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TORCHY, PRIVATE SEC. (1915)

by Sewell Ford
(1868-1946)

CHAPTER VI

WHEN SKEET HAD HIS DAY

   THERE'S one thing about bein' a private sea, — you stand somewhere on the social list. It may be down towards the foot among the discards; but you're in the running.

  Not that I'm thinkin' of havin' a fam'ly crest worked on my shirt sleeves, or that I'm beginnin' to sympathize with the lower clawsses. Nothing like that! Only it does help, when Marjorie, the boss's married daughter, has planned some social doin's, to get an invite like a reg'lar guy.

  What do you know too? It's dance! Not out at their country place, either. She'd dragged Ferdie into town for a couple of weeks, and they'd been stayin' at the Ellins's Fifth-ave. house, just visitin' and havin' a good time. That is, Marjorie had. Eerdie, he spends his days mopin' about the club and taggin' Mr. Robert.

  "Better sneak off up to the Maison Maxixe with me," says I, "and brush up on your hesitation."

  A look of deep disgust from Ferdie. "I'm not a dancing man, you know," says he.

  "Both feet Methodists, eh?" says I.

  Ferdie stares puzzled. "It's only that I'm sure I'd look absurd," says he.

  "For once," says I, "you ain't so far from wrong. I expect you would."

  Even that don't seem to please him, and he refuses peevish to trail along and watch me blow myself to a pair of dancin' pumps. Gee! but this society life runs into doin, don't it' I'd dropped into one of them swell booterers and was beefin' away at the clerk about havin' to pay six-fifty just for a pair of tango moccasins, when I hears someone on the bench back of me remark casual:

  "Nine dollars? Very well. Send them up to my hotel. Here's my card."

  And as there's somethin' familiar about the voice I takes a peek over my shoulder. But neither the braid-bound cutaway fittin' so snug at the waist, nor the snappy fall derby snuggled down over the lop ears, suggested any old friends. Not until he swings around and I gets a view of that nosy profile do I gasp any gasps.

  "Sizzlin' Stepsisters!" says I. "If it ain't Skeet Keyser!"

  "I — ah — I beg pardon?" says he, doin' it cold and haughty. Blamed if I don't think he meant to hand me the mistaken identity dope first off; but after another glance he thinks better of it. "Oh, yes," says he, sort of languid. "Torchy, isn't it?"

  "Good guess, Skeet," says I, "seein' it's been all of two years since you used to shove me my coffee reg'lar at the ——"

  "Yes, yes," he breaks in hasty; "but — I — ah — I have an appointment. Glad to have seen you again."

  "You act it," says I. And then, grabbin' him by the sleeve as he's backin' off, I whispers, "What's the disguise, Skeet?"

  "Really, now!" he protests indignant.

  "Oh, very well, very well!" says I. "But how should I know if someone has wished a life income on you? Congrats."

  "Ah — er — thanks," says he. "I — I'll see you again — perhaps."

  I loved the way he puts that last touch on too, and you could almost hear the sigh of relief as he fades down the aisle, leavin' me in one stockin' foot gawpin' after him.

  No wonder I'm left open faced! Skeet Keyser in a tail coat, orderin' nine-dollar pumps sent to his hotel! Why, say, more 'n once I've staked him to the price of a twenty-cent lodgin', and the only way I ever got any of it back was by tippin' him off to this vacancy on the coffee urn at the dairy lunch. Used to be copy boy on the Sunday, Skeet did; but that was 'way back. It didn't last long either; for he was just as punk a performer at that as he ever was at any of the other things he's tackled.

  Gettin' the can tied to him was always Skeet's specialty. No mystery about that, either; for of all the useless specimens that ever grafted cigarettes he was about the limit. All he lacks is pep and bean and a few other trifles. You wouldn't exactly call him ornamental, either. No, him and that Apolloniris guy was quite diff'rent in their front and side elevation. Mostly arms and legs, Skeet is, and sort of swivel-jointed all over, with a back slope to his forehead and an under-cut chin. Nothin' reticent about his beak, though. It juts out from the middle of his face like the handle of a lovin' cup, and with his habit of stretchin' his neck forward he always seems to be followin' a scent like one of these wienerwurst retrievers.

  Brought up somewhere back of Jefferson Market, down in old Greenwich Village — if you know where that is. He's the only boy in a fam'ly of five, and I understand all the Keyser girls have done first rate; one bein' forelady in a big hair-dressin' joint, another married to the lieutenant of a hook and ladder company, and two well placed in service.

  It was through bein' in on a little mix-up Skeet had with one of his sisters that I got so well posted on the fam'ly hist'ry. Must have been more 'n a year ago, while Old Hickory was laid up at home there for a spell, and I was chasin' back and forth from the Corrugated to the Ellins house most every day. This time I hears a debate goin' on down at the area door, and the next thing I knows out comes Skeet, assisted active by the butler.

  Seems that one of the new maids is his sister Maggie, and he'd just been callin' friendly in the hopes of sep'ratin' her from a dollar or so. It wa'n't Maggie's day for contributin' to the prodigal son fund, though, and Skeet was statin' his opinion of her reckless when the butler interfered. Come near losin' Maggie her job, that little scene did; but she promises faithful it sha'n't happen again, and was kept on.

  "Blast her!" says Skeet to me later. "She's just as bad as the rest of 'em. They're all tightwads. Why, even the old lady runs me out now when I happen to be carryin' the banner and can't come across with my little old five of a Saturday night! I might starve in the streets for all they care. But I'll show 'em some day. You'll see!"

  Hanged if it don't look like he'd turned the trick too; for, as I've hinted, Skeet is costumed like a lily of the field. But how he'd managed to do it is what gets me. And for two days after that I wasted valuable time tryin' to frame up just where in the gen'ral scheme of things a party like Skeet Keyser could connect with real money. After that I gave up the myst'ry and spent my spare minutes wonderin' if I could do this "One-two-three — hold!" business as successful in public as I could while them dancin' school fairies was drillin' it into my nut at one-fifty per throw.

  That's right, grin! But if you're billed to mingle in the merry throng at a dance fest, you ain't goin' to trot out on the floor with any such antique act as last season's Boston dip, are you? Might as well spring the minuet. And specially when I'd had word that among others was to be a certain party. Uh-huh! You can play it both ways too that Vee would be up on the very latest, and if it was in me I meant to be right behind her.

  Was I? Say, maybe if I wa'n't so blamed modest I could give you an idea of how Vee and I just naturally — but I can't do it. Besides, there's other matters; the grand jolt that come early in the evenin', for instance. It was after the second number, and I'd made a dash into the gents' dressin' room to see if my white tie showed any symptoms of ridin' up in the back, and I'd just strolled out into the entrance hall again, watchin' the push straggle in, when who should show up through the double doors but a tall, lanky young chap with lop ears and a nose one was bound to remember.

  It's Skeet Keyser; Skeet in shiny, thin-soled pumps, a pleated dress shirt, black silk vest, and a top hat! He's bein' bowed in dignified by the same butler, and is passed on to — well, it's a funny world, ain't it! The maid on duty just inside the door happens to be Sister Maggie. She has the respectful bow all ready when she gets a full-face view.

  "Aloysius!" says she, scared and husky.

  I got to hand it to Skeet, though, that he bears up noble. All he does is to try to swallow his throat apple a couple of times, and then he stares at her stern and distant. Also Maggie makes a quick recovery.

  "Gentlemen this way, Sir," says she, and waves Skeet into the dressin' room.

  I wanted to follow him up and tip him off that there's one or two other reasons why this was the wrong house to put over any sporty bluff in; but as it was I'm overdue in another quarter. You see, Marjorie has been sittin' out on the side lines, as usual, and Vee has hinted how it would be nice and charitable of me to brace her for a spiel. I'd sort of been workin' myself up to the sacrifice, for you know Marjorie's some hefty partner for anybody not in trainin' to steer around a ballroom floor; but I'd figured out that the longer I put it off the worse it would be. So off I trails with my heels draggin' a little heavy.

  "Why, thanks ever so much, Torchy," says she, "but I think I have a partner for the first four or five. After that, though ——"

  "Don't mention it," says I. "I mean, much obliged," and I backs off hasty before she can change her mind.

  I had to kill time while Vee was dividin' a couple dances between two young shrimps; so I sidles into a corner where Ferdie sits behind his shell-rimmed glasses, lookin' bored and lonesome.

  "Now don't you wish you'd gone and had your feet educated?" says I.

  Ferdie yawns. "I think it quite sufficient," says he, "that one of us intends making an exhibition. Marjorie has been taking lessons, you know."

  "So I hear," says I. "And it's all right if she don't tackle the maxixe. Hello! There it goes. Now you will see some stunts!"

  Yep, we did! And among the first couples to sail out on the floor, if you'll believe it, was none other than Marjorie and our lop-eared young hero, Skeet Keyser.

  "Oh, Gosh!" I groans. "Don't look, Ferdie!"

  I meant well too. It was goin' to be bad enough to see a corn-fed young matron the size of Marjorie, who can spin the arrow well up to the hundred and eighty mark, monkey with them twisty evolutions; but to have her get let in for it with a roughneck ringer like Skeet — well, that was goin' to be a real tragedy. How he'd worked it, or what his excuse was for bein' here at all, was useless questions to ask then. What was comin' next was the thing to watch for.

  As for Ferdie, he just sits there and blinks, followin' 'em through his spare panes. Course I could guess he wa'n't hep to any facts about Skeet. He was just a strange young gent to him, and it wa'n't up to me to add any details. So I settles back and watches 'em too.

  And, say, you know how surprised you'd be to see any fat friend of yours buckle on a pair of ice skates and do the double grapevine up and down the rink? Well, that's the identical kind of jar I got when Marjorie begins that willowy bendy figure. It ain't any waddly caricature of it, either. It's the real thing. Honest, she's as light on her feet as if her middle name was Pavlowa!

  At the same time it's lucky Skeet has arms long enough to reach 'way round when he's steerin' her. If they'd been an inch or so shorter, he'd have had to break his clinch in some of them whirls, and then there'd been a big dent in the floor. He seems just built for the job, though. In and out, round and round, through the Parisienne, the flirtation, and all the other frills, he pilots her safe, bendin' and swayin' to the music, his number ten feet glidin' easy, and kind of a smirky, satisfied look on that sappy mug of his; while Marjorie, she simply lets herself go for all she's worth, her eyes sparklin', and the pink and white in her cheeks showin' clear and fresh.

  Take it from me too, it's some swell exhibit! There was four or five other couples on at the same time, the girls all slender, wispy young things, that never split out a waist seam in their lives; but Marjorie and her partner had the gallery right with 'em. Two or three times durin' the dance they got scatterin' applause, and when the music fin'lly stops, leavin' 'em alone in the middle of the floor, they got a reg'lar big hand.

  "I take it all back," says I to Ferdie. "That was real classy spielin'. Now wa'n't it?"

  "No doubt," he grunts. "And I suppose I should be thankful that Marjorie didn't try to jump through a paper hoop. I trust, however, that this concludes the performance."

  It did not! Next on the card was a onestep, with Marjorie and her unknown goin' to it like professionals; and if they omitted any fancy waves, you couldn't prove it by me. By this time too, Ferdie was sittin' up and takin' notice.

  "Oh, I say," says he, "isn't that the same fellow she danced with before?"

  "You don't think a bunch of works like that could be twins, do you?" says I.

  "But — but I'm sure I don't remember having met him, you know," says Ferdie, rubbin' his chin thoughtful.

  "Then maybe you ain't," says I.

  When they comes on for a third time, though, and prances through about as flossy a half-and-half as I've ever seen pulled at a private dance, Ferdie is some agitated in the mind. He ain't exactly green-eyed, but he's some disturbed. Yes, all of that!

  "I — I think I'd best speak to Marjorie," says he.

  "You'll have plenty of competition," says I. "Look!"

  For the young chappies are crowdin' around her two deep, makin' dates for the next numbers. Ferdie stares at the spectacle puzzled. He's a persistent messer, though.

  "But really," he goes on, "I think I ought to meet that young fellow and find out who he is."

  "Ah, bottle it up until afterwards!" says I. "Don't rock the skiff."

  But there's a streak of mule in Ferdie a foot wide. "People will be asking me who he is!" he insists, "and if I don't know, what will they think? See, isn't that he, standing just over there?"

  And then Mr. Robert has to drift along and complicate matters by joshin' brother-in-law a little. "Congratulations on your substitute, Ferdie," says he. "Where did he come from?"

  Which brings a ruddy tint into Ferdie's ears. "Ask Marjorie," says he. "I'm sure he's an utter stranger to me."

  "Wha-a-at?" says Mr. Robert, and when he's had the full situation mapped out for him blamed if he don't begin to take it serious too.

  "To be sure, Ferdie," says he. "Everyone seems to think he must be a guest of yours; but as he isn't — well, it's quite time someone discovered. Let's go over and introduce ourselves."

  And somehow that didn't listen good to me, either. Marjorie's done a lot of nice turns for me, and this looked like it was my play to lend a hand.

  "With two or three more," says I, "you could form a perfectly good mob, couldn't you?"

  Mr. Robert whirls and demands sarcastic, "Well, what would you suggest, young man?"

  "He's got all the earmarks of a reg'lar invited guest, ain't he?" says I. "And unless you're achin' to start somethin', why not let me handle this 'Who the blazes are you?' act?"

  He sees the point too, Mr. Robert does. He shrugs his shoulders and grins. "That's so," says he. "All right, Torchy. Full diplomatic powers, and if necessary I shall restrain Ferdie by the collar."

  I wa'n't wastin' time on any subtle strategy, though. Walkin' over to Skeet I taps him on the shoulder, and then it's his turn to gawp at my costume.

  "Why," he gasps, "how er — where did you ——"

  "Oh, I brought myself out last season," says I. "But just a minute, if you don't mind," and I jerks my thumb towards the dressin' room.

  "But, you know," he begins, "I — I ——"

  "Ah, ditch the shifty stuff!" says I. "This is orders from headquarters. Come!"

  And he trots right along. Once I gets him behind the draperies I shoots it at him straight. "Who'd you pinch the invite from?" says I.

  "See here, now!" he comes back peevish. "You have no call to say that. I had a bid, all right; got it with me. There! What about that?" And he flashes a card on me.

  It's one of Marjorie's!

  "Huh!" says I. "Met her at Mrs. Astor's, I expect?"

  Skeet shuffles his feet and tries to look indignant.

  "Come on, give us the plot of the piece," says I, "or I'll call up Sister Maggie and put her on the stand. Where was it, now?"

  "If you must know," says Skeet sulky, "it was at Roselle's."

  "The tango factory?" says I. "Oh, I'm beginnin' to get the thread. The place where she's been takin' lessons, eh?"

  Skeet nods.

  "Is this romance, or business, then?" says I.

  "Think I'm a fathead?" says he. "I'm gettin' fifteen for this, and I'm earnin' the money too. It's a regular thing. Last night I was Cousin Harry for an old maid from Washington — went to a swell house dance up on Riverside Drive. She came across with twenty for that, and paid for the taxi."

  "Well, well!" says I. "Then them long legs of yours has turned out a good asset after all. What you pullin' down, Skeet, on an average?"

  "Twenty regular, and a hundred or so on the side," says he, swellin' his chest out. "And, say, I guess I got it some on the rest of the family. You know how they used me, — like dirt, the old lady callin' me a loafer, and Annie so stuck up on livin' in an elevator apartment she wouldn't have me around. Maggie too! Didn't I hand it to her, though? Notice me frost her, eh? But I said I'd show 'em some day. Guess I've delivered the goods. Look at me now, all dolled up every night, and mixin' with the best people! Say, you watch me! Why, I can go out there and pick any queen you want to name. They're crazy about me. I could show you mash notes and photos too. Oh, I'm Winning Willie with the fluffs, I am!"

  Well, it was worth listenin' to. He struts around waggin' his silly head, until I can hardly keep from throwin' a chair at him. Course something had to be dealt out. He needed it bad. So I sizes him up rapid and makes the first play that comes into my head.

  "Youive a wonder, Skeet," says I. "And it's a great game as long as you can get away with it. But whisper!" Here I glances around cautious. "You know I'm a friend of yours."

  "Oh, sure," says he careless. "What then?"

  "Only this," says I. "Here's once when I'm afraid you're about to pull down trouble."

  "How's that?" says he, twistin' his neck uneasy.

  "Notice the two gents I was just talkin' with," I goes on, "specially the savage-lookin' one with the framed lamps? Well, that was Hubby. He's got one of these hair-trigger dispositions too."

  "Pooh!" says Skeet. But he's listenin' close.

  "I'm only tellin' you," says I. "Then the big one with the wide shoulders — that's Brother. Reg'lar brute, he is, and a temper ——"

  That gets him stary eyed. "You — you don't mean," says he, "that ——"

  "Uh-huh!" says I. "You know you and the young lady was some conspicuous. There's been talk all round the room. They've both heard, and they're beefin' something awful. Course I ain't sayin' they'll spring any gunplay right in the house; but — why, what's wrong, Skeet?"

  Honest, he's gone putty faced and panicky. He begins pawin' around for his overcoat.

  "Ain't goin' so soon, are you," says I, "without breakin' a few more hearts?"

  "I — I'm goin' to get out of here!" says he, his teeth chattery. He'd grabbed his silk lid and was makin' a dash for the front door when I stopped him.

  "Not that way, for the love of soup!" says I. "They'll be layin' for you there. Why not bluff it out and cut up with some of the other queens?"

  "I'm not feeling well," says he. "I — I'm going, I tell you!"

  "If you insist, then," says I, "perhaps I can sneak you out. Here, this way. Now slide in behind that portière until I find one of the maids. Oh, here's one now. S-s-s-t! That you, Maggie? Well, smuggle Mr. Keyser out the back way, will you? And if you don't want to witness bloodshed, do it quick!"

  I tipped her the wink over his shoulder, and the last glimpse I had of Skeet he was bein' hustled and shoved towards the back way by willin' hands.

  By the time I gets back into the ballroom I finds Marjorie right in the midst of a fam'ly court martial. She's makin' a full confession.

  "Of course I hired him," she's sayin' to Brother Robert. "Why? Because I've been a wall flower at too many dances, and I'm tired of it. No, I don't know who he is, I'm sure; but he's a perfectly lovely dancer. I wonder where he's disappeared to?"

  Which seemed to be my cue to report. "Mr. Keyser presents his compliments," says I, "and begs to be excused for the rest of the evenin' on account of feelin' suddenly indisposed. He says you can send him that fifteen by mail, if you like."

  "Well, the idea!" gasps Marjorie.

  As for Mr. Robert, he chuckles. Takin' me one side, he asks confidential, "What did you use on our young friend, persuasion, or assault with intent?"

  "On a fish-face like that," says I. "Nope. This was just a simple case of spill."

(End of chapter six.)



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