With Bridges Burned by Rex Ellingwood Beach
Louis Mitchell knew what the telegram meant, even though it was brief and cryptic. He had been expecting something of the sort ever since the bottom dropped out of the steel business and prices tobogganed forty dollars a ton. Nevertheless, it came as an undeniable shock, for he had hoped the firm would keep him on in spite of hard times. He wondered, as he sadly pocketed the yellow sheet, whether he had in him the makings of a good life-insurance agent, or if he had not better "join out" with a medicine show. This message led him to think his talents must lie along the latter line. Certainly they did not lie in the direction of metal supplies.
He had plenty of time to think the situation over, however, for it is a long jump from Butte to Chicago; when he arrived at the latter place he was certain of only one thing, he would not stand a cut in salary. Either Comer & Mathison would have to fire him outright or keep him on at his present wage; he would not compromise as the other salesmen had done and were doing.
Twenty-five hundred a year is a liberal piece of money where people raise their own vegetables, but to a man traveling in the West it is about equal to "no pair." Given two hundred dollars a month and a fair expense account a salesman can plow quite a respectable furrow around Plymouth Rock, but out where they roll their r's and monogram their live stock he can't make a track. Besides the loss of prestige and all that went with it, there was another reason why young Mitchell could not face a cut. He had a wife, and she was too new, too wonderful; she admired him too greatly to permit of such a thing. She might, she doubtless would, lose confidence in him if he took a step backward, and that confidence of hers was the most splendid thing in Mitchell's life. No, if Comer & Mathison wanted to make any change, they would have to promote him. Ten minutes with the "old man," however, served to jar this satisfactory determination to its foundation. Mr. Comer put the situation clearly, concisely.
"Business is rotten. We've got to lay all the younger men off or we'll go broke," he announced.
"But--I'm married," protested the young salesman.
"So am I; so is Mathison; so are the rest of the fellows. But, my boy, this is a panic. We wouldn't let you go if we could keep you."
"I can sell goods--"
"That's just it; we don't want you to. Conditions are such that we can't afford to sell anything. The less business we do the fewer losses we stand to make. Good Lord, Louis, this is the worst year the trade has ever known!"
"B-but--I'm married," blankly repeated Mitchell.
Comer shook his head. "We'd keep you in a minute if there was any way to do it. You go home and see the wife. Of course if you can show us where you're worth it, we'll let you stay; but--well, you can't. There's no chance. I'll see you to-morrow."
Ordinarily Mitchell would not have allowed himself the extravagance of a cab, but to-day the cars were too slow. He wondered how the girl would take this calamity, their very first. As a matter of fact, she divined the news even before he had voiced his exuberant greetings, and, leading him into the neat little front room, she curled up at his side, demanding all the reasons for his unexpected recall. He saw that she was wide-eyed and rather white. When he had broken the bad news she inquired, bravely:
"What is your plan, boy?"
"I haven't any."
"I mean it. What can I do? I don't know anything except the steel business. I can lick my weight in wildcats on my own ground--but--" The wife nodded her blonde head in complete agreement. "But that lets me out," he concluded, despondently. "I can sell steel because I know it from the ground up; it's my specialty."
"Oh, we mustn't think about making a change."
"I've handled more big jobs than any man of my age and experience on the road, and yet--I'm fired." The husband sighed wearily. "I built that big pipe line in Portland; I sold those smelters in Anaconda, and the cyanide tanks for the Highland Girl. Yes, and a lot of other jobs, too. I know all about the smelter business, but that's no sign I can sell electric belts or corn salve. We're up against it, girlie."
"Have people quit building smelters?"
"They sure have--during this panic. There's nothing doing anywhere."
The wife thought for a moment before saying, "The last time you were home you told me about some Western mining men who had gone to South Africa--"
"Sure! To the Rand! They've made good, too; they're whopping big operators, now."
"You said there was a large contract of some sort coming up in London."
"Large! Well, rather! The Robinson-Ray job. It's the biggest ever, in my line. They're going to rebuild those plants the Boers destroyed. I heard all about it in Montana."
"Well!" Mrs. Mitchell spoke with finality. "That's the place for you. Get the firm to send you over there."
"Um-m! I thought about that, but it scared me out. It's too big. Why, it's a three-million-dollar job. You see, we've never landed a large foreign contract in this country as yet." Mitchell sat up suddenly. "But say! This panic might--" Then he relaxed. "Oh, what's the use? If there were a chance the firm wouldn't send me. Comer would go himself--he'd take the whole outfit over for a job like that. Besides, it's too big a thing for our people; they couldn't handle it."
Mrs. Mitchell's eyes were as round as buttons. "Three million dollars' worth of steel in one contract! Do you think you could land it if you went?"
"It's my line of work," the young man replied, doubtfully. "I'll bet I know more about cyanide tanks than any salesman in Europe, and if I had a decent price to work on--"
"Then it's the chance we've been waiting for."
The girl scrambled to her feet and, fetching a chair, began to talk earnestly, rapidly. She talked for a long time, until gradually the man's gray despondency gave way to her own bright optimism. Nor was it idle theory alone that she advanced; Mitchell found that she knew almost as much about the steel business as he did, and when she had finished he arose and kissed her.
"You've put new heart into me, anyhow. If you're game to do your share, why--I'll try it out. But remember it may mean all we've got in the bank, and--" He looked at her darkly.
"It's the biggest chance we'll ever have," she insisted. "It's worth trying. Don't let's wait to get rich until we are old."
When Mr. Comer returned from lunch he found his youngest salesman waiting for him, and inside of ten minutes he had learned what Mitchell had on his mind. With two words Comer blew out the gas.
"You're crazy," said he.
"Am I? It's worth going after."
"In the first place no big foreign job ever came to America--"
"I know all that. It's time we got one."
"In the second place Comer & Mathison are jobbers."
"I'll get a special price from Carnegie."
"In the third place it would cost a barrel of money to send a man to England."
Mitchell swallowed hard. "I'll pay my own way."
Mr. Comer regarded the speaker with genuine astonishment. "You'll pay your way? Why, you haven't got any money."
"I've got a thousand dollars--or the wife has. It's our nest-egg."
"It would take five thousand to make the trip."
"I'll make it on one. Yes, and I'll come back with that job. Don't you see this panic makes the thing possible? Yes, and I'm the one man to turn the trick; for it's right in my line. I'll see the Carnegie people at Pittsburgh. If they quote the right price I'll ask you for a letter, and that's all you'll have to do. Will you let me go?"
"What sort of a letter?"
"A letter stating that I am your general sales manager."
The steel merchant's mouth fell open.
"Oh, I only want it for this London trip," Mitchell explained. "I won't use it except as a credential. But I've got to go armed, you understand. Mr. Comer, if I don't land that Robinson-Ray contract, I won't come back. I--I couldn't, after this. Maybe I'll drive a 'bus--I hear they have a lot of them in London."
"Suppose, for instance, you should get the job on a profitable basis; the biggest job this concern ever had and one of the biggest ever let anywhere--" Mr. Comer's brow was wrinkled humorously. "What would you expect out of it?"
Mitchell grinned. "Well, if I signed all those contracts as your general sales manager, I'd probably form the habit."
"There's nothing modest about you, is there?" queried the elder man.
"Not a thing. My theory of business is that a man should either be fired or promoted. If I get that job I'll leave it to you to do what's right. I won't ask any questions."
"The whole thing is utterly absurd," Mitchell's employer protested. "You haven't a chance! But--Wait!" He pressed a button on his desk. "We'll talk with Mathison."
Louis Mitchell took the night train for Pittsburgh. He was back in three days, and that afternoon Mr. Comer, in the privacy of his own office, dictated a letter of which no carbon copy was preserved. He gave it to the young man with his own hand, and with these words: "You'd better think it over carefully, my boy. It's the most idiotic thing I ever heard of, and there isn't one chance in a million. It won't do you any good to fail, even on a forlorn hope like this."
But Mitchell smiled. "I can't fail--I'm married." Then when the other seemed unimpressed by this method of reasoning, he explained: "I guess you never saw my wife. She says I can do it."
It was only to this lady herself that Mitchell recited the details of his reception at Pittsburgh, and of the battle he had fought in the Carnegie office. The Carnegie men had refused to take him seriously, had laughed at him as at a mild-mannered lunatic.
"But I got my price," he concluded, triumphantly, "and it sure looks good to me. Now for the painful details and the sad good-bys."
"How long will you be gone?" his wife inquired.
"I can't stay more than a month, the bank-roll is too small."
"Oo-oo-h! A month! London is a long way off." Mrs. Mitchell's voice broke plaintively and her husband's misgivings at once took fire.
"If I fail, as they all feel sure I will, what then?" he inquired. "I'll be out of a job! I'll be a joke in the steel business; I'll be broke. What will you do?"
She gave him a ravishing, dimpled smile, and her eyes were brave once more. "Why, I haven't forgotten my shorthand, and there are always the department stores." In a high, querulous tone she cried "Ca--a--sh!" then laughed aloud at his expression. "Oh, it wouldn't hurt me any. But--you won't fail--you can't! We're going to be rich. Now, we'll divide our grand fortune." She produced a roll of currency from her purse and took four twenty-dollar bills from it.
"Only eighty dollars?" he queried.
"It's more than enough for me. You'll be back in a month." She thrust the remaining notes into his hand. "It's our one great, glorious chance, dear. Don't you understand?"
Faith, hope and enthusiasm, the three graces of salesmanship, thrive best in bright places. Had it not been for his wife's cheer during those final hours young Mitchell surely would have weakened before it came time to leave on the following day. It was a far cry to London, and he realized 'way back in his head that there wasn't one chance in a million of success. He began to doubt, to waver, but the girl seemed to feel that her lord was bound upon some flaring triumph, and even at the station her face was wreathed in smiles. Her blue eyes were brimming with excitement; she bubbled with hopeful, helpful advice; she patted her husband's arm and hugged it to her. "You're going to win, boy. You're going to win," she kept repeating. For one moment only--at the actual parting--she clung to him wildly, with all her woman's strength, then, as the warning cry sounded, she kissed him long and hungrily, and fairly thrust him aboard the Pullman. He did not dream how she wilted and drooped the instant he had gone.
As the train pulled out he ran back to the observation car to wave a last farewell, and saw her clinging to the iron fence, sobbing wretchedly; a desolate, weak little girl-wife mastered by a thousand fears. She was too blind with tears to see him. The sight raised a lump in the young husband's throat which lasted to Fort Wayne.
"Poor little thoroughbred," he mused. "I just can't lose, that's all."
The lump was not entirely gone when the luncheon call came, so Mitchell dined upon it, reasoning that this kind of a beginning augured well for an economical trip.
Now that he was away from the warmth of his wife's enthusiasm contemplation of his undertaking made the salesman rather sick. If only he were traveling at the firm's expense, if only he had something to fall back upon in case of failure, if only Comer & Mathison were behind him in any way, the complexion of things would have been altogether different. But to set out for a foreign land with no backing whatever in the hope of accomplishing that which no American salesman had ever been able to accomplish, and to finance the undertaking out of his own pocket on a sum less than he would have expected for cigarette money--well, it was an enterprise to test a fellow's courage and to dampen the most youthful optimism. His proposal to the firm to win all or lose all, he realized now, had been in the nature of a bluff, and the firm had called it. There was nothing to do, therefore, but go through and win; there could be no turning back, for he had burned his bridges.
When one enters a race-horse in a contest he puts the animal in good condition, he grooms it, he feeds it the best the stable affords, he trains and exercises it carefully. Mitchell had never owned a race-horse, but he reasoned that similar principles should apply to a human being under similar conditions. He had entered a competition, therefore he decided to condition himself physically and mentally for the race. A doped pony cannot run, neither can a worried salesman sell goods.
In line with this decision, he took one of the best state-rooms on the Lucania, and denied himself nothing that the ship afforded. Every morning he took his exercise, every evening a rub-down. He trained like a fighter, and when he landed he was fit; his muscles were hard, his stomach strong, his brain clear. He went first-class from Liverpool to London; he put up at the Metropole in luxurious quarters. When he stopped to think about that nine hundred and twenty, already amazingly shrunken, he argued bravely that what he had spent had gone to buy condition powders.
On the way across he had posted himself so far as possible about the proposed Robinson-Ray plant. He learned that there were to be fifteen batteries of cyanide tanks, two high--eighty-four in all--supported by steel sub- and super-structures; the work to be completed at Krugersdorpf, twenty miles out of Johannesburg, South Africa. The address of the company was No. 42-1/2 Threadneedle Street. Threadneedle Street was somewhere in London, and London was the capital of a place called England.
He knew other African contracts were under consideration, but he dismissed them from his thoughts and centered his forces upon this particular job. Once he had taken a definite scent his early trepidations vanished. He became obsessed by a joyous, purposeful, unceasing energy that would not let him rest.
The first evening in London he fattened himself for the fray with a hearty dinner, then he strove to get acquainted with his neighbors and his environment. The nervous force within him needed outlet, but he was frowned upon at every quarter. Even the waiter at his table made it patent that his social standing would not permit him to indulge in the slightest intimacy with chance guests of the hotel, while the young Earl who had permitted Mitchell to register at the desk declined utterly to go further with their acquaintance. Louis spent the evening at the Empire, and the next morning, which was Sunday, he put in on the top of a 'bus, laying himself open to the advances of anybody who cared to pay him the slightest attention. But he was ignored; even the driver, who spoke a foreign language, evidently considered him a suspicious character. Like a wise general, Louis reconnoitered No. 42-1/2 Threadneedle Street during the afternoon, noting the lay of the land and deciding upon modes of transportation to and from. Under the pressure of circumstance he chose a Cannon Street 'bus, fare "tuppence."
Now garrulity is a disease that must either break out or strike inward with fatal results. When Sunday night came, Mitchell was about ready to fare forth with gun and mask and take conversation away from anybody who had it to spare. He had begun to fear that his vocal cords would atrophy.
He was up early, had breakfasted, and was at 42-1/2 Threadneedle Street promptly at nine, beating the janitor by some twenty minutes. During the next hour and a half he gleaned considerable information regarding British business methods, the while he monotonously pounded the sidewalk.
At nine-thirty a scouting party of dignified office-boys made a cautious approach. At nine-thirty-five there came the main army of clerks, only they were not clerks, but "clarks"--very impressive gentlemen with gloves, spats, sticks, silk hats and sack coats. At this same time, evidently by appointment, came the charwomen--"char" being spelled s-c-r-u-b, and affording an example of how pure English has been corrupted out in the Americas.
After the arrival of the head "clarks" and stenographers at nine-forty-five, there ensued fifteen minutes of guarded conversation in front of the offices. During this time the public issues of the day were settled and the nation's policies outlined. At ten o'clock the offices were formally opened, and at ten-thirty a reception was tendered to the managers who arrived dressed as for any well-conducted afternoon function.
To Mitchell, who was accustomed to the feverish, football methods of American business life, all this was vastly edifying and instructive; it was even soothing, although he was vaguely offended to note that passers-by avoided him as if fearful of contamination.
Upon entering 42-1/2 Threadneedle Street, he was halted by an imperious office-boy. To him Louis gave his card with a request that it be handed to Mr. Peebleby, then he seated himself and for an hour witnessed a parade of unsmiling, silk-hatted gentlemen pass in and out of Mr. Peebleby's office. Growing impatient, at length, he inquired of the boy;
"Is somebody dead around here or is this where the City Council meets?"
"I beg pardon?" The lad was polite in a cool, superior way.
"I say, what's the idea of the pall-bearers?"
The youth's expression froze to one of disapproval and suspicion.
"I mean the parade. Are these fellows Congress- or minstrel-men?"
His hearer shrugged and smiled vacuously, then turned away, whereupon Mitchell took him firmly by the arm.
"Look here, my boy," he began. "There seems to be a lot of information coming to both of us. Who are these over-dressed gentlemen I see promenading back and forth?"
"Why--they're callers, customers, representatives of the firms we do business with, sir."
"Is this Guy Fawkes Day?"
"Are these men here on business? Are any of them salesmen, for instance?"
"Yes, sir; some of them. Certainly, sir."
"To see Mr. Peebleby about the new construction work?"
"So, you're letting them get the edge on me."
"I beg pardon?"
"Never mind, I merely wanted to assure you that I have some olive spats, a high hat, and a walking-stick, but I left them at my hotel. I'm a salesman, too. Now then let's get down to business. I've come all the way from America to hire an office-boy. I've heard so much about English office-boys that I thought I'd run over and get one. Would you entertain a proposition to go back to America and become my partner?"
The boy rolled his eyes; it was plain that he was seriously alarmed. "You are ragging me, sir," he stammered, uncertainly.
"Perish the thought!"
"I pay twenty-five dollars a week to office-boys. That's five 'pun' in your money, I believe. But, meanwhile, now that I'm in London, I have some business with Mr. Peebleby." Mitchell produced an American silver dollar and forced it into the boy's hand, whereupon the latter blinked in a dazed manner, then hazarded the opinion that Mr. Peebleby might be at leisure if Mr. Mitchell had another card.
"Never mind the card; I can't trust you with another one. Just show me the trail and I'll take it myself. That's a way we have in America."
A moment later he was knocking at a door emblazoned, "Director General." Without awaiting an invitation, he turned the knob and walked in. Before the astonished Mr. Peebleby could expostulate he had introduced himself and was making known his mission.
Fortunately for Mitchell, Englishmen are not without a sense of humor. The announcement that this young man had come all the way from Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A., to bid on the Krugersdorpf work struck Mr. Peebleby as amusing. Not only was the idea in itself laughable, but also the fact that a mere beardless youth should venture to figure on a contract of such gigantic proportions quite convulsed the Director General, and in consequence he smiled. Then fearing that his dignity had been jeopardized, he announced politely but firmly that the proposition was absurd, and that he had no time to discuss it.
"I've come for that job, and I'm going to take it back with me," Mitchell averred, with equal firmness. "I know more about this class of work than any salesman you have over here, and I'm going to build you the finest cluster of cyanide tanks you ever saw."
"May I ask where you obtained this comprehensive knowledge of tank construction?" Mr. Peebleby inquired, with some curiosity.
"Sure!" Mitchell ran through a list of jobs with which the Director General could not have been unfamiliar. He mentioned work that caused that gentleman to regard him more respectfully. For a time questions and answers shot back and forth between them.
"I tell you, that is my line," Mitchell declared, at length. "I'll read any blueprints you can offer. I'll answer any queries you can formulate. I'm the accredited representative of a big concern, and I'm entitled to a chance to figure, at least. That courtesy is due me."
"I dare say it is," the other reluctantly agreed. "I'm very busy, but if that is the quickest way to end the discussion I'll give you the prints. I assure you, nevertheless, it is an utter waste of your time and mine." He pushed a button and five minutes later a clerk staggered back into the room with an armful of blueprints that caused Mitchell to gasp.
"The bid must be in Thursday at ten-thirty," Peebleby announced.
"Thursday? Why, good Lord! That's only three days, and there's a dray-load of drawings!"
"I told you it was a waste of time. You should have come sooner."
Mitchell ran through the pile and his heart grew sick with dismay. There were drawings of tanks, drawings of substructures and superstructures in every phase of construction--enough of them to daunt a skilled engineer. He realized that he had by no means appreciated the full magnitude of this work, in fact had never figured on a job anything like this one. He could see at least a week's hard, constant labor ahead of him--a week's work to be done in three days. There was no use trying; the time was too short; it was a physical impossibility to formulate an intelligent proposition in such a short length of time. Then to Mitchell's mind came the picture of a wretched, golden-haired girl clinging to the iron fence of the Pennsylvania depot. He gathered the rolls into his arms.
"At ten-thirty, Thursday," said he.
"Thank you. I'll have my bid in."
His muscles ached and his knees were trembling even before he had reached the street. When he tried to board a 'bus he was waved away, so he called a cab, piled his blueprints inside of it, and then clambered in on top of them. He realized that he was badly frightened.
To this day the sight of a blueprint gives Louis Mitchell a peculiar nausea and a fluttering sensation about the heart. At three o'clock the next morning he felt his way blindly to his bed and toppled upon it, falling straightway into a slumber during which he passed through monotonous, maddening wastes of blue and white, over which ran serpentine rows of figures.
He was up with the dawn and at his desk again, but by four that afternoon he was too dazed, too exhausted to continue. His eyes were playing him tricks, the room was whirling, his hand was shaking until his fingers staggered drunkenly across the sheets of paper. Ground plans, substructures, superstructures, were jumbled into a frightful tangle. He wanted to yell. Instead he flung the drawings about the room, stamped savagely upon them, then rushed down-stairs and devoured a table d'hote dinner. He washed the meal down with a bottle of red wine, smoked a long cigar, then undressed and went to bed amid the scattered blueprints. He slept like a dead man.
He arose at sun-up, clear-headed, calm. All day he worked like a machine, increasing his speed as the hours flew. He took good care to eat and drink, and, above all, to smoke at regular intervals, but he did not leave his room. By dark he had much of the task behind him; by midnight he began to have hope; toward dawn he saw the end; and when daylight came he collapsed.
He had deciphered the tank and superstructure plans on forty-five sets of blueprints, had formulated a proposition, exclusive of substructure work, basing a price per pound on the American market then ruling, f.o.b. tidewater, New York. He had the proposition in his pocket when he tapped on the ground-glass door of Mr. Peebleby's office at ten-twenty-nine Thursday morning.
The Director General of the great Robinson-Ray Syndicate was genuinely surprised to learn that the young American had completed a bid in so short a time, then requested him, somewhat absent-mindedly, to leave it on his desk where he could look it over at his leisure.
"Just a moment," said his caller. "I'm going to sit down and talk to you again. How long have you been using cyanide tanks, Mr. Peebleby?"
"Ever since they were adopted." Mr. Peebleby was visibly annoyed at this interruption to his morning's work.
"Well, I can give you a lot of information about them."
The Director General raised his brows haughtily. "Ah! Suggestions, amendments, improvements, no doubt."
"In all my experience I never sent out a blueprint which some youthful salesman could not improve upon. Generally the younger the salesman the greater the improvement."
In Mitchell's own parlance he "beat Mr. Peebleby to the punch." "If that's the case, you've got a rotten line of engineers," he frankly announced.
"Indeed! I went over those drawings myself. I flattered myself that they were comprehensive and up-to-date." Mr. Peebleby was annoyed, nevertheless he was visibly interested and curious.
"Well, they're not," the younger man declared, eying him boldly. "For instance, you call for cast-iron columns in your sub-and super-structures, whereas they're obsolete. We've discarded them. What you save in first cost you eat up, twice over, in freight. Not only that, but their strength is a matter of theory, not of fact. Then, too, in your structural-steel sections your factor of safety is wrongly figured. To get the best results your lower tanks are twenty inches too short and your upper ones nine inches too short. For another thing, you're using a section of beam which is five per cent. heavier than your other dimensions call for."
The Director General sat back in his chair, a look of extreme alertness replacing his former expression.
"My word! Is there anything else?" He undertook to speak mockingly, but without complete success.
"There is. The layout of your platework is all wrong--out of line with modern practice. You should have interchangeable parts in every tank. The floor of your lower section should be convex, instead of flat, to get the run-off. You see, sir, this is my line of business."
"Who is your engineer?" inquired the elder man. "I should like to talk to him."
"You're talking to him now. I'm him--it--them. I'm the party! I told you I knew the game."
There was a brief silence, then Mr. Peebleby inquired, "By the way, who helped you figure those prints?"
"You did that alone, since Monday morning?" The speaker was incredulous.
"I did. I haven't slept much. I'm pretty tired."
There was a new note in Mr. Peebleby's voice when he said: "Jove! I've treated you badly, Mr. Mitchell, but--I wonder if you're too tired to tell my engineers what you told me just now? I should like them to hear you."
"Trot them in." For the first time since leaving this office three days before, Mitchell smiled. He was getting into his stride at last. After all, there seemed to be a chance.
There followed a convention of the draftsmen and engineers of the Robinson-Ray Syndicate before which an unknown American youth delivered an address on "Cyanide Tanks. How to Build Them; Where to Buy Them."
It was the old story of a man who had learned his work thoroughly and who loved it. Mitchell typified the theory of specialization; what he knew, he knew completely, and before he had more than begun his talk these men recognized that fact. When he had finished, Mr. Peebleby announced that the bids would not be opened that day.
The American had made his first point. He had gained time in which to handle himself, and the Robinson-Ray people had recognized a new factor in the field. When he was again in the Director General's room, the latter said:
"I think I will have you formulate a new bid along the lines you have laid down."
"You understand, our time is up. Can you have it ready by Saturday, three days from now?"
Mitchell laughed. "It's a ten days' job for two men."
"I know, but we can't wait."
"Then give me until Tuesday; I'm used to a twenty-four-hour shift now. Meanwhile I'd like to leave these figures here for your chief draftsman to examine. Of course they are not to be considered binding."
"Isn't that a bit--er--foolish?" inquired Peebleby? "Aren't you leaving a weapon behind you?"
"Yes, but not the sort of a weapon you suspect," thought Mitchell. "This is a boomerang." Aloud, he answered, lightly: "Oh, that's all right. I know I'm among friends."
When his request was granted he made a mental note, "Step number two!"
Again he filled a cab with drawings, again he went back to the Metropole and to maddening columns of new figures--back to the monotony of tasteless meals served at his elbow.
But there were other things besides his own bid to think of now. Mitchell knew he must find what other firms were bidding on the job, and what prices they had bid. The first promised to require some ingenuity, the second was a Titan's task.
Salesmanship, in its highest development, is an exact science. Given the data he desired, Louis Mitchell felt sure he could read the figures sealed up in those other bids to a nicety, but to get that data required much concentrated effort and much time. Time was what he needed above all things; time to refigure these myriad drawings, time to determine when the other bids had gone in, time to learn trade conditions at the competitive plants, time to sleep. There were not sufficient hours in the day for all these things, so he rigidly economized on the least important, sleep. He laid out a program for himself; by night he worked in his room, by day he cruised for information, at odd moments around the dawn he slept. He began to feel the strain before long. Never physically robust, he began to grow blue and drawn about the nostrils. Frequently his food would not stay down. He was forced to drive his lagging spirits with a lash. To accomplish this he had to think often of his girl-wife. Her letters, written daily, were a great help; they were like some God-given cordial that infused fresh blood into his brain, new strength into his flagging limbs. Without them he could not have held up.
With certain definite objects in view he made daily trips to Threadneedle Street. Invariably he walked into the general offices unannounced; invariably he made a new friend before he came out. Peebleby seemed to like him; in fact asked his opinion on certain forms of structure and voluntarily granted the young man two days of grace. Two days! They were like oxygen to a dying man.
Mitchell asked permission to talk to the head draftsman and received it, and following their interview he requested the privilege of dictating some notes regarding the interview. In this way he met the stenographer. When he had finished with her he flipped the girl a gold sovereign, stolen from the sadly melted nine hundred and twenty.
As Mitchell was leaving the office the Director General yielded to a kindly impulse and advised his new acquaintance to run over to Paris and view the Exposition.
"You can do your figuring there just as well as here," said he. "I don't want your trip from Chicago to be altogether wasted, Mr. Mitchell."
Louis smiled and shook his head. "I can't take that Exposition back with me, and I can take this contract. I think I'll camp with my bid."
In the small hours of that night he made a discovery that electrified him. He found that the most commonly used section in his specifications, a twelve-inch I-beam, was listed under the English custom as weighing fifty-four pounds per foot, whereas the standardized American section, which possessed the same carrying strength, weighed four pounds less. Here was an advantage of eight per cent. in cost and freight! This put another round of the ladder beneath him; he was progressing well, but as yet he had learned nothing about his competitors.
The next morning he had some more dictation for Peebleby's stenographer, and niched another sovereign from his sad little bank-roll. When the girl gave him his copy he fell into conversation with her and painted a picture of Yankeeland well calculated to keep her awake nights. They gossiped idly, she of her social obligations, he of the cyanide-tank business--he could think of nothing else to talk about. Adroitly he led her out. They grew confidential. She admitted her admiration for Mr. Jenkins from Edinburgh. Yes, Mr. Jenkins's company was bidding on the Krugersdorpf job. He was much nicer than Mr. Kruse from the Brussels concern, and, anyhow, those Belgian firms had no chance at this contract, for Belgium was pro-Boer, and--well, she had heard a few things around the office.
Mitchell was getting "feed-box" information. When he left he knew the names of his dangerous competitors as well as those whom, in all likelihood, he had no cause to fear. Another step! He was gaining ground.
In order to make himself absolutely certain that his figures would be low, there still remained three things to learn, and they were matters upon which he could afford to take no slightest chance of mistake. He must know, first, the dates of those other bids; second, the market-price of English steel at such times; and, third, the cost of fabrication at the various mills. The first two he believed could be easily learned, but the third promised to afford appalling difficulties to a man unfamiliar with foreign methods and utterly lacking in trade acquaintances. He went at them systematically, however, only to run against a snag within the hour. Not only did he fail to find the answer to question number one, but he could find no market quotations whatever on structural steel shapes such as entered into the Krugersdorpf job.
He searched through every possible trade journal, through reading rooms and libraries, for the price of I-beams, channels, Z-bars, and the like; but nowhere could he even find mention of them. His failure left him puzzled and panic-stricken; he could not understand it. If only he had more time, he reflected, time in which to learn the usages and the customs of this country. But time was what he had not. He was tired, very tired from his sleepless nights and hours of daylight strain--and meanwhile the days were rushing past.
While engaged in these side labors, he had, of course, been working on his draftsmen friends, and more assiduously even than upon his blue-prints. On Tuesday night, with but one more day of grace ahead of him, he gave a dinner to all of them, disregarding the fact that his bank-roll had become frightfully emaciated.
For several days after that little party blue-printing in the Robinson-Ray office was a lost art. When his guests had dined and had settled back into their chairs, Mitchell decided to risk all upon one throw. He rose, at the head of the table, and told them who he was. He utterly destroyed their illusions regarding him and his position with Comer & Mathison, he bared his heart to those stoop-shouldered, shabby young men from Threadneedle Street and came right down to the nine hundred and twenty dollars and the girl. He told them what this Krugersdorpf job meant to him and to her, and to the four twenty-dollar bills in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.
Those Englishmen listened silently. Nobody laughed. Perhaps it was the sort of thing they had dreamed of doing some day, perhaps there were other girls in other tiny furnished flats, other hearts wrapped up in similar struggles for advancement. They were good mathematicians, it seemed, for they did not have to ask Mitchell how the nine hundred and twenty was doing, or to inquire regarding the health of the other eighty. One of them, a near-sighted fellow with thick lenses, arose with the grave assertion that he had taken the floor for the purpose of correcting a popular fallacy; Englishmen and Yankees, he declared, were not cousins, they were brothers, and their interests ever had been and ever would be identical. He said, too, that England wanted to do business with America, and as for this particular contract, not only did the British nation as a whole desire America to secure it, but the chaps who bent over the boards at No. 42-1/2 Threadneedle Street were plugging for her tooth and nail. His hollow-chested companions yelled their approval of this statement, whereupon Mitchell again arose, alternately flushing and paling, and apologized for what had happened in 1776. He acknowledged himself ashamed of the 1812 affair, moreover, and sympathized with his guests over their present trouble with the Boers. When he had finished they voted him the best host and the best little cyanide tank-builder known to them--and then everybody tried to tell him something at once.
They told him among other things that every bid except his had been in for two weeks, and that they were in the vault under the care of Mr. Pitts, the head draftsman. They promised to advise him if any new bids came in or if any changes occurred, and, most important of all, they told him that in England all structural steel shapes, instead of being classified as in America, are known as "angles," and they told him just how and where to find the official reports giving the price of the same for every day in the year.
The word "angles" was the missing key, and those official market reports formed the lock in which to fit it. Mitchell had taken several mighty strides, and there remained but one more step to take.
When his guests had finally gone home, swearing fealty, and declaring this to be the best dinner they had ever drunk, he hastened back to his room, back to the desert of blueprints and to the interminable columns of figures, and over them he worked like a madman.
He slept two hours before daylight, then he was up and toiling again, for this was his last day. Using the data he had gathered the night before, he soon had the price of English and Scottish steel at the time the last bids were closed. Given one thing more--namely, the cost of fabrication in these foreign shops, and he would have reduced this hazard to a certainty, he would be able to read the prices contained in those sealed bids as plainly as if they lay open before him. But his time had narrowed now to hours.
He lunched with John Pitts, the head draughtsman, going back to pick up the boomerang he had left the week before.
"Have you gone over my first bid?" he asked, carelessly.
"I have--lucky for you," said Pitts. "You made a mistake."
"Indeed! How so?"
"Why, it's thirty per cent. too low. It would be a crime to give you the business at those figures."
"But, you see, I didn't include the sub-structure. I didn't have time to figure that." Mitchell prayed that his face might not show his eagerness. Evidently it did not, for Pitts walked into the trap.
"Even so," said he; "it's thirty per cent. out of the way. I made allowance for that."
The boomerang had finished its flight!
Once they had separated, Mitchell broke for his hotel like a hunted man. He had made no mistake in his first figures. The great Krugersdorpf job was his; but, nevertheless, he wished to make himself absolutely sure and to secure as much profit as possible for Comer & Mathison. Without a handsome profit this three-million-dollar job might ruin a firm of their standing.
In order to verify Pitts's statement, in order to swell his proposed profits to the utmost, Mitchell knew he ought to learn the "overhead" in English mills; that is, the fixed charges which, added to shop costs and prices of material, are set aside to cover office expenses, cost of operation, and contingencies. Without this information he would have to go it blind, after a fashion, and thereby risk penalizing himself; with it he could estimate very closely the amounts of the other bids and insure a safe margin for Comer & Mathison. In addition to this precaution he wished to have his own figures checked up, for even under normal conditions, if one makes a numerical error in work of this sort, he is more than apt to repeat it time and again, and Mitchell knew himself to be deadly tired--almost on the verge of collapse. He was inclined to doze off whenever he sat down; the raucous noises of the city no longer jarred or startled him, and his surroundings were becoming unreal, grotesque, as if seen through the spell of absinthe. Yes, it was necessary to check off his figures.
But who could he get to do the work? He could not go to Threadneedle Street. He thought of the Carnegie representative and telephoned him, explaining the situation and his crying need, only to be told that no one in that office was capable of assisting him. He was referred, however, to an English engineer who, it was barely possible, could handle the job. In closing, the Carnegie man voiced a vague warning:
"His name is Dell, and he used to be with one of the Edinburgh concerns, so don't let him know your inside figures. He might spring a leak."
A half-hour later Mitchell, his arms full of blue-prints, was in Mr. Dell's office. But the English engineer hesitated; he was very busy; he had numerous obligations. Mitchell gazed over the threadbare rooms and hastily estimated how much of the nine hundred and twenty dollars would be left after he had paid his hotel bill. What there was to do must be done before the next morning's sun arose.
"This job is worth ten sovereigns to me if it is finished tonight," he declared, briskly.
Mr. Dell hesitated, stumbled, and fell. "Very well. We'll begin at once," said he.
He unrolled the blue-prints, from a drawer he produced a sliding-rule. He slid this rule up; he slid it down; he gazed through his glasses at space; he made microscopic Spencerian figures in neat rows and columns. He seemed to pluck his results from the air with necromantic cunning, and what had taken the young man at his elbow days and nights of cruel effort to accomplish--what had put haggard lines about his mouth and eyes--the engineer accomplished in a few hours by means of that sliding-rule. Meanwhile, with one weary effort of will, his visitor summoned his powers and cross-examined him adroitly. Here was the very man to supply the one missing link in the perfect chain; but Mr. Dell would not talk. He did not like Americans nor American methods, and he made his dislike apparent by sealing his lips. Mitchell played upon his vanity at first, only to find the man wholly lacking in conceit. Changing his method of attack, Mitchell built a fire under Mr. Dell. He grilled everything British, the people, their social customs, their business methods, even English engineers, and he did it in a most annoying manner. Mr. Dell began to perspire. He worked doggedly on for a while, then he arose in defense of his country, whereupon Mitchell artfully shifted his attack to English steel-mills. The other refuted his statements flatly. At length the engineer was goaded to anger, he became disputative, indignant, loquacious.
When Louis Mitchell flung himself into the dark body of his cab, late that evening, and sank his legs knee-deep into those hateful blue-prints, he blessed that engineer, for Dell had told him all he wished to know, all he had tried so vainly to discover through other sources. The average "overhead" in British mills was one hundred and thirty per cent., and Dell knew.
The young man laughed hysterically, triumphantly, but the sound was more like a tearful hiccough. To-morrow at ten-thirty! It was nearly over. He would be ready. As he lolled back inertly upon the cushions he mused dreamily that he had done well. In less than two weeks, in a foreign country, and under strange conditions, without acquaintance or pull or help of any sort, he had learned the names of his competitive firms, the dates of their bids, and the market prices ruling on every piece of steel in the Krugersdorpf job when those bids were figured. He had learned the rules governing English labor unions; he knew all about piece-work and time-work, fixed charges and shop costs, together with the ability of every plant figuring on the Robinson-Ray contract to turn out the work in the necessary time. All this, and more, he had learned legitimately and without cost to his commercial honor. Henceforth that South-African contract depended merely upon his own ability to add, subtract, and multiply correctly. It was his just as surely as two and two make four--for salesmanship is an exact science.
The girl would be very happy, he told himself. He was glad that she could never know the strain it had been.
Again, through the slow, silent hours of that Wednesday night, Mitchell fought the fatigue of death, going over his figures carefully. There were no errors in them.
Dawn was creeping in on him when he added a clean thirty-per-cent. profit for his firm, signed his bid, and prepared for bed. But he found that he could not leave the thing. After he had turned in he became assailed by sudden doubts and fears. What if he had made a mistake after all? What if some link in his chain were faulty? What if some other bidder had made a mistake and underfigured? Such thoughts made him tremble. Now that it was all done, he feared that he had been overconfident, for could it really be possible that the greatest steel contract in years would come to him? He grew dizzy at the picture of what it meant to him and to the girl.
He calmed himself finally and looked straight at the matter, sitting up in bed, his knees drawn up under his chin. While so engaged he caught sight of his drawn face in the mirror opposite and started when he realized how old and heavy with fatigue it was. He determined suddenly to shave that profit to twenty-nine per cent. and make assurance doubly sure, but managed to conquer his momentary panic. Cold reasoning told him that his figures were safe.
Louis Mitchell was the only salesman in Mr. Peebleby's office that morning who did not wear a silk hat, pearl gloves, and spats. In consequence the others ignored him for a time--but only for a time. Once the proposals had been read, an air of impenetrable gloom spread over the room. The seven Scotch, English, and Belgian mourners stared cheerlessly at one another and then with growing curiosity at the young man from overseas who had underbid the lowest of them by six thousand pounds sterling, less than one per cent. After a while they bowed among themselves, mumbled something to Mr. Peebleby, and went softly out in their high hats, their pearl gloves, and their spats--more like pall-bearers now than ever.
"Six hundred and thirty-seven thousand five hundred pounds sterling!" said the Director General. "By Jove, Mitchell, I'm glad!" They shook hands. "I'm really glad."
"That's over three million dollars in real money," said the youth. "It's quite a tidy little job."
Peebleby laughed. "You've been very decent about it, too. I hope to see something of you in the future. What?"
"You'll see my smoke, that's all."
"You're not going back right away?"
"To-morrow; I've booked my passage and cabled the girl to meet me in New York."
"My word! A girl! She'll be glad to hear of your success."
"Oh, I've told her already. You see, I knew I'd won."
The Director General of the Robinson-Ray Syndicate stared in open amazement, but Mitchell hitched his chair closer, saying:
"Now let's get at those signatures. I've got to pack."
That night Louis Mitchell slept with fifteen separate contracts under his pillow. He double-locked the door, pulled the dresser in front of it, and left the light burning. At times he awoke with a start and felt for the documents. Toward morning he was seized with a sudden fright, so he got up and read them all over for fear somebody had tampered with them. They were correct, however, whereupon he read them a second time just for pleasure. They were strangely interesting.
On the Deutschland he slept much of the way across, and by the time Liberty Statue loomed up he could dream of other things than blue-prints--of the girl, for instance.
She had enough left from the eighty dollars to bring her to New York and to pay for a week's lodging in West Thirty-fourth Street, though how she managed it Mitchell never knew. She was at the dock, of course. He knew she would be. He expected to see her with her arms outstretched and with the old joyous smile upon her dimpled face, and, therefore, he was sorely disappointed when he came down the gang-plank and she did not appear. He searched high and low until finally he discovered her seated over by the letter "M," where his trunk was waiting inspection. There she was, huddled up on a coil of rope, crying as if her heart would break; her nerve was gone, along with the four twenty-dollar bills; she was afraid to face him, afraid there had been an error in his cablegram.
Not until she lay in his arms at last, sobbing and laughing, her slender body all aquiver, did she believe. Then he allowed her to feel the fifteen contracts inside his coat. Later, when they were in a cab bound for her smelly little boarding-house, he showed them to her. In return she gave him a telegram from his firm--a telegram addressed as follows:
Mr. LOUIS MITCHELL,
General Sales Manager, Comer & Mathison, New York City.
The message read:
That goes. COMER.
Mitchell opened the trap above his head and called up to the driver: "Hey, Cabbie! We've changed our minds. Drive us to the Waldorf--at a gallop."