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by Sewell Ford



  I DON'T admit it went to my head, — not so bad as that, only maybe my chest measure had swelled an inch or so, and I wouldn't say my heels wa'n't hittin' a bit hard as I strolls dignified up and down the private office.

  You see, Mr. Robert was snitchin' a couple of days off for the Newport regatta, and he'd sort of left me on the lid, as you might say. So far as there bein' any real actin' head of the Corrugated Trust for the time being — well, I was it. Anyway, I'd passed along some confidential dope to our Western sales manager, stood by to take a report from the special audit committee, and had an interview with the president of a big bond house, all in one forenoon. That was speedin' up some for a private sec, wa'n't it?

  And now I was just markin' time, waitin' for what might turn up, and feelin, equal to pullin' off any sort of a deal, from matchin' Piddie for the lunches to orderin' a new stock issue. What if the asphalt over on Fifth-ave. was softenin' up, with the mercury hittin' the nineties, and half the force off on vacations? I had a real job to attend to. I was doin' things!

  And as I stops by the roll-top to lean up against it casual I had that comf'table; easy feelin' of bein' the right man in the right place. You know, I guess? You're there with the goods. You ain't the whole works maybe; but you're a special, particular party, one that can push buttons and have 'em answered, paw over the mail, or put your initials under a signature.

  And right in the midst of them rosy reflections the door to the private office swings open abrupt and in pads a stout old party wearin' a generous-built pongee suit and a high-crowned Panama. Also there's something familiar about the bushy eyebrows and the lima bean ears. It's Old Hickory himself. I chokes down a gasp and straightens up.

  "Gee, Mr. Ellins!" says I. "I thought you was down at the Springs?"

  "Didn't think I'd been banished for life, did you?" says he.

  "But Mr. Robert," I goes on, "didn't look for you until ——"

  "No doubt," he breaks in. "Robert and those fool doctors would have kept me soaking in those infernal mud baths until I turned into a crocodile. I know. I'm a gouty, rheumatic old wreck, I suppose; but I'll be dad blistered if I'm going to end my days wallowing in medicated mud! I've had enough. Where is everybody?"

  So I has to account for Mr. Robert, tell how Mrs. Ellins and Marjorie and Son-in-Law Ferdie are up to Bar Harbor, and hint that they're expectin' him to come up as soon as he lands.

  "That's their programme, is it?" he growls. "Think I'm going to spend the rest of the season sitting on a veranda taking pills, do they? Well, they're mistaken!"

  And off he goes into his own room. I don't know what he thought he was goin' to do there. Just habit, I expect. For we've been gettin' along without Old Hickory for quite some time now, while he's been away. First off he tried to keep in touch with things by night letters, then he had a weekly report sent him; but gradually he lost the run of the new deals, and for the last month or so he'd quit firin' over any orders at all.

  Through the open door I could see him sittin' at his big, flat-topped mahogany desk. starin' around sort of aimless. Then he pulls out a drawer and shuffles over some old papers that had been there ever since he left. Next he picks up a pen and starts to make some notes.

  "Boy!" he sings out. "Ink!"

  Course I could have pushed the buzzer and had Vincent do it; but seein' how nobody had put him wise to the change, I didn't feel like announcin' it myself. So I fills the inkwell, chases up a waste basket for him, and turns on the electric fan.

  "Now bring the mail!" says he snappy.

  He was back to; so it was safe to smile. You see, I'd attended to all the mornin' deliveries, sorted out what I knew had to be held over for Mr. Robert, opened what was doubtful, and sent off a few answers accordin' to orders. But, after all, he was the big boss. He had a right to go through the motions if he wanted to. So I lugs in the mail, dumps it in the tray, and leaves him with it.

  Must have been half an hour later, and I was back at my own desk doping out a schedule I'd promised to fix up for Mr. Robert, when I glances up to find Old Hickory wanderin' around the room absent-minded. He's starin' hard at a letter he holds in one paw. All of a sudden he discovers me at the roll-top. For a second he scowls at me from under the bushy eyebrows, and then comes the explosion.

  "Boy!" he sings out. "What the hyphenated maledictions are you doing there?"

  Well, I broke it to him as gentle as I could

  "Promoted, eh?" he snorts. "To what?"

  And I explains how I'm private secretary to the president of the Mutual Funding Company.

  "Never heard of such an organization," says he. "What is it, anyway?"

  "Dummy concern mostly," says I, "faked up to stall off the I.C.C."

  "Eh?" he gawps.

  "Interstate Commerce Commission," says I. "We beat 'em to it, you know, by dissolvin' — on paper. Had to have somebody to use the rubber stamp; so they picked me off the gate."

  "Humph!" he grunts. "So you're no longer an office boy, eh? But I had you hopping around like one. How was that?"

  "Guess I got a hop or two left in me," says I, "specially for you, Mr. Ellins."

  "Hah!" says he. "Also more or less blarney left on the tongue. Well, young man, we'll see. As office boy you had your good points, I remember; but as ——" Then he breaks off and repeats, "We'll see, Son." And he goes to studyin' the letter once more.

  Fin'lly he sends for Piddie. They confabbed for a while, and as Piddie comes out he's still explainin' how he's sure he don't know, but most likely Mr. Robert understands all about it

  "Hang what Robert understands!" snaps Old Hickory. "He isn't here, is he? And I want to know now. Torchy, come in here!"

  "Yes, Sir," says I, scentin' trouble and salutin' respectful.

  "What about these Universal people refusing to renew that Manistee terminal lease?" he demands.

  And if he'd asked how many feathers in a rooster's tail I'd been just as full of information. But from what Piddie's drawn by declarin' an alibi, it didn't look like that was my cue.

  "Suppose I get you the correspondence on that?" says I, and rushes out after the copybook.

  But the results wasn't enlightenin'. We'd applied for renewal on the old terms, the Universal folks had sent back word that in due course the matter would be taken up, and that's all until this notice comes in that there's nothin' doin'. "Inexpedient under present conditions," was the way they put it.

  "I expect Mr. Robert will be back Monday," I suggests cautious.

  "Oh, do you?" raps out Old Hickory. "And meanwhile this lease expires to-morrow noon, leaving us without a foot of ore wharf anywhere on the Great Lakes. What does Mr. Robert intend to do then — transport by aëroplane? Just asked pleasant and polite for a renewal, did he? And before I could make 'em grant the original I all but had their directors strung up by the thumbs! Hah!"

  He settles back heavy in his chair and sets them cut granite jaws of his solid. He don't look so much like an invalid, after all. There's good color in his cheeks, and behind the droopy lids you could see the fighting light in his eyes. He glances once more at the letter.

  "Hello!" says he. "I thought their main offices were in Chicago. This is from Broadway, International Utilities Building. Perhaps you can tell me what they're doing down there?"

  "Subsidiary of I.U.," says I. "Been listed that way all summer."

  "Then," says Old Hickory, smilin' grim, "we have to do once more with no less a personage than Gedney Nash. Well, so be it. He and I have fought out other differences. We'll try again. And if I'm a back number, I'll soon know it. Now get me a list of our outside security holdings."

  That was his first order; but, say, inside of half an hour he had everybody in the shop, from little Vincent up to the head of the bond department, doin' flipflops and pinwheels. Didn't take 'em long to find out that he was back on the job, either.

  "Breezy with that now!" I'd tell 'em. "This is a rush order for the old man. Sure he's in there. Can't you smell the sulphur?"

  In the midst of it comes a hundred-word code message from Dalton, our traffic superintendent sayin' how he'd been notified to remove his wharf spurs within twenty-four hours and askin' panicky what he should do about it.

  "Tell him to hold his tracks with loaded ore trains, and keep his shirt on," growls Old Hickory over his shoulder. "And 'phone Peabody, Frost & Co. to send up their railroad securities expert on the double quick."

  That's the way it went from eleven A.M. until two-thirty, and all the lunch I indulged in was two bites of a cheese sandwich that Vincent split with me. At two-thirty-five Old Hickory jams on his hat and signals for me.

  "Gather up those papers and come along," says he. "I think we're ready now to talk to Gedney Nash."

  I smothered a gasp. Was he nutty, or what? You know you don't drop in offhand on a man like Gedney Nash, same as you would on a shrimp bank president, or a corporation head. You hear a lot about him, of course, — now givin' a million to charity, then bein' denounced as a national highway robber, — but you don't see him. Anyway, I never knew of anyone who did. He's the man behind, the one that pulls the strings. Course, he's supposed to be at the head of International Utilities, but he claims not to hold any office. And you know what happened when Congress tried to get him before an investigatin' committee. All that showed up was a squad of lawyers, who announced they was ready to answer any questions they couldn't file an exception to, and three doctors with affidavits to prove that Mr. Nash was about to expire from as many incurable diseases. So Congress gave it up.

  Yet here we was, pikin' downtown without any notice, expectin' to find him as easy as if he was a traffic cop on a fixed post. Well, we didn't. The minute we blows into the arcade and begins to ask for him, up slides a smooth-talkin' buildin' detective who listens polite what I feed him and suggests that if we wait a minute he'll call up the gen'ral offices. Which he does and reports that they've no idea where Mr. Nash can be found. Maybe he's gone to the mountains or over to his Long Island place, or abroad on a vacation.

  "Tommyrot!" says Old Uickory. "Gedney Nash never took a vacation in his life. I know he's in New York now."

  The gentleman sleuth shrugs his shoulders and allows that if Mr. Ellins ain't satisfied he might go up to Floor 11 and ask for himself. So up we went up. Ever in the Tractions Buildin'? Say, it's like bein' caught in a fog down the bay, — all silence and myst'ry. I expect it's the headquarters of a hundred or more diff'rent corporations, all tied up some way or other with I.U. interests; but on the doors, never the name of one shows: just "Mr. So-and-So," "Mr. Whadye Callum," "Mr. This-and-That." Clerks hurry by you with papers in their hands, walkin' soft on rubber heels. They tap respectful on a door, it opens silent, they disappear. When they meet in the corridors they pass without hailin', without even a look. You feel that there's something doin' around you, something big and important. But the gears don't give out any hum. It's like a game of blind man's bluff played in the dark.

  And the sharp-eyed, gray-haired gent we talked to through the brass gratin' acted like he'd never heard the name Gedney Nash before. When Old Hickory cuts loose with the tabasco remarks at him he only smiles patient and insists that if he can locate Mr. Nash, which he doubts, he'll do his best to arrange an interview. It may take a day, or a week, or a month, ——"

  "Bah!" snorts G!d Hickory, turnin' on his heel and he cusses eloquent all the way down and out to the taxi.

  "Seems to me I've heard how Mr. Nash uses a private elevator," I suggests.

  "Quite like him," says Old Hickory. "Think you could find it?"

  "I could make a stab," says I.

  But at that I knew I was kiddin' myself. Why not? Ain't there been times when whole bunches of live-wire reporters, not to mention relays of court deputies, have raked New York with a fine-tooth comb, lookin' for Gedney Nash, without even gettin' so much as a glimpse of his limousine rollin' round a corner.

  "Suppose we circle the block once or twice, while I tear off a few Sherlock Holmes thoughts?" says I.

  Mr. Ellins sniffs scornful; but he'd gone the limit himself, so he gives the directions. I leaned back, shut my eyes, and tried to guess how a foxy old guy like Nash would fix it up so he could do the unseen duck off Broadway into his private office. Was it a tunnel from the subway through the boiler basement, or a bridge from the next skyscraper, or —— But the sight of a blue cap made me ditch this dream stuff. Funny I hadn't thought of that line before and me an A.D.T. once myself!

  "Hey, you!" I calls out the window. "Wait up, Cabby, while we take on a passenger. Yes, you, Skinny. Hop in here. Ah, what for would we be kidnappin' a remnant like you? It's your birthday, ain't it? And the gentleman here has a present for you — a whole dollar. Eh, Mr. Ellins?"

  Old Hickory looks sort of puzzled; but he forks out the singleton, and the messenger climbs in after it. A chunky, round-faced kid he was too. I pushed him into one of the foldin' front seats and proceeds to apply the pump.

  "What station do you run from, Sport?" says I.

  "Number six," says he.

  "Oh, yes," says I. "Just back of the Exchange. And is old Connolly chief down there still?"

  "Yes, Sir," says he.

  "Give him my regards when you get back," says I, "and tell him Torchy says he's a flivver."

  The kid grins enthusiastic.

  "By the way," I goes on, "who's he sendin' out with the Nash work — Gedney Nash's, you know?"

  "Number 17," says he, "Loppy Miller."

  "What!" says I. "Old Loppy carryin' the book yet? Why, he had grown kids when I wore the stripes. Well, well! Cagy old duffer, Loppy. Ever ask him where he delivers the Nash business?"

  "Yep," says the youngster, "and he near got me fired for it."

  "But you found out, didn't you?" says I.

  He glances at me suspicious and rolls his eyes. "M-m-m-m," says he, shakin' his head.

  "Ah, come!" says I. "You don't mean that a real sure-fire like you could be shunted that way? There'd be no harm in your givin' a guess, and if it was right — well, we could run that birthday stake up five more; couldn't we, Mr. Ellins?"

  Old Hickory nods, and passes me a five-spot prompt.

  "Well?" says I, wavin' it careless.

  The kid might have been scared, but he had the kale-itch in his fingers. "All I know," says he, "is that Loppy allus goes into the William Street lobby of the Farmers' National."

  "Go on!" says I. "That don't come within two numbers of backin' against the Traction Buildin'."

  "But Loppy allus does," he insists. "There's a door to the right, just beyond the teller's window. But you can't get past the gink in the gray helmet. I tried once."

  "Secret entrance, eh?" says I. "Sounds convincin'. Anyway, I got your number. So here's your five. Invest it in baby bonds, and don't let on to Mother. You're six to the good, and your job safe. By-by!"

  "What now?" says Old Hickory. "Shall we try the secret door?"

  "Not unless we're prepared to do strong arm work on the guard," says I. "No. What we got to frame up now is a good excuse. Let's see, you can't ring in as one of the fam'ly, can you?"

  "Not as any relative of Gedney's," says Old Hickory. "I'm not built right."

  "How about his weak points?" says I. "Know of any fads of his?"

  "Why," says Mr. Ellins, "he is a good deal interested in landscape gardening, and he goes in for fancy poultry, I believe."

  "That's the line!" says I. "Poultry! Ain't there a store down near Fulton Market where we could buy a sample?"

  I was in too much of a rush to go into details, and it must have seemed a batty performance to Old Hickory; but off we chases, and when we drove up to the Farmers' National half an hour later I has a wicker cage in each hand and Mr. Ellins has both fists full of poultry literature displayed prominent. Sure enough too, we finds the door beyond the teller's window, also the gink in the gray helmet. He's a husky-built party, with narrow-set, suspicious eyes.

  "Up to Mr. Nash's," says I casual, makin' a move to walk right past.

  "Back up!" says he, steppin' square across the way. "What Mr. Nash?"

  "Whadye mean, what Mr. Nash?" says I. "There ain't clusters of 'em, are there, Mr. Gedney Nash, of course."

  "Wrong street," says he. "Try around on Broadway."

  "What a kidder!" says I. "But if you will delay the champion hen expert of the country," and I nods to Old Hickory, "just send word up to Mr. Nash that Mr. Skellings has come with that pair of silver-slashed blue Orpingtons he wanted to see."

  "Blue which?" says the guard.

  "Ah, take a look!" says I. "Ain't they some birds? Gold medal winners, both of 'em."

  I holds open the paper wrappings while he inspects the cacklers. And, believe me, they was the fanciest poultry specimens I'd ever seen! Honest, they looked like they'd been got up for the pullets' annual costume ball.

  "And Mr. Nash," I goes on, "said Mr. Skellings was to bring 'em in this way."

  The guard takes another glance at Old Hickory, and that got him; for in his high-crowned Panama the boss does look more like a fancy farmer than he does like the head of the Corrugated.

  "I'll see," says he, openin' a little closet and producin' a 'phone. He was havin' some trouble too, tellin' someone just who we was, when I cuts in.

  "Ah, just describe the birds," says I. "Silver-slashed blue Orpingtons, you know."

  Does it work? Say, in less than two minutes we was being towed through a windin' passage that fin'lly ends in front of a circular shaft with a cute little elevator waitin' at the bottom.

  "Pass two," says the guard.

  Another minute and we're bein' shot up I don't know how many stories, and are steppin' out into the swellest set of office rooms I was ever in. A mahogany door opens, and in comes a wispy, yellow-skinned, dried-up little old party with eyes like a rat. Didn't look much like the pictures they print of him, but I guessed it was Gedney.

  "Some prize Orpingtons, did I understand?" says he, in a soft, purry voice. "I don't recall having ——" Then he gets a good look at Old Hickory, and his tone changes sudden. "What!" he snaps. "You, Ellins? How did you get in here?"

  "With those fool chickens," says the boss.

  "But — but I didn't know," goes on Mr. Nash, "that you were interested in that sort of thing."

  "Glad to say I'm not," comes back Old Hickory. "Just a scheme of my brilliant-haired young friend here to smuggle me into the sacred presence. Great Zacharias, Nash! why don't you shut yourself in a steel vault, and have done with it?"

  Gedney bites his upper lip, annoyed. "I find it necessary," says he, "to avoid interruptions. I presume, however, that you came on some errand of importance?"

  "I did," says Old Hickory. "I want to get a renewal of that Manistee terminal lease."

  Say, of all the scientific squirmin', Gedney Nash can put up the slickest specimen. First off he lets on not to know a thing about it. Well, perhaps it was true that International Utilities did control those wharves: he really couldn't say. And besides that matter would be left entirely to the discretion of ——

  "No, it won't," breaks in Old Hickory, shakin' a stubby forefinger at him. "It's between us, Nash. You know what those terminal privileges mean to us. We can't get on without them. And if you take 'em away, it's a fight to a finish — that's all!"

  "Sorry, Ellins," says Mr. Nash, "but I can do nothing."

  "Wait," says Old Hickory. "Did you know that we held a big block of your M., K. & T.'s? Well, we do. They happen to be first lien bonds too. And M., K. & T. defaulted on its last interest coupons. Entirely unnecessary, I know, but it throws the company open to a foreclosure petition. Want us to put it in?"

  "H-m-m-m!" says Mr. Nash. "Er — won't you sit down?"

  Now if it had been two common, everyday parties, debatin' which owned a yellow dog, they'd gone hoarse over it; but not these two pluses. Gedney Nash asks Old Hickory only three more questions before he turns to the wicker cages and begins admirin' the fancy poultry.

  "Excellent specimens, excellent!" says he "And in the pink of condition too. I have a few Orpingtons on my place; but — oh, by the way, Ellins, are these really intended for me?"

  "With Torchy's compliments," says Old Hickory.

  "By Jove!" says Gedney. "I — I'm greatly obliged — truly, I am. What plumage! What; hackles! And — er — just leave that terminal lease, will you? I'll have it renewed and sent up. Would you mind too if I sent you out by the Broadway entrance?"

  I didn't mind, for one, and I guess the boss didn't; for the last office we passes through was where the gray-haired gent camped watchful behind the brass gratin'.

  "Well, wouldn't that crimp you?" I remarks, givin' him the passin' grin. "Our old friend Ananias, ain't it?"

  And he never bats an eyelash.

  But Gedney wa'n't in that class. Before closin' time up comes a secretary with the lease: all signed. I was in the boss's room when it's delivered.

  "Gee, Mr. Ellins!" says I. "You don't need any more mud baths, I guess."

  All the rise that gets out of him is a flicker in the mouth corners. "Young man," says he, "whose idea was it, taking you off the gate?"

  "Mr. Robert's," says I.

  "I am glad to learn," says he, "that Robert had occasional lapses into sanity while I was away. What about your salary? Any ambitions in that direction?"

  "I only want what I'm worth," says I.

  "Oh, be reasonable, Son," says he. "We must save something for the stockholders, you know. Suppose we double what you're getting now? Will that do?"

  And the grin I carries out is that broad I has to go sideways through the door.

(End of chapter four.)

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