WHERE THE BLUE BEGINS
by Christopher Morley
TO FELIX and TOTO
"I am not free— And it may be Life is too tight around my shins; For, unlike you, I can't break through A truant where the blue begins.
"Out of the very element Of bondage, that here holds me pent, I'll make my furious sonnet: I'll turn my noose To tightrope use And madly dance upon it.
"So I will take My leash, and make A wilder and more subtle fleeing And I shall be More escapading and more free Than you have ever dreamed of being!"
Gissing lived alone (except for his Japanese butler) in a little house in the country, in that woodland suburb region called the Canine Estates. He lived comfortably and thoughtfully, as bachelors often do. He came of a respectable family, who had always conducted themselves calmly and without too much argument. They had bequeathed him just enough income to live on cheerfully, without display but without having to do addition and subtraction at the end of the month and then tear up the paper lest Fuji (the butler) should see it.
It was strange, since Gissing was so pleasantly situated in life, that he got into these curious adventures that I have to relate. I do not attempt to explain it.
He had no responsibilities, not even a motor car, for his tastes were surprisingly simple. If he happened to be spending an evening at the country club, and a rainstorm came down, he did not worry about getting home. He would sit by the fire and chuckle to see the married members creep away one by one. He would get out his pipe and sleep that night at the club, after telephoning Fuji not to sit up for him. When he felt like it he used to read in bed, and even smoke in bed. When he went to town to the theatre, he would spend the night at a hotel to avoid the fatigue of the long ride on the 11:44 train. He chose a different hotel each time, so that it was always an Adventure. He had a great deal of fun.
But having fun is not quite the same as being happy. Even an income of 1000 bones a year does not answer all questions. That charming little house among the groves and thickets seemed to him surrounded by strange whispers and quiet voices. He was uneasy. He was restless, and did not know why. It was his theory that discipline must be maintained in the household, so he did not tell Fuji his feelings. Even when he was alone, he always kept up a certain formality in the domestic routine. Fuji would lay out his dinner jacket on the bed: he dressed, came down to the dining room with quiet dignity, and the evening meal was served by candle-light. As long as Fuji was at work, Gissing sat carefully in the armchair by the hearth, smoking a cigar and pretending to read the paper. But as soon as the butler had gone upstairs, Gissing always kicked off his dinner suit and stiff shirt, and lay down on the hearth-rug. But he did not sleep. He would watch the wings of flame gilding the dark throat of the chimney, and his mind seemed drawn upward on that rush of light, up into the pure chill air where the moon was riding among sluggish thick floes of cloud. In the darkness he heard chiming voices, wheedling and tantalizing. One night he was walking on his little verandah. Between rafts of silver-edged clouds were channels of ocean-blue sky, inconceivably deep and transparent. The air was serene, with a faint acid taste. Suddenly there shrilled a soft, sweet, melancholy whistle, earnestly repeated. It seemed to come from the little pond in the near-by copses. It struck him strangely. It might be anything, he thought. He ran furiously through the field, and to the brim of the pond. He could find nothing, all was silent. Then the whistlings broke out again, all round him, maddeningly. This kept on, night after night. The parson, whom he consulted, said it was only frogs; but Gissing told the constable he thought God had something to do with it.
Then willow trees and poplars showed a pallid bronze sheen, forsythias were as yellow as scrambled eggs, maples grew knobby with red buds. Among the fresh bright grass came, here and there, exhilarating smells of last year's buried bones. The little upward slit at the back of Gissing's nostrils felt prickly. He thought that if he could bury it deep enough in cold beef broth it would be comforting. Several times he went out to the pantry intending to try the experiment, but every time Fuji happened to be around. Fuji was a Japanese pug, and rather correct, so Gissing was ashamed to do what he wanted to. He pretended he had come out to see that the icebox pan had been emptied properly.
"I must get the plumber to put in a pukka drain-pipe to take the place of the pan," Gissing said to Fuji; but he knew that he had no intention of doing so. The ice-box pan was his private test of a good servant. A cook who forgot to empty it was too careless, he thought, to be a real success.
But certainly there was some curious elixir in the air. He went for walks, and as soon as he was out of sight of the houses he threw down his hat and stick and ran wildly, with great exultation, over the hills and fields. "I really ought to turn all this energy into some sort of constructive work," he said to himself. No one else, he mused, seemed to enjoy life as keenly and eagerly as he did. He wondered, too, about the other sex. Did they feel these violent impulses to run, to shout, to leap and caper in the sunlight? But he was a little startled, on one of his expeditions, to see in the distance the curate rushing hotly through the underbrush, his clerical vestments dishevelled, his tongue hanging out with excitement.
"I must go to church more often," said Gissing.
In the golden light and pringling air he felt excitable and high-strung. His tail curled upward until it ached. Finally he asked Mike Terrier, who lived next door, what was wrong.
"It's spring," Mike said.
"Oh, yes, of course, jolly old spring!" said Gissing, as though this was something he had known all along, and had just forgotten for the moment. But he didn't know. This was his first spring, for he was only ten months old.
Outwardly he was the brisk, genial figure that the suburb knew and esteemed. He was something of a mystery among his neighbours of the Canine Estates, because he did not go daily to business in the city, as most of them did; nor did he lead a life of brilliant amusement like the Airedales, the wealthy people whose great house was near by. Mr. Poodle, the conscientious curate, had called several times but was not able to learn anything definite. There was a little card-index of parishioners, which it was Mr. Poodle's duty to fill in with details of each person's business, charitable inclinations, and what he could do to amuse a Church Sociable. The card allotted to Gissing was marked, in Mr. Poodle's neat script, Friendly, but vague as to definite participation in Xian activities. Has not communicated.
But in himself, Gissing was increasingly disturbed. Even his seizures of joy, which came as he strolled in the smooth spring air and sniffed the wild, vigorous aroma of the woodland earth, were troublesome because he did not know why he was so glad. Every morning it seemed to him that life was about to exhibit some delicious crisis in which the meaning and excellence of all things would plainly appear. He sang in the bathtub. Daily it became more difficult to maintain that decorum which Fuji expected. He felt that his life was being wasted. He wondered what ought to be done about it.
It was after dinner, an April evening, and Gissing slipped away from the house for a stroll. He was afraid to stay in, because he knew that if he did, Fuji would ask him again to fix the dishcloth rack in the kitchen. Fuji was very short in stature, and could not reach up to the place where the rack was screwed over the sink. Like all people whose minds are very active, Gissing hated to attend to little details like this. It was a weakness in his character. Fuji had asked him six times to fix the rack, but Gissing always pretended to forget about it. To appease his methodical butler he had written on a piece of paper FIX DISHCLOTH RACK and pinned it on his dressing-table pincushion; but he paid no attention to the memorandum.
He went out into a green April dusk. Down by the pond piped those repeated treble whistlings: they still distressed him with a mysterious unriddled summons, but Mike Terrier had told him that the secret of respectability is to ignore whatever you don't understand. Careful observation of this maxim had somewhat dulled the cry of that shrill queer music. It now caused only a faint pain in his mind. Still, he walked that way because the little meadow by the pond was agreeably soft underfoot. Also, when he walked close beside the water the voices were silent. That is worth noting, he said to himself. If you go directly at the heart of a mystery, it ceases to be a mystery, and becomes only a question of drainage. (Mr. Poodle had told him that if he had the pond and swamp drained, the frog-song would not annoy him.) But to-night, when the keen chirruping ceased, there was still another sound that did not cease—a faint, appealing cry. It caused a prickling on his shoulder blades, it made him both angry and tender. He pushed through the bushes. In a little hollow were three small puppies, whining faintly. They were cold and draggled with mud. Someone had left them there, evidently, to perish. They were huddled close together; their eyes, a cloudy unspeculative blue, were only just opened. "This is gruesome," said Gissing, pretending to be shocked. "Dear me, innocent pledges of sin, I dare say. Well, there is only one thing to do."
He picked them up carefully and carried them home.
"Quick, Fuji!" he said. "Warm some milk, some of the Grade A, and put a little brandy in it. I'll get the spare-room bed ready."
He rushed upstairs, wrapped the puppies in a blanket, and turned on the electric heater to take the chill from the spare-room. The little pads of their paws were ice-cold, and he filled the hot water bottle and held it carefully to their twelve feet. Their pink stomachs throbbed, and at first he feared they were dying. "They must not die!" he said fiercely. "If they did, it would be a matter for the police, and no end of trouble."
Fuji came up with the milk, and looked very grave when he saw the muddy footprints on the clean sheet.
"Now, Fuji," said Gissing, "do you suppose they can lap, or will we have to pour it down?"
In spite of his superior manner, Fuji was a good fellow in an emergency. It was he who suggested the fountain-pen filler. They washed the ink out of it, and used it to drip the hot brandy-and-milk down the puppies' throats. Their noses, which had been icy, suddenly became very hot and dry. Gissing feared a fever and thought their temperatures should be taken.
"The only thermometer we have," he said, "is the one on the porch, with the mercury split in two. I don't suppose that would do. Have you a clinical thermometer, Fuji?"
Fuji felt that his employer was making too much fuss over the matter.
"No, sir," he said firmly. "They are quite all right. A good sleep will revive them. They will be as fit as possible in the morning."
Fuji went out into the garden to brush the mud from his neat white jacket. His face was inscrutable. Gissing sat by the spare-room bed until he was sure the puppies were sleeping correctly. He closed the door so that Fuji would not hear him humming a lullaby. Three Blind Mice was the only nursery song he could remember, and he sang it over and over again.
When he tiptoed downstairs, Fuji had gone to bed. Gissing went into his study, lit a pipe, and walked up and down, thinking. By and bye he wrote two letters. One was to a bookseller in the city, asking him to send (at once) one copy of Dr. Holt's book on the Care and Feeding of Children, and a well-illustrated edition of Mother Goose. The other was to Mr. Poodle, asking him to fix a date for the christening of Mr. Gissing's three small nephews, who had come to live with him.
"It is lucky they are all boys," said Gissing. "I would know nothing about bringing up girls."
"I suppose," he added after a while, "that I shall have to raise Fuji's wages."
Then he went into the kitchen and fixed the dishcloth rack.
Before going to bed that night he took his usual walk around the house. The sky was freckled with stars. It was generally his habit to make a tour of his property toward midnight, to be sure everything was in good order. He always looked into the ice-box, and admired the cleanliness of Fuji's arrangements. The milk bottles were properly capped with their round cardboard tops; the cheese was never put on the same rack with the butter; the doors of the ice-box were carefully latched. Such observations, and the slow twinkle of the fire in the range, deep down under the curfew layer of coals, pleased him. In the cellar he peeped into the garbage can, for it was always a satisfaction to assure himself that Fuji did not waste anything that could be used. One of the laundry tub taps was dripping, with a soft measured tinkle: he said to himself that he really must have it attended to. All these domestic matters seemed more significant than ever when he thought of youthful innocence sleeping upstairs in the spare-room bed. His had been a selfish life hitherto, he feared. These puppies were just what he needed to take him out of himself.
Busy with these thoughts, he did not notice the ironical whistling coming from the pond. He tasted the night air with cheerful satisfaction. "At any rate, to-morrow will be a fine day," he said.
The next day it rained. But Gissing was too busy to think about the weather. Every hour or so during the night he had gone into the spare room to listen attentively to the breathing of the puppies, to pull the blanket over them, and feel their noses. It seemed to him that they were perspiring a little, and he was worried lest they catch cold. His morning sleep (it had always been his comfortable habit to lie abed a trifle late) was interrupted about seven o'clock by a lively clamour across the hall. The puppies were awake, perfectly restored, and while they were too young to make their wants intelligible, they plainly expected some attention. He gave them a pair of old slippers to play with, and proceeded to his own toilet.
As he was bathing them, after breakfast, he tried to enlist Fuji's enthusiasm. "Did you ever see such fat rascals?" he said. "I wonder if we ought to trim their tails? How pink their stomachs are, and how pink and delightful between their toes! You hold these two while I dry the other. No, not that way! Hold them so you support their spines. A puppy's back is very delicate: you can't be too careful. We'll have to do things in a rough-and-ready way until Dr. Holt's book comes. After that we can be scientific."
Fuji did not seem very keen. Presently, in spite of the rain, he was dispatched to the village department store to choose three small cribs and a multitude of safety pins. "Plenty of safety pins is the idea," said Gissing. "With enough safety pins handy, children are easy to manage."
As soon as the puppies were bestowed on the porch, in the sunshine, for their morning nap, he telephoned to the local paperhanger.
"I want you" (he said) "to come up as soon as you can with some nice samples of nursery wallpaper. A lively Mother Goose pattern would do very well." He had already decided to change the spare room into a nursery. He telephoned the carpenter to make a gate for the top of the stairs. He was so busy that he did not even have time to think of his pipe, or the morning paper. At last, just before lunch, he found a breathing space. He sat down in the study to rest his legs, and looked for the Times. It was not in its usual place on his reading table. At that moment the puppies woke up, and he ran out to attend them. He would have been distressed if he had known that Fuji had the paper in the kitchen, and was studying the HELP WANTED columns.
A great deal of interest was aroused in the neighbourhood by the arrival of Gissing's nephews, as he called them. Several of the ladies, who had ignored him hitherto, called, in his absence, and left extra cards. This implied (he supposed, though he was not closely versed in such niceties of society) that there was a Mrs. Gissing, and he was annoyed, for he felt certain they knew he was a bachelor. But the children were a source of nothing but pride to him. They grew with astounding rapidity, ate their food without coaxing, rarely cried at night, and gave him much amusement by their naive ways. He was too occupied to be troubled with introspection. Indeed, his well-ordered home was very different from before. The trim lawn, in spite of his zealous efforts, was constantly littered with toys. In sheer mischief the youngsters got into his wardrobe and chewed off the tails of his evening dress coat. But he felt a satisfying dignity and happiness in his new status as head of a family.
What worried him most was the fear that Fuji would complain of this sudden addition to his duties. The butler's face was rather an enigma, particularly at meal times, when Gissing sat at the dinner table surrounded by the three puppies in their high chairs, with a spindrift of milk and prune-juice spattering generously as the youngsters plied their spoons. Fuji had arranged a series of scuppers, made of oilcloth, underneath the chairs; but in spite of this the dining-room rug, after a meal, looked much as the desert place must have after the feeding of the multitude. Fuji, who was pensive, recalled the five loaves and two fishes that produced twelve baskets of fragments. The vacuum cleaner got clogged by a surfeit of crumbs.
Gissing saw that it would be a race between heart and head. If Fuji's heart should become entangled (that is, if the innocent charms of the children should engage his affections before his reason convinced him that the situation was now too arduous), there was some hope. He tried to ease the problem also by mental suggestion. "It is really remarkable" (he said to Fuji) "that children should give one so little trouble." As he made this remark, he was speeding hotly to and fro between the bathroom and the nursery, trying to get one tucked in bed and another undressed, while the third was lashing the tub into soapy foam. Fuji made his habitual response, "Very good, sir." But one fears that he detected some insincerity, for the next day, which was Sunday, he gave notice. This generally happens on a Sunday, because the papers publish more Help Wanted advertisements then than on any other day.
"I'm sorry, sir," he said. "But when I took this place there was nothing said about three children."
This was unreasonable of Fuji. It is very rare to have everything explained beforehand. When Adam and Eve were put into the Garden of Eden, there was nothing said about the serpent.
However, Gissing did not believe in entreating a servant to stay. He offered to give Fuji a raise, but the butler was still determined to leave.
"My senses are very delicate," he said. "I really cannot stand the—well, the aroma exhaled by those three children when they have had a warm bath."
"What nonsense!" cried Gissing. "The smell of wet, healthy puppies? Nothing is more agreeable. You are cold-blooded: I don't believe you are fond of puppies. Think of their wobbly black noses. Consider how pink is the little cleft between their toes and the main cushion of their feet. Their ears are like silk. Inside their upper jaws are parallel black ridges, most remarkable. I never realized before how beautifully and carefully we are made. I am surprised that you should be so indifferent to these things."
There was a moisture in Fuji's eyes, but he left at the end of the week.
A solitary little path ran across the fields not far from the house. It lay deep among tall grasses and the withered brittle stalks of last autumn's goldenrod, and here Gissing rambled in the green hush of twilight, after the puppies were in bed. In less responsible days he would have lain down on his back, with all four legs upward, and cheerily shrugged and rolled to and fro, as the crisp ground-stubble was very pleasing to the spine. But now he paced soberly, the smoke from his pipe eddying just above the top of the grasses. He had much to meditate.
The dogwood tree by the house was now in flower. The blossoms, with their four curved petals, seemed to spin like tiny white propellers in the bright air. When he saw them fluttering Gissing had a happy sensation of movement. The business of those tremulous petals seemed to be thrusting his whole world forward and forward, through the viewless ocean of space. He felt as though he were on a ship—as, indeed, we are. He had never been down to the open sea, but he had imagined it. There, he thought, there must be the satisfaction of a real horizon.
Horizons had been a great disappointment to him. In earlier days he had often slipped out of the house not long after sunrise, and had marvelled at the blue that lies upon the skyline. Here, about him, were the clear familiar colours of the world he knew; but yonder, on the hills, were trees and spaces of another more heavenly tint. That soft blue light, if he could reach it, must be the beginning of what his mind required.
He envied Mr. Poodle, whose cottage was on that very hillslope that rose so imperceptibly into sky. One morning he ran and ran, in the lifting day, but always the blue receded. Hot and unbuttoned, he came by the curate's house, just as the latter emerged to pick up the morning paper.
"Where does the blue begin?" Gissing panted, trying hard to keep his tongue from sliding out so wetly.
The curate looked a trifle disturbed. He feared that something unpleasant had happened, and that his assistance might be required before breakfast.
"It is going to be a warm day," he said politely, and stooped for the newspaper, as a delicate hint.
"Where does—?" began Gissing, quivering; but at that moment, looking round, he saw that it had hoaxed him again. Far away, on his own hill the other side of the village, shone the evasive colour. As usual, he had been too impetuous. He had not watched it while he ran; it had circled round behind him. He resolved to be more methodical.
The curate gave him a blank to fill in, relative to baptizing the children, and was relieved to see him hasten away.
But all this was some time ago. As he walked the meadow path, Gissing suddenly realized that lately he had had little opportunity for pursuing blue horizons. Since Fuji's departure every moment, from dawn to dusk, was occupied. In three weeks he had had three different servants, but none of them would stay. The place was too lonely, they said, and with three puppies the work was too hard. The washing, particularly was a horrid problem. Inexperienced as a parent, Gissing was probably too proud: he wanted the children always to look clean and soigne. The last cook had advertised herself as a General Houseworker, afraid of nothing; but as soon as she saw the week's wash in the hamper (including twenty-one grimy rompers), she telephoned to the station for a taxi. Gissing wondered why it was that the working classes were not willing to do one-half as much as he, who had been reared to indolent ease. Even more, he was irritated by a suspicion of the ice-wagon driver. He could not prove it, but he had an idea that this uncouth fellow obtained a commission from the Airedales and Collies, who had large mansions in the neighbourhood, for luring maids from the smaller homes. Of course Mrs. Airedale and Mrs. Collie could afford to pay any wages at all. So now the best he could do was to have Mrs. Spaniel, the charwoman, come up from the village to do the washing and ironing, two days a week. The rest of the work he undertook himself. On a clear afternoon, when the neighbours were not looking, he would take his own shirts and things down to the pond—putting them neatly in the bottom of the red express-wagon, with the puppies sitting on the linen, so no one would see. While the puppies played about and hunted for tadpoles, he would wash his shirts himself.
His legs ached as he took his evening stroll—keeping within earshot of the house, so as to hear any possible outcry from the nursery. He had been on his feet all day. But he reflected that there was a real satisfaction in his family tasks, however gruelling. Now, at last (he said to himself), I am really a citizen, not a mere dilettante. Of course it is arduous. No one who is not a parent realizes, for example, the extraordinary amount of buttoning and unbuttoning necessary in rearing children. I calculate that 50,000 buttonings are required for each one before it reaches the age of even rudimentary independence. With the energy so expended one might write a great novel or chisel a statue. Never mind: these urchins must be my Works of Art. If one were writing a novel, he could not delegate to a hired servant the composition of laborious chapters.
So he took his responsibility gravely. This was partly due to the christening service, perhaps, which had gone off very charmingly. It had not been without its embarrassments. None of the neighbouring ladies would stand as godmother, for they were secretly dubious as to the children's origin; so he had asked good Mrs. Spaniel to act in that capacity. She, a simple kindly creature, was much flattered, though certainly she can have understood very little of the symbolical rite. Gissing, filling out the form that Mr. Poodle had given him, had put down the names of an entirely imaginary brother and sister-in-law of his, "deceased," whom he asserted as the parents. He had been so busy with preparations that he did not find time, before the ceremony, to study the text of the service; and when he and Mrs. Spaniel stood beneath the font with an armful of ribboned infancy, he was frankly startled by the magnitude of the promises exacted from him. He found that, on behalf of the children, he must "renounce the devil and all his work, the vain pomp and glory of the world;" that he must pledge himself to see that these infants would "crucify the old man and utterly abolish the whole body of sin." It was rather doubtful whether they would do so, he reflected, as he felt them squirming in his arms while Mrs. Spaniel was busy trying to keep their socks on. When the curate exhorted him "to follow the innocency" of these little ones, it was disconcerting to have one of them burst into a piercing yammer, and wriggle so forcibly that it slipped quite out of its little embroidered shift and flannel band. But the actual access to the holy basin was more seemly, perhaps due to the children imagining they were going to find tadpoles there. When Mr. Poodle held them up they smiled with a vague almost bashful simplicity; and Mrs. Spaniel could not help murmuring "The darlings!" The curate, less experienced with children, had insisted on holding all three at once, and Gissing feared lest one of them might swarm over the surpliced shoulder and fall splash into the font. But though they panted a little with excitement, they did nothing to mar the solemn instant. While Mrs. Spaniel was picking up the small socks with which the floor was strewn, Gissing was deeply moved by the poetry of the ceremony. He felt that something had really been accomplished toward "burying the Old Adam." And if Mrs. Spaniel ever grew disheartened at the wash-tubs, he was careful to remind her of the beautiful phrase about the mystical washing away of sin.
They had been christened Groups, Bunks, and Yelpers, three traditional names in his family.
Indeed, he was reflecting as he walked in the dusk, Mrs. Spaniel was now his sheet anchor. Fortunately she showed signs of becoming extraordinarily attached to the puppies. On the two days a week when she came up from the village, it was even possible for him to get a little relaxation—to run down to the station for tobacco, or to lie in the hammock briefly with a book. Looking off from his airy porch, he could see the same blue distances that had always tempted him, but he felt too passive to wonder about them. He had given up the idea of trying to get any other servants. If it had been possible, he would have engaged Mrs. Spaniel to sleep in the house and be there permanently; but she had children of her own down in the shantytown quarter of the village, and had to go back to them at night. But certainly he made every effort to keep her contented. It was a long steep climb up from the hollow, so he allowed her to come in a taxi and charge it to his account. Then, on condition that she would come on Saturdays also, to help him clean up for Sunday, he allowed her, on that day, to bring her own children too, and all the puppies played riotously together around the place. But this he presently discontinued, for the clamour became so deafening that the neighbours complained. Besides, the young Spaniels, who were a little older, got Groups, Bunks, and Yelpers into noisy and careless habits of speech.
He was anxious that they should grow up refined, and was distressed by little Shaggy Spaniel having brought up the Comic Section of a Sunday paper. With childhood's instinctive taste for primitive effects, the puppies fell in love with the coloured cartoons, and badgered him continually for "funny papers."
There is a great deal more to think about in raising children (he said to himself) than is intimated in Dr. Holt's book on Care and Feeding. Even in matters that he had always taken for granted, such as fairy tales, he found perplexity. After supper—(he now joined the children in their evening bread and milk, for after cooking them a hearty lunch of meat and gravy and potatoes and peas and the endless spinach and carrots that the doctors advise, to say nothing of the prunes, he had no energy to prepare a special dinner for himself)—after supper it was his habit to read to them, hoping to give their imaginations a little exercise before they went to bed. He was startled to find that Grimm and Hans Andersen, which he had considered as authentic classics for childhood, were full of very strong stuff—morbid sentiment, bloodshed, horror, and all manner of painful circumstance. Reading the tales aloud, he edited as he went along; but he was subject to that curious weakness that afflicts some people: reading aloud made him helplessly sleepy: after a page or so he would fall into a doze, from which he would be awakened by the crash of a lamp or some other furniture. The children, seized with that furious hilarity that usually begins just about bedtime, would race madly about the house until some breakage or a burst of tears woke him from his trance. He would thrash them all and put them to bed howling. When they were asleep he would be touched with tender compassion, and steal in to tuck them up, admiring the innocence of each unconscious muzzle on its pillow. Sometimes, in a crisis of his problems, he thought of writing to Dr. Holt for advice; but the will-power was lacking.
It is really astonishing how children can exhaust one, he used to think. Sometimes, after a long day, he was even too weary to correct their grammar. "You lay down!" Groups would admonish Yelpers, who was capering in his crib while Bunks was being lashed in with the largest size of safety pins. And Gissing, doggedly passing from one to another, was really too fatigued to reprove the verb, picked up from Mrs. Spaniel.
Fairy tales proving a disappointment, he had great hopes of encouraging them in drawing. He bought innumerable coloured crayons and stacks of scribbling paper. After supper they would all sit down around the dining-room table and he drew pictures for them. Tongues depending with concentrated excitement, the children would try to copy these pictures and colour them. In spite of having three complete sets of crayons, a full roster of colours could rarely be found at drawing time. Bunks had the violet when Groups wanted it, and so on. But still, this was often the happiest hour of the day. Gissing drew amazing trains, elephants, ships, and rainbows, with the spectrum of colours correctly arranged and blended. The children specially loved his landscapes, which were opulently tinted and magnificent in long perspectives. He found himself always colouring the far horizons a pale and haunting blue.
He was meditating these things when a shrill yammer recalled him to the house.
In this warm summer weather Gissing slept on a little outdoor balcony that opened off the nursery. The world, rolling in her majestic seaway, heeled her gunwale slowly into the trough of space. Disked upon this bulwark, the sun rose, and promptly Gissing woke. The poplars flittered in a cool stir. Beyond the tadpole pond, through a notch in the landscape, he could see the far darkness of the hills. That fringe of woods was a railing that kept the sky from flooding over the earth.
The level sun, warily peering over the edge like a cautious marksman, fired golden volleys unerringly at him. At once Gissing was aware and watchful. Brief truce was over: the hopeless war with Time began anew.
This was his placid hour. Light, so early, lies timidly along the ground. It steals gently from ridge to ridge; it is soft, unsure. That blue dimness, receding from bole to bole, is the skirt of Night's garment, trailing off toward some other star. As easily as it slips from tree to tree, it glides from earth to Orion.
Light, which later will riot and revel and strike pitilessly down, still is tender and tentative. It sweeps in rosy scythe-strokes, parallel to earth. It gilds, where later it will burn.
Gissing lay, without stirring. The springs of the old couch were creaky, and the slightest sound might arouse the children within. Now, until they woke, was his peace. Purposely he had had the sleeping porch built on the eastern side of the house. Making the sun his alarm clock, he prolonged the slug-a-bed luxury. He had procured the darkest and most opaque of all shades for the nursery windows, to cage as long as possible in that room Night the silencer. At this time of the year, the song of the mosquito was his dreaded nightingale. In spite of fine-mesh screens, always one or two would get in. Mrs. Spaniel, he feared, left the kitchen door ajar during the day, and these Borgias of the insect world, patiently invasive, seized their chance. It was a rare night when a sudden scream did not come from the nursery every hour or so. "Daddy, a keeto, a keeto!" was the anguish from one of the trio. The other two were up instantly, erect and yelping in their cribs, small black paws on the rail, pink stomachs candidly exposed to the winged stilleto. Lights on, and the room must be explored for the lurking foe. Scratching themselves vigorously, the fun of the chase assuaged the smart of those red welts. Gissing, wise by now, knew that after a forager the mosquito always retires to the ceiling, so he kept a stepladder in the room. Mounted on this, he would pursue the enemy with a towel, while the children screamed with merriment. Then stomachs must be anointed with more citronella; sheets and blankets reassembled, and quiet gradually restored. Life, as parents know, can be supported on very little sleep.
But how delicious to lie there, in the morning freshness, to hear the earth stir with reviving gusto, the merriment of birds, the exuberant clink of milk-bottles set down by the back-door, the whole complex machinery of life begin anew! Gissing was amazed now, looking back upon his previous existence, to see himself so busy, so active. Few people are really lazy, he thought: what we call laziness is merely maladjustment. For in any department of life where one is genuinely interested, he will be zealous beyond belief. Certainly he had not dreamed, until he became (in a manner of speaking) a parent, that he had in him such capacity for detail.
This business of raising a family, though—had he any true aptitude for it? or was he forcing himself to go through with it? Wasn't he, moreover, incurring all the labours of parenthood without any of its proper dignity and social esteem? Mrs. Chow down the street, for instance, why did she look so sniffingly upon him when she heard the children, in the harmless uproar of their play, cry him aloud as Daddy? Uncle, he had intended they should call him; but that is, for beginning speech, a hard saying, embracing both a palatal and a liquid. Whereas Da-da—the syllables come almost unconsciously to the infant mouth. So he had encouraged it, and even felt an irrational pride in the honourable but unearned title.
A little word, Daddy, but one of the most potent, he was thinking. More than a word, perhaps: a great social engine: an anchor which, cast carelessly overboard, sinks deep and fast into the very bottom. The vessel rides on her hawser, and where are your blue horizons then?
But come now, isn't one horizon as good as another? And do they really remain blue when you reach them?
Unconsciously he stirred, stretching his legs deeply into the comfortable nest of his couch. The springs twanged. Simultaneous clamours! The puppies were awake.
They yelled to be let out from the cribs. This was the time of the morning frolic. Gissing had learned that there is only one way to deal with the almost inexhaustible energy of childhood. That is, not to attempt to check it, but to encourage and draw it out. To start the day with a rush, stimulating every possible outlet of zeal; meanwhile taking things as calmly and quietly as possible himself, sitting often to take the weight off his legs, and allowing the youngsters to wear themselves down. This, after all, is Nature's own way with man; it is the wise parent's tactic with children. Thus, by dusk, the puppies will have run themselves almost into a stupor; and you, if you have shrewdly husbanded your strength, may have still a little power in reserve for reading and smoking.
The before-breakfast game was conducted on regular routine. Children show their membership in the species by their love of strict habit.
Gissing let them yell for a few moments—as long as he thought the neighbours would endure it—while he gradually gathered strength and resolution, shook off the cowardice of bed. Then he strode into the nursery. As soon as they heard him raising the shades there was complete silence. They hastened to pull the blankets over themselves, and lay tense, faces on paws, with bright expectant upward eyes. They trembled a little with impatience. It was all he could do to restrain himself from patting the sleek heads, which always seemed to shine with extra polish after a night's rolling to and fro on the flattened pillows. But sternness was a part of the game at this moment. He solemnly unlatched and lowered the tall sides of the cribs.
He stood in the middle of the room, with a gesture of command. "Quiet now," he said. "Quiet, until I tell you!"
Yelpers could not help a small whine of intense emotion, which slipped out unintended. The eyes of Groups and Bunks swivelled angrily toward their unlucky brother. It was his failing: in crises he always emitted haphazard sounds. But this time Gissing, with lenient forgiveness, pretended not to have heard.
He returned to the balcony, and reentered his couch, where he lay feigning sleep. In the nursery was a terrific stillness.
It was the rule of the game that they should lie thus, in absolute quiet, until he uttered a huge imitation snore. Once, after a particularly exhausting night, he had postponed the snore too long: he fell asleep. He did not wake for an hour, and then found the tragic three also sprawled in amazing slumber. But their pillows were wet with tears. He never succumbed again, no matter how deeply tempted.
He snored. There were three sprawling thumps, a rush of feet, and a tumbling squeeze through the screen door. Then they were on the couch and upon him, with panting yelps of glee. Their hot tongues rasped busily over his face. This was the great tickling game. Remembering his theory of conserving energy, he lay passive while they rollicked and scrambled, burrowing in the bedclothes, quivering imps of absurd pleasure. All that was necessary was to give an occasional squirm, to tweak their ribs now and then, so that they believed his heart was in the sport. Really he got quite a little rest while they were scuffling. No one knew exactly what was the imagined purpose of the lark—whether he was supposed to be trying to escape from them, or they from him. Like all the best games, it had not been carefully thought out.
"Now, children," said Gissing presently. "Time to get dressed."
It was amazing how fast they were growing. Already they were beginning to take a pride in trying to dress themselves. While Gissing was in the bathroom, enjoying his cold tub (and under the stimulus of that icy sluice forming excellent resolutions for the day) the children were sitting on the nursery floor eagerly studying the intricacies of their gear. By the time he returned they would have half their garments on wrong; waist and trousers front side to rear; right shoes on left feet; buttons hopelessly mismated to buttonholes; shoelacings oddly zigzagged. It was far more trouble to permit their ambitious bungling, which must be undone and painstakingly reassembled, than to have clad them all himself, swiftly revolving and garmenting them like dolls. But in these early hours of the day, patience still is robust. It was his pedagogy to encourage their innocent initiatives, so long as endurance might permit.
Best of all, he enjoyed watching them clean their teeth. It was delicious to see them, tiptoe on their hind legs at the basin, to which their noses just reached; mouths gaping wide as they scrubbed with very small toothbrushes. They were so elated by squeezing out the toothpaste from the tube that he had not the heart to refuse them this privilege, though it was wasteful. For they always squeezed out more than necessary, and after a moment's brushing their mouths became choked and clotted with the pungent foam. Much of this they swallowed, for he had not been able to teach them to rinse and gargle. Their only idea regarding any fluid in the mouth was to swallow it; so they coughed and strangled and barked. Gissing had a theory that this toothpaste foam most be an appetizer, for he found that the more of it they swallowed, the better they ate their breakfast.
After breakfast he hurried them out into the garden, before the day became too hot. As he put a new lot of prunes to soak in cold water, he could not help reflecting how different the kitchen and pantry looked from the time of Fuji. The ice-box pan seemed to be continually brimming over. Somehow—due, he feared, to a laxity on Mrs. Spaniel's part—ants had got in. He was always finding them inside the ice-box, and wondered where they came from. He was amazed to find how negligent he was growing about pots and pans: he began cooking a new mess of oatmeal in the double boiler without bothering to scrape out the too adhesive remnant of the previous porridge. He had come to the conclusion that children are tougher and more enduring than Dr. Holt will admit; and that a little carelessness in matters of hygiene and sterilization does not necessarily mean instant death.
Truly his once dainty menage was deteriorating. He had put away his fine china, put away the linen napery, and laid the table with oil cloth. He had even improved upon Fuji's invention of scuppers by a little trough which ran all round the rim of the table, to catch any possible spillage. He was horrified to observe how inevitably callers came at the worst possible moment. Mr. and Mrs. Chow, for instance, drew up one afternoon in their spick-and-span coupe with their intolerably spotless only child sitting self-consciously beside them. Groups, Bunks, and Yelpers were just then filling the garden with horrid clamour. They had been quarrelling, and one had pushed the other two down the back steps. Gissing, who had attempted to find a quiet moment to scald the ants out of the ice-box, had just rushed forth and boxed them all. As he stood there, angry and waving a steaming dishclout, two Chows appeared. The puppies at once set upon little Sandy Chow, and had thoroughly mauled his starched sailor suit in the driveway before two minutes were past. Gissing could not help laughing, for he suspected that there had been a touch of malice in the Chows coming just at that time.
He had given up his flower garden, too. It was all he could do to shove the lawn-mower around, in the dusk, after the puppies were in bed. Formerly he had found the purr of the twirling blades a soothing stimulus to thought; but nowadays he could not even think consecutively. Perhaps, he thought, the residence of the mind is in the legs, not in the head; for when your legs are thoroughly weary you can't seem to think.
So he had decided that he simply must have more help in the cooking and housework. He had instructed Mrs. Spaniel to send the washing to the steam-laundry, and spend her three days in the kitchen instead. A huge bundle had come back from the laundry, and he had paid the driver $15.98. With dismay he sorted the clean, neatly folded garments. Here was the worthy Mrs. Spaniel's list, painstakingly written out in her straggling script:—
MR. GISHING FAMILY WOSH
8 towls 6 pymjarm Mr Gishing 12 rompers 3 blowses 6 cribb sheets 1 Mr. Gishing sheat 4 wastes 3 wosh clothes 2 onion sutes Mr Gishing 6 smal onion sutes 4 pillo slipes 3 sherts 18 hankerchifs smal 6 hankerchifs large 8 colers 3 overhauls 10 bibbs 2 table clothes (coca stane) 1 table clothe (prun juce and eg)
After contemplating this list, Gissing went to his desk and began to study his accounts. A resolve was forming in his mind.
The summer evenings sounded a very different music from that thin wheedling of April. It was now a soft steady vibration, the incessant drone and throb of locust and cricket, and sometimes the sudden rasp, dry and hard, of katydids. Gissing, in spite of his weariness, was all fidgets. He would walk round and round the house in the dark, unable to settle down to anything; tired, but incapable of rest. What is this uneasiness in the mind, he asked himself? The great sonorous drumming of the summer night was like the bruit of Time passing steadily by. Even in the soft eddy of the leaves, lifted on a drowsy creeping air, was a sound of discontent, of troublesome questioning. Through the trees he could see the lighted oblongs of neighbours' windows, or hear stridulent jazz records. Why were all others so cheerfully absorbed in the minutiae of their lives, and he so painfully ill at ease? Sometimes, under the warm clear darkness, the noises of field and earth swelled to a kind of soft thunder: his quickened ears heard a thousand small outcries contributing to the awful energy of the world—faint chimings and whistlings in the grass, and endless flutter, rustle, and whirr. His own body, on which hair and nails grew daily like vegetation, startled and appalled him. Consciousness of self, that miserable ecstasy, was heavy upon him.
He envied the children, who lay upstairs sprawled under their mosquito nettings. Immersed in living, how happily unaware of being alive! He saw, with tenderness, how naively they looked to him as the answer and solution of their mimic problems. But where could he find someone to be to him what he was to them? The truth apparently was that in his inward mind he was desperately lonely. Reading the poets by fits and starts, he suddenly realized that in their divine pages moved something of this loneliness, this exquisite unhappiness. But these great hearts had had the consolation of setting down their moods in beautiful words, words that lived and spoke. His own strange fever burned inexpressibly inside him. Was he the only one who felt the challenge offered by the maddening fertility and foison of the hot sun-dazzled earth? Life, he realized, was too amazing to be frittered out in this aimless sickness of heart. There were truths and wonders to be grasped, if he could only throw off this wistful vague desire. He felt like a clumsy strummer seated at a dark shining grand piano, which he knows is capable of every glory of rolling music, yet he can only elicit a few haphazard chords.
He had his moments of arrogance, too. Ah, he was very young! This miracle of blue unblemished sky that had baffled all others since life began—he, he would unriddle it! He was inclined to sneer at his friends who took these things for granted, and did not perceive the infamous insolubility of the whole scheme. Remembering the promises made at the christening, he took the children to church; but alas, carefully analyzing his mind, he admitted that his attention had been chiefly occupied with keeping them orderly, and he had gone through the service almost automatically. Only in singing hymns did he experience a tingle of exalted feeling. But Mr. Poodle was proud of his well-trained choir, and Gissing had a feeling that the congregation was not supposed to do more than murmur the verses, for fear of spoiling the effect. In his favourite hymns he had a tendency to forget himself and let go: his vigorous tenor rang lustily. Then he realized that the backs of people's heads looked surprised. The children could not be kept quiet unless they stood up on the pews. Mr. Poodle preached rather a long sermon, and Yelpers, toward twelve-thirty, remarked in a clear tone of interested inquiry, "What time does God have dinner?"
Gissing had a painful feeling that he and Mr. Poodle did not thoroughly understand each other. The curate, who was kindness itself, called one evening, and they had a friendly chat. Gissing was pleased to find that Mr. Poodle enjoyed a cigar, and after some hesitation ventured to suggest that he still had something in the cellar. Mr. Poodle said that he didn't care for anything, but his host could not help hearing the curate's tail quite unconsciously thumping on the chair cushions. So he excused himself and brought up one of his few remaining bottles of White Horse. Mr. Poodle crossed his legs and they chatted about golf, politics, the income tax, and some of the recent books; but when Gissing turned the talk on religion, Mr. Poodle became diffident.. Gissing, warmed and cheered by the vital Scotch, was perhaps too direct.
"What ought I to do to 'crucify the old man'?" he said.
Mr. Poodle was rather embarrassed.
"You must mortify the desires of the flesh," he replied. "You must dig up the old bone of sin that is buried in all our hearts."
There were many more questions Gissing wanted to ask about this, but Mr. Poodle said he really must be going, as he had a call to pay on Mr. and Mrs. Chow.
Gissing walked down the path with him, and the curate did indeed set off toward the Chows'. But Gissing wondered, for a little later he heard a cheerful canticle upraised in the open fields.
He himself was far from gay. He longed to tear out this malady from his breast. Poor dreamer, he did not know that to do so is to tear out God Himself. "Mrs. Spaniel," he said when the laundress next came up from the village, "you are a widow, aren't you?"
"Yes, sir," she said. "Poor Spaniel was killed by a truck, two years ago April." Her face was puzzled, but beneath her apron Gissing could see her tail wagging.
"Don't misunderstand me," he said quickly. "I've got to go away on business. I want you to bring your children and move into this house while I'm gone. I'll make arrangements at the bank about paying all the bills. You can give up your outside washing and devote yourself entirely to looking after this place."
Mrs. Spaniel was so much surprised that she could not speak. In her amazement a bright bubble dripped from the end of her curly tongue. Hastily she caught it in her apron, and apologized.
"How long will you be away, sir?" she asked.
"I don't know. It may be quite a long time."
"But all your beautiful things, furniture and everything," said Mrs. Spaniel. "I'm afraid my children are a bit rough. They're not used to living in a house like this—"
"Well," said Gissing, "you must do the best you can. There are some things more important than furniture. It will be good for your children to get accustomed to refined surroundings, and it'll be good for my nephews to have someone to play with. Besides, I don't want them to grow up spoiled mollycoddles. I think I've been fussing over them too much. If they have good stuff in them, a little roughening won't do any permanent harm."
"Dear me," cried Mrs. Spaniel, "what will the neighbours think?"
"They won't," said Gissing. "I don't doubt they'll talk, but they won't think. Thinking is very rare. I've got to do some myself, that's one reason why I'm going. You know, Mrs. Spaniel, God is a horizon, not someone sitting on a throne." Mrs. Spaniel didn't understand this—in fact, she didn't seem to hear it. Her mind was full of the idea that she would simply have to have a new dress, preferably black silk, for Sundays. Gissing, very sagacious, had already foreseen this point. "Let's not have any argument," he continued. "I have planned everything. Here is some money for immediate needs. I'll speak to them at the bank, and they will give you a weekly allowance. I leave you here as caretaker. Later on I'll send you an address and you can write me how things are going."
Poor Mrs. Spaniel was bewildered. She came of very decent people, but since Spaniel took to drink, and then left her with a family to support, she had sunk in the world. She was wondering now how she could face it out with Mrs. Chow and Mrs. Fox-Terrier and the other neighbours.
"Oh, dear," she cried, "I don't know what to say, sir. Why, my boys are so disreputable-looking, they haven't even a collar between them."
"Get them collars and anything else they need," said Gissing kindly. "Don't worry, Mrs. Spaniel, it will be a fine thing for you. There will be a little gossip, I dare say, but we'll have to chance that. Now you had better go down to the village and make your arrangements. I'm leaving tonight."
Late that evening, after seeing Mrs. Spaniel and her brood safely installed, Gissing walked to the station with his suitcase. He felt a pang as he lifted the mosquito nettings and kissed the cool moist noses of the sleeping trio. But he comforted himself by thinking that this was no merely vulgar desertion. If he was to raise the family, he must earn some money. His modest income would not suffice for this sudden increase in expenses. Besides, he had never known what freedom meant until it was curtailed. For the past three months he had lived in ceaseless attendance; had even slept with one ear open for the children's cries. Now he owed it to himself to make one great strike for peace. Wealth, he could see, was the answer. With money, everything was attainable: books, leisure for study, travel, prestige—in short, command over the physical details of life. He would go in for Big Business. Already he thrilled with a sense of power and prosperity.
The little house stood silent in the darkness as he went down the path. The night was netted with the weaving sparkle of fireflies. He stood for a moment, looking. Suddenly there came a frightened cry from the nursery.
"Daddy, a keeto, a keeto!"
He nearly turned to run back, but checked himself. No, Mrs. Spaniel was now in charge. It was up to her. Besides, he had only just enough time to catch the last train to the city.
But he sat on the cinder-speckled plush of the smoker in a mood that was hardly revelry. "By Jove," he said to himself, "I got away just in time. Another month and I couldn't have done it."
It was midnight when he saw the lights of town, panelled in gold against a peacock sky. Acres and acres of blue darkness lay close-pressing upon the gaudy grids of light. Here one might really look at this great miracle of shadow and see its texture. The dulcet air drifted lazily in deep, silent crosstown streets. "Ah," he said, "here is where the blue begins."
"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 come 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 crepe 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 ward, 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 proprietary 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 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.
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 him 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 cliffed 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 met 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 social 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 coordinates. 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.
Time is a flowing river. Happy those who allow themselves to be carried, unresisting, with the current. They float through easy days. They live, unquestioning, in the moment.
But Gissing was acutely conscious of Time. Though not subtle enough to analyze the matter acutely, he had a troublesome feeling about it. He kept checking off a series of Nows. "Now I am having my bath," he would say to himself in the morning. "Now I am dressing. Now I am on the way to the store. Now I am in the jewellery aisle, being polite to customers. Now I am having lunch." After a period in which time ran by unnoticed, he would suddenly realize a fresh Now, and feel uneasy at the knowledge that it would shortly dissolve into another one. He tried, vainly, to swim up-stream against the smooth impalpable fatal current. He tried to dam up Time, to deepen the stream so that he could bathe in it carelessly. Time, he said, is life; and life is God; time, then, is little bits of God. Those who waste their time in vulgarity or folly are the true atheists.
One of the things that struck him about the city was its heedlessness of Time. On every side he saw people spending it without adequate return. Perhaps he was young and doctrinaire: but he devised this theory for himself—all time is wasted that does not give you some awareness of beauty or wonder. In other words, "the days that make us happy make us wise," he said to himself, quoting Masefield's line. On that principle, he asked, how much time is wasted in this city? Well, here are some six million people. To simplify the problem (which is permitted to every philosopher) let us (he said) assume that 2,350,000 of those people have spent a day that could be called, on the whole, happy: a day in which they have had glimpses of reality; a day in which they feel satisfaction. (That was, he felt, a generous allowance. ) Very well, then, that leaves 3,650,000 people whose day has been unfruitful: spent in uncongenial work, or in sorrow, suffering, and talking nonsense. This city, then, in one day, has wasted 10,000 years, or 100 centuries. One hundred centuries squandered in a day! It made him feel quite ill, and he tore up the scrap of paper on which he had been figuring.
This was a new, disconcerting way to think of the subject. We are accustomed to consider Time only as it applies to ourselves, forgetting that it is working upon everyone else simultaneously. Why, he thought with a sudden shock, if only 36,500 people in this city have had a thoroughly spendthrift and useless day, that means a net loss of a century! If the War, he said to himself, lasted over 1,500 days and involved more than 10,000,000 men, how many aeons—He used to think about these things during quiet evenings in the top-floor room at Mrs. Purp's. Occasionally he went home at night still wearing his store clothes, because it pleased good Mrs. Purp so much. She felt that it added glamour to her house to have him do so, and always called her husband, a frightened silent creature with no collar and a humble air, up from the basement to admire. Mr. Purp's time, Gissing suspected, was irretrievably wasted—a good deal of it, to judge by his dusty appearance, in rolling around in ashcans or in the company of the neighbourhood bootlegger; but then, he reflected, in a charitable seizure, you must not judge other people's time-spendings by a calculus of your own.
Perhaps he himself was growing a little miserly in this matter. Indulging in the rare, the sovereign luxury of thinking, he had suddenly become aware of time's precious fluency, and wondered why everyone else didn't think about it as passionately as he did. In the privacy of his room, weary after the day afoot, he took off his cutaway coat and trousers and enjoyed his old habit of stretching out on the floor for a good rest. There he would lie, not asleep, but in a bliss of passive meditation. He even grudged Mrs. Purp the little chats she loved—she made a point of coming up with clean towels when she knew he was in his room, because she cherished hearing him talk. When he heard her knock, he had to scramble hastily to his feet, get on his clothes, and pretend he had been sitting calmly in the rocking chair. It would never do to let her find him sprawled on the floor. She had an almost painful respect for him. Once, when prospective lodgers were bargaining for rooms, and he happened to be wearing his Beagle and Company attire, she had asked him to do her the favour of walking down the stairs, so that the visitors might be impressed by the gentility of the establishment.
Of course he loved to waste time—but in his own way. He gloated on the irresponsible vacancy of those evening hours, when there was nothing to be done. He lay very still, hardly even thinking, just feeling life go by. Through the open window came the lights and noises of the street. Already his domestic life seemed dim and far away. The shrill appeals of the puppies, their appalling innocent comments on existence, came but faintly to memory. Here, where life beat so much more thickly and closely, was the place to be. Though he had solved nothing, yet he seemed closer to the heart of the mystery. Entranced, he felt time flowing on toward him, endless in sweep and fulness. There is only one success, he said to himself—to be able to spend your life in your own way, and not to give others absurd maddening claims upon it. Youth, youth is the only wealth, for youth has Time in its purse!
In the store, however, philosophy was laid aside. A kind of intoxication possessed him. Never before had old Mr. Beagle (watching delightedly from the mezzanine balcony) seen such a floorwalker. Gissing moved to and fro exulting in the great tide of shopping. He knew all the best customers by name and had learned their peculiarities. If a shower came up and Mrs. Mastiff was just leaving, he hastened to give her his arm as far as her limousine, boosting her in so expeditiously that not a drop of wetness fell upon her. He took care to find out the special plat du jour of the store's lunch room, and seized occasion to whisper to Mrs. Dachshund, whose weakness was food, that the filet of sole was very nice to-day. Mrs. Pomeranian learned that giving Gissing a hint about some new Parisian importations was more effective than a half page ad. in the Sunday papers. Within a few hours, by a judicious word here and there, he would have a score of ladies hastening to the millinery salon. A pearl necklace of great value, which Mr. Beagle had rebuked the jewellery buyer for getting, because it seemed more appropriate for a dealer in precious stones than for a department store, was disposed of almost at once. Gissing casually told Mrs. Mastiff that he had heard Mrs. Sealyham intended to buy it. As for Mrs. Dachshund, who had had a habit of lunching at Delmonico's, she now was to be seen taking tiffin at Beagle's almost daily. There were many husbands who would have been glad to shoot him at sight on the first of the month, had they known who was the real cause of their woe.
Indeed, Gissing had raised floorwalking to a new level. He was more prime minister than a mere patroller of aisles. With sparkling eye, with unending curiosity, tact, and attention, he moved quietly among the throng. He realized that shopping is the female paradise; that spending money she has not earned is the only real fun an elderly and wealthy lady can have; and if to this primitive shopping passion can be added the delights of social amenity—flattery, courtesy, good-humoured flirtation—the snare is complete.
But all this is not accomplished without rousing the jealousy of rivals. Among the other floorwalkers, and particularly in the gorgeously uniformed attendant at the front door (who was outraged by Gissing's habit of escorting special customers to their motors) moved anger, envy, and sneers. Gissing, completely absorbed in the fascination of his work, was unaware of this hostility, as he was equally unaware of the amazed satisfaction of his employer. He went his way with naive and unconscious pleasure. It did not take long for his enemies to find a fulcrum for their chagrin. One evening, after closing, when he sat in the dressing room, with his feet in the usual tub of hot water, placidly reviewing the day's excitements and smoking his pipe, the superintendent burst in.