Nelson had met bankboys who delighted in what they called "stringing skirts." Those fellows were despicable to him; they were scarcely worth despising. And their numbers were altogether too large. He had met others—very many—who were not in the despicable class, but who also were guilty of unfaithfulness. Why, he asked himself, were conditions in the bank conducive to such a state of affairs?
It was, experience answered, because a fellow's mind was unoccupied after hours, and for many other reasons. He was among the most attractive people, and was obliged to dress well and be amiable. If girls were attracted to him it could do business no harm—and business comes first. When a move came along a fellow was lonely for a while and longed to be back at the town he had just left. Naturally he wrote a more or less pathetic letter to the girl who had liked him best, and she, being also a little lonely, replied with a touch of tenderness. A fellow came back with another letter, stronger than the first, written in a particularly dark hour, and the girl left behind began to feel herself a party to something serious. Letters went back and forth until a fellow was invited out in the new town, or otherwise met another fair one. Then his letters dropped off. Probably he liked the girl left behind and could have fallen in love with her; but he knew he could not hold out hopes of marriage, and why spoil her chances by writing any longer than was absolutely necessary? Sometimes the girl left behind persisted in her writing. Several of them, if he had worked in a number of towns, usually did. A fellow could not be rude to them—he must let them down gradually; so he wrote regularly for a while, praying that the growing frigidity of his tone would finally discourage.
Thus it went, town after town. The bankman drifted along, taking no girl seriously, but using them all so, out of necessity. If he was an unscrupulous person he enjoyed it; if he knew what conscience meant he periodically took himself to task—but never quite solved the problem. There was no solution to it. One could not be a hermit or a boor because girls had hearts and the bank had none. He must play the game. He was taking a big chance of having his own heart cracked, and thought of danger for himself fostered recklessness toward the weaker sex.
Something, a solemn voice it seemed, whispered to Evan that a young man of iron could go through the ordeal of eight or ten years' bank service and run the gauntlet of attractive femininity without injury to a single soul; but young men are not made of iron. Evan wondered if those who wrote the Rules and Regulations had daughters, or if they remembered the letters they had received when they were clerking in little towns. Why didn't they take the whole of human nature into consideration when they laid down laws to govern employes? The fact that they had ignored the right of young men to marry at a reasonable age had wrought a thousand published wrongs and ten thousand wrongs that would never reach the press.
In his silent room the young teller rebelled against the bonds that held him and his fellows. He counted the years that must elapse before he could hope to marry. At one hundred dollars increase per year it would take him seven years more to earn $1,050. In the East the "marriage minimum" was $1,000, in the West $1,200. Like Jacob he must work seven years for his wife. And then would it be Rachel or someone else? Would Frankie wait such an age for him? Could any man expect a girl to believe in the seriousness of his intentions for eighty-four months—a year of weeks? He believed she would wait if she understood, but how could a girl understand "business" like that?
The teller's mind grew darker as he mused. He saw only gloom ahead. The drunken manager staggered into his room, in spirit, and delivered another lecture on the "aristocracy of banking." Bah!
Evan filled with rebellion as his situation stood out before him—a sudden pain in the head warned him that he was worrying. Then came a slight reaction.
"Pshaw!" he muttered, "I'm putting myself in a rotten humor. I'll feel better in the morning."
And so he did. The "light of common day" is often preferable to the illusions of night. In spite of his disturbed state of mind Evan had slept well. Penton, too, had slept, but not well. Judging from his appearance in the morning, his dreams must have been diabolical.
When the teller entered the office Penton greeted him sullenly.
"Well," he said, grouchily, "I suppose I made a nice mess of things last night. I suppose every —— gossip in town will talk about it for months."
In spite of his grouch the manager looked frightened. Anyone could see he was worried.
"Not many know of it," said Evan, indifferently.
"Do you think they will blab?" Penton was still unrepentant. His brazenness irritated the teller, who answered simply:
Penton looked at him angrily.
"See here," he said, imperiously, "I don't give a —— what these yokels think of me. I am manager here, and if I want to take a glass that's my business; understand?"
Evan made no reply. He walked doggedly from the manager's office to his cage and set to work. Penton stood pulling at the inflamed tip of his upper lip. His bluffing had failed. When he approached Nelson it was humbly.
"I hope you'll try to fix things up as much as possible, old man," he said.
Under the circumstances Evan would rather have been called Old Nick than "old man," but he nodded obedience to the manager's wishes and went about his business.
"I promise it won't happen again," said Penton, grovelling.
"It will soon pass off," said Evan.
He might have meant that Penton's resolution would disappear. However, his words were consolation to the nerveless manager, who, from that time on, was quite servile. He ingratiated himself with the teller at every opportunity. His mock humility was loathsome to Evan and made him fear indefinitely. He worried over it. But he could not decide what to do or how to treat Penton.
Business was rushing. The work in the box had gradually increased, and other work had piled up since the new manager's arrival. Jones, though sick half the time and half sick the rest of the time, had done more than Penton would do. Penton, despite his criticism on the former manager's system, made no real effort to establish anything better. He often pointed out "how we used to do it in the M—— Bank," and sometimes Evan agreed with him but he never took off his coat and dug out the submerged junior or ledger-keeper as Jones had done, He seemed to be engaged forever in a mental calculation. Frequently he did not hear questions addressed to him. What little work he undertook was haggled at in spasms and usually left for the accountant to finish.
All the boys were loaded down with routine. They never thought of leaving the office until six o'clock, and night-work was now the rule. Evan began to have headaches.
The people of Banfield kindly let Penton's first offence pass, as it had been prophesied they would. Everyone knew about it, of course—what village of nine hundred population ever lost sight entirely of such a piece of news?
Mrs. Penton was delighted to know that she and her husband had not been disgraced. Penton pretended, now the danger was past, that he would not have cared.
"It's a funny thing," he said, with an adjective, "if a man can't take a social drink without insulting the town."
This remark was addressed to the whole staff. At times Penton was absurdly pompous and uncommunicative before the boys; at other times he entered into a mysterious intimacy with them, a relationship distasteful to them. They preferred his professional tactics to those others.
"By heck," said Henty one afternoon, after one of Penton's good-fellow demonstrations, "I naturally hate that devil!"
Nelson laughed immoderately, in the way one laughs who has been under a strain too long. Filter, even, thought the remark funny.
"I understand," he said, "that Penton has bought all his furniture on credit from Hunter's."
"Who told you?" asked Evan, interestedly.
"Jack Hunter," replied the ledger-keeper.
Nelson consulted his thoughts. He was conscious of an addition to the vague fear he already cherished.
The end of the month (January) kept the Banfield staff so busy they had little time to discuss the one great theme—Penton. He kept to his office pretty well and seemed to read the newspaper for hours every day. He did work a little on the loan return, after Evan had balanced the liability ledger, but left the totals to his teller. For one thing, however, Penton deserved credit: he was the most industrious signer of names that ever escaped jail for forgery. He even initialed items on the general ledger balance-sheet, where initials were ridiculous, to give the impression that he had checked the work.
For the first week in February the boys worked every night. Henty's face kept its color, but Nelson began to look like Filter. The ledger-keeper plodded so slowly and fondled his ledger so tenderly, his pasty face did no worse than remain pasty. There was new vim for him in every new account opened. He knew the names of every man, woman and child in his ledger. He might be moved away any time, and all his special knowledge would become useless to him—Filter knew that—but he did not live in his ledger from a sense of duty: he just loved clerically killing time. He was too lazy or too unoriginal to think, so he kept his mind occupied with insignificant things, and made an ideal clerk.
It was afternoon, toward the end of a certain week in February. Henty had been down to a grain elevator at the station with a draft. It usually took him a long time to deliver a draft in that direction, because Hilda Munn lived out there; but this day he came back rapidly and rushed excitedly up to the teller's box.
"Nelson!" he whispered ominously, tapping the cage door.
Evan turned around and smiled at the expression of A. P.'s face.
"What's the matter, Henty?"
Filter had foregone the temptation to make an entry, and stood listening and watching.
"It's Penton. He's drunk again. He took the 3.30 train south."
"Was he alone?"
Immediately Evan went and found Mrs. Penton. She was nursing the white poodles. They nearly went mad when a stranger entered the domain of their mistress.
"Mrs. Penton," said the teller, "do you know where Mr. Penton is?"
She paled at once. Evan could see that she lived in dread of her husband's habit, and was on the watch for outbreaks.
"Has anything happened, Mr. Nelson?" she asked, painfully.
"Yes. He's gone on the southbound."
"To Toronto!" she cried. "Was he intoxicated?"
The teller gazed on her in pity. After she had stared at him a while her eyes saw sympathy and understanding, and she cried. He assured her the work at the office would not be neglected, and promised to forge Penton's name to the daily cash-statement so as to keep the matter a secret from head office. She clutched his shoulders and sobbed against them. His heart ached for her, and he promised to help Penton all he could.
"Oh, Mr. Nelson," she stammered, wiping her cheeks, "if only Pen were like—like you!"
Then she wept again. The spell over, she inquired about the trains and found she could get to Toronto in the evening.
"I know where to find him," she said. "We lived in Toronto a year. Mr. Nelson, you can't imagine how I have suffered through it all. When I married Pen I knew he took an occasional glass, but I didn't dream that he was a drunkard."
"Is it as bad as that, Mrs. Penton?"
"It is as bad as it can be." She spoke excitedly. "I have known him to spend fifty dollars in one night, when he was only making nine hundred dollars a year. (We got married by special influence.) It just seems as though something draws him toward a debauch every little while. I'm afraid this small town will be our ruination."
Evan tried to make her load lighter and, in a degree, succeeded. There is no burden so heavy that true sympathy will not budge it a little. Mrs. Penton coaxed him to have tea with her; preparing it, she said, would occupy her mind. She couldn't bear to stay alone. The teller pretended to have pleasure in accepting her invitation. There was a certain amount of novelty in eating alone at a table with a strange young woman. Still, the circumstances were not very romantic.
Neither were the circumstances surrounding Penton's return. He contrived to get away from his wife in Toronto and board a train for Banfield. He arrived several hours ahead of her, and advertised himself all over town as something to be pitied. This was two days after his drunken flight. When Mrs. Penton came on the scene the manager was standing helplessly before the staff, crying like a bruised youngster. Evan sat up all night with him, studying the pathos and humor of delirium tremens. The drink demon is a tragic devil, but he has fits of fun.
For days the manager could not sign his name. The teller did it for him, feeling as he did so that he was supporting a rotten structure that must soon fall. He did not picture himself among the debris, however.
By quarrelling with his wife and kicking the pups Penton managed to entertain himself, apart from the keg, for over a month. Then he went and did it again. He took some money to a place called Burnside to cash cattle tickets for a drover who did business at the Banfield branch. When he got back he was in a boisterous state of intoxication.
"Hello, old kid!" he said to Henty, whom he met at the door of the bank.
Henty backed up and went in the office again, to consult with the teller.
"This is getting monotonous," said Nelson. "What would you do about it, A. P.?"
"Report the son-of-a-gun," said Henty, florid of countenance.
"Sure," said Filter; "he'll be holding us up some of these days at the point of a gun."
Evan thought over Filter's remark, for he had been tempted to entertain similar notions himself. What might not happen if Penton got in a drunken craze? The teller worried more and more as he speculated on the possible outcome of events.
Mrs. Penton got the manager to bed and then came out to the office.
"Mr. Nelson," she whispered through the cage, "could I speak to you?"
Evan went into the manager's office with her.
"I know you are going to tell head office about it this time," she said, despairingly. "It isn't right for me to ask any further consideration from you. The business here will be ruined."
"I won't say anything," replied Nelson, "until some of the customers begin to kick. I have an idea they will not do any reporting without warning us, though."
The manager's wife sighed.
"It would be a relief, I sometimes think," she said, "to get back to the city. Pen was busy there and it kept, his mind occupied. I see there is no hope for him here. The trouble is head office might drop him from the service altogether. Of course, his relatives in Berlin are big depositors—"
"That might help some," said Evan, treasonably. Then, "Don't give up, Mrs. Penton. We may be able to scare him good for another month or so."
She made an effort to smile, but it was a tired one.
"You are my only hope, Mr. Nelson," she said, forcing back her tears. "I'm going to tell you something more."
He wondered what was coming next.
"Pen," she continued, "is in debt, I'm afraid. How could he help it when he spends so much on liquor? His salary here is only nine hundred dollars and rent, you know."
That seemed a great deal to Evan, who got board for $3.25 per week.
"Do you mean he owes money in town?"
The teller recalled what Filter had said Jack Hunter told him. If the manager owed Hunter money, he probably was in debt elsewhere, too.
"Well, Mrs. Penton," answered Evan, "I don't know what to say. I wish I had the money myself to lend. Do you know what I get?"
"It is only your advice I ask, Mr. Nelson," she replied, sadly. "As to your salary, I think they ought to pay you more than Pen."
Evan's chest went out an inch or two, but he found himself still unequal to the task of advising her. Things would have to take their course, as they always do.
Now, in the course of things, there came a very busy day. The manager had been sober for a fortnight; he sat in his office pulling at that long upper lip of his, and consuming inwardly with the fierce desire that drunkards know. Perhaps no one sympathized with him sufficiently. Who, after all, knows anything about hell but those who have been there?
Before the teller's box thronged women and men from all the country roundabout, smelling strongly of poultry. It was such a cold day that the bank was chilly and windows could not be raised. The aroma that arose before the wickets was indescribably potent. Evan felt his head swim and his stomach sicken. But work was behind him, pushing him along; he knew he must get through somehow. Filter was not able to handle the cash, especially on a market-day, and Evan would not have trusted Penton in the cage, under the circumstances. If anything happened the teller was responsible for the cash: he would be taking a chance on Penton—and a fellow can't afford to be a sport on seven dollars a week.
When a man fills a position where he is practically indispensable, so far as the work, not the position, is concerned, his job is his master. Many a bankboy, on the verge of collapse, is unable to leave for a single day his unhealthy environment. Some, like Evan, are tied down by circumstances; the majority of them are bound by their own foolish tenacity. All of them realize, sooner or later, that their labor was in vain. When their health is gone, like Jones', and their efforts stored up in bank buildings, those modern Egyptian obelisks, who knows or rewards them? If they find themselves, after years of service, unfitted both mentally and physically for anything but clerical work, and yet unable to longer endure the strain of it, what are they going to do? The man who sells his vitality is a fool, but he who gives it away is worse than a fool. The trouble with us fools is that we don't believe it about ourselves. Evan was sceptical of the harm bank toil was working upon his constitution. He would not allow himself to think his health was failing rapidly—or even slowly.
Silver was always in great demand on market days. In the midst of his rush, this very busy day, Evan discovered that he had not brought from the safe enough quarters to carry him through. A murmur arose from the stampeders when he left his box and walked to the vault. The murmur became a grumble when he fumbled the vault combination without opening the door.
"Filter," he called, impatiently, "open this hanged vault, will you? I can hardly see the numbers."
Calmly the ledger-keeper turned the combination, clicking it open unhesitatingly. He turned and winked at Henty.
Evan brought out a bag and deposited it on a small table in the cage, there for the accommodation of odorous money parcels and noon lunches. On opening the silver he found there were five packages of quarters, one hundred dollars each. He took one package out, tied up the bag, and set it under the table out of the way.
His cash was two dollars short that day. Too weary to look for his "difference" in the mess of work he had gone through, he put it up. But it worried him. He could not afford even so small a loss, for he was in debt as it was. His father had sent him a remittance, but he had sent it back, saying: "If I can't keep myself by this time, I'd better give it up as a bad job." He was too game, when writing home, to put blame for failure on the bank, so he took it himself. But he would not take money.
Locking-up time came late that market day, for the hucksters' list was enormous. The teller had paid out five hundred dollars in small bills and silver. He yawned as he packed away the filthy money in his tin box, and yawned as he carried it into the vault.
Henty and Filter were preparing to go up to supper.
"Wait, fellows," said Evan, "I'll go with you."
Penton sat in his office as the boys passed out. He had not initialed the teller's book, but had watched him lock the cash in the safe.
"I suppose you'll be back to-night," said the manager, not looking at any of the boys in particular.
"No," said Evan, "I won't. My head aches already."
But he did come back an hour later, and his head ached worse than ever, for he was worrying about the bag of silver he had forgotten to take from under the cage-table and lock up in the safe.
There it was, tied up, and how and where he had left it. With a sigh of relief he picked it up and locked it in the vault. Only Evan and Filter had the vault combination. Penton said he preferred not to have it, as he did not want to accommodate farmers after hours; it had never been done in the M—— Bank, where he had received his training.
It is customary for a manager to check the teller's cash once in a while. He is supposed to do it irregularly so as to keep the teller in constant suspense. Market day at Banfield was Tuesday. Wednesday afternoon Penton came round to count Nelson's cash. In the morning, first thing, the bag of silver had been locked in the safe, inside the vault.
There were two compartments in the safe; in one of them the "treasury" (a sort of local rest fund) and certain documents were kept; in the other, the cash box and bags of specie.
Penton first checked the bills and silver in the teller's drawer and tin box, then got the treasury notes and found them right.
"How much gold have you on hand?" he asked the teller.
Evan told him.
"I guess it's all right, but I'll count it, anyway."
He did, and found it correct.
"Bring me the silver, will you?" he said; "I might as well check everything while I am at it."
Evan brought several bags from the safe, and stood by while Penton opened them. When they came to the bag of quarters that had been left under the table for an hour the previous day, they made a discovery. At least Evan did. He found a package of one hundred dollars missing.
"What!" exclaimed Penton.
"Yes, there were five yesterday when I opened the bag, and I just took one out. There are only three here now."
The teller felt his head throb. Penton grinned sceptically.
"My dear man," he said, "you're mixed. The money was only left out for an hour, you say. No one was in here but myself."
Evan felt a chill. He was just as sure Penton had stolen one of those hundred dollar packages as he was that one had been stolen.
"Check your blotter," went on the manager, with a strange accent and a fearful glow in his colorless eye; "you couldn't possibly have paid out an extra hundred in silver. Good G——! man, you're crazy."
Mechanically the teller went over the additions in his blotter. That was always the first thing to do in a cash difference that looked like a mistake in addition. The blotter was found correct. Next came the vouchers. Penton worked assiduously on them with the teller. His mind somewhat clarified by checking, Evan began to think. Penton had said it was impossible to pay out one hundred dollars too much over the counter in silver—as it was. If he could trace the silver back to when the cash had been checked before, the difference could easily be located in the silver. He offered the suggestion. The manager made a gesture of impatience.
"I tell you," he said, "there must be a mistake somewhere; either in your work, or else you paid out one hundred dollars too much in bills and—you've been counting the silver wrong for days or weeks, that's it!"
Nelson knew he had not. Fortunately for him the manager had checked the cash a week before, and initialed it as correct. While Penton followed with his eyes, Evan ran over his cash-statement book, showing the decrease in silver each day to be about twenty-five dollars. Market days always took about one hundred and twenty-five dollars. But there was a falling off between Monday and Tuesday this week of two hundred and twenty-eight dollars.
Penton stared glassily a moment, as the boys had often seen him do. Then his cunning came to the rescue, as it always did.
"That bag you have been counting as five hundred dollars has only contained four packages. The loss is away back somewhere, and this is a coincidence. There has been a double error."
Evan knew differently, but felt that he could not say anything plausible. He was silent. Penton waited a moment before remarking:
"It'll come pretty hard on you, old man, with your salary."
So diabolically triumphant was Penton's tone that it filled Nelson with a horror.
"I'll quit the bank before I'll put it up," he said, gutturally.
"That would make things look suspicious," replied Penton.
So it would! Evan had not thought of that. Penton seemed to have figured the situation out fully; directly he said:
"Well, let's sit down and write head office the particulars. They may let you off, seeing you are getting only three hundred and fifty dollars."
Realizing his powerlessness, Evan obeyed. For the first time in his Banfield management Penton took command. He was self-possessed; acted like one who was right at home. Probably he was, in that kind of a game.
Nelson wrote unsteadily in longhand to his manager's dictation, and was strengthened in the conviction that Penton had stolen that parcel of silver. Usually the manager composed hesitatingly, especially when addressing head office, but now he was glib, and seemed familiar with his subject. He even appeared to be in suppressed good humor over the matter.
"Don't look so grim, old man," he said, oilily, "they'll not make you put it up. Why, that would be absurd, on your allowance."
An idea struck Evan. Penton, if he had taken the money, probably hoped his teller's low salary would influence head office toward leniency. The amount was not so very large; it was, indeed, just about the proper amount to take. One hundred dollars was such a common loss in banking, it would not look suspicious. Anything more would have aroused inquiry, while anything less would scarcely have been worth stealing. The thing had been well executed; taking one package from the bag and tying it up again, then innocently desiring to check the cash next day, all showed thought; and it occurred to Nelson that Penton's head was just the shape for such thought. He had not been dragging at his upper lip in vain: he had extracted a piece of strategy, which had originated in the cerebrum. There was a peculiar sympathy between Penton's lips and his brain, anyway: what the former craved satisfied the latter.
Women are accused of having a monopoly on intuition, but men have a corner on "hunches." From the moment his eyes rested on three parcels of silver where there had been four, Evan had a hunch that Penton was the thief. The trickery of it was so in accord with the expression of Penton's eye!
"But who has taken it?" said the manager, when the head office letter was finished.
"Either you or I," said Evan; "no one else has been here."
Penton grinned. It mattered not what he did, appearances would remain as they were—and that was not against the manager any more than against the teller.
"Go home and get a sleep, old man," said Penton; "we may be able to think the thing out to-morrow."
The tone of the manager's "old man" rang in Nelson's ears all evening. He rebelled against Penton's insinuating manner; like the touch of his hand it was coldly, clammily smooth.
In his room the teller sat worrying. Mrs. Terry called up to him that he had a visitor. Evan asked her to send him up. It was Henty.
"Here's a letter for you," said the junior; "I didn't see you at the post office and thought you would be glad to get this. The mail was just closing when I left."
"Thanks," said Evan. "Wait till I read it; I want to tell you something."
Henty chewed the end of a fat five-cent cigar while Evan read the letter, which was from his mother. It read:
"Dear Evan,—We always enjoy getting your letters. They don't tell us much about yourself, to be sure, except that you are well. That is the main thing. Be sure and keep on your heavy underwear until the end of April, and don't wash your hair too often. I do hope that boarding-house of yours is good to you. I'm making a fruit cake which we will express to you in a day or two. If you could take care of a barrel of apples we'd be glad to send one.
"Just think, you have been away from home over two years now. Dear me, it seems like ten. Lou is still the tantalizer she always was. Father keeps busy and well as usual. We all look forward to having you back at summer holidays. When do you expect to arrive? Be sure and let us know ahead. Frankie Arling was in the other day, and asked about you. Hoping to hear from you soon.
Nelson sighed and handed the letter over to Henty. A. P. blushed as he read it. His red corpuscles had a habit of rushing to the surface, like a shoal of small sea-fish, at the slightest disturbance of their element.
"I guess a fellow never forgets home," he said, thoughtfully.
"No, I guess not," replied Evan. "Every morning when I wake I feel as if I am somewhere on a visit."
"By gosh," said Henty, "so do I—except that Mrs. Wilson doesn't use me much like a welcome visitor. I always have to break the ice to get into my water pitcher."
Nelson did not smile. In fact, he had not heard: he was thinking of the disappointment coming to his mother if he should have to make good the one hundred dollars loss and miss his holidays.
"There's trouble down at the office, Henty," he said, slowly.
The genial junior raised his eyes in wonder.
"No," said Evan, "worse than that. Someone has stolen a hundred dollars."
Nelson related him the story. A. P. drank it in with the expression of a child listening to Andersen's fairy tales. And he asked just as practical questions as a child asks.
"Do you suspect anybody?"
Evan smiled: he was growing tired of tragedy.
"I sort of suspect Filter," he answered.
Henty was serious.
"You don't like to say, do you?"
"No," said Evan.
The junior was silent a moment, after which he observed, bashfully:
"A certain party certainly needs the coin."
Evan sighed, and Henty looked at him quickly.
"You're lucky it wasn't a thousand, don't you think so?"
The teller had not thought of that. He was surprised both at the idea and the junior.
"You're right, Henty," he said, with interest, "I'm taking an awful chance. I believe in my heart Penton is a crook."
"Surest thing in the world!"
Evan thought a while.
"I'm going to write head office," he said finally, "and ask them for a move—but I can't peach on Penton's doings."
An answer to the manager's letter came from head office, but the teller did not receive a reply to his own. The one addressed to Penton said that manager and teller would have to put up $50 each, on account of the loss, to be paid in monthly instalments. It was a shrewd compromise, and characteristic of head office.
Penton swore volubly and pretended to be sorely aggravated.
"Well," he said, "you got off easy, anyway."
Filter was professionally indignant when he heard of the affair, but a man came in who couldn't write his name, and asked to open a savings account. He so interested Gordon that Gordon forgot all else and settled in between the covers of his ledger like a pressed moth. He came out of his shell (to change the simile) toward the close of the day's work and went into a minute examination of certain deposit slips that had gone through the day of the shortage, but his interest was purely clerical, and his sympathy amounted to: "Did you ever see such rotten writers as these Banfield storekeepers?"
Henty looked up from a sponge, which, he said, he was training to lick stamps and envelopes, but did not speak. Words would have added nothing to the humor of his expression.
For two weeks after the affair of the silver, Penton surpassed himself in signing his name. Also he took a social turn, and began once more to hypnotize the good people of Banfield. He had a faculty for ingratiating himself with people who were not great students of human nature. The town mayor was a particularly easy victim of his.
"Hello, Mr. Muir," Penton would say as the mayor entered the office, "I'm glad to see you looking so well. How's Mrs. Muir? I understand you are doing big things on the dam." (Here Henty would emphatically repeat the word from his desk in the rear of the office.) The mayor would grin and begin divulging municipal secrets. Penton always made a point of talking loudly with Muir and laughing yet more vociferously at his jokes.
There were women in Banfield, too, who were not impervious to Penton's flattery. He had a way of looking into their eyes and speaking softly that charmed them.
Nelson knew that Penton could have managed the branch well if he had gone to work; Penton was, evidently, familiar with the great circus man's aphorism about humbugging people, and could have given them all they wanted of it—to the bank's profit. It was, no doubt, owing to this hypocritical asset and the appreciation of it by head office officials, that Penton was managing a branch.
There is a certain stock-company actor in the States who periodically goes on a spree, comes back and weeps to his audience, and is forgiven. That is virtually what Penton was doing. He had hit upon the scheme as by inspiration, and it worked well. He asked a young dentist and wife down to his apartments behind the bank and feted them on the best in town. Above all, he flattered them, and he made Mrs. Penton help him do it. She was, in fact, blind to the greater part of his badness, and was so anxious to help him into the favor of Banfield's best customers that she was willing to do a little wrong in his behalf. The surprise he perpetrated on her and the town, his new policy of ingratiation, gave her hope and made her rather proud of his versatility. She was very agreeable indeed to the dentist and his wife.
In a little town like Banfield good tidings spread just as rapidly as bad, among the better souls. News of the Pentons' hospitality and geniality went abroad until many of the ladies of Banfield desired to see more of Mrs. Penton, and, incidentally, her husband. Using the dentist's wife as a medium, they secured introductions to Mrs. Penton. Soon pink-teas began to be stylish.
It was about a fortnight after the affair of the silver. Mrs. Penton was giving a euchre party (whist was unknown in Banfield, and bridge was considered a sin) for the big dogs and ladies of Banfield. Her husband was the biggest dog of the bunch; he had gone so far as to deck himself in a dress-suit, and his stiff collar was almost the shape of a cuff.
The staff, of course, was invited, and had to go. Evan would gladly have stayed away, but he was afraid of hurting Mrs. Penton's feelings. She gave him a special invitation. He loathed the thought of drinking Penton's cocoa and eating his food. He well knew that the manager had counted on getting business—and forgiveness—for every mouthful of his miserable provender. Also, he was quite sure that the cocoa was either unpaid for or had been bought out of a mysterious silver package.
The teller played cards, for a while, at the same table as Penton, and saw him smirk down upon his guests as no one, surely, but W. W. Penton ever smirked. Evan felt that he would suffocate unless he got away from that table. He wished he could stand on a chair and reveal the character of the manager as he knew it—but a smile from Mrs. Penton reached him, and he filled with pity for her. He knew that a revelation of Penton's real character would sound as strange to her as to any person there. She knew her husband had "faults," but what does that common word signify to a woman in love? The atmosphere became too stifling for Evan. He felt his head throb and threaten to ache. He excused himself, to take air.
He went out through the office and threw open the front door of the bank. It was a clear April night; the air was cool and fresh.
There were only two living creatures visible on the front street. One was a dog, the other a man carrying a small valise and wearing a well-barbered beard. He was walking toward the bank.
The stranger ascended the steps where Evan stood and spoke in a tenor voice:
"Are you Mr. Nelson?"
"I'm Inspector Castle."
JOYS OF BANKING.
The Banfield teller shivered an instant, but, on sudden thought, braced himself and began to say:
"You came in answer to my—"
"I came to inspect the branch," said Castle, quickly, looking Evan in the eye as he pushed past him into the office.
The teller's hopes fell. He thought the inspector was going to take him aside and ask him all the particulars of his loss. He would have had to tell them—and he wanted to. It flashed across his mind that had Castle come in answer to his (Evan's) letter, it would have been sooner. Why had the inspector allowed two weeks to elapse?
"Where is Mr. Penton?" asked Mr. Castle, when a light had been turned on in the office.
"He's giving a party to-night, sir," said Nelson.
"Is that so? Well, we won't interrupt it. You might just ask him to come out for a moment and open up. Where is the rest of the staff?"
"They are in there, too."
"Good; we can set right to work."
Evan took Penton aside and whispered the news. The manager paled slightly and his colorless eyes looked queer; but a flush suddenly overspread his face, and he said:
"Couldn't have come at a better time. We're entertaining the best customers in town."
He greeted Castle with an affectation of great friendliness. It was well done. Penton surely was an artist at deception.
The inspector spoke blandly to him, and politely refused to interrupt Mrs. Penton's party.
"Just you open up for us, Mr. Penton," he said, "and go back to your—customers! The staff and myself will get the work started."
Evan was watching not the inspector but the manager. Penton's eyes moved uneasily in their sockets, and he protested:
"Oh, no, they won't miss me. I'll jump right in with you."
Castle was delving in his bag.
"Well," he said, "I suppose you know them best; but I don't want to interfere with—business."
Penton laughed, relieved, at the remark, and hurried into his apartments to excuse himself. The party folk were awed by mention of the inspector, and their interest gave Penton an idea: he would introduce Castle to them. The inspector thought the suggestion a good one. Penton whispered him hints about the men whom he would present, so that Mr. Castle might know how to dispense his pretty words. Evan listened to those whisperings until they were silent in the hall that led to Penton's house, and an uncomfortable feeling crept over him. The manager was currying Castle's favor.
Henty and Filter came out to the office before Penton and the inspector.
"What do you know about that!" cried Henty, crimson.
The teller smiled faintly. Filter's pallid face was glowing in anticipation of coming balances. It was ten o'clock.
To Evan, who knew what a bank inspection meant, this one was particularly unwelcome. Inspections always are, to experienced clerks, who have no regard for the novelty of the thing; they mean from one to three weeks' work, day and night without let-up. But the blinding work is not the worst of it; the suspense is what unnerves and worries. A fellow never knows what moment he is going to get a figurative knock-out from the head office official. The inspector, if he happens to have indigestion or domestic trouble, can be appallingly disagreeable.
Henty had never been through the ordeal of an inspection, but he had heard about it. He stood now staring at the teller, comically.
"Gee," he said, "and old Peterson has had one of my drafts out for three days. A sight, too."
Filter was in a dream about the ledger. Evan was thinking. He did not like Inspector Castle; he felt that he could not expect much of him. Still, he determined he would tell his story. Evan had no very definite conception, at the time, of what that story would be; and when Castle and Penton went over to the hotel for a drink, before setting to work, he wondered whether it would be advisable to speak about the silver at all.
Penton stayed close to the inspector, as though unwilling to leave him alone with the teller. Evan saw it plainly, but what could he do? It was not for him to thrust himself on I. Castle, or tell him whom he should or should not ignore. Ignored! that was it! The $350-man was beneath the notice of an inspector. It occurred to Evan now why head office had not answered his letter. What right had he to write head office? He could not, in this connection, forget the look Castle had given him at the bank door, with the words: "I came to inspect the branch."
The manager's efforts to please and assist the inspector were both pitiful and burlesque, to those who knew his daily habits. He wedged himself into the cage with Castle, handing him parcels of money to count, and playing the caddy to perfection. He lifted a bag of silver, and as he did so his bulging eyes rested waveringly on the teller, who was watching. At the same moment Evan heard his name spoken softly from the hall. Mrs. Penton was calling him.
"Mr. Nelson," she whispered, when they stood out of hearing in the shadow of the hall, "I want to ask you something."
Her patient face bore a frightened look, her eyes and voice were beseeching.
"What is it, Mrs. Penton?" he asked, kindly.
"It's about Pen," she said. "You'll try to help out, won't you?"
He wondered if she knew about the missing money. Had Penton told her?
"You mean about—about drink?"
"Yes," she answered, vaguely; "there's nothing—else—is—there?"
No, she did not know about the silver. Why had Penton not told her? It seemed to Evan that she should have known about the loss, especially since her husband was putting up half of it. But he knew she would never suspect Penton of stealing, and therefore any reference to the shortage would be incomprehensible to her. If she thought the teller suspected her husband she would be heartbroken. Evan's thoughts flew. After all, he had no proof that the manager had taken the silver, and before he voiced his suspicion to Mrs. Penton, or head office either, he must have proof.
She stood gazing at him, waiting for his promise. She looked so girlish and dependent he forgot danger and only remembered that a woman's happiness was at stake. It gave him a heroic impulse.
"I'll do all I can, Mrs. Penton," he said, quietly. "Things seem to have started off smoothly, and I think everything will be all right."
The young woman was in a party dress and a party humor. She took Evan's hands in her own and pressed them. "You are a dear," she whispered, and fluttered back to her guests.
Evan hated Penton at that moment more, perhaps, than he ever had—though not so much as he would hate him. The young wife's faith resolved the teller, however, to watch the manager instead of telling head office about his drunkenness. It was hardly likely Penton would get another chance to rob the cash; he was a coward and would be afraid to try again.
It surprised the teller to know that Mr. Castle would take a drink, particularly with Penton. Was it a trick of the inspector's? If it was, he would approach the teller before going back to Toronto. Evan would let it rest at that. He would not take the initiative, both on account of Castle's peculiar actions and Mrs. Penton's pleading.
At 2 a.m. Henty swore. It was a pretty early orgy, but A. P. probably felt justified, at that.
"When are they going to ring off?" he asked Nelson.
"I'm going now," said Evan; "my head is splitting."
"Why didn't you say so before, old man," he said, softly; "we don't want our teller to go out of business."
Henty winked at Evan from behind the manager's back, and when Penton had eagerly answered a summons from the inspector, whispered:
"What's his game, I wonder?"
"If you stick around, A. P., you may find out."
"By Jove," said Henty, "I will stick—till the cock crows!"
Nelson climbed the hill to his lodging. He lay in bed an hour before sleep came, and then dreams bothered him. They were nightmares; a confusion of figures, money and old associations. He dreamt that he was an inspector and that Penton had taken him out for a drink, talking, the while, about swollen deposits, curtailed loans and expanding prospects. There was an unknown and unfortunate clerk mixed up in this dream; a queer, vague fellow.
Next morning A. P. left his lodging for work much earlier than usual. He called on the teller, whom, for some reason, he desired to escort to the office. Evan was eating breakfast.
"Just up?" asked the junior.
"Yes," interposed Mrs. Terry, "and he should be in his bed. See how tired he looks, Mr. Henty."
"Mother would be jealous," he said, "if she knew how well Mrs. Terry treated me."
The kind woman smiled, pleased.
"I can't make much headway," she said, coughing, "for what I try to do the bank goes and undoes."
"That's true enough," interjected the teller.
"And now this inspection affair is on," continued Mrs. Terry, "I'm afraid they'll lay him up."
Henty blushed tremendously, but looked steadily at Mrs. Terry, as he said:
"I sure envy your boarder."
Nelson glanced up from a dish of cherries.
"Maybe Mrs. Terry would let us room together here," he smiled.
Henty's eager expression was enough.
"He's welcome," replied Mrs. Terry, and added: "then when they have done for my present boarder I'll still have someone."
To the junior's delight he was thus invited to share Evan's room, and Mrs. Terry's cooking. He kept stammering out his thanks until Nelson was through eating.
"Let's walk around the block before going to the office," said A. P. when they were outside; "I want to tell you what happened last night."
Evan lit a cigarette, probably to fortify his nerves against an anticipated shock.
"You weren't gone long," said Henty, "when the manager went over to Filter and talked a while in whispers. Then he came to me and began shooting off about my good work and a lot of other rot, gradually leading up to what was on his mind, and sort of preparing me for the third degree. 'Henty,' he said at last, springing it, 'I suppose you know we had a loss around here? Now I want to ask you something confidentially. You don't think Nelson would take it, do you?' I looked at him and told him he'd better roll over—not exactly in those words. 'I don't think he would either,' said Penton.
"When he and the inspector had their heads together inside the vault I asked Filter what the manager had been saying to him. It was exactly what he had said to me. 'What's the matter with them?' said Filter; that's all. Some day Filter'll wake up and get enthusiastic about something; I think it'll be in the next world, though."
Evan laughed. It was such a fine spring morning he could not have forebodings. He was not worried by what Henty had told him.
"He's just trying to smooth things over, A. P.," said the teller.
"Do you think so?"
The junior sighed, like one who tells an ostensibly funny story without effect. The teller threw away his cigarette half-smoked.
"I don't feel much like work this morning, A. P.," he said. "I'd rather go out into the woods and tap a tree for sap."
"It's a little late for that, I'm afraid."
"Do you know anything about sugar-making, Henty?"
"You bet; I made sap-troughs all one winter and emptied two hundred of them every day in the spring. You'll have to come down home with me sometime."
"Thanks," replied the teller, "I'd like to. Will you return the visit?"
"Just try me."
When they reached the bank Penton was already there, but the inspector was not yet around.
"Well, how are you this morning, Nelson?" asked Penton, in a business-like tone. Henty walked on through to his corner of the office. He never stayed in the neighborhood of W. W. Penton any longer than was absolutely necessary.
"All right, thank you," answered the teller, turning to go to work.
Penton framed up a stage mien and spoke in a dramatic or tragic whisper. Evan had no difficulty in seeing through the make-up.
"You don't suppose either Henty or Filter would be capable of taking that money you lost, do you?"
The teller laughed sarcastically. He was angry, and had it on the tip of his tongue to say: "You're crazy!" but he thought it better to hold his temper.
"Has the inspector been asking you about it?" he said.
"Well—yes," replied Penton; "he said I'd better ask all of you your opinions, just as a matter of form. Not that he suspects anybody; he thinks it probable that someone climbed in the window, between five and six o'clock that day, and got it."
"Impossible," said Evan; "besides, they would have taken it all."
Penton's unpleasant eyes grew still more unpleasant.
"Good G—, man," he said, "the money's gone, and we've got to account for it in some way!"
"We have accounted for it, by putting it up," answered the teller. "What good can our speculations do head office?—they're not losing anything anyway."
Without further palaver he went to his cage. He tried to focus on the work before him, but his head swam. He saw pictures of himself and Penton in a fight; himself equipped with new grips far superior to the toe-hold in point of pain. He tried to figure out Penton's object in asking the questions just asked. "We've got to account for it," afforded a clue. That was it: Penton wanted the staff to substantiate any ridiculous explanation he should see fit to give the inspector. He interviewed them so that he might be able to put words in their mouths, when reporting to Castle. Evan realized that should he be asked any questions by the inspector, he must tell more than would be good for Penton.
The day's rush started in the regular market-day fashion. To begin with, several dames brought in an amalgamation of barnyard soil and spring ice in their boots and stood over the hot-air grates to thaw. That simple act put the clerks in a market-day mood and gave the office a market-day "atmosphere." Then things went spinningly. The bank and the staff became a machine and the parts thereof, as if incited to action by the combustion of certain gas-mixtures in the place. Especially the teller's head took on the character of a metallic organism: he could almost hear the wheels buzzing. Occasionally a cog somewhere grated, as, for instance, when a drover brought in a cheque for $500 and had to wait in line behind the wife of a neighbor whom he hated, until she got $1.79 for her produce ticket, and had deposited $1 to the credit of Janet Jorgens in trust for little Harry Jorgens.
It was three o'clock before Evan had a chance to eat lunch. It lay on the little table in his box, dry and sour. He looked at it with enmity, and, snatching a few bites of this and that, which he washed down with cold water, threw the remainder in a waste-basket, and went back to the dirty money.
Penton was all aglow. He perambulated up and down the office shouting through the wicket at people to whom he had never spoken before. He would run to the ledger, find out the name of a poor innocent farmer whose whiskers told of a possible buried treasure somewhere, and bawl out that name, to the owner's consternation.
"You've got a busy office here, Penton," said the inspector, just before the door was closed.
"Yes, Mr. Castle. Of course we have no opposition right in the town. But I mean to hold it, even though another bank opens up. I hear the N—— Bank is coming in."
"Yes," said Castle. "By the way," he remarked, addressing the teller's back, "wasn't it a market day on which you lost the silver, Mr. Nelson?"
Evan turned around; the two men were leaning against a desk behind the cage.
"Yes, sir," was the simple reply.
The inspector nodded, then walked into the manager's office. Penton followed him—but that was nothing unusual. The boys returned to their work.
"First shot!" shouted Filter, who had been working on the current ledger balance off and on all day.
Henty stopped licking an envelope, and allowing it to stick to his tongue, whispered hoarsely:
"Loud pedal, Gordon; the inspector's in town."
Filter colored. It must have been quite a relief to his placidly pale face; but his eye caught an unextended balance, and he forgot the offence immediately.
It was six o'clock before Evan had his cash balanced. A money parcel had come in from Toronto, another had to be sent out, and the cash-book had not been able to compare totals until after five.
The inspector and the manager went over to the hotel just before supper, and afterwards to the Penton apartments, where Mrs. Penton had a spread laid for I. Castle.
Three times during inspection Mr. Castle accepted the same invitation. Evan wondered if Mrs. Penton had woven her charms about the inspector; he thought it quite likely. She would do it for her husband's sake. Castle, by the way, was a bachelor. One day he held up a bunch of collateral before a head office clerk who was clamoring for permission to get married and said:
"Look at that; if I had married I would not have this bunch of security."
Evan had given up hoping that Castle would favor him with a private interview; in another day the official would be gone, to repeat his tortures on some other unsuspecting branch.
"What do you think of it, Gordon?" asked Henty.
"You mean the inspection?"
"Your foot's asleep—sure; did you think I was talking about the World's Series?"
"I don't mind the extra work," said Filter; "you see, that's the difference between a good man and a bum one."
"Ugh!" said Henty, slapping his own cheek, "Right on the transmitter!" He turned toward the teller and suggested a walk around the Banfield pond, called a lake.
"It will do you good, Evan," he said.
A few nights' companionship had made the teller and junior chums; had accomplished more in that respect than months of office association had done. Henty sometimes called Nelson "Even." He said he thought the nickname was a good one; in the first place it meant a poetic summer evening; and in the second place it looked like the masculine gender for Eve. The night Henty enlarged on the probable derivation of his friend's name, Nelson laughed Mrs. Terry awake. It was the time of night when anything sounds funny to the one who cannot fall asleep.
Evan liked the big rough-and-ready junior. He looked like a farm-hand, and acted like a young steer; but he was amiable, and had brains, too. Above all, he was wholesome.
"I'll be with you in a minute, A. P.," said the teller.
They walked along the lakeside. Spring had really come. Crows were flying around aimlessly, early robins piped from a willow where the "pussy-tails" were budding, and a blackbird with glossy neck chirruped unmusically on a stump.
"Don't you ever get the fever to go back on the farm, A. P.?" said Evan.
"This time of year I do. Dad would like me to do the prodigal. Sometimes I feel like going, too."
"Why don't you go?"
Henty licked his lips—a childish habit of his—and asked innocently:
"Straight, Evan, do you think I'll ever make a banker?"
"I don't know; they say a poor clerk often makes a good manager."
"At that rate," laughed Henty, "I ought to make a peach. Filter says I'm on a par with those market-women when it comes to clerking."
Evan smiled, and picking up a stone threw it out into the lake. Something in his action interested the junior.
"Darn it," he said, "I don't know why I ever left home. I could have gone through all the colleges in the country if I had wanted to."
"Oh, well," said Nelson, carelessly, "a fellow gets certain experience in the bank that college men know nothing about. They get the baby taken out of them. They have to live in lonesome burgs and make up with uninteresting strangers. I suppose it all helps make a man of them."
"Give us a cig," said Henty; then—"Don't forget the girls, either. They're a great education."
Nelson was silent: he had graduated from that sort of thing.
"A fellow shouldn't string them, though, Austin," he said, thoughtfully.
To give valuable advice on matters of love one must have experience, but to get experience one must suffer and make others suffer; consequently, love-advice is undesirable from both experienced and inexperienced. In the first instance it makes the adviser inconsistent, and in the second case it is valueless.
"I've made up my mind I'll never trick the dear creatures," said A. P.
"You will if you stay in the bank."
"Well, for instance, when you leave here, what will become of Miss Munn? You can't marry her till you draw at least one thousand dollars a year. Very soon now head office will be moving you; you'll gradually forget Hilda; you'll have to."
The big junior blushed, licked his lips, and sighed, but made no reply. For the rest of the walk he seemed sunk in reverie.
Inspection over, Penton walked up and down town where all might see. When he appeared in the main office his manner was overbearing. He placed heavier emphasis than ever on his "my's," and flattered the mayor to the point of idiocy, and cursed his current account with a vim foreign to his old self.
Then gradually he settled into his chair again. There came a lull in office work, and in general business, for the farmers were seeding. Penton began to drag at his upper lip. The film over his eyes thickened, and his brooding deepened.
A silent messenger came from Toronto:
"Instruct Mr. E. Nelson to report at our King Street office, Toronto, at once.
"(Signed) I. CASTLE."
The teller was engrossed in work when Penton handed him the letter. He read it dazedly, a moment, then his face glowed with excitement.
"I won't be able to swipe any more silver," he said, facetiously.
The manager did not reply to the levity; he stared out of the window and Evan could see his cold hands shiver.
"I'll be sorry to lose you, Nelson," he said, humbly, and walked into his house.
Some time later Mrs. Penton came out to bid the teller good-bye. She had been crying; that was the poor woman's chief occupation.
"Are they really moving you away?" she asked.
"Yes, Mrs. Penton, my train goes in a couple of hours."
She held out her hand, and turned away before he had released it. He watched her slight form disappear in the dark hall, and stood gazing into the gloom that enwrapped her.
"Say, Ape," said Filter, "will you take me in your room at Terry's?"
"You can have it all," said Henty, holding up a sheet of paper; "here's my resignation."
SOME WHEEL-COGS COME TOGETHER.
It was the rule in Evan's bank that the branch to which a clerk was moved should stand the expense of transportation. Evan was, therefore, obliged to borrow ten dollars from the Banfield branch to buy a railway ticket. There was no account, though, to which the voucher could be charged, so the manager agreed to hold a cheque in the cash for a week; that would give the transient clerk time to find a lodging in the city and to put through his expense voucher on the Toronto office.
"Are you really serious about quitting, Henty?" asked Evan, as they stood on the little depot platform. Filter was back at the office, transferring leaves from the ledger to a file.
"You bet," said Henty; "I don't believe I ever would have stuck here if you hadn't come along. That night you hit this dump I was down-and-out, but you came across with a line of talk that cheered me up. Honest, Nelson, you're one of the decentest lads I ever met."
Evan's laughter echoed from the woods west of the station. A few Banfield folk scattered around waiting for the daily excitement of seeing a train, looked at him askance, as if to say: "What do you bankers care about a town? We see little of you when you're here; and you go away with a laugh!"
"But," said Evan, "it will be a month before you can get off."
"That's nothing; I can stand it for four weeks, when I know that I'm leaving."
"You speak as though the job really weighed on you."
"It does; I didn't realize it till now."
Up the track the train whistled.
"Well—good-bye, A. P. I think you're wise to quit."
"Thanks. Good-bye, old sport."
The color came in a flood to the big junior's face. There might just as well have been a tear in his eye, under the circumstances. He watched the train hurry away, eager to make up for the minute lost in Banfield; then turned down the board walk toward the bank, with a sigh.
The hotel Evan found his way to, on arriving in the city, was on King Street West. After checking in his baggage he wandered in some direction, and, to his surprise, found himself gazing rube-fashion into the very office to which he was assigned. Half the desks were lighted, and clerks still worked on them, although it was past ten o'clock. Evan sighed, like a sleeper who is tired out, and walked further on. The first cross-street he came to was brilliantly lighted; its life and gaiety had an effect upon him. He thought there were a great many people going about. He dropped into a picture-show for over half an hour, and when he came out the theatre crowds were pouring into the street. Then he thought the city must be a delightful place to live in. What a bunch of pretty faces!
About eleven o'clock he worked his way back toward the hotel. He watched for the bank and found it still full of spectral activity. It occurred to him that city life must be made up of pleasure and work, without any rest. He was to find that largely the case.
Wondering what post he would be asked to fill in the main city branch of his bank, the Banfield teller fell asleep. There is, however, a somnolence unworthy of the name of sleep. Such was Evan's unconsciousness. It may have been that he had a more sensitive temperament than most bankboys, but, at any rate, it is a fact that whenever anything out of the ordinary occurred in his life of routine he was cursed with sleeplessness. Dreams had a liking for him, the kind of dreams that incline to acrobatic feats and magic transformations. He dreamt, this night as he tossed about, that he and Henty were driving a herd of cattle up King Street, trying to steer them toward the bank, where it was desirable to corral them, when suddenly the kine raised up on their hind legs and became human beings, many of them with charming faces.
As a result of his hallucinations he was burdened with yawning next morning. After a light breakfast he set out for the bank, arriving there at half past eight. Several of the clerks were working. He rapped on the door, and the janitor, who was dusting, let him in.
"I'm a new man here," he said.
"Another victim, eh?"
Evan smiled. Apparently the place had a reputation.
"What's your name?" asked the bank's man.
"Hey," called the janitor, "come here, Bill. Here's a new pal."
The individual named "Bill" slouched up the office.
"Well, for heaven's sake!" cried Evan. "I thought you were dead."
Bill Watson shook his old desk-mate's hand heartily, and wove undictionaried words into his speech.
"Where have you been, Evan?"
"Why, don't you know? I've been teller and accountant at Banfield."
"One of those three-entry-a-day places?"
"No, sir; I worked nights more than half the time."
"This business is getting to be a son-of-a-gun, Evan. Even in country towns the boys are being nailed down to it. The bank keeps cutting down its staff, or otherwise losing them, and crowding more and more work on the boys who stick."
Evan was silent for a while. Bill's familiar voice carried him back to Mt. Alban, and he could see the office as it looked the day he began banking. He could, moreover, see the faces of Julia Watersea and Hazel Morton.
"Have you heard from the old town lately, Bill?"
"No, not for a year. I left there soon after you did. They sent me to Montreal, then here. I got a few letters from Hazel when she was there."
"Is she gone from the Mount?"
"Yes, d—— the bank and poverty!"
Watson's eyes fired and he spoke passionately. For the moment Evan's presence had brought back Mt. Alban days too vividly. The color gradually died from Bill's face.
"I'm a jackdaw, Nelsy," he said, trying to smile. "Do you remember how I used to carry on up there? I had a rotten time in Mt. Alban, but it was the best time I ever had. I wish to the good Lord I could do something besides banking. But my salary is now $750, and I'm twenty-three; I couldn't draw the same money at anything else, and stand any chance of promotion. No mercantile house, for instance, wants a man of twenty-three. What's a fellow to do?"
Unable to answer the question, Evan gazed out of the window at throngs of men and girls on their way to business.
"Just look at that mob," said Bill; "lots of them are working on about one-half what they're worth, and they've been years getting in where they are. Take the young men you see, they've been specializing for years, some of them, and draw about fifteen dollars a week now—just what I do. Their chances are away ahead of mine, as a rule, because some day they'll be salesmen or managers or something—and they're in very little danger of being fired. Do you think for a minute I could step out of here into their boots and get fifteen dollars. No, sir."
"Why stick to clerical work then?" asked Evan, repeating a question that had often been ineffectively put to him.
"What else can I do?"
Evan opened his mouth to advise, but closed it again in thought; and the longer he thought the more thoughtful he became. Bill was right, what could he do? He might dig drains, but where would that lead him? Downward, certainly. Still, there must be positions in so large a city as Toronto, for men who could fill them. He expressed himself to that effect.
"The trouble is to find them," said Bill. "When a fellow works from eight in the morning until ten or eleven at night, and usually on Sunday, what chance has he to look around? I'm never out of here till six o'clock, at the earliest. You can't run across a job through the night, you know. We don't even get out for lunch."
"No; we eat those ten-cent stomach-aches handed around in carts. Occasionally we get a cockroach, to relieve the monotony; but not often. Usually it's just common flies. Sometimes I have such pains in my interior I have to double up on a stool and pray for relief."
Evan smiled wanly. Bill was a reckless talker, but he generally managed to say something sensible every two or three sentences.
"How about stenography, Bill?"
"That's all right for a fellow of eighteen or nineteen, Evan, who can afford to start in at ten dollars a week. But when a fellow of twenty-three applies for a job like that they think there is something wrong with him, and some kid of seventeen, fresh from business college, steps in ahead of him.... By the way, why don't you quit?"
Evan looked toward the street again.
"I haven't had time to think about it lately. I thought, when they moved me here, that something would turn up in the city. That's one reason why I was so glad to come."
"Well, don't fool yourself," said Watson. "Your work in Banfield will look like kindergarten when you're here a week. And don't have any idle dreams about studying shorthand and typewriting at night; you'll kill yourself if you try it. It isn't possible where fellows work like they have to in a city bank. I imagine they'll shove you on the cash book, where I am now. If they do, good night!"
"Is it written like the town cash book?" asked Evan, turning his attention, from habit, to the work before him.
It is singular how soon a bankboy learns to give work or the discussion of work precedence of everything else. He will go out on the verandah at a party, with some of his confreres, and discuss banking until he forgets the prettiest girl at the dance. He loves to flirt with his work at a distance; at close range it fascinates but does not charm.
Watson laughed briefly.
"The general idea is the same," he said; "but there are a hundred extras. It's the details of the city cash book, and of all other city routine, that get your goat. It's not so much the quality of the work as the quantity that eats you up. Believe me, kid, you're never done."
Realization only comes with contact. Watson led the new man back to the cash-book desk, and proceeded to give him an outline of the work. Evan's vision swayed. At first he was unable to formulate an intelligent question. When he began asking Bill said, apologetically:
"Sorry, kid, I'm not balanced yet. You'll have to take another lesson again. Maybe they won't put you on this post after all. No use of wasting good energy till you have to."
Therewith Bill grappled with his big red-backed book, and looked neither to the right hand nor to the left.
Toward nine o'clock the boys began coming into the office in instalments. As they passed Nelson, who was leaning against a desk, some of them nodded, recognizing a comrade, but most of them passed by with merely a glance. Men were coming and going every week.
Evan had speculated on the sensation he would make as he—a real, live pro-accountant—walked into the city office. Where was the sensation now? Within himself. He experienced an involuntary chill; the machinery of which he constituted a cog was beginning to grind. He should not have been so susceptible to those petty influences that impregnate a new environment; but he was below normal health by reason of work and worry endured at Banfield, and inclined to look on the dark side. Instead of going to work in a city bank he should have taken a trip to the country and engaged with a farmer to plant onions or shingle a barn.
At the front of the office there were two desks. Evan asked one of the juniors, of which there were three, who occupied these desks.
"The accountant and assistant-accountant," was the answer.
Branch men were familiar with the signature of the Toronto accountant, for he always signed the letters; but not with his assistant.
"What's the assistant-accountant's name?" asked Evan.
"Castle," said one of the boys; "Mr. Alfred Castle."
Toronto was destined to be a nest of surprises for the Banfield clerk; he might as well begin getting used to them.
"Do I report to the manager?" he asked Watson.
"No," said Bill, "the manager won't know you till you're here a month or so. You report to Alfy."
"You didn't tell me he was here," said Evan.
"Didn't I? Well, it wasn't very important anyway. I forgot you ever knew Castle. I'd like to forget him myself. Without kidding, Nelson, he is the best imitation of a sissy I ever saw. He has a pull, though, and it almost makes him brave, sometimes. I don't say anything to him any more—he'd have me fired, and I need the little fifteen dollars per week, minus guarantee premiums."
Bill had wasted a minute, so he cut off short and delved into the cash book once more, muttering curses on the third teller, who was out in the additions of his teller's cash book.
Castle entered the bank about 9.15. He wore a light tweed suit, a light felt hat, tan gloves, tan shoes, and a black necktie stuck with a pearl pin. The juniors, who had been indulging in an early row over the condition of the copying rags, sobered down when Castle's narrow form glided through the inner door.
Evan, who had been watching for him, went toward him easily, and held out his hand.
"Well, Nelson," said Castle, without offering to shake hands, "you'll go on the cash book."
Evan lingered a moment, expecting to be asked a personal question, even if it were a careless one; but Alfred dived into his mail and did not pause as he added: "Watson will break you in."
"And if ever I get the chance," thought Evan, "I'll break you in."
With that and other hostile reflections he turned and walked to the rear of the office.
"Bill," he said, "I'm to go on your job. What do you suppose they'll do with you?"
Watson looked at him comically.
"Never worry about the other fellow," he said; "not here. It's each man for himself in a city office and God help the hindermost. Don't forget that, Evan, or you'll be imposed on right and left. Now, come here and get a bird's-eye view of your new friend. You'll find him a nasty brute to handle; he rears, bites, bucks and balks. The time you think he is going to take you over the river he turns tail, and you hit a balance about 1 a.m. You not only have to balance your friend the cash book, you've got four tellers to balance, and they have everything beat for bulls. Our old friend 'the porter' wasn't in it for a minute with these mutts here."
"Are you ready?" shouted a resonant voice.
"Yes," said Bill. "Mr. Key, meet Mr. Nelson, from Banfield. Now, Nelsy, beat it to the basement till we get through calling. You'll need a cigarette to fix you up for the day's work."
"Yes," said Key, "take all the constitutionals you can get;" then in a loud voice: "Credit clearing house—come on, come on!"
Away they went, while Evan stood by in hope of learning something. He lost the trend of things looking at Key's white hair and faded face. He wondered how many years the little man had been a bankclerk. Besides Key there was another clerk with grey hair.
"Who's that?" Nelson asked the oldest and most talkative junior.
"Mr. Willis. He was a manager once, but head office didn't like his policy, so they cut his salary down from $2,400 to $1,400 and sent him here to this sweat-shop to finish it out."
"To finish what out?"
"Why, his career. Some career, eh?"
Evan suddenly remembered that he was a country accountant, and it was poor policy to abet a junior in heterodoxy.
"He must have done something wrong, didn't he?"
The junior, a sharp youngster, looked extremely indignant now.
"No chance," he said; "Willis is one of the decentest heads around this dump. He made no bulls: it was a pure question of policy. Ask anybody. The collection man over there" (pointing to a red-haired fellow of about thirty) "used to work with him. I brought Johns in the bills before three o'clock last fourth of the month and he opened his heart to me. Johns is my pal around here, although he never sees me outside the office."
"You seem to like him pretty well," said Evan, smiling.
"I do. I let the other kids have Castle's work; when that guy travels east I always go west."
Seeing how nihilistic and iconoclastic the young chap was, Evan deemed it unwise to longer remain in his society; he wandered across to the "C" desk. There, two men were ruling up large books in preparation for the morning's clearing. They were standing with their faces to the light and working with indelible pencils. That job always affected their eyes, Evan was told, after a few weeks or months.
The clearing came in. The paying teller shouted for the fourth teller. The latter was in the basement—but not for long. Two "C" men had him by the collar and were bringing him up the cellar steps in jumps.
"We're sick of late clearings," said Marks, the "husky guy with the small ankles," as he was called.
"Any more of this monkey-doodle business," rejoined Cantel, "and we'll distribute you around the coal basement."
"Aw, shut up," growled the fourth teller; "you'd think your clearing amounted to something."
Ten minutes later the two current-account ledger-keepers were howling for "more stuff." They looked like a couple of hungry wolves, and kept up their yowling as persistently as those wild rovers.
"See here," bawled Marks, "you guys got to wait till we get it. What in —— do you think we are—jugglers or magicians? It's rather hard to balance it, you know, Brower, till we get it out of the envelopes. Get me?"
"No, but I will get you," retorted Brower, "if you don't grease that adding machine."
Cantel grinned, and kicked his desk-mate, Marks.
"Say, Ankles," he said, "we'll get him in the basement at noon and I'll suggest gloves, eh?"
He with the tapering figure made no reply; he was chasing nine cents up and down a long adding-machine strip.
"They must have a brilliant bunch over at the S——," he said, grinding his teeth; "I never knew one of their slips to balance."
Key had done so much checking in his day he looked upon the calling of the cash book as a morning recreation. The rest of the day he had little time to talk, so he got a large number of stray sentences into the totals that made up the cash book.
"Debit nine eighty-five drafts issued," he called—"tell Banfield to come over here—get it?—credit head office branch account six hundred even—how long has he been here?—I called that once—exchange on money orders fifteen cents—Well, Mr.—er—No! I said fifteen. What's the matter with you, Watson, were you drunk again last night?"
And so on. Key suggested to Nelson that he wander around the office during the forenoon and get a general idea of the way things were done. "You'll find it a new business altogether from country banking," he said, not very much to the new man's encouragement.
Following Key's advice Evan endeavored to learn a few generalities. About the only thing he learned, however, was that every man had a post that kept him busy every minute, and did not want to be interrupted. One grouchy chap looked at the Banfield man and said:
"Say, Nibs, the bank doesn't pay us to instruct greenhorns; it only pays us to get through this dope you see here, and half pay at that."
Evan was offended; one of Henty's blushes came to his cheeks.
"I don't think anything you could teach a fellow would be worth much anyway," he replied; and the teller next door stopped in the middle of a heavy deposit of putrid money to laugh and remark:
"Strike one for Banfield."
It seemed to Evan that he was going through
juniorship days again. Nobody appeared to have any respect for him. Still, as far as that was concerned, nobody had any respect for anybody. He consoled himself with this observation.
What was called "noon hour" came anywhere between noon and three o'clock. The tellers bolted their portion of food with monied hands, stopping between bites to serve a customer. The ledger-keepers ate with their backs to the wicket, turning around nervously every time anyone rustled a slip of paper or made sounds like a pass-book on the ledge. The "C" men and one or two others were privileged to eat in the basement, but when one was balanced another wasn't, and as a balance aided digestion and the man ahead had not the time to wait for the one behind, they usually ate alone. Sometimes, by particularly good management, several of the boys got together for five minutes below and scuffled; but the fun was short-lived.
Evan ate his hand-out on an old lounge in the furnace-room. It was for all the world like a prison cell. Outside, the city was bright and wonderful; in the dark, chill office and gloomier cellar there was but one factor, one idea—Work.
The Banfield teller felt singularly alone in that basement, eating a cheese sandwich. The boys were so engrossed in their own affairs they had no time for welcoming new men. Aside from the two ledger-keepers and the two "C" men, the boys were almost strangers to each other. The Banfield man would have to learn, like the others, to affiliate with a book. He wondered, as he sat in the basement alone, how long it would take him. He speculated on the hit Filter would make in that soulless, endless city-office swirl.
The morning had been confusing to the new man, but the afternoon was chaotic. He stood beside Watson, trying to get the multitudinous cash-book entries through his head, until he was played out. He yawned repeatedly and his head pained ominously. Two and a half years of office work were telling on him, although he scarcely realized to what extent, and but for a very fortunate circumstance—which seemed to Evan an extremely unfortunate one—he would have experienced a nervous breakdown before long. But more about that circumstance later.
The bank door closed at three o'clock. Many people have an idea that work inside a bank ceases at that hour. That is one of the many delusions cherished respecting the business, one of the harmless delusions. After three o'clock, especially in a city office, the real strain begins. Tellers must balance their cash, and, on salaries varying from $600 to $1,200 (often less than the former, but not so often more than the latter) make good any loss sustained through the day. Every balance is a nervous shock and drains away its share of the clerk's vitality; if the chance of personal loss is hidden away in his balance, the strain is that much the worse.
In the din that followed closing, Evan thought his head would burst. The boys lighted their pipes and cigarettes, threw off their coats, and commenced the scramble. Curses and complaints came from every quarter. The place was a madhouse.
Even up in the accountant's department there was loud talking. Evan was up there looking for the draft register when he heard the accountant say:
"It's got to be stopped. If you think we're going to stand for this sort of thing you're badly mistaken."
The man to whom V. W. Charon was speaking trembled slightly, not from fear of the accountant but under the influence of alcohol. He lifted his weary, glassy eyes to reply, but his lips moved inaudibly and he stared at Evan.
"This has happened twice in the last month," continued Charon, sharply.
"Three times," corrected Castle.
The broad-shouldered figure paid no attention to anyone but Evan. He staggered past the accountants and held out his hand to the new man.
"Sorry to—s-see you here," he stammered.
Evan grasped the hand of his old manager, Sam Robb.
THE MACHINERY GRINDS.
Castle turned his head and sneered, just as he used to do in Mt. Alban.
"You must come up and s-see me," said Robb.
"I will," replied Evan.
Watson came along for the draft register, winked at Robb, and returned to his desk, followed by Nelson.
"Is Mr. Robb one of the clerks here, Bill?"
"Yes—liability ledger. I had it on my mind to-day to tell you, but you were not around when I remembered what it was that bothered me. Sam's been here several months. They took his job away from him because of letters Alfy wrote."
Nelson could hardly believe it.
"The calf," he muttered. "What does Robb think about it?"
"Oh, he doesn't say much. He works like a nigger, all but about two days a month—when he goes on a tear. Been hitting the can a lot lately."
"I don't wonder," said Evan; "what has he to live for?"
He had something, though, as every man has—his self-respect. But one sometimes loses that when others do not attribute it to him.
Evan had never felt more incompetent than when Watson asked him to take out a balance. He could just as easily have "taken out" a degree at the Toronto University. While he fretted his still pounding head, Bill rode the round-up of registers, supplementaries and totals. Long drawn out exclamations reverberated in whatever corner of the office he happened to be searching.
"Teller's book," he shouted behind the paying teller; "come on, Sid."
The poor teller was short in his cash. Bundles were piled almost to the top of the cage; he snatched them up one by one and ran through them. He had a sore hand, too; it had been poisoned by infectious money. Two weeks later, when the teller had returned from sick-leave, head office refused to pay his doctor's bill, insinuating that the poison might be something else!
"Get out of here, you wolf," yelled the teller; "you're more —— bother than ——"
"I'm sorry for you, old kid," interrupted Watson, laughing; "give us your book, I'll add it up and maybe find your difference."
Sid Levison hesitated, picked his book up quietly, and faced Watson with:
"You're a yard wide, Bill. I wish we had more of you around here. I got in $50,000 in parcels this afternoon and Charon wouldn't send any relief. Gee, but I'm tired, and my hand pains infernally."
He yawned so widely his glasses fell off. Relieved of them, his face looked peaked and his eyes inflamed and weary.
"Meet Mr. Nelson from Banfield, Mr. Levison."
"How are you?" said the teller, offering his hand; "used to work there myself, years ago."
Then he turned to his money.
"How long has he been in the bank?" Evan asked Watson.
"About ten or twelve years, I think."
"He should be a manager by now."
"Sure," said Bill, "I could handle an easy chair myself for that matter. There are at least ten clerks in this office who could manage a branch, but everybody can't have one, you know. Managerships are sugar-plums to be handed out carefully by head office."