My courtship of Gertrude is interrupted by the appalling behavior of my sister.
The next morning I awoke, shaved, and dressed as I did every day, but I felt like an entirely new man. My success with Gertrude had, in my mind, removed the last barrier to full adulthood. The feeling was irrational; I had not really conquered her, and perhaps if my mind then had reached its current state of development, I should not have felt any sense of accomplishment until I had entirely overcome her modesty. But she had accepted me without question as one who had reached that state of life in which it was natural that I should play the part of a lover. To her I had always been a man, and never a boy; that in itself was a singular success. Then, too, she had permitted me to hope, and in doing so, I imagined, had confessed her feelings for me. For what reason would a young lady permit a man to hope, I asked myself, except to avoid seeming too forward by giving at once the positive answer which must come eventually? These thoughts were cheering in themselves; and then, of course, the thought that some future day would probably bring me the unhindered enjoyment of all Gertrude’s charms was never far from my mind.
As I look back through the years at my youthful self, I am struck by how little of the doctrine of Baucher had penetrated into my notion of the relations between the sexes. I was in most ways utterly conventional, even moral. It was true that I had been willing to engage in a minor deception in my declaration to Gertrude, leading her to believe that her brother had spoken without my permission; but I had done so with the object of persuading her to give me hope that she might some day agree to be my wife. Courtship—betrothal—marriage—so many steps between me and what I really wanted from her! Today, I should regard them as unnecessary hurdles; and, were I not so fortunate as to be placed beyond the need of doing so, I should not hesitate to seduce, ravish, and abandon the next attractive girl who struck my fancy. How quickly, under the tutelage of the great Baucher, my moral development reached that advanced stage, you will read in the following pages. But, for a short time, our attention must turn to the monstrous follies of my sister Camellia.
My father and I rode in to Wood-street as usual the morning after my dinner with the Snyders, and on this particular morning Viola rode in with us, Camellia remaining at home. There was nothing unusual in this arrangement: we needed a third hand in the store, and since my father still refused to hire a man, one or the other of the girls might occasionally condescend to help out, as long as my father made it quite clear that he understood just how much of a condescension it was. We could easily have used the assistance of both harpies, but at least one of them always had a head-ache of the most incapacitating sort. So it was this morning with Camellia, and she was thus left alone all day with only the old half-deaf housekeeper, who was given to long naps in the afternoon. Presumably, my sister would fill the day with serial novels by illiterate lady authors; at any rate, it did not occur to us to imagine that she would do anything in the least interesting or unusual.
We arrived, Viola exchanging her usual furtive glances with the timid and rather bird-like clerk across the street, and immediately set to work. The whole day was chaotically busy, but my father, when I mentioned the possibility of another clerk to him, only repeated that he thought we might manage a while longer. I was very tired by the end of the day, though I had pleasant thoughts of Gertrude to sustain me; Viola, who had actually tended to two or three patrons herself, declared that she had never been so exhausted, and felt a terrible head-ache coming on. We had at least the day’s receipts to console us, although Viola had no interest in how the money was accumulated as long as it was there to be spent when she needed it. As we rode back home across the river, the world seemed quite satisfactory to me, and it wanted only a good dinner and a quiet evening to make it completely so.
Alas, there was to be no such quiet evening for me. We had not been home five minutes when Viola favored us with a loud and theatrical scream and came thundering down the stairs at full steam, her right hand clutching a sheet of Bousted’s Grade 7, and her left hand hoisting her skirts just enough to keep her from tripping and breaking her neck.
“She’s gone!” Viola was wailing. “She’s gone!”
“Mrs. Ott?” my father asked helpfully. Mrs. Ott was standing right beside him at the moment, enjoying Viola’s performance.
“Camellia!” Viola shouted with angry exasperation, before returning to her previous wailing tone. “Camellia’s run off—with—with a man!”
It was wonderful to see my father’s reaction to this news. His usual policy was to ignore everything he could not understand, and for a few moments his face went utterly blank, as though he were trying an experiment to see whether this information could safely be ignored. Finding that it could not be—since Viola continued her dreadful wailing, and Mrs. Ott was beginning to join her—he next tried smiling, as if he had just “got” the joke and was prepared to appreciate it as much as the next man. The smile lasted only for a moment, however, before the tiny clockworks in his mind clicked in place, and he at last began to understand that here, for once, was an unpleasant thing that he could not ignore. “What,” he said—“Camellia?” And having given vent to this pearl of wisdom, he stood frozen like a statue.
I, meanwhile, had also stood frozen, but only for a moment. My first reaction was to take the news like a brother:—that is, like a brother who cared for his sister’s honor. Almost immediately, however, it occurred to me that I did not care whether my sisters lived or died, and indeed of the two alternatives I might prefer the latter. If Camellia had run off with some bounder, then I was down one sister, and had only to contrive some means of ridding myself of the other one to make my life infinitely better. But then the cool consideration of my own advantage which I had learned from Baucher came back to me, and I reflected that, in the eyes of the world, a blot on my sister’s reputation was a blot on my own. All these things passed through my mind during those few moments when my father was running through his complete repertory of physiognomical contortions.
“Let me see that,” I demanded, and I snatched the note out of Viola’s hand. I read it aloud for the benefit of my father:
I am going to marry Charles and do not try to find me because we are going away and we will not be here. I am sorry that I will not see you again but I love Charles and I am going to marry him and we are going away.
“What, Camellia?” my father said again; and then he fell back on the settle and sat there immobile for, as far as I know, the next two hours.
“Who is this Charles?” I demanded.
Viola hesitated; I believe she was weighing the betrayal of her sister’s confidence against the obligation under which it would place me. I am sure that betraying her sister would have given her great pleasure; but because I had asked her to do it, she was reluctant. At last, however, the pleasure of betraying a confidence vanquished the displeasure of obliging her brother.
“Charles Bradley,” she said with a quavering voice. “Camellia has been seeing him sometimes during the day. He works nights at E and O.”
“Where does he live?” I attempted to infuse my voice with a certain amount of menace, and—incongruous as it seems under the circumstances—I recall feeling with a distinct relish that, for the first time, I was successfully exercising authority over my detestable harpy of a sister.
“A boarding-house,” she said, “at the corner of Sampsonia and Buena Vista.”
“Take care of Father,” I told her. “Bring him coffee or something. I’m going out.”
I think she was saying something as I left, but it might have been to our father. I had no desire to hear it, at any rate. I was in a thoroughly black mood as I walked back out into the street. It was bad enough that my sister had run off with a shift-worker from the brewery, but she had ruined my dinner into the bargain! And now here I was, marching off to look for her, when she could be anywhere in North America by now. I had no notion whatsoever of how to go about retrieving a missing sister; the only thing that seemed certain was that it would be hard work, whatever it was I ended up doing. And for what reward? If my efforts were crowned with complete success, I should have my pestilential sister back—and doubtless she would be the more pestilential for having been thwarted in her heart’s desire. If only she could have been married in the usual fashion, I might have been rid of her without the distressing complication of a blot on my own reputation. Such a foolish girl! Our father might not have approved of her choice, but did she actually believe he would have the strength of character to forbid the marriage? Yet she must run off, like the heroine in one of her dreadful novels—the heroine who, even in the world of fiction, usually comes to a bad end. How selfish she was! Since I am entirely selfish myself, I naturally despise selfishness in others, as a vice that tends to prevent them from giving due consideration to my convenience.
My only concrete plan, at any rate, was to inquire at the boarding-house, to see whether anyone there had some notion of where this Bradley fellow might have gone. Then I must pursue him, and, I supposed, find him and my sister, and tell him—tell him what? The absurd thing was that I had hoped for years to find some man fool enough to marry one of my sisters, and now that he was found, I must prohibit the very thing I had hoped for! If only he could have done the thing honorably! If only Camellia could have found a man with the means to support her, and the courage to face her father—now, really, how much courage would that have taken?—then I should have been rid of one sister, and I should not have been forced to expend all this useless labor on top of the wearying labor I had already spent because my father was too parsimonious to hire a single clerk. As I marched along toward North Avenue, these two injustices somehow conflated themselves in my mind, as if I had been forced to set out in pursuit of Camellia because my father had not hired a clerk.
Down North Avenue, still crowded with men returning home from stores and offices, hooves and wheels clattering against the stones; and then into the quieter residential streets; my mind still churning, still meditating on the injustices I had to suffer; until at last I came to the boarding-house in question, where a cab was waiting in front, and a weedy little man in patched trousers was carrying two valises down the steps.
At once I knew that this was Bradley. Only such an unprepossessing wisp of a fellow would have any use for Camellia. A quick glance at the window of the cab showed me Camellia herself, who had already seen me and was doing her best to melt into the upholstery. I almost burst out laughing at my good fortune, although I ought to have surmised that a man who was fool enough to elope with Camellia was fool enough to botch the elopement. I marched straight up to him and confronted him while he was still on the last step, which put our eyes on just about the same level.
“I believe you intend to carry off my sister,” I said in a threatening tone.
The poor little man was petrified; he dropped the valises, one of which landed with a heavy thump on his own foot.
I had absolute power over him—the feeling was exquisite—and suddenly all the thoughts that had been turning in my mind fell into place, and I saw what I must do with perfect clarity.
“Well, I have no objection to that,” I continued. “But I do demand certain conditions.”
“Conditions?” he asked cautiously in a voice that sounded like a rusty hinge.
“Conditions which, if you adhere to them, will prevent me from blacking both your eyes,” I explained.
“Ah,” he replied sagely.
“First,” I said, “you will abandon this ridiculous elopement. Second, we shall all go back in the cab to see Camellia’s father and discuss with him the terms of your marriage.”
“Oh?” he asked.
I picked up his valises and handed them to the driver, who heaved them up on the roof of the cab; then I graciously allowed Bradley to precede me into the cab, where Camellia was sitting with her mouth open. Her face was whiter than I had ever seen it before.
“Good evening, Camellia,” I greeted her cheerfully, taking off my hat. “Mr. Bradley has changed his mind and would like to take us both home. —Oh, I don’t mean that he has changed his mind about marrying you, but merely about the method of accomplishing it. I have persuaded him to ask Father for your hand.”
Camellia looked uncomprehendingly at her beau, but he was as mute as she was. I had no objection to their silence, since, at this stage of the proceedings, it was difficult to imagine what either of them could say that would be of the slightest interest to me. I gave the driver our address, and he began the journey by the most circuitous route possible, hoping, I suppose, to increase his fare for the trip. It made no difference to me. I had my sister completely in my power. Two sisters in my power in one evening! I was sure that, at last, I was free of their domination. (In this I was quite wrong: it is a marvelous property of sisters that, no matter how much power and esteem he may win in the world at large, a man can never entirely free himself from their domination.) I had only to arrange for this marriage to take place under more auspicious circumstances, and I could be rid of Camellia; and Viola, I thought (incorrectly), would hardly dare assert her superiority after I had so clearly manifested myself as the tower of strength in the family.
“Now,” I began, after what seemed to me a suitable interval of silence, “it seems to me that the one thing standing in the way of your nuptials, my dear sister, is Mr.—did you say his name was Bradley?—Mr. Bradley’s complete inability to support you. How did you intend to address that?”
Bradley was silent, leaving Camellia to her own devices. “Two can live as cheaply as one,” she said at last, tentatively.
“Yes,” I replied with a great show of patience, “but one lives in a boarding-house for young men. You see the difficulty.” Neither one of them spoke, so I continued. “In order to consider embarking upon your connubial existence, it seems to me, your Mr. Bradley ought to have a position that pays well enough to support, not only a wife, but children as well.” Camellia blushed violently, showing, I suppose, that she was not entirely ignorant of the process by which elopement might lead to children soon or late. “Can you honestly tell me, Mr. Bradley, that your wages at the brewery are sufficient to keep up a household?”
Bradley was still silent; but his face fell a good six inches, telling me exactly what answer his own heart had given him.
Here was the moment I had anticipated with a relish that it took all my art to conceal—the moment when, from the most purely selfish motives, I should be able to play the part of the selfless, pure-hearted benefactor of my sister and her little weed of a beau.
“Then it seems to me that you ought to take a better position,” I said, almost clenching my teeth to suppress a wicked smile. “Can you write tolerably well?”
Bradley just managed to squeak out the word “Tolerably.”
“Then you will write out a letter of resignation, and, as soon as you are free from your obligations at the brewery, you will begin work at Bousted & Son.”
I had been looking forward to the surprise and gratitude that I was sure would register on his face, but all he could manage was incomprehension. Camellia, however, was a study. I really do believe that every expression of which a girl is capable flitted across her face in a fraction of a minute. Surprise, confusion, joy, fear, doubt, gratitude, wariness—every one giving way in an instant to the next. Oh, if we had only had Kodaks in those days! At last she settled in with an expression of thoughtfulness, and asked, “But what about Father?”
“You leave Father to me,” I told her. In truth she had hit on the one point on which I was uneasy as well. How would our father take to the notion of hiring as a clerk this Bradley fellow, about whom he knew nothing at all except that he had attempted to carry off Camellia? Hiring a clerk at all went against my father’s inclinations, and here I was about to ask him to hire a man who must certainly be the object of his righteous indignation. However, it was necessary to procure the agreement and his blessing, so that I could at once lose a sister and gain a clerk, which were my two fondest wishes at the moment. And it seemed to me that the best way to secure my father’s agreement was to lie to him.
I told the driver to wait when we arrived at our house, showing him a handful of dollars and implying that one or more of them might soon be his. (I cannot pass by this opportunity to remark on what a useful thing it is to have more money than other people; and to every young man attempting to make his way in the world, I should like to say that no investment brings dividends more quickly than simply having five or six dollars to jingle together when it is necessary to exert one’s influence.) Then I led Camellia and her Lothario out of the cab and into our entry hall.
My father was still sitting immobile on the settle, with a cup of cold coffee beside him. But the moment he noticed Camellia, he sprang up, bellowed her name, and embraced her tightly enough to interfere with her respiration. Then, of course, he turned to me.
“You brought her back! Galahad, my boy, you brought her back!”
“Oh, I had little enough to do with it,” I said, and before Camellia could say anything (there seemed to be little danger of Bradley’s producing articulate speech at the moment), I quickly began spinning out the lie I had thought up in the cab.
“Camellia,” I said, “has been foolish, but a girl in love will do foolish things. Providence, however, has directed her affection to a most honorable gentleman. As soon as she arrived at his lodging, he at once summoned a cab to take her back home, and—though he is most sincerely attached to her—insisted that he would do nothing that would tend to her dishonor. When I arrived, she was already in the cab.”
Bradley was watching me with what I already recognized as his usual expression of complete mental vacuity, but Camellia was staring with her mouth wide open. It was at this moment that Viola appeared at the top of the stairs; and, what with her thundering down like a herd of buffalo and screeching in delight as she embraced her sister, it was some time before I could continue. At last, when Viola had screeched herself out, I was able to resume.
“Mr. Bradley’s intentions are entirely honorable,” I told my father. “He would dearly love to marry Camellia, but was unwilling to ask your blessing because his circumstances would not permit him to support her in the manner he believes she deserves.” I could have wished that Bradley might have shown a glimmer of intelligence, but at least, as long as he was standing inert like a cigar-store Indian, he was not contradicting me. “Seeing, however, how much Camellia is attached to him, I persuaded him to come back with us and ask you for her hand in spite of those difficulties, and I hinted to him that there might be a position for him with Bousted & Son.”
That, I thought, was a fine piece of work. If there should be any young readers who happen to light accidentally upon this book (for I am sure your guardians will do their best to keep it out of your hands), this tale of mine may serve as a pattern of a profitable falsehood. A truly effective lie has always as much of the truth as it will hold in it: we may say that it is but the truth with a few convenient adjustments. By a simple comparison of my previous narration of the events in question with the redacted version I produced for the ears of my father, the reader may easily discern how such adjustments are to be made, and thus may have the benefit of my experience the next time there is a need for bearing false witness. No skill is more necessary to a life of wickedness, in my estimation, than a facility with lying; and it would certainly be well for you, dear eager young readers, to get in some early practice in the art.
For some few seconds after I finished speaking, I was kept in suspense as to the success of my scheme. My father looked at Camellia, and then at the mute and ligneous Bradley, and then at me, as his tiny brain struggled with the mighty burden that had been laid upon it; then he suddenly lit up with a simian grin that displayed every one of his teeth, stepped over to Bradley, grasped his hand, and shook his whole arm up and down as if he expected to pump oil out of the man.
“My boy,” he exclaimed, “there are no words—no words!” (And yet he continued to speak in words, ill-chosen though they might be.) “You’ve treated Camellia like the treasure she is, and, by heaven, if you don’t deserve her, no one does!”
Privately, I wondered by what perversion of justice even the most hardened and unrepentant sinner could be said to deserve one of my sisters, but of course I let my father say what he liked.
“Oh, please excuse my manners,” I said, since Bradley was still mute and staring at my father with eyes that might have been made of glass. “Father, this is Mr. Charles Bradley. Mr. Bradley, this is my father, Samuel Bousted, the founder of the firm.” I am not certain why I added that last phrase, except that it sounded impressive, and it would (I thought) be a good thing to keep Bradley in awe of us.
My father greeted him heartily; Bradley mumbled something inaudible, which was enough, since my father was still babbling. It was with difficulty that I prised them apart, my father being apparently willing to accept this Bradley into the family forthwith. At length, I reminded them that a cab was waiting outside, and promised to ride back with Mr. Bradley to make some arrangements in regard to his employment as our new clerk. I left Camellia in the hands of Viola, whose brow had begun to darken with envy until I had the good sense to remind her that she and her sister had a wedding to plan, at which her eyes immediately lit up with excitement, and, with Camellia in tow, she ran up the stairs to begin making lists.
I took Bradley back out to the cab and woke up the driver, who woke up his horse, and we set off for the boarding-house at Sampsonia and Buena Vista.
“Well,” I said to him as we clattered through the dark streets, “I hope you were well and truly set on marrying my sister, because there is going to be a wedding. If you attempt to wriggle out of it, I am not exaggerating when I say that there will be hell to pay.”
He nodded mutely without blinking, and I continued.
“But of course it’s foolish of me even to worry about that, isn’t it? I’m sure nothing would induce you to abandon a girl like Camellia. But look here, Bradley, I want you to remember to whom you owe your unimaginable good fortune.”
His face was an utter blank, and I realized it was useless to be oblique with him.
“You owe it to me,” I said rather shortly. “I made things all right with her father because I love my sister and desire her happiness. As a result I am now saddled with a clerk I didn’t particularly want, but I am prepared to make that sacrifice for my sister’s happiness if you are prepared to do your best for me.”
Once again, he nodded silently;—but it would be useless to report any more of our conversation in these pages. In various ways, I attempted to impress upon him how deeply he was obligated to me, and each time he nodded vacantly. If I had not heard him speak once or twice, I might well have taken him for a mute. Nevertheless, it seemed to me that he had absorbed enough of the general tendency of my remarks to understand that he was greatly in my debt, and that he would repay the obligation by giving me his best effort as clerk. And I do believe he took that admonition to heart;—with what effect, you shall read in its proper place. I left him at his boarding-house, and then had the driver take me home again, where I gave him two dollars for his trouble, which was doubtless more money than he normally made in a day’s work.
“Galahad,” my father announced when I came into the parlor after putting off my coat, hat, and gloves, “I have something I wish to say to you.”
“Really?” I asked, a little apprehensively. Had he had time to ruminate on the evening’s events and comprehend that I had foisted a clerk on him against his will?
“Don’t think I haven’t noticed how much you had to do with all this.”
“Oh, not really so much,” I began, but he interrupted me.
“You needn’t lie to me, Galahad. I am your father, after all—I know you better than most people.”
Had I underestimated my father? Was he really a good bit more intelligent than I gave him credit for being?
No, of course not. “I only wanted to say, Galahad,” he continued, “that, as happy as you’ve made your sister, you’ve made your father even happier. It’s been hard, Galahad, rearing the three of you without your mother. I wondered sometimes whether I could do it. But to-day I looked at you and saw a man who will put his sister’s happiness before his own—who will move heaven and earth for the sake of his family—and I knew, Galahad, I knew I had a son I could be proud of. You’ve been very successful in trade, and of course I have been proud of that, but this evening I saw in you everything that makes a man a man. Virtue, Galahad—no worldly success is worth a penny without it. You may yet be a rich man, but your real wealth is already in your heart.”
I find that I have difficulty recording this speech without tears—hot tears of shame that I should have sprung from such oafish stock. But I have recorded it as accurately as I can remember it, to remind me how far I have come from such absurd notions as my father’s. At the time, I dissembled my true feelings as well as I could, giving him some conventional reply to the effect that I could not possibly fail of learning some virtue with such an example as his before me. This reply pleased him, and I was thus at liberty to retire to the kitchen to see what remained of the dinner Mrs. Ott had prepared for us.