A DILEMMA IN THE OFFICE Edit
By Elizabeth Barnett-Esler Edit
Published in Short Stories 1894
Final decision had been arrived at, the fiat had gone forth, she must be dismissed. Even Mr. Herbert, who had appeared to temporize a httle, had, at the last, even urged it, and there was no hesitation whatever in the others. To be sure, young Clay had frowned and shrugged his shoulders, as 'at a disagreeable necessity, but he had made no movement to argue against the others, and his brother had shut his thin lips tight and assumed an expression of adamantine firmness. Williams had been silent for the most part, joining in the discussion only by frowns and nods of the head when he was called upon by word or a peremptory glance from one of the other three, but he very evidently agreed with them and so words were probably unnecessary.
They were assembled in solemn conclave — none the less solemn because impromptu. They had all happened to come together in Mr. Herbert's room, and the subject had been brought up as by accident, but the opportunity was propitious for discussion, a decision had been arrived at, and they had found themselves confronted by the consideration of immediate action, almost before they realized the need for it.
When this was discovered, there was an ominous silence, which seemed to promise to be lengthy, since no one cared to bring down responsibility on his own head by breaking it.
After some moments of this very irksome silence, Mr. Herbert spoke, hesitating at every word, but with the weight of necessity heavy upon him.
" Well, of course, the matter is settled ; now the next thing is — well, naturally, we must tell the young woman and have done with it."
" Yes, as a matter of course," replied the elder Clay, with almost a precipitancy of haste, hoping iti this way to save himself ; and his brother, seizing upon the same thought, exclaimed:
" I should think Williams ought to speak to her, should
4 not you ? He is the — well, the most dignified and suitable person for the mission, I should think." Williams frowned ponderously. He looked like his uncle, the Judge, especially while assuming that almost judicial frown, but he made no re ' sponse to young Clay's suggestion, and his very silence convinced them that he was not available, and solely because he refused to be made so. Then there was quiet again and the thoughts of each man were complex. All felt a sense of mortification that a matter of apparently such small importance, in the face of others of so much greater moment, should have been presented so seriously. It was like a man's shame at the pain of the sting of some insect Then, also, they were wasting valuable time which each one longed to be using on business more suitable to his dignity. To be actually spending hours in discussing and deliberating upon the dismissal of a typewriter was simply abstud — it was contemptible and undignified, and all were restive and annoyed. Yet, in spite of this, the thing had assumed gigantic proportions. It was like an insignificant article in the confiKed mind of a person in a fever, and became timeasonably fearful . from its unnatural aspect.
They none of them realized the powerful personality of a woman, who, by her presence only, could so control their judgment; or, if they did, the masculine pride of each man would have bUnded him to the acknowledgment.
After awhile the younger Clay became uncontrollably restless and
forced his hands deep into his trousers pockets and swore under his breath. He was young enough to find relief in bad language on rare occasions. His brother scowled at him reprovingly, Wiliiams looked amused. He would himself have liked to indulge in an oath or two, but it was not his habit.
Herbert rose, stretched his legs and yawned, lifting his long arms above his head. It was the gesture of nervousness. People yawn and stretch that way in the midst of great nervoup tension.
" Well," he said, flushing a little, " I suppose I must speak to her. I brought the trouble about by engaging her services, and I ought, of course, to assiune the trouble of dismissing her. I wish I knew exactly the proper terms to use in doing so. " H is big, soft brown eyes had almost a hunted look as he spoke, and the elder Clay, quite unable to bear the sight of it, said at once, in his thin, penetrating voice : "I don't think so at all. .You've had annoyance enough out of the I affair. I will speak to her myself," and he turned to the door as if about to cany out his intention at once.
" Well, I don't know, Rufus. Wait a little.i' There was a deep, abiding and tender affection between these two men. They appreciated . . one another. The fine-bred, sensitive organ-
ization of Herbert appealed, like the sweetness of a woman, to all that was strong and pure and romantic in his friend. They were knit together close by congeniahty and companionship, and one could not wiJhngly see the other annoyed or distressed. The younger Clay looked at Herbert with the old surprise renewed; he could not understand, though he always admired the sans peur et sans refrocke characteristic in this otherwise everyday man. " How in the world did you make the mistake of engaging such a person in the first place, Fredrick; I should think you
would have seen at once how
Mr. Clay did not finish, the unfitness of the typewriter was indescribable. There was the point.
" It was the merest accident. You know all about it You and George were in Virginia on that business of Graham's, and I didn't know when you'd be back— Peter's mother came on that rainy Friday to say he was down with rheumatism — there were those papers for the Bradley case waiting to be copied, and I did as we always had done before, I advertised. Early Monday morning when I came — Williams was not down yet — I found a number of people in the outer office and, as I passed, I beckoned to the nearest to come in here. It happened to be this lady. She was thickly veiled and dressed, moreover, in a long waterproof garment of a nondescript pattern, and I could not, of course, examine her critically. She made perfectly satisfactory answers to all questions and expressed herself entirely capable — as she has proved — ^for the work ; so I took her at once, and upon my soul, Rufus," he concluded, with that rare smile of his, "I really did not see her, to notice her appearance, until you came in and spoke ot it."
" Oh, come off ! " muttered George Clay, vulgarly. There were other things in Herbert's organization he could not understand.
" Well ! " asked Williams, turning from the window. " She has to go, and that's settled. Now, which of you fellows is going to tell her ? And I hope when she's gone you will let me engage a boy."
" Why, I have not the slightest objections, Clarence, a boy by all means ; but I wish one of you would be good enough to tell me just the form of language a gentleman should use in telling a gentlewoman — I use the term advisedly — who is patiently an^ industriously and very skilfully earning her living, and the living of we know not whom besides, that she is — well too beautiful to properly fill the position of stenographer and typewriter in the offices of himself and his colleagues ? For my own part, I do not see my way, I confess."
" Well, that's absurd ! " exclaimed Rufus Clay. " You don't have to tell her that I "
" It's the truth," said Herbert, doggedly. " There is no other reason under the sun for shipping her, and you all know it."
" Just say that we have decided to dispense with her services," suggested Wiliams. " I want to be prepared for the inevitable questioning. She is forced to this, and will not readily give it up. If she, delicate as she looks, has strength enough to sit there day after day, and the publicity of it to such a frail creature must be galling, she has strength enough to force a reason why she should give it up. Now, Vhen she asks me I shall be put out, and I want to be prepared." And when he said this, he felt just as a strong man might who asked a reason for taking a knife out of the hands of a child. The child might cry ; he dreaded it, and was ashamed.
This was the point they had reached, by various roads of argument, for the third or fourth time, when a knock at the door interrupted them, and the cause of the dilemma stood' on the threshold. It was only to announce a client, and to bring in the noon mail ; but at sight of her each man slunk off to his own room, and Herbert, a comically guilty look on his face, took his letters, and admitted the visitor, a client of his.
Then came that episode of the apple-blossoms, a trifle in itself , but a straw directing attention to a deep and dangerous current existing only in the imagination of each one, and after which they went about for days with a hang-dog look, evading one another's full glance and seeking the daily duties with an amusing avidity ; the most uncongenial tasks, business of the most unpleasant nature preferred to the risk of another general discussion on the subject just referred to, and avoiding a t^te-^-tete savagely.
That affair of the apple-blossoms remained a mjrstery to the last.
It was a perfect spring morning about the end of April ; to be absolutely accurate the twenty-ninth of that month. The spring had come early that year, and the day, even at eight in the morning, was very warm, not sultry, but delicious. Little Jimmy had come first, whistling cheerfully as usual. Young Clay used to say they kept him for his whistling, it was so inspiriting. On this morning, as on all others, he unlocked the rooms, put on his
linen coat, climbed on a chair and pushed the clock hands on just a very Httie way, because he had not hadmuch breakfast, and aheady longed [for luncheon. Taking out the history of " Charley Blake : or, The Miner's Joy," he sat down to finish that last chapter, which he accomplished without interruption, when Mr. Carleton came in.
Russell Carleton was a great, red, Irish artist, with a big voice, a heart as large as the ocean, and a talent for summer landscapes that gained him his living, and promised future fame. He had his studios — there were three of them — at the top of the building, and, though there was a wide and comfortable staircase thereto, he preferred a back entrance through the offices of Herbert Clay — Clay & Williams, who were his friends and admirers, and with whom he loved dearly to stop and chat before beginning the day's work.
On this particular April morning he found no one but Jimmy. Advancing upon that youth, who adored him, he began a series of exasperating questions confusing to the boy, who grinned in his joy, and made no effort to reply. In the midst the artist asked abruptly, so that a clever listener would have known it was a matter of import to the questioner :
" Where is Miss Smith this morning ? She is late, isn't she ? "
Jimmy glanced with assumed carelessness at the clock, pointing to ten minutes past eight, and he knew that Miss Smith, who was never late, would be in directly.
Even before he could reply, they both heard the approaching footsteps of the lady referred to, and, while Jimmy flew to open the door for her, Mr. Carleton quickly laid on Miss Smith's own table a spray of apple-blossoms which he had been holding behind his back, and then walked rapidly through the rooms and up to his own habitation, chuckling as he climbed the narrow stairs.
The truth might as well be acknowledged at once : “the painter of landscapes was in love with Miss Smith. To be in love was his normal condition, and with his artistic temperament, to be in love with the most beautiful woman near was inevitable. But he was sly and cimning and witty and shrewd, so nobody guessed at his passion.
His placing a spray of apple-blossoms thus surreptiously on the table of his adored one, was a new departure.
He had spent the night out of town with a friend, and as they drove to the station, the tree, in full bloom, had brought her vividly to his mind. He had broken off the blossoms simply for that reason, perhaps intending to carry them to his studio as a palpable reminder or emblem of her ; the leaving of them at her table was an impulse. The next minute Miss Smith came in. She saw the apple-bough in an instant, and kept her eyes on it while she pulled off her gloves, untied her veil, hung up her hat and drew out her chair.
Then she took up the spray and glanced over her shoulder at Jimmy. He was reading the paper. Seeing this, she laid the blooming branch against her cheek, inhaling the fresh smell of it with delight Putting it down on the table, she bowed over it in an attitude of adoration, drinking in its delicate beauty with her eyes. Lastly, she kissed it, and then spoke :"
" Jimmy, where do you live ? "
" Up on Norfolk Street — way up — 660."
She knew the locality on Norfolk Street — way up, and that there were no apple -treee thereabout.
" Who gave you the apple-blossonss ? "
" Nobody never gave me none."
" Did you buy them ? and for me ? "
Jimmy looked over his shoulder and his eyes grew large. "No ma'am .'" and she was convinced that Jimmy was innocent At this she looked a little bit frightened, glancing doubtfully from open door to open door of all the rooms about her; then she got up and put the blossoming-rods over on the little stand by the register, but, as if in compassion, stood them with their feet in the drinking-glass — the only one — filled with fresh water. Evidently not yet satisfied with their separateness from all contact with herself, she took them, glass and all, and climbing, as Jimmy had done, on to a chair, put them up on the little clock-shelf, leaning against that hideous bronze time-piece; then she went back to her place.
In half an hour Mr. Williams came in, glanced at the clock with a sense of self-gratulation at the early hour, saw the applebough, was reminded to say good-morning to Miss Smith, and passed into his room.
Fully an hour later young Clay came down, lounged throi^h the open door, looked with unconcealed admiration at Miss Smith, whose back was towards him, observed a perfume which he attributed to a handkerchief which that lady had dropped, and which he picked up and held it to his face. It was perfumed, but with faintest violet, which he knew for orris-rooL Then, as he put the handkerchief on Miss Smith's table, he passed under the clock, and his sensitive nose, guiding his eyes, he, too, saw the blossoms, and smiled. Here was material for a little pleasant twitting of somebody, and, smiling still, he went into Mr. Herbert's room, which was empty. He looked then for his brother, who was not there ; then he slipped in on Williams, and pointing with his thumb, asked impudently :
" Where did you get the apple-blossoms ? " '
Williams was deep in a brief, out of which he came long enough to say :
" Gh'e it up; " and young Clay wandered off to his own den.
Herbert came in about five minutes after, saw the decorated clock, scowled heavily, and slammed his door behind him. Mr. Herbert had not shut himself up in this manner alone within the memory of the whole office, and each man, hearing the banging door, looked up surprised. Thus he did not see that Mr. Rufus Clay followed his entrance, and was, as himself, guiltless of the offending blossoms.
All this day and for several succeeding days, the moral atmosphere of the office was surcharged. A more discontented and wretched set of men did not exist. Young Clay grew impatient at trifles, and afterwards melancholy. He used to say that this period was worse than an easterly storm in a country-house. Clay, St., watched Mr. Herbert apprehensively ; the latter gentleman was nervous to the verge of prostration, and Mr. Williams lost his grip entirely and ran off to a cousin's wedding in New York, although he felt he should not take the time just then from business.
At this time it was, while Williams was still away, that Mr. Herbert sought Mr. Clay privately, and together they detennined upon immediate action.
"It won't do," said Mr. Herbert, argumentatively, " it won't do at all to have this condition obtain long. She is perfectly innocent, and unconscious as a child ; but nevertheless you can see she has disturbed the even current of the whole office, and — yes, I'll allow you, by her simple presence alone, I do not like it 1 Frankly, Rufus, I must confess that, though I like the good lady herself, the constant presence of such a woman, one so eminently beautiful and high-bred, is destructive to that calmness and repose necessary to business like our own, and — well, if you will, that freedom to which we are accustomed."
Mr. Clay rose to continue the argument on the same lines, thus :
" You are perfectly right, Frederick. I know just what you mean. Why, do you know, I have noticed the greatest attraction in George ! Not for the worse, though he is graver. I*m afraid the boy (Mr. George Clay was thirty, but a boy still to his brother) — well, in fact I fear the young fellow is — you see the temptation being ever-present, and, in fact — you understand ? " Mr. Herbert did understand, though he also knew that " the boy " had run the gauntlet of polite society for the past ten or twelve years imsinged even.
" Oh, it's not that," he said, reassuringly. " No doubt the fellow is all right, in fact I know he is indifferent as far as that goes. But the thing is this : the good lady is out of place here. She is not the kind of woman for such a position."
" I know," interrupted Mr. Clay, " one insensibly associates her with a drawing-room and afternoon teas, and all that."
" Yes, and the very element is out of keeping here."
Young Clay had said once that a man's office should be like his club, entirely free from petticoat government, and both men remembered this as they spoke.
"Well," said Mr. Herbert, in conclusion, " I'll speak to her this evening."
And — ^he did not. No, nor did Clay speak, though he had said deprecatingly, " Oh, leave it to me," as Herbert had gone out. In fact the matter lay in abeyance for some days longer, and then was settled unexpectedly and without the interference of either of these gentlemen.
It was about three o'clock of an afternoon. All had been to luncheon and the ordinary occupations of the office were in full swing. A client was shut up with Mr. Williams, with whom he was discussing a curious patent case. Mr. Herbert had gone over to the bank for a bit of business before closing time. Mr. Rufus Clay was writing a letter, and his brother was privately smoking a cigarette — with the top of the window pulled down, a precaution he had not always thought of, but things were changed of late — ^while he was reading some matter of absorbing interest, when Mr. Carleton, the artist, came loafing in. This rubicund gentleman, rather more red and more clumsy and bigger than usual, gave a comprehensivg look around, which included Miss Smith, and then went in to George Clay, who looked up and smiled a greeting, pushing forward a chair with his foot. Carleton slumped down in a heap — which was his easy method of sitting, — took the offered cigarette, but did not hght it.
There was perfect stillness, so that the voices of both gendemen, pitched low as they were, could be distinctly heard in the outer office, where Miss Smith sat alone at her copying, and from , the first each word they spoke came clearly to her hearing.
"That was a queer affair all through, last night, was it not?" Russell Carleton spoke.
"Yes, but I wish you'd tell me how it began; I didn't get in till it was nearly over,"
" Awful row," murmured Carleton enjoyably; " never saw such a racket in the club in my life."
" How was it ? " asked Clay, soothingly.
" Began when Will Sloan came in. Nobody knew just when or how, but Harry Lea got up all of a fluster and swore awfully, saying for his pait he would not stay m the same room with a blackguard and looking pointedly at Sloan, so that everyone saw
whom he meant. Then Sloan, of course, struck him across the lace with his stick, Sloan always had a dreadful quick temper." " What did Lea mean ? that's what I can't make out." "Why, weren't you there that night when somebody said something about Will Sloan's having run off with Richard Harrison's wife? Lea was in a great taking; be is Harrison's most intimate friend. They were always together before Hairison went to New York and married, and naturally, if he thought that Sloan had taken Harrison's wife, he would resent it and not want him in the club."
" Oh, of course not," droned Clay, meekly. " Well, go on."
" Oh, then Lea struck out, and some fellows rushed in and 'Separated them, and they both went off. Every one said Lea was wrong, for in the face of it, there must be a lie somewhere, and a man ought to find out before he goes off the handle that way. Don't you see, if Sloan had gone off with Harrison's wife, who was traced to a foreign-bound steamer, how could he be in the Richmond Club less than four weeks after ? "
" That is queer," said Clay, bracing up.
" Where in the devil is Harrison ? "
" Gone to Europe after them."
" Well, I'll swear ! Do you mean to say Dick Harrison has gone abroad after his wife under the impression that she's away with Sloan."
" Yes," drawled Carleton, " pretty, isn't it ? " Just then both men thought they heard from the outer office a sound like a sob or a sobbing sigh, but it was also like the scraping of a chair on the uncovered floor. They looked at each other and listened, but there was no further noise, and the typewriter commenced its irregular click, chck as usual. They were quiet a minute, when Clay asked :
" She must have been an awful fool to go off; Harrison is such a fine fellow."
" Yes, and such a snap as it was for her; she had been dreadfully poor, I've been told. But women never know when they have a good thing." This with a tone of resigned, compassionate regret.
" I wonder what the trouble was ? ""
" Never heard; but Sloan was evidently not at the bottom of it, if she went abroad."
" They must have gone off at the same time to have caused the suspicion."
" Well, I don't know anything about her, but I do knew that Sloan has been to Canada, for he wrote to me all the time he was gone and brought me an English gun last week, which I have upstairs now, a prime piece I tell you ! "
" Why, that was the reason you went off after Lea last night ! I wondered."
" Yes, they are all right now. Lea apologized when I told him about the Canada trip, and Sloan was as surprised as anyone to hear about Hamson's misfortune."
" It must have been a curious combination of circumstances that caused Hamson's doubt of Sloan," persisted Clay, who had a lawyer's instinct for getting at the bottom of things.
" Don't know," said Carleton, indifferently; and the talk drifted off that bank into fresher waters.
After half an hour, Carleton got himself out of his chair by a series of astonishing twists and jerks and went back to his paint! and canvases.
Mr. Herbert came in. Williams, free from his dient, went off to a board meeting and the day wore on. About five in the afternoon the men dropped off one by one. Mr. Herbert had a headache and left early. Mr. Williams did not return from his meeting and Carleton said good-bye on his way through the offices to go to draw with a man; the two Clays alone were left. At half after five the elder man departed, leaving George still apparently absorbed in that reading of his. Its interest had, perhaps, flagged towards the last, for at a quarter of six o'clock he was sleeping quietly.
It was exactly ten minutes of six when Miss Smith, with her hat on and her gloves in her hand, came to the open door of George Clay's room and awoke him by speaking his name. He woke suddenly and with a jerk, and springing to his feet, bowed to her.
He afterwards said, that as he opened his eyes and looked, there seemed to be something luminous about her like a diffused halo of light.
In truth she was very handsome, standing there with her back to the afternoon light that streamed through the window behind her conspicuously, and, imder the circumstances of her environment, oflfensively handsome. She was tall and slender, and shapely and graceful. Her garments, though of the simplest style, were of the finest quality, consisting on this occasion of a silk-cashmere skirt and a velvet jacket, both black and both absolutely without ornament. She wore shoes of black suede, and gloves of the same, and her hat was a small black toque of straw, bound with a twisted handkerchief, also black. But her eyes were blue as heaven and her hair a gold bronze, and, though she wore it brushed neatly up all around and folded in a kind of bow-knot on top, one noticed it admiringly. Do what she might, provided she did nothing offensive to good taste, she could neither disguise nor even diminish her beauty. She was bom exquisitely lovely, and that was the whole of it. It was beyond question.
George Clay bowed, which gave him time to wake up and be surprised. Then she spoke.
" I wish to speak to you a moment, Mr. Clay," she said.
There, also, was another charm — ^her voice. It was not only musical but refined. The voice and enunciation of the educated woman, which is as entirely distinct from that — sometimes equally as sweet — of the woman of the people, as can be imagined.
"Certainly," said Clay; "please sit down," and he placed his chair.
But she continued to stand while she said :
" I want you to do something for me, if you please. I want you to write a letter for me."
George looked his surprise, and being conscious that he did, dropped his eyes.
" Be good enough to write it now," she continued ; and there was the faintest peremptory ring in her voice.
He looked up quickly and caught her glance. The blue eyes were flashing in command, and her face, always so pale and still, like a mask of woe, as he had often thought, was flushed a delicate, glowing pink. He drew out his desk-chair, under the impulse given by her look, and had actually drawn the paper towards him before he thought to say:
" Perhaps you had best tell me the nature of the letter you wish me to write."
She leaned over his shoulder and dipped the pen in the ink in her impatience, now very evident, and growing in strength every moment. Then she came around where she could look into his face, and said :
" Write, sir, to Mr. Richard Harrison, and tell him what Mr. Carleton knows of Mr. Sloan's Canada trip ; and then add that his wife is quietly earning her own and her mother's living; and that you have positive knowledge that she prefers to do so than to be longer dependent upon a husband who suspects her honor; and be pleased to add, Mr. Clay, that her whereabouts need be no longer a secret ; and oh, I had no idea," she added, a sob in her voice, " that the world was busy with my name ! "
Poor George Clay often described this as the most exciting moment of his life.
"There she stood," he would say, "like a beautiful, vengeful goddess ; and I defy any just-minded man to have harbored an instant's suspicion of her. She had been sinned against, and no one could doubt her innocence. Of course I wrote a letter — ^not just that sort, of course — and got Harrison's address from Lea. Mrs. Harrison consented to leave the whole adjustment in my hands; and the Lord knows I worked hard enough to have exacted a retainer, and to have recovered a large fee afterwards, had it been business. I had often labored to separate married people, but this was my first case to bring them together again. Harrison had been following a false scent as far as Pau ; and I had to write three times before I could reach him, and then cabled to start him home. I coaxed her to give up the office work at once, pledging my honor on her husband's good temper ; and so represented the whole case, that she clung to me for aid all through, simple as a litde girl. It was from first to last the mischief of that little Mrs. Flagg, who had been in love with Harrison herself, and wanted to separate them for her own ends. She came precious near succeeding, confound her ! No one but I myself will know the agony of soul that poor, abused child went through. They are in Southern California now. Harrison sometimes writes to me."
But George never finished the story by an explanation of the joy in the hearts of the firm of Herbert Clay, Clay & Williams at the departure of Miss Smith, nor of the alacrity with which they filled her place with "a boy"; and, also, nothing was ever said by way of an explanation, nor any reason given, for Russell Carleton's sudden determination to go to paint views in Russia.