THE HOUSE OF TORCHY
BY SEWELL FORD
AUTHOR OF TORCHY, TRYING OUT TORCHY, SHORTY MCCABE, Etc.
ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARTHUR WILLIAM BROWN
GROSSET & DUNLAP PUBLISHERS—NEW YORK
Copyright, 1917, 1918, by SEWELL FORD
Copyright 1918, by EDWARD J. CLODE
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
I Torchy and Vee on the Way 1
II Vee with Variations 12
III A Qualifying Turn for Torchy 25
IV Switching Arts on Leon 44
V A Recruit for the Eight-three 60
VI Torchy in the Gazinkus Class 79
VII Back with Clara Belle 96
VIII When Torchy got the Call 114
IX A Carry-on for Clara 134
X All the Way with Anna 152
XI At the Turn with Wilfred 172
XII Vee Goes Over the Top 193
XIII Late Returns on Rupert 214
XIV Forsythe at the Finish 232
XV The House of Torchy 250
XVI Torchy gets the Thumb Grip 272
XVII A Low Tackle by Torchy 288
XVIII Tag Day at Torchy's 307
THE HOUSE OF TORCHY
TORCHY AND VEE ON THE WAY
Say, I thought I'd taken a sportin' chance now and then before; but I was only kiddin' myself. Believe me, this gettin' married act is the big plunge. Uh-huh! Specially when it's done offhand and casual, the way we went at it.
My first jolt is handed me early in the mornin' as we piles off the mountain express at this little flag stop up in Vermont, and a roly-poly gent in a horse-blanket ulster and a coonskin cap with a badge on it steps up and greets me cheerful.
"Ottasumpsit Inn?" says he.
"Why, I expect so," says I, "if that's the way you call it. Otto—Otta—Yep, that listens something like it."
You see, Mr. Robert had said it only once, when he handed me the tickets, and I hadn't paid much attention.
"Aye gorry!" says the chirky gent, gatherin' up our hand luggage. "Guess you're the ones we're lookin' for. Got yer trunk-checks handy?"
With that I starts fishin' through my pockets panicky. I finds a railroad folder, our marriage certificate, the keys to the studio apartment I'd hired, the box the ring came in, and——
"Gosh!" says I, sighin' relieved. "Sure I got it."
The driver grins good-natured and stows us into a two-seated sleigh, and off we're whirled, bells jinglin', for half a mile or so through the stinging mornin' air. Next thing I know, I'm bein' towed up to a desk and a hotel register is shoved at me. Just like an old-timer, I dashes off my name—Richard T. Ballard.
The mild-eyed gent with the close-cropped Vandyke and the gold-rimmed glasses glances over at Vee.
"Ah—er—I thought Mrs. Ballard was with you!" says he.
"That's so; she is," says I, grabbin' the pen again and tackin' "Mr. and Mrs." in front of my autograph.
That's why, while we're fixin' up a bit before goin' down to breakfast, I has this little confidential confab with Vee.
"It's no use, Vee," says I. "I'm a rank amateur. We might just as well have rice and confetti all over us. I've made two breaks already, and I'm liable to make more. We can't bluff 'em."
"Who wants to?" says Vee. "I'm not ashamed of being on my honeymoon; are you?"
"Good girl!" says I. "You bet I ain't. I thought the usual line, though, was to pretend you'd——"
"I know," says Vee. "And I always thought that was perfectly silly. Besides, I don't believe we could fool anyone if we tried. It's much simpler not to bother. Let them guess."
"And grin too, eh?" says I. "We'll grin back."
Say, that's the happy hunch. Leaves you with nothing to worry about. All you got to do is go ahead and enjoy yourself, free and frolicsome. So when this imposin' head waitress with the forty-eight bust and the grand duchess air bears down on us majestic, and inquires dignified, "Two, sir?" I don't let it stagger me.
"Two'll be enough," says I. "But whisper. Seein' as we're only startin' in on the twosome breakfast game, maybe you could find something nice and cheerful by a window. Eh?"
It's some breakfast. M-m-m-m! Cute little country sausages, buckwheat cakes that would melt in your mouth, with strained honey to go on 'em.
"Have a fourth buckwheat," says I.
"No fair, keeping count!" says Vee. "I looked the other way when you took your fifth."
Honest, I can't see where we acted much different than we did before. Somehow, we always could find things to giggle over. We sure had a good time takin' our first after-breakfast stroll together down Main Street, Vee in her silver-fox furs and me in my new mink-lined overcoat that Mr. Robert had wished on me casual just before we left.
"Cunnin' little town, eh?" says I. "Looks like a birthday cake."
"Or a Christmas card," says Vee. "Look at this old door with the brass knocker and the green fan-light above. Isn't that Colonial, though?"
"It's an old-timer, all right," says I. "Hello! Here's a place worth rememberin'—the Woman's Exchange. Now I'll know where to go in case I should want to swap you off."
For which crack I gets shoved into a snowdrift.
It ain't until afternoon that I'm struck with the fact that neither of us knows a soul up here. Course, the landlord nods pleasant to me, and I'd talked to the young room clerk a bit, and the bell-hops had all smiled friendly, specially them I'd fed quarters to. But by then I was feelin' sort of folksy, so I begun takin' notice of the other guests and plannin' who I should get chummy with first.
I drifts over by the fireplace, where two substantial old boys are toastin' their toes and smokin' their cigars.
"Snappy brand of weather they pass out up here, eh?" I throws off, pullin' up a rocker.
They turn, sort of surprised, and give me the once-over deliberate, after which one of them, a gent with juttin' eyebrows, clears his throat and remarks, "Quite bracing, indeed."
Then he hitches around until I'm well out of view, and says to the other:
"As I was observing, an immediate readjustment of international trade balances is inevitable. European bankers are preparing for it. We are not. Only last month one of the Barings cabled——"
I'll admit my next stab at bein' sociable was kind of feeble. In front of the desk is a group of three gents, one of 'em not over fifty or so; but when I edges up close enough to hear what the debate is about, I finds it has something to do with a scheme for revivin' Italian opera in Boston, and I backs off so sudden I almost bumps into a hook-beaked old dame who is waddlin' up to the letter-box.
"Sorry," says I. "I should have honked."
She just glares at me, and if I hadn't side-stepped prompt she might have sunk that parrot bill into my shoulder.
After that I sidles into a corner where I couldn't be hit from behind, and tries to dope out the cause of all this hostility. Did they take me for a German spy or what? Or was this really an old folks' home masqueradin' as a hotel, with Vee and me breakin' in under false pretenses?
So far as I could see, the inmates was friendly enough with each other. The old girls sat around in the office and parlors, chattin' over their knittin' and crochet. The old boys paired off mostly, though some of them only read or played solitaire. A few people went out wrapped up in expensive furs and was loaded into sleighs. The others waved good-by to 'em. But I might have been built out of window-glass. They didn't act as though I was visible.
"Huh!" thinks I. "I'll bet they take notice of Vee when she comes down."
If I'd put anything up on that proposition I'd owed myself money. They couldn't see her any more'n they could me. When we went out for another walk nobody even looked after us. I didn't say anything then, but I kept thinkin'. And all that evenin' we sat around amongst 'em without bein' disturbed.
About eight o'clock an orchestra shows up and cuts loose with music in the ball-room, mostly classic stuff like the "Spring Song" and handfuls plucked from "Aida." We slips in and listens. Then the leader gets his eye on us and turns on a fox-trot.
"Looks like they was waitin' for us to start something," says I. "Let's."
We'd gone around three or four times when Vee balks. About twenty-five old ladies, with a sprinklin' of white-whiskered old codgers, had filed in and was watchin' us solemn and critical from the side-lines. Some was squintin' disapprovin' through their lorgnettes, and I noticed a few whisperin' to each other. Vee quits right in the middle of a reverse.
"Do they think we are giving an exhibition?" she pouts.
"Maybe we're breakin' some of the rules and by-laws," says I. "Anyway, I think we ought to beat it before they call in the high sheriff."
Next day it was just the same. We was out part of the time, indulgin' in walks and sleigh rides; but nobody seemed to see us, goin' or comin'. And I begun to get good and sore.
"Nice place, this," says I to Vee, as we trails in to dinner that evenin'. "Almost as sociable as the Grand Central station."
Vee tries to explain that it's always like this in these exclusive little all-the-year-round joints where about the same crowd of people come every season.
"Then you have to be born in the house to be a reg'lar person, I suppose?" says I.
Well, it's about then I notices this classy young couple who are makin' their way across the dinin'-room, bein' hailed right and left. And next thing I know, the young lady gets her eye on Vee, stops to take another look, then rushes over and gives her the fond clinch from behind.
"Why you dear old Verona!" says she.
"Judith!" gasps Vee, kind of smothery.
"Whatever are you doing up——" And then Judith gets wise to me sittin' opposite. "Oh!" says she.
Vee blushes and exhibits her left hand.
"It only happened the other night," says she. "This is Mr. Ballard, Judith. And you?"
"Oh, ages ago—last spring," says Judith. "Bert, come here."
It's a case of old boardin'-school friends who'd lost track of each other. Quite a stunner, young Mrs. Nixon is, too, and Bert is a good match for her. The two girls hold quite a reunion, with us men standin' around lookin' foolish.
"We're living in Springfield, you know," goes on Judith, "where Bert is helping to build another munition plant. Just ran up to spend the week-end with Auntie. You've met her, of course?"
"We—we haven't met anyone," says Vee.
"Why, how funny!" exclaims Mrs. Nixon. "Please come over right now."
"My dear," says Auntie, pattin' Vee chummy on the hand, "we have all been wondering who you two young people were. I knew you must be nice, but—er—— Come, won't you join us at this table? We'll make just a splendid little family party. Now do!"
Oh, yes, we did. And after dinner I'll be hanged if we ain't introduced to almost everybody in the hotel. It's a reg'lar reception, with folks standin' in line to shake hands with us. The old boy with the eye awnin's turns out to be an ex-Secretary of the Treasury; an antique with a patent ear-'phone has been justice of some State Supreme Court; and so on. Oh, lots of class to 'em. But after I'd been vouched for by someone they knew they all gives me the hearty grip, offers me cigars, and hopes I'm enjoyin' my stay.
"And so you are a niece of dear Mrs. Hemmingway?" says old Parrot-Face, when her turn comes. "Think of that! And this is your husband!" And then she says how nice it is that some other young people will be up in the mornin'.
That evenin' Judith gets busy plannin' things to do next day.
"You haven't tried the toboggan chute?" says she. "Why, how absurd!"
Yep, it was a big day, Saturday was. Half a dozen more young folks drifted in, includin' a couple of Harvard men that Vee knew, a girl she'd met abroad, and another she'd seen at a house-party. They was all live wires, too, ready for any sort of fun. And we had all kinds. Maybe we didn't keep that toboggan slide warm. Say, it's some sport, ain't it?
Anyway, our honeymoon was turnin' out a great success. The Nixons concluded to stay over a few days, and three or four of the others found they could too, so we just went on whooping things up.
Next I knew we'd been there a week, and was due to make a jump to Washington for a few days of sight-seein'.
"I'm afraid that will not be half as nice as this has been," says Vee.
"It couldn't," says I. "It's the reg'lar thing to do, though."
"I hate doing the regular thing," says Vee. "Besides, I'm dying to see our little studio apartment and get settled in it. Why not—well, just go home?"
"Vee," says I, "you got more good sense than I have red hair. Let's!"
VEE WITH VARIATIONS
"But—but look here, Vee," says I, after I'd got my breath back, "you can't do a thing like that, you know."
"But I have, Torchy," says she; "and, what is more, I mean to keep on doing it."
She don't say it messy, understand—just states it quiet and pleasant.
And there we are, hardly at the end of our first month, with the rocks loomin' ahead.
Say, where did I collect all this bunk about gettin' married, anyway? I had an idea that after the honeymoon was over, you just settled down and lived happy, or otherwise, ever after. But, believe me, there's nothing to it. It ain't all over, not by a long shot. As a matter of fact, you've just begun to live, and you got to learn how.
Here I am, discoverin' a new Vee every day or so, and almost dizzy tryin' to get acquainted with all of 'em. Do I show up that way to her? I doubt it. Now and then, though, I catch her watchin' me sort of puzzled.
So there's nothing steady goin' or settled about us yet, thanks be. Home ain't a place to yawn in. Not ours. We don't get all our excitement out of changin' the furniture round, either. Oh, sure, we do that, too. You know, we're startin' in with a ready-made home—a studio apartment that Mr. Robert picked up for me at a bargain, all furnished.
He was a near-artist, if you remember, this Waddy Crane party, who'd had a bale of coupon-bearin' certificates willed to him, and what was a van-load of furniture more or less to him? Course, I'm no judge of such junk, but Vee seems to think we've got something swell.
"Just look at this noble old davenport, will you!" says she. "Isn't it a beauty? And that highboy! Real old San Domingo mahogany that is, with perfectly lovely crotch veneer in the panels. See?"
"Uh-huh," says I.
"And this four-poster with the pineapple tops and the canopy," she goes on. "Pure Colonial, a hundred years old."
"Eh?" says I, gazin' at it doubtful. "Course, I was lookin' for second-hand stuff, but I don't think he ought to work off anything that ancient on me, do you?"
"Silly!" says Vee. "It's a gem, and the older the better."
"We'll need some new rugs, won't we," says I, "in place of some of these faded things?"
"Faded!" says Vee. "Why, those are Bokharas. I will say for Mr. Crane that he has good taste. This is furnished so much better than most studios—nothing useless, no mixing of periods."
"Oh, when I go out after a home," says I, "I'm some grand little shopper."
"Pooh!" says Vee. "Who couldn't do it the way you did? Why, the place looks as if he'd just taken his hat and walked out. There are even cigars in the humidor. And his easel and paints and brushes! Do you know what I'm going to do, Torchy?"
"Put pink and green stripes around the cigars, I expect," says I.
"Smarty!" says she. "I'm going to paint pictures."
"Why not?" says I. "There's no law against it, and here you got all the tools."
"You know I used to try it a little," says she. "I took quite a lot of lessons."
"Then go to it," says I. "I'll get a yearly rate from a pressing club to keep the spots off me. I'll bet you could do swell pictures."
"I know!" says Vee, clappin' her hands. "I'll begin with a portrait of you. Let me try sketching in your head now."
That's the way Vee generally goes at things—with a rush. Say, she had me sittin' with my chin up and my arms draped in one position until I had a neck-ache that ran clear to my heels.
"Hal-lup!" says I, when both feet was sound asleep and my spine felt ossified. "Couldn't I put on a sub while I drew a long breath?"
At that she lets me off, and after a fifth-innin' stretch I'm called round to pass on the result.
"Hm-m-m!" says I, starin' at what she's done to a perfectly good piece of stretched canvas.
"Well, what does it look like?" demands Vee.
"Why," says I, "I should call it sort of a cross between the Kaiser and Billy Sunday."
"Torchy!" says Vee. "I—I think you're just horrid!"
For a whole week she sticks to it industrious, jottin' down studies of various parts of my map while I'm eatin' breakfast, and workin' over 'em until I come back from the office in the afternoon. Did I throw out any more comic cracks? Never a one—not even when the picture showed that my eyes toed in. All I did was pat her on the back and say she was a wonder. But say, I got so I dreaded to look at the thing.
"You know your hair isn't really red," says Vee; "it—it's such an odd shade."
"Sort of triple pink, eh?" says I.
She squeezes out some more paints, stirs 'em vigorous, and makes another stab. This time she gets a bilious lavender with streaks of fire-box red in it.
"Bother!" says she, chuckin' away the brushes. "What's the use pretending I'm an artist when I'm not? Look at that hideous mess! It's too awful for words. Take away that fire-screen, will you, Torchy?"
And, with the help of a few matches and a sportin' extra, we made quite a cheerful little blaze in the coal grate.
"There!" says Vee, as we watches the bonfire. "So that's over. And it's rather a relief to find out that I haven't got to be a lady artist, after all. What is more, I am positive I couldn't write a book. I'm afraid, Torchy, that I am a most every-day sort of person."
"Maybe," says I, "you're one of the scarce ones that believes in home and hubby."
"We-e-e-ell," says Vee, lockin' her fingers and restin' her chin on 'em thoughtful, "not precisely that type, either. My mind may not be particularly advanced, but the modified harem existence for women doesn't appeal to me. And I must confess that, with kitchenette breakfasts, dinners out, and one maid, I can't get wildly excited over a wholly domestic career. Torchy, I simply must have something to do."
Me, I just sits there gawpin' at her.
"Why," says I, "I thought that when a girl got married she—she——"
"I know," says she. "You think you thought. So did I. But you really didn't think about it at all, and I'm only beginning to. Of course, you have your work. I suppose it's interesting, too. Isn't it?"
"It's a great game," says I. "Specially these days, when doin' any kind of business is about as substantial as jugglin' six china plates while you're balanced on top of two chairs and a kitchen table. Honest, we got deals enough in the air to make you dizzy followin' 'em. If they all go through we'll stand to cut a melon that would pay off the national debt. If they should all go wrong—well, it would be some smash, believe me."
Vee's gray eyes light up sudden.
"Why couldn't you tell me all about some of these deals," she says, "so that I could be in it too? Why couldn't I help?"
"Maybe you could," says I, "if you understood all the fine points."
"Couldn't I learn?" demands Vee.
"Well," says I, "I've been right in the thick of it for quite some years. If you could pick up in a week or so what it's taken me years to——"
"I see," cuts in Vee. "I suppose you're right, too. But I'm sure that I should like to be in business. It must be fascinating, all that planning and scheming. It must make life so interesting."
I nods. "It does," says I.
"Then why shouldn't I try something of the kind, all my very own?" she asks. "Oh, in a small way, at first?"
More gasps from me. This was gettin' serious.
"You don't mean margin dabblin' at one of them parlor bucket-shops, do you?" I demands.
"No fear," says Vee. "I think gambling is just plain stupid. I mean some sort of legitimate business—buying and selling things."
"Oh!" says I. "Like real estate, or imported hats, or somebody's home-made candy? Or maybe you mean startin' one of them Blue Goose novelty shops down in Greenwich Village. I'll tell you. Why not manufacture left-handed collar buttons for the south-paw trade? There's a field."
Vee don't say any more. In fact, three or four days goes by without her mentionin' anything about havin' nothing to do, and I'd 'most forgot this batty talk of ours.
And then, one afternoon when I comes home after a busy day at doin' nothing much and tryin' to look important over it, she greets me with a flyin' tackle and drags me over to a big wingchair by the window.
"What do you think, Torchy?" says she. "I've found something!"
"That trunk key you've been lookin' for?" says I.
"No," says she. "A business opening."
"A slot-machine to sell fudge?" says I.
"You'd never guess," says she.
"Then shoot it," says I.
"I'm going to open a shoe-shinery," she announces.
"Wha-a-a-at!" says I.
"Only I'm not going to call it that," she goes on. "It isn't to be a 'parlor,' either, nor a 'shine shop.' It's to be just a 'Boots.' Right here in the building. I've leased part of the basement. See?" And she waves a paper at me.
"Quit your kiddin'," says I.
But she insists that it's so. Sure enough, that's the way the lease reads.
And that's when, as I was tellin' you, I rises up majestic and announces flat that she simply can't do a thing like that. Also she comes back at me just as prompt by sayin' that she can and will. It's the first time we've met head-on goin' different ways, and I had just sense enough to throw in my emergency before the crash came.
"Now let's get this straight," says I. "I don't suppose you're plannin' to do shoe-shinin' yourself?"
Vee smiles and shakes her head.
"Or 'tend the cash register and sell shoelaces and gum to gentlemen customers?"
"Oh, it's not to be that sort of place," says she. "It's to be an English 'boots,' on a large scale. You know what I mean."
"No," says I.
So she sketches out the enterprise for me. Instead of a reg'lar Tony joint with a row of chairs and a squad of blue-shirted Greeks jabberin' about the war, this is to be a chairless, spittoonless shine factory, where the customer only steps in to sign a monthly contract or register a kick. All the work is to be collected and delivered, same as laundry.
"I would never have thought of it," explains Vee, "if it hadn't been for Tarkins. He's that pasty-faced, sharp-nosed young fellow who's been helping the janitor recently. A cousin, I believe. He's a war wreck, too. Just think, Torchy: he was in the trenches for more than a year, and has only been out of a base hospital two months. They wouldn't let him enlist again; so he came over here to his relatives.
"It was while he was up trying to stop that radiator leak the other day that I asked him if he would take out a pair of my boots and find some place where they could be cleaned. He brought them back inside of half an hour, beautifully done. And when I insisted on being told where he'd taken them, so that I might send them to the same place again, he admitted that he had done the work himself. 'My old job, ma'am,' says he. 'I was boots at the Argyle Club, ma'am, before I went out to strafe the 'Uns. Seven years, ma'am. But they got a girl doin' it now, a flapper. Wouldn't take me back.' Just fancy! And Tarkins a trench hero! So I got to thinking."
"I see," says I. "You're going to set Tarkins up, eh?"
"I'm going to make him my manager," says Vee. "He will have charge of the shop and solicit orders. We are going to start with only two polishers; one for day work, the other for the night shift. And Tarkins will always be on the job. They're installing a 'phone now, and he will sleep on a cot in the back office. We will work this block first, something like four hundred apartments. Later on—well, we'll see."
"I don't want to croak," says I, "but do you think folks will send out their footwear that way? You know, New Yorkers ain't used to gettin' their shines except on the hoof."
"I mean to educate them to my 'boots' system," says Vee. "I'm getting up a circular now. I shall show them how much time they can save, how many tips they can avoid. You see, each customer will have a delivery box, with his name and address on it. No chance for mistakes. The boxes can be set outside the apartment doors. We will have four collections, perhaps; two in the daytime, two at night. And when they see the kind of work we do—— Well, you wait."
"I'll admit it don't listen so worse," says I. "The scheme has its good points. But when you come to teachin' New York people new tricks, like sendin' out their shoes, you're goin' to be up against it."
"Then you think I can't make 'boots' pay a profit?" asks Vee.
"That would be my guess," says I. "If it was a question of underwritin' a stock issue for the scheme I'd have to turn it down."
"Good!" says Vee. "Now I shall work all the harder. Tarkins will be around early in the morning to get you as our first customer."
Say, for the next few days she certainly was a busy party—plannin' out her block campaign, lookin' over supply bills, and checkin' up Tarkins's reports.
I don't know when I'd ever seen her so interested in anything, or so chirky. Her cheeks were pink all the time and her eyes dancin'. And somehow we had such a lot to talk about.
Course, though, I didn't expect it to last. You wouldn't look for a girl like Vee, who'd never had any trainin' for that sort of thing, to start a new line and make a go of it right off the bat. But, so long as she wasn't investin' very heavy, it didn't matter.
And then, here last night, after she'd been workin' over her account-books for an hour or so, she comes at me with a whoop, and waves a sheet of paper under my nose excited.
"Now, Mister Business Man," says she, "what do you think of that?"
"Eh?" says I, starin' at the figures.
"One hundred and seventeen regular customers the first week," says she, "and a net profit of $23.45. Now how about underwriting that stock issue?"
Well, it was a case of backin' up. She had it all figured out plain. She'd made good from the start. And, just to prove that it's real money that she's made all by herself, she insists on invitin' me out to a celebration dinner. It's a swell one, too, take it from me.
And afterwards we sits up until long past midnight while Vee plans a chain of "boots" all over the city.
"Gee!" says I. "Maybe you'll be gettin' yourself written up as 'The Shine Queen of New York' or something like that. Lucky Auntie's in Jamaica. Think what a jolt it would give her."
"I don't care," says Vee. "I've found a job."
"Guess you have," says I. "And, as I've remarked once or twice before, you're some girl."
A QUALIFYING TURN FOR TORCHY
And here all along I'd been kiddin' myself that I was a perfectly good private sec. Also I had an idea the Corrugated Trust was one of the main piers that kept New York from slumpin' into the North River, and that the boss, Old Hickory Ellins, was sort of a human skyscraper who loomed up as imposin' in the financial foreground as the Metropolitan Tower does on the picture post-cards that ten-day trippers mail to the folks back home.
Not that I'd been workin' up any extra chest measure since I've had an inside desk and had connected with a few shares of our preferred stock; I always did feel more or less that way about our concern. And the closer I got to things, seein' how wide our investments was scattered and how many big deals we stood behind, the surer I was that we was important people.
And then, in trickles this smooth-haired young gent with the broad a's and the full set of the dansant manners, to show me where I'm wrong on all counts. He'd succeeded in convincin' Vincent-on-the-gate that nobody around the shop would do but Mr. Ellins himself, so here was Old Hickory standin' in the door of his private office with the card in his hand and starin' puzzled at this immaculate symphony in browns.
"Eh?" says he. "You're from Runyon, are you? Well, I wired him to stop off on his way through and have luncheon with me at the Union League. Know anything about that, do you?"
"Mr. Runyon regrets very much," says the young gent, "that he will be unable to accept your kind invitation. He is on his way to Newport, you know, and——"
"Yes, I understand all that," breaks in Old Hickory. "Daughter's wedding. But that isn't until next week, and while he was in town I thought we might have a little chat and settle a few things."
"Quite so," says the symphony. "Precisely why he sent me up, sir—to talk over anything you might care to discuss."
"With you!" snorts Old Hickory. "Who the brocaded buckboards are you?"
"Mr. Runyon's secretary, sir," says the young gent. "Bixby's the name, sir, as you will see by the card, and——"
"Ha!" growls old Hickory. "So that's Marc Runyon's answer to me, is it? Sends his secretary! Very well; you may talk with my secretary. Torchy!"
"Right here!" says I, slidin' to the front.
"Take this person somewhere," says Mr. Ellins, jerkin' his thumb at Bixby; "instruct him what to tell his master about how we regard that terminal hold-up; then dust him off carefully and lead him to the elevator."
"Got you!" says I, salutin'.
You might think that would have jolted Mr. Bixby. But no. He gets the door shut in his face without even blinkin' or gettin' pink under the eyes. Don't even indulge in any shoulder shrugs or other signs of muffled emotion. He just turns to me calm and remarks businesslike:
"At your service, sir."
Now, say, this lubricated diplomacy act ain't my long suit as a general thing, but I couldn't figure a percentage in puttin' over any more rough stuff on Bixby. It rolled off him too easy. Course, it might be all right for Mr. Ellins to get messy or blow a gasket if he wanted to; but I couldn't see that it was gettin' us anywhere. He hadn't planned this luncheon affair just for the sake of being sociable—I knew that much. The big idea was to get next to Marcus T. Runyon and thresh out a certain proposition on a face-to-face basis. And if he chucked that overboard because of a whim, we stood to lose.
It was up to me now, though. Maybe I couldn't be as smooth as this Bixby party, but I could make a stab along that line. It would be good practice, anyhow. So I tows him over to my corner, and arranges him easy in an armchair.
"As between private secs, now," says I, "what's puttin' up the bars on this get-together motion, eh?"
Well, considerin' that Bixby is English and don't understand the American language very well, we got along fine. Once or twice, there, I thought I should have to call in an interpreter; but by bein' careful to state things simple, and by goin' over some of the points two or three times slow, we managed to make out what each other meant.
It seems that Marcus T. is more or less of a frail and tender party. Dashin' out for a Union League luncheon, fillin' himself up on poulet en casserole and such truck, not to mention Martinis and demi-tasses and brunette perfectos, was clean out of the question.
"My word!" says Bixby, rollin' his eyes. "His physician would never allow it, you know."
"Suppose he took a chance and didn't tell the doc?" I suggests.
"Impossible," says Bixby. "He is with him constantly—travels with him, you understand."
I didn't get it all at first, but I sopped it up gradual. Marcus T. wasn't takin' any casual flit from his Palm Beach winter home to his Newport summer place. No jumpin' into a common Pullman for him, joinin' the smokin'-room bunch, and scrabblin' for his meals in the diner. Hardly.
He was travelin' in his private car, with his private secretary, his private physician, his trained nurse, his private chef, and most likely, his private bootblack. And he was strictly under his doctor's orders. He wasn't even goin' to have a peek at Broadway or Fifth Avenue; for, although a suite had been engaged for him at the Plutoria, the Doc had ruled against it only that mornin'. No; he had to stay in the private car, that had been run on a special sidin' over in the Pennsylvania yards.
"So you see," says Bixby, spreadin' out his varnished finger-nails helpless. "And yet, I am sure he would very much like to have a chat with his old friend Mr. Ellins."
I had all I could do to choke back a haw-haw. His old friend, eh? Oh, I expect they might be called friends, in a way. They hadn't actually stuck any knives into each other. And 'way back, when they was both operatin' in Chicago, I understand they was together a good deal. But since—— Well, maybe at a circus you've seen a couple of old tigers pacin' back and forth in nearby cages and catchin' sight of one another now and then? Something like that.
"Friend" wasn't the way Marcus T. was indexed on our books. If we spotted any suspicious moves in the market, or found one of our subsidiary companies being led astray by unseen hands, or a big contract slippin' away mysterious, the word was always passed to "watch the Runyon interests." And I'll admit that when the Corrugated saw an openin' to put a crimp in a Runyon deal, or overbid 'em on a franchise, or crack a ripe egg on one of their bond issues, we only waited long enough for it to get dark before gettin' busy. Oh, yes, we was real chummy that way.
And then again, with the Runyon system touchin' ours in so many spots, we had a lot of open daylight dealin's. We interlocked here and there; we had joint leases, trackage agreements, and so on, where we was just as trustin' of each other as a couple of gentlemen crooks dividin' the souvenirs after an early mornin' call at a country-house.
This terminal business Old Hickory had mentioned was a sample. Course, I only knew about it in a vague sort of way: something about ore docks up on the Lakes. Anyway, it was a case where the Runyon people had hogged the waterfront and was friskin' us for tonnage charges on every steamer we loaded.
I know it was something that had to be renewed annual, for I'd heard Mr. Ellins beefin' about it more'n once. Last year, I remember, he was worse than usual, which was accounted for later by the fact that the ton rate had been jumped a couple of cents. And now it had been almost doubled. No wonder he wanted a confab with Marcus T. on the subject. And, from where I stood, it looked like he ought to have it, grouch or no grouch.
"Bixby," says I, "Mr. Ellins would just grieve himself sick if this reunion he's planned don't come off. Now, what's the best you can do?"
"If Mr. Ellins could come to the private car——" begins Bixby.
"Say," I breaks in, "you wouldn't ask him to climb over freight-cars and dodge switch-engines just for old times' sake, would you?"
Bixby holds up both hands and registers painful protest.
"By no means," says he. "We would send the limousine for Mr. Ellins, have it wait his convenience, and drive him directly to the car steps. I think I can arrange the interview for any time between two-thirty and four o'clock this afternoon."
"Now, that's talkin'!" says I. "I'll see what I can do with the boss. Wait, will you?"
Oh, boy, though! That was about as tough a job as I ever tackled. Old Hickory still has his neck feathers ruffled, and he's chewin' savage on a black cigar when I go in to slip him the soothin' syrup. First off I explains elaborate what a sick man Mr. Runyon is, and all about the trained nurse and the private physician.
"Bah!" says Old Hickory. "I'll bet he's no more an invalid than I am. Just coddling himself, that's all. Got the private car habit, too! Why, I knew Marc Runyon when he thought an upper berth was the very lap of luxury; knew him when he'd grind his teeth over payin' a ten-dollar fee to a doctor. And now he's trying to buy back his digestion by hiring a private physician, is he? The simple-minded old sinner!"
"I expect you ain't seen much of him lately, Mr. Ellins?" I suggests.
Old Hickory hunches his shoulders careless.
"No," says he.
Then he gazes reminiscent at the ceilin'. I could tell by watchin' his lower jaw sort of loosen up that he was thinkin' of the old days, or something like that. It struck me as a good time to let things simmer. I drops back a step and waits. All of a sudden he turns to me and demands:
"If you could get away about three," says I, "Mr. Runyon's limousine will be waiting."
"Huh!" says he. "Well, I'll see. Perhaps."
"Yes, sir," says I. "Then you'll be wanting the dope on that terminal lease. Shall I dig it up?"
"Oh, you might as well," says Old Hickory. "There isn't much, but bring along anything you may find. You will have to serve as my entire retinue, Torchy. I expect you to behave like a regular high-toned secretary."
"Gee!" says I. "That's some order. Mr. Bixby'll have me lookin' like an outside porter. But I'll go wind myself up."
All I could think of, though, was to post myself on that terminal stuff. And, believe me, I waded into that strong. Inside of ten minutes after I'd sent Bixby on his way I had Piddie clawin' through the record safe, two stenographers searchin' the letter-files, and Vincent out buyin' maps of Lake Superior. I had about four hours to use in gettin' wise to the fine points of a deal that had been runnin' on for ten years; but I can absorb a lot of information in a short time when I really get my mind pores open.
At that, though, I expect my head would have been just a junk-heap of back-number facts if I hadn't run across the name of this guy McClave in some of the correspondence. Seems he'd been assistant traffic agent for one of the Runyon lines, but had been dropped durin' a consolidation shake-up. And now he happens to be holdin' down a desk out in our general offices. Just on a chance, I pushes the button for him.
Well, say, talk about tappin' the main feedpipe! Why, that quiet little Scotchman in the shiny black cutaway coat and the baggy plaid trousers, he knew more about how iron ore gets from the mines to the smelters than I do about puttin' on my own clothes. And as for the inside hist'ry of how we got that tonnage charge wished onto us, why, McClave had been called in when the merry little scheme was first plotted out.
I made him start at the beginning and explain every item, while we munched fried-egg sandwiches as we went over reports, sorted out old letters, and marked up a perfectly good map of Minnesota. But by three P.M. I had a leather document case stuffed with papers and a cross-index of 'em in my so-called brain.
"When you're ready, Mr. Ellins," says I, standin' by with my hat in my hand.
"Oh, yes," says he, heavin' himself up reluctant from his desk chair.
And, sure enough, there's a silk-lined limousine and a French chauffeur waitin' in front of the arcade. In no time at all, too, we're rolled across Seventh Avenue, down through a tunnel, and out alongside a shiny private car with a brass-bound bay-window on one end and flower-boxes hung on the side. They even had a carpet laid on the steps. It's a happy little home on wheels.
Also there is Bixby the Busy, with his ear out for us.
Talk about private seccing as a fine art! Why, say, I fairly held my breath watchin' him operate. Every move is as smooth and silent as a steel lathe runnin' in an oil bath. He don't exactly whisper, or give us the hush-up sign, but somehow he gets me steppin' soft and talkin' under my breath from the minute I hits the front vestibule.
"So good of you, Mr. Ellins," he coos soothin'. "Will you come right in? Mr. Runyon will be with you in a moment. Just finishing a treatment, you know. This way, gentlemen."
Say, it was like bein' ushered into church durin' the prayer. Once inside, you'd never guess it was just a car. More like the corner of a perfectly good drawin'-room—easy chairs, Turkish rugs, silver vases full of roses, double hangin's at the windows.
"Will you sit here, Mr. Ellins?" murmurs Bixby. "And you here, sir. Pardon me a moment."
Then he glides about, pullin' down a shade, movin' a vase, studyin' how the light is goin' to strike in, pattin' a cushion, shovin' out a foot-rest—like he was settin' the stage for the big scene. And right in the midst of it I near spilled the beans by pullin' an afternoon edition out of my pocket. Bixby swoops down on me panicky.
"Oh, I'm so sorry!" says he, pluckin' the paper out of my fingers. "But may I put this outside? Mr. Runyon cannot stand the rustling of newspapers. Please don't mind. There! Now I think we are ready."
I wanted to warn him that I hadn't quite stopped breathin' yet, but he's off to the other end of the room, where a nurse in a white cap is peekin' through the draperies.
Bixby nods to her and stands one side. Then we waits a minute—two minutes. And finally the procession appears.
First, a nurse carryin' a steamer rug; next, another nurse with a tray; and after them a valet and the private physician with the great Marcus T. walkin' slow between.
He ain't so imposin' when you get that close, though. Kind of a short, poddy party, who looks like he'd been upholstered generous once but had shrunk a lot. There are heavy bags under his eyes, dewlaps at his mouth-corners, and deep seams across his clean-shaved face. He has sort of a cigar-ash complexion. And yet, under them shaggy brows is a keen pair of eyes that seem to take in everything.
Old Hickory gets up right off, with his hand out. But it's a social error. Bixby blocks him off graceful. He's in full command, Bixby is. With a one-finger gesture he signals the nurse to drape her rug over the chair. Then he nods to the doctor and the valet to go ahead. They ease Runyon into his seat. Bixby motions 'em to wrap up his knees. By an eyelid flutter he shows the other nurse where to set her tray.
It's almost as complicated a process as dockin' an ocean liner. When it's finished, Bixby waves one hand gentle, and they all fade back through the draperies.
"Hello, Ellins," says Runyon. "Mighty good of you to hunt up a wreck like me."
I almost gasped out loud. Somehow, after seem' him handled like a mummy that way, you didn't expect to hear him speak. It's a shock. Even Old Hickory must have felt something as I did.
"I—I didn't know," says he. "When did it happen, Runyon?"
"Oh, it's nothing," says Marcus T. "I am merely paying up for fifty-odd years of hard living by—by this. Ever try to exist on artificial sour milk and medicated hay, Ellins? Hope you never come to it. Don't look as though you would. But you were always tougher than I, even back in the State Street days, eh?"
First thing I knew, they were chattin' away free and easy. Course, there was Bixby all the time, standin' behind watchful. And right in the middle of a sentence he didn't hesitate to butt in and hand Mr. Runyon a glass of what looked like thin whitewash. Marcus T. would take a sip obedient and then go on with his talk. At last he asks if there's anything special he can do for Mr. Ellins.
"Why, yes," says Old Hickory, settin' his jaw. "You might call off your highwaymen on that Manitou terminal lease, Runyon. That is, unless you mean to take all of our mining profits."
Marcus T.'s eyes brighten up. They almost twinkle.
"Bixby," says he, "what about that? Has there been an increase in the tonnage rate to the Corrugated?"
"I think so, sir," says Bixby. "I can look it up, sir."
"Ah!" says Runyon. "Bixby will look it up."
"He needn't," says Old Hickory. "It's been doubled, that's all. We had the notice last week. Torchy, did you——"
"Yep!" says I, shootin' the letter at him.
"Well, well!" says Runyon, after he's gazed at it. "There must have been some well founded cause for such an advance. Bixby, you must——"
"It's because you think you've got us in a hole," breaks in Old Hickory. "We've got to load our boats and you control the docks."
"Oh, yes!" chuckles Marcus T. "An unfortunate situation—for you. But I presume there are other dockage facilities available."
"If there were," says Mr. Ellins sarcastic, "do you think we would be paying you from three to five millions a year?"
"Bixby, I fear you must explain our position more fully," goes on Mr. Runyon.
"Oh, certainly," says Bixby. "I will have a full report prepared and——"
"Suppose you tell it to my secretary now," insists Old Hickory, glarin' menacin' at him.
"Do so, Bixby," says Marcus T.
"Why—er—you see," says Bixby, turnin' to me, "as I understand the case, the only outlet you have to deep water is over our tracks to——"
"What about them docks at Three Harbors?" I cuts in.
"Three Harbors?" repeats Bixby, starin' vague.
"Precisely," says Marcus T. "As the young man suggests, there is plenty of unemployed dockage at that point. But your ore tracks do not connect with that port."
"They would if we laid forty miles of rails, branchin' off at Tamarack Junction," says I. "That spur has all been surveyed and the right of way cleared."
"Ah!" exclaims Bixby, comin' to life again. "I remember now. Tamarack Junction. We hold a charter for a railroad from there to Three Harbors."
"You mean you did hold it," says I.
"I beg pardon?" says Bixby, gawpin'.
"It lapsed," says I, "eighteen months ago. Here's a copy, O. K.'d by a Minnesota notary public. See the date?"
"Allow me," says Mr. Runyon, reachin' for it.
Old Hickory gets up and rubbers over his shoulder. "By George!" says he. "It has lapsed, Runyon. Torchy, where's a map of——"
"Here you are," says I. "You'll see the branch line sketched in there. That would cut our haul about fifteen miles."
"And leave you with a lot of vacant ore docks on your hands, eh, Runyon?" puts in Old Hickory. "We could have those rails laid by the time the ice was out of the Soo. Well, well! Throws rather a new light on the situation, doesn't it?"
Marcus T. turns slow and fixes them keen eyes of his on Bixby the Busy.
"Hm-m-m!" says he. "It seems that we have overlooked a point, Bixby. Perhaps, though, you can offer——"
He can. Some shifty private sec, Bixby is.
"Your milk, sir," says he, grabbin' the tray and shovin' it in front of Runyon.
For a second or so the great Marcus T. eyes it indignant. Then his shoulders sag, the fire dies out of his eyes, and he takes the glass.
He's about the best trained plute I ever saw in captivity.
"And I think the doctor should take your temperature now," adds Bixby. "I will call him."
As he slips off toward the back end of the car Mr. Runyon lets out a sigh.
"It's no use, Ellins," says he. "One can't pamper a ruined digestion and still enjoy these friendly little business bouts. One simply can't. Name your own terms for continuing that terminal lease."
Old Hickory does prompt, for we don't want to buy rails at the price they're bringin' now.
"And by the way, Runyon," says he, "may I ask what you pay your young man? I'm just curious."
"Bixby?" says Runyon. "Oh, twenty-five hundred."
"Huh!" says Mr. Ellins. "My secretary forgets my milk now and then, but he remembers such trifles as lapsed charters. He is drawing three thousand."
I hope Marcus T. didn't hear the gasp I lets out—I tried to smother it. And the first thing I does when we gets back into the limousine is to grin at the boss.
"Whaddye mean, three thousand?" says I.
"Dollars," says he. "Beginning to-day."
"Z-z-z-zing!" says I. "Going up, up! And there I was plannin' to take a special course in trained nursin', so I could hold my job."
SWITCHING ARTS ON LEON
Oh, sure! We're coming along grand. Did you think we'd be heavin' the blue willow-ware at each other by this time? No. We've hardly displayed any before-breakfast dispositions yet.
Not that we confine ourselves to the coo vocabulary, or advertise any continuous turtle-dove act. Gettin' married ain't jellied our brains, I hope. Besides, we're busy. I've got a new gilt-edged job to fill, you know; and Vee, she has one of her own, too.
Well, I can't say that her scheme of runnin' a Boots, Limited, has mesmerized all New York into havin' its shoe-shinin' done out. There's something about this cloth top and white gaiter craze that's puttin' a crimp in her perfectly good plans. But she's doin' fairly well, and she don't have to think up ways of killin' time.
Course, we have a few other things to think about, too. Just learnin' how to live in New York is a merry little game all by itself. That's one of my big surprises. I'd thought all along it was so simple.
But say, we've been gettin' wise to a few facts this last month or so, for we've been tryin' to dope out which one of the forty-nine varieties of New York's home-sweet-home repertoire was the kind for us. I don't mean we've been changin' our street number, or testin' out different four-room-and-bath combinations. The studio apartment I got at a bargain suits first rate. It's the meal proposition.
First off, we decides gay and reckless that we'll breakfast and lunch in and take our dinners out. That listened well and seemed easy enough—until Vee got to huntin' up a two-handed, light-footed female party who could boil eggs without scorchin' the shells, dish up such things as canned salmon with cream sauce, and put a few potatoes through the French fry process, doublin' in bed-makin' and dust-chasin' durin' her spare time. That shouldn't call for any prize-winnin' graduate from a cookin' college, should it?
But say, the specimens that go in for general housework in this burg are a sad lot. I ain't goin' all through the list. I'll just touch lightly on Bertha.
She was a cheerful soul, even when she was servin' soggy potatoes or rappin' me in the ear with her elbow as she reached across to fill my water glass.
"He-he! Haw-haw! Oxcuse, Mister," was Bertha's repartee for such little breaks.
Course, I could plead with her for the umpteenth time to try pourin' from the button hand side, but it would have been simpler to have worn a head guard durin' meals.
And who would have the heart to put the ban on a yodel that begins in our kitchenette at 7 A.M., even on cloudy mornin's?
If Bertha had been No. 1, or even No. 2, she'd have had her passports handed her about the second mornin'; but, as she was the last of a punk half dozen, we tried not to mind her musical interludes. So at the end of three weeks her friendly relations with us were still unbroken, though most of the dishes were otherwise.
So you might have thought we'd been glad, when 6.30 P.M. came, to put on our things and join about a million or so other New Yorkers in findin' a dinner joint where the cooks and waiters made no claim to havin' an amateur standin'.
But, believe me, while my domestic instincts may be sproutin' late, they're comin' strong. I'm beginnin' to yearn for nourishment that I don't have to learn the French for or pick off'm a menu. I'd like to eat without bein' surrounded by three-chinned female parties with high blood pressure, or bein' stared at by pop-eyed old sports who're givin' some kittenish cloak model a bright evenin'. And Vee feels more or less the same way.
"Besides," says she, "I wish we could entertain some of our friends."
"Just what I was wishin'," says I. "Say, couldn't we find a few simple things in the cook-book that Bertha couldn't queer?"
"Such as canned baked beans and celery?" asks Vee, chucklin'. "And yet, if I stood by and read the directions to her—who knows?"
"Let's try her on the Piddies," I suggests.
Well, we did. And if the potatoes had been cooked a little more and the roast a little less, it wouldn't have been so bad. The olives were all right, even if Bertha did forget to serve 'em until she brought in the ice cream. But then, the Piddies are used to little slips like that, havin' lived so long out in Jersey.
"You see," explains Vee to me afterwards, "Bertha was a bit flurried over her first dinner-party. She isn't much used to a gas oven, either. Don't you think we might try another?"
"Sure!" says I. "What are friends for, anyway? How about askin' Mr. and Mrs. Robert Ellins?"
"Oh, dear!" sighs Vee, lookin' scared. Then she is struck with a bright idea. "I'll tell you: we will rehearse the next one the night before."
"Atta girl!" says I. "Swell thought."
It was while she and Bertha was strugglin' over the cook-book, and gettin' advice from various sources, from housekeepin' magazines to the janitor's wife, that this Leon Battou party shows up with his sob hist'ry.
"Oh, Torchy!" Vee hails me with, as I come home from the office here the other evenin'. "What becomes of people when they're dispossessed—when they're put out on the street with their things, you know?"
"Why," says I, "they generally stay out until they can find a place where they can move in. Has anybody been threatenin' to chuck us out for not——"
"Silly!" says she. "It's the Battous."
"Don't know 'em," says I.
"But surely," goes on Vee, "you've seen him. He's that funny little old Frenchman who's always dodging in and out of the elevator with odd-looking parcels under his arm."
"Oh, yes!" says I. "The one with the twinklin' eyes and the curly iron-gray hair, who always bows so polite and shoots that bon-shure stuff at you. Him?"
It seems the agent had served notice on 'em that mornin'. They'd been havin' a grand pow-wow over it in the lower vestibule, when Vee had come along and got mixed up in the debate. She'd seen Mrs. Battou doin' the weep act on hubby's shoulder while he was tryin' to explain and makin' all sorts of promises. I expect the agent had heard such tales before. Anyway, he was kind of rough with 'em—at which Vee had sailed in and told him just what she thought.
"I'm sure you would have done the same, Torchy," says she.
"I might," says I, "if he hadn't been too husky. But what now?"
"I told them not to worry a bit," says Vee, "and that when you came home you would tell them what to do. You will, won't you, Torchy?"
Course, there was only one real sensible answer to that. Who was I, to step in casual and ditch a court order? But say, when the only girl in the universe tackles you with the clingin' clinch, hints that you're a big, brainy hero who can handle any proposition that's batted up to you—well, that's no time to be sensible.
"I'll do any foolish little thing you name," says I.
"Goody!" says Vee. "I just knew you would. We'll go right up and——"
"Just a sec," says I. "Maybe I'd better have a private talk with this Mr. Battou first off. Suppose you run up and jolly the old lady while he comes down here."
She agrees to that, and three minutes later I've struck a pose which is sort of a cross between that of a justice of the supreme court and a bush league umpire, while M. Leon Battou is sittin' on the edge of a chair opposite, conversin' rapid with both hands and a pair of eloquent eyebrows.
"But consider, monsieur," he's sayin'. "Only because of owing so little! Can they not wait until I have found some good customers for my paintings?"
"Oh! Then you're an artist, are you?"
"I have the honor," says he. "I should be pleased to have you inspect some of my——"
"It wouldn't help a bit," says I. "All I know about art is that as a rule it don't pay. Don't you do anything else?"
He hunches his shoulders and spreads out both hands.
"It is true, what you say of art," he goes on. "And so then I must do the decorating of walls—the wreaths of roses on the ceiling. That was my profession when we lived at Peronne. But here—there is trouble about the union. The greasy plumber will not work where I am, it seems. Eh bien! I am forced out. So I return to my landscapes. Are there not many rich Americans who pay well for such things?"
I waves him back into his chair.
"How'd you come to wander so far from this Peronne place?" says I.
"It was because of our son, Henri," says he. "You see, he preferred to be as my father was, a chef. I began that way, too. The Battous always do—a family of cooks. But I broke away. Henri would not. He became the pastry chef at the Hotel Gaspard in Peronne. And who shall say, too, that he was not an artist in his way? Yes, with a certain fame. At least, they heard here, in New York. You would not believe what they offered if he would leave Peronne. And after months of saying no he said yes. It was true. They paid as they promised—more. So Henri sends for us to come also. We found him living like a prince. Truly! For more than three years we enjoyed his good fortune.
"And then—la guerre! Henri must go to join his regiment. True, he might have stayed. But we talked not of that. It was for France. So he went, not to return. Ah, yes! At Ypres, after only three months in the trenches. Then I say to the little mother, 'Courage! I, Leon Battou, am still a painter. The art which has been as a pastime shall be made to yield us bread. You shall see.' Ah, I believed—then."
"Nothing doing, eh?" says I.
Battou shakes his head.
"Well," says I, "the surest bet just now would be to locate some wall-frescoin'. I'll see what can be done along that line."
"Ah, that is noble of you, young man," exclaims Battou. "It is wonderful to find such a friend. A thousand thanks! I will tell the little mother that we are saved."
With that he shakes me by both hands, gives me a bear hug, and rushes off.
Pretty soon Vee comes down with smiles in her eyes.
"I just knew you would find a way, Torchy," says she. "You don't know how happy you've made them. Now tell me all about it."
And say, I couldn't convince her I hadn't done a blamed thing but shoot a little hot air, not after I'd nearly gone hoarse explainin'.
"Oh, but you will," says she. "You'll do something."
Who could help tryin', after that? I tackles the agent with a proposition that Battou should work out the back rent, but he's a fish-eyed gink.
"Say," he growls out past his cigar, "if we tried to lug along every panhandling artist that wanted to graft rent off us, we'd be in fine shape by the end of the year, wouldn't we? Forget it."
"How about his art stuff?" I asks Vee, when I got back.
"Oh, utterly hopeless," says she. "But one can't tell him so. He doesn't know how bad it is. I suppose he is all right as a wall decorator. Do you know, Torchy, they must be in serious straits. Those two little rooms of theirs are almost bare, and I'm sure they've been living on cheese and crackers for days. What do you think I've done?"
"Sent 'em an anonymous ham by parcels post?" says I.
"No," says Vee. "I'm going to have them down to-night for the rehearsal dinner."
"Fine dope!" says I. "And if they survive bein' practiced on——"
But Vee has skipped off to the kitchenette without waitin' to hear the rest.
"Is this to be a reg'lar dress rehearsal?" I asks, when I comes home again. "Should I doll up regardless?"
Yes, she says I must. I was just strugglin' into my dinner coat, too, when the bell rings. I expect Vee had forgot to tell 'em that six-forty-five was our reg'lar hour. And say, M. Leon was right there with the boulevard costume—peg-top trousers, fancy vest, flowin' tie, and a silk tile. As for Madame Battou, she's all in gray and white.
I'd towed 'em into the studio, and was havin' 'em shed their things, when Vee bounces in out of the kitchenette and announces impetuous:
"Oh, Torchy! We've made a mess of everything. That horrid leg of lamb won't do anything but sozzle away in the pan; the string-beans have been scorched; and—oh, goodness!"
She'd caught sight of our guests.
"Please don't mind," says Vee. "We're not very good cooks, Bertha and I. We—we've spoiled everything, I guess."
She's tryin' to be cheerful over it. And she sure is a picture, standin' there with a big apron coverin' up most of her evenin' dress, and her upper lip a bit trembly.
"Buck up, Vee," says I. "Better luck next time. Chuck the whole shootin' match into the discards, and we'll all chase around to Roverti's and——"
"Bother Roverti's!" breaks in Vee. "Can't we ever have a decent dinner in our own home? Am I too stupid for that? And there's that perfectly gug-good l-l-l-leg of—of——"
"Pardon," says M. Battou, steppin' to the front; "but perhaps, if you would permit, I might assist with—with the lamb."
It's a novel idea, I admit. No wonder Vee gasps a little.
"Why not?" says I. "Course it ain't reg'lar, but if Mr. Battou wants to do some expert coachin', I expect you and Bertha could use it."
"Do, Leon," urges Madame Battou. "Lamb, is it? Oh, he is wonderful with lamb."
She hadn't overstated the case, either. Inside of two minutes he has his coat off, a bath towel draped over his fancy vest, and has sent Bertha skirmishin' down the avenue for garlic, cloves, parsley, carrots, and a few other things that had been overlooked, it seems.
Well, we stands grouped around the kitchenette door for a while, watchin' him resuscitate that pale-lookin' leg of lamb, jab things into it, pour stuff over it, and mesmerize the gas oven into doin' its full duty.
Once he gets started, he ain't satisfied with simply turnin' out the roast. He takes some string-beans and cuts 'em into shoelaces; he carves rosettes out of beets and carrots; he produces a swell salad out of nothing at all; and with a little flour and whipped cream he throws together some kind of puffy dessert that looked like it would melt in your mouth.
And by seven-thirty we was sittin' down to a meal such as you don't meet up with outside of some of them Fifth Avenue joints where you have to own a head waiter before they let you in.
"Whisper, Professor," says I, "did you work a spell on it, or what?"
"Ah-h-h!" says Battou, chucklin' and rubbin' his hands together. "It is cooked a la Paysan, after the manner of Peronne, and with it is the sauce chateau."
"That isn't mere cookery," says Vee; "that's art."
It was quite a cheery evenin'. And after the Battous had gone, Vee and I asked each other, almost in chorus: "Do you suppose he'd do it again?"
"He will if I'm any persuader," says I. "Wouldn't it be great to spring something like that on Mr. Robert?"
And while I'm shavin' next mornin' I connect with the big idea. Do you ever get 'em that way? It cost me a nick under the ear, but I didn't care. While I'm usin' the alum stick I sketches out the scheme for Vee.
"But, Torchy!" says she. "Do you think he would—really?"
Before I can answer there's a ring at the door, and here is M. Leon Battou.
"The agent once more!" says he, producin' a paper. "In three days, it says. But you have found me the wall-painting, yes?"
"Professor," says I, "I hate to say it, but there's nothin' doing in the free-hand fresco line—absolutely."
He slumps into a chair, and that pitiful, hunted look settles in his eyes.
"Then—then we must go," says he.
"Listen, Professor," says I, pattin' him soothin' on the shoulder. "Why not can this art stuff, that nobody wants, and switch to somethin' you're a wizard at?"
"You—you mean," says he, "that I should—should turn chef? I—Leon Battou—in a big noisy hotel kitchen? Oh, but I could not. No, I could not!"
"Professor," says I, "the only person in this town that I know of who's nutty enough to want to hire a wall decorator reg'lar is me!"
"You!" gasps Battou, starin' around at our twelve by eighteen livin'-room.
"What would you take it on for as a steady job?"
"Oh, anything that would provide for us," says he, eager. "But how——"
"That's just the point," says I. "When you wasn't paintin' could you cook a little on the side? Officially you'd be a decorator, but between times—— Eh?"
He's a keen one, Mr. Battou.
"For so charming young people," says he, bowin' low, "it would be a great pleasure. And the little mother—ah, you should see what a manager she is! She can make a franc go farther. Could she assist also?"
"Could she!" exclaims Vee. "If she only would!"
Well, say, inside of half an hour we'd fixed up the whole deal, I'd armed Battou with a check to shove under the nose of that agent, and Vee had given Bertha her permanent release. And believe me, compared to what was put before Mr. and Mrs. Robert Ellins that evenin', the dress rehearsal dinner looked like Monday night at an actors' boardin'-house.
"I say," whispers Mr. Robert, "your cook must be a real artist."
"That's how he's carried on the family payroll," says I.
"Of course," says Vee afterwards, "while we can afford it, I suppose, it does seem scandalously extravagant for us to have cooking like that every day."
"Rather than have you worried with any more Bunglin' Berthas," says I, "I'd subsidize the whole of Peronne to come over. And just think of all I'll save by not havin' to buy my hat back from the coat-room boys every night."
A RECRUIT FOR THE EIGHT-THREE
Have you a shiny little set of garden tools in your home? Have we? Well, I should seed catalogue. Honest to goodness! Here! I can show you a local time-table and my commuter's ticket. How about that, eh, for me?
And I don't know now just what it was worked the sudden shift for us—the Battous, or our visit to the Robert Ellinses', or meetin' up with MacGregor Shinn, the consistent grouch.
It begun with window-boxes. Professor Leon Battou, our official wall decorator and actin' cook, springs 'em on me timid one day after lunch. It had been some snack, too—onion soup sprinkled with croutons and sprayed with grated cheese; calf's brains au buerre noir; a mixed salad; and a couple of gooseberry tarts with the demi-tasse. Say, I'm gettin' so I can eat in French, even if I can't talk it.
And while all that may listen expensive, I have Vee's word for it that since Madame Battou has been doin' the marketin' the high cost of livin' has been jarred off the roost. I don't know how accurate Professor Leon is at countin' up the calories in every meal, but I'm here to announce that he always produces something tasty, with no post-prandial regrets concealed in the bottom of the casserole.
"Professor," says I, "I've been a stranger to this burry brains style of nourishment a long time, but you can ring an encore on that whenever you like."
He smiles grateful, but shakes his head.
"Ah, Monsieur," says he,—oh, yes, just like that,—"but if I had the fresh chives, the—the fin herbes—ah, then you should see!"
"Well, can't Madame get what you need at the stores?" says I.
"But at such a price!" says Leon. "And of so discouraging a quality. While, if we had but a few handfuls of good soil in some small boxes by the windows—— Come, I will show you. Here, and here, where the sun comes in the morning. I could secure them myself if you would not think them unlovely to have in view."
"How about it, Vee?" I asks. "Are we too proud to grow our soup greens on the premises?"
She says we ain't, so I tells Leon to breeze ahead with his hangin' garden. Course, I ain't lookin' for anything more'n a box on the ledge. But he's an ingenious old boy, Leon. With a hammer and saw and a few boxes from the grocery, he builds a rack that fits into one of the front windows; and the first thing I know, he has the space chuckful of shallow trays, and seeds planted in every one. A few days later, and the other window is blocked off similar. Also I get a bill from the florist for two bushels of dirt.
Well, our front windows did look kind of odd, and our view out was pretty well barred off; but he had painted the things up neat, and he did all his waterin' and fussin' around early in the mornin', so we let it ride. When he starts in to use our bedroom windows the same way, though, I has to call him off.
"See here, Professor," says I, "you ain't mistakin' this studio apartment for a New Jersey truck-farm, are you! Besides, we have to keep them windows open at night, and your green stuff is apt to get nipped."
"Oh, but the night air is bad to breathe, Monsieur," says he.
"Not for us," says I. "Anyway, we're used to it, so I guess you'll have to lay off this bedroom garden business."
He takes away the boxes, but it's plain he's disappointed. I believe if I'd let him gone on he'd had cabbages growin' on the mantelpiece, a lettuce bed on the readin'-table, and maybe a potato patch on the fire-escape. I never knew gardenin' could be made such an indoor sport.
"Poor chap!" says Vee. "He has been telling me what wonderful things he used to raise when he lived in Peronne. Isn't there some way, Torchy, that we could give him more room?"
"We might rent the roof and glass it in for him," I suggests, "or get a permit to bridge over the street."
"Silly!" says she, rumplin' my red hair reckless.
That was about the time we was havin' some of that delayed winter weather, and it was touchin' to see Professor Battou nurse along them pale green shoots that he'd coaxed up in his window-boxes. Then it runs off warm and sunny again, just as we gets this week-end invite from Mr. Robert.
Course, I'd been out to his Long Island place before, but somehow I hadn't got excited over it. This time it's different. Vee was goin' along, for one thing. And I expect the fact that spring had come bouncin' in on us after a hard winter had something to do with our enthusiasm for gettin' out of town. You know how it is. For eleven months you're absolutely sure the city's the only place to live in, and you feel sorry for them near-Rubes who have to catch trains to get home. And then, all of a sudden, about this time of year, you get that restless feelin', and wonder what it is ails you. I think it struck Vee harder than it did me.
"Goody!" says she, when I tell her we're expected to go out Saturday noon and stay over until Monday mornin'. "It is real country out there, too, isn't it?"
"Blamed near an hour away," says I. "Ought to be, hadn't it?"
"I hope they have lilac bushes in bloom," says Vee. "Do you know, Torchy, if I lived in the country, I'd have those if nothing else. Wouldn't you?"
"I expect so," says I, "though I ain't doped out just what I would do in a case like that. It ain't seemed worth while. But if lilacs are the proper stunt for a swell country place, I'll bet Mr. Robert's got 'em."
By the time we'd been shot out to Harbor Hills station, though, I'd forgot whether it was lilacs or lilies-of-the-valley that Vee was particular about; for Mr. Robert goes along with us, and he's joshin' us about our livin' in a four-and-bath and sportin' a French chef.
"Really," says he, "to live up to him you ought to move into a brewer's palace on Riverside Drive, at least."
"Oh, Battou would be satisfied if I'd lease Madison Square park for him, so he could raise onions," says I.
Which reminds Mr. Robert of something.
"Oh, I say!" he goes on. "You must see my garden. I'm rather proud of it, you know."
"Your garden!" says I, grinnin'. "You don't mean you've been gettin' the hoe and rake habit, Mr. Robert?"
Honest, that's the last thing you'd look for from him, for until he got married about the only times he ever strayed from the pavements was when he went yachtin'. But by the way he talks now you'd think farmer was his middle name.
"Now, over there," says he, after we've been picked up at the station by his machine and rolled off three or four miles, "over there I am raising a crop of Italian clover to plow in. That's a new hedge I'm setting out, too—hydrangeas, I think. It takes time to get things in shape, you see."
"Looks all right to me, as it is," says I. "You got a front yard big enough to get lost in."
Also the house ain't any small shack, with all its dormers and striped awnin's and deep verandas.
But it's too nice an afternoon to spend much time inside, and after we've found Mrs. Robert, Vee asks to be shown the garden.
"Certainly," says Mr. Robert. "I will exhibit it myself. That is—er—by the way, Gertrude, where the deuce is that garden of ours?"
Come to find out, it was Mrs. Robert who was the pie-plant and radish expert. She could tell you which rows was beets and which was corn without lookin' it up on her chart.
She'd been takin' a course in landscape-gardenin', too; and as she pilots us around the grounds, namin' the different bushes and things, she listens like a nursery pamphlet. And Vee falls for it hard.
"How perfectly splendid," says she, "to be able to plan things like that, and to know so many shrubs by their long names. But haven't you anything as common as lilacs!"
Mrs. Robert laughs and shakes her head.
"They were never mentioned in my course, you see," says she. "But our nearest neighbor has some wonderful lilac bushes. Robert, don't you think we might walk down the east drive and ask your dear friend Mr. MacGregor Shinn if he'd mind——"
"Decidedly no," cuts in Mr. Robert. "I'd much prefer not to trouble Mr. Shinn at all."
"Oh, very well," says Mrs. Robert. And then, turnin' to us: "We haven't been particularly fortunate in our relations with Mr. Shinn; our fault, no doubt."
But you know Vee. Half an hour later, when we've been left to ourselves, she announces:
"Come along, Torchy. I am going to find that east drive."
"It's a case of lilacs or bust, eh?" says I. "All right; I'm right behind you. But let's make it a sleuthy getaway, so they won't know."
We let on it was a risky stunt, slippin' out a side terrace door, dodgin' past the garage, and finally strikin' a driveway different from the one we'd come in by. We follows along until we fetches up by some big stone gateposts.
"There they are!" exclaims Vee. "Loads of them. And aren't they fragrant? Smell, Torchy."
"I am," says I, sniffin' deep. "Don't you hear me?"
"Yes; and that Mr. Shinn will too, if you're as noisy as that over it," says she. "I suppose that is where he lives. Isn't it the cutest little cottage?"
"It needs paint here and there," says I.
"I know," says Vee. "But look at that old Dutch roof with the wide eaves, and the recessed doorway, and the trellises on either side, and that big clump of purple lilacs nestling against the gable end. Oh, and there's a cunning little pond in the rear, just where it ought to be! I do wish we might go in and walk around a bit."
"Why not?" says I. "What would it hurt?"
"But that Shinn person," protests Vee, "might—might not——"
"Well, he couldn't any more'n shoo us off," says I, "and if he's nutty enough to do that after a good look at you, then he's hopeless."
"You absurd boy!" says Vee, squeezin' my hand. "Well, anyway, we might venture in a step or two."
As a matter of fact, there don't seem to be anyone in sight. You might almost think nobody lived there; for the new grass ain't been cut, the flower beds are full of dry weeds left over from last fall, and most of the green shutters are closed.
There's smoke comin' from the kitchen chimney, though, so we wanders around front, bringin' up under the big lilac bush. It's just covered with blossoms—a truck-load, I should say; and it did seem a shame, Vee bein' so strong for 'em, that she couldn't have one little spray.
"About a quarter a bunch, them would be on Broadway," says I, diggin' up some change. "Well, here's where Neighbor Shinn makes a sale."
And, before Vee can object, I've snapped off the end of a twig.
I'd just dropped the quarter in an envelop and was stickin' it on the end of the broken branch, when the front door opens, and out dashes this tall gink with the rusty Vandyke and the hectic face. Yep, it's a lurid map, all right. Some of it might have been from goin' without a hat in the wind and weather, for his forehead and bald spot are just as high-colored as the rest; but there's a lot of temper tint, too, lightin' up the tan, and the deep furrows between the eyes shows it ain't an uncommon state for him to be in. Quite a husk he is, costumed in a plaid golf suit, and he bores down on us just as gentle as a tornado.
"I say, you!" he calls out. "Stop where you are."
"Don't hurry," says I. "We'll wait for you."
"Ye will, wull ye!" he snarls, as he comes stampin' up in front of us. "Ye'd best. And what have ye there, Miss? Hah! Pickin' me posies, eh? And trespassin', too."
"That's right," says I. "Petty larceny and breakin' and enterin'. I'm the guilty party."
"I'm sure there's nothing to make such a fuss about," says Vee, eyin' him scornful.
"Oh, ho!" says he. "It's a light matter, I suppose, prowling around private grounds and pilfering? I ought to be taking it as a joke, eh? Don't ye know, you two, I could have you taken in charge for this?"
"Breeze ahead, then," says I. "Call the high sheriff. Only let's not get all foamed up over it, Mr. MacGregor Shinn."
"Ha!" says he. "Then ye know who I am? Maybe you're stopping up at the big house?"
"We are guests of Mr. Ellins, your neighbor," puts in Vee.
"He's no neighbor of mine," snaps Shinn. "Not him. His bulldog worries me cat, his roosters wake me up in the morning, and his Dago workmen chatter about all day long. No, I'll not own such a man as neighbor. Nor will I have his guests stealing my posies."
"Then take it," says Vee, throwing the lilac spray on the ground.
"You'll find a quarter stuck on the bush," says I. "Sorry, MacGregor, we couldn't make a trade. The young lady is mighty fond of lilacs."
"Is she, now?" says Shinn, still scowlin' at us.
"And she thinks your place here is pretty cute," I adds.
"It's a rotten hole," says he.
"Maybe you're a poor judge," says I. "If it was fixed up a bit I should think it might be quite spiffy."
"What call has an old bachelor to be fixing things up?" he demands. "What do I care how the place looks? And what business is it of yours, anyway?"
"Say, you're a consistent grouch, ain't you?" says I, givin' him the grin. "What's the particular trouble—was you toppin' your drive to-day?"
"Slicin', mon," says he. "Hardly a tee shot found the fairway the whole round. And then you two come breaking me bushes."
"My error," says I. "But you should have hung out a sign that you was inside chewin' nails."
"I was doing nothing of the kind," says he. "I was waiting for that grinning idiot, Len Hung, to give me me tea."
"Well, don't choke over it when you do get it," says I. "And if you ain't ready to sic the police on us we'll be trotting along back."
"Ye wull not," says MacGregor; "ye'll have tea with me."
It sounds like a threat, and I can see Vee gettin' ready to object strenuous. So I gives her the nudge.
I expect it's because I'm so used to Old Hickory's blowin' out a fuse that I don't duck quicker when a gas-bomb disposition begins to sputter around. They don't mean half of it, these furious fizzers.
Sometimes it's sciatica, more often a punk digestion, and seldom pure cussedness. If you don't humor 'em by comin' back messy yourself, but just jolly 'em along, they're apt to work out of it. And I'd seen sort of a human flicker in them blue-gray eyes of MacGregor Shinn's.
"Vee," says I, "our peevish friend is invitin' us to take tea with him. Shall we chance it?"
And you know what a good sport Vee is. She lets the curve come into her mouth corners again, both of her cheek dimples show, and she shoots a quizzin' smile at Mr. Shinn.
"Does he say it real polite?" she asks.
"Na," says MacGregor. "But there'll be hot scones and marmalade."
"M-m-m-m!" says Vee. "Let's, Torchy."
It's an odd finish to an affair that started so scrappy. Not that Shinn reverses himself entirely, or turns from a whiskered golf grump into a stage fairy in spangled skirts. He goes right on with his growlin' and grumblin'—about the way his Chink cook serves the tea, about havin' to live in a rotten hole like Harbor Hills, about everything in general. But a great deal of it is just to hear himself talk, I judge.
We had a perfectly good high tea, and them buttered scones with marmalade couldn't be beat. Also he shows us all over the house, and Vee raves about it.
"Look, Torchy!" says she. "That glimpse of water from the living-room windows. Isn't that dear? And one could have such a wonderful garden beyond. Such a splendid big fireplace, too. And what huge beams in the ceiling! It's a very old house, isn't it, Mr. Shinn?"
"The rascally agent who sold it to me said it was," says MacGregor, "but I wouldn't believe a word of his on any subject. 'Did I ask you for an old house, at all?' I tells him. For what I wanted was just a place where I could live quiet, and maybe have me game of golf when I wanted it. But here I've gone off me game; and, besides, the country's no place to live quiet in. I should be in town, so I should, like any decent white man. I've a mind to look up a place at once. Try another scone, young lady."
So it was long after six before we got away, and the last thing MacGregor does is to load Vee down with a whole armful of lilac blossoms.
I suppose Mr. and Mrs. Robert thought we'd been makin' a wholesale raid when they saw us comin' in with the plunder. Mrs. Robert almost turns pale.
"Mercy!" says she. "You don't mean to say you got all those from our neighbor's bushes, do you?"
"Uh-huh," says I. "We've been mesmerizin' MacGregor. He's as tame a Scot now as you'd want to see."
They could hardly believe it, and when they heard about our havin' tea with him they gasped.
"Of all persons!" says Mrs. Robert. "Why, he has been glaring at us for a year, and sending us the most bristling messages. I don't understand."
Mr. Robert, though, winks knowin'.
"Some of Torchy's red-headed diplomacy, I suspect," says he. "I must engage you to make our peace with MacGregor."
That's all we saw of him, though, durin' our stay. For one thing, we was kept fairly busy. I never knew you could have so much fun in the country. Ever watch a bunch of young ducks waddlin' about? Say, ain't they a circus! And them fluffy little chicks squabblin' over worms. Honest, I near laughed myself sick. Vee was for luggin' some of 'em home to the apartment. But she was thrilled over 'most everything out there, from the fat robins on the lawn to the new leaves on the trees.
And, believe me, when we gets back to town again, our studio apartment seems cramped and stuffy. We talked over everything we'd seen and done at the Ellinses'.
"That's really living, isn't it?" says Vee.
"Why not," says I, "with a twenty-room house, and grounds half as big as Central Park?"
"I know," says Vee. "But a little place like Mr. Shinn's would be large enough for us."
"I expect it would," says I. "You don't really think you'd like to live out there, do you, though?"
"Wouldn't I!" says Vee, her eyes sparklin'. "I'd love it."
"What would you do all day alone?" I suggests.
"I'd raise ducks and chickens and flowers," says Vee. "And Leon could have a garden. Just think!"
Yep—I thought. I must have kept awake hours that night, tryin' not to. And the more I mulled it over—— Well, in the mornin' I had a talk with Mr. Robert, after which I got busy with the long-distance 'phone. I didn't say anything much at lunch about what I'd done, but around three o'clock I calls up the apartment.
"I'm luggin' home someone to dinner," says I. "Guess who?"
"MacGregor the grouch," says I.
"Really!" says Vee. "How funny!"
"It's part of the plot," says I. "Tell the Professor to spread himself on the eatings, and have the rooms all fixed up slick."
Vee says she will. And she does. MacGregor falls for it, too. You should have seen him after dinner, leanin' back comfortable in our biggest chair, sippin' his coffee, and puffin' one of Old Hickory's special perfectos that I'd begged for the occasion.
And still I didn't let on. What I'm after is to have him spring the proposition on me. Just before he's ready to go, too, he does.
"I say," says he casual, "this isn't such a bad hole you have here."
"Perfectly rotten," says I.
"Then we might make a trade," says he. "What?"
"There's no tellin'," says I. "You mean a swap, as things stand?"
"That's it," says he. "I'm no hand for moving rubbish about."
"Me either," says I. "But if you mean business, suppose you drop in to-morrow at the office, about ten-thirty, and talk it over."
"Very well," says MacGregor. "I'll stop in town to-night."
"Oh, Torchy!" says Vee, after he's gone. "Do—do you suppose he will—really?"
"You're still for it, eh?" says I. "Sure, now?"
"Oh, it would be almost too good to be true," says she. "That could be made just the dearest place!"
"Yes," says I; "but my job is to talk MacGregor into lettin' it go cheap, or else we can't afford to touch it."
Well, I can't claim it was all my smooth work that did the trick, for MacGregor had bought the place at a bargain first off, and now he was anxious to unload. Still, he hadn't been born north of Glasgow for nothing. But the figures Mr. Robert said would be about right I managed to shade by twenty per cent., and my lump invoice of that old mahogany of ours maybe was a bit generous. Anyway, when I goes home that night I tosses Vee a long envelop.
"What's this?" says she.
"That's your chicken permit," says I. "All aboard for Lilac Lodge! Gee! I wonder should I grow whiskers, livin' out there?"
TORCHY IN THE GAZINKUS CLASS
I expect I'll get used to it all in time. This rural stuff, I mean. But it ain't goin' to come easy. When you've been brought up to think of home as some place where you've got a right to leave your trunk as long as you pay the rent prompt,—a joint where you have so many square feet of space on a certain floor, and maybe eight or ten inches of brick and plaster between you and a lot of strangers,—and then all of a sudden you switch to a whole house that's all yours, with gobs of land all around it, and trees and bushes and things that you can do what you like with—well, it's sort of staggerin' at first.
Why, the day Vee and I moved into this Harbor Hills place that I'd made the swift trade for with MacGregor Shinn, we just had our baggage dumped in the middle of the livin'-room, chucked our wraps on some chairs, and went scoutin' around from one room to another for over an hour, kind of nutty and excited.
"Oh, look, Torchy!" Vee would exclaim about twice a minute when she discovered something new.
You know, we'd been in the house only once before, and then we'd looked around just casual. And if you want to find out how little you really see when you think you're lookin', you want to make a deal like that once—buy a joint just as it stands, and then, a few days after, camp down in it and tot up what you've really got. Why, say, you'd 'most thought we'd been blindfolded that first time.
Course, this was different. Now we was takin' stock, you might say, of the things we was goin' to live with. And, believe me, I never had any idea I'd ever own such a collection, or so big a slice of the U. S. A.
"Only think, Torchy," says Vee, after we've made the rounds inside. "Ten rooms, just for us!"
"Twelve, countin' the cellar and attic," says I. "But there's more outside, ain't there?"
Yep, there was. There was an old stable that had been turned into a garage, with a couple of rooms finished off upstairs. Then there was a carriage shed, with more rooms over that, also a chicken house beyond. And stowed away in odd corners was all kinds of junk that might be more or less useful to have: a couple of lawn-mowers, an old sleigh hoisted up on the rafters of the carriage house, a weird old buggy, a plow, a grindstone, a collection of old chairs and sofas that had seen better days, a birch-bark canoe—things like that.
Then there was our lily pond. We had to walk all round that, poke in with a pole to see how deep it might be, and wonder if there was any fish in it. On beyond was some trees—apple and pear and cherry, accordin' to Vee, and 'way at the back a tall cedar hedge.
"Why, it's almost an estate," says Vee. "Nearly five acres, you know. How does it seem, Torchy, to think that all this is ours?"
"How?" says I. "Why, I feel like I was the Grand Gazinkus of Gazook."
But, at that, my feelin's wa'n't a marker to the emotions Professor Leon Battou, our artist-chef, manages to work up. He's so tickled at gettin' back to the country and away from the city, where him and Madame Battou come so near starvin' on the street, that he goes skippin' around like a sunshine kid, pattin' the trees, droppin' down on his hands and knees in the grass to dig up dandelions, and keepin' up a steady stream of explosive French and rapid-fire English.
"Ah, but it is all so good!" says he. "Le bleu ciel, les fleurs, les oiseaux! C'est bonne, tres bonne. Ne c'est pas?"
"I expect it is, Leon," says I. "Although I might not state it just that way myself. Picked out a spot yet for your garden?"
Foolish question! That was his first move, after taking a glance at the particular brand of cook-stove he'd got to wrestle with. Just to the left of the kitchen wing is a little plot shut in by privet bushes and a trellis, which is where he says the fine herbes are meant to grow. He tows us around there and exhibits it chesty. Mostly it's full of last year's weeds; but he explains how he will soon have it in shape. And for the next week the only way we ever got any meals cooked was because Madame Battou used to go drag him in by the arm and make him quit diggin' long enough to hash up some of them tasty dishes for us.
If all amateur gardeners are apt to go so dippy over it, I hope I don't catch the disease. No danger, I guess. I made my stab at it about the third day, when Vee wanted some ground spaded up for a pansy bed. And say, in half an hour, there, I'd worked up enough palm blisters and backache to last me a month. It may seem sport to some people, but to me it has all the ear-marks of plain, hard work, such as you can indulge in reg'lar by carryin' a foldin' dinner-pail and lettin' yourself out to a padrone.
Leon, though, just couldn't seem to let it alone. He almost made a vice of it, to my mind. Why, say, he's out there at first crack of day, whenever that is; and in the evenin', as soon as he has served dinner, he sneaks out to put in a few more licks, and stays until it's so dark he can hardly find his way back.
You know all them window-boxes he had clutterin' up the studio apartment. Well, he insists on cratin' every last one of 'em and expressin' 'em along; and now he has all that alleged lettuce and parsley and carrots and so on set out in neat little rows; and when he ain't sprinklin' 'em with the hose or dosin' 'em with fertilizer, he's out there ticklin' 'em with a rake.
"Gee!" says I. "I thought all you had to do to a garden was just to chuck in the seeds and let 'em grow. But accordin' to your method it would be less trouble bringin' up a pair of twins."
"Ah-h-h-h!" says he. "But monsieur has not the passion for growing green things."
"Thanks be, then," says I. "It would land me in the liniment ward if I had."
I must say, though, that Vee's 'most as bad with her flowers. Honest, when she shows me where she's planned to have this and that, and hints that I can get busy durin' my spare time with the spade, I almost wished we was back in town.
"What?" I gasps. "Want me to excavate all that? Hal-lup!"
"Pooh!" says Vee. "It will do you good."
Maybe she thought so. But I knew it wouldn't. So I chases up the hill to the Ellins place, and broke in on Mr. Robert just as he's finishin' breakfast.
"Say," says I, "you ain't got a baby-grand steam-shovel or anything like that around the place, have you?"
He says he's sorry, but he ain't. When he hears what I'm up against, though, he comes to the rescue noble by lendin' me one of his expert Dago soil-disturbers, at $1.75 per—and with Vee bossin' him she got the whole job done in half a day. After that I begun to enjoy gardenin' a bit more. I'm gettin' to be a real shark at it, too. And ambitious! You ought to hear me.
"How about havin' a couple more lanes of string-beans laid out?" I suggests. "And maybe a few hundred mounds of green corn, eh?"
And then I can watch Joe start the enterprise with a plow and an old white horse, and I can go to the office feelin' that, no matter how much I seem to be soldierin', as a matter of fact I'm puttin' in a full day's work. When I get back in the afternoon, the first thing I want to see is how much I've got done.
Not that I'm able to duck all kinds of labor that way. Believe me, a country place is no loafin' spot, especially when it's new, or you're new to it. Vee tends to that. Say, that girl can think up more odd forms of givin' me exercise than a bunch of football coaches—movin' bureaus, hangin' pictures, puttin' up curtain-rods, fixin' door-catches, and little things like that.