The Cage Man

by


All day long they kept Horace Nimms in a steel-barred cage. For twenty-one years he had perched on a tall stool in that cage, while various persons at various times poked things at him through a hole about big enough to admit an adult guinea pig.

Every evening round five-thirty they let Horace out and permitted him to go over to his half of a double-barreled house in Flatbush to sleep. At eight-thirty the next morning he returned to his cage, hung his two-dollar-and-eighty-nine-cent approximately Panama hat on a peg and changed his blue-serge-suit coat for a still more shiny alpaca. Then he sharpened two pencils to needle-point sharpness, tested his pen by writing "H. Nimms, Esq.," in a small precise hand, gave his adding machine a few preparatory pokes and was ready for the day's work.

Horace was proud, in his mild way, of being shut up in the cage with all that money. It carried the suggestion that he was a dangerous man of a possibly predatory nature. He wasn't. A more patient and docile five feet and two inches of cashier was not to be found between Spuyten Duyvil and Tottenville, Staten Island. Cashiers are mostly crabbed. It sours them somehow to hand out all that money and retain so little for their own personal use. But Horace was not of this ilk.

The timidest stenographer did not hesitate to take the pettiest petty-cash slip to his little window and twitter, according to custom: "Forty cents for carbon paper, and let me have it in large bills, please, Uncle Horace."

He would peer at the slip, pretend it was for forty dollars, smile a friendly smile that made little ripples round his eyes and--according to custom--reply: "Here you be. Now don't be buying yourself a flivver with it."

When the office force in a large corporation calls the office cashier "uncle" it is a pretty good indication of the sort of man he is.

For the rest, Horace Nimms was slightly bald, wore convict eye-glasses--the sort you shackle to your head with a chain--kept his cuffs up with lavender sleeve garters, carried a change purse, kept a small red pocket expense book, thought his company the greatest in the world and its president, Oren Hammer, the greatest man, was devoted to a wife and two growing daughters, dreamed of a cottage on Long Island with a few square yards of beets and beans and, finally, earned forty dollars a week.

Horace Nimms had a figuring mind. Those ten little Arabic symbols and their combinations and permutations held a fascination for him. To his ears six times six is thirty-six was as perfect a poem as ever a master bard penned. When on muggy Flatbush nights he tossed in his brass bed he lulled himself to sleep by dividing 695,481,239 by 433. At other and more wakeful moments he amused himself by planning an elaborate cost-accounting system for his firm, the Amalgamated Soap Corporation, known to the ends of the earth as the Suds Trust. Sometimes he went so far as to play the entertaining game of imaginary conversations. He pictured himself sitting in one of the fat chairs in the office of President Hammer and saying between puffs on one of the presidential perfectos: "Now, looky here, Mr. Hammer. My plan for a cost-accounting system is----"

And he limned on his mental canvas that great man, spellbound, enthralled, as he, Horace Nimms, dazzled him with an array of figures, beginning: "Now, let's see, Mr. Hammer. Last year the Western works at Purity City, Iowa, made 9,576,491 cakes of Pink Petal Toilet and 6,571,233 cakes of Lily White Laundry at a manufacturing cost of 3.25571 cents a cake, unboxed; now the selling cost a cake was"--and so on. The interview always ended with vigorous hand-shakings on the part of Mr. Hammer and more salary for Mr. Nimms. But actually the interview never took place.

It wasn't that Horace didn't have confidence in his system. He did. But he didn't have an equal amount in Horace Nimms. So he worked on in his little cage and enjoyed a fair measure of contentment there, because to him it was a temple of figures, a shrine of subtraction, an altar of addition. Figures swarmed in his head as naturally as bees swarm about a locust tree. He could tell you off-hand how many cakes of Grade-B soap the Southern Works at Spotless, Louisiana, made in the month of May, 1914. He simply devoured statistics. When the door of the cage clanged shut in the morning he felt soothed, at home; he immersed his own small worries in a bath of digits and decimal points. He ate of the lotus leaves of mathematics. He could forget, while juggling with millions of cakes of soap and thousands of dollars, that his rent was due next week; that Polly, his wife, needed a new dress; and that on forty a week one must live largely on beef liver and hope.

He sometimes thought, while Subwaying to his office, that if he could only get the ear of Oren Hammer some day and tell him about that cost-accounting system he might get his salary raised to forty-five. But President Hammer, whose office was on the floor above the cage, was as remote from Horace as the Pleiades. To get to see him one had to run a gantlet of superior, inquisitive secretaries. Besides Mr. Hammer was reputed to be the busiest man in New York City.

"I wash the faces of forty million people every morning," was the way he put it himself.

But the chief reason why Horace Nimms did not approach Mr. Hammer was that Horace held him in genuine awe. The president was so big, so masterful, so decisive. His invariable cutaway intimidated Horace; the magnificence of his top hat dazzled the little cashier and benumbed his faculties of speech. Once in a while Horace rode down in the same elevator with him and--unobserved--admired his firm profile, the concentration of his brow and the jutting jaw that some one had once said was worth fifty thousand a year in itself, merely as a symbol of determination. Horace would sooner have slapped General Pershing on the back or asked President Wilson to dinner in Flatbush than have addressed Oren Hammer. An uncommendable attitude? Yes. But after all those years behind bars, perhaps subconsciously his spirit had become a little caged.

One cool September morning Horace entered the cage humming "Annie Rooney." Coming over in the Subway he had straightened out a little quirk in his cost-accounting system that would save the company one-ninety-fifth of a cent a cake. He took off his worn serge coat, was momentarily concerned at the prospect of having to make it last another season and then with a hitch on his lavender sleeve garters he slipped into his alpaca office coat and added up a few numbers on the adding machine for the sheer joy of it.

He had not been sitting on his high stool long when he became aware that a man, a stranger, was regarding him fixedly through the steel screen. The man had calmly placed a chair just outside the cage and was examining the little cashier with the scrutinizing eye of an ornithologist studying a newly discovered species of emu.

Horace was a bit disconcerted. He knew his accounts were in order and accurate to the last penny. He had nothing to fear on that score. Nevertheless, he didn't like the way the man stared at him.

"If he has something to say to me," thought Horace, "why does he say it with glowers?"

He would have asked the starer what the devil he was looking at, but Horace was incapable of incivility. He began nervously to total up a column of figures and was not a little upset to find that under the cold gaze he had made his first mistake in addition since the spring of '98. He cast a furtive glance or two through the steel netting at the stranger outside, who continued to focus a pair of prominent blue eyes on the self-conscious cashier. Horace couldn't have explained why those particular eyes rattled him; some mysterious power--black art perhaps.

The staring man was quite bald, and his head, shaped like a pineapple cheese, had been polished until it seemed almost to glitter in the September sun. The eyes, light blue and bulgy, reminded Horace of poached eggs left out in the cold for a week. They had also a certain fishy quality; impassive, yet hungry, like a shark's. Without being actually fat, the mysterious starer had the appearance of being plump and soft; perhaps it was the way he clasped two small, perfectly manicured hands over a perceptible rotundity at his middle, an unexpected protuberance, as if he were attempting to conceal a honeydew melon under his vest.

Horace Nimms did his best to concentrate on the little columns of figures he was so fond of drilling and parading, but his glance strayed, almost against his will, to the bald-headed man with the fishy blue eyes, who continued to fasten on Horace the glance a python aims at a rabbit before he bolts him.

At length, after half an hour, Horace could stand it no longer. He addressed the stranger politely.

"Is there anything I can do for you?" asked Horace with his avuncular smile.

The starer, without once taking his eyes off Horace, rose, advanced to the little window and thrust through it an oversized card.

"You may go on with your work," he said, "just as if you were not under observation. I am here under Mr. Hammer's orders."

His voice was peculiar--a nasal purr.

The caged cashier glanced at the card. It read:


S. WALMSLEY COWAN
EFFICIENCY EXPERT EXTRAORDINARY
AUTHOR OF "PEP, PERSONALITY, PERSONNEL,"
"HOW TO ENTHUSE EMPLOYEES"


Horace Nimms had a disquieting sensation. He had heard rumors of a man prowling about in the company, subjecting random employees to strange tests, firing some, moving others to different jobs, but he had always felt that twenty-one years of service and the steel bars of his cage protected him. And now here was the man, and he, Horace Nimms, was under observation. He had always associated the phrase with reports of lunacy cases in the newspapers. Mr. Cowan returned to his seat near the cage and resumed his silent watch on its inmate. Horace tried to do his work, but he couldn't remember when he had had such a poor day. The figures would come wrong and his hand would tremble a little no matter how hard he tried to forget the vigilant Mr. Cowan who sat watching him.

At the end of a trying day Horace dismounted from his high stool, hitched up his lavender sleeve garters and inserted himself into his worn blue serge coat. He would be glad to get back to Flatbush. Polly would have some fried beef liver and a bread pudding for supper, and they would discuss for the hundredth time just what the ground-floor plan of that cottage would be--if it ever was.

But Mr. Cowan was waiting for him.

"Step this way, will you--ple-e-ese," said the expert.

Horace never remembered when he had heard a word that retained so little of its original meaning as Mr. Cowan's "ple-e-ese." Clearly it was tossed in as a sop to the hypersensitive. His "ple-e-ese" could have been translated as "you worm."

Horace, with a worried brow, followed Mr. Cowan into one of those goldfish-bowl offices affected by large companies with many executives and a limited amount of office space. It contained only a plain table and two stiff chairs.

"Sit down," said Mr. Cowan, "ple-e-ese."

It is a difficult linguistic feat to purr and snap at the same time, but Mr. Cowan achieved it.

Horace sat down and Mr. Cowan sat opposite him, with his unwinking blue eyes but two feet from Horace's mild brown ones and with no charitable steel screen between them.

"I am going to put you to the test," said Mr. Cowan.

Horace wildly thought of thumbscrews. He sat bolt upright while Mr. Cowan whipped from his pocket a tape measure and, bending over, measured the breadth of Horace Nimms' brow. With an ominous clucking noise the expert set down the measurement on a chart in front of him. Then he carefully measured each of Horace's ears. The measurements appeared to shock him. He wrote them down. He applied his tape to Horace's nose and measured that organ. He surveyed Horace's forehead from several different angles. He measured the circumference of Horace's head. The result caused Mr. Cowan acute distress, for he set it down on his elaborate chart and glowered at it a full minute.

Then he transferred his attention and tape to Horace's stubby hands. He measured them, counted the fingers, contemplated the thumb gravely and wrote several hundred words on the chart. Horace thought he recognized one of the words as "mechanical."

"Now," said Mr. Cowan solemnly, "we will test your mental reactions."

He said this more to himself than to Horace Nimms, on whose brow tiny pearls of perspiration were appearing. Mr. Cowan drew forth a stop watch and spread another chart on the table before him.

"Fill this out--ple-e-ese," he said, pushing the chart toward Horace. "You have just five minutes to do it."

Horace Nimms, dismayed, almost dazed, seized the paper and started to work at it with feverish confusion. He boggled through a maze full of pitfalls for a tired, rattled man:

If George Washington discovered America, write the capital of Nebraska in this space.........But if he was called the Father of His Country, how much is 49 × 7?........Now name three presidents of the United States in alphabetical order, including Jefferson, but do not do so if ice is warm.........If Adam was the first man, dot all the "i's" in "eleemosynary" and write your last name backward.........Omit the next three questions with the exception of the last two: How much is 6 × 9 = 54?........What is the capital of Omaha?........How many "e's" are there in the sentence, "Tell me, pretty maiden, are there any more at home like you?"........Put a cross over all the consonants in the foregoing sentence. Now fill in the missing words in the following sentences: "While picking........I was stung in the........by a........." "Don't bite the........that feeds you."

How old are you? Multiply your age by the year you were born in. Erase your answer. If a pound of steel is heavier than a pound of oyster crackers, don't write anything in this space.........Otherwise write three words that rhyme with "icicle." Now write your name, and then cross out all the consonants.

Name three common garden vegetables.........

It seemed to Horace Nimms that he had floundered along for less than a minute when Mr. Cowan said briskly, "Time," and took the paper from Horace.

"Now the association test," said Mr. Cowan, drawing forth still another chart, very much as a magician draws forth a rabbit from a hat.

"I'll say a word," he went on, seeming to grow progressively more affable as Horace grew more discomfited, "and you will say the word it suggests immediately after--ple-e-ese," he added as an afterthought.

Horace Nimms moistened his dry lips. Mr. Cowan pulled out his stop watch.

"Oyster?" said Mr. Cowan.

"S-stew!" quavered Horace.

"Flat?"

"Bush!"

"Hammer?"

"President!"

"Soap?"

"Cakes!"

"Money?"

"Forty-five!"

"Up?"

"Down!"

"Man?"

"Cage!"

"Most peculiar," muttered Mr. Cowan as he noted down the answers. "We'll have to look into this."

Horace could not suppress a shudder.

"That's all," said Mr. Cowan.

When Horace arrived at his Flatbush flat, late for supper, he did not enjoy the bread pudding, though it was a particularly good one--with raisins. Nor did he go to sleep quickly, no matter how many numbers he multiplied. He was thinking what it would mean to him at his age if Mr. Cowan should have him put out of his cage. His dreams were haunted by a pair of eyes like those of a frozen owl.

The next afternoon Horace Nimms, busy in his cage, received a notice that there would be an organization meeting at the end of the day. He went. The meeting had been called by S. Walmsley Cowan, who in his talks to large groups adopted the benevolent big-brother manner and turned on and off a beaming smile.

"My friends," he began, "it is no secret to some of you that Mr. Hammer has not been pleased with the way things are going in the company. He has felt that there has been a great deal of waste of time and money; that neither the volume of business nor the profits on it are what they should be. He has commissioned me to find out what is wrong in the company and to put pep, efficiency, enthusiasm into our organization."

He smiled a modest smile.

"I rather fancy," he continued, "that I'll succeed. I have been conducting the tests with which you are all doubtless familiar through reading my books, 'Pep, Personality, Personnel,' and 'How to Enthuse Employees.' I have made a most interesting and startling discovery. Most of you are in the wrong jobs!"

He paused. The men and women looked at each other uneasily. Then he went on.

"I'll cite just one instance. Yesterday I tested the mentality of one of you. I found that he was of the cage, or solitary, type of worker. See Page 239 of my book on Getting Into Men's Brains. But he was already working in a cage! Here was a problem. Could it be that that was where he would do best? No! Then a happy solution struck me. He was in the wrong cage. So I am going to transfer him from a mathematical cage to a mechanical cage. I am going to transfer him to be an elevator operator. This may surprise you, my friends, but science is always surprising. Just fancy! This man has been working with figures for more than twenty years, and I discover by measuring that his thumbs are of the purely mechanical type, and all that time he would have been much happier running an elevator. Now by an odd coincidence I found that one of the elevator operators has a pure type of mathematical ear, so I am transferring him to the cashier's cage. He may seem a bit awkward there at first, but we shall see, we shall see."

He turned on his smile. But the eyes of the employees had turned sympathetically to the pale face of Horace Nimms. How old and tired Uncle Horace looked, they thought. In a nightmare Horace heard his doom pronounced. After twenty-one years! His temple of figures!

S. Walmsley Cowan unconcernedly began one of his celebrated pep-and-punch talks calculated to send morale up as a candle sends up the mercury in a thermometer.

"Friends," he said, thumping the table before him, "when Opportunity comes to knock be on the front porch! Don't hold back! He who hesitates is lost. It may be that the humble will inherit the earth, but that will be when all the bold have died. Don't hide your light under a basket; don't keep your ideas locked up in your skulls. Bring 'em out! Let's have a look at them. You wouldn't wear a diamond ring inside your shirt, would you? Be sure you're right, then holler your head off. Get what is coming to you! Nobody will bring it on a platter; you've got to step up and grab it. When you have an impulse, think it over. If it looks like the real goods, obey it. Get me? Obey it! Nobody will bite you. Think all you like, but for heaven's sake, act!"

It was for such talks that Mr. Cowan was famous. Even Horace Nimms forgot his impending fall as the efficiency expert extraordinary declaimed the gospel of action and boldness.

But when the meeting was over, silent misery came into the heart of the little cashier and like an automaton he stumbled into the Subway. He ate his bread pudding without tasting it and tried to talk to Polly about the proposed living room in the Long Island cottage. He hadn't the courage to tell her what had happened; indeed he hardly realized what had happened himself.

In the morning he tried to pretend to himself that it was all a joke; surely Mr. Cowan couldn't have meant it. But when he reached his cage he saw another figure already in that temple of addition and subtraction. He rattled the wire door timidly. The figure turned.

"Wadda yah want?" it asked bellicosely.

Horace Nimms recognized the bluish jaw of Gus, one of the elevator men.

Sick at heart, Horace turned away. In the blur of his thoughts was the one that he must keep his job, some job, any job. One can't save much on forty a week in Flatbush. And that he should work for any one but the Amalgamated Soap Corporation was unthinkable. So without knowing exactly how it happened, he found himself in a blue-and-gray uniform clumsily trying to vindicate his mechanical hands and attempting to stop his car within six inches of the floors. All morning he patiently escorted his car up and down the elevator shaft--twenty stories up, twenty stories down, twenty stories up, twenty stories down. He thought of the Song of the Shirt.

At noon he stopped his car at the eighteenth floor and two passengers got on. Horace recognized them. One was Jim Wright, assistant to President Hammer; the other was Mr. Perrine, Western sales manager. They were in animated conversation.

"That fellow has the crust of a mud turtle and the tact of a rattlesnake," Mr. Perrine was saying.

"Remember," Jim Wright reminded him, "he is an efficiency expert extraordinary. The big boss seems to have confidence in him."

"He won't have quite so much," said Mr. Perrine, "when he hears that he put an elevator man in as cashier. I hear he walked off with six hundred dollars before he'd been on the job an hour."

Horace pricked up his ears. He made the car go as slowly as possible.

"He did?" Jim Wright was excited. "And this is one of the boss' bad days too! Just before I left him he was saying, 'The Amalgamated has about as much system as a piece of cheese. Why, these high-salaried executives can't tell me how much it costs them to make and sell a cake of soap!'"

Then Horace reluctantly let them out of the elevator at the street floor.

All that afternoon he struggled with an impulse. The words of Mr. Cowan's oration of the night before began to come back to him. If only he had obeyed his impulses----

As he was a new man, they gave him the late shift. At one minute to six the indicator in his car gave two short, sharp, peremptory buzzes. Horace, who was mastering the elements of elevator operating, shot up to the eighteenth floor. A single passenger got on. With a little gasp Horace recognized the cutaway coat and top hat of the president of the Amalgamated.

Horace set his teeth. His small frame grew tense. He turned the lever and the car started to glide downward. Seventeen, sixteen, fifteen, fourteen, thirteen, twelve! Then with a quick twist of his wrist Horace stalled the car between the twelfth and eleventh floors and slipped the controlling key into his pocket. Then he turned and faced the big president.

"You don't know a hell of a lot about running an elevator," remarked Oren Hammer.

"No, I don't," said Horace Nimms in a strange, loud voice that he didn't recognize. "But I do know how much it costs a cake to make Pink Petal Toilet."

"What's that? Who the devil are you?" The great man was more surprised than angry.

"Nimms," said Horace briefly. "Office cashier on seventeenth floor twenty-one years. Elevator operator one day. Mr. Cowan's orders."

Mr. Hammer's brow contracted.

"So you think you can tell me how much Pink Petal costs a cake to make, eh?" he said.

He had the reputation of never overlooking an opportunity.

The imaginary conversations that Horace had been having crowded back into his mind.

"Now, looky here, Mr. Hammer," he began. "The Western works made 9,576,491 cakes of Pink Petal Toilet last year. Now the cost a cake was--" and so on. Horace was on familiar ground now. Figures and statistics tripped from his tongue; the details he had bottled up inside him so long came pouring forth. He knew the business of the Amalgamated down to the last stamp and rubber band. Oren Hammer, listening with keen interest, now and then put in a short, direct question. Horace Nimms snapped back short, direct answers. Once launched, he forgot all about the cutaway coat and the dazzling top hat and even about the big-jawed man who washed the faces of forty million people every morning. Horace was talking to get back into his cage and words came with a new-found eloquence.

"By George," exclaimed President Hammer, "you know more about the business than I do myself! And Cowan told you you didn't have a figuring mind, did he? I want you to report at my office the first thing to-morrow morning."

Horace Nimms, in the black suit he saved for funerals and weddings, and a new tie, was ushered into the big office of President Hammer the next morning. Outwardly, it was his hope, he was calm; inwardly, he knew, he was quaking.

"Have a cigar, Nimms," said Oren Hammer, passing Horace one of the presidential perfectos of his dreams. Then he summoned a secretary.

"Ask Mr. Cowan to come in, will you?" he said.

The efficiency expert extraordinary entered, beaming affably.

"Good morning to you, Mr. Hammer," he called out in a cheery voice. Then he stopped short as he recognized Horace.

"Oh, come here, Cowan," said President Hammer genially. "Before you go I want you to meet Mr. Nimms. He is going to install a new cost-accounting system for us. Just step down to the cashier's cage with him, will you, and get your salary to date."


The Cage Man was featured as The Short Story of the Day on Mon, Nov 26, 2012

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