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.