Chapter XII. Blankets
 

There was destined to be a still longer break in the work which had been going on in Judge Calvin Gray's library than was intended. He and his assistant had barely resumed their labours after the Christmas house-party when the Judge was called out of town for a period whose limit when he left he was unable to fix. He could leave little for Richard to do, so that young man found his time again upon his hands and himself unable to dispose of it to advantage.

His mind at this period was in a curious state of dissatisfaction. Ever since the evening of the Christmas dance, when a girl's careless word had struck home with such unexpected force he had been as restless and uneasy as a fish out of water. His condition bore as much resemblance to that of the gasping fish as this: in the old element of life about town, as he had been in the habit of living it, he now had the sensation of not being able to breathe freely.

It was with the intention of getting into the open, both mentally and physically, that on the second day following the Judge's departure Richard started on a long drive in his car. Beyond a certain limit he knew that the roads were likely to prove none too good, though the winter had thus far been an open one and there was little chance of his encountering blocking snowdrifts "up State." He took no one with him. He could think of no one with whom he cared to go.

As he drove his mind was busy with all sorts of speculations. In his hurt pride he had said to a girl: "If I can't make you think differently of me it won't be for lack of will." That meant--what did it mean? That he had recognized the fact that she despised idlers--and that young rich men who spent a few hours, on an average of five days of the week, in assisting elderly gentlemen bereft of their eyesight in looking up old records, did not thereby in her estimation remove themselves from the class of those who do nothing in the world but attend to the spending of their incomes.

What should he do--how prove himself fit to deserve her approval? Unquestionably he must devote himself seriously to some serious occupation. All sorts of ideas chased one another through his mind in response to this stimulus. What was he fitted to do? He had a certain facility in the use of the pen, as he had proved in the service of Judge Calvin Gray. Should he look for a job as reporter on one of the city dailies? He certainly could not offer himself for any post higher than that of the rawest scribe on the force; he had had no experience. The thought of seeking such a post made his lip curl with the absurdity of the notion. They would make a society reporter of him; it would be the first idea that would occur to them. It was the only thing for which they would think him fit!

The thing he should like to do would be to travel on some interesting commission for his grandfather. On what commission, for instance? The purchasing of rare works of art for the picture-gallery of the great store? No mean exhibition it was they had there. But he had not the training for such a commission; he would be cheated out of hand when it came to buying! They sent skilled buyers on such quests.

He thought of rushing off to the far West and buying a ranch. That was a fit and proper thing for a fellow like himself; plenty of rich men's sons had done it. If she could see him in cowboy garb, rough-clad, sunburnt, muscular, she would respect him then perhaps. There would be no more flinging at him that he was a cotillion leader! How he hated the term!

The day was fair and cold, the roads rather better than he had expected, and by luncheon-time he had reached a large town, seventy miles away from his own city, where he knew of an exceptionally good place to obtain a refreshing meal. With this end in view, he was making more than ordinary village speed when disaster befell him in the shape of a break in his electric connections. Two blocks away from the hotel he sought, the car suddenly went dead.

While he was investigating, fingers blue with cold, a voice he knew hailed him. It came from a young man who advanced from the doorway of a store, in front of which the car had chanced to stop. "Something wrong, Rich?"

Richard stood up. He gripped his friend's hand cordially, glancing up at the sign above the store as he did so.

"Mighty glad to see you, Benson," he responded. "I didn't realize I'd stopped in front of your father's place of business."

Hugh Benson was a college classmate. In spite of the difference between their respective estates in the college world, the two had been rather good friends during the four years of their being thrown together. Since graduation, however, they had seldom met, and for the last two years Richard Kendrick had known no more of his former friend than that the good-sized dry-goods store, standing on a prominent corner in the large town through which he often motored without stopping, still bore the name of Hugh Benson's father.

When the car was running again Benson climbed in and showed Richard the way to his own home, where he prevailed on his friend to remain for lunch with himself and his mother. Richard learned for the first time that Benson's father had died within the last year.

"And you're going on with the business?" questioned Richard, as the two lingered alone together in Benson's hall before parting. The talk during the meal had been mostly of old college days, of former classmates, and of the recent history of nearly every mutual acquaintance except that of the speakers themselves.

"There was nothing else for me to do when father left us," Benson responded in a low tone. "I'm not as well adapted to it as he was, but I expect to learn."

"I remember you thought of doing graduate work along scientific lines. Did you give that up?"

"Yes. I found father needed me at home; his health must have been failing even then, though I didn't realize it. I've been in the store with him ever since. I'm glad I have--now."

"It's not been good for you," declared Richard, scrutinizing his friend's pale and rather worn face critically. It would have seemed to him still paler and more worn if he could have seen it in contrast with his own fresh-tinted features, ruddy with his morning's drive. "Better come with me for an afternoon spin farther up State, and a good dinner at a place I know. Get you back by bedtime."

"There's nothing I'd like better, Rich," said Benson longingly; "but--I can't leave the store. I have rather a short force of clerks--and on a sunny day--"

"You'd sell more goods to-morrow," urged Richard, feeling increasingly anxious to do something which might bring light into a face he had not remembered as so sombre.

But Benson shook his head again. Afterward, in front of the store to which the two had returned in the car, Richard could only give his friend a warm grip of the hand and an urgent invitation to visit him in the city.

"I suppose you come down often to buy goods," he suggested. "Or do you send buyers? I don't know much about the conduct of business in a town like this--or much about it at home, for that matter," he owned. "Though I'm not sure I'm proud of my ignorance."

"It doesn't matter whether you know anything about it or not, of course," said Benson, looking up at him with a queer expression of wistfulness. "No, I'm my own buyer. And I don't buy of a great, high-grade firm like yours; I go to a different class of fellows for my stuff."

Richard drove on, thinking hard about Benson. What a pity for a fellow of twenty-six or seven to look like that, careworn and weary. He wondered whether it was the loss of his father and the probably sorrowful atmosphere at home that accounted for the look in Benson's eyes, or whether his business was not a particularly successful one. He recalled that the one careless glance he had given the windows of Benson's store had brought to his mind the fleeting impression that village shopkeepers had not much art in the dressing of their windows as a means of alluring the public.

As he drove on he felt in his pockets for a cigar and found his case unexpectedly empty. He turned back to a drugstore, went in and supplied himself from the best in stock--none too good for his fastidious taste.

"What's your best dry-goods shop here?" he inquired casually.

"Artwell & Chatford's the best--now," responded the druggist, glancing across the street, where a sign bearing those names met the eye. "Chaffee Brothers has run 'em a close second since Benson's dropped out of the competition. Benson's used to be the best, but it's fallen way behind. Look at Artwell's window display over there and see the reason," he added, pointing across the street with the citizen's pride in a successful enterprise in no way his own rival.

"Gorgeous!" responded Richard, eying an undoubtedly eye-catching arrangement of blankets of every hue and quality piled about a centre figure consisting of a handsome brass bed made up as if for occupancy, the carefully folded-back covers revealing immaculate and downy blankets with pink borders, the whole suggestive of warmth and comfort throughout the most rigorous winter season.

"Catchy--on a day like this!" suggested the druggist, with a chuckle. "I'll admit they gave me the key for my own windows."

Richard's gaze followed the other's glance and rested on piles of scarlet flannel chest-protectors, flanked by small brass tea-kettles with alcohol lamps beneath.

"We carry a side line of spirit-lamp stuff," explained the dealer. "It sells well this time of year. Got to keep track of the popular thing. Afternoon teas are all the go among the women of this town now. The hardware's the only other place they can get these--and they don't begin to keep the variety we do."

Richard congratulated the dealer on his window. Lingering by it, his hand on the door, he said:

"I noticed Benson's as I came by, and I see now the force of what you say about window display. I'm not sure I can tell what was in their windows."

"Nor anybody else," declared the druggist, chuckling, "unless he went with a notebook and made an inventory. Since the old man died last year the windows have been a hodgepodge of stuff that attracts nobody. It's merely an index to the way the place is running behind. Young Benson doesn't know how to buy nor how to sell; he'll never succeed. The store began to go down when the old man got too feeble to take the whole responsibility. Hugh began to overstock some departments and understock others. It's not so much lack of capital that'll be responsible for Hugh's failure when it comes--and I guess it's not far off--as it is lack of business experience. Why, he's got so little trade he's turned off half his salespeople; and you know that talks!"

It did indeed. It talked louder now in the light of the druggist's shrewd commentaries than it had when Benson had spoken of his "short force." Richard wondered just how short it was, that the proprietor could not venture to leave for even a few hours.

He drove on thoughtfully. He wanted to go back and look those windows over again, wanted to go through the whole store, but recognized that though he could have done this when he first arrived, he could not go back and do it now without exciting his friend's suspicion that sympathy was his motive.

He turned about at a point far short of the one he had intended to reach, and made record time back to the city, impelled by an odd wish he could hardly explain, to go by the windows of the great department stores of Kendrick & Company and examine their window displays. Since he was ordinarily accustomed to select any other streets than those upon which these magnificent places of custom were situated, merely because he not only had no interest in them but a positive distaste for seeing his own name emblazoned--though ever so chastely--above their princely portals, it may be understood that an entirely new idea was working in his brain.

Speed as he would, however, running the risk as he approached the city streets of being stopped by some watchful authority for exceeding the limits, he could not get back to the broad avenue upon which the stores stood before six o'clock. There was all the better chance on that account, nevertheless, for examining the windows before which belated shoppers were still stopping to wonder and admire.

Well, looking at them with Benson's forlorn windows in his mind as a foil, he saw them as he never had before. What beauty, what originality, what art they showed! And at a time of year when, the holiday season past, it might seem as if there could be no real summons for anybody to go shopping. They were fairly dazzling, some of them, although many of them showed only white goods. His car came to a standstill before one great plate-glass frame behind which was a representation of a sewing-room with several people busily at work. So perfect were the figures that it hardly seemed as if they could be of wax. One pretty girl was sewing at a machine; another, on her knees, was fitting a frock to a little girl who laughed over her shoulder at a second child who was looking on. The mother of the family sewed by a drop-light on a work-table. The whole scene was really charming, combining precisely the element of domesticity with that of accomplishment which strikes the eye of the average passer as "looking like home," no matter of what sort the home might be.

"By heavens! if poor Ben had something like that people wouldn't pass him by for the blanket store," he said to himself; and drove on, still thinking.

The next day, at an hour before the morning tide of shopping at Kendrick & Company's had reached the flood, two pretty glove clerks were suddenly tempted into a furtive exchange of conversation at an unoccupied end of their counter.

"Look quick! See the young man coming this way? It's Rich Kendrick."

"It is? They told me he never came here. Say, but he's the real thing!"

"I should say. Never saw him so close myself. Wish he'd stop here."

"Bet you couldn't keep your head if he spoke to you!"

"Bet I could! Don't you worry; he don't buy his gloves in his own department store. He--"

"Sh! Granger's looking!"

There was really nothing about Richard Kendrick to attract attention except his wholesome good looks, for he dressed with exceptional quietness, and his manner matched his clothes. A floorwalker recognized him and bowed, but the elevator man did not know him, and on his way to the offices he passed only one clerk who could lay claim to a speaking acquaintance with the grandson of the owner.

But at the office of the general manager he was met by an office boy who knew and worshipped him from afar, and in five minutes he was closeted with that official, who gave him his whole attention.

"Mr. Henderson, I wish you could give me"--was the substance of Richard's remarks--"somebody who would go up to Eastman with me and tell me what's the matter with a dry-goods store there that's on the verge of failure."

The general manager was, to put it mildly, astonished. He was a mighty man of valour himself, so mighty that his yearly salary would have been to the average American citizen a small fortune. The office was one to fill which similar houses had often scoured the country without avail. Other business owners had been forced to remain at the helm long after health and happiness demanded retirement. Among these, Henderson was held to be so competent a man that Matthew Kendrick was considered incredibly lucky to keep his hold upon him.

To Matthew Kendrick's grandson Henderson put a number of pertinent inquiries concerning the store in question which Richard found he could not intelligently answer. He flushed a little under the fire.

"I suppose you think I might have investigated a bit for myself," said he. "But that's just what I don't want to do. I want to send a man up there whom the owner doesn't know; then we can get at things without giving ourselves away."

The general manager inferred from this that philanthropy, not business interest, was at the bottom of young Kendrick's quest and his surprise vanished. The young man was known as kind-hearted and generous; he was undoubtedly merely carrying out a careless impulse, though he certainly seemed much in earnest in the doing of it.

"You might take Carson, assistant buyer for the dress-goods department, with you," suggested Henderson after a little consideration. "He could probably give you a day just now. Alger, his head, is back from London this week. Carson's a bright man--in line for promotion. He'll put his finger on the trouble without hesitation--if it lies in the lack of business experience, buying and selling, as you say. I'll send for him."

In two minutes Richard Kendrick and Alfred Carson were face to face, and an appointment had been made for the following day. Richard took a liking to the assistant buyer on the spot. He felt as if he were selecting a competent physician for his friend, and was glad to send him a man whose personality was both prepossessing and inspiring of confidence.

As for Carson, it was an interesting experience for him, too. He thoroughly enjoyed the seventy-mile drive at the side of the young millionaire, who sent his powerful car flying over the frozen roads at a pace which made his passenger's face sting. Carson was more accustomed to travel in subways and sleeping-cars than by long motor drives, and by the time Eastman was reached he was glad that the return drive would be preceded by a hot luncheon.

"We won't go past the store," Richard explained, making a detour from the main street of the town, regardless of the fact that he forsook a good road for a poor one. "I don't want him to see me to-day."

He pressed upon his guest the best that the hotel afforded, then sent him to the corner store with instructions to let nothing escape his attention. "Though I don't need to tell you that," he added with a laugh. "You'll see more in a minute than I should in a month."

Then he lighted a cigar--from his own case this time, though he strolled in to see his friend the druggist when he had finished it, and bought of him various other sundries. He did not venture to mention Benson to-day, but the druggist did. Evidently Benson's imminent failure was the talk of the town, and the regret, as well, of those who were not his rivals.

"Man can't succeed at a thing he picks up so late, and when he'd rather do something else," volunteered the druggist. "Now I began in this shop by sweeping out, mornings, and running errands, delivering goods. Got interested--came to be a clerk after a while. Always saw myself making up dope, compounding prescriptions. Went off to a school of pharmacy--came back--showed the old man I could look after the prescription business. Finally bought him out. Trained for the trade from the cradle as you might say."

"I wonder if I'm going to be useless," thought Richard, "because I'm not trained from the cradle. Carson says he began as a wrapper at fifteen. At my age--he looks my age--he's assistant buyer for one of Kendrick & Company's biggest departments, and 'in line for promotion,' as Henderson says. Rich Kendrick, do you think you're in line for promotion--anywhere? I wonder!"

He had gone back to the hotel and was impatiently awaiting Carson for some time before the buyer appeared. Carson came in with a look of great interest and eagerness on his face. The assistant buyer had, Richard thought, one of the brightest faces he had ever seen. He was sure he had asked the right man to diagnose the case of the invalid business, even before Carson began to talk. As the talk progressed he was convinced of it.

Yet Carson began at the human, not the business, end of the matter. Richard Kendrick, himself full of concern for his friend Hugh Benson, liked that, too.

"I never felt sorrier for a man in my life," said Carson. "He shows a lot of pluck; he never once owned that the thing was too much for him. But I got him to talking--a little. Didn't need to talk much; the whole place was shouting at me--every counter, every showcase. Thunder!"

"How did you get him to talking?" Richard asked eagerly.

"Represented myself as an ex-travelling man--the dry-goods line. It's true enough, if not just the way he took it. Of course he didn't give me any facts about his business, but we discussed present conditions of the trade pretty well, and he owned that a good many things puzzled him just as much as when he was a little chap and used to listen to his father giving orders. What's going to be wanted and how much? When to load up and when to unload? How to catch the public fancy and not get caught yourself? In short, how to turn over the stock in season and out of season--turn it over and get out from under! He knows no more than a man who can't swim how to keep his head above water. Nice fellow, too; I could see it in every word he said. He'd be a success in, say, a professorship in a college--and not a business college, either."

"If the place were yours," Richard, alive with interest, put it to him, "now, this minute, what would be the first thing you would do?"

Carson laughed--not derisively, but like a boy who sees a chance at a game he likes to play. "Have a bonfire, I'd like to say," he vowed. "But that wouldn't be good business, and I wouldn't do it if I had the chance--unless there was insurance to cover! And there's money in the stock. Part of it could be got out. But it ought to be got out before the moon is old. Then I'd like the fun of stocking up with new lines, new departments, things the town never heard of. I'd make that blanket window you told me about look sick. That is," he added modestly, "I think I could. Any good general buyer could. I'm a dress-goods man myself, only I've grown up under Kendrick & Company's roof and I've been watching other lines than my own. It interests me--the possibilities of that store. Why, the man ought not to fail! He has the best location in town, the biggest windows, the best fixtures, judging by the outside of the places I saw as I came along. I looked at the blanket-window place. That's a dark store when you get back a dozen feet. Benson's, being on the corner, is fairly light to the back door. That counts more than any other thing about the building itself. And the fellow has his underwear in the brightest spot in the shop and the dress goods in the darkest! His heavy lines by the door and his notions and fancy stuff way back where you've got to hunt for them! And his windows--oh, blazes! I wanted to climb up and jump on the mess and then throw it out!"

Richard drove Carson back to town, his heart afire with longing to do something, he did not yet know what. He could not consult Carson about the matter further than to find out from him what was wrong with the business from the standpoint of the customer; why the place did not attract the customer. Details of this phase of the question Carson had given him in plenty, all leading back to the one trouble--Benson had not understood how to appeal to the class of custom at his doors. He had not the right goods, nor the right means of display; he had not the right salespeople; in brief, he had nothing, according to Carson, that he ought to have, and everything, poor fellow, that he ought not! It was a hard case.

As to actual business foundations and resources, neither of the young men could judge. They had no means of knowing how deeply Benson was in debt, nor what were his assets beyond the visible stock. Yet his fellow shopkeepers considered him on the verge of bankruptcy; they must know.

"I've enjoyed this trip, Mr. Kendrick," Carson said at parting, "in more ways than I can tell you. If I can be of use to you in any way, call on me, please. I'm honestly interested in your friend Mr. Benson. I'd like to see him win out."

"So should I." Richard shook hands heartily. "I've enjoyed the trip, too, Mr. Carson. I never had better company. Thank you for going--and for teaching me a lot of things I wanted to know."

As he drove away he was thinking, "Carson's a success; I'm not. Odd thing, that I should find myself envying a chap whose place I couldn't be hired to take. I envy him--not exactly his knowledge and skill, but his being a definite factor, his being a man who carries responsibilities and makes good, so that--well, so that he's 'in line for promotion.' That phrase takes hold of me somehow; I wonder why? Well, the next thing is to see grandfather."

       *       *       *       *       *

Old Matthew Kendrick was alone. His grandson had just left him. He was marching up and down his private library. His hands were clasped tightly behind his back; above his flushed brow his white hair stood erect from frequent thrustings of his agitated fingers; even his cravat, slightly awry, bore witness to his excitement.

"Gad!" he was saying to himself. "The boy's alive after all! The boy's waked up! He's taking notice! And the thing that's waked him up is a country store--by cricky! a country store! I believe I'm dreaming yet!"

If the citizens of the thriving town of Eastman, almost of a size to call itself a young city and boast of a mayor, could have heard him they might not have been flattered. Yet when they remembered that this was the owner of a business so colossal that its immense buildings and branches were to be found in three great cities, they might have understood that to him the corner store of Hugh Benson looked like a toy concern, indeed. But he liked the look of it, as it had been presented to his mind's eye that night; no doubt but he liked the look of it!

"Give him Carson to go up there and manage the business for those two infants-in-arms? Gad! yes, go myself and make change at the desk for the new firm," he chuckled, "if that would keep Dick interested. But I guess he's interested enough or he wouldn't have agreed to my ruling that he must go into the thing himself, not stand off and throw out a rope to his drowning friend Benson. If young Benson's the man Dick makes him out, it's as I told Dick: he wouldn't grasp the rope. But if Dick goes in after him, that's business. Bless the rascal! I wish his father could see him now. Sitting on the edge of my table and talking window-dressing to me as if he'd been born to it, which he was, only he wouldn't accept his birthright, the proud beggar! Talking about moving one of our show-windows up there bodily for a white-goods sale in February; date a trifle late for Kendrick & Company, but advance trade for Eastman, undoubtedly. Says he knows they can start every mother's daughter of 'em sewing for dear life, if they can get their eye on that sewing-room scene. Well"--he paused to chuckle again--"he says Carson says that window cost us five hundred dollars; but if it did it's cheap at the price, and I'll make the new firm a present of it. Benson & Company--and a grandson of Matthew Kendrick the Company!"

He laughed heartily, then paused to stand staring down into the jewelled shade of his electric drop-light as if in its softly blending colourings he saw the outlines of a new future for "the boy."

"I wonder what Cal will say to losing his literary assistant," he mused, smiling to himself. "I doubt if Dick's proved himself invaluable, and I presume the man he speaks of will give Cal much better service; but I shall be sorry not to have him going to the Grays' every day; it seemed like a safe harbour. Well, well, I never thought to find myself interested again in the fortunes of a country store. Gad! I can't get over that. The fellow's been too proud to walk down the aisles of Kendrick & Company to buy his silk socks at cost--preferred to pay two prices at an exclusive haberdasher's instead! And now--he's going to have a share in the sale of socks that retail for a quarter, five pairs for a dollar! O Dick, Dick, you rascal, your old grandfather hasn't been so happy since you were left to him to bring up. If only you'll stick! But you're your father's son, after all--and my grandson; I can't help believing you'll stick!"