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A Business Career

A Business Career

Charles W. Chesnutt
Copyright Date: 2005
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  • Book Info
    A Business Career
    Book Description:

    Never before published,A Business Careeris the story of Stella Merwin, a white woman entering the working-class world to discover the truth behind her upper-class father's financial failure. A "New Woman" of the 1890s, Stella joins a stenographer's office and uncovers a life-altering secret that allows her to regain her status and wealth.

    When Charles W. Chesnutt died in 1932, he left behind six manuscripts unpublished,A Business Careeramong them. Along with novels of Paul Laurence Dunbar, it is one of the first written by an African American who crosses the color line to write about the white world. It is also one of only two Chesnutt novels with a female protagonist.

    Rejecting the novel for publication, Houghton Mifflin editor Walter Hines Page encouraged Chesnutt to try to get the book in print. "You will doubtless be able to find a publisher, and my advice to you is decidedly to keep trying till you do find one," he wrote. Page clearly saw that inA Business CareerChesnutt had written a successful popular novel grounded in realism but one that exploits elements of romance.

    Charles W. Chesnutt (1858-1932) was an innovative and influential African American writer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His novels includeThe House Behind the Cedars,The Marrow of Tradition,The Colonel's Dream, as well as the posthumously published novel Paul Marchand, F.M.C. from University Press of Mississippi.

    eISBN: 978-1-62103-168-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-IV)
    (pp. V-2)
    Matthew Wilson

    The publication of Charles W. Chesnutt’s novel,A Business Career, along with its companion volume,Evelyn’s Husband, sees the completion, with one exception, of the publication of the novels that Chesnutt left in manuscript.¹ In these fictions, Chesnutt is writing in the genre of the white-life novel, in which African Americans write exclusively about white experience. When Chesnutt completed these novels, this was a relatively new genre. In the late 1890s, Chesnutt and Paul Laurence Dunbar began, concurrently, to write white-life novels, and while Dunbar’s were published, Chesnutt’s have remained in manuscript for over a hundred years. A review of...

  3. I.
    (pp. 3-6)

    In a large, handsomely appointed room on one of the upper floors of a tall office building in a great city of the Middle West, a gentleman sat at an open roll-top desk, somewhat impatiently opening letters with a carved ivory paper-knife,—a rather stern looking man, with a brown Van Dyke beard not too closely trimmed, which only partially hid an ugly scar on the left side of the lower lip. This scar gave, until one became accustomed to it, a somewhat sinister cast to an expression forbidding enough without it. The gentleman was of dark complexion, with coarse...

  4. II.
    (pp. 6-9)

    For half an hour before Mr. Truscott had begun his morning’s work, two women had been seated in an office a few blocks away from Mr. Truscott’s. One of them was apparently anywhere from thirty-five to forty-five years of age, a short, stout woman, with strongly marked features of the German type. She wore gold-bowed glasses, a cloth suit with a short skirt, and radiated around her an atmosphere of bustling energy. The other was a slender girl, whose most salient features at first glance were an oval and somewhat pallid face, very large deep-blue eyes with long lashes, and...

  5. III.
    (pp. 9-18)

    While Stella Merwin is making her way through the busy streets to her destination it may be well to say a few words as to who she was and how she happened to be in the city and in Mrs. Paxton’s office at this time.

    Her father, Henry Merwin, had been, some years before, a successful and wealthy oil refiner of Groveland. Stella had been born in the city, and the first few years of her life had been spent amid surroundings of refined luxury. Her home had been on the beautiful Oakwood Avenue. Her father had kept fine horses...

  6. IV.
    (pp. 18-30)

    Stella had no difficulty in finding the place, a large, new building on a corner of the principal street in the heart of the city. The offices of the Truscott Refining Company were located on the eighth floor of the El Dorado, a modern steel-frame structure towering to the sky as if in defiance of earthly metes and bounds, and housing the population of a small town upon a superficial area no larger than that occupied by a suburban dwelling-house. Stella entered the elevator, which shot skywards rapidly. The sensation of swift upward movement was a novel and disagreeable one....

  7. V.
    (pp. 30-35)

    Stella was at her desk a few minutes before one. The clerks were all on time. Some of them were just on the hour, and these looked relieved when they glanced up at the clock. Stella supposed their apprehension due to the rigid discipline of the office. She almost shuddered to think that some boy with a widowed mother to support, or some poor man with an invalid wife, might be thrown upon the world at scarcely a moment’s notice, because a clock was slow, or a street-car late, or some accident or unforeseen occurrence had delayed him a few...

  8. VI.
    (pp. 35-42)

    When Stella and Mrs. Paxton dismounted from the street-car in front of the brilliantly lighted entrance to the theater, a fashionably attired throng were pouring into the lobby and carriages were depositing their freight of ladies and gentlemen in evening dress upon the curbstone, whence they passed beneath a canopy to the entrance. A policeman was on duty to protect them from too close contact with the vulgar. Bernhardt’s appearance for three nights, on her second American tour, was a great event, and society turned out in full force to look at her,—so far as the play was concerned,...

  9. VII.
    (pp. 43-49)

    When Stella and her friend reached the latter’s office in the morning they found a note from Miss Smith, to the effect that she was ill and would be unable to report for duty during the day.

    “I don’t know what in the world I shall do, Stella,” said Mrs. Paxton despairingly. “Every one of my girls is busy, and I don’t know where to turn for another.Pleasestay and help me out until noon! Something may turn up by that time. It will give you an opportunity to get your contract written. I shall charge a good price...

  10. VIII.
    (pp. 50-58)

    When Wendell Truscott reached his office next morning, he found among the letters on his desk a square envelope, addressed in a feminine hand, and sealed with a monogram seal. He opened it first of all and read the following:

    “Dear Wendell—

    “Can you come up to dinner at seven Saturday evening? It will be very informal and the company will be small—mostly members of the family.

    “Sincerely yours,

    “Matilda Wedderburn.”

    Mr. Truscott read the letter and put it in the inside breast-pocket of his coat. Then he glanced through the remainder of the morning mail, made memoranda on...

  11. IX.
    (pp. 58-66)

    When Truscott had looked through his correspondence he summoned the stenographer. This time he glanced at Stella and spoke a shade more pleasantly than he had hitherto addressed her.

    “Good morning, Miss er-ah-Jones, I”—

    “Smith, if you please,” said Stella, mustering up a bit of courage. For strangely enough, though she despised and hated the man, she always felt small when she came into his presence. She did not know whether it was the mere sex instinct of subordination, or simply the effect of a virile nature radiating an atmosphere of authority.

    “I beg your pardon,” he said, “I wish...

  12. X.
    (pp. 66-70)

    Stella’s work for the afternoon was light. Mr. Truscott did not come in until late, and in the meantime Stella wrote a letter to her mother, stating where she was working and why. Later on, Mr. Ross brought her a statement to copy. It was short, but the work of tabulating was unfamiliar and difficult, and the task consumed a couple of hours. Ross hovered around her a good deal during the operation and made suggestions now and then about the arrangement of the figures and the spacing of the lines. He strolled into Mr. Truscott’s office and read over...

  13. XI.
    (pp. 70-79)

    Stella was slightly surprised about ten o’clock the next morning, to hear her mother’s voice through the telephone. Mrs. Paxton rung Stella up from her office and then gave her place at the ’phone to Mrs. Merwin.

    “I’ll see you at noon, Stella,” said her mother. “I wish to talk to you. I’ll meet you at the Women’s Exchange at twelve o’clock sharp.”

    Stella had many letters to answer this morning. Mr. Truscott had relapsed into his former humor, and did not even say “Good morning” when she entered his room. He dictated a good many letters, more rapidly than...

  14. XII.
    (pp. 79-86)

    Stella met her mother at Mrs. Paxton’s. Both ladies were delighted at her new engagement.

    “I’m so glad, my dear,” exclaimed her bustling friend, “that you have decided upon a business career!”

    “It’s only an experiment, Mrs. Paxton, a slight extension of the time I’ve put in for you. If I don’t like it, I shall not stay long.”

    “You’ll like it, Stella, for you have fine business aptitudes. And you’ll get accustomed to the money. There’s something sweet about the money one earns! Perhaps it wasn’t the worst thing for Adam and Eve that they had to earn their...

  15. XIII.
    (pp. 86-98)

    Miss Wedderburn had been walking on air all day. Part of the morning had been devoted to preparations for the evening. To any one else her house would have seemed perfect already; but Miss Wedderburn moved a vase here or a statuette there, set a chair in this place or an easel in that, and arranged cut flowers in the most effective places. Her cook was ordered to prepare Wendell’s favorite dishes. And, the butler was directed to bring up one of the last six bottles of a famous old wine, of which her father had once possessed quite a...

  16. XIV.
    (pp. 98-108)

    Stella found a boarding-place, after a little search. Since her brother was working in the city, she would have preferred a house where they could board together. She had seen him during the earlier part of the week and suggested such an arrangement.

    “Well, Stella,” replied George, with visible hesitation, “the fact is that Mrs. Johnson’s is quite full, in the first place, and in the second place she doesn’t take women.”

    “My idea was to find a boarding-house where they would take us both,” said Stella.

    “You can no doubt run across a place where you’ll be comfortable,” he...

  17. XV.
    (pp. 108-111)

    One morning Stella wrote a letter for Mr. Truscott, addressed to a well-known local detective agency.

    “Your report,” the letter ran, “with reference to the person in whom I am interested, has been received and carefully read. Please send the man in charge of the investigation to call upon me tomorrow morning.”

    Stella had been trying to train herself to take a merely perfunctory interest in the confidential matters that passed through her hands. But she had a very active intelligence, and could not entirely restrain the lively curiosity of a fresh young mind, brought for the first time in...

  18. XVII.
    (pp. 112-114)

    Stella’s brother had not been to see her for several evenings. She felt disappointed and neglected, for she had relied upon George for occasional companionship during the disagreeable task she had undertaken for the benefit of the family. She was charitable enough to suppose he was working overtime, or had other engagements. A letter from her mother, however, containing a message for George, made it necessary for her to get speech with him. Upon calling him up by telephone by noon, she learned that he had not been at the office during the morning. A second call, several hours later,...

  19. XVIII.
    (pp. 114-120)

    Mr. Truscott observed his stenographer very closely after the evening of his dinner at Miss Wedderburn’s. Up to that time he had been unconscious of any special interest in the girl, and even afterwards his thoughts in regard to her were purely involuntary. A recent development in the oil business had opened up a vast new field of enterprise to the man or company that should first exploit it, and Truscott, with his wonderful keenness of perception, had been the first to foresee its possibilities. The situation was not without difficulties. A large amount of capital would be required, and...

  20. XIX.
    (pp. 120-131)

    A week had elapsed after George’s disappearance before Stella received another letter from her brother. In the meantime she had run down to Cloverdale to apprise her mother of George’s disappearance and show her his somewhat vague and incoherent note. Mrs. Merwin was greatly distressed.

    “Surely, Stella” she cried, “what you suspect cannot be true! He has merely got into some boyish scrape.”

    “No, mama,” replied Stella, “I do not believe George would leave a place where he was doing so well, except for something serious. He says he was in trouble, and the letter,”—she held it in her...

  21. XX.
    (pp. 131-138)

    A carriage, driven by a liveried coachman, drew up before the El Dorado Building, one fine morning in Summer. A lady alighted, and having ordered the coachman to wait, entered the building and stepped into the elevator.

    “Eighth floor, please,” she said to the operator.

    In less than a minute, the intervening floors were passed, the lady being the only passenger. The elevator came to a stop, and she stepped out upon the mosaic floor.

    Mr. Truscott had dictated his first batch of letters, and was closeted with one of the directors of the company. Stella had just begun her...

  22. XXI.
    (pp. 138-143)

    Stella had been very busy for a week or ten days. Mr. Truscott’s scheme was making rapid headway, as she knew from the tenor of his replies to the letters received at the office. The most important letters, as well as carbon copies which Stella made, were kept under lock and key in Mr. Truscott’s desk, or put away in the safe by his own hand.

    She found herself becoming more and more interested in the enterprise, and more deeply impressed than ever by Mr. Truscott’s intellectual clearness of vision and comprehensiveness of grasp. Viewing the situation from the inside,...

  23. XXII.
    (pp. 144-150)

    Stella stood by the window, looking out over the lake. During the night a thunderstorm had cleared the atmosphere. A landward breeze kept back from the lake the smoke that might otherwise have marred a beautiful view. The wind was just strong enough to send the water in little crested wavelets against the breakwater. The delicate blue of the sky met in a clean cut line the darker azure of the sea. Here and there, in the distance, a steamer trailed behind it a black streamer of smoke, and the graceful lines of the revenue cutter at anchor in the...

  24. XXIII.
    (pp. 150-159)

    The volume of correspondence in regard to the new enterprise kept Stella so busily employed that for some time she only perfunctorily footed the daily statements turned in by Mr. Ross and handed to her for checking. When there came a lull of a day or two in the letter-writing, she gave them a little more attention. These statements were in the nature of daily reports of accounts payable, and were drawn up merely for Mr. Truscott’s information between the quarterly balance sheets. Stella had gone over the items for several consecutive days, when a second time she became obscurely...

  25. XXIV.
    (pp. 159-170)

    Stella, upon regaining consciousness, found herself in the dark. Whether night had fallen or not she had no means of knowing, nor could she imagine how many hours she had lain there. With consciousness her terror returned, and she screamed and beat her hands against the sides of her narrow prison. But in a few moments her calmer judgment resumed its sway, and she began to study the situation. She had undoubtedly been locked up for some little time. She need fear no bodily harm from Ross, for he had locked her up merely to secure time for his own...

  26. XXV.
    (pp. 170-174)

    Ross got safely away for the time being. The agencies set in operation by Truscott to find him were unavailing, and many months elapsed before he was finally located in a certain South American country with which at that time the United States had no treaty of extradition. In the meantime events involving Stella’s mission and Truscott’s great scheme moved rapidly toward a decisive culmination. An expert accountant straightened out the books of the company in a few days. Whether Ross had been able, by supplying the enemy with information, to injure his employer, was not yet apparent. Truscott supposed...

  27. XXVI.
    (pp. 174-179)

    Stella felt strangely depressed as she climbed the stairs of the El Dorado Building on Sunday afternoon. She had not gone to church in the morning; why, she had not asked herself; probably because of some obscure incongruity between worship and the afternoon task to which she looked forward.

    The day was bright and glorious, an ideal autumn day; but Stella, usually a very barometer in sensitiveness to atmospheric conditions, on this afternoon was proof against sunshine and cheerfulness. When she entered the hall of the building, the sight of the porter in the lobby made her feel guiltily uncomfortable,...

  28. XXVII.
    (pp. 180-189)

    The Country Club, where Truscott was engaged to dine on Sunday, was an organization of rather exclusive membership, recruited mostly from among elderly business men of large affairs. Two railroad presidents were numbered among the elect, one of whom, a bachelor of ample means, occupied, during the summer, an apartment in the club house. The dinner to which Truscott was invited was given by this gentleman, whose dinners, even in this temple of good living, were always worthy of attention.

    The outward and visible shell housing this select company of reputed millionaires, was a spacious and beautiful structure of stone...

  29. XXVIII.
    (pp. 189-196)

    Stella, returning from the office with the papers, reached her boarding-house while tea was in progress. She did not feel like eating, but, lest her absence might attract attention, sat down among the other boarders and drank a cup of tea. She excused herself from an invitation to attend evening service at a neighboring church, and went to her room as soon as she left the supper-table.

    She lit her reading lamp, and opening the packet of papers, took up the outer one, and read it through to the end. There were references she did not understand. Taking up the...

  30. XXIX.
    (pp. 197-205)

    Stella awoke with a feeling of profound humiliation. For weeks she had been misjudging, and for part of that time holding in scorn and hatred her father’s best friend. With returning day and a mind refreshed by sleep, her thoughts recurred to certain things which had not been entirely cleared up by her investigation of the night before.

    Her mother had been receiving for many years a certain income, from a supposed remnant of her father’s estate. It was possible that Wendell Truscott had been able to save this remnant for her mother, out of her father’s property; but she...

  31. XXX.
    (pp. 205-215)

    On the morning of the second day of the panic Truscott came down to his office a half hour earlier than usual. He had spent the evening at his club, hoping that he might see some way out of his difficulties. He clutched at several straws—but they were only straws. Of several men of large means whom he approached, men reputed to be possessed of much ready money, one confessed that he himself was hard pressed; the others made various excuses. Truscott perceived clearly that, for a day or two at least, there was no confidence between man and...

  32. XXXI.
    (pp. 215-219)

    The next day Truscott called at Miss Wedderburn’s residence.

    “Miss Wedderburn is slightly indisposed,” said the maid who had announced him, “and begs that you will excuse her today.”

    He went away with a certain sense of relief. He had performed what might have proved a difficult duty; but the lady’s tact had robbed the situation of its awkwardness. That he should have overlooked for so many years this jewel among women, to discover her surpassing excellence only when too late, was a freak of Fate beyond his comprehension. He could give her every return but love. From this time...

    (pp. 220-220)