My thoughts occupied with the beautiful Miss Amelia Goode, I return to the great philosopher for guidance.
I came back home that evening in a very agitated state of mind. I had hidden my agitation from Gertrude well enough; I was fairly certain of that. But I could not hide it from myself. I had set out that evening intending to propose marriage to Gertrude, certain that there was nothing in the world I desired more; the glimpse of that girl in her victoria had reminded me that there was indeed one thing in the world I desired more than Gertrude. But she was wealthy; absurdly rich, I might almost say. The Goode glassmaking fortune was almost legendary. She occupied a sphere as far above me as the stars are above the moon. What was the use of even thinking about her? Gertrude was a fine woman; no one could say that she was not. She had the good sense and even temper that make an excellent wife. No one ought to desire more than Gertrude—and yet I did desire more than Gertrude.
This agitation of mine persisted into the next day, as poor Bradley discovered when he brought me a box of blue pencils after I had asked for a pencil.
“Confound it, Bradley,” I exploded, “will you put your brain to work for once? If I had wanted blue pencils, or red pencils, or green or yellow or lavender pencils, don’t you think I would have specified the color? If a man asks for a pencil, he wants a black pencil, not a whole herd of blue pencils.”
Bradley said nothing; he was simply inert, as if he were a rabbit hoping the hound might not see him if he stood very still.
“Well, take them back!” I shouted at him, after several unproductive seconds of silence between us. Bradley immediately took the pencils gingerly between his fingers, as if the box were a hot coal, and fairly ran into the back room.
Two or three minutes later, I realized that he was not going to come out again with the pencil I wanted. For some reason this particular stupidity annoyed me more than all the rest. I stood up and stormed back to where Bradley was standing like a Greek statue copied by a third-rate student.
“Where in blazes is that pencil?” I demanded in what was evidently the most terrifying tone of voice Bradley had ever heard. He stood straight and immobile, with eyes staring, and lips moving as if to form words that his frozen tongue refused to utter.
“Blast it!” I puffed to no one in particular; and I found my own pencil.
“Don’t you think you were rather short with Mr. Bradley?” my father asked me a little later, when Bradley had stepped out for a moment.
“Yes, I was,” I admitted, attempting an expression of contrition. But I was not contrite. Yes, I was indeed rather short with Bradley, who was doubtless much the better for it. His work improved, at any rate. It was apparent that he was terrified of me, and I suppose not without reason. After a few more days, however, I noticed that he was beginning to pick up some dim notion of how the stock was organized, and could, with some effort, retrieve a box of Esterbrook pens if a lady asked for one.
Over the next few weeks, I gradually learned more about Miss Amelia Goode—not by making inquiries so much as by simply keeping my ears open. It seemed that everyone in Allegheny knew of her, and the only excuse for my ignorance was my recent arrival in the city. For the people of Allegheny, she was not just a beauty; she was the beauty, or rather she was beauty itself. In every city there is one such girl whose physiognomy combines with her fortune to make her a kind of public institution; in Allegheny, that girl was Amelia Goode. Her engagement-book dictated the social calendar of the city: no ball or soiree or afternoon tea could be called “refined” unless she deigned to bless it with her presence.
Miss Goode was always at the center of a swarm of admirers, buzzing about her like bees, and with about the same effect on her perception as the buzzing of a bee or two would have. She treated them all with perfect civility and perfect indifference. She was the Vestal virgin of the social world. In women, she inspired envy and emulation; in men, desire and despair commingled. It was impossible to think of conquering her, as impossible as to think of conquering Beauty itself. She appeared to walk among mortals, but she had her true existence in the lofty realm of the ideals.
This creature’s fortune came from the glass works her ancient father had founded half a century before; for she was the child of his dotage, conceived (I know not how) when he was already entering the hoary winter of life.
These facts I accumulated and stored in my memory over the course of some weeks; I did not at once possess the perfect knowledge I have imparted to you, dear imagined reader of the future. In that time I continued to see Gertrude, but I had not yet proposed marriage to her. I believe I had formed some absurd idea in my mind that marrying Gertrude would prevent me from pursuing Amelia Goode.
It was misery, this obsession with what must be unattainable to one of my station. I will say this much for myself, and you shall decide whether it counts toward the extenuation or the aggravation of my folly: that I never really desired Miss Goode’s money. It was not that I had no desire to be wealthy, but rather that my lust for that perfect beauty was so intense that I simply forgot her wealth; or, rather, it was present to my mind only as a barrier that separated her from me. I am inclined to think it a case of aggravated folly when I look back on it at this remove: for money can buy the satisfaction of almost any lust, whereas lust almost invariably eats up money. To the young man pursuing a life of wickedness, I have this advice to give: always put greed before lust when indulging your petty sins.
I will say in my favor that the firm did not suffer. I was conscientious in my work in the store, and assiduous in discovering new opportunities for sales. It was during this time that I placed our first advertisement in Boli’s, in which I offered attractive terms to canvassing agents in rural areas, where there were no department stores.
“Do you really think that farmers’ wives and such will take an interest in expensive stationery?” my father asked when I announced my intention of taking out the magazine advertisement.
“I am sure of it,” I told him. In fact I was not sure at all, but I was willing to make the attempt. We had, for perhaps the first time in the history of the firm, the luxury of allowing one of my ideas to fail if it were its destiny to do so.
“I think we’d do better to stick with the cities,” my father said, cocking his head to look as if the opinion had cost him a great deal of arduous thinking. “Do people do much social correspondence in the country?”
“Are you going to forbid me to place the advertisement?” I asked directly, and a little testily.
I think he was taken aback by my exhibition of mildly ill temper. “No,” he replied, “no—not forbid it. You certainly have as much right as I to make such a decision.” (Here he admitted for the first time a principle that I had acted upon since the day after he had added the words “& Son” to the front of the store.) “I was merely making a suggestion, but of course if you have your mind made up, you might as well go ahead with it.”
I ought to mention here that my faith in the vanity of rural women was entirely justified, and to this day canvassing agents make up a large fraction of our sales. There is nothing a farm wife desires more than to prove to the world that she is just as good as her cousin in the big city. In the instructions I have written for our agents, I dwell particularly on that vanity, telling them frankly to emphasize what a social embarrassment it is to have one’s writing obviously out of date or incorrect, and that the Bousted System is the surest means of achieving correctness in correspondence. I give them a few cautionary tales to tell of ladies who lost their standing at church or in town because of a single ill-written, scratchy, blotted letter,—a catastrophe which might have been avoided if the letter had been written on stationery properly matched to the writer’s penmanship. I have read an article somewhere attributing a rise in the quality of rural penmanship to the activities of our agents and those of our imitators. —This is, of course, a digression; I mention it to show that I was still productive of new ideas even when I was miserable.
And I was miserable—I repeat it. I was the more so because I could not form in my mind an answer to my misery. Should I forget Gertrude? But Gertrude might almost certainly be my wife, whereas the divine, the inaccessible Miss Goode was as far above me as the celestial regions. I might as well be in love with a statue in the British Museum.
In love! Yes—that was the heart of the matter. I was not really in love with Gertrude, and I was in love with Amelia Goode. —Now, I would not have you suppose that I mean what imbecilic popular novels mean when their imbecilic heroes talk of being “in love.” I should say that I was in love with Miss Goode in the same way that the stallion is in love with the mare; and, as the fence is the greatest frustration in the stallion’s life, so the great obstacle in mine was the insuperable barrier of Miss Goode’s wealth. I had money—more money than my father had ever seen in his life, as he never tired of remarking—but it was a few pennies in comparison with the vast Goode fortune.
This state of things went on for months. From spring into summer I courted Gertrude, without making any definite proposal; and from spring into summer I longed for Amelia, without ever having been so much as introduced to her. I think, sometimes, that I shall always be more susceptible to feminine beauty than other men; when I write that I was miserable on account of having merely seen a celebrated beauty a few times, the thing hardly seems credible. Yet it was so.
I will not say that the misery did me no good. I believe that my consciousness of the vast difference in wealth between the Bousteds and the Goodes made me more assiduous in cultivating the Bousted fortune, small as it was. Still, misery is the thing I most remember from that time;—misery and labor, which alone had the power of alleviating my misery, and of which I did a prodigious amount. I cannot conceive of how I got along without a whole office full of clerks to sort out the correspondence from department stores and canvassing agents; but I did, though at the cost of leaving the work in the store more and more in the hands of my father and Bradley.
Eventually, worn down by my longing for that which it was not possible for me to obtain, I returned to Baucher—not, of course, the book itself, which was probably not to be found in all of Pittsburgh and Allegheny, but to that review of it which had become my holy writ. What, I asked Baucher, would the truly wicked, truly evolved man do in my situation? His answer shone clearly through the reviewer’s scornful irony. The man who is truly wicked lets nothing stand between himself and the object of his desires. The superior man brushes aside, or destroys, whatever would prevent him from reaching his goal. In the case of his relations with the weaker sex, the simple fact of woman’s weakness gives man an immeasurable advantage.
It is true, however, that law and custom give women considerable protection. A rational analysis of the problem reveals that the difficulty would not lie in the indifference or even outright refusal of Miss Goode, which might be overcome by a trifling application of force, but rather in the laws and customs that protected her. If these latter could be rendered inoperative in some way, then I might be able to fulfill my desire.
It is impossible to describe with what vigor this conclusion impressed itself upon me. It was quite likely that I could have what I desired, if only it could be done in such a way that the irrational virtue of the mass of mankind did not stand in my way. But it would require daring and determination. Had I the daring spirit necessary to succeed?
As always, the question was answered as soon as it was posed that way. I must succeed, because I had dared myself to succeed.