The wit and humor of ame.., p.8

The Wit and Humor of America, Volume VII. (of X.), page 8

 part  #VII. (of X.) of  The Wit and Humor of America Series


The Wit and Humor of America, Volume VII. (of X.)

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  "I'm digging at the law, at the same old stand. I can't say that I'mflourishing like Jonah's gourd, as you seem to be."

  Morris cast his eyes over the room, which was handsomely furnished.There was a good rug on the floor and the desk and table were of heavyoak; an engraving of Thomas Jefferson hung over Balcomb's desk, and onthe opposite side of the room was a table covered with financialreference books.

  "Well, I tell you, old man," declared Balcomb, "you've got to fool allthe people all the time these days to make it go. Those venerablewhiskers around town whine about the good old times and how a youngman's got to go slow but sure. There's nothing in it; and they wouldn'tbe in it either, if they had to start in again; no siree!"

  "What is your game just now, Jack, if it isn't impertinent? It's hard tokeep track of you. I remember very well that you started in to learn thewholesale drug business."

  "Oh tush! don't refer to that, an thou lovest me! That is one of thedarkest pages of my life. Those people down there in South High Streetthought I was a jay, and they sent me out to help the shipping clerk.Wouldn't that jar you! Overalls,--and a hand truck. Wow! I couldn't getout of that fast enough. Then, you know, I went to Chicago and spent ayear in a broker's office, and I guess I learned a few up there. Oh,rather! They sent me into the country to sell mining stock and I made arecord. They kept the printing presses going overtime to keep mesupplied. Say, they got afraid of me; I was too good!"

  He stroked his vandyke beard complacently, and flicked the ash from hiscigar.

  "What's your line now? Real estate, mortgages, lending money to thepoor? How do you classify yourself?"

  "You do me a cruel wrong, Morris, a cruel wrong. You read my sign on theouter wall? Well, that's a bluff. There's nothing in real estate, _perse_, as old Doc Bridges used to say at college. And the loan businesshas all gone to the bad,--people are too rich; farmers are rolling inreal money and have it to lend. There was nothing for little Willie inpetty brokerages. I'm scheming--promoting--and I take my slice off ofeverything that passes."

  "That certainly sounds well. You've learned fast. You had an ambition tobe a poet when you were in college. I think I still have a few pounds ofyour verses in my traps somewhere."

  Balcomb threw up his head and laughed in self-pity.

  "I believe I _was_ bitten with the literary tarantula for a while, butI've lived it down, I hope. Prexy used to predict a bright literaryfuture for me in those days. You remember, when I made Phi Beta Kappa,how he took both my hands and wept over me. 'Balcomb,' he says, 'you'rean honor to the college.' I suppose he'd weep again, if he knew I'd onlyforgotten about half the letters of the Greek alphabet,--left them, asone might say, several thousand parasangs to the rear in my mad race fordaily sustenance. Well, I may not leave any vestiges on the sands oftime, but, please God, I shan't die hungry,--not if I keep my health.Dear old Prexy! He was a nice old chump, though a trifle somnolent inhis chapel talks."

  "Well, we needn't pull the planks out of the bridge we've crossed on. Igot a lot out of college that I'm grateful for. They did their best forus," said Morris.

  "Oh, yes; it was well enough, but if I had it to do over, Tippecanoewouldn't see me; not much! It isn't what you learn in college, it's thefriendships you make and all that sort of thing that counts. A westernman ought to go east to college and rub up against eastern fellows. Theatmosphere at the freshwater colleges is pretty jay. Fred Waters leftTippecanoe and went to Yale and got in with a lot of influential fellowsdown there,--chaps whose fathers are in big things in New York. Fred hasa fine position now, just through his college pull, and first thing youknow, he'll pick up an heiress and be fixed for life. Fred's a winnerall right."

  "He's also an ass," said Leighton. "I remember him of old."

  "An ass of the large gray and long-eared species,--I'll grant you that,all right enough; but look here, old man, you've got to overlook thefact that a fellow occasionally lifts his voice and brays. Man does notlive by the spirit alone; he needs bread, and bread's getting hard toget."

  "I've noticed it," replied Leighton, who had covered all this groundbefore in talks with Balcomb and did not care to go into it further.

  "And then, you remember," Balcomb went on, in enjoyment of his ownreminiscences, "I wooed the law for a while. But I guess what I learnedwouldn't have embarrassed Chancellor Kent. I really had a client once. Ididn't see a chance of getting one any other way, so I hired him. He wasa coon. I employed him for two dollars to go to the Grand Opera Houseand buy a seat in the orchestra when Sir Henry Irving was giving _TheMerchant of Venice_. He went to sleep and snored and they threw him outwith rude, insolent, and angry hands after the second act; and I broughtsuit against the management for damages, basing my claim on the ideathat they had spurned my dusky brother on account of his race, color andprevious condition of servitude. The last clause was a joke. He hadnever done any work in his life, except for the state. He was a verysightly coon, too, now that I recall him. The show was, as I said, _TheMerchant of Venice_, and I'll leave it to anybody if my client wasn't atleast as pleasing to the eye as Sir Henry in his Shylock togs. I supposeif it had been _Othello_, race feeling would have run so high that SirHenry would hardly have escaped lynching. Well, to return. My client gotloaded on gin about the time the case came up on demurrer and gave thesnap away, and I dropped out of the practice to avoid being disbarred.And it was just as well. My landlord had protested against my using theoffice at night for poker purposes, so I passed up the law and soughtthe asphodel fields of promotion. _Les affaires font l'homme_, as oldProfessor Garneau used to say at college. So here I am; and I'm glad Ishook the law. I'd got tired of eating coffee and rolls at the Berlinbakery three times a day.

  "Why, Morris, old man," he went on volubly, "there were days when theloneliness in my office grew positively oppressive. You may rememberthat room I had in the old Adams and Harper Block? It gave upon acourtyard where the rats from a livery stable came to disport themselveson rainy days. I grew to be a dead shot with the flobert rifle; butlawsy, there's mighty little consideration for true merit in this world!Just because I winged a couple of cheap hack horses one day, when mynerves weren't steady, the livery people made me stop, and one of myfellow tenants in the old rookery threatened to have me arrested forconducting a shooting gallery without a license. He was a dentist, andhe said the snap of the rifle worried his victims."

  The two typewriting machines outside clicked steadily. Some one knockedat the door.

  "Come in!" shouted Balcomb.

  One of the typewriter operators entered with a brisk air of business andhanded a telegram to Balcomb, who tore it open nonchalantly. As he readit, he tossed the crumpled envelope over his shoulder in anabsent-minded way.

  "By Jove!" he exclaimed, slapping his leg as though the news wereimportant. Then, to the girl, who waited with note-book and pencil inhand: "Never mind; don't wait. I'll dictate the answer later."

  "How did it work?" he asked, turning to Leighton, who had been lookingover the books on the table.

  "How did what work?"

  "The fake. It was a fake telegram. That girl's trained to bring in amessage every time I have a caller. If the caller stays thirty minutes,it's two messages,--in other words I'm on a fifteen-minute schedule. Itip a boy in the telegraph office to keep me supplied with blanks. It'sa great scheme. There's nothing like a telegram to create theimpression that your office is a seething caldron of business. Old Prexywas in town the other day. I don't suppose he ever got a dose ofelectricity in his life unless he had been sorely bereft of a member ofhis family and was summoned to the funeral baked meats. Say, he musthave thought I had a private wire!"

  Leighton sat down and fanned himself with his hat.

  "You'll be my death yet. You have the cheek of a nice, fresh, newbaggage-check, Balcomb."

  "Your cigar isn't burning well, Morris. Won't you try another? No? Ilike my guests to be comfortable."

  "I'm comfortable enough. I'm even entertained. Go ahead and let me seethe res
t of the show."

  "Oh, we haven't exactly a course of stunts here. Those are nice girlsout there. I've broken them of the chewing-gum habit, and they cananswer anxious inquiries at the door now without danger ofstrangulation."

  "They seem speedy on the machine. Your correspondence must be somethingvast!"

  "Um, yes. It has to be. Every cheap skate of a real estate man keeps onestenographer. My distinction is that I keep two. They're easyadvertising. Now that little one in the pink shirt-waist that brought inthe message from Mars a moment ago is a wonder of intelligence. Do youknow what she's doing now?"

  "Trying to break the machine I should guess, from the racket."

  "Bah! It's the Lord's Prayer."

  "You mean it's a sort of prayer machine."

  "Not on your life. Maude hasn't any real work to do just now and she'srunning off the Lord's Prayer. I know by the way it clicks. When shestrikes 'our daily bread' the machine always gives a little gasp. See?The rule of the office is that they must have some diddings doing allthe time. The big one with red hair is a perfect marvel at theDeclaration of Independence. She'll be through addressing circulars in alittle while and will run off into 'All men are created equal'--ablooming lie, by the way--without losing a stroke."

  "You _have_ passed the poetry stage, beyond a doubt. But I should thinkthe strain of keeping all this going would be wearing on your sensitivepoetical nature. And it must cost something."

  "Oh, yes!" Balcomb pursed his lips and stroked his fine soft beard. "Butit's worth it. I'm not playing for small stakes. I'm looking forChristmas trees. Now they've got their eyes on me. These old Elijahsthat have been the bone and sinew of the town for so long that theythink they own it, are about done for. You can't sit in a bank here anymore and look solemn and turn people down because your corn hurts orbecause the chinch-bugs have got into the wheat in Dakota or the czarhas bought the heir apparent a new toy pistol. You've got to present asmiling countenance to the world and give the glad hand to everybodyyou're likely to need in your business. I jolly everybody!"

  "That comes easy for you; but I didn't know you could make an asset ofit."

  "It's part of my working capital. Now you'd better cut loose from oldman Carr and move up here and get a suite near me. I've got more than Ican do,--I'm always needing a lawyer,--organizing companies, legality ofbonds, and so on. Dignified work. Lots of out-of-town people come hereand I'll put you in touch with them. I threw a good thing to Van Cleveonly the other day. Bond foreclosure suit for some fellows in the Eastthat I sell stuff to. They wrote and asked me the name of a good man. Ithought of you--old college days and all that--but Van Cleve had justdone me a good turn and I had to let him have it. But you'd better comeover. You'll never know the world's in motion in that musty old hole ofCarr's. You get timid and afraid to go near the water by staying onshore so long. But say, Morris, you seem to be getting along pretty wellin the social push. Your name looks well in the society column. How doyou work it, anyhow?"

  "Don't expect me to give the snap away. The secret's valuable. And I'mnot really inside; I am only peering through the pickets!"

  "Tush! Get thee hence! I saw you in a box at the theater the othernight,--evidently Mrs. Carr's party. There's nothing like mixingbusiness with pleasure. Ah me!"

  He yawned and stroked his beard and laughed, with a fine showing ofwhite teeth.

  "I don't see what's pricking you with small pins of envy. You were therewith about the gayest crowd I ever saw at a theater; and it looked likeyour own party."

  "Don't say a word," implored Balcomb, putting out his hand. "Members ofthe board of managers of the state penitentiary, their wives, theircousins and their aunts. Say, weren't those beauteous whiskers! My eye!Well, the evening netted me about five hundred plunks, and I got to seethe show and to eat a good supper in the bargain. Some reformers were toappear before them that night officially, and my friends wanted to keepthem busy. I was called into the game to do something,--hence thesetears. Lawsy! I earned my money. Did you see those women?--about twomillion per cent. pure jay!"

  "You ought to cut out that sort of thing; it isn't nice."

  "Oh, you needn't be so virtuous. Carr keeps a whole corps of rascals tospread apple-butter on the legislature corn-bread."

  "You'd better speak to him about it. He'd probably tell Mrs. Carr to askyou to dinner right away."

  "Oh, that will come in time. I don't expect to do everything at once.You may see me up there some time; and when you do, don't shy off like acolt at the choo-choos. By the way, I'd like to be one of the brightparticular stars of the Dramatic Club if you can fix it. You rememberthat amateur theatricals are rather in my line."

  "I do. At college you were one of the most persistent Thespians we had,and one of the worst. But let social matters go. You haven't told me howto get rich quick yet. I haven't had the nerve to chuck the law as youhave."

  "Well," continued Balcomb, expansively, "a fellow has got to take whathe can when he can. One swallow doesn't make a summer; one suckerdoesn't make a spring; so we must catch the birdling _en route_ or _enpassant_, as our dear professor of modern languages used to try to getus to remark. Say, between us old college friends, I cleared up a coupleof thousand last week just too easy for any use. You know Singerly, thepopular undertaker,--Egyptian secret of embalming, lady and gentlemanattendants, night and day,--always wears a spray of immortelles in hislapel and a dash of tuberose essence on his handkerchief. Well, Singerlyand I operated together in the smoothest way you ever saw. Excuse me!"He lay back and howled. "Well, there was an old house up here on HighStreet just where it begins to get good; very exclusive--old familiesand all that. It belonged to an estate, and I got an option on it justfor fun. I began taking Singerly up there to look at it. We'd measureit, and step it off, and stop and palaver on the sidewalk. In a day ortwo those people up there began to take notice and to do me the honor tocall on me. You see, my boy, an undertaking shop--even a fashionableone--for a neighbor, isn't pleasant; it wouldn't add, as one might say,to the _sauce piquante_ of life; and as a reminder of our mortality--atrifle depressing, as you will admit."

  He took the cigar from his mouth and examined the burning end of itthoughtfully.

  "I sold the option to one of Singerly's prospective neighbors for thematter of eleven hundred. He's a retired wholesale grocer and didn'tneed the money."

  "Seems to me you're cutting pretty near the dead-line, Jack. That's nota pretty sort of hold-up. You might as well take a sandbag and lie inwait by night."

  "Great rhubarb! You make me tired. I'm not robbing the widow and theorphan, but a fat old Dutchman who doesn't ask anything of life but hissauerkraut and beer."

  "And you do! You'd better give your ethical sense a good tonic beforeyou butt into the penal code."

  "Come off! I've got a better scheme even than the Singerly deal. Theschool board's trying to locate a few schools in up-town districts. Veryundesirable neighbors. I rather think I can make a couple of turnsthere. This is all strictly _inter nos_, as Professor Morton used to sayin giving me, as a special mark of esteem, a couple of hundred extralines of Virgil to keep me in o' nights."

  He looked at his watch and gave the stem-key a few turns beforereturning it to his pocket.

  "You'll have to excuse me, old man. I've got a date with Adams, over atthe Central States Trust Company. He's a right decent chap when you knowhow to handle him. I want to get them to finance a big apartment housescheme. I've got an idea for a flat that will make the town sit up andgasp."

  "Don't linger on my account, Jack. I only stopped in to see whether youkept your good spirits. I feel as though I'd had a shower bath. Comealong."

  Several men were waiting to see Balcomb in the outer office and he shookhands with all of them and begged them to come again, taking care tomention that he had been called to the Central States Trust Company andhad to hurry away.

  He called peremptorily to the passing elevator-car to wait, and as heand Leighton squeezed into it, he continued his ha
lf of an imaginaryconversation in a tone that was audible to every passenger.

  "I could have had those bonds, if I had wanted them; but I knew therewas a cloud on them--the county was already over its legal limit. Iguess those St. Louis fellows will be sorry they were soenterprising--here we are!"

  And then in a lower tone to Leighton: "That was for old man Dameron'sbenefit. Did you see him jammed back in the corner of the car? Queer oldparty and as tight as a drum. When I can work off some assessable andnon-interest bearing bonds on him, it'll be easy to sell Uncle Sam'sTreasury a gold brick. They say the old man has a daughter who is finerthan gold; yea, than much fine gold. I'm going to look her up, if I everget time. You'd better come over soon and pick out an office. _Verbumsat sapienti_, as our loving teacher used to say. So long!"

  Leighton walked back to his office in good humor and better contentedwith his own lot.



  "The proper way for a man to pray," Said Deacon Lemuel Keyes, "And the only proper attitude Is down upon his knees."

  "No, I should say the way to pray," Said Rev. Dr. Wise, "Is standing straight, with outstretched arms, And rapt and upturned eyes."

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