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by Sewell Ford



WELL, it's come! Uh-huh! And sudden, too, like I knew it would, if it came at all. No climbin' the ladder for me, not while they run express elevators. And, believe me, when the gate opened, I was right there with my foot out.

  It was like this: One mornin' I'm in my old place behind the brass rail, at the jump-end of the buzzer. I'm everybody's slave in general, and Piddie's football in particular. You know — head office boy of the Corrugated Trust.

  That's description enough, ain't it? And I'd been there so long —— Honest, when I first went on the job I used to sneak the city directory under the chair so my toes could touch. Now my knees rub the under-side of the desk. Familiar with the place? Say, there are just seventeen floor cracks between me and the opposite wall; it's fifty-eight steps through into Old Hickory's roll-top and back; and the ink I've poured into all them desk-wells would be enough to coat a ferry-boat.

  At 8.30 on this special mornin' there I am, as I said; and at 2.21 P.M. the same day I'm —— Well, of course, there was a few preliminaries, though I didn't tag 'em as such when they come along. I expect the new spring costume helped some. And the shave — oh, I was goin' it strong! No cut-price, closing-out, House-of-Smartheimer bargain, altered free to fit — not so, Lobelia! Why, I pawed over whole bales of stuff in a sure-enough Fifth-ave. tailor works; had blueprint plans of the front and side elevations drawn, even to the number of buttons on the cuffs, and spent three diff'rent noon hours havin' it modeled on me before they could pull a single bastin' thread.

  But it's some stream line effect at the finish, take it from me! Nothing sporty or cake-walky, you understand: just quiet and dignified and rich-like, same as any second vice or gen'ral manager would wear. Two-button sack with wide English roll and no turn-up to the trousers — oh, I should ripple!

  The shave was an afterthought. I'd worked up to it by havin' some of my lurid locks trimmed, and as Giuseppe quits shearin' and asks if there'll be anything else I rubs my hand casual across my jaw and remarks:

  "Could you find anything there to mow with a razor?"

  Could he? He'd go through the motions on a glass doorknob!

  Then it's me tilted back with my heels up and the suds artist decoratin' my map until it looks like a Polish weddin' cake. Don't it hit you foolish the first time, though? I felt like everybody in the shop, includin' the brush boy and the battery of lady manicures, was all gathered around pipin' me off as a raw beginner. So I stares haughty at the ceilin' and tries to put on a bored look.

  I'd been scraped twice over, and was just bein' unwrapped from the hot towel, when I turns to see who it is has camped down in the next chair, and finds Mr. Robert gazin' at me curious.

  "Why!" says he, chucklin'. "If it isn't Torchy! Indulging in a shave, eh?"

  "Oh, no, Sir," says I. "Been havin' my eye teeth tested for color blindness, that's all."

  Mr. Robert grins amiable and reaches out for the check. "This is on me then," says he. "I claim the privilege."

  As he comes in after luncheon he has to stop and grin again; and later on, when I answers the buzzer, he makes me turn clear around so he can inspect the effect and size up the new suit.

  "Excellent, Torchy!" says he. "Whoever your tailor may be, you do him credit."

  "This trip I paid cash, though," says I. "It's all right, is it?"

  "In every particular," says he. "Why, you look almost grown up. May I ask the occasion? Can it be that Miss Verona is on the point of returning from somewhere or other?"

  "Uh-huh," says I. "Bermuda. Got in yesterday."

  "And Aunty, I trust," goes on Mr. Robert, "is as well as usual?"

  "I'm hoping for the worst," says I; "but I expect she is."

  We swaps merry expressions again, and Mr. Robert pats me chummy or the shoulder. "You're quite all right, Torchy," says he, "and I wish you luck." Then the twinkle fades out of his eyes and he turns serious. "I wish," he goes on, "that I could do more than just — well, some time, perhaps." And with another friendly pat he swings around to his desk, where the letters are stacked a foot high.

  Say, he's the real thing, Mr. Robert is, no matter if he does take it out in wishin'! It ain't every boss would do that much, specially with the load he's carryin'. For you know since Old Hickory's been down South takin' seven kinds of baths, and prob'ly cussin' out them resort doctors as they was never cussed before, Mr. Robert Ellins has been doin' a heap more than give an imitation of bein' a busy man. But he's there with the wallop, and I guess it's goin' to take more 'n a commerce court to put the Corrugated out of business.

  Too bad, though, that Congress can't spare the time from botherin' about interlockin' directors to suppress a few padlockin' aunties. Say, the way that old girl does keep the bars up against an inoffensive party like me is something fierce! I tries to call Vee on the 'phone as soon as I've discovered where she is, and all the satisfaction I get is a message delivered by a French maid that "Miss Hemmingway is otherwise engaged." Wouldn't that crust you?

  But I've been up against this embargo game before, you know; so the first chance I gets I slips uptown to do a little scoutin' at close range. It's an apartment hotel this time, and I hangs around the entrance, inspectin' the bay trees out front for half an hour, before I can work up the nerve to make the Brodie break. Fin'lly I marches in bold and calls for Aunty herself.

  "Is she in, Cephas?" says I to the brunette Jamacian in the olive-green liv'ry who juggles the elevator.

  "I don't rightly know, Suh," says he; "but you can send up a call, Suh, from the desk there, and ——"

  "Ah, let's not disturb the operator," says I. "Give a guess."

  "I'm thinking she'll be taking her drive, Suh," says Cephas, blinkin' stupid.

  "Then I'll have to go up and wait," says I. "She'd be mighty sore on us both if she missed me. Up, Cephas!"

  "Yes, Suh," says he, pullin' the lever.

  I should have known, though, from one look at that to-let expression of his, that his ideas on any subject would be vague. And this was a bum hunch on Aunty. Out? Why, she was propped up in an easy-chair with a sprained ankle, and had been for three days! And you should have seen the tight-lipped, welcome-to-our-grand-jury-room smile that she greets me with.

  "Humph!" she says. "You! Well, young man, what is your excuse this time?"

  I grins sheepish and shuffles my feet. "Same old excuse," says I.

  "Do you mean to tell me," she gasps, "that you have the impudence to try to see my niece, after all I have ——"

  "Uh-huh," I breaks in. "Don't you ever take a sportin' chance yourself?"

  She gurgles somethin' throaty, goes purple in the gills, and prepares to smear me on the spot; but I gives her the straight look between the eyes and hurries on.

  "Oh, I know where you stand, all right," says I; "but ain't you drawin' it a little strong? Say, where's the harm in me takin' Verona out for a half-hour walk along the Drive? We ain't had a chat for over two months, you know, not a word, and I'd kind of like to ——"

  "No doubt," says Aunty. "Are you quite certain, however, that Verona would like it too?"

  "I'm always guessin' where Vee is concerned," I admits; "but by the latest dope I had on the subject, I expect she wouldn't object strenuous."

  Aunty sniffs. "It is quite possible," says she. "Verona is a whimsical, wilful girl at times, just as her poor mother was. Keeping up this pretense of friendship for you is one of her silly notions."

  "Thanks awfully, Ma 'am," says I.

  "Let me see," goes on Aunty, squintin' foxy at me, "you are employed in Mr. Ellins's office, I believe?"

  I nods.

  "As office boy, still?" says she.

  "No, as a live one," says I. "Anybody that stays still very long at the Corrugated gets canned."

  "Please omit meaningless jargon," says Aunty. "Does my niece know just how humble a position you occupy? Have you ever told her?"

  "Why," says I, "I don't know as I've ever gone into details."

  "Ah-h-h!" says she. "I was certain that Verona did not fully realize. Perhaps it would be as well that she ——" and here she breaks off sudden, like she'd been struck with a new idea. For a second or so she gazes blank over the top of my head, and then she comes to with a brisk, "That will do, young man! Verona is not at home. You need not trouble to call again. The maid will show you out. Celeste!"

  And the next thing I knew I was ridin' down again with Cephas. I'm some shunter myself; but I dip the colors to Aunty: she does it so neat and sudden! It must be like the sensation of havin' a flight of trick stairs fold up under you, — one minute you're most to the top, the next you're pickin' yourself up at the bottom.

  What worries me most, though, is this hint she drops about Vee. Looks like the old girl had something up her sleeve; but what it is I can't dope out. So all I can do is keep my eyes open and my ear stretched for the next few days, watchin' for something to happen.

  Course, I had one or two other things on my mind meanwhile; for down at the gen'ral offices we wa'n't indulgin' in any spring-fever symptoms, — not with three big deals under way, all this income mess of deductin' at the source goin' on, and Mr. Robert's grand scheme for dissolvin' the Corrugated — on paper — bein' worked out. Oh, sure, that's the easiest thing we do. We've split up into nineteen sep'rate and distinct corporations, with a diff'rent set of directors for each one, and if the Attorney General can sleuth out where they're tied together he's got to do some high-class snoopin' around.

  Maybe you think too, that little Sunny Haired Hank, guardin' the brass gate, ain't wise to every move. Say, I make that part of my job. If I didn't, I'd be towin' a grouchy bunch of minority kickers in where the reorganization board was cookin' up a new stock-transfer game, or make some other fool break that would spill the beans all over the pantry floor.

  "Torchy," says Mr. Robert, chewin' his cigar nervous and pawin' through pigeonholes, "ask Mr. Piddie what was done with those Mesaba contracts."

  "Filed under Associated Developments," says I.

  "Oh, yes, so they were," says he. "Thanks. And could you find out for me when we organized General Transportation?"

  "Wa'n't that pulled off the day you waited for that Duluth delegation to show up, just after Easter?" says I.

  "That's it," says he, "the fifteenth! Has Marling of Chicago been called up yet?"

  "Nope," says I. "He'll be waitin' for the closing quotations, won't he? But there's that four-eyed guy with the whiskers who's been hangin' around a couple of hours."

  "Ah!" says Mr. Robert, huntin' out a card on his desk. "That Rowley person! I'd forgotten. What does he want?"

  "Didn't say," says I. "Got a roll of something under one arm — crank promoter, maybe. Will I ditch him?"

  "Not without being heard," says Mr. Robert. "I haven't time myself, though. Perhaps Mr. Piddie might interview him and ——"

  "Ah, Piddie!" says I. "He'd take one look at the old gink's round cuffs and turn him down haughty. You know Piddie?"

  Mr. Robert smiles. "Then suppose you do it," says he. "Go ahead — full powers. Only remember this: My policy is to give everyone who has a proposition to submit to the Corrugated a respectful and adequate hearing. Get the idea?"

  "I'm right behind you," says I. "The smooth stuiff goes; and if we must spill 'em, grease the skids. Me for Rowley!"

  And, say, you should have heard me shove over the diplomacy, tellin' how sorry Mr. Robert was he couldn't see him in person; but wouldn't he please state the case in full so no time might be lost in actin' one way or the other? Inside of three minutes too, he has his papers spread out and is explainin' his by-product scheme for mill tailings, with me busy takin' notes on a pad. He had it all figured out into big money; but of course I couldn't tell whether he had a sure thing, or was just exercisin' squirrels in the connin' tower.

  "Ten millions a year," says he, "and I am offering to put this process in operation for a five-per-cent. royalty! I've been a mine super-intendent for twenty years, young man, and I know what I'm talking about."

  "Your spiel listens like the real thing, Mr. Rowley," says I; "only we can't jump at these things offhand. We have to chew 'em over, you know."

  Rowley shakes his head decided. "You can't put me off for six months or a year," says he. "I've been through all that. If the Corrugated doesn't want to go into this ——"

  "Right you are!" I breaks in. "Ten days is enough. I'll put this up to the board next Wednesday week and get a decision. Much obliged to you, Mr. Rowley, for givin' us first whack at it. We're out for anything that looks good, and we always take care of the parties that put us next. That's the Corrugated way. Good afternoon, Mr. Rowley. Drop in again. Here's your hat."

  And as he drifts out, smilin', pleased and hopeful, I glances over the spring-water bottle, to see Mr. Robert standin' there listenin' with a grin on.

  "Congratulations!" says he. "That peroration of yours was a classic, Torchy; the true Chesterfield spirit, if not the form. I am tempted to utilize your talent for that sort of thing once more. What do you say?"

  "Then put it over the plate while I'm on my battin' streak," says I. "Who's next?"

  "A lady this time," says he; "perchance two ladies." And he develops that eye twinkle of his.

  "Huh!" says I, twistin' my neck and feelin' of my tie. "You ain't springin' any tea-pourin' stunt, are you?"

  "Strictly business," says he; "at least," he adds, chucklin', "that is the presumption. As a matter of fact, I've just been called over the 'phone by Miss Verona Hemmingway's aunt."

  "Eh?" says I, gawpin'.

  "She holds some of our debenture bonds, you know," says Mr. Robert, "and I gather that she has been somewhat disturbed by these re-organization rumors."

  "But she ought to know," says I, "that our D.B.'s. are as solid as ——"

  "The feminine mind," cuts in Mr. Robert "does not readily grasp such simple facts. But I haven't half an hour or more to devote to the process of soothing her alarm; besides, you could do it so much more gracefully."

  "Mooshwaw!" says I. "Maybe I could. But she's only one. Who's the other?"

  "She failed to state," says Mr. Robert. "She merely said, 'We shall be down about three o'clock.'"

  "We?" says I. Then I whistles. So that was her game! It was Vee she was bringin' along!

  "Well?" says Mr. Robert.

  I expect I was some pinked up, and fussed, too, at the prospect. "Excuse me," says I "but I got to sidestep."

  "Why," says he, "I rather thought this assignment might be somewhat agreeable."

  "I know," says I. "You mean well enough; but, honest, Mr. Robert, if that foxy old dame's comin' down here with Miss Vee, I'm — well, I don't stand for it, that's all! I'm off; with a blue ticket or without one, just as you say."

  I was reachin' for my new lid too, when Mr. Robert puts out his hand.

  "Wouldn't that be — er — rather a serious breach of office discipline?" says he. "Surely, without some good reason ——"

  "Ah, say!" says I. "You don't think I'm springin' any prima donna whim, do you? It's this plot to show me up through the wrong end of the telescope that gets me sore."

  "Scarcely lucid," says he, lookin' puzzled. "Could you put it a little simpler?"

  "I'll make it long primer," says I. "How do I stand here in the Corrugated? You know, maybe, and sometimes I give a guess myself; but on the books, and as far as outsiders go, I'm just plain office boy, ain't I, like 'steen thousand other four-dollar-a-week kids that's old enough to have work papers? I've been here goin' on four years now, and I ain't beefed much about it, have I? That's because I've been used white and the pay has been decent. Also I'm strong for you and Mr. Ellins. I expect you know that, Mr. Robert. Maybe I ain't got it in me to be anything but an office boy, either; but when it comes to goin' on exhibition before certain parties as the double cipher on the east side of the decimal — well, that's where I make my foolish play."

  "Ah!" says he, rubbin' his chin thoughtful. "Now I fully understand. And, as you suggest, there has been for some time past something — er — equivocal about your position here. However, just at this moment I have hardly time to —— By Jove!" Here he breaks off and glances at the clock. "Two-fifteen, and a general council of our attorneys called for half-past in the directors' room! Someone else must attend to Miss Verona's estimable aunt — positively! Now if there was anyone who could relieve you from the gate ——"

  "Heiny, the bondroom boy," says I.

  "Why not?" says Mr. Robert. "Then, if you should choose to stay and prime yourself with facts about those debentures, there is that extra desk in my office, you know. Would you mind using that?"

  "But see here, Mr. Robert," says I, "I wa'n't plannin' any masquerade, either."

  "Quite so," says he; "nor I. It so happens, though, that the gentleman whose name appears as president of our Mutual Funding Company is — well, hardly in active business life. It is necessary that he be represented here in some nominal capacity. The directors are now meeting in Room 19. I have authority to name a private secretary pro tem. Do you accept the position?"

  "With a pro-tem. salary, stage money barred?" says I.

  "Oh, most certainly," says he.

  "Then I'm the guy," says I.

  "Good!" says Mr. Robert. "These debentures come in your department. I will notify Mr. Piddie that ——"

  "Say, Mr. Robert," says I, grinnin' once more, "I'd break it gentle to Piddie."

  I don't know whether he did or not; for five minutes after that Heiny has my old seat, and I'm inside behind the ground-glass door, sittin' at a reg'lar roll-top, with a lot of file cases spread out, puzzlin' over this incorporation junk that makes the Fundin' Comp'ny the little joker in the Corrugated deck.

  And next thing I know in comes Heiny, gawpin' foolish, and trailin' behind him Aunty and Vee. I wa'n't throwin' any bluff about tryin' to look busy, either. I was elbow-deep in papers, with a pen behind one ear and ink on three fingers.

  You should have heard the gasp that comes from Aunty as she pipes off who it is at the desk. My surprise as I'm discovered is the real thing too.

  "Chairs, Boy!" says I, snappin' my fingers at Heiny.

  But Aunty catches her breath, draws herself up stiff, and waves away the seats. "Young man," says she, "I came here to consult with Mr. Robert Ellins about ——"

  "Yes'm," says I, "I understand. Debenture six's, ain't they? Not affected by the reorganization, Ma 'am. You see, it's like this: Those bonds were issued in exchange for ——"

  "Young man," she breaks in, aimin' her lorgnette at me threatenin', "I prefer to discuss this matter with Mr. Robert."

  "Sorry," says I, "but as he's very busy he asked me to ——"

  "And who, pray," snaps the old girl, "are you?"

  "Representin' the president of the Mutual Funding Comp'ny," says I.

  "Just how?" she demands.

  "Private secretary, Ma 'am," says I.

  "Humph!" she snorts. "This is too absurd of Mr. Robert — wholly absurd! Come, Verona."

  And as she sails out I just has time for a glance at Vee, and catches a wink. Believe me, though, a friendly wink from one of them gray eyes is worth waitin' for! She follows Aunty through the door with a handkerchief stuffed in her mouth like she was smotherin' a snicker; so I guess Vee was on. And I'm left feelin' all warmed up and chirky.

  Mr. Robert comes in from his lawyer session just before closin' time; rubbin' his hands sort of satisfied too.

  "Well," says I, jumpin' up from the swing-chair, "it was some jolt you slipped Aunty. I expect I can resign now?"

  "Oh, I trust not," says he. "The board indorsed your appointment an hour ago. Keep your desk, Torchy. It is to be yours from now on."

  "Wh-a-a-at?" says I, my eyes bugged. "Off the gate for good, am I?"

  "We are hoping," says he, "that the gate's loss will be the Funding Company's gain."

  I gurgles gaspy a couple of times before I catches my breath. "Will it?" says I. "Say, just watch me! I'm goin' to show you that fundin' is my long suit!"

(End of chapter one.)

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