The Rules of the Game by Stewart Edward White
Bob Orde, armed with a card of introduction to Fox, Welton's office partner, left home directly after Thanksgiving. He had heard much of Welton & Fox in the past, both from his father and his father's associates. The firm name meant to him big things in the past history of Michigan's industries, and big things in the vague, large life of the Northwest. Therefore, he was considerably surprised, on finding the firm's Adams Street offices, to observe their comparative insignificance.
He made his way into a narrow entry, containing merely a high desk, a safe, some letter files, and two bookkeepers. Then, without challenge, he walked directly into a large apartment, furnished as simply, with another safe, a typewriter, several chairs, and a large roll-top desk. At the latter a man sprawled, reading a newspaper. Bob looked about for a further door closed on an inner private office, where the weighty business must be transacted. There was none. The tall, broad, lean young man hesitated, looking about him with a puzzled expression in his earnest young eyes. Could this be the heart and centre of those vast and far-reaching activities he had heard so much about?
After a moment the man in the revolving chair looked up shrewdly over his paper. Bob felt himself the object of an instant's searching scrutiny from a pair of elderly steel-gray eyes.
"Well?" said the man, briefly.
"I am looking for Mr. Fox," explained Bob.
"I am Fox."
The young man moved forward his great frame with the easy, loose-jointed grace of the trained athlete. Without comment he handed his card of introduction to the seated man. The latter glanced at it, then back to the young fellow before him.
"Glad to see you, Mr. Orde," he unbent slightly. "I've been expecting you. If you're as good a man as your father, you'll succeed. If you're not as good a man as your father, you may get on--well enough. But you've got to be some good on your own account. We'll see." He raised his voice slightly. "Jim!" he called.
One of the two bookkeepers appeared in the doorway.
"This is young Mr. Orde," Fox told him. "You knew his father at Monrovia and Redding."
The bookkeeper examined Bob dispassionately.
"Harvey is our head man here," went on Fox. "He'll take charge of you."
He swung his leg over the arm of his chair and resumed his newspaper. After a few moments he thrust the crumpled sheet into a huge waste basket and turned to his desk, where he speedily lost himself in a mass of letters and papers.
Harvey disappeared. Bob stood for a moment, then took a seat by the window, where he could look out over the smoky city and catch a glimpse of the wintry lake beyond. As nothing further occurred for some time, he removed his overcoat, and gazed about him with interest on the framed photographs of logging scenes and camps that covered the walls. At the end of ten minutes Harvey returned from the small outer office. Harvey was, perhaps, fifty-five years of age, exceeding methodical, very competent.
"Can you run a typewriter?" he inquired.
"A little," said Bob.
"Well, copy this, with a carbon duplicate."
Bob took the paper Harvey extended to him. He found it to be a list, including hundreds of items. The first few lines were like this:
Sec. 4 T, 6 N.R., 26 W S.W. 1/4 of N.W. 1/4 4 6 26 N.W. 1/4 of N.W. 1/4 4 6 26 S.W. 1/4 of S.W. 1/4 5 6 26 S.W. 1/4 of N.W. 1/4 5 6 26 S.E. 1/4 of N.W. 1/4
After an interminable sequence, another of the figures would change, or a single letter of the alphabet would shift. And so on, column after column. Bob had not the remotest notion of what it all meant, but he copied it and handed the result to Harvey. In a few moments Harvey returned.
"Did you verify this?" he asked.
"What?" Bob inquired.
"Verify it, check it over, compare it," snapped Harvey, impatiently.
Bob took the list, and with infinite pains which, nevertheless, could not prevent him from occasionally losing the place in the bewilderment of so many similar figures, he managed to discover that he had omitted three and miscopied two. He corrected these mistakes with ink and returned the list to Harvey. Harvey looked sourly at the ink marks, and gave the boy another list to copy.
Bob found this task, which lasted until noon, fully as exhilarating as the other. When he returned his copies he ventured an inquiry.
"What are these?" he asked.
"Descriptions," snapped Harvey.
In time he managed to reason out the fact that they were descriptions of land; that each item of the many hundreds meant a separate tract. Thus the first line of his first copy, translated, would have read as follows:
"The southwest quarter of the northwest quarter of section number four, township number six, north, range number twenty-six, west."
--And that it represented forty acres of timber land. The stupendous nature of such holdings made him gasp, and he gasped again when he realized that each of his mistakes meant the misplacement on the map of enough for a good-sized farm. Nevertheless, as day succeeded day, and the lists had no end, the mistakes became more difficult to avoid. The S, W, E, and N keys on the typewriter bothered him, hypnotized him, forced him to strike fantastic combinations of their own. Once Harvey entered to point out to him an impossible N.S.
Over his lists Harvey, the second bookkeeper, and Fox held long consultations. Then Bob leaned back in his office chair to examine for the hundredth time the framed photographs of logging crews, winter scenes in the forest, record loads of logs; and to speculate again on the maps, deer heads, and hunting trophies. At first they had appealed to his imagination. Now they had become too familiar. Out the window were the palls of smoke, gigantic buildings, crevasse-like streets, and swirling winds of Chicago.
Occasionally men would drift in, inquiring for the heads of the firm. Then Fox would hang one leg over the arm of his swinging chair, light a cigar, and enter into desultory conversation. To Bob a great deal of time seemed thus to be wasted. He did not know that big deals were decided in apparently casual references to business.
Other lists varied the monotony. After he had finished the tax lists he had to copy over every description a second time, with additional statistics opposite each, like this:
S.W. 1/4 of N.W. 1/4, T. 4 N.R., 17, W. Sec. 32, W.P. 68, N. 16, H. 5.
The last characters translated into: "White pine, 68,000 feet; Norway pine, 16,000 feet; hemlock, 5,000 feet," and that inventoried the standing timber on the special forty acres.
And occasionally he tabulated for reference long statistics on how Camp 14 fed its men for 32 cents a day apiece, while Camp 32 got it down to 27 cents.
That was all, absolutely all, except that occasionally they sent him out to do an errand, or let him copy a wordy contract with a great many whereases and wherefores.
Bob little realized that nine-tenths of this timber--all that wherein S P (sugar pine) took the place of W P--was in California, belonged to his own father, and would one day be his. For just at this time the principal labour of the office was in checking over the estimates on the Western tract.
Bob did his best because he was a true sportsman, and he had entered the game, but he did not like it, and the slow, sleepy monotony of the office, with its trivial tasks which he did not understand, filled him with an immense and cloying languor. The firm seemed to be dying of the sleeping sickness. Nothing ever happened. They filed their interminable statistics, and consulted their interminable books, and marked squares off their interminable maps, and droned along their monotonous, unimportant life in the same manner day after day. Bob was used to out-of-doors, used to exercise, used to the animation of free human intercourse. He watched the clock in spite of himself. He made mistakes out of sheer weariness of spirit, and in the footing of the long columns of figures he could not summon to his assistance the slow, painstaking enthusiasm for accuracy which is the sole salvation of those who would get the answer. He was not that sort of chap.
But he was not a quitter, either. This was life. He tried conscientiously to do his best in it. Other men did; so could he.
The winter moved on somnolently. He knew he was not making a success. Harvey was inscrutable, taciturn, not to be approached. Fox seemed to have forgotten his official existence, although he was hearty enough in his morning greetings to the young man. The young bookkeeper, Archie, was more friendly, but even he was a being apart, alien, one of the strangely accurate machines for the putting down and docketing of these innumerable and unimportant figures. He would have liked to know and understand Bob, just as the latter would have liked to know and understand him, but they were separated by a wide gulf in which whirled the nothingnesses of training and temperament. However, Archie often pointed out mistakes to Bob before the sardonic Harvey discovered them. Harvey never said anything. He merely made a blue pencil mark in the margin, and handed the document back. But the weariness of his smile!
One day Bob was sent to the bank. His business there was that of an errand boy. Discovering it to be sleeting, he returned for his overcoat. Harvey was standing rigid in the door of the inner office, talking to Fox.
"He has an ingrained inaccuracy. He will never do for business," Bob caught.
Archie looked at him pityingly.