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.