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THERE was some dramatic nerve in Gissing's nature that responded eloquently to the floorwalking job. Never, in the history of Beagle and Company, had there been a floorwalker who threw so much passion and zeal into his task. The very hang of his coattails, even the erect carriage of his back, the rubbery way in which his feet trod the aisles, showed his sense of dignity and glamour. There seemed to be a great tradition which enriched and upheld him. Mr. Beagle senior used to stand on the little balcony at the rear of the main floor, transfixed with the pleasure of seeing Gissing move among the crowded passages. Alert, watchful, urbane, with just the ideal blend of courtesy and condescension, he raised floorwalking to a social art. Female customers asked him the way to departments they knew perfectly well, for the pleasure of hearing him direct them. Business began to improve before he had been there a week.
And how he enjoyed himself! The perfection of his bearing on the floor was no careful pose: it was due to the brimming overplus of his happiness. Happiness is surely the best teacher of good manners: only the unhappy are churlish in deportment. He was young, remember; and this was his first job. His precocious experience as a paterfamilias had added to his mien just that suggestion of unconscious gravity which is so appealing to ladies. He looked (they thought) as though he had been touched — but oh so lightly! — by poetic sorrow or strange experience: to ask him the way to the notion counter was as much of an adventure as to meet a reigning actor at a tea. The faint cloud of melancholy that shadowed his brow may have been only due to the fact that his new boots were pinching painfully; but they did not know that.
So, quite unconsciously, he began to "establish" himself in his role, just as an actor does. At first he felt his way tentatively and with tact. Every store has its own tone and atmosphere: in a day or so he divined the characteristic cachet of the Beagle establishment. He saw what kind of customers were typical, and what sort of conduct they expected. And the secret of conquest being always to give people a little more than they expect, he pursued that course. Since they expected in a floorwalker the mechanical and servile gentility of a hired puppet, he exhibited the easy, offhand simplicity of a fellow club-member. With perfect naturalness he went out of his way to assist in their shopping concerns: gave advice in the selection of dress materials, acted as arbiter in the matching of frocks and stockings. His taste being faultless, it often happened that the things he recommended were not the most expensive: this again endeared him to customers. When sales slips were brought to him by ladies who wished to make an exchange, he affixed his O. K. with a magnificent flourish, and with such evident pleasure, that patrons felt genuine elation, and plunged into the tumult with new enthusiasm. It was not long before there were always people waiting for his counsel; and husbands would appear at the store to convey (a little irritably) some such message as: "Mrs. Sealyham says, please choose her a scarf that will go nicely with that brown moire dress of hers. She says you will remember the dress." — This popularity became even a bit perplexing, as for instance when old Mrs. Dachshund, the store's biggest Charge Account, insisted on his leaving his beat at a very busy time, to go up to the tenth floor to tell her which piano he thought had the richer tone.
Of course all this was very entertaining, and an admirable opportunity for studying his fellow-creatures; but it did not go very deep into his mind. He lived for some time in a confused glamour and glitter; surrounded by the fascinating specious life of the store, but drifting. merely superficially upon it. The great place, with its columns of artificial marble and white censers of upward-shining electricity, glimmered like a birch forest by moonlight. Silver and jewels and silks and slippers flashed all about him. It was a marvellous education, for he soon learned to estimate these things at their proper value; which is low, for they have little to do with life itself. His work was tiring in the extreme — merely having to remain upright on his hind legs for such long hours was an ordeal — but it did not penetrate to the secret observant self of which he was always aware. This was advantageous. If you have no intellect, or only just enough to get along with, it does not much matter what you do. But if you really have a mind — by which is meant that rare and curious power of reason, of imagination, and of emotion; very different from a mere fertility of conversation and intelligent curiosity — it is better not to weary and wear it out over trifles.
So, when he left the store in the evening, no matter how his legs ached, his head was clear and untarnished. He did not hurry away at closing time. Places where people work are particularly fascinating after the bustle is over. He loved to linger in the long aisles, to see the tumbled counters being swiftly brought to order, to hear the pungent cynicisms of the weary shopgirls. To these, by the way, he was a bit of a mystery. The punctilio of his manner, the extreme courtliness of his remarks, embarrassed them a little. Behind his back they spoke of him as "The Duke" and admired him hugely; little Miss Whippet, at the stocking counter, said that he was an English noble of long pedigree, who had been unjustly deprived of his estates.
Down in the basement of this palatial store was a little dressing room and lavatory for the floorwalkers, where they doffed their formal raiment and resumed street attire. His colleagues grumbled and hastened to depart, but Gissing made himself entirely comfortable. In his locker he kept a baby's bathtub, which he leisurely filled with hot water at one of the basins. Then he sat serenely and bathed his feet; although it was against the rules he often managed to smoke a pipe while doing so. Then he hung up his store clothes neatly, and went off refreshed into the summer evening.
A warm rosy light floods the city at that hour. At the foot of every crosstown street is a bonfire of sunset. What a mood of secret smiling beset him as he viewed the great territory of his enjoyment. "The freedom of the city" — a phrase he had somewhere heard — echoed in his mind. The freedom of the city! A magnificent saying. Electric signs, first burning wanly in the pink air, then brightened and grew strong. "Not light, but rather darkness visible," in that magic. hour that just holds the balance between paling day and the spendthrift jewellery of evening. Or, if it rained, to sit blithely on the roof of a bus, revelling in the gust and whipping of the shower. Why had no one told him of the glory of the city? She was pride, she was exultation, she was madness. She was what he had obscurely craved. In every line of her gallant profile he saw conquest, triumph, victory! Empty conquest, futile triumph, doomed victory — but that was the essence of the drama. In thunderclaps of dumb ecstasy he saw her whole gigantic fabric, leaning and clamouring upward with terrible yearning. Burnt with pitiless sunlight, drenched with purple explosions of summer storm, he saw her cleansed and pure. Where were her recreant poets that they had never made these things plain?
And then, after the senseless day, after its happy but meaningless triviality, the throng and mixed perfumery and silly courteous gestures, his blessed solitude! Oh solitude, that noble peace of the mind! He loved the throng and multitude of the day: he loved people: but sometimes he suspected that he loved them as God does — at a judicious distance. From his rather haphazard religious training, strange words came back to him. "For God so loved the world . . ." So loved the world that — that what? That He sent someone else . . . Some day he must think this out. But you can't think things out. They think themselves, suddenly, amazingly. The city itself is God, he cried. Was not God's ultimate promise something about a city — The City of God? Well, but that was only symbolic language. The city — of course that was only a symbol for the race — for all his kind. The entire species, the whole aspiration and passion and struggle, that was God.
On the ferries, at night, after supper, was his favourite place for meditation. Some undeniable instinct drew big ever and again out of the deep and shut ravines of stone, to places where he could feed on distance. That is one of the subtleties of this straight and narrow city, that though her ways are cuffed in, they are a long thoroughfare for the eye: there is always a far perspective. But best of all to go down to her environing water, where spaces are wide: the openness that keeps her sound and free. Ships had words for him: they had crossed many horizons: fragments of that broken blue still shone on their cutting bows. Ferries, the most poetical things in the city, were nearly empty at night: he stood by the rail, saw the black outline of the town slide by, saw the lower sky gilded with her merriment, and was busy thinking.
Now about a God (he said to himself) — instinct tells me that there is one, for when I think about Him I find that I unconsciously wag my tail a little. But I must not reason on that basis, which is too puppyish. I like to think that there is, somewhere in this universe, an inscrutable Being of infinite wisdom, harmony, and charity, by Whom all my desires and needs would be understood; in association with Whom I would find peace, satisfaction, a lightness of heart that exceed my present understanding. Such a Being is to me quite inconceivable; yet I feel that if I get Him, I would instantly understand. I do not mean that I would understand Him: but I would understand my relationship to Him, which would be perfect. Nor do I mean that it would be always happy; merely that it would transcend anything in the way of so al significance that I now experience. But I must not conclude that there is such a God, merely because it would be so pleasant if there were.
Then (he continued) is it necessary to conceive that this deity is super-canine in essence? What I am getting at is this: in everyone I have ever known — Fuji, Mr. Poodle, Mrs. Spaniel, those maddening delightful puppies, Mrs. Purp, Mr. Beagle, even Mrs. Chow and Mrs. Sealyham and little Miss Whippet — I have always been aware that there was some mysterious point of union at which our minds could converge and entirely understand one another. No matter what our difference of breed, of training, of experience and education, provided we could meet and exchange ideas honestly there would be some satisfying point of mental fusion where we would feel our solidarity in the common mystery of life. People complain that wars are caused by and fought over trivial things. Why, of course! For it is only in trivial matters that people differ: in the deep realities they must necessarily be at one. Now I have a suspicion that in this secret sense of unity God may lurk. Is that what we mean by God, the sum total of all these instinctive understandings? But what is the origin of this sense of kinship? Is it not the realization of our common subjection to laws and forces greater than ourselves? Then, since nothing can be greater than God, He must be these superior mysteries. Yet He cannot be greater than our minds, for our minds have imagined Him.
My mathematics is very rusty, he said to himself, but I seem to remember something about a locus, which was a curve or a surface every point on which satisfied some particular equation of relation among the coördinates. It begins to look to me as though life might be a kind of locus, whose commanding equation we call God. The points on that locus cannot conceive of the equation, yet they are subject to it. They cannot conceive of that equation, because of course it has no existence save as a law of their being. It exists only for them; they, only by it. But there it is — a perfect, potent, divine abstraction.
This carried him into a realm of disembodied thinking which his mind was not sufficiently disciplined to summarize. It is quite plain, he said to himself, that I must rub up my vanished mathematics. For certainly the mathematician comes closer to God than any other, since his mind is trained to conceive and formulate the magnificent phantoms of legality. He smiled to think that any one should presume to become a parson without having at least mastered analytical geometry.
The ferry had crossed and recrossed the river several times, but Gissing had found no conclusion for these thoughts. As the boat drew toward her slip, she passed astern of a great liner. Gissing saw the four tall funnels loom up above the shed of the pier where she lay berthed. What was it that made his heart so stir? The perfect rake of the funnels — just that satisfying angle of slant — that, absurdly enough, was the nobility of the sight. Why, then? Let's get at the heart of this, he said. Just that little trick of the architect, useless in itself — what was it but the touch of swagger, of bravado, of defiance — going out into the vast, meaningless, unpitying sea with that dainty arrogance of build; taking the trouble to mock the senseless elements, hurricane, ice, and fog, with a 15-degree slope of masts and funnels . . . damn, what was the analogy?
It was pride, it was pride! It was the same lusty impudence that he saw in his perfect city, the city that cried out to the hearts of youth, jutted her mocking pinnacles toward sky, her clumsy turrets verticalled on gold! And God, the God of gales and gravity, loved His children to dare and contradict Him, to rally Him with equations of their own.
"God, I defy you!" he cried.