Moonbeams From the Larger Lunacy by Stephen Leacock
XV.--The Survival of the Fittest
A bell tinkled over the door of the little drug store as I entered it; which seemed strange in a lighted street of a great city.
But the little store itself, dim even in the centre and dark in the corners was gloomy enough for a country crossroads.
"I have to have the bell," said the man behind the counter, reading my thought, "I'm alone here just now."
"A toothbrush?" he said in answer to my question. "Yes, I guess I've got some somewhere round here." He was stooping under and behind his counter and his voice came up from below. "I've got some somewhere--" And then as if talking to himself he murmured from behind a pile of cardboard boxes, "I saw some Tuesday."
Had I gone across the street to the brilliant premises of the Cut Rate Pharmaceutical where they burn electric light by the meterfull I should no sooner have said "tooth brush," than one of the ten clerks in white hospital jackets would have poured a glittering assortment over the counter--prophylactic, lactic and every other sort.
But I had turned in, I don't know why, to the little store across the way.
"Here, I guess these must be tooth brushes," he said, reappearing at the level of the counter with a flat box in his hand. They must have been presumably, or have once been,--at some time long ago.
"They're tooth brushes all right," he said, and started looking over them with an owner's interest.
"What is the price of them?" I asked.
"Well," the man said musingly, "I don't--jest--know. I guess it's written on them likely," and he began to look at the handles.
Over at the Pharmaceutical across the way the words "what price?" would have precipitated a ready avalanche of figures.
"This one seems to be seventy-five cents," he said and handed me one.
"Is it a good tooth brush?" I asked.
"It ought to be," he said, "you'd think, at that price."
He had no shop talk, no patter whatever.
Then he looked at the brush again, more closely.
"I don't believe it is seventy-five," he muttered, "I think it must be fifteen, don't you?"
I took it from his hand and looked and said,--for it is well to take an occasional step towards the Kingdom of Heaven,--that I was certain it was seventy-five.
"Well," said the man, "perhaps it is, my sight is not so good now. I've had too much to do here and the work's been using me up some."
I noticed now as he said this how frail he looked as he bent over his counter wrapping up the tooth brush.
"I've no sealing wax," he said, "or not handy."
"That doesn't matter," I answered, "just put it in the paper."
Over the way of course the tooth brush would have been done up almost instantaneously, in white enamel paper, sealed at the end and stamped with a label, as fast as the money paid for it went rattling along an automatic carrier to a cashier.
"You've been very busy, eh?" I asked.
"Well, not so much with customers," he said, "but with fixing up the place,"--here he glanced about him. Heaven only knows what he had fixed. There were no visible signs of it.
"You see I've only been in here a couple of months. It was a pretty tough looking place when I came to it. But I've been getting things fixed. First thing I did I put those two carboys in the window with the lights behind them. They show up fine, don't they?"
"Fine!" I repeated; so fine indeed that the dim yellow light in them reached three or four feet from the jar. But for the streaming light from the great store across the street, the windows of the little shop would have been invisible.
"It's a good location here," he said. Any one could have told him that it was the worst location within two miles.
"I'll get it going presently," he went on. "Of course it's uphill just at first. Being such a good location the rent is high. The first two weeks I was here I was losing five dollars a day. But I got those lights in the window and got the stock overhauled a little to make it attractive and last month I reckon I was only losing three dollars a day."
"That's better," I said.
"Oh, yes," he went on, and there was a clear glint of purpose in his eye that contrasted with his sunken cheeks. "I'll get it going. This last two weeks I'm not losing more than say two and a half a day or something like that? The custom is bound to come. You get a place fixed up and made attractive like this and people are sure to come sooner or later."
What it was that was fixed up, and wherein lay the attractiveness I do not know. It could not be seen with the outward eye. Perhaps after two months' work of piling dusty boxes now this way, now that, and putting little candles behind the yellow carboys to try the effect, some inward vision came that lighted the place up with an attractiveness wanting even in the glass and marble glitter of the Pharmacy across the way.
"Yes, sir," continued the man, "I mean to stay with it. I'll get things into shape here, fix it up a little more and soon I'll have it,"--here his face radiated with a vision of hope--"so that I won't lose a single cent."
I looked at him in surprise. So humble an ambition it had never been my lot to encounter.
"All that bothers me," he went on, "is my health. It's a nice business the drug business: I like it, but it takes it out of you. You've got to be alert and keen all the time; thinking out plans to please the custom when it comes. Often I don't sleep well nights for the rush of it."
I looked about the little shop, as gloomy and sleepful as the mausoleum of an eastern king, and wondered by what alchemy of the mind the little druggist found it a very vortex of activity.
"But I can fix my health," he returned--"I may have to get some one in here and go away for a spell. Perhaps I'll do it. The doctor was saying he thought I might take a spell off and think out a few more wrinkles while I'm away."
At the word "doctor" I looked at him more warmly, and I saw then what was plain enough to see but for the dim light of the little place,--the thin flush on the cheek, the hopeful mind, the contrast of the will to live and the need to die, God's little irony on man, it was all there plain enough to read. The "spell" for which the little druggist was going is that which is written in letters of sorrow over the sunlit desolation of Arizona and the mountains of Colorado.
A month went by before I passed that way again. I looked across at the little store and I read the story in its drawn blinds and the padlock on its door.
The little druggist had gone away for a spell. And they told me, on enquiry, that his journey had been no further than to the cemetery behind the town where he lies now, musing, if he still can, on the law of the survival of the fittest in this well-adjusted world.
And they say that the shock of the addition of his whole business to the great Pharmacy across the way scarcely disturbed a soda siphon.