Posts filed under “Novels”
I enjoy the fruits of my wickedness, but am confronted with a difficult choice.
It was not paradise, but it was as close to paradise as I had come in my short life. “Oh, dear sir—thank heaven!” Miss Goode exclaimed, looking intently into my eyes. I might have happily gazed into hers forever if I had been offered the opportunity. “You were hurt,” she continued after some time, having evidently decided that I was capable of understanding her now. “We brought you here—I hope you’ll forgive the presumption, but we didn’t know your name, and the alternative was the Sisters of Mercy. I owe you such an incalculable debt that I insisted we must care for you ourselves. Can you speak yet?”
I tried the experiment: “Yack,” I said. I cleared my throat and tried again: “Yes.”
“Forgive my not having introduced myself. My name is Amelia Goode.”
“Galahad Newman Bousted,” I responded, using up most of my breath. If I had not been so breathless, I should certainly have continued, “but I go by Newman Bousted,”—but I did not.
“Galahad!” she repeated. “What a wonderfully apt name! Are you a knight-errant in the service of every lady in dire distress?”
“Am I?” I asked, doubtless looking like a wandering idiot let loose from the asylum.
“You poor man!” Her voice was full of concern and compassion. “My rescue has cost you so dearly!”
Rescue! In my disoriented state, I had not yet put together what had happened to me. I had beaten off another pirate intent on seizing my prize—so much I remembered now. But in Amelia’s eyes I had rescued her from a fate worse than death! The extent of her misapprehension was so great it made my mind whirl. And even as it was whirling, my mind was telling me that here was a turn of events which must redound to my advantage.
“Any man in similar circumstances would have done the same,” I said weakly. In a manner of speaking it was true: any man who had plotted to have his way with a divine beauty, only to see the prize nearly snatched out of his hands at the very last moment, would have attacked the confounded interloper in a blind fury. I know that Miss Goode, however, took another meaning.
“Few would be so bold as to beat off a man twice their size,” Miss Goode replied. “If there is any small way—nay, any great way—I can be of any service to you, I hope you will not hesitate to make me aware of it.”
I began to sit up. “I should hate to put you to any——”
But suddenly sitting up lost its attraction, and my head fell back on the pillow.
“Pray do not exert yourself,” Miss Goode said. “Let me inform your wife that you are here, and then you really must stay with us until you have sufficiently recovered.”
“Oh, I have no wife,” I told her, and I noticed a subtle change in her physiognomy that I interpreted as a favorable omen. Then I thought of my family, and added, “But I do have a father who may be wondering where I am.”
“Tell me where he is, and Sheridan will be dispatched at once to inform him.”
I gave her our address on Beech-street, and with a promise to return shortly she went off to do her dispatching.
Meanwhile, I was left alone with my thoughts, which were beginning to order themselves in a more rational manner. First, I was growing aware of a beating pain in my skull. I cautiously felt my forehead, and discovered that a bandage was wrapped around my head; the pain inclined me to believe that the bandage was the only thing holding my skull together. As long as I was gazing on the divine face of Miss Goode, the pain had not obtruded upon my perception; but now that it had the field to itself, it made the most of its opportunity.
In order to distract myself from the pain, I made a careful examination of the room, which was nearly the size of two of the bed-rooms in our Beech-street house put together. It was furnished in the style of the antebellum age, though with concessions to the more artistic modern taste in its hangings and wallpaper. From the lack of obvious personal belongings I deduced that it must have been a guest-room; doubtless the house that could accommodate such a room as this must have a multitude of guest-rooms. I had begun to speculate on the size of the establishment when the door opened again to admit, not the radiant Miss Goode, but an old man who must, I decided at once, have been her father, old Colonel Goode of the Monongahela Glass fortune.
“Well,” he said with a surprisingly hearty voice for one who looked so fragile, “you’re with us now! You gave us a little fright, my boy, with all that blood. Amelia’s been taking good care of you, has she? Splendid. If there’s anything at all you need, don’t hesitate to ask.”
“Thank you, sir,” I replied weakly. The weakness was not altogether feigned, but I was also beginning to decide on weakness as a matter of policy. It might prolong my stay if I gave the impression that I was too weak to go, and if I had a chance of spending any more time near the divine Miss Goode, I was willing to exaggerate my weakness. I did not yet know what use I might make of this opportunity, but I did know that it was not to be squandered.
Since old Colonel Goode will have something to do with the rest of my story, I suppose I ought to describe him. Of course everyone knows something about Pittsburgh’s first millionaire;—the first of many, and perhaps the most beloved by the ordinary people of Pittsburgh and Allegheny. No scandal has ever sullied his fame, and I could honestly believe that the man’s mind had never formed an impure thought. —But these things will come later. As for what I saw from my bed in the guest-room that night, he was an unusually small man, frail in construction, but quick and lively in his movements, with an admirably straight posture. His face showed no especial intelligence; a wispy beard adorned but did not conceal his chin, and his eyes sparkled under neat brows, but sparkled only with a native vivacity, and not with any unusual perception. He had lost most of the hair on his head, and what remained was snowy white. Not a thing was out of place on him: his collar was exactly right, his jacket exactly symmetrical, his watch-chain draped with apparently unconscious precision. He was the picture of prosperous virtue.
I am sorry to sweep him off the stage so soon after introducing him, but Colonel Goode hurried off to his next duty after only a few more pleasant words of gratitude. He will return more than once in these pages, however; we shall not miss him long.
For a short time I was left alone again, but I had scarcely had time to ponder my stratagem for making use of my presence in the Goode household when Amelia reappeared and drew a side chair up to my bed.
“I have sent Sheridan to your father, Mr. Bousted,” she told me, “and now I shall not leave your side until the danger is past.”
“Dr. Andick was very particular that you should not be moved for at least four hours after you regained consciousness. After that, he said, the danger would be past, and you might be permitted to walk with caution—with caution, he stressed. He thought you should not leave this house until at least to-morrow morning.”
“I do hate to be an invader, Miss Goode.” I did not hate it at all if it brought me so close to this incomparable beauty, but I believed that conventional politeness would conduce to my advantage.
“My champion will never be an invader in this household!” she replied with a radiant smile. O! reader, you may suppose that you have seen a radiant smile;—you may speak of the smiles that adorn the faces of the most celebrated beauties of your own age;—yet you have seen nothing worthy of that description, for you have not seen the smile of Amelia Goode!
For an hour or so more, Miss Goode spoke of inconsequential things—as though any word that dropped from such perfect lips could possibly be inconsequential—and I remember every word. I also remember that even then I felt a vague sense that Miss Goode was leaving something unsaid. I shall not burden you with the rest of the conversation, however; you, dear reader, who are most likely myself at a later age, would probably lose patience with me, though I confess it still gives me considerable pleasure to recall that first evening with Amelia.
It gave me no pleasure at all to have it interrupted by my own father, who burst so suddenly through the door that, had I been a man of weaker constitution, I might well have succumbed to some sort of nervous fit. He was followed closely by my sister Viola, and at only slightly less distance by old Colonel Goode. My father made the most appalling show of concern for my welfare; and Viola attempted, if possible, to outdo him, as if she really did prefer that I should live rather than die.
This ugly display of sentimentality made me wish I could slip back into that unconscious state from which I now regretted awakening—especially when old Colonel Goode very graciously introduced himself to my father, and my father, having ascertained that this was indeed the same Colonel Goode of whom all Pittsburgh and Allegheny spoke in reverent whispers, replied with the most oafish forthrightness, “You know, I’m a businessman myself.”
I must, however, confess that I felt a secret thrill when Amelia immediately asked whether he was the Bousted of Bousted’s Graded Stationery, and my father, in the full flush of his ridiculous paternal pride, told her that it had been entirely my invention. She knew my Graded Stationery—nay more, she used the Grade 8 every day, or so she said. Every day, those impossibly delicate fingers swept over the smooth, perfectly sized surface I myself had specified. It was almost as if she had been touching me for months without my knowing it. What bliss it would have been just to be a single sheet of paper!
I shall not weary myself with recounting every fatuous word that dribbled from my father’s lips. Miss Goode was very gracious to him, telling him that the father of such a son must be something of a hero himself; my father at least had the sense to blush at that remark. My sister Viola was mostly mute, which is certainly the way I prefer her; I believe she was overawed by her surroundings, since she had never before been in a building as large as the Goode house unless it was holding a temperance meeting.
My father and Viola stayed far too long, and my father was far too profuse in his gratitude to the Goodes when Amelia made it clear that she would not allow me to be moved until the morning. At last, however, my father took Viola away with him, and (old Colonel Goode having retired) I was left alone with my nurse.
By this time, but for the roaring pain in my head (which a bit of Colonel Goode’s excellent brandy had blunted somewhat), I had recovered most of my vigor, and I was far from ready to go back to sleep. Miss Goode was also invigorated by the excitement of the evening’s events. She was ready to talk, and I was more than ready to hear her voice. Yet as she spoke of this and that, I was more and more certain that there was something she wished to say beyond the inconsequential trivialities that made up our conversation. I believe that the weather has never been more thoroughly observed, catalogued, and subjected to the minutest analysis than it was during the hour after my father and hers left us alone. But at last we had exhausted even the endless conversational possibilities of temperature and precipitation, and we both fell silent for some time.
“Mr. Bousted,” Miss Goode said at last, “I believe I owe you—a confession is what perhaps I ought to call it. I feel a certain—a certain responsibility for your injuries.”
“Certainly any decent man who happened to see what I saw—an innocent woman assaulted by the basest ruffian—would have reacted the way I did. It was mere chance that I happened to be the one who——”
“But it was not mere chance,” she declared with a sudden rush of feeling. “I was responsible—more responsible than you know. It was not chance that placed you in harm’s way. It was my own—my own folly.”
I made no answer; I simply gazed at her with incomprehension.
“I was imprudent,” she continued. “I exposed myself to more danger than—than a young lady ought to be exposed to.”
“Surely a young lady has a right to take a drive through the park without molestation,” I said. How wonderfully sincere I sounded!
“But it is not prudent for her to drive after dark, except that—except that—Oh, Mr. Bousted, I have been such a fool! I ought to have listened to my father’s gentle admonishments, but I—but I wanted to see you.”
These last few words were spoken so softly that at first I was not at all sure I had heard them correctly. “But, Miss Goode, what could you mean by that? Until to-night——”
“Oh, doubtless you do not remember it, but you have seen me before. We passed in the street and I saw your face. Such a kind face! I remembered your face, though I saw you only a moment. And then I saw you again, and—and then I began to see you walking in the park. So then—and, oh, I know it was unpardonable folly—I came back the next evening at the same time, and you were there again. And I went back again, and again, and I began to discover your habits. You were as regular as clockwork, Mr. Bousted! I began—oh, I am sorry, Mr. Bousted!—I began to keep a note-book, and I recorded the times when I had seen you; and then I would go back at those times to see you again. So, Mr. Bousted, you would not have been exposed to danger had it not been for my folly, and I cannot expiate my sin except—except by asking you to forgive me.”
Twice in my short life up to that moment, the world had turned upside-down: the thing I had always thought was the floor had turned out to be the ceiling. And, marvelous to tell, both times had been in the same night. I had supposed myself to be an abductor, a defiler of innocence, and found myself a hero; I had supposed myself to be the hunter, and had found myself the prey. I am sure that Miss Goode had an unobstructed view of my tonsils as I recovered from the shock of her revelation. For some time, there was silence in the room; then, when she spoke again, she was on the verge of tears.
“Oh, Mr. Bousted, what have I done? I can see that——”
“Nothing could be more flattering”—I hastily interrupted her before she could say anything I might regret—“Nothing could be more flattering, or—or more gratifying, and if I hesitated to forgive you, it was because I could find nothing to forgive. How could any man with blood in his veins be displeased to find—to find that—well, I mean to say, Miss Goode, I am not displeased.”
She smiled slightly, although she would not look at me directly. I had succeeded in putting her a little more at her ease, and now it was time to turn this astonishing development to my advantage. My brain was whirling, and all thoughts of the pain in my head had vanished. Opportunity was here for the grasping.
“Indeed,” I continued, “I do recall having seen you on more than one occasion. You do yourself an injustice if you suppose you could pass by a man with eyes in his head, however briefly, and make no impression upon his memory.”
At this she did turn to face me, and her smile is impressed so deeply on my recollection that I can even now close my eyes and bring up the picture of it like a magic-lantern show.
How I should love to linger over this first encounter,—to savor each subtle change in Amelia’s expression, each musical syllable of her delightful conversation! Yet I could fill a book with this night, and still not be done with it. I must therefore reduce my narration to a brief epitome. I talked with Amelia until two in the morning, at which the striking of a little clock on the mantel reminded us both that it was very late. Bidding me good-night with a fondness that would, to an uninformed observer, have suggested a longer acquaintance, Amelia promised to see me in the morning, and turned down the gas as she left the room. In the darkness I made some attempt to order my thoughts; but sleep overcame me almost immediately, and I slept a sound and blissful sleep until just before eight in the morning.
When I woke, it took me some time to recollect where I was. Not being in the habit of paying overnight visits to millionaires, I had no previous experience of waking in such a luxurious chamber as this one, which bore a very different aspect with the morning sun streaming in through the tall windows. I began to recall the events of the night before, and the sweet face of Amelia Goode rose up in my mind’s eye. But then I was suddenly seized with an irrational terror that I must have been found out: that somehow, as I slept, the true motive for my presence in the park must have become apparent. I tried to use my reason to reassure myself, but my reason was not responding well to my commands. In fact my mind was trying to find its way through a fog of pain, the worst head-ache I had ever suffered. I could only imagine the fury of the Goodes; perhaps even now they had summoned the constabulary, or an angry mob with torches (why they should require torches in bright daylight I cannot say, but in every novel with an angry mob torches were an indispensable part of the equipment). I very nearly leaped straight up from the bed when the door to the hall swung open, and I fully expected to be either taken into custody or beaten to death with sticks.
“Good morning, sir,” said the voice from the doorway. It was not the voice of one who intended to bludgeon me. An older man, impeccably dressed, with another suit of clothing draped over his arm, was observing me benevolently. When he could see that he had my attention, he continued. “Miss Goode hopes you will pardon the liberty, but we have pressed your trousers and coat. There are one or two spots that will require the attention of your tailor, but you should be quite presentable in the mean time.”
“Thank you,” I said a bit uncertainly, as I adjusted my mind to the thought that I was not to be haled away to the gallows.
“If you feel well enough to rise, Miss Goode has held breakfast.”
“I’m certainly well enough to rise,” I said with more good cheer than I felt. No head-ache, however severe, would induce me to miss breakfast with the angel of Allegheny.
“Very good, sir,” the old man replied. He stayed there, almost but not quite smiling, and it gradually became clear to me that he intended to remain while I rose and dressed. And so he did. He was an active participant in the dressing: for the first time since I had learned to dress myself, I allowed myself to be dressed by someone else. This was what it was like to be truly rich: to have someone to attend to one’s most inconsequential needs—not even to have to dress oneself. I was even more certain now that I must have that life for my own.
Breakfast confirmed me in that opinion. The most delightful part was the presence of Amelia, of course, but I was not immune to the other pleasures of a table laden with what I then considered luxurious delicacies. Nor was I dead to the delight of being conveyed back to our little house in a carriage nearly the size of our parlor.
“Such a grand house,” Viola said a little later on, as we sat in the dining-room for luncheon. My father had left Bradley entirely in charge of the store, which was not a comforting thought; but I resolved to put off my worries for the day and enjoy, for once, the favorable attention of my sister, who insisted that she must nurse me until I had recovered.
“Yes,” I agreed, “it is an elegant place.”
“And what an impression you made on Miss Goode!” she continued. “It’s obvious she thinks the world of you.”
“She is merely grateful for what, after all, any gentleman of spirit would have done.” I suppose I hoped she would disagree and insist that I had been heroically brave: by now I had really begun to think of myself as Amelia’s rescuer, rather than the man from whom, but for the timely intervention of fate, she would have prayed to be rescued. But Viola would not give me the satisfaction of contradicting me.
“Oh, she is very grateful,” Viola continued. “The way she looked at you, I should have said she was a good bit more than grateful. Oh, dear, what will your poor Gertrude think?”
I give you my word, dear reader (though you must know by now that my word is worth nothing), that, until that moment, I had not thought of Gertrude since I set out on my fateful expedition the night before. What, indeed, would Gertrude think? And what was I going to do about her?
How I contemplated and plotted a monstrous crime, with the unwitting cooperation of Gertrude Snyder.
When I considered the matter rationally, it appeared to me that Gertrude Snyder must be essential to any scheme I might form for possessing Amelia Goode. Indeed, she was my only tangible link to the celebrated beauty. Furthermore, I was under no illusions as to the probability of my possessing Miss Goode permanently. —No, it would be a fleeting deed of darkness; and then, if I were successful, I should be to all appearances the same virtuous young man as before. For such a young man, Gertrude would still make a pleasant and perfectly respectable wife.
I was therefore as assiduous in cultivating my courtship of Gertrude as I was in expanding the firm of Bousted & Son, and I flattered myself that I had equal success in both endeavors. Our sales continued to grow week by week, and Gertrude continued to meet me for walks in the park and other innocent pastimes. That is to say, they were innocent in her eyes; but I had a double purpose in each of our meetings. I so contrived these visits with Gertrude that we were likely to catch at least a glimpse of Amelia Goode. I quickly discovered that Miss Goode was almost a slave to habit. If she passed a particular spot in her carriage at seven in the evening on a Tuesday, then she could be relied upon to pass that same spot at seven the next Tuesday as well. West Park was her favorite haunt, and she could be found either strolling or driving there almost every evening. I took great pains to learn the patterns of her drives, for she was often alone then, though sometimes she had a coachman for the victoria.
There were times when it was difficult to conceal my keen interest in Miss Goode’s movements from Gertrude, and I had to employ considerable art.
“Here is Miss Goode again,” Gertrude remarked on one such occasion, as we saw the familiar victoria approaching. “Oh, isn’t she splendid?”
“Why, Gertrude,” I remarked gaily, “if I didn’t know you better, I might almost suppose you were envious!”
“Perhaps not envious,” Gertrude returned as the two perfect black horses came nearer, “but who would not wish——”
Here she stopped for a moment as the carriage passed, exactly on schedule, as regular as the Pennsylvania Railroad. When the noise of hooves and wheels had receded, she resumed, still gazing at the back of the victoria.
“Oh, Newman, shall I ever ride in a carriage of my own?”
I took her hand in mine, and she turned to face me. “Gertrude,” I said, “it will always be my most cherished ambition to see that you have whatever your heart could wish for. If honest labor and intelligent investment can procure it, you shall have it.”
Gertrude blushed prettily. We walked on, and she did not relinquish my hand. At such a moment, with her delicate hand in mine, and her lovely face bathed in a golden evening light, I could almost believe that I could be happy with Gertrude alone, and that it would cost me no sorrow to give up my hopes of possessing Amelia Goode.
We walked in silence for a while; and then Gertrude said, in a low voice, “Perhaps you ought to grow a moustache.”
At the time I had no idea why she had made that suggestion, and I did not respond to it directly. But when I returned to my room that evening, I looked hard in the mirror and decided that Gertrude was right. My face, which I had kept clean-shaven, still had a certain juvenile quality; with a moustache, I might make a more impressive appearance on the world’s stage. I resolved to begin the experiment in the morning. Meanwhile, sleep called me, and I retired with pleasant thoughts of Gertrude that soon gave way to less virtuous thoughts of Amelia Goode.
The next morning was trying, and the morning after even more so. When my sisters discovered that I had left my upper lip unshaved, not through negligence, but with the deliberate intention of growing a moustache, there was no end to their raillery. “Perhaps you ought to try growing some radishes as well,” Viola suggested, which was so preternaturally witty that it caused Camellia to snort like a carthorse.
On the other hand, when I saw Gertrude three days later, she seemed pleased that I had taken her suggestion. “It will suit you, Newman,” she said with one of her enigmatic smiles.
I might as well say here that, although I have known many women in my life, not one of them could out-enigma Gertrude. It was impossible to tell what her smiles meant, and as impossible to tell what her tears meant. She was a cipher to me. It was, however, satisfying to have her approval for the moustache, which in a few more days began to look more like an ornament than like an unfortunate error in grooming.
As I write these words, I have beside me a small leather note-book in which I carefully tabulated the movements of Amelia Goode as I observed them. Each page is headed with the seven days of the week; then, if during that week I happened to see Miss Goode, I noted under the proper day the time, place, and circumstances. If she had been seen in the same place, at the same time, on the same day of a previous week, then I marked the most recent sighting with a star. In this way I learned her habits as well as she knew them herself; and, indeed, it seemed that, the more I observed her, the more regular her habits became. After two months of observation, I was able to predict with almost astronomical accuracy where she would be three evenings out of seven, which was surely all I needed for my wicked purpose.
Although, with the accumulated wisdom of my years, I can see that my scheme was rash, and liable to a thousand mishaps,—yet I still wonder whether a crime of passion had ever been plotted with such scientific rigor before. This note-book of mine gave me great pleasure during those weeks when I was plotting my enormity; it was almost as though, in possessing the knowledge of her habits, I was already in possession of some part of Miss Goode herself. The note-book was kept under my pillow, and the knowledge it contained allowed me to imagine that, in a certain sense, Amelia was my companion through the sweltering nights of July and August, when sleep was impossible until well past midnight, and my loneliness might otherwise have been insufferable. Indeed, it is a truth that I have understood only gradually, that much of the pleasure of a wicked deed lies, not in the commission of it, but in the contemplation of it beforehand.
One incident did occur during this period that complicated my efforts. I was sitting at dinner one evening when Viola, a mean-spirited smile on her face, spoke up:
“Father, were you aware that Galahad has been seeing a lady?” she asked with a voice that dripped sweet venom.
“Really?” my father responded, sounding oafishly pleased.
“Yes, Viola and I saw them in the park,” Camellia offered with the same honeyed poison in her tone. “We saw her only from the back, of course.”
“Which was fortunate for our digestions, I’m sure,” Viola added.
“Yes, do warn us next time you’re seeing her, Galahad,” Camellia said with a labored sneer, “so that we do not see her face by accident and turn to stone.” Though the girls had not seen Gertrude’s face, they knew by deduction from first principles that any girl who associated herself with their brother must be hideous beyond description.
“I suppose she has no more than six or seven fingers on each hand,” Viola remarked after a brief silence.
At this, for some reason, my choler rose to the boiling point at last, and I actually stood up from the table. “By heaven,” I declared, “if you were a man, I’d——”
Here my father actually intervened.
“Now, girls,” he said, “you really mustn’t tease Galahad so. I’m sure he’s done nothing of the sort to you.”
This, I believe, was the only indication he ever gave me in his life that he was aware of my sisters’ mistreatment of me. He was, at least, scrupulously correct in his assertion that I had never been deliberately unkind to them,—not out of any absurd notions of decency, but simply because it was obviously wise policy never to be seen as anything other than the perfectly dutiful son and brother.
“I think it’s splendid if Galahad has a lady friend,” he continued. “First-rate.”
“Yes, perhaps she has a couple of aged uncles for you girls,” I added, and immediately regretted having spoken. But my father, having said all he could say on the subject of family harmony, said nothing more, and refused to believe that he had not restored good feeling to the table.
At any rate, I continued to see Gertrude, and now my father and my sisters were aware of it. Their awareness was rather inconsequential, I suppose, since things continued pretty much as before; but I could have done without my sisters’ relentless teasing, and certainly without my father’s congratulatory wink every time I left the house for an evening stroll with Gertrude.
I have probably never labored harder in my life than I did that summer. My first responsibility, I had decided early on, must be to the firm; and I believe I may say accurately that I discharged that responsibility in such a way that the firm had no cause for complaint. Money was beginning to come in from our canvassing agents; the department-store contracts were gratifyingly profitable; and sales at the store continued to increase. After some weeks of work, I was even able to train Bradley so effectively that he could be left to handle the female patrons by himself. I grant that it might have consumed less time and labor had I trained a Labrador retriever to do the same work; but I had no Labrador retriever, whereas I did have Bradley. The ladies, as I have already mentioned, were fond of him, especially the middle-aged middle-class matrons who made up the bulk of our patronage. But my father took a liking to him as well, so that Bradley took on much of the burden of keeping him entertained during the day. It had never occurred to me how much of my time had been wasted on entertaining my father until the arrival of Bradley relieved me of some of that responsibility.
My work for Bousted & Son in itself was a heavy labor, but I had other labors as well. I had my courtship of Gertrude to cultivate; this was by no means an unwelcome labor, but it did consume two evenings and an afternoon out of the week. Finally, my pursuit of Amelia Goode was by no means the least of my labors.
I have already intimated that I approached the matter scientifically, as it were. As summer wore on toward autumn, and my sister’s wedding preparations grew so fevered that it was advisable for me to be out of the house anyway, I began my campaign in earnest. I took to haunting some of those places where Amelia was known to appear at certain times, especially in the park. The arboretum afforded many opportunities for concealment, so it was natural that I should concentrate my efforts there. Consulting my note-book, I chose an evening when Amelia would be driving past in her carriage (not the victoria, but a wicker ladies’ summer carriage, which she always drove alone); then I simply strolled through the park myself, endeavoring to time my stroll so that I should meet Amelia just as she passed a certain dark thicket that might ultimately suit my purposes.
I must confess that I thought my first reconnaissance a poor piece of work. I arrived several minutes before Amelia passed that point, and was therefore compelled to walk back and forth in a short path; although I did my best to appear as a casual evening stroller, I seemed to attract the attention of a large man with a big stick, who eyed me suspiciously each time I passed. When at last Amelia did ride by, the man and I had to step out of her way, so that we were standing side by side, each fixing a suspicious gaze upon the other. When the carriage had passed, I vacated the area as quickly as I could, and marched back home in a foul temper. But I did not abandon my campaign.
My next expedition was more successful, in that I did not lose my nerve, and must have seemed an ordinary young gentleman out for an evening stroll of no particular consequence. Amelia passed at her scheduled time; there was no one else to see her pass but me, and I was careful not to direct my gaze directly toward her, so that she should not remember or suspect me. I might easily have accosted her at that very instant, had I not promised myself that I should only reconnoiter that evening, and not succumb to the temptation to commit my crime of passion in the heat of the moment. Any crime, to be successful, must be the product of long and careful planning, and this is never more true than with crimes of passion. Invariably the crimes of which one reads in the press, where at least the crime if not the criminal has been detected, are crimes of the moment, insufficiently thought out, and committed under the influence of a passion that clouds the judgment. I confess that I was in many ways unwise in the planning of my outrage, but I did at least possess the wisdom to see that it required planning.
I repeated my expedition the next week, and once or twice a week after that for several more weeks. Darkness fell earlier each week, but (as I had hoped) the fading light did not deter Amelia from riding at her appointed times. It would soon be quite dark when she passed my chosen thicket, which would suit my purposes admirably.
Gertrude accompanied me on some of my expeditions, quite unaware of their true purpose. “Here is Miss Goode again,” she remarked on one occasion when the 7:23 carriage passed, right on schedule. “I wonder that she still drives alone, now that it is dark.”
“Well, the gaslights are bright enough most of the way,” I said. “And would misfortune dare accost a Goode? Surely fate must have favored such an illustrious family.” I did not tell her how much I had been thinking along the same lines as she. Foolish Miss Goode! Did she not know that danger lurked in the darkness? Had she no fear of the shadows? I found myself absently twirling my moustache as I thought about it.
My next reconnaissance expedition (as I had been calling them in my own mind) to West Park went much as before, except for one disturbing observation. As I waited in the darkness for Amelia to pass, I saw once again that large man with the big stick whom I had seen on my earlier reconnaissance. He was standing in the shadows several yards down the drive. In the darkness I could see little of his face, but something in his manner convinced me that he was surveying me with deep suspicion. I stood my ground, deeming it more likely to arouse suspicion if I retreated. The large man stood his ground as well. Amelia passed on schedule; and, when I looked again for the large man, he was gone. I went on my way forming vague suspicions in my mind.
On my next stroll with Gertrude, the large man made another appearance. I did not call Gertrude’s attention to him, and I did my best to make him believe that my own attention was entirely absorbed by Gertrude. I was always careful to be modestly affectionate with Gertrude, and in this case I felt a bit more secure with her by my side as Amelia’s carriage passed. Once again, the large man vanished when the carriage had gone.
He was there again on my next venture, and now I began to entertain the most extravagant suspicions. I very nearly persuaded myself that the large man was some sort of spy in the employ of the Goode family, and that he knew, or at least suspected, my dishonorable intentions. My rational mind told me that my doubts were absurd, but I could not rid myself of the feeling that the large man’s appearances were more than coincidental. He was, at any rate, an inconvenience; he intruded on my privacy. How was I to concentrate on my evil plot if he kept popping up at the most inconvenient times?
He did not appear when I made my next expedition, and I persuaded myself that my suspicions had been groundless; but he was back the night after that, and all my fears returned with him.
In the mean time my sister and Bradley were married. We paid Bradley well enough that they were able to set themselves up in a small apartment on Resaca-street, and I was rid of one pestilential sister. Viola attempted to make herself twice as odious to make up the loss, but she could not completely succeed: there was only one of her, after all. I suppose if a woman were writing this narrative, she would fill it with details of the wedding; I have forgotten them all, except the undeniable gratitude I felt toward Bradley for ridding me of Camellia. If gratitude is a virtue, then I admit my weakness; but my life at home improved considerably with one of my sisters gone, and I resolved that, as soon as my business with Amelia was brought to a successful conclusion, I should rid myself of the other sister as well—either by marriage or by murder, whichever seemed most practicable.
You, my dear hypothetical reader of the future, must be nearly out of patience with me by now. I have been preparing my crime against the beautiful Miss Goode for more than twenty pages in manuscript, and you must be wondering whether I intend to fill the rest of the volume with this pointless dithering. I could do so; I almost have a mind to do it. But I will not. I abridge the last few weeks of my preparations by saying that I continued much as before, gradually closing my grip on Miss Goode until her habits were predictable to me down to the minute. Sometimes I went alone, and sometimes with Gertrude; sometimes I saw the large man with the big stick, and sometimes I did not. I hated that man: he was the one uncertainty in my plan, and nothing at all could be accomplished on a night when he made an appearance. Twice, after I had decided that, at last, the time for action had come, I was forced to abandon my plan when he came into view just after I arrived at my station. My frustration cannot be described to someone who has never been in a similar situation; and it is not necessary to describe it to anyone else.
But at last there came a night when I was determined to act. The sky was cloudy, so that the darkness in my chosen thicket would be complete; Miss Goode was scheduled to pass at 7:23; I knew exactly where I should be and what I should do to accomplish my object.
The day had been unseasonably warm, but now a brisk breeze had picked up; and the air was decidedly cooler, with even a slight chill. I found myself keenly aware of every aspect of my surroundings as I walked into the park. The absurd thought occurred to me that I must be feeling what a condemned man feels on his last walk to the gallows—absurd because, of course, it was Miss Goode who was condemned, not I. Every sound was louder to me; every leaf on the ground had its distinctive crunch; the odors of the mills and the grass mingled and presented themselves to my nostrils; the breeze puffed against my cheek, and I felt every puff distinctly; I heard the sound of hooves on the cobblestones in the distance, and the quiet tapping and shuffling of my own feet on the drive. My every sense was enlivened to a degree I had never felt before and have seldom felt since. It was a delightful sensation; and to my distant readers, if any such there be, I would happily recommend the commission of some enormous crime to stimulate the nerves and encourage the flow of the blood.
When at last I took my position in the little thicket I had chosen as my blind, I had great difficulty in keeping myself still and quiet. Every nerve craved action; every sinew was coiled like a watch-spring. I stood still, absently twirling my moustache, and feeling what the viper must feel before he strikes; and at last, after what seemed to be ages or aeons of waiting, I heard the distinctive sound of Miss Goode’s carriage approaching.
From my blind I could see her as she came down the drive. She was driving alone, as she always did at 7:23 on Wednesdays. It would be only a moment before I should leap into the carriage, take the reins, force the carriage into the dark alcove under the bridge, and——
———But suddenly I saw a large figure bolt from the shadows not more than ten yards from where I stood. The carriage lurched wildly, and there was a muffled scream;—I saw for an instant the outline of a large walking-stick raised against the sky;—and at that moment a blind fury, a rage such as I had never known, overcame me. That man with the big stick was attacking my Amelia! Damn him to hell! After all my months of meticulous preparation, he had the gall to try to steal my prize! Without even thinking I leaped on the carriage as it passed, my arm already swinging, my clenched fist connecting with the jaw of my opponent. He lost his balance and fell to the ground just as the carriage bumped to a stop in the grass, the horse having decided that all this activity behind was excuse enough for slacking off. Amelia was screaming; the man with the big stick was righting himself and starting to run. I leaped out after him and caught him under a gaslight, knocking his legs out from under him and throwing him to the ground. He began to fight back with some vigor. But his only encouragement was self-preservation, whereas I had months of frustration to animate me. Painful blows landed on both sides, but I hardly felt them at the time. I knew only my rage, and I pressed my advantage until my opponent fell back on the drive, striking his head on the pavement. He was still, and a quick look in the gaslight suggested that he had been rendered insensible by the blow.
I stood over him for a moment, until it occurred to me that I should feel a great deal better sitting down; so I gently lowered myself to the grass.
I heard an angel’s voice above me. “Dear sir, you are hurt,” it said, and I felt the softest hand in the world lightly touching my forehead—a touch that, soft and light as it was, still carried unexpected pain with it.
“Not very much,” I answered.
I remember nothing after that until my eyes opened in a palatial chamber I had never seen before. A moment later, the beautiful face of Miss Amelia Goode filled my vision; and for an instant I thought that perhaps I had died, and, in spite of all my evil deeds, a merciful God had admitted me to heaven.
My thoughts occupied with the beautiful Miss Amelia Goode, I return to the great philosopher for guidance.
I came back home that evening in a very agitated state of mind. I had hidden my agitation from Gertrude well enough; I was fairly certain of that. But I could not hide it from myself. I had set out that evening intending to propose marriage to Gertrude, certain that there was nothing in the world I desired more; the glimpse of that girl in her victoria had reminded me that there was indeed one thing in the world I desired more than Gertrude. But she was wealthy; absurdly rich, I might almost say. The Goode glassmaking fortune was almost legendary. She occupied a sphere as far above me as the stars are above the moon. What was the use of even thinking about her? Gertrude was a fine woman; no one could say that she was not. She had the good sense and even temper that make an excellent wife. No one ought to desire more than Gertrude—and yet I did desire more than Gertrude.
This agitation of mine persisted into the next day, as poor Bradley discovered when he brought me a box of blue pencils after I had asked for a pencil.
“Confound it, Bradley,” I exploded, “will you put your brain to work for once? If I had wanted blue pencils, or red pencils, or green or yellow or lavender pencils, don’t you think I would have specified the color? If a man asks for a pencil, he wants a black pencil, not a whole herd of blue pencils.”
Bradley said nothing; he was simply inert, as if he were a rabbit hoping the hound might not see him if he stood very still.
“Well, take them back!” I shouted at him, after several unproductive seconds of silence between us. Bradley immediately took the pencils gingerly between his fingers, as if the box were a hot coal, and fairly ran into the back room.
Two or three minutes later, I realized that he was not going to come out again with the pencil I wanted. For some reason this particular stupidity annoyed me more than all the rest. I stood up and stormed back to where Bradley was standing like a Greek statue copied by a third-rate student.
“Where in blazes is that pencil?” I demanded in what was evidently the most terrifying tone of voice Bradley had ever heard. He stood straight and immobile, with eyes staring, and lips moving as if to form words that his frozen tongue refused to utter.
“Blast it!” I puffed to no one in particular; and I found my own pencil.
“Don’t you think you were rather short with Mr. Bradley?” my father asked me a little later, when Bradley had stepped out for a moment.
“Yes, I was,” I admitted, attempting an expression of contrition. But I was not contrite. Yes, I was indeed rather short with Bradley, who was doubtless much the better for it. His work improved, at any rate. It was apparent that he was terrified of me, and I suppose not without reason. After a few more days, however, I noticed that he was beginning to pick up some dim notion of how the stock was organized, and could, with some effort, retrieve a box of Esterbrook pens if a lady asked for one.
Over the next few weeks, I gradually learned more about Miss Amelia Goode—not by making inquiries so much as by simply keeping my ears open. It seemed that everyone in Allegheny knew of her, and the only excuse for my ignorance was my recent arrival in the city. For the people of Allegheny, she was not just a beauty; she was the beauty, or rather she was beauty itself. In every city there is one such girl whose physiognomy combines with her fortune to make her a kind of public institution; in Allegheny, that girl was Amelia Goode. Her engagement-book dictated the social calendar of the city: no ball or soiree or afternoon tea could be called “refined” unless she deigned to bless it with her presence.
Miss Goode was always at the center of a swarm of admirers, buzzing about her like bees, and with about the same effect on her perception as the buzzing of a bee or two would have. She treated them all with perfect civility and perfect indifference. She was the Vestal virgin of the social world. In women, she inspired envy and emulation; in men, desire and despair commingled. It was impossible to think of conquering her, as impossible as to think of conquering Beauty itself. She appeared to walk among mortals, but she had her true existence in the lofty realm of the ideals.
This creature’s fortune came from the glass works her ancient father had founded half a century before; for she was the child of his dotage, conceived (I know not how) when he was already entering the hoary winter of life.
These facts I accumulated and stored in my memory over the course of some weeks; I did not at once possess the perfect knowledge I have imparted to you, dear imagined reader of the future. In that time I continued to see Gertrude, but I had not yet proposed marriage to her. I believe I had formed some absurd idea in my mind that marrying Gertrude would prevent me from pursuing Amelia Goode.
It was misery, this obsession with what must be unattainable to one of my station. I will say this much for myself, and you shall decide whether it counts toward the extenuation or the aggravation of my folly: that I never really desired Miss Goode’s money. It was not that I had no desire to be wealthy, but rather that my lust for that perfect beauty was so intense that I simply forgot her wealth; or, rather, it was present to my mind only as a barrier that separated her from me. I am inclined to think it a case of aggravated folly when I look back on it at this remove: for money can buy the satisfaction of almost any lust, whereas lust almost invariably eats up money. To the young man pursuing a life of wickedness, I have this advice to give: always put greed before lust when indulging your petty sins.
I will say in my favor that the firm did not suffer. I was conscientious in my work in the store, and assiduous in discovering new opportunities for sales. It was during this time that I placed our first advertisement in Boli’s, in which I offered attractive terms to canvassing agents in rural areas, where there were no department stores.
“Do you really think that farmers’ wives and such will take an interest in expensive stationery?” my father asked when I announced my intention of taking out the magazine advertisement.
“I am sure of it,” I told him. In fact I was not sure at all, but I was willing to make the attempt. We had, for perhaps the first time in the history of the firm, the luxury of allowing one of my ideas to fail if it were its destiny to do so.
“I think we’d do better to stick with the cities,” my father said, cocking his head to look as if the opinion had cost him a great deal of arduous thinking. “Do people do much social correspondence in the country?”
“Are you going to forbid me to place the advertisement?” I asked directly, and a little testily.
I think he was taken aback by my exhibition of mildly ill temper. “No,” he replied, “no—not forbid it. You certainly have as much right as I to make such a decision.” (Here he admitted for the first time a principle that I had acted upon since the day after he had added the words “& Son” to the front of the store.) “I was merely making a suggestion, but of course if you have your mind made up, you might as well go ahead with it.”
I ought to mention here that my faith in the vanity of rural women was entirely justified, and to this day canvassing agents make up a large fraction of our sales. There is nothing a farm wife desires more than to prove to the world that she is just as good as her cousin in the big city. In the instructions I have written for our agents, I dwell particularly on that vanity, telling them frankly to emphasize what a social embarrassment it is to have one’s writing obviously out of date or incorrect, and that the Bousted System is the surest means of achieving correctness in correspondence. I give them a few cautionary tales to tell of ladies who lost their standing at church or in town because of a single ill-written, scratchy, blotted letter,—a catastrophe which might have been avoided if the letter had been written on stationery properly matched to the writer’s penmanship. I have read an article somewhere attributing a rise in the quality of rural penmanship to the activities of our agents and those of our imitators. —This is, of course, a digression; I mention it to show that I was still productive of new ideas even when I was miserable.
And I was miserable—I repeat it. I was the more so because I could not form in my mind an answer to my misery. Should I forget Gertrude? But Gertrude might almost certainly be my wife, whereas the divine, the inaccessible Miss Goode was as far above me as the celestial regions. I might as well be in love with a statue in the British Museum.
In love! Yes—that was the heart of the matter. I was not really in love with Gertrude, and I was in love with Amelia Goode. —Now, I would not have you suppose that I mean what imbecilic popular novels mean when their imbecilic heroes talk of being “in love.” I should say that I was in love with Miss Goode in the same way that the stallion is in love with the mare; and, as the fence is the greatest frustration in the stallion’s life, so the great obstacle in mine was the insuperable barrier of Miss Goode’s wealth. I had money—more money than my father had ever seen in his life, as he never tired of remarking—but it was a few pennies in comparison with the vast Goode fortune.
This state of things went on for months. From spring into summer I courted Gertrude, without making any definite proposal; and from spring into summer I longed for Amelia, without ever having been so much as introduced to her. I think, sometimes, that I shall always be more susceptible to feminine beauty than other men; when I write that I was miserable on account of having merely seen a celebrated beauty a few times, the thing hardly seems credible. Yet it was so.
I will not say that the misery did me no good. I believe that my consciousness of the vast difference in wealth between the Bousteds and the Goodes made me more assiduous in cultivating the Bousted fortune, small as it was. Still, misery is the thing I most remember from that time;—misery and labor, which alone had the power of alleviating my misery, and of which I did a prodigious amount. I cannot conceive of how I got along without a whole office full of clerks to sort out the correspondence from department stores and canvassing agents; but I did, though at the cost of leaving the work in the store more and more in the hands of my father and Bradley.
Eventually, worn down by my longing for that which it was not possible for me to obtain, I returned to Baucher—not, of course, the book itself, which was probably not to be found in all of Pittsburgh and Allegheny, but to that review of it which had become my holy writ. What, I asked Baucher, would the truly wicked, truly evolved man do in my situation? His answer shone clearly through the reviewer’s scornful irony. The man who is truly wicked lets nothing stand between himself and the object of his desires. The superior man brushes aside, or destroys, whatever would prevent him from reaching his goal. In the case of his relations with the weaker sex, the simple fact of woman’s weakness gives man an immeasurable advantage.
It is true, however, that law and custom give women considerable protection. A rational analysis of the problem reveals that the difficulty would not lie in the indifference or even outright refusal of Miss Goode, which might be overcome by a trifling application of force, but rather in the laws and customs that protected her. If these latter could be rendered inoperative in some way, then I might be able to fulfill my desire.
It is impossible to describe with what vigor this conclusion impressed itself upon me. It was quite likely that I could have what I desired, if only it could be done in such a way that the irrational virtue of the mass of mankind did not stand in my way. But it would require daring and determination. Had I the daring spirit necessary to succeed?
As always, the question was answered as soon as it was posed that way. I must succeed, because I had dared myself to succeed.
I resume my courtship, and at the same time commence my training of my new clerk.
After a cold supper, I retired to my room, but I had still one necessary duty to discharge. It was, I believed, incumbent upon me to write a love-letter to Gertrude. I had already allowed a day to pass since our understanding, as I thought of it; it was necessary that she should not think I had grown cold.
How to compose such a message was a matter to which I had given some thought. The letter must be exactly the sort of letter Gertrude would desire to receive—must make me appear to be exactly the sort of man she hoped for in a husband. But what did she want from me? I knew what I wanted from her, but I could scarcely put that down on paper. It was my good fortune, however (although this is probably the only occasion on which I have called it that), to have sisters. They usually left a number of cheap novels strewn about the parlor, and I took one of these with me—Bertha’s Beaux, by Mrs. Traymore—in which I had found a suitable model. My sisters, at least, regarded these dreadful tales as infallible guides to contemporary mores, so I reasoned that what Mrs. Traymore prescribed as the ideal communication from a lover to his beloved must meet with the approbation of most girls Gertrude’s age. I sat down at my writing-desk, therefore, and began to compose the following letter on a sheet of Bousted’s Grade 3.
My dearest Gertrude,——
It is not within the power of mere written words to express the joy that took possession of my breast when I found that my addresses to you were received with favor. No one is more aware than I of how little that favor is deserved, and my joy is naturally proportionate to the condescension you have shown in hearing me. Yet a letter can never say what I would desire you to know: you see the ink frozen into words on the page, but you cannot see the tears of joy in my eyes when I think of you, or hear my heart beat—although I sometimes fancy that you can hear my heart beat, though half a mile separates us. The hope of a closer acquaintance with you sustains me throughout the day, and my last conscious act of the evening shall be a prayer for your happiness, which is now the chief end of my existence. You may be assured that, unworthy as I am, I have no other desire than to add to your happiness by whatever means are in my power; and I trust that, whatever shortcomings may be charged to my account, a want of readiness in your service shall never be among them. In eager anticipation of the moment when my eyes shall once again behold your face, I am
Your most fervent admirer,
Some things in this letter were indisputably true: I did hope for a closer acquaintance with her, and in my rare idle moments throughout the day I had allowed my imagination to paint some very pretty pictures of that closer acquaintance. I was not aware of any tears of joy, but a brief look at Mrs. Traymore’s wretched narrative assured me that such expressions were expected in any first-rate love-letter, and I did not want Gertrude to think that I had not given her value for money. I sealed the letter and left it with the post to go out, and felt that, on the whole, it was a very creditable effort;—nor am I inclined to judge it otherwise now, after an interval of two and a half decades.
The next day was a trying one, as indeed were the days following. Patronage at the store continued to increase, and it was evident that the reputation gained by our Graded Stationery had a salutary effect on our sales of other articles as well. Yet we had only the two of us to handle the constant stream of humanity flowing through our doors. Viola and Camellia were of course far too busy with wedding preparations to render any assistance; Camellia had determined that the wedding should be in six months, and if they spent every minute of every day until that time working on the arrangements, there might just possibly be time enough to get everything done. This is what Viola told my father, who of course acquiesced, and thenceforth refused even to ask whether one of the girls might come into the store for the day.
On the second day, I returned home with my father to find a letter waiting for me. I knew it right away because Viola did not suffer me even to hang my hat upon the rack before announcing the fact.
“A letter came for you to-day, Galahad,” she said in a voice that was too impossibly saccharine to be anything but ironical.
“From a lady,” Camellia added, stressing the word lady as if it could bear the weight of a thousand innuendos.
“Thank you,” I said, taking the letter from Viola’s knobby fingers.
“Well, aren’t you going to open it?” Viola demanded.
“Yes,” I replied, “I am.” But I made no move to do so.
“Who is it, Galahad?” Camellia asked with a revolting lilt in her voice. “Who is your secret lady friend?”
“No secret at all,” I said as coolly as I could. “Miss Snyder is the sister of Mr. Edward Snyder, a manager at Boggs & Buhl and a good friend of mine. I dined with them a few nights ago.”
Viola smiled an insufferable smile and nodded, if such a thing be possible, an insufferable nod. I also smiled, but I did not open the letter, placing it instead in my pocket, where I managed to leave it by a prodigious act of will. I did not wish my sisters to suppose that I was unusually eager to open it. Not until I went upstairs to dress for dinner did I have the opportunity to read it. It was short, but quite satisfactory:
My brother holds you in such high esteem that, even if I did not know you myself, I could never doubt your character; and you have behaved with such propriety in all your dealings with me that I must regard myself as the unworthy one. I am deeply sensible of the honor you do me in writing to me in such affectionate terms; and, as it pleases my brother that I should receive your addresses (for he is invested with a father’s authority over me), I hope that in time it may be possible for me to return your affection with a sincere heart. My brother has asked me to invite you to dine with us Thursday evening at seven, and if that time is convenient for you, I shall be very happy to see you. Until then, I hope you will regard me as your sincere friend, as I regard you as my greatest benefactor, next to my brother of course.
Evidently Gertrude was not addicted to the same horrible novels that Viola and Camellia devoured with an insatiable appetite, since her letter was nothing at all like the response of Mrs. Traymore’s heroine. It displayed a great deal more good sense; and, while her moral qualities were not the qualities I most desired in Gertrude at the moment, still, dim as my knowledge of the connubial estate was in those days, I knew that there was more involved in it than the mere satisfaction of my lust. It seemed to me that a little good sense in a wife would not come amiss.
Here, since I have mentioned that I did not reveal the subject of my correspondence with Gertrude to my father and sisters, I might be expected to explain my reticence. I do not know, however, whether I can articulate an explanation. I suppose I had some boyish embarrassment still in my constitution; and it might have been difficult to endure the congratulations of my father, and the studied incredulity of my sisters. And was there anything to tell? Gertrude had not yet agreed to marry me, but only to see me on terms that would probably lead to an engagement. We had—an understanding. It was a private matter between us; an engagement might be a public announcement, but did I not owe Gertrude the courtesy of waiting until she had decided that such an announcement should be made? So I said to myself at the time, and perhaps those were my reasons. Or perhaps I had already formed, in the dark recesses of my soul, some notion that I might wish to escape from Gertrude cleanly if a better opportunity came to me. I had no conscious idea of that sort; but it is true that, when I retired, and lowered the gas, and filled my mind with pleasing images of Gertrude, it was not long before I noticed that the girl in my thoughts was no longer Gertrude, but that Federal-street beauty.
We had several more days of hard work in the store while Bradley was still finishing up at the brewery. I did dine with the Snyders on Thursday, and Gertrude was friendly, though bashful, the more so because her brother treated us as though we had already set the date for our wedding. It made Gertrude blush prettily to hear him talk that way, but she did smile once or twice.
At last came the day when Bradley, free from his obligations at E and O, came to work at the store. I had anticipated this day keenly as the moment when our store would truly become a firm, which is to say an institution with paid employees.
Bradley, however, dampened my enthusiasm very effectively. He was an imbecile. Why was I surprised? Who but an imbecile would attempt to carry off Camellia—and fail in the attempt? The most elementary directions were beyond his capacity. I was patient with him—unfailingly patient and cheerful. How could I be otherwise? I would not be seen to admit that my hiring of a clerk had been in any way a mistake. My pride, I am sure, saved his life: for there were many occasions when I would willingly have killed him on the spot, had not my pride told me that to do so would be nothing less than an admission of failure on my part. If pride is the chief of sins, then it was very fortunate for Bradley that I was not more virtuous. I worked harder than I had done before: for now I had also to undo the damage Bradley had done. My only consolation was in knowing that Bradley could not possibly be as stupid as he appeared to be. It simply was not possible. The man clearly managed to feed and dress himself somehow. If he could do those things, surely he could learn in time to distinguish a box of pens from a box of clips when I sent him for one or the other. That blessed time had not yet come, but surely it could not be distant.
The spring weather was warming, and the cherry trees were blooming, and Gertrude and I began to make it a habit to stroll in West Park two or three evenings a week—often in the company of her brother, but sometimes just the two of us. Gertrude was a little less bashful than she had been, and as long as our conversation turned on pleasant and indifferent matters, she could be animated, and apparently happy; but she was not yet ready to overcome her bashfulness if her brother brought up the question of a wedding. On these occasions, she would blush and look away. I did not force the subject on her myself, impatient as I was to enjoy those privileges which, in my youth, I was not confident enough simply to take for myself against her will, because it did appear that Gertrude was becoming more and more attached to me. If my mask of patience put her at ease, and made her more likely to be my wife in the future, then patience was good policy, however contrary it might be to my inclinations. The truly evil man, which is to say the enlightened man, does not prize continence for its own sake; but any virtue may be a tool in the pursuit of that which he desires. This is an important principle that every aspiring evildoer ought to take to heart: the truly evil man does not hesitate to practice virtue when doing so conduces to his advantage.
Evening strolls with Gertrude gave me some relief after days of dealing with Bradley. I was very nearly ready to give up on him, pride or no pride. In idle moments I sometimes thought of killing him and Camellia together. But then an entirely unexpected discovery showed me Bradley in a new light, and made me think that, perhaps, after all, his earthly existence ought to be prolonged for a few more years. I could still see the arguments against that proposition, but now I could see that there were arguments in favor of it as well.
What happened was this: I had gone upstairs for a few minutes, leaving my father and Bradley in the store. When I came back down, my father was occupied with a distinguished-looking gentleman who was in need of a mechanical pencil, which left Bradley to deal with a middle-aged lady who needed a blank book. Poor Bradley was in a state of deep confusion, as he usually was. I watched as he brought exactly what she told him she didn’t want, and then for some reason known only to himself brought her a copy-book. At first I thought I might simply push him aside and complete the transaction myself; then I thought I should watch, catalogue his mistakes, and castigate him soundly once the woman had gone.
But as I watched, I noticed that the woman was not unhappy. Quite the reverse: however many mistakes Bradley made, she still smiled and addressed him in a manner that I might almost have called flirtatious. She was charmed with him. I had no idea why: he was as unprepossessing a specimen as I had ever seen in my life. Yet he had charmed the lady, who left with a morocco-bound journal much more expensive than what she had told him she intended to buy; and I reflected that he had charmed Camellia to such a degree that she had been willing to elope with him.
I experimented with Bradley several more times that afternoon, directing him to wait on female patrons and observing the results. In every instance, the lady was pleased. She did not always succeed in making the purchase she had intended to make, but she did make a purchase. One of our regulars congratulated my father on having found such a “nice” young man. There was no escaping the conclusion: Bradley was charming—inexplicably charming—to women, and to such a degree that he might very well be an addition of some utility to our firm. Formerly I had kept him as far away from the patrons as possible; now I saw that he might be put to far better use serving ladies than serving me. They at least were less likely to murder him.
I will not say that it was easy to teach Bradley. There were days when I thought I might more easily teach a goldfish to play the parlor-organ. But he was of great service to me in refining my instructional methods. By the time I had finished with him, I really do believe I could have taught a monkey the Bousted system of handwriting assessment. Though it cost me good money, I burned the remainder of the instructions I had had printed, and wrote an entirely new set of directions, which I had printed and sent to our next department store. These instructions are essentially the same ones that are still sent to our dealers to-day. I have often heard them praised for their simplicity, but the highest praise I can give them is to say that they were so simple that even Bradley could follow them.
My success in business continued, as more department stores picked up the Graded Stationery and the pens that went with it; our store, in fact, was now accounting for less than a fifth of our income. This prosperity was pleasing to me, of course; but I could not but think how much more satisfactory it would be with Gertrude by my side, to use a common metaphorical expression that fools no one but is necessary for the sake of euphemism. By June I had been seeing her regularly for three months, and I thought the time had come to pose that question which, in spite of her bashful modesty, she must have expected from me.
It was a fine evening: the sun had only just set, and the orange and peach in the sky were fading to old rose; and Gertrude was walking with me in West Park. The weather had been warm, but not hot, and I remember that Gertrude looked exceptionally pretty in primrose yellow. Bustles were in fashion in those days; when I think back on them, I think that they had a tendency to make a plain woman look like a locomotive;—but Gertrude was far from plain.
I do not know whether anything else I have done in my life required as much positive courage as what I was about to do. It is a strange truth of human nature, that the fear of death itself is not greater than the fear of a rejected marriage proposal. A rational man might tell himself that the world is full of women, and another is bound to accept him if this one rejects him. A truly wicked man might console himself with the knowledge that he has the power to take from a woman what she is not willing to give. But a man in love is not rational; and since wickedness properly understood is merely the fullest development of rationality, he finds it very difficult to be wicked. Nothing so effectually robs a man of his wickedness as this insidious passion: though lust be accounted a sin, it too often proves a cunning trap that pulls a man inexorably downward, away from his true self-interest, and toward that disinterested sort of love that desires the good of its object. The wickedest man in the world, giving in to his lust, may find himself positively virtuous before he knows it. Let this stand as a warning to our young people who desire to be truly evil: manage your lust carefully, lest it rob you of the devoted attention to your own advantage which alone leads to that state of perfect wickedness which is your goal. —The reader, if any reader there be besides myself, will forgive this excursion into moral philosophy, which he may well find applicable in his own life.
As I said, therefore, I was strolling with Gertrude along the carriage-drive in West Park, and Nature employed all her art to further my objective; I had but to find a private moment, and ask the question whose answer would assure my future happiness. Yet I hesitated. The moment was not opportune; we were observed, or we had to step out of the way of a carriage, or any of a hundred other things came between me and the question. Was I losing my courage? Merely to ask that question was to answer it: my stubborn pride would not allow me to confess, even to myself, that I was in any way deficient in the fortitude necessary for my success. I saw a likely spot ahead,—a shaded turn where we might not be closely observed,—and determined to ask her to be my wife when we reached that point on the drive.
We walked on, Gertrude’s hand on my arm, my heart beating faster as we approached the spot. But I would not be deterred by timidity. As soon as we reached the point I had designated in my mind, I stopped and turned to face her.
At that moment, I became aware of the sound of hooves and wheels. I led Gertrude aside into the grass, and a moment later a pair of perfectly matched black horses appeared, drawing behind them a victoria in the latest style, with the top folded down; and seated in that carriage, illuminated in the rosy light of the western sky, was the most beautiful woman in the world,—that girl whom I had first seen on Federal-street, and who had haunted my thoughts since that moment. The vision was brief, but ecstatic; in the time it took her carriage to pass us, every line of her face and figure was indelibly stamped on my memory.
I stood immovable and silent for a moment, but then Gertrude spoke.
“Oh, that was Miss Goode,” she said with sudden recognition.
It took my mind a few moments to understand the implication of that simple statement. When I did understand it, I nearly jumped. It was all I could do to mask the sudden excitement that had nearly overcome me.
“You mean you know the lady?” I inquired, carefully keeping to an inconsequentially conversational tone of voice.
“Only slightly,” Gertrude answered, “from the Workingmen’s Improvement Society. She has spoken there a few times, and she has made some substantial gifts to the workingmen.”
“She must have money to ride in that style,” I remarked.
Gertrude smiled slightly. “She certainly has. Her father is Hiram Goode of Monongahela Glass, and Amelia Goode is his only child.”
“That accounts for the carriage,” I said. Not only beautiful, but immeasurably rich as well! “But why have you not told me about this society you mention? I had no idea you were so interested in charity.”
So Gertrude began to tell me about her pet charity; and I allowed her to do so; and there was no proposal.
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.
An unexpected suggestion comes from Snyder, and by acting on his advice I enliven my story with its first love-scene.
The new house was on a fashionable street, as I should have called it then, in the western part of Allegheny, just west of the park, in a section that was but newly built. I was, of course, very satisfied to see the family of Bousted take what I considered its rightful place among the merchant princes—for so I thought of men who kept a house separate from their business establishment. Whereas I affected a becoming gravity, however, my sisters were delighted beyond measure. Viola attributed our new prosperity entirely to my father’s sagacity; I can no more explain her conclusion than I can explain my father’s entire lack of sagacity. Camellia had the gall to suggest that my hard work might also have had something to do with our success. This suggestion caused a coolness between the two harpies that must have lasted for nearly five minutes, until they were drawn together again by their shared admiration of the bathroom. My father, meanwhile, simply kept shaking his head and smiling, unable to believe that he had passed from the class of shopkeepers who live above their stores to the class of merchants who keep separate houses. The mere fact that we had a garden now astonished him as much as any of the fabulous miracles of the Old Testament would have astonished him. It was, to be sure, a tiny garden; but it was indisputably a garden, and my sisters devoted a good bit of our first week in the house to making and remaking plans for what they would grow in it when spring came.
A house like this, so much larger than our rooms on Wood-street, clearly required a housekeeper; so I told my father, though he was unwilling to spend the little money a housekeeper would require until the shrill voices of my sisters drowned my own with their insistent expostulations. Thus my father engaged the services of a half-deaf German woman (or Dutch, as we said in Allegheny in those days) named Mrs. Ott, who was able to cook something that resembled food more closely than Viola’s productions did. She was mostly silent, unless one of us attempted to give her instructions, in which case she would bellow in a voice like a steam-whistle that she couldn’t hear us. It doubtless alarmed the neighbors for three streets in every direction, and we soon gave up attempting to give Mrs. Ott instructions, conforming ourselves to her schedule.
Every morning (except Sundays, of course) my father and I rode the horse-car into Pittsburgh, with a change at Federal-street; the trip was accomplished in less than half the time it would have taken us to walk, which was another source of astonishment to my father, whose capacity for astonishment was truly boundless. Often Viola and Camellia accompanied us, for there was much to be done in the store, and my father was not yet willing to hire a clerk; but just as often they did not, or only one of the girls came, leaving the other at home all day—an arrangement that would ultimately prove unwise, from my father’s point of view, though it would be productive of considerable benefit to me.
With our old rooms above the store vacant, we were able to expand our inventory, and to keep enough of the Graded Stationery on hand to satisfy the demand. At the same time, I began matching pens to writers—almost by accident at first, since a patron had asked me what pen she ought to use; but by the summer we had a line of steel pens with our name on them, which we, and the department stores that sold our line, offered along with the Graded Stationery, with a discount (of course) for ordering both together. Our profit continued to grow every month, and in August we began extensive alterations to the store, cutting through to the floor above to make a balcony level, where maps and children’s books would be kept. I also began taking out advertisements in the Dispatch, which brought us even more business. All this kept us, and especially me, very busy; but my father was still too parsimonious to hire another clerk, let alone the two or three we really ought to have had to take care of both our patrons and our department-store trade.
There: I have taken care of business, so to speak; and now I may turn my attention to more personal affairs.
I saw my friend Snyder about once every week or so: although he was by no means possessed of a giant intellect, it was good for me to talk to someone who was neither my father, nor my sister, nor a pompous middle-class matron with atrocious penmanship. We sometimes strolled together in West Park, and on one such occasion, an unusually warm day in March, he began to speak to me of his sister.
“Gertrude thinks the world of you, Bousted,” he said as we ambled over the bridge near the monument. “She tells me so every time I mention your name. ‘Such a fine young gentleman,’ she says,—‘such a good friend to you as well,’ she always adds. I think she wishes all my friends were like you. It’s plain as day she admires you.”
“Oh, and I admire her, too,” I replied. “She is a young lady of uncommon good sense.”
He stopped at the end of the bridge, and then indicated by gesture that I should come with him down to the base of the monument, which for the moment at least was out of the way of the milling throngs.
“Look, Bousted, this is—well, it’s awkward, that’s what it is. I’m only speaking to you about it because Gertrude—— I have to be a father to her, you see, since our mother and father aren’t with us. I’m all the family she has. Now, she’s at the age where she ought to be marrying someone, and—and she’s been seeing a fellow called Hoffman, and, Bousted, I don’t like him. Dutch, or at least his father is. Do I have to say any more than that? Now, I know how it is with girls. Gertrude wants to be married, and although she hasn’t told me anything, it’s clear this Hoffman wants to marry her, and she’s thinking of taking him up on it because nobody better has come along. But what if someone better did come along?”
“I suppose she might change her mind,” I answered cautiously.
“That’s what I say,” said Snyder. “If she had a chance at someone respectable, I calculate she’d jump at it.”
There was silence as a minister and his family walked past us on the promenade around the lake. We raised our hats and smiled politely; the minister raised his hat and contorted his features into an unnatural facsimile of a smile that almost chilled me to look at. When they had passed out of earshot, Snyder resumed his discourse.
“See here, Bousted, I know you’re a young man yet, but you’re only a year younger than Gertrude, and you’re certainly in easy circumstances. Man to man, you should be thinking of a wife. I know I’m a big dub myself, nearly thirty and no wife, but I can tell you, you don’t want to be in my position. Gertrude is a fine girl—you said so yourself—and a handsome one, too; everyone says so. You’ve got a good chance at her, if I’m any judge.”
I smiled at him. “To be perfectly blunt, then, you mean that I should attempt to steal your sister away from this Hoffman fellow.”
“You could say that,” he agreed.
I considered his proposition, but it really took very little consideration. I was in the full vigor of my manhood; it was natural that I should long for a woman’s attention. Gertrude Snyder was an attractive girl, and her face and figure had made more than a little impression on me. Now her brother, who was her only family, was more or less offering her to me. I would have willingly married her that afternoon, so that I could proceed to the characteristic business of marriage that night. I delayed my reply to Snyder for some time after I had made my decision only because I did not think it would be seemly for me to say to him, “Yes, I have lusted after your sister, and I am delighted by your offer of the means to gratify my lust.”
“I cannot deny,” I said at last, “that your sister has been in my thoughts on more than one occasion. I am not insensible to her charms. If your belief is correct that my attention would not meet with her disapproval, then it will be my privilege and honor to render her that attention.”
“That’s splendid!” Snyder declared, grasping my hand and shaking it vigorously. “First-rate! There’s no one I’d rather see courting my Gertrude. You’ll get started right away—dine with us this evening—I’ll speak to her beforehand—nothing definite—just a hint that you’ve told me you admire her…”
He went on this way for some time, making plans for my conquest of his sister as though he were more enthusiastic about the prospect than I was. In the end, after what must have been a quarter-hour of Snyder’s planning, we parted, having made only this definite plan: that I should dine with the Snyders, and that some opportunity would be found for me to speak with Gertrude alone.
I arrived at the Snyders’ home precisely at six, as I had been told to do, and Miss Snyder greeted me at the door with her usual politeness, but with more than ordinary reserve. She seemed unwilling to look straight at me, and when I told her I was delighted to see her, her whole face was suffused with a hot rosy glow. It did not take much imagination to deduce that her brother had spoken with her, as he had purposed to do, and that perhaps he had been a little too specific.
Dinner was awkward. Snyder was in good spirits, but Gertrude hardly spoke. I did my best to engage her in conversation, but she limited her participation in our talk to forced smiles and a few one-word answers.
When at last the plates had been taken up and we adjourned to the parlor, Snyder excused himself rather clumsily, saying that he had something to do upstairs for a few minutes. That was all he said, and he was gone; the rest was in my hands.
For some time we both sat in silence, Miss Snyder with her hands folded in her lap and her eyes trained on a spot on the floor some distance in front of her chair. I ought to say something, but I could think of nothing to say. Plainly Miss Snyder expected me to say something, but she was not willing to say anything herself until I spoke. At last, I broke the awful silence, and my voice sounded like a trumpet-blast in my own ear.
“Miss Snyder, I—I have something particular to say to you.”
“Indeed, Mr. Bousted?” she asked without looking up.
“Well, yes. When I arrived here this evening, I could not but sense that you viewed me differently from before. It made me suspect that certain remarks I had made—foolishly, of course, and believing that they would not be repeated—might have been,—well, might have been repeated.”
“I cannot deny that my brother did mention”—she was still gazing at that same spot on the floor—“certain flattering things you had said about me. I am very sorry if he has betrayed a confidence.”
“Oh, no, there was no betrayal, I assure you, except in my unguarded speech; for if I did not specifically ask him to keep what I said in confidence, then he was under no obligation to do so, and I was the foolish one for speaking so thoughtlessly. But, Miss Snyder, what has been said cannot be unsaid, and perhaps in my embarrassment—— Well, what I mean to say is, Miss Snyder, that I hope you don’t think ill of me for thinking well of you.”
“I could not possibly think ill of you, Mr. Bousted, and least of all for such a cause. It is”—here for the first time she raised her eyes and looked directly into mine—“it is surprising to me that you should have taken any notice of me at all, but I could never think ill of you for it.”
This was my opportunity, and I could not fail to make use of it. “Then permit me to say to you openly what I have already said to your brother when I thought I was speaking in secret. Miss Snyder, you are very beautiful, but the qualities of your soul which most evidently appear to anyone who has met you,—— No, this is—well, I’ll begin again. When I first saw you, Miss Snyder, I admit that I was first—I mean—I was taken with your beauty; but it was your kindness that won my esteem, your attentiveness to your brother, and— Well, Miss Snyder, I should very much like to know you better.”
She was silent for some time; I watched her perhaps too intently, and she averted her eyes before at last beginning to answer me. “Your flattery, Mr. Bousted—no, I do not mean to accuse you of dishonesty, Mr. Bousted, for you are far too good and honest—but your good opinion of me is more than I deserve. I cannot deny that my opinion of you is also—good. You have been our benefactor in so many ways, and your kindness to Edward puts me in your debt to such a degree, that—— My brother is almost a father to me, Mr. Bousted, and I owe him all my obedience, and every consideration that I would owe to my father if he were alive. And I know that your attention to me, unworthy as I am——”
“No, say not so; I am unworthy of you, and it is——”
“Then I withdraw the remark, if it displeases you. I know that your attention to me meets with my brother’s approval, for he has told me so directly; and what my brother approves, I cannot disapprove. That is what I meant to say.”
She was smiling—not broadly, but smiling.
“Then, Miss Snyder, I do not ask anything more of you now than this: will you permit me—to hope?”
She turned to face me, and once again looked straight into my eyes. “Yes, Mr. Bousted. I will permit you—to hope.”
I seized her hand and pressed it to my lips; and although I had, perhaps, been somewhat dishonest in some of my conversation, yet the joy I felt at that moment was quite genuine, and I would not willingly have traded places with any man on earth. Even today I can still conjure up the memory of her soft flesh against my lips with perfect accuracy. When I looked up, I saw her face glowing pink, and a single tear rolling down her right cheek. She was still smiling that enigmatic smile.
Neither of us spoke for some time after, until at last she said in a soft voice, “I suppose you had better call me ‘Gertrude’ from now on.”
Snyder had the decency not to interrogate us when he came back into the parlor, but his almost leering smiles kept a bright pink flush on Gertrude’s cheeks until I left for the evening, bidding her as fond a farewell as seemed decent in front of her brother. I left at about nine, and I remember how confidently, as I walked back down Federal-street, I projected my future life with Gertrude by my side. I think I was truly happy for a short time, until I passed that girl again.
All at once the bottom dropped out of my stomach. Gertrude was pretty; but even the fleeting glimpse I had of this girl under the gas-light confirmed that she was quite simply the most beautiful woman in the world. She had no rival. I raised my hat; she nodded and looked away, as if I had been too forward with my eyes. We passed, and she was gone.
That night, as I lay down in my bed in my rather elegantly furnished new bedroom, I filled my mind with images of Gertrude: Gertrude at dinner, Gertrude strolling in the park beside me, Gertrude beside me in bed. Just before I drifted off to sleep, I realized that the imaginary woman beside me was no longer Gertrude, but that girl on Federal-street.
The rapid growth of the Bousted & Son firm effects certain important changes in our lives, of which our removal to Allegheny is not the least.
My father was so ridiculously pleased with me for the next week or so that I found myself wishing, on more than one occasion, that he could find at least one fault in me, so that at least for a quarter-hour at a stretch I might be spared that hideous simian grin of his. Outwardly, I continued to play the part of the devoted and dutiful son, because it was still to my advantage to do so. Inwardly, I could be as contemptuous as I liked. Indeed, one of my most delightful discoveries since adopting the system of Baucher was the freedom I felt inwardly. The outer man continued to abide by all the precepts of virtue, as far as anyone could see, even while the inner man was wonderfully wicked. There had been a time when I dismissed such seeming virtue as hypocrisy; now I called it expedient.
In that next week, I spent almost all my waking hours hard at work. Not a single day went by without the appearance of at least four or five ladies whose penmanship required analysis, and by the end of the week we were already coming near the end of our stock of paper in some grades. In the evenings I walked across the Allegheny—or, when I was feeling especially prosperous, rode the horse-car—to the great Boggs & Buhl establishment, where I trained half a dozen clerks in the Bousted system of handwriting analysis. Orders were coming briskly there as well, and it was not long before more of Bousted’s Famous Graded Stationery was being sold at Boggs & Buhl than from our own store. That was good news, since we stood to make a healthy profit from the sales there with very little work, now that the clerks were properly trained. Very soon it was time to order more paper, which we did on the same terms as before—Boggs & Buhl to pay for the entire lot, and Bousted & Son to take a quarter of it, along with our fee in excess of the value of the paper. It amounted to being paid to take the paper we were going to sell—an arrangement of whose obvious advantage even my father was aware.
As all this was going on, Camellia had her birth-day. I was careful to stay home that evening, giving myself a holiday from training clerks, so that I could make a show of interest in my horrible sister’s happiness. As long as my father doted on his two hideous girls as much as he did on me, it was greatly to my advantage to give them as little real cause for complaint as possible. Camellia was in fact much pleased with the parasol I gave her, declaring it the “nicest” gift she had ever received. This in turn caused a simply delightful falling-out between her and Viola that lasted for days, during which Camellia went out of her way to be civil to me, which was very good, and Viola would not speak to me at all, which was better. She refused to smile for anyone except the silent clerk across the street, who appeared to melt into the curtain whenever she noticed him gawking at her and smiled at him.
I should also mention that, every time I walked up or down Federal-street, or rode the horse-car, I looked among the milling crowds for that girl. I never saw her, but I always looked for her. And you, dear reader, are perfectly well aware that I must see her eventually, or I should not have mentioned her in the first place. But for the present I did not see her, and that is all I can say.
Our next order of stationery was four times the size of the previous one; I won a substantially lower price from Cargill Bros., but charged Boggs & Buhl at the same rate. Since that remarkable day when Mrs. Rockland had blustered into the store, we had made more in profit than we had made in the entire previous year. My father was ecstatic, and gave me all the credit, which of course was only my due. Camellia at least affected to be pleased as well. Viola was simply speechless with impotent fury, which is the way I always like her best.
We packed bundles as carefully as we could, but still there was no room for about a third of the paper in the back of the shop. I refused to allow the excess to go down into the dank basement, so it went up into my attic: I carried a few reams at a time up three flights of stairs. Viola was somewhat pleased by this inconvenience to me, and even ventured a few cheerfully ill-natured remarks on the subject at supper before my father’s oafish pride in his son reduced her to sullen silence again. As for me, I regarded the carefully distributed bundles as trophies, and it gave me distinct pleasure to gaze on them just before retiring—though I must confess that my thoughts, just before I drifted into the arms of Morpheus for the night, were not of paper, but invariably of that girl on Federal-street.
The parade of pretentious middle-class ladies continued its unabated march through the little store. A few men came in as well, but it was plain that Bousted’s Famous Graded Stationery (now advertised in large gold letters on the display window) appealed mostly to women. I suspected that most of our male patrons had been sent to us by their wives. My father was ridiculously happy almost all the time, and he found himself in possession of more money than he had ever seen in one place in his life, as he remarked at least once per diem. I was of course pleased as well, but I did not carry the thing to such loathsome extremes.
It was not long before we were in need of even more stock, and it was quite clear that, if we were to continue expanding the business this way, we should need to keep a larger stock, or continually be running short. Since there was no room for a larger stock, even with my attic taken up mostly by bundles of paper, we had to find somewhere else to keep it all.
“The difficulty,” my father said, “is that the goods will have to be transported. That will cost us over and above the cost of warehouse space.”
“There is an alternative,” I said, seized by a sudden inspiration. “We could move ourselves, rather than move our stock.”
“What do you mean by that, Galahad? Your sisters have already made it clear that they aren’t willing to give up any space in their own rooms.”
“No, I mean take a house. We could devote this entire building to store and stock if we lived in a separate house.”
My father laughed—not a jolly laugh, but a worried and uncertain sort of laugh. “That would cost a great deal of money.”
“And we have a great deal of money, with more coming in every day. We could take—”
Here, all unbidden, the image of that girl on Federal-street rose up in my mind.
“We could take a house in Allegheny,” I suggested. “The air is healthier, and the horse-car makes it a practical distance. All the better class of merchants are moving to Allegheny, or the newer parts of Birmingham. We might even expand the store—add a selection of maps, which I hear are very profitable, or children’s books, for the children who already come in for their school things. The benefit to the store of a little more space must be obvious.” And in my mind I added, “even to an oaf like you,” though of course outwardly I was perfectly respectful.
My father thought for a moment, and the effort it cost him was painfully visible. “I don’t think it’s time for that yet,” he said at last. “We’ve been doing pretty well, but I’d like to know that the money will keep coming in before I spend it all.”
“Well, of—” I began,—and then I stopped. “Well, of course I shall defer to your judgment,” I said in my best approximation of a dutiful son’s expression. I had nearly said, “Well, of course it will keep coming in, you old fool,” but I restrained myself. It was of great importance that I should appear to be a dutiful son. I had not yet reached my twenty-first birthday; as much as I had accomplished, I was still, in the eyes of the world, my father’s son. The reputation of the store—the capital of my nascent empire—would be adversely affected by even the rumor of any falling-out with my father. I suppressed, therefore, the words I desired to speak, and substituted the words my father desired to hear.
It was an obvious necessity, however, that we should remove from the store to a separate residence. While we lived above the store, we were no more than shopkeepers, even if prosperous shopkeepers. My father might be content to live as a shopkeeper the rest of his life; and if there were shops in that dreary Methodist heaven he believed in, he might keep one there as well. I, however, was bound for greater things, and I must take the reins, while seeming to all the world to submit to my father.
The next shipment of paper arrived, larger than the last, and my attic was beginning to fill up with the bundles. I had little objection to the inconvenience, which was easily borne; but it did keep my father’s shortsightedness ever before my eyes. I must find some way of overcoming it—but without appearing to deviate from that filial obedience, the appearance of which was essential to my interests, even as the practical violation of it was essential to my advancement. Clearly it was necessary to bring in even more money, so that even my father could be persuaded that we had enough to take a house in Allegheny.
“Rohrbaugh’s,” I said suddenly at supper one evening.
“I beg your pardon?” my father responded interrogatively.
“We have given Boggs & Buhl the exclusive trade in the Graded Stationery for Allegheny, but nothing prevents us from making the same agreement with Rohrbaugh’s for Pittsburgh, and thus doubling our income from the department-store trade.”
“But would that not simply take patrons away from our store?” my father asked.
I said nothing, because there was (much as it pains me to say so even now) some justice in his objection.
“Really, Galahad,” Viola added, “don’t be a noodle.” It appeared that she was speaking to me again.
I was sullen and dejected the rest of the evening, although to all appearances as cheerful as ever. It was not until I had nearly fallen asleep that night that I had my next sudden revelation. Yes, it was foolish, and probably even fatal to my ultimate design, to give Rohrbaugh’s the sale of my Graded Stationery. But there were department stores in other cities—in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, St. Louis. These stores would certainly not draw patrons away from us—yet there were dozens of them, hundreds perhaps. I quickly multiplied the profit we made from the Boggs & Buhl sales by one hundred, and idly calculated how large a house, with how many carriages, I could buy with that money.
The next morning, my father came down as I was marshaling my troops, as I called it—which is to say, arranging everything in perfect order, so that it could be retrieved instantly when a patron requested it.
“Good morning, Galahad,” he said with his usual oafish cheer.
“If I double our income by Christmas,” I asked without any preliminary greeting, “will you take a house in Allegheny?”
My father was silent for a moment; then he laughed briefly; then, when that also seemed to have failed him as a response, he asked me, “What sort of doubling do you mean?”
“I mean that December’s receipts shall be twice last month’s. No”—here a spirit of boastfulness entered my soul—“they shall be twice this month’s, which are already a good bit more than last month’s. And we shall count the receipts until Christmas only, not any in the week after Christmas. If the receipts from the first to the twenty-fourth of December, from all our various ventures—the store and the Boggs & Buhl contract and anything else—if what we take in then is double our receipts for the entire month of September, will you agree that we should take a house in Allegheny, and use our rooms here to expand the store?”
My father smiled that empty smile that always contorted his lips when the conversation ascended to heights he could not climb. “My boy, if you can do that, I’ll remove us to Allegheny, and I’ll stand on my head while I do it.”
“I do not believe that will be necessary,” I told him. “The removal to Allegheny will be sufficient.”
He laughed with an ear-splitting bellow, as if he had just heard the most splendid bon mot ever spoken by the mouth of man. I made some show of laughing, too, to show him that I was in good spirits, because that, in turn, in his oafish devotion to me, always put him in good spirits. I was rapidly learning that keeping my father happy was essential to my success, for which reason it behooved me, as a rational (which is to say evil) man, to study his disposition and learn what made him happy. The small effort it cost me was an investment that would reap large dividends in the future.
“I should be down long before we open,” I said, heading for the stairway. “I have something to attend to upstairs, but it won’t take long.”
And then I ran up the stairs, doubtless thundering my sisters awake (which I am sure I did not regret in the least), and sat down at my little table in the dormer to draft a letter. I laid out the distinct advantages of the Bousted system of graded stationery, and what was far more important (I used the exact phrase “what is far more important”) the appeal of it to ladies of a certain class, and their willingness to pay high prices for it; I mentioned the successful introduction of the line at Boggs & Buhl, and how ordinary clerks were, by a short course of training, fitted to perform the requisite evaluations; how the name of Bousted was already a household word in Pittsburgh and Allegheny, and was rapidly becoming so elsewhere as the letters written by Pittsburgh ladies made their way around the world (this I simply made up, or, to put it more kindly to myself, extrapolated from the facts known to me); and I concluded by inviting the recipient to join the small and exclusive society of dealers who carried the genuine Bousted line, by which they were enabled to double or treble their sales of high-grade stationery (this figure I also extrapolated, to use a term that sounds ever so much better than making up).
I did not have time in the morning to copy out the letter, but I had written my draft. I faced the parade of ladies coming in to scribble for me with unforced cheerfulness. I was even polite and pleasant to Viola at supper, which discommoded her no end. In the evening I retired early and set to work copying the letter a dozen times, writing as neatly as I could. Here, for once, I was grateful for my schooling: I had been beaten mercilessly until I was able to write a very fair hand, which (I thought) reflected very creditably on the firm. I made sure, of course, to write on our own watermarked stationery, and to choose the grade that best matched my own penmanship. And then, at the foot of each letter, I signed my father’s name, in a better-than-tolerable facsimile of his antiquated flourish. Yes, I suppose it was deliberate fraud, but it was wonderful how easily the system of Baucher met that objection with the answer that it was a crime which it was in my interest to commit. I was not insensible of the disadvantage of my youth: howsoever much I had accomplished already, I was still uncommonly young in the eyes of the world; whereas my father, although I knew him as an ill-educated oaf, presented to the world the very picture of a respectable tradesman. It was of the greatest importance, therefore, that, if any of the gentlemen to whom I was writing should make inquiries, he should discover only a respectable stationer who had been in business for nearly two decades with an untarnished reputation.
Having finished copying, I looked at my pocket-watch. It was nearly midnight: I had been writing with such care that it had taken me more than three hours to finish the letters. But I did not feel at all fatigued. I lowered the gas, but I sat for some time in the darkness at the chair in my front dormer, gazing out at the empty street below me. From somewhere a street or two behind me I heard a group of inebriated revelers singing a rather ribald song about one Maisie, who apparently was lazy, and suffered the consequences of her lethargy, as detailed in a number of verses. As their voices faded into the low hum of steamboats on the rivers and trains along the shore, I reflected that I had never in my life been drunk that way. Until quite recently, I should have said, without thinking, that drunkenness was a sin; but now that I was living a life of sin, perhaps it was time to try the experiment. Those sturdy fellows down on Market-street, or wherever they were, sounded happy. I had only had wine at dinner—dreadful cheap stuff from New York, which my father considered a great luxury, and which he would buy only when he felt exceptionally prosperous. Since my father rightly attributed our current prosperity to me, Viola affected to disdain the wine, the palpable symbol of my success. “Where there’s drink there’s danger,” she repeated as often as she thought of it, proving at least that she could read a temperance tract. At any rate, as I said, I had wine at dinner, but never in sufficient quantities to intoxicate me to any perceptible degree. Perhaps it was time to try some of that famous Monongahela rye against which the temperance societies railed so monotonously.
But not to-night. I had already used up half the night writing, and I was very much inclined to devote the rest to Morpheus. I undressed and lay down to sleep, closing my eyes and summoning up visions of that girl on Federal-street.
I shall not weary you, as I wearied myself, with the many expedients to which I resorted to obtain out-of-town newspapers and other references; but eventually I succeeded in finding a dozen addresses of great department stores in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Providence, Washington, York, Cincinnati, Buffalo, and St. Louis. My letters were dispatched, and I had only to wait.
This waiting was an agony, the more so because no effort of mine could shorten it. I had to pretend that everything was going well for me, because I could not admit what I had done—not until I was certain of success. So I decided to get drunk.
It was, perhaps, the folly of youth that suggested such a course; but you must remember that I had no experience of drunkenness. It was said to be a vice, but I had turned away from virtue. My observations of the phenomenon from a distance suggested that it made men happy, and like any rational being I desired to be happy. My decision was a purely rational one, and I approached the implementation of it in a spirit of scientific inquiry.
My first step was to inquire into the popular methods of attaining that blessed state. I did not have far to go to do so. Viola had taken to leaving temperance tracts strewn about our little parlor, doubtless as a warning that my success (which enabled my father to buy wine for the table) would lead to damnation. I took up one of those tracts on Sunday afternoon and read it from front to back—an activity of which my elder sister coldly expressed her approval, which I know was really a gnawing displeasure, since, if I were converted to the cause of temperance, she must needs find some other vice in me on which to fasten her disapproval, and I had been very careful to conceal my devotion to vice under an impenetrable mask of false virtue.
The tract was nothing less than a complete manual of self-instruction for the novice tippler. In order to horrify the imagination of the female readers who were more than probably the only human beings besides myself who would ever read more than two lines of the thing, it described with wonderful thoroughness the scenes of appalling vice enacted in saloons throughout the land every Saturday night: how the poor lost soul, leaving his wife and children alone in the miserable hovel that was all he could provide for them (because, of course, his money went for drink), would walk into a saloon, where he was greeted convivially by other lost souls, demand rye whiskey, and begin an assault on his own mental faculties that did not end until well past midnight. I could not have asked for a better tutor. There was nothing for me to do but follow the detailed instructions in this comprehensive manual, and I could not fail at my enterprise. I wondered then, as I still wonder to-day, how many susceptible young men are led straight through the swinging doors by these temperance tracts. Perhaps the authors of them are all charlatans in the pay of the great distilleries. If it be so, I commend the inventor of the scheme.
It remained to find a place suitable for my experiment. The saloons were innumerable toward the Point, but their proximity made them unsuitable. I did not wish to be recognized. I must maintain that illusion of virtue in the eyes of my family and patrons which would allow my schemes to come to fruition. I was familiar with Allegheny, however, and in that happy city were many notorious haunts of demon rum. Since I was not well known there, it seemed quite reasonable to undertake the additional quarter-hour of walking, and the negligible toll on the bridge. I fixed on the next Saturday as the date of my expedition, since, if it proved necessary, I might thus have Sunday to recover from my exertions.
That week was uneventful, except in that it was our most successful week yet in the store. More than once I had two or three ladies waiting in the store at once for me to have a look at their writing. In the mean time, no letters came in from department stores. It was, of course, unreasonable for me to expect a reply within a week, but knowing that my impatience was unreasonable did not make me any more patient.
Saturday we closed the store at the usual time; and, as we ate supper, I announced that I had plans to visit a friend in Allegheny. Viola, that constant delight of my soul, expressed some surprise at the news that I had friends, at which Camellia snorted briefly in her usual way; and then, recalling that for the moment she had more grievances against Viola than against me, abruptly silenced herself. My father, as was his wont, either affected not to hear them or really heard nothing, in his imbecilic way shutting out what was too unpleasant to believe: viz., that anything other than peace and inviolate affection could prevail among his children. It was therefore not mentioned any more at the table that I should be absent that evening; and later, when my father said his offhand farewell to me as I passed through the parlor, I could not but reflect privately upon the immense difference between the great experiment on which I was embarking and the evening of dull fellowship which he doubtless imagined lay ahead of me.
The sun had set, but there was still a rosy light from the west as I set out on my walk up Wood-street. The streets of the city had an air of festivity, as they ordinarily had on a Saturday night; and I reflected that to-night, for the first time in my life, I was (in a sense) joining in that festivity, rather than simply watching it from four storeys above, as I had done on many previous occasions, or sitting in the cramped parlor and listening to Viola rail against it as she had done every week since she took up the torch of temperance. Men who passed me seemed genuinely happy. For most of them, this was the one time of the week to be their own men—not to be at the bidding of an employer, as they were six days of the week, or of a dour clergyman, as they were on Sundays (although I had heard shocking rumors to the effect that a significant number of the hired workmen did not attend church on Sundays, as though they cared as little for their supposedly immortal souls as I cared for mine). And it appeared that most of them were, like me, off somewhere to some saloon or other, where it appeared that happiness in fluid form was offered for a price even the humblest workingman could muster, provided he was not immoderately attached to his wife and children. The general gaiety was infectious, and I found myself walking with an unaccustomed spring in my step. The very air seemed fresher, with a steady breeze from the west to blow the smoke of the mills away and exchange it for what I imagined to be the fresh air of the Ohio countryside, though in reality it was doubtless merely the stale smoke from more distant mills.
Liberty-street was quieter; its pushcarts had been pushed home for the evening, and there were no saloons to attract the boisterous activity I had seen on Wood-street; but the activity resumed as I walked toward the river, along a street where there were not merely saloons, but music-halls that affected the name of “theaters” as well.
By the time I had reached the Allegheny bridge, the rosy glow of sunset had given way to the indigo of twilight; and the view from the river as I crossed the bridge was indescribably beautiful to me, with the innumerable bright gas lights of both cities reflected in the rippling water, and in the east the fire of the mills making almost a new sunrise against the darkening sky; the steamboats like fairy castles floating on the inverted sky of the river; the world infused with poetry and charged with romance. And I—I was a new Magellan, or a second Columbus, on my merry way to discover new worlds where none had even been suspected before.
Federal-street was bustling, but for some reason I decided to turn eastward on Ohio-street, which was also filled with Saturday-evening crowds. Here were many saloons, some of them euphemistically designated “cafes”; and, without having any reason to choose one over another, I rather unexpectedly found myself unable to choose one at all. I walked along the south side of the street for some distance, and then back along the north side, and I must have passed a dozen saloons at the least; but this one was too crowded, and that one too small, and the other too noisy,—so that it really seemed as if I was losing my courage. The moment I thought of it in those terms, the thing was done: no one should say that Newman Bousted had lost his courage. I simply walked through the next set of swinging doors I came to, and I did not stop walking until I had taken my place at the bar.
“What’ll it be?” the gentleman behind the bar asked me as I sat on the stool.
“Monongahela rye,” I answered readily.
“Straight up?” he asked.
I delayed answering for a moment, because I really had no idea what he meant by that question. On reflection, however, I concluded that the drink would be easier to handle vertically than horizontally or on a slant of some sort, so I answered in the affirmative.
The man nodded, and with seemingly impossible alacrity, and all in one fluid motion, poured a small amount of brown liquid into a tiny glass and handed the glass to me. In my eyes, it resembled nothing so much as an inkwell filled with sepia writing fluid. Nevertheless, unappetizing as the appearance might be, I certainly could not give up my experiment without a proper trial.
I pressed the glass to my lips and took a tentative sip. At once my mouth was filled with burning bitterness, and rank fumes invaded my nostrils; and when, overcoming every instinct pleading with me to spit the vile fluid out, I swallowed, the burning continued down my gullet and into my stomach, where it began to spread like an ink-blot to my chest and abdomen, and the rest of my frame.
This was not the pleasure I had promised myself. Nevertheless, I was preparing to take in the rest of the abominable fluid, if only to get the thing done with, when a sudden blow to my shoulder nearly knocked me off the stool.
“Beauthted!” cried a voice, at once familiar and unfamiliar, in my right ear; and I turned to behold my old friend Snyder,—or, rather, what remained of Snyder, the better part of him having been drowned already in a prodigious quantity of alcohol.
“Mr. Snyder,” I greeted him. I could think of nothing else to say.
“Ha!” he exclaimed, and he slapped my shoulder again. “My friend—my dear, dear, dear, dear, dear, dear, dear, dear,—what was I saying?”
“It’s very good to see you,” I said with as much politeness as I could muster under the circumstances.
“Yeth! Tha’s it! Iss very good to see me! I mean you. Very good to see you. You have no idea the good you’ve done me, Beauteds! No idea whatsoever. No idea! You have no idea.”
“I am always happy to be of service,” I replied warily. At that particular moment, I might have paid a goodly sum in ready money to be somewhere else.
“Bothers’ Famouth Graded Sass— Stationery—my idea to bring it in—you remember—my idea—introduced you to Mr. Whassacallit. Sales trebled—trebled! Tee-tiddy-um-tum-trebled! Make me a minnager!—Ha! I mean to say, a managin. Salary, office.”
“That certainly is good news!” And even here, in the noise and smoke of the saloon, I was drafting in my mind my next letter to a department store: “Already the man responsible for introducing the Bousted system at Boggs & Buhl has received a substantial promotion, which he attributes to no other cause…”
“Iss egslent news! Eskelent! Called me into office safternoon. Came here to celebrate! Happiest day of my life!” Here he suddenly began to weep with great heaving sobs. “Never been so happy—’sall your doing—you a ta-rue friend, Boatsaid—a true true true true friend!” He fell sobbing on my shoulder, mumbling the words “true friend” over and over again into my collar.
“Your friend has had too much,” the barkeep told me. “He needs to go home.”
I nodded in agreement, but the barkeep kept his gaze fixed on me, until he had made it clear to me that my friend was somehow my responsibility. Since the man was at least a foot taller than I was and twice my weight, I thought it best to comply with his unexpressed demand as expeditiously as possible.
“Come along, friend,” I said, attempting to push Snyder into an upright position. “We’ll get you home now.”
My effort was mostly futile. I succeeded in rising to a standing position, but with Snyder’s head still on my shoulder,—until all at once he stood bolt upright and declaimed, “Home is where the heart is!” Falling backward, he braced himself on the stool, which, toppling with him, made a loud clatter that turned every eye toward us. Snyder himself only narrowly escaped breaking his head on the bar, and that only by grasping my lapel and dragging me down with him. There was much laughter from the assembled crowd, and for the first time it began to dawn on me that the laughter I had associated with drunkenness was not a symptom of the happiness of the drunkard, but rather the ill-natured merriment of the observers.
“Home is where the heart is,” Snyder repeated in a low but portentous voice. I stood and began pulling him up with all my strength; he rose slowly and almost majestically, solemnly intoning as he rose, “My heart is in my chest.”
“Indeed it is,” I agreed. “Now let me help you along home. You’ll feel much better there, I trust.”
“But do you grasp the meaning of it, Boorstep?” he demanded as we made our way, slowly and deliberately, toward the door. “My home is in my chest! How could I not have seen it before? My home is in my chest! Where my heart is!”
He continued in that vein for some time; then, as we reached Federal-street, he burst into tears again, and for the next two blocks he sobbed theatrically as we walked, slowly and deliberately. When we reached the common, he began to sing a rather lugubrious ballad, most of the words of which were indistinguishable to me; then he abruptly turned aside into the grass, fell on his hands and knees, and vomited. At precisely that moment, I lost all further desire to pursue my experiment in inebriation.
It was another half-hour before I succeeded in conveying Snyder to his own house, where a very pleasant young woman brought us both in. I briefly wondered why Snyder would leave such a wife as this at home to go out and make himself sick; but when she began to thank me profusely for my solicitous care for her brother, I understood the situation a little better.
“May I ask to whom we are indebted for my brother’s safe return?” the sister inquired.
“Oh!” I replied. “Please forgive my ill breeding. Newman Bousted at your service, miss.”
“Gertrude Snyder,” she said, extending her hand, which I took politely. “I am very pleased to meet you, Mr. Bousted—Bousted! Surely not the Mr. Bousted of Bousted’s stationery?”
“The same, Miss Snyder.”
“Why, you must be a positive angel sent from heaven! Edward has told me how he owes his new position to Mr. Bousted—he has spoken of you as his benefactor every day—and now you appear here to bring him safely home! I beg you not to hold his weakness against him, Mr. Bousted. Edward only rarely indulges in strong drink. When he does, this”—she waved her hand in the direction of her brother, who by now was horizontal on the settee, snoring loudly—“this is the inevitable result. I worry so, Mr. Bousted! How did you come to be with him, and yet so obviously sober? Oh, dear, I should not have asked such a question. Please pardon——”
“Not at all, Miss Snyder—nothing to pardon. I happened to meet your brother on Ohio-street” (which was perfectly true as far as it went, although I left out the pertinent detail of having met him in a saloon), “and I felt it incumbent upon me, as his friend, to make sure he returned home safely. I am certain that he would do as much for me under similar circumstances; although, as I am not myself given to strong drink” (well, not since this evening’s experience of its effects, at any rate), “I suppose no exactly similar circumstances are likely to arise.” I really do not know why I felt it necessary to make this veiled declaration of moral superiority, except that she was an attractive girl, and I was a man, and I thought it might dispose her to think well of me.
“Poor Edward!” she said with that tone, at once maternal and dismissive, that only a sister can manage. “You must have seen his good qualities, and please believe me when I say that those predominate. And I must say that he never drinks when he has an obligation the following day. But oh, Mr. Bousted, when he does drink, he is so terribly excessive! I wish he might take your example. You might have some salutary influence over him. I know he respects you a great deal.”
“His respect,” I said, “is very flattering, if perhaps undeserved, and I—”
Here Snyder interrupted with a loud cry of “Home is where the heart is!” before turning over and resuming his fitful slumber.
“I ought to be attending to my brother,” Miss Snyder said, “perhaps with a pot of coffee. If I could offer you—”
“Completely unnecessary, Miss Snyder, I assure you. I need to be walking homeward myself now, so I shall detain you no longer. But I do hope I shall see you again soon.”
Her expression told me I had hit just the right note: I did not presume upon the circumstances of our accidental meeting, but I expressed a hope of deepening our acquaintance at some future opportunity.
“Well, then, Mr. Bousted, good night, until we meet again, and thank you for your kindness to my brother.”
I took her hand again briefly, and looked in her eyes as I bid her good night. She really was a very attractive girl—dark hair, flashing green eyes, a tiny nose that turned up just a little at the end. Perhaps something might come of our acquaintance. It occurred to me in that brief moment of touching her hand that a man might do much worse in a wife.
As I walked back down Federal-street, I reflected that the evening had not been entirely unproductive. I had not achieved my original purpose, but I had achieved something rather better than that: I had gained an education in the effects of drunkenness that has lasted me a lifetime. Furthermore, I had learned that Bousted’s Famous Graded Stationery was held in high esteem at Boggs & Buhl, a fact which must be useful to me in some way. Finally, I had made the acquaintance of Miss Gertrude Snyder, who was already disposed to think favorably of me. She was an attractive young woman, and I could still feel the delicate touch of her hand on mine. I had little experience in the ways of women who were not my sisters, but it did not seem inconceivable to me that Miss Snyder might be willing to consider a more intimate acquaintance. As I crossed the common, my fancy painted a charming picture of Miss Snyder as my wife, waiting for me in our spacious mansion, greeting me with a bright smile, blushing prettily as I took certain liberties to which a husband is entitled—
And then, all at once, the picture of Miss Snyder was forgotten. In front of me, walking toward me, I saw that girl again—the most beautiful woman in Pittsburgh and Allegheny, and quite probably in the world. She was walking with another female, of whom I have no recollection whatsoever; and as they passed I raised my hat to her. She nodded, and for a fleeting moment looked directly into my eyes, while her friend continued her idle chatter. And that was all: she said nothing, and I said nothing, and we passed. But all the way home, and very late into the night, I thought of nothing but that perfect face.
Sunday afternoon, I walked back across the river to call on Snyder and inquire as to his health; his sister informed me that he was still sleeping, but otherwise suffering no more than the expected effects of overindulgence. I left my card, and we parted. I mention this visit only because it did in fact lead, by a series of events unknown to me at the time, to a more intimate acquaintance with Miss Snyder.
Monday I received—or rather my father received, but I intercepted and opened—two letters from prominent department stores. The first, from Lerner Bros. in Cincinnati, very politely thanked us for our correspondence, but regretted that the store had no need for our goods at the present. This put me in such a funk that I nearly tossed aside the other letter unopened; but at last I summoned up my courage and read it. It was from Carey’s in Philadelphia: they had heard somehow of the success of my system at Boggs & Buhl, and urgently requested—urgently, they said!—a full order at the earliest opportunity.
More such letters followed, and within a week I had four orders. I shall not be prolix. I composed a short manual of instruction, of which I had a hundred copies printed by our regular printer, and sent it to each of the stores (with the warning to keep it strictly confidential, of course). As for the paper, I arranged for it to be sent direct from Cargill’s. Meanwhile, I sent more letters to more department stores. By my twenty-first birthday, which was at the end of October, eight department stores were selling the Graded Stationery, and repeat orders were already coming in. On Christmas Eve, I presented my father with the figures, which showed that December’s receipts so far were six and a half times September’s. He said it was “first-rate” and danced. Right there in the store, in front of two baffled matrons waiting to have their writing examined, he danced what I think was meant to be a jig. At the end of January, we removed to Allegheny.
I make an awkward, but auspicious, beginning to my life of evil by defying my father, although not to his face.
Evil in the abstract is all very well, but how does one put it into practice? I had not had the advantage of hearing the words of Baucher from the man himself; I had only an inaccurate and unsympathetic summary to go by. From this summary, however, I was at least able to extract the fundamental principle of evil, which is to say greatness, as a course of action. The evil or great man asks himself one question in every endeavor: Does this action tend to my advantage?
First, then, it is plainly necessary to decide in what one’s advantage consists. As I dressed myself that morning, after a night that had been restless but productive of much useful reflection, I looked at myself in the tiny mirror above my washbasin and asked myself very bluntly, “Do you know where your advantage lies?” My reflection, who was obviously a gentleman of parts, answered with wonderful alacrity, “My advantage lies in building this paltry store into a great commercial empire, in spite of the wretched ignorance of my father.” “And of your sisters,” I added, and my reflection nodded his enthusiastic agreement.
It was resolved, then: the order from Cargill Bros. must not be rescinded. For the first time I could remember, I had definite plans to defy my father’s explicit command.
How to do so, however, was a more delicate question. I could, of course, simply defy my father to his face, telling him that I refused to allow the Cargill Bros. order to be rescinded, on the grounds that it was positively necessary for us to expand our business, and to strike, as they say, while the iron was hot. It would require considerable courage and conviction to do so;—in fact, it would seem almost virtuous, and it would doubtless end with my father, having thus been alerted that my loyalty could not be relied upon, removing the store funds from my reach, and perhaps even placing the money in the hands of my loyal and brainless sisters, from whose bony fingers no force on earth could extract it. No, open confrontation would not tend to my own advantage, and therefore must manifestly be rejected.
I had, however, made good use of my sleepless hours the night before, and I had formulated a devious strategy that, if it were indeed successful, would circumvent my father’s control of the store funds entirely, by simply obviating the need for me to spend any of them. Dear reader, my scheme was so cunningly audacious that—well, shall I tell you what it was? Oh, no! It will give me much greater satisfaction to imagine you panting for the answer, as pants the hart &c., and me withholding it from you; and if you complain at such treatment, then I shall say that, if you did not desire to read a memoir by an avowedly wicked man, then you ought to have picked up a book of improving sermons by any one of the innumerable ministers and doctors of theology who warrant their prose entirely free from wickedness of any kind.
I came down to the store that morning early, as had become my habit; and my father found me tidying up the place, as he called it when I rearranged our stock for greater efficiency.
“Good morning, Galahad,” he said with a sort of tentative good cheer, as if testing to see whether I might be harboring some sort of resentment against him for his intransigence of the previous evening.
“Good morning,” I replied with a good cheer that was entirely unforced. And then I set my plot in motion. “As you know, I have a little business to transact this morning. I was wondering if you might spare me until about noon or so.”
“Well, I suppose so,” my father replied—clearly unwilling to risk another unpleasant confrontation over a trivial matter of a few hours. He did not even inquire the reason for my protracted absence, but I gave him the explanation I had thought up even so.
“You remember, of course, that Camellia has a birth-day coming up, and I thought I might make use of this opportunity to buy her something without her knowing the reason for my errand.” That was quite plausible, because it was absolutely true: I would make sure that, by noon, I had purchased some useless trinket that could be presented to Camellia as the culmination of weeks of careful thought.
My father’s face lit up. I believe he desperately wished to believe that good relations obtained between my sisters and me, and I know it must have cost him some mental effort to maintain that illusion. Here, however, was concrete evidence that I was taking an interest in the happiness of Camellia, the ugly old horse, precious little Camellia who would soon be twenty-four but had the mind of a girl half her age.
“Well, of course, dear boy,” my father said with a great oafish smile contorting his whole face. He was a rather ordinary-looking man in most respects, but he could be positively hideous when he was happy. “First-rate. Kill two birds with one stone that way, won’t you? Take as long as you need. Just be sure you’re here by two, because I positively promised Mrs. Platt that you would assess her writing then. We had three more applicants yesterday, and they all insisted on seeing you.”
I left the store soon after that, pleased that my father obviously suspected nothing of my plans. (And how could he suspect? Even you, dear reader, have nary an inkling of what happens next.) As soon as I was past Fifth-street, I nearly doubled my pace, walking briskly past the telegraph office, and then a while later joining the throngs crossing Liberty-street, with its shouting fruit vendors and imprecating draymen that made it seem more like an Oriental bazaar than a Northern thoroughfare; and then briskly to the Allegheny and across the bridge, and up Federal-street past Boggs & Buhl, which had not yet opened for the morning (which was part of my plan, you see); and then finally to the narrow residential streets north of the common, and in particular to a certain small house on Boyle-street, from which, in about a quarter-hour, a certain Mr. Snyder emerged.
“Bousted!” he exclaimed as soon as he recognized me. “Well, this is a surprise. I was just thinking about you, you know. My sister had our aunt over for dinner last night, and my word! The conversation turned to Bousted’s stationery, and they were both surprised to hear that I knew the inventor.”
“In fact,” I replied, “I came expressly to see you on that very subject. We have, as you yourself testify, achieved a certain degree of note with our system. People ask for it by name. I thought perhaps we might walk together to your store, so that we could discuss something that might tend to the advantage of us both.”
“By all means,” said he; and so we walked, and I laid my plan before him.
“Our obvious next step,” I told him as if it were so obvious as to be beyond question, “is into the department stores. My father, of course, is all for Rohrbaugh’s, but after talking to you yesterday, I had the distinct feeling that you had an instinctive grasp of the system. It is, of course, vitally important to us that the Graded Stationery should be handled only by establishments that will provide the service in a reliable manner. The reputation of the line depends on the accuracy of the analysis.”
Oh, I was eloquent. As we traversed the common, I was already discussing terms with him. Mr. Snyder did not have sole authority in the stationery department; but he was sure that, in this instance, his advice would be followed. I explained how the system would be implemented: with an initial order of fifteen reams of each type, the store would receive complete instructions for performing the analysis, and (of course) the use of the Bousted name, which was already of great value in the trade.
I need not feign modesty in such a private memoir as this, but it does not amuse me to relate my whole conversation with Mr. Snyder, and subsequently with the manager above him. I need only say that I was entirely successful, so that, by half past ten in the morning, I had a signed agreement to supply Boggs & Buhl with an initial order of my Graded Stationery, with complete instructions for the implementation of the system, and—here is the absolutely brilliant stroke—payment on delivery. I even recollected my other errand, and did not neglect my dear sister, selecting a fine silk parasol for her that might effect some improvement in her hideous blotchy complexion.
Now, I thought to myself, is not Baucher marvelously accurate in his observations? The superior man, I told myself as I walked back down Federal-street toward the river, sees opposition as opportunity. I must write that down somewhere. It might be better phrased: one might say——
And all at once I completely forgot what I was thinking about, because there, walking up the sidewalk toward me, was the most beautiful girl in the world.
I am not given to hyperbole, at least when the subject is something other than myself. I had seen girls who were beautiful, and I knew enough about beauty to know that my sisters did not possess it. But I had never seen beauty itself until that fleeting moment. It was over in an instant: I walked on, and she walked on; yet the image of her perfect face, her auburn tresses, her classical figure, was burned into my mind for ever. I can conjure up that image as fresh today as I could half a minute afterward. It was a trivial incident, but is not a man’s life made up of such trivial incidents? At any rate, the sagacious reader will have divined already that, since nothing is introduced in this narrative without purpose (in this way, as in every other, I follow Nature), the incident will not be without consequence later. For the present I need only say that the sight of this woman so unsettled me that I very nearly forgot to stop in the telegraph office. I had walked half a block past it before I remembered what I was about and turned around. There I sent a wire to the Cargill Bros., directing them to deliver my order to Boggs & Buhl in Allegheny rather than Bousted & Son.
Having accomplished my errands, I returned to the store, carefully concealing the parasol in the back of the coat closet, since, if Camellia were to see the brightly wrapped package, she would doubtless guess from the shape of it—even with her limited mental capacity—that I had bought her either a parasol or a hunting rifle.
Immediately, I was positively besieged by women demanding to have their handwriting analyzed. Well, in fact, there were only four, but four all at once was an army in such a small store as ours. My father had them sorted out in order of their arrival; one of them had been waiting an hour and a half so that she would not lose her place. I had them all disposed of within half an hour or so, and it was another hour before another came in looking for the same service. Nevertheless, by the end of the day, I had analyzed eight feminine scrawls all told, which confirmed my most optimistic projection of our stationery sales. It was apparent that I had, at first unwittingly, discovered exactly what the ladies of Pittsburgh’s merchant classes positively needed: an excuse for them to believe that their own precious correspondence was more proper and correct than their neighbors’.
“So, er, Galahad,” my father began tentatively during a lull in the day’s business, “I presume you—you had no—no difficulty at the telegraph office?”
It really was simply astonishing. He had just seen the ladies of Pittsburgh literally lining up for Bousted’s Famous Graded Stationery, yet he still could think only of the money he didn’t want to spend, completely ignoring the obvious opportunity right in front of his nose.
“Oh, no,” I answered. “No trouble at all. I sent the wire to Cargill Brothers in plenty of time.” And the observant reader will note that every word I spoke was literally true, though I flatter myself that, though speaking only truth, I was nevertheless able to create an entirely false impression in his mind.
“First-rate, Galahad. I want you to know that I have the utmost confidence in you, my boy.” Which was a perfectly ridiculous thing to say, when his actions had demonstrated that he had no confidence in me whatsoever.
In the next few days, we had completely sold out of our stock of stationery. We were still taking orders, but with the understanding that delivery would be delayed until our new shipment arrived. At times the store was so busy that Viola and Camellia were forced to render some assistance, an inconvenience they heartily resented, and another injury they were at pains to add to my account.
At last came that fateful day when I must arrange for the delivery of sixty reams of Cargill Bros. paper, watermarked as Bousted’s Famous Graded Stationery, from the Boggs & Buhl store in Allegheny;—or, in other words, when my father must know what I had done. I might conceal it from him that the paper had come from Allegheny rather than straight from the mill, but I could in no way conceal the watermark. Oaf he might be, but my father was intelligent enough to inspect every delivery carefully, knowing that what little reputation he had depended upon his being able to vouch for the quality of his goods. I might pass it off as a mistake, but it would not be long before he heard of the Bousted name being used at Boggs & Buhl. Better to face him at once, tell him that I had had dealings with the hated department store, and suffer the consequences—which, given my father’s oafish attachment to me, I calculated would not be permanent or severe.
“Father,” I began as the wagon was already rolling up Wood-street with my paper, “I have not been entirely honest with you in regard to the order from Cargill Brothers.”
His face turned ridiculously pale. “What do you mean?” he asked in such a sepulchral tone that you might have thought I was the messenger of death.
“I did abide literally by your prohibition,” I explained with some haste. “I did not spend the money you told me not to spend. In fact, I did not spend any money at all. Our entire order has been paid for by Boggs & Buhl.” I spoke the name of the hated department store, the enemy of all that was holy, with as little expression as possible, but I could not keep a certain quaver out of my voice.
My father simply gaped at me, his jaw hanging down in the most appalling manner, as I continued. I told him how I had met Snyder; how I had sold him the right to sell Bousted’s Famous Graded Stationery, with our watermark, for a price that paid for our order and left us a tidy profit; how I had agreed to train a few of the clerks there in my method of analysis, and had specified that no one not instructed by me should be allowed to perform it; and that sixty reams of paper with the Bousted watermark would shortly be arriving at our door. Then I braced myself for the storm I was sure would follow.
Instead, my father slowly and silently closed his mouth. It was some time before he spoke; and when he did, it was very quietly.
“Do you mean that Boggs & Buhl will be selling stationery with my name?”
“That is the agreement,” I answered cautiously.
“They will be advertising my name at Boggs & Buhl,” he elaborated quite unnecessarily.
I nodded, having exhausted my stock of verbal affirmatives.
“But, Galahad, this is magnificent!” he fairly shouted, as a simply obscene grin washed over his face. “My name—our name—in Boggs & Buhl! In all my life I never imagined anything so wonderful!”
This conversation was not going at all the way I had expected it to go, but I adapted quickly. “I wanted to surprise you,” I told him, which was true as far as it went.
“And so you did, my boy! So you did! This is the most glorious surprise a son has ever given his father!”
He blethered on in that vein for quite some time, and when the paper arrived he must have spent at least half an hour, while the men and I unloaded it, holding sheets up to the light to admire the watermark. He talked of nothing else the rest of the day, and it was clear to me now what had happened. In his mind, I had not sold my soul to the devil: I had conquered the hated enemy and ground him under my heel.
Viola and Camellia scowled at me all through supper, and would not speak a word to me all evening. All in all, it was one of the most satisfying days of my young existence.
By a chance discovery, I am induced to devote my life to the pursuit of evil.
On my return to the store, I suffered a reverse so severe that I hesitate even to narrate it. It gives me no pleasure to do so, except insofar as I recall that my triumph will be so much more complete for my having overcome an adversity that, in the end, changed the course of my life in a way that brought unfathomable benefit to me.
In short, because I do not wish to be long, my father utterly repudiated my negotiation with the firm of Cargill Bros. All my explanations, calculations, demonstrations, and remonstrations were in vain: he could not bring himself to spend that amount of money, and nothing would persuade him to do so. He insisted that I must wire Cargill Bros. in the morning and cancel the order, and in this ridiculous intransigence he persisted adamantly, finally telling me in so many words, “I forbid you to spend that much money.”
My sisters were simply delighted at my reversal. My father, who could never bring himself to be really angry with me, attempted to be pleasant through supper; I picked morosely at whatever Viola had boiled for the evening, and Viola and Camellia chattered incessantly and with uncontrollable glee.
“Really, Father,” Viola said with her mouth full of boiled something-or-other, “what can you expect? You knew he was a noodle when you sent him out there.”
This was a remark of unprecedented wit, to judge by its effect on Camellia, who spewed potatoes all over the table in front of her.
“You might as well have sent the cat,” Viola continued.
“Or the goldfish,” Camellia added helpfully, spewing more potatoes.
“Could you please pass the butter, Galahad?” my father inquired politely, as if he had not heard my sisters at all,—which probably was the case, his little mind being unable even to acknowledge the existence of whatever it could not comprehend, and my sisters’ antipathy toward me being foremost among the things my father’s mind could not comprehend. And this was how the rest of supper went: my sisters unrelenting in their attacks, and my father even more unrelenting in his pleasantness, which I honestly do believe was worse than the attacks of my sisters. I excused myself as early as I could, and retired to my attic.
Here again I sank into the profoundest depths of despair. At every turn my best plans were frustrated by the ignorance and folly of those around me. Must it not always be thus? My father was an oaf who did not understand the scale of modern business—but that was not a new discovery. To-morrow I should have to humiliate myself by sending a cable to Cargill Bros. canceling the order I had made, and then I should never again be taken seriously at that plant. Again I asked myself, what did I have to live for? It was not the particular reversal that was impossible, but rather the certainty that it would not be the last. There was a great world that lay beyond the little store on Wood-street, but my father could not see it, because he did not understand it. If my every attempt to break out into that world must be thwarted by my father’s ignorance and timidity, then how could I grasp that imperial destiny that surely awaited me? And without the anticipation of that destiny, how was my life tolerable? But the result of my considerations was again the same: no matter how many different methods of ending my life occurred to me, each one was either impossible in my circumstances or too unpleasant to consider for more than a moment.
I felt a maddening impotence; there was simply nothing I could do. So I picked up a magazine and began to read.
The Gentleman’s Cabinet! Dear reader, the time has come when that humble publication must take its place on our stage—must stand before the footlights, speak its lines, and advance our plot. How patiently it has been waiting on my little table, the one in the dormer with the old Windsor chair beside it—waiting to grant me its great revelation!
Yes, I took up the magazine, and, having exhausted the major articles, turned to the “literary” section in the back, where lesser hacks reviewed the works of greater hacks. Here I read a review of “Emmett Palgrave,” the most recent novel by Mrs. Burton, who was then in great esteem, though I doubt whether a single one of her works is still in print to-day. I had intended to retire after that, but my melancholy state of mind was likely to prevent me from sleeping, and the title of the next review caught my eye:
THE WICKEDEST MAN IN FRANCE.
Well! That indeed was a distinction. I knew nothing of France, of course, beyond what I had read; but all sources seemed to concur in describing France as a country of extraordinary wickedness. I believe my school geography, in the map of Europe, had simply engraved the word “WICKED” across the northwestern corner of the continent. In popular literature, France was not merely wicked: it was the source and wellspring of wickedness, a sun of wickedness from which rays of wickedness shone on an otherwise virtuous world. And, of course, like every good American boy, I had in unguarded moments wished that I could be in France, where the women were so unspeakably wicked that their most characteristic acts always took place between the end of one chapter and the beginning of another:—although, of course, I immediately repudiated that desire as unbecoming a virtuous young man. Now, if a man could be the wickedest man in France, then he must be very wicked indeed; and he must be a great deal more interesting to read about than the insipidly virtuous hero of Mrs. Burton’s novel, which the reviewer had praised as tending to the improvement of youth—a reviewer’s kind way of saying that it was the sort of book no one would willingly pick up. I began to read this new review, which was not at all favorable, with sleepy and half-closed eyes; but I was soon wide awake. But why tell you, dear reader, about the review, when I can reproduce the review itself? I have preserved the magazine with as much care as a Mahometan might use in preserving his Alcoran:—for it is my holy text, and the foundation of my religion, though it has not the spare elegance of other holy texts. I copy it here and relish every word, although the reviewer plainly had no notion of the import of the work he undertook to review. Here it is, then, or at least the salient parts of it—for I shall copy while it is yet a joy, but cease when it becomes a labor.
THE WICKEDEST MAN IN FRANCE.
For all of history, men have questioned whether it is better to prohibit books that tend toward evil, or to suffer them to remain, and refute them. We speak not of books of obvious depravity, whose only aim is to excite concupiscence; but rather of those works which present an argument, the tendency of which, if it is followed to its conclusion, is to entice men to wickedness, and in a word to make wrong seem right. The general consensus of American and English thought has been that such books are to be allowed, on the grounds that their refutation will surely be forthcoming, if liberty of thought is granted equally to the wicked and the virtuous. It thus becomes the duty of good Christian writers to expose the specious and faulty reasoning by which wrong is made to seem right. Whatever moralists may say of the state of literature in our own era, it is at least beyond question that virtue never lacks defenders; and, if their works are sometimes less read than the works they refute, that is perhaps a fault to be laid at the feet of the readers, rather than charged to the writers’ account.
Dear reader, I must break in here for a moment. If the works of the moralists are less read than the moralists themselves would desire, what right have they to complain of their readers? Write a book worth reading, and it will be read; but you give people stale bread to eat, and wonder that they prefer cake!
When we come to the work of the Comte de Baucher, however, the ordinary Christian writer finds himself at a loss. His business hitherto has been to make it plain where arguments go astray: to show how that which was presented as tending toward the good tends rather toward evil. Since it is acknowledged that good is to be sought and evil shunned, the debate is thus won, and the moral writer emerges crowned with the laurels of victory.
But there can be no such victory against the Comte. That his philosophy tends toward evil is not an accusation in his eyes. He has called his book A la Recherche du mal—The Pursuit of Evil—and in it he argues, not that evil is good, but that the superior man chooses evil, in accordance with the dictates of nature.
Here again I break in for a moment to point out how wonderfully this paragraph is calculated to make me prick up my ears. One thing I had grown to regard as certain was that I was, in the words attributed to the Comte de Baucher, a superior man. My difficulties were not in any lack of intellect or natural ability; they all came from the inferiority and stupidity of the obstacles that stood in my way—among which the foremost was my father, whose tiny mind was incapable of comprehending a great opportunity, simply because it was great, and there was no room in his mind for great things. The words “superior man,” therefore, caught my attention, and, as the arguments in the first lines of the review had predisposed me to think of the reviewer as a man of no very keen intellect, I began to take the side of the Comte, as one who had something to say to the superior man. Ye simpering moralists, and ye pandering preachers who speak to us in apostrophe as “ye,” see how quickly you mine your own lines, and destroy the virtue you would build up!
This is plainly not a proposition that can be refuted merely by saying that it tends toward evil: for if we said so, the Comte would be justified in replying, “Et alors?” Indeed, if evil is not to be shunned, it is difficult to see on what grounds the Comte can be refuted at all.
Our noble author begins with Creation; or, rather, he begins by denying Creation, which he dismisses at once as a superfluous hypothesis. The universe, he says, came to be through collision and accretion of primordial matter according to natural laws. The primary law of nature in this universe is not one of Newton’s famous discoveries, but rather what the Comte calls the Law of Relative Strength, which may be briefly stated thus: The stronger invariably destroys or subsumes the weaker. Such is the law among stars and planets; such is the law in the mineral kingdom; such, most notably, is the law among living creatures. The Comte gives two chapters to the operation of this law in nature, but such profligacy is hardly necessary. Big rocks crush little rocks to atoms, and larger creatures eat smaller ones; there you have his observations in epitome.
When the Comte comes to consider human history, he finds the same principle at work everywhere. A chapter on human origins is of the most speculative turn imaginable, and yet the Comte presents his speculations as established truths. The wild surmises of Darwin, which many of our most eminent authors have entirely refuted, are here accepted as unquestioned facts of science. In the time before recorded history (for it is hardly necessary to say that the Comte does not accept the inspired works of Moses as genuine history), the Comte imagines the Law of Relative Strength operating in such a way that the stronger man compels the weaker to do his bidding; and, having thus subsumed, so to speak, the strength of the weaker man in his own, employs this combined strength to subsume the strength of another man, and so on, until he has formed a tribe of men who act under his authority, and whose combined strength he calls upon to carry out his will. Thus he sees the beginning of human society, not as an association for mutual advantage, but simply as the result of one man’s pride.
Here it seems clear to me that the reviewer misunderstands the argument. It is not pride that is at work, but necessity. If the world is so ordered that the law of relative strength obtains—a proposition that struck me as undeniable from the moment I heard it—then it is as inevitable that men should collide as that any other form of matter must collide; and then the stronger must either destroy or subsume the weaker. There are degrees of strength in any group of men, and the strongest, by repeated clashes with rivals, must at last take his place. It is not a question of justice so much as a certainty of physics.
But what of that moral sense which distinguishes men from beasts? Whence did that arise, and does it not refute the Comte’s assertion that all human relations are merely the result of many collisions between stronger and weaker?
This brings us to what appears to be the core of the Comte’s new system of philosophy. Moral precepts, he would have us understand, are not eternal truths of nature; nor are they laws given to us by a higher and wiser power. They are tools or weapons by which the strong control the weak, and the greater the lesser. There is more than one sort of strength: intellectual vigor often prevails over mere physical power. The strong-minded have devised moral principles in order to enslave the weak-minded, even when the latter are men of great bodily strength. One may be pardoned for surmising that the Comte de Baucher is not a very healthy physical specimen.
This feeble attempt at a sly dig in no way undermines the argument, which is well-nigh unassailable.—I really had no intention of interrupting so often, but I can hardly be expected to hold back the thoughts I have kept to myself for thirty years as I ruminated on these things. The indulgent reader will forgive me—or, if he will not, then he may find himself a dime novel that will hold his attention.
As an example of the way in which those of strong mind make use of moral precepts in order to bend the weak-minded to their will, the Comte devotes an entire chapter to the Mosaic law. This he finds riddled with absurdities and extravagances that can have no other purpose, so he says, than to keep the great mass of the Israelites in subjection to Moses, Aaron, and their successors. The Decalogue, which philosophers have often praised as the sublimest expression of the universal moral law, becomes, on the Comte’s reading, an arbitrary catalogue of offenses against the authority of the superior men who have subjected Israel to their rule. Thus the first commandments enjoin exclusive worship of the God of Israel, and obedience to him, not because such a being exists and is good, but because religion was the source of Moses and Aaron’s power over the tribes, and any admixture of foreign religions must weaken that power. The Comte praises the wisdom and rhetorical skill of Moses: “for,” he says, “the man who can slaughter thousands of his own people, and teach them ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ must be extraordinarily persuasive.” He devotes most of the rest of this chapter to the provisions of the law that seem most absurd to him, and delights in counting up the number of occasions on which a sacrifice will be required—a sacrifice that the priest shall eat, so that Moses was able to assure perpetual abundance, not merely for himself, but for his entire tribe, at the expense of the others.
In short, without giving any compelling reason for doing so, the Comte rejects divine revelation as a myth, and not merely a myth but a deliberate fabrication, by which the superior man—in this case Moses—assured himself of a full stomach.
The rest of the Hebrew Scriptures are treated in a separate chapter, which is not worth summarizing here, except to say that the kings and prophets whom the sacred authors regard as virtuous seem to come out as the villains of the piece: men who, when the people had tasted liberty, enslaved them again, and drove the inferior rabble back to that worship on which the power of the superior men rested.
Once again, our reviewer has mistaken the argument. It is perfectly true that the “good” kings of the Old Testament forced the people back into servitude; but that makes them the heroes of the tale, not the villains. To one who has correctly understood the philosophy of Baucher—as I seemed to do the moment I heard his ideas—a hero is a man who bends other men to his will.
What, then, of the New Testament? Does not the figure of Christ, the meek and mild Savior who went to the Cross without offering the feeblest resistance to his persecutors, amply refute the proposition that the Christian religion is merely an imposition of the will of the strong upon the weak?
Here our noble author rather disappoints us.
He did not disappoint me! I clearly remember reading the lines that follow with a beating heart and an inescapable sense that hidden truths were being opened up to me. But let the reviewer carry on, and I shall interrupt him again if it amuses me to do so.
Instead of dealing squarely with the historical fact of the Incarnation, the Comte dismisses the entire life of Jesus as a fiction. Making that assumption—which we hope we may be permitted to doubt—the Comte proceeds to show how excellently the Christian religion is contrived for the purpose of keeping the powerful secure in their privileges. The poor are encouraged to believe that their poverty carries with it a special blessedness, that he who desires riches courts eternal damnation in the life to come, when the first shall be last and the last first. It goes without saying, of course, that the Comte admits no such futurity; he admires, however, what he calls “the audacity of the deception,” by which not only are the poor induced to bear their lot with contentment, but also many accidentally wealthy men of inferior intellect are persuaded to sell all they have and seek poverty—leaving, of course, the superior men in possession of the good things of this life.
Now supposing all this to be true, would it not be the greatest folly for the Comte—who plainly believes himself one of these superior men who alone know the truth—to reveal these things to all and sundry? Here the Comte makes a most ingenious argument. It is no risk to the superior man, says he, to publish such a book as this, because it will reveal nothing to inferior minds. They will not see what they do not understand.
Is it necessary for me to mention that I thought of my father here?
Doubtless the book will come to the notice of a few inferior men, but few of them will read it, and of those few none will accept its truths. Such is the weakness of the inferior mind that, even when facing the undeniable truth, it prefers to retreat to its comfortable falsehoods. Only the superior mind will grasp the truth of what the Comte has written; the others will employ all their feeble powers to refute these truths; and will believe themselves to have done so, though all reason and logic be against them, because to admit that they have not succeeded would be to admit that every belief which they had been taught since early childhood to regard as inviolable, is false. This is an admission a man can make only at a point of crisis, when the beliefs by which he has regulated his life have brought him to an impasse.
Since the Comte himself has brought up the subject, and since we are at a natural division in his book, we may take this opportunity to inquire——
No, I shall not copy this next page or two. Our reviewer indulges in more sarcasm than I can stomach in narrating the life of the Comte—which, briefly, runs thus: he had an imbecile for a father, was miserable in school, and very early displayed all the signs of a superior intellect, which found no encouragement in his circle of acquaintances. I do not believe it is necessary for me to remark how closely the Comte’s early life seemed to resemble my own life up to this point.
For the Comte, his “point of crisis” came when he was rejected by a woman. Our reviewer amuses himself, if not his readers, with remarks on the character of a Frenchman, and how different the philosophy of Baucher might have been had the woman been of that yielding character supposed to be so common in France. But is there any passion stronger than love, or lust if you prefer? and is there anything other than strong disappointment that can bring a man to the point of psychological crisis? It is, at any rate, sufficient to say that, whatever the opinion of the reviewer, I felt drawn to this Comte de Baucher as to a kindred spirit.
Let us resume the review two pages later.
Leaving the historical section behind, we come now to the second, and mercifully final, portion of the book, which the author facetiously labels “The Ethics of the Superior Man,” but which may more accurately be called a frontal attack on ethics.
We are first taken through the many different ethical systems, philosophical and religious, by which men have regulated their conduct, and shown their fundamental identity. This is not a new observation: many other writers have pointed out the similarities in the ethical content of various religious and philosophical systems, and have found in that similarity evidence of an objective moral truth. This is not, however, the conclusion our present author draws. His survey of ethical systems consumes no fewer than three chapters, and takes him as far as China in his search for corroborative material; but, in the end, we are prepared for his great conclusion, which is that the similarity of all the ethical systems derives, not from natural moral law, but from the operation of the Law of Relative Strength in the human sphere. In short, all ethical systems are imposed by the strong upon the weak, and their purpose is to keep the weak in subjection to the strong—the inferior to the superior. How this subjection is variously accomplished the Comte describes in two more chapters; but we may summarize them by saying that prophets and philosophers have taught honesty and gentleness the world over, not because those things are good in themselves, but because it is convenient for the superior man that his inferiors should be honest and gentle. That is a truth of nature: since even the inferior man is, to some extent, an intellectual being, the dominance of the strong over the weak must take an intellectual form as well as a physical form. The superior man, in other words, must control the beliefs of his inferiors, as the surest means of controlling their actions.
But if ethical systems have no purpose but to keep the inferior man subject to the superior, then what are the ethics of the superior man? He has none. This is the conclusion to which the whole work has been tending, and therefore it can in no wise be called unexpected. Yet it is still something of a surprise to see it stated so baldly. The inferior man must attempt to weigh his actions against any number of ethical standards; the superior man, on the other hand, asks himself one question only: Will this tend to my advantage? No crime is beyond him, if he can but persuade himself that it will make him happier, or wealthier, or more powerful. The good of inferior men does not enter into the question, because they are inferior: they are materials, which he uses for his benefit or his pleasure, as he would use any other material. The superior man owes allegiance to no one: the state exists because it is useful that his inferiors should be governed, but the state no more governs the superior man than a fence governs the wind. He does what he pleases and takes what he desires;—and this sort of behavior, which we should not tolerate in a child three years old, is the very mark of his superiority! Obedience to the law, or to the precepts of religion, is, on the other hand, the badge of inferiority. The inferior man shows his inferiority in his obedience, for by obeying he acknowledges a power superior to himself.
In short, the conclusion, not only of this chapter but of the entire work, is that the superior man proves his superiority by choosing what is commonly called evil. He rejects the religion and the ethics of the inferior men who surround him. He takes the course of action best calculated to lead to his own advantage, and if that choice demands that he rob or kill his inferior neighbors, he does not hesitate to carry it out. It is the mark of his superiority that he refuses to acknowledge any law or principle as standing above him.
As I read these lines, I was keenly aware that the scales were falling from my eyes. I was not converted all at once, but for the first time I began to understand my own life. All my existence had been bound by rules and laws which I had done my utmost to obey; yet at school (by instructors and older boys) and at home (by sisters) I had been subjected to all the most degrading punishments, no matter how scrupulously obedient I was. For what reason? I had always thought that, if I could somehow be even more obedient, more perfectly virtuous, I might have avoided the unjust punishments; yet, at the same time, I always felt all too sharply the injustice of them. Now, at last, I was free from the whims of instructors, but I had my father’s ignorant intransigence to plague me instead—which was more of a burden, because there was no set end to it. Plainly I had the advantage in education, as well as natural intellect;—yet I must submit to the unfounded whims of an ignorant oaf, merely because he was my father.—But why? Because law and tradition said that I must. Should I submit to law and tradition? Or was not that certainty I felt deep in my soul—the irrepressible knowledge of my own superiority—was it not, I say, the signal that such things as law and tradition existed far below me?
These things are called evil, not because they are so in any absolute sense, but because it is convenient for great men that lesser men should be kept in check by their own consciences, leaving the great man, who has no conscience and does not acknowledge the existence of such a thing, in control of the power and possessions of this world.
The Comte gives us a number of examples of great men who (he says) had chosen evil and prospered. Not all are men commonly held up for admiration. Alexander was, perhaps, a great man, and not without admirable qualities. The same may be said of Augustus. But when our noble author points out Nero, whose reign makes such a vivid impression in the pages of Gibbon, as an object of admiration, and indeed of emulation, we are compelled to acknowledge that the argument is at least novel, if not altogether convincing. In the Comte’s view of Roman history, which differs in certain essential particulars from that of Gibbon, Nero was a capable emperor under whose rule the Empire prospered, and whose notorious excesses are pardonable because they did not tend to his own disadvantage. Even Nero’s suicide, in our noble author’s view, is not a failure. Having lived for many years with “unlimited liberty of action,” as our author calls it, he foresaw the restriction of that liberty, and therefore took it upon himself to end a life that was no longer worth living—for the superior man, who in everything chooses is own way, does not hesitate to choose death when he cannot have the life of his own choosing as he would choose to live it.
This, then, is the essence of the Comte’s philosophy: that morals and ethics are matters for the small and weak; that the great and strong wilfully choose evil, obeying the fundamental law of the universe; and that this deliberate choice of evil is the mark by which we recognize the superior man.
It is hardly necessary to say that the reception of A la Recherche du mal was not uniformly favorable. In France,——
Here the reviewer relates how the book was received in France, where the government of the hour quickly banned it; and in England, where the anonymous translation was greeted with derision, but nevertheless sold out its first run in just a few months. The book had not yet been printed in the United States, and as far as I know still has not been printed here. I took no interest in the reviewer’s patriotic pride in the relative virtue of American publishers. To me, the philosophy of Baucher is not something that needs the approval of the American publishers in order to be true. Baucher’s propositions are self-evidently correct. One has only to hear them stated to know that they are true—if, of course, one has a superior mind. This was the overwhelming sense I felt on hearing them: there was nothing, it seemed, that could refute them. I leap over the account of various small-minded attempts to prohibit the book, and the various equally small-minded attempts by imbecilic divines to refute it, and we come to the conclusion of the review.
Perhaps, however, each one of us is more capable of refuting the arguments of the Comte than the ablest divines. For they must prove by reason what is proved already in our own hearts. Each of us is born with a conscience, and that inner voice, if we will but listen, tells us that the Comte is wrong. Virtue is not merely for the weak; on the contrary, vice is a weakness, which only strength can overcome. Conscience tells us that the great man is great precisely to the degree that he is virtuous: that to be honest and obedient is an unfailing mark of strong character. Our strength is given to those of us who are strong so that we may render assistance to the weak, not so that we may destroy or “subsume” them. The way that our Savior has shown us is the truly superior way—a way that requires strength, but strength “made perfect” in weakness. This is what we know to be true, because conscience, implanted in us by our Creator to be our infallible guide, speaks the truth to us in the inner recesses of our souls.——
And so on: it blethers on for a page and a half more, but without adding to the argument. I can say only that I listened attentively and assiduously, and I heard no voice of conscience telling me that traditional Christian ethical doctrines were objectively true. All I heard was the complaint of my own soul, which told me that I was enslaving myself to the folly and stupidity of an ignorant oaf, and demanded to know why I allowed myself to be treated in that manner. I could not formulate a satisfactory answer. I knew, in this case, what was the reasonable course; I knew also that my father’s objections were unfounded; yet I had been prepared to allow my father to blight our joint prospects forever, and to prevent me from realizing my quite reasonable ambitions.
Now, however, I had a different way of looking at things. I had been prepared to obey my father, because I had been taught that I must obey my father. But if it were true that I was the superior being I had always known myself to be, then what business had I obeying my father, when I knew him to be wrong? There was, I said to myself, much thought ahead of me.
In fact I was completely incorrect in that prognostication. I woke in the middle of the night to hear the bells of St. Peter’s striking two, and I understood, having somehow worked it out in my sleep, that I must take my place as a superior being. I was ready to be a great man, and to embrace the doctrines of Baucher. I was ready to give myself wholly to evil.
Bousted’s Famous Graded Stationery grows to be a “sensation,” and I travel to the mythical land of Altoona.
On Monday, just as the clock at St. Peter’s was striking three, Mrs. Rockland appeared, picked up her card-stock stationery, and left us six dollars, which my father declared the most satisfactory payment he had ever earned. It had cost me some little trouble at the printer’s, which I cleared up only by undertaking to absolve him of all responsibility for his complicity in the thoroughly ridiculous notion of house stationery on card stock; but Mrs. Rockland displayed every indication of complete satisfaction with her purchase. That evening I retired to my attic with a profound sense of accomplishment, and with last month’s copy of the Gentleman’s Cabinet, a magazine my father took, though I am not certain that he ever read so much as a page of it. I mention the magazine now because it will soon have a prominent role to play in my story, and it must be in place, ready to perform, when the proper moment arrives. I read the first article—I have the very magazine before me here, so I can report that it described a journey up the Ocklawaha through the jungles of Florida, illustrated with engravings of monstrous alligators that seemed ready to devour the little sternwheeler as it passed through their domain. Then I turned down the gas and went to bed.
The next morning, a small and timorous woman of about fifty entered the store and approached me cautiously, as if I might secretly harbor a strong desire to beat timorous middle-aged ladies senseless with a blotter. When I asked how I might help her, it seemed to require all her courage just to form a few words.
“Yes,” she said, “I— I wonder if you might be able to help me.”
That was as far as she could go without prompting, so I reiterated that I was ready to render whatever assistance she required.
“You see,” she explained, “my neighbor—I believe she was here just yesterday—her name is Mrs. Rockland—and Mrs. Rockland told me that you, or someone in your shop, might be able to recommend, or to help me decide on, some kind of stationery that would fit my—my writing.”
Now, this was, on the face of it, a singular victory. Not only had we satisfied the impossible Mrs. Rockland, but we had even obtained a recommendation from her.
And then, all at once, I understood what was really happening. Our timid visitor was probably unaware of it, but Mrs. Rockland had devised a test for me. If I succeeded, I might look forward to more recommendations from her; if I failed, not only would I lose her custom, but she might very well decide that she was dissatisfied with her own purchase. The task at hand, therefore, was not so much to satisfy Mrs. Rockland’s neighbor as to satisfy Mrs. Rockland’s expectation of what would satisfy her neighbor.
“Certainly, madam,” I responded with a great show of easy confidence. Then I began to repeat, in an abbreviated form, the patter I had given Mrs. Rockland, all about the marvelous science (apparently my own discovery) of matching the paper to the writer. We came soon enough to the practical demonstration, in which I discovered that she wrote timidly, as if she were afraid of offending the paper by too much pressing. The inevitable result was a good deal of skipping, which at times made her writing nearly illegible.
I shall not weary myself, or any indulgent reader who might happen upon this manuscript in the distant future, with a complete transcription of my dealings, whatever interest they might have held at the time, with the timorous neighbor of Mrs. Rockland, whose name I have entirely forgotten. I selected a good rag paper for her, reasoning that the texture of it might be more likely to keep the ink flowing, and she was greatly pleased to discover that her writing was indeed much more visible on the paper I had selected. Perhaps I had stumbled on something really useful. Perhaps there was in fact a science to matching the paper to the writer, and I was the Newton who would give laws to that science. She placed a large order; and since the paper was exceptionally expensive, my father was ecstatic. He could not contain himself for the rest of the day, much to the annoyance of my sisters, whose displeasure with me was always proportional to my father’s pleasure. Viola could not even spare a smile for the timid clerk across the street, who was far too diffident to speak to her, but who was nevertheless the closest thing she had to an admirer.
The day following was a slow one for the store: I spent most of the day cleaning up a bottle of Carey’s Indelible Writing Fluid that Camellia had broken on the floor but was somehow too busy to attend to herself. The day after that, however, no fewer than three women came to have me examine their writing and select their stationery for them. On Friday two more came in; on Saturday, five. My father was simply astonished. The ledger showed that fully three-quarters of our sales for the week, in terms of profit, had been in stationery.
I find it difficult now to imagine that I was ever such a fool, but I allowed this success to disturb my tranquility to a great extent. I could not divest myself of the notion that I had obtained my success by means of some fraud or deception. Saturday evening I had more than a little trouble getting to sleep. Sunday morning—it fills me with shame to admit it even to myself, but the light of my future triumphs will shine all the brighter against the darkness here at the beginning—I recall praying for guidance in church, and being absurdly disappointed when none came to me; as if the Supreme Power of the Universe, whom I imagined as a being of awful and unlimited might, had useful advice to give a shopkeeper on matters of stationery, and ought to make himself available to me personally whenever I found myself harboring doubts about some transaction with an inconsequential middle-aged woman from the merchant classes.
I did, however, come to a conclusion on my own, with no obvious help from any omnipotent and omniscient beings. It would not be deception, I reasoned, if there were some science to my method. After Sunday dinner, I spent the rest of the afternoon down in the store with various pens and inks and every sort of paper commonly used for stationery, as well as a few not commonly used. Each paper I rated by its surface and its opacity, making notes on several other properties as well. By the end of the afternoon, I had a system worked out that seemed logical, and I felt confident that I might be able to find something to suit even the most difficult middle-class matron;—or at least the second-most-difficult, since in Mrs. Rockland I had undoubtedly faced a superlative whose difficulty no other woman would ever match. I made some attempt to explain what I had done to my father, but it was not immediately clear that he had understood any of it: he only repeated, over and over, how clever I was; and, as much as I might be inclined to agree, I gained little from that information. I had hoped that I might show it to him, see that he understood it at once, and then be able to trust that he could perform the diagnosis and select the paper if I happened not to be in the shop. Now I feared it might be forever beyond his comprehension.
Monday four more women, and for the first time one man, came in to have their writing rated. Tuesday we had three; Wednesday we had eight. We were beginning to run seriously short on paper: we had sold three months’ worth in a week and a half. It was time to restock, which meant that I had the opportunity to place my system on an even more scientific basis by a careful choice of which papers we should stock for it.
Here my father absolutely shocked me, and very probably himself, by coming up with a useful idea. Since we had such a large quantity of paper to order, he said, might it not be useful to go to the mill directly, rather than through our usual wholesaler? We might be able to negotiate a good price, which would increase our profit without increasing the cost to our patrons. This was such a sensible notion that I was ashamed of not having thought of it myself. I made the preliminary inquiries by wire, and within two days had procured an appointment with a large manufacturer of paper goods just outside Altoona.
The evening before I went, I spent three hours or more making careful notes of my system. I rather pompously headed my first page “Bousted’s Famous Graded Stationery,” and below that heading outlined a series of twelve different sorts of paper, based on thickness and texture. I had twelve samples to go with my outline, and on each of them I had written a letter and a number, so that the sheets could be arranged in rows of three thicknesses and columns of four roughnesses. My arrangement looked so scientific that I had convinced myself of its merit. I was sure now that I was the Newton of the stationery trade: paper and paper’s laws lay hid in night until the Bousted system came to illuminate them.
Absurd as it may seem, the two-hour journey to Altoona would be the farthest I had ever traveled in my life. The trains ran very frequently, Altoona being on the main line to Philadelphia and New York, so there was no need for me to make an overnight stay; but, nevertheless, the trip in my mind took on the aspect of a gay adventure. I looked forward to seeing Altoona, a grubby industrial town that had hardly existed a few years before, with the same fervor that a more seasoned traveler might reserve for Florence or Paris.
I remember vividly how crowded and stifling the Pennsylvania station was the day I left. This was the old station, the one that burned in the riots a few years later. It deserved that fate: it was too small and too dark, and it seemed as though the architect, having conceived a complete and implacable hatred for all travelers, had very cleverly designed every passage in such a way that it would carry the smoke from the engines directly into our faces. The whole place was covered in a layer of soot and grime that no amount of scrubbing could ever efface, assuming, of course, that any cleaning was ever attempted, which was doubtful. And for all that I was happy. For the first time a train would be carrying me somewhere I had chosen to go, and not merely from home to school and back again. At that moment I loved the trains, and I loved the bleak and crowded station where they waited for me, a stable filled with magically swift iron horses ready to do the bidding of any traveler who could put down the money for the fare.
As the car I would be boarding came into view, I felt a strange hollowness in my stomach. This was an expedition that would change my life. I felt certain that I was taking my first steps toward the conquest of that business empire which was my destiny. I had as yet formed no clear notion of how I might take that empire beyond the walls of the store, but I was certain that it would happen, and that my voyage to the fabled land of Altoona would set that expansion in motion.
The coach was filled nearly to capacity, and the seats were uncomfortably hard; but I had a seat by a window, where I could direct my gaze outward, away from the filthy screaming children who seemed to make up half the passengers. I had some dreadful yellow-backed novel with me, but I did not read a word of it, caught up in the marvels passing by my window. I remember the feeling of wonder that passed over me as the train eased away from the platform, shrouding the station in smoke and steam. And then we were clear of the station, and I could see the mills and warehouses along the Allegheny; then, farther along, the land turned greener, and we passed into a winding hollow, the near vegetation blackened with the soot belched out by a hundred locomotives a day, but the upper hillsides covered with rich green forests. And then the open country, with the manor houses of the great men who had made their fortunes in the city. How long until I joined their ranks? A town or village here or there, with a stop to discharge a farmer returning from his business in the city, and then we were in the mountains, with their green hillsides, rushing brooks, and mysterious tunnels that plunged us into sudden darkness. The very approach to Altoona was full of marvels; surely the city of Altoona itself must be a place where miracles occur daily.
Altoona did not disappoint me. It was a grubby place, still only half-built, and occupied mostly with the business of keeping up the railroad. But it was the most delightful place I had ever visited, because there was a carriage waiting for me at the station. For me! In my entire life I had never been a person of such importance that a carriage met me at the station. There was one wretched wagon that conveyed me, and twenty or more other boys, from the station to the school,—but this was a carriage with a canopy and an upholstered seat, sent from the mill office solely for the purpose of collecting me and taking me the few miles remaining to the paper mill.
It was a delightful half-hour in the carriage, winding out of the town and over leafy hills, past pleasant little farms, until, as we began to descend into a little valley, the strong stench of sulphur struck my nostrils, and there below me, in the middle of a little town, was the Cargill Bros. paper mill, spewing odoriferous prosperity into the sky.
I was greeted by a gentleman who identified himself as an Accounts Manager. I liked him immediately: he did not seem at all surprised or disappointed by my youth, but merely inquired whether my journey had been a pleasant one, and then proceeded at once to the business at hand.
In my preliminary communication with the company, I had indicated the size of the order we intended to place; but I had suggested that considerably larger orders might follow if we were satisfied with the first order. I now explained my system in some detail, and showed him the examples I had brought. I also told him—perhaps with some exaggeration, but not straying too far from the bounds of truth—what a “sensation,” as the businessmen would call it, our system was making among the fashionable ladies of Pittsburgh. Having heard all this, he seemed very favorably impressed, and he brought out a number of samples of the mill’s own production, matching them as well as he could to the examples I had brought. He invited me to test each with pen and ink, which I did, rejecting two or three as not meeting my standard (which I did to make him think I knew what I was doing). Finally, he calculated a total for the order I had intended to place, and I was pleased to see that it was indeed a good bit less than what we would have paid through the wholesaler. And then he mentioned one thing that I had not considered.
“Of course,” he said, “this will all be with our standard Cargill Brothers watermark. With a larger order, we can have it watermarked to your specifications.”
“Really?” I responded, and I am sure that he could tell at once that he had hit a weak point.
“We can do any mark you like on a minimum order of twenty reams. Some of our larger customers find it very useful in building up their reputations.”
I did some very quick thinking. Twenty reams of each of a dozen different grades of paper was quite a large order for our little store. It was exactly four times what I had intended to order, and it would cost us nearly every penny we had to spend on stock for the season. On the other hand, if we continued to sell my Graded Stationery at the current rate, we might make that back in a month.
For me, however, the question was answered, not by arithmetic, but by vanity. I wanted every middle-aged matron in Pittsburgh and Allegheny to be writing her vapid little notes on Bousted’s Famous Graded Stationery. I made some show of considering the matter, but I had already decided.
Vanity! How we malign the passion that has accomplished more in the service of Progress than any other human feeling! I might have bristled then at the suggestion that vanity had aught to do with my decision; now I recognize the passion and applaud it as the engine of all improvement.
Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. But is it necessary that we should write by gaslight (as I am doing now), or that we should fly across the country in trains that cover a thousand miles in a day, or that news from Europe should reach us by cable at the speed of thought? No, these are not necessities; they are vanities. The world went on for aeons before they were even thought of, and untold generations of men simply went to bed with the sun, or lit a dim candle, because illumination by coal-gas was in no wise necessary for their continued existence. But we have coal-gas, and locomotives, and telegraphs, because one man longed to shine out among his brethren, and to say “I made that,” and earn universal applause. If I owe some of my success to vanity, and to a desire to rise above my station, I am not ashamed to own it: on the contrary, I rejoice in a distinction that makes me brother to every man who ever made something of himself.
Enough of vanity: I need only say (again) that I made some show of considering the question, but soon agreed to quadruple my order. Laying down a bank note for the deposit, I undertook to pay the remainder on delivery.
The carriage-ride back to the station was enlivened by conversation with another young man, a few years older than I, who was working in a department store in Allegheny, one of the leading establishments of that city. He had been sent to negotiate a purchase for their stationery department. My father seldom had any thoughts that went beyond the daily life of his store, and though he went to church regularly and dutifully, showed very little indication of any religious opinions; but he was certain that whatever eternal damnation he believed in had an especially unpleasant corner reserved for anyone associated with department-store stationery counters, which he regarded as dens of thieves intent upon putting honest men out of business. I, however, was willing to risk my immortal soul for a few moments of pleasant conversation with Satan’s minion. Such a reprobate I had become already! If honoring my father was the foundation of ethical living, then I was certainly lost. At any rate, this other fellow—he has since risen to a rather high position in the department store, and he might be terribly embarrassed if I mentioned that his name was Snyder, and the store was Boggs & Buhl—was a pleasant companion. At least so I thought at the time; I believe most of my pleasure was in the fact that he treated me as a fellow man, not as a grown child.
“You get out to Altoona much?” he asked me as we rode back up the green hill away from the sulphur-belching mill below.
“This is my first time out here,” I answered.
“Well, I’m not surprised. Nothing here but railroad shops, and the Cargill Brothers mill, of course. Still, a man can have a swell time here if he wants it.”
“A swell time?”
“That’s what I’d call it, and no lie. There’s a saloon around the corner from the station where you can always find a few of the local ‘heiresses’—that’s what they like you to think they are, at any rate. Last time I was here I got such a soak on I can’t remember half of what I did, but I’ll tell you what, Bousted, I know it involved two of those girls. See, Altoona girls all come from railroading families that move around a lot and don’t settle in one place, and I think they have a wider view of the world.”
“Do they?” I had never really had a conversation with another man on a subject like this before. It was appallingly sinful, and I knew I ought to put a stop to it right away; but I wanted to hear more about Snyder’s wicked experiences.
“Yes, I can show you the very saloon when we get there, if you’d like. Altoona girls are the best, Bousted. I’ve had a real heiress or two in my time, but nothing beats those Altoona girls. —But here I am talking about myself, and I haven’t let you get a word in. What brings you up here?”
“Oh,” I told him with an air of nonchalance, “I came up to arrange with the Cargill plant to manufacture Bousted’s Famous Graded Stationery to my exact specifications.”
“That Bousted?” he asked, as if the revelation had made a real impression on him. “Why, I’ve had three ladies in just this week asking if we carried something like Bousted’s. My sister uses the Number Six. Says it’s the best thing she’s ever written on. You’ve got a thing going there, Bousted. How did you come up with it?”
“It’s in the process of being patented,” I said—a statement I privately justified because I had just conceived the notion that it ought to be patented so that people like Snyder could not steal the idea and take away my profits, and to conceive the notion must certainly be the first step in the process. “Naturally, the exact details are a trade secret, but I can tell you that the method of matching the paper to the writer took a bit of hard study. We find, however, that our customers invariably obtain better results when their stationery is matched properly to their penmanship.”
“Well, I don’t know anything about it—I’ve got the most infernally awful penmanship—but you must have something people think they want, and that’s the main thing.”
“Yes, I think it’s made what they call a sensation in Pittsburgh society.” I felt a little guilty about such shameless boasting, but it was delicious to be taken as a man of consequence; and I also, I believe, had conceived the notion that this Snyder might be useful to me, although as yet I had no good reason to suppose so. “We have multiplied our stationery sales several times over. I believe the other stationers in town are already conscious of being left behind in the inevitable march of progress.”
Mr. Snyder continued to express a keen interest in the Bousted Method, and I was more than willing to expostulate upon that subject; and by the time we reached the station we were fast friends. It happened that the train for Pittsburgh was arriving just as we got there, and we agreed to put off the adventure of the saloon for another time—a good thing, too, as I should have had to decline his invitation otherwise. It would cause me no end of trouble, with my sisters at any rate, to arrive home late and reeking of alcohol; but I did not wish my new companion to know that I labored under such childish restrictions. We continued our conversation in the train for the two hours it took to get back to Pittsburgh, and we exchanged addresses. I was not aware at the time how significant that exchange would be a little later on.
Dear reader, does my little hint of future events fill you with a desire to read on? It amuses me to think so—to imagine a reader in the distant future panting to know more, to discover why my possession of Snyder’s address, or his possession of mine, will take on such significance. Shall I find him and murder him when I become wicked?—for you already know, dear reader, that at some point in this narrative I must become wicked, and adopt as my creed that very evil I had so scrupulously avoided hitherto. Or will he prove to be a long-lost relative, a brother perhaps, who will reveal to me the mystery of my true parentage? Such things happen every day in novels; perhaps they have happened in my life as well. Will he bring me news of a legacy that will make me rich beyond the dreams of avarice (an expression that seems to presuppose a very unimaginative sort of avarice)? O reader, how you must thirst for the answers to these questions—answers that I alone possess, and can grant or withhold at my pleasure! My power is gratifyingly absolute. Had I not made up my mind to be a merchant prince, perhaps I should have been an author.