Carden - The Conqueror
by Ellis Parker Butler
The entry of Cardan into the business life of Riverbank was like the coming of a conqueror. He was magnificent. He arrived as one of the old Roman conquerors might have arrived in some half-civilized barbarian land, triumphant in his prowess, sure of his strength, welcomed by his own brazen trumpets sent on before.
The blaring trumpets were the tremendous full-page advertisements he sent screaming through the editions of the Riverbank Eagle and Times, the huge three-story muslin banner he spread all over the front of the Connor building in red and blue, and the ten thousand handbills -- newspaper size -- that boys thrust into letter-boxes, under doors, and on porches. There were trumpets less rhetorical, too -- at least a few cornets and a tuba, -- when the Riverbank Brass Band played in the street before the store on the day of the opening of Cardan's new business -- "Cloaks, Suits, and Millinery."
But more magnificent than all was Cardan himself. He was a giant in stature with the hair of a Beethoven or an Ibsen; as he stood in the doorway of his new store and cast his eyes up and down the main street of Riverbank he needed only a breastplate and bare legs to be a Spartacus the Gladiator or a Marc Antony. A big man, friends -- that finest flower of humanity, one who can stand alone and who means to do it. Some say it is the weed that usually stands alone. Cardan himself had no doubts on the subject; he knew he was great; he knew he was triumphant; he knew he was a conqueror.
He did things in the conqueror's way. He had thrust into Riverbank -- 20,000 population; county seat of Riverbank County -- and had leased the Connor building with the ruthlessness of a Roman general grasping a Gallic province. It was done before Riverbank knew. The first word the town had of it, was the bursting out of a huge muslin banner and the blazing forth of the full pages--
THE PEOPLE'S STORE!
CLOAKS, SUITS, MILLINERY!
WAIT FOR OUR GRAND OPENING WEEK!
ALL GOODS AT COST!
SOUVENIR WITH EACH PURCHASE!
The secretary of the Chamber of Commerce called to see Cardan.
"Is this Mr. Cardan?" he asked. "No, this is not Mister Cardan," Cardan replied in his grand manner. "This is Cardan. I'm Cardan -- Cloaks, Suits and Millinery. Cardan, you understand? Who are you?"
"I am the Secretary of the Riverbank Chamber of Commerce; now that you are one of the Riverbank merchants--"
"I? Riverbank merchants? What's that? What's a Riverbank merchant? I never heard of any merchants in Riverbank. You mean these dead-and-dried-up shopkeepers? These two-cent, cheap-John, Main-Streeters? Forget it! I'm not one of them; I'm Cardan -- Cloaks, Suits and Millinery."
"The Executive Board thought you might want to join the Chamber of Commerce--"
"I don't join. I'm Cardan. I don't have to join. I pay my own way. I run my own business. Cardan is Cardan -- understand that?"
"Practically every merchant in town is a member of the Chamber of --"
"Yes? Well, note this down, young man: there are two kinds of men in this town now -- Cardan and these poor sheep that join things. And I'm Cardan."
Perhaps, dear reader, you have a little Cardan in your town, but I doubt whether you have a Cardan as magnificent as Cardan himself. He was a conqueror, you understand. He was no man's man; he was Cardan.
The Secretary of the Chamber, rebuffed, reported that Cardan would not come in; Cardan meant to stand alone.
"That means he intends to cut our throats," said Blane, of Blane & Riggs. "Well, we've had them cut before and we're still alive. Who is this Cardan, anyway?"
Tolman, of the Tolman Wholesale Grocery Co., sent to his credit agency for a report on Cardan.
"Joseph H. Cardan," said the report. "Refuses to give statements. Is believed to be financially sound at present. Opening in cloaks, suits and millinery at Riverbank, Iowa; states he will pay cash and discount all bills. Is forty-two years old. Failed in cloaks and suits at Hetterville, Ind.; assets, $445; liabilities, $3,365. Went through bankruptcy. Failed in millinery, Okosh, Kansas; assets, $342; liabilities, $2,764. Failed in cloaks, suits, and millinery at Bundersburg, Mo.; assets, $665; liabilities, $768. Went through bankruptcy. Has been running a small store in the notion line at Altamaja, Ill., with a stock estimated at $1,200. It is understood he has recently inherited a considerable amount of money from an uncle, but amount not ascertained. Will send later report."
"That's regular hades," said Blane, of Blane & Riggs, when he read the report. "He's going to knock things 'galley West' for awhile, that's sure -- a failure with a swelled head and a bunch of easy money. They always go wild while their money lasts, the blame nuisances."
He did not, you see, speak of Cardan as a conqueror. But he was right about the "galley West" part of it. Cardan, the Conqueror, was not going to shillyshally; that is not the way of conquerors. He sharpened his knife and began to cut throats the day his store opened. His full page in the Eagle was divided into five columns and he told the women of Riverbank a few things calculated to make their hearts beat faster. These were stated in words and figures like these:
BLANE & RIGGS' PRICE, $4.55!
PALACE STORE PRICE, $5.25!
BUNCE BROTHERS' PRICE, $4.90!
LOWEST OTHER PRICE, $5.15!
OUR PRICE, $2.75!
He knew how to do it, Cardan the Conqueror did, and he did not forget to again add "and a souvenir free with every purchase."
His store, it is but fair to say, was crowded during that opening week. He had not missed a trick. Miss Blissy, who for twelve cheerful spinster years had won the confidence of the women of Riverbank as manager of Blane & Riggs' cloak department met the same women friends in the same eagerly cheerful way in the cloak department of Cardan the Conqueror.
"Oh, yes," she said truthfully; "this forty-dollar coat is exactly the same grade and quality I sold for seventy-five dollars at Blane's. And I can guarantee a perfect fit, because Cardan has hired Schmultz, who used to do our remodeling at Mr. Blane's."
"Mercy, Etty! Do you call him Cardan already?"
"He won't let us 'Mister' him," said Miss Blissy. "He wants it like that. He wants us to speak of him as Cardan, and the store as Cardan's."
And Cardan, strutting up and down his aisles snapping his fingers at the girls that Joe Bunce had called Miss Fripp and Miss Muller, was indeed the personification of a conqueror. Poor, trembling, old Mrs. Rickley, whose taste in hats and gentle manner had held many a limousine customer for the showy Palace Store, was now "Number Eight."
"Front -- Number Eight; look sharp, please!" Cardan would call, and Mrs. Rickley would hurry to meet a woman with whom she had gone to school forty years before.
"You won't be so friendly with customers, if you please!" said Cardan. "Kindly remember that women who come here are not your friends; they are Cardan's customers. Cardan's! Bear it in mind. Front -- Number Seven!"
Business had not been done in that way in Riverbank. Men had not snapped their fingers at saleswomen. But the better pay was in the pay envelopes on Saturday night surely enough. And why not? Modern times, modern methods.
"What I can't see," said Blane to Bunce, "is how he's going to get a living out of it. I was talking to Miss Blissy last night and she says there's no fake about it; the man is selling under us all through. He is selling at cost. He's selling everything we carry at invoice cost; not even a cent added for overhead and expense. Well, he can't keep that up forever."
He could not, of course. And he did not. It may have been a month and it may have been two months, and then the new goods began to arrive and Cardan the Conqueror gave them fairly decent prices.
"But Blane has a coat that looks like this for almost the same price," a customer might say to Miss Blissy.
Then Miss Blissy would purse her lips and send for Cardan. That was according to instructions; no one was to decide anything -- always Cardan was to be sent for. He was not only a conqueror; he was also a despot. And Miss Blissy would not lie for anyone; not even for Cardan.
"What is it?" he would ask. "This coat the same price as one at Blane & Riggs? You mean, madam, they have a coat priced the same. That does not mean it is the same coat at the same price. That only means they have a coat they will tell you is the same coat. And Cardan could tell you, madam, that this coat is worth two hundred dollars, but Cardan does not do business that way. Cardan does not misrepresent goods."
The innuendo was that Blane & Riggs did misrepresent goods. And Cardan the Conqueror did not stop there; he told Riverbank in his full-page advertisements that Riverbank had been robbed by the native merchants for years. Until Cardan's came to town. Now Cardan's defied any man or woman in the Cloak, Suit and Millinery business to rob Riverbank and get away with it.
Cardan told Riverbank that the merchants whom Riverbank had been blandly patronizing for years were no better than cheats, and thieves and deceivers. In a "ring" to defraud Riverbank shoppers. "Cardan's is in no profit-boosting ring," his advertisements said. Cardan's is a member of no 'gentlemen's (?) agreement.' Cardan has not joined and will not join any Association, Chamber, Club, or Organization. Cardan's stands alone and stands for the people. If you want to know why prices in Cloaks, Suits and Millinery are now lower in Riverbank than before Cardan's came, ask any merchant in town whether he is a member of any Association, Chamber, Merchants' Club or Organization." In other advertisements, he asked: "Why do merchants join Chambers, Clubs, and Associations? Why are the prices of joining-merchants higher than Cardan's prices? Cardan joins nothing. Cardan unites with no one to fix prices. Compare the prices given below with the prices of others. The high-price ring is trembling; its rule is over; Cardan stands alone!"
Neither the Chamber of Commerce nor the merchants liked that, but if they did not like it they might lump it, as they say in Riverbank. But Cardan's did not get all the business; the other stores selling cloaks, suits and millinery were not void of customers -- not entirely void. During Cardan's opening week they were indeed like desert isles, but habit and friendship and the memory of fair and kindly treatment brought some customers back. And it must be admitted that Blane & Riggs, and Bunce Brothers, and others did advertise more liberally and did offer more "bargains" than before the coming of Cardan. In six months, Blane & Riggs and Bunce Brothers found their sales were quite normal again, or almost so, and still Cardan was doing big business. More cloaks, suits and millinery were being bought; the farmer's wives were buying far more. But profits were smaller all around; there was no doubt about that.
By the end of the year, Cardan's had been accepted as a thorn that must remain and fester. Cardan had not "blown up"; Cardan's still paid cash, and discounted its bills. Cardan's had become a fixture in Riverbank, it seemed. Cardan's cutthroat methods and knocking and fighting had to be accepted and borne with. Cardan's had come to stay.
At the end of his first year, with a fair inventory of goods on hand, Cardan actually found he had made a net profit of $342.60 in his first year.
In the eighth month of the eleventh year of Cardan's conquering career in Riverbank his son Joe's wire-haired fox terrier was shot and killed. The dog was a dog of pedigree and had cost Cardan fifty dollars at a good kennel although it was, in disposition, no better and no worse than other Riverbank dogs. It did, now and then, like other Riverbank dogs, go forth to battle. Now and then, from the middle of pandemonium of yowls and snarls, Yip or the other dog would tear away, yowling and licked, perhaps with a bleeding ear. But no one thought much of that in Riverbank. Dogs would fight now and then; it was their nature. But on this dark night. Joe Cardan's dog Yip was shot and killed. He was the second of Joe Cardan's dogs to be shot and killed. When Cardan the Conqueror came home at noon he heard Joe on the back porch calling the dog -- "Here, Yip! Here, Yip! Come here, Yip!" Then he heard the boy going among the bushes in the side yard, still calling, "Here, Yip! Here, Yip! Come here, Yip!" And then the young Joe, bawling, came carrying the dead dog in his arms. He dropped it on the porch and dropped down by it -- and cried. The kid's heart was mighty near broken.
"They killed my dog! They killed my dog!" he sobbed.
"Oh, shut up about your dog!" Cardan shouted. "I'll get you another dog. Come in here to your dinner."
They still have dinner in the middle of the day in Riverbank.
But Cardan -- of Cardan's, the Conqueror -- did not eat all his dinner at home the middle of that day. The boy sat sniffling and stuffing his food into his mouth, looking at his father sideways and afraid to cry, and suddenly Mrs. Cardan uttered a long, wailing- "O--h!" and dropped her head on her arms and sobbed. She had never done this before, but now the ten years and eight months of knowledge that Cardan and everything of Cardan's was disliked was sobbing from her unhappy heart.
No one's dogs but Cardan's were shot; other dogs were excused and forgiven. Only Cardan's dogs were shot. Only Joe's dogs were shot. And only Cardan's wife was left out of the Bridge Clubs, and not invited to join the Friday Club, and meaningly omitted from the roster of the Garden Club.
Cardan looked at his wife and opened his mouth to speak. His face grew red and his eyes glared. Then he thought better of it and threw his napkin on the table and got up and went to the hall and got his hat and went out and slammed the door. In the dining room, Mrs. Cardan cried and Joe cried.
"The devil take it!" Cardan the Conqueror growled to himself, as he strode toward his store. "Yes, the devil take all of them! The whole town! A man comes here and opens a first-class store, works his life out to make a business that's a credit to the town, gives his wife a car, and everything else a woman ought to want, and his kid everything a kid should have -- and then what? Bawling and weeping all over the place. And look at me -- look how I'm treated -- like an outsider!"
When Cardan reached the office he found three salesmen, the grist from the noon train; two took little of his time but the third had come at his written request, and he knew he would have to spend an hour, or perhaps two hours, with that man. He was Hufflin, from the Tremain Suit Company.
That Hufflin was there was one of Cardan's triumphs. He had written three letters before the Tremain suit people had sent anyone, because Blane & Riggs had been handling their line for years, exclusively.
"Now, I want to show you," Cardan said to Hufflin. "You needn't tell me how much Blane buys from you --"
"And I won't," said Hufflin dryly.
"You needn't," Cardan said. "Because I know. I hired his assistant bookkeeper away from him two months ago. Well, here's what I can buy. Here's my invoices from the Gold Star Suit people; here's what I bought of Lang & Loring; here's what I bought of Emshin, Clootz & Co. Cash on receipt of invoice, too. All right! I don't waste time talking; I'm Cardan and I do business Cardan's way. This is a two-season business -- Fall and Winter, and Spring and Summer. I'll do this: show me your samples and I'll buy for this season what Blane buys for a whole year. And I'll buy for next season as much as Blane buys for a full year. I'll double Blane's business with you, and I'll sign an agreement to keep that up for five years, and I don't care what your line is like."
"You don't have to care," said Hufflin. "Our line is always O.K., and you know it. If it wasn't you wouldn't want it."
"I wouldn't care what sort of trash it was," declared Cardan. "What I want is exclusive sale of the Tremain line in this town. I talk plain talk; I'm Cardan. And here's your chance to get your line in my store, the only live store in town. And with a five-year agreement, you understand."
"I know what you want," said Hufflin. "Our line is the backbone of Blane & Riggs' business and you want to pull out their backbone and leave them flabby."
"That's business," said Cardan. "And it's good business for you, too. You don't know how long Blane & Riggs are going to last; you don't have to tell me they are eight months back in their payments to you. Look out they don't blow up on you, that's all I say. A couple of back numbers, going down hill. And who else would you have here? The Palace Store with a place that looks like a junk shop; Bunce Brothers who have been on the toboggan ever since I opened up; a couple of other Cheap Johns that would drop dead at your prices and grades. Now let me give you some inside information about the whole lot of them."
For an hour Cardan the Conqueror talked to Hufflin, knocking his competitors and especially Blane & Riggs; in the end, Hufflin sent a long wire to headquarters, but the reply did not come until the next day. When Cardan went home that evening his wife was nervous and not happy, and the boy was silent and subdued.
"Oh, for cat's sake!" Cardan cried; "Can't we have a little cheerfulness in this house? When a man works hard all day --"
But Mrs. Cardan could not be cheerful that evening and Cardan left her alone and put in the evening drafting the advertisement he would spread on his full pages when he had the Tremain line. He decided to head it, "Straws Show Which Way The Wind Blows," followed by "The Tremain Suit Company Gives Cardan's Exclusive Sale in Riverbank -- The Best Suit House in America Takes Its Superb Line Away from the Dead Ones and Gives It to Riverbank's Only Live Store." He would follow this with prices; he would cut the life out of the prices on the Tremain line; he would have to if he was to sell twice what Blane & Riggs had sold!
As they were going to bed, Mrs. Cardan summoned all her courage and spoke to Cardan.
"Are you making a lot of money here?" she asked.
"Why should you care? No, I ain't!" said Cardan. "I ain't, but I'm going to, when I run a couple of these pikers out of business, and I've got them on the run. If the deal I've been working on today goes through, I'll be pretty well rid of one of them, I'll tell you that! I'll have the knife into Blane -- deep into him, too. Why? What's the matter? Don't I give you everything you want?"
"I don't know," said Mrs. Cardan, miserably. "I can't seem to be happy here. No one seems to like us. We're out of everything. People don't trouble to speak to us. I thought --"
"Well, what did you think?" asked Cardan as she hesitated.
"I thought, perhaps, if you were not making a lot of money here you might sell out, and we might go somewhere where people would not be so cold to us. I don't know why they don't like us. I've tried so hard to be nice to everybody; and it makes me so unhappy to be out of everything."
"Well, I'm out of everything, ain't I?" Cardan demanded. "I'm out of the Rotary and all those clubs, ain't I? And what do I care? What's it to me, if they've all got a sour grouch against me? I know why -- they're sore because I'm doing business Cardan's way; because I'm showing these cheap pikers where they get off. Forget it! Forget them; we'll show them. I've got them all scared."
"Yes, but that isn't everything in life, is it, dear? Life isn't so long, is it? And so much of life is in being happy while we are living it; in having friends we like and who like us. Why, we're nothing here; we're not part of the town; we're just a store -- we're nothing but 'Cardan's' and some pages of paid advertising. I don't know how to say it, but I feel as if 'Cardan's' was a steel cage that shut in my heart from all the friendliness and companionship there is in this lovely town -- and shut out all the friendship that might come to me. And that might come to you. Making money is not the only thing in the world, is it?"
"I'm not making so much, if it conies to that," said Cardan. "I will, though, when I've run these cheap skates out of business."
"But couldn't we go away?" she asked again. "Couldn't you sell out and go somewhere else -- somewhere where we could be part of things, somewhere where we could like people and people could like us?"
"We could not!" said Cardan, and that settled that.
The next day Hufflin brought the news that Tremains would give their line to Cardan. It was triumph for Cardan the Conqueror. It was another knife-thrust in the vitals of Blane & Riggs.
On the sixteenth of October, Blane & Riggs went under; Cardan competition was too strong; his prices were too ruinous. At the creditors' sale, Cardan's bought the Blane & Riggs stock and the retail selling of it was an orgy of price slaughter. For two weeks women fought to get into Cardan's; Cardan's gross sales for the two weeks exceeded any gross sales ever made in Riverbank.
But Cardan's made no profit on the huge sales and it had one unfortunate result: so much of the Blane & Riggs stock had been Tremain suits and so many women had bought to the limit of their purses that Cardan's had to slaughter its new Tremain stock as well. There was no help for it; Cardan's had to sell because Cardan's had agreed to take such an overwhelming lot of Tremain goods.
That fall and winter Cardan the Conqueror began to show worry lines on his face. His store was well crowded with purchasers but his big overhead expense swallowed his petty profits at a gulp and was not satiated. It bit into his capital and was not satisfied. And no one had comfort or friendship for Cardan, to lighten his worries. He had not even a partner to quarrel with and blame. So he quarreled with his wife. Sometimes, in his irritation, he swore at her. But Cardan's was selling slathers of goods. Cardan's was, to all appearances, a prosperous and triumphant store. Frequently, in the early afternoon, Cardan the Conqueror, standing in his store's doorway, saw groups of laughing, cheerful merchants come out of the Riverbank Hotel, gathering in little clusters and then going up or down the street, in two's or three's to their business places. Among them he often saw Blane, a little grayer and not so well dressed, for Blane & Riggs had now only a small notion store.
The Riverbank Eagle, Cardan saw, had headlines on its report of the annual meeting of the Chamber of Commerce -- "Roger Carter Again Heads Chamber of Commerce -- Sam Blane Unanimously Chosen as Vice President," but Cardan did not read the report; he turned to the page that held his huge display advertisement, for it did not interest him to read that Roger Carter's efficiency had added twenty-two new members to the Chamber's roll, or that Sam Blane, of Blane & Riggs, was one of Riverbank's best beloved citizens, or that everyone would rejoice because he had been elected to this office, for which his backers had been his fellow-members of Rotary. He found it more important to frown because the scare-head of his advertisement -- "Cardan's Adds a Complete Notion Department" -- had not been set in larger type. He thrust the paper into his pocket and went home, and found Joe sitting on the steps of the porch, his schoolbooks spread out there, doing his "home work."
"What's the matter?" Cardan asked. "Your mother not home yet?"
"I couldn't get in," Joe said. "The door's locked."
As soon as Cardan opened the door he smelled the gas and guessed the rest.
"You stay out here," he ordered Joe, and went to the kitchen. The maid was not there but Mrs. Cardan was, on the floor by the gas range and, holding his breath, Cardan threw open the outer door. As it opened the strips of folded newspaper fell to the floor from where they had been tucked between the edges of the door and its frame. Cardan stood a moment to get his lungs full of pure air again, and then he hurried to shut off the gas that was pouring from four burners. From around the windows he pulled the other strips of newspaper, and crammed them in his pocket, and threw the windows open. Then he bent over his wife and realized that she had found a way to leave Riverbank.
As Cardan's testimony before the coroner was that the only burner he had found open was that in the oven of the range, and that no strips of paper had been used to wedge the cracks of the doors and windows, and that his wife had always been happy and had had everything she could possibly want, the Eagle and the Times called it an accident.
But Cardan the Conqueror knew it was no accident. As he left his home, which had never been a home but only a place where he ate and slept -- for a home is something that has roots that spread out and touch the friendly roots of other homes -- and walked to his store through streets that were not avenues of friendship but merely paved places for feet and wheels -- he felt very bitter towards this town and its people. They had done this. But they would be sorry!
All through the funeral he had been thinking of this; the funeral had to be and he had to take his part in it, but his thoughts of his dead wife had been threaded by the thought that he would find relief in getting back to the store; he would forget as he drove Cardan's to even greater success. For, after all, Cardan was Cardan's, and Cardan's was Cardan. The store had been losing money for him, true enough, but now he would sharpen a bigger knife. He would get rid of the Palace and of Bunce Brothers, and then Cardan's could begin to make a profit.
At his desk he took a pencil and began to outline a new advertisement, but -- before he had found a striking headline for it -- he let his head fall forward on his arms. He felt miserably tired. Tired? No, not tired -- lonely! He felt deserted and friendless. He felt, amazingly enough, that life did not amount to anything, that nothing amounted to anything; that putting full-page advertisements in a newspaper was not enough to make life worth living; that creating a big store that made little money and irritated many, was not happiness. He moved uneasily in his chair.
Success? Was it success to create a big business by knifing competitors? Such a business could only continue to exist by continued knifing. And if a business did continue, what was it worth if it made enemies instead of friends? What a legacy to leave his son! "Yes, Cardan is dead, and a good thing, too! This town is well rid of such a cheap fraud!"
Cardan raised his head and reached for the trade paper of his trade. He turned the pages until he came to the small advertisement headed "Opportunities to Buy or Sell."
"X. Y. Z., care of Cloak and Suit Recorder:" he wrote. "I notice your advertisement saying you will buy a live cloak and suit business in a live, friendly town. My business was established here --" And so on.
The price Cardan the Conqueror got for his store was the amount the stock invoiced for, less 20 per cent for depreciation, and less another 20 per cent for "ill will." The buyer, after walking through Main Street and talking with Cardan's fellow-merchants, had struck his pencil through the item "Good Will, $20,000," and had flat-footedly declared that unless a 20 per cent was taken off for ill will he would not buy.
"You've built up a business here by cut-throat methods," he told Cardan, "and by knocking and slamming. I'll have to begin at the bottom and build a new business; no man can revamp this of yours without laying a new foundation of friendly manners and clean profit-making. You can take it or leave it."
So Cardan took it. Cardan the Conqueror put the certified check in his pocket and took Joe by the hand and went away from Riverbank. He is now in business, in cloaks and suits again, at Calderton, Indiana. If you sent for a report on him you would read this: "Formerly in business at Riverbank, Iowa, but is believed to have lost heavily there, due to his cut-throat methods. Is now doing business in a smallish way, but is well spoken of by local bankers and business men, and his business shows a satisfactory annual profit above expenses."
A few days ago Hufflin, of the Tremain Suit Company, called on Cardan.
"Look here, Cardan," he said, "old Binner, down the street, is not buying enough to suit me; how would you like to have our line for Calderton? Exclusively."
But Cardan shook his head. "No, I guess not," he said. "Not unless Binner wants to give it up. He's a rather fine old fellow, Binner is, and we get along nicely together here. I couldn't afford to hurt the old fellow just to make a few dollars. Why, man! Binner is proposing me for the vice presidency of the Chamber of Commerce! I wouldn't hurt the old fellow for all the lines in the world."
And then he had to leave Hufflin, because a couple of bankers stopped in to walk over to the hotel with Cardan the Conqueror.