Clear as a Bell – Calumet “K”, Chapter 6
When Bannon came on the job on Friday morning at seven o’clock, a group of heavy-eyed men were falling into line at the timekeeper’s window. Max was in the office, passing out the checks. His sister was continuing her work of the night before, going over what books and papers were to be found in the desk. Bannon hung up his overcoat and looked through the doorway at the square mass of the elevator that stood out against the sky like some gigantic, unroofed barn. The walls rose nearly eighty feet from the ground—though the length and breadth of the structure made them appear lower—so close to the tops of the posts that were to support the cupola frame that Bannon’s eyes spoke of satisfaction. He meant to hide those posts behind the rising walls of cribbing before the day should be gone. He glanced about at the piles of two-inch plank that hid the annex foundation work. There it lay, two hundred thousand feet of it—not very much, to be sure, but enough to keep the men busy for the present, and enough, too, to give a start to the annex bins and walls.
Peterson was approaching from the tool house, and Bannon called.
“How many laborers have you got, Pete?”
“Hardly any. Max, there, can tell.”
Max, who had just passed out his last check, now joined them at the doorstep.
“There’s just sixty-two that came for checks,” he said, “not counting the carpenters.”
“About what I expected,” Bannon replied. “This night business lays them out.” He put his head in at the door. “You’d better give checks to any new men that we send to the window, Miss Vogel; but keep the names of the old men, and if they show up in the morning, take them back on the job. Now, boys”—to Peterson and Max—”pick up the men you see hanging around and send them over. I’ll be at the office for a while. We’ll push the cribbing on the main house and start right in on the annex bins. There ain’t much time to throw around if we’re going to eat our Christmas dinner.”
The two went at once. The hoisting engines were impatiently blowing off steam. New men were appearing every moment, delaying only to answer a few brisk questions and to give their names to Miss Vogel, and then hurrying away to the tool house, each with his brass check fastened to his coat. When Bannon was at last ready to enter the office, he paused again to look over the ground. The engines were now puffing steadily, and the rapping of many hammers came through the crisp air. Gangs of laborers were swarming over the lumber piles, pitching down the planks, and other gangs were carrying them away and piling them on “dollies,” to be pushed along the plank runways to the hoist. There was a black fringe of heads between the posts on the top of the elevator, where the carpenters were spiking down the last planks of the walls and bins.
Miss Vogel was at work on the ledger when Bannon entered the office. He pushed his hat back on his head and came up beside her.
“How’s it coming out?” he asked. “Do we know how much we’re good for?”
She looked up, smiling.
“I think so. I’m nearly through. It’s a little mixed in some places, but I think everything has been entered.”
“Can you drop it long enough to take a letter or so?”
“Oh, yes.” She reached for her notebook, saying, with a nod toward the table: “The mail is here.”
Bannon went rapidly through the heap of letters and bills.
“There’s nothing much,” he said. “You needn’t wait for me to open it after this. You’ll want to read everything to keep posted. These bills for cribbing go to your brother, you know.” There was one chair within the enclosure; he brought it forward and sat down, tipping back against the railing. “Well, I guess we may as well go ahead and tell the firm that we’re still moving around and drawing our salaries. To MacBride & Company, Minneapolis, Gentlemen: Cribbing is now going up on elevator and annex. A little over two feet remains to be done on the elevator beneath the distributing floor. The timber is ready for framing the cupola. Two hundred thousand feet of the Ledyard cribbing reached here by steamer last night, and the balance will be down in a few days. Very truly yours, MacBride & Company. That will do for them. Now, we’ll write to Mr. Brown—no, you needn’t bother, though; I’ll do that one myself. You might run off the other and I’ll sign it.” He got up and moved his chair to the table. “I don’t generally seem able to say just what I want to Brown unless I write it out.” His letter ran:—
Dear Mr. Brown: We’ve finally got things going. Had to stir them up a little at Ledyard. Can you tell me who it is that’s got hold of our coat tails on this job? There’s somebody trying to hold us back, all right. Had a little fuss with a red-headed walking delegate last night, but fixed him. That hat hasn’t come yet. Shall I call up the express company and see what’s the matter? 7-1/4 is my size.
He had folded the letter and addressed the envelope, when he paused and looked around. The typewritten letter to MacBride & Company lay at his elbow. He signed it before he spoke.
“Miss Vogel, have you come across any letters or papers about an agreement with the C. & S. C.?”
“No,” she replied, “there is nothing here about the railroad.”
Bannon drummed on the table; then he went to the door and called to a laborer who was leaving the tool house:—
“Find Mr. Peterson and ask him if he will please come to the office for a moment.”
He came slowly back and sat on the corner of the table, watching Miss Vogel as her pencil moved rapidly up column after column.
“Had quite a time up there in Michigan,” he said. “Those G. & M. people were after us in earnest. If they’d had their way, we’d never have got the cribbing.”
She looked up.
“You see, they had told Sloan—he’s the man that owns the lumber company and the city of Ledyard and pretty much all of the Lower Peninsula—that they hadn’t any cars; and he’d just swallowed it down and folded up his napkin. I hadn’t got to Ledyard before I saw a string of empties on a siding that weren’t doing a thing but waiting for our cribbing, so I caught a train to Blake City and gave the Division Superintendent some points on running railroads. He was a nice, friendly man”—Bannon clasped his hands about one knee and smiled reminiscently—”I had him pretty busy there for a while thinking up lies. He was wondering how he could get ready for the next caller, when I came at him and made him wire the General Manager of the line. The operator was sitting right outside the door, and when the answer came I just took it in—it gave the whole snap away, clear as you want.”
Miss Vogel turned on her stool.
“You took his message?”
“I should say I did. It takes a pretty lively man to crowd me off the end of a wire. He told the superintendent not to give us cars. That was all I wanted to know. So I told him how sorry I was that I couldn’t stay to lunch, caught the next train back to Ledyard, and built a fire under Sloan.”
Miss Vogel was looking out of the window.
“He said he could not give us cars?” she repeated.
“But we didn’t need them,” he said. “I got a barge to come over from Milwaukee, and we loaded her up and started her down.”
“I don’t understand, Mr. Bannon. Ledyard isn’t on the lake—and you couldn’t get cars.”
“That wasn’t very hard.” He paused, for a step sounded outside the door and in a moment Peterson had come in.
“I guess you wanted to talk to me, didn’t you, Charlie?”
“Yes, I’m writing to the office. It’s about this C. & S. C. business. You said you’d had trouble with them before.”
“Oh, no,” said Peterson, sitting on the railing and removing his hat, with a side glance at Miss Vogel, “not to speak of. There wasn’t nothing so bad as last night.”
“What was it?”
“Why, just a little talk when we opened the fence first time. That section boss was around, but I told him how things was, and he didn’t seem to have no kick coming as long as we was careful.”
Bannon had taken up his letter to Brown, and was slowly unfolding it and looking it over. When Peterson got to his feet, he laid it on the table.
“Anything else, Charlie? I’m just getting things to going on the annex. We’re going to make her jump, I tell you. I ain’t allowing any loafing there.”
“No,” Bannon replied, “I guess not.” He followed the foreman out of doors. “Do you remember having any letters, Pete, about our agreement with the C. & S. C. to build over the tracks—from the office or anybody?”
Peterson brought his brows together and tried to remember. After a moment he slowly shook his head.
“Nothing, eh?” said Bannon.
“Not that I can think of. Something may have come in while Max was here in the office——”
“I wish you’d ask him.”
“All right. He’ll be around my way before long, taking the time.”
“And say,” Bannon added, with one foot on the doorstep, “you haven’t seen anything more of that man Briggs, have you?”
Peterson shook his head.
“If you see him hanging around, you may as well throw him right off the job.”
“I guess he won’t show up very fast. Max did him up good last night, when he was blowing off about bringing the delegate around.”
Bannon had drawn the door to after him when he came out. He was turning back, with a hand on the knob, when Peterson, who was lingering, said in a low voice, getting out the words awkwardly:—
“Say, Charlie, she’s all right, ain’t she.”
Bannon did not reply, and Peterson jerked his thumb toward the office.
“Max’s sister, there. I never saw any red hair before that was up to the mark. Ain’t she a little uppish, though, don’t you think?”
“I guess not.”
“Red-haired girls generally is. They’ve got tempers, too, most of them. It’s funny about her looks. She don’t look any more like Max than anything.” He grinned again. “Lord, Max is a peach, though, ain’t he.”
Bannon nodded and reëntered the office. He sat down and added a postscript to his letter:
The C. & S. C. people are trying to make it warm for us about working across their tracks. Can’t we have an understanding with them before we get ready to put up the belt gallery? If we don’t, we’ll have to build a suspension bridge.
He sealed the envelope and tossed it to one side.
“Miss Vogel,” he said, pushing his chair back, “didn’t you ask me something just now?”
“It was about getting the cribbing across the lake,” she replied. “I don’t see how you did it.”
Her interest in the work pleased Bannon.
“It ain’t a bad story. You see the farmers up in that country hate the railroads. It’s the tariff rebate, you know. They have to pay more to ship their stuff to market than some places a thousand miles farther off. And I guess the service is pretty bad all around. I was figuring on something like that as soon as I had a look at things. So we got up a poster and had it printed, telling what they all think of the G. & M.”—he paused, and his eyes twinkled—”I wouldn’t mind handing one to that Superintendent just for the fun of seeing him when he read it. It told the farmers to come around to Sloan’s lumber yard with their wagons.”
“And you carried it across in the wagons?”
“I guess we did.”
“Isn’t it a good ways?”
“Eighteen to thirty miles, according to who you ask. As soon as things got to going we went after the General Manager and gave him a bad half hour; so I shouldn’t be surprised to see the rest of the bill coming in by rail any time now.”
Bannon got up and slowly buttoned his coat. He was looking about the office, at the mud-tracked floor and the coated windows, and at the hanging shreds of spider web in the corners and between the rafters overhead.
“It ain’t a very cheerful house to live in all day, is it?” he said. “I don’t know but what we’d better clean house a little. There’s not much danger of putting a shine on things that’ll hurt your eyes. We ought to be able to get hold of some one that could come in once in a while and stir up the dust. Do you know of any one?”
“There is a woman that comes to our boarding-house. I think they know about her at the hotel.”
He went to the telephone and called up the hotel.
“She’ll be here this afternoon,” he said as he hung up the receiver. “Will she bring her own scrubbing things, or are we supposed to have them for her? This is some out of my line.”
Miss Vogel was smiling.
“She’ll have her own things, I guess. When she comes, would you like me to start her to work?”
“If you’d just as soon. And tell her to make a good job of it. I’ve got to go out now, but I’ll be around off and on during the day.”
When the noon whistle blew Bannon and Max were standing near the annex. Already the bins and walls had been raised more than a foot above the foundation, which gave it the appearance of a great checker-board.
“Looks like business, doesn’t it,” said Max. He was a little excited, for now there was to be no more delaying until the elevator should stand completed from the working floor to the top, one hundred and sixty feet above the ground; until engines, conveyors, and scales should be working smoothly and every bin filled with grain. Indeed, nearly everybody on the job had by this time caught the spirit of energy that Bannon had infused into the work.
“I’ll be glad when it gets up far enough to look like something, so we can feel that things are really getting on.”
“They’re getting on all right,” Bannon replied.
“How soon will we be working on the cupola?”
“To-morrow!” Max stopped (they had started toward the office) and looked at Bannon in amazement. “Why, we can’t do it, can we?”
“Why not?” Bannon pointed toward a cleared space behind the pile of cribbing, where the carpenters had been at work on the heavy timbers. “They’re all ready for the framing.”
Max made no reply, but he looked up as they passed the elevator and measured with his eyes the space remaining between the cribbing and the tops of the posts. He had yet to become accustomed to Bannon’s methods; but he had seen enough of him to believe that it would be done if Bannon said so.
They were halfway to the office when Max said, with a touch of embarrassment:—
“How’s Hilda going to take hold, Mr. Bannon?”
Max’s eyes sparkled.
“She can do anything you give her. Her head’s as clear as a bell.”
For the moment Bannon made no reply, but as they paused outside the office door he said:
“We’d better make a point of dropping in at the office now and then during the day. Any time you know I’m out on the job and you’re up this way, just look in.”
“And nights when we’re working overtime, there won’t be any trouble about your getting off long enough to see your sister home. She won’t need to do any night work.”
They entered the office. Miss Vogel was standing by the railing gate, buttoning her jacket and waiting for Max. Behind her, bending over the blue prints on the table, stood Peterson, apparently too absorbed to hear the two men come in. Bannon gave him a curious glance, for no blue prints were needed in working on the annex, which was simply a matter of building bins up from the foundation. When Max and his sister had gone the foreman looked around, and said, with a show of surprise:—
“Oh, hello, Charlie. Going up to the house?”
Peterson’s manner was not wholly natural. As they walked across the flats his conversation was a little forced, and he laughed occasionally at certain occurrences in the morning’s work that were not particularly amusing.
Bannon did not get back to the office until a half hour after work had commenced for the afternoon. He carried a large bundle under one arm and in his hand a wooden box with a slot cut in the cover. He found the scrub-woman hard at work on the office floor. The chair and the unused stool were on the table. He looked about with satisfaction.
“It begins to look better already,” he said to Miss Vogel. “You know we’re not going to be able to keep it all clean; there’ll be too many coming in. But there’s going to be a law passed about tracking mud inside the railing.” He opened his bundle and unrolled a door mat, which he laid in front of the gate.
Miss Vogel was smiling, but Bannon’s face was serious. He cut a square piece from the wrapping paper, and sitting on the table, printed the placard: “Wipe your feet! Or put five cents in the box.” Then he nailed both box and placard to the railing, and stood back to look at his work.
“That will do it,” he said.
She nodded. “There’s no danger that they won’t see it.”
“We had a box down on the New Orleans job,” said Bannon, “only that was for swearing. Every time anybody swore he put in a nickel, and then when Saturday came around we’d have ten or fifteen dollars to spend.”
“It didn’t stop the swearing, then?”
“Oh, yes. Everybody was broke a day or so after pay day, and for a few days every week it was the best crowd you ever saw. But we won’t spend this money that way. I guess we’ll let you decide what to do with it.”
Hour by hour the piles of cribbing dwindled, and on the elevator the distance from bin walls to post-tops grew shorter. Before five o’clock the last planks were spiked home on the walls and bins in the northwest corner. A few hours’ work in the morning would bring the rest of the house to the same level, and then work could commence on the distributing floor and on the frame of the cupola. Before the middle of the afternoon he had started two teams of horses dragging the cupola timbers, which had been cut ready for framing, to the foot of the hoist. By ten o’clock in the morning, Bannon figured, the engine would be lifting timbers instead of bundles of cribbing.
There was a chill wind, up there on the top of the elevator, coming across the flats out of the glowing sunset. But Bannon let his coat flap open, as he gave a hand now and then to help the men. He liked to feel the wind tugging at sleeves and cap, and he leaned against it, bare-throated and bare-handed—bare-headed, too, he would have been had not a carpenter, rods away on the cribbing, put out a hand to catch his cap as it tried to whirl past on a gust. The river wound away toward the lake, touched with the color of the sky, to lose itself half a mile away among the straggling rows of factories and rolling mills. From the splendid crimson of the western sky to the broken horizon line of South Chicago, whose buildings hid Lake Michigan, the air was crisp and clear; but on the north, over the dim shops and blocks of houses that grew closer together as the eye went on, until spires and towers and gray walls were massed in confusion, hung a veil of smoke, like a black cloud, spreading away farther than eye could see. This was Chicago.
Bannon climbed to the ground and took a last look about the work before going to the office. The annex was growing slowly but surely; and Peterson, coatless and hatless as usual, with sleeves rolled up, was at work with the men, swinging a hammer here, impatiently shouldering a bundle of planks there. And Bannon saw more clearly what he had known before, that Peterson was a good man when kept within his limitations. Certainly the annex could not have been better started.
When Bannon entered the office, Miss Vogel handed him a sheet of paper. He came in through the gate and stood at the desk beside her to have the light of the lamp. It was a balance sheet, giving the results of her examination of the books.
“All right, eh?” he said. A glance had been enough to show him that hereafter there would be no confusion in the books; the cashier of a metropolitan bank could not have issued a more businesslike statement. He tossed it on the desk, saying, “You might file it.”
Then he took time to look about the office. It was as clean as blackened, splintered planks could be made; even the ceiling had been attacked and every trace of cobweb removed.
“Well,” he said, “this is business. And we’ll keep it this way, too.”
She had faced about on the stool and was looking at him with a twinkle in her eye.
“Yes,” she said, evidently trying not to laugh; “we’ll try to.”
He was not looking at her as she spoke, but when, a moment later, the laugh broke away from her, he turned. She was looking at his feet. He glanced down and saw a row of black footprints leading from the door to where he stood, one of them squarely in the centre of the new mat. He gazed ruefully, then he reached into his pocket and drew out a quarter, dropping it in the box.
“Well——” he said, wiping his feet; but the whistle just then gave a long blast, and he did not finish the sentence.
After supper Bannon and Peterson sat in the room they occupied together. In the walk home and during supper there had been the same sullen manner about the younger man that Bannon had observed at noon. Half a day was a long time for Peterson to keep to himself something that bothered him, and before the close of dinner he had begun working the talk around. Now, after a long silence, that Bannon filled with sharpening pencils, he said:
“Some people think a lot of themselves, don’t they, Charlie?”
Bannon looked up from his pencils; he was sitting on the edge of the bed.
“She seems to think she’s better’n Max and you and me, and everybody. I thought she looked pretty civil, and I didn’t say a word she need to have got stuck-up about.”
Bannon asked no questions. After waiting to give him an opportunity, Peterson went on:—
“There’s going to be a picnic Sunday of the Iron Workers up at Sharpshooters’ Park. I know a fellow that has tickets. It’d be just as quiet as anywhere—and speeches, you know. I don’t see that she’s any better than a lot of the girls that’ll be there.”
“Do you mean to say you asked her to go?” Bannon asked.
“Yes, and she——”
Bannon had turned away to strop his razor on his hand, and Peterson, after one or two attempts to begin the story, let the subject drop.
Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 | Chapter 16 | Chapter 17
LIVE TALK: Calumet “K”: Ayn Rand’s Favorite Novel by Shoshana Milgram Ph.D.
“This talk offers an introduction to the background, spirit and craft of the novel Ayn Rand called her favorite. Calumet ‘K,’ she wrote, features a ‘portrait of an efficacious man’; it reflects the sense of life of ‘a time when people were capable of admiring productive achievement.’ Dr. Milgram, associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, specializes in narrative fiction and film. She has lectured on Ayn Rand at Objectivist and academic conferences, and has published on Ayn Rand, Hugo and Dostoevsky. She is editing the draft of her book-length study of Ayn Rand’s life (to 1957).
Samuel Merwin and Henry Kitchell Webster
Latest posts by Samuel Merwin and Henry Kitchell Webster (see all)
- Christmas Dinner – Calumet “K”, Chapter 17 - May 27, 2017
- The Last Hundred Yards – Calumet “K”, Chapter 16 - May 27, 2017
- The Company and The Clique – Calumet “K”, Chapter 15 - May 27, 2017