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.