Thirty-five Twenty-sevenths

Thirty-five Twenty-sevenths  (1917) 
by Octavus Roy Cohen

Extracted from the Black Cat, May 1917, pp. 10–14.



Twenty-seven people can possibly do the work of thirty-five, if fattened pay envelopes constitute the driving force. Otherwise thirty-five over twenty-seven is something more than a simple problem in division. Pointing out the dignity of labor is a poor incentive to industry.

PERSONALLY, Cyrus J. Hawkins was the very antithesis of romance. He was spare of frame, large of head and scant of hair; spindled-legged, narrow-shouldered, sunken-chested and cursed with a pair of lustrous black eyes with an X-ray power.

It was the eyes of Cyrus J. Hawkins that started all the trouble. Not one of the girls of the stenographic force could work with those orbs boring into the back of her head, however protected by switches. On occasion when the official glance was thus turned balefully on a malefactor, a bad business became worse, and on several occasions the girl stared at had broken into a paroxysm of weeping, whereat Cyrus J. Hawkins had grinned malevolently (or so it seemed to the other girls) and disappeared contentedly into his sanctum santorum.

But, however unpleasant it is to do so, the devil must be accorded his due. Cyrus J. Hawkins, office and sales manager of the Harrington Machinery Company, Inc., had his hands full and then some. The trouble lay in Harrington senior, chief stockholder in the corporation.

In the days before the Harrington Machinery Company, then not incorporated, was out of its swaddling clothes, Jim Harrington had been actual general manager. In those days he had employed an office force of nineteen persons, four of whom were more or less comely young ladies expert in the gentle art of hieroglyphing in notebooks and transferring their work in- to type with a greater or less degree of speed and accuracy.

Prosperity smiled upon the firm, and little by little the office and sales force was increased to twenty-seven persons, seven of whom were stenographers, by grace of business colleges. At the same time, the burden of work shifted by almost unnoticeable degrees from the exceedingly portly frame of Harrington senior, to the gaunt one of Cyrus J. Hawkins. After articles of incorporation were granted at the state capitol, Cyrus J. was officially made office and sales manager, while Harrington—now James Montgomery Harrington in place of plain Jim Harrington—builded himself a mahogany finished office, installed real mahogany furniture, genuine Havana cigars, and acquired an air of pomposity which was adequately defended by an overweening self-esteem.

Cyrus J. was a competent man, an exceedingly competent man, and in the following three years the business—incorporated—grew marvellously under his expert handling. But the force remained the same unelastic twenty-seven. For nearly a year now every man-jack and woman-jack of that force had been working at a maximum and three times Cyrus J. had approached the man in the mahogany office with demands for an increase of staff. Each time he had failed utterly to penetrate even the first trench line of Harrington senior's self-esteem. He was as immovable, as the oft-mentioned Rock of Gibraltar. He had run the business with a staff of twenty-seven and was paying Cyrus J. to do the same. That ended it, and Cyrus J. knew that it ended it, and for all time.

Therefore it followed, as a matter of course, that Cyrus J. must get out of the minds and bodies of his twenty-seven accredited employees the work which ordinarily thirty-five could not have handled with any too great a degree of despatch. In the course of time, three vertical wrinkles grew between the bridge of the nose and the place where his forelock should have met the forehead, and transversing these lines at more or less variant right angles was a series of furrows, which, as any phrenologist will tell you, denoted that Cyrus J. was both studious and worried.

He was worried because he knew the man for whom he worked, and he knew that he had to make good on the task assigned him, else his years of faithful service would be discounted one hundred per cent and another man summarily seated in his chair. And Cyrus was being paid a very fair salary and he wished to retain it. Father Time was on his heels, and already he was approaching the fateful fifty mark;—the fiftieth year when a man loses a bit of fighting ambition and becomes content to hold a well-paying position.

The lines of study were brought to his hitherto uncreased brow by reason of a mad chase after efficiency. Efficiency, to his way of thinking, was typified by making twenty-seven persons do the work of thirty-five. He absorbed one rule, and then like a student of the magpie, let the others slide. And this rule dealt with waste time, which under the new order of things was not to be found in the Harrington offices. But Cyrus J., not having pursued the subject of efficiency far enough, became an iron slave-driver.

For about a month his plan worked very satisfactorily and then insurrection broke out; not gradually, but with a sudden flare that startled him. He knew that he had Miss Marjorie Summers to thank for it.

Miss Summers drew at least twenty-five dollars a week as head stenographer for the Harrington Machinery Company, Inc. She was as competent as she was pretty, which is saying a good deal for her competence. And up to the time she was awakened to the leadership of rebellion, Cyrus J. Hawkins had liked her exceedingly. He disliked her as an opponent because he knew that she was no fool and also that she understood the situation perfectly. He thereupon construed her opposition to him as being deliberately unfriendly, and then proceeded to sever diplomatic relations. Whereat she perfected her plans of campaign and held an informal meeting with the other females of the office force shortly after the closing hour. The meeting was held in the ladies' cloak room, and Miss Summers harangued the gathering about as follows"

"The old fossil is doing us a dirty trick. Instead of standing right up to the boss, he's taking it out on us, and looking to each one to do two persons' work. But we've got the whip hand, because there's a certain amount of work that's got to be done, and if it isn't done the business goes to pot. And if he sees we aren't going to do it—or aren't doing it, as you may choose to express it—he's either got to make a firm stand with old man Harrington or else be fired, and me, I don't care which happens. I'm thinking I'd rather he'd be fired."

"But Marjorie,"—this from a flaxen-haired filing clerk,—"s'posin' he knows what we're up to an' fires us?"

Marjorie gazed upon the speaker with the condescension which twenty-five a week has the right to show towards seven-fifty.

"He can't! I've thought that out, too. He's getting all the work we can do now—and we're all broken into the business. New people have got to be broken in and while that's being done the work's falling behind. We've got things all our own way—but we've got to stand together."

And stand together they did—with a vengeance. The first day of open rebellion, Cyrus J. Hawkins believed the evidence of neither his sight nor his ears. The typewriters clicked all day long, but they lacked the frantic tattoo as the typebars cracked against platens. The letters and papers which came to his desk were faultlessly done but the quantity of work turned out by the seven typists assayed only about seventy-five per cent of the amount he had obtained under his slave-driving efficiency system.

That, in itself, was sufficient to arouse his suspicion; but when he noticed that his two little filing clerks were working with accurate, painstaking lack of speed; that his woman biller was correspondingly dawdling, and that every other wearer of skirts paid greater attention to accuracy than to speed, he knew that he was up against a very hard proposition.

Thereupon he carried the campaign into the enemy's country. He moved his working desk into the outer office and watched. Thanks to the generalship of Miss Summers, his watching availed him nothing. Insofar as eyes could detect there was not loafing—yet the quantity of work turned out daily grew less and less by almost infinitesimal degrees. And Miss Summers had guessed correctly when she asserted that he dared not discharge any of the insurrectoes}} because of the unthinkable waste in "breaking in" persons unfamiliar with the routine of the office.

If, under ordinary circumstances, the girls would have been softened to leniency at sight of Cyrus J.'s haggard face as the strain of battle left its indelible mark on him, their spirit of combat was kept alive by his irascibility and fed upon his uncompromising refusal to arbitrate. And Cyrus J. was game enough and sensible enough to fight his fight without carrying details to James Montgomery Harrington. In the first place, Harrington would not have believed; and in the second place, had he believed, he would have snorted with disgust and attributed it all to lack of executive ability on the part of his office manager. And Cyrus J, was upwards of fifty and his job looked very good to him. If Harrington had been human in even a minimum degree—but he wasn't, so there was no use in appealing to him.

At the end of two months there was an accumulation of work on hand which longer hours could not, and would not, cut down. All the raving and ranting, all the biting sarcasm and scathing denunciation of inefficiency in the vocabulary of the diminutive Cyrus J. availed nothing. The girls had readied their minimum speed and turned out just so much work daily; and as so much work was on the wrong side of being enough, the unfinished business of the office grew and grew. And in the big office Harrington—James Montgomery—thrived mightily and smoked his black, gold-banded perfectoes, and grew stouter and more florid and entertained the pleasing delusion that he was running his business very well and very economically.

Summer came, and with summer came heat, and with heat came longer afternoons and longer hours in the office. It was after one such sweltering afternoon that Miss Summers, on her arrival at the hall-bedroom which she occupied in sole state, discovered that her keys were not in her purse.

She felt a sense of panic and impending disaster. Miss Summers, in addition to being head stenographer, was keeper of the incidental cash and one of the keys on her key-ring gave access to the big steel cash box that did duty in lieu of a safe. Harrington had used no combination safe in the old days and he therefore used no safe now. And it was important that those keys should not be lost, for, while the cash usually kept in the cash box was small in amount it was sufficiently large to prove worrisome to Miss Marjorie Summers.

She summoned a fellow boarder of the masculine gender, ardently inclined towards herself despite his eighteen dollars a week, and requested his escort as far as the office. It was past supper when they set out and he insisted on stopping for an ice-cream soda. At their arrival at the factory, she was surprised to discover that there was a light burning in the office. Now she would not have to bother the watchman. She left her cavalier outside and mounted the short flight of steps. She turned the knob and the door opened readily. She entered—then stopped short.

Seated before a typewriter, his head pillowed on crossed arms, was Cyrus J. Hawkins, fast asleep, and as she looked at him she felt her first pang of conscience. His narrow shoulders were hunched forward, and he looked very old and very bald and very tired. In the platen was a partly finished letter, one which he had dictated to her that day and which she, knowing its importance, had purposely refrained from sending.

The maternal instinct in the girl was aroused and she felt very sorry and very mean and very small. She tiptoed to her desk, and saw, by the little man's hand, her missing bunch of keys. It was evident that they had slipped from her bag which, during the day, she kept atop her desk, after the fashion of stenographers the world over. And as she took the keys she coughed.

The little man jerked himself upright, and rose stammeringly to his feet. At sight of her, his frown re-appeared and he summoned the cold aloofness which had clothed him during hostilities in which he had recognized her as the opposition leader.

"Miss Summers! What are you doing here?"

The girl flushed.

"I—I—forgot my keys. I just returned for them. I— I—can't I finish that letter for you?"

The little man gazed at her sharply, and shook his head.

"No, thank you," he said coldly. "You should have done it before you left here. I am able to attend to it myself."

"But I can do it so much more quickly."

"You can work with greater speed during the day, too, Miss Summers,—but you don't do it"

"I— I—"

"Don't apologize, please. I have realized that there was a conspiracy against me. I've been fighting it as best I could. I ask no quarter."

The calm dignity of the little martinet appealed to the girl as nothing else could have done.

"You drove us to it—"

"Excuse me, I did not. It was not I who demanded that my working force do fifty per cent more work than we have a right to expect. It is Mr. Harrington. I am in his employ just as you are, and I am responsible to him for what you do and don't do. But it has never occurred to any of you that he might be to blame. It was I—you never analyzed. You knew him well enough to know that when the work fell very far behind he would fire me. All right—" he shrugged. "I'm afraid, Miss Summers, that I'll have to concede you the victory. I'm beaten."

"Beaten?" The word of victory had a hollow sound now that it was uttered. The little man looked so lonely and so quietly game. If only he had been angry and had railed at her. But no—he was polite and quiet and heroically unheroic.

"Yes. Certain matters are coming up to-morrow—one of them the McDavis contract—which have not been attended to, thanks to the refusal of my office force to work up to the best of its ability, and Harrington will hold me to account for it. It will, or would, lead to a scene. I shall avoid that by a plain talk with Mr. Harrington beforehand. I shall also have my resignation ready."

"You mean—you will resign, whether or no?"

He bowed gravely.

"That is what I mean. I know Harrington—as well as you do. I would far rather resign than be forced out. I shall at least retain my self-respect."

"You—you—have been working here—every night?"

"Of course. I am entrusted with the work of the office. If those I employ refuse to do the work they can do—and refuse by actions cleverly calculated to save them from being discharged—it is up to me to make good their deficiency insofar as I can."

His precise manner won her admiration. There was no hint of cringing.

"May I ask you a personal question, Mr. Hawkins?"


"You—" she flushed. "You are dependent on your—position here?"

"What do you mean?"

"It means more to you than—just a job?"

This time the man flushed and embarrassment showed on his face.

"We'll hardly discuss that, Miss Summers. Very often there are personal reasons to spur a man to greater effort than was intended for him by nature; reasons which are his, and are sacredly private. They exist, Miss Summers, even in the life of a crabbed, crusty old bachelor."

It was a new angle to the little man's character: this nobility of purpose which kept him slaving his health away. And that it was a strong motive she knew—else he would not have done as he had been doing. Impulsively she turned.

"Wait one minute, please." She left the office, descended the stairway and summarily dismissed her escort, much to that pompadoured young gentleman's bewildered sorrow. Then she returned to the office, doffed coat and hat and approached Cyrus J. Hawkins.

"Please let me sit there, Mr. Hawkins," she said quietly.

"What for, please?"

"I'm going to work here until that McDavis thing is finished. And you're not going to resign, and— Oh! I want to tell you that I am sorry, very sorry, and that I'm going to do all I can to rectify the wrong I have done. Believe me, Mr. Hawkins, and let me do my little toward righting things, won't you? And please promise me that you'll give me another trial—that you won't resign your position."

He stared at her strangely. Then suddenly he shoved a bony little hand toward her.

"Thank you, Miss Summers. We'll shake on it, if you wish."

And shake they did, and a friendship was born between them. Together they worked until two o'clock in the morning and when they finished, the voluminous mass of papers in the McDavis matter was neatly completed. The little man escorted the girl to her boarding house and there left her. As she mounted the stairway to her room she felt a sense of elation which comes to those who have been magnanimous in the hour of victory.

Just before the working hour struck next morning there was a second conference in the cloakroom of the women employees of the Harrington Machinery Company, Incorporated. And again Miss Marjorie Summers was spokesman. She excelled herself in her graphic description of the scene on the previous night, and by the time she finished, more than half of her hearers were weeping softly. The average woman is ninety per cent emotion and sentiment, anyway.

"I don't know what it is girls," she wound up, "but there is some secret in his life; some motive which has compelled him to drive and drive himself ten times as hard as he has tried to drive us. I, for one, have finished with my loafing. I'm going to work and work and work—I'm for him first and last."

"And me."

"Me too."

"So am I."

It was a starry-eyed crowd of girls that seated themselves at their machines and took their desks as the working bell struck in the factory entrance. In a second, typebars were clicking against platens with a speed that the office had never before known; the filing clerks worked with lightning speed, the other office girls bustled about swiftly, intent on their tasks. The eyes of Cyrus J. Hawkins met those of Miss Marjorie Summers and a smile of mutual understanding passed between them. Somehow, all the girls felt that their victory was complete—that there was more for them in such magnanimity than there could ever be in a triumph which lost to the game little man his position.

Cyrus J. Hawkins strolled to the window and gazed out upon the smoke-limned skyline of the district. He smiled very gently indeed, and rubbed the palms of his hands together softly.

"I call it clever," he soliloquized softly, "the whole thing. First slipping the keys from her bag, knowing that she'd miss them, be worried, and return; then pretending to be asleep, and working that sympathy gag on her. They do say that there are more ways of killing a chicken than by tickling it to death with a feather.

"And after all the end is worth the means. They'll catch up with the work in no time—and everybody's happy!"

He faced the office as he walked back to his desk and he smiled again. He seemed twenty years younger. And the girls smiled with him. They were as content as he.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1959, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 63 years or less. This work may 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.