A UNIVERSAL PRIVATE SECRETARY
Shillabeer’s Emporium was already a world-famous establishment, and in their several spheres the smallest office-boy and the most gin-sodden female floor-sweeper put on (as the poet singeth) "eternal side," in consequence. But chiefest of the exhibitors of "side" was H. Chadford Eaton, sometime confidential man and business factotum of Nathaniel Shillabeer. When Ione entered the house this young gentleman was still suffering from the result of an accident which had befallen him some weeks before. He had been late at the office (so it appeared), and when going home he had fallen over the bottom part of the wicket-door opening out of the great gate which alone permitted egress upon the street. His nether lip, though now healing, bore the marks of having been badly cut, and his left eye was much bruised and discoloured.
It was he who received Ione, when next morning she arrived professionally equipped with pen, pencil, india-rubber, note-book, and hand-satchel, to begin her first day's work as private secretary to Shillabeer the Magnificent.
In ways which need not be described at present, Mr. Eaton knew of Ione's advent. He carried in his pocket-book a description of her appearance written out in a flowing and clerkly hand, with wispy floreations and, as it were, "grace-notes." But he received his first official intimation of her proximity from the youth who had laid his hand on Ione's arm at the glass swing door of Department F.
"There's another on 'em coming this morning."
"Gee!" said H. Chadford; "there's too many fillies in this shop! How many hands does this one stand?"
"She wouldn't stand mine yesterday, anyway," answered his friend; "proper high-stepper, I tell you! Regular Newmarket action, and no go as you please. So look out!"
H. Chadford Eaton caressed his moustache tenderly and smiled. It was still a trifle painful from the stumble over the wicket. Then he answered, "Porkie's paddock ain't no sweet place for high-steppers. But in a month she’ll feel her oats less."
Now it is a curious thing that both of these young men could write a very orthodox and admirable business letter in the Queen's English (commercial dialect), beginning, "Dear Sirs, I beg to acknowledge the receipt of your favour of the 9th," and ending, "Yours truly, Shillabeer & Co., Ld., pr. H. C. E."
Nevertheless, H. Chadford and the deferential clerk chose to make all their verbal communications of a private nature in a certain cryptic and sham-sporting shorthand, the result of earnest application to the second-rate sporting papers. As we know, Mr. Eaton also studied pugilism; but more of that anon.
Promptly at ten Ione was at the door of the Private Control Department of the World's Wisdom Emporium. There was a proud look in her eyes which proved exceedingly becoming. She knew she would succeed this time. There is no such word as "fail" in the bright lexicon of a young woman engaged as private secretary to Nathaniel Shillabeer the Great—engaged, too, on her own merits, and whose claim possessed no other visible means of support than a certificate from the manager of the Gopher & Arlington chief office.
To say that Mr. H. Chadford Eaton was astonished when he saw Ione, is so tremendously to understate the case that it is hardly worth writing the word down. There is but one word to express his state of mind, and though the verb is an English one the usage is American.
H. Chadford was paralysed.
"By Jinks" (thus he communed with himself), ''s'help me if this ain't the girl I shadowed the other day to Battersea, that wouldn't be spoke to, and couldn't be spoke to! And here she is walking down my throat all sereno. Wonder I never guessed it when that little slippery geezer downstairs was telling me about her!"
Ione had not troubled her head at all about the young man in the tall hat who had followed Jane Allen and herself. She had scarcely glanced at him in the railway carriage, and she was very far indeed from recognising as his the countenance of H. Chadford Eaton altered, and as it were redecorated, by the knuckles of Tom Adair.
As usual Ione went straight to the point, having learned from her father that business was sacrosanct and must not be dawdled over. For Governor March, like a great many of his countrymen, was the sort of man who could contentedly lounge a week without doing any work harder than lighting a cigar. But if at any moment something cropped up which could be called "business," the cigar would be thrown away, and he would set himself to the task with his own soldierly quickness, and that national alacrity which outflanks the world.
"Mr. Shillabeer has engaged me as his secretary," Ione said, looking at the confidential clerk with a glance straight as the flight of a rifle-ball, fearless as that of a child that has known no wrong. Still wondering, H. Chadford bowed and led the way. He opened a little side door out of the larger inquiry office.
"I had better show you," he said, in his official-letter-paper language, "the private way to Mr. Shillabeer's apartments, so that you may not need to come and go through the office."
Ione found herself once more unexpectedly upon the street amid the rushing traffic and the crying news-boys. Her conductor took her round the corner into a narrow lane, and opening the second door on the left with a key, he showed the way up a staircase, clean and bare, but bearing the marks of infrequent use.
"You can come up this stair yourself," he said; "I will procure you a key for the outer door. But you must wait at this inner door till Mr. Shillabeer opens it. If he tells you to meet him at any particular hour, you can depend upon him to be here before you."
Mr. H. Chadford Eaton stood a long moment with his ear cocked to the crack of the door, listening like a tall ungainly bird. Then he screwed his head round to Ione with a gesture, in which admiration and dislike of the person within were expressed in about equal parts.
"He's in!" whispered H. Chadford, nodding confidentially. Then he knocked, inclining as he did so his head still nearer the keyhole of the door with some appearance of anxiety.
The sound of feet trampling heavily across a carpeted floor was heard. The confidential man retreated a step and stood in an attitude of meditative attention with his head bowed. Ione was still smiling at the quick retrograde movement when the door opened, and Mr. Shillabeer came forward to welcome his new private secretary with suave and deferential courtesy. Simultaneously her guide vanished. He had been, but now he was not. Ione found herself standing alone before the great man whose genius had lately founded, whose nod presently controlled the whole vast fabric of the World's Wisdom Emporium.
"I have been expecting you, Miss March, with a considerable amount of impatience," he said, leading the way into an inner office, carefully and not untastefully fitted with the usual furniture of a drawing-room of the period, as that apartment is conceived of in Tottenham Court Road.
In the centre of the room, however, stood a table plainly covered with red leather. It was piled with books and papers, which, though cleared from either end, had gradually accumulated in the centre till they formed a barricade several feet high.
"This is your place," said Mr. Shillabeer to Ione, pointing to the chair at the table. She had, with a quick business alacrity which pleased him, already divested herself of her jacket, gloves, hat, and veil, as rapidly as a man would dispose of his hat and stick.
It was only after watching Ione March for a long time that one found out how swift were all her motions, combining as they did the free grace of a wild animal with the trained deftness and simplicity of the artist's hand sketching in a picture. If the young girl only walked across a room, the eye followed her movements with a vivid pleasure. But it was not till one had accompanied her along a crowded street, that the deft ease and effortless rapidity of her motions became apparent.
The entire morning's mail had been left just as its contents had been roughly opened by the proprietor's forefinger and thrown down in a heap. And now Mr. Shillabeer's small keen-sighted eyes followed Ione as she took her place before the pile of papers, and began deftly to put them into order with well-accustomed hand. Without appearing to do so, he watched her as she dropped the torn envelopes into the waste-paper basket, folded the receipts, smoothed out the letters to be answered, and presently passed her employer a trim sheaf of docketed papers for his attention, all within five minutes of her entry. She had often amused and delighted her father with similar business-like swiftness and nicety of method. He used to tell her that he never had had so good a clerk, and that in war time it would have added years to his life to have had her at the head of one of the distributing departments.
Upon her first entrance Mr. Shillabeer had flung himself down into a low chair, over the arm of which he threw a casual leg as he watched his new secretary. He had the credit of being a man of mixed motives, of a dubious but powerful strain of blood, of honest and dishonest intentions, all welded into a strong confederation by his deep and over-bearing selfishness. As he himself was accustomed to say, there was but one member of his firm, and in the World's Wisdom Emporium, Ld., he was Nathaniel Shillabeer, Unlimited.
When Ione passed about the table with her swift young Dian grace, to give him the papers of the day which she had arranged, her eye rested with a cool scrutiny upon her employer's attitude. There was no overt disapproval in the look, nevertheless Nathaniel Shillabeer took the leg down. He could not have told in the least why he did so, but the fact made an impression upon him. It was Ione's first victory in the house of Shillabeer. Presently he rose and walked to the window, turning up the end of an intensely black and glossy beard and biting at it abstractedly. Meanwhile, Ione had again seated herself expectantly, and sat glancing up at her employer, with her pencil ready upon the paper. Shillabeer stood a while glooming and gazing at his secretary, holding the docketed sheaf of papers in his hand.
Suddenly he spoke with the sullen and truculent note in his voice which was natural to him when thinking deeply.
"You are not an English girl?" he said.
"I am an American," replied Ione, who though she was not given to waving the stars-and-stripes, knew no reason why she should deny her father's nation and her own.
"But you have no American accent," objected Mr. Shillabeer.
"It is not necessary any more than to have an English one. But I was educated chiefly in Paris," Ione replied, smothering a strong inclination to tell the man that the thickened consonants and mispronounced vowels of his own speech were worse a thousand-fold than the purest Down-Eastern drawl, in which you can hear the Atlantic zephyrs whistle through the noses of Cape Cod.
"Is your father alive?" came the next question.
"Yes," said Ione gravely; "he is at present in America."
She wondered if it were customary for Englishmen employers to catechise all their dependants as stringently.
"You have then, I take it, no relatives or friends on this side of the Atlantic?" continued her interlocutor.
"Not one," said Ione, looking down with a trace of sadness. As she spoke she thought of one to whom, if the Fates had not been cross-grained, she might have given the latter title.
The great man paused a little. Then he went to the fireplace and kicked a piece of coal with his toe in an absent-minded manner. Ione longed to tell him that he was burning the leather of his boot, but, uncertain of his mood, she refrained. Suddenly he turned sharply towards her, and with an awkward gesture he said, "I hope. Miss March, that ere long you will find friends on this side of the Atlantic also."
He paused near her chair, uncertainly fingering a pen between his thick powerful fingers. The door into the outer office opened cautiously, and the head of Mr. H. Chadford Eaton was quietly protruded within. He smiled when he saw his master's position and attitude. Something seemed to jar on Shillabeer's nerves. He turned round sharply and caught sight of his confidential clerk.
The smile dropped like a curtain. "I thought — " began Mr. Eaton, stammeringly.
"Get out!" cried Shillabeer fiercely, with an astonishing volume of sound. And, as if blown away like a leaf by the mere blast of magisterial displeasure, the head vanished. Shillabeer marched to the door into Department E and turned the key. Then he seated himself nearer Ione, and a little behind, so that he could overlook the girl as she worked, and with a sheaf of letters in his hand he began to dictate. There was no mistake about it. Nathaniel Shillabeer was a great business man. He decided the most important questions with a single-mindedness and forcible precision which, accustomed as she was to her father's dependence upon the judgments of others, won Ione's admiration. He gave his decisions or issued his orders in the fewest words. He was at this time arranging for the establishment of a branch of his World's Wisdom Emporium in the City of New York, and many of the dictated letters had reference to that project. But he carried his grasp of affairs easily over the sea, and dictated as rapidly and confidentially concerning involved questions of site and title on Broadway, as he did of the matters under his own eye.
Mr. Nathaniel Shillabeer was what is called in America a magnetic man. Vitality beats high in dark-skinned, crisp-haired men of his type. His arteries ran sluices of red blood. In the Southern States the gloss and "kink" of his hair might have cast quite unfounded suspicion on the purity of his blood. But he was definitely a personality, and his very coming into a room was apt to affect nervous people. Fifty years ago he would have been a medium. Five hundred earlier he would have ended on a throne, as the sainted leader of a crusade, or on the flaming pyre of the wizard.
As it was, he had created and now controlled a vast business by the sheer force of his will and the massive strength of his personality.
People were mostly either strongly attracted or strongly repelled by him. On one occasion, when Nathaniel Shillabeer entered a drawing-room in which a nervous pianist was performing a difficult piece, without looking round the lady threw up her hands and cried, --
"I can play no more — truly I cannot. Some one has come in who drives the music from my mind. I am very sorry, but to-day my fingers will not obey me any more!"
Nor could the hostess persuade the great artiste either to try again or to accept her promised fee.
"It is no use," she said; "another time when you are alone or with other people; but now" (she cast her hands abroad, palms upward) "he has taken it all away from me."
There could be no doubt that to many people Nathaniel Shillabeer was "bad medicine," and that through no fault of his own. But with as many others, and even with men and women of a social position far above his own, he was very successful. Shillabeer was ready, for instance, to lose his money without grumbling so long as this could be done in the society of men and women of whom he approved. He had a limitless store of curious experiences. He told anecdotes of a singularly chequered career with engaging frankness and the quaintest unconvention. So in certain very influential spheres he became the latest attraction, and, had he so desired, might have called himself a gentleman of fashion as well as a man of wealth.
Now, however, in office hours he was more gentle and approachable by Ione, and more careful both of his language and actions in her presence than any one had ever seen him. He occupied himself much in watching the girl and studying her character. He found out easily enough all that could be known about her by means of the deferential clerk and Mr. H. Chadford Eaton. And one day he very much astounded that young man, in whose eyes he had surprised something more than admiration for Ione, with the words, "Remember, sir, you let that girl entirely alone!" Which, being delivered with a certain well-known contraction of the brows, and a low hissing through shut teeth, for some reason or other terrified the reasonable soul out of H. Chadford.
But he made this up to his self-respect (in the absence of his master) by greeting the exits and entrances of Ione with a low whistle meant to reach the ear of the deferential youth, his companion. For which whistle Tom Adair, had he been within hearing, would certainly have beaten his recovered face into a fresher and more complete pulp.
In the days which succeeded, nothing occurred to cause Ione to regret her occupation. Mr. Shillabeer was studiously kind; indeed, at times almost over-considerate. And if Mr. H. Chadford grinned behind her back — well, Ione was much too busy to notice him. With quick natural intuition her master had so well read the character of the girl, as to know that he could in no wise acquire a stronger hold over her mind than by allowing her to drink deep of work and responsibility.
Ione was often retained after all the other clerks had gone, in order that she might extend drafts or manifold confidential instructions for Mr. Shillabeer's managers in the provinces, or for his agents on the other side.
All the while Nathaniel Shillabeer sat near her, and took equal share and share in the girl's work. But Ione remained quite unaffected by the strong vitality of her employer. Few women in a dependent position could have been brought into hourly direct contact with Mr. Nathaniel Shillabeer without being moved either to love or to hatred.
But there was about Ione a clear-eyed straightforwardness, a practicality in which was no trace of sex, a steadiness of purpose added to her national confidence that in any emergency a girl could steer her own course — all which characteristics combined to counteract the effect of Mr. Nathaniel Shillabeer's reputed magnetism.
First serialised in 'Woman at Home' as 'The Woman of Fortune' in 1899.