My imperial ambitions seem to be thwarted by the folly and ignorance of my elders.
No man could have been happier than I in the days after my wedding. I had every reason to be happy: my possession of Amelia was at last complete, and my wickedest lusts now found fulfillment with the sanction and approval of Christian convention. What a strange thing it is that a man who, in the eyes of all society, would be condemned as a vicious criminal if he ravished an unmarried woman, can be, by a few words spoken in a church, made into a paragon of virtue, with the uncontested right to ravish the same woman whenever he pleases!—Indeed, in my case, I believe Amelia ravished me at least half the time. It had never occurred to me, when I began to pursue Amelia, that a woman could take as much pleasure in conjugal relations as a man, or perhaps even more. It may be that Amelia is exceptional in that regard. I do not know; I know only that if you, young reader, should find such a woman, you ought to marry her at once, and let no scruples against foolish Christian morality stand between you and a lifetime of pleasure.
My happiness, therefore, was intense,—but it was not unalloyed. After my first few days as a married man, I began to consider that my position, while immeasurably improved, was not yet all I might wish for. The wealth I enjoyed in the Goode household was not mine; I did not control it, and indeed could not really do anything with it. At times it almost maddened me to think of all that money sitting idle (for Colonel Goode had a great personal fortune just sitting in banks) when it could have been building my empire of pens and paper. Then Amelia would call for me, and I would forget to be anything but happy. Only when I was not with Amelia did I perceive any deficiency in my life.
I took an entire week away from the firm after the wedding (though we took no wedding-trip, such things not being the fashion then among Allegheny society as they are now), and by the end of it I had begun to worry about how the store might be faring in my absence. Most of our revenue was coming from sales of paper and pens to department-stores and stationers across the country; but the store was still the capital, so to speak, of my empire, and I was not certain that I trusted my father to run it without me.
When I did come back for the first time, I was appalled to discover that my father, whom I had supposed to be running the place to the best of his ability, had not set foot in the store at all for the previous week, and that the management of the whole store had been left in the hands of Bradley. Even more shocking was that a new hired man was stocking shelves and waiting on patrons as if he knew his business. Bradley explained that my father’s health had not permitted him to spend his days in the store; and, as he had not wished to trouble me with business so soon after my wedding, he had permitted Bradley to hire another clerk, who had been working since Wednesday. I was forced to admit a grudging admiration for the man who had persuaded my father to lay out the money to hire another man; and, having observed him for some time, I found the new man to be quite good at what he was doing. Bradley had made an excellent choice. Moreover, a quick glance at the books informed me that the store was thriving under Bradley’s management. He took particular care to see to it that he served all the society matrons himself, and his unaccountable skill in dealing with them never failed to make a sale.
It appeared that the store on Wood-street could do without me after all. It was time to broaden the scale of my enterprise,—which doubtless would involve taking a great many risks of which my father would not approve. If only I had the Goode fortune to draw on for capital! But at least I could make the most of what I had.
For that reason, I resolved to pay a visit to my father, hoping that his current indisposition might be turned to my advantage. Leaving the store again in the obviously capable hands of Bradley, I took the horse-car back across the Allegheny (I believe this must have been very nearly the last time I availed myself of the horse-cars) and presented myself at the front door of the house on Beech-street. I was just about to commence the usual thunderous cacophony of ringing and knocking that was necessary to bring Mrs. Ott to the door when the door opened and a well-dressed man nearly ran into me on his way out of the house.
For a moment he registered surprise; then his brow lowered into an expression of hostile doubt.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
I was not accustomed to such a greeting on what had been, until very recently, my own doorstep. “Galahad Newman Bousted,” I replied, drawing myself up to my full height, and perhaps a little more.
“Ah—the son.” His face opened a little, as if I had been moved from the class of enemies into the class of mere nuisances in his estimation. “Well, I suppose you may go in. But he is not to be agitated. He is to have no other visitors—do you understand, my boy? I want him to have rest. I have every hope if he has rest. And no heavy foods at all. Rest, beef broth and a bit of toast, and above all no agitations of the mind. Do you think you can do that, my boy? Very good.” (He had not waited for a reply.) “I must be off now. I shall call to-morrow to see how my instructions have been carried out. Good day.” He touched the brim of his hat in the most perfunctory manner possible and slipped past me.
I remember feeling rather peevish at being called “my boy” twice. I, the husband of Amelia Goode Bousted, the son-in-law of Hiram Goode, the prime mover of the Bousted stationery empire—I was surely no “boy”! But it would not be very rational to dwell on some perceived slight from a stranger when my father was busy turning a slight cold into a Verdi opera. I had better go up and see him, make the proper expressions of filial concern, and then proceed with my original purpose of turning his temporary indisposition to my advantage.
I found my father sitting up in bed, with a half-finished bowl of broth on a tray beside him. “Ah! Galahad,” he greeted me with his usual oafish good cheer;—and then a protracted fit of coughing overcame him. He was certainly playing the melodrama consumptive well, with every turn and trope executed to perfection. Perhaps his pallor was off by a few shades, but it would answer the purpose.
“Why haven’t you told me you were ill?” I asked with what I hoped was just the right mixture of reproach and sympathy.
“Oh, my boy, there’s no need to worry yourself. Dr. Gratz says I’ll be just fine if I rest. I’d never have sent for him myself, but——” and here another bout of hacking came over him, and I had to wait an eternity to hear the end of a very dull sentence—“but Camellia insisted. She’s a good girl, but she will have her way.”
“And she’s quite right,” I told him. Privately I wondered whether Camellia had ever been right about anything in her life, but it suited me that my father’s indisposition should be magnified in his eyes. “Would you have been resting now if Dr. Gratz hadn’t insisted on it? You must rest, and you must leave everything else to your dutiful children. Viola and Camellia, I’m sure, can take care of your domestic arrangements, and I can take care of the business. I want you to think no more about it at all. Your wise guidance has fortunately placed Bousted & Son in such a position that it no longer needs your direct supervision, and the recovery of your health must be your primary, and indeed your only, consideration.” As I look back on those days, I see that I was in the habit of talking like an historian, which I probably thought added to the impression of gravity I desired to leave on those around me.
My father did not respond quite as I had wished. “Ah! Galahad, you really are everything I hoped you would be. But you needn’t worry so much about me. I’ll be much better in a week or two.”
“Nevertheless,” I said (with a broad and ingratiating smile), “I want you to turn the operation of Bousted & Son over to me entirely. You’ve earned a rest from your labors by a lifetime of ceaseless care for your business and your family.”
My father laughed merrily, which brought on another spell of coughing. There was nothing to do but wait it out. The time dragged appallingly as my father coughed and coughed; and each time I thought he had finished, and was about to resume our conversation, he started up again. Of all the embarrassing habits he had fallen into throughout his life, this coughing was by far the most annoying. Did he have to draw it out so?
At last he was ready to speak. “Oh, Galahad, you are a devoted son, to be sure,” he said with a smile, “but I’m not quite yet the permanent invalid you seem to think I am. I can see I’ve worried you too much. Dr. Gratz thinks I’ll be just fine with some rest, and I’m not ready to give up business just yet. What would I do all day? Please set your mind at ease, and—” (here he was interrupted by another spasm of coughing) “—and don’t give me another thought.”
This entirely unsatisfactory answer was all I could get from him. I had hoped to seize complete control of the firm, relieving my father of the last vestiges of his authority (and thus his ability to stand in the way of my grander schemes), and I had failed. Imbecile that he was, he was still capable of blocking my imperial ambitions. Really, it was too bad of him. I expressed the expected wishes for his speedy recovery, and I left in a foul mood.
Still, I had half-formed a scheme of action by the time I came back to the Goode mansion that evening. It was true that I saw my course through a glass darkly, but at least I had thought through enough of it to conclude that, if I could not convince my father of his own incapacity, I could at least implant that notion in the minds of the rest of the family. If he were surrounded by people who sincerely advised him to retire from business, he might be more willing to consider the idea; and if it came to open conflict with my father, I ought to have as many allies as I could impress into my service.
“My father’s health,” I told Amelia that evening, “is very discouraging. He didn’t wish to trouble me, but he hasn’t been well at all. And he has only old Mrs. Ott to take care of him, which is hardly any help at all.”
“Oh, the poor man!” Amelia said with genuine concern,—for she, like the old Colonel, had taken a perfectly unaccountable liking to my father. “Has a doctor seen him?”
“Yes—Camellia sent for a Dr. Gratz. I spoke with him today. He’s not very hopeful unless my father will rest—but you know him; you know that he doesn’t like to give up his daily business. I told him he ought to turn everything over to me, but he won’t hear of it.—And of course Mrs. Ott is of very little use, even if he can make himself heard. I worry about him in that house alone, or as good as alone. What if——”
“He must come here,” Amelia announced decisively.
For a moment, I was not certain what I had heard. “You mean—but you see, he is meant to be resting, and——”
“Well, of course, and he can do that so much better here. Our staff is not all deaf”—she smiled—“and you know my father would be delighted to have the company. There’s no reason for him to keep up that whole house when all his children have married, and we have ever so much more room than we need here.”
This was not at all what I had had in mind. I had only just escaped my father a week ago! But the notion had entered Amelia’s head, and now there was no getting it out. Her father had warned me, and he was quite right: once she had decided on something, Amelia was as unstoppable as a Baldwin locomotive. She took it for granted, of course, that I would be delighted by her attention to my father, and she set about making arrangements at once. In two days, the cavernous halls of the Goode mansion were echoing to the melodious sound of my father’s incessant hacking. Viola and her husband, meanwhile, took over the house on Beech-street. I did wonder why, if my father was so dreadfully ill, Mr. and Mrs. Colebrook could not have moved into the house while he was still there, to give him the assistance he needed; but my one hint of a question to Viola was met with such an indignant glare that I did not ask again. At any rate, the thing was done: my father was now part of the household, and the only consolation was in the size of the house, which was big enough that it was perfectly possible to lose one’s way between one end and the other.
The worst thing about the arrangement was that everyone else felt so positively jolly about it that I had to pretend to be jolly as well. The first morning of my father’s stay, he insisted on coming down to breakfast, which I am quite sure would have displeased Dr. Gratz. Colonel Goode immediately fell into familiar conversation with him, and soon the two of them were exchanging dull stories and feeble witticisms as if they had known each other all their lives. Sometimes they included Amelia and me in their conversation, but it was clear that our fathers were two kindred souls, knit together by a shared imbecility. How Colonel Goode had managed to amass his great fortune was a thing I could not explain at all: luck must have had a great deal to do with it, or perhaps he was a very different man in his youth.
“Your father is such a charming man,” Amelia remarked as I was preparing to go into town for the day.
“What makes you say that?” I asked with my best jolly smile. I was working very hard at being jolly, but I was genuinely puzzled.
“Oh, he’s always so happy—even when he’s so ill. He laughs so easily, and he always has a good word for everybody.”
Privately, I thought that Amelia’s description would exactly fit a good number of the idiots at the asylum; but I had to pretend to be pleased. “Yes, he’s always been like that. I was fortunate to have such a good example in my youth. Now, don’t let him wear you out with tending to his whims. I know your good nature, but you needn’t run to him every time he calls for one of the servants. It will make him feel as though he’s taking advantage of you.” That might or might not have been true, but I had my own private reasons for not wishing Amelia to be worn out when I came home, as I am sure any man who has ever been a new husband can imagine.
It was very different going in to the store since my marriage. For one thing, I began to arrive by carriage instead of by horse-car, which caused no little sensation among the other shopkeepers on the street the first time it happened. There could be no surer indication that I had risen far above them. It was Amelia who thought I was foolish to take the horse-car: “Surely Henry could drive you,” she said, “and wouldn’t you be much more comfortable that way?” I felt a little foolish myself when I realized that none of the other members of the Allegheny aristocracy were familiar with the horse-cars at all, except as conveyances for their day-laborers and scullery-maids.
Within the store it was very different as well. My father was no longer there to annoy me, and Bradley was perfectly capable of running the place by himself, with the able assistance of the new clerk. (I have forgotten the new man’s name; I cannot distinguish him in my memory from the innumerable clerks we have had in the store since then.) I occasionally waited on a lady who seemed particularly likely to place a large order, but I am not sure that I handled the patrons any better than Bradley did. Colebrook was doing a fine job with the correspondence, although there was so much of it that I often lent my assistance there as well. On the whole, though, I had much less to do. Clearly it was time to apply my own efforts to expanding the reach of Bousted & Son, making it the colossus I had intended it to be since I first heard the prophetic message of that can of tooth powder.
The great problem to solve was the problem of money. I desired not merely a national but an international reach, an empire of six continents, with ladies from Norway to New South Wales scrawling their fatuous correspondence on Bousted Stationery, with Bousted pens dipped in Bousted ink, perhaps even sitting at Bousted writing-desks. Such an empire could hardly be built by three or four men working in the little store on Wood-street; we already had more correspondence than Colebrook could handle, and even without any special effort it was clear that I would require five or six Colebrooks in a few months. No, to expand my empire to satisfactory dimensions I should need many men working in many offices in a big building with my name at the top. That would require a prodigious investment,—but one that would reap suitably prodigious returns, if my guess about the market was correct.
These thoughts were revolving in my mind more and more when I heard a bit of business gossip that suddenly accelerated their revolutions. It was said that old Mr. Rohrbaugh had decided to retire from trade, and that he was looking for a buyer for his store. Now, I had no desire to run a department store, but it occurred to me that the building itself was just about the size I had in mind for the expanded Bousted & Son empire. It was ideally located: a larger Bousted & Son store might occupy the ground floor, near enough to the original location that our regular patrons would suffer no inconvenience from the move. —This at least was the reason I gave myself, and it was very true that we did require a larger building for our expanding firm; but I am sure that my true motive was vanity. I had always regarded Mr. Rohrbaugh as the great man of Wood-street; by conquering his establishment, I should become the universally acknowledged great man of Wood-street.
The opportunity must be seized; but it required much more in capital than Bousted & Son possessed. My father-in-law, however, had enough filthy lucre stashed away in various places to buy half the city of Pittsburgh. Surely he could spare the necessary amount.
Such was my reasoning, but I was doomed to disappointment. I presented the idea to him as an opportunity for a sound investment that could be reasonably expected to pay unusually high dividends, but he flatly refused to give me even the paltry sum I required to buy the Rohrbaugh building. In fact, he laughed in my face. It was not an ill-natured laugh; it was oafishly good-natured, which was all the worse. “I think you’re a bit young to be making such grand plans for yourself,” he said cheerily.
I did try to reason with him. “I only thought it might be a good opportunity for you as well,” I said, “one that would make you a substantial profit in time.”
“I doubt whether I have that kind of time on this earth,” he replied with another oafish laugh. “You’ll have it all when I’m gone, anyway, but I intend to stick around for a little while longer.”
“Oh, many years, surely, I trust.” Of course I had to pretend to be just as pleased as punch by his refusal, telling him that I valued his wisdom and experience more than I could say, and that he should dispose of his money as he saw fit. I put on a smile to cover my bleak mood and walked out into the street to compose my thoughts. But I must confess that they were still in some disarray when I came back home.
Meanwhile, my father affected to be worse and worse. He could no longer come downstairs, but had his meals brought up to him. Colonel Goode spent a great deal of time by his bedside, and of course I, ever the dutiful son, did what I could to make myself look useful. I knew that I had created the proper impression of filial concern when Amelia warned me not to wear myself out too much with worry over my father. “I know how you love him, Galahad, but he has me and the staff to take care of him as well. I don’t want you growing old before your time.”
“Hardly any danger of that,” I assured her. But I did agree to spend less time with my father, which suited me better than she knew.
In the mean time, it was definitely announced that Rohrbaugh’s had been sold,—but the firm, not the building. Rosenbaum’s had bought up the stock, the name, and whatever else went with the store, and would be operating as “Rosenbaum & Rohrbaugh.” (This did not last long, of course; the name of Rohrbaugh disappeared from the signs a few years later.) That left the big store empty and looming ominously over the rest of Wood-street.
I was ruminating, hardly for the first time, on my frustration in being unable to purchase that building when I visited my father for our nightly talk. This particular evening he wanted to talk about me, to which I should have had no objection if he had not been so distastefully maudlin about it.
“You’ve become everything I hoped you would be,” he told me, “and I suppose a great deal more than I’d hoped. I won’t be around much longer, but I can see that I have no reason to fear for you after I’m gone.” Here he began to cough—not the vigorous, house-shaking coughs to which he had treated us a few weeks earlier, but a softer, altogether more civilized cough.
“I trust you’ll be with us a good many more years,” I told him; and I really did believe it. How could he leave me and deprive himself of the pleasure of annoying me every day?
“Well,” he said, his cough momentarily settling down, “I’ve lived to see all my children well established and happy, and how could I wish for anything more than that? If I go now, I know I’m going to my reward, and you’ll do a first-rate job of managing the firm. You’ll keep your sisters in mind, too, won’t you, Galahad? They depend on you more than you know.”
Well, of course they depended on me; I knew the exact extent of their dependence. One word from me, and their husbands would find themselves without positions. “I’ll always make sure they have everything they could possibly need,” I promised him, which was an easy promise to make, even if I intended to keep it. How much, after all, could they possibly need? Their desires might be infinite, but their actual needs were few.
“Of course you will. Now, Galahad, if you’ll forgive an old man——”; but here he began to cough again, and kept it up for two or three minutes. He liked to keep me waiting for the end of a sentence; it gave his statements a gravity they would not otherwise possess. “Well, Galahad,” he was able to say at last, “I don’t think you need much advice anymore. But a man likes to feel that he hasn’t lived his whole life without learning something. So I’ll pass on to you the little I’ve learned over the past sixty years. The one thing you can’t forget, Galahad, is your family. You live with people every day, and you never think how much they mean to you; but a moment, Galahad, a moment can take them away, and then where are you?”
Rather better off, I thought to myself; but I held my tongue.
“Your dear mother,” he continued after another coughing spell, “was everything to me, but she was taken away from me long before her time. But she left me the greatest gift in her power—my three children. I know your mother would be proud beyond words to see what you’ve made of yourself, Galahad. For her sake, remember your sisters, your precious wife, my friend Colonel Goode—all your family. Always put them first, and in everything you do make their happiness your guiding principle. If you do that, your mother will look down from heaven and smile, and—and so will I.”
I had to sit through a great deal more of this dime-novel sentimentality, which it pains me to repeat even more than it pains you, dear reader, to hear it; but eventually I left him and retired in the infinitely more satisfactory company of my wife.
I went into town as usual the next day, which was quite dull and rainy; and I had been in the store for about three hours, helping Bradley with the patrons (for we were very busy that day), when Henry suddenly appeared in the doorway.
“Mrs. Bousted needs you at home right away, sir,” he told me—more words, I believe, than I had ever heard him speak in one sentence.
“Did she say why?” I asked, looking up from the ugly scrawl in front of me.
“The elder Mr. Bousted is not well,” he answered.
Well, that was to be expected, I thought. I tried to tell Henry that I should come as soon as I had finished helping the lady in front of me, but the patron told me that I was not to worry about her, and that my father (whom she remembered, it seemed) was more important than her stationery. Bereft of my only excuse for delay, I glumly followed Henry to the carriage, which was waiting in the rain in front of the store, thinking all the while that here was yet another indignity I should be suffering more and more often. My father was obviously set on a long course of decline. He had made up his mind to play the part of the melodrama consumptive, and every day must bring some new crisis, or the play would lose its excitement for him. Well, somehow a stop must be put to this at once. Before he got accustomed to sending for me whenever the notion entered his head, he must be made to understand that we had servants to take care of his whims, and it simply would not do for him to have Amelia call me away from business every single day on some foolish pretext or other.
I was still ruminating on these things when I stepped into the entry hall at home; but my thoughts were brushed aside when I saw Amelia standing there, waiting for me. I had formed in my mind a certain picture of what she would look like when I arrived: she would look a little apologetic,—cheerful as usual, but understanding that she had allowed me to be inconvenienced, and rather wishing that she had not been put in that position. But that was not the picture that greeted my eyes at all. The Amelia I saw was standing still, with her head tilted a little downward, but her eyes meeting mine. Her cheeks were pale; her eyes were red. She was calm, but it was a calm that had come after a storm.
“Galahad,” she said quietly, “your father died a half-hour ago.”
I looked at her blankly; I remember I felt as if I ought to say something, and could think of absolutely no words that would suit the occasion.
“Dr. Andick was here, and I sent for you as soon as I could, but—— ”
She could think of no more to say after that; and for a moment we stood there in that hall, silently, looking at each other, separated by a distance of about two yards. I remember how sharp and distinct all the sounds around me were in my ears: the ticking of the hall clock, and the rain gently splattering in the puddles outside, and in the distance the rumble of Henry opening the door to the carriage-house, and the creak of a floorboard and the distinctively soft and quick footsteps of Elsie somewhere above me. And all at once I heard a wailing, unearthly sound, like a grief welling up from the chartless caverns of the earth; and it continued, and augmented, and to my astonishment I felt it coming from my own throat, while hot tears burned my eyes, and I could barely breathe; I felt Amelia embracing me, and I felt my head bury itself in her shoulder, while my whole frame shook with great racking sobs that came one after another, each one like a blow from a fist to my chest. Even now I cannot think of it without feeling the same burning in my eyes, the same constriction of my throat;—even now my sight is blurred with tears that come pouring out when I remember that day. Damn him! How can he do this to me, at the distance of so many years? Damn him! I was free at last from all his oafish prattle—free from the hideous embarrassment he caused me every time he opened his ignorant mouth—and all I could do was weep, wailing to the heavens, as if I had lost the one thing I loved most in the world, as if I could see nothing but despair; and even now, I think about that moment, and the tears pour out—— Damn him! Damn him to hell! I do not wish to continue this chapter.