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- Mr. Bingle - 10/49 -

discussing him--Thomas Bingle! And they were discussing him with unquestionable seriousness. His heart flopped down to his heels and his poor ears burned with a fierceness that caused him to fear that they were on the point of bursting into flames. The first vice- president was pointing him out to the president, there could be no doubt about that; and the pompous president was bobbing his head in a most extraordinary manner, there could be no doubt about that either. The third man of the trio was the chief watchman, and he was looking at Mr. Bingle as a cat looks at a captured mouse. It was all over! They were about to arrest him for embezzlement or murder or something equally as heinous. Mr. Bingle turned colder than he had been at any time during his stay in the ice-bound city of Syracuse.

Then the trio abruptly turned away and left him sitting there, frozen to the marrow. He tried to swallow, but his throat was paralysed.

"Gee, that looks bad, Bingle," whispered Jenkins, pityingly. "That was the old man. What--what the dickens have you been up to?"

Mr. Bingle's stiff lips moved but no sound came forth. He was to be discharged! In fifteen years he had been late at his desk but once, and he was to be discharged! What would Mary say? What would become of Mary? What would become of Melissa, now that they couldn't afford to keep a servant?

"You been here longer than any one, too," went on Jenkins. "How long has it been, Bingle?"

"Fifteen years," gulped Mr. Bingle, in a strange, unnatural voice.

"That's longer than the old man himself," said Jenkins. "He's been president less'n twelve years. Say, Bingle, I'm all broke up over it. I--I hope it ain't as bad as we think. Maybe--oh, I say, it's your EARS! That's what it is. Mr. Force was showing him your ears. And say, take it from me, Bingle, they're worth going a long way to see, too. Good Lord, what a relief!" Mr. Bingle actually took hope. Could it be possible? Were frozen ears so rare a sight that the president of a great bank--But even as he grasped at the straw he became convinced that it was very likely to prove his salvation, for, to his amazement and confusion, the cashier and the fourth vice-president strolled up to the caging and regarded him with the gravest interest. He bent his head to the task before him, hoping against hope that it WAS his ears and not his tardiness. And, when he looked up again many minutes afterward, other officials of the bank were looking at him from various points of vantage, and all of them were staring with the most amazing intentness, quite as if they had never seen anything so strange as the man who had sat unnoticed in this very spot for fifteen years and more. Messengers took a peep at him as they circled from window to window; patrons of the bank sauntered past and squinted vaguely in his direction.

Vice-president Force came back a second time and actually pointed him out to an utter stranger, at the same time waving his hand at Mr. Bingle in a most friendly and engaging manner!

The poor bookkeeper reeled on his stool. He laid his pen down, removed the green shade from over his eyes, placed his blotters neatly in the rack, and turning to Jenkins, said:

"I can't stand it, Jenkins. I've--I've just got to know the worst. I'm going to the office."

"With--without being sent for?" gasped Jenkins.

"There's no use putting it off. I--"

A dapper little page appeared at Mr. Bingle's elbow, interrupting him with the curt remark that Mr. Force wanted to see him when it was convenient.

"Convenient?" murmured Mr. Bingle, his eyes bulging.

"Well, great--" began Jenkins.

"That's what he said: convenient," said the page loftily. "Gee, where did you get them ears?"

Mr. Bingle got down from his stool slowly, painfully.

"I guess I'll go now," he said. "It's just as convenient for me to get out now as--"

"I can't understand that 'convenient' business," broke in Jenkins, wrinkling his brow. "Well, good luck, Bingle. I'm sorry."

Sixty wistful, sympathetic eyes followed Mr. Bingle as he made his way out to the passage. The word had gone 'round that "old Bingy" was to get the sack, and every one was saying to himself that if they discharged a man like Bingle for being late it wouldn't be safe for any one to transgress for even the tiniest fraction of an instant.

Half-way down the narrow aisle leading to the offices, Mr. Bingle stopped to wipe his brow and to pull himself together for the coming ordeal. A high-and-mighty young man who had been elevated from a clerkship to the post of third assistant foreign teller, and who no longer deemed it proper to associate with his erstwhile companions in the "galleys," emerged from his cage and, coming abruptly upon the shivering bookkeeper, blinked uncertainly for a moment and then said in what was unmistakably a polite and even respectful tone:

"Good morning, Mr. Bingle. Pleasant day, sir, isn't it?"

If Mr. Bingle had been in a condition to notice such things as miracles, he might have been struck by this one, but he merely said it WAS a pleasant day and resumed his way, utterly oblivious to the fact that a human being had been completely transformed before his very eyes. A few steps farther on he encountered an even mightier force than the third assistant foreign teller: the bank detective.

"Good morning, Mr. Bingle. Nice day, sir," said the bank detective, somewhat eagerly, and stood aside to let the lowly bookkeeper pass without being jostled--as was the custom.

"Morning," said Mr. Bingle, still unimpressed. It seemed to him that every one was evincing a singular interest in the fact that he was about to be discharged on a pleasant day.

Mr. Force was seated at his desk when Bingle entered the room and found himself in the presence of the man who was certain to become president when "the old man" died--an event that would have to occur if the first vice-president's dream of elevation ever came true, for there wasn't the remotest likelihood that he would have the sense of decency to resign, no matter how old or how senile he became in the course of time.

Now, Mr. Force took himself very seriously. Having married an exceedingly wealthy woman after a career in which liveliness had meant more to him than livelihood, he assumed that if he treated the world at large with extreme aloofness it would soon forget--and overlook-- the fact that he had never amounted to a row of pins in the estimation of those who knew him as a harvester in Broadway. Shortly before his marriage--at forty-three--he abandoned an extensive crop of wild oats in the very heart of New York City--announcing that he intended to retire from active business and go to work.

Going to work meant stepping into a bank as its third vice-president the week after his return from a honeymoon spent with a bride who held, in her own right, something over one-half of the entire capital stock of the institution. Her wedding present to him was the third vice-presidency and the everlasting enmity of every director and official in the bank. He accepted both in the spirit in which they were given. To the surprise of his enemies and the scorn of his friends, he promptly settled down and made himself so valuable to the bank that even his wife was vindicated. He managed in one way or another to increase her holdings and soon was in a position to dictate to those officially above him. He dictated so effectually in the case of the first and second vice-president that they preferred to resign rather than to continue the struggle to keep him in his place. Before he had been in the bank a year, he was its first vice-president.

It was generally conceded that the president himself would have been in jeopardy but for the fact that he was the father of Mrs. Force and therefore exempt. In order to clarify the situation, it is necessary to state that the bride inherited her extensive holdings from a former husband, who, it appears, died of old age when she was but twenty-six. It would also appear that her father owed his position as president to the influence of Mr. Force's predecessor, or rather to the influence that his daughter exercised over an old gentleman in his dotage. Be that as it may, the present chief executive of the bank was immune for life. To quote the directorate, he couldn't be FORCED out of office. His son-in-law would be obliged to wait. He could afford to wait. He was forty-four.

It has been said that Mr. Sydney Force was seated at his desk when Thomas Bingle sidled into the luxurious office. It must now be added that he did not retain his seat for more than a second after Mr. Bingle's entrance. In fact, he fairly leaped to his feet, frightening his visitor into a sudden, spasmodic movement of the hand in search of the door-knob and a backward shuffle of both feet at once. The little bookkeeper's alarm was groundless. Mr. Force came forward, beaming, his hand extended.

"How are you, Mr. Bingle? Come right in. Well, well, this is splendid. Too good to be true, 'pon my word it is." He was wringing the little man's hand violently. "I confess that I am surprised that you considered it worth while to come down to the bank at all, sir."

Mr. Bingle was batting his eyes furiously. He was also having a great deal of difficulty with his knees.

"I--I couldn't help it, Mr. Force," he stammered. "I really couldn't. It is the first time in all the years of my connection with--"

"I beg your pardon, Mr. Bingle," interrupted Mr. Force, with a somewhat sweeping wave of the hand that took in practically all of the office and yet no spot in particular; "this is Mr. Sigsbee." He then stood aside and permitted Mr. Bingle to discover Mr. Sigsbee, who came hastily out of the whirling background.

"Glad to meet you, sir," said Mr. Sigsbee, giving Mr. Bingle's hand a tremendous squeeze. "I should have known you, Mr. Bingle, anywhere on earth from the description given to me."

Description! Poor Bingle's blood congealed. Description? That dreadful word could have but one application. It was never used except in connection with people who were wanted for crime. The man was a detective!

"Sit down, Mr. Bingle," said Force, with shocking amiability. "Will you smoke?"

Mr. Bingle - 10/49

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