January 18, 1906
I returned to the office late in the afternoon, after spending a day and a half in Morrison, at court. Our office secretary, Miss Delp, handed me a few letters in a folder that required my signature.
No other messages? I’d asked.
“No, Mr. Wilson”, she said, as she continued to shuffle the papers on her desk briskly. Lila Delp didn’t look up at me as she spoke; in fact, she never looked at me in the face, except once or twice, and that was when Nick had introduced her to me on my third day in the office.
Miss Delp was one of the most efficient and thorough secretaries I’ve ever known; selected especially by Ella Van Sant. She one of the top graduates of the Sterling Business School: intelligent, practical, devout Lutheran, no nonsense. She came in, she did her job, she went home every day. She only spoke to me in terms of whatever task was before her. Miss Delp never made small talk; she did not bring knick-knacks or personal items with her from home to put around her desk, as some secretaries and clerks would do — there was nothing on her desk that was hers. It was as if she didn’t want to leave any clues about herself, she was so seemingly disconnected. Sometimes I wondered about who the other candidates were that she and Nick had in mind for the law firm, and how Ella had in mind when she went about vetting them.
I took off my hat and put it on her desk while I went to hang my coat up in the closet. She reflexively frowned at it until I hung it on the hatrack.
I don’t keep an exactly neat office myself, but it isn’t chaotic or in disarray. Everything on the surface of Miss Delp’s desk is precisely in its place. I’ve never seen her in any other mood but professional and distant; but I get the feeling that anything awry could incite her wrath. Sometimes I think to move her pencils or put her papers askew when I leave at night, just as an experiment, to see what other emotion or reaction she has underneath her unemotional exterior.
I glanced over at Nick’s office; its door was closed and the room was dark.
Mr. Van Sant been in today?
“No, Mr. Wilson.”
All right, I said, going into my own office, and closing the door behind me. I turned on my desk lamp, sat down, and rubbed my face. I was exhausted.
I had spent most of my time in Morrison doing ‘social calls,’ as Nick calls them: I had several meetings with our most important clients, then luncheon and dinner meetings with members of the Illinois state congressional delegation, and members of the Illinois bar. Nick had set all of these meetings up — he had planned to come with me, as my role would have been mostly as an adjunct as I was still finding my footing among the Illinois law community, and so forth.
But this morning, as we were to leave, a messenger came by with a note for Nick: Last minute emergency business regarding the grand opening of the Sterling State Bank next week.
It happened so quickly — I was going to be thrown right in to the deep end of the Illinois bar. I was expected to swim — and now, right now, this was my time of promise, to blaze my own trail. It was the moment I’d longed for, and now, here it was. I was thrilled, yet anxious. Ironically, I also recall wishing I’d been prepared a bit more for this — but I quickly gathered my things and was off to Morrison within the hour.
It wasn’t that I was not prepared to conduct our firm’s business on my own by then — I was up late almost every night after that first meeting in Morrison two days after I started work at Van Sant & Wilson with Nick and his — our — clients. I spent hours every day poring over minute details about our clients’ holdings and reading every single file, article, or report I could find about our clients’ contracts, their competition, and the impending national legal issues that could impact their business. Nick told everyone he met that he was always most impressed by my attention to detail in every legal matter I managed, and I was not going to let him down. Going solo to Morrison to represent the firm was exciting, but also a bit intimidating without Nick.
Nick must have picked up on that, because when he handed me his files and notes, he said:
“You’ll do just fine, Emmett. You’ve met a few of these fellows already; I introduced you to them the first week you were in town, and you will probably remember others from your first visit last Fall. And they know your situation, son. You’ve been working diligently to get up to speed on our clients; they want to get to know you, too.”
While I was on the train, I wrote what was, essentially, a braggadocio letter home to Lula, who I knew would read it and share it with everyone, especially Cephas. I went into great detail describing ‘my’ clients, key shipping and banking companies that were well known in Western Illinois. I mentioned that I would have several key meetings with the Illinois legislative delegation, and that I would be spending a lot of the time with Nick’s brother, Governor Sam R. Van Sant of Minnesota, who was in the state visiting his friends and political allies. I felt like I had finally found my niche.
At least it seemed that way.
I sat in my desk chair and leaned back in the semi-darkness of my office. I turned to look out the front window onto East Third Street — people were headed home after work; the dentist’s office on the second floor of the building directly across the street was darkened. But the saloon on the first floor below was brightly lit and in full swing — men were going in and out, the sound of laughter spilling out into the night as the doors opened and shut to the cold outdoors.
If someone had looked up and noticed, they might have waved at me, to come join them….
There was a quick knock on my office door, shaking me out of my reverie.
“If you sign these letters, Mr. Wilson, I’ll post them this evening on my way home,” Miss Delp said.
Yes. Of course.
I opened the folder on my desk and quickly signed the five letters. Miss Delp efficiently folded and put the letters in their respective envelopes as I handed them to her.
When she had them stacked in her hand, she said, “If there isn’t anything else, Mr. Wilson, I’ll bid you a good evening.”
No, nothing else, thank you. Good evening, Miss Delp.
She nodded and left. I waited until I heard her put on her coat and close the office door behind her. I listened for the sound of her steps moving down the hallway, the heels of her shoes clacking as they struck the stairs as she descended.
In the distance, I heard the squeak of the hinges of the outer door as it opened to the sidewalk, then the loud bang as the door slammed shut.
Now that I was by myself, I got up and locked my office door.
I went back to my desk, and took out my keys. I reached down and unlocked the bottom drawer of my desk, where I kept the most important client files. Hidden underneath the files papers and a few folders in the back, was a quart bottle of twenty-year-old Scotch, still sealed.
The whiskey had come with me from Florida, a gift of a few of the fellows who were at my going-away party. I hadn’t had a drink since the day I arrived here in Sterling — it was the longest time in-between drinks for me ever that I can remember. Because I had been so busy since arriving, and worried about appearances, and making a good impression on the townsfolk, I hadn’t thought about having a drink in awhile.
But on my way back from this trip to Morrison, all I was thinking about was the brown bottle of whiskey in the bottom of my desk.
The trip to Morrison didn’t go as well as I’d hoped.…
(Continues in Chapter 115)
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