TORCHY AND VEE
BY SEWELL FORD AUTHOR OF TORCHY, THE HOUSE OF TORCHY, SHORTY McCABE, Etc.
GROSSET & DUNLAP PUBLISHERS NEW YORK
Copyright, 1918, 1919, by SEWELL FORD Copyright, 1919, BY EDWARD J. CLODE All rights reserved
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
In the Nature of an Alibi
Some of these stories were written while the Great War was still on. So the setting and local coloring and atmosphere and all that sort of thing, such as it is, came from those strenuous days when we heroic civilians read the war extras with stern, unflinching eye, bought as many Liberty bonds as we were told we should, and subscribed to various drives as cheerfully as we might. Have you forgotten your reactions of a few short months ago? Perhaps then, these may revive your memory of some of them.
You may note with disappointment that Torchy got no nearer to the front-line trenches than Bridgeport, Conn. That is a sentiment the writer shares with you. But the blame lies with an overcautious government which hesitated, perhaps from super-humane reasons, from turning loose on a tottering empire a middle-aged semi-literary person who was known to handle a typewriter with such reckless abandon. And where he could not go himself he refused to send another. So Torchy remained on this side, and whether or not his stay was a total loss is for you to decide. S. F.
I. The Quick Shunt for Puffy 1 II. Old Hickory Bats Up One 19 III. Torchy Pulls the Deep Stuff 37 IV. A Frame-up for Stubby 56 V. The Vamp in the Window 73 VI. Turkeys on the Side 91 VII. Ernie and His Big Night 108 VIII. How Babe Missed His Step 126 IX. Hartley and the G. O. G.'s 145 X. The Case of Old Jonesey 164 XI. As Lucy Lee Passed By 182 XII. Torchy Meets Ellery Bean 200 XIII. Torchy Strays from Broadway 222 XIV. Subbing for the Boss 238 XV. A Late Hunch for Lester 256 XVI. Torchy Tackles a Mystery 272 XVII. With Vincent at the Turn 290
TORCHY AND VEE
THE QUICK SHUNT FOR PUFFY
I must say I didn't get much excited at first over this Marion Gray tragedy. You see, I'd just blown in from Cleveland, where I'd been shunted by the Ordnance Department to report on a new motor kitchen. And after spendin' ten days soppin' up information about a machine that was a cross between a road roller and an owl lunch wagon, and fillin' my system with army stews cooked on the fly, I'm suddenly called off. Someone at Washington had discovered that this flying cook-stove thing was a problem for the Quartermaster's Department, and wires me to drop it.
So I was all for enjoyin' a little fam'ly reunion, havin' Vee tell me how she's been gettin' along, and what cute little tricks young Master Richard had developed while I'm gone. But right in the midst of our intimate little domestic sketch Vee has to break loose with this outside sigh stuff.
"I can't help thinking about poor Marion," says she.
"Eh?" says I, lookin' up from the crib where young Snookums has just settled himself comfortable and decided to tear off a few more hours of slumber. "Which Marion?"
"Why, Marion Gray," says she.
"Oh!" says I. "The old maid with the patient eyes and the sad smile?"
"She is barely thirty," says Vee.
"Maybe," says I; "but she's takin' it hard."
"Who wouldn't?" says Vee.
And havin' got that far, I saw I might as well let her get the whole story off her chest. She's been seein' more and more of this Marion Gray person ever since we moved out here to Harbor Hills. Kind of a plump, fresh-colored party, and more or less bright and entertainin' in her chat when she was in the right mood. I'd often come in and found Vee chucklin' merry over some of the things Miss Gray had been tellin' her. And while she was at our house she seemed full of life and pep. Just the sort that Vee gets along with best. She was the same whenever we met her up at the Ellinses. But outside of that you never saw her anywhere. She wasn't in with the Country Club set, and most of the young married crowd seemed to pass her up too.
I didn't know why. Guess I hadn't thought much about it. I knew she'd lost her father and mother within the last year or so, so I expect I put it down to that as the reason she wasn't mixin' much.
But Vee has all the inside dope. Seems old man Gray had been a chronic invalid for years. Heart trouble. And durin' all the last of it he'd been promisin' to check out constant, but had kept puttin' it off. Meanwhile Mrs. Gray and Marion had been fillin' in as day and night nurses. He'd been a peevish, grouchy old boy, too, and the more waitin' on he got the more he demanded. Little things. He had to have his food cooked just so, the chair cushions adjusted, the light just right. He had to be read to so many hours a day, and played to, and sung to. He couldn't stand it to be alone, not for half an hour. Didn't want to think, he said. Didn't want to see the women folks knittin' or crocheting: he wanted 'em to be attending to him all the while. He had a little silver bell that he kept hung on his chair arm, and when he rang it one or the other of 'em had to jump. Maybe you know the kind.
Course, the Grays traveled a lot; South in the winter, North in summer—always huntin' a place where he'd feel better, and never findin' it. If he was at the seashore he'd complain that they ought to be in the mountains, and when they got there it wouldn't be a week before he had decided the air was bad for him. They should have known better than to take him there. Most likely one more week would finish him. Another long railroad trip would anyway. So he might as well stay. But wouldn't Marion see the landlord and have those fiendish children kept quiet on that tennis court outside? And wouldn't Mother try to make an eggnog that didn't taste like a liquid pancake!
Havin' been humorin' his whims a good deal longer than Marion, and not being very strong herself, Mrs. Gray finally wore out. And almost before they knew anything serious was the matter she was gone. Then it all fell on Marion. Course, if she'd been a paid nurse she never would have stood for this continuous double-time act. Or if there was home inspectors, same as there are for factories, the old man would have been jacked up for violatin' the labor laws. But being only a daughter, there's nobody to step in and remind him that slavery has gone out of style and that in most states the female of the species was gettin' to be a reg'lar person. In fact, there was few who thought Marion was doin' any more'n she had a right to do. Wasn't he her father, and wasn't he payin' all the bills?
"To be sure," adds Vee, "he didn't realize what an old tyrant he was. Nor did Marion. She considered it her duty, and never complained."
"Then I don't see who could have crashed in," said I.
"No one could," said Vee. "That was the pity."
And it seems for the last couple of years the old boy insisted on settlin' down in his home here, where he could shuffle off comfortable. He'd been mighty slow about it, though, and when he finally headed West it was discovered that, through poor managin' and war conditions, the income they'd been livin' on had shrunk considerable. The fine old house was left free and clear, but there was hardly enough to keep it up unless Marion could rustle a job somewhere.
"And all she knows how to do is nurse," says Vee. "She's not even a trained nurse at that."
"Ain't there anybody she could marry?" I suggests.
"That's the tragic part, Torchy," says Vee. "There is—Mr. Biggies."
"What, 'Puffy' Biggles!" says I. "Not that old prune face with the shiny dome and the baggy eyes?"
Vee says he's the one. He's been hoverin' 'round, like an old buzzard, for three or four years now, playin' chess with the old man while he lasted, but always with his pop-eyes fixed on Marion. And since she's been left alone he'd been callin' reg'lar once a week, urging her to be his tootsy-wootsy No. 3. He was the main wheeze in some third-rate life insurance concern, I believe, and fairly well off, and he owned a classy place over near the Country Club. But he had a 44 belt, a chin like a pelican, and he was so short of breath that everybody called him "Puffy" Biggles. Besides, he was fifty.
"A hot old Romeo he'd make for a nice girl like that," says I. "Is he her best bet? Ain't there any second choice?"
"There was another," says Vee. "Rather a nice chap, too—that Mr. Ellery Prescott, who played the organ so well and was some kind of a broker. You remember?"
"Sure!" says I. "The one who pulled down a captain's commission at Plattsburg. Did she have him on the string?"
"They had been friends for a long time," says Vee. "Were as good as engaged once; though how he managed to see much of Marion I can't imagine, with Mr. Gray so crusty toward him. You see, he didn't play chess. Anyway, he finally gave up. I suppose he's at the front now, and even if he ever should come back—— Well, Marion seldom mentions him. I'm sure, though, that they thought a good deal of each other. Poor thing! She was crazy to go across as a canteen worker. And now she doesn't know what to do. Of course, there's always Biggles. If we could only save her from that!"
At which remark I grows skittish. I didn't like the way she was gazin' at me. "Ah, come, Vee!" says I. "Lay off that rescue stuff. Adoptin' female orphans of over thirty, or matin' 'em up appropriate is way out of my line. Suppose we pass resolutions of regret in Marion's case, and let it ride at that?"
"At least," goes on Vee, "we can do a little something to cheer her up. Mrs. Robert Ellins has asked her for dinner tomorrow night. Us too."
"Oh, I'll go that far," says I, "although the last I knew about the Ellinses' kitchen squad, it's takin' a chance."
I was some little prophet, too. I expect Mrs. Robert hadn't been havin' much worse a time with her help than most folks, but three cooks inside of ten days was goin' some. Lots of people had been longer'n that without any, though. But when any pot wrestler can step into a munition works or an airplane factory and pull down her three or four dollars a day for an eight-hour shift, what can you expect?
Answer: What we got that night at the Ellinses'. The soup had been scorched once, but it had been cooled off nicely before it got to us. The fish had been warmed through—barely. And the roast lamb tasted like it had been put through an embalmin' process. But the cookin' was high art compared to the service, for since their butler had quit to become a crack riveter in a shipyard they've been havin' maids do their plate jugglin'.
And this wide-built fairy, with the eyes that didn't track, sure was constructed for anything but glidin' graceful around a dinner table. For one thing, she had the broken-arch roll in her gait, and when she pads in through the swing-door she's just as easy in her motion as a cow walkin' the quarter-deck with a heavy sea runnin'. Every now and then she'd scuff her toe in the rug, and how some of us escaped a soup or a gravy bath I can't figure out. Maybe we were in luck.
Also, she don't mind reachin' in front of you and sidewipin' your ear with her elbow. Accidents like that were merry little jokes to her.
"Ox-cuse me, Mister!" she'd pipe out shrill and childish, and then indulged in a maniac giggle that would get Mrs. Robert grippin' the chair arms.
She liked to be chatty and folksy while she was servin', too. Her motto seemed to be, "Eat hearty and give the house a good name." If you didn't, she tried to coax you into it, or it into you.
"Oh, do have some more of th' meat, Miss," she says to Vee. "And another potato, now. Just one more, Miss."
And all Mrs. Robert can do is pink up, and when she's out of hearin' apologize for her. "As you see," says Mrs. Robert, "she is hardly a trained waitress."
"She'd make a swell auctioneer, though," I suggests.
"No doubt," says Mrs. Robert. "And I suppose I am fortunate enough to have anyone in the kitchen at all, even to do the cooking—such as it is."
"You ain't lonesome in feelin' that way," says I. "It seems to be a general complaint."
Which brings out harrowin' tales of war-wrecked homes, where no buttling had been done for months, where chauffeurs and gardeners were only represented by stars on the service flag, and from which even personal maids had gone to be stenographers and nurses. But chiefly it was the missin' cook who was mourned. Some had quit to follow their men to trainin' camps, a lot had copped out better payin' jobs, and others had been lured to town, where they could get the fake war extras hot off the press and earn higher wages as well.
Course, there were some substitute cooks—reformed laundresses, raw amateurs and back numbers that should have reached the age limit long before. And pretty awful cookin' they were gettin' away with. Vee had heard of one who boiled the lettuce and sent in dog biscuit one mornin' for breakfast cereal. Miss Gray told what happened at the Pemberton Brookses when their kitchen queen had left for Bridgeport, where she had a hubby makin' seventy-five dollars a week. The Brookses had lived for three days on cream toast and sardines, which was all the upstairs girl had in her culinary repertoire.
"And look at me," added Marion, "with our old family cook, who can make the best things in the world, and I can hardly afford to keep her! But I couldn't drive her away if I tried."
Course, with our havin' Professor and Madame Battou, the old French couple we'd annexed over a year ago in town, we had no kick comin'. Not even the sugar and flour shortage seemed to trouble them, and our fancy meals continued regular as clock work. But on the way home Vee and I got to talkin' about what hard times the neighbors was havin'.
"I guess what they need out here," says I, "is one of them army kitchens, that would roll around two or three times a day deliverin' hot nourishment from door to door."
And I'd hardly finished what I'd meant for a playful little remark before Vee stops sudden, right in the middle of the road, and lets out an excited squeal.
"Torchy!" says she. "Why on earth didn't you suggest that before!"
"Because this foolish streak has just hit me," says I.
"But it's the very thing," says she, clappin' her hands.
"Eh?" says I, gawpin'.
"For Marion," says she. "Don't you see?"
"But she's no perambulatin' rotisserie, is she?" says I.
"She might be," says Vee. "And she shall."
"Oh, very well," says I. "If you've decided it that way, I expect she will. But I don't quite get you."
When Vee first connects with one of her bright ideas, though, she's apt to be a little puzzlin' in her remarks about it. As a matter of fact, her scheme is a bit hazy, but she's sure it's a winner.
"Listen, Torchy," says she. "Here are all these Harbor Hills people—perhaps a hundred families—many of them with poor cooks, some with none at all. And there is Marion with that perfectly splendid old Martha of hers, who could cook for all of them."
"Oh, I see," says I. "Marion hangs out a table-board sign?"
"Stupid!" says Vee. "She does nothing of the sort. People don't want to go out for their meals; they want to eat at home. Well, Marion brings them their meals, all deliciously cooked, all hot, and ready to serve."
"With the kitchen range loaded on a truck and Martha passin' out soup and roasts over the tailboard, eh?" says I.
But once more I've missed. No, the plan is to get a lot of them army containers, such as they send hot chow up to the front trenches in; have 'em filled by Martha at home, and delivered by Marion to her customers.
"It might work," says I. "It would need some capital, though. She'd have to invest in a lot of containers, and she'd need a motor truck."
"I will buy those," says Vee. "I'm going in with her."
"Oh, come!" says I. "You'd look nice, wouldn't you!"
"You mean that people would talk?" comes back Vee. "What do I care? It's quite as patriotic and quite as necessary as Red Cross work, or anything else. It would be scientific food conservation, man-power saving, all that sort of thing. And think what a wonderful thing it would be for the neighborhood."
"Maybe Marion wouldn't see it that way," I suggests. "Drivin' a dinner truck around might not appeal to her. You got to remember she's more or less of an old maid. She might have notions."
"Trust her," says Vee. "But I mean to have my plan all worked out before I tell her a word. When you go to town tomorrow, Torchy, I want you to find out all about those containers—how much the various compartments will hold, and how much they cost. Also about a light motor truck. There will be other details, too, which I will be thinking about."
Yes, there were other details. Nobody seemed to know much about such a business. It had been tried in places. Vee heard of something of the sort that was being tested up on the East Side. So it was three or four days before she was ready to spring this new career on Marion. But one night, after dinner, she announces that she's all set and drags me down there with her. Outside of the old Gray house we finds a limousine, with the driver dozin' inside.
"It's the Biggles car!" whispers Vee. "Oh, what if he should be—— Come, Torchy! Quick!"
"You wouldn't break in on a fond clinch, would you?" I asks.
"If it came to that, certainly," says Vee, pushin' the front-door button determined.
I expect she would have, too. But Biggles hadn't got that far—not quite. He's on the mat all right, though, with his fat face sort of flushed and his eyes popped more'n usual. And Marion Gray seems to be sort of fussed, too. She is some tinted up under the eyes, and when she sees who it is she glances at Vee sort of appealin'.
"Oh, I'm so sorry to interrupt," says Vee, marchin' right in and takin' Marion by the arm. "You'll pardon me, I hope, Mr. Biggles, but I must speak to Miss Gray at once about—about something very important."
And almost before "Puffy" Biggles knows what's happened he's left staring at an empty armchair.
In the cozy little library Vee pushes Marion down on a window seat and camps beside her. Trust Vee for jabbin,' the probe right in, too.
"Tell me," she demands whispery, "was—was he at it again?"
Marion pinks up more'n ever. And, say, with them shy brown eyes of hers, and all the curves, she ain't so hard to look at. "Yes," admits Marion. "You see, I had promised to give him a final answer tonight."
"But surely, Marion," says Vee, "you'd never in the world tell him that you——"
"I don't know," breaks in Marion, her voice trembly. "There seems to be nothing else."
"Isn't there, though!" says Vee. "Just you wait until you hear."
And with that she plunges into a rapid outline sketch of this dinner dispensary stunt, quotin' facts and figures and givin' a profit estimate that sounded more or less generous to me.
"So you see," she goes on enthusiastic, "you could keep your home, and you could keep Martha, and you would be doing something perfectly splendid for the whole community. Besides, you would be entirely independent of—of everyone."
"But do you think I could do it?" asks Marion.
"I know you could," says Vee. "Anyway, we could between us. I will furnish the capital, and keep the accounts and help you plan the daily menus. You will do the marketing and delivering. Martha will do the cooking. And there you are! We may have to start with only a few family orders at first, but others will come in fast. You'll see."
By that time Marion was catching the fever. Her eyes brighten and her chin comes up.
"I believe we could do it," says she.
"And you're willing to try?" asks Vee.
"Then," says Vee, "Mr. Biggles ought to be told that he needn't wait around any longer."
"Oh, I don't see how I can," wails Marion. "He—he's such a——"
"A sticker, eh? I know," says Vee. "And it's a shame that he should have another chance to bother you. Torchy, don't you suppose you could do it for her?"
"What?" says I. "Break it to Biggles? Why, I could do it swell. Leave it to me. I'll shunt him on the siding so quick he won't know he's ever been on the main track."
I don't waste any diplomatic language doin' it, either. On my way in where he's waiting I passes through the hall and gathers up his new derby and yellow gloves, holdin' 'em behind me as I breaks in on him.
"Excuse me, Mr. Biggles," says I, "but it's all off."
"I—I beg pardon?" says he, gazin' at me fish-eyed and stupid.
"Ah, let's not run around in circles," says I. "Miss Gray presents her compliments, and all that sort of stuff, but she's goin' into another line. If you must know, she's going to bust up the cook combine, and from now on she'll be mighty busy. Get me?"
Biggles stiffens and stares at me haughty. "I don't in the least understand anything of all this," says he. "I had an appointment with Marion for this evening; something quite important to—to us both. I may as well tell you that I had asked Marion a momentous question. I am waiting for her answer."
"Well, here it is," says I, holdin' out the hat.
Biggles, he gurgles something indignant and turns purple in the gills, but he ends by snatchin' away the derby and marchin' stiff to the door.
"Understand," says he, with his hand on the knob, "I do not accept your impertinence as a reply. I—I shall see Marion again."
"Sure you will," says I. "She'll be around to get your dinner order early next week."
"Bah!" says Biggles, bangin' the door behind him.
But, say, inside of five minutes he'd been wiped off the slate, and them two girls was plannin' their hot-food campaign as busy and excited as if it was Marion's church weddin' they were doping out. It's after midnight before they breaks away, too.
You know Vee, though. She ain't one to start things and then quit. She's a stayer. And some grand little hustler, too. By Monday mornin' the Harbor Hills Community Kitchen Co. was a going concern. And before the week was out they had more'n forty families on the standin' order list, with new squads of soup scorchers bein' fired every day.
What got a gasp out of me was the first time I gets sight of Marion Gray in her working rig. Nothing old-maidish about that costume. Not so you'd notice. She's gone the limit—khaki riding pants, leather leggins and a zippy cloth cap cut on the overseas pattern. None of them Women's Motor Corps girls had anything on her. And maybe she ain't some picture, too, as she jumps in behind the wheel of the truck and steps on the gas pedal!
Also, I was some jarred to learn that the enterprise was a payin' one almost from the start. Folks was just tickled to death with havin' perfectly good meals, well cooked, well seasoned and pipin' hot, set down at their back doors prompt every day, with no fractious fryin'-pan pirates growlin' around the kitchens, and no local food profiteers soakin' 'em with big weekly bills.
This has been goin' on a month, when one day as I comes home Vee greets me with a flyin' tackle.
"Oh, Torchy!" she squeals, "what do you think has happened?"
"I know," says I. "Baby's cut a tooth."
"No," says she. "It's—it's about Marion."
"Oh!" says I. "She ain't bumped somebody with the truck, has she?"
"How absurd!" says Vee. "But, listen, Captain Ellery Prescott has come back."
"What! The old favorite?" says I. "But I thought he was over with Pershing?"
"Not yet," says Vee. "He has been out at some Western camp training recruits all this time. But now he has his orders. He is to sail very soon. And he's seen Marion."
"Has he?" said I. "Did it give him a jolt, or what?"
Vee giggles and pulls my head down so she can whisper in my ear. "He thought her perfectly stunning, as she is, of course. And they're to be married day after tomorrow."
"Z-z-z-zing!" says I. "That puts a crimp in the ready-made dinner business, I expect."
"Not at all," says Vee. "Until he comes back, after the war, Marion is going to carry on."
"Anyway," says I, "it ends 'Puffy' Biggies as an impendin' tragedy, don't it? And I expect that's worth while, too."
OLD HICKORY BATS UP ONE
Anybody would most think I'd been with the Corrugated Trust long enough to know that Old Hickory Ellins generally gets what he wants, whether it's quick action from an office boy or a two-thirds majority vote from the board of directors. But once in a while I seem to forget, and shortly after that I'm wonderin' if it was a tank I went up against so solid, or if someone threw the bond safe at me.
What let me in wrong this last time was a snappy little remark I got shot my way right here in the general offices. I was just back from a three-days' chase after a delayed shipment of bridge girders and steel wheelbarrows that was billed for France in a rush, and I'd got myself disliked by most of the traffic managers between here and Altoona, to say nothing of freight conductors, yard bosses and so on. But I'd untangled those nine cars and got 'em movin' toward the North River, and now I was steamin' through a lot of office detail that had piled up while I was gone. I'd lunched luxurious on an egg sandwich and a war doughnut that Vincent had brought up to me from the arcade automat, and I'd 'phoned Vee that I might not be out home until the 11:13, when in blows this potty party with the poison ivy leaves on his shoulder straps and demands to see Mr. Ellins at once. Course, it's me with my heels together doin' the zippy salute.
"Sorry, major," says I, "but Mr. Ellins won't be in until 10:30."
"Hah!" says he, like bitin' off a piece of glass. "And who are you, lieutenant!"
"Special detail from the Ordnance Department, sir," says I.
"Oh, you are, eh?" he snorts. "Another bomb-proofer! Well, tell Mr. Ellins I shall be back at 11:15—if this sector hasn't been captured in the meantime," and as he double-quicks out he near runs down Mr. Piddie, our rubber-stamp office manager, who has towed him in.
As for me, I stands there swallowin' air bubbles until my red-haired disposition got below the boiling point once more. Then I turns to Piddie.
"You heard, didn't you?" says I.
Piddie nods. "But I don't quite understand," says he. "What did he mean by—er—bomb-proofer?"
"Just rank flattery, Piddie," says I. "The rankest kind. It's his way of indicatin' that I'm a yellow dog hidin' under a roll-top desk for fear someone'll kick me out where a parlor Pomeranian will look cross at me. Excuse me if I don't seem to work up a blush. Fact is, though, I'm gettin' kind of used to it."
"Oh, I say, though!" protests Piddie. "Why, everyone knows that you——"
"That's where you're dead wrong, Piddie," I breaks in. "What everybody really knows is that while most of the young hicks who've been Plattsburged into uniforms are already across Periscope Pond helpin' swat the Hun, I'm still floatin' around here with nothing worse than car dust on my tailor-built khaki. Why, even them bold Liberty bond patriots who commute on the 8:03 are tired of asking me when I'm going to be sent over to tell Pershing how it ought to be done. But when it comes to an old crab of a swivel chair major chuckin' 'bomb-proofer' in my teeth—well, I guess that'll be about all. Here's where I get a revise or quit. Right here."
And it was sentiments like that, only maybe worded not quite so brash, that I passed out to Old Hickory a little later on. He listens about as sympathetic as a traffic cop hearin' why you tried to rush the stop signal.
"I think we have discussed all that before, young man," says he. "The War Department has recognized that, as the head of an essential industry, I am entitled to a private secretary; also that you might prove more useful with a commission than without one. And I rather think you have. So there you are."
"Excuse me, Mr. Ellins," says I, "but I can't see it that way. I don't know whether I'm private seccing or getting ready for a masquerade ball. Any one-legged man could do what I'm doing. I'm ready to chuck the commission and enlist."
"Really!" says he. "Well, in the first place, my son, a war-time commission is something one doesn't chuck back at the United States government because of any personal whim. It isn't being done. And then again, you tried enlisting once, didn't you, and were turned down?"
"But that was early in the game," says I, "when the recruiting officers weren't passing any but young Sandows. I could get by now. Have a heart, Mr. Ellins. Lemme make a try."
He chews his cigar a minute, drums thoughtful on the mahogany desk, and then seems to have a bright little idea.
"Very well, Torchy," says he, "we'll see what my friend, Major Wellby, can do for you when he comes in."
"Him!" says I. "Why, he'd do anything for me that the law didn't stop him from."
And sure enough, when the major drifts in again them two was shut in the private office for more'n half an hour before I'm called in. I could guess just by the way the major glares fond at me that if he could work it he'd get me a nice, easy job mowin' the grass in No Man's Land, or some snap like that.
"Huh!" says he, givin' me the night court up and down. "Wants an active command, does he? And his training has been what? Four years as office boy, three as private secretary! It's no use, Ellins. We're not fighting this war with waste baskets or typewriters, you know."
"Oh, come, major!" puts in Old Hickory. "Why be unreasonable about this? I will admit that you may be right, so far as it's being folly to send this young man to the front. But I do insist that as a lieutenant he is rather useful just where he is."
"Bah!" snorts the major. "So is the farmer who's raising hogs and corn. He's useful. But we don't put shoulder straps on him, or send him to France in command of a company. For jobs like that we try to find youngsters who've been trained to handle men; who know how to get things done. What we don't want is—eh? Someone calling me on the 'phone? All right. Yes, this is Major Wellby. What? Oh, it can't be done today! Yes, yes! I understand all that. But see here, captain, that transport is due to sail at—hey, central! I say, central! Oh, what's the use?"
And as the major bangs up the receiver his face looks like a strawb'ry shortcake just ready to serve. Somehow Mr. Ellins seems to be enjoyin' the major's rush of temperament to the ears. Anyhow, there's a familiar flicker under them bushy eyebrows of his and I ain't at all surprised when he remarks soothin': "I gather, major, that someone can't seem to get something done."
"Precisely," says the major, moppin' a few pearly beads off his shiny dome. "And when a regular army captain makes up his mind that a thing can't be done—well, it's hopeless, that's all. In this instance, however, I fear he's right, worse luck!"
"Anyway," suggests Mr. Ellins, "he has made you think that the thing is impossible, eh?"
"Think!" growls the major, glancin' suspicious at Old Hickory. "I say, Ellins, what are you getting at? Still harping on that red tape notion, are you? Perhaps you imagine this to be a case where, if you could only turn loose your wonderful organization, you could work a miracle?"
"No, major," says Old Hickory. "We don't claim to work in miracles; but when we decide that a thing ought to be done at a certain time—well, generally it gets done."
"Just like that, eh?" grins the major sarcastic. "Really, Ellins, you big business men are too good to be true. But see here; why not tap your amazing efficiency for my benefit. This little job, for instance, which one of our poor misguided captains reports as impossible within the time limit. I suppose you would merely press a button and——"
"Not even that," breaks in Mr. Ellins. "I would simply turn it over to Torchy here—and he'd do it."
The major glances at me careless and shrugs his shoulders. "My dear Ellins," says he, "you probably don't realize it, but that's the sort of stuff which adds to the horrors of war. Here you haven't the vaguest idea as to what——"
"Perhaps," cuts in Old Hickory, "but I'll bet you a hundred to twenty-five."
"Taken," says the major. Then he turns to me. "When can you start, lieutenant?"
"As soon as I know where I'm starting for, sir," says I.
"How convenient," says he. "Well, then, here is an order on the New York Telephone Co. for five spools of wire which you'll find stored somewhere on Central Park South. See if you can get 'em."
"Yes, sir," says I. "And suppose I can?"
"Report to me at the Plutoria before 5:30 this afternoon," says he. "I shall be having tea there. Ellins, you'd better be on hand, too, so that I can collect that hundred."
And that's all there was to it. I'm handed a slip of paper carrying the Quartermaster General's O. K., and while these two old sports are still chucklin' at each other I've grabbed my uniform cap off the roll-top and have caught an express elevator.
Course, I expected a frame-up. All them army officers are hard boiled eggs when it comes to risking real money, and I knew the major must think his twenty-five was as safe as if he'd invested it in thrift stamps. As for Old Hickory Ellins, he'd toss away a hundred any time on the chance of pulling a good bluff. So I indulges in a shadowy little grin myself and beats it up town.
Simple enough to locate them spools of wire. Oh, yes. They're right in the middle of the block between Sixth and Broadway, tucked away inconspicuous among as choice a collection of contractor's junk as you can find anywhere in town, and that's sayin' a good deal. But maybe you've noticed what's been happenin' along there where Fifty-ninth street gets high-toned? Looks like an earthquake had wandered by, but it's only that down below they're connectin' the new subway with another East river tunnel. And if there's anything in the way of old derricks, or scrap iron, or wooden beams, or construction sheds that ain't been left lying around on top it's because they didn't have it on hand to leave.
Cute little things, them spools are, too; about six feet high, three wide, and weighin' a ton or so each, I should judge. And to make the job of movin' 'em all the merrier an old cement mixer has been at work right next to 'em and the surplus concrete has been thrown out until they've been bedded in as solid as so many bridge piers. I climbs around and takes a look.
"How cunnin'!" says I. "Why, they'd make the Rock of Ages look like a loose front tooth. And all I got to do is pull 'em up by the roots, one at a time. Ha, ha! Likewise, tee-hee!"
It sized up like a bad case of bee bite with me at the wrong end of the stinger. Still, I was just mulish enough to stick around. I had nearly three hours left before I'd have to listen to the major's mirthsome cackle, and I might as well spend part of it thinkin' up fool schemes. So I walks around that cluster of cement-set spools some more. I even climbs on top of one and gazes up and down the block.
They were still doing things to make it look less like a city street and more like the ruins of Louvain. Down near the Fifth Avenue gates was the fenced-in mouth of a shaft that led somewhere into the bowels of Manhattan. And while I was lookin' out climbs a dago, unrolls a dirty red flag, and holds up the traffic until a dull "boom" announces that the offensive is all over for half an hour or so. Up towards Columbus Circle more industry was goin' on. A steam roller was smoothin' out a strip of pavement that had just been relaid, and nearer by a gang was tearin' up more of the asphalt. I got kind of interested in the way they was doin' it, too. You know, they used to do this street wreckin' with picks and crowbars, but this crowd seemed to have more modern methods. They was usin' three of these pneumatic drills and they sure were ripping it up slick and speedy. About then I noticed that their compressor was chugging away nearly opposite me and that the lines of hose stretched out fifty feet or more.
"Say!" says I jerky and breathless, but to nobody in particular. I was just registerin' the fact that I'd had a sudden thought.
A few minutes before, too, I'd seen a squad of rookies wander past and into the park. I remembered noticin' what a husky, tanned lot they were, and from their hat cords that they belonged to the artillery branch. Well, that was enough. In a flash I'd shinned over the stone wall and was headin' 'em off.
You know how these cantonment delegations wander around town aimless when they're dumped down here on leave waiting to be shunted off quiet onto some transport? No friends, mighty little money, and nothing to do but tramp the streets or hang around the Y. They actually looked kind of grateful when I stops 'em and returns their salute. As luck would have it there's a top sergeant in the bunch, so I don't have to make a reg'lar speech.
"It's this way, sergeant," says I. "I'm looking for a few volunteers."
"There's ten of us, sir," says he, "with not a thing on our hands but time."
"Then perhaps you'll help me put over something on a boss ditch digger," says I. "It's nothing official, but it may help General Pershing a whole lot."
"We sure will," says the sergeant. "Now then, men. 'Shun! And forget those dope sticks for a minute. How'll you have 'em, lieutenant—twos or fours?"
"Twos will look more impressive, I guess," says I. "And just follow me."
"Fall in!" says the sergeant. "By twos! Right about! March!"
So when I rounds into the street again and bears down on this gang foreman I has him bug-eyed from the start. He don't seem to know whether he's being pinched or not.
"What's your name, my man?" says I, wavin' the Q. M.'s order threatenin'.
It's Mike something or other, as I could have guessed without him near chokin' to get it out.
"Very well, Mike," I goes on, as important as I knew how. "See those spools over there that you people have done your best to bury? Well, those have been requisitioned from the Telephone Company by the U. S. army. Here's the order. Now I want you to get busy with your drill gang and cut 'em loose."
"But—but see here, boss," sputters Mike, "'tis a private contract they're workin' on and I couldn't be after——"
"Couldn't, eh?" says I. "Lemme tell you something. That wire has to go on a transport that's due to sail the first thing in the morning. It's for the Signal Corps and they need it to stretch a headquarters' line into Berlin."
"Sorry, boss," said Mike, "but I wouldn't dast to——"
"Sergeant," says I, "do your duty."
Uh-huh! That got Mike all right. And when we'd yanked him up off his knees and convinced him that he wouldn't be shot for an hour or so yet he's so thankful that he gets those drills to work in record time.
It was a first-class hunch, if I do have to admit it myself. You should have seen how neat them rapid fire machines begun unbuttonin' those big wooden spools, specially after a couple of our doughboy squad, who'd worked pneumatic riveters back home, took hold of the drills. Others fished some hand sledges and crowbars out of a tool shed and helped the work along, while Mike encourages his gang with a fluent line of foreman repartee.
Course, I didn't have the whole thing doped out at the start, but gettin' away with this first stab only showed me how easy it was if you wasn't bashful about callin' for help. From then on I didn't let much assistance get away from me, either. Yankin' the spools out to the street level by hookin' on the steam roller was my next play, but commandeerin' a sand blast outfit that was at work halfway down the block was all Mike's idea.
"They need smoothin' up a bit, boss," says he.
And inside of half an hour we had all five of them spools lookin' new and bright, like they'd just come from the mill.
"What next, sir?" asks the sergeant.
"Why," says I, "the fussy old major who's so hot for getting these things is waiting at the Plutoria, about ten blocks down. Maybe he wants 'em there. I wonder if we could——"
"Sure!" says the sergeant. "This heavy gun bunch can move anything. Here! I'll show 'em how."
With that he runs a crowbar through the center of one of the spools, puts a man on either side to push, and rolls it along as easy as wheelin' a baby carriage.
"Swell tactics, sergeant," says I. "And just for that I'm goin' to provide your squad with a little music. Might as well do this in style, eh? Wait a minute."
And it wasn't long before I was back from another dash into the park towin' half a drum corps that I'd borrowed from some Junior Naval Reserves that was drillin' over on the ballfield.
So it was some nifty little parade that I finally lines up to lead down Fifth Avenue. First there's me, then the drum corps, then the sergeant and his men rollin' them spools of wire. We strings out for more'n a block.
You'd think New Yorkers were so used to parades by this time that you couldn't get 'em stretchin' their necks for anything less'n a regiment of hand-picked heroes. They've seen the French Blue Devils at close range, gawped at the Belgians, and chummed with the Anzacs. But, say, this spool-pushin' stunt was a new one on 'em. Folks just lined the curb and stared. Then some bird starts to cheer and it's taken up all down the line, just on faith.
"Hey, pipe the new rollin' tanks!" shouts someone.
"Gwan!" sings out another wise guy. "Them's wooden bombs they're goin' to drop on Willie."
It's the first time I've been counted in on any of this hooray stuff, and I can't say I hated it. At the same time I tried not to look too chesty. But when I wheeled the procession into the side street and got 'em bunched two deep in front of the Plutoria's carriage entrance I ain't sure but what I was wearin' kind of a satisfied grin.
Not for long, though. The six-foot taxi starter in the rear admiral's uniform jumps right in with the prompt protest. He wants to know what the blinkety-blink I think I'm doin', blockin' up his right of way in that fashion.
"You can't do it! Take 'em away!" says he.
"Ah, keep the lid on, old Goulash," says I. "Sergeant, if he gets messy, roll one of those spools on him. I'll be back shortly."
With that I blows into the Plutoria and hunts up the tea room. The major's there, all right, and Mr. Ellins, also a couple of ladies. They're just bein' served with Oolong and caviar sandwiches.
"Ah!" says the major, as he spots me. "Our gallant young office lieutenant, eh? Well, sir, anything to report?"
"The spools are outside, sir," says I.
"Wh—a—at!" he gasps.
"Where'll you have 'em put, sir?" says I.
About then, though, in trails the taxi starter, the manager and a brace of house detectives.
"That's him!" says the starter, pointin' me out. "He's the one that's blockin' traffic."
I will say this for the major, though, he's a good sport. He comes right to the front and takes all the blame.
"I'm responsible," he tells the manager. "It's perfectly all right, too. Military necessity, sir. Well, perhaps you don't like it, but I'll have you understand, sir, I could block off your whole street if I wished. So clear out, all of you."
"Why, Horace!" puts in one of the ladies, grabbin' him by the arm.
"Yes, yes, my dear," says the major. "I know. No scene. Certainly not. Only these hotel persons must be put in their place. And if you will excuse me for a moment I'll see what can be done. Come, lieutenant. I want to get a look at those spools myself."
Well, he did. "But—but I understood," says he, "that they were stuck in concrete or something of the kind."
"Yes, sir," says I. "We had to unstick 'em. Pneumatic drills and a steam roller. Very simple."
"Great Scott!" says he. "Why didn't that fool captain think of—— But, see here, I don't want 'em here. Now, if we could only get them to Pier 14——"
"That would be a long way to roll 'em, sir," says I, "but it could be done. Loadin' 'em on a couple of army trucks would be easier, though. There's a Quartermaster's depot at the foot of Fifty-seventh Street, you know."
"So there is," says he. "I'll call them up. Come in, will you, lieutenant and—and join us at tea? You've earned it, I think."
Three minutes more and the major announces that the trucks are on the way.
"Which means, Ellins," he adds, "that you win your twenty-five. Here you are."
"If you don't mind," says Old Hickory, "I'll keep this and pass on my hundred to Torchy here. He might like to entertain his volunteer squad with it."
Did I? Say, when I got through showin' that bunch of far West artillery husks how to put in a real pleasant evening along Broadway there wasn't enough change left to buy a sportin' extra. But they'd had chow in the giddiest lobster palace under the white lights, they'd occupied two boxes at the zippiest girl show in town and they was loaded down with cigarettes and chocolate enough to last 'em clear to France.
The next mornin', when Old Hickory comes paddin' into the general offices, he stops to pat me friendly on the shoulder.
"I think we have succeeded in revising the major's opinion," he remarks, "as to the general utility of bomb-proofers in certain instances."
I grins up at him. "Then," says I, "do I get a recommend for active duty within jabbin' distance of the Huns?"
"We did consider that," says Old Hickory, "but the decision was just as I suspected from the first. The major says it would be a shame to waste you on anything less than a divisional command, and there aren't enough of those to go around. Chiefly, though, he thinks that anyone who is able to get things done in New York in the wizard-like way that you can should be kept within call of Governor's Island. So I fear, Torchy, that you and I will have to go on serving our country right here."
"All right, Mr. Ellins," says I. "I expect you win—as per usual."
TORCHY PULLS THE DEEP STUFF
Course, I didn't know what Old Hickory was stackin' me up against when he calls me into the private office and tells me to shake hands with this Mr. McCrea. Kind of a short, stubby party he is, with a grayish mustache and sort of sleepy gray eyes. He's one of these slow motioned, quiet talking ginks, with restful ways, such as would fit easy into a swivel chair and hold down a third vice-president's job for life. Or he might be a champion chess player.
So when the boss goes on to say how Mr. McCrea is connected with the Washington sleuth bureau I expect I must have gawped at him a bit curious. Some relic of the old office force, was my guess; a hold-over from the times when the S. S. people called it a big day if they could locate a lead nickel fact'ry in Mulberry Street, or drop on a few Chink laundrymen bein' run in from Canada in crates. Maybe he was a thumb-print expert.
"Howdy," says I, glancin' up at the clock to see if the prospects was good for makin' the 5:17 out to Harbor Hills.
"I am told you know the town rather well," suggests McCrea, sort of mild and apologetic.
"Me!" says I. "Oh, I can usually find my way back to Broadway even in foggy weather."
He indulges in a flickery little smile. "I also understand," he goes on, "that you have shown yourself to be somewhat quick witted in emergencies."
"I must have a good press agent, then," says I, glancin' accusin' at Mr. Ellins.
But Old Hickory shakes his head. "I suspect that was my friend, Major Wellby," says he.
"Oh!" says I. "The one I rescued the wire spools for? A lucky break, that was."
"Mr. McCrea is working on something rather more important," goes on Old Hickory, "and if you can help him in any way I trust you will do it."
"Sure," says I. "What's the grand little idea?"
He don't seem enthusiastic about openin' up, McCrea, and I don't know as I blame him much. After he's fished a note book out of his inside pocket he stops and looks me over sort of doubtful. "Perhaps I had better say at the start," says he, "that some of our best men have been on this job for several weeks."
"Nursin' it along, eh?" says I.
That brings a smothered chuckle from Old Hickory. But Mr. McCrea don't seem so tickled over it. In fact, he develops a furrow between the eyes and his next remark ain't quite so soothin'.
"No doubt if they could have had the assistance of your rapid fire mentality a little sooner," says he, "it would have been but a matter of a few hours."
"There's no telling," says I. "Are you one of the new squad?"
Here Old Hickory chokes down another gurgle and breaks in hasty with: "Mr. McCrea, Torchy, is assistant chief of the bureau, you know."
"Gosh!" says I, under my breath. "My mistake, sir. And I expect I'd better back out now, while the backin's good."
"Wouldn't that be rather hard on us?" asks McCrea, liftin' his eyebrows sarcastic. "Besides, think how disappointed the major will be if we fail to make use of such remarkable ability as he has assured us you possess."
It's a kid, all right, even if he does put it so smooth. And by the twinkle in Old Hickory's eye I can see he's enjoyin' it just as much as McCrea. Nothing partial about the boss. His sympathies are always with the good performer. And rather than let this top-liner sleuth put it over me so easy I takes a chance on shootin' a little more bull.
"Oh, if you're goin' to feel bad over it," says I, "course I got to help you out. Now what part of Manhattan is it that's got your super-Sherlocks guessin' so hard?"
He smiles condescendin' and unfolds a neat little diagram showin' a Broadway corner and part of the cross street. "It is a matter of three policemen and a barber shop," says he. "Here, in the basement of this hotel on the corner, is the barber shop."
"Yes, I remember," says I. "Otto something or other runs it. And on the side, I expect, he does plain and fancy spyin', eh?"
"We should be much interested to have you furnish proof of that," says McCrea. "What we suspect, however, is something slightly different. We believe that the place is rather a clearing house for spy information. News seems to reach there and to leave there. What we wish to know is, how."
"Had anyone on the inside?" I asks.
"Yes, that bright little idea occurred to us," says McCrea. "One of our men has been operating a chair there for three weeks. He discovered nothing of importance. Also we have had the place watched from the outside, to no purpose. So you see how crude our methods must have been."
"Oh, I ain't knockin' 'em," says I. "Maybe they was out of luck. But what about the three cops?"
"Their beats terminate at this corner," says McCrea, "one from uptown, one from downtown, and the third from the east. And we have good reason to suppose that one of the three is crooked. Now if you can tell us which one, and how information can come and go——"
"I get you," I breaks in. "All you want of me is the answer to a lot of questions you've been all the fall workin' up. That's some he-sized order, ain't it?"
McCrea shrugs his shoulder. "As I mentioned, I think," says he, "it was Major Wellby who suggested your assistance; and as the major happens to enjoy the confidence of—well, someone who is a person of considerable importance in Washington——"
"Uh-huh!" says I. "It's a case of my bein' wished on you and you standin' by with the laugh when I fall down. Oh, very well! I'll be the goat. But the major's a good scout, just the same, and I don't mean to throw him without making a stab. How long do I get on this?"
"Oh, as long as you like," says McCrea.
"Thanks," says I. "Where do I find you when I want to turn in a report, blank or otherwise?"
He gives me the name of his hotel and after collectin' the diagram of the mystery I does a slow exit to my desk in the next office. I was sittin' there half an hour later with my hair rumpled, makin' a noise like deep thinkin', when in walks the hand of fate steppin' heavy on his heels, as usual.
Not that I suspected at the time this Barry Wales could be anything much more than a good natured pest. He didn't used to be even that. No, the change in Barry is only another little item in the score we got against the Kaiser; for back in the days before we went into the war Barry was just one of Mr. Robert's club friends who dropped around casual to date up for an after-luncheon game of billiards, or tip him off to a new cabaret act that was worth engagin' a table next to the gold ropes. Besides, holdin' quite a block of Corrugated stock, I expect Barry figured it as a day's work when he got me to show him the last semi-annual report and figure out what his dividends would tot up to. Outside of that he was a bar-hound and more or less of a window ornament.
But the war sure had made a mess of Barry. I don't mean that he went over and got shell shocked or gassed. Too far past thirty for that, and he had too many things the matter with him. Oh, I had all the details direct; bad heart, plumbing out of whack, nerves frazzled from too many all-night sessions. He was in that shape to begin with. But he didn't start braggin' about it until so many of his bunch got to makin' themselves useful in different ways. Mr. Robert, for instance, gettin' sent out in command of a coast patrol boat; others breakin' into Red Cross work, ship buildin' and so on. Barry claims he tried 'em all and was turned down.
But is he discouraged? Not Barry. If they won't put him in uniform, with cute little dew-dads on his shoulder, or let him wear $28 puttees that will take a mahogany finish, there's nothing to prevent him from turnin' loose that mighty intellect of his and inventin' new ways to win the war. So when he's sittin' there in his favorite window at the club, starin' absent minded out on Fifth Avenue with a tall glass at his elbow, he ain't half the slacker he looks to the people on top of the green buses.
Not accordin' to Barry. Ten to one he's just developin' a new idea. Maybe it's only a design for a thrift stamp poster, but it might be a scheme for inducin' the Swiss to send their navy down the Rhine. But whatever it is, as soon as Barry gets it halfway thought out, he has to trot around and tell about it.
So when I glance up and see this tall, well tailored party standin' at my elbow, and notice the eager, excited look in his pale blue eyes, I know about what to expect.
"Well, what is it this time, Barry?" says I. "Have you doped out an explosive pretzel, or are you goin' to turn milliner and release some woman for war work?"
"Oh, I say, Torchy!" he protests. "No chaffing, now. I'm in dead earnest, you know. Of course, being all shot to pieces physically, I can't go to the front, where I'd give my neck to be. Why, with this leaky heart valve of mine I couldn't even——"
"Yes, yes," I broke in. "We've been over all that. Not that I'd mind hearing it again, but just now I'm more or less busy."
"Are you, though?" says Barry. "Isn't that perfectly ripping! Something important, I suppose?"
"Might be if I could pull it off," says I, "but as it stands——"
"That's it!" says Barry. "I was hoping I'd find you starting something new. That's why I came."
"Eh?" says I.
"I'm volunteering—under you," says he. "I'll be anything you say; top sergeant, corporal, or just plain private. Anything so I can help. See! I am yours to command, Lieutenant Torchy," and he does a Boy Scout salute.
"Sorry," says I, "but I don't see how I could use you just now. The fact is, I can't even say what I'm working on."
"Oh, perfectly bully!" says Barry. "You needn't tell me a word, or drop a hint. Just give me my orders, lieutenant, and let me carry on."
Well, instead of shooin' him off I'd only got him stickin' tighter'n a wad of gum to a typewriter's wrist watch, and after trying to do some more heavy thinkin' with him watchin' admirin' from where I'd planted him in a corner, I gives it up.
"All right," says I. "Think you could stand another manicure today?"
Barry glances at his polished nails doubtful but allows he could if it's in the line of duty.
"It is," says I. "I'm goin' to sacrifice some of my red hair on the altar of human freedom. Come along."
So, all unsuspectin' where he was goin', I leads him down into Otto's barber shop. And I must say, as a raid in force, it was more or less of a fizzle. The scissors artist who revises my pink-plus locks is a gray-haired old gink who'd never been nearer Berlin than First Avenue. Two of the other barbers looked like Greeks, and even Otto had clipped the ends of his Prussian lip whisker. Nobody in the place made a noise like a spy, and the only satisfaction I got was in lettin' Barry pay the checks.
"I got to go somewhere and think," says I.
"How about a nice quiet dinner at the club?" says Barry.
"That don't listen so bad," says I.
And it wasn't, either. Barry insists on spreadin' himself with the orderin', and don't even complain about havin' to chase out to the bar to take his drinks, on account of my being in uniform.
"Makes me feel as if I were doing my bit, you know," says he.
"Talk about noble sacrifices!" says I. "Why, you'll be qualifyin' for a D. S. O. if you keep on, Barry."
And along about the baba au rhum period I did get my fingers on the tall feathers of an idea. Nothing much, but so long as Barry was anxious to be used, I thought I saw a way.
"Suppose anybody around the club could dig up a screwdriver for you?" I asks.
Inside of two minutes Barry had everybody in sight on the jump, from the bus boy to the steward, and in with the demi tasse came the screwdriver.
"Now what, lieutenant?" demands Barry.
"S-s-s-h!" says I, mysterious. "We got to drill around until midnight."
"Why not at the Follies, then?" suggests Barry.
"Swell thought!" says I.
And for this brand of active service I couldn't have picked a better man than Barry. From our box seats he points out the cute little squab with the big eyes, third from the end, and even gets one of the soloists singin' a patriotic chorus at us. On the strength of which Barry makes two more trips down to the cafe. Not that he gets primed enough so you'd notice it. Nothing like that. Only he grows more enthusiastic over the idea of being useful in the great cause.
"Remember, lieutenant," says he as we drifts out with the midnight push, "I'm under orders. Eh?"
"Sure thing," says I. "You're about to get 'em, too. Did you ever do such a thing as steal a barber's pole?"
Barry couldn't remember that he ever had.
"Well," says I, "that's what you're goin' to do now."
"Which one?" asks Barry.
"Otto's," says I. "From the joint where we were just before dinner."
"Right, lieutenant," says Barry, givin' his salute.
"And listen," says I. "You're dead set on havin' that particular pole. Understand? You want it bad. And after you get it you ain't goin' to let anybody get it away from you, no matter what happens, until I give the word. That's your cue."
"Trust me, lieutenant," says Barry, straightenin' up. "I shall stand by the pole."
Sounds simple, don't it? But that's the way all us great minds work, along lines like that. And the foolisher we look at the start the deeper we're apt to be divin' after the plot of the piece. Don't miss that. What's a bent hairpin in the mud to you? While to us—boy, page old Doc Watson.
How many times, for instance, do you suppose you've walked past the Hotel Northumberland? Yet did you ever notice that the barber shop entrance was exactly twenty paces east on Umpteenth Street from the corner of Broadway; that you go down three iron steps to a landin' before you turn for the other 15; or that the barber pole has a gilt top with blue stars in it, and is swung out on a single bracket with two screws on each side? I points out all this to Barry as we strolls down from the theater district.
"By jove!" says Barry. "Wonderful!"
"Ain't it?" says I. "And all done without a change of wig or a jab of the needle. Now your part is easy. You simply drift down the side street, step into the shadow where the cab stand juts out, and when nobody's passin' you work the screws loose. Me, I got to drop into the writin' room and dash something off. Here we are. Go to it."
Course, he could have bugged things. Might have dropped the screwdriver through a grating, or got himself caught in the act. But Barry has surrounded the idea nicely. He couldn't have done better if he'd been sent out to a listenin' post. And when I strolls out again five minutes later there he stands with the pole tucked careful under one arm.
"Fine work!" says I. "But we don't want to hide it altogether. Carry it careless like, with your overcoat unbuttoned, so both ends will show. That's the cheese!"
It ain't one of these big, vulgar barber poles, you know; not over four feet long and about as many inches thick. But it's a brilliant one, and with Barry in evenin' dress he's bound to be some conspicuous luggin' it. Yet I starts him straight up Broadway, me trailin' 25 or 30 feet behind.
If it had been further up town he might have collected quite a mob of followers, but down here there's only a few passing at that time of night. Most of 'em only turns to look after him and smile. One or two gives him the merry hail and asks where the Class of 1910 is holdin' the banquet.
He'd done nearly five blocks before a flatfoot steps out of a doorway and waves a nightstick at him.
"Hey, whaddye mean, pullin' that hick stuff?" demands the cop.
"Sir!" says Barry, wavin' him off dignified.
Then I mixes in. "It's perfectly all right, officer," says I. "I know him."
"Oh, do you?" says the cop. "Well, some of you army guys know a lot; and then again some of you don't. But you can't get away with any such cut-up motions on my beat."
"But listen," I begins, "I can explain how——"
"Ah, feed it to the sergeant," says he. "Come along, you," and he takes Barry by the arm.
Being a quiet night in the precinct the desk sergeant had plenty of time to listen. He'd just decided against Barry, too, when I sprung my scrap of paper on him. It's a receipt in full for one barber's pole, signed by Otto Krumpheimer. I knew it was O. K. because I'd signed it myself.
"How about that?" asks the sergeant of the cop.
And all the flatty can do is gaze at it and scratch his head.
"No case," says the sergeant. "Beat it, you."
Then I nudges Barry. He speaks up prompt, too. "I want my little barber pole," says he.
"Ah, take it along," says the sergeant, disgusted.
"Sorry, officer," says I, as we drifts out, and I slips him a five casual.
"Enjoy yourselves, boys," says he. "But pick out another beat."
Which we done. This time we starts from the Northumberland and walks east. Barry had got almost to Madison Avenue before another eagle-eyed copper holds him up. He does it more or less rough, too.
"Drop that, now!" says he.
"Certainly not," says Barry, lyin' enthusiastic. "It's my pole."
"Is it, then?" says the cop. "Maybe you can show the sergeant yet? And maybe I don't know where you pinched it. Walk along, now."
You should have seen the desk sergeant grow purple in the gills when we shows up in front of the rail the second time. "Say, what do you sports think you're doin', anyway?" he demands.
"I'll make a charge of petty larceny and disorderly conduct," says the cop, layin' the evidence on the desk.
"Will you, Myers?" says the sergeant sarcastic. "Didn't ask him if he had a receipt, I suppose? Show it to him, lieutenant."
I grins and hands over the paper.
"Hah!" grunts Myers. "But Otto Krumpheimer don't sign his name like that. Never."
"How do you know?" says I.
"Why," says Myers, scrapin' his foot nervous, "I—I just know, that's all. I've seen his writin', plenty times."
"Hear that, sergeant," says I. "Just jot that down, will you?"
"Night court," says the sergeant.
"Never mind, Barry," says I. "Line of duty. And I'll be on hand by the time your case is called."
"Right-o!" says Barry cheerful.
Myers, he was ambitious to lug us both along, but the sergeant couldn't see it that way. So while Barry's bein' walked off to police court, I jumps into a taxi and heads for McCrea's hotel. If he'd been in bed I meant to rout him out. But he wasn't. I finds him in his room havin' a confab with two other plain clothes gents. He seems surprised to see me so quick.
"Well?" says he. "Giving up so soon?"
"Me?" says I. "Hardly! I've got the crooked cop."
McCrea gives a gasp. "You—you have?" says he.
"Yep!" says I. "But he's got my assistant. Can you pull a badge or anything on the judge at the night court?"
Mr. McCrea thought he could. And he sure worked the charm, for after whisperin' a few words across the bench it's all fixed up. Barry gets the nod that he's free to go.
"May I take my little barber pole?" demands Barry.
"No, no!" speaks up Myers. "Don't let him have it, Judge."
"Silence!" roars the Justice. Then, turnin' to a court officer he says: "Take this policeman to Headquarters for investigation. Yes, Mr. Wales, you may have your pole, but I should advise you to carry it home in a cab."
"Thank you kindly, sir," says Barry. But after he gets outside he asks pleadin': "Don't I get arrested any more?"
I shakes my head. "It's all over for tonight, Barry," says I. "Objective attained, and if you don't mind I'll take charge of this war loot. Drop you at your club, shall we?"
So I still had the striped pole when we rolled up at McCrea's hotel. I was shiftin' it around in the taxi, wonderin' where I'd better dump it, when I made the big discovery.
"Say," I whispers husky to McCrea, "there's something funny about this."
"The pole?" says he.
"Uh-huh!" says I. "It's hollow. There's a little trap door in one side."
"Hah!" says McCrea. "Bring it up."
And you'd think by the way him and his friends proceeded to hog the thing, that it was their find. After I'd shown 'em where to press the secret spring they crowded around and blocked off my view. All I got was a glimpse of some papers that they dug out of the inside somewhere. And some excited they are as they paws 'em over.
"In the same old code," says McCrea.
But finally he leads me to one side. "Myers is the man, all right," says he.
"Course he is," says I. "If he wasn't why would he be so wise as to whose pole it was, or about Otto's handwritin'?"
"Ah!" says McCrea, noddin' enthusiastic. "So that was your system in having your friend arrested? You tried out the officers. Very clever! But how you came to suspect that the barber's pole was being used as a mail box I don't understand."
"No," says I, "you wouldn't. That's where the deep stuff comes in."
McCrea takes that with a smile. "Lieutenant," says he, "I shall be pleased to report to Major Wellby that his estimate of you was quite correct. And allow me to say that I believe you have done for the Government a great service tonight; though how you managed it so neatly I'll be hanged if I see. And—er—I think that will be all." With which he urges me polite towards the door.
But it wasn't all. Not quite. I hear there's something on the way to me from the chief himself, and Old Hickory has been chucklin' around for three days. Also I've had a hunch that one boss barber and one New York cop have done the vanishing act. Anyway, when I was down to the Northumberland yesterday for a shave there was no Otto in sight, and the barber pole was still missin'. That's about all the information that's come my way.
Barry Wales don't know even that much. But when he comes in to report for further orders, as he does frequent now, he has his chest out and his chin up.
"I say, lieutenant," he remarks confidential this last trip, "we put something over, didn't we?"
"I expect we did," says I.
"But what was it all about, eh?" he whispers.
"Why," says I, "you got pinched twice without losin' your amateur standin', and one of the stripes opened in the middle. When they tell me the rest I'll pass it on to you."
"By George! Will you, though?" says Barry, and after executin' another Boy Scout salute he goes off perfectly satisfied.
A FRAME-UP FOR STUBBY
I expect I shouldn't have been so finicky. I ain't as a rule. My usual play is to press the button and take whoever is sent in from the general office. But the last young lady typist they'd wished on me must have eased in on the job with a diploma from some hair-dressin' establishment. She got real haughty when I pointed out that we was using only one "l" in Albany now, but nothing I could say would keep her from writing Bridgeport as two words.
And such a careless way she had of parking her gum on the corner of my desk and forgettin' to retrieve it. So with four or five more folios to do on a report I was makin' to the Ordnance Department, I puts it up to Mr. Piddie personally to pick the best he can spare.
"Course," says I, "I don't expect to get Old Hickory's star performer, but I thought you might have one of the old guard left; one that didn't learn her spellin' by the touch method, at least."
Piddie sighs. Since so many of his key-pounders has gone to polishin' shell noses, or sailed to do canteen work, he's been having a poor time keeping up his office force. "Do you know, Torchy," says he, "I haven't one left that I can guarantee; but suppose you try Miss Casey, who has just joined."
She wouldn't have been my choice if I'd been doin' the pickin'. One of these tall, limber young females, Miss Casey is, about as thick as a drink of water, but strong on hair and eyes. She glides in willowy, drapes herself on a chair, pats her home-grown ear-muffs into shape, and unfolds her note book business-like. And inside of two minutes she's doing the Pitman stuff in jazz time, with no call for repeats except when I'd shoot a string of figures at her. I was handin' myself the comfortin' thought, too, that I'd drawn a prize.
We breezes along on the report until near lunch time with never a hitch until I gets to this paragraph where I mentions Camp Mills, and the next thing I know she has stopped short and is snifflin' through her nose.
"Eh?" says I, gawpin' at her. "Have I been feedin' it at you too speedy?"
"N—no," says she, "bub—but that's where Stub is—Camp Mills—and it got to me sudden."
"Oh!" says I. "And Stub is a brother or something?"
"He—he—Well, there!" says she, holdin' out her left hand and displayin' a turquoise set with chip diamonds.
"Sorry," says I, "but I couldn't tell from the service pin, you understand, when some wears 'em for second cousins. And anyway, the name of the camp had to——"
"'Sall right," snuffles Miss Casey. "I had no call spillin' the weeps durin' business hours. I wouldn't of either, only I had another session with his old lady this mornin' and she sort of got me stirred up."
"Mother taking it hard, is she?" I asks.
"You've said sumpin," admits Miss Casey, unbuttonin' a locket vanity case and repairin' the damage done to her facial frescoin' with a few graceful jabs. "Not but what I ain't strong for Stub Mears myself. He's all right, Stub is, even if he never could qualify in a beauty competition with Jack Pickford or Mr. Doug. Fairbanks. He's good comp'ny and all that, and now he's in the army I expect he'll ditch that ambition of his to be the champion heavy-weight pool player of the West Side.
"But to hear Mrs. Mears talk you'd think he was one of the props of the universe, and that when the new draft got Stub it was a case where Congress ought to stop and draw a long breath. Uh-huh! She's 100 per cent. mother, Mrs. Mears is, and it looks like some of it was catchin' for me to get leaky-eyed just at mention of the camp he's in. Oh, lady, lady! Excuse it, please, sir."
Which I does cheerful enough. And just to prove I ain't any slave driver I sort of eggs Miss Casey on, from then until the noon hour, to chat away about this war romance of hers. Seems Mr. Mears could have been in Class B, on account of his widowed mother and him being a plumber's helper when he had time to spare from his pool practicin'. Livin' in the same block, they'd been acquainted for quite some time, too.
No, it hadn't been anything serious first off. She'd gone with him to the annual ball of Union 26 for two years in succession and to such like important social events. But there'd been other fellers. Two or three. And one had a perfectly swell job as manager of a United Cigar branch. Stub had been a great one for stickin' around, though, and when he showed up in his uniform—well, that clinched things.
"It wasn't so much the khaki stuff I fell for," confides Miss Casey, gazin' sentimental at a ham sandwich she's just unwrapped, "as it was the i-dear back of it. It's in the blood, you might say, for I had an uncle in the Spanish-American and a grandfather in the Civil War. So when Mr. Mears tells me how, when it comes time for him to go over the top, the one he'll be thinkin' most of will be me—Say, that got to me strong. 'You win, Stubby,' says I. 'Flash the ring.'
"That's how it was staged, all in one scene. And later when that Jake Horwitz from the United shop comes around sportin' his instalment Liberty bond button, but backin' his fallen arches to keep him exempt, I gives him the cold eye. 'Nix on the coo business, Mister Horwitz,' says I, 'for when I hold out my ear for that it's got to come from a reg'lar man. Get me?' Which is a good deal the same I hands the others.
"But say, between you and I, it's mighty lonesome work. You see, I'd figured how Stub would be blowin' in from camp every now and then, and we'd be doin' the Sunday afternoon parade up and down the block, with all the girls stretchin' their necks after us. You know? Well, he's been at the blessed camp near three months now and not once since that first flyin' trip has he showed up here.
"Which is why I've been droppin' in on his old lady so often, tryin' to dope why he shouldn't be let off, same as the others. Mrs. Mears, she's all primed with the notion that her Edgar has been makin' himself so useful down there that the colonel would get all balled up in his work if he didn't keep Stub right on the job. 'See,' says she, wavin' a picture post card at me, 'he's been appointed on the K. P. squad again.' Honest, she thinks he's something like a Knights of Pythias and goes marchin' around important with a plume in his hat and a gold sword. Mothers are easy, ain't they? You can bet though, that Stub don't try to buffalo little old me with anything like that. What he writes me, which ain't much, is mostly that his top sergeant's a grouch or that they've been quarantined on account of influenza. So I sends him back the best advice I've got in stock, askin' him why he don't buck up on his drill, keep his equipment clean, and shift that potato peelin' work to some of the new squads.
"Course, I don't spill any of this to Mrs. Mears. Poor soul! She's got troubles enough, right in her joints. Rheumatism. Uh-huh. Most of the time she has to get around in a wheel chair. Ain't that fierce? And she was mighty nervy about sendin' Stubby off. Wouldn't let him say a word about exemption. No, sir! 'Never mind me, Edgar,' says she. 'You kill a lot of Huns. I'll get along somehow.' That's talkin', ain't it? And her livin' with a sister-in-law that has a disposition like a green parrot!
"So I can't find much fault with her when she sort of overdoes the fond mother act. Seems to me they might let him off now and then, even if he does miss a few bugle calls, or forgets some of the rules and regulations. And this bug of hers about wonderin' when and how what he's doin' for his country is goin' to be reco'nized proper—Well, I don't debate that with her at all. For one thing I don't get just exactly what she wants; whether it's for the President to write her a special letter of thanks, or for Mr. Baker to make Stubby a captain or something right off. Anyway, she don't feel that Edgar's bein' treated right. He ain't even had his name in the papers and only a few of the neighbors seem to know he's a hero. Yep, it's foolish of her, I expect, but I let her unload it all on me without dodgin'. I've even promised to see what can be done about it. I—I'd been thinkin', sir, about askin' you."
"Eh?" says I, "Me? Oh, I couldn't think of a thing."
"But if I could, sir," goes on Miss Casey, "would—would you help out a little? She's an old lady, you know, and all crippled up, and Stubby he's all she's got left and——"
"Why, sure," I breaks in. "I'd do what I could."
I throws it off casual as I'm grabbin' my hat on my way out to lunch. And I supposed that would be all there'd be to it. But I hadn't got more'n half a line on Miss Casey. She's no easy quitter, that young lady. Having let me in on her little affair, she seems to think it's no more'n right I should be kept posted. A day or so later she lugs in a picture of Private Mears, one of the muddy printed post-card effects such as these roadside tripod artists take of the buddy boys around the camps.
"That's him," says she. "Looks kind of swell in the uniform, don't he?"
It was a fact. Stubby not only looks swell—but swelling. And it's lucky them army buttons are sewed on tight or else a good snappy salute would wreck him from the chin down. He's a sturdy, bulgy party, 'specially about the leggins.
"That's right, too," says Miss Casey. "Know what I tell him? If he can fight like he can eat, good-night Kaiser Bill. But at that they've pared fifteen pounds off him since he's been in the service."
"It's a great life," says I.
"Maybe," sighs Miss Casey, "but I wisht they'd let me have a close-up of him before they risk loadin' him on a transport. That's all I got against the Government. You ain't thought of any way it might be worked, have you?"
I had to admit that I hadn't, not addin' I didn't expect to. And I must have been stallin' along that line for a week or more until the forenoon when Vee blows in unexpected durin' a shoppin' trip and announces that I may take her out to luncheon.
"Fine!" says I. "Just as soon as I give two more letters to Miss Casey."
In the middle of the second one though, there's a call for me to go into the private office, and when I comes back from a ten-minute interview with Old Hickory I finds Vee and Miss Casey chattin' away like old friends. Vee is being told all about Stubby and the hard-boiled eggs he has for company officers.
"Three months without a furlough!" says Vee. "Isn't that a shame, Torchy? What is the number of his regiment?"
Miss Casey reels it off, addin' the company and division.
"Really!" says Vee. "Why, that's the company Captain Woodhouse commands. You remember him, Torchy?"
"Oh, yes! Woodie," says I. "I'd most forgotten him."
"I am going to call him up on the long distance right now," says Vee.
And in spite of all my lay-off signals she does it. Gets the captain, too. Yes, Woodie knows the case and he regrets to report that Private Mears's record isn't a good one; three times in the guardhouse and another week of K. P. coming to him. Under these circumstances he don't quite see how——
"Oh, come, captain!" puts in Vee coaxin'. "Don't be disagreeable. He's engaged, you know. Such a nice girl. And then there is his poor old mother who has seen him only once since he was drafted. Please, Woodie!"
I expect it was the "Woodie" that worked the trick. You see, this Woodhouse party used to think he was in the runnin' with Vee himself, way back when Auntie was doin' her best to discourage my little campaign, and although he quit and picked another several years ago I don't suppose he minds bein' called Woodie by Vee, even now. Anyway, after consultin' one of his lieutenants he gives her the word that if Private Mears don't pull any more cut-up stuff between now and a week from Wednesday he'll probably have forty-eight hours comin' to him.
And for a minute there I thought both Vee and I were let in for a fond clinch act with Miss Casey. As it is she takes it out in pattin' Vee's hand and callin' her Dearie.
"A week Wednesday, eh?" says Miss Casey. "Say, ain't that grand! And believe muh, I mean to work up some little party for Stubby. It's due him, and the old lady."
"Of course it is," agrees Vee. "And Torchy, you must do all you can to help."
"Very well, major," says I, salutin'.
And from then on I reports to Vee. It's only the next night that I gives her the first bulletin from the front. "What do you know?" says I. "Miss Casey has a hunch that she might organize a block party for the big night. I don't know whether she can swing it or not, but that's her scheme."
"But what on earth is a block party, Torchy?" Vee demands.
"Why," I explains, "it's a small town stunt that's being used in the city these days. Very popular, too. They get all the people in the block to chip in for a celebration—decorations, music, ice cream, all that—and generally they raise a block service flag. It takes some organizin', though."
"How perfectly splendid!" says Vee. "And that is just where you can be useful."
So that's how I come to spend that next evenin' trottin' up and down this block in the sixties between Ninth and Amsterdam. I must say it didn't look specially promisin' as a place to work up community spirit and that sort of thing. Just a dingy row of old style dumb-bell flats, most of 'em with "Room to Rent" signs hung out and little basement shops tucked in here and there. Maybe you know the kind—the asphalt always littered with paper, garbage cans left out, and swarms of kids playin' tip-cat or dashin' about on roller skates. Cheap and messy. And to judge by the names on the letter boxes you'd say the tenants had been shipped in from every country on the map. Anyway, our noble allies was well represented—with the French and Italians in the lead and the rest made up of Irish, Jews, Poles and I don't know what else. Everything but straight Americans.
Yet when you come to count up the service flags in the front windows you had to admit that Miss Casey's block must have a good many reg'lar citizens in it at that. There was more blue stars in evidence than you'd find on any three brownstone front blocks down on Madison or up in the Seventies. One flag had four, and none of 'em stood for butlers or chauffeurs. Course, some was only faded cotton, a few nothing but colored paper, but every star stood for a soldier, and I'll bet there wasn't a bomb-proofer in the lot.
Whether you could get these people together on any kind of a celebration or not was another question. We begins with Mike's place, on the corner.
"Sure!" says Mike. "Let's have a party. I'll ante twenty-five. And, say, I got a cousin in the Knights of Columbus who'll give you some tips on how to manage the thing."
The little old Frenchy in the Parisian hand laundry gave us a boost, too. Even J. Streblitz, high-class tailoring for ladies and gents, chipped in a ten and told us about his boy Herman, who'd been made a corporal and was at Chateau Thierry. Inside of three hours we'd made a sketchy canvas of the whole block, got half a dozen of the men to go on the committee, had over $100 subscribed, and the thing was under way.
"I just knew you could do it," says Vee, when I tells her about the start that's been made.
"Me!" says I. "Why it was mostly Miss Casey. About all I did was tag along and watch her work up the enthusiasm. She's some breeze, she is. When I left her she was plannin' on two bands and free ice cream for everyone who came."
As a matter of fact, that's about all I had to do with it, after the first push. Miss Casey must have had a busy week, but she don't lay down once on her reg'lar work nor beg for any time off. All she asks is if Vee and me couldn't be persuaded to be on hand Wednesday night as guests of honor.
"We wouldn't miss it for anything," says I.
Well, we didn't. I'd heard more or less about these block parties, but I'd never been to one. Course, I wasn't sure just how Vee would take it gettin' mixed up in a mob like that, but I was bankin' on her being a good sport. Besides, she was wild to go and see how Miss Casey had made out.
And say, when we swings in off Ninth Avenue and I gets my first glimpse of what had been done to that scrubby, messy lookin' block, it got a gasp out of me. First off there was strings of Japanese lanterns with electric lights in 'em stretched across the street from the front of every flat buildin' to the one opposite. Also every doorway and window was draped and decorated with bunting. Then there was all kinds of flags, from little ten centers to big twenty footers swung across the street. There was a whackin' big Irish flag loaned by the A. O. H.; two Italian flags almost as big; I don't know how many French tri-colors and some I couldn't place; Czecho-Slovaks maybe. And besides the lanterns and extra arc-lights there was red fire burnin' liberal. Then at either end of the block was a truck backed up with a band in it and they was tearin' away at all kinds of tunes from the "Marseillaise" to "K-k-k-katie," while bumpin' and bobbin' about on the asphalt were hundreds of couples doing jazz steps and gettin' pelted with confetti.
"Why, it's almost like the Mardi Gras!" says Vee.
"Looks festive, all right," says I. "And I should say Miss Casey has put over the real thing. I wonder if we can find her in this mob."
Seemed like a hopeless search, but finally, down in the middle of the block, I spots an old lady in a wheel chair, and I has a hunch it might be Mrs. Mears. Sure enough, it is. Not much to look at, she ain't; sort of humped over, with a shawl 'round her shoulders. But say, when you got a glimpse of the way her old eyes was lighted up, and saw the smile flickerin' around her lips, you knew that nobody in that whole crowd was any happier than she was just at that minute.
"Oh, yes," says she. "Minnie Casey is looking for you two young folks. She's dancing with Edgar now, but they'll be back soon. Haven't seen my son Edgar, have you? Well, you must. He—he's a soldier, you know."
"We should be delighted," says Vee. And then she whispers to me: "Hasn't she a nice face, though?"
We hadn't waited long before I sees a tall, willowy young thing wearin' one of them zippy French tams come bearin' down on us wavin' energetic and towin' along a red-faced young doughboy who looks like he'd been stuffed into his uniform by a sausage machine. It's Minnie and Stub.
"Hello, folks!" she sings out. "Say, I was just wonderin' if you was goin' to renig on me. Fine work! An' I want you to meet one of the most prominent privates in the division, Mr. Mears. Come on, Stubby, pull that overseas salute of yours. Ain't he a bear-cat, though? And how about the show? Ain't it some party?"
"Why, it's simply wonderful," says Vee. "I had no idea, Miss Casey, that you were planning anything like this."
"I didn't," says Minnie. "Only after we got started it kept gettin' bigger and bigger until there wa'n't a soul on the block but what came in on it. Know what one of the decorators told me? He says there ain't a block on the West Side has had anything up to this, from Houston Street up to the Harlem. That's goin' some, ain't it? You got here just in time for the big doin's, too. It's comin' off right now. See who's standin' up in the truck over there? That's one of the Paulist Fathers, who's goin' to make the speech and bless the flag. There it comes, out of that third-story window. Wow! Hear 'em cheer."
And as the red-bordered banner with the white field is pulled out where the searchlight strikes it we can make out the figures formed by blue stars.
"What!" says I. "Not 217 from this one block?"
"Uh-huh!" says Minnie. "And every one of 'em a Fritzie chaser. 'Most a whole company. But ther'd been one less if it hadn't been for Stubby, and everybody knows there's luck in odd numbers. That's why we're so chesty about him. Eh, Mrs. Mears?"
Yes, it was some lively affair. After the speech Mme. Toscarelli, draped in red, white and blue, sang the Star-Spangled Banner in spite of strong opposition from one of the bands that got the wrong cue and played "Indianola" all through the piece. And a fat boy rolled out of a second-story window in the Princess flats, but caromed off on an awnin' and wasn't hurt. Also a few young hicks started some rough stuff when the ice-cream freezers were opened, but a squad of Junior Naval League boys soon put a crimp in that. And when we had to leave, along about nine-thirty, it was as gay a scene as was ever staged on any West Side block, bar none. I remarked something of the sort to Mrs. Mears.
"Yes," says she, her eyes sort of dimmin' up. "And to think that all this should be done for my Edgar!"
At which Minnie Casey tips us the private wink. "Why not, I'd like to know?" says she. "Just look who he is."
"Yes, of course, dear," says Mrs. Mears, smilin' satisfied.
"Can you beat that for the genuine mother stuff?" whispers Minnie, givin' us a partin' grin.
"I do hope," says Vee, as we settles ourselves in a Long Island train for the ride home, "that Miss Casey gets her Edgar back safe and sound."
"If she don't," says I, "she's liable to go over and tear what's left of Germany off the map. Anyway, they'd better not get her started."
THE VAMP IN THE WINDOW
It was a case of Vee's being in town on a shoppin' orgie and my being invited to hunt her up about lunch time.
"Let's see," she 'phoned, "suppose you meet me about 12:30 at the Maison Noir. You know, West Fifty-sixth. And if I'm having a dress fitted on the second floor just wait downstairs for me, will you, Torchy?"
"In among all them young lady models?" says I. "Not a chance. You'll find me hangin' up outside. And don't make it more'n half an hour behind schedule, Vee, for this is one of my busy days."
"Oh, very well," says she careless.
So that's how I came to be backed up in the lee of the doorway at 12:45 when this stranger with the mild blue eyes and the chin dimple eases in with the friendly hail.
"Excuse me," says he, "but haven't we met somewhere before?"
Which is where my fatal gift for rememberin' faces and forgettin' names comes into play. After giving him the quick up and down I had him placed but not tagged.
"Not quite," says I. "But we lived in the same apartment buildin' a couple of years back. Third floor west, wasn't you?"
"That's it," says he. "And I believe I heard you'd just been married."
"Yes, we did have a chatty janitor," says I. "You were there with your mother, from somewhere out on the Coast. We almost got to the noddin' point when we met in the elevator, didn't we?"