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"The Three Hundred" from Saturday Evening Post

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from Saturday Evening Post
The Three Hundred
by Ellis Parker Butler

There was a certain big sort of masterfulness about the President of the Interurban Express Company that came partly from his natural force of character and partly from the position he occupied as head of the company, and when he said a thing must be done he meant it. In his own limited field he was a bigger man than the President of the United States, for he was not only the chief executive of the Interurban Express Company, but he made its laws as well. He could issue general orders turning the whole operation of the road other end to as easily as a national executive could order the use of, let us say, a simplified form of spelling in a few departments of the Government. He sat in the head office of the company at Franklin and said "Let this be done," and, in every suburban town where the Interurban had offices, that thing was done, under pain of dismissal from the service of the company. Even Flannery, who was born rebellious, would scratch his red hair in the Westcote office and grumble and then follow orders.

Old Simon Gratz came into the President's office one morning and sat himself into a vacant chair with a grunt of disapprobation, the same grunt of disapprobation that had been like saw-filing to the nerves of the President for many years, and the President immediately prepared to contradict him, regardless of what it might be that Simon Gratz disapproved of. It happened to be the simplified spelling. He waved the morning paper at the President, and wanted to know what he thought of this outrageous thing of chopping off the tails of good old English words with an official carving knife, ruining a language that had been fought and bled for at Lexington, and making it look like a dialect story, or a woman with two front teeth out.

'This is a busy age, Mr. Gratz-and-so-forth.' 'I will tell you what it is,' said Mr. Gratz, pushing his chin up at the president.

It rather strained the President sometimes to think of a sound train of argument against Simon Gratz at a moment's notice. Sometimes he had to abandon the beliefs of a lifetime in order to take the other side of a proposition that Simon Gratz announced unexpectedly, and it was still harder to get up an enthusiasm for one side of a thing of which he had never heard, as he sometimes had to do; but he was ready to meet Simon Gratz on either side of the simplified spelling matter, for he had read about it himself in the morning paper. It had seemed a rather unimportant matter until Simon Gratz mentioned it, but now it immediately became a thing of the most intimate concern.

"What do I think?" he asked. "I think it is the grandest thing -- the most sensible thing -- the greatest step forward that has been taken for centuries. That is what I think. It is a revolution! That is what I think, Mr. Gratz."

He swung around in his chair and struck his desk with his fist to emphasize his words. Mr. Gratz, whose opinions were the more obnoxious because he was a stockholder of the company, sniffed. The way he had of sniffing was like a red rag to a bull, and he meant it as such. The President accepted it in the spirit in which it was meant. He said: "Bah!"

"I will tell you what it is," said Mr. Gratz, pushing his chin up at the President. "It is the most idiotic --"

"Don't tell me!" cried Mr. Smalley. "I don't want you to tell me anything! What do you know about the English language, anyhow? 'Gratz!' That is a pretty name for a man who pretends to have a right to say how the English language shall be spelled! Don't I know your history, Mr. Gratz? Don't I know you had your name changed from Gratzensteinburgher? And you pretend to be worried because our President and the most talented men in the country want to drop a few useless letters out of a measly three hundred words! I tell you these changes in spelling should have been made long ago. Long ago. This is a busy age, Mr. Gratz-and-so-forth. This is the businessman's age, Mr. Gratz-and-the-rest-of-it. Yes, sir! And you, as a businessman, should be proud of this concession made by our most noted scholars to the needs of the businessman."

"Look at 'em!" sneered Mr. Gratz, patting the list of three hundred revised words with his finger, and shoving the newspaper under Mr. Smalley's nose. "Poor bob-tailed, one-eyed mongrels! Progress? It is anarchy -- impudence -- Look at this -- 't-h-r-u!' What kind of a word is that? 'T-h-o!' What kind of a thing is that? What in the world is a 's-i-t-h-e,' I would like to know?"

Mr. Smalley had not been sufficiently interested in the matter of new spelling to save his morning paper. He had not even read through the list of three hundred words. But he was interested now. The new spelling had become the thing most dear to his heart, and he pulled the paper from Mr. Gratz' hand and slapped the list of words warmly.

"Progress! Yes, progress! That is the word. And economy!" he cried. "That is the true American spirit! That is what appeals to the man who is not a fossil!" This was a delicate compliment to Mr. Gratz, but Mr. Gratz was so used to receiving compliments when Mr. Smalley was talking to him that he did not blush with pleasure. He merely got red in the face. "Think of the advantage of saving one letter in every word that is written in every business office in America?" continued Mr. Smalley excitedly. "The ink saved by this company alone by dropping those letters will amount to a thousand dollars a year. And in the whole correspondence of the nation it will amount to millions! Millions of dollars, in ink alone, to say nothing of the time saved!" He got out of his chair and began to walk up and down the office, waving his arms. It helped him to get hot, and he liked to get hot when Mr. Gratz called. It was the only time he indulged himself. So he always got as hot as he could while he had the chance.

"Yes, sir!" he shouted, while Mr. Gratz sat shrunken down into his chair and watched him with a teasing smile. "And I will tell you something more. The policy of this company is to be economical. Yes, sir! And this company is going to adopt the simplified spelling! Going to adopt it right now! In spite of all the old-fogyism in the world! -- Miss Merrill!"

The office door opened and a pompadour, followed by a demure young lady, entered the room. She slipped quietly into a chair beside the President's desk and laid her copybook on the slide of the desk and waited while her employer arranged the words in his mind. Her pencil was delicately poised above the ruled page. Her pencil was delicately poised above the ruled page. While she waited she hit the front of her pompadour a few improving slaps with her unengaged hand and pulled out the slack of her waist front.

"Take this," said Mr. Smalley sharply. "General Order Number (you can supply the number, Miss Merrill). To all employees of the Interurban Express Company: On and after this date all employees of this company will use, in their correspondence and in all other official business, the following list of three hundred words. By order of the President. Read what you have there."

Miss Merrill ran one hand around her belt -- she was the kind of girl that can make her toilet and do business at the same time -- and read:

"'General Order Number Seven Hundred and Nineteen. To all employees of the Interurban Express Company: On and after this date all employees of this company will use, in their correspondence and in all other official business, the following list of three hundred words. By order of the President.'"

"Yes," said the President, tearing a strip from Mr. Gratz' newspaper that he held in his hand. "Here is the list of words. I want the whole thing mimeographed, and I want you to see that a copy gets into the hands of every man and woman in our employ: all the offices, here and on the road. Understand?"

"Yes, sir," she answered, and then she arose, fixed her neck scarf, and went out. Mr. Smalley took his seat at his desk and began arranging his papers, humming cheerfully.

Mr. Gratz arose and stalked silently out of the office. But when the door was closed behind him he smiled. One of the members of the "Simplified Spelling Board" was his personal friend. Mr. Gratz had prevailed upon Mr. Smalley to adopt the new spelling, and he had done so by using the only means he could use with hope of success.

The next day Mike Flannery, the Westcote agent of the express company, was sitting at his desk in the express office, carefully spelling out a letter to Mary O'Donnell, on whom his affections were firmly fixed, when he heard the train from Franklin whistle. He had time to read what he had written before he went to meet the train, and he glanced over the letter hastily.

"Dearst Mary Odonil," it said, "reply in to yourse i would say i ment no harm when i kised you last nite it did not mene you was no lady but my feelins got to mutch for me i love you so how was i to no you wood not like it when i had never tride it on befor if you dont like it i will let up on that after this but it was the best kiss i ever had --" He stopped to scratch out the part about its being the best kiss he had ever had, for that seemed, on second thought, not the best thing to say, and then, as lovers so often do, he tore the whole letter to bits, and hurried to meet the train.

Flannery came back with a few packages and a couple of the long official envelopes. He dumped the packages on his counter and tore open the first of the envelopes. It was a mimeograph circular and had that benzene odor that Flannery had come to associate with trouble, for it meant a new rule that he must follow, or a change of rates that he must memorize, under penalty of dismissal. All orders were given under penalty of dismissal, and Flannery had so many rules and regulations under his red hair that each day he wondered whether he would still be the Westcote agent at the end of the next.

As he read his forehead wrinkled.

Am I to use all these words or only sum?

"Gineral Order Number Sivin Hunderd an' Noineteen," he read slowly. "And is it possible 'tis only th' sivin hunderd an' noineteenth of thim I have been gettin'? I w'u'd have said 'twas th' forty-sivinth thousand gineral order I have had t' learn and memorize. Wheniver th' Prisidint, or th' vice-prisidint, or th' manager, or th' janitor, or th' office-boy at th' head office has nawthin' else t' do they be thinkin' up a new gineral order t' sind t' Flannery. 'What's th' news of th' day?' says th' Prisidint. 'Nawthin' doin',' says th' janitor. 'Then wake up and sind Flannery a gineral order t' learn th' Declaration av Indepindince by hearrt,' says th' Prisidint. 'Mebby he do be gittin' lazy!' 'And shall I add on th' Constitution av th' United States?' says th' janitor. 'Sure!' says th' Prisidint, ''twill do Flannery no harm t' be busy.'"

He held the paper out at arm's length and shook his head at it, and then slapped it down on the counter and gave it his attention.

"'To all imployees av th' Interurban Ixpriss Company,'" he read. "'On an' after this date all imployees of this company will use, in their correspondince, and in all other official business, the follyin' list av free hunderd words. By order of th' Prisidint.' Sure!" he said. "'Under penalty av dismissal from th' service av th' company,' as ye might be sayin'!"

He turned to the list of three hundred words and began to read it. As he passed down the list the frown on his brow deepened. At "anapest" it was a noticeable frown, at "apothem" it became very pronounced, and at "dieresis" his shaggy red brows nearly covered his eyes, he was frowning so hard.

"I wonder what th' Interurban Ixpriss Company w'u'd loike me t' be writin' thim on th' subject av 'ecumenical'?" he said. "Mebby there be some of these here 'edile' and 'egis' things comin' by ixpriss, and 'twill be a foine thing t' know how t' spell thim whin th' con-sign-y puts in a claim for damages, but if th' company is goin' t' carry many 'eponyms' and 'esophaguses' Mike Flannery will be lookin' for another job. -- And w'u'd you look at this wan! 'Paleography!' Thim be nice words t' order th' agints av th' ixpriss company t' be usin'!"

He pulled at a lock of his hair thoughtfully.

"I wonder, now," he said, "do they want Mike Flannery t' learn all thim words by hearrt, and use thim all. Should I be usin' thim all in one letter, or distribute thim throughout the correspondince, or what? 'Tis a grand lot of worrds if I only knew what anny av thim meant, but 'twill be hard t' find a subject to write on t' run in this word of 'homonym.' There has not been one of thim about th' office since Mike Flannery has been here."

But his duty was plain, and he took his varnish pot and pasted the list on the wall beside his desk where he could refer to it instantly, and then he slid on to his high stool to write the acknowledgment of the receipt of the list.

"Interurban Express Co., Franklin. Gentelmen," he wrote, "I receved the genral order 719 and will oba it but I will have to practise v. and n. awhile first, some of the words dont come natural to me off hand like polyp and estivate. what is the rate on these if any comes exprest. whats a etiology, pleas advice me am I to use all these words or only sum. Mike Flannery."

He sealed this with the feeling that he had done well indeed for a first time. He had worked in "practise v. and n." and "exprest," and, if the head office should complain that he had not used enough of the words in the list, he could point to "polyp" and "estivate" and "etiology." It was slow work, for he had to look up each word he used before writing it, to see whether it was on the list or not, but generally it was not, and that gave him full liberty to spell it in any one of the three or four simplified ways he was used to employing.

Then he turned to his letter to Mary O'Donnell. His buoyancy was somewhat lessened in this second attempt by the necessity of looking up each word as he used it, and he was working his way slowly, and had just told her he was sorry he had "kist" her ("kist" was in the three hundred), and that it had been because he had "fagot" himself ("fagot" was in the list also), when a man entered the office and laid a package on the counter.

'Pho-e-nix!' Is it a man's name. I dunno!

Flannery slid from his stool and went to the counter. The man was Mr. Warold of the Westcote Tag Company, and the package was a bundle of tags that he wished to send by express. They were properly done up, for Mr. Warold sent many packages by express. It was addressed to the "Phoenix Sulphur Company, Armourville, Pa." It was marked "Collect" and "Keep Dry." It was a nice package, done up in a masterly manner, and the tags were to fill a rush order from the sulphur company.

Flannery pulled the package across the counter and was about to drop it on the scales when the "Collect" caught his eye, and he held out his hand to Mr. Warold.

"Have ye brung th' receipt book with ye?" he asked.

Mr. Warold felt in his coat pocket. He had forgotten to bring the receipt book, and Flannery drew a pad of blank receipts toward himself, and dipped a pen into the ink. Then he looked at the address.

"'Pho-e-nix,'" he read slowly. "That do be a queer sort av a worrd, Mr. Warold. 'Pho-e-nix!' Is it a man's name, I dunno?"

"Feenix," pronounced Mr. Warold, grinning.

Flannery was writing carefully with his tongue clasped firmly between his teeth, but he stopped and looked up.

"'Tis an odd way t' spell a worrd av that same pronownciation," he said, and then, suddenly, he laid down his pen and turned to the list of three hundred words that was pasted beside his desk.

"Oh, ho!" he exclaimed, when he had run his finger down the list, and then he ran it still farther and said it again, and more vigorously, and turned back to Mr. Warold. He shook his head and pushed the package across to Mr. Warold.

"Tek it back home, Mr. Warold," he said, "and change th' spellin' of th' worrds on th' address av it. 'Tis agin th' rules av th' ixpriss company as it is. There be no 'o' in th' feenix av th' Interurban Ixpriss Company. P-h-e-n-i-x is th' improved and official spellin' av th' worrd, and th' rules av th' company is agin lettin' any feenixes with an o in thim proceed into th' official business av th' company. And th' same of that 'Sulphur' worrd. It has been improved and fixed up accordin' to gineral order number sivin hunderd and noineteen, and th' way t' spell it is ' S-u-l-f-u-r,' and no other way goes across th' counter av th' ixpriss company whilst Mike Flannery runs it. And th' ixpriss company will have none of your 'Armourville,' Mr. Warold. There be no 'u' in th' worrd as 'tis simplified by th' order av th' Prisidint av th' Interurban." Mr. Warold looked at the package and then at Flannery, and gasped. He was slow to anger, and slow in all ways, and it took him fully two minutes to let Flannery's meaning trickle into his brain. Then he pushed the package across to Flannery again and laughed.

"That is all right," he said. "I read all about the simplified spelling in the papers, and if your company wants to adopt it, it is none of my business, but this has nothing to do with that. This is the name of a company, and the name of a town, and companies and towns have a right to spell their names as they choose. That -- why, everybody knows that!"

"Sure they have th' right," admitted Flannery pleasantly, but pushing the package slowly toward Mr. Warold; "sure they have! But not in th' ixpriss office av th' Interurban. 'Tis agin th' rules t' spell any feenixes with an 'o' in th' ixpriss office, or any sulphurs with a 'ph,' or any armours with a 'u.' Thim spellin's and two hunderd an' ninety-sivin more are agin th' rules, and can't go. Packages that has thim on can't go. Nawthin' that has thim in thim or on thim or about thim can't go. Gineral order number sivin --"

"Look here," said Mr. Warold slowly. "I tell you, Flannery, that those words are the names of a company --"

"And I tell ye," said Flannery, holding the package away from him with a firm hand, "that rules is rules, and gineral orders is worse than rules, and thim spellin's can't go."

Mr. Warold flushed. He put his hand opposite to Flannery's hand on the package and pushed with an equal firmness.

"I offer this package for shipment," he said with a trace of anger beginning to show in his voice. "I offer it to you just as it is; spelled as it is; and without change or anything else. This express company is a common carrier, under the interstate commerce law, and it cannot refuse to take this package, spelling or no spelling. That is the law!"

"I have no quarrel with th' intercommerce state law, Mr. Warold, sir," said Flannery with dignity, "and 'tis none of my business, sir. But th' spellin' of th' English language is, for 'tis my duty by gineral order number sivin hunderd and noineteen t' spell three hunderd worrds with th' proper simplification, and spell thim I will, and so will all that does business with Mike Flannery from sivin A. M. till nine P. M. Worrds that is not in th' three hunderd ye may spell as ye please, Mr. Warold, for there be no rule agin it, and in conversation or correspondince with Mike Flannery, before th' hour av sivin and after th' hour av nine, ye may spell as ye please, and I will do th' same, for thin I am off duty; but durin' th' office hours th' whole dang list from 'abridgment' t' 'wrapt' must be spelled accordin' t' orders. Yis, sir, 'polyp' and 'dactyl' and th' whole rist av thim. So tek th' package an' change th' address like a good man."

Mr. Warold glared at Flannery, and then turned to the door. He took one or two stiff strides, and then turned back. Anger was well enough as a luxury, but the Phoenix Sulphur Company had telegraphed for the tags, and business was a necessity. The tags must go out by the first train. He leaned over the counter and smiled at Flannery. Flannery glared back.

"See here, now, Flannery," he said gently, "you don't want to get into trouble with the United States Government, do you? And maybe get yourself and your President and every employee and officer of your company in jail for no one knows how long, do you? Well, then, just telegraph to your President and ask him whether he makes an exception in favor of the old spelling of names of companies, will you? That will do no harm. Tell him a package is offered and tell him the address, and let him decide."

Flannery considered a moment and then took his telegraph pad.

"President Interurban, Franklin," he wrote. "Shall i take pakag for Phoenix Sulphur Company, Armourdale. Anser quick. Westcote."

He ran across the street with it and came back. The head office had a direct wire, and the answer came a minute after Flannery reached the waiting Mr. Warold.

"Westcote. Give fuller particulars. Name consignor. Contents. Objection to receiving. (Signed) Franklin."

Flannery showed the message to Mr. Warold, and then took up his pen again.

"President Interurban, Franklin," he wrote, "Consinor Westcote tag company, tags is in it. o is in phenix and ph in sulfur and u in armordale. Westcote."

The President, sitting in his private office, received the message and wrinkled his brow as he read it. Telegraphing does not always improve the legibility of a message. As the message reached the President it read:

"Consinor westcote tag company tag sin in it oisin phenix phin sulfur uin armordale."

The President reached for his pile of various codebooks and looked up the strange words. He found "phoenix" in one codebook with its meaning given as "extremely ill, death imminent." "Oisin" was not given, but the word "oisanite" was, and the meaning of that the code stated to be "five hundred head prime steers." It was enough. The Interurban did not wish to accept the transportation of five hundred extremely ill steers, whose death was imminent.

"Westcote, refuse consignment absolutely. Write particulars," he wired.

Flannery showed the telegram to Mr. Warold, who would have sworn, if swearing had been his custom, but it was not. He took the package of tags and went back to his office and did the tags up in smaller bundles and sent them by mail with a special delivery stamp on each lot, and charged the cost to the Interurban. Then he wrote a long and fervid letter to the President of the Interurban, in which he gave his opinion of the simplified spelling, and particularly of a man who would interpolate it into business by the power of his personal fiat.

And Flannery wrote too.

"President Interurban, Franklin," he wrote, "i sent warold away with his tags pakag as you say to. he is mad I gess he will try to make trubbel. i tole him we coud not assept pakags addrest to Phoenix Sulphur Company Armourdale and it made him mad. no falt of mine, i ast him to leve out o out of phoenix and to yous f insted of ph in sulphur and too take that u out of armourdale agreeble to generl order numbr 719 and he wont do it. no falt of mine, i got to spell rite when the rules sa so. no falt of mine, i aint makin rules i sais to him. pres of interurban is responssibel how we spel. i onnly spel as he sais too. Flannery."

The President received the two letters in the same mail. He read that of Mr. Warold first, and, when he came to a threat to sue the company, he frowned. This was all new to him. There was nothing in the letter about five hundred indisposed cattle of any kind. He looked up Flannery's telegrams, but they cast no light on it. Then he opened Flannery's letter and read it. He got up and began walking up and down his office, stopping now and then to shake the fist in which he had crumpled Flannery's letter. Then he called for Miss Merrill.

She came, carrying her notebook in one hand and fixing a comb in the back of her hair with the other.

"Take this!" said the President angrily. "Flannery, Westcote --" He tramped back and forth, trying to condense all the bitterness that boiled in him into telling words.

"You are a fool!" he said at length, meaning Flannery and not Miss Merrill.

Then he thought a while. Having said that, there was not much stronger that he could say. He had reached his climax too soon.

"Scratch that out," he said, and began walking again. He looked at Flannery's letter and scowled.

Miss Merrill waited patiently. It gave her an opportunity to primp.

"Never mind, Miss Merrill," said the President finally. "I will call you later." He was wondering whether he should discharge Flannery, or issue Webster's Unabridged as general order number 720, or what he should do.

And Flannery went on with his letter to Mary O'Donnell, for it was a work of several days with him. A love letter was alone enough to worry him, but, when he had to think of things to say and still keep one eye on the list of three hundred words, his thoughts got away from him before he could find whether they had to be put in simplified words or in the good old go-as-you-please English that he usually wrote.

He was sitting at the desk when a messenger from the head office came in. The messenger had been sent down to Westcote by the President and had just been across to the tag company to fix things up with Mr. Warold. He had fixed them, and the lever he had used was a paper he held in his hand. It had mollified Mr. Warold.

As the messenger entered, Flannery looked up from his letter, and he smiled with pleasure. He was glad to see some one from the head office. He wanted information about some of the words he was ordered to use. He was puzzled about "stript." Did it mean "striped" or "stripped"? And was "tost" the kind of toast you eat or the kind you drink? And how about that funny looking combination of letters "thru," and a dozen others?

"I'm glad t' see th' sight av ye," he said, holding out his hand, "for I do be wantin' some help on these three hunderd worrds th' Prisidint has been simplifyin' down. 'Tis a tumble job they be, thim three hunderd! Some av thim I never will be after learnin'. Look at this now," he said, putting his finger on "orthopedic." "And this wan," he said, touching "esophagus." "Thim be tough wans! But it's thankful I am there be but three hunderd av thim. There w'u'd be no ind t' th' day's worrk sh'u'd th' Prisidint take a notion t' reforrm th' whole dic-shunnery. If he was t' shorten all th' worrds in th' English language, I w'u'd have a long job av it, niver knowin' whin th' worrds was spelled right or wrong. They be a powerful increase of worrk, thim three hunderd worrds. Take this wan, now -- 'thoroly' -- 'tis a bird, that wan is! But Flannery will stick t' th' list!"

The messenger laid the paper he had been holding upon Flannery's desk.

"I will be needin' an assistant sh'u'd th' Prisidint promulgate any more worrds like thim, said Flannery; "and I w'u'd recommind he be Corbett or Sullivan or wan of th' other sluggers, for th' patrons av th' company be not all easy-goin' like Mr. Warold. But progress is th' worrd of th' day, and I stand for shorter worrds, no matter how much extry worrk they mek. Th' Prisidint has a great head on him."

He opened the paper on his desk and read it.

"General Order Number Seven Hundred and Twenty:

"To all employees of the Interurban Express Company: Cancel General Order Number Seven Hundred and Nineteen. By order of the President."

"As I was sayin'," said Flannery, "th' Prisidint has a great head on him."



Saturday, October 07 at 1:21:20am USA Central
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