Up to a few weeks ago all I knew about saws and screw-drivers and so on was that they were shiny things displayed in the hardware store windows. But if I keep on tacklin' all the odd jobs she sics me on to, I'll be able to qualify pretty soon as a boss carpenter, a master plumber, and an expert electrician.
Course, I gouge myself now and then. My knuckles look like I'd been mixin' in a food riot, and I've spoiled two perfectly good suits of clothes. But I can point with pride to at least three doors that I've coaxed into shuttin', I've solved the mystery of what happens to a window-weight when the sash-cord breaks, and I've rigged up two drop-lights without gettin' myself electrocuted or askin' any advice from Mr. Edison.
Which reminds me that what I can't seem to get used to about the country is the poor way it's lighted up at night. You know, our place is out a couple of miles from the village and the railroad station; and, while we got electric bulbs enough in the house, outside there ain't a lamp-post in sight. Dark! Say, after 8 P.M. you might as well be livin' in a sub-cellar with the sidewalk gratin' closed. Honest, the only glim we can see from our front porch is a flicker from the porte cochere at the Ellinses' up on the hill, and most of that is cut off by trees and lilac bushes.
Vee don't seem to mind, though. These mild evenin's recent, she's dragged me out after dinner for a spell and made me sit with her watchin' for the moon to come up. I do it, but it ain't anything I'm strong for. I can't see the percentage in starin' out at nothing at all but black space and guessin' where the driveway is or what them dark streaks are. Then, there's so many weird sounds I can't account for.
"What's all that jinglin' going on?" I asks the other evenin'. "Sounds like a squad of junkmen comin' up the pike."
"Silly!" says Vee. "Frogs, of course."
"Oh!" says I.
Then I listens some more, until something else breaks loose. It's sort of a cross between the dyin' moan of a gyastacutus and the whine of a subway express roundin' a sharp curve.
"For the love of Pete," I breaks out, "what do you call that?"
Vee chuckles. "Didn't you see the calf up at Mr. Robert's?" she asks. "Well, that's the old cow calling to him."
"If she feels as bad as that," says I, "I wish she'd wait until mornin' to express herself. That's the most doleful sound I ever heard. Come on; let's go in while you tinkle out something lively and cheerin' on the piano."
I never thought I was one of the timid kind, either. Course, I'm no Carnegie hero, or anything like that; but I've always managed to get along in the city without developin' a case of nerves. Out here, though, it's different. Two or three evenin's now I've felt almost jumpy, just over nothing at all, it seems.
Maybe that's why I didn't show up any better, here the other night, when Vee rings in this silent alarm on me. I was certainly poundin' my ear industrious when gradually I gets the idea that someone is shakin' me by the shoulders. It's Vee.
"Torchy," she whispers husky. "Get up."
"Eh?" says I, pryin' my eyes open reluctant. "Get up? Wha-wha' for?"
"Oh, don't be stupid about it," says she. "I've been trying to rouse you for five minutes. Please get up and come to the window."
"Nothing doing," says I snugglin' into the pillow again. "I—I'm busy."
"But you must," says she. "Listen. I think someone is prowling around the house."
"Let 'em ramble, then," says I. "What do we care?"
"But suppose it's a—a burglar?" she whispers.
I'll admit that gives me a goose-fleshy feelin' down the spine. It's such a disturbin' word to have sprung on you in the middle of the night.
"Let's not suppose anything of the sort," says I.
"But I'm sure I saw someone just now, when I got up to fix the shade," insists Vee. "Someone who stepped out into the moonlight right there, between the shadows of those two trees. Then he disappeared out that way. Come and look."
Well, I was up by then, and half awake, so I tries to peer out into the back yard. I'm all for grantin' a general alibi, though.
"Maybe you was only dreamin', Vee," says I. "Anyway, let's wait until mornin', and then——"
"There!" she breaks in excited. "Just beyond the garden trellis. See?"
Yep. There's no denyin' that someone is sneakin' around out there. First off I thought it might be a female in a white skirt and a raincoat; but when we gets the head showin' plain above some bushes we can make out a mustache.
"It's a man!" gasps Vee, clutchin' me by the sleeve.
"Uh-huh," says I. "So it is."
"Well?" says Vee.
I expect that was my cue to come across with the bold and noble acts. But, somehow, I didn't yearn to dash out into the moonlight in my pajamas and mix in rough with a total stranger. But I didn't mean to give it away if I could help it.
"Got a nerve, ain't he?" says I. "Let's wait; maybe he'll fall into the pond."
"How absurd!" says Vee. "No; we must do something right away."
"Of course," says I. "I'll shout and ask him what the blazes he thinks he's doin'."
"Don't," says Vee. "There may be others—in the house. And before you let him know you see him, you ought to be armed. Get your revolver."
At that I just gawped at Vee, for she knows well enough I don't own anything more deadly than a safety razor, and that all the gun-play I ever indulged in was once or twice at a Coney Island shootin' gallery where I slaughtered a clay pipe by aimin' at a glass ball.
"Whaddye mean, revolver?" I asks.
"S-s-s-sh!" says she. "There's that Turkish pistol, you know, that Mr. Shinn left hanging over the mantel in the living-room."
"Think it's loaded?" I whispers.
"It might be," says Vee. "Anyway, it's better than nothing. Let's get it."
"All right," says I. "Soon as I get something on. Just a sec."
So I jumps into a pair of trousers and a coat and some bath slippers, while Vee throws on a dressin'-sack. We feels our way sleuthy downstairs, and after rappin' my shins on a couple of rockers I gets down the old pistol. It's a curious, wicked-lookin' antique about two feet long, with a lot of carvin' and silver inlay on the barrel. I'd never examined the thing to see how it worked, but it feels sort of comfortin' just to grip it in my hand. We unlocks the back door easy.
"Now you stay inside, Vee," says I, "while I go scoutin' and——"
"No indeed," says Vee. "I am going too."
"But you mustn't," I insists.
"Hush!" says she. "I shall."
And she did. So we begins our first burglar hunt as a twosome, and I must say there's other sports I enjoy more. Out across the lawn we sneaks, steppin' as easy as we can, and keepin' in the shadow most of the time.
"Guess he must have skipped," says I.
"But he was here only a moment ago," says Vee. "Don't you know, we saw him—— Oh, oh!"
I don't blame her for gaspin'. Not twenty feet ahead of us, crouchin' down in the cabbage patch, is the villain. Just why he should be tryin' to hide among a lot of cabbage plants not over three inches high, I don't stop to think. All I knew was that here was someone prowlin' around at night on my premises, and all in a flash I begins to see red. Swingin' Vee behind me, I unlimbers the old pistol and cocks it. I didn't care whether this was the open season for burglars or not. I wanted to get this one, and get him hard.
Must have been a minute or more that I had him covered, tryin' to steady my arm so I could keep the muzzle pointed straight at his back, when all of a sudden he lifts his right hand and begins scratchin' his ear. Somehow, that breaks the spell. Why should a burglar hump himself on his hands and knees in a truck patch and stop to scratch his ear?
"Hey, you!" I sings out real crisp.
Maybe that ain't quite the way to open a line of chat with a midnight marauder. I've been kidded about it some since; but at the time it sounded all right. And it had the proper effect. He comes up on his toes with his hands in the air, like he was worked by springs.
"That's right; keep your paws up," says I. "And, remember, if you go to makin' any funny moves——"
"Why, Torchy!" exclaims Vee, grabbin' my shootin' arm. "It's Leon!"
"Wha-a-a-at!" says I, starin' at this wabbly party among the coldslaw.
But it's Professor Battou, all right. He's costumed in a night-shirt, an old overcoat, and a pair of rubbers; and he certainly does look odd, standin' there in the moonlight with his elbows up and his knees knockin' one another.
"Well, well, Leon!" says I, sighin' relieved. "So it's you, is it? And we had you all spotted as a second-story worker. All right; you don't need to hold the pose any longer. But maybe you'll tell us what you're crawlin' around out here in the garden for at this time of night."
He tried to, but he's had such a scare thrown into him that his conversation works are all gummed up. After we've led him into the house, though, and he's had a drink of spring water, he does a little better.
"It was to protect the cabbages, monsieur," says he.
"Eh?" says I. "Protect 'em from what?"
"There is a wicked worm," says Leon, "which does his evil work in the night. Ah, such a sly beast! And so destructive! Just at the top of the young root he eats—snip, snip! And in the morning I find that two, four, sometimes six tender plants he has cut off. I am enrage. 'Ha!' I say. 'I will discover you yet at your mischief.' So I cannot sleep for thinking. But I had found him; yes, two. And I was searching for more when monsieur——"
"Yes, I know," says I. He's glancin' worried at the old pistol I'm still holdin' in my hand. "My error, Leon. I might have guessed. And as the clock's just strikin' three, I think we'd all better hit the hay again. Come on, Vee; it's all over."
And, in spite of that half hour or so of time out, I was up earlier than usual in the mornin'. I had a little job to do that I'd planned out before I went to sleep again. As soon as I'm dressed I slips downstairs, takes that Turkish pistol, and chucks it into the middle of the pond. I'll never know whether it was loaded or not. I don't want to know. For if it had been—— Well, what's the use?
Comin' back in through the kitchen, I finds Leon busy dishin' up toast and eggs. He glances at me nervous, and then hangs his head. But he gets out what he has to say man fashion.
"I trust monsieur is not displeased," says he. "It was not wise for me to walk about at night. But those wicked worms! Still, if monsieur desires, it shall not occur again. I ask pardon."
"Now, that's all right, Leon," says I soothin'. "Don't worry. When it comes to playin' the boob act, I guess we split about fifty-fifty. I'd a little rather you didn't, but if you must hunt the wicked worm at night, why, go to it. You won't run any more risk of being shot up by me. For I've disarmed."
BACK WITH CLARA BELLE
And me kiddin' myself I was fairly well parlor-broke. It seems not. You'd 'most think, though, I'd had enough front-room trainin' to stand me through in a place like Harbor Hills. I had a wild idea, too, that when we moved into the country we'd tagged the reg'lar social stuff good-by.
That was a poor hunch. I'm just discoverin' that there's more tea fights and dinner dances and such goin's on out here in the commuter zone than in any five blocks of Fifth Avenue you can name. And it seems that anywhere within ten miles of this Piping Rock Club brings you into the most active sector. So here we are, right in the thick of things.
At that, I expect it might have been quite some time before we was bothered any if it hadn't been for our bein' sort of backed by the Robert Ellinses. As their friends we're counted in right off the reel. I've been joshed into lettin' my name go on the waitin' list at the Country Club; I'm allowed to subscribe to this and that; some of the neighbors have begun payin' first calls on Vee.
So I might have had sense enough to watch my step. Yet, here the other afternoon, when I makes an early getaway from the Corrugated and hops off the 5:17, I dashes across the back lots and comes into our place by the rear instead of the front drive. You see, I'd been watchin' a row of string-beans we had comin' along, and I wanted to spring the first ones on Vee. Sure enough, I finds three or four pods 'most big enough to eat; so I picks 'em and goes breezin' into the house, wavin' em gleeful.
"Oh, Vee!" I sings out, openin' the terrace door. "Come have a look."
And, as she don't appear on the jump, I keeps on into the livin'-room and calls:
"Hey! What do you know about these? Beans! Perfectly good——"
Well, that's as far as I gets, for there's Vee, sittin' behind the silver tea-urn, all dolled up; and Leon, in his black coat, holdin' a plate of dinky little cakes; and a couple of strange ladies starin' at me button-eyed. I'd crashed right into the midst of tea and callers.
Do I pull some easy johndrew lines and exit graceful? Not me. My feet was glued to the rug.
"Beans!" says I, grinnin' simple and danglin' the specimens. "Perfectly good string——"
Then I catches the eye of the stiff-necked dame with the straight nose and the gun-metal hair. No, both eyes, it was; and a cold, suspicious, stabby look is what they shoots my way. No wonder I chokes off the feeble-minded remarks and turns sort of panicky to Vee, half expectin' to find her blushin' painful or signalin' me to clear out. Nothing like that from Vee, though.
"Not ours, Torchy?" says she, slidin' out from behind the tea-table and rushin' over. "Not our very own?"
"Uh-huh!" says I. "Just picked 'em."
At which the other caller joins in unexpected.
"From your own garden?" says she. "How interesting! Oh, do show them to me."
"Why, sure," says I. "Guess we're doin' our bit, ain't we?"
She's a wide, dumpy-built old girl, and dressed sort of freaky. Also her line of talk is a kind of purry, throaty gush that's almost too soothin' to be true. But anybody who makes only half a bluff at being interested in our garden wins us. And not until she's inspected our first string-beans through her gold lorgnette, and remarked twice more how wonderful it was for us to raise anything like that, does it occur to Vee to introduce me proper to both ladies.
The tall, stiff-necked dame turns out to be Mrs. Pemberton Foote. Honest! Could you blame her for bein' jarred when I come bouncin' in with garden truck?
Think of it! Why, she's one of the super-tax brigade and moves among the smartest of the smart-setters. And Pemmy, he's on the polo team, you know.
Oh, reg'lar people, the Pembroke Footes are. And the very fact that Mrs. Foote is here callin' on Vee ought to have me thrilled to the bone.
Yet all I got sense enough to do is wave half-grown string-beans at her, and then sit by gawpy, balancin' a cup of tea on my knee, and watch her apply the refrigeratin' process to the dumpy old girl whose name I didn't quite catch. Say, but she does it thorough and artistic. Only two or three times did the dumpy one try to kick in on the chat, and when she does, Mrs. Pemmy rolls them glittery eyes towards her slow, givin' her the up-and-down like she was some kind of fat worm that had strayed in from the cucumber bed.
Can't these women throw the harpoon into each other ruthless, though? Why, you could see that old girl fairly squirm when she got one of them assault-and-battery glances. Her under lip would quiver a bit, she'd wink hard three or four times, and then she'd sort of collapse, smotherin' a sigh and not finishin' what she'd started out to say. She did want to be so folksy, too.
Course, she's an odd-lookin' party, with that bucket-shaped lid decorated with pale green satin fruit, and the piles of thick blondine hair that was turnin' gray, and her foolish big eyes with the puffy rolls underneath and the crows'-feet in the corners. And of course anybody with ankles suggestin' piano legs really shouldn't go in for high-tide skirts and white silk stockin's with black butterflies worked on 'em. Should they?
Still, she'd raved over our string-beans, so when she makes a last fluttery try at jimmyin' her way into the conversation, and Mrs. Foote squelches her prompt again, and she gives up for good, it's me jumpin' snappy to tow her out and tuck her in the limousine. Havin' made my escape, I stays outside until after Mrs. Pemmy has gone too, which don't happen for near half an hour later. But when I hears the front door shut on her, I sidles in at the back.
"Zowie!" says I. "You must have made more of a hit with our swell neighbor than I did, Vee."
Vee smiles quizzin' and shrugs her shoulders.
"I'm not so sure," says she. "I almost feel as though we had been visited by the Probation Officer, or someone like that."
"How do you mean?" says I.
"Of course," she goes on, "Mrs. Foote did not actually say that we were on trial socially, but she hinted as much. And she made it quite plain that unless we got started in the right set our case would be utterly hopeless."
"Just think of that!" says I. "Real sweet of her, eh? Sort of inspector general, is she? You should have asked her to show her badge, though."
"Oh, there's no doubt that she speaks with authority," says Vee. "She wasn't snippy about it, either. And chiefly she was trying to warn me against Mrs. Ben Tupper."
"The old girl with the pelican chin and the rovin' eyes?" I asks. "What's the matter with her besides her looks?"
Well, accordin' to Mrs. Pemmy Foote, there was a lot. She had a past, for one thing. She was a pushing, presumptuous person, for another. And, besides, this Benjamin Tupper party—the male of the species—was wholly impossible.
"You know who he is," adds Vee. "The tablet man."
"What?" says I. "'Tupper's Tablets for Indigestion—on Everybody's Tongue.' Him?"
Vee nods. "And they live in that barny stucco house just as you turn off Sagamore Boulevard—the one with the hideous red-tiled roof and the concrete lions in front."
"Goodness Agnes!" says I. "Folks have been indicted for less than that. I've seen Tupper, too; someone pointed him out goin' in on the express only the other mornin'. Looks like a returned Nihilist who'd been nominated in one of the back wards of Petrograd to run for the Duma on a free-vodka platform. He's got wiry whiskers that he must trim with a pair of tin-shears, tufts in his ears, and the general build of a performin' chimpanzee. Oh, he's a rare one, Tupper."
"Then," says Vee, sort of draggy, "I—I suppose Mrs. Foote is right. It's too bad, for that Mrs. Tupper did seem such a friendly old soul. And I shall feel so snobbish if I don't return her call."
"Huh!" says I. "I don't see why Mrs. Pemmy couldn't let you find out about her for yourself. Even if the old girl don't belong, what's the use bein' so rough with her?"
"Do you know, Torchy," says Vee, "I felt that way about it when Mrs. Foote was snubbing her. And yet—well, I wish I knew just what to do."
"Clean out of my line," says I.
I expect it was the roses that set me mullin' the case over again. They was sent over for Vee a couple of days later—half a dozen great busters, like young cabbages, with stems a yard long. They come with the compliments of Mrs. Ben Tupper.
"I simply couldn't send them back," says Vee; "and yet——"
"I get you," says I. "But don't worry. Let the thing ride a while. I got an idea."
It wasn't anything staggerin'. It had just struck me that if Vee had to hand out any social smears she ought to do it on her own dope, and not accordin' to Mrs. Pemmy Foote's say-so. Which is why I begins pumpin' information out of anybody that came handy. Goin' into town next mornin', I tackled three or four on the 8:03 in an offhand way.
Oh, yes, the Ben Tuppers! Business of hunchin' the shoulders. No, they didn't belong to the Country Club, nor the Hunt Association, nor figure on the Library or Hospital boards, or anything else. In fact, they don't mingle much. Hadn't made the grade. Barred? We-e-ell, in a way, perhaps. Why? Oh, there was Mrs. Ben. Wasn't she enough? An ex-actress with two or three hubbys in the discard! Could she expect people to swallow that?
Only one gent, though, had anything definite to offer. He's a middle-aged sport that seems to make a specialty of wearin' checked suits and yellow gloves. He chuckles when I mentions Mrs. Tupper.
"Grand old girl, Clara Belle," says he.
"Eh?" says I. "Shoot the rest."
"Couldn't think of it, son," says he. "You're too young. But in my day Clara Belle Kinney was some queen."
And that's all I can get out of him except more chuckles. I files away the name, though; and that afternoon, while we was waitin' for a quorum of directors to straggle into the General Offices, I springs it on Old Hickory.
"Mr. Ellins," says I, "did you ever know of a Clara Belle Kinney?"
"Wha-a-at?" he gasps, almost swallowin' his cigar. "Listen to that, Mason. Here's a young innocent asking if we ever knew Clara Belle Kinney. Did we?"
And old K. W. Mason, what does he do but throw back his shiny dome, open his mouth, and roar out:
"Yure right fut is crazy, Yure left fut is lazy, But if ye'll be aisy I'll teach ye to waltz!"
After which them two old cut-ups wink at each other rakish and slap their knees. All of which ain't so illuminatin'. But they keep on, mentionin' Koster Bial's and the Cork Room, until I can patch together quite a sketch of Mrs. Tupper's early career.
Seems she'd made her first hit in this old-time concert-hall when she was a sweet young thing in her teens. One of her naughty stunts was kickin' her slipper into an upper box, and gettin' it tossed back with a mash note in it, or maybe a twenty-dollar bill. Then she'd graduated into comic opera.
"Was there ever a Katishaw like her?" demands Old Hickory of K. W., who responds by hummin' husky:
"I dote upon a tiger From the Congo or the Niger, Especially when lashing of his tail."
And, while they don't go into details, I gathered that they'd been Clara Belle fans—had sent her orchids on openin' nights, and maybe had set up wine suppers for her and her friends. They knew about a couple of her matrimonial splurges. One was with her manager, of course; the next was a young broker whose fam'ly got him to break it off. After that they'd lost track of her.
"It seems to me," says Old Hickory, "that I heard she had married someone in Buffalo, or Rochester, and had quit the stage. A patent medicine chap, I think he was, who'd made a lot of money out of something or other. I wonder what has become of her?"
That was my cue, all right, but I passes it up. I wasn't talkin' just then; I was listenin'.
"Ah-h-h!" goes on Mr. Mason, foldin' his hands over his forward sponson and rollin' his eyes sentimental. "Dear Clara Belle! I say, Ellins, wouldn't you like to hear her sing that MacFadden song once more?"
"I'd give fifty dollars," says Old Hickory.
"I'd make it a hundred if she'd follow it with 'O Promise Me,'" says K. W. "What was her record—six hundred nights on Broadway, wasn't it?"
Say, they went on reminiscin' so long, it's a wonder the monthly meetin' ever got started at all. I might have forgot them hot-air bids of theirs, too, if it hadn't been for something Vee announces that night across the dinner-table.
Seems that Mrs. Robert Ellins had been rung into managin' one of these war benefit stunts, and she's decided to use their new east terrace for an outdoor stage and the big drawin'-room it opens off from as an auditorium. You know, Mrs. Robert used to give violin recitals and do concert work herself, so she ain't satisfied with amateur talent. Besides, she knows so many professional people.
"And who do you think she is to have on the program?" demands Vee. "Farrar!"
"Aw, come!" says I.
"And perhaps Mischa Elman," adds Vee. "Isn't that thrilling?"
I admits that it is.
"But say," I goes on, "with them big names on the bill, what does she expect to tax people for the best seats?"
Vee says how they'd figured they might ask ten dollars for a few choice chairs.
"Huh!" says I. "That won't get you far. Why don't you soak 'em proper?"
"But how?" asks Vee.
"You put in a bald-headed row," says I, "and I'll find you a party who'll fill it at a hundred a throw."
Vee stares at me like she thought I'd been touched with the heat, and wants to know who.
"Clara Belle Kinney," says I.
"Why, I never heard of any such person," says she.
"Oh, yes, you have," says I. "Alias Mrs. Ben Tupper."
Course, I had some job convincin' her I wasn't joshin'; and even after I'd sketched out the whole story, and showed her that Clara Belle's past wasn't anything to really shudder over, Vee is still doubtful.
"But can she sing now?" she asks.
"What's the odds," says I, "if a lot of them old-timers are willin' to pay to hear her try?"
Vee shakes her head and suggests that we go up and talk it over with Mr. and Mrs. Robert. Which we does.
"But if she has been off the stage for twenty years," suggests Mrs. Robert, "perhaps she wouldn't attempt it."
"I'll bet she would for Vee," says I. "Any way, she wouldn't feel sore at being asked And if you could sting a bunch of twenty or thirty for a hundred apiece——"
"Just fancy!" says Mrs. Robert, drawin' in a long breath and doin' rapid-fire mental arithmetic. "Verona, let's drive right over and see her at once."
They're some hustlers, that pair. All I have to do is map out the scheme, and they goes after it with a rush.
And say, I want to tell you that was a perfectly good charity concert, judged by the box-office receipts or any way you want to size it up. Bein' the official press-agent, who's got a better right to admit it?
True, Elman didn't show up, but his alibi was sound. And not until the last minute was we sure whether the fair Geraldine would get there or not. But my contribution to the headliners was there from the first tap of the bell.
Vee says she actually wept on her shoulder when the proposition was sprung on her. Seems she'd been livin' in Harbor Hills for nearly three years without havin' been let in on a thing—with nobody callin' on her, or even noddin' as she drove by. Most of her neighbors was a lot younger, folks who barely remembered that there had been such a party as Clara Belle Kinney, and who couldn't have told whether she'd been a singer or a bareback rider. They only knew her as a dumpy freakish dressed old girl whose drugged hair was turnin' gray.
"Of course," she says, sort of timid and trembly, "I have kept up my singing as well as I could. Mr. Tupper likes to have me. But I know my voice isn't what it was once. It's dear of you to ask me, though, and—and I'll do my best."
I don't take any credit for fillin' that double row of wicker chairs we put down front and had the nerve to ask that hold-up price for. When the word was passed around that Clara Belle Kinney was to be among the performers, they almost mobbed me for tickets. Why, I collected from two-thirds of the Corrugated directors without turnin' a hand, and for two days there about all I did was answer 'phone calls from Broad Street and the clubs—brokers, bank presidents, and so on, who wanted to know if there was any left.
A fine bunch of silver-tops they was, too, when we got 'em all lined up. You wouldn't have suspected it of some of them dignified old scouts, either. Back of 'em, fillin' every corner of the long room and spillin' out into the big hall, was the top crust of our local smart set, come to hear Farrar at close range.
Yep, Geraldine made quite a hit. Nothing strange about that. And that piece from "Madame Butterfly" she gave just brought 'em right up on their toes. But say, you should hear what breaks loose when it's announced that the third number will be an old favorite revival by Clara Belle Kinney. That's all the name we gave. What if most of the audience was simply starin' puzzled and stretchin' their necks to see who was comin'? Them old boys down front seemed to know what they was howlin' about.
Yes, Clara Belle does show up a bit husky in evenin' dress. Talk about elbow dimples! And I was wishin' she'd forgot to do her hair that antique way, all piled up on her head, with a few coy ringlets over one ear. But she'd landscaped her facial scenery artistic, and she sure does know how to roll them big eyes of hers.
I didn't much enjoy listenin' through them first few bars, though. There wasn't merely a crack here and there. Her voice went to a complete smash at times, besides bein' weak and wabbly. It's like listenin' to the ghost of a voice. I heard a few titters from the back rows.
But them old boys don't seem to mind. It was a voice comin' to them from 'way back in the '90's. And when she struggles through the first verse of "O Promise Me," and pauses to get her second wind, maybe they don't give her a hand. That seemed to pep her up a lot. She gets a better grip on the high notes, the tremolo effect wears off, and she goes to it like a winner. Begins to get the crowd with her, too. Why, say, even Farrar stands up and leads in the call for an encore. She ain't alone.
"MacFadden! MacFadden!" K. W. Mason is shoutin'.
So in a minute more Clara Belle, her eyes shinin', has swung into that raggy old tune, and when she gets to the chorus she beckons to the front rows and says: "Now, all together, boys!
"Wan—two—three! Balance like me——"
Did they come in on it? Say, they roared it out like so many young college hicks riotin' around the campus after a session at a rathskeller. You should have seen Old Hickory standin' out front with his arms wavin' and his face red.
Then they demands some of the Katishaw stuff, and "Comrades," and "Little Annie Rooney." And with every encore Clara Belle seems to shake off five or ten years, until you could almost see what a footlight charmer she must have been.
In the midst of it all Vee gives me the nudge.
"Do look at Mr. Tupper, will you!"
Yes, he's sittin' over in a corner, with his white shirt-front bulgin', his neck stretched forward eager, and his big hairy paws grippin' the chair-back in front. And hanged if a drop of brine ain't tricklin' down one side of his nose.
"Gosh!" says I. "His emotions are leakin' into his whiskers. Maybe the old boy is human, after all."
A minute later, as I slides easy out of my end seat, Vee asks:
"Where are you going, Torchy?"
"I want a glimpse of Mrs. Pemmy Foote's face, that's all," says I.
WHEN TORCHY GOT THE CALL
No, I ain't said much about it before. There are some things you're apt to keep to yourself, specially the ones that root deep. And I'll admit that at first there I don't quite know where I was at. But as affairs got messier and messier, and the U-boats got busier, and I heard some first-hand details of what had happened to the Belgians—well, I got mighty restless. I expect I indulged in more serious thought stuff than I'd ever been guilty of.
You see, it was along back when we were gettin' our first close-ups of the big scrap—some of our boats sunk, slinkers reported off Sandy Hook, bomb plots shown up, and Papa Joffre over here soundin' the S. O. S. earnest.
Then there was Mr. Robert joinin' the Naval Reserves, and two young hicks from the bond room who'd volunteered. We'd had postals from 'em at the trainin' camp. Even Vee was busy with a first-aid class, learnin' how to tie bandages and put on splints.
So private seccing seemed sort of tame and useless—like keepin' on sprinklin' the lawn after your chimney was bein' struck by lightnin'. I felt like I ought to be gettin' in the game somehow. Anyway, it seemed as if it was my ante.
Not that I'd been rushed off my feet by all this buntin'-wavin' or khaki-wearin'. I'm no panicky Old Glory trail-hitter. Nor I didn't lug around the idea I was the missin' hero who was to romp through the barbed wire, stamp Hindenburg's whiskers in the mud, and lead the Allies across the Rhine. I didn't even kid myself I could swim out and kick a hole in a submarine, or do the darin' aviator act after a half-hour lesson at Mineola.
In fact, I suspected that sheddin' the enemy's gore wasn't much in my line. I knew I should dislike quittin' the hay at dawn to sneak out and get mixed up with half a bushel of impetuous scrap-iron. Still, if it had to be done, why not me as well as the next party?
I'd been meanin' to talk it over with Vee—sort of hint around, anyway, and see how she'd take it. But as a matter of fact I never could seem to find just the right openin' until, there one night after dinner, as she finishes a new piece she's tryin' over on the piano, I wanders up beside her and starts absent-minded tearin' little bits off a corner of the music.
"Torchy!" she protests. "What an absurd thing to do."
"Eh?" says I, twistin' it into a cornucopia. "But you know I can't go on warmin' the bench like this."
She stares at me puzzled for a second.
"Meaning what, for instance?" she asks.
"I got to go help swat the Hun," says I.
The flickery look in them gray eyes of hers steadies down, and she reaches out for one of my hands. That's all. No jumpy emotions—not even a lip quiver.
"Must you?" says she, quiet.
"I can't take it out in wearin' a button or hirin' someone to hoe potatoes in the back lot," says I.
"No," says she.
"Auntie would come, I suppose?" says I.
"And with Leon here," I goes on, "and Mrs. Battou, you could——"
"Yes, I could get along," she breaks in. "But—but when?"
"Right away," says I. "As soon as they can use me."
"You'll start training for a commission, then?" she asks.
"Not me," says I. "I'd be poor enough as a private, but maybe I'd help fill in one of the back rows. I don't know much about it. I'll look it up to-morrow."
"To-morrow? Oh!" says Vee, with just the suspicion of a break in her voice.
And that's all we had to say about it. Every word. You'd thought we'd exhausted the subject, or got the tongue cramp. But I expect we each had a lot of thoughts that didn't get registered. I know I did. And next mornin' the breakaway came sort of hard.
"I—I know just how you feel about it," says Vee.
"I'm glad somebody does, then," says I.
Puttin' the proposition up to Old Hickory was different. He shoots a quick glance at me from under them shaggy eyebrows, bites into his cigar savage, and grunts discontented.
"You are exempt, you know," says he.
"I know," says I. "If tags came with marriage licenses I might wear one on my watch-fob to show, I expect."
"Huh!" says he. "It seems to me that rapid-fire brain of yours might be better utilized than by hiding it under a trench helmet."
"Speedy thinkers seem to be a drug on the market just now," says I. "Anyway, I feel like it was up to me to deliver something—I can't say just what. But campin' behind a roll-top here on the nineteenth floor ain't going to help much, is it?"
"Oh, well, if you have the fever!" says he.
And half an hour later I've pushed in past the flag and am answerin' questions while the sergeant fills out the blank.
Maybe you can guess I ain't in any frivolous mood. I don't believe I thought I was about to push back the invader, or turn the tide for civilization. Neither was I lookin' on this as a sportin' flier or a larky excursion that I was goin' to indulge in at public expense. My idea was that there'd been a general call for such as me, and that I was comin' across. I was more or less sober about it.
They didn't seem much impressed at the recruitin' station. Course, you couldn't expect the sergeant to get thrilled over every party that drifted in. He'd been there for weeks, I suppose, answerin' the same fool questions over and over, knowin' all the time that half of them that came in was bluffin' and that a big per cent. of the others wouldn't do.
But this other party with the zippy waistline, the swellin' chest, and the nifty shoulder-straps—why should he glare at me in that cold, suspicious way? I wasn't tryin' to break into the army with felonious intent. How could he be sure, just from a casual glance, that I was such vicious scum?
Oh, yes; I've figured out since that he didn't mean more'n half of it, or couldn't help lookin' at civilians that way after four years at West Point, or thought he had to. But that's what I get handed to me when I've dropped all the little things that seemed important to me and walks in to chuck what I had to offer Uncle Sam on the recruitin' table.
Some kind of inspectin' officer, I've found out he was, makin' the rounds to see that the sergeants didn't loaf on the job. And, just to show that no young patriot in a last year's Panama and a sport-cut suit could slip anything over on him, he shoots in a few crisp questions on his own account.
"Married, you say?" says he. "Since when?"
"Oh, this century," says I. "Last February, to get it nearer."
He sniffs disagreeable without sayin' why. Also he takes a hand when it comes to testin' me to see whether I'm club-footed or spavined. Course, I'm no perfect male like you see in the knit underwear ads, but I've got the usual number of toes and teeth, my wind is fairly good, and I don't expect my arteries have begun to harden yet. He listens to my heart action and measures my chest expansion. Then I had to name the different colors and squint through a tube at some black dots on a card.
And the further we went the more he scowled. Finally he shakes his head at the sergeant.
"Rejected," says he.
"Eh?" says I. "You—you don't mean I'm—turned down?"
He nods. "Underweight, and your eyes don't focus," says he snappy. "Here's your card. That's all."
Yes, it was a jolt. I expect I stood there blinkin' stupid at him for a minute or so before I had sense enough to drift out on the sidewalk. And I might as well admit I was feelin' mighty low. I didn't know whether to hunt up the nearest hospital, or sit down on the curb and wait until they came after me with the stretcher-cart. Anyway, I knew I must be a physical wreck. And to think I hadn't suspected it before!
Somehow I dragged back to the office, and a while later Mr. Ellins discovers me slumped in my chair with my chin down.
"Mars and Mercury!" says he. "You haven't been through a battle so soon, have you?"
At that, I tries to brace up a bit and pass it off light.
"Why didn't someone tell me I was a chronic invalid?" says I, after sketchin' out how my entry had been scratched by the chesty one. "I wonder where I could get a pair of crutches and a light-runnin' wheel chair?"
"Bah!" says he. "Some of those army officers have red-tape brains and no more common sense than he guinea-pigs. What in the name of the Seven Shahs did he think was the matter with you?"
"My eyes don't track and I weigh under the scale," says I. "I expect there's other things, too. Maybe my floatin' ribs are water-logged and my memory muscle-bound. But I'm a wreck, all right."
"We'll see about that," says Old Hickory, pushin' a buzzer.
And inside of an hour I felt a lot better. I'd been gone over by a life insurance expert, who said I hadn't a soft spot on me, and an eye specialist had reported that my sight was up to the average. Oh, the right lamp did range a little further, but he claims that's often the case.
"Maybe my hair was too vivid for trench work," says I, "or else that captain was luggin' a grouch. Makes me feel like a wooden nickel at the bottom of the till, just the same; for I did hope I might be useful somehow. I'll look swell joinin' the home guards, won't I?"
"Don't overlook the fact, young man," puts in Old Hickory, "that the Corrugated Trust is not altogether out of this affair, and that we are running short-handed as it is."
I was too sore in my mind to be soothed much by that thought just then, though I did buckle into the work harder than ever.
As for Vee, she don't have much to say, but she gives me the close tackle when she hears the news.
"I don't care!" says she. "It was splendid of you to want to go. And I shall be just as proud of you as though you had been accepted."
"Oh, sure!" says I. "Likely I'll be mentioned in despatches for the noble way I handled the correspondence all through a hot spell."
That state of mind I didn't shake loose in a hurry, either. For three or four weeks, there, I was about the meekest commuter carried on the eight-three. I didn't do any gloatin' over the war news. I didn't join any of the volunteer boards of strategy that met every mornin' to tell each other how the subs ought to be suppressed, or what Haig should be doin' on the West front. I even stopped wearin' an enameled flag in my buttonhole. If that was all I could do, I wouldn't fourflush.
The Corrugated was handlin' a lot of war contracts, too. Course, we was only gettin' our ten per cent., and from some we'd subbed out not even that. It didn't strike me there was any openin' for me until I'd heard Mr. Ellins, for about the fourth time that week, start beefin' about the kind of work we was gettin' done.
"But ain't it all O. K.'d by government inspectors?" I asks.
"Precisely why I am suspicious," says he. "Not three per cent. turned back! And on rush work that's too good to be true. Looks to me like careless inspecting—or worse. Yet every man I've sent out has brought in a clean bill; even for the Wonder Motors people, who have that sub-contract for five hundred tanks. And I wouldn't trust that crowd to pass the hat for an orphans' home. I wish I knew of a man who could—could—— By the Great Isosceles! Torchy!"
I knew I was elected when he first begun squintin' at me that way. But I couldn't see where I'd be such a wonderful find.
"A hot lot I know about buildin' armored motor-trucks, Mr. Ellins," says I. "They could feed me anything."
"You let 'em," says he; "and meanwhile you unlimber that high-tension intellect of yours and see what you can pick up. Remember, I shall expect results from you, young man. When can you start for Cleveland? To-night, eh? Good! And just note this: It isn't merely the Corrugated Trust you are representing: it's Uncle Sam and the Allies generally. And if anything shoddy is being passed, you hunt it out. Understand?"
Yep. I did. And I'll admit I was some thrilled with the idea. But I felt like a Boy Scout being sent to round up a gang of gunfighters. I skips home, though, packs my bag, and climbs aboard the night express.
When I'd finally located the Wonder works, and had my credentials read by everyone, from the rookie sentry at the gate to the Assistant General Manager, and they was convinced I'd come direct from Old Hickory Ellins, they starts passin' out the smooth stuff. Oh, yes! Certainly! Anything special I wished to see?
"Thanks," says I. "I'll go right through."
"But we have four acres of shops, you know," suggests the A. G. M., smilin' indulgent.
"Maybe I can do an acre a day," says I. "I got lots of time."
"That's the spirit," says he, clappin' me friendly on the shoulder. "Walter, call in Mr. Marvin."
He was some grand little demonstrator, Mr. Marvin—one of these round-faced, pink-cheeked, chunky built young gents, who was as chummy and as entertainin' from the first handshake as if we'd been room-mates at college. I can't say how well posted he was on what was goin' on in the different departments he hustled me through, but he knew enough to smother me with machinery details.
"Now, here we have a battery of six hogging machines," he'd say. "They cut the gears, you know."
"Oh, yes," I'd say, tryin' to look wise.
It was that way all through the trip. I saw two or three thousand sweaty men in smeared overalls and sleeveless undershirts putterin' around lathes and things that whittled shavings off shiny steel bars, or hammered red-hot chunks of it into different shapes, or bit holes in great sheets of steel. I watched electric cranes the size of trolley cars juggle chunks of metal that weighed tons. I listened to the roar and rattle and crash and bang, and at the end of two hours my head was whirlin' as fast as some of them big belt wheels; and I knew almost as much about what I'd seen as a two-year-old does about the tick-tock daddy holds up to her ear.
Young Mr. Marvin don't seem discouraged, though. He suggests that we drive into town for lunch. We did, in a canary-colored roadster that purred along at about fifty most of the way. We fed at a swell club, along with a bunch of cheerful young lieutenants of industry who didn't seem worried about the high cost of anything. I gathered that most of 'em was in the same line as Mr. Marvin—supplies or munitions. From the general talk, and the casual way they ordered pink cocktails and expensive cigars, I judged it wasn't exactly a losin' game.
Nor they didn't seem anxious about gettin' back to punch in on the time-clocks. About two-thirty we adjourns to the Country Club, and if I'd been a mashie fiend I might have finished a hard day's work with a game of golf. I thought I ought to do some more shops, though. Why, to be sure! But at five we knocked off again, and I was towed to another club, where we had a plunge in a marble pool so as to be in shape for a little dinner Mr. Marvin was gettin' up for me. Quite some dinner! There was a jolly trip out to an amusement park later on. Oh, the Wonder folks were no tightwads when it came to showin' special agents of the Corrugated around.
I tried another day of it before givin' up. It was no use. They had me buffaloed. So I thanked all hands and hinted that maybe I'd better be goin' back. I hope I didn't deceive anyone, for I did go back—to the hotel. But by night I'd invested $11.45 in a second-hand outfit—warranted steam-cleaned—and I had put up $6. more for a week's board with a Swede lady whose front porch faced the ten-foot fence guardin' the Wondor Motors' main plant. Also, Mrs. Petersen had said it was a cinch I could get a job. Her old man would show me where in the mornin'.
And say, mornin' happens early out in places like that. By 5:30 A.M. I could smell bacon grease, and by six-fifteen breakfast was all over and Petersen had lit his corn-cob pipe.
"Coom!" says he in pure Scandinavian.
This trip, I didn't make my entrance in over the Turkish rugs of the private office. I was lined up with a couple of dozen others against a fence about tenth from a window where there was a "Men Wanted" sign out. Being about as much of a mechanic as I am a brunette, I made no wild bluffs. I just said I wanted a job. And I got it—riveter's helper, whatever that might be. By eight-thirty my name and number was on the payroll, and the foreman of shop No. 19 was introducin' me to my new boss.
"Here, Mike," says he. "Give this one a try-out."
His name wasn't Mike. It was something like Sneezowski. He was a Pole who'd come over three years ago to work for John D. at Bayonne, New Jersey, but had got into some kind of trouble there. I didn't wonder. He had wicked little eyes, one lopped ear, and a ragged mustache that stood out like tushes. But he sure could handle a pneumatic riveter rapid, and when it came to reprovin' me for not keepin' the pace he expressed himself fluent.
In the course of a couple of hours, though, I got the hang of how to work them rivet tongs without droppin' 'em more 'n once every five minutes. But I think it was the grin I slipped Mike now and then that got him to overlookin' my awkward motions. Believe me, too, by six o'clock I felt less like grinnin' than any time I could remember. I never knew you could ache in so many places at once. From the ankles down I felt fine. And yet, before the week was out I was helpin' Mike speed up.
It didn't look promisin' for sleuth work at first. Half a dozen times I was on the point of chuckin' the job. But the thoughts of havin' to face Old Hickory with a blank report kept me pluggin' away. I begun to get my bearin's a bit to see things, to put this and that together.
We was workin' on shaped steel plates, armor for the tanks. Now and then one would come through with some of the holes only quarter or half punched. Course, you couldn't put rivets in them places.
"How about these?" I asks.
"Aw, wottell!" says Mike. "Forget it."
"But what if the inspector sees?" I insists.
Mike gurgles in his throat, indicatin' mirth.
"Th' inspec'!" he chuckles. "Him wink by his eye, him. Ya! You see! Him coom Sat'day."
And I swaps chuckles with Mike. Also, by settin' up the schooners at Carlouva's that evenin', I got Mike to let out more professional secrets along the same line. There was others who joined in. They bragged of chipped gears that was shipped through with the bad cogs covered with grease, of flawy drivin' shafts, of cheesy armor-plate that you could puncture with a tack-hammer.
While it was all fresh that night I jotted down pages of such gossip in a little red note-book. I had names and dates. That bunch of piece-workers must have thought I was a bear for details, or else nutty in the head; but they was too polite to mention it so long as I insisted each time that it was my buy.
Anyway, I got quite a lot of first-hand evidence as to the kind of inspectin' done by the army officer assigned to this particular plant. I had to smile, too, when I saw Mr. Marvin towin' him through our shop Saturday forenoon. Maybe they was three minutes breezin' through. And I didn't need the extra smear of smut on my face. Marvin never glanced my way. This was the same officer who'd been in on our dinner party, too.
Yes, I found chattin' with Mike and his friends a lot more illuminatin' than listenin' to Mr. Marvin. So, when I drew down my second pay envelop, I told the clerk I was quittin'. I don't mind sayin', either, that it seemed good to splash around in a reg'lar bath-tub once more and to look a sirloin steak in the face again. A stiff collar did seem odd, though.
Me and Mr. Ellins had some session. We went through that red note-book thorough. He was breathin' a bit heavy at times, and he chewed hard on his cigar all the way; but he never blew a fuse until forty-eight hours later. The General Manager of Wonder Motors, four department heads, and the army officer detailed as inspector was part of the audience. They'd been called on the carpet by wire, and was grouped around one end of our directors' table. At the other end was Old Hickory, Mr. Robert, Piddie, and me.
Item by item, Mr. Ellins had sketched out to the Wonder crowd the bunk stuff they'd been slippin' over. First they tried protestin' indignant; then they made a stab at actin' hurt; but in the end they just looked plain foolish.
"My dear Mr. Ellins," put in the General Manager, "one cannot watch every workman in a plant of that magnitude. Besides," here he hunches his shoulders, "if the government is satisfied——"
"Hah!" snorts Old Hickory. "But it isn't. For I'm the government in this instance. I'm standing for Uncle Sam. That's what I meant when I took those ten per cent. contracts. I'm too old to go out and fight his enemies abroad, but I can stay behind and watch for yellow-livered buzzards such as you. Call that business, do you? Fattening your dividends by sending our boys up against the Prussian guns in junky motor-tanks covered with tin armor! Bah! Your ethics need chloride of lime on them. And you come here whining that you can't watch your men! By the great sizzling sisters, we'll see if you can't! You will put in every missing rivet, replace every flawy plate, and make every machine perfect, or I'll smash your little two-by-four concern so flat the bankruptcy courts won't find enough to tack a libel notice on. Now go back and get busy."
They seemed in a hurry to start, too.
An hour or so later, when Old Hickory had stopped steaming, he passes out a different set of remarks to me. Oh, the usual grateful boss stuff. Even says he's going to make the War Department give me a commission, with a special detail.
"Wouldn't that be wonderful!" says Vee, clappin' her hands. "Do you really think he will? A lieutenant, perhaps?"
"That's what he mentioned," says I.
"Really!" says Vee, makin' a rush at me.
"Wait up!" says I. "Halt, I mean. Now, as you were! Sal-ute!"
"Pooh!" says Vee, continuin' her rush.
But say, she knows how to salute, all right. Her way would break up an army, though. All the same, I guess I've earned it, for by Monday night I'll be up in a Syracuse shovel works, wearin' a one-piece business suit of the Never-rip brand, and I'll likely have enough grease on me to lubricate a switch-engine.
"It's lucky you don't see me, Vee," says I, "when I'm out savin' the country. You'd wonder how you ever come to do it."
A CARRY-ON FOR CLARA
"Now turn around," says Vee. "Oh, Torchy! Why, you look perfectly——"
"Do I?" I cuts in. "Well, you don't think I'm goin' to the office like this, do you?"
She does. Insists that Mr. Ellins will expect it.
"Besides," says she, "it is in the army regulations that you must. If you don't—well, I'm not sure whether it is treason or mutiny."
"Hal-lup!" says I. "I surrender."
So I starts for town lookin' as warlike as if I'd just come from a front trench, and feelin' like a masquerader who'd lost his way to the ball-room.
In the office, Old Hickory gives me the thorough up-and-down. It's a genial, fatherly sort of inspection, and he ends it with a satisfied grunt.
"Good-morning, Lieutenant," says he. "I see you have—er—got 'em on. And, allow me to mention, rather a good fit, sir."
I gasps. Sirred by Old Hickory! Do you wonder I got fussed? But he only chuckles easy, waves me to take a chair, and goes on with:
"What's the word from the Syracuse sector?"
At that, I gets my breath back.
"Fairly good deal up there, sir," says I. "They're workin' in a carload or so of wormy ash for the shovel handles, and some of the steel runs below test; but most of their stuff grades well. I'll have my notes typed off right away."
After I've filed my report I should have ducked. But this habit of stickin' around the shop is hard to break. And that's how I happen to be on hand when the lady in gray drifts in for her chatty confab with Mr. Ellins.
Seems she held quite a block of our preferred, for when Vincent lugs in her card Old Hickory spots the name right away as being on our widow-and-orphan list that we wave at investigatin' committees.
"Ah, yes!" says he. "Mrs. Parker Smith. Show her in, boy."
Such a quiet, gentle, dignified party she is, her costume tonin' in with her gray hair, and an easy way of speakin' and all, that my first guess is she might be the head of an old ladies' home.
"Mr. Ellins," says she, "I am looking for my niece."
"Are you?" says Mr. Ellins, "Humph! Hardly think we could be of service in such a case."
"Oh!" says she. "I—I am so sorry."
"Lost, is she?" suggests Mr. Ellins, weakenin'.
"She is somewhere in New York," goes on Mrs. Parker Smith. "Of course, I know it is an imposition to trouble you with such a matter. But I thought you might have someone in your office who—who——"
"We have," says he. "Torchy,—er—I mean, Lieutenant,—Mrs. Parker Smith. Here, madam, is a young man who will find your niece for you at once. In private life he is my secretary; and as it happens that just now he is on special detail, his services are entirely at your disposal."
She looks a little doubtful about bein' shunted like that, but she follows me into the next room, where I produces a pencil and pad and calls for details businesslike.
"Let's see," says I. "What's the full description? Age?"
"Why," says she, hesitatin', "Claire is about twenty-two."
"Oh!" says I. "Got beyond the flapper stage, then. Height—tall or short?"
Mrs. Parker Smith shakes her head.
"I'm sure I don't know," says she. "You see, Claire is not an own niece. She—well, she is a daughter of my first husband's second wife's step-sister."
"Wha-a-at?" says I, gawpin' at her. "Daughter of your—— Oh, say, let's not go into it as deep as that. I'm dizzy already. Suppose we call her an in-law once removed and let it go at that?"
"Thank you," says Mrs. Parker Smith, givin' me a quizzin' smile. "Perhaps it is enough to say that I have never seen her."
She does go on to explain, though, that when Claire's step-uncle, or whatever he was, found his heart trouble gettin' worse, he wrote to Mrs. Parker Smith, askin' her to forget the past and look after the orphan girl that he's been tryin' to bring up. It's just as clear to me as the average movie plot, but I nods my head.
"So for three years," says she, "while Claire was in boarding-school, I acted as her guardian; but since she has come of age I have been merely the executor of her small estate."
"Oh, yes!" says I. "And now she's come to New York, and forgot to send you her address?"
It was something like that. Claire had gone in for art. Looked like she'd splurged heavy on it, too; for the drain on her income had been something fierce. Meanwhile, Mrs. Parker Smith had doped out an entirely different future for Claire. The funds that had been tied up in a Vermont barrel-stave fact'ry, that was makin' less and less barrel staves every year, Auntie had pulled out and invested in a model dairy farm out near Rockford, Illinois. She'd made the capital turn over from fifteen to twenty per cent., too, by livin' right on the job and cashin' in the cream tickets herself.
"You have!" says I. "Not a reg'lar cow farm?"
"It did seem rather odd, at first," says she. "But I wanted to get away from—from everything. But now—— Well, I want Claire. I suppose I am a little lonesome. Besides, I want her to try taking charge. Recently, when she had drawn her income for half a year in advance and still asked for more, I was obliged to refuse."
"And then?" says I.
Mrs. Parker Smith shrugs her shoulders.
"The foolish girl chose to quarrel with me," says she. "About ten days ago she sent me a curt note. I could keep her money; she was tired of being dictated to. I needn't write any more, for she had moved to another address, had changed her name."
"Huh!" says I. "That does make it complicated. You don't know what she looks like, or what name she flags under, and I'm to find her in little New York?"
But I finds myself tacklin this hopeless puzzle from every angle I could think of. I tried 'phonin' to Claire's old street number. Nothin' doin'. They didn't know anything about Miss Hunt.
"What brand of art was she monkeyin' with?" I asks.
Mrs. Parker Smith couldn't say. Claire hadn't been very chatty in her letters. Chiefly she had demanded checks.
"But in one she did mention," says the lady in gray, "that—— Now, what was it! Oh, yes! Something about 'landing a cover.' What could that mean?"
"Cover?" says I. "Why, for a magazine, maybe. That's it. And if we only knew what name she'd sign, we might—— Would she stick to the Claire part? I'll bet she would. Wait. I'll get a bunch of back numbers from the arcade news-stand and we'll go through 'em."
We'd hunted through an armful, though, before we runs across this freaky sketch of a purple nymph, with bright yellow hair, bouncin' across a stretch of dark blue lawn.
"Claire Lamar!" says I. "Would that be—— Eh? What's wrong?"
Mrs. Parker Smith seems to be gettin' a jolt of some kind, but she steadies herself and almost gets back her smile.
"I—I am sure it would," says she. "It's very odd, though."
"Oh, I don't know," says I. "Listens kind of arty—Claire Lamar. Lemme see. This snappy fifteen-center has editorial offices on Fourth Avenue and—— Well, well! Barry Frost, ad. manager! Say, if I can get him on the wire——"
Just by luck, I did. Would he pry some facts for me out of the art editor, facts about a certain party? Sure he would. And inside of ten minutes, without leavin' the Corrugated General Offices, I had a full description of Claire, includin' where she hung out.
"Huh!" says I. "Greenwich Village, eh? You might know."
"My dear Lieutenant," says Mrs. Parker Smith, "I think you are perfectly wonderful."
"Swell thought!" says I. "But you needn't let on to Mr. Ellins how simple it was. And now, all you got to do is——"
"I know," she cuts in. "And I really ought not to trouble you another moment. But, since Mr. Ellins has been so kind—well, I am going to ask you to help me just a trifle more."
"Shoot," says I, unsuspicious.
It ain't much, she says. But she's afraid, if she trails Claire to her rooms, the young lady might send down word she was out, or make a quick exit.
"But if you would go," she suggests, "with a note from me asking her to join us somewhere at dinner——"
I holds up both hands.
"Sorry," says I, "but I got to duck. That's taking too many chances."
Then I explains how, although I may look like a singleton, I'm really the other half of a very interestin' domestic sketch, and that Vee's expectin' me home to dinner.
"Why, all the better!" says Mrs. Parker Smith. "Have her come in and join us. I'll tell you: we will have our little party down at the old Napoleon, where they have such delicious French cooking. Now, please."
As I've hinted before, she is some persuader. I ain't mesmerized so strong, though, but what I got sense enough to play it safe by callin' up Vee first. I don't think she was strong for joinin' the reunion until I points out that I might be some shy at wanderin' down into the art-student colony and collectin' a strange young lady illustrator all by myself.
"Course, I could do it alone if I had to," I throws in.
"H-m-m-m!" says Vee. "If that bashfulness of yours is likely to be as bad as all that, perhaps I'd better come."
So by six o 'clock Vee and I are in the dinky reception-room of one of them Belasco boardin'-houses, tryin' to convince a young female in a paint-splashed smock and a floppy boudoir cap that we ain't tryin' to kidnap or otherwise annoy her.
"What's the big idea?" says she. "I don't get you at all."
"Maybe if you'd read the note it would help," I suggests.
"Oh!" says she, and takes it over by the window.
She's a long-waisted, rangy young party, who walks with a Theda Bara slouch and tries to talk out of one side of her mouth. "Hello!" she goes on. "The Parker Smith person. That's enough. It's all off."
"Just as you say," says I. "But, if you ask me, I wouldn't pass up an aunt like her without takin' a look."
"Aunt!" says Claire Lamar, alias Hunt. "Listen: she's about as much an aunt to me as I am to either of you. And I've never shed any tears over the fact, either. The only aunt that I'd ever own was one that my family would never tell me much about. I had to find out about her for myself. Take it from me, though, she was some aunt."
"Tastes in aunts differ, I expect," says I. "And Mrs. Parker Smith don't claim to be a reg'lar aunt, anyway. She seems harmless, too. All she wants is a chance to give you a rosy prospectus of life on a cow farm and blow you to a dinner at the Napoleon."
"Think of that!" says Claire. "And I've been living for weeks on window-sill meals, with now and then a ptomaine-defying gorge at the Pink Poodle's sixty-cent table d'hote. Oh, I'll come, I'll come! But I warn you: the Parker Smith person will understand before the evening is over that I was born to no cow farm in Illinois."
With that she glides off to do a dinner change.
"I believe it is going to be quite an interesting party, don't you?" says Vee.
"The signs point that way," says I. "But the old girl really ought to wear shock-absorbers if she wants to last through the evenin'. S-s-s-sh! Claire is comin' back."
This time she's draped herself in a pale yellow kimono with blue triangles stenciled all over it.
"Speaking of perfectly good aunts," says she, "there!" And she displays a silver-framed photo. It's an old-timer done in faded brown, and shows a dashin' young party wearin' funny sleeves, a ringlet cascade on one side of her head, and a saucy little pancake lid over one ear.
"That," explains Claire, "was my aunt Clara Lamar; not my real aunt, you know, but near enough for me to claim her. This was taken in '82, I believe."
"Really!" says Vee. "She must have been quite pretty."
"That doesn't half tell it," says Claire. "She was a charmer, simply fascinating. Not beautiful, you know, but she had a way with her. She was brilliant, daring, one of the kind that men raved over. At twenty she married a Congressman, fat and forty. She hadn't lived in Washington six months before her receptions were crushes. She flirted industriously. A young French aide and an army officer fought a duel over her. And, while the capital was buzzing with that, she eloped with another diplomat, a Russian. For a year or two they lived in Paris. She had her salon. Then the Russian got himself killed in some way, and she soon married again—another American, quite wealthy. He brought her back to New York, and they lived in one of those old brown-stone mansions on lower Fifth Avenue. Her dinner parties were the talk of the town—champagne with the fish, vodka with the coffee, cigarettes for the women, cut-up stunts afterwards. I forget just who No. 3 was, but he succumbed. Couldn't stand the pace, I suppose. And then—— Well, Aunt Clara disappeared. But, say, she was a regular person. I wish I could find out what ever became of her."
"Maybe Mrs. Parker Smith could give you a line," I suggests.
"Her!" says Claire. "Fat chance! But I must finish dressing. Sorry to keep you waiting."
We did get a bit restless durin' the next half hour, but the wait was worth while. For, believe me, when Claire comes down again she's some dolled.
I don't mean she was any home-destroyer. That face of hers is too long and heavy for the front row of a song review. But she has plenty of zip to her get-up. After one glance I calls a taxi.
The way I'd left it with Mrs. Parker Smith, we was to land Claire at the hotel first; then call her up, and proceed to order dinner. So we had another little stage wait, with only the three of us at the table.
"I hope you don't mind if I have a puff or two," says Claire. "It goes here, you know."
"Anything to make the evenin' a success," says I, signalin' a garcon. "My khaki lets me out of followin' you."
So, when the head waiter finally tows in Mrs. Parker Smith, costumed in the same gray dress and lookin' meeker and gentler than ever, she is greeted with a sporty tableau. But she don't faint or anything. She just springs that twisty smile of hers and comes right on.
"The missing one!" says I, wavin' at Claire.
"Ah!" says Mrs. Parker Smith, beamin' on her. "So good of you to come!"
"Wasn't it?" says Claire, removin' the cork tip languid.
Well, as a get-together I must admit that the outlook was kind of frosty. Claire showed plenty of enthusiasm for the hors d'oeuvres and the low-tide soup and so on, but mighty little for this volunteer auntie, who starts to describe the subtle joys of the butter business.
"Perhaps you have never seen a herd of registered Guernseys," says Mrs. Parker Smith, "when they are munching contentedly at milking time, with their big, dreamy eyes——"
"Excuse me!" says Claire. "I don't have to. I spent a whole month's vacation on a Vermont farm."
Mrs. Parker Smith only smiles indulgent.
"We use electric milkers, you know," says she, "and most of our young men come from the agricultural colleges."
"That listens alluring—some," admits Claire. "But I can't see myself planted ten miles out on an R. F. D. route, even with college-bred help. Pardon me if I light another dope-stick."
I could get her idea easy enough, by then. Claire wasn't half so sporty as she hoped she was. It was just her way of doing the carry-on for Aunt Clara Lamar. But, at the same time, we couldn't help feelin' kind of sorry for Mrs. Parker Smith. She was tryin' to be so nice and friendly, and she wasn't gettin' anywhere.
It was by way of switchin' the line of table chat, I expect, that Vee breaks in with that remark about the only piece of jewelry the old girl is wearin'.
"What a duck of a bracelet!" says Vee. "An heirloom, is it?"
"Almost," says Mrs. Parker Smith. "It was given to me on my twenty-second birthday, in Florence."
She slips it off and passes it over for inspection. The part that goes around the wrist is all of fine chain-work, silver and gold, woven almost like cloth, and on top is a cameo, 'most as big as a clam.
"How stunning! Look, Torchy. O-o-oh!" says Vee, gaspin' a little.
In handling the thing she must have pressed a catch somewhere, for the cameo springs back, revealin' a locket effect underneath with a picture in it. Course, we couldn't help seein'.
"Why—why——" says Vee, gazin' from the picture to Mrs. Parker Smith. "Isn't this a portrait of—of——"
"Of a very silly young woman," cuts in Auntie. "We waited in Florence a week to have that finished."
"Then—then it is you!" asks Vee.
The lady in gray nods. Vee asks if she may show it to Claire.
"Why not?" says Mrs. Parker Smith, smilin'.
We didn't stop to explain. I passes it on to Claire, and then we both watches her face. For the dinky little picture under the cameo is a dead ringer for the one Claire had shown us in the silver frame. So it was Claire's turn to catch a short breath.
"Don't tell me," says she, "that—that you are Clara Lamar?"
Which was when Auntie got her big jolt. For a second the pink fades out of her cheeks, and the salad fork she'd been holdin' rattles into her plate. She makes a quick recovery, though.
"I was—once," says she. "I had hoped, though, that the name had been forgotten. Tell me, how—how do you happen to——"
"Why," says Claire, "uncle had the scrapbook habit. Anyway, I found this one in an old desk, and it was all about you. Your picture was in it, too. And say, Auntie, you were the real thing, weren't you?"
After that it was a reg'lar reunion. For Claire had dug up her heroine. And, no matter how strong Auntie protests that she ain't that sort of a party now, and hasn't been for years and years, Claire keeps right on. She's a consistent admirer, even if she is a little late.
"If I had only known it was you!" says she.
"Then—then you'll come to Meadowbrae with me?" asks Mrs. Parker Smith.
"You bet!" says Claire. "Between you and me, this art career of mine has rather fizzled out. Besides, keeping it up has got to be rather a bore. Honest, a spaghetti and cigarette life is a lot more romantic to read about than it is to follow. Whether I could learn to run a dairy farm or not, I don't know; but, with an aunt like you to coach me along, I'm blessed if I don't give it a try. When do we start?"
"But," says Vee to me, later, "I can't imagine her on a farm."
"Oh, I don't know," says I. "Didn't you notice she couldn't smoke without gettin' it up her nose?"
ALL THE WAY WITH ANNA
Believe me, Belinda, this havin' a boss who's apt to stack you up casual against stuff that would worry a secret service corps recruited from seventh sons is a grand little cure for monotonous moments. Just because I happen to get a few easy breaks on my first special details seems to give Old Hickory the merry idea that when he wants someone to do the wizard act, all he has to do is press the button for me. I don't know whether my wearin' the khaki uniform helps out the notion or not. I shouldn't wonder.
Now, here a week or ten days ago, when I leaves Vee and my peaceful little home after a week-end swing, I expects to be shot up to Amesbury, Mass., to inspect a gun-limber factory. Am I? Not at all. By 3 P.M. I'm in Bridgeport, Conn., wanderin' about sort of aimless, and tryin' to size up a proposition that I'm about as well qualified to handle as a plumber's helper called in to tune a pipe organ.
Why was it that some three thousand hands in one of our sub-contractin' plants was bent on gettin' stirred up and messy about every so often, in spite of all that had been done to soothe 'em?
Does that listen simple, or excitin', or even interestin'? It didn't to me. Specially after I'd given the once-over to this giddy mob of Wops and Hunkies and Sneezowskis.
The office people didn't know how many brands of Czechs or Magyars or Polacks they had in the shops. What they was real sure of was that a third of the bunch had walked out twice within the last month, and if they quit again, as there was signs of their doin', we stood to drop about $200,000 in bonuses on shell contracts.
It wasn't a matter of wage scales, either. Honest, some of them ginks with three z's in their names was runnin' up, with over-time and all, pay envelops that averaged as much as twelve a day. Why, some of the women and girls were pullin' down twenty-five a week. And they couldn't kick on the workin' conditions, either. Here was a brand-new concrete plant, clean as a new dish-pan, with half the sides swingin' glass sashes, and flower beds outside.
"And still they threaten another strike," says the general manager. "If it comes, we might as well scrap this whole plant and transfer the equipment to Pennsylvania or somewhere else. Unless"—here he grins sarcastic—"you can find out what ails 'em, Lieutenant. But you are only the third bright young man the Corrugated has sent out to tell us what's what, you know."
"Oh, well," says I. "There's luck in odd numbers. Cheer up."
It was after this little chat that I sheds the army costume and wanders out disguised as a horny-handed workingman.
Not that I'd decided to get a job right away. After my last stab I ain't so strong for this ten-hour cold-lunch trick as I was when I was new to the patriotic sleuthin' act. Besides, bein' no linguist, I couldn't see how workin' with such a mixed lot was goin' to get me anywhere. If I could only run across a good ambidextrous interpreter, now, one who could listen in ten languages and talk in six, it might help. And who was it I once knew that had moved to Bridgeport?
I'd been mullin' on that mystery ever since I struck the town. Just a glimmer, somewhere in the back of my nut, that there had been such a party some time or other. I'll admit that wasn't much of a clue to start out trailin' in a place of this size, but it's all I had.
I must have walked miles, readin' the signs on the stores, pushin' my way through the crowds, and finally droppin' into a fairly clean-lookin' restaurant for dinner. Half way through the goulash and noodles, I had this bright thought about consultin' the 'phone book. The cashier that let me have it eyed me suspicious as I props it up against the sugar bowl and starts in with the A's.
Ever try readin' a telephone directory straight through? By the time I'd got through the M's I'd had to order another cup of coffee and a second piece of lemon pie. At that, the waitress was gettin' uneasy. She'd just shoved my check at me for the third time, and was addin' a glass of wooden tooth-picks, when I lets out this excited stage whisper.
"Sobowski!" says I, grabbin' the book.
The young lady in the frilled apron rests her thumbs on her hips dignified and shoots me a haughty glance. "Ring off, young feller," says she. "You got the wrong number."
"Not so, Clarice," says I. "His first name is Anton, and he used to run a shine parlor in the arcade of the Corrugated buildin', New York, N. Y."
"It's a small world, ain't it?" says she. "You can pay me or at the desk, just as you like."
Clarice got her tip all right, and loaned me her pencil to write down Anton's street number.
A stocky, bow-legged son of Kosciuszko, built close to the ground, and with a neck on him like a truck-horse, as I remembered Anton. But the hottest kind of a sport. Used to run a pool on the ball-games, and made a book on the ponies now and then. Always had a roll with him. He'd take a nickel tip from me and then bet a guy in the next chair fifty to thirty-five the Giants would score more'n three runs against the Cubs' new pitcher in to-morrow's game. That kind.
Must have been two or three years back that Anton had told me about some openin' he had to go in with a brother-in-law up in Bridgeport. Likely I didn't pay much attention at the time. Anyway, he was missin' soon after; and if I hadn't been in the habit of callin' him Old Sobstuff I'd have forgotten that name of his entirely. But seein' it there in the book brought back the whole thing.
"Anton Sobowski, saloon," was the way it was listed. So he was runnin' a suds parlor, eh? Well, it wasn't likely he'd know much about labor troubles, but it wouldn't do any harm to look him up. When I came to trail down the street number, though, blamed if it ain't within half a block of our branch works.
And, sure enough, in a little office beyond the bar, leanin' back luxurious in a swivel-chair, and displayin' a pair of baby-blue armlets over his shirt sleeves, I discovers Mr. Sobowski himself. It ain't any brewery-staked hole-in-the-wall he's boss of, either. It's the Warsaw Cafe, bar and restaurant, all glittery and gorgeous, with lace curtains in the front windows, red, white, and blue mosquito nettin' draped artistic over the frosted mirrors, and three busy mixers behind the mahogany bar.
Anton has fleshed up considerable since he quit jugglin' the brushes, and he's lost a little of the good-natured twinkle from his wide-set eyes. He glances up at me sort of surly when I first steps into the office; but the minute I takes off the straw lid and ducks my head at him, he lets loose a rumbly chuckle.
"It is that Torchy, hey?" says he. "Well, well! It don't fade any, does it?"
"Not that kind of dye," says I. "How's the boy?"
"Me," says Anton. "Oh, fine like silk. How you like the place, hey?"
I enthused over the Warsaw Cafe; and when he found I was still with the Corrugated, and didn't want to touch him for any coin, but had just happened to be in town and thought I'd look him up for old times' sake—well, Anton opened up considerable.
"What!" says he. "They send you out? You must be comin' up?"
"Only private sec. to Mr. Ellins," says I, "but he chases me around a good deal. We're busy people these days, you know."
"The Corrugated Trust! I should say so," agrees Anton, waggin' his head earnest. "Big people, big money. I like to have my brother-in-law meet you. Wait."
Seemed a good deal like wastin' time, but I spent the whole evenin' with Anton. I met not only the brother-in-law, but also Mrs. Sobowski, his wife; and another Mrs. Sobowski, an aunt or something; and Miss Anna Sobowski, his niece. Also I saw the three-story Sobowski boardin'-house that Anton conducted on the side; and the Alcazar movie joint, another Sobowski enterprise.
That's where this Anna party was sellin' tickets—a peachy-cheeked, high-chested young lady with big, rollin' eyes, and her mud-colored hair waved something wonderful. I was introduced reg'lar and impressive.
"Anna," says Anton, "take a good look at this young man. He's a friend of mine. Any time he comes by, pass him in free—any time at all. See?"
And Anna, she flashes them high-powered eyes of hers at me kittenish. "Aw ri'," says she. "I'm on, Mr. Torchy."
"That girl," confides Anton to me afterwards, "was eating black bread and cabbage soup in Poland less than three years ago. Now she buys high kid boots, two kinds of leather, at fourteen dollars. And makes goo-goo eyes at all the men. Yes, but never no mistakes with the change. Not Anna."
All of which was interestin' enough, but it didn't seem to help any. You never can tell, though, can you? You see, it was kind of hard, breakin' away from Anton once he'd started to get folksy and show me what an important party he'd come to be. He wanted me to see the Warsaw when it was really doin' business, about ten o'clock, after the early picture-show crowds had let out and the meetin' in the hall overhead was in full swing.
"What sort of meetin'?" I asks, just as a filler.
"Oh, some kind of labor meetin'," says he. "I d'know. They chin a lot. That's thirsty work. Good for business, hey?"
"Is it a labor union?" I insists.
Anton shrugs his shoulders.
"You wait," says he. "Mr. Stukey, he'll tell you all about it. Yes, an ear-full. He's a good spender, Stukey. Hires the hall, too."
Somehow, that listened like it might be a lead. But an hour later, when I'd had a chance to look him over, I was for passin' Stukey up. For he sure was disappointin' to view. One of these thin, sallow, dyspeptic parties, with deep lines down either side of his mouth, a bristly, jutty little mustache, and ratty little eyes.
I expect Anton meant well when he brings out strong, in introducin' me, how I'm connected with the Corrugated Trust. In fact, you might almost gather I was the Corrugated. But it don't make any hit with Stukey.
"Hah!" says he, glarin' at me hostile. "A minion."
"Solid agate yourself," says I. "Wha'd'ye mean—minion?"
"Aren't you a hireling of the capitalistic class?" demands Stukey.
"Maybe," says I, "but I ain't above mixin' with lower-case minds now and then."
"Case?" says he. "I don't understand."
"Perhaps that's your trouble," says I.
"Bah!" says he, real peevish.
"Come, come, boys!" says Anton, clappin' us jovial on the shoulders. "What's this all about, hey? We are all friends here. Yes? Is it that the meetin' goes wrong, Mr. Stukey? Tell us, now."
Stukey shakes his head at him warnin'. "What meetin'?" says he. "Don't be foolish. What time is it? Ten-twenty! I have an engagement."
And with that he struts off important.
Anton hunches his shoulders and lets out a grunt.
"He has it bad—Stukey," says he. "It is that Anna. Every night he must walk home with her."
"She ain't particular, is she?" I suggests.
"Oh, I don't know," says Anton. "Yes, he is older, and not a strong hearty man, like some of these young fellows. But he is educated; oh, like the devil. You should hear him talk once."
But Stukey had stirred up a stubborn streak in me.
"Is he, though," says I, "or do you kid yourself?"
I thought that would get a come-back out of Anton. And it does.
"If I am so foolish," says he, "would I be here, with my name in gold above the door, or back shining shoes in the Corrugated arcade yet? Hey? I will tell you this. Nobodies don't come and hire my hall from me, fifty a week, in advance."
"Cash or checks?" I puts in.
"If the bank takes the checks, why should I worry?" asks Anton.
"Oh, the first one might be all right," says I, "and the second; but—well, you know your own business, I expect."
Anton gazes at me stupid for a minute, then turns to his desk and fishes out a bunch of returned checks. He goes through 'em rapid until he has run across the one he's lookin' for.
"Maybe I do," says he, wavin' it under my nose triumphant.
Which gives me the glimpse I'd been jockeyin' for. The name of that bank was enough. From then on I was mighty interested in this Mortimer J. Stukey; and while I didn't exactly use the pressure pump on Anton, I may have asked a few leadin' questions. Who was Stukey, where did he come from, and what was his idea—hirin' halls and so on? While Anton could recognize a dollar a long way off, he wasn't such a keen observer of folks.
"I don't worry whether he's a Wilson man or not," says Anton, "or which movie star he likes best after Mary Pickford. If I did I should ask Anna."
"Eh?" says I, sort of eager.
"He tells her a lot he don't tell me," says Anton.
"That's reasonable, too," says I. "Ask Anna. Say, that ain't a bad hunch. Much obliged."
It wasn't so easy, though, with Stukey on the job, to get near enough to ask Anna anything. When they came in, and Anton invites me to join the fam'ly group in the boardin'-house dinin'-room while the cheese sandwiches and pickles was bein' passed around, I finds Stukey blockin' me off scientific.
As Anton had said, he had it bad. Never took his eyes off Anna for a second. I suppose he thought he was registerin' tender emotions, but it struck me as more of a hungry look than anything else. Miss Sobowski seemed to like it, though.
I expect a real lady's man wouldn't have had much trouble cuttin' in on Stukey and towin' Anna off into a corner. But that ain't my strong suit. The best I could do was to wait until the next day, when there was no opposition. Meantime I'd been usin' the long-distance reckless; so by the time Anna shows up at the Alcazar to open the window for the evenin' sale, I was primed with a good many more facts about a certain party than I had been the night before. Stukey wasn't quite such a man of mystery as he had been.
Course, I might have gone straight to Anton; but, somehow, I wanted to try out a few hints on Anna. I couldn't say just why, either. The line of josh I opens with ain't a bit subtle. It don't have to be. Anna was tickled to pieces to be kidded about her feller. She invites me into the box-office, offers me chewin' gum, and proceeds to get quite frisky.
"Ah, who was tellin' you that?" says she. "Can't a girl have a gentleman frien' without everybody's askin' is she engaged? Wotcher think?"
"Tut-tut!" says I. "I suppose, when you two had your heads together so close, he was rehearsin' one of his speeches to you—the kind he makes up in the hall, eh?"
"Mr. Stukey don't make no speeches there," says Anna. "He just tells the others what to say. You ought to hear him talk, though. My, sometimes he's just grand!"
"Urgin' 'em not to quit work, I suppose?" says I.
"Him?" says Anna. "Not much. He wants 'em to strike, all the time strike, until they own the shops. He's got no use for rich people. Calls 'em blood-suckers and things like that. Oh, he's sump'n fierce when he talks about the rich."
"Is he?" says I. "I wonder why?"
"All the workers get like that," says Anna. "Mr. Stukey says that pretty soon everybody will join—all but the rich blood-suckers, and they'll be in jail. He was poor himself once. So was I, you know, in Poland. But we got along until the Germans came, and then—— Ugh! I don't like to remember."
"Anton was tellin' me," says I. "You lost some of your folks."
"Lost!" says Anna, a panicky look comin' into her big eyes. "You call it that? I saw my father shot, my two brothers dragged off to work in the trenches, and my sister—oh, I can't! I can't say it!"
"Then don't tell Stukey," says I, "if you want to keep stringin' him along."
"But why?" demands Anna.
"Because," says I, "the money he's spendin' so free around here comes from them—the Germans."
"No, no!" says Anna, whisperin' husky. "That—that's a lie!"
"Sorry," says I; "but I got his number straight. He was workin' for a German insurance company up to 1915, bookkeepin' at ninety a month. Then he got the chuck. He came near starvin'. It was when he was almost in that he went crawlin' back to 'em, and they gave him this job. If you don't believe it's German money he's spendin' ask Anton to show you some of Stukey's canceled checks."
"But—but he's English," protests Anna. "Anyway, his father was."
"The Huns don't mind who they buy up," says I.
She's still starin' at me, sort of stunned.
"German money!" she repeats. "Him!"
"Anton will show you the checks," says I. "He don't care where they come from, so long as he can cash 'em. But you might hint to him that if another big strike is pulled it's apt to be a long one, and in that case the movie business will get a crimp put in it. The Warsaw receipts, too. I take it that Stukey's tryin' to work the hands up to a point where they'll vote for——"
"To-night they vote," breaks in Anna. "In two hours."
I lets out a whistle. "Zowie!" says I. "Guess I'm a little late. Say, you got a 'phone here. Would it do any good if you called Anton up and——"
"No," snaps Anna. "He thinks too slow. I must do this myself."
"You?" says I. "What could you do?"
"I don't know," says Anna. "But I must try. And quick. Hey, Marson! You—at the door. Come here and sell the tickets. Put an usher in your place."
With that she bounces down off the tall chair, shoves the substitute into her place, and goes streamin' out bare-headed. I decides to follow. But she leaves me behind as though I'd been standin' still.
At the Warsaw I finds Anton smokin' placid in his little office.
"Seen Anna?" I asks.
"Anna!" says he. "She should be selling tickets at the——"
"She was," says I; "but just now she's upstairs in the hall."
"At the meetin'?" gasps Anton. "Anna? Oh, no!"
"Come, take a look," says I.
And, for once in his life, Anton got a quick move on. He don't ask me to follow, but I trails along; and just as we strikes the top stair we hears a rousin' cheer go up. I suppose any other time we'd been barred out, but there's nobody to hold us up as we pushes through, for everyone has their eyes glued on the little stage at the far end of the hall.
No wonder. For there, standin' up before more than three hundred yellin' men, is this high-colored young woman.
Course, I couldn't get a word of it, my Polish education havin' been sadly neglected when I was young. But Anna seems to be tellin' some sort of story. My guess was that it's the one she'd hinted at to me—about her father and brothers and sister. But this time she seems to be throwin' in all the details.
There was nothin' frivolous about Anna's eyes now. It almost gave me a creepy feelin' to watch 'em—as if she was seein' things again that she'd like to forget—awful things. And she was makin' those three hundred men see the same things.
All of a sudden she breaks off, covers her face with her hands, and shivers. Then, quick as a flash, she turns and points to Stukey. I caught his name as she hisses it out. Stukey, turnin' a sickly yellow, slumps in his chair. Another second, and she's turned back to the men out front. She is puttin' something up to them—a question, straight from the shoulder.
The first to make a move is a squatty, thick-necked gent with one eye walled out. He jumps on a chair, shouts a few excited words, waves his long arms, and starts for the stage businesslike. The next thing I knew the riot was on, with Mortimer J. Stukey playin' the heavy lead and bein' tossed around like a rat.
It must have been Anton that switched off the lights and sent for the police. I didn't stop to ask. Bein' near the door, I felt my way downstairs and made a quick exit. Course, the ceremonies promised to continue interestin', but somehow this struck me as a swell time for me to quit. So I strolls back to the hotel and goes to bed.
Yes, I was some curious to know how the muss ended, but I didn't hurry around next mornin'. As a matter of fact, I'd enjoyed the society of the Sobowskis quite a lot durin' the past two days, and I thought I'd better stay away for a while. They're a strenuous bunch when they're stirred up—even a kittenish young thing like Anna.
About noon I 'phoned the works, and found that all was serene there, with no signs of a strike yet.
"No, and I got a hunch there won't be any, either," says I.
I was plannin' to linger in Bridgeport another day or so; but when the afternoon paper came out I changed my mind. Accordin' to the police-court reporter's account, there'd been some little disturbance in Warsaw Hall the night before. Seems a stranger by the name of Stukey had butted into a meetin' of the Pulaski Social Club, and had proceeded to get so messy that it had been found necessary to throw him out. Half a dozen witnesses told how rude he'd been, includin' the well-known citizen, Mr. Anton Sobowski, who owned the premises. The said Stukey had been a bit damaged; but after he'd been patched up at the City Hospital he'd been promised a nice long rest—thirty days, to be exact.
So I jumps the next train back to Broadway.
"Ah, Lieutenant!" says Mr. Ellins, glancin' up from his desk. "Find anything up there?"
"Uh-huh," says I. "His name was Stukey. Another case of drawin' his pay from Berlin."
"Hah!" grunts Old Hickory, bitin' into his cigar. "The long arm again. But can't you recommend something?"
"Sure!" says I. "If we could find a pair of gold boots about eighteen buttons high, we ought to send 'em to Anna Sobowski."
AT THE TURN WITH WILFRED
I expect Mr. Robert overstated the case a bit. He was more or less hectic back of the ears about then, havin' just broken away after a half-hour session with Mrs. Stanton Bliss.
"That woman," says he, slumpin' into a chair and moppin' his brow, "has the mental equipment of a pet rabbit and the disposition of a setting hen. Good Lord!"
I looks over at Vee and grins. Had to. It ain't often you see Mr. Robert like that. And him bein' all dolled up in his nifty navy uniform made it seem just that much funnier. But Vee don't grin back. She'd sympathize with 'most anybody. At that exact minute, I'll bet she was bein' sorry for both of 'em all in the same breath, as you might say.
"But can't something be done—somehow?" she asks.
"Not by me," says Mr. Robert, decided. "Great marlinspikes! I'm not the war department, am I? I'm only a first-grade lieutenant in command of a blessed, smelly old menhaden trawler that's posing as a mine-sweeper. I am supposed to be enjoying a twenty-four hour shore leave in the peace and quiet of my home, and I get—this."
He waves his hand toward the other room, where the afore-mentioned Mrs. Stanton Bliss is sobbin, sniffin', and otherwise registerin' deep emotion by clawin' Mrs. Robert about the shoulders and wavin' away the smellin' salts.
"If it was the first time," growls Mr. Robert. "But it isn't."
That was true, too. You see, we'd heard somethin' about the other spasms. They'd begun along in July, when the awful news came out that Wilfred's red ink number had been plucked from the jar. Now you get it, don't you? Nothing unique. The same little old tragedy that was bein' staged in a million homes, includin' four-room flats, double-decker tenements, and boardin'-houses.
Only this happened to hit the forty-room country house of the Stanton Blisses. Course, it was different. Look who was bein' stirred up by it.
So mother had begun throwin' cat-fits. She'd tackled everyone she knew, demandin' to know what was to be done to keep Wilfred out of it. Among others, of course, she'd held up Mr. Robert. Wasn't he their nearest neighbor, and hadn't the Blisses entertained the Ellinses a lot? Not that she put it that way, exactly. But when she came with this hunch about gettin' sonny a snap job on some sort of naval construction work, why, of course, Mr. Robert couldn't duck. Yes, he thought he could place Wilfred. And he did—time-keeper, six-hour shift, and near enough so he could run back and forth every day in his machine.
That might have been good enough for some folks. It meant dodgin' the draft for Wilfred, dead sure. But mother didn't stay satisfied long. She went investigatin' around the plant. She found the office stuffy, Wilfred's desk had no electric fan on it, she wasn't sure of the drinkin' water, and the foreman was quite an impossible sort of person who always sneered when he had anything to say to Wilfred. Couldn't Mr. Robert attend to some of these things? Mr. Robert said he'd try—if he had time. He didn't get the time. More visits from mother.
Then this latest catastrophe. The Stanton Blisses had been away from home for three weeks or more, house-partyin' and motorin' through the mountains. Poor Wilfred had had to stay behind. What a stupidly distressin' thing war was, wasn't it? But he had been asked to spend his nights and Sundays with a college chum whose home was several miles nearer the works.