[Frontispiece: "Well if I ever! Look where your shoulders come!" says Vee.]
ON WITH TORCHY
TORCHY, TRYING OUT TORCHY, ODD NUMBERS, ETC., ETC.
GROSSET & DUNLAP
Copyright, 1913, 1914, by
Copyright, 1914, by
Edward J. Clode
I. CHANCING IT FOR VEE II. PULLING A SLEUTH STUNT III. WHEN IRA SHOWED SOME PEP IV. TORCHY BUGS THE SYSTEM V. BREEZING BY WITH PEGGY VI. GLOOM SHUNTING FOR THE BOSS VII. TORCHY IN ON THE DRAW VIII. GLADYS IN A DOUBLE BILL IX. LATE RETURNS ON POPOVER X. MERRY DODGES A DEAD HEAT XI. THE PASSING BY OF BUNNY XII. THE GLAD HAIL FOR TORCHY XIII. AUNTY FLAGS A ROSY ONE XIV. CUTTING IN ON THE BLISS XV. BEING SICCED ON PERCEY XVI. HOW WHITY GUNKED THE PLOT XVII. TORCHY GETS A THROUGH WIRE
"WELL, IF I EVER! LOOK WHERE YOUR SHOULDERS COME!" . . . . . . . . . Frontispiece
"BY GORRY!" EXPLODES IRA AS HE GETS HIS FIRST GLIMPSE
SISTER HAS LANDED A SMACK ON HIS JAW
BELIEVE ME, IT WAS SOME ARTISTIC MAKEUP!
"AH, FLUTTER BY, IDLE ONE!" SAYS I
THEN MY ARM MUST HAVE SLIPPED—AND THE SIDE CLINCH WA'N'T DISTURBED
WE WAS RIGHT IN THE MIDST OF PRACTISIN' THE SIDEWISE DIP, WHEN WHO SHOULD SHOW UP BUT THE HAPPY BRIDEGROOM!
WE WAS RIGHT IN THE MIDST Of THE SCRIMMAGE WHEN IN WALKS VEE
ON WITH TORCHY
CHANGING IT FOR VEE
Say, what's next to knowin' when you're well off? Why, thinkin' you are.
Which is a little nugget of wisdom I panned out durin' a chat I had not long ago with Mr. Quinn, that I used to work under when I was on the door of the Sunday sheet, three or four years back.
"Hail, Torchy!" says he, as we meets accidental on Broadway. "Still carrying the burning bush under your hat, aren't you?"
I grins good-natured at his old josh, just as I used to about twice a week regular, and admits that I am.
"You wa'n't lookin' for me to fade to an ash blond, was you?" says I.
"Ah!" says he. "I see the brilliance is not all on the outside. Well, what use are you putting it to? Who are you with now?"
"Same concern," says I. "Corrugated Trust."
"As First, or Second Vice President?" says he, cockin' his head on one side humorous.
"Add 'em together and multiply by three," says I, "then you'll be warm."
"I don't quite get the result," says he.
"Ever hear of an office-boy-de-luxe?" says I. "They don't print it on the letter-heads yet, or paint it on the ground-glass, but that's my real label. I'm the only one in New York, too."
Mr. Quinn chuckles and goes off shakin' his head. I expect he's disappointed that I've stuck so long in one shop without climbin' further up the ladder. That's what he was always preachin' at me, this ladder-climbin' advice. But say, hod carriers do that. Me for an express elevator when the time comes.
But meanwhile, with a couple of bosses like Old Hickory Ellins and Mr. Robert, it ain't so worse sittin' behind the brass rail. That's one reason I ain't changed. Also there's that little mine enterprise me and Mr. Robert's mixed up in, which ain't come to a head yet.
Then—well, then, there's Vee. Go on—hand me the jolly! And if you push me to it I'll admit I ain't any speedy performer at this "Oh, you!" game. Mr. Robert he thinks it's comic, when he has the kiddin' fit on, to remark chuckly, "Oh, I say, Torchy, have you seen Miss Vee lately?"
There's others too, that seems to get a lot of satisfaction shootin' the same thing at me, and they sort of snicker when I get pink in the ears. But, say, there's a heap of difference between pickin' peaches from an easy chair under the tree, and when you have to shin the garden wall and reach through the barbed wire ornament on top.
Course, I ain't comparin' anything—but there's Aunty. Dear old girl! Square as a brick, and about as yieldin'; good as gold too, but worth more per ounce than any coined at the mint; and as foxy in the mind as a corporation lawyer arguin' before the Rapid Transit Commission. Also I'm as welcome to Aunty's eyesight as Eugene V. Debs would be at the Union League Club—just about. That ain't any idle rumor, either, nor something that was hinted to me casual. It's first-hand information, hot off the bat.
"Boy," says she, glarin' at me through her gold lorgnette like I was some kind of insect specimen, "do I understand that you come here to see my niece?"
"Well," says I, "there's you and her—guess!"
"Humph!" she snorts indignant. "Then I wish you to know that your visits are most unwelcome. Is that quite clear?"
"I get the outline," says I. "But, you see——"
"No qualifications, absolutely none!" says she. "Good afternoon, young man. I shall not expect you to return."
"Oh, well, in that case," says I, sidlin' off, "why—I—I think I'll be goin'."
It was a smear, that's all. I felt about as thick through as a Saratoga chip, and not half so crisp. Encouragin' finish for an afternoon call that I'd been bracin' myself up to for weeks, wa'n't it? And from all I can gather from a couple of sketchy notes Vee gets about the same line of advice handed her. So there was a debate between her and Aunty. For I expect nobody can lay the law down flat to Vee without strikin' a few sparks from them big gray eyes.
But of course Aunty wins out in the end. It's a cinch, with everything on her side. Anyway, the next thing I knows about their plans is when I finds their names in the sailin' list, bound for the Big Ditch, with most everyone else that could get away. And I makes my discovery about three hours after the boat has left.
But that was in January. And I expect it was a fine thing for Vee, seein' the canal before it revised the geography, and dodgin' all kinds of grip weather, and meetin' a lot of new people. And if it's worth all that bother to Aunty just so anybody can forget a party no more important than me—why, I expect that's all right too.
But it's just like some folks to remember what they're ordered to forget. Anyway, I got bulletins now and then, and I was fairly well posted as to when Aunty landed back in New York, and where she unpacked her trunks. That helped some; but it didn't cut the barbed wire exactly.
And, say, I was gettin' some anxious to see Vee once more. Nearly two weeks she'd been home, and not so much as a glimpse of her! I'd doped out all kinds of brilliant schemes; but somehow they didn't work. No lucky breaks seemed to be comin' my way, either.
And then, here last Sunday after dinner, I just hauls out that church weddin' costume I'd collected once, brushes most of the kinks out of my red hair, sets my jaw solid, and starts to take a sportin' chance. On the way up I sketches out a scenario, which runs something like this:
A maid answers the ring. I ask if Miss Vee is in. The maid goes to see, when the voice of Aunty is heard in the distance, "What! A young gentleman asking for Verona? No card? Then get his name, Hortense." Me to the maid, "Messenger from Mr. Westlake, and would Miss Vee care to take a short motor spin. Waiting below." Then more confab with Aunty, and five minutes later out comes Vee. Finale: Me and Vee climbin' to the top of one of them Riverside Drive busses, while Aunty dreams that she's out with Sappy Westlake, the chosen one.
Some strategy to that—what? And, sure enough, the piece opens a good deal as I'd planned; only instead of me bein' alone when I pushes the button, hanged if two young chappies that had come up in the elevator with me don't drift along to the same apartment door. We swap sort of foolish grins, and when Hortense fin'ly shows up everyone of us does a bashful sidestep to let the others go first. So Hortense opens on what looks like a revolvin' wedge. But that don't trouble her at all.
"Oh, yes," says she, swingin' the door wide and askin' no questions. "This way, please."
Looked like we was expected; so there's no ducking and while we're drapin' our hats on the hall rack I'm busy picturin' the look on Aunty's face when she singles me out of the trio. They was panicky thoughts, them.
But a minute later the plot is still further mixed by the sudden swishy, swirly entrance of an entire stranger,—a tall, thin female with vivid pink cheeks, a chemical auburn tint to her raven tresses, and long jet danglers in her ears. She's draped in what looks like a black silk umbrella cover with rows of fringe and a train tacked to it, and she wears a red, red rose coquettish over one ear. As she swoops down on us from the drawin' room she cuts loose with the vivacious chatter.
"Ah, there you are, you dear, darling boys!" says she. "And the Princess Charming is holding court to-day. Ah, Reggy, you scamp! But you did come, didn't you? And dear Theodore too! Brave, Sir Knights! That's what you all shall be,—Knights come to woo the Princess!"
Honest, for awhile there, as this bughouse monologue was bein' put over, I figured I've made a mistake in the floor, and had been let into a private ward. But as soon as I gets next to the Georgia accent I suspects that it ain't any case of squirrels in the attic; but just a sample of sweet Southern gush.
Next I gets a peek through the draperies at some straw-colored hair with a shell-pink ear peepin' from underneath, and I know that whatever else is wrong don't matter; for over there on the windowseat, surrounded by half a dozen young gents, is somebody very particular and special. Followin' this I does a hasty piece of scout work and draws a deep breath. No Aunty looms on the horizon—not yet, anyway.
With the arrival of the new delegates the admirin' semicircle has to break up, and the three of us are towed to the bay window by Vivacious Vivian.
"Princess," says she, makin' a low duck, "three other Knights who would do homage. Allow me first to present Mr. Reginald St. Claire Smith. Here Reggy. Also Mr. Theodore Braden. And next Mr.—Mr.—er——"
She's got to me. I expect her first guess was that I'd been dragged in by one of the other two; but as neither of 'em makes any sign she turns them black, dark-ringed lamps inquirin' on me and asks, "Oh, I'm sure I beg pardon, but—but you are——"
Now who the blazes was I, anyway? It all depended on how well posted she was, whether I should admit I was Torchy the Banished, or invent an alias on the spot.
"Why," says I, draggin' it out to gain time, "you see I'm a—that is, I'm a—a——"
"Oh, hello!" breaks in Vee, jumpin' up and holdin' out both hands just in the nick of time. "Why, of course, Cousin Eulalia! This is a friend of mine, an old friend."
"Really!" says Cousin Eulalia. "And I may call him——"
"Claude," I puts in, winkin' at Vee. "Call me just Claude."
"Perfectly lovely!" gushes Eulalia. "An unknown knight. 'Deed and you shall be called Claude—Sir Claude of the Golden Crest. Gentlemen, I present him to you."
We looks at each other sort of sheepish, and most of us grins. All but one, in fact. The blond string bean over in the corner, with the buttermilk blue eyes and the white eyebrows, he don't seem amused. For it's Sappy Westlake, the one I run on a siding once at a dance. Think of keepin' a peeve on ice all that time!
It's quite a likely lookin' assortment on the whole, though, all costumed elegant and showin' signs of bein' fairly well parlor broke.
"What's the occasion?" says I on the side to Miss Vee. "Reunion of somebody's Sunday school class?"
She gives me a punch and smothers a snicker, "Don't let Cousin Eulalia hear you say such a thing," says she.
We only had a minute; but from what she manages to whisper durin' the general chatter I makes out that this is a little scheme Eulalia'd planned to sort of launch Vee into the younger set. She's from Atlanta, Cousin Eulalia is, one of the best fam'lies, and kind of a perennial society belle that's tinkled through quite some seasons, but refuses to quit. Just now she's spendin' a month with Fifth-ave. friends, and has just discovered that Vee and her are close connected through a step-uncle marryin' a half-sister of Eulalia's brother-in-law, or something like that. Anyhow, she insists on the cousin racket, and has started right in to rush Vee to the front.
She's some rasher, Eulalia is, too. No twenty-minutes-to-or-after silences while she's conductin' affairs. Course, it's kind of frothy stuff to pass for conversation; but it bubbles out constant, and she blows it around impartial. Her idea of giving Cousin Vee a perfectly good time seems to be to have us all grouped around that windowseat and take turns shootin' over puffs of hot air; sort of a taffy-throwin' competition, you know, with Vee as the mark.
But Vee don't seem tickled to death over it. She ain't fussed exactly, as Eulalia rounds us up in a half-circle; but she colors up a little and acts kind of bored. She's some picture, though. M-m-m-m! And it was worth while bein' one of a mob, just to stand there watchin' her.
I expect the young college hicks felt a good deal the same about it as me, even if they was havin' hard work diggin' up appropriate remarks when Eulalia swings the arrow so it points to them. Anyway, they does their best to come up with the polite jolly, and nobody makes a break to quit.
It's durin' the tea and sandwich scramble, though, that Cousin Eulalia gets her happy hunch. Seems that Sappy Westlake has come forward with an invite to a box party just as Vee is tryin' to make up her mind whether she'll go with Teddy Braden to some cotillion capers, or accept a dinner dance bid from one of the other young gents.
"And all for Wednesday night!" says she. "How stupid of you, with the week so long!"
"But I'd planned this box party especially for you," protests Sappy.
"Oh, give someone else a chance, Westlake," cuts in Reggy. "That's the night of our frat dance, and I want to ask Miss Vee if——"
"What's this all about?" demands Eulalia, dancin' kittenish into the limelight. "Rivalry among our gallant knights? Then the Princess Charming must decide."
"Oh, don't, Cousin Eulalia," says Vee, wrinklin' her nose the least bit. "Please!"
"Don't what?" says Eulalia, raisin' her long arms flutterin'. "My dear, I don't understand."
"Ah, she's hintin' for you to ditch the Princess stuff," I puts in. "Ain't that it?" and Vee nods emphatic.
Eulalia lets on that she don't know. "Ditch the—why, what can he mean by that?" says she. "And you are a Princess Charming; isn't she, boys?"
Course the bunch admits that she is.
"There, you see?" goes on Eulalia. "Your faithful knights acclaim you. Who says that the age of chivalry has passed? Why, here they are, everyone of them ready to do your lightest bidding. Now, aren't you, Sir Knights?"
It's kind of a weak chorus; but the ayes seem to have it. What other answer could there be, with Vee gazin' flushed and pouty at 'em over the tea urn?
"Really, Eulalia, I wish you wouldn't be so absurd," says Vee.
"My dear Cousin Verona," coos Eulalia, glidin' up and huggin' her impetuous, "how could anyone keep their heads straight before such absolutely distracting beauty? See, you have inspired them all with the spirit of chivalry. And now you must put them to the test. Name some heroic deed for each to perform. Begin with Reggy. Now what shall it be?"
"Fudge!" says Vee, tossin' her head. "I'll do nothing so perfectly mushy."
But Cousin Eulalia wa'n't to be squelched, nor have her grand scheme sidetracked. "Then I declare myself Mistress of the Lists," says she, "and I shall open the tournament for you. Ho, Trumpeter, summon the challengers! And—oh, I have it. Each of you Sir Knights must choose his own task, whatever he deems will best please our Princess Charming. What say you to that?"
There's a murmur of "Good business!" "Bully dope!" and the young gents begin to prick up their ears.
"Then this is how it stands," goes on Eulalia, beamin' delighted. "Between now and eight o'clock this evening each knight must do his valorous best to win the approval of our Princess. Hers it shall be to decide, the prize her gracious company for next Wednesday night. Come now, who enters the lists?"
There's some snickerin' and hangin' back; but fin'ly they're all in.
"All save the Unknown Knight," pipes up Eulalia, spottin' me in the rear. "How now, you of the Crimson Crest? Not showing the white feather, are you?"
"Me?" says I. "Well, I don't quite get the drift of the game; but if it'll make you feel any better, you can count me in."
"Good!" says she, clappin' her hands. "And while you are afield I must leave too—another tea, you know. But we all meet here again at eight sharp, with proof or plunder. Teddy, have you decided what to attempt?"
"Sure," says he. "Me to find the biggest box of candy that can be bought in New York Sunday evening."
"Oh, splendid!" gurgles Eulalia. "And you, Mr. Westlake?"
"Orchids," says Sappy. "Grandmother has dandy ones at her place up in Westchester, and I can make there and back in my roadster if I'm not pinched for speeding. I'm going to have a try, and maybe I'll have to steal the flowers too."
"There!" says Eulalia, pattin' him on the back. "That's a knightly spirit. But what of Crimson Crest? What will you do?"
"The game is to spring something on Miss Vee better'n what the others put over, is it?" says I.
"Precisely," says Eulalia, allowin' two of the young gents to help her on with her wraps. "Have you thought what your offering is to be?"
"Not yet," says I. "I may take a chance on something fresh."
They was all pilin' out eager by that time, each one anxious to get started on his own special fool stunt, so, while I was mixed up in the gen'ral push, with my hat in my hand and my coat over my arm, it didn't strike me how I could bolt the programme until I'm half crowded behind the open hall door. Then I gets a swift thought. Seein' I wouldn't be missed, and that Vee has her back to me, I simply squeezes in out of sight and waits while she says by-by to the last one; so, when she fin'ly shuts the door, there I am.
"Why, Torchy!" says she. "I thought you had gone."
"But it wa'n't a wish, was it?" says I.
"Humph!" says she, flashin' a teasin' glance. "Suppose I don't tell that?"
"My nerve is strong today," says I, chuckin' my hat back on the rack; "so I'll take the benefit of the doubt."
"But all the others have gone to—to do things that will please me," she adds.
"That's why I'm takin' a chance," says I, "that if I stick around I might—well, I'm shy of grandmothers to steal orchids from, anyway."
Vee chuckles at that. "Isn't Cousin Eulalia too absurd?" says she. "And since you're still here—why—well, let's not stand in the hall. Come in."
"One minute," says I. "Where's Aunty?"
"Out," says she.
"What a pity!" says I, takin' Vee by the arm. "Tell her how much I missed her."
"But how did you happen to come up today?" asks Vee.
"There wa'n't any happenin' to it," says I. "I'd got to my limit, that's all. Honest, Vee, I just had to come. I'd have come if there'd been forty Aunties, each armed with a spiked club. It's been months, you know, since I've had a look at you."
"Yes, I know," says she, gazin' at the rug. "You—you've grown, haven't you?"
"Think so?" says I. "Maybe it's the cut-away coat."
"No," says she; "although that helps. But as we walked in I thought you seemed taller than I. Let's measure, here by the pier glass. Now, back to back. Well, if I ever! Look where your shoulders come!"
"No more than an inch or so," says I, gazin' sideways at the mirror; and then I lets slip, half under my breath, a sort of gaspy "Gee!"
"Why the 'Gee'?" says she, glancin' over her shoulder into the glass.
"Oh, I don't know," says I; "only I don't mind bein' grouped like this, not a bit."
"Pooh!" says she, but still holdin' the pose.
"Seems to me," says I, "that Cousin Eulalia is a slick describer. That Princess Charming business ain't so wide."
"Silly!" says she. "Come and sit down."
She was steerin' for the windowseat; but I picks out a cozy little high-backed davenport and, reachin' for one of her hands, swings her into that. "Just room for two here," says I.
"But you needn't keep my hand," says she.
"No trouble," says I. "Besides, I thought I'd inspect what kind of a manicure you take of. M-m-m-m! Pretty fair, no hangnails, all the half-moons showin' proper, an——" I broke off sudden at that and sat starin' blank.
"Well, anything else?" says she.
"I—I guess not," says I, lettin' her hand slip. "You've chucked it, eh?"
"Chucked what?" says she.
"Nothing much," says I. "But for awhile there, you know, just for fun you was wearin' something of mine."
"Oh!" she flashes back. "Then at last you've missed it, have you?"
"With so much else worth lookin' at," says I, "is it a wonder?"
"Blarney!" says she, stickin' out her tongue.
"Did Aunty capture it?" says I.
Vee shakes her head.
"Maybe you lost it?" I goes on. "It wa'n't much."
"Then you wouldn't care if I had?" says she.
"I wanted you to keep it," says I; "but of course, after all the row Aunty raised over it, I knew you couldn't."
"Couldn't I, though?" says she, and with that she fishes up the end of a little gold neck chain from under some lace—and hanged if there ain't the ring!
"Vee!" says I, sort of tingly all over as I gazes at her. "Say, you're a corker, though! Why, I thought sure you'd——"
"Silly boy!" says she. "I'll just have to pay you for that. You will think horrid things of me, will you? There!"
She does things in a flash when she cuts loose too. Next I knew she has her fingers in what Eulalia calls my crimson crest and is rumplin' up all them curls I'd been so careful to slick back. I grabbed her wrists, and it was more or less of a rough-house scene we was indulgin' in, when all of a sudden the draperies are brushed back, and in stalks Aunty, with Cousin Eulalia trailin' behind.
"Ver-ona!" Talk about havin' a pitcher of cracked ice slipped down your back! Say, there was more chills in that one word than ever blew down from Medicine Hat. "What," goes on Aunty, "does this mean?"
"It—it's a new game," says I, grinnin' foolish.
"As old as Satan, I should say!" raps out Aunty.
"Why," squeals Cousin Eulalia gushy, "here is our Unknown Knight, the first to come back with his tribute! Let's see, what was it you said you were going to do? Oh, I know—take a chance on something fresh, wasn't it? Well?"
"Ye-e-es," says I. "And I guess I did."
"Trust him for that!" snorts Aunty. "Young man, at our last interview I thought I made it quite clear that I should not expect you to return?"
"That's right," says I, edgin' around her towards the door. "And you wa'n't, was you?"
Some glance she shot over; but it didn't prove fatal. And as I rides down I couldn't help swappin' a wink with the elevator boy.
"Feelin' frisky, eh?" says he. "So was them other young guys. One of 'em tipped me a half."
"That kind would," says I. "They're comin' back. I'm escapin'."
But, say, who do you guess wins out for Wednesday night? Ah, rattle 'em again! Eulalia fixed it up. Said it was Vee's decision, and she was bound to stick by the rules of the game, even if they did have to throw a bluff to Aunty. Uh-huh! I've got three orchestra seats right in my pocket, and a table engaged for supper afterwards. Oh, I don't know. Eulalia ain't so batty, after all.
PULLING A SLEUTH STUNT
Trust Piddie for workin' up wild suspicions. Say, he can't find a stray sheet of scribblin' paper on the floor without pouncin' sleuthy on it and tryin' to puzzle out the hidden meanin'.
So when I get the buzzer call to Old Hickory's private office and finds him and the main stem waitin' in solemn conclave there, I guesses right off that Piddie's dug up a new one that he hopes to nail me with. Just now he's holdin' a little bunch of wilted field flowers in one hand, and as I range up by the desk he shoots over the accusin' glance.
"Boy," says he, "do you know anything about these?"
"Why, sure," says I. "They're pickled pigs' feet, ain't they?"
"No impudence, now!" says he. "Where did they come from?"
"Off'm Grant's Tomb, if I must guess," says I. "Anyway, I wouldn't think they was picked in the Subway."
And at this Old Hickory sniffs impatient. "That is quite enough comic diversion, young man!" he puts in. "Do you or don't you know anything about how those things happened to get on my desk?"
"Me?" says I. "Why, I never saw 'em before! What's the dope?"
"Huh!" he grunts. "I didn't think this was any of your nonsense: too tame. And I suppose you might as well know what's afoot. Tell him, Mr. Piddie."
Did you ever see a pinhead but what just dotes on springin' a sensation? Piddie fairly gloats over unloadin' it. "This," says he, holdin' up the wilted bunch, "is the unaccountable. For the fourth time flowers of this description have been mysteriously left on Mr. Ellins' desk. It is not done after hours, or during the night; but in broad day, sometimes when Mr. Ellins is sitting just where he is now, and by a hand unseen. Watch has been kept, yet no one has been detected; and, as you know, only a few persons have free access here. Still the thing continues. At regular periods these absurd bouquets appear on this desk, seemingly from nowhere at all. Hence this inquiry."
I'd heard Piddie spout a good many times before, but never quite so eloquent, and I expect I was gawpin' at him some dazed and admirin'.
"Well," says Old Hickory, squintin' sharp at me from under his bushy eyebrows, "what have you to offer?"
"It's by me," says I, shruggin' my shoulders.
"Oh, come now!" he goes on. "With that high tension brain of yours, surely you can advance some idea."
"Why," says I, "offhand I should say that some of them mushy lady typists out there might be smugglin' in floral tributes to you, Sir."
Old Hickory grins sarcastic. "Without going into the question of motive," says he, "that suggestion may be worth considering. What say, Mr. Piddie?"
"It might be that Miss Smicks," says Piddie. "She's quite sentimental, Sir, and I've thought at times she——"
"Stop!" roars Old Hickory, almost workin' up a blush. "Mr. Piddie, I am a fat, cross-grained old man, about as attractive personally as a hippopotamus. Great stuttering tadpoles! Can't you think of anything but sappy romance? More likely someone wants a raise."
"Very true, Sir; I hadn't thought of that," chimes in Piddie. "Shall we call them all in, one at a time, Sir, and——"
"And what?" snaps Old Hickory. "Think I'm going to ask all those young women if they've been leaving flowers on my desk?"
"Couldn't you fake up some job for each one," says I, "and when they came in be wearin' the flowers conspicuous, and watch if they——"
"Bah!" breaks in Old Hickory. "What driveling tommyrot! Besides, I don't believe any of them had a hand in this. How could they? Why, I tell you, there wasn't a soul in this room between noon and twelve forty-five to-day; and yet, with me facing that door, these things appear right at my elbow. It—it's getting on my nerves, and, by the seven sizzling sisters, I want to know what it all means!"
"We could have in the detectives," suggests Piddie.
"If it was a bomb or an infernal machine, I might," says Mr. Ellins scornful; "but to trace a few dad-blistered flowers—no, thank you! It's foolish enough as it stands."
"But there is something behind all this, I'm sure," insists Piddie, "and if you will allow me to do it, I shall send at once for Dr. Rudolph Bingstetter."
"Who's he?" demands Old Hickory.
"A distinguished scientist who is a friend and neighbor of mine," says Piddie, swellin' up important. "He was formerly a dentist, I believe; but now he devotes himself to research and literature. He writes magazine articles on psychological phenomena, crime mysteries, and so on. Dr. Bingstetter has a wonderful mind, and is often called on to unravel baffling cases. It was only a few months ago that he successfully investigated a haunted house out our way and found——"
"But I'm not accusing ghosts of this," says Old Hickory.
"Of course not, Sir," says Piddie; "but I'm sure Dr. Bingstetter could find out just how those flowers come here. He's an extremely brilliant man, Sir, and I'm quite positive he could——"
"Well, well, send for him, then," says Old Hickory. "Only see that you keep still about it outside there, both of you. I don't care to have the whole office force chattering and snickering over this affair. Understand?"
You bet we did; for when the boss gets real peevish about anything it's not safe to get your signals mixed! I stands guard on the 'phone booth while Piddie was sendin' the message, and for once we plots away together real chummy.
"He's coming right over this afternoon," whispers Piddie, as he slides out of the booth. "You're to take him directly into Mr. Ellins' office,—a large, impressive looking man, you know, with a full round face and wearing eye-glasses."
Piddie forgets to mention the shiny frock coat and the forty-four-inch waist line; but for all that I spots him the minute he hits the brass gate, which he does about ten minutes before closin' time.
"Dr. Bingstetter?" says I cautious.
"I am he," is the answer.
"S-s-s-s-sh!" says I, puttin' a forefinger to my lips warnin'.
"S-s-s-s-sh!" echoes the Doc, tiptoein' through the gate.
Then up comes Piddie, walkin' on his toes too, and the three of us does a footpad sneak into Old Hickory's office. There wa'n't any wild call for me to stay as I knows of; but as long as no one threw me out I thought I'd stick around.
I must say too the Doc looked and acted the part. First off he sits there blinkin' wise behind his glasses, and not a sign on his big, heavy face as he listens to all Piddie and Mr. Ellins can tell him about the case. Also when he starts askin' questions on his own hook he makes a noise like a mighty intellect changin' gears.
"M-m-m-m!" says he, pursin' up his lips and studyin' the bouquet thoughtful. "Six ox-eyed daisies, four sprays of goldenrod, and three marshmallow blooms,—thirteen in all. And this is the fourth bunch. Now, the others, Mr. Ellins, they were not precisely like this one, were they?"
"Blessed if I know!" says Old Hickory. "No, come to think of it, they were all different."
"Ah, I thought so!" says the Doc, sort of suckin' in his breath satisfied. "Now, just what flowers did the first one contain, I should like to know."
"Why, hang it all, man, I can't remember!" says Old Hickory. "I threw the things into the waste basket."
"Ah, that was careless, very careless," says the Doc. "It would have helped. One ought to cultivate, Mr. Ellins, the habit of accurately observing small details. However, we shall see what can be done with this," and once more he puckers his lips, furrows up his noble brow, and gazes steady at floral exhibit No. 4, turnin' it round slow between his fat fingers and almost goin' into a trance over it.
"Hadn't you better take a look around the offices," suggests Old Hickory, "examine the doors, and so on?"
"No, no!" says Bingstetter, wavin' away the interruption. "No bypaths. The trained mind rejects everything contributory, subordinate. It refuses to be led off into a maze of unsupported conjecture. It seeks only the vital, primogenitive fact, the hidden truth at the heart of things. And that is all here—here!"
Piddie leans forward for another look at the flowers, and wags his head solemn, I edges around for a closer view myself, and Old Hickory stares puzzled.
"You don't mean to say," says he, "that just by gazing at a few flowers you can——"
"S-s-s-sh!" breaks in the Doc, holdin' up a warnin' hand. "It is coming. I am working outward from the primal fact toward the objective. It is evolving, taking on definite proportions, assuming shape."
"Well, what's the result?" demands the boss, hitchin' restless in his chair.
"Patience, my dear Sir, patience," says the Doc soothin'. "The introdeductive method cannot be hurried. It is an exact process, requiring utmost concentration, until in the fullness of the moment—— Ah, I have it!"
"Eh?" says Old Hickory.
"One moment," says the Doc. "A trifling detail is still missing,—the day of the week. To-day is Wednesday, is it not? Now, on what day of last week did you receive a—er—similar token?"
Old Hickory finally reckons up that it must have been last Wednesday.
"And the week before?" goes on the Doc. "The bunch of flowers appeared then on Wednesday, did it not?"
Yes, he was pretty sure it did.
"Ah!" says Bingstetter, settlin' back in his chair like it was all over, "then the cumulative character is established. And such exact recurrence cannot be due to chance. No, it has all been nicely calculated, carried out with relentless precision. Four Wednesdays, four floral threats!"
"Threats?" says Mr. Ellins, sittin' up prompt.
"You failed to read them," says the Doc. "That is what comes of neglecting minor details. But fortunately I came in time to decipher this one. Observe the fateful number,—thirteen. Note the colors here,—brown, golden, pink. The pink of the mallow means youth, the goldenrod stands for hoarded wealth, the brown for age. And all are bound together by wire grass, which is the tightening snare. A menacing missive! There will come another on Wednesday next."
"Think so?" says Old Hickory.
"I am positive," says the Doc. "One more. We will allude to it for the present, if you choose, as the fifth bouquet. And this fifth token will be red, blood red! Mr. Ellins, you are a marked man!"
"The blazes you say!" snorts Old Hickory. "Well, it won't be the first time. Who's after me now, though?"
"Five desperate men," says the Doc, countin' 'em off on his fingers. "Four have given evidence of their subtle daring. The fifth is yet to appear. He will come on Wednesday next, and then—he will find that his coming has been anticipated. I shall be here in person. Now, let me see—there is a room connecting with this? Ah, very well. Have three policemen in readiness there. I think it can be arranged so that our man will walk in among them of his own accord. That is all. Give yourself no uneasiness, Mr. Ellins. For a week you will be undisturbed. Until then, Sir, au revoir."
With that he bows dignified and motions Piddie to lead the way out. I slides out too, leavin' Old Hickory sittin' there starin' sort of puzzled and worried at the wall. And, honest, whether you took any stock in the Doc's yellow forecast or not, it listens kind of creepy. Course, with him usin' all that highbrow language, I couldn't exactly follow how he gets to it; but there's no denyin' that it sounds mighty convincin'.
And yet—well, I can't say just what there was about Bingstetter that got me leery; but somehow he reminds me of a street faker or a museum lecturer. And it does seem sort of fishy that, just by gazin' at a bunch of flowers, he could dope out all this wild tale about five desp'rate men. Still, there was no gettin' away from the fact that he had hit it right about the bouquets appearin' reg'lar every Wednesday. That must mean something. But why Wednesdays? Now, what was there that happens on Wednesday that don't——
Say, you know how you'll get a fool hunch sometimes, that'll seem such a nutty proposition first off that you'll almost laugh at yourself for havin' it; and yet how it'll rattle around in your bean persistent, until you quit tryin' to get rid of it? Well, this one of mine strikes me about as I'm snugglin' down into the hay that night, and there was no gettin' away from it for hours.
I expect I did tear off a few chunks of slumber between times; but I was wide awake long before my regular hour for rollin' out, and after makin' three or four stabs at a second nap I gives it up, slips down for an early breakfast, and before eight A.M. I'm down in the basement of the Corrugated Buildin' interviewin' the assistant superintendent in his little coop of an office. I comes out whistlin' and lookin' wise. And that night after I'd made a trip over to Long Island across the Queensboro Bridge I looks wiser still. Nothin' to do until next Wednesday.
And when it comes it sure opens up like it's goin' to be a big day, all right! At first Old Hickory announces that he ain't goin' to have any cops campin' around in the directors' room. It was all blithering nonsense! Hadn't he lived through all sorts of warnin's before? And he'd be eternally blim-scuttled if he was goin' to get cold feet over a few faded flowers!
There was Piddie, though, with his say. His idea is to have the reserves from two precincts scattered all over the shop, and he lugs around such a serious face and talks so panicky that at last the boss compromises on havin' two of the buildin' specials detailed for the job. We smuggles 'em into the big room at eleven o'clock, and tells 'em to lay low until they gets the word. Next comes Bingstetter, blinkin' mysterious, and has himself concealed behind a screen in the private office. By that time Old Hickory is almost as nervous as anybody.
"Fine state of affairs, things are at now," he growls, "when a man isn't safe unless he has a bodyguard! That's what comes of all this political agitation!"
"Have no fear," says the Doc; "you will not receive the fifth bouquet. Boy, leave that door into the next room slightly ajar. He will try to escape that way."
"Ajar she is," says I, proppin' it open with a 'phone directory.
"'Tis well," says the Doc. "Now leave us."
I was goin' to, anyway; for at exactly noon I had a date somewhere else. There was a window openin' off the bondroom that was screened by a pile of cases, and out from that was an iron fire escape runnin' along the whole court side on our floor. I'd picked that window out as bein' a good place to scout from. And I couldn't have been better placed; for I saw just who I was expectin' the minute he heaves in sight. I'd like to have had one glimpse, though, of Old Hickory and the Doc and Piddie while they was watchin' and listenin' and holdin' their breath inside there. But I'm near enough when the time comes, to hear that chorus of gasps that's let loose at twelve-twenty-six exact.
"Ha!" says the Doc. "As I told you—a red rose!"
"Well, I'll be slam-whizzled!" explodes Old Hickory.
"But—but where did it come from?" pants Piddie. "Who—who could have——"
And that's just when little Willie, after creepin' cautious along the fire escape, gives his unsuspectin' victim the snappy elbow tackle from behind and shoves him into view.
"Here's your desperado!" says I, givin' my man the persuadin' knee in the small of his back. "Ah, scramble in there, Old Top! You ain't goin' to be hurt. In with you now!"
"Look out!" squeals Piddie. "Police, police!"
"Ah, can that!" I sings out, helpin' my prisoner through the window and followin' after. "Police nothin'! Shoo 'em back, will you? He's as harmless as a kitten."
"Torchy," calls Old Hickory, recoverin' his nerve a little, "what is the meaning of this, and who have you there?"
"This," says I, straightenin' my man up with a shoulder slap, "is the bearer of the fifth bouquet—also the fourth, and the third, and so on. This is Mr. Cubbins of the Consolidated Window Cleanin' Company. Ain't that right, eh, old sport?"
"'Enery Cubbins, Sir," says he, scrapin' his foot polite and jerkin' off his old cap.
"And was it you who just threw this thing on my desk?" demands Old Hickory, pointin' to the red rose.
"Meanin' no 'arm at all, Sir, no 'arm at all," says Cubbins.
"And do I understand that you brought those other flowers in the same way?" goes on Mr. Ellins.
"Not thinkin' you'd mind, Sir," says Cubbins; "but if there's henny hoffense given, I asks pardon, Sir."
And there couldn't be any mistakin' the genuine tremble in that weak, pipin' voice, or the meek look in them watery old eyes. For Cubbins is more or less of a human wreck, when you come to size him up close,—a thin, bent-shouldered, faded lookin' old party, with wispy, whitish hair, a peaked red nose, and a peculiar, whimsical quirk to his mouth corners. Old Hickory looks him over curious for a minute or so.
"Huh!" he grunts at last. "So you're the one, eh? But why the blue-belted blazes did you do it?"
All Cubbins does, though, is to finger his cap bashful.
"Well, Torchy," says Mr. Ellins, "you seem to be running this show. Perhaps you'll tell us."
"That's further'n I've got," says I. "You see, when I traced this floral tribute business down to a window washer, I——"
"In the name of all that's brilliant," breaks in Old Hickory, "how did you ever do that?"'
"Why, I got to thinkin' about it," says I, "and it struck me that we had our glass cleaned every Wednesday, and if there was no way of anyone smugglin' flowers in through the doors, the windows was all there was left, wa'n't it? Also who's most likely to be monkeyin' around outside, fifteen stories up, but a window washer?"
"Ha!" says Old Hickory through his teeth. "And did you do that by the introdeductive process, may I ask?"
"No such bunk as that," says I. "Just used my bean, that's all. Then I got Mac, the assistant buildin' super, to put me wise as to who had the windows on our floor, and by throwin' a bluff over the 'phone I made the Consolidated people locate Mr. Cubbins for me. Found him putterin' round in his garden over in Astoria, and pumped more or less out of him; but when it come to gettin' him to explain why it was he'd picked you out, Mr. Ellins, as a mark for his bouquets, I fell down complete. Mr. Cubbins is English, as maybe you noticed by his talk, and he used to be a house painter before his health got so bad. Now he lives with his son-in-law, who tells me that the old gent——"
"'E's a bit of a liar, my son-in-law is," pipes up Cubbins; "a bally Socialist, Sir, and I'm ashymed to s'y 'as 'ow 'e's fond of abusin' 'is betters. Thet's 'ow it all come abaht, Sir. Alw'ys tykin' on over the rich, 'e is; and 'e's most fond of s'yin' wrong things abaht you special, Sir; callin' you a bloodsucking predatory person, Sir, and himpolite nimes like thet. 'Ah, stow thet, Jimmy!!' says I. 'All bloomin' lies, they are. There ayn't a finer man lives than Mr. Ellins,' says I. ''Ow do you know?' says 'e. ''Ow?' says I. 'Don't I wash 'is hoffice windows?' But 'e keeps at it of evenin's, s'yin' as 'ow you do this and that, an' 'e fair talks me down, Jimmy does. But I know w'at I knows; so to relieve my feelin's a bit I've been bringin' you the flowers on the sly, Sir; meanin', as I says before, no 'arm at all, Sir."
"Well, I'll be dashed!" says Old Hickory, squintin' at Cubbins humorous. "So you think I'm a good man, eh?"
"I'm quite sure of it, Sir," says he. "As I was tellin' Jimmy only last night, 'W'y, at 'ome 'e'd be a Lord!' And so you would, Sir. But, as I sees it, you're just as much 'ere, Sir. You build things up, and keep things goin',—big things, such as the likes of me and Jimmy mykes our livin' from. And it ayn't just your money mykes you a gryte man; it's your brains and your big 'eart. I know w'at I knows, Sir, an' I 'opes as 'ow you'll tyke no hoffense at the flowers, Sir."
"Not a bit, Cubbins," says Old Hickory, smilin' grim. "In fact, that's a first rate idea of yours. We ought to have some sort of flowers here all the time. Got many left in your garden, have you, Cubbins?"
"Plenty, Sir," says Cubbins. "The roses'll be gone soon now, Sir; but there's golden glow, and hasters comin' on, and zinnias, and——"
"Then you're engaged, Cubbins," says Old Hickory, "to supply the office with fresh ones every day. When yours give out we'll have to buy some, I suppose. And you'll give up this window cleaning job at once. It's too dangerous. I can't afford to have the only man in the United States who holds a good opinion of me risking his neck like that."
"Thankee kindly, Sir," says Cubbins, beamin' grateful. "And we'll see w'at Jimmy 'as to s'y to that, so we will!"
"Report that in full," says Old Hickory. "And, Mr. Piddie, see that Mr. Cubbins' name goes on the payroll from today. But, by the way, where is your distinguished friend, the scientific investigator?"
"Why—er—why——" says Piddie, flushin' up and swallowin' hard, "Dr. Bingstetter left a moment ago."
"Did, eh?" grunts Old Hickory. "He should have stayed awhile and allowed Torchy to give him a few pointers on evolving things from primal facts."
"Ye-e-e-es, Sir," says Piddie, his face all tinted up lovely.
Which winds up, as you might say, the Mystery of the Fifth Bouquet. But, believe me, there ain't any tamer party around the shop these days than this same J. Hemmingway Piddie. And if the old habits get to croppin' out any time, all I got to do is shut one eye, put my finger to my lips, and whisper easy, "Ah, go tell that to Doc Bungstarter!" That gets him behavin'.
And Cubbins, why—he's blossomed out in a new fall suit, and he stops at the desk every few days to tell me how he put it all over Jimmy the night before. So that was some stroke, what?
WHEN IRA SHOWED SOME PEP
It was good domework of Mr. Robert's to tip me off about this Higgins party, or there's no knowin' how hard a time he might have had gettin' through the brass gate. As it is, the minute I spots the watch chain and the round cuffs and the neck freckles, I sizes him up as the expected delegate from the fresh mackerel and blueberry pie district. One of these long, lanky specimens, he is, with a little stoop to his shoulders, ginger-colored hair and mustache, and a pair of calm, sea-blue eyes that look deep and serious.
I finds him pacin' deliberate up and down the waitin' room at eight-fifty-three A.M., which is two minutes ahead of my schedule for openin' the Corrugated for gen'ral business. His overcoat and a crumpled mornin' paper are on the bench; so I figures he's been there quite some time. Course, it might have been a stray Rube of most any name; but I thinks I'll take a chance.
"Mornin', Ira," says I.
"Howdy," says he, as natural as if this was a reg'lar habit of ours. Which puts it up to me to find out if I'm right, after all.
"Mr. Higgins, ain't it?" says I.
"When did you get in?" says I.
"About six," says he.
"Come down by train or boat?" says I.
"Train," says he.
"You've had breakfast, I suppose?" I goes on.
Another nod. Oh, yes, for an economical converser, he was about the most consistent breath saver I ever tackled. You could easy go hoarse havin' a little chat with him. You'd need lots of time too; for after every one of my bright little sallies Ira looks me over in that quiet, thoughtful way of his, then counts fifty to himself, and fin'lly decides whether it'll be a grunt or just a nod. Gettin' information out of him was like liftin' a trunk upstairs one step at a time. I manages to drag out, though, that he'd been hangin' around ever since the buildin' was opened by the day watchman at seven o'clock.
"Well," says I, "Mr. Robert was lookin' for you to blow in today; but not quite so early. It'll be near ten before he shows up. Better come inside and have a comf'table chair."
He takes that proposition up with himself, fin'lly passin' on it favorable; and from then on he sits there, with never a move or a blink, watchin' solemn all the maneuvers that a battery of lady typists has to go through before settlin' down for a forenoon's work. I'll bet he could tell you too, a month from now, just how many started with gum, and which ones renewed their facial scenery with dabs from the chamois.
So you can see why I was some relieved when Mr. Robert arrives and takes him off my hands. I knew from what he'd said the day before that he'd planned to have about a half-hour interview with Mr. Higgins; but when the noon hour struck: Ira was still there. At one-fifteen they goes out to lunch together, and at two-thirty they comes back. It's after four when Mr. Robert fin'lly comes out to the gate with his brow wrinkled up.
"Torchy," says he, "how is your bump of diplomacy today?"
"It's a dimple, I expect," says I.
"You're entirely too modest," says he. "Now, I remember several occasions when you have——"
"Oh, I gen'rally have my nerve with me, if that's what you mean," says I.
"But I don't mean that," says he. "Perhaps finesse is the better word."
"It's all the same to me," says I. "If I've got it in stock, it's yours. What do I work it on?"
"Mr. Higgins," says he.
"Then score up a goose egg in advance," says I. "It would take a strong-arm hypnotizer to put the spell on Ira."
Mr. Robert grins. "Then you have already tested Mr. Higgins' conversational powers?" says he.
"Almost lost my voice gettin' him to say good mornin'," says I. "Say, you'd think he'd done all his talkin' by cable, at a dollar a word. Where'd he drift in from, anyway?"
"Boothbay Harbor," says Mr. Robert.
"Is that a foreign country," says I, "or a nickname for some flag station?"
"It's quite a lively little seaport, I believe," says Mr. Robert, "up on the coast of Maine."
"Oh, Maine!" says I. "Up there they're willin' to call a town anything that'll get a laugh. But what's the rest of the scandal?"
It wasn't any thrillin' tale, though. Seems Mr. Robert had gone into the yachtin' regattas as usual this last summer; but, instead of liftin' the mugs, as he'd been in the habit of doin', he'd been beat out by a new entry,—beat bad too. But he wouldn't be an Ellins if he let it go at that. Not much! His first move is to find out who built the Stingaree, and his next is to wire in an order to the same firm to turn out a sixty-footer that'll go her just one better. Not gettin' any straight answer to that, he sends word for the head of the yacht works to come on at his expense. Mr. Higgins is the result.
"But the deuce of it is," says Mr. Robert, "that, while I'm convinced he is the cleverest designer of racing yawls that we have in the whole country, and while he admits quite cheerfully that he can improve on this year's model, I can't get him to say positively that he will build such a boat for me."
"Yes, I should expect that would be more'n he'd let go of all in one day," says I.
"But, confound it all!" says Mr. Robert, "I want to know now. All I can get out of him, though, is that he can't decide for a while. Seems to have something or other on his mind. Now, if I knew what was bothering him, you see, I might—well, you get the point, Torchy. I'm going to leave it to you to find out."
"Me!" says I. "Gee! I ain't any thought extractor, Mr. Robert."
"But you have rather a knack of getting to the bottom of things," he insists, "and if I should explain to Mr. Higgins my regret at being unable to take him out to dinner, and should present you as my substitute for the evening—why, you might get some hint, you see. At least, I wish you'd try it."
"Bring him on, then," says I; "but it's like playin' a 30 to 1 shot. Oh, sure, a couple of tens'll be more'n enough for all the expense account we can cook up."
And you should have seen me towin' this Down East sphinx around town, showin' him the sights, and tryin' to locate his chummy streak. It was most like makin' a long distance call over a fuzzy wire; me strainin' my vocal chords bein' chatty, and gettin' back only now and then a distant murmur. It was Ira's first trip to a real Guntown, where we have salaried crooks and light up our Main-st. with whisky signs; but he ain't got any questions to ask or any comments to pass. He just allows them calm eyes of his to wander placid here and there over the passersby, almost like he was expectin' to see someone he knew, and takin' mighty little notice of anything in partic'lar.
"That's the Metropolitan tower over there, Mr. Higgins," says I. "See the big clock?"
Ira takes one glance and nods his head.
"And here comes one of them new double-decker Broadway cars they're tryin' out," I goes on. "How's that?"
But no enthus'm from Ira. Must be a hot town, that Boothbay joint! Along about six-thirty I suggests that it's time for the big eats, and tries to sound him on his partic'lar fancy in the food line.
"Plate of fish chowder would suit me," says Ira after due contemplation.
"Fish what?" says I. "'Fraid we don't grow anything like that on Broadway. Nix on the shore dinner! You trust it to me, Mr. Higgins, and I'll steer you up against some appetite teasers that'll make you forget all the home cookin' you ever met."
With that I leads him to the flossiest French cafe I knew of, got him planted comf'table under an illuminated grape arbor, signals Francois-with-the-gold-chain-around-his-neck to stand by, and remarks casual, "Wine list for this gentleman. Cut loose, Mr. Higgins. This is on the boss, you know."
"What say?" says he, runnin' his eye over the book that the waiter holds out. "Rum? No, Sir!"
"Flit then, Francois," says I. "We're two dry ones."
And my hope of gettin' a tongue loosener into Ira goes glimmerin'. When it comes to tacklin' strange dishes, though, he was no quitter, followin' me from bouillabaisse to cafe parfait without battin' an eyelash, and me orderin' reckless from the card just to see what the things looked like.
I don't know whether it was the fancy rations, or the sporty crowd around us, or the jiggly music, or a combination of all three; but by the time I've induced Mr. Higgins to tackle a demitasse and light up a seven-inch Havana he mellows enough so that he's almost on the point of makin' a remark all by himself.
"Well," says I encouragin', "why not let it come?"
And it does. "By gorry!!" says he. "It's most eight o'clock. What time do the shows begin?"
"I was just go in' to mention that," says I. "Plenty of time, though. Anything special you'd like to see?"
"Why, yes," says he. And then, glancin' around cautious, he leans across the table and asks mysterious, "Say, where's Maizie Latour actin'?"
Honest, it comes out so unexpected he had me gaspin'. "Oh, you Boothbay ringer!" says I. "Maizie, eh? Now, who would have thought it? And you only landed this mornin'! Maizie—er—what was that again?"
"Latour," says he, flushin' up some and tryin' not to notice my josh.
"It's by me," says I. "Sounds like musical comedy, though. Is she a showgirl, or one of the chicken ballet?"
Ira shakes his head puzzled. "All I know," says he, "is that she's actin' somewhere in New York, and—and I'd like to find out where. I—I got to!" he adds emphatic.
"Then you ought to have said that before," says I, "and Mr. Robert would have put one of his chappy friends on the job. Sorry, but when it comes to chorus girls, I ain't——"
"Hold on!" he breaks in. "You're sort of jumpin' at things, Son. The fact is I—well, I guess I might's well tell you as anyone. I—I got to tell someone."
"Help!" thinks I. "The dam's goin' to give way."
"You see," he goes on, "it's like this: Nellie's an old friend of mine, and——"
"Nellie!" says I. "You just said Maizie."
"That's what I hear she goes by on the stage," says he. "She was Nellie Mason up to the Harbor."
"You don't mean it?" says I. "What was she doin' there?"
"She was table girl at the Mansion House," says he.
"Which?" says I. "Oh, dish juggler, eh? And now she's on the stage? Some jump for Nellie! But, honest now, Higgins, you don't mean to spring one of them mossy 'Way Down East drammers on me as the true dope? Come now, don't tell me you and she used to go to school together, and all that!"
No, it wa'n't quite on that line. She was only one of Boothbay's fairest daughters by adoption, havin' drifted in from some mill town—Biddeford, I think it was—where a weaver's strike had thrown her out of a job. She was half Irish and half French-Canadian, and, accordin' to Ira's description, she was some ornamental.
Anyway, she had the boys all goin' in no time at all. Ira was mealin' at the Mansion House just then, though; so he was in on the ground floor from the start. Even at that, how he managed to keep the rail with so much competition is more'n I can say; but there's something sort of clean and wholesome lookin' about him, and I expect them calm, sea-blue eyes helped along. Anyway, him and Nellie kept comp'ny there, I take it, for three or four months quite steady, and Ira admits that he was plumb gone on her.
"Well, what was the hitch?" says I. "Wouldn't she be Mrs. Higgins?"
"Guess she would if I had asked her," says he; "but I didn't get around to it quick enough. Fact is, I'd just bought out the boat shop, and I had fifteen or twenty men to work for me, with four new keels laid down at once, and—well, I was mighty rushed with work just then and——"
"I get you," says I. "While you was makin' up your mind what to say, some wholesale drug drummer with a black mustache won her away."
It's more complicated than that, though. One of the chambermaids had a cousin who was assistant property man with a Klaw & Erlanger comp'ny, and he'd sent on the tip how some enterprisin' manager was lookin' for fifty new faces for a Broadway production; and so, if Cousin Maggie wanted to shake the hotel business, here was her chance. Maggie wanted to, all right; but she lacked the nerve to try it alone. Now, if Nellie would only go along too—why——
And it happens this was one night when Ira had overlooked a date he had with Nellie, and that while he was doin' overtime at the boatworks Nellie was waitin' lonesome on the corner all dressed to go over to South Bristol to a dance. So this bulletin from the great city finds her in a state of mind.
"Course," says Maggie, "you got a feller, and all that."
"Humph!" says Nellie.
"And there's no tellin'," Maggie goes on, glancin' at her critical, "if your figure would suit."
"If they can stand for yours," says Nellie, "I guess I'll take a chance too. Come on. We'll take the early morning boat."
And they did. Ira didn't get the details until about a month later, when who should drift back to the Mansion House but Maggie. Along with two or three hundred other brunettes and imitation blondes, she'd been shuffled into the discard. But Nellie had been signed up first rattle out of the box, and accordin' to the one postcard that had come back from her since she was now flaggin' as Maizie Latour. But no word at all had come to Ira.
"If I'd only bought that ring sooner!" he sighs. "I've got it now, though. Bought it in Portland on my way down. See?" and he snaps open a white satin box, disclosin' a cute little pearl set in a circle of chip diamonds.
"That's real dainty and classy," says I.
"Ought to be," says Ira. "It cost me seventeen-fifty. But there's so blamed much to this place that I don't see just how I'm goin' to find her, after all."
"Ah, cheer up, Ira!" says I. "You've got me int'rested, you have, and, while I ain't any theatrical directory, I expect I could think up some way to—— Why, sure! There's a Tyson stand up here a few blocks, where they have all the casts and programmes. Let's go have a look."
It wa'n't a long hunt, either. The third one we looked at was "Whoops, Angelina!" and halfway down the list of characters we finds this item: "Sunflower Girls—Tessie Trelawney, Mae Collins, Maizie Latour——"
"Here we are!" says I. "And there's just time to get in for the first curtain."
Say, I expect you've seen this "Whoops, Angelina!" thing. Just punk enough to run a year on Broadway, ain't if? And do you remember there along towards the end of the first spasm where they ring in that "Field Flowers Fair" song, with a deep stage and a diff'rent chorus for each verse? Well, as the Sunflowers come on, did you notice special the second one from the right end? That's Maizie.
And, believe me, she's some queen! Course, it's a bunch of swell lookers all around, or they wouldn't be havin' the S.R.O. sign out so often; but got up the way she was, with all them yellow petals makin' a sort of frame for her, and them big dark eyes rollin' bold and sassy, this ex-table girl from the Mansion House stands out some prominent.
"By gorry!" explodes Ira, as he gets his first glimpse. And from then on he sits with his eyes glued on her as long as she's on the stage.
He had a good view too; for comin' late all I could get was upper box seats at three a throw, and I shoves Ira close up to the rail. That one remark is all he has to unload durin' the whole performance, and somehow I didn't have the heart to break in with any comments. You see, I wa'n't sure how he might be takin' it; so I waits until the final curtain, and then nudges him out of his dream.
"Well, how about it?" says I. "Ready to scratch your entry now, are you?"
"Eh?" says he, rousin' up. "Pull out? No, Sir! I—I'm going to give her a chance to take that ring."
"You are?" says I. "Well, well! Right there with the pep, ain't you? But how you goin' to manage it?"
"Why, I—I don't know," says he, lookin' blank. "Say, Son, can't you fix it for me some way? I—I want Nellie to go back with me. If I could only see her for a minute, and explain how it was I couldn't——"
"You win, Ira!" says I. "Hanged if there ain't Tucky Moller down there in an usher's uniform. He's an old friend of mine. We'll see what he can do."
Tucky was willin' enough too; but the best he can promise is to smuggle a note into the dressin' rooms. We waits in the lobby for the answer, and inside of five minutes we has it.
"Ain't they the limit, these spotlight chasers?" says Tucky. "She tells me to chuck it in the basket with the others, and says she'll read it to-morrow. Huh! And only a quarter tip after the second act when I lugs her in a bid to a cabaret supper!"
"Tonight?" says I. "Where at, Tucky?"
"Looey's," says he, "with a broker guy that's been buyin' B-10 every night for a week."
But when I leads Ira outside and tries to explain how the case stands, and breaks it to him gentle that his stock has taken a sudden slump, it develops that he's one of these gents who don't know when they're crossed off.
"I've got to see her tonight, that's all," says he. "What's the matter with our going to the same place?"
"For one thing," says I, "they wouldn't let us in without our open-faced clothes on. Got yours with you?"
"Full evenin' dress?" says Ira, with his eyes bugged. "Why, I never had any."
"Then it's by-by, Maizie," says I.
"Dog-goned if it is!" says he. "Guess I can wait around outside, can't I?"
"Well, you have got sportin' blood, Ira," says I. "Sure, there's nothin' to stop your waitin' if you don't block the traffic. But maybe it'll be an hour or more."
"I don't care," says he. "And—and let's go and have a glass of soda first."
Course, I couldn't go away and leave things all up in the air like that; so after Ira'd blown himself we wanders up to the cabaret joint and I helps him stick around.
It's some lively scene in front of Looey's at that time of night too; with all the taxis comin' and goin' and the kalsomined complexions driftin' in and out, and the head waiters coppin' out the five-spots dexterous. And every little while there's something extra doin'; like a couple of college hicks bein' led out by the strong-arm squad for disputin' a bill, or a perfect gent all ablaze havin' a debate with his lady-love, or a bunch of out-of-town buyers discoverin' the evenin' dress rule for the first time and gettin' peeved over it.
But nothin' can drag Ira's gaze from that revolvin' exit door for more'n half a minute. There he stands, watchin' eager every couple that comes out; not excited or fidgety, you understand, but calm and in dead earnest. It got to be midnight, then half past, then quarter to one; and then all of a sudden there comes a ripplin', high-pitched laugh, and out trips a giddy-dressed fairy in a gilt and rhinestone turban effect with a tall plume stickin' straight up from the front of it. She's one of these big, full-curved, golden brunettes, with long jet danglers in her ears and all the haughty airs of a grand opera star. I didn't dream it was the one we was lookin' for until I sees Ira straighten up and step out to meet her.
"Nellie," says he, sort of choky and pleadin'.
It's a misfire, though; for just then she's turned to finish some remark to a fat old sport with flat ears and bags under his eyes that's followin' close behind. So it ain't until she's within a few feet of Higgins that she sees him at all. Then she stares at him sort of doubtful, like she could hardly believe her eyes.
"Nellie," he begins again, "I've been wanting to tell you how it was that——"
"You!" she breaks in. And with that she throws her head back and laughs. It wa'n't what you might call a pleasant laugh, either. It sounds cold and hard and bitter.
That's the extent of the reunion too. She's still laughin' as she brushes by him and lets the old sport help her into the taxi; and a second later we're left standin' there at the edge of the curb with another taxi rollin' up in front of us. I notices that Ira's holdin' something in his hand that he's starin' at foolish. It's the satin box with the seventeen-fifty ring in it.
"Well," says I, as we steps back, "returns all in, ain't they?"
"Not by a long shot!" says Ira. "Dinged if I don't know someone that'll be glad to take a ring from me, and that's Maggie!"
"Whew!" says I. "Well, that's some quick shift. Then you ain't goin' to linger round with a busted heart?"
"Not much!" says Ira. "Guess I've played fool about long enough. I'm goin' home."
"That's gen'rally a safe bet too," says I. "But how about buildin' that boat for Mr. Robert?"
"I'll build it," says he; "that is, soon as I can fix it up with Maggie."
"Then it's a cinch," says I; "for you look to me, Ira, like one of the kind that can come back strong."
So, you see, I had somethin' definite to report next mornin'.
"He will, eh? Bully!" says Mr. Robert. "But why couldn't he have said as much to me yesterday? What was the trouble?"
"Case of moth chasin'," says I, "from the kerosene circuit to the white lights. But, say, I didn't know before that Broadway had so many recruitin' stations. They ought to put Boothbay Harbor on the map for this."
TORCHY BUGS THE SYSTEM
Guess I ain't mentioned Mortimer before. Didn't seem hardly worth while. You know—there are parties like that, too triflin' to do any beefin' about. But, honest, for awhile there first off this young shrimp that was just makin' his debut as one of Miller's subslaves in the bondroom did get on my nerves more or less. He's a slim, fine-haired, fair-lookin' young gent, with quick, nervous ways and a habit of holdin' his chin well up. No boob, you understand. He was a live one, all right.
And it wa'n't his havin' his monogram embroidered on his shirt sleeves or his wearin' a walkin' stick down to work that got me sore. But you don't look for the raw rebuff from one of these twelve-dollar file jugglers. That's what he slips me, though, and me only tryin' to put across the cheery greetin'!
"Well, Percy," says I, seein' him wanderin' around lonesome durin' lunch hour, "is it you for the Folies today, or are you takin' a chance on one of them new automatic grub factories with me?"
"Beg pardon?" says he, givin' me that frigid, distant look.
"Ah, can the hauteur!" says I. "We're on the same payroll. Maybe you didn't notice me before, though. Well, I'm the guardian of the gate, and I'm offerin' to tow you to a new sandwich works that's quite popular with the staff."
"Thanks," says he. "I am lunching at my club." And with that he does a careless heel-spin, leavin' me stunned and gawpin'.
"Slap!" thinks I. "You will go doin' the little ray of sunshine act, will you? Lunchin' at his club! Now there's a classy comeback for you! Guess I'll spring that myself sometime. Score up for Percy!"
But I wa'n't closin' the incident at that, and, while in my position it wouldn't have been hardly the thing for me to get out the war club and camp on his trail,—him only a four-flushin' bond clerk,—I was holdin' myself ready for the next openin'. It comes only a few mornin's later when he strolls in casual about nine-thirty and starts to pike by into the cloakroom. But I had my toe against the brass gate.
"What name?" says I.
"Why," says he, flushin' up, "I—er—I work here."
"Excuse," says I, drawin' back the foot. "Mistook you for Alfy Vanderbilt come to buy us out."
"Puppy!" says he explosive through his front teeth.
"Meanin' me?" says I. "Why, Algernon! How rough of you!"
He just glares hack over his shoulder and passes on for his session with Miller. I'll bet he got it too; for here in the Corrugated we don't stand for any of that nine-thirty dope except from Mr. Robert.
It's only the next week, though, that Mortimer pulls a couple more delayed entrances in succession, and I sure was lookin' to see him come out with a fresh-air pass in his hand. But it didn't happen. Instead, as I'm in Old Hickory's office a few days later, allowin' him to give me a few fool directions about an errand, in breaks Miller all glowin' under the collar.
"Mr. Ellins," says he, "I can't stand that young Upton. He's got to go!"
"That's too bad," says Old Hickory, shiftin' his cigar to port. "I'd promised his father to give the boy a three months' trial at least. One of our big stockholders, Colonel Upton is, you know. But if you say you can't——"
"Oh, I suppose I can, Sir, in that case," says Miller; "but he's worse than useless in the department, and if there's no way of getting him to observe office hours it's going to be bad for discipline."
"Try docking him, Miller," suggests Mr. Ellins. "Dock him heavy. And pile on the work. Keep him on the jump."
"Yes, Sir," says Miller, grinnin' at me' as he goes out.
And of course this throws a brighter light on Mortimer's case,—pampered son takin' his first whirl at honest toil, and all that. Then later in the day I gets a little private illumination. Mother arrives. Rather a gushy, talky party she is, with big, snappy eyes like Mortimer's, and the same haughty airs. Just now, though, she's a little puffy from excitement and deep emotion.
Seems Mother and Sister Janice are on their way to the steamer, billed to spend the winter abroad. Also it develops that stern Father, standin' grim and bored in the background, has ruled that Son mustn't quit business for any farewell lallygaggin' at the pier. Hence the fam'ly call. As the touchin' scene all takes place in the reception room, just across the brass rail from my desk, I'm almost one of the party.
"Oh, my darling boy!" wails Ma, pushin' back her veils and wrappin' him in the fond clinch.
"Aw, Mother!" protests Mortimer.
"But we are to be so far apart," she goes on, "and with your father in California you are to be all alone! And I just know you'll be forlorn and lonesome in that dreadful boarding house! Oh, it is perfectly awful!"
"Oh, quit it, Mother. I'll be all right," says Mortimer.
"But the work here," comes back Mother. "Does it come so hard? How are you to stand it? Oh, if you had only kept on at college, then all this wouldn't have been necessary."
"Well, I didn't, that's all," says Mortimer; "so what's the use?"
"I shall worry about you all the time," insists Mother. "And you are so careless about writing! How am I to know that you are not ill, or in trouble? Now promise me, if you should break down under the strain, that you will cable me at once."
"Oh, sure!" says Mortimer. "But time's up, Mother. I must be getting back. Good-by."
I had to turn my shoulder on the final break-away, and I thought the whole push had cleared out, when I hears a rustle at the gate, and here's Mother once more, with her eyes fixed investigatin' on me.
"Boy," says she, "are you employed here regularly?"
"I'm one of the fixtures, Ma'am," says I.
"Very well," says she. "I am glad to hear it. And you have rather an intelligent appearance."
"Mostly bluff, though," says I. "You mustn't bank too much on looks."
"Ah, but I can tell!" says she, noddin' her head and squintin' shrewd. "You have a kind face too."
"Ye-e-es?" says I. "But what's this cue for?"
"I will tell you, Boy," says she, comin' up confidential. "You see, I must trust someone in this matter. And you will be right here, where you can see him every day, won't you—my son Mortimer, I mean?"
"I expect I'll have to," says I, "if he sticks."
"Then you must do this for me," she goes on. "Keep close to him. Make yourself his friend."
"Me?" says I. "Well, there might be some trouble about that."
"I understand," says she. "It will be difficult, under the circumstances. And Mortimer has such a proud, reserved nature! He has always been that way. But now that he is thrown upon his own resources, and if you could once gain his confidence, he might allow you to—well, you'll try, won't you? And then I shall depend upon you to send word to me once every week as to how he looks, if he seems happy, how he is getting on in business, and so on. Come, do you promise?"
"Is this a case of philanthropy, or what?" says I.
"Oh, I shall see that you are well repaid," says she.
"That listens well," says I; "but it's kind of vague. Any figures, now?"
"Why—er—yes," says she, hesitatin'. "Suppose I should send you, say, five dollars for every satisfactory report?"
"Then I'm on the job," says I.
And in two minutes more she's left me the address of her London bankers, patted me condescendin' on the shoulder, and has flitted. So here I am with a brand new side line,—an assignment to be friendly at so much per. Can you beat that?
It wa'n't until afterwards, either, when I'm busy throwin' on the screen pictures of how that extra five'll fat up the Saturday pay envelope, that I remembers the exact wordin' of the contract. Five for every satisfactory report. Gee! that's different! Then here's where I got to see that Mortimer behaves, or else I lose out. And I don't waste any time plannin' the campaign. I tackles him as he strolls out thirty seconds ahead of the twelve o'clock whistle.
"After another one of them clubby lunches?" says I.
"What's that to you?" he growls.
"I'm interested, that's all," says I.
"Oh, no, you're not," says he; "you're just fresh."
"Ah, come now, Morty," says I. "This ain't no reg'lar feud we're indulgin' in, you know. Ditch the rude retort and lemme tow you to a joint where for——"
"Thanks," says Mortimer. "I prefer my own company."
"Gee! what poor taste!" says I.
And it looked like I'd gone and bugged any five-spot prospects with my first try.
So I lets Mortimer simmer for a few days, not makin' any more cracks, friendly or otherwise. I was about to hand in a blank report too, when one noon he sort of hesitates as he passes the desk, and then stops.
"I say," he begins, "show me that cheap luncheon place you spoke of, will you?"
It's more of an order than anything else; but that only makes this sudden shift of his more amusin'. "Why, sure," says I. "Soured on the club, have you?"
"Not exactly," says he; "but—well, the fact is, Father must have forgotten to send a check for last month's bill, and I'm on the board—posted, you know."
"Then that wa'n't any funny dream of yours, eh," says I, "this club business? Which is it, Lotos or the Union League?"
"It's my frat club, of course," says Mortimer. "And I don't mind saying that it's a deucedly expensive place for me to go, even when I can sign checks for my meals. I'm always being dragged into billiards, dollar a corner, and that sort of thing. It counts up, and I—I'm running rather close to the wind just now."
"What! And you gettin' twelve?" says I. "Why, say, some supports fam'lies on that. Takes managin', though. But I'll steer you round to Max's, where for a quarter you can——"
"A quarter!" breaks in Mortimer. "But—but that's more than I have left."
"And this only Wednesday!" says I. "Gee! but you have been goin' the pace, ain't you? What is the sum total of the reserve, anyway?"
Mortimer scoops into his trousers pockets, fishin' up a silver knife, a gold cigar clipper, and seventeen cents cash.
"Well, well!" says I. "That is gettin' down to hardpan! It's breakin' one of my business rules, but I see where I underwrite your lunch ticket for the next few days."
"You mean you're going to stake me?" says he. "But why?"
"Well, it ain't on account of your winnin' ways," says I.
"Humph!" says he. "Here! You may have this stickpin as security."
"Gwan!" says I. "I ain't no loan shark. Maybe I'm just makin' an investment in you. Come on to Max's."
I could see Mortimer's nose begin to turn up as we crowds in at a table where a couple of packers from the china store next door was doin' the sword swallowin' act. "What a noisy, messy place!" says he.
"The service ain't quite up to Louis Martin's, that's a fact," says I; "but then, there's no extra charge for the butter and toothpicks."
We tried the dairy lunch next time; but he don't like that much better. Pushin' up to the coffee urn with the mob, and havin' a tongue sandwich slammed down in front of him by a grub hustler that hadn't been to a manicure lately was only a couple of the details Mortimer shies at.
"Ah, you'll soon get to overlook little things like that," says I.
Mortimer shakes his head positive. "It's the disgusting crowd one has to mingle with," says he. "Such a cheap lot of—of roughnecks!"
"Huh!" says I. "Lots of 'em are pullin' down more'n you or me. Some of 'em are almost human too."
"I don't care," says he. "I dislike to mix with them. It's bad enough at the boarding house."
"None of the aristocracy there, either?" says I.
"They're freaks, all of them," says he. "What do you think—one fellow wears an outing shirt in to dinner! Then there's an old person with gray whiskers who—well, I can't bear to watch him. The others are almost as bad."
"When you get to know the bunch you won't mind," says I.
"But I don't care to know them," says Mortimer. "I haven't spoken to a soul, and don't intend to. They're not my kind, you see."
"Are you boastin', or complainin'?" says I. "Anyway, you're in for a lonesome time. What do you do evenin's?"
"Walk around until I'm tired, that's all," says he.
"That's excitin'—I don't think," says I.
Next he branches off on Miller, and starts tellin' me what a deep and lastin' grouch he'd accumulated against his boss. But I ain't encouragin' any hammer play of that kind.
"Stow it, Morty," says I. "I'm wise to all that. Besides, you ought to know you can't hold a job and come floatin' in at any old hour. No wonder you got in Dutch with him! Say, is this your first stab at real work?"
He admits that it is, and when I gets him to describe how he's been killin' time when he wa'n't in college it develops that one of his principal playthings has been a six-cylinder roadster,—mile-a-minute brand, mostly engine and gastank, with just space enough left for the driver to snuggle in among the levers on the small of his back.
"I've had her up to sixty-five an hour on some of those Rhode Island oiled stretches," says Mortimer.
"I expect," says I. "And what was it you hit last?"
"Eh?" says he. "Oh, I see! A milk wagon. Rather stiff damages they got out of us, with the hospital and doctor's bills and all that. But it was more the way I was roasted by the blamed newspapers that made Father so sore. Then my being canned from college soon after—well, that finished it. So he sends Mother and Sis off to Europe, goes on a business trip to California himself, closes the house, and chucks me into this job."
"Kind of poor trainin' for it, I'll admit," says I. "But buck up, Morty; we'll do our best."
"We?" says he, liftin' his eyebrows.
"Uh-huh," says I. "Me and you."
"What's it got to do with you? I'd like to know!" he demands.
"I've been retained," says I. "Never you mind how, but I'm here to pass out the friendly shove, coach you along, see that you make good."
"Well, I like your nerve!" says he, stoppin' short as we're crossin' Broadway. "A young mucker like you help me make good! Say, that's rich, that is! Huh! But why don't you? Come ahead with it, now, if you're such an expert!"
It was a dare, all right. And for a minute there we looked each other over scornful, until I decides that I'll carry on the friend act if I have to risk gettin' my head punched.
"First off, Mortimer," says I, "forgettin' what a great man you are so long as Father's payin' the bills, let's figure on just what your standin' is now. You're a bum bond clerk, on the ragged edge of bein' fired, ain't you?"
He winces some at that; but he still has a comeback. "If it wasn't for that bonehead Miller, I'd get on," he growls.
"Bah!" says I. "He's only layin' down the rules of the game; so it's up to you to follow 'em."
"But he's unreasonable," whines Mortimer. "He snoops around after me, finds fault with everything I do, and fines me for being a little late mornings."
I takes a long breath and swallows hard. Next I tries to strike the saintly pose, and then I unreels the copybook dope just like I believed it myself.
"He does, eh?" says I. "Then beat him to it. Don't be late. Show up at eight-thirty instead of nine. That extra half-hour ain't goin' to kill you. Be the last to quit too. Play up to Miller. Do things the way he wants 'em done, even if you have to do 'em over a dozen times. And use your bean."
"But it's petty, insignificant work," says Mortimer.
"All the worse for you if you can't swing it," says I. "See here, now—how are you goin' to feel afterwards if you've always got to look back on the fact that you begun by fallin' down on a twelve-dollar job?"
Must have got Mortimer in the short ribs, that last shot; for he walks all the rest of the way back to the Corrugated without sayin' a word. Then, just as we gets into the elevator, he unloosens.
"I don't believe it will do any good to try," says he; "but I've a mind to give it a whirl."
I didn't say so, but that was the first thing we'd agreed on that day. So that night I has to send off a report which reads like this:
Mortimer's health O. K.; disposition ragged; business prospects punk.
Hoping you are the same,
It's a wonder Mortimer didn't have mental indigestion, with all that load of gilt-edged advice on his mind, and I wa'n't lookin' for him to lug it much further'n the door; but, if you'll believe me, he seems to take it serious. Every mornin' after that I finds his hat on the hook when I come in, and whenever I gets a glimpse of him durin' the day he has his coat off and is makin' a noise like the busy bee. At this it takes some time before he makes an impression on Miller; but fin'lly Morty comes out to me with a bulletin that seems to tickle him all over.
"What do you know?" says he. "When Miller was looking over some of my work to-day he breaks out with, 'Very good, Upton. Keep it up.'"
"Well, I expect you told him to chase himself, eh?" says I.
"No," says Mortimer. "I sprung that new scheme of mine for filing the back records, and perhaps he's going to adopt it."
"Think of that!" says I. "Say, you keep on, and you'll be presented with that job for life. But, honest, you don't find Miller such a fish, do you?"
"Oh, I guess he's all right in his way," says Mortimer.
"Then brace yourself, Morty," says I, "while I slip you some more golden words. Tackle that boardin' house bunch of yours. Ah, hold your breath while you're doin' it, if you want to, and spray yourself afterwards with disinfectant, but see if you can't learn to mix in."
"But why?" says he. "I can't see the use."
"Say, for the love of Pete," says I, "ain't it hard enough for me to press out all this wise dope without drawin' diagrams? I don't know why, only you should. Go on now, take it from me."
Maybe it was followin' my hunch, or maybe there wa'n't anything else for him to do, but blamed if this didn't work too. Inside of two weeks he gives me the whole tale, one day as we're sittin' in the armchairs at the dairy lunch.
"Remember my telling you about the fellow who wore the outing shirt?" says he. "Well, say, he's quite a chap, you know. He's from some little town out in Wyoming, and he's on here trying to be a cartoonist—runs a hoisting engine day times and goes to an art school evenings. How's that, eh?"
"Sounds batty," says I. "There's most as many would-be cartoonists as there are nutty ones tryin' to write plays for Belasco."
"But this Blake's going to get there," says Mortimer. "I was up in his room Sunday, and he showed me some of his work. Clever stuff, a lot of it. He's landed a couple of things already. Then there's old man McQuade, the one with the whiskers. Say, he's been all over the world,—Siberia, Africa, Japan, South America. Used to be selling agent for a mill supply firm. He has all his savings invested in an Egyptian cotton plantation that hasn't begun to pay yet, but he thinks it will soon. You ought to hear the yarns he can spin, though!"
"So-o-o?" says I.
"But Aronwitz is the fellow I'm traveling' around with most just now," goes on Mortimer enthusiastic. "Say, he's a wonder! Been over here from Hungary only six years, worked his way through Columbia, copping an A. M. and an A. B., and sending back money to his old mother right along. He's a Socialist, or something, and writes for one of those East Side papers. Then evenings he teaches manual training in a slum settlement house. He took me over with him the other night and got me to help him with his boys. My, but they're a bright lot of youngsters—right off the street too! I've promised to take a class myself."
"In what," says I, "table etiquette?"
"I'm going to start by explaining to them how a gasolene engine works," says Mortimer. "They're crazy to learn anything like that. It will be great sport."
"Mortimer," says I, "a little more of that, and I'll believe you're the guy that put the seed in succeed. Anyone wouldn't guess you was doin' penance."
"I feel that I'm really living at last," says he in earnest.
So in that next report to Mother, after I'd thanked her for the last check and filled in the usual health chart and so on, I proceeds to throw in a few extras about how Son was makin' the great discovery that most folks was more or less human, after all. Oh, I spread myself on that part of it, givin' full details!
"And if that don't charm an extra five out of the old girl," thinks I, "I miss my guess."
Does it? Well, say, that happy thought stays with me for about ten days. At times I figured the bonus might be as high as a fifty. And then one mornin' here comes a ruddy-faced old party that I spots as Colonel Upton. He calls for Mortimer, and the two of 'em has a ten-minute chat in the corridor. Afterwards Morty interviews Miller, and when he comes out next he has his hat and overcoat with him.
"So long, Torchy," says he. "I'm leaving."
"Not for good!" says I. "What's wrong?"
"Mother," says he. "In some way she's found out about the sort of people I've been going around with, and she's kicked up a great row, got Father on the cable, and—well, it's all off. I'm to travel abroad for a year or so to get it out of my system."
"Gee!" says I as he goes out to join the Colonel. "Talk about boobing a swell proposition! But that was too good to last, anyway. And, believe me, if I'm ever asked again to be friendly on a salary, I bet I don't overdo the thing."
BREEZING BY WITH PEGGY
He's a great old scout, Mr. Ellins. But he always knows where he wants to get off, all right. He don't whisper his ideas on the subject, either.
"Boy," says he the other mornin' as I answers the buzzer, "I am expecting two young persons to call this forenoon, two young wards of mine. Huh! Wards! As though I wasn't busy enough with my own affairs without—— But never mind. Chandler is the name."
"Yes, Sir," says I. "Chandler. Rush 'em right in, shall I?"
"No!" snorts Old Hickory. "What I want you to do is to use a little sense, if you have any. Now, here! I have a committee meeting at ten; those K. & T. people will be here at ten-forty-five; and after that I can't say whether I'll be free or not. Of course I must see the young nuisances; but meantime I want to forget 'em. I am trusting to you to work 'em in when they'll be the least bother."
"Got you," says I. "Chink in with Chandlers. Yes, Sir. Anything more?"
"No. Get out!" he snaps.
Fair imitation of a grouch, eh? But you got to get used to Old Hickory. Besides, there was some excuse for his bein' peeved, havin' a pair of kids camp down on him this way. Course I was wise to the other details. Didn't I take their 'phone message to Mr. Robert only the day before, and send back the answer for 'em to come on?
Seems this was a case of a second cousin, or something like that, a nutty college professor, who'd gone and left a will makin' Mr. Ellins a guardian without so much as askin' by your leave. There was a Mrs. Chandler; but she don't figure in the guardianship. The youngsters had been in school somewhere near Boston; but, this bein' the holidays, what do they do but turn up in New York and express a wild desire to see dear old Guardy.
"Gee!" thinks I. "They don't know when they're well off."
For Old Hickory ain't got a lot of use for the average young person. I've heard him express his sentiments on that point. "Impudent, ill-mannered, selfish, spoiled young barbarians, the boys," says he, "and the girls aren't much better,—silly, giggling young chatterboxes!"
And the way I has it framed up, this was rather a foxy move of the young Chandlers, discoverin' their swell New York relations just as the holiday season was openin'. So I don't figure that the situation calls for any open-arm motions on my part. No, nothin' like that. I'm here to give 'em their first touch of frost.
So about eleven-fifteen, as I glances across the brass rail and sees this pair advancin' sort of uncertain, I'm all prepared to cause a drop in the mercury. They wa'n't exactly the type I had in mind, though. What I'd expected was a brace of high school cutups. But these two are older than that.
The young fellow was one of these big-boned, wide-shouldered chaps, with a heavy, serious look to his face, almost dull. I couldn't tell at first look whether he was a live wire or not. No such suspicions about the girl. She ain't what you'd call a queen, exactly. She's too tall and her face is too long for that. Kind of a cute sort of face, though, with rather a wide mouth that she can twist into a weird, one-sided smile. But after one look at them lively blue eyes you knew she wasn't walkin' in her sleep. It's my cue, though, to let 'em guess what nuisances they were.
"May I see Mr. Ellins?" says the young chap.
"Cards," says I.
He produces the pasteboards.
"Oh, yes!" I goes on. "The wards, eh? Marjorie Chandler, Dudley Winthrop Chandler. Well, you've picked out a busy day, you know."
"Oh, have we?" says Marjorie. "There, Dud! I was afraid we might. Perhaps we'd better not call, after all."
"Good!" says Dudley. "I didn't want to, anyway. We can just send in our cards and leave word that we——"
"Ah, can it!" says I. "Mr. Ellins is expectin' you; only he ain't a man you can walk in on casual."
"But really," puts in Marjorie, "it's just as well if we don't see him."
"Yes, and get me fired for not carryin' out instructions," says I. "My orders are to work you in when there's a chance."
"Oh, in that case," says Marjorie, "perhaps we had better wait. We don't wish to cause trouble for anyone, especially such a bright, charming young——"
"Nix on the josh," says I. "And have a seat while I skirmish."
"Very well, then," says she, screwin' her face up cunnin' and handin' me one of them crooked smiles.
Say, she pretty near had me goin' right from the start. And as I tiptoes into the boss's room I sees he ain't doin' anything more important than signin' letters.
"They're here," says I, "the wards. Is it all right to run 'em in now?"
He grunts, nods his head, and keeps on writin'. So I strolls back to the reception room.
"All right," says I. "I've fixed it up for you."
"Now, wasn't that sweet in you?" gurgles Marjorie, glancin' sideways at Brother. I couldn't swear it was a wink, either; but it's one of them knowin' fam'ly looks, and she follows it up with a ripply sort of a giggle.
"That's right!" says I. "Have all the fun you want with me; but I'd warn you to ditch the mirth stuff while you're on the carpet. Mr. Ellins don't like it."
"How interesting!" says Marjorie. "Dudley, I hope you understand. We must ditch the mirth stuff."
They swaps another grin at that, and I have a suspicion I'm bein' kidded. Just for that too I decides to stick around while they're gettin' theirs from Old Hickory.
"This way," says I cold and haughty, as I tows 'em into the private office.
Mr. Ellins lets 'em stand there a minute or so without sayin' a word, and then he turns and looks 'em over deliberate. "Humph!" he grunts. "Thought you were younger."
"Yes, Sir," says Marjorie, "we—er—we were at one time."
Old Hickory shoots a quizzin' glance at her; but there ain't the ghost of a smile on her face.
"Huh!" says he. "I've no doubt. And I presume that in due course you'll be older. Having agreed on that, perhaps you will tell me what you're doing in New York?"
Marjorie starts in to give him the answer to that; but Dudley shakes his head at her and takes the floor himself. "You see, Sir," says he real respectful, "Mother's abroad this winter, and when we were asked to visit friends on Long Island we thought——"
"Amy abroad, is she?" breaks in Mr. Ellins. "How does that happen?"
"The Adamses took her with them to Egypt," says Dudley. "They are old friends of ours."
"Humph!" says Old Hickory. "Your mother must be rather popular?"
"Oh, everyone likes Mama," put in Marjorie. "She's asked around everywhere."
"Yes, yes, I've no doubt," says he. "As I remember her, she was rather a—but we won't go into that. Did you come to consult me about anything in particular?"
"No indeed," says Marjorie. "But you've been so good to bother about our affairs, and you've done such wonders with the little property poor Dad left, that we thought, as we were so near, we ought to——"
"We wanted," breaks in Dudley, "to call and thank you personally for your kindness. You have been awfully kind, Sir."
"Think so, do you?" says Mr. Ellins. "Well, is that all?"
"Yes," says Marjorie; "only—only—oh, Dud, I'm going to do it!" And with that she makes a rush, lets out a giggle or two, grabs Old Hickory in a perfectly good hug, and kisses him twice on his bald spot.
He don't even have a chance to struggle, and before he can get out a word it's all over and she has backed off, givin' him the full benefit of one of them twisty smiles. I was lookin' for him to blow up for fair at that. He don't though.
"There, there!" says he. "Not in the least necessary, you know. But if it was something you had to get out of your system, all right. So you've been visiting, eh? Now, what?"
"Why, Marjorie's going back to her school, Sir," says Dudley, "and I to college."
"Before the holidays are over?" says Mr. Ellins.
"Oh, we don't mind," says Marjorie. "We don't want to go home and open up the house; for we should miss Mother so much."
"Suppose you finish out your vacation with us, then?" suggests Old Hickory.
"Oh, thank you, Sir," says Dudley; "but we——"
"Mother wrote us, you see," breaks in Marjorie, "that we mustn't think of bothering you another bit."
"Who says you're a bother?" he demands. "At this time of year I like to have young folks around—if they're the right kind."
"But I'm not sure we are the right kind," says Marjorie. "I—I'm not very serious, you know; and Dud's apt to be noisy. He thinks he can sing."
At which Dudley gets fussed and Old Hickory chuckles.
"I'll take a chance," says Mr. Ellins. "If I'm to be your guardian, I ought to know you better. So you two trot right up to the house and prepare to stay the week out. Here, Torchy! 'Phone for the limousine. No, not a word, young woman! I haven't time to discuss it. Clear out, both of you! See you at dinner."
"There!" says Marjorie as a partin' shot. "I just knew you were an old dear!"
"Stuff!" protests Mr. Ellins. "'Old bear,' is more like it."
And me, I picks up a new cue. I escorts 'em out to the gen'ral office with all the honors. "I'll have that car down in a jiffy, Miss," says I.