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TORCHY, PRIVATE SEC. (1915)

by Sewell Ford
(1868-1946)

CHAPTER II

TORCHY MAKES THE SIR CLASS

  SAY, it's all right, gettin' the quick boost up the ladder, providin' you don't let it make you dizzy in the head. And, believe me, I was near it! You see, bein' jumped from office boy to private sec, all in one afternoon, was some breath-takin' yank.

  I expect the full force of what had happened didn't hit me until here the other mornin' when I strolls into the Corrugated gen'ral offices on the new nine o'clock schedule and finds this raw recruit holdin' down my old chair behind the rail. Nice, smooth-haired, bright-eyed youngster, with his ears all scoured out pink and his knickerbocker suit brushed neat. He hops up and opens the gate real respectful for me.

  "Well, Son," says I, "what does Mother call you?"

  "Vincent, Sir," says he.

  "Some class to that, too," says I. "But how do you know, Vincent, that I'm one of the reg'lar staff and not canvassin' for something?"

  "I don't, Sir," says he, "until I see if you know where to hang your hat."

  "Good domework, Vincent," says I. "On that I'm backin' you to hold the job."

  "Thank you, Sir," says he. "I told Mother I'd do my best."

  And with that he springs a bashful smile. It was the "Sir" every time that caught me, though. For more 'n four years I'd been just Torchy or Boy to all hands in the shop, from Old Hickory down; and now all of a sudden I finds there's one party at least that rates me in the Sir class. Kind of braced me for swingin' past all that row of giggly lady typists and on into Mr. Robert's private office.

  Thrill No. 2 arrived half an hour later. In postin' myself as to what this Mutual Fundin' Company really is that I'm supposed to be workin' for, I needed some papers from the document safe. And for the first time I pushes the buzzer button. Prompt and eager in comes Vincent, the fair haired.

  "Know which is Mr. Piddie, do you?" says I.

  "Oh, yes, Sir," says he.

  "Well," says I, "tell him I need those — no, better ask him to step in here a minute."

  Honest, I wa'n't plannin' to rub it in, either. Course, I'd done a good deal of trottin' for Piddie, and a lot of it wa'n't for anything else than to let him show his authority; but I didn't hold any grudge. I'd squared the account in my own way. How he was goin' to take it now I was the one to send for him, I didn't know; but there wa'n't any use dodgin' the issue.

  And you should have seen Piddie make his first official entrance! You know how stiff and wooden he is as a rule? Well, as he marches in over the rug and comes to a parade rest by the desk, he's about as limber as a length of gas pipe. And solemn? That long face of his would have soured condensed milk!

  "Yes, Sir?" says he. And to me, mind you! It come out a little husky, like it was bein' filtered through strong emotions; but there it is. Piddie has sirred me his first "Sir."

  He knows a roll-top when he sees one, Piddie does, and he ain't omittin' any deference due. You know the type? He's one of the kind that was born to be "our Mr. Piddie"; the sort that takes off his hat to a vice-president, and holds his breath in the presence of the big wheeze. But, say, I don't want any jogs-sticks burned for me.

  "Ditch it, Piddie," says I, "ditch it!"

  "I — er — I beg pardon?" says he.

  "The Sir stuff," says I. "Just because I'm behind the ground glass instead of the brass rail don't make me a sacred being, or you a lobbygow, does it? I guess we've known each other too long for that, eh?" And I holds out the friendly mitt.

  Honest, he's got a human streak in him, Piddie has, if you know where to strike it. The cast-iron effect comes out of his shoulders, the wooden look from his face. He almost smiles.

  "Thank you, Torchy," says he. "I — er — my congratulations on your new ——"

  "We'll spread 'em on the minutes," says I, "and proceed to show the Corrugated some teamwork that mere salaries can't buy. Are you on?"

  He was. Inside of three minutes he'd chucked that stiff-necked, flunky pose and was coachin' me like a big brother, and by the time he'd beat into my head all he knew about the Fundin' Comp'ny we was as chummy as two survivors of the same steamer wreck. Simple, I know; but this little experience made me feel like I'd signed a gen'ral peace treaty with the world at large.

  I hadn't, though. An hour later I runs up against Willis G. Briscoe. He's kind of an outside development manager, who makes preliminary reports on new deals. One of these cold-eyed, chesty parties, Willis G. is; tall and thin, and with a big, bowwow voice that has a rasp to it.

  "Huh!" says he, as he discovers me busy at the desk. "I heard of this out in Chicago three days ago; but I thought it must be a joke."

  "Them reporters do get things straight now and then, don't they?" says I.

  "Reporters!" he snorts. "Philip wrote me about it."

  "Oh?" says I. "Cousin Philip, eh?"

  And that gave me the whole plot of the piece. Cousin Phil was a cigarette-consumin' college discard that Willis G. had been nursin' along in the bondroom, waitin' for a better openin'; and this jump of mine had filled a snap job that he'd had his eyes on for Cousin.

  "I suppose you're only temporary, though," says he.

  "That's all," says I. "Mr. Ellins will be resignin' in eight or ten years, I expect, and then they'll want me in his chair. Nice mornin', ain't it?"

  "Bah!" says he, registerin' deep disgust, as they say in the movie scripts. "You'll do well if you last eight or ten days."

  "How cheerin'!" says I, and as he swings off with a final glare I tips him the humorous wink.

  Why not? No young-man-afraid-of-his-job part for me! Briscoe might get it away from me, or he might not; but I wa'n't goin' to get panicky over it. Let him do his worst!

  He didn't need any urgin'. With a little scoutin' around he discovers that about the only assignment on my hook so far is this Rowley matter: you know, the old inventor guy with the mill-tailings scheme. And the first hint I had that he was wise to that was when Mr. Robert calls me over after lunch and explains how this Rowley business sort of comes in Mr. Briscoe's department.

  "So I suppose you'd better turn it over to him," says he.

  "Just as you say," says I. "The old gent is due at two-fifteen, and I'll shunt him onto Briscoe."

  Which I did. And at two-thirty-five Briscoe breezes in with his report.

  "Nothing to it," says he. "This Rowley person has a lot of half-baked ideas about briquets and retort recoveries, and talks vaguely of big profits; but he's got nothing practical. I shipped him off."

  "But," says Mr. Robert, "I think he was promised that his schemes should have a consideration by the board.

  "Very well," says Willis G. jaunty. "I'll give 'em a report next meeting. Wednesday, isn't it? Hardly worth wastin' their time over though."

  And here I'd been boostin' the Rowlev proposition to Mr. Robert good and hard, almost gettin' him enthusiastic over it! I was smeared, that's all! My first stab at makin' myself useful in my new swing-chair job has been brushed aside as a beginner's bungle: and there sits Mr. Robert, prob'ly wonderin' if he hadn't made a mistake in takin' me off the gate!

  I stares at a row of empty pigeonholes for a solid hour after that, not doin' a blamed thing but race my thinkin' gears tryin' to find out where I was at. This dummy act that I'd been let in for might be all right for some; but it didn't suit me. I've got to have action in mine

  So, long before quittin' time, I slams the desk cover down and pikes out on Rowley's trail. He might be a dead duck; but I wanted to know how and why. I had his address all right, and it didn't take me long to locate him in a fifth-story loft down on lower Sixth-ave. It's an odd joint too, with a cot bed in one corner, a work bench along the avenue side, a cookstove in the middle, and a kitchen table where the coffeepot was crowded on each side by a rack of test tubes. Old Rowley himself, with his sleeves rolled up, is sittin' in a rickety arm** chair peelin' potatoes. He's grouchy too.

  "Oh, it's you, is it?" says he. "Well, you might just as well trot right back to the Corrugated Trust and tell 'em that Old Hen Rowley don't give two hoots for their whole outfit.'

  "I take it you didn't get on so well with Mr. Briscoe?" says I.

  "Briscoe?" he grunts savage. "Who could talk business to a smart Alec like that? He knew it all before I'd begun. You'd think I was trying to sell him a gold brick. All right! We'll see what the Bethlehem people have to say."

  "What?" says I. "Before you get the final word from us?"

  "I've had it," says he. "Briscoe is final enough for me."

  "You're easy satisfied," says I, "or else you're easy beat. I didn't take you for a quitter, either."

  Say, that got to him. "Quitter, eh!" says he, "See here, Son, how long do you think I've been plugging at this thing? Nine years. And for the last four I've been giving it all my time, day in and day out, and many a night as well. I've been living with it, in this loft here, like a blessed hermit; testing and perfecting, trying out my processes, and fighting the Patent Office sharks between times. Nine years — the best of my life! Call that quitting, do you?"

  "Well, that is sticking around some," says I. "Think you've got your schemes so they'll work?"

  "I don't think," says he; "I know."

  "But what's the good," I goes on, "if you can't make other folks see you've got a good thing?"

  "I can, though," he says. "Why any person with even ordinary intelligence can ——"

  "That's me," says I. "My nut is just about a stock pattern size, six and seven-eighths, or maybe seven. Come, try it on me, if it's so simple. Now what about this retort business?"

  That got him goin'. Rowley drops the potatoes, and in another minute we're neck-deep in the science of makin' an ore puddin', doin' stunts with the steam, skimmin' dividends off the pot, and coinin' the slag into dollars.

  I ain't lettin' him slip over any gen'ral propositions on me, either. I'm right there with the Missouri stuff. He has to go clear back to first principles every time he makes a statement, and work up to it gradual. Course, I was keepin' him jollied along too, and while it must have been sort of hopeless at the start, inoculatin' a cauliflower like mine with higher chemistry, I fin'lly showed one or two gleams that encouraged him to keep on. Anyway, we hammered away at the subject, only stoppin' to make coffee and sandwiches, until near two o'clock in the mornin'.

  "Help!" says I, glancin' at the nickel alarm clock. "My head feels like a stuffed sausage. A little more, and I won't know whether I'm a nitrous sulphide or a ferrous oxide of bromo seltzer. Let's take the rest in another dose."

  Rowley chuckles and agrees to call it a day. I didn't let on anything at the office next morning; but by eight A.M. I was planted at the roll-top with my elbows squared, tryin' to write out as much of that chemistry dope as I could remember. And it's surprisin', ain't it, what a lot of information you can sop up when you do the sponge act in earnest? I found there was a lot of points, though, that I was foggy on; so I makes an early getaway and puts in another long session with Rowley.

  And, take it from me, by Tuesday I was well loaded. Also I had my plan of campaign all mapped out; for you mustn't get the idea I was packin' my bean full of all this science dope just to see if it would stand the strain. Not so, Clarice! I'd woke up to the fact that I was bein' carried along by the Corrugated as a sort of misfit inner tube stowed in the bottom of the tool-box. and that it was up to me to make good.

  So the first openin' I had I tackles Mr. Robert on the side.

  "About that Rowley proposition?" says I.

  "Oh, yes," says he. "I fear Mr. Briscoe thinks unfavourably of it."

  "Then he's fruity in the pan," says I.

  "We have been in the habit of accepting his judgment in such matters," says Mr. Robert.

  "Maybe," says I; "but here's once when he's handin' you a stall. And you're missin' out on something good too."

  Mr Robert smiles skeptical. "Really?" says he. "Perhaps you would like to present a minority report?"

  "Nothin' less," says I. "Oh, it may listen like a joke, but that's just what I got in mind."

  "H-m-m-m!" says Mr. Robert. "You realize that Briscoe is one of the leading mining authorities in the country, I suppose, and that we pay him a large salary as consulting engineer?"

  I nods. "I know," says I. "And the nearest I ever got to seein' a mine was watchin' 'em excavate for the subway. I'm admittin' all that."

  "I may add too," goes on Mr. Robert, "that he has a way of stating his opinions quite convincingly."

  "Yep," says I, "I should judge that. But if I think he's bilkin' you on this, is it my play to sit behind and chew my tongue?"

  "By Jove!" says Mr. Robert his sportin' instincts comin' to the top. "You shall have your chance, Torchy. The directors shall hear your views; to-morrow, at two-thirty. You will follow Briscoe."

  "Let's not bill it ahead, then," says I, "if it'll be fair to spring it on him."

  "Quite," says Mr. Robert: "and rather more amusing, I fancy. I will arrange it."

  "I'd like to have old Rowley on the side lines, in case I get stuck," says I.

  "Oh, certainly," says he. "Bring Mr. Rowley if you wish. And if there are any preparations you would like to make ——"

  "I got one or two," says I, startin' for the door; "so mark me off until about to-morrow noon."

  Busy? Well, say, a kitten with four feet stuck in the flypaper didn't have anything on me. I streaks it for Sixth-ave. and lands in Rowley's loft all out of breath.

  "What's up?" says he.

  "The case of Briscoe et al. vs. Rowley," says I. "It's to be threshed out before the full Corrugated board to-morrow at two-thirty. I'm the counsel for the defense."

  "Well, what of it?" says he.

  "I want to use you as Exhibit A," says I, "in case of an emergency."

  "All right," says he. "I'll go along if you say so."

  "Good!" says I. And then came the hard part. "Rowley," I goes on, "what size collar do you wear?"

  "But what has that to do with it?" says he.

  "Now don't get peeved," says I; "but you know the kind our directors are, — flossy, silk-lined old sports, most of 'em; and they're apt to size up strangers a good deal by their haber-dashery. So I was wonderin' if I couldn't blow you to a neat, pleated bosom effect with attached cuffs."

  "Oh, I see," says Rowley, glancin' at his gray flannel workin' shirt. "Anything else?"

  "I don't expect you'd want to part with that face shrubbery, or have it landscaped into a Vandyke, eh?" says I. "You know they ain't wearin' the bushy kind now in supertax circles."

  "Would you insist on my being manicured too?" says he, chucklin' easy.

  "It would help," says I. "And this would be my buy all round."

  "That's a generous offer, Son," says he, "and I don't know how long it's been since anyone has taken so much personal interest in Old Hen Rowley. Seems nice too. I suppose I am rather a shabby old duffer to be visiting the offices of great and good corporations. Yes, I'll spruce up a bit; and if I find it costs more than I can afford — now let's see how my cash stands."

  With that he digs into a hip pocket and unlimbers a roll of corn-tinted kale the size of your wrist. Maybe they wasn't all hundreds clear to the core, but that's what was on the outside.

  "Whiffo!" says I. "Excuse me for classin' you so near the bread line; but by your campin' in a loft, and the longshoreman's shirt, and so on ——"

  "Very natural, Son," he breaks in. "And I see your point all the clearer. I've no business going about so. The whiskers shall be trimmed. But your people up at the Corrugated have evidently made up their minds to turn us down."

  "Maybe," says I; "but if they do, it won't be on any snap decision of Briscoe's. And unless I get tongue tied at the last minute we're goin' to have a run for our money."

  That was what worried me most, — could I come across with the standin' spiel, But, believe me, I wa'n't trustin' to any offhand stuff! I'd got to know in advance what I meant to feed 'em, line for line and word for word. By ten o'clock that night I had it all down on paper too — and perhaps I didn't chew the penholder and leak some from the brow while I was doin' it!

  Then came the rehearsin'. Say, you should have seen me risin' dignified behind the washstand in my room, strikin' a Bill Bryan pose, and smilin' calm at the bedposts as I launched out on my speech. Not that I was tryin' to chuck any flowers of oratory. What I aimed to do was to tell 'em about Rowley's schemes as simple and straight away as I could, usin' one-syllable words for the most part, cannin' the slang, and soundin' as many final G's as my tongue would let me. Before I turned in too, I had it almost pat; but I hardly dared to go to sleep for fear it would get away from me.

  Say, but it ain't any cinch, this breakin' into public life, is it? The obscure guy with the dinner pail and the calloused palms thinks he has hard lines; but when the whistle blows he can wipe his trowel on his overalls and forget it all until next day. But here I tosses around restless in the feathers, and am up at daybreak, goin' over my piece again, trembly in the knees, with a vivid mental picture of how cheap I'd feel if I should go to pieces when the time came.

  A good breakfast pepped me up a lot, though, and by noon I had them few remarks of mine so I could say 'em backwards or forwards. How they was goin' to sound outside of my room was another matter. I had my doubts along that line; but I was goin' to give 'em the best I had in stock.

  It was most time for the session to begin when Vincent boy trots in with a card announcin' Mr. Henry Clay Rowley. And, say, when this smooth-faced party in the sporty Scotch tweed suit and the new model pearl gray lid shows up, I has to gasp! He's had himself tailored and barbered until he looks like an English investor come over huntin' six per cent. dividends for a Bank of England surplus.

  "Zowie!" says I. "Some speed to you, Mr. Rowley. And class? Say, you look like you was about to dump a trunkful of Steel preferred on the market, instead of a few patents."

  "I'm giving your advice a thorough trial, you see," says he.

  "That's the stuff!" says I. "It's the dolled up gets the dollars these days. Be sure and sit where they'll get a good view."

  Then we went into the directors' room and heard Willis G. Briscoe deliver his knock. He does it snappy and vigorous, and when he's through it didn't listen like anything more could be said. He humps his eyebrows humorous when Mr. Robert announces that perhaps the board might like to hear another view of the subject.

  "Torchy," goes on Mr. Robert, "you have the floor."

  For a second or so, though, I felt like spreadin' out so I wouldn't slip through a crack. All of a sudden too, my mouth had gone dry and I had a panicky notion that my brain had ossified. Then I got a glimpse of them shrewd blue eyes of Rowley's smilin' encouragin' at me, the first few sentences of my speech filtered back through the bone, I got my tongue movin', and I was off.

  Funny how you can work out of a scare that way, ain't it? Why, say, the first thing I knew I'd picked out old D.K. Rutgers, the worst fish-face in the bunch, and was throwin' the facts into him like I was shovelin' coal into a cellar chute. Beginnin' with Rowley's plan for condensin' commercial acids from the blast fumes, explainin' the chemical process that produced 'em, and how they could be caught on the fly and canned in carboys for the trade, I galloped through the whole proposition, backin' up every item with figures and formulas; until I showed 'em how the slag that now cost 'em so much to get rid of could be sold for road ballastin' and pressed into buildin' blocks at a profit of twenty dollars a ton. I didn't let anything go just by statin' it bald. I took Briscoe's' objections one by one, shot 'em full of holes with the come-backs Rowley had coached me on, and then proceeded to clinch the argument until I had old Rutgers noddin' his head.

  "And these, Gentlemen," I winds up with 'are what Mr. Briscoe calls the vague, half-baked ideas of an unpractical inventor. He's an expert, Mr. Briscoe is! I'm not. I wouldn't know a supersaturated solution of methyl-calcites from a stein of Hoboken beer; but I'm willin' to believe there's big money in handling either, providing you don't spill too much on the inside. Mr. Rowley claims you're throwing away millions a year. He says he can save it for you. He wants to show you how you can juggle ore so you can save everything but the smell. He's here on the spot, and if you want to quiz him about details, go as deep as you like."

  Did they? Say, that séance didn't break up until six-fifteen, and before the board adjourns Rowley had a whackin' big option check in his fist, and a resolution had gone through to install an experiment plan as soon as it could be put up. An hour before that Willis G. Briscoe had done the silent sneak, wearin' his mouth droopy.

  Mr. Robert meets me outside with the fraternal grip and says he's proud of me.

  "Thanks, Mr. Robert," says I. "It was a case of framin' up a job for myself, or else four-flushin' along until you tied the can to me. And I need the Corrugated just now."

  "No more, I'm beginning to suspect," says he, "than the Corrugated needs you."

  Which was some happy josh for an amateur private sec to get from the boss! Eh?

(End of chapter two.)



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