Silence (Irwin)

Silence  (1917) 
by Wallace Irwin

Extracted from Harper's magazine, 1917, pp. 187-198. Accompanying illustrations by Peter Newell may be omitted.


Silence

BY WALLACE IRWIN

IT was the silence of New York which had oppressed me the whole week. The vast city seemed to cringe away from me, and I am sure I should have gone raving mad had I not, by an opportune accident, encountered my deliverer, Mr. Hamilcar O'Brine; and though his timely rescue cost me something I dearly loved and cherished, still must I put the loss to his credit, as one thinks gratefully of a surgeon who, in saving one's life, has removed something valuable, like a kidney or a lung.

Our meeting was after this manner. You see, I was not one of those Westerners who rely upon the metropolis for recreation and excitement. Those were the days when I hated New York and New York, I was sure, hated me. We were temperamentally different—simply refused to understand each other. I was a home-loving man who, although not of a churchy frame of mind, maintained a somewhat ecclesiastical exterior. I affected gold-rimmed spectacles—not because my eyesight required their aid, but because they imparted dignity to my appearance. Under my ears, too, I cultivated neat oblongs of reddish-brown hair—side-chops, I think they are lightly called. I fancied cutaway coats of Oxford gray and high, square-topped derby hats. I was at that time nearing my fortieth year. I looked a trifle older, which was fitting, I reflected, in a man of business responsibilities.

It was on the Wednesday before my hurried trip to America's metropolis that Mr. Parker, head of our tinware novelty enterprise in Sycamore Creek, called me to his private office.

"Mr. Sprigg, I want you to take the afternoon train to New York, go to the Interplanetary Tin-Plate offices there, and sell our South Furia Pie-Dish Mills for the best figure you can get."

I evinced my astonishment, and protested that there were gentlemen connected with our company who understood New York and its ways far better than I.

"That's just the point," protested Mr. Parker. "I have picked you out because you are sort of oily and soft-spoken and soothing to look at. Did you ever hear of J. Whiffington Whack?"

The name of the Interplanetary's powerful president was as familiar to me as that of the Czar of all the Russias. I admitted as much.

"Well, Whack is eccentric. One of our agents saw him about six years ago. He was then one of the moving spirits in the Anti-Noise League. He had something the matter with his nerves and couldn't bear a quick movement or a loud sound anywhere in his vicinity. He made his office-boy wear padded shoes, wouldn't allow talk above a mumble in his neighborhood. His life mania seemed to be silence. He was crazy to put a husher on New York, and wanted to make an example of everybody that came his way."

"So you have chosen me because of my staid appearance and noiseless manner of approach?" I smiled, proud to be honored by so high a commission.

"That's it," Mr. Parker agreed. "Take my tip. Pussy-foot into his presence. Purr your way into his confidence."

Those were his parting admonitions as I hurried toward the train which was to bear me to the metropolis I abominated.

I had no sooner set foot in New York than I experienced that deserted feeling which always oppressed me there. Every one in this mad Bedlam seemed to be talking a different language from mine. I wandered, lonely as a cloud, utterly out of contact with my fellow-beings. Street-car conductors, policemen, loiterers in front of shop-windows returned my appealing looks with an icy stare. I was not wanted in New York. Officially I was not there. I had scarcely been in the place an hour before a mad yearning to talk and be talked to took possession of me. It was as though I were stranded on some nightmare island, a place inhabited by awful automata built to look like men and women, who, eagerly running back and forth, insisted on pushing me here and there, stepping on my toes, knocking off my hat—yet never a sign of human sympathy, recognition, or apology.

[Illustration: I SPREAD BLUE-PRINTS BEFORE HIM]

It was in a dreary frame of mind, then, that I took the roaring subway on the morning of my arrival and pursued my mission to the noise-detesting J. Whiffington Whack. A machine-made stenographer outside his office door gave me a glassy glare as she surveyed my neat, almost clerical, appearance. Finally the clockwork within her skull seemed to conclude that I was admissible, for she pointed me to the holy of holies, which I entered a-tiptoe, respectful to Mr. Whack's mania for silence. If that gentleman was wooing perfect peace, I had entered at an unfortunate moment, for his desk was placed near an open window which was almost directly under a bend in the elevated road. He was looking out of the window, rubbing his hands nervously, and the dreadful roaring of a passing train permitted me to reach his desk before he sensed my approach.

"Well?" he snarled, suddenly, wriggling impatiently inside his bright-green coat as, turning his little, drawn face, he focused upon me large, goggling, neurotic eyes.

"I have been sent by Mr. Parker in the matter of the South Furia Pie-Dish Mills," I began softly, knowing that brevity as well as quiet would best suit such a man.

"What's that?" he inquired, straining his ear closer to my lips. The elevated train, rounding the curve, was roaring horribly. I repeated my short introductory remarks and went on, monosyllabically:

"Our ground plans." I spread blue-prints before him.

"Hum," remarked J. Whiffington Whack, scarcely glancing at my exhibit.

"Views of mills." I laid a sheaf of photographs on his desk.

He shuffled them over once and laid them down.

"Our financial condition," I whispered, producing typewritten sheets. I was disconcerted to notice that Mr. Whack, his large, nervous eyes fixed upon me and not my exhibit, was touching a button under the edge of his desk. A secretary entered.

"Mr. Umph is waiting for you, sir," said the young man.

"Sorry," said J. Whiffington Whack, cracking a dry smile in my direction. "Come in some other time. I'll take your name and address."

He was gone. Crushed, disappointed, dazed by his disastrous snubbing, I slowly gathered up my prints and papers. Something about me, some strident note in my voice, some hasty gesture, had jarred his broken nerves. Mr. Parker, my revered employer, had given me this high trust because of my soft approach, my soothing delivery. And yet I had somehow bungled the job.

The gloom which had obsessed me now deepened from blue to brown as I limped wearily back toward the subway station. That outcast feeling which New York manages to give her visitors from the West clutched me with a demon claw. "If only somebody would talk to me!" I kept telling myself over and over. I was almost grateful to the subway guard who snarled, "Step up!" in my ear; but the expression with which he said it managed to take all comfort from his words. In all that crush of passengers which crowded the up-town-flying car there was not one voice to soothe me with a comforting remark. The elderly lady to whom I gave my seat sniffed suspiciously and sat down. The strap-hanger who, in reading an evening paper, persisted in tickling my side-whiskers with a corner of his sheet, glared at me defiantly when I attempted to read the baseball score on an inside page. I was alone, a leper, avoided by a city of five million souls.

[Illustration: I APPROACHED A FAT, JOLLY-LOOKING PERSON WHO LOLLED IN A PADDED CHAIR]

In my bitterness of spirit I thought of returning at once to Sycamore Creek with its entirely human population. No one is alone in Sycamore Creek. There one may be the most unpopular man in town, but people will stop you in the post-office to tell you so. There is no such word as "stranger" in Sycamore Creek; the very newest arrival unless he be a runaway criminal—is at once taken in hand by the Chamber of Commerce and given a free ride out past the water-works where there are factory sites to sell. No one is neglected there.

Moodily I returned at last to the Grand Babel Hotel, where I was lodged. After a solitary lunch, which ended by my waiter savagely snatching the tip I held out for him and giving no thanks in return, I strolled drearily into the foyer. In that vast marble hall were hundreds of travelers, many of them appearing as deserted as myself. In all this idle throng there must be some kind spirit, I reflected, who wished to speak and be spoken to. At last, upon a venture, I approached a fat, jolly-looking person who, a comic paper in his lap, lolled in a padded chair.

"Nice day," I ventured, politely, using the form of address most popular in Sycamore Creek.

"What's that?" asked the fat one, looking less jolly.

"Nice day—a little hot, but bright."

Without an attempt at reply, the plump stranger dropped his comic paper and fled. Later I saw him in intimate conversation with the house detective, the latter eying me suspiciously. Passionately I envied the fat man. He had found some one to talk to.

It was at that moment that my gaze, in following the broad marble steps leading down to the basement, lit upon a sign that meant sudden hope to me. "Barber-shop"—I beheld the gilt lettering on a black ground. An inspiration! Why hadn't I thought of that in the first place? You can always get a barber to talk to you. Any newspaper humorist will tell you that. In fact, according to all traditions I had learned to revere, it is easier to start a barber than to stop one. Therefore, my course was simple. With a smile of pleasant anticipation, I descended to the tonsorial department.

The room I entered showed the antiseptic, tiled whiteness of an operating-room. Only the buzzing of the electric shampoo, singing unpleasantly like a dentist's burr, broke the stillness of that dreadful place where, row upon row, many sheeted patients lay—etherized, perhaps—under the instruments of the white-clad surgeons who bent over them. Here there was none of the slipshod sociability prevailing in Sycamore Creek's leading barber-shop. Even the manicurists, flitting daintily from chair to chair, had somewhat the appearance of Red Cross nurses administering first aid. The head barber, a scientific-looking gentleman with an immense shock of hair, compelled me to occupy a chair in the center of the first row. I leaned back and, as the white sheet was being tucked under my collar, I entertained a momentary thrill of hope. The barber who looked down on me had warm, brown, human eyes and the humorous mouth of a raconteur. Here, then, at last would my hungry ears find satisfaction. With a somewhat finer touch than a Sycamore Creek barber could ever apply, the man began lathering my chin.

"The New York Giants are putting up a fine game," I ventured, by way of starting him off before his soapy layer had entirely sealed my lips.

The barber, smiling amiably, leaned his ear very close to my mouth in an attitude of interrogation.

"Nice team this year—New York Nationals," I pursued. "What do you think about the results?"

An expression of fright came into those warm, brown eyes. Glancing once furtively toward the head barber, he leaned again and whispered, rapidly:

"Sorry, mister. We ain't allowed to talk in this shop."

"Wipe off that lather!" I fairly shouted as I bounded from the chair and tore away my cerements. Even my mad haste did not seem to ruffle him, for he did as he was bid without a sound of protest and the next moment, having tipped the Greek pirate who helped me on with my coat, I was being bowed solemnly, silently, out by the head barber.

I rushed into the street, filled with despair's false energy. New York was driving me rapidly toward the madhouse. What sort of place was this where even barbers refuse to talk to their customers? Then, indeed, I remembered what experienced travelers had told me of the changing styles in barbers. The old-fashioned barber had been a monologist, a gossip, a purveyor of news, anecdotes, rumors. Through the abuse of his conversational advantage, taking his victim while he was down, and talking him deaf, the old-fashioned barber had become the gibe of the comic press; the humorists of the metropolis, reverencing nothing, had jeered so industriously at his trite remarks upon the weather and sporting futurities that the old-fashioned barber had been supplanted in the region of smart hair-dressers. Too long had he aired his political views to sophisticated worldlings who, gagged with lather, lay powerless to reply. His name had become anathema in Fifth Avenue, a blight on Broadway. The public had become wise to his wiles. No more could he stand, shamelessly bald of head, boasting the properties of his sure-growth hair tonics. The talkative barber, the bald-headed barber had fled. Efficient mutes with luxuriant heads of waving hair had taken his place. And I, alone in New York, thirsted, hungered, withered away for the lack of human conversation.

[Illustration: "I GOT JUST THE THING!" IKE SINGS OUT—"A SUBMARINE"]

My disgust with New York grew as I walked her unfriendly streets. What was I to do with a town where even the barber refused to talk to me? Only a dogged determination to succeed in the commercial project which had brought me so far egged me on. I could not go home like this, acknowledging defeat. There must be some way of asserting my ego in the offices of the Interplanetary Tin-Plate Company. But how?

During this soliloquy I had walked far. At last, foolishly, perhaps, but desperate for activity, I decided to make a second attempt upon the sphinx-like Mr. Whack.

The sun had already sunk behind the skyscrapers when, still considering an effective method of attack upon my difficult customer, I wandered through one of the shabby side-streets which fledge lower Broadway. The red-and-white spiral of a barber's pole at first distracted me from my unpleasant reverie, and over this the sign that was to mean renewed hope to me:

HAMILCAR O'BRINE
THE BOSS DIME SHAVER

There was an open-hearted appeal about that sign. And when I glanced through the window, bright with cigarette advertisements, I glimpsed that which cheered my eyes to see—a perfectly bald-headed barber! Nobody with a skull so ivory-smooth as that could be other than an old-fashioned barber. Although I scarce dared form the thought, something told me it was so. Here was a fellow-being who would ope the founts of speech until I swam or drowned in inexhaustible conversation!

He greeted my entrance with sparkling eyes. Almost before I had seated myself in his embracing chair he was beginning to tune up.

"In the undertaking line?" he asked, as he tucked a towel under my collar.

"No," I assured him; "I'm a traveler for a Western firm."

"Don't sell caskets or hymn-books, do you?" he persisted. "Excuse me, but I didn't think anybody but undertakers ever wore these any more." He ran an experienced forefinger through the oblong of whisker under my left ear. "I once had a customer who shaved his neck so high that his back view looked like a caterpillar on a grape-fruit. There's no law against wearing what you want, so long as it don't interfere with other people's happiness. Shave? Sure. And, say, you ought to have a shampoo with Gunn's Germ Debilitator—anti-phlogistic, prophylactic antidote for the mollicules of the hair. No, I never studied to be a doctor, but I get a lot of education reading the labels off the tonic-bottles."

He told me volumes about himself while I lay back, reveling in the music of it. He had been married and divorced twice, had been barber for a traveling circus, had been cured of rheumatism by the sting of a bee, and believed the powder trust was behind all this preparedness talk.

"I 'ain't always been in this part of town," he confided, his tongue and his razor-strop clattering with equal velocity. "Up to five years ago I worked in a flossy joint, twenty-five for the shave, seventy-five for the shampoo, extra for the tonic. But I ain't anxious to get rich. This is the life! Here a man can open his trap and let out a little dialogue without a spotter coming along and putting you on the carpet. I used to work at the Grand Babel Hotel. That's a choice morgue."

"It certainly is," I agreed, just as he lathered my mouth.

"For a year or so there, before they made the new rules, it was as gentlemanly a place as you'd wish. Everybody talking anecdotes and repartee. Them was happy times. Great actors and business men dropping into my chair—I got a brainful of grand talk every day. Then my hair began falling away and I knew I was ticketed for the minor league, barberously speaking. About that time they got a head barber who was a silence fan. Wouldn't let us boys in the shop say a word to customers. They got the wrong idea, those guys. It ain't healthy for a barber to keep still while he's shaving a customer. It's like filling a man with hot whisky and then stopping his pores. The death-rate among barbers has shot up like a rocket since that style came in."

By now a solid mask of thick lather covered my face, so, without fear of interruption, Hamilcar O'Brine, my gallant rescuer, was going full swing.

"No, sir, there's too much being said about silence in New York nowadays. The Anti-Noise League is trying to put a Maxim silencer on the elevated road, and they've made the Brooklyn Bridge so quiet that you can almost hear a lady scream when she's knocked down by a conductor. The trouble is, people are getting sensitive about having New York called the loudest city in the world. And then there's a lot of sound-proof cranks like J. Whiffington Whack used to be—they make a lot of trouble."

At the mention of the name of the gentleman whose ear I had been striving so vainly to interest in my project, I confess I jumped slightly. Mr. O'Brine obligingly cauterized the razor-cut which my restlessness had caused and went on.

"Ever hear what silence did to J. Whiffington Whack? Thought maybe you did by the way you jumped. He used to come to the Grand Babel Hotel for his shaves, and I guess it was him that got me fired. Whack was, at that time, one of the lawyers hired by the Interplanetary Tin-Plate Company, working in that same kinda peevish way he's kept up since he's been president of the concern.

"Well, one day J. Whiffington gets an idea that most of the business energy of America was being let out through the mouth. Got to be a sort of efficiency expert in the way of vocal cords, and declared that the gas wasted every day in talk would keep America in Zeppelins for a year. He wasn't boss in his law-office at that time, so he couldn't keep things as still as he liked, but he wore himself to a frazzle worrying over every voice that was raised above a whisper, and made himself darned noxious all over the place.

[Illustration: "'WHIFFY, YOU WAS CRUEL TO ME THIS MORN. YOU BEAT IT, NOT GIVING ME A CHANCE TO SAY MY SOUL WAS MY OWN'"]

"One morning things came to a climax. It seems the company was suing somebody's heirs for about half the real estate in Long Island, and they'd given J. Whiffington the biggest job of his life—summing up alibis and ad valoriums which the company positively had to see by five o'clock that afternoon. J. Whiffington got down to his office before the janitor was up, and was just biting his teeth into page three-thirty-three of the law-book when in comes the office-boy and, standing in the hallway outside, began an imitation of Frank Tinney. This gives Whiff the Willies. He brained the sweet child with a paper-weight and went back again to page three-thirty-three. Suddenly there came an awful bump outside. It turned out that twenty men had come in to move a safe and was holding a mass meeting in the next room. This was an earful for the silence fan. He put a book-mark in page three-thirty-three, tucked the book under his arm, popped on his Kelly, and beat it for his home in the upper West Side.

"J. Whiffington Whack was living in a flat in those days. He was starting in small, so he only had two children and a dog, besides his wife, who was interested in suffrage work. When he got home that morning it was just a little after ten o'clock, so he figured it out that, by boring his nose into the volume for about six hours he could learn enough about alibis and ad valoriums to bring in his report before five. So he sets down and starts in again reading page three-thirty-three.

"Before he locked himself into his room he says to his wife, 'I want silence,' but Mrs. Whack was busy telephoning to Federation Headquarters, so I guess she didn't hear him. Anyway, he didn't get it. The hired help started a ballyhoo down the dumb-waiter; Mrs. Whack fired the nurse and took ten minutes telling her why; Baby Whiffington chewed Fido's tail and Fido came back by biting Baby in the ankle, which starts Baby howling like a wounded wolf. J. Whiffington pops on his Kelly again and comes scooting out of the door, mad as a German hero.

"'Is this what you call silence?' he pipes, loud and clear. 'It's what I call insulting.' She side-steps and lets him have two or three more haymakers before he can dodge down the elevator, his thumb still on page three-thirty-three, where he'd been interrupted.

"J. Whiffington Whack was fruit for the nut-bin by that time. The hours were turkey-trotting by; it was getting nearer five o'clock every minute and he hadn't learned any further than 'aforesaid' out of that law-book he carried under his arm. He wished he was Helen Keller, the noises and the sights of New York made him that mad. About Eighty-first Street and Broadway he got an idea—like a flash. He calls a taxi and orders the chofe to drive him post-hasty to the water-front on the East River. He knew a ship-chandler there named Ike Clark—it was him told me most of this story last Christmas when he got drunk and came in to get his annual haircut.

"It seems that Ike was setting in front of his box-office on the dock, eating tobacco and stroking the long Leopolds he wore all over his chin, when out bounces J. Whiffington Whack from his taxi.

"'Ike!' hollers Whiff, 'I want to hire a yacht.'

"'Plain or steam?' inquires Ike, who guaranteed to keep anything from a ferryboat to an airship.

'"The kind that don't make a noise,' snarls Whack. 'I want to put out to sea for about four hours and find if I can't get a little silence.'

"'I got just the thing!' Ike sings out, tilting down from his chair and leading Whack to the edge of the wharf where he showed him a queer kinda boat, laying half-submerged in the water and looking like a sheet-iron whale.

'"What's that?' asks J. Whiffington.

'"A submarine,' explains Ike, kindly. 'The Q-13, rejected by the U. S. Navy after she got a blow-out in the gas-tank and choked the engineer to death.'

"'Is she safe?' Whack, looking nervous, manages to get the question over his tonsils.

"'Safe enough,' says Ike, 'and that's pretty safe for a submarine. The point I'm getting at is this: There's nothing in the world so silent as the inside of a submarine under water. If you got any thinking to do, or want to pull off something in the murder line, hire a submarine. Charges, ten dollars an hour as long as you want, inside a year.'

"'Who'll run her?' asks Whiff, still sort of doubtful.

"'Me,' says Ike.

"And the upshot of it was that Whack climbed into the mechanical fish, contracting for three hours under water and return to the same wharf when the time was up. Ike and his son Helmar seemed to be all the crew there was. But Whack wasn't scared, it seemed so calm and peaceful-like when the old tub started sinking toward the bottom of the East River.

"Whack locked himself into the sheet-iron cabin and started to work. He sort of grinned as he probed his nose into page three-thirty-three of that old law-book. Here was silence, by hickory! with gilt trimmings! Not a sound anywheres except the swish of the water and the lullaby of the dynamos. It stayed this way about ten minutes. Then, suddenly, it developed that traveling in a U-boat gave Ike Clark that grand-opera feeling in the lungs. He just simply had to open up his soul in song. Ike had a voice like nothing outside the zoo, and when he had finished off 'My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean,' and had roared his way into 'Silver Threads Among the Gold' Whack jumps up and starts after him. Nothing doing. The door of his sheet-iron cabin was stuck like a fly-paper. He yanked it and pulled it and kicked it, but fast stayed the door and louder bellered Ike, now trying variations on the 'Anvil Chorus' by Wagner. 'Less noise, please!' pipes J. Whiffington in his funny little peevish voice. He might as well been blowing smoke at the Woolworth Building for all the good it done. Ike was a little deef and it never occurred to him he was disturbing anybody worth mentioning. Also his son Helmar was mending a steam-pipe with a monkey-wrench, which raised such a bell-chorus that Whack's voice sounded small, like a humming-bird's whistle.

[Illustration: IKE FOUND WHACK ON THE FLOOR CHAWING THE COVERS OF HIS LAW-BOOK]

"Well, the concert went on for three solid hours. J. Whiffington got tired of pounding on the walls of his armor-plate cell, so he decided to go plumb crazy. I don't know how long he stayed that way, but that afternoon, when the U-boat bumped back at her place in the East River, Ike pried open his passenger's door and found Whack on the floor chawing the covers of his law-book.

"After he got over the fit he was a-throwing J. Whiffington scrambled out to the wharf and looked at his watch. It was now three o'clock. Of course you can't pour a whole brainful of law-book knowledge into your head in that time; but Whack had two hours before five o'clock when he had to report to his boss with them alibis and syllabis and habeas corporations all learnt. If he could only find perfect silence! That's what was eating him as he streaked down the street and caught another taxi. This time he told the driver to rush him back to his flat. It was a useless job trying to keep that boiler-factory quiet, says Whack to himself, but he could at least find a soft chair where he could put his feet on the victrola and study that there book.

"As his taxi blistered the pavements on the way home, J. Whiffington kept thinking what he could do with two hours of silence. In two hours, left to himself, Washington planned the Battle of Waterloo. In two hours of uninterrupted monotony Edison discovered the five-reel Mary Pickford; in the same time, setting quietly inclosed with himself, Doc Cook discovered the North Pole. What couldn't J. Whiffington Whack accomplish before five o'clock, if he could only flam his wife into keeping his flat quiet for a while? Sure, he could cut a ripe intellectual cheese all right, all right.

"Well, still groaning and mumbling to himself, J. Whiffington paid the taxi man at his door and went up in the elevator. And he'd no sooner entered his flat than he hears the sound of sobbing—hic-hic—just like that. And there was Mrs. Whack with her face laid against the furniture.

"'Whiffy,' she guggles, 'you was cruel to me this morn. With a bitter word on your lips you beat it, not giving me a chance to say my soul was my own. But look!' She hop-scotched to her feet and pointed out the whole flat. 'I've fixed it so you won't be annoyed any more. I've arranged everything for you so you shall not hear the least sound. I have fired the Swedish kitchen chauffeur, sent the children and dog away to their grandmother, plugged the telephone-bell. Now what am I?'

'"Hubby's little angel-cake!' says Whiff. And the next minute he had took his law-book and made a home run for the library.

"Well, he locks the door, kicks off his shoes, opens the book at page three-thirty-three, and spreads himself out in the softest chair in the room. And with that he begins chawing away at that there law case, absolutely sure in his mind that he can finish the job before five o'clock. He is happy, mister. He's got silence, for there ain't a sound louder than an ant's college yell from one end of that flat to the other."

Hamilcar O'Brine, the old-fashioned barber, fell suddenly silent and began brushing lather reflectively into my side-whiskers, eying the job, head to one side, like an artist admiring some especially beautiful color effect.

"What happened then?" I asked, impatiently, curiously irritated by his absent-minded lathering as well as by the way he had left Mr. Whack locked in his library. "Did he master his law-book and get down-town by five o'clock?"

"He had been in that room nearly two hours," went on Hamilcar, his soapy brush still playing among the hairs beneath my left ear, "and all that time his wife had been a-tiptoeing around the place, squelching everything that looked like a noise. At last, as the hour of five drawed near, she heard a mysterious and awful racket thundering and squeaking through the place. She was that horrified she 'most screamed. She tiptoed to all the bedrooms, thinking a water-pipe had busted, but, search as she would, she couldn't find nothing, and the noise went on just the same. Still tiptoeing, she went sleuthing for that awful racket, which was now rumbling through the flat like it would shake down the plaster. Something fierce. At last she came to the library door and stood quite ghastly. Yes, the noise was coming from inside. A sort of cross between a groan and a whistle that had been married by a vampire, she heard it emerging. She was scared to interrupt her husband in his important work, yet there was no other way to it. Perhaps he was dying in there, crushed to death with the heft of his job.

"She opens the door softly and peeps in. 'Whiffy, darling!' she hollers, but there ain't no reply. Then she steals forwards more boldly—and what d'ya think she sees?"

I gave it up, so Hamilcar supplied the information.

"There, spread out in his padded chair, laid J. Whiffington Whack, fast asleep, his book open at page three-thirty-three, just where he'd started."

"Hadn't read a line?" I asked.

"Nope. Silence done it," explained Hamilcar as, with a dexterous flourish, he drew his razor through my left side-whisker.

"Here! What are you doing?" I fairly shouted, seizing him by his wrist as I leaped from my chair. "I didn't tell you to shave off my side-whiskers."

I surveyed myself in the glass. Indeed, he had done his worst, for the adornment which had so long hung beneath my left ear, imparting dignity to my entire personality, he had scalloped and rutted so cruelly with his razor that nothing remained but a ragged patch.

"Sorry, mister," he apologized, contritely. "I was that busy talking I forgot to ask you if you wanted 'em off. Most people do, you know."

"Why, man," I spluttered, losing my temper, I confess, "I've been cultivating these side-whiskers carefully for over five years. They're my identification mark; they're——"

"You ought to change your identity, if that's the case," urged Hamilcar O' Brine, soothingly. "Now come on, like a good feller. Let me slice off the other one, so your face won't look so lopsided. Honest, you'll stop looking like a cut-rate embalmer if you let me fix you up."

There was nothing left me now but to submit, although it was with a snort of indignation, mingled with a feeling of sentimental regret that I saw him shave away the right side and clean up the wreckage of the left. And as he worked he continued industriously with his monologue.

"Yes, sir. That there experience changed Mr. Whack's life clean 'round. Since that day he never could bear the sound of silence. Made up his mind there wasn't no use trying to cure New York, so he decided the only way to beat the game was to get used to it. Consequently he took to studying law in a turkey-trot parlor, the band going full blast in his ear. And what d'ya think happened?"

[Illustration: "MR. WHACK?" I ROARED OUT. "I HAVE COME WITH A LETTER TO YOU FROM MR. PARKER"]

I held my peace.

"J. Whiffington Whack got to liking the big noise—all the horse-power in the city pounding in his ears. Changed his offices to a building where he could be under the elevated road when he worked. Always hires office-boys that whistle, stenographers that sing, and the janitor in his building says he won't listen unless you holler like a mule-driver."

Hamilcar O'Brine slightly lifted my head, so that I could inspect his work. After a glance in the mirror I was strangely surprised by my youthful appearance. Hamilcar shared my delight.

"You're a good-looking feller, mister," he crowed. "All you ever needed was to give your face a chance. Now take those windows off your eyes, chuck the undertaker make-up, buy yourself a latest-model runabout suit of clothes, and maybe you can get into a modern office, after all."

"While you're about it, trim my mustache short," I suggested.

"Snappy style?" he inquired.

"Quite peppery," I agreed. "Did you say this J. Whiffington Whack had become entirely noisy in his ideas?"

"He believes," explained Hamilcar, "in doing business on the Diamond Jim Brady principles with a little dash of Roosevelt on the side."

By now the old-fashioned barber was combing my hair college-boy style. The face I saw in the mirror was pleasingly strange to me. I put my spectacles in their case.

Hamilcar was visibly affected. "Honest," he exclaimed, "you dropped twenty years with them whiskers. Go buy yourself a hurrah suit of clothes now, and a burnt-orange necktie, and—gee! you'll look wide-awake enough to do business with old Whack himself!"

Dimly in the distance I beheld a gentlemen's outfitter's sign. I fixed my course in that direction.

J. Whiffington Whack was just rushing out of his office when I rushed in. He was a little, fidgety man, and, although the bright-green suit he wore was striking, it was hopelessly outdone by the costume of pin-check pattern with which I enlivened the place.

"Mr. Whack?" I roared out, displaying a boldness which seemed to go with my changed character. "One moment, if I might ask it! I have come with a letter to you from Mr. Parker—"

"Well, well. I like your nerve!" bawled Mr. Whack. "So you've come, too, selling a pie-dish mill?"

I towered over him in an oratorical pose. I pitched my voice to a penetrating key. Employing an amount of cheek absolutely amazing to myself, I plunged up to my ears in the details of the pie-dish industry. Mr. Whack stood spellbound. Once or twice he opened his mouth as if to speak, but he was smothered under my deluge of oratory.

At last, with an unmistakable chuckle, "Enough!" he shouted, merrily. "Young man, you've got something to say. Step across the street with me. There's a little café there where I can sit and listen to your lecture."

A half-hour later we were seated at a small table, two empty glasses between us and the board liberally strewn with blue-prints, documents, and photographs. I paused, weary with speech, and mopped my brow. My heart was pounding wildly, for J. Whiffington Whack had just promised to take over the South Furia Pie-Dish enterprise at terms far better than I had ever dreamed of getting.

"I don't mind telling you," Mr. Whack assured me, as I sat folding up my documents, "you've got the manner that sells things in this generation—aggressive, self-assertive. You can't pussy-foot into success any more. Do you know what convinced me of your merit?"

I expressed my ignorance.

"Your voice," shouted Mr. Whack. "You're the first young man that's come to me for weeks that I have been able to hear above all the racket in New York. And I want to tell you," he pursued, "I like to talk business with nervy young fellows. …" Here he poked me slyly. "Oh, I'm onto the trick you played me!"

I was relieved that he was not offended by the way I had come at him again in my sudden disguise.

"That old chap with the side-whiskers that came around to me this morning with the same proposition—same name as yours, too. Well, with all due respect, I can't stand those male spinsters. I told my subordinates never to let him in my office again. But you put something over on me, you two."

"We two? I don't understand," I protested, quite honestly.

"Oh, don't you? Well, I do. As soon as your father found he was too old-fashioned to get a rise out of me, he sent around his son."

J. Whiffington Whack winked a slow and knowing wink which I returned by a signal as crafty as his own.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1927.


The author died in 1959, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.