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"Big Money Billings" from Saturday Evening Post

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from Saturday Evening Post
Big Money Billings
by Ellis Parker Butler

You never hear anyone today saying Billings holds himself too cheaply. I have heard that when he went down to Washington, just after the war began, he arranged to give Uncle Sam his services for the sum of one dollar a year; but I'll guarantee you that he kept a little account book and entered that dollar as $100,000 received, or something like that. I don't mean anything like graft; you'll see what I mean when I tell you the big joke on Billings.

I get about some; I've worked up in the insurance game until I don't have to bother with the little prospects much -- they hand me the big fellows to get after -- and I've learned that the big fellows are all sorts of men, just as the little fellows are. When you get to knowing the big fellows you find they are always reminding you of some little fellows you know or knew. They have the same ways or mannerisms or views of life. About the only difference between Silas K. Birch, who handles a million-dollar corporation, and Peter Q. Squinch, who fusses day after day over the office-supply department of that same corporation, is that Silas K. is up among the big things and Peter Q. is down among the little ones. They both like their cigars mild, and they both wrap up their throats when they go out into the cold air, and they both like Graham crackers and milk. I have an idea that if you had taken Silas K. and put him in the supply department and kept him there long enough he would have been a second Peter Q., worrying because the clerks would not use their lead pencils down to the last bitter half inch; and I have a notion that if Peter Q. had been lifted into the job Silas K. now holds and had had the nerve to hang on to it until he learned the ropes he would be managing the corporation every bit as well as Silas K. is managing it. Because, when you come right down to facts, the one man is as good as the other; and the big force back of Silas K. is Big Money Billings. And Big Money Billings would be back of Peter Q. if Peter Q. was where Silas K. is. Contrariwise, if Silas K. was where Peter Q. is he would be just the same fussy old fellow that Peter Q. is today.

About the only difference  between Silas K. Birch and Peter Q. Squinch is that Silas K. is up among the big things and Peter Q. is down among the little ones.

I'm glad to have that off my chest and out of my system. I've been wanting to say that for some time but I never knew just how to say it before. It comes in as pat as you please just here in the story of the joke Big Money Billings played on himself.

The girl in this case was Mattie Levoy. The name sounds something like a bareback rider in a circus; probably I've heard of one with a name something like that, which is why I think so; but Mattie was not like that at all. She and Billings and I worked in the Star Cam and Cog Company office. She was one of the quietest, meekest little things I ever knew, and that was why I liked her, and, I suppose, why Billings liked her. I will say frankly that I got fond of her through thinking she was the kind of girl I could afford to marry -- would have to marry if I ever wanted to afford a wife. We low-paid boys do not always have good sense, but when we do we steer clear of the girls that look like big spenders. Mattie looked like one who would be happy in a humble home, and do her own dressmaking, and all that sort of business.

To tell another truth I'll say that the Star Cam and Cog Company were among the meanest concerns in New York for pay. I know what they gave me -- fifty a month, six hundred dollars a year -- and when you split that into weeks and figure that it comes to about eleven and a half dollars a week you can see it was hard going for a fellow who had to pay board. Billings got more; he drew all of twelve dollars a week -- six hundred and twenty-four dollars a year; you can figure it yourself. I don't know what Mattie drew. I suppose she got eight dollars; that was about what beginners got for pounding the typewriter and taking stenography.

But Mattie was not a beginner; she came close to being one of the best stenographers I ever knew. The secret of her satisfaction with the job was that she was a nice girl, and whatever else you might think about the Star Cam and Cog office you had to admit it was as clean as a cold winter morning. Baker, the boss, was a clean man and a gentleman all through, and he tried to keep clean people round him. He did not want to hold hands and he would not have any greasy, flirting lady-killers on his force. That was why Mattie stuck to the job there even if the pay was low. It was as good as a letter from home to see her come into the office in the morning, hang up her hat, tuck her cuff protectors over her wrists and slide into her chair with a smile and a nod.

You understand how I felt about Mattie. Billings and I used to go up to her home once a week or so to spend the evening, and usually there were one or two girls she had invited in, and maybe another fellow; and on the way home to the boarding house we always said she was a mighty nice girl. We never said much more than that, being in the twelve-dollar-a-week class and under, and in no position to fight duels about girls; but I had made up my mind that as soon as I could squeeze twenty-five a week out of the boss I would ask her if I could buy a ring. Billings felt exactly the same.

Well, that was how things were then. There was some high-class honest work done in that office, for both Billings and I wanted to push ahead and get to a point where we could say something to Mattie that every girl ought to like to hear from some fellow. I can see now, looking back, just what we were and were apt to remain. We were cheap. We were counting ourselves cheap. We were underpaid and we thought we were terribly ambitious when we looked forward to twenty-five a week; it was big money to us, and probably Big Money Billings often laughs, when he is putting through half-million deals and talking hundreds of thousands to old Silas K., at the eagerness with which we looked forward to a dollar-a-week raise. In those days we never expected that Billings would some day get his name from a little saying he let fall at a luncheon: "Gentlemen, it is no use; my ears are not good and, if you want me to hear, you will have to talk louder; I can't hear anything but big money."

And that was not a bluff. He had reached a point where it did not pay him to talk anything but big money. Silas K. was paying him so much that if he wasted time on deals involving less than a hundred thousand dollars he was not earning his salary. All right!

I am rather serious and always was, but Billings was what we called a josher from the first day I knew him. I used to call him Happy Boy or Old Happy or just Happy; and sometimes when I was in a hurry it got shortened to Hap. I remember he used to call the prunes at the place we boarded Persian grapes -- not because it meant anything but because he enjoyed doing it. When we had chicken he would say: "A little more of the pheasant, Mrs. Dayton, if you please, ma'am!" Mrs. Dayton did not mind, because she knew Billings was not complaining or slinging sarcasm about, but only being amusing. We used to laugh about it, and sometimes we called him the prince and sometimes the millionaire. Jokes like that get to be a sort of staple thing in a boarding house and keep going for weeks and sometimes for years.

I guess I was right on the spot the first time Billings did his ten-times stunt.

That was one payday. The Star Cam and Cog paid us once a month, but we had to pay Mrs. Dayton once a week, and we had finished dinner and were up from the table when Billings pulled his month's pay out of his pocket -- all of fifty dollars or so. "I beg your pardon, countess," he said -- he always called Mrs. Dayton by some high-flown title -- "but my banker has remitted me a few thousand dollars and if you are not in a hurry I would like to make my usual contribution to your fund for overadipose cooks."

That was a crack at Bridget, who had come to the dining-room door. She grinned -- they all liked Billings -- and Mrs. Dayton smiled. So Billings began pulling dollar bills off his little roll. He laid them across Mrs. Dayton's hand one at a time, counting them out:

"Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, and ten makes seventy dollars," he said, calling each dollar bill a ten, just for fun. Then I handed Mrs. Dayton my seven dollars rolled in a wad, and Billings and I went into the hall. He had run short that month -- bought a hat or something -- and he owed me a dollar and a half. He stopped me.

"By the way, ambassador," he said, "I am in your debt too. Allow me to liquidate."

So he handed me a dollar and a half.

"Fifteen dollars," he said. "I believe that was the amount of the trifling accommodation. Thank you!"

Well, we kept it up for quite a while. We made a joke and a sort of game of it. We would go into a restaurant for lunch and he would pick up the menu. Usually it was one of those cream-of-cow places -- a dairy lunch.

"Butter cakes, fifty cents!" he would say. "Expensive place this, but we must have the best. It pays to patronize the good places. Pork and beans, one dollar fifty. Coffee, fifty cents. I think that will do for me. I don't like to spend over two dollars and a half for lunch."

All the while the butter cakes would be five cents, and the pork and beans fifteen, and the coffee five, and his whole lunch only a quarter of a dollar. But I would come right back at him.

"I'm going to have some of this two-dollar beef stew, and a piece of fifty-cent mince pie, and a fifty-cent glass of iced tea," I would say. "What's money to us millionaires? My family would disown me if I spent less than three dollars for a meal."

And all the time I was just getting a thirty-cent lunch, you understand.

As I say, we kept that up for quite a while. It got so a lot of people were in the joke. The cashier at the counter was wise to it. Billings would slide his check across the marble.

"Take out two dollars and a half today," he would say, sliding a fifty-cent piece after the check. "And, princess, just give me one of those fifty-cent cigars."

They were five-cent cigars, you understand. It was the same on the elevated. Billings called the elevated his taxi.

"I know some people complain about the cost of taxi-cabs in New York," he would say, "but I've been raised in luxury and I just have to use them. What is a dollar a day when you can ride to and from your office in luxury?"

He would say that while he was climbing the elevated stairs ready to buy a ticket for five cents. And that was how we joshed each other right along for a week or two. Then I got tired of it. I quit it. But Billings did not. Perhaps it was because it was his joke and he had invented it, but he did keep it up. I think he liked to talk and think in big figures. He enjoyed it.

I went into his room one evening. He had the hall bedroom at one end of the house and I had the same room at the other end, and we used to drop in on each other once in a while on bad nights when we were near payday and our money was about out. I dropped in on Billings this night and found him with an account book before him and writing figures in it.

"Gee!" I said. "Don't you get enough of that at the office?"

"I have to keep an account of what I spend," he said. "I'm not like you -- careful about money. Dimes don't mean anything to me. If I didn't keep account on myself I would be down to hardpan a week after payday. But I've just hit a scheme that takes all the tameness out of this account-keeping business --"

"What is it?" I asked him.

He pushed the book across to me and I ran my eye down the pages.

"What are you trying to do -- fool yourself?" I asked him.

"No, by jingo!" he said, and he was not embarrassed a bit. "I might as well get some fun out of it while I am about it."

What the crazy man was doing was keeping his accounts ten times over. I don't mean he would enter "Lunch, .25" ten times, but he would enter it "Lunch, $2.50."

"It makes it interesting," he said. "And it makes it easy. I never could remember how I had spent all the nickels and dimes, but you bet when I call a dime a dollar I can remember how I spent it! A man don't forget how he spent a dollar. And anyway it makes me feel bigger. I feel a lot better entering one hundred and twenty dollars a week as my pay than I did when I put down a measly twelve dollars."

"Well, you are a full-blown nut, all right!" I said. "You are certainly the limit!"

"All right!" he said. "All right! But how much have you saved out of your pay this month?"

"Me? I've got enough left to pay my carfare and buy my lunches until pay day," I told him. "How do you expect me to save anything out of eleven-fifty a week?"

"Ah!" he said. "That's just it! You don't. But if you were getting $115 a week you would save, wouldn't you?"

"You bet your boots I would!" I said.

"Well, I'm saving," he told me. "I've saved fourteen and a half dollars this month and I didn't begin until the middle of the month."

"Fourteen and a half dollars!" I exclaimed. "You saved fourteen and a half dollars this month!"

"Well, I call it that," Billings said. "You would call it a dollar and forty-five cents. I call it fourteen and a half dollars. That's how I saved it and that's how I call it. That's how I've got it entered here in my account book."

"Oh!" I said, because I saw what he meant. He had worked the ten-times scheme on that dollar forty-five he had saved, the same as he did on everything else. "But even at that," I said, "I don't see how you can scrape anything off the top to lay aside out of what the Star Cam and Cog pay you."

"Well, I never could before this," Billings said. "At least I never did. This is not a penny-saving town. It is not a nickel or a dime saving town. A man don't try to save until he can save a dollar or so at a time -- then he thinks it is worth while. I am like all the rest of them too. I can't save a penny at a time; it is too small to bother with. But when I began calling dimes dollars and nickels fifty cents and pennies dimes, I just felt as if I was throwing big money away all the time. Take those cigars, for instance. I never thought anything of spending a nickel for a cigar, but fifty cents! My! Fifty cents every time I smoked a cigar! That's reckless, you know!"

He was dead serious about it. He had actually got to thinking he was spending fifty cents for a cigar every time he paid a jitney for one.

"It might be all right if I was getting a million dollars a year or something like that," he said; "but even then fifty cents for a cigar would be pretty big money to pay for the kind of cigar I get for fifty cents. And I can't smoke a ten-cent cigar; I don't like the taste of them."

I should think not! When he said ten-cent cigar he meant five for a nickel!

"So I've simply had to reduce my smoking," he said. "You've noticed I smoke a pipe now. Of course the first cost of the pipe would have paid for a lot of cigars -- I had to invest two and a half dollars in a pipe --"

"Say! Did you let anybody sting you two-fifty for that pipe!" I cried, and then I remembered he was ten-timesing everything. He meant he had paid twenty-five cents for it. It looked it!

"Yes, two-fifty for the pipe and a dollar for the tobacco; but every time I smoke it I save fifty cents on cigars," Billings said without a smile. Then he laughed. "Do you get me?" he asked.

"Yes, I get you," I told him. "You've just gone and actually buffaloed yourself into thinking a dime is a dollar, so it will be worth while to save the dime."

"Yes, that's the idea," he said. "Gee! if you knew how I hated to spend a dime for a morning paper each morning! A morning paper is not worth a dime --"

"But it don't cost --" I began; and then I grinned. "I see!" I said. "That's why you've been picking Graham crackers and milk for lunch instead of corned-beef hash."

"I save a dollar a day that way," he said.

Well, so he did, if he wanted to call a dime a dollar. But it was not for me! I have some imagination -- you'll learn that if I ever have a chance to tell you what your family will be like five years after you are dead if you don't take out enough insurance -- but I could not work my imagination the way Billings could work his.

"Good night!" I said. "I'm going back to my room before I catch what you've got. I don't know the name for it, but it looks serious."

So I kept right along doing the way I had been doing; spending what I wanted to until I got down to where I had just enough for my car fare and lunches, and then not spending any more. But Billings actually kept on with his game. I guess he got, after a while, so he actually fooled himself. He was proud of it too. He would say, "I saved $25 last month"; and I would have to think a moment before I remembered he had actually saved only two and a half dollars. Or he would say, as he did one time: "I started an account in the savings bank today. I had $150 to put in." He meant fifteen dollars.

But I began to get frightened. Whatever Billings was doing, he was saving some money, whether he called it two hundred and fifty dollars that he had in the bank, or twenty-five dollars, as I would have called it; and I was afraid for two reasons: One was that he might save enough to be so far ahead of me that I should have no chance with Mattie Levoy. Billings and I were pulling just about an even game with her, and the same was true of our standing with Star Cam and Cog. If Billings got a raise I should be pretty sure to get one too; but the bad thing about Billings' savings account, so far as I was concerned, was that if we ever got raised to a point where we could marry a girl Billings would have money in the bank for furniture and all that sort of thing. The other thing that I was afraid of was that Billings might get to thinking he was really earning one hundred and twenty dollars a week and really had two hundred and fifty dollars in the bank, and then he might go and propose to Mattie some night when I was not with him. So I did two things: I began saving like a crazy miser, and I took the first chance I got and asked Mattie if she loved me and whether she would wait until I was able to marry her.

I'll say right here that she was just about as fine about it as any girl could have been.

"Please don't ask me to answer you now," she said. "We are all so young yet; we none of us can afford to marry yet. I do like you and I do like Billings" -- only she called him Happy -- "but I have always tried not to think which of you I like the better, for fear it would spoil everything. It has been so pleasant at the office and when we were together -- all of us."

"That's right!" I said. "We've all been pretty good sports, haven't we? Well, you know I like you; you know how I feel about you anyway."

Just then Billings blew in.

"Happy," I said, "I've been proposing to Mattie."

I wanted to do the square thing and tell him, because he was always so square himself.

"Oh, that's all right!" he said. "I'm going to propose to her a couple of times myself when I'm drawing three hundred a week and have a couple of thousand in the bank. I forgive you. Come on, folks! I've got three dollars in my jeans that need spending. Let's all go to the movies."

He had thirty cents, he meant. So we went. On the way home he talked to me.

"You poor fish!" he said good-naturedly. "You don't want to go proposing to Mattie now. You'll queer yourself. She's a sensible girl, and she knows neither you nor I can support a wife. If you go to proposing to her now she will think you are not quite sensible. I wouldn't propose to her now and risk my chances for anything in the world. And I'm drawing five dollars a week more than you are!"

"Five --" I began, thinking he must have got an advance I had not heard about. Then I laughed. He meant that same old fifty cents a week he had always been getting more than I was.

"You needn't be afraid I'll try to cut in under you," he told me. "What I said was true. Until I'm getting my three hundred a week I'll not ask her to marry me."

That did not fool me, and he did not mean it to fool me. We both knew he was ten-timesing again, and that he meant thirty a week.

I felt pretty comfortable about it. I did feel that I had as good a chance with Mattie as Billings had, so I gave him my promise too. I said I would not propose to her again until I was getting twenty-nine fifty a week. That was right enough, because he was getting fifty cents more than I was. It made it an even race, if you can call it a race. I think we both felt pretty comfortable about it. And then, suddenly -- the very next day -- a bomb burst under Billings and blew him clear out of the running.

We went down to the office together that day and Billings said something about half believing he would get up earlier in the morning and walk to the office, because the weather was so fine and he hated to spend fifty cents every morning on taxi hire -- meaning five cents on elevated fare. He said he could not think of any easier way of saving fifty cents than by walking a couple of miles on a nice morning. I told him I did not think he would save much. I said the shoe leather he would use up would come to more than the nickel he would save. He said he believed that was so. He said shoes went fast and that he hated to think that he would have to buy a pair in a couple of days.

"Thirty-five dollars for a pair of shoes! It is robbery!" he said.

But that was the way he had come to be, with his continual ten-times obsession. He could not think of a three-fifty pair of shoes; he had to multiply the price by ten before he could think of them.

We reached the office and Baker was already there, and Miss Mattie was in her place. She always was an early arriver, but it was unusual for Baker to get down ahead of us. He looked unusually serious too. He asked Billings to step into the private office, and when Billings came out I knew something was all wrong.

"Fired!" he said as he passed me on the way to his desk.

What had happened was this: Baker, as soon as they were in the private office, said:

"I'm sorry, Billings, but I'll have to let you go. Look at this!" And he handed Billings an estimate Billings had sent out. It was an estimate on ten thousand steel cams, special pattern, and the Star Cam and Cog should have had the order at ten cents each, but Billings had simply done some of his ten-times work and had quoted the cams at a dollar each. It was a rush matter and there had been no time to waste, and the order had gone to Silas K. Birch's concern at fifteen cents per cam.

"I -- I'm sorry!" Billings said.

"Yes. So am I," said Baker. "But this is the third case of this kind, Billings, and we can't have it. We must protect our own interests. I'm sorry, but you'll have to go."

That was all. It was all up with Billings. He got his things together and said good-by to Mattie and to me and to the rest of the force, and went out. I went as far as the elevator with him.

"What are you going to do now?" I asked him.

"I don't know," he said. "I've got that two hundred and seventy dollars in the savings bank. I can live on that a couple of weeks while I'm hunting another job. I'm not going to worry until I have to."

Two hundred and seventy dollars in the bank! He meant twenty-seven dollars.

"Oh, you'll find another job!" I said, to cheer him up.

"I've got to," he said. "I can't let you get ahead of me with Mattie." And then the elevator stopped and he went down.

Of course I did not see him again until evening. I rather hated to go home to the boarding house; I did not like to think of Happy Billings being there, blue after a day of job hunting. When I opened the door the first thing I heard was Billings' voice. He was talking to Mrs. Dayton.

"Oh, no!" he was saying. "Don't you be afraid of that. I'm not going to be too big to fill my seven-dollar-a-week room for some time yet."

"Gee!" I thought. "He must have had a pretty hard jolt if it jolted the ten-times business out of him," but I chirked up my voice and said "Well, Happy, how did you make out?"

"All right," he said with a smile that he tried to keep decently sober. "I've got a job. Silas K. Birch hired me."


"Yes, he did," said Billings. "I went right to him and told him how good I was and braced him for a job, and he hired me. And I'm getting more than I got at the Star Cam and Cog too."

"Honest, Happy?" I said.

"Yes, honest," he said. "I said to myself when I got out on the street that I might as well try for more money as long as I was hunting a new job. I was getting six-twenty-four a year, you know. So I made up my mind I would ask for seven hundred. Why not?"

"Well, that's right," I said, thinking it over. "They would pay you that difference without thinking much about it if they wanted you."

"Yes," said Billings. "So I told old Silas K. I wanted a job, and that I had been with Star Cam and Cog. 'How much do you want?' he asked me. Well, I did mean to say seven hundred. I tried to say it. But it didn't come out of my mouth that way. It multiplied itself by ten and came out seven thousand dollars."

"You poor fish!" I exclaimed.

"Yes," he said; "that's what I thought. And I guess Silas K. thought so too. He looked at me as if he thought I had more nerve than enough for forty men. He said 'Hum! You don't think lightly of yourself, do you, young man? Well, we can't use you at seven thousand, but if you are willing to consider five thousand we will give you an opportunity to show what you are worth as manager of the cam-and-cog department.'"

I saw he meant it. He did not mean five hundred dollars; he meant five thousand. He meant what he would have called fifty thousand that morning, but he had dropped the ten-times business for good and all. He had simply made a break that did for him what most of us are too scared to do for ourselves -- asked as much as he was worth. I knew he would make good too, because the reason most men fail to make good is not because the men are not big enough but because they are not in big-enough jobs. So I put my hat back on my head and turned to the door.

"Hold on! Where are you going?" Billings asked. He knew I was pulling some sort of joke.

"Going?" I said. "I'm going over to Mattie Levoy's and bid her a fond farewell. I see my finish with Mattie!"

"Wait until after dinner," he said, "and we'll both go over. I've got thirty cents in my pocket and we'll all three go to the movies and celebrate." So we did, but after the show I sort of slid away and let them walk home together alone.

And at that, Billings hasn't anything on me in the wife business. Mattie is all right, but she will never in the world have the style my wife has. I'm satisfied; I'm just as satisfied as Billings is.



Saturday, October 07 at 1:17:51am USA Central
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