J. Archibald McKackney (Collector of Whiskers)/Chapter 6


 

THE TALE OF
THE SHIPWRECKED PARENT

 

 

CHAPTER VI
THE TALE OF THE SHIPWRECKED PARENT

I WAS enjoying a quiet afternoon with my notebooks in my London lodgings. I had been in England only three weeks and already my researches had been rewarded by the discovery of two very uncommon species or patterns of the Human Whisker. The portraits of their wearers were in process of being painted by competent artists, and I was in the midst of cataloguing these treasures according to my own system of classification and nomenclature when a commotion in the street caused me to hasten to the window.

A four-wheeler was maneuvering near the curb in a most surprising manner. Now the vehicle would sweep a circle and approach the door, then it would halt and back a few yards, while from within issued a series of shrill commands that fairly crackled with profanity. I was able to hear the turbulent passenger cry with formidable fury:

"Hard a-starboard, you swab! Now easy with your helium. Don't you know enough to let her come up into the wind when you're making a landing?"

The harassed cab made another dizzy circuit, and finally stopped at the curb. The door was flung open and there emerged a huge beard of Titian red followed by its sturdy owner, Hank Wilkins, my faithful assistant and the companion of many of my wanderings. He beckoned to the driver, who handed him down a bit of plank and a coil of rope. Then Mr. Wilkins carefully moored the horse, stern and bow, to the footscraper on the doorstep, after which he laid one end of the plank inside the cab and the other on the curb, thus making a little bridge. Touching his hat with a sailorly salute he addressed the interior of the cab:

"All's made fast shipshape and proper, father. Hawser's ashore and gangplank out. Come on, if you please."

A sprightly old man darted into view and ran down the gangplank. He was so gaunt that his clothes fairly flopped about his withered frame. His weather-browned face resembled a shriveled pippin and his hawk like nose swooped down to meet his concave chin.

"All taut, my boy," he piped in a voice like the wind singing through a ship's rigging. "If I hadn't been along that lubber on the poop 'ud have smashed us into smithereens, hey, boy?"

Mr. Wilkins grasped his fellow-voyager by the arm and led him indoors. I met them in the hall and Wilkins explained with some embarrassment:

"This is my aged parent, sir. I ran afoul of him by sheer accident, and found he was even more set in his ways than when I last clapped eyes on him. The only way I could fetch him up from the docks was to let him play he was cruisin' ashore. I hadn't seen the old codger for twenty-odd years, and thought he was lost in the wreck of the Australia clipper Hyder Ally. I knew him the second he raised a yell in my wake and came runnin' after me, but I was a bit puzzled at first because he used to wear a beard, and now his face is as shy of hair as a china nest egg."

I coaxed the pair into my sitting room, and placed the briny and erratic parent behind a scotch-and-soda. He dipped his beak in the glass, threw back his head and slid the drink down his wizened throat without blinking. His offspring commented:

"He steams by fits and starts, sir. His safety-valve is pretty near due to blow off again and then you'll hear him waste language at an awful rate. Where have you been, dear father? You haven't squandered any postage stamps on your only child." The parent slapped the table with his skinny hand, smacked his lips and began to drone as if the lever of a phonograph had been released:

"The Hyder Ally was foundered in the Injun Ocean and I was the only man of her
 
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"A sprightly old man darted into view and ran down the gangplank."

 
crew that drifted ashore. And me and the bit of plank I was clinging to like a barnacle was tossed on the beach of an island that wasn't down on any charts at all. I discovered it, and named it Lemuel Wilkins, his island, by gum. And there was people on this Lemuel Wilkins Island, big brown savages with no more manners or morals than this big red-whiskered son of mine. And the men on that island, they had whiskers, too, tropical, luxuriant whiskers they was, oh, such wonderful growths. When they come down to the beach to pick me up, they was truly a rare and noble sight.

"It was the fact of my wearin' a fine upstanding beard that saved my life. They gave me a hut and fed me up, and I was treated with respect. It wasn't a month before I was beginnin' to talk their lingo and pick up their ways. One of the first things I noticed that was awful curious was that every morning all the men sat in the sun and dressed their whiskers most particular with combs made out of sharks teeth. Then they washed 'em and holystoned 'em with some kind of ointment and little fiber brushes and spread them out to dry.

"I figgered that it was healthy for me to follow the majority as long as I had to sojourn on Lemuel Wilkins Island. While my whiskers wasn't as fine and silky and luxurious as the savages, they was pretty fair for a fo'ksle growth. So I borrowed a comb and a squeegee and began to tend my chin-warmers as careful and assiduous as my neighbors. This made a hit with 'em from the start, and even the king was kind enough to pass me out a few encouraging words.

"Bime-by I learned that among my islanders rank and office was decided by reason of the longest, bushiest whiskers. It was like this, do you understand: the king held his berth only until some other man of the tribe happened along with a finer set of whiskers. Then the unfortunate ruler had to climb off his perch and make way for a new monarch. The poor old discard let his whiskers get all neglected and frowsy, like the jig was up and he'd lost the number of his mess for keeps. The next highest chief or prime minister was the Johnny with the second finest whiskers, and so on down the line until you come to the Comb and Whisker Bearer to His Royal Nibs.

"It might ha' been one year, and it might ha' been a hundred and forty-seven years for all I know, when I found by measurin' my whiskers every morning that they had reached their limit. They had sprouted every last blankety blank sprout there was in 'em. Then with fear and trembling I signified my intention of entering the next competition for office, which was held every six months. It was something like Civil Service examinations. I played in hard luck that trip, for this here competition brought out the finest collection of prize whiskers ever seen on Lemuel Wilkins Island. It had been fine growin' weather, lots of showers and sunshine, and them native-bred tropical varieties took to it kindlier than my brand, which was reared in the temperate zone.

 
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"Hallelujah, I won by an eighth of an inch."

 

"When the Royal Surveyor came along the line with the official measurin' rods I was all 'et up with excitement. I didn't have no show to be a king, but there was several snug berths that I had an eye on, and it was going to be a close finish between me and the other mejium growths. Hallelujah, I won by an eighth of an inch, and was made Captain of the Royal Body Guard.

"There was only one sorrow in my year and a half at that job. An Italian barber was washed ashore from a wrecked liner, and when we found a razor in his pocket I was foolish enough to tell the King what it was for. He ordered the poor castaway to be stoned to death with green cocoanuts, for there was no reasoning with His Bloodthirsty Majesty. The barber was a heretic, a blasphemer, a menace to law and order, and several other things, and I couldn't save him from his fate. The royal notion was that any man that dare lay hand on a whisker with felonious intentions was a hidjus monster, and had ought to be exterminated quicker 'n scat.

"I disremember how many years it was before there came to pass what is called in the history of Lemuel Wilkins Island 'The Red Whisker Rebellion.' There was a tradition that some day a man with a red beard would come from Heaven or appear in some kind of astonishin' manner, and he would be the great and exalted King and reign forever and ever, amen. I used to sit under a cocoanut tree and mourn that all the brains of the family went to the inside of my head and all the red hair to the outside of my boy Hank's. That didn't help none, me being a bloomin' brunette by profession, and I logged it along on my humble but happy course until the man from Maaloo Island come sneakin' ashore with his damn conspiracy. It was kept under cover awful close for six months or so. And it was a sad day for me when I fell an easy prey to his horrid temptations. It wasn't natural for a white man to stay satisfied with such tupenny jobs as Captain of Police and Maker of Whisker Combs for the Palace by Royal Warrant. I was itching for authority in high places, but my whiskers couldn't match my ambitions.

"The man from Maaloo Island had me sized up as the abiding place of the cankerin' worm of ambition with a big A. And when me and my crew that was divin' after pearls was blown into Maaloo Island harbor by a gale of wind, he renewed his hellish overtures and unfolded his plot. Him and a pal of his had discovered an herb which would make a dyestuff that was warranted not to fade, crock or get rusty in three lifetimes. It was their copper-fastened secret, and they had tried it on several sets of false whiskers. These appendages they had hung in the scorchin' sun and left out in the rain and towed behind 'em at sea for four years. And the crimson tint of them whiskers hadn't altered enough to be visible to the naked eye.

"The man from Maaloo Island had a brother that hadn't been home since he was a boy. Being a perfect stranger to all hands in them waters, the plot was to dye the brother's whiskers red, he having the most wonderful natural bunch in all the Injun Ocean. Then they was to land him on Lemuel Wilkins Island with some kind of flim-flam and deludin' ceremonies, like he had hopped off a passin' cloud.

"It looked all right. My poor islanders had never seen no dyestuff of any kind, and they didn't know that red whiskers growed anywhere except where their gods come from. It was as easy as stealing the handles from your grandmother's coffin.

"I was to help the game along all I could, usin' my pull with the police in case of trouble, and this dyed-in-the wool King swore he'd make me his right hand man and executive officer. But I didn't have to lift a finger when his Sacred Red Whiskers landed. He was discovered at sun-up chumming with the wooden gods of the tribe as if he had fell among a bunch of long-lost brothers. The Lemuel Wilkins Islanders flopped on their knees and surrendered, hook, line and sinker, body, soul and breeches which they didn't have none. The cheap human being of a King that was in power was tipped on his royal head and the Red Whiskers God took the throne without a murmur. Then he picked me as the spoiled darling of his muster roll, and nobody dared whimper. Oh, but them were brief but beauteous years!

"It was a fifty-pound case of plug tobacco that ruined Lemuel Wilkins. It was cast ashore from some wreck or other, and I welcomed it with songs of rejoicing. And being grateful to the Red Whiskered King, I taught him how to chew. He took to it like a seaman to rum. And we'd pass the warm, starlit evenings clampin' our jaws on chunks of good old Bristol Navy and feel our hearts expand with love for our fellow men. He wasn't a neat chewer, being strange and uneducated, and he used to trickle some when he spit. He had hopes of bein' able to hit a knothole at ten feet, like me, but he was a mere apprentice, so to speak.

"We went to bed in the dark on that fatal night after an exciting round of target practice at the knothole, and I had no chance to warn him. At daylight he strode forth to meet the head men and petty officials of the tribe for a sacred pow-wow. The rays of the rising sun lit up his Heaven-descended whiskers like a bonfire of tar barrels.

"There was a wild roar from his followers. I heard the hell-raisin' racket and rushed to the scene. There was a streak of brown and another of gray runnin' halfway down his beard. I dassent believe my eyes. The petty chiefs was crowding in around him, utterin' shrill cries. Alas, it was too true. The dye-stuff from Maaloo Island hadn't been made proof against the continued and corrodin' effects of tobacco juice. It had done its deadly devastation over night. The Sacred Whiskers had begun to crock and run.

"The Head Groom of the Bed Chamber was summoned on the jump. His acute and expert vision could not be fooled. He pronounced the whiskers a harrowing imitation that might have been made in Germany. Then the chiefs held a formal trial. I wasn't there. I was wildly searchin' for a seagoing canoe when they dragged me back from the beach. Five hours later the bogus god had been beaten to death with war clubs, and a bona fide human or home-grown set of whiskers was reigning in his stead. He had confessed all, miserable wretch that he was, and I was accused and tried for conspiracy.

"No, they didn't kill me, but they done me much worse. I was condemned to have my whiskers pulled out with pincers, every last hair of em. Do you fathom what that meant? With a face as clean as a billiard ball I was no longer fit to be with men. I was disrated, cast out, dishonored, fit only to do wimmin's work. And they made me do it. It was that or starve. They put me to work in the laundry, doing up the royal whisker covers what was put on by the King and his Cabinet at night, same as we use nightcaps. There is things worse than death, just as the Good Book says that the bite of an ungrateful son is more grievous than the sting of a serpent."

The unfortunate parent let his head sink between his shoulders like a mournful old bird on its roost, and wiped one beady eye with the cuff of his sleeve. It seemed indelicate to press him with questions, and Hank Wilkins and I waited in attitudes of respectful attention. At length the parent rubbed his smooth and shining chin with the back of his hand, and the touch of it awoke his wrath to seek vent in speech.

"Doomed to wander whiskerless over the
 
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"And laugh in his bushy beard till the tears ran down into it."

 

face of the earth was I," he went on, "though I wasn't allowed to wander to any extent. Humiliations were heaped upon me, full and overflowing. The King used to saunter down to the laundry and sit on a tub carved from a solid log and laugh in his bushy beard till the tears ran down into it and hung there like diamonds. Years and years and ages and ages I toiled in this disgustin' manner, and there was no balm or whisker restorer in Gilead for the wreck of what had once been the high-steppin' and proud-spirited Lemuel Wilkins.

"At last I escaped from them torments. It was in a Dutch gunboat that discovered the island and sent a boat in shore to chart the reefs. Disguised as a tubful of washing, I made my way to the beach by night and swum off to the Dutchmen. If there had been one red-whiskered man aboard the vessel I'd ha' made a desperate attempt to lead a rebellion with him and upset the ruling dynasty. But there was no such luck, and they landed me in Batavia without a penny, yes, even poorer by the length of my whiskers than when I had been washed ashore on Lemuel Wilkins Island. On my way home I picked up a monkey that had been owned by a deef and dumb man in Borneo. He had taught the intelligent animal to talk the sign language to him, usin' its hands and feet with surprisin' fluency. That there double-ended monkey, Four-handed Jacob, is the only friend I've got in the world. I'm teachin him to conduct dialogues with himself and——"

I was impolite enough to break into the rambling monotone of the shipwrecked parent. I told him that it had occurred to me that Lemuel Wilkins Island was waiting for his son Hank as its lawful and predestinated sovereign. Nor did I feel that I ought to stand in the way of such glittering advancement. Here was this fine fellow, Hank Wilkins, owner of the most superb Titian beard in the world, if I knew anything about whisker values. And in the Indian Ocean was a throne that belonged to him. And more than that, I hoped to be able to accompany him to Lemuel Wilkins Island. If Hank Wilkins had been shown the way to a throne by the revelation of his shipwrecked parent, then I had been privileged to discern a new and wonderful opportunity for extending my researches among the rare species of the Human Whisker. To think of visiting this island, where whiskers were encouraged and cherished by custom, tradition and the stimulus of ambition, fired my soul with unbounded ardor. And with Hank Wilkins as ruler, by grace of his peerless Titian beard, there would be no limit to my novel investigations. I hastened to console the shipwrecked parent and my voice rang with enthusiasm:

"Never fear, Lemuel Wilkins. You are the sire of the genuine Hair Apparent. We shall sail for the Indian Ocean on the first steamer out of England. And when Hank Wilkins has come into his kingdom, you shall be summoned as Prime Minister, and you shall be allowed to boil the deposed monarch to death in a laundry tub. And meantime you and Four-handed Jacob shall be liberally pensioned."