"Oh, thank you," says Marjorie. "And if you think of anything we ought to ditch in the meantime—"
"Ah, what's the use rubbin' it in on me," says I, "after the way you put it over Mr. Ellins? I don't count. Besides, anybody that fields their position like you do has got me wearin' their button for keeps."
"Really?" says she. "I shall remember that, you know; and there's no telling what dreadful thing I may do before I go. Is there, Dud?"
"Oh, quit it, Peggy!" says he. "Behave, can't you?"
"Certainly, Brother dear," says she, runnin' her tongue out at him. Ever see anyone who could make a cute play of that? Well, Marjorie could, believe me!
Funny, though, the sudden hit them two seemed to make with Old Hickory. Honest, the few days they was around the house his disposition clears up like coffee does when you stir in the egg. I heard him talkin' to Mr. Robert about 'em, how well brought up and mannerly they was. He even unloads some of it on me, by way of suggestin' 'em as models. You'd most think he'd trained 'em himself.
Bein' chased up to the house on so many errands, I had a chance to get the benefit of some of this improvin' influence. And it was kind of good, I admit, to watch how prompt Dudley hops up every time any older party comes into the room; and how sweet Marjorie is to everybody, even the butler. They was just as nice to each other too,—Brother helpin' Sister on with her wraps, and gettin' down on his knees to put on her rubbers; while Marjorie never forgets to thank him proper, and pat him chummy on the cheek.
"Gee!" thinks I. "A sister like that wouldn't be so bad to have around."
Course, I knew this was comp'ny manners, exhibition stuff; but all the same it was kind of inspirin' to see. It's catchin' too. I even finds myself speakin' gentle to Piddie, and offerin' to help Mr. Ellins with his overcoat.
All of which lasts until here one afternoon, as I'm waitin' in the Ellins' lib'ry for some presents I'm to deliver, when the spell is shattered. I'd heard 'em out in the hall, talkin' low and earnest, and next thing I know they've drifted in where I am and have opened up a lively debate.
"Pooh!" says Marjorie. "You can't stop me."
"See here, Peggy!" comes back Dudley. "Didn't Mother say I was to look after you?"
"She didn't tell you to be so everlasting bossy," says Sister.
"I'm not bossy," comes back Dudley.
"You are so!" says she. "Old fuss budget! Stewcat!"
"Rattlehead!" says Dudley.
"Don't mind me," I breaks in. "I'm havin' my manners improved."
All that brings out, though, is a glance and a shoulder shrug, and they proceed with the squabble.
"Dud Chandler," says Marjorie determined, "I am going to drive the car today! You did yesterday for an hour."
"That's entirely different," says Dudley. "I'm used to it, and Henry said I might."
"And Henry says I may too—so there!" says Marjorie. "And you know I'm just crazy to try it on Fifth Avenue."
"You'd look nice, wouldn't you?" says Brother scornful. "A limousine!"
"But Bud Adams let me drive theirs; in Boston too," protests Marjorie.
"Bud Adams is a bonehead, then," says Dudley.
"Dudley Chandler," snaps Sister, her eyes throwin' off sparks, "don't you dare talk that way about my friends!"
"Huh!" says Brother. "If there ever was a boob, that Bud Adams is——"
Say, there's only a flash and a squeal before Sister has landed a smack on his jaw and has both hands in his hair. Looked like a real rough-house session, right there in the lib'ry, when there comes a call for me down the stairs from Mrs. Ellins. She wants to know if I'm ready.
"Waitin' here, Ma'am," says I, steppin' out into the hall.
"And Marjorie and Dudley?" says she. "Are the dear young folks ready too?"
"I'll ask 'em," says I. And with that I dodges hack where they're standin' glarin' at each other. "Well," says I, "is it to be a go to a finish, or——"
"Come, Marjorie," says Dudley, "be decent."
"I—am going to do it!" announces Marjorie.
"Mule!" hisses Dudley.
And that's the status quo between these two models when we starts for the car. Marjorie makes a quick break and plants herself in front by the chauffeur, leavin' Brother to climb inside with me and the bundles. He grits his teeth and murmurs a few remarks under his breath.
"Some pep to that sister of yours, eh?" says I.
"She's an obstinate little fool!" says Dudley. "Look at that, now! I knew she would!"
Yep, she had. We're no sooner under way than the obligin' Henry slides out of his seat and lets Miss Marjorie slip in behind the wheel. She can drive a car all right too. You ought to see her throw in the high and go beatin' it down the avenue, takin' signals from the traffic cops at crossing, skinnin' around motor busses, and crowdin' out a fresh taxi driver that tried to hog a corner on her. Nothin' timid or amateurish either about the way she handled that ten-thousand-dollar gas wagon of Old Hickory's. Where I'd be jammin' on both brakes and callin' for help, she just breezes along like she had the street all to herself.
Meantime Brother is sittin' with both feet braced and one hand on the door, now and then sighin' relieved as we scrape through a tight place. But we'd been down quite a ways and was part way back, headed for Riverside Drive, and was rollin' along merry too, when all of a sudden a fruit faker's wagon looms up out of a side street unexpected, there's a bump and a crash, and there we are, with a spokeless wooden wheel draped jaunty over one mud guard, the asphalt strewed with oranges, and int'rested spectators gatherin' gleeful from all quarters.
Looks like a bad mess too. The old plug of a horse is down, kickin' the stuffin' out of the harness, and a few feet off is the huckster, huddled up in a heap like a bag of meal. Course, there's a cop on the spot. He pushes in where Dudley is tryin' to help the wagon driver up, takes one look at the wreck, and then flashes his little notebook. He puts down our license number, calls for the owner's name, prods the wagon man without result, tells us we're all pinched, and steps over to a convenient signal box to ring up an ambulance. Inside of three minutes we're the storm center of a small mob, and there's two other cops lookin' us over disapprovin'.
"Take 'em all to the station house," says one, who happens to be a roundsman.
That didn't listen good to me; so I kind of sidles off from our group. It just struck me that it might be handy to have someone on the outside lookin' in. But at that I got to the station house almost as soon as they did. The trio was lined up before the desk Sergeant. Miss Marjorie's kind of white, but keepin' a stiff lip over it; while Dudley is holdin' one hand and pattin' it comfortin'.
"Well, who was driving?" is the first thing the Sergeant wants to know.
"If you please, Sir," speaks up Dudley, "I was."
"Why, Dudley!" says Peggy, openin' her eyes wide. "You know——"
"Hush up!" whispers Brother.
"Sha'nt!" says Marjorie. "I was driving, Mr. Officer."
"Rot!" says Dudley. "Pay no attention to her, Sergeant."
"Suit yourself," says the Sergeant. "I'd just as soon lock up two as one. Then we'll be sure."
"There! You see!" says Brother. "You aren't helping any. Now keep out, will you?"
"But, Dudley——" protests Marjorie.
"That'll do," says the Sergeant. "You'll have plenty of time to talk it over afterwards. Hospital case, eh? Then we can't take bail. Names, now!"
And it's while their names are bein' put on the blotter that I slides out, hunts up a pay station, and gets Mr. Robert on the 'phone. "Better lug along a good-sized roll," says I, after I've explained the case, "and start a lawyer or two this way. You'll need 'em."
"I will," says Mr. Robert. "And you'll meet me at the station, will you?"
"Later on," says I. "I want to try a little sleuthin' first."
You see, I'd spotted the faker's name on the wagon license, and it occurs to me that before any of them damage-suit shysters get to him it would be a good scheme to discover just how bad he was bunged up. So my bluff is that it's an uncle of mine that's been hurt. By pushin' it good and hard too, and insistin' that I'd got to see him, I gets clear into the cot without bein' held up. And there's the victim, snoozin' peaceful.
"Gee!" says I to the nurse, sniffin' the atmosphere. "Had to brace him up with a drink, did you?"
She smiles at that. "Hardly," says she. "He had attended to that, or he wouldn't be in here. This is the alcoholic ward, you know."
"Huh!" says I. "Pickled, was he? But is he hurt bad?"
"Not at all," says she. "He will be all right as soon as he's sober."
Did I smoke it back to the station house? Well, some! And Mr. Robert was there, talkin' to two volunteer witnesses who was ready to swear the faker was drivin' on the wrong side of the street and not lookin' where he was goin'.
"How could he," says I, "when he was soused to the ears?"
Course, it took some time to convince the Sergeant; but after he'd had word from the hospital he concludes to accept a hundred cash, let Dudley go until mornin', and scratch Marjorie's name off the book. Goin' back to the house we four rides inside, with Henry at the wheel.
"I'm awfully sorry, Dud," says Marjorie, snugglin' up to Brother, "but—but it was almost worth it. I didn't know you could be so—so splendid!"
"Stow it, Peggy," says Dudley. "You're a regular brick!"
"No, I'm not," says she. "And think what Mr. Ellins will say!
"There, there!" says Mr. Robert soothin'. "You were not to blame. I will have someone see the fellow in the morning and settle the damage, however. There's no need to trouble Father about it, none in the least."
"Besides, Peggy," adds Dudley, "I'm the one the charge is made against. So butt out."
Looked like it was all settled that way too, and that Old Hickory's faith in his model wards wa'n't to be disturbed. But when we pulls up at the house there he is, just goin' up the front steps.
"Ah!" says he, beamin'. "There you are, eh? And how has my little Peggy been enjoying herself today?"
"Mr. Ellins," says she, lookin' him square in the eye, "you mustn't call me your Peggy any more. I've just hit a man. He's in the hospital."
"You—you hit someone!" gasps Old Hickory, starin' puzzled at her. "What with?"
"Why, with the car," says she. "I was driving. Dudley tried to stop me; but I was horrid about it. We had a regular fight over it. Then I coaxed Henry to let me, and—and this happened. Don't listen to Dudley. It was all my fault."
"Wow!" I whispers to Mr. Robert. "Now she's spilled the beans!"
Did she? Say, I wa'n't in on the fam'ly conference that follows, but I gets the result from Mr. Robert next day, after he's been to court and seen Dudley's case dismissed.
"No, the young folks haven't been sent away," says he. "In fact, Father thinks more of them than ever. He's going to take 'em both abroad with him next summer."
Wouldn't that smear you, though? Say, I wish someone would turn me loose with a limousine!
GLOOM SHUNTING FOR THE BOSS
Trouble? Say, it was comin' seven diff'rent ways there for awhile,—our stocks on the slump, a quarterly bein' passed, Congress actin' up, a lot of gloom rumors floatin' around about what was goin' to happen to the tariff on steel, and the I Won't Workers pullin' off a big strike at one of our busiest plants. But all these things was side issues compared to this scrap that develops between Old Hickory and Peter K. Groff.
Maybe you don't know about Peter K.? Well, he's the Mesaba agent of Corrugated affairs, the big noise at the dirt end of the dividends. It's Groff handles the ore proposition, you understand, and it's his company that does the inter-locking act between the ore mines and us and the railroads.
Course, I can't give you all the details without pullin' down a subpoena from the Attorney-General's office, and I ain't anxious to crowd Willie Rockefeller, or anybody like that, out of the witness chair. But I can go as far as to state that, as near as I could dope it out, Peter K. was only standin' on his rights, and if only him and Mr. Ellins could have got together for half an hour peaceable-like things could have been squared all around. We needed Groff every tick of the clock, and just because he ain't always polite in statin' his views over the wire wa'n't any first-class reason for us extendin' him an official invitation to go sew his head in a bag.
Uh-huh, them was Old Hickory's very words. I stood by while he writes the message. Then I takes it out and shows it to Piddie and grins. You should have seen Piddie's face. He turns the color of green pea soup and gasps. He's got all the fightin' qualities of a pet rabbit in him, Piddie has.
"But—but that is a flat insult," says he, "and Mr. Groff is a very irascible person!"
"A which?" says I. "Never mind, though. If he's got anything on Old Hickory when it comes to pep in the disposition, he's the real Tabasco Tommy."
"But I still contend," says Piddie, "that this reply should not be sent."
"Course it shouldn't," says I. "But who's goin' to point that out to the boss? You?"
Piddie shudders. I'll bet he went home that night and told Wifey to prepare for the end of the world. Course, I knew it meant a muss. But when Old Hickory's been limpin' around with a gouty toe for two weeks, and his digestion's gone on the fritz, and things in gen'ral has been breakin' bad—well, it's a case of low barometer in our shop, and waitin' to see where the lightnin' strikes first. Might's well be pointed at Peter K., thinks I, as at some Wall Street magnate or me. Course, Groff goes up in the air a mile, threatens to resign from the board, and starts stirrin' up a minority move that's liable to end most anywhere.
Then, right in the midst of it, Old Hickory accumulates his annual case of grip, runs up a temperature that ain't got anything to do with his disposition, and his doctor gives orders for him not to move out of the house for a week.
So that throws the whole thing onto me and Mr. Robert. I was takin' it calm enough too; but with Mr. Robert it's different. He has his coat off that mornin', and his hair mussed up, and he's smokin' long brunette cigars instead of his usual cigarettes. He was pawin' over things panicky.
"Hang it all!" he explodes. "Some of these papers must go up to the Governor for his indorsement. Perhaps you'd better take them, Torchy. But you're not likely to find him in a very agreeable mood, you know."
"Oh, I can dodge," says I, gatherin' up the stuff. "And what's the dope? Do I dump these on the bed and make a slide for life, or so I take out accident insurance and then stick around for orders?"
"You may—er—stick around," says Mr. Robert. "In fact, my chief reason for sending you up to the house is the fact that at times you are apt to have a cheering effect on the Governor. So stay as long as you find any excuse.
"Gee!" says I. "I don't know whether this is a special holiday, or a sentence to sudden death. But I'll take a chance, and if the worst happens, Mr. Robert, see that Piddie wears a black armband for me."
He indulges in the first grin he's had on for a week, and I makes my exit on that. The science of bein' fresh is to know where to quit.
But, say, that wa'n't all guff we was exchangin' about Old Hickory. I don't find him tucked away under the down comf'tables, like he ought to be. Marston, the butler, whispers the boss is in the lib'ry, and sort of shunts me in without appearin' himself. A wise guy, Marston.
For here's Mr. Ellins, wearin' a padded silk dressin' gown and old slippers, pacin' back and forth limpy and lettin' out grunts and growls at every turn. Talk about your double-distilled grouches! He looks like he'd been on a diet of mixed pickles and scrap iron for a month, and hated the whole human race.
"Well?" he snaps as he sees me edgin' in cautious.
"Papers for your O. K," says I, holdin' the bunch out at arm's length.
"My O. K.?" he snarls. "Bah! Now what the zebra-striped Zacharias do they send those things to me for? What good am I, anyway, except as a common carrier for all the blinkety blinked aches and pains that ever existed? A shivery, shaky old lump of clay streaked with cussedness, that's all I am!"
"Yes, Sir," says I, from force of habit.
"Eh?" says he, whirlin' and snappin' his jaws.
"N-n-no, Sir," says I, sidesteppin' behind a chair.
"That's right," says he. "Dodge and squirm as if I was a wild animal. That's what they all do. What are you afraid of, Boy?"
"Me?" says I. "Why, I'm havin' the time of my life. I don't mind. It only sounds natural and homelike. And it's mostly bluff, ain't it, Mr. Ellins?"
"Discovered!" says he. "Ah, the merciless perspicacity of youth! But don't tell the others. And put those papers on my desk."
"Yes, Sir," says I, and after I've spread 'em out I backs into the bay window and sits down.
"Well, what are you doing there?" says he.
"Waiting orders," says I. "Any errands, Mr. Ellins?"
"Errands?" says he. Then, after thinkin' a second, he raps out, "Yes. Do you see that collection of bottles and pills and glasses on the table? Enough to stock a young drugstore! And I've been pouring that truck into my system by wholesale,—the pink tablets on the half-hour, the white ones on the quarter, a spoonful of that purple liquid on the even hour, two of the greenish mixtures on the odd, and getting worse every day. Bah! I haven't the courage to do it myself, but by the blue-belted blazes if—— See here, Boy! You're waiting orders, you say?"
"Uh-huh!" says I.
"Then open that window and throw the whole lot into the areaway," says he.
"Do you mean it, Mr. Ellins?" says I.
"Do I—yah, don't I speak plain English?" he growls. "Can't you understand a simple——"
"I got you," I breaks in. "Out it goes!" I don't drop any of it gentle, either. I slams bottles and glasses down on the flaggin' and chucks the pills into the next yard. I makes a clean sweep.
"Thanks, Torchy," says he. "The doctor will be here soon. I'll tell him you did it."
"Go as far as you like," says I. "Anything else, Sir?"
"Yes," says he. "Provide me with a temporary occupation."
"Come again," says I.
"I want something to do," says he. "Here I've been shut up in this confounded house for four mortal days! I can't read, can't eat, can't sleep. I just prowl around like a bear with a sore ear. I want something that will make me forget what a wretched, futile old fool I am. Do you know of anything that will fill the bill?"
"No, sir," says I.
"Then think," says he. "Come, where is that quick-firing, automatic intellect of yours? Think, Boy! What would you do if you were shut up like this?"
"Why," says I, "I—I might dig up some kind of games, I guess."
"Games!" says he. "That's worth considering. Well, here's some money. Go get 'em."
"But what kind, Sir?" says I.
"How the slithering Sisyphus should I know what kind?" he snaps. "Whose idea is this, anyway? You suggested games. Go get 'em, I tell you! I'll give you half an hour, while I'm looking over this stuff from the office. Just half an hour. Get out!"
It's a perfectly cute proposition, ain't it? Games for a heavy-podded old sinner like him, who's about as frivolous in his habits as one of them stone lions in front of the new city lib'ry! But here I was on my way with a yellow-backed twenty in one hand; so it's up to me to produce. I pikes straight down the avenue to a joint where they've got three floors filled with nothin' but juvenile joy junk, blows in there on the jump, nails a clerk that looks like he had more or less bean, waves the twenty at him, and remarks casual:
"Gimme the worth of that in things that'll amuse a fifty-eight-year-old kid who's sick abed and walkin' around the house."
Did I say clerk? I take it back. He was a salesman, that young gent was. Never raised an eyebrow, but proceeded to haul out samples, pass 'em up to me for inspection, and pile in a heap what I gives him the nod on. If I established a record for reckless buyin', he never mentions it. Inside of twenty minutes I'm on my way back, followed by a porter with both arms full.
"The doctor has come," says Marston. "He's in with Mr. Ellins now, Sir."
"Ob, is he?" says I. "Makes it very nice, don't it?" And, bein' as how I was Old Hickory's alibi, as you might say, I pikes right to the front.
"Here he is now," says Mr. Ellins.
And the Doc, who's a chesty, short-legged gent with a dome half under glass,—you know, sort of a skinned diamond with turf outfield effect,—he whirls on me accusin'. "Young man," says he, "do I understand that you had the impudence to——"
"Well, well!" breaks in Old Hickory, gettin' a glimpse of what the porter's unloading "What have we here? Look, Hirshway,—Torchy's drug substitute!"
"Eh?" says the Doc, starin' puzzled.
"Games," says Mr. Ellins, startin' to paw over the bundles. "Toys for a weary toiler. Let's inspect his selection. Now what's this in the box, Torchy?"
"Cut-up picture puzzle," says I. "Two hundred pieces. You fit 'em together."
"Fine!" says Old Hickory. "And this?"
"Ring toss," says I. "You try to throw them rope rings over the peg."
"I see," says he. "Excellent! That will be very amusing and instructive. Here's an airgun too."
"Ellins," says Doc Hirshway, "do you mean to say that at your age you are going to play with such childish things?"
"Why not?" says Old Hickory. "You forbid business. I must employ myself in some way, and Torchy recommends these."
"Bah!" says the Doc disgusted. "If I didn't know you so well, I should think your mind was affected."
"Think what you blamed please, you bald-headed old pill peddler!" raps back the boss, pokin' him playful in the ribs. "I'll bet you a fiver I can put more of these rings over than you can."
"Humph!" says the Doc. "I've no time to waste on silly games." And he stands by watchin' disapprovin' while Old Hickory makes an awkward stab at the peg. The nearest he comes to it is when he chucks one through the glass door of a curio cabinet, with a smash that brings the butler tiptoein' in.
"Did you ring, Sir?" says Marston.
"Not a blamed one!" says Mr. Ellins.
"Take it away, Marston. And then unwrap that large package. There! Now what the tessellated teacups is that!"
It's something I didn't know anything about myself; but the young gent at the store had been strong for puttin' it in, so I'd let it slide. It's a tin affair, painted bright green, with half a dozen little brass cups sunk in it. Some rubber balls and a kind of croquet mallet goes with it.
"Indoor golf!" says Old Hickory, readin' the instruction pamphlet. "Oh, I see! A putting green. Set it there on the rug, Marston. Now, let's see if I've forgotten how to putt."
We all gathers around while he tries to roll the balls into the cups. Out of six tries he lands just one. Next time he don't get any at all.
"Pooh!" says the Doc edgin' up int'rested. "Wretched putting form, Ellins, wretched! Don't tap it that way: sweep it along—-follow through, with your right elbow out. Here, let me show you!"
But Hirshway don't do much better. He manages to get two in; but one was a rank scratch.
"Ho-ho!" cackles Old Hickory. "Isn't so easy as it looks, eh, Hirshway? Now it's my turn again, and I'm betting ten I beat you."
"I take you," says the Doc.
And blamed if Old Hickory don't pull down the money!
Well, that's what started things. Next I knew they'd laid out a regular golf course, drivin' off from the rug in front of the desk, through the double doors into the drawin' room, then across the hall into the music room, around the grand piano to the left, through the back hall, into the lib'ry once more, and onto the tin green.
Marston is sent to dig out a couple sets of old golf clubs from the attic, and he is put to caddyin' for the Doc, while I carries the bag for the boss. Course they was usin' putters mostly, except for fancy loftin' strokes over bunkers that they'd built out of books and sofa pillows. And as the balls was softer than the regulation golf kind, with more bounce to 'em, all sorts of carom strokes was ruled in.
"No moving the chairs," announces Old Hickory. "All pieces of furniture are natural hazards."
"Agreed," says the Doc. "Playing stimies too, I suppose?"
"Stimies go," says the boss.
Say, maybe that wa'n't some batty performance, with them two old duffers golfin' all over the first floor of a Fifth-ave. house, disputin' about strokes, pokin' balls out from under tables and sofas, and me and Marston followin' along with the bags. They got as excited over it as if they'd been playin' for the International Championship, and when Old Hickory loses four strokes by gettin' his ball wedged in a corner he cuts loose with the real golfy language.
We was just finishin' the first round, with the score standin' fourteen to seventeen in favor of the Doc, when the front doorbell rings and a maid comes towin' in Piddie. Maybe his eyes don't stick out some too, as he takes in the scene, But Mr. Ellins is preparin' to make a shot for position in front of the green and he don't pay any attention.
"It's Mr. Piddie, Sir," says I.
"Hang Mr. Piddie!" says Old Hickory. "I can't see him now."
"But it's very important," says Piddie. "There's someone at the office who——"
"No, no, not now!" snaps the boss impatient.
And I gives Piddie the back-out signal. But you know how much sense he's got.
"I assure you, Mr. Ellins," he goes on, "that this is——"
"S-s-s-st!" says I. "Boom-boom! Outside!" and I jerks my thumb towards the door.
That settles Piddie. He fades.
A minute later Old Hickory gets a lucky carom off a chair leg and holes out in nineteen, with the Doc playin' twenty-one.
"Ha, ha!" chuckled the boss. "What's the matter with my form now, Hirshway? I'll go you another hole for the same stake."
The Doc was sore and eager to get back. They wa'n't much more'n fairly started, though, before there's other arrivals, that turns out to be no less than two of our directors, lookin' serious and worried.
"Mr. Rawson and Mr. Dunham," announces the maid.
"Here, Boy!" says the boss, catchin' me by the elbow. "What was that you said to Mr. Piddie,—that 'Boom-boom!' greeting?"
I gives it to him and the Doc in a stage whisper.
"Good!" says he. "Get that, Hirshway? Now let's spring it on 'em. All together now—S-s-s-st! Boom-boom! Outside!"
Say, it makes a hit with the directors, all right. First off they didn't seem to know whether they'd strayed into a bughouse, or were just bein' cheered; but when they sees Old Hickory's mouth corners they concludes to take it as a josh. It turns out that both of 'em are golf cranks too, and inside of three minutes they've forgot whatever it was they'd come for, they've shed their coats, and have been rung into a foursome.
Honest, of all the nutty performances! For there was no tellin' where them balls would roll to, and wherever they went the giddy old boys had to follow. I remember one of 'em was stretched out full length on his tummy in the front hall, tryin' to make a billiard shot from under a low hall seat, when there's another ring at the bell, and Marston, with a golf bag still slung over his shoulder, lets in a square-jawed, heavy-set old gent who glares around like he was lookin' for trouble and would be disappointed if he didn't find it.
"Mr. Peter K. Groff," announces Marston.
"Good night!" says I to myself. "The enemy is in our midst."
But Old Hickory never turns a hair. He stands there in his shirt sleeves gazin' calm at this grizzly old minin' plute, and then I sees a kind of cut-up twinkle flash in them deep-set eyes of his as he summons his foursome to gather around. I didn't know what was coming either, until they cuts loose with it. And for havin' had no practice they rips it out strong.
"S-s-s-st! Boom-boom! Outside!" comes the chorus.
It gets Peter K.'s goat too. His jaw comes open and his eyes pop. Next he swallows bard and flushes red behind the ears. "Ellins," says he, "I've come fifteen hundred miles to ask what you mean by telling me——"
"Oh, that you, Groff?" breaks in the boss. "Well, don't interrupt our game. Fore! You, I mean. Fore, there! Now go ahead, Rawson. Playing eleven, aren't you?"
And Rawson's just poked his ball out, makin' a neat carom into the music room, when the hall clock strikes five.
"By Jove, gentlemen!" exclaims Doc Hirshway. "Sorry, but I must quit. Should have been in my office an hour ago. I really must go."
"Quitter!" says Mr. Ellins. "But all right. Trot along. Here, Groff, you're a golfer, aren't you?"
"Why—er—yes," says Peter K., actin' sort of dazed; "but I——"
"That's enough," says Old Hickory. "You take Hirshway's place. Dunham's your partner. We're playing Nassau, ten a corner. But I'll tell you,—just to make it interesting, I'll play you on the side to see whether or not we accept that proposition of yours. Is it a go?"
"But see here, Ellins," conies back Peter K. "I want you to understand that you or any other man can't tell me to sew my head in a bag without——"
"Oh, drop that!" says Old Hickory. "I withdraw it—mostly gout, anyway. You ought to know that. And if you can beat me at this game I'll agree to let you have your own way out there. Are you on, or are you too much of a dub to try it?"
"Maybe I am a dub, Hickory Ellins," says Peter K., peelin' off his coat, "but any game that you can play—er—— Which is my ball?"
Well, it was some warm contest, believe me, with them two joshin' back and forth, and at the game time usin' as much foxy strategy as if they was stealin' railroads away from each other! They must have been at it for near half an hour when a maid slips in and whispers how Mr. Robert is callin' for me on the wire. So I puts her on to sub for me with the bag while I slides into the 'phone booth.
"Sure, Mr. Robert," says I, "I'm still on the job."
"But what is happening?" says he. "Didn't Groff come up?"
"Yep," says I. "He's here yet."
"You don't say!" says Mr. Robert. "Whe-e-ew! He and the governor having it hot and heavy, I suppose?"
"And then some," says I. "Peter K. took first round 12-17, he tied the second, and now he's trapped in the fireplace on a bad ten."
"Wha-a-at?" gasps Mr. Robert.
"Uh-huh," says I. "Mr. Ellins is layin' under the piano,—only seven, but stimied for an approach."
"In Heaven's name, Torchy," says Mr. Robert, "what do you mean? Mr. Groff trapped in the fireplace, father lying under the piano—why——"
"Ah, didn't Piddie tell you? The boob!" says I. "It's just golf, that's all—indoor kind—a batty variation that they made up themselves. But don't fret. Everything's all lovely, and I guess the Corrugated is saved. Come up and look 'em over."
Yep! Peter K. got the decision by slipping over a smear in the fourth, after which him and Old Hickory leans up against each other and laughs until their eyes leak. Then Marston wheels in the tea wagon full of decanters and club soda, and when I left they was clinkin' glasses real chummy.
"Son," says Old Hickory, as he pads into the office about noon next day, "I believe I forgot the usual caddie fee. There you are."
"Z-z-z-zing!" says I, starin' after him. Cute little strips of Treasury kale, them with the C's in the corners, aren't they? Well, I should worry!
COMING IN ON THE DRAW
Nothin' like bein' a handy man around the shop. Here at the Corrugated I'm worked in for almost any old thing, from seein' that Mr. Ellins takes his gout tablets regular, to arrangin' the directors' room for the annual meeting and when it comes to subbin' for Mr. Robert—say, what do you guess is the latest act he bills me for? Art expert! Yep, A-r-t, with a big A!
Sounds foolish, don't it? But at that it wa'n't such a bad hunch on his part. He's a rash promiser, Mr. Robert is; but a shifty proposition when you try to push a programme on him, for the first thing you know he's slid from under. I suspicioned some play like that was comin' here the other afternoon when Sister Marjorie shows up at the general offices and asks pouty, "Where's Robert?"
"On the job," says I. "Session of the general sales agents today, you know."
"But he was to meet me at the Broadway entrance half an hour ago," says she, "and I've been sitting in the car waiting for him. Call him out, won't you, Torchy?"
"Won't do any good," says I. "He's booked up for the rest of the day."
"The idea!" says Marjorie. "And he promised faithfully he would go up with me to see those pictures! You just tell him I'm here, that's all."
There's more or less light of battle in them bright brown eyes of Marjorie's, and that Ellins chin of hers is set some solid. So when I tiptoes in where they're dividin' the map of the world into sellin' areas, and whispers in Mr. Robert's ear that Sister Marjorie is waitin' outside, I adds a word of warnin'.
"It's a case of pictures, you remember," says I.
"Oh, the deuce!" says Mr. Robert. "Hang Brooks Bladen and his paintings! I can't go, positively. Just explain, will you, Torchy?"
"Sure; but I'd go hoarse over it," says I. "You know Marjorie, and if you don't want the meetin' broke up I expect you'd better come out and face the music."
"Oh, well, then I suppose I must," says he, leadin' the way.
And Marjorie wa'n't in the mood to stand for any smooth excuses. She didn't care if he had forgotten, and she guessed his old business affairs could be put off an hour or so. Besides, this meant so much to poor Brooks. His very first exhibit, too. Ferdy couldn't go, either. Another one of his sick headaches. But he had promised to buy a picture, and Marjorie had hoped that Robert would like one of them well enough to——
"Oh, if that's all," puts in Mr. Robert, "then tell him I'll take one, too."
"But you can't buy pictures without seeing them," protests Marjorie. "Brooks is too sensitive. He wants appreciation, encouragement, you see."
"A lot I could give him," says Mr. Robert. "Why, I know no more about that sort of thing than—well, than——" And just here his eye lights on me. "Oh, I say, though," he goes on, "it would be all right, wouldn't it, if I sent a—er—a commissioner?"
"I suppose that would do," says Marjorie.
"Good!" says Mr. Robert. "Torchy, go with Marjorie and look at that lot. If they're any good, buy one for me."
"Wha-a-at!" says I. "Me buy a picture?"
"Full power," says he, startin' back towards the meetin'. "Pick out the best, and tell Bladen to send me the bill."
And there we're left, Marjorie and me, lookin' foolish at each other.
"Well, he's done a duck," says I.
"If you mean he's got himself out of buying a picture, you're mistaken," says she. "Come along."
She insists on callin' the bluff, too. Course, I tries to show her, all the way up in the limousine, how punk a performer I'd be at a game like that, and how they'd spot me for a bush leaguer the first stab I made.
"Not at all," says Marjorie, "if you do as I tell you."
With that she proceeds to coach me in the art critic business. The lines wa'n't hard to get, anyway.
"For some of them," she goes on, "you merely go 'Um-m-m!' under your breath, you know, or 'Ah-h-h-h!' to yourself. Then when I give you a nudge you may exclaim, 'Fine feeling!' or 'Very daring!' or 'Wonderful technic, wonderful!'"
"Yes; but when must I say which?" says I.
"It doesn't matter in the least," says Marjorie.
"And you think just them few remarks," says I, "will pull me through."
"Enough for an entire exhibit at the National Academy," says she. "And when you decide which you like best, just point it out to Mr. Bladen."
"Gee!" says I. "Suppose I pick a lemon?"
"Robert won't know the difference," says she, "and it will serve him right. Besides, poor Brooks needs the encouragement."
"Kind of a dub beginner with no backing is he?" says I.
Marjorie describes him different. Accordin' to her, he's a classy comer in the art line, with all kinds of talent up his sleeve and Fame busy just around the corner on a laurel wreath exactly his size. Seems Brooks was from a good fam'ly that had dropped their bundle somewhere along the road; so this art racket that he'd taken up as a time killer he'd had to turn into a steady job. He wa'n't paintin' just to keep his brushes soft. He was out to win the kale.
Between the lines I gathers enough to guess that before she hooked up with Ferdy, the head-achy one, Marjorie had been some mushy over Brooks boy herself. He'd done a full length of her, it appears, and was workin' up quite a portrait trade, when all of a sudden he ups and marries someone else, a rank outsider.
"Too bad!" sighs Marjorie. "It has sadly interfered with his career, I'm afraid."
"Ain't drivin' him to sign work, is it?" says I.
"Goodness, no!" says Marjorie. "Just the opposite. Of course, Edith was a poor girl; but her Uncle Jeff is ever so rich. They live with him, you know. That's the trouble—Uncle Jeff."
She's a little vague about this Uncle Jeff business; but it helps explain why we roll up to a perfectly good marble front detached house just off Riverside Drive, instead of stoppin' at one of them studio rookeries over on Columbus-ave. And even I'm wise to the fact that strugglin' young artists don't have a butler on the door unless there's something like an Uncle Jeff in the fam'ly.
From the dozen or more cars and taxis hung up along the block I judge this must be a regular card affair, with tea and sandwich trimmin's. It's a good guess. A maid tows us up two flights, though, before we're asked to shed anything; and before we lands Marjorie is gaspin' some, for she ain't lost any weight since she collected Ferdy. Quite a studio effect they'd made too, by throwin' a couple of servants' rooms into one and addin' a big skylight. There was the regulation fishnet draped around, and some pieces of tin armor and plaster casts, which proves as well as a court affidavit that here's where the real, sure-fire skookum creative genius holds forth.
It's a giddy bunch of lady gushers that's got together there too, and the soulful chatter is bein' put over so fast it sounds like intermission at a cabaret show. I'm introduced proper to Brooks boy and Wifey; but I'd picked 'em both out at first glimpse. No mistakin' him. He's got on the kind of costume that goes with the fishnet and brass tea machine,—flowin' tie, velvet coat, baggy trousers, and all, even to the Vandyke beard. It's kind of a pale, mud-colored set of face alfalfa; but, then, Brooks boy is sort of that kind himself—that is, all but his eyes. They're a wide-set, dreamy, baby-blue pair of lamps, that beams mild and good-natured on everyone.
But Mrs. Brooks Bladen is got up even more arty than Hubby. Maybe it wa'n't sugar sackin' or furniture burlap, but that's what the stuff looked like. It's gathered jaunty just under her armpits and hangs in long folds to the floor, with a thick rope of yellow silk knotted careless at one side with the tassels danglin' below her knee, while around her head is a band of tinsel decoration that might have been pinched off from a Christmas tree. She's a tall, willowy young woman, who waves her bare arms around vivacious when she talks and has lots of sparkle to her eyes.
"You dear child!" is her greetin' to Marjorie. "So sweet of you to attempt all those dreadful stairs! No, don't try to talk yet. We understand, don't we, Brooks? Nice you're not sensitive about it, too."
I caught the glare Marjorie shoots over, and for a minute I figured how the picture buyin' deal had been queered at the start; but the next thing I knew Brooks boy is holdin' Marjorie's hand and beamin' gentle on her, and she is showin' all her dimples once more. Say, they're worth watchin', some of these fluff encounters.
My act? Ah, say, most of that good dope is all wasted. Nobody seems excited over the fact that I've arrived, even Brooks Bladen. As a salesman he ain't a great success, I judge. Don't tout up his stuff any, or try to shove off any seconds or shopworn pieces. He just tells me to look around, and half apologizes for his line in advance.
Well, for real hand-painted stuff it was kind of tame. None of this snowy-mountain-peak or mirror-lake business, such as you see in the department stores. It's just North River scenes; some clear, some smoky, some lookin' up, some lookin' down, and some just across. In one he'd done a Port Lee ferryboat pretty fair; but there's another that strikes me harder. It shows a curve in the drive, with one of them green motor busses goin' by, the top loaded, and off in the background to one side the Palisades loomin' up against a fair-weather sunset, while in the middle you can see clear up to Yonkers. Honest, it's almost as good as some of them things on the insurance calendars, and I'm standin' gawpin' at it when Brooks Bladen and Marjorie drifts along.
"Well?" says he, sort of inquirin'.
"That must be one of the Albany night boats goin' up," says I. "She'll be turnin' her lights on pretty quick. And it's goin' to be a corkin' evenin' for a river trip. You can tell that by——"
But just here Marjorie gives me a jab with her elbow.
"Ow, yes!" says I, rememberin' my lines. "Um-m-m-m-m! Fine feelin'. Very darin' too, very! And when it comes to the tech stuff—why, it's there in clusters. Much obliged—er—that is, I guess you can send this one. Mr. Robert Ellins. That's right. Charge and send."
Maybe he wasn't used to makin' such quick sales; for he stares at me sort of puzzled, and when I turns to Marjorie she's all pinked up like a strawberry sundae and is smotherin' a giggle with her mesh purse. I don't know why, either. Strikes me I'd put it over kind of smooth; but as there seems to be a slip somewhere it's me for the rapid back-away.
"Thanks, that'll be all to-day," I goes on, "and—and I'll be waitin' downstairs, Marjorie."
She don't stop me; so I pushes through the mob at the tea table, collects my coat and lid, and slips down to the first floor, where I wanders into the drawin' room. No arty decorations here. Instead of pictures and plaster casts, the walls are hung with all kinds of mounted heads and horns, and the floor is covered with odd-lookin' skin rugs,—tigers, lions, and such.
I'd been waitin' there sometime, inspectin' the still life menagerie, when all of a sudden in from the hall rolls one of these invalid wheeled chairs with a funny little old bald-headed gent manipulatin' levers. What hair he has left is real white, and most of his face is covered with a thin growth of close-cropped white whiskers; but under the frosty shrubb'ry, as well as over all the bare space, he's colored up as bright as a bottle of maraschino cherries. It's the sort of sunburn a sandy complexion gets on; but not in a month or a year. You know? One of these blond Eskimo tints, that seems to go clear through the skin. How he could get it in a wheel chair, though, I couldn't figure out. Anyway, there wasn't time. Quick as he sees me he throws in his reverse gear and comes to a stop between the portieres.
"Well, young man," he raps out sharp and snappy, "who the particular blazes are you?"
But, say, I've met too many peevish old parties to let a little jab like that tie up my tongue.
"Me?" says I, settin' back easy in the armchair. "Oh, I'm a buyer representin' a private collector."
"Buyer of what?" says he.
"Art," says I. "Just picked up a small lot,—that one with the Albany night boat in it, you know."
He stares like he thought I was batty, and then rolls his chair over closer. "Do I understand," says he, "that you have been buying a picture—here?"
"Sure," says I. "Say, ain't you on yet, and you right in the house? Well, you ought to get next."
"I mean to," says he. "Bladen's stuff, I suppose?"
"Uh-huh," says I. "And, believe me, Brooksy is some paint slinger; that is, fine feelin', darin' technic, all that sort of dope."
"I see," says he, noddin' his head. "Holding a sale, is he? On one of the upper floors?"
"Top," says I. "Quite a classy little studio joint he's made up there."
"Oh, he has, has he?" says the old boy, snappin' his eyes. "Well, of all the confounded—er—young man, ring that bell!"
Say, how was I goin' to know? I was beginnin' to suspect that this chatty streak of mine wa'n't goin' to turn out lucky for someone; but it's gone too far to hedge. I pushes the button, and in comes the butler.
"Tupper," says the old man, glarin' at him shrewd, "you know where the top-floor studio is, don't you?"
"Ye-e-es, Sir," says Tapper, almost chokin' over it.
"You'll find Mr. and Mrs. Bladen there," goes on old Grouchy. "Ask them to step down here for a moment at once."
Listened sort of mussy from where I sat, and I wa'n't findin' the armchair quite so comf'table. "Guess I'll be loafin' along," says I, casual.
"You'll stay just where you are for the present!" says he, wheelin' himself across the door-way.
"Oh, well, if you insist," says I.
He did. And for two minutes there I listens to the clock tick and watches the old sport's white whiskers grow bristly. Then comes the Bladens. He waves 'em to a parade rest opposite me.
"What is it, Uncle Jeff?" says Mrs. Bladen, sort of anxious. And with that I begins to piece out the puzzle. This was Uncle Jeff, eh, the one with the bank account?
"So," he explodes, like openin' a bottle of root beer, "you've gone back to your paint daubing, have you? And you're actually trying to sell your namby-pamby stuff on my top floor? Come now, Edith, let's hear you squirm out of that!"
Considerable fussed, Edith is. No wonder! After one glance at me she flushes up and begins twistin' the yellow silk cord nervous; but nothin' in the way of a not guilty plea seems to occur to her. As for Hubby, he blinks them mild eyes of his a couple of times, and then stands there placid with both hands in the pockets of his velvet coat, showin' no deep emotion at all.
"It's so, isn't it?" demands Uncle.
"Ye-e-es, Uncle Jeff," admits Edith. "But poor Brooks could do nothing else, you know. If he'd taken a studio outside, you would have wanted to know where he was. And those rooms were not in use. Really, what else could he do?"
"Mean to tell me he couldn't get along without puttering around with those fool paints and brushes?" snorts Uncle Jeff.
"It—it's his life work, Uncle Jeff," says Mrs. Bladen.
"Rubbish!" says the old boy. "In the first place, it isn't work. Might be for a woman, maybe, but not for an able-bodied man. You know my sentiments on that point well enough. In the second place, when I asked you two to come and live with me, there was no longer any need for him to do that sort of thing. And you understood that too."
Edith sighs and nods her head.
"But still he goes on with his sissy paint daubing!" says Uncle.
"They're not daubs!" flashes back Edith. "Brooks has been doing some perfectly splendid work. Everyone says so."
"Humph!" says Uncle Jeff. "That's what your silly friends tell you. But it doesn't matter. I won't have him doing it in my house. You thought, just because I was crippled and couldn't get around or out of these confounded four rooms, that you could fool me. But you can't, you see. And now I'm going to give you and Brooks your choice,—either he stops painting, or out you both go. Now which will it be?"
"Why, Sir," says Brooks, speakin' up prompt but pleasant, "if that is the way you feel about it, we shall go."
"Eh?" says Uncle Jeff, squintin' hard at him. "Do you mean it? Want to leave all this for—for the one mean little room I found you in!"
"Under your conditions, most certainly, Sir," says Brooks. "I think Edith feels as I do. Don't you, Edith?"
"Ye-e-es, of course," says Mrs. Bladen. Then, turnin' on Uncle Jeff, "Only I think you are a mean, hard-hearted old man, even if you are my uncle! Oh, you don't know how often I've wanted to tell you so too,—always prying into this, asking questions about that, finding fault, forever cross and snappish and suspicious. A waspish, crabbed old wretch, that's what you are! I just hate you! So there!"
Uncle Jeff winces a little at these last jabs; but he only turns to Brooks and asks quiet, "And I suppose those are your sentiments too?"
"Edith is a little overwrought," says Brooks. "It's true enough that you're not quite an agreeable person to live with. Still, I hardly feel that I have treated you just right in this matter. I shouldn't have deceived you about the studio. When I found that I couldn't bear to give up my work and live like a loafer on your money, I should have told you so outright. I haven't liked it, Sir, all this dodging and twisting of the truth. I'm glad it's over. Would you prefer to have us go tonight or in the morning?"
"Come now, that's not the point," says Uncle Jeff. "You hate me, too, don't you?"
"No," says Brooks, "and I'm sure Edith doesn't either."
"Yes I do, Brooks," breaks in Edith.
Brooks shrugs his shoulders sort of hopeless.
"In that case," says he, "we shall leave at once—now. I will send around for our traps later. You have been very generous, and I'm afraid I've shown myself up for an ungrateful ass, if not worse. Goodby, Sir."
He stands there holdin' out his hand, with the old gent starin' hard at him and not movin'. Fin'lly Uncle Jeff breaks the spell.
"Well, I'll be hanged!" says he. "Bladen, I didn't think it was in you. I took you for one of the milksop kind; which shows just how big a fool an old fool can be. And Edith is right. I'm a crazy, quarrelsome old wretch. It isn't all rheumatism, either. Some of it is disposition. And don't you go away thinking I've been generous, trying to tie you two young people down this way. It was rank selfishness. But you don't know how hard it comes, being shut up like this and able only to move around on wheels—after the life I've led too! I suppose I ought to be satisfied. I've had my share—nearly thirty years on the go, in jungle, forest, mountains, all over the globe. I've hunted big game in every—but you know all about that. And now I suppose I'm worn out, useless. I was trying to get used to it, and having you young folks around has helped a lot. But it hasn't been fair to you—not fair."
He sort of chokes up at the end, and his lower lip trembles some; but only for a second. He straightens up once more in his chair. "You must try to make allowances, Edith," he goes on. "Don't—don't hate the old wretch too hard!"
That got to her, all right. She' wa'n't gush all the way through, any more'n Uncle Jeff was all crust. Next thing he knew she was givin' him the fond tackle and sobbin' against his vest.
"There, there!" says he, pattin' her soothin'. "We all make our mistakes, old and young; only us old fellows ought to know better."
"But—but they aren't daubs!" sobs out Edith. "And—and you said they were, without even seeing them."
"Just like me," says he. "And I'm no judge, anyway. But perhaps I'd better take a look at some of them. How would that be, eh? Couldn't Tupper bring a couple of them down now?"
"Oh, may he?" says Edith, brightenin' up and turnin' off the sprayer. "I have wished that you could see them, you know."
So Tupper is sent for a couple of paintings, and Brooks chases along to bring down two more. They ranges 'em on chairs, and wheels Uncle Jeff into a good position. He squints at 'em earnest and tries hard to work up some enthusiasm.
"Ferryboats, sugar refineries, and the North River," says he. "All looks natural enough. I suppose they're well done too; but—but see here, young man, couldn't you find anything better to paint?"
"Where?" says Brooks. "You see, I was able to get out only occasionally without——"
"I see," says Uncle Jeff. "Tied to a cranky old man in a wheel chair. But, by George! I could take you to places worth wasting your paint on. Ever heard of Yangarook? There's a pink mountain there that rises up out of a lake, and on still mornings—well, you ought to see it! I pitched my camp there once for a fortnight. I could find it again. You go in from Boola Bay, up the Zambesi, and through the jungle. Then there's the Khula Klaht valley. That's in the Himalayas. Pictures? Why, you could get 'em there!"
"I've no doubt I could, Sir," says Brooks. "I've dreamed of doing something like that some day, too. But what's the use?"
"Eh?" says Uncle Jeff, almost standin' up in his excitement. "Why not, my boy? I could take you there, chair or no chair. Didn't I go in a litter once, halfway across Africa, when a clumsy Zulu beater let a dying rhino gore me in the hip? Yes, and bossed a caravan of sixty men, and me flat on my back! I'm better able to move now than I was then, too. And I'm ready to try it. Another year of this, and I'd be under the ground. I'm sick of being cooped up. I'm hungry for a breath of mountain air, for a glimpse of the old trails. No use taking my guns; but you could lug along your painting kit, and Edith could take care of both of us. We could start within a week. What do you say, you two?"
Brooks he looks over at Edith. "Oh, Uncle Jeff!" says she, her eyes sparklin'. "I should just love it!"
"I could ask for nothing better," says Brooks.
"Then it's settled," says Uncle Jeff, reachin' out a hand to each of 'em. "Hurrah for the long trail! We're off!"
"Me too," says I, "if that's all."
"Ah!" says Uncle Jeff. "Our young friend who's at the bottom of the whole of this. Here, Sir! I'm going to teach you a lesson that will make you cautious about gossiping with strange old men. Pick up that leopard skin at your feet."
"Yes, Sir," says I, holdin' it out to him.
"No, examine it carefully," says he. "That came from a beast I shot on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. It's the finest specimen of the kind in my whole collection. Throw it over your arm, you young scamp, and get along with you!"
And they're all grinnin' amiable as I backs out with my mouth open.
"What the deuce!" says Mr. Robert after lunch next day, as he gazes first at a big package a special messenger has just left, and then at a note which comes with it. "'The Palisades at Dusk'—five hundred dollars?"
"Gee!" I gasps. "Did he sting you that hard?"
"But it's receipted," says he, "with the compliments of Brooks Bladen. What does that mean?"
"Means I'm some buyer, I guess," says I. "Souvenir of a little fam'ly reunion I started, that's all. But you ain't the only one. Wait till you see what I drew from Uncle Jeff."
GLADYS IN A DOUBLE BILL
He meant well, Mr. Robert did; but, say, between you and me, he come blamed near spillin' the beans. Course, I could see by the squint to his eyelids that he's about to make what passes with him for a comic openin'.
"I hate to do it, Torchy," says he, "especially on such a fine afternoon as this."
"Go on," says I, "throw the harpoon! Got your yachtin' cap on, ain't you? Well, have I got to sub for you at a directors' meeting or what?"
"Worse than that," says he. "You see, Marjorie and Ferdy are having a veranda tea this afternoon, up at their country house."
"Help!" says I. "But you ain't billin' me for any such——"
"Oh, not exactly that," says he. "They can get along very well without me, and I shall merely 'phone out that Tubby Van Orden has asked me to help try out his new forty-footer. But there remains little Gladys. I'd promised to bring her out with me when I came."
"Ye-e-e-es?" says I doubtful. "She's a little joker, eh?"
"Why, not at all," says he. "Merely a young school friend of Marjorie's. Used to be in the kindergarten class when Marjorie was a senior, and took a great fancy to her, as little girls sometimes do to older ones, you know."
Also it seems little Gladys had been spendin' a night or so with another young friend in town, and someone had to round her up and deliver her at the tea, where her folks would be waitin' for her.
"So I'm to take her by the hand and tow her up by train, am I?" says I.
"I had planned," says Mr. Robert, shakin' his head solemn, "to have you go up in the machine with her, as Marjorie wants to send someone back in it—Miss Vee, by the way. Sure it wouldn't bore you?"
"Z-z-z-ing!" says I. "Say, if it does you'll never hear about it, believe me!"
Mr. Robert chuckles. "Then take good care of little Gladys," says he.
"Won't I, though!" says I. "I'll tell her fairy tales and feed her stick candy all the way up."
Honest, I did blow in a quarter on fancy pink gumdrops as I'm passin' through the arcade; but when I strolls out to the limousine Martin touches his hat so respectful that I gives him a dip into the first bag.
"Got your sailin' orders, ain't you, Martin?" says I. "You know we collect a kid first."
"Oh, yes, Sir," says he. "Madison avenue. I have the number, Sir." Just like that you know. "I have the number, Sir"—and more business with the cap brim. Awful bore, ain't it, specially right there on Broadway with so many folks to hear?
"Very well," says I, languid. Then it's me lollin' back on the limousine cushions and starin' haughty at the poor dubs we graze by as they try to cross the street. Gee, but it's some different when you're inside gazin' out, than when you're outside gawpin' in! And even if you don't have the habit reg'lar, but are only there just for the time bein', you're bound to get that chesty feelin' more or less. I always do. About the third block I can look slant-eyed at the cheap skates ridin' in hired taxis and curl the lip of scorn.
I've noticed, though, that when I work up feelin's like that there's bound to be a bump comin' to me soon. But I wasn't lookin' for this one until it landed. Martin pulls up at the curb, and I hops out, rushes up the steps, and rings the bell.
"Little Miss Gladys ready?" says I to the maid.
She sort of humps her eyebrows and remarks that she'll see. With that she waves me into the reception hall, and pretty soon comes back to report that Miss Gladys will be down in a few minutes. She had the real skirt notion of time, that maid. For more'n a solid half-hour I squirms around on a chair wonderin' what could be happenin' up in the nursery. Then all of a sudden a chatter of goodbys comes from the upper hall, a maid trots down and hands me a suitcase, and then appears this languishin' vision in the zippy French lid and the draped silk wrap.
It's one of these dinky brimless affairs, with skyrocket trimmin' on the back, and it fits down over her face like a mush bowl over Baby Brother; but under the rim you could detect some chemical blonde hair and a pair of pink ears ornamented with pearl pendants the size of fruit knife handles. She has a complexion to match, one of the kind that's laid on in layers, with the drugstore red only showing through the whitewash in spots, and the lips touched up brilliant. Believe me, it was some artistic makeup!
Course, I frames this up for the friend; so I asks innocent, "Excuse me, but when is little Miss Gladys comin'?"
"Why, I'm Gladys!" comes from between the carmine streaks.
I gawps at her, then at the maid, and then back at the Ziegfeld vision again. "But, see here!" I goes on. "Mr. Robert he says how——"
"Yes, I know," she breaks in. "He 'phoned. The stupid old thing couldn't come himself, and he's sent one of his young men. That's much nicer. Torchy, didn't he say? How odd! But come along. Don't stand there staring. Good-by, Marie. You must do my hair this way again sometime."
And next thing I know I'm helpin' her into the car, while Martin tries to smother a grin. "There you are!" says I, chuckin' her suitcase in after her. "I—I guess I'll ride in front."
"What!" says she. "And leave me to take that long ride all alone? I'll not do it. Come in here at once, or I'll not go a step! Come!"
No shrinking violet about Gladys, and as I climbs in I shakes loose the last of that kindergarten dope I'd been primed with. I'll admit I was some fussed for awhile too, and I expect I does the dummy act, sittin' there gazin' into the limousine mirror where she's reflected vivid. I was tryin' to size her up and decide whether she really was one of the chicken ballet, or only a high school imitation. I'm so busy at it that I overlooks the fact that she has the same chance of watchin' me.
"Well?" says she, as we swings into Central Park. "I trust you approve?"
"Eh?" says I, comin' out of the trance. "Oh, I get you now. You're waitin' for the applause. Let's see, are you on at the Winter Garden, or is it the Casino roof?"
"Now don't be rude," says she. "Whatever made you think I'd been on the stage?"
"I was only judgin' by the get-up," says I. "It's fancy, all right."
"Pooh!" says she. "I've merely had my hair done the new way. I think it's perfectly dear too. There's just one little touch, though, that Marie didn't quite get. I wonder if I couldn't—you'll not care if I try, will you?"
"Oh, don't mind me," says I.
She didn't. She'd already yanked out three or four hatpins and has pried off the zippy lid.
"There, hold that, will you?" says she, crowdin' over into the middle of the seat so's to get a good view in the mirror, and beginnin' to revise the scenic effect on her head. Near as I can make out, the hair don't come near enough to meetin' her eyebrows in front or to coverin' her ears on the side.
Meanwhile she goes on chatty, "I suppose Mother'll be wild again when she sees me like this. She always does make such a row if I do anything different. There was an awful scene the first time I had my hair touched up. Fancy!"
"I was wonderin' if that was the natural tint?" says I.
"Goodness, no!" says Gladys. "It was a horrid brown. And when I used to go to the seminary they made me wear it braided down my back, with a bow on top. I was a sight! The seminary was a stupid place, though. I was always breaking some of their silly rules; so Mummah sent me to the convent. That was better. Such a jolly lot of girls there, some whose mothers were great actresses. And just think—two of my best chums have gone on the stage since! One of them was married and divorced the very first season too. Now wasn't that thrilling? Mother is furious because she still writes to me. How absurd! And some of the others she won't allow me to invite to the house. But we meet now and then, just the same. There were two in our box party last night, and we had such a ripping lark afterward!"
Gladys was runnin' on as confidential as if she'd known me all her life, interruptin' the flow only when she makes a jab with the powder-puff and uses the eyebrow pencil. And bein' as how I'd been cast for a thinkin' part I sneaks out the bag of gumdrops and tucks one into the off side of my face. The move don't escape her, though.
"Candy?" says she, sniffin'.
"Sorry I can't offer you a cigarette," says I, holdin' out the bag.
"Humph!" says she. "I have smoked them, though. M-m-m-m! Gumdrops! You dear boy!"
Yes, Gladys and me had a real chummy time of it durin' that hour's drive, and I notice she put away her share of the candy just as enthusiastic as if she'd been a kid in short dresses. As a matter of fact, she acts and talks like any gushy sixteen-year-old. That's about what she is, I discovers; though I wouldn't have guessed it if she hadn't let it out herself.
But, say, she's some wise for her years, little Gladys is, or else she's a good bluffer! She had me holdin' my breath more'n once, as she opens up various lines of chatter. She'd seen all the ripe problem plays, was posted on the doin's of the Reno colony, and read the Robert Chambers stuff as fast as it came out.
And all the time she talks she's goin' through target practice with her eyes, usin' me as the mark. A lively pair of lamps Gladys has too, the big, innocent, baby-blue kind that sort of opens up wide and kind of invites you to gaze into the depths until you get dizzy. Them and the little, openin' rosebud mouth makes a strong combination, and if it hadn't been for the mural decorations I might have fallen hard for Gladys; but ever since I leaned up against a shiny letterbox once I've been shy of fresh paint. So I proceeds to hand out the defensive josh.
"Roll 'em away, Sis," says I, "roll 'em the other way!"
"Pooh!" says she. "Can't a person even look at you?"
"You're only wastin' ammunition," says I. "You can't put any spell on me, you know."
"Oh, really!" says she, rakin' me with a quick broadside. "Do you mean that you don't like me at all?"
"Since you've called for it," says I, "I'll admit I ain't strong for these spotlight color schemes, specially on kids."
"Kids!" she sputters. "I think you're perfectly horrid, so there!"
"Stick to it," says I. "Makes me feel better satisfied with myself."
"Redhead!" says she, runnin' her tongue out.
"Yes, clear to the roots," says I, "and the tint didn't come out of a bottle, either."
"I don't care," says she. "All the girls do it."
"Your bunch, maybe," says I; "but there's a few that don't."
"Old sticks, yes," says she. "I'm glad you like that kind. You're as bad as Mummah."
"Is that the worst you can say of me?" says I. "How that would please Mother!"
Oh, sure, quite a homelike little spat we had, passin' the left handers back and forth—and inside of five minutes she has made it all up again and is holdin' out her hand for the last gumdrop.
"You're silly; but you're rather nice, after all," says she, poutin' her lips at me.
"Now quit that," says I. "I got my fingers crossed."
"'Fraid cat!" says she. "But here's the house, and we're frightfully early. Now don't act as though you thought I might bite you. I'm going to take your arm."
She does too, and cuddles up kittenish as we lands at the porte cochere. I gets the idea of this move. She's caught a glimpse of a little group over by the front door, and she wants to make a showy entrance.
And who do you guess it is we finds arrangin' the flower vases? Oh, only Marjorie and Miss Vee. Here I am too, with giddy Gladys, the imitation front row girl, clingin' tight to my right wing. You should have seen Vee's eyebrows go up, also Marjorie's stare. It's a minute or so before she recognizes our little friend, and stands there lookin' puzzled at us. Talk about your embarrassin' stage waits! I could feel my face pinkin' up and my ears tinglin'.
"Ah, say," I breaks out, "don't tell me I've gone and collected the wrong one!"
At that there comes a giggle from under the zippy lid.
"Why, it's Gladys!" says Marjorie. "Well, I never!"
"Of course, you dear old goose!" says Gladys, and rushes to a clinch.
"But—but, Gladys!" says Marjorie, holdin' her off for another inspection. "How you have—er—grown up! Why, your mother never told me a word!"
"Oh, Mummah!" says she, indicatin' deep scorn. "Besides, she hasn't seen me for nearly two days, and—well, I suppose she will fuss, as usual, about the way I'm dressed. But I've had a perfectly glorious visit, and coming up in the car with dear Torchy was such sport. Wasn't it, now?" With which she turns to me.
"Was it?" says I, and I notices both Vee and Marjorie gazin' at me int'rested.
"Of course," says Gladys, prattlin' on, "we quarreled all the way up; but it was all his fault, and he—oh, phsaw! Here come my dear parents."
Takin' Gladys as a sample, you'd never guessed it; for Mother is a quiet, modest appearin' little party, with her wavy brown hair parted in the middle and brushed back low. She's wearin' her own complexion too, and, while she's dressed more or less neat and stylish, she don't sport ear danglers, or anything like that. With Father in the background she comes sailin' up smilin', and it ain't until she gets a peek under the mush-bowl lid that her expression changes.
"Why, Gladys!" she gasps.
"Now, Mummah!" protests Gladys peevish. "For goodness sake don't begin—anyway, not here!"
"But—but, my dear!" goes on Mother, starin' at her shocked. "That—that hat! And your hair! And—and your face!"
"Oh, bother!" says Gladys, stampin' her high-heeled pump. "You'd like to have me dress like Cousin Tilly, I suppose?"
"But you know I asked you not to—to have that done to your hair again," says Mother.
"And I said I would, so there!" says Gladys emphatic.
Mother sighs and turns to Father, who is makin' his inspection with a weary look on his face. He's just an average, stout-built, good-natured lookin' duck, Father is, a little bald in front, and just now he's rubbin' the bald spot sort of aimless.
"You see, Arthur," says Mother. "Can't you do something?"
First Father scowls, and then he flushes up. "Why—er—ah—oh, blast it all, Sallie, don't put it up to me!" says he. Then he pulls out a long black cigar, bites the end off savage, and beats it around the corner.
That was a brilliant move of his; for Mother turns out to be one of the weepy kind, and in a minute more she's slumped into a chair and is sobbin' away. She's sure she don't know why Gladys should do such things. Hadn't she forbid her to use so much rouge and powder? Hadn't she asked her not to wear those hideous ear jewels? And so on and so on, with Gladys standin' back poutin' defiant. But, say, when they get too big to spank, what else can Father and Mother do?
Fin'lly Vee seems to have an idea. She whispers it into Marjorie's ear, slips into the house, and comes back with a hand mirror and a damp washcloth, which she proceeds to offer to Gladys, suggestin' that she use it.
"Indeed I sha'n't!" says Gladys, her big eyes flashin' scrappy. "I shall stay just as I am, and if Mother wants to be foolish she can get over it, that's all!" And Gladys switches over to a porch chair and slams herself into it.
Vee looks at her a minute, and then bites her upper lip like she was keepin' back some remarks. Next she whispers again to Marjorie, who passes it on to Mother, and then the three of 'em disappears in the house, leavin' Gladys poutin' on one side of the front door, and me in a porch swing on the other waitin' for the next act.
Must have been ten minutes or more before the two plotters appears again, chattin' away merry with Mother, who's between 'em. And, say, you should have seen Mother! Talk about your startlin' changes! They'd been busy with the make-up box, them two had, and now Mother's got on just as much war paint as Daughter—maybe a little more. Also they've dug up a blond transformation somewhere, which covers up all the brown hair, and they've fitted her out with long jet earrings, and touched up her eyebrows—and, believe me, with all that yellow hair down over her eyes, and the rouged lips, she looks just like she'd strayed in from the White Light district!
You wouldn't think just a little store hair and face calcimine could make such a change in anybody. Honest, when I tumbles to the fact that this sporty lookin' female is only Mother fixed up I almost falls out of the swing! That's nothin' to the jolt that gets to Gladys.
"Mother!" she gasps. "Wha—what have you been doing?"
"Why, I've been getting ready for the tea, Gladys," says she.
"But—but, Mother," says Gladys, "you're never going to let people see you like that, are you?"
"Why not, my dear?" says Mother.
"But your face—ugh!" says Gladys.
"Oh, bother!" says Mother. "I suppose you'd like to have me look like Aunt Martha?"
Gladys stares at her for awhile with her eyes wide and set, like she was watchin' somethin' horrible that she couldn't turn away from, and then she goes to pieces in a weepin' fit of her own. Nobody interferes, and right in the midst of it she breaks off, marches over to a wicker porch table where the mirror and washcloth had been left, props the glass up against a vase, and goes to work. First off she sheds the pearl earrings.
At that Mother sits down opposite and follows suit with her jet danglers.
Next Gladys mops off the scenic effect.
Marjorie produces another washcloth, and Mother makes a clean sweep too.
Gladys snatches out a handful of gold hairpins, destroys the turban twist that Marie had spent so much time buildin' up, and knots 'er hair simple in the back.
Mother caps this by liftin' off the blond transformation.
And as I left for a stroll around the grounds they'd both got back to lookin' more or less nice and natural. They had gone to a close clinch and was sobbin' affectionate on each other's shoulders.
Later the tea got under way and went on as such things generally do, with folks comin' and goin', and a buzz of chin music that you could hear clear out to the gate, where I was waitin' with Martin until we should get the signal to start back.
I didn't know just how it would be, but I suspected I might be invited to ride in front on the home trip. I'd made up my mind to start there, anyway. But, say, when the time comes and Vee trips out to the limousine, where I'm holdin' the door open and lookin' sheepish, I takes a chance on a glance into them gray eyes of hers. I got a chill too. It's only for a second, though. She was doing her best to look cold and distant; but behind that I could spot a smile. So I changes the programme.
"Say," says I, followin' her in and shuttin' the door, "wa'n't that kid Gladys the limit, though?"
"Why," says she, givin' me the quizzin' stare, "I thought you had just loads of fun coming up."
"Hearing which cruel words," says I, "our hero strode moodily into his castle."
Vee snickers at that. "And locked the haughty maiden out in the cold, I suppose?" says she.
"If it was you," says I, "I'd take the gate off the hinges."
"Silly!" says she. "Do you know, Gladys looked real sweet afterward."
"I'll bet the reform don't last, though," says I. "But that was a great scheme of yours for persuadin' her to scrub off the stencil work. There's so many of that kind nowadays, maybe the idea would be worth copyrightin'. What do you think, Vee?"
Never mind the rest, though. We had a perfectly good ride back, and up to date Aunty ain't wise to it.
Of course by next mornin' too Mr. Robert has forgot all about the afternoon before, and he seems surprised when I puts in an expense bill of twenty-five cents.
"What's this for?" says he.
"Gumdrops for little Gladys," says I, and as he forks over a quarter I never cracks a smile.
Wait until he hears the returns from Marjorie, though! I'll give him some string to pay up for that kindergarten steer of his. Watch me!
LATE RETURNS ON POPOVER
"Well?" says I, keepin' my feet up on the desk and glancin' casual over the brass rail. "What's your complaint, Spaghetti?"
It's a wrong guess, to begin with; but I wa'n't even takin' the trouble to place him accurate. He's some kind of a foreigner, and that's enough. Besides, from the fidgety way he's grippin' his hat in both hands, and the hesitating sidlin' style he has of makin' his approach, I figured he must be a stray that had got the wrong number.
"If—if you please, Sir," says he, bowin' elaborate and humble, "Mr. Robert Ellins."
"Gwan!" says I. "You read that on the floor directory. You don't know Mr. Robert."
"But—but if you please, Sir," he goes on, "I wish to speak with him."
"You do, eh?" says I. "Now, ain't that cute of you? Think you can pick out any name on the board and drift in for a chat, do you? Come now, what you peddlin'—dollar safety-razors, bullpups, or what?"
He ain't a real live wire, this heavy-faced, wide-shouldered, squatty-built party with the bumper crop of curly black hair. He blinks his big, full eyes kind of solemn, starin' at me puzzled, and about as intelligent as a cow gazin' over a fence. An odd lookin' gink he was, sort of a cross between a dressed up bartender on his day off and a longshoreman havin' his picture taken.
"Excuse," says he, rousin' a little, "but—but it is not to peddle. I would wish to speak with Mr. Robert Ellins."
"Well, then, you can't," says I, wavin' towards the door; "so beat it!"
This don't make any more impression than as if I'd tried to push him over with one finger. "I would wish," he begins again, "to speak with——"
"Say, that's all on the record," says I, "and the motion's been denied."
"But I——" he starts in once more, "I have——"
Just then Piddie comes turkeyin' over pompous and demands to know what all the debate is about.
"Look what wants to see Mr. Robert!" says I.
"Impossible!" says Piddie, takin' one look. "Send him away at once!"
"Hear that?" says I to Curlylocks. "Not a chance! Fade, Spaghetti, fade!"
The full force of that decision seems to penetrate his nut; for he gulps hard once or twice, the muscles on his thick throat swells up rigid, and next a big round tear leaks out of his off eye and trickles down over his cheek. Maybe it don't look some absurd too, seein' signs of such deep emotion on a face like that.
"Now, none of that, my man!" puts in Piddie, who's as chicken hearted as he is peevish. "Torchy, you—you attend to him."
"What'll I do," says I, "call in a plumber to stop the leak?"
"Find out who he is and what he wants," says he, "and then pack him off. I am very busy."
"Well," says I, turnin' to the thick guy, "what's the name?"
"Me?" says he. "I—I am Zandra Popokoulis."
"Help!" says I. "Popo—here, write it on the pad." But even when he's done that I can't do more than make a wild stab at sayin' it. "Oh yes, thanks," I goes on. "Popover for short, eh? Think Mr. Robert would recognise you by that?"
"Excuse, Sir," says he, "but at the club he would speak to me as Mike."
"Oh, at the club, eh?" says I. "Say, I'm beginnin' to get a glimmer. Been workin' at one of Mr. Robert's clubs, have you?"
"I am his waiter for long time, Sir," says Popover.
Course, the rest was simple. He'd quit two or three months ago to take a trip back home, havin' been promised by the head steward that he could have his place again any time inside of a year. But imagine the base perfidy! A second cousin of the meat chef has drifted in meanwhile, been set to work at Popover's old tables, and the result is that when Mike reports to claim his job he gets the cold, heartless chuck.
"Why not rustle another, then?" says I.
You'd thought, though, to see the gloomy way he shakes his head, that this was the last chance he had left. I gather too that club jobs are fairly well paid, steadier than most kinds of work, and harder to pick up.
"Also," he adds, sort of shy, "there is Armina."
"Oh, always!" says I. "Bunch of millinery in the offing. It never fails. You're her steady, eh?"
Popover smiles grateful and pours out details. Armina was a fine girl, likewise rich—oh, yes. Her father had a flower jobbin' business on West 28th-st.—very grand. For Armina he had ideas. Any would-be son-in-law must be in business too. Yet there was a way. He would take in a partner with two hundred and fifty dollars cash. And Mr. Popokoulis had saved up nearly that much when he'd got this fool notion of goin' back home into his head. Now here he was flat broke and carryin' the banner. It was not only a case of goin' hungry, but of losin' out on the fair Armina. Hence the eye moisture.
"Yes, yes," says I. "But the weeps won't help any. And, even if Mr. Robert would listen to all this sad tale, it's ten to one he wouldn't butt in at the club. I might get a chance to put it up to him, though. Suppose you drop in to-morrow sometime, and I'll let you know."
"But I would wish," says Popover, "to speak with——"
"Ah, ditch it!" I breaks in weary. "Say, you must have been takin' militant lessons from Maud Malone. Look here! If you're bound to stick around and take a long chance, camp there on the bench. Mr. Robert's busy inside, now; but if he should get through before lunch—well, we'll see. But don't go bankin' on anything."
And it was a lovely sample of arrested mental anguish that I has before me for the next hour or so,—this Popokoulis gent, with his great, doughy face frozen into a blank stare, about as expressive as a half-baked squash pie, his eyes fixed on the opposite wall, and only now and then a spasm in his throat showin' that he was still thinkin' an occasional thought.
Course, Piddie discovers him after a while and demands pettish, "That person still here! Who is he?"
"Club waiter with a mislaid job," says I.
"What!" says Piddie. "A waiter? Just a common waiter?"
I couldn't begin to put in all the deep disgust that Piddie expresses; for, along with his fondness for gettin' next to swell people, he seems to have a horror of mixin' at all with the common herd. "Waiters!" he sniffs. "The scum of mankind. If they had a spark of courage, or a gleam of self respect, or a teaspoonful of brains, they wouldn't be waiters. Bah!"
"Also I expect," says I, "if they was all noble specimens of manhood like us, Sherry's and Rector's would have to be turned into automatic food dispensaries, eh?"
"No fear!" says Piddie. "The lower classes will always produce enough spineless beings to wear aprons and carry trays. Look at that one there! I suppose he never has a thought or an ambition above——"
Bz-z-z-zt! goes the buzzer over my desk, and I'm off on the jump for Mr. Robert's room. I wa'n't missin' any of his calls that mornin'; for a partic'lar friend of mine was in there—Skid Mallory. Remember Skid, the young college hick that I helped find his footin' when he first hit the Corrugated? You know he married a Senator's daughter, and got boosted into an assistant general manager's berth. And Skid's been making good ever since. He'd just come back from a little trip abroad, sort of a delayed weddin' tour, and you can't guess what he'd pulled off.
I'd only heard it sketched out so far, but it seems while him and young Mrs. Mallory was over there in Athens, or some such outlandish place, this late muss with the Turks was just breakin' loose. Skid he leaves Wifey at the hotel one mornin' while he goes out for a little stroll; drifts down their Newspaper Row, where the red ink war extras are so thick the street looks like a raspberry patch; follows the drum music up as far as City Hall, where the recruits are bein' reviewed by the King; listens to the Greek substitute for "Buh-ruh-ruh! Soak 'em!" and the next thing he knows he's wavin' his lid and yellin' with the best of 'em.
It must have stirred up some of that old football fightin' blood of his; for he'd organized a regular cheerin' section, right there opposite to the royal stand, and was whoopin' things up like it was fourth down and two to go on the five-yard line, when all of a sudden over pikes a Colonel or something from the King's staff and begins poundin' Skid on the back gleeful.
It's a young Greek that used to be in his engineerin' class, back in the dear old college days. He says Skid's just the man he wants to come help him patch up the railroad that the Turks have been puttin' on the blink as they dropped back towards headquarters. Would he? Why, him bein' railroad construction expert of the Corrugated, this was right in his line! Sure he would!
And when Mrs. Mallory sees him again at lunchtime he's all costumed as a Major in the Greek army, and is about to start for the scene of atrocities. That's Skid, all over. He wasn't breathin' out any idle gusts, either. He not only rebuilds their bloomin' old line better'n new, so they can rush soldiers and supplies to the front; but after the muss is all over he springs his order book on the gover'ment and lands such a whackin' big contract for steel rails and girders that Old Hickory decides to work day and night shifts in two more rollin' mills.
Course, since it was Mr. Robert who helped me root for Skid in the first place, he's tickled to death, and he tells me confidential how they're goin' to get the directors together at a big banquet that evenin' and have a reg'lar lovefeast, with Skid at the head of the table.
Just now I finds Mr. Robert pumpin' him for some of the details of his experience over there, and after I lugs in an atlas they sent me out for, so Skid can point out something on the map, I just naturally hangs around with my ear stretched.
"Ah, that's the place," says Skid, puttin' his finger on a dot, "Mustapha! Well, it was about six miles east from there that we had our worst job. Talk about messes! Those Turks may not know how to build a decent railroad, but believe me they're stars at wrecking a line thoroughly! At Mustapha they'd ripped up the rails, burned the ties, and blown great holes in the roadbed with dynamite. But I soon had a dozen grading gangs at work on that stretch, and new bridges started, and then I pushed on alone to see what was next.
"That was when I got nearest to the big noise. Off across the hills the Turks were pounding away with their heavy guns, and I was anxious for a look. I kept going and going; but couldn't find any of our people. Night was shutting in too, and the first thing I knew I wasn't anywhere in particular, with nothing in sight but an old sheep pen. I tried bunking there; but it wasn't restful, and before daylight I went wandering on again. I wanted to locate our advance and get a cup of coffee.
"I must have gone a couple of miles farther, and it was getting light, when a most infernal racket broke loose not one hundred yards ahead. Really, you know, I thought I'd blundered into the midst of a battle. Then in a minute the noise let up, and the smoke blew away, and there, squatting behind a machine gun up on the side of a hill, was one lone Greek soldier. Not another soul in sight, mind you; just this absurd, dirty, smoke-stained person, calmly feeding another belt of cartridges into his gun!
"'Hello!' says I. 'What the deuce are you doing here?'—'Holding the hill, Sir,' says he, in good United States. 'Not all alone?' says I. He shrugs his shoulders at that. 'The others were killed or hurt,' says he. 'The Red Cross people took them all away last night,—Lieutenant, Sergeant, everyone. But our battery must keep the hill.' 'Where's the rest of the advance, though?' says I. 'I don't know,' says he. 'And you mean to say,' says I, 'you've been here all night with the Turkish artillery hammering away at you?' 'They are bad shots, those Turks, very bad,' says he. 'Also they send infantry to drive me away, many times. See! There come some more. Down there! Ah-r-r-r! You will, will you?' And with that he turns loose his big pepperbox on a squad that had just started to dash out of a ravine and rush him. They were coming our way on the jump. Scared? Say, if there'd been anything to have crawled into, I'd have been in it! As there wasn't, I just flattened myself on the ground and waited until it was all over.
"Oh, he crumpled 'em up, all right! He hadn't ground out one belt of cartridges before he had 'em on the run. But I want to tell you I didn't linger around to see how the next affair would turn out. I legged it back where I'd come from, and by nine o'clock I was behind our own lines, trying to find out what sort of campaign this was that left one machine gun to stave off the whole Turkish army. Of course no one knew anything very definite. The best guess was that our advance had been swung off for a flank movement, and that this particular one-man battery had been overlooked. I don't even know whether he was picked up again, or whether the Turks finally got him; but let me tell you, talk as much about your gallant Bulgarians as you like, some of those little Greeks were good fighters too. Anyway, I'll take off my hat any day to that one on the hill."
"Gee!" I breaks out. "Some scrapper, what?"
At which Mr. Robert swings around and gives me a look. "Ah!" says he. "I hadn't realized, Torchy, that we still had the pleasure of your company."
"Don't mention it," says I. "I was just goin' to—er—by the way, Mr. Robert, there's a poor scrub waitin' outside for a word with you, an old club waiter. Says you knew him as Mike."
"Mike?" says he, looking blank.
"His real name sounds like Popover," says I. "It's a case of retrievin' a lost job."
"Oh, very well," says Mr. Robert. "Perhaps I'll see him later. Not now. And close the door after you, please."
So I'm shunted back to the front office, so excited over that war story that I has to hunt up Piddie and pass it on to him. It gets him too. Anything in the hero line always does, and this noble young Greek doin' the come-one-come-all act was a picture that even a two-by-four imagination like Piddie's couldn't fail to grasp.
"By Jove, though!" says he. "The spirit of old Thermopylae all over again! I wish I could have seen that!"
"As close as Skid did?" says I. "Ah, you'd have turned so green they'd taken you for a pickled string bean."
"Oh, I don't pretend to be a daredevil," admits Piddie, with a sudden rush of modesty. "Still, it is a pity Mr. Mallory did not stay long enough to find out the name of this unknown hero, and give it to the world."
"The moral of which is," says I, "that all heroes ought to carry their own press agents with 'em."
We'd threshed it all out, Piddie and me, and I'd gone back to my desk some reluctant, for this jobless waiter was still sheddin' his gloom around the reception room, and I was just thinkin' how it would be to put a screen in front of him, when Mr. Robert and Skid comes out arm in arm, swappin' josh about that banquet that was to be pulled off.
"Of course you'll come." Mr. Robert is insistin'. "Only a few directors, you know. No, no set speeches, or anything like that. But they'll want to hear how you came to get that big order, and about some of the interesting things you saw over there, just as you've told me."
I had hopped up and was holdin' the gate wide open, givin' Skid all the honors, and Mr. Robert was escortin' him out to the elevator, when I notices that this Popover party has got his eye on the boss and is standin' right where he's blockin' the way.
"Hey, Poppy!" says I in a stage whisper. "Back out! Reverse yourself! Take a sneak!" But of all the muleheads! There he stands, grippin' his hat, and thinkin' only of that lost job.
"All right," Skid is saying; "but remember now, no floral tributes, or gushy introductions, or sitting in the spotlight for me at this—er—er—— Well, as I'm a living mortal!" He gets this last out after a gasp or two, and then stops stock still, starin' straight in front of him.
"What is it?" says Mr. Robert. "What's up?" And we sees that Skid Mallory has his eyes glued to this waiter shrimp.
"In the name of all that's good," says he, "where did you come from?"
You can't jar Popover, though, by any little thing like that. When he gets an idea in his dome it's a fixture there. "I would wish to speak," says he, "with Mr. Ellins."
"Yes, yes, another time," says Mr. Robert hasty.
"But see here!" says Skid, still gazin' steady. "Don't you remember me? Take a good look now."
Popover gives him a glance and shakes his head. "Maybe I serve you at the club, Sir," says he.
"Club be blowed!" says Skid. "The last time I saw you you were serving a machine gun, six miles east of Mustapha. Isn't that so?"
"Oh, Mustapha!" says Popover, his eyes lightin' up a little. "On the hill just beyond where the bridge was blown up? You came at the night's end. Oh, yes!"
"I knew it!" exclaims Skid. "I'd have bet a thousand—same curly hair, same shoulders, same eyes. Ellins, here's that lone hero I was telling you about. Here!"
"But—hut that's only Mike," says Mr. Robert, gazin' from one to the other. "Used to be a waiter at the club, you know."
"I don't care what he used to be," says Skid, "or what he is now, I want to shake hands with him."
Popover he pinks up and acts foolish about swappin' grips; but Skid insists.
"So you beat 'em out in the end, did you?" Skid goes on. "Just naturally put it all over that whole bunch of Turks, didn't you? But how did it happen?"
"I don't know," says Popover, fingerin' his hat nervous. "I am very busy all the time, and—and I have nothing to eat all night. You see, all other Greek soldiers was hurt; and me, I must stay to keep the Turks from the hill. Very busy time, Sir. And I am not much for fight, anyway."
"Great Scott!" says Skid. "He says he's not much for—but see here, how did it end?"
Popover gives a shoulder shrug. "Once more they run at me after you go," says he, "and then come our brave Greek General with big army and chase Turks away. And the Captain say why am I such big fool as to stay behind. That is all I know. Three weeks ago I am discharged from being soldier. Now I come back here, and I have no more my good job. I am much sorry."
"Think of that!" breaks out Skid. "Talk about the ingratitude of Republics! Why, England would have given him the Victoria Cross for that! But can't something or other be done about this job of his?"
"Why, certainly," says Mr. Robert. "Here, let's go back into my office."
"Hey, Popover," says I, steerin' him respectful through the gate. "Don't forget to tell them about Armina too."
And as the three of 'em streams in, with the waiter in the middle, I turns to find Piddie gazin' at the sight button-eyed.
"Wa'n't you sayin' how much you'd like to see the lone hero of the hill?" says I. "Well, take a good look. That's him, the squatty one. Uh-huh. Mike, alias Popover, who quit bein' a waiter to fight for his country, and after he'd licked all the Turks in sight comes pikin' back here to hunt around for his tray again. Say, all of 'em ain't such scum, are they?"
It was a great old banquet too; for Skid insists that if they must have a conquerin' hero to drink to Mr. Popokoulis is the only real thing in sight. Mike wouldn't stand for a seat at the table, though; so they compromised by havin' him act as head waiter. Skid tells the story just the same, and makes him stand out where they can all see him. There was some cheerin' done too. Mr. Robert was tellin' me about it only this mornin'.
"And you've got him his old place at the club, eh?" says I.
"No," says he. "I've arranged to buy out a half interest in a florist's shop for Mr. Popokoulis."
"Oh!" says I. "Backin' him for the Armina handicap, eh? It ought to be a cinch. Some chap, that Popover, even if he was a waiter, eh? It's tough on Piddie, though. This thing has tied all his ideas in double bow-knots."