From The Wit and Humor of America, edited by Marshall P. Wilder, Volume III, New York and London: Funk and Wagnalls and Company, 1911; pp. 470-482.
BY ELLIS PARKER BUTLER
I had not seen Perkins for six months or so and things were dull. I was beginning to tire of sitting indolently in my office with nothing to do but clip coupons from my bonds. Money is good enough in its way, but it is not interesting unless it is doing something lively — doubling itself or getting lost. What I wanted was excitement — an adventure — and I knew that if I could find Perkins I could have both. A scheme is a business adventure, and Perkins was the greatest schemer in or out of Chicago.
Just then Perkins walked into my office.
“Perkins,” I said, as soon as he had arranged his feet comfortably on my desk. “I’m tired. I’m restless, I have been wishing for you for a month. I want to go into a big scheme and make a lot of new, up-to-date cash. I’m sick of this tame, old cash that I have. It isn’t interesting. No cash is interesting except the coming cash.”
I’m with you,” said Perkins, “what is your scheme?”
“I have none,” I said sadly, “that is just my trouble. I have sat here for days trying to think of a good practical scheme, but I can’t. I don’t believe there is an unworked scheme in the whole wide, wide world.”
Perkins waved his hand.
“My boy,” he exclaimed, “there are millions! You’ve thousands of ’em right here in your office! You’re falling 471 over them, sitting on them, walking on them! Schemes? Everything is a scheme. Everything has money in it!”
I shrugged my shoulders.
“Yes,” I said, “for you. But you are a genius.”
“Genius, yes,” Perkins said smiling cheerfully, “else why Perkins the Great? Why Perkins the originator? Why the Great and Only Perkins of Portland?”
“All right,” I said, “what I want is for your genius to get busy. I’ll give you a week to work up a good scheme.”
Perkins pushed back his hat and brought his feet to the floor with a smack.
“Why the delay?” he queried, “time is money. Hand me something from your desk.”
I looked in my pigeonholes and pulled from one a small ball of string. Perkins took it in his hand and looked at it with great admiration.
“What is it?” he asked seriously.
“That,” I said humoring him, for I knew something great would be evolved from his wonderful brain, “Is a ball of red twine I bought at the ten-cent store. I bought it last Saturday. It was sold to me by a freckled young lady in a white shirtwaist. I paid — ”
“Stop!” Perkins cried, “what is it?”
I looked at the ball of twine curiously. I tried to see something remarkable in it. I couldn’t. It remained a simple ball of red twine, and I told Perkins so.
“The difference,” declared Perkins, “between mediocrity and genius! Mediocrity always sees red twine; genius sees a ball of Crimson Cord!”
He leaned back in his chair and looked at me triumphantly. He folded his arms as if he had settled the matter. His attitude seemed to say that he had made a fortune for us. Suddenly he reached forward, and 472 grasping my scissors, began snipping off small lengths of the twine.
“The Crimson Cord!” he ejaculated. “What does it suggest?”
I told him that it suggested a parcel from the druggist’s. I had often seen just such twine about a druggist’s parcel.
Perkins sniffed disdainfully.
“Druggists?” he exclaimed with disgust. “Mystery! Blood! ‘The Crimson Cord.’ Daggers! Murder! Strangling! Clues! ‘The Crimson Cord’ — ”
He motioned wildly with his hands as if the possibilities of the phrase were quite beyond his power of expression.
“It sounds like a book,” I suggested.
“Great!” cried Perkins. “A novel! The novel! Think of the words ‘A Crimson Cord’ in blood-red letters six feet high on a white ground!” He pulled his hat over his eyes and spread out his hands, and I think he shuddered.
“Think of ‘A Crimson Cord,’ ” he muttered, “in blood-red letters on a ground of dead, sepulchral black, with a crimson cord writhing through them like a serpent.”
He sat up suddenly and threw one hand in the air.
“Think,” he cried, “of the words in black on white with a crimson cord drawn taut across the whole ad!”
He beamed upon me.
“The cover of the book,” he said quite calmly, “will be white — virgin, spotless white — with black lettering, and the cord in crimson. With each copy we will give a crimson silk cord for a book-mark. Each copy will be done up in a white box and tied with crimson cord.”
He closed his eyes and tilted his head upward.
“A thick book,” he said, “with deckel edges and pictures 473 by Christy. No, pictures by Pyle. Deep, mysterious pictures! Shadows and gloom! And wide, wide margins. And a gloomy foreword. One fifty per copy, at all booksellers.”
Perkins opened his eyes and set his hat straight with a quick motion of his hand. He arose and pulled on his gloves.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“Contracts!” he said, “Contracts for advertising! We must boom ‘The Crimson Cord.’ We must boom her big!”
He went out and closed the door. Presently, when I supposed him well on the way down town, he opened the door and inserted his head.
“Gilt tops,” he announced. “One million copies the first impression!”
And then he was gone.
A week later Chicago and the greater part of the United States was placarded with “The Crimson Cord.” Perkins did his work thoroughly and well, and great was the interest in the mysterious title. It was an old dodge, but a good one. Nothing appeared on the advertisements but the mere title. No word as to what “The Crimson Cord” was. Perkins merely announced the words and left them to rankle in the reader’s mind, and as a natural consequence each new advertisement served to excite new interest.
When we made our contracts for magazine advertising — and we took a full page in every worthy magazine — the publishers were at a loss to classify the advertisement, and it sometimes appeared among the breakfast foods, 474 and sometimes sandwiched in between the automobiles and the hot water heaters. Only one publication placed it among the books.
But it was all good advertising, and Perkins was a busy man. He racked his inventive brain for new methods of placing the title before the public. In fact so busy was he at his labor of introducing the title that he quite forgot the book itself.
One day he came to the office with a small, rectangular package. He unwrapped it in his customary enthusiastic manner, and set on my desk a cigar box bound in the style he had selected for the binding of “The Crimson Cord.” It was then I spoke of the advisability of having something to the book besides the cover and a boom.
“Perkins,” I said, “don’t you think it is about time we got hold of the novel — the reading, the words?”
For a moment he seemed stunned. It was clear that he had quite forgotten that book-buyers like to have a little reading matter in their books. But he was only dismayed for a moment.
“Tut!” he cried presently. “All in good time! The novel is easy. Anything will do. I’m no literary man. I don’t read a book in a year. You get the novel.”
“But I don’t read a book in five years!” I exclaimed. “I don’t know anything about books. I don’t know where to get a novel.”
“Advertise!” he exclaimed. “Advertise! You can get anything, from an apron to an ancestor, if you advertise for it. Offer a prize — offer a thousand dollars for the best novel. There must be thousands of novels not in use.”
Perkins was right. I advertised as he suggested and learned that there were thousands of novels not in use. They came to us by basketfuls and cartloads. We had novels of all kinds — historical and hysterical, humorous 475 and numerous, but particularly numerous. You would be surprised to learn how many ready-made novels can be had on short notice. It beats quick lunch. And most of them are equally indigestible. I read one or two but I was no judge of novels. Perkins suggested that we draw lots to see which we should use.
It really made little difference what the story was about. “The Crimson Cord” fits almost any kind of a book. It is a nice, non-committal sort of title, and might mean the guilt that bound two sinners, or the tie of affection that binds lovers, or a blood relationship, or it might be a mystification title with nothing in the book about it.
But the choice settled itself. One morning a manuscript arrived that was tied with a piece of red twine, and we chose that one for good luck because of the twine. Perkins said that was a sufficient excuse for the title, too. We would publish the book anonymously, and let it be known that the only clue to the writer was the crimson cord with which the manuscript was tied when we received it. It would be a first-class advertisement.
Perkins, however, was not much interested in the story, and he left me to settle the details. I wrote to the author asking him to call, and he turned out to be a young woman.
Our interview was rather shy. I was a little doubtful about the proper way to talk to a real author, being purely a Chicagoan myself, and I had an idea that while my usual vocabulary was good enough for business purposes it might be too easy-going to impress a literary person properly, and in trying to talk up to her standard I had to be very careful in my choice of words. No publisher likes to have his authors think he is weak in the grammar line.
Miss Rosa Belle Vincent, however, was quite as flustered 476 as I was. She seemed ill-at-ease and anxious to get away, which I supposed was because she had not often conversed with publishers who paid a thousand dollars cash in advance for a manuscript.
She was not at all what I had thought an author would look like. She didn’t even wear glasses. If I had met her on the street I should have said: “There goes a pretty flip stenographer.” She was that kind — big picture hat and high pompadour.
I was afraid she would try to run the talk into literary lines and Ibsen and Gorky, where I would have been swamped in a minute, but she didn’t, and, although I had wondered how to break the subject of money when conversing with one who must be thinking of nobler things, I found she was less shy when on that subject than when talking about her book.
“Well now,” I said, as soon as I had got her seated, “we have decided to buy this novel of yours. Can you recommend it as a thoroughly respectable and intellectual production?”
She said she could.
“Haven’t you read it?” she asked in some surprise.
“No,” I stammered. “At least, not yet. I’m going to as soon as I can find the requisite leisure. You see, we are very busy just now — very busy. But if you can vouch for the story being a first-class article — something, say, like ‘The Vicar of Wakefield’ or ‘David Harum’ — we’ll take it.”
“Now you’re talking,” she said. “And do I get the check now?”
“Wait,” I said; “not so fast. I have forgotten one thing,” and I saw her face fall. “We want the privilege of publishing the novel under a title of our own, and anonymously. If that is not satisfactory the deal is off.”477
She brightened in a moment.
“It’s a go, if that’s all,” she said. “Call it whatever you please, and the more anonymous it is the better it will suit yours truly.”
So we settled the matter then and there, and when I gave her our check for a thousand she said I was all right.
Half an hour after Miss Vincent had left the office Perkins came in with his arms full of bundles, which he opened, spreading their contents on my desk.
He had a pair of suspenders with nickel-silver mountings, a tie, a lady’s belt, a pair of low shoes, a shirt, a box of cigars, a package of cookies, and a half-dozen other things of divers and miscellaneous character. I poked them over and examined them, while he leaned against the desk with his legs crossed. He was beaming upon me.
“Well,” I said, “what is it — a bargain sale?”
Perkins leaned over and tapped the pile with his long fore-finger.
“Aftermath!” he crowed, “aftermath!”
“The dickens it is,” I exclaimed, “and what has aftermath got to do with this truck? It looks like the aftermath of a notion store.”
He tipped his “Air-the-Hair” hat over one ear and put this thumbs in the armholes of his “ready-tailored” vest.
“Genius!” he announced. “Brains! Foresight! Else why Perkins the Great? Why not Perkins the Nobody?”
He raised the suspenders tenderly from the pile and fondled them in his hands.
“See this?” he asked, running his finger along the red corded edge of the elastic. He took up the tie and ran his nail along the red stripe that formed the selvedge on the 478 back, and said: “See this?” He pointed to the red laces of the low shoes and asked, “See this?” And so through the whole collection.
“What is it?” he asked. “It’s genius! It’s foresight.”
He waved his hand over the pile.
“The aftermath!” he exclaimed.
“These suspenders are the Crimson Cord suspenders. These shoes are the Crimson Cord shoes. This tie is the Crimson Cord tie. These crackers are the Crimson Cord brand. Perkins & Co. get out a great book, ‘The Crimson Cord!’ Sell five million copies. Dramatized, it runs three hundred nights. Everybody talking Crimson Cord. Country goes Crimson Cord crazy. Result — up jump Crimson Cord this and Crimson Cord that. Who gets the benefit? Perkins & Co.? No! We pay the advertising bills and the other man sells his Crimson Cord cigars. That is usual.”
“Yes,” I said, “I’m smoking a David Harum cigar this minute, and I am wearing a Carvel collar.”
“How prevent it?” asked Perkins. “One way only, — discovered by Perkins. Copyright the words ‘Crimson Cord’ as trade-mark for every possible thing. Sell the trade-mark on royalty; ten per cent. of all receipts of ‘Crimson Cord’ brands comes to Perkins & Co. Get a cinch on the aftermath!”
“Perkins!” I cried, “I admire you. You are a genius. And have you contracts with all these — notions?”
“Yes,” said Perkins, “that’s Perkins’ method. Who originated the Crimson Cord? Perkins did. Who is entitled to the profits on the Crimson Cord? Perkins is. Perkins is wide awake all the time. Perkins gets a profit on the aftermath and the math and the before the math.”
And so he did. He made his new contracts with the magazines on the exchange plan — we gave a page of advertising 479 in the “Crimson Cord” for a page of advertising in the magazine. We guaranteed five million circulation. We arranged with all the manufacturers of the Crimson Cord brands of goods to give coupons, one hundred of which entitled the holder to a copy of “The Crimson Cord.” With a pair of old Crimson Cord suspenders you get five coupons; with each Crimson Cord cigar, one coupon; and so on.
On the first day of October we announced in our advertisement that “The Crimson Cord” was a book; the greatest novel of the century; a thrilling, exciting tale of love. Miss Vincent had told me it was a love story. Just to make everything sure, however, I sent the manuscript to Professor Wiggins, who is the most erudite man I ever met. He knows eighteen languages, and reads Egyptian as easily as I read English. In fact his specialty is old Egyptian ruins and so on. He has written several books on them.
Professor said the novel seemed to him very light and trashy, but grammatically O. K. He said he never read novels, not having time, but he thought that “The Crimson Cord” was just about the sort of thing a silly public that refused to buy his “Some Light on the Dynastic Proclivities of the Hyksos” would scramble for. On the whole I considered the report satisfactory.
We found we would be unable to have Pyle illustrate the book, he being too busy, so we turned it over to a young man at the Art Institute.
That was the fifteenth of October, and we had promised the book to the public for the first of November, but we had it already in type and the young man, his name 480 was Gilkowsky, promised to work night and day on the illustrations.
The next morning, almost as soon as I reached the office, Gilkowsky came in. He seemed a little hesitant, but I welcomed him warmly, and he spoke up.
“I have a girl to go with,” he said, and I wondered what I had to do with Mr. Gilkowsky’s girl, but he continued:
“She’s a nice girl and a good looker, but she’s god bad taste in some things. She’s too loud in hats, and too trashy in literature. I don’t like to say this about her, but it’s true and I’m trying to educate her in good hats and good literature. So I thought it would be a good thing to take around this ‘Crimson Cord” and let her read it to me.”
“Did she like it?” I asked.
Mr. Gilkowsky looked at me closely.
“She did,” he said, but not so enthusiastically as I had expected.
“It’s her favorite book. Now, I don’t know what your scheme is, and I suppose you know what you are doing better than I do; but I thought perhaps I had better come around before I got to work on the illustrations and see if perhaps you hadn’t given me the wrong manuscript.”
“No, that was the right manuscript,” I said. “Was there anything wrong about it?”
Mr. Gilkowsky laughed nervously.
“Oh, no!” he said. “But did you read it?”
I told him I had not because I had been so rushed with details connected with advertising the book.
“Well,” he said, “I’ll tell you. This girl of mine reads pretty trashy stuff, and she knows about all the cheap novels there are. She dotes on ‘The Duchess,’ and puts 481 her last dime into Braddon. She knows them all by heart. Have you ever read ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’?”
“I see,” I said. “One is a sequel to the other.”
“No, said Mr. Gilkowsky. “One is the other. Some one has flim-flammed you and sold you a typewritten copy of ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’ as a new novel.”
When I told Perkins he merely remarked that he thought every publishing house ought to have some one in it who knew something about books, apart from the advertising end, although that was, of course, the most important. He said we might go ahead and publish “Lady Audley’s Secret” under the title of “the Crimson Cord,” as such things had been done before, but the best thing to do would be to charge Rosa Belle Vincent’s thousand dollars to Profit and Loss and hustle for another novel — something reliable and not shop-worn.
Perkins had been studying the literature market a little and he advised me to get something from Indiana this time, so I telegraphed an advertisement to the Indianapolis papers and two days later we had ninety-eight historical novels by Indiana authors from which to choose. Several were of the right length, and we chose one and sent it to Mr. Gilkowsky with a request that he read it to his sweetheart. She had never read it before.
We sent a detective to Dillville, Indiana, where the author lived, and the report we received was most satisfactory.
The author was a sober, industrious young man, just out of the high school, and bore a first-class reputation for honesty. He had never been in Virginia, where the scene of history was laid, and they had no library in 482 Dillville, and our detective assured us that the young man was in every way fitted to write a historical novel.
“The Crimson Cord” made an immense success. You can guess how it boomed when I say that although it was published at a dollar and a half, it was sold by every department store for fifty-four cents, away below cost, just like sugar, or Vandeventer’s Baby Food, or Q & Z Corsets, or any other staple. We sold our first edition of five million copies inside of three months, and got out another edition of two million, and a specially illustrated holiday edition and an edition de luxe, and “The Crimson Cord” is still selling in paper-covered cheap edition.
With the royalties received from the aftermath and the profit on the book itself, we made — well, Perkins has a country place at Lakewood, and I have my cottage at Newport.
* Copyright, 1904, by Leslie’s Magazine.