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Wit and Humor of America, The Vol 07

JACK BALCOMB'S PLEASANT WAYS

BY MEREDITH NICHOLSON

There comes a time in the life of young men when their college fraternity pins lie forgotten in the collar-button box and the spiking of freshmen ceases to be a burning issue. Tippecanoe was one of the few freshwater colleges that barred women; but this was not its only distinction, for its teaching was sound, its campus charming and the town of which it was the chief ornament a quiet place noted from the beginning of things for its cultivated people.

It is no longer so very laudable for a young man to pay his way through college; and Morris Leighton had done this easily and without caring to be praised or martyrized for doing so. He had enjoyed his college days; he had been popular with town and gown; and he had managed to get his share of undergraduate fun while leading his classes. He had helped in the college library; he had twisted the iron letter-press on the president's correspondence late into the night; he had copied briefs for a lawyer after hours; but he had pitched for the nine and hustled for his "frat," and he had led class rushes with ardor and success.

He had now been for several years in the offices of Knight, Kittredge and Carr at Mariona, only an hour's ride from Tippecanoe; and he still kept in touch with the college. Michael Carr fully appreciated a young man who took the law seriously and who could sit down in a court room on call mornings, when need be, and turn off a demurrer without paraphrasing it from a text-book.

Mrs. Carr, too, found Morris Leighton useful, and she liked him, because he always responded unquestioningly to any summons to fill up a blank at her table; and if Mr. Carr was reluctant at the last minute to attend a lecture on "Egyptian Burial Customs," Mrs. Carr could usually summon Morris Leighton by telephone in time to act as her escort. Young men were at a premium in Mariona, as in most other places, and it was something to have one of the species, of an accommodating turn, and very presentable, within telephone range. Mrs. Carr was grateful, and so, it must be said, was her husband, who did not care to spend his evenings digging up Egyptians that had been a long time dead, or listening to comic operas. It was through Mrs. Carr that Leighton came to be well known in Mariona; she told her friends to ask him to call, and there were now many homes besides hers that he visited.

It sometimes occurred to Morris Leighton that he was not getting ahead in the world very fast. He knew that his salary from Carr was more than any other young lawyer of his years earned by independent practice; but it seemed to him that he ought to be doing better. He had not drawn on his mother's small resources since his first year at college; he had made his own way—and a little more—but he experienced moments of restlessness in which the difficulties of establishing himself in his profession loomed large and formidable.

An errand to a law firm in one of the fashionable new buildings that had lately raised the Mariona sky-line led him one afternoon past the office of his college classmate, Jack Balcomb. "J. Arthur Balcomb," was the inscription on the door, "Suite B, Room 1." Leighton had seen little of Balcomb for a year or more, and his friend's name on the ground-glass door arrested his eye.

Two girls were busily employed at typewriters in the anteroom, and one of them extended a blank card to Morris and asked him for his name. The girl disappeared into the inner room and came back instantly followed by Balcomb, who seized Morris's hand, dragged him in and closed the door.

"Well, old man!" Balcomb shouted. "I'm glad to see you. It's downright pleasant to have a fellow come in occasionally and feel no temptation to take his watch. Sink into yonder soft-yielding leather and allow me to offer you one of these plutocratic perfectos. Only the elect get these, I can tell you. In that drawer there I keep a brand made out of car waste and hemp rope, that does very well for ordinary commercial sociability. Got a match? All right; smoke up and tell me what you're doing to make the world a better place to live in, as old Prexy used to say at college."

"I'm digging at the law, at the same old stand. I can't say that I'm flourishing 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 heavy oak; an engraving of Thomas Jefferson hung over Balcomb's desk, and on the opposite side of the room was a table covered with financial reference books.

"Well, I tell you, old man," declared Balcomb, "you've got to fool all the people all the time these days to make it go. Those venerable whiskers around town whine about the good old times and how a young man's got to go slow but sure. There's nothing in it; and they wouldn't be 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 to keep track of you. I remember very well that you started in to learn the wholesale drug business."

"Oh tush! don't refer to that, an thou lovest me! That is one of the darkest pages of my life. Those people down there in South High Street thought 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 get out of that fast enough. Then, you know, I went to Chicago and spent a year 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 a record. They kept the printing presses going overtime to keep me supplied. Say, they got afraid of me; I was too good!"

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

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

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

"That certainly sounds well. You've learned fast. You had an ambition to be a poet when you were in college. I think I still have a few pounds of your 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, but I've lived it down, I hope. Prexy used to predict a bright literary future 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're an honor to the college.' I suppose he'd weep again, if he knew I'd only forgotten about half the letters of the Greek alphabet,—left them, as one might say, several thousand parasangs to the rear in my mad race for daily sustenance. Well, I may not leave any vestiges on the sands of time, 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 in his chapel talks."

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

"Oh, yes; it was well enough, but if I had it to do over, Tippecanoe wouldn't see me; not much! It isn't what you learn in college, it's the friendships you make and all that sort of thing that counts. A western man ought to go east to college and rub up against eastern fellows. The atmosphere at the freshwater colleges is pretty jay. Fred Waters left Tippecanoe and went to Yale and got in with a lot of influential fellows down there,—chaps whose fathers are in big things in New York. Fred has a fine position now, just through his college pull, and first thing you know, he'll pick up an heiress and be fixed for life. Fred's a winner all 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 the fact that a fellow occasionally lifts his voice and brays. Man does not live by the spirit alone; he needs bread, and bread's getting hard to get."

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

"And then, you remember," Balcomb went on, in enjoyment of his own reminiscences, "I wooed the law for a while. But I guess what I learned wouldn't have embarrassed Chancellor Kent. I really had a client once. I didn't see a chance of getting one any other way, so I hired him. He was a coon. I employed him for two dollars to go to the Grand Opera House and buy a seat in the orchestra when Sir Henry Irving was giving The Merchant of Venice. He went to sleep and snored and they threw him out with rude, insolent, and angry hands after the second act; and I brought suit against the management for damages, basing my claim on the idea that they had spurned my dusky brother on account of his race, color and previous condition of servitude. The last clause was a joke. He had never done any work in his life, except for the state. He was a very sightly coon, too, now that I recall him. The show was, as I said, The Merchant of Venice, and I'll leave it to anybody if my client wasn't at least as pleasing to the eye as Sir Henry in his Shylock togs. I suppose if it had been Othello, race feeling would have run so high that Sir Henry would hardly have escaped lynching. Well, to return. My client got loaded on gin about the time the case came up on demurrer and gave the snap 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 the office at night for poker purposes, so I passed up the law and sought the asphodel fields of promotion. Les affaires font l'homme, as old Professor Garneau used to say at college. So here I am; and I'm glad I shook the law. I'd got tired of eating coffee and rolls at the Berlin bakery three times a day.

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

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

"Come in!" shouted Balcomb.

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

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

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

"How did what work?"

"The fake. It was a fake telegram. That girl's trained to bring in a message 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. I tip a boy in the telegraph office to keep me supplied with blanks. It's a great scheme. There's nothing like a telegram to create the impression that your office is a seething caldron of business. Old Prexy was in town the other day. I don't suppose he ever got a dose of electricity in his life unless he had been sorely bereft of a member of his family and was summoned to the funeral baked meats. Say, he must have 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, new baggage-check, Balcomb."

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

"I'm comfortable enough. I'm even entertained. Go ahead and let me see the rest of the show."

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

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

"Um, yes. It has to be. Every cheap skate of a real estate man keeps one stenographer. My distinction is that I keep two. They're easy advertising. Now that little one in the pink shirt-waist that brought in the message from Mars a moment ago is a wonder of intelligence. Do you know 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's running off the Lord's Prayer. I know by the way it clicks. When she strikes 'our daily bread' the machine always gives a little gasp. See? The rule of the office is that they must have some diddings doing all the time. The big one with red hair is a perfect marvel at the Declaration of Independence. She'll be through addressing circulars in a little while and will run off into 'All men are created equal'—a blooming lie, by the way—without losing a stroke."

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

"Oh, yes!" Balcomb pursed his lips and stroked his fine soft beard. "But it's worth it. I'm not playing for small stakes. I'm looking for Christmas trees. Now they've got their eyes on me. These old Elijahs that have been the bone and sinew of the town for so long that they think they own it, are about done for. You can't sit in a bank here any more and look solemn and turn people down because your corn hurts or because the chinch-bugs have got into the wheat in Dakota or the czar has bought the heir apparent a new toy pistol. You've got to present a smiling countenance to the world and give the glad hand to everybody you'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 of it."

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

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

"Tush! Get thee hence! I saw you in a box at the theater the other night,—evidently Mrs. Carr's party. There's nothing like mixing business with pleasure. Ah me!"

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

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

"Don't say a word," implored Balcomb, putting out his hand. "Members of the board of managers of the state penitentiary, their wives, their cousins and their aunts. Say, weren't those beauteous whiskers! My eye! Well, the evening netted me about five hundred plunks, and I got to see the show and to eat a good supper in the bargain. Some reformers were to appear before them that night officially, and my friends wanted to keep them busy. I was called into the game to do something,—hence these tears. Lawsy! I earned my money. Did you see those women?—about two million 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 to spread apple-butter on the legislature corn-bread."

"You'd better speak to him about it. He'd probably tell Mrs. Carr to ask you 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 a colt at the choo-choos. By the way, I'd like to be one of the bright particular stars of the Dramatic Club if you can fix it. You remember that 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 how to get rich quick yet. I haven't had the nerve to chuck the law as you have."

"Well," continued Balcomb, expansively, "a fellow has got to take what he can when he can. One swallow doesn't make a summer; one sucker doesn't make a spring; so we must catch the birdling en route or en passant, as our dear professor of modern languages used to try to get us to remark. Say, between us old college friends, I cleared up a couple of thousand last week just too easy for any use. You know Singerly, the popular undertaker,—Egyptian secret of embalming, lady and gentleman attendants, night and day,—always wears a spray of immortelles in his lapel and a dash of tuberose essence on his handkerchief. Well, Singerly and 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 High Street just where it begins to get good; very exclusive—old families and all that. It belonged to an estate, and I got an option on it just for fun. I began taking Singerly up there to look at it. We'd measure it, and step it off, and stop and palaver on the sidewalk. In a day or two those people up there began to take notice and to do me the honor to call on me. You see, my boy, an undertaking shop—even a fashionable one—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—a trifle depressing, as you will admit."

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

"I sold the option to one of Singerly's prospective neighbors for the matter of eleven hundred. He's a retired wholesale grocer and didn't need the money."

"Seems to me you're cutting pretty near the dead-line, Jack. That's not a pretty sort of hold-up. You might as well take a sandbag and lie in wait by night."

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

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

"Come off! I've got a better scheme even than the Singerly deal. The school board's trying to locate a few schools in up-town districts. Very undesirable neighbors. I rather think I can make a couple of turns there. This is all strictly inter nos, as Professor Morton used to say in giving me, as a special mark of esteem, a couple of hundred extra lines of Virgil to keep me in o' nights."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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