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MY OLD FRIEND NICK: A FAILURE IN WHOLESALE
AS might be expected from statements made in the preceding chapters I was no novice in the raising of poultry.
Indeed, on one occasion I had gone into poultry-culture in a sort of wholesale way which bid fair to make or break me and my partner, and did one or the other thing to both of us, as the story will show.
It is many years now since my old friend Nick died. A queer, whimsical little chap was Nick. A weazened, crooked, bandy-legged little man of fifty-five or sixty, with a face like that of a little gnome fashioned out of a hickory nut, such as we occasionally see in small stores. His nose was immense, and had acquired a sidewise twist that to follow would keep him traveling in an endless circle (circles are endless come to think of it), while his smile would provoke an answering smile from a graven image. A sparsely grown beard of the color of badly cured salt hay, and of that peculiarly wiry quality of the hair in cheap mattresses or haircloth sofas, completed a personality at once grotesque and pathetic.
Nick's voice was of a queer, high-pitched quality, his pronunciation of the broadest cockney, and his profanity picturesque and voluble almost beyond belief. Like the steamboat mate in the book: —
"He would curse things with an emphasis
So extremely rich and rare,
As to savor of the fervency
And eloquence of prayer."
And yet despite the physical disabilities under which Nick labored I liked him, respected him, and was genuinely amused whenever I saw or spoke with him. And I was not alone in this. No child feared him, no dog passed him without a wag of the tail, and no human being ever received other than kindness at his hands.
He was a weaver by trade, and years before had come from England with his brother 'Arry, whose faithful shadow he was until 'Arry's tragic death years later. 'Arry, also a weaver, had prospered, and was a person of considerable importance in the community.
Nick had not prospered. He had worked, like 'Arry, faithfully and hard, but his earnings went like smoke. What 'Arry expressed a desire for, Nick would get for him. What 'Amy's son and daughter desired, Nick gave freely and without
stint. Whenever his friends needed help, they went to Nick. He gave what he had without question, freely, cheerfully, with that true spirit of giving that asks no return.
So much was he bound up in the fortunes of 'Arry, that when the manufacturing company for which they both worked saw fit to dismiss 'Arry on account of some difference of opinion as to his earning capacity, Nick at once gave notice, and retired in huge disgust and amid a storm of profanity that lasted for the entire week.
"An' sayes th' owd mon t' me," said Nick one day in explanation of the matter, "Nick, th' art worket ower weel twonty yeer, wheerfore needst tha go?' "
"An' Hi sayes to 'e, 'An' ma brither 'Arry 's na gude enow t' work for tha, it's to ' ell tha cant go wi tha owd mill for aw Nick!' An' wi' thot Hi stamped hout th' dure. An' th' owd mon wa graidely sore ower it."
'Arry was killed one day while crossing the railroad track, and with his death came a great change into Nick's life. He was not less kind to his friends, or less thoughtful of the welfare of those to whom he was indebted for a home. But he was not the careless, jolly, cheerful Nick of old.
My intimate acquaintance with Nick began about this time, in connection with the settlement of 'Arry's estate. Nick, while not deriving any benefit from the estate, nevertheless, in his zeal to further the settlement, succeeded in involving himself in several legal entanglements, from which it was my privilege to rescue him, and I thereby earned his gratitude and admiration to such a degree that he delivered frequent and high-pitched assertions to the effect that "'Enry was a 'ell of a feller." He further paid me the following (we hope undeserved) compliment: "Hi like tha, 'Enry, dormned if Hi don't. Tha 't more lang-leggit nor 'Arry, but tha' sweers for aw th' world like 'Arry." I accepted the homage thus given, but had mental reservations as to my ability to "sweer like 'Arry," who was an artist in that line.
The want of worldly goods under ordinary circumstances did not affect Nick in the least degree; yet I surmised from some of his remarks that he was beginning to feel that he was practically penniless. His nephew, who had succeeded to 'Arry's farm, had generously offered him a home, but, as Nick feelingly remarked,
"Johnny 's aw reet, but 't is na th' same. Wi' 'Arry things were sair differ; aw thot 'Arry 'ad were mine, hand aw thot Hi 'ad were 'Arry's."
I suggested that he go back to the mill, but he was profanely adamant in his refusal.
"Blawst th' blank-dashed owd mill," was his sole comment; and then he added: "Tha sees, 'Enry, Hi always wanted a 'en farm. Hi cood raise cheekins hout o' dure-knobs, 'n' fatten 'em an sawdoost."
Now I had always experienced a consuming desire to own a farm, and raise chickens and Jersey cattle, and lambs with bells and blue ribbons on their necks, and merry milkmaids with short dresses, and wands crisscrossed with bright ribbon in their hands, and large blue rosettes on their fairy slippers. It might be that Nick was the messenger of fate to lead me to the much desired Utopia.
"How would you like to go into partnership with me, Nick?" I asked him.
"Weel, 'Enry, an' 'ow wouldst tha divide?" queried Nick shrewdly, while a hideous smile overspread his nut-cracker face.
"Well, Nick," I said, "I will furnish the money, you raise the chickens, and at the end of the season, we will go snacks."
"Aw reet, 'Enry," he said, "th' art fairer than Hi thot ower lawyer would be"; and with that I reached down and Nick reached up, and we shook hands on the partnership.
The next day Nick informed me that Johnny had allowed him the use of a quarter acre of land for a chicken-yard, and secured from me enough money to purchase posts and wire for a fence thereunto to appertain and belong.
For two or three days Nick worked tremendously, and then appeared at my office and obtained, not without some difficulty, a further stipend for the purpose of procuring setters and eggs. Having bled me freely he departed in great good humor, remarking as he closed the door, —
"'Enry, we'll fill the 'ole bloomin' town wi' cheek ins."
The next day he passed the office driving Johnny's old white mare, hitched to a rattle cart containing an immense dry-goods box, upon which Nick was perched like Punch on the top of a circus van. He was followed by Johnny's savage dog, which took advantage of the day of freedom to pitch into all strange dogs; and Nick was obliged frequently to climb from his perch and with a cart-stake to rush into a whirlwind of fighting curs and a medley of objurgatory sounds something like this: "'I theer! 'I! blawst tha bloomin' heyes, ugr-r-r-yi-yi-ugr-rr-raugh-o-raugh-thump-whack-down tha Tigeyi-yi-ugr-r-r-raugh-thump-whack-yi-yi-dom tha hide —coom awa noo!" And then, having temporarily restored peace, he would climb on his van and proceed until the next interruption, when he would again descend, and with the assistance of the dogs rehearse the entire programme.
Toward evening, as I was coming out of the office, I heard a most terrific rattling, barking, and squawking, and from down the street, amid a cloud of dust, came the old white mare, urged to her full speed. On the box sat Nick, who had taken the precaution to chain the dog in the wagon, from which position the animal tugged and barked at a half score of excited dogs that surrounded the wagon, swearing vigorously in dog language at their assailant of the morning.
On seeing me, Nick pulled up so suddenly as to hurl the dog heels-over-head, while he himself narrowly escaped shooting over the old mare's head, and the collar of that patient animal went to her ears.
"Got thirty o' 'em, 'Enry, but 'ad to pay a 'ell of a price. 'Ens is gone hup," he shrieked; and away he went clattering down the street, while I mused apprehensively over what his idea of "a 'ell of a price" might be.
The next day he made a further demand on me for funds wherewith to purchase eggs and supplies, and for a time I heard no more of Nick. I had expressed to him some fear that his vigorous measures of the day before might have shaken some of the hens' determination, or seriously impaired their maternal instincts, but was reassured when he remarked that it was "Heasy enow to make a 'en set, if a mon knowed 'ow."
Amid a cloud of dust came the old white mare
A few days before the expected arrival of the chicks, I went down to the farm to inspect his plant and methods. His idea was original, amusing, and effective. In a spacious and well-ventilated room he had arranged a series of boxes containing the nests of straw, upon each of which a hen was thrust, with a ventilated cover of boards super-imposed; and a huge stone upon that served to keep straw, hen, and eggs firmly in place. Each day the hens were liberated in relays, allowed twenty minutes to feed, drink, dust and stretch, and at the expiration of the recess, were chased, caught, and re-imprisoned amid a chorus of squawks, a shower of dust and feathers, and original outbursts of language from Nick.
In spite of this rough method, his success was phenomenal, and about four hundred chickens arrived in due time. A few days previous to their arrival Nick had made a further demand for funds to purchase barrels, corn-meal, cracked corn, wheat-screenings, baker's waste, barley, and other necessary supplies.
The barrels were arranged facing the east, the open ends flush with the ground, the closed ends depressed a few inches. I demurred to this arrangement fearing the effect of the east wind, but was silenced when Nick replied, —
"Aye, mon, doost tha not know th' soon cooms oop th' east? An 't is th' soon thot makes cheeks grow."
This seemed truly plausible and I subsided.
And now for a while the affairs of the partnership flourished. The chickens throve, Nick throve, and the venture seemed in a fair way to be remunerative in the extreme. To be sure we lost a few chicks by the incursions of an immense gray rat, which Nick caught red-handed and stamped into a furry flapjack. Certain other animals in the neighborhood also disappeared, leaving no trace of their whereabouts.
"Johnny say, it do beat 'ell wheer th' owd tomcat 'a' gone," said Nick one day; "but 'Enry," — and here Nick lowered his voice, glanced apprehensively around, and whispered hoarsely, "Nick could tell tha summat about it."
Frequent visits of my partner at my house and office kept me posted in the progress of partnership affairs. These visits were at times a trifle inopportune, as when on one occasion we were entertaining the good pastor of the church at tea, Nick suddenly appeared at the dining-room door with the astonishing information that a "blawsted mink 'ad killed five cheeks, hand th' owd yeller 'en 'ad killed three, like a dash dashed owd fu'."
On another occasion Nick bolted into my court in great excitement, and disturbed my judicial poise by loudly informing me that "Johnny 'ad fun' out aboot th' owd tomcat an' was a raisin' 'ell."
But on the whole fortune smiled on the partnership and the partners. Yet, alas, one night, when the chicks were about as big as half-grown pigeons, a driving storm of wind and rain came. All night the wind roared from the east, the rain poured, the loose shutters banged, and my thoughts wandered to the partnership assets.
The morning dawned bright and beautiful, and at five o'clock I came downstairs. On opening the side door I nearly fell over the convulsed frame of my small partner, sitting doubled up on the threshold, plunged in unavailing grief.
"What in the world is the matter, Nick?" I asked.
"'Enry," gasped Nick, "Hi want ye to coom down to th' 'ouse, hand take hevery blank-dashed cheekin to 'ell wi' ye. The business 'as gone to 'ell!" And Nick lifted up his voice and fairly squalled in the extremity of his sorrow.
Although bursting with laughter at his ridiculous appearance, I did my best to soothe him, and finally he became composed sufficiently to lead the way toward the scene of our financial collapse.
Not a word of explanation would Nick give, only, "Tha'll see soon enow, 'Enry. Hi thot Hi was a gude 'en man, but tha knowst more nor Hi."
Arrived at the farm a most ridiculous and astonishing sight met my gaze. Arranged in perfect order in rows across the yard were about three hundred and fifty chickens, stiff, cold, and drenched, with their poor little legs sticking straight in air as if each had raised both hands to call public attention to its individual case. The rain had been driven by the east wind into the depressed barrels and had drowned nearly our entire colony.
The sight of the orderly rows of deceased chicks, and of Nick's frightfully solemn face, was too much, and I sat down on a barrel and roared and roared until Nick began to be infected and a hideous smile crept over his funny old face.
"Weel, 'Enry," he said finally, "'ow tha canst laugh 't is more than Hi can do. Hi'll 'ave no mon lose money by me. So take th' rest o' 'em awa."
It took me some time to convince him that as a square man he must not desert a partner in distress, or a sinking ship; and before I left he had visibly cheered up and was busily engaged in burying the dead.
No further calamity happened, and early in the fall I received my dividend in the shape of about twenty of the gauntest, long-leggedest chickens the world ever saw. When the flood had rushed in on them, they had weathered the storm on the principle of the survival of the fittest, which in their cases meant the long-legged ones. But their constitutions had been so taxed by the long hours of immersion, that their bodies had not kept pace with the abnormal development of their shanks.
Most of them were roosters, and whenever one would crow it would fall prostrate with the effort and lie there kicking until up-ended by some kindly hand. And they were compelled to sit down when they ate or drank in order to reach their food without falling headlong into the dish. And their voices, — such voices! like nothing in the world so much as Nick's laugh.
When I commented on their unusual development, Nick remarked with a humorous twinkle in his eye and a shrewd twist of his mouth, —
"Ay, mon, tha shouldst na find fault wi' thot, th' art built graidely lang-leggit thaself."
The partnership books, consisting of chalk memoranda on the inside of the harness-room door, were duly examined and found correct. What these twenty curiosities cost me I have never told. I never shall. Neither Nick nor I cared to discuss that part of it, but we made somewhat elaborate plans to try again the next year and to retrieve our shattered fortunes.
Poor Nick! he died that winter of a sudden attack of pneumonia. Before he died he asked for me; but I was away, and did not know of his sickness and death until after the funeral.
Poor old Nick! A weazened, crooked, bandy-legged man. But you had a good, faithful heart that has, I trust, found 'Arry.