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Thorne Smith


Mr. Gibber Leaves the Room

TIM WILLOW'S pious hope that he was imagining things fell far short of fulfilment. Not only was it totally disregarded, but also virtually flung in his face.

Rising with a clamorous head the next morning, he gulped down some coffee, and leaving Sally still painfully sleeping, rushed from the house and along the too familiar ways that led to the station. He had had neither the time nor the inclination to visit the body in the bin. Sally would have to see to that. He scarcely cared whether she saw to it or not. Tim Willows was so nauseatingly sick and disgusted that he would have greatly preferred a quiet cell in the death house to a weary day at the office.

Of all the ghastly trips he had ever made to the station—and he had made many—this morning's was by all odds the most like that. Never before had he achieved such abject and unqualified depths of physical, mental, and spiritual demoralisation. Never before had he carried to the office such consciousness of guilt and awareness of impending evil. His body was sick and his soul was sick. He was unable to meet the eyes of the meanest of living creatures. Think as he would, he could find no redeeming quality within himself nor could he see any hope of salvation in the future. The sky ahead was drenched with ink and aggressively sinister. Soon it would swoop silently down and blot him out—smother him lingeringly. One circumstance alone saved him from going completely mad and running around in frenzied circles before the disapproving eyes of his fellow commuters. He was too physically debilitated to care a great deal whether or not he was a murderer. His mind had not yet had the opportunity to grasp the terrible significance of what he had done. That would come later in all its stark, blinding reality. Yes, there were many unpleasant things Tim Willows had to face. At the moment his reactions were merely mechanical. His conduct was dictated by sheer force of habit. Automatically he moved and thought, and with the nice instinct of a sick animal he isolated himself as well as he could from the main body of commuters exhaling frosty puffs along the station platform. A through train swept by. It was headed in the opposite direction, leaving New York behind. There was a dumb appeal in Tim's eyes as he watched the swift passage of that train. He wished he himself were aboard it, bound away to parts unknown.

A few minutes later his own train glided in and came to a clanking stop. Like a man voluntarily approaching his own doom he climbed wearily aboard, found a seat next to a window, and arranged the protective screen of his newspaper round the upper half of his body. So far he had successfully avoided exchanging a word of greeting with a single acquaintance. He prayed that his Jovian aloofness would remain inviolate.

"Well, here goes nothing," he said to himself as the train pulled out. "I wonder who's missing Mr. Bentley now? Probably the whole damn lot of them."

He had been such a hale and hearty commuter, Bentley, one of the most depressing types. And back home in the coal bin Mr. Bentley's body was getting worse and worse. Involuntarily Tim shuddered. That lifeless body was looming larger on his horizon. It was taking more definite shape and growing more fraught with menace. Slow waves of horror churned up the nausea within his system. Print swam before his aching eyes as he strove to return to reason through the medium of an advertisement announcing a drastic reduction in the price of fur coats. Sally needed a new coat. She could wear it at the trial. A woman with a soft white throat, and a figure that shrieked in the night. Why had there been no blood?

A heavy man sank down beside him and Tim edged over closer to the window. He dreaded the sound of a voice, but no voice was forthcoming, only a ponderous sigh. Apparently his companion was mortally weary. Tim vaguely wondered what could be the nature of the trouble that had produced such a sigh. Another one fell like a swooning body on the lap of his meditations. This was awful. The man must have committed a whole series of murders. Probably wiped out an entire family. Decapitated it. Tim feared that if the man did not stop sighing he would begin to sigh himself. Then he decided that he had not sufficient energy to heave even the ghost of a sigh. The mere business of breathing was difficult enough. His lungs felt burdened. Not so his companion's. His lungs continued to bellow forth sighs of increasingly tragic mournfulness. Tim had never heard such sighs. They seemed to proceed from the grave itself. He turned his eyes to the snow-patched fields and tried to forget the sounds. But no one could forget such sighs. They made themselves felt as well as heard. They were the palpable expression of misery. Unable to bear up under them any longer Tim turned from the window and appealingly confronted the man. One glance was all that was needed to galvanise him into panic-stricken action. Apparently the man's reactions were exactly those of Tim's. Both made a convulsive effort to remove themselves from the seat with the utmost possible speed. Both were pale and trembling. Both were desperate men. Their minds were so thoroughly atrophied that they failed to realise that if either one of them would only remain quietly seated the other would most willingly withdraw. As it was, in their passionate scramble they effectively succeeded in wedging each other inextricably in the narrow space. Perhaps no two men in all the world were less desirous of such propinquity. Tim's haggard face thrust itself out into the aisle as if detached from the rest of his body. The man's feet were shuffling busily on the floor of the car. He was running in spirit if not in body. He wanted to run with both.

"Water!" gasped Tim, to anyone who might happen to be theoretically interested in thirsts. "Wanna get water."

"Water!" inanely babbled his companion, apparently too far gone to think up anything for himself. "Must go get some water."

"Then I don't want any," said Tim hurriedly. "I'm not thirsty. You go get water."

"I can't," panted the man. "You're holding me back."

"Holding you back?" exploded Tim with a short hysterical laugh. "I wouldn't touch a hand to your mouldering body for all the gold in the mint."

"That's all right, then," said Mr. Bentley, sinking back on the seat and carrying Tim along with him. "I thought you were going to strike me."

The sudden revulsion of feelings caused by finding alive and kicking the man he had thought to be lying at that moment stark dead in his coal bin moved Tim profoundly. Even now he was not sure of his ground, yet it must be so. Spirits did not get wedged between seats or try to escape the blows of mere mortals. No, Carl Bentley was real enough, and Tim Willows almost collapsed on the spot under the stress of his emotions.

"Strike you?" he managed to blurt out. "I haven't the slightest desire to do such a thing. I'd much rather hug you."

"Don't do that," said Mr. Bentley stiffly. "You've done quite enough to me already."

"All right," replied Tim rather humbly. "I won't, but are you sure you're not murdered?"

"No," said Mr. Bentley. "I'm not sure. I might die at any minute. I feel that way. I feel very much that way, let me tell you."

Tim considered this information for a moment and took comfort in it.

"I'll let you tell me," he observed at last. "And you can die at any minute for all I care just as long as you're out of my coal bin. I wouldn't mind it at all. As a matter of fact, I'd like to see you die. I'd enjoy it."

"Don't work yourself up to a pitch," the other put in hastily. "I feel very, very ill."

"I will work myself up to a pitch," retorted Mr. Willows. "I'll work myself up to a terrific pitch. What the hell do you mean messing round with my wife?"

"That is easily explained," replied Mr. Bentley. "It was all a mistake. Simply and truly a dreadful mistake."

Tim Willows laughed nastily.

"I hope you discovered your mistake," he said.

"Oh, I did," the other replied. "The moment I came to and found myself buried beneath a lot of nasty coal I knew some mistake had been made."

"It had," remarked Mr. Willows. "I should have put on more coal."

"Well, I managed to dig myself out somehow and to crawl upstairs. My head ached terribly."

"Good," quoth Tim feelingly.

Ignoring his companion's elation Carl Bentley went on with his story.

"I was terribly confused," he said. "Nearly dead. Quite actually nearly dead. You can imagine. To come to one's senses beneath a pile of coal in total darkness and with a head that feels twice its normal size is not an agreeable sensation."

"That's what happens to men who get gay with my wife," Tim Willows told him. "That and worse."

Mr. Bentley chose to disregard this unfriendly remark also.

"There was a bottle of gin on the kitchen table," he continued, "and I finished off what was left of it."

"I must have overlooked that," observed Tim regretfully.

"Yes, it was there," said Carl Bentley, "and I drank it. But the doors were locked and I had no shoes. No shoes at all. Have you seen my shoes by any chance, Willows?"

"One can hardly help seeing them," replied Tim. "Go on with your story."

"Well, I went up the back stairs," Bentley resumed, "and then my mind must have gone blank. I don't remember anything after that. Apparently I contrived to get home somehow, but I was minus my hat, overcoat, and shoes."

"You tried to get in bed with me," said Tim accusingly.

"Then I must have been drunk," Mr. Bentley declared. "Couldn't tell one bed from the other."

"What the hell do you mean by that?" demanded Tim.

"Nothing," said the other hastily. "Absolutely nothing. Don't know what could have made me say it. I'm still frightfully confused and upset and all. For God's sake don't work yourself up to another pitch, old man. I'm not strong enough to stand it."

"Pitch, me eye," muttered Tim. "I'd like to pitch you out in the middle of the aisle. That's what you deserve."

"Don't do it," pleaded Mr. Bentley. "I beg of you not to do it. You should be grateful to me for freeing you from the stigma of murder."

"I have your thick skull to thank for that."

"Yet the skull belongs to me."

"But you're not responsible for its thickness."

"Then you can't blame me for that."

"For what?"

Mr, Bentley looked perplexed.

"I don't quite know myself," he replied. "I seem to have lost the thread."

"Damned if I know what we're talking about," said Tim Willows. "Don't let's talk."

"Perhaps it would be better," agreed Carl Bentley. "Then you won't work yourself up to a pitch."

"That doesn't matter at all," snapped Mr. Willows. "I can work myself up to a pitch whether I talk or not."

"Try not to," murmured Bentley soothingly. "Be calm. You don't look at all well."

"Is that so?" retorted Mr. Willows brightly. "Well, you look fit for a hospital, yourself—you and your stomach-ripping sighs."

"Better that than an inquest," said Carl Bentley significantly.

With an inner tremor Tim turned back to the window and allowed Carl Bentley to have the last word. The man was right. His, Tim's, escape had been a narrow one. Just an ounce or two more energy behind Mrs. Twill's time-honoured rolling pin and he would be sitting there a full-fledged murderer, a murderer with hardly any prospects of escape. Sick as he was he still felt that it was good to be at large and alive. Accordingly it was a greatly relieved Mr. Willows who dismissed Carl Bentley with a wave of his hand at the station and made his way up Park Avenue to the office building in which the Nationwide Advertising, Inc. awaited whatever it might devour.

The layout of this flourishing establishment was designed to submerge the ego of the most arrogant of mortals. If any caller chanced to have a wee bit of an inferiority complex lurking about his system the atmosphere of this place immediately brought it to full bloom. On entering the offices a prospective client who had been prepared to spend fifty thousand dollars in advertising hastily decided to spend at least fifty thousand more for fear of being snubbed by the reception clerk, cut by the office boy, and sneered at by the president's secretary.

Everything was gorgeous. Everything was superior. Rich leather, subdued lighting, and wrought-iron work merged themselves into endless vistas of harmonious opulence relieved here and there by a slightly exotic touch of colour. One gained the impression that unlike almost any other kind of writing the creation of advertisements required an environment of ease and refinement.

It was into this environment that Tim Willows stepped, feeling neither at ease nor consciously refined.

"Good-morning, baby," he said to a gorgeous girl at a gorgeous desk. "I'd like to use the lounge in your rest room if none of the girls objects."

"You're not a good man, Mr. Willows," she told him. "You're a bad, bad man. I'm sorry about you."

"Then give me a spot of something, sweetheart, or I'll die right here before your eyes on this lousily gorgeous Persian rug."

The girl gave him a critical look, then, opening a drawer in her desk, hastily poured some whisky from a pint flask into a paper cup, which she passed to Tim.

"Go over to the cooler," she said in level tones, "and pretend you're getting a drink of water."

"Thanks," answered Tim, eagerly seizing the cup. "I already know the technique thoroughly."

He tossed off the drink, crumpled up the evidence, and accepted a mint tablet from his calm-eyed benefactress.

"I wouldn't have done that for everyone," she told him.

"And you're quite right, too," agreed Tim Willows. "The rest of these copy writers are a lot of dogs. Don't have a thing to do with them. Don't give them an inch. Just me."

"Don't hang around here any longer," she said. "You look like the devil to-day. I wish you'd behave yourself for a couple of months. Better pretend you have a bad cold."

When he had gone the girl gazed musingly at the spot where he had been.

"All the interesting ones get married," she thought, "and all of the interesting ones are bad, thoroughly bad. He isn't really bad, though. He just doesn't understand about morals. He's too good for this place. He doesn't belong here."

Meanwhile Tim, no little resuscitated, tossed his hat and coat at a friendly office boy and joined a file of his confrères making its way into the conference room.

"What's up?" he asked Steve Jones. "Are we praying for rain and prosperity this morning?"

"Same old thing," replied Steve bitterly. "Just talk, talk, talk. The Old Man's getting gaga. Damned if I know what it's all about. You've been drinking."

He looked at Tim with an enviously accusing eye.

"Lots," agreed that gentleman. "I've been through a great deal, Steve. Altogether too much."

"And you're going through a lot more," muttered Steve, "before he's finished with us."

They passed into the handsomely appointed conference room and found seats at a long table, at the end of which stood Mr. Gibber beaming good-morningly.

Mr. Gibber was a large man. He gave one the impression of being almost too large a man. He had a large, well-fed face coated with an expensively acquired tan. Mr. Gibber collected tans. He brought them back with him from diverse parts of the globe he so ornately decorated. He brought back his tans from Bermuda, from Florida, and from various sections of the Riviera.

"There's nothing like travel," he would tell various members of his staff, "to keep a man physically fit and mentally alert. I wish we could all run across to the Continent at least once a year. But everything comes with time—with time and hard work."

"How true," Tim had once replied to this optimistic utterance. "Even death itself. You know, Mr. Gibber, they tell me that all good Americans go to Paris when they die. Perhaps that's how we'll get there."

Mr. Gibber was not amused.

And Mr. Gibber had hands. Large, brown hands that he rubbed and re-rubbed. He was always immaculately dressed, impeccably manicured, and crisply groomed. It was almost as if he wanted to prove to the world that he was a clean man with nice, neat habits.

Tim regarded the man with something akin to affectionate contempt, and Mr. Gibber returned his gaze with the tolerance of one who realised it was in his power to discharge the impertinent young puppy on the spot. As he looked at the gentlemen seated round the table Mr. Gibber's eyes seemed to be saying, "I bought that new tie for you. Those socks are indirectly mine. And you there, down at the end, had it not been for me you'd never have got that suit of clothes. You're all mine, the whole lot of you, down to your very drawers."

However, he greeted them all with what he fondly believed to be just the right balance of benign paternalism and presidential authority. Behind his most sunny words there always seemed to lurk the suggestion of a sudden cold snap with thin days ahead. He played, for all there was in it, the part of the upper dog.

"Gentlemen," he began this morning. "Fellow workers in this vast organisation. Men of the Nationwide Advertising Agency—and that includes you, Miss Meades, ha ha, ahem—hope you don't mind—where was I? Oh, yes—co-creators of national prosperity," Mr. Gibber's voice dropped impressively, "We must not waste words. Words are valuable. The flashing wings of thought. We must not waste them."

Mr. Gibber then proceeded to give a loquacious dissertation on the virtues of brevity. Leaning far over the table on which his hands were spread, he swayed slightly from the vibrations of his powerfully controlled emotions.

"Nationwide Advertising Agency," he repeated with almost sinister intensity. "Men, do you get the full significance of that? Do you realise what it means—nation wide—those two words? Do you grasp it?" Here Mr. Gibber grasped it, opened his clenched fingers and examined it, then, with a forceful gesture, flung it rather rudely in the faces of his listeners. "It means this exactly," he continued with awful calmness. "Take the nation in all its length. Take the nation in all its breadth. Take the nation in all its thickness." He looked piercingly round to assure himself that everyone had taken the nation in the manner he had suggested. "Then take this organisation," he went on. "Take it in all its ramifications and superimpose it upon the nation. It means, men, putting the two together, that we're just as wide as it. Sitting here in this gorgeously appointed room we are exactly as wide as America. Hence our name—the Nationwide Advertising Agency."

Mr. Gibber sat down with disconcerting suddenness and tried to look exactly as wide as the nation. He very nearly succeeded. He did look almost as thick. In the face of such a huge conception the members of his staff appeared considerably shrunken. Having achieved the desired effect and for certain reasons of policy having to do with the discouraging of requests for raises it now pleased Mr. Gibber to look both severe and injured.

"Now, gentlemen," he resumed, rising to his feet and towering above them, "I hate to say it. I'm actually ashamed to say it, but I fear, I very much fear, all of you have been wasting words. Mr. Bunce informs me that of late the copy mortality has been alarmingly high." Pause. "Dangerously high." Another pause. "Disgracefully high." A most portentous pause. "This can't go on. There will have to be changes. You have ceased to look for the fundamental idea upon which every campaign and every piece of copy in that campaign should be based and must be based. Words have been wasted—squandered shamefully. You have done it, this thing."

Like criminals the men of the Nationwide Advertising Agency looked at the outraged Gibber, then accusingly at one another. Who had been wasting all those words? Who had been squandering Mr. Gibber's most precious commodity? Tim Willows felt that he could do with a great deal less of what was going on. His head was full of rebellious thoughts and stale fumes of gin. Surely this man Gibber deserved to be murdered most brutally and finally. There was no justification for his continued presence on earth. The man was speaking again. He had them all at his mercy. Tim groaned spiritually as well as physically.

"Men," resumed Mr. Gibber, "brevity is the breath of conviction, terseness the bone, and briskness the blood."

He interrupted himself at this point to jot down a note about his last utterance. It was good, he thought. Good enough for that book he was writing, that sensational book showing how Christianity had been handicapped and its rapid spread retarded because the Nationwide Advertising Agency had not been in existence during the time of Christ. His note finished, Mr. Gibber fixed the table with a threatening eye.

"Now listen to me," he said slowly and distinctly. "I want more punch in your copy. I want more hooks and"—he pawed the air as if sifting it for the right word—"I want more pith."

Mr. Gibber's last want almost finished Tim Willows. He fixed the man with round, incredulous eyes and asked in his blandest manner: "You want more what, sir?"

Mr. Gibber hesitated, then faced the situation like a man.

"I said pith," he replied with painful distinctness. "I want more pith. I must have more pith."

"You mean the stuff that goes into helmets?" Tim continued innocently.

Mr. Gibber's thoughts were somewhat confused. Tim's unexpected question had thrown him off his stride.

"What do you mean?" demanded Gibber gropingly. "Only heads go into helmets."

"I know," said Tim. "Only heads should go into helmets, but lots of things could go into them, things like pith and all."

"How should I know what goes into helmets?" asked the exasperated Mr. Gibber. "Why should I care what goes into helmets?"

"Oh, of course," replied Tim in a hurt voice. "I didn't know you felt so strongly on the subject. Let's say no more about helmets."

"I don't know why anything was said about them in the first place," said Mr. Gibber, striving to control himself.

"It was in connection with the word 'pith,'" observed Tim helpfully. "We were just wondering if it went into helmets."

"Do I understand you to say that I was wondering whether pith went into helmets or not?" asked Mr. Gibber.

"And heads," added Tim.

"But of course heads go into helmets," said Mr. Gibber. "That's what they're for."

"I hope you don't think I didn't know that," replied Tim, laughing deprecatingly.

"But I made no implication that you didn't know what went into helmets," said Gibber.

"Of course I do," answered Tim brightly. "We all know. It's heads. Not pith, but heads. Did your head ever go into a helmet, Mr. Gibber?"

The good man was immediately mollified. His vanity was stimulated. It pleased him to be regarded as an extensively travelled person.

"Time and time again," he replied. "As a matter of fact I have one at home right now."

"And is there any pith in it?" asked Tim hopefully.

Mr. Gibber's tan took on an apoplectic glow.

"I don't," he replied in a voice choked with emotion, "I don't know what's in that helmet, and frankly, Mr. Willows, I don't give a damn." He took a deep breath and added, "Will you excuse me, Miss Meades?"

"Do you mean you want to leave the room for a minute?" asked that young lady innocently.

"What!" ejaculated Mr. Gibber. "And why should I leave the room?"

"Mr. Gibber," said Miss Meades reprovingly, then lowered her eyes in confusion.

"You don't understand, Miss Meades," Tim explained politely. "Mr. Gibber doesn't want to leave the room. He doesn't need to leave the room. That is, I don't think so. He was——"

"I didn't say he needed to leave the room," Miss Meades interrupted hotly. "If he needed to leave the room I hope he'd have sense enough to go."

"Of course he has," answered Tim soothingly. "He knows when he needs to go."

"Well, I need to go right now," gasped Steve Jones. "Excuse me a minute. Must telephone to a client."

Mr. Gibber was looking at the table with appalled eyes. Was it possible they were making sport of him? Willows was at the bottom of it all. Willows was responsible. How in God's name had the situation got so out of hand? It was like a bad dream.

"It's all right, Mr. Gibber," he heard Tim saying in an encouraging voice. "She knows now that you don't need to leave the room and that you were simply asking her pardon for using a lot of bad language. Funny how things crop up like that—helmets and pith and leaving the room and all. Really, it's quite confusing. Where were we, Mr. Gibber?"

"Where were we?" repeated that gentleman, wearily passing a hand across his eyes. "I hardly know where we are much less where we were."

"It had something to do with brevity," supplied Tim. "It was all very interesting even though most of the others didn't seem to understand it."

"I understood every word he said," stoutly declared Miss Meades. "Even about leaving the room."

"Certainly you did," put in Tim pacifically, "Mr. Gibber isn't so childish. He'd never do a thing like that."

"Like what?" snapped Miss Meades in a stubborn voice.

Tim looked at the girl with admiring eyes.

"Well, I wouldn't like to say," he hedged. "Hadn't you better ask Mr. Gibber?"

"Don't ask me a thing," Mr. Gibber shouted. "I won't listen to another word."

"He doesn't like to talk about it," explained Tim. "You know how it is. Nobody does. No gentleman, that is."

"But I will talk about it," Mr. Gibber cut in. "I'll talk about it as much as I like."

"Is that quite necessary?" inquired Miss Meades, elevating her eyebrows.

"Yes, by God, it is," gritted the president of the Nationwide Advertising Agency. "It's necessary for my sanity. It's nobody's business whether I need to leave the room or not. And if I do need to leave the room—which I don't—I'll get right up and walk out of the room and stay as long as I like."

"What did I tell you?" said Tim triumphantly to the table. "He knows how to act."

Miss Meades turned on him with battle in her usually calm eyes.

"I won't let you put me in a false light," she retorted. "From the way you go on one would get the impression that I deliberately accused Mr. Gibber of not knowing when he needed to leave the room. I meant no such thing. I know he isn't a baby and furthermore——"

"Stop!" cried Mr. Gibber. "For God's sake, stop! I must put my foot down somewhere. This can't go on."

"Certainly not," agreed Tim sympathetically. "Of all things."

Mr. Gibber cleared his throat and once more flattened his hands on the surface of the table. With an earnest eye he searched the faces confronting him. He would win his listeners back.

"Boys," he addressed them this time, playing the part of just a pal. "Boys," he repeated, then his expression underwent a startling change. "Oh, dear," he muttered. "Now I do have to leave the room."

And leave the room he did, very rapidly and without looking back.

Miss Meades made a face and thrust out a small, red tongue at Tim Willows.

"Smarty," she said. "Mr. Know-it-all. He did need to leave the room all the time."

"I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about," Tim told her with tremendous dignity. "I attribute the man's strange conduct to nothing more nor less than the power of suggestion."

"Which means," retorted the girl, "that he needed to leave the room."

"You win," said Tim.

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