Your friend, Mr. Pillsover, called this afternoon and tried to catch the books you speak of. He seemed quite excited when I explained the circumstances of their reshipment. He made me give him the addresses of the four consignees, so we took it for granted that he was acting in your behalf."

In my mind's eye I could see Pillsover starting hot-footed to run down the four sets of books one by one, even waiting for their arrival at the homes of their purchasers. It was a desperate gamble, with odds of three to one against him, but the stake was worth it. There was nothing for me to do but to pursue the same tactics, to chase the wandering book-cases over the face of the earth until I had found the right one and pray that I might overtake it ahead of Pillsover.

It was a most formidable task that lay before me. I shrewdly guessed that Pillsover would hurry to one of the farthest points of the circuit in the hope of throwing me off the scent. I therefore set out post-haste for Skowhegan, in the first stage of the spectacular race for the King's Whisker. There I learned that my rival had reached town ahead of me. The gentleman who was expecting the box of books told me that they had not yet arrived, but that a man calling himself an agent of Vellum & Co. had been anxiously inquiring after them.

It seemed that the miserable fellow Pillsover, wishing to hide his identity, had clapped on a false beard and was passing himself off as an agent with books to sell. He had been making a pretense of a house-to-house canvass, so I was told. If Pillsover intended resorting to such despicable dodges as this to hide his perfidy, I would fight him with his own weapons. Consulting a Skowhegan lawyer I was pleased to learn that there was a town ordinance forbidding all kinds of agents to vend or peddle without paying a tax and securing a license. The authorities were promptly informed of Pillsover's lawless operations, and he was arrested and thrown into jail over night. The constable caught him red-handed on a doorstep with a sample book in his hands so that I did not have to appear in the proceedings. I waited until the box of books arrived, was permitted to examine them, and found no missing whisker. Leaving Pillsover to cool his heels in the calaboose I headed for Burlington, Vermont, to seek the second book case on my list.

I was delayed by missing my connections, and Pillsover, who was fined and released next morning, must have taken another and swifter route. At Burlington I found that the second consignee, Jonas Harding, was an eccentric old codger who lived six miles out in the country. I chartered a livery rig and sought his home with the greatest possible expedition. About half the distance had been covered when the clatter of wheels made me look behind. A buggy was fairly careening down the long hill, the horse at a gallop. Leaning far over the dashboard and plying a whip was none other than Pillsover, red in the face, shouting like a madman. I give you my word I hardly knew the man. He had thrown prudence and self-respect to the winds. He had forsaken his ambush. The capture of the Royal Whisker had already obsessed him. Apparently he had no thought for the future. The lust of the chase had so gripped him that he was ready to fight for the prize. I myself had become keyed up to such a desperate state of mind that I could scarcely blame him.

When he recognized me he uttered a yell that curdled my blood, and urged his poor beast with more fury than before. I drew my whip and slashed my willing steed. I could not let Pillsover beat me to the second book-case. It was a break-neck race of almost three miles over a rock-strewn country road, up hill and down. I could only pray that my rig would hold together, as we bounded and caromed along side by side, or within two or three lengths of each other.

Half a mile from the finish Pillsover began to draw ahead. He had the better horse, and when he saw that I could not overtake him he cast a look at me over his shoulder that was positively fiendish. I had to watch him whirl into Mr. Jonas Harding's yard door in a cloud of dust, a good hundred yards ahead of me. When I leaped from my buggy he had vanished through the front door. As I ran after him an old man bolted into my arms yelling, "Fire, thieves, burglars! Help! There's one of 'em in the parlor and here's another a-helling after him."

I shouted reassurances in the old man's ear, but he brushed me aside, caught up a wooden bottomed chair, and would have brained me on the spot had I not dodged through the parlor door. I had time to glimpse Pillsover in the act of yanking books from a case by the armful. Then the wooden-bottomed chair caught me in the small of the back and I sprawled headlong on top of Pillsover. As I
 
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"The wooden-bottomed chair caught me in the small of the back."

 
tried to scramble to my knees my hand fell upon volume fifteen. The gilded lettering gleamed like fire. In a flash I recognized it as the book I sought. Tucking it under my arm I made one spring for the nearest open window. Not even my coat-tails touched as I flew through it like a bird. Climbing into my buggy I drove pell-mell toward Burlington, and as the vehicle spun into the highway on one wheel I heard the sounds of battle raging in Mr. Jonas Harding's parlor.

While I steered my galloping steed with one hand I opened the book between my knees. Alas, my gallant struggle had been in vain. The royal whisker was still missing. I was reasonably sure that Pillsover had not examined this book when I fell upon it, and therefore there was nothing to do but hasten in pursuit of the third book-case.

Pillsover was covering ground with fairly infernal energy, I will say that much for him. In fact I was in the library of the third consignee, in Harrisburg, when I saw him dash up the front steps. My host had promised to say nothing of my visit, as I wished to confuse my rival as much as possible. Therefore I slipped behind a portière as Pillsover was ushered into the room by a servant. He was left alone for a few minutes, and I had the pleasure of seeing him tiptoe to a corner of the library and fumble with the glass door of the Vellum & Co. book-case. He was in such clumsy haste to get at the books that he tugged too hard at the catch. The case had not been solidly placed. It toppled and fell over on Pillsover with a terrific crash, and several plaster statuettes smote him on the head with great force. I paused only long enough to view him prostrate with a large bust of Dante resting on the back of his neck. Then I fled to catch a train for Richmond.

By a most arduous process of elimination I had been able to determine beyond a shadow of doubt that the parchment envelope was in volume fifteen of the fourth consignment which had been shipped to Micah P. Rogers of Richmond. I found him without difficulty, and Pillsover had not yet appeared on this horizon. Neither had the book-case. It seems that after waiting for a reasonable period, Mr. Rogers had notified the express company. The local agent was unable to find any traces of the missing box of goods. More investigation convinced the parties interested that it had somehow gone astray between New York and Richmond. Every effort was being made to locate the missing package, and I had no other course than to confide in Mr. Rogers and ask him to forward the precious document to my home as soon as the shipment should reach him. I was very nervous and apprehensive that the pestiferous Pillsover might find a way to get his hands on it, but I was worn out with traveling night and day, and there might be weeks of futile waiting.

Wearied and disappointed I started to return to New York. My train was not more than an hour beyond Richmond when it was blocked by a wreck. A brakeman informed me that the tracks could not be cleared for several hours. Therefore I walked ahead to watch the wrecking crews at work. A number of cars of merchandise were strewn about in frightful confusion. Fire had broken out among the splintered express cars and their contents, and the train crews were fighting it with bucket brigades.

Another passenger train coming in the opposite direction from mine was standing on the other side of the blockade. Its people were also walking along the track to view the interesting scene at close range. Foremost among them I recognized Pillsover, evidently bound for Richmond. His head was bandaged and a strip of plaster gleamed athwart his nose. As I drew nearer the one side of the blazing wreckage, he approached closer to the other until we were glaring across the smoking barrier perhaps a hundred feet apart. He could see that I was a passenger on the train that had left Richmond earlier in the day, and he was forced to conclude, of course, that the parchment envelope and the Royal Whisker were in my pocket. His emotions must have been tormenting in the extreme, for several times he shook his fist at me. I assumed as triumphant an expression as possible, and stared at him with haughty contempt.

The wind shifting, I was able to walk nearer the wreck, and presently my eye was drawn to a smashed packing-case that had been tossed down the embankment to the edge of the burning area. Where the planking had been ripped away I thought I saw several dark-green books protruding. Moving closer I noticed that more books lay scattered about on the grass and among the lumber just beyond.

My curiosity was aroused. I ran down the slope as near the wreck as the frightful heat would permit. When a dozen feet away I felt almost certain that these were books of the same edition which I sought. If so, they must be billed to Richmond. The chance of their being the Rogers shipment was overwhelming.

While I stood gazing at them, trying to shield my face with my coat, a yell rose from beyond the wreck. Pillsover had made the same discovery and jumped at the same
 
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"The wretch was crawling toward the box on hands and knees."

 

conclusion. I must act on the instant or not at all. The wretch was crawling toward the box on hands and knees, coughing and choking for breath. I pulled my coat over my head and tried to fight my way along the embankment. The gusty wind veered suddenly and drove a deadly sheet of flame between me and the box. Driven back I watched the greedy fire lick around the prize I sought. Dimly I could see Pillsover reeling back beaten, with his face in his hands. Baffled, he and I watched the precious shipment burst into flames.

Presently a charred bit of paper fluttered past me. I clutched it, and my fingers closed on a bit of smoking parchment. I sniffed it eagerly, and detected the odor of burning hair. There was no doubt that the Royal Whisker had perished on this imposing pyre.