The Pay-Roll Clerk

I

THE counting table in the pay-roll office was being remodeled; a desk length had been added, and the full surface was to be raised several inches by piecing down the stout oak legs. It was late, and the workman’s eyes now and then turned to the clock; but the job must be accomplished out of hours, and he hunched his shoulders philosophically.

Miss Nevins, of the pay-roll division, was working overtime. It was Friday night and the piece-workers’ sheets were still to be reckoned with. The two were alone in the silence, and between strokes of the mallet, the scratch of the woman’s pen sounded clearly. Occasionally a mouse could be heard scuttling between the floors, or the rattle and boom of a belated dray in the street below reached them. Once, the shouts of a distant triumphant political parade squared the man’s shoulders a trifle, but he did not look up. And the two held steadily to their tasks.

Suddenly, despite the orderly scrape of the pen, the man got the feeling that he was being watched. He was making a joint, and he bent more diligently to his labor and wondered if the woman was a tale-bearer, and hunched his shoulders again, and let it go at that. Finally, when he had completed his task, down to shellacking the seams in the cunningly built-up legs, and began sweeping up the shavings, the woman laid down her pen. She closed her books and took off her apron and eye-screen and got her rubbers from under the table, and at the same time a block of wood, and put them in her bag.

‘Good-night,’ she said to the man, and let herself out.

Emma Nevins was the oldest clerk in the office, both in point of years and in service. She had been with the Blackwells since they started, and had seen them expand from their first small loft until they occupied a factory of their own, covering some acres of floorspace. She had moved up too in those earlier years, going from office to office till she reached the pay-roll, but she never got to the head, or captured the larger salaries. Sam Blackwell, the power, was wont to complain of her sense of relative values, citing her inability to distinguish between the twenty-dozen man, and a concern that placed a twenty-thousand-dollar order! Unfortunately for her, Emma was endowed with a nature that contained fairness out of all proportion to trade acumen. Thus, after the first, her salary stood still.

The Nevins home consisted of a three-room, upstairs tenement, on a side street, within walking distance of the factory, where Emma lived alone. There had once been four of them, but William, Emma’s half-brother, had disappeared one night away back so long in the past that her only remembrance of him was his mode of exit, down the fire-escape. Next to go was her father, though his was a different vanishing: Emma was twelve when she found him one day, his cunning tool fallen from his hand, smiling at a doll. But Emma knew, and she led his groping little mate to another room; and so at twelve Emma became the mother.

She went to school for two years longer, but immediately upon her father’s death they gave up his shop-room and moved his work-bench back to the kitchen, and here Emma began spending her morning and evening hours over little blocks of wood that she carved into toys. Her father had learned the craft in another country, and from the time Emma could grasp the tools, he had declared she possessed the Nevins gift. ‘It’s the woodcarver’s hand, I’ve given her!’ he had been wont to exult. ‘There’s the thumb, close to wrist-line, for reach; the long palm means form; and the fingers made for strength.’

But two years of work and school combined taught Emma some mathematical facts outside of her textbooks. And at fourteen she brought her books home and lengthened her skirts a little, and went to work for the Blackwells. But she did not allow the Trade to forget the Nevins Toys: once a month, as had been her father’s custom, she visited the three or four old firms and supplied them with dolls, and horses, and funny pups with jowls, and clever jointed soldiers. And this revenue added to her weekly wage made it possible, in the second year, to start a saving in the Workers’ Coöperative Bank.

‘We’ll buy a home with a garden, Emmy, when it matures,’ the old mother used to yearn, before even the first year was completed.

And Emma faithfully supplemented, ‘A kitchen garden, mother; with hollyhocks too, and dahlias, like yours used to be.’

Emma was pretty along then for a few years; and there was a season when Youth called; but she had n’t time to concern herself with him; and besides, his gay ‘Hello!’ frightened her.

And so, on the second Tuesday evening of each month the two went to the Coöperative and purchased shares which, on maturity, were to give them their estate. Their lives seemed to stand still for a while, and the balance grew bravely; and these were Emma’s happiest years. They added the interest quarterly, on a separate sheet, and told each other, ‘It grows while we sleep!’ and referred to it as the ‘Nevins Garden Fund.’

Then, — it is hard to say just when, for its access was gradual, — a shadow began edging out of the future. And Emma developed a habit of getting up at night, after her mother had gone to sleep, and sitting in the dark. Along here, too, with maturity of their shares still some years in the distance, Emma’s mother began to lose zest; and soon she no longer asked to make the monthly trips. Also, she ‘passed’ the blocks ever more slowly. Sometimes, even, Emma very quietly helped herself; and when the other asked, ‘Did you begin one, Emmy?’ Emma told her, ‘No.’ Sometimes, too, she questioned, ‘Can you see just as bright, daughter?’ and Emma could. But she became more cautious about the compresses.

Then there came an evening when Emma’s mother asked to have the soldiers put away.

‘It’s pretty dark where I be, Emmy. I kind of want you to myself, nights! Days, I sit and just strain to hear the clock strike six from the time you go, till I hear you coming back again. I’m lonesome-sick, Emmy.’

Emma hired a woman to care for her mother during the day; and she did not work again on the toys; and presently she was dipping into the savings. In three years they were gone; and so also was the little mother.

‘I could n’t take no comfort at all, goin’, Emmy, if you did n’t have the money saved up,’ she told Emma just before the end. And a little later, ’Is it ’most the thousand, yet?’

‘Almost, mummie: it’s nine hundred and fifty,’ Emma answered. She made no bones about lying by this time.

‘You ’ll have your eyes fixed, soon as you get the rest, Emmy? I guess they need it, dear. You know ’bout mine: the doctor could have saved them, he said, but we had to let the money go for — my Willie. You ’ll promise, Emmy?’

Emma promised, bending very low this time.

‘I can ’most see, Emmy. It’s the Promised Land.’

And presently all the anxious little lines in the old face were smoothed away.

In looking back afterward, there were portions of that period that remained a blank for Emma. She kept the tenement and worked on; and told herself that she must view her loss from her mother’s side, and this helped. But the readjustment was hard, and it took time: there was a long march of months in those still rooms at night when Emma’s limbs ached for their accustomed service. She transferred a part of the pain to the wooden soldiers; and for a season their smart little French caps shaded rather sad eyes. Some of the joyless little squads, it would seem, might almost be visioning their own approaching sorrow.

In a year Emma had caught up; was square with the world once more. She began in the Coöperative again, but this time she hoped to make the goal sooner. She figured closely on her food, and freshened shabby gowns, season after season; she retrimmed ancient hats, got in three evening hours with the toys, and wore the nightly compresses, while the balance grew again.

Christmas was approaching one year when the tragedy occurred: Sam Blackwell called her attention to an error.

‘What is the matter? Are you becoming careless, or can’t you see?’ he shouted at her one morning.

Poor Emma! she had intended asking for a raise of salary at the end of the year. She had rehearsed her speech through twelve months, and awaited the closing of the books, over this prosperous period, with confidence.

The manager’s words brought down her house of hope. A tremor unsteadied her, but except for a blanched face she remained mistress of herself.

‘I don’t see how it could have happened! I’m sorry, and I’ll look out it does not occur again,’ she answered him; and it passed — along with Emma’s twelve-month dream. But the worst feature was Emma’s loss of confidence — the worker’s prop and stay! She never was quite sure of herself after that.

That night she went to see Dr. Elmendorph, the oculist; and he told her that she must not use her eyes; to screen them unconditionally for three months. And he ordered rest, and nourishing food.

‘Whenthis is done, and you have put on twenty pounds weight,’ he concluded, ‘come to see me again, and we will see about operating.’

‘But I can’t stop; not just y—’

‘No such word!’ cut in The Authority. ‘You’ve got to, or be — blind! Then what?’

Emma did not know.

Here the specialist took occasion to describe the primitive optic vesicles. He did it graphically and with emphasis. It was a discourse that appealed to him.

‘I see,’ Emma interpolated once or twice, in a tone that tried to convey understanding. But Emma was very tired and she had not eaten since morning; and in the end she had only grasped a phrase or two.

‘Sure enough. “Then what?” ’ she soliloquized wretchedly on the way home. But she got out her bank-book — as if she did not know the figures by heart! — for enlightenment. Dared she stop, and use the money? But, suppose the operation was not a success! Then what? No money, and no sight. She stared into the little cracked mirror at the back of the bench at her eyes, for a moment, then dropped her head to the worn boards. But Emma’s hardluck day was not ended.

Something rattled the window behind her. One hand slipped the bankbook under a mound of dolls, while the other pressed itself against her breast. She got to her feet, breathing fast, made her way to the sink, and strained her eyes into the darkness.

Some one was crouching on the fireescape !

‘That you, Willie?’

She opened the window and let him in.

Willie, it seems, was still in trouble. This time he had been engaged in a sort of walking-barroom enterprise, with drugs as a side issue. Anyway, the coppers were dead set on getting him. And William had to ‘ make a long getaway, or pay up!’ The paying up, Willie explained, meant twenty-five years, this time.

In the end, Emma promised, and Willie slipped lightly through the window and down the fire-escape again.

Next day, at noon, Emma cleaned up her account at the Coöperative and took the money by a roundabout way to a certain freight siding, where Willie promptly appeared and took the package. She clung to his hand and whispered a message to him, but he shook himself free and scuttled away behind the empties.

Emma watched him until he disappeared, and waved her hand; but he did not turn. Then she made her way back.

On a morning in April, Emma gazed in the mirror anxiously. ‘I hope he feels good to-day,’ she explained to her reflection. She had made an unusual toilet: her hair was crimped and arranged more softly. She wore a white shirt-waist with a ribbon at the neck, and a new black skirt; also she had put on her best shoes. ’I hope he feels good.’

Emma did not break her fast, but hurried away as soon as dressed. She reached the factory before the whistle blew and walked on a few blocks, but was back again and entered with the men.

At eight-thirty Sam Blackwell stepped into the pay-roll office. Emma had been watching the door. She took off her apron, walked over to him, and asked for a raise of salary. She stood in the middle of the room, suddenly grown still, and waited while a long minute ticked itself away. There were scarlet disks burning in her cheeks, and a pulse in her thin neck showed unpleasantly above the sagging finery.

She had made a poor case for herself, and they each recognized it; nevertheless she was glad to have it over.

Sam finished with doing nothing; moved a file-cabinet into line with his foot, then his cold eyes traveled slowly upward to hers. Sam handled help well. He was not a little surprised, he told her at last, at a request from her for more money. They had always treated her generously, considering her abilities. To be frank, everything considered, she was fortunate at her age to be retained! Then he relighted his cigar, and, finding her still waiting, asked if he had made himself clear.

‘Yes, I understand,’ Emma answered, lifting a white stunned face; and she backed away to her desk. But when the day was done, she opened her mind a little to the toys. ‘I would n’t have believed he felt that way,’ she confided, in a voice blunted with suffering. ‘I would n’t have believed it!' But she never referred to her wound to any one else.

Meanwhile, Sam sat over his pipe and, like a true business man, checked up the day’s work. And he winked to himself over one or two sharp turns.

April passed, and May, and June came and went; each week bringing with exactitude its pay-day wherein Emma counted and checked orderly stacks of green and yellow bills. Sometimes she found herself gravely questioning one person’s right to possess them all. By midsummer she dreamed green and yellow, and a strange idea began working in her brain. Presently she formed a habit of stopping in at the Mission, on pay-nights, and whispering one of the Commandments. Meanwhile her vision was narrowing. By September she was beaten. Then there came a night — there always comes a night! — when she walked straight past the Mission door.

But Emma came of patient blood. Also she knew Sam Blackwell. She held her courage, but the waiting period remained in her memory as a sort of nightmare.

II

Then came the remodeling of the counting table. That night Emma worked on a block of hard fine-grained wood, carefully hollowing its centre to a cup, and carving a beautiful exact groove on each of its four sides; finally, she shellacked the raw seams and placed the block, with a small hammer, in her bag.

The Blackwell weekly pay-roll money was delivered Saturday mornings, by messenger; after which the office-doors were locked until the money was counted and placed in envelopes ready to pay out — thus, to quote Sam, ‘putting it up to those inside.’ The money was counted and checked, after a painstaking method, by three persons: Emma’s check was followed by Miss Glynn’s, and again by Sam’s, thus eliminating all chances of error.

Accordingly, this second Saturday morning in November, when each of the trio had counted the money and checked up the total as $14,501.88, they settled to the work of putting it up. Then a small incident occurred: a steampipe, at the end of the office back of the ledger desks, burst with a hideous noise, pouring a deluge of steam out into the room.

Sam jumped for the shut-off,— the ledger clerks were hemmed in a corner, — while Miss Glynn hastened to throw open the windows. Slowly, Emma lifted her eyes; came a gust of wind, the flirt of a loose sheet, a pen rattled to the floor, and Emma groped for it beneath the table; and Sam was back again.

‘All serene!’ he called to his assistants. The three bent to their work again; and for a little the office was given over to the crackle and clink of hard-earned dollars. Emma was first to stack her envelopes and turn to the day’s routine; then Miss Glynn moved back to her books. But Sam, who had the smallest section and usually came out second, was noticed as being in difficulty. Now, when anything went wrong with Sam it was wise to ignore it; and the five clerks figured assiduously in the ominous silence while their chief opened, one after another, the brown envelopes before him, and recounted their contents. He did not raise his head or speak until the heap was worn away and restacked again on the other side.

‘One of you has blundered!’ he called at last, turning to his helpers. ‘Rip open your envelopes and find it. We’re short!’

And this was done, but nothing came of it. After which, Sam personally went through the entire two sections, but the shortage remained: $14,501.88 had been received, but only $14,001.88 was put up.

Sam drummed on the table for a moment; then he stood up: the money had come into the office correctly, he told them. He, as well as two others, had counted it. No one had come in or gone out. As he spoke he slipped the door-key from his pocket and swung it on one spatulate finger — he attended to that! He had no thief working for him; still, five hundred dollars had disappeared, and to satisfy everybody he proposed to have the office, and every last person in it, searched. Here he stopped, and the five clerks applauded. Gerry, the young one, said afterward, ‘We would n’t da’s’t not to clap if Sam asked for a vote on sending the bunch of us to the chair!’

An officer and matron, from headquarters, responded and went to work on the quarter-hour. In two hours the room had been fine-combed down to the last inch, but nothing came of it.

‘We’re ready for the life stuff. Any pertic’ler instructions?’

Casey looked significantly at the women.

‘No! No favorites here. Get the money, that’s all.’

Casey nodded.

‘Go to it, Mag, thorer!’ he whispered. ‘I’ll smooth up the men.’

But Mag finished — made a thorough job of it, we may say — without, result. And this held true with Casey; whereupon, after whispering a moment with his helper, he told Sam, without parley, —

‘You’re off in your first count!’

‘Not on your life!’

‘Well, the money ain’t here! That’s all. Five hundred dollars don’t get by in a locked room. But you can figure it out any way you want to. We’re through, Mag; come on.’

This was convincing and sounded final. Sam did not reply, but Emma saw his face.

On Monday a new clerk was added to the pay-roll force. Tuesday, Emma got to the office before eight, but the new clerk was there. That night she stayed overtime — came back from the dressing-room after the others were gone; but she heard a mouse and presently she closed her books and went home.

In this way a number of weeks went by. The long hours were telling on Emma, but as often as the mouse drove her home, she tried again. Once, she let herself into the office alone. She stepped quickly to the table and dropped on one knee before it; then the inner office-door opened the thousandth part of an inch, and she got back to her feet.

At noon the new clerk also dropped on one knee before the table; and from that to all fours. He peered curiously at the bare floor, worn in a little hollow where Emma’s feet rested; at a neat row of nails on the wall behind the desk, occupied by a hammer, an apron, and an eye-screen. Then he turned on his back and studied the underside of the table; and he swore softly at the unbroken surface, and then turned back again and crawled out.

Another month with mouse, and one day the rows of figures in front of Emma turned to crooked lines; then to a gray blur, and stayed there. She kept her nerve and got by a few hard minutes. Then she left her desk, her eyes straining to place its familiar outlines as one who might be seeing it for the last time, and got to the dressing-room. Here, she was alone. She felt her way to her locker, and home. But the compresses failed her! And presently the world began rocking. By morning she was crawling round and round the hallway, crying for a light and for water.

Here Millie, the cabaret girl who lived on the top floor, found her when she came in. Millie was tired but warm of heart, and she did her best. And — perhaps owing to her calling — the grass did not grow under Millie’s feet, so to speak; in a smaller space of time than her less temperamental sisters require for ‘reporting a case,’Millie had Emma ‘placed’; and the sufferer was riding over the cobbles on a strip of canvas headed for a definite place of succor.

Also, Millie was worldly wise.

‘Have a heart, old man!’ she whispered to the driver as he climbed up; and she slipped him her two-dollar bill. After which Millie yawned, and called upon high Heaven to explain to her why this activity at five o’clock in the morning.

Meanwhile Emma, bumping over the cobbles, went to sleep, and she slept an even three weeks, caring not for her changing estate. It would seem that she might have felt instinctively the moment when the gods took a hand and sent Dr. Ackerman to the Tuesday morning clinic at the City. But she was sitting in a doorway opening upon a garden drinking blessed water; and the great surgeon’s discovery of what had escaped his colleagues, and ordering her removal to his own hospital, mattered not to her.

At the beginning of the fourth week Emma came reluctantly back from Poppy Land, and it was dark with Emma.

Dr. Ackerman let himself into the ward and dropped quietly into a seat at the foot of the bed. A nurse indicated thechart,but hemotioned her away. Emma was lying with her face to the wall and one hand pressed against it. A hollow cheek above the counterpane, and the line of broken courage beneath, was what he saw. Only the hand remained to reckon with!

‘Stop holding up the wall, Emma Nevins,’ he said, ‘and tell me where you got that wonderful hand.’

She removed her hand, but did not turn or answer him; and the doctor moved his chair to the side of the bed.

‘Is there a chance of my seeing again?’ she asked evenly, ignoring his question.

And Dr. Ackerman knew his patient; and so he told her his hopes, and also the chances against them.

‘Still,’ he concluded, ‘we have to go on living, my girl, in any event; and we have to keep our courage. In the mean time, you have n’t answered my question.’

‘My father’s gift,’ she said at last, struggling to his mood.

The doctor smiled, and he mentally exchanged a zero mark for an A.

‘Nonsense!’ he said; ‘nobody gives us our hands; we make ’em!’

‘It’s the tools, then,’ she told him: ‘wood-carving.’ And later, under the spell of his interest, ‘The Nevinses have done wood-carving, usually.’

He was called away then, but next day, to his delight, Emma produced from the fastness of her pillow a wee dog, carved from a spool with a scissor blade.

‘He is n’t true, of course,’ she explained. ‘It’s the first I’ve done by feel, but nights, when the wall gets too heavy, the touch of wood helps.’

He put the small dog in his vest pocket; then he attempted to bluff his emotions, and tell her, ‘Nobody needs eyes who can turn out fearsome dogs, with jowls, by touch’; but the lump in his throat developed too fast, and after the first word or two, he croaked sounds that meant nothing at all.

But thereafter Dr. Ackerman stopped for a daily chat with Emma, and in the next few weeks he learned something of the Nevinses, and a great deal relative to wood-carving. And this last subject brought them back, invariably, to the Hand, — the doctor’s one hobby, — and gave him an opening. It seems that Emma’s was a perfect specimen of Type B. (Just here we may remind the reader that this good man saw much of Emma during her stay in Poppy Land, when the bars were down. Did she babble of the mouse, we wonder?)

Now, Type B hands are something more than hands: largely, they are conscience. They cannot be lent to a crooked act. ‘You can’t make ’em!’ defied the doctor one day. ‘But if by chance they were driven into making a slip, they’d have to right it.’ Wonderful facts, these! Oh, Dr. John!

One morning Miss Hale wheeled Emma to the elevator; thence to the small room at the top.

And Emma whispered, ‘Do your best.’

When she awoke, the cold sweet tang of ether filled the world. The doctor’s hand was on her shoulder, but he did not speak.

Came a series of days when dumb nurses changed the bandages, and the doctor came and went. Sometimes he removed her hand from the wall.

Once, Emma stayed him.

‘When will you be — certain?’

‘The last dressing comes off Sunday,’ he answered shortly, and tramped on. But he came back again.

‘The Nevinses, you know, are thoroughbreds, Emma! Remember what you told me of your father, and your father’s father, old Joseph? “Stood up and fought on, both of them!” ’

Sunday morning came. Emma was very white, but she put her hand in Miss Hale’s and made the journey again to the small room at the top.

A little interim; some one breathed unevenly. Then the bandages again, and Dr. Ackerman was bending over her.

‘One eye is saved, my girl!’ He repeated it once or twice: ‘One eye is saved! ’

A trembling Type B hand found his. ‘Please go,’ it signaled.

He motioned Miss Hale, and they slipped away.

‘Poor child!’ whispered the scientist. ‘She can cry once more, and pray.’

That night he made a wager (with himself) that Emma’s first question would be, ‘How soon may I write a letter?’ The stake was fifty cents. The doctor won. Next morning, however, when she made good, he stormed at Miss Hale, and declared female nurses were all alike. Never content until they incited a patient into writing letters. ‘Good heavens, Hale! can’t you women let well enough alone?’

Emma tried to explain that it was her own thought, that Miss Hale had not mentioned letters; but he refused to listen and strode away, followed by a sniveling assistant. That young woman returned, however, within the half hour — a trifle buoyant for a chastened nurse — to say that Emma could write her letter, the doctor said; and she named a date.

Meanwhile the wee dog traveled the rounds in the doctor’s vest pocket. It was ‘passed upon’ —for the doctor had a dream for Emma of the wonderful hands — and ‘found good.’ Also, he looked up the Toy Trade: lost his voice over the little squads of sad-eyed French soldiers, and smiledat the dolls, and purchased little companies of each for imaginary nephews and nieces.

One day he seated himself by Emma’s bed with his proposition. It seems he had a clientèle of women afflicted with the tatting fever.

‘Simply crocheting themselves into insane asylums! They’ve rocked and counted seven and tied a knot, and turned and counted six, till their brains work in scallops! We’ve got to save them, Emma. Teach them form. Put tools into their useless hands and teach them work. That will be your part, and I will whip them into class. And together we will found something that will be worth while. “The Nevins School of Woodcarving,” eh?’

So it was that Emma came into her own.

Affairs in the pay-roll office at the Blackwells’ had moved on much as usual. The new clerk had long since gone, to be sure; and an alert young person called Gert perched on Emma’s chair. But the atmosphere was still charged with nerves. The manager’s Monday morning bell still threw his stenographer into a faint; and they still ‘delivered the goods.’

Gert was quick, and she ‘chased’ the big orders with gusto; also she wore her flimsy duds with a swing; all of which Sam was quick to recognize. But by the time that the third monthly trialbalance was shown, Sam — after the manner of his kind — began to veer; in another month he resented the new order of things. Before long, for unexplainable reasons, he would have given much to see Emma’s conscientious back straining over his books again. And he began recalling her minute economies in rubber bands, and pins, and pens; and one day he ran across a scrupulous charge: ‘To use of telephone: .05,’ in Emma’s cash-book. This entry put Sam in a state of mind wherein he discovered that Emma was worth all the rest of the bunch put together.’ He had always liked her; her methods could be depended upon. He would hunt her up; she should have her place again and Gert could whistle! If her eyes were still weak, she could go home early nights. What did a few hours mean against a faithful worker? He was sick of silly ruffles.

In this mood, her letter reached him. It came by the last mail and he waited until the others had gone before opening it.

MR. BLACKWELL,—
I took that five hundred dollars — I thought I had to have it! But I don’t need it now, thank God. And I’m giving it back to you, not particularly because I wish you to have it, but in the way of a Thanksgiving, if you can understand it. I reckoned you owed me that amount, and I meant to keep it then, but the Young Man held out longer than I could. You will find the money in the table-leg — the added piece — next to my chair.
EMMA NEVINS.

P.S. This will balance the November cash. — E. N.

Sam’s den grew dark ere he moved. Then he stood up and tore the letter into small pieces and scattered them from the window. He knocked out the added piece from the old table-leg, using a small hammer which hung conveniently at the back. There it was, the money they had searched for, in its beautifully carved bed. There also, beneath his eyes, was the hollow worn by Emma’s feet.

He got out the cash book and made an entry. ‘By cash (mislaid by S. B. See Nov.) $500.00,’ read Sam’s entry. And he went back to his den and lighted a big black cigar. ‘Square old Emma,’ said Sam.