Read CHAPTER III of The House of Torchy , free online book, by Sewell Ford, on ReadCentral.com.

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:

“Well, son?”

“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.”