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The Antiquers by Joseph C. Lincoln

 

We've all got a crazy streak in us somewheres, I cal'late, only the streaks don't all break out in the same place, which is a mercy, when you come to think of it. One feller starts tooting a fish horn and making announcements that he's the Angel Gabriel. Another poor sufferer shows his first symptom by having his wife's relations come and live with him. One ends in the asylum and t'other in the poorhouse; that's the main difference in them cases. Jim Jones fiddles with perpetual motion and Sam Smith develops a sure plan for busting Wall Street and getting rich sudden. I take summer boarders maybe, and you collect postage stamps. Oh, we're all looney, more or less, every one of us.

Speaking of collecting reminds me of the "Antiquers"—that's what Peter T. Brown called 'em. They put up at the Old Home House— summer before last; and at a crank show they'd have tied for the blue ribbon. There was the Dowager and the Duchess and "My Daughter" and "Irene dear." Likewise there was Thompson and Small, but they, being nothing but husbands and fathers, didn't count for much first along, except when board was due or "antiques" had to be settled for.

The Dowager fetched port first. She hove alongside the Old Home one morning early in July, and she had "My Daughter" in tow. The names, as entered on the shipping list, was Mrs. Milo Patrick Thompson and Miss Barbara Millicent Thompson, but Peter T. Brown he had 'em re-entered as "The Dowager" and "My Daughter" almost as soon as they dropped anchor. Thompson himself come poking up to the dock on the following Saturday night; Peter didn't christen him, except to chuck out something about Milo's being an "also ran."

The Dowager was skipper of the Thompson craft, with "My daughter"— that's what her ma always called her—as first mate, and Milo as general roustabout and purser.

'Twould have done you good to see the fleet run into the breakfast room of a morning, with the Dowager leading, under full sail, Barbara close up to her starboard quarter, and Milo tailing out a couple of lengths astern. The other boarders looked like quahaug dories abreast of the Marblehead Yacht Club. Oh, the Thompsons won every cup until the Smalls arrived on a Monday; then 'twas a dead heat.

Mamma Small was built on the lines of old lady Thompson, only more so, and her daughter flew pretty nigh as many pennants as Barbara. Peter T. had 'em labeled the "Duchess" and "Irene dear" in a jiffy. He didn't nickname Small any more'n he had Thompson, and for the same reasons. Me and Cap'n Jonadab called Small "Eddie" behind his back, 'count of his wife's hailing him as "Edwin."

Well, the Dowager and the Duchess sized each other up, and, recognizing I jedge, that they was sister ships, set signals and agreed to cruise in company and watch out for pirates—meaning young men without money who might want to talk to their daughters. In a week the four women was thicker than hasty-pudding and had thrones on the piazza where they could patronize everybody short of the Creator, and criticize the other boarders. Milo and Eddie got friendly too, and found a harbor behind the barn where they could smoke and swap sympathy.

'Twas fair weather for pretty near a fortni't, and then she thickened up. The special brand of craziness in Wellmouth that season was collecting "antiques," the same being busted chairs and invalid bureaus and sofys that your great grandmarm got ashamed of and sent to the sickbay a thousand year ago. Oh, yes, and dishes! If there was one thing that would drive a city woman to counting her fingers and cutting paper dolls, 'twas a nicked blue plate with a Chinese picture on it. And the homelier the plate the higher the price. Why there was as many as six families that got enough money for the rubbage in their garrets to furnish their houses all over with brand new things—real shiny, hand-painted stuff, not haircloth ruins with music box springs, nor platters that you had to put a pan under for fear of losing cargo.

I don't know who fetched the disease to the Old Home House. All I'm sartain of is that 'twan't long afore all hands was in that condition where the doctor'd have passed 'em on to the parson. First along it seemed as if the Thompson-Small syndicate had been vaccinated—they didn't develop a symptom. But one noon the Dowager sails into the dining-room and unfurls a brown paper bundle.

"I've captured a prize, my dear," says she to the Duchess. "A veritable prize. Just look!"

And she dives under the brown paper hatches and resurrects a pink plate, suffering from yaller jaundice, with the picture of a pink boy, wearing curls and a monkey-jacket, holding hands with a pink girl with pointed feet.

"Ain't it perfectly lovely?" says she, waving the outrage in front of the Duchess. "A ginuwine Hall nappy! And in SUCH condition!"

"Why," says the Duchess, "I didn't know you were interested in antiques."

"I dote on 'em," comes back the Dowager, and "my daughter" owned up that she "adored" 'em.

"If you knew," continues Mrs. Thompson, "how I've planned and contrived to get this treasure. I've schemed— My! my! My daughter says she's actually ashamed of me. Oh, no! I can't tell even you where I got it. All's fair in love and collecting, you know, and there are more gems where this came from."

She laughed and "my daughter" laughed, and the Duchess and "Irene dear" laughed, too, and said the plate was "SO quaint," and all that, but you could fairly hear 'em turn green with jealousy. It didn't need a spyglass to see that they wouldn't ride easy at their own moorings till THEY'D landed a treasure or two—probably two.

And sure enough, in a couple of days they bore down on the Thompsons, all sail set and colors flying. They had a pair of plates that for ugliness and price knocked the "ginuwine Hall nappy" higher 'n the main truck. And the way they crowed and bragged about their "finds" wa'n't fit to put in the log. The Dowager and "my daughter" left that dinner table trembling all over.

Well, you can see how a v'yage would end that commenced that way. The Dowager and Barbara would scour the neighborhood and capture more prizes, and the Duchess and her tribe would get busy and go 'em one better. That's one sure p'int about the collecting business—it'll stir up a fight quicker'n anything I know of, except maybe a good looking bachelor minister. The female Thompsons and Smalls was "my dear-in'" each other more'n ever, but there was a chill setting in round them piazza thrones, and some of the sarcastic remarks that was casually hove out by the bosom friends was pretty nigh sharp enough to shave with. As for Milo and Eddie, they still smoked together behind the barn, but the atmosphere on the quarter-deck was affecting the fo'castle and there wa'n't quite so many "old mans" and "dear boys" as there used to was. There was a general white frost coming, and you didn't need an Old Farmer's Almanac to prove it.

The spell of weather developed sudden. One evening me and Cap'n Jonadab and Peter T. was having a confab by the steps of the billiard-room, when Milo beats up from around the corner. He was smiling as a basket of chips.

"Hello!" hails Peter T. cordial. "You look as if you'd had money left you. Any one else remembered in the will?" he says.

Milo laughed all over. "Well, well," says he, "I AM feeling pretty good. Made a ten-strike with Mrs. T. this afternoon for sure.

"That so?" says Peter. "What's up? Hooked a prince?"

A friend of "my daughter's" over at Newport had got engaged to a mandarin or a count or something 'nother, and the Dowager had been preaching kind of eloquent concerning the shortness of the nobility crop round Wellmouth.

"No," says Milo, laughing again. "Nothing like that. But I have got hold of that antique davenport she's been dying to capture."

One of the boarders at the hotel over to Harniss had been out antiquing a week or so afore and had bagged a contraption which answered to the name of a "ginuwine Sheriton davenport." The dowager heard of it, and ever since she'd been remarking that some people had husbands who cared enough for their wives to find things that pleased 'em. She wished she was lucky enough to have that kind of a man; but no, SHE had to depend on herself, and etcetery and so forth. Maybe you've heard sermons similar.

So we was glad for Milo and said so. Likewise we wanted to know where he found the davenport.

"Why, up here in the woods," says Milo, "at the house of a queer old stick, name of Rogers. I forget his front name—'twas longer'n the davenport."

"Not Adoniram Rogers?" says Cap'n Jonadab, wondering.

"That's him," says Thompson.

Now, I knew Adoniram Rogers. His house was old enough, Lord knows; but that a feller with a nose for a bargain like his should have hung on to a salable piece of dunnage so long as this seemed 'most too tough to believe.

"Well, I swan to man!" says I. "Adoniram Rogers! Have you seen the—the davenport thing?"

"Sure I've seen it!" says Milo. "I ain't much of a jedge, and of course I couldn't question Rogers too much for fear he'd stick on the price. But it's an old davenport, and it's got Sheriton lines and I've got the refusal of it till to-morrow, when Mrs. T's going up to inspect."

"Told Small yet?" asked Peter T., winking on the side to me and Jonadab.

Milo looked scared. "Goodness! No," says he. "And don't you tell him neither. His wife's davenport hunting too."

"You say you've got the refusal of it?" says I. "Well, I know Adoniram Rogers, and if _I_ was dickering with him I'd buy the thing first and get the refusal of it afterwards. You hear ME?"

"Is that so?" repeats Milo. "Slippery, is he? I'll take my wife up there first thing in the morning."

He walked off looking worried, and his tops'ls hadn't much more'n sunk in the offing afore who should walk out of the billiard room behind us but Eddie Small.

"Brown," says he to Peter T., "I want you to have a horse and buggy harnessed up for me right off. Mrs. Small and I are going for a little drive to—to—over to Orham," he says.

'Twas a mean, black night for a drive as fur as Orham and Peter looked surprised. He started to say something, then swallered it down, and told Eddie he'd see to the harnessing. When Small was out of sight, I says:

"You don't cal'late he heard what Milo was telling, do you, Peter?" says I.

Peter T. shook his head and winked, first at Jonadab and then at me.

And the next day there was the dickens to pay because Eddie and the Duchess had driven up to Rogers' the night afore and had bought the davenport, refusal and all, for twenty dollars more'n Milo offered for it.

Adoniram brought it down that forenoon and all hands and the cook was on the hurricane deck to man the yards. 'Twas a wonder them boarders didn't turn out the band and fire salutes. Such ohs and ahs! 'Twan't nothing but a ratty old cripple of a sofy, with one leg carried away and most of the canvas in ribbons, but four men lugged it up the steps and the careful way they handled it made you think the Old Home House was a receiving tomb and they was laying in the dear departed.

'Twas set down on the piazza and then the friends had a chance to view the remains. The Duchess and "Irene dear" gurgled and gushed and received congratulations. Eddie stood around and tried to look modest as was possible under the circumstances. The Dowager sailed over, tilted her nose up to the foretop, remarked "Humph"' through it and come about and stood at the other end of the porch. "My daughter" follers in her wake, observes "Humph!" likewise and makes for blue water. Milo comes over and looks at Eddie.

"Well?" says Small. "What do you think of it?"

"Never mind what I think of IT," answers Thompson, through his teeth. "Shall I tell you what I think of YOU?"

I thought for a minute that hostilities was going to begin, but they didn't. The women was the real battleships in that fleet, the men wa'n't nothing but transports. Milo and Eddie just glared at each other and sheered off, and the "ginuwine Sheriton" was lugged into the sepulchre, meaning the trunk-room aloft in the hotel.

And after that the cold around the thrones was so fierce we had to move the thermometer, and we had to give the families separate tables in the dining-room so's the milk wouldn't freeze. You see the pitcher set right between 'em, and— Oh! I didn't expect you'd believe it.

The "antiquing" went on harder than ever. Every time the Thompsons landed a relic, they'd bring it out on the veranda or in to dinner and gloat over it loud and pointed, while the Smalls would pipe all hands to unload sarcasm. And the same vicy vercy when 'twas t'other way about. 'Twas interesting and instructive to listen to and amused the populace on rainy days, so Peter T. said.

Adoniram Rogers had been mighty scurce 'round the Old Home sense the davenport deal. But one morning he showed up unexpected. A boarder had dug up an antique somewheres in the shape of a derelict plate, and was displaying it proud on the piazza. The Thompsons was there and the Smalls and a whole lot more. All of a sudden Rogers walks up the steps and reaches over and makes fast to the plate.

"Look out!" hollers the prize-winner, frantic. "You'll drop it!"

Adoniram grunted. "Huh!" says he. "'Tain't nothing but a blue dish. I've got a whole closet full of them."

"WHAT?" yells everybody. And then: "Will you sell 'em?"

"Sell 'em?" says Rogers, looking round surprised. "Why, I never see nothing I wouldn't sell if I got money enough for it."

Then for the next few minutes there was what old Parson Danvers used to call a study in human nature. All hands started for that poor, helpless plate owner as if they was going to swoop down on him like a passel of gulls on a dead horse-mack'rel. Then they come to themselves and stopped and looked at each other, kind of shamefaced but suspicious. The Duchess and her crowd glared at the Dowager tribe and got the glares back with compound interest. Everybody wanted to get Adoniram one side and talk with him, and everybody else was determined they shouldn't. Wherever he moved the "Antiquers" moved with him. Milo watched from the side lines. Rogers got scared.

"Look here," says he, staring sort of wild-like at the boarders. "What ails you folks? Are you crazy?"

Well, he might have made a good deal worse guess than that. I don't know how 'twould have ended if Peter T. Brown, cool and sassy as ever, hadn't come on deck just then and took command.

"See here, Rogers," he says, "let's understand this thing. Have you got a set of dishes like that?"

Adoniram looked at him. "Will I get jailed if I say yes?" he answers.

"Maybe you will if you don't," says Peter. "Now, then, ladies and gentlemen, this is something we're all interested in, and I think everybody ought to have a fair show. I jedge from the defendant's testimony that he HAS got a set of the dishes, and I also jedge, from my experience and three years' dealings with him, that he's too public-spirited to keep 'em, provided he's paid four times what they're worth. Now my idea is this; Rogers will bring those dishes down here tomorrer and we'll put 'em on exhibition in the hotel parlor. Next day we'll have an auction and sell 'em to the highest cash bidder. And, provided there's no objection, I'll sacrifice my reputation and be auctioneer."

So 'twas agreed to have the auction.

Next day Adoniram heaves alongside with the dishes in a truck wagon, and they was strung out on the tables in the parlor. And such a pawing over and gabbling you never heard. I'd been suspicious, myself, knowing Rogers, but there was the set from platters to sassers, and blue enough and ugly enough to be as antique as Mrs. Methusalem's jet earrings. The "Antiquers" handled 'em and admired 'em and p'inted to the three holes in the back of each dish—the same being proof of age—and got more covetous every minute. But the joy was limited. As one feller said, "I'd like 'em mighty well, but what chance'll we have bidding against green- back syndicates like that?" referring to the Dowager and the Duchess.

Milo and Eddie was the most worried of all, because each of 'em had been commissioned by their commanding officers not to let t'other family win.

That auction was the biggest thing that ever happened at the Old Home. We had it on the lawn out back of the billiard room and folks came from Harniss and Orham and the land knows where. The sheds and barn was filled with carriages and we served thirty-two extra dinners at a dollar a feed. The dishes was piled on a table and Peter T. done his auctioneer preaching from a kind of pulpit made out of two cracker boxes and a tea chest.

But there wa'n't any real bidding except from the Smalls and Thompsons. A few of the boarders and some of the out-of-towners took a shy long at first, but their bids was only ground bait. Milo and Eddie, backed by the Dowager and the Duchess, done the real fishing.

The price went up and up. Peter T. whooped and pounded and all but shed tears. If he'd been burying a competition hotel keeper he couldn't have hove more soul into his work. 'Twas, "Fifty! Do I hear sixty? Sixty do I hear? Fifty dollars! THINK of it? Why, friends, this ain't a church pound party. Look at them dishes! LOOK at 'em! Why, the pin feathers on those blue dicky birds in the corners are worth more'n that for mattress stuffing. Do I hear sixty? Sixty I'm bid. Who says seventy?"

Milo said it, and Eddie was back at him afore he could shake the reefs out of the last syllable. She went up to a hundred, then to one hundred and twenty-five, and with every raise Adoniram Roger's smile lengthened out. After the one-twenty-five mark the tide rose slower. Milo'd raise it a dollar and Eddie'd jump him fifty cents.

And just then two things happened. One was that a servant girl come running from the Old Home House to tell the Duchess and "Irene dear" that some swell friends of theirs from the hotel at Harniss had driven over to call and was waiting for 'em in the parlor. The female Smalls went in, though they wa'n't joyful over it. They give Eddie his sailing orders afore they went, too.

The other thing that happened was Bill Saltmarsh's arriving in port. Bill is an "antiquer" for revenue only. He runs an antique store over at Ostable and the prices he charges are enough to convict him without hearing the evidence. I knew he'd come.

Saltmarsh busts through the crowd and makes for the pulpit. He nods to Peter T. and picks up one of the plates. He looks at it first ruther casual; then more and more careful, turning it over and taking up another.

"Hold on a minute, Brown," says he. "Are THESE the dishes you're selling?"

"Sure thing," comes back Peter. "Think we're serving free lunch? No, sir! Those are the genuine articles, Mr. Saltmarsh, and you're cheating the widders and orphans if you don't put in a bid quick. One thirty-two fifty, I'm bid. Now, Saltmarsh!"

But Bill only laughed. Then he picks up another plate, looks at it, and laughs again.

"Good day, Brown," says he. "Sorry I can't stop." And off he puts towards his horse and buggy.

Eddie Small was watching him. Milo, being on the other side of the pulpit, hadn't noticed so partic'lar.

"Who's that?" asks Eddie, suspicious. "Does he know antiques?"

I remarked that if Bill didn't, then nobody did.

"Look here, Saltmarsh!" says Small, catching Bill by the arm as he shoved through the crowd. "What's the matter with those dishes— anything?"

Bill turned and looked at him. "Why, no," he says, slow. "They're all right—of their kind." And off he put again.

But Eddie wa'n't satisfied. He turns to me. "By George!" he says. "What is it? Does he think they're fakes?"

I didn't know, so I shook my head. Small fidgetted, looked at Peter, and then run after Saltmarsh. Milo had just raised the bid.

"One hundred and thirty-three" hollers Peter, fetching the tea chest a belt. "One thirty-four do I hear? Make it one thirty- three fifty. Fifty cents do I hear? Come, come! this is highway robbery, gentlemen. Mr. Small—where are you?"

But Eddie was talking to Saltmarsh. In a minute back he comes, looking more worried than ever. Peter T. bawled and pounded and beckoned at him with the mallet, but he only fidgetted—didn't know what to do.

"One thirty-three!" bellers Peter. "One thirty-three! Oh, how can I look my grandmother's picture in the face after this? One thirty-three—once! One thirty-three—twice! Third and last call! One—thirty—"

Then Eddie begun to raise his hand, but 'twas too late.

"One thirty-three and SOLD! To Mr. Milo Thompson for one hundred and thirty-three dollars!"

And just then come a shriek from the piazza; the Duchess and "Irene dear" had come out of the parlor.

Well! Talk about crowing! The way that Thompson crowd rubbed it in on the Smalls was enough to make you leave the dinner table. They had the servants take in them dishes, piece by piece, and every single article, down to the last butter plate, was steered straight by the Small crowd.

As for poor Eddie, when he come up to explain why he hadn't kept on bidding, his wife put him out like he was a tin lamp.

"Don't SPEAK to me!" says she. "Don't you DARE speak to me."

He didn't dare. He just run up a storm sail and beat for harbor back of the barn. And from the piazza Milo cackled vainglorious.

Me and Cap'n Jonadab and Peter T. felt so sorry for Eddie, knowing what he had coming to him from the Duchess, that we went out to see him. He was setting on a wrecked hencoop, looking heart-broke but puzzled.

"'Twas that Saltmarsh made me lose my nerve," he says. "I thought when he wouldn't bid there was something wrong with the dishes. And there WAS something wrong, too. Now what was it?"

"Maybe the price was too high," says I.

"No, 'twa'n't that. I b'lieve yet he thought they were imitations. Oh, if they only were!"

And then, lo and behold you, around the corner comes Adoniram Rogers. I'd have bet large that whatever conscience Adoniram was born with had dried up and blown away years ago. But no; he'd resurrected a remnant.

"Mr. Small," stammered Mr. Rogers, "I'm sorry you feel bad about not buying them dishes. I—I thought I'd ought to tell you—that is to say, I— Well, if you want another set, I cal'late I can get it for you—that is, if you won't tell nobody."

"ANOTHER set?" hollers Eddie, wide-eyed. "Anoth— Do you mean to say you've got MORE?"

"Why, I ain't exactly got 'em now, but my nephew John keeps a furniture store in South Boston, and he has lots of sets like that. I bought that one off him."

Peter T. Brown jumps to his feet.

"Why, you outrageous robber!" he hollers. "Didn't you say those dishes were old?"

"I never said nothing, except that they were like the plate that feller had on the piazza. And they was, too. YOU folks said they was old, and I thought you'd ought to know, so—"

Eddie Small threw up both hands. "Fakes!" he hollers. "Fakes! AND THOMPSON PAID ONE HUNDRED AND THIRTY-THREE DOLLARS FOR 'EM! Boys, there's times when life's worth living. Have a drink."

We went into the billard-room and took something; that is, Peter and Eddie took that kind of something. Me and Jonadab took cigars.

"Fellers," said Eddie, "drink hearty. I'm going in to tell my wife. Fake dishes! And I beat Thompson on the davenport."

He went away bubbling like a biling spring. After he was gone Rogers looked thoughtful.

"That's funny, too, ain't it?" he says.

"What's funny?" we asked.

"Why, about that sofy he calls a davenport. You see, I bought that off John, too," says Adoniram.

 
 
 

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