Where the Blue Begins by Christopher Morley
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.
"Hey!" he exclaimed. "Don't you know smoking's forbidden? What do you want to do, get our fire insurance cancelled? Get out of here! You're fired!"
It did not occur to Gissing to question or protest. He had known perfectly well that smoking was not allowed. But he was like the stage hand behind the scenes who concluded it was all right to light a cigarette because the sign only said SMOKING FORBIDDEN, instead of SMOKING STRICTLY FORBIDDEN. He had not troubled his mind about it, one way or about it, one way or another.
He had drawn his salary that evening, and his first thought was, Well, at any rate I've earned enough to pay for the clothes. He had been there exactly four weeks. Quite calmly, he lifted his feet out of the tub and began to towel them daintily. The meticulous way he dried between his toes was infuriating to the superintendent.
"Have you any children?" Gissing asked, mildly.
"What's that to you?" snapped the other.
"I'll sell you this bathtub for a quarter. Take it home to them. They probably need it."
"You get out of here!" cried the angry official.
"You'd be surprised," said Gissing, "how children thrive when they're bathed regularly. Believe me, I know."
He packed his formal clothes in a neat bundle, left the bathtub behind, surrendered his locker key, and walked toward the employees' door, escorted by his bristling superior. As they passed through the empty aisles, scene of his brief triumph, he could not help gazing a little sadly. True merchant to the last, a thought struck him He scribbled a note on the back of a sales slip' and left it at Miss Whippet's post by the stocking counter. It said:--
MISS WHIPPET: Show Mrs. Sealyham some of the bisque sports hose,
Scotch wool, size 9. She's coming to-morrow. Don't let her get
size 8 1/2. They shrink.
At the door he paused, relit his pipe leisurely, raised his hat to the superintendent, and strolled away.
In spite of this nonchalance, the situation was serious. His money was at a low ebb. All his regular income was diverted to the support of the large household in the country. He was too proud to appeal to his wealthy uncle. He hated also to think of Mrs. Purp's mortification if she learned that her star boarder was out of work. By a curious irony, when he got home he found a letter from Mrs. Spaniel:--
MR. GISHING, dere friend, the pupeys are well, no insecks, and
eat with nives and forx Groups is the fattest but Yelpers is the
lowdest they send wags and lix and glad to here Daddy is doing so
well in buisness with respects from
He did not let Mrs. Purp know of the change in his condition, and every morning left his lodging at the usual time. By some curious attraction he felt drawn to that downtown region where his kinsman's office was. This part of the city he had not properly explored.
It was a world wholly different from Fifth Avenue. There was none of that sense of space and luxury he had known on the wide slopes of Murray Hill. He wandered under terrific buildings, in a breezy shadow where javelins of colourless sunlight pierced through thin slits, hot brilliance fell in fans and cascades over the uneven terrace of roofs. Here was where husbands worked to keep Fifth Avenue going: he wondered vaguely whether Mrs. Sealyham had bought those stockings? One day he saw his uncle hurrying along Wall Street with an intent face. Gissing skipped into a doorway, fearing to be recognized. He knew that the old fellow would insist on taking him to lunch at the Pedigree Club, would talk endlessly, and ask family questions. But he was on the scent of matters that talk could not pursue.
He perceived a sense of pressure, of prodigious poetry and beauty and amazement. This was a strange jungle of life. Tall coasts of windows stood up into the pure brilliant sky: against their feet beat a dark surf of slums. In one foreign street, too deeply trenched for sunlight, oranges were the only gold. The water, reaching round in two arms, came close: there was a note of husky summons in the whistles of passing craft. Almost everywhere, sharp above many smells of oils and spices, the whiff of coffee tingled his busy nose. Above one huge precipice stood a gilded statue--a boy with wings, burning in the noon. Brilliance flamed between the vanes of his pinions: the intangible thrust of that pouring light seemed about to hover him off into blue air.
The world of working husbands was more tender than that of shopping wives: even in all their business, they had left space and quietness for the dead. Sunken among the crags he found two graveyards. They were cups of placid brightness. Here, looking upward, it was like being drowned on the floor of an ocean of light. Husbands had built their offices half-way to the sky rather than disturb these. Perhaps they appreciate rest all the more, Gissing thought, because they get so little of it? Somehow he could not quite imagine a graveyard left at peace in the shopping district. It would be bad for trade, perhaps? Even the churches on the Avenue, he had noticed, were huddled up and hemmed in so tightly by the other buildings that they had scarcely room to kneel. If I ever become a parson, he said (this was a fantastic dream of his), I will insist that all churches must have a girdle of green about them, to set them apart from the world.
The two little brown churches among the cliffs had been gifted with a dignity far beyond the dream of their builders. Their pointing spires were relieved against the enormous facades of business. What other altars ever had such a reredos? Above the strepitant racket of the streets, he heard the harsh chimes of Trinity at noonday--strong jags of clangour hurled against the great sounding-boards of buildings; drifting and dying away down side alleys. There was no soft music of appeal in the bronze volleying: it was the hoarse monitory voice of rebuke. So spoke the church of old, he thought: not asking, not appealing, but imperatively, sternly, as one born to command. He thought with new respect of Mr. Sealyham, Mr. Mastiff, Mr. Dachshund, all the others who were powers in these fantastic flumes of stone. They were more than merely husbands of charge accounts--they were poets. They sat at lunch on the tops of their amazing edifices, and looked off at the blue.
Day after day went by, but with a serene fatalism Gissing did nothing about hunting a job. He was willing to wait until the last dollar was broken: in the meantime he was content. You never know the soul of a city, he said, until you are down on your luck. Now, he felt, he had been here long enough to understand her. She did not give her secrets to the world of Fifth Avenue. Down here, where the deep crevice of Broadway opened out into greenness, what was the first thing he saw? Out across the harbour, turned toward open sea--Liberty! Liberty Enlightening the World, he had heard, was her full name. Some had mocked her, he had also heard. Well, what was the gist of her enlightenment? Why this, surely: that Liberty could never be more than a statue: never a reality. Only a fool would expect complete liberty. He himself, with all his latitude, was not free. If he were, he would cook his meals in his room, and save money--but Mrs. Purp was strict on that point. She had spoken scathingly of two young females she ejected for just that reason. Nor was Mrs. Purp free--she was ridden by the Gas Company. So it went.
It struck him, now he was down to about three dollars, that a generous gesture toward Fortune might be valuable. When you are nearly out of money, he reasoned, to toss coins to the gods--i. e., to buy something quite unnecessary--may be propitiatory. It may start something moving in your direction. It is the touch of bravado that God relishes. In a sudden mood of tenderness, he bought two dollars' worth of toys and had them sent to the children. He smiled to think hoer they would frolic over the jumping rabbit. He sent Mrs. Spaniel a postcard of the Aquarium.
There is a good deal more to this business than I had realized, he said, as he walked uptown through the East Side slums that hot night. The audacity, the vitality, the magnificence, are plain enough. But I seem to see squalor too, horror and pitiful dearth. I believe God is farther off than I thought. Look here: if the more you know, the less you know about God, doesn't that mean that God is really enjoyed only by the completely simple--by faith, never by reason?
He gave twenty-five cents to a beggar, and said angrily: "I am not interested in a God who is known only by faith."
When he got uptown he was very tired and hungry. In spite of all Mrs. Purp's rules, he smuggled in an egg, a box of biscuits, a small packet of tea and sugar, and a tin of condensed milk. He emptied the milk into his shaving mug, and used the tin to boil water in, holding it over the gas jet. He was getting on finely when a sudden knock on the door made him jump. He spilled the hot water on his leg, and uttered a wild yell.
Mrs. Purp burst in, but she was so excited that she did not notice the egg seeping into the clean counterpane.
"Oh, Mr. Gissing," she exclaimed, "I've been waiting all evening for you to come in. Purp and I wondered if you'd seen this in the paper to-night? Purp noticed it in the ads., but we couldn't understand what it meant."
She held out a page of classified advertising, in which he read with amazement:
If MR. GISSING, late floorwalker at Beagle and Company, will communicate with Mr. Beagle Senior, he will hear matters greatly to his advantage.