Owing to the miraculous intervention of a certain tooth-powder, I do not kill myself.
My father’s voice rose sufficiently to break through my own thoughts and impress itself on my mind. I looked up at him as if he were some hitherto unknown species of creature.
“You’re hardly eating at all,” my father continued. “Viola boiled that beef all afternoon for us.”
Viola rushed to my defense in her usual way. “Now, Father, you can’t expect Galahad to be paying attention to what he’s doing. You know he’s a noodle.”
Camellia cackled in a manner that I was sure accounted for her not having found a husband yet. The girls had certain innate abilities to discern my thoughts, or at least my feelings; they knew that I was not as happy as I ought to be about the sign and my supposed new position as part-owner of the store, and they were relishing my distress, though they could form no notion of the reason for it.
My father ignored my sisters, as he always did when they attempted to insult me. That they should not share his oafish pride in me was simply beyond his comprehension; and what he could not understand, he ignored, which I believe was the very foundation of his happiness.
“Now, Galahad, you must eat.” he told me, smiling outrageously. “We have a big day to-morrow, getting you situated as a real businessman.”
“What Galahad wants is more mustard,” Camellia said, as her arm, with a simply obscene reach, shot in front of my face, retrieved the mustard from the other end of the table, and drowned my beef in the stuff. I have always despised mustard.
“I think,” I said, forcing myself to smile,—“I think I may be a little fatigued from my expedition to-day. There was a considerable distance to cover on foot.”
“Although,” Viola hastened to add, “with your exceptionally large feet, it must have been a great deal shorter for you than it would be for most people.”
“Yes, it’s no wonder you’re tired, my boy,” my father replied, as if Viola had not spoken at all—and indeed, according to his usual rule of ignoring what he could not understand, he probably had not even heard her. “You can eat a little more, then off to bed.”
As discreetly as I could, I scraped the mustard off my beef and cut a few more bites. The flavor of Viola’s boiled beef (her method has not changed in all the years since) is what I would imagine one of those penmanship exercise-books we used to stock in great numbers would taste like; mustard did not improve it, any more than mustard would improve the flavor of an exercise-book. I excused myself after a few more minutes, having spent that time assiduously maintaining a cheerful countenance; and I went up to my tiny chamber on the fourth floor, as my father called it, over the store: really an attic with a narrow dormer projecting from it. That we had one more “floor” than most other oafish shopkeepers’ families was a point of intense pride for my father, who frequently remarked on the distinction without the slightest provocation.
Here at least I was alone. My father had the large front room on the third floor, and Viola and Camellia each one of the tiny rooms in the back; the attic, though I could not stand upright in it, at least was my own domain. From my dormer I could look out on Wood-street, a bright hollow of gas-light in the encroaching night, and over the three-storey shop-front of the inferior oaf across the street I could see eastward as the streets climbed the Hump, which had not yet been reduced to its present more manageable dimensions. The last evening light was deserting the sky; a few late clerks were hurrying up the street toward whatever they called home; behind me, in the warren of old houses and warehouses that began a block west of us, ruffians were beginning their nightly round of debaucheries and petty crimes—how the thought disgusted me! And indeed it does now, but for other reasons: I object not to the crimes, but to the pettiness. Over all hung that pall of foul-smelling smoke that descended upon us whenever the air was still, wrapping the darkening city in a mystery that familiarity could not disperse. Horses and wheels clattered on cobblestones somewhere in the near distance; some family well above the humble station we occupied was off to the theater, or returning from a supper with other leading families, where doubtless they all found time to laugh at oafish tradesmen like my father.
—Or like me: once again this reflection smote me like a slap across the face. I was a shopkeeper myself; it was my destiny to be one—not a philosopher, not a general, not a captain of industry, not a gentleman, not anything admirable or worthy, but a shopkeeper. Nor would I really be as much as that: for most of my negligible existence I was damned to be the son of a shopkeeper. My name on the sign was “& Son,” and the sign spoke the truth of my position in the world.
But if I had already reached the summit of my existence, then what reason had I for continuing to exist? To what hope could I look as my guide? My present life was an unremitting annoyance to me, which nothing could alleviate but the hope of a brighter future. Remove that hope, and what reason remained to prolong my misery? At that moment, the obvious answer struck me with dreadful force: I had no reason to live. Suicide appeared, not as a possibility, but as a logical necessity. I was resolved: I would not live till morning.
How to accomplish the deed? Here I ran against what at the time I called cowardice, although I now see it as the very reasonable impulse to seek comfort and avoid pain, the foundation of all civilization and improvement. A pistol might do the job at once, with admirable efficiency; but there was no pistol in the house. I must therefore find an alternative, but each method I considered had its flaws.
At first I thought I might simply leap from my window. A fall from that height, however, though dangerous, might not necessarily prove fatal: I would run the serious risk of adding to my pain without ending it. The simple plummet, therefore, had to be rejected.
Hanging might be more certain, but was still open to numerous objections. First, I have always detested tight collars. Second, the deed would have to be done elsewhere, since even in the tallest part of my attic room I could barely stand straight; but attempting the deed anywhere else invited detection and interruption. Hanging must be rejected as well.
Poison, carefully chosen and properly administered, might be painless and effective; but it required a certain knowledge that I did not possess.
How I wished that I could simply sleep and never wake! But the body would not obey the mind’s instructions; I could sleep, but I should wake whether I wished it or no.
As I looked here and there around the room, my eyes lit on the ivory-handled razor which my father had given me for my eighteenth birthday. For a moment I thought how completely satisfactory it would be if my father’s gift could be the instrument of my demise. But it would be a more painful means of accomplishing my objective than I desired: for what, after all, could be the use of ending a life of pain if the end itself should be painful?
And then, just beside the razor, I saw the thing that effected the first great change in my life.
To this day I cannot give an account of how such a humble object set such a long and mighty train of thought in motion. My analytical faculties must have been aroused to a heightened state by my long consideration of the various means of doing away with myself.
The object was a can of tooth-powder, bearing these words, which I still recall as accurately as you might recall a favorite poem:
DR. BRENNEMAN’S FAMOUS TOOTH-POWDER.
“The Favorite of Five Continents.”
ASK FOR IT BY NAME AT YOUR DRUGGIST’S.
I had certainly seen this can dozens of times: every night when I brushed my teeth, in fact. But until this very moment I had never understood the meaning of it.
This was the meaning. I had bought this can of tooth-powder from a druggist on Smithfield-street, an oafish shopkeeper like my father. That druggist, however, was not the source of Dr. Brenneman’s Famous Tooth-Powder. He was merely one of the thousands of oafish shopkeepers who stocked the stuff. He was a foot-soldier in an army of which Dr. Brenneman was the general. Though this Brenneman doubtless began as a shopkeeper like my father, he had risen far above that humble estate, building an empire of tooth-powder on the backs of the oafs he had left behind.
Suddenly—because of one can of tooth powder—the world was different, altogether transformed. The store was, in effect, half mine. What had been a prison sentence a quarter-hour before was now an opportunity. I had looked today and seen only a store, as one who looked at the Rome of Numa might have seen only a squalid village. But now I saw an imperial capital of the future—and myself, of course, as the emperor. In that brief moment, through that can of Dr. Brenneman’s Famous Tooth Powder, I had a glimpse of a future, not as a shopkeeper, but as a merchant prince.
And so, instead of killing myself, I brushed my teeth and went to bed.
I woke early, wonderfully refreshed, with the certain knowledge that I stood at the beginning of a new era. I suppose Alexander must have felt much the same way the day it first occurred to him that Greece was too small for his ambition. I dressed quickly and—for the first time—was down in the store before my father.
Here I surveyed my domain. It was not a great empire—not yet—but it was my Macedon. I saw boxes of pencils, pens, pen-handles, bundles of paper, clips, bottles of ink, exercise-books—but I perceived infantry and cavalry, soldiers and officers, with which I might conquer the world, or at least the world of commerce. When my father came down, I had already sorted the pencils by the grade of the lead (they had, I thought, been left in an appalling state of disorganization).
“Well, Galahad,” my father greeted me, “you certainly are at it early this morning! Very good—first-rate—the early bird gets the worm! Early to bed and early to rise, right, my boy?”
It is a measure of my contentment—no, my near-euphoria—that even my father’s oafishness could not puncture it. “I was up early, and I thought I might use the time to advantage. The readier we are, the quicker we serve our patrons, and the more satisfactory that service is to them.”
“That’s thinking like a businessman, Galahad! I have every confidence in you, my boy—every confidence.”
I am certain my father must have continued in that manner for some considerable length of time: it would have been entirely uncharacteristic of him to keep silent. I cannot recall anything more, however, since I had stopped listening to his oafish prattle. I was busy reorganizing the pens according to a scheme that seemed rather clever to me, so that they were arranged vertically according to manufacturer, but horizontally by type. If a patron asked for a stub point, we could show him the range offered by different makers; if a patron asked for an Esterbrook Jackson Stub, we could find it instantly. Though years have passed since then, it still gives me great satisfaction to think how logical and practical this arrangement was. Even my father, oaf though he was, found it commendable, although I suspect he was at least as much pleased by the interest I was taking in the shop as by the particular form in which that interest manifested itself.
By the time we opened the doors that morning, I had made a similar arrangement of the ink—columns by manufacturer, rows by color—and I was contemplating something like it for the draughting tools. I thought of it as something like drilling my recruits, turning a rabble of bumpkins into a disciplined army.
The moment we unlocked the doors, Mrs. Rockland stormed into the store. She was what businessmen might call a difficult customer, and even my father, whose obsequiousness ordinarily knew no bounds, had come very close to losing patience with her on more than one occasion.
“This paper,” she announced in her booming baritone, “is entirely inadequate.” She waved a handful of half-crumpled sheets in the air as she thundered across the floor to the counter, where she emphatically slapped them down. My father stepped behind the counter to face her and made a show of examining the sheets. I joined him as Mrs. Rockland began her complaint.
“The ink came right through the page,” she declared, pointing at the sheet in front of her.
My father and I looked down at the page under her finger, and I know we both reached the same conclusion. Her penmanship was atrocious. The page was full of blots, and even holes where the pen had torn the paper. She obviously wrote the way she spoke, pressing down mercilessly upon the pen as if it must be subdued and bent to her will. Doubtless her pens gave out after a page or two, but it was the paper—a fine linen stationery that never did anyone any harm—that suffered the most from her assault.
“You can see how entirely unacceptable it is. It is utterly impossible to write on the back of a sheet. At the simply outrageous prices you charge for it, I should be able to write on the back. I’m surprised this sort of fraud is tolerated in a civilized country. If I had my way, the law would certainly not be so lax.”
My father was still gazing down at the wreckage Mrs. Rockland had deposited on the counter, but he spoke clearly and distinctly.
“The paper is not at fault, Mrs. Rockland.”
“I beg your pardon—!” Mrs. Rockland’s eyes grew to the dimensions of soup plates: she was not accustomed to hearing anyone contradict her.
I realized at that moment that, after countless years of spineless obsequiousness, my father had finally had enough of Mrs. Rockland. He was about to tell her to her face what he thought of her writing, and probably of her manners as well. I knew at the same moment that I could not allow that to happen. My mind, still in its heightened state, quickly added up the business we might lose if Mrs. Rockland persuaded all her wretchedly pretentious friends to abandon us: it would at the very least retard my progress toward my first goal, which was to make Bousted & Son the leading stationer in the city. Just as my father was inhaling to begin Mrs. Rockland’s richly deserved telling-off, I took hold of the conversation.
“Certainly the paper is not at fault,” I said quickly before my father could begin. “It is we who were at fault for attempting to sell you that stationery without inquiring into your writing.”
My father and Mrs. Rockland both looked puzzled beyond words, although for entirely different reasons.
“The paper, you see, must be matched to the writer,” I continued, as if it were a well-known fact, and not a strange notion that had suddenly sprung up from pure desperation. “Now, this paper here is very well suited to a diffident and uncertain hand, such as we often see in younger ladies who have not yet found their place in society. Yours, however, is clearly a hand of weight and authority. You write with confidence. An insubstantial paper is clearly not suited for a person of substance, and it was our error to recommend it to you.”
“I see.” Mrs. Rockland was a bit mollified, although she still sounded wary. It was imperative that I carry on, even if my plan was still only half-formed.
“The irregular surface of the paper will also tend to catch your pen, which is what causes the blotting and tearing you see here. Again, for a writer who makes tentative and uncertain strokes, that texture is positively necessary to catch the ink at all; but it stands in the way of someone who is accustomed to writing with—with determination.”
Here my rambling about the texture suggested something to me, and I cheerfully continued without giving Mrs. Rockland an opportunity to speak, or perhaps even (however unlikely it might be that she would do so) to think. “What you need, then, I would suggest if I may, is a paper with more weight, and with a smooth surface that will not interrupt the motion of the pen. I think we have something over here that will answer the purpose.” I stepped back to the shelves behind me and found a stack of card stock, of the sort we usually cut down into visiting cards or place cards. Glancing behind me, I saw that I had succeeded in engaging Mrs. Rockland’s attention completely—which was just as well, since, if she had turned to look at my father, she would have seen him gawking at me like a West Virginia bumpkin gawking at the dome of the courthouse, as if I were something wonderful and unaccountable, and more than a little frightening.
“Now this paper,” I said, setting a few sheets of the card stock in front of her, “would probably suit your style of writing much better. You can feel how smooth it is, and the extra thickness prevents your writing from showing through, so that you may write on the back as easily as on the front.”
Mrs. Rockland’s fingers were examining the surface of the card stock, and I was beginning to think I might succeed.
“If you like,” I suggested, “you can try it with the counter pen and see whether this paper suits your writing better than the other. The ink is right here. A sample of your writing will give us both a better notion of what you need from us.”
Mrs. Rockland appeared to be pleased that we were taking her seriously: she took up the pen at once and scratched out the first two verses of the twenty-third Psalm. I was privately amused by her choice. If I had been asked to assign her a place in the animal kingdom, I should have been more likely to think of her as a wolf than as a sheep. She used the pen as a weapon with which to attack and conquer the paper, and it was immediately clear that ordinary paper would have given way with the first letter. The card stock, however, held up under her merciless assault. When she had finished writing and made use of the blotter, I picked up the sheet, turned it over, and pointed to the perfectly blank expanse of white that greeted our eyes.
“As you can see,” I said, carefully refraining from sounding triumphant, “none of the ink has bled through, and none of the writing from the other side is visible at all. It is simply a matter of matching the paper to the writer.”
Mrs. Rockland picked up the sheet herself and carefully examined it. When she did speak, her tone was almost pleasant.
“And how much would you charge for this grade of paper, with my monogram and letterhead, in the same quantity as before?”
“Well, now,” I said, once more thinking very quickly, “this is, of course, a more expensive grade of paper, since—as you can see—more material goes into it, and the surface must be carefully polished for the requisite smoothness. However, we would, of course, deduct the price you paid for your previous order. It was the wrong paper for you, and you should not pay for our mistakes. So—” here I picked up a bill of sale and wrote “$10.50” on it. Then I made a great show of subtracting $4.50 from it, and wrote “$6.00” in the total. “That would leave only six dollars,” I told her.
“That is satisfactory,” she replied. “How soon can it be ready?”
“Give us three days for the printing,” I said, “which would mean Monday afternoon.”
“Very well, then. I shall return Monday at precisely three.” She turned to my father, who had been staring at the whole proceeding slack-jawed, but at least had the presence of mind to close his mouth when she looked his way.
“Mr. Bousted, your son is a valuable addition to your establishment. I commend you for rearing an intelligent and capable young man. I hope to see him on Monday at three.”
She turned and left, thundering across the floorboards like a herd of buffalo. My father just barely contained himself until the door closed; then he burst into appallingly undignified laughter.
“You sold her card stock!” he managed to croak out between paroxysms.
“It was the only thing that would stand up under her scrawl,” I said quite calmly. “You saw how she wrote. This pen is done for.” I plucked the pen out of the holder, replacing it with another Turner & Harrison ball-pointed pen and tossing the mangled wreck of the old pen in the rubbish.
“Galahad,” my father said, “that was a fine piece of work. I don’t even mind giving her the money back if it’s the price I pay for seeing a performance like that.”
“She didn’t get her money back.” I was surprised that my father had forgotten his own business that way. “Her first order was the best linen wove. Her second order is cheap card stock. A dollar for the card stock, two dollars for the printing. She’s giving us six, so we make three in profit.”
My father’s face went completely blank for a moment; then an enormous smile suddenly exploded across it.
“You’re absolutely right!” he exclaimed with uncontrolled glee. “Dear boy, you even had me fooled!”
Here, I am ashamed to confess, I felt myself begin to blush. Today I look back on this accomplishment as my first truly wicked deed, but at that moment, I had not yet embraced evil as my calling. On the contrary, I abhorred the very name of evil.
“There was nothing dishonest about it,” I insisted. “I simply took into consideration a fair profit for us, and presented it in a way Mrs. Rockland found acceptable. I expect her to be very happy with what she ordered. It may be that she will find herself able to write legibly for the first time in her life. I see nothing dishonest in serving a customer well, and at the same time assuring us of a sufficient profit.”
“Exactly,” my father agreed. “Nothing dishonest in that.” Then, once again, the most undignified laughter burst forth from him, making me blush even deeper.
The rest of that day was for me a curious alternation between satisfaction and shame. I was aware that I had accomplished something rare and unique: Mrs. Rockland was a terror to every shopkeeper on Wood-street, and I had not merely succeeded in mollifying her, but had done so with a profit that was not negligible. It was not terribly rare for a whole day to go by without our making three dollars in clear profit. Yet, on the other hand, I could not dismiss the nagging sense that I had won that profit dishonestly. Of course it was dishonest: I revel in that declaration now. If ever there was a woman who deserved, nay demanded, to be cheated, it was Mrs. Rockland. At that time, however, I still believed that evil was to be avoided, and good cultivated.
When my sisters came down to the store later in the morning, my father of course related the story to them. If something had made him happy, no consideration could persuade him to keep silent: he must publish his joy to the masses. My sisters expressed the appropriate approval, and privately stored up my supposed triumph as one more grievance for which they must eventually exact revenge.
It was, nevertheless, a good day for me on the whole. My business (as I called it) had been successful to-day, and Mrs. Rockland, dreadful though she was, would certainly prove a valuable ally if she believed she had received good service from Bousted’s. It seemed to me that I was well on my way to that prosperity which had always been my fondest dream.
To be continued. Impatient? Get the whole book right now.