Story type: Essay
He always lost his temper when the foreign mail came in. Sitting in his private room, which overlooked a space of gardens where bright red and yellow flowers were planted in rhomboids, triangles, parallelograms, and other stiff and ugly figures, he would glance hastily through the papers and magazines. He was familiar with several foreign languages, and would skim through the text. Then he would pound the table with his fist, walk angrily about the floor, and tear the offensive journals into strips. For very often he found in these papers from abroad articles or cartoons that were most annoying to him, and very detrimental to the business of his firm.
His assistants tried to keep foreign publications away from him, but he was plucky in his own harsh way. He insisted on seeing them. Always the same thing happened. His face would grow grim, the seam-worn forehead would corrugate, the muscles of his jaw throb nervously. His gray eyes would flash–and the fist come down heavily on the mahogany desk.
When a man is nearly sixty and of a full-blooded physique, it is not well for him to have these frequent pulsations of rage. But he had always found it hard to control his temper. He sometimes remembered what a schoolmaster had said to him at Cassel, forty-five years before: “He who loses his temper will lose everything.”
But he must be granted great provocation. He had always had difficulties to contend with. His father was an invalid, and he himself was puny in childhood; infantile paralysis withered his left arm when he was an infant; but in spite of these handicaps he had made himself a vigorous swimmer, rider, and yachtsman; he could shoot better with one arm than most sportsmen with two. After leaving the university he served in the army, but at his father’s death the management of the vast family business came into his hands. He was then twenty-eight.
No one can question the energy with which he set himself to carry on the affairs of the firm. Generous, impetuous, indiscreet, stubborn, pugnacious, his blend of qualities held many of the elements of a successful man of business. His first act was to dismiss the confidential and honoured assistant who had guided both his father and grandfather in the difficult years of the firm’s growth. But the new executive was determined to run the business his own way. Disregarding criticism, ridicule, or flattery, he declared it his mission to spread the influence of the business to the ends of the earth. “We must have our place in the sun,” he said; and announced himself as the divine instrument through whom this would be accomplished. He made it perfectly plain that no man’s opposition would balk him in the management of the firm’s affairs. One of his most famous remarks was: “Considering myself as the instrument of the Lord, without heeding the views and opinions of the day, I go my way.” The board of directors censured him for this, but he paid little heed.
The growth of the business was enormous; nothing like it had been seen in the world’s history. Branch offices were opened all over the globe. Vessels bearing the insignia of the company were seen on every ocean. He himself with his accustomed energy travelled everywhere to advance the interests of trade. In England, Russia, Denmark, Italy, Austria, Turkey, the Holy Land, he made personal visits to the firm’s best customers. He sent his brother to America to spread the goodwill of the business; and other members of the firm to France, Holland, China, and Japan. Telegram after telegram kept the world’s cables busy as he distributed congratulations, condolences, messages of one kind and another to foreign merchants. His publicity department never rested. He employed famous scientists and inventors to improve the products of his factories. He reared six sons to carry on the business after him.
This is no place to record minutely the million activities of thirty years that made his business one of the greatest on earth. It is all written down in history. Suffice it to say that those years did not go by without sorrows. He was afflicted with an incurable disease. His temperament, like high tension steel, was of a brittle quality; it had the tendency to snap under great strains, living always at fever pitch, sparing himself no fatigue of body or soul, the whirring dynamo of energy in him often showed signs of overstress.
It is hard to conceive what he must have gone through in those last months. You must remember the extraordinary conditions in his line of business caused by the events of recent years. He had lived to see his old friends, merchants with whom he had dealt for decades, some of them the foreign representatives of his own firm, out of a job and hunted from their homes by creditors. He had lived to realize that the commodity he and his family had been manufacturing for generations was out of date, a thing no longer needed or wanted by the modern world. The strain which his mind was enduring is shown by the febrile and unbalanced tone of one of his letters, sent to a member of his own family who ran one of the company’s branch offices but was forced to resign by bankruptcy:
“I have heard with wrath of the infamous outrage committed by our common enemies upon you and upon your business. I assure you that your deprivation can be only temporary. The mailed fist, with further aid from Almighty God, will restore you to your office, of which no man by right can rob you. The company will wreak vengeance on those who have dared so insolently to lay their criminal hands on you. We hope to welcome you at the earliest opportunity.”
The failure of his business was the great drama of the century; and it is worth while to remember what it was that killed it–and him. While the struggle was still on there were many arguments as to what would bring matters to an end; some cunning invention, some new patent that would outwit the methods of his firm. But after all it was nothing more startling than the printing press and the moral of the whole matter may be put in those fine old words, “But above all things, truth beareth away the victory.” Little by little, the immense power of the printed word became too strong for him. Rave and fume as he might, and hammer the mahogany desk, the rolling thunders of a world massed against him cracked even his stiff will. Little by little the plain truth sifted into the minds and hearts of the thousands working in his huge organization. In Russia, in Greece, in Spain, in Austria, in China, in Mexico, he saw men bursting the shells of age and custom that had cramped them. One by one his competitors adopted the new ideas, or had them forced upon them; profit-sharing, workmen’s insurance, the right of free communities to live their own lives.
Deep in his heart he must have known he was doomed to fail, but that perverse demon of strong-headed pugnacity was trenched deep within him. He was always a fighter, but his face, though angry, obstinate, proud, was still not an evil face. He broke down while there was still some of the business to save and some of the goodwill intact.
It was the printing press that decided it: the greatest engine in the world, to which submarines and howitzers and airplanes are but wasteful toys. For when the printing presses are united the planet may buck and yaw, but she comes into line at last. A million inky cylinders, roaring in chorus, were telling him the truth. When his assistants found him, on his desk lay a half-ripped magazine where he had tried to tear up a mocking cartoon.
I think that as he sat at his table in those last days, staring with embittered eyes at the savage words and pictures that came to him from over the seven seas, he must have had some vision of the shadowy might of the press, of the vast irresistible urge of public opinion, that hung like dark wings above his head. For little by little the printed word incarnates itself in power, and in ways undreamed of makes itself felt. Little by little the wills of common men, coalescing, running together like beads of mercury on a plate, quivering into rhythm and concord, become a mighty force that may be ever so impalpable, but grinds empires to powder. Mankind suffers hideous wrongs and cruel setbacks, but when once the collective purpose of humanity is summoned to a righteous end, it moves onward like the tide up a harbour.
The struggle was long and bitter. His superb organization, with such colossal resources for human good, lavished in the fight every energy known to man. For a time it seemed as though he would pull through. His managers had foreseen every phase of this unprecedented competition, and his warehouses were stocked. But slowly the forces of his opponents began to focus themselves.
Then even his own employees suspected the truth. His agents, solicitors, and salesmen, scattered all over the globe, realized that one company cannot twist the destiny of mankind. He felt the huge fabric of his power quiver and creak. The business is now in the hands of the executors, pending a reorganization.
Was this helpful?
0 / 0