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.