J. Archibald McKackney (Collector of Whiskers)/Chapter 7
THE ABDICATION OF KING
THE ABDICATION OF KING WILKINS I
(As quoted from the author's diary for the year 1904.)
APRIL 5th.—After interminable weeks at sea, weeks beset with doubts and fears and hopes, our fondest dreams have come true. The night has fallen on our first day in Lemuel Wilkins Island. As I write, the firelight flickers upon the bronzed forms of our stalwart native bodyguard, and throws into bold silhouette their incomparable sets of tropical whiskers. These treasures are all that the Shipwrecked Parent led me to hope for, and I picture to myself happy months to come, with camera, sketching tablets and note books. Perhaps I shall be able once more to organize an Hirsute Orchestra, here where the rarest of tonal qualities are waiting to be grouped and tuned, here where the steady sweep of the trade winds will evoke vibratory harmonies by night and day.
I am not a coward, and my adventures in pursuit of rare whiskers have led me into some tight corners among various kinds of uncivilized folk. But I am ready to confess that I was in an agitated state of mind and that my knees wobbled when the surf boat from my chartered schooner grounded on this remote beach in the gray dawn, and Hank Wilkins and I were left alone to face these mysterious islanders. I could not help recalling the fate of the red-bearded impostor from Maaloo Island. And what disturbed me even more was the fact that I was clean shaven, and might be thrust against my will into some such degrading kind of labor and humiliating social status as had crushed the unfortunate Shipwrecked Parent. If Wilkins failed to win by virtue of his Titian beard—well, our lives and fortunes hung by a hair, or, to be more accurate, by a rarely splendid bunch of them.
Leaving me alone on the beach, Hank Wilkins advanced toward a stately grove of palms, combing his whiskers as he moved with kingly stride. I slumped down on a bit of driftwood, my head in my hands, and waited for Heaven alone knew what. The moments dragged horribly, but it could not have been more than an hour before I heard shouts re-echoing from the grove, shouts of joy which merged into some kind of a slow, chanting music. Presently Hank Wilkins came from among the trees. His head was bound with a fillet of leaves, a fiber cloak was draped from his massive shoulders; and behind him streamed scores of villagers, dancing, singing, waving palm branches. Now and then a group of them would hurry on ahead to look at the oriflamme of a beard that lured them on, and to bow and posture before it in the most complete adoration.
I was panic-smitten, however, when a number of men rushed straight at me, and brandished clubs as if about to dash out my innocent brains. With savage shouts and fierce gestures, Hank Wilkins restrained his ardent followers, and hastened to embrace me and throw his cloak across my shoulders. While he was convincing the islanders by means of this pantomime that I was his friend he managed to tell me:
"My whiskers won in a walk, but it was uncomfortable for a while. 'Once bit, twice shy,' and they made me soak my beard in a tubful of powdered plug tobacco and water before they were sure I was the real thing. Follow me to the palace, and cast your eyes on the lovely specimens in my wake."Upon my soul, the prodigious beards of our escort formed a sort of human jungle. They were trimmed and trained in such wholly original patterns as to convince me that the art of wearing whiskers has fatally degenerated among civilized races. I shook the hand of His Majesty King Wilkins I. in silent ecstacy. We did not catch even a glimpse of the luckless ruler so suddenly deposed by reason of our advent. He had climbed the back fence of the palace yard, his inadequate and superseded whiskers his only luggage, and fled by sea well ahead of the mob. We entered the royal apartments to the sound of drums and horns, and made ourselves at home. The Groom of the Royal Bed Chamber at once set to work anointing and combing the royal and supernal beard of King Wilkins I in token of the official installation. I was left free to begin my researches, and by nightfall I had photographed and catalogued two absolutely unique growths, and was as happy as a truant school boy.
May 3.—Our island has been invaded by a young woman of our own race, a most astonishing and incredible event. I was drawn to the beach this forenoon by a great outcry and stampede from my village, and hurried after, to find a small schooner driving ashore, dismasted and helpless. Her native crew was trying to launch a boat as the doomed vessel drifted toward the roaring surf that pounded over the inside reef. The boat was swamped even before it could be manned, and our brave villagers rushed to their fishing canoes which had been pulled above high water.
But before they could attempt a rescue, King Wilkins I came tearing through the crowd, roaring commands, and in a twinkling he had picked a crew and was urging them into the breakers. The brave fellows toiled like madmen. Thrice the giant seas beat them back and whirled their canoe end over end. But they followed the flaming beard of their leader as if it were a banner of war, and at length the canoe crossed the reef in clouds of spray.
Soon a driving rain veiled the schooner from our sight, and an hour passed before the canoe reappeared. Then, amid a storm of cheers from shore, it was flung far upon the sand. I rushed to pick up the inanimate form of a young white female, but the dripping Wilkins shoved me aside, and swinging her against his shoulder he ran toward the palace. He gasped as I trotted at his side:
"Miss Hulda Barnstable of Walpole, Mass.—missionary bound to the Peace Island group. Old gent that convoyed her was washed overboard yesterday and lost."
May 10.—I am not ungallant by nature, but I have begun to wish to Heaven that the young missionary female had chosen some other island for the scene of her shipwreck. She has an attractive personality in her demure, prim way, and her eyes are uncommonly fetching. But in one short week she has managed to demoralize the government of Lemuel Wilkins Island, and to play the very devil with my well-ordered round of scientific investigation. King Wilkins I promised to send her on her way in the first vessel he could lay his hands on, but for the last day or so he has appeared to care precious little about sighting a sail.
Miss Hulda Barnstable is of that annoying New England type that can hear a call of duty from the Antipodes and is always cocked and primed to regenerate any community except its own. She was not asked to right any wrongs or save any souls on Lemuel Wilkins Island, but already she has expressed in the strongest language her contempt for an elderly gentleman who will waste his golden years in studying and collecting the Human Whisker. She has even begun to set the natives against me, and is actually preaching the damnable doctrine that their pride in their whiskers is sinful and disgusting. As for the King, he is not like himself. I have the gravest doubts of his being able to make a firm stand against the New England conscience when reinforced by a pair of fine gray eyes.
May 15.—Early this evening Wilkins launched into a story of his troubles. His impassioned monologue lasted an hour, and the gist of it was as follows:
"Mr. McKackney, I have never failed you yet, nor sidestepped any proposition that I once laid my hand to. You will recall that I took my life in one hand and my camera in the other when I got you the picture of the Insane Cossack with the Pink Whiskers that is the gem of your collection to this day. But I never lost my sleep o' nights before, nor watched my appetite slide out from under me till it would disgrace a hard-working humming bird. And what is it all about? Why, the very thing that you and me have made the business of our lives and been d—n proud of; the very thing that fetched us to this island, where we were so happy until——"
Wilkins pulled at his beard and stared down at this mainspring of his sovereignty with a significant frown. Then he resumed:
"What is it? It is Whiskers. She abominates 'em. No, don't interrupt me. I don't want to have to be disrespectful, even though I am a king and you are my naturalized subject with the rank of Royal Whisker Inspector by brevet. But I can't allow you to criticize the doings or the motives of Miss Hulda Barnstable of Walpole, Mass. I repeat, she abominates 'em, hook, line and sinker. Whiskers to her sensitive soul are hateful, disturbin', odjus, like rattlesnakes. And I can't blame her, of course. Only I wish—I wish the foundations of my throne wasn't built on my Titian beard.
"I might as well tell you, sir, why she possesses this amazin' distaste for that noblest work of God, to wit, the Human Whisker." Wilkins continued after a lugubrious silence. "And you won't blame her a bit. It seems that when she was a slip of a girl, in her early teens, her maternal uncle, Jedediah Stokes by name, wore a set of whiskers of which he was tremendously fond. As well as I can gather from her rough description, they were of the 'Chin-warmer Vulgaris' pattern—a very common growth, as you know, sir, with no artistic merit whatever. You have a plate and description of the variety in the Illustrated Catalogue. This Jedediah Stokes was a retired sea captain, who had piled up in the East India trade what amounted to a large fortune for a small New England town. This fortune he had willed to his widowed sister (who was the mother of the young missionary person) and to her children.
"The old barnacle lived with the Barnstable family, and being somewhat infirm by reason of his hardships endured at sea, he often fell asleep while reading beside the parlor table over which he used to flop with his head in his hands. His youngest nephew, a high-spirited boy of twelve, used to watch this lullaby performance with a good deal of interest. At last he hit upon the most unfortunate idea of applying a fresh coat of glue to the top of the table just before Uncle Jedediah fixed himself for one of these silly naps. The old man was already blinkin' and noddin' when the lad spilled the glue under pretense of looking for a book. Then from the doorway the young limb o' Satan watched the poor old mariner's head bob lower and lower until his prodigal whiskers was streaming full and free across the table. Then the nephew hastily ducked and took a station by a window outside, where his line of retreat was open."It seems that Uncle Jedediah woke up with a snort and threw his head back hard and sudden. To his immense rage and surprise he fetched the table along with him, and so securely was he moored that after one or two frantic plunges, which upset the lamp and other bric-a-brac, he was forced to kneel beside the table, bellowing with pain, while the family rushed for scissors and axes to cut him clear. Meantime the house caught fire from
the upset lamp, Uncle Jedediah was forsaken and forgotten, and he escaped to the street, draggin' the table with him and shrieking at every jump. He had to have his whiskers hacked off at the roots, and the result was that he disowned, repudiated, cussed out and disinherited the whole Barnstable family. From that day Miss Hulda Barnstable, whose nervous system had been severely jolted by this double tragedy, could not abide the sight of whiskers.
"It's a long walk from Walpole, Mass., to Lemuel Wilkins Island in the Indian Ocean," solemnly concluded the monarch, "but those fatal whiskers of Captain Jedediah Stokes, bein' dead yet speaketh. And they are strong enough to shake the throne of King Wilkins I, and I'm not ashamed to confess it, sir."
May 25.—To-day I interviewed Miss Hulda Barnstable, and had my worst forebodings and surmises confirmed. I found her in the palm-thatched pavilion, in front of which she has placed a sign:
"DISTRICT SCHOOL No. I.
A class of brown cherubs was trying to sing "From Greenland's Icy Mountains" as I entered with a good deal of timidity. Their teacher, who was becomingly attired in a freshly laundered duck skirt and white shirt waist, requested me to wait in silence until the "first recess." Meekly obedient, I stole outside and noted that the tribesmen were giving the school house a wide berth, or, if their business took them past it, they went to a good deal of trouble to hide their whiskers. I reflected with bitterness that at this rate they would begin cutting their whiskers off before many moons. At length Miss Barnstable beckoned me to a bench under a nearby tree and said very firmly:
"Mr. J. Archibald McKackney, I cannot leave this island by swimming, and as long as I am compelled to remain here I propose to follow the path of Duty that lies plain before me. And I shall do everything in my power to persuade Mr.—er—King Wilkins I to abandon his hideous whiskers, and to abolish them root and branch among his misguided subjects. And you are helping this idolatrous Whisker Cult as its High Priest. I have made a beginning with my school children, who repeat in chorus each day:
We'll never, never use the weed
That bad men smoke and chew:
The wine cup shall not pass our lips;
Down with the horrid brew.
We promise too, dear teacher, that
All whiskers are taboo."
I assured Miss Hulda Barnstable that I had no designs on the morals of the youth of Lemuel Wilkins Island. Then, as diplomatically as possible, I tried to show her that she was playing the very deuce with the throne itself, that Wilkins without his whiskers could not last two minutes, and that the traditions of ages had established the system of choosing monarchs by this hirsute qualification, and that by virtue of his unique red whiskers he was a good deal more than a common or garden potentate of mortal origin. "My dear young woman," I told her with a good deal of feeling, "let him alone. He is a first-rate king, and he enjoys it, or did until you began to mix yourself into affairs of state."
Miss Hulda Barnstable bit her lip and looked me very straight between the eyes as she retorted:"Mr. Hank Wilkins will not cut off his
whiskers unless he thinks the sacrifice worth while. Did you ever happen to think of it from that viewpoint? Perhaps he would prefer to work out this problem for himself, Mr. J. Archibald McKackney."
June 8.—The blow has fallen. For the last fortnight I have seen the inevitable climax drawing nearer and nearer. It was a splendidly dramatic situation. I will grant you that. There was no need of more confession from Wilkins. It was obvious that he was becoming more hopelessly enslaved by the young missionary person every day. I have long ago outlived the years of romance, but I will acknowledge that the plight of Wilkins awoke an interested flutter in the region of my heart. I wanted him to find happiness: but at the price of a throne? Ah, there was no getting away from the horns of that dilemma. It was as self-evident as a syllogism in a text book of logic and could be summed up in tabloid form:
Hank Wilkins reigns because of his whiskers.
Miss Hulda Barnstable will not marry him with whiskers.
Ergo—he gives up the throne
Or he gives up the girl.
With matters in this desperately hopeless condition, I stood aloof as an interested on looker. My sympathies were with the Titian beard, over which fell destruction hovered. Then, too, I dreaded losing Wilkins as a comrade. I knew full well that this insanely prejudiced young woman would never consent to her husband's remaining in my employ as an assistant in harvesting the Human Whisker or as the curator of my collections. I was also haunted by the disappointment that would befall old Lemuel Wilkins, the shipwrecked parent. We had left him in England, waiting with his monkey, Four-handed Jacob, the simian semaphore, for the summons to join us as Prime Minister of the island.
It was an immense relief, therefore, to have an end made of this harrowing suspense. When Wilkins summoned me to the royal bed-chamber I was prepared for the worst. His demeanor was grave, but there was a twinkling light in his eye as he announced:
"I received word to-day that a schooner from Peace Island will touch here by to-morrow night. I'm going in her. I hereby abdicate, jump the job, quit without notice. Miss Hulda Barnstable goes too. Will you join us?"
I shook his hand and congratulated him as heartily as I could under the circumstances. Alas, for my dreams of completing my unique researches on Lemuel Wilkins Island. I must join the retreat. I asked Wilkins if he intended leaving my employ. He shook his head with an air of sincere regret.
"She simply abominates 'em," he said reluctantly. "I'm afraid you and I have chased the last whisker to its lair together. I've made my choice, sir. There's a brace of missionary sky-pilots on Peace Island. We will be married there, and she has agreed to give up her missionary projects in return for my surrenderin' a throne. Maybe I'll buy a farm somewhere near your place. Will you lend me your razor first thing in the morning, sir?"