The Lucky Stiff
A Tragi-Comedy of the Failure of a Success
A BEAUTIFUL voice had Martin Holt—mellifluous, impressive, reassuring as an acceptance stamp on a cheque. It was the kind of voice which sways multitudes, which sells insurance and bond issues; which, if backed by a steady step and a not too glazed eye, will even put
over the worn-out kept-late-at-the-office-dear alibi. It was a voice in which assurance and modesty were cunningly blended, producing an effect equal to a million-dollar credit rating. Before it secretaries thrilled and wilted, room clerks looked out their best suites, traffic cops became affable, and even hard-boiled executives thawed sufficiently to talk golf and tell stories.
When Martin whispered to coy maidens—as he frequently did—“Where have you been all my life?” he invested the words with such a depth of feeling that the maidens marvelled at his sparkling originality. Had he been a barber—it was one of the few jobs he managed to avoid—clients would have flocked to his standard merely to hear him discuss the weather.
His appearance was in keeping with his voice. He had not the kinked-hair elegance of a campus beau, but he looked prosperous, keen, dynamic. There was something about his eyes, about the set of his jaw, which made older men nod their heads. “Nice fellow that. Go a long way. Got character.”
Martin Holt had faith in himself. He believed firmly that he was destined to be a captain of industry, a mogul of the financial world—a Holt, a Ford, and a Rockefeller, rolled into one. Often at night he would set his jaw, stare at his reflection in the darkened window, and dream dreams—Yessir, it’s time I got into the radio racket; that’s where the big money is. Trouble with manufacturers today they don’t standardize—too many sets and the prices are too high. Now I’m going to take a leaf out of Henry’s book. Just one model, six tubes, to retail at sixty bucks . . .
Ought to sell twenty million sets; say a net profit of two hundred millions—Yessir, it’s high time I got into the radio racket . . .
AT THIRTY-FIVE he was selling an encyclopedia on the installment plan.
Way back when he was twenty he had figured on several millions by the time he was thirty-five. After his marriage he had persuaded Mrs. Holt to share the same faith.
“Next year,” he would say when she wept over an unpaid gas bill, “you’ll be wearin’ di’monds.”
When they were married he had been an accountant with a firm of kitchen-cabinet manufacturers. As jobs went in those days it was a good one, for it paid him fifty dollars a week. What is more, he was well regarded by the boss and his advancement seemed assured.
But after they had been married three months he decided it wasn’t good enough. “It’s this way, darling,”
he explained in that wonderful voice of his, “you deserve the best and I’m going to get it for you. I’m going to be a success for your sake. I’m going to knock ’em cold. I got ability . . .” It sounded wonderful the way he put it, and her faith in those days was boundless. Of course this
husband of hers would succeed, and if he felt that his present job didn’t give him scope enough it was a wise thing to make a change. She wasn’t the kind of wife to stand in his way and be everlastingly nagging him to “stay put.” So he started selling bonds.
His success as a bond salesman was meteoric. His commission the first week was over two hundred dollars, and they bought a car. The second week he touched three hundred; the third week he dropped to a hundred and fifty and the fourth week he quit.
Bonds had their disadvantages, he realized. People wanted to see their money earning ten per cent, not six, and they were willing to take a chance to secure the higher return. Then, too, there was a bigger rake-off for the salesman on a speculative stock—sometimes as much as twenty per cent. Big money.
And so he started selling: “An attractive issue yielding a high return.”
Once again it seemed as if he had but to beckon Fortune to receive her favors. The very first week) he was with the new firm he sold over ten thousand dollars worth of stock and received a commission cheque for five hundred. His sales dropped the second week, but even so, his earnings were substantial and he spent lavishly. For his third week’s work he received only twenty dollars, and at the end of the fourth week he realized with dismay that he had made nothing at all. It was the same at the end of the fifth week and the sixth.
To the sales manager he broached the subject of a drawing account but he met with a headshake.
“Gosh, Mart, like to do it for you, old man. But it's right against our policy . . Lend you ten bucks if it’s that way.”
He didn’t take the ten bucks. It was the last money he ever refused. He resigned. As he explained to Nancy it was the principle of the thing he objected to. There was he, best salesman on the force, and they didn’t think it worth while to oblige him in the small matter of a drawing account
"pOR a couple of months he couldn’t connect up with
anything that looked promising. He was offered an office job at fifty a week, but it didn’t appeal to him. They got behind with the rent and the housekeeping money gave out, so Nancy decided to take a job for a while.
He was vaguely annoyed at first. It hurt his pride. But he consoled himself by thinking that it would only be for a month or two.
“And next year you’ll be wearin’ di’monds.”
His next venture was unfortunate. He borrowed a thousand dollars from his father-in-law and went into partnership with a man who was manufacturing floor cleaner. At first it seemed that his fortune was made. The cleaner could be manufactured for thirty cents a gallon and it retailed at a dollar fifty.
“Of course it’s only the beginning,” he explained to Nancy. “As soon as we’ve made a couple of hundred thousand dollars we’re going to put up a factory and manufacture floor wax. After that—well, it’s no good counting our chickens before they’re hatched, but we’re packing a punch for some of these Wall Street pikers .. .”
Nancy looked at him fondly and rejoiced to think that he was at last settled. Even then there was about him an air of success.
“Yes,” he said, “I’m going to succeed . . make a million and then some. I got it in me, Nance. I know.”
Unfortunately his partner in the floor cleaner business omitted to tell him that he was saddled by about two thousand dollars worth of debts. For a month Martin worked hard. In another month he might have rescued the business from insolvency, but it flashed upon him that floor cleaner was, so to speak, very small potatoes. He didn’t quit. He spent days in the office planning schemes commensurate with his ability. In the meantime sales dropped to the
vanishing point and creditors became abusive. One morning he arrived at the office to find that his partner had absconded. “But I’m not the sort to throw up the sponge,” he told his wife that evening. “I’m going to make a million, Nance. I got it in me. I know.”
AND SO it had gone on year after year and job after job. At various times he sold automobiles, insurance, brushes, vacuum cleaners, and, for a whole year, made-to-measure clothing. After the first year of their marriage it is doubtful if his average earnings amounted to twenty dollars a week, but that much he spent royally, for Nance supplied the housekeeping money. When occasionally he had a good week
and collected a fat commission cheque, it never occurred to him that the total of the cheque should be divided by many weeks when he had earned nothing.
“Take a look at that,” he would bid Nance. “Two hundred and forty-seven bucks. Not s’bad for a week’s work, eh? And to think there’s suckers workin’ for their forty per.”
A sizeable commission cheque was usually the precursor of a new car, in the buying of which he would exercise all his persuasive ability. The price of the car troubled him not a jot; his only interest was the size of the down payment, and he would spend hours, days if need be, persuading the dealer to give him special terms.
“Yes, I know it’s a lot of money,” he would explain, when bringing home a new two thousand dollar sports model, “but I got it for four hundred down. And it pays in the long run to buy something real good.”
He had a sense of humor—he rather prided himself on being able to see the funny side of things—but a remark such as this would be advanced quite seriously, in spite of the fact that he had never succeeded in keeping a car for more than three months. Three months
he found, was just about as long as a guaranty company cared to wait for the first installment.
He was not intentionally dishonest. When he was compelled to surrender a car, a radio set, or a victrola his lamentations were loud. He couldn’t understand people who wanted something more tangible than good intentions.
“What d’you know about that?” he would ask. “Four hundred dollars thrown away. If they’d given me a little more time I could have paid ’em in full. Instead of that they come and jump on me and I’m out four hundred dollars. It’s just a plain swindle. If I was a bum I could understand it . . .” And so on.
TN THE early days of their marriage there had been trouble over the furniture. Left to herself, Nancy would have shopped around the secondhand dealers for inexpensive pieces, but Martin discovered a store which lived up to its reputation of “ten per cent down.” Armed with a commission cheque for a hundred and fifty he invaded the store and bought to the limit. When Nancy protested that they couldn’t possibly afford it, he airily promised to look after the installments . . .
“Why, Nance, you got faith in me, haven’t you? It’s only a matter of a thousand bucks and next year you’ll be spending that for a fur coat.”
To his credit be it said that he succeeded in paying five dollars on account the second month, but there came a time when the manager was neither impressed by his confident voice nor his expensive manner.
The furniture went back.
“But you told me you’d paid the installments,” said Nancy.
“It was a fib, darling. I wanted to save you worry. But you believe in me, don’t you? You know that I’m going to succeed . . .”
And in those early days she found it impossible to doubt his sincerity. He talked away her tears, fired her anew with faith. He would succeed . . . could she doubt it?
And looking at him she
could not. Sitting there
at the table, arms folded, head thrown a little forward, jaw set, eyes stead-
fast ... he appeared the very personification of success. Little did she realize how often she was destined to hear that weakling’s cry:
“You believe in me, don’t you?”
For months she made excuses for his unreliability, his vacillation and his foolish dreams. For months she would not permit herself to believe him imperfect. But little by little she lost her loyalties and her illusions and came to know him for what he was.
Never once did she let him suspect that her faith was gone, for if he knew that, she felt that such resolution as he had would evaporate. And blindly she hoped that some day he would muster enough resolution to win moderate success. To that end she tried to guide him by flattery and encouragement.
It was useless reasoning with him . . . she found that out before they had been married a year. With smooth words he could lead her away from the argument, make her feel that she was a traitor to doubt him.
“It’s this way, Nance ... if all you want is fifty a week, why, that’s okay with me. I can get a job some place as a clerk. But I’m after the big money; I’m going to be a success for your sake . . . an’ you got to trust me a bit longer. I know it’s kinda tough on you, goin’ to the office an’ all, but you’ve always said you’d rather work than stay home. Hang on a little longer, sweetheart, and you’ll be wearin’ di’monds.”
And then as an afterthought:
“You believe in me, don’t you?”
Y\ 7"ELL, she had believed in him for a year and v ’ pretended to for eleven more . . . but there was a limit to pretense just as there was a limit to belief. The limit was reached on the twelfth anniversary of their marriage. She found him at home when she returned from the office. He got up from his chair.“Get ready to hear some good news,” he said.
She felt pleasantly thrilled. Perhaps he had remembered the day and bought her a present. Perhaps he had tickets for a show, a dinner downtown, a dance maybe. It was months since she had been any place. “Guess,” he commanded.
“Why, dear, you’ve remembered what day this is and . . .”
“Day?” he asked blankly.
She laughed. “Well, that isn’t it. I give up.”
“I’ve got me a new job—selling oil stock—twentyfive per cent commission. It’s the biggest thing I’ve struck yet, baby. All kinds of opportunity. I tell you it’s my life’s work. My big chance ...”
She felt herself go limp, weak, icy cold. She wanted to laugh—hysterically—but she controlled herself.
“But United Publishers were paying you twentyfive a week steady on top of your commission,” she managed to say.
He nodded. “Sure, but what’s twenty-five? You wouldn’t want me to stay on with them when I get a real opportunity to make money, would you, Nance? I tell you this is the biggest thing I’ve struck. Why, if I only place a thousand dollars worth of business a week that means two hundred and fifty for us. Just think of it—two hundred and fifty dollars.”
He stood feet apart, head thrown back. His eyes sparkled with eagerness and determination seemed written in every line of him—a man to wrest victory from defeat. But she knew.
“It’s this way, Nance. If I sell fifty thousand dollars worth of stock—and you know that’s easy for me—they’re going to give me a block of five thousand shares for myself. Right now the shares are only worth a dollar, but when we strike oil they’ll be worth fifty at the least. Think of it. A quarter of a million. And you’ll be wearin’ di’monds. Just like I said.”
He looked at her, but although he saw she was pale he did not suspect the worst.
“Say, Nance,” he asked, “what’s the matter? You believe in me, don’t you?”
And then the storm broke.
She laughed at first, a hard, unnatural laugh that made him gape in open-mouthed surprise.
“Merciful God,” she said, “and you ask me that. I haven’t believed in you for eleven years. I’ve pitied you as I would an idiot child, but believe in you . . . how can you ask it?”
“You’re not yourself, Honey,” he stammered, “I should’ve remembered
“Listen,” she cut him short. “I am myself . . . for the first time since we were married. I’m sick to death of humoring you and patting you on the back and pretending you’re great. You’re a humbug, a sham, a good-for-nothing bum.
“Next year I’ll be wearin’ di’monds
. . maybe! But I’d swap my chance right now for a string of imitation pearls from a ten-cent store. You’re thirty-five and you can’t even keep me; can’t keep yourself for that matter. I’m still a stenographer—right where I was when we were married—only difference is I have to cook and keep house as well. Doesn’t that shame you?”
He looked bewildered, as a child unjustly punished.
“But,” he managed to protest, “I always told you to get a girl.”
“Yes, and did you ever wonder who would pay her? That’s you all over. You never look at facts. Buy it first and worry afterward . . that’s your motto.
Only you don’t do the worrying; you leave it to me.
“I’ve been a fool; I know that. I should’ve put my foot down the very first year or quit. Instead of that I mollycoddled you . . listened to your
crazy notions did nothing to hurt
your self-esteem because I figured that was all you had. And, anyway, I’m not the sort to nag
“Oh, I daresay you think you’ve been kind and loving. But let me tell you, love doesn’t consist of kissing your wife when she comes home evenings and saying nice things and being pleasant. A woman looks for something more than that . She wants a man she can be proud of; not a make-believe millionaire.
“Listen , . . and don’t look so tragic. Try and be a man for once in your life as well as look like one . . I’m through. From now on I’m going to look after myself, and you can do the same. When you’ve won this success you’ve been talking about for 'the last twelve years, I’ll come back to you ... if you want me.”
HE HAD taken a seat opposite her and his chin was resting on his clasped hands. He looked the picture of dejection. His face had gone pale and flabby. His eyes were lustreless. He had aged ten years in as many minutes.
“You mean you’re pullin’ out?” he asked dully.
She nodded. “Right away. I’ll let you know my address when I get rooms.” When she had packed her bags and stood by his chair ready to leave he roused himself.
“Look here, Nance won’t you give me another chance? I didn’t know you felt that way. This success business . . it was all for you
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She shook her head.
“Not the way you mean. I’m not staying on. You got your chance . . succeed and I’ll come back. But if I stay now I’m lost forever. You know that. I’d never have the courage to do this again.”
“But, Nance, you love me, don’t you?”
For a full minute she stood there silent. Her face was expressionless. When she spoke, there was an intensity about her voice which it had lacked before.
“I wonder what your idea of love is. You talk of it as something apart from our everyday lives; something unaffected by what we do . . . and are. Maybe a young girl thinks of it that way, too. But a woman doesn’t. To a woman love is a mixture of faith and liking . . mostly faith. A woman wants to believe in her man; she wants to trust him; she wants to be protected.
“And let me tell you this, a bit of help with the washing-up counts for more than kisses; a picture show tonight means more than diamonds tomorrow. According to your thinking, intention is all that matters. With a woman it’s achievement that counts.
“You ask me if I love you. Do you want any more answer than that?”
He shook his head.
“I’m sorry you’re leaving this way, Nance, but I guess you’re right. I been a bum husband, but . . .’’he set his jaw, the color seeped back into his face, his eyes sparkled, his voice rang with confidence, “I’m going to make a million, Nance. I got it in me. I know.”
That night in a stifling room downtown she remembered her definition of love.
“God,” she whispered in the way of woman, “I love him till my heart is breaking.”
T) Y LEGAL standards there was nothing wrong with Oil Acres Limited. The company had been duly incorporated (under the statutes of Delaware) and its principal asset consisted of a thousand acres of land in Texas. The land was within fifty miles of a proved structure . . . and as anyone knows who has talked with a stock salesman, fifty miles is a mere nothing at all.
The company’s advertising literature contained nothing to which a better business bureau could object. There was a brief paragraph headed: “Progress;” there were several pages headed: “Fortunes Won by Shrewd Investors;” and there was an optimistic guess as to the “huge reservoir of oil underlying our property.”
As the only way to prove the guess was to drill a well, and as nobody had any intention of doing any such thing—least of all the promoters—it was as good a guess as any other.
Martin tackled the business of selling stock with such enthusiasm that even the president of the concern—a veteran of many promotions—began to think there might be something in it after all. He mentioned his hunch to the secretary.
“Might be advisable to drill a well,” he said.
“How d’you get that way?” the secretary asked scornfully. “Why the deuce should we take a crazy gamble like that— shoot fifty thousan’ for nothing? Act natural, man, act natural.”
And so the idea of a well was abandoned.
But Martin Holt believed firmly there would be producing wells—gushers bringing in a thousand barrels a day. He went from prospect to prospect urging them to get in on the ground floor. He worked without let-up, day after day, from nine until midnight. He buttonholed men in the street; he canvassed his lengthy list of acquaintances; he marshalled every selling argument the promotors had ever dreamed of, and a good many they hadn’t. But he couldn’t move the stock.
He tried desperately to understand his failure and to discover a remedy. In the old days when there was little at stake, brief success had been his for the asking. Now, when he was fighting to justify his faith, Fortune turned her back on him. He wanted to throw up his job—find something easier—but to do so he felt would be an admission of defeat.
Regularly he received letters from Nancy. She wrote affectionately, but she was firm in her decision not to return to him until he had won success. At her suggestion they did not meet; she felt it would cause them both unnecessary pain.
He wanted her—missed her terribly, but late though it was he achieved some sort of courage. “No good whining,” he told himself. “I got to succeed; then she’ll come back.”
The commission he earned was barely enough to keep him in food; and once, in a black mood, he contemplated looking for an office job. It was Latimer Ford, the secretary of Oil Acres Limited, who saved him.
“See here, Holt,” he said, “this small stuff ain’t gettin’ you nowhere. You got the approach, you got confidence in the proposition, but you’re wastin’ your time on the pikers when you should be playin’ with the millionaires. It’s a blamed sight harder to sell a hundred dollars’ worth of stock to a guy who’s only got a thousand than it is to sell a thousand dollars’ worth to a guy with a million.”
“Sure,” Martin agreed, “but the rich man buys through his broker and this is no broker’s proposition.”
“Snap out of it, big boy,” said Ford, “you got the wrong slant. There’s millionaires today, right here in New York, and the only broker they’ve ever heard of is the guy who sells theatre tickets. You take this new crowd of talkie actors . . . lots of money and easy
pickin’s. Why doncher bust into the studios and tackle some of ’em? You got a line that’d go over big.”
The very next morning, at an hour when successful actors are contemplating their grapefruit, Martin handed his card to the uniformed doorman of Talkietones, Inc., and asked for the president. The doorman, trained to know quality when he met it, beckoned a boy.
“Take this gentleman up to Mr. Harman,” he said.
Mr. Harman’s secretary, an elderly spinster, owed her job to the fact that she could pick class as well as Debrett’s and better than Who’s Who. She placed Martin at once as a celebrity from Wall Street and endorsed his card: “Financial —Imp.” before passing it on.
And so it came to pass that within fifteen minutes of entering the building he was ushered into the presence. And luck was with him, too, for sitting in with the president was a short man in heavyrimmed glasses—obviously a high-priced executive. Two birds with one stone, he reflected joyfully.
At the beginning of the interview he had a pleasant conviction that Mr. Harman was, in spiritualistic language, en rapport. For one thing he shook hands cordially and introduced: “Mr. Sheen— dessayyou’ve heard of him—our director.” For another he motioned Martin to a chair, and although be-a-salesman courses don’t mention it, a chair is fifty per cent of a selling battle.
That morning Martin eclipsed himself. An insistent voice within told him that he was making his last bid for fortune . . . and Nance. He bid high. He talked convincingly but with restraint. He talked, not as a salesman desperate to sell, but confidentially as one millionaire to another. His voice, low-pitched and intense, gave to his words the seal of sincerity. His confident expression was their endorsement.
But although at first Mr. Harman had been friendly, as the interview developed he became disinterested—even bored. Once, indeed, he attempted to interrupt,
but upon receipt of a well-aimed kick from Mr. Sheen he changed his mind. Mr. Sheen listened enthralled. He cocked his head from one side to another like a parrot. He nodded repeatedly. Twice he muttered “amazing,” and looked toward his chief for endorsement.
Martin closed his argument at last and produced an application form. He turned to Sheen.
“What shall I put you down for—fifty thousand?”
Sheen shook his head.
“D’you mind going through that end bit again from: ‘And so you see, gentlemen . . .?’ ” he asked. He nudged Harman. “Now you listen . . . get this.” “You mean you want it word for word?” A frown of perplexity ruffled Martin’s forehead. This was new in his experience. Prospects didn’t usually ask for an encore.
“And so you see, gentlemen,” he began, and repeated as far as he could remember the judicial summing up of his arguments.
Mr. Sheen interrupted him shortly at the end. “And now, Mr. Holt, will you wait outside for a few minutes while we have a little talk—confidential—won’t keep you long.”
There was nothing for it. He left the
TT WAS six o’clock when Martin left Talkietones, Inc. He walked down the street in a daze, and was halfway home before he realized that he should tell Nance. Nance might regard this thing which had befallen him as success, but he knew that it wasn’t. He would never be a success now in the way of his dreams. He would never control men and millions, never go down in history as Martin Holt, the great financier, never . . But it was too late now to worry. He would go home, get a wash and a shave, then visit Nancy at the address she had given him. Maybe when she heard she would come home.
To his surprise the door of the apartment was unlocked, and when he pushed it open the esurient smell of frying steak tickled his nostrils. He crossed to the kitchenette, but although the steak in the frying pan sizzled pleasantly there was no cook in evidence. He was about to pass into the bedroom when he heard the swish of a skirt and Nancy threw her arms round him.
“I couldn’t stay away any longer,” she whispered. “I love you just as you are and I know you’ll succeed.”
“I’m a failure, Nance,” he said, pressing her close. “I’ve changed my job again.” “It doesn’t matter nothing
“But, Nance, I’ll never be a captain of industry, neyer be famous like I always thought. I’m a talkie actor . . . can you believe it?”
On her face was an expression between laughter and tears.
“If you stick it I guess you can make a name for yourself, Martin. But what made you ...”
He told her how Sheen had been impressed by his voice and manner and needed just such a man to play the rôle of millionaire in a forthcoming picture.
“At a hundred and fifty a week ...” There was a note of apology in his voice as he mentioned the amount.
“But I guess it will be only for a week or two,” said Nance practically.
He shook his head. “No, they got me to sign a contract for five years. It’s a character part, and seems they been searching all over to find somebody who would fit. They figured me dropping in was providential. Joke was I thought Sheen was goin’ to buy some stock.”
“But how do they know you will make good?” Nancy asked.
“Say, they been shootin’ pictures all day and givin’ me voice tests. ’Cording to Sheen I get more marks than Barrymore.” Nancy hugged him close. “Oh, my dear,” she whispered, “all the time I knew you’d make good.”
He shook his head in perplexity.
“But I’ve failed, Nance. This was just luck, same as if I’d won a lottery. And for five years I’ll be an actor ...”
And then the light returned to his eyes; he squared his jaw . . .
“But afterwards, Nance . . I’ll teach ’em something on Wall Street . be a millionaire. I got it in me, Nance. I know."