Business And Love
( Originally Published 1917 )
AND so the new 13 Soap Company was launched; or perhaps one should say merely that the keel of the new craft was formally laid. There was a good deal about it to be built up and finished off yet. From the beginning, how-ever, it was all a joy to Rodney; it gave Mary's lover something sweet to work for, and the sense of responsibility grew stronger in the boy the more he dwelt on it. For her sake he would make good, and not for his father's money. Mary and he were really partners, and saw each other every day, which was almost the best part of it. Sun-day was the one dull day of his week, for then he didn't see her till afternoon, and not always then. The secretary and treasurer of the 13 Soap Company was a woman, and clever enough to know that distance lends enchantment and absence makes the heart grow fonder -- sometimes.
Rodney went to her not only for love and kisses, but for advice and encouragement too, and there were many details to be thought of in the course of the first few weeks. Even Ambrose Peale admitted that they must have an office, though he denied that there was any necessity for making real soap, at any rate just at present. Mary and Rodney were appointed a committee of two on getting an office. To Rodney there was some sentiment in this matter of domiciling their business, of giving it a home, so to speak. It was a delightful occupation to the ex-millionaire's son when both members of the committee, Mary and he, went out together on the hunt. The next ' month of his life was one of the happiest he had ever spent. The rickety elevators that they rode in, the janitors they interviewed, the real estate agents who lay in wait for them, were minor annoyances compared with the pleasure of taking lunch with Mary in some queer restaurant when the noon hour came. Her level head and unfailing good sense were a support and comfort to him that he came to appreciate more than he would have believed possible. He had loved her for a long time, and now he liked her too. Besides his passion for her there was now the even firmer bond of friendship. If only he could be sure that she loved him as much as he loved her. His own heart beat for her in so many ways; did hers respond always? He tortured himself exquisitely with his doubts these days, Mary was so demure and serious, so very unsentimental sometimes.
One day they were enjoying a fifty cent table d'hote at a place on the West Side, not far from the borders of old Greenwich Village, that Faubourg which has lately blossomed out as the Latin Quarter of New York. They had found the lofts further up town too expensive, Mary insisted, and as their business was to grow into a big wholesale business, as Rodney said, if they didn't land father, they did not really need to locate in the Fifth Avenue section. And they simply must economize, Mary protested: a small business must economize just as much as an individual with a small purse. Besides it would leave more money for the ads.
The lunch place was one to which, traditionally, you needed to be introduced, and Mary and Rodney had come there first under the escort of Ambrose Peale. To-day they were alone. Good old Peale, thought Rodney; but he mustn't get interested in Mary.
Puccelli's was one of those places where the food was meager, and the atmosphere rich. In the summer months you ate in the backyard, with a faded awning over you; in the winter you sat at a table in what had formerly been the front or back drawing-room, with sliding doors of pressed glass that were made to divide the two apartments. The food was always the same: a tray of nondescript hors d'oeuvres that were meant to execute a reconnoissance in force on your appetite and divert its main attack elsewhere; a soup that was about the color and savor of rain water; a portion of chicken that must have been consanguineous with some species of centipedes, so inexhaustible was the supply of drumsticks; the whole topping off with a thimbleful of ice-cream and two lady fingers. There was also usually a bottle of red wine, which Rodney used to say was filled with the same juices as those big globes in chemists' windows, and which had the same decorative effect when the sun threw its colors on the thin and spotted table cloth.
This impressionistic view of the place was the way at least that it struck Rodney first, fresh from the ministrations of Johnson and the soap king's chef in the mansion opposite the Park. Later he came to judge it less intolerantly, to know that for poor people, and he was now enrolled among the poor, New York was a choice of inconveniences. He never tried the wine, but the food, from association with Mary, began after a while to taste good to him. He was with Mary, and he did not sigh for his father's house: " better a 'dinner of herbs where love is than a stalled ox and hatred therewith."
Puccelli's centralized a portion of New York that was as strange as Europe to Rodney Martin. It was wonderful how much of your surroundings you didn't see if you lay on the small of your hack in a racing car when you went through them. The very look and smell of the locality were different from other portions of New York; there was a different complexion on things too, for red brick prevailed as a building material, and the sun warmed it more generously in this district, where skyscrapers had not yet begun to sprout and soar.
Mary had the idea at one time of establishing their business in an old house, and she and Rodney passed in and out through the portals of many a deserted mansion in the old Greenwich or Chelsea purlieus. It was curious what a variety of architectural and decorative effects had been obtained in the set arrangement of these old formal dwellings. The long pier glass between the two front windows, the carved marble mantel-pieces on every floor, less elaborate as you neared the attic, were different each from the other, though the family resemblance was a marked one. There was one really stately mansion, not far from the piers of the new Chelsea Improvement, where the great red and black funnels of the Cunard steamers towered above the warehouse roofs at high tide, which gave Mary and Rodney quite a thrill as they entered it. It was four or five stories high, and a very spacious staircase rose upward straight away from the front door. Splendid Doric columns marked off the drawing: rooms, and there were elaborate and tasteful cornices for each story. Not a sign of legend or tradition or romance stamped the whole, as it would have done in Europe; it had just been the home of some forgotten rich man of that time, some soap king maybe; but on this account the two lovers and business partners felt it as all the more their own. This mansion and all the others they looked at were invariably exhibited to them by some furtive landlady, and examination of the premises showed that she eked out her rent, which was not so very low, by stowing the young men, her lodgers, away two in a room; and there was always a notice of " Furnished Rooms," written in ink on a piece of cheap note paper and glued to brown stone or brick at the right of the front door bell.
" It's no fun being poor," said Rodney; " is it,
Mary? I don't wonder you want me to work.
But I'm working for you, not the money, mind! "
In the end they gave up the scheme of a house and went back to lofts. In a house you would need a janitor and coal in winter, as Mary decided finally, and you could get more for your money in a loft.
Today at lunch Rodney was in a fairly sentimental mood, and he felt somehow that Mary, didn't respond to him as she ought. He tried to get hold of her hand beneath the table cloth, but she avoided him. There were tall thin stalks of bread on the table, standing upright in a glass like celery, and tasting, when you got a piece between your teeth, more like raw macaroni than proper bread. It was one of the specialties and bits of local color at Puccelli's; but Mary couldn't really pretend she liked it, he was sure, to eat. Mary herself looked good enough to eat, to-day, thought Rodney, as he gazed at her across the rickety little table, her pretty white teeth crunching the bread strongly and heartily.
" Mary," he said at last; " I want to ask you something."
" Yes, Rodney."
" Do you love me as much as you did? " " Yes, Rodney."
" Could you love me any more than you do ? " " Yes, Rodney."
" Do you know that I love you more every day of my life? "
" Mary! " he exclaimed; " are you paying any) attention to what I'm saying, at all? "
" No, Rodney."
She broke one of the bread sticks in two with a brittle crack, and handed a piece across the table to him. He seized it and her hand too, eagerly; he didn't care who saw. As a matter of fact no one saw, excepting old Madame Puccelli in the caisse, who looked on, benevolent and approving,. He held the warm little hand in his and tasted the thrill of it, looking straight into Mary's gray eyes, and hoping he made her veins too run a little faster than their wont.
" Mary," he said at last, " have you seen father lately? "
" I saw him the other day driving through Thirty-fourth Street. He had the car stopped and spoke to me."
" What did he say? Anything special? "
"Why, no; nothing special. He only scoffed a bit, and condoled with me, as much as to say we were going to the dogs, of course, eventually."
" More soon than later, I suppose," sighed Rodney. " Do you know I have often wondered what the old man thought of you, Mary? "
" I think he liked you, the old rascal," declared Rodney openly. " That's what I think. I think you could have been the second Mrs. Cyrus Martin if you had wanted to be. It's coarse of me to say that, I suppose."
" Indeed it is, Rodney. What makes you say it?"
" Oh, a lot of things; and do you know I think his firing you after I left the house was a bluff ? He did not really seem very angry with you that last day there in the office."
By a strange turn of affairs Rodney had begun to have fits of being jealous of his father where Mary was concerned, and he could feel one coming on now. The trouble had been intensified by his chance discovery that Mary's five thousand dollar contribution to the new company's capital had been in the form of a check signed by the elder Martin. He had teased her about it, at first play-fully, and she had told him she would tell him nothing except in her own good time; that he must trust her meanwhile. There is always a little rift like this within the lute, a crumpled rose leaf in the bed, a question that Psyche must not ask of Cupid; only in this case the sexes were reversed, and it was the lad and not the lass that must contain his curiosity. Rodney began again, a little less playfully, a little more vexed as his mind dwelt on it:
" Why should he hand you over a check for five thousand dollars if he was angry with you? "
He watched her jealously while he made this last speech, and thought she looked particularly conscious at the mention of the check today.
" It was a good joke our starting a rival business with the pater's money," he continued, " but I wish to goodness it hadn't come through you."
For an answer Mary began to pull down her veil and make various feminine movements to indicate that she had had enough, and was ready to go. She was leaving her ice-cream and lady fingers untasted.
" You're absurd, Rodney," she vouchsafed. " Pay the bill now and come along. We must meet that man about the partitions at two o'clock."
Rodney paid and came along as he was bidden. They tramped eastward together without a word, and arrived in the empty loft before the carpenter.
Miss Burke, the new stenographer, and Peale, had not come in yet from lunch. It took but one glance to assure Rodney that he and Mary were alone.
Mary," he said quickly, drawing her closer to him, " forgive me! I'm a cad."
" Why, there's nothing to forgive, you silly," said Mary. " Now this partition here should be "
" I don't think there should be any partition between you and me," interrupted her lover warmly. " Prove that you forgive me by giving me a kiss. It's only the eleventh I've ever had.
And without waiting for an answer he took her greedily in his arms and pressed his lips to hers for a long and rapturous minute. If that counted as one kiss his eleven had not been so far from riches after all.
" Rodney," cried Mary, breaking away at last, there's the elevator door. Some one's coming."
It was Ambrose and Miss Burke coming back from lunch, but Rodney was too full of his love's intoxication to care whether they had seen the eleventh kiss or not, either of them or both.
The offices of the Soap Company were finally located about half way down Broadway. There was a waiting-room, and a private office as private as could be expected with three people using it. It was a rather commonplace room, furnished comfortably but not elaborately.
There was a door on the left of the room and also two more on the right. At the back were windows through which the callers could see the building across the street literally covered with 13 Soap posters.
There was a desk in the middle, and there were chairs, cabinets, a hat rack, a water cooler, a safe, etc., which completed the equipment. The water cooler was much appreciated by the various errand boys, who were its chief patrons. Mary thought it a little extravagant to supply them with so much of it, but the cooler looked well, and so it remained in its place.
"Experience is a dear school," says Poor Richard's Almanac, " but fools will learn in no other, and scarce in that." The 13 Soap Company's experience began at the bottomto wit, with office boys.
Up to that time no one connected with the company had realized the infinite varieties of the genus office boy.
There was the mulatto boy, recommended by the Methodist Sunday School, who began his career by stealing a dollar's worth of postage stamps. Though he wept and blubbered in contrition when his theft was discovered, even the tender-hearted Mary turned her thumbs down and declared that he must go. It was not safe, in a business concern, to have any one around who was not absolutely and religiously honest, she argued; and though there was not much yet in the way of loose change to make away with, the principle prevailed and the. mulatto boy went.
There was the boy who was always being absent for Jewish religious festivals, and the boy who in spring, when the good American's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of baseball, buried at least three grandmothers without a tear. There was one full grown boy who confessed at the end of two weeks that he was a little off in his head, and begged them not to give him too much work. There was a boy whom the agents of the Gerry Society came and carried away with them, and one cherubic little applicant that Mary almost cried over,. he seemed so tiny and tender. To Rodney the sight of his sweetheart with this plump little morsel of human young in her arms gave a thrill that resolved him upon working all the harder for the good fortune that was in prospect for him. Luckily for the company these boys, good, bad and indifferent, went as mysteriously as they came ephemeral insects that swarmed awhile in the hot air that rose from the soil of this business world and disappeared.
Mary drew a great argument for woman's suffrage from the ease with which they obtained a good stenographer. Miss Burke, not so many, years older than the oldest boy, came quietly, and as quietly conquered the job. You would have said she had had the benefit of years of experience, whereas she had only the trick of keeping her mouth shut and her eyes open.
Ambrose Peale noted with regret that the new typist was distinctly plain. Miss Grayson had turned away others that were much better looking, he thought, whether Rodney noticed it or not but he didn't and Ambrose made a mental note of the circumstances.
In a month from the time Rodney had left his father's house and embarked on his business career with Ambrose Peale there was a very fair show of activity in the 13 Soap Company's office. There was a fairly large mail -- mostly circulars which the entire office staff read through every morning, for lack of more interesting reading mat-ter in the way of orders. Discipline was not yet rigorously enforced by anybody. Next to the circulars the largest part of the mail was invitations forwarded to Rodney from the Fifth Avenue address uptown. In her capacity as secretary Mary, with her woman's curiosity, ran her steel envelope slitter through these too, and sighed sometimes as she opened up some especially attractive bit of cardboard to think of the joys that Rodney had turned his back on.