Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son/Letter 6

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No. 6
From John Graham, en route to Texas, to Pierrepont Graham, care of Graham & Co., Union Stock Yards, Chicago. Mr. Pierrepont has, entirely without intention, caused a little confusion in the mails, and it has come to his father's notice in the course of business.


Private Car Parnassus, Aug. 15, 189—

Dear Pierrepont: Perhaps it's just as well that I had to hurry last night to make my train, and so had no time to tell you some things that are laying mighty heavy on my mind this morning.

Jim Donnelly, of the Donnelly Provision Company, came into the office in the afternoon, with a fool grin on his fat face, to tell me that while he appreciated a note which he had just received in one of the firm's envelopes, beginning "Dearest," and containing an invitation to the theatre to-morrow night, it didn't seem to have any real bearing on his claim for shortage on the last carload of sweet pickled hams he had bought from us.

Of course, I sent for Milligan and went for him pretty rough for having a mailing clerk so no-account as to be writing personal letters in office hours, and such a blunderer as to mix them up with the firm's correspondence. Milligan just stood there like a dumb Irishman and let me get through and go back and cuss him out all over again, with some trimmings that I had forgotten the first time, before he told me that you were the fellow who had made the bull. Naturally, I felt pretty foolish, and, while I tried to pass it off with something about your still being green and raw, the ice was mighty thin, and you had the old man running tiddledies.

It didn't make me feel any sweeter about the matter to hear that when Milligan went for you, and asked what you supposed Donnelly would think of that sort of business, you told him to "consider the feelings of the girl who got our brutal refusal to allow a claim for a few hundredweight of hams."

I haven't any special objection to your writing to girls and telling them that they are the real sugar-cured article, for, after all, if you overdo it, it's your breach-of-promise suit, but you must write before eight or after six. I have bought the stretch between those hours. Your time is money—my money—and when you take half an hour of it for your own purposes, that is just a petty form of petty larceny.

Milligan tells me that you are quick to learn, and that you can do a powerful lot of work when you've a mind to; but he adds that it's mighty seldom your mind takes that particular turn. Your attention may be on the letters you are addressing, or you may be in a comatose condition mentally; he never quite knows until the returns come from the dead-letter office.

A man can't have his head pumped out like a vacuum pan, or stuffed full of odds and ends like a bologna sausage, and do his work right. It doesn't make any difference how mean and trifling the thing he's doing may seem, that's the big thing and the only thing for him just then. Business is like oil—it won't mix with anything but business.

You can resolve everything in the world, even a great fortune, into atoms. And the fundamental principles which govern the handling of postage stamps and of millions are exactly the same. They are the common law of business, and the whole practice of commerce is founded on them. They are so simple that a fool can't learn them; so hard that a lazy man won't.

Boys are constantly writing me for advice about how to succeed, and when I send them my receipt they say that I am dealing out commonplace generalities. Of course I am, but that's what the receipt calls for, and if a boy will take these commonplace generalities and knead them into his job, the mixture'll be cake.

Once a fellow's got the primary business virtues cemented into his character, he's safe to build on. But when a clerk crawls

Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son 105.jpg
"Jim Donnelly of the Donnelly Provision Company came into my office with a fool grin on his fat face."

into the office in the morning like a sick setter pup, and leaps from his stool at night with the spring of a tiger, I'm a little afraid that if I sent him off to take charge of a branch house he wouldn't always be around when customers were. He's the sort of a chap who would hold back the sun an hour every morning and have it gain two every afternoon if the Lord would give him the same discretionary powers that He gave Joshua, And I have noticed that he's the fellow who invariably takes a timekeeper as an insult. He's pretty numerous in business offices; in fact, if the glance of the human eye could affect a clockface in the same way that a man's country cousins affect their city welcome, I should have to buy a new timepiece for the office every morning.

I remember when I was a boy, we used to have a pretty lively camp-meeting every summer, and Elder Hoover, who was accounted a powerful exhorter in our parts, would wrastle with the sinners and the backsliders. There was one old chap in the town—Bill Budlong—who took a heap of pride in being the simon pure cuss. Bill was always the last man to come up to the mourners' bench at the camp-meeting and the first one to backslide when it was over. Used to brag around about what a hold Satan had on him and how his sin was the original brand, direct from Adam, put up in cans to keep, and the can-opener lost. Doc Hoover would get the whole town safe in the fold and then have to hold extra meetings for a couple of days to snake in that miserable Bill; but, in the end, he always got religion and got it hard. For a month or two afterward, he'd make the chills run down the backs of us children in prayer-meeting, telling how he had probably been the triflingest and orneriest man alive before he was converted. Then, along toward hog-killing time, he'd backslide, and go around bragging that he was standing so close to the mouth of the pit that his whiskers smelt of brimstone.

He kept this up for about ten years, getting vainer and vainer of his staying qualities, until one summer, when the Elder had rounded up all the likeliest sinners in the bunch, he announced that the meetings were over for that year.

You never saw a sicker-looking man than Bill when he heard that there wasn't going to be any extra session for him. He got up and said he reckoned another meeting would fetch him; that he sort of felt the clutch of old Satan loosening; but Doc Hoover was firm. Then Bill begged to have a special deacon told off to wrastle with him, but Doc wouldn't listen to that. Said he'd been wasting time enough on him for ten years to save a county, and he had just about made up his mind to let him try his luck by himself; that what he really needed more than religion was common-sense and a conviction that time in this world was too valuable to be frittered away. If he'd get that in his head he didn't think he'd be so apt to trifle with eternity; and if he didn't get it, religion wouldn't be of any special use to him.

A big merchant finds himself in Doc Hoover's fix pretty often. There are too many likely young sinners in his office to make it worth while to bother long with the Bills. Very few men are worth wasting time on beyond a certain point, and that point is soon reached with a fellow who doesn't show any signs of wanting to help. Naturally, a green man always comes to a house in a pretty subordinate position, and it isn't possible to make so much noise with a firecracker as with a cannon. But you can tell a good deal by what there is left of the boy, when you come to inventory him on the fifth of July, whether he'll be safe to trust with a cannon next year.

It isn't the little extra money that you may make for the house by learning the fundamental business virtues which counts so much as it is the effect that it has on your character and that of those about you, and especially on the judgment of the old man when he's casting around for the fellow to fill the vacancy just ahead of you. He's pretty apt to pick some one who keeps separate ledger accounts for work and for fun, who gives the house sixteen ounces to the pound, and, on general principles, to pass by the one who is late at the end where he ought to be early, and early at the end where he ought to be late.

I simply mention these things in passing, but, frankly, I am afraid that you have a streak of the Bill in you; and you can't be a good clerk, let alone a partner, until you get it out. I try not to be narrow when I'm weighing up a young fellow, and to allow for soakage and leakage, and then to throw in a little for good feeling; but I don't trade with a man whom I find deliberately marking up the weights on me.

This is a fine country we're running through, but it's a pity that it doesn't raise more hogs. It seems to take a farmer a long time to learn that the best way to sell his corn is on the hoof.

Your affectionate father,

John Graham.

P. S. I just had to allow Donnelly his claim on those hams, though I was dead sure our weights were right, and it cost the house sixty dollars. But your fool letter took all the snap out of our argument. I get hot every time I think of it.