ENTERTAINING SHORT STORIES

Thomas Ogden’s Smoke Sale

WILBUR D. NESBIT IN AMERICAN MAGAZINE October 1 1906
ENTERTAINING SHORT STORIES

Thomas Ogden’s Smoke Sale

WILBUR D. NESBIT IN AMERICAN MAGAZINE October 1 1906

It was just another case of mistaken judgment. Manager Ferguson saw no good in Thomas Ogden and was just preparing to dismiss him, when a combination of fortunate circumstances gave Thomas an opportunity to show what was in him. Then it was not only the manager who saw the result but the resident partner also—the man who did things and made them hum. The result was that Thomas’ fortune was made.

THOMAS OGDEN had been put upon the approach to the toboggan slide. Two months as a clothing salesman, two more as a hat salesman, and a short try-out in the men’s furnishings had demonstrated that nature never had meant him to be the intermediary between his fellow men and their garments. He could sell things to his personal friends; but the mysteriously hypnotic quality which enables a man to induce a perfect stranger to purchase something he doesn’t altogether want had been omitted from Tommy’s make up. So he had been started for the toboggan, but he did not know it.

The other salesmen knew it; Miss Renlow, the interesting and pleasant bookkeeper, knew it; and it would have been a kindness to warn him. But then, we are never willing to bear bad news to a fellow-worker, are we ? Ogden had been given the preparation of the advertisements of the store, or part of that task, in connection with his other work. Manager Ferguson had two avenues of exit for employees whom he wished to let down easily. One was to request them to assist him in writing the ads; the other was to put them “on the floor.” Frimmer was already tottering along the greased plank as floor-walker, consequently the manager put Ogden on the companion plank—the ad-writing. Most large stores employ an advertising manager on a regular salary. All he has to do is to prepare the ads, arrange for proper display and space, and see that all the other advertising literature is ready at the proper time. But in this clothing store matters were differently arranged. The manager had the advertising to look after; and he wanted to do so, for he felt that he was the Atlas on whose shoulders sat the little world of salesmen, customers and “men’s wear” in which he lived, moved and had his being. Then, away back yonder, fifteen years ago, when the store was established, its director was the man who was now the resident partner. A young man then, he had opened his campaign for business with the most amazing line of advertising ever seen up to that date, and he was still the best clothing advertiser in the country. That is, he was when he was at home. As resident partner he did not have to be there very much; the store could run itself. He had rheumatism and dyspepsia and a good part of his time was spent in travel in search of that elusive but desirable commodity — health. Ogden had heard of him, but had never seen him. There was another resident partner, who was in and out from time to time, but Blackwell was The Resident Partner —the Man Who Did Things and Made Them Hum. His name was not to be spoken in ordinary tones. He was Mr. Blackwell and you did well to utter his name with an awed face and a most respectful air.

So, Tommy Ogden, genial, earnest, enthusiastic Tommy, was “on the skids,” as Forty-Eight confided to Twelve, and didn’t know it. And, in the inmost recesses of Ferguson’s mind it was known that the act of decapitation would be performed on the first day of August, when there would have been a month of dull business as a better excuse than any other. July is ever the terror of the retail clothier. July and January are months that he wishes were not on the calendar.

Come we now to the morning of the Glorious Fourth. The store was to be closed all day. At 5 a.m. Thomas Ogden is discovered hurrying along the street to be at the station in time to catch a train that will carry an excursion party to The Shades of Death. The Shades of Death, gentle reader, is one of the prettiest natural beauty-spots in the United States, no odds what impression you have from its name, and it is located in Indiana. And it would be doubly attractive on this particular day because Miss Renlow was to be one of the excursionists.

However, again, Thomas Ogden did not go to the Shades of Death, albeit Manager Ferguson and nearly all the others of the store family went. Odgen was passing the store when he smelled smoke. More than that, through the bright morning sunlight, he saw smoke, and it was curling from one of the basement windows.

"Someone has dropped a firecracker where it fell into the basement,” he told himself as he raced to the fire-alarm box on the corner. Smashing the glass in the key-door and pulling the hook were acts that happened unconsciously, and he stood and waited for the clanging gongs that should tell him the fire department was on its way.

"Good work,” he muttered, when from afar up the asphalt street he heard the rumble of an opening door and the clatter of hoofs. Then it was bingety-bangety-clang ! on four streets at once, for an alarm from the business district early on the morning of the Fourth is something that induces earnest haste in the firemen. The chief’s wagon swooped to the box and Ogden shouted :

"Right down there at the clothing store, chief ! ”

Now clothing that is stacked up in a basement smoulders, and does not blaze. The fire had eaten along through one table of coats.

"Won’t need any water,” the chief remarked. "You boys can get action with the chemicals all right.”

He went upstairs and sent the hose-wagons and steamers back to their houses. Ogden stayed with the chemical crew and the captain until the burning clothing had been tossed and tumbled about and thoroughly drenched with the extinguishing compound. Then they, too, went upstairs and found the watchman standing in the doorway keeping out a crowd of curious folk who had assembled. It was now nearly half after six o’clock, the celebration had begun, and the reverberations of firecrackers were filling the air.

"I’ve missed the excursion,” Ogden observed to himself. "Now what’s to do ?”

The watchman solved the problem for him.

"Well, I guess I can turn this place over to you till your boss comes down,” he said to Ogden.

"The boss isn’t in town. He’s gone to the Shades of Death with an excursion, but you needn’t lock up,” Tommy added, thinking quickly. "I’d have to stay here all day, anyhow, under the circumstances. There’s a lot of work to do now.”

Ogden sat down to think. As assistant advertising man it clearly was his duty to assume the initiative in this crisis. The store was filled with smoke; the windows were grimy with it. The public would know there had been a fire. Under such circumstances it was the time-honored custom and prerogative of clothiers to have fire sales.

“But we haven’t had enough stuff burned to advertise a fire sale,” Ogden said to himself. Then the inspiration came to him. He went to the shipping room, got huge sheets of wrapping paper and a marking brush and paint. On the paper he printed : “Smoke Sale.” One of these placards he pasted in each window. Beneath each of them he pasted other placards advising the public to “Watch the Papers To-morrow.”

If there was to be a Smoke Sale, necessarily the stock would have to be ready to sell. He did not know what sort of price reductions Ferguson would want to make, but he did know there was plenty of stuff in the basement—held-over Winter and Spring stock, for instance — that might be worked off under the stress of low prices and alluring argument in the ads. To the basement he went, but the smoke was still too thick there for him. So he came back, and concluded to move some of the goods on the tables in the salesroom and make space for the marked-down stuff. He tugged and lugged it. Trousers, vests and coats he took to rear tables and rearranged in bigger stacks. By the middle of the morning he had four long tables clear. Then he sat on one of the tables and swung his legs boyishly and smiled with satisfaction.

“There’s some fun in this thing of being monarch of all you survey,” he mused. “Wait a minute, though ! There’s got to be some newspaper ads to-morrow morning.”

He sat at one of the tables, with paper before him, to write an advertisement announcing a smoke sale. It should be a bare statement that one would occur, because he could not give any price figures or particulars of its time of beginning. He had made a rough draft of such an announcement when he heard some one fumbling at the latch of the doors.

“Had a fire here ?” asked a man, walking in with an air of interest. The stranger was a middle-aged man, who used a cane when walking, whose eyes were keen, and whose mouth was concealed by a thin mustache that drooped at the corners as though he were in the habit of tugging at it.

“Yes, sir,” Ogden replied, wondering if the caller were a reporter. 

“Getting ready for a sale ?”

“Trying to, but I’m alone. The force is off for the holiday.”

“Um—just so,” commented the stranger. “You the manager ?”

“No, sir. Mr. Ferguson is the manager. My name is Ogden.”

 “Work here ?”

"Yes, sir."

“How do you happen to be here alone ?”

Ogden told him all about it, and then asked :

"Are you a detective?"

“No. I happened along, saw there had been a fire and looked in. See you’ve got the front tables fixed for the sale stock.”

“Yes. You a clothing man ?” 

“Yes.”

"Working anywhere?"

"Off and on."

‘‘Say,” Ogden asked eagerly, “why can’t you get to work and help me put things in shape for this smoke sale ?”

"Smoke sale?”

"Sure. Fire sales are old stories. There’s a chance here to wake 'em up with a new one. These goods are all right, except that every thing in the house will smell of smoke. July business will be deader than a mackerel, anyhow, in spite of cut prices, but with the argument that there isn’t anything the matter with the goods except the smell of the smoke that will disappear when they are in the air a few hours, there’s no reason why we can’t catch all the business in town this month.”

"Good idea, Mr. Ogden."

"But there’s no one to help me fix this stock up, and it ought to be practically ready for pricing by tomorrow. It’ll mean a whole day saved. Want a job helping me ?”

"You’re not the manager. How can you hire anybody ?” asked the stranger.

"I’ll—I’ll guarantee you wages. How much do you want ?”

"Whatever’s right."

"All right. Shuck your coat and get to work and we’ll fix it satisfactorily when Ferguson gets here tomorrow. Come on to the basement.”

"You’re a funny kind of a man, to want to work on the Fourth when everybody else is having a good time.”

"Great Scott ! Who’s going to have any more fun than I will ? This is the first chance I’ve had to play boss since I came here and I like the feel of it.”

The stranger laughed softly at this and took off his coat.

"You’ll help me, then ?"

"I’ll have to, I suppose.”

"All right. Say, what’s your name ?”

"Jones.”

"All right, Jones. Now, you help me bring up enough stock to cover these tables.”

Jones proved his assertion that he was a clothing man. He knew even better than Ogden how to handle goods. He grunted somewhat, and swore under his breath at times when his elbow struck the wall of the basement stairway, and he limped just the least bit, but when it came to putting the coats in orderly stacks he was a past master, and Ogden told him so.

"You know your business, Jones,” he said as they clumped down the stairs for a fresh load, to begin filling the third table.

"I ought to, but I haven’t hustled like this for a good while."

"Work here, and you’ll have to hustle. When anything is to be done it has to go through with a whoop.” 

"There’s a good bit of old stuff down here,” Jones said abruptly. "Why not dump some of it on those tables ?”

"How do you know it is old ?” 

"By the lot-marks.”

Ogden saw nothing strange in this. The store was one of the "one-price” kind, and did not use the cryptic price-marks and cost-marks of some of the others. But each coat bore on its price-tag a certain number representing its lot. Not only did this number indicate where to look for its original cost in the books, but according to its numerical value was the age of the garment to which it applied. Thus, a garment with a lot-mark of 9,855 you might know, if you were versed in the store affairs, was much older than one numbered 4,432. This being instinctive with a clothing man, it was perfectly natural that Jones should know the oldest stock of the back-number stuff in the basement.

“Yes,” Ogden said. “Let’s put some of it up there; then in the ads say it is stuff that has been carried over a season or two, and for that reason, as well as the smoke, the sale price is a tremendous cut in value.”

“That ought to sell the stuff.”

Ogden went to the restaurant at noon and brought back enough sandwiches and pie and coffee for their luncheon, and the two men worked until after 3 o’clock fixing the suits on the tables. Then Ogden said :

“Now, I’ve got to slam up some kind of an advertisement for the morning papers.”

“You want to make it a corker,” observed Jones.

“I wish I could take plenty of space, but Ferguson will kick if I use more than our regular hundred lines double column.”

“If he kicks, he’s a fool. If I were you I’d take half a page anyhow.”

“Half a page ! Say, Jones, do you know what advertising space costs ?”

“If you want to have a successful sale you don’t want to know what the space costs. It’s the big talk you make at the start that counts. Take half pages in the morning papers.”

“I wish I dared.”

“By thunder ! If I dared to take possession of a whole store, and get the goods ready tor a special sale without consulting the owners or manager, I’d have nerve enough to do the right kind of advertising.”

“Yes. And then get canned.”

“They don’t can men for doing the right thing at the right time, Ogden. It’s for doing it at the wrong time.”

“Well, how do you like this for an ad ?”

Ogden showed him what he had prepared. Jones looked it over thoughtfully, and observed :

“Well, it’s an ad. It tells what is going to happen.  But--"

"But what?"

“Your sand seems to have run out. This ad hasn’t the backbone you have. You ought to be yourself in an ad.”

“But that’s all they want to know—that there is going to be a big sale.”

“Not nowadays. They want to know why, as well as what, and when. Tear that up and give it to ’em straight from the shoulder. Tell ’em the truth. Some folks believe a lie in an advertisement, but all of them believe the truth.”

“There aren’t any lies in this.” 

“There isn’t enough truth. Here, write one from my dictation, just to see how it will read.”

Tommy listened and wrote while Jones talked.

“ ‘Smoke Sale.’ That’s for the big display line clear across the page—have the printers put it in horse-sale type. Then go on and say ‘Somebody got too patriotic early yesterday morning and dropped a lighted firecracker into our basement. The whole force was on a picnic, but the assistant advertising man’ (that’s you, Ogden) ‘was on his way to the excursion train when he saw it. He pressed the fire button and the department did the rest. No real damage done. Only smoke. Well, what does smoke do to clothes? It smells them and it sells them. One-third off for smoky clothes. That’s our policy. A horizontal reduction of one-third in the already low prices.’ (There, put that in display). ‘Air is a sure cure for that smoky smell. Smoke doesn’t hurt quality, style or fit. It only hurts prices.

Pick out your suit and it’s yours for two-thirds its price, smell and all. "‘It’s the smelling that does the selling.’ (Display that.) 'Doors open at eight o’clock.’"

Ogden shook his head as he wrote the last word.

"That would make a smashing ad in half a page,” Jones remarked.

"Oh, Ferguson would curl up and have a fit if I dared to print this ad. Don’t you see, I haven’t the authority.”

"You’ve got it to-day.”

"Ferguson would-”

"Ferguson be—be jiggered !”

Jones was persuasive. Besides there was common sense to the proposition. There was no reason why the prices should not be reduced as Jones had suggested. There was every reason for beginning the sale at once. The public likes firms that move on the jump.

And then there was the incentive of taking the initiative—of running things for once. This is a great big appeal to a young man. And Ogden had worked—worked like a dog, he thought—to get things in shape for the sale. Why shouldn’t he take the only remaining responsibility and launch the sale properly ?

“If Ferguson wants to kick, he’ll kick about what you have done so far,” Jones smiled, easily. “If I were you I’d swing in and have things ready for him to handle when he comes to work to-morrow.”

“I’ll—I’ll do it if it throws me !” Ogden exclaimed.

He marked the ad for half a page, indicating the few display lines, and, at Jones’ suggestion, ordered that the body of the ad set in a large, plain Roman-faced type, with plenty of white margin and plenty of space between the lines.

“That’ll be an eye-catcher,” Ogden said, after he had copied the ad.

“The store won't lose any money, at that,” Jones observed. “Getting this stuff out of here in July will be like picking money off of trees.”

“You stay here and keep your eye on things while I run around to the Herald and Pioneer offices with this copy and arrange for space,” Tommy ordered.

“All right. Anything for me to do while you are gone ? Any heavy lifting ?” Jones asked, genially.

“I guess not. Take it easy. But don’t smoke,” Ogden laughed. “And while I’m out I’ll arrange at headquarters for a detail of police to watch the store front to-night, although you and I will board up those basement windows before we leave.”

“Now,” said Tommy later, as they put on their coats and prepared to leave, “you show up here in the morning and I’ll speak a word for you to Ferguson, and try to get him to put you on during the sale, if you want the job. Anyway, I’ll pay you out of my own pocket for to-day’s work if Ferguson kicks about allowing you bill.”

“Thank you. I’ll try to be on hand, but my legs are aching like the duce now and it may be I’ll not feel like getting out to-morrow. If I can come, I will, though. You may depend on that.”

“It’ll be a good chance at a permanent situation for you,” Ogden urged.

They walked down street, stopping to admire the effect of Tommy’s “Smoke Sale” placards in the show windows. Little knots of people paused in their arduous efforts to celebrate the nation’s natal day to read the placards and smile approvingly.

“Looks to me as if you'd hit on a good idea,” Jones said.

“I hope so. To-morrow will tell, though. ’ ’

Ogden was dead-tired and he slept until after 8 the morning of the fifth, when he should have been on duty at the store at that hour. He leaped into his clothes and rushed breakfastless for a car, buying a morning paper on the run. And the first thing he looked at was his half-page ad. There it was, spread blazingly across the last page, screaming “Smoke Sale” to all the world. He was not the only man reading the ad. It was being talked of by the others on the car—and talked of in the right way.

The sidewalk approaching the store was blockaded. Two policemen had guarded the store all night; now ten officers were keeping the crowd in line. The heart of Thomas Ogden beat tumultuously in his breast. ...“Maybe I’ve done wrong, but I surely have brought in the people,” he muttered, as, entering the rear of the store, he shoved his way through crowded aisles, where busy salesmen were pulling out clothing to show to busier customers. He wormed a pathway to the clock and turned in his time.

“You’re nearly an hour late, Mr. Ogden,” same in Ferguson’s voice.

“Yes. I worked so hard yesterday I overslept myself.”

“I haven’t time to tell you what I think of your hard work,” said the manager in icy tones. “The trade has to be handled now, no matter whether I approve of the way it has been secured or not. Our first duty is to attend to our patrons. I shall have something to say to you later in the day.”

“Why, I thought I was doing the right thing!”

“It might have been all right if you had consulted me. But-”

The exasperated Mr. Ferguson hurried to the front of the store to aid the bewildered Frimmer in untangling the crowd. It wasn’t a crowd; it was a mob. It wanted hats and shirts and neckties and underwear and suits—and overcoats. Yes, overcoats on the fifth of July ! It picked things up and held them to its nostrils and said :

“By ginger ! It is smoky !”

And then it got its size and paid the price, deducting one-third. Even the displeasure of Ferguson could not dim the joy of Ogden in beholding this rush and jam to get the things he had promised. He got into it himself, and helped sell anything and everything. But all the while he was wondering what sort of an ad he should prepare for the morrow, or whether Ferguson would insist upon preparing the ad himself. He wondered if Ferguson would call the sale off ! This was so appalling a thought that he produced a child’s sailor hat in response to a request for a black Stetson from a patriarchal gentleman who immediately accused him of having been drinking.

Once during the morning he got near enough to Ferguson to ask:

“Did a man named Jones ask you to give him a job as extra salesman ?”

“Man named Jones ? All the Joneses in this part of the state have been in here this morning, but none of them has applied for a job,” sarcastically replied the manager.

“But this was an old clothing man. I hired him-”

“You hired him !”

There was scorn, there was contumely, there was everything hot in the voice of the manager.

“I mean I hired him yesterday to help me get the stock in shape. He said he would be on hand this morning.”

“No. He hasn’t shown up. But if he comes in I’ll make him get to work. I hope you’ll have some one to share the blame with you tomorrow.”

“Blame ? To-morrow ?”

“Yes. Mr. Blackwell came to town this morning.” The manager mingled reverent awe with his accusing voice. “He telephoned me asking what the dickens we are up to, and saying he’ll get around to-morrow when there isn’t such a crowd. He couldn’t get—into—his—own—store--to-day !”

The manager went away again, and left Ogden mopping his brow. Well, he thought, Mr. Blackwell needn’t get so all-fired chesty if he couldn’t get into his own store because it held so many customers. This was an event sufficiently exceptional to be its own excuse. He found his way back toward the bookkeeper’s desk, and approached Miss Renlow with an air of fine unconcern.

“Have a nice trip yesterday ?”

“Oh, Tommy Ogden ! Whatever have you done ?” she demanded.

“What have I done ?”

“O—o—oh ! Mr. Ferguson is raving, ripping, boiling mad clear through. The idea of your taking things in your own hands and putting that terrible big advertisement and cutting prices this way, and — and—O—o—oh ! Tommy Ogden !” 

“Oh, rats ! I’ve had enough of that from Ferguson ! I did what I thought was right. It wasn’t my fault if the blamed old store caught fire and gave me a chance to help Ferguson move out some of the stuff that has been ‘spiffed’ till it looks like red ink had been spilled all over the price-tags.”

“Well, goodness me ! You needn’t get so huffy about it. Everybody but Mr. Ferguson thinks you did just right. I think it is simply splend-did !”

Which soothed and sustained the faltering soul of Ogden to a most considerable extent. There was a lull in the rush at noon and he went out and had his breakfast. He hurried back to the store, though, and, finding Ferguson unoccupied, asked him what they should have in the ad for next day.

“You're doing it,” Ferguson answered, savagely. “Understand me. I wash my hands of this. I know what Mr. Blackwell will think of it. You started it, now go on with it. You can do it all—until to-morrow.”

With which darksome remark he went on about his business. And Ogden, brazened by the foreboding that the portion of the deliberate sinner was to be his, went to his little desk in the rear of the office and prepared yet another half-page ad in which he advised the public that

“We may cut, we may shatter the price as we will

But the scent of the Smoke Sale will cling to it still !”

And he further urged the people to buy what they wanted and all they wanted that very day, for at the rate things were going, the life of the sale might be exceeding short. Then he went out with his copy for the newspapers, passing the eagle-eyed Ferguson on the way but stopping not for his suggestion and criticism as on other occasions and with other ads.

To the Herald and the Pioneer offices he went again and left his half-page ads. While returning to the store, he purchased the afternoon papers, and there were his half-page ads of the morning, reproduced, glaring and blaring at him ! He had forgotten the afternoon papers entirely in the turmoil of the morning, what with sleeping too late and with the jumbling business at the store. He almost ran to the counting-room of the Evening Globe.

“Who ordered this half-page ?” he asked, stabbing it with his forefinger.

“Telephone order from the store, I think,” answered the clerk.

At the Evening Star counting-room he learned the same, and then he hastened on to the store, trying to figure it all out. But it wouldn’t figure out.

Next day he got to the store on time, and there was the same big crowd of customers on hand at the opening of business. More than that, above the head of every employee of the store hung the shadow of the knowledge that Mr. Blackwell would be on deck that day. There were pitying glances for Ogden. Even Ferguson’s sourness was tinctured with sympathy when he spoke to Ogden. But Ogden had got past the point of caring. He was living a life of half-page ads and big sales, of crowded aisles and pushing customers. And he felt that the wires which controlled all this had been for two days in his fingers. There were other clothing stores ! Let this one punish him for his temerity in arranging the smoke sale. He had in his breast the suddenly born confidence in himself that made him able to believe that he didn’t care two hoots whether he held his job or not, because he could find another and fill it. He took a customer and began finding a suit for him. As he bent over a stack of coats he raised his head and saw coming along the aisle toward him the man whom he had pressed into service on the Fourth.

“Why, hello there !” he said, stepping toward the man, not noticing that immediately in the rear of the stranger loomed Ferguson, whose face was frozen with horror. The stranger smiled oddly.

“How’s the game leg this morning ?” Ogden inquired. “You’re just in time. You ought to have been here yesterday. We surely did have all the town in to see us.”

“I heard you did,” the man answered.

“You bet ! Say, I’ll speak to the manager for you, and-”

Ferguson by this time had crowded around between Ogden and the stranger, and extended his hand. “Good morning, Mr. Blackwell.” 

“How-d’y’-do, Ferguson. Shaking things up a bit, aren’t you ?” responded the Resident Partner. Ogden leaned against the stack of coats and tried to understand it. Finally he lifted his hands weakly, and laughed a queer, helpless laugh.

“I may as well tell you at once, Mr. Blackwell,” said Ferguson, with a frowning glance toward Ogden, who was still dumbly gazing at the Resident Partner, “that I have had nothing to do with this sale. It is-”

“But I have,” came the whiplike words of Hiram T. Blackwell, the Man Who Always Made Things Hum. “I have, Ferguson. And you would better be jumping around here keeping things in shape instead of making excuses for the greatest stroke of business that ever was turned in this store. Mr. Ogden, come back to the office. There’s a day’s pay coming to me—and a raise for you. And there’s another smoke ad to write for to-morrow.”

Ferguson stood transfixed, full of chagrin and unuttered swear words, and all the salesmen turned from their customers for the moment and gazed in muddled wonder at Thomas Ogden, who, uplifted by the knowledge of the recognition of a good deed well done, was walking into the private office of the Resident Partner and smiling at some jocose remark of that much-feared individual.

And Miss Renlow, beholding Tommy’s happy face, dropped her handkerchief into the big inkwell, so great was her astonishment.


There is very little saying virtue in simply abstaining from things that we consider wrong. The really saving virtue lies in doing something positive that will help to subdue wrong things. That is the real criterion of character.