Story type: Essay

We used to call him Rhubarb, by reason of his long russet beard, which we imagined trailing in the prescriptions as he compounded them, imparting a special potency. He was a little German druggist–Deutsche Apotheker–and his real name was Friedrich Wilhelm Maximilian Schulz.

The village of Kings is tucked away in Long Island, in the Debatable Land where the generous boundary of New York City zigzags in a sporting way just to permit horse racing at Belmont Park. It is the most rustic corner of the City. To most New Yorkers it is as remote as Helgoland and as little known. It has no movie theatre, no news-stand, no cigar store, no village atheist. The railroad station, where one hundred and fifty trains a day do not stop, might well be mistaken for a Buddhist shrine, so steeped in discreet melancholy is it. The Fire Department consists of an old hose wagon first used to extinguish fires kindled by the Republicans when Rutherford B. Hayes was elected. In the weather-beaten Kings Lyceum “East Lynne” is still performed once a year. People who find Quoguc and Cohasset too exciting, move to Kings to cool off. The only way one can keep servants out there is by having the works of Harold Bell Wright in the kitchen for the cook to read.

Stout-hearted Mr. Schulz came to Kings long ago. There is quite a little German colony there. With a delicatessen store on one side of him and a man who played the flute on the other, he felt hardly at all expatriated. The public house on the corner serves excellent Rheingold, and on winter evenings Friedrich and Minna would sit by the stove at the back of the drugstore with a jug of amber on the table and dream of Stuttgart.

It did not take me long to find out that apothecary Schulz was an educated man. At the rear of the store hung two diplomas of which he was very proud. One was a certificate from the Stuttgart Oberrealschule; the other his license to practise homicidal pharmacy in the German Empire, dated 1880. He had read the “Kritik der reinen Vernunft”, and found it more interesting than Henry James, he told me. Julia and I used to drop into his shop of an evening for a mug of hot chocolate, and always fell into talk. His Minna, a frail little woman with a shawl round her shoulders, would come out into the store and talk to us, too, and their pet dachshund would frolic at our feet. They were a quaint couple, she so white and shy and fragile; he ruddy, sturdy, and positive.

It was not till I told him of my years spent at a German University that he really showed me the life that lay behind his shopman activity. We sometimes talked German together, and he took me into their little sitting room to see his photographs of home scenes at Stuttgart. It was over thirty years since he had seen German soil, but still his eyes would sparkle at the thought. He and Minna, being childless, dreamed of a return to the Fatherland as their great end in life.

What an alluring place the little drugstore was! I was fascinated by the rows and rows of gleaming bottles labelled with mysterious Latin abbreviations. There were cases of patent remedies–Mexican Mustang Liniment, Swamp Root, Danderine, Conway’s Cobalt Pills, Father Finch’s Febrifuge, Spencer’s Spanish Specific. Soap, talcum, cold cream, marshmallows, tobacco, jars of rock candy, what a medley of paternostrums! And old Rhubarb himself, in his enormous baggy trousers–infinite breeches in a little room, as Julia used to say.

I wish I could set him down in all his rich human flavour. The first impression he gave was one of cleanness and good humour. He was always in shirtsleeves, with suspenders forming an X across his broad back; his shirt was fresh laundered, his glowing beard served as cravat. He had a slow, rather ponderous speech, with deep gurgling gutturals and a decrescendo laugh, slipping farther and farther down into his larynx. Once, when we got to know each other fairly well, I ventured some harmless jest about Barbarossa. He chuckled; then his face grew grave. “I wish Minna could have the beard,” he said. “Her chest is not strong. It would be a fine breast-protector for her. But me, because I am strong like a horse, I have it all!” He thumped his chest ruefully with his broad, thick hand.

Despite his thirty years in America, good Schulz was still the Deutsche Apotheker and not at all the American druggist. He had installed a soda fountain as a concession, but it puzzled him sorely, and if he was asked for anything more complex than chocolate ice cream soda he would shake his head solemnly and say: “That I have not got.” Motorists sometimes turned off the Jericho turnpike and stopped at his shop asking for banana splits or grape juice highballs, or frosted pineapple fizz. But they had to take chocolate ice cream soda or nothing. Sometimes in a fit of absent-mindedness he would turn his taps too hard and the charged water would spout across the imitation marble counter. He would wag his beard deprecatingly and mutter a shamefaced apology, smiling again when the little black dachshund came trotting to sniff at the spilt soda and rasp the wet floor with her bright tongue.

At the end of September he shut up the soda fountain gladly, piling it high with bars of castile soap or cartons of cod liver oil. Then Minna entered into her glory as the dispenser of hot chocolate which seethed and sang in a tall silvery tank with a blue gas burner underneath. This she served in thick china mugs with a clot of whipped cream swimming on top. Julia would buy a box of the cheese crackers that Schulz kept in stock specially for her, and give several to the sleek little black bitch that stood pleading with her quaint turned-out fore-feet placed on Julia’s slippers. Schulz, beaming serenely behind a pyramid of “intense carnation” bottles on his perfume counter, would chuckle at the antics of his pet. “Ah, he is a wise little dog!” he would exclaim with naive pride. “He knows who is friendly!” He always called the little dog “he,” which amused us.

On Sunday afternoon the drugstore was closed from one to five, and during those hours Schulz took his weekly walk, accompanied by the dog which plodded desperately after him on her short legs. Sometimes we met him swinging along the by-roads, flourishing a cudgel and humming to himself. Whenever he saw a motor coming he halted, the little black dachshund would look up at him, and he would stoop ponderously down, pick her up and carry her in his arms until all danger was past.

As the time went on he and I used to talk a good deal about the war. Minna, pale and weary, would stand behind her steaming urn, keeping the shawl tight round her shoulders; Rhubarb and I would argue without heat upon the latest news from the war zone. I had no zeal for converting the old fellow from his views; I understood his sympathies and respected them. Reports of atrocities troubled him as much as they did me; but the spine of his contention was that the German army was unbeatable. He got out his faded discharge ticket from the Wuertemberger Landsturm to show the perfect system of the Imperial military organization. In his desk at the back of the shop he kept a war map cut from a Sunday supplement and over this we would argue, Schulz breathing hard and holding his beard aside in one hand as he bent over the paper. When other customers came in, he would put the map away with a twinkle, and the topic was dropped. But often the glass top of the perfume counter was requisitioned as a large-scale battleground, and the pink bottle of rose water set to represent Von Hindenburg while the green phial of smelling salts was Joffre or Brussilov. We fought out the battle of the Marne pretty completely on the perfume counter. “Warte doch!” he would cry. “Just wait! You will see! All the world is against her, but Germany will win!”

Poor Minna was always afraid her husband and I would quarrel. She knew well how opposite our sympathies were; she could not understand that our arguments were wholly lacking in personal animus. When I told him of the Allies’ growing superiority in aircraft Rhubarb would retort by showing me clippings about the German trench fortifications, the “pill boxes” made of solid cement. I would speak of the deadly curtain fire of the British; he would counter with mysterious allusions to Krupp. And his conclusions were always the same. “Just wait! Germany will win!” And he would stroke his beard placidly. “But, Fritz!” Minna used to cry in a panic, “The gentleman might think differently!” Rhubarb and I would grin at each other, I would buy a tin of tobacco, and we would say good night.

How dear is the plain, unvarnished human being when one sees him in a true light! Schulz’s honest, kindly face seemed to me to typify all that I knew of the finer qualities of the Germans; the frugal simplicity, the tenderness, the proud, stiff rectitude. He and I felt for each other, I think, something of the humorous friendliness of the men in the opposing trenches. Chance had cast us on different sides of the matter. But when I felt tempted to see red, to condemn the Germans en masse, to chant litanies of hate, I used to go down to the drugstore for tobacco or a mug of chocolate. Rhubarb and I would argue it out.

But that was a hard winter for him. The growing anti-German sentiment in the neighbourhood reduced his business considerably. Then he was worried over Minna. Often she did not appear in the evenings, and he would explain that she had gone to bed. I was all the more surprised to meet her one very snowy Sunday afternoon, sloshing along the road in the liquid mire, the little dog squattering sadly behind, her small black paws sliding on the ice-crusted paving. “What on earth are you doing outdoors on a day like this?” I said.

“Fritz had to go to Brooklyn, and I thought he would be angry if Lischen didn’t get her airing.”

“You take my advice and go home and get into some dry clothes,” I said severely.

Soon after that I had to go away for three weeks. I was snowbound in Massachusetts for several days; then I had to go to Montreal on urgent business. Julia went to the city to visit her mother while I was away, so we had no news from Kings.

We got back late one Sunday evening. The plumbing had frozen in our absence; when I lit the furnace again, pipes began to thaw and for an hour or so we had a lively time. In the course of a battle with a pipe and a monkey wrench I sprained a thumb, and the next morning I stopped at the drugstore on my way to the train to get some iodine.

Rhubarb was at his prescription counter weighing a little cone of white powder in his apothecary’s scales. He looked far from well. There were great pouches under his eyes; his beard was unkempt; his waistcoat spotted with food stains. The lady waiting received her package, and went out. Rhubarb and I grasped hands.

“Well,” I said, “what do you think now about the war? Did you see that the Canadians took a mile of trenches five hundred yards deep last week? Do you still think Germany will win?” To my surprise he turned on his heel and began apparently rummaging along a row of glass jars. His gaze seemed to be fastened upon a tall bottle containing ethyl alcohol. At last he turned round. His broad, naive face was quivering like blanc-mange.

“What do I care who wins?” he said. “What does it matter to me any more? Minna is dead. She died two weeks ago of pneumonia.”

As I stood, not knowing what to say, there was a patter along the floor. The little dachshund came scampering into the shop and frisked about my feet.

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