One Of Many
Ella Middleton Tybout
IT was noon on University avenue, and the July sun had been shining many hours. Heat radiated from the pavements, the roadway, and even from the people on the street, who moved languidly, as though reluctant to make the effort necessary to reach their destinations. On the trees the leaves hung limp and lifeless, bearing but slight resemblance to the fresh green of their early springtime.
July noon in the provincial capital, with the thermometer crawling higher every moment, and a long afternoon of blazing sunlight yet to be endured!
At twelve o’clock the Provincial Government offices opened their doors and emitted a stream of listless humanity for the brief time considered ample for refreshment of the Civil Service inner man or woman.
From the big granite building in which certain administrative offices were located two men emerged, and paused before descending the steps.
“Good Lord!/ ejaculated one. “What a day.”
His face was large and red, and he mopped it vigorously. Prosperity and perspiration exuded impartially from every pore, and his forehead shone in opposition to the diamond ring glittering on the third finger of his plump left hand.
His companion glanced at the thermometer hanging in the portico. His face was thin and pale, with lines about the mouth and eyes. The skin was dry and parched, and his general aspect resembled the foliage in the avenue that hung wilted and dejected upon its stalks.
“Two degrees worse than this time yesterday.” he remarked, and unfurled an umbrella preparatory to plunging into the
white expanse of the sun-baked avenue. The elder man laid a detaining hand upon his arm.
“See here, Wheeler,” he said, “I want you to come and lunch with me. I’ve got a motor waiting—no use to walk when we can ride. We can talk over the matter of those engines just as well, and a bit better, at the Poyal Alec as at the Agricultural Department,”
“That is very good of you, Mr. Covington, but really-” Wheeler paused un-
“No excuses,” said Covington. “I really want you, and you can’t deny that riding is a whole lot better than walking to-day. What a chap you are! I never can get you to break bread with me, though I try it every time I’m in town. Don’t be a chump, but come on.”
Wheeler looked at the hot white way that led to his usual quick-lunch room, and then at the motor. He knew the Hands waiting at the end of each route were as different as the way that led to them, and he hesitated no longer. Sometimes our physical yearnings clamor insistently and will not be repressed.
“I’ll come with pleasure,” he said. “No sane man would walk to-day, when he could ride.”
In the Alexandra dining-room judiciously arranged shades tempered the glare, electric fans cooled the air, ice clinked melodiously in frostv glasses, and one felt that life under certain circumstances was endurable in spite of the thermometer.
Covington gave undiHded attention to the order, and when it was despatched glanced around approHngly.
“'Not so bad. is it?” he said. “Of course it’s not the Empress at Victoria, but it
does pretty well, on the whole. Come to -Montreal some time, Wheeler, and let me show you the village. We’d make a night of it—eh?”
He laughed in the frank, jolly manner peculiar to many stout men, and beamed upon the world in general. Wheeler smiled in return, and a longing for a personally conducted tour of Montreal arose within him. The arrival of the waiter with cocktails, ice cold and perfectly mixed, here created a diversion.
“Go right to the spot, don’t they?” remarked Covington, setting down his glass. Wheeler agreed, but welcomed the chilled grapefruit and Little Neck clams that followed, for he was beginning to feel pleasantly hungry—a sensation he had almost forgotten.
The lunch was well chosen and good, and as it progressed a tranquil and bland sensation stole through Wheeler’s veins and permeated his being. He felt at peace with the world, and when coffee and cigars appeared, he accepted them as a matter of course. He even forgot to notice, when he took a match from Covington’s silver box, that his cuff was frayed and not entirely fresh, while his companion’s linen was quite immaculate.
“Well,” said Covington, “as I was saying, Wheeler, I’d like to show you about my city. We’ll do the town when you come on to test those engines.”
“I only wish you might. But you know the engines—well, I told you this morning.”
Covington gave his jolly laugh.
“Perfect rot!” he said. “Why, those, little machines are the best ever, and you know it.”
“I don’t say they are not good, Mr. Covington, but they are not quite up to our specifications. I’m mighty sorry, but there is really no use for you to bid at ‘all.”
“Now, see here,” said Covington, “let’s talk the thing over sensibly. The trouble is not with our engines, but with your specifications. Who drew them up?”
“Well, they’re all right up to a certain point, but when you came to capacity, T think you made a mistake of half a kilowatt. Didn’t you?”
“No,” said Wheeler, slowly; “no, I did not. That was the size of engine they wanted.”
“Yes, the board of officers. They decide on what they want, you know, and I carry out their orders.”
“And do you agree with them?”
“They should know more about the subject than I do.”
“But they don’t?”
Wheeler was silent. His private opinion was that his own knowledge of the subject was unsurpassed, but he felt a delicacy about saying so in bold words. Covington, watching keenly from halfclosed eyes, took his measure accurately and spoke with discretion.
“All bosh ! What is their opinion compared with a skilled expert like yourself? it would have absolutely no weight with a big corporation—like ours, for instance.”
Wheeler began to feel that he had never before realized his own ability, but he shook his head with a deprecating expression nevertheless.
“Now, then, let us talk plainly—man to man.”
Covington knocked the ashes from his cigar and paused an instant.
“I’ll be frank with you, Wheeler. We want that contract—it’s a big thing. Not so much for the money, for, of course, we are in a position to be more or less indifferent to that, but for the advertisement. We want to be able to say that the Canadian government uses our machines, y’know. That’s reasonable, isn’t it?”
Wheeler acquiesced. He felt that argument would be wasted, and, moreover, he was conscious of a decided inclination toward his companion’s point of view.
“Then, too, there’s something else”— Covington spoke regretfully. “I’m a Canadian, and I’m patriotic. I’m proud of this country, by Gad, and I’d like to be sure it has the best of everything. Now, our machines are good—they’ve been proved many times. There is nothing better for your purpose, and you know it.”
“If only they were a little larger.”
“We are not going to change our engines, because we know they’re all right; but you”—Covington spoke slowly and distinctly—“you are going to change
those specifications, because your judgment tells you they are wrong.”
Wheeler gave an involuntary movement of repudiation, but the other was still speaking:
“You bring them down one-half a kilowatt, and we’ll get the contract, for we can well afford to underbid all the other competitors. We get the contract, the government gets good machines, and you get five thousand dollars for your personal account. Everybody satisfied and happy, and no kick coming anvwhere. See?”
Wheeler saw. He gazed before him as if fascinated, and the cigar in his hand went out from lack of attention. Behind its bank of palms the stringed orchestra played.
Wheeler heard it, dimly, as from a distance. He also heard Covington’s voice, remote indeed, but definite and clear.
“WThen the specifications are printed the change will be due to a typographical error. If not, and any unpleasantness should come your way—well, then, there’s a berth waiting for you in the Great Amalgamated Electric Company, at double your pay here. We need able men as well as the government. Think it over.”
With abrupt change of manner, he seG tied the bill and looked at his watch.
“I’m off to Montreal on the 10.30.” he remarked. “I’ll send you back to the Department, and then the motor will take me to the hotel. I’ll look in to-morrow afternoon and see what’s doing. Think over our conversation, Wheeler. I’m a man of my word, and, whatever happens, you won’t play a losing game. So long ”
Wheeler returned to his desk with a strange sense of unreality. Mechancicallv he went to the book provided for the purpose and there recorded the fact that his lunch had consumed two hours and a half instead of the alloted sixty minutes. Moreover, he did not care if it had. Well fed and refreshed, and with a feeling of independence as pleasant as it was unusual, he was inclined to snap his fingers at departmental restrictions, if not to ignore them completely.
The afternoon wore on. Electric fans stirred the stagnant air, mingling their buzzing with the incessant click of typewriters, and the atmosphere of the crowd-
ed room grew steadily heavier and more intolerable.
At his desk Wheeler sat with the typewritten copy of the specifications before him, and a pen in his nand. It was quite ridiculously easy. They had been read and approved, and were ready for the printer. A typographical error would be logical and easy understood. It need not be discovered until the contract was awarded, since he would read the proof. The pen was dipped once more in the ink, and again allowed to dry as the hands of the dock revolved slowly.
“Thank goodness!” ejaculated a stenographer, as she closed her machine, and M heeler realized that it was half-past four.
^ “I won’t do it,” he decided. “I guess I’m man enough not to be bribed.”
Pushing away the papers with a sense of relief, he prepared to go home.
Wheeler was a type of man prevalent in most departments of the provincial government. Bom with a desire for knowledge and no money to acquire it, he had worked his way through McGill, specializing on electricity and engineering and graduating creditably. Then he faced the world with his diploma for an asset, and a sheaf of unpaid bills for liabilities. Contrary to expectations, the large companies did not immediately clamor for his services. Most of them were already supplied with satisfactory electrical engineers and had a waiting list in case of vacancies.
Meanwhile he must live, so he took the Government examination. The Agricultural Department, it appeared, was in need of expert knowledge in connection with irrigation works, and the four figures of the salarv looked large when compared to mere ciphers.
“It will do for something temporary.” he told his friends. “Of course I only mean to stay until I can get on my feet and look about a bit.”
After seven years he was still there, waiting to get on his feet. At the end of the first year, having paid his debts, he married and immediately contracted new ones. Renting a small house, he furnished it on the instalment plan, spending happy hours with Emmy wandering among the mazes of golden oak and veneered mahogany, and listening to the se-
ductive voice of the salesman explaining the convenience of monthly payments.
Emmy wanted Nottingham curtains for the bay window in the parlor—they gave an air to the room never to be obtained from plain muslin. She also wanted a piano, so she could play softly to him in the evenings when he came home tired from work. Dust accumulated on the lid of the piano long before it was paid for, because by the end of the first year unexpected contingencies arose that kept Emmy busy—among them the advent of little Bill and the bills of nurse and doctor.
Time went on. His family increased, his work increased, the cost of living increased, and his pay remained the same. Why, indeed, should it change? Colleges turned out bunches of impecunious electrical engineers every year and the Province could always get one for whatever it chose to pay. The Legislature exclaimed at the expenses of the departments. Why, therefore, be extravagant and pay more for knowledge that might, if necessary, be obtained for less?
So Wheeler remained, growing daily more morose and discontented. Yet he continued helping turn the treadmill that ground the governmental grist because he dared not exchange an inadequate certainty for an uncertain competence. And every month his money melted like snow beneath the sun.
After dinner that night he sat on his doorstep with the evening paper unopened in his hand. He was conscious of an intense longing for the material things of life—well-cooked food, good clothes, cooling drinks, automobiles, yachts, and all the other roses that carpet the pathway of the well-to-do. He had never been accustomed to these things, and they were as remote from his horizon as the stars in the sky. Nevertheless, he knew that they existed for other men, and with all his soul he wanted them himself.
After a while Emmy came and sat beside him. She was flushed and moist, the result of washing the dinner dishes in the steaming kitchen, and her fair hair lay in damp strings across her forehead. All the brightness he had loved had faded from this hair, even as the glad light appeared no more in her blue eyes at his approach. Emmy had grown from a ro-
mantic girl into a fretful woman, chiefly for lack of a few things not absolutely necessary to insure existence, but very vital to give it light and color.
She had quite a budget of domestic items to retail. Milk had increased in price half a cent a quart; little Bill had fallen downstairs and bumped his head badly; the butcher had been disagreeable again about last month’s bill; the baby had cried all day—she did not see how he could get through his second summer in this awful heat. The children? She had sent them to a near-by park with Clara.
“You might find something to say to me, Arthur,” she complained. “You go out every day and see people, but you never have anything to tell me when you come home.”
Wheeler realized that this was true, and roused himself to tell her about his lunch, describing each course minutely. She listened with the abstracted expression of one whose thoughts are far away, and made no comment.
So silence reigned, and the twilight deepened. With evening came the breathless heat and stillness peculiar to this particular city’s summer nights. The sun, to be sure, was gone, but no breeze stirred the limp leaves, and no life freshened the air, heavy with the effluvia of the asphalt street.
“Arthur”—Emmy spoke slowly and with evident reluctance—“Arthur there is something I must tell you—something unpleasant.”
He turned and looked at her, but she did not meet his eyes.
“Tell me,” he said, “and get it over.”
She hesitated a moment, then moved closer, whispering a few words. And what she told him concerned themselves alone.
“You are sure?” he said.
Wheeler looked away from her down the quiet street. A little group had just turned the corner. It was composed of Clara, the half-grown servant girl, and his two children. She pushed a go-cart in which fretted the sleepy baby, while little Bill, tired and hot, clung whimpering to her skirt.
Quite suddenly Wheeler seemed to be precipitated a year further on. He saw himself next July sitting on the same
steps, wearing the same garments, and watching Clara turn the corner. A child was on each side of her, but she still pushed the go-cart.
A choking sound recalled him to the present, and he saw his wife, her face buried in her hands, sobbing uncontrollably.
“Oh, Arthur,” she cried, “don’t, don't, look like that! I can’t help it, and it’s worse for me than it is for you anyhow.”
Two hours later Wheeler stood in the corridor of the Agricultural Department and requested the key of his office from a watchman. The man knew him and handed it over promptly.
“Working nights?” he said.
“Too hot to do anything else,” returned Wheeler, and wearily began the long ascent of the stairway.
It was strange to be alone in the familiar room. Turning on the electric light over his desk, he sat down and wiped the drops of moisture from brow and lips Then he reached for the papers he had put aside a few hours previous and dipped his pen in the ink.
With compressed lips and steady hands he turned the typewritten pages, altering a figure here and there, and scanning them carefully to be sure not one was overlooked. When he had finished he replaced his pen, and again wiped his brow.
“God!” he breathed, and pushed away the papers.
A glass door beside him led to a stone balcony. He opened it and stepped out. He sat upon the wide stone baluster and leaned his head against the wall of the building. He sat there motionless, and the moments passed unnoticed, until at last a sort of calmness stole over him. He felt no regret for what he had done, now that it was an accomplished fact. All the bills should be paid. Emmy and the children should go to the seashore, and in the fall a competent maid should help Clara with the housework. Emmy should have the rest and care she needed. He had done it, and he was glad it was over. What allegiance did he owe the Government, anyhow?
Down beneath him was the local House of Parliament. He could see the white, domes of the building, but the. 'building itself was dark, for the lawmakers had fled to the lakes, after refusing to consider
an appeal for advance in pay of civil employes. His face darkened as he looked at the place, and involuntarily he clinched his hands.
“Dthem !” he said aloud. “But
for them I could be honest.”
Then he left the moonlit balcony to join ■ Emmy in the stuffy front room, where he law awake until morning.
When Wheeler reached his desk next day, a red-haired, freckled boy stood at the window looking out. He was a temporary appointment, fresh from the High School, and bubbling over with health and good nature. When his three months were up he would vanish from their horizon, but meanwhile he was popular in the room.
He now nodded affablv, and moved a little.
“Morning,” he said. “I’ll take myself off where I belong in a minute. I jast came over to see the flag go up.”
“Uh-huh. On the Parliament Buildings.”
“Oh, yes.” Wheeler opened his desk. “So you like to see it?”
The boy nodded.
“Don’t you?” he asked.
“Why—yes, I guess so.”
The raising of the Government flag had long ago ceased to interest Wheeler. He merely glanced at it now and then when he wished to know whether the House was sitting or not. Not so. Young Canada beside him, who as yet had no grievance against his Government.
“There she goes!” he exclaimed. “See her?”
Wheeler turned and looked also at the big flag slid up the staff and spread its red expanse in the morning sunlight.
“Pretty, ain’t it?” said the boy, and continued without waiting for a reply: “Gee! Wouldn’t Champlain or some of them fellows be surprised if they could see it?”
Wheeler asked the question idly. He wished his visitor would go, for he wanted to take a look at his last night’s work and send it to the printer. But the boy was in no hurry; he seated himself on a corner of the desk and prepared for conversation.
“Why?” Well, just look at the flag. It usn’t to mean so much. But now—a fellow’s glad to be Canadian ! E pluribus unum, y’know, and all that.”
“Yes,” agreed Wheeler, without enthusiasm.
The boy went again to the window and looked out.
“See her float,” he said. “I sort-a like to watch it, butr—”
“You’ll laugh, I reckon, but—well, I wouldn’t want to look at it if I’d done any mean, low-down trick. Say, let down easy on things you want copied to-day, won’t you? It’s hotter’n blazes.”
He went over to his own desk, and promptly forgot the conversation. Wheeler also began the day’s routine, but more than once he found himself looking over at the Buildings, where the colors of the flag gleamed in the strong sunlight. They were fast colors, no sun could fade them, and they held the eye insistently.
He was tired and languid from lack of sleep, and very irritable. Everything fretted him, and he could not concentrate his mind upon his work. Twice he rang for a messenger to send the specifications to the King’s Printer, but when the man appeared he made another errand for him and kept the papers on his desk.
Ten o’clock, eleven, half-past eleven. The clock ticked on, and Wheeler abandoned all pretence of work, sitting idle at his desk, pen in hand, even as he had sat there yesterday afternoon. He did not see the words before him. Instead, from every page he turned Emmy looked at him with wistful eyes; Emmy — who ought to be still young, but was not, and who needed a rest.
Then, quite suddenly, he saw Covington’s round red face, and heard his voice in hearty greeting. He knew just what would follow. They would dine at the Willard, where it was cool, and there was music. With the coffee and cigars
would come a folded slip of pink paper— he could see Covington’s fat hand searching for it in his waistcoat pocket, and could almost feel his own fingers closing upon it. Then he would go home, and to-night Emmy would not complain that he had nothing to tell her. Covington would soon be here now. What was it he had said?
“What happens, you cannot play a losing game.”
Over in the corner, the red-haired boy hammered his typewriter, doing his best in his special line and careful not to make mistakes. In his swivel-chair Wheeler went over words and figures, familiar now to the point of nausea and repellant to his eyes.
Then, quite without his own volition, his hand sought the pen and dipped it in the ink. Once more he turned the pages, this time replacing his last night’s work with the original figures, writing distinctly, and careful to make ho mistake.
He worked in a detached manner, as if the subject had no personal interest for him, but must be finished as soon as possible. He felt as if he were dreaming, but would wake soon, and he wished he might sleep indefinitely.
The last page reached, he pushed the button for the messenger. Then he turned in his chair, and his tired eyes looked out over the Parliament Buildings, where the flag hung in straight limp folds against its staff. But as he gazed a puff of wind rippled these folds, finally raising it and spreading it against the blue background of the sky. Wheeler watched it until, the breeze gone, it drooped again upon the staff.
“E pluribus unum,” he muttered to himself. “One fool among many.”
Then, aware of the waiting messenger, he handed him the papers.
“Here,” he said, “take these specifications to the printer, and be quick about it.”