In which two financiers of the golden age swing a deal in caterpillars and licorice whip
CHESTER CHAMBERLAIN and his chum Eddie Smeeton pulled their loose-jointed old express wagon along the board sidewalk at a rate which belied the common idea that junk collecting is a leisurely business. The wheels thumped over the cracks between the uneven planks, and a thin complaining chime from the half-filled sack of bottles mingled with the rattle of old bones in the wagon box.
“Bony and ’em should be to the corner first,” Eddie, who was pushing, commented. “We gave them th’ short side th’ block.”
“Oughta,” Chester agreed, stopping the wagon at the gate of the Plumleigh cottage so abruptly that his chum stumbled violently against its rear end.
“Hey, cheese it!” Eddie complained, rubbing his shins solicitously. “Old Mister Plumleigh won’t have anything. Person with sense enough to pound sand ’d know that much.”
“He might so. Won’t take on’y a jiffy to find out anyhow. Get a mosey on and fetch the bag.”
After one truculent glance at his partner Eddie yanked the bottle bag off the wagon and followed Chester through the gate and up the walk. Between the hedges of untrimmed shrubs it was cool, almost dank, after the glare of the street. The small roughcast cottage, the oldest dwelling on Maple Street, was cloaked by creepers so thriving and tenacious that even parts of the windows were concealed. The boys passed along the moldy side wall and halted at the back door, which was flanked on one side by a disorderly lilac bush, and on the other by a rain barrel.
Chester was about to knock when the sound of movement came from a small shed behind the house and, turning, the boys saw Mr. Plumleigh regarding them in his usual shy, mildly curious way.
“Was there something, boys?” the faded old gentleman asked.
Eddie hunched the bottle bag and glanced meaningly at his chum. “Get a move on an’ tell him,” he whispered.
“Us fellers, we kinda thought . . . your yard ...” Chester began after a fierce preliminary tug at the patent leather visor of his cap. In spite of his mild manner, the impoverished Mr. Plumleigh possessed a quiet dignity which could be embarrassing even to prying adults.
“Aw . . . spout it,” Eddie hissed.
“We’re tidying up people’s yards,” Chester began again. “We thought maybe yours . . .”
With a wave of his thin hand Mr. Plumleigh indicated the willows which had completely overgrown the backyard. Fences, flower borders, even the straggling vegetable garden were all but hidden by the encroaching brush. “Rather a big undertaking, cleaning up all that,” he commented.
“Sure would,” Eddie echoed with a nervous amiability which, in view of the losing fight the tenant of the cottage had waged against the underbrush, was decidedly out of place.
“We mean picking up. Old rags, bones, bottles and such,” Chester pointed out. “Stuff we can sell to the junk man.”
Mr. Plumleigh reflected. In his undemonstrative way he was fond of these young neighbors. During his strolls through wood and meadow beyond the town in search of botanical and entomological specimens he often met them. Twice during the spring they had brought him insects which they thought might interest him. He wanted to help them now, but he had nothing to give away. Then he remembered a box in the shed.
“I might possibly find you some bottles,” he said, hopefully. “Step into the shed and we’ll see what’s what.”
As Mr. Plumleigh turned, Chester jabbed his elbow into his chum’s ribs, whispered an exultant “See, smarty?” and made for the shed door. With Eddie close on his heels he entered.
No Mapleton boy had ever been in this dingy, lowroofed workshop about which so many thrilling rumors circulated among juveniles of the neighborhood, and both boys felt a delicious expectancy as they followed the old man inside. The shed had a smell which was half of the woodland and half drug store. Because of the encroaching willow thickets the place was poorly lighted, but already the two boys could see enough to know that the rumors were not without foundation. From the rafters hung bunches of drying herbs and bundles of gnarled, bleached roots which Mr. Plumleigh had brought from the woods and which, so Chester’s father had said, the old man shipped to a drug supply house in the city in an effort to “make ends meet.” In jars on rough shelves were more herbs, berries and coils of discolored bark. There were also rows of stoppered test tubes, each containing some insect in preservative, many of which were destined to be sold to collectors, or to the biological departments of universities in Toronto and Montreal.
“There’s a box under the window yonder,” Mr. Plumleigh was saying. “Help yourselves to any of the large bottles.”
Eagerly the boy? sorted the boxful, inwardly elated at the wealth of their quest. “Betcha they’s two-three cents’ worth right here,” Chester thought, as he and Eddie placed the bottles in their sack.
“Much obliged, Mister Plumleigh,” Eddie exclaimed as they stood up.
The old man seemed pleased as he followed them as far as the rain barrel. It was not often he was able to do anything for the lads of the neighborhood.
“Guess we better mosey on,” Chester stated awkwardly. “Thanks for the swell collection o’ bottles. Junk man should pay pretty good for all them.”
“I hope so,” Mr. Plumleigh told them. They were on their way down the walk, but he stopped them.
“Since you’re out to earn a little money, it occurs t me I might do something. The caterpillars in the willow yonder are getting ahead of me. Perhaps you’d collec
them. I’d pay you something—a cent a hundred, say If you feel like tackling it, let me know.”
“Sure will,” Chester agreed. He tried to sound en thusiastic about it, but collecting one hundred cater pillars for one cent sounded like a losing game besid which even junk collecting was like the high road b wealth. At that moment an impatient “Hey, Ches!’ came from beyond the gate to announce that Bony am his helpers had completed their tour of the block am were waiting for them.
“Gee, you’re slow’s molasses,” Bony Hicks com mented raucously as Chester and Eddie appeared witl the sack. “Fat chance of ‘gloming’ anything ii there.”
Eddie, who had been as disparaging ten minutes age hastened to justify their call. “Aw, dry up an’ bust Shows all you know. He gave us more’n a dozen bij ones.”
“Fourteen,” Chester corrected.
“Holy smoke!” Bony commented. “We got enougl
then. We found some dilly big bones. Let’s get to th junk man’s quick.”
CHESTER pushed back his cap, scratched his heat vigorously, and eyed the contents of the wagoi with a calculating eye. It was he who had organized th morning’s enterprise. The sale of what junk the; already had might appease his own, Eddie’s and Bony’ desire for candy, but during the morning five more boy had volunteered their services. All too well Cheste knew it would take more than a few cents to buy cand for the eight of them, but all the likely prospects havin been worked out, there seemed nothing else for it but t sell what they had and to spend the proceeds as judiciously as possible.
"You and Bony catch holt the tongue,” he told Eddie. “Other kids push.”
Knowing that only by a great show of zealousness could they expect to receive equal shares, the five volunteers jostled each other in their eagerness to comply. The sidewalk proving too narrow for them all, Bony swung the wagon into the road down the centre of which they were moving when a victoria drawn by two sleek horses rounded the corner and bore down on them.
“Clear the track!” the watchful Chester yelled. Neither Bony nor Eddie heeding his warning, Chester ran through the dust and tried to seize the wagon tongue.
“Want a smash-up or somethin’?” he shouted.
“What you doin’—yu’ punkin-head?” Bony demanded, and in his effort to assert his rights to a full half of the road, he swung so sharply that the front wheels jammed, and bones, bottles and four eager pushers went down in wild disorder.
Only by a second’s margin did the driver of the carriage avoid an accident. He swung the prancing team toward the ditch, cracked his whip and swerved around the heap of sprawling boys. As the carriage swayed past, a portly lady in black silk glared at them from the cushioned seat. Over her head she held a ludicrously small black sunshade whose abundant flouncings fluttered madly at every bounce of the carriage.
Eddie and Chester, who had not lost their feet, dared not look up, and only Bony, standing among the fallen, returned with interest her outraged stare. Barefooted, lanky and begrimed, he looked after her in a manner which he thought was simply reasserting his right to half the road but which, to any onlooker, must have seemed the perfection of insolence.
“Guess that’ll learn her,” he declared a moment later as the victoria stopped before the Plumleigh cottage. “Thinks she owns the earth on account it’s rent day. Measly ol’ skinflint.”
Eddie and Chester recognized the wealthy Mrs. Simpson as the occupant of the carriage, and though they knew that, among other property, she owned the Plumleigh cottage, they could not see that Bony had any right to blame her and lost no time in telling him so.
“Aw, her!” Bony snorted. “Bet she’d be good and mad if her bottles and old bones got spilt.” Mrs. Sirnpson, being also the Hicks’ landlady, and his father having a somewhat carefree attitude toward rent and such financial obligations, Bony felt an intimate hostility toward Mrs. Simpson which the others could not share.
“Anyways, le’s pick it up and get a-going,” Eddie suggested, and a moment later, when the escort had been assembled, the procession set out again.
TT WAS nearly noon when the bell above the door of
the Maple Street corner store tinkled imperiously, and Chester, entering, led his crew of workers to the candy counter.
“Licorish whip fer mine,” Spike Conway stated largely, as all eight boys clustered along the front of the showcase.
Chester, his fingers gripping the seven coppers in his pocket, turned savagely on this trouble-making helper. The fraction problem of dividing seven cents equally among eight boys was going to be trying enough without having it complicated by choices of candies costing one whole cent.
“You think you’re king or something, Spike Conway?” Chester demanded.
“Lookit, Ches,” Eddie interrupted, pointing to one of the trays. “Eight for a cent—horehoun’ drops. Comes out even.”
“Why don’t he come?” Bony whispered, after listening in vain for footsteps from the back shop. “Mister Kane better ’tend to business or we’ll deal at t’other store. Be glad to get our trade, you betcha.”
At that moment there was a tread behind the connecting door and Mr. Kane entered. Years of wearying experience with the ways of the juvenile trade had taught him what to expect, and with a patient, “How do, boys,” he halted behind the candies.
“Cent’s worth of them,” Chester began with surprising promptness, pointing at the horehound drops.
One by one Mr. Kane dropped the eight candies into a bag, well aware that every boy was silently checking his count. Chester pushed a copper across the counter and pondered his next choice. Calculations in which candies that were three or five for a cent might be divided into eight confused him. Mr. Kane drummed on the showcase and looked into the street with bored politeness.
Boys began to whisper suggestions to their nonplussed purchasing agent, intimating preferences he saw no way to gratify.
“Hurry up, Ches,” Bony urged loudly.
“We ain’t got all day,” others echoed.
Bony’s treason, committed to win favor with the others, was too much for the floundering Chester. He made a great show of brusqueness.
“Cent’s worth o’ them—another o’ them, and one of them,” he ordered hastily.
When the last copper had been spent he clutched the bag and stalked to the door, and during the division which took place outside he tried to conceal his bungling. If there was a candy marble or a butterscotch short he went without it, and soon with the loyal Eddie beside him he strode up the street before his subterfuge could be discovered. But as the pair walked homeward he voiced his bitterness in no uncertain terms.
“Next time I won’t come out no small end of no old horn,” Chester predicted. “You watch.”
“Nope. We’ll get up something our two own selves,” Eddie agreed as Chester turned in at the Chamberlain gate. “See you s’afternoon.”
“I’ll holler,” Chester promised.
Mr. and Mrs. Chamberlain were already seated at the dinner table when their son clumped up the back steps into the summer kitchen. And as he washed at the sink there he overheard the names of both Mrs. Simpson and Mr. Plumleigh mentioned.
“It’s mighty small potatoes,” he heard his father say. “Heaven knows the poor old man doesn’t ask for much. The lot always was low and now it’s overgrown like that, it’s no place for a rheumatic.”
“You’d think she’d do that much. Surely it wouldn’t cost much to have the willows cut down.”
“She’s mean, I tell you. She knows how he likes it here where everyone knows him and his ways. He can’t pay men to clear the willows. He needs the garden space, too, if he’s to make ends meet. But no, she said it was up to him. Wouldn’t spend a cent on the place this year, and I can just see her saying it in that bumptious way of her’s. Grinding the faces of the poor. If only she was a man for about five minutes I’d ...”
“George!” Mrs. Chamberlain warned as Chester came in from the summer kitchen.
“Well, I would,” her husband rumbled, but, catching his wife’s cautioning eye, he restrained from further expression of his opinion of the town’s wealthiest woman.
But Chester had heard enough. Until his father called Mr. Plumleigh “the poor old man,” Chester had always classed the old naturalist with other adults of the neighborhood; they might be friendly or hostile or simply indifferent to him, but all were dwellers in a world apart from his. Now for the first time he felt an intimate iriendliness for Mr. Plumleigh.
As he sat at the table he could see Mrs. Simpson as she was when her carriage swerved past them this forenoon. But instead of reining in the horses, the coachman lost his head. The team bolted. Somehow Chester was ahead of them, arms stretched wide, crouched for a mighty leap. He had them by the heads now and a disastrous smash-up had been averted. Mrs. Simpson, pale and frightened, was holding out a large roll of bills to him.
“Do you think I would touch your filthy wealth?” Chester was asking scathingly. “I did not stop your team because of you, but on account of that innocent child playing in the road ahead there. You can keep your old cottage. Mr. Plumleigh is a friend of mine and I am going to build him a swell red brick house bigger than the one you live in. Let this be a lesson to you, and if you do not stop grinding off poor people’s faces, me and Eddie Smeeton and four-five more will plaster you with tar and feathers and ride you on a rail. So you better mend your ways and not ...”
“Chester, you’re not eating your potatoes.”
His mother’s voice seemed to come from a great distance, but in obedience to it Chester absent-mindedly lifted a forkful from his plate. For the rest of the meal his plan absorbed him.
AS SOON as he was out of the house
*• he hastened down the lane toward the Smeeton barn, yodelling for Eddie as he went.
“Let’s pick cat-a-pillars this afternoon like Mister Plumleigh said,” he urged when his chum appeared.
Though Eddie was not enthusiastic, he had no plans for the afternoon, and soon the pair were on their way down Maple Street.
As they opened the cottage gate they were surprised to see Mr. Plumleigh coming down the walk between the unruly shrubs. He was dressed in his formal, though rusty, black suit and carried a valise.
“We come about the cat-a-pillar collecting,” Chester explained.
“Thank you, but I’m on my way to catch the Carterville train,” the old man explained nervously. “A change in my plans, quite unexpected . really there’s no time to show you what’s to be done. I’ll be away perhaps a week.” His manner was perturbed, vague.
“You’d on’y have to tell us onct. Eddie and me, we’d do what you want.” Chester spoke anxiously, feeling that he might never again have a chance to help this friendly old man who had lived on Maple Street for so long.
Chester’s genuine eagerness seemed to rouse the old man. He looked at his fat silver watch and hesitated. But no, there was not time to show them, and besides it would not be safe to allow the two boys to use a coal-oil torch to burn out the caterpillar nests if he was not there to supervise. But if he had to be away a full week and this hot weather continued, the pests might spread alarmingly.
“Tell you what we could do,” Mr. Plumleigh decided. “There’s a partly filled coal-oil tin in the shed. Put the caterpillars in that. They’ll be all right in there and I’ll fix them when I get back. Here’s the shed key. It’s good of you. I must be going now.”
The gate had hardly closed behind him before Chester, key in hand, was leading the way to the shed.
“I’ll bet we’ll need the bottles he gave us ’fore we’re through,” Chester exclaimed as they opened the shed door. “If he’s saving up cat-a-pillars, guess we’ll get scads or bust, eh, Eddie, ol’ sock?”
“Bet your boots. City people that’ll buy beetles an’ June bugs like those in the bottles will mebbe want lots of cat-apillars.” Eddie did not understand why Mr. Plumleigh wanted caterpillars gathered, any more than he did why the collectors and universities Chester had told him about, should pay Mr. Plumleigh real money for June bugs and tadpoles in jars. But it was enough for him that he had actually heard the old gentleman express his wish that they collect them, and he was eager to make so huge a caterpillar collection that, as he confided to Chester a few minutes later, it would make Mr. Plumleigh’s eyes “bug clean outa his head.”
Chester found the large tin with the coal-oil, and after he had secured two smaller tins, they began searching the willows for quarry. It was strenuous work, for the willows grew thickly and many of them were too slender to be climbed.
“Hey, Eddie,” Chester called some time later. “Give a feller a boost.”
Eddie crashed through the brush, and when the high branch had been brought down Chester held out the cobweb “tent” he had found with all the triumph of a successful big game hunter.
“They come outa these nests,” he exclaimed, as he picked the freshly hatched insects from the tent and placed them carefully in the can. “It’s easier picking than any. Only watch not to squash ’em. Collectors won’t pay for busted ones.” During the afternoon they explored the backyard thoroughly. Though the caterpillars were by no means rare, the collection seemed disappointingly small when placed in the big coal-oil can. But on their way home to supper Chester was still hopeful of a big bag on the morrow.
“They’re just hatching out good now. More’ll be poppin’ every day. We got to fill that can cram full,” he stated.
TT WAS suppertime that Chester learned what had taken Mr. Plumleigh to Carterville. “Met him on the way to the station,” Mr. Chamberlain explained to his wife. “Thinks he may get the use of one of the old cottages at the brickyard. At least he’d get some sunlight over there at Carterville.”
Chester said nothing. He did not even tell his parents he had been working for Mr. Plumleigh that afternoon. But more than ever he was determined to make a “whopper” collection for the kindly old naturalist who would so soon be leaving town.
Next morning’s work among the willows proved disappointing, however. It took the boys only an hour to go over the bushes and when Eddie suggested that they go swimming Chester carefully immersed their morning’s catch in the coal-oil and locked the shed. It was on their way home from the swimming hole that Chester made a momentous discovery.
The wild cherry trees along the river bank sheltered scores of caterpillar tents, many of which were at the hatching stage.
“Jimminy, Eddie, isn’t this the luckiest?” Chester shouted. “Get out your good ol’ jack knife and whack off all you can reach.”
“Nests are just a-crawling,” Eddie announced, as he began piling the twigs with their nests beside the footpath. “Guess we’ll show them cat-a-pillars you an’ me’s not so slow.”
They made several trips between the Plumleigh yard and the wild cherry grove before dinner. After dinner they made even more and by suppertime the scores of tents they had carried into town had been carefully distributed among the willows.
“We’ll give ’em a good start,” Chester told his chum as they parted that evening. “They’ll be fat an’ fuzzy in a coupla days. Then we’ll fill that can easy.”
rT'WO days later, when the boys returned to the cottage, they saw every evidence that this prophecy would be fulfilled. But as they came from the shed to begin picking, the sound of a man’s voice on the other side of the high board fence made them pause and listen.
“I say, Minnie,” the voice shouted. “Come out here and look at your roses. Simply alive with ’em.”
Chester and Eddie heard a screen door bang and then a woman’s voice from the back steps suggested something about the use of coal-oil. Chester gave his chum a look of knowing concern. So other people were wise to this collecting business, were they?
“Ding bust him. Guess we hatched out them cat-a-pillars,” Eddie whispered fiercely.
“Coal-oil nothing,” the man was saying. “Where’ll the blooms be if you use coaloil? They’re coming over the fence from Plumleigh’s, I tell you. Where’s the step ladder?”
“He better not,” Chester hissed. “These here are Mister Plumleigh’s very own cat-a-pillars, to make money out of.”
Almost at once they heard the thud of a ladder against the fence, and then a man’s head appeared above the boards.
“It’s seething with them,” the man reported to his wife. “I’m going straight to the town hall and make them do something.” Then as he began to work his way along the fence, the man saw the two boys. “Hello! What you up to in there?” he challenged.
Chester, unexpectedly finding himself on the defensive, stood up. “Us two, we’re working for Mister Plumleigh,” he declared awkwardly.
“Mr. Plumleigh’s out of town. How can you be . . . ”
“He tol’ us to pick all the cat-apillars we could find. Well, that’s what we’re doing—picking.”
“Picking? Shucks. A lot of good that’ll do now,” the man grunted.
“Fat lot he knows,” Eddie commented guardedly. “Guess Mister Plumleigh knows more’n him. This here collectin’ is a business ...”
“It’s a business all right,” Chester agreed enigmatically. A disturbing doubt was taking hold of Chester. The man and his wife seemed to take it for granted that caterpillars should be destroyed, and yet Mr. Plumleigh . . . But what had Mr. Plumleigh really said? Chester was trying to recall it all, but for the life of him he could not be sure that the old gentleman had said that caterpillars were specimens.
Then there had been that unsettling remark about going to the town hall. Chester, with memories of Hallowe’en pranks and a broken window or two, thought of the town hall principally as the place where people went to report things to the Mapleton policeman. He would have given much to have Mr. Plumleigh confirm his own first understanding of the job he had taken on.
“Kinda damp here in the willows,” he suggested.
Eddie did not think it was damp and said so.
“Feels kinda damp to me.”
“What th’ Sam Hill’s eatin’ you?” Eddie demanded. “Going to let that man grab all Mister Plumleigh’s cat-a-pillars? Le’s start picking.”
Cornered, yet not daring to voice his uneasy doubt, Chester nodded. He picked up his can, but for the rest of the morning his ears were on the alert for heavy footfalls—policeman’s footfalls— turning in at the Plumleigh gate. Once when Eddie was not looking, he pulled down one of the tents they had brought into town from the wild cherry grove and stamped it and its inmates into the earth. When the first of the factory whistles announced noon, he quit work and hurried homeward. There was something he must find out before Eddie called for him to go back to the cottage after dinner.
T^HESTER found his father in a particularly jovial mood. He was talking with Mrs. Chamberlain as Chester entered the house and when he saw his son his talk ceased significantly. “Tell you after dinner,” Chester heard him say. Once during the meal, and for no reason which Chester could see, his father chuckled as if at some secret joke.
After the meal Chamberlain senior picked up his paper. He pretended to be reading it, but actually he was waiting for his son to leave the house. Chester, fidgeting on the sofa, fancied he saw the paper which concealed his father’s head and shoulders shaking. But when Mrs. Chamberlain, pausing on the way to the pantry, accused her husband of “snickering like a girl,” he indignantly denied the accusation. At that moment Chester heard Eddie calling him from the lane.
“Eddie’s waiting for you, son,” Mr. Chamberlain hinted.
But Chester did not take the hint. Instead he got up, walked to the window and flung himself down on the arm of a chair.
“Dad, what would Mr. Plumleigh want to save cat-a-pillars for?” he blurted. “He ast me’n Eddie to pick them in his yard.”
“And did you?” The mere mention of caterpillars seemed to amuse Mr. Chamberlain.
“All we could find. When they wasn’t any more me an’ Eddie, why . . . ’’And then before he knew it Chester found himself telling about the imported caterpillar nests and hinting at the outspoken annoyance of Mr. Plumleigh’s neighbor that morning.
“You actually brought tent caterpillars into the yard? You actually thought Mr. Plumleigh was saving them?”
“Yep,” Chester stated with convincing honesty.
Mr. Chamberlain laid down his paper suddenly and strode to the door. His back was to Chester and it seemed minutes before he spoke. Then he did an utterly unexpected thing. He turned and handed his son a twenty-five cent piece. “That’s for collecting caterpillars. Now for goodness sake get out of the house and stop Eddie’s infernal yodelling.”
Chester obeyed with dazed alacrity. The screen door had hardly slammed behind him before his father sank into his armchair, weak with the mirth he could suppress no longer.
Mrs. Chamberlain stood regarding him. “George, what a way to be going on,” she exclaimed.
“It’s rich . . . rich, I tell you,” her husband protested huskily. “The pair of them bringing caterpillars into town ! It explains what I wanted to tell you before dinner.”
“About what you heard at the town hall?”
“Yes. The corporation’s sending a gang of men to cut down the willows this afternoon. They’re harboring a pest. Mrs. Simpson’s off somewhere in Muskoka, but the work’s to be charged to her. Only she doesn’t know it—yet.” Still chuckling, Mr. Chamberlain brought out his handkerchief and mopped his face. “What a pleasant surprise for old Plumleigh when he gets in this afternoon.”
/^\UT in the lane Chester was trying to explain to Eddie a miracle he himself did not understand. “All I know is he give it to me on account the caterpillars.”
“But why?” Eddie persisted.
“Do I got to stand here all day hearin’ your crazy nonsense?” Chester demanded. “I’m going to Mister Kane’s for licorish whips. You going to stand there shootin’ off fool questions or are you coming. That’s what I want to know.”
“Sure, I’m coming,” Eddie agreed. “Keep to the back street. If we see Bony and Spike an’ them we’ll tell ’em to go peddle their papers.”
“An’ we’ll get on’y things that cost one whole cent.”
“Betcha. Twenty-five whole cents. Gee!”
“Sure. Didn’t I tell you the very first day there was money in collecting?” Chester boasted, as, after a careful survey to see the coast was clear, they came out into Maple Street and headed for the corner store.