Powdered Potato Panacea
by Elmore Elliott Peake
original title: The Helgramite for Luck
excerpted from: The Country Gentleman, May 1913
Great oaks from little acorns grow. Coonrod Sprengel’s “flyer” in potatoes germinated in a chance remark of Grossmutter Bachman’s at Louisa Sprengel’s birthday party. Most of the guests, logy from the mighty dinner, were dozing or smoking, according to sex, inside the house; but Coony and old Teckla sat on the porch, chatting and watching a troop of children race about the yard.
Presently a chorus of soprano shrieks and a panic scattering of the girls resulted in Reinert Haugens’ being summoned into his grandmother’s presence; he approached, dangling from a thread a strange-looking insect nearly three inches long, with bulging eyes and formidable crossed pincers.
“Throw that pug avay, Liebchen, before it bites you already!” commanded the old woman. After the boy had reluctantly obeyed, she added to Coonrod: “It iss a hellgramite, or, as some call it, a conniption pug. It makes me sick for to see it, for they live close to the river by, and when they fly avay from the river as far as this it means that potaties will be scarce. I have nefer known the sign to vail, and my mudder and my grandmudder have toldt me the same.”
“You don’t say it!” exclaimed Coony.
A shrewder Dutchman than Coonrod Sprengel was not to be found throughout the length and breadth of Cherry Valley. In business he was as alert as a chipmunk, being seldom surprised far from his hole. He had been a successful farmer, and since his retirement to New Berlin and his election to the honorable office of justice of the peace he had continued to make money in loans, insurance and real estate.
Yet he was streaked with certain superstitions which now and then betrayed him into a childish gullibility. For instance, he firmly believed Teckla to be possessed of the powers of a seer. She was deeply versed in Nature lore. She knew the beneficent or malignant influence of every herb, the nesting and the blooming time of every bird and flower. She read the seasons like an open book. She knew just what enterprises were better inaugurated in the light or in the dark of the moon. Hence when she predicted a failure of the potato crop, on the ground of the hellgramite’s wandering from water, nothing, in Coonrod’s opinion, was more likely to happen.
If it did happen – and this was the pivot about which his brain hummed like an armature for several days – money could be made by contracting for the crop at the low price which had prevailed for the last four or five years in the Valley.
This idea was born in an instant, but its twin – the resolution to act on it – came only through travail. For Coony, like his neighbors, was a plodder. Slow but sure was his method. A bird in the hand was worth, not two, but a whole covey in the bush. Yet unquestionably there was a drop or two of gambler’s blood in his veins. The year before he had made big money, as money goes in the Valley, by buying hay, and the germ of speculation still lurked in his system. Feeding on Teckla’s prophecy, it now multiplied apace; and after many timorous advances and retreats, accompanied by much pipe-smoking, Coony finally decided to make an assault on the citadel of chance.
The first man he tackled was old Johnny Wagner, who had dropped into the office for a smoke and a chat while awaiting the mail.
“Chohnny, you planted many late potaties dis year?” asked Coony, feigning a nice carelessness.
“Oh, a vew,” answered Johnny with characteristic Cherry Valley aversion to committing oneself too definitely where dollars and cents were concerned.
“Most eferybody has planted more as usual. I myselluf put half an acre in. The season has been fine for ‘em, so var. They will be cheap again this vall. Still, I have been t’inking I would puyup afew. I got to keep my mindt on somet’ing, you know, since I retired from the varm. How much would you contract at to sell me all you raise?”
“How much you offer?” asked Johnny.
“Vell,” mused Sprengel as if he were considering the subject for the first time, “t’irty-five would be a big price.”
“They was wort’ vorty-five last year.”
“Yes, but they may be wort’ only t’irty this year. Cherry Walley is growing too many spuds when you consider the railroadt iss too far avay to ship on. Anyhow, if I take the risk I got some profits to make already.”
“I vould not take t’irty-five,” declared Johnny.
“And I would not give vorty-five,” retorted Sprengel. He gazed out of the window as if dismissing the matter from his mind. Wagner shifted a new halter from his right hand to his left.
“Would you give me vorty?” he asked.
“Yes, chust to be doing somet’ing – not that I expect to make some money at that price. I will draw up a contract, and then we will go down and have a glass beer at Schubert’s.”
As Wagner finished his labored signature Hugo Ballschmeider entered the room with his elephantine tread.
“What the teuce you doin’, Vagner, puttin’ your Chohn Hancock on a piece paper wit’ Sprengel?” he inquired in his bluff, trumpetlike voice. “Virst t’ing you know you will have nutting but the paper and Sprengel will have your varm.”
Coony laughed loudly, as one will at the joke of a man he is about to cajole. He waited, however, until Wagner had thumped down the narrow stairway to the street; then he blew four swirling puffs of smoke, like the preliminary passes of a hypnotist’s hands, toward the herculean form of his victim.
“Hugo, I haf about made up my mindt to do somet’ing voolish.”
“You are alvays doing somet’ing that is voolish – for the veller you do it to,” answered Hugo.
Again Sprengel laughed. “I was t’inking about puying up some spuds, case I could get ‘em cheap enough.”
“What you call cheap?”
“Oh, t’irty cents, maybe.”
Hugo snorted. “That would be cheap, sure enough. I will feed mine to the hogs virst. Vifty cents wouldt be more like it.”
“Wit’ more potaties being planted efery year as before!” cried Coonrod indignantly. “Why, vorty-five was top notch last year. Still, not to be mean, I will give you t’irty-five for all you raise.”
“I will take vorty-five.”
Tilting back in his swivel chair, Sprengel smoked in silence for a moment. “I hope to make a few dollars on the deal. Udderwise, of course, I would not go into it. No man can pay vorty-five and make anyt’ing. Listen! I will shplit the difference and give you vorty.”
It was Ballschmeider’s turn to smoke in silence. “Vell,” said he finally, “I will take it, dough it iss giving the spuds avay.”
The contract, drawn in duplicate as before, was duly executed and the two worthies parted, each satisfied that he had done the other to the extent of at least five cents a bushel.
At a little pine table in the rear of the office sat a lean, spectacled, mousecolored young Dutchman, where he could be seen almost any day poring over a battered set of Kent’s Commentaries when he was not sweeping out, cleaning cuspidors, mending the fire, running errands, copying abstracts or doing other clerical work for Coonrod Sprengel, for which services he received a wage of eight dollars a week.
As the door closed on Ballschmeider’s broad back he came forward noiselessly. “Mr. Sprengel,” he ventured, in a soft, shrinking voice, “would you care my potaties to puy? I have put in almost an acre, on some rented ground, and if you would take them it would save me some time maybe this vall from zelling them.”
Sprengel hesitated. He had no desire to buy at forty cents, from a poor fellow like Hans Dietz, potatoes that he firmly believed would be worth sixty or better in October. Yet he dared not say this, or even intimate it to his young clerk, lest the secret leak out and jeopardize his contracting business.
“Hans,” he observed, “remember this: what you hear in this office, you do not hear. What you see, you do not see. Udderwise, I would often lose money; and if I cannot make a dollar or two, now and den, I cannot pay you your vages. Understand?”
“Yes, Mr. Sprengel,” answered Hans meekly. “But I cannot tell a lie. I have nefer in my life toldt a lie.”
“Nor would I have you tell a lie,” returned Sprengel paternally. “On the udder hand, all you got to do is not to tell the trut’. Chust keep your mouth shut. Then nobody will find out nutting, and there will be no monkeydoodle pizness going on. Now I will answer your question: I will buy your spuds.”
In relating the incident to Louisa that evening he said: “I vill see to it the poy loses nutting. He is a good poy, and I would not put a stone in the vay of his marrying Katrina Grimm, when he hass vaited five years for her alreadty. Still, I do not want Otto Grimm to smell a mouse yet.”
Otto smelled no mouse and sold his potatoes to Sprengel at the established price; likewise, Fritz Grimmelshauser, Heine Pillersdorfer and Carl Oels. Where such men as these led, lesser men tumbled over themselves to follow, and the contracts in Sprengel’s safe rapidly multiplied.
“It is chust like shaking down persimmons the morning after a black vrost,” he chuckled to Louisa.
“Still, I have known persimmons after a black vrost as would your mouth pucker,” answered the cautious housewife.
The gentle warning served its purpose and he ceased buying. Thenceforth, throughout the summer, though he held a few trials and wrote a little insurance and transferred a farm or two, his chief occupation was watching the growth of the potato crop and forecasting its size.
Though he shrank from books as a mule from harness, he now spent hours in reading. He borrowed all the different kinds of almanacs in the neighborhood – and it was a neighborhood whose taste ran largely to this class of literature. He searched the little public library for everything on crops, weather and soils. He wrote to Washington for farmers’ bulletins. He scanned every inch of the country correspondence in the weekly Volkes Stimme. He even remitted a dollar for the current edition of Doctor Philo’s Cyclopedia of Nature and Scientific Weather Forecast, though the year was more than half gone and he suspected the publication to be a deception and a fraud. And as he read he smoked fast and furiously until Hans, from his place in the corner, could discern only the spectral outline of his master through the narcotic fog.
Meanwhile the potato crop throve – throve amazingly, and in Coonrod’s eyes malignantly. The Colorado beetle was so scarce as to be almost a curiosity. Gentle rains fell at timely intervals. There was not a sign of blight, and the hills which Sprengel surreptitiously opened each week in his garden showed tubers without a trace of scab. Then, to cap the climax, the equinoctial storm, which in years gone by had started the rot, fizzled out into a mere drizzle of forty-eight hours.
“Vell,” cheerfully observed Heine Pillersdorfer to a group in Schubert’s saloon one Saturday afternoon, “it looks like Sprengel will in the neck get it this time – eh?”
“You pet!” exclaimed Carl Oels. “Coony hass euchred us vellers out of many a good tollar, but it iss a long lane that has no turn-around in it.”
However, in spite of the odds against him, Sprengel’s faith in Teckla’s prediction, though somewhat shaken, still sustained him. But one morning a thought occurred to him which robbed his tobacco of its savor and made him feel as hollow as a beer keg at the wind-up of a Turners’ picnic. He rushed home in something like a panic, threw the harness on old Roan, and dashed out of the yard, deaf to Louisa’s halloo. An hour later, though it was a good nine miles, he drew up at the little white schoolhouse in Red Oak township and asked the teacher for Reinert Haugens.
“Reinert,” said he, with suppressed excitement, to the shock-headed boy, “you remember already when you was over to Aunt Louisa’s birthday party, last Chune?”
“You remember that funny pug what you ketched and Grandma Bachman called him a hell-grandaddy or somet’ing like that?”
“Tell me, did you ketch that pug in my yard?”
Sprengel swallowed convulsively. His terrible suspicion seemed about to be confirmed! “Vere the tevil did you ketch him, then?” he demanded hoarsely.
“I ketched him to home, uncle, and I took him to Auntie’s to scare the girls with.”
“But whereabouts to home did you ketch him?” shouted the man so fiercely that Reinert dodged back.
“Why, under the river bank, of course. You can’t ketch them conniption bugs no place else. They never leave the water. They –”
But Sprengel was in no mood for a dissertation on bugs. Teckla’s prophecy had been based on a false assumption and of course would fail. He brought his whip down with a savage hurtle, the horse broke into a lope, and the ancient phaeton went rolling and pitching down the road like a fishing-smack in a squall.
It was a divine, hazy, lazy Indian summer day, the second week in October, and the street maples were drenched with molten gold when Otto Grimm, sitting high on his sideboarded wagon, drove up to the old abandoned German Baptist church, which Sprengel had rented for a storehouse, and shouldered sixty bushels of potatoes into the basement. Hans Dietz received them and issued a credit slip therefor, after which Grimm swung his plump, glossy iron grays about and rumbled sedately down the street for a glass of beer at Schubert’s. His broad face was as complacent and serene as a harvest moon.
He came again in the afternoon, and, before he had finished unloading, five other wagons were waiting their turn. Thus for ten days the procession continued. One by one the bins were filled and mounded up almost to the ceiling. Then another section was built – a third – a fourth – until the whole floor was occupied. When the last contractor had delivered his last sack Hans’ grimy tally sheet showed a total of twenty thousand bushels. On that same day the housekeepers of New Berlin were buying potatoes at the stores for thirty cents a bushel – ten cents less than Sprengel had paid – and hucksters were selling them as low as twenty-five.
On his way home to supper that night Coony stopped at the old church for almost the first time and sorrowfully, dejectedly surveyed the rounded masses, rising one behind the other like mountains, of great, fat, meaty, pinkish white and creamy white tubers.
“Mudder,” said he at the table, “cook me no more spuds. The zight of ‘em makes me zick. They vink their tam little eyes at me like goblins. I will eat them no more, nefer.”
Fritz Grimmelshauser strolled into the office a day or two later with a malicious twinkle in his china-blue eyes: “Coony, what are you going to do wit’ that churchful of spuds, now you got ‘em already?”
“Ship ‘em, of course,” retorted Sprengel tartly. “Because no man ever shipped spuds from Cherry Walley before, account of the wagon haul, is that some reason why no man ever shouldt? I will show you. Do you t’ink because spuds is cheap here they are cheap eferywhere? By no means. They are bringing a good price in Pittsburgh. I have here a paper which says so.”
It was not wholly bluff. He did, indeed, intend to ship, for there was absolutely no home market; but he mournfully confessed to Louisa that he would lose a thousand, perhaps two thousand dollars.
One day, however, while browsing over the Pittsburgh paper for which he had written he chanced on an advertisement which made his heart leap. The United Potato Products Company announced that they were seeking favorable locations for the installation of their potato-evaporating plants. Evaporated potatoes, they stated, were in growing demand for supplying polar expeditions, armies in frontier campaigns, construction gangs in wild and arid regions, and so on. Owing to the light weight of this highly concentrated food – only one-seventh that of the natural tuber – a considerable wagon haulage was feasible, and thus markets were being offered sections which, on account of remoteness from railroads, had never possessed a market before. The company would be glad to negotiate contracts for the following year or would install a plant at once wherever there was a sufficient stock of potatoes on hand to justify a two or three months’ run.
It looked like the hand of Providence. Yet Coonrod, disregarding looks – as well as that leap of his heart – and remembering that haste makes waste, pored and smoked, and smoked and pored, with almost religious fervor. Then, on the morning of the third day, he cleared a space on his desk and laboriously filled a sheet of paper with his slanting calligraphy, addressed to the Products Company.
Four days passed without an answer, and Coonrod would surely have chafed had he ever allowed himself that foolish indulgence. Instead, he surprised and gratified Louisa by announcing his willingness, at the last minute, to attend their niece’s wedding at Strassburg. Dressed in his Sunday black, the next morning, he observed to a group of the “boys,” just before entering the stagecoach for the railroad station at Hanover:
“Yes, we are going my niece’s vedding to. In that pox is a twendy-dollar set of cut glass. Why not spend your money when you have plendy? I will stay a few days and have some fun too. I will take in them moving-picture shows and maybe a t’eater or two. Why not? I am not too old to be a shport. Besides, it hass been a good year for me.” He glanced about to make sure that Louisa was out of earshot. “I will make not less as a t’ousand dollars on my spuds, and that wit’out turning my hand over already. ‘Tis not as if I had sweat for it, like some vellers.”
As the stage rolled off, Grimmelshauser observed wrathfully: “If efer I git a chance to shtick Coony you pet your life I’ll do it.”
“Vait till you ketch a veasel asleep,” sagely admonished Hugo Ballschmeider.
Now Hans Dietz, though as myopic as a bat and occupying a distant corner, with his nose eternally in Kent, missed little that went on in the front of the office. Sprengel’s obsession over the Pittsburgh paper had not escaped him, and one noon hour he had abstracted the paper from its drawer and plodded through it, column by column, until the numerous finger prints and pencil marks round the Potato Products advertisement assured him that here was the source of his master’s strange behavior. Therefore, when the stage which had borne Sprengel away returned at two o’clock with the daily mail, and Hans presently drew from the lock box an envelope bearing the return card of the Potato Products Company, his curiosity was great.
He was allowed, in his master’s absence, to open letters; yet he opened this one with a vague sense of guilt, for Sprengel had carried his secretiveness in this transaction so far as to make no copy, in the antiquated little hand press, of his letter to the Products people. The letter read:
Dear Mr. Sprengel: If you have a stock of 20,000 bushels of potatoes we will install an evaporator in New Berlin within thirty days. For tubers of fair, marketable size, free from scab or rot, we will pay you 55 cents. Kindly let us hear from you at once. – PETER RAPP, Sec’y.
“Vifty-five cents!” exclaimed Hans with staring eyes.
“Mr. Sprengel will make t’ree t’ousand dollars.”
For the first time in his life Hans Dietz, faithful dog though he was, failed to rejoice in his master’s success. A sense of the fundamental injustice of the world stabbed him like a knife. To him that hath shall be given. Three thousand dollars meant little to Sprengel – no extra food, no extra clothes, furniture, pleasures, dignities. Of these he already had a surfeit.
Hans had not. There were days when he hungered, not for necessities, but for such little luxuries as beefsteak, oysters, chicken, cake. After seven faithful years in Sprengel’s service his wage was scarcely more than a harvest hand’s, without the board and room thrown in. During this period he had saved two hundred dollars – in a neighborhood where saving was rated next to breathing.
For five years he had been engaged to Katie Grimm. Her father did not favor the match. Hans knew why: he was not a money-maker, not a trader.
Another bitter thought came to him. The story of the hellgramite had leaked out, and every one now knew that Sprengel had expected to make an enormous profit on his potatoes. Yet he had been mean enough, grasping enough to gobble up the poor little patch of his underpaid clerk.
Suddenly Hans leaped to his feet. His lackluster eyes scintillated, the stoop was momentarily smoothed from his narrow shoulders, and his head was proudly erect. A brilliant, though evil, idea had been born to his brain.
Locking the office, he walked rapidly to Sprengel’s barn, hitched up the roan mare, and drove out to Grimm’s, two miles away. Spying the farmer in the doorway of his great red barn, he did not stop at the house, or so much as give it a glance.
“Mr. Grimm, I have somet’ing to talk to you aboudt,” said he in a tone that caused the other to prick up his ears.
Hans first exhibited and expounded the advertisement of the Potato Products Company; then he produced their letter to Sprengel.
Grimm slowly spelled his way through the latter. “Vifty-five cents!” he ejaculated with a German oath. “Vy, the ‘oldt fox will make t’ree t’ousand dollars. I feared me we vas crowin’ too soon ofer him.”
Then Hans the humble, the human doormat, said with Napoleonic decision: “Nein! He will make no profits this time, for he will never see this ledder.”
“You will not show it to him, you mean?” queried the astonished farmer.
“I vill not.”
“Because he speculated on me, and because I now will speculate on him. If he does not this ledder see, he will sell his spuds cheap – as low as vorty-five, I t’ink, for he has said he cannot make more as five cents a pushel by shipping, besides all the vork and risk. He may take less, but at vorty-five the profits to you will be two t’ousand.”
“To me!” repeated Grimm blankly.
“Sure! You vill buy from him. If I can t’row two t’ousand dollars your vay, why should I not? All I ask is to inwest in the deal the two hunnerd dollars what I haf saved.”
Otto Grimm was not a stupid man, but his mind worked slowly and methodically. Presently his eyes twinkled. and he emitted a raucous guffaw:
“Py chinks, Hans, you haf a headt on you like Chay Gouldt. I would not have beliefed it udderwise I had not seen it myselluf. Shake, my poy! Py Gott, what a choke on Coony! But suppose dose people write him again already?”
“I vill head the ledder off again already, same as this.”
“But suppose you vail?”
“The deal iss off, then – that is all. Nutting will be lost.”
“Your chob, maybe – eh?”
“For my chob I do not care,” returned Hans recklessly. “I can make more money some udder place.”
Grimm thought deeply for an interval. “I vill see to it you do not suffer. Now, listen! You drive ofer to Hanover right avay and send a telegraph to dose Broducts people, in my name, and ask them to write what they will pay for spuds. We know already, of course, but dis ledder to Sprengel we could not use.
“I vill, at the same time, hitch up and go see Grimmelshauser and Ballschmeider. I t’ink it better as to let them in on the deal, Hans. Vour heads are better as two. Besides, it iss a big risk to take alone. Somet’ing might happen. You nefer can tell. I would radder make a little less money as to risk too much. I am proudt of you, Hans – more proudt as I can say. I shall be most glad for to call you my son-in-law.”
This praise fairly warmed the cockles of Hans’ heart. Yet when he turned his horse homeward, after the long drive to Hanover, the color had gone out of his cheeks. He barely touched his supper, and when he crept into his little bed he omitted his prayers – for the first time in many a year.
The thicker-skinned, coarser-grained Grimm, Grimmelshauser and Ballschmeider suffered no such scruples as they sat in council in Grimm’s kitchen that night. And had there been a thin spot in their hides the recollection of Sprengel’s hay corner the year before would have calloused it.
Their session lasted until eleven o’clock – a scandalous hour in Cherry Valley.
When Grimm dropped his boots on the bedroom floor and Wilhelmina, face framed in a frilled nightcap, opened her eyes inquiringly, he said gaily:
“Mudder, me and Hoogo and Fritz will skin Coony out of two t’ousand dollars sure as shootin’. If we do I vill buy you a new range for Christmas.”
“So! I vill not sell the oldt one to the iron man yet,” she answered placidly and closed her eyes again.
The letter from the Products people to Grimm arrived on Wednesday. Sprengel reached home Friday morning, and that afternoon the conspirators, jubilant but unquestionably nervous, filed into his office.
“Vell, you haf a good time in Strasspurg, Coony?” asked Ballschmeider the spokesman, as an opener.
“Vine! Them moving pictures iss great, You would swear you was on the shpot and seen it yourselluf. It would pay you velle.s to go down sometime, when you have a dollar or two to shpend.”
“I am t’inking some of it,” answered Hugo gravely.
But Grimmelshauser coughed and grew red in the face, suspiciously like a man suppressing a laugh, so that Hugo added quickly – for him: “It iss no use for a man to rot at home all the times and die after a vile wit’out having seen nutting of the vorld. You sell your spuds yet?”
“I haf had an offer for ‘em, as I toldt you.”
“How much of an offer? “
“Equal to vorty-five cents here – more or less.”
“Coony,” said Hugo, betraying the least excitement, “we vellers will give you vorty-five cents and save you the trouble of shipping.”
Sprengel did not start or fall out of his chair. “If you t’ought the udder day I was stuck on ‘em at vorty cents,” he asked calmly, “why do you vant ‘em now at vorty-five?”
“That iss our pizness, of course,” answered Ballschmeider bluntly. “Vill you take it?”
“I have been holding for a raise.”
“How much of a raise?”
“Vorty-six or seven – maybe more.”
“You didt not say so bevore you left,” argued Hugo hotly.
“I say so now, when I am back.”
“I guess you forget already, Coony,” interposed Grimm, “that even a zucker maybe finds out sometimes what a hook iss.”
“Maybe so. I have not asked you to puy.”
“Will you take vorty-seven?” demanded Fritz. Every cent on the bushel meant two hundred dollars on the lot.
“Vill you take vorty-eight?”
Ballschmeider leaped to his feet. “Come on, poys! The man iss crazy.”
The trio moved toward the door, with measured tread, in order to give Sprengel time for a sober second thought, for of course they did not intend to leave, having agreed beforehand to bid as high as fifty.
“I do not vant you vellers to believe I could ship those spuds and get more as vorty-eight net,” observed Sprerigel frankly. “But I have been reading in the papers about ewaporated potaties, and if I could get an ewaporator here I could do better, maybe, as vorty-eight.”
The three Dutchmen dared not look at one another. Then Ballschmeider flung himself into the gap.
“An ewaporator!” he cried scornfully. “That iss a likely story. But go aheadt. It iss your vuneral, not ours. Only listen! Name the price you will take for those spuds, and I vill tell you at once, for good and all, whedder we pay it or not.”
“I will take vifty cents,” said Sprengel promptly.
“And we vill pay it,” returned Hugo even more promptly. “Draw up the paper.”
As Sprengel wrote the contract the three brawny parties to the second part exchanged complacent smiles and winks. But the man to whom they owed their triumph sat silent at his desk.
“Now you got the spuds, poys,” observed Sprengel after the contract had been duly executed and the associates’ copy tucked away in Hugo’s inside pocket, “perhaps you do not object to tell me your scheme.”
Grimm and Grimmelshauser grinned, but left it to Hugo to explode the bomb.
“Coony,” observed that worthy pleasantly, “you have more as once called us vellers a lot of vools. Maybe you vill now your mindt change. You are not the only one to readt of ewaporators. We have not only read but inwestigated, and here is the result. Take a look at it already.”
Yet Sprengel showed no chagrin. Instead, a flicker of what might have been amusement passed over his face.
“To tell you the trut’, poys, I inwestigated myselluf,” said he, “and wit’ these same people. Virst, I wrote ‘em a ledder. Then, not hearing somet’ing, I stopped off to Pittsburgh day before yesterday to see ‘em. Udderwise, I do not t’ink I would have spent the money to go to Freda’s vedding. They made me this same offer of vifty-five cents.”
“That vill do to tell, now you got beat,” scoffed Grimmelshauser, though his face shared the uneasy look of his comrades. “If they made you this same offer, vy the tevil didn’t you take it already? “
Coony, with maddening deliberation, folded his copy of the contract, laid it away in his little safe and closed the door.
“You vellers what nefer stick your noses out of Cherry Walley don’t know it, of course,” he then answered, “but in the city they puy spuds by veight, on account it costs too much to measure ‘em out.”
“What hass that to do wit’ it?” demanded Ballschmeider. But there was a crack in his basso profundo.
“Only dis – these vellers offered you vifty-five cents a hunnerdveight, not a pushel. Spuds veigh sixty pounds to the pushel, so a hunnerdveight is one and two t’irds pushels. Consequintly, vifty-five cents a hunnerdveight is equal to t’irty-t’ree cents a pushel.”
“I do not belief it – not ver a minute!” shouted Grimm.
“You do not have to take my vord for it,” observed Sprengel, sweetly. “Here it is printed at the wery top of this ledderheadt, in small type, which maybe you overlooked: ‘All prices based on the hunnerdveight, not the pushel.’ It iss too bad you overlooked it, too, for as I vigger it you vellers are due to lose about t’irtyvour hunnerd dollars.”
Grimmelshauser’s jaw dropped and his cherished meerschaum shattered on the floor. Grimm sat with the rigid face of a man turned to stone. Hugo Ballschmeider took on a purple apoplectic hue.
When they had made their exit, none of them afterward remembered just how, Coony turned to his clerk.
“Hans, come here.”
It was a trembling, pallid, wretched young man who made his way to the front.
“Those ewaporator people said they had wrote me a ledder,” continued Sprengel, “and when I did not find it wit’ my udder ledders this morning, I t’ought maybe you had put it avay for safe keeping. So I looked in your table and found it. But when those t’ree muttonheads viled in and made me a price on my spuds, I knowed you had hid the ledder from me and had showed it to them. Why did you do it?”
Hans covered his face with his hands and fell to sobbing violently.
“Oh, Mr. Sprengel, the tevil got in my heart! I haf lost my savings. You will vire me from my chob. Mr. Grimm will kick me out of his house if I go to see Katie again. But I am glad it iss so. I vill the penalty most villingly pay, for the load of sin iss off my conscience.”
“How did the tevil git in your heart?” Sprengel asked after a considerable silence.
“When I opened that ledder,” answered Hans, “and viggered you would make t’ree t’ousand dollars, and t’ought of the hardt time I have had, and how little I earn, and how long I have vaited for Katie, I felt the tevil knock at my heart. I vanted to make a little money quick, but most I wanted to show Mr. Grimm I was not the plockhead he t’ought I was. And, oh, Mr. Sprengel, I remembered you had speculated on me, when I make so little and you so much, and then I let the tevil come in.”
“Listen, Hans!” said Sprengel, after another long silence. “I shall not fire you from your chob. Neither shall you lose any of your money. And for the spuds I bought from you, I will pay you just what I get. I nefer did intend to speculate on you. I bought ‘em only because I was avraid, if I refused, you would tell Grimm and he would smell a mouse. I was wrong. I should have trusted you. Listen! Hereafter your salary will be ten dollars a veek instead of eight. Moreover, if you want to marry Katie Grimm right off, do not let her fadder stand in your vay. I vill sell you a little house on easy time and I will make you a vedding present of the vurniture you need.”
The youth sank to his knees. “You are too good, Mr. Sprengel, too good!”
Sprengel studied the other’s abject figure a moment.
“No,” said he soberly, “I am not goodt. I am not even chust. I had a long talk wit’ the minister who married Freda, down to Strassburg. He set me to t’inking about the difference between poor people and rich people. I have more as I need, and Louisa too. What I do for you is but a little. Anyvay, I must take that tevil out of your heart, for it was me who put him dere.”