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“Why, it’s only twenty-two miles to the city. There are four trains every day. In the city are a thousand customers longing to buy mushrooms, in season and out, and willing to pay big prices for them, too.”
Will whistled, thoughtfully.
“It’s a bigger thing than I expected,” he acknowledged. “But, Doctor, it’s out of the question. I wouldn’t dare risk our little savings in this experiment, and aside from what’s put by for the winter, I haven’t enough money to buy the spawn to start with; or patch up the barn; or buy the water heater; or even market the stuff when it’s grown.”
“Who said anything about your spending money?” demanded the doctor, roughly. “All I want of you, sir, is to hire out to me to raise mushrooms. I’m going into the business.”
“Yes, me. Confound it, Will Carden, do you think I’ve no ambition, just because I’m a country doctor? My daughter, that married the wholesale grocer in the city has three children already, and they’ve got to be looked after.”
“Can’t the wholesale grocer do that?” asked Will, with twinkling eyes.
“I’ve a right to leave a fortune to my own grandchildren if I want to,” growled the doctor; “and it’s none of your business, anyway, young fellow. The question is, will you hire out to me? You and Egbert; I want the two of you. The wages will be small, but they’ll be sure – even if I have to collect some bills to pay them. And I’ll furnish all the capital needed to fix up the barn and start things going.”
Will fairly gasped with astonishment.
“Do you really mean it, Doctor,” he asked.
“I usually mean what I say,” was the gruff retort. “Now, then, answer me! And, by hookey, if you refuse I’ll charge you two dollars for this consultation! Doctors can’t waste their time for nothing.”
“If you mean it, Doctor, of course I’ll hire out to you; and so will Egbert.”
“It won’t interfere with your schooling, you know. You’ll have to get up early mornings, and perhaps some cold nights you won’t get much sleep, with tending the fires; but there’ll be plenty of time for you to go to school, and poor Egbert can study his deaf-and-dumb lessons in the shed as well as anywhere else, while you’re away.”
It must be mentioned here that Egbert had failed to learn to read and write at the village school, and through the doctor’s influence was now receiving lessons by correspondence from a prominent deaf-mute academy in New York, by means of which his progress had lately become marked and rapid.
“All right, Doctor. It’s a bargain,” announced Will, in a subdued voice, but with a new sparkle in his eyes. “Give me that book again. I’ll have to study it, I guess. When shall we begin?”
“The first of August,” said Doctor Meigs, seriously. “It’s a vacation month, and you’ll have a lot to do getting things in shape. I’ll have Joe Higgins fix the barn up. He owes me a big bill, and that’s the only way I’ll ever get my pay.And Joe’s a pretty fair carpenter. Now, about wages. They’ve got to be small to start with. I’ll give you and Egbert ten dollars a month each.”
“That’ll make twenty for the two of you. It’s small, but it’s all I can afford at first. But, to make up for that, I’ll give you, Will, a working interest in the business.”
“What’s that?” asked the boy.
“Why, after all expenses are paid, including your wages, we’ll divide the profits.”
Will looked into the kindly eyes, and his own dimmed.
“Doctor,” said he, “you’re the best friend a fellow ever had. But it’s too much. I won’t take it.”
“How do you know there’s going to be any profit?” demanded the doctor, sternly. “And if there is, who’ll make it? Don’t you be a confounded idiot, Will Carden, and bother me when I’m trying to drive a bargain. I know what I’m doing, and those grandchildren have got to be provided for.”
“Suppose we fail?” questioned Will, half fearfully.
“Bosh! We can’t fail. I’ve talked with that wholesale grocer son-in-law of mine, and he agrees to find customers for all the toad-stools we can raise. So it’s up to you, old fellow, to sprout the mushrooms and then the thing’s settled.”
“I’ll do the best I can, Doctor.”
“Then it’s all agreed, and I’ll draw up the papers for you to sign.”
“Of course. This is an important business, and it’s got to be ship-shape, and in writing, so there’ll be no backing out. Suppose that wholesale grocer goes bankrupt – what’s to become of my grandchildren?”
Then he picked up his medicine case and stalked away, leaving the boy thoroughly bewildered by the propositions he had advanced.
He told Egbert about it, for all of the Carden family were familiar with the sign language, and the deaf-mute at once became greatly interested, and eagerly agreed to undertake his share of the work. Also he told his mother, and the poor woman sat down and cried softly, afterward wiping away the tears with a corner of her apron. She was really tired with all the house work, and the prospect of twenty dollars a month added to their income seemed like a fortune to her. But she said:
“I’m afraid the doctor can’t afford it, Will.”
“Afford it!” he exclaimed; “why, mother, I wouldn’t think of taking the wages unless I felt sure of making a profit. He seems mighty certain about it, and if work will help to win out, we’ll do it, sure as shootin’!”
Which proved that he had caught some of the doctor’s own enthusiasm.
For a week the boy heard nothing more about the partnership, but at the end of that time a load of lumber arrived from the Bingham lumber yard, and soon after Joe Higgins, the carpenter, walked up to the barn with his basket of tools, and with a nod to Will took off his coat and started to work.
Next day came the doctor with a big, legal looking document for Will to sign, which he first read in a solemn voice from beginning to end. It set forth clearly the terms of their contract, and after the boy had signed his name under the doctor’s he began to feel the magnitude of the undertaking, and the responsibility put upon his young shoulders. Doctor Meigs also brought more literature treating of mushroom culture, which he advised Will to study carefully.
Joe Higgins worked three weeks repairing the barn. He not only made it what he called “air-tight,” but in the east end he partitioned off a room, and built a floor to it, and then put an outside window and door in, making it very cozy and comfortable. This was to be the “office,” where the heater was also to be placed, so that it would warm the room as well as supply hot water to the pipes extending under the ground in all directions throughout the interior of the big barn.
The room was hardly completed before the heater arrived from the city, with men to set it up and arrange the system of pipes. Will dug all the trenches for the pipes to lie in, and then with Egbert’s help covered them over again. Also the two boys devoted days to another important work, which was the placing of straw all around the outside edge of the barn, and covering it with a bank of earth that reached well up onto the boarding. This was to keep the frost from getting inside.
The wisdom of the doctor in starting this work in August was now apparent, for the entire month was consumed in getting the barn in shape and spading up the rich soil ready to receive the mushroom spawn.
Early in September the industry was started, and in a few days thereafter small mushrooms, that looked like buttons, thrust their heads above the earth within the warm, damp barn, and speedily grew to a size that permitted them to be marketed.
The doctor carried the first picking home with him, and Will took the next lot to the big house and sold them to the astonished and delighted Nora, who placed an order for a pound of them every week. But soon the crop began to mature very fast, and by the doctor’s orders Will packed them in paper boxes holding a pound each, and afterward arranged the boxes in a neat crate, which he shipped by express to the wholesale grocer in the city whose children their grandfather was so greatly interested in. The doctor supplied the boxes and crates, and on the former was printed: “Carden & Co.’s Fresh Mushrooms. Warranted Wholesome and Delicious.” And below followed several recipes for cooking mushrooms, printed for the benefit of those who were unaccustomed to preparing them. Nora furnished some of the recipes, and old Mrs. Meigs the rest, so Will felt sure they would be successful.
For two or three weeks Carden & Co. shipped a crate of mushrooms daily to the city. Then something went wrong; the crop failed suddenly, and the spawn was discovered to be dead and useless. The doctor helped Will to investigate the cause of the trouble, and afterward to overcome it; and then fresh spawn was planted and the mushrooms began to grow again.
The wholesale grocer wrote that he was much annoyed by this delay. The demand for mushrooms in the city was much greater than the supply, and his customers were disappointed when they didn’t get them.
“We’ve been selling too cheap,” declared the doctor. “This is a good time to raise the price. We’ll get fifty cents a pound, hereafter.”
It seemed a large price to Will, for now the mushrooms grew with scarcely any care, and he found he was able to attend school and also look after the work very easily. It was not until cold weather crept on that the task became at all arduous; but the frosty nights obliged the two boys to watch the fires carefully, and finally Will and Egbert moved their bed to the little room at the end of the barn, and slept there comfortably during the remainder of the winter, so they could “attend to business properly.”
The wholesale grocer’s son-in-law sent all the money received for the sale of the mushrooms to the doctor, so Will did not know exactly how the business was coming along, for he had no idea how much money the doctor had spent in preparation. But the monthly wages were paid to the boys with great regularity, and on the first day of January the doctor declared the first dividend, paying Will forty-three dollars as his share of the profits up to date.
There was no prouder boy in Bingham than Will Carden when he realized he was engaged in a successful business venture. He had already started a bank account, for the family needs did not require all the money the two boys earned as wages, and Will declared that this forty-three dollars should never be touched unless absolutely necessary, as it was to remain in the bank as the foundation of his fortune. We will know later who it was that suggested this idea to him.
“Better than working in the mills, isn’t it?” said the doctor, triumphantly, while for once he allowed a smile to spread over his round, whiskered face.
“Indeed it is,” answered the grateful boy. “And I owe everything to you, Doctor.”
“Nonsense!” returned the doctor, beginning to frown; “you owe it all to your own industry, and to the fact that my poor grandchildren need looking after.”