The presentation of the super film, "Baby Boy", at the Bijou Dream in the High Street, had led to an animated discussion in the bar-parlour of the Angler's Rest Several of our prominent first-nighters had dropped in there for much-needed restorative after the performance, and the conversation had turned to the subject of child stars in the motion-pictures.
"I understand they're all midgets, really," said a Rum and Milk.
"That's what I heard, too," said a Whisky and Splash. "Somebody told me that at every studio in Hollywood they have a special man who docs nothing but go round the country, combing the circuses, and when he finds a good midget he signs him up."
Almost automatically we looked at Mr. Mulliner, as if seeking from that unfailing fount of wisdom an authoritative pronouncement on this difficult point. The Sage of the bar-parlour sipped his hot Scotch and lemon for a moment in thoughtful silence.
"The question you have raised," he said at length, "is one that has occupied the minds of thinking men ever since these little excrescences first became popular on the screen. Some argue that mere children could scarcely be so loathsome. Others maintain that a right-minded midget would hardly stoop to some of the things these child stars do. But, then, arising from that, we have to ask ourselves: Are midgets right-minded? The whole thing is very moot."
"Well, this kid we saw tonight," said the Rum and Milk. "This Johnny Bingley. Nobody's going to tell me he's only eight years old."
"In the case of Johnny Bingley," assented Mr. Mulliner," your intuition has not led you astray. I believe he is in the early forties. I happen to know all about him because it was he who played so important a part in the affairs of my distant connection, Wilmot ''
"Was your distant connection Wilmot a midget?"
"No. He was a Nodder."
Mr. Mulliner smiled
"It is not easy to explain to the lay mind the extremely intricate ramifications of the personnel of a Hollywood motion picture organisation. Putting is as briefly as possible, a Nodder is something like a Yes-Man, only lower in the social scale. Man's duty is to attend conference and say 'Yes.' A Nodder's, as the name implies to nod. The chief executive throws out some statement of opinion, and looks about him expectantly. This is the cue for the senior Yes-Man to say yes, He is followed, in order of precedence, by the second Yes-Man—or Vice-Yesser, as he is sometimes called—and the junior Yes-Man. Only when all the Yes-Men have yessed, do the Nodders begin to function. They nod."
A Pint of Half-and-Half said it didn't sound much of a job.
"Not very exalted," agreed Mr. Mulliner. "It is a position which you might say roughly, lies socially somewhere in between chat of the man who works the wind-machine and that of writer of additional dialogue. There is also a class of Untouchables who are known as Nodders' assistants, but this is a technically with which I need not trouble you. At the time when my story begins, my distant connection Wilmot was a full Nodder. Yet, even so, there is no doubt that he was aiming a little high when he ventured to aspire to the hand of Mabel Potter, the private secretary of Mr. Schnellenhamer, the head of the Perfecio-Zizzbaum Corporation.
Indeed, between a girl so placed and a man in my distant connection's position there could in ordinary circumstances scarcely have been anything in the nature of friendly intercourse. Wilmot owed his entry to her good graces to a combination of two facts—the first, that in his youth he had been brought up on a farm and so was familiar with the customs and habits of birds; the second, that before coming to Hollywood, Miss Potter had been a bird-imitator in vaudeville.
Too little has been written of vaudeville bird-imitators and their passionate devotion to their art: but everybody knows the saying, Once a Bird-Imitator Always a Bird-Imitator. The Mabel Potter of to-day might be a mere lovely machine for taking notes and tapping out her employer's correspondence, but within her there stilt burned the steady flame of those high ideals which always animate a girl who has once been accustomed to render to packed houses the liquid notes of the cuckoo, the whip-poor-will, and other songsters who are familiar to you all.
That this was so was revealed to Wilmot one morning when, wandering past an outlying set, he heard raised voices within and, recognizing the silver tones of his adored one, paused to listen. Mabel Potter seemed to be having some kind of an argument with a director.
Considering," she was saying, "that I only did it to oblige and that it is in no sense a part of my regular duties for which I draw my salary, I must say ...."
"All right, all right," said the director.
" ... that you have a nerve calling me down on the subject of cuckoos. Let me tell you, Mr. Murgatroyd, that I have made a life-long study of cuckoos and know them from soup to nuts. I have imitated cuckoos in every theatre on every circuit in the land. Not to mention urgent offers from England, Australia and ..."
"I know, I know," said the director.
"... South Africa, which I was compelled to turn down because my dear mother, then living, disliked ocean travel. My cuckoo is world-famous. Give me time to go home and fetch it and I'll show you the clipping from the St. Louis Post-Democrat which says. . ."
"I know, I know, I know," said the director, "but, all the same, I think I'll have somebody do it who'll do it my way."
The next moment Mabel Potter had swept out, and Wilmot addressed her with respectful tenderness.
"Is something the matter, Miss Potter? Is there anything I can do?"
Mabel Potter was shaking with dry sobs. Her self-esteem had been rudely bruised.
"Well, look," she said, "They ask me as a special favour to come and imitato the call of the cuckoo for this new picture, and when I do it Mr. Murgatroyd says I've done it wrong."
"The hound," breathed Wilmot.
"He says a cuckoo goes Cuckoo, Cuckoo, when everybody who has studied the question knows that what it really goes is Wuckoo, Wuckoo."
"Of course. Not a doubt about it. A distinct 'W' sound."
"As if it had got something wrong with the roof of its mouth."
"Or had omitted to have its adenoids treated."
"Wuckoo, Wuckoo . . . Like that."
"Exactly like that," said Wilmot.
The girl gazed at him with a new friendliness.
"I'll bet you've heard rafts of cuckoos."
"Millions. I was brought up on a farm."
"These know-it-all directors make me tired."
"Me, too," said Wilmot. Then, putting his fate to the touch, to win or lose it all, "I wonder, Miss Potter, if you would care to step round to the commissary and join me in a small coffee?"
She accepted gratefully, and from that moment their intimacy may be said to have begun. Day after day, in the weeks that followed, at such times as their duties would permit, you would see them sitting together either in the commissary or on the steps of some Oriental palace on the outskirts of the lot; he gazing silently up into her face she, an artist's enthusiasm in her beautiful eyes, filling the air with the liquid note of the Baltimore oriole or possibly the more strident try of the African buzzard While ever and anon, by special request, she would hitch up the muscles of the larynx and go "Wuckoo, Wuckoo".
But when at length Wilmot emboldened, asked her to he his wife, she shook her head.
"No," she said. "I like you, Wilmot. Sometimes I even think that I love you. But I can never marry a mere serf."
"A what was that?"
''A serf. A peon. A man who earns his living by nodding his head at Mr. Schnellenhamer A Yes-man would be bad enough, but a Nodder!"
She paused, and Wilmot, from sheer force of habit, nodded.
"I am ambitious," proceeded Mabel. "The man I marry must be a king among men . . . well, what I mean, at least a supervisor. Rather than wed a Nodder, I would starve in the gutter."
The objection to this as practical policy was, of course, that, owing to the weather being so uniformly fine all the year round, there are no gutters in Hollywood. But Wilmot was too distressed to point this out He uttered a heart-stricken cry not unlike the mating-call of the Alaskan wild duck and began to plead with her. But she was not to be moved.
"We will always be friends," she said, "but marry a Nodder, no."
And with a brief "Wuckoo" she turned away.
There is not much scope or variety of action open to a man whose heart has been shattered and whose romance has proved an empty dream. Practically speaking, only two courses lie before him. He can go out West and begin a new life, or he can drown his sorrow in drink. In Wilmot's case, the former of these alternatives was rendered impossible by the fact that he was out West already. Little wonder, then, that as he sat in his lonely lodging that night his thoughts turned ever more and more insistently to the second.
Like all the Mulliners, my distant connection Wilmot had always been a scrupulously temperate man. Had his love-life but run smoothly, he would have been amply contented with a nut sundae or a malted milk alter the day's work. But now, with desolation staring him in the face, he felt a fierce urge toward something with a bit more kick in it.
About half-way down Hollywood Boulevard, he knew, there was a place where, if you knocked twice and whistled "My Country, 'tis of thee," a grille opened and a whiskered face appeared. The Face said "Well?" and you said "Service and Co-operation", and then the door was unbarred and you saw before you the primrose path that led to perdition. And as this was precisely what, in his present mood, Wilmot most desired to locate, you will readily understand how it came about that, some hour and a half later he was seated at a table in this establishment, feeling a good deal better.
How long it was before he realised that his table had another occupant he could not have said. But came a moment when, raising his glass, he found himself looking into the eyes of a small child in a Lord Fauntleroy costume, in whom he recognized none other than Little Johnny Bingley, the Idol of American Motherhood—the star of this picture, "Baby Boy", which you, gentlemen, have just been witnessing at the Bijou Dream in the High Street.
To say that Wilmot was astonished at seeing this infant in such surroundings would be to overstate the case. After half an hour at this home-from-home the customer is seldom in a condition to be astonished at anything—not even gamboge elephant in golfing costume. He was, however, sufficiently interested say "Hullo".
"Hullo," replied the child. "Listen," he went on, placing a cube of ice his tumbler, "don't tell old Schnellenhamer you saw me here. There's a morality clause in my contract."
"Tell who?" said Wilmot.
"How do you spell it?"
"I don't know."
"Nor do I," said Wilmot "Nevertheless, be that as it may," he continued, holding out his hand impulsively, "he shall never learn from me,"
"Who won't?" said the child.
"He won't" said Wilmot.
"Won't what?" asked the child.
"Learn from me," said Wilmot.
"Learn what?" inquired the child
"I've forgotten," said Wilmot.
They sat for a space in silence, each busy with his own thoughts.
'"You're Johnny Bingley, aren't you?" said Wilmot.
"Who is?" said the child.
"Listen," said Wilmot. "My name's Mulliner. That's what it is. Mulliner. And I let them make the most of it."
"I don't know," said Wilmot,
He gazed at his companion affectionately. It was a little difficult to focus him because he kept-flickering, but Wilmot could take the big, broad view about that If the heart is in the right place, he reasoned, what does it matter if the body flickers?
"You're a good chap, Bingley."
"So arc you, Mulliner."
"Both good chaps?"
"Both good chaps."
"Making two in all?" asked Wilmot, anxious to get this straight.
"That's how I work it out."
"Yes, two," agreed Wilmot, ceasing to twiddle his ringers. "In fact, you might say both gentlemen."
"Both gentlemen is correct."
"Then let us see what we have pot. Yes," said Wilmd, as he laid down the pencil with which he had been writing figures on the table-cloth. Here are the final returns, as I get them. Two good chaps, two gentlemen. And yet," he said, flowed in a puzzled way, "that seems to make four, and there arc only two of us. However," he went on, "let that go. Immaterial. Not germane to the issue.
The fact we have to face, Bingley, is that my heart is heavy."
"You don't say!"
"I do say. Heavy, Hearty. My bing is heavy."
"What's the trouble?"
Wilmot decided to confide in this singularly sympathetic infant. He fell he had never met a child he liked better.
"Well, it's like this."
"I'm telling you. The girl I love won't marry me."
"So she says."
"Well, well," said the child star commiseratingly. "That's too bad. Spurned your love, did she?"
"You're dern tooling she spurned my love," said Wilmot. "Spurned it good and hard. Some spurning!"
"Well, that's how it goes," said the child star. "What a world!"
"You're right, what a world."
"I shouldn't wonder if it didn't make your heart heavy."
"You bet it makes my heart heavy," said Wilmot, crying softly. He dried his eyes on the edge of the table-cloth. "How can I shake off this awful depression?" he asked.
The child star reflected.
"Well, I'll tell you," he said. "I know a better place than this one. It's out Venice way. We might give it a try."
"We certainly might," said Wilmot.
"And then there's another one down at Santa Monica."
"We'll go there, too," said Wilmot. "The great thing is to keep moving about and seeing new scenes and fresh faces."
“The faces are always nice and fresh down at Venice."
"Then let's go," said Wilmot.
It was eleven o'clock on the following morning that Mr. Schnellenhamer burst in upon his fellow-executive, Mr. Levitsky, with agitation written on every feature of his expressive face. The cigar trembled between his lips.
“Listen!" he said. "Do you know what?"
"Listen!" said Mr. Levitsky. "What?"
"Johnny Bingley has just been in to see me."
"If he wants a raise of salary, talk about the Depression."
"Raise of salary? What's worrying me is how long is he going to be worth the salary he's getting."
"Worth it?" Mr. Levitsky stared. "Johnny Bingley? The Child With The Tear Behind The Smile? The Idol Of American Motherhood?"
"Yes, and how long is he going to be the idol of American Motherhood after American Motherhood finds out he's a midget from Connolly's Circus, and an elderly, hard-boiled midget, at that?"
"Well, nobody knows that bin you and me."
"Is that so?" said Mr. Schnellenhamer. "Well, let me tell you, he was out on a toot last night with one of my Nodders, and he comes to me this morning and says he couldn't actually swear he told this guy he was a midget, but, on the other hand, he rather thinks he must have done. He says that between the time they were thrown out of Mike's Place and the time he stabbed the waiter with the pickle-fork there's a sort of gap in his memory, a kind of blur, and he thinks it may have been then, because by that time they had got pretty confidential and he doesn't think he would have had any secrets from him."
All Mr. Levitsky's nonchalance had vanished.
"But if this fellow—what's his name?"
If this fellow Mulliner sells this story to the Press, Johnny Bingley won't be worth a nickel to us. And his contract calls for two more pictures at two hundred and fifty thousand each."
"But what are we to do?"
"You tell me."
Mr. Levitsky pondered.
"Well, first of all," he said, "we'll have to find out if this Mulliner really knows."
"We can't ask him."
"No, but we'll be able to tell by his manner. A fellow with a stranglehold on the Corporation like that isn't going to be able to go on acting same as he's always done. What sort of fellow is he?"
"The ideal Nodder," said Mr. Schnellenhamer regretfully. "I don't know when I've had a better. Always on his cues. Never tries to alibi himself by saying he had a stiff neck. Quiet . . . Respectful . . . What's that word that begins with a'd'?"
"Deferential. And what's the word beginning with an 'o'?"
"Obsequious. That's what he is. Quiet, respectful, deferential, and obsequious— that's Mulliner"
"Well, then it'll be easy to see. If we find him suddenly not being all what you said ... if he suddenly ups and starts to throw his weight about, understand what I mean . . . why, then we'll know that he knows that Little Johnny Bingley is a midget."
"Why, then we'll have to square him. And do it right, too. No half-measures."
Mr. Schnellenhamer tore at his hair. He seemed disappointed that he had no straws to slick in it.
"Yes," he agreed, the brief spasm over, "I suppose it's the only way. Well, it won't be long before we know. There's a story-conference in my office at noon, and he'll be there to nod."
"We must watch him like a lynx."
"Like a what?"
"Lynx. Sort of wild-cat. It watches things."
"Ah," said Mr. Schnellenhamer, "I get you now. What confused me at first was that I thought you meant golf-links."
The fears of the two magnates, had they but known it, were quite without foundation. If Wilmot Mulliner had ever learned the fatal secret, he had certainly not remembered it next morning. He had woken that day with a confused sense of having passed through some soul-testing experience, but as regarded details his mind was a blank. His only thought as he entered Mr. Schnellenhamer's office for the conference was a rooted conviction that, unless he kept very still, his head would come apart in the middle.
Nevertheless, Mr. Schnellenhamer, alert for significant and sinister signs, plucked anxiously at Mr. Levitsky's sleeve.
"Did you see that?"
"That fellow Mulliner. He sort of quivered when he caught my eye, as if with unholy glee."
"It seemed to me he did."
As a matter of fact, what had happened was that Wilmot, suddenly sighting his employer, had been unable to restrain a quick shudder of agony. It seemed to him that somebody had been painting Mr. Schnellenhamer yellow. Even at the best of times, the President of the Perfecto-Zizzbaum, considered as an object fur the eye, was not everybody's money. Flickering at the rims and a dull orange in colour, as he appeared to be now, he had smitten Wilmot like a blow, causing him to wince like a salted snail.
Mr. Levitsky was regarding the young man thoughtfully.
"I don't like his looks," he said.
"Nor do I," said Mr. Schnellenhamer
"There's a kind of horrid gloating in his manner."
"I noticed it, too."
"See how he's just buried his head in his hands, as if he were thinking out dreadful plots?''
"I believe he knows everything."
"I shouldn't wonder if you weren't right. Well, let's start the conference and see what he does when the time comes for him to nod. That's when he'll break out, if he's going to."
As a rule, these story-conferences were the part of his work, which Wilmot most enjoyed. His own share in them was not exacting, and, as he often said, you met such 'interesting people.
To-day, however, though there were eleven of the studio's weirdest authors present, each well worth more than a cursory inspection, he found himself unable to overcome the dull listlessness which had been gripping him since he had first gone to the refrigerator that morning to put ice on his temples. As the poet Keats put it in his "Ode to a Nightingale", his head ached and a drowsy numbness pained his sense. And the sight of Mabel Potter, recalling to him those dreams of happiness, which he had once dared to dream and which now could never come to fulfilment, plunged him still deeper into the despondency. If he had been a character in a Russian novel, he would have gone and hanged himself in the barn. As it was, he merely sat staring before him and keeping perfectly rigid.
Most people, eyeing him, would have been reminded of a corpse which had been several days in the water: but Mr. Schnellenhamer thought he looked like a leopard about to spring, and he mentioned this to Mr. Levitsky in an undertone.
"Bend down. I want to whisper."
"What's the matter?"
"He looks to me just like a crouching leopard."
"I beg your pardon," said Mabel Potter who, her duty being to take notes of the proceedings, was seated at her employer's side. "Did you say 'crouching leopard' or 'grouchy shepherd'?"
Mr. Schnellenhamer started. He had forgotten the risk of being overheard. He felt that he had been incautious.
"Don't put that down," he said. "It wasn't part of the conference. 'Well, now, come on, come on," he proceeded, with a pitiful attempt at the bluffness which he used it conferences, "let's get at it. Where did we leave off yesterday, Miss Potter?"
Mabel consulted her notes.
"Cabot Delaney a scion of an old Boston family, has gone to try to reach the North Pole in a submarine, and he's on an iceberg, and the scenes of his youth are passing before his eye.''
"You didn't get to what scenes."
"Then that's where we begin," said Mr. Schnellenhamer. "What scenes pass before this fellow eyes?"
One of the authors, a weedy young man in spectacles, who had come to Hollyood to start a Gyffte Shoppe and had been scooped up in the studio's drag-net and forced into the writing-staff much against his will, said why not a scene where Cabot Delaney sees himself dressing his window with kewpie-dolls and fancy notepaper.
"Why kewpie-dolls?" asked Mr. Schnellenhamer testily.
The author said they were a good selling line.
"Listen!" said Mr. Schnellenhamer brusquely. "This Delaney never sold anything in his life. He's a millionaire. What we want is something romantic."
A diffident old gentleman suggested a polo-game.
"No good," said Mr. Schnellenhainer. "Who cares anything about polo? When you're working on a picture you've got to bear in mind the small-town population of the Middle West. Aren't I right?"
"Yes," said the senior Yes-man.
"Yes," said the Vice-Yesser.
"Yes," said the junior Yes-man.
And all the Nodders nodded. Wilmot, waking with a start to the realisation that duty called, hurriedly inclined his throbbing head. The movement made him feel as if a red-hot spike had been thrust through it, and he winced. Mr. Levitsky plucked at Mr. Schnellenhamer's sleeve.
"I thought he scowled, too."
"As it might be with sullen hate."
"That's the way it struck me. Keep watching him."
The conference proceeded. Each of the authors put forward a suggestion, but it was left for Mr. Schnellenhamer to solve what had begun to seem an insoluble Problem.
"I've got it," said Mr. Schnellenhamer. "He sits on this iceberg and he seems to see himself—he's always been an athlete, you understand—he seems to see himself scoring the winning goal in one of these polo-games. Everybody's interested in polo nowadays Aren't I right?"
"Yes," said the senior Yes-man.
"Yes," said the Vice-Yesser.
"Yes," said the junior Yes-man.
Wilmot was quicker off the mark this time. A conscientious employee, he did not intend mere physical pain to cause him to fall short in his duly. He nodded quickly, and returned to the "ready" a little surprised that his head was still attached to its moorings. He had felt so certain it was going to come off that time.
The effect of this quiet, respectful, deferential and obsequious nod on Mr Schnellenhamer was stupendous. The anxious look had passed from his eves. He was convinced now that Wilmot knew nothing. The magnate's confidence mounted high. He proceeded briskly. There was a new strength in his voice.
"Well," he said, "that's set for one of the visions. We want two, and the other's got to be something that'll pull in the women. Something touching and sweet and tender.
The young author in spectacles thought it would be kind of touching and sweet and tender if Cabot Delaney remembered the time he was in his Gyffte Shoppe and a beautiful girl came in and their eyes met as he wrapped up her order of Indian bead-work.
Mr. Schnellenhamer banged the desk.
"What is all this about Gyffte Shoppes and Indian bead-work? Don't I tell you this guy is a prominent clubman? Where would he get a Gyffte Shoppe?? Bring a girl into it, yes—so far you're talking sense. And let him gaze into her eyes— certainly he can gaze into her eyes. But not in any Gyffte Shoppe. It's got to be a lovely, peaceful, old-world exterior set, with bees humming and doves cooing and trees waving in the breeze. Listen!" said Mr. Schriellenhamer. "It's spring, see, and all around is the beauty of Nature in the first shy sun-glow. The grass that waves. The buds that . . . what's the word?"
"Bud?" suggested Mr. Levitsky.
"No, if's two syllables," said Mr. Schnellenhamer, speaking a little self-consciously, for he was modestly proud of knowing words of two syllables.
"Burgeon?" hazarded an author who looked like a trained seal.
"I beg your pardon," said Mabel Potter. "A burgeon's a sort of fish."
"You're thinking of sturgeon," said the author.
"Excuse it, please," murmured Mabel. "I'm not strong on fishes. Birds are what I'm best at."
"We'll have birds, too," said Mr. Schnellenhamer jovially "All the birds yon want. Especially the cuckoo. And I'll tell you why. It gives us a nice little comedy touch. This fellow's with this girl in this old-world garden where everything's burgeoning . . . and when I say burgeoning I mean burgeoning. That burgeoning's got to be done right, or somebody'll get fired . . . and they're locked in a close embrace. Hold as long as the Philadelphia censors let you, and then comes your nice comedy touch. Just as these two young folks are kissing each other without a thought of anything else in the world, suddenly a cuckoo close by goes 'Cuckoo! Cuckoo!' Meaning how goofy they arc. That's good for a laugh isn't it?"
"Yes," said the senior Yes-man.
"Yes," said the Vice-Yesser.
"Yes," said the junior Yes-man.
And then, while the Nodders' heads— Wilmot's among them—were trembling on their stalks preparatory to the downward swoop, there spoke abruptly a clear female voice. It was the voice of Mabel Potter, and those nearest her were able to see that her face was flushed and her eyes gleaming with an almost fanatic light. All the bird-imitator in her had sprung to sudden life.
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Schnellenhamer, that's wrong."
A deadly stillness had fallen on the room. Eleven authors sat transfixed in their chairs, as if wondering if they could believe their twenty-two ears, Mr. Schnellenhamer uttered a little gasp. Nothing like this had ever happened to him before in his long experience.
"What did you say?" he asked incredulously. "Did you say that I ... I ... was wrong?"
Mabel met his gaze steadily. So might Joan of Arc have faced her inquisitors.
"The cuckoo," she said, "docs not go 'Cuckoo, cuckoo' ... it goes 'Wuckoo, wuckoo'. A distinct 'W' sound."
A gasp at the girl's temerity ran through the room. In the eyes of several of those present there was something that was not far from a tear. She seemed so young, so fragile.
Mr. Schnellenhamer's jovality had vanished, He breathed loudly through his nose. He was plainly mastering himself with a strong effort.
"So I don't know the low-down on cuckoos?"
"Wuckoos," corrected Mabel.
"You're tired," said Mr. Schnellenhamer.
Mabel flushed to the roots of her hair.
"It's unfair and unjust," she cried. "I'm right, and anybody who's studied cuckoos will tell you I'm right. When it was a matter of burgeons, I was mistaken, and I admitted that I was mistaken, and apologised. But when it comes to cuckoos, let me tell you you're talking to somebody who has imitated the call of the cuckoo from the Palace, Portland, Oregon, to the Hippodrome, Sumquamset, Maine, and taken three bows after every performance. Yes, sir, I know my cuckoos! And if you don't believe me I'll put it up 10 Mr. Mulliner there, who was born and bred on a farm and has heard more cuckoos in his time than a month of Sundays. Mr. Mulliner, how about it? Does the cuckoo go 'Cuckoo'?"
Wilmot Mulliner was on his feet, and his eyes met hers with the love-light in them. The spectacle of the girl he loved in distress and appealing to him for and had brought my distant connection's better self to the surface as if it had been jerked up on the end of a pin. For one brief instant he had been about to seek safety in a cowardly cringing to the side of those in power. He loved Mabel Potter madly, desperately, he had told himself in that short, sickening moment of poltroonery, but Mr. Schnellenhamer was the man who signed the cheques: and the thought of risking his displeasure and being summarily dismissed had appalled him. For there is no spiritual anguish like that of the manwho, grown accustomed to opening the cracking envelope each Saturday morning, reaches out for it one day and finds that it is not there. The thought of the Perfecto-Zizzbaum cachier ceasing to be fount of gold and becoming just a man with a walrus moustache had turned Wilmot's spine to Jell-o. And for an instant, as I say, he had been on the point of betraying this sweet girl's trust.
But now, gazing into her eyes, he was strong again. Come what might, he would stand by her to the end.
"No!" he thundered, and his voice rang through the room like a trumpet blast. "No, it does not go 'Cuckoo'. You have fallen into a popular error, Mr. Schnellenhamer. The bird wooks, and, by heaven, I shall never cease to maintain that it wooks, no matter what offence I give to powerful vested interests. I endorse Miss Potter's view wholeheartedly and without compromise. I say the cuckoo docs not cook. It wooks, so make the most of it! "
There was a sudden whirring noise. It was Mabel Potter shooting through the air into his arms.
"Oh, Wilmot!" she cried.
He glared over her back-hair at the minute.
"'Wuckoo, wuckoo!" he shouted, almost savagely.
He was surprised to observe that Mr. Schnellenhamer and Mr. Levitsky were hurriedly cleaning the room. Authors had begun to stream through the door in a foaming torrent. Presently, he and Mabel were alone with the two directors of the destinies of the Perfecto-Zizzbaum Corporation, and Mr. Levitsky was carefully closing the door, while Mr. Schnellenhamer came towards him, a winning, if nervious, smile upon his face.
"Then, there, Mulliner," he said.
And Mr. Levitsky said "There, there," too.
"I can understand your warmth Mulliner," said Mr. Schnellenhamer "Nothing is more annoying to the man who knows than to have people making these silly mistakes. I consider the firm stand you have taken as striking evidence of loyalty to the Corporation."
"Me, too," said Mr. Levitsky. "I was admiring it myself."
"For you are loyal to the Corporation, Mulliner, I know. You would never do anything to prejudice its interests, would you?"
"Sure he wouldn't," said Mr. Levitsky.
"You would not reveal the Corporation's little secrets, thereby causing it alarm and despondency, would you, Mulliner?"
"Certainly he wouldn't," said Mr. Levitsky. "Especially now that we're going to make him an executive."
"An executive?" said Mr. Schnellenhamer starting.
"An executive," repeated Mr. Levitsky firmly "With brevet rank as a brother-in-law." in-law."
Mr. Schnellenhamer was silent for a moment. He seemed to be having a little trouble in adjusting his mind to this extremely drastic step. But he was a man of sterling sense, who realised that there are times when only the big gestures will suffice.
"That's right," he said. "I'll notify the legal department and have the contract drawn up right away."
"That will be agreeable to you, Mulliner?" inquired Mr. Levitsky anxiously. "You will consent to become an executive?"
Wilmot Mulliner drew himself up. It was his moment. His head was still aching, and he would have been the last person to claim that he knew what all this was about: but this he did know - that Mabel was nestling in his arms and that his future was secure.
Then words failed him, and he nodded.