FICTION

The Better Baby

RICHARD HOWELLS WATKINS October 15 1937
FICTION

The Better Baby

RICHARD HOWELLS WATKINS October 15 1937

The Better Baby

Everyone knows that a businessman shouldn't bring his office home with him but when the home comes to the office ... !

RICHARD HOWELLS WATKINS

BETTER Baby Bureau, The Mothers' World, Dear Sir or Madam:

As one of your most faithful readers, although not a mother but a father, I am venturing to address you on the subject near to the heart of your department. I have long followed with sympathetic interest your campaign for better babies, and I feel sure you will be encouraged by the news that I now communicate to you. We—I refer to my wife and myself have a better baby.

Of Course I am well aware, sir or madam, that this statement may be criticized by the light-minded on the ground that every parent, male or female, believes that his or her baby surpasses all others. We have several otherwise estimable young couples typical of this attitude in this very town of Greenmere. But I am somewhat beyond the usual age of a father of young children, and therefore far too worldly-wise to harbor any such belief upon fallacious grounds.

Moreover, the purpose of this letter is not assertion, but proof of the thesis. At the early age of nineteen months our little Joan had by her own individual efforts materially affected the fortunes of her father and mother. Nor was this achievement due, I hasten to explain, to precocity or unhealthy smartness. It is to the little baby’s charm of manner, dauntless courage and sweet disposition that I pay tribute.

Greenmere, to digress, is cursed with several precocious children, or children alleged—through prejudiced sources— to be precocious. The children themselves are a nuisance. But their parents are far, far greater pests and I use the word with full and sober realization of its strength. They weary us, these parents. Let us dismiss them here. They are not so easy to dismiss elsewhere.

Perhaps I should give a disinterested description of my little daughter. Sometimes it seems to me that our Joan has inherited from some unknown ancestor of Peggy’s or mine an indomitable fearlessness that contrasts quite strangely with her tiny person, her little pink cheeks, fair curly hair and merry blue eyes; her toddling, toeing-in walk; and her uncertain conversation that I am sure means something if only we were clever enough to grasp it.

I have called her, in lighter moments, Winky Wu, the Pirate in Disguise. Certainly no pirate ever sailed the Spanish Main with half the devil-may-care air with which she endeavors to scuttle away from us to seek adventure. She has a ready, gay and most infectious laugh, coupled with a sense of humor which sees fun where we fail.

Dogs, horses and cars hold her interest. I shall never forget the day she endeavored to climb the front leg of a horse. She reproached me bitterly for my agitated intervention and the horse kicked at me.

Three times my horrified wife has seen her roll from top to bottom of the stairs, but when we placed a gate at the top she spent all her time climbing it.

The iceman, so my wife informs me, once summed up his impression of her by remarking, “She’s a young divil, redhot for trouble, but ye can’t prove it by her looks.”

I do not maintain that she is perfect. Sometimes at breakfast a satiated appetite will tempt her to play merry games with her cereal and her milk. And her personal habits are not always of the best. I do not . . But I must

press on tersely to demonstrate why Joan is biologically and socially a better baby.

TT WAS on the occasion of a conference with my wife, on financial matters, at home last Sunday that the first incident of the series culminating in so remarkable a manner occurred. It was raining rather steadily, and little Joan was busily occupied in bringing pots and pans that she had discovered in the kitchen closet, into the living room.

I do not wish to convey the impression that, due to our somewhat straitened circumstances, our child has no toys. There were already on the floor a box of blocks, our solitaire

cards, a fuzzy dog, a woolly lamb, a large spoon, a duck on wheels, a small wagon, a cloth doll, a ball, and some other things that I cannot, at the moment, recall.

But Joan, an interesting child, finds a ready, indeed, sometimes to us a dismaying, substitute for toys in any article of furniture or personal use which is small enough for her to move.

My only lateness at the office within the past two years was caused by her innocent pleasure in taking several pairs of my shoes from the closet and throwing them out of a window overlooking the garage. There was no malice in this action; indeed, when we finally discovered them she showed a pretty delight and would have repeated the little game had we not dissuaded her.

But I digress. I was writing, I believe, of my conference with my wife, Peggy, on money matters. It seemed that

we were both of the opinion that it had become absolutely necessary that I obtain what is known in salaried circles as a “raise.” Expenses, which included shoes at increasingly short intervals for the Wink, were rising alarmingly. My salary as chief librarian and occasional consulting economist in the St. Lawrence National Trust Company had, for some three years, remained stationary after several disquieting drops. Our manner of living in Greenmere, in a pleasant five-room house in the Development, although most happy, cannot, I believe, be termed extravagant, and indeed our garage, empty save for gardening tools, sometimes reproaches me. since both Joan and my wife are fond of motoring.

Mr. Tobias C. Jernahan, our president, is a strict disciplinarian, maintaining that a trust company has no less a sacred trust than an army or a hospital, and should be run

on the same rigid lines. Consequently it has seemed the better policy to me and to other employees of long standing to court obscurity rather than conspicuousness in our work. Some of those who have tried other methods have had rather a short tenure in our establishment.

Mr. Jernahan is dignified, reserved and indeed has been called unapproachable, but he has no hesitancy about pointing out errors and shortcomings with the greatest frankness and loquacity. He once explained to me quite forcibly that my bent was so circumscribed and unusual that it would be most difficult for me to fit into any other commercial enterprise. He averred that the company was indeed generous to permit me to follow my economic studies and pay me a salary for doing so. Yet in justice to myself I must state that my memory and my researches are in some demand among various officers of the firm.

While admitting to Peggy that I must at last bring before Mr. Jernahan the matter of increased compensation, I explained the situation to her in full.

“I think, Peggy, that I have been as fortunate in my selection of a wife as you, in this brisk, prospering community, have been unfortunate in the selection of a husband.” I concluded in sober realization of my shortcomings.

“Squish!” Peggy exclaimed. Hers is a somewhat staccato manner and differs from my own. “I like ’em unique. Joan, tickle your dada ! He needs cheering up.”

JOAN understood. She dropped a pan lid to the floor and advanced toward me with one small pink finger extended. Her face was bright with such anticipation that 1 felt myself compelled to writhe and giggle in histrionic ecstasies of ticklishness. This somewhat disturbed, though it did not break up, our talk about money.

“I am not at all sure that the time is propitious to speak to Mr. Jernahan.” I said when Joan permitted me to continue the conversation. “Lately Mr. Jernahan has been much abstracted in manner and -I hope I am not being unjust—rather more irritable than usual.”

“Good!” said Peggy cheerily. “You’ll take his mind off what’s worrying him when you speak to him about a raise.” “That is the reason for my hesitancy,” I explained.

Peggy sometimes has a disconcerting way of seeing matters in an inverted manner. I do not know whether this is a trait of all women, or a personal trait of Peggy “Moreover,” I continued, “the Egg-has been of late far more active in his office than ever before.”

“The Egg!” exclaimed Peggy. “Whatever are you talking about?”

I realized then to what lengths habit will take one. I uttered an exclamation of dismay.

“I refer to Frank S. W. Mordaunt, our chairman of the board of directors,” I explained hastily. “Mr. Mordaunt is a man of dominating personality, with a reputation as one harder than diamonds or nails. He is not as dignified as Mr. Jernahan but very much more feared in the company. His eye is definitely discomposing. Among the irreverent younger employees he became known as the Hard-Boiled or sometimes the Ten-Minute Egg. Usually, for the sake of brevity, he is referred to simply as the Egg. I’m sorry—”

“I won’t give you away,” my wife replied lightly. “Well, perhaps we are not quite wealthy enough to live in Greenmere. It might be cheaper in the city.”

“No!” 1 declared, thoroughly roused. “Never! I will not have Joan brought up upon pavements. I will not have walls of stone keeping her sunlight from her. The air and sun here keep her looking bright and rosy.”

For the good of our conference my words were ill-chosen. Joan, who had been squatting by the fireplace, poking the ashes with a pencil, stopped immediately. Her keen ears had caught that word "rosy.”

She came to me and seized me firmly by the forefinger. “Wing Wosie!” she said. “Up! Up!”

Perforce, I arose and she led me toward Peggy, whose finger she also seized. With our thoughts upon other things we formed a circle and, moving about with extravagant gestures of our limbs, we chanted:

"Ring armoni a rosie, A pocket full of posy, A—choo! A chon! We alt fall down!"

\\ hereupon we all prostrated ourselves upon the floor in most ungainly postures. We remained thus until Joan, having inspected our positions with solemn interest, rolled over on her face, got onto her knees and thus gained her feet.

“Up!” she commanded, seizing my thumb. “Up! Wing Wosie !”

As I arose, I caught my wife's eye laughing, challenging, most indescribable in its emotional effects, fixed upon me.

“I shall sj>eak to Mr. Jernahan this week,” I said firmly.

ALAS FOR human nature! Despite all my resolution, it was not until Thursday afternoon that. I managed to bring myself to the point of gaining access to Mr. Jernahan's office. Then, as he frowned at me across his broad desk, I heartily wished myself back in my own little office adjoining the library.

“What is it. Haskell?” he asked coldly. “I presume it must be something of great importance to the company since you come to me at a time when I am so harassed with work.”

How could I tell him, this great financier, that I came to him not in the trust company’s interest but in the interest of a woman and a baby that he had never seen? I hesitated, while he continued to survey me with level and, as I thought, menacing eyes.

At that moment, while my heart was pounding furiously, I was granted an interruption. 1 heard the door open behind me.

Mr. Jernahan started violently and I could see his frown grow darker at this profanation of his sanctum. Never, in my fourteen years of service, had I heard of anyone thus entering Mr. Jernahan’s office unannounced. I turned my head and saw that the brisk intruder was the Egg. I refer to Mr. Mordaunt, our chairman of the board.

“Tobe, I’ve got to straighten out the attitude—” he began.

“Really, Mr. Mordaunt, I must protest—” Mr. Jernahan’s tone was vibrant with indignation.

"Forget it ” the Egg rasped. “Never mind your privacy. This is big business. Haskell, skip out of here, will you?”

I took my leave hastily, but not before our chairman had begun to speak, rapidly and urgently. It was only a word or so that I heard, but it confirmed rumors and explained various questions that had been brought to me in my capacity as what the Egg called the “memory'” of the company. A merger of the St. Lawrence National Trust and some other institution was under contemplation.

To me it was a most disquieting discovery'. Economically speaking, I regard mergers with the highest approval, but IxTsonally I considered this one with the gravest apprehension. My talents are not such as to impress my superiors outstandingly in the inevitable scramble for positions. I made no further effort to see Mr. Jernahan thereafter; indeed, I sought to avoid him.

Mr. Mordaunt, how'ever, kept me on the jump, as the saying is. first in looking up details of previous combinations of financial interests and then in searching my own memory for further information. His questions were always crisp, bald and incisive, and I found myself put to it to satisfy him. I observed that he kept in a state of activity and perturbation most of the nine first and sixteen second vicepresidents. The stock of the company was rising as steadily in the market as my own spirits were falling.

I was at great pains not to reveal my growing apprehension to Peggy. Yet in her prescient manner she divined it. and compelled me to reveal to her just how matters stood.

“Good!” she said with every indication of satisfaction, and adjusted the set of my necktie. “You’ll get a much better job if only you can induce them to fire you.”

Though I hastened to point out the fallacy of this to her, she remained unconvinced. Peggy has, I have observed, a talent for remaining unconvinced by the most lucid reasoning. Yet her unjustified optimism was somewhat comforting.

I suspect Peggy of endeavoring to cheer me up during the remainder of the momentous week. On reaching home Friday night I found that Joan was still up, although it was fifteen minutes past her bedtime. My little daughter was most pleased at this departure from the norm and we all had an entertaining romp.

That night Peggy proposed the execution of an adventure we had discussed many times. This was that she bring Joan to town the following afternoon, and meet me as soon as my half-day duties at the office were completed. We would then take Joan upon her first boat ride. It would be a pleasant interlude for all of us. I agreed immediately, despite the expense involved. There are occasions when even the poor must disregard the value of money. It was well that I did agree.

T> Y REASON that my own small office, like those of our president and chairman, opened upon the board room as well as upon the library, I was enabled to observe, when I reached town, that both Mr. Jernahan and the.Egg were present. This was an unusual circumstance on a Saturday morning.

It was not until shortly after one o’clock, when practi-

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The Better Baby

Continued from page 17—Starts on page 16

cally all the staff had departed briskly, that I knew anything was afoot. Then, as I had my hat in my hand, both Mr. Mordaunt and Mr. Jernahan appeared at the board-room door of my office.

The Egg thumped a brief case down upon my desk. “Send out for a sandwich,” he said. “Run over this stuff and get it indexed in your head so we can call for anything we want. Then stand by. May not have to flash it at all. But get it into your skull. Understand?”

“You have been selected, Haskell, because I have suggested that you were not likely to breathe a word of this to anyone,” said Mr. Jernahan sternly. His voice, despite its .severity, was high and slightly tremulous. “It will be most unhealthy for you, Haskell, if you permit an inkling of what happens this afternoon to escape these four walls.”

“You’ll catch hell,” the Egg added, turning his cold eyes upon me.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

They withdrew, leaving me taken aback. Peggy and Joan were due at the station at 1.35. I reflected, however, that Peggy, not seeing me there, would immediately telephone the office and I could then acquaint her with the state of affairs. It was unfortunate, of course, but obviously something of the greatest import was afoot.

The documents, prepared by a score or more of individuals working independently, revealed precisely the innermost secrets of the company. This data consisted not only of statistics but also the ramifications and relationships of its power and influence throughout the financial world.

I worked rapidly at digesting and arranging the documents. Twice Mr. Jernahan opened the dtxir of the board room and silently peered in at me. On the second occasion I observed two men standing behind him in the board room. I recognized the two. They were not members of our board but financiers of world-wide influence, one of whom was reputed to hold, with associates, control of the great Traders’ Trust. This, then, was the meeting, held in secret at this most unexpected time of week, at which the merger was to be threshed out. Later the boards of both concerns would obediently give their assent.

While I waited, having acquainted myself sufficiently with their substance to distinguish the papers from each other, I heard footsteps in the library. The door giving upon this large room is at the opposite end of my office from the board-room door.

Turning my head, I was electrified to perceive Joan herself moving toward me with that absurd, rolling, confident yet uncertain pace of hers. Peggy’s smiling face was behind her.

“Dada!” exclaimed Joan. “Dada!”

She toddled toward me, with arms confidently extended. I could do no less than pick her up, though my mind was harassed by my family’s appearance here at this time.

While still I held her, the board-room door behind me opened, then closed quickly. I turned about and perceived Mr. Jernahan braced against the door, as if to prevent those within from entering. His face was greyish and his attitude both startled and outraged.

“So !” he said, his voice no less menacing because it was lowered to a whisi>er. He advanced toward me. “So this is the way you do your work at such a vital time, is it? This is the way you violate my regulations for the conduct of business in this company !”

HE SHOOK his finger violently in my face; then gestured toward the board room. “In there are five of the country’s most important financiers. And you venture to make a nursery of this office ! What

would they think of this trust company— what would they think of me—its president—if they discovered the laxity, the unbridled lawlessness of its employees? Send that child out of here at once!”

Joan had caught sight of the wastebasket and was wriggling down out of my arms.

“This—this is my wife,” I said, in some bewilderment, indicating Peggy, as I permitted Joan to slip down to the floor.

“Send that child away at once!” he rasped as Joan reached the wastebasket and toppled it over. “At once, do you hear?” He glanced apprehensively over his shoulder at the closed door behind him.

Peggy, her cheeks reddening, came forward silently and picked up Joan. But my daughter is not accustomed to peremptory removal from any focus of her interest. Moreover, we have always permitted her to play with wastebaskets. She has a fondness for them. With threshing hands and feet she endeavored to free herself. At the same time, she drew into her lungs and cheeks a large quantity of air which we all knew by her attitude she intended to expel in the form of a wail of protest.

“Sh!” whispered Mr. Jernahan, motioning to my wife to desist in her efforts to remove Joan. He turned another glance, plainly one of intense emotion, toward the board-room door. “We must have no squalling in here. Entice her away—out of earshot. You go with her, Haskell. At once! We’ll do without you. Your future with this firm is not rosy, Haskell.”

A chill of apprehension seized me at the sound of these ominous words.

But Joan took the remark in quite a different way. At the pronunciation of the word “rosy” she suddenly abandoned the contents of the basket and looked up at Mr. Jernahan. Then she walked toward him confidently, with one hand outstretched. She seized hold of his thumb; then held out her other hand to me.

I could not repress a shudder. Apparently Joan had decided that Mr. Jernahan had proposed a game of “Ring Around A Rosie!”

“Wing Wosie !” she said. “Wing Wosie !”

“I—I am afraid she misunderstood you, sir,” I explained to our frowning president. “She—she wishes to play ‘Ring Around a Rosie.’ Joan, you must come now.”

“Wing Wosie!” Joan cried. Her voice was perceptibly louder, and again she drew a deep, menacing breath.

Through the reading of books concerning babies, I was familiar with incidents in which a mere infant has by her friendliness softened the heart of a crabbed old man. No such consummation was vouchsafed us in this situation, however. Mr. Jernahan looked positively murderous as he stared down at our baby.

“Take this—this little brat away!” he snarled.

No parent will stand meekly by and hear his child termed a brat without being stirred to the innermost depths of his being. It seemed to me that a lusty blow connecting with Mr. Jernahan’s nose would be the most emphatic retort to his callous and unjustified remark. I stepped forward, but Peggy grasped me by the arm and averted certain bloodshed.

“Mr. Jernahan—” I began severely, when Joan interrupted me.

“Wing Wosie!” she insisted. It was again obvious to all that she was on the point of giving way audibly to grief.

“Wait!” whispered Mr. Jernahan, darting a fearful glance behind him. “Do what she wants—but edge her toward the library door.”

OBEDIENTLY I permitted Joan’s : hand to encircle my thumb, Peggy clasped my other and Mr. Jernahan’s free i hand. Gravely, revolving in a circle, but I

moving slowly toward the library door, we chanted softly:

“Ring around a rosie,

A pocket full of posy,

A — choo! A —choo!

We all fall down!”

Mr. Jernahan, I may say, did not pros! trate himself upon the floor as we did; indeed, he seemed stricken motionless at the, to him, unexpected denouement of the game.

Joan scrambled to her feet immediately. “Down!” she commanded imperiously, pulling at his morning coat. “Down!”

Mr. Jernahan’s eyes were upon mine, in a glare of baleful intensity. Nevertheless, he sank slowly to a sitting position upon the floor. I could see that he was calculating the distance to the library door as he did so.

A sound — a gruesome, indescribable sound that made the hair prickle on my j I head—aroused me from my preoccupation

' with Mr. Jernahan. I arose precipitately and whirled toward the board-room door.

The Egg—I refer to Mr. Mordaunt— was standing just inside my office, leaning upon the closed door and grasping convulsively at his chest. His face was purple and distorted. Though his eyes were narrowed almost to slits, I could see that they were fixed unwinkingly upon the seated figure of Mr. Jernahan.

“1 always wondered how you spent your Saturday afternoons, Tobe!” he blurted. ¡

The man was not dying; he was laughj ing.

Joan, despite the Egg’s horrendous ap| pearance, advanced assuredly toward him.

“Wing Wosie!” she said. “More! More!”

“Sure!” Mr. Mordaunt exclaimed, with every indication of sincerity. His face was purpling again. He enveloped Joan’s tiny ! hand in his huge fingers. “One o’ my favorite games. But get T-Tobe into it again.”

His eyes played in ecstatic anticipation upon our president, who had arisen.

“Your attitude, sir, in this crisis—” Mr. Jernahan began furiously, disregarding Joan’s reaching fingers.

“Sh! Sh !” the Egg gasped, rolling his eyes suddenly. “Supposing they should ! hear ! The merger’d go to—down the chute! We’d be disgraced—ruined! Quick !”

I must admit that I still suspected the man’s sincerity. But Mr. Jernahan did not. Anger was succeeded by apprehension on ¡ his face.

Again, though with the game marred by : Mr. Jemahan’s determined lunges and ! pulls toward the library door, we chanted I the words and revolved.

“Make it sprightly, Tobe!” the Egg instructed hoarsely. “Put more leg motion in it! Harder and faster !”

“A—choo! A—choo!

We all fall doten!”

With a final, desperate push, Mr. Jernahan succeeded in propelling Mr. Mordaunt, with Joan, Peggy and me grouped behind j him, into the library. Then, with a celerity | I did not expect in so dignified a man. he : leaped for the door and slammed it shut. Thus he put two closed doors between us ! and the gentlemen in the board room. . j

“Now, sir!” Mr. Jernahan thundered, glaring down at the Egg, who had lowered himself to the floor with us at the conclusion of the chant. “I can tell you what 1 think of your despicable conduct!”

“Up!” insisted Joan, tugging at my hand. “Up! Wing Wosie!” I arose.

“As for you, Haskell”—Mr. Jernahan’s eyes seemed to give off sparks in a most dis' concerting manner as he faced me—“as for you, you are dismissed—discharged without a reference—if it’s my last official act! Mr. Mordaunt, I presume you will not question my authority to discharge an unsatisfactory employee.”

MY HEART sank. The Egg grunted.

He is a large man though not a tall 1 one, and he was breathing hard and seem-

ingly having some difficulty in arising.

“Last official act—what are you talking about. Tobe?” he demanded. “I thought you were c-celebrating when I came in.”

“Celebrating what—my retirement from this trust company after some few years of service?” enquired Mr. Jernahan icily.

“I did not oppose the merger since it was for the good of the firm, but I resent your mockery, sir.”

So Mr. Jernahan, too, had a position to lose! Never had that occurred to me. I pitied the man. 1 pitied our president!

“It’s Brinkley that will retire -voluntarily,” said Mr. Mordaunt. He laid hands on a chair to pull himself upright. “Brinkley has a low opinion of a trust company president’s lifetoo much dignity needed.”

“Then—?” Mr. Jernahan positively faltered.

“You’re on if it is,” said the Egg, in his unrefined way. “I made that a condition of the merger last Wednesday.”

Joan had gravely raised her mother from the floor. Now she advanced toward the Egg. He was still panting upon the floor, recovering from his suppressed laughter with his back against the chair.

“Up!” she said confidently, and tugged assuredly at his coat sleeve.

Mr. Jernahan looked down at the enormous sprawling bulk of the Egg, and then at Joan, a mere mite beside him, most confidently intent upon raising him. He emitted a sound closely resembling the noise made by the hinge of a rusty gate. Nevertheless, I have no hesitation in asserting that it was laughter.

“Thanks, kewpie,” said the Egg. He permitted her to take one finger and ponderously heaved himself upward, with an emphatic groan.

“I—I hope I may be permitted to resign. instead of being discharged.” I interposed. “The librarian of the Traders’ is a good man to head both libraries, but I hope I may be permitted to resign.”

The Egg turned his piercing eyes from Joan to me, and then to Peggy. Peggy looked back at him unflinchingly and unpleadingly. I was even more proud of my family than usual at that moment of disaster.

“Haskell,” said the Egg to me, “you

can make a good living blackmailing Jernahan on this. You ought to get ten thousand a year for your silence, at least.”

“I I retract, Haskell,” our president said hastily. “I—I was overwrought.”

“He stays fired -as librarian ” our chairman declared. “He was always too moony to be worth his salary at that job. But he’s a good memory man. And he knows more about money — uh — theoretically -— than any man in the Street. We’ll call you a political economist, Haskell, and work you in as a two-spot. And we'll give you a little money so you can see what it’s like.”

“I concur,” said Mr. Jernahan.

“Th—thank you!” 1 said, with deepest gratitude, and I have a fear that in that moment of emotion I addressed our chairman as “Mr. Egg.”

“A two-spot!” said Peggy, speaking for the first time. “My husband is not a twospot !”

“Yes, he is, Mrs. Haskell.” said Mr. Mordaunt, with a chuckle. “A two-spot is a second vice-president.”

So, as is plainly apparent, it was entirely due to the charm and courage of our daughter that our economic problems were solved. Peggy is insistent that my attainments had much to do with my promotion, but I. who know more of the ways of financial institutions, feel myself compelled to demur. I believe I have demonstrated that Joan is indeed a better baby.

Yours faithfully,

John Haskell.

P.S. However interesting this may be for publication in connection with your Better Baby Bureau it has just occurred to me with shocking clarity that it contains information of a nature which should not under any circumstance be made public. Indeed, its appearance in the Mothers’ World would jeopardize my new position with the St. Lawrence and Traders’ National Trust Company, and I therefore appeal to you to return it to me at once. I am hurrying to the post office to dispatch it by special delivery, so that my deep apprehension may be allayed through your courteous promptitude by the first mail on Wednesday. I beg of you not to fail me.

John Haskell.