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Title: The Speed Test
Author: Edgar Wallace
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1401781h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  Apr 2014
Most recent update: Apr 2014

This eBook was produced by Roy Glashan from a text donated by Charles Stone-

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The Speed Test


Edgar Wallace

Cover Image

First published in The Novel Magazine, July 1921

MISS JANE IDA MEAGH was prepared to brain the first misguided person who addressed her by either of her given names, and had accepted with gratitude at a very early age the appellation suggested by the combination of her initials—Jim. And from “Jim” to “Jimmy” is but a short step.

In the census return Jimmy described herself as a “stenographer.” So might Edison have marked himself “electrician” or Napoleon “soldier.” For there was no stenographer like Jimmy. She was at the very head of her profession, and was booked ahead like a film-star or a Harley Street specialist.

If there was one person in the world whom Jimmy hated and loathed with all her soul, that person was Henry Obbings. Henry was a limp youth who gave you the impression that he had shaved in a bad light. He was famous in the social circle in which he moved for his ready wit and a gift of repartee. He invariably recounted with a wealth of detail his encounters with Jimmy, and repeated with great effect the things he had said to Jimmy on these occasions.

It is true that the majority of his pert replies were those he remembered long after he had left Jimmy, and it is also a fact that he never quite gave a faithful account of what Jimmy had said to him. There were some things which Henry could never bring himself to repeat.

Henry Obbings was the pet speedster of the Rat-a-plan Typewriter Co. Ltd., and from time to time there were issued by him or on his behalf challenges to the whole of civilised mankind, man or woman, to meet him in a speed contest, the only conditions being that Mr. Obbings should operate on a Number 6 Silent Rat-a-plan, “the writer that writes.”

For the purpose of this challenge Jimmy regarded herself as inhuman; she steadfastly and resolutely declined to beat Mr. Obbings privately or publicly, and sneered openly at Mr. Obbings’s portrait in the newspapers. These appeared from time to time, for the Rat-a-plan had an excellent Press agent, and they revealed Mr. Obbings working at his machine, a sycophantic attendant standing by with an oil-can. It was a legend that he worked so fast that after half-an-hour’s use the bearings of the machine became so hot that it was necessary to open the door and windows of the room in which he worked, to let the temperature cool down.

There were also pictures of Mr. Obbings in his moments of leisure and recreation, sitting at a table, with his head upon his clenched fists, looking at a book with a studious, even sad expression.

One morning there came to Jimmy a further challenge by Mr. Henry Obbings. There was an annual exhibition at which business appliances of all kinds were shown, and it was a feature of this event that a diploma and a gold medal were competed for by stenographers. So far it had resulted in a walk-over for Henry.

Jimmy had turned down every such artful move and invitation, and she now dropped the letter into her waste-paper basket with an exaggerated gesture of disgust. Nor did the information that the Rat-a-plan Typewriter Co. offered an additional money prize of substantial value to anyone who could exceed the speed of Mr. Obbings produce a trace of irresolution to her decision.

She got up from her breakfast-table briskly and looked at her engagement- book. Jimmy was booked ahead, as has been remarked before, like a fashionable physician. Her amazing quickness, her accuracy, her unquestionable integrity justified the big fees she received, and incidentally confirmed her wisdom when she set out to be a specialist stenographer.

Her first call that day was on Dr. John Phillips, who was also a specialist in his way; and Dr. John, who looked a little tired under the eyes, as well he might be, for he had been up all night with a dying patient, received her at his morning meal.

“Thanks, no, doctor,” said Jimmy. “I’ve just breakfasted.”

“This is my supper,” growled the doctor. “Jimmy, I’ve the details of fourteen cases to dictate to you, and I hope you feel fitter for the job than I. By the way,” he said curiously, “where did you get your extraordinary knowledge from? You’ve never yet spelt a medical term wrongly.”

“I got them out of a book, the same as you,” said Jimmy.

The doctor looked at her admiringly.

For the next hour and a quarter she was absorbed in the gruesome and sorrowful business of recording the histories of cases, every other one of which ended: “The patient died at 11.45,” or whatever the hour might have been.

“Don’t any of your patients get well?” asked Jimmy as she snapped the band round her note-book.

“Just a few,” said Phillips. “Don’t forget, I’m only called in at the very end in lots of cases. I think some of them expect me to bring my trumpet, under the impression that I am the Archangel Gabriel.”

“A rotten life!” said Jimmy thoughtfully. “I’d sooner have my job.”

The doctor looked at his watch.

“I must hurry. I’ve got to go to Greenwich,” he said.

Nevertheless, and in spite of his hurry, he sat down again at his desk and lit a cigarette, offering one to Jimmy, who shared a common match.

“Jimmy, do you think that a young man with brilliant prospects, but no money, should marry a very nice girl and start family life on—that!” He snapped his fingers to indicate a microscopic income.

“It all depends upon the prospects,” said Jimmy cautiously. “If there’s only a prospect of raising a largo family, I should say no.”

“And I said no, too,” said the specialist with a sigh.

He was a youngish man, remembering the position he occupied in the medical world, and that he could still sigh over the follies of his fellow-men was a wholesome tribute to his youth.

“He’s a pal of mine. We were at University together,” he said.

Jimmy guessed that the unknown He was the patient at Greenwich. Dr. John was looking at the ceiling thoughtfully.

“I was talking to him about you yesterday.”

“About me?” said Jimmy in surprise.

“Yes, about you. I don’t think he has a great deal of money—in fact I know he hasn’t,” said Phillips frankly, “and it’s hard luck that at a time when he’s really ill—he’s had a bad nervous breakdown—he should have had a good offer from one of the technical journals for a series of articles.”

He paused and blew a ring of smoke to the rafters.

“Jimmy, I know your fees, and they are beautifully exorbitant. God bless you for keeping the specialist beyond the reach of common people. But if he asks you to go down—for I think he could dictate these articles; he certainly could not write them—I wish you’d charge him a sum which is not ridiculously low, but which is not your ordinary rate. One minute,” he said as she was going to speak. “I want you to put the rest of your fee on my bill.”

“I’ll do nothing of the kind, doctor,” said Jimmy quietly. “I’d do this job for nothing, but I suppose he wouldn’t like that. Anyhow, I’ll do it at an ordinary typist’s fee, and as to putting the rest of the charge on your account, that’s ridiculous, unless you send me a bill for doctoring my throat last spring and for giving me several helpful pieces of advice about my heart, lungs, and other important parts of me.”

He laughed as he rose.

“I must go, Jimmy. I’ll let you know about Fennell.”

THAT morning Miss Jane Ida Meagh was the victim of a trick. She had been engaged by a firm of manufacturer’s agents to copy a long document dealing with the cork harvest of Spain. She had to do the work at the agent’s office, and it was urged upon her that it was vital, was indeed a matter of life and death that she should get to the last word of that report in the briefest possible space of time.

It was a brand new typewriter, of a brand new make, at which she sat. The keyboard was, of course, universal, and most of the gadgets were of a type with which she was unfamiliar, though their manipulation was very easily learnt.

She had fixed the tension to her liking, and then—the machine grew eloquent under her lightning fingers.

“There’s your report,” she said, and observed that the agent had a stop watch in his hand.

“Five thousand words in forty-two minutes 15.2 seconds,” he said breathlessly but exactly.

“I dare say,” said Jimmy. “Shall I send you a bill or are you one of those never-owe-nobody people?”

The agent for this occasion was of the latter variety. Jimmy collected her cheque and left, and there the incident appeared to have closed.

But the next day she passed a shop window in which was a typewriter. And beneath the typewriter was a large sign:

on which
(the world’s champion stenographer)
wrote 5,347 words in 42 min. 15.2 secs.
A Record For The World.
Come Inside and Look at This
New Marvel of Engineering Science:

“God bless my soul!” said Jimmy, and despite this pious invocation went red with wrath.

She swept into the shop and demanded to see the manager.

“Take my name out of your window,” she said peremptorily when that gentleman made his appearance.

“But, my dear young lady——”

“Take it out or I’ll sue you for libel,” she said. “Anyway, it’s a lie. I took an hour and a quarter to do the work, on the worst brand of machine that I’ve ever handled. And what’s more, I shall make an affidavit to that effect.”

“It’s a good machine,” he protested; “there are only three in existence; they’re show samples, and——”

“Three too many!” snapped Jimmy.

“Mr. Brown said——”

“If Brown is the nom-de-guerre of the Armenian who engaged me to copy the cork serial,” said Jimmy, “I don’t want to hear what he said. Now, do you take out that placard, or do I tell the Press all my troubles?”

“I’ll take it out,” growled the manager. “I must say, though, that you’re not very considerate. You’ll remember that I gave you a lot of work last summer——”

“You can give it to somebody else next summer,” retorted Jimmy promptly. “Perhaps she’ll do it on ‘The Platen.’ It’s a fairly good machine for two-finger typists. Try ’em with ‘Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party’!”

She fired this invitation as she left him, and there was a sting in it which only a real typist will understand.

The placard was removed, and there the matter would have ended, for Jimmy was discretion itself, and she was in no mood to advertise the trick that had been played upon her. What annoyed her most was that the machine was really good and a distinct improvement on any she had ever used.

Unfortunately, the manager was not so discreet, and the news came to a wandering reporter. The reporter, who was a clever young reporter, wrote a most amusing story that covered the Platen Typewriter, without mentioning its title, with shame and ignominy, so that in every office where girls groped for keys and dreamt dreams of making Miss Jane Ida Meagh look like a pickled walnut, the Platen Typewriter became synonymous with foolishness.

The publicity had the effect of spurring Mr. Henry Obbings to a further challenge, to whom Jimmy was stung to a reply:

Dear Sir,

You ask me whether I will make on exhibition of myself, and urge as a reason the fact that you intend making an exhibition of yourself. The only inducement I can see for me so far forgetting myself is the paragraph in which you tell me that I should work at one end of the building and you at the other. The knowledge that we were as far apart as possible would be an inducement were it not for the fact that the certainty that I was under the same roof as yourself would make me sick.

Yours sincerely,

J. I. Meagh.

It was a very rude letter, such a letter as Mr. Obbings explained to his friends, no lady would write. Possibly he was justified.

“The truth is,” said Mr. Obbings... “no, Percy, I won’t show you the letter, it’s too disgraceful for words—the fact is she knows jolly well I could lick the stuffing out of her in spite of her vaunted speed.”

Yes, Mr. Obbings used the words “vaunted speed.”

“Perhaps she’ll enter at the last minute?” suggested the friend.

“I’m afraid not.” Mr. Obbings shook his head with the sad smile of a tiger deprived of a meal.

A FEW days later Jimmy was rung up on the ’phone. It was Dr. Phillips.

“Can you go down there to-day, Jimmy?” he asked. “Fennell thinks he could dictate the article, and he has got together most of the data.”

“I’m free this afternoon,” said Jimmy.

“I’ll wire that you’re coming then. Be there at half-past two,” said the doctor, and gave her the address.

That morning Jimmy had a great idea. Here was an invalid. She did not know much about invalids except that they lay in bed and refused delicate food. Sometimes they nibbled at a grape or swallowed a mouthful of chocolates, but now and again by a miracle they could be tempted to negotiate some particularly appetising dish, whereafter they put on weight and recovered with the greatest rapidity.

That morning Jimmy stood in her private kitchen, her sleeves rolled up, a cookery-book propped against a milk-bottle, and the light of battle in her eye.

No man or woman knew her ghastly secret. Even Mr. Obbings in his wildest moments never dreamt that her vice was the mangling and cremation of flour and fruit. Her lips moved as she followed the directions in the book.

“Flour, two spoonfuls.... Fresh butter... put in a dry, warm place... bake in a slow oven....”

She drew a long sigh and switched on her electric oven. She ate a hurried lunch, dashing backward and forward to the kitchen to examine the little thermostat which regulated the heat of the oven, and to compare the watch which lay open on the dresser with a note of the minute and the second that her work had gone to a warmer climate, written in pencil on the edge of the cookery-book.

She opened the oven, and with a cloth drew out the steel plate on which four beautiful confections lay, and the fragrance of them was as incense to her nostrils.

She looked at her work, then opened the cookery-book and examined the coloured plates, on which was a life-like representation of the little cakes she was baking. They were exact! If anything her creations were an improvement upon the book. She bore them to her room, and on her face was a look of holy exaltation. Each one she wrapped in white tissue and packed them into a small box and put the box into her attaché case.

She arrived at Greenwich in the afternoon. The Fennell’s house was a small one and poorly furnished, she saw at a glance.

A girl met her at the door, a smiling bright-eyed girl who had laughed at poverty so long that it had become a habit.

“You’re Miss Meagh, aren’t you?” she said. “It is very good of you to come so far.”

Jimmy, who was somewhat at sea on occasions like this, smiled and was glad to get an awkward situation over. She found her client lying on a sofa in a somewhat bare parlour. He was a man of thirty, and he looked terribly ill, Jimmy thought. A low table near by was piled high with books, newspaper cuttings, and blue-covered reports.

“My husband has been ill,” explained Mrs. Fennell. “But he’s much better now, aren’t you, Frank?”

“Oh, much! I’m just loafing now,” said the man with a grin. “I think I can dictate the best part of the article this afternoon, Miss Meagh.”

“Fire away,” said Jimmy, and produced her book.

Fennell’s estimate of his strength had erred on the optimistic side. After three-quarters of an hour of dictation he was exhausted.

“I’m sorry,” he said ruefully. “I thought I was stronger.”

“Don’t worry,” said Jimmy. “You’ve dictated quite a lot. Anyway, I can come down to-morrow afternoon.”

“It’s a long way out of town,” he said doubtfully.

“Rubbish!” said Jimmy, and that settled the matter.

They pressed her to stay to tea, and she needed very little pressing. She had not had the opportunity she had sought, and as tea was to be served in the drawing-room she thought that this was a chance not to be missed. In the interval of waiting she was introduced to the Fennell baby, and as usual, when babies swam into her ken, she became incoherent and foolish.

“I always get maudlin over babies,” she said apologetically. “Of course, it is every girl’s pose that she loves them, but I’m honest. I admit it.”

The maid brought in the tea, a plate of bread and butter, some jam sandwiches, and a large sponge-cake. Jimmy waited breathlessly.

“No, thanks, dear, I won’t eat anything,” said Mr. Fennell with a little shiver as he ran his eyes over the meal. “No, thank you,” he said again as though he had asked himself and refused.

“Really, you ought to eat something, Frank,” said his pretty wife, looking concerned.

Jimmy coughed. “A friend of mine makes rather good pastries,” she said carelessly. “She’s rather a good cook, and curiously enough she sent me...”

She opened her attaché case and took out the box with fingers which shook a little.

Would they have retained their beautiful shape and appearance? Before now Jimmy had known the most remarkable changes to occur between oven and eating. She removed the wrappings from one with a reverent touch. It was as it had been! Fennell’s eyes fastened upon it.

“That does look good!” He reached out his hand. “Have you one to spare?” He took the pastry between his finger and thumb and bit into it.

Jimmy held her breath and half closed her eyes.

“Splendid!” he said. “This is the most wonderful thing I’ve had for years.”

“Would you like one, Mrs. Fennell?” asked Jimmy in a hollow voice. Her heart was thumping. She could have wept at that moment.

“Really, it’s so extraordinary to see Frank eat that I can hardly take my eyes from him,” laughed Mrs. Fennell.

She nibbled at the cake.

“It’s really delicious. Your friend must be very clever.”

“Oh, very!” said Jimmy huskily. “Perhaps she will send me some more to-morrow.”

“Aren’t you eating any yourself?” asked Fennell.

“No,” said Jimmy eagerly, and fumbled for the other two. “Would you like them?”

Mr. Fennell not only liked them, but he ate them. He, an invalid, who had refused the choicest productions of the O.K. Cake Company (or the label about the sponge-cake lied), was eating with every evidence of relish the creature of her brain and hand.

“You can come to-morrow, can you?” asked Mrs. Fennell.

“I can come,” said Jimmy, speaking under stress of great emotion, “if—if you want me.”

It was a lame conclusion. The conversation drifted away from cakes, and Mrs. Fennell took the girl into her confidence.

“We’ve had a lot of bad luck, haven’t we, Frank?”

“Just a little,” ho said.

“Do you know that a week ago I thought we were going to be quite wealthy,” the girl went on. “Frank is an inventor, and he has invented one of the best typewriters that has ever been put on the market, and just fancy, because some stupid girl refused to work it, the manufacturers turned it down!”

“I think she was right,” said Fennell. “Apparently they got her to do a speed test by means of a trick, and they rather over-reached themselves.”

“They were going to give Frank a big sum of money on account of royalties, but now we hear that a lot of orders, which had been booked, have been cancelled.”

Jane Ida Meagh did not swoon. She sat up straight and stared at the girl-wife.

“What was the name of that machine?” she asked faintly.

“I called it ‘The Platen,’ because the . . .” He explained why it was called “The Platen,” but Jimmy did not hear.

She had ruined them—these lovely people of taste and refinement! This poor man stretched upon a bed of sickness! Jimmy’s eyes filled with tears, and she gulped at the extravagant picture of misery she drew. She had done it! And from sheer caprice and femininity. Jimmy had always hated femininity, and now it seemed the most loathsome of weaknesses.

“You’ll come to-morrow, and don’t forget those cakes,” said Mrs. Fennell.

JIMMY went on the next day, and the cakes she took were even more delicious than the last, for she had mercifully refrained from improving upon the recipe—which was occasionally Jimmy’s super-weakness.

That evening on her return to town she went into the shop where the “Platen” had been exhibited, and the manager, standing with his hands behind him in the middle of the floor space, greeted her with a grave but reserved nod.

“Good afternoon, Miss Meagh,” he said.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Salter,” for that was the manager’s name.

“How is the trade in ‘Platens’?” asked Jimmy briskly.

“Well, you smashed that for us,” said Mr. Salter bitterly. “But, still, I don’t mind so much, because I am thinking of taking over the Rat-a-plan agency for their improved portable machine.”

“Don’t do it,” said Jimmy. “What are you charging for the ‘Platen’?”

He named the price, and she produced her cheque-book.

“You’re not going to buy a machine?” he cried in amazement.

“There are two other ways I can get one,” said Jimmy. “One is by stealing it, and the other by accepting it as a gift—both of which methods are objectionable to me.”

“But you’re——”

“Get that flat-footed boy of yours to carry this to my cab, will you? I’m not so strong as I was twenty years ago.” Which was true, for Jimmy’s age was twenty-four.

The flat-footed boy, who was now a scowling flat-footed boy, carried the instrument to the waiting taxi, and Jimmy placed it on her table that night with determination in the set of her jaw, and the light of battle in her eye.

MR. HENRY OBBINGS sat in a gaily-decorated stand, surrounded by a large crowd of admiring stenographers, and demonstrated, what time a smooth and silky-voiced lecturer dilated upon the staggering qualities of the Rat-a-plan.

“Un-for-tun-ate-ly,” he said, “we have not the op-por-tun-ity of test-ing the rela-tive speed of the Rat-a-plan with any of its com-pet-i-tors.” He spoke as though each syllable was separated from its fellow. “Our challenge extended to the whole of the civilised world has not been accepted by any of our rivals, for reasons which I think need no explanation. Tonight, we had hoped there would be a competition for the Inter-Trades Diploma and Medal, together with the money prize offered by my company, but you are deprived of that interesting demonstration. As you will see, we are the only entrants in the competition.”

He pointed to a large bulletin board where the name of “Mr. Henry Obbings, The Rat-a-plan Typewriter,” was visible.

It was at that moment that the secretary of the exhibition pinned beneath the notice:

“J. I. Meagh, The Platen Typewriter.”

THE contest will remain in the minds of all interested in the delicate art of stenography. The two competitors sat, not at either end of the building, but at the same bench, each with the matter to be copied neatly stacked on their left and a pile of virgin white paper as neatly stacked on their right, and at the word “Go!” both struck simultaneously at the keys.

The test was for half-an-hour’s continuous work, and in that thirty minutes Jimmy wrote 4,630 words without a mistake, beating the baffled Henry Obbings by exactly twelve hundred words.

Incidentally, she established the name of the Platen Typewriter, so that to-day there is scarcely an office in the City where the peculiar tick-tick of its keys cannot be heard.


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