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The Count and the Manager by Joseph C. Lincoln

 

The way we got into the hotel business in the first place come around like this: Me and Cap'n Jonadab went down to Wellmouth Port one day 'long in March to look at some property he'd had left him. Jonadab's Aunt Sophrony had moved kind of sudden from that village to Beulah Land—they're a good ways apart, too—and Cap'n Jonadab had come in for the old farm, he being the only near relative.

When you go to Wellmouth Port you get off the cars at Wellmouth Center and then take Labe Bearse's barge and ride four miles; and then, if the horse don't take a notion to lay down in the road and go to sleep, or a wheel don't come off or some other surprise party ain't sprung on you, you come to a place where there's a Baptist chapel that needs painting, and a little two-for-a-cent store that needs trade, and two or three houses that need building over, and any Lord's quantity of scrub pines and beach grass and sand. Then you take Labe's word for it that you've got to Wellmouth Port and get out of the barge and try to remember you're a church member.

Well, Aunt Sophrony's house was a mile or more from the place where the barge stopped, and Jonadab and me, we hoofed it up there. We bought some cheese and crackers and canned things at the store, 'cause we expected to stay overnight in the house, and knew there wasn't no other way of getting provender.

We got there after a spell and set down on the big piazza with our souls full of gratitude and our boots full of sand. Great, big, old-fashioned house with fourteen big bedrooms in it, big barn, sheds, and one thing or 'nother, and perched right on top of a hill with five or six acres of ground 'round it. And how the March wind did whoop in off the sea and howl and screech lonesomeness through the pine trees! You take it in the middle of the night, with the shutters rattling and the old joists a-creaking and Jonadab snoring like a chap sawing hollow logs, and if it wan't joy then my name ain't Barzilla Wingate. I don't wonder Aunt Sophrony died. I'd have died 'long afore she did if I knew I was checked plumb through to perdition. There'd be some company where I was going, anyhow.

The next morning after ballasting up with the truck we'd bought at the store—the feller 'most keeled over when he found we was going to pay cash for it—we went out on the piazza again, and looked at the breakers and the pine trees and the sand, and held our hats on with both hands.

"Jonadab," says I, "what'll you take for your heirloom?"

"Well," he says, "Barzilla, the way I feel now, I think I'd take a return ticket to Orham and be afraid of being took up for swindling at that."

Neither of us says nothing more for a spell, and, first thing you know, we heard a carriage rattling somewhere up the road. I was shipwrecked once and spent two days in a boat looking for a sail. When I heard that rattling I felt just the way I done when I sighted the ship that picked us up.

"Judas!" says Jonadab, "there's somebody COMING!"

We jumped out of our chairs and put for the corner of the house. There WAS somebody coming—a feller in a buggy, and he hitched his horse to the front fence and come whistling up the walk.

He was a tall chap, with a smooth face, kind of sharp and knowing, and with a stiff hat set just a little on one side. His clothes was new and about a week ahead of up-to-date, his shoes shined till they lit up the lower half of his legs, and his pants was creased so's you could mow with 'em. Cool and slick! Say! in the middle of that deadliness and compared to Jonadab and me, he looked like a bird of Paradise in a coop of moulting pullets.

"Cap'n Wixon?" he says to me, sticking out a gloved flipper.

"Not guilty," says I. "There's the skipper. My name's Wingate."

"Glad to have the pleasure, Mr. Wingate," he says. "Cap'n Wixon, yours truly."

We shook hands, and he took each of us by the arm and piloted us back to the piazza, like a tug with a couple of coal barges. He pulled up a chair, crossed his legs on the rail, reached into the for'ard hatch of his coat and brought out a cigar case.

"Smoke up," he says. We done it—I holding my hat to shut off the wind, while Jonadab used up two cards of matches getting the first light. When we got the cigars to going finally, the feller says:

"My name's Brown—Peter T. Brown. I read about your falling heir to this estate, Cap'n Wixon, in a New Bedford paper. I happened to be in New Bedford then, representing the John B. Wilkins Unparalleled All Star Uncle Tom's Cabin and Ten Nights in a Bar- room Company. It isn't my reg'lar line, the show bus'ness, but it produced the necessary 'ham and' every day and the excelsior sleep inviter every night, so—but never mind that. Soon as I read the paper I came right down to look at the property. Having rubbered, back I go to Orham to see you. Your handsome and talented daughter says you are over here. That'll be about all—here I am. Now, then, listen to this."

He went under his hatches again, rousted out a sheet of paper, unfolded it and read something like this—I know it by heart:

"The great sea leaps and splashes before you as it leaped and splashed in the old boyhood days. The sea wind sings to you as it sang of old. The old dreams come back to you, the dreams you dreamed as you slumbered upon the cornhusk mattress in the clean, sweet little chamber of the old home. Forgotten are the cares of business, the scramble for money, the ruthless hunt for fame. Here are perfect rest and perfect peace.

"Now what place would you say I was describing?" says the feller.

"Heaven," says Jonadab, looking up, reverent like.

You never see a body more disgusted than Brown.

"Get out!" he snaps. "Do I look like the advance agent of Glory? Listen to this one."

He unfurls another sheet of paper, and goes off on a tack about like this:

"The old home! You who sit in your luxurious apartments, attended by your liveried servants, eating the costly dishes that bring you dyspepsia and kindred evils, what would you give to go back once more to the simple, cleanly living of the old house in the country? The old home, where the nights were cool and refreshing, the sleep deep and sound; where the huckleberry pies that mother fashioned were swimming in fragrant juice, where the shells of the clams for the chowder were snow white and the chowder itself a triumph; where there were no voices but those of the wind and sea; no—"

"Don't!" busts out Jonadab. "Don't! I can't stand it!"

He was mopping his eyes with his red bandanner. I was consider'ble shook up myself. The dear land knows we was more used to huckleberry pies and clam chowder than we was to liveried servants and costly dishes, but there was something in the way that feller read off that slush that just worked the pump handle. A hog would have cried; I know _I_ couldn't help it. As for Peter T. Brown, he fairly crowed.

"It gets you!" he says. "I knew it would. And it'll get a heap of others, too. Well, we can't send 'em back to the old home, but we can trot the old home to them, or a mighty good imitation of it. Here it is; right here!"

And he waves his hand up toward Aunt Sophrony's cast-off palace.

Cap'n Jonadab set up straight and sputtered like a firecracker. A man hates to be fooled.

"Old home!" he snorts. "Old county jail, you mean!"

And then that Brown feller took his feet down off the rail, hitched his chair right in front of Jonadab and me and commenced to talk. And HOW he did talk! Say, he could talk a Hyannis fisherman into a missionary. I wish I could remember all he said; 'twould make a book as big as a dictionary, but 'twould be worth the trouble of writing it down. 'Fore he got through he talked a thousand dollars out of Cap'n Jonadab, and it takes a pretty hefty lecture to squeeze a quarter out of HIM. To make a long yarn short, this was his plan:

He proposed to turn Aunt Sophrony's wind plantation into a hotel for summer boarders. And it wan't going to be any worn-out, regulation kind of a summer hotel neither.

"Confound it, man!" he says, "they're sick of hot and cold water, elevators, bell wires with a nigger on the end, and all that. There's a raft of old codgers that call themselves 'self-made men'—meanin' that the Creator won't own 'em, and they take the responsibility themselves—that are always wishing they could go somewheres like the shacks where they lived when they were kids. They're always talking about it, and wishing they could go to the old home and rest. Rest! Why, say, there's as much rest to this place as there is sand, and there's enough of that to scour all the knives in creation."

"But 'twill cost so like the dickens to furnish it," I says.

"Furnish it!" says he. "Why, that's just it! It won't cost nothing to furnish it—nothing to speak of. I went through the house day before yesterday—crawled in the kitchen window—oh! it's all right, you can count the spoons—and there's eight of those bedrooms furnished just right, corded bedsteads, painted bureaus with glass knobs, 'God Bless Our Home' and Uncle Jeremiah's coffin plate on the wall, rag mats on the floor, and all the rest. All she needs is a little more of the same stuff, that I can buy 'round here for next to nothing—I used to buy for an auction room—and a little paint and fixings, and there she is. All I want from you folks is a little money—I'll chuck in two hundred and fifty myself—and you two can be proprietors and treasurers if you want to. But active manager and publicity man—that's yours cheerily, Peter Theodosius Brown!" And he slapped his plaid vest.

Well, he talked all the forenoon and all the way to Orham on the train and most of that night. And when he heaved anchor, Jonadab had agreed to put up a thousand and I was in for five hundred and Peter contributed two hundred and fifty and experience and nerve. And the "Old Home House" was off the ways.

And by the first of May 'twas open and ready for business, too. You never see such a driver as that feller Brown was. He had a new wide piazza built all 'round the main buildings, painted everything up fine, hired the three best women cooks in Wellmouth—and there's some good cooks on Cape Cod, too—and a half dozen chamber girls and waiters. He had some trouble getting corded beds and old bureaus for the empty rooms, but he got 'em finally. He bought the last bed of Beriah Burgess, up at East Harniss, and had quite a dicker getting it.

"He thought he ought to get five dollars for it," says Brown, telling Jonadab and me about it. "Said he hated to part with it because his grandmother died in it. I told him I couldn't see any good reason why I should pay more for a bed just because it had killed his grandmother, so we split up and called it three dollars. 'Twas too much money, but we had to have it."

And the advertisements! They was sent everywheres. Lots of 'em was what Peter called "reading notices," and them he mostly got for nothing, for he could talk an editor foolish same as he could anybody else. By the middle of April most of our money was gone, but every room in the house was let and we had applications coming by the pailful.

And the folks that come had money, too—they had to have to pay Brown's rates. I always felt like a robber or a Standard Oil director every time I looked at the books. The most of 'em was rich folks—self-made men, just like Peter prophesied—and they brought their wives and daughters and slept on cornhusks and eat chowder and said 'twas great and just like old times. And they got the rest we advertised; we didn't cheat 'em on REST. By ten o'clock pretty nigh all hands was abed, and 'twas so still all you could hear was the breakers or the wind, or p'raps a groan coming from a window where some boarder had turned over in his sleep and a corncob in the mattress had raked him crossways.

There was one old chap that we'll call Dillaway—Ebenezer Dillaway. That wan't his name; his real one's too well known to tell. He runs the "Dillaway Combination Stores" that are all over the country. In them stores you can buy anything and buy it cheap— cheapness is Ebenezer's stronghold and job lots is his sheet anchor. He'll sell you a mowing machine and the grass seed to grow the hay to cut with it. He'll sell you a suit of clothes for two dollars and a quarter, and for ten cents more he'll sell you glue enough to stick it together again after you've worn it out in the rain. He'll sell you anything, and he's got cash enough to sink a ship.

He come to the "Old Home House" with his daughter, and he took to the place right away. Said 'twas for all the world like where he used to live when he was a boy. He liked the grub and he liked the cornhusks and he liked Brown. Brown had a way of stealing a thing and yet paying enough for it to square the law—that hit Ebenezer where he lived.

His daughter liked Brown, too, and 'twas easy enough to see that Brown liked her. She was a mighty pretty girl, the kind Peter called a "queen," and the active manager took to her like a cat to a fish. They was together more'n half the time, gitting up sailing parties, or playing croquet, or setting up on the "Lover's Nest," which was a kind of slab summer-house Brown had rigged up on the bluff where Aunt Sophrony's pig-pens used to be in the old days.

Me and Jonadab see how things was going, and we'd look at one another and wink and shake our heads when the pair'd go by together. But all that was afore the count come aboard.

We got our first letter from the count about the third of June. The writing was all over the plate like a biled dinner, and the English looked like it had been shook up in a bag, but it was signed with a nine fathom, toggle-jinted name that would give a pollparrot the lockjaw, and had the word "Count" on the bow of it.

You never see a feller happier than Peter T. Brown.

"Can he have rooms?" says Peter. "CAN he? Well, I should rise to elocute! He can have the best there is if yours truly has to bunk in the coop with the gladsome Plymouth Rock. That's what! He says he's a count and he'll be advertised as a count from this place to where rolls the Oregon."

And he was, too. The papers was full of how Count What's-his-Name was hanging out at the "Old Home House," and we got more letters from rich old women and pork-pickling money bags than you could shake a stick at. If you want to catch the free and equal nabob of a glorious republic, bait up with a little nobility and you'll have your salt wet in no time. We had to rig up rooms in the carriage house, and me and Jonadab slept in the haymow.

The count himself hove in sight on June fifteenth. He was a little, smoked Italian man with a pair of legs that would have been carried away in a gale, and a black mustache with waxed ends that you'd think would punch holes in the pillow case. His talk was like his writing, only worse, but from the time his big trunk with the foreign labels was carried upstairs, he was skipper and all hands of the "Old Home House."

And the funny part of it was that old man Dillaway was as much gone on him as the rest. For a self-made American article he was the worst gone on this machine-made importation that ever you see. I s'pose when you've got more money than you can spend for straight goods you nat'rally go in for buying curiosities; I can't see no other reason.

Anyway, from the minute the count come over the side it was "Good- by, Peter." The foreigner was first oar with the old man and general consort for the daughter. Whenever there was a sailing trip on or a spell of roosting in the Lover's Nest, Ebenezer would see that the count looked out for the "queen," while Brown stayed on the piazza and talked bargains with papa. It worried Peter— you could see that. He'd set in the barn with Jonadab and me, thinking, thinking, and all at once he'd bust out:

"Bless that Dago's heart! I haven't chummed in with the degenerate aristocracy much in my time, but somewhere or other I've seen that chap before. Now where—where—where?"

For the first two weeks the count paid his board like a major; then he let it slide. Jonadab and me was a little worried, but he was advertising us like fun, his photographs—snap shots by Peter—was getting into the papers, so we judged he was a good investment. But Peter got bluer and bluer.

One night we was in the setting room—me and Jonadab and the count and Ebenezer. The "queen" and the rest of the boarders was abed.

The count was spinning a pigeon English yarn of how he'd fought a duel with rapiers. When he'd finished, old Dillaway pounded his knee and sung out:

"That's bus'ness! That's the way to fix 'em! No lawsuits, no argument, no delays. Just take 'em out and punch holes in 'em. Did you hear that, Brown?"

"Yes, I heard it," says Peter, kind of absent-minded like. "Fighting with razors, wan't it?"

Now there wan't nothing to that—'twas just some of Brown's sarcastic spite getting the best of him—but I give you my word that the count turned yellow under his brown skin, kind of like mud rising from the bottom of a pond.

"What-a you say?" he says, bending for'ards.

"Mr. Brown was mistaken, that's all," says Dillaway; "he meant rapiers."

"But why-a razors—why-a razors?" says the count.

Now I was watching Brown's face, and all at once I see it light up like you'd turned a searchlight on it. He settled back in his chair and fetched a long breath as if he was satisfied. Then he grinned and begged pardon and talked a blue streak for the rest of the evening.

Next day he was the happiest thing in sight, and when Miss Dillaway and the count went Lover's Nesting he didn't seem to care a bit. All of a sudden he told Jonadab and me that he was going up to Boston that evening on bus'ness and wouldn't be back for a day or so. He wouldn't tell what the bus'ness was, either, but just whistled and laughed and sung, "Good-by, Susannah; don't you grieve for me," till train time.

He was back again three nights afterward, and he come right out to the barn without going nigh the house. He had another feller with him, a kind of shabby dressed Italian man with curly hair.

"Fellers," he says to me and Jonadab, "this is my friend, Mr. Macaroni; he's going to engineer the barber shop for a while."

Well, we'd just let our other barber go, so we didn't think anything of this, but when he said that his friend Spaghetti was going to stay in the barn for a day or so, and that we needn't mention that he was there, we thought that was funny.

But Peter done a lot of funny things the next day. One of 'em was to set a feller painting a side of the house by the count's window, that didn't need painting at all. And when the feller quit for the night, Brown told him to leave the ladder where 'twas.

That evening the same crowd was together in the setting room. Peter was as lively as a cricket, talking, talking, all the time. By and by he says:

"Oh, say, I want you to see the new barber. He can shave anything from a note to a porkypine. Come in here, Chianti!" he says, opening the door and calling out. "I want you."

And in come the new Italian man, smiling and bowing and looking "meek and lowly, sick and sore," as the song says.

Well, we laughed at Brown's talk and asked the Italian all kinds of fool questions and nobody noticed that the count wan't saying nothing. Pretty soon he gets up and says he guesses he'll go to his room, 'cause he feels sort of sick.

And I tell you he looked sick. He was yellower than he was the other night, and he walked like he hadn't got his sea legs on. Old Dillaway was terrible sorry and kept asking if there wan't something he could do, but the count put him off and went out.

"Now that's too bad!" says Brown. "Spaghetti, you needn't wait any longer."

So the other Italian went out, too.

And then Peter T. Brown turned loose and talked the way he done when me and Jonadab first met him. He just spread himself. He told of this bargain that he'd made and that sharp trade he had turned, while we set there and listened and laughed like a parsel of fools. And every time that Ebenezer'd get up to go to bed, Peter'd trot out a new yarn and he'd have to stop to listen to that. And it got to be eleven o'clock and then twelve and then one.

It was just about quarter past one and we was laughing our heads off at one of Brown's jokes, when out under the back window there was a jingle and a thump and a kind of groaning and wiggling noise.

"What on earth is that?" says Dillaway.

"I shouldn't be surprised," says Peter, cool as a mack'rel on ice, "if that was his royal highness, the count."

He took up the lamp and we all hurried outdoors and 'round the corner. And there, sure enough, was the count, sprawling on the ground with his leather satchel alongside of him, and his foot fast in a big steel trap that was hitched by a chain to the lower round of the ladder. He rared up on his hands when he see us and started to say something about an outrage.

"Oh, that's all right, your majesty," says Brown. "Hi, Chianti, come here a minute! Here's your old college chum, the count, been and put his foot in it."

When the new barber showed up the count never made another move, just wilted like a morning-glory after sunrise. But you never see a worse upset man than Ebenezer Dillaway.

"But what does this mean?" says he, kind of wild like. "Why don't you take that thing off his foot?"

"Oh," says Peter, "he's been elongating my pedal extremity for the last month or so; I don't see why I should kick if he pulls his own for a while. You see," he says, "it's this way:

"Ever since his grace condescended to lend the glory of his countenance to this humble roof," he says, "it's stuck in my mind that I'd seen the said countenance somewhere before. The other night when our conversation was trifling with the razor subject and the Grand Lama here"—that's the name he called the count—"was throwing in details about his carving his friends, it flashed across me where I'd seen it. About a couple of years ago I was selling the guileless rural druggists contiguous to Scranton, Pennsylvania, the tasty and happy combination called 'Dr. Bulger's Electric Liver Cure,' the same being a sort of electric light for shady livers, so to speak. I made my headquarters at Scranton, and, while there, my hair was shortened and my chin smoothed in a neat but gaudy barber shop, presided over by my friend Spaghetti here, and my equally valued friend the count."

"So," says Peter, smiling and cool as ever, "when it all came back to me, as the song says, I journeyed to Scranton accompanied by a photograph of his lordship. I was lucky enough to find Macaroni in the same old shop. He knew the count's classic profile at once. It seems his majesty had hit up the lottery a short time previous for a few hundred and had given up barbering. I suppose he'd read in the papers that the imitation count line was stylish and profitable and so he tried it on. It may be," says Brown, offhand, "that he thought he might marry some rich girl. There's some fool fathers, judging by the papers, that are willing to sell their daughters for the proper kind of tag on a package like him."

Old man Dillaway kind of made a face, as if he'd ate something that tasted bad, but he didn't speak.

"And so," says Peter, "Spaghetti and I came to the Old Home together, he to shave for twelve per, and I to set traps, etcetera. That's a good trap," he says, nodding, "I bought it in Boston. I had the teeth filed down, but the man that sold it said 'twould hold a horse. I left the ladder by his grace's window, thinking he might find it handy after he'd seen his friend of other days, particularly as the back door was locked.

"And now," goes on Brown, short and sharp, "let's talk business. Count," he says, "you are set back on the books about sixty odd for old home comforts. We'll cut off half of that and charge it to advertising. You draw well, as the man said about the pipe. But the other thirty you'll have to work out. You used to shave like a bird. I'll give you twelve dollars a week to chip in with Macaroni here and barber the boarders."

But Dillaway looked anxious.

"Look here, Brown," he says, "I wouldn't do that. I'll pay his board bill and his traveling expenses if he clears out this minute. It seems tough to set him shaving after he's been such a big gun around here."

I could see right off that the arrangement suited Brown first rate and was exactly what he'd been working for, but he pretended not to care much for it.

"Oh! I don't know," he says. "I'd rather be a sterling barber than a plated count. But anything to oblige you, Mr. Dillaway."

So the next day there was a nobleman missing at the "Old Home House," and all we had to remember him by was a trunk full of bricks. And Peter T. Brown and the "queen" was roosting in the Lover's Nest; and the new Italian was busy in the barber shop. He could shave, too. He shaved me without a pull, and my face ain't no plush sofy, neither.

And before the season was over the engagement was announced. Old Dillaway took it pretty well, considering. He liked Peter, and his having no money to speak of didn't count, because Ebenezer had enough for all hands. The old man said he'd been hoping for a son- in-law sharp enough to run the "Consolidated Stores" after he was gone, and it looked, he said, as if he'd found him.

 
 
 

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