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MR. MUNCHAUSEN MEETS HIS MATCH
(Reported by Henry W. Ananias for the Gehenna Gazette.)
When Mr. Munchausen, accompanied by Ananias and Sapphira, after a long and tedious journey from Cimmeria to the cool and wooded heights of the Blue Sulphur Mountains, entered the portals of the hotel where the greater part of his summers are spent, the first person to greet him was Beelzebub Sandboy, — the curly-headed Imp who acted as "Head Front" of the Blue Sulphur Mountain House, his eyes a-twinkle and his swift running feet as ever ready for a trip to any part of the hostelry and back. Beelzy, as the Imp was familiarly known, as the party entered, was in the act of carrying a half-dozen pitchers of iced-water upstairs to supply thirsty guests with the one thing needful and best to quench that thirst, and in his excitement at catching sight once again of his ancient friend the Baron, managed to drop two of the pitchers with a loud crash upon the office floor. This, however, was not noticed by the powers that ruled. Beelzy was not perfect, and as long as he smashed less than six pitchers a day on an average the management was disposed not to complain.
"There goes my friend Beelzy," said the Baron, as the pitchers fell. "I am delighted to see him. I was afraid he would not be here this year since I understand he has taken up the study of theology."
"Theology?" cried Ananias. "In Hades?"
"How foolish," said Sapphira. "We don't need preachers here."
"He'd make an excellent one," said Mr. Munchausen. "He is a lad of wide experience and his fish and bear stories are wonderful. If he can make them gee, as he would put it, with his doctrines he would prove a tremendous success. Thousands would flock to hear him for his bear stories alone. As for the foolishness of his choice, I think it is a very wise one. Everybody can't be a stoker, you know."
At any rate, whatever the reasons for Beelzebub's presence, whether he had given up the study of theology or not, there he was plying his old vocation with the same perfection of carelessness as of yore, and apparently no farther along in the study of theology than he was the year before when he bade Mr. Munchausen "good-bye forever" with the statement that now that he was going to lead a pious life the chances were he'd never meet his friend again.
"I don't see why they keep such a careless boy as that," said Sapphira, as Beelzy at the first landing turned to grin at Mr. Munchausen, emptying the contents of one of his pitchers into the lap of a nervous old gentleman in the office below.
"He adds an element of excitement to a not over-exciting place," explained Mr. Munchausen. "On stormy days here the men make bets on what fool thing Beelzy will do next. He blacked all the russet shoes with stove polish one year, and last season in the rush of his daily labours he filled up the water-cooler with soft coal instead of ice. He's a great bell-boy, is my friend Beelzy."
A little while later when Mr. Munchausen and his party had been shown to their suite, Beelzy appeared in their drawing-room and was warmly greeted by Mr. Munchausen, who introduced him to Mr. and Mrs. Ananias.
"Well," said Mr. Munchausen, "you're here again, are you?"
"No, indeed," said Beelzy. "I ain't here this year. I'm over at the Coal-Yards shovellin' snow. I'm my twin brother that died three years before I was born."
"How interesting," said Sapphira, looking at the boy through her lorgnette.
Beelzy bowed in response to the compliment and observed to the Baron:
"You ain't here yourself this season, be ye?"
"No," said Mr. Munchausen, drily. "I've gone abroad. You've given up theology I presume?"
"Sorter," said Beelzy. "It was lonesome business and I hadn't been at it more'n twenty minutes when I realised that bein' a missionary ain't all jam and buckwheats. It's kind o' dangerous too, and as I didn't exactly relish the idea o' bein' et up by Samoans an' Feejees I made up my mind to give it up an' stick to bell-boyin' for another season any how; but I'll see you later, Mr. Munchausen. I've got to hurry along with this iced-water. It's overdue now, and we've got the kickinest lot o' folks here this year you ever see. One man here the other night got as mad as hookey because it took forty minutes to soft bile an egg. Said two minutes was all that was necessary to bile an egg softer'n mush, not understanding anything about the science of eggs in a country where hens feeds on pebbles."
"Pebbles?" cried Mr. Munchausen. "What, do they lay Roc's eggs?"
"No, sir — they lay hen's eggs all right, but they're as hard as Adam's aunt."
"I never heard of chickens eating pebbles," observed Sapphira with a frown. "Do they really relish them?"
"I don't know, Ma'am," said Beelzy. "I ain't never been on speakin' terms with the hens, Ma'am, and they never volunteered no information. They eat 'em just the same. They've got to eat something and up here on these mountains there ain't anything but gravel for 'em to eat. That's why they do it. Then when it comes to the eggs, on a diet like that, cobblestones ain't in it with 'em for hardness, and when you come to bite 'em it takes a week to get 'em soft, an' a steam drill to get 'em open — an' this feller kicked at forty minutes! Most likely he's swearin' around upstairs now because this iced-water ain't came; and it ain't more than two hours since he ordered it neither."
"What an unreasonable gentleman," said Sapphira.
"Ain't he though!" said Beelzy. "And he ain't over liberal neither. He's been here two weeks now and all the money I've got out of him was a five-dollar bill I found on his bureau yesterday morning. There's more money in theology than there is in him."
With this Beelzebub grabbed up the pitcher of water, and bounded out of the room like a frightened fawn. He disappeared into the dark of the corridor, and a few moments later was evidently tumbling head over heels up stairs, if the sounds that greeted the ears of the party in the drawing-room meant anything.
The next morning when there was more leisure for Beelzy the Baron inquired as to the state of his health.
"Oh it's been pretty good," said he. "Pretty good. I'm all right now, barrin' a little gout in my right foot, and ice-water on my knee, an' a crick in my back, an' a tired feelin' all over me generally. Ain't had much to complain about. Had the measles in December, and the mumps in February; an' along about the middle o' May the whoopin' cough got a holt of me; but as it saved my life I oughtn't to kick about that."
Here Beelzy looked gratefully at an invisible something — doubtless the recollection in the thin air of his departed case of whooping cough, for having rescued him from an untimely grave.
"That is rather curious, isn't it?" queried Sapphira, gazing intently into the boy's eyes. "I don't exactly understand how the whooping cough could save anybody's life, do you, Mr. Munchausen?"
"Beelzy, this lady would have you explain the situation, and I must confess that I am myself somewhat curious to learn the details of this wonderful rescue," said Mr. Munchausen.
"Well, I must say," said Beelzy, with a pleased smile at the very great consequence of his exploit in the lady's eyes, "if I was a-goin' to start out to save people's lives generally I wouldn't have thought a case o' whoopin' cough would be of much use savin' a man from drownin', and I'm sure if a feller fell out of a balloon it wouldn't help him much if he had ninety dozen cases o' whoopin' cough concealed on his person; but for just so long as I'm the feller that has to come up here every June, an' shoo the bears out o' the hotel, I ain't never goin' to be without a spell of whoopin' cough along about that time if I can help it. I wouldn't have been here now if it hadn't been for it."
"You referred just now," said Sapphira, "to shooing bears out of the hotel. May I inquire what useful function in the ménage of a hotel a bear-shooer performs?"
"What useful what?" asked Beelzy.
"Function — duty — what does the duty of a bear-shooer consist in?" explained Mr. Munchausen. "Is he a blacksmith who shoes bears instead of horses?"
"He's a bear-chaser," explained Beelzy, "and I'm it," he added. "That, Ma'am, is the function of a bear-shooer in the menagerie of a hotel."
Sapphira having expressed herself as satisfied, Beelzebub continued.
"You see this here house is shut up all winter, and when everybody's gone and left it empty the bears come down out of the mountains and use it instead of a cave. It's more cosier and less windier than their dens. So when the last guest has gone, and all the doors are locked, and the band gone into winter quarters, down come the bears and take possession. They generally climb through some open window somewhere. They divide up all the best rooms accordin' to their position in bear society and settle down to a regular hotel life among themselves."
"But what do they feed upon?" asked Sapphira.
"Oh they'll eat anything when they're hungry," said Beelzy. "Sofa cushions, parlor rugs, hotel registers — anything they can fasten their teeth to. Last year they came in through the cupola, burrowin' down through the snow to get at it, and there they stayed enjoyin' life out o' reach o' the wind and storm, snug's bugs in rugs. Year before last there must ha' been a hundred of 'em in the hotel when I got here, but one by one I got rid of 'em. Some I smoked out with some cigars Mr. Munchausen gave me the summer before; some I deceived out, gettin' 'em to chase me through the winders, an' then doublin' back on my tracks an' lockin' 'em out. It was mighty wearin' work.
"Last June there was twice as many. By actual tab I shooed two hundred and eight bears and a panther off into the mountains. When the last one as I thought disappeared into the woods I searched the house from top to bottom to see if there was any more to be got rid of. Every blessed one of the five hundred rooms I went through, and not a bear was left that I could see. I can tell you, I was glad, because there was a partickerly ugly run of 'em this year, an' they gave me a pile o' trouble. They hadn't found much to eat in the hotel, an' they was disappointed and cross. As a matter of fact, the only things they found in the place they could eat was a piano stool and an old hair trunk full o' paper-covered novels, which don't make a very hearty meal for two hundred and eight bears and a panther."
"I should say not," said Sapphira, "particularly if the novels were as light as most of them are nowadays."
"I can't say as to that," said Beelzy. "I ain't got time to read 'em and so I ain't any judge. But all this time I was sufferin' like hookey with awful spasms of whoopin' cough. I whooped so hard once it smashed one o' the best echoes in the place all to flinders, an' of course that made the work twice as harder. So, naturally, when I found there warn't another bear left in the hotel, I just threw myself down anywhere, and slept. My! how I slept. I don't suppose anything ever slept sounder'n I did. And then it happened."
Beelzy gave his trousers a hitch and let his voice drop to a stage whisper that lent a wondrous impressiveness to his narration.
"As I was a-layin' there unconscious, dreamin' of home and father, a great big black hungry bruin weighin' six hundred and forty-three pounds, that had been hidin' in the bread oven in the bakery, where I hadn't thought of lookin' for him, came saunterin' along, hummin' a little tune all by himself, and lickin' his chops with delight at the idee of havin' me raw for his dinner. I lay on unconscious of my danger, until he got right up close, an' then I waked up, an' openin' my eyes saw this great black savage thing gloatin' over me an' tears of joy runnin' out of his mouth as he thought of the choice meal he was about to have. He was sniffin' my bang when I first caught sight of him."
"Mercy!" cried Sapphira, "I should think you'd have died of fright."
"At the first whoop Mr. Bear jumped ten feet and fell over backwards on the floor."
"I did," said Beelzy, politely, "but I came to life again in a minute. 'Oh Lor!' says I, as I see how hungry he was. 'This here's the end o' me;' at which the bear looked me straight in the eye, licked his chops again, and was about to take a nibble off my right ear when 'Whoop!' I had a spasm of whoopin'. Well, Ma'am, I guess you know what that means. There ain't nothin' more uncanny, more terrifyin' in the whole run o' human noises, barrin' a German Opery, than the whoop o' the whoopin' cough. At the first whoop Mr. Bear jumped ten feet and fell over backwards onto the floor; at the second he scrambled to his feet and put for the door, but stopped and looked around hopin' he was mistaken, when I whooped a third time. The third did the business. That third whoop would have scared Indians. It was awful. It was like a tornado blowin' through a fog-horn with a megaphone in front of it. When he heard that, Mr. Bear turned on all four of his heels and started on a scoot up into the woods that must have carried him ten miles before I quit coughin'.
"An' that's why, Ma'am, I say that when you've got to shoo bears for a livin', an attack o' whoopin' cough is a useful thing to have around."
Saying which, Beelzy departed to find Number 433's left boot which he had left at Number 334's door by some odd mistake.
"What do you think of that, Mr. Munchausen?" asked Sapphira, as Beelzy left the room.
"I don't know," said Mr. Munchausen, with a sigh. "I'm inclined to think that I am a trifle envious of him. The rest of us are not in his class."