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 must not be rescinded.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 order to be rescinded, on the grounds that it was positively necessary for us to expand our business, and to strike, as they say, while the iron was hot.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.