The Rules of the Game by Stewart Edward White
The winter wore away. Bob dragged himself out of bed every morning at half-past six, hurried through a breakfast, caught a car--and hoped that the bridge would be closed. Otherwise he would be late at the office, which would earn him Harvey's marked disapproval. Bob could not see that it mattered much whether he was late or not. Generally he had nothing whatever to do for an hour or so. At noon he ate disconsolately at a cheap saloon restaurant. At five he was free to go out among his own kind--with always the thought before him of the alarm clock the following morning.
One day he sat by the window, his clean, square chin in his hand, his eyes lost in abstraction. As he looked, the winter murk parted noiselessly, as though the effect were prearranged; a blue sky shone through on a glint of bluer water; and, wonder of wonders, there through the grimy dirty roar of Adams Street a single, joyful robin note flew up to him.
At once a great homesickness overpowered him. He could see plainly the half-sodden grass of the campus, the budding trees, the red "gym" building, and the crowd knocking up flies. In a little while the shot putters and jumpers would be out in their sweaters. Out at Regents' Field the runners were getting into shape. Bob could almost hear the creak of the rollers smoothing out the tennis courts; he could almost recognize the voices of the fellows perching about, smell the fragrant reek of their pipes, savour the sweet spring breeze. The library clock boomed four times, then clanged the hour. A rush of feet from all the recitation rooms followed as a sequence, the opening of doors, the murmur of voices, occasionally a shout. Over it sounded the sharp, half-petulant advice of the coaches and the little trainer to the athletes. It was getting dusk. The campus was emptying. Through the trees shone lights. And Bob looked up, as he had so often done before, to see the wonder of the great dome against the afterglow of sunset.
Harvey was examining him with some curiosity.
"Copied those camp reports?" he inquired.
Bob glanced hastily at the clock. He had been dreaming over an hour.
A little later Fox came in; and a little after that Harvey returned bringing in his hand the copies of the camp reports, but instead of taking them directly to Bob for correction, as had been his habit, he laid them before Fox. The latter picked them up and examined them. In a moment he dropped them on his desk.
"Do you mean to tell me," he demanded of Harvey, "that seventeen only ran ten thousand? Why, it's preposterous! Saw it myself. It has a half-million on it, if there's a stick. Let's see Parsons's letter."
While Harvey was gone, Fox read further in the copy.
"See here, Harvey," he cried, "something's dead wrong. We never cut all this hemlock. Why, hemlock's 'way down."
Harvey laid the original on the desk. After a second Fox's face cleared.
"Why, this is all right. There were 480,000 on seventeen. And that hemlock seems to have got in the wrong column. You want to be a little more careful, Jim. Never knew that to happen before. Weren't out with the boys last night, were you?"
But Harvey refused to respond to frivolity.
"It's never happened before because I never let it happen before," he replied stiffly. "There have been mistakes like that, and worse, in almost every report we've filed. I've cut them out. Now, Mr. Fox, I don't have much to say, but I'd rather do a thing myself than do it over after somebody else. We've got a good deal to keep track of in this office, as you know, without having to go over everybody else's work too."
"H'm," said Fox, thoughtfully. Then after a moment, "I'll see about it."
Harvey went back to the outer office, and Fox turned at once to Bob.
"Well, how is it?" he asked. "How did it happen?"
"I don't know," replied Bob. "I'm trying, Mr. Fox. Don't think it isn't that. But it's new to me, and I can't seem to get the hang of it right away."
"I see. How long you been here?"
"A little over four months."
Fox swung back in his chair leisurely.
"You must see you're not fair to Harvey," he announced. "That man carries the details of four businesses in his head, he practically does the clerical work for them all, and he never seems to hurry. Also, he can put his hand without hesitation on any one of these documents," he waved his hand about the room. "I can't."
He stopped to light the stub of a long-extinct cigar.
"I can't make it hard for that sort of man. So I guess we'll have to take you out of the office. Still, I promised Welton to give you a good try-out. Then, too, I'm not satisfied in my own mind. I can see you are trying. Either you're a damn fool or this college education racket has had the same effect on you as on most other young cubs. If you're the son of your father, you can't be entirely a damn fool. If it's the college education, that will probably wear off in time. Anyhow, I think I'll take you up to the mill. You can try the office there. Collins is easy to get on with, and of course there isn't the same responsibility there."
In the buffeting of humiliation Bob could not avoid a fleeting inner smile over this last remark. Responsibility! In this sleepy, quiet backwater of a tenth-floor office, full of infinite little statistics that led nowhere, that came to no conclusion except to be engulfed in dark files with hundreds of their own kind, aimless, useless, annoying as so many gadflies! Then he set his face for the further remarks.
"Navigation will open this week," Fox's incisive tones went on, "and our hold-overs will be moved now. It will be busy there. We shall take the eight o'clock train to-night." He glanced sharply at Bob's lean, set face. "I assume you'll go?"
Bob was remembering certain trying afternoons on the field when as captain, and later as coach, he had told some very high-spirited boys what he considered some wholesome truths. He was remembering the various ways in which they had taken his remarks.
"Yes, sir," he replied.
"Well, you can go home now and pack up," said Fox. "Jim!" he shot out in his penetrating voice; then to Harvey, "Make out Orde's check."
Bob closed his desk, and went into the outer office to receive his check. Harvey handed it to him without comment, and at once turned back to his books. Bob stood irresolute a moment, then turned away without farewell.
But Archie followed him into the hall.
"I'm mighty sorry, old man," he whispered, furtively. "Did you get the G.B.?"
"I'm going up to the mill office," replied Bob.
"Oh!" the other commiserated him. Then with an effort to see the best side, "Still you could hardly expect to jump right into the head office at first. I didn't much think you could hold down a job here. You see there's too much doing here. Well, good-bye. Good luck to you, old man."
There it was again, the insistence on the responsibility, the activity, the importance of that sleepy, stuffy little office with its two men at work, its leisure, its aimlessness. On his way to the car-line Bob stopped to look in at an open door. A dozen men were jumping truck loads of boxes here and there. Another man in a peaked cap and a silesia coat, with a pencil behind his ear and a manifold book sticking out of his pocket shouted orders, consulted a long list, marked boxes and scribbled in a shipping book. Dim in the background huge freight elevators rose and fell, burdened with the mass of indeterminate things. Truck horses, great as elephants, magnificently harnessed with brass ornaments, drew drays, big enough to carry a small house, to the loading platform where they were quickly laden and sent away. From an opened upper window came the busy click of many typewriters. Order in apparent confusion, immense activity at a white heat, great movement, the clanging of the wheels of commerce, the apparition and embodiment of restless industry--these appeared and vanished, darted in and out, were plain to be seen and were vague through the murk and gloom. Bob glanced up at the emblazoned sign. He read the firm's name of well-known wholesale grocers. As he crossed the bridge and proceeded out Lincoln Park Boulevard two figures rose to him and stood side by side. One was the shipping clerk in his peaked cap and silesia coat, hurried, busy, commanding, full of responsibility; the other was Harvey, with his round, black skull cap, his great, gold-bowed spectacles, entering minutely, painstakingly, deliberately, his neat little figures in a neat, large book.