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TORCHY, PRIVATE SEC. (1915)

by Sewell Ford
(1868-1946)

CHAPTER VIII

SOME GUESSES ON RUBY

  WELL, I'm shocked at Ruby, that's all. Also I'm beginnin' to suspicion I ain't such a human-nature dope artist as I thought, for I've made at least three fruity forecasts on Ruby, and the returns are still comin' in.

  My first frame-up was natural enough. When this goose-necked young female with the far away look in her eyes appeared as No. 7 in our batt'ry of lady typists, and I heard Mr. Robert havin' a séance tryin' to dictate some of the mornin' correspondence to her, I swung round with a grin on my face and took a second look. She was fussed and scared.

  No wonder; for Mr. Robert has a shorthand system of his own that he uses in dictatin' letters. He'll reel off the name and address all right, and then simply sketch in what he wants said, without takin' pains to throw in such details as "Replying to yours of even date," or "We are in receipt of yours of the 20th inst." And the connectin' links he always leaves to the stenog.

  Course that don't take much bean after they get used to his ways; but this fairy in the puckered black velvet waist and the white linen cuffs hadn't been on the Corrugated staff more 'n three days, and this was her first tryout on private officework. She'd been told to read over the last letter fired at her, and she was doin' it like this:

  BAILY, BANKS & BAKER, Something-or-other Chestnut Philadelphia. Look up the number, will you? Gentlemen — and so on. Ah — er — what's that note of theirs? Oh, yes! Shipments of ore will be resumed —

  Which was where Mr. Robert stops her "Pardon me," says he, "but before we go any further just how much of that rubbish do you mean to transcribe?"

  "Why," says Ruby, starin' at him vacant, "I — I took down just what you said."

  "Mm-m-m!" says he sarcastic. "My error. And — er — that will be all." Then, when she's gone, he growls savage: "Delightful, eh! You noticed her, didn't you, Torchy?"

  "The mouth breather?" says I. "Sure! That's Ruby. Nobody home, and the front door left open. One of Piddie's finds, I expect."

  "Ring for him, will you?" says Mr. Robert.

  Poor Piddie! He was almost as fussed as Ruby had been. He admits takin' her on, but insists that she brought a good letter from some Western mill concern and was a wonder at takin' figures.

  "Keep her on them and out of here, then," says Mr. Robert. "And if you love peace, Mr. Piddie, avoid sending her to the governor."

  Which was a good hunch too. What Old Hickory would have remarked if them letters had got to him it ain't best to imagine. Besides, that stare of Ruby's would have got on his nerves from the start; for it's the weirdest, emptiest, why-am-I-here look I ever saw outside a nut fact'ry. Kind of a hauntin' look too. I couldn't help watchin' for it every time I passes through the front office, just to see if it had changed any. And it didn't — always the same!

  Then here one day when I has to cook up some tabulated stuff for the Semiannual me and Ruby had a three-hour session together, me readin' off long strings of numbers, and her thumpin' 'em out on the keys. We got along fine too, and when I says as much at the finish she jars me almost speechless by shootin' over a shy, grateful look and smilin' coy.

  From then on it was almost a case of friendly relations between me and Ruby, conducted on the basis of about two smiles a day. Poor thing! I expect them was about the only friendly motions she went through durin' business hours; for she didn't seem to mix at all with the other lady typists, and as for the young sports around the shop — well, to them Ruby was a standin' joke.

  And you could hardly blame 'em. Them back-number costumes of hers looked odd enough mixed in with all the harem effects and wired-neck ruffs that the others wore down to work. But when it come to coin' her hair Ruby was in a class by herself. No spit curls or French rolls for her! She sticks to the plain double braid, wound around her head smooth and slick, like the stuff they wrap Chianti bottles in, and with her long soup-viaduct it gives her sort of a top-heavy look. Sort of dull, ginger-colored hair it is too. Besides that she's a tall, shingle-cheated female, well along in the twenties, I should judge, and with all the earmarks of bein' an old maid.

  So shock No. 2 is handed me when I discovers how the high-shouldered young husk with the wide-set blue eyes, that I'd seen hangin' round the Arcade on and off, was really waitin' for Ruby. Uh-huh! I stood and watched 'em sidle up to each other and go driftin' out into Broadway hand in hand. A swell pair they'd make for a Rube vaudeville act! Honest, with a few make-up touches, they could have walked right on and had the gallery with 'em!

  Believe me, I couldn't miss a chance to josh Ruby some on that. I shoves it at her next day when I comes back early from lunch and finds her brushin' her sandwich crumbs into the waste basket.

  "Now don't spring any musty first-cousin gag on me," says I; "for it don't go with the fond, palm-pressin' act. Steady comp'ny, ain't he?"

  Which was where you'd expect her to turn pink in the ears and let loose a giggle. But not Ruby. She's a solemn, serious-minded party, Ruby is. "Do you mean Mr. Lindholm?" says she.

  "Heavings!" says I. "Do you have relays of 'em? I'm referrin' to the stocky-built young Romeo that picked you up at the door last night."

  "Oh, yes," says she placid, "Nelson Lindholm. We had Sanskrit together."

  "Eh?" says I. "Sans-which? What kind of a disease is that?"

  "It's a language," explains Ruby. "We were in the same class. I thought it might help me in my foreign mission work. I'm sure I don't know why Nelson took it, though. He was studying electrical engineering."

  "Maybe it was catchin', at that," says I. "Where was all this?"

  "At the Co-ed," says Ruby. "But then I'd known Nelson before. He's from Naukeesha too."

  "Come again," says I. "From what?"

  "Naukeesha," repeats Ruby, just as if it was some common name like Patchogue or Hoboken.

  "Is that an island somewhere," says I, "or just a mixed drink?"

  "Why," says the, "it's a town; in Wisconsin, you know."

  "Think of that!" says I. "How they do mess up the map! What's it like, this Naukeesha?"

  And for the first time Ruby shows some traces of life. "It's nice," says she, "real nice. Not at all like New York."

  "Ah come, not so rough!" says I. "What you got special against our burg here?"

  Ruby lapses back into her vacant stare and sort of shivers. "It's so big and — and whirly!" says she. "I don't like things to be whirly. Then the people are so strange, and their faces so hard. If — if I should fall down in one of those crowds, I'm sure they would walk right over me, trample on me, without caring."

  "Pooh!" says I. "You'll work up a rush-hour nerve in a month or so. Of course, havin' always lived in a place like Naukeesha ——"

  "But I haven't," corrects Ruby. "I was born in Kansas."

  "As bad as that," says I. "And your folks moved up there later, eh?"

  "No," says she. "They — they — I lost them there. A cyclone, you know."

  "You don't mean," says I, "that — that ——"

  "Yes," says she, "Mother, Father, and my two brothers. We were all together when it struck; that is, I was just coming in from the kitchen. I'd been shutting the windows. I saw them all go — whirled off, just like that. The chimney fell, big beams came down, then it was all smoky and dark. I must have been blown through a window. My face was cut a little. I never knew. Neighbors found me in a field by a stump. They found the others too — laid them side by side in the wagon shed. Nothing else was left standing. It's dreadful, being in a cyclone — the roar, you know, and things coming at you in the dark, and that feeling of being lifted and whirled. I was only twelve; but I — I can't forget. And when I'm in big, noisy places it all comes back. I suppose I'm silly."

  Was she? Say, what's your guess about that? And, take it from me, I didn't wonder any more at that stary look of hers. She'd seen 'em all go — four of 'em. Good-night! I talked easy and soothin' to Ruby after that.

  "Then I went up to live with Uncle Edward at Naukeesha," she trails along. "He's a minister there. It was he who suggested my going into foreign mission work. I had to do something, you know, and I'd always been such a good scholar. I love books. So I studied hard, and was sent to the Co-ed. But the languages took so much time. Then I had to skip several terms and work to help pay my expenses. I worked during vacations too, at anything. Now I'm waiting for a field. They send you out when there's a vacancy."

  "How about Nelson?" says I. "He's goin' to be a missionary too?"

  "He doesn't want me to go," says Ruby, shakin' her head. "That is why he came on. He had charge of the electric light plant too, a good place. And here he gets only odd jobs. I tell him he's silly to stay. I can't see why he does."

  "Asked him, have you?" says I.

  "Why, no," says Ruby.

  "Shoot it at him to-night," says I.

  But she shakes her head, opens her notebook, and feeds in a copyin' sheet as the clock points to 1. I looks up just in time to catch a couple of them cheap bond-room sports nudgin' each other as they passes by. Thought I'd been joshin' the Standin' Joke, I expect. Well, that's the way I started in, I'll admit.

  It's only a day or so later I has the luck to run across Oakley Mills. Something had come up that needed to be passed on by Mr. Robert, and as he was still out lunchin' I scouts over to his club, and finds him stowed away at a corner table with this chatty playwright party.

  He's quite a swell, Oakley is, you know; and I guess with one Broadway hit in its second year, and a lot of road comp'nies out, he can afford to flit around under the white lights. Him and Mr. Robert has always been more or less chummy, and every now and then they get together like this for a talkfest. As Mr. Mills seems to be right in the middle of something as I drifts in, Mr. Robert waves me to a chair and signals him to keep on, which he does.

  "It's a curious mess, that's all," says Oakley, spreadin' out his manicured fingers and shruggin' his shoulders under his Donegal Norfolk. "I'm not sure if the new piece will ever go on."

  "Another procrastinating producer?" asks Mr. Robert careless.

  "No, a finicky author this time," says Oakley. "You see, there is one part, a character part, which I'm insisting must be cast right. It seemed easy at first. But these women of our American stage! No training, no facility, no understanding! Not one of them can fill it, and we've tried nearly a dozen. If I could only find the original!"

  "Eh?" says Mr. Robert, who's been payin' more attention to manipulatin' the soda siphon than to Oakley's beefin'. "What original?"

  "The dumbest, woodenest, most conscientious young female person it has ever been my lot to meet," goes on Mr. Mills. "Talk about your rare types! You should have known Faithful Fannie (my name for her, you know). It was out in the Middle West last summer. I had two or three weeks' work to do on the new piece, revising it to fit Amy Dean. All stars of that magnitude demand it, you understand.

  "Well, I should have stayed right here until it was done, but some Chicago friends wanted me to go with them up into the lake region, promised me an ideal place to work in — all that. So I went. I might have had better sense. You know these bungalow colonies in the woods — where they live in fourteen-room log cabins, fitted with electric lights and English butlers? Bah! It was bridge and tennis and dancing day and night, with a new mob every weekend. Work? As well try it in the middle of the Newport Casino.

  "So I hunted up a little third-rate summer hotel a mile or so off, where the guests were few and the food wretched, and camped down with my mangled script and my typewriter. There I met Fannie the Unforgetful. She was the waitress I happened to draw out of a job lot. I suppose it was her debut at that sort of thing. For the sake of hungry humanity I hope it was. What she did not know about serving was simply amazing; but her capacity for absorbing suggestions and obeying orders was profound. 'Could I have a warm plate?' I asked at the first meal. 'Oh, certainly, Sir,' says Fannie, and from then on every dish she brought me was piping hot, even to the cold-meat platter and the ice cream saucer. It was that way with every wish I was rash enough to express. Fannie never forgot, and she kept to the letter of the law.

  "Also she would stand patiently and watch me eat. That is, she would fix her eyes on me intently, never moving, and keep them there for a quarter of an hour at a time. A little embarrassing, you know, to be so constantly observed. She had such big, stary eyes too, absolutely without any expression in them. To break the spell I would order things I didn't want, just to get her out of the way for a moment or so while I snatched a few unwatched bites. You know how it is? There's green corn. Now I like to tackle that with both hands; but I don't care to be closely inspected while I'm at it. I used to fancy that her gaze was somewhat critical. 'Good heavens, Girl!' I said one day. 'Can't you look somewhere else — at the ceiling, or out of the window?' She chose the ceiling. It was a bit weird to have her stationed opposite me, her eyes rolled heavenward. Uncanny! It attracted the attention of the other guests. But it was something of a relief. I could watch her then.

  "There was something fascinating about Faithful Fannie, though, as there is about all unusually plain persons. Not that she was positively homely. Her features were regular enough, I suppose. But she was such a tall, slim, colorless, neutral creature! And awkward! You've seen a young turkey, all legs and neck, with its silly head bobbing above the tall grass? Well, something like that. And as I never read at my meals I had nothing else to do but study that sallow, unmoving face of hers with its steady, emotionless, upward gaze. Was she thinking? And what about? Who was she? Where had she come from?

  "A haunting face, Fannie's was; at least, for me. It became almost an obsession. I could see it as I sat down to my work. And the first thing I knew I was writing Fannie into my play. There was a maid's part in it, — the conventional, table-dusting, note-carrying, tea-serving maid, with not half a dozen words to speak. But before I knew it this insignificant part had become so elaborated, I had sketched in Fannie's personality so vividly, that the whole action and theme of the piece were revolving about her — hinged on her. I couldn't seem to stop, either. I wrote on and on and — well, by Jove! it ended in my turning out something entirely different from that which I had begun. The original skeleton is still there, the characters are the same; but the values have exchanged places. This is a Fannie play through and through. And it's good, the biggest thing I've done; but ——" Once more Oakley shrugs his shoulders and ends with a deep sigh.

  "Rubbish!" says Mr. Robert. "You and your artistic temperament! What's the real trouble, anyway?"

  "As I've tried to make clear to your limited and wholly commercialized intelligence," comes back Mr. Mills, "I have created a character which is too deep and too subtle for any available American actress to handle. If I could only find the original now, with her tractable genius for doing exactly what she was told ——"

  "Why not send out for her, then!" asks Mr. Robert.

  "As though I hadn't!" says Oakley. "Two weeks ago I located the hotel manager in Florida and wired him a full description of the girl. All I got from him was that he'd heard she was somewhere in New York."

  "How simple!" says Mr. Robert. "Here is my young friend Torchy, with wits even more brilliant than his hair. Ask him to find Fannie for you."

  "A girl whose name I don't even know!" protests Oakley. "How in blazes could anyone trace a ——"

  "I'll bet you the dinners," cuts in Mr. Robert, "that Torchy can do it."

  "Taken," says Mr. Mills, and turns to me brisk. "Now, young man, what further details would you like?"

  "Don't happen to have a lock of her hair with you?" says I, grinnin'.

  "Alas, no!" says he. "She favored me with no such mark of her esteem."

  "Was it kind of ginger-colored," says I, "and done in a braid round her head?"

  "Why — er — I believe it was," says he.

  "And didn't she have sort of droopy shoulders," I goes on, "and a trick of starin' vague, with her mouth part way open?"

  "Yes, yes!" says he eager. "But — but whom are you describing?"

  "Ruby Everschott," says I. "Come down to the Corrugated and take a look."

  Course it seemed like a 100 to 1 chance, but when I got the Wisconsin part of his yarn, and tacked it onto the rest, it didn't seem likely one State could produce two such specimens. Inside of fifteen minutes the three of us was strollin' casual through the front offices.

  "Glance down the line of lady typists," I whispers to Oakley.

  "By George!" says he gaspy. "The one at the far end?"

  "You win," says I.

  "And you also, my young wizard," says Oakley.

  "I'll have her sent into my private office," suggests Mr. Robert.

  And once more I was lookin' for some startled motions from Ruby when she discovers Mr. Mills. But in she comes, as woodeny and stiff as ever, goes to her little table, and spreads out her notebook, without glancin' at any of us.

  "Pardon me, Miss Everschott," says Mr. Robert, "but — er — my friend Mills here fancies that he — er — ah — oh, hang it all! you say it, Oakley."

  At which Mr. Mills steps up smilin'. I should judge he was a fairly smooth, high-polished gent as a rule; but after Ruby has turned that stupid, stary look on him, without battin' an eyelash or liftin' an eyebrow, the smile fades out. She don't say a word or make a move: just continues to stare. As for Oakley, he shifts uneasy on his feet and flushes up under the eyes.

  "Well?" says he. "I trust you remember me?"

  Ruby shakes her head slow. "No, Sir," says she.

  "Eh?" says Oakley. "Weren't you a waitress at the Lakeside Hotel last summer?"

  "Certainly, Sir," says Ruby.

  "And didn't you bring me my meals three times a day for four mortal weeks?" he insists.

  "Did I?" says Ruby, starin' stupider than ever.

  "Great Scott, young woman!" breaks out Oakley. "Didn't you look at me long enough and steadily enough to remember? Don't you recall I was disagreeable enough to ask you not to watch me eat?"

  "Oh!" says Ruby, a flicker of almost human intelligence in her big eyes. "The one who wanted hot plates!"

  "At last," says Oakley, "I am properly identified. Yes, I am the hot-plate person."

  "You had tea for breakfast too, didn't you?" asks Ruby.

  "Always," says he. "An eccentricity of mine."

  "And you put salt on your muskmelon, and wanted your eggs opened, and didn't like tomato soup," adds Ruby, like she was repeatin' a lesson.

  "Guilty on all three counts," says Mr. Mills.

  "I tried to remember," says Ruby, sort of meek.

  "Tried!" gasps Oakley. "Why, you made an art of it. You never so much as —— But tell me, was it those foolish little whims of mine you were thinking so hard about while you stood there gazing so intently at me?"

  Ruby nods; a shy, bashful little nod.

  Mr. Mills makes a low bow. "A thousand pardons, my dear young lady!" says he. "I stand convicted of utter selfishness. But perhaps I can atone."

  And with that he proceeds to put his proposition up to her. He tells her about the play, the trouble he's had tryin' to fit one special part, and how he's sure she could do it to a T. He asks her to give it a try.

  "Go on the stage!" says Ruby, her big eyes starin' at him like he'd asked her to jump off the Metropolitan Tower. "No, I don't think I could. I'm going to be a foreign missionary, you know."

  "A — a what?" gasps Oakley. "Missionary! But see here — that can wait. And in one season on the stage you could make ——"

  Well, I must say Oakley argued it well and put it strong; but he'd have produced just as good results if he'd been out in the square askin' the bronze statue of Lafayette to hand him down a match. Ruby drops back into her vague gazin' act and shakes her head. So at last he ends by askin' her to think it over for a day, and Ruby goes back to her desk.

  "How absurd!" growls Oakley. "But I simply must have her. Why, we would pay her three hundred dollars a week."

  I catches my breath at that. "Excuse me if I seem to crash in," says I, "but was that a gust of superheated air, or did you mean it?"

  "I should be glad to submit a contract to Miss Everschott on those terms," says he.

  "Then leave it to me," says I; "that is, to me and Nelson."

  Did we win Ruby? Say, with our descriptions of what three hundred a week might mean in the way of Christmas presents to Uncle Ed, and donations to the poor box, and a few personal frills on the side, we shot that foreign missionary scheme so full of holes it looked like a last year mosquito bar at the attic window.

  "But I'm sure I sha'n't like it at all," says Ruby as she signs her name.

  I didn't deny that. I knew she was in for a three weeks' drillin' by the roughest stage manager in the business. You know who. But he can deliver the goods, can't he! He makes the green ones act. Look at what he did with Ruby! Only it don't seem like actin' at all. She's just Ruby, in the same puckered waist, her hair mopped around her head in the same silly braid, and that same stary look in her big eyes. But it gets 'em strong. Packed every night!

  I meets Nelson here only yesterday, and he was tellin' me. Comin' along some himself, Nelson is. He's opened an office and is biddin' for big jobs.

  "I've just landed my first contract," says he.

  "Good!" says I. "What's it for?"

  "A fifty-foot, twenty-thousand-candle-power sign over the theater," says he, "with Ruby's name in it. She's signed up for another year, you know."

  "Well, well!" says I. "Then it's all off with the heathen, eh?"

  And Nelson he drifts up the street wearin' a grin.

(End of chapter eight.)



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