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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesTogether - Part Two - Chapter 14
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Together - Part Two - Chapter 14 Post by :hlpunltd Category :Long Stories Author :Robert Herrick Date :May 2012 Read :1115

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Together - Part Two - Chapter 14


Colonel Price was a great merchant, one of those men who have been the energy, the spirit of the country since the War, now fast disappearing, giving way to another type in this era of "finance" as distinguished from "business." When the final review was ended, and he was free to journey back to the little Connecticut village where three years before he had left with his parents his young wife and their one child, he was a man just over thirty, very poor, and weak from a digestive complaint that troubled him all his life. But the spirit of the man was unbroken. Taking his little family with him, he moved to St. Louis, and falling in there with a couple of young men with like metal to himself, who happened also to possess some capital, he started the wholesale hardware business of Parrott, Price, and Co., which rapidly became the leading house in that branch of trade throughout the new West. The capital belonged to the other men, but the leadership from the start to Colonel Price. It was his genius as a trader, a diviner of needs, as an organizer, that within twenty years created the immense volume of business that rolled through the doors of their old warehouse. During the early years the Colonel was the chief salesman and spent his days "on the road" up and down the Mississippi Valley, sleeping in rough country taverns, dining on soda biscuit and milk, driving many miles over clayey, rutty roads,--dealing with men, making business.

Meanwhile the wife--her maiden name was Harmony Vickers--was doing her part in that little brick house which the Colonel had taken Lane to see. There she worked and saved, treating her husband's money like a sacred fund to be treasured. When the colonel came home from his weekly trips, he helped in the housework, and nursed the boy through the croup at night, saving his wife where he could. It was long after success had begun to look their way before Mrs. Price would consent to move into the wooden cottage on a quiet cross street that the Colonel wanted to buy, or employ more than one servant. But the younger children as they came on, first Vickers, then Isabelle, insensibly changed the family habits,--also the growing wealth and luxury of their friends, and the fast increasing income of the Colonel, no longer to be disguised. Yet when they built that lofty brick house in the older quarter of the city, she would have but two servants and used sparingly the livery carriage that her husband insisted on providing for her. The habit of fearsome spending never could wholly be eradicated. When the Colonel had become one of the leading merchants of the city, she consented grudgingly to the addition of one servant, also a coachman and a single pair of horses, although she preferred the streetcars on the next block as safer and less troublesome; and she began gradually to entertain her neighbors, to satisfy the Colonel's hospitable instincts, in the style in which they entertained her.

Mrs. Price had an enormous pride in the Colonel and in his reputation in St. Louis, a pride that no duke's wife could exceed. It was the Colonel who had started the movement for a Commercial Association and was its first president. As his wife she had entertained under her roof a President of the United States, not to mention a Russian prince and an English peer. It was the Colonel, as she told her children, who had carried through the agitation for a Water Commission; who urged the Park system; who saved the Second National Bank from failure in the panic days of ninety-three. She knew that he might have been governor, senator, possibly vice-president, if it had not been for his modesty and his disinclination to dip into the muddy pool of politics. As she drove into the city on her errands she was proudly conscious that she was the wife of the best-known private citizen, and as such recognized by every important resident and every quick-witted clerk in the stores where she dealt. To be plain Mrs. Ezra Price was ample reward for all the hardship and deprivation of those beginning years!

She was proud, too, of the fact that the money which she spent was honest money. For the hardware merchant belonged to the class that made its fortunes honestly, in the eye of the Law and of Society, also. Although latterly his investments had carried him into real estate, railroads, and banks, nevertheless it was as the seller of hardware that he wished to be known. He was prouder of the Lion brand of tools than of all his stock holdings. And though for many years a director in the Atlantic and Pacific and other great corporations, he had always resolutely refused to be drawn into the New York whirlpool; he was an American merchant and preferred to remain such all his life rather than add a number of millions to his estate "by playing faro in Wall Street."

The American merchant of this sort is fast disappearing, alas! As a class it has never held that position in the East that it had in the West. In the older states the manufacturer and the speculator have had precedence. Fortunes built on slaves and rum and cotton have brought more honor than those made in groceries and dry goods. Odd snobbery of trade! But in that broad, middle ground of the country, its great dorsal column, the merchant found his field, after the War, to develop and civilize. The character of those pioneers in trade, men from Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, was such as to make them leaders. They were brave and unselfish, faithful, and trusting of the future. With the plainest personal habits and tastes, taking no tarnish from the luxury that rose about them, seeing things larger than dollars on their horizon, they made the best aristocracy that this country has seen. Their coat of arms bore the legend: Integrity and Enterprise.

For their fortunes were built not speculatively, but on the ancient principles of trade, of barter between men, which is to divine needs and satisfy them, and hence they are the only fortunes in our rich land that do not represent, to some degree, human blood, the sacrifice of the many for the few. They were not fattened on a protective tariff, nor dug in wild speculation out of the earth, nor gambled into being over night on the price of foodstuffs, nor stolen from government lands, nor made of water in Wall Street. These merchants earned them, as the pedler earns the profit of his pack, as the farmer reaps the harvest of his seed. They earned them by labor and sagacity, and having them, they stood with heads erect, looking over their world and knowing that such as it is they helped to build it.

The day of the great merchant has already gone. Already the names of these honorable firms are mere symbols, cloaking corporate management, trading on the old personalities. No one saw the inevitable drift clearer than Colonel Price. In common with his class he cherished the desire of handing on the structure that he had built to the next generation, with the same sign-manual over the door,--to his son and his grandson. So he had resisted the temptation to incorporate the business and "take his profits." There was a son to sit in his seat. The sons of the other partners would not be fit: Starbird's only son, after a dissipated youth, was nursing himself somewhere on the Riviera; his daughter had married an Easterner, and beyond the quarterly check which the daughter and son received from the business, this family no longer had a share in it. As for Parrott there was a younger son serving somewhere in the immense establishment, but he had already proved his amiable incapacity for responsibility. The second generation, as the Colonel was forced to admit, was a disappointment. Somehow these merchants had failed to transmit the iron in their blood to their children. The sons and sons-in-law either lacked ability and grit, or were frankly degenerate,--withered limbs!

With the Colonel it had promised to be different; that first boy he had left behind when he went to the War had grown up under his eye, was saturated with the business idea. Young Ezra had preferred to leave the military academy where he had been at school and enter the store at eighteen. At twenty-six he had been made treasurer of the firm, only a few months before his death.... The Colonel's thin figure bent perceptibly after that autumn of ninety-seven. He erected a pseudo-Greek temple in Fairview Cemetery, with the name Price cut in deep Roman letters above the door, to hold the ashes of his son,--then devoted all his energies to measures for sanitary reform in the city. He was a fighter, even of death....

Vickers had cabled at once when the news reached him that he was sailing for home. He and Isabelle had inherited their mother's nervous constitution and had come later in the family fortunes. They had known only ease and luxury, tempered as it was by their father's democratic simplicity and their mother's plain tastes. Insensibly they had acquired the outlook of the richer generation, the sense of freedom to do with themselves what they pleased. Both had been sent East to school,--to what the Colonel had been told were the best schools,--and Vickers had gone to a great university.

There for a time the boy had tried to compete in athletics, as the one inevitable path of ambition for an American boy at college; but realizing soon that he was too slightly built for this field, he had drifted into desultory reading and sketching for the college comic paper. Then a social talent and a gift for writing music gave him the composition of the score for the annual musical play. This was a hit, and from that time he began to think seriously of studying music. It was agreed in the family that after his graduation he should go abroad "to see what he could do." Ezra had already taken his place in the hardware business, and the younger son could be spared for the ornamental side of life, all the more as he was delicate in health and had not shown the slightest evidence of "practical ability." So the summer that he took his degree, a creditable degree with honors in music, the Prices sailed for Europe to undertake one of those elaborate tasting tours of foreign lands that well-to-do American families still essay. In the autumn it concluded by the Colonel's establishing the family in Munich and returning to his affairs. Vickers had been in Europe most of the time since, living leisurely, studying, writing "little things" that Isabelle played over for the Colonel on the piano.

* * * * *

Now he had come home at the family call,--an odd figure it must be confessed in St. Louis, with his little pointed beard, and thin mustache, his fondness for flowing neckwear and velveteen waistcoats, his little canes and varnished boots. And he stayed on; for the family seemed to need him, in a general way, though it was not clear to him what good he could do to them and there were tempting reasons for returning to Rome. In spite of the sadness of the family situation the young man could not repress his humorous sense of the futility of all hopes built upon himself.

"Just think of me selling nails,"--he always referred to the hardware business as "selling nails,"--he said to his mother when she spoke to him of the Colonel's hope that he would try to take his brother's place. "All I know about business is just enough to draw a check if the bank will keep the account straight. Poor Colonel! That germ ought to have got me instead of Junior!"

"You owe it to your father, Vick. You can't be more useless than Bob Parrott, and your father would like to see you in the office--for a time any way."

Vickers refrained from saying that there was an unmentioned difference between him and Bob Parrott. Young Parrott had never shown the desire to do anything, except play polo; while he might,--at least he had the passion for other things. The family, he thought, took his music very lightly, as a kind of elegant toy that should be put aside at the first call of real duty. Perhaps he had given them reason by his slow preparation, his waiting on the fulness of time and his own development to produce results for the world to see. Isabelle alone voiced a protest against this absorption of the young man into the family business.

"Why, he has his own life! It is too much of a sacrifice," she remonstrated.

"Nothing that can give your father comfort is too much of a sacrifice," Mrs. Price replied sharply.

"It can't last long," Isabelle said to Vickers. "The Colonel will see,--he is generous."

"He will see that I am no good fast enough!"

"He will understand what you are giving up, and he is too large hearted to want other people to do what they are not fitted to do."

"I don't suppose that the family fortunes need my strong right arm exactly?" the young man inquired.

"Of course not! It's the sentiment, don't you see?"

"Yes, of course, the sentiment for nails!" the young man accepted whimsically. "Poor Junior did the sentiment as well as the business so admirably, and I shall be such a hollow bluff at both, I fear."

Nevertheless, the next morning Vickers was at breakfast on time, and when the Colonel's motor came around at eight-thirty, he followed his father into the hall, put on an unobtrusive black hat, selected a sober pair of gloves, and leaving his little cane behind him took the seat beside his father. Their neighbor in the block was getting into his brougham at the same moment.

"Alexander Harmon," the Colonel explained, "president of the Commercial Trust Company."

They passed more of the Colonel's acquaintances on their way down the avenue, emerging from their comfortable houses for the day's work. It was the order of an industrial society, the young man realized, in a depressed frame of mind. He also realized, sympathetically, that he was occupying his brother's seat in the motor, and he was sorry for the old man at his side. The Colonel looked at him as if he were debating whether he should ask his son to stop at a barber shop and sacrifice his pointed beard,--but he refrained.

Vickers had never seen the towering steel and terra-cotta building in which the hardware business was now housed. It stood in a cloud of mist and smoke close by the river in the warehouse district. As the car drew up before its pillared entrance, the Colonel pointed with pride to the brass plaque beside the door on which was engraved the architect's name.

"Corbin did it,--you know him? They say he's the best man in America. It was his idea to sign it, the same as they do in Paris. Pretty good building, eh?"

The young man threw back his head and cast a critical glance over the twelve-story monster and again at the dwarfed classic entrance through which was pouring just now a stream of young men.

"Yes, Corbin is a good man," he assented vaguely, looking through the smoke drifts down the long crowded thoroughfare, on into a mass of telegraph wires, masts, and smokestacks, and lines of bulky freight cars. Some huge drays were backed against the Price building receiving bundles of iron rods that fell clanging into their place. Wagons rattled past over the uneven pavement, and below along the river locomotives whistled. Above all was the bass overtone of the city, swelling louder each minute with the day's work. A picture of a fair palace in the cavernous depths of a Sienna street came over the young man with a vivid sense of pain. Under his breath he muttered to himself, "Fierce!" Then he glanced with compunction at the gentle old face by his side. How had he kept so perfectly sweet, so fine in the midst of all this welter? The Colonel was like an old Venetian lord, shrewd with the wisdom of men, gentle with more than a woman's mercy; but the current that flowed by his palace was not that of the Grand Canal, the winds not those of the Levant!

But mayhap there was a harmony in this shrill battlefield, if it could be found....

Within those long double doors there was a vast open area of floor space, dotted with iron beams, and divided economically into little plots by screens, in each one of which was a desk with the name of its occupant on an enamel sign.

"The city sales department," the Colonel explained as they crossed to the bank of shooting elevators. The Colonel was obliged to stop and speak and shake hands with many men, mostly in shirt sleeves, with hats on their heads, smoking cigars or pipes. They all smiled when they caught sight of the old man's face, and when he stopped to shake hands with some one, the man's face shone with pride. It was plain enough that the "old man" was popular with his employees. The mere handshake that he gave had something instinctively human and kind in it. He had a little habit of kneading gently the hand he held, of clinging to it a trifle longer than was needed. Every one of the six or seven hundred men in the building knew that the head of the business was at heart a plain man like themselves, who had never forgotten the day he sold his first bill of goods, and respected all his men each in his place as a man. They knew his "record" as a merchant and were proud of it. They thought him a "big man." Were he to drop out, they were convinced the business would run down, as if the main belt had slipped from the great fly-wheel of the machine shop. All the other "upstairs" men, as the firm members and managers of departments were called, were nonentities beside "our Colonel," the "whole thing," "it," as he was affectionately described.

So the progress to the elevators was slow, for the Colonel stopped to introduce his son to every man whose desk they passed or whose eye he caught.

"My boy, Vickers, Mr. Slason--Mr. Slason is our credit man, Vick--you'll know him better soon.... Mr. Jameson, just a moment, please; I want you to meet this young man!"

"If he's got any of your blood in him, Colonel, he's all right," a beefy, red-faced man jerked out, chewing at an unlighted cigar and looking Vickers hard in the face.

Even the porters had to be introduced. It was a democratic advance! But finally they reached the "upstairs" quarters, where in one corner was the Colonel's private den, partitioned off from the other offices by ground glass,--a bare space with a little old black walnut desk, a private safe, and a set of desk telephones. Here Vickers stood looking down at the turmoil of traffic in the street below, while his father glanced over a mass of telegrams and memoranda piled on his desk.

The roar of business that had begun to rumble through the streets at daybreak and was now approaching its meridian stunned the young man's nerves. Deadened by the sound of it all, he could not dissociate from the volume that particular note, which would be his note, and live oblivious to the rest.... So this was business! And what a feeble reed he was with which to prop it! Visions of that other life came thronging to his mind,--the human note of other cities he had learned to love, the placid hours of contemplation, visions of things beautiful in a world of joy! Humorously he thought of the hundreds of thousands of dollars this busy hive earned each year. A minute fraction of its profits would satisfy him, make him richer than all of it. And he suspected that the thrifty Colonel had much more wealth stored away in that old-fashioned iron safe. What was the use of throwing himself into this great machine? It would merely grind the soul out of him and spit him forth.

To keep it going,--that was the reason for sacrificing his youth, his desire. But why keep the thing going? Pride, sentiment? He did not know the Colonel's feeling of fatherhood towards all the men who worked for him, his conviction that in this enterprise which he had created, all these human beings were able to live happier lives because of him, his leadership. There was poetry in the old man, and imagination. But the young man, with his eyes filled with those other--more brilliant--glories, saw only the grime, heard only the dull roar of the wheels that turned out a meaningless flood of gold, like an engine contrived to supply desires and reap its percentage of profits.

"Father!" he cried involuntarily.

Hot words of protest were in his throat. Let some other young man be found to run the machine; or let them make a corporation of it and sell it in the market. Or close the doors, its work having been done. But give him his life, and a few dollars!

"Eh, Vick? Hungry? We'll go over to the club for luncheon in just a minute." And the old Colonel smiled affectionately at his son over his glasses.

"Not now--not just yet," Vickers said to himself, with a quick rush of comprehension.

But the "now" never seemed to come, the right moment for delivering the blow, through all those months that followed, while the young man was settling into his corner of the great establishment. When the mother or Isabelle confessed their doubts to the Colonel, the old man would say:--

"It will do him no harm, a little of it. He'll know how to look after your money, mother, when I am gone." And he added, "It's making a man of him, you'll see!"

There was another matter, little suspected by the Colonel, that was rapidly to make a man of his engaging young son.

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