A Queer mixture

J.J. Bell September 1 1910

A Queer mixture

J.J. Bell September 1 1910

A Queer mixture

J.J. Bell

"WHO’S the blue-eyed little thing?” inquired the smartly-dressed, fat-faced man, tilting back his chair and his silk hat simultaneously.

“Who?” The younger man at the desk spoke absently, without raising his eyes from a broad sheet of paper crossed with red and blue lines and peppered, so to speak, with black figures. “Your pardon, Mr. Fashner— what did you say?”

“Oh, nothing of importance. She’s rather a pretty little piece—the girl who brought you that statement. Reminded me of my little friend Lottie Helm who’s playing at the Octagon just now. You have some nice-looking girls around you, Locksley.” Mr. Fashner laughed, and selected an Egyptian cigarette.

“Yes, I suppose so,” said the other, making a pencil jotting on a slip of paper. “Excuse me for a minute, while I get out this percentage. . . . H’m ! It’s as I feared, Mr. Fashner —not very satisfactory.” He repeated some figures, the results of his brief calculations.

“No,” said Mr. Fashner, frowning as he struck a match, “it’s as you say—not very satisfactory. You’ll have to buck up, Locksley.”

Locksley said nothing. Apologies and explanations did not come read130

ily to him, and he was not the sort of man who makes airy promises. He was wishing Mr. Fashner would take his departure, and leave , him alone to think things out.

“Of course,” continued the older man, perhaps a trifle patronizing, “we must not expect too much all at once. Still, the business is two years old now, and we should be glad to see a start at profit-making. We are paying you a generous—but I need not refer to that, since I am sure you fully appreciate the fact. Well, I must be getting along. By the by, what is the name of the blue-eyed little thing?”

“I’m sorry I don’t know whom you mean, Mr. Fashner,” Locksley replied.

“Why, I told you ; the girl who brought you the statement.”

“Oh, yes—yes. But I didn’t notice her. She came from the sales office. That’s all I can say about her.”

“I thought she might have been your secretary or stenographer,” said Fashner with a laugh which was not unpleasant, but rather silly for a middle-aged man.

Locksley smiled in spite of himself. “I’m afraid you would not have called my chief stenographer a ‘blue-eyed little thing,’ though she does wear blue glasses. She stands nearly six

feet.” He sighed. “Poor creature! She leaves us this week because of her sight.”

“Hard lines, I’m sure,” said Fashner, getting up and putting his hat straight, with deliberation. Then he extracted his pocket-book and took from it a five-pound note. “Put it along with her salary, when she gets it for the last time,” he said, throwing • the note on Locksley’s blotting-pad. Then he held out his hand. “Buck up, Locksley, and let me have a better report of things next time we meet,” he said. “I don't blame you, but the others are inclined to get rusty.” With a nod he left the room.

“A queer mixture,” said Locksley to himself. “Wonder if he’ll do as much for me when I leave this place. Hardly—because I’ll be sacked,” he said. Leaning his head, which felt unusually heavy, on his hand, he began 1,0 examine the figures on the broad sheet with red and blue rulings. Presently his pencil stopped at a little block of figures. At the end of a minute's reflection he put out his hand and rang the bell.

Following a tap on the door, a girl entered. Locksley glanced up, and allowed his eyes to linger for a moment. She was not what he would have called “little.” His eyes went back to the figures.

“Who is responsible for the making-up of this statement?” he asked.

“I, sir.”

“Then can you assure me that these figures—these here"—he indicated them with his pencil—“are correct?’’

“Yes, sir.”

Locksley stroked his dark moustache, regarding the figures thoughtfully. They showed an appalling drop from the previous week in the lace department.

“Sure they’re correct?”

“Yes, sir.”

'“No mistake in the figures supplied to you?”

“I thought there must be some error when I first got them, so I went to the lace department and made sure.”

“Ah! You take an interest in thebusiness !”

She smiled slightly.

“A great many people here take an interest in their own part of the business,” he remarked, “but not many, I’m afraid, do so as regards the business. I’m obliged to you. Now I want the lace figures for the past thirteen weeks—it will do in the morning—also the figures for the corresponding weeks of last year. You understand ?”

“Yes, sir.” She scribbled on a tablet.

He looked up. “You write shorthand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good speed?”

“I believe it’s pretty good,” she said frankly.

It was here that he noticed her eyes. “Take this down,” he said, and read fairly rapidly from a circular which he took from a basket. “Bring a typed copy with the figures to-morrow morning. What is your name?” “Mildred Harvey.”

“Thank you. That is all just now.” The remainder of the afternoon saw him engaged in receiving callers, interviewing heads of departments, dictating letters. At seven o’clock he dined hurriedly in a restaurant, and returned to the office to wrestle with figures. The man's days were spent in talk, his nights, with rare exceptions, in thought and calculation. John Locksley was strong of mind, as well as of body, but he was beginning to suffer from discouragement ; he was an eager worker, but the feeling was growing upon him that he was striving in vain. He could not get away from the fact that Locksley’s Stores had failed to “catch on.” For the first two months of its existence the enormous warehouse had certainly attracted the public; but now the people came in hundreds, instead of in thousands, and there were spells ot actual slackness. Probably the average customer would still imagine that Locksley’s was doing splendidly, but such an establishment was doomed un-

less the people came in their battalions. And Locksley knew it. He was tired of asking himself why the public did not over-run the place, why the daily flood of orders by post had dribbled to such a depressingly small stream. He was tired of trying to explain these things by “the general depression in trade,” “over-competition,” and so on. The cold and simple fact remained— Locksley’s Stores had not “caught on” with the public. For the first time in his life—he was thirty-four now—he was losing confidence. Also, he was wishing that he had never come to London.

In a city in the Midlands Locksley had, a few years earlier, undertaken the management of an old-established but failing business, revivifying it and forcing it again to the very heights of prosperity. And then, whilst ambition sang in one ear, temptation whispered in the other. A syndicate comprising seven immensely wealthy men invited him to London. They had the money, he the ability and experience. They wanted his name also. Nominally he was the proprietor of the magnificent building that rose shortly afterwards in one of the western thoroughfares. He was really a figurehead, though, to be sure, he had all the responsibility, unlimited powers of management, and a yearly salary of £1,500. Already he was counting his income as at an end, and his good name as beyond redemption. He could have endured the former misfortune.

Figures, figures, figures ! Pounds, shillings, pence—and those silly farthings. Were the buyers or the sellers the bigger fools? What was business at all, except to take an advantage under the pretence of giving it?

Locksley literally sweated over the sheets of figures. He absorbed them, he analyzed them, he wrought with them. But he could not juggle with them. They were black figures ; in no way could he make them golden. They represented a deplorable loss on the week’s trading.

At one o’clock in the morning he left the office for his hotel, determined to inform the syndicate on the morrow that the game was not worth the candle. But it was not the first time he had gone to bed with that determination, only to wake, not so much with renewed hope as a fierce defiance of failure.

“The statements you asked for yesterday afternoon, sir.” Miss Harvey laid the broad sheets at the side of his desk.

“Thank you,” he said absently.

“And the typescript.”

“The what? . . . Ah, yes; of course.” He took it from her hand, and the circular, on which she had written her name, from a drawer. He compared the two, and laid them aside.

“Any customers in the leather department as you came through?” he inquired.

“Eight, sir.”

He put his hand on the statements. “There is some work here,” he remarked. “Did you stay late last night?”

“I came in early this morning, sir.”

Then he looked up. By this time he knew she was pretty, but at that moment he was struck more by her freshness than by her features. In her regulation pale grey dress, with its collar, cuffs and belt of white, she would have attracted most men.

“What is your salary at present, Miss Harvey?”

“Fifteen shillings, sir,” she answered, with a slight start.

“My chief stenographer is leaving on Saturday. Do you think you could take her place?”

She flushed, and a small laugh of delight escaped her. She bit her lip, and replied, demurely enough:

“Yes, sir.”

“You think you can undertake the work?” Mr. Locksley was used to girls saying they would try.

“Yes, sir.”

He looked at her again. She had the happiest blue eyes and the happiest yellow hair and the happiest red mouth he had ever seen. His gaze

went back to his desk. Opening a scribbling diary he wrote a word or two.

“On Monday, then,” he said. “You will occupy room 44, next door to this. The salary is twenty-five shillings.”

“Oh !” she exclaimed softly, and just managed to check a “really?’ Recovering herself, she murmured a grave “Thank you, sir,” bowed slightly, and left the room.

For the rest of that day Locksley felt unwontedly cheerful. Night, however, with its figures and facts, changed all that.

II.

Locksley, who was peculiarly sensitive in some respects, differentiated between quickness and sharpness. He admired the former quality and detested the latter. The predecessor of Miss Harvey, despite her poorsight, was what one would call a sharp business woman, and her manner annoyed Locksley, while her misfortune depressed him. Miss Harvey was merely quick-witted and alert, and—in a vague way at first—he found her refreshing. Later, he ascribed this effect to her healthy brightness, her daintiness and her . pleasant voice. Later still, he put it down to what he was fain to call her sympathy—not that she had ever even suggested such a thing. Perhaps he thought of sympathy because he wanted it. He had had no time for making friendships in London; and his relatives had shown their regard principally by borrowing the bulk of his income for the last two years. Yet his relations with the girl were absolutely of the business sort. Doubtless she knew more about him than when she first entered his employment ; that was inevitable ; but he remained as ignorant regarding her as when he had asked her her name. Well, he didn’t want to know any more—so he told himself one atternoon as he watched her face while she wrote to his dictation

A week later Locksley had an unexpected visit from Mr. Fashner. As he entered the room from the corridor. Miss Harvey, a sheaf of papers in her hand, was leaving it by the door leading to No. 44. Fashner came forward with his lips shaped for whistling, which expression became a grin as the door closed behind the girl.

“What! Blue Eyes again, Locksley! Surely you have noticed them by this time.”

Locksley had a wild desire to strangle the man.

“Know her name yet?” asked Fashner, placing his hat on one chair and seating himself on another.

“Miss Harvey, I believe,” said Locksley stiffly.

“And is that all you know about

her?”

“That is all I know about her.”

Fashner went into a fit of laughter, which to the younger man seemed as idiotic as it was offensive. “Well, well,” he said at last, bringing out his cigarette case: “Well, well. . . . By the way, Locksley, wish me joy, Miss Lottie Helm has done me the honor of promising to marry me.” He made the announcement so bashfully, so boyishly, that Locksley’s resentment fell away.

“Why, certainly, I congratulate you, and wish you joy, Mr. Fashner,” he said, rising and holding out his hand.

“Thanks, thanks. . . . Only wish I had been twenty years younger, for her sake as well as my own. But I believe she does like me a trifle. She’s a good, honest little woman. Had a rough time of it till she hit it off at the Octagon. But she’s going to chuck the stage when she marries me, next month.” He smiled, then sighed. “I’ve been a bit of an ass in my time, Locksley, but, thank the Lord, I’ve escaped being a blackguard.” He lit a cigarette and fell silent.

“Queer mixture,” thought Locksley once more. Aloud he said, going back to his desk : “You have all my best wishes, Mr. Fashner.’’

The older man nodded.

“There’s another thing," he said at last. “I thought I’d tell you, lest the others should spring it on you when you haven’t time to think. You see, I had a good deal to do with bringing you to London, and I’m afraid it hasn’t been all you expected.”

Locksley stared. “You mean,” he said presently, “that I haven’t been all you expected.”

Fashner waved a podgy hand.

“What I have to tell you is this,” he said slowly. “Locksley’s Stores is probably on the eve of being floated as a public company. Have you got that?”

Locksley sank back in his chair. “Well?”

Locksley said nothing.

“The prospectus is in course of preparation,” the other continued; “the subscription list may possibly open some time next month.”

“But—but it won’t float ! It can’t !”

Fashner smiled. “My dear boy, wait till you see the prospectus ! The prospectus at present being drafted by my colleagues would float a battleship !” Locksley recovered himself. “It must be a romantic document,” he said drily. “You believe the public will come in, Mr. Fashner?”

“Helter-skelter ! My colleagues are anxious to get their money back, you know, and they’ll get it back in this way with—well, interest.”

“What’s to be the capital?”

Fashner mentioned some figures that made Locksley raise his brows.

“They’ll never pay a dividend on that, Mr. Fashner.”

“Never is a big word. Locksley’.' is a big business, and its turn may come yet. The shareholders will have the odd chance, I fancy. Oh, yes, Locksley’s turn may come yet.” “After they have got rid of Locksley himself,” said the younger man, with a bitter laugh. “Are they going to change the name of the firm also?” Fashner was watching the smoke rising from his cigarette.

“I understand that you, Mr. Locksley, will be invited to remain where you are, as managing director, at your present salary.”

“Why should they want me to remain ?”

“My dear fellow, a prospectus of Locksley’s Stores without John Locksley in it would not charm the public. That’s obvious !”

“I suppose it is. The public don't know, of course, that Locksley is a failure. I begin to see, Mr. Fashner. I might remain for a time as managing director—in name. How’s that?"

Without replying, Fashner rose and took up his hat.

“I’ve mentioned the matter, simply because I thought you ought to have time to think it over. I have no advice to give you, but I’ll be interested to know how you feel about it, say, a week hence. I’ll look in this day week. This puts a good deal of responsibility upon you. And a bit of a problem, too. You can see that the company can’t be floated without you. On the other hand, I’m not saying that the business would come to an end if you —er—left it. I hardly think my colleagues would let it go just yet. Your agreement, I believe, expires next February. I do not suppose you

would be asked to—er—retire before then. But you might wish to do so— eh ? Personally I am sorry—but we all know that business is business, don’t we? However, you must think it over. You know better than I do what you have at stake.” He held out his hand.

“You have something at stake yourself, Mr. Fashner,” said Locksley, looking straight at him.

“I’ve twenty thousand in this show,” he returned simply.

“Naturally you desire the flotation to—”

“Sorry; but I’ve an important engagement. See you a week hence.” And Fashner hurriedly left the room.

“Queer mixture,” thought Locksley again. Then he muttered : “What an infernal swindle!”

But it was a problem all the same— and a bigger problem than it would

have been three months earlier. Locksley had ever done the straight thing, but now it was more difficult than usual. Why should he beggar himself to save some scores of the silly public from losing money? And it was not absolutely certain that they would lose; they had, as Fashner had said, the odd chance of Locksley’s Stores’ turn coming yet. Beyond a few hundred pounds—a very few—he had no resources ; and what sort of berth could he hope to obtain in the circumstances?

Suddenly, in the midst of his selfquestioning, like an actual blow the great truth struck him—he loved Mildred Harvey.

III.

The week had passed. The day had come for Locksley to declare his decision. He had received a note curtly stating that Fashner would call at four o’clock. It was now threethirty.

Locksley had not made up his mind. The temptation to accept the syndicate’s offer was not so easily put aside. Again and again he had told himself that for good and all he was quit of it ; again and again it had returned. Could he afford to reject the offer? Heavens ! he might come to be a shopwalker in a fourth-rate drapery establishment. And would he not deserve it? Before him lay an opportunity that most men—respectable men, too—would snatch at. Why not? Never in bis life had he so greatly dreaded poverty—or, at any rate, penury. It is one of the penalties of our civilization that love and money are inseparable.

He roused himself. Only twenty minutes remained. He must force himself to decide.

There was a tap on the door of No. 44. Miss Harvey entered.

“In the letter for Bullard & Co. you gave me the sum of £1,350 as our final offer. Is that correct, sir?”

“Why, no,” he said, after a moment’s reflection, “it should be

£1,530. Yet I remember giving you £1,350. Thanks for letting me know. And—Miss Harvey, let me know if you strike anything else that doesn’t seem right. I—I’m in the way of

making slips to-day.”

Involutarily she glanced at him. His eyes were on the papers before him.

“Yes, sir,” she said, turning to her door.

"Miss Harvey—”

“Yes, sir?” She paused.

He rose and placed a chair near his desk.

“Miss Harvey, would you mind sitting down for a minute or two? I want to ask your advice.”

Looking frankly surprised, she seated herself.

Locksley leaned against the side of the desk.

“What I shall first tell you, Miss Harvey,” he began in a low voice, “is private and confidential—in the meantime, at least. Of course, you are quite used to things that are private and confidential in this office. Well, the owners of this business are desirous of converting it into a limited liability concern—selling, it, or a part of it, to the public. You understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Perhaps, you wouldn’t mind dropping the ’sir’ during our present conversation ?”

“Very well, sir—Mr. Locksley.” Her voice became just the least thing shy.

“Thank you. By the way, have you been regarding me all along as the owner of this business?”

“Yes.”

“May I ask you why you have done

so ?”

“Why? Oh—because—because it has your name, of course. And, perhaps, because you always seem so worried,” she added gravely.

"Ah! Well, I must tell you that I’m only the manager. I lent my name,

and—I’m afraid I can’t get it back. I’m no lawyer, and I'm not sure that I’m much of a business man either, though I used to fancy myself as the latter. However, I must grin and bear that bit of it. The point is the the people who do own the business want me to become manager of the proposed company, chiefly because they believe that my name will induce the public to buy shares. Now supposing the shares were not, let us say, going to be very good for the public. Do I make it clear enough?”

She nodded. “Quite clear, Mr. Locksley.”

“Then what should I do? I have to give my decision ten minutes hence.”

“Oh!”

“What ought I to do, Miss Harvey ?”

She half rose. “That is too big a question for me.” Then she sat down again. “Supposing you refused the offer—”

“The probability is that there would be no company; and the certainty is that I should find myself unemployed, with little chance of getting anything but a—an ordinary job. You'll admit that I have something to make up my mind about, Miss Harvey?”

“Oh, yes.” She rose with decision. “But no one can make up your mind except yourself, Mr. Locksley. May I go, sir?” There was pride but no unkindness in her voice.

“I had hoped,” he said sadly. “I had hoped you might help me.”

“I?”

“I—I would be guided by you.”

“Oh, dear !” The words escaped her. “I am honored by your confidence, Mr. Locksley,” she went on, soberly, “and I think that you are in a most difficult position, but—”

Suddenly he drew himself erect and faced her squarely.

“Miss Harvey — would you care whether I did the one thing or the other?”

The blue eyes fell before his grey ones; the fair face went rosy—then white.

“Oh, how unfair of you !” she cried, and ran to her room.

Locksley threw himself into his chair, a prey to many emotions. He would have given all he had then for the touch of her hand.

Four-thirty. Fashner was late Locksley did not care. He was consumed with misery, but he had made up his mind. Perhaps the blue eyes had helped him in spite of their owner. There would be no prosperous John Locksley. There would be no Mildred for him. With his head on his hands he tried to proceed with the heap of documents. Presently he pushed them aside, and wrote a letter.

“Well?”

Fashner had entered in his quiet way. He did not seat himself, but waited for the other to speak.

Locksley sat up. “Good-afternoon,” he said. “I’ve just been writing my resignation.”

Fashner’s face betrayed nothing of his thoughts. “Sure you won’t change your mind?” he asked.

“Quite sure, thank you.”

“I see. Then I don’t suppose there's anything for me to say. Besides, I’m pressed for time. Lottie is waiting for me in the motor.” Fashner took an envelope from his pocket and threw it on the desk. “Look at it afterwards. By the way. have you found out yet who Blue Eves is?”

Locksley’s face turned dull red. but ere he could command his voice, Fashner, with a laugh, had gone. He rose and opened the door of No. 44.

“There will be no company, Miss Harvey,” he said.

She raised her eyes from the typewriter and met his fairly. A very sweet little smile played on her lips.

“I didn’t think there would be sir. I have found a doubtful point in one of the letters. I will bring it to you immediately.”

The machine clicked, and Locksley retired, helpless, hopeless.

IV.

Mr. Fashner got into the brougham.

“Find what you wanted, Percy?” inquired Miss Helm.

“I did, my dear,” he replied with unusual gravity. “Locksley is a straight man. He was ready with his answer. So I left him the note offering him seven-fifty a year to look after my affairs. I hope to goodness he agrees.”

“Do you lose a lot through the company thing not coming off?” she asked.

Fashner made a grimace, but changed it quickly to a smile.

“If Locksley could face losing everything, surely I can face losing a bit. You shan’t starve, sweetheart.”

“I wasn’t thinking of that,” she said warmly.

“Besides, it was you, Lottie, who really kept me off the crooked road. I’ve admired Locksley all along, but I

couldn’t have followed his example if I hadn’t had you. Fact, my dear !” Then he laughed. “By Jove! some people will be mad when they get his resignation.”

“But what about the girl you said was like me? Are you sure she is the girl you thought she-was—the rich Miss Somebody who wanted to learn all about business?”

“Absolutely certain. I’m not sure, though, if I’ve succeeded in directing his attention to her existence. He got mighty red when I mentioned ‘Blue Eyes’ to-day, but I’m afraid it was with rage. The good fairy game isn’t in my line, Lottie.”

Lottie squeezed his arm. “You’re just a dear!” she said.

He beamed on her. “Lord, but I am happy !” he whispered. “I’d give something to see Locksley happy, too. She’s the very girl for him. I know what I’ll do. I’ll get to know her through her uncle, whom I’ve had deals with. Then I’ll introduce—” “You seem to think he won’t be able to resist her, goosey!”

“Of course ! She’s so like you !” But at that moment Locksley, with a letter in one hand, and Miss Harvey’s fingers in the other, was trying to tell her that she was like no one else in all the wide, beautiful, wonderful, glorious, happy world.