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| CHAPTER SIX
"For students of the troubled heart
Cities are perfect works of art."
THERE is a city so tall that even the sky above her seems to have lifted in a cautious remove, inconceivably far. There is a city so proud, so mad, so beautiful and young, that even heaven has retreated, lest her placid purity be too nearly tempted by that brave tragic spell. In the city which is maddest of all, Gissing had come to search for sanity. In the city so strangely beautiful that she has made even poets silent, he had come to find a voice. In the city of glorious ostent and vanity, he had tome to look for humility and peace.
All cities are mad: but the madness is gallant. All cities are beautiful: but the beauty is grim. Who shall tell me the truth about this one? Tragic? Even so, because wherever ambitions, vanities, and follies are multiplied by millionfold contact, calamity is there. Noble and beautiful? Aye, for even folly may have the majesty of magnitude. Hasty, cruel, shallow? Agreed, but where in this terrene orb will you find it otherwise? I know all that can be said against her; and yet in her great library of streets, vast and various as Shakespeare, is beauty enough for a lifetime. O poets, why have you been so faint? Because she seems cynical and crass, she cries with trumpet-call to the mind of the dreamer; because she is riant and mad, she speaks to the grave sanity of the poet.
So, in a mood perhaps too consciously lofty, Gissing was meditating. It was rather impudent of him to accuse the city of being mad, for he himself, in his glee over freedom regained, was not conspicuously sane. He scoured the town in high spirits, peering into shop-windows, riding on top of busses, going to the Zoo, taking the rickety old steamer to the Statue of Liberty, drinking afternoon tea at the Ritz, and all that sort of thing. The first three nights in town he slept in one of the little traffic-towers that perch on stilts up above Fifth Avenue. As a matter of fact, it was that one near St. Patrick's Cathedral. He had ridden up the Avenue in a taxi, intending to go to the Plaza (just for a bit of splurge after his domestic confinement). As the cab went by, he saw the traffic-tower, dark and empty, and thought what a pleasant place to sleep. So he asked the driver to let him out at the Cathedral, and after being sure that he was not observed, walked back to the little turret, climbed up the ladder, and made himself at home. He liked it so well that he returned there the two following nights; but he didn't sleep much, for he could not resist the fun of startling night-hawk taxis by suddenly flashing the red, green, and yellow lights at them, and seeing them stop in bewilderment. But after three nights he thought it best to leave. It would have been awkward if the police had discovered him.
It was time to settle down and begin work. He had an uncle who was head of an important business far down-town; but Gissing, with the quixotry of youth, was determined to make his own start in the great world of commerce. He found a room on the top floor of a quiet brownstone house in the West Seventies. It was not large, and he had to go down a flight for his bath; the gas burner over the bed whistled; the dust was rather startling after the clean country; but it was cheap, and his sense of adventure more than compensated. Mrs. Purp, the landlady, pleased him greatly. She was very maternal, and urged him not to bolt his meals in armchair lunches. She put an ashtray in his room.
Gissing sent Mrs. Spaniel a postcard with a picture of the Pennsylvania Station. On it he wrote Arrived safely. Hard at work. Love to the children. Then he went to look for a. job.
His ideas about business were very vague. All he knew was that he wished to be very wealthy and influential as -soon as „possible. He could have had much sound advice from his uncle, who was a member of the Union Kennel and quite a prominent dog-about-town. But Gissing had the secretive pride of inexperience. Moreover, he did not quite know what to say about his establishment in the country. That houseful of children would need some explaining.
Those were days of brilliant heat; clear, golden, dry. The society columns in the papers assured him that everyone was out of town; but the Avenue seemed plentifully crowded with beautiful, superb creatures. Far down the gentle slopes of that glimmering roadway he could see the rolling stream of limousines, dazzles of sunlight caught on their polished flanks. A faint blue haze of gasoline fumes hung low in the bright warm air. This is the street where even the most passive are pricked by the strange lure of carnal dominion. Nothing less than a job on the Avenue itself would suit his mood, he felt.
Fortune and audacity united (as they always do) to concede his desire. He was in the beautiful department store of Beagle and Company, one of the most splendid of its kind, looking at some sand-coloured spats. In an aisle near by he heard a commotion — nothing vulgar, but still an evident stir, with repressed yelps and a genteel, horrified bustle. He hastened to the spot, and through the crowd saw someone lying on the floor. An extremely beautiful sales-damsel, charmingly clad in black crêpe de chien, was supporting the victim's head, vainly fanning him. Wealthy dowagers were whining in distress. Then an ambulance clanged up to a side door, and a stretcher was brought in.
"What is it?" said Gissing to a female at the silk-stocking counter.
"One of the floorwalkers — died of heat prostration," she said, looking very much upset.
"Poor fellow," said Gissing. "You never know what will happen next, do you?" He walked away, shaking his head.
He asked the elevator attendant to direct him to the offices of the firm. On the seventh floor, down a quiet corridor behind the bedroom suites, a rosewood fence barred his way. A secretary faced him inquiringly.
"I wish to see Mr. Beagle."
"Mr. Beagle senior or Mr. Beagle junior?" Youth cleaves to youth, said Gissing to himself. "Mr. Beagle junior," he stated firmly.
"Have you an appointment?"
"Yes," he said.
She took his card, disappeared, and returned. "This way, please," she said.
Mr. Beagle senior must be very old indeed, he thought; for junior was distinctly grizzled. In fact (so rapidly does the mind run), Mr. Beagle senior must be near the age of retirement. Very likely (he said to himself) that will soon occur; there will be a general stepping-up among members of the firm, and that will be my chance. I wonder how much they pay a junior partner?
He almost uttered this question, as Mr. Beagle junior looked at him so inquiringly. But he caught himself in time.
"I beg your pardon for intruding," said Gissing, "but I am the new floorwalker."
"You are very kind," said Mr. Beagle junior, "but we do not need a new floorwalker."
"I beg your pardon again," said Gissing, "but you are not au courant with the affairs of the store. One has just died, right by the silk-stocking counter. Very bad for business."
At this moment the telephone rang, and Mr. Beagle seized it. He listened, sharply examining his caller meanwhile.
"You are right," he said, as he put down the receiver. "Well, sir, have you had any experience?"
"Not exactly of that sort," said Gissing; "but I think I understand the requirements. The tone of the store — "
"I will ask you to be here at four-thirty this afternoon," said Mr. Beagle. "We have a particular routine in regard to candidates for that position. You will readily perceive that it is a post of some importance. The floorwalker is our point of social contact with patrons — "
Gissing negligently dusted his shoes with a handkerchief.
"Pray do not apologize," he said kindly. "I am willing to congratulate with you on your good fortune. It was mere hazard that I was in the store. To-day, of course, business will be poor. But to-morrow, I think you will find
"At four-thirty," said Mr. Beagle, a little puzzled.
That day Gissing went without lunch. First he explored the whole building from top to bottom, until he knew the location of every department, and had the store directory firmly memorized. With almost proprietory tenderness he studied the shining goods and trinkets; noted approvingly the clerks who seemed to him specially prompt and obliging to customers; scowled a little at any sign of boredom or inattention. He heard the soft sigh of the pneumatic tubes as they received money and blew it to some distant coffer: this money, he thought, was already partly his. That square-cut creature whom he presently discerned following him was undoubtedly the store detective: he smiled to think what a pleasant anecdote this would be when he was admitted to junior partnership. Then he went, finally, to the special Masculine Shop on the fifth floor, where he bought a silk hat, a cutaway coat and waistcoat, and trousers of pearly stripe. He did not forget patent leather shoes, nor white spats. He refused the little white linen margins which the clerk wished to affix to the V of his waistcoat. That, he felt, was the ultra touch which would spoil all. The just less than perfection, how perfect it is!
It was getting late. He hurried to Penn Station where he hired one of those little dressing booths, and put on his regalia. His tweeds, in a neat package, he checked at the parcel counter. Then he returned to the store for the important interview.
He had expected a formal talk with the two Messrs. Beagle, perhaps touching on such matters as duties, hours, salary, and so on. To his surprise he was ushered by the secretary into a charming Louis XVI salon farther down the private corridor. There were several ladies: one was pouring tea. Mr. Beagle junior came forward. The vice-president (such was Mr. Beagle junior's rank, Gissing had learned by the sign on his door) still wore his business garb of the morning. Gissing immediately felt himself to have the advantage. But what a pleasant idea, he thought, for the members of the firm to have tea together every afternoon. He handed his hat, gloves, and stick to the secretary.
"Very kind of you to come," said Mr. Beagle. "Let me present you to my wife."
Mrs. Beagle, at the tea-urn, received him graciously.
"Cream or lemon?" she said. "Two lumps?"
This is really delightful, Gissing thought. Only on Fifth Avenue could this kind of thing happen. He looked down upon the hostess from his superior height, and smiled charmingly.
"Do you permit three?" he said. "A little weakness of mine." As a matter of fact, he hated tea so sweet; but he felt it was strategic to fix himself in Mrs. Beagle's mind as a polished eccentric.
"You must have a meringue," she said. "Ah, Mrs. Pomeranian has them. Mrs. Pomeranian, let me present Mr. Gissing."
Mrs. Pomeranian, small and plump and tightly corseted, offered the meringues, while Mrs. Beagle pressed upon him a plate with a small doily, embroidered with the arms of the store, and its motto je maintiendrai — referring, no doubt, to its prices. Mr. Beagle then introduced him to several more ladies in rapid succession. Gissing passed along the line, bowing slightly but with courteous interest to each. To each one he raised his eyebrows and permitted himself a small significant smile, as though to convey that this was a moment he had long been anticipating. How different, he thought, was this life of enigmatic gaiety from the suburban drudgery of recent months. If only Mrs. Spaniel could see him now! He was about to utilize a brief pause by sipping his tea, when a white-headed patriarch suddenly appeared beside him.
"Mr. Gissing," said the vice-president, "this is my father, Mr. Beagle senior."
Gissing, by quick work, shuffled the teacup into his left paw, and the meringue plate into the crook of his elbow, so he was ready for the old gentleman's salutation. Mr. Beagle senior was indeed very old: his white hair hung over his eyes, he spoke with growling severity. Gissing's manner to the old merchant was one of respectful reassurance: he attempted to make an impression that would console: to impart — of course without saying so — the thought that though the head of the firm could not last much longer, yet he would leave his great traffic in capable care.
"Where will I find an aluminum cooking pot?" growled the elder Beagle unexpectedly.
"In the Bargain Basement," said Gissing promptly.
"He'll do!" cried the president.
To his surprise, on looking round, Gissing saw that all the ladies had vanished. Beagle junior was grinning at him.
"You have the job, Mr. Gissing," he said. "You will pardon the harmless masquerade — we always try out a floorwalker in that way. My father thinks that if he can handle a teacup and a meringue while being introduced to ladies, he can manage anything on the main aisle downstairs. Mrs. Pomeranian, our millinery buyer, said she had never seen it better done, and she mixes with some of the swellest people in Paris."
"Nine to six, with half an hour off for lunch," said the senior partner, and left the room.
Gissing calmly swallowed his tea, and ate the meringue. He would have enjoyed another, but the capable secretary had already removed them. He poured himself a second cup of tea. Mr. Beagle junior showed signs of eagerness to leave, but Gissing detained him.
"One moment," he said suavely. "There is a little matter that we have not discussed. The question of salary."
Mr. Beagle looked thoughtfully out of the window.
"Thirty dollars a week," he said.
After all, Gissing thought, it will only take four weeks to pay for what I have spent on clothes.